Another London’s Music

ENO Revived

The English National Opera, or ENO, in London, has had a rough few years, culminating in the Arts Council of England—the widely inappropriate ACE—cutting its grant.

Stills from Peter Grimes, The Barber of Seville and The Handmaid's Tale [L-R].

Under the mistaken belief that London only needs one opera house as a world city, ACE decided that ENO could go to Manchester without telling Manchester.

Well, it looks like Manchester will get something resembling ENO sometime in the future, though they still have to perform at their London venue—the mighty Coliseum just off Trafalgar Square.

There is the mistaken belief that opera is either for the upper classes or rich business people who wine and dine out on their expense accounts.

This might be the case in the stalls, but once you enter the cheap seats, you will find people of all ages, races, and genders.

Opera is not a privilege—at least not yet. However, if ENO disappears, it might well be. The point about ENO is that it is the opera house that most Londoners can afford to go to.

Covent Garden is excellent, but other than the nosebleed circle, it is out of the price range of most Londoners. Yes, the acoustics are fabulous up there, but at times, it is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

Sadly, this budget nightmare has been reflected in the recent season at ENO. Of the nine operas on offer, only two were new productions.

One was an international co-production with five other European opera houses; the other was a concert performance of Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. The other seven are revivals of past ENO successes.

I have seen five of the revivals, and in all but one, I attended the original production. One production was never great to begin with, and I missed another due to illness.

With only Jenufa to go at the end of March, all the revivals except one have excelled on what were already pretty astounding nights at the ENO in the first place.

In opera, the notion of a revival is incredibly commonplace. Some operas get revived every few years, and some go on like old warhorses from the Crusades.

Perhaps the record is Luchino Visconti’s 1958 production of Don Carlos at Covent Garden. It was still being put on in 2002. There again, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1964 Tosca could still be seen in 2004, though sadly without Maria Callas in the title role.

I have seen both, and they were magical. A trip in time when going to the opera in jeans and a smart jacket would have been frowned upon.

My parents, who probably saw the original productions, would have been in full evening dress, and there would have been champagne with smoked salmon in the Crush Bar during the interval.

The first ENO revival was Benjamin Britten’s heart-stopping Peter Grimes. I have distinct family memories of Britten and Peter Grimes.

Like many of us, Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was my introduction to classical music.

My first opera was the Covent Garden production of his BBC Television opera Owen Wingrave, based on a story by Henry James. I had seen the television production and begged to see it again but on stage for my birthday.

My parents adored James and Britten, so they were thrilled to accommodate my earnest request.  Both were moved to tears during the curtain call for Death in Venice.

His long-term partner Peter Pears directed a follow-up spotlight to the royal box, where a visibly ailing Benjamin Britten was in attendance, watching the opera that hastened his death.

The audience was deeply touched by such a profound expression of deep and romantic love and in shock at seeing how diminished the much-loved composer had become. Not long after, Britten died, and Pears was alone.

I remember my parents going to see the famous John Vickers production of Peter Grimes at Covent Garden.

My father was due to come home to change into a black tie, but there was a problem on the Central Line, and he was late. Incredibly rushed, he tied his bow tie at record speed, and my mother looked amazing, as always, in Yuki. They made it, but only just.

I am sure the air in their Vauxhall Viva was as blue as the paintwork. For me, Peter Grimes is always associated with tension, not just from the fisher folk claiming that Grimes is at his exercises.

The recent ENO revival of a David Alden production opened the current season. Somehow, it bypassed the oddness of the first production and was utterly transcendent.

Gwyn Hughes-Jones was devastating as Peter, lost in his strange misery and unable to escape the inevitable tragedy engulfing him.

Only Phillip Langridge exceeded him as the tormented, confused fisherman, and that was also at ENO.

Christine Rice was her usual brilliant self as the venal Auntie who runs the local pub. The Borough or village was utterly terrifying – like a gaggle of Trump or Brexit supporters in Ealing Comedy garb.

The second marvellous ENO revival I saw was Iolanthe. Now, I cannot cope with Gilbert & Sullivan. Their musicals are a weird and unwelcome remnant of the British Empire when most of the map was pink, and there were always crumpets or potted shrimp for tea.

However, after lockdown, I decided to curb my prejudices and be more open-minded. It has been challenging, and with Gilbert & Sullivan particularly hard, but I have seen at least five productions at ENO, admittedly through gritted teeth.

Going to a Gilbert & Sullivan performance is like going to a Taylor Swift or Kanye, or is it a Ye gig, where everyone in the audience knows every word of every song except, of course, you.

I had not drunk the Victorian Kool-Aid and felt a little out of sorts. If you dare to dissent from the herd and claim not to enjoy it, it’s not pleasant.

I now know what it must be like to be an Arsenal supporter who accidentally finds himself at the Man United end of the football pitch. But at least they both wear a red strip.

My unenlightened self missed the first production of Iolanthe, so this was my first exposure to his barking-mad story of fairies, shepherds and the Houses of Parliament.

Most of the time, I wasn’t entirely sure what was happening on stage, but whatever it was, it looked marvellous and was brilliantly done.

One character was dressed up as a Boris Johnson lookalike in a blonde mop top, ill-fitting suit, unpolished brogues and a ruddy face sporting a creepy, lascivious leer. He had a spare sex-shop corset and suspenders for any blonde woman that might tickle his ever-present libido.

In this, the faux-Johnson was aided by a blonde nipped and tucked to the max Nadine Dorries lookalike who was furiously banging on the door to the House of Lords to be let in.

Thankfully, the door remained firmly shut—as in real life. Suddenly, Gilbert and Sullivan seemed highly relevant—a satire of the current UK government and all its desperately banal, corrupt behaviour.

According to fellow critics who saw the original, the revival was just as good, if not better. It didn’t make me love Gilbert & Sullivant, but it was quite an evening nonetheless.

My third ENO revival was the oldest and, in many ways, the most interesting because I had yet to see the original. Again, it was an opera I had never been particularly keen on: Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, based on Beaumarchais’s play.

Apparently, the play has a second title – The Useless Precaution. Never was an opera more correctly named… useless complications and elaborate plots fell over each other to drive this tender audience member crazy.

Many times during the opera, you just wanted to shout out – “Oh, for pity’s sake, he is behind you,” or “No, he is not a soldier but a prince or Ahhhhh!!!” This production was from 1987 and was originally directed by Jonathan Miller.

Miller was a staple of ENO and created many famous productions, including the gangster Rigoletto, the Kabuki Mikado, one of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas I made myself see, and this surprisingly straight Rossini.

It was set in Seville, but the stage looked like a Guardi or Canaletto. It is straightforward and very 18th-century. It is beautifully designed and lit. The costumes were pure Watteau with a touch of Cemmedia dell’Arte.

It was a true delight to see such a pure and sensitive production without any unnecessary gimmicks, like a vast pink My Little Pony dominating the stage, a lumberjack Tom of Finland grafted onto Das Rheingold, or even a Serbian diva snoring on stage under a voluminous duvet while leading sopranos sing to her dressed up as her personal maid.

Yes, the sheer relief of a ‘it does what it says on the tin’ kind of production was palpable. If that makes me a grumpy old bag – so be it.

The performances were hilarious. The pitch-perfect Simon Bailey sang a particularly nuanced Dr Bartolo. Innocent Masuku was dashing as the Count… as he seems to have been in almost every ENO production this season.

One wonders if the management ever let him out of the building. Masuku has tremendous charm and ease on stage.

Lesley Garrett plays the fantastically rude housemaid Berta, not missing any or every double entendre that comes her way. She played the young romantic lead in the 1987 production. It stood up perfectly, and the audience left the Coliseum and greeted the freezing night air with huge grins.

Those grins were repeated at the most recent ENO revival of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. I have seen this spectacular 2013 Simon McBurney show three times but have never enjoyed it as much as I did last week.

McBurney is known for his sparkling Theatre de Complicite work, evident in this wonderful co-production. He uses the whole theatre and the audience who are not always thrilled to have a soprano or tenor in their laps or singing straight at them.

The producer places the orchestra on almost the same level as the singers so they interact easily. The lead flautist plays the magic flute on stage, and the singers constantly run into the orchestra to hide from one of the very scary villains.

A foley artist and a video artist are at the far end of the stage, doing extraordinary things with sound and film. It is mesmerising.

Sarah Tynan is an enchanting and very present Pamina, and David Stout is hilarious as a somewhat dense but sweet Papageno, the bird catcher.  But it is those villains who steal the show.

ENO regular Peter Hoare makes a truly vile and reprehensible Monostatos full of nasty slicked-back hair and filthy underwear. Newcomer Rainelle Krause is terrifying as the Queen of the Night, either walking haphazardly with a stick or like a demonic robot in a wheelchair.

There is no charm or understanding for this very gothic matriarch. Nights at the opera don’t get much better than this.

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Images from the 2023-2024 ENO season by Geert De Taeye, Lauren Stowell and Nicky Hamilton [L-R]. All rights reserved.