LIVE | BBC NOW – Zhang and Taigi

St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 10 November, 2017
BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales
Soprano: Chiara Taigi
Conductor: Xian Zhang
Verdi: Overture, La forza del destino (The Force of Destiny)
Verdi: Quattro pezzi sacri (Four Sacred Pieces)
Verdi: Ave Maria (Otello)
La vergine degli angeli (La forza del destino)
Tacea la notte placida (Il Trovatore)
Sempre libera (La Traviata)
Respighi: Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome)

Despite episodes of the theatrical in Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces, the cobbled-together work of music written at different times is an example of a composer distracted by God (that’s if he exists, Verdi would have said). Nothing wrong with that, but at the back of the listener’s mind throughout are nagging reminders of the raw and earthy emotions that characterise his operas. One could have been forgiven for thinking that the decision to open this concert with his overture to The Force of Destiny and ending its Verdi component with a selection of his operatic arias was a means of illustrating that fact rather than providing an oasis of private devotional calm amid the turbulence. But it was that sort of concert, not so much an Italian pot-pourri but a lot of Verdi with some unrelated Respighi added on. Oh, and a Rossini encore. Xian Zhang, the orchestra’s principal guest conductor, unleashed the overture with an al fresco ferocity it would never possess in the pit, where it must gather about it the brooding darkness of fate. And, announcing after the main business that the orchestra would play the overture from William Tell, she proceeded to leap about the rostrum as the band set off at great speed. It was more Lone Ranger than Swiss conspirator.

The idea that Verdi regarded Four Sacred Pieces, for chorus and orchestra, as a confidential document for his own pondering is hard to believe. If the sections had all been unaccompanied, like the ethereal ‘Ave Maria’ that opens it, one could give the view some credence. Though he didn’t attend the first performance of three of the sections – ‘Stabat Mater’, ‘Laudi all Vergine Maria’, and ‘Te Deum’ in 1898 – and added the previously – composed ‘Ave Maria’ with an ambivalent attitude towards performance, the sheer magnitude of the work would have made him as restless towards its dormancy as he was towards religious belief and doctrine themselves. In this performance, the choral singing from heavily-populated ranks was everywhere secure and varied in tone, capturing the sincerity which always over-rode the composer’s religious doubts. It was a tribute to their artistic director, Adrian Partington, that his choristers were always conscious of keeping a formidable armoury in check when required. That said, the argument for lighter forces in many works traditionally sung by multitudes continues to be persuasive. He took his usual unassuming bow at the end.

Also spotlighted was choir soprano Matilda Walker, responsible for that miraculous moment in the final ‘Te Deum’ which requires the soloist to repeat the words ‘In te, Domine, speravi’ (I have trusted in thee, O Lord), an example, if one were needed, of Verdi the aged agnostic having kept his options open. Bringing the orchestra into the proceedings in the ‘Stabat Mater’, Zhang spared little in emphasising its theatrical antecedents in the outbursts at the Crucifixion, but also subduing them at the end as high voices climb to the ‘Paradisi gloria’, and ensuring a return to the tender and humane mood of the ‘Laudi’. The interplay of different elements in the ‘Te Deum’ – chorus alone, orchestra alone, chorus with orchestra, the lyrical and the robust – did not appear as distinctly as they might have in what appeared to be Zhang’s variable tempo (Verdi insisted on a uniform one) but it worked.

It was difficult for the audience to view Italian soprano Chiara Taigi’s four assumed roles in extracts from Verdi operas as anything but minor variations on a theme, the theme being the ‘bleeding chunk’ presentation of music. The singer herself probably had problems with it, too, which she wisely dismissed in favour of spirited delivery and a modest fashion show. It’s been done before, but most singers can’t be bothered. For the ‘Ave Maria’, from Otello and ‘La Vergine degli angeli’ from La forza (accompanied in the latter by the male chorus) she wore a white-chocolate dress with fur-lined wrap to illustrate, respectively, Desdemona’s innocence and Leonora’s solitary expiation. Then, ten minutes later, she re-appeared to audience gasps in a clinging, off-the-shoulder number in crimson for, first, ‘Tacea la notte placida’, from Il trovatore, in which a different Leonora tells of her love for a mysterious troubadour (Manrico); and, second, ‘Sempre libera’, Violetta’s paean to pleasure from La traviata. Inevitably the result was vocal flourish rather than convincing role-play made impossible by juxtaposition, the drama more hypnotic than the depth of insight. The cabaletta in the Il trovatore aria upped the ante and Violetta’s scena of momentary doubt about the claims of love over serial partying began to hint at a character, though the final coloratura wasn’t made much of. As always in these cases, one wanted more of one thing and less of the others in combination.

Quite what Respighi’s Pines of Rome was doing in this company was anyone’s guess, though it gave further opportunity to show the important contribution the BBC NOW’s principals make to sumptuous 20th century scores, especially those ascending to clamorous summits, but here also including moments of repose delineated, for example, by Robert Plane’s clarinet, Sarah-Jayne Porsmoguer’s cor anglais, and others, some of them not mentioned in the programme. Brass contingents stationed in the hall’s fastnesses helped simulate Roman military bugles. The army viewed head on as opposed to from afar was a stirring, cinematic sight. No wonder the orchestra is first call these days for film and documentary. Zhang’s contribution, like many from guest conductors who pay irregular visits, was to make the most of the opportunity. This she did in the encore, performed with as much haste as speed. Still, what comes after an overture and what appears either side of an aria represent the audience’s deprivation as much as the items themselves pander to its momentary delight.

Nigel Jarrett is a freelance writer and regular contributor to the Wales Arts Review. He is a poet, novelist, and story writer. His latest collection of stories, Who Killed Emil Kreisler?, was published last year. He is a winner of the Rhys Davies prize for short fiction and, in 2016, the inaugural Templar Shorts award. He also writes and reviews for Jazz Journal.