I love Rossini. He's the Renée Fleming of bel canto composers — whatever the piece, whatever the occasion, he just always sounds so much like himself. Even when his immediately recognisable style mightn't perhaps be the most appropriate, he does it anyway — and if you're a fan, you love him for it. His Stabat Mater, performed last night by the Sydney Symphony and imported soloists, is not what you'd call a contemplative lament. When the soprano starts up her jaunty solo you'd hardly think it had anything whatsoever to do with pious reflection, or with a mother witnessing her son's crucifixion. But like Renée, when he's sincere about it, Rossini turns his potentially ill suited approach into a perfect fit. There's obvious solemnity and spirituality underpinning the piece and the operatic treatment manages to celebrate that rather than totally obscur or undermine it.
Leading last night's concert was the Symphony's chief conductor and artistic director Gianluigi Gelmetti. Gelmetti attracts a bit of criticism for various reasons, one of which is his allegedly narrow repertoire. I suspect there's some justification for that criticism but I doubt anyone would deny that, however limited his musical scope, Rossini is well and truly within it. The playing he drew from the Sydney Symphony was everything Rossini ought to be, vivid and bright, with just the right hint of religious gravity thrown in where necessary. The Sydney Philharmonia choirs did an excellent job, with a particularly wonderful ability to achieve radiant pianissimi en masse.
The four soloists were a varied bunch. Breathtakingest among them was the magnificent Daniela Barcellona, a totally ideal Rossini mezzo, her gorgeously pliable voice resplendent with luxuriant contralto colours. In the operatic excerpts which preceded the Stabat Mater, she dominated the Semiramide scena and duet and thus it broke my heart that she wasn't allowed a solo aria as well — her "Bel raggio lusinghier" would surely be one to treasure, had we been given the chance. In the Stabat Mater itself she was captivating. Similarly excellent was the astonishing velvety voice of bass Roberto Scandiuzzi, whose solo in the Stabat Mater was among its most scintillating moments. Soprano Ana Rita Taliento, on the other hand, seemed underpowered and perhaps also under the weather. Her singing was appealingly pretty when it was audible, but was too easily swallowed up by the orchestra and occasionally marred by excessive vibrato. I remain ambivalent about the evening's tenor, Vittorio Grigolo — lately receiving a bit of press chez OperaChic. Despite his questionable (and cheesy) crossover career, he definitely does have a real voice. However he also seems just a bit too aware of this and of his effect on a certain sector of his audience, playing up in a way which to me seemed more calculated than charming. His "Se il nome saper voi bramate" was quite devastatingly beautiful but as the evening continued I grew tired of his determination to milk every note for maximum swoon value, and likewise of his tense and melodramatic vocal expression which made for choppy phrasing and numerous sharp intakes of breath. His inability to sit still while others were singing — flipping the pages of his score, mopping his brow, fidgeting with his jacket — didn't exactly win me over either. An opera director could probably harness all this slightly manic energy quite effectively but in a concert setting his demeanour seemed to me out of place.
And having just devoted far too many lines to an unsatisfactory tenor, let me right the balance a bit by expressing once again my admiration of beautiful Daniela. I love my adopted opera company but so far there are very few singers in this country (and none of them mezzos) who I've heard come near to the inspired musicality — not to mention vocal glory — which Daniela achieved with such apparent ease. This apparently isn't her first Sydney visit so I can only hope she'll return.
Tenor posturing notwithstanding, the big applause went — and rightly so — to mezzo, bass and above all, maestro. Audiences, so I'm told, have a tendency to adore Gelmetti and they certainly did last night. I can't claim to have been quite so enthusiastic. Though I'd be hard pressed to find anything specifically musical to quibble about, the whole presentation of the thing seemed at times somehow makeshift and lacking in cohesion. The soloists sang passionately on their own but didn't always appear hugely engaged with one another or with the chorus, nor entirely comfortable on the concert hall stage. Still it was an enjoyable evening. Maybe not desperately brilliant but well executed all the same. Enough so that Rossini's adorability shone nice and brightly — and that's always a joy.