Glimpse of Heaven on Earth as ENO Perform The Dream of Gerontius at the Royal Festival Hall

03/07/2017

Elgar The Dream of Gerontius (semi-staged by Lucy Carter): Gwyn Hughes Jones (tenor, Gerontius); Patricia Bardon (mezzo, Angel); Matthew Rose (bass, Priest/Angel of the Agony); BBC Singers; Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera / Simone Young. Royal Festival Hall, London, 1.7.2017. (CC)

Gwyn Hughes Jones, Simone Young, conducting and Patricia Bardon in The Dream of Gerontius by Elgar @ Royal Festival Hall. Directed by Lucy Carter. Conductor, Simone Young. (Opening 01-07-17) ©Tristram Kenton 06-17 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com

Gwyn Hughes Jones, Simone Young (conducting) & Patricia Bardon in The Dream of Gerontius
(c) Tristram Kenton

Marking the first time that ENO has performed at the Royal Festival Hall, this was the first of two performances of Dream of Gerontius on two successive days. Obviously given this company there is an inserted theatrical element, here provided by award-winning Lucy Carter’s lighting: Carter in fact conceived, designed and staged the entire experience. Another debut was that of conductor Simone Young, who directed a generally swift, focused account; the advantage of this was to underline the drama in the score. Perhaps indicative of this was the near-segue between the work’s two parts, almost as if she did not want to chance the tension dropping one iota.

One aspect of the new venue was hearing the ENO Orchestra in a different acoustic. One is so used to the Coliseum robbing them of their depth of sound that it was a joy to hear just how fabulous this orchestra really does sound, especially when inspired by their conductor, Simone Young. Enjoying successes at Hamburg (former Intendant of the State Opera there as well as General Music Director of the Hamburg Philharmonic) and in Australia (Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of Opera Australia), one hopes Young’s UK appearances will grow in number exponentially. Young’s Bruckner recordings speak of an appreciation of musical structure and an ability for long-range musical thought, and these qualities informed her Gerontius in abundance.

This is, arguably, Elgar’s most profound work. Lucy Carter’s staging focused exclusively on lighting, beginning in darkness except for one solitary spotlight from above on the score, as if to say this is about Elgar, pure and simple. Light did appear with the music’s ongoing, Wagner-influenced progress however, Young encouraging the orchestra to long, expressive lines and shaping the long Prelude to perfection. Nested triangles of light above the orchestra seemed to speak of the Trinity, underpinning (or is that overlighting?) the religious basis of the work. In Part II, waves or immersions of light reflected the spiritual light of the angelicals. Carter’s intent is to “use light to create an additional layer of emotion and energy that supports and reflects the music,” and she succeeded perfectly.

Gwyn Hughes Jones, who successfully took Walter in ENO’s 2015 Mastersingers (see my review), sang with good diction (no surtitles here) and real emotion. His sound lacks some depth, but there was no doubting the ardent nature of his reading (“Prepare to meet thy God,” for example), aided no end by Young’s impetuous way and he has the stamina for the role: his final gestures were as vocally powerful as his first.

As the Priest (in the first part), the excellent Matthew Rose was simply huge of voice, resonant and imperious. No doubting Rose’s dramatic qualifications: his King Mark in the 2016 ENO Tristan was outstanding; and he was similarly outstanding throughout this particular evening. He was brilliantly matched by the Irish mezzo Patricia Bardon, who had impressed so much as Arsace in Handel’s Partenope at ENO (review). Here, as the Angel, she sang with magnificent radiance, her long-breathed lines the epitome of Elgarian lyricism, her shading of the word “alleluia” internal and heart-felt, her “Praise to his name” a moment of glory, itself perhaps a glimpse of heaven on earth.

Perhaps the true star was the chorus, the combined ENO Chorus and BBC Singers, singing with real verve and commitment, “In the Name of Angels and Archangels” one of the highlights of the evening. Clarity of choral texture was a hallmark of this performance. A pity the demons they portrayed were such an unfrightening, almost affable lot (in terms of the Christian aesthetic, of course, and the Demons’ contrast to the Angelic hierarchy; who knows, perhaps they really are very nice).

The sequence of performances outside of the Coliseum in this summer season is clearly successful: Yardbird was another instance. Excitingly, ENO will be giving Turn of the Screw (Britten) at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in the 2017/18 season, a mouthwatering prospect.

Colin Clarke

For more about ENO in 2017/18 click here.

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