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I didn’t enjoy it but I couldn’t help loving it: ENO’s Sunset Boulevard reviewed

5 April 2016

1:18 PM

5 April 2016

1:18 PM

Sunset Boulevard
Coliseum, in rep until 7 May

Sunset Boulevard is a tale of fractured glory with Homeric dimensions. The movie presents Hollywood as a never-ending Trojan War that attracts fresh generations of dreamy youths in search of conquest and treasure. The lead characters have retired from battle, wounded. Joe Gillis, like Odysseus, is a vagrant warrior ensnared in the island-mansion of Norma Desmond, who plays the role of broken-queen-turned-sorceress. These fabulous elements are preserved in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical version. So is the Norma-Joe affair with its distasteful emotional template: mother-son, boss-slave, mistress-poodle, crone-toyboy. The lovers are linked by nothing but neediness and failure, and each desires the mirage that the other represents. In all, it makes for a dark, unsettling and perfectly humourless story that inexplicably seizes the imagination. Put it this way, I didn’t enjoy it but I couldn’t help loving it.


Visually this production is immaculate. A huge orchestra, seated on stage, is partially concealed beneath a network of intersecting staircases that doubles as the movie-lot and as Norma’s sprawling home. Golden lights illuminate the musicians against an azure backdrop that creates the blue-orange formula beloved of unpretentious, crowd-pleasing designers. And the music, though not Lloyd Webber’s finest, is bashed out with faultless efficiency.

The audience seemed to adore Glenn Close (Norma), who has built an astonishing international career from two slender and rather unsavoury film roles (bunny-boiler and Dalmatian-snatcher, is there anything else?). Her stage charisma is impressive. Her warbling? A bit slippery at first, good later, not outstanding. Michael Xavier (Joe) is a handsome slab of tanned beefcake with an attractive voice, nicely trained. The show-stealer is Fred Johanson as the melancholy film director Max, who sacrifices everything for Norma. The booming sonority of Johanson’s spoken words might have sounded pretentious in an earthier script but his cavernous enunciations seem to suit the pumped-up grandeur of the material. He sings with a lovely fluting tenor, heart-melting in its upper registers, which feels under-used. When the composer sees this version he’ll want to bang out a couple of extra numbers to give Johanson the opportunity he deserves.

This is an excerpt from the forthcoming issue of The Spectator


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