Orchestra: Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest
Conductor: Maxim Emelyanychev
Soloists: Soojin Moon-Sebastian (soprano), Maria Riccarda Wesseling (mezzo-soprano), Paulo Ferreira (tenor), Hawijch Elders (violin)
Chorus: Toonkunst Amsterdam
Programme supervising: Laurence Dale
Presentation: Gregor Bak
WATER AND OPERA A SUCCESSFUL MARRIAGE IN ROTTERDAM
In his book Karakter, Dutch author Bordewijk described Rotterdam as the city in which fresh mountain water and briny sea water meet in a marriage that lasts forever. From this eternal marriage, the Veerhavenconcert was born in 2002. Originally a corporate event for project developer OVG, it soon became one of the high points in the cultural calendar of Rotterdam and the surrounding area.
Although according to professional Rotterdammer Jules Deelder, money is earned in Rotterdam, allocated in The Hague and squandered in Amsterdam, it would be hard to deny the concert organisers ample funding, just as it would be hard to accuse sponsor OVG Real Estate of stinginess. Admission to the opera concert on the water is free even though the organisation is a costly business, partly due to the construction of the pontoons.
The old-fashioned rivalry between Rotterdam and Amsterdam exists mainly in the minds of senior citizens and football hooligans. Given that I count myself as a senior Ajax hooligan, a folkloric population which is sadly approaching extinction, it’s impossible for me not to compare this ‘water music’ with its Amsterdam counterpart, the Prinsengracht concert. The Prinsengracht concert can be properly followed by no more than roughly 22 VIPs, well-known snobs with petit fours and champers within easy reach. The remaining shipboard audience, a lower calibre of snob, white sweaters draped nonchalantly across shoulders, spends the concert swearing at each other because no-one is literally giving each other a wide enough berth. Only by watching it on television do you actually see any of the concert. In that case, do switch it off in time to avoid having to witness the horribly jolly ‘old boys’ community singing of ‘Aan de Amsterdamse grachten’ (On the Canals of Amsterdam), preferably led by a Chechen tenor with a funny, therefore endearing, accent; On dee Emstdudemz Charactu! The 2018 edition of this scented event unfortunately revealed that Amsterdam’s new lady mayor does not know the lyrics to the capital’s anthem. Awkward. She’s probably never heard of famous Amsterdam folk singer Tante Leen either. Listen on Youtube.
In the events competition, Veerhaven versus Prinsengracht, we have to declare: 1-0. And in terms of the Battle of the Entourage, generations of seafarers versus yacht club chaps, again: 1-0. We just have to admit that the Rotterdam boats, flanked by antique sailing ships, bob more authentically on the water. They give the impression of rough, tough seamen’s families, rather than villa park nouveaux riches and their chums.
Laurence Dale had put together a lovely programme in Rotterdam, extremely accessible for the occasion, yet not simply sticking to all the safe and well-trodden paths of opera repertoire. One of the greatest treats was the omission of both the ouverture of La Forza del Destino and ‘O mio babbino caro’. We were also spared the sentimental ‘Flower Duet’ from Delibes’ Lakme. Bravo! With such a good start, it’s hard to imagine anything going wrong.
Having said that, you do need to have exceptional soloists with which to capture the Veerhavenconcert audience on such an evening. The German soprano Soojin Moon-Sebastian, Maria Riccarda Wesseling (mezzo) and Paulo Ferreira (tenor) were all excellent choices. As always, the ever-outstanding Toonkunstkoor Amsterdam (Amsterdam, half a point extra then) added their voices along with Hawijch Elders (violin). Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev led the Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest. A surprising element in the programme, next to Verdi, Dvorak, Puccini, Ponchielli, Offenbach and De Sarasate, was the addition of Benjamin Britten, with ‘Storm’, one of his Sea Interludes (from Peter Grimes), an enthralling orchestral piece of Khachaturian proportions. Nice choice. Just a shame that there was no thunder and lightning, which would have enhanced the ambiance. No, the storm broke later, brief but ferocious. Unfortunately, there was a presenter who, as presenters are wont, interrupted the musical flow in an irritating fashion. The programme booklet describes the chatty chap with words like ‘casual’ ‘catchy’, so that should give you an idea. He instructed the audience as to how they should applaud, a severe test of your reviewer’s pacifistic nature. It was all we could do not to shout, ‘Just get on with it!’
A selection from the programme. ‘Nessun Dorma’ (I had hoped for ‘E lucevan le stelle’, I’m a sucker for B minor) although sung by a Portuguese, was more Italian than Italian belcanto (Listen on Youtube) in tenor Paulo Ferreira’s capable hands, although the aria ended somewhat abruptly. Ferreira made his debut in 2011, having spiced his pasta with a generous pinch of camphor, together with Anna Netrebko, what you might call a dream come true, career-wise. Young violinist Hawijch Elders played the Carmen Phantasy by De Sarasate, with much encouragement from the audience, but it wasn’t perfect by far. Let’s cover this young violinist’s performance with the cloak of charity. The career of the Dutch-Swiss mezzo soprano Maria Riccarda Wesseling (1969) has gone largely unnoticed in the Netherlands, unfortunately, although she has performed in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, for example. Her international breakthrough came in 2006, when she replaced Susan Graham in Paris. Her impressive voice sounds remarkably youthful, as could be heard in, for example, the duet from Madama Butterfly, ‘Or vienmi ad adornar’. Wesseling sang a last-minute (what’s a concert without a programme change?) ‘Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix’ from Camille Saint-Saëns’ opera Samson et Dalila, and did that wonderfully, without a trace of the false sentiment to which this aria so often falls victim.
The high point of the evening was without doubt the performance by soprano Soojin Moon-Sebastian, who once presented us with one of the two most beautiful performances of Madama Butterfly ever heard in the Netherlands (2012, Opera Zuid, directed by Frank Van Laecke). The other was the magnificent Butterfly by Annemarie Kremer, excellently directed by Laurence Dale (Reisopera, 2015). During the Veerhavenconcert, Soojin Moon gave a very beautiful rendition of ‘Come in quest’ora bruna’ from Simon Boccanegra, filled with subtle and expertly-placed dynamic contrasts. The German soprano, originally from Korea, went on to take it up a notch with ‘In Questa Reggia’ from Puccini’s Turandot. This aria is from the second scene of the second act, and is sung mainly by the soprano, with a few lines for the tenor and the chorus. The opera revolves around this aria; in it, the tragic background to the three riddles is explained and Turandot warns the Prince that if he cannot solve the three riddles, he will die. The climax of the aria is the tormented howl ‘grido’, a reminder of the horrible fate of her predecessor, so long ago. Soojin Moon sang the compelling aria with a vocally-perfect empathy, visibly impressing the audience. Being able to experience this world-class performance was a golden opportunity for opera lovers in Rotterdam.
Just one more thing about the programming of this spectacle coupé. Engaging Laurence Dale as programmer and supervisor was another excellent move by the organisers. As a director, Dale has a fantastic track record in the Netherlands, for example with his productions of Butterfly and Ariadne auf Naxos (both Reisopera). A professional pur sang, he has therefore never been seen in the Amsterdam Muziektheater. You have to go to Rotterdam for that.
As far we’re concerned, Het Veerhavenconcert has left that other major Rotterdam attraction, the last train to Amsterdam, far behind.
Olivier Keegel (Published on 26/8/2018)
The same concert will take place in Almere on 1 September, with the title ‘Yakult Havenkom Concert’; see www.almerehavenfestival.nl
Olivier Keegel (Published on 27/8/2018)