Nights of the Stars

Royal Opera at the Royal Albert Hall

There was something of the beauty contest about Sunday's Royal Opera gala (re-run, with small changes, tomorrow night), each "competitor" parading across the Albert Hall stage (set for the company's performances of Otello) to impress us with the curvaceous swells and shapely legato of their well- endowed voices. Given the singers involved, it's no surprise that Italian opera dominated, but there was a slightly enervating homogeneity as heavy and hot followed hot and heavy. Gino Quilico offered a nicely observed "Largo al factotum" from Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia, top notes sketchy, but that was the evening's only humour.

And, despite the presence of eight singers, we got only one duet, and no trios or quartets. Perhaps nobody wanted to share the limelight, although when Jose Cura and Agnes Baltsa closed with a flaming row from Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, the audience loved it. Cura, the only singer consistently to act, used the set as if getting the feel for the day when he becomes Covent Garden's Othello. He has a generous eagerness to be with the audience, and holds himself like a boxer in one of those hammy cigarette-card portraits. There's plenty of weight in the voice, which at the bottom has dark, baritonal colourings, while the top rings out thrillingly. If the middle has a slightly nasal veil, that'll burn off with time. Cura was excellent value, most impressively in the "Improvviso" from Giordano's Andrea Chenier, sung at very short notice to replace the indisposed Fabio Armiliato.

The other tenor, Giuseppe Giacomini, was on poor form in "Vesti la giubba" from Pagliacci, the high notes not so much frayed as shredded. Giacomini himself was clearly embarrassed, holding his hands up apologetically to the applause. Off-night or long-term damage? Time will tell. Zvetelina Vassileva and Irene Carli, making Royal Opera debuts, acquitted themselves well, Carli particularly touching in "Piangete voi?" from Donizetti's Anna Bolena. Most moving of the sopranos, though, was Rosalind Plowright, majestically distraught in "Toi que j'implore" from Spontini's La Vestale, a welcome step outside Italian repertoire, even if it was difficult to be sure in what language Plowright was singing.

In arias from Andrea Chenier and Verdi's Macbeth, Alexandru Agache's baritone was rather monochrome and unyielding, but had a gripping physicality. And Baltsa was Baltsa, of course. The chasm between chest and head voices has narrowed perceptibly, but the two still seem to emerge from different bodies. Yet it's a voice that, mixing serenity and sensuality, holds the attention through every phrase. Her duet with Cura was explosively sexual, particularly in evening dress.

The show was conducted by Jacques Delacote, who kept the stew bubbling nicely. The acoustic occasionally did strange things to orchestral balance (at one point the harpist sounded 20 yards closer than the rest of the orchestra); but the subtlest "sound enhancement" ensured that the voices held sway.

There is a great risk in presenting opera as a Greatest Hits package; this particular compilation, albeit homogenised, worked rather well.

Further performance 7.30pm tomorrow, Royal Albert Hall (0171-589 8212)