Prom 3: Simon Boccanegra (semi-staged) - Royal Albert Hall, 18 July 2010
One of the things I've never liked about the Proms booking system is that you can't choose your seat. I've never complained though because I always seemed to end up with pretty good seats. But I knew my luck would change one day. And so it was that I ended up at the very end of the side stalls for Simon Boccanegra - not just an angled view, but actually behind the orchestra. And costing more than I pay at Covent Garden too. (That's another dirty little Proms secret - the standing tickets may be cheap, but the seats cost more than any other classical venue in London bar the opera houses).
But - surprise - as the ROH orchestra started to play, I realised the side stall acoustics are really rather good. By Royal Albert Hall standards anyway. The sound is warm and full, the echoes minimal.
And even better was to come.
With the orchestra taking up most of the available space, the aisle right next to my seat was incorporated into the 'semi-staging'. Singers were entering, exiting, even pausing to sing. At eye level too - none of the shoe inspection you get in the front row of the arena. Placido Domingo stopped just three feet away from me and sang a few lines! No idea what they were, I was too gobsmacked by his presence. Charisma doesn't begin to cover it. It's like a gravitational field. The Albert Hall shrunk around us. And what a small voice he has! It really is chorister size. What gives it that air-slicing reach is pure technique.
To push it out through the dreadful acoustics, he used less baritonal colouring than he had at Covent Garden, and more classic tenor 'ring'. The other singers too seemed to be opting for power at the expense of subtlety on occasion, but really there's no other way of handling a venue like this one.
Unlike the previous day's Meistersinger, this performance had nearly all the dramatic power of the staged ones - testament not only to the cast's acting abilities, but also to how little the current production adds to what the singers themselves provide. The only area where a theatrical touch was lacking was the orchestra. There's no two ways around it, Simon Boccanegra really isn't great drama, and little in Verdi's music convinces me that he thought it was either. What the score does have the sort of wonderful impressionistic scene-colouring more often associated with movie soundtracks. It was this episodic, painterly side that Pappano brought out, and with surprising delicacy given the venue. All this and a faked death too.
A fabulous experience - real immersive theatre - and unless something really special comes along later, the Prom of the season.
I nipped round to the front for some photos later:
Jonathan Summers (Paolo):