There's dancing, jokes, a pogrom and Bryn Terfel balancing on milk vats. It could only be Fiddler on the Roof – at least in the context of the Proms. A concert, this was not. This was a performance with many dimensions, and the combination hit the spot. Grange Park Opera took one of the world's finest operatic bass-baritones, Bryn Terfel, and slotted him into a production that is very much a "musical" – and it worked a treat.

Bryn Terfel (Tevye) leads the Grange Park Opera cast © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Bryn Terfel (Tevye) leads the Grange Park Opera cast
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Tonight was a semi-staged, costumed version of the recent Grange Park production, which originates on the New York stage. I've lost count of the number of times I've mentioned the size of the Royal Albert Hall when writing about Prom concerts, but it does matter. Here, effective use of lighting, some busy chorus scenes and the fact singers were amplified drew all eyes to the stage and ensured nothing was lost in the arena, which can often swallow sound. The chorus sounded great, making a strong early impact. The choreography was also impressive, particularly in the wedding scene and what I'd describe as the threatening dance-off with the Russians in the village drinking hole.   

The Fiddler in the title wasn't actually on a roof but wandered about and around the stage. He's the symbol of precariousness, the fear of society falling apart, that hovers over this Jewish community in rural Russia, as it faces the threat of displacement by the Tsar's men – plus the perceived threat of changing modern values, particularly when it comes to marriage. To avoid ending up on that metaphorical rooftop, the community vainly clings to "Tradition", the importance of which Tevye and the chorus powerfully and repeatedly remind us. 
When it comes to music, Fiddler boasts a list of classic tunes: "Matchmaker, matchmaker", "If I were a rich man", "Sunrise, Sunset" among many, often containing a bittersweet mix of hope and resignation. The folksy melodies are effectively orchestrated in the score taken from the 2004 Broadway revival. Conductor David Charles Abell led the BBC Concert Orchestra in a performance which reacted well to the changing moods of the plot. The overture to Act II, showcasing tunes from Act I, drew a round of applause. However the extra song "Topsy-Turvy" written for that 2004 revival, isn't terribly inspiring. One feels it could have been sacrificed tonight, given that the performance lasted about 3 hours and 20 minutes. Tevye's "If I were a rich man", arguably the most famous, started with wonderful subtlety before rising to an angry semi-operatic climax, with Terfel standing atop the milk vats pulled from his ever-present milk cart. He sang the song as if it had been written for him.

Bryn Terfel (Tevye) and Janet Fullerlove (Golde) © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Bryn Terfel (Tevye) and Janet Fullerlove (Golde)
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The mix of voices across the cast formed an unusual patchwork, featuring an opera chorus, a couple of opera singers plus musical theatre singers as some main characters. Antony Flaum as Motel, eventual match for Tevye's eldest daughter, was good, but more memorable for his acting. Some did not fit: a fine actor she may be, but Janet Fullerlove's singing voice as Tevye's wife Golde did not match or complement Terfel's velvet vocal quality. There were pleasant surprises; the love duet between Tevye's daughter Hodel and her poor intellectual suitor Perchik, admirably sung by Jordan Simon Pollard, was a West End-style gem. Katie Hall as Hodel also performed a breathy but heart-rendingingly sweet "Far from the home I love", as she contemplated joining Perchik in Siberia.

Being a musical, much of the plot, based on Sholem Aleichem's original stories, is told through spoken word. The dialogue was consistently engaging, creating frequent laugh-out-loud moments, and more "mazel tov"s than you could shake a stick at. The people may be about to be persecuted by the Tsar, but the jokes, family problems and farcical situations are a reminder that human life goes on. Terfel was at ease as Tevye, with decent comic timing and effortless realisation of the witty script. Tevye's musing (and amusing) monologues addressing his maker were touching, funny and intimate. Terfel then cut a sad, downtrodden figure, as his last effort to prevent a daughter marrying was frustrated in the worst way he could have imagined: she fell for a Russian. The seriousness of this last problem would have had more impact if more had been made of the violence from the Russians displacing Jewish villages. The sadness of leaving their homes was effectively conveyed, and their black humour in the face of their problems, but not quite the fear of what the Tsar's men could do.

The attempt to depict rustic rural buildings on the screens behind the orchestra didn't really work, and the characters were all rather pristine in appearance and well-spoken for poor country folk. But this didn't lessen the impact of the drama or the music, which were woven into an engaging and surprisingly atmospheric narrative, After ENO's Sweeney Todd, this is Terfel's second foray into musicals this year and, as he often does on the opera stage, he stole the show. It's still rare to see a semi-staged musical at the Proms. Fiddler made a good argument for more.