Prom 58: An Evening with Michael Ball

With Laura Michelle Kelly, Alfie Boe and Izzy Johnston

Royal Albert Hall, 27 August 2007 1 stars

Michael Ball

It was during the most nauseating rendition imaginable of the duet 'Au fond du temple saint' from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers that I felt 'An Evening with Michael Ball' had turned into the worst Prom concert I have ever had the misfortune to attend. In teaming up with tenor Alfie Boe, Ball evidently felt that he was venturing into operatic territory that would confound his critics. For me it was an utter miscalculation: Ball had been hired to perform the kind of repertoire for which he is justly renowned, not to sing opera (for which he has no qualification or talent whatsoever). It was nothing short of cringe worthy.

The uproar in the press when the concert was announced back in April was totally unnecessary: the Proms have played host to evenings of musical theatre a number of times in the past, and the very early seasons often featured lighter genres of music. As a student of musical theatre, and someone who enjoyed Ball's performance in ENO's often execrable production of Kismet, I have absolutely no issue with the Proms hiring Ball or programming an evening of songs from musicals.

But I did have two enormous problems with this concert, which made me hold my head in my hands in despair. The first was the amplification, which was the downfall of the event. Although it evidently didn't come across in the television broadcast (some of which I caught at the repeat broadcast at 2am this morning), both the BBC Concert Orchestra and the singers were heavily amplified. In the first half particularly, I found it practically impossible to distinguish more than half the words of each song, because the orchestra was drowning out Ball's voice. The reverberation frequently distorted the voices and the Albert Hall's acoustic - possibly the worst in London even before you start adding microphones - simply killed the affair. One can understand the use of amplification for Ball himself (though he shouted his way through many of the songs in spite of his considerable natural vocal talent), but making the orchestra artificially louder puzzles me - what does it really do to enhance the experience? It simply gave me a headache and sucked out all the subtlety and detail of Ball's singing.

On the television, the concert came across much more enjoyably, though I still feel that Mr Ball gave a very nervy, nervous, overdone and uncontrolled performance, characterised by a number of fluffed lyrics (that were hard to understand, given the presence of monitors with the words on in front of the stage), tight top notes and some exposed tuning. The singer declared that those who didn't enjoy the concert should 'get over themselves'. But as I hated nearly every minute, is there any point in lying about it?

The big disappointment for me was in the programming. To me, the furore over his engagement at the Proms meant that he had been entrusted with furthering the reputation of musical theatre. It ought not to be the case that the musical theatre repertoire is so derided. The boundaries between high and low art are extremely vague: are works by such a phenomenal musical genius as Bernstein, for instance, really 'low art'? And I don't know why there is supposed to be no place for it in one Prom concert out of almost a hundred, especially as light relief on a Bank Holiday. But Ball seemed content to indulge, rather than confound, his critics in this concert, and served up little more than musical wallpaper for the most part. Where were the classics? For such a prestigious engagement, I would have liked to see him perform a selection of the greatest musical theatre songs from across the decades, but Ball stuck mainly to songs from the 1970s and 1980s.

We started with a dismal excuse for an Overture - a blend of John Miles and Queen. Since Ball counts Gypsy as one of his five favourite musicals, I'd have hoped for something of that sort of high quality Broadway ilk, rather than a few bars of pathetic noise. This led straight into 'This is the Moment' from Frank Wildhorn and Leslie Bricusse's Jekyll and Hyde, one of the most bland and trite songs known to man. Ball's singing was barely audible at this point, but it seemed a tentative start. Barbra Streisand has nothing to worry about after this fumbled, rushed, strained attempt at 'Don't Rain on my Parade' from Funny Girl, and it was back to the noise-fest with another Bricusse song (this one written with Anthony Newley), 'Feeling Good'. Throughout this opening trio, it seemed as if Ball was trying to persuade us he wasn't nervous, whilst showing his discomfort both physically and vocally.

The critics were uppermost on his mind, so Ball mocked them in a limply camp rendition of 'If You're Anxious for to Shine' from Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience, a piece in which he appeared at New York City Opera in 2005. I could barely make out a word, so there was no entertainment in it from where I was sitting at the back of the stalls. Moving on to his recent appearance in Kismet, he sang two of the songs which were not assigned to him in the show, 'Stranger in Paradise' and 'And this is my Beloved'. Allusion was made to the fact that he was no longer the juvenile lead, which was why he didn't get to perform them in Kismet, but that should have told him something: he's too old to get away with singing this sort of thing and should move onto something more sophisticated and challenging. Nevertheless, the relative restraint of these three numbers was a welcome respite compared to the high decibel levels of much of the rest of the concert.

On came Alfie Boe - who trained at the National Opera Studio, the Royal College of Music and the Royal Opera House, so he has a reasonable pedigree - for The Pearl Fishers and 'Torna a Surriento'. The duet was a disaster, the two voices not blending at all well and both of them going out of tune, while the solo was simply ghastly. Why choose something so boring for a seminal concert? The first half closed with 'Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord' from Godspell, which was alright until the drums entered and drowned out Ball and the backing singers (Capital Voices), and 'Gethsemane' from Jesus Christ Superstar. This is an extraordinary monologue in which Christ addresses God in anticipation of his death and contains a number of dramatic, angry psychological shifts that Ball engaged with very well. But nerves and tension got the better with him, and he fumbled the words, undermining the performance.

For me, Sunset Boulevard is Andrew Lloyd Webber's masterpiece, and the second half of the concert opened with the strongest performances: a contained, elegiac rendition of 'As If We Never Said Goodbye' and a punchy version of the title song (though there he made another mistake with the words). The singer's diction was clearer, the orchestra was quieter, and it was emotionally engaging. Then it was back down the Matterhorn with 'Anthem' from Chess. Out of all the songs ever performed on Broadway and in the West End, why choose this insipid nonsense? And nothing in Ball's strained rendition justified its inclusion. 'All I Ask of You' from Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera was coupled with Sondheim's 'Loving You' from Passion as a supposed demonstration of the composers' equality, but I thought the former showed how lacking in melodic invention the latter is.

'Something's Coming' from West Side Story was the most impressive performance of the night. Ball nailed the difficult rhythms with perfection (if we're talking about the respective abilities of opera singers and musical theatre singers, JosÚ Carreras could learn a lot from Ball in performing this song), pointed the words edgily, and in general performed with more relaxation and style - things I usually associate him with. But let's face it, the basic material is vastly more inspiring than most of the other songs performed at this concert.

Les MisÚrables, one of the most important shows in Ball's career, was represented by 'Empty Chairs at Empty Tables', but again I felt it was time for Ball to move on from the songs he sang as a man in his twenties: why not perform one of Jean Valjean's numbers now that his voice has taken on a darker colour? Laura Michelle Kelly (the best Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady I have ever seen) then duetted with Ball in 'The Prayer', another disappointing choice given the wealth of duets available from musicals, and despite Kelly's excellent diction and tone it was simply excruciating. Indeed, I felt she showed up Ball in the intelligence and ease of her performance, the cracked note at the end notwithstanding.

The darkness of Queen's 'The Show Must Go On' was actually a welcome ingredient in the concert - I thought it was a less daring move to include a quality rock song than it was to perform the dreary 'Anthem' from Chess. But Carly Simon's 'Let the Rivers Run' and John Miles' 'Music' were dull choices indeed to end a concert like this, the latter made even more insufferable by the appearance of violinist Izzy Johnston during the overlong instrumental and by Ball's decision to start playing the timpani, as if it was some sort of school hands-on music workshop.

At least I can tell my grandchildren that I saw him sing 'Love Changes Everything' (the single encore). Nobody sings it like Michael, and you can't fault him for effort or generosity towards his fellow performers. The audience (of mainly grey-haired women) loved every minute, cheering, clapping, and giving standing ovations even before a note had been sung. But with the Promenaders' area almost empty, it seemed to me that this concert was a failure (the Prommers quite simply are the Proms; without them, there's no atmosphere) - and it certainly represents an all-time low for me.

By Dominic McHugh