Maria Bayankina should have been the star of Puccini’s La fanciulla del West this evening at the Verbier Festival, were it not for a series of Covid-related programme changes which struck out the Verbier Festival Orchestra from performing, but when she walked onstage in her shining black ballgown, it was still very much as the star of the show, taking on this improvised recital with grace and aplomb.

Maria Bayankina
© Lucien Grandjean

Opening with Elisabeth’s “Dich teure Halle” from Tannhäuser gave the soprano a chance to demonstrate the warm tone and lovely vibrato of her voice, but not to really shine. Luckily, in “Uzh polnoch blizitsya” from Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, she got a chance to fully show off her range, from delicate, trembling softness to rich, rounded intensity. Taking on “Un bel dì vedremo” as her final number felt like a bold choice, but she delivered a lovely performance of this classic aria, offering the audience both style and substance.

Pianist James Baillieu seemed a little flustered in the first number, but quickly relaxed into the flow of the programme, giving a lovely interpretation of Massenet’s “O Souverain, ô Juge, ô Père” and giving it his all by the Tchaikovsky. As he reached Butterfly, there was none of the sparseness that piano reductions can sometimes provide in a concert setting, only a lovely complicity with the soloist, and plenty of nuance and feeling. 

James Baillieu and Marcelo Álvarez
© Lucien Grandjean

No doubt due to the quick rehearsal turnaround, there was a slight air of uncertainty to the entire evening, as if the performers weren’t quite sure whether this was a serious recital or a casual soirée – Argentinian tenor Marcelo Álvarez took the latter approach, joking around with the pianist, hamming up his performances for effect. Largely, his was a winning performance, with a smattering of high-octane Latin fortissimos, if a little rough around the edges. I was unconvinced by his “E lucevan le stelle”, and by his slightly mushy French diction in the Massenet, but he earned a scattering of well-deserved bravi with his interpretation of Federico’s Lament from L’Arlesiana

Ambrogio Maestri
© Lucien Grandjean

Ambrogio Maestri, on the other hand, took the evening very seriously, and delivered a five-star recital from start to finish. His stately presence and resonant, perfectly mastered baritone – not a note out of place! – dissolved the impression of an impromptu cocktail party entirely. His rendition of “Nemico della Patria”, from Andrea Chénier, was moving, subtle and memorable, and his final “l’amor!” brought down the house – at least, insofar as a Swiss house can ever be brought down. At one point, I completely forgot I was watching a recital, so dedicated were his miniature performances, especially his hilarious turn as Donizetti’s Dr Dulcamara (whom he has played in Vienna, and at the Met). Not every singer needs to be a consummate actor, of course, but it is a real joy to witness one who is, adding spontaneity and real emotion to an already impressive voice. When he sang his Verdi duet with Bayankina – another audience favourite – I felt a pang of regret that we would not get to see them on stage together as Minnie and Jack Rance. We can only hope the original performance lives to see another day.

This performance was reviewed from the live stream