United Kingdom Scottish Opera’s The Verdi Collection: Eri Nakamura (soprano), Katherine Aitken (mezzo-soprano), Peter Auty (tenor), Lester Lynch (baritone), Jihoon Kim (bass), The Orchestra of Scottish Opera, Stuart Stratford (conductor). Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 11.2.2023. (SRT)
Extracts from Verdi operas performed in concert:
La forza del destino – Overture; La vita è inferno… O tu che in seno agli angeli; Final scene
Otello – Willow Song and Ave Maria
Don Carlo – Restate! Presso all amia persona; Ella giammai m’amò; Death of Rodrigo
Un ballo in maschera – Morrò, ma prima in grazia
Les vêpres siciliennes – Ballet – The Four Seasons: Summer
La traviata – Act II, Scene 1
All concerts of operatic excerpts are intrinsically unsatisfying, even if, like this one, they are devoted to a particular composer. It is not only the fact that you don’t have the artifice of the theatrical staging and designs to help the audience get swept up in the drama. More seriously than that, no sooner does one aria or scene build up its head of steam than it is cut off and replaced by another. So there is a jukebox effect that is unavoidable, and it often outweighs the advantages you gain from hearing the orchestra unleashed from the pit.
That said, this concert was better than most. It didn’t avoid the problems above (it couldn’t!) but it was continually engaging thanks primarily the rock-star quality of the orchestral playing, which was the best I have heard in this repertoire in a long time, and not just because the music could breathe in the space of the Usher Hall stage. No, there was a sit-up-and-take-notice quality to the orchestra right from the cannon fire brass that opened the concert with the overture to La forza del destino. That gave way to whirling, sinuously dark strings and song-like wind playing that opened the concert in the best manner imaginable and didn’t vary in quality throughout. The instrumental solos were bitingly dramatic, too, be it in the cello of King Philip’s Don Carlo soliloquy and Amelia’s Morrò ma prima in grazia, or the oboe in the ballet music of Les vêpres siciliennes, or the dolorous clarinet that accompanied Violetta’s letter to Alfredo and Alvaro’s lament in Forza. Conductor Stuart Stratford, who is also the company’s Music Director, described the orchestra as the ‘beating heart’, and their anchoring of the evening was consistently of the very highest quality.
The soloists were a little more varied. The pick of them was tenor Peter Auty, who sang the heroes Alvaro and Alfredo with heroic dynamism, even if he was occasionally pinched at the top. Soprano Eri Nakamura improved after an opening Willow Song that attacked from below the note. The more dramatic items, especially the death scene in Forza, suited her better, and her Violetta was very warm. Similarly, baritone Lester Lynch had a squally opening number as Rodrigo in Don Carlo, and his death scene didn’t move me a bit, but he warmed up noticeably, and he was movingly lyrical as Germont père. Brindley Sherratt had to withdraw as the advertised bass soloist, and while Jihoon Kim was a noble replacement, the vibrato in his voice didn’t settle all night. Longsuffering mezzo-soprano Katherine Aitken dutifully shuffled on and off as various servants.
I could have done with less, mind you. Ending the concert at 10.15pm was asking a lot, and Stratford should have shown more restraint in his trolley dash through Verdi’s middle and late periods. Still, the singing was mostly good, and the orchestral playing was excellent. On balance you can chalk that up as a win.