Water flows through an otherwise oddly programmed Prom from Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Proms 2022 [10], Prom 19: Dukas, Respighi, Puccini: Soloists, Philharmonia Voices, Hallé / Sir Mark Elder (conductor). Recorded (directed by Helen Mansfield) at the Royal Albert Hall, London, 30.7.2022. It is currently available on BBC iPlayer. (JPr)

Sir Mark Elder © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Dukas – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Respighi – Fountains of Rome

Puccini – Il tabarro

Lucio Gallo – Michele
Natalya Romaniw – Giorgetta
Adam Smith – Luigi
Annunziata Vestri – La Frugola
Alasdair Elliott – ‘Tinca’
Simon Shibambu – ‘Talpa’
Shengzhi Ren – Ballad-Seller
Laura Lolita Perešivana – lover
Ryan Vaughan Davies – lover

Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was composed in 1897 and is based on Goethe’s poem of the same name of a century before. A young apprentice magician gets into terrible trouble when his spells go wrong and there is water, water, everywhere (as remembered from the 1940 animated Disney film Fantasia when he was depicted by Mickey Mouse). The opening of this programmatic music was impressionistic and redolent of Dukas’s compatriot Debussy. Sir Mark Elder and his Hallé orchestra began leisurely, laboured almost, despite the often laidback conductor being unusually animated. The tempo quickened after the familiar bassoon motif possibly representing the errant broom (and which will later descend to the contrabassoon) as the Hallé built up quite a head of steam. Overall, it was a well-played, mercurial performance (with the glockenspiel involved what else could be expected?) and after a pause there is an epilogue when the Sorcerer returns and I suspect the emphatic ending signifies how he chastises his wilful apprentice.

In another oddly programmed Prom, before some Puccini, Dukas was followed by their contemporary Ottorino Respighi, but at least the theme of water was running through (!) the music we heard. Fountains of Rome is one of his triptych of tone poems about the Eternal City. (Personally, Respighi still gives me nightmares as I was once asked to give a pre-concert talk and was given the wrong information about which of the tone poems it was, nobody really seemed to notice as I remember!) Fountains was Respighi’s first of the three and was premiered in 1917 and is a dawn to dusk musical illustration of four fountains – apparently when they are seen at their best – so we have the dawn chorus for the Valle Guilia; Triton in the morning was more dramatic with the Tritons pursuing the naiads and blowing on their conch shells (heard in the horns); Respighi’s music for the Trevi one at noon (very familiar from Federico Fellini 1960 La dolce vita film) is suggestive of the magisterial appearance of Neptune’s chariot before its brass-led triumphalist music subsides as he recedes into the distance; finally, we reach Villa Medici at sunset and what we hear is more meditative, sad even, as birds are roosting and tolling bells tell us it is time for vespers. Fountains was exquisitely played and Elder conducted with obvious affection. There were many virtuosic solos, notably from leader Steven Copes’s violin, Sergio Castelló López’s clarinet and Amy Yule’s flute.

After the interval it was Puccini’s Il tabarro, part of the composer’s Il trittico (with Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi). Oddly, it was an opera I had already seen in its only other performance at the Proms in 2008, the 150th anniversary of Puccini’s birth. I explained then, and repeat here, how the plot is standard operatic fare involving an unhappy adulterous wife, her young lover, a jealous cuckolded husband and a double murder ending. (It could easily be subtitled ‘Death on the Seine’!) Luigi and some other stevedores are finishing unloading the barge owned by Michele docked in Paris. Giorgetta, Michele’s beautiful wife, offers them a drink and he notices how she looks at Luigi and dances with him, while a Ballad-Seller peddles a song that (deliberately) has more than a hint of La bohème to it. La Frugola (‘the rummager’), the wife of ‘Talpa’ (‘mole) the stevedore, arrives with a bag full of odds and ends that she has scavenged. Before he leaves, Luigi arranges a late night rendezvous with Giorgetta when she will light a match as a sign that their meeting will be safe. Michele reflects sadly on the ups and downs of his life with Giorgetta and lights his pipe with a match. Seeing what he believed was the agreed signal, Luigi boards the barge and is seized by Michele who forces a confession out of him. He then strangles Luigi and when Giorgetta comes on deck he grabs hold of her too and before despatching her reveals the dead Luigi. He was covered by ‘The Cloak’ (Il tabarro) under which Michele and Giorgetta used to snuggle in happier times.

Elder is apparently an advocate for concert or semi-staged versions of opera but they still must be done better than this. At least the singers did not have scores and this was to the credit of a cast that underwent so many last-minute changes for various reasons. Everyone was dressed as if attending a rehearsal and were generally rooted to their spot on the platform and facing out towards the microphones. As a result it was rather static and it was left to the singing to bring the characters to life and generate any passion necessary. I could not see any screens providing a translation for the audience though I understand there might have been something to help them follow what was going on. That would have been further helped if in an opera where a cloak is so prominent, Michele actually had one to cover up Luigi at the end! Also why did he not – as far as I could see – give the signal which fools Luigi, how difficult would that have been?

Elder and his wonderful orchestra did all they could to raise the emotional temperature after Puccini’s opening to Il tabarro which is so evocative of its setting on the Seine with the haunting sounds of the horns of passing tugboats. I believe Elder made some interesting use of the vast expanse of the Royal Albert Hall though this did not come over particularly well in the recording.

Natalya Romaniw (Giorgetta), Lucio Gallo (Michele) and the Hallé © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Lucio Gallo was a baleful Michele and he was a little one-dimensional in voice and demeanour but he summoned a terrifying degree of vengeful anger at the end. Natalya Romaniw gave Giorgetta’s ‘Si, Il fiammifero acceso!’ (Yes, the lighted match’) a wonderful seductive quality and her estrangement from Michele was palpable. The luckless role of Luigi requires a tenor with a Calaf quality in his voice particularly for the high-lying ‘io te lo giuro, lo giuro’ (‘I swear to you, I swear’). I like Adam Smith’s voice and it was a very creditable performance and even if he might have been sorely tested by the role, it did seem to gain impressively in youthful ardour as the opera continued.

Annunziata Vestri’s barking mad La Frugola seemed to have brought her own eccentric costume and characterisation with her but will not quickly be forgotten. There was very solid support from Alasdair Elliott (‘Tinca’), Simon Shibambu (‘Talpa’) and Laura Lolita Perešivana and Ryan Vaughan Davies as the lovers. Shengzhi Ren revealed a very pleasing lyrical tenor voice as the Ballad-Seller and the Philharmonia Voices made the most of the small moments Puccini gave them.

Jim Pritchard

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