★★★★ NATIONAL YOUTH ORCHESTRA OF GREAT BRITAIN, MARK ELDER, BRIDGEWATER HALL Birthday celebration includes vivid performance of first complete opera
Seventy years old and still imbued with youthful flair and enthusiasm – that’s the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, which pioneered new territory in its first concert of 2018 last night. The flair and enthusiasm also apply to Sir Mark Elder, who conducted the event. He and the NYO, with help from Chris Riddell (former Children’s Laureate, creator of Goth Girl) and director Daisy Evans and her team, gave the first complete opera performance of the organisation’s history with Bartók's Duke Bluebeard’s Castle.
It was the second part of their programme, and a concert performance, to be strict, but with a screen backdrop conveying a strangely antiquated English translation - the performance was sung in Hungarian - as well as a lighting rig to create floods of contrasting colours, four actors from the National Youth Theatre declaiming the spoken Prologue (in English) and reacting from the stage side, and geometric patterns of colour-changing LEDs on the floor (The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night Time has a lot to answer for), it did its best to be theatrical.
The young orchestral players were themselves enlisted in the cause and, when not playing, were periodically hiding their eyes, staring at soloists or screen, and lifting their instruments aloft (to represent riches), or their hands (to represent flowers). Most effective of all, Judith and Bluebeard were sung by Rinat Shaham and Robert Hayward as dramatically as is achievable in concert dress and on a stage (and, in Shaham's case, with the book in front of her on a stand – understandably so, as she had stepped in at short notice to replace the indisposed Claudia Mahnke).Their performances were what made it an opera, not just a concert. Shaham's voice is warm and multi-coloured, with a lovely quality floating in high register and great reserves of power throughout, and she portrayed the changing reactions of the young and unsuspecting bride’s first visit to the matrimonial castle, as curiosity turns to fascination, apprehension, grim determination and desperate passion. Hayward's Bluebeard was all self-possession at first, giving way to anger, fear, self-loathing and final resignation as his bloody past was revealed through the castle’s seven doors.
Sir Mark took command of the orchestral forces to wonderful effect. There’s always a danger that the NYO, with its enormous resources of player personnel, will blast anyone else off stage, but he encouraged their sound to bloom, not force, and rarely did they overwhelm the singers. The wind soloists and ensemble in particular were a joy to hear – the opening of the first scene was pure magic. The broadside in C major as Bluebeard and Judith open the fifth door, with all hands employed and organ at full throttle, was remarkable for its richness: it can only be a near-showstopping wall of sound, but this was not just spectacularly vivid, but increasingly dramatic as the scene unfolded. It was mature ensemble playing that would have been a credit to any orchestral body, not only one of teenagers who have only known each other for just a few days. The first part of the concert was ‘straight’ orchestral pieces – both fairytale-based and both from a similar era to Bartók’s opera – and those, too, were played with remarkable finesse and skill. Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake had one of the most delicate, whispered openings I’ve heard in it – Sir Mark knows how to get the sort of sweet string tone which sounds so well in the Bridgewater Hall – and included glorious solos from the principal horn.
Dukas's The Sorcerer’s Apprentice had another magically gentle start and proceeded with light-footedness all the more remarkable for the numbers involved. Elder’s pacing was great fun in the opening bassoonists’ grunts, and he carried them with him through smooth and seamless tempo changes, gradually raising tension through the piece. Articulation from violins and brass was spot-on and lively, and the music ended with what can only be called an orchestral LOL.