Opera: Cura conducts an experiment

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The Independent Culture
JOSE CURA/ PHILHARMONIA

ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL

LONDON

PENNED IN our seats, we expect conductors to act out musical rapture on our behalf, but to sing it as well? That's another matter. Last Thursday, Jose Cura introduced us to the unusual phenomenon of the Singing Conductor.

The world knows Cura as an operatic tenor of distinction - impetuous perhaps, but the genuine article. In interviews, he reminds us that he came to singing only after studying conducting and composition. Now the success of his vocal apparatus is allowing him to indulge his fantasy of being a conductor, while also taking the vocal part. How would he manage?

Well, without a baton and mostly without a score, for a start. He had taken the sensible precaution of working with the Philharmonia, an orchestra at the top of its game and with a leader, Christopher Warren-Green, who has conducting experience in his own right. Verdi and Puccini might not be home territory, but few parts of the repertoire hold any fear for this world-class outfit. And if the conductor chooses to spend much of the evening with his back to the players? That can be accommodated.

Cura passed the first test. As he gestured for the musicians to sit, they did - in perfect co-ordination. A good start. Verdi occupied the evening's first half, beginning with the overture to La Forza del Destino, as dramatic an opening as any. Cura's conducting relied on small, contained gestures, and the slow passages almost ground to a halt; but that might be an interpretative view.

However, there's no singing in the overture, and it was only with Don Alvaro's Scene and Romance from La Forza that we got to the crunch. Cura was still facing the players as he began to sing, but then he turned slowly to deliver us the full voice. The effect, though, was ever so slightly absurd, the need to maintain the beat with both arms making him look somewhat like a large bird attempting to achieve flight.

This proved a recurring visual distraction - and a dramatic distortion - with the added problem that any expansive arm movement produced an equivalent vocal emphasis that disrupted the vocal contour, most damagingly in the free-flowing line of Simon Boccanegra.

Nevertheless, Cura's Verdi, and more particularly his Puccini and Leoncavallo ("Vesti la giubba", what else?) from the second half, remained authentic, and although the vocal edge sometimes blurred, he curbed his tendency, born of enthusiasm, to deliver too much, too loud. If one had the impression that Cura's conducting, sometimes achieved from odd places on the platform, got a little help from Warren-Green, that is, after all, one of the concert- master's functions.

Cura's love of his audience and its adulation does not contradict his seriousness of purpose. This was an interesting, even amusing little experiment - not an unmitigated success, but not a disaster either. I hope that in future he will let someone else conduct so that we get more of the Cura we want. His conducting is perhaps unexceptionable, but also unexceptional. The voice, though, remains special.

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