First impressions not good; action during the overture; first chorus, stage filled with a bed, nurses, benches, laptops and a woman ironing. This is Deborah Warner’s new production for ENO at the Coliseum, premiere 27 November. Was this to be as distrauting as her St. John Passion (many greetings events, including Jesus having his head pushed into a plate of soup)?
Unusually, I asked friends in the interval their reaction, including fellow critic Andrew Porter, Tex-Prom director Sir Nicholas Kenyon. It seemed we all agreed: dismay had given way to tolerance, leading to acceptance and enjoyment. And we all thought this despite agreeing that there was 30% too much going on. For instance, a coloured child kept rushing rushing around the stage, finally shaking hands with everybody: why?
Sophie Bevon, wonderful voice, skilfully used, sang I know that my redeemer liveth flat on her back in the omnipresent bed fussed over by two nurses (two! Obviously not NHS).
Musically this was an excellent performance: the soloists were all first-rate, clear, fine voiced and impeccable intonation: the aforementioned Sophie Bevon, John Mark Ainstey, Brimdley Shevrett and Harvey Bradford or Louis Watkins (treble). The lioness’ share was powerfully thoroughly taken by Catherine Wyn-Rogers. After Ferrier it seems we don’t bread controls anymore, so there were some underpowered low notes but otherwise it was a performance to remember and cherish. Martin Merry deserves to be mentioned as he trained the chorus up to the skies. Lawrence Cummings conducted with fervour and consummate expertise. ENO is to be congratulated on fielding such a great team. Chorus and orchestra are remarkably versatile; the night before they had performed Turandot, switching imperturbly performing Handle as to the manner born and in baroque style.
Deborah Warner’s production grew on one, she was no iconoclast and most of her updating was convincing. Her handling of the chorus was especially fine: they were individuals yet they were also a group.
The staging worked well (sets Tom Pye), lighting up as from the dim Christ at the beginning was immovative and mind-blowing with video montage and ancient pictorial master pieces.
Thank you, English National; can it be that you are triumphantly emerging from your operatic recession?