United Kingdom Ravel, Chausson, Bernstein, Scriabin. Anna Caterina Antonacci (soprano), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London 4.5.2015 (JPr)
Ravel – ‘Une Barque sur l’océan’ and ‘Alborada del gracioso’ (Miroirs)
Chausson – Poème de l’amour et de la mer
Bernstein – Fancy Free
Scriabin – Le Poème de l’extase
Music director Antonio Pappano warmly greeted the audience to this inaugural concert from his Royal Opera House Orchestra. They had been brought up from the pit and were massed on the stage that was austerely wooden on three sides, whilst the dome above the audience in the theatre was lit and from where I was sitting gave the impression of a cloudless azure sky. Despite his London roots and – something we both share – love of the music of T. Rex, his time in America was manifested by Pappano saying that the idea for these concerts was to ‘conceptualise’ what was happening on the stage at the same time – currently Szymanowski’s King Roger – with some works from the symphonic repertoire. Although I am unfamiliar with that composer’s music I see words such as ‘sumptuous’ and ‘sensuous’ are often used to describe it and those apply equally well to Ravel, Chausson and Scriabin (Skryabin). Bernstein’s Fancy Free was included in the programme to remind everyone that this is also a dance- as well as opera orchestra – although I cannot recall their music director ever having conducted a ballet at Covent Garden (please let me know if I am wrong). On this evidence Pappano and his accomplished musicians relished their moment to show what they can do and this will be a new tradition to especially look forward to each new season.
Ravel composed Miroirs for solo piano from 1904 to 1905 and he later orchestrated ‘Une Barque sur l’océan’ and ‘Alborada del gracioso’ – the former around 1907 and the latter in 1918. Each of the movements of the original work was dedicated to someone and were intended to reveal the visual images and ambiences evoked when the dedicatee looked into the mirror. It has been suggested that these reflections show parts of Ravel himself which he projected onto these dedicatees: ‘Une Barque sur l’océan’ (‘A Boat on the Ocean’) is inscribed to the painter, Paul Sordes, and ‘Alborada del gracioso’ (‘The Morning Song of a Jester’), to Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi who provided the text to Ravel’s Cinq mélodies populaires grecques. The rippling ‘Une Barque’ – that was not well-received when it was premièred – was typical of the composer’s subtle sound palette whilst in ‘Alborada’ he revelled(!) in all the Spanish rhythms and atmosphere.
In the first half of this concert it was possible easily to lose oneself in sheer Gallic gorgeousness because Chausson’s 1893 Poème de l’amour et de la mer followed with more eloquent melodies and finely-drawn textures. It is heart-on-the-sleeve stuff and an impassioned evocation of a lost love set to a rather overwrought text by the Symbolist poet Maurice Bouchor. Pappano’s accompaniment was so refined that I could almost smell the ‘blossoming lilacs’ that are intrinsic to the somewhat flowery poem. Here I must single out for praise an elegiac contribution from bassoonist Miriam Gussek who was in the spotlight on many occasions during this concert. Much as Anna Caterina Antonacci’s thoughtful and nuanced interpretation was quite compelling her voice didn’t quite have the depth and amplitude necessary to impose herself on all the lushness.
After the interval Pappano and his orchestra launched straight into the ballet score for Fancy Free. Leonard Bernstein was only 25 when he completed this in 1944 and conducted its first performance at the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York. The ballet was important in two ways: firstly, its scenario concerning the antics of three sailors on shore leave in the middle of WWII clearly inspired the musical, On the Town and secondly, it introduced the composer to the choreographer Jerome Robbins (who danced the role of one of the sailors) – and the rest, of course, is history. We experience high-spirits, flirting, macho posturing and fights set against Latin dance rhythms and American Jazz. It was very brave of Pappano and his ‘band’ to tackle this and as upbeat as it all was – with the conductor jigging about on the podium – I didn’t think either John Alley’s piano or Lindsay Shilling’s prominent trombone entirely successfully embraced some unfamiliar idioms.
Scriabin’s music was new to me too and in common with Ravel and Chausson is intensely colourful with many long, dreamy, phrases. Written between 1905 and 1908 his Le Poème de l’extase is apparently typical of what Stephen Downes described in his programme essay as Scriabin’s messianic philosophy and how ‘He really thought he knew how to save the world – through the intoxicating power of his art.’ There is an element of long windedness to the music but it eventually built up an inexorable momentum towards a blazing C major wall of sound and a distinctly Wagnerian apotheosis. Pappano generated palpable excitement from the contrast between some repetitive languid sections and the brilliant eruption that is the work’s conclusion. The burnished sound from his huge impeccable orchestra – with the strings now spilling out into the wings – was never more resplendent and incandescent as it was during these final moments.
For more about events at the Royal Opera House visit www.roh.org.uk.