Few concerts overcome adversity quite to the extent that this one managed to. Originally billed as an evening of duets and arias from operas and operettas starring American singers Thomas Hampson and Susan Graham, first Hampson withdrew for personal reasons then Graham dropped out only a couple of days beforehand, due to ill health.
The Barbican rallied impressively, however, and managed to secure the services of Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel and English mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly. It was a shame to be denied the opportunity to hear them duetting, but in the circumstances it was remarkable that the concert took place at all, and the performances were mostly so excellent that it would be churlish to complain.
Terfel offered four items, starting with Leporello's Catalogue Aria from Mozart's Don Giovanni and the same composer's Concert Aria, 'Io ti lascio, oh cara, addio'. Terfel's voice has darkened in recent years, no doubt partly as a result of taking on some of the heavy Wagner roles, and I found his vibrato a bit too heavy for Mozart's elegant lines. Yet he still breathes life into the music and communicated Leporello's cheeky character very vividly. The Concert Aria was more beautifully sung, but sometimes a more controlled tempo might have given it a more effective shape.
Sarah Connolly must be one of the most prodigiously gifted people on the planet and even though she only sang three arias, each performance was so meltingly exquisite that it was ample food for the ears and soul alike. She began with Sesto's 'Pace, pace, ma tu ben mio' from La clemenza di Tito and at once demonstrated her perfect intonation, careful phrasing and pure tone quality. Sesto's other aria from the same opera, 'Deh, per questo istante solo', was equally impressive, showing excellent breath control in the long, slow opening section and nimble coloratura in the rapid coda.
The first half was completed by two overtures, from Mozart's Don Giovanni and Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri respectively. The Mozart could have been more inexorably doom ridden, but in both cases the BBC Symphony Orchestra and their Principal Conductor, Jiri Belohlávek showed especial care towards the clean string writing, while the solo piccolo and clarinet excelled throughout the concert.
After the interval, a visceral rendition of Wagner's Flying Dutchman Overture was the perfect introduction to the Dutchman's monologue from the same opera. Terfel was at the absolute height of his powers in this performance, pointing the words carefully and showing exceptional stamina in this demanding piece. He was also convincing in Tchaikovsky's song, 'None but the lonely heart', even if it did seem tame fare after the Dutchman.
Connolly's only contribution to the second half was Marguerite's 'D'amour l'ardente flamme' from La damnation de Faust, but it was worth the wait. This was some of the best French vocal singing I've heard in a long time: intoxicating, alluring, she captured the moment with finesse and dazzled with her vocal stamina.
To fill up the slightly empty programme, the BBCSO offered the Waltz from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin - never a convincing orchestral showpiece in my view, because it suffers from not having the opera's choral parts, but a credible last-minute replacement - and a glossy, rousing ending with Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmila Overture.
In all, it was a remarkable affair, probably rendered all the more exciting because of the late changes of soloist. All credit to Belohlávek for co-ordinating the situation so well.