Verdi Requiem/Last Night of the Proms review – Flórez steals the show on a night of a thousand flags

Royal Albert Hall, London
The Proms season closed with a tremendous Verdi Requiem under Marin Alsop, while the Last Night’s celebrations were trouble-free, if the music was a little bland

In the end, it didn’t happen: the Last Night of the Proms didn’t descend into a Brexit v EU flag-off; no punches were thrown during Land of Hope and Glory. Certainly the EU flags were more prominent than usual, but as ever they jostled with stripes and crosses and emblems from all around the world – to decipher them all one would need to invent Shazam for flags. In the arena, two of the Prommers most ostentatiously dressed head to-toe in union jacks were visiting Germans, and the biggest, brightest flag of all belonged to Tibet. It’s a mistake to think of the Last Night as an exclusively British thing.

Instead, in a way, it’s more of a fancy-dress party. Nobody understood that better than Juan Diego Flórez, the Peruvian star tenor, who came on for Rule Britannia dressed as an Inca warrior complete with blue and orange feathered headdress and gold earrings as big as beermats, and brandishing an axehead on a staff. Flórez had already all but stolen the show with his high notes, agility and wit in arias by Rossini, Offenbach and Donizetti, and, with a microphone, with his smooth delivery of a medley of Latin numbers – the smoochiest of which was addressed to the cuddly toy Paddington (also a Peruvian guest in London) he’d been handed from the arena. The BBC Symphony Orchestra did a good impression of a Cuban backing band.

Juan Diego Flórez and a Paddington Bear at the Last Night of the Proms, September 10 2016
Peruvian duet... Flórez serenades Paddington Bear Photograph: Chris Christodoulou/BBC

Otherwise the programming was on the bland side, ticking many of this year’s boxes – Shakespeare, the Olympics, the Somme anniversary – without offering anything very substantial. The BBC Symphony Chorus showed their considerable mettle in the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin’s Prince Igor, but you would not have guessed from the recent works by Jonathan Dove and Michael Torke that the Proms can be a staunch supporter of challenging new music as well as the more instantly palatable stuff. Raze, the brand new opener commissioned from the young composer Tom Harrold for the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble, had a pounding energy driving its low, insistent string fragments, but was over in five minutes.

Still, it was good to have 16 of the UK’s up and coming singers showcased, however briefly, in Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music, and to hear anthems from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland shoehorned in to the Fantasia on British Sea Songs, rescuing the night’s balance from its usual English-heavy setting. Conductor Sakari Oramo dutifully avoided mentioning Brexit in his speech, but nobody can have doubted what he was alluding to when he quoted Shakespeare’s Lorenzo, in The Merchant of Venice, talking of music’s ability to tame wild beasts and warring opponents into “a mutual stand”.

Marin Alsop with Morris Robinson (left) and Dimitri Pittas (centre) conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the BBC Proms Youth Choir in a performance of Verdi’s Requiem.
Marin Alsop with Morris Robinson (left) and Dimitri Pittas (centre) conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the BBC Proms Youth Choir in Verdi’s Requiem. Photograph: Chris Christodoulou/BBC

The serious musical sign-off for the season had come the evening before, when Marin Alsop drove the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment through the Verdi Requiem. The chorus was the BBC Proms Youth Choir, its 277 singers drawn from a few of the country’s best youth and university choirs, and after a whispered beginning the sound these young massed voices made in the first loud entry was tremendous, especially from the men. Up in the gallery, the OAE’s offstage trumpets ricocheted around the hall in the Dies Irae, and the onstage ones crackled over the top of Verdi’s thickly woven orchestral textures throughout. Morris Robinson brought lots of personality to the bass solos, but the star of the solo quartet was soprano Tamara Wilson, whose Libera Me was a gleaming, incisive, and rooted in stillness.

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Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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