Thursday, 23 December 2010

Cinderella - Opera Up Close, King's Head Theatre

If you're looking for a (fairly) clean alternative seasonal show Opera Up Close's Cinderella is as good a proxy panto as any. This third production from the company that struck fringe gold with La Boheme repeats the magic formula of a vernacular translation and a scene set in the front-of-house bar.

My enthusiasm is qualified though. Whilst the theatre is a good venue for theatrics, it might not be such a good space in which to stage opera. There's no acoustic at all, which may have its advantages in the high-speed, text-intensive 'patter' stretches of Rossini's concoction but denies the sound itself any room in which to breathe. Given the theatre's trumpeted re-branding as London's Little Opera House this may suggest a hazardous settling period ahead.

However, it's nice to be able to say that on this occasion (and with the cast that I saw) hazards were circumvented and demands largely met. Christopher Diffey's Prince took some warming up but by the time we hit the first dedicated recitative the voice was operating at a premium, easy and (rather like his character's namesake) charming. Because of the nature of the space this is the hardest role of the event, with fearsome high notes popping out. Diffey undertook them with a base-jumper's courage, missing not a single top C. The stepsisters also run about these oxygen-starved peaks of the score. Emily Ward and Sian Cameron were exemplarly in dovetailing their singing with strikingly characterised roles (the second time I've seen Cameron do this in as many months).

For all that Cinderella is, particularly in this production, an ensemble piece, it still requires a titular heroine to lead from the front. Rowan Hellier's was the only voice to truly defy the flat acoustic, flooding the back of the room like a sparkling wine. For all that she sounded (and, transforming into a credible princess, looked) the part, by the end I found myself admiring Tom Bullard's Dandini above all. Dandini is a classic baritone-compere role, teasing the wit out of each situation, cueing up the drama and the jokes, and directing the laughter. Bullard's leavened his tone to accommodate the text, never fighting the room but working within it. With its clean attack his singing was also the fairy dust that brought the male ensemble together, along with Tom Kennedy's Alidoro and the hugely enjoyable buffo-bass of Gerard Delrez's tax-dodging father Don Magnifico. The most stoic performer was, naturally, the piano-as-orchestra of Andrew Macmillan.

If the idea of Opera Up Close is to find the irreducible heart of lyric theatre and re-package it for an unassuming modern audience then this is probably the way to do it. There are collateral losses though. Not only is the acoustic unforgiving, it also inhibits pursuance of the style which is also an irreducible component of early-to-mid 19th century dramma giocoso. This is a issue for the singers to confront alongside the company that casts them. I do look forward to the future of music theatre in this venue though, as the companies that use it grasp the nettle of its shortcomings as equally as its opportunities.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

New Britannia at The Saatchi Gallery

I finally managed to pay this exhibition a flying visit and found some pretty solid art. I got on with Robert Fry's Drawing Room series of self-portraits, impressions of him working with a model. This was my favourite, no. 7, the solid pale indigo sealing off the turbulent paintwork of the figures. It looks like psychoanalysis must feel - the discussion of personal issues with or through some other person, bound within a safe space. The sexual possibilities of the painting are also part of this world.

The spirit of Britannia past was conjured by a vitrine full of what appeared to be dead insects, suspended as if in flight. At closer inspection the miniature-macabre world of Tessa Farmer's Swarm reveals itself, playful and dread at a stroke.

There are a lot of canvases on show and I also liked the colourism of Luke Rudolf and the 3D Vorticist abstracts of Jaime Gili.

But the most striking work in the galleries is probably the one that's not there at all - the smell of Richard Wilson's oil installation 20:50 still lingers, even after having been gone for a couple of years now.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Maw, McNeff and Debussy, Crush Room, ROH

I attended a lunchtime recital at the Royal Opera's Crush Bar yesterday. I'd like to tell you about Nicholas Maw's seductive setting of Robert Browning's Two in the Campagna, with it's latter-half unendlische melodie like the contours of a Tuscan hillside. Or Suzanne Wilson-Kawalec's delicate but highly controlled reading of Debussy's Arabesque No.1 in a room of volatile acoustic attributes.

Above all I'd like to be able to tell you more about Stephen McNeff's A Voice Of One Delight, a spare, Romantic setting of narrative by Percy Shelley (and interpolated spoken verses) which played to the strengths of the assembled voices, and operated with a lyric cleanliness and rhetoric that Maw's lush orchestration could not. I suppose I just did tell you that.

Alas, I found myself corralled in a corner next to a latecoming family who created low-level distraction throughout the concert and, simply, came between me and a direct experience of the performance.

I'm not going to moan about what was going on. Grounds for complaint are equivocal anyway; the family were clearly trying to engage with the performance themselves. The girl immediately to my right was even taking notes on the music.

In fact, I found the episode interesting in the light of the failed but worthy campaign to get John Cage's 4'33" to the top of the British singles chart last week.

The family demonstrated that the state of the culture is one in which the mediated appreciation of a performance is the norm. In a world in which we listen to the radio whilst driving, watch concerts on television or attend gigs amplified to high volume, then fiddling with a mobile phone, the pages of a programme or simply discussing the performance is natural. Mediated appreciation = the practical application of the fourth wall.

4'33" is not a piece that works as a mediated performance, the unremarked upon but principal irony of recording the work for the Cage Against The Machine campaign. Performance of the work incorporates the ambient acoustic sound in the performance space. It demands that the audience recognise the acoustic worth of the performers by their abstinence and the no less important, contiguous acoustic properties of the space and their co-existence in it. There is no distinction, no cut-off. No fourth wall. The performance and the experience of that performance is unmediated.

My experience of this lunchtime recital was essentially rather frustrating - the acoustic equivalent of trying to trying to look at a view in an auto-focus camera whose resolution persistently defaults to a foreground figure just in the corner of the frame (a bad analogy given my point about unmediated experience, but it makes the point). However, I cannot feel too badly about the children brought to the concert whose understanding of the possibilities of experience is clearly still narrow.

The fact remains that my experience was mediated by the benighted actions of the family. At a stretch I can pass comment on the bloom and flare of Clare McCaldin's opulent mezzo-soprano and the fine-tuned ensemble of the disparate chamber instruments but not on my experience of the music, because I didn't.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Opera-Cinema Relay

This afternoon I've been listening to the Christmas Picturehouses Podcast. The most startlingly thing to hear (apart from a presenter-exchange of Christmas presents mainly featuring Sellotape) was that the best performing film at the Picturehouses chain wasn't a film at all, but an opera.

The opera-in-cinema phenomenon, as The Guardian's Charlotte Higgins calls it, is an interesting development. Why has it happened? Well, no doubt people want to see operatic productions from New York's Metropolitan Opera House (Picturehouses were showing a relay of Verdi's Don Carlo) without the inconvenience of having to travel to and from America. Equally, watching the production on a big screen means that one can actually see clearly what's happening on stage. There's no need to fiddle with opera glasses or compete with view-obstructive large people with coughs at the back of the amphitheatre. Above all of course, one can get the experience live and with high quality digital surround-sound.

Given that BBC Radio 3 has been relaying Met productions for a long time now it would seem that the convenience of live, high audio-visual quality streaming is the principal reason for the current explosion of interest. Principal but not exclusive. Aware of the need to develop audiences, not only the Met but also the National Theatre and Glyndebourne have been using the relay development. London's Royal Opera have an ambitious 3D project in the pipeline for next year, to follow their own not-so-much-in-as-out-of house big screen event relays.

Of course, the technology is there to allow people to watch opera productions at home - I did last week, watching a webcast of Parsifal from the Amsterdam's Concertgebouw. However, the quality of connection, picture and sound are all dependant on domestic equipment and settings and the production (Radio 4 for Dutch Radio Orchestra and Chorus) take no revenue away from such an event. This is another reason why opera companies both here and abroad are making their productions available for remote auditoria consumption (if you like), as a way of increasing revenue. As David Pickard also notes to Charlotte Higgins, "This is partly about taking artistic control of our own material", companies doing with video recording what is already being done very successfully in audio recording. Dedicated third party distributors with paywalls already operate in the midst of this, such as Opus Arte and Medici TV (in exactly the same way as or Curzon Cinemas On Demand do for film).

The downside, apart from this not being in the audience attending a live, i.e. acoustic performance is that the independent cinemas that have undertaken to show such relays will often have to use two slots to accommodate an opera (Don Carlo was advertised as 300 mins long). Prices reflect this so revenue is not the principal issue. Rather, the space to accommodate other independent film which may rely on the independent chains for a public screening becomes limited. I don't see this as a drastic problem though, given that the relays are a unique simulcast, a one off.

The rise of opera in the cinema is a largely happy coincidence of audience development and technology. It's worth noting that there's a third issue, the middle ground of experience: wanting to get out of the living room to be part of a modest, dedicated audience in a modern auditorium, rather than the great barns of theatres that the full-time professional companies are obliged to perform in.

I think I may give La Fanciulla del West a go at my local in a few weeks to see if it's worth it. In the meantime I'm ever-more eagerly awaiting this opera-as-film.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Tannhäuser, ROH

Tannhäuser's a really dull opera. So very little happens, one can only ascribe its existence in the repertoire to its far superior siblings. There's some interesting music and some impressive melody but, dramatically, the whole thing is so tepid and waffly that I really didn't know where to begin to try and engage with it.

In fact, perhaps the chorus is as good a place as any, for a change. The opera's about the masses actually. Tannhäuser and his perfectly ordinary story (by operatic standards) is just an individual through whom the composer and the social revolution he believed in can find focus. From ethereal voices backstage to the wearied resolve of the pilgrims returning from Rome, the Chorus of the Royal Opera were on stoic form - never a molten core of operatic fervour but always in character and musical without noticeably choral affectation. They were joined by the boys of Tiffin's School who were also impressive - drilled but fresh.

As I've suggested Tannhäuser's a character in search of spiritual redemption. He doesn't try all that hard and what little peace he's accorded comes about by an ill-explained transaction concerning the equally dull Elisabeth. Luckily John Botha's not a dull singer, presenting a genuine manliness with his Heldentenor that's entirely in keeping with the muscular orgy-ballet of the Overture. Eva-Maria Westbroek's Elisabeth is also a more substantial voice than the character. Elisabeth becomes persuasive when her piety isn't presented as the disguise of a timid or naively faithful girl - Westbroek's Elisabeth does not cower but reaches out. Impossible to compare but equally good was the Venus of Michaela Schuster, daring to give more characterisation and colour to her tempting goddess than the top of her voice sometimes allowed.

Vocally the voice of the staging is, by quite some distance, the Wolfram of Christian Gerhaher. Wolfram's a sort of neglected narrator-everyman, a kind of bloodless Leporello, keen for the charismatic Tannhäuser to return and sticking with the love-zombied Elisabeth at her protracted fade-out. There is of course the famous Oh! Du Mein Holder Abendstern as a set piece for the baritone but as early as his first arioso Gerhaher's unsullied, liquid lieder-line was a thing of gawp-inducing beauty. I haven't heard singing like this since Gerald Finley's over-lovely Balstrode or Roderick William's lyric defence of the otherwise indefensible L'Amour de Loin, both at ENO last year. Gerhaher sings easily, within himself, a fine, Viennese-coffee baritone with a perfect cream-whorl of pathos slowly rotating in its midst. This is the reason to buy the ticket; he has fine support in the third act from Christoff Fischesser's 'Landgrave', Herrmann.

On refelection a reason not to buy a ticket is the production which should carry the disclaimer 'Post-Modern! Watch with care irony!' I tried to work with the set, a reproduction of the Royal Opera's own proscenium, but it sat up like the symbol it's meant to be, without any real attempt to incorporate it with the drama at hand. The second Act rectified this belatedly though I found myself thinking about how a court of militia holding a singing competition in the ruins of a temple of lyric drama was more of a statement about arts funding cuts than tied to the Romantic narrative.

Semyon Bychkov conducts with possibly a little too much restraint (nothing really catches fire) but the house orchestra play with the finesse that one now comes to expect.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Free Art at the Weekend

First of all, the popup show Marks and Stencils on Berwick Street. This exhibition featured the French street artist Dran, who is a nifty draughtsman and witty with it. There was also an opportunity to join in with re-appropriate-a-postcard competition, to be judged by the artist happening in the basement. There were too many brilliant little witticisms to detail and highlight but I particularly liked the pictures on bits of packing cardboard, often re-appropriating the slogans or instructions printed on the side. Thanks to Art Of The Estate for the heads up.

Secondly, the Bridget Riley exhibition at the Sunley Room in the National Gallery. There are five canvases on show by Riley and two murals which she has painted directly onto the walls of the space. The predominant form is that of what are best described as the abstracted form of tongues of flame, shapes cast from asymmetric curves moving from the vertical to the horizontal. My favourite of these endlessly absorbing paintings was Red With Red 1, below.

Although all the pictures of similar design achieve similar ends, the proximity of the red to the pink in this picture was particularly kinetic. It reminds me of the figure-annihilating canvases of Bonnard or Vuillard. The works are tied in with canvases by Raphael and Seurat (sketches for Bathers at Asnières) to emphasise the importance of colour in composition. There were also a quartet of prints showing the pencil markings that help in their composition.

Finally, the World Press Photo 10 exhibition, being shown in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall. This is an unfailingly gripping show, perhaps self-evidently as the content of the photos is often dramatic. I was struck by a four-print record of a stoning in Mogadishu and an open act of bigotry in Hebron. Whilst the most fascinating journalist's photos are those caught on the hoof, as it were (horror in Apeldoorn or a remarkable print of a kingfisher from beneath the surface of the water it has just broken) my favourite might well have been the pictures of free-growing foliage in Jakarta where synthetic urban life encourages its growth in unlikely public spaces.

All this after having seen, by chance, the last day of the Ruth Borchard Collection exhibition of British self-portraiture at the King's Place Gallery (following a concert I'd attended). I liked this virtuosic piece by Dorothy Mead.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Claire Booth at King's Place

Poulenc's La Voix Humane is essentially a solo opera, Poulenc setting of Cocteau's one-sided telephone conversation in which a woman talks with a former lover. In this technically impeccable performance, soprano Claire Booth was the desperate woman who, over the course of the call, disintegrates through anxiety, paranoia and the affirmation of her isolation.

Helpfully, King's Place produce a monthly podcast of their events including artist interviews. Booth refers to some source material used in preparation of this performance, including the 1966 film starring Ingrid Bergman (excerpt):

I found Poulenc's setting of the peroration rather unconvincing. Clearly the dialogue (this isn't a monologue or soliloquy) is a simple metaphor for the woman confronting herself at a psychological level. In this the music is functional, mono-dimensional. It neither suggests the man's ripostes nor elucidates her state of mind. There is no concession to the soloist. The piano's only role is mimicking the occasional ring or cut-off tone.

In a curious half-production for the King's Place stage, video artist Netia Jones attempted to address this with a sophisticated video installation, including both pre-recorded and real-time images of Booth. This certainly opened up some alternative visuals to feed the imagination. At the same time however, Booth performed the entire cantata sitting not only in the same place but also the same position, despite having a mobile phone as one of two handsets.

All this is a bit of a pity. The video itself was reminiscent of the Saul Bass title graphic to Hitchcock's Psycho (a 1960 film contemporaneous with Poulenc's opera, 1959). Negative images of overburdened urban telephone poles not only complemented this design but seemed to fit the jazz inflections of Poulenc's music, like shots of New Orleans street corners. The music itself takes flight in the latter half of the cantata and Booth takes the opportunity to sing with a generous line. Chris Glynn was the admirable pianist for this performance.

If I equivocate about the Poulenc it may be to do with the unquestionably brilliant opening to the recital, a performance of Berio's Sequenza No.3. Booth tore through the piece with a technical fire and finesse that left me gawping - it also seemed to work happily with Jones' video which moved at a contrasting breadth of intent than Berio's hysterical montage. On reflection, it also seemed a witty act of programming, as it has the same lurching inventory of sound as an old-fashioned dial-up modem. Inbetween the two vocal works Alasdair Beatson played Berio's Petite Suite, a singing performance that complemented the curiously techincal exporation of rhetoric that was the most rewarding part of the evening.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

A Dog's Heart, ENO

The first night of Complicite/ENO's A Dog's Heart was well-received. This short video (from the original production at De Nederlanse Opera earlier in the year) gives you a flavour of what it's about:

Alexander Raskatov's opera is based on a 1925 novel by Mikhail Bulgakov. ENO describe it as 'absurdist', Simon McBurney (dirctor of Complicite) as a 'satire'. It's both these things. Imagine a political version of Frankenstein played for laughs and you're basically there. The story is classically bleak. The dog is taken in by a politically connected professor who likes to stitch bits of different species together. The dog, Sharik, gets the testes and pituitary of a man; this transplant causes a basic metamorphosis into a coarse, needy human, Sharikov. Eventually the Professor can suffer no longer the trouble that Sharikov is causing, through a mixture of bestial impulse and self-pitying, and replaces his original organs. This tale doesn't pan out like David Cronenberg's The Fly, but rather with a more claustrophobic sense of inescapable social oppression.

McBurney uses the puppetry company Blind Summit to give life to a textile dog in a manner that may be familiar to those who have seen the National Theatre's Warhorse. It's a complicated but nonetheless convincing stage presence alongside its two voices. Yes, two - I initially thought internal and external but the programme suggests pleasant and unpleasant (which strikes me as closer to Family Guy's Brian on one of his drinking binges). Pleasant is the countertenor Andrew Watts (manifestly on a long run of good form) and unpleasant Elena Vassilieva, contorted with a megaphone (as in the clip). I liked this device very much (not least the idea that a megaphone, rather than amplifying, distorts - shouting becoming uglier not louder).

The manipulative doctor is played by Stephen Page, a singing actor of high all-round calibre. His is a commanding presence, a charismatic, iron centre to the production, entirely in keeping with the supremely self-confident but slightly unhinged professor. Around him revolve a small group of lackeys, either servants or nurses depending on his whim. Most notable is the maid Zina (Nancy Allen Lundy), who rushes about, twitching and singing in squeaky, pontillist music, as if having had some sort of transplant herself, perhaps from a mouse. Sharikov himself is sung by Peter Hoare who has impressed me no end in the last year (Wozzeck's Hauptmann* for Esa-Pekka Salonen, Albert Gregor for ENO) and really owns the show in this production, charging about the stage like a Chekovian buffoon with a hard-on.

Raskatov's music is functionally modernist. Rather than being an entity in itself, it provides a clear support for the play. There's a bit of speaking (Graeme Danby as the Grand Inquisitor-a-like Big Boss) and, as mentioned, id-coloratura for the semi-bestial objects of Shakirov's affection Zina and a wonderful cameo from Sophie Desmars, who ill-advisedly takes Sharikov up on an engagment proposal. Garry Walker conducts with clarity, although the orchestration doesn't need internal direction, being a spare affair (oddly there are a couple of moments in which snatches of melody bloom from the pit including one that sounds as if it's straight out of Star Wars. I wouldn't have mentioned it, only it seems too incongruous to have been unintentional, given the lyric desert of the rest of the music). I particularly liked the use of an amplified guitar, a liquid yet mechanical colour which fitted perfectly with the Eadward Muybridge (? I assume) Animal Locomotion films of dog and man.

McBurney has preserved the political allegory in the play. The chorus' demand for parity, largely in trying to occupy the professor's excessive domicile, end abruptly in an exchange of high-level phone calls. By the end everyone winds up behaving like the poor beasts that have been the centre of the show. What's interesting though is that, for all its counter-revolutionary, samizdat scorn, this plays equally well as a critique of our current political situation. At the close of the opera, the dog talks to itself (in its pleasant voice) telling itself it's been 'lucky'. It might as well be telling itself that it's 'never had it so good'.

*Indeed the Wozzeck reference is particularly pertinent; the professor begins his first domestic overtures towards his subject, Sharik(ov) with vocalising that includes humming, like the Doktor in Berg. Later in the scene we are met by someone else with designs on Sharikov, the communist apparatchik Shvonder, who has the same, high tessitura music as Berg's Hauptmann (and who is also in thrall the the professor's greater charisma, as the Hauptmann is to the Doktor).

UPDATE: At the centre of A Dog's Heart is a puppet dog. A wretched, mangy, skeleton of an animal, it really reminded me of something... and as one or two more on-the-ball reviewers have now pointed out, director Simon McBurney has based it on a Giacometti sculpture:

Friday, 19 November 2010

Donmar's Novocento at Trafalgar Studio 2

This is a simple show concentrating on story-telling. Mark Bonnar's trumpeter is the classic example of a third party recounting the main subject's biography. In this case his subject is the mythical - fictional - pianist Danny Boodmann TD Lemon Novecento, born, adopted and resident on an ocean liner.

The central event, a face-off between Novocento and (real) jazz legend Jelly-Roll Morton is nicely played out. I also liked the design of the minimal, close-up stage and backdrop which suggests some rusting hulk, from a distant, ghostly past rather than some perky, recognisable cruise ship. Bonnar is an entertaining raconteur, if occasionally overselling the melodrama in a script that stretches for profundities which are out of reach. Still, an hour and a half of holding the show on his own was quite a feat in itself. If I wasn't transformed I was certainly absorbed.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

RCA Secret 2010

The annual lucky-dip market of postcard art has come to the Royal College of Art once again. I might have missed it, er, once again, were it not for some fortuitous surfing and a surfeit of BBC reports. It's a simple conceit to raise cash. An invited group of artists both established and upcoming make postcard art (on a standard issued postcard) and then it is exhibited anonymously for a fortnight or so. At the end of the exhibition, all the cards are sold (there's a maximum of 4 postcards per 'collector'). Of course there is the frisson that one may have bought an Anthony Caro or a Nick Park original worth far more than the uniform £45 price.

Browsing the exhibition is just as much fun as going all the way and signing up to buy. No doubt the artists have plenty of fun too either doing something unusual, or even imitating each other. The exhibition's last day is tomorrow and the sale is on Saturday.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Without Warning, Trinity Laban College

This original performance piece, devised and executed by Trinity Laban alumni, Without Warning was a rather daring, abstracted affair. The seed idea for this heavily workshopped but essentially improvised work was An Evil Cradling, Brian Keenan's account of years spent in captivity in Beirut. It was performed in the backstage area of Trinity Laban's Bonny Bird theatre, an appropriate space for its bare, industrial appearance and stark lighting. We (the audience) found ourselves moving around like flocking starlings, either crowding to see performers on the floor or stepping back to let them through.

I'm unfamiliar with the content of An Evil Cradling, although I'd imagine it covers the pain and paranoia of brutalised captivity as well as the unique friendship that Keenan struck up with Brian McCarthy, his fellow cell-mate. Consequently, there was a great deal of interaction - largely dance - in pairs. Often strained, even mutedly aggressive, the movement was occasionally accompanied by music generated both diegetically (if you like) by the performers, or electronically by a sound designer in the flies. Much of this seemed pertinent to the basic idea of Keenan's incarceration.

More interestingly - and, dare I say it, importantly - is how the piece worked on its own terms. For me this meant the experience of being inamongst the performers. This isn't a situation I enjoy as there's the ever-present threat of 'audience participation'. It became apparent though that this was simply a conceit to encourage the sense of claustrophobia that is an important component of the drama.

Particularly intriguing about the experience was the proximity of the performers at given moments. There are some speedy and even violent manoeuvres at times and, given the clear sense of improvising, there's always the potential for collision, if not with the performers then with fellow audience members when trying to move out of the performers' way. My own experience was very instructive. I quickly found that I didn't want to move. I felt that I wanted to trust the performers to move around me if necessary and that I didn't want to move in the way of other audience members.

Above all, I felt a peculiar belligerence about being in 'the audience'. I felt that, in view of a lack of clear instruction of how I should be moving and the flexibility of the performers, that I would simply stay where I was and let the performers find their own way around me. I found this strangely empowering (especially on one occasion in which a flying toe tapped my chin) but this drew me towards the tension of the drama. It's as if I were no longer simply observing but adopting a role - not a premeditated role in the sense of 'oh, I must be one of the captors then' but a role defined by my own physical sensation in being in close proximity to the physicality of the performers in conjunction with the particular emotional content of that physicality.

Other thoughts revolved around the use of instruments in the performance. I didn't connect with the idea of An Evil Cradling until I read more about it after the show. Instead, I found that I was making connections with the idea of Tamino struggling with one of the trials of The Magic Flute or Orpheus attempting to rescue Eurydice. The music was entirely integrated into the performance though. Laura Moody's uncompromising approach to her cello and extended vocal technique was frighteningly unhinged; Peter Willcock's flute playing and humming (not to mention deeply expressive face) seemed rather more compos mentis, though consequently pitiable. As I suggest Lizzi Kew-Ross' choreography incorporated all of this, making it impossible to isolate, let alone commend individual performances of this intense, unusual and eventually rewarding project.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Performing Arts Colleges 100% Funding Cut

from today's Telegraph

Universities losing all government funding (include):

Central School of Speech and Drama
Rose Bruford College
Royal Academy of Music
Royal College of Music
Royal Northern College of Music
Trinity Laban
Goldsmiths College
Conservatoire for Dance and Drama
Leeds College of Music
Guildhall School of Music and Drama

a little staggered for now, so more later.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Singin' In The Rain, John Wilson & Philharmonia

I was at the Festival Hall this afternoon for another MGM score reconstruction from John Wilson. This time he had the Philharmonia Orchestra & Voices in tow to perform the much loved Singin' In The Rain with a cast of top-notch principals.
This rather blurry image serves to illustrate little more than my first observation, that the stage was packed to bursting, with added woodwind and brass, on top of the rhythm trappings of a big band score - a guitar, kit drum and piano. The performance was staged concert and so a strip of the available room was given over to the principals, who recreated the film by reading from a script prepared by director-narrator Kim Criswell.

The principal appeal of the event was the opportunity of hearing the music played live. This was an unequivocal success, the Philharmonia bringing a stock-in-trade virtuosic ensemble to the music. Though some moments lacked the froth and excess that seems characteristic of the film, the score was presented with great beauty and a stirring, authentic romance. The additional brass really came into their own in the swagger and drive of dance numbers and interludes. The programmatic Broadway Ballet that accompanies the solipsistic dance interlude of the film was a particularly well-rendered suite.

Of course, it would be too difficult to recreate the action exactly as in the film on stage (rain?!), just as it would be impossible for the principals to 'be' Gene Kelly or Debbie Reynolds (or Donald O'Connor). Consequently, the drama was played out with a mixture of reproduction, re-appropriation or, occasionally, allowing the music to take over.

Josh Prince's Cosmo lead the way in this respect with an economical version of the Make 'Em Laugh slapstick routine, which also made use of a game Wilson (not for the first time in the afternoon ahead). His tap dancing in Moses Supposes was also impressive, but he was chiefly an asset for his sure comic timing.

This really allowed Julian Ovenden, as Don, and Annalene Beechey, playing Kathy, to free themselves of the comic burden of the drama, and play - and sing - the romance. There's great ardour in the music, enough to prevent the caramelising of the melody in the theatrical coulis, and it had first class advocates in these two young performers.

Ovenden is not only strikingly handsome, his easy charm simply flows off the front of the stage (and he's likely to become even more widely known because of an upcoming film). The spirit of Gene Kelly was alive and well in him, although he chose not to dance during the Puddle de deux of the title song (the only questionable decision of the evening: a tribute to the indelible magic of the screen routine? The music cried out for a theatrical counterpart). Beechey's Kathy was a pitch-perfect foil for Ovenden's Don and commanded, arguably, the loveliest voice. Their falling in love at the end of the first half was entirely convincing, and even better than the experience of the film for not having its visual paraphernalia.

The slack of an orbiting company of smaller roles and extras was taken up by the uncredited big band frontman Matthew Ford and individuals popping out of the all-singing, some-dancing chorus to swing a racket or take a twirl in the 'rain'. Everyone on stage got involved in the splashes of hubbub as the history of the motion picture (literally) flashed in front of our eyes. This was a most lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon and made me wish that the rush of seasonal panto just around the corner might be so meticulously prepared and so ardently performed.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

The Magic Flute, Hampstead Garden Opera

Mozart's loopy-but-indestructible masterpiece The Magic Flute is a mixed blessing for a director. It's a piece that one can bend to almost any sort of concept but which has a very rigid internal centre to it. I'm not talking about black human certainties Mozart confronts, like suicide or rape. Rather, I mean the po-faced social constructs like Sarastro's gentlemen's club, assumed by most to be a Masonic tribute, which has the potential to occupy more than its fair share of the latter half of the opera.

It's an equivocal issue in James Hurley's production for Hampstead Garden Opera's current production at the Gatehouse Theatre. Hurley introduces a clever concept from the start. Possibly borrowing from Bergman (child-centric productions in both The Magic Flute and the child's doll-house-proportioned toy theatre from Fanny and Alexander) he has the unequivocal children of the three boys, or girls in this production, play with dolls that turn out to represent Tamino and Pamina. The parental figures of Sarastro and The Queen of the Night get involved in a rather more seedy game of their own before the Queen takes over, manipulating the doll of Tamino like a voodoo doll. This all happens during the overture: charm, sexual intent, vindictiveness and dark magic. It's a good start.

Whether or not Hurley has managed to explain himself to his cast, or indeed give them sufficient direction though is a different issue. From the outset the acting had patches of glazed functionality - entrances and exits particularly were often not dramatically causal, just the next thing to happen in the score.

This didn't become a problem because there was some pretty good singing going on. William Balkwill's Tamino really got into his stride in the long, high lyric music with solid support from a disparately-voiced but well-blended trio of ladies in Helen Bailey, Siân Cameron and Charlotte King. The first of my favourite three performers of the evening was Viki Hart's Queen of the Night, secure in sound but above all committed in character. This really helped carry Hurley's concept some distance - that the central Tamino-Pamina rescue drama might be a psychological construct of a woman at the sharp end of a warped and possibly failed marital relationship.

The next mature performance was that of the Papageno. Like Leporello, it is a gift of a role and baritone Daniel Roddick really fulfilled its potential. He was joined at the height of what the afternoon had to offer by a most remarkable Pamina. Raphaela Papadakis' greatest achievement might have been to have not overbalanced the production. Convincing onstage and with clear, measured diction in dialogue, her singing was a gulfstream of fine technique and emotional connection. Ach, ich fühl's (or, rather, Let me die in this translation by Stephen Fry, originally for Kenneth Branagh's 2007 film) was a rare, transporting, genuinely operatic peroration. For that and other vocal and dramatic commitment she should be commended.

Alongside this melodramatic perspective of the opera is cast the patriarchal ensmble of Sarastro, his followers and people. Chris Borrett's Sarastro is a young but hearty instrument. I would also have liked to have heard much more of the sound Alexandre Garziglia brought to a thoroughly satisfying Speaker. Benjie del Rosario's Monostatos was suitably comic-oily.

I still felt ill at ease though. The end of Act 1 brought us into Sarastro's home, which, with the women in frocks and masks could have started some interesting Eyes Wide Shut reference to the subjugation of women in closed male-run societies. Yet the opportunity lapsed through a general indifference. Conversely, though I enjoyed the pert, lively charm of Ri McDaid-Wren, Pippa Woodrow and Fiona James as the three girls, the dramatically important chastity of the trio was simply discounted with the first of a number of pubescently winsome smirks at the handsome Prince Tamino.

Musically this was a robust performance. The Dionysus Ensemble belied its skeletal corps with dependable playing of the score. All were conducted by an unflappable Oliver Ruthven, despite being necessarily tucked in a corner. The theatrical presentation of the opera did suffer from its shortcomings though. I imagine it is likely that the ensemble were saving a little for the later evening performance, happening as I type this up here.

Frank Zappa 70 at the Roundhouse

This weekend sees a number of concerts dedicated to the highly eclectic, prolific and politically appropriated composer-producer-performer Frank Zappa. I know this because I got a round robin email from the Roundhouse where it's all (well most of it is) happening. Rather brilliantly for those of us unable to attend, the Roundhouse set up cameras and live-streamed the event with a Twitter feed on the same page. Here's a typically modern-meets-conventional screen shot:
This way I was able to catch much of the music from The Yellow Shark, Zappa's late album. Indeed a great deal of it sounds like the acoustic elements of the musique concrète that he found so absorbing in Varese's modest output. There's all sorts here - torrents of proto-Messiaen passed across an orchestra of broad palette - and the set proper ended with an unashamedly rock-driven work. In addition to the hard-working mandolin player pictured, there's a cymbalon and the conventional orchestra could be seen to play percussion and even laugh at given moments. I was pleased to have caught it. It's clear, energetic, meticulously scored music of verve and good fun but not without consequence.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Damien Hirst at Gagosian Davies St.

I seem to be doing the Gagosian London tour this week - although, as I've reached interview (i.e. chapter) 5 of On The Way To Work, it does seem a good time to be visiting a work of Hirst's featuring pills.

The Davies St Space is considerably smaller than that of Britannia St, and wisely Hirst has kept the exhibition to similar, alternating pieces - b&w prints of a skull and an assortment of facsimile pills stuck to a canvas.

The exhibition, Poisons & Remedies boils down to skull = poison, pills = remedy. However the pill are an 'ambivalent' symbol of cure though. Scattered across the canvas arbitrarily they seem to be leaking their contents and looking inconsequential alongside the dramatic, monumental black and white prints either side of them.

The skull-images are too simple to be just images though, just like the pills can't be seen as images. The edges of the skull prints are rough, like the dispersing Ben-Day dots of older newsprint and, as, such begin to look like the scattered pixelation that the pills also represent. Indeed, the scattering of dots, or dot-like particles, immediately reminded me of bacteria under a microscope, crawling around in a petri dish.

Consequently the skulls, named after various different 'toxic chemical preparations' begin to seem more closely related to the drugs that are supposed to deal with them.

I had further impressions about the pieces following this: a positive reaction to the honest black and white of the prints, but equivocation about the seductive colours of the pills (and the trade marks that are printed, cosmetically, on them; again, ease at the flat, 2-dimensional prints but a more kinetic and so circumspect apprehension of the pills which, sitting on the surface of their canvases, seem to proffer themselves; the ashen, fait-accompli prints; the pert, present potential of the pills.

I'm a little tired of Hirst's interest in skulls - and indeed pills. Juxtaposed they suggest a third possibility and are therefore a rather more successful proposition. Alas, this is an interpretation as the pieces are separate.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

James Turrell at Gagosian Britannia St.

James Turrell is a light-installation artist.This is not one of his creations. This is, in fact, a corridor in the healthily-proportioned space that is the Gagosian Gallery on Britannia St near King's Cross where Turrell's exhibition is being shown. It's an interactive exhibition of five pieces (there's an ante-room exhibit of an Arizona Crater appropriation project which I chose not to explore), one of which requires forward booking. This central, one-at-a-time, total immersion piece Bindu Shards was fully booked when we arrived. However, a helpful installation operative (wearing a sort of irony-defiant doctor's lab coat to perform her role) described the effect that the pulsating light would have on the viewer: mimicking hallucination, giving the impression of texture and pattern rather like a kaleidoscope.

Either side of the moon-landing craft that housed this exhibit there were two other pieces: a simple window-like aperture in the wall, whose changing light is reminiscent of the projections on the National Theatre any night of the week called Sustaining Light and a rather more substantial, walk in installation, Dhātu. This recent latter work required further viewing admin, taking only 5 people at a time wearing hazmat-style shoe guards, but was worth the hassle.
After getting into the space via the Temple-entrance style steps, the room rakes down to a recessed screen similar to that of Sustaining Light (the large, immerse space reminded me of Anthony Gormley's recent Blind Light, or Miroslaw Balka's black box How It Is for Tate Modern) The space around it is sufficiently spotless, seamless and white to allow the changing colours and intensities of those colour to have a mild disorienting effect of the viewer, as well as promoting the impression of 3-d primary colour bleed around the peripheries of objects (i.e. other poeple) in the space. Additionally, with a light source above the entrance the bias of the overall intensity changes from end to end of the room, causing a strange gravitational effect on the viewer.

These noticeable, kinetic effects on myself and my companion reminded my of the wonderfully simple Donald Judd sculptures in a Tate exhibition of 6 years back. The colours and glossy textures of these deceptively innocuous boxes create their own motion in their attractiveness and juxtaposition.

The final room contained two pieces that were more explcitly about this 3-dimensional experience, a pair of holograms which seemed to make use of the dense reflective and refractive properties of two canvas-sized black frames on the wall. This is a clear, real 3-d image that neither this excellent, gallery supplied picture nor my heavily chewed explanation does justice. A partially experimental but economical and thought-provoking exhibition; and as my companion remarked, failing all else everything is, invariably, satisfyingly couched in an Yves Klein Blue.

Monday, 1 November 2010

First Night - an Opera Movie

There's a report today on a new movie that doubles as a vehicle for Cosi fan Tutte. At least I think I've got that right. It looks like this.

Now, first of all, having read the words Branagh and Mozart by the end of the second paragraph, I immediately thought of the fun, well-intentioned but flat 2007 film of The Magic Flute that Branagh directed. Yet producer Stephen Evans says that the film is "specifically not a movie of an opera. It's a movie set against a backdrop of putting on an opera".

Evans is a successful figure in the industry and he seems to think that the climate is right too:
The decision to make First Night was also prompted by opera's rising popularity. [Evans] was struck by the huge number of young people at a recent open-air screening at Somerset House of The Rake's Progress from Glyndebourne. "I was amazed by the youth there. It's Stravinsky. Not the most melodic of people," he said.
Indeed there's also a reference to the increasing interest in live relays of opera productions in cinemas, not to mention the popularity of large scale, one-off 'event screenings' of Royal Opera Productions.

The fact remains though that an opera is already a self-contained artwork. Making a film of it requires a meta-approach - just like the high concept inventively applied by Branagh to The Magic Flute, or indeed in this idea (which itself is rather like Michael Winterbottom's film of Tristram Shandy, for example). This is half the reason why Evans found that
People who didn't know opera were more excited than the people who did. The music is so wonderful, so lyrical. People uninterested in opera found themselves loving the music.
The music is undeniably wonderful, irrespective of the context of opera (and this is probably true of any good opera, not just those by Mozart). Lifted out of the socially-claustrophobic implications of this is an opera! it's easy to experience the music's charm.

I suspect that Evans is ingenuous about wanting people to experience Mozart - though his first priority, as a producer, will be to make a profitable film. Consequently, there is the ever present but entirely irrelevant 'don't worry, you're watching a populist approximation of opera' meme built into (not only) the film (but also the all-important trailer) with Julian Ovenden singing O Sole Mio.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Nottingham Creativity

Following a tip off from The Guardian at the beginning of the week, my attention skipped up to Nottingham. However, I was sidetracked from The British Art Show (it begins a tour in the city anyway, so I will be able to catch it in London at some point) in attending a concert of music put on by the city-based GameCity festival. Here's what the event looked like:

An insight into the machinations of the musical underscoring of games, the evening doubled as a celebration of the music of game composer James Hannigan. We heard a mixture of the prerecorded tracks (actually used in games such as the Command and Conquer series and The Lord Of The Rings) and a live choir (The Pinewood Singers) with a couple of instrumentalists and a soloist performing in synch. The music is exciting live, especially for those familiar with the games. I particularly liked Yuriko's Theme (from Red Alert 3) which sounds great live with its crazy violin meanderings.

What was most interesting though was hearing how the music is assembled. Considerable flexibility must be built in for the music to be able to respond to the playability (sorry, can't think of a better word) of the game. Hannigan talked about the orchestral recording process - whilst he was highly complimentary of British session orchestral musicians and singers he noted that the ideal, which is recording separate orchestral tracks for each part is unworkable due to cost. The ideal? Well, the music is designed in conjunction with the game to respond to the events in the game, providing an intuitive dramatic and emotional response to the action.

The event concluded with a first hearing of the music for the tie-in to the upcoming Harry Potter film (The Deathly Hallows), which conductor Allan Wilson undertook to direct with a wizard's wand given to him by the evening's host, John Broomhall. A fun evening.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Serpentine & Hyde Park Art

I finally got round to visiting this year's Serpentine Pavilion today on the way to having a look at Anish Kapoor's Turning The World Upside Down series dotted about Hyde Park. This is what a representative mirror looks like (i.e. you've seen it before)

Super (etc.). The pavilion is a not unrelated installation.
Though Jean Nouvel's striking design is a unique melange of the monumental, sci-fi and Pagoda-style tiered roof/awning, it also has a lot of fun with the exotic, womb-interior red that is the mainstay of so much of Kapoor's work (also here).

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Damien Hirst

Walking past the Gagosian on Davies St on Friday, I saw prints being taken out and put in the back of a cab. This is the activity on the eve of a new exhibition of Hirst's work (which also happens to coincide with another brief show across town. In another coincidence I have no idea whether Tracey Emin was on her way to the Gagosian).

I'm reading a book on Hirst at the moment which is rather good. I like this, for example:
I have proved it to myself that art is about life and the art world's about money. And I'm the only one who fucking knows that. (1996)

Friday, 8 October 2010

The Social Network

So, first of all, I clearly haven't mastered the camera on my new smartphone (this pic was the best of 6). Additionally, as it's not an iPhone I felt like a spy Tweeting from the Apple Store, Regent Street, where this Q&A with the cast and writer of the Facebook film - The Social Network - was taking place. From left to right we saw and heard from Aaron Sorkin, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake and Jesse Eisenberg. Rick Edwards of T4 was compering (or 'moderating', according to the introduction).

I didn't stay for it all as I have my ticket for a Wednesday screening and clips were being shown. It's enough to say that all four were making considered comments about playing living people who had not only been caught up in one of the most significant socio-technological developments so far this century but who also had had to deal with the inevitable litigation that comes with.

Me? I can tell my grandkids I stood 5m away from the man who wrote The West Wing.

Monday, 4 October 2010

The Beginning of the End of Enchantment

Towards the end of Before Sunrise (1995), as dawn comes to Vienna, Jesse (Ethan Hawke), the twentysomething American traveller, realises that his magical tryst with Céline (Julie Delpy), the young French tourist he met the day before, is drawing to a close. "We're back in real time," he says, as the sound of a harpsichord playing Bach's Goldberg Variations drifts up from a basement apartment. It's the beginning of the end of enchantment.
from Sight & Sound, August 2004

I'm listening to the Angela Hewitt recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations (BWV 988). More accurately (and slightly masochistically) I'm listening to the 25th variation, the mysteriously viscous trickle of notes that the famous harpsichordist Wanda Landowska once, and with good reason, referred to as 'the black pearl' and used in the scene from Richard Linklater's film described above. I've been forced (for the second time this week, but for very different reasons) to go back and take a hard look at what I wrote about a film. Funnily, I stand by my verdict that it's
A wide-eyed youngster's film executed by a grown-up
although executed takes on a rather insidious double edge.

Here's Glenn Gould playing the piece:

Society and the Artist

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to that great institution, the Canada Council for the Arts, without whose grant I could not have brought together this story... If we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams.
Yann Martel's foreword to the Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi

Saturday, 2 October 2010

10:10 and Curtis Video Disaster

This month we've seen the launch of two significant video spots to promote important campaigns. The first, a David Shrigley animation, promotes Save The Arts, a campaign looking to maintain the highly successful British Arts industry from financial climate austerity cuts.

The second, launched yesterday, is a high profile short film written by Richard Curtis for the 10:10 campain, which promotes the action of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 10% this year.

(As detailed later in this post, the 10:10 video has now been removed from its original address but may still be viewed here)

I found Shrigley's animation a little clumsy. Halfway through, the characters in the script have a bit of a pop at the vogue for 'vampire movies'. For me, suggesting that one arm or genre of the arts industry is better than another is a dangerously divisive line to take when lobbying for the industry as a whole.

Yet this is as nothing in comparison to the offensive drivel that Richard Curtis has come up with to try promote Franny Armstrong's climate change awareness cause 10:10. The video simply shows those who are seen to be indifferent to the campaign or its aims blown up.

That's it - support the campaign or we'll kill you. It's that clear. No? This is the final frame:

That's right, someone's blood and body parts spread across the screen, with a slogan like the calling card of a self-interested serial killer punched over it.

I and many like me who have already commented publicly on this video on The Guardian website where it has been promoted (as was the Shrigley) will be open to charges of sense of humour failure. To which I say, well I didn't realise that the 10:10 campaign was just a joke.

It's not. It's a concerted campaign to raise awareness of a serious issue, and provide ideas and support for confronting it. That's what I signed up to at last year's launch.

Humour is indeed the most valuable tool available for communicating that idea. This however is a gross misjudgement of what constitutes fun under the circumstances. It shows that Richard Curtis' humour is now an anachronism, wastes the generosity of those who have given their time and talent to try and help, and undermines Franny Armstong/10:10's effectiveness in lobbying for awareness and change at the highest level.

The South Park crew had something short and to the point to say about this sort of nonsense (from 1'00"):

UPDATE: at 1830 10:10 Tweeted to say that they've 'missed the mark' and taken it down.

UPDATE 2 (03/10/10): The Guardian/Observer publish a story about the hasty retraction of the film. Correctly this is titled "Backlash over Richard Curtis'... film", though goodness knows why Dougal Wilson undertook to make it. Franny Armstrong suggested that it was intended as
a funny and satirical tongue-in-cheek little film in the over-the-top style of Monty Python or South Park
upon which I refer her to the video posted immediately above.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Tristan und Isolde, Philharmonia/Salonen, RFH

This multi-media production of Tristan und Isolde, the Tristan Project is a collaboration between conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, director Peter Sellars and the video artist Bill Viola. The video below gives you an idea of what it's about; part of the senior admin team kept a diary while it was on tour in mainland Europe which was published in The Guardian last week.

It's a strong evening, an all-immersing experience. In addition to a large screen above the orchestra onto which video pertaining to the action is projected, the entire hall was used with the singers appearing in aisles and boxes. The arrival in Cornwall at the end of act one had the chorus appearing in the balcony with the brass fanfare coming from the very back of the hall, as if the audience were being smothered in a great big (and very loud!) Cornish-cable-knit-jumper manhug. It was very involving and only heightened the impact of the stormy, narcotic Acts that followed.

Viola's tantric-slow video montage has a number of oddities which can jar - there's a certain amount of ritual à la Jodorowsky here. However, at crucial moments there are some wonderful images which do resonate with the story and its music. Principally perhaps is the echt-Viola image of lovers falling through water.

This picture corresponds to the most important single dramatic event of the opera, when the lovers have drunk the love-death potion. Like a number of images - or, I should say, sequences of images - it reminds me of similar sequences in other film. In this case, I can't shake the impertinent thought of Ewan McGregor's junkie searching for lost drugs in a Glaswegian toilet in Trainspotting:

Of course, this seems absurd but for two things. First Danny Boyle uses this comic surrealism in order to try and illustrate the edge-of-madness desperation that comes with drug dependency and the oblivion that its users are after (including one that suggests death itself). Secondly Bill Viola himself is working not to illustrate the action but to catalyse the expericence of it:
I knew from the start that I did not want the images to illustrate or represent the story directly. Instead I wanted to create an image world that existed in parallel to the action on the stage...
(from the programme notes)

The images of transformation or purging take in fire as well as water. Tristan's response to the extinguished beacon in act 2 is to march towards us heedless of a pyre in front of him. This is like the closing sequence of the Daft Punk-sponsored feature Electroma, in which the protagonist, bereft of his companion and denied wider social assimilation strides on defiantly in self-immolation:

In the love duet the video shows lovers casting themselves into the sea in a further attempt at oblivion. The closing scene of Jonathan Glazer's modern romantic mystery Birth comes to mind, in which a love-dazed Nicole Kidman searches for oblivion in the univiting waters off the American East Coast:

(incidentally, it's worth noting that the film has a memorable central sequence in which Kidman's character sits in a theatre listening to another piece by Wagner, the prelude to Act 1 of Die Walküre.)

Viola's particular stamp is really to do with the opulent time-frame in which he posits his ideas, rather than the images themselves. The breadth of this video work is what is so consonant with Wagner's opera. I felt the performance and the installation mutually benefitted one another.

Not that any performance of Tristan und Isolde at this level really needs embellishment. As the lovers, Violetta Urmana and Gary Lehmann are well matched but, crucially, also on the same page dramatically. They are enitrely convincing as the supernaturally enamoured couple. Brangäne and Kurwenal are taken by Scandinavian singers, Anne-Sofie von Otter and Jukka Rasilainen, both in highly polished performances. Of this second tier of casting though one watches slack-jawed at the artistry of our own Matthew Best. A cavernous, infinitely sagacious sound actually made something stirring from the Act 2 peroration of King Mark, which I often find ponderous.

Above all I really enjoyed the work of the Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen. There's an urgency to get stuck into the detail of the music. Though the story arcs are vast and the (realist) action often static, musical argument and beauty is compressed into each phrase. The Philharmonia's touch is forensic but caressing, never clinical.

Responding To Music

This evening I watched last week's Review Show special on the state of the music industry. It discussed lots of interesting topics (with the two men of the group, Tom Service and Paul Morley being the most vociferous in their opposing and inimitable ways). Something in this discussion caused me to think about the manner in which audiences respond to the music they hear and how that feeds back into the manner and environment in which it's performed.

A charge successfully levelled at classical music is that it's an intellectual artform. It seems to demand considered appraisal. It's not music that one expects an audience to simply get up and dance too. In fact, any reaction that causes any sort of distraction, visual or audible is generally frowned on.

This struck me as very similar to the way that modern worship has evolved (catalysed by watching the papal visit to Westminster Abbey on TV earlier). The discretion and modesty that was formerly expected in church is no longer a universal type. More demonstrative styles of worship are fashionable (along with new codes of Christianity). This invariably involves the use of music associated more with modernity, e.g. using electric instruments & percussion.

There is a clear parallel between the manner in which people worship and the way in which people experience a musical concert. Similarly then, there is a fashionable movement towards a concert experience which the didacticism of performance is exchanged for some sort of dialogue.

We've probably all had the experience where, on leaving a concert hall, we turn to a companion and discover that they've not liked it as much as us - or that you assumed they'd enjoyed it only to be disabused. This quality of experience is often linked with comprehension of the music.

Much the same can be said of the mysterious central rites of a church service, especially when accompanied by a homily (often the scholarly analysis of a bible reading). It's as if the emotional response to this experience is not only ignored but suppressed.

The vogue for interaction with performers or liturgical officials looks to overcome this stifling cultural tradition. There are clearly those who do not wish to deny either the emotional impact of religious or musical experience, or translate that experience into intellectual terms (which, having had a direct emotional experience, seem superfluous).

I think that it is important to talk about musical experience comprehensively, i.e. to talk about the emotional experience but also the argument of composition (and its associative or political gestures, the event). However, it is true that classical music has a skewed vernacular that is predominantly scholarly and analytical and would certainly benefit from a more visceral approach. Logic suggests that, given the recent rise of churches encouraging demonstrative emotional behaviour and the close corollary between worship and concerts, there could be room for unprescripted behaviour in the concert hall. I remain sceptical about the appropriation of this latter idea though.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

The Makropulos Case, ENO

I don't think it works and yet, I find myself deeply stirred. It's a bit like knowing you're walking up to the edge of one of those Escher staircases that don't make sense but stepping onto it anyway to find that it does. English National Opera's Makropulous Case revival seems occasionally either baffling or perverse but as it's never short of conviction - or, this time around, some pretty impressive singing - it somehow finds its mark.

Alden has a number of ideas but the principal one seems to be of text. The men populating the stage often step out of character to write on a blackboard - a historic timeline, a formula, the name 'Μακροπουλος'. Indeed at such moments the men often become ciphers, moving through the space with anonymity, as in Magritte

or, as it struck me, like hieroglyphs. This act of record and the intermittent transformation of characters to tableau (which, as hieroglyph, might be regarded as text) ties in with the profligate documents which, tumbling from the ceiling during the overture are never fully ordered and removed.

Elina Makropulos has initiated this paper trail not only by writing (and forging) documents but by her sexual acts, leaving a trail of lovers and children, or 'bastards', her words in Norman Tucker's translation. Witness of this wake is ever present. In the same way that the men fighting over the estate in Kolenatý's office will step out of character to represent something else so the waiting public at Makropulos' stage door might also be the ghosts of her past encounters. I liked the fluency with which Alden moves between the two, encouraging the audience to see these people from Makropulos' perspective; it's a chill view when a figure is easily interchangeable between person and mere trope.

Of course, this puts a lot of pressure on the role of Makropulos herself who can never become two dimensional, fixed in space and time. In purely charatcerisation terms Amanda Roocroft is all over this idea. She's far less reserved than, say, Anja Silja for Nikolaus Lehnhoff's Glyndebourne production but her impertinence and disdain serve Alden well. Additionally Roocroft is clearly singing very well, back to her formidable best after a previously equivocal Ellen Orford in this house.

The men are strong, with Andrew Shore and Ashley Holland completely solid. Notable though is Peter Hoare's Albert Gregor. Albert's a classic Janacek tenor role, unforgiving, without even the consolation of heroism to go with the helden-Fach that it often requires. Hoare manages a beauty in the sound that I wasn't expecting (although I've heard it before), which has the curious side-effect of making me wish he didn't have to undertake the same functional role as others in the cast.

Indeed the music - glorious music - is kept simmering but never boils under Richard Armstrong. This is another reason I found the whole thing puzzling. There are small balancing issues in the Coliseum which I suspect, given the extreme and tourettish nature of Janacek's music, are virtually impossible to resolve. However Alden's production does meet the erratic nature of the score as the action often has very sudden movements. Occasionally these were either not perfectly dovetailed or a certain caginess in the music meant that they were left exposed.

This is a nit-picking observation though, especially as I found myself hearing some wonderful things for the first time, perhaps as a result. The pianissimo secco percussion and harmonic strings to accompanying Makropulos dismissing the appeal of sexual intercourse is utterly chilling (there was laughter from the core of ENO's audience at the line - this is fair but there's more to be had from this opera).

Indeed this is a very adult opera, prepared to incorporate the sexual impulse into its very fabric but at the same time give the characters great lyrical scope to argue against it. An evening to reflect on and maybe encounter more than once.