Magazine article The Spectator

Hard Act to Follow

Magazine article The Spectator

Hard Act to Follow

Article excerpt

ENO's opening performance of their new production of Mary Stuart began 46 hours after the Royal Opera's Gotterdimmerung ended, something that I find more of a stumbling block than many enviable critics whose rate of Ring-recovery, even from a performance they find shattering, is much faster than mine.

There is a serious question, I think, of the rate at which one is expected to discard the impression made by one work of art, especially if it is of transcendent stature, in order to make way for another, of whatever stature. If the second work is also very great, it is likely to seem to be attempting to displace the first, and a kind of unsavoury conflict between the two arises. If it is of inferior quality, it is apt to seem merely irrelevant - or should do, 'placed' as it is by the grandeur of the first. The only alternative is to be so critically experienced, or blase, that the first is shrugged off, just another item to be reviewed. It is when I get to that stage that I hope to give up writing about opera. Indeed, it seems to me that anyone who is able to recover from the Ring, even in a moderate performance, in order to make way for Donizetti the next day but one, is not in a proper position to judge the merits of what he saw and heard.

I don't know how seriously I could respond to Mary Stuart under other circumstances, though my memories of the previous ENO production in 1982 are of a rather more impressive work than the one I saw last week. I'm not sure about the relative virtues of the editions used, though the new version does seem to be in a hurry to be over. There are certainly cuts to repeats of arias, and curtailed duets. I suppose that Donizetti is regarded in the same light that Handel was a couple of generations ago, as having some sound dramatic instincts but being in thrall to the conventions of his time, so needing assistance in the form of mutilation. What do you do with a feeble aria, granted that you can't eliminate it? present it in its full dreariness or only make a gesture in its direction? My inclination would be to do the former, but the ENO team took the latter course.

The fundamental trouble is that Mary Stuart is not, except for the final two scenes, Donizetti at anywhere near his best. The opening scene at Elizabeth's court is perfunctory, though the high jinks of the production, with an acrobat and strangely clad dancers, made it fun. …

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