‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ at English National Opera

The final work in ENO’s 2022/23 season, a staging of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, made for a poignant, beautiful and moving close to a season beset with anxiety about the future of ENO in is current home, the London Coliseum, after Arts Council England (ACE) slashed its funding and demanded that the opera find a new home outside London. This is all part of the government’s so-called “levelling up” policy, but for many of us who care about such things, it – and other acts of desecration by ACE – feels like an attack on culture and also on excellence.

These points were more than touched upon in an emotional pre-performance speech by Stuart Murphy, outgoing CEO of ENO, who warned Nicholas Serota, Michael Gove and others that “history is watching you”. Murphy’s speech garnered enthusiastic support, with a few shouts of “Tories out!” from the balcony.

What followed was a performance which demonstrated exactly why we should value ENO and what it does – and what makes it distinctive from London’s other great opera house.

Of course Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is not an opera. It’s an orchestral work in three movements by Henryk Gorecki (1933-2010), a composer hitherto almost unkown outside his native Poland until this work hit the classical charts in the early 1990s in a recording featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw with the London Sinfonietta. The album remained in the charts for weeeks and weeks, and is one of the biggest selling contemporary classical pieces of all time.

The music is minimalist in style, approachable but also highly affecting, with an insistent pulse throughout which could suggest a human heartbeat. The only voice is that of a soprano, in the ENO production Nicole Chevalier, who in three meditative movements offers a triptych of motherhood – the first a lament of the Virgin Mary, the second a message written on the wall of a Gestapo prison cell, and the third a mother searching for her lost son. The production was presented in Polish with Englisha and Polish subtitles.

The work lends itself to a theatrical presentation and is rich in religious imagery, in particular the Pietà and figures at the base of the cross from the Crucifixion, both of which were referenced in the opening movement. A simple set with two apertures of light overhead created the sense of a cavernous stone tomb. At the back, a figure lay on a suspended slab while a woman dragged a cloth from a grave. Gathering it up in her arms, the cloth became at once a cradled child and a shroud. Throughout the performance, extraordinary lighting and video effects projected tears or waves, and the fuzzy images from an ante-natal ultrasound scan, which served to enhance and reinforce the message of the music and the words.

In the second scene, in a Gestapo prison cell, we see that the stone walls are in fact a series of closely-meshed ropes through which mysterious, masked figures emerge and depart. In the final scene, the tangled ropes suggests the mess and fog of war as the mother searches for her lost son. The resonances with the war in Ukraine were very obvious here and this made for a very moving episode in a work freighted with a visceral sense of poignancy and loss.

Nicole Chevalier’s translucent yet rich soprano brought power and tenderness to Gorecki’s long-spun lines, while conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya and the ENO orchestra gave an unsentimental but not less committed and absorbing reading of the score which appreciate the narrative arc of the individual movements and the work as a whole. The overall effect was compelling, deeply moving and yet ultimately uplifting: the closing moments of the final movement, the mother spreads her wings and ascends towards heaven, in an image redolent of the art of William Blake.

An ambitious, imaginative and haunting production from ENO, which demonstrates exactly why we must treasure and support this organisation.

Symphony of Sorrowful Songs continues until 6 May

As I step into the Royal Opera House’s stylish new café, there is the familiar Covent Garden buzz. It’s the opening night of Werther, and also the start of the new opera season. The talking points are Joyce di Donato’s upcoming title role in Agrippina. She was also in the last 2016 performance of Werther, alongside the flamboyant Italian tenor, Vittoria Grigolo. Would the 2019 Werther, sung by Juan Diego Flórez, match Grigolo’s high octane performance in 2016?

I had been gripped by Grigolo’s ROH debut in Werther, a broadcast of  which I saw at the cinema. The camera angles were daring: I remember a close up of Grigolo’s pulsating vocal folds as he hit the high notes.

Werther is all psychological drama. The narrative is bare but doesn’t feel so because of the richness of the music. In parts Jules Massenet, the French composer, shows his love for Wagner, in others, sorrowful and heart-rending music of great delicacy.

Read Karine Hetherington’s full review of ‘Werther’ by Jules Massenet at the Royal Opera House

Image: Isabel Leonard as Charlotte and Juan Diego Flórez as Werther

Guest review by Mary Grace Nguyen


In Jane Gray’s sensitive and stirring production of Tchaikovsky’s Yevgenyi Onyegin, now showing at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, tensions rise in Pushkin’s tale about a young girl who falls in love with a man who realises too late that he is also in love with her. Tchaikovsky’s alluring and stupendous music score, exquisitely performed on the piano by David Smith, elicits the love the young girl, Tatyana holds dear for an unsatisfied aristocrat, Onyegin as well as the suffering and torment of love’s powerful nature. 

Opera Loki’s new production has been touring in France and the UK. Sung in English, Onyegin is a refreshing opera for both avid opera-goers and those who are new to Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece. A vocally athletic cast take to Tchaikovsky’s vocal lines with ease and rapture, evoking the tragic and melancholic essence just as the Russian composer intended.  At St Paul’s Covent Garden, the staging is kept to a minimum, yet the use of a handful of props and collection of lush costumes, by Pam Line and Carolyn Bearare, bring the audience closer to Pushkin and his era.

There are a selection of noteworthy scenes in this production which demonstrate Tchaikovsky’s unique interpretation of regret, rejection and resilience. Hope for young Tatyana, engrossed in her fantasy novels of heroes and warriors, can be found in Act I when Tatyana writes her letter to Onyegin, disclosing her deepest feelings for him. Act 2 plays with fire when Onyegin turns on his closest friend, Lenski, by crossing the line, attempting to steal Lenski’s lover and all of her attention, leading to fatal consequences and an unexpected duel. It is only when Onyegin sees his friend lying dead on the ground that he realises he has made a big mistake.

The use of masks in a banquet scene in Act 3 — representative of Onegin’s loneliness and absence of love in his life — is a clever insight into Onyegin and Tatyana’s polarising characters: one was inspired by her emotions and passions; the other learned to feel too late and remains stuck in his own Byronic, wandering state. 

Kirsty McLean is adaptable for both the roles of young and old Tatyana. (It’s fascinating how a change of clothes and great acting skills can influence one’s performance.) McLean is vocally sharp and eloquent with a beguiling performance as the distraught little girl in Act 1. By the time the final act arrives, the audience is clenching their fists, angered by Onyegin’s foolish behaviour, yet sympathising with a woman who has suffered the brunt of unrequited love and the biggest rejection.

Jonny de Garis’s Onyegin is robust and vocally controlled in the first two acts, depicting a man of class and with a touch of stoicism. His most moving and heartfelt performances come in Act 3 — the entire audience was at the edge of their seats the night I attended as they watched Onyegin begging on his hands and knees for Tatyana’s forgiveness. This was perhaps the most intense scene in the opera; together McLean and Garis give an exhilarating and suspense-worthy performance to set both Tatyana and Onyegin free from the tension.

Jack Roberts (Lenski), Lara Rebekah Harvey (Tatyana’s sister) and Georgia Mae Bishop (Tatyana’s nanny) also gave terrific performances. Jack Roberts’s voice was warm and romantic; it projected effectively across the stage. His character is easy to pity,  particularly in Act 3 when we the sense Lenski’s friend was using him for his own amusement. Lara Rebekah Harvey’s singing in Act 1 is a joy to see and hear, vocally clear and graceful as Tanya’s sister. And Georgia Mae Bishop’s performance is filled with wit and delight as she tells Tatyana tales of her past loves.  Julian Charles Debreuil’s performance of ‘All men surrender to Love’s power’, as Gremin in Act 3, is brilliantly sung and full of wonder. And not forgetting to mention strong and supportive performances from Ryan Hugh Ross and Helen Rotchell.

Oneygin may not have his happy ending, yet here is a  wonderful production that demonstrates the vicissitudes of the human condition and the fragility of our emotions. In the face of rejection, one will regret but must eventually move on in order to survive. 

Opera Loki’s Yevgenyi Onyegin continues until 29 September – details and tickets here

Mary Grace Nguyen is a writer and blogger. She is creator of TrendFem, an online platform to promote the theatre, entertainment and arts scene in London, as well as independent off-West End shows and new works performed at some of best theatres in the world. Mary holds an MA in Journalism from Birkbeck College, London


Pictures from Opera Loki

An aura of concentrated stillness descends over the London Coliseum as the opening measures of Philip Glass’s opera Satygraha are sung, simply and eloquently, by tenor Toby Spence. He is M.K. Gandhi: dressed in a formal dark suit, he is a young lawyer in South Africa, not yet the stoic nonviolent activist, the “Mahatma”, in his distinctive white dhoti.

Satyagraha, a sanskrit word meaning “truth force”, is a meditation on the early life of Gandhi when, as a lawyer working in South Africa in the early years of the twentieth century, he encountered racial discrimination: his response was the development of non-violent protest as a political tool. This central narrative feels appropriately topical in our troubled times of suspicion towards migrants, refugees, people of colour and those of different faiths, and this gives Satyagraha a relevance and immediacy which makes it all the more compelling.The attendant presences through the three acts of Tolstoy, the Bengali poet Tagore, and Martin Luther King respectively remind us of the wider influences and connections of Gandhi’s story and his philosophy.

Phelim McDermott’s gorgeously theatrical production, first staged at ENO in 2007 (when it broke box office records for modern opera), is a feast for eyes and ears, and the combination of a visually arresting set, enhanced by puppetry, film and projections, and Glass’s haunting, mesmeric soundscape make this quite unlike traditional operas. In fact, someone on Twitter compared it to Parsifal and while I have never seen Parsifal, I can appreciate the comparison: the length, the scale, the absorbing narrative and the sense of a whole art work – the Wagnerian Gesamtwerk.  And in mixing the sacred text of the Bhagavad Gita with the real life incidents of  Gandhi’s formative experiences in South Africa, the opera also has the feel of a grand oratorio.

If you saw ENO’s Akhnaten, also directed by Phelim McDermott, many of the tropes will be familiar: the slow motion and long ritualistic set-pieces, the visual and poetic allegories. These all inform and enhance the narrative – and you need it because the libretto is in Sanskrit and there are no surtitles! (But thankfully comprehensive programme notes, which made for interesting reading on my homeward train journey afterwards.)

The ENO chorus is on superb form, as always, and the orchestra was masterfully and sensitively directed by Karen Kamensek, a Glass specialist, who brought colour and vibrancy to Glass’s spooling repetitions and piquant harmonic shifts.

The entire experience was profound, moving and very beautiful.

Performances continue at ENO until February 27 — details here.



Opera ingenu Nicholas Marlowe (my co-reviewer for CultureVulture.net) went to see ENO’s production of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West.

Often laughed off as the first Spaghetti Western,  La Fanciulla del West remains the least known of Puccini’s major works. Set during the California gold rush of 1849-50, it was first performed to universal acclaim at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1910 (a far cry from the disastrous opening of Madame Butterfly at La Scala six years earlier). And yet Richard Jones’s new production is the first at the ENO for fifty years.

La Fanciulla tends to appeal to serious aficionados of Puccini’s score rather than the ordinary opera-goer, and it’s not hard to see why. The paucity of stand-alone arias – never mind a ‘Nessun Dorma’ – is a major stumbling block, the only real crowd-pleaser being ‘Quello che tacete’ in Act I, strongly reminiscent (I wonder why?) of ‘Song of the Night’ in Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. It also has one of the most preposterous plots in all opera, and characterisation that veers dangerously close to cardboard: saloon-owner-with-a-heart-of-gold Minnie, miraculously-reformed bandit Ramerrez aka Dick Johnson and sleazy Sheriff Jack Rance. You might think that singing it in English would have smoothed things a little, but I rather missed the cries of “Howdy, ragazzi!” and “Whiskey per tutti!”

Peter Auty and Susan Bullock in The Girl of the Golden West. (Photograph: John Snelling/Getty Images)
Nevertheless, the entire ensemble did well in what was largely a production of firsts. Highly-regarded British soprano Susan Bullock ruled the roost in a feisty stage debut as Minnie (she previously sang the role in concert at the Edinburgh festival in 2010). It was tenor Peter Auty’s debut as Dick, and American bass baritone Craig Colclough’s as Rance. Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, meanwhile, made her UK operatic debut in the pit. Sterling support came from an ENO chorus that shifted convincingly from bible class to lynch mob.
The opening act in the Polka saloon I thought suffered from a lack of clear definition in the male roles, although some were still very good indeed; I particularly liked Graham Clark as Nick the bartender. Act II, set in Minnie’s cabin, was somewhat knockabout, provoking a certain amount of tittering in the Colisseum audience, and at this stage I began to wonder if Jones and co were playing the whole thing for laughs. All came good in the final act, however, particularly in Auty’s poignant rendition of Dick’s final despairing aria, well matched by Bullock’s gutsy performance as she pulled out all the stops to save her fella from the noose. 
La Fanciulla del West continues at ENO at the Coliseum.

Penny Woolcock’s visually arresting “The Pearl Fishers” returns to the Coliseum in London in a revival of the 2010 English National Opera co-production with the Metropolitan Opera of New York.

The original production was praised for its stunning effects and staging, and this updated production proved mesmerizing, beginning with a beguiling underwater sequence in which pearl fishers, viewed through a gauzy screen, dive and swim, digitally-generated air bubbles trailing their lithe, fluid bodies (in fact, actors suspended on harnesses). When the curtain goes up, the scene is an exotic Ceylonese shanty town: rough wooden houses crowd higgledy-piggledy around the shoreline, tiny lights prick the early morning sky, telegraph cables sag between the buildings, and a cleverly conceived reflective surface across the entire stage creates the sense of water. The villagers gather around the ghats, dressed in sarongs, dhotis and saris in turmeric and paprika colors, and go about their business — hanging out washing, bathing, cooking at the water’s edge, gossiping. You can almost smell the masala dosas frying.

In later scenes, the houses have gone, leaving the glittering ocean across which a fishing boat glides. The illusion of waves is created through ingenious lighting effects and air-filled pillows, set low on the stage, which billow and swell like the sea. Longer scene changes are made behind the gauzy screen onto which are projected images of waves, including an impressive tsunami between Acts II and III.

Leila (Sophie Bevan) arrives (photo credit: ENO / Mike Hoban)

Bizet finished “The Pearl Fishers” in 1863, a year after Ingres painted “The Turkish Bath,” when Europe was gripped with a fervor for Orientalism, the term used by 19th-century Western scholars and artists in their study of Eastern cultures and peoples. At the time, the East was regarded as highly exotic — and erotic — and “The Pearl Fishers” resides in this tradition, with its recreation of an imaginary geography inhabited by ignorant, superstitious people who engage in transgressive sexual practices. The narrative is the age-old love triangle, with the added frisson of friendship, loyalty and religious observance.

In fact, Bizet’s opera is rather thin, particularly in comparison to his much-loved, vibrant “Carmen.” The libretto borders on cringe-making, and in this production unfortunately more than highlighted by the fact that it is sung in English and the language doesn’t always sit comfortably with the phrasing and shape of the music, as it surely would if sung in French. Apart from the famous aria (of which more later), there is little to hold the attention, musically, and while others might highlight inventiveness and variety in Bizet’s writing, this reviewer found it wanting, with Act III verging on turgid. Added to this, the characters are wooden and the narrative hardly believable. But of course, “The Pearl Fishers” is saved by the glorious tenor-and-baritone duet “Au Fond du Temple Saint” in Act I (with fragments and reprises in subsequent acts), whose sweepingly romantic melody stays with you throughout, and long after you have left the opera house, a pleasing earworm which will have you humming on your commute to work. On this occasion, what should have been a voluptuous celebration of friendship and unrequited love lacked conviction and depth: this was the first night and one hopes that as the singers (George von Bergen and John Tessier) settle into their roles, the richness of this great aria will come to the fore.

Soprano Sophie Bevan, making her role debut as Leïla, Priestess of Brahma, was a delight. Arriving by boat, veiled and submissive, her palms pressed together in obeisance, she proved a charmingly winsome and flirtatious Leïla, and full credit must go to Bevan for singing the role so arrestingly while recovering from a bug. By comparison, Zurga, sung by von Bergen, was underplayed, given his role (again one hopes his character will develop over forthcoming performances), but Nadir (Tessier) was more convincing, torn between his friendship with Zurga and his passion for Leïla. An attempt, via the setting, to comment on global warming and developing-world poverty seemed overly worthy and self-conscious, and an amused nod to the exigencies of Indian bureaucracy in the Act III scene in Zurga’s “office,” piled high with friable papers and bulging ledgers on rusting filing cabinets, felt unnecessary.

But if the music doesn’t always hold your attention (and all credit to the orchestra, whose muscular playing contributed much-needed vibrancy, together with some fine chorus singing), the visual effects will, along with the costumes: Nourabad, the High Priest of Brahma, could have stepped straight off a sculptural frieze on a South Indian temple, with his sadhu’s ash-smeared body, draperies, dreadlocks and top knot. Worth seeing if only for the arresting and finely wrought visual effects and staging.

The Pearl Fishers continues in repertory at ENO.

Date reviewed: Monday 16th June 2014.

Leïla, Sophie Bevan; Nadir, John Tessier; Zurga, George von Bergen; Nourabad, Barnaby Rea; Director, Penny Woolcock; Conductor, Jean-Luc Tingaud; Set Designer, Dick Bird; Costume Designer, Kevin Pollard; Lighting Designer, Jen Schriever; Video Designer, 59 Productions Ltd; Choreographer, Andrew Dawson; Translator, Martin Fitzpatrick. English National Opera, London Coliseum 

(This review was first published on CultureVulture.net)