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The Dream of Gerontius review at Royal Festival Hall, London – ‘an unforgettable experience’

Patricia Bardon in The Dream of Gerontius at Royal Festival Hall, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton Patricia Bardon in The Dream of Gerontius at Royal Festival Hall, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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“This is the best of me”, wrote Elgar at the end of his manuscript, quoting John Ruskin. “This, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.”

The Dream of Gerontius is not an opera, of course, but an oratorio, written for the concert hall. English National Opera is not really in the concert-hall business, and the staging of oratorios, though more frequently attempted these days, can be a hazardous enterprise.

Yet this concert hall staging by Lucy Carter, which involves no movement and relies on lighting alone, proves to be a powerful and imaginative realisation of a work with a unique narrative trajectory: surrounded by friends who pray for him, the ailing Gerontius dies, and we witness his journey into the afterlife and the hosts of demons and angels that he encounters before he is led to divine judgment.

The text appealed to the Catholic Elgar and inspired from him one of the greatest of all choral works. Musically, this performance under conductor Simone Young captures its intensity, its exaltation and its sense of fear that eventually finds consolation in the moving final section.

Patricia Bardon’s inspiring Angel, Matthew Rose’s grandly voiced Priest and Angel of the Agony, and Gwyn Hughes Jones’ committed Gerontius, all leave a strong impression – though diction could sometimes be better.

The ENO Chorus combines with the BBC Singers to deliver expert, fine-toned and regularly thrilling singing. The company’s orchestra is on exceptional form, while Young’s interpretation is both fluid and concentrated.

But what makes this Gerontius special are visual effects that match Elgar’s score with intelligence and sensitivity, drawing the audience into an unforgettable experience in which music, text and a virtuosic yet regularly restrained use of lighting techniques are aligned in a meaningful unison.

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Elgar’s oratorio is presented in a dramatically lit concert hall staging