English National Opera

By David, Brian | Opera Canada, Winter 2018 | Go to article overview

English National Opera


David, Brian, Opera Canada


To present Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream this March, English National Opera unexpectedly revived Robert Carsen's 1990s production. Happily, this was enough to make Christopher Alden's 2011 effort for ENO, set in an abusively run school, seem like no more than a bad Dream, in all senses. Carsen's version begins on a giant bed (sets and costumes by Michael Levine), with white sheets and a green coverlet. As the plot unfolds, white comes to represent the aristocratic and ordered world of the mortals, while green is associated with organic, unruly nature and the realm of magic. The mortals' white clothing becomes increasingly soiled with green as the enchantment takes effect.

Although there are no trees or flowers to be seen in an opera full of references to woodland and plant life, accentuating the theme of dreaming helps banish such literal thoughts. And indeed, beds are ever-present. Beds have functions other than providing sleep, of course, and sensuality is another aspect of the play that Carsen emphasises, with lovers tenderly entangling at every opportunity.

This run was cast with evident care by ENO. Perhaps there were no particularly notable vocal performances, but standing-out would have compromised the well-balanced ensembles of the mortal lovers, the rude mechanicals, and the two noble couples, one human, one fairy. The link with the audience is Puck, played by Miltos Yerolemou, who has made a speciality of playing the role in Carsen's production. The character is made a mature ne'er-do-well rather than an elfin youth, and Yerolemou was a splendidly engaging clown.

Christopher Ainslie was a withdrawn and unsettling Oberon, a convincing interpretation even if his countertenor is sinewier than the ethereal voice Britten had in mind when creating the part for Alfred Deller. Soraya Mafi looked gorgeous as Tytania and relished the parodies of Italian opera that the composer slips in. Led by Joshua Blooms rugged and well-judged Bottom, the mechanicals were a fine team, with established stars such as Graeme Danby (Quince) and Jonathan Lemalu (Snug) blending in with lesser-known colleagues.

Clare Presland's steady and intense Hermia played well against David Webbs attractively clean tenor as Lysander. As Helena, Eleanor Dennis began with a nice frothy quality but found plenty of appropriate edge in her voice when anger was called for. Matthew Durkan proved a strong, firm Demetrius. Theseus and Hippolyta were well sung by Andri Bjorn Robertsson and Emma Carrington, even if they did not exactly exude authority. The chorus of fairies was provided, with spirit and sensitivity, by the Trinity Boys Choir.

Although there were some notably ripe and elegant contributions from the clarinets, the ENO Orchestra did not seem particularly inspired by conductor Alexander Soddy. Phrasing was shallow and tone lacklustre. Otherwise, though, a satisfying evening.

It took 90 years for Janaceks last opera, From the House of the Dead, to reach the stage of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The wait was worth it--partly because it has taken several editors to reinstate Janaceks intentions after early improvements' by others. …

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