Rejoice—the Proms are back, in their proper glory. That was the message that the First Night was meant to give to the world. On the program was just one work: Verdi’s Requiem, the kind of heaven-storming, ear-drum-shaking blockbuster with huge chorus and off-stage trumpets that feels tailor-made for this immense space. That space looked resplendent but not festive, which was appropriate for a Requiem. Behind the BBC Symphony Orchestra the BBC Symphony Chorus and Crouch End Chorus rose up in serried ranks, dressed in sober black. And all around was a packed audience. The Covid nervousness that was very evident last year was almost entirely gone, with only the odd mask visible.
Except that Covid did in fact throw quite a large spanner in the works. The star British tenor Freddie de Tommaso, who carried off one of the vocal world’s biggest singing prizes in 2018, immediately became the go-to dramatic Italianate tenor for opera houses all around the world, and became even more famous for taking over the role of Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca at Covent Garden at the last minute, tested positive for Covid on Tuesday. Chapeau to David Junghoon Kim, the young Korean tenor who took over. Opera-goers among the audience would have recognized Kim, as he was a member of the Royal Opera House’s Jette Parker Young Artist Program until 2017.
So everything was present and correct, but it can’t be said this first night was a total triumph. Verdi bluntly declared “I believe in nothing”, but his Requiem gives the lie to that. So much rage and tenderness and consolation could not arise from such a blank nihilism. Before those feelings receive their proper full-blooded “operative” expression in the later movements they are glimpsed in the opening, as if from a great distance. That’s why the opening is so hard to bring off; it’s so withdrawn, so hushed, and yet has to be packed with feeling. Here it was actually too withdrawn, and felt merely quiet.
Fortunately with the apocalyptic Dies Irae which tore through the hall like a gale, things started to warm up. The off-stage trumpets before the Mors Stupebit really did seem to come from some awesomely distant place, and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnstone’s rendition of the Liber Scriptus and tender Recordare was beautifully done.