A Christmas Carol for All of Us

We review the highly anticipated UK premiere of “It’s a Wonderful Life”, by English National Opera ta the London Coliseum, and ask; if it’s all about festivity – then why do I feel so confused?

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is an opera by Jake Huggies in 2016, an adaptation of the 1946 Frank Capra classic Christmas film.

I always used to think that if nobody dies, then it ain’t an opera. ‘It’s a Wonderful Life”, is indeed all about death and suicide – but also about  happiness and redemption. It is about the fall of a man, or the generosity of mankind. Take it how you will.

The reason that you and  I go to ENO, is because we know, we just know, that the boundaries will be pushed, the performance edgy, we will feel stimulated, saddened, surprised, excited – but not necessarily entertained. ENO opera explores avenues that  we are not expecting.

And so it is with this production. Right from the get-go, the audience audible gasp as the orchestra swirls into sound with it’s Hollywood movie style, and astonishing snow and starlight effects, and the sudden focus on Danielle de Niese as Clara high up in the dark of the staging – is mesmerising. Danielle is a tour de force, her opening monologue  is a full 15 minutes duration, astonishing vocal line that has no melodic element – it just soars along – and carries the opening of Act 1. I loved her complaint of being “Angel second class” – waiting for her wings.

This ENO production brings the best of a team of  specialists – conductor Nicole Paiement, a regular Heggie collaborator, making her ENO Debut – and Aletta Collins also making her ENO Debut as Director, – and I could go on –  – supported by three of the rising stars of  Harewood ENO members.

But the standout performance has to be Jennifer France as Mary, her absolutely perfect clarity of vocal line and engaging dramatic art, is the glue that holds the storyline together. Usually it is the ENO Orchestra that covers this function, but for once, the balance has shifted to just the key vocalists. You follow the vocalists – and the music takes care of itself.

The production says that it is suitable for children. Yes, it is timed around Christmas, there are great ensemble and happy moments – but I think the message is universal and quite dark.  You do not leave the theatre singing a happy tune.

But what  do I know?  We had a train strike on this opening evening – and I had to leave before the end, otherwise I miss my last train. Even then, what should have been a twenty minute little hop – took more than one hour. Worse, if anything subdued the atmosphere, it was the opening pre – announcement by Annilese Miskemmon, Artistic Director, of the savage cuts in opera funding across the board, by  Arts Council England, and the complete removal of funding for ENO itself. I suppose the argument in 21st century England is that, well, why fund the arts if you cannot travel to see them anyway?

There was a palpable anger and shock, across the audience, and the queue for #LoveENO memorabilia stretched across the meeting and coffee areas of the theatre itself. 

At a time when the health and society benefits of music inclusion are increasingly recognised for their therapeutic and educational value, and ENO’s position as a Uk leader of that demarche – this situation is at best shortsighted, and worst case,  a damaging catastrophe for so many children that are just coming to realise music’s importance in their own lives.

But there is a bright side; we do now have a clear choice this Christmas; sure we can go see the Nutcracker as usual. Or we can go just a little deeper, and follow the narrative of It’s a Wonderful Life. After all, George Bailey, our anti-hero – does not  die; and Clara does get her wings, first class.

Yes, – it’s Personal.

The emotional turmoil of people starting a new life in the UK – is exemplified by our Interviews with Vlada and Danylo, two leading members of the United Ukrainian Ballet corps, as they do their standout Giselle performance at the London Coliseum. Irina Dinch gets behind the mask, and listens to their stories.

The Interviews were informal, and conducted in Ukrainian. An English translation follows below…

Об‘єднаний український балет- це трупа, до складу якої входять танцюристи з національних театрів Києва, Львова, Одеси, Харкова. Танцюристи належать до  різних шкіл танцю, різного рівня підготовки, різних методик але працюють разом як єдиний колектив, підтримуючи і допомагаючи один одному. І така злагоджена робота стала можливою не лише завдяки таланту всесвітньо відомого хореографа Олексія Ратманського, а й тому, що кожний член трупи розуміє ту високу місію, яку уособлює кожний з них.  В цей трагічний для нашої країни час танцюристи Об‘єднаного українського балету   не лише демонструють свою майстерність, а й нагадують миру, що Україна бореться, відвойовує кожний метр своєї землі. Наша культура жива і несе миру радість від спілкування з прекрасним. Але ми, як і кілька місяців тому, потребуємо підтримки мирової спільноти. Мир не має відступити, забути про війну чи втомитися від неї. І це їхня лінія оборони.  

Дивлюся в очі Влади та Данила, вони дуже молоді, на вигляд років 19-20, по суті ще діти, але них є своя історія, як і в кожного з нас в цю важку годину. 

Влада – танцюристка «Національної Опери України», відновлювалася після операції, яка відбулася рік тому, і була вже готова повернутися на сцену до репетицій, як почалася війна. Вона не збиралася від’їжджати за кордон, але родина та близькі  наголошували на від‘їзді, бо  без постійних тренувань і репетицій на кар‘єрі можна було поставити крапку. І вона поїхала, спочатку до Словенії , а потім, отримавши запрошення в Об‘єднаний український балет, переїхала до Голландії. 

Гарна, тендітна, струнка українська дівчина. Але така сила в її рішучому, безкомпромісному погляді темних очей! І коли чуєш як за останні півроку змушена стати твердою, рішучою , що відбулося в житті переосмислення цінностей і має вона зараз брати більше відповідальності за свої вчинки, ретельно обирати з ким спілкуватися, то розумієш, що немає вороття. В цьому віці надій, мрій помилок  та сподівань у Влади вже є сумний досвід, який загартував і  зробив міцною. І все в неї буде гаразд, тому що вміє тепер розпізнати де добро, а де  причаїлося лихо.

Данило закінчив Київську муніципальну академію танцю імені Сержа Лифаря.  На початку війни знаходився на реабілітації у Литві через травму руки. Коли почув що почалася війна, став волонтером і почав допомагати українським біженцям, але саме усвідомлення  цього жорсткого акту насилля вибивало із колії. Тренуватися не виходило, гіркі думки не давали спокою. І він прийняв рішення. Сів на волонтерський автобус, який прямував до України, з наміром піти на фронт воювати. Дзвінок матері пролунав вже у дорозі: «Я відправила до тебе брата, завтра зустрічай». На це Данило не розраховував, та і родині про свої плани не розповідав, але залишити 15-ти річного брата самого без підтримки не міг, тому вирішив повернутися.  Соромно було перед людьми в автобусі, але  добровольці поставилися з розумінням . 

Наприкінці квітня він повернувся до тренувань, а потім звільнився зі свого театру і поїхав на гастролі розповідати про Україну в різних країнах світу. Балет «Жизель» мав справжній фурор  в країнах Латинської Америки. Натомість, а  ні в Чілі, ні в Перу не чули про війну в Україні, дуже дивувалися вони цій новині, і для Данили це було боляче і дуже незрозуміло. Тому і вирішив він приєднатися до Об‘єднаного Українського балету, щоб розповідати миру про криваву  жахливу несправедливість, яка відбувається в Україні. 

Олексій Ратманський, відомий хореограф, який звільнився з «Большого театру» у перший день початку війни та створив нову інтерпретацію балету «Жизель» для Об‘єднаного українського балету, сказав в одному зі своїх інтерв‘ю британському видавництву, що український балет завжди був в тіні російського балету , артисти з України втрачали там свою ідентичність. 

Я запитала у Влади і Данила чи вважають вони створення  Об‘єднаного Українського балету першими шагами до відродження українського балету та виведення його з російської тіні ,  але вони мають своє бачення. 

Влада наголошує ,що зараз відбувається не «виведення з тіні», а робиться акцент, що український балет існує і завжди існував окремо від російського і завдяки Об‘єднаному українському балету зараз закордоном відбувається розуміння і переосмислення ролі українського балету в всесвітній культурі. 

А Данило, як танцюрист та майбутній хореограф народної хореографії, дуже пишається тим, що наша народна хореографія одна з найсильніших і найяскравіших в світі. Виступи наших колективів завжди мають фурор закордоном і дух захоплює як танцюристи на сцені вдало показують український характер та культуру. Педагоги навчили їх відкривати душу в танці і це багато говорить про талановитих українських викладачах 

А тим часом у Лондонському Колізеї зі справжнім фурором пройшла вистава  балету «Жизель» у виконанні Об‘єднаного українського балету. Бурхливі овації,  сльози, надія… щирі емоції від дотику до прекрасного високого мистецтва. І за всім цим невтамована, наполеглива праця наших танцюристів, їх віра в майбутнє і жага показати світу, що Україна – понад усе! 

United Ukrainian ballet – is a troupe that includes dancers from different national theatres from Kiev, Lviv, Kharkiv, Odessa. Dancers belong to various dance schools, different level of methods and training, but they work as a single team supporting and helping each other. Such coordinated work became possible not only owing to the talent of the world famous choreographer Alexey Ratmanskiy but also due to the deep understanding by every member of the troupe the importance of their mission.


In such tragic for our country times artists of United Ukrainian ballet not only demonstrate their skills but also they do remind to the World that Ukraine is fighting for every piece of its land. Our culture is alive and brings the joy of communication with the beauty. But as well as couple of months ago we need support of the World community. World should not step back, forget about the war or get tired of it. And this is their line of defense.

I look at Vlada’s and Danylo’s eyes, they are very young, look no older than 19-20 y.o, children so said, but they have their own stories as well as each of us has in difficult times like these.


Vlada is a dancer of National Opera of Ukraine, she was recovering from the operation that she had one year ago and was ready to get back on the stage to trainings and rehearsals when the war began. She didn’t want to go abroad but family and beloved one insisted on her leave because without constant trainings and rehearsals she could put an end to her career. And she left Ukraine and went to Slovenia, and after receiving invitation from United Ukrainian ballet she moved to the Netherlands.

Beautiful, tender, slim Ukrainian girl. But there is so much strength in her resolute, uncompromising look of the dark eyes! And when you learn that for the last half a year she was forced to become firm, determined, she has revaluated her views and became more responsible, she chose carefully who to talk to, you understand that there is no way back. In her age of hopes, dreams, mistakes and expectations Vlada already has got hard experience that made her stronger. And everything in her life will be just fine because now she knows how to recognize the good and reveal the evil

Danylo has graduated from Kiev Municipal Academy of Dance named after Serge Lifar. When the war started he was in rehabilitation with hand trauma in Lithuania. Immediately he became a volunteer helping Ukrainian refugees but awareness of such brutal act of violence was knocking out of the way. He failed to train because bitter thoughts has haunted his mind and finally he made a decision. He took a volunteer bus going to Ukraine to fight. But his mother’s phone call reached him on his way : “ I have sent your brother to you. Meet him tomorrow” . Danylo didn’t expect such turn of events and his family wasn’t aware of his plans but he couldn’t abandon 15 y.o brother alone without support so he made a decision to get back. He felt very ashamed in front of other volunteers but they understood.

At the end of April he restarted his trainings and then quitted theatre where he was working and went on tour to tell about Ukraine in different part of the World.
Ballet “Giselle” had a real splash in countries of Latin America but neither in Chili nor in Peru haven’t people heard about war in Ukraine and they were very surprised with a such news. This fact was very painful for Danylo, he couldn’t realize it. So he decided to join United Ukrainian ballet to tell the World about bloody terrible injustice that was happening in Ukraine.

Alexey Ratmanskiy the world famous choreograph who has quitted the “Bolshoy theater” the first day of war, created the ENO interpretation of ballet “Giselle”, said in one of the interviews to British press that Ukrainian ballet always has been in the shadow of Russian one, artists from Ukraine were losing their identity there.

I asked Vlada and Danylo do they consider the creation of United Ukrainian ballet as the first steps of revival Ukrainian ballet and taking it out of Russian shadow? But they had their own point of view.
Vlada pointed out that it wasn’t not really “taking out of shadow” but emphasizing that Ukrainian ballet always existed individually and now this realization and rethinking of the role of Ukrainian ballet in World culture is taking place in foreign countries due to the United Ukrainian ballet.

And Danylo as a dancer and future choreograph of folk choreography is very proud that our folk choreography always has been one of the most powerful and brightest in the World.
Performances of our Ukrainian dance troupes always have a splash abroad, the way our dancers successfully demonstrate Ukrainian character and culture in a dance takes your breath away. Pedagogues teach how to open your soul in a dance and that says a lot about talented Ukrainian teachers.

Meanwhile in London Coliseum ballet “Giselle” performed by United Ukrainian ballet had a splash. Standing ovations, tears, hopes….sincere emotions from the touch of a beautiful high art. And behind there is tireless persistent work of our dancers , their belief in future and the thirst to show to the World that Ukraine is above all!

Human Nature. Just the same as before.

We take a fresh look at this new interpretation of the standout 2014 production of Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” and ask, as it returns to the London Coliseum here in March 2022; how come the the mix of Women and Men and Mozart, never loses its appeal?

There is a young business lady waiting hurriedly inside the Chanel Shop at St Pancras as I happen also to be stepping inside for something. We exchange a few words of greeting. She says that she is running for a train to Darlington. I tell her I am en route to Cosi, at the ENO.

“Oh!! I just love that opera!” she says. “I would love to come – when is it on next?” I quickly look at my ENO app, and smile give her some alternative future dates etc.

I am taking an early dinner at the restaurant just up the road from the London Coliseum and the maitre d’ squeezes me in at a single table just alongside two ladies who are well dressed, with obligatory bottle of chilled white wine, and they are talking animatedly.

“We are going to the Opera!” , they say.

“Really!” – I reply.

“Yes – we have not been for ages, and we are SO looking forward to going out again, And “Cosi Fan Tutte” is one of our favourites.

There is a lot of psychology talked in the media about the darkness of human nature within Cosi… and are we talking about all Women, or all Men, or all relationships – or just a few, and my answer to that is; Come on, guys – this is a Funny Story. That’s it.

The appeal of its story and attraction, is indeed based on several levels, and I will come to that shortly – but people do not come to the ENO production of Cosi Fan Tutte because of they want a seminar on human nature. If they sat down and thought about it, they come because they want to enjoy the constant melody, the incredible harmonisation, the forcefulness – and subtlety – of the direction, the spot on note perfect singing. People going to an ENO Mozart Opera want to be entertained and feel good, despite its underlying messages. I found myself still singing the tunes long after getting my return train from Paddington.

This production is the same as before in 2014 in many ways, the same Coney Island fairground set. There is the same Fortune Teller cabin, redolent of Tom Hanks in “Big”. The same concept of circus gymnasts skills ensemble. It is slapstick and very, very funny.

The additional playing the Ukraine National Anthem, before curtain up – added to that sense of absolute importance. It reminded me all those years ago of the Don Giovanni first night, on the first night of ENO at the Coliseum, – when the Russians had just invaded Prague. No, some things don’t change.

This performance gave a shop window to several of the Harewood Artists who are the future of ENO Operas. Nardus Williams as Fiodiligi is superb as soon as she starts singing; Benson Wilson is just great to listen to. But stealing the show, so to say, has to be Neal Davies as Don Alfonso, always in charge of proceedings, never losing his grip – and his synergy with Soraya Mafi, whilst not as crisp as Mary Bevan originally, was spot on note perfect. I think she can be even more acidic and sharp in her storytelling.


But what took all of our breath away – was the sheer complexity and delivery of the close harmony. It never let up. The complex intertwining of medallic lines, each protagonist singing as if their lives depended on it. It was absolutely glorious.

My colleague at the end of Act 1, stood up at the Interval and looked at me, in a state of shock. We all know that ENO performances and direction are always on the edge, the exploration of new angles and avenues. But nobody does Mozart better when it comes to opera for the people.

There are still a couple more performances at my time of writing this Note. Well worth making a point of going.

QUESTION; WHY IS THE PUB ON THE CORNER, THE CORNERSTONE OF LIFE IN GENERAL?

We review the revival of the Puccini opera “La Boheme”, at ENO in London just a few days ago,  and ask – is this a simple story, a view from a distance so to say, where you and I are looking on almost against our will, through some window  – or a classic love story, that has stood the test of time?

Perhaps it is both. 

I never thought during this performance, that I was in the grip of a serious romantic affair, as say I have been in Madame Butterfly, or Carmen. But I did feel that I was a voyeur, and unable to change any of the outcome.  I knew Mimi would die. And the facts are these:

If you are looking for an Opera that mirrors life in all its seediness and lack of hope – then the Puccini classic, “la Boheme” would not be a bad choice. Created just a few years after the Emile Zola equally classic novel “L’Assommoir” (the boozer…), if you want to get down and dirty amongst the very poor, well Paris in the late 19th century, is where it’s at.

The story is simple enough. Art for art’s sake does not pay the bills. Mimi, who by that time, is already freezing to death, finds love with Rodolfo – who then gets jealous, – and it doesn’t end happily ever after. It’s an opera, after all.

For once, the tension that we normally expect and associate with ENO production, did not readily surface until Act 3-  and yet all the classic ENO properties were there; very tight production, wonderful orchestra; great melodic delivery. For me, it took the arrival of Louise Alder, as Musetta, before things started to happen; her approach is almost Mozartian, very staccato and pin-point, it cuts through perhaps the saccharine lines of her colleagues.

And that’s unfair, because this production has stood the test of time. My graphic above shows the programme of La Boheme in 2010, and nothing has changed. 

This is an Opera and performance where you can take anybody who does not know about opera, but wants a classic music evening. Obviously, there is a new class of performers, if you like,  a new generation.  Ben Glassberg  excelled in the power of conducting the ENO orchestra. And there was great interplay, particularly Act1. If I was feeling distant in watching the story unfold, then it was also nice to be entertained, as opposed to be educated. 

The thing  is – the story, and its delivery, just works almost on autopilot. You sit back and let ENO deliver. And if there are questions, such as; “are Mimi and Rodolfo actually in love?” – well, could be….  And “why does Mimi have to die”? – well, that’s what happens, it’s the wrong part of  Paris at the end of the 19th century. It’s a story, and these are the facts.

CAN WAGNER OPÊRA REACH OUT TO THE COMMON MAN?

We review the latest brand new production of the Wagner Opêra “the Valkyrie”, at London’s ENO English National Opera, and ask – what is it about this performance, that is so special that we want to come see it?

I am seated at a nice seat, somewhere. I txt my wife. “I’m excited”, I say. “Did you bring your mask?”, she asks. “Yes. And it is very crowded” . “Then make sure you wear your mask”. The line goes dead. The man sitting next to me is not wearing a mask. He is talking with his friends.

It is not that ENO produces safe opera. You could almost say that English National Opera carries a health warning. It is risky. You don’t come to ENO because you necessarily want to sing the tunes on the way home. You come for the journey. You could almost say that ENO Members and Supporters are addicts.

So, when Annilese Miskimmon steps in advance onto the stage prior to curtain up, and says something like: “look guys, we’ve got just one or two little issues… there’s no big fire at the end… and oh -forget COVID – two of the leading singers are down with bad colds, and one of them can’t even sing a note, for God’s sake!”- seasoned supporters are used to this. It is not relevant.

How so?

Because the driving force of this “Valkyrie”. Is not the individual singer, but the communication of the emotion, the human relationship, as much as the storyline itself. It is the synergy of the parts of orchestra, the subtlety, the ambience, that support the protagonists on stage, that keep all of our attention, for the full five hours. ENO has been perfecting this approach for a very long time. Even from my very first opera, Wagner’s “Mastersingers” at Rosebery Avenue, as a 12 year old kid hitch-hiking across London to see something called an opera – looking back at my top five all-time best performances at ENO – Wagner would fill three of the spaces – and I am not even a Wagner aficionado.

This production is brand new, it brings to the table some of the best Direction and Performers. With minimalist scenery and graphic intervention -its secret is that it lets the performers “do their thing”. It treats this Wagner project as a modern opera in style and approach, and lets the singers and their relationships with each other, keep us guessing and spellbound.

The programme notes describe this new staging as “narratively gripping and emotionally poignant”, and I think that for the most part – they get there.

The standout Act, perhaps surprisingly, was Act 1 – the performance of Emma Bell as Sieglinde, is phenomenal, and her chemistry dramatically and vocally with Nicky Spence as Siegmund. Is the driving force of the opera. There is a noticeable tension when they re-emerge later in Act 2.

This is a long opera, with a deep multi-level message. You and I will not get all of this, in one sitting. But that is not the point. We go for the total experience, and pick up what we can, and then perhaps go again.

But there is also a point that might have been overlooked by so many of us, and that is one of the key objectives for both this performance, and production – and that was briefly alluded to by Annilese Miskimmon in her opening prelude – that is the giving away of free tickets, to a younger audience. There was a round of applause when she made that statement.

The inclusion of a new non-opera audience, and showing its relevance, and its ability to change lives for perhaps more than just one or two – is a key mandate at ENO. And I should know. All those years ago, I was one of them.

SATYAGRAHA – A STORY OF OUR TIME

At a time of resurgence from COVID restrictions, we look at the relaunch of the Satyagraha Opera by Philip Glass, by the ENO English National Opera, on their first day back at their home London Coliseum after 19 months – and look at why this is both an Opera and performance for the moment.

It is a full twenty minutes before I fully understand why it is that people of all ages, aims, backgrounds, ambitions, love being part of the ENO Family, and what is the single thing that draws us all together.

It is not necessarily the music. True, this performance, its direction and delivery, is brilliant, stunning, mesmerising. My two colleagues next to me, the young lady with her teenage daughter are spellbound – they described it as “resonant” – and the introduction itself had rich luscious vocal lines, even though this was no Verdi. But it was the moment when the full chorus, from somewhere in the shadows suddenly came alive and you got this fabulous wall of sound. It was as if we had all been waiting for this, and it did not disappoint.

The depth and intensity of the desire to communicate – the continual hypnotic orchestral themes and continual variations of time signature – left me uncertain, and the hesitating steps of the protagonists on stage, as each carried their own line of music and text, was confusing.

But that did not matter. This was ENO saying; “look, we are here for a reason. Nobody smiles in this ‘Satyagraha’. We are taking a solemn story and winding it around new dimensions and images in ways that you might not have seen before. And we know how to do it.”

The girl in the interval, told me that there have been some preparatory sessions, to explain the thinking behind the staging, the strange larger than life puppet characters, etc. And I can understand the need for that. I spent the first two Acts unsure of what was going on, sitting on the edge of my seat, sometimes – particularly in act 2 – actually scared. Did I really come to the Opera to be scared? And simultaneously intrigued, drawn in.

They say that “Satyagraha” is what they call a “marmite” opera; you either love it or hate it. And talking with members of the audience generally, that division is still there, The complicated story line and topics it is trying to explain, create a sort of Bach on steroids musical structure, or a Big Burger with nineteen different layers, there is just so much going on.

And there are so many clever aspects to communicate. The key points are brilliantly highlighted by the very clever use of Newspapers from the time, that assemble and re-assemble to form impromptu screens that display key words on stage as we go. The symbolism of frankly everything is just too much for one evening alone, for an average opera goer who just wants a night out with some music.

But that itself misses the point. To deliver this sort of cohesion and perfection requires absolute singing and musical quality and I am not going to single out any particular artist or group. It just all works.

Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe this is simply the formula, perhaps redolent of when I first saw “Two Boys” with Mary Bevan, that I first understood ENOs prowess with modern opera. But that too is unfair.

This “Satyagraha” is an opera that reflects a different age of how we communicate themes that are as relevant today as they have always been. Did I like it? No, I don’t think so. Did I love it?. Absolutely!

FIGARO HERE. FIGARO THERE. NOBODY DOES MOZART BETTER THAN ENO.

We review the latest new interpretation of this classic Opera, at London Coliseum’s English National Opera.

The trick in delivering “Marriage of Figaro, is not that everybody knows the story – it is that, it doesn’t matter if they don’t. The opera itself excels when it is just funny, absurd, stupid, ridiculous, – Brian Rix farce with melodies. At what point does an audience get bored watching people hiding behind doors? Actually, – never. They keep laughing. The young couple in front of me told me this was their first ever opera. This was no academic analysis. This was a night out. It does not get better than this. Heavens, don’t we need it at time like this!

This new production minimises the set, to focus on the simple reality of; have lots of doors, have people coming and going, from wherever and whoever, you have no clue. And make sure the singing is tight, crisp, – absolutely choreographed. Simples. Unusually for ENO, the opera opens straightaway into the Overture, there is no clever preamble – and then you understand. As soon as the doors start to open, close, total organised chaos ensues, and it never lets up.

And yet it is clearly more than that. Listening to Hanna Hip in discussion a few weeks earlier talk about her assessment of Cherubino, this opera depends on drama, of the protagonists reaching out to their audience. This is echoed by the complex but deliberate direction – the movement of the singers is like a jigsaw of interlocking and non-interlocking pieces – set against a pure white background of just four doors, that open, and close.

Despite the fact that for several, this was their first night Debut at ENO – Kevin John Edusei as Conductor, Bozidar Smiljanic’s debut as Figaro, and Louise Alder as the standout character Susanna – this delivery is everything that ENO does well, a sort of relaxed but very fast and spot on performance, that combines the many subtle and little touches, and letting the glorious music and melody take you along for the ride.

I loved the interplay of of Figaro and Susanna, and the small choral groupings towards the end of Act 2 were mesmeric. Even the Act 1 choreographed photo-shoots in the Overture, were clever, different, you wanted to lean in and see where all this nonsense is going.

I cane away wanting to come back and see the production for a second time – I am sure like a good movie, I will “get” even more, now that I know what is happening. Then again, who’s to say I will be any the wiser second time around?

OPERA AS IT SHOULD BE.

We are privileged to be part of the first night of the new production of  Verdi’s little known “Luisa Miller” at ENO, and ask; why has it taken so long for this superb emotional journey, to be given its  place in our modern Italian repertoire.

The young lady rushes down the steps at Charing Cross tube and bundles into the last Bakerloo carriage. She is finely dressed. She sits down quickly, next to me, there is a colour in her cheeks and she looks perplexed,  almost excited.

I ask “You went to the Opera then?”

She can hardly get the words out of her mouth; “Oh yes!   Wasn’t it absolutely fantastic!!”

You could argue that the essence of opera, is the use of voice, to transform our soul. What starts as the random singing in the shower, is the embryo of the fine tuned and perfect journey that  opera – on a good day –  can become, … can reach heights we had not envisaged.

This was not a good day. 

This was an exceptional day. A stunning and riveting musical expression that ranks  among the very best of my own many decades of witnessing ENO opera. The Direction had a tightness and absolute sync with the onstage protagonists, that drove our two protagonists, Luisa and Rodolfo forward, intertwined with a precise orchestra, and a developing and increasing symbolism from light to dark, white to black, good to evil, that is recognisable only after the event, when you get home and say to yourself : “yes indeed – that was fantastic!”

This discussion note, is not a musical critique. There are others who can do a better job than I – and my role is merely to express my feelings as a human being, of an evening that unfolds.

This modern and superbly edgy production of “Luisa Miller” has melody, a flow and inevitability that pulls you along, the chemistry between all of the protagonists, and I could name them all, the  phenomenal singing, that is so convincing in terms of emotion expressed that you know you are with Luisa in her bewilderment and despair, are alongside Rodolfo in the final scene and are powerless to intervene. We are mere bystanders watching a human tragedy that has long since gone beyond musical expression.

There is only one Harewood artist, Nadine Benjamin, and perhaps that is for the best. This opera needs experienced hands. Even then, Nadine comes to the stage as exemplary in Porgy and Bess. This is no lightweight cast. Elizabeth Llewelyn as Luisa  already has a stellar reputation in Italian opera. Baritone Olafur Sigudarson is an international Classical sInger of the Year, and I can go on.

And yet, my standout moment, is not the signing, or even the music. It is the cleverness, the subtlety, the little touches that you pick up here and throughout this production.

I left the auditorium, it was raining, and I hurried across the square down to the tube station entrance. A northbound train was already  arriving and the rear doors just stayed open long enough.

 

Storytelling. With Benefits

We review the latest production of “Carmen” at the English National Opera at London’s Coliseum, and note that its message and moral, is just as relevant. “Carmen” remains a story of all of our times.

Valentina Peleggi strides into the orchestra ensemble. She acknowledges  the gentle applause, motions to her orchestra to stand briefly – and then quickly we are off!  It is fast, furious, the melodies, swiftly move from one to the next. And there is a difference. There is an anxiousness. This is no Mozart comedy.

And then Micaela – played by the excellent Nardus Williams, making her ENO debut – gently walks into view, amongst the military who are setting the scene. And the opera proper, begins…

‘Carmen”, for me, has always held a soft spot. It was my first opera I ever truly studied as a kid. It has a universal message. In that sense, this production rarely touches the emotional deepens of say a Puccini, or a Verdi. But it may not need to to. It is storytelling after all, and it is family storytelling, the little children swarming early on, and inclusion later.

Having said that, there are some superb emotional moments; Sean Panikkar excels as Don Jose, the sadness in his “La fleur que tu m’avais jetee”, and chemistry with Nardus Williams. Plus the spot on performance and leadership of Ellie Laugharne and Samantha Price, as Frasquita and Mercedes respectively.  It is crisp, very tight, very controlled, and it is a journey about sexual and emotional control.  A story indeed.  With benefits.

ITS PANTOMIME TIME! OH NO IT ISN’T!

We sit back and laugh out loud at this latest rethink of the Offenbach classic, “Orpheus In The Underworld” – and ask; how can we laugh – and be disturbed, at the same time.

You can argue that this “Orpheus….” has everything. It is quite astonishing. It is a fusion of extraordinary drama, of sublime choral sound, of sheep that go ”bah bah” in time to the music; of myriads of balloons, that seem to be the leitmotiv (balloons are everywhere), as a symbol of transitory suspension between two worlds I suppose.

It is Mozart on steroids – a sort of Magic Flute but where there is no happy ending. Which is why you will not take your little kids to this run up to Christmas entertainment. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this performance has “wit and charm” – it is simply seriously funny. But in her chat discussion just a few weeks earlier, director Emma Rice indicated that this is going to be a different take – and she did not disappoint. The melodies of the first Act soon give way to sexual depravity, male hedonism, and the implicit conclusion that if you play with the Devil, then be careful what you wish for.

Except that Eurydice – played by Mary Bevan – has no particular wish to play with the Devil as such. Mary’s melodies, interpretation and dramatic art of her journey from one world to another, and the realisation of what marriage is – are the stand out features of this performance and I found myself reminded of when i first saw her in ”Two Boys” all those years ago, the ability to stand alone on stage and carry the audience with her.

And then we have Alex Otterburn, who was very funny, self-deprecating, as Pluto, with his West Country shepherd accent. A sort of Moliere’s “Tartuffe”. As I travel back to Devon as I write this piece, I would have loved to have seen more of this – but what the heck!

This is a cast of exceptional performers, each contributing vital elements. I loved Ellie Laugharne as Cupid. I could go on.

My first recollection of ENO’s “Orpheus” as a young teenager, used a tube train as the slapstick way to travel between worlds. Emma’s use of a London Taxi and cabbie, for the public opinion, is better, and just so ridiculous, the little things where the taxi does not start, for example.

Perhaps this is why I left the Coliseum excited and yet confused. We take for granted now the edginess of ENO productions, the taking of Opera to its limits. This performance continues that trend cum laude. The mix of elements that really should not go together, or how can anybody even think they go together – but somehow they do – that can deliver not satisfaction but a darker truth?

But again, this is to be picky. This is thought provoking entertainment on so many levels. Just don’t bring the kids, at least not yet.