The week in classical: The Yeomen of the Guard; Alcina – music under siege

Coliseum; Royal Opera House, London
ENO stands firm amid extreme funding cuts with a Gilbert and Sullivan staging full of vim and vigour, while animal magic ripples through Richard Jones’s new Alcina

No apologies for returning to Arts Council England (ACE)’s funding cuts. The headlines are last week’s but the impact of a single announcement will ricochet through lives and livelihoods for years, starting now. Trimming costs in hard times makes sense. Giving new contenders, all over the country, a slice of the pie is fair. Cutting down, in one wanton act, an entire forest of hard-won achievement is beyond reason or redemption. To penalise a capital city, one of Europe’s most populous and culturally magnetic, is economic folly, quite aside from any other criticisms that might be levelled.

Many issues will arise in the aftershock. They will be addressed in months to come. For now, a reminder of the worst hit areas for musicians, inevitably barely mentioned in news reports. Contemporary music, the future of the art form, has been hammered. The London Sinfonietta – more than 50 commissions and world premieres in the past four years alone – has lost 41% of its grant. Manchester’s brilliant Psappha ensemble, an invaluable platform for new work in the north-west, has had its status withdrawn as a National Portfolio organisation (NPO) – not one of the fortunate 990 announced for the 2023-26 investment round eligible for a share of the £446m available across all the arts. Most baffling of all, the peerless Britten Sinfonia has been similarly deprived: a low insult to one of the most inventive of UK ensembles, which works closely with composers and serves the orchestrally impoverished east of England and beyond.

Opera’s losses, the sums more eye-watering, the carping voices louder, have attracted more attention, though not entirely. We should protest loudly against the cut, scarcely addressed, to Welsh National Opera, which is partly funded by ACE, as well as the Arts Council of Wales: a third of its ACE grant has been severed. This for a company that tours beyond Wales to Bristol, Liverpool, Birmingham, Southampton and Oxford, and which this season especially has created some of the finest quality productions around. The cuts to Glyndebourne’s touring arm – the very part of the organisation that embraces a wider public around the country, as well as nurturing talent – also appear irrational.

We might assume this country has no native roots in this extravagant “foreign” art form. Not so. Two new productions this past week were of works premiered here: Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Yeomen of the Guard (1888), engagingly directed by Jo Davies for English National Opera, was first seen at the beautiful Savoy theatre, purpose-built for G&S’s comic operas. Handel’s Alcina, which premiered at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1735, opened last Tuesday at the Royal Opera House in a sparkling new staging by Richard Jones.

The loss of ENO’s NPO status has caused most outrage, and with good reason. (The rumours of relocating to Manchester, already provided for by excellent Opera North, have no substance as yet, and certainly make no sense.) The true history of ENO, its purpose and its irreplaceable qualities, can never be told by the much publicised backstage wrangles. Instead, go and experience this new Yeomen, nimbly conducted by Chris Hopkins, and consider – and celebrate – the incalculable musical and technical ingredients. (When Terry Pratchett noted that opera happens “because a large number of things amazingly fail to go wrong” he was being quite precise.)

This is a true “company” work, not implying cosy staleness but the opposite: an orchestra and chorus well drilled and vigorous; singers at all stages of their career, some with international profiles happy to come back to the place that nurtured them. Take the senior principals. You could write a short digest of ENO’s reach and ambition by looking at their collective track record, with some three dozen productions between them. Strutting around in high boots and breeches as Dame Carruthers, the mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley brings wit, authority and assurance to every note sung or word spoken. Her appearances span Purcell to Berlioz to Ligeti.

Steven Page (Sir Richard Cholmondeley), Alexandra Oomens (Elsie Maynard) and Richard McCabe (Jack Point) in ENO’s The Yeomen of the Guard.
Steven Page (Sir Richard Cholmondeley), Alexandra Oomens (Elsie Maynard) and Richard McCabe (Jack Point) in ENO’s The Yeomen of the Guard. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The baritone Steven Page, one of the best G&S performers around, full of vim as Sir Richard Cholmondeley, is similarly versatile, from Verdi to Offenbach to Henze. And the bass-baritone Neal Davies, a canny Sergeant Meryll, can sing Handel or Janáček or Ryan Wigglesworth with equal aplomb. ENO Harewood Artists starting out, such as newcomers Innocent Masuku (Leonard) and Isabelle Peters (Kate), are learning from these experts. So too are the more established young talents of soprano Alexandra Oomens, mesmerising as Elsie, and Heather Lowe, bursting with personality as Phoebe. John Molloy’s charmingly eccentric jailer and Anthony Gregory as the love interest, Colonel Fairfax, add verve and style.

Davies and her design team, led by Anthony Ward and (lighting) Oliver Fenwick, have mixed historical periods, between the Tudor era and the 1950s. Jack Point, terrifically played by the actor Richard McCabe, is a teddy boy in drape jacket and two-tone brogues. At the matinee, the day after the Arts Council news, the entire cast took their curtain call wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan “Choose Opera”. The campaign has begun in earnest. Midweek, ENO secured an emergency meeting with the culture secretary, Michelle Donelan, requesting a reinstatement of funding. Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel has started a petition to the same effect. Details here. An action is planned for 11am on Monday, assembling outside the Coliseum, on behalf of companies affected by cuts. Expect the noise to grow.

Mary Bevan as Morgana, Lisette Oropesa in the title role and friends in Alcina.
A slow but ‘powerful unfurling’: Mary Bevan as Morgana, Lisette Oropesa in the title role and friends in Alcina. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The Royal Opera’s Alcina – given short shrift here in terms of space, but not admiration – rippled with delicious animal magic in Jones’s perceptive, clever and quietly subversive staging, designed by Antony McDonald, with choreography by Sarah Fahie, and conducted by Christian Curnyn. Featuring two witchy sisters, the alluring Alcina (international star soprano Lisette Oropesa, glamorous in glittery little black dress) and Morgana (the ever popular British soprano Mary Bevan, enchanting in waitress-punk attire), this opera reveals its considerable treasures only after a slow start. It was indeed slow, in terms of tempi, but worth the wait for the powerful unfurling.

Malakai M Bayoh as Oberto in Alcina.
Malakai M Bayoh in Alcina: ‘heroic’. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Every singer in this attractive cast showed their mettle. Despite the work’s title, the dominant role is that of the knight Ruggiero, sung by Emily D’Angelo, still getting into her stride but showing formidable vocal control. Each singer, though, had first-night intonation problems, especially at the top of their range. Could this have been in part due to the use of modern pitch, instead of the significantly lower baroque pitch Handel would have known? The orchestral playing was characterful, ROH strings using baroque bows for the first time; two continuo players were properly applauded at the final curtain. The biggest cheers went to 12-year-old Malakai M Bayoh as Oberto, who overcame some crass noises off to give a heroic performance: a name for the future and just try stopping him.

Star ratings (out of five)
The Yeom
en of the Guard ★★★★

• This article was amended on 13 November 2022 to correct several misspellings of The Yeomen of the Guard as “The Yeoman of the Guard”.


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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