When I saw ENO's The Pearl Fishers on 4 June, both Alfie Boe (Nadir) and Hanan Alattar (Leila) struggled to sing, none too effectively, through what were announced as severe throat infections.
Reader Adrian Sells commented of a later performance,"I saw the performance in which both Boe and his understudy were indisposed and a wonderful American tenor (previously unfamiliar to me), William Burden, stood in and sang in French from the side of the stage while the understudy "acted" the role silently."
And now the Independent's Alice Jones reports further problems at the 12 June show, Hanan Alattar was still ill, as were both Boe and his understudy Christopher Steele. Alattar scraped through the whole show; Steele managed only the first half, where, as Alice Jones puts it "the Je crois entendre encore aria was painful".
So, given that ENO knew both Boe and Steele were ill several days before the 12 June show, you might expect they'd have found a backup for this not especially challenging role.
Not so. The second half solution? "a member of the chorus, David Newman. He'd sung the role before, we were told vaguely, not in English translation but, you know, he'd have a go. He proceeded to sing from a book at the side of the stage while Steele mimed."
Jones asks, quite reasonably "why not have better contingencies in place? There were around 50 members of the company on stage on Saturday and only three significant singing roles. Would an extra understudy for Nadir have been too much? Was there no other lead tenor available in London who could sing the role?"
ENO of course don't give refunds if the show goes ahead, regardless of who ends up singing. But that in a way is beside the point. It's not just about how much the ticket cost, but about doing justice to the composer, the work, and the efforts of the production staff and other performers. Don't an ENO audience deserve a professional standard of performance? Not Placido Domingo, but at least a competent performer like Alfie Boe in the principal role. It might be excusable if ENO had been faced with overnight cancellations, but in this case they had a week's notice to find a substitute.
There's a certain section of any ENO audience who imagine a miming understudy and a chorus singer in the wings add to the 'unpredictability' and 'fun' of a show. But then they probably stop to watch car crashes too. Most people, like me and like Alice Jones, just want to see a serious and professional effort that doesn't detract (or distract) from the rest of the show.
This is of course not the first time ENO has failed to cover principal roles adequately - isn't it about time they sorted themselves out?
UPDATE 18/6 - From website data not visible to readers, I have worked out that a number of the ENO-defensive comments received here have come from ENO staff or production members posting anonymously. This is unfair to regular readers wanting to appraise the basis of any view expressed. I don't have time to go through every future comment individually and identify them, so I have decided instead to close comments on this post altogether.
This is the first time I have ever been forced to do this, and I hope it will be the last.
For future reference, I am happy to accept comments from interested parties only if the author (or at least their interest) is properly identified. That's only fair to readers and other commenters.
There's some further discussion of Pearlfishersgate on Vanessa Thorpe's Guardian blog.