I love opera on this scale, in a small, packed theatre with just five singers and three musicians so that you hear every note and every word clearly. The smaller scale doesn’t mean it’s easier for the singers, in some ways quite the reverse, particularly as it places much greater pressure on the singers to act naturally despite singing their heads off. I’m glad to say Louisa Tee as Violetta and Philip Lee as Alfredo both acted as excellently as they sang and Andrew Mayor as Alfredo’s father was also very good. The action was moved forward to the 1920s with a new English libretto by Robin Norton-Hale. The plot was necessarily simplified with basic scene changes but these were easily outweighed by the overall quality of the production, as shown by the massive applause at the end. It is deservedly selling out fast and casting changes each night so you might not get to see the same line-up as I did, but this is the third production by them that I’ve seen and I’ve never been disappointed. If you like opera in English, it’s also worth noting that, unlike the ENO at the Coliseum, the Soho Theatre has excellent air conditioning and plenty of knee room!
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?
The three great productions this year for me were the Royal Ballet’s Wozzeck, ENO’s Satyagraha and this. Death in Venice had to win, though, as on of the most moving productions I have experienced in any medium. I suspect I appreciated it more for being old (although I loved the original story by Thomas Mann over 40 years ago). It is not just a story of an old man longing for an unobtainable youth – this production makes it very clear that it is a story of an old man longing for unobtainable youth. The production was magical, the scenery and lighting complementing the underlying feelings perfectly and the words came through crystal clear with no need for surtitles, demonstrating Britten’s place as the greatest composer of English opera.
This was an astonishingly intense production that deserves the five star reviews it has received. The set and the direction were stunning and it was certainly far more rewarding than The Drowned Man, based on the same story. I am not sure the balance between the orchestra and singers was quite right, with the latter sometimes overwhelmed by Berg’s use of brass but the music itself is wonderfully dramatic. Despite this, the man next to me spent 10-15 minutes sneezing and loudly blowing his nose before falling asleep for half an hour. Sometimes it can be kinder to the other members of the audience to go on sick leave.
Maybe I do like Puccini after all! I certainly enjoyed this very small scale production (five singers, three musicians) more than the might of the ENO. I hadn’t expected to – I saw the OperaUpClose version of Britten’s Turn of the Screw which was terrific but that was a chamber opera to start with and only had five characters anyway. In the event, this was terrific. The updated libretto placed it in East Germany shortly before the collapse of Honecker’s government which suited the plot well. The good value programme (£3) included the full English libretto but every word was clear (no need for surtitles here). Grab a ticket while you can – it finishes this Sunday. My only complaint is that the programme lists both casts, two singers per role, so it wasn’t clear which singers I saw and I can’t credit them – Scarpia was particularly excellent.
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.
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.