Monday, 17 May 2010

Solar by Ian McEwan

McEwan's latest novel Solar is not in the same league as its recent predecessors. It has the same sort of template as Saturday - a domestic fiction that is couched in a topical issue. For Saturday that meant the Iraq conflict (or rather the marches in protest at it). In Solar this means climate change, or perhaps more specifically the energy crisis.

At the centre of McEwan's novel is one of the least appealing characters he has ever come up with, the old, fat, irresolute - but Nobel-winning - scientist Michael Beard. The story is about the ethical decisions he makes, tiny, seemingly inconsequential decisions he feels are at worst innocous or at best to the utilitarian benefit of others. The parallels between the procrastination or disembling of the public over the issue of clilmate change and the cumulative effect of everyday ethical misdemeanours never really takes hold and the photo-voltaics project at its heart seems a bit under-cooked. I did 'get' the recurrent theme of Heisenberg's uncertainty which runs as a parallel third thread but this seems inconsequential in the oevrall scheme and doesn't bind the others. However, the prose is original and ripe and I enjoyed reading it in the moment.

Monday, 3 May 2010

La Boheme, the Cock Tavern Theatre, Kilburn

Most are familiar with the idea from the press - La Boheme staged both in the tiny theatre above a Kilburn pub and downstairs in the bar itself, doubling as Café Momus, for Act 2. This involving situationalism combined with a modern-vernacular English translation of the text (by director Robin Norton-Hale) has been a hit, running for the best part of six months now. Last night's was the 100th performance. The show will transfer to the West End in the summer until September.

Last night I saw Gareth Morris as Rodolfo, Elly Moran as Mimi... but precious little information about the rest of the cast (more about that later). Part of the wonder of this production is that they're doing this opera under these circumstances at all (the only orchestra is a keyboard, played last night - as notices did announce - by David Gostick). Morris and Moran overcame the limitations of singing big roles in a cramped non-acoustic by simply singing well. Morris - a big, physical man whose MacBook looks like a Nintendo DS in his hands (Rodolfo's a writer don't forget) - threw out a muscular sound, ardent and consistent throughout the evening. Mimi is a nymph where Rodolfo is a hero and Moran's beautifully produced voice seduced where Morris' thrilled. These aren't easy roles for any singer but both had all the resources to not only sing the notes but make something of the music too.

It's at this point I simply run out of names, I'm sorry to say. I tend not to buy a programme out of habit, assuming I can read a cast list either at the venue or, later, online. Amazingly there is nothing about this cast to be found, only a secondhand list of the original double cast performers cached in an Evening Standard page from December last year. The production, we are told, has been the longest ever running continuous production of La Boheme ever but we have no way of referring back to the most valuable commodity in this success, the performers. There's not even an Opera Up Close website.

Still, this is nothing a phone call can't rectify. Annabel Mountford (she's the one on the poster, right) sang Musetta with the requisite sexual allure, i.e. as coarse as she is tempting. Indeed Nick Dyer as Marcello calls her a 'chav' during their Act 3 row. Marcin Kopeć and Alistair Sutherland were the Schaunard and Colline respectively, and all three were solid in their supporting roles.

The conceit works because it's a young person's drama, fast, extreme and full of fun. Whilst there are local gags to laugh about (the delights of Kilburn High Road's various fast food outlets, for example) Robin Norton-Hale sensibly doesn't get too carried away, so the language isn't shackled to fads or potential anachronisms come the bittersweet, timeless third Act (although there is a joke about Gordon Brown in the first which may have expired by this time next week). Of course the best bit is probably the Act 2 circus in the pub proper where a table of willing extras masquerading as punters fill in the chorus parts - and there's even a counterfeit DVD hawker working the tables just as there are street vendors in the original... and, of course, the ever present danger of all this happening right next to the front door, which the cast also use for their entrances and exits. I can't see this verisimilitude being replicated come the West End transfer, so I should try and see it while you can.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Aida at the Royal Opera House

David McVicar's new production of Aida for the Royal Opera is a visceral affair. The costuming has a Pharaonic opulence but could be interchangeable with the designs for Mel Gibson's Inca epic Apocalypto, not least because of the semi-nudity and blood that goes with the ritual and pageantry of Verdi's opera. Quite apart from being an echt McVicarism, having a handsome corps de ballet inbetween the cast & chorus and the formalities of the score is now a familiar sight on the London opera stage. I have to say that on this occasion I found it rather superfluous, if anything isolating the music as having nothing to add to the drama (of course the singing cast on stage just stand to one side and watch until they're required to sing again). The second appearance of the dancers at Amneris' baths simply reminded me of the TittyBangBang Italian Lady sketch in which a cleaner rushes about shouting "don't look at me, I'm shy" in an impertinent bid for attention:

I admit that unifying the drama in the score, the forces involved and the necessarily stylised circumstances of the staging is a very difficult proposition. I liked the set and costume design in general, more credible than the garish fantasy of Zandra Rhodes' designs for ENO. Yet we still had this divide, first clearly demarcated in the poorly blocked & integrated I Capuleti e i Montecchi at this same house last year.

The singing was good, although not always to my taste. The voices are big and Nicola Luisotti governs his tempi with an iron baton, as it were, so they don't always get the best space in which to operate. Álvarez's Radames has metal - virility - but not a ready lyricism. Carosi tried to work some of this into her Aida but, again, space for her wide dynamic range to breathe was denied her. Most irritatingly, the ensemble was dangerously rocky. Not even Robert Lloyd's totemic King of Egypt managed to adhere to a truly consistent tactus. I was unequivocally impressed though by Ji-Min Park's cameo as The Messenger though, well-acted as well as sung.

A strange evening in the theatre. Well-designed but ultimately self-conscious the production seemed under-realised. It was peculiar being in the audience, where tsunamis of crescendi and dynamic peaks seemed emotionally empty. We applauded on cue but often only by virtue of a cue rather than in response to or release from the drama.