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.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

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BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown and the tricky question of staging the Henry VI plays

The War of the Roses plays are great crowd-pleasing popular hits. So why are adaptations so hard to get right?

This week sees the arrival of the second series of BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown, subtitled “The Wars of the Roses”. It’s nearly four years since the first, commissioned and screened as part of the “Cultural Olympiad” that ran in parallel with the London Olympics. Both series were executive produced by Oscar winner and James Bond director Sam Mendes, but largely directed by people who chiefly work in theatre, rather than television or film. The 2012 run won four Baftas, including for Ben Whishaw and Simon Russell Beale’s performances.

The plays that comprised series one (Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V) are universally acknowledged to be a prequel tetralogy to four plays from earlier in Shakespeare’s career, Henry VI parts 1, 2 and 3, and Richard III. It’s these four later-set, earlier-written plays that are being adapted into the three episodes of the second series.

Of these plays, Richard III, twice made into successful and important British films, is by far the most famous and frequently performed, attracting star names like Martin Freeman and Ralph Fiennes to London stage productions in the last three years alone. Indeed, its title character is so important in British culture it's hard to tell where the historical figure ends and Shakespeare’s character begins, as discussion surrounding that King’s reinternment in 2015 demonstrated.

The least well-known of the plays is Henry VI Part 1. The initial commissioning announcement for this series implied the first episode would consist of Part 1, with the second conflating Part 2 and Part 3. While believable in terms of the content of the plays, it’s not practical in terms of their respective lengths, and the first episode covers both Part 1 and Part 2.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Not only is Henry VI Part 1 performed least of these history plays, it’s even less often performed in full. The first recorded production after Shakespeare’s own lifetime was on 13th March 1788 in Covent Garden: a good 170 years after the author’s death. The next was when Sir Frank Benson staged it in 1906, another century-and-change later. After those gaps, the mere 47 years until the next production, at Birmingham Rep in 1953 (starring Judi Dench as Joan of Arc), is nothing. For the first time in nearly 400 years it was possible for someone to have seen two productions of the whole play in one lifetime. I wonder if anyone did?

Next was Terry Hands’ 1977 RSC production (with Helen Mirren as Queen Margaret and Alan Howard as the King – the actors saw their characters’ marriage’s foundation as “bondage in the chapel”) followed by another RSC production in 2000 (which has been revived more than once since) and one at The Globe in 2012/13.

The plays that make up The Hollow Crown series two work less effectively than those that formed series one when asked to standalone. Not only do they work better as a cycle, but they depend on the others within their own tetralogy to a greater extent than Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V do. Even the often-performed Richard III works better with the Henry VI plays behind it: The Hollow Crown’s Richard, Benedict Cumberbatch, has noted that you really need the Henry VI plays to understand the Richard who comes on stage and announces a winter of discontent, and both cinema versions incorporate pieces of Henry VI Part 3 to set the scene.

Accordingly then, a few scenes from Henry VI Part 1 are often excerpted and combined with Part 2 to create a composite play even in ‘Complete’ stage runs of Shakespeare’s Histories (e.g. the RSC in 1963 or Michael Bogdanov’s radical 1980s productions). One such scene is the moment when the various nobles pick either white or red roses from a bush to indicate their respective loyalties (while not the origin of the phrase “The Wars of the Roses”, this scene is what prompted Sir Walter Scott to coin it). The Red Rose of Lancaster, unlike the White Rose of York, is not contemporary to this stage of the conflict, being invented by Henry VII after his victory in 1485.

Other scenes, such as the funeral of Henry V or Plantagenet having his rights to the Crown explained to him, almost always make it through. Mostly, though, the play is dumped, much if not all of the material featuring Joan of Arc removed due to concerns about her portrayal as a witch. These traditionally came from a religious, rather than a feministic perspective, particularly in the years around Joan canonisation in 1920. Although Shakespeare must get points for having the play’s Dauphin predict that La Pucelle would one day be a Saint.

The Hollow Crown’s director/adapter Dominic Cooke has kept much of the Joan of Arc subplot, but interestingly cut the sub-plot featuring the peasant rebel and pretender Jack Cade, which forms a fair chunk of Henry VI Part 2. This is usually included, as it’s considered an important counterpoint to the aristocratic rebellion happening elsewhere in the play.

Almost always lost are the scenes featuring the English soldier Talbot (played in The Hollow Crown by Philip Glenister), usually because someone involved in the production considers the rhyme scheme in which they are written to be lacking. In context, this is rather odd, as not only was Henry VI Part 1 a massive hit when originally performed, but Talbot was regarded as the play’s most notable and successful element.   

For much of Shakespeare’s career he wrote exclusively for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (after 1603 renamed The King’s Men) the theatrical company for which he acted and wrote, in which he owned a one-eighth share, and which performed, over the years, at various venues across London built or owned by Shakespeare’s fellow actor, Richard Burbage, and/or Burbage’s brother Cuthbert or their Father, James.

Very few records related to this company survive. Earlier in his career, however, Shakespeare wrote for a variety of companies, including for those performing in venues owned and run by Philip Henslowe, the bear-baiter, financier, social climber and public official. Extensive papers related to Henslowe’s business dealings were deposited in the library of Dulwich College, the then poor, now private, school founded by Henslowe’s son-in-law, the actor Ned Alleyn. From these we learn that a play “Harey Vj” was performed on 2nd March 1592 (Henslowe’s spelling is non-standard, perhaps eccentric even in the 1590s: at one point he renders Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus as “Titus &ondronicus”, something which has always given me great joy.) “Harey” or Henry, was  marked “ne”, usually taken to indicate that the play was new, and the box office takings are indicative of a premiere: that that afternoon it took 3s 16s 8d. As admission to the Rose was a penny a head for groundlings, rising to up to 3d if you wanted to sit in the galleries, and its capacity was around three hundred, this a full house. The play was performed more than a dozen further occasions over the next few months. The practice of the time was to rotate plays, allowing people to see a large repertory in very quick succession, rather than the modern practice of long runs.

There are also few surviving documents in which people record their own responses to theatrical events of this period, but for Henry VI Part 1 we have one: The writer Thomas Nashe’s ‘Piers Penniless’, which was registered with the Stationer’s Office (the 1590s equivalent of copyright registration) in August 1592 sees Nashe praise the play, saying:

How would it have joyed brave Talbot, the terror of the French, to think that after he had lain two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators, at least, who in the tragedian that represents his person imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.

Henry VI Part 1 has been made for television by the BBC three times before, always as now as part of a longer sequence. An Age of Kings (1961) reduced it to an hour, and The War of the Roses (1965) was a version of the RSC’s 1963 productions, retaining their cuts. Only in 1983 did it play (practically) uncut, running for nearly three hours.(It was cut into two 90m episodes for the American market.)  This magical production directed by Jane Howell contained within a single set representing a children’s playground, which she later utilised for parts 2 and 3 and Richard III as well, is an abstract, defiantly unrealistic staging of the play about as far from The Hollow Crown’s mimetic, shot-on-location style as it’s possible to imagine. The rival dukes arrive on hobby horses, and at one point its Talbot, Trevor Peacock, does what we’d now recognise as a “Miranda Hart Look To Camera”. It’s quite a lot to live up to.

The new BBC version has an exception cast (I mean, look at it), and the production standards of the first series can’t be faulted. It’s hard to argue that first series of The Hollow Crown didn’t draw on richer and more complex plays than the second, but the Henry VI plays particularly showcase an earlier Shakespeare, whose work is more boisterous and direct; simplifying hugely, they have a little more action and a little less introspection. They’re exciting dramas of civil strife and internecine warfare, with quite a lot of sex and violence: great crowd-pleasing popular hits.

There’s no reason at all why they can’t be again.