Quite an evening. One of those that seemed to spell disaster at the beginning, but turned out to be a triumph.
It started with the little slip of paper in the programme. “John Tessier is unable to sing at tonight’s performance. The role of Nemorino will be performed by Edgaras Montvidas.” Then, as the lights went down, the Head of Casting duly trooped on stage. John Tessier was unwell. So was his understudy. Murmurs from the audience. “Oh, it gets worse,” he helpfully informed us. The translation was new (more of that later) and no-one in the world knows it. So Edgaras Montvidas would sing in Italian whilst everyone else sang English. Oh, and our Belcore (David Kempster) was suffering from a viral infection but would stuggle on.
And that’s even before the curtain went up.
When it did go up, it revealed Jonathan Miller’s new 1950s staging (‘new’ in the sense of only two previous owners: NYCO and Royal Swedish Opera). Adina’s Diner with a backdrop of wide-vista American horizons, all the men seemingly dressed as mechanics or somesuch. The diner revolved at different points to reveal the petrol station forecourt into which Dulcamara’s car pulled, or a niche around the back for the gossiping women alongside the loos. This provided a bit of comic business in the scene where the women discuss rumours of Nemorino’s inheritance, with an occasional flush between phrases, and one woman emerging with her skirt in her knickers.
Overall, it worked quite well. What worked less well for me was the curious mix of English and American accents employed by different members of the cast at different times. Sung in English, the opening chorus brought to mind nothing so much as Gilbert & Sullivan, and I guess they were trying to avoid that by adopting the idiom of the setting. But it only worked intermittently, and frequently it muddied the diction so that the surtitles became necessary.
The most notable exception was Andrew Shore’s Dr Dulcamara. He was completely inside this production’s concept of his character, and had fantastic diction, vocal attack, swagger and command of his scenes. What preceded his entrance had been a little nervy and underpowered – not least because of the Italian language substitution – but his entrance lifted the whole thing to a new, and rather more satisfying, level.
And so to that substitution. Initially, it was distinctly odd. A sole character responding to people in Italian who have spoken to him in English adds another layer of disbelief to be suspended for the enjoyment of opera. However, the switch came when Andrew Shore – fabulously, remarkably and hilariously – began to converse with Montvidas in Italian, with English asides and speaking in English to other characters. It was an utter triumph. From then on, as the evening progressed, this hapless individual floundered around trying to impress, plead and then ignore Adina; his isolation and vulnerability (and crucially, his gullibility) were heightened by his language barrier. It was marvellous. When he finally got together with Adina, it very slightly jarred that they were speaking different languages, but in no way that spoiled what had been built up. On the upside, it also freed him from what was, at points, a frankly awful translation. I’m all for the adaptation of the translation to the setting – to a point – but even to these amateur ears, it was clumsy and ill-set to the music at times, notably for the chorus, who then sounded muddy and ill-disciplined at times, when I suspect the translation was at fault.
Montvidas’s voice didn’t seem a large one, something that applied to all voices other than Shore’s, and was complemented by a subtle reading by the conductor Pablo Heras-Casado. Or maybe it’s the giant barn of a Coliseum that swallowed everyone up? Montvidas did rise to a beautiful Una furtiva lagrima, though, amongst much other attractive singing, and a dramatic engagement with the production that belied his late arrival. I would have liked a bit more sparkle and incisiveness from the conducting and playing – not to mention missing that feeling of greater togetherness from the chorus – but it was all highly enjoyable, and nothing jarred noticeably.
Sarah Tynan’s voice gained focus as the performance continued and she certainly had the moves – vocal and physical – for the 1950s Monroe-inspired temptress that characterised this production’s Adina. Kempster didn’t appear to be at all ‘off-form’, and made much of Belcore’s swaggering confidence. His duet with Montvidas before he signs him up for the army was a highlight for me, and again the English/Italian contrast played perfectly into what was going on.
It was fortunate, of course, that English National Opera installed those surtitle boards so that we could have a loose translation of this Nemorino’s Italian. Indeed, I am firmly in the camp of those that think the surtitles are a good addition. The Coliseum is a disaster of a theatre as far as I can hear, andfrom row F in the Dress Circle (on one of their many discount ‘deals’) large chunks would have not made it clearly across the pit in discernible form. Shore may not need the surtitles, and others may not need them all the time, but when they do, they are a godsend. There is a mischievous part of me that relished hearing opera in Italian with English surtitles at the ENO. Every time I go to the Coliseum, though, I long for the time that they swap their freehold with one of the smaller venues from the West End, so that an amplified Les Mis can go on at the Coliseum and we can have a medium-sized opera theatre in which to get more intimate, audible and satisfying opera in English. Doubtless the economics don’t support it, but given the levels of discounting underway at ENO at present, I’m sure revenue is very far below full-price, sell-out hopes for such a large theatre.
Anyway, all in all this was a remarkable evening and a triumph in the face of adversity. A likeable production, well-executed overall. But star honours definitely go to Montvidas for carrying it off, and to Shore for the spontaneity of his response to the changing circumstances around him. Well done! Or is it ‘bravo’?