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.