George Michael – review

State Opera House, Prague

Prague's lavish neo-rococo State Opera House is a long way from HM Prison Highpoint in Suffolk, where George Michael spent four weeks last September after piloting his Range Rover into the window of his local Snappy Snaps while under the influence of cannabis.

Nearly a year on, and having pronounced his jail sentence to be "karma" and promised to turn his life around, Michael has returned with a lavish new project. The Symphonica tour finds him hooking up with classical orchestras from across Europe to reinterpret a selection of his own material, unexpected cover versions and traditional standards.

He claims the idea was inspired by a recent similar jaunt by an old-school musical hero, Tony Bennett, but on the evidence of the opening night in the Czech capital, Michael is not yet ready to become a lounge crooner. Performing with the Czech National Symphonic Orchestra, he interrupts his set four songs in to inform his audience: "I've got to tell you that I'm shitting myself here."

Clad head to toe in black and looking trim – he claims to have lost a stone since giving up dope – Michael soon hits his stride, transmuting the euphoric house-pop of New Order's True Faith into a melancholic string-driven lament. He turns back the clock for an anti-Sony Music rant before rehabilitating an obscure but poignant Terence Trent D'Arby song, Let Her Down Easy.

The orchestral arrangements of Michael's tastefully muted own numbers such as Kissing A Fool and It Doesn't Really Matter are cleverly understated and his sensitive interpretations lend an ineffable sadness to both Rufus Wainwright's Going To A Town and the Police's Roxanne. By contrast, he morphs Brother Can You Spare A Dime? into a louche big band romp and turns Rihanna's Russian Roulette into melodramatic cinematic pop.

The second half of the evening finds Michael in reflective mood. After a heartfelt tribute to Amy Winehouse ("In my 30 years of making music, I was never in awe of anyone new on the British scene until her"), he performs an appropriately vulnerable, halting version of Love Is A Losing Game in front of images of the late singer. He develops the heart-on-sleeve motif with a moving monologue in which he admits that mutual addiction issues have led to the end of his relationship with his long-term partner, Kenny Goss, before debuting a ballad for Goss, Where I Hope You Are.

It's a powerful moment but the whole evening is packed with songs of emotional heft and resonance, lovingly interpreted. After violins underscore the elegant angst of A Different Corner, Michael constructs an upbeat climax to the set with a soulful roustabout through Nina Simone's celebratory anthem Feeling Good then encores with Stevie Wonder's You and I and a medley of his own life-affirming dance-pop hits in Amazing, Wham's I'm Your Man and Freedom. His five-minute standing ovation is entirely deserved.


Ian Gittins

The GuardianTramp

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