There were no jokes in Jiri Belohlavek's first Last Night speech. Unless, of course, one was in the one-liner he delivered in Czech. But he sprang a wry musical double entendre in the second half with a little something from home. Julius Fucik's Entrance of the Gladiators is inextricably bound up with the circus, where it serves to send in the clowns. Of course, they were already there – flags, klaxons and inflatable bananas at the ready. And, joking aside, Belohlavek was well prepared for what he described as "this intense ritual".
The programme was even more of a dog's dinner than usual – a dog's banquet, let's say. There were the cursory nods at the "themes": Shakespeare found Dvorak in the overture to Othello, where the composer's unquenchable geniality seemed to draw a veil over the jealousy, lies, and deceit. Even odder was the angry squall of "The Storm" from Thomas Adès' Tempest, which popped up half-way through the first half. Still, Elgar at 150 was there, the "Fourth of August" segment from his Spirit of England cantata serving as a rousing upbeat to "Land of Hope and Glory".
The Last Night is also about star turns, so before anyone unkindly suggests that Nicholas Kenyon sleep-walked his way through this piece of programming, there was a very good reason for including the closing scene from La Sonnambula – Anna Netrebko. No question that she was the darling of the evening, not just on account of her girlish excitability, but for her singing, too. The Bellini was an exceptional exhibition of the bel canto style, with a limpid tone and melting portamento, all at the service of an intense emotionalism. She even managed to deploy one of the Last Night carnations as a prop. The cabaletta brought wicked runs and corking top notes.
And there was more – more frock, more props as she dispensed red roses to the strains of Léhar's "Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiss". There were plenty of gentlemen takers. And plenty of us who would have preferred hearing her singing Rachmaninov's "Vocalise" to Joshua Bell playing it. Still, he and Netrebko made for an opportune pairing in Strauss's "Morgen".
And with that as a cue, what will tomorrow bring for the Proms? Kenyon has presided over rising attendances; will Roger Wright weigh that against riskier programming? We shall see.
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