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The Royal Albert Hall, Home of the Proms!, Image © BBC
22 Oct 2007

Opera at the BBC Proms 2007

Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s guest appearance is an annual fixture at the Proms, and this year the work of choice was Verdi’s Macbeth, in a semi-staged performance on July 24th based on Richard Jones’s new production for this year’s Festival.

The Royal Albert Hall: Home of the Proms!
Image © BBC


The opera was done in a hybrid edition in which the familiar 1865 score gives way to the 1847 finale following ‘Pietà, rispetta, amore’, thus keeping all the later version’s best music and gaining a more theatrical, less ‘operatic’ ending.

Indeed, it had been a theatrically-compelling staging — at its Glyndebourne home. However its bulky sets and large-scale choreography simply wouldn’t have been viable in the limited dimensions and exposed nature of the Royal Albert Hall platform. Consequently Geoffrey Dolton’s semi-staged adaptation retained little of the original, and had it not been for the tartan costumes which provided such a clear indication of family allegiances, it might as well have been given in concert.

On its own terms, however, the musical performance was very strong, led by Vladimir Jurowski whose conducting had rhythmic delicacy and dramatic sweep. Voices which sound thrillingly huge in Glyndebourne’s intimate and forgiving acoustic can struggle to make an impression in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall, but as Lady Macbeth, Sylvie Valayre was notable here for her strength and lyricism, and Stanislav Shvets for a portentous yet introverted account of Banquo. Strong performances too came from Andrzej Dobber in the title role, and Peter Auty as a young Macduff who is matured by his personal tragedy.

On to August 12th and this season’s operatic highlight: a concert performance of Götterdämmerung, the culmination of the first “Ring cycle” in the Proms’ 113-year history - in reality, performances of the four operas by four different companies over the space of four years. After visits from Simon Rattle with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Antonio Pappano with a semi-staged adaptation from the Royal Opera, and Christoph Eschenbach with the Orchestre de Paris, the baton was handed to Donald Runnicles and the Proms “house band”, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, for the final instalment in a concert performance.

It was a terrific ensemble effort by all concerned, speaking volumes about Runnicles’ rapport with the orchestra. Christine Brewer (a regular guest performer with the BBCSO) was a radiant, committed Brünnhilde. Stig Andersen gave a muscular performance as Siegfried albeit with a couple of botched top notes, and John Tomlinson’s Hagen was a triumph of characterisation and malevolent stage presence. Of the supporting cast, the Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill gave a notably excellent performance as Waltraute; her focused, dramatic sound and expansive phrasing will surely stand her in good stead for similar repertoire in the future. Only the Norns — Andrea Baker, Natascha Petrinsky and Miranda Keys — sounded as though they had not been employed with the success of the ensemble in mind, and even this is no reflection on the individual singers.

This performance was a great achievement and, like all successful Wagner performances, succeeded in making six hours go by in the blink of an eye.

August 20th brought a performance of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Christoph von Dohnányi, in a concert whose first half featured Webern’s orchestration of part of Bach’s ‘Musical Offering’ and a recently-assembled concert suite from Thomas Adès’s 1995 opera Powder Her Face. Contemporary music, even going back as far as Bartók, simply doesn’t seem to pull in the crowds at the Proms; the hall was almost empty. This cannot have done much for the morale of the orchestra or soloists, but this Bluebeard performance would surely have been disappointing in any case. Charlotte Hellekant was miscast as Judit, her glacial poise giving no indication of the warmth she promises to bring to her chilly new home. Correspondingly there was scant evocation of this in the orchestral playing, and little sense of the richly-drawn individual musical worlds to be found behind each of the seven doors. The orchestral balance was all wrong too, swamping Falk Struckmann’s intelligent, generous-voiced Bluebeard.

In the final week of the season, James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra visited for two evenings — an orchestral concert as well as a concert performance of Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. This performance fell on September 6th, the day Luciano Pavarotti died, and the performance was dedicated to his memory.

Vocally the highlight was Yvonne Naef’s glorious mezzo in her fevered, introverted account of ‘D’amour l’ardente flamme’, but elsewhere there were a few problems. As Faust, Marcello Giordani had a tendency to strain, while as Méphistophélès, the veteran José van Dam sounded a touch threadbare. The real strengths in the principal ensemble lay elsewhere; the dynamic between Faust and Méphistophélès was well-developed, and the characters were finely-drawn and well rounded. This was, after all, a late date in the orchestra’s tour calendar, so the opera (or rather the ‘dramatic legend’) came to London fully ripe. This experience was evident too in the disciplined and vivid singing of the chorus, and in the wonderful orchestral playing especially in some of the solo woodwind.

Ruth Elleson © 2007

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