Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Messiah Bicket/English Concert/Barbican

I'm a bit late with this one but it's lasted in the memory. This town has been flooded with Messiahs this year as ever but prima inter pares has probably been the ENO production, created for the stage by Deborah Warner. This is, of course, because ENO wanted to put on a Messiah to get bums on seats. I don't understand why they didn't simply put the band on the stage. The Messiah's not for staging; it has all the rhetorical abstraction of the gospels (why the Passions shouldn't be staged either, incidentally).

That's not to say that Messiah has no drama. In the performance I saw last Wednesday Harry Bicket really demands that his musicians respond to the latent drama in this oldest and most familiar of stories. No-one needs staggering, dancing or grafted-on gestures to communicate this piece, especially with singing and playing this good.

Lucy Crowe is the gilt voice to a contradictory but opulent collection of soloists both floating and pointing notes with ease and pathos, as well as tearing up the joint with one of the fastest but least troubled Rejoice Greatlys I've ever heard. Allan Clayton's febrile but manly tenor was well matched to her in every respect. The lower voices - the voices of us here below on earth were totemic and resonant. I particularly liked Patricia Bardon.

It was all about the orchestra though, supernaturally in tune in both pitch and ensemble and making small gestures tell with the same weight as grand lyric sentences of music. Oh, and apparently people still stand up for the Hallelujah Chorus, amazingly.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Der Rosenkavalier at the ROH

Der Rosenkavalier is a pain in the backside. It has more than its fair share of first-class operatic music and provides a superb vehicle for the opulence and escapism that any evening out on the town can offer. Alas, it's also an over-inflated work, stretched by its investigation of the limits of tonality at the same time as indulging its pathological need to set up the moments of great beauty and pathos. At either extreme, to get at the beauty you need to resist the bore.

The trio of Act 3 it has both beauty and pathos in one of the great operatic set pieces. The cast of the Royal Opera's revival are beautifully balanced in ensemble, making this a ravishing, irresistible moment in the work. The music flows off the stage and into the stalls in much the same way as their fourth-wall-breaking manoeuvre from the stage-within-the-stage does. To my mind these three are glove-perfect fits in the roles. Soile Isokoski is porcelain-beautiful in production and decorous use of her sound. Sophie Koch produces a supple, almost-virile tone. Lucy Crowe is possibly the central gemstone with freshness, sparkle and an unselfconscious élan in her high threads of sound. I felt that her stagecraft was a little constrained but wasn't watching fairly soon after hearing her start to sing.

However, refined singing apart, for me the great joy of the evening was Peter Rose's Ochs. I have been waiting for the chance to see this characterisation ever since missing a well thought-of Scottish Opera production 12 years ago and I was beyond satisfied. This Ochs is not quite the slobbering thug that secures our distaste of him well before the close. Instead we can luxuriate in a finely-sung performance of exemplary German and a comic timing - nay, simply timing - that made the others look rather mannered.

The set-piece pillar-and-post of Act 2 presentation and Act 3 trio apart, Rosenkavalier has a fine opening Act which rather showed the cramped functionallity of Kiril Petrenko's approach. There was precious little space for the music to breathe a hush as the Marschallin reflects on the futility of sonnambulant clock-tampering. I also missed the surface sadness (the one 'wet' eye) as Octavian's imagination convinces him that his rejection is imminent - it sounded too close to the sexual raging of the overture. Otherwise this was a secure rendition from the pit.

The production may be old but I enjoyed its careful variations on a limited palette. This is a production that appreciates the importance of the periphery: the blocking, the modulation of the innocuous to the seminal, just as the raging, chaotic wash of noumenal atonality sometimes spurts through into the action and changes the outwardly serene course of the phenomenal drama. This performance was not that cosmic, fin-de-siècle interpretation that renders psychotropic drugs redundant and makes you weep openly on the train home, but it was enchanting nonetheless.

UPDATE (10 December 2009):
Reviews collected at Culture Critic

Monday, 7 December 2009

Brubeck honoured at White House

I'm pleased to hear that the great jazz musician Dave Brubeck received a Kennedy Center Honour at the White House yesterday. Immediately I was reminded of the episode in season 6 of The West Wing ('Drought Conditions'), in which a remarkable final sequence - a party hosted by the White House - is edited to Brubeck's famous jazz composition Take Five, including a brilliant moment where the burgeoning romance between Kate Harper and Will Bailey is underscored by the drum solo.

Friday, 27 November 2009

The Tsarina's Slippers at ROH

It's Christmas. How do I know? Because the estimable Royal Opera House, Covent Garden have produced a run of performances of a lesser-known Tchaikovsky opera, Cherevichki or The Tsarina's Slippers. It's a colourful, fairytale opera full of dance and fun. This is what they would have you think of prior to setting foot inside the auditorium:

It's also one of the worst operas I can think of ever having to sit through. We are introduced to characters one by laboured one - Solokha, a blacksmith's wife who is also a witch and the randy devil who has popped up to take her good-for-nothing son Vakula to task (for some counter-blasphemous graffiti). Fortuitously Vakula turns out to be a tenor and the reluctant focus of his attention, Oxana, a soprano... but we still don't get anywhere near a mention of a Tsarina or her footwear until after an interminable sequence in which Solokha's suitors get trussed up in sacks. Finally, a festive conflagration warms Oxana up; she promises her hand to Vakula if he can bring her slippers that the Tsarina might wear. Vakula isn't up to the task and runs away.

All this takes the best part of an hour and a half, mitigated only by some, frankly, pretty standard Tchaik tunes. The worst is yet to come however as the second half (that's Act three of four) opens with a corps de ballet dancing as water nymphs to the sparodic accompaniment of a grotesque water goblin begging for some quiet. I was begging for some plot development, or at least a single character I recognised from the first half.

Then Vakula appears, distracted from his sulking by the song and dance and, in the background up pops the devil. You'll forgive me for thinking things were about to come together. Instead, in not so much a handbrake turn of plotting as a quantum sidestep Vakula goes form being captive to captor and demands the devil take him to St Petersburg to fetch some slippers - which they do and return to a happy ending. Almost as quickly as that. Naturally, inbetween, we are treated to further ballet and Cossak dancing.

This opera is extremely silly. It is to the Royal Opera's credit that they treat it at once without knowing irony but without even a hint of seriousness. The devil and his demonic cohorts pose no threat throughout the opera and, with their rather useful tails, help the plot to move from one inert, sugar-iced set-piece to the next. In those set pieces we hear some good singing (Diadkova's Solotka, Grivnov's Vakula) some ok singing (Guryakova's Oxana, the night I went, and Vladimir Matorin's Chub) and the reliable chorus and orchestra of the Opera wringing something musical out of a strictly functional score. Even to this untutored commentator, the dancing seems to pay lip-service to its interpolated sequences, although the finessed performance brought the greatest reception from the audience. The set and costume design are the best reason to see the show.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Anish Kapoor at the RA

'Anish Kapoor'. What comes to mind? I think of Marsayas, the huge sculpture taking up most of the designated space in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. In line with that I also think of shiny, undulating surfaces, often red and either suggestive or visceral (taut or textured). Invariably there's some sort of sexual suggestiveness to it.

Well, in the current retrospective at the Royal Academy there is all this and much more. Indeed, the great extended vulva of Marsayas is represented in only one piece, Slug, for me one of the least effective pieces in an overwhelming exhibition. In the prior six rooms is an extensive variety of work which flabbergast, delight and disturb in equal measure, and at the same time. The first room is a peculiar case in point, largely made up of powder-textured abstract sculptures of dubious craftmanship but dominated - once you've spotted it - by the almost innocuous When I Am Pregnant. This is a bulge in the wall, seamlessly integrated with the RA's own own but (literally) pregnant with intent. The light around it is altered to extent that colours begin to separate out (the walls are white) but, being an unreflective surface, it is also impossible to get a clean sense of one's own spatial perspective when facing it and 3-dimensional space in front of the viewer becomes scrambled.

This form & colour tumescence is repeated in the second room's 'Yellow' although his perspective scrambling is more familiar in the fourth room with the polished surfaces of the 'Non-Objects'. These are simple, fun pieces in the style of a fairground's warped mirrors. However these are but ante-rooms to the signature work of the exhibition, familiar from thousands of posters across London.

Shooting Into The Corner clearly does exactly what it says it does. It's loud, dynamic and rather fun - as well as being naughtily subversive (ooh look, throwing red wax all over the walls of the Academy!). At the same time it thrillingly tense as you wait for the eventual appearance of the operative who loads and then fires the cannon in purposeful silence.

But beside these things the piece is also chilling. The cannon is large, cumbersome, like some sort of industrial throwback. The target is seen though one of the hoch-Victorian exhibition doorways, collateral spatter reaches both either side of it and up to the ceiling, and the residue now forms a blood-red faecal pile, a clear record of violent chaos. It is impossible to resist the abstract impression of violence done on a First World War battlefield, with its legacy of blood, mud and industrially administered entropy.

Inducted by this experience, it is impossible to see Shooting Into The Corner's sister piece, the ambitious Svayambah, without it too resonating with some sort of horror. Essentially it is a large - almost bus-sized - block of red wax dragged on tracks through the connecting doors of five consecutive galleries. Discarded red wax litters the galleries once again, the collateral damage of art, not a bomb. I reacted strongly to the sense of claustrophobia not only the mass of the block represents but also its slow but inexorable progress. It's not too far a stretch either, following the symbolic allusion of the cannon to conflict machinery to see the tracks and doorways as those akin to the train tracks and gates of mid-European concentration camps.

I'm really not sure that Kapoor's intent is to represent the cataclysms of recent history but this impression was sealed for me with the final top-notch room, that of the cement sculptures. Greyman Cries, Shaman Dies, Billowing Smoke, Beauty Evoked looks like abstracted versions of living forms petrified at a moment in time rather like the unfortunates caught in the enveloping ash of Pompeii. I didn't feel the same sense of present compassion that Shooting or Svayambah roused in me but rather a colder pity. Here is the inevitability of death but without the contingent violence but it's no less pitiful for it.

The joy of this fine, rich exhibition is that the pieces are all powerful, engaging and supporting the extensive wanderings of the viewer's imagination. Kapoor is a modern artist who has clearly applied modern techniques and technology in the conception and production of his art but this doesn't dictate how it's viewed (although considering the meticulousness of its preparation adds a further, mind-boggling dimension to apprehending the work). Highly recommended.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Steve Reich at the RFH

... or to be totally accurate, Steve Reich by video link in the Clore Dancehall. This is a public space underneath the Royal Festival (Concert) Hall. The concert above was projected onto a big screen and piped in via a stereo surround loudspeaker arrangement.

It looked a lot like this.
(the accuracy of the musicians wasn't reflected in the spelling of the Powerpoint text). The sheer stamina, let alone technical ability of the musicians to reproduce Reich's music is not to be underestimated.

In the first half we heard Reich himself (& David Cossin) perform clapping music, which was the most disconcerting to watch, given that there was a signal delay that put the performance out of synch. Mark Stewart then performed Electric Counterpoint on guitar, playing live against his own prerecording of the other 12 parts. Finally NY collective Bang On A Can played the sextet - for me the most effective piece and performance of the evening.

But really, the meat of the matter was in the second half, with a performance of Music For 18 Musicians (mostly the London Sinfonietta), an absorbing and literally mesmerising score for everything from pitched and unpitched percussion to solo voices (the British group Synergy). It's here that the supernatural concentration of the musicians bears the fruit of the work and there was not faulting it.

Following this performance there was a Q&A session with the composer co-hosted by Paul Morley. I was sorry not to stay but, peculiarly, it felt as if the concert-goers proper from the hall were invading the space into which we freeloaders had accustomed ourselves, so I slipped away.

The Oubliette

The Oubliette are an art collective, famous for squatting in disused buildings in prestigious central London areas. I haven't been to see any of their exhibitions or shows; I'm just delighted that someone is getting use out of scandalously neglected London properties, even if their legal entitlement is grey. This photo is taken from outside their current squat in Leicester Square. theoubliette.co.uk

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Tate Modern, October public exhibitions

This is the view form inside Mirolsaw Balka's How It Is, an already demi-notorious installation in the turbine hall of Tate Modern (someone has already KO-d himself on a wall inside it). Lined with non-reflective, light-absorbent black felt, the installation is meant to disorientate the visitor. I didn't have a proper chance to try it's worth - it's half term and the extra influx of children mixed with the usual tourist crowd meant that stern notices forbidding flash photography were ignored. I must go back, although it should also be said that the sheer presence of the installation in the turbine hall is claustrophobic-inducing enough.

More interestingly perhaps is an exhibition in the small gallery by the Bankside entrance, known as the Level 2 Gallery. American artist Jill Magid's installation Authority To Remove is an unlikely collaboration with the Dutch Secret Service (AIVD). This installation is a classic example of contemporary conceptual-installation art that is simply fascinating on paper although rather flat when manifest. The AIVD got in touch, with reported reluctance, as Dutch law requires that new buildings, which the AIVD had just taken on incorporate an art commission into their budget.

Magid took to her task with considerable integrity and during the course of trying to establish contacts and relationships with the personnel of AIVD worked up a dossier of notes. This she submitted when the consequent exhibition opened in Den Haag - only for it to be returned redacted (i.e. censored), including the excision of passages of her own responses to her interviews and commission. This manuscript and the book that she had prepared using the notes are in the exhibition: the former as a reference copy, the latter as a one-off, under-glass exhibit that will perish with the exhibitions close.

As I suggest, the objets de texte are not particularly stimulating, and neither are the Nauman/Emin-style neon signs. Yet the idea that these pieces are not only a reaction to the AIVD but also that the AIVD have reciprocated that reaction gives them a frisson and a loneliness that invests them with something altogether more mysterious. Magid, cleverly, has not waste this potential. There is a single photo in the gallery capturing the moment in which the dossier was returned to her on US soil, as if by a third, secret party; and visitors to the exhibition itself are relayed in real time via a camera to screens at a sister exhibition (also in the US). I find all of this to have a fair bit to say about the sacrificial and transformative nature of relationships and about that process known in psychology as transference.

So, not much to see, plenty to consider - and to feel surveilled in considering.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Hirst's No Love Lost at the Wallace Museum

The paintings themselves have had a bit of a mauling, but then Rufus Sewell was never one of Damien Hirst's principal cheerleaders. I thought I'd take advantage of a lunchtime talk to give them a once-over.

Well, it turned out to be a bit of a mess. Not the paintings perhaps, which are broody 'Prussian blue' stylist-derivatives of Velasquez, Goya and Bacon. Rather we were given a dreadfully tepid introduction to the paintings. The talk was courtesy of one of the Wallace Collection's guides, a very pleasant but anonymous lady with an underpowered speaking voice for the fifty-or-so who turned up. She was clearly working with only the most basic knowledge of the paintings gleaned from Hirst (she'd clearly heard him talk a bit about them), the catalogue and the internet. For example, she clearly felt the need to refer to *grinningly* 'post-punk rockers The Joy Division' in relation to the dark tones and moribund content (almost ubiquitous trademark skulls) despite not knowing much about them.

Well, I'm sure the majority of us neither knows nor cares about them either - for those who might, they were the seminal rock act at the dawn of the 1980s, immortalised in no less than three major feature films in the past 5 years and whose albums sport now legendary artwork from Peter Saville, which - irridescent lines on black - bears more than a passing resemblance to the paintings under discussion:

Other information was presented as a biographical framework which had little to do with the paintings and which she cheerfully told us we could Google if we liked anyway. There were some interesting asides to hear about the frames of the pictures, silver gilt for five of them, four overpainted with the indigo-blue pigment that dominates the palette over the two rooms. There are also a couple of anomalous, possibly Mexican-style frames, but no further information was forthcoming. For titles to the paintings the museum has laid on a set of bafflingly cheap-n-cheerful laminated guides with inscrutable, thumbnail size reproductions of the pictures as a guide to their title, which in turn, haven't been correctly copied from the catalogue (£25 from the bookshop. It's just a picture book.)

The talk was over in 20 minutes, despite being advertised for an hour. I felt rather hard done by. No Love Lost indeed.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

The Culture Show at the NFT

(Of course, that should be "The Culture Show at the BFI Southbank"). This morning I attended the recording of a London Film Festival special edition of The Culture Show in which Radio 2 DJ Simon Mayo talked with his Radio 5 partner in crit Dr Mark Kermode and, a little later on, with Michael Palin. There's also a third section of the programme which we didn't see, a special piece about film criticism made by Hugo Young, which I very much look forward to seeing when it is actually broadcast.
The recording took place in NFT1 and with very little fuss (the picture above is, from left, Kermode, Mayo and Palin). There were some re-takes but essentially it just kicked off and the practised duo were quick, funny and to the point. Some questions during the floor during a tape change included whether Mark knew what the Secret Film (a week today) is going to be. He didn't but they discussed the possibility of James Cameron's Avatar with a certain hostility. It was also interesting to know that - and a truly random fact this, dredged from the mind of a caffeinated Kermode) - the book upon which the original Wicker Man was based was written by a cover for one of the parts in the stage play of Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap. Apparently he simply sat backstage at the theatre and wrote while he wasn't being used. So there you go.

Michael Palin came in talk about his second tome of memoirs, which cover the transition from TV to film, including his work writing in L.A. and the beginning of his stint of travel filmmaking. He was gregarious if a little older-looking and had a great story about how he was cast in, filmed part of and then was cut from Nora Ephron's You've Got Mail.

Mark Kermode liked The Road and The Men Who Stare At Goats well enough although he seemed reticent about Fantastic Mr Fox, claiming it is a film made by adults for adults making erroneous assumptions about what's likely to appeal to children (I think that's broadly fair). He's also particularly looking forward to Sam Taylor-Wood's Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy which closes the Festival. The programme airs on Thursday.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Frieze Art Fair, Regent's Park

It would be quite easy to describe the Frieze Art Fair as an awkward arrangement of the hoi polloi and art dealer super-savvy - all one needed to do was to look at the fleet of extremely new, official Mercedes-Benz taxis parked next to a horribly mismanaged scrum of ticket holders trying to get in at the beginning of this, the first day.

Indeed for all that post-YBA art in this country has been a fully democratised culture, the phenomenal success that it has shored up means that there's always two strata of punter at the sales end: the wacky/impecunious artiste and the dealer/impressario.

I'm neither, although I occupy the first subset by default as I'm not super-rich or particularly knowledgeable. But here's where the Frieze Art Fair becomes rather good value. That doesn't really matter. You pay your money and step into a large, unsegregated tent with everyone else. If you're really sharp-eyed, you might catch sight of members of the royal family working the floor.

We spent an hour and a half in the tent (hangar?) which was about a quarter of the time needed to truly absorb it all. Never fear, Miranda Sawyer was there with a BBC crew filming an edition of The Culture Show, so there'll be an edition to help you catch up with the bits you skim over.

We came across a great deal of dross and nonsense - there's a fair bit of imitation in any artform but when you see installation art reproduced it seems particularly flat. There were one or two sparky ideas - ktischy collages from Farhad Moshiri and modern hardware meltdown by Aristarkh Chernyshev.

In the centre of the tent there are a number of more familiar, names - dealers as well as artists - and I felt my heart beat a bit faster to see a pair of Gary Hume paintings (including Four Ponytails) and works by Anish Kapoor and Bridget Riley.

Still, it's nice to know that there's also tat available, albeit from the big names. Here's a Tracey Emin deck chair, a snip at £100.

Fantastic Mr Fox at London Film Festival

Not that they've ever mucked about with the London Film Festival, but this year the BFI went a bit mental for the opening première of Fantastic Mr Fox in London's Leicester Square. It's impossible to get a picture to do justice to the temporary red-carpeting of almost the entire square, nor to the baroque scaffolding arrangements that kept the onlookers out (and under) and those of us who had bought tickets in. It was quite an event.

Luckily this wasn't the end of the fun. Once we'd made it inside the cinema, the screen was showing coverage of the celeb-cast meet-n-greet. Choice moments included Jason Schwarzman talking feverishly about his 'best friend' Wes Anderson and Bill Murray's interviews - the first, improbably, with Peter Andre (!) and the second, with the T4 presenter Rick Edwards, subverted by Murray's distraction at his voice being broadcast across the square.

Once the circus outside had subsided the entertainment switched to a short set played on the Odeon's stage organ before the introductions: BFI director Amanda Nevill introducing the Time Editor James Harding, then the film festival's artistic director Sandra Hebron introducing Wes Anderson. He spoke nervously about doing the film in 'outer East London' before introducing a selection of the cast - Clooney ("you know everyone dies at the end, right?"), Murray ("and a big shout out to outer East London!"), Wallace Wolodarsky, Schwartzman, Jarvis Cocker and the film's score composer Alexandre Desplat, amongst others. A wonderful evening's set-up for a film deserving all the buzz.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Pixies at the O2 Academy, Brixton

The Pixies curtain callI read Betty Clarke's review of the first of three nights of the Pixies in Brixton and decided to try and catch the last. It was worth it. The reformed punchy and pleasantly psychotic Boston outfit rocked out like it was 1990, closing a set made up almost entirely of Doolittle with Gigantic and Where Is My Mind? The video/light show was wonderful. More photos on Twitpic via my Twitter feed.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Wozzeck Salonen/Philharmonia

'Like a blade running through the world' is how the contemptible Captain describes Wozzeck. This phrase that pops out of the middle of Berg's opera really stuck with me: it occurs to me that this particular blade is very sharp, making a clean incision - no sooner has the violent cut been made than it closes again, rather like the waters quietly closing over his head as he drowns in the penultimate scene.

That's the pathos at the centre of Wozzeck, bullied into hallucinatory possession under the burden of which he slays his woman and then, by accident, himself. Simon Keenlyside's immersive performance had this absolutely nailed down. His Wozzeck has little grace, void of self-esteem in his gait and posture. He's not distracted, he just lacks any self-regard. Like the music though Keenlyside can move (and sing) with great explosive energy. One imagines it must have been terrifying for Katarina Dalayman to rehearse Marie's murder over and over, given how shockingly real it seems.

Keenlyside's Wozzeck is, like the music, a curious, self-effacing hybrid of protagonist and dramatic subordinate so one ocassionally lapses into 'noticing' the more conventional dramatic characterisations. Dalayman sings a powerful, sympathetic Marie but the stand-out role of the evening was the grotesque, snide Captain of Peter Hoare, a comic, loathsome and pathetic figure whose every word and gesture Hoare was determined should be heard right at the back of the hall. David Soar's fine cameo as the Branntewein-soaked First Apprentice was of this stable. I also have to mention the final scene's appearance of a select group of children. Coming on in all black like a premonitory column of corpses they were outstanding, even more so for their brevity of appearance.

No less a character, especially in this concert staging was the Philharmonia Orchestra, expanded to meet the scoring and firing into the red to meet its virtuosic demands. The Philharmonia's strength, control, found perfume in the dust kicked up by the periodic and fierce expressionist raging - their celebrated string ensemble was particularly effective (and the section principals were particularly fine, with James Clark leading). I felt that Esa-Pekka Salonen's handling was a curious mix, with a typically tight grip on the score but, strangely, only so that he could pursue its Romanticism. We heard Mahler flooding out between the music-as-woodcut smears of sound but I didn't always hear the real modernism in the score. This wasn't the most lean, diaphanous of readings.

An interesting addition to this production was that of a video installation. Relayed on a huge screen behind the orchestra, Jean-Baptiste Barrière's visual production 'projects the opera in vivid colours, inspired by expressionist paintings' (in Barrière's own words). The expressionism he refers to here is more to do with the swirling distortions of Munch or Schoenberg perhaps rather than, as he says, the quasi-satirical angularities of Grosz or Beckmann. Consequently the kaleidoscopic palette of the video swirled throughout the opera, incorporating real-time images of the performers in a datamoshed, Schnitzler-like Traum. Most of the time this worked as a visual adjunct (although, screen-wise, I was more interested in the surtitles) although the clip-arty shattering of an image of the boy at the moment of Marie's murder was a strangely crass anomaly.

A fine Wozzeck then, perhaps crowning the piece's incipient past rather than pitching it as the overseer of 20th century modernism but then, as such, it was a fitting conclusion to the Philharmonia's City Of Dreams season.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Christof Loy's Tristan for the Royal Opera

Does this look familiar (hat tip Opera News)? This is a scene from Christof Loy's Lulu for the Royal Opera from earlier this year played out in a minimal staging - next to no furniture and monochrome, contemporary vernacular costume.

To others (who, as I did, attended the public dress rehearsal) this will look very similar to the Royal Opera's production of Tristan und Isolde, also directed by Loy, which opens on Tuesday. I left rather more confounded than I had been by Lulu.

Where Lulu was set in a number of urban spaces, for which an undressed stage is as good a proxy as any, Tristan und Isolde is set on the sea (Act 1) and overlooking the sea (Act 3). "How black the sea is!" remarks the shepherd in Act 3 making explicit the connection between the noumenal night that has been referred to throughout the previous act - "immeasurable, unorganised, void" as Aschenbach has it in Death in Venice, Britten's Wagnerian love-and-the-sea opera.

Needless to say then that there is no sea/boat/sails etc. in Loy's production. This is fair enough in his aesthetic - there is no action in the water, which stands as a metaphor in the dialogue. The reason it becomes an issue though is that Loy does show a fair bit of corollary action further upstage in a 19th century-a-like ballroom behind the rake. This involves a men-only formal dinner, the close-parallel universe in which King Marke's court and its trappings are the moral and social rubric.

It's one thing to omit a vista or imply rather than show a scene. To have others occupy a space in order to focus the metaphorical emphasis of that scene (or its omission) is a further step - but to replace it with something else is really stretching the disbelief-suspension envelope for an audience. I think Loy has thought, reasonably, that Wagner's allusions to reality are generally metaphors anyway. Tristan is, after all, a philosophical discourse poetised for lyrical delivery. It's meant to be abstract at face value. The problem I have (this being the case) is that Loy is substituting this 'metaphorical' staging for some other one - and consequently the audience must work twice as hard, jumping from what the singers are talking about to what it means twice instead of just once. It's not more direct, it's actually more complicated.

Loy is a modernising reductionist, who "doesn't like superficial distractions" (more Lulu-quote), i.e. he wants to get at the drama at the core of the piece. Well, that's all fine and good, but in order to dramatise a work one has to dress it to a certain extent. Loy chooses a stark modern idiom which is fairly close to the unsullied palette to be found near the 'core' of any piece. Yet some dressing is necessary, some 'distraction' (read mediation) and Loy's decision in this production is at odds to what is in the text.

I liked one or two other directorial decision - slo-mo sequences in the background are an interesting response to the time-stretching solipsisms of the eponymous principals downstage. I also liked the violence of the red on black-on-white as the final massacre comes about in its frenetic final pocket of the third act. People have been referring to this as the 'Tarantino Tristan', in reference to Reservoir Dogs (and also as Reservoir Dogs is a film in which a significant pre-story is recounted but not shown).

Ultimately Tristan is a difficult opera to stage and it's down to the cast and orchestra to make its case. Pappano certainly knows how it 'goes' and one hopes that its intent comes alive during the run.

Cinema for Crystal Palace

Today I signed a card objecting to proposals to turn the old cinema in Crystal Palace into a church (yes, and bought the t-shirt of the campaigning group www.picture-palace.org)

There are two reasons why I have done this.

1. There is a cinema disused in Crystal Palace which the independent Picturehouse cinema chain would like to buy and run as a cinema.

2. The obstruction to this happening is a religious group.

The religious (Christian) group KICC have already purchased the property and are waiting for their 'change of use' application to go through in order that they might use this as a place of worship. The campaign group are encouraging people to write to Bromley borough council to object to this application.

Reasonably, the campaign group are encouraging people to word their objections in a positive light, to stress the desire for the cinema to be used as a cinema and to talk of the benefits that this will bring to the community (as I say, this is the first reason why I support this lobbying movement). It is suggested that objections should not be negative about the KICC and its intent for the building.

However, it is clear to me that for all that expediency demands moderation in argument and positive campaigning, it is equally true that the community in Crystal Palace does not want the KICC at its centre, especially as they will be misappropriating a building built for a very different purpose in the process.

From what I know of Crystal Palace (I live not in the heart of the community, but on its periphery) it is an intelligent, middle-class, independently-minded and self-sufficient community to be found in a fairly small area at the top of a hill. The businesses often appear organically, born out of local need or creativity, and invariably appeal less to a sense of supplying demand for goods than demand for coming together.

The idea of a religious group from a different part of town, thus twice imposing itself (physically and ideologically) is entirely counter-intuitive. That this group should take over a historic building at the centre of the community is also jarring. Above all that the building - a cinema, a place for art, inspiration - should be taken over by a group propagating ideas seriously flawed by their own suspect moral fibre and one begins to wonder how Bromley council can approve their application for a change of use at all, irrespective of the interest in an alternative use for the building.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

She Stoops To Conquer at The Greenwich Theatre

The Greenwich Theatre front of house is run like the ideal provincial theatre: bright, modern, well-staffed. The theatre itself is proscenium with a semi-protruding stage, as if aspiring to be in the round. This amiable and at times improvised production of Oliver Goldsmith's Beaumarchais-contemporary satire She Stoops To Conquer uses this invitation to informality well, often winking at the audience and occasionally co-opting the (un)lucky ones in the front row.

The Mappa Mundi Company are a classic rep touring company taking high-quality theatre on the road all points between London venues such as Greenwich and their native Wales. The play seems well-embedded in this company. It's fast and fluent (although it also has the tell-tale traces of the well worn - lines delivered in just too brisk a manner for a new audience to really absorb them).

It hardly matters. Although She Stoops To Conquer is not a physical comedy it really does require some acting along with its reading. I particularly liked Liam Tobin's Mr Hardcastle, buffo but not buffoon and Edward Harrison's effevescent Tony Lumpkin as his son. Indeed all parts are well-taken and, not unreasonably, the wider press has particularly delighted in Kathryn Dimery's pungent northern cipher of Mrs Hardcastle. However I couldn't help feeling that Mali Tudno Jones's Kate was perhaps rather glazed. This is a fine play where, for all the twist-n-turn inequities of the plot, everyone is more or less equal at the outset and by the end. Rousing, moral and uplifting.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Argumental Series 3

Last night I found myself being filmed in the audience for series 3 of Dave's Argumental. Dave is a UK comedy channel which has a balanced diet of older, well-worn comedy favourites and new shows, like this one, Argumental - which is a new version of older well-worn comedy favourites.

The producer asked us not to talk about the content of the show, which is entirely reasonable, so you won't find any gags or spoilers here. However I found the experience faintly interesting and thought I might share at least a little of that.

Argumental, for all its game-show pretensions, is simply a vehicle for stand-up comedy. Consequently we had a classic support act (whose name I didn't catch) setting a brisk comic tone, one part risky to two parts observational nuttiness.

Bizarrely it was also the only truly improvised set of the evening. For all that Dave markets Argumental as an improvised contest, it's fairly tightly scripted. The contestants read from autocue. Each comedian has clearly prepared his or her own script - some with bullet points, some with sketched notes, one almost verbatim. Here's a series 2 clip from Dave's YouTube channel:

Of course, inbetween the more formal stretches of the show there is a great deal of improvisation, but this is contained within the triangle of competing teams and compere John Sargeant. Whilst it plays to the audience it doesn't really involved them directly.

A couple of things emerge from this. Firstly, whilst you might expect the improvised overspill of the show to be considerable, so that there is plenty of material to edit down, this also applies to the script. Clearly, the comedians bring prepared material into the show prepared to lose a proportion of it according to what gets the laughs on the night.

Secondly it is marvellous watching the sheer professionalism of the dedicated, broadcast-calibre comedians at their work. Despite being able to follow the delivery of the script via the autocue, it is very difficult to tell exactly when the script is being delivered, such is a the ease with which the comedians move between the prepared and the spontaneous. They are also highly aware of the practical necessities of the recording, despite the live show being taped. At one stage one of the guests immediately repeated an off-the-cuff joke which he had delivered imperfectly but felt might be worth keeping. His presence of mind to keep the audience aware of the technical necessity of what he was doing without deflating the genuine comic temperature of the moment was deeply impressive (I might add that my own opinion of this particular comic was very low indeed and has since rocketed accordingly).

In its pre-edit version the show is notably coarse. The images and ideas dreamt up by the contestants and the language used to describe them can be very mucky and occasionally hops back and forth over the line of good taste. However, we sat through 3 hours of recording for two half-hour shows, so one can see that this as an affective strategy, with the comedians expecting much of this to be cut.

Indeed, by the time the recording had finished it was well past 10.00pm. Given that we had been brought into the studio at around 6.30 and were discouraged from leaving our seats inbetween the editions being filmed, the audience is clearly treated as camera fodder rather than a real audience - the TV audience. Nonetheless, the comedians are on stage for the most part of that and their contribution is all the more impressive for it. I will watch the shows when they go to air from 13 October with fresh eyes.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Le Grand Macabre at ENO

What is Le Grand Macabre? Well, it does pretty much what it says as semi-occultist, taboo-transgressing circus of grand theatrical gesture. English National Opera have imported quite a spectacle from the continent as a vehicle for this rarely performed end-of-world satire by Ligeti and it makes an impression.

The piece is a succession of absurd episodes, spilling from and orbiting the body of a woman frozen in time as she fears some sort of catastrophic corporeal malfunction. This, straightaway, is the first masterstroke of La Fura dels Baus' production concept, a meta-image of where the action is taking place: the woman, shown living - and possibly dying - in squalor is shown first on screen then replicated on a huge installation that serves as the set throughout the opera. They've called it Claudia. It's brilliant.

The absurdity and terror of this situation spawns characters. Two lovers, all exposed sinew like the plastinated bodies of Gunter von Hagens' Body Worlds exhibits appear and attempt to copulate (it has the same repellant fascination and humour as the famous Simpsons Halloween episode Treehouse Of Horror V in which the family's bodies are inverted for the final chorus). The Grand Macabre himself pops out of Claudia's mouth and arms himself for the evening's work - to bring the world (i.e. this fleshy microcosm of the world, but the metaphor is already breaking down to excorporate everything) to an end. More worldly recognisable characters are also involved - the drink-sodden Piet the Pot and his friend Astrodamors, suffering psychologically what Claudia wrestles with physically under his domineering nymphomaniac wife Mescalina.

Rebecca Bottone and Frances Bourne are nicely cast as the contradictory lovers, ardent, lyrical and, physically, utterly repellant. Both Piet and Astrodamors, as the human figures on stage have the most wretched, unforgiving vocal tasks. Alas, Astrodamors is a step to far for the usually magnificent Frode Olsen. Pavlo Hunka's ashen Mussolini of a Nekrotzar is domineering enough but rather prosaic in a role which probably needs more vocal thunder.

One has the feeling that La Fura dels Baus director Alex Ollé knows pretty much what he's doing. He never wrestles with the piece, which is invariably punchy and manic and certainly never explains itself. Rather the written jokes are nicely delivered and there's plenty of interpolated humour besides. Indeed the grotesque end-of-days vision is rendered, if not palatable, then manageable by the relentless farce both in the libretto and on the stage. It must be said that Ligeti's rigour in serving de Ghelderode's original fin-de-sieclé, Breughel-Boschian concept is the main advocate of the score. One can discern the formal units in the music (if not always the programme-trumpeted stylistic parody) and Ollé has also chased the dramatic purpose in the twists and turns of the staging rather than responding to the music.

The second half of the production ups the ante once again. The versatile set of Claudia, fascinatingly manipulated with projection and separable body parts in the first half, is completely thrown open. The head, thrust out in terror rotates through 360 degrees as in The Exorcist and the potty-mouthed Black and White ministers that squeeze from the huge anus, pull the backside apart to reveal the intestine as a none-too-covert war zone. This third act is the most assured comic passage in the piece with, Dan Norman and Simon Butterkiss' Ministers owning their well-honed shtick with Andrew Watts' gold-suite Prince Go-Go. Inamongst all this is cast the vocally rock-like performance of Suzanna Andersson, a stutter-gun of crazy coloratura and the cabaletta to the cavatina delivered as the Japanese pop-pink porn-kitten of Chewbacca's dreams back in the first half (yes, it's that mad). The riot reaches a climax in a disco sequence that gets the best reception of the evening in incorporating an apposite homage to Michael Jackson's Thriller. It is most certainly the night of the living dead.

Unfortunately and rather lilke the toxic shock and hangover that the whole opera might be arguaed to represent, the fourth act is an over-distended denoument. Nekrotzar, inebriated, fails to bring apocalypse and the cast realise they are not doomed. In fact this may be the saddest span of the opera, recognising that the party of abandon is as absurd as the possibility of annihilation. Life either continues, monotonously, or it ends. Though it's formally fairly satisfying I couldn't quite process the Don Giovanni-like epilogue ensemble number which seemed a bit neat.

Clearly this production is a sensory and intellectual torrent, an experience that not deconstruction and discussion can really contain the measure of. Baldur Brönnimann's stewardship of the commendable house orchestra seemed unimpeachable. There were no weak links from chorus to dancer-actors to technicians. The opera certainly throws fresh light on my experience in watching a half-comparable piece, Birtwistle's Mask of Orpheus, back in August. Birtwistle's work is a more totemic, more po-faced sequence of episodes but I enjoyed Ligeti's work more for more than just its humour. The music does have pockets of self-interested lyricism like ribbons stretched between the barbs of satire. It wasn't enough to make me feel comfortable using the word 'beauty' in respect of this piece but it did leaven the experience, investing it with humanity and much-needed respite from its invariable brutality.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009


It's September and I can't speak for the rest of you but I'm certainly ready for a new season in our capital of culture.

In fact I've already been stalking across choice venues across town, popping in and out of various Picture House Cinemas (to see The September Issue, Broken Embraces, District 9 and The Hurt Locker) and making a first-time visit to the The Roundhouse, where I saw Tom Hickox headlining after a successful summer at SXSW and Glastonbury.

I also went to The Gate Theatre for the first time to see Vanya, an adaptation of Checkov's Uncle Vanya. It's been well-received in the press and rightly so - it's a well-focused, funny and marvellously depressing ninety minute four-hander. The cast is more or less well-balanced and perform in a complex, rotating set which - in the necessity of opening it up only to have it closed again by the curtain-call - reminded me of Sisyphus. There's just enough moral triumph in it though to endorse Albert Camus' famous adage "One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

The star is probably Fiona Button's tragi-comic Sonya but I was particularly enamoured of Suise Trayling's perfectly matured Chekovian Yelena. Vanya's run has been extended into October - follow the theatre on Twitter for more details.

I'm looking forward to getting to see plenty of first-class opera in the two permanent theatres in London and my priority booking form for the BFI London Film Festival is (hopefully) sitting on a desk in the NFT's box office right now. I'm also going to The Frieze Art Fair, The Philharmonia's Wozzeck and, in time, to see Angelo Badalamenti talk on Blue Velvet and Michael Haneke talk on anything he wants to - I'm all ears for that man!

I recognise that London Fashion Week is upon us and although this isn't necessarily my cup of tea, I'd be delighted to hear from anyone who has ideas on how to get involved on the interested periphery. This looks interesting.

In the meantime I recommend you pop over to One & Other, where you can still watch a live stream of what's ging on on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. That's right, Anthony Gormley/Sky's Big Brother substitute continues, for better or worse...

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Hildegard Behrens 1937-2009

The dramatic soprano Hildegard Behrens has died in Japan. She was one of the better post-war Brünnhildes, Karajan's Salome and part of the outstanding cast in Abbado's Vienna State Opera Wozzeck.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Greenwood, Stravinsky & Birtwistle Prom 14/08

On Friday I attended this key, if eclectic concert in the BBC Proms festival. Key, as the Proms are celebrating Sir Harrison Birtwistle's 75 birthday year (1934 is a key date across the season) and are programming all the ballets of Igor Stravinsky; eclectic, as the Messiaen & Penderecki admiring rock musician Johnny Greenwood is programmed alongside these composers not as adhesive but as contrast.

Greenwood's Popcorn Superhet Receiver opened the concert. It's an absorbing collage of string sound, destabilising, seductive and occasionally intimidating. It's unsurprising that he incorporated part of it into his score for There Will Be Blood, a film that demands a third, abstract but morally opaque character off camera; a nasty noumenon, if you like. Certainly the gestures of the music seem programmatic. I enjoyed the performance, the strings of the BBCSO standing to perform.

They stayed standing up for Stravinsky's Apollo. This was arguably the highlight of the evening, a shimmering, limpid exercise of string élan. Great ensemble, great sound but emotionally rather blanched - echt Neoclassical performance, in other words. Super.

To be honest, though I'm a fervent Radiohead/Greenwood fan I'd really come to see Birtwistle's Mask of Orpheus. Actually, we saw only the second act, The Arches, a stylised, episodic re-telling of Orpheus' journey back from the depths of Hades after having gone down to retrieve his lover Euridice. It's what I'm rapidly coming to believe to be classic Birtwistle - unrelenting, slightly frenetic, constant density music of barely any tonal centre but amazingly, noteworthily orchestrated. It's a tough listen but not because you're ever straining to hear sounds - rather because it's tricky to hear any musical contour.

Indeed, many didn't manage to withstand the onslaught. Not only did the music play to an audience diminished in numbers from the first half, but there was also a steady trickle of concert-goers who three in the towel and left during the performance. I wonder how much this had to do with the imposition of the semi-staging shenanigans that all performers were required to participate in (I'm reliably informed that the BBCSO were very reluctant to wave mirrors around and fall asleep/wake up again).

Actually, for all my cynicism with regard to this stylised posturing, this is where this piece is more allied to Stravinsky's neo-classicism than one might otherwise have thought at the outset. The music, the drama is meant to be more totemic than expressionist. It's just a bit of a pity that the score is too consistently 'full' to allow dramatic ebb & flow or development.

The performances were predictably excellent. Music as demanding as this can only be done very well (especially with the composer sitting in the audience). Alan Oke, Christine Brewer and Anna Stéphany were the choice of the singers - well, Claron McFadden was also outstanding, although one can't always refer to her particular vocal virtuosity as singing. The orchestra engaged with the music hungrily and with their ears as much as their instruments. The ensemble was terrific, doing Birtwistle's orchestrations real justice. The clearly in-control Martin Brabbins and Ryan Wigglesworth probably had quite a bit to do with that.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Harry Patch and Radiohead

Today is the funeral of the final soldier to have fought in the first World War, Harry Patch. The pop group Radiohead have recorded a single which is on sale (£1) - proceeds of the sale go to the Royal British Legion.

There is a little bit of a kerfuffle about this, some accusing the band of opportunism. The argument goes that, despite all the money going to a charity fully representative of the deceased and his profile, the band will no doubt get a minimum of residual publicity. This is true. It's also the case that the band have put the B-side collection from their two year old album In Rainbows on sale less than two months ago.

What's the alternative? It's possible that a piece of music could be commissioned. We have a composer* & poet laureate, state-sponsored and royal-warranted artists that could fulfil this role without any suggestion of piggybacking personal interests on such a gesture. Yet it's a sure sign of the manner in which British society has moved on that these positions are socially invisible, ivory-tower-consigned roles that simply do not have the appeal of a free-market-leading artistic outfit such as Radiohead. For all that the band are a commercial outfit, their success and profile is mainly due to the success of their labours. People have put them in the position they find themselves by staking their money in them - it's a significant, if modern vote of confidence. And of course, having a high-profile outfit producing music that's market-tested means that the cash bonus from this episode for the Royal British Legion will be considerably more than that of a Sir Peter Maxwell-Davis, Carol Ann Duffy exercise. I'd imagine.

I think that Thom Yorke and Radiohead have behaved pretty well over this issue. Their offering makes no claims other than to honour. If in the process of making the gesture they cause a bump in interest in their own commercial corner then that's a sort of collateral issue, which reminds me of Churchill's famous statement on democracy: it being the least worst system.

* the 'composer laureate' = Master of the Queen's Music

Monday, 3 August 2009

Crystal Palace cinema campaign

An attempt by a cinema group to purchase a building formerly used as a cinema in Crystal Palace has been thwarted by a church group. The church group in question (who are not locally based) will now have to wait for a considerable period (while the property is unused) to secure planning permission for a change of venue purpose (which will likely be disruptive), unless local voices are raised in support of a cinema.

A cinema is a better idea for this building, in this place, at this time, for local people. Visit http://www.picture_palace.org for further details.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Jeff Koons at The Serpentine

I went to the Serpentine Gallery today to fuel my unqualified contempt for Jeff Koons. Rather irritatingly, I found his exhibition strangely substantial, if rather self-congratulatory. Koon's Popeye series involves cartoons (including Popeye himself) overlaid with sexualised images in pictures (porn, underwear) and extraordinary sculptures, inflatable swimming aids and toys cast in aluminium and arranged with banal ready-mades (bins, chairs).

And there are chains. Less chains as fetters, more chains to accentuate the contradiction of a metal sculpture that's rendered and painted to look as if it were filled with nothing but air. When I visited there was the extraordinary sight of two small girls holding helium filled balloons standing in front of an 'inflatable' monkey-chain sculpture suspended from the roof, static through its mass. The tension was enough of an experience without looking for narratives or meaning.

Naturally, one of the traditions of visiting the Serpentine's Summer exhibition is to take in the temporary Pavilion that stands outside. This year's (pictured above) is a polished metal gazebo by Kazuyo Sejima & Ryue Nishizawa. And it's rather good in my opinion.

Friday, 17 July 2009

BBC Proms 2009

The Proms start today. I'm interested in about five of them. If the season continues in the manner in which it has started, I worry.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

The Fairy Queen at Glyndebourne

An overwhelming and, amazingly, coherent production of this opulent semi-opera sprawl. The Fairy Opera is A Midsummer Night's Dream with illuminating musical interludes - masques - interpolated. These are sung by a small cast alien to the play and the chorus is joined by a dance troupe (making this the second GFO production with a significant dance investment, alongside Guilio Cesare). The singing is good. Carolyn Sampson's often reflective character stands out where the more narrative voices of Lucy Crowe, Ed Lyon and Andrew Foster-Williams seem entirely in control of the staging blancmange going on around them.

Blancmange? How about sherry trifle prepared in a paddling pool. Even by Glyndebourne's standards, this production of The Fairy Queen is opulent. Each change of scene ushers in what seems to be a completely new set. The most striking sequence of the evening lasts little longer than two minutes in which the entire cast come on stage in full rabbit costume to fornicate and then run off again. Interestingly, one could argue that a money-no-object approach to producing this piece is period practice, given that such a tableau-work would have been created with exactly this treatment in mind. It's an overwhelming experience in many ways and some take care of the 'not all'.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Per Kirkeby at Tate Modern

No, I hadn't heard of him either. Basically, Per Kirkeby is a Danish abstract painter who has also experimented with sculpture and collage and who has published a number of tracts and books on various (usually arty) subjects. With the exception of a disappointing, youthful flirtation with Fluxus he sounds fairly cool.

And, on closer inspection, he is quite cool. The earlier rooms flag up his bucolic interest in huts, one of the few figurative images that make it onto his canvases (well, boards, actually - canvas came later). One can also feel a Scandanavian interest in a fresh, outdoor - dare one say it - icy palette to go with this, inamongst the his recycled confrtonations with pop art (opaque, glossy primary colours, collage). The experimental watercolours are all part of this groping for self-expression.

It's difficult to see exactly where we're getting Kirkeby sui generis rather than a talented stylist absorbing and reworking all manner of interests. The key room, in terms of transition, is the fourth*, where we are informed that Fram (1983) is a key work... well this is certainly representative of the technique characterising the room but it still exhibits a certain inhibition, a rigid self-consciousness.

I felt that the authoratitive self-expression came in room 6. To get through this one has to move past a series of 'blackboard' works and their sculptural equivalents, bronzes painted with a black matt finish. These are idiosyncratically rendered - there is a sense of the artist's maturity of technique - if not a uniqueness of content. Yet, in room 6, we are finally confronted with four grand canvases, expansive, arms-thrown-open affairs in which his work with colour, form and technique seems to come into focus. Paint on unstretched canvas continues to be more or less the medium of choice up until the end of the exhibition, which concludes with some super paintings, including the mighty The Siege of Constantinople (at the head of this post).

I'm going to go off on a tangent which concerns the Tate's new policy of note handing out exhibition notes in hard copy as a means of reducing their carbon footprint. This is, broadly speaking, a good idea. After all, the notes are printed on the walls of each room. It is a little inconvenient to not be able to have them to hand when one is blogging a potted review of a visit but at least they'll be online...


... no - they're not available online, which means I have to guess (*) when it comes to talking about certain rooms in retrospect (and yes, I do often take notes on visiting an exhibition, but I usually make those notes on the exhibition literature that was previous handed out). Now that really is a terrible oversight.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Gormley on The Fourth Plinth

For the next few months there'll be a new person standing on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square every hour. It's Anthony Gormley's idea, it's a good one and it looks like this.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Amour de Loin - Saariaho at ENO

Well, I broadly agree with Ruper Christansen in The Telegraph:
If what you want from opera is the equivalent of a warm bath filled with scented bubbles...
as well as Andrew Clements in The Guardian:
... the evening remains desperately uninvolving.
With slightly more detail I'm best allied with Edward Seckerson in The Indie. He's prepared to recommend the show to the Classic FMers in the same way that Christiansen does - "If two hours in a floatation tank is your idea of heaven, then this is for you." - but does the piece the service of trying to actually get a grip on it too.

He has two interesting points. Firstly, one that eluded me, was that
"love from afar"... has some resonance with the internet generation... in endorsing the idea that distance (or anonymity) really does lend enchantment, promoting safety in fantasy.
This is the romance at the heart of the opera's appeal, exacerbated by the principals' inability to actually connect with one another, as each character is played in triplicate, dancers shadowing the singer. This act in itself has interesting potential and is terribly confused over the span of the opera. It just hadn't quite been sufficiently thought through.

The second is that of the nebulous spiritual - in fact, religious - gravitational pull of the text. With a pair of lovers drifting together on the basis of hearsay there is a lot of store put by fatalism, the idea of destiny. Rather weakly, Amin Maalouf's text all too easily slips into their assumption of some sort of divine scriptwriter who has decreed their union. This half-baked idea is taken up in Clémence's abject rant as the piece closes.

It's a great shame. There's an opera just waiting to burst forth from the third character, a sort of go-between for the lovers who is also a pilgrim; this character is never some sort of Olympian seer, removed from the (chaste) passion by piety but rather the all too human messenger-to-be-shot. I'm really sorry to say that this potential seems to emerge because of the weakness of the writing/staging than as the intention of the composers, something that is also apparent in Clémence's final peroration. It's just (buzz) words for Saariaho to wind sound around rather than something to pique the interest of the audience. It is not insignificant that during the curtain call the one production member so caught up in congratulating the (deserving) performers to the detriment of the patient audience was Maalouf.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Karl Malden

Very sorry to hear of the death of Karl Malden. I thought he was great in On The Waterfront and, most recently, I saw his turn in I Confess, which grounded that film. But I'm rather overcome to discover that latterly he played Bartlet's former parish priest, visiting the President during the first series of The West Wing to provide counsel when Bartlet has struggled with a death row decision. It's one of the best set pieces in the entire TV series, with arguably the greatest episode-closing line, delivered by Malden:
He sent you a priest, a rabbi and a quaker, Mr President, not to mention his son Jesus Christ. What do you want from him?.. Jed... would you like me to hear your confession?

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Lulu at the Royal Opera

A fine opera with a fine cast and something rather special going on in the pit. It should be a shattering experience but I left "merely" dazed. Why?

Clearly this is a tricky opera to produce. It's serial language, extreme vocal demands and relentlessness mean that only the best will do, which is why we saw old favourites on stage - Howell, Langridge, Larmore, Michael Volle. Those who we haven't come across before become fixed in mind - Hartmann, Shipp. I had never heard of Agneta Eichenholz before either but her name and, crucially, her cool palette of features from ironic to a startled glaze, will ring in the memory for a while to come. Here was a fine Lulu: consistent singing across a fearsome tessitura; good acting (good looks). I could have done with one more vocal gear for critical moments of the piece but was too absorbed by the character for it to really matter by that stage.

Whatever the cast do though it's always going to be through the prism of the director. I think that Christof Loy's production is a worthy one, although he tries to have his cake and eat it. The design is b&w minimalist, with blocking and acting to match, an economical arrangement which I believe tries to draw the focus onto the characters - into the characters - as a working exercise in uncluttering action and score. Many will say it is an essay in film noir (of course the opera has a sequence of 'film music' within it) with its monochromaticism and Reinhard Traub's elegant, thoughtful lighting. Yet the sensibility is not shadow/intrigue. Rather the action is pushed up at the front of the stage, the lighting and design suggesting that there is nothing to hid. Suicide, murder and sex occurs centre-stage at the front of the action. The painting of Lulu is conceptualised by the use of a bright spotlight on the antiheroine, searching out and isolating but comparably unreal. Ceci n'est pas une peinture, as Magritte might have said.

(*Actually, the set design reminded me of the Sophie Muller video for PJ Harvey's This Is Love, which is also b&w and makes cunning use of the easy inversion of this monochromaticism simply by changing the lighting.)

There's a general detachment from the piece which is in keeping with the opera itself; Alwa stumbles through the opera thinking how it might make a good opera. Music vanishes at points, either for genuine melodrama or backstory/exposition. Loy's production surely tracks this self-awareness (in a work that begins with the Animal Trainer inviting us inside the 'menagerie' but with the implication that we're already on show) and also nods towards the revolutionary reductionism of Brechtian epic theatre. Indeed, the only time the 'set', a frosted glass wall, is used is when Lulu performs the other side of it in an offstage cabaret during Act 1, Scene 3.

Loy's intelligent deconstruction only works so far though. There are important entrances, exits and tragedies that only work with doors, of which there are none. The coolness of the production is also a hindrance - I didn't feel myself borne on or consumed by spumes of passion and felt detached from loving exchanges (and there are genuine moments of love and tenderness). Instead I had to rely on the action in the pit, which, although beautiful, isn't the drama sui generis - it's not Wagnerian in the Tristan manner of musico-dramatic Gesamtkunstwerk (I was reminded of my experience watching the Herbert Wernicke Tristan in this house eight years ago, in which a static, austerely reductionsit production meant that all the attention gravitated towards Haitink and the orchestra).

A key crack in the concept comes in the tricky ensemble scene of Act 3, the Jungfrau shares sequence. Where the principal cast battled on with some success the minor parts simply played out another opera, without sufficient awareness of the fourth-wall-straddling going on. It doesn't help that they're forced to the back (and by this point, the very back) of the stage for most of the action. I also felt that Act 3 had let the rest of the idea down when Loy posits the final scene in the space (and often blocking) of the first. This is symmetrical overkill: we're meant to be aware that the grotesque clients of Lulu's final employment are mutations of the earlier characters but there should also be a sense of lapsarian pathos. Dressing Eichenholz in Pagliaccoesque white bow tie on black and having her made up to look pale was insufficient.

Fine singing, fine music making. An intelligent but problem-punctured production. You can't fault anyone for trying.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Flatpack, an opera in IKEA

No, I'm not kidding. This is Ikea just off the North Circular, which for four dates this month has played host to a remarkable, semi-site-specific lyric-dramatic event. Have a look here.

Flatpack - something of a misnomer, as the audience didn't really have to assemble anything - played out a handful of dramatic scenarios on the showroom floor. Keyboards had been set up at a few designated points, between which the audience were shepherded by a pied piper violinist and a pair of dancers. The dramas could be loosely characterised as modern, sketch-sized bites of Abigail's Party-cisms: one couple falling out over different furnishing tastes, the other with very different ideas on how to host a dinner party.

Tom Lane's music is unsettled, angular but deceptively recognisable, using repetition of itself and the economical libretto, usually just the names of the furnishings. It's eminently singable though and the women's voices are particularly adept at making something of it in a building with all manner of peculiar acoustic annexes and background noise. The musical director, Oliver-John Ruthven, directs from the keyboard(s) and even gets in on the action, along with the director Rebecca Lea (who wisely employed herself organising the audience at the gathering points).

Of course, Flatpack isn't an entirely opportunist moniker as there is a scene in which construction of shelves (Billy) is the running gag. But then everything is meant to be fairly fluid. The performance I attended benefitted from clearly absorbed children and the willingness of everyone to straddle the invisible boundaries between the staging and reception. And afterwards I had time to buy a fish slice.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

A Winter's Tale @ The Old Vic

Last night saw the first preview of The Winter's Tale under the direction of Sam Mendes, part of a double-header (the other show's The Cherry Orchard) playing here after a spell the other side of the pond. It's a mixed bag of a cast in terms of celebrity: Simon Russell Beale and Sinéad Cusack are UK stage royalty but the shows will sell out on the basis of shooting star Rebecca Hall and Hollywood dauphin Ethan Hawke; the rest of the cast are a capable, discreet melange of all of the above.

It's a good show of a good play. Sicilia and Bohemia become transatlantic poles in an effectively abstracted-Edwardian design. Ethan Hawke's manic balladeer plays blues, rock riffs and joins a folk trio in the second half after jealously has got the better of King Leontes in the first, rather as pride does in Lear. Simon Russell Beale's Leontes is the talisman of the production, a mercurial and remarkably proletarian doge who moves between vaudeville and pathos balletically. Rebecca Hall plays his wife, the wronged Queen, and her premature departure allows Hall the opportunity to give an intense account of her travail.

Sinéad Cusack as Paulina balances the void of a stalwart female voice with a fine performance opposite Russell Beale. It's interesting to note the value of a fine actor coming on for a limited but essential part and period, less to engage the audience but to ground them in the play's intents: Paul Jesson's Camillo (who is, symbolically, joined with Paulina at the close) is another case in point.

Mendes's production is a simple affair which benefits from fine lighting (Paul Pyant). The themes of desertion, privation and the elapsing of time are of a piece with the pale wood raked stage and minimal clutter - this is the Winter in the tale, a suspension of warmth and largesse, waiting for resolution that only time seems to be able to provide. There are one or two minor coups, one demanded by the famous stage direction 'Exit, pursued by a bear' (a chilling moment, which many reasonably took as a knowing joke). Mark Bennett's music from the wings is a little rudimentary, functional & anonymous - the on-stage band are a treat though.

Shakespeare's play seems to be the only elephant in the auditorium, as it were. I felt the seams fairly presently, wondering whether I was watching a re-hash of Lear (as mentioned) or even Oedipe. Having two continents divided not only by 16 years but also an interval and the first entrance of, in the eyes of many, the biggest star of the evening makes for quite a fermata in the drama. The drama itself gets curtailed necessarily towards the end as the big revelation one expects gets subordinated for one one does not - this makes for an interesting (if protracted) denoument but I'm not sure that it's even drama.

Nonetheless it's a fair production in the final analysis, giving the play its due which is considerable. Good luck finding a ticket...

Postscript: On this week's Radio 5 Live film review, Mark Kermode, in his ongoing discussion of 3D films, quoted Sam Mendes who, in answer to the question 'would you ever do a film in 3D' had replied
I already have - it's called theatre.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Falstaff at Glyndebourne

A new production of Verdi's final opera for the famous Sussex opera season company, directed by Richard Jones. Jones' reputation goes before him as something of a pop-art enfant terrible using unlikely designs and associations in order to access the heart of the drama. This blogger has already responded positively to the 'Cav & Pag' he mounted for ENO earlier in the season and (consequently) I was looking forward to seeing how he'd handle a bona fide comedy.

It's mostly good news. Jones parachutes the opera into post war, Dig For Victory mentality Britain, a land of old institutions and new faith in their benefits and solidity. Most solid and most sure among them is Sir John Falstaff, Chris Purves in a customary but not notably excessive fatsuit. He holds court at the sort of pub that one recognises even today upon visiting Windsor: the set design for this, as for all the scenes of the opera bar (the final Herne's Wood anomaly) push the stage area right up to the footlights, creating a present 2-dimensionality that is prefigured by the tapestry safety curtain.

If there's a noticeable manner of staging then its in the grouping of units of characters. Verdi's opera is an unrepentantly ensemble work and it is from this that Jones takes his most noteworthy directorial cue. The singers all stick together in pockets, chattering, purposeful, amiable groups where even the scheming seems well-intentioned. On top of this there are plenty of non-singing extras - brownie groups, a rowing eight, friends in a pub or shopping - who move through the piece as like-minded units. Against this Falstaff, though not played as a buffoon and not rejected as some sort of social anomaly does have an air of isolation: the eccentric, rather than the pariah.

Indeed, at the end of the opera the entire company join him in a drink despite the mad shenanigans of Herne's Wood. This is the weak point of the show for me. The entire stage is suddenly put to use, dominated by a huge tree, into which space pour the whole company in every Halloween costume ever invented. The blocking is a bit rough, certainly compared to the purposeful regimentation of what had gone before; as to the drama that had gone before, well this scene seems interpolated from a completely different show (A Midsummer Night's Dream, methought). I was left feeling utterly bewildered at the curtain.

'Luckily' the music's good - 'luckily', as I still haven't managed to get my head around the opera itself. After a lifetime of sculpting perfect lyric masterpieces, Verdi dived off into this contiguous, stream-of-consciousness epilogue to his career, full of energy and humour but without the formal corners that might help better define the drama. As an unbroken fabric (tapestry, again) of sound though it's difficult to beat the performance of the LPO on the shiniest of form, Jurowski procuring a punchy and plangent sound from the pit on the twist of a stick. Fantastic.