Nicky Spence with ENO. Pic Andrew Walmsley

There was a man openly weeping in the upper tiers of Oxford Town Hall as Nicky Spence‘s voice reached a crescendo in Eduardo Di Capua’s O Sole Mio, his vibrato reverberating around the Victorian walls.

And who can blame him, because if you’re going to see the classics, being performed within spitting distance of the English National Opera Orchestra and the famous Scottish tenor, is about as good as it gets.

Nicky Spence, Pics by Andrew Walmsley

Which is the point of Oxford Festival Of The Arts – to bring the most talented people in the industry to Oxford to allow us to experience the sheer splendour of their expertise.

And last night’s ENO concert did not disappoint. From the word go it was not only explosive but intimate, in that the orchestra was right there in front of you, rather than banished to the pit, so you could watch their expressions, passion and dexterity unfolding as conductor Richard Farnes leapt nimbly through the vibrant programme.

Conductor Richard Farnes, Pics by Andrew Walmsley

And while the grandeur of the ENO’s home in the London Coliseum is unsurpassable, their evident enjoyment in having the crowds up close and personal, matched by our fervent appreciation, created quite an atmosphere.

“It’s such a unique experience being able to see the audiences reactions to the music,” Nicky agreed before launching into Handel’s Silent Worship, a sentiment shared by us all.

And as the brass section thundered out Tchaikovsky’s Polonaise, the strings swept through in O Sole Mio, and David Greed entranced us with his violin solo in Jules Massenet’s Meditation, we sat back in awe, revelling in this one off experience.

ENO. Pics by Andrew Walmsley

That there had been a massive drama in the preceding days was by-the-by, headliner Joseph Calleja, the Maltese Tenor, cancelling due to illness. But OFA organiser Michelle Castelletti pulled a few strings and soon persuaded the recently adorned OBE tenor Nicky Spence to step into his sizeable shoes.

Which he did with gusto. “I’ll let you in on a secret,” Nicky announced as he took centre stage. “I’m not Joseph Callelejo,” as he was immediately embraced by the packed audience, joking and chatting with the crowd from the get go, before proving his considerable prowess, holding us in the palm of his hand, with every note.

Michelle and Nicky in rehearsals

The programme was inspired – a greatest hits of the opera classics, the first half more serious, the second increasingly jovial, with a sing-along surprise thrown in for good measure during Luigi Denis’s Funiculi Funicula.

Highlights included Strauss’ Cacilie and Lara’s Granada, before Nicky brought the house down with Puccini’s Nessun Dorma, his chest swelling with volume.

Nicky and Richard smiling during some rapturous applause

We didn’t want it to end, but end it did, far too quickly. And as we rose to leave, the lady behind us commented on the sheer joy experienced by all: “Even the conductor was smiling,” she added. A truly memorable and accessible evening in so many ways.

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