Spontini’s dreary opera (inexplicably
admired by Berlioz, amongst others) received at ENO a rather dreary
performance. The pedestrianism of the action makes for a dull evening,
and even in this cut-down version one longed for something shorter.
Apart from a few chorus scenes (static in presentation), the on stage
action is minimal. It made for an evening of narcoleptic numbness, and
was not helped by some fragile singing from the ‘star’ singer, Jane
Eaglen, regrettably miscast in her first reappearance in an opera
role at her old house since Ariadne auf Naxos.
Maria Callas specialised in the
role of Julia, but Eaglen neither matches her in vocal or dramatic skills.
Only in her Act II aria did Eaglen display any of the vocal command
for which her Wagnerian tone is ideally suited. Elsewhere, her pitch
was suspect and the vocal line was distorted by an incessant wavering.
Dramatically, Eaglen moved around stage like a carthorse, and can surely
be few people’s idea of a Vestal. This was an Isolde in all but name.
This was in many respects a performance where belief had to be well
and truly suspended, and in reality never really was.
Act I opens with the ‘triumphant’
return of Licinius (routinely sung by John Hudson) but everything
about this opening scene with an army of stragglers lounging around
on stage lacked momentum and drama. He night just have well have been
returning home from an evening at the local public house. The fact that
both Hudson and Paul Nilon (as Cinna) hacked their way through
the dialogue of their Scene I duet with unrelenting dullness made the
effort of the listener an interminable one. The entry of the Vestals
did little to sublimate this stark sense of isolation.
The staging at least made some amends
for weaknesses elsewhere. Minimalist in design, it was strangely appropriate
for an opera which makes Parsifal look like a sprint by comparison.
The design’s simplicity did indeed owe much to early post war Bayreuth
stagings of the Parsifal where use of light and the imagination
are focal points for a viewer’s enjoyment of the opera. If it didn’t
quite work in that way here, it was at least pleasing to the eye, not
least the changing emphasis on light, moving from a chilling blue to
a warm glowing red. There was no busyness, which can so often deflect
from the on stage action, but in the case of an opera where the latter
is decidedly sparse anyway it really didn’t matter. Moments such as
the lowering of the ring in Act II were beautifully done, even if one
anticipated some impending disaster to liven things up a little.
Musically, the playing of the ENO
orchestra under David Parry was lacklustre. One often wished
for a Riccardo Muti to establish a sense of pace, but that was never
forthcoming. In total, one of the most dispiriting evenings in an opera
house for some years made more bearable by interval drinks.