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Classical: Too much humility, not enough greasepaint




THE "OPERA in ecclesiastical garb" - as Verdi's Requiem was once dubbed - is easily defrocked. Demonstrative conductors, huge amateur choirs, and starry, ill-matched soloists can make for the wrong kind of theatricality. We've seen them: sopranos and mezzos who think they are Aida and Amneris locked once more in heated on-stage rivalry; the tenor who thinks he's on for a solo recital, the grand inquisitorial basses, the conductor for whom every day of wrath is a personal day of reckoning.

Bernard Haitink was never likely to stray far from the whiff of incense. But whether or not he might have benefited from a lick or two more of the greasepaint was a question that hung in the balance throughout his Royal Festival Hall performance on Sunday night.

The darkened church, the murmuring voices of souls at prayer, are all but written into the opening of Verdi's Introit and Kyrie. A brightened hall, a coughing audience don't help, of course, but those muted strings and muffled voices came too readily into focus here. True, there was an immediacy, a tensile quality to the choral entries.

The Royal Opera Chorus may have been smaller than we are accustomed to, but they projected an identity in their singing that is so often missing from the safety in numbers of larger and invariably more anonymous groups.

The solo quartet, too, were a well-balanced, well-integrated foursome. Individually, there were shortcomings - aren't there always? No other major choral work puts its solo voices to the test quite like this one. We effectively "audition" them as one by one, they plead special circumstances in the Kyrie. First impressions count for a great deal here, though it wasn't until later in the proceedings - the "Hostias" of the Offertorio - that it became clear why the perfectly decent tenor, Franco Farina, wasn't making more of an impression. The timbre was Italianate enough (Farina is Italian-American) but the style wasn't. A little good, old- fashioned portamento would have gone a long way towards personalising, endearing his solos to us.

His male partner, the bass Roberto Scandiuzzi, made a genuine attempt to sing with lyric attitude, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not. And Petra Lang, the strikingly fine German mezzo, a voice and technique without flaws (from its liberating top to the enriched contralto colour of the lower register), might have breathed a little more theatricality into the words, but was otherwise exemplary. How beautifully her octaves paralleled with those of the soprano, Paula Delligatti, in the unisons of the Agnus Dei - the magical evolution of plainchant into the realms of opera.

Delligatti, a new name to me, had her moments - the Verdi style was alive and well in many a graciously sculpted airborne phrase - but also her disasters, as in the a cappella heart of the Libera me, which sagged into ruinously flat intonation.

Heaven forfend that humility should bring even a Verdi soprano so low. But humility appeared to have inhibited Haitink, too. In the final reckoning, his performance lacked atmosphere and drama, a sense of occasion. Maybe he and the company have been away from the theatre too long.

There is a further performance of Verdi's Requiem tonight. Booking: 0171-960 4242