Saturday 19 September 2009

The Case of the Disappearing Soprano

There is something about the programmes of the last few ENO seasons which makes you wonder whether they've gone off dramatic sopranos. The sort of female voice who would normally have Elektra, the Dyers Wife, Brunhilde and perhaps Ortrud in her repertoire.

A sign of this lack of interest might be taken from the casting of the title role in the forthcoming new production of Turandot. For ENO the role will be sung by the German soprano Kirsten Blanck, Blanck was originally a lyric soprano and has recently been singing more dramatic roles. I await Blanck's performance with interest but by not casting an established dramatic soprano in the role ENO seem to confirm their distinct lack of interest in the mature dramatic soprano voice (hoch dramatisch sopran).

In the relatively recent Ring cycle, Brunnhilde was sung by Kathleen Broderick, a soprano whose voice did not quite soar with ease over the orchestra in the way that previous British sopranos such as Rita Hunter, Jane Eaglen and Gwynneth Jones have done. Frankly, I got the feeling that Broderick had been chosen more for her slim physique than her less than opulent voice. But even so, having failed to put together a complete Ring cycle, ENO seem to have lost interest in the operas entirely. It would surely have been easy enough to revive one of the operas, such as Valkyrie, but we have not even had that.

One of the curious things about the casting of the Ring was the fact that ENO seemed to ignore a dramatic soprano close to home. Susan Bullock has sung many roles at the Coliseum, including Isolde, but the majority of her dramatic roles have been away from London, with some of her early dramatic roles being done for Opera North. In fact her first London Brunhilde's will be done at Covent Garden.

Away from the Ring, ENO seem to have lost the will to produce other operas in the dramatic sopranos repertoire, the Flying Dutchman, Mastersingers, Lohengrin and Ariadne all seem to have disappeared without any replacements in sight, though the replacement of the Puccini operas in the repertoire continues apace.

Of course, one of the problems with the heavy dramatic roles is that there are, admitedly, fewer singers able to sing the roles and not all of them want to learn them in English. Jane Eaglen, in an interview, said that she was reluctant to sing a role in English if she had it in her repertoire in the original language. So that her recording of Turandot was made after the role had dropped from her repertoire. Which goes some way to explaining why Eaglen's last two roles with ENO were La Gioconda and La Vestale, roles only tangential to the core dramatic soprano repertoire.

Part of the problem at ENO is, of course, the rather rapid turn over in management in the last few years. The current incumbents seem to have been rather keen to drop most of the projects initiated by Sean Doran. We can only hope that repertoire involving dramatic sopranos becomes of more interest to the Coliseum in the near future.

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