Saturday 16 February 2013

Charpentier's Medea at ENO, or, The Wait for a Hit Continues

English National Opera last had a hit by my reckoning exactly a year ago with John Adams's Death of Klinghoffer (there have been a couple of strong shows musically since, but nothing which ticked every box). Recent announcements of nearly £2.2million losses in the last financial year have demonstrated how badly they are in need of another one. On paper this was the best bet of this season's new productions for starting to reverse this situation. McVicar is one of the best opera directors currently working, who rarely succumbs to the kind of symbolic nonsense and ineffective management of personnel so beloved by so many. Sarah Connolly is one of the reigning mezzo-sopranos. Yet I did wonder even then about the wisdom of giving this work its British stage premiere, and I'm afraid I didn't feel the decision was justified.

As usual, let's start with the positives. There is some very good singing. Sarah Connolly gives a typically strong performance, though I didn't find her as commanding here as on other occasions. She is well supported by Roderick Williams's Orontes, Katherine Manley's Creusa and Brindley Sherratt's Creon. There is also one lovely McVicar directorial touch. In her few brief scenes, he turns Aoife O'Sullivan's Cleonis into a beautifully done timid, mousy lady-in-waiting (who quite frankly I would have taken out on the dance floor, providing she could put up with having her feet trodden on, in preference to either the dangerously barking Medea or the arrogant princess).

But, I'm afraid these positive elements are outweighed by the negatives. The big one from a performance point of view is Jeffrey Francis's Jason. Astute observers of the plot may notice that Jason is supposed to be irresistible to the leading women – Medea indeed is prepared to kill just about everybody else of any consequence in order to keep hold of him. Now it is true that Francis is not helped by costuming that appears designed to make him look as if he's old enough to be Orontes's father, but his acting doesn't help either – he just has no charisma. As a result I really couldn't see why anybody, and particularly any woman would waste their energies upon him. A ringing vocal performance would have helped too. Francis is passable in the role, but it isn't an exciting voice.

The second problem is McVicar's production. This is also passable, but like other aspects of the evening rather uninspired. He's updated this Greek tragedy to what looked to me like World War II. I can't really see why he bothered – it doesn't add anything. There are lots of opening and closing doors, and a surprising amount of busyness with moveable bits of furniture, map tables and gurneys all of which suggests that McVicar had an unusual lack of faith in the music to keep us occupied (and if that was the case I can't say that I blame him). There's also quite a bit of random wandering about by the principals and broadly speaking an absence of that physical tension which McVicar is often so adept at creating.

Then there's Lynne Page's choreography. Again she's done other work which enormously impressed me – most notably the Menier's superb La cage aux folles revival. As with McVicar, it isn't that the choreography is bad but it was one of those occasions where I felt a disjunction with the music, and where generally it wasn't reinforcing emotion or plot but just passing the time.

In the pit, once again, was Christian Curnyn with what I assume was a slimmed down ENO Orchestra augmented with some period specialists. I haven't been a particular fan of Curnyn up to now, and I'm afraid this evening didn't change my mind. The score may have contributed to the general lack of that crucial feeling of drama, but it seemed to me also as if Curnyn was either plodding or rushing. There were a few occasions when the speed from the pit seemed faster than soloists were comfortable with.

And finally there's the work itself. This is my second Charpentier opera. The first was David et Jonathas at the Edinburgh Festival last year with Les Arts Florissants and William Christie. As I said in my review I was, to my own surprise, rather moved by that performance. As a score this had lovely moments, and long quarters of an hour (perhaps I should have had a drink in one of the intervals). I came away feeling that, once again, ENO has spent resources on a work which is deservedly neglected.

Overall then, it was another uninspiring evening at the Coliseum which left me emotionally cold. The wait for a hit continues.


Anonymous said...

I thought that far from being unispiring, this was a wonderful evening. You have an opposite view. That's fine. But I do take issue with you declaring this not a hit. That certainly did not seem to be a view shared by the great majority of the audience, nor by the critics. The Independent critic declared it the 'most brilliant show to have graced the Coliseum in years' in his 5 star review and nearly all the other main paper and online reviews were 4 or 5 star. Stars are not everything but they might be a somewhat better indicator of a "hit" than the judgement of one independent blogger?

Finn Pollard said...

@Anonymous - the mainstream press have their view, I have mine. I quite concede I'm in a minority of critics in thinking that it isn't a hit. It seems to me "hit" can be defined two ways - a) is it a hit with critics individually - clearly the balance of opinion is against me on this, though that doesn't mean I should abandon my view (which was published before most of the mainstream press had published theirs). b) is it a hit with the public? - the number of still unsold tickets and the fact that Stalls seats are expected to be on sale at the TKTS booth at the usual massive discount tomorrow suggests that the extent to which that is the case remains debatable.

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