Brashly-wrought Borodin mixed with brazen Broadway takes the London Coliseum back to its former function as presenter of big musicals. Sadly it’s not the glory days that ENO’s Kismet recalls but something much closer to a decidedly dodgy end of term school play. Gary Griffen‘s direction and Ultz‘s garish designs are spectacularly unimaginative and, if the day is saved, it is only by a handful of lively lead performances.
You need to go to this show armed with an unshakeable sense of ironic, not to say slightly sick, humour. With a mid 20th Century sensibility towards all things eastern, blood red walls and lines like “Baghdad is the symbol of happiness on earth” and “Now subtly I’ll change the face of Baghdad”, this show could prove as provocative as Salman Rushdie’s knighthood or Tony Blair’s desire to go to the middle east as peace envoy.
Robert Wright and George Forrest’s 1953 musical takes melodies from a number of Borodin’s works (including Prince Igor, the 2nd Symphony and most memorably the 2nd String Quartet), pulls them out of shape, chops them to bits and spices them with themes of their own in a ludicrous tale culled from The Arabian Nights.
The spirit of traditional Christmas entertainment is frequently brought to mind in ENO’s production, with front of tabs scenes, a glitter curtain and cameo performances drawn from the chorus that truly pay homage to the art of village hall panto. A misfiring little gong/big gong gag is a typically under-developed and fudged piece of business.
A natural showman, imported musical star Michael Ball fills the stage as the nameless Poet and, despite a characteristic excess of vibrato at times, holds his own well among the opera singers. Sarah Tynan brings her elfin charms and Classic FM darling Alfie Boe a stiff earnestness to the juve leads. Both sing sweetly and strongly, if the acting is somewhat leaden.
A little American glitz was presumably intended with the casting of Broadway star Faith Prince as the scheming Lalume but the pizazz fails to materialise and stalwart Donald Maxwell seems distinctly uncomfortable in the feeble role of Omar Khayyam. Graeme Danby does his best with “Was I Wazir?” but with a backing chorus who are a nonpareil of disengagement.
The choreography is best not dwelt upon; let’s say it is probably a victim of artistic differences. In the pit, things are better, with the orchestra benefiting from the experienced hand of Richard Hickox as conductor and, as with On the Town before it, the colourful score really taking off with a band of this size.
Following a run of top-rate productions recently, Kismet is a painfully weak end to ENO’s season. Hopefully, there are enough Michael Ball and Alfie Boe fans, plus people seeking an utterly mindless evening’s entertainment, to carry it through its 19 performances.