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Baritone Wobbles; Tennant Jests in ‘Much Ado’: London Stage

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Rena Harms, Peter Auty and Bruno Caproni in "Simon Boccanegra" by Verdi, in a production by Dmitri Tcherniakov at the English National Opera in London. The director updates the later parts of the opera to a contemporary municipal council chamber. Photographer: Mike Hoban/ENO via Bloomberg

June 10 (Bloomberg) -- The love-struck heroine of “Simon Boccanegra” is 25, according to Verdi. If I am doing the math right, in English National Opera’s new production she’s a pensioner of at least 68.

The director-designer Dmitri Tcherniakov places the prologue in a set based on Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting “Nighthawks.” This is where the patrician Fiesco swears vengeance on the plebeian Boccanegra for seducing his daughter, and where the public acclaims Boccanegra as mayor.

Boccanegra is usually a charismatic figure. He’s a lover, a leader. Not here. When roly-poly baritone Bruno Caproni staggers on in unflattering tight jeans, doing toe-curlingly bad drunk acting, it’s hard to believe the crowd would welcome him as their new garbage man, let alone as their new doge.

The next set pushes us forward to a stark contemporary municipal chamber all in gray. The chorus wears modern clothes in black and gray colors. Boccanegra’s daughter Amelia (the youthful soprano Rena Harms) appears, looking oddly like a disheveled Morticia Addams.

Hold on. Since her birth was mentioned in the previous scene in 1942, doesn’t that now put Amelia in her late sixties or even older? Has she discovered the secret of eternal youth?

She twitches. She rocks back and forth in a chair. She fiddles with her long black hair. She’s neurotic, you see.

Later on she forgets about the rocking. I guess she got better. Or maybe her memory is going to pot with old age.

Invisible Sword

It’s as consistent and meaningful as everything else in the production.

“Here is my sword,” sings the tenor, holding out an empty hand. “Your weapon you may keep,” replies Boccanegra, presumably referring to some invisible James Bond-type gadget only he can see.

Come on, guys. Give the poor chump a prop.

On the plus side, things are as good musically as they are bad visually. Edward Gardner conducts with warmth, clarity and passion. Tenor Peter Auty (looking distinctly uncomfortable in tight motorcycle leathers) sings up a Verdian storm as the firebrand Adorno. Brindley Sherratt and Roland Wood are in top form as Boccanegra’s enemies, and Caproni brings style and variety to the demanding title role.

Close your eyes, and you might enjoy it. You’ll avoid seeing the silly toy paper hat Boccanegra has to put on in his death scene too.

Rating: **.

Raucous Ado

There are more silly hats, better used, in a new production of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” starring David Tennant (“Doctor Who”) as Benedick.

Director Josie Rourke (set to take over as artistic director of the Donmar Theatre) places the action in Gibraltar in the 1980s amid raucous celebrations after the Falkland Islands conflict. The setting works well for the most part, presenting a military society divided along strict class lines. The usually lumbering comic scenes are spiced up with amusing Spanish-English misunderstandings.

The transposition fails when it comes to the central crux of the plot. It hardly seems likely that everyone would get hot and bothered about a girl’s lack of chastity on a party island in the 1980s.

Tennant proves once again what a brilliant comic actor he is, with a unique ability to create intimacy with the audience during his soliloquies. Catherine Tate is his sparring partner Beatrice, and if she’s not as rounded or as touching a performer as Tennant, she still generates laughs with her gaucheness. They’re supported by a fine ensemble.

Rating: ***.

Donizetti’s Don

One of the great treats of the summer is the opening of the Opera Holland Park season. It kicks off this year with a charming staging of Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale,” superbly conducted by maestro Richard Bonynge.

Director Stephen Barlow relocates the action to Margate, a down-and-out seaside town on the east coast of England. This is where Don Pasquale, owner of a fish-and-chip shop, wants to prevent his nephew Ernesto marrying the vivacious Norina.

It’s all slickly done with plenty of laughs. Even a misjudged bleak note at the end (a lonely Pasquale appears to suffer a heart attack on the beach) doesn’t detract from the many pleasures on offer.

Bel canto star Colin Lee makes a seductive Ernesto, and Donald Maxwell (Pasquale), Majella Cullagh (Norina) and Richard Burkhard (Dr. Malatesta) round out a top-notch cast.

Rating: ***.

Gray’s Butley

David Tennant isn’t the only television star to tread the West End’s boards. Dominic West (from “The Wire”) takes on the title role in Simon Gray’s 1971 comedy “Butley.”

The antihero is a self-destructive English teacher at a London university, who drunkenly torments his colleagues and friends with jealous tirades.

As a piece of drama it’s slight and shapeless, with several underwritten female roles. As an excuse for a central role full of brilliant, sharp-tongued asides and waspish wit, it’s a hoot, and West holds it all together with inventiveness and energy. It’s a tour de force for him, and I’ll eat my hat if he’s not up for an award later.

Rating: ***.

“Simon Boccanegra” is in repertoire at ENO. Information: http://www.eno.org or +44-871-911-0200; “Much Ado About Nothing” is at Wyndham’s Theatre http://www.muchadoonstage.com or +44-844-482-5120. “Don Pasquale” is in repertoire at Opera Holland Park, sponsored by Investec Wealth & Investment, http://www.operahollandpark.com or +44-300-999-1000. “Butley” is at the Duchess Theatre http://www.butleylondon.com or +44-844-412-4659.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless

To contact the writer on the story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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