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Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Purves’

Dance

Matthew Bourne’s 20-year-old production of Cinderella, revived at Sadler’s Wells again after seven years, scrubbed up as fresh as ever. The Second World War setting works even better today and the expansion of Cinderella’s family with three step-brothers continues to add much. It looks gorgeous, Prokofiev’s score is one of the best ballet scores ever and the performances are thrilling, packed with detail.

Opera

The Royal Opera went walkabout to the Roundhouse for Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses. It’s not my favourite early opera, but it was an impressive in-the-round production, with the orchestra in a central pit revolving slowly and the stage around them revolving independently in the opposite direction! I was surprised I didn’t leave feeling giddy.

Music

Christopher Purves’ recital of ten Handel arias at Milton Court was lovely, though I’m not sure the selection is the best he could have made. The bonus was accompaniment by the ensemble Arcangelo, who also played two concerto grosso’s and two opera overtures.

The Sixteen’s concert of Purcell’s music for Charles II at Wigmore Hall was an eclectic cocktail of welcome songs, theatre songs, tavern songs and instrumental numbers. The singing and playing was of such a high quality it took my breath away.

The BBC SO’s Bernstein Total Immersion day at the Barbican was a real treat. Eleven works over three concerts in three venues, covering orchestral, jazz, chamber, choral, vocal and piano, clarinet and violin works, only two of which I’d heard before. The GSMD musicians opening concert in Milton Court was the highlight for me, though the BBC Singers came close with their short but beautiful choral concert in St Giles Cripplegate. There was also a brilliant film of his 1961 concert for young people about impressionism. The following day, at LSO St. Lukes, there was a terrific selection of Bernstein stories and anecdotes from Edward Seckerson with musical theatre songs sung by favourite Sophie-Louise Dann and played by the wonderful Jason Carr.

Film

January is always a good month for film as the best are released in the run-up to awards season, and this year is no exception.

Molly’s Game isn’t subject matter I would normally be interested in (Olympic skiing and poker!) but this was a brilliantly made film which gripped me throughout.

I was also riveted by All the Money in the World, and in particular by Christopher Plummer’s last minute takeover of Kevin Spacey’s role. It won’t do J Paul Getty’s posthumous reputation much good though!

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri lived up to every bit of the hype. Watching Martin McDonough’s transition from playwright to screenplay writer to film director / writer has been deeply rewarding.

There have been a number of films along similar lines to Darkest Hour (Dunkirk and Churchill just last year) but this differs in showing the loneliness and vulnerability of its subject. See it for Gary Oldman’s extraordinary performance, and many other fine supporting ones.

The Post is extraordinarily timely, covering press freedom based on an incident before Watergate, and I very much enjoyed the old-fashioned film making, which rather suited the material.

Art

The Soutine exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery was good, but with only 21 pictures in 2 rooms, I was glad it was a while since I’d seen their permanent collection, as this made the visit more worthwhile.

I am a bit embarrassed that I’d never heard of the Scythians before the British Museum exhibition was announced. It was fascinating, particularly lots of 2000-year-old gold animal representations. With a forthcoming trip to Kazakhstan, on the edge of where they once roamed, it was also rather timely. Also at the BM, I was surprised at how interesting Living with Gods was – religious objects from just about every faith on Earth.

At Tate Modern, not one, not two, but three fascinating exhibitions! Modigliani lived up to expectations. I so love his palette of colours and the warmth of his portraits. Ilya & Emilia Kabakov are artists I’ve never heard of, so it was a treat to immerse myself in their retrospective of excellent paintings and installations. Red Star Over Russia was a fascinating visual history of Communist Russia, or should I say USSR, with lots of those rousing posters which define the period. Treatsville Bankside.

Over at White Cube Bermondsey, a ginormous Gilbert & George show called The Beard Pictures & Their Fuckosophy paired walls and walls of phrases all containing the word Fuck, with walls and walls of their giant, loud, symmetrical, in-you-face pictures. Part of me finds it all too samey and juvenile, but I keep going back for more. A gold star this time for a signed catalogue at £10!

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Opera

It’s baffling why Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera May Night is hardly ever staged, so a gold star to Royal Academy Opera for a production with musical standards that any professional opera company would be proud of. Their theatre is being rebuilt, so it took place in the former testing hall of the University of Westminster across the road, which was just as well as it would never have fitted on their own stage / in their own pit! A real treat.

The London Handel Festival’s annual opera at the Royal College of Music’s Britten Theatre was Ariodante, one of his best, and it was another operatic treat, with gorgeous playing by the London Handel Orchestra under Laurence Cummings and a set of very fine performances from RCM students. I even liked the grungy set, even though it wasn’t exactly evocative of Edinburgh, where the opera is set!

I wasn’t expecting to be as bowled over by George Benjamin’s Written on Skin at the Barbican Centre as I was. I can’t say I entirely understood the story, but I was mesmerised by the music, brilliantly played by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra under Benjamin with three stunning lead soloists – Barbara Hannigan, Christopher Purves and Tim Mead. One of the best modern operas I’ve ever heard.

Popup Opera’s I Capuleti E I Montecchi in The Vaults at Waterloo was their first foray into tragedy and it was a huge success. Stripped down to five singers, an electric piano, a few props and some strip lights, the music shone through. Flora McIntosh and Alice Privett were terrific as the star-crossed lovers (Bellini wrote Romeo as a trouser role), though I wished they hadn’t done the final death scene standing up!

The original version of Boris Godunov at the Royal Opera House was 130 unbroken minutes but it kept me in its grip throughout. Richard Jones production was as masterly and fresh as his Meistersingers and the musical standards under Antonio Pappano were sky high. Bryn Terfel can act as well as he can sing and the rest of the leads were just as good. Terrific stuff.

Dance

The revival of Akram Khan’s Kaash at Sadler’s Wells was an exhausting hour, such was the physicality of the five dancers. There’s no narrative as such, but the combination of Anish Kapoor’s hypnotic design, Nitin Sawhney’s percussive music and the organic, acrobatic choreography of Kahn was rather mesmerising.

At the Staatsoper in Hannover, I caught a ballet of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Was Ihr Wollt (the play’s subtitle, What You Will), with a mash-up of music by Prokofiev Shostakovich and Dvorak, and it was a treat, particularly good at the comedy, with some lovely performances from an international cast. I do love catching opera and ballet on my travels, especially when it’s half the cost at Covent Garden, as it was here!

Film

Sasha Baron Cohen’s Grimsby was clever and often very funny, but also often gross and in the end more gross than funny.

I’m a big Coen Brothers fan, but I was a bit underwhelmed by Hail Caesar! And I’m not sure why. It was a great idea, but it didn’t fully satisfy me.

Though Anomalisa didn’t live up to its five star reviews, it was a very original film, an animation using life-size puppets and the voice of only one actor for all parts expect the two leads, and a clever way of showing a man spiralling into depression.

High Rise was another film that didn’t live up to the hype. It’s a very odd affair that I didn’t really think went anywhere, though it held my attention and the performances were good.

Art

Nikolai Astrup is the best painter I’d never heard of, and Painting Norway at Dulwich Picture Gallery was simply gorgeous. The vibrant colours and beautiful landscapes made you want to get on a plane there and then.

I caught the Frank Auerbach exhibition at Tate Britain in its last weekend. I liked about half of the pictures and was indifferent to the rest; I’m not sure I’ve ever felt like that about an artist’s work. Whilst there, I caught the Artist & Empire exhibition, examining Britain’s Imperial past through art, which seemed to me to be one of those exhibitions created to make some money, though it was very well curated. Between the two was Susan Philipsz clever sound installation featuring samples from The Last Post played on brass and woodwind instruments damaged during the Second World War; very moving.

I was rather chuffed with my photographs of my recent safaris to South Africa, Namibia and Kenya……until I went to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum, and that was just the under-18’s! They benefit, of course, from scale and back-lighting, but it was the compositions which I envied most. Lovely. Next door at the Science Museum, I very much enjoyed the American documentary photography of Alec Soth and the stunning mid-19th century portraits of photographic pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron and the juxtaposition of the two was in itself brilliant. Another diverse afternoon immersion in photography.

Strange & Familiar at the Barbican was a social history of 20th century Britain through an extraordinary collection of photographs by those who don’t live here. There was a bias towards the 50’s and 60’s (my first two decades!), probably the birth of such documentary photography, and many of them seemed attracted to my homeland – South Wales mining communities – so it may have been particularly moving for me.

Painting the Modern Garden at the Royal Academy was one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen. Over one hundred paintings from the impressionist and post-impressionist period and a riot of colour. The three Monet-only rooms were a joy to behold. I’ll have to go back. Upstairs, In the Age of Giorgione was a superb collection of early sixteenth century Venetian art. Technically very accomplished, but not really my thing. The one-room collection of Ann Christopher’s ‘Lines of Time’ was a little treat on the way out.

At the Photographers Gallery, a trio of small exhibitions starting with a lovely varied retrospective of American photographer Saul Leiter, another master of documentary photography. On the floor below Rio-Montevideo was a brilliant exhibition of Uruguayan protest photographs which had been hidden during the prolonged period of military dictatorships and were now presented by a Rio photographer and projected by vintage machines picked up in flea markets and second-hand stores (a lot of which were out of order!). Finally, an exhibition commemorating the Easter Rising on its 100th anniversary, something I found it hard to engage with for some reason.

The 100th Anniversary of Vogue was celebrated at the NPG in huge style by an exhibition which took over almost the entire ground floor, containing pictures from each decade. A simply stunning collection which had me rushing to buy the catalogue (again!). Whilst there, I popped into Russia & the Arts, an exhibition of portraits of famous musicians, writers etc, but failed to get enthused after the wonders of the Vogue collection.

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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’m not sure how to categorise the Hofesh Shechter / Anthony Gormley collaboration Survivor at the Barbican but it felt more like a staged concert than anything else, so here it is! The 30-piece string / percussion band are on three platforms high above the stage. At one stage they come down onto the stage and are supplemented by a vast ‘community’ percussion band. Six performers use the space below (and at one point the auditorium) though occasionally a screen is lowered for projections, as is the metal safety curtain which is part of the performance, as is the whole stage really. The music is largely rhythmic and there doesn’t appear to be a story. It’s all very clever and diverting but felt like they were just throwing in every idea they could think of, including a bath instead of a kitchen sink. The rest of the audience appeared to love it. I was a bit indifferent.

I’ve been following the career of Clive Rowe since I saw him in Lady Be Good at the Guildhall school many years ago. He’s one of our best musical performers and for his ‘cabaret’ at the Landor he selected an unpredictable, idiosyncratic and very personal group of songs which I really enjoyed. He gave us a potted biography between songs and a Q&A in the second half and it was like being entertained by a friend in your front room. The highlights included Putting on the Ritz and an interpretation of Sondheim’s Being Alive which brought a tear to my eye (again!).

I’m new to Laura Veirs and attending her QEH concert was a bit of an afterthought. Apart from a couple of new songs and a pair from her recent children’s album, most of the set was from her impressive back catalogue. The combination of acoustic and electric guitar with viola makes for a very pleasing sound and her lovely songs sounded even better live than they do on record. She engaged enough with the audience to convey her upbeat personality but not too much that it got in the way. A short but perfectly formed set.

Classical Music

I love choral oratorios, but as they are mostly on religious themes (and often settings of the requiem mass) they become a bit samey and one yearns for something more secular. Haydn’s The Seasons is therefore a breath of fresh air and performed by The Gabrieli Consort & Players under Paul McCreesh (who provided a new English translation) at the Barbican, it was lovely, particularly jolly old Autumn which moves from love duet to hunting songs to drinking songs. The three soloists – Christiane Karg, Allan Clayton and Christopher Purves – were all exceptional. A treat!

Art

Postmodernism: Style & Subversion is another of the V&A’s reviews of a design movement. Though not as good as some of the others, it’s still indispensable if, like me, you want to understand and absorb the history of design. It’s an eclectic collection of architecture, furniture, fashion, graphics etc and a lot to take in during one visit. Also at the V&A (if you can find it!) is a two room review of Private Eye’s first 50 years which made me smile and laugh. Made up of cartoons, comic strips and memorabilia, it brings home to you the indispensability of a satirical institution in any civilised society.

When 10 photos constitute an exhibition, you would be justified in feeling cheated – if you’d paid! This two-floor show of Jeff Wall’s work at White Cube Mason’s Yard was a big non-event for me, I’m afraid. I was just as disappointed by Annie Leibovitz ‘Pilgrimage’ at Hamiltons. Known for her extraordinary portraits, these 26 digital pigment prints of places and objects associated with famous people (like Lincoln’s hat and gloves) seemed completely pointless.

American installation artist Paul McCarthy is never dull but often hit-and-miss. This exhibition takes over two galleries and part of St James’ Square gardens. The installation that takes up the whole of Hauser & Wirth Saville Row did nothing for me – a pile of stuff that was interesting to look at, but meant nothing (to me, anyway). It was better at the Piccadilly ‘branch’ where two of the three works (there was one on each floor!) were good, particularly a revolving hydraulic cube. I never made the gardens as it was dark and they were closed.

American photographer Catherine Opie is new to me and her exhibition at the Stephen Friedman Gallery contained two very different collections. I wasn’t particularly impressed by the early B&W portraits of a punkish sub-culture but I was impressed by the seven pairs of sunset / sunrise photos taken on a container ship voyage across the Pacific Ocean; each had a different atmosphere created by the climatic conditions when they were taken.

Bloomberg New Contemporaries isn’t a regular affair for me, but this year at the ICA it was quite impressive. These students and recent graduates seem to be returning to more traditional art forms – paintings, photos and sculpture – which makes a refreshing change from endless films and installations!

I was expecting to like David Hockney at  the Royal Academy as I had enjoyed my first view of the first of his Yorkshire landscapes in a small gallery a few years back, but nothing prepared me for the overwhelming beauty of this exhibition. It’s a riot of colour and an homage to nature and one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in my entire life. Room 9 in particular was stunning – three walls of paintings showing the transition of winter to spring in the same place and a giant canvas on the fourth wall. Gorgeous.

Film

When I see a film based on a book I’ve read, I’m often disappointed when it isn’t faithful to the book and / or doesn’t match what’s in my head.  That was absolutely not the case with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which was true to the story and just like my mind pictures. It has great pace, as it should, but doesn’t seem rushed.

The Artist isn’t the sort of film I would usually go to, but yet again the reviews and recommendations meant I succumbed. I wish I trusted my instinct more. I didn’t dislike it, but wasn’t really satisfied by it – a 30 minute TV show spun into an overlong 100 minute feature film. There was a lot to like, buy in my book it’s over-hyped.

I much admired The Iron Lady but wished they hadn’t told the story in flashback from her current dementia. I’m no Thatcherite, but it seemed somewhat disrespectful and unnecessary. Meryl Streep was simply extraordinary, but so were the actors playing her male colleagues, a veritable who’s who of British male actors of a certain age. When you see recent history recreated, you realise how much you’ve forgotten – as it was here!

The film of War Horse was a lot more sentimental than the stage show (well, it’s Spielberg after all) but I still enjoyed it very much. The story translates to the screen well and again there are a whole host of excellent performances. I was shocked at the number of under 12’s in the audience; it’s a 12A and having seen it I think that’s right. I would never allow a youngster of mine to go and see the maiming of animals and the slaughter of men – it almost traumatized me!

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The Rest of November

Contemporary Music

Blind Malian’s Amadou & Mariam staged their concert in complete darkness. The effect was to heighten the listening experience of their uplifting music. I could have done without the life story narrative, which was a bit naff, but otherwise it was an extraordinary experience.

Roy Harper is another of those artists who are part of the soundtrack of my life and Stormcock one of my very favourite albums. I haven’t kept up with his later work and haven’t seen him for some time, but his 70th birthday concert at RFH was irresistible. It proved to be deeply moving – he appeared to be ‘signing off’ and almost cracked up a few times. The 8-piece brass and string ensemble meant he focused mostly on my personal Roy Harper period and I loved it. When Jimmy Page guested for the double-guitar fireworks (on 5th November!) of That Same Old Rock (he played on the album) it was absolutely magical and the hall erupted.

I was amazed when they decided on Hammersmith Apollo for the Gillian Welch concert. It’s a shabby, tacky and dirty place and ever so big for two acoustic musicians. Though I would have much preferred somewhere like the Barbican or the Southbank Centre, she did pull it off. I like the new album and the first set was largely taken from it. The big surprise though was how this was a mere taster for an outstanding second set which ended with superb encores of country classic Jackson and Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit . I’ve waited a long while to see her, but it was well worth the wait – next time, somewhere else though? Please…

Taking eight people to Ronnie Scott’s to see jazz vocalist Ian Shaw was always going to be a risk, but one that paid off. The musicianship shone through and the audience were suitably attentive. His band included a silver-haired bassist who played with Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker. Wow! Astonishingly, it was my first visit to RS, but now that they have shows at civilised times I shall be back!

Opera & Classical Music

The operatic adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness seems to me to be a great success. Set mostly aboard a boat in the Congo, it has great atmosphere and tension thanks to Robert Innes Hopkins superb design and Tarik O’Regan’s music. There was some excellent singing from Alan Oke, Gweneth-Ann Jeffers and Morten Lassenius Kramp with the small ensemble Chroma under Oliver Gooch providing a colourful orchestral background. Just what the Linbury Studio is for.

The Guildhall School of Music & Drama have uncovered a neglected comic gem with Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor, Nicolai(who?)’s take on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s given a sparkling and fresh modern dress production by Harry Fehr with a brilliant set and costumes from Tom Rogers. For some reason Nicolai changed the names of the Ford’s and Page’s but not Falstaff or Fenton. He’s dumped Mistress Quickly, Bardolph and Shallow, but otherwise it’s true to its source. Barnaby Rea is excellent as Falstaff, Ashley Riches is very good as the second cast Fluth (Ford) and Ellie Laugharne is a sweet-voiced Anna – but its Sky Ingram’s show; her Frau Fluth (Ford) is fabulous; we’ll be hearing a lot more of her for sure.

I’ve wanted to see Vaughan Williams’ Hugh the Drover for a very long time, so Hampstead Garden Opera’s production was very welcome indeed. I have to confess though that I wasn’t expecting it to be such a good opera and for the musical standards of this ‘amateur’ production to be so outstanding. It was beautifully played by The Dionysus Ensemble, a group of music students & recent graduates, under the leadership of Oliver-John Ruthven. The leads were also students & recent graduates and they were also exceptional. David de Winter was terrific as Hugh, with Elaine Tate a lovely sweet-voiced Mary and Ed Ballard fine as baddie butcher John. This ballad opera is so so underrated, but this new chamber version will hopefully lead to more productions. A whole packet of gold stars to HGO for leading the way.

Handel’s Saul is a lovely dramatic oratorio and Harry Christophers & The Sixteen delivered an excellent interpretation at the Barbican, helped by a set of outstanding soloists including Sarah Connelly, Christopher Purves and Robert Murray. The quality of the choir is exceptional with a handful of them stepping forward to sing the smaller solo parts.

Opera North’s Ruddigore is destined to be as classic a G&S production as ENO’s The Mikado still is many years on. It’s a completely preposterous story of course, but it’s given a sparking fresh production by Jo Davies, with sepia design from Richard Hudson, and is an absolute delight. Grant Doyle is an excellent leading man, Hal Cazalet (who trained next door at GSMD) acts and sings superbly well as sailor Dauntless, Heather Shipp is as batty as Mad Margaret should be and there’s superb support from a few old favourites I seem to see too little of these days – Anne-Marie Owens, Richard Angas and Stephen Page. I sincerely hope their visits to the Barbican become regular – it would d be good to have good quality opera at decent prices here in London!

Dance

I loved the Scottish Ballet programme I saw a couple of years ago in Edinburgh, so I booked to see their new double-bill at Sadler’s Wells. The first piece – Kings 2 Ends – was playful, funny and quirky. Choreographed by Jorma Elo to music by Steve Reich and Mozart, this young company excelled. Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth to Mahler’s song cycle took a short while to settle but soon became spellbinding. More classical than the first piece, I liked the contrast, though the dancers seemed to find it more of a challenge. I liked soprano Karen Cargill but I’m afraid tenor Richard Berkeley-Steele was nowhere near as pleasing on the ear!

I’m new to Ballet Rambert and this second showing didn’t live up to the first. It was certainly a diverse triple bill. RainForest was a somewhat abstract 40-year old piece by Merce Cunningham with an electronic score, danced in Jasper Johns costumes in an Andy Warhol setting. Seven for a secret, never to be told was Mark Baldwin’s exploration of child behaviour to a Ravel score and Javier de Frutos’ Elysian Fields was a steamy and violent homage to Tennessee Williams and A Streetcar Named Desire in particular, danced to that film’s score with unnecessary and intrusive dialogue. A bit of a mixed bag – I admired the dance / movement but didn’t really find anything entirely satisfactory.

Art

The Royal Academy’s Degas & the Ballet – Picturing Movement should have been subtitled ‘A study in obsession (with a touch of pedophilia)’ It pushed the dancer theme just a bit too far for me. There were some exhibits that I felt were padding (animation and panoramas) and I think it would have been a better 5-room exhibition than it was an 8-room exhibition. That said, the penultimate room of 13 paintings was simply glorious and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Also at the RA, Building the Revolution – Soviet Art & Architecture 1915-1935 was a small but fascinating series of pictures and drawings which illustrated the iconic art deco / modernist hybrid that existed there and then. Most of these buildings are now run down (or worse) and I was struck by how many I’d seen on recent trips to the Ukraine & The Caucasus.

The most extraordinary thing about Gerhard Richter’s retrospective at Tate Modern is that it feels like a show by a bunch of artists rather than one. He completely reinvented himself on a regular basis so there is much diversity on show here. It didn’t all work for me, but as a body of work it’s certainly impressive.

Grayson Perry moved from my list of OK-but-overrated-modern-British-artists to the premier league on the strength of his brilliant exhibition at the British Museum. His own work is interspersed with items from the BM collection (few of which I’d ever seen before). It was equal parts learning, fun and beauty and I was bowled over by it.

Another pleasant surprise was the John Martin exhibition at Tate Britain. This early 19th century artist created vast canvases, mostly on dramatic religious themes like Sodom & Gomorrah. They seem to be the precursors of / influence for apocalyptic films like Independence Day and covers for 1970’s progressive rock albums by bands like Yes. In their day they toured the country with sound and light shows to accompany then, seen by millions of people, so it was terrific that they created a modern version for the Judgement Day triptych – a first for an exhibition? How can I have lived this long without ever knowing about this man?! Upstairs, sculptor Barry Flanagan’s early work seemed tame and dull, I’m afraid, but it did mean you get to climb their brilliant and bright newly painted staircase!

I was smitten by the Pipilotti Rist exhibition at the Hayward Gallery last month and almost smitten by George Condo’s Mental States, which is now sharing the venue. His portraits are like a cartoon version of Francis Bacon and his abstracts like Picasso on acid. I’d never heard of him before, so it was good to see such a comprehensive and fascinating collection. Also at the Southbank Centre, the 2011 World Press Photographer exhibition maintains the standards of this superb annual tradition. It’s often hard to look at, but the photography is always outstanding.

Visiting Two Temple Place is a double-dip treat. The former Astor home is a riot of carving, stained glass and OTT decoration and it currently houses a William Morris exhibition with a superb collection of tapestries, fabrics, wallpaper, paintings and drawings. Gorgeous.

Just as gorgeous was the Royal Manuscripts exhibition at the British Library, a stunning collection of richly decorated books from the middle ages. It’s superbly curated and, provided you go at a quiet time, it’s a real treat.

Film

Two excellent British films this month, the first of which was Weekend, about an intense gay relationship which begins and ends in, well, a weekend. Chris New and Tom Cullen were both outstanding and it was beautifully shot. The second, Resistance, is set in Wales after the failure of the D-Day landings resulting in an invasion of German troops, a small group of whom have reached a Welsh valley! It explores the reaction of the locals and their relationships with the invaders. It’s a bit of a slow burn, but eventually draws you in and becomes deeply moving without a touch of sentimentality. There are some lovely performances, most notably from Andrea Risborough.

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I’ve been critical of ENO’s recruitment of film directors. These opera virgins – the late Anthony Minghella, Sally Potter, Mike Figgis and now Terry Gilliam – have had limited success, but it seems to me the real point of recruiting them is not what they bring to the art form but to generate a hype which sells seats. The best part of Figgis’ Lucrezia Borgia was in fact the films slotted into the action. The hype for Gilliam’s effort has been relentless; at one point the opera was billed as ‘Terry Gilliam’s The Damnation of Faust’, demoting Berlioz to a bit part in his own creation.

It’s an unusual opera – is it an opera? – with surprisingly little singing, but it does have some lovely music and the Faust legend is of course made for opera – Gounod, Busoni and Boito also had a go. Gilliam’s concept is to ‘follow the trajectory of German art and history from the late nineteenth century to the mid twentieth century’ and it’s a perfectly valid concept. The opening Caspar David Friedrich image is spellbinding. Then his imagination runs riot and he downloads so many ideas it’s difficult to keep up. It does slow down in the second half, which allows the story to breathe, but it is an extraordinary flight of the imagination. The trouble is, this swamps the story and overpowers Berlioz’ music, so it really is ‘Terry Gilliam’s The Damnation of Faust’.

The more experienced design team of Hildegard Bechtler, Katrina Lindsay and Peter Mumford do extraordinary work converting these ideas into stunning visual imagery, assisted by Finn Ross’ giant projections. Things aren’t so good in the music department, despite the fact that Edward Gardner is at the helm. The chorus was often ragged, Peter Hoare started well as Faust but in the second half was no match for Christine Rice’s gorgeous Marguerite and Christopher Purves continued his long journey from Harvey & The Wallbangers to give us a respectable Mephistopheles. Musically it wasn’t a patch on the LSO under Sir Colin Davies in concert or even Met Live at the cinema.

If you want to see Terry Gilliam’s The Damnation of Faust, you’ll be rewarded with a spectacle as spectacular as anything you’ve seen before in an opera house. If you want to see Berlioz’ The Damnation of Faust, you might be better giving it a miss.

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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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