Sunday 1 April 2018

Dream states: ENO round-up

I confess I'm a little shame-faced while writing this post. Regular readers (thank you, darlings, thank you) will know that, given the time, I try and give plenty of space to English National Opera productions. Partly, this is because I always feel they're worth writing about, and partly because I'm a passionate (and I know that word is over-used these days, but so be it) supporter of the ENO chorus and orchestra. Whatever the trying circumstances behind the scenes - and there's been no shortage of coverage of that elsewhere - they remain an astonishingly accomplished company of musicians who always give of their best.

At my end, however, a combination of a really heavy time at work, combined with other posts nudging their way in - perhaps they arrived in my head more fully-formed) - has meant that three ENO visits have now gone by before I've managed to write a word about them. Still, I had such a great time at all of them, it would be wrong to simply let them pass by.

The three productions were:
  • 'Satyagraha', the Philip Glass opera surveying key episodes in the life of Gandhi;
  • 'Iolanthe', the manic Gilbert & Sullivan fairytale; and
  • 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', Britten's operatic adaptation of Shakespeare's comedy.
It was my first time seeing the Glass, which was in fact on its fourth run. I'm not surprised it keeps returning, and I'd be at the front of the queue for a ticket should it come back again. ENO seems to have a special affinity with PG's music, cemented with the breathtaking 'Akhnaten' production from 2016. Both stagings are collaborations with theatre troupe Improbable, who field a 'skills ensemble' covering all the bases between mime, movement, dance and acrobatics. The latest 'Satyagraha' also benefits from Karen Kamensek on the podium - steeped in Glass's music, after making her ENO debut with 'Akhnaten', and then conducting the brilliant realisation of Glass's album with Ravi Shankar, 'Passages' at the 2017 Proms.

I adore Glass, but at the same time, I accept that he is divisive: for everyone like me, who hears and rejoices in intricate cycles and patterns, there is someone else who finds him dull and repetitive. You can't always change the way you listen to something, so I'm not out to make converts. But I do feel that if one were to try and 'turn' a Glassphobic, the music must be brilliantly conducted - and this is what KK does. She keeps the orchestra motoring like absolute clockwork, while bringing alive every dynamic shift and nuance.

(The Chorus in 'Satyagraha', photo by Donald Cooper)

For me, part of the power of Glass's music is that it uses its regularity to, in fact, play with time. Events can speed up, or stand still. As the sequences stretch out, you have time to appreciate the artistry of Improbable and director Phelim McDermott as endlessly inventive visual motifs fill the stage. McDermott explains the use of newspaper and corrugated iron as key materials linked with Gandhi's environment - the oppression of both opinion and poverty - but this is just the start. Giant puppets form an imposing crowd, while the silent 'icons' (the historical figures that provide a linked focal point for each act) are either still or move in slow motion against the 'normal' speed of the protagonists. The skills performers move with such precision that they can hold up scraps of newsprint to receive caption projections. And the meticulous score does not preclude cast and chorus injecting the sacred text of the libretto (adapted from the Bhagavada Gita) with real emotion - especially in the prayers of Toby Spence's superb Gandhi.

Gilbert & Sullivan offer something of a contrast - and if I was only covering these two performances, I'd have been tempted to call the post "Is there anything the ENO Chorus cannot do?" Productions ranging from the aforementioned 'Akhnaten' (where they trained up in some of the acrobatic movement and juggling skills used by Improbable) through the truly memorable ensembles of 'The Winter's Tale', 'Marnie', 'Jenufa', 'Pirates of Penzance' ... not to mention the fantastic ENO Studio Live 2017 double-header of 'The Day After' and 'Trial by Jury'... All of these point time and time again to their collective brilliance not only as singers but also physical actors - each able to present a fully-formed individual character amid the throng: forget any notion of a nebulous mass - these are always real people with real personalities.

Wittily dividing the chorus by gender into frisky fairies and pompous peers - due for a mass romantic collision course by the end of the evening - the action of 'Iolanthe' proved the perfect vehicle for their comic talents.

(Fairies meet peers, photo by Clive Barda)

Again benefiting from genre-specific expertise (as with Improbable for a visual approach to Glass), specialist farceur Cal McCrystal was hired to direct this new production. This resulted in a show that would have been laugh-out loud funny even if silent - highlights included the questionably harsh treatment of an inquisitive flamingo, tenor Ben Johnson's 'Tosca' moment (both balletic and bathetic, as he plummets in tragic mode from the top of a carriage), and the old-school slapstick of a pair of confused stagehands, trying valiantly to move sheep around the scenery but rendered blind by their - literally - all-over bodysuits. I'm actually going to refrain from singling out soloists from a cast who clearly understood that controlled chaos like this stands or falls on timing and teamwork: all involved seemed to radiate joy, singing gloriously with heart and humour, while gamely abandoning dignity in the service of comedy. I'm sure this one will be back as well.

Finally, no ENO Chorus, sadly, for 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'... although this time, the small ensemble of fairies was Tiffin Boys Choir, smartly suited and booted as a rather more regimented and efficient team than 'Iolanthe's sprites. Britten's intimate, yet playful adaptation was given hauntingly surreal life by this Robert Carsen production (which dates back to 1991). As a concept, it's almost deceptively on the nose - the opening act is staged on a gigantic bed, immediately referencing the possibility that everything in the play is in fact a dream. But it's the stylised use of colour that clinches it: the blue back wall and green sheets are in fact sky and forest. Subsequent acts give us different perspectives on this essential idea, and I won't spoil the coup de theatre towards the end for anyone who might get the chance to see this in the future.

Colour is also used symbolically in the costumes to round out the characters. Oberon, clothed in green, is able to lay down completely camouflaged to the oblivious lovers around him. The lovers themselves, initially in splendid white, gradually lose layers of this apparel as the night goes on. As the forest strips them of their urbanity, green stains from the foliage appear and expand on the clothing they have left.

(Lovers in the forest - photo by Robert Workman)

Britten also uses the score for characterisation: I'd already read that the overall mood varies depending on who is currently in focus: ethereal for the fairies, more tender for the couples and folkish for the 'mechanicals'. But it was interesting to hear his treatment of individuals, too - Oberon is a countertenor role (played here by the commanding Christopher Ainslie), conveying both his authority and otherworldliness. The bass-baritone of Bottom gives him the 'lowliness' his name requires but with his aspirational-actor's agility to try to take on every other part as well - Joshua Bloom was endearingly bolshy in the role and pricked the character enough to show the vulnerability behind the self-promotion and misplaced confidence. The soprano playing Tytania (here a captivating Soraya Mafi) is enraptured into coloratura while besotted with Bottom. 

I'm looking forward to the rest of the season, but for me, so far, ENO has been on fire. All three of these evenings were set in a kind of paranormal, other universe from our standard reality; and all three did what all great entertainment, opera or otherwise, can achieve - transport me, rapt, into another, more heightened zone for a few precious hours. Bliss.

(All photos taken from the ENO website.)

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