BBC Proms reviews

Prom 10 review – ‘Orrible Opera: a bickering Mozart and Queen Victoria bring opera to kids

22 July 2023


The Horrible Histories team hook up with English National Opera for a knockabout introduction – in two Proms performances – to opera.

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‘Giuseppe Verdi’ attempts to tell an opera fairy story that isn’t ‘orrible to Inel Tomlinson (Photo: Tracey Welch)

A former colleague, a schools’ history adviser, used to opine that the best topics for keeping a class of children interested in history were sex, death and toilets. It’s a model that (although perhaps backpedalling on the sex, given the target age group) CBBC’s Horrible Histories squad have used much to their advantage in their excellent and entertaining programmes and books. The subject of lavatories rarely crops up in opera (although Bieito’s  – ahem – panned 2002 ENO production of A Masked Ball opened with a row of them), but, of course, sex and death are ever present, and Horrible Histories’ take on opera as a means of introducing children to the form made for an entertaining afternoon full of the brilliant fusion of music, history and comedy.

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‘Mozart’ & ‘Queen Victoria’ (Photo: Tracey Welch)

It was a slick performance packed full of wit, designed especially to appeal to the young audience. Our presenters were the strange pairing of Mozart and Queen Victoria: perfect foils, it turned out, as the latter insisted that only ‘suitable’ music (with no ‘orrible bits) should be presented to children, while the former – surely the composer most famous for his scatological humour (and the tuba fart gags kept on coming) – wanted everyone to have fun (and to admire his genius). There were visits from a team of Vikings explaining to the Valkyries why they shouldn’t have horns on their helmets (and delivering some truly terrible puns: “You backed the wrong Norse”), from James I hunting out the witches of Hansel and Gretel and Macbeth, from Nefertiti and D-D-D-D J Pharaoh-o-o-o Akhnaten, from Handel to referee a soprano-off, from Gershwin to remind us of his commercial successes, from Gilbert and Sullivan, constantly at loggerheads, and from Verdi whose failed attempts to turn opera plots into cute fairy stories (‘the jolly court jester Rigoletto with the sack slung over his back – can you guess what was in the sack?’) definitely raised a giggle from those in the know. The acting team were at the top of their game, and the stage business (including costume changes – of which there were a deal) was dextrously handled.

“…the best topics for keeping a class of children interested in history were sex, death and toilets”

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Charles Rice – Toreador! (Photo: Tracey Welch)

Equally slickly delivered was the music at the heart of the performance. It was provided by a group of soloists from ENO, along with the ENO chorus (who also got to wear costumes) and the ENO Orchestra under the baton of Keri-Lynn Wilson. It opened with a cracking account of ‘A Fire of Vengeance’ (‘Der Hölle Rache’) given by Rainelle Krause and closed with an equally excellent rendition of ‘I am the very model of a modern Major-General’ from The Pirates of Penzance, (with an extra, topical verse) given by John Molloy. In between we had some noteworthy performances of opera staples. Soprano Isabelle Peters was joined by the actor Richard David-Caine (in his James I persona) for Berthold’s The Cats’ Duet, David-Caine giving us a startlingly good counter-tenor voice; the three sopranos gave a creditably minimised version of ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’, and two of them (as Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni) adeptly performed a kind of relay for ‘Stormy Winds’ (‘Da tempeste’ from Giulio Cesare) for the big soprano fight. Sadly, we got to hear little of Gweneth Ann Rand’s gloriously creamy voice, as one of the verses of her emotionally charged rendition of ‘Summertime’ was cut, and she was given only a brief extract from Rosine Leckermaul’s material from Hansel and Gretel. The only item not sung in English was ‘Nessun Dorma’ – given its fame as a one-off, probably rightly so – and David Butt Philip (who’d managed a few bars of ‘Let’s drink’ – ‘Libiamo’ – earlier on before being interrupted) gave it a tear-jerking account. The star of the solo items, though, was Charles Rice, who wowed with flawless and characterful performances of ‘Here at your service’ (‘Largo al factotum’) and ‘The Toreador Song’ (‘Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre’) – for the former, cutting the hair of members of the orchestra, for the latter, presenting a hairy-chested wide boy in a traje de luces.

The balance between the orchestra and the chorus wasn’t always good, so the latter were occasionally not very audible, but they approached their material with the professionalism you’d expect, and turned in some fine performances of ‘The Witches’ Chorus’ (Macbeth), Ethel Smyth’s March of the Women and Philip Glass’ ‘Funeral of Amenhotep III’ (Akhnaten), and did an admirable job in supporting the audience for the singing of the Horrible Histories theme song, and the recitation (with increasingly speedy repetitions) of The Monarch Song (‘William, William, Henry, Stephen…’).

• Prom 10 can be audio streamed  from BBC Sounds

• Details of the 2023 BBC Proms season can be found here.


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