Review of BBC Proms – ‘Il Tabarro’: “Genie and genius”

As the UK’s most important summer music festival approaches its lasts weeks, we travel back across its programming to remember one of its most remarkable highlights. Guillermo Názara reviews the Hallé Orchestra’s performance of Puccini’s one-act opera Il Tabarro, a work about doomed romance and passion, whose heavenly music is however a depiction of hell.

Seasons come and season go… So does everything in life. Many things are meant to go – just a few manage to stay. Are the latter the ones that only count? Well, that’s difficult to say. For sometimes the shortest moments are the ones we treasure the fondliest in our hearts. But when that happens, then they can never be really gone, can they? Maybe Puccini took that into account when composing Il Tabarro, a one-act opera where the passionate yearning for a more fulfilling existence confronts an insatiable crave for vengeance. Roughly one hour is necessary to enthrall you, move you and even destroy you – as injustice is gracefully served in a silver tray of musical lavishness.

Lush romance blooms within the daunting gloom of the Paris docks, in a time where work is as scarce as the feelings that Giorgetta (the wife of the stevedores’ boss) keeps for her husband. Her only escape from reality is her secret affair with one of his spouse’s workers, but those rare flashes of joy would only lead to a uncontrollable stream of misfortune. A master at playing with people’s reactions, turning his audience into one more character whose emotions he could script and direct with staggering accuracy, Puccini entrances all sides of your psyche through his personal (almost patented) style of ornate melodies and flamboyant orchestrations – mischievously emulating beauty while, at the same time, hiding a latent subtext of raw ardor.

Annunziata Vestri (c) Chris Christodoulou/BBC

Despite none of its themes rising up to the top 10 charts (something suprising in a man whose music is remembered even by those who think that the word ‘opera’ is just the name of an Internet browser), the score is not any less efficient, exuding remarkable narrative skills as well as the usual intoxicating power only Puccini can hold over a viewer’s sentiments. Delight, charm, excitement and magnetism. Similar terms to describe concepts only differeten for somebody harboring the deepest of souls – maybe so exceptional that, as generations take over, it can only travel from one to another to keep the flame of art alive.

And maybe again, that’s exactly what has happened during this year’s proms, as the exceptional conducting of Sir Mark Elder proves his profound understanding (both instictive and wise) of the inner complexity of every piece he performs. Many paragraphs could be written to detail the exquisiteness of his interpretation – where every phrase and every layer are carefully honed into a perfect balance of musical fantasy and make believe realism, not only creating a tangible dream, but also endowing it with the wings to soar. The Hallé Orchestra has not only demonstrated its unquestionable value, but set an exemplary precedent for anyone intending to make the same attempt. Not, of course, in a menancing way, but in the form that the theatre always shines at – by inspiring.

Sir Mark Elder (c) Chris Christodoulou/BBC

However, Puccini would have never made a trademark of his name hadn’t it been for his gifted generosity to the human voice. A double-edged present, nonetheless, as his bel canto scribbles are as beautiful as it is demanding – with its difficulty going far beyond the musical perspective. Though on this occasion, all of the singers have demonstrated quite a competent level, the actual stardom belongs to one of the supporting performers, as Annunziata Vestri, in the role of the comedic rag-picker La Frugola, stands out especially thanks to her uproarious humour and infectous stamina onstage. On it side, Adam Smith and Natalya Romaniw as the cursed secret lovers, succeed at making their forbidden desire palpable through their magnificent singing execution, sometimes also transcending into something else than mere accurate technique.

Il Tabarro may not be one of Puccini’s most famous works. In fact, the general public maybe more acquainted to its trilogy due to the dispute between the composer’s trust and Andrew Lloyd Webber (an alleged case of plagiarism I’ve always found incredibly absurd) than because of its contents. But far from this being a disadvantage, here lies a thrilling opportunity to discover a lesser known piece by a man with an uncomparable talent at moving his crowd with every single note he penned. When that level of creativity meets a similar level of performing quality, it’s only magic that can be produced. Seasons come and seasons go – and then, there’s those instants that, through their unparallel efforts, are granted immortality.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The BBC Proms will play until September 10th. Tickets and full programming are available on the following link.

By Guillermo Názara

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