S&H Opera Review

Berio: Folk Songs. Rota: La Strada. Dallapiccola: The Prisoner English National Opera/Richard Hickox, conductor. London Coliseum 17 November 2000 (RW)

It was a UK stage revival too long in coming: 41 years to be precise.

Dallapiccola's Il Prigioniero (The Prisoner) is one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century opera, drawing a timeless emotional relevance from its subject matter and circumstances of composition, and in a 50-minute single act.

So how to couple it? Dallapiccola provides the answer, with his earlier one acter Volo di Notte. At just under an hour, with a marginally larger cast, a broadly similar theme of existence and liberty, and an even more direct and expressive musical idiom, it could have made for a potent combination. Perhaps ENO thought a double dose of a composer still known in the UK largely by repute was a risk not worth taking. What we got was pleasant, enjoyable, and utterly irrelevant in the context of an opera presentation.

Certainly Berio's Folksongs is a masterly collection of songs from around the world, superbly judged as a vehicle for his former wife, Cathy Berberian. But this is hardly a stageable proposition, least of all on a stage the proportions of the Coliseum. Susan Parry could hardly be blamed for not attempting to emulate the range of moods and vocal styles which were Berberian's alone to give, but she could have projected the 11 numbers with greater personality. As it was, she sang securely and with attractive lightness of touch, while making occasional use of the scaffolding set. Her trio of children tried to inject some fun and games into the 'Children's Hour' staging, but generally looked as uncertain as Richard Hickox's attentive ensemble looked lost at stage left. Incidentally, singing this cycle in the original languages hardly chimes with stated ENO policy. Was translation permission not granted, or did no one sense a paradox here?

If the Berio was a well-intentioned misjudgement, Rota's La Strada was a bizarre inclusion. Dating from 1966, this half-hour ballet was expanded from the score to Fellini's 1954 film of the same name. Its a heady mixture of appropriate influences, from the robust neo-classical cut of Stravinsky's Pulcinella to the exotic dance routines most likely absorbed from Bernstein's West Side Story. This is music Hickox has a clear affection for, and his performance was characterful and rhythmically alert. The choreography, however, was reminiscent of a Music and Movement sequence, beloved of schools in the 1960s and '70s; the cast of some 30 children of various ages were able to make little of the music, save for some stock routines involving dressing up and agro from older kids: too generalised to have made the staging anything other than a pleasant diversion. Numerous adults in the audience stood and applauded (fair enough if your kids are taking part), but a sense of wasted opportunity hung heavy during the interval.

It nearly all came right with The Prisoner. Although set in The Netherlands at the time of the Inquisition, Dallapiccola's opera is overwelmingly coloured by the composer's experiences of internment in Graz towards the end of World War One, and living through an intensifying period of totalitarianism in 1940s fascist Italy. Hope as the ultimate torture is its simple yet devasting premise, and whose realisation is its heart-stopping focal point. This is an opera which moves from lengthy reflections - the opening soliloquy of the Mother, the dialogues between Mother and Prisoner, and Prisoner and Gaoler - to fast-paced action, as the Prisoner moves from his cell to the prison garden; to be confronted by the Gaoler, in reality the Grand Inquisitor, who leads the Prisoner away to fulfil the ultimate freedom. Few operas conveys their sentiments so acutely and so devastatingly.

Peter Coleman-Wright had the right plangency and earnestness as the Prisoner. Peter Bronder was insinuating as the Gaoler/Grand Inquisitor, his brotherly intimations of chilling empathy. Susan Bullock was eloquent and compassionate in the role of the Mother. Richard Hickox had the measure of Dallapiccola's italianate expressionism, and paced the music well, with just a marginal hanging fire when the Prisoner reflects on the passing Priests. The brief but forceful offstage (pre-recorded?) choral interjections conveyed real impact. Neil Armfield's direction made resourceful use of  Stefan Lazaridis's stage set, though vital dialogue was obsured by having the climactic encounter upstage, with consequent loss of impact.

The children representing fascist youth was a telling visual touch, though the silent child role of Fra Redemptor was a needless addition, pointing up the dubiousness of linking the triple bill through the 'listen to the voices of the children' concept. Nevetheless, the production of the Dallapiccola is a must see, and strongly merits revival - though with a more fitting and apposite first half. Volo di Notte really would offer the best solution.

Richard Whitehouse

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