THOROUGHLY MODERN MISSY: La Traviata, ENO

The run of consistently excellent productions from the ENO hit a slight bump in the road last week with the opening night of Peter Konwitschny’s La Traviata. Perhaps this more negative reaction is because of the proximity of the opera to the premiere of the outstanding Meistersingers production a few days earlier. The set was very sparse, verging on excessively minimal; a lone chair and some scarlet drapes set the scene for what is usually a lavish and luxurious backdrop appropriate to courtesans and upper class socialites. The chorus, however, was much more engaging. They were busy, buzzing and bustling all over the stage underscoring Konwitschny’s vision of Violetta being the only ‘real person’ and her surrounding company being wired, cavorting ‘city folk’ who are constantly searching for new dramatics. The most creatively choreographed scene was the gambling scene in which the chorus paced back and forth flicking cards in a nonchalant manner – once again reiterating the blasé and indifferent nature of the upper classes of the time. Verdi’s music was as rousing as ever under the baton of Roland Böer with only a few timing snags. The stand out voices were Elizabeth Zharoff, who seemed to come into her own as the opera progressed, and Anthony Michaels- Moore who sang Germont’s role. As with many Traviata performances, the famous ‘Drinking Song’ was performed with great enthusiasm and gusto.

There were moments of awkwardness in the production – most obviously the decision – reminiscent of pantomime – for members of the cast to break the fourth wall by climbing awkwardly over the front row of the audience. As well as this, the translation could have been more artfully done – but perhaps this was just noticeable because of the familiarity of the much-loved Italian libretto.

Though the production was perhaps too modern and slightly undeveloped for such a classic and famously luxurious and musically lush opera, nothing could detract from the beauty of Verdi’s music. Though the ENO have been facing difficulties in recent weeks, their productions are still deserving of the company’s high reputation. La Traviata was less polished than previous productions in recent weeks, but nonetheless is still a showcase of excellent operatic singing talent.

La Traviata continues until 13 March, more information and book here.

Written by Thoroughly Modern Missy, Angelica Bomford.

THOROUGHLY MODERN MISSY: The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, ENO

As I am becoming a frequent attendee of the ENO, I am starting to notice patterns in their productions – starting with the consistently brilliant interpretations of opera director extraordinaire, Richard Jones. In his 25th year with the company, Jones has brought to the coliseum stage a production worthy of the quarter of a century celebration. Being a relatively naïve Wagner listener, having only been to one other opera of the composer, I was relieved to be watching the Mastersingers of Nuremburg in English, a trademark feature of all ENO operatic productions. The fact that the translation is one of immense artistry and delicacy merely helped make the production a memorable and beautiful gem in the ENO 2015 programme.

Visually, the production is engaging and enchanting. From the beginning of the rousing overture, the audience is presented with a game of ‘who’s who’ in the form of the front cloth; it is covered in faces of German cultural figures from Handel to Freud which firmly establishes Wagner’s ideologies of culture as the basis of the opera rather than the less fortunate reputation that the opera has acquired of extreme nationalism. As the overture comes to an end, the curtain rises to show a large ensemble – one of the largest I’ve seen on the Coliseum stage – in the midst of a church service. The 90 strong chorus are magnificently accompanied by the steadfast ENO orchestra under the sensitive and musically fluid baton of musical director Edward Garner. It is in this first scene that the audience is introduced to the blossoming romance that will keep the momentum of the opera and the storyline going.

The enormous scale of the production would deter many able and talented singers; however, every one of the 17 main singing parts were performed with such gusto and aplomb that the heavy demands of this lengthy opera seemed irrelevant to them. Hans Sachs is one of Wagner’s most developed and multi-dimensional characters. Often, performers fail to convey the depth of this character, but Iain Peterson’s interpretation was nothing short of faultless. His body language, acting and voice coalesced so well that from the second he entered the opera (running late to the mastersingers meeting), his presence dominated the stage. The ‘love-to-hate’ character, Beckmesser, was masterfully performed by Andrew Shore who played more on the insecure rather than outright malicious features of the character. Shore infused light comedy into the role, a welcomed feature for such a thematically gigantic opera. Having said that, Mastersingers is, on the whole, not a very heavy opera with many comedic parts and this was excellently carried out by the ENO company.

This production provided many moments that justify a prominent place for it in The ENO’s history, however, for me, the crowning glory was the beautifully choreographed quintet in the 3rd act. The two pairs of lovers, Magdalene (Madeleine Shaw) and David (Nicky Spence) and Walther (Gwyn Hughes Jones) and Eva (Rachel Nicholls), and Hans Sachs sing the enchanting song in his exquisitely busy cobblers workshop and create something of a religious experience for themselves and the audience. The song is meant to act as a ‘baptism’ for the stunning prize song that Walther has created – the piece of paper is hoisted into the air, much like a symbol of the holy spirit and the lighting is done in such a way that the paper seems to glow. This, paired with the breathtaking execution of the quintet was an incredibly moving moment in the already affecting opera.

Do not let the nearly six-hour running time deter you – this is a production worth making the time for. It is an art lover’s masterpiece and justifies the ‘noble German art’ of which Hans Sachs sings at the end, as a vibrant component of today’s performing arts repertoire.

Show continues until 10 March, more information and book here.

Written by Thoroughly Modern Missy, Angelica Bomford.

THOROUGHLY MODERN MISSY: The Girl of the Golden West by Puccini, ENO

To think of Puccini’s operas is to be transported to the Orient, the Latin Quarter of Paris and to Rome. But when the curtain at the ENO was raised on the scene of a bar in the middle of Goldrush California, the audience stirred in their seats. When a cast of nearly 40 males crowded onto the stage moving with slick gun-slinging choreography and excellent solo performances, the audience were thrilled and carried away by the story. And when Susan Bullock, the ENO’s new Minnie in The Girl of the Golden West made her powerful entrance onto a stage crammed full of hearty male voices, the audience were entranced by her authoritative and formidable voice. Needless to say, this was not your typical Puccini performance. The last ENO performance of this lesser known opera of Puccini’s was over 50 years ago and the performances, direction, set design and general production proved to be well worth the wait.

Richard Jones’s direction introduced a fresh take on the dusty setting of Goldrush California and created nuances that one is surprised to see on an opera stage. For example, the decision to start Puccini’s rapturous opening to the opera with the curtain down but brilliantly illuminated, creating an air of anticipation before the big reveal of the somewhat bare and ever so slightly contemporary bar scenario. The set could have been inspired by the trendy ‘Scandi’ aesthetic of simple lines and bare wood with strip lighting accents. The set changes with each of the three acts and the third set, which acts as the backdrop for the nail biting finale looks like a 3D Hopper painting with a long cuboid Sheriff’s cabin which the audience looks in on as if eavesdropping. The simple yet effective design refreshes the Western soul of the opera and provides a bland enough backdrop for the tumultuous singers and storyline to shine.

Though some think that the opera’s less popular reputation is deserved since Puccini neglected his famous and standalone arias in favour of illuminating the drama of David Belasco’s libretto, much of the music can still sweep one away. (Whether this is due to the excellence of the singers, you will have to decide for yourself!) Personal highlights were the soaring ‘Quello che taceto’ performed by British tenor, Peter Auty, playing the part of Dick Johnson, which could rival most other Puccini arias (and also, it seems, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Music of the Night from his Phantom of the Opera). Another highlight was the seduction scene between Dick Johnson and Minnie, very amiably and wittily observed by the only other female cast member, Clare Presland.

Yet another original feature was the modernity of the production; the opera was well translated into English by Kelley Rourke and the line ‘would you like a cookie’ was enough to keep this production in the 20th, if not the 21st Century. There is modernity too within Puccini’s opera itself. To have a strong female heroine who has conviction enough to wait for whom she loves (even if he is a good-fer-nothin criminal), and also confidence to stand up to 40+ miners is still a peculiarity in the opera world. Susan Bullock thrives in this role and adds humour and sensitivity to the part – every inch a Thoroughly Modern Minnie.

The production in general is a triumph, and considering that for many of the cast and crew this was a UK debut, one can only see the result as a shining testament to their professionalism and talent. Keri-Lynn Wilson echoes the strong female role in the orchestra in her UK operatic conducting debut and American Craig Colclough makes his European and role debut as the unpleasant and rejected Sheriff Jack Rance. It is also worth noting that both Sonora (Leigh Melrose) and Larkens (Nicholas Crawley) stood out from their strong chorus. The ENO’s The Girl of the Golden West is truly memorable and a thrilling success. Do go see it and avoid the next 50 year wait!

Continues until 1 November, book tickets here.

Written by Thoroughly Modern Missy, Angelica Bomford.