Uneven and Careless

ItalyItaly Mozart, Rossini:  Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.  Chorus Master, Ciro Visco.  Conductor, Nicola Luisotti.  Erika Grimaldi (soprano) Varduhi Abrahamyan (mezzosoprano) Antonino Siracusa (tenor) Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (bass).  Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco della Musica, Rome 10.01.2015 (JB)

Every Saturday morning for over the last quarter of a century, I’ve had an appointment with Giovanni, my barber, for a proper barber-shop shave.  I come away from this appointment feeling like a million dollars.  On this particular Saturday, 10 January, 2015, Giovanni asked me when I’d last shaved.  I said it was on Thursday.  Then I wondered why he’d asked  the question.  Well, he said, it’s a bit uneven: some of it’s been done thoroughly, some of it, carelessly.  That fits.  I don’t much like shaving myself.  Consequently, my mind easily wanders on to other things.  I can pull my mind back to the disagreeable chore in hand.  But not entirely.  Giovanni’s verdict on me is as spot-on and as professional as the rest of him.

Little did I know that later that same afternoon I would be witnessing the same operation –Some of it’s been done thoroughly, some of it, carelessly.  But this time I was an outsider hearing Nicola Luisiotti conduct the chorus and orchestra of Santa Cecilia.  I greatly appreciated this conductor’s eloquence of phrase shaping, only spoiled by other moments when his mind sounded as though it was somewhere else.  In fact, a couple of the players later confirmed   that Maestro Luisiotti had failed to make real contact with them.  I hasten to add that this orchestra’s permanent conductor, Antonio Pappano, is a very hard act to follow in that respect.

There were only two works on the programme –the Mozart Prague symphony and the Rossini Stabat Mater.  The Mozart came across as a bit laboured and with more than a whiff of the scholastic.  But sure enough there were moments when Luisiotti hit the very essence of spontaneity.  Click!  But no sooner had the air lightened, when clouds of stodge would form to damage the lighter, genuine Mozartian effect.  It would be an exaggeration to say that Luisiotti had lost his way.  But something near to that had happened.  In the end, there was a feeling of his following the orchestra and their throwing out a life-line to bring him into the music.  Sorry: that’s probably too mean a remark too.  I do hope that this isn’t starting to sound like a game of mirrors.  Or of doing your  untidy shaving in public!

The Santa Cecilia Orchestra and Chorus have, of course, already made their prize-winning recording of the Rossini Stabat Mater with Antonio Pappano and Anna Netrebko, Joyce DiDonato, Lawrence Brownlee and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as the soloists.   What a lineup to follow!   And D’Arcangelo is the only singer on the CD who was operative in this evening’s concert.

I was honoured to have been a member of the commission at the 1989 Toti Dal Monte Competition which launched D’Arcangelo’s career.  Then, as now, he was strikingly handsome both of voice and person.  Above all he had the most secure vocal technique which was totally geared into the  delivery  of his immaculate, innate musicianship.  By far and away the most moving moments of this Stabat Mater were his two arias, Pro peccatis suae gentis  and Eia Mater, fons amoris. Musical communication is never finer than this.

At the other end of the scale was Antonino Siragusa, disastrously miscast as the tenor.  Caruso’s recording of Cuius aninam gementern  set the bar high for this exquisite, demanding aria. Mr Siragusa didn’t leave the starting post.  Every effort to take off sounded strangulated and as though the music was strangling the singer.

Replacing the indisposed Maria Agresta was the young soprano, Erika Grimaldi. I should like to hear Ms Grimaldi again in a year’s time, possibly after she has had time to coordinate and integrate  her promising but disorientated vocal mechanisms.  Her voice is light but already well focused in the projection of the higher register.  Her musicianship is already in evidence but too frequently undecided as to where it wants to go.  Still, she already left a fine impression with the Inflammatus.

Armenian mezzosoprano, Varduhi Abrahamyan also shows great promise which has still not found its finest notch.  She is blessed with a rich variety of vocal colours, especially in the lower register.  And she has supreme musical intelligence, especially in Rossini’s dramatic possibilities.

D’Arcangelo aside (except that that gentleman is never aside) the real star of the evening was the Santa Cecilia Chorus.  Ciro Visco’s preparation of this team was superb: their rendition of the unaccompanied chorus, Quando corpus morietur  was beautifully hushed and heartfelt.  It has to be said too that Nicola Luisotti waved them through this with all the right, inspired gestures.

Jack Buckley


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