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Posts Tagged ‘Benjamin Britten’

Contemporary Music

Nashville band The Silver Seas have been personal favourites for a while and I found it astonishing that the London showcase for their new album was a room above a pub in Islington! It could have been a touch quieter and the mix could have brought the keyboard more to the fore, but it was a tight 75 min set (with lots of songs from the new album) and the atmosphere was great.

Anthony (&the Johnsons) Hegarty has always been unconventional, a true original, but his Swanlights show at the Royal Opera House elevated him to high art indeed. A 90-min best of, with songs re-arranged for piano & orchestra (the wonderful Britten Sinfonia), it was so so beautiful. This was played within an installation lit by lasers which changed shape and colour from green to blue to white to red to pink, so it was a visual feast too, and overall way beyond expectations.

Classical Music

The First Night of the Proms was an eclectic and thrilling affair. It started with a short but intriguing choral word premiere by Julian Anderson and continued with personal favourite Britten’s Sea Interludes, ending the first half with (for me) a premiere hearing of Rachmaninov’s Paganini rhapsody paired with Lutoslawski’s Paganini variations. As if this wasn’t enough, in the second half 500 musicians and singers took the roof off with Vaughan Williams’ brilliant Sea Symphony. Better than any Last Night by a mile.

Opera

Bampton Opera is the antidote to grand country house opera – on a small scale, in a back garden, picnic yes, dressing up no. They always showcase something rare, sometimes never seen before, and this year it was 12-year old Mozart’s La Finta Semplice. It was apparently his 4th opera, so it enabled me to ask my 13- year-old godson, who came, when we were getting his first opera! It’s an astonishingly accomplished piece and the production did it full justice. Not only was it played and sung beautifully, but it had a superb Magritte inspired design….and for once, the sunny warm evening was perfect!

Art

A visit to Tate Modern proved to be an eclectic global art feast with exhibitions from Lebanese, Somalian, African-American & Beninois artists which were about as varied as it’s possible to be. African-American Ellen Gallagher‘s exhibition proved to be the most rewarding & diverse (and quirky) with paintings, collages, double-sided pictures, film, animation and sculpture, much with a playfulness that made me smile. In Somalian Ibrahim El-Salahi‘s work, abstract meets Islam to produce something very original. Lebanese Saloua Raouda Choucair‘s exhibition was smaller yet just as varied, but more hit-and-miss; I’d have loved to have seen more of her portraits and fewer sculptures. The Museum of Contemporary African Art is an extraordinary multi-room installation created by Meschac Gaba that includes a library and shop. I thought it was fascinating and fun, with hands-on, play-with and sit-in elements that engaged the visitors. Phew!

A couple of nice freebies at the NT. The River, a whole load of paintings of The Thames by Dale Inglis which were rather lovely and The Press Photographer’s Year, rich pickings this year with some great Olympic shots and some really funny ones – David Cameron in dinner suit with shirt buttons undone and Peter Capaldi taking the piss out of his Thick Of It character’s role model Alistair Campbell.

A trio of exhibitions provided an eclectic afternoon between two work commitments. At the NPG, unknown (to me) 20th artist Laura Knight‘s portraits were hugely impressive. Her subjects ranged from circus folk to gypsies to poor black Americans to people at war and her naturalistic / realistic style brought them alive. At the ICA, things were somewhat racier with a show of drawings about war, race, censorship & politics, but mostly sex (!), with the tongue-in-cheek title Keep Your Timber Limber! Though technically accomplished, they were somewhat angry. The Hayward Gallery had another of their quirky shows, this one called The Alternative Guide to the Universe, which showcases ‘self-taught artists, fringe physicists and inventors’ who re-imagine the world as painted megalopolis’, number sequences & detailed models. Obsessive, sometimes disturbing, occasionally playful, it’s an eccentric show which does provide a unique experience but left me a bit unsettled, as if I’d been peering into some troubled souls. The small accompanying exhibition, The Museum of Everything, was much lighter fare and rather fun.

The Royal Academy‘s Summer Exhibition was the usual crowded hotchpotch, lighter on architecture, more photography and as much art & sculpture as usual. This year’s highlight was Grayson Perry’s series of six finely detailed, funny tapestries a la Rakes Progress called ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’. So good, I bought the book! Mexico: A Revolution in Art 1910-40 upstairs covered a short time period but was too broad, including artists visiting as well as from Mexico plus a lot of photos taking up too much of the limited space. Mexico’s most famous artist couple – Frida Khalo & Diego Riveria – were under-represented and there were only a few ‘wow’ pictures.

Comedy

A preview of Mark Thomas‘ Edinburgh show a mile away?! I’d never even heard of the Balham Comedy Festival! The latest idea of this passionate, campaigning yet always funny comedian,  so soon after his biographical Bravo Figaro and Manifesto (based on audience suggestion)  is 100 acts of dissent over 12 months. I loved it when they turned the Apple Store into a little bit of Ireland to make the tax-dodgers feel at home and can’t wait for the rest to unfold. I have fond memories of the stunts he pulled when he had a Channel 4 programme and these, smaller scale without a TV budget, look like providing more. A really funny hour.

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It’s sixteen years since my last visit to the Buxton Festival and twenty years since my first, and boy has it grown. Then there were two operas, now there are eight. It has dropped ‘Opera’ from its title and added recitals, lots of spoken word and more. It has grown a fringe that, like Edinburgh, has got bigger (though maybe not better – yet!) than its parent. Fortunately, it hasn’t succumbed to dressing up and other poshness, though the average age seems to have gone up (same audience getting older?) enabling me to feel good about bringing it down!

The first opera was Vivaldi’s first. He apparently wrote 50, but we rarely see any. By the interval I thought I understood why – mediocre music, perfunctorily performed here – but he saved his best tunes until the second half and the cast responded by raising their game significantly. Ottone in Villa is one of those silly love quadrangles with trouser roles and implausible disguises, but when the music was good, it didn’t matter – though three stifling hours on the hottest day of the year was a challenge!

The same first half / second half contrast occurred in the double-bill, with the first opera, Saint-Saens’ La Princesse Jaune, creaking somewhat, despite a clever set and good singing. It has been relocated to Paris and set in an attic where Lena is pursuing her cousin Kornelis who has an opium-induced fantasy about an oriental woman! A bit slight and a rather dated feel to it. The second, Gounod’s La Colombe, made up for it though; a delightful comedy about how a parrot gets killed for love! Beautifully sung, with Jonathan Best’s Maitre Jean a masterclass in comic opera performance. Les Brotherston’s clever set relocated this in the apartment below the attic of the first opera, which was still in view, as the top of the apartment had (just) been in the first opera without giving the game away.

I’d failed to get tickets for Britten’s Church Parables in Aldeburgh, but managed to get them for the same productions here, and what a treat they were. Written at two-year intervals over four years in the mid-60’s and performed in the same four-day period in June, they are now rarely staged (I’d only seen them once, in a concert hall). Though each lasts just 70 minutes or so, they have huge atmosphere when staged in a church, weaving an extraordinary spell. Singers process as monks to a high stage where they play out the parables – a woman’s search for her lost son in Curlew River, a father’s unconditional love in The Prodigal Son and Nebuchadnezzar’s killing of three Israelites in The Burning Fiery Furnace. Director Frederic Wake-Walker has infused them with Japanese, Middle-Eastern and Balinese influences respectively and it works. A big feather in Mahogany Opera’s cap and yet another treat for the Britten centenary.

The unexpected highlight was Literary Britten, which interspersed two Britten song cycles, beautifully sung by tenor Andrew Kennedy, with poems and letters to Britten by WH Auden read by Alex Jennings no less. There was a bonus too – a world premiere of Tim Watts’ excellent new song cycle. It was a perfectly formed 70 minutes and I was a bit surprised the audience weren’t cheering loudly – I think this might have been the inclusion of Auden’s more racy letters; it’s a conservative crowd here!

Add in a talk by former Labour MP and writer Chris Mullin and a walking tour of the town and you have as fine a festival weekend as you could wish for – despite the fact it wasn’t really the weekend to spend indoors! It was good to return and I hope (and suspect) it won’t be another 16 years before my next visit.

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Contemporary Music 

I couldn’t make Neil Young’s concert at the O2 and it was always going to be risky going to Birmingham instead. Sadly, nine hours of my life and c.£130 weren’t really worth it; I’d have been better off staying with my memories of all his concerts since the first one 42 years ago! The core issue was song choice. 50 minutes in, four songs later, I began to despair. The new stuff is fine, though elongated – one ending with 10 mins feedback and another with 10-mins of ‘What a fuck up’ chanting (not wrong, there, Neil) – beyond my self-indulgence tolerance limit. In the first two hours, just two classics from the 45-year back catalogue (one also subjected to the endless ending). There was apparently another hour, but I had to leave – and in truth, didn’t feel too bad about that as I’d had enough by now. I suspect this will be my last NY concert; a sad way to end my relationship with a genuine genius I have virtually worshiped.

The world of wrinklie rock redeemed itself just four days later when The Who performed their second rock opera, Quadrophenia, live at the O2. This is a much neglected work and one I’ve always loved as much as Tommy. It sounded fresh, with an enlarged band including three brass, two keyboards, two guitars, bass and drums. The film / photo montage, put together by Roger Daltrey, and the lighting were brilliant and the sound was good. Modern technology enabled deceased band members to contribute vocals and a bass solo by video; very moving. The additional 45 minutes included tracks from Who’s Next which if anything sounded even fresher. Support band Vintage Trouble, an American retro four-piece, were well worth getting there early for and their hard work paid off with a great audience reception.

Opera

June was opera month – nine! – one of which, Grimes on the Beach, I’ve already blogged.

I’m not a huge Rossini fan, but it’s impossible to resist both Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez. La Donna del Lago is a bit daft, with a Scottish setting & characters but sung in Italian, and John Fulljames production is a bit odd, starting and ending in some sort of museum, but the music is good and the singing was sensational. In addition to my two faves, Daniela Barcelona impressed hugely in the trouser role of Malcolm. It would be great if the Royal Opera found a better vehicle for these extraordinary talents, though.

The Perfect American is Philip Glass’ new opera about Walt Disney and, of the five operas of his I’ve seen, I think it’s his best. The score has more variety and less minimalist monotony and his subject matter is fascinating. What takes it from good to great though is Phelim McDermott’s astonishing production, designed by Dan Potra, Leo Warner, Joseph Pierce & Jon Clark, which is packed full of Improbable’s trademark invention, with every bit of it appropriate and effective. In an excellent cast (with such clear diction that, for once, you could hear every word – it can be done!), Christopher Purves shone as Walt. One of the best evenings at ENO and of modern opera in a long time.

The summer pairing at WNO was another Cardiff treat. A new opera by Jonathan Harvey, Wagner’s Dream, set at the moment Wager died, was paired with his Lohengrin. Wagner had apparently been contemplating a ‘Buddhist opera’ and at that moment just before death he reflects on it as we see it performed behind him. Wagner’s moments are acted in German and the opera is sung in the ancient Buddhist language of Pali. With added electronica, it was played and sung beautifully and staging and design were both effective and elegant. Lohengrin will go down as one of WNO’s finest moments. Despite needing a stand-in for the big role of Telramund (well done, Simon Thorpe!), the musical standards were exceptional, with the orchestra and chorus soaring (at one point with four additional fanfare groups at four points in the auditorium sending shivers up your spine). Apart from a noisy scene change in Act Three (while the orchestra was still playing), the staging was highly effective. I love pairings / groupings of operas and next time we have Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy – an 18th century Italian spin on 16th century British history!

Britten’s Owen Wingrave was the first opera made specifically for TV and it’s very rarely staged; gold star then to the Guildhall School for this contribution to the centenary. It’s an excellent production of his pacifist opera about a boy who defies his family’s military traditions. The setting is contemporary and the traverse staging is ‘framed’ by scenes from modern warfare showing what might have happened had he not rebelled, with projections used very effectively. Amongst the fine cast, Joseph Padfield was outstanding as military tutor Coyle and Samantha Crawford and Catherine Blackhouse both impressed as Owen’s aunt and fiancée respectively. 

I very much enjoyed the first outing of Deborah Warner’s production of Britten’s Death in Venice at ENO back in 2007, but I wasn’t prepared for how much better a revival could be. With beautiful, elegant designs from Tom Pye, it really is a masterly staging, but the chief reason that propels it to ‘Masterpiece’ is John Graham Hall as Aschenbach. Very occasionally a singer inhabits a role in such a way that they begin to own it. Simon Keenlyside IS Billy Budd and now John Graham Hall IS Aschenbach; it’s mesmerising. I’m so glad the Britten centenary (and half-price tickets!) persuaded me to see it again as it will go down as one of my great nights at the opera.

Gerald Barry’s opera of The Importance of Being Ernest in Covent Garden ‘s Linbury Studio was a quirky affair. The small orchestra was on a series of white steps surrounded by white walls. The singers entered from the audience and occupied the rest of the steps. The instrumentation includes plate-smashing. Lady Bracknell is a man in a suit with no attempt at female impersonation. The music is strident, almost spoken. It’s more semi-staged than staged. I admired the originality, I loved the way the orchestra was part of it and the performances were very good – but I can’t say I loved the opera. 

The ROH contribution to the Britten centenary (and the queen’s diamond jubilee) is his only historical opera Gloriana and it proves to be a better piece than the myths suggest (though having seen the Opera North production 19 years ago I knew this!). The problem with this new production is director Richard Jones decision to ‘frame’ it by our present queen’s visit to see it at a village hall, complete with 1953 production values and visible wings. Even during the overture we get a brief appearance from every monarch between the two Elizabeth’s in reverse chronological order with olympic style name cards and a row of schoolboys holding up cards signalling their geographic origin! This all robs the opera of its grandness, majesty and pomp. Still, musically it’s first rate with the orchestra & chorus on top form and the largely British cast including many personal favourites. Susan Bullock makes a great queen and it was wonderful to see Toby Spence again, in fine vocal form after his serious illness.

Classical Music

Another Handel oratorio for the collection – Susanna – from Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company at Christ Church Spitalfields. It’s not in Handel’s premiere league, but it was beautifully played and sung and an uplifting end to a challenging day. Emilie Renard and Tim Mead, both new to me, were excellent as Susanna and her husband, and the small chorus was so good I yearned for more than the seven items they were given. Will I ever hear them all live? I doubt it!

Dance

I returned to see The Clod Ensemble after enjoying their last show at Sadler’s Wells. That one was in four parts, with the audience moving from upper circle to dress circle to stalls to stage! Zero was staged conventionally, on stage, but I’m afraid it did nothing for me. The blues harmonica got it off to a great start but it was all downhill from then. I don’t know what it was about, I wasn’t impressed by the movement and the 80 minutes just dragged.

Britten Dances at Snape, part of the centenary Aldeburgh Festival, was a lovely varied cocktail of four pieces from three choreographers – Ashley Page, Cameron McMillan & Kim Brandstrup –  and two ballet companies; The Royal Ballet of Flanders & our own. In addition to two Britten pieces, the musical choices included his arrangement of Purcell and a piece from contemporary composer Larry Groves’ which takes Britten’s take on a Dowland piece as it’s starting point! A unique evening and a unique contribution to the centenary.

Film

Behind the Candelabra was a must-see after the trailer. Though a touch overlong, what makes it worth going to is highly impressive performances from Michael Douglas, Matt Damon & an unrecognisable Rob Lowe. Hard to believe it isn’t getting a cinema release in the US; the land of the free is still the home of the bigots.

I rather liked the new Superman film Man of Steel, the ultimate in prequels, which starts with his birth on Krypton and ends with him getting his job at the Daily Planet. It’s all a bit exhausting, and I’ve seen better 3D (I think maybe I should give up 3D), but it’s gripping and new Superman Henry Cavill is very good. Russell Crowe plays Russell Crowe again as Superman’s dad.

If you like those American gross out comedies like Superbad, you’ll like This is the End and I do /did. This one adds gore and disaster to the cocktail and the effects are excellent. It’s one of those films that’s better in the cinema than at home, because there’s a contaigon about the audience reaction which improves the experience.

Art

A lean month for art. I did pop into the NPG to see the annual BP Portrait Award exhibition, though it seemed to ack sparkle this year. Over at the lovely new giant White Cube in Bermondsey, there are four North American artists on show, the best (and most) of which is Julie Mehretu (actually, she was born in Ethiopia). Her giant B&W canvases are multi-layered and grow on you. It’s like she started with an architectural drawing, they overlaid it with another , then another….Original.

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Contemporary Music

I couldn’t do either of the Richard Thompson London dates, something which became even more frustrating after I’d bought his great new album. Almost by accident, just a couple of weeks in advance, I discovered he was playing St. Albans on my birthday, they had a few tickets left, it was only 20 mins from St. Pancras and nearby friends fancied it. How serendipitous is that? It had to be great, and it was. His new trio makes a superb sound, the song selection was excellent and the guitar playing beyond genius. As he was about to start the third encore, he joked that they fancied themselves as a power trio but were 50 years late, then broke into a stunning version of Cream’s White Room; it was a bit high for his voice and he stumbled on the words, but the playing was magnificent. Combined with some Roman history (theatre, mosaic and museum), the gorgeous cathedral and lovely Lebanese food, it was a proper birthday treat.

I couldn’t make the original one week run of Maria Friedman‘s Sondheim / Bernstein show at The Pheasantry, so I was delighted when she added a couple of nights, one of which I could do. A brilliant selection of songs, superb arrangements and accompaniment from Jason Carr and a quiet, respectful audience made for a sensational evening that was often moving, often funny and always captivating. Her personality really shines and no-one else can interpret a song like she does. Unmissable, and I didn’t!

Opera

I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed an opera as much as Medea at ENO. It’s not particularly great music (not a patch on Handel) but David McVicar’s production, Bunny Christie’s design, Lynne Page’s choreography, conductor Christian Curnyn’s musical direction and above all a set of fine performances made it a real treat, particularly Sarah Connolly’s superb Medea and Roderick Williams’ brilliant Orontes. The story is in some ways different to the play (which I’ve seen a lot!) but it still makes a great tragedy. A treat!

Imeneo is an unusual Handel opera as it isn’t based on some epic historical tale; it’s a simple story of whether Imeneo gets the girl he wants as a reward for freeing her and her friend from pirates  – should duty be above love. There’s just about enough story for a 2-hour opera and it suits this modern setting at a spa hotel by the sea, where fun can be had with treatments and smartphones. There’s some gorgeous music and the cast of five and small chorus of six are excellent, with Laurence Cummings & the London Handel Orchestra making a terrific sound in the pit. Hannah Sandison & Katherine Crompton were outstanding and counter-tenor Tai Oney showcased a fine distinctive voice. Lovely.

Classical Music

My second Britten centenary event was the (Royal) Academy (of Music) Song Circle at Wigmore Hall with a recital of 20 songs in five languages. Many of these are challenging pieces for any singer, let alone young singers, but Sonia Grane, Angharad Lyddon, Simon Furness and Gareth John were all superb, as were accompanists Manon Ablett and Finnigan Downie Dear. Yet again, I am in awe of the musical talent we have here in London. Two down, c.18 to go!

During a visit to Budapest, I went to the lovely State Opera House for a concert performance of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion – on Easter Saturday! – and lovely it was too. There was a raised pit for the orchestra, the soloists were on stage behind them, and the chorus were behind a gauze screen on which they projected words and images. It benefited from being sung through without an interval, though this was challenging for the more fidgety audience members.

LSO‘s pairing of the hardly known Stabat Mater by the almost unknown Szymanowski with the ever so well-known Brahms Requiem was inspired. The former turns out to be somewhat Goreckian (though it pre-dates his 3rd Symphony by c.50 years!) and I rather liked hearing it for the first time. Somehow, the Brahms lacked sparkle – certainly not due to the soloists (Sally Matthews and Christopher Maltman) and not really to the playing of the LSO or the singing of the LSC, but lacked sparkle it did. A bit of a puzzle.

Dance

BalletBoyz: The Talent 2013 shows extraordinary growth since their first work four or so years ago. This group of 10 male dancers are unique and the new pieces from Liam Scarlett and Russell Maliphant, though quite different,  both suited them perfectly. Scarlett’s Serpent flowed organically in a hypnotic way whilst Maliphant’s Fallen was edgier and animalistic; I loved them both.

I got the last ticket for Arthur Pita’s dance-theatre piece The Metamorphosis on the day of the performance and it will no doubt be in my highlights of the year when things booked six months before will be forgotten! It’s the first time I’ve seen The Linbury Studio Theatre at Covent Garden in traverse, which meant a better view from my standing position.  Kafka’s tale of a man who turns into an insect is puzzling but mesmerizing and Edward Watson is extraordinary, moving in ways I didn’t think were possible for 80 minutes (8 times in 8 days!). Never has a spontaneous standing ovation been so richly deserved.

Over in Budapest, I saw a lovely production of John Cranko’s ballet of Onegin The music is a mash-up of Tchaikovsky pieces, the design was gorgeous and the dancing beautiful. It was hard to follow the story as they’d run out of programmes (which contained the synopsis in English), so I just let it wash over me – aurally and visually – without really caring what it was all about!

 Art

 An afternoon of two contrasting exhibitions started at the gorgeous (but not very suitable) Two Temple Place for a show called Amongst Heros : the artist in working Cornwall. It’s mostly 19th / 20th century pictures of fishing and fishermen with seascapes and mining scenes and portraits of locals. The highlights were by Charles Napier Hemy (who has popped up all over the place since I first saw his work in Penzance) and Stanhope Forbes, someone new to me whose pictures are wonderful and who will hopefully now also pop up all over the place. At Tate Modern, the Roy Liechtenstein retrospective proves he’s not a one-trick pony in terms of subjects, but is in terms of technique and style. The cartoons are well-known but the landscapes, abstracts etc less so and I enjoyed seeing them, but by the 14th room you’re more than sated.

I thoroughly enjoyed Light Show at the Hayward Gallery – 25 installations that play with light in some way. In addition to the usual suspects like Turrell and Flavin, there were lots of new names (to me). The booking system meant that the numbers were well controlled; great to see a gallery not being too greedy at the expense of visitor enjoyment.

The Bride & The Bachelors at the Barbican Art Gallery brings together the work of ‘artists’ Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg & Jasper Johns with the music of John Cage and the dance of Merce Cunningham. For me, it’s well curated bollocks, particularly the work of Duchamp, the key influence on the others. Some of Johns’ work is good as is some of Cage’s, but the rest seems pointless to me.

I have to confess I’d never heard of artist Kurt Schwitters. Some of his Tate Britain exhibition was familiar, though, but I think this may be indicative of his influence rather than previous sightings. His collages date back to the 30’s and seem ahead of their time, but there were an awful lot of them and it got a bit monotonous. I rather liked Simon Starling‘s Duveen Gallery commission – a film of previous commissions (apparently re-staged) made by what looked like a flying camera, and the screen the only object in a giant atmospherically lit space.

George Bellows at the RA is a great exhibition of an artist I’ve never heard of. His late 19th / early 20th century paintings and drawings vary from boxing to cityscapes to landscapes to portraits to seascapes and they are wonderful. How is it possible someone this good can pass you by?

Back at the NPG, there’s a surprisingly good exhibition of George Catlin‘s paintings of native Americans first shown in London in 1840. The blurb accompanying a picture of the Mandan tribe suggested they intermarried with descendants of a 12th century Welsh prince called Madoc; that came as a bit of a shock!

At Somerset House, there’s an eclectic exhibition of photos called Landmark which ranges from landscapes to satellite shots to arty images, but all with the theme of planet Earth and an underlying environmental message. It was very good, but I wish they’d said where each picture was taken as I kept puzzling over locations!

Film

I thoroughly enjoyed Arbitrage, a multi-layered piece about a wealthy New York financier who embarks on both a business and personal cover up. It’s a gripping thriller which takes unexpected turns and Richard Gere is outstanding in the lead role.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to see Side Effects, but I was so glad I did. It lulls you into thinking you know what it’s about then turns a corner and takes you somewhere else. It really did keep you guessing until the end and enthralled throughout.

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Though there have been numerous TV and film adaptations, there have been surprisingly few stage adaptations of Henry James’ late 19th century novella; possibly because of the difficulty (more so in the past than now perhaps) in pulling off the ghost stuff effectively. That’s actually the major strength of this production, though it still doesn’t match Benjamin Britten’s opera; conclusive proof of the power of music?

Playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz has been faithful to her source, though perhaps more explicit, and Director Lindsay Posner and his designer Peter McKintosh have been just as respectful with their staging and design. James’ story starts with Sackville interviewing a new governess for his nephew and niece, orphaned by the death of both their parents and left with a housekeeper and governess in the family home (with infrequent visits from their uncle). As the play unfolds, we learn about the death of the previous governess and another employee, who now seem to be haunting or even possessing the children. There is more than a suggestion that in life they may have preyed on them sexually.

McKintosh’s design is excellent and Scott Penrose’s effects, Tim Mitchell’s lighting and John Leonard’s sound design are all terrific – the staging of the apparitions was good enough to get a lot of gasps and a few squeals from the audience. The performances are excellent, led by Anna Madeley’s governess (who seemed to have a cold, which somehow added something to her more emotional scenes) and Gemma Jones’ housekeeper Mrs Grose. The children, Laurence Belcher and ANO (there are three alternating as Flora!) are exceptional in what are big roles with lots of lines.

The major problem is the pacing. It’s slowed down by a lot of scene changes, despite their slickness using the Almeida’s revolve, though ironically the second half – with more scene changes – is better paced! In the end, I felt that despite the quality of it all, it doesn’t transfer well from page to stage (without music, anyway) but in all fairness, I’m not really a ghost story fan and it is, after all, an up-market ghost story.

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Opera / Dance

The summer pairing at WNO was amongst the best since they moved to the WMC. Christopher Alden’s production of Turandot is 17 years old, but you’d never know it. It was inventive and fresh with three excellent leads in Gwyn Hughes Jones, Rebecca Evans and Anna Shafajinskaia. Musical Director Luther Koenigs had apparently never conducted it before, but the sound he got from the orchestra and chorus was rich, lush and positively gorgeous – a shivers-up-your-spine job. Cosi Fan Tutte isn’t my favourite Mozart – overlong for the silly story  – but this new British seaside staging complete with prom, mini fairground, Punch & Judy show and Café was delightful and the singing of all six leads – Neal Davies, Robin Tritschler, Gary Griffiths, Camilla Roberts, Helen Lepalaan & Claire Ormshaw – was excellent. Yet again, Britain’s most accessible opera company provided quality and value.

The ENO’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is musically beautiful, but the production is so contemptuous and disrespectful of its dead composer, Benjamin Britten, who can’t answer back. This isn’t Britten’s opera, its director Christopher Alden’s.  If he wanted to steer so far from the composer’s intentions, he should have written his own opera. This is the worst example of director arrogance I have ever seen – and from someone whose work I have so far admired (including the revival of his WNO Turandot above). This is the second occasion this year where the ENO have allowed a director’s vision to overwhelm and overpower a composer’s work. If they were alive they couldn’t / wouldn’t do it, which makes it completely unacceptable. It’s particularly galling that they’ve ditched a lovely production for this travesty. Oh, I wish I’d kept my eyes closed.

Cocteau Voices is an inspired double-bill at the ROH’s Linbury Studio. It pairs Poulenc’s one woman opera based on a Cocteau playlet with another two-character Cocteau playlet, written for Edith Piaf and her lover, adapted as a wordless dance drama with an electronic score from Scott Walker. In the latter, three dancers play each character and it was a mesmerizing athletic visual feast. Italian singer Nuccia Focile isn’t as good an actress as Joan Rogers in the only other production of this piece I have seen (by Opera North) and I found it difficult to believe in her as a dumped lover. After a while, I tuned out the libretto (in English) and just allowed the music to wash over me. One of the better ROH2 experiments.

L’amico Fritz is a rare opera from the man who provided half of Cav & Pag (if he knew, I wonder what Mascagni would think of the fact only one of his 15 operas is now regularly performed – and that as part of a double-bill; I’d certainly be interested in hearing some of the others). Young soprano Anna Leese is the reason for seeing this; she is simply delightful. David Stephenson is also good as, well, David, but I’m afraid Eric Margiore was no match for either of them – and he completely fell apart on the third act. I thought the modern-ish settings took away the opera’s charm, clever though they were, but the orchestra sounded particularly lush. It’s a minor opera, but one I’m glad I caught up with. As much as I have loved OHP over the years, I’m afraid it’s starting to become country house opera in the city, with the associated prices, dress and non opera-loving audience; I fear the worst…..

Contemporary Music

I’ve never been that keen on Ron Sexsmith, who I’ve always found depressing, but my nephew gave me his new album and a compilation to convert me and it worked. It’s the production of the new stuff that lifts it for me, though I have to say the older material worked well in concert. He was supported by Anna Calvi, who was original but a bit intense for me. As it was part of Ray Davies’ Meltdown, he both introduced her and sang a song with Sexsmith. A nice evening.

I wasn’t as enthused by the programming of Ray Davies’ Meltdown as I was Richard Thompson’s last year, even though he is as much of a hero. However, his final concert with his band, the LPO and the Crouch End Festival Chorus was another highlight in a lifetime of concert going. The first half saw the whole of the highly under-rated 1968 album Village Green Preservation Society (it was released on the same day as The Beatles white album!) played for the first time and the second half a set of 13 Kinks & solo classics, the pinnacle of which was Days, with the addition of two thousand audience members singing too. When the orchestra and chorus left the stage, he came back saying ‘we can’t finish yet, it’s not even 10 o’clock’ and the band delivered a three song mini-set which had us all dancing. Terrific!

I couldn’t resist going to Glee Live as the TV show has become such a guilty pleasure. There was much to enjoy, and it was extremely well staged at the O2, but the fan worship and tendency to both over-sing and over-amplify marred what could have been a real fun evening – albeit a short and expensive 80 minute one that came in at over £1 a minute!

Art

I was hugely disappointed by the Joan Miro retrospective at Tate Modern, particularly as the first room was stunning. After these gorgeous early paintings, he moved to Paris and got in with bad company (Picasso and Masson) and it’s poor surrealism, abstraction and downhill from there! I actually preferred Taryn Simon’s exhibition, showing her somewhat obsessive and indescribable collection of genealogical photographic groups. Each group represents people associated with an event or location and there are (explained) gaps where the sets are incomplete. As I said, indescribable!

Chris Beetles indispensable gallery / shop had probably the most comprehensive exhibition of Heath Robinson ever mounted. It was stunning, though it was closely packed and too much to take in. In addition to his quirky stuff, there were less well-known fairy tales and cricket drawings, amongst others. Against this, the fascinating Hoffnung exhibition also there couldn’t compare.

The weather marred our annual visit to the Taste of London restaurant showcase in Regent’s Park, though there also appeared to be a lot less restaurants, less interesting food and a broader less foodie remit. I think it may be time to drop this particular modern tradition.

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Sondheim’s 80th celebrations continued with a concert performance of Merrily We Roll Along, re-uniting 80% of the Donmar’s 2000 UK premiere cast. I have fond memories of the production, and have seen two more since, but I really wasn’t expecting this to be quite so thrilling. The dream cast included Daniel Evans, Anna Francolini, Julian Ovenden and Samantha Spiro. This show contains some of his most complex songs and to achieve such perfection in a one-off concert performance 10 years after you performed it on stage is astonishing. Gareth Valentine’s band was terrific and the cheers and standing ovation were richly deserved. For years I avoided opera in concert as I couldn’t see why or how you could bring alive something that was meant to be staged – well, now I’ll have to change my mind about musicals in concert too.

Earlier in the month I attended the ceremony to confer an Honorary Doctorate on Sondheim at the Royal Academy of Music. There was a terrific brass fanfare and a procession of men in robes which included a bearded man in sports jacket, yellow shirt and chinos looking uncomfortable in his. I don’t know whether he wrote it himself, but John Suchet’s citation was wonderful and an emotional Sondheim clearly appreciated the honour. It was followed by a 30-minute performance by students and recent graduates which was an unusual selection and a little hampered by failing amplification, but the chorus numbers were fabulous. Julia Mackenzie, Trevor Nunn, Simon Callow and Lesley Garrett were also in the audience to honour the great man. It’s proving a great 80th celebration and we aren’t finished yet!

Contemporary Music

At his Cadogan Hall concert, Nils Lofgren reminded us of his first UK visit in 1973 as part of Neil Young’s band on the ‘Tonight’s the Night’ tour ‘when we played all this new stuff and pissed everyone off’. I can still hear the hissing but refuse to believe it was 37 years ago. Anyway, this concert was by far his best acoustic outing, with just one other person on keyboards / trumpet / guitar & rock tap dancing! It was mostly old stuff, but he’s a great guitar player and has a distinctive voice; add in terrific sound and a lovely atmosphere and you have a treat. 

Classical Music

The Houston Symphony Orchestra playing Holst’s Planets beneath a giant screen showing footage of the planets themselves was an intriguing prospect and proved to be a unique experience. In truth though, I was more impressed by the orchestra’s playing that the projections, possibly because the darkness and visuals heightened the aural experience where every sound was crisp and clear. I also loved the Barber and Stravinsky symphonic suits which preceded the main event.

Tenor Ian Bostridge has a Cecilia Bartoli-style project called ‘The Three Tenors’ which focuses on three early 18th century singers and the pieces that were composed for them by contemporary composers. It’s an album and tour with baroque ensemble Europa Galante and in concert it was very much one of two halves – the first a distinctly underpowered and underwhelming affair and a much better second half when a clearly unwell Bostridge rose to the exciting heights the ensemble had achieved throughout. I’m not sure the repertoire really suited this sweetest of sweet tenors, though the Handel pieces certainly did. The animated ensemble, which stands to play, were often thrilling.

There was a lovely Sunday afternoon affair at the Royal Academy of Music examining the relationship between W H Auden and Benjamin Britten & Lennox Berkley, both of whom set his poems to music. It took the form of an informative discussion / readings followed by afternoon tea (with homemade cakes!) followed by a recital / reading by college students followed by wine – and all for a tenner! Katie Bray stole the show with spirited renditions of Britten’s Cabaret Songs.

Opera

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the only thing 18th century composer Thomas Arne wrote was Rule Britannia. Apparently, the main reason we don’t know much more is that most of his manuscripts were burnt in a fire. Fortunately, most of the masque / opera Alfred survives and it was given a rare and very welcome outing by The Classical Opera Company at Kings Place. It’s similar to, and stands up well against, Handel’s work of the same type and period –a patriotic tale of invasion by and repulsion of the Danes populated by the king, queen & prince, a shepherd & shepherdess, a war widow and a spirit! The small orchestra was terrific, the young company of seven singers excellent and actor Michael Moloney’s tongue-in-cheek narration was an added bonus. Another treat!

I wish I could say the same for the first in our autumn pairing at WNO, Beethoven’s Fidelio. It’s a lovely opera, but it was given a dull, drab and inert production – clumsily staged and full of old-fashioned mannered movement. The director also designed and did the lighting, so I suspect that the lack of a creative team meant one man’s perspective and no challenge. Dennis O’Neill still has a lovely tone to his tenor voice but it was Clive Bayley’s Rocco who shone. The chorus and orchestra were again the real stars, though. It’s one of those evenings when you wished it had been one of those concert performances, or you had closed your eyes during the gorgeous overture and opened them again for the uplifting final chorus.

Fortunately, things picked up for the second opera – Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos – which had a sparkling production and twelve (yes, twelve!) first class and well matched singers, led by Sarah Connolly in the trouser role of The Composer. Though I’d seen the opera a couple of times before, I only realised this time how Wagnerian the second act is – and it also suffers from Wagner’s penchant for the overlong; if it had been 20 minutes shorter, it would have been a lot better. Another treat nonetheless.

Alexander Goehr’s Promised End is an opera based on King Lear. The libretto is entirely Shakespeare’s words and given it’s half the length of the play, it’s surprising how much of the story is told. It’s well directed and designed and the performances are uniformly good. The trouble is the music is just dull – it’s like they were about to do the play, when someone suggested they sing the lines instead of speaking them and improvised it on the spot. If the addition of music doesn’t do anything, it all seems rather pointless.

L’Isola Disabitatia is a short & silly Haydn opera with lovely music about two girls abandoned on a desert island. The musical standards of the Jette Parker Young Artists production at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio were very high with excellent singing from Elizabeth Meister, Anna Devlin, Steven Ebel & Daniel Grice and lovely playing from the Southbank Sinfonia under Volker Krafft. Unfortunately, Rodula Gaitanou’s decision to set it in a post-apocalypse world was preposterous and ugly; it detracts from your enjoyment significantly – again, it would be much better with your eyes closed. With a 75-minute running time, the interval was misguided and did nothing except increase the bar profits.

Film

I haven’t been to the cinema for five months, mostly because I just haven’t fancied anything. It took a British film covering a slice of social history like Made in Dagenham to draw me back and I loved it. They’ve taken liberties with the history, compressing it somewhat, but it’s still a great story and with hindsight a much more important one than I remembered. The who’s who of British acting included fine performances from Sally Hawkins, Daniel Mays, Geraldine James and Miranda Richardson.

I was also impressed by The Kids Are Alright, which takes very contemporary subjects – gay parenting and sperm donation – and produces a charming film which moves seamlessly from funny to thoughtful with an excellent script, sensitive direction and five fine performances. When one child reaches adulthood, she asserts her right to find the sperm donor on behalf of her younger brother and their world is turn upside down when he enters all four of their lives. Very intelligent, clever, modern and grown-up. 

Art

I’d seen a small exhibition of Art by Offenders in Edinburgh, but the one in the Royal Festival Hall is more extensive and so much better exhibited. There is an extraordinary amount of talent here; you can’t like everything, but you can admire it and cheer the good work being done in using art as therapy and rehabilitation.

The V&A has three great exhibitions at the same time. The first we saw was the Raphael cartoons with the tapestries from which they are designed. It was fascinating to see them side-by-side; in one case a threesome with a century younger tapestry copy as well. I was bowled over by how good the Diaghilev & Ballets Russes exhibition was, proving conclusively how much impact they had on art and design of the period. It included lots of costume and set drawings & models as well as actual costumes and front cloths plus much more. It was a feast for the eyes and seemed so contemporary. The best was left until last though, with Shadow Catchers, showcasing five artists who make cameraless photography – their photograms were simply gorgeous.

Nearby in Kensington Gardens, there are four pieces by Anish Kapoor and walking to and between them, watching them change and grow, was a delight. The large disc on the opposite side of the Serpentine with reflections in the disc and in the water and ducks and swans passing in front was the highlight. There were no highlights in Klara Liden’s pointless installations and videos in the Serpentine Gallery I’m afraid – dreadful! 

Gaugin is one of those ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions that lives up to the hype. You’d be forgiven for thinking he just painted semi-naked Tahitian women; well, here’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dispel that myth and see the whole range of his work. There are carvings and woodcuts as well as paintings. The oils are so soft they look like watercolours. The colours are a feast for the eyes. By the time I got to the Turbine Hall downstairs, you weren’t allowed to walk on the millions of tiny porcelain pellets that ARE the installation which makes the whole thing pointlessly expensive.

I’m not sure I got much out of Damian Ortega’s Barbican Curve installation inspired by a month of news stories, but it was original and intriguing; I think I need to go back with more time to do it justice. I’ve really got to love popping into this space before a show or concert.

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Wednesday started with another highlight – My Romantic History at the Traverse. This play about a present relationship and the past relationships of its protagonists is told in two halves (though without the interval in the customary Edinburgh tradition) from the prospective of each protagonist respectively. The writing is outstanding with dialogue that sparkles with realism and humour and the three actors are exceptional. A hugely uplifting experience and if you live in London and don’t catch this when it transfers in October, you’re completely bonkers*****

Another World is another one of those excuses for an exhibition that adds some borrowed items to the Dean Gallery’s extensive permanent collection of surrealists to justify an entry fee for something that is in reality not particularly illuminating.  There are some good Magritte’s, a magnificent Dali and some interesting British surrealists but I left unconvinced*** The lunch and the walk back along the Water of Leith, Edinburgh’s inner city country river, were both lovely though.

One of the few main festival’s new plays, Caledonia, was an enticing prospect – satirist Alistair Beaton’s take on a little known 17th century attempt at colonising part of Central America by a then independent Scotland through a trading company not unlike the England’s East India Company. The modern parallels with Scottish independence this century and the role of banks were striking. Apparently, the writer fell out with the director (playwright Anthony Neilson) and given that the production was a sort of Carry On Panto, I think I can see why. A lost opportunity, not unlike last years The Last Witch and I’m beginning to think that the festival pressure doesn’t allow new work to mature enough before its high profile exposure to the press and public**

My final exhibition was the annual open submission International Photography one at the Edinburgh Photographic Society and this year was a cracker with more portraiture and less (often Austrian and Ukrainian) 70’s-style tacky collages! The talent of these amateurs is extraordinary and makes me feel completely inadequate****

The Scat pack’s Lights! Camera! Improvise! develops their three-year-old formula into an award-winning improv. show where a film is created from audience suggestion which on the day we saw it was very funny indeed and somewhat appropriately based on the rape of Wales forests!****

The final show of the day was Teenage Riot by the young Belgian company with whom I stared last year’s festival sort of speed dating at Internal! This one took place in a large cube with most of the action of the eight teenagers inside projected live onto the outside. It had its flaws but you had to admire the ingenuity and much like the ‘speed dating’ it has more impact on your thinking after that it did at the time***.5

Our last day began with our biggest disappointment but had a perfect ending. When You Lie is a play about cosmetic surgery, comparing the excellent job it does restoring people after tragedies with it’s pandering to vanity and lifestyles. The trouble is it’s not particularly well written or directed (another writer directing – is there a pattern emerging?!) and comes over as a heavy-handed preposterous and rather distasteful cocktail**

Laura Solon is more comic story-teller than stand-up and her show was gentle charming and witty, if not exactly ground-breaking, and made a pleasantly diverting hour***

We ended at Rosslyn Chapel for a production of Benjamin Britten’s opera of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It was a long way out by taxi and cold in the venue, but somehow it proved to be the perfect event to end this year. With 25 performers on a tiny stage, it was a bit cramped and I could have done with less choreographed fairy business (and maybe half as many fairies!). The playing was occasionally ragged but the singing was terrific and for a University company – Cambridge’s Shadwell Opera – hugely impressive.

Well, that’s it for another year – En Route and My Romantic History the top two shows so look out for them, but Roadkill, Speechless, Beautiful Burnout, Simon Keenlyside, Latin American Vespers, Five Guys Named Moe and A Midsummer Night’s Dream all treats and Flesh & Blood & Fish & Foul, Grandpa Fredo (sorry, Malcolm!), Lights! Camera! Improvise! and Teenage Riot getting special mentions for inventiveness. I’m now in the Outer Hebrides, but more of that in a few days…..

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English ‘National’ Opera 5 (The Pearl Fishers 2* Idomeneo 3*)

Welsh National Opera 10 (Rigoletto 5* Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg 5*)

This proved to be a fascinating and revealing match. ENO’s Pearl Fishers started really well. They seemed to be actually diving for pearls in a vast expanse of water behind glass whilst Bizet’s beautiful music began. Then we moved to an extraordinary waterside shanty town with the chorus sounding great and both Nadir, Alfie Boe, and Zurga, Roland Wood, singing well. Then the soprano, Hanan Alattar, came on………..it was a harsh sound with poor diction; frankly it was sometimes difficult to listen to without squirming. It went down hill from there with a translation which turned the beautiful sound of sung French into banal English and some really clumsy staging.

On to Wales for WNO’s Rigoletto, which I’ve never considered one of Verdi’s greats – not in the Traviata & Otello league for me. When I discovered that director James Macdonald had relocated it to 60’s Washington I inwardly groaned.  Then the orchestra began and almost everything that followed was spell-binding. Rigoletto as a White House fixer with the Duke as a philandering President somehow worked. The chorus of men-in-black were terrific. US soprano Sarah Coburn made a most auspicious UK debut as Gilda. Gwyn Hughes Jones  (guess where he’s from?!) sang the Duke well, even if he doesn’t really look the part. Simon Keenlyside’s Rigoletto reminded me of Anthony Sher’s Richard III, a manic-tragic creation you can’t take your eyes off. He sang wonderfully, with every emotion pouring forth – cynical, contemptuous, angry, sad, bitter….Keenlyside has a habit of being so good that he comes to ‘own’ a role – as he has with Billy Budd and Prospero in Thomas Ades’  Tempest – and here he does it again in this role debut; you just can’t imagine wanting to see anyone else. The design wasn’t always successful, but the staging was, and this Rigoletto made me promote the opera to Verdi’s Premiere League.

Operatic triumphs don’t often come in  pairs, but 18 hours later the orchestra played the first notes of Wagner’s overture (more like a symphony really) to Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg and the journey through operatic heaven continued. When I first saw this opera in Covent Garden, I found it overblown and long-winded and haven’t seen it in the 20+ years since. Maybe it’s because I’ve grown through the hundred’s of operas I’ve seen in between, but this time I got lost in the beauty of the music and forgot about time altogether. You’d be hard pressed to hear it sung better anywhere in the world by a chorus as good as WNO’s  which in the last scene sent shivers up my spine and almost levitated me out of my seat. It’s a long away from 70’s comic C&W outfit Harvey & The Wallbangers, but Christopher Purves was as fine a Beckmesser as you’d wish to see. Then there’s Bryn Terfel…..he also hijack’s roles, as he has done with Verdi’s Falstaff and does again here with his role debut as Hans Sachs. Like Simon Keenlyside, he’s as good an actor as he is a singer, and this was a truly stunning display of both. Director Richard Jones and designer Paul Steinberg avoided modern spin and produced something simple, timeless, elegant and effective. Their solution for the problematic nationalistic ending was inspired – they turned it into a celebration of German artistic achievement. The audience in Cardiff are normally more reserved than London, but not tonight. They stood in unison as the curtain went up on the whole company and the cheers were deafening.

It was going to be hard for ENO to follow this when we were back in London for Mozart’s Idomeneo, an early Mozart which I found rather Handelian (it came before he began to write ‘too many notes’, as Salieri is alleged to have put it!). There were no ‘harsh’ sopranos this time – both Emma Bell and Sarah Tynan sang beautifully, as did the leading men – Paul Nilon and Robert Murray – and the orchestra and chorus under Edward Gardiner were great. So, a musical success then….. unfortunately, it wasn’t a concert. It was left to Director Katie Mitchell to destroy the evening with a cold-as-ice clinical modern staging that didn’t illuminate or reveal anything, hampered rather than aided the story-telling, added absolutely no contemporary relevance and removed all emotion. There were many distractions, including several scenes populated with waiters coming and going in and out of doors while the singers were trying to sing lovely arias. I’m not sure Mozart intended Elektra to sing her second act aria whilst pissed and flirting with a waiter! It wasn’t as bad as her National Theatre de(con)structions, but it was bad enough to drag a musical treat down to a dull and irritating musical theatre experience.

So there you have it. You might consider me unfair because this really was WNO at the height of their powers, and there’s more than my fair share of national pride, but I’m going to make the comparisons anyway! WNO receive two-thirds of the subsidy of ENO and half of the subsidy of the Royal Opera. The best seats for BOTH of the operas in Cardiff were the same as EITHER Pearl Fishers OR Idomeneo and 40% of one ticket for that up-and-coming baritone Domingo, currently wowing them in Simon Boccanegra at Covent Garden. When they leave Cardiff, they take both of these productions to the poor opera-starved people of Birmingham because the English NATIONAL Opera and the Royal Opera never leave their London bases. Half of WNO’s subsidy is in fact provided by Arts Council ENGLAND to provide opera on a regular basis in the otherwise operatic black holes called Plymouth, Bristol, Southampton, Oxford, Milton Keynes, Birmingham and Liverpool. Now, if I ran the Arts Council, I’d be looking for quality, accessibility and value – and based on this months’ scores there’s only one company providing all three!

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CONTEMPORARY MUSIC

I booked to see Elvis Costello in Oxford before his London Meltdown date was announced, so off to Oxford I went 3 days after his appearance here. His choices for this solo show were unpredictable and refreshing and he seemed very relaxed and confident. There was something that prevented it being a classic, but I can’t put my finger on what (though it might have been the man sitting next to me who sang along – albeit quietly – for most of the show!). Still, it was great to see him again, great to see him solo again and just great really!

CLASSICAL MUSIC

The Spitalfields Festival’s concert of Handel’s beautiful oratorio Saul in Christ Church was glorious. You will find more experienced, and no doubt better, singers and players than those of the Royal Academy of Music, but I doubt you’d get a more spirited and thrilling performance. Laurence Cummings conducted with brio and the soloists – Laurence Meikle, Clare Lloyd, Aoife Miskelly, Stuart Jackson and Roderick Morris – all sang with passion. The orchestra & chorus were so uplifting in the lovely Church acoustic.

OPERA

Albert Herring was Britten’s’ only comic opera and, as far as I know, the only British comic opera to enter the international repertoire. I’ve seen it before and liked it but it took the Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s production for me to realise how much of a masterpiece it really is. It’s a simple story of village life, where a May king is crowned as there aren’t any worthy queens, but he too ultimately upsets the moralistic conservative village elders. It’s the way the music (orchestral playing as well as singing) conveys the humour that is so clever. The musical standards were as good as always at GSMD and the production values better than ever. Lucina-Mirikata Deacon turned Lady Billows into a brilliant (and appropriate) Mary Whitehouse clone and her busy bee housekeeper was excellently played and sung by Amy J Payne. The quartet of local worthies – Leonel Pinheiro’s mayor, Matthew Stiff’s policeman, Eva Ganizate’s teacher and Gary Griffiths’ vicar – was all superb. It was a great idea for butcher’s apprentice Sid (a terrific Matthew Sprange) and baker’s assistant Nancy (equally terrific Maire Flavin) to be played as punks! It was hard to believe Sylvie Bedouelle was a student, so believable was she as Albert’s mum. The children were played with gusto by Sophie Junker, Lucy Hall and Ciara O’Connor and Thomas Herford was a perfectly naïve Albert. My only negative would be that a dialect coach should have been employed to help the non-native English speakers – well, if you do it with Italian and German, you should do it with English! Another wonderful night at the Guildhall.

Mozart never finished his early opera Zaide (why?) so Ian Page decided to do so 230 years later (why?)! Instead of writing new music, he requisitioned other Mozart pieces, but with new English sung text from poet Michael Symmons Roberts and spoken text (of which there is too much) from dramaturge Ben Power and director Melly Still. What results in a cohesive finished product which somehow doesn’t come alive. The singing and playing is good rather than great, the acting is significantly better than opera’s norm and the staging is exceptional. A worthy effort, but one has to question whether it was worth all the trouble.

ART

Another catch-up month and a veritable art fe(a)st!

Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto has taken over the upper galleries and all three outdoor rooftop sculpture courts of the Hayward Gallery for a playful installation which includes a ‘nylon’ labyrinth (which you can walk in and behind and view from above) and an outdoor swimming pool you can take a dip in. It was fun (and would be particularly good for kids) but as it’s made of thin fabric and plywood, I’m glad I was there on the first day as I’m not convinced it will survive 11 weeks! On the ground floor, The New Décor is a bizarre interior design exhibition where everyday items are subverted in terms of both appearance and display. I can’t really describe it, can’t say it caught my imagination but wouldn’t say ‘don’t go’. I think that might mean indifference.

The Saatchi Gallery’s new exhibition of contemporary British art isn’t going to make the impact previous ones like Sensation have – I’m not sure there are any Damien Hirst’s or Tracy Emin’s here (that could be interpreted as a relief!). Somehow it all seems a bit tame and derivative.

My friend Amanda’s twin brother Paul Rennie has an exhibition of 20th century posters at Black Dog Gallery to coincide with the publication of his new book. I’ve seen so many 20th century posters (Shell, London Transport, British Rail….) that I was pleasantly surprised to find much that was new to me. Small – just 60 or so prints – but perfectly formed.

The Beauty of Maps exhibition at the British Library is terrific. I loved the way it was curated, grouping by the locations they would have been first seen in – audience rooms, galleries, bedrooms etc. – and there are some wonderful items on view. I am going to have to go back as there’s just so much to see.

A day trip to Oxford provided an unexpected bonus as Modern Art Oxford had a Howard Hodgkin exhibition; he’s one of my favourites, but most of his work is in private collections. It’s a great space that the 25 pictures didn’t really fill, but there were a handful of gorgeous ones I’d never seem before.

Tate Modern has been a bit hit-and-miss of late, but their current pairing provides for an intriguing visit. I’d only seen one work by Belgian artist Francis Alys before (a room full of paintings of the same subject, St. Fabiola, which he picked up in flea markets and junk shops!). This comprehensive retrospective, A Story of Deception,  includes a lot more work, including footage of his walk through Jerusalem with a dripping can of green paint to recreate the 1948 Green Line (through checkpoints without being stopped!) and the re-creation of a gunman walking through Mexico City (until the police arrested him, but after an unnervingly long time!). The other exhibition, Exposed, links photographs from more than 100 years which are voyeuristic, clandestine or surveillance. It sounds tacky, but it wasn’t really (well, most of it!) and the older photos were fascinating – photos of people are much more interesting when they don’t know they’re being taken.

For a lover of the surreal, I was rather underwhelmed by The Surreal House at the Barbican. They’ve gone to a lot of trouble (and expense) to find connections and links to make it hang together as an exhibition that they rather bury some terrific pictures from Dali, Magritte et al…..but I loved the grand piano hanging upside down from the roof which explodes every two minutes and then implodes two minutes later!

I remember coming to London 30 years ago and going to see an exhibition of American artist Andrew Wyeth’s paintings at the Royal Academy. I was compelled to visit it after seeing a couple of images in a newspaper or magazine. It was sensational. I’ve been hunting Wyeth’s ever since, but most are in private collections. I was amazed to find none in public collections in New York, then thrilled when I discovered a gallery devoted to him in Pennsylvania where I also visited his studio and was introduced to the work of his father NC and son Jamie. So, imagine how excited I was when a Wyeth Family exhibition turned up on my doorstep at Dulwich Picture Gallery! Only 10 of the 55 completed pictures are Andrew’s but they are lovely and include a handful from his 80’s, the last decade of his life. There are some terrific pictures by dad NC who illustrated many iconic books including Treasure Island and Rip van Winkle but Jamie’s are not as good as the ones I saw in Brandywine. We’re also introduced to Andrew’s sister Henriette with four nice pictures. I’d have loved more of Andrew’s but there’s more in Dulwich than New York, so it’s hard to complain!

FOOD & WINE

When we arrived at Taste London this year it was obvious that the numbers had gone up and the show had gone down market. There seemed to be fewer Restaurants (which is the point of the show) and more bars and exhibitors. In the end, I did enjoy it but I suspect it’s another of those things you go to regularly and enjoy – until the world finds out, when you leave them to it.

OTHER

Only Connect is a theatre group who work with prisoners, ex-offenders and those at risk of offending and I’ve admired and supported their work for a couple of years, as a result of which I was invited to a workshop of scenes from the first act of a new musical called The Realness at their atmospheric Kings Cross base, a former chapel. The performances were astonishingly good, including a terrific one by male lead Mensah Bedlako, who took over at just 5 days notice! The show itself is very promising and I can’t wait to see the finished work. Support them on www.oclondon.org

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