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Mezzo, castrato, no problemo

Sarah Connolly is quintessentially English mezzo-soprano who refuses to compromise

Michael Church | January/February 2014

Sarah Connolly had reached the grand old age of 46 before the Royal Opera House invited her to make her Covent Garden debut, but by that time everyone else in the business knew that if they wanted a definitive performance of a Baroque trouser role, they couldn't do better than hire this fiery British mezzo. Connolly incarnates those castrato parts with a blend of sex and rangy masculinity which, though hard to pin down in words, is quintessentially English, while as a raging Roman empress she brings out something terrifying. Since she usually sings title roles—everything from Handel's Xerxes and Julius Caesar to Purcell’s Dido and Charpentier’s Medea (above)—it’s appropriate that her vocal artistry allows her to steal the show.

One secret of her success lies in the fact that as a former pianist she’s a first-class musician, but another is her perennial refusal to compromise. Infuriated by record-company resistance to her notion of recording an authentic "Dido and Aeneas", she became her own producer, fund-raiser, fixer, agent and star, and topped the charts with the result; meanwhile the awards, including a CBE, have rained down. Now 50, she’s firing on all cylinders, having recently sung the title role in Offenbach’s "Fantasio" at the Festival Hall and performed in Mendelssohn’s "Elijah" at La Scala. Next week she delivers a Mahler and Berlioz recital at the Wigmore, before embarking on an American tour. ~ Michael Church

Wigmore Hall, London, Jan 13th

 

CLASSICAL AT A GLANCE

Carmen (Royal Opera, London, Jan 6th and 9th). One could argue that Francesca Zambello’s take on Bizet’s opera is too busy for its own good—do we really need a live (non-singing) horse? But this revival’s USP lies in two superb dramatic mezzos alternating in the title role, Christine Rice and Anna Caterina Antonacci.

Madama Butterfly (Met, New York, from Jan 16th). The much-missed Anthony Minghella’s production of Puccini’s tragedy is the best of the moment, ideal for those coming to the work for the first time. The peerless Bryan Hymel is Pinkerton.  ~ MC

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