In praise of Edward Gardner

3 Oct

It’s very easy when writing about opera to leave the conductor to the last when writing about a performance and, the temptation is particularly great when writing about the ENO’s production of Martinů’s Julietta, which I saw on 2nd October.  Here was a rarely performed opera in a visually stunning production with a cast that didn’t put a foot wrong.  Easy to leave the conductor and the orchestra until the end.

But that isn’t fair to the wonderful job that Gardner was doing in the pit and the outstanding playing that he got out of the orchestra.  I remember, in particular, the opening of Act II and, indeed, much of that act, where the orchestral colours conveyed the atmosphere, what was going on with the characters with wonderful translucence.  The playing was precise but it also had a delicacy and sheen to it that caught precisely the dreamlike quality of this opera.  It’s an opera where the words are crucial and Gardner allowed you to hear every word.  More than that; as with all great conductors, he made the music part of the drama – you could not separate the two. He made me feel that this was music that I wanted to listen to at home and that I really have to get the CD.  And I was reminded of how crucial he obviously is to the ENO’s current artistic health.  I can’t recall a single production where I felt that he had got the measure of a score and wasn’t leading orchestra and the whole forces of the company to give their utmost.  When he’s in the pit, youu feel the same excitement but also security that I recall from the days when Mark Elder was in charge here.  This was outstanding music making and we are incredibly fortunate to have him.

It’s nine years since I last saw Julietta in the revival of Opera North’s very good production.  I didn’t remember a lot about it – I suspect that’s not surprising in an elusive opera that is about as easy to get hold of as the dreams that are its subject.  It’s a beguiling piece though, with wit mixed with real tenderness and love; it catches a very human tendency to strive for what we can’t have and remember what we want to.  It’ll never be a popular piece (the theatre was about half full at the fifth performance of the run) but it makes for an interesting, rather touching evening and it deserves revival every ten years or so.

Richard Jones’s production was originally done for Paris but it looks really good here.  It has the advantage of a wonderful accordion-like set from Antony McDonald which also manages to create the space and magic of the forest scene in Act II.  The characters moved with the precision you expect from Jones – but he also caught the joy of  Julietta and Michel’s meeting and the sheer frustration of the scene in the office of dreams.  It might, one day, be interesting to see a production which related the opera a bit more closely to what was going on politically at the time of its composition – surely there’s a resonance there about a character retreating from reality to the world of dreams – but Jones’s production was hugely convincing and kept me absorbed.

Peter Hoare was in complete command as Michel as Michel, singing clearly and catching his innocence and wonder.  Julia Sporsén caught the elusiveness of Julietta and there was outstanding support from Andrew Shore, Susan Bickley, Gwynne Howell, Henry Waddington and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts.  Off-hand, it would be hard to imagine a better cast.

So this struck me as a pretty outstanding evening for ENO and it was a shame it was so poorly attended.  It  went a long way towards making me feel that this is an opera that I could actually get to love.  Better go and search for the CD.

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