It has been billed as the theatrical event of 2016 and judging by the reaction of audiences that have paid some extraordinary prices for seats in the magnificence of the London Coliseum it might be just that.
It is a coup indeed that the newly created partnership that brought Emma Thompson in Sweeney Todd to the Coliseum last year has managed to persuade Hollywood icon Glenn Close to recreate her portrayal of deluded and fragile Norma Desmond. Many have been sniffy that English National Opera have resorted to offering the frivolousness of musical theatre on their stage, however ENO need to pay the bills somehow and Opera is increasingly not doing that for them.
Close first starred in Sunset Boulevard, without doubt Andrew Lloyd Webbers finest score to date, back in 1994. Opening in Los Angeles before heading to Broadway Close was generally agreed to have been a fine Norma. Now some twenty years later to return to the role again is a rare opportunity for her to refine her portrayal with the added insight of age on her side at 69 and I am happy to report that it is an astonishing portrayal at that.
With Lonny Price in the directors seat it strikes me that there is more than just a mere nod to Trevor Nunn’s original direction. However there is also some great original work going on in this ‘semi-staged’ version as well. The heavenly ENO orchestra under the fine baton of Michael Reed is nestled under a series of black wrought iron staircases and gantries that lend themselves to a number of different uses and settings. With Anthony Powell’s original Norma costume designs having been resurrected as well this is still a feast for the eyes and is a good gear shift up from just being ‘semi’ staged.
A universally strong cast work hard and fill the large Coliseum stage with ease. Stephen Mear’s choreography makes for some fine moments with a full ensemble giving us the hustle and bustle of film sets and back lots out of which emerge strong leads all round. Siobhan Dillon brings a touch of class to the often underwhelming role of love interest Betty whilst Fred Johanson is strength personified in his trussed up, brooding Max. Johanson’s voice is deliciously thick and dark with just enough passion laying beneath the surface to remind us that Max is a man that as made some of the ultimate sacrifices for the woman he has loved for so long.
Michael Xavier is as dashing and charming as always and gives his Joe Gillis an energy that is just enough to make these women want to throw themselves at him. Perhaps lacking on cynicism enough to make some of his anti studio talk real at times he otherwise adds a suitably dry response to the melodrama of the desperate Norma clutching at a return to fame that we all know will never come.
It is that desperation and that clutching to a dream that brings the electricity to the evening with Close positively devouring the role that she appears to have been born to play. This is a role that walks a really fine line between a tragic figure of loneliness and sorrow and a laughable caricature of high camp. Even with brief moments of comedy Close never falls into the later and plays Norma as an ogre at times, but never drops the demand on us to feel sorry for this woman. This is a fierce performance that ebbs and flows with power and danger to a trembling vulnerability that is heart-breaking to watch.
The biggest shame with this fine production is that there is such a small window of opportunity for people to see it in its fleeting 5 week run. Something tells me though that we haven’t seen the last of this Norma with rumours of Close being eyed up to bring her back to the silver screen. It is a portrayal that deserves to be captured permanently that’s for sure.