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IN PARENTHESIS; reflections on three ENO Nights at the Opera La Vestale, A Masked Ball and The Elixir of Love 11-13 April 2002 (PGW)



Three consecutive evenings at The Coliseum, each with its vocal casualty and unique particularity, merit additional observations about Opera in English in England.

La Vestale as performed in a truncated version by the English National Opera at the Coliseum did Spontini no favours, and this revival was almost unanimously savaged by the critics. Best was the stage design (Alison Chitty) and lighting (Rick Fisher) which made for some pretty pictures; worst the inadequacy of Jane Eaglen, who had not recovered vocally since the disastrous first night, the diva embarrassingly overshadowed when they duetted by the Grand Vestal of Anne-Marie Owens. Eaglen struggled with Spontini's vocal lines - needing the sort of bel canto singing Maria Callas did to perfection. I saw Callas on stage once only, in Cherubini's Medea, a revelation of how singing-acting might become in opera of the, then, still far future. After this unhappy evening at The Coliseum, it was therapeutic to return home to Callas, who shows how it should be done in a collection of arias from Medea, La Vestale and Bellini's La Sonnambula, which also had been given in London recently with an inadequate diva (EMI Classics 7243 5 66457 2 1).

A Masked Ball was generally well liked, but not universally so, and this production has been described in detail by Melanie Eskenazi. For me, it so overloaded a popular Verdi opera with the incongruities of the maverick Calixto Bieito's 'concept' that it was hard to attend to the music - the picture at curtain up encapsulates what was to come. The director has helpfully explained to Seen&Heard that ĎItís not about them shitting - those 14 toilets arenít about shit.í The lavatorial focus confronting us brought back to mind an Opera Factory production of his Songs for a Mad King which was repudiated and boycotted by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies; Verdi was not available to do likewise. That apart, our attention was taken in straining to catch the words of the English version, a not uncommon difficulty at The Coliseum; there are many seats where surtitles would be a boon! The singing was adequate but unmemorable (Giselle Minns as Oscar replaced the indisposed Mary Plazas, who had set ME's teeth on edge) and the acting was generally stiff.

The special element which captured attention on our evening was the signing by ENO's resident sign-interpreter for hearing-impaired watchers, situated across the stage from our front-left stalls. I joke not - we could not take our eyes off Wendy Ebsworth! Has anyone before noted in print the expressiveness of gesture and body language with which she is liable to upstage the stars? She really conveyed the emotions of Verdi's characters far more clearly than did those actually responsible for doing so.

Jude Kellyís idiosyncratic and over-burdened staging of Donizettiís The Elixir of Love, with Rhys Meirionís winning Nemorino, was riveting even with the delights of the Gheorghiu/Alagna DVD still active in recent memory. His light tenor was mellifluous and the complicated choreographic deployment of the chorus by movement director Quinny Sacks, up and down and around Robert Jones' elaborate urban set, made the whole thing work and contributed to an evening of unspoiled pleasure, given a special lift when Andrew Shore's effervescent Dulcamara takes centre stage. And this even though the Adelina, Alison Roddy (praised by ME at a later performance) had so lost her voice that at the premiere of this revival she was obliged to share her role with Louise Walsh, who sang from music and from the same spot on the opposite wing as had been occupied by Wendy Ebsworth the previous night.

What made this event worth noting was that these two sopranos did so well together, achieving such perfect synchrony between two mouths, one singing, the other miming, that the vagaries of acoustic reflections often made it seem that the sound was coming from the principal on stage, so dominant is seeing over hearing! What was in prospect a likely disaster was soon easily taken for granted, and I look forward to hearing Louise Walsh in her own right soon.

Whether you saw or missed Jude Kelly's The Elixir of Love, try not to deprive yourself of the supreme pleasure of the Lyon Opera DVD of L'elisir d'amore [Decca 074 103-9], with Angela Gheorghiu & Roberto Alagna. Frank Dunlop's stage production, updated to the 1920s, returns the comedy to Italian village life and works well with Brian Large's direction for video and the DVD gives you choice of subtitle language. It is as happy a presentation of this different slant on the Tristan & Isolde story as you could ever wish to see. The starring couple, currently darlings of the opera world, had only been married a few months before it was filmed, and that shows in their rapport and almost subliminal gestures of affection. Gheorgiu instils real joy into her roulades and Alagna, a skilful actor, points up the fun with subtlety throughout. Roberto Scaltriti swaggers outrageously as the over-confident suitor Belcore and Simone Alaimo makes a great deal of the itinerant alternative physician, dispensing cheap wine and preying on the gullibility of uneducated rural villagers. Derek Bailey's supplementary film Love Potion is uncommonly illuminating, especially for the insight it brings into the differences between filming and audio recording. It is an entertaining documentary and informative on many aspects of the processes of creating this great production, with thoughtful opinions from all concerned.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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