The vast majority of reviews of this production have been poor. But there is little sense from most critics that this is more than an individual flop for the company. To my mind it is symptomatic of the company's ongoing problems of artistic direction. This review will therefore deal both with this particular production, and those wider issues.
I could write a long review about the surface idiocies of this production: the slug, sorry egg, balancers, the de-tonguing of the giraffe, the inexplicable appearance of the garden hose. But this would distract from the central, fatal flaw, which on this showing ought to disqualify Michael Keegan-Doran from any further ventures outside of straight choreography. Keegan-Doran fundamentally appears either incapable of, or to have had no desire to, actually dirct his principal cast. Line after line is rendered ludicrous by their being no attempt to direct the performers in a way to render their interactions dramatically convincing. The direction affords none of the performers any depth – here and there some emotional connection is occasionally salvaged, by dint one suspects of the performers innate musicianship (and in one case real dramatic presence). But it is insufficient to salvage the evening.
The one area where Keegan-Doran's impact is all too evident is the choreography. Choreography married to Handel can make for an exceptional performance – see the current Glyndebourne production of this opera. But not here. Keegan-Doran's dance ensemble basically seem to be in a completely different show from the singers. They add nothing, except irritating distraction, to the evening. It is never clear who these people are, why they are there, or why, given that they are there, they are dancing – there is no dramatic or emotional benefit from their presence at all, and one is driven to the conclusion that Keegan-Doran, being an inexperienced and unconfident director retreated to the world he knows best (compare with Mike Figgis's attempt to direct an opera in the 2010-11 ENO season).
Then there's the set, courtesy of Andrew Lieberman. Is there some cult at present to create sets which are mind-numbing to look at for the duration of a long work? Apart from Act Two when for much of the time it is blessedly covered by a curtain, one's main view is of an enormous circular chipboard wall. We could be anywhere, at any time. The set, like the direction, does nothing for emotional engagement or dramatic coherence.
The one area where there is something salvageable from this mess is the music. Christian Curnyn gives the best account of a score I have yet heard from him, and the ENO Orchestra respond well – but this is not an evening even musically to compare with recent great Handel I have heard – Glyndebourne's Rinaldo and ETO's Flavio were musically stronger, and it is a long way from the sheer magic of the Les Talons Lyriques Barbican Ariodante. My fundamental issue with Curnyn and quite a number of his singers here is that I still don't think they fully grasp the character of the da capo aria – that at its best it goes on a journey, and there must be contrast between the A and B sections. Now it is only fair to say that the music is desperately hampered here by the production, and there are some moments when the magic does happen, but they aren't consistent enough to transcend the evening's other flaws.
Of the singers to my ear the finest performance was that of Daniela Mack as Sesto. She consistently took me on a journey in her arias, and she has the one moment of really convincing direction in the piece – when she stares in troubled horror at the gun having shot her father's murderer (I should love to know if Keegan-Doran was actually responsible for this as it was against the run of form virtually everywhere else). Her voice seemed the best suited both to the part and the Coliseum acoustic, and her diction was very good. Lawrence Zazzo gives a strong account of Julius Caesar but he didn't manage to transcend the production as Mack did and I didn't think his arias were as consistently strong. The same applies to Patricia Bardon. I expected to dislike Anna Christy's Cleopatra, whom I have not rated on other occasions. I do tend to agree with other critics who have found her voice too light for the role, but she increased in presence as the evening went on, and actually to my mind was the singer after Mack who did best in rising above the production. The other soloists sang creditably if not outstandingly.
John Berry has now been Artistic Director at English National Opera since 2005. Any person in such a position should be forgiven some flops – you cannot hope to win them all. But surely there comes a point where forgiveness must give way to serious questions about judgement. Leaving aside the sheer volume of awful productions and the dubious repertory choices (it speaks volumes that new productions of Britten's Paul Bunyan and Tippett's King Priam will come from English Touring Opera), what really bothers me is this – that there seems to be a resolute refusal to change course, or acknowledge mistakes. Thus there is a persistence in hiring inexperienced opera directors who largely fail to make good, and in hiring back for return visits those who have made a mess of things first time round. Perhaps I'm alone in thinking all this, in which case the ship may sail on serenely and dismiss me as a cumudgeonly critic unable to get down with the new order. If I am not alone perhaps we can begin to have a really serious conversation about the state and direction of this opera company.