I suppose, like most people, I took time to get into classical music in the first place. Listening to opera on the radio, or seeing it performed on TV was, well, like listening to snooker or watching cricket; always better live. I didn't realise this until I went to see Carmen (chosen because I love the music, who doesn't?) at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. After I'd seen Carmen performed live, I heard it with new ears. Now I understand why people listen to opera on the radio, or watch on TV. But it's usually the same popular pieces on the radio, or the same shows beamed into the local cinema (great idea) or shown on the big screen around the UK (another great idea).
Tonight I listened to a Rosenblatt Recital featuring Serena Malfi accompanied by Angelo Michele Errico. I was expecting opera arias, lieder, possibly something based on folk melodies and poems. It didn't work out as I expected, bearing in mind that I'd only ever heard of two of the composers featured tonight; Mozart and Rossini.
Beginning with three pieces by Vincenzo Righini I suspected I was in for a challenge. Forty minutes passed like five as I was slowly seduced by the subtlety of bel-canto. Yes, me too. I had no idea that there was something that opera singers sang that wasn't opera or lieder songs. My fault entirely, I just didn't know. I know now.
Spontini followed, then an aria from Mozart's 'La Clemenza di Tito'. Each piece sung and played beautifully, the piano a perfect fit for Serena's voice which was just getting ready to spring its first surprise; Romeo. Serena sang the part of Romeo (from some play or other) in arias by Vaccai and Bellini. Girls sang the boys parts in those days, or when it was convenient, or possibly cheaper.
At this point, I make a small confession; much of the information regarding these unknown (to me) works comes courtesy of the amazingly informative programme for the performance. Performers details, composers details, librettist/poets details, the lyrics in the original tongue and also in english.
After the interval we were treated to Caracciolo, Mattei (who was probably a musical god in London, at the time, from the info I have here) and Tosti, I mention these three because I'll probably try to find more of their work. Costa's 'Dark Eyes' continues the evening's trend of more dynamic, rhythmic and dramatic pieces, enhanced further by three pieces written by singers. Maria Mailibran and her sister, Pauline Viardot Garcia wrote for themselves, and these songs display more humour and melody than their male counterparts, possibly because they were written by women, for women. Serena seemed to enjoy singing them, and we certainly enjoyed listening to them.
Rossini rounded off the programme nicely, as you would expect, an aria from La Cerenentola (I need to hear more opera, I swear) "I was born to suffering....." A narrative familiar to anyone who has read or seen Cinderella.
A first encore was a short by Salieri, yes, that one. The next was by Vivaldi, from Il Giustino (click translate) and for my money the Vivaldi was the best piece of the evening, mainly because it showed how versatile Serena's voice is.
I've left describing Serena's voice until now for a reason, it's a revelation for someone, like me, who grew up listening to very talented but untutored non-operatic, non-classical singers. Smooth and strong, a complete lack of harshness, coupled with great control. I don't understand Italian, my french is sketchy, but listening to Serena sing, it didn't matter. Her voice, alongside the playing of Angelo Michele Errico was a joy.
There are probably many technical terms to describe voices, but the only terms that make sense to me are those used for wines. Serena's voice is full-bodied, sometimes sparkling (the Malibran pieces) with strong aftertones (the Vivaldi). words like caramel and honey also spring to mind, mostly because they're both smooth and delicious.
In short, a voluptuous, mature voice with a lot of growing room. If you get a chance to hear her, in recital or opera (in Paris and Vienna) buy a ticket. If you're not enchanted, I'll be very surprised. I think tonight's performance was being filmed, so I'll keep you informed about that. In the meantime, here she is in a suit.
And, for a certain Italian friend, Serena's dress was fabulous!
UPDATE: When the video is available, it will appear here.