Fundamentally, classical music and opera are urban creatures: they prowl the great halls and theatres of big cities. But there are some people who believe that art should happen in places of outstanding natural beauty. One of these was the Argentinian Adán Diehl, an art lover and sometime friend of Picasso. In the 1920s, Diehl found the perfect place to which to invite his artistic friends: an isolated bay at the northern tip of Mallorca in the Balearic Islands. 

Panorama of Formentor Bay © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Panorama of Formentor Bay
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

In the next generation, the property that Diehl built, the Formentor Hotel, became a hideaway for the rich and famous: Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill stayed at the Formentor; Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco had dinner there on their honeymoon, returning a few years later with their friends Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas. In 2006, after a spell of gradual decline, the property came into the hands of the Barceló family of hoteliers: the present head of the family, Simón Pedro Barceló, has sought not only to return the hotel to something approaching its former glory, but also to restore its heritage as a home for the arts.

Roberto Alagna and Aleksandra Kurzak on stage © White Studios, Mallorca
Roberto Alagna and Aleksandra Kurzak on stage
© White Studios, Mallorca

To this end, Formentor Sunset Classics was born: a series of concerts which seeks to bring the world’s top performers to play in an outdoor stage in an outstandingly beautiful location: you watch the sun setting over the pine trees in front of you; beyond them is the broad sweep of the Bay of Formentor; beyond that, the mountains fall into the sea. Past artists have included Zubin Mehta, Thomas Hampson, Daniel Barenboim and Lang Lang; I came to see two opera singers at the very top of their game: Roberto Alagna and Aleksandra Kurzak (both of whom I have interviewed for Bachtrack earlier this year).

The programme interleaved solo arias for each with duets and scenes, with the occasional solo piano number  – Chopin, of course, this being Mallorca – for their accompanist Jeff Cohen. A closing sprinkling of icing sugar was added in the shape of numbers from Zarzuela and operetta, plus some popular songs.

The stage at dusk © White Studios, Mallorca
The stage at dusk
© White Studios, Mallorca

Kurzak’s voice and repertoire is changing after motherhood, so this was an opportunity to hear an overview of her roles, ranging from those for which she is already well known (Adina) to her present core repertoire (Violetta, Micaëla) to roles she will be taking on in future: Elena in I vespri Siciliani, Liù in Turandot, Adriana (Lecouvreur). This was also the chance to hear her voice at very close quarters, unencumbered by orchestral accompaniment, and the qualities of the voice shone brightly – I don’t know another soprano singing today who can spin a line of complex coloratura and make it sound so natural, like a cascade of pearls, or can retain such creaminess of tone. She also has the other end of the range covered: Elena’s bolero contains some death-defying swoops deep into the chest voice, which were executed with aplomb. “Ecco: respiro appena...” from Adriana Lecouvreur was a knockout: performances aren’t yet scheduled, but I’m going to be first in the queue. Liù, which she will be singing in Covent Garden in July, still needs work, with some of the long held notes feeling a touch uncomfortable.

Alagna as Nemorino, Kurzak as Adina in "Caro Elisir" © White Studios, Mallorca
Alagna as Nemorino, Kurzak as Adina in "Caro Elisir"
© White Studios, Mallorca

Kurzak is a natural actress – you could see her making a conscious effort to get into role for each number, which can’t be an easy thing in such a diverse programme. But as a proper opera scene, there was an undisputed showstopper: the “Caro elisir” duet from L’elisir d’amore, Alagna hamming things up with gusto as he swigs Dr. Dulcamara’s potion from a rather-too-posh bottle, Kurzak relishing her ability to combine the sweetest of singing with the most murderous of looks. Never before have I heard someone succeed in actually singing coloratura through gritted teeth.

Alagna’s repertoire is more familiar to us, but here was a chance to hear his voice without the strain of needing to fill a large opera house. The concert was amplified, with sound engineer Martin Atkinson doing an excellent job of providing a natural sound, so Alagna could choose his ideal volume level. I really enjoyed hearing the nuances of how he turns a phrase: there’s a particular swell as he approaches the high note of a dramatic phrase that is unique to him and highly effective. But there were surprises as well: Eugene Onegin isn’t an opera that Alagna has performed on stage (or is scheduled to), but his rendition of Lensky’s wistful aria “Kuda Kuda”, sung as the fatal duel approaches, was heartbreaking: one of the highlights of the evening. Before he ever sung opera, Alagna was a cabaret singer: he still has a successful career in popular song and he still loves doing it, which was plain for all to see: I enjoyed the Zarzuela number Te quiero, morena and the duet Historia de un amor as much as anything in the programme.

All this in spite of the weather: a couple of hours before the concert, gale force winds picked up. It didn’t seem to affect the singers, who had some level of shelter from a perspex screen, but the hotel staff (who had prepared fans to cope with hot weather) were forced to hastily assemble blankets for a chilly audience to survive the second half. I’m told it was the first time this has happened in the five years that Formentor Sunset Classics has been running.

Encore: the Brindisi from <i>La traviata</i> © White Studios, Mallorca
Encore: the Brindisi from La traviata
© White Studios, Mallorca

Many opera fans are instinctively suspicious of programmes of operatic chunks, each severed from its natural context. I’m one of those, and I think there are very few singers who could carry off this kind of programme without it degenerating into a bag of disassociated bits. But Alagna and Kurzak were able to carry it off with aplomb – partly because of the sheer vocal firepower at their disposal, but also because both have very natural personalities on stage. And it was a special treat to see an intimate concert with two of the world’s top opera singers who are fairly recently married to each other, in such a romantic setting: every duet was infused by their obvious delight at singing together.

The Formentor is a five star hotel and, as such, is pretty exclusive. Even the experience of getting here is awe-inspiring: after forty minutes or so of good, straight road from Palma airport, you pass the port of Pollença and the road ducks left into a dizzying ascent with as impressive a set of hairpins as I’ve driven in many years of skiing trips. A few kilometres more and you find yourself at back of the hotel: cross the lobby to the front and you see a jaw-dropping view of the Formentor bay – the same view that will later form the backdrop for the concert. With that kind of mountain in the way, a “No riff-raff” sign would be entirely redundant (the road, by the way, is relatively recent – in the Formentor’s heyday in the 1950s and 60s, access was only possible by boat.)

The flower garden © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
The flower garden
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

This kind of opera concert is never going to be the most intense of artistic experiences – we’re not, after all, talking about fully staged, high octane Wagner – but it’s not intended to be: rather, what you’re getting is top-grade performers in a luxurious surrounding, in a location of immense natural beauty. And the Formentor does a very good job of turning up the luxury dial: red carpet was laid for the short walk from the hotel to the concert area; the post-event gala dinner was out of the very top drawer, superbly cooked and featuring generous amounts of expensive ingredients like Wagyu beef and lobster, accompanied by an unstinting flow of wine and champagne. The hotel’s terraces and flower gardens are almost as dazzling as the view of the mountains across the bay. 

La deesa de Formentor, 1944, bronze © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
La deesa de Formentor, 1944, bronze
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

Simón Pedro Barceló’s intention for these events is only partly as a prestige item for the hotel: the sponsorship income funds concerts for young, rising chamber music stars. The Barceló has also revived another important part of the hotel’s artistic heritage: the Formentor Conversations (a set of literary meetings) and the associated Formentor Prize for Literature – which, in 1961, kick-started the international career of Jorge Luis Borges.

To my mind, as a generous dose of luxury and a quick fix of classical music in an outstandingly romantic place, the formula for Formentor Sunset Classics works every bit as successfully as Dr. Dulcamara’s Elixir. 


David's trip to Formentor was sponsored by Formentor Sunset Classics. You can see future events at the Barceló here.