Although this English National Opera presentation of The Dream of Gerontius, performed away from the Coliseum in the Royal Festival Hall, officially constitutes a staging (courtesy of Lucy Carter), this does not mean that soloists are costumed, chorus members move around the auditorium or dancers are employed. In fact, walking into the hall to see the chorus laid out in neat rows and three music stands occupy the front of a stage that is taken up entirely with the orchestra, one is left wondering how this oratorio is going to be staged at all. It is, however, by making the presentation an all-encompassing experience through the use of lighting.
The Overture begins in such complete darkness, with nothing more than a single light shining on conductor Simone Young, that the instrumentalists required for the opening bars would have to know their parts off by heart as there is no chance for them to see their scores. Across the oratorio as a whole, however, the main source of theatrical lighting comes from a triangular shaped framework that hangs above the stage. Lights of white, red and blue dance around it in some interesting formations, with their speed and intensity varying depending on the moment in question. For example, when the Choir of Angelicals sing white is the dominant colour, while the appearance of the Demons sees the lights at their most frenetic with their darting movements flashing across the chorus and illuminating different members from second to second. At the momentary appearance of God the lights shoot out across the auditorium to dazzle the audience with their splendour.
Young is in supreme control of the ENO Orchestra, which delivers playing of the utmost sensitivity. She always ensures that its balanced approach and excellent delineation of some beautiful lines never prevents it from packing an emotional punch as, for example, it mirrors Gerontius’ own feelings. The seventy-strong chorus comprising the ENO Chorus and BBC Singers is smaller than that to be found in many performances of the work, and the benefits in terms of focus and quality of sound that derive from using a select group of professional singers are plain to hear.
The soloists do not wear costumes but their clothes allude to their characters. Patricia Bardon as the Angel wears a radiant white dress, while Matthew Rose presents a Priest-like persona with his three quarter length jacket, and also captures something of the Angel of the Agony through its black colour. Gywn Hughes Jones wears a grey top, which is a good compromise colour considering the number of places that Gerontius occupies on his journey. He puts in a magnificent performance as his mighty tenor expands to seemingly limitless heights, yet also proves capable of delivering extremely sensitive singing when required. Hughes Jones is also an exceptionally engaging performer as he captures Gerontius’ fear, anguish, hope and awe when so many interpretations of the character hook onto just one or two of these traits. Bardon reveals her rich mezzo-soprano, with its interesting range of nuances and dark hues, to the full, while Rose produces an incredibly firm, secure and aesthetically pleasing bass sound.
Enunciation from chorus and soloists alike is not always at a premium in the unforgiving Royal Festival Hall (Hughes Jones fares best in this respect), and the problem is compounded by several factors. There are no surtitles, because presumably Carter felt they would clash visually with the overhanging triangle of lights, and it is not always possible to read the programme’s libretto because the lighting levels across the auditorium are so low. Nevertheless, this is a staging that genuinely contributes to the experience of hearing the oratorio, and with the performance boasting such excellent musical credentials there is a great deal to enjoy.