Monday 26 February 2024

Marking the centenary of Puccini's death, Opera Holland Park in his early Messa di Gloria

Opera Holland Park, the City of London Sinfonia, conductor John Andrews with soloists David Butt Philip and Ross Ramgobin (Photo: Opera Holland Park)
Chorus of Opera Holland Park, the City of London Sinfonia, conductor John Andrews with soloists David Butt Philip and Ross Ramgobin
(Photo: Opera Holland Park)

Puccini: songs & arias, Messa di Gloria; Eleanor Broomfield, Fflur Wyn, Philip Costovski, Joseph Buckmaster, José de Eça, David Butt Philip, Ross Ramgobin, Chorus of Opera Holland Park, City of London Sinfonia, John Andrews; Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street
Reviewed 22 February 2024

Opera Holland Park launches its Puccini celebration early with a fine account his early and intriguing mass setting, plus a chance to preview the tenor hero in the Summer production of Tosca

2024 sees 100 years since Puccini's death and Opera Holland Park are marking that by performing Tosca (in Stephen Barlow's iconic 2008 production) and Edgar (a great rarity on the operatic stage) this Summer. But on Thursday 22 February 2024 the company launched its Puccini commemoration early with a concert at Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street. The centrepiece was Puccini's Messa di Gloria performed by chorus of Opera Holland Park (chorus master Dominic Ellis-Peckham), the City of London Sinfonia (marking the 20th anniversary of its collaboration with the opera company) conducted by John Andrews with soloists David Butt Philip and Ross Ramgobin. In the first half there was a selection of Puccini's songs and operatic excerpts performed by sopranos Eleanor Broomfield and Fflur Wyn, and tenors Phillip Costovski, Joseph Buckmaster and José de Eça, accompanied by a quartet from the City of London Sinfonia.

The large venue with its resonant acoustic brought out the operatic element in Puccini's songs, and indeed several of the songs ended up in the operas. Though the reuse did not stop there because bits of the Messa di Gloria pop up too (Anna Picard's article in the programme gave us the delightful details).

First off, the string quartet gave a finely expressive and richly romantic account of Puccini's Crisantemi, his only piece of chamber music. Then Philip Costovski sang the early song Morire (which pops up in La Rondine in 1917). Fflur Wyn sang the highly dramatic scena, Mentia l'avviso (from 1882), which was re-worked for Manon and Eleanor Broomfield gave us the delightful little song, written in memory of a friend's son, E l'uccellino (1899). Fflur Wyn returned with Joseph Buckmaster for a finely intelligent account of 'O soave fanciulla' from La Boheme, then Portuguese tenor José de Eça sang 'E lucevan le stelle' from Tosca. José de Eça will be singing the role of Cavaradossi with Opera Holland Park in the Summer, his UK debut, and this performance certainly whetted the appetite. Originally a baritone, he has a lovely dark quality to the voice, but an enviable freedom at the top and a fine sense of when to sing quietly.

Puccini's Messa a quattro voci (now more commonly known as the Messa di Gloria) is an early work, something of a curiosity in the composer's output. He composed it as a graduation exercise for the Istituto Musicale Pacini in Lucca where he studied, and it had its first performance in Lucca in 1880 (when the composer was 22). 

Puccini came from a long line of church musicians, his great-great-grandfather  Giacomo (1712–1781) was maestro di cappella of the Cattedrale di San Martino in Lucca. He was succeeded in this position by his son, Antonio, and then by Antonio's son Domenico, and Domenico's son Michele (father of the opera composer). However Giacomo was only six when his father died, and his musical education was supervised by one of his uncles, whilst another provided funds so that when Giacomo graduated from the Istituto Musicale Pacini, he was able to study in Milan. Three years after the premiere of the mass, Puccini was writing his first opera, Le Villi, and sacred music was no longer on the agenda.

The mass is based around a Credo that Puccini had written in 1878. Both the Gloria and Credo are substantial movements, the first some 20 minutes the second some 15 or so, with the remainder of movements being quite short.

The mass uses tenor and baritone soloists (David Butt Philip and Ross Ramgobin) and the young composer's dichotomy can be seen in his treatment of the solos. Whilst a lot of the writing is bulk standard academic (there is even a fugue), when he arrives at a solo, Puccini dwells. Thus the tenor's 'Gratias agimus tibi' in the Gloria, rather holds things up, concentrating somewhat oddly on a single section of text. In the Credo, the tenor and baritone solos dwell on the 'Et incarnatus' and 'Crucifixus' which makes more liturgical sense.

For all the work's academic posturing, Puccini's melodic skills are apparent and the result is enjoyable, if a tad bland at times, as if the need to write something correct rather inhibited him. Transitions can be oddities, the journeyman composer had not quite yet learned the art of the seamless musical transitions. The Agnus Dei, featuring a duet for both soloists, was quietly beautiful moment, yet it ended abruptly, as if the young composer wanted to end things with a rollicking finale and realised he couldn't. 

You can just about imagine Verdi's highly operatic Requiem in a liturgical setting (though it would be a hell of a long service), but Puccini's mass (which came six years later) seems designed for the concert hall. Some sections were of musical, or melodic interest, yet the musical material felt somewhat at odds from the meaning of the text; it felt like a mass for those for whom the religious aspect did not matter.

David Butt Philip, Ross Ramgobin, the chorus of Opera Holland Park, the City of London Sinfonia, and conductor John Andrews gave the work and admirable send off. The choristers were on particularly good form, and their operatic experience meant that we had a full blooded sound when we needed it. John Andrews kept the piece going at quite a zip, whilst letting the melodies breathe and I was particularly taken with one of the choral fugues where the bouncy tempo rather reminded me of the fugues in Rossini's Petite Messe Solonelle!

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