Richard Bratby

When Fauré played The Spectator

Plus: Irish National Opera score another hit with Vivaldi's L'Olimpiade

Chuma Sijeqa (Clistene) and Alexandra Urquiola (Aristea) in Irish National Opera's new production of Vivaldi's L'Olimpiade at Linbury Theatre. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Gabriel Fauré composed his song cycle La bonne chanson in 1894 for piano and voice. But he added string parts later and he premièred that version in April 1898 at the London home of his friend Frank Schuster: 22 Old Queen Street, the building currently occupied by this very magazine. I’m not sure how much Fauré gets played at Spectator HQ these days; his music certainly hasn’t been a feature of recent summer parties. Perhaps Fauré himself caressed the ivories where James Delingpole and Toby Young now prop up the bar. Imagine Verlaine’s poetry drifting out into the garden to mingle with Rod Liddle’s cigarette smoke on the moonlit air. L’heure exquise, indeed.

Perhaps Fauré himself caressed the ivories where Delingpole and Young now prop up the bar

The studio theatre at the Crucible doesn’t exactly evoke the belle époque either, but on this occasion that hardly mattered. It’s a utilitarian black box, but the atmosphere it generates – with audience closely packed on all four sides of the performance space – is wonderfully immediate, especially when (as on this occasion) it’s filled to capacity. A fellow critic sitting nearby grumbled that it’s an unflattering acoustic for a singer – not much space for them to sing into and very little resonance to help the voice. It’s a valid point, but I don’t buy it. With chamber music, you need to feel the performers’ breath, and Fauré, the darling of the Paris salons, expected his songs to be heard in a drawing-room acoustic: tactile, intimate, and close enough to seduce.

The instrumentalists were Ensemble 360 – the resident ensemble of the Sheffield Chamber Music Festival – and the singer was Roderick Williams. It’s easy to talk about certain musicians as born communicators, but Williams had thought carefully about the way he presented the cycle – reading an English précis of Verlaine’s poem before each song and inviting the audience either to follow the printed translation, or sit back and let the mood and the music take them. Trusting to my GCSE French I did the latter and it was surprisingly effective, not least because Williams’s welcoming approach to concert presentation is matched by weapons-grade charisma. He simply exudes generosity, intelligence and warmth. It’s rare to witness a Williams recital in which the audience isn’t eating out of his hand.

So there was no vocal grandstanding: just clear, natural singing, intensely alert to the texture and meaning of the poetry, and glowing with the sunlight that plays such an important role in this rapturous cycle. We knew Williams could roar when he needed to: earlier, in Ravel’s Chansons madécasses, he’d practically shaken the walls in the second song ‘Aoua!’ (in which Ravel, canny as ever, futureproofs himself by setting a ferocious denunciation of French colonialism). The players of Ensemble 360 (here, a flute, a cello and a piano – the group’s kaleidoscopic versatility is one of its strengths) responded with explosive force.

In truth, though, they’d been playing out of their seats all night. The eerie, humid sounds that Ravel drew from a high cello and a low piccolo were redolent of woodsmoke and tropical musk: Tim Horton, the group’s long-serving pianist and (you sensed) its rock, was particularly fine here. But in La bonne chanson and (earlier) Fauré’s D minor Piano Quintet they surged, glittered and swelled, with a powerful sense of sap rising. After the interval, the strings were replaced by five wind players for a tangy account of Poulenc’s Sextet – bold primary colours splashing, Raoul Dufy-like, against Horton’s crisply inked outlines. Poulenc famously remarked that long romantic melodies and rippling pianos – Fauré’s stock-in-trade – made him vomit, so this was a cheeky bit of programming. But then came La bonne chanson and Old Queen Street got the last word after all.

Irish National Opera brought its new production of Vivaldi’s L’Olimpiade to the Linbury Theatre and, following their terrific staging of the same composer’s Bajazet in 2022, they were clearly aiming for gold again. Mission accomplished. The director, Daisy Evans, has a patchy record; her Magic Flute last year for Welsh National Opera was frankly awful. But this stripped back, neon-lit take on the baroque was everything that her Flute wasn’t: fun to watch, loyal to the spirit of the piece and telling the story (which is convoluted even for Metastasio) with clarity and wit. Evans even presented the closing double betrothal as a joyous event, which is a bold move these days.

Vivaldi helps, of course: his propulsive, rhythmically driven idiom offers a low-calorie alternative to Handel, and under Peter Whelan the period-instrument band kicked, glittered and pulsed. From a lively ensemble cast, Gemma Ni Bhriain (Megacle) stood out for her expressive power, and Rachel Redmond (Aminta) for her sparkle. Incidentally, the Olympic Games of the title (the action is set in ancient Greece) occur towards the end of Act One. They’re over in three minutes, which seems like an excellent idea.