How far the ENO have come. It is less than four years ago that I saw Handel’s Radamisto at the ENO with a woman singing the castrato role and very static staging. How much better it is now that the importance of the counter tenor has been recognised. This showed up most dramatically in the Act II duet between Iestyn Davies as Bertarido and Rebecca Evans as his wife Rodelinda. His counter tenor and her soprano may have been similar in vocal range but they sounded as different as woodwind and string instruments, creating the most wonderful highlight of the opera. The staging was good too, with good acting from the six singers and one actor who somehow filled the stage and made me forget how few singers there are in most opera seria, although the direction was perhaps a little more tongue in cheek than the heacy plot deserved. Also many thanks for Christian Curnyn who I have now seen conducting four baroque operas at the Coliseum. He currently seems unsurpassably good in this area. My only minor grumble is that, having found how good it was to raise the orchestra pit for Castor and Pollux, why has it not become standard for all their baroque operas?
Quinn Kelsey was astonishing in the title role, giving a powerful performance that drew out the complexities of the character. I tend to judge a performance by the ENO by my need to look at the surtitles: in his case there was no need as every word was beautifully, clearly sung. The direction by Christopher Alden followed the same principle as in his version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – take a single set relevant to the world in which the opera was written, rather than its nominal setting, and play everything against that one background. For A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he used the outside of Britten’s school: half the audience booed on the first night; the other half cheered, including me. This time he used a Victorian gentleman’s club: no-one booed; no-one cheered, including me. There was plenty of polite applause but I’d rather be in a production that gets booed and cheered than one that just gets applauded. I saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream twice in a week as I loved it so much. I’m not sure I’ll bother to see Rigoletto again in any production. I’m still not a fan of Italian opera, but it was fun and I am glad I have seen it this once.
The pre-publicity for this opera rigthly concentrated on the astonishing set designed by Rebecca Ringst and it really was a star. You can get some idea from any of the pictures around. What is more difficult to imagine is the opening to the second act where this massive structure, which I’d estimate as three or four storeys high, very slowly tilts back with no apparent support, forming a labyrinth, echoing the quotes from Jorge Luis Borges that are used in the production. During the final chorus it rises again, only to fall slowly at the end. The second star was Emma Bell as Leonore/Fidelio, singing with immense skill and passion. An amazing and thoroughly recommended production.
ENO emailed me an offer of a seat in row E of the stalls for the same price I paid last week to sit in the back row of the upper circle. I’m not a Puccini fan but this is his most famous opera and I thought, “why not give it a go? I am really glad I did. I have found Puccini on the radio boring but this was great theatre in a terrific production, originally directed by Jonathan Miller. It was credited as a revival by Natascha Metherell but Jonathan Miller came onto the stage at the end to take his well deserved bow. Robyn Lyn Evans was a last minute replacement for Gwyn Hughes-Jones as Rodolfo and I suspect Jonathan Miller was on hand to add some last minute direction. You would never have guessed Evans was a replacement apart from a few places where the largely unnecessary surtitles did not quite match the lines he sang.
One of the things that puts me off the Puccini that gets played on the radio is the vibrato used in many of the classic recordings. I am so glad it has gone out of fashion; I detected only the slighted traces of it in a couple of the excellent performances yesterday. Overall, it did not match the astonishing emotional intensity of last week’s Death in Venice but there is a place for both and it was certainly more tuneful.
This was as perfect as an opera can be. John Graham-Hall as von Aschenbach sang an extraordinarily demanding role perfectly. His final, vocally demanding aria, sung virtually unaccompanied, at the end of three hours was full of heartbreak. Deborah Warner’s direction, Tom Pye’s set and Jean Kalman’s lighting were all so perfect that I have to mention them, as I do the brilliant conducting of Edward Gardner. I was pleased to be sitting where we could not see the surtitles as every word John Graham-Hall sang was perfectly clear, as were most of the others. It’s only after reading other reviews I discovered they wisely chose not to use the surtitles. This should be standard for Britten operas: he wrote for the English language so perfectly you can almost hear the words in the music alone.
Roderick Williams stood out as Pollux in ENO’s Castor & Pollux and is brilliant in this. There are no surtitles and none would be necessary if the other singers sang as clearly as he does.
The music is excellent and the 3D video visually stunning:
The last thing I saw, “Table” at the Shed, used a bare stage with a table and a few chairs, a handful of excellent actors and a simple family saga but ended up much greater than the sum of its parts. This had a great score by Michel van der Aa, very well conducted by André de Ridder (not easy when you need to integrate singing on video with live singing, beautiful singing), an intriguing story by David Mitchell (the one who wrote Cloud Atlas), fantastic visual effects and yet it somehow ended up as less than the sum of its parts. Each of those elements is great and it is well worth watching for that alone – I’d rather see an experiment that does not quite work than a company just playing it safe.
Excellent singing, fabulous set, great direction and terrific dancing: everything about this production is perfect. As with Castor & Pollux, Christian Curnyn conducts the orchestra beautifully, although this time the orchestra pit is sadly not raised. The dancers (excellently choreographed by Lynne Page) enhance rather than distract, deserving the spontaneous applause following their first appearance.
Sarah Connolly gives a powerful performance as Medea, her passionate love for Jason turning to passionate revenge when he falls for another.
Director David McVicar places the action in the middle of WWII, using the countries’ uniforms to make clear who is working for whom. The allied Thessalonian Jason (British navy) and Corinthian king Creon (French army) need the support of Orontes of Argos – enter the American airmen in their leather flying jackets. Creon promises Orontes his daughter Creusa in return for his support. Orontes prepares a celebration, featuring Cupid and her chariot (a glitter covered USAF plane) pulled by her Slaves of Love (sailors and tarts) in a fabulous parody of a Hollywood musical. I hadn’t realised before how close the Hollywood musical is in structure to that of Baroque opera with love songs and set dance pieces punctuating the unfolding of the story.
Meanwhile, Jason and Creusa have fallen in love and Creon promises them they can get married once the battle is won. Medea finds out and reveals her dark side as a sorceress:
Using her blood, she calls up the demons from Hades (even spookier than the ghostly nuns in Robert le Diable):
Medea relentlessly releases her powers, slaughtering all, even her own children, apart from Jason. I know I promised short reviews but this really deserved more and I only wish I had space to applaud the terrific performances individually. I may well have already seen my favourite opera of 2013 (and may go and see it again). By the way, I couldn’t see the surtitles from my seat but it didn’t matter at all as the singing was so clear.