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Opera

Opera Perfect performance Michael Tanner

Promised EndLinbury Studio, in rep until 16 NovemberRadamistoEnglish National Opera, in rep until 4 November‘There is perhaps no play which keeps the attention so strongly fixed; which so much agitates our passions and interests our curiosity.

16 October 2010

12:00 AM

16 October 2010

12:00 AM

Promised End

Linbury Studio, in rep until 16 November

Radamisto

English National Opera, in rep until 4 November

‘There is perhaps no play which keeps the attention so strongly fixed; which so much agitates our passions and interests our curiosity.

Promised End


Linbury Studio, in rep until 16 November

Radamisto

English National Opera, in rep until 4 November

‘There is perhaps no play which keeps the attention so strongly fixed; which so much agitates our passions and interests our curiosity. The artful involutions of distinct interests, the striking opposition of contrary characters, the sudden changes of fortune, and the quick succession of events, fill the mind with a perpetual tumult of indignation, pity and hope. There is no scene which does not contribute to the aggravation of the distress or conduct of the action.’

I haven’t seen Samuel Johnson’s wonderful account of King Lear quoted in any of the innumerable interviews that have preceded the première of Alexander Goehr’s Promised End, yet they fit his opera, of Shakespeare’s play drastically and necessarily slimmed down by Frank Kermode, just as well as they characterise the original. Naturally, the quick succession of events is even quicker than in the original, but Kermode and Goehr’s combined skill is enough to ensure that it doesn’t seem to be just one appalling thing all too soon after another.

Some major characters in Shakespeare, for instance Kent, disappear completely, and Cordelia and the Fool are merged, brilliantly. The main outlines of the play are adhered to, though the ending, with the hanged Fool singing a prophecy, is drastically different from Shakespeare’s closing banalities. The whole thing takes an hour and three quarters, including an interval. All told, it makes an extremely powerful impression, even if one that is different, and less devastating, than Shakespeare’s play. But it is a tragic impression, despite Goehr’s statement in Opera that ‘my Lear is a comedy in effect, because it grows from the Foucault-like notion that madness is not a total decline’. I don’t understand that sentence, and can see no way in which this Lear is comic; indeed, even less than Shakespeare’s.

That the initial impact is so powerful is partly thanks to the perfection of the performance — no lesser term will do for this astonishing achievement of English Touring Opera. With Ryan Wigglesworth conducting with contagious confidence, and behind the singers, there was no respect in which this shoestring production was wanting. The set, by Adam Wiltshire, is simple, clarifying and always effective. The central part of the action, in which Lear, the Fool and Edgar take refuge in a lidded hole, is Beckettian but more overwhelming than anything he contrived. And the cast achieve uniform identification with their roles. There is a sense in which most of the characters in Lear, and still more so in Promised End, are simply what they are: and Goehr’s intense music gives them each a profile, without embedding them in a context — that isn’t the kind of music he composes — which is done by the staging.

The performers need to project instantly, and James Conway, the director, has ensured that they do. I’d be interested to know what someone not steeped in King Lear would make of Promised End, but I think that they wouldn’t be confused or uninvolved; conversely, those of us who live with Shakespeare’s works are not outraged; indeed, are encouraged to feel the work anew. The orchestra is, often, unobtrusive, though never not doing something interesting; and the vocal lines are tours de force of characterisation, with Goneril and Regan and the Fool (accompanied by a guitar) especially vivid. I’m avoiding mentioning the singers by name, but will break that rule just to say that Nigel Robson’s Gloucester is stupendous in its agonising pathos. These are first reactions, and I look forward to seeing the opera again on tour and being more articulate about it.

Having Handel as a blind spot is trying for me, and perhaps worse for anyone who reads me reviewing yet another production of yet another of his operas. I haven’t seen Radamisto for ten years, since it was done by Opera North in an unrevived production. I shall be interested to see how ENO’s new production, a typical example of David Alden’s approach to life and art, fares. It is mainly strongly cast, and if Laurence Cummings’s conducting lacks variety, it has vigour and some momentum. In the title role, Lawrence Zazzo is one of the most sympathetic counter-tenors that I have ever encountered, and an extremely good actor, too. With the glorious Christine Rice in great voice and acting with her usual naturalness, their scenes together are the evening’s high points. But the casting of Ailish Tynan in the role of Tigrane, a character not so much complex as fragmented, is a disaster. She has terrifying coloratura to sing, and sometimes hits, sometimes misses. But it’s her interpretation of the part, as a pouting, mincing, wobbling, confusingly gendered person, dressed in a contemporary cream suit, while everyone else is in ‘medieval’ costume, that sinks the show, depriving it of whatever kind of credibility Handel is entitled to claim. I can’t see that many of the arias show the composer at his best, but perhaps it was the annoyance caused by this Tigrane that undermined my enjoyment.

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