Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘English National Opera’

The first time I saw this Sondheim show was English National Opera’s London premiere at one of the capital’s biggest theatres, the Coliseum. Now here I am 27 years later at the opposite end of the theatre scale at the tiny Union Theatre, which has just 2% of the Coli’s capacity. In between, there have been a few more, most notably a visiting production from Chicago at the Donmar in the round (square) in 2003, which was the best of them all. This show, one of Sondheim’s most ambitious and cleverest, but difficult to pull off, suits more intimate spaces.

It starts in Japan in the mid-19th century; the country has been isolated for 250 years when an American ship turns up demanding an audience with the Emperor. The first half is mostly a description of life in Japan, it’s cultural peculiarities and political intricacies. They find an elegant solution to the American’s demand by finding a stand-in for the Emperor and creating an audience space of mats that can be destroyed afterwards, enabling them to claim the barbarians never set foot on Japanese soil. The show is telling the story from the Japanese perspective and the score has a strong Japanese influence. In truth, this part is too long and too slow, though its imaginative and intriguing with some lovely tunes.

The much shorter second half packs a real punch, starting with Please Hello, a terrific comic number with ambassadors turning up from the US, UK, Holland, Russia and France, all wanting a piece of the trading action. The initial brush-off clearly hasn’t worked. We see the effect of the ‘westernisation’ distilled into just one song, A Bowler Hat, then the backlash distilled into another, Pretty Lady. In the end we jump forward to the present day to see how this all plays out in Next.

Here, the musical standards are high, with Richard Bates band sounding lovely with reeds and cello, and some great singing from a vocally strong cast. Director Michael Strassen applies his trademark minimalist elegance with a simple but evocative design and costumes by Jean Gray. The puppet emperor is indeed a puppet, screens are used to great effect, actors transform quickly from locals to visitors with the addition of sailor collars and the staging is infused with Japanese theatrical motifs. I felt the choreography was sometimes over-elaborate and the performances sometimes too camp, but overall the staging was effective.

In an all-male cast, Ken Christiansen had great presence as the Reciter (narrator) and Ian Mowat was excellent in multiple roles as diverse as geisha Madam and British Admiral. Oli Reynolds was so good as Kayama it’s hard to believe he’s graduating this year, and there were a number of other impressive performances and professional debuts from recent drama school graduates. A very talented ensemble indeed.

It’s great to see this show again (after eleven years!), and great to see it in an intimate space once more.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Opera

ENO has given us its best work for ages away from home at The Young Vic, The Return of Ulysses. This 370- year-old opera is given a radical updating that for once works. It’s staged in and outside a modern apartment that revolves, fully transparent on all sides – a sort of mini Big Brother house. There are two shop style cameras that project close-ups and detail onto two screens at either side of the stage. At the start it’s sparkling and new, but as the opera progresses it becomes smeared and more. You completely believe Pamela Helen Stephen (terrific – never better) has been waiting 20 years for her man, as you do Tom Randle (wonderful)’s exhaustion after such a long war. There isn’t a fault in the rest of the cast (even an understudy as Eurimaco) who sing Monteverdi’s music beautifully, accompanied by a lovely sounding 14-piece ensemble situated stage left where you can hear every note. It’s a masterpiece of staging and acting when you can take a shower fully naked in a revolving glass room without showing any of your bits, as Randle managed! Despite this undoubted success, I’m still somewhat nervous that Terry Gilliam (as opposed to Berlioz!)’s The Damnation of Faust next month will take a few steps back after this huge leap forward.

Opera Shots was a double-bill of new operas at the ROH’s Linbury Studio. The first is a 30-minute mess by The Police’s Stewart Copeland in a gothic / commedia dell arte style with a ragbag of musical styles; the design is the best thing about it. The second is a 60-minute comic gem from Anne Dudley and Monty Python’s Terry Jones – tuneful, very funny and positively charming.

I’m a bit indifferent about Covent Garden’s Aida. The design has one of those big walls that revolves (yawn) and some quirky costume combinations. The singing by a UN cast (Russian, Polish, American, Korean & British) is mostly good, in that vocal-power-at-the-expense-of-beauty-and-characterisation way, but the acting is wooden. The chorus didn’t start well, but get better. One expects better from a world class opera house.

Classical Music

When the LSO decided to change its plan to screen Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible accompanied by Prokofiev’s score played live to a concert performance of the oratorio, I almost sold my ticket back. How glad I am I didn’t, as it was a fascinating evening. The 75-minute piece for orchestra, chorus, mezzo and bass has a lot of flaws but it was always interesting and showed off the power of the LSO and LSC. I could have done without the live Russian narration and wished I hadn’t followed the surtitles of the preposterous and pompous words and just listened to the glorious sound. The opener was his Violin Concerto, another piece new to me that I also enjoyed.

The first two acts of the concert performance of five-act Pelleas & Mellisandre were a little subdued, restrained and static, but things picked up in the third act and the fourth was thrilling. The Orchestre de Paris and a largely French cast clearly had an affinity with their composing compatriot, but it was Laurant Naouri as Golaud and Simon Keenlyside as Pellaes who shone. Natalie Dessay kept her head in the score and failed to animate Melisandre for me, I’m afraid. This orchestra is the first I’ve seen that credits the designs of its outfits!

Dance

Balletboyz the Talent was absolutely mesmerising and one of the best evenings of dance ever! The three pieces were very different but together made an exciting combination. It was edgy, original, thrilling and sexy and I loved it.

Art

It’s amazing what you can do in a morning at the British Museum! On this occasion, we took in the fascinating exhibition of treasures from Afghanistan, with some wonderful 2000 year old gold, accompanied by a little display showing the importance of the Afghan city of Herat in the history of Central Asian art, followed by a small but fascinating Eric Gill display showing designs for stamps, coins, books etc which I never even knew he did and finally a selection of their huge collection of drawings that included anyone and everyone. This is surely the world’s greatest museum?

Back to the Barbican Gallery to catch the other two performances as part of their New York Avant Garde ‘exhibition’ and they were both worth seeing – in one, the container divided by doors is occupied by five dancers moving fast and often confronting one another and in the other, three are climbing a wall with holes for hands and feet. Fun!

At Karsten Schubert, there’s a small but excellent exhibition of sculptures and pictures by American Fred Wilson on the theme of race politics. The most striking is a series of heads of Nefertiti that look like they are Egyptian antiquities and that go from white to black via shades of grey.

The Cult of Beauty at the V&A links together the late 19th century aestheticists – Leighton, Morris, Rosetti, Burne-Jones, Dresser et al. There are some beautiful paintings, designs and objects but as a whole it was somewhat over-powering.

Royal Family at the Hayward Gallery is a tiny exhibition about representations of its title. The only thing I liked about it was how they made an exhibit of a letter from Charles’ people declining to loan them a statue of him in heroic pose presented to him on tour by people in the Amazon!

It’s amazing how many exhibitions you can take in walking from the tube to the pub if your route takes you down Cork Street and you’ve got some time to kill! I started with William Nicholson at Browse & Darby – almost 60 pictures loaned from private collections including some absolutely stunning landscapes. Across the road at the Waddinton, I found Bill Woodrow’s sculptures / installations dated and faded, but a few doors up at Hay Hill there was a lovely exhibition of contemporary Icelandic artists; I was hugely impressed by the paintings of Tolli and the photos of Iris Thorstenindottir. On the way home, I took in the Deutsche Borse Photography Prize exhibition, which is underwhelming this year except for the political documentary work of Jim Goldberg which was deeply moving.

The art month ended back at the V&A for Figures & Fictions, a selection of contemporary South African photography and a stunning collection it was too; I’d be surprised is you could put together a better British collection. Then I popped into the Yohji Yamamoto fashion exhibit on the way out and it proved that fashion isn’t me!

Read Full Post »

Contemporary Music

I’ve been to enough Ben Folds concerts to know that they can be can be hit-and-miss affairs. He often fools around so much, at the expense of musical quality, but at his February Hammersmith Apollo concert he got it just about right. The songs from Lonely Avenue (penned with novelist Nick Hornby) worked as well on stage as they do on record, but it was the older stuff which really came alive – and he has the most tuneful fans as the choruses proved conclusively!

Classical Music

The classical month started with a lunchtime concert at Wigmore Hall, part of the YCAT season dedicated to providing early recital experience for young artists. This one showcased soprano Caroline MacPhie accompanied by Joseph Middleton and you’d never believe it was her first recital if you didn’t know, such was the quality of her singing and her confidence. It was a hugely ambitious programme  that packed in 21 twentieth century songs by Rodrigo, Poulenc, Britten and Bridge in Spanish, French, Russian and English! In truth, I thought it was a little heavy for lunchtime and a little less volume and more subtlety would have helped, but the ambition and talent is unquestionable. One to watch.

Opera

Lucrezia Borgia sees the ENO missing another opportunity to encourage talented young opera directors in favour of film director opera virgins. As if uncomfortable leaving his comfort zone, Mike Figgis framed his opera debut with four films, which were frankly more dramatic than anything on stage. With cardboard cut out sets and static singers, it looked dreadfully old-fashioned. The English libretto was occasionally silly (perhaps not surprising as it was translated by the conductor, Paul Daniel – is ENO determined to cross disciplines!), but thankfully there was some good singing.

Dance

It’s taken me 10 years to see Ballet Black (on their 10th anniversary!) and very impressive they were too. The four short pieces in the first half showed off their style and range, but it was Will Tuckett’s Orpheus one-act ballet that followed that was the highlight. It was in the Linbury Studio, so by law it had to have a Tuckett work, obviously.

Film

Brighton Rock was better than the reviews, but there was still something missing. Both the city and the period looked great and with a cast like Helen Mirren, Andrea Risborough, John Hurt and Phil Davies it was watchable, if a little slow at times.

True Grit is an extraordinary piece of film-making, even if it isn’t really my sort of film – too violent, I’m afraid. The cinematography is gorgeous and the performances are terrific, with Jeff Bridges better than he’s ever been and Matt Damon unrecognisable; the young girl, though, stole the show.

I hadn’t read the book of Never Let Me Go. I decided to go and see it despite the reviews because it had two of my favourite young actors – Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield. It’s very John Wyndham, but I’m afraid I found the basic premise a bit preposterous and the film was very slow and very dull.

Read Full Post »

Contemporary Music

Another gem at the lovely Union Chapel – The Carolina Chocolate Drops – absolute joy! Since I first saw them at Bush Hall a couple of years ago they’ve grown – and so has their audience. They play an eclectic mix of bluegrass, country, blues and jazz on fiddle, banjo, kazoo and percussion (including bones and jugs!). The between song chat between and by Dom and Rhiannon is charming and you feel you’ve got to know them as well as their music. Thoroughly uplifting.

Gem followed gem with John Hiatt delivering a glorious set at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire one week later. The new band is great, though it did seem to limit his song choices meaning there was less light & shade than we’re used to from Hiatt. That said, it was a terrific 2-hour rock / blues set with the second encore – Riding with the King – a magical five minutes in a lifetime of concert going.

Opera

ENO’s Radamisto was a musical treat with six well-matched performances (though Ailish Tynan almost stole the show) and the orchestra sounding lovely. The production / design, however, was often baffling. The first half had giant walls covered in black and red flock wallpaper and Prince Tigrane was played for laughs by the aforementioned Ailish Tynan in padded suit, false moustache and fez. Why? A rare lapse in intelligence from director David Alden.

Another lapse at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, I’m afraid. Spinalba is a rarely performed early 18th century opera by an obscure Portuguese composer with Italian influences. Stephen Metcalf has set it in a contemporary old people’s home where the residents are rehearsing the opera. It’s a similar story to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and this production idea makes it virtually impossible to follow. To be honest, most of the time I didn’t know who was who or what on earth was going on in the opera within the rehearsal – I accept its innovation and cleverness, but at the expense of a complete loss of a story and characters? The music was pleasant if undistinguished and there was some good singing and particularly good playing, but it was all lost in ‘the big idea’ and I’m afraid I couldn’t drag myself back after the first 100-minute half.

Film

I found Social Network a fascinating insight into the extraordinary story of Facebook. It unfolds like a thriller, draws you in and keeps hold of you for the duration. Free of gimmicks, it’s beautifully filmed and edited with great performances. It’s great to see a young British actor (the excellent Andrew Garfield) get a Hollywood lead (playing an American too!), no doubt thanks to executive producer & honorary Brit Kevin Spacey CBE

Mike Leigh’s Another Year is charming and poignant, and a lot better than his last film Happy Go Lucky, but I still think he does edgy better than wistful! A study of loss and loneliness, each character is well developed and each performance is beautifully judged; Lesley Manville is simply terrific.

Filming the last part of Harry Potter was always going to be difficult but I’m not sure splitting into two, with the first half merely a long set up for the conclusion, was wise. Much of it is desperately slow, there aren’t enough ‘wow’ moments and the absence of scenes in Hogwarts and other iconic locations leaves you feeling a bit cheated. Of course, I’ll have to see the final part – let’s hope it’s a hell of a lot better. 

Art

I adored the Glasgow Boys exhibition at the Royal Academy, Unknown to me (and I suspect many others) these late 19th century artists stand up well against their contemporaries, the impressionists and post-impressionists. Their style is sort of Pre-Raphaelites meets Arts & Crafts and I loved it.

I learnt more from the British Museum’s Egyptian Book of the Dead exhibition than I did in two weeks in Egypt! It’s brilliantly curated; looking at lovely objects and learning about the practices of a great civilisation are given equal prominence and are equally rewarding – possibly the best of their big Reading Room exhibitions. 

Those wonderful people at Artangel have done it again with Surround Me, a song cycle for the City of London by Susan Philipsz which consists of pieces of appropriate early music broadcast at six locations across the city. Walking between them when The City is empty on a Sunday added to the pleasure. I sincerely hope she wins the Turner Prize, because the other three at the Tate Britain exhibition are dire! 

I’m afraid Treasures from Budapest at the Royal Academy was too full of things I don’t like – Madonna’s, Christ’s, still life’s and dimly lit drawings – to be at all enjoyable. With hindsight, I should have raced to the last three rooms and given the rest a miss.

James Turrell’s exhibition at the Gagosian includes a light installation for one person at a time. You enter it laying down on a sliding ‘tray’ and stay in there for 15 minutes. I’m not sure if I could have coped with that, but all the ‘slots’ are booked anyway, so I didn’t have to decide! Fortunately, the other two pieces – particularly the elevated ‘room’ you walk into where colours change and your perceptions are manipulated – are well worth the visit without it.

Kings Place is becoming completely indispensible and when I went this month there were no less than four exhibitions, plus interesting sculpture all around the atrium and outside. Developments in Modern British Art was a small but fascinating selling exhibition which included Sickert, Hodgkin and Riley amongst others. Face to Face was a captivating selection of c.60 British self-portraits from Ruth Borchard’s extraordinary collection. Jazz Legends was a superb selection of Sefton Samuels B&W prints of musicians from the 50’s through the 90’s. Norman Adams paintings had been hidden away so you had to hunt for them, but when you found them they proved to be a pleasant surprise. Amongst the sculpture, there was a terrific revolving water screw feature on the canal side. I didn’t go to either of the two concert halls on this occasion, but all the exhibitions are free and we had a great lunch in their restaurant. As I said, indispensible.

Visits

A visit to Sands Film Studios in Rotherhithe with the V&A Friends proved to be absolutely fascinating. It is an extraordinary place (think Dennis Severs House) over three floors of a former warehouse housing film stages, scenery costume and prop stores & workshops, a unique screening room / cinema and a picture research library. It’s run by two characters – Christina & Olivier – whose respective families also live there. Their most famous production is probably the brilliant 2-part 6-hour Little Dorritt made in the mid-80’s; the entire film was shot in 9 months inside these studios (no external filming) with every set, prop and costume handmade here too. There can be nowhere else like it and I feel privileged to have visited it as I suspect it won’t be able to survive this modern world; today they spend most of their time and effort making and hiring out period costumes – if you catch the forthcoming Treasure Island on Sky (I won’t!), it will be their craftsmanship behind the costumes.

I visited the new Supreme Court, again with the V&A Friends, and as much as I loved the building and found briefly sitting in on proceedings interesting, I could have done it all a lot cheaper and at my own pace by just turning up and moving between the three public galleries and wandering around the building; the guide added little. It’s a lovely restoration of the Middlesex Guildhall with original ceramics and woodwork alongside Peter Blake carpets and modern drapes and glass. In Court Two there were 5 judges, 13 barristers, 2 solicitors and 5 clerks hearing a case about knitting factory noise in the 70’s and 80’s – all that expense from my taxes rather wound me up!

Read Full Post »

CONTEMPORARY MUSIC

Using the label ‘Folk’ for Seth Lakeman stretches it somewhat. I can live with folk-rock, but the driving rhythm of his sound stretches even that. It works so much better live than on record, though he’s wise to keep his set short and snappy to prevent it becoming relentless; the bass is pushed too high and it’s close to hurting (one of my companions had to move back after the first number). The Open Air Theatre was a terrific venue and it was the most exciting folk-rock set I’ve heard for more than 25 years (it reminded me of Fairport Convention and Alan Stivell when they rocked). There was a sex imbalance in the audience the opposite of what’s usual at ‘folk’ concerts – he’s a good looking guy who has quite a following with the girls! The unannounced support of A John Smith, who’s CD I like a lot, was a bonus – his melancholy on record was lightened live, helped by a charming self-deprecation in between songs.

The Kings Place Festival is an eclectic selection of 100 concerts over 4 days, each costing no more than £4.50. We took in three 45-minute folk concerts in one evening and a contrasting collection they turned out to be. Eliza Carthy showed off her technical expertise at both fiddle playing and acapella singing; her dad Martin Carthy’s set with Dave Swarbrick was more about nostalgia, such is the decline of skill and passion with age; and the best was left to last, with a set of great warmth and charm from Chris Wood. This is turning out to be a great venue.

I have a memory of seeing Tom Jones & The Squires at Penyrheol Community Centre (one mile from my home and three from his) before he had his first hit. When you look at his chronology and mine, this seems a bit implausible but my recollection is vivid! So this is (possibly) my second Tom Jones concert – 150 miles away and 45 years later – in Islington’s Union Chapel in Sept 2010. It was a small-scale showcase for the new gospel blues album Praise & Blame (which I love) and was announced by a ticket agency on Twitter. I thought it might be fun, but wasn’t expecting something so musically perfect; the songs sounded even better live, the band was terrific and his voice simply extraordinary. The venue was so perfect – Jones in front of the pulpit beneath the backlit stained glass rose window singing gospel! A real treat.

OPERA & MUSIC THEATRE

Peri’s opera Euridice, written in 1600, may be the first ever opera. 380 years later prolific composer Stephen Oliver produced a new version with the songs and choruses intact, an English translation and new ‘accompaniment’ and this is what British Youth Opera showcased this month. It’s the classical myth of Orpheus & Eurydice – with a happy ending! – and it was simply staged with costumes but no set. Somehow the lovely early music songs & choruses and modern accompaniment work well together and both the singing and playing from the cast of 18 and tiny 8-piece ensemble (intriguing instrumentation including cowbells, handbells, banjo and tabor!) were excellent. BYO’s name conjures up images of pimply teenagers but these are the next generation of opera singers currently studying at our best music colleges so, like the GSMD operas, the standards are really high.

ENO’s Faust is a lot better than the reviews lead you to believe. It seems to me perfectly legitimate to make Faust an atomic scientist at the time of Horoshima and the production worked for me. Some of Gounod’s music really is lovely and it is particularly well sung by Toby Spence as Faust, Iain Paterson as Mephistopheles and Melody Moore as Marguerite, with excellent support from Benedict Nelson, Anna Grevelius and Pamela Helen Stephens. ENO’s MD Edward Gardner yet again gets the best out of his band, and the chorus are on fine form. Director Des McAnuff is better known for theatre (notably the excellent Tommy and Jersey Boys) but I think his second outing in an opera house tells us he may well produce even better work in this form.

I much admired Pleasures Progress, Will Tuckett’s music theatre staging of William Hogarth sketches at the ROH’s Linbury Studio, though I was exhausted and fed up, so I didn’t get as much out of the evening as I should have. Very bawdy and often gross, it was a clever cocktail of music, dance and theatre which was superbly staged, designed, performed and played.

OTHER

I was hugely impressed by my visit to Denbies Winery in Dorking. I remember buying a bottle of their wine many years ago and thinking it was ghastly! Well, now it’s the largest winery in the UK producing over 250,000 bottles (80% sold from the cellar door) and the whites and rose were very nice indeed. They’ve cleverly expanded the business to include a winery tour (by people mover!) with an excellent 360 degree film & tasting and a tour of the vineyards by ‘train’.

I had 30 minutes to kill between afternoon tea with an Icelandic friend passing through and pre-theatre drinks with visitors from Somerset (as one does!), so I popped into White Cube at Mason’s Yard. Having returned from the Faroe Islands just a month ago, imagine my surprise to fine 10,080 photos – one taken each minute for a week – from that very place. Darren Almond’s exhibition also had some terrific film footage from Siberia with a hugely atmospheric soundtrack. Such is life lived on impulse…..

I thought Open House was going to be a damp squib this year as I’d only booked for one building (the brochure arrived AFTER booking opened – so much for advance ordering! – by which time everywhere I wanted to visit that had to be booked was fully booked). So I took pot luck with non-bookable buildings expecting to find queues, give up and get fed up. Well, it actually turned out to be one of the best ever with 12 visits. I only gave up on one (the BBC’s Bush House) and only really queued once, though I was seated watching videos so it was hardly a chore at all. Saturday started with Carpenter’s Hall, which added to my ‘collection’ of livery companies. The Arts Council (the one I booked) was a clever refurbishment which produced a funky and comfortable work space with great contemporary art in an old terraced building with stunning views of Westminster Abbey, Parliament and the London Eye from the terrace. Channel 4 was a riot of glass and steel, typical Rogers, and I couldn’t understand how I hadn’t walked past it in 15 years. The Ruebens ceiling at the Banqueting Hall was terrific and the place oozed history (I can’t understand why I’ve never been there before). The Foreign Office self-guided tour was really well organised and I loved the state rooms like the Locarno Suite and the Durbar Court. They were unloading Popemobiles outside. I then had to cross the anti-Pope demo in Piccadilly to get to The Royal Society of Chemistry and The Geological Society, neighbours in Burlington House, which had both benefitted from tasteful refurbishment.

On Sunday, the visit to The Royal Ballet Upper School was much more than a walk along the extraordinary ‘Bridge of Aspiration’ (which was terrific) with performance videos while you waited and dancers rehearsing on your tour route. Parliament’s Portcullis House is hideous on the outside but a lot better on the inside, with excellent contemporary art and an exhibition of photos taken during the last election. I loved the simple elegance of the Ismaili Centre; the towers and turrets of the neighbouring South Kensington museums peeping over the walls of the gorgeous roof garden. It was rather surreal walking through Brompton Cemetery while Chelsea fans were using it as a short-cut to the game and druggies were hanging out around the graves. Finally, I visited the art nouveau / art deco former Finsbury Town Hall with wrought iron entrance canopy and stunning Great Hall. This is a once-a-year opportunity which I can safely say I exploited fully this year!

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »