ENO's The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
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Topped in translation: two new London operas make a case for English-language productions

The English National Opera’s  The Mastersingers of Nuremberg and the Royal Opera’s L’Ormindo show that translated music-theatre can be exceptional.

Death and taxes may be life’s inevitables, but in opera it’s the embattled question of English-language productions. Every year the issue returns, provoking heated debate for a few weeks before some more pressing matter pushes it to the bottom of the pile again. Does opera sell itself short in translation? Do we lose more than we gain? What’s interesting this time round is the new scope of the discussion: English National Opera’s The Mastersingers of Nuremberg may be in the frame, but so too is the Royal Opera’s L’Ormindo. Both are exceptional pieces of music-theatre – joyous, giddy comedies that touch as well as tease. This is an argument that has never been closer to a victory.

It’s curious that the Royal Opera’s new venture into smaller spaces has coincided with an unprecedented new approach to translation. No attention has been drawn to this shift in policy, which has slipped through as part of a wider attempt at accessibility, at reinventing opera for the youthful audience of the Camden Roundhouse (with the recent Orfeo, also in English) and the more theatrically-inclined audience at the Globe. If experience teaches us anything though, it’s that comedy is always a more natural fit in translation; the immediacy you gain usually outweighs what you lose in linguistic colour. Tragedy (especially if it’s by Verdi or Donizetti) tends to lose gravitas, teetering dangerously close to Gilbert and Sullivan in an Italian accent.

But a piece like Cavalli’s L’Ormindo – a sparkling piece of baroque frippery – works wonderfully well, as the Royal Opera proved in 2014 when they premiered Kasper Holten’s production. Less than a year later and the show is back, the jewel in the gilded jewel-box that is the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. There’s a reason that an obscure opera by a minor composer is selling out every night: drama. The audience is rarely closer, more embraced in theatrical action (sometimes literally) than in this space, where the ‘stage’ extends up into the balconies and out into, and onto, the crowd. It’s irreverent, naughty, and entirely charming.

The original young cast all return to romp their way through Christopher Cowell’s witty translation, keeping tongue firmly in cheek for a story that’s more lust than love, following the endless romantic complications of Susanna Hurrell’s coquettish Erisbe and her various men. Ed Lyon and Samuel Boden reprise their roles as rival lovers – two young tenors with personality to match fine voices – and soprano Joelle Harvey stills the theatre once again with her ravishing lament “Chi mi toglie al die”. Anja Vang Kragh’s period-costumes-with-a-twist ensure we take nothing too seriously, gilding period comedy with contemporary wit. This is as much fun as you can have at the opera – a miniature miracle of a show.

Over at the Coliseum opera is happening at a rather larger scale this month with over 100 singers and almost as many orchestral musicians involved in The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. Richard Jones’ production debuted at Welsh National Opera in 2010 and is now seen in London for the first time at ENO – a spectacular way to celebrate the director’s 25-year relationship with the company.

Spreading out across the full scope of the Coliseum’s vast stage, filling London’s largest theatre with Jones’ trademark colours and patterns, this is as generous and wise a comedy as we’ve seen in a long time – an ensemble show that makes a case more persuasive than any number of op-ed articles for the necessity of ENO as a company. Meistersinger can be an awkward beast, with its long running time and bizarre Fatherland-exalting epilogue, but here it flourishes thanks to direction sensitive to every detail of this vivid score, and big, characterful performances from an almost entirely British cast. At the heart of it all is Iain Paterson’s Hans Sachs – a singer who fills the cobbler’s shoes with almost unbearable humanity. He masterminds not only the comedy but the near-miss tragedy of Wagner’s opera, aided by some wonderful interplay with Andrew Shore’s Malvolio-esque Beckmesser, and some unexpected tenderness in his dealings with Rachel Nicholls’ glowing Eva. It helps that his voice – at the lighter end for this role – finds unusual lyricism at the top of the range, balancing out a lack of beef at the bottom.

Gwyn Hughes-Jones makes an ardent Walter – older and more grizzled than many, which only adds to the pathos of failed lovers Sachs and Beckmesser – crooning his way through the Prize Song as easily as a three-minute pop song. He gets some serious competition however from Nicky Spence’s David – new power amplifying his trademark purity – and add James Cresswell’s Pogner to the mix (not to mention Jonathan Lemalu in the tiny role of Hans Schwartz) and you have an embarrassment of riches.

Holding together the action in the pit is Edward Gardner, directing ENO’s orchestra in a performance that’s high on energy and matches Jones’ visuals for colour. The brass are radiant in the spotlight of the Act III opening and the strings catch their burnish, mellowing it with new warmth. A chorus bursting with extras brings the show to its climax with heart-tugging beauty, and a final dramatic gesture from Jones that threatens to turn brimming into gushing. A singular achievement, and one of so many reasons why ENO must survive.

L’Ormindo runs at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until March 5th. The Mastersingers of Nuremberg runs at the London Coliseum until March 10th.

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How Dame Vera Lynn was told to “posh her accent up”

Radio 2’s 100th-birthday tribute reveals how Lynn was forced to change her voice.

“I remember seeing her near an elephant, and this elephant rolled over a bit and she had to get out of the way . . .” Vic Knibb, the vice-chairman of the veterans’ group the Burma Star Association, was one of the thousands of British soldiers serving in the Far East during the Second World War who came across Vera Lynn in the jungle, singing from the back of a Jeep, accompanied by an out-of-tune piano.

Speaking in Radio 2’s celebration of the singer’s 100th birthday, Vera Lynn: the Sweetheart of the United Kingdom (Sunday 19 March, 8pm), Knibb and others recalled what it meant to them that Lynn travelled so far to perform for the so-called Forgotten Army in Burma. Unlike other entertainers, who stayed in Europe or visited only military hospitals in the UK, she deliberately went where few others did – where she felt she was needed by “the boys”.

The programme, which featured a rare interview with Lynn herself, was dominated by clips of her recordings from the Thirties and Forties. We heard frequent extracts from “The White Cliffs of Dover”, “We’ll Meet Again” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. The contrast between these two voices, separated by more than six decades, was the most arresting thing this otherwise pedestrian documentary had to offer. The now gravelly-voiced centenarian sang, in her youth, with a smooth, effortless-sounding tone and crystal-clear diction. But how did the cockney daughter of a plumber from East Ham end up singing with received pronunciation?

The answer, as ever in Britain, is class. Lynn had no formal musical training, and as she had been performing in working men’s clubs from the age of seven, she was considered closer to a musical-hall crooner than a “proper” singer. But with her small vocal range and flawless self-taught technique, she chose her own songs to suit her voice. The BBC, for which she made her hugely popular radio show Sincerely Yours, requested that she take elocution lessons to “posh her accent up” and even at one point took her show off air for 18 months. “Every­body’s Sweetheart” wasn’t immune from snobbishness, it seems. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution