Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Campion's Bright Star Glee Club

I saw Jane Campion's exquisite account of John Keats' love affair with Fanny Brawne earlier in the week. Bright Star is a film distinguished by its superior photography and costume & set design. It also has an admirable lack of music, given that the lyric focus is on literary delights, spoken text. However, the film opens with a part-sung arrangement of Mozart's Wind Serenade in B Flat. A totally a capella, Swingle-like version of the piece is heard - and seen - a second time as the men of Hampstead gather together to sing it in a drawing room, like some sort of Romantic glee club. It's the piece indelibly described by F Murray Abraham's Salieri at the beginning of Milos Forman's Amadeus, thus:



And this is how we hear it in Campion's film:

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

War Requiem, Philharmonia, Maazel, RFH

Last night's performance of Britten's much admired large-scale setting of the Requiem Mass comes just weeks shy of the 50th anniversary of its premiere in Coventry (right). It appears that the performance wan't intended to mark this anniversary, though a sober work such as this is appropriate for a weekend in Lent usually peppered with performances of Bach Passions, Handel Messiahs and the like. I mention this as the War Requiem is undeniably an event piece, a concert work demanding the sort of performing corps that renders it impractical in the usual run of the repertory. It is also a piece whose subject matter and treatment is very serious, requiring great commitment and a certain belief from performers and audiences alike. The Philharmonia, overlooked by the couple-of-hundred strong Philharmonia Chorus, shared a crowded stage with the twelve-piece chamber orchestra and the male soloists, Mark Padmore and Matthias Goerne. The boy choristers' choir (from Tiffin School) sang from the royal box. The sound in tumultuous moments was overwhelming, and in quiet moments no less so for the hush. It's testament to Britten's writing that the piece doesn't swiftly degenerate into an hour and a half of sub-forte tidal flow.

It's also to Britten's great credit that the piece delivers its emotional cache unerringly. This performance was a catalogue of mixed blessings and, like any other large scale event, had its own fair share of force majeure - an orchestral player taken sick mid-performance, a rogue ringtone, etc. Not only is the (still) modern musical idiom true and affecting but also the rhetoric and the drama of the work are intense and compelling, gripping the attention even in the face of distractions on or off the stage.

The War Requiem is a remarkably English work of art. Everything about the piece, including the nature of its gestation and composition in the mind of this most pungently English of composers is there in the score. Its wistful semitonal clashes aren't simply a product of the thematic centrality of the tritone but also of Britten's favoured, fresh Lydian fourth, the whole-tone melodiousness that breathes in the North Sea air and looks out over the flat, open Fenland countryside. This is the very coinage of the England that Britten was compelled to return to in 1942 from pacifist exile in America, despite the threat of statutory sanction, the England that inspired his great war time masterpiece about a misfit in the East Anglian community, Peter Grimes.

One also feels the drama of Grimes, indeed most of the drama of Britten's considerable operatic canon to this point. The War Requiem is, after all, a dramatic work well within the tram lines of previous monuments of the genre, and most importantly that of Verdi. Part of Britten's strength is not eschewing the simple dramatic gesture, when it's appropriate. Just as the mob temperament in Grimes (as the Borough emerge from church) is achieved by inflaming the music by semitonal steps, so the first of the two climactic arrivals at G minor in the terrifying Libera Me can seem a little forced (especially given the serial rigour of the rest of the work) but cannot be argued with in the moment. The contiguity of Britten's musical thought also continues after the period of the War Requiem - the gamelan sounds of the opening of the Sanctus is the sonic home of Owen Wingrave, the overtly pacifist hero of Britten's penultimate opera a decade later.

However, it's the text, the poems of Wilfred Owen, that is the loam in which the piece's power is gestated. In last night's performance, the only British - English - soloist of the performance, Mark Padmore, was the first to genuinely summon the electricity of the piece with the setting of Owen's 'Futility' (in the Dies Irae). 'Move him into the sun', the tenor sings, and in Padmore's hands the entreaty is febrile, intimate, reminding us that this isn't a text describing the horror of war so much as a sombre record of its dead participants. Here's footage of the performers from the premiere*, tenor Peter Pears and the composer conducting at this very moment in the music:



* meaning the performers in this clip performed at the premiere. There's no indication that the footage is from the premiere itself, though it looks as if it is one of the performances given around the country in the year following the Coventry premiere.

When 'the kind old sun' is found impotent, the arc set in motion already looks forward to the final chorus, 'Let us sleep now...' (this final chorus also employing Britten's Lydian D major-in-A juxtaposition, the same sound-world as for the Elysian music of the later Death in Venice).

Britten's own idea for staging the work put into practice in his hugely successful recording (if not entirely realised at the premiere) was for there to be a soloist from each of the countries directly affected by the conflict of the second world war - a Briton and a German with a Russian soprano. Interestingly, this is the most overt statement the piece has to make about its relation to the second world war. The piece, with its Owen texts, end-of-empire bugle calls and bitterly satirical side drum invoking the mechanisation of gunfire, is very much a piece reflecting the horror - the shock and loss of innocence - of the first world war.

The great, novel tragedy of the second world war - the Shoah, or Holocaust - is not referred to in the War Requiem. Perhaps this is because, unlike the central meditation on fruitlessness and pity of internecine conflict contained in Owen's 'Strange Meeting' at the heart of the work, the mass genocide of European Jews  was a more clear-cut crime. I suspect that Britten restricted himself to the overview of European conflict mapped out by Owen's Anglicised experiences-in-poetry to retain a focus to the meditation of the work. Certainly the composer, who travelled with Yehudi Menuhin to give a concert in Belsen after the war was not negligent of the great atrocity perpetrated against Jews.

I mention this to try and make sense of the overall impression of a well-rendered but never ardent performance. Is it that, for a Jewish-American conductor and an American soprano, placed with the choir as a sort of heraldic leader of the chorus, the vital, indelibly English content of the work was at a remove? Was there a disconnect - that the piece, on the face of it, was brought into being as balm for a dreadful conflict, but whose freshest wound is not directly attended? Is the sense of compassion and reconciliation within such a specific historical vehicle too odd a pairing for performers of a different perspective, possibly predisposed to focus on the irreconcilable, principally criminal narrative of mass murder? It is, surely, difficult to see how a couplet such as
when each proud fighter brags
he wars on Death - for life; not men - for flags.
sits with those whose account of the conflict is recounted by civilians with numbers crudely (and cruelly) tattooed on their forearms.

This occured to me as I had a new experience of the work itself. Though familiar with the piece, in this performance I was most touched by the final lines of Owen's The End, as sung by Goerne:
And when I hearken to the Earth, she saith:
'My fiery hearts shrinks, aching. It is death.
Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified
Nor my titanic tears, the sea, be dried.'
This is the bleakest, least resolved music of the work (and was beautifully played by the chamber orchestra in this performance). On three occasions the apparently irresolute tritone that opens the piece is resolved in a pointedly cathartic choral. Not here. It is, despite that, the most beautiful music, tender with humanity rather than hushed with piety.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Circus Tricks, Tete a Tete, Riverside Studios

There's a sequence towards the mind-numbingly violent conclusion of Michael Haneke's Funny Games in which  the mother of a family, tortured by a pair of sadistic killers, shoots one of them. The other disarms her - and then, in a surreal but horrific twist, takes a TV remote and rewinds the very film that they're all in. Thus the hopeless scene plays out again without even the catharsis of revenge.

Now, Circus Tricks is no horror show but there is a deflating sequence towards the end which involves the rewinding of one character's solipsistic version of events. It's a clever little moment - staged in a not dissimilar fashion to an identical rewind in the Royal Opera's recent Miss Fortune - but the sense of disappointment that comes with it betrays the laboured path that the opera had taken. This is partly to do with the format: each character sings about their act in similarly technical vernacular and then this is inventory is repeated in the second half of the opera. It's (formally) reminiscent of the choral dances in Britten's Death In Venice, a ballet of beach games in which it quickly becomes apparent that each event is going to be described in an embarrassing action-as-poetry argot by the chorus.



Unlike Circus Tricks, the sequence of five events takes less than five minutes, has its own characterised subtext and a dramatic consequence.

Circus Tricks isn't a bad idea by any means. I liked the context and the characters. The set and costumes are competently designed. There's room for drama with all sorts of relationships hinted at from the start. Michael Henry's music is good - possibly a little anonymous but never simply selling out to pastiche. The Chroma ensemble sextet under Gerry Cornelius play the music with unity of tone and purpose (and no little stamina, I'd imagine). The cast sing it very well, particularly Lilly Papaioannou's enticingly languid, 'mysterious' Contortionist, the elastic coloratura of Yvette Bonner's Trapeze Artist and the peculiar falsett of Daniel Keating-Roberts' Acrobat Tom, the only strain in his voice being pertinent to his boozing character.

All this well-intentioned indutry is for nothing is the drama lacks a third dimension. This is promised in the rather informal opening as the characters lounge around the space, waiting to rehearse and perform. But with the exception of a lovely vignette in which the Trapeze Artist and the Trick Pony (brilliantly played throughout by Christopher Diffey) indulge a relationship unrelated to their work there is little interaction, ultimately prevented entirely by the performance set pieces. There is a also a remarkable lack of humour, with one consciously inserted joke (concerning traffic cones) taking most of its impact from the incongruity one associates from encountering a Tourettes sufferer.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Miss Fortune, Royal Opera

On the face of it, Judith Weir's latest work for the theatre, Miss Fortune, is both self-explanatory and timely. The story concerns a girl who shuttles between situations, apparently overdetermined by a meanie countertenor, before a prince charming appears to make it better. The episodes and their contemporary setting seems to reflect the economic downturn and its attendant redundancies and fear.

Yet I was far from alone in leaving the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden last night unmoved by personal drama or unedified by some sort of pellucid argument concerning 'money, fate and fortune' (to quote Weir's own writing on the piece). I simply couldn't find any way of getting involved. The score seems to have ironed itself out to accommodate the composer's own unremarkable libretto. With no contours in dynamic, texture or the sheer kineticism of the music it was as if the population of the stage were already somnambulant in the face of the shock of the rolling episodes of crisis.

The opening scene is a case in point. The staging is semi-abstract, with Tina wandering around a party that her parents are throwing either at home or the business in which they're clearly successful. When news breaks that there is a market crisis, the parents bail out, Tina decides to go her own way and the partygoers/employees are left to bemoan the crash. Yet the music suggests no sense of dramatic tilt, unlike in, for example, the Jungfrau shares scene that marks the downturn in the fortunes of Berg's Lulu halfway through that opera.

Admittedly, the nouveau riche posturing followed by a faintly comic exit gives the impression that the composer has equal contempt for the characters whether in plenty or in need. I don't think that this is a piece that deals in dramatic equivalence for its own sake though. There's no irony here, which, incidentally, is virtually impossible in Tom Pye and Han Feng's semi-abstracted design. Miss Fortune is not a work of satire. Satire on a lyric stage is quite tricky anyway, as it's a form interested in investigating, not undermining emotions.

Lest we get ahead of ourselves, it is worth noting the good music that does emerge periodically. I liked the piano embedded in the score for that opening party, at once both an orchestral colour and - played with great finesse in the pit - a suggestion of the lounge entertainment hired for the evening. The highlight of the piece for me was at the start of the second scene. Seeking her fortune, or maybe just adventure, Tina, sung by Emma Bell, sings of the 'Lonely night' with pared-down string ensemble, echoing Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. The music is introspective but optimistic, one of the opera's natural moments of stasis-but-not-inertia.

There are moments of drama to be had within the score as well. In the laundry sequence towards the end of the first act, two different musics overlap, creating an anticipatory tension appropriate for the expected arrival of a much talked-up client, Simon. Simon himself, sung by Jacques Imbrailo, has the best stretch of solo music when he returns to try and find the girl, and consequently saves the day (rather like Richard Gere in Pretty Woman, the aggressive businessman returning bearing flowers).

These gleaming moments aside, I simply found myself either anaesthetised or confused into disengagement. If the music wasn't soothing me with its homogeneity then the mixed signals of the production's intent left me bewildered. One of the significant talking points of the night will doubtless be the employment of a terrific breakdancing troupe, Soul Mavericks (backstage production video here), as the instigators of Fate's invariable malevolence. Their initial, dramatically purposeless formal ballet aside, they were well used as imps of free will and I found the closing-curtain tableau of their ensemble dancing rather affecting (succinctly put, the joy of dancing is not contingent on fortune). But the use of the troupe to evoke the August riots in destroying a small business not only transgressed their supernaturalism but also put the shackles of association on the (street) style of dancing - not to mention the ethnicity of the largely black troupe - which had hitherto been an intriguing idiomatic departure on the stage.

Furthermore we are left with a sense of moral equivalence as to the intention of the Fate character himself. Andrew Watts played the overdeterminator as having a fine old time (anyone who saw his Mephistopheles in Schnittke's Faust at the Festival Hall two years ago will know that he owns such characters), with the 'human' population of the opera at his will, but it is that human population to which our sympathies are naturally drawn; for them to be puppets of an apparently irrational god is simply not interesting.

Ultimately, the opera does seem to tie together around one character. Simon, dressed for the City with his three piece suit and red tie, sings his aria and then goes on to secure the happiness of all with his altruism not only of pocket but of soul. There are flowers for his admiring laundrette, cash for the struggling smallholder and in persuading Tina to come with him and enjoy his manifest security he also gets her to hand over a significant lottery winning to the down-at-heel proletariat. Politically this is a difficult conclusion to stomach, that the economic turbulence we see about us is the result of noumenal forces which may nonetheless be righted by a friendly, philosophically moral banker. Hmm. And as I've already noted, this isn't a satirical work.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Gary Hume, Flashback, Leeds


While London's Gagosian Galleires put on their arm of a worldwide showing of Damien Hirst's Spot Paintings, Leeds have contrived their own YBA retrospective with a modest exhibition of the work of Gary Hume. Gary Hume's current work is also available in London at the moment but Flashback at the Leeds Art Gallery offers an opportunity to see work over a longer period, including the hospital door series that first brought him to prominence.

It's that series that I headed to first. It's good to see them for real. Reproduction of Hume's work is particularly misrepresentative, given the surface of the acrylic and gloss paints that he uses, the aluminium on which many are rendered and the surface peccadilloes in each painting. The shapes of the panels and windows built into the doors are all that bring feature or focus to the paintings - all are paintings of double doors but none have marks in the paint or the canvas to shows the central division. Brush strokes are virtually indistinguishable. Instead, the pastel colours throw themselves from the surface of the paintings in an emancipated act of tonal 3D, even more alive than the suggested Manga-like anthropomorphism of the vaguely face-like features of the fittings.

Colour may be the issue with these paintings but it is the surface that is half the story with the other pieces on show. Hume's manipulation of the paint is changeable. There are brushstrokes in a piece like Mud, culminating in crests as swirls of paint meet one another: Hume has actually painted a number of these with a lick of white to highlight them. The effect is dynamic. But this isn't always the case, as the earlier Snowman, a piece caught somewhere between Matisse and Kazimir Malevich's reductive blocks of colour has no surface interest. A colossal Barn Door, rendered in scarlet is in fact the opposite of the hospital doors - a solid block of colour, its features are only discernible through the imposition of familiar marks in the paint.

The confrontational soul of the YBA lives on in a piece that demands discussion on the wall opposite the  hospital doors. The Cunt seems at first to simply be a crude, reductive picture of female genitalia. However, immediately there are questions. Which way up? What's the perspective? With two undulating areas of paint, one pink, one deep brown around a central pastel flange its also impossible to work out the ethnicity of the subject. I found myself thinking of cubist explosions of 3D, taking the contour and depth-of-field interest of a subject like a woman's groin and rendering it as a flat surface. It's in this that Hume's technique comes into its own, where the figurative information in a more straightforward painting is rendered in colour, construction and the ambiguous appeal of the surface. Such is the nature of Four Feet In The Garden, the picture being used to publicise the exhibition. From a distance the picture looks like a Rorschach Test, with only closer inspection showing the figurative outlines of the (eight!) feet worked into the surface. The blazing and deeply dark colours of the composition suggest something less cosy than barefooted friends standing together on a suburban lawn - the formal oddity of the grass at the bottom of the painting confirms these suspicions.

Large, modern paintings that gradually force you into a relationship with them, Hume's paintings have a surprising subtlety that has grown out of the crack in the firmament between the modernism of Matisse and the Impressionism of Bonnard.