The people deserve good opera. Even at popular “greatest hits” concerts, the quality should be as high as budget and availability allow. At this “Robeco SummerNight at the Opera” the audience had to make do with a couple of nuggets and a series of mismatches between repertoire and performers. On nights like these, pasta sauce advert music is never far away, and what better way to start than with a colourful Rossini rocket? Alas, the overture to L’italiana in Algeri was heavy-handed and lacked playfulness. The National Orchestra of Belgium, led by Aleksandar Marković, sounded like they were knitting their brows at some early Verdi. In fact, Verdi is what they did best. It was a pleasant surprise that that overworked instrumental filler, the overture to La forza del destino, was among the highlights. Markovic had the measure of the music’s surging energy and scope and clear-cut ideas about shaping it. He also delivered sensitive accompaniment to excerpts from Rigoletto and La traviata. There were also very fine flute and clarinet solos, and a graceful oboe in the Fledermaus overture, which danced with verve, even if its feet didn’t always land where intended.

Aleksandar Marković © Vladimir Miloradovic
Aleksandar Marković
© Vladimir Miloradovic

Light lyric soprano Jodie Devos started the vocal programme with a spirited “Der Hölle Rache”. Devos, enchanting in clouds of tulle, displayed plenty of talent and a winning presence. She had all the high-flying notes for Mozart’s furious Queen of the Night, but not all of them were in tune. Her silvery tone was more steadfast in the duet “Là ci darem la mano”. Baritone Thomas Oliemans was her Don Giovanni, ever the polished Mozart singer, debonairly sweeping the ingénue off her feet on the steep stairs of the Concertgebouw stage. Then Oliemans abandoned Mozart and went in for heavier fare, starting with Wolfram’s evening star aria from Tannhäuser. The opening recitative challenged him with its low notes, and the unsteady trombones did not help, but the nature of this Wagner aria suited his sensibility as a Lieder interpreter. Oliemans is not the first baritone to tackle the Verdi literature successfully without the right weight and timbre, compensating amply with intelligence and correct style. He invested Germont’s aria “Di provenza” with youthful pathos. And why wouldn’t Germont sound youngish? His son Alfredo is very young, so he could easily be in his early forties. However, although beautifully phrased, “Eri tu” from Un ballo in maschera was a step too far. Oliemans captured the grief of the betrayed husband, but his voice was too light for the vengeful anger. Far better was Prince Yeletsky’s declaration of love, “Ya vas lyublyu” from Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades. It fitted his voice like a glove and the imploring upward phrases were effortless and noble.

In the meantime, Devos took on two other innocent characters, from Bellini’s La sonnambula and Verdi’s Rigoletto. Both Amina's sad sleepwalking aria “Ah! non credea mirarti” and Gilda’s “Caro nome” were expressive and lustrous of tone. Devos possesses the tools for this repertoire, including range, chromatic fluidity and clear projection, but her technique lacks that final bit of refinement. She hit all the interpolated high notes, but often abandoned them too quickly. Diminuendos were too sudden, and she glided inaudibly from one tone to another. These flaws in dynamic control and portamento were too evident in Amina’s final aria, “Ah! non giunge”. Much more vocally free were her two duets after the break, “Parigi, o cara” from La traviata and “Lippen schweigen” from Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow, partnered by tenor Thomas Blondelle.

Blondelle is a purely lyric tenor, with a pleasant enough timbre at mid-volume, so his choice of arias, more logical for a spinto, was baffling. No tenor can resist singing Lehár’s enduring “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz”, but Blondelle’s approach, with loud glottal attacks and forced top notes receding into the throat, was not congenial to his voice type. In Puccini’s “E lucevan le stelle” he sang attractively, with tempered volume while remembering his lover Tosca’s caresses. The final dramatic exclamation also turned guttural, but this was his most successful offering. Maybe a night such as this one cries out for the unavoidable “Nessun dorma”, regardless of who does the honours. But as the orchestra’s saggy accompaniment swelled to engulf Blondelle’s final top B and A, one could only wonder “Why?”. The programming madness continued at encore time, with the drinking song from La traviata. With only three soloists and no chorus on hand, poor Thomas Oliemans was given a score and asked to be all the party guests, while Devos and Blondelle toasted each other with Prosecco. It was an anticlimactic ending to an evening that, had its cloth been cut to fit the performers, could have been much better.