English National Opera

3 starsThe Coliseum, 30 June 2007


Even if the prospect of the musical itself doesn't tempt you, it is worth catching English National Opera's new production of Wright and Forrest's Kismet to witness one of the nation's greatest musical stars rising to new heights in the most challenging role of his career.

Michael Ball grabs every note and every word of this Broadway classic by the throat, belts out every number with awe-inspiring power, and commits unstintingly to the production. The results are often overwhelming.

Indeed, nearly every member of the cast shows the utmost commitment, so that while the silliness of Kismet sometimes works against them, the musical values are nearly always very high.

Ball also brings a certain complexity to his character in a show that badly lacks psychological depth. He plays the Poet, who arrives at the start of the show without a name and departs it a happier and richer man. Kismet traces his fate, from poet to beggar, from soothsayer to miracle-worker, and from pauper to prince. Thanks to Ball's charisma, the less likeable aspects of the character - especially his initially savage treatment of his daughter, whom he orders to beg in the streets - become unimportant. Although various ridiculous subplots tend to fade into insignificance, we are compelled by this man's search for an identity and a purpose. And when the evening draws to a close with a reprise of 'Sands of Time' in front of the star-covered curtain, Ball brings a wistful, elegiac quality to the piece, something it sadly lacks elsewhere.

I've often wondered whether melody was in short supply in the 1950s, for the bewilderingly successful series of musicals by Robert Wright and George Forrest from that period all use music based on the works of Borodin, Grieg, Rachmaninov and others. Could they not make up something of their own? In the case of Kismet, themes from a variety of operatic and instrumental works by Borodin are removed from their former settings and moulded into closed song forms. Personally, it doesn't offend or bother me in the slightest that the authorial origin of the score is blurred. There are some outstanding numbers in the work, including the ravishing quartet 'And This is My Beloved', the love duet 'Stranger in Paradise' and 'Baubles, Bangles and Beads', plus some passable ones such as 'Rhymes Have I', 'Night of my Nights' and 'Sands of Time'. Others are somewhat dubious in quality, and a lot of the dance music (particularly the utterly tedious wife-audition sequence in Act Two) is execrable. But the performance is hard to fault.

The real drawback of the experience - indeed, the aspect that truly crucifies the endeavour - is the production, which is deplorable. Why on earth Ultz chose a 1960s cerise and red palette to evoke the ancient Arabian setting of the musical is beyond me. There is not a single redeeming feature in the entire production, which varies between bare pink walls, an oversized lily pond and a gigantic wreath of flowers (representing a garden) framing the love scenes. Had the company chosen a more conventional designer, perhaps the night would not be quite such a fiasco.

However, the script is surprisingly witty. The opening scene finds us on the steps of the city where three beggars lie sleeping. One of them realises it's time to start begging money from the passers by, and he wakes up the others, saying 'Get up and start suffering!'. The libretto is brimming with such quips, which are not exactly side-splitting but always raise a smile. Director Gary Griffin often works against the main characters by having the chorus walk on and off in the middle of scene-clinching lines or songs, but it doesn't hold up too much of the show.

While Michael Ball gives the performance of his life, Alfie Boe and Sarah Tynan raise the roof with their vocal aplomb as the young lovers (the Caliph and Marsinah). Broadway star Faith Prince has a magnetic stage presence and although 'Not Since Nineveh' doesn't quite take off, she is a real piece of work as Lalume. Veteran actor Julian Curry puts in a witty turn as Jawan, Graeme Danby makes up for his hammy acting with his excellent singing as the Wazir (his solo is a scream), and Donald Maxwell is a dignified Omar Khayyam, despite being out of tune in the opening number.

Simon Lee's conducting at this performance was inspired, driving forth the drama while allowing the sensuality of the score to come through.

Kismet is certainly not the greatest musical ever written and ENO's production is decidedly let down by its designer and director. Yet it's very entertaining, and the musical highlights are often moving.

By Dominic McHugh