Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Marnie, Muhly, ENO

Even in recent memory (I watched Hitchcock's film last month) I don't quite remember Marnie being so colour-saturated (the 1964 film is in Technicolor). The creative team that has helped stage Nico Muhly's new opera for ENO have managed to touch base with everything in the Pantone catalogue. The set & costume design, lit on a stage that accommodates more excellent projection work from 59 Productions, is a synaesthete's paradise. It is rather glorious.

It's design that is of a part with the music too. The orchestration is consistent and moves through just as many colours as the harmonic overlays and clusters. It's a score that deserves the over-used term kaleidoscopic.

This multiple facet reflects a key element of the subject matter of the opera. Marnie is represented onstage not only as a solo mezzo-soprano but also with a quartet of semi-alter egos and with a penumbrating ensemble of grey-suited demons in perpetual motion. Marnie herself is sung by Sasha Cooke, who sings superbly and behaves in the opaque manner of her character. The bulk of the rest of the singing is undertaken by the characters of Mark & Terry Rutland, Daniel Okulitch & Jamie Laing both finessing their 'meadow' & 'lies' set piece arias respectively; as their mother, Lesley Garrett commanded the most ready audience reaction (not least through noteworthily crisp English enunciation). The supporting parts have decisive contributions too: Diana Montague's Lucy and Alasdair Elliott's Mr Strutt are noteworthy. The chorus & orchestra are consistently fine.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Opera Passion, V&A

passion /ˈpaʃ(ə)n/ - noun: 
1. strong and barely controllable emotion. 
2. the suffering and death of Jesus. (via Google)
OK, so we're talking about the first definition here. Though if you've just come out of the V&A's latest exhibition Opera: Passion, Power and Politics you'd understand the etymology. The composers who bring the key works featured in the narrative of the exhibition are increasingly singled out, either as as heroes or agitators, suffering for their stubborn adherence to their muse.

#OperaPassion - to choose the hashtag-contracted title for social media - is a well-focused exhibition, tramlined along the triple rail of its own title. We get eight operas as a narrative armature: L'incoronazione di Poppea, Rinaldo, Il Nozze di Figaro, Nabucco, Tannhäuser, Salome and Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, with a smattering of others in allusion. There's also a large area near the exit given over to 'World Opera' showing clips from productions of the art's diaspora: Written on Skin, Licht, L'Amour de Loin, to name a few in the absence of a list or the patience to sit through and note them all.

The exhibition seems pitched just about right. The operas are fine repertory pieces, the extracts representative (and often catchy). Alongside projections, scores and source texts for libretti are paraphernalia from theatres and concurrent cultural bits n bobs (drinking tokens from early 18th century London, one picturing a lute). There are some fine artworks too, both of musicians but also as flags of the cultural diet from the period - an excellent landscape of a Viennese market and Francesco Hayez's 1859 Il Bacio (The Kiss) stand out. Particularly impressive is a staged film of a youthful Shostakovich 'composing' Lad Macbeth.

Of course, key to an operatic exhibition is the music. The V&A equip each visitor with a location sensitive mp3 player and (excellent) Bowers & Wilkins headphones. This arrangement, vaguely familiar from the Bowie exhibition in this museum of a couple of years ago, is slick and convenient. with hands free, one gets an aural impression of the exhibits dead ahead - including a reproduction baroque theatre. It's well-mixed and the transitions were smooth at whatever speed I walked.

It was also maddening. Part of the difficulty posed by music - by opera - is that it reveals itself at a set speed; equally that one must commit to listening for a set or minimum period of time. Part of my frustration with the first few spaces of the exhibition (beyond it being rather cramped to begin with) involved getting to grips with this dissonance: wanting to look at the exhibits at my own pace and having that pace dictated by the music, the the music's dependence on location.

This was as much an issue for me as for the curator. But then, I also considered how focusing on the content is part of a modern stumbling block with operatic attractions.

At the end of last week I attended one of the few live operatic productions staged at the V&A. Kepler's Trial concerns a religious cross-examination of Kepler's mother, tried as a witch (I was reminded of Vere in Billy Budd, 'It is not his trial, it is mine, mine!'). Tim Watts' music has plenty to recommend it, not least a modern appropriation of various period compositions, expertly rendered by the Gesualdo Six; the Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Lecture Theatre has great potential for musical events once the best way to stage music drama is settled on.

Yet the V&A isn't an auditorium. Kettling an audience between (excellent) pre-performance talk and show works against the best intent of exhibitor and audience alike, for all that there were drinks  available (for 45 mins we couldn't leave the building or get back in to our seats in the theatre). Securing a modern audience for operatic productions relies on an implied contract: welcome, join the audience in attentive silence for a couple of hours and we will deliver something worth this investment. Perhaps getting to grips with a novelty, like performing space (the lecture theatre) or process (perambulation-sensitive soundtrack) might be cast as attraction.

However, if the welcome itself is contingent - as we know from the enduring nonsense over ticket prices and dress codes that sticks to the word 'opera' like the smell of last night's dinner - then things are likely to get tricky.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics works as an overview of history and a particular component of that history. It's entertaining too. If there was not sufficient reference to the boom in the contemporary re-invention of the artform and the way in which it is produced (particularly in this country) then that'll largely be because of the remit of the museum - they have 400 years to cover - and also because we don't really know what the impact of operatic reinvention in the past decade has been, if any. One might remember that there is a dedicated 'opera' suite of rooms in the permanent collection of the V&A too.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Michelle in another millenial cafe

I asked for a coffee and a croissant, so I got that I guess. The pastry was a bit tired and the espresso was a portmanteau of the less appealing bits of artisanal north London (machined coffee served in a miniature bed pan).

So, I settled down to browse the Metro (you're getting the idea) and idly reflect on another grey Friday morning. Drive My Car came on the cafe radio, which caught my ear, as did the subsequent Norwegian Wood. Ah, they've got Rubber Soul on Spotify, or something. I considered the picture of Paul McCartney I'd been looking at in Sunday's Observer, a byline image to promote a new Michael Caine documentary, My Generation, about the cultural phenomenon of the 1960s.
“There was a lot of snobbery then. It was terrible. There is a lot now too, but it can’t really hurt anyone because we don’t give a toss any more,” he said.
Then - out of track order - Michelle.

Michelle is one of the greatest (pop) songs ever written.

It just starts, without intro. It's written by a boy - Paul - addressing a girl ('Michelle!'), himself (ooh, 'these are words that go together well') and, last of all, us, telling the story.

He tries again, warming to the theme. Here's the songwriting Beatle, in his bedroom, guitar on lap, as unconcerned by his crush being foreign as he is playing the guitar left-handed. Paul still has the novelty and cosmopolitan funk of a Hamburg basement club still in his nostrils. He's going to try some French, and see what goes together well.

Sod it.

'I love you, I love you, I love you!' he blurts out, the tune suddenly grasping at the home note of his key signature. Frankly, all that studied melodic craftsmanship (a Gitane-tangy tritone between the second and third notes; French) can just wait in line between all he wants to say. And yet, that very line, all he wants to say, sits over the most nonchalant (one even has to use an adopted French term) harmonic sleight of hand. Because he has said it. Hey, Natasha Beddingfield probably paid her mortgage with the same tricolon crescendo in These Words, 40 years later.

And Michelle gets it. It's not the only words he knows that she'll understand. The words don't matter - the learning doesn't matter. He doesn't 'give a toss' in that moment. The worry about education doesn't matter, the pre-grammar-schooling that Michael Caine worries has excluded so many of My Generation from their potential, doesn't matter.

There's no posturing in Michelle: no lengthy introduction, no mansplaining of who Michelle is or what she means. George (is it George?) sits in the other corner of the middle eight spinning a slowhand curl of musical smoke, ruminating.

Middle eight? Nope, until I find a way of talking about this miniature masterpiece that Hugo Wolf would have been quietly pleased with, I will say the only words I know that you'll understand about the bits inbetween verses that have no chorus in the quietest of pop masterpieces.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Mahler 3, Philharmonia, Festival Hall

"It was voted the tenth-greatest symphony of all time in a survey of conductors carried out by the BBC Music Magazine." (via Wikipedia)

Well, tenth-greatest isn't where I would put it, even following a highly polished performance such as this. The Philharmonia performed Mahler's 3rd Symphony last Sunday afternoon at the Royal Festival Hall, a special event that was streamed online and also captured for some sort of VR event (part of their Virtual Orchestra series?). I guess it's the familiarity of the music, the length of the piece and the faintly daft fourth & fifth movements... but then I always have to factor in the hangover association of hearing the piece at the Barbican 20 years ago when the person next to me tried to unwrap a sweet throughout the whole of the finale.

Personal pecadillos aside it was just nice to come and hear the Philharmonia giving a concert performance of a single work, and one that is a classic example of an orchestral showpiece. I enjoyed the concert in so many ways for this alone: the ensemble, following Esa-Pekka Salonen's beat as if on the end of a cord; the brilliant woodwind throughout; the ensemble of the cellos, who I often mistook for a single instrument; ferocious but nonetheless meticulous trombones, as if a Formula 1 car had been asked to corner in the melodic minor; the ensemble (have I mentioned the ensemble yet?) of the timpani in the final throes of the work - absolutely astonishing, utterly memorable.

In addition to this were the women of Philharmonia Voices and the (off-copy) boys of Tiffin School, precise in tone, text and decorous choreography as Salonen segued the Threnody of the final movement from the close of the prior Knaben Wunderhorn setting. I had a splendid seat for such an event, halfway up the balcony where I last sat, ooh, again, 20 years ago to hear Waltraud Meier essay Wagner, a good place to take in the sweep of the substantial, impressive, if unfashionable concert hall and a piece of music that could have been designed for it. And we all listened carefully - without intrusive sweets - for the full hour and a half.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Fever Pitch, Highbury Opera Theatre

What would musical life in London do without churches? Sitting at the back of Union Chapel in Highbury, flicking through the programme for this new opera Fever Pitch, from Highbury Opera Theatre, one is struck by the role played by benevolent local church halls, the churches themselves and the musicians that they employ (even on a sporadic basis) in offering the space in which to rehearse a production such as this.

If this is a fairly obvious point, it's also a transferable one in the case of Fever Pitch. The piece, adapted by Tamsin Collison from Nick Hornby's seminal 1990s novel of the same name concerns the faithful, the true believers who would fixate on the team religiously... that may be enough direct analogy for now but it's also representative of the ideal that propels HOT, a community-centric company that brings its own community together. A chorus concerning this in the second half of the show was less drama and more mission statement.

It's Fever Pitch The Opera's strongest suit, too. For both the inevitable 45 minute halves a company scrambled in both age and sex are constantly on the move, using all the space in the octagonal chapel, singing, fighting, dancing and - that most tricky thing to do on stage - smiling and greeting one another. Scott Stroman's score is a hugely ambitious survey of, largely, jazz styles from 1950s big band to slippery jazz of the periods shown on stage in passing banners ('1968', '1976' etc.) and incorporating more familiar terrace chants into its rhythm and contours than I could keep an ear on.

The adults, teenagers and children of HOT set about it quite fearlessly, actually. The sextet of principals are head-mic'd for clarity (there's no fear of 'you're going home in a Fach-ing ambulance'), All had properly absorbed the fidgety score (pitch and rhythm with one eye perpetually on the tension of some Arsenal game) and brought great focal charisma to this home fixture. And home fixture it was. The audience loved it from the start and the whole evening was all the more fun for it.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Over My Shoulder, McCaldin Arts

This weekend I went to see an unusual and out-of-the-way show in London's NW commuter belt. Over My Shoulder is the title of a song made famous by the 1930s star Jessie Matthews in the hit show Evergreen, which played at the Adelphi for a year in 1931. The song lends its title to this recital by Clare McCaldin, as the music and stories of Jessie Matthews' life metaphorically looks across at the life of another contemporaneous star, soprano Elisabeth Schumann. Schumann was also serious box office in London in the 1930s, albeit in a different vein of musical life, classical concert & art song.

This performance was given in the outwardly anonymous St. Martin's church hall in Ruislip by virtue of the peculiar fact that both women are buried at opposite ends of the churchyard. This extraordinary kernel of circumstance was the jumping-off point for Clare McCaldin's exhaustively researched talk - for which she had been advised by Joy Puritz, Elisabeth Schumann's granddaughter, in attendance - and a healthy diet of songs that reflected both the familiar repertoire of both women, as well as their noteworthy achievements and relationships. A well-wrought (if slightly stilted) Liebeslied by Otto Klemperer was a fascinating case in point. Together with the pianist Paul Turner, Clare also performed songs specially arranged for the show by Liam Dunachie, from the titular show-stopper to Rodgers & Hart's Dancing on the Ceiling.

The narrated recital has become a speciality of Clare McCaldin and her umbrella production company McCaldin Arts (you can read musicologist Katy Hamilton's view of the older Haydn's London Ladies here). This narrated recital not only provided historical and cultural context but also touched on the stylistic disparity of the two singers' disciplines - and the issues with an ageing performer's career, where technique can struggle to keep up with popular demand. It was a touching story, beautifully sung and played, reflecting on the importance but evanescence of performing arts in our lives. There is a second performance in central London in February 2018 (more via

Friday, 15 September 2017

Dead Club, Fuel Theatre, The Place

The first rule of Dead Club is... well, actually, it's wear the hat. This remarkable dance (+ theatre & song) piece was a classic punt on a tip on an otherwise routine Friday night for which we cashed a significant return. This is the promotional video...

... which, like many expectations going into the studio at The Place on the Euston Road, was immediately confounded. There is bittersweet cabaret but there the visual equation ends.

Instead there's a dazzle-ship striped dais with standing places, party hats (as mentioned, wear it) and a sophisticated lighting design that masks entrances and exits, and functions as a wheel of fortune as might have been imagined by David Lynch.

The cut and thrust of the work (no cutting but plenty of thrust) is, probably, a surreal narrative that imagines the sub-liminal experience of death. Or perhaps it's a fun version of purgatory, complete with song, party (games? hats.) and costuming. I noted that it's not a dissimilar subject matter to Hofesh Shechter's Grand Finale, playing up the road at Sadler's Wells.

However, let's just step back for a moment of sobriety. We went to see Dead Club on the same day as what appeared to be another attempt to bring great violence to London transport (this was the explosive device at Parson's Green). At the time of writing, we understand that about two dozen people have been injured but that no-one has been killed. To see a show in which the protagonist (such as there was one) wandering the stage covered in ash was a close, if entirely serendipitous, conceit.

But then, that's a point, if not the point. '... it might be you' is part of the marketing text; hackneyed but not waffle. It might be you, or me, whether or not it's an end that comes in flame. It probably won't be an end that's ushered in by, to take an image from the show, a sort of six foot Wimbledon ball boy, but then for all its inevitability, death is so unique, absurd and, well, just difficult, there's no imaginative limitation on how bizarre our death might actually be.

On a day when the possibility of death is visited on a society through a (possibly) stale-minded outsider's dislike of that society's way of life, I welcomed a chance to get involved in theatre that had a go at owning it. It's more than defiance, actually, it's purposeful. And I had fun on the way.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Hofesh Shechter, Grand Finale, Sadler's Wells

For me, a classic punt on an unknown on a Tuesday evening in London. For the excitable mass, opera director friend I bumped into in the interval and those who had seen the Royal Opera's Orfeo & Eurydice from 2 years ago, the Hofesh Shechter Company is the bomb.

Well, a bomb perhaps. Grand Finale is a piece that explodes with noise and energy and may represent the aftermath of some actual armageddon. The character of the work follows the title though - for all the desperation of the characters' furious, relentless steps and movement (imagine the CD player stuck on the final minute or so of the Rite of Spring), the mercurial twisting from conflict to consolation, there's plenty of wit and the blind fun of dancing together in the face of 'the end'. The show benefits from an entertaining sextet of musicians popping up occasionally to leaven the extraordinarily powerful sound system. It was fun to realise one was enjoying watching people dancing in club (yeah, showing my age) though I was less convinced by a relatively still sequence involving a bubble-blower in the flies, which seemed to capitulate its purpose to the stage picture. The full house went nuts for the company and eponymous choreographer afterwards.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

La Boheme, Royal Opera

The inevitable has come to pass. The Royal Opera have finally got a new production of La boheme, Puccini's evergreen masterwork, after many years & revivals of John Copley's fine staging. Richard Jones is one of the most dependable directors working today, in as much as his work is never without thought and invariably thought-provoking, and his new contemporaneous production is no exception. The great Act 2 showpiece is a riot of fine costuming and colour in a Gallerie Lafayette-a-like, whose staging trucks rush on and then off again for Cafe Momus, a congested but meticulously constructed bistro scene. The waiter-actors excel.

My biggest impressions were of the orchestra, producing deep-dyed tones, especially in the Act 1 woodwind; and the principals' consistency of approach. Here were a group of very young people lost to the id of youth. There was no arch acting here, nothing calculated or knowing but a sextet of kids pinging from one experience to the next. The catastrophic denouement is all the more brutal for it. You'll need a tissue.

A Summer Round-Up (2017)

It's September now but, before I forget, here are most of the lyric stagings I had the (largely) good fortune to go and see over the Summer.

First up was The Magic Flute at the King's Head Theatre. There was an inspired umbrella concept of putting it in the Amazon (or somesuch), conferring some purpose on the usually rather milquetoast character of Tamino. Plenty of effort had gone into the set design and this if nothing else had the cast rushing about with all the energy that this panto-by-another-name can demand.

If The Magic Flute was a Spielberg/Zemeckis adventure movie in close-quartered song, then the English National Opera Dream of Gerontius (with added BBC Singers) at the Festival Hall was... well, I don't know. Derek Jarman? An earnest, barely-staged production by the lighting designer Lucy Carter promised the best of both available worlds: an opera company given the opportunity to perform in concert, whilst bringing that staging sensibility to a concert work with all the inherent drama of Verdi's Requiem (and of course, quite a bit of the music of Wagner's Parsifal). Simone Young steered a steady course down the centre of the available melodrama. A unique event but with plenty of potential for revisiting (perhaps with other concert works), we hope.

There was a new (dir. Keith Warner) Otello at Covent Garden, the first in a quick succession of Shakespearean operas to be seen. The Royal Opera is a company that knows how Verdi goes, especially under the musical direction of Sir Antonio Pappano. It might be fair to say that the show had been constructed around the talented principal tenor Jonas Kaufmann; what I was perhaps least expecting was that his command of the role allowed him to act with great detail and really essay the part. I found I was less interested in the thrill of a challenging romantic role than I was with the choices he took with the character, afforded to him by never having to fight the music.

Glyndebourne's new Hamlet also put a tenor through his paces. Brett Dean's operatic version of one of Shakespeare's most literary plays also has substantial roles for many others and the cast was a pretty fair cross-section of some of the best talent in the UK (and the US - super idea casting Rodney Gilfry as Claudius). Allan Clayton's performance in the title role was phenomenal. I saw it in a cinema relay in London.

Quietly chasing these two flagship shows was an already tried and tested Merchant of Venice, a production staged by WNO (also directed by Keith Warner) which came to Covent Garden at the tail end of the season. it was interesting to see the audience for this show, as very different, largely younger clientele - were they expecting Pyotr Tchiakovsky only to leave - as many did - at the interval of this recently dusted-off piece by André Tchaikowski? They shouldn't have gone, as this proved itself to be a fine piece worth an outing, perpetually alert to the measure & music of Shakespeare's text.

After all these substantial meals from the Bard's cookbook, I was looking forward to revisiting Grimeborn in Dalston. Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen isn't the ideal opera for the inevitable reduction treatment as so much character and colour is in the score. Again, the director Guido Martin-Brandis had given the design and costume team hefty support to realise a convincing forest. The cast took care of the rest, with Alison Rose's eponymous Vixen a winning, independent fox.

The summer was in full swing now and it was time to catch part of the Tete-a-Tete Festival. The Cubbitt Sessions are al fresco lyric shows and I saw Impropera in a series of sketches rounded off with a full length confection based on audience suggestion (a sort of contemporary Fledermaus sequel). In these very much postmodern times, it takes something to be funny, as they were.

Finally, there was a concert performance of Mussorgsky's Khovanschina at the Proms. This is an epic opera and lived principally through the rendition of the score by the BBC Symphony under Semyon Bychkov and some uniformly remarkable singing from a largely Russian cast - though the handful of BBC Singers men who came down to the front of the stage must also be applauded for performing without copies in convincing vernacular.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

The Day After, ENO Studio Live

A hot Saturday in June with the bars of West Hampstead overflowing with Arsenal supporters watching the FA Cup Final playing out just up the road was perhaps a tricky backdrop for English National Opera to offer a new platform for their work. More than this, the piece with which ENO Studio Live (that's #ENOStudioLive for the connected) has opened is a little known opera by Jonathan Dove concerning some sort of apocalypse.

The Day After was originally written as a five hander with scoring to be performed en plein air. Jonathan Dove has adapted it for chorus and it is difficult to imagine how it might have been otherwise. The story is that of Greek myth, as the impetuous Phaeton takes advantage of his father Phoebus' largesse and demands that he ride the sun chariot, which he does to a disastrous end. The full ENO chorus are simply marvellous as a classic Greek chorus, both a contemporary population of characters and the implacably-faced corporate narrator. Rachael Lloyd and William Morgan join soloists from the chorus Robert Winslade Anderson, Claire Mitcher and Susanna Tudor-Thomas as the characters. James Henshaw conducts from behind the stage in Lillian Baylis House Studio 1. It's vocally & musically excellent across the board, the company managing - or relishing? - the new demands of a different acoustic (a little dry with, sotto voce air conditioning) without any dramatic reserve.

Above all, I was very struck with things I might not otherwise have noticed, i.e. in the Coliseum. The attention to detail of the stage preparation left one convinced that the company was walking on ash. I assumed that the three choristers directly in front of me had colds until it became clear that 'ill health' was the intent of a meticulous make-up team. So often in London one attends small-scale, alternative venue close-proximity operatic productions in which the costuming, design and make-up have been left to chance or the whim of the performers. it becomes clear at moments like this that a company such as ENO really does believe the Gesamtkunsterk ('total art work') creed of opera and moreover, makes it work.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Performing Live - Peril or Thrill?

Image: The Daily Telegraph

Clearly, performing live is both perilous and thrilling for performer and audience alike. I'm focused here on well-worn work, repertory pieces of music or theatre. The appeal of (re-)creating drama or music in front of other people is amplified by these poles. It's thrilling to hear an alternative interpretation of how the music show 'go', how the sound of a different voice and collection of instruments brings its own character to bear on even the most familiar works. It's also thrilling to see how artists negotiate difficult music or multitask the demands of behaving and moving in peroration. Sometimes the music is simply incredibly difficult and seeing an artist overcome the pitfalls of producing a coherent performance is exciting enough. The real thrill is experiencing that in service of the piece rather than in service of the artist.

Things can go wrong, however. One of the important ways in which artists contribute to the audience's experience is how they, the artists, deal with mishap. This is connected to the overlooked connection not only empathetically but also physically between performer and audience, the key component of the value in the acoustic experience in music. Deal honestly with the stumble or the hindrance and an audience appreciates it; deal with it in good grace and with humour and the audience feel a strengthening of their connection and the value of the subsequent performance can improve. The opposite can poison the experience, though in unique circumstances great artistry might overcome it.

This all occurred to me in a week in which social media passed on tales of mishaps in central London performances. This time it had been a page turner falling foul of a pianist's temper in a song recital and the audience's gleeful reaction to a stage gag during an opera production so drowning the orchestra that the conductor had to re-start an aria. The abiding memory of these events is less what went wrong than how it was dealt with. I recall a couple of extreme examples in which opera performers have suffered injury during a performance or run of performances but, with voice intact and untouched, have gone on to perform making the unwarranted impediment into a virtue (I'm thinking of Robert Burt snapping a ligament during the Glyndebourne Fairy Queen or Joyce DiDonato (+ rest of cast, by default) performing in the Royal Opera's Barber of Seville in a wheelchair.

In such circumstances, the music - the work at hand - becomes less resonant than the manner of its delivery. This is a valuable thing to recognise as it reminds performer and audience alike that the re-creation of even the most familiar of repertory pieces is at the heart of the valued performance. It also signposts the way for the performer to deal with it: to acknowledge the peril and thrill of the situation on behalf of everyone in the room and yet, I suggest, to offer the composure and reassurance from the stage that brings an audience back to their experience through the work at hand.