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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Uncalculated disaster

By Norman Lebrecht / July 5, 2007

There is no polite way of explaining how a calamity like Kismet got onto the stage of English National Opera. Did no member of the ENO board read the text of this 1953 Broadway hit with its copious references to Islamic stoning, hanging, garrotting and hand amputation in ‘good old Baghdad’? Did no member of the artistic team – except perhaps the choreographer, who walked out - balk at Guantanamo head-sacks, a noose descending from the flies and the caliph being borne aloft in the marketplace like a corpse from a suicide bombing? Does nobody at ENO watch the news? ‘It’s like Springtime for Hitler, without the send-ups,’ muttered one of the minority of first-night spectators who stayed on for the second half.

‘Isn’t the score wonderful?’ pleaded John Berry, the company’s desperate artistic director in an emptying lobby. ‘Only the tunes taken from Borodin,’ I replied, ‘and they were written for string quartet not the blare of amplified voices.’

So why did it get staged? ENO banks on a long-run summer musical to wipe out the season’s operatic losses. The policy makes some sense when a fine neglected work is revived, but the financial logic is unproven. Jude Kelly’s 2005 production of Bernstein’s On the Town delivered a hefty box-office boost on first showing. Revived this season, however, it lost £100,000 according to internal calculations.

That deficit was swiftly made up by Kismet which pulled advance bookings from the West End fan club of the Lloyd Webber favourite, Michael Ball. ENO has staked 19 performances on Ball’s singularity and, despite only one national critic rating it at more than one star, Kismet allows the Coli to end the season in relative prosperity – though chiefly because worthy risks like Britten’s Death in Venice, always hard-sell opera, drew a 75 percent house on rave reviews.

What remains to be assessed is the stench that lingers from this shocking lapse of taste and judgement. I understand the ENO board is to be restructured this summer. In future, it should make a point of reading its librettos before agreeing to unpleasant exhumations.

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


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