Wednesday, 22 August 2018

The Grand Manner: soprano Aprile Millo makes her London recital debut

Aprile Millo (Photo: Johannes Ifkovits)
Aprile Millo
(Photo: Johannes Ifkovits)
Tosti, Donaudy, Donizetti, Bridge, Wolf-Ferrari, Verdi, Refice, Rachmaninoff, Massenet, Strauss; Aprile Millo, Inseon Lee, Jeffrey Carl, Merynda Adams; London Bel Canto Festival at Cadogan Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 August 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A chance to hear Aprile Millo live in London, though she kept us waiting till the end for some real Verdi spinto style

The soprano Aprile Millo is known very much for her Verdi performances, frequently at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She has not, I believe, sung much in London (and never, apparently, at Covent Garden!) so it was something of a coup for the London Bel Canto Festival to be able to present Millo in her London recital debut at Cadogan Hall, with pianist Inseon Lee, harpist Merinda Adams and baritone Jeffrey Carl. Millo's programme was an eclectic mix of songs by Stefano Donaudy,  Paolo Tosti, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, Donizetti, Frank Bridge, Verdi, Rachmaninoff, Massenet, Richard Strauss and traditional Irish songs, along with a scene from Licino Refice's Santa Cecilia and the Aida/Amonasro duet from Verdi's Aida.

Celebrity recitals can be tricky things, with the singer keen to explore a variety of areas of their repertoire and the audience often there simply to hear the diva (or divo) sing the opera arias for which they are best known. The audience at the Cadogan Hall on Tuesday included a significant number of Aprile Millo's fans who were clearly delighted to be able to hear the diva in London, but there was also a significant number of people for whom Millo's fame as one of the major spinto sopranos in the late 20th century meant that they were hoping for a selection of arias from Millo's best known roles. As always, the diva kept us on tenter-hooks and in the event, despite the programme presenting a tempting list of arias and duets from which she would select, the only major operatic piece that we were presented with was the duet from Verdi's Aida. It was perhaps significant, that the atmosphere in the hall became highly charged at this point, the performance was electric in a way which the rest of the programme had not been, admirable though it was. The result was that, despite a generous selection of songs from Aprile Millo and singing of much charm, we left feeling somewhat unsatisfied.

The recital started with an intriguing sequence of (mainly) Italian song charting the progress of a love affair, from first love to the first house to the first quarrel and the ending. Millo in fact presented two endings, the happy and the sad. This was a lovely way to link songs which are, frankly, often of limited musical interest. So we heard Donaudy's O del mio amato ben, Tosti's Sogno, Donizetti's Me voglio fa na casa from Soirees d'automne a l'Infrascata, Tosti's Ideale and Non t'amo piu, Frank Bridge's Love went a-riding, and Wolf-Ferrari's Cara la mia Venezia from Il campiello.

Millo sang with a rich-toned voice, warmed by a significant vibrato. She paid the songs the compliment of taking them seriously, phrasing carefully and emoting strongly with both voice and with gestures, so that the individual songs were highly dramatised but very much in the grand manner. The Donizetti song was great fun (though the piano accompaniment was woefully simplistic), and it was a real delight to hear the Wolf-Ferrari which moved from a Venetian barcarolle into something more complex. Frank Bridge's Love went a-riding was a truly remarkable performance, taking the song and making something operatic of it as Millo unleashed the power of her voice.

She followed this sequence with Verdi's song Insolitaria Stanza, from his early Sei Romanze. The song is famous, perhaps, mainly for the fact that a phrase would re-occur in Leonora's aria 'Tacea la notte' in Il Trovatore. The performance showed Millo's Verdi style, and gave a hint that she had plenty in reserve, whilst still being able to fill out a phrase finely.

The first half ended with St. Cecilia's death scene from the opera Cecilia by Licinio Refice (1883-1954), which was written for the great Italian soprano Claudia Muzio. Cecilia, Refice's first opera, was premiered in Rome in 1934 with Claudia Muzio in the title role. The style was very much in the Verismo school, tonal with some interesting corners to the harmony. The complex scena included a lot of piano writing, and I think you would need to hear it with orchestra to get the best effect. Refice's vocal writing was sympathetic and very effective, with a striking use of melodrama. Millo's performance of the piece was deeply felt, and I was grateful to her for reviving this striking piece of operatic history.

The second half opened with a short tribute to the baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, with Rachmaninoff's 'Sing not, O lovely one' from his Six Romances Op. 4 and Massenet's Elegie. The Rachmaninoff was characterised by a wonderfully vibrant vocal line, though the performance seemed a little score-bound and lacking in the drama of Millo's other performances.

A pair of Richard Strauss songs followed, Aller Seelen and Zueignung, both sung in a large, scale grand manner with strong words and vibrant sound. Again, there was a feeling that the story-telling from earlier in the recital was lacking here and Millo's Verismo style phrasing in Zueignung made it seem choppy.

The four traditional Irish songs that followed were very much sung in as art songs, and though Millo's performance was deeply felt (her spoken introduction referenced her mother singing the songs), it was a little too operatic in style though the simpler songs sung with just harp accompaniment from Merynda Adams worked well enough.

We finished with the duet from Verdi's Aida, sung off the score and with a sort of semi-staging. Jeffrey Carl made a striking if blustery Amonasro, with Millo finally demonstrating some real spinto style as she brought a striking edge to her tone and the performance fairly crackled with the sort of electricity lacking in the earlier items. We were treated to a single encore, Gastaldon's Musica proibita.

Throughout the recital Millo chatted to the audience between songs, displaying a charming wit and great sense of character which contrasted with the grand manner of her performance and contributed to the informality of the evening. Millo filled the hall easily with sound, but also knew how to command the stage with just a small gesture, making for a vivid evening. She was ably supported by Inseon Lee, who deftly made even the more simplistic piano parts seem interesting.

Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • Bayreuth’s Tristan und Isolde was grand and convincing in every conceivable way harbouring a sting in its tail (★★★★★)  - concert review
  • Keeping her secrets: Tom Randle's Love Me To Death explores the mysterious Ruth Ellis (★★★★)  - Opera review
  • The Opera That Goes Wrong: Tête à Tête's Toscatastrophe!  - Opera review
  • Bayreuth’s Parsifal provided a sensitive portrayal of humanity overcoming adversity (★★★★★)  - Opera review
  • As important as ever: Opera Rara's mission to rediscover, record and perform rare opera  - interview
  • Hubert Parry - the complete string quartets (★★★)  - CD review
  • Out of the mouths of babes: Metta Theatre at Tête à Tête (★★★)  - Opera review
  • if there were water - Two different, yet challenging contemporary choral pieces in this striking disc from the American choir, The Crossing (★★★★) - CD review
  • Bayreuth’s new production of Lohengrin has taken the Green Hill by storm (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Exploring advanced techniques: flautist Sara Minelli's New Resonances (★★★)   - CD review
  • Leaving on a high: final revival of Jan Philipp Gloger's production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer at the Bayreuth Festival  (★★★★★)  - Opera review
  • Prom 42: the first Estonian orchestra at the Proms - Paavo Järvi and the Estonian Festival Orchestra (★★★★½)  - concert review
  • A strong message on anti-semitism: Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Bayreuth Festival  (★★★★★) - opera review
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