JOHN BLATCHLEY was already 40, with a full and varied career as actor, director and teacher in the straight theatre behind him, when in 1962 he was appointed assistant to Glen Byam Shaw, the new director of productions at Sadler's Wells Opera, in London.
During the next two decades Blatchley, together with Byam Shaw and on his own account, directed more than 20 operas for the company, which later moved to the London Coliseum and became the English National Opera. These operas ranged from repertory works such as Fidelio, The Marriage of Figaro, La Boheme, Tosca and Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci to (at that time) less well-known works by Janacek, Smetana and Weber. The climax to Blatchley's and Byam Shaw's joint work for Sadler's Wells/ENO was their lunar-landscape staging of Wagner's Ring, in Andrew Porter's superb English translation, conducted by Reginald Goodall, which came to fruition between January 1970 and February 1973.
John Blatchley was born in Melbourne in 1922. His parents were touring music-hall artists and theatre was in his blood. Winning a scholarship to RADA, he came to London and after completing his course acted in West End productions and at Stratford. He joined Glen Byam Shaw at the Old Vic School and then went to France, where he worked as both actor and director. Returning to London in 1960 he became assistant to George Devine at the Royal Court and two years later was summoned by Peter Hall to Stratford where he directed Measure for Measure.
He began his stint at Sadler's Wells in October 1962 by restaging Carmen. Then in December the same year he directed The Girl of the Golden West, a marvellous production of Puccini's gold-rush opera which those who saw and heard it will never forget. Another successful staging was the world premiere of Malcolm Williamson's adaptation of Graham Greene's novel Our Man in Havana, in July 1963. Even more greatly admired, the British premiere of Janacek's Makropolous Case took place in February 1964, conducted by Charles Mackerras and with Marie Collier quite magnificent as Emilia Marty.
Johann Strauss's Gypsy Baron, which followed in April was less successful, but in April 1965, The Marriage of Figaro, another production conducted by Mackerras, received many compliments: 'Rarely do conductor and producer combine to make an opera's words so intelligible' is one that Blatchley, a passionate advocate of opera in English, would have appreciated. His productions of Fidelio in September 1965 and, in particular, of La Boheme in March 1966, were good examples of the way Blatchley could dramatically illuminate more familiar operas, while his ability as an actor was demonstrated by a blessedly unexaggerated performance of Frosch the gaoler in Die Fledermaus and a compelling account of the Narrator in Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex.
The first of Blatchley's co-productions with Byam Shaw of Wagner opened in January 1968, when The Mastersingers was staged with overwhelming success, despite the cramped conditions at Sadler's Wells. Seven months later the company moved to the much larger Coliseum, opening with an unfortunate production of Don Giovanni which Blatchley later restaged. The Ring was inaugurated with The Valkyrie on 29 January 1970, and Twilight of the Gods followed exactly one year later. Blatchley's modern-dress staging of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci in September 1971 was not at first popular, though it was acclaimed by some as before its time. There were no such reservations over The Rhinegold in March 1972 or Siegfried in February 1973, which completed The Ring. In December Blatchley added a wonderfully atmospheric staging of Katya Kabanova to his achievements.
By the time his next new productions, a very thoughtful Tosca and the first London stage performance of Smetana's Dalibor, were unveiled in 1976, the company had become the English National Opera. Weber's Euryanthe in 1977 and Verdi's The Two Foscari in 1978 were rather less well received. Tristan and Isolde, Blatchley's last coproduction with Byam Shaw in 1981, did not seem to have affected them in the same way as The Ring whose staging inspired not only the two directors, but also a whole generation of opera lovers.