Tuesday 15 February 2022

Snapshots of a Romance: Elizabeth Llewellyn and Simon Lepper in opera and song at Classical Vauxhall

Elizabeth Llewellyn at Classical Vauxhall (Photo Frances Marshall)
Elizabeth Llewellyn at Classical Vauxhall (Photo Frances Marshall)

Snapshots of a Romance
- Verdi, Chausson, Hahn, Britten, Puccini, Strauss; Elizabeth Llewellyn, Simon Lepper; Classical Vauxhall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 February 2022 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Classical Vauxhall comes to a close with Elizabeth Llewellyn in romantic form in an engaging programme spanning song and opera

Having presented a weekend of concerts including a diverse range of chamber music and even a late-night drag recital this year's Classical Vauxhall, artistic director Fiachra Garvey, finished on Sunday 13 February 2022 with a song recital from soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn and pianist Simon Lepper at St Mark's Church, Kennington. Snapshots of a Romance featured songs by Hahn, Chausson, Puccini and Richard Strauss plus opera arias by Verdi and Britten. All of the music touched on love and romance, from the Desdemona's doom-laden solo from the final act of Verdi's Otello which began the recital to the sheer joy of Luisa Miller's entrance aria from Verdi's Luisa Miller.

We began with Desdemona, the Willow Song and Ave Maria from Verdi's Otello, presented as a single scene (rather than two items), so we could appreciate the vivid sense of the drama that Llewellyn created. Her voice full of dark colours and a vibrant, focused line, she moved from dark melancholy to the intensely thrilling to a concentrated almost rapt 'Ave Maria'.

Llewellyn and Lepper followed this with a group of French songs, two by Chausson and two by Hahn. First Chausson's Le Papillon and Le Colibri sung with rich warm tone and a lovely sense of the language, the two performers making each song a small drama, moving from the highly emotional the warmly tender. Then Hahn's Le Rossignol des Lilas and Les Cygnes, the first unfolded in a way that really captured the fragrant atmosphere, whilst the second had Llewellyn's vocal line floating elegantly over Lepper's piano. 

The first half finished with Ellen Orford's Embroidery Aria from Britten's Peter Grimes. I don't know whether Llewellyn has sung the role on stage, but at this showing the music really suited her voice with its rich lower register. There was a great sense of line, making the music powerful and focussed yet you do not always hear it sung by such a rich voice and the attention to detail made one positively tingle.

After the interval there was a group of songs by Puccini, at least four of which had melodies that would find there way into the operas (La Rondine and La Boheme). Perhaps not a great song writer, but Puccini had a knack of managing to distil a mood into a short, concentrated burst. Llewellyn sang Morire? with a lovely sun-filled line, making a thrilling moment of the song. Sole e Amore was delightful with its pre-echoes of La Boheme making you think of Llewellyn's Mimi. Terra e Mare was fast and vivid, whilst E l'uccellino was perkily delightful. Sogno D'or, with its pre-echoes of one of the big tunes in La Rondine was sung with a lovely warm unfolding line.

Then came a group of three Richard Strauss songs, probably roughly contemporary with the Puccini ones but such a very different world. Einerlei was sung with a vibrant line and a real sense of presence, plus a great feeling of flexibility. There was a lovely warm tone to the voice with gleaming moments at the top. Allerseelen was highly concentrated, with a sense of character. Overall the performance was intimately communicative with the voice opening out gloriously at climaxes. Then to complete the group, Stanchen, light and characterful, all joy and charm.

We returned to Verdi for the final item, Luisa Miller's 'Lo Vidi, e'l Primo Palpito' from Verdi's Luisa Miller, a joy filled outburst that shows Verdi rather channelling Donizetti. The performance was completely delightful, and I really enjoyed the way Llewellyn was able to move the voice so flexibly, making the music dance. Her and Simon Lepper's sense of enjoyment was palpable.

Throughout, Lepper accompanied and partnered with consummate craftsmanship, from the lush elegance of the French song to bringing colour and sense to the orchestral reductions for the operatic arias. The audience was enthusiastic and we were treated to an encore, Coleridge Taylor's Life & Death from Llewellyn and Lepper's recent disc of the composer's songs [see my review]

Simon Lepper and Elizabeth Llewellyn at Classical Vauxhall (Photo Frances Marshall)
Simon Lepper and Elizabeth Llewellyn at Classical Vauxhall (Photo Frances Marshall)

St Mark's is an early 19th century church, but with a post-War interior following bomb damage. It was warm (in all senses of the word) and welcoming, making a fine home for the festival weekend and there was even a pop-up bar. The audience seemed to be drawn both from the local area and from visitors come for the specific musical experience, and I gather that there were a number of people who attended all or most of the concerts. Though the festival has finished, there is a still a chance to support it via its Go Fund Me page, with the money going towards the festival's important education programme.

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