United Kingdom An Evening with Stuart Skelton and Friends – In Celebration of ENO: Stuart Skelton (tenor), Leigh Melrose (baritone), Pamela Helen Stephen (mezzo-soprano), Sarah Tynan (soprano), Martin Fitzpatrick (piano). Cadogan Hall, London 10.10.2013. (JPr)
Songs and arias by Leoncavallo, Handel, Korngold, Wagner, Mozart, Verdi, Donizetti, Bizet, the Gershwins, Sondheim, Kander & Ebb and Rodgers and Hammerstein.
This celebration of the work of English National Opera, as well as a fund-raising concert, seems to have been – on the night – one of London’s best kept secrets. Gala prices were being charged and the Cadogan Hall was barely a quarter full for this event. Nevertheless, there seemed to be sufficient people there to warrant a lavish post-performance supper where, I suspect, an effort was made to elicit additional donations from those who had paid for that, with proceeds going towards ENO’s very worthy talent programmes, including the prestigious ENO Harewood Artists programme. John Berry, ENO’s artistic director, spoke in praise of its productions and company of singers, as well as those talent programmes where 12-14 singers receive funding each year. He reminded the audience that what is different about the ENO scheme is that the young singers will get parts in major roles on stage and he said that was to the credit of John McMurray, ENO’s long-serving head of casting, and all the music staff.
This is not the place to discuss the current health of English National Opera – but great productions and the company of singers Berry spoke of is not what immediately comes to mind in 2013 to someone who has been going to their shows at the London Coliseum for nearly 40 years. It would be churlish to suggest that its aims to develop new talent is nothing less than laudable and I urge anyone with an interest in supporting the work of ENO in providing training for singers and musicians, whilst commissioning new work, to visit www.eno.org for more information.
The internationally acclaimed tenor Stuart Skelton is not someone who has especially benefitted from this training or experience that ENO provides but he remains very loyal to them even though he is in great demand from major opera house throughout the world. In fact, it was brave of John Berry to admit that he passed on him when he first heard Skelton sing but it was John McMurray who first brought him to ENO. Speaking in advance of the gala Stuart Skelton said about his friends appearing with him, ‘They’re some of my favourite singers on the planet, and above all, they’re all singers who, like me, owe a debt of gratitude to the support offered by ENO. Iain Paterson, Leigh Melrose and Sarah Tynan were all Young Artists with the company and continue to sing here regularly, and both Pamela Helen Stephen and I feel like honorary members of that same family.’ In fact Iain Paterson had withdrawn through illness shortly before the performance though the affable Australian Skelton jokingly said in his welcome that ‘as a Glaswegian he should just suck it up!’
The loss of Paterson created a number of changes to the programme that was an eclectic mix of opera and some lighter musical theatre items – for instance, a duet between Skelton and Melrose with their scores downloaded on iPads replaced him for the Prologue from Pagliacci. This gave a ‘Let’s put on a show’ goodwill feel to the proceedings from time to time that transcends criticism. However … when celebrating ENO shouldn’t there have been some opera in English? More arias and songs from of the operas and musicals that have been put on by the company at Sadler’s Wells or the London Coliseum would also have been a good idea. And why was more attempt not made by the singers or the extremely accomplished pianist, ENO’s head of music Martin Fitzpatrick, to introduce what was being sung? Some things needed no introduction such as the songs in English from the musicals, but I wonder had there been a show of hands – after Leigh Melrose sang the very Mahlerian Pierrot’s Tanzlied (from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt) – from those who knew what it was all about, whether few, if any, hands would have gone up … and they wouldn’t have included mine! There was only a basic photocopied printed programme and this was no help. Eventually Sarah Tynan spoke very interestingly about how she first came to be interested in opera and how, as an ENO Young Singer, she had been nurtured and taken care of and learnt from the other singers around her. I would have liked to have heard something like this from all those performing. To be honest, there were not enough present to worry about this though it is something to consider for anything like this in the future.
On the plus side, a great attempt was made to dramatise what was being sung: Skelton impressively cradled Pamela Helen Stephen in his arms and carried her ‘lifeless’ body off stage at the end of their climatic duet (‘C’est toi? C’est moi!’) that brings Carmen to an end as Don José stabs the gypsy. Later there was a ‘Mrs Lovett’s Bake Off’ banner on the trolley on which Pamela Helen Stephen – who sang throughout with rich colours, nuance and fine diction – comically ‘baked’ her ‘The Worst Pies in London’ from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Sarah Tynan was a great credit to ENO with a sparkling voice and effortless charisma, singing in ‘Prendi, per me sei libero’ from L’élisir d’amore and George and Ira Gershwin’s familiar ‘Summertime’ from Porgy and Bess. She also joined Leigh Melrose, her husband, in two charming duets, ‘Bei Männern’ (Die Zauberflöte) and ‘Bess, You is My Woman Now’ (Porgy and Bess) something that sounded – because of the accents they attempted – surprisingly non-PC for ENO. Leigh Melrose did his best in a few things that he was clearly underprepared to sing at such short notice but was very entertaining in an updated ‘Razzle Dazzle’ from Chicago that now had references to Stuart Skelton, Wagner, bar takings during intervals, and ‘a lovely baritone’ – himself!
As for the ‘main man’, Stuart Skelton, he has had a lot to do recently as he is in the middle of a run of demanding performances as Florestan at the London Coliseum (review) and has recently also sung the title role in Peter Grimes in concerts (review). I suspect he is vocally a little tired at the moment and this might explain some minor support problems from time to time and that it was all sometimes a little effortful. Nevertheless, he remains a whole-hearted performer and an irreproachable stage presence, bringing potent dramatic intensity to both the closing moments of Otello (‘Niun mi tema!’) and Carmen. The jury remain out on whether he will ever have the stamina and tenorial heft required for Walther in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg after his ‘Morgenlich leuchtend’ – I would have enjoyed more ‘Winterstürme’ from his signature role as Wagner’s Siegmund.
All four singers rounded the evening off with a heartfelt rendition of the anthem from Carousel, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, and there was the feeling of a job well done for a very worthy cause.
For a 2010 interview with Stuart Skelton see: Skelton Interview