Gifted young baritone

Matthew Palmer as Papageno in Sheffield City Opera's production of The Magic Flute
Matthew Palmer as Papageno in Sheffield City Opera's production of The Magic Flute

ONCE upon a time there didn’t used to be an audience stampede to the nearest bar in intervals between acts in an opera performance.

A night at the opera in the 18th century was usually ongoing without breaks, not that people didn’t nip out every so often to the nearest hostelry!

But the music played on because between acts of an opera, invariably opera seria in those days, there was light relief in the form of short-ish (though not always) usually comedic, operatic interludes.

They were more realistic, perhaps topical and often with comic characters, all in stark contrast to the opera seria with its mythological deities, kings and tyrants.

Eventually the intermezzos, or intermezzi, as they became known, surpassed their serious counterparts in popularity and developed into opera buffa in Italy and opera comique in France, though the two were not temperamentally the same and became less so as the meaning of latter changed.

Bizet’s Carmen, for instance, hardly a bundle of laughs, is designated an opera comique!

But it leads to the soloist in a well-known intermezzo, Cimarosa’s Il Maestro di Cappella, a 20-minute affair with one character, which is part of a Hallam Sinfonia concert at Ecclesall Parish Church this Saturday.

The pompous, crusty maestro is sung by the gifted young baritone of enormous potential, Matthew Palmer, who toured in a Heritage Opera production of Carmen last October and November doubling as Morales and Zuniga.

So what else has he been doing since graduating from Sheffield University last summer, other than a couple of Mozart operas: Papageno in Sheffield City Opera’s Magic Flute last September and Guglielmo in Steel Opera’s Così fan Tutte shortly after?

“I spent the summer singing in various places, including Sheffield,” says Matt who had singing lessons for over a year to get to grade 8 before coming here if you are wondering about the highly impressive, well formed voice for one so young.

“One of the highlights was singing in the chorus for three fully staged operas in three weeks at the Opéra de Baugé Summer Festival (a French ‘Glyndebourne’). It was a great experience and I met some fantastic singers.

“It also introduced me to Fidelio (Beethoven), which has grown to become one of my favourite pieces of music. I sang in it again in September for a concert performance with Oxford Philomusica, again with fantastic principals.

“Singing the finale is one of the most amazing musical experiences I’ve ever had!”

Future plans involve applying for music college, taking language courses and playing Marullo in Verdi’s Rigoletto for Heritage Opera for which he shortly begins rehearsals. 

Back to Il Maestro di Capella – The Master of the Choir or orchestra (music director, nowadays) penned around 1790 and the plot, such as it is.

It’s really just an extended solo vocal scene.

Over the course of two recitatives and arias, the maestro rehearses an orchestra, vocally imitating instruments in the first one and expressing ‘bravo’ at the end while uttering ‘what a harmonious fracas’ as an aside.

In the second aria he repeatedly exclaims to the bassoon and oboe ‘No! no! no! The instrument does nothing for me’ before thanking the orchestra in apparent satisfaction.

“The piece wouldn’t be the first thing you might have in mind for someone of my age and voice,” admits Matthew, “but it is an interesting challenge, in terms of acting and singing.

“It seems to transfer well to a 21st century audience, particularly from my point of view as I spent three years playing percussion in (university) orchestras so it’s fairly easy to relate to the details of the ‘plot’, if you can call it that.

“Overall, though, it is a lot of fun, with beautiful Classical techniques, melodies and harmonies.”  Think of Mozart, whose Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is played before the Cimarosa, and you have a good idea what to expect musically.