It’s an unequal battle, given their relative levels of finance, but ENO and the ROH can never escape comparison. There have been times when ENO has been left for dead in the gutter, and times when its feisty performance has outclassed its richer rival. Here they are at it again, simultaneously kicking off their new autumn seasons.
When the Royal Opera House unveiled Nicholas Hytner’s new production of Verdi’s ‘Don Carlo’ last year, my duty was to review it at speed - a mere hour between curtain-down and delivery for the Independent’s late edition. I found it brilliantly sung, stylishly designed, and politically topical - a rave. So how come I’m underwhelmed by its revival? Some of the new singers may not cut it as the first lot did, but my volte face indicates the limitations inherent in reviewing in the fizz of the moment. ‘Overnight’ reviews are macho, second thoughts are the ones which deserve publishing.
This time round, the sets gave a strong whiff of Shaftesbury Avenue - or rather, with the twee silver forest in the opening scene, and with the principals kicking their errant ‘path’ back into place as they sang, of a Christmas window at Harvey Nichols. Apart from in the memorial chapel scenes, the lighting and colours were hard and flat, pastiche Hockney. The massive crowd scenes were contrived with supreme efficiency, but there was no sense of any underlying emotion. The auto da fe, with its burnings at the stake, was no more threatening than the mob scenes in ‘Les Miserables’. And what idiot techie decreed that the amplified bells which blasted the auditorium should drown the orchestra, even when it was playing full strength?
Moreover, when the audience was swept by a gale of unwanted mirth as Princess Eboli (Marianne Cornetti) unveiled herself to a supposedly appalled Don Carlo (Jonas Kaufmann), who had been under the impression she was somebody else, it was clear the chemistry wasn’t working. Cornetti must take the blame for that: mezzo Sonia Ganassi, the original occupant of this tempestuous role, had in this scene chilled us to the marrow. Meanwhile Kaufmann - currently the best lyric tenor around - sang gorgeously, but at no point did he convey, as Rolando Villazon did, the requisite impression of a young man going to pieces before our eyes.
Carlo’s derangement has a Hamlet-like cause in that Elisabetta, the young woman he loves, is being forced to marry his father. As before, the young Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya played Elisabetta, and as before I was unmoved: she looks and sounds wonderful, but vulnerability is beyond her. This Elisabetta is emotionally ironclad, even when supposedly singing her heart out to the king who is her unwitting oppressor. But with the great Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto (left) once again in that role, King Philip saved the day - a hugely commanding presence, conveying as much by his stillness as by his gloriously resonant voice. Presented as a bookish prince of darkness surrounded by the coffins of his ancestors, he is one of Verdi’s most convincingly complex characters, more than half in love with death, but simultaneously locked in his own hopeless battle with his deceased father the Emperor Charles V. As Furlanetto sings it, underscored by its lovely cello solo, the tortured but exquisite soliloquy in which he faces up to his political and sexual impotence becomes the majestic performance Verdi’s great work deserves. Only when this singer commanded the stage - or shared it with that that other big bass, John Tomlinson - did the drama feel remotely believable, but he alone is worth the price of a ticket.
Meanwhile, with Gyorgy Ligeti’s absurdist fantasy ‘Le grand macabre’, the Coliseum is hosting the most extraordinary show ever to have graced its stage. Ligeti preferred instruments to the human voice, and this is less an opera than a freaky piece of music theatre, so it made sense to let the world’s freakiest street-theatre group loose on it - La fura dels Baus from Barcelona. In the mad kingdom of Breughel-land, ‘in some century or other’, the inhabitants are persuaded to abandon their fear of death and live for the moment: eat, drink, be merry - and get your end away. The concept which directors Alex Olle and Valentina Carrasco have come up with is blindingly effective: the whole stage is filled with a gigantic female nude - grander than anything dreamed up by Anish Kapoor - out of whose orifices people emerge, and in whose recesses all kinds of mayhem take place. This is both a disintegrating body, and - as fascist elements proliferate - a satirically-viewed body politic.
The ‘drama’ is slapstick stuff, and the humour lavatorial in a quintessentially Seventies way (it premiered in 1978): avant-gardism never stays avant-garde for long. All the performances are over the top, which means that the usually compelling Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke is just one of nine people desperately acting their heads off. There is some lovely singing from counter-tenor Andrew Watts as Prince Go-Go, and from sopranos Frances Bourne and Rebecca Bottone (in flayed-flesh body-stockings) as the busily-humping lovers Amando and Amanda (their original names, Clitoris and Spermando having been supplanted to placate German audiences); there are some ravishing solos from soprano Susanna Andersson doubling up as Venus and the chief of police.
But the real event is the set, which is so mesmerising we never take our eyes off it. This troubled giantess with disturbingly lifelike breasts doesn’t just rotate and gently disintegrate: she morphs into a 3-D skeleton, while her face transforms itself time and again with the speed of a Chinese conjuror. Meanwhile onto her vast body are projected figures from animated Breughel paintings, from Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’, or from a mystic Aboriginal ritual; sometimes these projected shapes crystallise into the cast themselves. It’s beautiful, terrible, and thought-provoking.
And that’s the point. The libretto may be by a Belgian, but the whole thing is shot through with the hard-edged Central European surrealism of Kafka and Karel Kapek. And this takes us back to the mind of its creator, who saw most of his family wiped out in Auschwitz, and then had to flee Budapest when the Soviet tanks rolled in in 1956; one of his more unnerving childhood experiences was of turning up to sit an exam in Romanian, only to discover that the political map had changed overnight, and he had to take it in Hungarian. For him, a mad world was normality.
But the residue left in the mind, as one walks out into the street, is not just visual: it’s also the wondrous patternings on muted strings, and the final nonet, which rings in the ears with an ineffable bucolic sweetness, echoing the ends of ‘Dion Giovanni’, ‘Falstaff’, and Stravinsky’s ‘Rake’s Progress’. Ligeti’s score works its own powerful spell. There are only six more performances, with the last on October 9: don’t miss it.
Following up this advantage, ENO have put on yet another revival of Jonathan Miller’s Mafia ‘Rigoletto’, premiered in 1982. This production feels as fresh as it did then: the violent world which Miller constructs in the opening scene, and the Hopper-esque café by the waterfront in the finale, have an immediacy which hits you in the gut. This time round it’s Michael Fabiano’s beautifully-sung Duke, Brindley Sherratt’s sepulchral Sparafucile, and Anthony Michaels-Moore’s compelling performance in the title role which carry the day.
There are times when ENO seems to forget the strengths to which it must play: dusting off forgotten gems, and presenting them with a resident troupe whom the audience know and love. This week we got the gem, but not the troupe - and why was the Verdi given to a conductor untried in London? Stephen Lord may be, as the programme unconvincingly shouts, ‘one of the 25 most powerful names in US opera’, but there are plenty of Brits who could have done it better. British jobs for British workers? For once those weasel words fit.