“The show must go on.” Any artist stepping in for another at short notice deserves our gratitude and our understanding. The Rosenblatt Recitals series has suffered more than its fair share of cancellations this season, with young baritone Simone Piazzola’s indisposition being the latest. Into the breach stepped Italian bass Carlo Colombara – not seen at the Royal Opera since Robert Wilson’s semaphore Aida in 2003 – to give a recital that only fired intermittently.

Carlo Colombara © Jonathan Rose
Carlo Colombara
© Jonathan Rose

Given the circumstances, it would be unfair to judge the performance by the usual criteria, hence the absence of a star rating. The programme was decidedly short – a first half of just 25 minutes – and much of it was delivered from behind a music stand. Pianist Marco Boemi was announced as being under the weather although, in the event, it was Colombara himself who seemed to be suffering.

Following the familiar Rosenblatt format, the recital contained both song and operatic extracts. The programme opened with a pair of Duparc songs and Jacques Ibert’s Quatre Chansons de Don Quichotte written for Georg Pabst’s film starring the great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin. Colombara immediately grabbed the attention with his inky bass, but both he and Boemi were ill at ease in this repertoire. The guitar effects in the piano writing in the Ibert songs lacked Spanish brio, while Colombara struggled when crossing the passaggio into head voice, resulting in several cracks.

The meatier second half, with four operatic cornerstones of the bass repertoire, was more satisfying. Colombara has performed the role of Fiesco in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra many times and his experience showed. In “Il lacerato spirito”, Fiesco rages and weeps at his daughter’s death. Despite its sepulchral depths, Colombara’s bass is capable of sounding wonderfully soft and warm – more Nicolai Ghiaurov than Boris Christoff – and he caressed phrases most elegantly here.  

The mourning continued with Philip II’s “Ella giammai m’amò” from Don Carlo. The King has spent a sleepless night in his study in the Escorial, agonising that Elisabeth de Valois, his new wife, has never loved him. The aria’s long prelude contains a heartrending cello solo, which the piano cannot replicate, especially when played with such a lack of poetry as here. Colombara, however, was completely absorbed ‘in the moment’ and offered an account full of emotion. He scaled his huge voice down to a whisper as the king suddenly realises that dawn is breaking, before rising to a roar of anguish: a powerful performance.

Russian repertoire meant a return to the music stand for two roles that suit Colombara’s voice, although he does not appear to have tackled them on stage. Rachmaninov’s Aleko, another Chaliapin role, shares the same fate as Philip: a younger wife who no longer loves him. In the gypsy camp, Aleko awakens to find Zemfira has disappeared from their tent. Another aria of lament followed, more declamatory in tone than Verdi, which could just about excuse Colombara straying off the note several times.

The programme ended not with a lament, but a death – that of Mussorgsky’s Tsar Boris. Tortured by guilt, he summons his son Fyodor and counsels him to rule wisely in his stead before finally collapsing. Taking on a death scene in a recital is always a tricky proposition; shorn of costume and sets and enacted on a tiny platform, it can look a bit hammy. Colombara didn’t quite cross that line, but there was plenty of bluster, splutter and gesticulation as the tsar meets his end. Boemi saved his most effective playing until the end of this curious, uneven recital, the long postlude conjuring up the funeral bell tolling and the choir’s off-stage chant clearly in the mind’s ear.