Patricia Bardon in 'The Dream of Gerontius'
Patricia Bardon in 'The Dream of Gerontius' © Tristram Kenton

This was a strange evening. In the middle of the barren period in the summer months when there is no longer any opera at the Coliseum, English National Opera summoned back its orchestra and chorus for two performances of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius — an oratorio, not an opera, though with the promise here of some kind of staging.

If the intention was to give its company orchestra and chorus an opportunity to shine on the concert platform, then the plan had its reward. ENO’s chorus, bolstered by the BBC Singers, performed to an especially high standard. Elgar’s choral writing leaves many exposed moments and the benefit of having an all-professional chorus could not be missed.

For the rest, the purpose of the enterprise remained a mystery. Lucy Carter was credited with “concept, designs and staging” for the event, but it was difficult to see what she had done. The solo singers sang from music-stands and the “staging” consisted of little but white lighting from above. There was no attempt to portray angels and demons, let alone “that sight of the most Fair” when Gerontius sees the Lord, as envisaged at the climax of Cardinal Newman’s poem. Anybody who had bought a ticket expecting to see some kind of semi-staging might reasonably have felt cheesed off. Bizarrely, ENO’s website warned that the production would include “adult content that might not be suitable for young audiences”. Whatever were they thinking of?

Tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones, fresh from his Walther in Die Meistersinger at the Royal Opera House, had all the notes, but nothing of the rapt, out-of-this-world quality of voice or utterance to which the finest singers of Gerontius aspire. Patricia Bardon’s Angel, a true alto rather than mezzo, occasionally under some strain, sang the text with more eloquence. As so often, the bass, Matthew Rose, was outstanding, especially in the sonorously-voiced music of the Priest.

It is not often that conductor Simone Young is seen in London, but on the strength of this grandly-paced, Wagnerian performance she would be welcome back. For ENO, a return to opera at the Coliseum cannot come too soon.

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