<< -- 2 -- Robert Hugill WHAT IS THE ENGLISH NATIONAL OPERA FOR?
English - Commitment to English language
But Doran has obviously been considering his predecessors as he has re-iterated his commitment to some of their guiding principles. Firstly, there is a reinforcement to the company's commitment to English. This is not as obvious as it sounds as there have been mutterings about language in the recent past and it is to be hoped that something can be done to improve the general level of comprehensiveness of the sung English. But the commitment to English goes beyond this, and Doran is planning a significant number of English operas.
The new season sees a new production of Britten's Billy Budd and the start of a proposed Britten cycle. 2006/2007 will see the company perform Death in Venice for the first time. This Billy Budd production, by Neil Armfield, was originally a co-production between Welsh National Opera and Opera Australia, so it is not as new as all that. But it does provide us with the opportunity to hear Simon Keenlyside as Billy and John Tomlinson as Claggart. It also gives Timothy Robinson, recently heard to good effect in their staged Child of Our Time, the opportunity to show what he can do in a major role like Captain Vere.
But the company will also be performing other operas which loosely fall into the category English opera. Purcell's semi-opera King Arthur will be produced in co-operation with choreographer Mark Morris and his Mark Morris Dance Group. This also represents another strand in Doran's thinking, as he plans to feature opera-ballet in each of his seasons. Quite how Morris plans to cope with the dialogue has not been revealed. In his production of The Fairy Queen, David Pountney stripped the work of dialogue and staged just the musical sections. But King Arthur has a libretto by Dryden, and whilst it is not one of his greatest works, music and dialogue form a coherent whole in a way that does not happen in The Fairy Queen. The cast includes Rosemary Joshua and Andrew Foster-Williams (making his long overdue ENO début). Both singers are adept at crossing the boundaries between period and modern day performance practice as is conductor Jane Glover. So the auguries are good.
The next opera in this English strand is Doran's first curved ball. A new production of Vaughan Williams' Falstaff opera Sir John in Love; last staged professionally in 1958, it has received concert performances at the Barbican in recent years. It is not Vaughan Williams' strongest opera, that must be Riders to the Sea, but this is a mere forty minutes long and has consistently failed to find other one act operas as partners to make a satisfying evening. Vaughan Williams' Pilgrim's Progress would have been my favourite for a staging, but this has large vocal and choral requirements and was successfully staged at the Royal Northern College of Music and the Barbican Hall. So a cautious welcome for RVW's lyrical comedy. The libretto imports a number of Elizabethan lyrics which add to the overall lyrical quality of the work. It is being staged by Ian Judge, a director who does not always find depth in a work but is guaranteed to bring a quality of pleasing theatrical magic. A strong cast, Andrew Shore, Alistair Miles, Jean Rigby, Sally Burgess, Marie McLaughlin, signal ENO's commitment to the opera.
This is perhaps the most fragile part of this strand. If the opera is badly received, then Doran's mining of other neglected English operas will be in danger of stopping. ENO (and Sadlers Wells) has always had a good commitment to contemporary English opera, but where it has fallen down in recent years is in its renewal of support for operas which it had commissioned or performed in the past. Let us hope that Sir John in Love is the start of a renewal in this area.
The two contemporary operas being performed represent not only contemporary opera in English but also laudable attempts to re-define what opera is. Firstly, Gerald Barry's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant fills the slot in the season vacated by the Ring. A co-commission between ENO and RTE. Barry is setting the play by Fassbinder (in English translation by Denis Calandra) which Fassbinder himself went on to re-work into a film. The opera receives its première in concert form in Dublin in May 2005 and ENO gives the work's stage première. The cast, again a strong one, includes Stephanie Friede, Rebecca von Lipinski, Barbara Hannigan, Kathryn Harries and Susan Bickley. A remarkable confluence of ENO débuts (the first three in the list) and welcome returns. The opera will be staged by Richard Jones. The only worrying element in the mix is Barry's decision to set the text uncut; will he be able to get over the wordy, spoken theatre with musical accompaniment feel common to many operas based on plays. Expect quite a lot of press speculation about the lesbian content of the opera.
The other new work is Gaddafi written by Steve Chandra Savale of the Asian Dub Foundation. This is a piece which has been workshopped in the ENO Studio with Peter Sellers as Artistic Advisor and it will be directed by Antonia Bird, marking her opera début. Some of the pieces emanating from ENO's workshop process end up feeling as if they have been assembled by committee; Gaddafi originated with Savale himself and I only hope it preserves whatever is distinctive about his vision.
The final element of English opera in this 2005/2006 season is a group of revivals. John Adams's Nixon in China (opera in English if not English opera) receives a very welcome revival as the work was one of the casualties of the delay in re-opening the Coliseum. Finally Handel's Serse and Ariodante are both revived. Any Handel opera is welcome and the chance to hear Alice Coote as Ariodante and Katarina Karneus as Serse (along with Patricia Bardon as Polinesso and Lawrence Zazzo as Arsamenes) is very welcome; though both productions are familiar and Serse in particular has had a number of revivals.
All in all, ENO will be performing six operas (out of sixteen) which were originally written in the English language along with two operas written in England but originally performed in Italian, which is a pretty good start.
Copyright © 29 January 2005
Robert Hugill, London UK