Le Myst&#232;re des Voix Bulgares, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London<br/>Jonas Kaufmann, Wigmore Hall, London<br/>The Marriage of Figaro, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

Bel canto it isn't, but these Bulgarian voices have a rough, immutable beauty

Anna Picard
Sunday 07 November 2010 01:00
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Thirty-five years after Marcel Cellier released the first Western recording of the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir, the ensemble now known as Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares still casts a spell.

Comb through the heavy post-war harmonies of arrangements by Petar Lyondev, Kosta Kolev, Kiril Stefanov, Nikolai Kaufman and Krassimir Kyurkchyiski (who studied under Shostakovich) and the pungent laments and asymmetric dances at their centre have a rough, immutable beauty. These are songs of courtship, marriage, motherhood and "growing the best peppers in Shope", sung on the throat in voices that gutter into chattering, glottal trills, fierce squeals and glissandi, that revel in the hot dissonance of a major second and the frigid severity of an open fifth, and mimic the bleating overtones, hard drones and microtonal sobs of the Thracian bagpipes. Bel canto it isn't. Yet the ornately decorated plaints of the region connect us to the very first singer, Orpheus, and the elaborate ornamentations of Caccini and Monteverdi.

Sturdily upholstered in traditional costumes, Voix Bulgares is an 18-strong, a cappella matriarchy. Several of the singers at the opening of the London Festival of Bulgarian Culture were featured on the first and second Mystère discs, their keening voices older but immediately recognisable in "Bezrodna Nevesta" and "Tamen Oblak". Binka Dobreva's honeyed melismas in "Danyova Mama" earned the warmest applause, though this is a voice for tender intimacy, not a strident call from mountain to mountain. A generation gap looms, though showcasing four young singers aged 11 to 16 in solos from Thrace, Pirin and Strandzha indicates that conductor Dora Hristova is keen to address this. The only male performer, bantam-weight baritone Daniel Spasov, seemed quite overwhelmed by oestrogen in "Daj mi Bozhe", sinking in pitch with an air of Frank Spencerish resignation. The lowest female voices are far stronger than his, and the ribald antiphonal and onomatopoeiac mockery of monks and old bachelors in "Ergen Deda", "Kalugerine" and the duets from Shope – suggest a powerful disregard for male vanity.

Was vanity behind the loud bark of "Bravo!" that broke the precious silence at the end of Jonas Kaufmann's performance of Die schöne Müllerin at the Wigmore Hall? Having never done it myself, I've often wondered what drives people to shatter that moment of extended connection, to be the first to make a noise. Whatever the motive, this was a particularly crude fracture of a mood that Kaufmann and his pianist, Helmut Deutsch, had worked hard to establish, meticulously colouring and pointing each of the 10 songs that chart a descent into shame and jealousy, from fleeting triumph to abject despair.

Kaufmann's rich, complex, baritonal tenor is bigger than those we usually hear in Schubert, and though he thinks delicately, the masculine gleam and heft of his sound made the music and the venue seem Lilliputian. No matter the sincerity of his singing, the easy (and minimal) use of gestures, the exquisite observation of punctuation, the directness of expression, he is too heroic to convince as a shy, impetuous boy, too glamorous for a miller's daughter to turn down. Odd to see such advantages turn to disadvantages in the first half of the cycle, though Schubert, whose looks were less swoonsome, might have smiled at the irony.

The poster for Sir Thomas Allen's Scottish Opera production of The Marriage of Figaro comes with an interesting strapline: It doesn't have to be this complicated. Whether this pertains to Da Ponte's plot (the one with the pin, as the Queen is supposed to have said), the company's recent productions of Mozart's operas (the sandpit Abduction from the Seraglio, the crepuscular Don Giovanni), or the downsizing of its beleaguered orchestra, is difficult to ascertain. Lit in balmy golds by Mark Jonathan, with a cornfield ever visible in the background of Simon Higlett's period set, Allen's gentle staging foregrounds character over class war, as if reminding us that Figaro (Thomas Oliemans) and Susanna (Nadine Livingston) have safely joined Marcellina (Leah-Marian Jones), Dr Bartolo (Francesco Facini) and Curzio/Basilio (Harry Nicoll) in the middle classes by the end of the opera.

The singing is sweet, light and lithe, every character cuddly. Even Roderick Williams's snake-hipped Count is more Leslie Phillips than brutal tyrant, his punishment one night of embarrassment, not a date with the guillotine.

Will things become less complicated for Scottish Opera? A decently sung, sympathetic Figaro should help, but the warmth on stage rarely spread into the pit, where conductor Francesco Corti's puppyish tempi were quickly brought to heel by sour woodwind and obdurate strings.

'The Marriage of Figaro': His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen (01224 641122) 11 to 13 Nov, then touring

Next Week:

Anna Picard covers Rufus Norris's ENO production of Don Giovanni

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