BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall

Five years ago Placido Domingo made his belated Proms debut, appearing alongside Bryn Terfel in a concert version of the Royal Opera’s Die Walkure.  To many who attended, or saw it on TV, it was one of the truly momentous evenings in the festival’s history.  This year, the two artists returned on consecutive evenings, as part of perhaps the grandest opening weekend ever.

Welsh National Opera’s new production of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg has been delighting audiences in Cardiff and Birmingham in recent weeks and, despite an inevitable loss of visual elements, as a concert version it proved equally spell-binding.

Richard Jones’ staging for WNO was thrilling and, if some of the theatrical magic was lost, the gain was a complete focus on the music.  The WNO Orchestra under Lothar Koenigs gave a glowing account of Wagner’s glorious score and the chorus were on phenomenal form (“Wach auf” stunned and moved even more than it had in the theatre).

What the evening had, which is often not there in opera concerts, was fully-formed performances, with Amanda Roocroft a beautiful, brilliantly-acted Eva and Raymond Very, while hardly a heldentenor (struggling against the orchestra, particularly during the “Preislied”), a sympathetic Walther.  Anna Burford’s voluptuous Magdalena and Andrew Tortise's lightish David were an attractive couple.

Christopher Purves gave a superbly-crafted comic performance as Beckmesser and at the centre of all was the towering Bryn Terfel, a Hans Sachs for our time, imbued with humanity and gravitas.  His melancholy at the start of Act 3 was heart-wrenching and the relationship with Roocroft’s Eva ambiguous and touching.

Six hours flew by and I’m sure many present in the Albert Hall would hardly have noticed if it had been twice the length.

As if prommers hadn’t been spoiled enough, the following night Antonio Pappano and some colleagues popped over to the Albert Hall for a concert performance of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra.  As with the run at the Royal Opera House, the major draw was the appearance of Placido Domingo, appealing enough in itself but more so as it represented his UK debut in a baritone role.

If one mourned the loss of Jones’ production for Meistersinger, it was less the case with Elijah Moshinsky’s creaky old Boccanegra, although there was more than a hint of it, with the cast fully-costumed.  It all looked a little old-fashioned and some stock-gesturing to boot (especially from Jonathan Summers’ hammy villain Paolo) was a reminder that this is a production that should be put to bed.

There was some doubt as to whether Ferruccio Furlanetto would make the performance, having missed the final two at Covent Garden due to a severe throat infection but he was back as Fiesco with little evidence of illness, giving the star a run for his money.

Singing was magnificent throughout, with Marina Poplavskaya as Amelia surprisingly powerful in the hall’s dim acoustic and tenor Joseph Calleja as Adorno all but stealing the show through sheer brilliance.  But the honours of course went to the star tenor, sounding less as though he were trying to be a baritone than he had (at least on the first night) at Covent Garden and all the more comfortable for it.  This looks set to become a classic portrayal for Domingo and may well take him into his seventies; an extraordinary achievement all round.

As the night before, the orchestra benefited enormously from being freed from the pit, especially so as Verdi’s score is so delicate and textured.  Pappano gave it a lovingly shaped performance, full of tenderness and detail, and the ROH chorus were splendid in support.

The BBC Proms has set the bar very high for the coming eight weeks with these performances.