Grange Park Opera Triumph at the Proms with Fiddler on the Roof

Prom 11. Fiddler on the Roof Grange Park Opera, BBC Concert Orchestra/David Charles Abell (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 25.7.2015 (RB)

Fiddler on the Roof Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou
Fiddler on the Roof Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou

Music by Jerry Bock
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Bryn Terfel – Tevye
Janet Fullerlove – Golde
Charlotte Harwood – Tzeitel
Katie Hall – Hodel
Molly Lynch – Chava
Rebecca Wheatley – Yente
Anthony Flaum – Motel
Jordan Simon Pollard – Perchik
Cameron Blakely – Lazar Wolf
Mark Heenehan – Constable
Craig Fletcher – Fyedka
Houcheng Kian – Fiddler

Peter Relton – Stage Director
Lucy Burge – Choreographer
Gabrelle Dalton – Costume designer

The Royal Albert Hall was completely packed for Grange Park Opera’s production of Fiddler on the Roof . This perennially popular musical originally opened in Broadway in 1964 and it was the first musical in history to surpass 3,000 performances. The composer and lyricist, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, took their inspiration from the short stories of Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. Bock incorporated a lot of traditional Jewish music in the score, including prayers and klezmer music and the original orchestration included klezmer clarinet, accordion, mandolin and lute. Zero Mostel was the first performer to star in the principal role of Tevye, the Jewish milkman although most people now associate Topol with the role because of his memorable and Oscar-winning performance in the 1971 movie adaptation.

The action is set in 1905 in in a Jewish shtetl in Anatevka, a Russian village, in the period immediately prior to the Russian Revolution. Tevye has five daughters to marry and no money to provide dowries so, in accordance with tradition, he tries to arrange suitable matches for them through Yente the local matchmaker. However, his daughters have their own ideas about who they want to marry and Tevye reluctantly has to accept that he needs to change if he wants to retain the love of his children. Tevye’s attempt to steer a choppy course between sticking with the best of the old traditions and accepting that he needs to adapt to the modern world gives the musical its broad universal appeal. Tevye describes the villagers’ lives as being like a fiddler on the roof in the sense that they are precariously balanced between sticking with the old ways and accepting change. The dark shadows of pogroms and the diaspora provide a backdrop to the story.

Grange Park wisely decided to give us a full costume production and they used the resources of the Royal Albert Hall to optimum effect. Visual images of village rooftops were projected on to LED panels at the back of the hall and the eponymous fiddler of the title (Houcheng Kian) made his initial entrance playing a violin solo in the organ loft. The cast were all wearing traditional peasant or Russian Cossack costumes and there was an array of props including desks, beds, milk carts and urns. There is a fair amount of spoken dialogue in this musical so the acting needed to be good and the performers rose to the occasion.

Not all opera stars are able to make the transition to singing Broadway numbers successfully but Bryn Terfel already has form in musicals, having taken on the title role in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd at the Coliseum. He seized the role of Tevye with both hands and made it his own, bringing this thoughtful and humane character winningly to life whilst delivering a number of sparkling one-liners with perfect comic timing. ‘If I were a Rich Man’ was delivered with gusto and I was particularly impressed with Terfel’s quiet singing – I slightly missed the sense of knowing mischief and boisterous abandon which Topol brought to the number but Terfel’s voice is in a league of its own. This was also a very physical performance from Terfel and he showed us some nimble footwork in the dance routines and at various points he was balancing on milk urns and pulling a cart across the stage.

The rest of the cast all acquitted themselves well. Charlotte Harwood, Katie Hall and Molly Lynch in the roles of Tevye’s three daughters did an excellent job with ‘Matchmaker, Matchmaker’, capturing the girlish delight and giddiness of the number. Hall was also particularly impressive in her Second Act song, ‘Far from the Home I love’. Anthony Flaum and Jordan Simon Pollard both did a great job with their respective numbers and they captured the likeable Motel and freethinking Perchik to perfection. Janet Fullerlove acted the part of Golde, Tevye’s wife, well although her singing was not quite as polished as some of the other performers. Rebecca Wheatley did a very good job with her second Act number although I was not entirely convinced by her portrayal of Yente the matchmaker.

The big set piece numbers were delivered with enormous flair and energy. The opening sequence ‘Tradition’ – which was repeated briefly repeated when the cast took their curtain calls – had the audience clapping in the aisles. There was some spectacular and acrobatic dance routines in the ‘To Life’ (‘L’Chaim’) sequence while ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ was evocative, atmospheric and exquisitely lyrical. David Charles Abell and the BBC Concert Orchestra played the musical interlude which opens the Second Act with vigour and relish. The balance of sound was excellent and Abell ensured the orchestra captured the distinctive klezmer flavour of this musical while deftly accompanying the performers.

Overall, this was a first rate production from Grange Park opera and a superb performance from Terfel, which was rewarded with a standing ovation from the audience.

Robert Beattie

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