Music Review: A singer who's no better than she should be

"Sod Covent Garden," cried Lesley Garrett, receiving a tumultuous reception from a packed Albert Hall at the 1996 Stonewall Benefit. Since then, she has graced that company playing Valencienne in The Merry Widow. Arch and knowing, it's a good role for her. Being an opera singer is not simply about vocal range, it's about choosing the right roles and vocal style. Garrett, for years ENO's resident uberminx (think Felicity Kendal with bigger tonsils), is in a class of her own. As pert as you like, she excels at cunning sisters and naughty maids and a whole world of women of whom it could be said: "She's no better than she should be". She's the world's leading heldensoubrette.

On disc, she has no truck with demarcation disputes, recording anything that takes her fancy and winning thousand of admirers along the way. For her sell-out Christmas concert - we knew it was Christmas because there was tinsel on the music stands - she walked on in a cloud of diaphanous white. Actually, swooped would be a better word, what with the wing effect of the veils floating between finger and frock. "And seeing as how I look a bit like an angel," she grinned, and hurled herself at arias from The Messiah. She's not backward in coming forwards is our Lesley. And "our Lesley" is how the audience felt about the winner of the "prestigious Gramophone award for the bestselling classical artist of 1996".

Peculiarly, she was miked throughout. This may have had something to do with the fact that she insisted on singing despite recovering from gastric flu. She gamely informed us that "there's a bucket in the wings if necessary," but that "from the neck up, I'm fine". I'm not so sure. The microphone merely amplified all of her usual vocal problems. Her voice has splendid attack but little warmth. When she lets her fast metallic- sounding vibrato drain away from a note the effect can be moving, but the rest of the time it sounds winningly confident but hard and inflexible. Pitching too is a problem, to say the least.

Having "searched high and low" for something to include on the Princess Diana tribute album, she landed, strangely enough, on Ravel's Pavane for a dead princess. Absolutely sincere though her intentions were, singing the newly added lyrics only served to remind me of daffy Mary Boland wandering in and out of George Cukor's movie The Women crying "Oh l'amour, l'amour, toujours l'amour".

She was at her best revelling in Gounod's "Jewel Song" but it was greeted with the same rapture as everything else on the menu. The highlight, however, was the encore, Frederick Silver's witty "The Twelve Days After Christmas", a tiny, gleeful revenge aria which Garrett leapt upon with almost indecent relish. Her vocal limitations disappeared beneath a display of genuine performance skills. It was back to soubrette time. Stick with that, I say.

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