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.