Thursday 9 June 2005

A Word in Your Ear

So, it seems that ENO are finally planning to introduce surtitle (see article in The Guardian). This has long been on the cards and, given the Coliseum's rather intractable acoustics, not surprising.

The news caused me to cast my memory back to the so called 'glory days' when you could hear the singers' words. I saw the ENO regulary on tour as student in Manchester in the early '70s. We were poor, so we sat at the back of the Gods in the Opera House. And, I'm afraid to say, words rarely made it up to that level. We were heavily reliant on the printed plot summaries in the programmes and the odd word that carried. This was certainly not the direct communication that people sigh about. I have vivid memories of my first 2 instalments of the Ring; many quarters of an hour went by with me wondering what on earth the singers were going on about.

The ENO's reputation for verbal clarity was, I think, based on a quite small group of singers. Even in the stalls or upper circle of the Coliseum, in the 70's and 80's, it could be difficult to hear what some singers were saying. I have heard Josephine Barstow give some superb performances (Octavian, Arabella, Elisabeth de Valois ....) but rarely could understand a word that she sang. By contrast, you seemed to be able to hear every single word that Valerie Masterson sang; she has always been my paragon of textual clarity. I vividly remember a late performance of Der Rosenkavalier with Masterson singing the Marschallin. During the long monologue at the end of the first Act I heard words and phrases that I never heard before or since. She communicated with wonderful clarity and seemed to be speaking directly to you.

It will be interesting to see how the singers themselves react to the presence of surtitles. I await developments with interest.

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