Sunday, 25 January 2009


24/1/09, Wigmore Hall.

1 hr 45 mins. Recital of songs and lieder, mainly duets, for soprano (Royal) and mezzo-soprano (Christine Rice).

Kate Royal looked like the school glamour-puss who'd brought her rather plain and dumpy friend along too, to show herself off to best advantage -- with the headmaster for company.

Ms Royal is certainly striking. Tall, posh face, slender, almost gawky if you're being unkind ("swanlike", according to the more charitable S) in a black sheath which left one of her wide swimmer's shoulders bare. There was loads of expression in the voice and face but she's a bit stiff, not a natural actress: the head girl descending from her eminence to grace the school play with a guest character appearance.

Christine Rice tries less hard but is more convincing as an actress, less impressive as a dresser: a claret off the shoulder gown with curious black Spanish lace (or so it looked) around the shoulders. She sure can sing, though.

Tinkling the ivories was the headmasterly Roger Vignoles: black jacket, grey shirt, black tie (conventional, not bow), grey hair, spectacles.

Had to work and got there late. Missed the first piece, Purcell's Sound the Trumpet, one of my favourites, which I've only ever heard a) on record or the radio and b) sung by counter-tenors, and was much looking forward to. D said it was very good.

Arrived during a set of songs by Mendelssohn, clearly audible through the double doors in the Wigmore foyer. Went in during the applause for a set of five by Brahms: a revelation. I've always thought lieder a rather bloodless form, but then I've never heard it in the flesh. A recalibration is required. It's surprisingly powerful stuff, even when you've no idea what they're singing about. It was clear one song was the comic number (Die Schwestern, it turned out, about two lovely and somewhat coquettish sisters whose relationship sours once it emerge that they love the same man); two (Love's Way 1 and 2, to words by Johann Gottfried Herder) came with the most lovely melodies. And the last was a splendidly melodramatic mother-daughter dialogue on Walpurgisnacht ("Dear mother, there's thunder over the Brocken." "Dear child, there are witches up there..." and Mum, it turns out, is one of them).

The second half had two songs by Gounod (associated with "sentimental religiosity" according to the programme note, but it was tuneful sentiment), two by Ernst Chausson, less obviously appealing, and four by Rossini -- two solos, two duets including another comic number called The Venetian Regatta which also provoked much mugging from the girls. Less than 24 hours on and I can remember nothing of the music, except that it was pleasing ("The English know nothing of music: they just like the noise it makes," as my father claims Beecham once said).

So we should go more to the Wigmore Hall, which is evidently an ideal size to appreciate this kind of stuff and is architecturally more exotic than I remember it from our one previous visit many years ago. The lobby has those wide, shallow arches much liked by English architects of the arts and crafts school. The performers sing on a stage in an apse at the end with an elaborate mosaic or fresco above it. S said it reminded her of an Edwardian loo: she felt the entrance and exit doors on either side should have "ladies" and "gents" above them.

It was a full house. We weren't quite the youngest there but it felt like it. They gave us two encores: a Brahms and a Schubert, both rather contemplative for encores; we could have done with something a little more upbeat.

The programme says Rice and Royal have been singing together occasionally since 2004, when they were Rhinemaidens in a concert performance of Rhinegold at the Proms, which we went to. But it wasn't until we saw Kate Royal at the Opera Garnier in Paris in a performance of Handel's L'Allegro, Il Penseroso and Il Moderato that she made any impression. She was brilliant, beautiful, poised: the best thing about an otherwise ghastly, lamentable staging by a South African "choreographer" who took great delight in deconstructing the whole thing.

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