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Monday 28 May 2012

Nelly Miricioiu sings Maria Padilla with Chelsea Opera Group

Queen Elizabeth Hall

This concert performance of Maria Padilla seemed to be a 60th birthday tribute to Nelly Miricioiu and conductor Brad Cohen gave her a rapturous introduction. She has sung with all the great tenors of the last 30 ish years and used to appear at all the big opera houses, but somehow she's never quite considered to be "up there". She certainly had the technique and intensity, but it was never the most beautiful voice, with a particularly strident and unblended top. Both in looks and sound one is more than occasionally reminded of Callas, though obviously its unfair to really compare any one with Callas.

Seeing singers after their international career is rarely fulfilling - you wait for a phrase, a gesture, a note that sounds like the artist you love, and you might get 3 or 4 in an evening. But it's not healthy. At 60, Miricioiu is holding up well for her age - she can still basically sing the notes, and is mercifully still in tune, though the signs of age in the voice are obvious: there's no longer a chest register, the volume is much reduced, the sound is pinched, top notes are uneven and screeched, she can't support the coloratura which is also far more approximate than it used to be. On the other hand, she can still sing a lovely pianissimo, and you still feel what it was that was special - the lovely timbral shifts, the legato, the expressive phrasing, all now appearing as in an Xray, the flesh and padding removed, but still the impression is felt. The huge ovations she received must surely have been because of people love her and her legacy, and also that she has the balls to do this role at 60. There was a moment where she lost her place in the score which she was reading right in front of her, and the performance had to stop for her. "that's 60" she said with a shrug and a laugh and the performance continued. This whole evening was a ridiculously camp affair - not just the repertoire or her silver dress with its glitter bodice, and her glitzy jewellery and gold nail polish - she also bowed between numbers, came out of character, hugged her colleagues, and generally acted like a diva. Rather endearing really, but a bit ridiculous.

The actual piece is hardly a forgotten masterpiece - classic noodling Donizetti, no feel for the larger canvas, occasional moments of beauty, but basically rather bland, unimaginatively scored, rather unemotional and 95% made of clichées. There are exceptions - Maria's early solo scena with Harp which is sometimes excerpted in concert and is notable for its cool chromatic shifts, and rather lovely melody. Still not the equal of Bellini or Rossini at their best though. The beginning of act III is also quite nice and contains a gorgeous little harmonic sequence, but with everything else so indifferent harmony wise, one wonders whether this is just accidentally lovely! The plot is predictably thin, slow moving and unconvincing. 

The casting was strange. Generally the older a character was meant to be, the younger the person was that was singing the role and vice versa. Nelly's father must have been a good three decades younger than her! Marianne Cornetti took on the only other major female role. She's decent and it's a big voice, though she sounds like she's singing in slow motion - the vibrato is slow, the coloratura is slow, you can hear the mechanisms shift to reach some top notes. Emma Carrington in the tiny role of Francisca had some lovely moments and it is a much bigger voice than I previously supposed. Funny, she seemed physically much bigger too than when I saw her as Jezibaba at Grange Park opera...

Marco Panuccio was the father, Don Ruiz , in this opera a tenor(!) It seemed like he was pushing quite a lot, though he was also doing quite a lot of fairly pretty croony falsettoing, unfortunately including one disastrous high note (D? Eb?). Richard Morrison as Don Pedro displayed good technique, and extremely impressive breath control, but the basic timbre of the voice is rather monotonous and not all that attractive. The smaller roles were all well taken by young singers: Paul Curievici (Don Luigi), Daniel Grice (Don Ramiro) and Piotr Lempa (Don Alfonso).


  1. I'm afraid what's unimaginative turned out to be your review Capriccio, not the score of Maria Padilla.

    Maria Padilla is one of Donizetti's "richest and most original scores" according to William Ashbrook, I'm sorry you were unable/unwilling to capture its beauty and exuberance. The score offers a panoramic view of 14th century Castile like no other opera does. It influenced Verdi greatly, we can hear the vocal coloring of Lady Macbeth in Maria. I suggest you study the libretto, the music Donizetti wrote for it and give it another listen, but sober this time :)

  2. I don't doubt for second that it is one of his "richest and most original scores", and I mentioned that there are some very notable moments, but that sentence is a double edged sword...

    And influence, while fascinating, does not mark out quality - think of Osud by Janacek, that quirky masterpiece, and what influenced it! I have to say that I also struggle with Macbeth as an opera, and really don't rate it musically alongside say Don Carlo, Falstaff or Simon Boccanegra.

    This is all fine though and thanks for the comment - nice to see passionate conviction behind all musics - and it's good that we don't all agree. I love Rossini for instance, but I just find too much of Donizetti sounds churned out and by rote. If you'd like to suggest a performance of Maria Padilla that you think will knock my socks off and change my mind on it I'd very much welcome any suugestions!