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Signing Handel's Xerxes at ENO 1 December 2005

Xerxes: Katarina Karnéus (mezzo)

Arsamenes : Lawrence Zazzo (counter-tenor)

Amastris :     Lucy Schaufer (mezzo)

Romilda : Janis Kelly (soprano)

Ariodates : Neal Davies (bass)

Atalanta : Sarah Tynan (soprano)

Elviro : Graeme Danby (bass)
Signer for the Deaf: Wendy Ebsworth

Conductor: Noel Davies

Director:     Nicholas Hytner

Revival Director:   Michael Walling

Designer: David Fielding

Lighting Designer: Paul Pyant

Translation  : Nicholas Hytner

A pleasure to revisit one of ENO's most popular (and originally ground-breaking) Handel opera productions. Extensively reviewed already (access them via The Opera Critic) there is not much left to add well into the current run. It was a happy choice to revive lowered spirits, concerned again about the plight of this troubled opera company (it had suddenly lost its Managing Director the previous day.

The cast is well integrated and the whole operation runs smoothly. From near front stalls enough of the words came through (Handel helps you by repetition) and the balance with the sprightly orchestra was fine. But there is something else to discuss, and I return to my previous pleasure on catching, by chance, one of the performances signed for the hearing-impaired by Wendy Ebsworth.

I have previously written appreciation of her opera performances, e.g.

The special element which captured attention on our evening was the signing by ENO's resident sign-interpreter for hearing-impaired watchers, situated across the stage from our front-left stalls. I joke not - we could not take our eyes off Wendy Ebsworth ! Has anyone before noted in print the expressiveness of gesture and body language with which she is liable to upstage the stars? She really conveyed the emotions of Verdi's characters far more clearly than did those actually responsible for doing so.

For Xerxes we were again front-left, with a direct view of the conductor Noel Davies and, past him, Wendy on the corner of the stage out-acting all the singers! Two key performers who had not a moment's respite through the long evening.

How many deaf or partially deaf opera fans come to these special performances? A report from one of them would be appreciated by Musical Pointers?

Wendy Ebsworth, discreetly and unobtrusively dressed in black, attracts attention compulsively as soon as she moves, and I am unapologetically one of her fans. Her fingers conduct-along during the orchestral introductions, then she mouths every word (however oft repeated) during the recits and arias, with appropriate facial expression to the sentiments the characters are expressing whilst singing. Those are additionally conveyed by the standard BSL system of signing for the deaf, a veritable choreography of elaborate arm and hand movements, beautiful to watch, a parallel language of dizzying complexity which translates every phrase.

Meanwhile the singers on stage do their best to convey the same emotions, and today's opera stars are adept at doing so with more varied gesture than used to serve for the purpose on the operatic stage.

Katarina Karnéus (Xerxes) conveyed masculinity, authority and rank with the simplest of poses and movement; Lawrence Zazzo (Arsamenes) is one of the most impressive counter-tenors of this burgeoning breed currently before the public; Sarah Tynan’s Atalanta skipping around Xerxes is a delight, vocally and in her movement. Janis Kelly keeps Xerxes in thrall as Romilda and Lucy Schaufer holds her own in the trousers role of Amastris. The singing is of a generally high standard and no-one lets the side down. Noel Davies steered the proceedings stylishly, helping to make a long evening pass easily and to general contentment.

Is there an issue to raise about signing such as Wendy Ebsworth's going beyond conveying the meaning of sung text? Clearly for many of us, hearing impaired or not, there is an element of distraction, comparable to that of sur-titles, which continue to divide opinion, though to a lesser extent since Sean Doran inaugurated them for Opera in English at ENO. And when watching DVDs many of us are profoundly irritated by some inept subtitling in which every repetition of the same phrase, even in da capo arias, draws your attention down to the bottom of the screen.*

Because these are still live issues, this Xerxes review is also posted as an Article on Musical Pointers, in the hope of some reader reponses.

Katarina Karnéus (Xerxes), Janis Kelly (Romilda) (photo: ENO / Cive Barda)

Picture of Wendy Ebsworth is from Deaf Life

* See also section on "Texts and Titles (Sur-, Sub- and Side-)" in Why Not Amplify them?

Re signing at ENO, a correspondent has responded:

Personally I try to avoid signed performances as they are too distracting.   Surtitles I can easily ignore (or glance at quickly when needed), but very skilful signers, who take on the identity of every character in the plot (sometimes more than one at a time in an ensemble), I find completely mesmerizing.    I wonder whether that is not also a problem for those with hearing problems – as surely one of the reasons for going to a “show” is to see the action on stage – do they prefer surtitles? 

It would be good to have a contribution about opera signing &/or surtitles from a regular member of Wendy's target audience of hard-of-hearing opera lovers? [Editor]


© Peter Grahame Woolf