Manchester came to London for Prom 19 in the form of The Hallé under their veteran Music Director, Sir Mark Elder, in a bubbling, aquatic-themed programme of Dukas, Respighi and Puccini. We splashed through the domestic floods of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice straight into the serenity of Respighi’s fragrant symphonic poem, Fountains of Rome, before abandoning those calm waters for the murky eddies of Puccini’s Seine, inhabited by industrial boats and unhappy spouses as depicted in his Il tabarro.

Sir Mark Elder
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Elder’s affinity for music of the late 1800s and early 1900s was on fine display throughout the programme. The placid mysticism of Dukas’ most famous work – famously conducted by that infamous baton-wielder, Mickey Mouse, in Disney’s Fantasia – was gently unfurled, a pulsing from the oboe passed pensively to the flute before the pert bursts of the brass waggled their way off the stage. Elder’s fine grasp on dynamics and balance, an ability to file down the orchestra’s sound to the daintiest of volumes, allowed him to expose to full view the work’s riotous humour, a real achievement in so acoustically unfriendly a venue as the Royal Albert Hall.

Annunzuata Vestri (La Frugola), Simon Shibambu (Talpa), Alasdair Elliott (Tinca)
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Elder escalated his creation of soundscapes for a superbly nuanced performance of Fountains of Rome which positively ached with the glow of the Eternal City. Fountains, the first of the Respighi’s Roman trilogy of symphonic poems, is the most graceful: an elegant evocation of four different fountains at different times of day. As with the Dukas, we were given a performance that prized sensitivity in balance, the quieter moments entirely audible, the quivers of the strings floating into the hall, the woodwind pellucid and almost meandering. Elder allowed an organic transition in sound, a natural development that avoided harrying the piece without letting it descend into a pedestrian plod. Elder whipped up the Hallé into a whirling effervescence in The Trevi Fountain at Midday, rounded brass crowning a gleaming string frenzy which descended into crepuscular quietude as the bell started tolling for the sunset finale of The Fountain of the Villa Medici at Sunset.

Lucio Gallo (Michele), Natalya Romaniw (Giorgetta)
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

After such an accomplished first half, there was a degree of excitement in the hall as the cast assembled on stage for Puccini’s Il tabarro – a cast finalised after a number of changes over the preceding days.  Alas, the acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall finally seemed to thwart even Mark Elder’s powers, despite an impressive performance from the orchestra, playing at full verismo blast. Only the raw force and unusual incisive quality of Natalya Romaniw’s soprano was able to really shine in the cavernous hall, and even then its qualities were blurred by the hall. Lucio Gallo’s surly, morose Michele was a bleak presence on stage, lurking at the side with ill-constrained fury at the disintegration of his marriage and delivering a ferocious finale opposite Romaniw, but Adam Smith’s more delicate tenor voice was at times inaudible and his performance was not helped by a tendency to sing away from the centre. Indeed one felt at times that, while admirable to see an attempt at semi-staging, the venue would have benefitted from a straight concert performance with voices focused out from centre stage. We certainly did not require the artificial interjection of foghorns, an unexpected moment of comedy which inadvertently lightened the atmosphere. Annunziata Vestri was a sunny La Frugola whose cheerful joie de vivre was an entertaining contrast to the dismal inclinations of the rest of the cast. While it is always a pleasure to hear this opera – often neglected in favour of the other operas in Il trittico – the Royal Albert Hall was not the place to hear the piece at its best.