Review: The Dream of Gerontius, Royal Festival Hall

The English National Opera is on staycation. Abandoning its Coliseum home for the summer (for Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell musical) the ENO has moved to the Royal Festival Hall for its performance of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, itself inspired by Cardinal Newman’s poem of the same name.

This tale of a dying man, and his interaction with angels and God may be based on a poem but is far-reaching in its epic subject matter. This performance which features Lucy Carter’s intriguing staging and light show more than lives up to Elgar’s reworking of Gerontius’ journey to purgatory.

For those for whom opera remains an alien experience this would be a good start; performance is at the heart of it all. Even Simone Young’s enthused and energetic conducting of the ENO orchestra is as performative as the performance from the singers.

Gwyn Hughes Jones is nothing short of magnificent in the title role of Gerontius. The depth of emotion conveyed in his voice is heartfelt and sweeps the audience away on his end-of-life journey.

Similarly, Patricia Bardon as the angel, dressed in a slightly frayed cotton white gown, really brings the role to life as her mezzo-soprano hits the notes that we associate with the heights of heaven.

These soft voices contrast delightfully with Matthew Rose’s bass which packs a punch in Act II when he comes on as God. His booming yet lively voice delivers the necessary dramatic juxtaposition for the softer tones of Jones’s tenor as Gerontius fears whether he will reach heaven.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this performance is the lighting. Lucy Carter’s use of undulating light which casts its spell across the stage and falls across the audience itself is unusual and somewhat hypnotic. Its ebbs and flows capture not only your attention but the essence of Elgar, and it is simply spectacular.

This sense of nuance is reflected within the direction of the ENO chorus, who stand up intermittently in staggered formation. It’s a subtle direction, but adds to the building sense of drama. The choir itself perfectly complements the solo singers.

The Dream of Gerontius is an emotional work with a great sense of dark and light, and the ENO harnesses that effortlessly. There is a genuine feeling of transcendence as you listen to Gerontius as he looks to life after death. A wonderful treat for opera lovers, and a revelation for those new to the form. It’s a triumph.

The Dream of Gerontius played Royal Festival Hall until July 2. 

Photo: Tristram Kenton

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