Best if I get my carping out of the way first. As I'm sure everybody knows, this concert was originally meant to be Rolando Villazón accompanied by Tony Pappano on piano. When Rolando had to withdraw for health reasons, I felt disappointed; Dmitri Hvorostovsky being announced as replacement largely mitigated my disappointment.
But on Monday, a further announcement: Dima was withdrawing, due to a throat infection, or an injury, or a publicised alimony case, or something.
Of course I accept that such things happen; of course I know that the ROH was offering full refunds, no questions asked. I declined that refund (although, being in a box with friends complicates the matter!). Of course I know that to pull together a programme at two to five day's notice takes some doing. So my moans are very much a case of grumbling, rather than 'I've been wronged and demand redress.' No blame, just a honest account of my feelings.
I can't say I was bowled over by the presence of three singers, none of whom float my boat. Each of the three is widely praised, so this is very much a 'taste' thing, not some silly notion of confusing my personal preferences with objective assessment of ability. And, in fairness, none of them are singers that have ever driven me to cover my ears in aural pain. But I have chosen not to attend the operas they are in this summer, which perhaps says what has to be said
Beforehand in the pub, a group of us had a sweepstake going on what would be in the concert. My guesses were so wide of the mark as to be embarrassing. In the hiatus between announcements of Rolando's hiatus and Dmitri's replacement, someone had suggested Ian Bostridge, on account of a Lieder recital she had heard him give with Tony, at Edinburgh I think. I was firm, I don't go to an opera house to hear Lieder.
The programme wasn't available until we arrived in the house, and my heart sank. It was almost as if the only item I knew was 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow'. And I certainly don't go to the opera house to hear pop songs.
Another quibble was that as far as I could see the performers were not centre stage. I suppose it's customary for the piano to be to the side; singers often cling to the area round the piano. But for a house notorious for its poor sight-lines from the side, I think a more central position would have been better.
As for the performers. I am a bit naughty saying the Three Stand-Ins because it was billed as Antonio Pappano and Friends, the friends being singers Joyce Di Donato, Joseph Calleja and Thomas Hampson, and Vasco Vassiliev, violin.
I can't really criticise their performances, well, I feel it would be nit-picky to do so. I did not like Joyce's programme one bit. Various Rossini arias I didn't know (I don't like Rossini) and, as well as 'Rainbow', some Jerome Kern, also not my bag. I thought she should have left the jazz-style stuff well alone, although Tony demonstrated he has great Jazz hands. But she didn't seem to realise that you have some swing, some syncopation, to sound like you do jazz.
I thought Joseph Calleja was clearly second rate. I won't dispute that his basic voice contains a beauty that, on the whole, he uses well. But he simply didn't do anything for me. I soon bored of his O souverain O juge O pere; he didn't seem to want to convey a story to me. He had started with some songs that interested me not, and his final solo piece was 'Because', which, I think, takes considerable balls to perform without any sense of irony. And I was not the only one who noticed that he seems to have had a hair-transplant or be wearing a wig, or something. And on the style front: black suit, black shirt. Should have ditched the white or silver tie and worn the shirt open at the neck.
I suppose if I came away with a positive, it was Thomas Hampson. Not that he actually sang anything from opera, which was remiss in an opera house (but see above). He sang a Mahler song cycle, which was all well and good, but in the absence of surtitles or printed words, and without any prior warning, those of us who didn't previously know the cycle were left guessing as to what it was about. It sounded impressive and I got the distinct impression he was telling a story. I also liked the two songs he sang from his upcoming American song CD.
I know a lot of people have tended to be understanding and forgiving to the ROH in what were trying circumstances. And I stress once again that they offered a full refund at every stage of this saga.
But I did think - suppose I had paid £80 for a stalls seat, and ended up with a recital I wouldn't have paid £30 for at the Barbican. Because of the circumstances, it would have been far better to cancel than to present a ragbag of unconnected works without anything that resembled a structured programme, and, with the exception of a rather fine Pearlfishers' Duet from Hampson and Calleja at the end, nothing that actually involved the various non-Pappano participants singing together.
And of course, I am very grateful for the artists who agreed to perform at such short notice, although I assume they also got an appearance fee none of them would have budgeted for.
Despite what you may think from this review, I did enjoy the show, although I am sure that is largely due to the convivial company, and the several glasses of wine rather than to the substance of the concert.