Doña Francisquita
(concert performance)

Cologne
June 2nd 1999

Doña Francisquita - María Bayo
Fernando - Francisco Araiza
La Beltrana - Graciela Araya
Cardona - Hector Sandoval

The performance, given in the WDR Concert Hall, was being recorded for radio transmission - of which more below. It was also, in essence, a dry run for a performance two days later in Dresden, as part of that city's music festival, which includes a Spanish theme this year.

The hall - an excellent acoustic - was sold out and the audience responded warmly to Vives' bright, elegant music. The orchestra coped well with the score; the occasional eccentric tempo - of which, again, more below - was hardly their fault. They came a bit unstuck during the Fandango in Act III but even this drew solid applause.

Bayo gave a typically ravishing performance, showing yet again that the diamond voice is even better live than recorded. She was clearly enjoying herself, projecting with wit and animation. To select the obvious, the Canción del ruiseñor, a gallery-pleasing number if ever there was, produced the desired effect. She had a way - as in Barcelona last year - of smiling at the audience just before taking on the high notes at the end of each verse, which emphasised the confidence she currently has. Even the manic conductor - of which, forgive the repeats, more below - was forced to halt the performance for the ovations. He didn't look too pleased.

Francisco Araiza seemed strangely wooden beside this sparkle. Unusual to see a pair of lovers singing to each other, one all vivacity and smiles, the other staring stolidly ahead and avoiding eye contact with his partner (Yo no fui sincera, perdóname). However, his voice remains pleasant, if better in the higher registers - though he looked decidedly apprehensive coming to the end of Por el humo se sabe.

As La Beltrana, Graciela Araya took her time to warm up but the voice soon rounded out and she was in full flow for ¡Escúchame! in Act II. She was also excellent with Cardona, sung well by the Mexican Hector Sandoval, who understood how the part needs to be sung and characterised - no tenor pomp, which isn't the same as saying that any old voice will do. The rest of the parts were taken by chorus members doubling up as occasional soloists. The chorus itself was enthusiastic and, mostly, convincing - we'll forgive the pronunciation.

So we come to the estrella of the evening (forget Bayo and Co.) - a gentleman by the name of Helmuth Froschaur, who recognises that the conductor is the star and that singers, musicians, chorus, are but bit players and lackeys to his stupendous ego. There are no surtitles in the WDR Hall, so before each section of the piece a brief explanation was read out in German (this sounds intrusive but wasn't). A fatal lack of communication ensued after Yo no fui sincera, perdóname. The reader stood up to tell us what was to happen and ... Helmuth yells at the orchestra, scores are turned backwards and off we go in reverse, soloists frantically turning pages, smiling, to give them credit, finally - just about - getting through. OK. So now back to base. Too easy. Helmuth shoves soloists off stage. Huge applause - but what about Canto alegre? Easy, my friends, we planned it as an encore (of course, Helmuth). So, driven ahead of him, back come the soloists. And away we go. A safe touchdown.

And there was more. I don't think I'm being too selfish in expecting the singers to be allowed their curtain call. Helmuth does. On stage, three times, majestically he sweeps, mounting the podium superbly, bowing, grinning - he has wonderful teeth - and as an afterthought waving vaguely in the direction of the soloists. Their good humour was beyond the call.

And the pity of the whole thing - to get back to my first "of which more below"s - is that the splicers and editors of this comic episode will deny the listeners the chance to hear a first-rate ego cock-up. But at least they'll hear some wonderful singing.

© Michael James 1999


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