Congratulations and thanks to ENO for resurrecting this long neglected work, last performed in London in 1842, and known to aficionados chiefly in extracts included in recorded period compilations. Thanks too to David Parry and the ever excellent ENO Orchestra for producing the pacing, stately and reserved, demanded by Spontini’s score – and even more for allowing the audience to hear the words. After all, what is the point of having opera translated into the vernacular if the audience cannot hear the words.
The prevailing mood of the Empire of Napoleon was classical and chaste, and this helps to account for the seeming ubiquity of the Chorus, commenting on the action (or inaction, as it tends to be) of the principals, who interact with one another on a psychologically limited, direct, but simple basis.
The intention is that the audience should engage with the drama with the mind, with reason, rather than emotionally. No tiny hand frozen here; instead a hardly sullied and brave vestal embraces death, a hero with a passion-free certificate offers to substitute himself for her, and an inflexible high priest demands the ultimate sacrifice – exactly what each character should be and do according to classical types. Spontini’s music responds precisely to the demands of Neo-Classicism or Imperial style.
This work was woefully served by the ENO production. This opera, rather like its vestal successor Norma, cries out for a traditional, classical rendition. Instead, what Francesca Zambello gave us was Star Trek’s Crash Holiday in Skegness. Why did she sadistically torture the audience in this way, forcing them to close their eyes to try to make sense of what Spontini so clearly conveys in his music? At curtain up I was encouraged by the sight of the circular scoring of the stage – appropriate to the Temple of Vesta in Rome – but then there descended the central feature of the production.
According to the programme notes, this unsightly contraption was supposed to represent the heavenly spheres – thanks for this insight! – but it looked like the guard of a ’50s gas fire without the tile surround. And there is no denying this was a gas fire. It is ludicrous. Should not ENO employ a person to vet stupid ideas – a kind of ombudsman for opera productions – to rein in the excesses and downright stupidities of producers? (The henge of the second half seemed at first to offer some respite, but it proved totally meaningless – and the ghastly gas fire came down again.)
None of this auteur-producer stuff was remotely credible; it all might have been projected by an eight-year-old on a rainy day. It was reinforced in its inanity by thoroughly gauche choreography. Quite apart from the mindless streaming of golden banners around the perimeter of the stage from time to time by persons pretending to the be ballet dancers (discernible chiefly from their strange kit), the entire chorus was obliged to do absurd things with their heads and hands. The gentlemen of the chorus were dressed in military camouflage, and the ladies in ’40s/’50s holiday attire. The high priest had a hair-do (mostly lack of hair-do) that would put Beckham’s famous Mohican in the shade. Soothsayer was a stock carnival character. All of this nonsense helped to obscure – not elucidate – the spare story.
The male principals sang crisply though without much involvement. Anne-Marie Owens was in very fine form and injected just the right measure of life and emotion into this rather lifeless score. Jane Eaglen is simply too big to be taken seriously on the stage. She moves with the sluggishness of an articulated lorry. Her shape does not alter whether she sits or stands; there is only a barely perceptible variation in height. Her facial expression is frozen in a permanent Buster Keaton deadpan. Sadly, her singing on the first night also had little to commend in it: colourless and at times off-key.
So, two stars to ENO: one for effort and the other for the merciful brevity of the performance.