English opera stretches back to the glories of Purcell and the harmonies of Handel, and the more these neglected classics are performed, the greater the acclaim. But the 20th century is also a cornucopia: Britten, Walton, Tippett and Vaughan Williams have all written opera that deserves to be better known. Britten can hold his own anywhere, but will still be enhanced by his adoption as the ENO’s “house composer”. Vaughan Williams’s splendid Sir John in Love was eclipsed by Verdi’s Falstaff and has not been publicly staged since 1946; so why not now?
Stretching “English” to mean in English or even from the British Isles enlarges the repertoire: a controversial opera by the Irish Gerald Barry from a Fassbinder play, Gaddafi (to take its place perhaps with Nixon and Jerry Springer) and debut direction by Chen Shi-Zheng and Anthony Minghella. Risky? Perhaps — Tosca and Turandot are more reliable crowdpleasers. But if the ENO is to get out of Covent Garden’s shadow, it needs to be bold. English food, wine, fashion and painting are enjoying a renaissance. It is time for the English fat lady to sing.