English National Opera has arrived at the Dead City, and who, before Christmas, would have given odds that this new production of Korngold’s Die tote Stadt would ever make it this far? This is late-Romantic music-drama on an exuberant scale; it simply doesn’t lend itself to pubs and car parks (even the reduced version staged – superbly – at Longborough last summer used an orchestra of some 60 players). Korngold deals with strong emotions (grief, delusion and obsessive love) with a melodic generosity that has historically provoked the prissiest instincts of the British operatic establishment. The Royal Opera held its nose and staged a brief run in 2009, before sweeping it hastily under the carpet.
But not ENO. ‘The opera is a masterpiece,’ says ENO’s artistic director Annilese Miskimmon and for that alone I’d gladly double its subsidy. Of all the idiotic things that have been said about English National Opera since the Arts Council’s botched attempt to garrot the company last November, the most self-evidently ignorant was that it lacks a distinctive artistic profile. Rot: I’ve written before about ENO’s role in preserving and refreshing the indigenous operatic tradition, from G&S to Birtwistle.
But it’s also the best place in the capital to take the pulse of the messier European directors (Bieito’s Carmen, Horakova’s Luisa Miller), to see new-ish work that actually stands a chance of attracting a mass audience (Akhnaten, The Handmaid’s Tale) and for directors from the wider theatrical ecology to try their hand at opera and either triumph (Cal McCrystal, Simon McBurney) or implode (Emma Rice). The possibility of failure is part of what makes ENO so vital. It feels healthier – more truly theatrical – to witness ENO aim high and crash in flames than to sit through any number of slick Stefan Herheim imports or succès d’estime premières at the other place.
Which is a sort-of preliminary to saying that despite some formidable musical and dramatic strengths, this rare staging of an opera I adore, by a company I badly want to succeed, doesn’t quite come off.