Sunset Boulevard
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Sunset Boulevard

English National Opera

In Review Queen of the Night hdl 416
Glenn Close and Michael Xavier in English National Opera's production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard
Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

ENGLISH NATIONAL OPERA continues its roller-coaster ride of tumultuous events. Mark Wigglesworth, the company’s well-regarded music director since the beginning of the 2015-16 season, resigned on March 22, explaining in a letter to ENO musicians that: 'The company is evolving now into something I do not recognize, and as hard as I have tried to argue to maintain what I believe to be the fundamental pillars of our identity, I have failed to persuade others of this necessity.” Wigglesworth intends to fulfill, nevertheless, his specific conducting commitments for the remainder of the present season and the next. In addition, at the time of writing there is still no artistic director—a post left vacant by the departure of John Berry in July 2015. An announcement is expected by the end of April. 

Meanwhile Berry’s planning still continues to dominate ENO’s programming, as exemplified in the company’s ongoing relationship with the commercial producers Michael Linnit and Michael Grade. That arrangement saw ENO co-produce a semi-staging of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, starring Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson, in spring 2015, with another musical planned for the equivalent period this year. A five-week run of thirty-three performances of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard was the 2016 choice, with Glenn Close the star brought in to play the lead. The official opening night at the London Coliseum was April 4. 

Though easily the most recognizable British composer of our time, Lloyd Webber has never enjoyed much respect from the UK’s classical establishment. His works are extremely unlikely to be heard, for instance, on the BBC’s classical radio station, Radio 3, and very few classical musicians or critics have a good word for them. Whatever the company’s financial situation, it is inconceivable that ENO’s artistic leadership would have come up with the idea of performing one of his musicals without the participation of Linnit and Grade.

Sunset Boulevard originally premiered in London’s West End in July 1993, with Patti LuPone creating the role of Norma Desmond. Close took the lead in the first U.S. production, presented in Los Angeles six months later; Close would go on to win a Tony award for her subsequent Broadway performances. 

The chief virtue of the musical, which has book and lyrics jointly credited to Don Black and Christopher Hampton, is the closeness with which it follows its cinematic masterpiece source, Billy Wilder’s 1950 movie of the same name. In fact the show’s reliance on the film is so total that it scarcely seems to possess any real creative independence of its own, despite an extensive score. The latter, indeed, is its chief weakness. Over its two-hour span Lloyd Webber manages to come up with a small handful of passable songs, but crucially he can do virtually nothing either with the dramatic situations, which remain flat, or with the linking material between numbers, which is dull. Bar the odd oasis-like reminiscence of Puccini or Rachmaninov, for substantial stretches the result is musically anonymous, possessing none of the striking character or memorability of the film’s Oscar-winning score; but then Franz Waxman was a gifted and technically accomplished composer.

As in the case of his earlier Sweeney Todd, returning director Lonny Price placed ENO’s orchestra (forty-eight-strong on this occasion, and efficiently conducted by Michael Reed) on stage, leaving little room for James Noone’s multi-level staircase set, or the physical action to be undertaken by the principal performers within and beneath it. ENO’s chorus was absent, nor were any of the solo roles allotted to operatic singers. The performance was heavily miked.

More than twenty years on from her first Norma Desmond, sixty-nine-year-old Close delivered an impressive interpretation—nervy, moody and intensely vulnerable in dramatic quality, as well as strongly vocalized—though as with the entirety of the show it felt as much a homage to Gloria Swanson’s unforgettable original as an artistic creation in its own right. 

U.K. matinee idol Michael Xavier’s lack of resemblance to William Holden helped give his blunt, unattractive persona a more distinctive identity as Joe Gillis, the cynical screenwriter who accidentally stumbles into Desmond’s mansion and subsequently finds himself in the former screen legend’s bed. 

Echoes of Erich von Stroheim’s baleful Max filtered through Fred Johanson’s portrayal of Desmond’s loyal butler, while the chirpy innocence of Gillis’s co-worker Betty Schaefer found a breezy exponent in Siobhan Dillon. But if the central performers served the piece well, they were unable to disguise its limitations. 

ENO is strapped for cash due to Arts Council England’s punitive cut of £5 million (more than $7 million) to its annual grant. Since the ENO/Linnit & Grade creative partnership, with its financial benefits to both sides, is apparently set to continue, one must hope that next time around a finer score with which to help replenish the opera company’s diminished coffers is selected.  —George Hall 

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