Bryn Terfel and the WNO at Henley Festival

Claire Jackson dons her Sunday best to enjoy an evening with the Welsh bass baritone

Bryn Terfel and the WNO at Henley Festival
L-R, Gareth Jones, Alma Deutscher and Bryn Terfel at Henley Festival

Henley Festival (6-10 July) is a quintessentially British celebration of music, art, comedy and gastronomy that has been running annually since 1983. Its Wind and the Willows riverside setting attracts a conservative audience. (Also Conservative: new Tory leader and incoming Prime Minister Theresa May was spotted in attendance.) Friday headliners were Bryn Terfel and the Welsh National Opera (WNO) orchestra, conducted by Gareth Jones (8 July).

The festival website promises 'you can never be overdressed at Henley'. A rummage in the loft unearthed an unworn charity-shop purchase: an elaborate white taffeta skirt with a metre-long fishtail. Too jazzy? On arrival I spotted a man wearing a kilt paired with a top hat. My fears evaporated.

This isn't a fashion column, of course, but do bear with me. We like to think that music rises above such frivolity. But concert etiquette is critical to our overall experience of live music. As organisations look to dismantle traditionalism, it's interesting to observe those who go against the grain. Choice is important. Events such as Henley attract new audiences, too. (And, in this age of austerity, the arts world needs to capture the attention – and ultimately, support – of the well heeled.)

Thameside. I made my way past the psychedelic sculptures that were on sale, convinced that owning a life-size deer made of horse shoes would be worth not being able to eat for a year. The main stage was erected across the river, and a flotilla formed. The audience included those vessels, and people across the bankside – as well as those seated in the grandstand and on the lawn. The WNO opened with the overture to Verdi's La forza del destino, which was hampered by poor amplification, such is the nature of al fresco performance. Terfel continued the Verdi theme with Pieta, rispetto amore from Macbeth and Ella giammai m’amò from Don Carlos, his voice resonating over Oxfordshire. Soprano Corinne Winters was one of Terfel's special guests; she performed a Puccini couplet: Chi il bel sogno di Doretta from La rondine and O mio babbino caro from Gianni Schicchi. Winters and Terfel were an absorbing double act in Quanto amore from Donizetti's L’elisir d’amore, where they captured all the drama of a full production in with one visual aid: an empty wine bottle.

Terfel was also joined by Alma Deutscher, an 11-year-old violinist and probable child prodigy. Deutscher performed the third movement of her concerto, which, she informed us, she wrote when she was nine. The music skips prettily; it's innocuous and exactly what a concerto written by a nine-year-old should sound like. I was underwhelmed – but I've sat through the junior rounds of the Menuhin Violin Competition. The audience adored her and a standing ovation followed. 'Isn't she wonderful,' breathed the gentleman next to me.

The sun dipped behind the river. Boats adorned with disco lights meandered past. Terfel and Winters sang Anything you can do, adapting the words to 'anything you can sing, I can sing higher' etc. It was the perfect vehicle to demonstrate the range and depth of soprano and bass baritone voices. Many audience members would be hearing these sounds for the first time – it was a nice bit of programming.

Then, the WNO performed Carousel Waltz, Winters sang I could have danced all night and Terfel gave us If I were a rich man, presumably with no irony intended. It had all gone a bit André Rieu. On cue, fireworks lit the sky.

As I pondered putting a bid on a Lichenstein print in the silent auction, a man pushing a Silver Cross pram approached me. I prepared to coo and peaked in: the bed was full of cigars. At this sublime (and only faintly ridiculous) festival, things are never as they seem.

Claire Jackson

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