Opera galas not being a common Amsterdam occurrence, last Friday’s concert, centred around soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, was an inviting prospect. Several generations of Dutch operatic talent were represented at a benefit concert in aid of the Staetshuys Fund. This organisation supports young classical singers training and residing in the Netherlands and many of the performers on stage were among its beneficiaries. The main items on this singers-for-singers programme were two long excerpts performed by Eva-Maria Westbroek and tenor Frank van Aken. Appearing for the first time together at the Concertgebouw, the husband-and-wife team sang Act IV from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut before the break and concluded the concert with Act I, Scene 3 from Wagner’s Die Walküre. The rapturous reunion of the Wagnerian twins was rightfully programmed at the end, but there was plenty to enjoy on the trek towards this musical peak.

Eva-Maria Westbroek
Eva-Maria Westbroek

Kudos to 12-year old treble Fook Sars, who confidently opened the evening with Amor’s aria “Gli sguardi trattieni” from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. In spite of one early entry, he kept his composure and retained his charming timbre to the end. Conductor Ed Spanjaard led the Gelders Orkest with visible gusto ­– a little too much gusto at first, almost swamping tenor Peter Gijsbertsen in “Il mio tesoro’ from Don Giovanni. As the repertoire became heavier, the orchestra played better, and was most convincing in Puccini. But now it was up to Karin Strobos, a deliciously sly Rosina in a full-skirted 1950s dress, to supply Rossinian sparkle in “Una voce poco fa”. The precipitous stairway of the Concertgebouw stage almost proved too much for her red heels, but her silky, limber mezzo warmed up the audience and set up a festive mood. Before Ms Westbroek perished from thirst and fatigue as Manon Lescaut, Laetitia Gerards was a wistful Manon in Massenet’s “Adieu, notre petite table”. Ms Gerards possesses a lovely, limpid soprano and communicates strongly with the audience. Her aria did not quite gel into a cohesive whole, but, being only twenty-one, she has plenty of time to deepen her interpretative skills.

Flamboyant mezzo-soprano Tania Kross opened the second half with a rip-roaring “O don fatale” from Verdi’s Don Carlo. As always, she was supercharged dramatically and went fearlessly for the high notes. The fact that her gorgeous voice is a size too small for Princess Eboli did not inhibit the loud ovation. Baritone Martijn Sanders was a better vocal fit in Rodrigo’s death scene from the same opera. Although announced by presenter Bo van der Meulen as suffering from bronchitis, he sang securely and perceptively. The Gelders Orkest fused lachrymose beauty and momentous feeling in the accompaniment. After this, the dreaded stairs struck again, impeding soprano’s Francis van Broekhuizen's tiered taffeta gown. It seemed she would never reach the stage, but, when she did, she delivered a round-voiced, pillar-shaking, “Pleurez mes yeux” from Massenet’s Le Cid. The graceful clarinet solo was as satisfying as her singing.

Stage chemistry crackled between Ms Westbroek and Mr Van Aken, and their combination of vocal glamour and brawn considerably raised the fever level in the hall. Ms Westbroek, statuesque in a black, spangled dress, her long hair draping her shoulders, was an affecting Manon Lescaut. Although she does not always bridge the upper register break smoothly and some of her high notes flirt with shrillness, her glittering voice and unerring sense of Puccinian style make her a very exciting Manon. Mr Van Aken imbued his powerful Chevalier des Grieux with the necessary desperation, although his having to consult the score interfered with his acting. His rather wide vibrato is not exactly Puccini-friendly, and he really came into his own during the scene from Die Walküre. He brought theatrical detail to Siegmund, a role he has sung numerous times. Although he sounded somewhat pressed in “Winterstürme”, he was dazzling in his solo scene, complete with ringing “Wälse!” cries. Ms Westbroek’s Sieglinde was radiantly acted and thrillingly sung. Her narration in “Der Männer Sippe” was totally engrossing, the low tessitura in the first part showing off her splendid middle voice. Wavering high notes notwithstanding, she was grippingly euphoric in “Du bist der Lenz”. The final torrential applause and cheering brought out all the performers for a drink-fuelled encore­, a glamorous Champagne Song from Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus.