Tony Pappano’s recipe for a concert programme, as explained to us before last night’s Royal Festival Hall concert: take a 20th century Italian one act opera, follow it with a romantic symphony chopped in half, mainly because you like the musical transition, then throw in a related German aria; play without a break. It may sound like a train wreck in the making, but the result was a triumph. The said triumph was in no small measure due to the sheer quality of playing from the Orchestra Nazionale dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia and choral singing out of the very top drawer.

Sir Antonio Pappano © Musacchio & Ianniello | EMI
Sir Antonio Pappano
© Musacchio & Ianniello | EMI

The theme of the evening was imprisonment and liberty, and we started with the orchestral introduction to Act II of Beethoven’s Fidelio, and “Gott! welch Dunkel hier” (“God, how dark it is here”), sung by Florestan as he languishes in his lightless dungeon. The orchestra impressed from the very first notes, the balance between horn and strings perfectly blended. The word “Gott!” has become something of a showpiece for tenors to display how smoothly they can hold the note and for how long: Stuart Skelton obliged by starting almost inaudibly pianissimo and growing to many seconds of immense climax. “Gott! welch Dunkel hier” is a wrenching aria and it set the scene for the drama to follow.

But whereas we know that Fidelio will end in victory over the forces of darkness, this is not so for Luigi Dallapiccola’s Il prigioniero (“The Prisoner”), another opera set in a Spanish prison – in this case, in the dark days of the Flanders rebellions against the Spanish Inquisition. The opera deals with two principal characters, known to us only as The Prisoner and The Jailer. The jailer befriends the prisoner and appears to facilitate his escape, but we discover at the end that he is in fact the Grand Inquisitor, and the imagined escape leads only to death at the stake. The opera is subtitled “Torture by hope”.  In a neat reversal of operatic convention, our hero is a baritone, while the jailer is a tenor – an antiheldentenor role, if you will.

Skelton sang the jailer intelligently, with a clear, precise voice, building the role around the repeated falling three note phrase “fratello” (brother), as the jailer cynically gains the prisoner’s trust. His injunction to the prisoner “dormi e spera” (sleep and hope), sung in the faintest of whispers, was spine-chilling. Louis Otey impressed in the title role, bringing to life the character’s tortured urgency while displaying great feel for Dallapiccola’s rounded musical phrases. Angeles Blancas Gulin made a telling contribution as the prisoner’s mother, who introduces the opera in a heartbreaking opening scene as she takes leave of her son for what she fears (correctly) is the last time.

But the sections that really blew me away where two interludes for chorus and organ, in which the chorus intone verses from the Latin mass, while the full forces of a very large orchestra are unleashed with terrifying violence. It wasn’t all that huge a choir - 80, I guessed – and I was sitting well towards the back of the hall, but in both interludes, I was fair knocked out of my seat.

The Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia © Musacchio
The Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
© Musacchio

Dallapiccola uses a big orchestra, and for the most part, the orchestral timbre is sparse, using a few instruments at a time. It allows him to employ a boundless variety of combinations of instruments: harp, xylophone and several other percussion instruments all have moments of prominence. It highlighted the individual brilliance of many of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia’s players: one particular passage caught my ear in Scene 3, when a short solo phrase went in turn to cello, viola, woodwinds and violin, each time a delicious treat for the ear.

Pappano had promised us that after the bleak, evanescent ending of Il prigioniero, the transition to the third movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony would be something special. That promise was kept in no uncertain terms. After that high tragedy, we needed music to calm the soul, and the opening bars of the Beethoven were nothing short of sublime. I kept on being wowed by one or other element of the orchestra: in this case, a passage in which double basses were played pizzicato in lines with immense grace and elegance, carrying the music along with it. Fanfares were delicate, almost muted before the outburst of joy to come, while a series of triplets were played by the second violins with even more delicacy.

In another marvellous passage from the double basses, the main theme of the Ode to Joy was merely suggested, from which the fourth movement burst forth in all its multi-faceted splendour. I don’t think I’ve ever felt such exhilaration flowing through orchestra, soloists and especially that wonderful chorus.

This was by no means a perfect performance. Skelton’s Florestan was perhaps a shade too smooth and insufficiently desperate, Il prigioniero suffered from the usual opera-in-concert problem of soloists, unprotected by an orchestra pit, being overwhelmed by the orchestra, and a few key phrases in the Beethoven went astray, most notably the opening bars of the fourth movement. But I don’t care. If live music can enthrall me and move me in the way this concert did, I’ll put up with a few technical errors any day. This was truly an evening’s music making to remember.