RLPO / Eaglen / Schwarz, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool

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Mixed programmes starring opera divas are notoriously difficult to bring off. Is the orchestra merely there to provide rumpty-tum accompaniments? Is the singer just showing off a few tried-and-tested show-stoppers? Can there be a serious thread in assorted overtures and arias? In the case of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, under its music director Gerard Schwarz, the answers are: no, not really, and yes.

In a rare British appearance, the soprano Jane Eaglen - still best known for her interpretation of the roles of Norma and Brünnhilde - joined her fellow-Seattle resident Schwarz in Liverpool's Philharmonic Hall, singing Wagner in one programme, and Mozart and Italian operatic excerpts in another. Though suffering from a respiratory infection on the second night, she brought great pathos to a couple of arias from Don Giovanni, the role of Donna Anna having been one of her early successes. The veiled tone she adopted for "Or sai chi l'onore" may have been due to her indisposition, but it suited her expressive indictment of Giovanni as her attacker and her father's murderer. Again, it was the dark undercurrents, the sombre nuances, that she conveyed in "Non mi dir", its coloratura ending courageously delivered in the circumstances.

These were framed by Schubert's Rosamunde Overture and his Unfinished Symphony. Schwarz's lightness of touch brought out the theatrical aspects of the former and the bittersweet ambiguities of the latter. It would be hard to find more shapeliness, ease and poignancy of execution than in the RLPO woodwind's unfurling of the solo exchanges in the second movement of the symphony.

The second half of the programme featured some of the repertoire from Eaglen's Italian arias CD, encompassing love, vengeance and prayers for death and deliverance. All passionate stuff and a reminder, especially in her inclusion of "Voi lo sapete, o mamma", that it was as Santuzza in Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana at ENO that Eaglen made such an impact in the 1980s. From Verdi's La Forza del Destino, she gave a lyrical account of "Pace, pace mio Dio!" (the nearest thing that we got to the long melodies of her famed Bellini).

To Don Carlos next, and Elisabeth's big final number, "Tu che la vanita", in which Eaglen made wonderfully effective use of her resources and range to bring the queen to unhappy and vivid life. She played up the dramatic contrasts, shaping each flickering phrase and responding to each swelling climax with infallible musical instinct. The orchestra paced and shaded its accompanying role to fine effect, with sweetly singing strings and boldly resplendent brass. As for the haunting "Ebben? Ne andro lontana" from La Wally, this was a no-holds-barred delivery.

Ill or not, Eaglen was going out on a high.