Having read a few articles about the Bristol Proms and how it encourages a non traditional concert going etiquette. Their great innovation being the use of big screen projections, allowance to take photographs throughout, encouragement of spontaneous clapping and allowance of drinks in the auditorium. A list of things that the absence of have never stopped me from enjoying any performance to date…being odd as we demand discipline and study from the performers why can’t demand the same from the audience?
The programme was prefaced with a foreword by Tom Morris and Max Hole (the frankly clueless boss of Universal Music) which dampened much of the enthusiasm of being in that beautiful and historic theatre. I don’t want lectures about inaccessibility and unfriendliness of concert venues and how we can improve the experience by adopting the tropes of pop concerts. It is a naive reaction to the failure of the recording industry to engage audiences and thus failing to make money in the process. While I applaud the wonderful atmosphere at the Old Vic I am growing very tired of this reverse snobbery. On an average concert can’t imagine more than 10% is a brand new audience who we seen to pander to with all these ideas about being “welcoming”. I’d rather the venues trying equally hard to please the remaining 90% of their audience. Most of us don’t need large screens and gimmicks to convince us that orchestral concerts and opera are both enjoyable and a treat for the mind and heart. As much as Mr Hole seems to be circumspect of current concert etiquette we can be harsh enough to mention that most of the performers at the Bristol Proms were artists signed to his label. The Old Vic may want to be seen to be accessible but it fails on the simple fact that this week of music is fuelled by Universal’s roster of artists…a pretty exclusive bunch.
When Tom Morris (the director of the Old Vic) came on stage to explain the principles of their Promming concept it came through as a well-meaning idea and it was a relief to know that this performance was using technology from the mid 18th century for its visual trickery and lighting. It also meant that due to the candle light it would make it impossible to take photos with mobile phones, he did offer, conveniently, to email the official photos. Of course that didn’t stop an iPhone boob in front of me trying to film and in the process activated the very bright autofocus light and took her some time to figure out how to switch it off. And that is the problem with allowing people to use electronic devices during concerts…they don’t know how to use them, causing annoyance and discomfort to everyone nearby. It was also a nice touch to be given a potted history of the theatre as a music venue…knowing that Paganini played there is rather fun.
The first half was occupied with an introduction by Robert Howarth on Purcell, taking us from his musical interludes for The Fairy Queen to his final piece of sacred music (Hear My Prayer) which was gorgeously sung by The Erebus Ensemble and his bawdy lute songs about melons and arses (Young Tom the Gardener) that spread a contagious giggle on stage and the audience. We also got a reading by John Retallack of excerpts from an 18th century translation of Virgil’s epic poem that was probably known to Purcell and his librettist Nahum Tate. It was fun, it was informative and in the best possible taste. The choice to split the band across the proscenium in the manner used at the time when playing incidental music was a great idea. Having woodwind on the right and harpsichord and strings on the left worked in the detailed, warm and slightly reflective acoustic of the Old Vic. The quality of the sound was truly exceptional and was definitely aided by the intimate size of the auditorium. Within the first 15 minutes I was mentally booking tickets for next year’s ENO staging of Orfeo next April.
After the interval Dido commenced, the action taking place in a white square central space backed with a cloth that was back projected by flames at pivotal moments of the action and the singers illuminated by two suspended candle holders either side and an array of candle footlights. It felt as intimate as it was low-tech. The directorial concept was light on “cleverness” but definitely attuned to the music and an eye for using the chorus in effective formations around and on the square performance area. The casting was well matched with smoky, full-voiced Pumeza Matshikiza who sang with great feeling and gave a shatteringly moving final scene in her lament as she nears death. David Stout made the best of the few show off opportunities for Aeneas, their duet before his departure was tender as it was electric, one of the finest moments of a great night. The Belinda of Clare Presland was delicate and compassionate and sung with great care. Hilary Summers’ Sorceress was straight out of a pantomime which is not as bad as it sounds…she was full of character and even elicited some jokey hisses from the audience at every appearance. A comedy villain in Purcell’s masterpiece was a fun addition and her full contralto sound made an equally strong impression.
The playing by the English Concert was attentive and very lively. The nascent Erebus Ensemble made a spirited and notable fresh contribution throughout. Animating every scene with their virile and yet soft sound. Howarth clearly inspired the band and the singers to create a special evening for everyone present. It was a night full of heart that presented Purcell’s score in a ravishing light literally and metaphorically. This was baroque opera presented with such simplicity, confidence and clarity of purpose that moves the heart and pleased the mind without any unwanted distractions. Intimate and direct.
Curtain call video
Some Tweets from the evening