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Posts Tagged ‘English National Opera’

Given the difficulty I had getting a ticket, I suppose it was destined to disappoint. It was harder to get than Bryn Terfel (the world’s greatest bass-baritone) in WNO’s Die Meistersingers or the RO’s Simon Boccanegra with Placido Domingo (the world’s greatest tenor) at the Proms – but they both had a functioning and fair booking process (and cost about the same)!

This was my 5th Punchdrunk ‘immersive’ experience but the first to disappoint. They say the first time is always the best (Firebird Ball, and it was pretty terrific) but for me it was the last (It Felt Like A Kiss at last year’s Manchester International Festival, which benefited significantly from being ‘linear’). I’m also a lover / supporter of modern opera, not a member of the ‘opera as museum’ majority. The conclusion I’ve reached is that opera just doesn’t suit the form – and the audience didn’t help.

Apparently there are nine scenes to this opera on three floors of a disused office block / warehouse in Docklands, but I think I only saw four or five complete scenes totalling less than 44 minutes in the 2.75 hours I was in the building. There was one particular scene in the atrium which was never performed in the many occasions I wandered its way. What I did see was occasionally through a wall of people or ruined by audience members who seemed to think wandering amongst the players or up close with a singer was part of the experience rather than sabotaging the atmosphere, tension and drama that had hitherto existed. When a scene finished, some audience members ran after singers actors or musicians as if their life depended on it!

It was impossible to get any sense of narrative or story – in order or not – difficult to understand the sung words and hard to access the music on first hearing. Having mugged up on the story in advance, I couldn’t even work out which characters were which! All in all it was a rather frustrating and unsatisfying experience.

An experiment worth trying, but not one to attempt again. Leave the ‘immersive’ to tales best told that way – trying to make an opera fit it makes no sense at all.

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English ‘National’ Opera 5 (The Pearl Fishers 2* Idomeneo 3*)

Welsh National Opera 10 (Rigoletto 5* Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg 5*)

This proved to be a fascinating and revealing match. ENO’s Pearl Fishers started really well. They seemed to be actually diving for pearls in a vast expanse of water behind glass whilst Bizet’s beautiful music began. Then we moved to an extraordinary waterside shanty town with the chorus sounding great and both Nadir, Alfie Boe, and Zurga, Roland Wood, singing well. Then the soprano, Hanan Alattar, came on………..it was a harsh sound with poor diction; frankly it was sometimes difficult to listen to without squirming. It went down hill from there with a translation which turned the beautiful sound of sung French into banal English and some really clumsy staging.

On to Wales for WNO’s Rigoletto, which I’ve never considered one of Verdi’s greats – not in the Traviata & Otello league for me. When I discovered that director James Macdonald had relocated it to 60’s Washington I inwardly groaned.  Then the orchestra began and almost everything that followed was spell-binding. Rigoletto as a White House fixer with the Duke as a philandering President somehow worked. The chorus of men-in-black were terrific. US soprano Sarah Coburn made a most auspicious UK debut as Gilda. Gwyn Hughes Jones  (guess where he’s from?!) sang the Duke well, even if he doesn’t really look the part. Simon Keenlyside’s Rigoletto reminded me of Anthony Sher’s Richard III, a manic-tragic creation you can’t take your eyes off. He sang wonderfully, with every emotion pouring forth – cynical, contemptuous, angry, sad, bitter….Keenlyside has a habit of being so good that he comes to ‘own’ a role – as he has with Billy Budd and Prospero in Thomas Ades’  Tempest – and here he does it again in this role debut; you just can’t imagine wanting to see anyone else. The design wasn’t always successful, but the staging was, and this Rigoletto made me promote the opera to Verdi’s Premiere League.

Operatic triumphs don’t often come in  pairs, but 18 hours later the orchestra played the first notes of Wagner’s overture (more like a symphony really) to Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg and the journey through operatic heaven continued. When I first saw this opera in Covent Garden, I found it overblown and long-winded and haven’t seen it in the 20+ years since. Maybe it’s because I’ve grown through the hundred’s of operas I’ve seen in between, but this time I got lost in the beauty of the music and forgot about time altogether. You’d be hard pressed to hear it sung better anywhere in the world by a chorus as good as WNO’s  which in the last scene sent shivers up my spine and almost levitated me out of my seat. It’s a long away from 70’s comic C&W outfit Harvey & The Wallbangers, but Christopher Purves was as fine a Beckmesser as you’d wish to see. Then there’s Bryn Terfel…..he also hijack’s roles, as he has done with Verdi’s Falstaff and does again here with his role debut as Hans Sachs. Like Simon Keenlyside, he’s as good an actor as he is a singer, and this was a truly stunning display of both. Director Richard Jones and designer Paul Steinberg avoided modern spin and produced something simple, timeless, elegant and effective. Their solution for the problematic nationalistic ending was inspired – they turned it into a celebration of German artistic achievement. The audience in Cardiff are normally more reserved than London, but not tonight. They stood in unison as the curtain went up on the whole company and the cheers were deafening.

It was going to be hard for ENO to follow this when we were back in London for Mozart’s Idomeneo, an early Mozart which I found rather Handelian (it came before he began to write ‘too many notes’, as Salieri is alleged to have put it!). There were no ‘harsh’ sopranos this time – both Emma Bell and Sarah Tynan sang beautifully, as did the leading men – Paul Nilon and Robert Murray – and the orchestra and chorus under Edward Gardiner were great. So, a musical success then….. unfortunately, it wasn’t a concert. It was left to Director Katie Mitchell to destroy the evening with a cold-as-ice clinical modern staging that didn’t illuminate or reveal anything, hampered rather than aided the story-telling, added absolutely no contemporary relevance and removed all emotion. There were many distractions, including several scenes populated with waiters coming and going in and out of doors while the singers were trying to sing lovely arias. I’m not sure Mozart intended Elektra to sing her second act aria whilst pissed and flirting with a waiter! It wasn’t as bad as her National Theatre de(con)structions, but it was bad enough to drag a musical treat down to a dull and irritating musical theatre experience.

So there you have it. You might consider me unfair because this really was WNO at the height of their powers, and there’s more than my fair share of national pride, but I’m going to make the comparisons anyway! WNO receive two-thirds of the subsidy of ENO and half of the subsidy of the Royal Opera. The best seats for BOTH of the operas in Cardiff were the same as EITHER Pearl Fishers OR Idomeneo and 40% of one ticket for that up-and-coming baritone Domingo, currently wowing them in Simon Boccanegra at Covent Garden. When they leave Cardiff, they take both of these productions to the poor opera-starved people of Birmingham because the English NATIONAL Opera and the Royal Opera never leave their London bases. Half of WNO’s subsidy is in fact provided by Arts Council ENGLAND to provide opera on a regular basis in the otherwise operatic black holes called Plymouth, Bristol, Southampton, Oxford, Milton Keynes, Birmingham and Liverpool. Now, if I ran the Arts Council, I’d be looking for quality, accessibility and value – and based on this months’ scores there’s only one company providing all three!

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