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.

MADAME BUTTERFLY. IF EVER THERE WAS A STORY MADE FOR OPERA. THIS IS IT.

We look at the latest interpretation of  this everlasting story of unrequited love at ENO London.

The performance is barely eighteen minutes in, before there is the soupçon of tears in my eyes. The mesmeric Natalya Romaniw as Cio Cio San, has hardly set foot on stage.

The irony is that as the opera unfolds, Natalya is well able to hold the stage , on her own, her note perfect and pure singing just reaches out to you and I in the audience, the look of innocence, of trust – she does not need her co-conspirators, uncles, families,

Even before her entrance, we already know from Dimitri Pittas as the totally convincing Pinkerton, his throwaway remarks about marriage – that this story line has ended before it has begun.

And yet there is hope. After the deep red of the Japanese graphic, following the earlier production back in 2015 and in my photo above from the cover of a programme of that time – and with the lone silent dancer drifting up and onto the enormous stage, with nobody in any doubt that this is a story based on Japanese custom and not western mores – suddenly , we are off.

The orchestra hits the ground running. We are moving at a fast pace. It reminds me of North by North West. I’m expecting the clipped tones of Cary Grant. But Pinkerton sounds nothing like Roger Thornhill.

The direction and clever use of panels to metamorphose from one scene and mood to another, is as fluid as I remember, the sudden orchestra crescendos to remind you that fate is playing us here, and the classic volume of sound that is such a hallmark of every ENO production.

Yes, there are the groups of supporting cast, with Stephanie Windsor Lewis excelling as the constant Suzuki. But “Madame Butterfly” is essentially about two people. It lives or dies on the chemistry of Cio Cio San and Pinkerton. Everyone knows the story line. The question is not how will this romantic moment end, but will it convince us that we are there too.

It does not disappoint. The closing first act is as good as any I have seen, very tender, – and you wonder if just maybe, Pinkerton will have a change of heart.

I look around me in the audience. There is the mum with her younger daughter, both eager to be part of this witnessing from a distance. Just alongside are an older couple, they lean forward and talk to their friends in the row adjacent. A lady stands up during the interval to take a photograph of the rows and tiers of this magnificent theatre.

The secret sauce of this Madame Butterfly and its longevity, is the delivery by the performers of a convincing whole, that ENO has long since known how to convey. But it is also the understanding by all of us on both sides of the stage, that Madame Butterfly is a musical story and a lesson of morality. It reaches out to all of us. Despite its tragedy, we want to be part of it. If ever there was a story made for opera, this is it.

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.