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The set was very simple, with just screens onto which were projected images and stunning light combinations. This gave the setting a timeless element. The prologue took place against a projection of the heavens. Elizabeth Watts made a stunning Music, combining flexibility of line with superb diction. (She also made a fine Hope in Act 3.) Around this simple stage picture, Chen Shi-Zheng gradually assembled his dancers who brought on elaborate decorations for the wedding. These oriental inspired, moveable objects probably made sense to Chen Shi-Zheng in terms of oriental weddings, but there were times when they looked liked the amazing dancing canapés.

Elizabeth Watts as Music/Hope. Photo © 2006 Catherine Ashmore
Elizabeth Watts as Music/Hope. Photo © 2006 Catherine Ashmore

Act 1 introduced the vocal ensemble. There was no chorus as such, instead ENO had assembled an ensemble of eighteen singers which covered all the solo roles except for Orfeo and Euridice, and which sang all the ensemble passages. This was a piece of inspired casting as it gave the piece a real ensemble feel and ensured that Monteverdi's ensembles did not have a homogenised, choral feel to them. Monteverdi's writing in the opera owes a lot to his madrigals and in an ideal performance of the opera, the chorus should really be just a madrigal group. This is impossible in a venue the size of the London Coliseum and ENO's solution meant we preserved as much as possible of Monteverdi's concept, without imposing too much of the 19th century operatic tradition on the work.

Members of the Orange Island Dance Co. Photo © 2006 Catherine Ashmore
Members of the Orange Island Dance Co. Photo © 2006 Catherine Ashmore

From now on in the production, Chen Shi-Zheng created a series of stunningly beautiful stage pictures which were populated by his singers and articulated by his dancers (with set design by Tom Pye, costume design by Elizabeth Caitlin Ward and lighting design by Scott Zielinski). Chen Shi-Zheng's visual imagination sometimes erred on the side of the busy; there were moments when the stage picture could have been calmer. But such moments were balanced by many images of real beauty. Especially memorable was the image of Charon, pulled along in his boat by a group of coolies; the whole stage picture for the scene by the Styx had the real feel of a Chinese watercolour.

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Copyright © 24 April 2006 Robert Hugill, London UK


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