06 Jul 2008

Opera at the BBC Proms — the world’s biggest Music Festival

London’s musical life shuts down for eight weeks while the Proms reign supreme, and no wonder !

The Proms are the world’s biggest classical Music Festival. For eight weeks, they are a barometer of what’s happening in music. The BBC broadcasts every Prom worldwide, online and on demand. With this huge, international audience, the Proms are truly a worldwide celebration, bringing music lovers together wherever they may be.

The Proms have a formidable reputation for excellence. They’ve been running for 114 years, almost without a break. Most concerts take place in the Royal Albert Hall, a monument to the Victorian idea that culture advances human progress. Nearly every significant composer and performer over the last century has featured at the Proms, and the atmosphere is unique. To be in this spectacular building when 7000 people are cheering is an amazing experience, which the BBC captures remarkably well, supporting the broadcasts with many extras on its comprehensive website — they even tell you about the mysterious “Proms sub-culture” ! Many Proms are televised.

The Royal Albert Hall is famous for large scale orchestral music, but opera, too, is heard to advantage. This year’s big event is Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea. It’s a concert performance of the Glyndebourne production, performed by the highly regarded baroque specialists, Emmanuel Haïm and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Glyndebourne is the epitome of “country house opera”, where top quality productions take place in glorious settings. The BBC Proms makes it possible for everyone listening to catch some of the magic. This isn’t one to miss — it’s on July 31st .

Puccini’s Il tabarro follows on August 11th, with Barbara Frittoli as Giorgetta and Lado Ataneli as Michelo. Jiřì Bělohlávek is at last being recognised as a superlative Janàcěk conductor, so Osud on August 21st will be another highlight, particularly as Bělohlávek’s work is seldom recorded. Even rarer is Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kaschey the Immortal on September 5th. Vladimir Jurowski conducts. He’s been a sensation at Glyndebourne and at the South Bank, and this is his kind of repertoire.

The Proms also bring Messiaen’s St Francis of Assisi straight from Amsterdam. It’s almost exactly the same cast, with Rodney Gilfrey as St. Francis, and Ingo Metzmacher conducts the Hague Philharmonic rather than the Residentie Orkest. This should be intriguing, as this 5 hour blockbuster is quite an undertaking. Again, unmissable ! James Sohre reviewed the original Amsterdam performance for Opera Today here.


These operas are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s also Verdi’s Requiem, Handel’s Belshazzar, Janàcěk’s Glagolitic Mass (conducted by Boulez), Bach’s St John Passion, and the massed choir spectacular that is Messiaen’s La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus Christ. Among the singers who will be heard are Karita Mattila (Strauss Four Last Songs), John Tomlinson (excerpts from Boris Gudunov), and Angelika Kirchschlager (Schubert). The famous (or notorious, depending on your point of view) Last Night of the Proms is always an experience, but Beethoven’s 9th Symphony which always features before the Last Night. “Alle Menschen werden Brüder, wo dein sanfter Flügeln wielt”. People all over the world are brought together, wherever The Proms “wings” can reach. Nothing expresses the ethos of the BBC Proms spirit better ! And thanks to international broadcasting and the internet, the dream can come true, for a while.

The BBC Proms website with a link for listening may be found here.

Anne Ozorio