A few weeks ago I was at a bus stop staring at my phone at about 9pm. The odd thing about that is the timing, since at that hour I would usually be halfway though something at the theatre. As I looked up, I noticed that stood beside me was a friend of mine, a conductor (of the music, not bus, variety). Nudging him, I grinned and asked: “What are you doing here?” To which he replied: “I’ve just walked out after the first act of Luisa Miller at English National Opera.” I blinked. “So have I.”
To be clear: I’m not proud of this. I have stayed to the bitter end of almost everything I’ve ever seen at the theatre, even when (occasionally) bored witless, on the grounds that it might improve. I can literally count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I have bailed early – a couple of over-produced, under-directed Shakespeare plays at serious addresses spring to mind – and I have certainly never left a show when on critical duty.
Furious debates about the function of criticism happen all the time but the rules of engagement are, largely speaking, agreed on: turn up on time with a pad and pen, concentrate, go home, type. And to give everything and everyone a fair hearing, stay to the end.
In the case of Luisa Miller, however, I was not reviewing. And I’ve waited until the run finished to get this off my chest because I considered it unfair to unleash thoughts on half a show since it might influence a wavering reader into not attending.
I’ve been an ENO devotee ever since I was an underemployed actor in my 20s, sitting for as many nights as possible in the (very) cheap seats way up at the top of the London Coliseum. It’s where I learned my operatic repertoire and the company had an astonishing hit rate, presenting some of the most vividly theatrical work around.
Crucially, it wasn’t just music and singing. From the mid-1980s into the 1990s, the house management had a dedication to theatrical intensity and immensity via design and, especially, direction that frankly trounced most so-called ‘straight’ theatre of the time.
Since then, I’ve stuck with ENO through thick and, more recently, mostly thin. The house had an undeniably stronger season last year with high-impact productions of both Porgy and Bess and Iolanthe packing audiences in, thus vastly improving finances. But, for me, Luisa Miller was a truly wretched example of everything wrong with its supposedly daring producing policy – albeit with one giant caveat. Musically, it was first-rate. Verdi’s opera is too-little heard and had it been a concert performance I’d have sung the praises of the thrilling cast plus strong orchestral playing under conductor Alexander Joel.
But opera is theatre. Almost all the reviews reflected the chasm between the music and the production and while I wouldn’t go quite as far as David Mellor in the Daily Mail, who declared director Barbora Horakova “has ruined the show as effectively as if she’d gone into the National Gallery across the road and thrown a bucket of ordure over a favourite Constable”, it’s a close-run thing.
She presented the audience with ‘opera director’s bingo’. Maybe it seemed fresh to her but to almost anyone except first-time opera-goers – and no house can exist solely on them – it was a woeful, gestural parade of ridiculously tired clichés: white box set, tick; singers daubing graffiti across the walls, tick; children drafted in to play pre-figuring younger selves, tick; chorus dressed as clowns holding balloons, tick; malevolent, expressionist dancers presenting subtext, tick. Even in that first act there was more, but you get the picture.
Yet even that wasn’t what finally drove me to leave. What sent me raging into the night was Horakova’s inability to help her singers and, by extension, audiences. Even the experienced singers were largely left stranded, wrestling with directorial conceits and merely emoting like mad into the wide open space. Engaging drama? Nowhere.
Contrast that with last week’s return of Anthony Minghella’s celebrated ENO production of Madam Butterfly. Returning for its seventh season since its 2005 premiere in David Parry’s intelligent, singable translation, it boasted a powerful cast led by a shimmering Natalya Romaniw brimming with character and commitment.
Beneath Peter Mumford’s ravishingly colour-drenched light, those musical values were thrillingly meshed, via Michael Levine’s audaciously theatrical designs, to a moment-by-moment realisation of Minghella’s complete dramatic vision. Instead of displaying a director’s theoretical arguments about matters arising from the libretto, it gripped via genuinely exciting, moving musical drama.
With Annilese Miskimmon readying herself as ENO’s new artistic director, let’s hope genuine theatricality like this returns to the house’s menu.
Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict