Let’s begin with the one that is supposed to be opera, The Prisoner. Luigi Dallapiccola’s Il Prigioniero is rarely performed. This is perhaps because it doesn’t work as opera. Calling it a “symbolist opera” – quite apart from the anachronism – doesn’t help. Opera is spectacle. The Prisoner is not. It is static – or, as a young friend of mine would say, ‘nothing happens’.
This is intended, but one cannot fail to observe that 19th-century composers managed to establish a gloomy, claustrophobic mood with a few dozen bars of music at most – and then they made things happen. Even Janáček’s From the House of the Dead – a prisoner opera if ever there was one, and full-length at that – has significant action.
Dallapiccola’s 55-minute work is best treated as a concert piece. The music is richly suggestive, lavishly scored, a pleasure to hear, but there is nothing to watch. Peter Coleman-Wright sings passionately, adopting for much of his performance a pose taken from one of Goya’s desperados. But even the intrusion of other members of the cast results in no interaction with him – no doubt intended – but there has to be a limit.
Then the children come on, clad in black (is it imitation leather or silk? – is it supposed to be ambiguous?) but bare-kneed, carrying bonsai trees which a few minutes later explode simultaneously. Really!? Is that all there is? Oh yes! – one thing more: The Prisoner runs all the way round the scaffolding abutting the Circle: the sound of his footfalls startles one out of possible sleep. But we have seen this all before – to excellent effect in l’Incoronazione di Poppea. This time it doesn’t do anything to relieve the ho-hum-yawn.
But, back to the beginning. The evening kicks off with Luciano Berio’s arrangement of Folk Songs, eleven of them from eight different countries – ‘semi-staged,’ as they say. There’s not much of Berio’s musical language in these settings (which might be regarded by some as a good thing), but he has strung them together beautifully – originally for the late, lamented Cathy Berberian, who became his wife. These are lovely songs. They are not opera, of course, and gain precious little from being put in a context, however hazy, on stage. Susan Parry sings them with exquisite panache, even when she is perched in some precarious position and distracted by somersaulting children.
Nino Rota is best known for his film scores. From his music for Fellini’s La Strada he distilled this highly theatrical and balletic orchestral suite. The score is as energetic and quirky as some of Aaron Copland’s dance music. Why, oh why, does film music get so often written off by so-called ‘serious’ music critics? Rota’s score would readily see off junk like La Sylphide.
Neil Armfield and Kate Champion (the latter more than the former, I suspect) have devised an affecting ballet for children, which is as incisive and disturbing a commentary on the disintegration of cultural values as was the original film. The dance routines are both complicated and do-able by children – and these children have been most effectively drilled. The boy who dons the wedding dress (and who subsequently gets abused for it) dances with extraordinary grace and expressiveness. But, I had better not give away too much of the plot. If this were the sole item on the menu, I should still recommend this as a filling evening.
As always, the orchestral playing by the ENO orchestra was brilliant – as was also the ensemble for Folk Songs – all under the lively baton of Richard Hickox. Please may we see and hear more of him at ENO.