Saturday, 25 June 2011

Two Boys, ENO



The ENO company machine is purring like a high-marque luxury car at the moment: consistent, uncontroversial, impressive. Nico Muhly's Two Boys, here receiving its premiere at ENO ahead of further performances at the Metropolitan Opera, New York is guaranteed a strong showing. The opera (written with librettist Craig Lucas) is a fairly straightforward thriller couched within the intrigue and vernacular of internet-based social networking. It's an issue with currency, with two major feature films concerning the phenomenon of Facebook (The Social Network and Catfish) released within the last year. The story is a juxtaposition of two perspectives. The first is that of a detective investigating an attempted murder. The second is the that of her chief suspect, Brian, whose own story is told in interpolated flashback. Over the duration of the opera it emerges that the 16-year-old Brian has been drawn into friendship with various characters via a networking site (incidentally, Facebook is neither named nor implied), the obscured outcome of which has something to do with a young boy recovering in a hospital bed.

And, to be honest, that's about it. The plot and its nicely handled twist will be familiar to anyone who has watched high quality procedural thrillers on British television. What I missed was the psychological chicanery of genuine operatic drama. Admittedly, Muhly-Clucas do scrutinise the parallel, removed life of the rather embittered detective Strawson (Jane Tennison?), especially in her a second act aria 'Unsung, alone and unloved'. This came in the form of existential expressionism, rather like 'Batter My Heart' from the idiomatically resonant John Adams' Doctor Atomic.

Elsewhere though opportunities came and were passed over. Brian's parents have their own social networking medium - the church - but despite a dedicated scene, this relationship is not investigated. Instead of a Grimesian, offstage Greek chorus we have a stand-alone liturgical sequence which is effective staging punctuation but has no dramatic weight. The motivation of the dialogue and exchanges via the 'web chat' (for want to a better term) between characters is also poorly worked through. The naughtiness of the webcam version of phone sex has its own inherent humour but the dramatic contorting of that by subsequent characters was obscured to me. Moreover, the dreadful phenomenon of internet suicide support groups is sung about in slogan form from character to chorus but not chewed over in any detail.

The enterprise reminded me of A Dog's Heart, the Complicite/McBurney/Raskatov collaboration earlier in the season. There as here, one was aware of the integration of composition and production. Yet there's a also a sense - particularly in Muhly-Clucas - of an abdication of responsibility for the drama. I felt that Clucas' prosaic text sat waiting to be brought alive, only to find itself underscored rather than set by Muhly. The video projections of 59 Productions were almost the most inventive partner in their intermittent contributions, particularly in the swirling helix-matrix abstractions that drew skeletal CGI characters out of maps of the internet-using diaspora. Identity is one thing that the production cannot fail to address and that it does with some subtlety, leaving the chorus as an uncannily dispersed net of individuals and setting up a single coup in which Muhly's sense of orchestration is at its sharpest. It's still not as gripping (nor as operatic) as Catfish nor has the highly nuanced levels of Sorkin/Fincher's eloquent allegory (The Social Network) though. By the end of the piece I felt that Muhly-Clucas had tried something interesting, even different - to dramatically invert the familiar spectre of the sex pest posing as the youthful innocent online - but had relinquished their conclusions to a white noise of pathos.

Singing the roles principal roles, Susan Bickley continues her extended run of form as Strawson. I felt that, in the space, the sound was missing some body but the characterisation and annunciation were top notch, second only to the fine singing of Nicky Spence as Brian. His entry is a scene or two into the opera and immediately lifts the experience, with ringing, muscular singing, registering easily over the full orchestra. His manic, adolescent brow-beating (and not just his brow, of course) is expertly judged. Rebecca and Fiona, the two women who appear only as apparitions of the internet are beautifully sung by Mary Bevan and Heather Shipp (the latter dusting off my favourable memory of her functional roles in the Royal Opera's Lulu). Perhaps the biggest star of the evening though, creeping in under the radar of the theatre of the piece was the 'boy soprano' of Joseph Beesley. Confident and secure musically and on stage in some very demanding situations Beesley also sang beautifully, not least in the final tableau, another nicely scored corner from Muhly. There were a number of other roles. As I've suggested some key ones felt underwritten. I felt that Valerie Reid worked hard as the detective's mother, as did Rebecca Stockland and Paul Napier-Burrows making the most of their isolated sequences as Brian's parents.

Friday, 24 June 2011

John Squire: Celebrity, Idea Generation Gallery

from Idea Generation Gallery's Celebrity Flickr set
A super exhibition from the artistic heart of the 90s Mancunian group The Stone Roses. Even if John Squire's show Celebrity were called something else, the works on show, substantial but strangely fragile canvases of Islamic-style patterned art would have an appeal of their own. I think that Squire's reactionary naming of the works have more to them than some random assigning of big names to (figuratively void) abstract work.

For example, the canvas called Richard Pryor (right) is a quietly dynamic rush of overlapping, repeating pattern units. There is some character here, not simply the suggestion of Pryor's unruly Afro-hair barnet but also his extraordinary, scatterbrain comic genius - and possibly the pathos of his subsequent MS affliction, with all its connotations of loss of motor control.

But this is, I guess, the point of Squire's work - that not only the value of an image but also its very content is simply an opinion held in the viewer's mind. Instead of a worth being not only provided but positively thrust upon us, we are invited - by the virtue of a name alone - to invest the image with worth, with the first clear hurdle being an Emperor's-new-clothes complication that the figure doesn't exist at all.

However, I don't believe that Squire is being insufferably postmodern (i.e. trying to make fun of us). The key element here is, naturally, the Islamic designs that are the idiom of the pieces.
I applied this concept to the gods chosen by modern Western culture; those whose stories have been told and retold and whose images have been mass produced to such an extent that they are granted a kind of immortality
Squire says, reminding us obliquely of Muslim censure in representing the Prophet figuratively.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

A Midsummer Night's Dream, ENO

A Midsummer Nightmare. ENO have produced one of the most powerful and discombobulating stagings of an opera that I have seen there for a long time. That they've managed to do so with a production that many have, reasonably, found offensive and with an opera that in my opinion is one of Britten's less successful speaks volumes for director Christopher Alden's conviction. Set in a boy's prep school at the time of the opera's conception (1960), Oberon and Tytania become members of staff, Puck a petulant, confused student on the cusp of adolescence, the Athenians, sixth formers. The mechanicals are - as in the original - functionaries and minor staff. Additionally, the production uses a trope simultaneously being employed up the road in the Royal Opera's new Peter Grimes - an extra character, who, in this case, wanders the set as a grown version of one of the boys (probably Puck).

The conceit throws into relief a smorgasboard of connotations. The greyness of Charles Edwards' single, monumental two-storey set immediately makes sense of the apparent incongruity of the school inhabitants' talk of woods and magic, as allegorical escape from it. Not for the first time did I think of Lindsay Anderson's If... Alden plays fast and loose with terms, props and action - Oberon's narcotic flower becomes the brand of cigarette that he chain-smokes. But then Britten set Shakespeare's original without detailed adaptation and the disjunct between what's sung and done is no different from dealing with the anachronism is language for a modern audience. Above all there is a sexual tension between all manner of characters in the production, the most sinister suggesting the less palatable side to Britten's own interest in young boys, though we see no more than Oberon's hand on a shoulder of his 'Indian boy'.

For me the great triumph of the production is in the lighting. Adam Silverman conjures all sort of different shades that resonate with a post-war boys' school that move from realism to a stark expressionistic contrast that exacerbates the idea of horror. Both extremes move through a dusky sepia, familiar from the ubiquitous school photograph. Even the Englishness of the music benefits from the lighting design: just as the seemingly monochrome set becomes a matte canvas for a surprising range of colours and effects, so one becomes newly aware of the strange, layered character of the music (mainly buried in its orchestration).

The production works using the triggers of these ideas and connotations, framed by the photo-fixing of the light. Just as the story, a coming of age tale, oscillates between the imaginary and the real, the wished-for and the earthbound with, in retrospect, all its nostalgia and regret, so the lighting manages the transition in simple terms. The fourth wall assault, led by the (initially) mute character is part of this and culminates in one of the more shocking and hilarious moments in the piece (where, inevitably, a single, pointed profanity has greater impact than any part of the much trumpeted crudity of, for example, the Anna Nicole libretto).

Perhaps the most notable achievement of the production is that it makes its mark before all its own imperfections - let alone those of the (overlong) opera - can register. The second half of the second Act is a dull, slo-mo tableau where Britten's relative lack of interest in the lovers is clear and the beginning of the third is a simple case of one idea too many. Luckily, the opera has a notable bias from the theatrical to the musical compared to the play and ENO have assembled a fantastic cast to perform it. There's no weak link right own to the last mechanical and the excellent quartet of choirboys. I might say additionally that Anna Christy's Tytania and Tamara Gura's Hermia were on particualrly wonderful form at the performance I attended and that those who were denied Iestyn Davies (necessarily) charismatic Oberon in voice if not body at the beginning of the run can consider themselves unlucky. My greatest praise must be reserved for the conductor though. Though I've no doubt Britten does a lot of the tricky balancing work in his score, given the palette of staged voices used, it must be said that Leo Hussain teased music from the work to complement the production. From the start, the exoticism was consonant with the quasi-occult undertow of the score, rather than some sort of surface magic. One heard this no clearer than in the strangely curdled pastiche of Bel Canto that forms much of the mechanicals' play, a strange prismatic reading of a medieval lovers' tragedy in re-appropriated grand Romanticism (I simply hadn't heard this music before Hussain's reading).

I had thought of plenty to pick at but I was too busy trying to collect myself after the brilliant assault of the first half to worry about the imperfections of the second. Strong stuff.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

BP Portrait Award, National Portrait Gallery

The BP Portrait Award is the most consistently rewarding exhibition that London offers annually. It's also free. It has the additional attraction of being an exhibition that offers no prejudice by featuring 'name' artists. Although the awards have already been distributed and the winners are known, there is no sense of having to understand some sort of philosophical or contextual basis for the art. With the exception of the work produced under travel bursary, the work is exhibited under its own merits in the relatively specifically category of portraiture.

For me, there is a steep gradient of quality in the exhibited entries. I couldn't quite see why the jury had gone for Wim Heldens' Distracted as the laureate. For me the best of a good shortlist would have been Fiona Scott's self portrait (right), a conventional piece in which she examines herself in a leopard-print coat and through a beautifully nuanced hair-frame. There's a narrative in this picture I found I was missing from many others. The mood isn't simply an emotional miasma but offers something more substantial to the imagination. A second self-portrait that's just as effective, if heavier on the melodrama is Angela Riley's Departure. For all out melodrama, one cannot fault the second prize winner Louis Smith, with his Promethean-romantic conflagration Holly.

There are two fine hyper-realist canvases: Jakub by Jan Mikulka shifts the focal point upwards with the light and Harriet White's Wanderflower is a disconcerting, outsized, flamboyant but careful study. Three fine paintings in a familiar lineage of style caught my attention: the post-early Freud distended lines of David Carter at home by Richard Brazier and the more general Englishness of I Could Have Been A Contender by the art tutor Wendy Elia (intriguing that she shares a name the director from whose film she takes the title of her portrait). The third is Daan van Doorn's sepia-monochrome portrait of Courtney Pine whose carefully executed facial contours contrast successfully with the abstracted grid of the Mondrian backdrop.

Two fine pictures of children caught my eye. The first, a pale but highly charismatic picture of Katherine (and Millie) by Barbara Skingle defies its own etiolated palette. The second, Despertar - Awakening, would be a contender for my favourite. Manuel Ferrer Perea shows a small girl waking up from directly above. The crisp fresh linen of the bed and the lightness of her limbs lend the picture a surreality upon sustained viewing that isn't there to begin with. The beauty and inscrutability of the child herself brings the picture a subtle, beatific quality.

I found I was also tickled by a picture of Boy George, Gorge O'Dowd, by Layla Lyons, a Maggie Hambling-psychedelic portrait from a low perspective with the focus of the symbolic peripherals - clothing detail and an armrest carved as a rugged phallus. Finally, I found a great deal to admire in the miniature but deftly rendered Abi by Nathan Ford, centred around the only finished body part (the eye) and the double-portrait that advertises the exhibition, Little Sister by Tim Okamura is worthy of its high profile.

Friday, 17 June 2011

The Vorticists, Tate Britain

The Vorticists exhibition at Tate Britain has probably the punchiest opening room I've ever walked into - not just at Tate but at any exhibition anywhere (including the grand drama of the V&A's Baroque atrium). There is one piece, Jacob Epstein's The Rock Drill (1913-15), reconstructed in the 1970s (an account of which can be read here), and mounted here in a room painted a vibrant magenta-purple (a colour not dissimilar to the copies of the Vorticist manifesto Blast on display later on). I was all but winded by its monumentalism and dynamism as well as being rather startled by the anonymity of the character as it goes about its business, which is overtly violent and vulnerable.

This ambiguity was a character of the works throughout the exhibition, and so typical of the movement, that I wasn't really expecting. The strong geometrics of the lines in the art, the density and confidence of the shapes and grooves in the sculpture as well as the bold statements of the Blast manifesto exhibit unimpeachable confidence on the face of it. Yet time and again I found myself looking at corners of doubt hidden not too far under the surface of a work - and, of course, what characterised the short-lived movement was a paranoia and discontent that was at odds to this overt confidence.

For a basic, brilliant example of the style at its best there's nothing better than Percy Wyndham Lewis' collection of lithographs for Timon of Athens: highly detailed, meticulously composed, modern. In the same, second room there is also one of the Tate's great permanent collection masterpieces, David Bomberg's The Mud Bath (1914) but beside it another, related piece Vision Of Ezekiel (1912, right). The spasms in which the figures are caught could be ecstatic - or they could be panicking. The kineticism of the painting is not in question, just the character. Two other key members of the movement are represented in this first room with Henri Gaudier-Brezska's Hieratic Bust of Ezra Pound, the great sculptor (lost to the very war that would claim the movement) rendering one of the few non-visual artists of the group in the eponymous poet.

So, a monumental sculpture suggesting a prophet. Dynamic paintings whose reason for action is as yet undefined. Lithographs for the most violent and bloody of all Shakespeare's plays. On the eve of the Great War, this industry positively throbs with bullishness, a confidence projected beyond the means and understanding of those at its centre. Indeed, in the subsequent room, where one is able to read one of a dozen facsimile copies of the first colossal manifesto, Blast, one of the principal aphorisms is we reject the sentimentality of the future. For the Vorticists the future was not a dreamscape but an algorithmic extension of the present - causal, motorised. In this room, beside the bold but strangely empty slogans of Blast are a number of Epstein sculptures after African models. Feral, barely human figures nurse pregnancies, grotesque but tender possibilities for the next generation.

It's in this room that my admiration for the qualities of the style began to get pecked at by the foggy agendas to which the period was prey. The expressionism at the heart of the style is bound to a robust hierarchy in line and form, a geometric natural selection. Vorticism was seen by its founding collective as an English response to Cubism and Futurism. Unfortunately that also ties its aesthetic in with the political trajectory of the latter of the two European movements, as well as the aesthetic progeny - the cold style of Tamara de Lempicka or the passionate but hectoring prose of Ayn Rand. The Vorticists' politics is rather more opaque. Wyndham Lewis' The Crowd (1915) looks to represent people within and against the vast space of the modern metropolis. A revolutionary sentiment drives the ant-like characters but they are dwarfed by the structures about them, redundant and inconsequential. Fritz Lang's famous 1927 movie Metropolis is a shiny extrapolation of this seductive but soulless kingdom of modernity.

Alongside this treacherous subject matter then are more startling visions from the war thrust upon the group. Richard Nevinson's Bursting Shell (1915) is the most surreal of the figurative canvases on show, and Angela Dismorr's Abstract Composition of the same year sets the familiar lines of Vorticism within a three dimensional space that's black and hollow. The final act of this dark tunnel is tragedy - the second and final copy of Blast has a notice of Henri Gaudier-Brezska's death at the hands of the conflict itself.

The final room of the exhibition is a cooler affair. Wyndham Lewis' canvases retain their style and the photographs of Alvin Coburn show the transatlantic repatriation of the aesthetic in the monumental modernity of (the Rand of The Fountainhead) Manhattan. In general though the fire has gone out, as if the movent has consumed itself with its contradictions. Rather like the lifeless life-giver anthropomorph of The Rock Drill has finally reconciled itself to its redundancy.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Cinema Live Opera Relay: ROH Macbeth

Last night I finally got my hands on a ticket to see a live performance of an opera relayed to a local cinema. Finally? The popularity of these events is such that tickets are in considerable demand. For some this popularity is a minor phenomenon, especially given that opera is a live theatrical experience and that the art form itself is generally seen as rather rarefied. So this 'phenomenon' deserved investigation, whatever the quality of the performance (Verdi's Macbeth from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, which, as it happens, was superb).

The technical demands of the relay are very high. The feed must be consistent for the three hour running time. The synchronisation between sound and picture has to be perfect. Above all the quality of the sound (let alone the HD picture) has to be the very best available. This may seem like a very obvious point. Yet it is worth making: the principal attraction of opera is not visual but sonic. It is certainly the one issue that has allowed me to procrastinate in undertaking this experience in the past.

I saw the performance at a Picturehouse cinema, one of a modest chain of independent cinemas, where the technical capability was up to date. On arrival I was given a copy of the cast list (above), a skeletal programme with details of the performers and production crew, rather like the notes that are available at BFI screenings. I got to my seat five minutes before the 1930 start time, which is typical of my visits to the conventional operatic theatre.

Here I encountered my only real culture shock of the evening and in two ways. Firstly, and least worrisomely, the Royal Opera had produced an advertisment for their company featuring a famous Puccini aria. So moments away from listening to an evening's opera by one composer we were given the music of another. This is hardly a big problem, although it became a much more serious affair by being repeated during the interval - i.e. within the context of the music-drama which is ongoing.

Secondly, and rather more irritating was a short introduction broadcast-as-live from backstage given by the evening's music director, similar to this:



Part of the experience of an opera is the first contact with singers' voices, costume designs etc. in context on the stage. Seeing and hearing the singers in rehearsal, the company in the wings preparing to go on and the director  peppering his description of the story, music and production with adjectives intercedes between my experience and the performance. It is, in my opinion, counterproductive and worse, patronising. In the usual cinema experience, one is not shown a trailer for the film one is about to see immediately prior to watching the film itself.

These were, in my opinion, two errors of judgment and the only cognisant miscalculations of the event. One further inevitable issue of intervention is that in which cameras follow the instruction of a broadcast director to focus on a particular character or exclude others from the frame. In the theatre one has the opportunity to see all characters at once. Characters that a broadcast director may, reasonably, feel are peripheral might yet have some important bearing on the nuance of the drama. From what I could see this wasn't really an issue in the coverage of this performance, with an non-dogmatic use of the cameras and the close-ups on characters on whom I would have chosen to rest my attention anyway.

Overall I must admit, I found the experience thrilling, involving, exciting. Being so close to performers usually at a certain minimum distance away, being able to vicariously experience their intensity was fascinating, even narcotic.

Liudmyla Monastyrska as Lady Macbeth
© Clive Barda, from intermezzo.typepad.com
Part of this experience is to do with the knowledge that the broadcast is live. In a film screening, there's a tacet acceptance that the film is a fait accompli. The actual director and actors are absent in the moment. The tension of the experience is that between oneself and others in the auditorium. In live performance, the primary exchange must surely be that between the performer and the audience (both individually and corporately). It's a direct physical connection. Primarily it's a dialectic relationship: 'I'm saying this, now'. That in itself is electric - although a composer has specified what ought to happen at any given moment, the moment itself has not been pre-produced. Furthermore, this dialectic establishes a real relationship between the performer and audience. There is no intermediary. This is a very important issue in live performance, the person-to-person dramatic transaction. It's a moral issue and the basis of the deeper transformative (and often cathartic) experience of being an audience.

In the circumstance, this connection had a very peculiar character. I could feel the traction between the performance and those around me (as well as in myself). Acting on that was a funny reality check though - where in the auditorium one would have burst into applause at the end of an particularly well-rendered aria, attempting the same sort of release in a cinema auditorium eight miles away invariably acted as a slap in the face, a violent reminder of this surreal fact. There were smatterings of applause during the screening. These were sporadic and short lived though - not through the disdain of others in the auditorium but simply through their own self-evident incongruity.

Equally incongruous was the spatial issue of the sound. The cinema I was in had an excellent sound system but nothing could mask the fact that the direction of the sound came not directly from the mouth and face of the performer but from speakers staggered behind and beside the screen. One barely notices the imagination-step required to connect a character speaking on screen to the voice that is heard in TV and film. However, this being live opera I found myself looking for the direct cord between the singers' output and my experience. This is the basic component of the tension which I referred to in the previous paragraph, a palpable link made conspicuous by its absence. Or rather circuitousness: my experience during the first show-piece aria of the star soprano (pictured above) was that of the sound hitting the screen and then finding its way to the edge of that screen before rushing around to grab me.

I found myself wondering whether this manifest fourth wall is a peculiarity of the experience that might be addressed by the recent development of 3D. Despite my basic misgivings about the technology and its trappings, I did appreciate the necessity of using 3D in the Werner Herzog film Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, in which the extension of a body in space, the third dimension was part of the content, rather than an effect. Clearly I missed the physical relationship that I discovered I find crucial to the live experience, that it's part of the content of the performance. However, I come back to the issue of sound. Unless the technology can be advanced to render the sound as coming from the performer rather than being associated with them then 3D remains a peripheral attraction, not a component.

There's plenty to be had in the relay experience though. The proximity to the performers and the clarity of sight of the entire stage is the obvious benefit. There are other issues as well though: the convenience of being able to pop out to your local cinema instead of having to travel in to the venue; the relative informality of the cinema; the perception of lower cost. I enjoyed the experience and will return for more in future.

Macbeth, Royal Opera



This was a punchy performance of Verdi's Macbeth, a comprehensively well done production with impressive soloists and the company in its stride. The piece is a peculiar animal, given to spasms of drama seemingly in order to shake itself out of drifting into grand opera cruise mode. Also, I heard a performance in a cinema via live relay, an experience with advantages and privations, but one that allows more scrutiny of detail than in the holistic experience of the auditorium (I'll blog separately about the cinema experience later).

The title refers to the superstitious, thuggish, venal pretender to the Scottish throne but might refer to the couple who plot the precipitant drama of the opera. For me this production is all about the Lady Macbeth of Liudmyla Monastyrska, a force of nature who is clearly going to get the better of her paranoid husband. An attractive woman of unstinting character focus, Monastyrska has a great power envelope which allows for both extremes of frenzied ululation and long murmured lines of insanity. The Act 4 mad scene is utterly mesmerising, a masterclass in not only piano singing but also the manipulation of the voice to incorporate micro- and over-tones to adjust colour and expression (but without becoming affected). It must be said that the Doctor (Lukas Jakobski) and the Lady-in-waiting (Elisabeth Meister) contribute to this scene with fine legato singing of their own, a spectral Scotch mist of ensemble singing at just the right moment in the opera.

Beside this flawless performance I couldn't help but feel a little underwhelmed by Keenleyside's Macbeth. This is deeply unfair, not least as he is, by some margin, the best actor on the stage (and of course, at this time, still carrying the cast arrangement that supports his damaged left arm). His singing is excellent, both lovely and occasionally forceful but lacks a weight of depth that would have provided the hammer blow for me. More conventionally bass-baritone is the Banquo of Raymond Aceto who, along with the Macduff of Dimitri Pittas (and a solid Malcolm from Steven Ebel), gave performances that though very good were rendered rather more ordinary by Monastyrska.

As the Royal Opera moves towards the endgame of its season, its clear to see that there is a confidence and homogeneity in its corporate identity, especially when Pappano's in the pit. Whilst I can't go all out and say I was flamed by the chorus, they were certainly tightly controlled, even charismatic. The orchestra though, I can say, were startlingly good, clearly one of the best orchestras in London irrespective of function. The drama is the sound, there is no pecking order.

In the tradition of Phyllida Lloyd's earthy Walküre for ENO, there is a connectivity between the ubiquity of life-sapped blood and life-giving water in this production, with a stand pipe almost as an extra character to the side of the stage. The witches are played as dervish-type harpies (the trance-like rituals of the first and third acts reminded me of the Sri Lankan melodrama of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom!) whose theatrical coup involving an unborn child is typical of the concept. Simple and well-manipulated set design aid the unceasingly confused dream and reality of the Macbeths' situation. Like the opera itself, a solid, even gripping operatic evening.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Julian Opie, Alan Christea Gallery

Have you ever seen a dead body? It's the most freaky thing to see the human body at rest. Movement is the fourth dimension in art.
(Julian Opie, from The Guardian)

It's entirely reasonable to think of Julian Opie's work as part of the Pop Art tradition, given its colourful, bold style and its high profile use as the cover art to Blur's album The Best Of (right). I think of Julian Opie in the same associative breath as Patrick Caulfield, an artist also with a penchant for colour, strong line and abstraction.

And so it is with a fair bit of the art in this exhibition, split over the two adjacent Alan Cristea galleries on Cork St. in central London. The convention of the Blur cover is recreated in 2005-06 portraits of Ruth smoking/with cigarette (2005-06) and the more recent style of representing the sitter with a simple circle for a head is also the focus of conventional portraiture.

What is more striking in this exhibition though is the use of various different media to introduce animation to the work. The LED installation Walk (2009) is a highly minimalist version of the installation many will be familiar with as dominating the box office atrium of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. There are also a pair of forgettable video pieces. Above all though there are a number of 'lenticular acrylic panels', paintings produced in a form familiar from tube or bus adverts which change depending on the viewing angle. In the series [X] walking (2010), anything up to twenty different arrangments of the figure have been used to create a comprehensive rendition of movement. Inside the gallery (best seen by actively walking past) these are highly effective work, not least as the body shifts are so well observed. I wish there was more of this, although the only other piece in the same manner is the excellent Shahnoza dancing in a white dress (2008), a seductively blurred tetralogic assembly of paintings (of a Soho dancer). It's a really striking piece. In a visual vernacular that is generally extremely simple and narratively opaque - what you see is what you get, figuratively speaking - the movement and the diaphanous overlay provides a depth and elusiveness which makes the piece utterly seductive, even without the careful recording of Shahnoza's movement.

There is less successful new work though. For all that Opie's fixing or animation of motion in simple line form works nicely, the extrapolation of creating silhouettes (of the gallery staff) is really rather prosaic. The narrative series of more detailed, realist portraits Elena and Cressie get ready for the party (2011) also seems like a wrong turn. It's the line abstractions, whether static or animated that are mesmerising and so memorable.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Betrayal, Comedy Theatre

I'm a sucker for Pinter, although I have a highly chequered relationship with productions at London's theatres. This Comedy Theatre production reminds me of trying to see The Caretaker (with Michael Gambon) from the balcony, where a mixture of vertigo and sheer discomfort in chairs not replaced since the war meant I left early.

Well despite having to battle once again (all of the above plus some muppet who'd brought their dinner in with them) my determination to get proper attentive traction on the play was well rewarded. Betrayal is tame Pinter, a Pinter explaining himself, honest but reaching out for understanding, rather than dissecting the idea of compassion with the playwright's scalpel. Told backwards - the chronology isn't exactly in reverse, with some scenes moving forward throughout a given year - the play isolates the temperature of the relationships within a veiled love-triangle over a decade (1968-1977). The likelihood that Betrayal is a prismatic account of Pinter's own adulterousness means, as I mean by 'tame', that the dialogue teases out the absurdities and discomfort of the situation but rarely throws punches or spits bile. I find this a disappointment. The lid-ripping of something feral was what was missing from this performance (probably as it's missing from the play). Instead I watched a world of unchannelled feeling in which a middle-class disinclined to rage but too upset to reason translates as a paralysis of positive action, the laconic non-action of this famous contemporaneous double portrait by David Hockney.

This is pathos in its own right, of course, and is what comes across in this beautifully played production. Kristin Scott Thomas is ideal casting: independent, but contingent, perpetually subsuming the moral kaleidoscope of her involvement in the comforts that it presents. Douglas Henshall is an open book, a warm man who is clearly the victim of his own volubility, even before we see the final scene - i.e. the beginning of the affair. Ben Miles makes up the trio as Emma's husband, a drier, more obscure presence. The production is clearly presented in a strongly lit, cunningly constructed set (revolving wings transform the space economically) and, mercifully, with a bare minimum of tasteful music. Quietly affecting, although it won't contort your world view like The Birthday Party or No Man's Land, for example.

Friday, 10 June 2011

My Fair Lady, Cadogan Hall

A one-off performance of Lerner & Loewe's highly-regarded musical My Fair Lady is a welcome lightning strike in a town which currently hosts a high profile run of Pygmalion. This performance was essentially a vehicle for the London Concert Choir, an amateur society for whom the venue, the Cadogan Hall, is a familiar haunt. The evening presented an opportunity for the choir to venture from their core diet of the choral repertoire and they'd clearly taken the chance to let their hair down - an extended stage suggested a rudimentary staging and a short titles video & appropriate stills projected above the choir alluded to the inescapable familiarity of George Cukor's 1964 film. In fact the whole evening had an atmosphere of parochial festival, with a local audience slipping easily into the spirit of the event.

However, showbiz doesn't survive on goodwill alone. A handful of professionals had come in to take the principal roles, classical singers who gamely took on the semi-staging by performing off-book. Sometimes this proved a stumbling block, although the rare dropped stitch was more to do with the disconnect between the performers and the conductor (Mark Forkgen) in front of whom they stood. The evening was carried by the blazing charisma of Arlene Rolph as Eliza, not only shuttling between two dialects but also two singing techniques to accomodate them. In the midst of this the time was found for no fewer than six costume changes, a bull fight and a mouthful of marbles. Opposite her Toby Stafford-Allen's Higgins, replete in pink Argyle ankle-socks, managed crisp annunciation with understated hauteur so that the latter outbursts had their proper dramatic weight. Peter Willcock, so capable in recent comic opera at the Royal Opera House, was a steadying presence as the ubiquitous if nondescript Pickering. The smaller roles are also the big musical numbers: James Geer was all easy charm for Freddy's On The Street Where You Live; as Alfred, Martin Lamb's gregarious With A Little Bit Of Luck was only bettered by downing a (real) bottle of beer in one during Get Me To The Church On Time.

Naturally though the true stars were drawn from the chorus. I didn't have a programme so I am unable to identify the excellent Mrs Higgins or the snarling barmaid, although the Mrs Pearce was readily identifiable as Independent writer Mary Ann Sieghart, whom I'm happy to report was confident and entertaining in the droll exchanges at Higgins' flat. Whatever any individual's involvement, the ensemble was permanently in the spirit of the piece, managing a number of discreet, corporate costume adjustments nicely - and, above all, singing with precision, projected text and good intonation and blend. Mark Forkgen made light work of the unwieldy stage arrangements, shepherding the basic orchestra through the clutch-heavy shifts in tempo and temperament with some style. Hardly a West End challenger but a great evening's fun.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Simon Boccanegra, ENO


ENO's new Simon Boccanegra is something of a passion sinkhole, although intriguingly it's as much through design as through misfiring. The opera itself is a queer fish, pulling the focus of the drama away from the conventionally limelit vexed lovers to concentrate on political powerplay and Verdi's own fascination with the father-daughter relationship. An early cousin of the through-composed Falstaff, Boccanegra is steeped in glorious music in an endlessly inventive lower-register palette, complementing the low voices of the principals. The bass-baritone rumination on family and country is periodically punctuated with terrific outbursts from a young couple or the chorus. Or it's meant to.

It's this flaring of feeling that I missed above all else in this drab - but not thoughtless - production from Dimitri Tcherniakov. Following a technicolour prologue channelling Jonathan Miller's Rigoletto, the production updates (we are 25 years hence) to a Dragon Tattoo style Scandinavian monochrome (right). The biker-goth thriller that the axis of Amelia and Gabriele tilts at is also passed over as the opera moves into the second scene, an identikit European convention room.

This is the space in which the rest of the opera plays out. Tcherniakov's awareness extends from the cinema to contemporary politics - this setting and design is a relation of the oligarch/benighted middle-class Tsar's Bride that the Royal Opera staged only last month, with the patrician-oligarchs wearing suits here and the plebian mass clad in dowdily branded street clothing. In this space Boccanegra's rule is by sufferance. It is the opposite of the scheming Berlusconi persona either from television or Paulo Sorrentino's film Il Divo. This Boccanegra is no manipulator but a charismatic bear, never calculating but simply imposing himself on moments of half-hearted civil discontent.

And, alas, that imposition is simple. The chorus storming of the senate room in this closing scene of the first act is like a collection of tourists shuffling through the Hermitage, or 'getting close' to civic machinations in the Norman Foster Reichstag dome. It makes the well-executed close of the prologue (a champagne-spattered celebration of Boccanegra's election) look more exciting than it was. In other crucial moments calculation robs  gestures of their grip - Boccanegra bearing Maria's body from Fiesco's house suffers abysmal acting from a protesting maid, Boccanegra's reunion with his daughter is without embrace - and the music, reflexively, fails to boil over.

As for the management of the music, conversely, I find that this production establishes Edward Gardner as a formidable operatic conductor. Though the music never really broke the levee of the stalls, it is clear that Gardner's grip on the score - and its relation to Tcherniakov's appropriation of the drama - was total. This was an exemplary demonstration of directorial will and professionalism, two values that will succeed where even the most exciting musical inspiration may fail. Yet we have seen Gardener's musical inspiration on show already in the thematically similar Boris Godunov in this house two years ago, so there is nothing but good news coming from this department.

The singing is also largely very good. Again, like in the Boris, Brindley Sherratt is the finest voice on stage (as Fiesco) although he is matched by Bruno Caproni's Boccanegra. This is a super, richly colourful Verdian baritone with remarkable over and undertones to the sound. The colouring has a character of reminiscence as eloquent as that which Tcherniakov also imposes on this production in a series of inventive projected flashbacks. I was reminded of Glyndebourne's Boccanegra of 13 years ago, Giancarlo Pasquetto, although Caproni has a more beautiful top to his voice. Roland Wood's Paolo might not have the heft of this central duo but his English is crisp and present.

The gilt of Rena Harms' Amelia was a less consistent pleasure, often tarnished by straining to fill the space. This is a common issue in the Coliseum, evinced by Harms producing the only truly magical piano singing of the evening. I believed in the love between her and Peter Auty's Gabriele. It's fresh, if a little confused (who wouldn't be with at least three other men old enough to be her father making some sort of claim to her). Auty was quite brilliant in the first half of the opera, the duet with Fiesco at the beginning of scene 2 a fine highlight. There's a lot of work though and I wonder if he tired in Acts 2 and 3 - although I was grateful for the burst of entropy he introduced to the grid of chairs after the break.

This unleashed onstage chaos is what was missing from the chorus. With some remarkable, textured, lyric bass singing in the prologue I wondered if Martin Merry's enhanced cohort was going to have its finest hour. Alas, the bud of this consistently good house corps didn't bloom into the extraordinary. Perhaps the demands of some meticulous blocking seemed to have played on the mind of the ensemble. There was no fire, let alone explosion. But then perhaps this semi-satirical re-creation of tepid Central and Eastern European political unrest is exactly what Tcherniakov had in mind. It's just not in Verdi.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Glyndebourne

First the dreaded word: updating. But don't be put off. The action is updated by about three centuries, not four, to the early 1800s - the time of Wagner's birth, Romanticism and revolution. It works rather nicely - one feels more connected to the goings-on. The guildsmen's trades seems more pertinent, being the pregnant seeds of the industrial revolution not fifty years hence. At the back of Sachs' home at the beginning of Act 3, he goes to fetch coffee from a large wrought iron stove, an artisan employing the soon to be mass-produced pre-requisite of the middle-class home and the prototype for the vehicular engine. It's an action tenuously evocative of Turner's The Fighting Temeraire (right), in which the artist pays wistful tribute to the inevitable succession of the new machine pulling the beautiful anachronism of the sailing ship to its final berth.

Furthermore, Walther is played as a soldier not only pitched in battle with the stuffy Meistersingers but ready for the call that will take him into the cauldron of civil or international revolution. The (fine) sets are snapshots of a parochial, if noble town. Yet the implication of the petty power struggle is definitely cast further afield, at least to the very borders of Germany, as Sachs' final peroration makes clear.

Sachs himself is also a revolutionary in this production, by virtue of the artist in the role. Gerald Finley is by no means the enlightened burgher given to comparing beards with his contemporaries. Instead he is the perpetually disatisfied artisan, an ideological cousin of that other famous cobbler Daniel Day-Lewis, a situation as much to do with Finley's fine, youthful looks as with David McVicar's conception (which, presumably, had Finley's assets in mind from the moment he started work anyway). Remember that this production opened just as the current American President had passed through on a state visit to his equally youthful British counterpart, that the age of the early-as-opposed-to-late middle-aged conciliator is with us.

With all this in mind I had two problems with this otherwise comprehensively well-designed and performed production.

Firstly, the peculiar tug-of-love in which Eva finds herself is really not terribly convincing. I don't think that the updating and the fact of Finley's charisma had been, unlike in many other respects, properly addressed here. His Sachs stands off Eva uneasily, unable to give himself over to her in any way because of the story, but equally unable to play the impervious elder. Disclaimer: I had a restricted view seat which meant that I missed the crucial Act 3 Scene 2 (?) sequence in which he mends her shoe to the confused, benighted overview of Walther. Perhaps this would have clarified the playing of this relationship.

Secondly, Sachs' final words on the defence of German nationalism is played straight without any attempt to engage with issue of Wagner's racism or the spectre of the Third Reich. Though it's reasonable for the director to play the opera straight out of the score, his updating makes this more of an issue than it might otherwise have been. The final tableau felt like watching a staged prequel to Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon.

These notable issues aside I had a thoroughly good evening in the theatre, a classic even, given the perfect weather for the long interval picnic ritual in between acts of an opera for which the theatre was built in the first place. Applause greeted the scene change in the third act, the first time I'd ever heard the like at the house. It was well deserved too, not just for the set on view but as a culmination of the designs and construction throughout the evening.

In this space the company seemed to take to the piece as if they had in fact been performing it since 1934. Wagner needs the premium musicality that this Festival company has long established, but the easy comedy of the piece seems to unlock something extra. The chorus are as capable on stage as in song, the LPO perpetually well-balanced between the heft of the philosophical rumination & passion, and the light touch of comedy always around the next corner. Vladimir Jurowski is totally in control, almost touching the edge of the stage with some gestures.

Gerald Finley is on home turf here, a Glyndebourne favourite for more than twenty years, so a structurally compromising ovation at his curtain call was likely. It was also thoroughly deserved, the bass-baritone working his role and the opera hand-in-glove with McVicar's ideas, singing at the height of his now-considerable power. Johannes Martin Kränzle may not be a find on the Damascene scale of Christian Gerhaher in the Royal Opera's Tannhäuser but it's close. His Beckmesser is a Deutsch Malvolio but a solid character, not a glib comic trope, sung without effort. The other fine bass-baritone on the stage is Henry Waddington's Kothner, probably a perfectly capable Sachs himself. This trio is well-supported by Alastair Miles' Pogner. Marco Jentzsch scales the heights of Walther heroically, ardently, the best of the quartet of lovers, though Anna Gabler's Eva was affecting, even in her slightly awkward position of having to make real a love triangle which I have already admitted I was skeptical about.

An irresistible triumph, absorbing its self-generated caveats with goodwill, good music making and occasionally sheer volume.