Tag Archives: ENO

“Chess” at the English National Opera

Nobody can say that Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of Abba can’t write a song and their 1984 concept album-turned-musical is full of good numbers, a couple of which were big chart hits. Directed by Laurence Connor, this major revival boasts some wonderful performances. Tim Howar brings a powerful rock sound as the maverick chess master Freddie Trumper, Cassidy Janson and Alexandra Burke are both fantastic as the female leads, and there’s impressive work from Phillip Browne and Cedric Neal as the men behind the scenes at a chess tournament that pits the USA against the USSR. The star of the show, as the Russian player, Anatoly Sergievksy, who defects to the West, is undoubtedly Michael Ball. Giving an impressively understated performance while belting out the numbers shows a performer of upmost confidence and technical skill. Ball is the master here, even if this chess game isn’t quite worth playing.

With music for the orchestra, the main theme, played during matches, is beautiful but adds little tension to an already wafer-thin story. There just isn’t enough in Richard Nelson’s book to hold attention, despite the backdrop of the Cold War and machinations of the Russian delegation. Connor tries hard with a barrage of video screens that ultimately only prove distracting. But the biggest problem is the writing for many voices. The ENO’s own chorus adds prestige to the event, but they seem lost – underused and with Tim Rice’s lyrics barely audible. As chess travels the world (well, Merano and Bangkok), attempts to add local colour end up pretty risible and Stephen Mear’s choreography surprisingly lacklustre. It all has to rest on the love triangle between Anatoly and the women in his life. There are moments when the cast, especially Ball, make this work, but the whole piece feels so slim that it’s more like a game of draughts.

Until 2 June 2018

www.eno.org

“Carousel” at the English National Opera

Director Lonny Price’s new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical is billed as ‘semi-staged’. But with a massive stage that rotates, impressive projections to set the scene and a huge cast – you’d be very fussy to feel short changed. This is a big-scale show, befitting such an iconic piece, with star names and an orchestra that do justice to the legendary score.

The much-loved Alfie Boe takes the lead of wastrel Billy Bigelow. Star soprano Katherine Jenkins joins him as the devoted Julie Jordan. Their doomed love affair sounds so good that any deficiencies in their acting skills are easily forgiven. Jenkins is a little wooden and Boe seems to regard running around as shorthand for frustration. But it’s a tough job making characters fit for a parable really breathe.

Smaller roles compensate. The show boasts a strong villain in Derek Hagen’s Jigger Craigin – his work with the chorus on Blow High, Blow Low is a real highlight, full of convincing machismo, adding tension that ripples out through the whole piece. And there’s a super Mr and Mrs Snow, in Gavin Spokes and Alex Young, who are full of sweet comic touches.

The operatic voices here, bolstered by the excellent ENO chorus make an ambitious statement about taking the sublime score seriously. But the production has a reverence that’s questionable when it comes to the dated sexism of the piece. Julie’s final exoneration of Billy’s domestic abuse is too tough a line to stomach. Changing it wouldn’t be a matter of political correctness – it was never the suggestion that hitting your wife is OK. The finale is for resolution and keeping the line doesn’t work anymore. A small quibble about an excellent show… but it leaves a nasty taste that could be avoided.

Until 13 May 2017

www.eno.org

“Sunset Boulevard” at the English National Opera

Glenn Close’s London stage debut, in a role she won acclaim for on Broadway, comes close to its advertising claim as ‘the theatrical event of the year’. Playing Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Close reminds us how important acting skill is in musical theatre – a great performance isn’t about hitting the right notes as much as revealing character and convincing us of the story the songs are telling. Close serves the show superbly and provides a stirring portrayal of a former silent movie star living as a recluse.

There are campy, crowd-pleasing moments. A first kiss with a toy boy lover is a vampiric embrace, complete with bandaged arms from a suicide attempt, which could hardly avoid being histrionic. The forgotten star is a larger-than-life character and has the quotable lines to prove it. Yet, beyond  Close’s thrilling costumes (designed by Anthony Powell), her detailed portrayal of instability and vulnerability adds a credible tension. This is a sad story about a lonely character, whose delusions are more than a source of humour.

Michael Xavier and Siobhan Dillon
Michael Xavier and Siobhan Dillon

And Close isn’t the only thing recommending this production. The ENO’s orchestra make the score, well, symphonic – revealing a depth to Lloyd Webber’s writing he must be happy with. The sound boosts the ensemble to great heights, and does the same for Siobhan Dillon, who plays Norma’s love rival and sings beautifully. As Norma’s younger lover, Michael Xavier sounds great and brims with charisma. Xavier is clearly thrilled to be working with Close, and who can blame him? Add to this the legion of fans that have taken over the Coliseum, and you have an atmosphere that’s as fantastic as the performances.

Until 7 May 2016

www.eno.org

Photos by Richard Hubert Smith

“Sweeney Todd” at the English National Opera

Lonny Price’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd has been widely anticipated since its rapturous reception in New York last year. Now the hot ticket at the ENO, opera megastar Bryn Terfel plays the demon barber, seeking revenge for the injustice that ruined his family while supplying his landlady Mrs Lovett with filling for her cannibalistic pies.

The jewels at the centre of the production are the orchestra and chorus. It’s a precious treat to hear a Sondheim score performed so masterfully, under the baton of David Charles Abell, while a massive chorus, of mostly young musical theatre performers, benefits from the Coliseum’s impressive acoustics and thrilling atmosphere. This Sweeney Todd sounds fantastic.

ENO Sweeney Todd Emma Thompson and ensemble (c) Tristram Kenton
Emma Thompson and ensemble

The quality of many secondary roles is notable. Matthew Seadon-Young and Katie Hall are irresistible as the young lovers Anthony and Johanna. Hall’s performance of ‘Green Finch and Linnet Bird’ is the best I’ve heard. The excellent Rosalie Craig plays the Beggar Woman and Philip Quast is superb as the villainous Judge Turpin.

But what of the stars? There’s an impression we wouldn’t be here without Terfel and Emma Thompson as Mrs Lovett, here returning to the stage after 25 years. The audience response may be hysterical but minimal chemistry between the leads means they aren’t really a dream team. Thompson’s celebrity aura never quite leaves her – it doesn’t help she’s dressed like Helena Bonham Carter on a night out – and while her voice is surprisingly strong she is not that funny. It’s a serious allegation but I suspect a moment of shameful scene stealing as a curtseying exit is carried on far too long. Terfel isn’t the greatest actor you’ll ever see, but casting him makes sense. His stage presence cannot be doubted, and any inadequacies can be forgiven for his magnificent voice: pray for a cast recording.

Despite Terfel’s magisterial voice and that wonderful orchestra, Price presents a stripped-back Sweeney Todd. A minimal feel plays with the idea of a concert performance, with musicians on stage interacted with and simple banners used for signage. Musical instruments are transformed into props and the sense of scale comes from the large numbers of people on stage.

Price’s staging is witty and clever but there’s an unwanted irony that couldn’t have been anticipated. This kind of inventiveness, abundant and impressive as it is, is usually seen on the fringe rather than in an opera house. For those lucky enough to have seen the Tooting Arts Club’s production of Sweeney, which has its own West End transfer, it makes for a strange comparison. The two productions couldn’t be of more different scales but it’s possible, and oddly inspiring, that a small team from South London has made the more memorable show.

Until 12 April 2015

www.eno.org.uk

Photo by Tristram Kenton