The Edinburgh International Festival has certainly got off with a bang. On Friday, international opera star Cecilia Bartoli opened in Norma at the Festival Theatre. Tonight, a great opening concert with a distinct operatic theme.
Tony Pappano, the music director at the Royal Opera in Covent Garden, brings his other band from Rome, Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale Di Santa Cecilia, with four operatic soloists, and together with the 200 strong Edinburgh Festival Chorus they perform Rossini’s Stabat Mater magnificently. Under the previous Festival Director, we had got used to obscure or difficult works which fitted his theme. Here, the Festival was returning to its glory days, such as 1982 when it opened with the Verdi Requiem sung by Jessye Norman, Margaret Price, Jose Carerras and Rugerrio Raimondi, still named by some critics as the greatest live recording of the Verdi Requiem ever. Tonight, the concert is a step back towards that league.
The opening half of the concert is purely orchestral and celebrates the link between opera and Shakespeare, with three overtures of Shakespeare-based operas. We began with Rossini’s overture to his Otello, which was later overwhelmed by Verdi’s Otello, followed by the overture to Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, his take on Romeo and Juliet. To be truthful, it’s not very good, but Bellini never wrote a bad tune and this overture is certainly melodic.
Finally we get a good chunk of orchestral music from Verdi’s Macbeth. They are all wonderfully played by Tony’s Roman orchestra, which with eight double basses and 80 plus musicians, must have cost a small fortune to bring them to Edinburgh.
However, the main event is the Rossini Stabet Mater. Like the Verdi Requiem, this is more like an opera than a Requiem. It begins with some masterly singing from the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, who are superb throughout in their timing, their harmony and their power when required. They are undoubtedly one of the finest amateur choruses in Britain. They are wonderfully directed by Christopher Bell who certainly steals the show for the best jacket and shoes of the night! The Festival Chorus are all amateurs, but are highly experienced. Indeed, some of them sung in that famous Verdi Requiem 34 years ago. They respond beautifully to Tony Pappona’s masterly conducting, as do the orchestra who have recorded it with him recently.
The four soloists cannot compare with the great line-up in the recording, but are very good. The soprano Carmen Giannattasio has a powerful, melodic voice which has no trouble soaring over the chorus or her fellow soloists. The mezzo Marianna Pizzolato is a noted Rossini singer and has beautiful tone and colour in the voice.
The men, on the other hand, are not quite in the same league. The young Chinese tenor Yyjie Shi has a very clear and powerful voice but lacks an Italianate tone. My father, a tough opera critic, always said good tenors required to be brought up on pasta and olive oil; you don’t get that in China! The bass Roberto Tagliavini from Parma certainly has the Italianate tone but seems to lack a little power and depth. However, these are minor criticisms of what is a superb performance overall, expertly controlled by Tony Pappano from the rostrum.
The Festival may still be thin in terms of opera performances – only three full operas and one a concert performance. However, there are many other operatic items within the music programme. The opening concert does what opening concerts should do: uplift you and make you look forward to what promises to be the finest musical Festival since the days of Brian Macmaster.