Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Turandot, Royal Opera by Cinema Relay

The buzz was like a broken hive. Andrei Serban's production is well thought of but the talk was of the titular soprano, being played here by the American Lise Lindstrom (right), her 100th turn in the role. In the event, all the talk was surpassed.

I've always struggled a bit with Turandot. Not with the beautiful music which flirts with the ascendant fashion of the Second Viennese school's harmonic dissolution. Applied to the inherent rigours of the pentatonic melodies which Puccini brought a priori to Turandot such stylistic affectations are subsumed as just that. No, rather the strictures as applied to the drama mean that the first act can feel rather like a pageant, a parade of tableaux rather than scenes brewing a drama.

Though this was the case in this revival, the production (set in a courtyard, a theatre of its own) embraces the theatricality of the setup with characters in masks and much structured movement (Kate Flatt). Calaf, Timur and Liu stick out like a parody of Parsifal, Gurnemanz and Kundry in a Good Friday meadow in this environment, and so their interactions shine out with full value. This preparation also means that the entrance of Turandot herself in Act 2, complete with Tai Chi-style movement for the ritual of her riddling is both expected and all the more shocking when that facade cracks at Calaf's success.

Crowning this was the simply phenomenal singing of Lise Lindstrom. Her exemplary technique (something one can see in detail with the cinema close-up!) allowed her to act in the same reserved manner as she moved, accentuating the traumatised ice-queen bearing, rendering her music unearthly rather than hectoring. Her extraordinary control allowed for minute attention to characterisation and some wonderful soft singing in the final act. This also took the sting out of losing not only Liu (fine singing from Eri Nakamura) but also Puccini himself; for all the faithfulness Alfano brought to the completion of the score, the drama feels brought to a perfunctory or possibly facile close where the composing baton changes hands. This is rescued by the conviction of Lindstrom and the Earnest Berti, whose heroic bearing met Lindstrom's total absorption of the terrible beauty of the Princess.

Kate Flatt's over-performing choreography was particularly well dispatched by Pi/a/ong who sang well and made something 3-dimensional with their part that can often be a dramatic burden. All supporting roles were well-taken. The relay itself was better than on a previous occasion, with no intermittent music and entertaining & informative interval features. Memorable, especially the wonderful second act.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas, Royal Court

For a while watching Dennis Kelly's The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas, the first play of Vicky Featherstone's tenure as the director of the Royal Court theatre, I wondered whether we might get an ultra-reductive seven-hander storytelling of a show. The cast were sat in a line taking paragraphs of exposition in turn - and, as it turned out, more or less in character - while the cosmic backdrop curtain lit up the proximate weave of characters as they popped up in the story. Simple storytelling for a sizeable subject then.

Though I was prepared to go along with this, I must confess to being perfectly happy with a staged production slipping into action just as the titular character (Gorge = George) is about to have the Damascene experience that will change the course of his life, and charge the drama. Faced with a life's repetitive conundrum, whether goodness is synonymous with courage or cowardice, he capitulates to a capitalist's perfect opportunity. For me, the conundrum is bleached into insignificance as Gorge undertakes to follow his 3-rule scheme of acquisition and not least as the sequence (well-acted by Pippa Haywood) adopts the cosmic umbrella of the earlier set up, complete with dimmed lights and stopped time.

This solipsistic effect is even better used in the following scene in which a hotel-room drama is frozen to allow the rest of the cast to continue their Greek chorus role in situ. I also liked a nicely judged, unnerving fourth wall assault as the conviviality of the chorus seems to succumb to the animal antagonist instincts of the Ayn Rand-like creed in the play's blood. Unfortunately, the final scene doesn't has too much to do given the set-up, which suggests some sort of insight, or at least Houellebecq-style irony or dispassion. The future is flagged up as such (the performance uses a date that corresponds to the night we went, and I suspect that moves on night after night to make a point about its contemporary credentials).

That said it's well-played across the board. The writing and design make their point about the soulessness of capitalism and its attendant manipulativeness without tying itself to the most recent financial crisis. The issue of truth-telling only for relative moral expedience is a bit lost and the twist in the end relegated to a minor event. It's an evening of humour and strong intent though.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Vivienne, McCaldin Arts, Tete a Tete Opera Festival & Camden Fringe

During August I had the opportunity to see three performances of a new mono-drama by the company for whom I do some publicity work, McCaldin ArtsVivienne - commissioned by the company's producer-performer Clare McCaldin - is a sequence of six songs concerning the life of TS Eliot's first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, intended for the stage. The piece is typical of the company's body of work concerning women with a literary background. The music style of Vivienne suggested itself as the Eliots loved the variety and dance culture of music hall. Indeed an early press-release for the piece suggested a range of stylistic reference in the music, from the informality of cabaret to the rather more arms-length foil of opera and with all manner of music-hall inflected variety inbetween.

This was partly to do with the interest of the protagonists. Yes, there are two. There is the figuratively present Vivienne, whom Clare McCaldin embodies in the show. There is also the absent TS Eliot, to whom Vivienne directs her conversation, pleading, scorn and ultimate bewilderment.

The absence of an implicit character is the one issue that, on the face of it, could have presented a problem to the company. McCaldin's familiar collaborator Stephen McNeff and his librettist Andy Rashleigh (a shrewd partnership, the pair having worked worked on a previous, stylised music drama after TS Eliot, The Waste Land, almost twenty years ago) found themselves without a second figure with whom to construct dialogue.

Andy Rashleigh rather brilliantly outmaneouvres the issue by peppering Vivienne's text with endless refractions of Eliot's poetry. Thus Eliot is given a voice in absentia, investing Vivienne's recollections with both succour and sarcasm. The drama is in the elliptical cadences that this half-remembered verse, midwifed by Vivienne during their marriage, provides. Her life - by being bound to Eliot - is unfinished. She is ready and waiting for the next act.

The illusion of a character in song does not automatically guarantee the same on stage in production. In his light-touch treatment of the work director Joe Austin worked hand-in-glove with his regular designer partner Simon Kenny to create a special space for Vivienne. Blank but not void, the white square is defined but not a cell. It is a platform - but for Vivienne's own, self-reflexive audience. Across the two performance venues of its summer run, the footlights of the Tete a Tete Opera Festival show were necessarily lost to the raised dais of The Forge, Camden. The early-proposed cabaret element was definitively sacrificed to these fourth walls but the clearer delineation of Vivienne as an operatic mono-drama made for a more taut experience.

Ready... Vivienne hesitates to come into this defined, pedagogic space. In both theatres Clare McCaldin entered the auditorium from the wing in character, pausing to absorb the potential and demands of the stage from its periphery. Perhaps Vivienne understands her actions and the drama they will precipitate?

Vivienne Haigh-Wood was sectioned in 1938 but the reasons are still equivocal: thought mad, as her biophysical condition was undiagnosed, it's possible that she was complicit in her own incarceration. This is a clear suggestion of the 1994 film adaptation of Michael Hastings' play Tom & Viv, right (one might note that this suggestion of self-sacrifice from an atheist for her high-Anglican husband is the ironic opposite of the dramatic twist at the heart of Graham Greene's contemporaneously set The End Of The Affair).

... and waiting. Vivienne is waiting for Eliot to return, just as she did when the poet returned from America in 1933 (where he had gone for a year's professorship and to enforce the separation from her he had long wanted). This is a where the Beckettian confines of the production space are at their most apparent; Vivienne looks outwards but her questioning of Eliot's whereabouts are rhetorical, her cries in the final song 'Belladonna' expressionist, expecting no comeback. Even the bare, white design is a limbo. In her nightshift she is poised, either prepared to dress for action, or to capitulate in sleep.

Such is the nature of Eliot's own modernism which rattles backwards and forwards between styles and sensibilities (biographer Peter Ackroyd notes that Eliot probably wanted to re-create in poetry what Joyce had achieved in the prose of Ulysses).

Stephen McNeff's music reflects this with fluid movement in and out of pastiche with a brisk piano scoring that suggests a skeletal, Weill-like club band. Then a sudden, startling brake in motion exposes the appropriation of style as nothing more than that and Vivienne is left just as 'lost, lonely and scared' as - without rhetoric - she says she is. Indeed this is the central moment of this score, the least opaque, the most intimate and honest music, in McNeff's authentic vernacular. No more the 'tomfoolery' (Andy Rashleigh's own word), the displacements of dancing, nostalgia or the simple (Freudian) procrastination of thinking about it all.

In each performance that I saw of Vivienne, Clare McCaldin and her pianist Libby Burgess had completely absorbed this febrile characteristic. Meticulously enunciated lyrics, coloured by the musical setting, meant that the opera was alive, able to alter shade or temperament quickly. In consequence, gestures could be small, be they the shifting bias of a tempo change or a movement, even a look; somehow Clare McCaldin managed to make a distinction between the mind's-eye reality of a post-coital Bertrand Russell in the next chair and the thousand-yard stare at an Eliot who is there in neither fact nor promise.

By the close, the desiccated truth of Vivienne's isolation renders even the piano superfluous. She is ready and waiting but to no purpose. Perhaps, as Eliot himself famously said, 'in my end is my beginning', and, caught in this circularity, Vivienne bloodlessly intones 'stick her in a long book until it's all over' (in the repetitive style of the famous 'This is the way the world ends' denouement of The Wasteland itself). Like the evanescent Pincher Martin or - also stuck, hallucinating, on a rock - Tristan (referred to by both Eliot and Rashleigh), the protagonist is oscillating between life and extinction until one is indistinguishably the other.

Being part of the backroom team for Vivienne meant that I was willing the piece and its production to succeed. However, the unequivocal success of the show - which, despite my identification of its raw emotional kernel, is also a riotous and occasionally risqué entertainment - came as a pleasant surprise to the company. Further performances in London are planned, though the nature of the staging is yet to be determined.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

A visit to the British Library: Propaganda and Benjamin Britten

I had wanted to have a look around the Propaganda Exhibition at the British Library since it opened and took my chance today, in this its last week. In the event I had mixed feelings. There is a lot of stylised information, quotations on mannequins largely aphorisms explaining what 'propaganda' means (the term comes from the Catholic Church who set up an office in the early 17th century for 'propagating the faith'). The point about the nature of propaganda is that one is never sure to which degree the information is original, authentic or simply true: with a broad international base I found that I was ignorant of a lot of the background to slogans, sounds and artefacts; in addition the unforgivably poorly-lit text notes with exhibits seemed to have been ignored - never was such annotation needed more!

Still, it was nice to see a constructive analysis of the London Olympics (2012) on video, and other footage: a 1940s mashup of Leni Riefensthal's The Triumph Of the Will with The Lambeth Walk is a particular delight.

Also in the British Library at the moment is a modest exhibition (in the Folio Society atrium) dedicated to English composer Benjamin Britten, whose 100th birthday will be celebrated in November. Britten travelled to America in 1939, in part to escape the antagonistic atmosphere for conscientious objectors to the war, yet still engaging in propaganda of a sort by writing a march for the Peace Pledge Union (the score is on display).

Back in the UK, and his reputation established, he wrote the War Requiem for the reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral. This was premiered in the space in 1962 and the exhibition has an autograph score and a press cutting from its first, positive reception. In October I am taking part in a trip to perform the War Requiem in Shanghai, which - 50 years after the Coventry premiere - will be the first performance of the piece in China.