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'√Čtoile 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.