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Posts Tagged ‘Coen Brothers’

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

In yet another senior moment, when I booked for it I’d forgotten that Maria Friedman‘s show at The Pheasantry was a repeat of the one just ten months ago at the same venue, but it hardly mattered. These Sondheim & Bernstein songs can be heard over and over again and you hear something new or the interpretation is subtly different or its just like a glorious encore. The venue is intimate and this time I was in the front and able to appreciate every nuance and every note. From the ‘overture’ – Jason Carr‘s ‘ mash-up’ of Sondheim & Bernstein melodies – it was an absolute delight.

The second ‘cabaret’ of the month paired the same Jason Carr with Janie Dee. The former, usually accompanying others or orchestrating shows, mixed his own songs with vintage musicals fare. He’s no great singer so guests Anna Francolini and Melvin Whitfield proved welcome. He does have bags of charm though and was very engaging with his audience…..as was Janie Dee, who hot-footed it over from Putting It Together for a short but perfectly formed if somewhat unpredictable set in which she invested more than a touch of acting. A very original take on the cabaret form, which I loved.

Classical Music

Flicking through those concert hall brochures, in this case St. John’s Smith Square, a series called Composers in Love took my fancy and Beloved Clara if the first of four I booked. It tells the story of the relationship between Robert Schumann and his wife Clara and the relationship of both of them with Brahms. Actors Harriet Walter and Henry Goodman read a selection of their letters and pianist Lucy Parham played appropriate selections. When I booked it, I had no idea it was going to be such a treat. The music was gorgeous and you learn a lot about these people’s lives. I was enthralled and now can’t wait for the other three.

I don’t know the work of John Tavener very well, but everything I’ve heard I’ve liked. When I saw a ‘celebration weekend’ in the St. John’s brochure, it seemed an ideal opportunity to correct that. Four concerts, twenty-one works spanning 43 years, three UK premieres and one world premiere, five hours of music. Between booking and going he died, so it became a posthumous review of his work. There was extraordinary range, from pieces for solo instruments through string quartets, a brass ensemble and the church organ to orchestral suits and choral works, but mostly choral works. Amongst the highlights were The Hidden Treasure for string quartet, cello work The Protecting Veil, Trisagion for brass quintet and new choral work Miroir des Poemes. This was a very good idea!

Opera

During a 24-hour post-work skive in Paris, I made an impulsive first visit to Opera Bastille for Massenet’s Werther for the only opera of the month. Roberto Alagna didn’t turn up and though his cover did his best he wasn’t really up to it. The rest of the singing was good though, the orchestra under Michel Plasson was excellent and the period production imported from Covent Garden was fine. The building didn’t really impress, though the sight-lines and acoustics were good and in egalitarian France those of us at the back were invited to fill the more expensive seats further forward!

Art

Pop Art Design at the Barbican does what it says on the can – looks at how Pop Art influenced design. It’s an interesting idea and the selection is eclectic. There are Warhol works I’ve never seen before and household furniture and other items that seem ever so familiar. This is the sort of show the Barbican does well.

Paul Klee: Making Visible at Tate Modern is a fabulous exhibition. A huge collection of works showcase extraordinary variety and a sublime use of colour. Seeing it on a Saturday evening was a bonus, as the thinner attendance allows you to savour everything close up and from a distance. When I first entered the Mira Schendel exhibition two floors up, I wondered if it was a continuation of Klee, but it went off the boil very quickly as she became ever more conceptual. In fairness, it picked up towards the end with some nice installations, but there was a lot of rubbish in between.

Dulwich Picture Gallery has a huge hit on their hands with An American in London – Whistler and the Thames. Fifteen minutes to get a ticket, 30 minutes to enter the first room and too many people to fully enjoy it. It pulls all its punches in the first room with extraordinary etchings of Thames scenes done in his 20’s; the rest is fine but just doesn’t match these.

Sculptor Bill Woodrow‘s exhibition at the Royal Academy was a hit & miss but mostly miss affair. Clever but neither beautiful nor funny!

The tiny Ben Uri Gallery hosted a show of the London Group which was a who’s who of 20th century British artists and contained a high count of absolute gems amongst just 49 works. Most museums would die to show a collection like this and this is an unfunded gallery that doesn’t charge admission. Magnificent!

Jake & Dinos Chapman’s Come & See at the new Serpentine Sackler Gallery was a lot of the same old stuff – scenes of carnage in glass cases, defaced 19th century pictures etc. – but there was new work like contraptions for brain damage and self-deprecating films with David Thewlis & Rhys Ifans (not new, but I hadn’t seen them before). It was presided over by 37 life-size Klu Klux figures wearing rainbow socks and smiley badges. An odd combination of the macabre and playful.

My 24-hour Paris skive was an art feast with three exhibitions at the Pinacotheque and another at the Centre Georges Pompidou. La Dynastie Brueghel had paintings from 12 painters spanning 6 generations from the early 16th to late 17th centuries. It focused mostly on the elder and younger Jan’s, there was a shortage of Pieter’s and there were too many flower paintings, but it was well worth the visit. Chu Teh-Chun was new to me but I rather took to his brightly coloured abstract pictures, which were a huge contrast to the etchings in Goya et la Modernite which composed most of the third Pinacotheque show. Le Surrealisme et L’Object at the Centre George Pompidou was a collection spanning most of the 20th century featuring all the usual subjects, beautifully curated by theme. As it was no. 4, I probably didn’t do it justice.

Film

I hadn’t seen the first one, so Anchorman 2 was a bit of a punt, partly selected as 3rd choice because it fitted a location and time slot. Though it’s a tad overlong, and not all of the American humour works here, it does have a lot of laughs and ends with an extraordinary number of celebrity cameos. God fun, though far from life changing!

I’m at a loss to understand what all the fuss is about with American Hustle (10 BAFTA nominations!). I liked the period look, it was sometimes funny, but it was overlong and poorly structured and, well, rather dull. Not a patch on the director’s last film – Silver Linings Playbook.

I’m puzzled by the critical indifference to Mandela: Long Road to Freedom. It compresses so much into almost 2.5 hours and does so extremely well. Idris Elba is stunning. The whole thing is captivating and moving. Go!

You would be forgiven for thinking that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire isn’t actually a new film, the second in the series, but a new version of the first one. It just seemed to be more of the same and I was hugely disappointed.

Twelve Years a Slave is a harrowing, uncompromising and unsentimental story of someone kidnapped onto slavery. It may win a BAFTA, but it won’t win an Oscar because the Americans won’t be able to publicly confront something that is only 150 years ago in their short history. I’d love to be proven wrong, though. Not easy to watch, but a stunning film nonetheless.

I love the Coen brothers films, but Inside Llewyn Davies was a huge disappointment. It just didn’t go anywhere and the journey was rather dull, even if the cinematography and performances were good.

The Wolf of Wall Street ended my film-going month and was the fastest three hours I’ve ever spent in the cinema. Funny and chilling in equal measure, it’s a coruscating expose of the sort of excesses of the financial sector we’ve got used to in recent years and it’s a career defining role for Leonardo DiCaprio.

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