The Proms Opening Weekend, Royal Albert Hall, London


Big is beautiful as the Proms set sail on a wave of grandeur from Mahler, Wagner and Verdi

Some time during the second interval of Wagner's Meistersingers Proms marathon on Saturday evening – around the four-hour mark, let's say – Roger Wright, the festival's director, joked: "I feel as if we're about half-way through the season already."

In terms of the sheer number of performers who had already graced the stage, and the monumental nature of the works being presented over the first three days of a 58-day season, the joke was far from absurd. The previous night, hundreds of singers and instrumentalists had descended upon the Royal Albert Hall to perform Mahler's gargantuan Symphony of a Thousand; now the entire orchestra and company of Welsh National Opera, as well as 17 soloists including Bryn Terfel, had re-assembled to recreate the triumphant Cardiff and Birmingham production of Meistersingers in concert. Still to come was the small matter of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, fresh from Covent Garden, starring some upstart new baritone called Plácido Domingo. All before the weekend was out.

This kind of extravagant, ambitious, life-affirming programming is unprecedented in Proms history or, I suspect, any music festival's history. Three of the single greatest works of music ever written, performed by some of the world's most famous artists, in a legendary hall packed to the rafters – 1,400 seats of which had been been filled by people who had paid a fiver to be there.

In keeping with traditional Proms spirit, there was not the slightest hint of the stuffy concert hall or the exclusive opera house; Prommers (displaying superhuman stamina) donned their usual garb of shorts, sandals and T-shirts, and even in the Royal Box, HRH Duke of Kent didn't bother with a suit as he hunkered down for six hours of Wagner with a blissful expression on his face.

If Friday's Mahler had kicked off the season with a breathtaking investigation into the process of human creativity and the attainment of spiritual grace, the Meistersingers, with its central question "is art all that matters here?" continued the contemplation in spectacular fashion.

It is difficult to think of two more fitting works given that the Proms were founded by Henry Wood 115 years ago with a promise to use music to provoke thought and educate, as well as entertain. That these principles chime so neatly with those of the BBC is something to consider at a moment when the corporation seems in real jeopardy; perhaps if Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt had been Promming this weekend he would be reconsidering his off-hand comments about cutting the licence fee.

Bryn Terfel was outstanding as cobbler-poet Hans Sachs, his acting chops on dazzling display even in an all-black, un-costumed concert performance. The rest of the cast were also superb, particularly Christopher Purves as the Marker Beckmesser, and Amanda Roocroft as Eva, the beautiful bride of the Mastersinger.

But there were no disappointments in the cast, and the Act Three quintet "Selig, wie die Sonne" – which saw Terfel, Purves and Roocroft joined by the engaging Andrew Tortise as David and Raymond Very as Walther – was sublime. If the orchestra of WNO, under conductor Lothar Koenigs, felt a little underwhelming at times, this was a minor gripe in what was, overall, a thrilling event.

Those six hours passed by in a flash; when Doctor Who and the gang hit town next weekend (for two Proms that sold out quicker than almost any in the festival's history) it seems the Doctor will not be the first to bend time in SW7 this season.

With his career now into its fifth decade, Plácido Domingo leapt on to the stage during the prologue of Simon Boccanegra in a full, dark wig that made the audience do a double-take; as the pre-Doge, pirate Simon, a quarter-century before the main action of Verdi's opera takes place, it was hard to believe this energetic baritone was the 69-year-old legend. But the voice was the voice: still there in all its richness, emotion, intelligence and power. Supported by a stellar cast this performance was even more alive than the Wagner, and those of us fortunate enough to be in the Royal Albert Hall for this magical evening will never forget it.

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