Maria Ewing | Royal Albert Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

The concert programme promised a "Legend of Opera", which immediately sets you thinking: that the singer is, on the one hand, one of the greats, and, on the other, probably a bit past it. In fact, Maria Ewing. Last month she turned 50, for a soprano the age of elegant maturity rather than decline; and as to being one of the greats, she has always been celebrated more for the intensity of her performances than for the lustre of her voice.

Which is not to diminish the voice, only to suggest that "legend" rather overstates the case. Certainly Ewing could not be faulted for versatility; few sopranos will attempt, in a single evening, to go from Rossini to Wagner by way of Bizet and Puccini, but that's the kind of nerve which has won Ewing her reputation. And nerve is what it takes if you're going to invite your audience to sing along in the "tra-la-la's" of one of the arias from Carmen.

More than that, it requires charisma to get the audience actually to do it, but Ewing succeeded. Not everything was that showbizzy. Carmen caught her at her best, slinking on stage to eye the orchestra with haughty malevolence before fixing the arena with her "come hither" stare. Ewing, holding herself with the poise of a dancer, radiated erotic tension. Her voice is light, which if fine for Carmen, to often a role reduced to blatancy but here delivered with some delicacy, as well as considerable vocal liberty.

If there were signs of straight when she pushed for extra volume there was also a pleasing intimacy. Although she is not a natural Wagnerian, the breathy lightness of her voice gave a welcome bel canto shapeliness to the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, even if, here and elsewhere, too many consonants disappeared in the effort required to ride Wagner's exorbitant vocal line.

But Ewing isn't about verbal precision, she's about drama. In a couple of duets with Khosrow Mahsoori, a decent if not yet a distinguished tenor, her sense of the music's physical passion contrasted with his more upright demeanour: her performance leaves the atmosphere of the Opera House, while he remained in the concert hall. Sadly, much of the ambience that she generated was allowed to dissipate in purely orchestral interludes that the Royal Philharmonic Opera Orchestra, conducted by Iain Sutherland, delivered with more energy than finesse. Still, it was Ewing's show. A legend? Not yet. A performer? Absolutely.