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  Jose Carreras Sings in the Park

(With the Kind Permission of The Royal Crescent Society Newsletter No.20 Summer 1992)

Pity about the Packaging - Dr Malcolm Hill, Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music, gives an expert opinion on National Music Day's star event

The audience to sit in the open air Gardens, listening to singers accompanied by a hand picked orchestra of generous proportions for Bath, the whole enriched by the brief effect of fireworks overhead. . .'

Ever since 1787 when Benjamin Milgrove, the local toyman of 4 Bond Street, produced his pastoral Acastro, Bath has irregularly hosted many such outdoor events. At this year's concert, Carreras in the Royal Crescent, the soloists were so superb that all that remained to criticize was the packaging. The demonstrable integrity of soloists and conductor only heightened the artistic problems that they encountered with the chorus, orchestra and lighting effects.

From the very opening of Rossini's Silken Ladder overture, Elio Boncompagni carved the clearest of beats. Yet despite his best efforts, the orchestra was generally unable to coordinate its wind section, offering instead some very suspect intonation, especially from piccolo, first clarinet, first desk of horns, and also the outer strings.

In opera houses, the relationship between the vocal technique of soloists and chorus is heeded: was it then wise to dissociate these even more by placing top ranking soloists alongside an under rehearsed local choir? The conductor was musically forced to drown the amateurish chorus who did not bear comparison with the soloists' clear diction and near perfect intonation.

15,000 people crowded into the specially built arena to hear the renowned Spanish tenor sing favourite arias on a balmy summer's evening in The Royal Crescent.

The running order of the programme unfortunately made Carreras appear to be the traditional warm up the audience subsidiary character heralding the entrance of the diva. After Stefania Towyska's somewhat cautious opening in Donizetti's La Favorita, she was soon communicating fluently in a voice not typical of Slavonic vocal production. Demonstrating perfectly controlled long phrases, especially in the sweetly mellifluous Printemps qui commence by Saint Saens, Miss Toczyska generally refrained from offering her loudest thirty per cent. Even when she approached this volume, as in the Cavalleria Rusticana duo, the amplification was drastically cut within a single beat, killing both line and climactic structure. Her Carmen solo, while spirited, lacked eroticism, but with Carreras in the ensuing duo the music's sexual chemistry was ignited. 'Miss Toczyska was, perhaps, not the perfect foil for Carreras: their vocal qualities are so very different her voice dramatically robust, his darkly lyrical; hers fiery, his subtly restrained.

Despite some evident degree of strain (at the beginning and end of the concert), Carreras's occasional examples of lighter tones vanished into the whoosh of the amplifier, while his loudest notes nearly caused peaking: his working dynamic range was wider than the engineers had predicted. No faults were to be detected in Carreras's effortless dark tone, even when the highest tessitura was over amplified during the octaves in Mascagni's duo. The richness of his nasal tones when amplified created a pseudo Pavarotti effect, losing much of its essential range of emotion.

But who could not like his gentleness, generosity and openness? The Granada encore, despite being a lightweight work, was one of the highlights of the evening. Only a master can give such a lesser piece eminence; or was the success conditioned by the suggestive deep purple light which bathed soloist, scaffolding and dome? Fortunately, Cardillo's Core 'ngrato was performed without Caruso's sob but the Placing of microphones on every desk of the orchestra gave the impression that pre war 'authenticity' was being attempted, with all the instruments accorded equal dynamic status.

Throughout the evening the sound system emulated a two dimensional effect with no depth of sound and, with the exception of Tosti's Marechiare, the system's bass range was consistently set at too puny a level. At the opening of Donizetti's Una furtiva lagrima brutal electrical amplification of the bassoon evoked the wrong mood. The system was at its most amusing when projecting the pit a pat of Verdi's anvil and when creating the aural illusion that Carreras's dynamic power equalled that of single harp notes. During Part One, loudspeakers noisily hissed even when not driven, after the interval sudden deathly hushes between phrases suggested electronic editing all one could hear then was the attempted slaying of maraudingmosquitoes, spoilt for choice.

Frequent light changes in the dome during a single number only led to distraction (but when the conductor was bathed in green the orchestra seemed to take more notice), Carreras' superb communication with the audience was slightly impaired by his chameleon green to pink face, A lack of feed back from the audience to the stage hindered the best efforts of all the performers, who were not assisted by insecure stage management during the second half. Needless diversion came with the sky pointing searchlights, flashing in time with the percussion; their overuse diluted the impact of the brief fireworks displayed in the gathering dusk.

Those unwilling to spend 5 on the official and glossy programme (which included a picture entitled 'Putney (sic) Bridge and River Avon' and named members of the chorus but not of the orchestra) had probably been subjected to the media's hype that 'nine encores will be performed'. The qualified applause at the end of Part Two (after the fifth and last encore) certainly suggested that much more was still expected.