Under conductor Sir Antonio Pappano, the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia launched their Lucerne Festival programme with Rossini’s overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers, a work marked by striking brio and a degree of good humour. Here, too, was a chance for some starring solos: the oboe, clarinet and effervescent piccolo were particularly notable, and the back-and-forth dialogues among their fellow musicians were also outstanding. Pappano’s conducting was both athletic and demonstrative, but also unfailingly precise, his animation almost as striking as his orchestra’s fine sound.

Sir Antonio Pappano, Véronique Gens and the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
© Manuela Jans | Lucerne Festival

Second on the programme was Shéhérazade, the three-song cycle that the young Maurice Ravel composed in 1903. Here in Lucerne, it featured the fine French soprano Véronique Gens, who had stepped in for the indisposed Elīna Garanča. Penned in the era where Europeans dreamt of the Orient and its many mysteries, Shéhérazade is hallmarked by colourful chromatics whose musical slides suggest that seduction of the Orient, and are offset by powerful brass interjections. Broad jump to Lucerne: the soprano, whose Chinese-red gown set her apart, gave a colourful, vocal delivery. In the first song, Asie, where “fancy sleeps like an empress,” our narrator confesses to wanting “to linger in the enchanted palace”. In La Flûte enchantée, she remembers her sweetheart playing a melody, “now languorous, now frivolous”, the same sentiments Gens imparted as a vocalist. Finally, in L'Indifferent, the beloved moves “away from my threshold,” which the singer relayed with a palpable sense of longing. Carlo Maria Parazzoli, the orchestra’s Concertmaster, joined her in a compelling dialogue and, after a series of orchestral explosions and her slow drift away, a resonant harp solo made for a magical ending.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s own Scheherazade, subtitled “A Symphonic Suite after The Thousand and One Nights”, came after the interval. Dated 1887-88, the work lasts 45 minutes and shows the composer as a master of rich orchestration. Here is the portrayal of the brute sultan who, in the legends of The Arabian Nights, was so enchanted by Scheherazade's nightly tales that he couldn’t bring himself to kill her. Shortly into the piece, Parazzoli’s violin vied for attention with the flute; a superb cello and mellow bassoon followed and the oboe gave a particularly mesmerising solo. Seen from the side, Pappano’s face was terrifically animated, his cheeks alternatively filled tightly with air; his brows, exaggeratedly high or low; his mouth sometimes in a noticeable pout. His expressions almost seemed to have their own language... or a second baton.

Sir Antonio Pappano
© Manuela Jans | Lucerne Festival

The solo violin, which took the “voice” of Scheherazade at the very start and is accompanied by the harp, was particularly compelling. In the dreamy third movement, a simple melody was embedded in a fabric of orchestral sound that turned almost like a carousel, while the clarinet delivered a merry folk-like dance. Finally, Parazzoli had a highly demanding – even frenetic-sounding – solo, followed by a tremendous build-up, the orchestral sound ascending to unprecedented volume and energy, whether to portend either half-doom, or half-glory. Listeners will make of the narrative what they will, but however you slice it, this Lucerne Festival concert, with its focus on magical tales, was magic itself.