by Rachel Beaumont

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So many enfants terribles: Les Enfants Terribles at the Barbican Theatre

Les Enfants Terribles
The Royal Ballet
Barbican Theatre
27 January 2017
Stalls C5, £25

To celebrate Philip Glass's 80th birthday the Royal Ballet has come to the Barbican Theatre for the first time, commissioning a new production of Glass's 1996 dance-opera from none other than Javier De Frutos. He's filled the massive Barbican stage with a cast of eight of the most charismatic dance actors in Britain today, and four young singers. If the singers sound like a bit of an after-thought then that is kind of the case – in no way the fault of the singers and I think not the fault of De Frutos either. I blame the piece, but – full disclosure – I've never got on with Glass so perhaps that's what I was always going to do.

I respect and admire Glass's obvious devotion to the operatic form and his impressively diverse essays in the genre. But the works themselves just don't do it for me: I find the repetition occasionally entrancing but mostly trite; I find the writing for voices brutally unflattering and difficult to pay attention to. If a singer actor of the extraordinary calibre of Christopher Purves struggles to make an impact, as in Glass's , then something's wrong. I think all four of the singers in Les Enfants are extremely impressive – Jennifer Davis, Emily Edmonds and Gyula Nagy on the ROH's Jette Parker Young Artists Progamme, and Paul Curievici, who has done stirling work for the Royal Opera in its contemporary repertory for many years. They are as impressive here as I would expect them to be, along with the three excellent ROH pianists Kate Shipway, Rob Clark and James Hendry in the pit. And yet I found myself wishing the singers weren't in it so much. That's not all the fault of the music, of course, and I must take some of the blame for my dependence on the surtitles: having to wrench my eyes from this busy stage to keep track of what was being said was frustrating to say the least. But I'm not sure what solution there could be for that. The attempt to bring surtitles into the on-set projections in Graham VIck's production of Morgen und Abend was to my mind something of a failure ('why is it in Times New Roman??'), and to use an English translation of the libretto would lose the 'American view of Frenchiness' which is an integral element in De Frutos's production.

So that's the opera side of this dance-opera. Probably the main event, though, for most including De Frutos and the Royal Ballet is the dance. De Frutos has assembled a Rolls Royce crew with all eight dancers stand-out expressive dance artists. This cast, coupled with De Frutos's impressive ability to move people round the stage – make Les Enfants always entertaining and occasionally breathtaking. For me the undisputed highlight is an early instrumental scene depicting Paul's sleepwalking. Ed Watson, Jonathan Goddard and Thomasin Gülgec all represent Paul together in dreamlike state, in a choreographic repeating pattern that echoes the series of upwards scales in the pianos (this is one of the music passages that I find very effective – at least this time round). I had thought that each dancer would represent a different aspect of the character's personality, but instead, because they are all such charismatic performers, they each represent the same aspects in remarkably individual ways – each Paul is guilt-ridden, hollow, intense in a way that is equally vivid and equally distinctive to each dancer. It is a truly remarkable effect and unlike anything I've seen before – and full credit to the young singers that they occupy the same space on equal footing, albeit perhaps with less nuance.

Full credit too to De Frutos. Les Enfants is clearly the result of extensive rehearsal and complex, detailed thought (it does seem absurd that the show receives only three performances). With so much detail and thought, and with such committed and intelligent performances from everyone on stage, inevitably things get lost and inevitably it sometimes feels like overkill. Thomas Whitehead and Gülgec both feel sidelined, a sad waste of such wonderful performers. The final scene has so much activity that one viewing cannot be enough – probably not even five viewings (and I think the frustration is compounded by Glass's abrupt finale, disproportionate with the often leisurely pace of the rest of the piece).

And I've not even come to the designs. My heart always sinks a bit when I see a video designer in the credits. I feel I'm very much over projections in opera – but Tal Rosner's work here bucks the trend. It's amazingly made, detailed, beautiful and a true extension of De Frutos's direction. Jean-March Puissant's designs don't quite reach the same level, and were sadly beset by surprisingly low-quality production values – walls that wobbled all over the place and a stray caster that actually brought the show to a halt. It must have been an unbearable ten-minute period of internal disaster for all involved, and I thought to start with it would derail the rest of the performance. But my faith in these magnificent performers, and the dedicate De Furtos has drawn from them for this peculiar work, should have been stronger.

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