It’s inconvenient that the refurbishment of Plymouth Guildhall – like so many things in our city centre just now – appears to be in a state of limbo. Not only does this deprive Plymouth Symphony Orchestra (PSO) of its regular concert venue of many years’ standing, but it also means that PSO has no current access to its own Steinway Concert Grand which is stored there.
Arguably one of the most popular items on any orchestral programme – the piano concerto – is therefore hors de combat, until any work on the Guildhall is completed. We all know what would happen to the building – if it were a tree – but it has meant that the earliest the PSO might be able to return there, is next March.
Fortunately, PSO is able to move literally a hundred or so yards up the road, where the Minster Church of St Andrew is more than happy to accommodate them, In fact, it even has one massive benefit over the Guildhall, which has never been known for its acoustic properties, unlike St Andrew’s, which is so very much better. Also there is a far greater sense of immediacy, with the full orchestra almost within touching distance, and the view of the lovely stained window is so much better on the eye, than the faded bit of tapestry at the back of the Guildhall stage.
Furthermore, the church has one of the finest organs in the South West, and there are a good number of concertos available, even if there is no onsite concert grand. However, visibility, of course, is always an issue in the church because of the necessary pillars.
For tonight’s concert, though, conductor Anne Kimber has dispensed with an instrumental soloist, and booked a tenor-and-soprano team of opera singers, in a programme which she may well have named after the eponymous Marx Brothers’ film, or the fourth studio album by British Rock Band, Queen.
However much or little you know about opera – especially the full-blown romantic variety – you might just be aware that most of the ‘best bits’ usually go to the leading soprano and tenor, both in the form of solo arias or the obligatory love-duets. With that as the foundation, you just need to give the soloists occasional breathers, by letting the orchestra play some of the best-loved incidental music in between.
PSO got the party under way – well, it felt far more like a party atmosphere, than the traditional helping of symphonic concert-music – with a brilliant and vibrant version of the Overture to Bizet’s Carmen, arguably one of the most familiar melodies in the whole of opera. Tenor, Peter Van Hulle then joined the orchestra in a suitably-impassioned rendition of the Flower Song, leaving the orchestra to round-off the French Connection with the opera’s sultry Habanera.
Not only were the initial performances so effective, but the audience felt involved from the very first note. There was none of the usual, ‘Can I clap here, or will people think I haven’t studied the Audience Code?’ – everyone clapped when they felt like it, and probably even hummed along … and there were definitely a fair number of impromptu ‘Olés’ as we left behind this French opera set in Spain.
Anne then transported the audience to the veritable home of opera – Italy – in which country we found ourselves exclusively stationed for most of what was to come. Soprano, Elin Pritchard had the honour of opening Puccini’s account, with a truly heartfelt reading of O mio babbino caro from Gianni Schicchi, and it would be fair to say that she held everyone captive from her very first notes. I can honestly say that Elin’s singing throughout the evening, was the very best I have heard in the city for many a year, and is such a real privilege to write about.
Of course, those of you who are interested in names, will, as I did, realise that Elin originally hails from across the River Severn – to be precise, North Wales’s St Asaph, while growing up in nearby Rhyl. Reading her impressive list of operatic achievements to date, makes it even more exciting that PSO were able to entice an artist of this calibre to the city – and one who will soon, no doubt, be acting out a childhood dream when she sings the role of Mimi in Puccini’s La Bohème with Welsh National Opera next season.
From here on in, every single number was pure magic, with solos and duets from Verdi’s Traviata, Puccini’s Bohème and Tosca, Lehár’s Merry Widow, di Capua’s Neapolitan old chestnut, O Sole Mio, which almost qualifies as opera, and, of course, no prizes for guessing the grand finale – Puccini’s Nessun Dorma from Turandot, where Peter Van Hulle threw everything he possibly had into a memorable performance, rather like pulling out all the stops on the St Andrew’s organ, and then finding there was just one you missed, which you could save for the big finish.
By virtue of the genre, the two soloists understandably stole the show in one respect, but unlike any operatic pit orchestra which is heard, but not seen, every single player in the orchestra put just as much into their individual contribution as the two vocalists. From the opening Carmen extract, the Overture to La Traviata, a fabulous performance of the Grand March from Aida, the meditative Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, and an exceedingly effervescent, champagne-cork-popping Overture to Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, the PSO was once more on tip-top form, led, on this occasion with real assurance, by Cath Smith.
Solid, flexible and sensitive
It might be assumed that tonight’s orchestral outing was far less demanding than PSO’s recent epic performance of Mahler’s First Symphony. Perhaps this might be fair comment with the purely orchestral items. But to provide such a solid, yet immensely flexible and sensitive accompaniment to the two voices requires concentration of the highest order, both from the players, and the conductor, and when the soloists make really impressive use of the available space by moving well away from the orchestra as they sang, the job is all the more challenging.
Savouring each note
But, as always, the defining link in the success of A Night at the Opera was Anne Kimber’s direction from the front and the impeccable rapport between Anne and her players, which assumed an almost telepathic quality. It was also abundantly clear that every single instrumentalist was savouring each note played, which is hardly surprising, given the wall-to-wall romantic melody, lush textures, and brilliant orchestration they were all involved in on the night. As an unashamed Italian-opera aficionado, it’ll be quite a while before I enjoy another PSO concert as much as I did this one.
But life goes on, as they say, and PSO will be back in The Minster Church of St Andrew on Wednesday November 29 – and on the previous Sunday in Liskeard Public Hall – with A Concert for Coronation Year. It’s a primarily all-English programme, where the orchestra will be joined by French-born violinist, Charlotte Saluste-Bridoux, in Vaughan Williams’s well-known, bijoux concertante work, The Lark Ascending.
Philip R Buttall
top image: Anne Kimber (conductor)
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