Nobody knows what Heaven looks like, so everybody has their own picture of it; and everyone's is, therefore, different. Mine, however, comes pretty close to the experience you’ll have if you go to Verbier in summer. This pretty village, high up in the Swiss Alps, is most famous as a mecca for winter sports, but visitors flock to it in the summer for the attractions of its classical music festival, as well they may. The village itself is a stunner, surrounded by glorious Alpine scenery, everywhere you look providing a new view of fabulously lush green meadows or glaciers clinging to soaring peaks. All this would be enough to make it a divine place to visit, but its summer music makes it truly celestial.

Valery Gergiev © Diane Deschenaux
Valery Gergiev
© Diane Deschenaux

Standing in for the choir of angels are the young prodigies that comprise the Verbier Festival Orchestra. It’s a training orchestra that performs only once a year at festival time. Competition for places is fierce and their playing is sensational, made all the more impressive by the youthful age of the participants. Wise sages come to accompany them, though, led by Valery Gergiev, who is the orchestra’s Music Director.

Concert opera is not commonplace in the Verbier programme, but Die Frau ohne Schatten is a good choice for them, and not only because this year sees the centenary of the opera’s Vienna premiere. More importantly, it’s a vast kaleidoscope that, even more than Wagner, gives any orchestra the opportunity to show what they’re made of – a test that these young musicians passed with flying colours. Having Gergiev’s experience at the helm helps, of course, but the playing spoke for itself. It’s as bright as the Alpine sun outside, particularly from the strings, which was both an accolade and an issue. There was rarely a hint of the score’s darkness, aside from the sepulchral low brass, and the sound was so clean as to be almost thin at times, with none of the depth or psychological penetration that you’d expect to hear in, say, Vienna or Dresden. However, that leanness exposed textures that I’d never noticed before, not least the gurgling winds that hide within the bigger moments, and that made this a pretty unique reading of Die Frau, the like of which I doubt I’ll hear again.

Valery Gergiev and the Verbier Festival Orchestra © Diane Deschenaux
Valery Gergiev and the Verbier Festival Orchestra
© Diane Deschenaux

They assembled an experienced cast of stars to sing it, crowned by Emily Magee’s Empress who, after a slow start, grew into the role’s complexity with real skill, touching perfection in the third act. Evelyn Herlitzius played the Nurse with a touch of wild-eyed frenzy, something that crept into her voice too, but that fitted the character’s sense of malevolent derangement rather well. Bogdan Baciu was a gloriously rich Spirit Messenger, and the cameos were all excellent, particularly a sensational young tenor as the Vision of the Young Man.

Even in Elysium, however, earthly fallibilities creep in, and some high profile cancellations threatened to downgrade the achievement. Gerhard Siegel’s Emperor was the grit in the oyster. He’s not a natural Heldentenor, and he sang the (admittedly impossible) part with more commitment than confidence. However, I didn’t once miss either Matthias Goerne or Nina Stemme as the Baraks. John Lundgren brought homely warmth to the Dyer, giving him a humanity that reminds us that he’s the closest thing to us that there is in this piece, particularly superb in the consolation of “Mir anvertraut.” Miina-Liisa Värelä was a wonderful surprise as the Dyer’s wife, completely inside the tessitura, but singing it with warmth and humanity and none of the fire-eating melodrama that can sometimes set this character apart.

If I quibble with individual touches, then, it doesn’t detract from the overwhelming impact that the whole had, both from orchestra and singers. It'll be a long time before I forget the Night Watchmen’s song, which had me in tears, and the tidal wave of Act 3’s final climax carried a sense of benediction that you’ll rarely hear in a theatre. In short, heavenly.


Simon's press trip to Verbier was funded by Premier Comms

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