“All roads lead to Rome” goes the saying, and so they did in this latest concert in the LPO’s Friday Series, conducted by Glyndebourne regular Enrique Mazzola, with music from Puccini’s Tosca and Rota’s La strada, plus Respighi’s Pines of Rome. Tosca was presented as a series of excerpts – bleeding chunks in the traditional parlance. It would not seem to be beyond the wit of a latterday Stokowski to stitch the highlights together into a coherent whole – indeed, I seem to remember having LPs of purely orchestral encapsulations of Puccini’s most famous operas in my youth. But what we had here was a rather disjointed presentation, at least given in dramatic sequence, of the three main arias coupled with longer excerpts amounting to the final scenes of Acts I and III in full, adding up to about 40 minutes of music.

Maria Luigia Borsi © Benjamin Ealovega
Maria Luigia Borsi
© Benjamin Ealovega
Slipping into Cavaradossi’s “Recondita armonia” at the start of the sequence, rather than having a preamble from at least some of one of the most exciting openings in all opera, felt a let down. And with Italian-Brazilian Thiago Arancam never really bridging that divide between ardent ‘Italian tenor’ and the nuanced character he was supposed to be representing it only highlighted the bittiness.

No such lack of dramatic involvement from his colleagues, though. Vittorio Vitelli was a vivid Scarpia in his ‘credo’ moment of “Tre sbirri, una carrozza”, even if he struggled to be heard over the orchestral Te Deum at the end (and there was no chorus, either). In his duet with Maria Luigia Borsi’s powerfully yet subtly sung Tosca in the preceding scene we had felt dramatic sparks fly between the two, enough to make one wish we could have heard these two singers going at it in some of their Act II altercation. Instead, just the inevitable “Vissi d’arte”, but sung with such poise and heartfelt emphasis by Borsi that for once it felt less a ‘chunk’ than a frozen moment in time. Arancam exhibited a little more dramatic engagement in “E lucevan le stelle” and in his final duet with Tosca. (At least they had a prop in the form of Scarpia’s written pass, where Vitelli had had to mime Atavanti’s fan in Act I.) But it was definitely Tosca’s show – Borsi sang and acted the tragic denouement with the commitment of a full staging, overcoming the disconnected presentation to make one almost feel that one had experienced the whole opera by the crash of its closing bars.

It should never be forgotten that the LPO is an opera orchestra, at Glyndebourne, for a quarter of the year, and its accompanimental experience was exploited to good effect by Mazzola, who had conducted these players in Donizetti’s Poliuto in Sussex this summer, and with whom he obviously enjoys a good rapport. From the most beautifully limpid flutes at the start of “Recondita” to the organ-capped climax of the Te Deum, the players revelled in Puccini’s textural detail and orchestral splendour.

The Suite from Rota’s La strada, derived from the 1966 ballet he concocted from the original film score composed for Fellini in 1954, felt even more fragmentary, though ‘concise’ might be a better term. But that tends to be Rota’s way, and a preference, despite recurring themes such as the gorgeous melody for Gelsomina, for cinematic quick changes of mood and style. The LPO players were obviously enjoying themselves, whether in the sweeping, unison string melodies or the rather Bernsteinesque rumba that seems to sweep in from another film. Mazzola brought clarity and rhythmic zest to a score that starts in the high spirits of a circus but ends in tragedy and despair.

La strada may only have a peripheral association with the Eternal City – the film was made at Rome’s Hollywood, Cinecittà, but is set ‘on the road’ in the Italian countryside. No such reservations with the last work on this generous programme, Respighi’s celebration of Rome’s past and present as ‘overheard’ by its iconic stands of pines. With its proto-cinematic marching Roman army in its last movement, Pines of Rome is always a work that is a real thrill to experience live in the concert hall, and Mazzola and his players didn’t let us down, from the doggedly stomping double bassists to the brass extras calling from the Royal Festival Hall’s boxes. Yet there was beauty and delicacy, too, and Robert Hill’s clarinet-playing made an eloquent foil to the recorded nightingale of the Janiculum.