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Seen and Heard Concert Review


Michael TIPPETT, A Child of Our Time (staged), Susan Gritton (soprano), Sara Fulgoni (contralto), Timothy Robinson (tenor), Brindley Sherratt (bass), Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera, Martyn Brabbins (conductor), Coliseum, 21st January 2005 (MB)


ENO is not new to staging oratorios, having in the past put on controversial performances of both Bach’s St John’s Passion and Verdi’s Requiem. In what is, however, the first staging of Sir Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time ENO have found a work that fits this treatment perfectly: Tippett’s haunting masterpiece benefits narratively from a staging, as well as musically. In what is ultimately a profoundly moving evening in the opera house, ENO have succeeded beyond expectation. The only problem is, so good is ENO’s performance and staging of this oratorio, that any conventional concert performance of it (at least for those who saw this production) will never quite evoke equivalent emotions again.

 

 


The staging, by Jonathan Kent, in his ENO and UK opera house debut, is not especially subtle. It is rich in biblical allusion (the Christ-like figure of the child, the flaming tree, the resurrection) and the building of the new state of Israel, post the apocalypse of the extermination of the Jews, itself looks back to the Old Testament: stones are pulled from the earth, and squares of grass represent an eternal hope for a better future. In between, we witness the Holocaust in all its horror: the stripping of inmates, their immersion into the gas chambers and billows of smoke rising from the crematoria. A number of images carefully convey the feeling of universality: black and white, blood-covered figures suggest not just a Jewish horror, but also Western colonialism and slavery, an apt metaphor given Tippett’s use of Negro spirituals in this work. The throwing of photographs onto the dead child’s tomb are memories of not just the casualties of war but of human tragedies, perhaps, but not exclusively, outside the musical dimensions of Tippett’s libretto.


The opening of this production is deeply evocative: with bodies lying contorted across a bleak landscape and the single figure of the contralto, Sara Fulgoni, walking between the bodies, one is reminded of the widow looking for her husband in ‘The Field of the Dead’ from Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky. But, Kent is careful to emphasise the pacifist and humanistic themes of both Tippett the man and Tippett the composer in his staging: weapons of torture and persecution are slowly lowered from the ceilings to finally sink beneath the stage; when they emerge again, they do so as bulbs of light. In a clear allusion to Tippett’s own homosexuality, the tenor, Timothy Robinson, is seen cradling the naked figure of the child; it is a moment of intense homoeroticism.

 

 

Musically, this was an outstanding performance. Martyn Brabbins took an overtly operatic view of the score (though by no means a slow one), but never did the drama seem lacking. With minimal pauses between the separate movements a sense of tension was always apparent, and the spirituals themselves (replacing the conventional Bachian congregational hymns) were sumptuously played and sung. Vocally, the quartet was well-matched: Susan Gritton’s Soprano soared effortlessly in “How can I cherish my man in such day”, and Sara Fulgoni brought evenness of tone and gorgeous phrasing in equal measure. Brindley Sherratt was vocally rich, and his narrative of the events unfolding was impressive to hear. Timothy Robinson, especially in his solo, “My dreams are all shattered”, bestrode the orchestra imperiously and with such lyrical legato. The orchestral playing was first rate, especially in the telling woodwind narrations.


There is one final performance of this staging – on 28 January. There is every reason to believe it will be as profound as this performance was.


Marc Bridle


Photos: © Neil Libbert, ENO, January 2005

 

 

 



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)