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Jessica Cale and George Ireland

by on 29 September 2021

Singing into the darkness

Jessica Cale and George Ireland

Opera Live at Home, St Pancras Clock Tower, then online from 28 September

Review by Matthew Grierson

It must be quite daunting to sing into a webcam; even if you can make out the faces of the audience who have their cameras switched on, they’re surely postage stamp-sized. But as soprano and pianist alike reflect in the Q&A following the recital, performing takes them half out of their surroundings and into the world of the opera itself. Mind you, Jessica Cale and George Ireland are coming live from the St Pancras Clock Tower, which seems a suitably dramatic venue in which to imagine the sung action.

By concentrating on soprano arias, tonight’s recital juxtaposes lone women from across the repertoire. It would be too easy to suggest that they were all as a result lost or abandoned characters, though there is, necessarily, a common theme of isolation. But in their different responses to literal or figurative solitude, we see a greater variety of female agency than one might imagine in opera, their modes ranging from lament and vengeance to playfulness and daring.

Cale proves more than capable of these transitions between moods. The bitter ‘L’empio rigor del fato’ from Handel’s Rodelinda is followed by the initially calm ‘How beautiful it is’ from Britten’s The Turn of the ScrewBut this contains its own abrupt change of tone, in which Cale’s singing is effectively supported by Ireland’s suddenly staccato piano. One also wonders whether there is a confluence of imagination and reality when Cale cries ‘Who is it, who?’ to a laptop screen full of names with their cameras off.

After the haunting change of gear in the Britten,, there is a lighter touch to Ireland’s introduction for ‘Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante’ from Carmen, signalling something of the comic that MC Helen Astrid mentions in her build-up to the piece. Largely assured and friendly in tone, Astrid’s commentaries on the work we will hear give Cale a valuable opportunity for a breather, which is all to the good given that Bizet calls on her to express real passion.

Next comes more Handel, this time one of Cleopatra’s aria from Giulio Cesare in Egitto. Astrid emphasises what a feat it is to perform this role, given its thirteen solos. It can’t be too shabby to perform half a dozen pieces from different operas in the space of an hour, either, and that’s switching from Italian to English to French and back to Italian.

Cale not only manages this, and the Queen of the Nile’s own transition from reflective to vengeful, she isn’t even deterred when Astrid announces the following piece out of sequence, and the singer conveys ‘Quando m’en vo’ from La Bohème with the joy and vivacity it deserves. Susanna’s aria from act four of Figaro makes for a more wistful ending to the bill than may have been planned, but there’s no disguising the emotion here either.

Cale and Ireland earn their choice of encore, William Walton’s ‘Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table’, a spirited setting of ‘Oranges and Lemons’ entirely in keeping with the clock tower venue. In lieu of a curtain call and stage door, the two performers also gamely field questions from a now on-camera audience. A programme begun in isolation ends up bringing us all together.

Matthew Grierson
September 2021

Photography by Emma Brown

One Comment
  1. celiabard permalink

    Sounds quite a daunting experience for these two opera singers, but one that seems to have been very successful.

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