Autumn At The ENO

By Greg Last edited 165 months ago
Autumn At The ENO

If you received your English National Opera brochure for the upcoming autumn season in the mail last week, like we did, your first though was probably the same as ours: "Who are these creepy, inappropriately sexualised adolescents, and what are their pictures doing all over my opera brochure?" Honestly... the brochure looks like it should be titled Barely Legal. As you can see to the left, the jailbait youth whose picture accompanies the description of Billy Budd looks to have been recruited straight off the set of the latest Eurocreme production. (We were about to include a link to the Eurocreme website for the purposes of comparison, but you can do that bit of research on your own.) To make things even weirder, the one opera in the season that is actually about a creepy, inappropriately sexualised adolescent (that would be Salome) is the only production not illustrated with such an image — they instead went for the "severed head" option, leading to a confusing "one of these things is not like the others" experience when looking at all the photos together.

However, your second thought upon looking at the brochure was probably: "This looks like a damn good collection of productions!" (This is particularly true after all of ENO's, er, troubles of recent seasons.) Just look at the highlights: Anthony Minghella's opera-directing debut! Gerald Barry's hot girl-on-girl action! And the question that will be on every London opera-goer's mind from now until Billy Budd is mounted in December: "Just how much of Simon Keenlyside's throbbing man-flesh will we get to ogle? And precisely how hunk-a-licious will said man-flesh be?"

Details on this and much, much more (well, this plus four re-mountings of old productions) after the jump.

From September 16 to October 4, there will be seven performances of Gerald Barry's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. We are so very excited. (Look! We're very very excited about a world premier of a non-tonal work at the ENO! Really, we are!) This opera is based on the crazy/brilliant film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, which is all about psychological cruelty, hot lesbian sex, and gorgeous haute-couture gowns, not necessarily in that order. In other words, there is something here for absolutely everyone. Also, the film uses music, particularly American popular music of the 1950s, in odd and provocative ways, which could conceivably inspire an opera composer to do something similarly odd and provocative.

We admit that we are mostly unfamiliar with Gerald Barry's music, although we must point out it seems to be some sort of watershed for European integration that an entirely Irish composer would be called, in all of the ENO's publicity materials, "one of Europe's most celebrated composers." A friend of ours assured us that Barry is the composer from whom Thomas Adès stole all his best ideas, which we are pretty sure was meant as a compliment. And in Gareth Cox's New Grove Dictionary article on Barry, we learn that:

Barry’s pitch material is often derived by means of aleatory processes from such abstract sources as a chart showing the locations of John Jenkins’s manuscripts...the words of the BBC Radio 4 shipping forecast...or by the addition and use of inessential contiguous pitches in the Irish melody Bonny Kate.

The shipping forecast?! Why not, we say! Sounds good to us...

Letting famous film directors direct operas has resulted in both smashing successes and dismal failures. And we do have some sympathy for those who feel that an exercise like Anthony "English Patient" Minghella's Madame Butterfly is at its root a publicity stunt by the ENO that pushes aside those people who have devoted their lives to the art-form of opera. But even so, we put the odds at about 3-to-4 that this will be fantastic. Minghella's films often focus on intense individual emotions, set on a broad, sweeping canvas, an approach that would translate well to the operas of Puccini. It seems reasonable to expect, at the very least, that the production will be very beautiful to look at, and the cast looks uniformly strong.

We will go out on a limb and call Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd the gayest thing in the entire standard operatic repertory. (Even Death in Venice at least has a few women on stage.) It is about a bunch of oppressed sailors. They live in close quarters. Occasionally, they are flogged. It has become absolutely de rigeur to have massive amount of heaving masculine bosom on display — as much as possible, really, but specifically on the part of the title character, on whose overwhelming manly beauty the plot must hinge.

The role is taken in December by Simon Keenlyside, and those who follow opera might be getting tired of hearing his singing praised to the heavens. But seriously, he is so damn good. He voice is simply beautiful, and he has the intelligence to back it up. Most recently, his Papageno at Covent Garden was so much sexier, both vocally and physically, than the tenor-hero Tamino on stage that he threatened to throw the entire drama out of whack. His interpretation of Billy has been praised around the world, but we have heard on very good authority that this production is the last time he'll ever sing the role. See it in December, or never.

So, how much skin will we see? The reviews of this production, when it was mounted in Cardiff, are vague on the precise degree of the disrobing, but we shall keep our fingers crossed. As for the sheer totty-osity of that which will be on display... well, let's just say things are looking good.

There are four remountings that make up the remainder of the season. We can never get enough of Francis Poulenc's The Carmelites. Nuns! Passionate nuns! Nuns who die... singing! Also, we will pay to see anything with Felicity Palmer in it. She may not have the voice she once had, but she remains one classy lady.

We will probably skip The Magic Flute, but only because we've seen it too many times recently. You should go. It is a solid production, and there are some good singers involved.

The brochure informs us that the production of Handel's Xerxes is twenty years old. In addition, the work is a difficult one to stage; it seems to us that the work comes across as either not as funny as the director thinks it is, or funnier than the director thinks it is. But we personally have never see this old production, so it's new to us, and the publicity stills look good. Again, the casting is strong. It is certainly not to be avoided.

Finally, while Billy Budd might be the gayest opera in the repertoire, Strauss's Salome might well be the queerest, with an truly impressive catalogue of sexual perversity crammed into its one terse act. Like Carmelites, we're pretty sure we can never get enough of this work. This year, however, marks the 100th anniversary of its first staging, so we have an extra reason to celebrate Oscar Wilde's necrophiliac nymphette. We hear good things about the soprano in the title role, Cheryl Barker, although also no word yet as to how naked she'll get during the dance of the seven veils.

You will notice that we have not mentioned the most "controversial" aspect of the season, the introduction of surtitles for the ENO's English-language productions. Frankly, we think there are a lot more important and interesting things to argue about. Seeing opera without titles is not a mystifying, meaningless experience, as some would have it. Seeing opera with titles is not an unmusical experience signifying the death of all that is refined and good in our culture, as others would have it. If you don't want to look at them, then don't look at them, and if you do, you can. Let's all spend a little more energy debating the quality of what's on the stage... and being thankful that it promises to be so good.

Last Updated 01 July 2005