The two performances this weekend of Elgar’s masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius marked the English National Opera’s debut at the Royal Festival Hall. A collaboration between the BBC Singers and the ENO Chorus and Orchestra, Saturday night’s fervent performance drew the season to a close.

Simone Young © Reto Klar
Simone Young
© Reto Klar

With a reputation for exciting sets and scenery to maintain, the ENO enlisted award-winning lighting designer Lucy Carter to interpret through light the emotion and events of Gerontius’ decent to Purgatory. With some dramatic use of light to heighten the senses, this was largely distracting. The wash of light into the audience’s eyes in Part 2 during the encounter with God, for example, was painful. This was preceded by psychedelic lights being shot in various directions and at one point immersing the audience like a wave. Despite providing an alternative approach toward classical music staging, the lighting display did little to contribute to the already compelling musical performance.

The performance commenced in darkness, the hall filled with smoke which would later add to the lighting effects featured as part of the performance. A sudden spotlight beamed down onto conductor Simone Young and the English National Opera Orchestra came in softly yet resonant. Young took her time over the settled opening bars before picking up the tempo and driving the orchestra with great sensitivity to the vast and rapidly changing emotions at play in Elgar’s work. The major key sections were soothing, with luscious string passages, yet the modulations into minor with protruding and fierce brass interjections were effective in creating audibly the sensations evoked in the original poem by cardinal John Henry Newman.

Tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones returned to the ENO to perform the part of Gerontius, the everyman headed towards death. Positioned stage left of a vibrant Young, Jones stood reverently as the tumultuous dream whirred and unfolded in the undulating orchestra behind him. The tenor sang with lightness and purity, keeping repeated themes interesting by continuously painting them in different hues as suited the stages of his journey towards judgement. Jones’ initial “sanctus fortis” could have been performed with more lilt as it is one of the most beautiful melodies he sings, however as he came closer to death the melody became more legato and sincere with each repetition. The tenor’s facial expressions added greatly to the credibility of his performance and gave a deep insight into his character’s torment, particularly the contortion throughout the end of his first solo.

Complementing the prayerful, lost voice of Jones, the Chorus’ entry was trance-like and beautifully matched Jones’ purity in tone and light vibrato. In Part 2, we were treated to the full force of the Chorus’ amassed volume which was enthralling and a contrast from the controlled, pious vocals in Part 1.

Matthew Rose as the Priest and later the Angel of Agony performed with conviction and authority. Joining the ensemble as the Angel was Irish mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon. Perfecting the role of a motherly and constant figure of support to Gerontius, Jones and Bardon interacted credibly in passages of dialogue. However, Bardon’s solos came across as lofty and left something to be desired whereby lyrical sections of the work were lost in very open vowels and overly pronounced consonants.