Last Saturday saw the Last Night of the Proms and the first night of the Royal Opera's exile at the Barbican. Robert Cowan and Edward Seckerson were at the respective venues...
Monday 15 September 1997
Verdi Requiem; Last Night
Royal Albert Hall, London / R3
Between Hyde Park and the Royal Albert Hall, upwards of 40,000 people sang their sorrows away as candles flickered, lanterns shone and we all huddled from what Terry Wogan had mischievously described as a "gentle zephyr". At mid-afternoon, police on horseback surveyed the lengthening queues and crane-mounted speakers kept Mozart on a low burn. By 5.30, the Park was at least half full and Ed Stewart provided panto-style links between the Pasadena Roof Orchestra, the Classic Buskers (and the fastest Marriage of Figaro overture you've ever heard), an irrepressible George Melly (dressed in red) and the Thames Valley Chorus.
Heathrow-bound jets eavesdropped from on high, the strengthening gusts bombarded the microphones and as dusk fell, so did the temperature. As to the main concert and the first-half "link-up" with Radio 2 (they actually relayed the whole concert), Wogan proved an affable compere, easing a course from orchestral Wagner and Johann Strauss through rapturously received solos by Michael Ball, supple Rodrigo from guitarist John Williams and a neat dash of Scott Joplin from Joshua Rifkin. Robin Stapleton and the BBC Concert Orchestra gave us bracing Denza and Eric Coates (a jaunty reminder of nearby Knightsbridge), but credit for the climax must go to composer Bill Whelan, members of the Riverdance Company and thundering drums. They were simply sensational.
Wogan reminded us that the Park had been transformed from "a grieving place into a joyous scene", though when Michael Ball stilled us with "Love Changes Everything" and "You'll Never Walk Alone", the candles seemed to burn even brighter. Such was the mood of the place, and yet the video link with Andrew Davis and his BBC forces at the Royal Albert Hall prompted a wild waving of arms and a fervent welter of patriotic singing. Earlier, Wayne Marshall swung high and low with Gershwin's I Got Rhythm variations, and back in the Park harmonica veteran Larry Adler summoned the composer's piano roll as accompanist for Porgy's "Summertime". John Adams's momentarily inappropriate Short Ride in a Fast Machine was replaced by Diana's favourite "Jupiter", but at the previous night's Prom you would have heard what was described as "her favourite piece of classical music", Verdi's Requiem Mass.
Although Andrew Davis's Last Night speech commemorated Princess Diana, Mother Teresa and Sir Georg Solti, it was the reference to Solti that inspired spontaneous applause. Sir Georg had of course originally been scheduled to conduct the Requiem, but on Friday night Sir Colin Davis took the reins for a performance that, although possibly less elemental than Solti's would have been, was warmly communicative and climaxed to an overwhelmingly powerful account of the Libera me. Davis's approach was weighty, malleable (plenty of flexibility, tempo-wise) and usefully accommodating to his singers. The gentle "Introit" suggested deep inward communion; the Dies irae's bass drum had the impact of cannon fire (in addition, trumpeters echoed each other from exit points at each side of the main stage) and the sprightly Sanctus found the combined London Voices and London Symphony Chorus on cracking good form. The soloists were splendid, too. Mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina excelled in her lower registers and tenor Frank Lopardo's soft singing was extraordinarily beautiful (especially in his "Ingemisco" solo). Soprano Michele Crider and bass Rene Pape gave strong, committed performances and the work's closing pages were tailed by one of the longest and most meaningful silences that I have ever witnessed in a concert hall. The programme booklet carried a photograph of Princess Diana in happy dialogue with Sir Georg, and it was appropriate that this penultimate Prom should honour their memories with a work that they both loved dearly.
So the Royal Opera is officially in exile, though not, one hopes, in the wilderness. "For this inaugural occasion," writes its director Nicholas Payne, "we have chosen Handel's Julius Caesar, a supreme masterpiece by the greatest composer to become an Englishman. Fittingly it is set in Egypt, as we set off on our journey towards our promised land..."
Via the Barbican. Handel might well have appreciated the irony in that, though heaven only knows what he'd have made of the "sophisticated acoustic enhancement" through which the grandest and most sumptuously scored of all his operas came to sound so instrumentally emaciated. I'm not about to blame Ivor Bolton or the Royal Opera Chamber Orchestra for the lack of resonance and absence of tangible attack from the pit (happily, the voices fared rather better). Suffice it to say, though, that the system will require some serious tweaking en route to that promised land.
But, gazing down from his very own Parnassus, would Handel have at least been charmed by what he saw? Sun, sand, sky, sails, and palms - remnants of Cleopatra's Egypt as imported (courtesy of designer Joanna Parker) from some chic gallery in South Beach, Miami. Bright, hip colours, an emblematic cuteness. The look of Lindsay Posner's production is very much in keeping with the feel of it. Slight, insubstantial, and, most potentially demeaning of all - fey. Because you can play all you like with Handel's theatrical fancies, you can have fun with his wry appropriation of human frailty and folly, but you never, ever confuse irony with camp. And there is the rub. If irony is a pyramid-shaped ice lolly, then you're going to love this show.
Posner has ideas, or at least the beginnings of ideas, but they are at best sketchy. He has clocked, for instance, that Sextus and Ptolemy are both spoilt children at heart, the former, a mummy's boy who must ultimately prove that he is indeed the son of Pompey, and the latter a petulant, thumb-sucking wimp - Cleopatra's fraternal liability. Even so, wit was at a premium here. The first encounter between Cesare and Tolomeo, where veiled threats are exchanged amid formal pleasantries, exhibited some semblance of it, thanks largely to Ann Murray's reading of that most insidiously memorable aria (with horn obbligato unhappily accident prone) "Va tacito e nascosto". I fancy it was her idea to share Ptolemy's opium pipe at precisely the point where her florid coloratura might best convey an unexpected but singularly satisfying "high". A bit of honest mugging. Just as the celebrated Mount Parnassus pageant, Cleopatra's (and Handel's) elaborate entertainment for Caesar, was a bit of honest kitsch. Flown out over the largest of three pyramids conspicuously "borrowed" from just outside the Louvre in Paris (a cheeky contemporary allusion), Cleopatra is Virtue, her voluminous white skirts tumbling down to shroud her most precious inheritance, while a prism in her hand casts a rainbow across the sky. It's precisely that kind of largesse of gesture - an intellectual, spiritual, physical generosity - that I missed most from Posner's staging.
The singing more often than not did provide. Amanda Roocroft's Cleopatra wasn't helped one little bit by her image as a brunette Barbie doll in a shocking pink onepiece. No coquette ever dominated this opera, leave alone Egypt. Roocroft's problem is that the voice itself (flexible and perfectly well-managed) doesn't say a lot. It lacks allure, womanly allure. Perhaps it has matured too soon. She sings prettily and with feeling, but she's inclined to push hard to convey intensity, and the voice is having none of it. Ann Murray, with far less voice now in practical terms, is the artist that Roocroft strives to be. She took a while to get into her stride, for the sinews to stiffen and the technique to kick in (fabulously determined heroics in Act 3), but by the time we arrived at the great scena "Dall' ondoso periglio" she was working her old magic again, refining the chromatics in such a way as to suggest that the Nile breezes themselves were bending the line.
It was perhaps a little unfair on two outstanding countertenors (but not us) that they should have found themselves in the same show. Brian Asawa was a voluptuous-voiced Ptolemy, but it was the Sextus of David Daniels (the most natural voice in this fach that I've ever encountered) who provided the evening's most fabulous singing. With Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Cornelia) dignified as ever in her suffering, mother and son found heart- aching accord at the close of Act 1.
Come the happy ending, artifacts from Cleopatra's Egypt (yes, including her needle) lie wrapped and awaiting transportation to Rome while the deceased leap from their sarcophaguses to join in the festivities. Wryly, Ann Murray, thinly disguised as Caesar, casts us one last aside extolling the virtues of Cleopatra's hair. He came, he saw, he conquered, but it was the hair that did it. Now that's irony, and this show needed more of it.
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