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The torture of hope

11/17/2000 -  and 22, 25, 29 November, 13 December
Luciano Berio: Folk songs
Nino Rota: La strada
Luigi Dallapiccola: The prisoner

Susan Parry (mezzo), Susan Bullock (Mother), Peter Coleman-Wright (Prisoner), Peter Bronder (Gaoler/Grand Inquisitor), Richard Roberts (First Priest), Mark Richardson (Second Priest)
ENO Orchestra and Chorus
Richard Hickox (conductor), Neil Armfield (director)

Dallapiccola‘s The prisoner, written in 1949 and reflecting the composer‘s experiences during the two world wars, is an ideal choice to represent twentieth-century Italian opera in the ENO Italian season. It has an recognisably twentieth-century musical style and reflects events (hopefully) unique to the century but it is linked to earlier Italian opera in various ways, notably by the fact that its eponymous hero is a prisoner of the Inquisition in Spanish-occupied Flanders under Philip II. The production reintroduced the marks of Italian fascism that Dallapiccola deliberately excluded by his choice of historical setting, but kept the power and horror in a superbly sung and played performance. Susan Bullock was heart-rending as the mother seeing her imprisoned son for the last time, Peter Coleman-Wright was powerful as the nameless prisoner and Peter Bronder was a sinisterly fraternal guard who raised the prisoner’s hope of liberty before reappearing as the Inquisitor to execute him. Richard Hickox and the ENO orchestra made the music frighteningly lucid.

Neil Armfield’s production, on a shapeless dark set where the cell was represented by a square of light, included a small child in bed who, abandoned by his nurse, gave in to night-time terror as the prisoner realised that his hope was merely an additional torture by his captors. The underlying idea (which Armfield suggested in press interviews) was that fascism and its antecedents and variants is a perversion of the family, offering protection and support in return for obedience and submission, and extracting a terrible price for disloyalty.

Armfield’s productions of the other two works on the programme (neither of them strictly opera) similarly played out the idea of children as witnesses to cruelty and love, and also as unwitting agents of unhappiness. Susan Parry sang Berio’s Folk Songs, almost all adult love songs, to three children, interacting with them as if she were their mother, playing, suggesting tentative complicity and responding to rejection. There seemed to be something about the pain of parental love, but the children also conveyed the joy of the music and especially the rhythm by their informal dances.

Nino Rota’s music for the film La Strada was performed as a dance drama by school students of all ages from the Baylis programme. In a street setting, where the only adults were a passing band and an ice-cream seller, the children act out their strongly gendered fantasies, the boys playing at cowboys and Indians, the girls dancing and pushing prams. A box drops from the sky and turns out to contain a wedding gown. The girls dance with it, then one of boys puts it on and dances expressively. He is bundled into the box, then driven out. At the end of the music, a proscenium arch appears at the back of the stage and another boy wearing the dress invites all the children to pass through it. Only the original dress-wearer is left outside, presumably too badly damaged by his experience to enter the world of imagination. Some of this was deeply moving, some of it was incomprehensible or dull, but the performances were all impressive, and the music was irresistible.




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