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Nothing happens, everyone sings Rule Britannia

Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House
05/17/2000 -  
Thomas Arne, Alfred
Andrew Rees (Corin), Mhairi Lawson (Emma/Spirit), Daniel Norman (Alfred), Elena Ferrari (Eltruda), Sally Bruce-Payne (Edward), Louise Mott (Edith)
Christian Curnyn (conductor), Netia Davan Wetton (director)

Early Opera Company Orchestra

Thomas Arne, born and buried in Covent Garden, was the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day, a composer and entrepreneur who gave filled theatres by giving the punters what they enjoyed. So it is doubly appropriate to open this year's BOC Covent Garden Festival, whose initial aim was to provide entertainment to bring customers into Covent Garden's shops and restaurants, with a work by Arne.

Alfred, written in 1740, started out as a court masque and was never in fact a great commercial success for Arne. But it came in useful for him and for other producers over the twenty years after its composition as a statement of English identity in a time fraught with worry about foreign invasions and Roman Catholic subversion from within. This leaves it almost meaningless for an audience today. Unlike Handel's analogous -- and much more ferociously  nationalistic -- oratorios from the 1740s, Alfred on the whole lacks music that stands on its own. This might be an accident of survival, since the choruses and most of the recitatives are lost. But the surviving arias compare badly with Handel's, the closing, pseudo-Handelian heroic "Rule Britannia" in particular. This staging of the surviving music had an uphill battle from the start.

On the whole, the orchestra won, while the singers just about kept their ground. The pastoral airs (for the happy shepherds among whom Alfred find refuge, though he doesn't burn the cakes in this one) are straightforward and jolly. Andrew Rees and Mhairi Lawson had fun with the opening scenes, with back-projected goats and Good-Life setting. Daniel Norman looked the part as a politician Alfred (nearly hairless and blond). After a shaky start from an impossible nose-down position on the stage he warmed to the music. Elena Ferrari similarly did a generic MP's wife pretty well, but took time to get into the music. Sally Bruce-Payne looked as if she should have been called Kevin, but gave a suitably youthful and muscular peformance of Edward's emotionally ambivalent arias, from distraught to blood-thirsty. Louse Mott as Edith, a woman whose lover has been killed in the war, gave a completely compelling performance that stood out a long way from the rest. Mott is definitely a star. The others, on paper a very good cast, seemed collectively underwhelmed with the material.

Netia Davan Wetton's grey production probably didn't help, although it was ingenious in some ways. The set consisted of a platform made of half of a union flag, in shades of grey, and a blank screen for back projections. Two dancers acted out the battles in a West-Side-Storyish sort of way. The singers wore modern dress, and the battle was an election: Edward prepared for battle by stuffing envelopes with target letters. (Pat Wainwright wouldn't have let him get away with folding the address and photo on the inside.) It was inexpensive and reasonably to the point, since an election is a decision about national identity. It wasn't very interesting, but perhap Alfred isn't really that interesting.

H.E. Elsom



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