Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle opens the 2020 Wexford Festival Opera

IrelandIreland 2020 Wexford Festival Opera – Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle: Claudia Boyle (soprano), Tara Erraught (mezzo-soprano), Pietro Adaini (tenor), John Molloy (bass), The Wexford Factory Ensemble, Finghin Collins and Carmen Santoro (pianos), Andrew Synnott  (harmonium) / Kenneth Montgomery (conductor). National Opera House, Wexford, Broadcast in Association with RTE Culture and RTE Player, 11.10.2020. (RB)

2020 Wexford Festival Opera’s Petite messe solennelle

Rossini – Petite messe solennelle

This year’s Wexford Festival Opera opened with this performance of Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle. The President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, made some introductory remarks to open the festival. He explained that the performance was dedicated to the victims of the Covid-19 pandemic. He made clear that it was important for cultural spaces to be open to everyone to make them inclusive community events. He emphasised the overriding sense of solidarity at this year’s festival and the need for the cultural space not to be neglected or overlooked in these very difficult times. I think we can all agree with these important comments.

Rossini wrote his Petite messe solennelle in 1863, almost 30 years after he had retired from writing operas. He and his wife were living in Paris where they became famous for hosting Saturday evening soirees. His Petite messe was a product of these evenings and Rossini described it as ‘the last of my sins of old age’. The title is something of a misnomer as it is neither little, nor with its operatic melodies and vital rhythms, particularly solemn. Rossini originally scored the work for twelve singers, four of them soloists, with two pianos and a harmonium. He later produced an orchestral version and added an additional movement, but we heard the original version of the Petite messe in this performance.

The ‘Kyrie Eleison’ opens with an ostinato on the piano which was crisply played by Finghin Collins. Kenneth Montgomery kept a tight grip on tempo and the choir responded well to his direction, displaying an impressive range of dynamics. I was particularly impressed with how well they blended together, overcoming any obstacles created by the need for social distancing. There was some beautiful a cappella singing in the ‘Christe Eleison’ which conveyed beautifully the sense of mystery in the music.

Rossini followed the model set by Baroque composers in the Gloria by subdividing this section into six separate movements. The four soloists featured prominently and we first heard them in the ‘Et in Terra Pax’. I was impressed with the way in which the vocal entries were seamlessly passed on with the soloists giving way to each other as appropriate. Finghin Collins injected pace and energy into the ‘Domine Deus’ with its jaunty dotted rhythms while Pietro Adaini sang with a rich Italianate sound. John Molloy gave a robust virile performance of the ‘Quoniam’ and there was some excellent interplay between him and Collins. The fugal ‘Cum Santo Spiritu’ was perhaps the least successful of the six movements. The choir and instrumentalists injected momentum and drive into the music and there was a wonderful uplifting feeling in the music but the textures were not always as clear as they could have been.

The Credo consists of three movements:  an opening ‘Credo’ for the assembled forces, a ‘Crucifixus’ for soprano soloist and instrumentalists and a final ‘Et Resurrexit’. Kenneth Montgomery did an excellent job managing the shifts in mood, texture, and dynamics in the opening movement of the ‘Credo’. Claudia Boyle’s performance of the ‘Crucifixus’ was heartfelt and she packed an emotional punch, particularly in the upper vocal register. The ‘Et Resurrexit’ worked reasonably well, although the musical material could have been organised more clearly and at times the music sounded a little busy and hectic.

For the liturgical offertory Rossini inserted an instrumental piece consisting of a prelude and fugue. In this performance it was shared between the piano and harmonium. The music passed from Collins to Synnott and then back again, and it was clear they had a shared understanding of the piece. I was particularly impressed with Collins’s highly expressive shaping of the lines, the luminous tone he coaxed from the piano and the clarity of the textures. The final Agnus Dei featured some of the best singing of the evening. Tara Erraught’s soulful pleading was very moving and she did a brilliant job controlling the ebb and flow of the music before the powerful dramatic climax at the end.

All the performers gave commendable performances and there was some very fine playing and singing during the evening. The two standout performances were Finghin Collins, who displayed irrepressible energy throughout, and Tara Erraught.

Robert Beattie

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