Celine Byrne and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra at the National Concert Hall, 18 December 2014
With the stage decked out with fairy lights, trees and tinsel, Christmas has truly come to the National Concert Hall. In recent years, the traditional Christmas Gala Concert with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra has featured no less than three sopranos of varying combinations. In a small break with tradition, however, this afternoon and evening sees just one singer with the stage to herself, soprano Celine Byrne. Before she arrives, conductor David Brophy leads the orchestra through the Prelude to Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel, the music easily projecting a warm seasonal glow.
Brophy, microphone in hand, doubles as MC as he turns to the audience to introduce Byrne, his straightforward approach creating an easy rapport. He needn’t worry of course: the sell-out audience is there to be entertained and Celine Byrne’s combination of down-to-earth manner with a fine voice is a marketer’s dream. Having to sing two concerts back-to-back is no mean feat, however, and initially at least she seems to be pacing herself carefully. The first two solo items, the ‘Song to the Moon’ from Dvorák’s Rusalka and the ‘Jewel Song’ from Gounod’s Faust, are sung intelligently—with what sounds like good Czech in the Dvorák – if a little safely. Byrne’s greatest successes to date have been in the operas of Puccini and her voice seems to come alive more with his music in the pieces that follow. The reliable favourite ‘O mio babbino caro’ (Gianni Schicchi) is followed by a surprise extra in the form of the showpiece aria ‘Un bel dì’ [One fine day] from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This she sings with freshness and vigour, clearly projecting the emotional presence of the character without losing the dreamlike sense of the music. Her feeling for verismo repertoire continues in the ‘Bird Song’ from Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci. The arias in this half are interspersed with instrumental numbers smoothly played by the orchestra—one highlight is the ‘Intermezzo’ from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, featuring solos from cellist Polly Ballard and Adèle Johnson on viola.
The seasonal swagger comes into full force in the second half, with Christmas carols and songs all the way. The programme presents a nicely-balanced mix of seasonal favourites, from the pure simplicity of Holst’s setting of ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ and ‘Silent Night’ (sung in both Irish and English here) to the segued jazz standards ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ and ‘White Christmas’, mixed in with a whole host of orchestral miniatures involving bells, including two sleigh rides (Prokofiev and Mozart). Byrne brings the whole event to a close with the inevitable ‘O Holy Night’, bringing out its gently unwinding melodies with deceptive ease and assurance right through to the ringing top notes at the end. The delighted audience rises up to applaud, before heading off into the wintry chill.
Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel – ‘Prelude’
Dvovák: Rusalka – ‘Song to the Moon’
Gounod: Faust – ‘Jewel Song’
Puccini: Manon Lescaut – ‘Intermezzo’
Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker – ‘Coffee (Arabian Dance)’
Puccini: Gianni Schicchi – ‘O mio babbino caro’
Puccini: Madama Butterfly – ‘Un bel dì’
Leoncavallo: I Pagliacci – ‘Intermezzo’ and ‘Qual fiamma… Stridono lassù’
Tchaikovsky: The Sleeping Beauty Suite – ‘Panorama’ and ‘Waltz’
Mason (arr. Gamely): ‘Joy to the World’
Holst (arr. Finucane): ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’
Prokofiev: Lieutenant Kijé – ‘Troika’
Martin & Blane (arr. Finucane): ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’
Berlin (arr. Finucane): ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas’
Mozart: Three German Dances, K. 605 – ‘Sleigh Ride’
Leontovych (arr. Hayman): ‘Carol of the Bells’
Gruber (arr. Cohen): ‘Silent Night’
Adam (arr. Pierce): ‘O Holy Night’