Ian Bostridge’s lieder programme at La Scala went down extremely well, though interval chat revealed that many were confused by his apparent dislike of the audience. His lack of communication facially was certainly compensated for vocally, but apart from an attempted smile a few minutes before the end of his recital, Bostridge gave the impression that the applause was irritating, or at least, uncalled for.
Yet he doesn’t ignore his audience. When he is singing he takes in every corner of the theatre – for that matter, he examined the innards of the piano several times too – so he’s certainly not singing for himself, but the emotional block stops a very good concert becoming a great one.
The Bostridge cliché is saying that he is ‘intelligent’ and ‘tall’. Well, he is both those things, but so much more. His musicianship is outstanding. He has a myriad of ways of approaching and sustaining each note, and searches out and reveals every colour and nuance in his beautiful voice. He maximises the effect of the words: he caresses them, teases them and occasionally spits them out accompanied by a blue-eyed venomous stare. In doing so he even risks interrupting the vocal line, but nothing gets past him and he makes the most of everything the composer provides him with.
Bostridge’s eccentric body language either shows a lack of caring what anyone thinks or a lack of self-awareness, but as he staggers and reels about the stage you get that feeling that his only interest is that the music comes first. This is the final sensation that came across to the Milanese public which rewarded him with earnest, if not effusive, applause.
In his Schubert, Liszt and Schumann programme, culminating in the Dichterliebe, he was accompanied by Thomas Adès who gave an extraordinary symphonic rendering of each piece. Schubert, especially, shone anew with his warm and broad palette of colours. It is rare to hear such an intense collaboration between singer and pianist where a ‘solo’ recital is experienced as a duet for two instruments.
While you wouldn’t want Bostridge to tell jokes like Bryn Terfel, or recount long anecdotes like Joyce DiDonato, it would be well-mannered to meet the audience halfway. If you are introduced to someone, you don’t expect – or want – a bear-hug… but a handshake would be nice.