Opera at the BBC Proms 2007

The opera was done in a hybrid edition in which the
familiar 1865 score gives way to the 1847 finale following ‘Piet‡, 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 ó 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

On to August 12th and this season’s operatic highlight: a concert
performance of Gˆtterd‰mmerung, the culmination of the first
ìRing cycleî 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 ìhouse bandî, 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 Br¸nnhilde. 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 ó Andrea Baker, Natascha
Petrinsky and Miranda Keys ó 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 Dohn·nyi, 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 AdËs’s 1995
opera Powder Her Face. Contemporary music, even going back as far as
BartÛk, 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

In the final week of the season, James Levine and the Boston Symphony
Orchestra visited for two evenings ó 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
MÈphistophÈlËs, the veteran JosÈ van Dam sounded a touch threadbare. The
real strengths in the principal ensemble lay elsewhere; the dynamic between
Faust and MÈphistophÈlËs 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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