Royal Albert Hall
Henry Purcell: The Fairy Queen
Rebecca Outram (soprano), Mhairi Lawson (soprano), Julia Gooding (soprano), Susan Hemington Jones (soprano), Daniel Auchinloss (tenor), Charles Daniels (tenor), Mark Le Brocq (tenor), Peter Harvey (bass), Jonathan Best (bass)
Paul McCreesh (conductor), Kate Brown (stage director)
Gabrieli Consort and Players
Richard Wagner: Die Walküre
Plácido Domingo (Siegmund), Waltraud Meier (Sieglinde), Eric Halfvarson (Hunding), Bryn Terfel (Wotan), Lisa Gasteen (Brünnhilde), Rosalind Plowright (Fricka), Geraldine McGreevy (Gerhilde), Elaine McKrill (Ortlinde), Claire Powell (Waltraute), Rebecca de Pont Davies (Schwertleite), Iréne Theorin (Helmwige), Sarah Castle (Siegrune), Clare Shearer (Grimgerde), Elizabeth Sikora (Rossweisse)
Antonio Pappano (conductor), Michael Moxham (stage director)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
The Proms claims to be the greatest music festival in the world, and it has a case. Seventy-four concerts, most of them in the huge Albert Hall, in the centre of London, add up to a lot of live audience, and each is broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, many other stations across the world, and the internet. And there is no shortage of quality: in spite of a slight gap in leadership, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the main orchestra for the season, is still one of the world's best, and many of the others, in all categories, show up as guests. There is the odd recording tour stop-off, but there are also world and UK premièeres, some of the Proms commissions, a handful of brought-in operas from major companies, and a number of one-off performances of unlikely works by unlikely performers that turn out to be wonderful.
There are also a few fixtures, these days often incorporated in the season's themes, notably Gilbert and Sullivan and the Big Choral Work for the first night. This year, the choral work programmed for the first night was Tippett's A Child of Our Time, chosen to mark the centenary of the composer's birth (although he took a bow after a performance of The Mask of Time not so long ago). It turned out to be particularly appropriate eight days after the bombings in London, not only for its general relevance to a time of war (of a sort) but also in its specific themes, a young man driven to desperation and murder, the agony of oppression and fear, and the possibility that civilization can be restored by compassion for the wicked as well as for the victims. Elgar's Cockaigne Overture also hit the spot in the circumstances, a perky, slightly sentimental depiction of the jollity of all kinds of Londoners. Oddly, one of its themes sounds a lot like the first line of the verse of "My curly headed baby", a lullaby often sung by Paul Robeson.
The Gilbert and Sullivan, on the second night, was Charles Mackerras conducting Pineapple Poll, his own ballet suite arranged from Sullivan's melodies when the composer's work emerged from copyright while the librettist's was still protected, and the music from HMS Pinafore, tied into the nautical theme of the season, in celebration of the bicentenary of the battle of Trafalgar. Though the British might not have won if Nelson's crew was as daft as that of Pinafore.
Another theme of the season is fairy tales, for the bicentenary of the birth of Hans Christian Andersen. Sunday's performance of Purcell's The Fairy Queen just about fits in here, at least insofar as there are fairies in it. But it is both earthier and more sensuous than any children's story, like Shakespeare's play an escape from adult life rather than a clear-eyed view of its realities wrapped in charm or fun. Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli Consort and Players have performed this semi-opera often before, although never in quite such an inappropriate venue. Purcell's delicate score, written mainly for strings with a couple of trumpets for a bravura garnish, probably didn't beat the hall's residual echo, although the scored echoes faded wonderfully somewhere in the bowels of the building. When in doubt, McCreesh wisely aimed for clarity and vigor rather than refinement.
A previous performance by the Gabrielis involved a semi-staging based on a corporate team-building exercise in the woods. Kate Brown's staging, almost uniquely, ignored the plot of the play completely and staged the music as a sequence of masques, set pieces that are presented as performances within the action of the play, which is what it is. Brown's resources were minimal – a couple of funny hats and a skirt for the rough pastoral of Mopsa and Corydon (staged to amused Bottom), and flowers for the Masque of the Seasons. The dramatic performances were willing if not skilled, and, in the case of Marc Le Brocq as Mopsa and Jonathan Best as Corydon and the Drunken Poet, spirited. The singers were all a touch small-voiced for the venue – Susan Hemington Jones, although she sounded lovely and delicate, was in particular underpowered for the space. But they all knew what they were doing vocally, and the music was as always irresistible.
If the Albert Hall is super sized for Purcell, it is if anything a touch too petite for modern Wagner. Die Walküre, the second installment of the first Proms Ring, has never been done at the Proms before, but Bernard Haitink and the Royal Opera performed it in the Albert Hall as part of their cycle in the wilderness in 1998. That performance was edgy and exhilarating, tinged with dramatic danger but probably also coloured by the company's then parlous situation. At the end of the cycle's Götterdämmerung, Haitink made a public appeal to the audience for help and support. The Royal Opera now has a new regime, and the sense of an order on the edge of cataclysm was correspondingly missing. Under Antonio Pappano, who has just conducted the same cast and orchestra at Covent Garden, the orchestra played mostly according to twentieth-century Wagnerian Hoyle, and the nearly impeccable cast sang likewise. If there was less danger, there was enough power and passion to lift the roof.
The particular interest for many in the audience was the Proms debut of Plácido Domingo, and his performance as Siegmund was alone certainly worth the queuing. His voice was, as always, strong and beautiful, but not showy and his acting was committed if unsubtle. In a cast otherwise notable for fine diction, though, he often didn't seem to be singing any particular language: he knew what was going on, and gave it the appropriate emotional force, but, however spurious Wagner's etymological figures and other word-play might be, they were notably missing in syllables sung to the most convenient consonant and vowel rather than the right one. (This may be the only similarity between Domingo and Joan Sutherland, but Sutherland has never tried to sing Wagner.) Yet Domingo's Siegmund was undoubtedly stirring. He may have been helped and spurred on by Waltraud Meier as a tireless, implausibly glamorous Sieglinde. Domingo looked knackered at the end of the first act, while Meier looked ready to do it all over again. She too acted in a rather conventional style, but between them they made the requisite sweet music.
And there was more. Bryn Terfel's Wotan was vocally glamorous and dramatically touching. There was something of King Kong about him (Harrison Birtwistle's as well as the one in the movies). When Fricka arrived, he had something of the look of the great ape in the Charles Addams cartoon, who holds an unconscious blonde as he looks over his shoulder at an approaching Mrs Kong and says "Uh oh". Rosalind Plowright was in good voice as a decidedly imperious Fricka, and Lisa Gasteen was a chunky, confident Brünnhilde. Eric Halfvarson was a suitably thuggish Hunding with mismatched cummerbund and hanky, obvious no good. A fine crop of Valkyries completed the cast.
Michael Moxham's traffic direction replaced Keith Warner's conceptual Covent Garden production, and gave the singers just enough context to be their characters completely.