No doubt about it, this was one of those concerts where my batteries felt properly recharged, restored to full strength with the power of these voices, somehow still flowing through me. A real privilege to hear such a fine group of singers at such close quarters, presenting a programme as individual as their own distinctive talents.
This event was part of a series called ‘ENO in the Fields’, a new initiative between close neighbours. The London Coliseum, home to English National Opera (‘ENO’), is merely a handful of eateries and one slightly alarming crossing away from St Martin in the Fields, a handsome, working church on the edge of Trafalgar Square that already leads a rich double life as a busy concert venue.
The broad aim of the series is to showcase new and emerging artists associated with ENO – in particular, those who are current or former Harewood Artists (ENO’s in-house development programme) – while also enabling their Chorus and Orchestra to perform wider-ranging repertoire in a different context.
It’s worth noting that, while St Martin in the Fields’s exterior looms impressively over its surroundings, on the inside it is far more compact than you might expect. Bearing in mind the distance that normally exists between performers and much of the audience in the vast auditorium of the Coliseum, this was going to be an intimate gig.
Perhaps inevitably, this gave me flashbacks. I became a fan of ENO’s Chorus and Orchestra as soon as I started going to the Coliseum. In particular, being a ‘voices’ person, I’ve always marvelled at how the Chorus have, as a whole, developed a unique character – a visibly, audibly crack unit, who seem tight to the point of telepathy. At they same time, they all present themselves as fully independent personalities, acting up a storm while sounding magnificent.
During a time of behind-the-scenes turmoil at ENO a few seasons ago, it soon became clear that their rock-solid on-stage presence must partly be due to their determination and attitude away from it. The Chorus essentially self-started a series of grittier, punkier spin-off productions away from the Coliseum (sometimes packing us into their West Hampstead rehearsal space), which grew into the strand ‘ENO Studio Live’. With mixed feelings – who wants a group of artists they admire to go through so much uncertainty? – I soaked up every minute of these stagings: seeing the singers and musicians from mere feet away, hearing their individual voices blend in ever-changing ways as they moved around. There was electricity in the creative way they seized the moment.
Even when some stability was restored, the sprit of ENO Studio Live looked set to continue – their unforgettable production of ‘Paul Bunyan’ at Wilton’s Music Hall (and later, Alexandra Palace Theatre) was testament to that. Of course, the pandemic intervened and whatever happened next was unlikely to be quite the same. But ‘ENO in the Fields’ (along with the superb ‘Seven Last Words’ concert given by the Chorus only a few weeks ago) is a truly encouraging sign that the Chorus – and Orchestra – are going to get the opportunity to spread their wings and make the kind of impact they deserve to both inside and outside the Coliseum.
Back to this event, and its intriguing selection of works. In line with the series remit, the Chorus were in effect our joint hosts: they formed the backbone of the programme, but did not perform from start to finish. In between the ensemble numbers, four soloists (all Harewood alumni) took centre stage.
Benson Wilson (baritone), with Richard Pearce on piano, gave sensitive performances of two British art songs, both ‘rose’-themed: Roderick Williams’s setting of ‘A red, red rose’, followed by ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ from Britten’s folksong arrangements. The latter’s sense of rolling unease stood us good stead for a genuine shock to the system. ‘Try me Good King’, a song-cycle by US composer Libby Larsen, sets words written by the wives of Henry VIII. There are five songs rather than six: Larsen deliberately omits Catherine Parr, who ushered in a period of relative domestic stability. Instead, Larsen gives full vent to the previous queens’ sadness and terror (for Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, the text comes from their speeches at the gallows), and soprano Nadine Benjamin inhabited each role to devastating effect. I was interested to read that Larsen composes in a rhythmically free style when starting her pieces, with no bar divisions on the score – these go in later as the work is refined and the ‘beat’ emerges. It’s no wonder, then, that the cadences of ‘real’ speech came across so well.
Later in the evening, we heard another piece new to me: an opera by Judith Weir, ‘King Harald’s Saga’. While technically a full opera – it’s divided into three acts and an epilogue – it’s written for one singer, totally unaccompanied, and lasts no longer than a quarter-hour. Mezzo-soprano Claire Barnett-Jones held the audience in the palm of her hand as she negotiated the various roles with agility and humour. There is abundant wit in the work – perhaps most obviously in the sequence where Harald’s two wives say farewell: one is high-voiced, meek and devout; the other, gruffly echoing the same sentiments at a lower pitch, highlighted Barnett-Jones’s expressive vocal characterisation and comic timing. But her control of the mood was such, that it still built inexorably to a tragic, poignant finale.
The Chorus themselves bookended each half of the concert, with four well-chosen exquisite works that could have been tailor-made to display their versatility. The evening began with Britten’s ‘Jubilate Deo’, a three-minute shot of energy, the Chorus transforming into a full-throttle church choir, duelling with the organ. I could feel the sound almost as something physical – not in the kind of ear-melting way I’ve experienced at certain super-loud rock gigs – more as a change in the air, an atmospheric shift: a ‘surround-sound’ feeling that translates across all your senses, suggesting light and warmth. This feeling was only emphasised later on as they closed out the first half with Vaughan Williams’s ‘Serenade to Music’, a justly well-loved caress of a piece, with the Chorus accompanied by players from the ENO Orchestra, and tenor John Findon joining the three soloists I’ve already mentioned.
Findon returned as the second half opened with an excerpt from Britten’s ‘Gloriana’. These were the ‘choral dances’ from the masque presented at Norwich for Elizabeth I’s entertainment, at the start of Act II. This arrangement includes harp accompaniment (Alison Martin, superb), with Findon on MC duties. More the Chorus’s usual patch, they were of course in their element, and we were able to forget the customary black performance livery as a vivid collective portrait rustic lads and lasses in celebratory mode came to life in front of us.
And perhaps the most exhilarating performance was saved until last, with Bernstein’s ‘Chichester Psalms’. This was the ‘scaled-down’ arrangement (harp, organ and percussion replace full orchestra), but it hardly felt like a ‘reduced’ work. If anything it was a formidable combination in the performance space – Richard Pearce doing an incredible job of sounding like every instrument at once on the organ, and Michael Doran punctuating the chords with depth-charges from his drum kit.
As the text in is Hebrew, it gave me licence to just focus on the blissful sound this Chorus can make. (Guest soloist countertenor Logan Lopez Gonzalez was a fine foil in the second movement.) Conductor and chorus-master Mark Biggins introduced the piece with a story about Walter Hussey (the then Dean of Chichester Cathedral) giving Bernstein the commission with a polite request for it to have an element of ‘West Side Story’ about it. Bernstein certainly obliged, and accordingly, the Chorus swung – visibly, in some cases. And as if we needed reminding that the group is full of individuals who are more than ready to step out as soloists as needed, the closing moments required four solo voices to emerge and take temporary precedence: beautifully done by soprano Jane Read, mezzo Morag Boyle, tenor John-Colyn Gyeantey and bass Michael Burke.
Overall, we were treated to a heady concoction of ravishing vocal music, and that would have been enough. But the more you reflect on the repertoire, the more provocative and incisive it feels. Yes, we heard Vaughan Williams at his most lush and ‘nostalgic’ (for a time and place that probably never existed), but with a setting from one of Shakespeare’s most problematic plays, ‘The Merchant of Venice’. Appropriate, then, to balance it with Bernstein’s celebratory Jewish approach in keeping the Hebrew text for ‘Chichester Psalms’ and ‘disrupting’ any undue reverence with jazz/dance-inflected rhythms. Our other US onlooker, Larsen, draws out the misogynistic tyranny in our history, while Weir focuses on insider lies and treachery. And Britten is surely a perfect choice for exploring the sometimes fractured relationships between tradition and innovation, artifice and reality. All evening, the focus on was Britain, but instead of rosy-tinted spectacles, we were looking through a clear, unforgiving lens – or at a mirror.
(Grateful thanks to friend and opera oracle Ruth Elleson for additional details used in the above piece. For ongoing info and insight on all things choral/opera/ballet and more besides, I warmly recommend following Ruth on Twitter: @RuthElleson.)