Breaking news: English National Opera goes bilingual

Breaking news: English National Opera goes bilingual


norman lebrecht

March 04, 2010

The tenor in Elixir of Love called in with a sore throat. His understudy went missing and no-one else in the world had memorised the new street-cred English translation of Donizetti’s village comedy. So they flew in a Lithuanian who sang Italian to the rest of the cast’s English and the results were so exhilarating that the audience left begging for repeat performances.

Here’s how it worked. Edgaras Montvidas, tall and brooding, had an afternoon’s walk-through of the main stage business in Jonathan Miller’s new production of Elixir, set in a 1950s Texas hamlet with the guys in stetsons and the girls in Elvis frocks. Flouncing Adina, nicely trilled by Sarah Tynan, wore a Marilyn Monroe wig with obtruding rump to match.

It’s lunchtime at Adina’s Diner and the guys are chomping burgers in the noonday heat when Edgaras comes on and sings a lovesick Quanta e bella, silencing the room as you’d expect when a guy in blue overalls hits his notes like the young Lucy Pav.

After that, it gets really interesting. Edgaras clearly does not know which way to turn but he responds well to nudges from the chorus and is soon the thick of the action. Someone sings ‘Per che?’ and he responds, ‘per che? why not?’ It’s the kind of linguistic porridge you hear every day of the week on the top deck of a London bus.

On comes Andrew Shore as Dulcamara, dispensing quack potions. When Edgaras nurdles up for a bottle of pick-me-up, Shore – who has sung Dulcamara at the Met and is a brilliant comic actor – comes right back at him in Italian. ‘You speakka my lingo?’ says the look on Edgaras’s face, bringing the house down in mirth. Andrew plays him both ways, sometimes Italian, sometimes English. Everyone recognises this transaction. It’s the kind of Babel chat we have with Polish and Rumanian builders in our kitchens and Iraqi drivers in our minicabs.

The young Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Cassado, very impressive in his first London run, manages to keep everyone on just about the same beat and when the curtain falls the eruption is louder than you hear on most first nights, the loudest cheers of all going to our brave, befuddled Lithuanian whose final clinch with Adina Tynan is so close and prolonged I thought it was going to take a fire-hose to prise them apart.

All in all, an unforgettable night at the opera – and one that has lessons for ENO which is stuck in a timewarp straitjacket of singing unnecessarily in English, when most of the audience can’t hear the words and are reading them off proscenium surtitles. It is not often nowadays that we see mixed opera casts singing in different languages, a situation that was common on many European stages until the 1980s. But the world has moved on and we live in polyglot cities. Why should opera not reflect the world around us and, in certain roles, allow plot confusion to be accentuated by a language gulf?

A Flying Dutchman in which everyone sang German except the sailor who sings in a Netherlandish dialect could be a distinct improvement. Katya Kabanova’s social isolation could be underlined by her singing Russian against the rest of the cast’s Czech. And why not, for heaven’s sake, not have a Carmen who sings gypsy Romish against a French and Spanish backdrop? I know quite a few singers who’d be keen to give it a go. Opera needs more thrills of the unexpected. ENO may have stumbled onto a gold mine.


  • Steve says:

    I was there with my fiancee last night and although I’ve been the ENO a few times it is the first time I’ve been to an opera sung in anything other than English. The whole performance was fantastic and it was a real eye-opener.
    I agree about Andrew Shore though – magnificent.

  • Wende Persons says:

    One of the best ARIADNEs I ever saw was directed by Rhoda Levine in the U.S. where the Composer’s “opera magnus” was sung in German and the clowns interacted around Ariadne and Bacchus in English. Hysterical and revelatory at the same time.

  • Margaret says:

    I was there last night too – what a fun night at the opera!! I’ve always loved Andrew Shore anyway – one of our national treasures, IMO – and to hear these exchanges in English and Italian was worth the ticket price alone, brilliant!
    Edgaras was impressive in the way he coped with the situation and thoroughly deserved all the cheers at curtain call.

  • Helen says:

    Wednesday’s performance was brilliantly funny. So clever to have Italian and English sung simultaneously, and of course the charlatan Dulcamore would have his patter in ANY language!
    Loved the set and costumes too, and the whole cast was fabulous:Sarah Tynan was outstanding, Andrew Shore magnificent, and Edgar Montvidias was so impressive – I couldn’t believe he had literally only stepped on stage that afternoon.

  • Yannis says:

    I agree absolutely about the ENO’s “timewarp straitjacket of singing unnecessarily in English” and am very glad I made an impromptu visit to see Friday’s (5/3) performance (despite having read a cool review).
    ENO should plan some deliberately bilingual productions.

  • Jill says:

    With the quality of the artists involved I’m not at all surprised that this was a very successful and thoroughly enjoyable evening. However , for the record, it should be pointed out that this is English National Opera…whose raison d’etre is to sing in ENGLISH…and the british cover had not ‘gone missing’ but was readily available. To hint that an experienced and highly professional artist was negligent in his contractural and artistic obligations rather than being at the mercy of the political manoeuverings of the company is to add insult to injury. Too often excellent artists, especially british artists, are treated with contempt in this country. It is our very sad and very peculiar failing.

  • Brendan Carroll says:

    The late Vilem Tausky once told me of a performance he conducted of CAV&PAG in Brno back in 1931 in which Jan Kiepura sang in Polish, Zinka Milanov in Croatian and the rest of the cast & chorus in Czech! “I conducted in Italian” he quipped. It was apparently a mesmerising performance!

  • Jane says:

    Saw Elixir last night, and had a really great time. The mixed-language scenario added to the humour and was wonderful grist to Andrew Shore’s comedic mill! It enhanced the production, but mainly because it was an emergency – we love an underdog in times of crisis, not that I wish to insult Mr Montvidas in any way, given that he sang and acted wonderfully, but the audience were definitely on his side from the moment the announcement was made.
    Sarah Tynan sang beautifully and looked really great as Adina and Julia Sporsen as Gianetta was very strong casting.
    But the impeccable Mr Shore effortlessly lifted the drama on to another plane, as always.

  • Glenn says:

    I believe I remember being there for this. Simply breathtaking, there are no other words!