On paper, the first Rosenblatt Recital of 2017 looked promising; two singers who seemed to be developing strong reputations on the continent, but lacked any major footprint in Britain doing a programme of meaty – admittedly fairly run of the mill – extracts from the great Italian opera composers, accompanied by a very reputable pianist. It was however, at least by the standard that one has come to appreciate from this series, an unusually patchy and disappointing evening.

Maria Katzarava and Stefano La Colla © Jonathan Rose
Maria Katzarava and Stefano La Colla
© Jonathan Rose

The opening piece was due to be “Sotto il sol di Siria ardente”, a duet from Verdi’s Aroldo, his 1857 rewrite of the unfairly maligned Stiffelio, which suffered at the hands of censors outraged at a plot involving the infidelity of a Protestant minister’s wife. Neither version, sadly, has really managed to gain public affection, and apparently not from Maria Katzarava either, who failed to appear for the duet, leaving Stefano La Colla to sing the first chunk awkwardly. Katzarava then appeared on stage to sing the “Willow Song” from Otello, only to announce that she was in fact going to sing “Vissi d'arte” from Tosca. In the second half, La Colla appeared just as Katzarava was about to sing an aria from Turandot, apparently thinking they were supposed to be duetting from Butterfly. It was the closest to slapstick I have ever seen at Wigmore Hall.

No-one could argue that La Colla doesn’t possess a capacious set of lungs, but what was strikingly clear at this recital was that he either will not, or cannot temper his volume to suit the venue. When singing with Katzarava, he was largely devoid of chemistry, his voice strident without ardour, aggressive rather than passionate. It had a negative effect on Katzarava, either drowning her out or inciting her to force the voice uncomfortably. La Colla gave us tantalising hints of beauty; “O Souverain, ô Juge, ô Père” from Massenet’s Le Cid was sung nobly and suggested a capacity for depth and dimension, while in the duet “Tu, tu, amore! Tu?”, he caught a little of Des Grieux’s tortured infatuation and showed off a pleasant roundness to the bottom of his voice. The problem lay at the top, where he frequently veered from singing to declamation and then simply to bellowing. The high notes were wayward in his performance of “Recondita armonia”, one of the worst renditions I have heard for a long time. On the whole, it was the vocal equivalent to spending time with a particularly clumsy dominatrix who forgot to provide a safe word.

Maria Katzarava © Jonathan Rose
Maria Katzarava
© Jonathan Rose
Perhaps because of the confused start, or simply nerves, Maria Katzarava’s “Vissi d'arte” was monochromatic and lacked depth. It was clear from the start, though, that her projection is very fine, and her diction was clear. Her performance of “Dieu! Quel frisson…” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette was the highlight of the first half: compellingly sung with steady phrasing, and showing off a light, bubbly top with delicate highs which were floated well. In the second half, after duetting “Mario! Mario!” unmemorably with La Colla, she gave a commendable “Donde lieta usci”, sweetly sung, and then an absolutely splendid “Tu che di gel sei cinta” from Turandot that was the highlight of the evening; superbly sculpted with such elegance and listless, but powerful grief that it made me want to see her Liù on stage. With a different partner and better preparation, it is probable that she would have blossomed in the duets as well.

Simon Lepper was a reassuring presence; restrained and nuanced, but providing richly coloured accompaniments, particularly in the duets from Manon Lescaut and Andrea Chénier.