Prom 11: Horrible Histories: ’Orrible Opera @ The BBC Proms

Richard David CaineAlison Fitzjohn, Neal Foster, James McNicholas, Morgan Philpott, Jessica Ransom, Inel Tomlinson, Deborah Tracey (actors)

Rainelle Krause (soprano)
Isabelle Peters (soprano)
Gweneth Ann Rand (soprano)
David Butt-Philip (tenor)
Charles Rice (baritone)
John Molloy (bass)

The English National Opera Chorus
The English National Opera Orchestra
Keri-Lynn Wilson

Neal Foster (stage director)
Angie Newman (BSL Interpreter)
Lucie Pankhurst (Movement Director)

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 22 July, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

We’re used to seeing composers at the Proms, taking their bows after premières on the Royal Albert Hall each summer.  But I’m fairly certain that this is the first time that Mozart, Verdi, Beethoven (gate-crashing as he didn’t have a piece on the programme), Gershwin, Handel and Gilbert and Sullivan have all graced the stage here – all conjured up in fantastic costumes by the hard-working Horrible Histories team. There was one who really did appear at the Proms, Dame Ethel Smyth, adding some historical weight to an otherwise all male composer bias with her March for Women rather than anything from her operas.  And, finally, there were two other historical characters: Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, which this building was created and is named after (though he of course was another that never actually graced its stage).

It was Herr Mozart (I think impersonated by Richard David-Caine, though the programme didn’t equate characters to Horrible Histories regulars) who led us through almost three hundred years of opera, from Handel’s Julius Caesar (a singing competition between ‘rival’s Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni: the audience was asked to pick sides, though the singers eventually acknowledged they were the best of friends, and the rivalry was manufactured for good publicity…), from 1724 to 1983 in Philip Glass’ Akhnaten.  Dating even later were five songs from Horrible Histories’ composer Richie Webb, from the CBBC series which has been going since 2009.  The books on which they are based, written by Terry Blain and illustrated (as was the lavish programme), are celebrating their 30th birthday this year.

Fending off the meddlesome and horrified Queen Victoria, who decried the introduction of nasty opera plots to children, Mozart didn’t have it all his own way, acquiescing to a higher power to include more than just his own 22 operas: he was only represented by the Queen of the Night’s famous revenge aria, sung in English by Rainelle Krause, and a snatch from The Marriage of Figaro.  Mind you he did ridicule Ludwig Van (da-da-da-der) Beethoven for composing only one opera.  I liked the idea of having a musical middle name based on your most famous theme, especially if you have the ENO orchestra to play it for you, as they did here, under Keri-Lynn Wilson’s ever-genial direction.

Verdi’s subjects were dismissed by Victoria as being too nasty: La traviata’s drinking song ruled itself out of court – David Butt Philip sent packing – let alone the fact that Violetta dies of consumption; Rigoletto a no-no as a father murders (even though by mistake) his daughter and carries her in a sack; though the ladies of ENO Chorus did get to sing the witches chorus from Macbeth. A rousing rendition of the opening of the third Act of Wagner’s The Valkyrie, including three singing Valkyries – and complete with dismembered body parts (not real) – was interrupted by ‘real’ Vikings who pointed out that the pointy helmets were not historically accurate: I later spied Henry Wood’s bust was sporting a horned helmet.  

A notable Cat’s Duet (attributed to Rossini but actually by G Berthold) pitted operatic soprano against actor, with Mozart acquitting himself very well, while the first half climaxed with Butt Philip taking the part of Calaf in Puccini’s Turandot and bringing the house down with Nessun dorma (in Italian). Offenbach’s Cancan, the whole cast eventually high kicking, led us into the interval.

Operatic practicalities opened the second half: what happens when an opera singer can’t appear?  Thankfully there’s always someone in the wings to take over: here Dave the cleaner (baritone Charles Rice), who warmed up by way of Rossini’s Figaro’s Here at your service and then muscled his way back, in full costume, for Bizet’s Toreador Song from Carmen.  Gershwin interrupted the row between Mozart and Beethoven, parping his taxi horn, to introduce Gweneth Ann Rand’s rendition of Summertime from Porgy and Bess, bringing a rapt stillness to the hall.  Egypt was evoked twice, with a little help from Inel Tomlinson in his gold headgear as Akhnaten and Deborah Tracey as his wife Nefertiti introducing the Philip Glass, complete with a mummy chasing Queen Victoria, and the Handelian competition over Julius Caesar.  Finally, two of Victoria and Albert’s favourites, the argumentative partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan ushered in John Molloy’s Major General Stanley from Pirates of Penzance to intone I am a very model of a modern major general, complete with an extra verse penned quickly by be-whiskered Gilbert at Victoria’s request to find a rhyme (or not…) for ‘orange.’ 

Only two Horrible Histories songs were left – The Monarch Song and the CBBC’s theme tune (a reprise of the very start) – to which we all joined in. Earlier a special introduction What is Opera? The Viking Song and Victoria’s Meet My Family had spaced out the echt-opera excerpts, as did little extras, not listed (for example, The Bartered Bride overture to introduce the second half).  It was all done with good fun, though not necessarily clean (Mozart had read out a list of words they couldn’t use, children’s rude words like ‘bum’ and ‘poo’) and the relaxed audience was having as much fun as I was.

Cameras were working hard at this second non-broadcast Prom and CBBC’s will broadcast the video on Friday 8 September at 6pm, just before the Last Night festivities the next evening.

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