Ian Rosenblatt is a man with a mission: to bring top quality bel canto singers to those bits of a London audience who can't quite cope with going to see them at Covent Garden, either from the expense or because they're uncertain about the whole ritual. His series of "Rosenblatt Recitals" is now in its tenth year, and has a record of top quality meaning what it says - Juan Diego Flórez, currently one of the hottest tickets in opera, gave his first ever London recital in a Rosenblatt event.

There are three recitals this year: we went to the first one at St John's Smith Square last night. The expected tenor, Miroslav Dvorsky, rang in sick in the morning, so was replaced at a few hours notice by the young Scottish baritone Leigh Melrose, who treated us to a wide variety: ten arias from nine composers in five languages, covering styles all the way from Mozart's pantomime singspiel of The Magic Flute and the melting tones of Gounod's Faust to the barnstorming toreador song from Carmen (the audience nearly managed to sing along but lost its bottle) and the multi-key-change power-packed farewell from Britten's Billy Budd.

Melrose sang it all with aplomb - especially considering the variety of the programme and the zero notice - with some fine tone and phrasing, masses of character and plenty of expressiveness of both voice and face. All this, I think, would have made it a great introduction to operatic singing style. I've done several rounds of the nights of "your twenty favourite operatic moments" that you tend to get on holiday in any Italian city, and Melrose's recital was an altogether superior experience, giving you a proper feel for the music in context. Admittedly, I did feel the understandable lack of the copious notes that would have been provided for the original programme: Melrose's diction was not such that I could clearly pick out the words and the story of each song without help, particularly given that I don't stand a chance in Russian.

For non-novices, it's particularly good to hear a whole raft of less performed work: a fine drinking song from Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet, a truly lovely aria from Korngold's Die Tote Stadt (an improbable sort of Germanic Puccini in style), and "Questo amor" from Puccini's early opera Edgar, already showing Puccini's characteristic soaring melodies. All of these really made me want to see those operas when I next get the chance.

A splendid evening to give a real feel for the variety that's available in opera - or for the operatically uncommitted, just to go and enjoy the quality of the singing.

24th September 2009