Melinda Hughes enjoys a number of sterling performances at a convivial Divas & Scholars event.
It’s not every day you can watch operatic superstars sing their most famous repertoire and then have dinner with them afterwards but that’s what Lucy Woodruff’s venture, Divas and Scholars, offers: an irresistible chance to get up close and personal with world renowned opera singers who have trod the boards at the The Metropolitan Opera and beyond.
I was invited to see Marianne Cornetti present a programme of Witches, Bitches and Queens at The Lansdowne Club off Piccadilly. I had seen her sing Ulrica in Un Ballo in Maschera at The Royal Opera House last September and was blown away by her performance. This phenomenal American Mezzo Soprano has an impressive CV and is soon off to San Diego for a run of Falstaff. Cornetti is a force to be reckoned with; not only is she an incredible performer but a highly polished one in recital which is really something the Americans are rather good at. They have the edge on presentation, language and technique, which just sets them a notch above any British singer I can think of. It’s a harsh fact but true. We make ‘em good but we don’t quite make ‘em great.
The unique aspect of the Divas and Scholars series is that it offers an insight to the life of a performer, how they cope with roles and the challenges they bring. I was tickled by anecdotes about crazy things stage directors have asked her to do and of costume dramas, namely a headdress that weighed eight pounds and having to sing one role wearing six-inch platforms and another in a balaclava.
What was astonishing about this recital was the sheer breadth of repertoire drawing from her years of performing at The Metropolitan Opera New York, La Scala and Verona to name a few. Cornetti started with Turandot’s aria In questa Reggia by Puccini.
Hold on a minute, this aria is for a dramatic soprano. Is she insane? There’s an old joke in the singer’s profession: How many sopranos does it take to change a light bulb? Four; one to twist it and the other three to say ‘it’s too high, she’ll never reach it’. But reach the stratospheric notes she did. After dazzling us with Verdi’s ultimate Ice Queen, she explained that she always warms up with this aria because ‘if I can sing this, I can sing anything.’
Well she proved her point because what followed was a marathon of the most testing arias in the mezzo repertoire. Arias from Il Trovatore, Lohengrin, La Gioconda and Don Carlo were sung with intensity, accuracy and superb characterization but for me the highlights were a hilarious rendition of the witches’ aria from Hansel and Gretel and a touching rendition of Mon Coeur from Samson by Saint-Saëns.
The Lansdowne is a beautiful club with a splendid performance area but I was very upset to hear they had no hand in, nor offered any assistance in, helping promote this series. How mean-spirited of them as they are sitting on a gold mine of culture which many more would be thrilled to attend if they only knew about it. I guess it’s up to me to let the secret out. The dinner was fun too; Lucy Woodruff made sure everyone got a chance to speak to the performers and was a warm and engaging hostess.
Cornetti who showed boundless energy, was joined by gifted young dramatic soprano Nadine Benjamin and tenor Neal Cooper to sing duets from Aida which complimented the arias with some feisty drama. They were accompanied by the English National Opera coach Richard Pierson whose lightness of touch and oneness with the performer shone through.
Neal Cooper later explained at dinner that he was covering Tanhäuser at The Royal Opera House (a thankless task) and wouldn’t you know it, the following night, he jumped in to save an ailing Peter Sieffert and brought the house down. I think perhaps the white witch in Cornetti had cast a little hex to nudge her co-star to unexpected fame.
The series continues on 18th May with Edward Gardner talking about conducting Tchaikovsky.