#ENOBollocks

With the exception of one, I love all of the UK’s arts organisations. I fiercely defend them in the face of the criticism levelled at most of them, yawn with derision at the people who pedal that criticism and pride myself on being able to sniff out a bit of an agenda, unwitting or otherwise.

ENO’s strife around its ‘rules’ on taking in water from home reared its ugly head once again this past weekend. According to some reports from ‘punters‘, ENO front of house staff were overseeing the throwing away of water before audience members set foot in the Coliseum. 

Cue the (revisited) furore. Next, cue the righteous indignation. Middle class self-loathing narrative might as well head to the stage too – you’ll be on next.

What surprises me (and convinces me that this is all complete bollocks) is the tweet from a friend, fellow-writer and highly-trusted documenter of fact Fran Wilson, who attended ENO Salome opening night. Thus.

A few thoughts arise as a result of Fran’s clarifying tweet: 

  1. There’s a lot of shoddy reporting of what strikes me as a non-story. 
  2. Venues seek to exploit opportunities to generate revenue through the sale of food and drink. £9 for a glass of bubbly is the price you pay for drinking out – its the same in the sodding theatre. It’s £7.50 in the Royal Albert Hall for a large glass of red. If you’re a member of Southbank Centre’s Members Bar you’re can get two glasses of red for £8.30 between 5 and 7. Everybody quit pissing and moaning about the price of drink in an entertainment venue FFS. 
  3. This non-story is more evidence of the anti-ENO agenda flying around at the moment (the anti-ROH isn’t far behind – brace, brace).
  4. The ENO Chief Exec needs to resist the temptation to rebut stories using social media. 
  5. The ENO PR team need to up their game and manage the story better. Because at the moment you’re unwittingly complicit in sullying the image of the performing arts world by not responding robustly. Or ..
  6. The ENO Chief Exec may need to give the PR team a little more scope to manage the story in a positive way. Someone’s responsible for the inaction. I just haven’t put my finger on exactly who yet. 

If you want people to buy the drinks in-house, lower the price. If you are stopping people from taking in water then don’t. It’s a dumb strategy. It’s only putting extra pressure on your PR department. Handle the story better. You’re torpedoing yourself.  And if you’re writing about the story then seek balance instead of fuel for your class agenda. 

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.  

Stuart Skelton teams up with Rattle and Gardner to debut Tristan

Australian heldentenor Stuart Skelton has a busy diary for the next twelve months including collaborations with the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle, and Edward Gardner at English National Opera. 

Skelton’s big billing for the 2015/16 season – building on an already impressive biography – is debuting the title role of in Tristan und Isolde with Sarah Connolly in four performances at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Vienna Philharmonic Choir conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. The same production will open The Metropolitan Opera’s 2016/17 season in September 2016.

Skelton will also star in a new production of Tristan und Isolde at English National Opera and the London Coliseum conducted by Edward Gardner, directed by Daniel Kramer with design by leading British sculptor Anish Kapoor for eight performances from 9 June 2016.

So that’s what all the fuss is about

A video has been doing the rounds of the opening of the semi-staged performance of Sweeney Todd featuring Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson. If you’ve not seen it – and even if you’re someone who expects Sondheim to be more ‘hummable’ – its definitely worth a look.

Terfel and Thompson are coming to ENO next year for a short run of the show at the London Coliseum. I’d previously decided on giving their stint a wide-ish berth when I discovered how high the ticket prices were. Sure there were some cheaper tickets at £10 and £25, but they were in the upper circle. Decent views saw tickets priced at £67 and up. I’m happy to fork-out for a fully-staged performance, but not semi-staged. I want more for my money. This view isn’t reflected in actual sales. Near capacity audiences now, even in those £155 seats.

The Lincoln Centre video hints at what all the fuss is about. It’s a playful unexpected opening for sure, but sure it will struggle to come anywhere near close as Chichester’s stunning production of Sweeney Todd with Michael Ball and Immelda Staunton.

Doctor Atomic ENO Adams Woolcock

Doctor Atomic @ ENO, originally uploaded by Thoroughly Good.

English National Opera scheduled a history lesson this evening with a performance of John Adam’s Doctor Atomic, one which struggled to rise to the dramatic challenges posed by a plot of which the audience knew the denouement long before the houselights dimmed.

The UK premiere of the opera set in the run up to the testing of the first atomic bomb promised all the weight of Adam’s operatic success Nixon in China. An audience waited to be stunned.

But whilst the first scene delivered a grotesquely unnerving realism combining Adams’ skilfully gargantuan soundscape and the documentary evidence peppered throughout the libretto, the plot quickly gave way to seemingly vast expanses of weak character development on which the success of the work ultimately depended.

Director Penny Woolcock had already conceded in an discussion on Radio 4’s Start The Week this week that protagonist Oppenheimer’s wife had been subject to a certain amount of dramatic licence in the libretto compared to other characters in the work. What grated more however was Oppenheimer’s seemingly rapid move from total absorption in his work to near ecstatic intoxication by the smell of his wife’s hair (we were told it smelt of tobacco, opium and sugar) in the space of ten minutes.

When General Groves demanded a confirmed weather forecast on pain of death in the next scene followed by a detailed account of his daily calorific intake and its impact on his waistline, the reality of a balcony seat began to kick in for some of us. Was it really meant to be making light of the whole affair when the first scene had set some of us on a different path?

Surprisingly, casual disinterest at the beginning of the second half didn’t make the prospect of a further hour and ten minutes totally unbearable, possibly because most looked forward to the visual representation of what the detonation. The sight of the bomb and those busying themselves around it earlier on in the performance may have contributed to a feeling that the entire Manhattan Project had risked being a slightly Heath Robinson affair, but come the blast simplicity saved the day.

The audience rightly applauded faultless soloists and chorus and an orchestra at ease with Adams’ orchestration before running home to read over their programme and look for the next first night to attend.