Dom Sébastien is to Donizetti what Falstaff is to Verdi: a crystalisation of a lifetime's ideas. Still, it seems unlikely that anyone here would stage a four hour opera that ricochets between 16th-century Lisbon and the North African desert and culminates in a triple death leap to the depths of the Atlantic. In fact, Donizetti's score is so suggestive of era and location that it hardly needs scenery. By accident or design, his music for the Inquisition conjures the lapidary soundworld of Victoria, Cabezón and Lobo, while the Morrocan scenes avoid the sequinned excesses of 19th-century operatic orientalism. The characterisations are complex, the philosophical arguments intelligent. And there is only one interminable aria with a lugubrious accompaniment of standard-issue arpeggios.
With impeccable playing from the orchestra under Elder's incisive beat, and some excellent work from the chorus, this was in many ways an admirable performance. Yet the casting was far from ideal. Vesselina Kasarova (Zayda) has a stunning range of sounds - honeyed, morbid, thrilling, aloof - but applies them almost randomly to feral, brackish vowels of the sort associated with one who is undergoing root canal surgery. As Camoëns, Carmelo Corrado Caruso's diction was likewise imprecise, while Alistair Miles (Dom Juam de Slyva) and Simon Keenlyside (Abayaldos) sounded like English tourists demanding a refund in their finest A-level French. Best of the bunch was Giuseppe Filianoti (Dom Sébastien), whose boyish charm, idiomatic phrasing, easy legato, thorough familiarity with the score, and sweet, if occasionally vulnerable, high notes counterbalanced his bright Italianate vowels.
Conceived and conducted by ex-Artistic Director Paul Kildea, the first of this season's lunchtime concerts at the Wigmore Hall plunged the audience into a painting by Gustav Klimt. Sticky with longing and lassitude, Reinbert de Leeuw's anxious arrangement of Berg's Seven Early Songs nestled slyly against Schoenberg's radiant arrangement of Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; with Schubert's Quartettsatz in C minor and Webern's Langsamer Satz punctuating the haze like post-coital cigarettes. With Ann Murray's chameleon tones, languorous phrasing, and beautifully nuanced German, The Royal Quartet's handsome strings, and the bordello wheeze of harmonium, clarinet, flute, piano, glockenspiel and double-bass, this was hot stuff for a Monday afternoon in London's primmest venue, and a fascinating immersion in a very specific aesthetic. My feeling is that the Wigmore Hall may come to regret the loss of this audacious Australian polymath.