United Kingdom English National Opera’s Opera For All – A Celebration of 50 Years of Opera at the London Coliseum: Soloists, The Porgy and Bess Ensemble, English National Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Nicholas Ansdell-Evans, Mark Biggins, Martyn Brabbins, Martin Fitzpatrick, James Henshaw, Murray Hipkin, Chris Hopkins (conductors). London Coliseum, 10.10.2018. (JPr)
Music from The Valkyrie and The Mastersingers of Nuremberg (Wagner), Alcina (Handel), Tosca and La bohème (Puccini), Peter Grimes (Britten), Towards Another World (Hannah Conway), Rigoletto (Verdi), Iolanthe (Sullivan), The Merry Widow (Lehár), Chess (Andersson, Rice and Ulvaeus), Akhnaten (Glass), Porgy and Bess (Gershwin), Eugene Onegin (Tchaikovsky), The Magic Flute (Mozart)
Directors – Elaine Tyler-Hall, Ian Rutherford (Peter Grimes excerpt) and Freya Wynn-Jones (Towards Another World extract)
Lighting design – Martin Doone
Video design – Matt Brown
Producer – Nicholas Roberts
Harry Brünjes – the current Chair of English National Opera – writing in the programme provided the CliffsNotes about what this gala was all about: ‘On 15 June 1968, Sadler’s Wells Opera gave its final performance in Rosebery Avenue. The production was Peter Grimes, with Gregory Dempsey in the title role. The move to the London Coliseum had been long planned and much discussed. Stephen Arlen, Managing Director of Sadler’s Wells Opera, had stuck a deal with the landlord of the largest theatre in London and had taken charge of a significant programme of alterations and improvements to prepare the way for the unveiling of a new Don Giovanni, directed by John Gielgud, on 21 August. The company performing opera at the Coliseum did not become known as English National Opera until 3 August 1974 with a performance of La traviata with Valerie Masterson as Violetta and Keith Erwen as Alfredo, Charles Mackerras conducted, and John Copley directed.’
Brünjes was among a number of distinguished talking heads we heard from – either onstage or in snippets of pre-recorded interviews – looking back to ENO’s golden past or explaining how they intend to usher in an equally golden future, while still having to be a national company that is shackled to ‘the largest theatre in London’ and performs everything in English. This was partly addressed by ENO’s new CEO Stuart Murphy and he had an article – the same day – in the Evening Standard which also discussed this: ‘Our simple founding principle, thanks to the visionary Lilian Baylis, the pioneering theatre manager whose vision of making opera accessible to all led to the founding of ENO, is to make a beautiful, utterly unique art form available for everyone. Singing in English is a massive part of this, as are affordable ticket prices (more than a fifth of all our tickets are priced at £20 or less — compare that to a ticket to a Premier League game). And we will continue to make bold and daring work in ways that appeal to a generation accustomed to adventurous programming on TV and online but who may have never experienced the unique thrill of live entertainment. Some of those attempts will, I’m sure, not be received well by everyone; but I hope everyone else sees our efforts as an imaginative way to keep opening up and broadening out a genre that deserves to be enjoyed by everyone. We will continue to modernise the London Coliseum, taking Baylis’s passion for inclusivity further, with the society in which we operate fully reflected in our staff and audience.’
As an event Opera For All was basically critic-proof as there were so many opportunities for me to reflect on all the evenings I have spent at the London Coliseum over four decades and more. The orchestra had been released from the pit and were raised up on the stage allowing a performing space in front of them. From time to time a screen came down to conceal them and show the filmed interviews and several images from past ENO productions. Performers were mostly dressed formally but attempts were made to ‘stage’ some of the excerpts we heard, most notably, those from Peter Grimes, Towards Another World (with the wonderful singers from the ENO Youth Programme), Rigoletto, Akhnaten, and the Tosca ‘Te Deum’. If I had to criticise the evening – which I do not really want to do – it was strangely curated and could basically just have followed the decades since the 60s.
The ENO Orchestra performed a range of music in typically accomplished fashion and probably relished being up from the depths and onstage. Unfortunately, I believe this meant that some of their sound went into the fly space and didn’t get out to the audience – we heard this immediately in their opening ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ – and that was a bit of a pity. The London Coliseum is a big space to fill for singers and it was clear some voices are better suited to it than others. It was wonderful to hear Dame Sarah Connolly’s accomplished ‘Verdant pastures’ from Alcina. Gwyn Hughes Jones has the size of voice the Coliseum demands and was suitably ardent in his Tosca duet, ‘Why was it locked?’ with Claire Rutter’s jealous Tosca. He also gave a radiant account of Walther’s ‘Prize Song’ from The Mastersingers of Nuremberg that brought back so many memories of Alberto Remedios, a great ENO stalwart of a past generation. The singer who most impressed me during the evening was Nicky Spence who created a suitably tormented Peter Grimes in the few minutes we heard and then sang an impassioned ‘No more, no more’ from Eugene Onegin. It was great to hear Alan Opie still holding the years back in the ‘Poor little Rigoletto … Filthy rabble’ scene from Verdi’s opera that has been revived so many times in Jonathan Miller’s famous ‘Mafia’ production. The always extremely watchable Andrew Shore pattered away – as only he can – with his faux-Iolanthe ‘When I went to the Coli’ celebrating (through Martin Fitzpatrick’s new lyrics) ‘The Glories of ENO’. Sarah Tynan’s ‘Vilja’ recalled the halcyon days of Valerie Masterson in The Merry Widow during ENO’s formative years at the Coliseum.
The second half also brought us an enticing few moments to showcase ENO’s current new staging of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess as Nadine Benjamin sang a resonantly poignant ‘Summertime’. Natalya Romaniw will sing Mimì in the forthcoming revival of Jonathan Miller’s La bohème though with a different Rodolfo than David Butt Philip who partnered her here. Their Act I duet ‘This hand of your is freezing … I’m always called Mimì’ was absolutely charming. Matthew Durkan and Rowan Pierce were a delight as Papageno and Papagena in the ‘Pa-pa-pa-pa’ duet from The Magic Flute before instead of ending with the rousing ‘Prize Song’ from The Mastersingers we saw and heard the end of the first act of Tosca with David Soar’s voice booming – ok soaring! – over the chorus and all the guest singers who joined the combined ENO Chorus and The Porgy and Bess Ensemble on the stage. As the sexually deviant Scarpia proclaimed how he wanted to ‘Feel her [Tosca] surrender languishing in my arms’ it was a rather strange ending for a gala concert in 2018!
We had been told how from 1978 to 2010 Jonathan Miller had created 15 productions for ENO and the forthcoming La bohème will mark an 82nd revival of of one of those at the London Coliseum. Over the years Dr Miller has had a rollercoaster relationship with English National Opera but was present to receive the first ever ENO Lilian Baylis Fellowship as ‘a formal acknowledgement of his outstanding contribution to ENO’s life and work’.
As we look forward to what the next decades have in store for the company, it was encouraging to hear Stuart Murphy announce ENO’s new Lilian Baylis Outstanding Potential Award for someone under 40 who has shown exceptional promise in the world of opera. This was given on this occasion to a member of the ENO Youth Company who has recently graduated from the Baylis Youth Programme and is in the Porgy chorus, soprano Rachel Oyawale. Only 18 – and in a gap year after leaving school – she is the youngest chorister to be employed by ENO, even though any formal Higher Education or Conservatoire training is still in her future.
This was a joyful evening full of happy memories and hopes for a bright future for ENO despite its recent travails.
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