ENO’s new production of Verdi’s sprawling near-masterpiece opened with the original St Petersburg Prelude and the case for using that version over the more familiar orchestral display piece written for the 1869 Italian premiere at La Scala is eloquently argued by ENO’s music director, Mark Wigglesworth, in a programme note explaining some of the musical choices. Verdi’s earlier version, appropriately shrouded in Russian-type gloom, is unrelievedly dark and ends in utter despair with the murder of the heroine and the frantic suicide of the tenor anti-hero. I had a distinct impression, watching his production, that director Calixto Bieito would much rather have directed that version as he leeched every moment of light, hope or forgiveness out of the evening. This was Verdi re-imagined in a combination of Beckett “giving birth astride the grave” and the savage anti-Catholicism of Marx or Guevara.

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First the good news: the musical side is, on the whole, very fine and the singers cast from strength. Wigglesworth may be more at home in the Slavic and German repertoire than the core Italian works but he presided over a swift moving and beautifully played account of this difficult and uneven piece. The chorus sang to their usual excellent standard despite a couple of drifts in ensemble between pit and stage. If only the director had more thoughts on what to do with them. The ENO chorus is one of the marvels of the opera world and yet, time and time, again directors seem content to let them stand around like semi zombiefied clumps. Then on the occasions when they were required to indulge in some frantic activity it was often to the detriment of the music. Poor Carlo’s Pereda aria was wholly upstaged by a mass book destroying orgy. All the more bizarre in that Bieito reset the opera in the Spanish Civil War (for a change) yet this, at least for me, clearly referenced the Nazi book burnings.

As already noted the singers were mainly strong. That is not to say all of them were ideally cast. Verdi makes huge demands on all his principals (only slightly tempered in this version which excludes the insane act closer that he wrote for Tamberlik, the original Petersburg Alvaro). Tamara Wilson has a huge voice which easily rides over the orchestra and she was extremely exciting in the big moments. Elsewhere, especially when quiet sustained singing was required, the results were more mixed. She was subjected to frequent indignities by Bieito and gamely threw herself wholly into his vision of the part. However she should have drawn the line at some of the extremely unflattering costumes. Nevertheless, despite these reservations, this was an exciting UK debut and I hope to see her again.

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Gwyn Hughes-Jones has one of the best tenor voices around and he is a consistently reliable singer. Some of his phrasing was spectacularly beautiful especially the long sustained lines of “O tu che in seno agli angeli” which were wonderfully brought off. However one must set against that the fact that he made so little of the extraordinary preceding orchestral recitative, one of the greatest introductions to an aria that Verdi wrote and a gift to a tenor who can fill out the despairing emotions of the lines. Fortunately he caught fire in the final duet with Carlo as he resists the challenge to a final duel – there was a genuine sense of disgust finally bursting out into murderous rage here.

Anthony Michaels-Moore started in distinctly gruff voice and that, coupled with the fact that he looked the most unconvincing student since the cast of Grease, made for a weak start. Preziosilla didn’t need any Marple-like instincts to sniff out this fraud! But, over the evening, the voice opened out and he made much of “Urna fatale” and the following cabaletta. He also built the character into a truly frightening psychopath wholly without redeeming qualities. Compelling though this was, it is, for me, a very partial view of the character. Carlo is as much a victim of destiny as Alvaro and Leonora but Bieto’s reading of him as a shaven headed nutcase trying to beat the demons out of his head deprives the character of any nobility.

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Rinat Shaham, making a welcome return to London, sang Preziosilla with plenty of verve and vim. Unfortunately Bieto changed her from a lively, if immoral, gypsy girl into a full-on fascist thug. The climax of “Rataplan” was accompanied by her executing a long line of unfortunate young men. So, yet another potentially lighter scene was submerged in the stygian gloom of Bieito’s vision.

Bieito’s reading of the Catholic monks is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a long way from Verdi’s saintly Guardiano and comic Melitone. Guardiano is changed into an abusive sadist who, at the climax of the church scene, violently forces a barbed wire crown onto Leonora’s head. This act closely follows him throwing her, more than once, violently to the ground. Fortunately James Cresswell’s gorgeous voice fits the rolling bass lines like a glove. He doesn’t have the massive voice of a Ghiaurov or Pinza but there is plenty of cut and he is supremely musical. In a time where many basses have long outstayed their welcome it is a pleasure to hear a rock solid, beautiful voice. Andrew Shore, one of today’s great comic basses is asked to play Melitone as a vile bully and, to give him full credit, he does it brilliantly while singing with penetrative power and verbal relish. Incidentally, I wish there had been more to relish in Jeremy Sams’ surprisingly prosaic and often very inaccurate translation.

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I wish I could have enjoyed Bieito’s production more but there were far more problems for me than this very partial view of the work. Surprisingly, given his reputation for finely drilled productions, there were many occasions when I really doubted his basic stagecraft. A few examples will suffice. Firstly, at the climax of Carlo’s cabaletta one was painfully aware of the chorus trooping awkwardly onstage and taking positions on a raked section of scenery. At the end of the aria the scenery revolved which then necessitated a clumsy 180 degree turn for the entire chorus that fatally weakened the impact of the stage picture.

Secondly, the huge set sections often lowered or slewed into positions which, once achieved, were very striking. However the movement required in order to arrive at those positions was often creakingly executed. Since these movements often occurred between scenes it would have been perfectly feasible to carry out the moves in low light levels making the move less obvious and the reveal more effective.

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Worst of all, at the end of the last monastery scene the crew were left with a horribly awkward scene change in nearly full light to allow the entrance of the last scene truck. All of the above problems could and should have been addressed by the director during technical rehearsals.

The other infuriating aspect was the deliberate lack of close interaction between principals which sometimes gave the impression of a stand and deliver production from the 1950’s. Possibly Bieito was trying to convey the impression of each character marooned in their own world, pig-headedly ignoring all the other characters. Unfortunately it often just came over as static and uninvolved.

So, despite some strong performances and creditable vocal delivery, this was often an unfulfilling evening.

3 stars

Sebastian Petit

(Photos : Robert Workman from ENO website)

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