Friday, 18 February 2011

Abbey Road Studios

EMI have indicated an intent to sell their studios at No.3 Abbey Road. This has produced all sorts of reactions, mostly a mild panic that the building will be sold for residential redevelopment.

In my opinion it's impossible that this could happen. Abbey Road has a distinguished history which makes it a shoo-in candidate for national listing or somesuch - and that's even before one begins to take account of the sanctity conferred on it by being used for the bulk of recordings made by The Beatles.

If one notices nothing else about Studio 2, it's that it looks pretty much like a large recording studio. And that's the second point. Abbey Road is a working recording studio. What would be the point of shutting it down?

Well, clearly there is the usual distant squawk of circling carrion who can see the sell-on value of the property. This is rather like getting nervy about Trafalgar Square pigeons. Additionally, it's suggested that the studios might be worth £30M, which strikes me as a modest sum for a sensible impresario (he says, avoiding the term svengali with it's Cowell implications). Still, John Harris has a sober point in this piece for The Guardian, suggesting that our track record isn't great when it comes to preserving genuine rock monuments.

Then, of course, one forgets that Abbey Road had a distinguished history prior to pop music. This blog post, for example reminds us that preserving important pre-mop-top recordings is as pressing an issue, not least as EMI own the catalogue which could be dismantled and dispersed as easily as the bricks of the building.

Recording music is now, increasingly, a cottage industry for classical musicians. They will not miss the studio with its love of isolation and process. They're ensemble animals who enjoy creating music in a space rather than for a (condenser) receptical. It's already common for live recordings to be made in concert halls and theatres anyway. The Pappano/Domingo/Stemme Tristan was hailed not only for being good, but also as a studio recording swansong, and that was in 2005.

Yet the popular recording industry (even if physical units aren't fashionable) is still not only alive and well but important. This isn't simply about bands - there is an ongoing film music industry as well as the burgeoning computer game market which meeds to be able to lay down original peformance in this manner. I simply can't see the opportunity for acquiring first-class studios being passed up by some entrepreneur with half a brain. Equally it would be nice to think that instead of turning the place into some sort of theme park, the tradition of the studios might be preserved by maintaining them as studios. Tradition in this country seems to consist of petrification.

Anna Nicole, Royal Opera

This was not a normal evening's opera at The Royal Opera House, neither a normal world premiere. When, for example, Nicholas Maw's Sophie's Choice was given its first performance here over eight years ago, there was a ripple in the press about one or two celebrities wanting tickets. Tonight's show was attended by an international media phalanx and a more credible stream of celebrity interest, from the Zappaphile Mighty Boosh to Yoko Ono. The tumultuous reception for this energetic and ultra-contemporary piece was flying around the globe via Twitter almost before the BBC could broadcast a composed report. A short but concentrated publicity sprint has paid dividends with a high impact, maximum buzz reception of a loud, witty and splashy show. It's difficult to see how the run might not succeed.

This is just as well, as I suspect the piece's natural shelf life is extremely limited. Like the media-baiting culture it satirises the opera is disposable culture, cavorting wildly in a dance of obfuscating razzmatazz, flooding the senses, bypassing the brain. The first act is exemplary in this with Turnage's restless, dynamic score using just the right level of pastiche to pimp the jokes in Richard Thomas initially brilliant libretto. There were more laughs in the first ten minutes of Anna Nicole than during the whole of the BAFTA Awards ceremony in this same space less than a week ago.

After the laughter, pathos. Or that's what you'd expect. But Thomas and Turnage just keep transliterating the surface detail of Anna Nicole's life and death from print and TV to the opera stage. After the inflated, tipped-over-the-edge (, smug) postmodernist romp of the first act, the ideas dry up, and quickly. The balance of the piece shifts with a sort of glazed inevitability. Thomas' hyper-Richard Curtis-style profanity, which overstays its welcome, is replaced with unmemorable, repetitive textual wallpaper. Turnage's music steps into the foreground but drifts without a binding, focusing libretto. Somewhere from Bernstein's West Side Story is silhouetted in the score, another expertly appropriated cultural echo but, as we know, an echo needs a hollow chamber. Only Richard Jones' design-led direction, hitherto a discreet but essential partner in the show, rescues the final act with a series of surreal camera-headed media anonymes - not judging, just looking.

What is Anna Nicole for? It's no bad thing for the Royal Opera to put on such a modern, iconoclastic show. It's certainly a more constructive version of the intermittent galas that such institutions have, replacing a dusty pat on its collective back with a cheeky public flash on Bow Street. I don't think it's satire either. No-one gets demonised during the piece (with the possible exception of the oleaginous plastic surgeon) although there's a lot of mocking. I suspect that this is because no character can be said to have done anything wrong. Pity on its own isn't what substantive art is about though. There's no transaction. I don't feel responsible or galvanised watching Anna Nicole. However I do feel rather embarrassed, especially for American culture without which the fun of this piece and production wouldn't exist. Americana gets it in the neck without trial. Jones' design nod towards the reality-exploitation culture of the UK, in using a chair from the seventh series of Big Brother (right and below) to open the show is quickly forgotten.

This sense of let-down isn't for want of trying. Eva-Maria Westbroek's assumption of Anna is quite marvellous. The thunderous reception at her curtain call was entirely warranted for a complete performance of punchy and elastic singing, dancing and multiple costume changes. And incessant smiling. Alan Oke, though far too vibrant as the decrepit J Howard Marshall II, sings terrifically, as does Gerald Finley (though I found his character notably 2 dimensional - a legal concession?). The one character who might have made a difference to the two-dimensions of front-or-behind camera was Anna Nicole's mother Virgie. The tremendous Royal Opera asset Susan Bickley sang well but was fettered by the role. A large cast of tapering contribution all sing extremely well right down to the magnificent chorus who open the show, a uniform of character, sound and energy which sets the pace for all who follow. There's a fair bit of character in the pit too, if constrained and a mite over-scored. The real interest in the music is led by two genuine celebrities of the night, Peter Erskine and John Paul Jones who, with guitarist John Parricelli, pop up as an on-stage band in the second act.

The piece ends like the life of its protagonist and like the news-cycle span of its target - by running out of energy. I wasn't at all moved, despite being uncomfortably entertained.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Parsifal, ENO

A triumphant evening for English National Opera, mounting a confident revival of Nicholas Lehnhoff's 1999 production of Parsifal. This highly integrated music drama requires a production ever-vigilant in its intent and we are gifted a staging of comprehensive design and purpose. Equally, the music-making was of great beauty, power and stamina.

Stuart Skelton was singing the title role and I can safely expunge the equivocation in my memory of his Grimes in this house from two years ago. If there's a key moment in the drama it's the intuitive spasm-becomes-sound cry of 'Amfortas!' in the centre of the second Act, which I reckon Brian Haw could have heard down in Parliament Square. There's also nicely modulated singing besides, a real treat. Goodness knows why Jane Dutton hadn't been engaged as Kundry from square one. Her singing, with a marvellous, ringing top end was augmented with carefully chosen splashes of spoken colour. It made an excellent characterisation of an impossible role. Iain Patterson's Amfortas (of course, almost the chief protagonist for Wagner) was the most beautifully sung of the evening, earthbound and plaintively lyric. For me though, the revelation was Tomlinson's Gurnemanz. Having heard Matthew Best's King Mark in concert last year, I had harboured a hope that we might hear him doing this role. Yet three minutes is about how long it took me to recant. Tomlinson's characterisation, storytelling, understanding of language (the German's in his blood, here he sings in English for the first time) and sheer voice-led charisma put me in my place. On top of which his singing emerged as good, as if refreshed somehow. I was also deeply impressed by the chorus, a considerable body of singers showing an unusual patience and control in the throttling of their dynamic range.

I have one churlish but nagging issue with this totally overwhelming experience (a banquet of an opera after the very lean pickings of London's mean operatic buffet of late). Though the orchestra played well and the drama unfolded with a natural logic I was rather puzzled by a couple of tempo relations. Mark Wigglesworth clearly has a strong relationship with the orchestra as there was a great deal of expressive flexibility within passages and individual phrases. However, I feel that he may have taken the Gurnemanz's aphorism of 'here, time and space become one' a little literally. Where I felt certain episodes need to be shown formally in a little relief (such as the Flowermaidens chorus) they were too knitted to the general basic fabric of the music.

Lehnhoff's production has lost none of its startling dystopian grip. The designs capture a science fiction that seems less unlikely than it was twelve years ago: in the interim we have had Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2005), and its film adaptation featuring ashen-ragged pilgrims (right); Christopher Nolan's Inception (2010) takes pride in its dimension-bending dream of an upended Paris, just like the vertiginously raked main set of the opera; the sexually aggressive alien women reminded me of the feral, cult-outcast underclass of Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility Of An Island (2005).

New ideas that hadn't occurred to me before stated their case - that Kundry's chrysalis is also a pulpit and, broken at the end of the same act, the rent tablets of the commandments. Indeed the Christianity of the piece, which I had previous dismissed as a conceptual armature for Wagner, is actually very earnest. But then, the other thing I encountered - via a virtuoso peak of Jane Dutton's performance - is that Christ's look at Kundry has no meaning of its own. It is simply a connection, communion at its most basic and the existential pivot on which the entire opera is based.

Perhaps. That's the genius of the opera and this production. Like good Beckett (and there has already been a review of this production revival citing Beckett) it trudges along letting our own imagination build a personal-universal narrative. I left dazed.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Film Societies around the country

An extraordinary resource here, collating all the films being shown by various independent film societies around the country.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Demonstrating Against Library Cuts

Yesterday I joined a small but significant number of people showing their support for Lambeth Library staff, and Libraries themselves, for whom the axe of council cutbacks is a very real threat. Apparently, Lambeth has already stopped its mobile library service.

It's actually difficult to see exactly what people can do about library closures. In other parts of the country there have been instances of taking books out en masse to demonstrate support. Others have had read-ins - I'm told one Lambeth Library had a 'ssh-in'. Herein lies the problem with library demonstrations. Libraries are places which not only symbolise but practice Democracy's core idea of access and social transaction as a source of mutual benefit. There is no built-in hierarchy, no consumer demand to fulfil or profit* to protect. To interfere with that to make a point, as one might with a private company, doesn't inconvenience those for whom the point is intended. One might just as well demand a refund for a late bus from everyone else in the bus queue.

No, the point of a library, like all really good social ideas, isn't always something that can be evinced on a balance sheet. The author Toby Litt, speaking at yesterday's demonstration said something brilliantly succint about what a library is for:
The open doors of a library say 'you are welcome in society'.
Yes, the open doors of a library tell you that there is no obligation, no impediment. The content is open to one to benefit from and to recycle as one goes back out, nourished, into society at large if and when it pleases.

Moreover's it's a place where this can happen, where the social transaction is manifest, palpable. I was really surprised at my own shock to hear a librarian talk about the threat to his job, our services and the irresponsibility of the banking sector in creating the economic vacuum that has caused the circumstances of the demonstration. Shock, as I had never seen anyone directly affected speaking publicly, live before. There, on the steps of the library, it's real, it has meaning. The library is the concrete reassurance of our tax-commitment to one another in action; our 'subscription to a civilised society', as Polly Toynbee calls it, actually civilising.