London Spring Productions 2011

ANNA NICOLE, the Royal Opera’s foray into the world of pop. A brave, and very expensive try. Huge publicity with the hope YOOF would pack the theatre. Despitetelevised snippets sprinkled through TV programmes and glossy mags with full-page pictures of Anna Nicole in her undies it was for me, and many others, a hopeless experiment, doomed from its conception. The Mark-Anthony Turnage music is grim, his usual squeaks and whistles, Anna Nicole was a pop singer after all and tunes were what she belted out, not squawks. The set was both expensive and pathetic without being as it should have been, very vulgar. The singing was passable. Just. I hope the Royal Opera has learnt to not try and join the world of pop music, I am sure they were trying to be popular, the PC howl of today, but they failed miserably

Next along came Rimsky Korsakov’s THE TSAR’S BRIDE. For me an unknown work. Wonderful set of today’s Moscow with swimming pool and background of lit up skyscrapers and cranes. The story is totally confused and the heroine goes mad and becomes a sub Lucia de Lammermoor. Musically not too enthralling, though Mark Elder did his best to spark up the orchestra. A not to be missed evening but a not to be gone to again a hurry, unless like myself you are a collector of unknown works. Problem with such works is that they are unknown fora perfectly good reason.

Then Massenet’s WERTHER. Again not one of your top ten popular works,but interesting to see, its the music that really isn’t very good, so Massenet’s fault, not the producing opera house. The story is dull, all aboutobsession, which frankly Rolando Villazon, the tenor, did not suffer from. This wonderful singer didn’t quite hack it as the romantic love-mad hero. Never mind, Pappano pulled the orchestra along in his usual brilliant manner. Charlotte is sung by Sophie Koch, a large lady who towers over Viilaozon but she squealed a lot. Romantic heroine... doubtful. Nice 18th century Danish looking sets all pale greypaneling. Again good to hear and see once, not sure it will top my list for an all time favourite.

All the above are playing at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. All are worth a visit if you happen to be in London. None worth crossing the herring pond for.

Then we have Gilbert and Sullivan’s IOLANTE. These chaps were geniuses, they were almost always on non-speaking terms but still managedto produce these delicious and so wittily worded operas. This production is running in Wilton’s music hall, the last remaining music hall left in London. Almost pulled down a decade ago but rescued in time by a band of enthusiasts. Fabulous building of the mid 19th century with arched roof, barley sugar iron columns and a large thrust stage. This production is so camp it ceases to be funny, after an hour and a half watching pretty young men pretending to be fairies, the real bottom of the garden sort of fairies we were fed up. Alsonot a single word of Gilbert’s hilarious lyrics were audible. Such a pity, the production must have cost a fortune.

It is very much worth visiting Wilton’s, a unique venue and although this wasn’t one of their best productions if it your only chance to see this great venue, then go.

Now last but far from least a truly magnificent production. Berlioz’s THE DAMNATION OF FAUST at English National Opera. Wow. Usually ENO productions run about 20% below good. Not this time. Terry Gilliam, he of Monty Python fame, directs. Well rather more than directs, he has taken this work, which started life as an oratorio, and turned it into a true spectacle. There are only four soloists plus a vast chorus and a gang of children. Gilliam has invented visual wonders to entertain, beguile and frighten us throughout the entire performance. Hildegard Bechtler’s design is fabulous veering from romantic landscapes of Casper Fredrick David to Nazi Olympics. Nazis play a big part and obviously Mephistopheles is one of them.

Usually Ican’t stand use of video in opera but here it is brilliant. It works with the music and the story and is really meaningful. Trains thunder, wild birds swoop; trees rush past, explosions happen. Faust is eventually crucified on a swastika. Perhaps a bit over the top but at the moment it happens in the opera it seems perfect.

It is rare that film people work well in opera, there have been some dire examples, but Gilliam, he of the Monty Python team whose stories were as nutty as this telling of the Faust legend, has created an opera where the music and the visual art meld into one perfectly. After all Richard Strauss said design was the most important part of operaas that’s what theaudience see first when the curtain goes up.

Breathtaking entertainment and the music is marvellous. Christopher Purves is a beguiling and believable devil. Peter Hoare wears a startlingred wig, an imbecilic Faust with heart. Christina Rice sings a woeful Marguerite. And wonders of wonders, you can hear every single word of the clever textdespite them having tosing over an eighty strong orchestra. It can done, it is my persona battle in the opera house that it must always be possible to follow the words; great poets have worked for months polishing their texts. Some librettos are world-class poetry. This production,as are all productions at ENO: is sung in English.

Do not miss this production, it is shared with Antwerp if you happen to be anywhere in Benelux this summer. A rarity, which ENO has given the big time to.

Polly Hope London