So last night was Der Rosenkavalier at ENO – from what I remember of it after the rather tedious journey home. In fact the rather wonderful evening was ‘book-ended’ by frustrations, latterly the travel chaos and previously the frustration of ENO’s pricing structure at the Coliseum. If you want the write-up of the opera, skip the Preamble!
This pricing structure had me paying the ‘single standard Balcony seat’ price for a place with a restricted view (and definitely a restricted acoustic). ENO appear to me to be hopelessly mismanaging the pricing of the Coliseum auditorium. The seats in the Balcony are very far from uniform, other than in their universal discomfort (for reasons noted here), and yet they are charged as such (even with the rather weird charade of three pricing ‘tiers’ that are all sold at the same price). My seat, E45, I would consider to be restricted view, chopping just a little off the left side of the stage (indeed, the ROH sell their Amphitheatre equivalents as such); worse, it was acoustically difficult, even by the standards of the Coliseum and, therefore, what I am sure was fine singing and diction from the cast didn’t make it up to where I was sitting. It was worth, in my view, only half of the £25 it cost and even then, I’m not sure it is on a par with Upper Slips at the Royal Opera House. The implication of this, if you accept the argument, is that at ENO the punters in the Stalls get their experience for less than half the Covent Garden equivalent: those of us in the cheaper seats pay double for worse, unless of course you end up centre Balcony and then you are getting something that is, perhaps, better value than centre Amphi at the ROH.
The alternative – to pay more – is fraught with difficulty, since the jump to the next pricing level (£35-40ish usually) puts you at the back of the Upper Circle, where you can hear the talkers, rustlers and fidgeters much more easily than you can the stage, which you are viewing through a ‘letterbox’ with no surtitles. And, I have to say, the surtitles were a godsend yesterday: had they not been there, I would probably have gone home. Luckily, for acts 2 and 3 we managed to bag a couple of vacant seats nearer the front and over to the side, which were much improved for both view and sound.
So, to go to a level with a reasonable chance of good sound and view, if you can’t get front-ish centre Balcony, you’re up to around £60 or so for front-Upper Circle. And this is where the ENO’s past form comes into play, since they much prefer to sell their tickets at this bizarre pricing structure and then discount heavily when they don’t sell. I totally understand that there are always people in any theatre that have discounted or even complimentary tickets, but the fact that ENO have so firmly embedded this into their approach to public ticket sales is very discouraging to any temptation to book a more expensive ticket. If something is a piece I really want to see, I will be tempted to buy a Balcony seat just to get the place secured. Much else, I’ll hold out for discounts and, if they aren’t forthcoming, I’ll miss it. If, on the other hand, the seating was more appropriately priced across the entire range (better seats more expensive to offset worse seats being cheaper), I may be tempted more often. As we went in, my partner suggested we think about Friends membership. Not a chance whilst this situation persists – why would I want priority booking to get centre Balcony seats, when for half of what I’d be seeing, loads of others would be paying practically the same for the front-centre Dress Circle? Until this gets sorted, I’ll stick to the occasional visit tot he Coli amidst more consistent attendance at Covent Garden.
And so, these were the thoughts that were bugging me through most of Act 1, exacerbated by the man next to me who arrived just as the opening bars struck up, and then proceeded to adjust his woolly hat (!), hack, sniff and grunt every few minutes until I told him to be quiet. As a matter of fact, the ushers seemed to allow people in at any point through the first 10mins of the piece. For acts 2 and 3, anyway, hoorah for those spare seats…
All of the above was so frustrating because this was a vocally transcendent performance of this very special work. All of the principals, and the large supporting cast, gave every indication of being thoroughly within their characters and matched this dramatic display with vocal luxury.
Amanda Roocroft has the measure of the Marschallin’s sensitive balance between worldly resignation and suppressed passion. She seemed to turn up the intensity for the long monologue of Act 1, which was when things really started to coalesce, the first half having been rather cool and unengaging (perhaps for reasons off-stage). There was a fabulous, harrowed stillness in her description of getting up at midnight to stop all the clocks. Sarah Connolly’s experienced Octavian was an utter joy and, if the more rumbustious early passages lent her mezzo a slightly hard edge, by Act 2 and the presentation of the rose, all its richness came to the fore, entwining with Sophie Bevan’s vocally glittering Sophie. Connolly was a master of the teenage boy’s over-confident stride, turning to embarrassed awkwardness in the Act 3 conclusion, and she coped well with a rather bonkers suit of armour for the rose presentation. Bevan was a joy from start to finish, with a gleaming, flexible tone, crushingly blanched as she begins to think she is being pushed out by the return of the Marschallin. The trio was everything it should be, and I’m always newly taken aback by how much more impact it has in the context of what precedes it, compared to when it is trotted out as a bleeding chunk.
For the boys’ team, John Tomlinson infused his bluster with just the right measure of cold aristocratic control, so that Sophie’s forced marriage became something darker than merely a tricky scrape escaped. Faninal, played by Andrew Shore, was unflagging in his despair at the prospect of not uniting his family with aristocracy. The Singer was Gwyn Hughes Jones, despatching the Puccini parody as though he was singing Cavaradossi on the side, which of course he was, having stepped in from the run of Tosca to replace an ailing Jaewoo Kim.
The single uniform set was the only major disappointment, it being dressed very slightly differently each time, but not so differently as to vary the mood in any significant way. At the start of Act 1 and for the high-jinks of Act 3, it was actually too expansive, with energy and focus getting lost as a result. The exit of the massed riff-raff towards the close of Act 3 was, in particular, poorly handled with rather more prosaic activity on-stage than indicated in the chaotic waltz of the music. One bit I did like was the ‘business’ with Mohamed and the hankie at the end of the piece, which managed to ensure that no-one broke into applause before the last bar had sounded – normally the bane of any live Rosenkavalier is the tendency for the audience to start clapping some way before that last flourish has sounded.
The orchestral contribution was fabulous throughout, full of big ripe sounds and glossy high string sheen, in a vivid dramatic reading by Gardner. ENO should be very proud indeed of these performances, they were first rate. Now they just need to sort out the seating arrangements…
If you came to the blog for the opera, and not the travel chaos that is the hallmark of living in London, you can go about your business now. Otherwise…
Epilogue: getting home
Emerging from the theatre at about 9:45pm (which was, incidentally, about half an hour later than suggested by the programme), the snow was certainly coming down, albeit that there was nothing much more than a moderate dusting over central London. Arriving at Charing Cross, chaos had been unleashed with trains all marked as ‘delayed’. A broken down train at Lewisham was to blame, then it was announced there was another broken down train at London Bridge, and then another one at New Cross. So, we thought about trying to get down south on the Northern Line to pick up some form of transport across to Croydon, maybe from Mitcham or Morden, but in the end settled on heading to London Bridge to try Southern trains (many of which were non-functioning anyway due to the perennial ‘engineering works’). We asked a ‘senior station supervisor’ how things were looking from London Bridge on Southern, but he was Southeastern so hadn’t bother to find out and didn’t know. He was too busy standing about, looking bewildered with a walkie-talkie.
London Bridge was similar chaos. Lots of ‘delayed’, no real information and no-one bothering to look like there was any urgency to finding it out. The police were there though, presumably to protect staff from swear words. Staff need to realise that if they made more of an effort between them to get meaningful information and look like they had an urgency about helping passengers find alternatives, then they might not be subjected to so much swearing and violence. Anyway, because the Overground services to West Croydon were down for engineering works, there was the rail replacement bus from London Bridge.
Well, if you know Brockley, Honor Oak Park, Forest Hill, Sydenham and Crystal Palace, you’ll know it is picturesquely hilly. That’s less picturesque when you’re on a double decker bus at night in snow. People all over the roads driving in every way you’re not supposed to on snow and ice, some just stopping in what appeared from a distance to be sheer, defeated panic. We narrowly missed a parked car as the bus struggled to pull out down a hill at Crystal Palace. Two hours and forty minutes later and we arrive at Norwood. And the typical London irony of that is that most of it wasn’t the difficult driving through those hilly areas, it was traffic snarled up on the Old Kent Road and through New Cross. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…
So London failed once again. Apparently the problem with the trains was that they couldn’t get reliable electrical contact with the third rail. How long has the third-rail system been in place? Was snow last night a sudden surprise? Should alternatives not have been rapidly deployed and better communicated? In fact, c2c were doing some sterling work over on Twitter notifying people of changing routes, newly instituted shuttle services, and the like. The broken-down trains on Southeastern weren’t in the wilds of Kent or Sussex, they were a couple of miles out in central London. It is utterly ridiculous that a city that puffs itself up to be one of the world’s greatest can’t muster the resilience (which in turn requires a modicum of investment) to back up its over-inflated claims in the face of a bit of snow. We won’t have snow during the Olympics™, barring some global environmental catastrophe, but that doesn’t mean that the absurdly low resilience of the transport network, such as was on display last night, shouldn’t give some real pause for thought for those couple of weeks of pompousness, bluster and hubris.