Puccini's arias have been the mainstay of every passing crossover act for so long it's easy to forget how masterful his complete operas are. I've got Raymond Gubbay to thank for this. What? The Gubbster, isn't he one of the bad guys, you know, singers with microphones, fireworks etc? Well, yes in some people's eyes, he's not exactly Mr High Brow, and I for one am rather pleased he isn't; it takes chutzpah to transfer a well loved work like Madam Butterfly from the opera house into the cavernous Royal Albert Hall AND make it work.
The fact is if you can use the Royal Albert Hall space effectively, as Gubbay and his team have, it gives opera an entirely new dimension. For a start, you can see it in the round, which can't fail to bring audiences closer to the action. And being the size it is, the RAH arena invites a greater scope for visual ambitions, in this case a large water garden (yep, real water) that surrounds Butterfly's house. But it's what this production achieves aurally that really hits home, in particular the humming chorus in Act II which wafts down magically from the gallery into a dimmed auditorium with only Chinese lanterns for light. Beat that Royal Opera.
There is a price to pay for this. The singers are miked-up and while this is a crime too far for some opera-goers, I don't see how it can be avoided in a large venue like the Royal Albert Hall. Sure, you do lose some purity of tone and at times a certain shrillness creeps in, particularly at the top end of the singers' range. On balance though, the theatrical gains far outweigh any reservations I have about the whole microphone issue.
So, Mr Gubbay, when are you going to do The Ring?