What sets out to be a promising attempt to fulfil both musical theatre and light opera expectations of a score borrowed from Borodin and given the mid-1950s Broadway treatment by Robert Wright and George Forrest, ends up a misfired mish-mash.
The story is a sort of musical Arabian night, adapted from a 1911 play by Edward Knoblock, in medieval Baghdad (“the symbol of happiness on earth” has an unfortunately inappropriate ring to it). An unnamed poet disguised as a beggar (Michael Ball) seduces Lalume (Faith Prince), the Wazir’s wife of wives, is appointed an Emir of the city, and marries off his daughter Marsinah (Sarah Tynan) to the handsome young Caliph (Alfie Boe).
Ball, kitted out in a series of voluminous night shirts, has filled out in body and voice, and plays with lots of characteristic charm. But the delightful Broadway star Faith Prince is wasted as the lovelorn Lalume, her big number “Not since Nineveh” drowned in muzzy chorus work and messy staging. Other items, notably “Baubles, Bangles and Beads”, fail to shake off tatty pantomime connotations, while “Stranger in Paradise” still belongs to Johnny Mathis as far as I am concerned.
Choreographer Javier de Frutos quit the production days before opening citing “artistic differences”. The Baghdad slaves and the leather-clad trio of Ababu princesses bear his cheeky trademark in baring thighs and torsos. But the dancing is cramped and the ENO chorus, especially the men, seem not to have a clue about moving across a stage, let alone executing the simplest of dance steps upon it.
At least the sound system and microphoning is better than it was for On the Town. Designer Ultz has created a blood red set for visiting American director Gary Griffin (who won an Olivier award for his Donmar revival of Pacific Overtures three years ago) that has some wonderful ideas: a circular, vertical pomegranate garden is the setting for the musical highlight, “And This Is My Beloved”, gloriously sung and harmonised by Tynan and Boe.
Richard Hickox draws some lush and highly charged sound from the 60-strong orchestra pit (Simon Lee shares conducting duties over the next two weeks). Rodney Clarke (soon to be seen in Carmen Jones) is an impressive chief policeman, and there are fine musical contributions from stalwarts Donald Maxwell as Omar Khayyam and Graeme Danby as the foolish Wazir (“Was I a Wazir? I wuz”).
- Michael Coveney