Monday, 31 October 2011

The Trouble With Tintin

I'm a blogger, it's my opinion!
Much to the dismay of the few with whom I have discussed it, my experience of Steven Spielberg's new film The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn was not a happy one. The short version is that I got bored and left early. Given that many are talking about this film as the Indiana Jones outing that the Crystal Skull should have been, this seems difficult to imagine. Was the story flat or poorly told? No, not that I noticed - there was barely any pause for breath with episodes blending into one another logically and with no dip in pacing. I might add that I don't know the comics, their stories or the spin-off animations, so I'm not prejudiced against the alleged abuse of the source material. That's not an issue.

No, I think my problems start and end in animated characters. That's any animated characters, not just in this film. Firstly, this is to do with the motion - sorry - performance-capture process in which the actual performance of an actor is recorded and rendered as a digital image. It's a process of diminishing returns, neither one thing nor the other. It looks as if the performance is caught behind some sort of membrane - neither part of the the animated world and certainly not set free within it.

Secondly - and consequently - it's to do with the nature of animation itself. Tintin is not a photographic record of people acting out the relationships of characters but a series of drawings. As Hergé's contemporary compatriot, the surrealist painter René Magritte might have said, Ceci n'est pas un Tintin. Magritte's famous highlighting of 'the treachery of images' can be an important guide for those of us who simply cannot invest in Tintin. Not only are we not looking at Tintin but a picture of him, it's actually worse - Magritte based his pipe on a pipe but Tintin is himself only based on a picture and does not relate to an actual person.

Naturally one argues, and with some force, that this is immaterial to telling a story. Well the story is competently told. It's what happens to the characters within the story, providing the dramatic content that is insurmountably challenging.

The performance capture that (co-director) Peter Jackson made successful with Andy Serkis (Haddock) in other projects stands apart for two reasons: Serkis played an animal in The Lord Of The Rings and King Kong; and that animal was placed in a realist environment populated by people. Furthermore, in James Cameron's Avatar, not only is the film co-populated by digital images and people, but part of the function of the story is to show the principal characters being rendered in their synthetic form.

In all these examples, extending one's empathy to various characters is given context. We know Gollum and the ape have a proportion of humanity given the way they interact with the actual humans also on screen; Cameron turns the metaphor into a demonstrable process.

In Tintin, everything from the characters to the environment is a synthetic reproduction of reality. The reality anchor, if you like, has been brought aboard this Unicorn. We are totally at sea - the human-to-synthetic metaphor has no basis from which to operate.

One cannot underestimate the effect that this has. It goes beyond the incredibility of the characters' motion in their landscape, let alone bouncing between driving cars or being hit on the head with a cosh. Unwittingly a metaphor for trying to get a grasp on the gravitational centre of the film's realism is provided by the way the 'camera' itself flies free of the earth. The framing and angle of the image is constantly on the move in Tintin as if generating the action rather than observing it.

This is just as apparent in the title sequence of the film. Reprising a similar sort of stylised animation to his earlier Catch Me If You Can (so here a meta-animation), John Williams also provides tension-coiled, jazz inflected music (1960s thriller harpsichord and Le Hot Club-style central European jazz). However, though this starts off as a passacaglia, i.e. based on a long riff in the bass, this riff is abandoned all too soon as the music takes flight - in exactly the same way that the titles sequence itself and subsequent film abandon its grounding.

By now many will have heard the marvellous story of animator James Curran who constructed his own title sequence, a premature fan letter to Tintin. On seeing the animation, Spielberg promptly hired Curran for his next project. One can see why - unlike the title design for the film proper, Curran's animation is based around a single unmoving trope, that of the circle (or globe). It's this central immutability that grounds the sequence and makes it interesting:

Perhaps the perpetual motion of the image in Spielberg's film is necessitated (aesthetically) by the 3D process. I found nothing intrinsically interesting about the 3D. Rather like the performance-capture process we are left in a mutually detracting hinterland.

Not by any means without wit, Spielberg has used the source material to create some sort of ontological relief for his production. The cariacature artist in the first scene draws a picture of Tintin which is a straight reproduction of Hergé's art. There's also a reproduction of the cover of the book from which this story is taken in the title sequence. Yet just as Hergé never revealed the full name of his eponymous hero, so we are never given access to the real character in this animation. Tintin remains empathetically isolated, a two-dimensional character, which is of course deeply ironic for a film constructed for 3D presentation.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Film or Opera - how much detail do you need to understand?

Yesterday I saw George Clooney's new film of political skulduggery The Ides Of March. Like a feature length version of an episode of The West Wing, it's a film about the treachery, manipulation and frailties of being human caught beneath the lens in the petri dish of modern American politics. I say lens advisedly. Like The West Wing, there is an intensification of the drama in this situation, as if magnified.

However it was interesting that I found my comprehension skimming along on the surface of the dialogue. I simply wasn't taking a proportion of the script in. I don't know whether this is because I'm not familiar with the details of the American political system (or the Democrat-nicene part of it), whether it's just a more general reaction to the subject matter, or whether the script was being delivered in such a manner (not to mention speed) that it seemed implicitly unnecessary to grapple with it word for word. In fact I realise that it wasn't that I couldn't understand it despite any effort - it was that I was choosing not to engage with it in the first place.

This was certainly my experience of watching The West Wing, that the substance of the script was not necessarily intended to be mutually inclusive of the substance of the drama. Rather, though it was the basis for the drama, the drama itself fizzed and flared on its surface.

This is not dissimilar to the experience I often have when listening to operas in foreign languages, particularly those of the late 19th century onwards which are less likely to repeat sections or even lines of text. Instead, everything can be gleaned from the music, if not the staging and acting. It's important to know what's going on - surtitles are now provided in major Western opera houses, providing text in the vernacular - but it's not a sine qua non to have a comprehensive dramatic experience on the substance of the story. This is certainly the case with an opera I also saw yesterday, Wagner's The Flying Dutchman. The text is rather rudimentary and serves as basis for Wagner's musical composition. Indeed, the text is his own and written with a particular emphasis on Stabreim (or alliteration), so that the text actually takes on more of an onomatopoeic function, contributing intrinsically to the sound rather than the dialogue of the drama.

This is an important parallel to draw up as it isolates that part of a film which is presenting the drama. In an opera it is the composer's music; in a film, although the closest material parallel would be the original score, the actual corollary is that of the directorial decisions taken in production (and refined in the edit). In other words, the framing and tracking of shots, in-camera motion, pacing (and ultimate collation of these) equates to the director's music-like dramatic composition of the film.

The Flying Dutchman, Royal Opera

It's not often that an evening spent at the Royal Opera (let alone any opera company) is rescued by the chorus. This was my basic reaction on leaving the new Der fliegende Holländer (or Flying Dutchman) last night. Clearly the work itself is not in the same ball park of quality as the Ring Cycle (certainly not the post-Tristan operas) despite some splashes of ingenious orchestration. Jeffrey Tate got the swollen bass tremolos at the beginning of Senta's ballad to storm the lip of the pit just like the waves they're meant to be. Elsewhere though the music struck me as very vertical: balanced but lacking an essential lyricism, and making the singers work extremely hard.

Perhaps the memory of Christian Gerhaher charming the very gilt of the walls of the auditorium in last year's Tannhäuser has set the bar for these pedestrian Wagner works too high but the singing seemed rather ordinary. The Dutchman is possibly a mite low for Egils Silins, who really got into his stride in the latter moment of high drama and therefore tessitura. Anja Kampe gave a charismatic Senta though the singing always seemed to be a struggle. Conversely Endrik Wottrich's Erik rang out into the auditorium, but then his energies were clearly focused on the singing rather than his part on the stage.

It all seemed rather a shame, given the breathtaking set design by Michael Levine. A steep rake had been constructed in the manner of a ship's bow, though concave instead of convex, curving monumentally into the wings. Immediately apparent were the scale of the music and the supernatural obligations upon the titular character, not to mention the sea itself. David Finn's lighting design isolated spaces on this iron deck for individual scenes and to make the most of their transitions each of which amounted to a minor theatrical coup.

Nonetheless, such entertaining spectacle is inert if the music drama treads water. It was with huge relief then that the chorus swarmed over the space for the landing celebrations in the final third of the work. Clearly this part of the company now have a natural symbiosis and the movement and dancing seemed totally natural, an adjunct to some clean, muscular singing. Again, maybe its a quirk of the piece that the chorus part is a boon and the roles a series of albatrosses but the vitality of the chorus was taking full advantage of it.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

The Passion Of Joan Of Arc with Einhorn Live Score

Next weekend sees another outing of a modern underscoring of Carl Dreyer's 1927 silent masterpiece The Passion Of Joan Of Arc. In this screening with live performance, the LSO under Marin Alsop perform Richard Einhorn's Voices Of Light, a work designed to play in tandem with the film. Apparently the whole thing is available on YouTube:

This performance comes not too long after the last in a spaced-out series of performance of a different score with the film, prepared by rock/pop composers Adrian Utley (of Portishead) and Will Gregory (of Goldfrapp). I attended the Queen Elizabeth Hall performance and screening back in April and was won over by the inventiveness and integrity of the music which never once took its eye off either the film or abandoned the idiomatic roots of its composers' own music. Here's a promotional video from the beginning of that project:

Indeed Einhorn's music also pertains to a specific idiomatic sub-genre, recalling the episodic, post-19th century oratorio style of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, using a chamber group of singers (Anonymous 4 in the original) as a sort of ecclesiastical ripieno group, a tiny, Gregorian-Greek chorus. What's interesting I think is that even more than the Gregory/Utley collaboration, Einhorn's work could stand alone, separately from the film. This is probably a testament to the strength of the film that, paired with a piece of music that essentially has its own identity, can still absorb it.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Hackney Picturehouse

Today sees the latest in the successful chain of Picturehouse cinemas to open in London. The Hackney Picturehouse is a redevelopment of The Ocean building on Mare Street, opposite Hackney Town Hall and the famous Empire. Yesterday I had a chance to look around and see what this new development offers.

Most importantly, Hackney Picturehouse is a four-screen cinema complex. Like its siblings across the capital these are not crate-rooms backed up on one another but a group of idiosyncratically realised spaces within the redeveloped building. We saw a show reel in screen 1, an impressive, almost square auditorium with a vast wall-to-wall screen and steeply raked seating. The astroturf-green upholstery bears witness to the pains that the group have clearly taken in using sustainable materials in construction and maintenance.

My favourite screen at a first cursory glance was the second, a medium-sized arrowhead of an auditorium apparently accessed by a single door in the back corner. This corner-of-the-emporium effect is characteristic of  the building as a whole. On three floors - or what appear to be three floors - there are all sorts of spaces: not only the ground floor kitchen (stocking an eponymous beer specially produced at a local brewery) and a second floor bar but also a modest third floor live performance area, the Hackney Attic (right). This will be a familiar part of the Picturehouse ecosystem for those who have been to Upstairs at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton. With its superb views out onto the square, the potential is there for this to become a good venue to add to the performing arts scene in orbit around the Empire over the road.

What makes a visit to a Picturehouse cinema so pleasant - my experience is that of the Brixton Ritzy; the club-like Picturehouses of Clapham and the Gate, Notting Hill; the Stratford Picturehouse, an oasis from the bombast of the new Westfield complex; and the Duke Of Yorks in Brighton - is the opportunity to prepare to see a film and then absorb the experience within the building. Hackney's greatest asset is its warren of spaces in which one can sit and read or work in peace (there will be free WiFi throughout) or chat with friends or other cinema-goers in recesses of the building away from the social hub of the bars.

After all it is the films that are the stock in trade of the group. Director of programming Claire Binns was keen to repeat the term 'passion' in her opening remarks at yesterday's press viewing. Such rhetoric is only valid when backed up on the screen and a glance at the listings for the first month justify the hyperbole. Alongside the mainstream movies such as The Ides Of March and the latest Twilight film, there is the spectacle of Tintin in 3D, which will look as good as it's ever going to if the 3D trailer we took in is anything to go by; Indie-sensibility cinema, like Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights; ongoing programming of LGBT and Cult & Genre pictures and all manner of one-off cinema-related events. I am planning an inaugural visit to see a relay of the Metropolitan Opera's production of Don Giovanni.

The basics of a good cinema are good quality, comfortable auditoria and helpful staff. In addition, I'd say that Picturehouses understand that a good environment that allows one to step in and out of a screening in the right frame of mind is important. To all the impressive front of house arrangments, I might add that Hackney is well-served for transport and, with the maturation of the Overground service, now a viable alternative for South-East Londoners as well as those in E8. Let's hope that it does as well as it could.

Dimitri Tiomkin Concert, LSO, Barbican

Commemorative stamp, issued 1999
Dimitri Tiomkin was one of the most accomplished, garlanded and best-loved film music composers ever to have worked in Hollywood. A drinking buddy of Sergei Prokofiev's who learnt his trade playing both for silent film and the live shows of comedian Max Linder in his native Russia, Tiomkin was a state composer in the early years of the Soviet revolution. Emigrating to America via Germany, he first worked in movies as a dance music supervisor, his ballet dancer wife choreographing dance sequences. His break as a composer came with his association with Frank Capra during the war, culminating in the score for It's A Wonderful Life. Tiomkin went on to write scores for a number of Westerns as well as significant films with Alfred Hitchcock.

This evening's concert given by the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican was a project of visiting American Richard Kaufman, an accomplished commercial screen conductor. During the nicely mixed programme he produced all four of the composer's AMPAS awards - or Oscars - to stand on the stage alongside the works that won them.

This was by no means the only touch of glitter in a really superb concert. With its relatively recent but nonetheless well-established familiarity with film score recording and performance, the orchestra's sheen, punch and general ebullience rendered Tiomkin's works fresh and alive, whether the music was familiar or obscure. Take, for example, the second piece, a suite from John Wayne's story of The Alamo. The sweeping romance of the first movement and relentless chaos of the final battle contain the very DNA of postwar film music, propagated in spirit by every successful composer since. On top of this there was a Morricone prefacing, Iberian-inflected trumpet solo, sung (the only word) on the trumpet by the LSO's fine principal Philip Cobb. The LSO is an ensemble of such top individuals and tombonist Katy Jones brought this same singing tone to the subsequent suite from The Old Man And The Sea. There was more fine playing from the leader Carmine Lauri and from assorted members of the percussion department - if the six of them had a system for their frenzied rotation around a number of instruments, not least the pitched percussion, I couldn't work it out.

Like the judiciously sprinkled glockenspiel notes so enamoured of Tiomkin, so these unshowy moments of finesse were gilt on a fine fabric of music. Yes, I liked the bombast and romance of The Alamo, Egyptianitised in the Land Of The Pharaohs Procession music or moderated in its drama for the broad vistas of Giant. The Guns Of Navarone and Hitchcock suites seemed to protest too much by comparison. In retrospect it seems no surprise that the sure-footed, folkish melody of Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling (from High Noon) and the famous theme to the TV show Rawhide sat so easily in this programme. Perhaps the most unusual item on the programme was hearing from Tiomkin himself. Kaufman played a short showreel, in which the composer plays up to the camera, revealing the wit that's so clear in his music.

Though, ultimately, my favourite piece of the evening was the winningly Cuban Old Man And The Sea suite, Kaufman could not have picked a better piece to finish than the Search For Paradise theme, an ecstatic MGM-sized happy-ending choral construct which also has a toe or two in the European late-romantic oratorio follies of Mahler or Schoenberg. I say finished... it turned out there was just time for a singalonga-Rawhide before we all went home, making a note of the Westerns that we really ought to have seen.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

We Need To Talk About Kevin's Music

Very interesting video of the We Need To Talk About Kevin press conference at the London Film Festival, concerning the music and sound design through which it's incorporated.

It's fascinating to get a chink of a window into the process of apportioning extant popular music and the use of the original score. It's extraordinary to think that 'thousands' of pieces were played against the film before 'finding' those those worked. It's an oddly organic, aleatoric process - I had assumed that it was more calculated than that, that Lynne Ramsay would have had more precipitate ideas of the music she wanted. I think anyone who invests huge amounts of money in producing a film might want more pre-production assurance, even for the slight budget on which Kevin was made (£7M, Ramsay has suggested).

It's also noteworthy that Ramsay and her producer are keen to acknowledge their sound designer, Paul Davies. It's a conspicuous asset of the film that the sound design is hand in glove with the aesthetic of the images, pacing and dovetailed narrative fragments - an artifice of the film that 'would bring you back to spaces subliminally' as Ramsay neatly puts it. The banal, pitchless monotony of the sprinkler is the stand-out example.

Greenwood's score isn't sui generis, separately memorable. Indeed those clips one can hear used in the trailer (above) incorporate the percussive repetitiousness of that sprinkler. In the tradition of his other music, there are pellucid layers of pitch, harmonically undermined from both above and below - in other words just when you think the music is moving in a familiar direction it shifts or becomes discordant. Again, this is consonant with the aesthetic of the editing, twisting and re-ordering the timeline overlaying the action of a former experience with the sounds of a consequent one.

All this has a very pointed effect - building tension, subverting the linear narrative. It also contributes to the more disturbing subtext of the film, that Eva struggles to work out whether or not she is to blame, whether her own guilt has any reasonable basis. If the sounds and scenes of one part of life bleed into another across the membrane of realism then perhaps there is some way of justifying her own guilt. The equivocation of her self-judgement is represented by the skilful blending of original and extant music with the body fo the film, just as her guilt and that of her son's is blended as their bodies once were.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Alexandre Desplat Prologues

The film opens in New York, in a park. It's cold. The scene unfolds from a wide crane shot, zooming slowly in towards the end. That end is a decisive moment and the shot cuts away to the film proper.

And the film is... Carnage? Roman Polanski's new drama has a prologue played out under the titles, in which we see the act that brings the cast together in a New York apartment.

Or perhaps we are talking about Birth, Jonathan Glazer's remarkable supernatural drama of 2004 in which the opening conjures a unique look at the cycle of life.

It might be just as difficult to pick between the scenes on the basis of the music: in either case, the sequences are given a portentous twist by their underscoring, for example not least in the startling use of timpani towards their conclusion. Both scores are composed by Alexandre Desplat, arguably the premium composer working in film today. Desplat speaks at the London Film Festival this morning about his work. Click here for that wonderful opening to Birth, with angel-chatter flutes against the quietly diabolical, bi-tonally clashing, Stravinsky-like piano. And then the timpani.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Kensington Chamber Orchestra, St Peter's Notting Hill

Conductor Tom Seligman
The Kensington Chamber Orchestra, celebrating its 75th year, is an amateur ensemble playing half a dozen or so concerts a year to a high standard. You can tell this from the programming alone: whilst it's not atypical to find a group of enthusiastic part-time musicians programming Mendelssohn (Hebrides Overture) and Haydn (Symphony No. 97), less obvious were the two central works, Samuel Barber's Op. 14 Violin Concerto of 1940 and a new piece, a suite of three movements, called In Other Words, by the 26 year-old Danyal Dhondy.

The Hebrides, Op. 26 ('Fingal's Cave') is a restless showcase for the orchestra and showed well-blended strings throughout and reedy bite in the bassoons. The acoustic of the church favours the bottom end of the range; when it came to the concerto, soloist Lukas Medlam had a small balancing battle at first, but by the second movement he'd found the contralto swell in his instrument and the long melodic lines sung nicely. The lower strings had also found their groove by this stage, producing notably silky, homogenised tone. I was hugely impressed by the final movement, not only as it requires fine technique - Medlam was totally secure - but also as the conductor, Tom Seligman set off at just the right tempo to manage both the fizz and the folk-dance.

Danyal Dhondy's In Other Words (Rhapsodically - Largo - Con Fuoco) builds swells of colour and density in nicely organised structures. Reaching out with tentative woodwind ahead of broader sweeps across the orchestra, the music is composed very competently, seamless and satisfactory, evoking the internal rhythmic patterns of John Adams next to neoclassical woodwind asides. Finally, the Haydn symphony had the orchestra well warmed up and responding well to Seligman's gesture. The second Adagio movement of variations is a fine piece but the audience's favourite was the tipsy swagger of the Trio.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Film In Opera

This week - and into next - the Royal Opera House is blogging about the use of opera in film. They're promoting the beginning of their big screen season and it also serves to draw attention to their successful relays where opera is shown live in cinemas. It's a particularly auspicious time to be doing this of course as the London Film Festival is now fully into its stride. What better time for a flagship West End events-house to be talking about its film connections than with international film press and the heightened sensibility of a potential public audience wandering the streets between Leicester Square and the South Bank?

It occurs to me though that the Royal Opera may have missed a trick. Opera gets co-opted into film production, but the opposite also happens - the use of film in opera productions. Here are some that you might be interested to know about.

1. Mike Figgis shot a number of specially produced clips shown inbetween scenes of his production of Lucrezia Borgia at English National Opera earlier this year.

UPDATE: I saw the BBC4 broadcast of English National Opera's The Damnation of Faust this evening. Directed by another film director, Terry Gilliam, the production uses a short film early on to show a stylised version of the second world war, and assert the credentials of the Mephistophelean character.

2. Alban Berg's Lulu (incomplete at his death in 1935) specifies a silent film to be shown during the interlude in the middle of the second Act. Doubtless the composer had in his mind Georg Pabst's celebrated 1928 silent film Pandora's Box as both share the same source material. The section of the opera covered by the film equates to the trial of Lulu in Pabst's film.

3. Nico Muhly's new opera Two Boys included specially constructed CCTV footage as part of the production design in a high-tech operatic thriller about the internet.

4. Wagner is one of the most popular composers whose music is appropriated by filmmakers: look no further than the prodigious use of the prelude to Tristan und Isolde in Lars von Trier's recent film Melancholia. The recent Tristan Project production of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in both America and Europe used short films by video installation artist Bill Viola to enhance the narrative of the opera when performed semi-staged.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

The Mikado, Charles Court Opera, Rosemary Branch

Back to the Rosemary Branch Theatre (a super, 50-seater space above a good, straightforward Hackney pub) for more music theatre. On this occasion I had come along to hear Charles Court Opera perform Gilbert and Sullivan's most celebrated operetta The Mikado, in which what I imagine to be the usual ingredients of sprightly melody and textual wit are transposed to a (occasionally ersatz) Japanese situation.

I was hugely impressed in some unlikely areas with this production. The costume design was several notches above the begged, borrowed or pressed-into-service arrangements that many small and medium-sized music theatre companies operate. I would struggle to believe that the bright, period-hinting costumes had not been made from scratch across the cast. The advantage this has is that is sets a level of freshness that is entirely consonant with the energy that the company bring to their performance, which is constantly high.

Additionally, the production itself takes place in an empty space save for a stack of nine scarlet boxes which are moved about by the cast. Apart from creating channels, daises and entrances this also has the advantage of giving the performers a further, abstract concern whilst on stage. Some might consider this a burden on the cast but, given the high tempo at which they moved about the space and delivered their lines, it was useful for them to have this recourse where one might otherwise expect to find on stage furniture, windows or props for them to work with.

Given the visual stimulus of the costuming and the openness of the stage, the restlessness of the show comes as no surprise. It's focused though, respecting the text and always sensibly blocked so that nothing is obscured. Kevin Kyle's Nanki-Poo sets early expectations high anyway by blowing his own trumpet - well, trombone - and the two gentlemen of Japan Pish-Tush (Ian Beadle) and Pooh-Bah lay down a benchmark for the patter that is to come. Director John Savournin, singing Pooh-Bah, is clearly fluent in the idiom, managing the hopping between sung and spoken voice without seam and delivering lines with an optimum sense of timing. It's upon this sense that not only the comedy but a sense of clarity amongst the tumble of parody and farce is achieved.

Naturally the 'three little maids from school' rushed the stage as if from a roughly opened bottle of pop. A blur of choreography and Louise Brooks-bobbed wigs was punctuated by giggling. Susan Moore's finger-picking was a clever little trope which instantly made her the pubescent Peep-Bo, where Carolina Kenedy simply deployed her saucer-eyes as Pitti-Sing. Catrine Kirkman's Yum-Yum, decked out in scarlet as the  base-note of the production, claimed her role prima inter pares at first with a great smile and later with some terrific, unleashed soprano singing.

The drama of The Mikado is created by a further trio of characters, fed into the story to maximise their drama and impact. Ko-Ko, The Lord High Executioner is played by Philip Lee in an entirely appropriate nod to Stan Laurel, generating the comedy through persistent (ingratiating) incongruity. Just as the first half seems to have found some sort of equilibrium to the problem of Nanki-Poo as thwarted lover and Ko-Ko as ridiculous interloper Rosie Strobel bursts in with a Katisha of Turandot-like instability, throwing things into disarray with terrific comic melodrama. Things reach a head, so to speak, when The Mikado himself comes to see that all is as it should be; again, just as in Puccini's Turandot, this is a moment for a considerable stage presence and Simon Masterson-Smith delivers this with a splendid mix of hauteur and affability.

James Young and David Eaton perform the score as a four-handed duet with quite exceptional ensemble and sensitivity to recitative, no mean feat given that they are up stage of the cast and facing that way too. I could barely get over the furious, Nozze di Figaro-like runs of the opening. But then, the whole performance was like that, so settling into a mix of wonder and frequent guffawing seemed like the natural way to spend the show.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Suor Angelica, Fulham Opera

There is inherent drama in a group of nuns (any closed clerical order, perhaps). The austerity of an existence of service and humility will at one time or another be either too claustrophobic for some or an attractive retreat for others. Consequently, the drama within such a group depends both upon the outside world and upon the background of the characters within. The films The Sound Of Music (1965) and Black Narcissus (1947) deal in changing political realities tipping only marginally suitable women of the cloth into danger. This is also the case in probably the purest example, Carl Dreyer's The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928) - Maria Falconetti's Joan isn't battling to defend or escape the walls of a building but her own body. The modern political reality (of the Inquisition) is outside in the courtroom whilst the battle she ultimately wins is with her faith in God, a conflict sealed up inside her head.

I mention this as Puccini's Suor Angelica concerns an young woman with a complicated backstory, who is tipped into tragedy following outside intervention; her eleventh hour re-assertion of faith and consequent redemption is dramatised as if projected from her posthumous conscience. It is a straightforward tale which Puccini renders in an hour of relative composure (i.e. without the dramatic punch of Il Tabarro or the comic tumble of Gianni Schicci, the other two operas that bookend Suor Angelica in Il Trittico) and which Fulham Opera have produced for a pair of performances with minimal fuss.

Puccini's music moves with a certain homophony, and melody in parallel intervals, rather like the lines of nuns processing in and out of the space in twos. Rendered on the piano, this music takes on a carillon-like identity, the bell-like tones being perfectly apposite for piece and space alike. Ben Woodward plays without intrusion.

Elizabeth Capener sings Angelica, a sizeable soprano voice which comes into its own in the high-lying climaxes of passion. Joining her in the decisive central sequence, Sara Gonzalez plays the Zia Principessa as a version of Verdi's Grand Inquisitor, worldly, omnipotent with a sound to match it. It's a powerful, almost choking section of the production, with Angelica subjugated on her knees downstage.

This climate of hauteur is propagated across those in clerical garments. Director Zoë South, as La Badessa, delivers with her eyes on stage what she delivers with a cane off it. Melanie Lodge sings the severe sister Zelatrice, a sort of bad cop to good cop Cathy Bell's compassionate La Maestra, high and low mezzo-sopranos from whom I wish Puccini had allowed us to hear more. In the ensemble of junior nuns there were also a smattering of well-taken ariosi, most notably Nuria Luterbacher's plangent Nurse.

Again Fulham Opera provide surtitles projected onto the back wall of the church, a welcome addition to the production, sung in Italian. However, they do fight with the immutable altar in the centre of the staging area in St John's Church: the action is necessarily off-centre or sequestered in the gloom behind it. I would also question putting so much of the action sitting or kneeling. It can be difficult to see what's going on, even from the third or fourth row. I didn't catch anything of the supernatural coda to the drama, seeing the boy for the first time only at the curtain call. Not to worry - this performance rung with good singing, not least in the final 'off-stage' chorus, a terrific peal of devotional ardour.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Gerhard Richter, Tate Modern

I have a vague familiarity with Gerhard Richter's work: I was struck, visiting Tate Britain sometime back, by one of his blurred/reportage paintings Schwimmerinnen (1965), and I visited the Serpentine exhibition of new work three years back.

On that occasion I think I got out of bed on the wrong side and had no patience with Richter's intentions. This Tate Modern retrospective is a good, well-curated exhibition that shows Richter's consistency and overrides my previous dismissiveness.

There are three types of work, two that are on show in almost every single room. The first are the photo-reproductions, paintings that retain the realism of the photo image but cast it afresh in a mist of 'blurred' paint, as if the image was fixed just as it started to blur in memory. The second are out-and-out abstracts, in which one may also bracket not-photo images, which are often precipitated from the miasma of abstract paint, i.e. emerging from the mist of memory or imagination in the opposite direction to the blurred photo images. Finally there are a number of ready-made style installations, invariably made of glass.

Rather like the Benday dot cartoons of the Pop Art movement, so the brushed-metal blurring of the (invariably grey) paint palette in the photo images is designed to draw attention to the nature of paint and painting. It's interesting that in a piece such as Ferrari (1964, right) the German text printed under the original photograph redprodcued is left intact, sharply realised. It's the image in which Richter has his interest - it's ability not only to represent but also add value to the image, to represent the dynamic reality of the car or at least its potential. There are many other pictures of people, for whom the blulrred image suggests a vibrant quality: the bleached-colour picture Negroes (from the same year) could be a still from a VHS-taped news report from African, the rudimentary 24 frames a second unable to fix the dynamism of the figures sharply.

Inamongst these pictures are distributed a number of landscapes-turned-abstract; beach & sea-scapes whose density overburdens their own reality. I really liked the aerial pictures of urban areas, particularly the Townscapes, again fixed as if from Pathe footage of wartime bombing raids - or as it occurred to me refraction-warped versions of the Warner/Village Roadshow production ident that plays at the opening of feature films - the image of dreams (right).

The monochromaticism of the blurred photo images is the strongest link with the abstracts. Room 4 has a number of these pictures which, in the artist's words
...makes no statement whatsoever... Grey is the welcome and only possible equivalent for indifference...
Still, there are also highly colourful abstracts in the same room, the colour charts which - in isolation at the Serpentine - I had found so pointless. Here, thecharting of the colour takes on its actual point, to disassociate each colour from its neighbour, to render the justapoisiotn of the colour without scheme, so that it becomes exhibited for its own sake. With this going on, the depth and tonal tide of the grey abstracts actually seem structurally rigorous, with one, Grey Streaks (1968) actually resonating in the manner of a Bridget Riley composition.

At the far end of the first thrid of the exhibition is a strange hiatus of a room, including a blurred photo recreation of Titian's Annunciation (1535 - so, a painting of a photo of a painting, a theme to recur later) and realist paintings of clouds, i.e. figures that are already abstracted by their own perpetual motion.

This stylistic ships-in-the-night has a moment of palette-fission and the great coup of the exhibition as, without warning, Room 5 explodes into the technicolour Twomblyism of Room 6. The pictures are almost unbearably noisy on the eye with both collisions of colour and techniques of paint application, like a volcano spitting a rainbow of magma. Versions of these paintings, which left me cold, persist until the end of exhibition with only the possibility of a figure buried in the wash of Abstract Painting (1990, right) and the explictly overpainted photographs of Room 11 marking technical islands in the kaleidoscope. As Richter says - with this consistency that wins me round, even when the straight-up aesthetic doesn't:
[the abstract paintings] visualise a reality which we can neither see nor describe but which we may nevertheless conclude to exist
Alongside these can be seen dogged version of the blurred photographs, sometimes, in the case of his daughter Betty or his wife Sabine (in Reader, 1994, right), where the blurring is replaced with compositional variation, the figures no longer posing for a photo lens but instead taking up a pose as if for a portrait by a master, such as Vermeer. A painting of a photo recreating a painting. This rigour in investigating the purpose of paint, photography and representation finds itself again technically exhausted in Room 11 where a tableau of close photographs of of the surface of a painting of a photograph are displayed to investigate the possibility of a figure remaining intact. It doesn't but I like the tenacity of the idea.

Throughout the exhibition, the counter-Duchamp readymade glass has pared down the idea of an installation as something that may convey meaning instead to something that may hold or rfelct it, when it is examined. The early angled windows have different quanities of light reflected - 100% more than the two panes in the subsequent Grey Abstracts room, as they are over-painted (one cannot have and eat cake). The mirror of Room 6 is another piece that I would have groaned at were it not consistent with this investigation, ending in the stacked panes of Room 12, producing their own, blurred reflection of the viewer.

By the final room I had found the logcial thread of viewing that allowed me to disregard the aesthetically opaque abstracts without concern and relish the painted reportage-reworking of the 9/11 attack picture September (2005, right), a work as searching but dispassionate as the Baader-Meinhof pictures of Room 9. This is a meticulously prepared and mounted exhibition of intense, rigorous painting that might not readily appeal to the eye by certainly rewards the mind.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Exaudi, Exposure 2011, Kings Place

Having 'completely missed' the Boulez love-in at the Southbank this weekend, I thought I might try Exaudi's premiere-heavy programme of contemporary choral music at Kings Place. I have to say that it has been some of the best money I have spent on a concert all year. The group manage the wild frontiers of avant garde choral music with a mix of good singing, fearsome musicianship and (very English, this one) wit - if the music fails to stun or seduce then the audience laughs with the musicians, not at them. There is no chance of being bored.

For example: the group took to the stage carrying bits of the backstage plumbing. Well alright, not exactly, but the tube and can arrangement through which they sang Hugo Maorales Murguia's opener Toques doubled as a typically knowing stunt. It's a good piece too; having hit on the simple acoustic effect of singing wordlessly into this contraption - which becomes kazoo-like with a coin held against the base of the metal bell - Murguia explores it comprehensively without trying anything excessive to overplay it.

If Murguia's hive of sound was a warm welcome, then Salvatore Sciarrino's 3 Madrigali (from a book of more) was almost the main event. Setting Italian aphorisms in a sustained, diaphanous haze of sound, the music is alive to the sonic possibilities of the language. The juxtaposition of voices using different vowels spotlights the harmonics, and the sotto voce cadential flourishes of text grab the attention out of a Mediterranean haze. Introducing the work, conductor James Weeks suggested figures 'scurrying in and out of the shadows'. I was reminded of the so-called spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone where indeterminate figures appear through the mirage or behind the buildings in a shoot out, often caught in the melodramatic snap zoom or jump cut of Leone's camera lens.

EXAUDI © David Jensen 2010
The heat continued with Yuko Ohara's Semi-Shigure, a programmtic approximation of cicadas at dusk. This familiar chirruping is a sound others have tried to paint in music, most notably perhaps Benjamin Britten in the high harp figures of The Rape Of Lucretia. Like Britten's approximation, Ohara's guttural flares cannot directly replicate the sound the insects actually make. I felt that the important and effective part of this observational composition was more in the dialogue between the voices, with the spacing of the chirruping creating a communicative tension characteristic of the insects.

The first half finished with a New Work by Matthew Shlomowitz. Apparently conceived as an orchestral work realised vocally, the second part of the piece involved an indeterminate replication of various orchestral sections. The real showpiece was in the first section though, a scat-style composition which sounded rather like a hyper-realist choral arrangement of Conlon Nancarrow. This is the sort of material in which the group shines, playful but precise, going beyond stylistic pastiche in pursuit of something original: it also produced a stretch of almost supernatural sotto voce singing.

After the interval... well, almost afterwards as the performance of Nicholas Peters' Used Promises started as the audience were still returning to their seats. It's a vaguely aleatoric piece performed by the group arranged around the audience and probably requires more concentration than the emphemeral, fragmented nature of the music might suggest.

Ryan Molloy's Mise Éire might be said to have been the most conventional piece of the evening with its Gaelic text rendered comparatively intact and gravitating towards diatonicism. It's light on its feet though, shifting its tonality against the camber of expectation and demanding faultless tuning from the ensemble.

To conclude, the group gave the choral excerpts from Stefano Gervasoni's suite In dir. Clearly programmed to function as an overview of the various styles and techniques that had preceded it in the concert, the multi-movement work played with harmonics in overlaid lines, muting voices with hands and curious spatial arrangements (a movement performed with the high voices facing away from the conductor). There was also the intriguing addition of whistling - fixed pitches that, even quietly rendered, completely whitewashed the rest of the sound, highlighting the overtone complexity of the sung music. The third movement was the most impressive, a evanescent swirl of pitch and dynamic glissandi in which the fork-wielding group were clearly sticking to the score, although individual starting and ending pitches were fascinatingly impossible to identify.

I think part of the appeal of this concert was watching the group perform: the discreet clatter of tuning forks in particularly awkward chicanes; sideways glances, usually for synchronisation, occasionally in fear or fun; the rigorous beat of James Weeks maintaining the structure. It must surely be a very different experience simply hearing the music on record or in broadcast. Either way the singing would be just as fine. Whilst it's neither proper nor possible to single out particular voices in such an outfit I did leave the event bouncing around in recollection of the first soprano bubbling over the top of Shlomowitz's cartoon-manic New Work scat. So, stunned, seduced and laughing along with them.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Berkeley/Martinu Double Bill, Rosemary Branch

Lennox Berkeley
Lennox Berkeley's A Dinner Engagement and Bohuslav Martinu's Comedy On The Bridge, performed at the Rosemary Branch Theatre by Minotaur Music Theatre, are not particularly well-known works. There are a number of reasons for this. Neither Berkeley nor Martinu are particularly familiar names, and one-act operas are by their nature rather marginalised (it's difficult to programme one for an evening in the same way as a full-length, three act work; and the necessary pairing to fill the programme, such as this, results in tempering of each other work's impact).

It's also the case that neither work is really particularly overwhelming. A Dinner Engagement (1954) is a jolly but highly mannered domestic farce, an Ealing Comedy set in a kitchen. Self-conscious stylistic ideas creep in to try and froth up the text and for all the crisp lyricism in the melody there isn't really call for either bel canto proper (pace Prince Phillipe's moments of pastiche) or quite the thematic distinction that one associates with Berkeley's contemporary Benjamin Britten (on whose own social comedy of seven years earlier, Albert Herring, Berkeley cannot have helped to have drawn in some way - I certainly heard some of this is in the ensemble stretches).

Bohuslav Martinu
It has charm though, which was what I missed from the Martinu. The Comedy On The Bridge (1937) is a very comprehensive way of describing the function of the piece - aside from the absurdity of the five-handed cast getting stranded on a bridge slung between two conflicting armies there isn't all that much humour to be wrung out of the work. Once again though, there are nice tranches of melody (albeit in the surprisingly angular, post-Janacek vein) to be savoured.

Both shows used the same production team, clearly a hand-in-glove outfit where Gregor Donnelly's sets stretch out diagonally from a rear wing to the front of the stage on the opposite side and are lit (specifically in the Martinu) with musical precision by Jerome Douglas. The design also assists director Stuart Barker in keeping the characters moving in very mobile productions.

All twelve of the singing cast gave good accounts of the roles. In Dinner, David Milner-Pearce relished the Earl of Dunmow's language and Emily Kenway gave Mrs Kneebone the full Eliza Doolittle, neither scrimping on tone. As Prince Phillipe, Alberto Sousa sang with bright and easy ring, well-managed within the small space; the Cupid-strike between him and Louise Lloyd's Susan was sweetly played. Sara Gonzalez Saavedra and Elizabeth Roberts played their mother figures straight but with attention and subtlety - I must also mention the bookending role of the Errand Boy which required tenor Rhys Bowden to run into the brewing farce, blurt out high-lying music and then rush off again. It's in such well-taken moments that the comedy lights up.

On the Bridge, there was a similar consistency, with the Samuel Smith's baritone Schoolmaster for me the stand-out (though I wish he hadn't needed to rush about so much to point up his mania and that tiresome 'deer' business). Georgis Ginsberg's Josephine was also fine, setting the standard in the first five minutes to which the subsequent Joseph Padfield (Brewer), Owain Browne (Johnny) and Marta Fontanals-Simmons (Eva) rose. Daniel Ricker's spoken role (the Guards, offstage) was a well-judged addition to the mix, just the right pace and drawl in delivery to convince as a jobsworth and lubricate the comedy nicely. Alice Turner and Lliam Paterson played the pianos (and more besides!) musically and securely in sometimes tricksy scores.