The French composer Francis Poulenc offered two contrasting faces to his audience: on the one hand a committed Catholic, on the other a robustly hedonistic socialite. His music comes with a similar ambivalence. The last scene of his opera Dialogues des Carmélites – in which a whole convent of nuns march, singing, to the guillotine – can be absurd if badly done, but is devastating if done well.
The same goes for an operatic scena called La voix humaine, in which a woman is abandoned by her lover through successive phone calls, leaving her distraught and suicidal. Poor performances are vulgar, good ones devastating. And a seriously good one, like a cleaver through the soul, took place last week in Middle Temple Hall, done by the English mezzo Christine Rice, accompanied by pianist Julius Drake.
It is part of a concert series that Drake has curated called “Temple Song”. It’s a showcase for a singer well known on the opera stage, but not so often heard in a recital context. And it proved an ear-opening experience.
Rice has the perfect combination of a lustrous beauty in her sound and strong, dramatic definition in delivery. She lives her texts. And in the shorter songs that filled the centre of her programme, she was ravishing.
But she began and ended with sustained dramatic variants on the theme of jilted women, starting with Haydn’s solo cantata Arianna a Naxos (where Ariadne is dumped by Theseus), and finishing with Poulenc’s early 20th-century take on being dumped the modern way, by trunk call.
Both were utterly compelling, and accompanied with cushioned care by Drake, whose playing allowed scope for high intensity though never to the point of overstatement.
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