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Britten Peter Grimes
Dove The adventures of Pinocchio
Donizetti Lucia di Lammermoor

Opera North at Sadlers Wells 26 & 27 February 2008
ENO at The Coliseum 28 February 2008

Three high profile productions during a good week for opera in London, all widely and highly praised. I am reluctant to duplicate the chorus of deserved approval and will restrict myself to providing links to click onto, plus drawing attention to a few points not generally emphasised elsewhere, though the causes of our small reservations (notably about Opera North's Peter Grimes) do surface en passant amongst the fully merited adulation.

Sad to relate, we two - who like many in the audience had seen many productions of Peter Grimes for up to sixty years and more - were not "completely swept up", pace The Times, in this "properly radical interpretation" (Richard Mantle of Opera North) and were indeed troubled by the "self-conscious theatricality" of a small fishing community "evoked by means of little more than a back panel depicting a stormy sea and a lot of duckboard" (Telegraph). And too by the symbolic "giant fishing net and wooden pallets that comprise the set" (The Times), not to speak of the so-minimal "fisherman's hut" created before our eyes on stage for the so obviously wired-up apprentice to be launched to his death; more like a Peter Pan taking off in flight...

And yes, we think the pre-Prologue post-Finale in which children find Grimes's dead body ia big mistake, as it was for Phillida Lloyd to "over-stage" the orchestral interludes, and offer no release from her "relentless vision". In today's TV age, in which the primacy of eye over ear is all pervasive, it is only a few of us from older generations who hanker for the respect shown originally to the composers of Pelleas Melisande and Peter Grimes, both of whose Orchestral Interludes (including Peter's gratuitous sobbing whilst cradling John's body - illustrated) were conceived as self-sufficient meditations demanding intensive, undistracted listening, preferably before closed curtains... Yes, "the drama in the music needs no further elucidation" (Telegraph).

The one recent innovation which for us should be irreversible is that of surtitles for opera (not excluding Opera in English), spurned by Opera North. Much of the text, notably Giselle Allen's soprano, was indecipherable; of course, when Peter Grimes was new it was usual for operagoers, whether at Bayreuth or in England, to study libretti in advance...

No problems with audibility of the text in Jonathan Dove's setting of Alistair Middleton's Pinocchio libretto, aided by the well worn device of Handelian repetition.

The Adventures of Pinocchio is the latest triumph of a composer who embraces something of the minimalists without their over-simplicities. We have enjoyed Flight in Glyndebourne and Antwerp and admired Dove's community operas for Hackney. This version of the favourite tale about moral education is a great show which will bring pleasure to children of all ages for many years ahead. Although the family behind us did not return after the interval, none of the critics have voiced my thought that towards the endings of both parts cuts of some ten minutes might be desirable. It is terrific entertainment, a colossal team achievment which might successfully rival perrenial musical blockbusters like The Lion King, who can tell? Victoria Simmonds as the tireless Pinocchio was on stage most of the time, supported by a team of quick-changing singers, some of whom took on as many as five roles each. The score, for large orchestra, will reward rehearing, and I look forward to a DVD of The Adventures of Pinocchio for Christmas?*

And, certainly deserving preservation equally is David Alden's "radical" Lucia di Lammermoor (which had a chequered start with seasonal illness amongst the singers) but, by the time we saw it at the Coliseum, the fifth performance was all-round superb, a thought-through and consistent vision by Alden and his colleagues.

We were swept up indeed by Paul Daniel, Anna Christy (recovered from bronchitis), and Barry Banks. Donizetti is not our specialism, and we did not bring with us a baggage of historical expectation ("of course we miss Joan" said a fellow bus passenger afterwards, who had also seen the Opera North Peter Grimes seventeen times...).

A word of particular praise for all three lavish programme books, mines of information about the makings of the three operas and these particular productions, and there are plenty of images to be found on the Web.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Donizetti – Lucia di Lammermoor

Lucia – Anna Christy (pictured)
Enrico Ashton – Brian Mulligan
Edgardo – Barry Banks
Lord Arturo Bucklaw – Dwayne Jones
Raimondo – Clive Bayley
Alisa – Sarah Pring
Normano – Philip Daggett

Conductor – Anthony Walker
Director – David Alden

English National Opera at London Coliseum
4 February 2010

Everyone knows Lucia us a masterpiece but they also want to know more what the director, David Alden, has done with Scott’s Scottish novel. The book is a good read but a hefty volume, so it may help if the following rundown is studied instead.

Enrico Ashton, Laird of Lammermoor, is so strapped for cash that he doesn’t know where the next bowl of porridge is coming from. His only hope is to marry off his useless sister, Lucia, who spends her time in the attic reading Mills & Boon and wondering what Scotsmen keep under their kilts. After some arm-twisting she agrees to marry his mate, Arturo, who is loaded. Unfortunately she still has a yen for Edgardo, a layabout from the wrong side of the tracks. He gets past the bouncers at the signing of the marriage contract and makes a scene. Nobody minds because this leads to a wonderful Sextet when six people say what they think at the top of their voices at the same time, rather like a Lib-Dem conference.

Now the wedding takes place and guests are enjoying themselves when interfering cleric, Raimondo (who has obviously been at the keyhole) appears with bad news. Apparently the foreplay got a bit rough and involved Lucia sticking Arturo’s dagger in a very painful place, resulting in a lot of his blood and Lucia’s hasty exit. She appears before the guests who express their horror as they have only just opened the whisky cupboard.

Time for a mad scene (why, because it’s sexy, stupid!) thank you (Dr Freud). Lucia relates in graphic detail her bedroom experiences, underlined by suitably orgasmic music from the orchestra. (If you don’t agree, listen more carefully next time.) At last all this activity catches up with her and she expires after a final top note – the sort of thing you do if Chelsea score the winning goal or your lottery number comes up. This leaves Edgardo to wallow in self-pity after the fashion of tnors. Instead of making for the nearest Lonely Hearts column he stabs himself after a bit of encouragement from creepy Raimondo. The curtain falls on a picture of unrelieved gloom, something like a wet Sunday in Edinburgh.

As the doomed couple, Anna Christy and Barry Banks are fine, both singing their hearts out, while Brian Mulligan makes a huge impact as the nasty Enrico. Clive Bayley also gives some life to his portrait of the sly Raimondo. The English translation seemed occasionally to fox the singers and handicap the orchestra but they struggled manfully to maintain some Italianate brio. David Alden succeeded in producing an atmosphere of Victorian squalor without letting it cross the line into melodrama.

This was a totally riveting evening, with more intrigue, sex and violence than you get in a week of “Emmerdale”. So, help to save on energy resources, switch off the telly and hurry down to the Coliseum for a fascinating show. You will not be disappointed.

Stuart Jenkins

*DVD - Jonathan Dove's The Adventures of Pinocchio
to libretto by Alistair Middleton based on
Carlo Collodi (1883)

Pinocchio: Victoria Simmonds
Geppetto: Jonathan Summers
The Blue Fairy: Mary Plazas
Cricket/Parrot: Rebecca Bottone
Puppeteer/Ape-Judge/Ringmaster: Graeme Broadbent
Lampwick: Allan Clayton
Cat: Mark Wilde
Fox/Coachman: James Laing
Pigeon/Snail: Carole Wilson

The Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North
Conductor: David Parry

Opus Arte OA 1005 D [filmed at Sadler's Wells February 2008; 213 mins including Extras]

Not quite in time for last Christmas, but a marvellous present for children and adults which deserves a tremendous and enduring success.