“If music be the food of love, play on, give me excess of it.” There was certainly plenty of Shakespeare-inspired music on the bill for the London Philharmonic Orchestra's celebration of The Bard. Masterminded – or “curated” - by Simon Callow, the evening interspersed operatic chunks with orchestral works and brief excerpts from the plays themselves. Galas like this are necessarily piecemeal affairs, but the programme was intelligently constructed to provide a sense of flow without the need to provide a Reduced Shakespeare-type nod to all the plays.

Vladimir Jurowski © Matthias Creutziger
Vladimir Jurowski
© Matthias Creutziger

The usual suspects featured strongly: Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream were obvious contenders and some offered the chance to hear different composers' takes on the same play. It wasn't just a “greatest hits” though. A sizeable excerpt from Thomas Adès' The Tempest waved the flag for contemporary adaptations of The Bard, while Ophelia's mad scene from Tchaikovsky's incidental music to Hamlet provided rarity value.

Verdi topped and tailed the evening. There is no more pulsating, volatile opening than the storm which opens Otello. A mighty orchestral crash, a flicker of strobe lighting, thunderous pedal notes from the Royal Festival Hall's organ and the brassy rasp of a cimbasso brought the evening bursting to life. Cue the Otello of Ronald Samm – a clarion “Esultate!” - swiftly followed by Simon Keenlyside and Toby Spence declaiming Iago and Roderigo's lines. “I hate the Moor” segued into the Credo (ironically one of the few parts of Arrigo Boito's libretto not based on Shakespeare at all). Alas, Keenlyside doesn't have the heft of voice for Iago, resorting to foot-stamping to make his mark. Nor does Kate Royal have the requisite vocal colour for Verdi, too anaemic for Desdemona's Willow Song.

Allison Bell © Felipe Pagani
Allison Bell
© Felipe Pagani
The better operatic excerpts came from the Dream and Falstaff. Slithering and queasy, the LPO strings captured the ethereal atmosphere at the start of Britten's opera, Iestyn Davies in commanding voice as Oberon, matched by a wonderful Tytania from Allison Bell. Andrew Shore – antlers protruding from his deerstalker – just about stole the show at the end, his Falstaff as lovable in the great fugue to end Verdi's final opera as he was in the scene with Mistresses Ford and Page from The Merry Wives of Windsor which had preceded it. A pity, though, that we only got to hear a little of Gabriela Iştoc's Alice, gleaming above the stave.

I was conscious we spent much of the evening hearing Shakespeare's words reflected and refracted through the lens of various librettists. Boito (who penned the text for both Otello and Falstaff) did it in masterly fashion; Meredith Oakes, emerged less successfully, her adaptation of The Tempest full of banal rhyming couplets, although Bell negotiated Adès' treacherously high vocal writing as Ariel splendidly. Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, of course, took a hands off approach, taking Shakespeare at his word and adding barely a single line for their Dream libretto.

Theatrical interludes did not always come off well. While Dominic West brooded in near darkness as Hamlet, Anna Chancellor was not always very clear, mangling a few lines to boot. They were rather upstaged by Ronald Samm's amusing Bottom, delivered with gleeful Trinidadian tone, commanding Cobweb to bring him the honey-bag of the red-hipped humble-bee. Simon Callow “thesped” in a lengthy excerpt from Walton's Henry V, one of the few longueurs in the programme.

Jurowski and the LPO are regulars at Glyndebourne and reminded us how sensitively they can accompany voices. They are experts in Russian repertoire too, though, and Tchaikovsky's Hamlet Fantasy Overture and the Dance of the Knights from Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet were doom-laden and gritty. The Glyndebourne connection continued with superb singing from its Chorus, some of whom joined soloists to participate in a beautiful rendition of Vaughan Williams' Serenade to Music, which takes its text from The Merchant of Venice; “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!” indeed.

An entertaining, inventive programme, not always “notably discharged”, was rounded off with an epilogue, Oberon and Titania sending us off to bed wrapped in Mendelssohn's elfin strings, William Hardy's Puck inviting deserved applause.