A Night at the Opera to Soothe the Aching Heart with BBC Philharmonic conducted by Ben Glassberg

Francesca Caccini [attrib. Buonamente]
La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina – Sinfonia, Danza infernale and Ballo a cavallero

Fidelio – Abscheulicher; Gott welch Dunkel hier; O namenlose Freude

Orfeo ed Euridice – Che faro

La bohème – Che gelida manina; Mi chiamano Mimì; O soave fanciulla

Carmen – Prelude; La fleur que tu m’avais jetée

Rodelinda – Io t’abbraccio

Hänsel und Gretel – Der kleine Sandmann; Abends, will ich schlafen gehen; Dream Pantomime

Jenůfa – closing scene

Sally Matthews, Natalya Romaniw, Nardus Williams (sopranos), Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano), Nicky Spence, Freddie De Tommaso (tenors)

BBC Philharmonic
Ben Glassberg

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 16 August, 2021
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This was the sort of comfort-zone Prom you might expect to grace a weekend evening – a catch-all title to reflect the joys and woes of the past year and a half, a BBC orchestra on top form, a young conductor making waves in the opera world, and a luxury line-up of established, newish and new singers, all of them generously abhorring the vacuum of a long silence. Most of the bleeding chunks were opera hits, and the plan was to squeeze them hard through the emotional wringer.

Ben Glassberg and the BBC Philharmonic laid out their theatrical stall with the first Proms performance of a suite from Francesca Caccini’s 1625 spectacular Ruggiero freed from Alcina’s Island, apparently the first opera written by a woman. I wonder what she’d have made of some very contemporary and dashing percussion glitter, timpani glissandi and vivid brass and drums rodomontade. It was a natural if ungainly lurch from that to a husband’s release from incarceration by his noble, heroic wife in three big numbers from Fidelio. Sally Matthews threw herself in the maelstrom of Leonora’s ‘Abscheulicher! Komm Hoffnung’ with a gleaming disregard of risk, her sturdy lower range squaring up magnificently to the orchestra. Nicky Spence pushed hard at tenor high-note heroics as though asking Beethoven ‘Is that all you’ve got?’ in Florestan’s big dungeon scene, and even if you couldn’t ignore the punishing challenge of their duet ‘O namenlose Freude’, there was still that ecstatic sense of release. It could have obliterated the impact of Gluck’s ‘Che farò’ had it not been for the measured nobility at work in Christine Rice’s lament of Orfeo for Euridice, her mezzo hovering between dark and tender.

Then Rodolfo and Mimì were getting acquainted at the end of the first act of La bohème. It has been two years since I last heard the Welsh soprano Natalie Romaniw (in OHP’s Iolanta), and her voice and personality have become even more glamorous and confident. Mimì’s music soared effortlessly and Romaniw’s singing has the ballast to ride the orchestra. She also left us longing for more, which probably wasn’t in the remit of this particular programme. There were moments of Italian stand-and-deliver about Freddie De Tommaso’s stage presence, but he balanced that with a superb realisation of Rodolfo’s seductive gifts. Ardour, sobs, stunning top register, plus dark Italian looks. What more could Mimì want? De Tommaso was also clued up regarding style, in a very French and inward-looking account of Don José’s tragic declaration of love for Carmen.

Another Proms first, and another husband-wife encounter, in Handel’s Rodelinda, a short but ravishing duet from Nardus Williams and Christine Rice. Williams has been on the receiving end of many gracious reviews recently, and you can hear what all the fuss is about, from her light, poised and immensely cultivated voice and an irresistible stage presence. She was beautifully partnered by Christine Rice, at her luminous best.

They were both back again in excerpts from Humperdick’s Hansel and Gretel, a neatly characterised Sandman song from Nardus Williams, then Christine Rice’s Hansel joined by Sally Matthews’s Gretel as brother and sister say their prayers before going to sleep in the forest. And if eyes hadn’t pricked then, they certainly would have done in the BBC Philharmonic’s full-blooded account of the Dream Pantomime. Somehow Natalya Romaniw and Nicky Spence managed to top that in the closing scene from Janáček’s Jenůfa, Spence giving a foretaste of what to expect from him in the Royal Opera’s staging next month. It is a mystery how Janáček leaves you craving more without leaving you shortchanged. Romaniw and Spence were both transcendent, and the excellent Ben Glassberg released a raw Czech-sounding rasp from his players, very much in the Mackerras style.

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