Opera Reviews by Polly Hope

Benjamin Bitten at the English National Opera.

Yes, production openingexactly for midsummer, the most exquisite score imaginable. Britten's orchestration evokes fairyland from the first whisper and Leo Hussian, conductor, keeps the magic, suspending our belief, for the entire three hours. I thought this was all going to be a disaster and I'd run for my life in the interval as the production is set in the playground of a boy's school, no forest, no fluttering fairy wings no ass's head on Bottom how could this ever work?

But I didn't run, it all works magnificently. The fairies are forty small lads in short trousers, blazers, white shirts and striped ties standing in a row across the stage their childish trebles perfectly evoking the atmosphere of ancient Athens. Oberon is the head teacher and Tytania music and maths professor. The mechanicals are the school maintenance team, the young lovers sixth formers, and so on. A contained school situation all set in the 1950s. It worked so well; suddenly the theme became part of a life we might all have led. I am not sure if someone who didn't know the story might have been confused, but Shakespeare's text is such a winnerand still so incredibly modern, having to cut it massively for opera is terrific as WS does overwhelm us with words. It was perfect.

All the protagonists, as well as design and lighting were excellent, I could list all names but it would be a long list, a school roll call?
If this production shows up near you don't miss it.

Also at ENO, SIMON BOCCANEGRA by Verdi. For me one of his best, intrigue and power at it's rawest. Here set by a Russian director in a corporativeheadquarters. Everything grey, all the singers in suits, [there is only one woman,] so you couldn't tell them apart. Perhaps in Russia the production might have been considered clever and new but today in London it is a big yawn, such stuff dates from 1990s, we've moved on since then. The singing wasbad as well. Let's go on to the much-vaunted new opera, commissioned by English National Opera and the Met in New York.

TWO BOYS. Nico Mulhy music. Craig Lucas, text.

This work has been hyped continuously for the last couple of months, television, magazines and radio interviews. Always pushing the idea of getting Youth into the opera house. Good intention, but it does backfire if overloaded to this extent. Muhly has written some wild and exceedingly interesting pop music recently so the thought of a real opera with good pop music was exciting.

Except alas Muhly has decided to be serious, and attempted pretentious classical music of utter dreariness. Can't say it is sub anyone, as it doesn't even rise to this level.Muhly has an almost Wagner sized orchestra to play with: it is completely unused. Pity, a pop music opera would be great.

Muhlyand Lucas have cooked up a TV police story. TWO BOYS is like setting Prime Suspect to music. Except Prime Suspect, a whodunit, moves along fast and furious, try and sing such a text and goodness it is boring waiting for anything to happen. No, boys, no, this is all no good.

However one thing is brilliant and that's the use of projections and video by 59 Productions. Congratulations. This is all wonderful. The stage is simple, just some large rectangular biggrey gauze covered boxes that slide around the stage. Yes, sounds awful but these simple tools become a church and a house and a street and a snowstorm., people can be seen inside them occasionally then the boxesmetamorphise into solid buildings For the first time ever I think I am totally convinced by this style of opera set. Little wonder that the three partners at 59 Productions are booked up for the next five years. Almost worth going to see TWO BOYS just for this, there are plenty of empty seats and they'll probably let you have them half price to get an audience in the vast Coliseum. What is crazy is that the Met in New York is sharing this productions. Crazy.

ROAD SHOW. Stephen Sondheim. The Chocolate FactoryTheatre.

After decades the argument is still out there, does Sondheim writes musicalsor operas. Ridiculous, he writes Sondheim and is the greatest contemporary opera writer in the world. No argument.

This is a splendid production of ROAD SHOW, a piece that has had a troubled past but has come up smiling. Played in a small space with the audience on either side. A few bits of furniture either end of the playing space and an iron bedstead that trundles around and can be slept on, stood on, and spun about. I could write a lot about the brilliance of all this but why, just go and enjoy the fact you can hear and understand every word. John Doyle directs, and the cast of thirteen is perfect. A heartbreaking, and true story of two brothers who fight each other all their lives but cannot function apart. This is what new opera is about and should be like. Packed theatre, there always is forSondheim. Just go and see it if it comes near you.

CENDRILLON. Jules Massenet. Royal Opera House. London.

All lovely. Glorious singing of mind-blowing perfection, fabulous costumes, magnificent orchestra, a fairy story of utter delight. You could even take the kiddies, they'd love it. This production originated in Santa Fe a few years ago but for us here in Europe it s fresh and new. Fun. Every minute of it, high art as well, if this is what you are after.

Then last but very far from least:

MEISTERSINGER. Richard Wagner.
Glyndebourne Opera House. Sussex.

Wow, mind boggling fine. A whopper of a production, stupendous! A hundred players in the pit and about two hundred on stage, and the stage is small... Set in the time that Wagner wrote it. No grey business suits, no tower blocks, just all exquisite and inventive. Brave of Glyndebourne mounting such a monumental work. And what a magnificent opera it is. Five hours plus of music and not a boring note. David McVicar has given us something of total joy and profundity. Okay the person with me found the theme of a greater Germany not very democratic, but hey, that's how they thought then, rewriting history is a bit of an obsession these days. You can't bend present concerns to fit a century and a half ago however hard you try.

The chorus not only sings well but also truly gives a feeling of a proper small town full of real people. Why, they can all even act!So please just wallow in the greatness of Wagner who was able to conceive and write such a work. The soloists excelled and Jurowski the resident music chief realises the heartbreaking score wondrously. Go go go. If you can get a ticket, not at all easy.

The only down side the evening we went was bitter cold lashed by wind and rain so impossible to spend the dinner interval picnicking in the blissful gardens or by the side of the lake viewing the sheep covered Sussex downs rolling away in the distance

These are only a taste of this summer's offerings. There are many more and how wonderful it is that opera is burgeoning everywhere. We may all be broke, and opera houses are seriously feeling the pinch, but still we are given these delights, albeit it at quite a price. Worth saving for, promise you.

Polly Hope. London