On Saturday July 1st 2023, the gilded splendour of Leamington’s Royal Pump Rooms provided a suitably ornate setting for the drama and intensity of Rossini’s final major work.
Gioachino Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle is a hugely approachable piece of music which wears its heart on its sleeve. It is great fun to sing, and immediately appealing to an audience. Yet it is not just a great showpiece: during the preceding ten weeks our MD Lee Dunleavy took the choir on a journey of exploration, digging deep into the heart of this music to try to uncover the composer’s intentions . Often in rehearsal Lee would ask us: “Why did Rossini write it like this?”, encouraging us to think about the choices the composer made and why he might have made them.
The Petite Messe is far from being a conventional setting of the mass. Rossini was a highly successful opera composer, and knew how to exploit all the potential of the human voice, whether as a massed chorus, individual voices or a quartet of soloists. As in his operas, there are moments of high drama, pathos and also comedy. Sometimes Rossini plumbs the depths of human emotion, as in the impassioned pleading of the ‘Agnus Dei’ which ends the piece, but at other times he simply revels in effects for effect’s sake. His own slightly tongue-in-cheek verdict on the work, which appears at the bottom of the original manuscript score:
“Dear Lord, here it is finished, this poor little mass. Have I just written sacred music, or rather, sacrilegious music? I was born for opera buffa, as you well know. Not much technique, a little bit of heart, that's all. Blessings to you and grant me Paradise.”
One of the unconventional things about the Petite Messe is the composer’s choice of instrumentation. The space constraints of the Parisian salon for which it was written meant that a full orchestra was not an option, but Rossini chose instead to pair piano and harmonium, or in this version, piano and accordion. And what a bravura piece of writing it is! Colin Druce, our pianist, said to us one evening when he took the rehearsal in Lee’s absence: “My job is to try to steal the show - your job is not to let me!” - and his virtuoso performance certainly gave us plenty to live up to. Ben de Souza’s accordion playing was a revelation, especially in the Bach-inspired ‘Prélude Religieux’, demonstrating that the instrument has a range of expression far beyond the folk music with which it is often associated.
But the show was well and truly stolen by our soloists, who clearly relished the operatic highlights of this nevertheless deeply religious piece, and filled the Pump Rooms with Rossini’s soaring melodies and dramatic statements. All four are experienced opera singers.... The British-Nigerian soprano April Koyejo-Audiger recently sang Pamina in Mozart’s The Magic Flute for Welsh National Opera, and the Sandman in Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel at Opera Holland Park. The mezzo-soprano Cerys Purser LRAM, an experienced vocal teacher and choral entrepreneur, has played a key role in the Warwick - a Singing Town project, alongside her work in opera. The tenor Monwabisi Lindi, from South Africa, has been working in the UK since his début as Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Bohème for Hampstead Garden Opera in 2019, and has just been announced as one of Scottish Opera’s “Emerging Artists” for 2023-4. And bass Blaise Malaba, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, is currently engaged at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in a variety of roles, having been a member of their prestigious Jette Parker Young Artist Program from 2020 to 2022.
A huge ‘thank you’ as always to Lee Dunleavy, to all our professional musicians, to everyone in the choir and to our loyal and enthusiastic audience. What a wonderful way to end our 2022-3 season!