Classical: Do as the Romans do


YOU WOULD expect the principal oboe of the Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome, to be a dab hand at Rossinian coloratura - and he was. It fell to him to "voice" the coquettish Italian Girl in Algiers in the overture to that opera - a fitting opener to this two-concert visit from the Santa Cecilia Orchestra and Chorus since the other thing you would expect, indeed insist upon, from them would be the perfect Rossini crescendo. Their conductor Myung-Whun Chung delivered.

But he also delivered (for reasons that I can only imagine were political and/or tied up with sponsorship) the UK premiere of Giorgio Battistelli's Da Pasolini (after Pasolini's film Arabian Nights) - an empty and pretentious piece of Euro-tosh that should never have left the work-desk, leave alone the country.

It was short. That much I'll give it. It was derived from a ballet score - which might at least explain why the music was so entirely gestural: a series of exclamations or "stings" such as might have made it as far as the cutting room floor when the music track was being laid. The unfortunate chorus were pressed into service providing sighing, panting, grunting, chuckling expletives. There were no words, just noises.

Back to the farmyard. And back to Rossini, thank heavens. His Stabat Mater followed the interval to sit in perfect equilibrium with Verdi's Requiem on the following night. Chung moved the Rossini on apace while reflecting long and hard and eloquently over the Verdi.

Rossini's primary response to text was tastefully played down by Chung, its more colourful operatic incursions (Rossini's genuflections invariably deploy a robust "street-wise" tune) felt better integrated, and more in context, than they sometimes do.

Take the opening. No sooner have we "visualised" the "mournful Mother" at the final station of the Cross when the tenor soloist is on the march brandishing the sword of truth in music more redolent of the soccer stadium than the sepulchre. Except that this tenor soloist, Giuseppe Sabbatini, was equipped to finesse even the difficult ascent to a high D flat, coming off it with an exquisitely controlled diminuendo into the next phrase while Chung kept the orchestra's bouncy accompagnamente on the right side of irreligious.

Still, it is amazing how much deeper to the heart of the matter and how much more moving this piece is on the couple of occasions when the chorus is simply, nakedly, a capella. Moving, too, is the dramatic hiatus in the final chorus, which takes us back to the shadowy start - a device Verdi later used when he came to pay his respects to Rossini with his Requiem. Indeed, the Verdi is almost a photo-negative of it.

Chung's performance of the Verdi was the finest I have heard in the capital in quite some time. It wasn't that his chorus or orchestra were especially distinguished - they weren't - but they delivered with a commitment and rightness of colour and cast that felt and sounded fired from within. The force was with them. And with Chung, who tapped boldly into the atmosphere of the writing, expertly maintaining the balance between the devotional and the theatrical.

His account of the "Libera me", the first section to be written, and the section closest in spirit to the Rossini, was thrilling, the return of the soprano's desperate imploration caught up in a firestorm of string tremolandi.

Alessandra Marc was the soprano hellbound for the second of two mighty top Cs. This is a great Verdi voice. It no longer speaks as readily in piano, particularly in the all-important high register.

Indeed, there wasn't nearly enough quiet singing for my money. But for eternal phrases and voluptuous sound, there really aren't too many of her kind around. And she sounded great in parallel with the plangent mezzo, Luciana D'Intino, whose only real problem was an alarming gear-change into her chest voice.

The Russian tenor, Sergei Larin, was virile but paradoxically more effortful in mezza voce, and the bass, Carlo Colombara, lacked resonance. But this is an imperfect world, and this may have been an imperfect performance, but at least it was a real performance, and I, for one, felt all the better for it.

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