Music lovers had a rare treat recently... an evening of opera with tenor Mats Carlsson and pianist Michael Engstrom
History was made when Chennai's music aficionados were treated to ‘An Evening at the Opera' at Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Concert Hall, thanks to efforts of The Madras Seva Sadan and the Embassy of Sweden.
Audiences of Western classical music have not had the chance to listen to live performances of great operas in the city. The closest Chennai-ites have come to the opera is when they heard the popular late Victorian Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and musicals such as ‘Fiddler on the Roof' and ‘Joseph and his Coat of Many Colours' with their often spectacular staging.
So, when tenor Mats Carlsson and pianist Michael Engstrom -- both from Sweden – took the stage, magic was woven by 'the shimmering Nordic timbre' and the masterly piano accompaniment.
After studies at the Royal College of Music and the University College of Opera in Stockholm, Carlsson, a recipient of several prestigious scholarships, made his debut in 2005 and has since then sung with all the major orchestras in Sweden. He has appeared in opera concerts in Sweden, Japan and the U.S.
Michael Engstrom studied at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm and also mastered Lied interpretation in London, New York, and Germany. He has toured Europe, North America, China, Japan and Australia. He now works as a freelance pianist and accompanist.
That evening, the first two songs, ‘Jag langter dig' and ‘Skogen sover' were by Swedish composer, Hugo Alfven. Although not operatic arias, they served to introduce to the audience to the warm richness of the tenor and the sympathetic accompaniment of the pianist. After ‘Sommarnatt' by the Danish composer Mogens Schrader and ‘Tonerna' by Carl Sjoberg, the audience was presented with two charming melodies, ‘Allerseelan' and ‘Zueignung' by Richard Strauss.
Carlsson was now given a break, when the virtuosity of the freelance pianist Engstrom captured the audience as he played two pieces, ‘Till rosorn' and ‘Lawn-tennis' from ‘Frosoblomster' (When I walk alone in the dark woods) by the Swedish composer, music-critic and poet Wilhelm Peterson-Berger. All this music was from the early to mid 20th century.
Time now for the operatic arias. (As Carlsson took his position on stage, ramrod straight, feet slightly apart, in a definitive stance, he threw his shoulders back, expanding his already wide chest; he would hit a high A fortissimo, hold it and drop an octave to a pianissimo, holding it with the same ease and aplomb -- would Chennai singers learn a lesson?)
Vivid and dramatically true, ‘Carmen,' one of the greatest and most popular of all French operas, was the last work of the 19th century French composer, Georges Bizet. The story is about Carmen, a gypsy, and her lover who stabs her to death when she leaves him for a bull-fighter. The ringing voice together with the dulcet tone of the piano made the aria ‘La fleur que tu m'avais jetee' (The flower that you had thrown to me) come alive. Next was the Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti's ‘Una fortiva lagrima.'
Among the works of Giacomo Puccini-- of ‘La Boheme' and ‘Madama Butterfly' fame -- the programme showcased the most popular and outstanding aria each from two famous operas, ‘Turandot' and ‘Tosca,' ‘Nessun dorma' from the former and ‘A lucevan le stalle' from the latter, the performance of both drawing wild applause. Indeed, Carlsson's beauty of tone and perfection of phrasing has helped establish him as one of Sweden's most sought-after tenors.
The duo closed the evening with Abba's ‘Anthem' from ‘Chess' and ‘Maria' and ‘Balcony Scene' from ‘West Side Story', the most successful work of the American conductor, composer and pianist Leonard Bernstein. Then came a standing ovation from the audience, who asked for more. And more they did get! The exuberant ‘Nor jag for mig' was followed by ‘La Donna e Mobile' from Verdi's ‘Rigoletto.'
Did the audience miss the stunning sets of an opera? No. Did they miss the opulent orchestra? No.
But it was so authentically ‘An Evening at the Opera' that made one think, “So! This is why they go the opera in the West…”