Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Rough for Opera 14, Second Movement, Cockpit Theatre

Second Movement's Rough for Opera series is a vital part of London's operatic life-cycle. Of the spurt of showcase events throughout the capital in the past decade, Rough for Opera's is now something of a flagship, an exemplar. An established series, it exists as a platform apart from the work and artists on show. It also benefits from being professionally run, and from operating in a well-equipped theatre that can deal with manifold musical or dramatic whimsy.

This technical capability was conspicuously valuable for the first two works in a typically eclectic evening's programme. Two Sided Boy investigated the social pixelation of modern life, as a mother frets about her relationship with her son who is immersed in virtual reality. This piece shares technical and material themes with Nico Muhly's avatar-thriller Two Boys (ENO, 2011); the Q&A revealed ambitions for an unconventional additional role for mobile interaction with audience smartphones. Also in the first half, Anna Clock's Constellations created evocative sounds in tandem with Lauren Tata's live projection arrangements - imagine Olafur Eliason's Weather Project vibrating to a soundtrack.

After some discussion inside and outside the theatre, we returned for a more conventionally operatic offering, with Martin Ward's The Sinken Sun (pictured above). Putting the experience of a successful career writing for both lyric and straight theatrical stages, Martin (writing both music and text) has picked out an angle on his interest in the life of writer John Clare. This two hander takes a look at Clare from the perspective of the man and through the eyes of a contemporary reader, so opening up a point of view about the endurance of art, the communicability of spoken word - sung here, of course, the natural medium for the meter of Clare's text. With carefully prepared parts and good singing from the soprano (Billie Robson) and baritone (Paul Sheehan) and staging marked only with the most simple lighting and costume, the text and its rigorous setting were the constant focus. As pianist James Young pointed out, Martin Ward's music has a horizontal profile. The lyricism is in the lines. The harmony is rather wild, a reflection of the untamed countryside, the situation of text and opera, but the sung lines chart a course through it, aesthetically and narratively.

Song, stage and story may not be the operatic-component shooting match in 21st lyric theatre. The versatility - and reliability - of audio and visual projection is now a theatrical given. Additionally, the ubiquity of handheld devices and the reliability of connection mean that interaction may have some future in the theatre.

The challenge is to purpose this capability. The ever-present but unanswered question of showcase events, of which Rough for Opera is at the forefront, concerns the nature of opera itself. Yet "What is opera?" is actually a less interesting question than "What does this creative team consider opera to be?". Irrespective of the means to their end, it must be part of each creative team's working basis that they have a clear idea of the practical-aesthetic manner (as well as content) of how they connect with the audience. Rough for Opera have a sympathetic, open, interested and - judging fro comments and questions, informed - audience comprised not only of friends and followers of the performers; they also have the luxury of a clear-sighted mediator of the valuable Q&A sessions that succeed each performance, with Paul Barker finding value and questions alike in the work. The work on show at last night's typically provoking event stirred up the issue of the intent of each creative group's efforts once again and showed the importance of pursuing some sort of personal answers, if not consensus.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Listen Pony

This week the OED decided that their word of the year was going to be 'post-truth'. It's quite a 'post-' year all round in fact. The familiar is history and novelty has settled down in its place.

This is clearly the case in music. We are post-Crossover, with its careful packaging of artist, venue and all-round experience for the widest possible audience (at the expense of the music). We are post-re-appropriation, with the experiments of Yellow Lounge, Night Shift and the like taking genre classical into opposition genre venues (clubs, pubs) to highlight the common ground of the musical venn diagram; or new work in incongruent venues (a bascule bridge counterweight housinga concrete factory) to offset the increasingly curious dissonance of contemporary music in formal design concert halls. The experiment of space-annexation in operatic production has also run its course.

Though Listen Pony bears the hallmarks of the Noughties novelty drive - sticking apparently incongruent words together to stake a claim in the new world of digitised promotional platforms - that's as far as any fad goes. Tuesday's concert brought together musicians who wanted to play music they liked without any further agenda. There's no angle for selling a concert of old and brand new music featuring a saxophone quartet, a viola da gamba player, and a chanteuse covering Schumann with a saw. Why else would you name your collective after one farmyard animal and then pop another (a cock) on the publicity? This concert, presented in four 20 min sets rather than hour-long halves is not necessarily new in format. However, the ease of the audience and the performers who talked with us freely and fluently demanded that we consider the post-modernity of the circumstances and the path we have all tried and trudged to get here.

And so to the music - which, in the absence of things being sold or fashions being showcased, was all it came down to. The dry-but-not-dead acoustic of Clerkenwell's Crypt on the Green is a good venue, neutral and clear for the wide range of colour and dynamic in the acoustic line-up. We heard diaphanous sinuousness in Freya Waley-Cohen's Unbridling and a Marin Marais work that sounded like a folk song. Alastair Putt's restricted-palette Tombeau found extra, more occluded colours when Liam Byrne was asked to play closer to the bridge of his viola da gamba. The Laefer Quartet were equal to the extreme demands of their own programming, fleet of fingerwork in fast passages ( which showed how expressively percussive the onset of sound in a saxophone can be) with great beauty of blend and voice leading. I especially liked the meticulous tuning of Emre Sihan Kaleli's Funeral Music, leading to a genuine Cageian experience in which beats from quarter-tone tuning dovetailed with the gentle purr of the air conditioning. I also liked the Desenclos quartet movement, which sounded like English light music seasoned in a French kitchen and served with the same élan.

The final set was dedicated to sing Mara Carlyle and an extraordinary lucky dip of songs from Dichterliebe to Lauryn Hill, the stand out final ensemble number. The appreciative audience - largely young, musically educated middle class - may be the only constant at the current perigee of metropolitan classical music event but the point is that the music is all that anyone was there for.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

William Kentridge, Thick Time, Whitechapel

I visited this exhibition today with the express purpose of homework ahead of ENO's Lulu, starting next week. The production is Kentridge's brought over from the Met. Indeed it is a year of Berg for this expressionist, multimedia artist, who is doing Wozzeck in Germany later in 2017.

Expressionist, DADA, surreal, the pieces have that rough-edged aesthetic of the readymades, the majority being Heath Robinson-style machines that provide narrative. The point of 'Thick Time' though is that the narrative isn't always in a straight line but can go backwards too and so often finds itself in a circle.

This is part of he machination then. Bicycle wheels sit alongside the ubiquitous loudhailer. A contraption like a chamber organ driven by a relentless series of camshafts is in the centre of The Refusal of Time in the first room, though its connection to the projection is not always clear. On the first floor a meticulously prepared screen and projection arrangement invokes a Punch & Judy Cabaret Voltaire with all its rough edges as a tribute to Wedekind's Pandora's Box with Right Into Her Arms.

All the pieces have an element of slogan, of pitching ideas to a public without much fuss over whether they connect or not. The OED is not a text for reading but in Kentridge's re-working, the basis for moving images, (well-rendered) drawings of characters walking, dancing or speaking. In many situations it's Kentridge himself in action; the figure isn't the subject but the agent.

It will be interesting to see whether this very much postmodern aesthetic helps deliver or subvert the rigorously expressionist Lulu. The one thing that definitely impresses in the exhibition which I hope to see next week is the careful implementation of the technology, with moving sets and images well-integrated into the pieces at the Whitechapel.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Lost In The Stars, Highbury Opera Theatre

'It's fear. Fear of the few for the many; fear of the many for the few.'

Last night I attended the final performance of Highbury Opera Theatre's production of Lost In The Stars, Kurt Weill's final musical of 1949. It's a world away from the rasping, Brechtian sewer of the Threepenny Opera (which I saw at the National Theatre at the beginning of the month). However, for all that its language is the Rogers & Hammerstein side of Gershwin and its message given in modern, broad stroke American vernacular its still a tough story of racial division. This is, exasperatingly, a refreshed subject of current events, both here and abroad. Indeed, the grander themes of truth and mistrust are also the most contentious issues emerging from the current American presidential election campaigns. It is present.

There is no shrinking from message or music in what Highbury Opera Theatre offer. This is in no small measure because of the involvement of the community, making up the vast majority of the cast and ensemble, including no fewer than four children's choruses. It is also worth noting that the febrile atmosphere in the Union Chapel was that this sense of community involvement was woven right into the back seats of the auditorium. There is little sense of division in such an enterprise, no consumer-expectation. Tickets are bought to support friends, family and the work of neighbours rather than in pursuit of another London entertainment.

With this investment that starts before the box office, the audience offer attentiveness. In return, the company are not shy. The story is one of difficult decisions made to get by and grasping the responsibility of those choices both in the present and for the future. South African costuming and accents season the colour and dynamism of the staging, including a brilliant sequence with a multi-piece cardboard train. The fun contrasts violently and effectively with the pathos of dramatic corners in which all are fully invested. The children's set-piece, Big Mole, may bring the house down but it is just one of many admirable turns that defy niggling criticism with properly earnest performance.

Driving the show is the energetic Scott Stroman, complete with 12 piece band. Good work all round.

Monday, 10 October 2016

La Boheme up even closer

I caught the final Boheme in a run at King's Head Theatre at the weekend. This isn't the long-running, genre-defining Opera Up Close version but rather the King's Head Theatre's own production in a new adaptation by their director Adam Spreadbury-Maher.

We haven't quite reached the end of the new wave that began above a pub in Kilburn - and in the pub in Kilburn - that pioneered bijou, site-specific, alternative productions in vernacular translation that's taken opera out to IKEA, Victorian tunnels, an asylum chapel, the workplace and the street. However the comparison between the Opera Up Close Boheme I saw in 2010 and this latest version is worth considering for a moment.

What's changed then? Well, The King's Head cut the opera down beyond even the arrangement, removing characters to leave a cast of four - Marcello, Rodolfo, Mimi & Musetta. Most of the time this means removing sequences or even scenes, occasionally just re-appropriating music to a different character or the band. Interestingly, the band has grown 100% from Up Close, the piano being joined by a cello (the string instrument a pleasant addition, both focusing the intimacy of the drama and also seasoning the Gallic flavour in Puccini's Parisian score). The playing has improved beyond measure from the first experiments. No-one leaves the single-set space but the audience engagement is even more consistent. It's down to the chutzpah and professionalism of the cast that this comes off the right side of panto.

What remains is the punchy modernity of the text - and the fact that its often the incongruity of words that pulls laughter, rather than jokes in context of the opera. Laughing at, rather than with: I'm not convinced its a good thing. One has to be rather careful with profanity, as one must be careful with contemporary political reference and modern drug abuse. It's funny how the one thing that a modern Boheme (specifically) can get away with is the use of multiple digital devices, given the basic penury of the characters of the original. Text & social media messaging is sufficiently ingrained into the vernacular that it resists note.

The new impetus in opera in the past decade which no doubt galvanised the Up Close movement is the need to re-invigorate the dramatic purpose of the genre (let alone the repertoire). Both shows do this. Naturally, something of Puccini's intention is sacrificed. The melodic calibre of the score is such that this shines through though. However, one thing that no manipulation of the artform can game-change (to appropriate a term) is the need for good singing, especially in a small space when the work at hand is designed for a medium to large lyric theatre; a mixed cast in this respect is the one consistent thread through performances of Boheme at close quarters over the last 7 years.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Lyric Theatre, 2016: Threepenny Opera, Don Giovanni

Last week I saw the National Theatre's Threepenny Opera. Then, a couple of nights ago, I caught the second night of ENO's new Don Giovanni. The two shows are good and, moreover, offer an up-to-date cross section of what's going on in sung theatre in London right now.

There's a flattening out of the artform at work. The singing of Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera was largely very good, albeit amplified. The stage work of the cast of Mozart's Don Giovanni was meticulous and succeeded in changing the weave of the fabric of stories that flesh out the eponymous Rake's fall. The band for the Weill played on stage. The off-stage band for the Mozart played on stage (in boxes).

Above all in both pieces there was a sobriety and urgency that seemed designed to maintain the direction, focus and temperature of the drama. Though a little far apart in subject matter, both are moral fables. Don Giovanni focuses on the sexual flamboyance and moral comeuppance of the aristocratic title character. The Threepenny Opera reverses the point of view: those of the cast who are not stereotypically immoral are quickly shown to be cut from the same illicit cloth ; everyone barely keeps their nose above the sewer water until a happy denouement in which all are pardoned by decree of a King under threat of exposure for his own ill judgement.

We're at the start of a peculiar and, frankly, shady period in social and political history. This is what I got from these highly polished, thoughtful but above all urgent productions. The humour of both was weighed down with the serious faces and the notable extremes of movement.

Rory Kinnear's Macheath was a masterclass in projecting menace by standing very still in direct and constant juxtaposition of the company's crisp movement throughout the whole of the Olivier's stripped-back stage. Christopher Purves' is not as static as Kinnear's Macheath but he still moves at a measured pace (and sings consistently in a carefully considered, almost interior, smooth mezza voce) whilst all around the rest of the cast move restlessly, an ensemble of insecurity. The only other comparable, oleaginous character, the Commendatore, dies in the first phase of action.

I have long found the tight stage work of the 'straight' theatre and Music Theatre (captials, sic) to be an admirable characteristic. The intent of the Threepenny Opera's staging works hand in glove with this. Though I found that the pace of the Coliseum production hurried the music more than I'm used to (I took part in a rather more traditional production of Don Giovanni in this respect earlier in the year), the drama was utterly thrilling. The pit was working in close tandem with the staging. I was completely dazed by the sheer torque of the drama by the end of the first half.

Clearly the demands of credible, convincing theatre has reached the rehearsal stage of major opera companies. The final issue will be clearing up the demands of crisp, English-language text delivery with the acoustic singing that is the hallmark of opera. At a technical level these are both fascinating and rather exceptional shows. Dramatically, today, they are discomfiting too.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Operatic Acting at Oberto 2016

Today I attended the Oberto 2016 conference at Oxford Brookes University on Operatic Acting. Five sessions and a round table with a dozen papers delivered: there’s a lot to digest and report on.

One striking thing though: youth. Throughout the day optimism bubbled to the surface in reference to younger practitioners. Often this came in the accidental prefixing of many mentions of the word ‘singer’ with ‘young’. Some operatic institutions were spoken of disparagingly in comparison with local competitors who use young choruses, unshackled by long standing rules about working practices (however good the reason for those practices may be).

It was also interesting to hear younger delegates using technical language more in tune with the precision vernacular of academia than the mysterious, elliptical language of my, older generation, the alchemists of lyric drama.

The system is geared to reflect this now. Young people get opportunities to develop, showcase and work. Mid-career performers can get overlooked by employers for simply not being below a certain age.

The profession, when it gets down to it, values what it can work best with. Development at all stages of one’s career requires openness, flexibility and common sense both as an artist and in the more prosaic but equally slippery arts industry. So when we talk about ‘young singers’, lets assume we’re talking ‘young-in-mindset’.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Grimeborn 2016

It was a lot of fun - full disclosure here. But 'manages not to be too lecherous/Tim nice-but-dim' Mozart aside, I did have the opportunity to go and see at least two other shows (it's not finished yet, so there's still time for more).

Naturally I'm not going to attempt to appraise the hard work of my colleagues in Rimsky-Korsakov's Mozart & Salieri and the reckless abandoneon of Maria de Buenos Aires. There was admirable singing in the peculiar traverse of Studio 1 of the Arcola Theatre (and the Piazolla band drove the composer's opera with energy).

I do appreciate the hard work of everyone who tries (and succeeds) in scrumming a dozen fully-produced operas with instrumental ensembles in two studios over a month. The staff manage to keep their smiles on and there is sufficient backstage room for everyone, if you look for it. The singers work in a theatre with a fluctuating acoustic, according the size - and temperature! - of the audience. One notices that sound is directionally biased (especially in a production that simultaneously uses amplification, as in the Maria de Bueons Aires - utterly assimilated in a stand-out turn by Matthew Wade). Even with consistently good singing one can be forgiven for feeling a little isolated in the back by the sunken nature of the stage area. With, typically, only a day for a get-in and technical rehearsal after studio preparation adjusting to radically elevated sightlines can become a luxury. I never quite conquered it.

Finally though - the audience. it's quite a mix, with a sizeable older, middle-aged contingent but plenty of younger people and notable smattering of outré types, expected for this established artistic outlier of the City. But the BAME contingent appeared low... considering that the Arcola operate a decorously open policy front of house. This is richly mixed ethnic neighbourhood and there is considerable local traffic in the foyer and bar both interested in the theatre but also dipping in for its amenities. Yet my experience (of three years attending) is that it doesn't translate in moving from foyer to footlights. That's the challenge facing any one of us trying to crack the nut of dissolving the real or presumed threshold of the operatic auditorium. I suspect the persuasion is not done in the theatre at all, but probably in the classroom, or some equivalent.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Thresholds at the 2016 Southwell Music Festival

Twelve years ago I stood opposite a sculpture by the American abstract artist Donald Judd at Tate Modern. It was a box. A lime green perspex box, the size of a large domestic water tank, but simply a box nonetheless. It seemed rather disappointing — until I began to feel myself falling into it. Nothing violent had happened. I’d not slipped, or been pushed. In a moment my attitude towards the piece, and the exhibition (and sculpture) shifted.

Through the past three days I have hovered on thresholds. I am attending the Southwell Music Festival, a classical music festival in the East Midlands of the UK as both a performer and also social media liaison. As a result I occupy different spaces. I can be in the centre of the room as performer. I can be near the centre of the room as audience for the concerts of other performers. I can be outside the room, looking in, often behind the screen of a phone taking perfunctory photos to share online. 

The threshold is a nice idea to scratch at. We had a seismic threshold yesterday during a performance of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius (in the Minster of the town): at the denouement a narrating Angel tells the eponymous Soul
And now the threshold, as we traverse it utters aloud its glad responsive chant
and the music changes, with dynamic and harmonic doors opened (not unlike the theatrically labelled ‘Transformation Music’ in the parallel passage of Wagner’s theosophical drama Parsifal). The music introduces a different space, with a concomitant change of view, and perhaps even of energy or temperature. It is a physical change.

This is my experience of being in different places — and different roles — in a performance space. You can be in direct contact with the performance as performer or audience. However, if you’re in a doorway (as I often find myself) — or perhaps occupying a different role within the same space, as I was yesterday, turning pages — then your relationship with the performance changes.

Being in the same space as the musician to whom you are listening is a remarkable, elastic experience. It’s typical to breathe at the same time as a good performer and to feel their rolling with the camber of the music, as they perform it. Volume is neither here nor there: you can have the same experience of being oppressed or beckoned by a musical gesture from row Z.

But this experience isn’t available behind a certain threshold. Perhaps that’s a smartphone screen. Maybe you’re standing outside the room, where performer and audience alike are like goldfish at a fair, commodified in a venue-bag where the acquisition of the memory neglects the experience that won it.

I really like and value the potential of socially-shared media to create a platform and context for performance. I like that there’s a way to create an opportunity to discuss an experience. There’s value in capturing images or sounds that revive the physical experience of being in the audience.

You can’t have your cake and eat it though. And to complicate a dormant metaphor, I had a treacherous larder experience on the first day of the Festival myself.

I had crept close to a performance of Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen to take a picture. I took it and paused before heading off to upload it. But I couldn’t easily leave. Having walked into the space in one role I had allowed myself to become physically connected to the performance. It wasn’t my proximity that had changed in the moment but my purpose. I had to remind myself that I had a job to do to disengage with the situation.

The point about thresholds is that they are real — but they are not obvious. Distance is no threshold in itself. It’s the authenticity and intent of our apprehension that dictates whether we’re really present for the performance or not. It’s OK to stand in a room opposite a perspex box asking what the point is, if that is the only authentic thought you can grab hold of.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Into Figaro's Maze

(first published on medium.com)

It’s less than a week now until we perform The Marriage of Figaro in English at the Grimeborn opera festival. Now that we have run the whole show once we know it will work as we have prepared it. It’s going to be funny (and we’ve had a lot of fun making it so) and also, I hope, touching.

In 1786 The Marriage of Figaro was conceived as an entertainment. It’s a function of entertainment that there should be a sense of peril for characters, from awkward moments right up to the edge of all-out catastrophe. Just as the bonbons of stolen kisses evaporate in Mozart’s bewildering exploration of love and forgiveness, so a feudal Lord’s unscrupulous game of hopscotch with his own rules of propriety are reduced to playground antics in the face of wider revolution.

This, however, is to open Figaro out. Giving nothing of this production away, the farce may work as a lever not to lift the facade of social iniquity but rather to open up revealing interior spaces. Any drama has a labyrinthine quality. In a story, characters take decisions (often very marginal) that take the narrative along a certain route; drama reminds us that other options are available. Farce shows you small sections of the maze ahead as this happens so that the errors and assumptions of that decision-making become part of the fun; occasionally, to really stir it up, people metaphorically (and literally) climb through the bushes of the maze too.

Then there are those whose journeying stops — and cul-de-sacs can be very lonely, dark and challenging.

It’s interesting to consider the trajectory and density of the drama from Beaumarchais’ Barber of Seville to The Marriage of Figaro, moving from the candy floss to the creme brulee of love, if you like. Just as film sequels necessarily sell themselves as getting ‘darker’, so last year WNO put together a trilogy-completing production, Figaro Gets a Divorce, in which the dysfunctional ensemble is in flight in revolutionary Europe. That opera ends with the Count and Countess facilitating the escape and onward journey of the rest as they stay behind, incarcerated in a castle.

It’s certainly interesting to me that in Mozart’s three da Ponte masterworks, while the conclusion of the opera provides release from the preceding drama, the transformation of the characters is far more equivocal (the ensemble of Don Giovanni are bereft for the loss of the anarchic, eponymous free spirit and the lovers of Cosi fan tutte must deal with the treachery of post-lapsarian clarity). 

Forgiveness is all in The Marriage of Figaro. Misgivings in the private arias and upstairs-downstairs whisperings of duets and trios are exposed in the denouement at (literally, as Act 4’s in the garden) the centre of the maze. Everyone can now leave — the drama is over — but the revealed truth cannot be covered up with privet hedges and a cypress tree or two. Is forgiveness enough? WNO’s note says that the Count and Countess stay in the castle ‘to face the music’ at the conclusion of Figaro Gets a Divorce. Doesn’t the term ‘face the music’ have judicial finality though? Have they capitulated, unforgiven by each other orthe world? Or is ‘facing the music’ in a prison like the inmates of Shawshank hearing sull’aria and being freed? Our rehearsal process has been as much about continually interrogating this as it has been running about with pins, letters and broken pots of hollyhocks.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Looking for Beaumarchais

(first published on medium.com)

I had decided, with my partner, to go to Seville on holiday. This was only partially random , as I am interested in flamenco and she wanted guaranteed heat: in the end it was pin the tail on the bull, or pick a name from a Tio Pepe hat, if you like.

Serendipitously, we also found ourselves in the city that the mid-18th century revolutionary-minded playwright Pierre Beaumarchais co-opted for the only two stage works for which he is remembered, The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. More than this, I was/am in the process of preparing the role of the Count for a new production of Mozart’s opera after the latter play. I felt as if I had an ideal apple-for-the-teacher/director opportunity ahead of me.

What did this city have to offer the tourist with a vested interest in its appropriated past then? Well, it turns out that Seville is a decorous city which doesn’t push its world-famous cultural associations. There are a couple of half-hearted signposts to ‘Rosina’s Balcony’ and a plucky but ultimately abject hairdresser in the centre, called The Barber of Seville. A guidebook that told us of a more likely home for the Factotum (‘Barberia Pajaritos’ in the Triana Barrio) turned out to be out of date. Nonetheless, Rossini’s opera on the first play is 200 years old this year, which merited due homage.
Setting the Marriage of Figaro in the environs of Seville turned out to be a French censor-dodge by Beaumarchais so it wasn’t a great surprise that the Plaza Donna Elvira was as close to Mozart as we got. That and a statue of the composer outside the main concert hall.

As is so often the case though one needs to scratch, sideways, at the surface. For example; we went in search of ‘authentic’ flamenco. Though we dodged the central tablaos, priced and packaged for tourists, we still found ourselves among foreigners when in the back bar of La Carbonerìa in the old town (the pair of shows we saw were very good). The Peñas, Seville’s speakeasy flamenco network, remains out of reach of the casual visitor. As Carmen would have said, by way of bargaining; ‘near the ramparts of Seville is my friend Lilas Pastia’s place’… but then she was offering an invitation to an outsider to join her and her smuggler companions. There’s nothing illicit about the present day Chez Lilas Pastia.

No, the authenticity of the Sevillano experience is in the transaction of the encounter, not just in the apprehension. You can’t quite catch it on an SD card. So: Christopher Columbus’ tomb in the Cathedral is just another massive silver box — but the monument outside the old city walls brings out a pride in a local tour guide that makes a Brit defensive of Nelson. Once you get over the fact that there’s next to no paprika in chorizo then you can taste something new and fine. We went to the underwhelming Art Museum and were shooed out having overstayed our welcome, looking past the canvases at the extraordinary building. I recall these things in retrospect.

We saw a gardener, one of about twenty in the grounds of the Alcazar Palace, carefully working around his beard to clip the uppermost extremities of a maze. Perhaps, for a moment, with my entrance ticket and sense of entitlement I was another bourgeois patron — yes, a Count — looking through an ageless Antonio. Albeit Antonio on a cherry-picker. Maybe I did stumble on Beaumarchais after all.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Terra at the Print Room

The Coronet in Notting Hill is the sort of theatre that the well-dyed in Hackney dream of. 'Shabby-chic' does not do justice to the crumble, chill and red-low lighting of a 1898 theatre that once hosted Sara Bernhardt. The bar is the stall circle with a piano, holding the drinks, wedged against the seating rake; the stage is propped on a temporary ceiling above so that the dress circle becomes the front row of the auditorium. It's classy and it's cosy.

Its yesterdayness also makes it a good place to see Terra, the third in a series of 'elemental' dance works contrived by choreographer Hubert Essakow. Terra's narrative might be dystopian or Jules-Verne-adventuring. A new poem by Ben Okri chapter-heads each sequence with wide words concerning existence. That may sound a bit wooly but it works as a warm perspective on the set design, a superb tall, contemporary Pompeii, from Sofie Lachaert and Luc d’Hanis.

The company dance very well in ensemble on a small stage, with occasional solo stand-outs (I was particularly struck by Estela Merlos' prologue and the strikingly accomplished dancing from child dancer Constance Booth. Technically the show is as well contrived as the dancing with sharp lighting and careful amplification of both a single voice and the performance area. The company dance to a new score by Jean-Michel Bernard, an established film score composer, who has produced a thoughtful collective of styles from French turn of the century Fauvism to the mid 1970s Mwandishi/Headhunters funk of Herbie Hancock, invoking the rhythmic asceticism of Stravinsky along the way.

Not a compulsive patron of (contemporary) dance, I must only rely on my first instincts for being theatrically absorbed to tell me whether what I had seen was any good. I thought Terra was terrific. Above all, if this is typical in the wider vernacular of contemporary dance it might have been a good example of how one could go about watching it. There does appear to be some sort of narrative but this is under the lock and key of the choreographer's imagination, leaking out into that funny gap between the abstraction of technique, or form, and the programme of an objective story. The value of the performance lies in the conviction of the performers and the opportunity that affords the audience to conjure their own ideas. I found I had plenty of space to let my imagination wander, which I take as a sign of success.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Martland, Reich, Andriessen at the Barbican

On Tuesday I went to hear some music by Louis Andriessen. I'd heard some stylistic pastiche on the radio not a fortnight ago and was intrigued. La Passione, a piece he had written for the evening's soloist Cristina Zavalloni was a different kettle of timbres to that which had tempted me into the hall - but I loved the orchestration (the oily sounds of electric guitars and a sugary cymbalon) and some of the harmonics produced by high oboe writing were special to hear. Whoever has the money, please spend it on teaching children about the fact that music like this exists and, maybe, even giving them lessons on a double reed instrument so that they can feed their interest or even have a go, not on a glossy new hall for the consequently diminishing number of those who managed to get that education.

Whoa... ranting aside, the most impressive encounter of the evening was in hearing Steve Reich's Desert Music performed live and in full (it's not quite a hour long, without a break). You can hear it here as the concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (at 26m45s). Apart from the concentration required to maintain the unbroken tactus which changes only in the tempo on half a dozen occasions, it's a test of stamina for all musicians, particularly percussionists and also for the singers. The 10 strong Britten Sinfonia Voices used microphones to... well, I'd be interested to hear exactly what the principal need for the microphones is. Clearly it's necessary for the voices to be heard at all. There's also a great deal of dynamic grading but this is where I start to wonder whether the mixing desk or the artists are in charge of this element of the ensemble. I didn't get a chance to speak to anyone about 'mic technique' afterwards.

I'm genuinely interested. It's important to say that, though highly defensive of the need for artists to learn how to perform acoustically and audiences to listen in the same space, I don't have a problem with this in this piece - amplified and even processed sound in this instance is the aesthetic. The singers were amazing: it's tricky music to pitch and outright difficult to sing. Bravo.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Warhorse, New London Theatre

Last night I went to see Warhorse, the National Theatre's super-hit First World War play starring a puppet horse. If nothing else it's a dazzling technical triumph: not only a tumble of crisp sound and lighting cues but also an exemplar of stagecraft. There's the innovative use of puppeteering. There's also the vigorous use of the stage-and-stalls space of the (superb) New London Theatre. The players run through the aisles and up to the very lip of the stage. The proximity of feet and flying paraphernalia makes for a raw, exposed, indeed a genuinely visceral experience. This is important in live theatre - and vital for this story that trades in sudden moments of mortal peril.

Warhorse also includes a great deal of music. Famously the play became a Hollywood film with a score by John Williams. I might say that Adrian Sutton's score is comparably effective in this live situation (and, like many good scores, works well alongside Christopher Shutt's sound design).

In addition there are a number of important, narrative-style songs by John Tams. It's not entirely clear whether these are original compositions or arrangements of folk songs. They're performed by a single minstrel - Ben Murray - as well as the rest of the cast at apposite moments. Rendered in the direct, narrative folk style they are nonetheless operatic in function, solipsistic reflection that stands at a footstep's remove from the play itself.

It was great to see this show at the end of a long and successful run with a familiar company at ease with their material and each other.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Potions and Plonk

The Devil Inside, Music Theatre Wales
This week I've seen two operas that feature an intoxicating green liquor. There's the bilious nirvana-aid Chartreuse, which occupies increasingly large areas of the stage in a new production of Chabrier's L'Étoile at the Royal Opera; and there's a mysterious greenie-in-a-bottle driving the drama of Music Theatre Wales' Faustian The Devil Inside.

This got me thinking about the nature of drink as a character in opera (rather than simply the subject of another rowdy chorus). Invariably, for all that it is a very real prop, the drink and its properties are a catalyst or proxy for something else. In Tristan und Isolde, the Todestrank (death draught) gets swapped for a love potion at the last minute. It doesn't actually matter what it is as the important function is the act of libation, emancipating the lovers from both social and existential duty.

It's like an erotic communion where the fact of transubstantiation is of  secondary importance to the statement of intent that is drinking at all. That's even more explicit in Parsifal. The most important character in that opera is, arguably, the Grail ('Who [my italics] is the Grail?' asks the titular hero in the first act): when it comes to the revelation of the cup used at the Last Supper, uncovering the vessel is more important than drinking from it.

Death is close at hand. If the drink isn't life-giving then it's death-delivering. Ouf and Sirroco drink through their absurd last night alive. James and Richard in The Devil Inside argue over an elusive flask whose only certain guarantee (when their imagination fails them) is perpetual hell. Elina Makropoulos has a formula for an elixir of life that in practice is anything but (in fact, she gets drunk off-stage prior to renouncing it for good). Don Giovanni's 'champagne' aria demands that wine should be free-flowing; deep down he knows he won't need to worry about waking to a hangover.

The one respite is love. The wine of L'Elisir d'Amore (though, again, a false potion) allows the inebriate to express his love. The whole of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann is a tale of love brought about by Hoffmann's getting drunk (probably on Absinthe - more greenery). But then, the Tales are told in flashback - the drinking is Prologue and Epilogue to the story, platform, not agent.

So whenever it pops up, however key it is, the drink is still incidental. It doesn't have properties of its own but reflects the moral tension in characters and their relationships through metaphor. That's the thing the best operas-with-a-mini-bar understand.