Review: ENO’s Chess at London Coliseum

I’m biased. I’m a big Chess fan. It’s an important part of my 20+ year relationship with my partner, the rock/pop concept album one of the first creations my other half introduced me to soon after we met. I’d only known it for I Know Him So Well and One Night In Bangkok.

What hooked me in was the thick orchestration, the perfectly crafted melodies, and soaring power ballads. I heard the music first – I never saw a staged production (until today) – so my appreciation of the work was based on what I heard, not what I saw.

That’s important because I know there are plenty of detractors Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’s music. It seems incredible to me that anyone would dismiss their joyful love of melody, mastery of melancholy, or their close attention to production detail. That some of those detractors are professional critics seemingly unable to look beyond their niche is both galling and unsurprising. In some cases, contextualising the thirty-year-old work’s musical credentials in the present day misses the point. 

ENO’s collaboration with external producers – isn’t necessarily going to win any awards. The set design – a strip-lit outline of a broken-up chess board – looks best when no-one’s on stage. Sometimes the lighting feels a little ill-governed. When the set isn’t moving noisily, it’s moving clunkily. The quiet parts of the score are, despite amplification, accompanied by the distant roar of the otherwise much-appreciated air-conditioning. In this way, there’s a sense that this is a theatre production designed for a blu-ray – something that may well look better in a cropped shot with discreet channels devoid of ambience.

If the character’s stories seem a little a little two-dimensional this is more than up for by Benny and Bjorn’s rock-opera score, the first half has more heft than the second, with some cracking ensemble numbers – the welcome to Merano, after a slightly imbalanced and poorly annunciated opening number, is an especially charming affair.

Where this production undoubtedly shines is the cast. Cassidy Janson plays Florence Vassy with all the power Idina Menzel deployed in the Royal Albert Hall semi-staged production, just with a much warmer voice, and a closer attention to detail. Tim Howar playing American chess champion Freddie Trumper flattens what is an incredibly demanding role at the top end of the tenor range, with effortless poise of the kind I’ve not heard before. Michael Ball croons, flirting with the audience with vocal leaps that break the heart. Top marks to Cedric Neal for a blistering playing of The Arbiter. Similarly Alexandra Burke as Svetlana Sergievsky who needs to play a role with considerably more material – she is a remarkable all-round performer.

It’s taken a long time for Benny and Bjorn’s allegorical tale to make a return as a full-blown production and it is very much appreciated. The timing is good. Characters Freddie and Anatoly might be from a retro age of US vs. Soviets, but the same global preoccupations remain making some moments in the telling of the story a chilling, if not slightly aging experience.  

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