Family Concert: A perfect weekend symphonic diversion

926294On Saturday afternoon the Royal Opera House, Muscat, together with the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, presented a matinee concert of just 75 minutes. It was reminiscent of Sunday afternoon concerts in Europe where, after lunch and before tea, music lovers saunter along to their local concert hall for a symphonic diversion to end a relaxed weekend.
The Italian music theatre company from Florence was in town for two performances of Rossini’s comic opera, “L’Italiana in Algeri” — and extremely funny it is too — but this was an opportunity to witness their fine orchestra performing on the stage of the auditorium, along with the gentlemen of the chorus.
It was an absolute pleasure to hear the full complement of this superb orchestra, founded in 1928 and under the musical directorship of world-renowned conductors ever since such as Riccardo Muti (1969-81), and Zubin Mehta since 1985.
On Saturday, the orchestra and male chorus presented a very special concert to the young audience in attendance: extracts from Rossini’s much loved 1816 comic opera buffa, ‘The Barber of Seville’, were performed in Concertante style in a shortened version by the young singers of the ‘Accademia dell ‘Opera di Firenze’ conducted by the eminent Rossini conductor, Sebastiano Rolli. It is to the credit of these internationally recruited students drawn from around the world, that this matinee was so hugely successful and enjoyable.
The concert opened with the Overture to the ‘Barber’ and here the woodwind section and French horns deserve especial mention. The orchestra is exquisite in its interpretation of the repertoire, and Muscat is the lucky beneficiary of these top-class musicians.
I heard youngsters around me mutter “Where are the singers?” but they did not have to wait long until the first of these budding opera stars tripped on from stage left, in concert attire and not in costume, but in every way in character. The cavatina, “Ecco ridente in cielo” was sung expressively by the thirty-three-year-old Congolese tenor, Patrick Kabongo, as the Count Almaviva, from the beginning of Act 1.
He was quickly pursued by the Chinese-born baritone, Qianming Dou, in the famous aria sung by Figaro, “Largo al factotum” and here the singer’s grasp of Italian in one of Rossini’s fast-moving patter songs was as impressive as the fine warmth of his vocal timbre.
“All ‘idea di quel metallo” or “at the idea of that metal” was amusingly sung by Qianming as Figaro while massaging Bartolo’s shoulders, persuading him to disguise himself as a drunken soldier, the expressions and contortions of Benjamin Cho’s face — a Korean singer of exceptional acting abilities — began to intrigue and impress the audience. The mood was lightening and some dramatic developments were about to unfold.
Sweeping in to interrupt the dialogue came the 26-year-old Brazilian mezzo-soprano, Ana Victoria Pitts as Rosina, dressed in a delicious red ball-gown with a red rose pinned on her left shoulder. She sang the immediately familiar “Una Voce Poco Fa” so beautifully and seductively that we were quickly moved by her impassioned plea.
An unhappy nuptial scene provided the other Korean artist in the troupe, bass-singer Chanyoung Lee as the ill-fated Don Basilio, an opportunity to demonstrate the range of his voice as well as humour in his dramatic skills by singing “La Calunnia e un venticello”. The speed of his patterings put Gilbert and Sullivan to shame, an amazing feat for someone for whom Italian is a foreign language.
Finally, Benjamin Cho, the 28-year-old baritone from Seoul as Dr Bartolo, had a chance to flirt and surprise Rosina in “Dunque io Son… tu non mi inganni” which is less of a duet than a battle of wits between the two head-strong characters.
This was followed by his Aria from Act 2, “A un Dottor della mia Sorte” where his character becomes even more outrageously caricatured as the over-confident doctor who ties himself up in this fiendish tongue-twister.
The first part ended with seven voices in the Finale of Act 1 — which echoed the bombastic Septet at the end of the first Act of “L’Italiana in Algeri” — which called on the youngest singer of the group, 20-year-old Italian soprano Francesca Longari, as Berta. I am only sorry she did not have a chance to sing on her own as her voice is exceptional and shows great potential for future roles.
Unfortunately, Longari was not part of the Quintet which opened Act 2, but the ensemble became funnier, turning to burlesque at times, in the ‘Don Basilio Quintet’ in which Rosina’s music tutor alerts Bartolo that Count Almaviva has been seen in town. It features that perennial chestnut “Buona Sera, mio Signore” and this time I allowed myself to laugh — out loud!
The second Finale was short, and there was no encore, but that was fine. The performance was a perfect length, the singers exceptional and the sun was just setting on a perfect evening.