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Wigglesworth’s Winter’s Tale

28 Feb

I saw the first night of Ryan Wigglesworth’s first opera at ENO on 27th February.  Quite a lot of pressure for a composer and I wonder whether choosing The Winter’s Tale was the right option.

I really question why composers, English composers at any rate, choose to set Shakespeare’s plays as operas.  Unless you are very skilful, like Britten and, to an extent, Ades, it’s hard to make a convincing case that your opera can really co-exist as a viable alternative to the play.  It’s slightly different for foreigners – they can play about with the text and faster and looser with the scenario but, let’s face it, the only really successful operas based on Shakespeare even abroad are by Verdi.

So Ryan Wigglesworth was setting himself a significant challenge in choosing The Winter’s Tale for his first opera.  The scale of it really hit me in the final scene.  How do you set Paulina’s speech in a more memorable way than Judi Dench or Eileen Atkins can speak it?  In Wigglesworth’s case the answer was that you cut the bulk of it.  And also, unless I missed it, Leontes’s “She’s warm” at the end of it.

I don’t mind that.  I think if you’re writing an opera, you have to make it significantly different from the play and use the benefits that the operatic form can bring to telling a story.  The original text shouldn’t be sacred.  What worried me was Wigglesworth didn’t do it enough.  He’s filleted and adapted the text very well.  He sensibly cuts Autolycus and retains much of the flavour of the Bohemia act – indeed I think he improves it: a chorus helps no end at a village feast and I thought that his extended love duet for Florizel and Perdita was really lovely.  But the remainder is almost too faithful.

Let’s take an example in his third act.  Florizel and Perdita arrive, followed by his angry father and all meet in Leontes’s palace.  Doesn’t that cry out for a sextet?  Wigglesworth simply ends the scene.  Having begun the trial scene with a really interesting chorus calling for justice for Hermione (one of the most best parts of the opera), wouldn’t a really good ensemble finale help where you can actually bring in the people and allow conflicting emotions to be heard?  But no, it ends with a bit of a whimper, really.  I got irritated that Wigglesworth seems to be ignoring so much that is special about the form and limiting himself to a post Wagnerian view of opera when Britten has shown that you can do so much more with it.

There are some really good things.  The orchestral accompaniment is strong – I remember a lovely cor anglais solo when Hermione comes to the trial, and you feel a ticking of time going on.  He never drowns the singers and he creates atmosphere.  My main problem was that, for most of the first act, the vocal lines were little more than rather stilted recitative with nothing particularly grateful or interesting to listen to.

ENO did it proud.  Iain Paterson makes an ideally strong, tormented Leontes and I just wish that he had more interesting things to sing.  Sophie Bevan is a sympathetic Hermione and Susan Bickley, predictably, outstanding as Paulina.  Leigh Melrose did what he could with Polixenes and Timothy Robinson did a really beautiful job as Camillo.  Florizel has a much better chance in this opera than in the play and Anthony Gregory sang his music really beautifully.  Samantha Price was a sweet Perdita.  Not a weak link there.

Wigglesworth conducted.  The orchestra played magnificently for him and the chorus was on outstanding form.  Again, it was a committed, passionate performance of the piece.

Rory Kinnear was making his debut as an opera director.  He did a pretty good job in strong sets by Vicki Mortimer.  I wonder how much of the end – leaving Hermione, Leontes and Perdita together was his and how much Wigglesworth’s. Perhaps the continual moving of the sets was a bit fussy but overall it was a clear, strong reading of the piece.

Do I want to see it again?  If I’m honest, not really.  It doesn’t provide a viable alternative to the play, but there’s enough in here to make me want to see another opera by Wigglesworth.

Dark Don Giovanni

29 Oct

Has Don Giovanni had more new productions than any other in the UK in the last forty years?  It feels like it.  Counting Jonathan Miller’s, Richard Jones’s new production at ENO was the company’s fifth in 30 years and most of the other companies seem to reckon that one a decade isn’t quite enough.  It’s an opera that resists a “definitive” staging and I’m quite happy to see different interpretations.  Jones’s, which I saw on 24th October, is one of the best.

It’s typically questioning.  In the overture we see Giovanni in front of a series of doors.  Women come along, Leporello opens the door, the woman and Giovanni go in, then come out, then the next woman comes along.  It’s like a transaction, a conveyor belt. Anna arrives at the end. She produces a knife: she wants the sex to be violent, to be threatened by a masked man with a knife.  In the next room the Commendatore has a prostitute.   At the end, by a sleight of hand, Giovanni sends Leporello down with the Commendatore and begins his routine with women, with a new Leporello.

In between it’s more patchy.  Paul Steinberg’s set is excellent: walls of doors, revealing rooms, suggesting streets and opportunities to hide and surprise.  The look is of depressed, 20th Century Spain.  Jones’s direction of the characters is excellent.  More than anyone else he catches the tension between Masetto and Zerlina – they’re not reconciled after Batti batti and not completely after Vedrai carina.  Giovanni serenades Elvira’s maid over the phone and Anna sings Non mi dir over the phone to Ottavio  Christine Rice’s Elvira gets madder as the evening goes on, seizing a gun from Ottavio before Mi tradi.  You had a sense of lonely characters with only Giovanni and Leporello having any form of rapport.  On the down side he has no solution to the Act I finale – one of the messiest and least successful scenes I’ve seen Jones do and the sextet in Act II didn’t fare much better.

It helps that it’s sung in English – Amanda Holden’s translation has been adapted for this and is still very good.  There were no surtitles for the recits (and you didn’t need them) and you were able to follow the piece, like a play, enjoying the situations and the ideas.  After a heavy day, I was kept interested and involved throughout.

It helped to have Christopher Purves as Giovanni.  He’s one of the most charismatic singing actors on the stage today.   This Giovanni is cold, calculating, ruthless and determined.  There’s a mordant wit and cynicism.  He gets women by fascination and strength rather than charm.  But you don’t feel that he likes them very much.  There’s a relentless, driven quality about him.  His voice isn’t the most honied and he doesn’t have typical dashing good looks, but he’s one of the most believable that I’ve seen.  He got the aristocrat carelessness, absolutely certainty of what he wants and sheer bullying violence to perfection.  I’ve heard it more gratefully sung, but that wasn’t really the point.  His rapport with Clive Bayley’s sinister, red-wigged Leporello was as successful a double act as I’ve seen.

Christine Rice was an outstandingly fine Elvira – catching the sheer madness and intensity of the woman and singing outstandingly: a glorious Mi tradi and managing the difficulties of the role fearlessly.  She was matched by Caitlin Lynch’s Donna Anna, though after the interesting start, Mozart doesn’t really give Jones quite as much material as he needs to explore the character.  Ms Lynch’s singing was hugely assured.  Mary Bevan was a very good Zerlina.

Allan Clayton made a predictably fine Ottavio – concerned and ineffectual but doing his arias well.  Nicholas Crowley was a very good Masetto – nicely acted and sung and one of the best that I’ve seen.   James Creswell made a strong Commendatore.

Mark Wigglesworth conducted.  It sounded fine with generally sensible tempi and the textures interesting.  He accompanied the singers well and was clearly at one with the production.  The orchestra played very strongly indeed.

So this was an alert, highly intelligent, thoughtful, enjoyable production with really good music and among the strongest of the 19 productions of this opera that I’ve seen.

ENO’s first Norma

18 Feb

Given Norma‘s reputation for being a “difficult” opera, perhaps it’s not surprising that ENO seems to have waited so long to produce it. The performance that I saw on 17th February was the company’s first and, also, if I’m not mistaken, it’s first staged Bellini (they did the Capuleti in concert while the Coliseum was being refurbished).

In other ways, it’s quite surprising. If you look back at the people ENO have had on their books over the last 30 years – Hunter, Plowright, Eaglen to name the most obvious – they could have cast the title role from among their own regulars perfectly credibly. It’s a measure of how the company has changed that it needs to important two American singers to sing the leading female roles. Let me hasten to add that both were very good indeed, but is this really what our National company ought to be about? Increasingly, it’s looking like a very able talent-spotting venue for very promising young singers that haven’t yet got to the stage where they’ll be singing at the ROH.

Norma is one of my favourite operas. I respond immediately to Bellini’s intensely dramatic approach to dealing with conflict and his way of developing drama through a few, rather long, musical numbers. I love his ability to find a musical language to express the different emotions and the conflict.  The greatness of Norma is in Bellini’s ability, like Rossini’s, to let the musical numbers take the strain – the situations and the emotions change during the duets which become dialogues as intense as anything that Wagner wrote.   I love the simple intensity of the melodies and the certainty of the effects.  It’s a long piece and there are bits where I could feel the audience getting a bit restive but there’s not a note of it that I would cut.  I’m not sure that anyone wrote a more beautiful finale and moving finale to an opera until the Liebestod or, possibly, Walkure.

It was good to hear it in English.  My seat had no view of the surtitles but I found I understood more of the plot than I have in the past (even with surtitles) and the audeince felt gripped at the big dramatic moments, as when Norma announces that she is the traitress and the silence was palpable. George Hall’s new translation struck me as sensible and intelligible. Diction from the singers was variable: I think I probably heard about 65% of the words, but all of the really important ones.

It’s one of those operas that can only hope to succeed if the musical side works. This means an understanding conductor and a cast that can cope with the demands. ENO had them here. Stephen Lord’s conducting of the first act struck me as masterly. I loved his sense of rubato, his care in shaping the melodies, the dramatic point that he gave them. Like Muti when he conducted Capuleti in 1984, he left you in no doubt that you were hearing a masterpiece. I had a few more reservatons in Act II – there were times when he was just a bit slow, where the performance was coming perilously close to stopping? I’ve heard the last number have greater sweep. The orchestra played pretty marvellously for him; the chorus sang decently.

As Norma, we had Marjorie Owens. She’s got a big voice with a huge range and variety of colours. She reminded you why mezzos occasionally claim Norma for themselves. It’s a big voice, capable of managing the fury and passion, but can the soft, intense singing.  She’s not Callas and I felt that she was stretched in some of the faster sections – particularly the cabaletta to Casta Diva. But this was a seriously, very credible, beautifully sung performance that attained real stature at the end.

She was matched by Jennifer Holloway’s Adalgisa.  Holloway’s voice is recognisably a mezzo but lighter that Owens’s and the two voices had just the right sort of contrast.  She sings this musically really well and the duets with Owens were moments of drama but also gave the sort of sensual pleasure that I remember from Baltsa and Gruberova singing in the Capuleti or Sabbatini doing Credease misera in the last ROH Puritani – that wonderful Bellini technique or making you feel that you are listening to the most purely beautiful thing ever written.

Peter Auty made a fine Pollione.  He’s sounding more and more like Arthur Davies did in his prime – that very English, rather white tone.  It worked well here and I thoroughly enjoyed his very reliable, idiomatic singing and excellent diction.  James Creswell was predictably fine as Pollione.  Very strong performances from Valerie Reid as Clotilde and Adrian Dwyer as Flavio.

I saw Christopher Alden’s production for Opera North when they did it in Newcastle.  I didn’t feel that it transferred well to a larger theatre.  I think he suggested the idea of an oppressive power well – Pollione and Flavio as Victorian capitalists exploiting an agricultural community.  The suppressed violence, predictably, comes across well.  I was much less sure about the long tree trunk as the main religious symbol – it looked clumsy and difficult for people to get on and off.  And there was a vast amount of rolling around that didn’t help much, people placed too far back.  It felt a bit lost in the Coliseum.  And there were moments which raised laughter: the sudden clinch for Norma and Pollione before In mio man is the last place where you want a laugh.  Ditto when Norma hurls an axe into the wall rather than murdering her children – she wakes them up and they dash over to the other side of the stage and you feel the audience having every sympathy with them.  I don’t think that there are many laughs in Norma or that you need to create them.  Still, I suppose this is a one-off series of performances and it provides a showcase for Ms Owens.

So musically, I had a lovely time and I’d recommend anyone who loves this music to go along and enjoy some superb playing and singing.  And Alden’s production is just a bit silly, not actively offensive.  Given that this was the first staging of the opera in London since 1987, it was a welcome evening.

Bieito’s Force of Destiny

21 Nov

It’s 11 years since the last Forza in London and it was certainly time for another.  It’s the sort of difficult opera that ought to be right up Calixto Bieito’s street and so I was looking forward to seeing the new ENO production which I saw on 18th November.

I think that it’s a shame the opera’s seen so little. There is so much fabulously fine music there and, as a picture of obsession in a time of uncertainty and war, I’m sure there’s a really memorable, interesting opera in there. Possibly. It’s an opera which requires a director to dare and to manage the epic aspects that I’m quite sure are here. Or, alternatively, something which accepts it as a grand opera with all that this implies.

Bieito’s production had its moments and I certainly wouldn’t write it off the way some people In audience did, but there are still some difficulties with it. First, and irritatingly, it begins with a very bright light being shone from the back of the stage into the audience. It provides a marvellous first shadowy picture of the Vargas family at dinner but at the expense of significant discomfort to quite a lot of the audience. The design concept is based on facades of buildings that are on huge trolleys and move around, are raised, lowered and angled – it seems to take forever for this to happen and army of stagehands seem to needed here – worse, it’s noisy. This feels like the clumsiest set I’ve seen in a long time.

More seriously, I think, is the way Bieito stages the crowd scenes at Hornachuelos and Velletri. In both cases the chorus stands and sings and there seems to be very little in the way of movement or direction of the characters. I found this partly unhelpful but, more seriously, really boring – there was nothing going on here to stop me closing my eyes.

Against this, I thought that the direction of the singers was strong. It feels odd that Leonora isn’t disguised as a man but the scene between her and the rather unpleasant Padre Guardiano was rather well done. I’ve never found Melitone a comic character and Andrew Shore’s grumpy, small-minded, rather sinister portrayal of him, with outstanding diction, struck me as spot-on. You get the mono-mania of Carlo really well – and also the sense, at times, of a chaotic, lawless society – it’s not too difficult to get refugees or wartime brutality wrong these days. I found myself intermittently engaging with the piece and, when I did, enjoying it.

Musically, there was marvellous stuff going on. Mark Wigglesworth struck me as conducting outstanding well: there was a real Verdian sweep to this, he accompanied the singers really well, phrasing gloriously and getting some really fine, subtle playing from the orchestra. I don’t think I’ve heard such a fine piannissmo from them as he coaxed out at the end. It sounded right.

He used bits of the original version – a shorter overture and the Act III scenes switched.  I thought this worked rather well and better than Verdi’s second thoughts.

Tamara Wilson, who sang Leonora, is new to me. She has a grand figure and a voice to match – firmly produced, dramatic, apparently unfazed by any problems that lie in the writing. Her singing of her two arias gave you the sort of pleasure that you get from a singer completely in control. She has outstanding diction and I don’t think I’ve understood Pace pace so well before. She’ll be very welcome back in sing this sort of role any time she likes. Bieito made her kill herself at the end and that may not be a bad response for her.

Gwyn Hughes Jones through caution and elegance to the winds to make a vocally impassioned, possibly over-the-top Alvaro. He’s not really an actor but he sang the words clearly and believably. Anthony Michaels-Moore’s voice doesn’t sound as young as it used to, but he sounded pretty good and it’s a joy to hear stylish Verdi singing even if there are the odd rough edges: he gave a great portrayal of monomania. James Creswell sang the Padre Guardiano strongly and made an ambiguous figure.  Rinat Shahan was a vicious, lively terrorist of a Preziosilla who ended up shooting the prisoners in Act III.

What was best of all was the clarity of the diction and the fact that you could follow most of the piece without looking at the titles.

So musically this was a pretty satisfying evening. Bieito could, I felt, have explored a lot more about this piece and dared more.  But it’s good to see the piece again and this was a good evening for ENO.  I don’t suppose that we’ll see this production again but it would be good to see the opera again.

 

 

Mark Wigglesworth triumphs with Lady Macbeth

30 Sep

I’ve been a fan of Shostakovitch’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk ever since I saw David Pountney’s ENO production in 1987 and I was immensely looking forward to the performance that I saw there on 29th September.  And it was very good but, for me, lost its way slightly in the second half.ENO are back at their old habits of buying in other people’s productions.

The good things first. And it starts with the conducting and orchestral playing which was as good as I’ve heard in this piece. The orchestra played outstandingly and Mark Wigglesworth, in his first outing as music director here, caught the passion, the colours and the sheer excitement of the music. The interludes were astonishingly played – brass in the boxes above the pit sounding thrilling. He made it sound as though every chord, every note had a purpose, the playing was characterful – bassoons, clarinets, horns in marvellous form – and precise.  I found myself listening to the orchestral details and carried awya by its sheer power.   And the singers could be heard – I don’t think I’ve heard so many words of this opera. This was a good thing: I couldn’t see the surtitles from where I was sitting and I simply didn’t need them. This performance struck me as taking over from where Gardner left off with the orchestra and building in a level of sophistication and precision in the playing that I don’t usually associate with this orchestra.  How do you improve on this?

The soloists were excellent too. We had Patricia Racette as Katerina. It’s a light voice and the interpretation here makes her slightly helpless – besotted by Sergei. Whatever one thinks of that (and I suspect that there is more strength to be found than she did), she sang with perfect diction and caught a simplicity and beauty about the character that I wasn’t sure was there. It’s a very different interpretation from Josephine Barstow’s but unquestionably compelling. John Daszak sang Sergei and caught the fecklessness of a character out for a few shags rather than anything lasting and was simply not interested enough in Katerina. His voice struck me as pretty much ideal for the role and, again, every word was clear.

I’m used to darker voices than Robert Hayward’s as Boris but he created a really nasty, bullying creature, doing the scene before he catches Sergei rivetingly. He caught the mixture of bully and sleaze brilliantly. Peter Hoare as Zinovy, the ghastly husband, caught the hopeless nature of the character and, again, sang it really well.

The smaller roles were cast from strength: Graham Danby and excellent priest, Adrian Thompson as the Shabby Peasant, Clare Presland as a vicious Sonyetka and Matthew Best as the Old Convict – excellent singing, strong clear acting. The chorus sounded pretty good too.

ENO is continuing to buy in productions rather than make their own.  This one, by Dmitri Tcherniakov, started off life in Dusseldorf and has been passed round a number of addresses before turning up here. I thought it started well enough but rather lost its way later. It’s updated to modern times.  Much of the action takes place in the offices where there are computers and typists for him to molest. There’s a separate space for Katerina. This works well enough for the scenes set on Boris’s land. It’s less good for police who appear to invade the place too early and simply aren’t funny enough. He doesn’t capture the nightmarish, zany quality that’s in the music. The last scene is in a prison cell, cramped in the centre of the stage, the chorus unseen. Sergei has sex with Sonyetka as Katerina watches in the same cell and Katerina kills her with a chair and is beaten to death by the prison officers. I really wasn’t sure that this worked. The chorus were singing something different (the Pountney translation, done for his own very different production, was used) and you had ceased to care, ceased to be carried along by the power of the piece.  There is a huge pause for the scene change before the last act, dissipating the tension that’s been built up before.  What happened onstage failed to match the scale, the epic satiric scale of a the piece – and it’s worth remembering that this is a young man’s opera and needs to have the slightly scatter-gun effects that you get with such pieces – effects that Pountney brilliantly understood almost thirty years ago.

So huge admiration for the music and commitment of the singers, slight disappointment at a production that left you enervated rather than excited at the end of the piece.  But if Wigglesworth can keep these standards up, we’re in for musical treats in the coming years.

Hit and miss Queen of Spades

10 Jun

The last new production of the ENO’s season was The Queen of Spades. It was time the company did this again – the last was David Pountney’s in 1983 and that hasn’t been seen since the early 1990s. I saw David Alden’s production at its second performance on 9th June.

I don’t think I’ve been that lucky with the performances of the opera that I’ve seen. I missed Graham Vick’s production at Glyndebourne and Richard Jones’s for the Welsh – by common consent the best of the bunch in my opera going lifetime. At best, I’ve admired the opera but I’ve never been carried away by it. Frequently, I’ve been bored by its length, or irritated by a silly production. It’s a long opera, difficult to pace and it’s very hard to find any of the characters sympathetic or interesting. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this performance – though Edward Gardner and David Alden seemed to be a promising combination – and the cast didn’t look that inspiring.

I wasn’t converted. Alden’s tropes look tired to someone who’s lived with them, on and off, for the last 35 years or so: neon lights, a clock, piles of chairs, a false stage: we’ve seen all of this before and, frankly, I wasn’t sure what they added here. I haven’t seen him use cuddly animal costumes before and didn’t find that they added insight to the Ball scene. It looked like a group of random ideas and, for me, didn’t gel into anything convincing. There were some memorable images – the cast flinging cards about at the end – but I wasn’t engrossed or horrified or even particularly interested.

Alden is, of course, very good at getting strong acting performances from his cast and I did find myself watching them and listening to the words more than in many other performances. A pleasant translation by Neil Bartlett and Martin Fitzpatrick was used and I heard more words than in any other production I can remember. It sounded as though it was grateful to sing.
I’m not sure how much credit he deserves for Felicity Palmer’s performance: she’s been singing the role for more than 20 years. Her voice seems ageless – it’s as full and ripe as I recall it from her Kabanicha at Glyndebourne in 1988 – and her singing and acting of this gift of a role were pitch perfect. The words came across strongly, the aristocracy, the regret and the memories in that wonderful scene were as well done as you could hope and she brought a vulnerability and fear to the role that struck me as spot on.  It’s always a joy to see one of my very favourite singers.

Peter Hoare as Hermann was a late replacement for Peter Bronder. I admired the clarity of his singing and his diction and thought that he conveyed Hermann’s obsession nicely. Ideally, you look for a larger voice and maybe for a bit more vocal colour. I didn’t feel that he kept the interest up in the final scene. This was a Loge or a Basilio being stretched to his limits: perhaps not a bad idea, but a bit more power would have helped.

I’m a fan of Giselle Allen and this performance brought out her virtues – her honest, open portrayals and her committed singing without avoiding the feeling that the voice is a bit small for the house and, again, maybe a bit more colour might not come amiss. I didn’t feel much power or attraction between her and Mr Hoare.

In the other roles, Gregory Dahl made a strong, clear Tomsky; Nicholas Pallesen didn’t strike me as having the sheer beauty or richness of tone that Yeletsky needs – the Act II aria just wasn’t strong or committed enough and got little applause. Catherine Young was made to play Pauline as a high class tart but sang nicely. Colin Judson as Chekalinsky and Wyn Pencarraeg as Surin were very good indeed: clear, individual performances.

Edward Gardner conducted his last production as musical director. It was, of course, excellent. I heard more of the details in this score than I usually do and enjoyed his sheer control of the piece. The orchestra played fabulously well and he enabled singers to sing really softly. It was subtle, well paced and, ultimately, missed the sheer power and horror of the piece. He’s been a galvanising influence at ENO and the excellence of the musical performances here have been outstanding features of the last few years.  He’ll be missed.

So it wasn’t a bad performance and there was quite a lot to enjoy but I stayed disengaged throughout, never grabbed or horrified as, I think, Tchaikovsky wanted; I left feeling, “so what?” I probably just don’t really get on with the piece.

Mike Leigh’s Pirates

20 May

To me, the most remarkable and reassuring thing about the performance of Mike Leigh’s production of Pirates of Penzance at ENO on 19th May was the reaction of the audience. First, I was slightly surprised that the place was packed. Secondly, they were laughing at the jokes, enjoying the music and cheering at the end. This wasn’t a respectful audience sitting through an exhumation but people having a lovely time. It was as if many of them hadn’t seen the piece before, or not for a long time, and were surprised at how good it was.
I think that if I were trying a newcomer out on G&S, Pirates is probably the one I’d take them to. It’s among the most concise and has the freshness and confidence of youth. The situations and dialogue have that deadpan daftness that, as I’ve remarked before, isn’t a million miles from Monty Python or Blackadder and Sullivan’s music is among his most enchanting. There are lovely examples of his ability to set words that are, frankly rude or unpleasant to the most gorgeous melody (Ah is there not one maiden here/whose homely face and bad complexion/has caused all hope to disappear/of ever winning man’s affection) so that his music is undercut by Gilbert’s words. The essence of the operettas is here.

Since Topsy Turvy everyone knows that Mike is a big fan of Gilbert and Sullivan.  So what would he make of this? The joy was that he trusted the piece absolutely. He had clearly spent most of the rehearsal period working on getting the lines across and making them work in their own right. There wasn’t a single moment when you felt that the delivery was flat or wrong and many when you heard something fresh. He demonstrated that you didn’t need extravagant routines to make the Paradox trio work. The very simple choreography for the police was funny because of the deadpan simplicity of it. I’ve noted that the opera often feels slightly flat at the beginning. Here, I wasn’t conscious of that. It didn’t appear to try too hard, it simply delivered the work for what it was. Years of routine had been scrubbed away. And it worked.

Alison Chitty’s sets were simple but neatly reduced the size of the Coliseum stage to fit a pretty small chorus. The costumes might have come from the D’Oyly Carte costume box but were none the worse for that and the routines, the gags were notable for their absence. The wit and charm and silliness came across.

It was matched by a very clean musical performance. David Parry conducted clearly, relishing the beauties, considerate to his singers and enjoying the ridiculousness of With cat-like tread and the quiet wit of the Policeman’s song. The orchestra played really well.  Perhaps it was a bit too clean.  I bet that the original orchestra was a bit rougher than this and I bet that they weren’t nearly so restrained when the big tune came in early on in the overture.  On the other hand, you heard the details and the wit and the tempi felt right.

And there was a really nice cast. Joshua Bloom made a superbly confident, jovial Pirate King, Jonathan Lemalu caught the melancholy of the Sergeant of Police, Claudia Boyle was a very witty Mabel, recognising that Poor Wand’ring One is a comedy number but also singing the more serious side very well. Robert Murray was a nicely bewildered Frederic, who sang his arias with great skill. Rebecca du Pont Davies was a less melodramatic Ruth than many but put the role across well. Andrew Shore was an expert Major General and I really liked the idea that I am the very model was a well-rehearsed routine between him and his daughters who were eagerly awaiting the “sat a gee” joke – a nice overturning of years of tradition. This was one of the few occasions when I have seen opera singers doing dialogue in a way that worked.

Having said all that and recorded my immense admiration for the work, it would be dishonest not to note a couple of problems. The first is the size of the Coliseum. Gilbert and Sullivan were writing for much smaller theatres and, if you are stripping away all the routines and taking it as seriously as this, it can’t help feeling slightly lost. There was just a slight sense of artists bellowing to get the dialogue across, of good young singers who were stretched to their limits by the auditorium. I wonder how it all came across at the back of the balcony. It felt a bit small and I wished that it were being done in a smaller theatre.

Secondly, this very clean approach reminded me slightly of Giulini conducting Trovatore or Rigoletto – you wish, just occasionally that he’d let his hair down and stop being so serious and puritanical.Parry’s conducting of the overture was a tad too exact. I also thought that there was more scope for fun. Climbing over rocky mountains is a gem of a number but you can have some nice jokes there, I’ve seen many funnier Tarantara numbers which have not gone over the top but had the audience rolling in the aisles and I think that a director can allow himself this without compromising a serious approach elsewhere. And it was this absence of something visual to match the daftness of the plot and the exuberance of the music that I missed and which just stopped this being a classic Pirates.