a stark staging of an obscure classic – and a stark warning to the Arts Council

ENO's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, at the London Coliseum - Clive Barda/ArenaPal

Symphony of Sorrowful Songs by ENO, at the London Coliseum – Clive Barda/ArenaPal

“History is watching you, Nick Serota and Darren Henley…”. Before the curtain went up on Thursday night, English National Opera’s outgoing chief executive Stuart Murphy gave a stern warning in a farewell message to ENO’s funders in the Arts Council and DCMS to safeguard the company for the future. . One of the great ironies of the situation was that there, on stage at the Colosseum, ENO was doing exactly what the Arts Council wanted them to do, in that much-contested term, “reimagine opera”: here, bringing one of the most distinctive operas concert concert of contemporary music on stage in an inspiring staging by Isabella Bywater.

Polish composer Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs was written as his Third Symphony in 1976, its slow score totally different from the angry pieces Górecki had written up to that point. I was first struck by it on the radio in New York in 1980, in its original Polish recording; Górecki made a rare visit to London in 1989 for an extraordinary weekend of his music, and from this came the evocative 1992 recording (certainly not the first, as ENO claimed, but the finest), featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw, became an international success.

With its religious impetus and stark, Holocaust-related lyrics, the Symphony was so much a product of the minimalist era (which also spawned John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil and Arvo Pärt’s St John Passion) that I feared it might have lost its relevance now. But as soon as the relentless tread of the double basses began under the serenely confident direction of Lidiya Yankovskaya, the music cast its spell.

From a slow-burning beginning in which the infinitely resourceful soprano Nicole Chevalier trudges across the floor to a waiting chair, the rise and fall of Górecki’s creaky, modal phrases is aptly mirrored in her fearsome rise upward, anchored to the chair and then tumbling painfully into the grave that awaited below.

A ray of light falls on the gray-framed triangular stage (well integrated lights and video by Jon Driscoll and Roberto Vitalini), as the second of three sections begins, this text the touching prayer to the mother of God by a girl imprisoned by the Gestapo in the city of Zakopane. (It was this bright nine-minute segment that formed the basis of the symphony’s success, as it was both concise and suitable for radio broadcast). optimism.

ENO's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, at the London Coliseum - Clive Barda/ArenaPal

Symphony of Sorrowful Songs by ENO, at the London Coliseum – Clive Barda/ArenaPal

At the beginning of the third part, the swinging figures of the orchestra signal an interruption of the gray hanging walls by shadowy, anonymously masked war figures (all the costumes had been bought secondhand from charity shops). Finally they are delivered under a white sheet, while in the evening’s only kitschy touch, the soprano sprouts golden wings as he ascends again.

Though slightly off tempo, this is an apt reflection of Górecki’s emotional turn into the radiant major key at the end of the symphony. Uncertain hope triumphs, as we must trust it will for ENO.

Until May 6th. Tickets: eno.org; 7845 9300

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