This is a tough one – what could I possibly write about Sarah Connolly that was neither too personal nor too fawning, nor like a slightly creepy love letter?
It wasn’t always quite like that – my first conscious memory of Sarah (if I may) is hearing her sing Dido’s lament on ClassicFM (my landlady’s radio channel of choice) in the kitchen of the Persian family I was living with as a student. My landlady was much more enthusiastic than I was – “decent, but not Tatiana Troyanos”, I think I said.* Few months later we would sit down to watch the Last Night of the Proms together, and remember this conversation – only this time the landlady was rather unimpressed, while I was completely sold (or, truth to be told, besotted). Sarah Connolly was beautiful. Her Mahler was exquisitely sung and deeply felt. She could wear knee-breeches and a bicorne like nobody else. It was the first time I had seen her, and she instantly became one my favourite singers.
In Oxford we are lucky because sooner or later everyone tends to wash up here, and so I didn’t have to wait too long for Sarah to come and perform here. I remember particularly one recital from few years ago, with Roderick Williams in the Holywell Music Room – they sang the complete Lady of the Lake cycle by Schubert, and it was brilliant and atmospheric, one of those rare and wonderful performances that can really set off the imagination, and stay with you for a long time, evoking love for a particular piece of music, even if it’s Schubert.
There have been other memorable moments – the dark and stormy night of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius for the quincentenary of the Merton College, the Sheldonian sagging under the weight of the audience, the wind howling in the corners; the gloriously ridiculous (or ridiculously glorious) rose presentation scene in the ENO’s Rosenkavalier (that was some outfit); the equal parts coldly elegant and utterly devastating Glyndebourne Hippolyte et Aricie with its Vivienne Westwood dresses and oversize fridges for sets; the primordial red clay world of ROH’s Oedipe. Not all of those huge roles, but all well chosen and performed with such intelligence and dedication that it hardly mattered – I have seen disappointing performances by many singers, some even by my very favourites, but I cannot remember any from Sarah. I never have had the feeling that she had accepted a role or a performance for the sake of fee or the chance to perform, without having done the hard craft of learning, of understanding the music, without finding value in it, or without giving it her best.
*) Few years later, I’d hear Handel’s Scherza infida sang by Troyanos, and think that it was quite good, but not a patch on Connolly’s, so I guess we can call it a draw.
Sarah Connolly was made a Dame in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.
She has two performances of Brett Dean’s Hamlet left in Glyndebourne, and will again come to the Oxford Lieder Festival in October.
The featured image is from the Askonas Holt website; if you took the second one, give me a shout.