A Child of Our Time (Staged)

A Child of Our Time

Susan Gritton (soprano)
Sara Fulgoni (contralto)
Timothy Robinson (tenor)
Brindley Sherratt (bass)

Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera
Martyn Brabbins

Director – Jonathan Kent
Designer – Paul Brown
Lighting designer – Mark Henderson
Movement director – Linda Dobell

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 21 January, 2005
Venue: The Coliseum, London

On first thought, it might seem perverse to be staging a Tippett oratorio when his five operas are urgently in need of new productions and reassessment. Yet the composer himself described “A Child of Our Time” as a “modern Passion”, and as both of Bach’s Passions have been successfully staged (that “according to St John” by English National Opera) during the last decade, then why not a work which holds – or ought to hold – a similar importance in our era as has Handel’s “Messiah” for over two centuries.

What resulted, however, was a realisation which, while not impeding the communicative fervency of the music, largely failed to galvanise or articulate it in visual terms. Jonathan Kent’s staging seemed too intent on drawing on aspects of recent ENO productions: from the frequent, would-be symbolically significant shaft of light emitted from the stage backdrop, to the human figure disappearing beneath an under-floor recess – only to re-emerge transformed at the point of dramatic catharsis. Elements which exist to create the mise en scène, notably objects lowered to underline key moments in the ‘action’ or the bush engulfed in flames at the moment of reckoning, are effective rather than defining aspects of a presentation which feels all too conscious of the conceptual odds stacked against it.

In as far as they were able to confirm a greater dramatic purpose, Paul Brown’s monochrome designs certainly evoked the mass of humanity throwing up its own scapegoats as the explanation for its continued hardships – out of which the four solo singers emerge to clarify and, within the limits set by Tippett’s own text, personalise the scenario as it struggles to move from dark to light. What no staging could offset, of course, is the degree to which “A Child of Our Time” is a choral work, with all the problems of intelligibility that ensue when singers are required to traverse a stage-space in the interests of ‘dramatic relevance’. In a work whose words are normally so clearly conveyed, the lack of clarity in much of what was being sung seriously undermined the point of the whole enterprise.

The choral singing in itself was generally unanimous and full-toned, whereas the orchestral contribution was appreciably below par compared to ENO’s recent standards – Martyn Brabbins conducting with an admirable fluency but surprisingly little dramatic tension or expressive subtlety. Timothy Robinson’s too earnest contribution apart, the solo singing was the undoubted highlight – notably Susan Gritton’s effortless melisma and Brindley Sherratt’s security in some awkwardly bass-baritone tessitura, with Sara Fulgoni wholly avoiding the congealed timbre too often synonymous with the contralto register.

So, a production which rather fails to sustain a case for “A Child of Our Time” as staged drama – but which, given the paucity of Tippett opera productions in his centenary year, is worth catching on its second airing. And, given the undoubted musical strengths, it would be well worth attending the performance at St Paul’s Cathedral – to be given in aid of the Tsunami Appeal: a gesture such as Tippett, generous-spirited humanist that he was, would no doubt have endorsed enthusiastically.

  • Further performance on 28 January
  • Box Office: 020 7632 8300
  • English National Opera
  • Additional performance on Sunday 30 January at 6 p.m. in St Paul’s Cathedral – admission free, proceeds to UNICEF

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