“Great opera choruses” was the title of this concert and it certainly did what it said on the tin. Concentrating for the most part on the celebrated choruses of Italian opera, with Verdi dominating, it also gave a passing nod to the Russian and German operas. There was a sprinkling of overtures too at strategic moments, to give the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir a deserved rest. If one was to quibble with the programming, it was a little on the generous side with the concert, just about finishing within the two hours 30 minute mark.

RTÉ Philharmonic Choir
© RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra

The concert started with Verdi’s Overture to La forza del destino, an overture packed with one glorious tune after another. The forceful brass which opened was suitably ominous, a portent of the high drama that is to come later in the opera. Conductor Ted Sperling, who has made his name in musical theatre, approached this overture with muscular gung-ho. While there was never any doubt about the verve and energy he elicited from the orchestra, the balance and subtlety required at times was missing. In the prayer duet theme, the tremolos were almost inaudible, while towards the end the high notes on the violin were slightly scratchy.

The Philharmonic Choir’s first chorus was the infinitely popular “Va pensiero” – more commonly known in English as the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Verdi’s Nabucco. The choir sang with pleasing tone, rounded and well phrased and as they reached up to the fortissimo sections they poured their hearts into every note. The mood lacked any of the haunting, bittersweet quality that this chorus calls for as the Jews sing of courage in exile the Babylonian kingdom. It was all a little too jolly and red-blooded.

The Witches’ Chorus from Verdi’s Macbeth was much more successful. Demonic shrieks, laughs and cackles were excellently portrayed, coupled with crisp pronunciation from the choir. The woodwind, brass and percussion offered suitably dramatic support for this crones’ coven.

Bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams took centre stage in Iago’s chilling aria “Credo in un Dio crudel” from Verdi’s Otello. It’s a wonderful aria where the villainous Iago plots the downfall of the jealous husband, while raging against heaven and earth. Here the only thing that was raging was the orchestra, with Sperling completely overpowering the soloist. At a certain dynamic and pitch, Foster-Williams was reduced to shouting out his part against the forces of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra.

Redemption was found appropriately enough in an atmospheric account of Wagner’s Overture to The Flying Dutchman, where the sweep and swirl of the strings contrasted nicely with the snarl of the brass. The Pilgrims’ Chorus from Tannhäuser was more forced than beautiful in the forte moments, while the quieter section was hardly the luminous account of sacred love triumphing over base attraction. The Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin was beautifully sung, simple and loving with pronunciation as clear and crisp as a frosty morning.

Gounod’s Soldiers' Chorus from Faust found Sperling in his element. Rousing and swaggering forth, both choir and orchestra struck the most rewarding balance of the first half here. The characterisation of the Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov was spot on and in the quieter moments we could at last hear Foster-Williams’ voice for what it was – warm and rich. But the bells and brass soon overpowered the Tsar as the decibels reached ear-shattering proportions.

Two Russian offerings opened the second half: Borodin’s Overture to Prince Igor was warm and romantic, even if I longed that Sperling might have paused more in the meltingly tender moments. The choir seemed to be enjoying themselves with the lilt of the Waltz from Eugene Onegin.

Mascagni’s Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana was a lovely moment of calm before the Triumphal March from Verdi’s Aida. The trumpet section proved to be in top form here with a pitch perfect rendition, and overall there was a very satisfying sense of urgency at the climax. More rousing singing for the Anvil Chorus from Verdi’s Il trovatore as the choir lustily overcame the might clanging of the anvil.

Foster-Williams voice gained throughout the whole evening and in the final work, the Te Deum from Puccini’s Tosca, his Scarpia at last revealed his true character.