Note: This is a review of the performance on Saturday 15th February 2020.
I don't go to ENO very regularly these days for a simple reason - I don't trust the management's commissioning policy when it comes to directors, and the prices are now so high below the uncomfortable Balcony (I can usually sit in a decent seat more cheaply at Covent Garden) that one resents having paid them if a key aspect of the show is weak as it has too often been ever since the John Berry era. However, I do still go if they stage a work I haven't previously seen, and that was the primary reason I attended this performance.
It's easy to see why this Verdi work is not often done. The plot creaks - particularly when the hero decides that he'll poison the beloved he thinks has betrayed him, rather than, oh I don't know, sit down and try and discuss the matter first - especially when the production at any rate has made it abundantly (arguably too abundantly) clear that the person whom she is supposed to have betrayed him with is one of the villains. A follower on Twitter afterwards also made the shrewd comment that the creakiness of the plot is more exposed when presented in English as opposed to Italian. The overall effect would I suspect make it difficult even in an excellent production to achieve really strong emotional engagement, but this production despite being very strong musically causes it to fall short of that a fair bit.
Musically, this show is certainly worth catching. Tenor David Junghoon Kim gives a blazing performance as Rodolfo - he finds a physical and vocal intensity which comes closest to transcending the production - his main Act Two number was rightly greeted with loud applause. From where I was sitting I found Elizabeth Llewellyn's Luisa slightly less consistent but the production does her few favours and she really compelled me in the Act 3 duet with Rudolfo, and alongside the men was mesmerising in the beautiful partly unaccompanied quartet. Christine Rice makes the most of Federica, and again manages to achieve presence despite the production. Soloman Howard's (Wurm) is a powerful, commanding voice linked to a swaggering physical performance and is plainly an opera singer to watch - I hope we shall see more of him in London soon. The Chorus are poorly directed and often ludicrously costumed, but sing well. In the pit Alexander Joel draws passionate committed playing from the ENO Orchestra, and finds that sense of momentum so crucial to Verdi which the staging sadly lacks.
And so to Barbara Harakova's production. The almost bare white playing space feels wearyingly familiar - in this case the walls are steadily graffitied and paint splattered as the show goes on - though it was never clear to me what the point of it was. There's far too much busyness - Harakova gives the impression of a director who doesn't think it a good idea that we should ever just be listening to the music for too long - the set must always start to move, or the characters make some unconvincing movement. The busyness starts, as often seems to be the case these days, in the Overture, when two children scrawl "amore" on the walls nearest the audience - presumably for fear we shan't otherwise understand the plot. Those children appear to be the younger versions of Rodolfo and Luisa - showing the younger versions of our leads seems to be fashionable (we got it, though in a much more restrained manner, in the recent ROH Forza del destino). Here we're stuck with them for the whole show, to no effective end as far as I was concerned. Harakova also adds four dancers half-clad in black, who act as set movers, paint the walls when the kids aren't at it, and generally prance about to little effect. James Rosental's choreography is undistinguished (with flashes of annoying Sellers like ensemble gesturing). The other tick that particularly caught my eye was a lot of bizarre activity with coats - taking them off, putting them back on, hitting the floor with them - I only hope this isn't going to become this year's operatic staging craze.
There are also some inexplicable moments. As far as I could judge from the text the whole point is that Luisa does not succumb to Wurm, but the production suggests otherwise. There's a particularly ludicrous sequence in Act 3 when Luisa's father resolutely refuses to observe the fact that his daughter is self-evidently preparing to kill herself. Why the chorus were dressed and made-up as rather odd clowns completely escaped me. And the business with the tailor's dummy as Christ on the cross, being de-arrowed by Luisa's father as Luisa asks him what's happened? I'd have loved for him to explain to her, and to us, but sadly Verdi didn't include such an explanation in his work.
This is worth hearing for the very strong musical performances, but as a production it's another in what has been far too long a list of dismal efforts stretching back to the John Berry era. It was perhaps not too surprising that, as at the Birtwistle earlier in the season, there were plenty of empty seats in the Upper Circle.