Friday, 29 January 2010

Opera in Film

Making art about things which are already inherently dramatic - like theatre or sporting events - is notoriously difficult. Allusion is usually the best, if  imperfect solution. Here's that scene from The Shawshank Redemption (it was on telly last night!) which manages to get a grip on the strange drama of beauty in music as Andy Dufresne brings a prison to a standstill with Mozart. The character Red says:

I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don't want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I'd like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can't be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a grey place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free. 

So, to paraphrase Shakespeare on the back of the previous post:

I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I endure bad art

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Bad Art

I'm lucky. I work in the music industry and through luck, bullying and occasionally parting with hard cash I get to attend first class concert and opera performances in and around London.

Consequently the level of operatic performance that I come across routinely is very high. This makes me a natural sceptic of ITV's Popstar To Operastar programme. I tried to dismiss the programme as a ratings-shot lite-ent confection, despite its disingenuousness.

Last night I took the opportunity to get away from both bet-hedged West End opera and the glazed, botox-opera of Poperastar by attending a performance of La Traviata sung by an amateur company in a church in zone 3. It was an intermittently spirited performance from a company made up of amateurs in the literal sense and using professionals (i.e. recent graduates looking to try the roles) as the principals.

The rule with these things - such as there's a rule - is to take it on its own terms and to encourage and admire the spirit in which opera should be performed. This I found extremely difficult given one of the worst pit orchestras I can remember having heard, also an amateur collective, some of whom were missing.

This leaves me thinking about the parameters of aesthetic arguments. They have a strange triangular quality - which is probably why it's so difficult to have a straightforward for or against discussion of merit. Popstar To Operastar uses operatic melodies as a vehicle for an entertainment show. This approach may treat opera as a carcass for the carrion of the production team but at least the entertainment is rendered as such. The opera that I saw last night held to the tenets of the opera reverently - i.e. the drama, the score - but in giving a poor (really poor!) musical performance betrayed the piece and the form as badly.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Paul Auster's Invisible

I've read a fair bit of Paul Auster's output now. I think the best way to give a balanced impression of my experience of this, his latest, is to say that familiarity does indeed breed contempt. It's an uncomplicated read which promises all sorts of strange screw turns and delivers none of them.

I came into Auster's writing via Leviathan and then The New York Trilogy (and also the remarkable graphic version of the first of the trilogy, City Of Glass). Recently I quite enjoyed the straightforward if far-fetched storytelling of The Music Of Chance and the more ruminative, NY-centric Brooklyn Follies.

With Invisible though we return to literature as artful but ineffective as that first used on Mr. Vertigo. Invisible is written in at least four perspectives - three narrators, one in the first and third person - and hints at a remarkable semantic-metaphysical twist to come. That it doesn't isn't simply a disappointment; rather it exposes the self-conscious formalism of the book as an affectation. In fact the book is probably meant as an experiment in the slipperiness or even evanescence or reported narrative. It remains an experiment though, no point ever being made.

Worse than this, as one does when one reads a number of books by the same author, 'the voice' becomes overarching. The book is populated by at least half a dozen characters but with the exception of the cul-de-sac anti-magus Rudolf Bron, they all sound the same as the principal protagonist. This character-homogeneity is vaguely familiar from previous fiction and I begin to wonder how it is that films get made when the characters are so similar - and there are films, including a self-directed Lulu On The Bridge:

It also has trite sex and simply too many hackneyed turns of phrase (there's a an embarrassing moment where he describes the bland hyperbole of tourist literature but I had assumed that was just his own voice). Other than some sort of cipher for a personal memoir, I don't really understand exactly why he wrote it at all.

Two things I like about Auster. Firstly, I like the surrealism, inventing meaning out of coincidence and investing outrageous improbability with credibility. There's a bit of magic in his confection which I'd like to think is, in fact, invested with a real sense of philosophical acumen (although this book is manifestly prosaic). Secondly, I like the manner in which he deals with older men, their shortcomings and the honest manner in which they deal with their grief and failures. Unfortunately this book is an account of an old man's regret with that character excised from the story.

Friday, 22 January 2010

The Habit Of Art

Alan Bennett's latest play is sold out for its current run. In itself this isn't particularly surprising. Always a 'national treasure', Bennett has had a hit in recent memory with his previous The History Boys. However, the subject of the current The Habit Of Art is by no means calculated to milk his burgeoning profile, concerned as it is with two celebrated but nonetheless esoteric figures in British cultural life - the poet Wystan Auden and the composer Benjamin Britten - and the nature of their homosexuality.

The Habit Of Art is a play within a play (as Bennett himself suggests, this form emerged of its own accord in trying to accomodate the textual observations of the director, Nicholas Hytner). In fact, the play has a third outer Russian Doll, as the National Theatre itself is clearly demarcated as the place in which the play is set, its ghosts permeating not only the text but also the play's function.

Hytner manages the osmotic toing-and-froing between the rehearsal and the play well, using a single, immobile set within the barely furnished bounds of the Lyttleton stage. The cast also move between their characters with great fluency, lubricated with in- and out-of-role accents.

Richard Griffiths as Auden is at the centre of the play. I had been told that it was a play concerning Britten but naturally, for a man of letters such as Bennett, prima le parole, dopo la musica. Alex Jennings plays Britten - technically the stand-out performance of the evening - and Frances de la Tour completes the triangular base on which the play is built (Adrian Scarborough plays Humphrey Carpenter within the play, the third real figure from which the fiction is grown but, as his own character sulkily concedes, he is really just a device). A smattering of competent younger actors play the attendant parts either side of the on-stage fourth wall. It's a very funny, occasionally smutty play although beset with self-consciousnesses, like bald patches in old clothing. The great central set-piece grows out of a conversation concerning Britten's final opera Death In Venice, although the play does nothing to shed any new light on this work. I struggled to equate the play with its payoff - that in all art someone always gets left out 'every, every time'. Hey, maybe this time it was me.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour

A punchy, single-breadth theatre piece, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (the mnemonic for the notes on the lines of the treble stave) is no longer than the largest movement of the Shostakovich symphonies with which it often echoes. Punchy isn't simply a glib boxing figure-of-speech either. The theatrical footwork of the play shuffles violently and surreptitiously between straightforward puns and the evocation of scandalous cold war oppression.

The play itself is set in a mental institution, which is essentially a front for a plain-view gulag. The stage is dominated by a full symphony orchestra (The South Bank Sinfonia) who provide not only incidental music but are also a fully interactive extension of the raving delusions of one of the two inmates, the genuinely insane Ivanov.

However, the play proper concerns the second Ivanov, a prisoner of conscience who undertakes a hunger strike. Adrian Schiller's Ivanov-the-sane is a deeply serious, often rather hectoringly immobile (sorry if that sounds oxymoronic) character standing as an island amidst the whirl of sound, staging and ballet that keeps erupting. Stoppard's script is clear (written almost thirty years before another Iron Curtain piece, Rock N Roll which I struggled with) and Previn's music is never arch or self-interested. Super theatre.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Pet Shop Boys at the O2

Watching the BBC's tripartite documentary on the noughties, specifically the piece on how the redundant-at-birth Dome has been turned into the premier rock venue of the world (no hyperbole, that), reminded me of a concert I attended just before Christmas but failed to mention. Yes, on the 21st of December I went to see Pet Shop Boys live on their UK Christmas Tour.
This was the scene outside as, of course, the 21st was the first really rough day of snowfall in London. Once we'd got inside the venue though, the experience was much the same as the last time I went including the entirely risible practice of removing and disposing of water bottle tops at the gate.

The support was Bad Lieutenant, a third incarnation of New Order/Joy Division. One or two of the audience had clearly come only to hear this act, an anodyne amalgam of old and new pop-rock. I suspect I wasn't alone in being quite pleased to have heard Love Will Tear Us Apart by its original progenitors.
The Pet Shop Boys were, characteristically, bringing more than just a huge back catalogue of classic pop songs and we were treated to a fine stage show, full of dance and simple theatrics, based on a cleverly functional backdrop of white cubes (think Rachel Whiteread and Pink Floyd). This was particualrly well managed in conjunction with bits of video installation projected onto the stage. The high point in this respect was the Han Hoogerbrugge animated Love Etc. video which worked brilliantly in the space; I had always been underwhelmed by it online.

The concert was great fun, with plenty to dance to, although I guess many will have the misfortune of having their shape-throwing published as part of the DVD of the event being issued this year.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

St Bartholomew-the-Location

If one is to take a walk around the city of London at the weekend, it's likely that one would come across a film crew. Besides being relatively quiet outside the working week, the square mile has a comprehensive line-up of architecture ready made for the backdrop to a location shot. One of the more interesting is also one of the very oldest - the church of St Bartholomew-the-Great, still in use and a favourite with the canny production manager.

This Christmas I'm pretty sure I've seen it used in two new films: unquestionably as the backdrop for an opening set piece in Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes; and possibly as a small insert during Rob Marshall's new musical Nine.

According to the church's website, this would take the church's involvement in the big screen into double figures (Four Weddings And A Funeral & Robin Hood Prince Of Thieves are the most noteworthy productions to have made use of the building). And this doesn't take into account the television programmes which have been made in and around it.