Royal Opera House Muscat 2023-24 Review: Homage To Maria Callas

Sonya Yoncheva Shines As Leo Nucci Defies Expectations

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Khalid Al-Busaidi)

Although Maria Callas died almost 50 years ago, her name is still able to draw in the crowds. One of the headline offerings of the Royal Opera House Muscat’s (ROHM) current opera season was a concert entitled “Homage to Maria Callas,” which drew an enthusiastic audience. Of course, the presence of the fabulous soprano Sonya Yoncheva and the veteran baritone Leo Nucci played no small part in making the concert such a special occasion, as did the fabulous opera house itself.

A Magnificent Building Gifted to the People by Sultan Qabus bin Said

Even before entering its doors, one cannot help but be taken aback by the splendor of the building’s elegance, especially when lit by the fading light of early evening. Founded in 2011, the opera house is a majestic sight made of white Carrara marble with an imposing frontal façade of five large Arabic arches with a fort-like turret to either side. Yet, despite its magnificence, it possesses an understated, refined quality that exudes self-confidence and permanence. Once inside, guests are met by a foyer leading into a spacious, airy entrance hall, in which the milling audience can circulate with ease; there is no sense of being crowded, and there are no queues to speak of. Seating between 800 and 1100 people, the auditorium possesses excellent acoustics and wonderful sight lines, and each seat has plenty of leg space. In other words, everything is designed to make the audience’s experience as comfortable and enjoyable as possible.

Anyone visiting the ROHM would do well to avail themselves of a tour of the theatre; it is only then that one can realize the full extent of what the house has to offer. Technologically, the theatre must be one of the most advanced in the world. To meet the specific needs of  each opera or concert, the size of the performance area can be altered through the touch of a few buttons: the stage can be retracted, allowing for an extension of orchestra pit that emerges from below; the side boxes can be rotated and moved backwards, away from the stage; and if a pipe organ is required there is one behind the stage which can be moved forward onto the stage itself.

A walk over an internal bridge leads to another part of the complex, where the visitor will find a range of services and facilities open to the public. There is a well-resourced music library with listening booths and a reading area, recording studios and a hi-tech permanent exhibition dedicated to music, where the visitor can conduct an orchestra, view the rhythm of their heart, and play the traditional music of the region aided by a computer, which also assesses their performance. There are areas dedicated to instruments, to composers, to the elements that define music, and even a room with images and sounds relating to Oman’s natural environment. It is not only a fascinating experience, but its hands-on format makes it a lot of fun too. And if all this does not leave you impressed, there is also a stunning, recently completed new theatre that will be used for concerts of traditional and flamenco music.

The concert, headlined by Yoncheva and Nucci, along with the Egyptian tenor Ragaa Eldin, was under the musical direction of Leonardo Sini, conducting the Orchestra Filarmonica Italia.

The concert began with an energetic and lively performance of the overture from Verdi’s “Luisa Miller,” which Sini used to lay down a marker. Driving the piece forward with a pleasing momentum, he elicited a wonderful sound from the orchestra, which promoted textural clarity, rhythmic vibrancy and a clear sense of the dramatic. It was a standard he maintained throughout the evening as he adjusted to the demands of a disparate collection of pieces from works by Puccini, Verdi and Bizet.

All eyes were on Yoncheva. As one of the world’s best-known sopranos, the audience was full of anticipation, and although she did not disappoint, her first aria, “Pace mio Dio” from “La Forza del Destino,” was not wholly convincing. She brought plenty of energy and emotion to her presentation, but it was over-egged; her accenting and dynamic and emotional contrast certainly packed a punch, but they failed to bring out the full beauty of the piece.

This was not the case with the rest of the performance. Following Sini’s vivacious rendition of the prelude from Bizet’s “Carmen,” she produced a sparkling presentation of the “Habanera” and brought the concert to a fitting conclusion. It was her performance of Puccini’s “Il mio babbino caro” from his opera “Gianni Schicchi” that really caught the attention, in which Lauretta’s emotion was beautifully wrought as she caressed the lines with an exquisite delicacy that magnified her suffering.

Nucci Rolls Back the Years

If it was Yoncheva who carried the greatest expectations, it was Nucci who most convincingly defied them. Most of the audience would have undoubtedly heard his name; many would, no doubt, have heard some of his recordings; and few will even have heard him sing live, but it is very doubtful anyone was expecting too much from the 82-year-old baritone. Most opera singers in their eighties would long ago have passed their twilight years, yet Nucci stepped onto the stage brimming with enthusiasm and confidence and sang with the power, strength and agility that many singers half his age could only dream of; it was in many ways an astonishing performance.

Opening with the aria “O vecchio cor che batti” from “I Due Foscari,” one could only admire his technique and his ability to hold the vocal line. The voice sounded firm, the light vibrato was perfectly controlled, and he was fully engaged with his character, Francesco Foscari. His marvelous rendition of “Di Provenza” from “La Traviata” showed how well he had retained his sense of timing and ability to accent the vocal line with just the right amount of emphasis to bring the piece alive.

One could only feel sympathy for the tenor Eldin. He sang well enough, but he was always going to be in the shadows of the two famous singers. His first aria, “Ella mi fu rapita… parmi veder” from “Rigoletto,” allowed him to show off his beautiful vocal coloring along with his ability to bring emotional strength to his presentation, although his imperfect Italian articulation compromised the overall beauty on occasions. In his second aria, “O fede negar potessi…Quando le sera al placido,” from “Luisa Miller,” it was a similar story; the aria was well-crafted, and he expressed Rodolfo’s emotions successfully, but he needs to work on perfecting his articulation.

It was the two duets, both taken from “La Traviata,” that really captivated the audience, especially “Libiamo, libiamo,” which was the third of three encores and in which all three soloists took part. Along with the orchestra, they combined enthusiastically to create the party-like atmosphere, in which Nucci, still full of energy and good cheer, and so obviously enjoying himself, decided to involve members of the audience by encouraging them to clap along in the choruses, and they loved it!

While this was certainly an enjoyable concert, its billing as a “Homage to Maria Callas” seemed somewhat contrived. When thinking of the main roles one associates with Callas, it is unlikely that Luisa Miller, Carmen, or Lady Macbeth would spring to mind; she never performed Carmen live and did not have any direct connection with Luisa Miller. It is far more likely one would think of Tosca, Norma or perhaps Lucia or Medea, none of which were included in the program. Also, it may have been reasonable to expect that the concert would be dominated by the soprano, yet this was not the case; if you ignore the encore, Yoncheva was given only two arias and a duet to sing. It was Nucci, with three arias and a duet, who spent the most time on stage. Again, his decision to sing an aria from “I Due Foscari,” an opera with which Callas has no obvious connection, was a little strange.

The title proved to be no more than a minor distraction. This was a well-balanced and enjoyable concert, with plenty to admire from the singers and orchestra. Personally, what I shall remember above all else, however, is the quality and energy Nucci was able to bring to the stage at the grand old age of 82. It was simply amazing.


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