Proms 50 & 51 | Royal Albert Hall

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Albert Hall is nobody's ideal opera house, and when Glyndebourne Festival comes to the Proms, it's like trying to fit a pint into a seven-gallon jug, Paradoxically, movements and gestures come to seem too grand, like so much unfunny business. So it proved, at least, in the opening acts of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, credited at Glyndebourne to Graham Vick but here "staged for the Proms by Jacopo Spirei". The skeletal but adequate set (from Richard Hudson's designs) felt too small, all the labouring for laughs merely operatic.

The Albert Hall is nobody's ideal opera house, and when Glyndebourne Festival comes to the Proms, it's like trying to fit a pint into a seven-gallon jug, Paradoxically, movements and gestures come to seem too grand, like so much unfunny business. So it proved, at least, in the opening acts of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, credited at Glyndebourne to Graham Vick but here "staged for the Proms by Jacopo Spirei". The skeletal but adequate set (from Richard Hudson's designs) felt too small, all the labouring for laughs merely operatic.

Things settled later, notably in the climactic "Night in a Spanish Garden" act, played out, as in Vick's ENO production, in full light. So often this is no more than a sequence of gags; here, it revealed something about the characters, so that the resolution seemed properly earned. In that scene as elsewhere, the drama was controlled by Christiane Oelze's Susanna, sometimes playing free with Mozart's lines but always making the tiny gestures work, both vocally and physically.

Figaro, more than most operas, is about ensemble, and this cast was credibly young. It was easy to believe that any character might fancy any other. Peter Mattei's Figaro was slow on the uptake, but Mariusz Kwiecien made the Count as sexy as he was overbearing. Maria Costanza Nocentini may not yet have quite the dramatic weight for the Countess, but she has presence, and her "Dove sono" was immensely touching. Conducting, Andrew Davis enjoyed giving his singers their head, and the recitatives had an energy that the London Philharmonic Orchestra sometimes struggled to match.

Wednesday's packed house suggested that the Proms audience is not suffering from surfeit of Bach; and anyone jaded might feel renewed by this enlivening performance of the St John Passion. The period instruments of the St James's Baroque Players imbued the drama with an intimacy shorn of rhetorical exaggeration - apt, when in Bach's account the Passion is an affair of the heart, not a religious ritual.

An Everyman rather than a zealot, Paul Agnew sang the Evangelist with the buttonholing intensity of a man who has seen terrible things and must tell us about them. While Sanford Sylvan's Christ had all the necessary dignity, it was Gerald Finley's Pilate who emerged as the more complex character. Meanwhile, the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge relished every part assigned to it, one moment howling for blood, the next grieving or, in "Ruht wohl" (Rest in peace), offering comfort to their dead saviour.

Ivor Bolton allowed the music to breathe, nowhere more so than in the obbligatos. The viola da gamba (played by Erin Headley) that wove in and out of Michael Chance's counter-tenor aria "Es ist vollbracht!" was as beautiful as anything I heard this week.

Comments