The glorious John Wilson sound marred by unsubtle amplification of singers
There’d be a riot at tonight’s Prom (a concert performance of Glyndebourne’s Figaro) if the soloists were to follow the precedent set at last night’s and wear personal microphones to amplify tiny voices (which, by the way, none of the Glyndebourne cast has) into big booming soundboxes. As it happens, I have no idea whether any of last night’s voices were tiny or not as we weren’t given the opportunity of finding out. But at the same time we were denied the chance of hearing singers clearly full of character in any sort of natural balance with the marvellous – and huge – John Wilson Orchestra.
I understand why they did it, of course. For unamplified solo voices to compete with a 100-plus orchestra playing at full volume would be some ask! But, even aside from the fact that the principle makes me slightly uneasy, the amplification wasn’t even subtle, the voices sometimes booming unpleasantly (to my ears) from nowhere near where the singers were stationed, creating a disorientation like in the opera house when a role is sung from the wings by an understudy while an actor on stage mimes the role.
Yes, this was the ‘Broadway Sound’ Prom and Broadway, I know, has different mores from those prevailing in the classical scene. Then again, musicals regularly use actors with no classical or operatic training who wouldn’t know how to project their naked voices beyond the fifth row of the stalls. But this is the Proms, ‘the greatest classical music festival in the world’ (which it probably is), as we are regularly reminded, and in my book amplifying the voices of the soloists in the hall is as liable to detract from the experience as to enrich it. Amplification has no place in the classical arena and, especially when that amplification sounds crude and unbalanced, I think it is questionable whether it should be used in this way even in a ‘big band’ concert as part of a Proms season.
And if the singers can’t cope without it (as I say I don’t know one way or the other), maybe they’re the wrong cast for a sold-out highlight of a ‘classical music festival’. I’d be amazed if the breathtaking Sally Matthews needed a personal mic to sing ‘Porgi amor’ to 6000 or so people tonight (albeit she won’t be competing with that sort of orchestral splendour!).
None of this will impact on the TV audience on Saturday night (BBC2, 8pm) – I expect the balancing will be perfect – and this concert will, I’m sure, go down a treat. John Wilson has the knack of assembling a troupe of top-notch musicians to play for him and boy, does it show! This is the authentic rich, brilliant ‘big band’ sound. Just listen to the brass. Fabulous. You’ll never hear the music of Broadway sound better.
Orchestral highlights include ‘Slaughter on Tenth Avenue’ from the Richard Rodgers' 1936 musical On Your Toes and the orchestral number (‘Imaginary Coney Island’) from Bernstein’s On the Town.
And enjoy the shimmering strings accompanying the winsome Sierra Boggess (whose catchy smile will make her a hit on TV whatever the unamplified voice might sound like) and Julian Ovenden in ‘Tonight’ from West Side Story.
There are plenty of other gems, which are sure to be effective on the box , including a funny ‘Seven and a Half Cents’ from The Pajama Game and 'Little Tin Box' from Fiorello!. You’ll have your own favourites, but be sure not to switch off before the encore!
Antony Craig started going to Covent Garden in 1962 and has probably been to more than 1000 performances at the Royal Opera House alone. He also finds time to sing in two choirs and is Production Editor of Gramophone.