Please spare us the distraction of surtitles at the opera

Opera is drama. You need to look and listen to it with your full attention
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The Independent Online

English National Opera's Tristan and Isolde at the Coliseum - besides being good - confirms one important point: the value of opera in English.

Poor old ENO is not having much of a time of it these days. Its Tristan coincides with Glyndebourne's highly-praised production of the same opera. Its other big new production, Trojans by Berlioz, has been pretty disastrous. And the company continues to be pummelled by a host of rumours about plans being developed by its chairman, the banker Martin Smith, to deal with its losses.

Not the least of these is a scheme to introduce surtitles, a plan that has had its critics rolling in the aisles at the thought that you need English surtitles to understand singing in English. The ribaldry is right. Properly sung, you should be able to hear the words without straining. No Italian would think it necessary to have surtitles for Verdi or Puccini. Nor should they be necessary in a good translation.

The point is proved by Tristan. Wagner is a long haul, often at high pitch. But you could hear every phrase in the singing of Susan Bullock and David Rendall, and the other parts too, and it made the narrative flow in a way that is impossible if you're peering at moving words across the arch.

That is not an argument for opera in English per se. A concert performance by Valery Gergiev of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin last week overwhelmed one with the sheer beauty of the Russian language when sung. The trouble with surtitles, however, is that they are a distraction. The eye is caught continuously by a moving image. It can't help itself.

Opera is drama. You need to look and listen to it with your full attention. It's even true of theatre. Yukio Ninagawa's wondrous production of Shakespeare's Pericles in Japanese at the Barbican last month was nearly destroyed for me by not just one but two screens displaying the full Shakespearean text several lines at a time.

Better to have read it beforehand, or just had the headline summary like those old classic texts ("The chorus tells of Pericles' travails at sea" or "Pericles declares his love for Thais") and left the rest to the audience.

German does translate well into English (and the other way round) and Wagner works better for being heard. To have translation and surtitles would be to get the worst of both worlds. And, dare one say it, written up there on the screen, a lot of the great declarations of love being oblivion and death in Tristan do look a fearful load of old tosh in the stark printed word.

Gergiev's concert performance of Onegin also pointed to another lesson for ENO: the value of the repertory company. He was supposed to be doing Glinka's A Life for the Tsar when a succession of illnesses caused him to switch at two days' notice. Hey presto, and he was able to summon up two superb young singers from the company for the main parts as well as some stalwarts for the others.

Gergiev is one of the real Titans of our time who has forced the survival and the thriving of the Kirov by dint of energy and sheer will power. Here is a company - as London ballet lovers will see once again when the Kirov Ballet comes over for a short season at the end of July - that shows all the virtues of being a repertory company that can devote time to rehearsal and to bringing on young talent. Martin Smith's first move as chairman of ENO was to cut the chorus. His next, so it is rumoured, will be to cut the repertoire and concentrate on corporate entertainment. Can no-one stop him before it is too late?

¿ The celebrations in St Petersburg bring to mind the question of the future of the Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House. The rooms were founded as the outpost of the Hermitage by an equally determined director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, bent on ensuring the museum's survival in post-Communist years. They are now apparently being merged into the rest of the Somerset House organisation, under the chairmanship of another banker, Jacob Rothschild, who has already cancelled (postponed, they say) a major exhibition of Islamic art and calligraphy on the nervous nelly, and culturally crass, grounds that it might become a focus for political protest. What rubbish. Now would have been the best time to show understanding and interest in Islamic art.

One hopes the exhibition, which would have contained some important exhibits from private Russian hands as well as the Hermitage, will be rescheduled soon. But, in the meantime, one looks for signs that this bright and brave corner of London's art scene will be succoured and not made subject to yet one more of the art establishment's cost-cutting drives. If the Kirov and the Hermitage show one single thing, it is that there is no substitute for the reach for excellence, even in the most straightened times - and, by heavens, Gergiev and Piotrovsky have known those.

David Lister is away