Review: The Magic Flute, ENO at the Coliseum


“Is it me who’s hard of hearing,
there is no-one volunteering”

The ENO’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flutereturns to the Coliseum for what will be its final ever performances. And in this Engilsh-language version – now remarkably 23 years old – originally directed by Nicholas Hytner with this revival with Ian Rutherford and James Bonas at the helm, the combination of fairytale adventuring, earthy comedy, magical instruments and glorious singing still casts an enchanting spell of huge enjoyment.

I particularly love that seeing the show reminds me of what to me, is one of the biggest incongruities in opera. One of the most famous tunes from The Magic Flute, possibly one of the most recognisable arias in all opera, is the Queen of the Night’s second act aria is “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” whose crystalline trills are impeccably, gorgeously sung here by Kathryn Lewek and generally sound just heavenly. But the title actually translates as “Hell’s vengeance boileth in mine heart” and in it the Queen urges Pamina to kill a man or else she won’t consider her her daughter any more – not quite what one might have expected from listening to the gorgeous coloratura.

Random Australian accents in productions seem to be the thing of the moment – one pops up in Three Sisters too – here, it belongs to charismatic sidekick Papageno played with great openness by Duncan Rock, who swaggered rather memorably through the recent gayed-up version of Don Giovanni. He clearly revels in the informality he brings to the role and the connection thus built with the audience, even encouraging a most inopportune marriage proposal at one point and he is matched well by the characterful Rhian Lois as his intended, a very welsh Papagena. Shawn Mathey’s Tamino, the male lead, suffered a little by comparison though it is essentially just a duller character but partnered by Elena Xanthoudakis’ shining Pamina, there is undeniably strong quality at work here.

The broadening of the comedy – though it may make some baulk – is particularly well-essayed in the Three Ladies who attend the Queen of the Night. In vivid blue costumes and towering wigs, there’s something almost G+S about them, Jeremy Sams’ translation lacking perhaps a little finesse here but never any wit, and Elizabeth Llewellyn, Catherine Young and Pamela Helen Stephen convey humour well through their acting as well as through excellent singing.

There’s something infinitely enjoyable about seeing such a fun production that doesn’t take itself too seriously in such a grand venue as the Coliseum. If you’re concerned about realistic portrayals of killer snakes then this probably isn’t the show for you, if you fancy some light-hearted but high-quality operatic thrills and trills, then The Magic Flute might be just the thing for you, but be quick, it ends for good very soon.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 18th October

Re-review: Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee, ENO at the Coliseum

“This is the language of heaven”


It wasn’t intention to revisit Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee now it has arrived at the ENO’s home at the Coliseum, but as I haven’t learned to respond to any offer along the lines of “I have a spare ticket…” in anything but the affirmative, that was where I ended up tonight. I actually caught this show last year when it premiered as part of the Manchester International Festival (review can be read here) and though my feelings were decidedly mixed, they were generally positive, especially given that the work was still raw and fresh, only having recently come out of workshopping. A year down the line, changes have been made to the show, but I have to admit that my feelings were still largely quite ambivalent.

Based on the historically significant, if neglected, figure of Elizabethan Dr John Dee, Albarn and director Rufus Norris have created something of a spectacle, but even after the refinements that have been made, it remains something of a perplexing piece. Dee’s biography reads as a thing of great fascination, a key advisor to Elizabeth I, he was a man whose extraordinary breadth of knowledge took in astrology, alchemy, philosophy, mathematics and much more besides but when this unquenchable thirst lead him to increasingly dabble in the occult, he sowed the seeds of his own downfall. But you would be hard-pressed to gather much of this from the events onstage.

On the one hand, one could argue that this is a show less concerned with biographical detail and focused on providing a kind of pageant-based display. Norris’ staging works in some truly striking imagery and there are several moments of visual grace, especially in the astronomical sequence. But this doesn’t disguise the fact that it is simply perplexing for large swathes, something exacerbated by a lack of lyrical clarity (and the baffling decision not to have surtitles), the basic thread of storytelling thus ever-elusive throughout. And though much of the staging is cleverly done, there’s a little too much recycling of ideas which becomes somewhat exasperating by the end.


Musically, it remains an interesting panoply of varied influences, some operatic, some not so much, played with skill by the band on their raised stage, led by Albarn’s troubadour narrator figure. Though this role has been slimmed a little, it still rankles with me rather, feeling more like an ego-trip than a strictly necessary part of this show particularly in his decision to give himself the final self-aggrandising piece of commentary and song. Hand in hand with this is a beefing up of the role of Dee himself who now has more of a (singing) voice, which in itself is perverse as Bertie Carvel who played the role, and was disappointingly under-utilised, in Manchester has now been replaced by Paul Hilton. The cast do what they can but it has to be said that the acting is not necessarily a strong point to Dr Dee.

It is relatively short though, and the first half is certainly intriguing enough to merit trying to track down a bargainous ticket if you’re interested. I’d struggle to recommend it strongly though, it remains a show that ultimately lacks a defining purpose to its creative impulses. And whilst it is intermittently interesting in its attempts to find one, you can’t help but wonder would this have ever got this far without Albarn’s name attached to it…        


Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes (with interval)

Booking until 7th July

Review: Don Giovanni, Heaven

“I showed you a life outside of the closet”
Kylie once told us ‘you’ll never get to heaven if you’re scared of getting high’ which in all honesty is less an effective way to open a review than to finally shoehorn one of my favourite pop lyrics onto this blog. The tenuous link is that this gender-switching reimagining of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni is occupying the rather unlikely surroundings of legendary gay nightspot Heaven, situated under the arches at Charing Cross on Sunday and Monday nights for the next couple of weeks.
Though one of the most popular operas in the world, it is safe to say that you probably haven’t seen a Don Giovanni like this one in Dominic Gray’s marvellous production. Relocated to the heady nightclub scene of London in 1987, this Don is more interested in tenors than sopranos and so David Collier’s book flips the gender of the majority of the characters, mixes in all kinds of sexualities in a heady brew, yet still emerges with a coherent, clear narrative for this recast story. What really makes this work spark though is Ranjit Bolt’s rejuvenated libretto.

It is, quite frankly, hilarious. Profane, lascivious, honestly sexual and bluntly cruel, it is the perfect vehicle to carry the updating and demand the full attention of the watching audience. It is helped by being sung by an excellent company whose crispness and clarity of diction (for the most part), in this rather cavernous venue, is to be commended. Mark Cunningham and Helen Winter stood out in smaller roles, but Zoë Bonner’s long-suffering hugely-bequiffed PA Leo is a sheer delight. From the opening song, she grips and subsequently holds on the audience’s empathy and is the perfect touchstone throughout the show, especially in the brilliant (and all-too-accurate) relocating of the Catalogue Song to notorious homosexual hangouts.

And then there’s the Don. Duncan Rock is perfectly cast here, a man for whom the word strapping does no justice, he physically looks the part of a bed-hopping playboy who could get anyone to forgive him anything with a flex of a pec. But more importantly, he sounds like a dream too, his beefy baritone rising to the challenge of this leading role and more than meeting it, exuding charisma and a wonderfully blatant sexuality, and also maintaining the lyrical clarity that is ultimately a hallmark of this production.
The subterranean club has been most effectively dressed to present the seedy neon glow of Soho, not so far from the truth here!, and also emerges as an inspired choice as a space large and flexible enough to allow the action to play out at various points throughout the room and still have enough room for a pocket orchestra: Joan Lane’s superbly lush string-laden re-arrangements sounding gorgeous.
My only gripe would be the description of it as a promenade production, with the suggestion that we can follow the actors and singers around as they move from place to place. There was no opportunity to move at all last night, such was the volume of the crowd, which meant there were moments missed, sights unseen and words unheard – a frustration especially as it always seemed to be funny things I was missing.  
There’s no doubting that contemporary opera companies have got the right idea is addressing the preconceptions many hold about opera and trying to break those down through new and innovative productions, but care does need to be taken to ensure the stars are all in alignment for the particular show in mind. OperaUpClose scored a huge success with La Bohème and thought they had coined a new genre in ‘pub opera’ but my experience last week with their problematic new take on Carmen which rehashed many of the same ideas would suggest that that was perhaps more of a one-off triumph, specific to that piece – not even their take on Don Giovanni at the Soho last year really inspired.
So when I congratulate the team here on an exceptionally well-judged marriage of innovation, material and venue, that does not mean I want to see lots more operas randomly appearing in gay nightclubs. All adaptations need to be lavished with as much care and attention as has been given here if they are truly to work, rather than assuming this is a template that can be easily replicated. But this Don Giovanni has that freshness of vision, a musical and lyrical intelligence that should be praised and stands an excellent chance of actually bringing, and retaining, a new audience.  
Running time: 2 hours (with interval)

Booking until 30th April

Review: Carmen, King’s Head

“Come on Carmen, this is a joke”
OperaUpClose scored a huge success with their Olivier-award-winning production of La Bohème and since then have continued with their mandate of creating a more intimate, accessible style of opera to try and entice new and more diverse audiences. Their latest production at the King’s Head sees them turn to Bizet’s ever-popular Carmen, which has been uprooted from Spain and relocated in a modern-day North London in a world of gang-related crime. Rodula Gaitanou and Ben Cooper have penned an abbreviated new English libretto and Elspeth Wilkes’ musical direction pares the score down to piano and guitar but in the search for brevity, accessibility and relevance, far too much has been lost.
This Carmen lives in a cluttered bedsit with a group of seemingly-bohemian types who run an Oliver-style pickpocketing racket. She forms an instant connection with security guard José (who breaks up the initial singing in the pub) but when boyfriend Escamillo breaks out of jail and hatches a criminal masterplan, she is torn between the two men, between the chance of going straight or continuing a life of crime. But even with the truncated running time, the story struggles to come through. There’s little clarity in the new book, a woeful lack of characterisation to make us care about either man or Carmen for that matter and a series of question marks that plague the production, like the complete lack of explanation given for the Spanish-influenced music – having ex-con Escamillo singing ‘Toréador’ over and over is just simply bizarre.
   

Gaitanou, who also directs, uses the limited space of the King’s Head awkwardly throughout, but she is not helped by an ugly, overly fussy design that Joana Dias and Jamie Vartan has contrived to produce. There’s a misguided attempt to replicate La Bohème‘s innovative staging to starting the show in the bar as we queue to take our seats: Christina Gill’s seductive Carmen flirts with many a man as she sings the famous Habanera. But the encouragement to join in with the syncopated clapping works against us actually hearing the singing and once the number is done, there’s then an extended break whilst we finally take our seats by which time the mood is gone.

Fortunately, the singing was of largely excellent quality. Gill exudes sassy attitude as Carmen and Fleur de Bray and Olivia Barry had great fun as her girlfriends, complementing each other beautifully as well as essaying some off-the-cuff comic business with the boys. Christopher Diffey’s Don José and Nicolas Dwyer’s Escamillo both sang well, in the face of limited opportunity. But the sense of fun that the cast seem to be having never translates into the material and thus across to the audience, and the subsequent shift into tragedy lacks depth, pathos and believability. A disappointment.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes (with interval)
Runs until 5th May

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: Don Giovanni – Soho Theatre

“How’s your moral compass doing now?”

After the Olivier Award winning success of La Bohème and spearheading a whole new trend in fringe opera, OperaUpClose have collaborated with Soho Theatre for this new production of Mozart’s classic, Don Giovanni, in a new version (and English translation) by Robin Norton-Hale who also directs.

Updating and streamlining the story of the titular ruthless lothario to a pre-credit crunch London, this version makes Johnny a city trader looking for easy pickings to add to the endless notches on his multiple bedposts and searching for ever more high-stakes thrills. Accompanied by the ever-faithful Alexander, the original’s manservant being translated a little tenuously to an intern here, they move from Sloane Square dinner parties to Soho nightclubs, Johnny leaving hearts broken and lives destroyed in his wake but not even he can avoid having to pay the price.


Don Giovanni is performed by three rotating casts over its five week run. Marc Callahan as the sharp-suited and snakeskin-shod Johnny captures the swaggering arrogance of a banker who believes he is untouchable with a powerful performance full of cocky charm and contrasted nicely by Tom Stoddart’s affable Alexander, constantly picking up the pieces for his boss and maintaining a dry humour throughout. Rosalind Coad’s slightly unhinged Elvira sang brightest out of the women though Emily-Jane Thomas’ Zerlina also sounded good.

Keeping things fresh musically, Emily Leather’s piano is accompanied by a live electronic score from Harry Blake, though the influences of dubstep and techno which loom large at the beginning are rather restrained throughout and ultimately, I would have liked to have seen a more radically adventurous approach to juxtapose adorned Leather’s accomplished playing.

One thing the updating doesn’t quite capture though is the hyper-real world of opera. Locating everything in a recognisable and relatable set of scenarios is all well and good but we are still in the world of opera logic, where characters turning a blind eye to rape and murder is nothing special which does clash with the modern reference point, and the production lacks a certain dramatic drive, the crescendo to the climax not quite there. Cherry Truluck’s design doesn’t help here either with a muddled mixture of styles, incorporating an underused video element. I did like the little thrust stage though, which is cleverly manipulated, which is effectively deployed in a couple of multi-levelled scenes, and the way in which Norton-Hale brings the action out of the stage, if only briefly.

This Don Giovanni is entertaining and intermittently very much so. It is also well sung by the youthful company, making it much more directly accessible prospect for an audience who wouldn’t necessarily make the trip to one of the larger opera houses. It may feel as if drama has been sacrificed for accessibility in certain places, but it still serves as a great entry-point into the world of opera.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Playtext cost: £5
Booking until 17th September

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: Dr Dee – Palace Theatre, Manchester

“You know I cannot see, nor scry”

Continuing to stretch his wings, Damon Albarn returned to the Mancehster International Festival, where his Monkey: Journey to the West was quite the success, with another quasi-operatic work, this time based on a mysterious Elizabethan figure – Dr Dee: A Very English Opera. Doctor John Dee was a man of varied talents whose influence was such that it was he who chose the optimum day for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation: he also dabbled in philosophy, astrology and alchemy at a time of great new learning, but personal demons and temptations ultimately led to his downfall.

With a story as rich in potential as this – Dee is reputed to have been the inspirations for both Marlowe’s Faustus and Shakespeare’s Prospero – it then feels surprising that so little attempt has been made to develop a narrative. It was made worse on a personal level by employing someone as good as Bertie Carvel – so very good in Matilda and soon to return as Ms Trunchbull – to play Dee but then leave him with so little to say – I was very much looking forward to another barnstorming performance.

But the clue is in the title, and the focus lies squarely on the music and on Albarn himself. Everything has to have a label and so this is subtitled ‘A Very English Opera’ which is basically shorthand for saying it’s not really an opera at all. There’s a band in a box, part of the BBC Philharmonic in the pit, excellently directed by Andre de Ridder, but Albarn places himself on a raised platform, surrounded by a vast selection of instruments ranging from obscure Elizabethan ones to the world music tools that we have come to associate with him now.

The soundscape thus covers all bases, pulling influences from folk and world scenes with touches of Elizabethan sound mixing in with the Philip Glass-style music. It is surprisingly effective both vocally and musically, never outstaying its welcome though the sonic palette may seem a little wide than absolutely necessary at times: I just wish that Albarn had resisted the temptation to make himself the singing narrator or at least to make this part so dominant (at the expense of Carvel natch).

Rufus Norris provided spectacle that superficially pleased the eye: a flying raven, a parade of falling historical figures, eyecatching costumes and designs attempt to dazzle. But it is in the few moments where the story itself is allowed to breathe, free from distraction: Carvel’s mathematical monologue suggesting the tortured brilliance at work, surrendering his wife to his nemesis, Christopher Robson’s excellent Edward Kelly, a scene of excoriating pain that ultimately just hinted at what might have been.

As a co-production with the ENO, Dr Dee will be playing at the Coliseum in the future. It would be nice to think that this was a first draft and someone could meld Albarn’s vision with a stronger storytelling device, but as that would minimise his own role in the show, I can’t see it happening. If you think of going, read up on Dee first, it will help you immeasurably. And perhaps controversially, don’t think of it as an opera, but rather a high-end musical (more illustrious company says call it a masque).


Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 9th July

Review: The Damnation of Faust, ENO at the Coliseum

“I just need you to sign this old piece of paper…”

Continuing their sourcing of directors better known in other artistic fields, ENO now feature the operatic directing debut of renowned actor, screenwriter and filmmaker Terry Gilliam with a new production of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust. Not strictly speaking an opera, but rather a ‘dramatic legend’ as it was originally composed as a concert score, this has allowed Gilliam’s imagination to run wild but working with his surreal vision is designer Hildegard Bechtler in an unlikely combination.

Berlioz’s story is based on Goethe’s original dramatic poem but takes its own route through the story of the lengths a man will go to when tempted by the Devil with promises of youth, knowledge and finally love. The ultimate price paid for Faust’s inability to resist temptation is a most tragic one in this morality tale, which in Gilliam’s major innovation, has been located in Germany, tracing a period from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century and so follows the history and indeed the art of that country. So the backdrop to Faust’s dilemmas are scenes like Bismarck negotiating pre-World War I alliances; bloodied battlefields from the Great War; Brown Shirts drinking in a Weimar bierkeller; Berchtesgaden; Kristallnacht; Auschwitz.


It is a template that largely fits well onto the overarching story without having to twist anything to make it work, apart from one major plot device, and allows for some starkly effective imagery: the company become gymnastic, blond-haired Aryan youths at one point, jack-booted vicious soldiers the next, and the swastika of course is powerfully deployed on a number of occasions. Finn Ross’ video design is well-incorporated into the production to allow swift, effective and atmospheric changes of location as Faust is led unwittingly on his journey. The tendency towards giant spectacle though means that several scenes are overstuffed, Giliam’s ambition seemingly untrammelled in the pursuit of his vision. Consequently other aspects which need more attention in what is acknowledged to be a difficult piece, like the occasional longueurs in the music which lack purpose or the whipping into shape of the chorus, both vocally in a couple of places and physically – as in a scene when they are meant to be portraying Nazi stormtroopers, they currently evoke a greater comparison to Dad’s Army – are left lacking.

At times, the music is battling against everything else that is happening onstage but when it is allowed in the limelight, it really does shine. The best of the singers is Christopher Purves, making his role debut as Mephistopheles, the self-confessed puppet master whose machinations whether from the sidelines in an easy chair or in the thick of the action with a debonair charm doffing his hat to all and sundry, are never less than crystal clear as he sings with a great precision throughout and is devilishly good fun. Christine Rice has two pretty songs as the doomed Marguerite which she fills with beautiful colour and Peter Hoare is just great fun as the heavily Shockheaded Peter-inspired Faust, vocally a little thin at times but extremely charismatic and listenable.

But my uneasiness at the staging was something that grew as the show progressed. I’m not entirely sure why I was so sensitive to the suggestion that the rise of the Nazi party and grooming of Hitler as leader was due to the machinations of Mephistopheles rather than the human race just acting at its very worst with outside help: with a story that punishes an individual for the choices he makes, there’s something difficult about the skimming over of the decisions made by the Nazis and passing them off as devilish intervention. But I found it harder to accept the events of Kristallnacht just being passed off as a distraction caused by his minions in order to get Marguerite out of the picture. The worst offender though was the final scene where the chorus sang a beautiful number, exalting her dead body to Heaven, but in this production she has been shipped off to Auschwitz-Birkenau and the chorus are actually singing to a pile of dead bodies of which Marguerite’s is the uppermost. I found it a hugely crass piece of staging if only for the suggestion that she was the only soul being sent up to Heaven despite being just one of the many thousands that had just been killed. This was such a distraction to me that I barely heard the music which was a real shame as it was a very moving piece.

There’s no doubting that The Damnation of Faust is excellently sung, attractively played and visually spectacular, but too often it is excessively so as far as the last is concerned. It is Gilliam’s artistic vision which is predominantly being served here, whether you find it insensitive or not, to overkill: the frantically posturing Hitler on his little podium in the penultimate scene in the fiery Hell being the perfect example here, completely unnecessary. Not everyone will find this as controversial as I, but I do think it raises serious questions.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £5
Booking until 7th June
Originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: The Coronation of Poppea – London’s Little Opera House at King’s Head

“I gave you all my love and this is my reward?”


Monteverdi’s opera The Coronation of Poppea is one of the first that was ever written and this new version by Mark Ravenhill and Alex Silverman marks the continuation of OperaUpClose’s rebranding of the King’s Head pub theatre in Islington as London’s Little Opera House. They were responsible for the Olivier award-winning La Bohème which was judged the best new opera of 2010, for its reinvention and modernising of Verdi’s classic and a similar blast of imagination has been aimed here.

Ravenhill has translated the work into English, modernised and colloquialised it – the first line, sung, is perhaps predictably ‘what the fuck’ reworking – and trimmed it down considerably to 2 hours 15 minutes. But perhaps the biggest change is with the music which has been re-scored and re-arranged for a jazz ensemble of saxophone, double bass and piano by musical director Alex Silverman and on top of that, Michael Nyman has been drafted in to compose a new aria which has been added into the mix. The opera follows the rise of Poppea, mistress of the Roman emperor Nero, as she fights her way to fulfil her dream of becoming empress, not letting his advisers or either of their spouses to get in the way.

As Poppea, Zoë Bonner’s expressive soprano was gorgeous to listen to and her ambition well portrayed but truthfully I wasn’t much invested in her relationship with Jessica Walker’s Annie Lennox-like Nero, their passion for each other couldn’t quite over-ride how distasteful these characters were in their lack of regard for others which negated the power of the beautiful final duet a little for me. Rather it was the supporting performances that brought the real emotion to the climaxes of each act: Martin Nelson’s obedient-to-the-death (quite literally) Seneca had a stunning grace and clarity of powerful purpose that was most moving in two pieces just before the interval; and Rebecca Caine’s scorned wife Ottavia pulled at the heart-strings as her plans were thwarted, delivering the best piece of the night before drenching herself in blood to sing Nyman’s intervention. It is perhaps no coincidence that these were all accompanied by simpler arrangements: I found the more intricate jazz stylings to be something of a distraction at times, especially in the intimate space.

Katie Bellman has created a mini-thrust stage with a sunken pool in the middle which provided a focal point for much of the action. The seats are not quite sufficiently raked though and every time the performers sat or lay down (and it happens a lot) they disappeared from view from my fourth row seat: a little frustrating. Ravenhill’s direction also feels a little muddled at times, aiming for a climaxing tableau at the interval which falls flat and perhaps a little too much splashing around in the pool. Still, there’s a quirkiness to this opera/jazz hybrid, backed by some seriously first-rate singing, that is invigorating, entertaining but above all accessible.
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 29th June
Originally written for The Public Reviews

Not-a-review: Aida, Royal Opera House

Not really a review because this was the general dress rehearsal of the first revival of David McVicar’s Aida to which the Royal Opera House’s marketing team had very kindly invited me and some other blogger-types. It was a fabulous afternoon, not least because I got to watch the first half from the Director’s Box and the second half from great front stalls seats, neither of which I don’t think I would ever get to sit in normally. The Director’s Box was great fun, a real chance to see and be seen by the rest of the audience and though the viewlines were a little tight on the side of the stage nearest to us, it was brilliant to be able to see straight down into the orchestra pit and see the players cutting loose and misbehaving a little whilst responding to the at-times frantic direction of Fabio Luisi. And the luxury of being able to sit in the stalls for the second half gave a different, wider perspective to the production, able to soak in the real depth of the staging.

This was my first time seeing Aida, a story both epic, in the war between the Ethiopians and the Egyptians, and intimate, in the tragic love triangle that emerges between Ethiopian slave Aida, Amneris the daughter of the King of Egypt and the man they both love, Radames the Captain of the Guard. And the first half is nothing short of epic, full of huge set pieces with innumerable personnel onstage as whether it is priests making dramatic human sacrifices and blood-letting or vast armies arriving onstage. The production incorporates a range of Eastern influences into the mix, but the samurai martial arts work was probably the most visually impressive.

Though the spectacle of the first half was truly stunning, it was the second half that really captured my attention with an unexpectedly intimate examination of the love triangle at the heart of the story. Roberto Alagna and Micaela Carosi shone as the doomed Radames and Aida, but it was the frustrated Amneris who really caught my heart with Olga Borodina’s powerful yet ultimately frustrated princess having to admit defeat. The scene where Radames was on trial was superbly played with the audience eavesdropping on proceedings from outside along with Amneris and it was heartbreaking to watch.

So a great trip, supplemented by a little backstage tour, chats with stage managers and Associate Directors who kindly gave up their valuable time to answer all sorts of random questions and give extra insight into the workings of putting an opera together and the changes that are made when reviving a production. I was particularly surprised at the late notice with which Alagna had been attached to the role, something which was thrown into even greater relief the next day when it was announced that Carosi was withdrawing due to pregnancy and Liudmyla Monastyrska was stepping in at the last minute, showing just how well-oiled a machine this is.

I heartily recommend that you take a look at the reports from some of others who were there as well though, both young and old, and not just because I still have lots to learn when it comes to opera: Jake’s account is a beautifully written story about a first trip to this austere institution and Johnny is able to locate this production within the several other productions of Aida that he has seen.

Review: Faust, English National Opera at the Coliseum

“Hell is pursuing you”

In a rather odd coincidence, my visit to the ENO’s production of Gounod’s Faust came just a couple of days after my slightly unwilling trip to Jersey Boys and unlikely as it may seem, these two shows actually share a director in Des McAnuff. You can currently see the Faust story being rocked Reykjavik-style at the Young Vic but this interpretation of the classic tale focuses on Faust’s obsession with Marguerite but has been relocated to a nuclear research laboratory in 1945 with the scientist suffering from post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki guilt and dreaming of an earlier time, and a girl, which for him is in the time of the First World War.

In the lead roles, none of Iain Paterson, Toby Spence and Melody Moore disappointed as they were all vocally strong (apart from Paterson’s lower notes) but I found it hard to really engage with them as characters. Paterson’s Mephistopheles was nicely avuncular rather than devilish; Spence’ Faust was handsome but largely wooden and Moore’s Marguerite was unconvincing at playing the lighter notes of a girl distracted by jewels or swept off her feet, only really connecting in the final scene.

I actually enjoyed the supporting performances more: Anna Grevelius made for a bright voiced Siebel and there was also excellent work from Benedict Nelson as Marguerite’s brother Valentin and Pamela Helen Stephen as one of her friends Marthe. I generally found the larger sound to be quite muggy, whether it was the lack of clear diction from the chorus or a fuzziness from Edward Gardner’s orchestra, everything felt as if refracted through a lens and in need of more clarity.

For me, too many aspects of the design did not work. There was a lot of clumsy staging, the waltz was rather boring and a wasted opportunity, the return of the soldiers from WWI was dominated by the need to squeeze in one by one through a ridiculously narrow doorway, Hell wasn’t anywhere near hellish enough, the use of projections was ill-thought-through (and simply creepy in the case of the giant blinking faces). And as anyone who has read a few of my reviews will know, I hated the use of puppets, especially as it was purely cosmetic here, they did nothing but come onstage briefly and then disappear. Peter Mumford’s lighting is highly effective though and there were some great moments, most of which involved staircases.

Ultimately a bit of a disappointment for me: I found it too dull too often despite being well sung but crucially, the interpretation was lacking in any real depth despite invoking WWI and nuclear holocaust, focusing instead on stage trickery with flashes, projections and a magic bunch of flowers.

Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes (with 2 intervals)
Programme cost: £5
Booking until 16th October