Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Russell Watson was famously discovered singing Presley covers in northern Working Men’s clubs. When a club secretary suggested he have a go at Nessun Dorma and, despite Watson not having had any classical singing training, a career was born. And since then Watson has ruled supreme in the classical crossover arena, equally at home crooning or singing classic arias, with his voice growing in power and clarity.
What hasn’t changed in the interim is his ability to work a room, striking an immediate rapport with the audience, reinforcing his image as the self-styled “People’s Tenor”. On the first leg of a short tour that culminates in a performance at the London Palladium to promote his new album, True Voices, the grandeur of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall must seem a world away from his early career as he performs with his own orchestra under the baton of musical director Simon Chalk, comprising strings (including guitar and mandolin from John Bailey), percussion and pianos, and backed by local choir Birmingham Voices, which adds depth to several songs, especially after the interval.
The short first half feels a little muted. It comprises mainly showtunes, showing Watson’s ability to shift chameleon-like between styles and genres, often within the same song. His performance is self-assured and honest and is perhaps most comfortable when belting out the powerful, high notes. So there is a strong opening with Somewhere followed by If I Loved You, With A Song In My Heart, If Ever I Would Leave You and a trio of songs from Les Misérables. In each of these, Watson demonstrates his ability to interpret a song and connect with his audience. Bring Him Home is maybe the most challenging of these, and Watson’s performance is technically and dramatically adept. Also included is an aria new to Watson’s repertoire, Una Furtiva Lagrima from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, although Watson perhaps misses a trick in not discussing the context and meaning of the piece. Also in this half we are treated to the orchestra playing the intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana. While the players are undoubtedly highly skilled, this does highlight the impact of having no wind section as the piece and accompaniments to some other songs lack the depth and power these would provide.
After the interval, the energy moves up a gear. Audience favourites including Nessun Dorma, Funiculi, Funicula and Volare are performed alongside material from True Voices, including the intensely personal, I’m Alive. Watson visibly relaxes and engages the audience well, making all feel valued. Indeed, all performers seem to enjoy performing to this supportive audience. Also in the second half, guest artiste Cecilia Le Poer Power offers some contrast with her powerful, pure yet fragile and bluesy voice. Watson and Le Poer Power share singing honours in The Prayer before Le Poer Power sings some of her own repertoire.
Being the first outing for this particular material does mean that there is occasional hesitancy although this hardly matters to Watson’s loyal following who can barely wait to leap to their feet at the end of their favourites.
This is undoubtedly a barnstorming and crowd-pleasing performance from Watson and the other performers ecstatically received by the audience.
Reviewed on 3 May 2017 and on tour | Image: Contributed