Wednesday 22 April 2015

Practising what she preaches - Nelly Miricioiu in recital

David Gowland and Nelly Miricioiu at St John's Smith Square
David Gowland and Nelly Miricioiu at St John's Smith Square
Ravel, Chausson, Viardot/Chopin, Brediceanu, Respighi, Bellini, Rossini, Puccini, Verdi
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 21 2015
Opera singer Nelly Miricioiu in a rare recital appearance

Time is not kind to the lyric soprano voice and most choose to either move into another fach, or to stop performing. Only a few decide to grow older disgracefully and continue, relying on strength of technique to replace to the natural flexibility of the voice. One such is the Romanian/British soprano, Nelly Miricioiu who, now in her 60's, continues to combine a performing career with extensive teaching. She made a rare recital appearance at St John's Smith Square, on Tuesday 21 April 2015 with David Gowland at the piano in a programme of songs by Ravel, Chausson, Chopin, Brediceanu and Respighi, and arias by Bellini, Rossini, Puccini and Verdi.

It wasn't an easy programme, and though in some ways the songs in the first half seemed to be more of a warming up for the main course of arias, even these required strong technique and sterling lungs. Nelly Miricioiu and David Gowland started with Ravel's Cinque melodies Populaire Grecques. Her voice seemed to take some time to warm up, but the plangent tones and slight edginess in the timbre suited the material very well and she finely matched tone and mood of the words to the colours in her voice.

Next came three songs by Ernest Chausson, Le colibir, Les Papillons and Le temps des lilas. The first was notable for the long expressive lines, the second for the lightness and delicacy which both performers brought the song, and the final one for the way she started from a thread. Clearly using every inch of technique, these were performances which relied less on the beauty of the voice and much more on strength of character and mood. Next came four oddities, songs by the singer Pauline Viardot arranged from Chopin's piano pieces. There was a certain crazy delight in hearing a song based on a familiar Chopin mazurka, particularly as Pauline Viardot's vocal lines require all the trappings of a coloratura voice, with trills  and more.

For me, the highlight of the first half was the group of Romanian folk-songs arranged by the composer Tiberiu Brediceanu (1877-1968). Nelly Miricioiu and David Gowland performed three, Cine m-aude Cantand, Canta puiul cucului and Dragumi-i mindro de tine. Each different in style, all three had a deep sense of melancholy and a lovely feel of rhapsody, with a tonality which would be familiar to anyone who knows Bartok's Romanian dances. And listening to Nelly Miricioiu she sounded worlds away from an opera singer.

Finally Deita Silvane (Woodland Deities), a song cycle written in 1925 by Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936). These five songs each set long, wordy Italian poems which describes in rather flowery poetry some aspect of the old woodland gods. Throughout the piano parts were complex and evocative (the work was originally written for small orchestra), and David Gowland impressed with the way he evoked the shifting harmonies of the Debussy-inspired woods or the lyrical water flowing. But over these, the vocal line seemed to be rather verbose and wandering, rarely settling or matching the evocativeness of the piano. Ultimately the songs seemed hard work, but they clearly meant a lot to the performers and I felt that I had missed something.

We were on more familiar ground in the second half. Nelly Miricioiu and David Gowland started with Col sorrio d'innocenza Imogene's mad scene from the last act of Bellini's Il pirata. Both singer and voice seemed to relax more into this repertoire, despite the furious difficulty of the music. Whilst we have to admit that the basic instrument is no longer quite what it was, Nelly Miricioiu's technique is still in fine fettle and she showed that rare ability to combine colour and line, with power and intensity, varying from fearsome strength to amazing delicacy. This continued in Bel raggion lusinghier from Rossini's Semiramide in which it was quite remarkable how she produced the cascades of notes.

It has to be admitted that we could see the amount of work that was involved, particularly in the top notes, but in Puccini's Ore dolci e divine from La Rondine and Senza mama from Suor Angelica is was notable how Nelly Miricioiu was able to spin the long fine lines, and combine this with a sense of character. Finally Tu al cui sguardi from Verdi's I due Foscari, one of those arias which knits together Verdi with his great predecessor, Donizetti.

The audience was composed of many admirers and well wishers, as well as a number of Nelly's students (come not only to cheer her on, but to see if she practices what she preaches!). Of stage, Nelly has a strong, welcoming personality and it was lovely the way this came over during the recital, both in the way she performed and when she addressed the audience (such as persuading those at the back to move forward).

We were treated to two encores, Adriana's entrance aria from act one of Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur and Visi d'arte from Puccini's Tosca, a role that has become something of a signature for Nelly.

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