An Incredible Lady

In a month of frenzied musical activity, what to leave out? (Our editor has a space, not to say size, problem, you see). Dare I omit the Munich Philharmonic under Rudolf Kempe, who at one of their three Prom concerts gave a demonstration of how an anaesthetised performance of a Mahler symphony sounds or maybe Boulez’ cool, precise, and yet remarkably moving performance of Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’ (why does everyone still insist on treating this work as a religious observance? Wagner did call it a festival drama) or even the Berlin Philharmonic at the Edinburgh Festival?

The answer’s all three. For Rita Hunter’s back in town. The remarkable dramatic soprano, who so far has only appeared in a major role at Covent Garden by default (remember that incredible ‘Flying Dutchman’ story, complete with hair-curlers, mad, head-long dashes from quiet Norfolk home and German airline strikes?) returned last month to the London Coliseum to give what must undoubtedly be her most devastating performance to date. And the memory of her singing as Brunnhilde in the Sadlers Wells ‘Gotterdammerung’ has by no means begun to fade.

Rita Hunter sings the role of Leonora in the new Coliseum production of ‘Il Trovatore. It is scenically spectacular (though I did feel that Stefanos Lazardi’s costumes were a shade too lavish, possibly even garish) and vocally impressive.

There is practically always in this theatre a feeling of intense excitement which Covent Garden can rarely match. Perhaps it has something to do with the regular ensemble playing which is just not possible in a house like Covent Garden, where so many of the singers are imported temporarily from abroad.

The individual performances (with the exception of Miss Hunter’s) were not always faultless, but no matter. There was always a sense of involvement, of the true passion befitting Verdi’s most tuneful and grandly romantic opera.

My admiration of Norman Bailey’s dark-toned bass-baritone has always been high; from his masterly Hans Sachs, in the ‘Mastersingers’, his tortured Gunter in ‘Gotterdammerung’, through to his commanding, yet still fallible Wotan in ‘The Rhinegold.’ But here as Di Luna he did not seem fully at his ease and his voice occasionally came over jagged.

The Canadian mezzo-soprano, Gabrielle Lavigne making her first appearance in this country gave a fiery portrayal of the gypsy woman Azucena, who holds all the secrets of the plot, but her voice also tended to ‘spread’ and she was apt to sing sharp.

John Sydney, a young tenor from Australia looked every inch the part of Manrico; dashing, impetuous and handsome. But he could not always cope with Verdi’s taxing music, his voice turning throaty under pressure, though in the final dungeon scene he seemed to find better form. It is unfortunately in this scene that the staging seriously came unstuck with Manrico and Azucena manacled with elaborate and disturbingly noisy chains to opposite sides of the stage, so that in the normally beautiful duet ‘Ai Nostri monti’ their voices vie rather than mingle.

And what of Miss Hunter? Well, her voice is strong, metallic and true. It is also incredibly powerful. With those who are keen on pure limpid tone, Miss Hunter will not score high marks. But for those who like a soprano with a robust heroic timbre in her voice, astonishingly combined with a suppleness and instinctively well-timed musical phrasing, then I don’t think there is anyone else around at the moment to compare. And she can act!

Hers was a performance of perfectly judged dignity, which still displayed the moving spontaneity which distinguishes her interpretations of other parts. Always credible, she gave dramatic expression to every aria. Her duet with Di Luna came across with uncommon force. Whether heroic or tender, the artistry and musicality with which she moulded and phrased the music was superb.

I shall be very sad if, after her debut at the New York Met in December, we lose this incredible lady to more illustrious foreign opera houses. Let’s hope she likes Northolt. Perhaps if we put our minds to it we could even find her a reasonable pad in London Street! Think about it.

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