This opera gala saw the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra mark their 15th anniversary with an unforgettable evening. The BIPO were joined by tenor Roberto Alagna, making his Istanbul debut, and mezzo-soprano Roxana Constantinescu, a rising star, to perform extracts from Massenet’s Werther and Bizet’s Carmen, two operas completed within twelve years of one another. It was a special occasion on many accounts, and memorable as much for the encores as the programmed material.

The semi-staged performance given by Alagna and Constantinescu ensured that the excerpts from Massenet’s tale of love and loss received a suitably dramatic rendition. From the outset, the BIPO proved themselves to be worthy of these anniversary celebrations: the orchestra sounded fantastic, giving a passionate and nuanced performance. Conductor Sascha Goetzel led interpretations full of spontaneity, exploring the expressive potential of each phrase. The overture’s fatalistic D minor opening was supple yet full, softening into a warmer sound for the idyllic major-mode section. Charlotte’s Act III aria, “Werther! Qui m’aurait dit la place”, was given an appropriately wistful accompaniment; the orchestra’s sound was intense yet hushed, bringing the confession of love to its end with an atmospheric halo of sound. Despite a few issues with intonation (most notably the flute in the Act I duet “Il faut nous séparer”), the close attention paid to shaping and articulation meant that the BIPO’s performance balanced vigour with carefully considered details.

Roberto Alagna was on thrilling form throughout the evening, his combination of charisma, power and expressive depth meaning that every aria elicited an enthusiastic response from the audience. The opera’s emotional climax, “Pourquoi me réveiller?”, was undoubtedly the highlight of the evening: intense yet fragile, the aria allowed Alagna to display his luminescent upper range. Roxana Constantinescu sounded attractive as Charlotte, but unfortunately her voice lacked sufficient power to project into the vast 1735-seat auditorium (within the Istanbul Convention and Exhibition Centre) and meant that she was often barely heard above the orchestra.

Constantinescu seemed much more at home in Carmen, with her enjoyment of the role apparent. Hers was a playful and confident Carmen, savouring every word of the libretto. Although she still suffered problems with projection, the role allowed her to display her wonderfully mellow lower range. Once again, though, it was Alagna who stole the show. He owned the stage, whether sitting on the edge of the conductor’s podium to watch Carmen dance in “Halte là! Qui va là!” or his Don José in “Non, tu ne m’aimes pas”, tender and hardened in turns.

The BIPO’s performance was taut and full of vivacity, bringing character to every excerpt. The entr’acte at the end of Act II was spacious (with principal flautist Bülent Evcil’s lingering solo particularly praiseworthy), and Carmen and Don José’s final confrontation full of tension and foreboding. Goetzel conjured a range of sounds from the ensemble, with the strings especially responsive to his gestures: the magical, silken quality of “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” was replaced by a more intense (yet still flexible) tone for “C’est toi!”.

Regimented clapping led to not one, not two, but a grand total of six encores. After both Constantinescu and Alagna had returned for separate encores and then for a duet, Alagna stripped off his jacket and handed it to the bemused Goetzel. Clearly thriving on the audience’s energy, he began to thump his chest to establish a rhythm and proceeded to sing a cappella, his voice filling the auditorium. After this fourth encore, Alagna called for a member of the audience to join him on stage: a young, blind singer, who would perform songs. The majority of the audience (and, indeed, Alagna) joined in with his second piece, a Turkish song. With loud applause, shouts and a mass standing ovation, this was an unexpected yet enthralling turn of events to end the concert.

The combination of Alagna’s charisma, the BIPO’s spontaneity under Goetzel and the audience’s enthusiasm meant that this concert was a truly memorable occasion. The orchestra have much to celebrate, and I’m sure that they will continue to thrive with such lively and refined performances.