Last Saturday, I turned back to the concert hall at the grand KKL (Culture and Convention Centre Lucerne) for a second program that evening, a so-called “Late Night” concert that promised a novelty: a coloratura soprano who purportedly sang at the same time she conducted: Canadian music dynamo, Barbara Hannigan. Something very different, I thought, and how would that work?

Barbara Hannigan © Priska Ketterer / Lucerne Festival
Barbara Hannigan
© Priska Ketterer / Lucerne Festival

Unsurprisingly, singing while conducting makes hers a unique talent. That alone might draw people to the hall, but she pushes the bar higher with something that might figure under the nebulous term “human capital”, namely, that she is a highly charged and beautiful woman who seems to love being on stage, who commands the theatrical, and who’s willing to foster the delight of her audience. Furthermore, there wasn’t much about her concert that was conventional.

Conducting the renowned Mahler Chamber Orchestra in Rossini’s overture to La scala di seta, she showed herself entirely at home. Then, for the Mozart, she turned to the hall and began to sing a haunting Vado, ma dove? O Dei!, modifying her gestures, but still clearly in charge of the 20-man and woman chamber configuration. Ligeti’s Concerto Romanesc is a highly Romantic orchestral piece for its relatively “young” age, and in it, Hannigan’s gestures from the pulpit showed her conducting as a many-splendored thing: it alternated from what was demonstrative and driven to what was prosaic, where her arms seemed almost to be skimming through water. These were followed by the memorable harp and flute passages of the stage music for Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande. There again, that the players were all at the top of their game was part of what made the game such fun.

Unquestionably, the climax of the evening was Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre, however. It was advertised with clear allusions to latex, and here’s where Hannigan’s breach of all convention drove her point home: that even the most demanding of performances can be happily married to spectacle. As a seemingly unsuspecting domina – decked out in the promised latex, a severe, helmet-like black wig, and 8-inch heeled and studded boots – Hannigan not only mastered a nearly impossible vocal part (“Kekerikeke! Kokorikoko! Kukurikuku! Kakarikakaka!”), she did so all the while giving cues for action to her willing accompaniment. At one point early in the piece, her electric gyrations caused the wig to be thrown off; despite its fairly inglorious retrieval, she never missed a beat. At another time (“Coming! Coming! Look there!”) the real − if somewhat dishevelled-looking − Simon Rattle ran up on the stage like a figure out of a Breughel painting to confuse us further with his scripted “What the Hell is Going On?” But even the players themselves participated in the drama, standing up alternatively to shout out single words of the text, crossing the line into theatre with their emphatic display. In short, all hell broke loose.

Barbara Hannigan and Sir Simon Rattle © Priska Ketterer / Lucerne Festival
Barbara Hannigan and Sir Simon Rattle
© Priska Ketterer / Lucerne Festival

And when, after nine minutes, it ended, the audience roared. The musicians beamed. Barbara Hannigan took the applause as gracefully as her radically high heels would allow. The boisterous desperation that she played and sang so compellingly made the festival hall’s motor simply roar, and steered the Ligeti vessel to a place that could hover over water for those few unforgettable minutes. (“Pst! Pst! Much discretion! Close observation! / Take precautions! That’s all! / Pst! Pst! Not a squeak!”)

This was virtuoso performance − combined with a fun factor − we had not seen here before. It’s new-generation Lucerne, and we like it that way.