From Russia to Italy: A gala triumph of perfection

The evening of October 18 saw a celebration of the best of Russian and Italian music at the Royal Opera House Muscat. It featured the superb European Union Youth Orchestra, whose members come through a rigorous audition process conducted in all EU member states, ensuring the orchestra garners the best of Europe’s young talent. Many of the alumni are now notable conductors, soloists, teachers and instrumentalists in some of the world’s best orchestras. It was a joy and privilege then to appreciate the brilliant orchestral performances which made up the evening’s programme.
The first half was from Russia with love, opening with Glinka’s fiery, ‘Ruslan and Lyudmila Overture’ with a perfect, rousing attack. The celebrated young Russian conductor, Vasily Petrenko, took it at quite a fast tempo while maintaining meticulous attention to detail without fazing the energetic players whose sheer youthful exuberance pervaded the whole concert. Exceptional were the broad sweeps of strings, never faltering, and astounding full tuttis in the climax.
To bring numbers up to a staggering 111 members, more double-bass players filed on stage, bringing the total to twelve for Rachmaninov’s lush, sumptuous orchestral, ‘Vocalise’. Beloved in the repertoire, it featured precise articulation from a strong ‘cello section with a clear and poignant bassoon line from Álvaro Canales Albert, and Ana Gavilán Quero on Cor Anglais.
The young musicians on the stage fairly danced to the rhythmic opening to the ‘Polonaise’ from ‘Eugene Onegin’, showing Tchaikovsky’s iconic use of the brass to full effect. The nuances of his colourful orchestration and pronounced dynamic contrasts were well brought out by conductor and musicians. There was a subtle balance between string sections from the animated young performers, each one a potential soloist.
Hot from the Met in New York, the night’s vocal soloist appeared in cool blue, the Latvian soprano, Kristine Opolais, to perform Tatiana’s challenging ‘Letter Scene’ from the same Opera. It is extraordinarily difficult to perform an aria out of context, cold as it were, in a gala concert, and still carry the audience to the depths of emotional anguish. However, singing in the original Russian Ms Opolais presented a dramatic presence, living the passion of the role in a bewitching performance of unrequited, romantic despair. It was an extended scene, with Kristine Opolais sustaining her theatrical persona throughout. Tchaikovsky’s beautiful orchestration, especially the fine horn solo from Damien Muller, was powerful behind her as she filled the auditorium with the warmth and richness of her considerable vocal timbre.
The reception from an adoring public was just as warm as they took a long interval, reconvening for an Italian melodrama. ‘L’altra notte in fondo al Mare’ from Arrigo Boito’s ‘Mefistofele’ is a dark, brooding piece in a distinctly 20th century language. It featured some evocative clarinet solos from Alberto Sánchez García before Ms Opolais, now in designer black, reappeared to share her palpable alto tessitura with a mesmerised audience. The song is not well known, but she was able to explore an agility in her upper register with wide dynamic contrasts, ending with a strong, high ornamented climax.
Puccini’s ‘Preludio Sinfonico’ brought a lyrical, serene romantic language to the programme, employing two harps, full of tender pathos. All the freshness of youth, unjaded by routine, inspired this interpretation as it grew to a magnificent full brass tutti and faded back to the tender opening mood, gliding effortlessly to its sublime conclusion.
Tosca’s ‘Vissi d’arte’ was immediately familiar, bringing the soloist back on stage for her poised, measured entrance with little orchestral support. Opinion was mixed as to Kristine Opolais’ suitability for Puccini, and her apparent cold delivery was pitted against her achingly beautiful warm, rich tone quality in this operatic classic. Without doubt however, was her fine technique, perfect intonation and wide range of expression, all wrapped in classically blonde, stunning good looks.
The ‘Intermezzo’ from Mascagni’s, ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ is ever popular. Tonight it was performed by the strings with great sensitivity and unflinching understatement, oozing with spine-tingling pathos, like a long sigh, yet with excellent clarity of articulation and intonation.
In ‘Un Bel dì Vedremo’ from Puccini’s ‘Madama Butterfly’, Ms Opolais inhabited the role with a motionless opening, full of mystery. It is an iconic soprano operatic solo, so well known it is hard to achieve empathy in concert format. At one with the orchestra during unison passages, the aria built up to an ecstatic end. Applause and ovations for more brought Kristine Opolais back on stage to perform the anticipated, ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ in an expansive, forthcoming interpretation with no holding back and without exaggerated emotion or coquettishness. Ms Opolais left the stage for the last time, leaving the EUYO to have the last word, as it were, in an absolutely riotous performance of Khachaturian’s fierce and furious, ‘Lezghinka’. As Maestro Petrenko left the stage and reappeared in the percussion section brandishing a tambourine, this lively, jubilant encore provided a fitting finale to what was after all, a youthful triumph of orchestral perfection.

STORY BY GEORGINA BENISON
PHOTOS BY KHALID AL BUSAIDI