Thursday, 22 September 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Composer

This week's most high-profile film release is the big-screen adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John le Carré's 1974 cold-war espionage thriller. The natural comparison however is not that between book and film but between film and the 1979 TV miniseries starring Alec Guinness. There are plenty of good things to be said about Tomas Alfredson's film and it stands up well against the contemporaneous and impeccably produced TV adaptation, a high point of BBC TV drama.

One of the key elements to not only the detail of the productions but also the essence of the drama is the issue of what it means to be British, and specifically perhaps, English. Loyalty to a country is a difficult thing to explain, in the same way that the cultural essence of nationality is difficult to define: the treacherous mole, once caught explains that his decision was largely 'aesthetic'.

It is the aesthetic with which Alfredson and (TV director) John Irvin approach this tricky question. The designs and direction skip from the anonymous interiors  in which the spies operate, straight out into the home counties. The light is cool - autumnal - and grey. A college lecturer discusses 'her boys' and a put-out-to-pasture spook undertakes a position as a public schoolmaster. Everyone walks. When they talk at all, as so much is done with looks and tacit understandings, they talk understatedly. This is the England of AE Housman, in which wistful characters have been disabused of their preconceptions of the glory of conflict. They recognise that what precious little glory could be ascribed to their predecessors in real war, there is none for one another in the secret, closed-off world of the phoney one - and that this extends to their personal relationships.

Music then is a key player, making overt what the men naturally attempt to keep covert. Alfredson has employed Alberto Iglesias to produce a super score, a spare, chamber suite of music that manages tension and threadbare emptiness. There is even Elgar by the back door, the Salut d'Amour played by a jazz trio behind closed doors in a Budapest arcade. But none of this can match the music of the late Geoffrey Burgon (who won an Ivor Novello Award for the score for TV). If the opening credits speak of something dramatic then the famous setting of the Nunc Dimittis that closes each episode is something altogether more elegiac:



It's music at once nestled in the choral tradition that is the distant backdrop to the locations and lives of the characters but also ringing with a solo bugle with all its martial connotations. The modal steps between the voice and trumpet extend into the melody, old musical devices, incorporated in the compositional DNA of that most English, and pastorally evocative of composers, Benjamin Britten. This music is what the story is about, things lost in their solidity and objectivity to the mist of time, but no less real for that.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Kind Hearts and Coronations

The celebrated 1949 Ealing comedy Kind Hearts And Coronets is not the only great British post-war comedy of manners. Benjamin Britten's third opera Albert Herring (1947) has the same tonal core as the film; the lampooning of stereotypes and class heightened by the melodramatisation of death. No doubt this cocktail of morbidity and parochial/familial relationships was part of a general stock-taking, if not exactly soul-searching, with respect to national identity following the war. I've no idea whether the economic downturn and political shift in this country is responsible but this year we have been able to see a new print of the film and no fewer than five productions of the opera nationally (The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Shadwell Opera have given theirs, with Surrey Opera, Aldeburgh and the Royal Northern College of Music yet to come).

Alec Guinness as Agatha D'Ascoyne
What did it mean to be English? What was it that we were fighting for? These are the questions posed by - and answered obliquely - in both film and opera. It's the self-deprecation of the humour combined with the sharp sketching of the characters that provide not so much answers as reassurance. Britons in the last years of the 1940s didn't want to be told something new but rather have sturdy truths freshly articulated. At the centre of this is this peculiar relationship with the establishment. Louis Mazzini/D'Ascoyne cannot seem to reclaim his rightful place in the aristocracy, for all his felonious efforts; the grudging Albert has his ersatz title thrust upon him. What's interesting is that though Louis wants the title and Albert does not, both stories treat the idea of title as immaterial. In trying to ingratiate himself as an aristocrat, Louis proves himself the ideal meritocrat. Albert's act of social rebellion concludes with his wanting to 'get on' at the shop.

Of course, there's a little more flavour to the story. Sex (inevitably, in these baby-boomer years) is an important ingredient in both, albeit buried in the thematic periphery. The catalyst for Louis' execution of his murderous plan comes with the realisation that his sweetheart has chosen status over him. Albert first gives voice to frustration at his own personal stagnation when he sees his contemporaries pawing each other in the shop. The denouement of either has the possibility of the (anti-)hero muscling in on the established sexual twinning: Albert's kissed by a relieved Nancy, hey, that's my girl! complains Sid; and Louis finds he can choose between two women he has made widows.

Rita Cullis as Lady Billows
Above all Kind Hearts And Coronets and Albert Herring provide impeccable caricatures of indelibly British types. The dozen or so adults of Albert Herring are gifted idiosyncratic music by the composer and, of course, the one constant of the D'Ascoyne clan is the splendid malleability of Alec Guinness, even undertaking to play the fearsome matriarch of Kind Hearts, Agatha. More than the fine observation in these sketches though is the compassion they are accorded by both Guinness and Britten (not to mention director Robert Hamer and Britten's librettist, Eric Crozier). These puffed-up bulwarks of society are ridiculous but not by any means evil. They may be lampooned but not detested or dismissed.

The unifying and distinguishing element of both opera and film is the scrupulous detail given over to drafting and rendering language. As the English film director Terence Davies has recently identified, one of the great delights of the film is Denis Price's voiceover, a masterpiece of the barest form of narration that is as perfectly formed and focused as any camera shot. One absorbs the wry and even nonsensical things he has to say about murder because of the crisp manner in which his conscience is delivered.

Similarly Crozier's text works hand in glove with the warp and weft of Britten's music. Surely, many of the lines are local in-jokes, possibly even veiled references to real people within the composer's circle. On their own these are obscure allusions. It's the phonetic substance of the words and their setting which contain the humour even if the actual place or person remains oblique. Even more than this, both film and book contain a vital central scene (the only ensemble scene in both) in which the cast is united in finding the liberties taken in speech - the long-winded eulogy of the first funeral or the interminable speeches at Albert's May Day coronation - intolerable.

So then, in either case the humour is not a series of jokes, nor in its stuffy figures of speech but rather in the language itself and what the screen actors and opera singers are able to do with it. For all the caricature and farce of these great post-war comedies the sparkling comic diamond at their heart is the language.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Mike Figgis Deloitte Ignite, Royal Opera House

I suppose the best way to describe the 'Ignite' weekend at the Royal Opera House is to talk in terms of the village fete. The doors are thrown open and the public invited to wander the various spaces. There are half a dozen attractions from conventional performances in the Linbury Studio to a pop-up cinema in the Crush Bar. The Clore Studio, balcony and upstairs bar - though not the main auditorium - were also open and all the while there were talks, music and a pair of hard-working ballet dancers in the Paul Hamlyn Hall (the one that looks like a greenhouse, above).

One of the big draws of this weekend of events was simply coming into the Royal Opera House and wandering about. It is not only and interesting but also rather pleasant space and on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the view out onto a busy Covent Garden piazza is super. What did Mike Figgis, curating the event, want the weekend to be about though? The 'statement of intent' he publishes in the accompanying leaflet reads
I'm bringing together a cross section of the cultural community for a weekend of aesthetic intercourse that will be shared with the public... I'm intrigued to know what we all think about the state of the culture that we all exist in.
This is - in the chaos that is a village fete for the cultural village - exactly what was on offer. Initially I saw the rather more formal presentations. On arriving I went to see the first of Eva Yerbabuena's flamenco sets in the Linbury Studio. This half hour performance of flamenco given by Yerbabuena and her husband, guitarist Paco Jarana (and a percussionist) was as immediately arresting as I remember the Sadler's Wells performances to have been. It went something like this:



From there I went straight to the Crush Bar cinema to catch the last 10 mins (perhaps this could have been programmed better so as not to have overlapped?) of Mike Figgis' documentary film Flamenco Women (1997 - watch a clip here, including Figgis on trumpet). Immediately after this was a screening of a specially prepared interview with the critic and writer John Berger (famous for the aesthetic treatise, Ways Of Seeing), which I also saw.

It's interesting that in these two films, the style of Figgis immediately becomes apparent. He is unafraid to edit documents, which, on the face of it, risk the charge of changing what is being said. Though this was most apparent in the rapid cross-fading of what Berger had to say, on reflection this seemed most problematic when applied to the record of the flamenco. Having come from a performance in which the artist often left gaps or moments of respite from the intensity of performance, to watch a film in which the tempo and intensity is maintained through editing seemed strange (if breathlessly exciting!).

After this I submitted to the open circus of the rest of the event. I went up to the bar to escape the People's Band, a furious free jazz ensemble blowing any remaining cobwebs out of the hall. Wandering around the upper floor there were a number of dancers doing what they usually do behind closed doors on both the terrace and in the bar. I returned to see the end of Vincent Walsh's talk and listen to what else Figgis had to recommend about the rest of the weekend before heading off.

The nature of an event convening 'pure art' as a poster suggested is that it does risk pretension and exclusion, so it was good that Figgis and the Royal Opera House were prepared to risk this. Above all it was good the  Opera House was prepared to put on so many events and discussions whose content often challenged the very people who make up its core audience and benefactors. This struck me as more a statement of intent regarding its attitude to accessibility and the geenral purpose of the work that is put on on its stages than any marketing drive or publicity statement.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

La Clemenza Di Tito, Opus Opera

La Clemenza Di Tito is the second opera that Opus Opera has mounted this year, once again a Mozart opera seria. An opera tilting toward the enlightenment, the same mixture of longing and deceit is removed from the god-fearing and fatalism of it's elder cousin Idomeneo and repositioned in a more day-to-day political situation. Though he is not always exactly inspired, this dessication is not a hindrance to Mozart, writing in this the last year of his life. However, the opera isn't helped by the rather prosaic and often long-winded recitative, almost certainly interpolated by a student. In this successful and coherent performance of the opera my only thought would be whether some judicious trimming of the recitative would have been appropriate (especially given that the performance was sung in Italian, without surtitling or libretti available).

In putting on this concert performance, resources went into providing an orchestra, a modest (though effective) chorus and, on this occasion, a fortepiano for the recitatives played by the musical director, Gregory Batsleer. The venue, Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, is a sizeable church whose marbled cavities are currently engorged by an absent organ. The sound is consequently a little unwieldy; not so much boomy as difficult to control. The young, undoubtedly late-convened orchestra's ensemble was never going to retain any fizz through this nebulous acoustic - this is a space ideal for a Coronation Mass, rather than a stage drama. Nonetheless with his assertive direction Batsleer did manage to pull some real definition from the score as well as some occasional loveliness, particularly from the upper woodwind.

Cutting through these inevitable compromises, the sextet of characters sang well, investing both Italian and  music with technical and dramatic fluency. Kirstin Sharpin's Vitellia gripped the story from the offset, wringing drama from the recitative exchanges with Emilie Alford's Sesto. Deh, se piacer mi vuoi showed range and bite. As the plangent Annio, Kate Grosset sang with crisp Italian, a nicely balanced counterpart to Rebecca Henning's Servilia. Their sweet love duet Ah, perdona al primo affetto achieved a natural, consoling lilt. When the eponymous Emperor finally appeared it was worth the wait. Ben Thapa sang right down the church without clubbing the sound. The space was no friend of the extremes of dynamic gradient he is able to achieve, but this power supports a lovely legato, allowing the character to remain above the fray but never forcefully imperious. Beside him Alexander Learmonth made the most of the functional Publio, allowing himself the occasional (and not unwelcome) Yes, Minister smirk to season his smooth, open baritone with some buffo. Careering inamongst the scheming, Emilie Alford was a flawless Sesto throughout. The disarming ease of a frighteningly vivace close-out to Parto parto should probably have prepared us for the time-stopping piano that finally tamed the difficult hall in the later Deh per questo instante solo. Classy singing.

One isn't always guaranteed such attention to the singing in the self-generated productions that orbit the West End of London. The preparation of the score by the singers certainly carried this performance and with some panache.

La Clemenza Di Tito, Opus Opera

La Clemenza Di Tito is the second opera that Opus Opera has mounted this year, once again a Mozart opera seria. An opera tilting toward the enlightenment, the same mixture of longing and deceit is removed from the god-fearing and fatalism of it's elder cousin Idomeneo and repositioned in a more day-to-day political situation. Though he is not always exactly inspired, this dessication is not a hindrance to Mozart, writing in this the last year of his life. However, the opera isn't helped by the rather prosaic and often long-winded recitative, almost certainly interpolated by a student. In this successful and coherent performance of the opera my only thought would be whether some judicious trimming of the recitative would have been appropriate (especially given that the performance was sung in Italian, without surtitling or libretti available).

In putting on this concert performance, resources went into providing an orchestra, a modest (though effective) chorus and, on this occasion, a fortepiano for the recitatives played by the musical director, Gregory Batsleer. The venue, Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, is a sizeable church whose marbled cavities are currently engorged by an absent organ. The sound is consequently a little unwieldy; not so much boomy as difficult to control. The young, undoubtedly late-convened orchestra's ensemble was never going to retain any fizz through this nebulous acoustic - this is a space ideal for a Coronation Mass, rather than a stage drama. Nonetheless with his assertive direction Batsleer did manage to pull some real definition from the score as well as some occasional loveliness, particularly from the upper woodwind.

Cutting through these inevitable compromises, the sextet of characters sang well, investing both Italian and  music with technical and dramatic fluency. Kirstin Sharpin's Vitellia gripped the story from the offset, wringing drama from the recitative exchanges with Emilie Alford's Sesto. Deh, se piacer mi vuoi showed range and bite. As the plangent Annio, Kate Grosset sang with crisp Italian, a nicely balanced counterpart to Rebecca Henning's Servilia. Their sweet love duet Ah, perdona al primo affetto achieved a natural, consoling lilt. When the eponymous Emperor finally appeared it was worth the wait. Ben Thapa sang right down the church without clubbing the sound. The space was no friend of the extremes of dynamic gradient he is able to achieve, but this power supports a lovely legato, allowing the character to remain above the fray but never forcefully imperious. Beside him Alexander Learmonth made the most of the functional Publio, allowing himself the occasional (and not unwelcome) Yes, Minister smirk to season his smooth, open baritone with some buffo. Careering inamongst the scheming, Emilie Alford was a flawless Sesto throughout. The disarming ease of a frighteningly vivace close-out to Parto parto should probably have prepared us for the time-stopping piano that finally tamed the difficult hall in the later Deh per questo instante solo. Classy singing.

One isn't always guaranteed such attention to the singing in the self-generated productions that orbit the West End of London. The preparation of the score by the singers certainly carried this performance and with some panache.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

John Cage, Hayward Project Space

Known primarily as a composer - and thrust into the spotlight by last year's attempted gazumping of the X Factor Christmas #1 elect with 4'33" - this touring show, stopping off at the Hayward Gallery, also looks at John Cage's art, writing and performance works.

The space is two rooms. The first has a collection of his art works, pieces of chance-structured art that are in themselves uninteresting, aesthetically opaque. However they are a useful document with which to compare the explanations and records of his involvement on the inception and periphery of the Fluxus movement. All this is documented in video and audio in the cramped by interesting second room. There is the 1990 television documentary I Have Nothing To Say, And I Am Saying It which one can see online here. There are a number of pieces of music, both recordings of scores like Aria (1958) and sampling collages recorded at the time. I liked the cumulative pieces like Europeras 1&2 (1985-7) in which extracts from operas are performed simultaneously (strangely lacking in cacophony) and above all the HPSCHD (1968) which sounds like a prepared piano piece by Conlon Nancarrow but without Nancarrow's clear deliberation.

What I hadn't bargained on was Cage's rigour extending to his written and read works. There are journal entries whose form (if not content) is governed by the outcome of consulting the I Ching, Cage's reference work of chance. Most interesting is a manifesto written about his sometime friend Marcel Duchamp, the artist best known for 'readymade' art, in which extant objects - rather like the extant sound with which Cage was so enamoured - are co-opted into being art. 26 Statements Re: Duchamp is as much a literary work dictated by chance as it is a digestible list of aphorisms on the titular subject. Some of the 'statements' are only one word long as  that is all that chance has allotted them - there are 26 of them as that what chance decided there would be (between 1 and 60).

I listened to two of them and have forgotten them already. The point is not primarily the content, in the same way that the artworks of the first room are not inherently worthwhile but rather a record of a process. But this is not to change the point of any artwork that hangs on a gallery, but merely to re-illuminate it. Unusually music is piped into this room. At first I thought that this might be a distraction. However, on reflection it seemed perfectly well-assimilated to the other pieces on show, given that the medium wasn't the content but rather the record of its construction. Even the hanging of the pictures in this room is governed by the same process by which the art and music was rendered. Whether a busy Londoner in a cramped upstairs studio next to Waterloo Bridge will have time to reflect on and absorb this before the show move on on the 13th September is another matter.