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Opera

Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti wrote 28 operas, but we hardly ever see them here, so GSMD’s The Consul was a great opportunity to see an opera I’ve only seen once, zonks ago in Stockholm, and a great job they made of it too (though I wish they’d lost the final scene!). The only Menotti I’ve seen in the UK was a double-bill of short works in a tiny room at the Edinburgh fringe, also ages ago. The audience was small, but one of them stood to take a bow; Menotti was now living in Scotland!

I’m very partial to Handel operas, and Rodelinda’s a good one. ENO assembled a superb cast, in which Rebecca Evans, Tim Mead and Neal Davies positively shone. Though I liked the relocation to fascist Italy, I thought some of the black comedy in Richard Jones’ production jarred, with laughter sometimes drowning out the beautiful singing. Still, musically exceptional.

Classical Music

The LSO’s celebration of Bernstein’s centenary at the Barbican started two months early with his first and third (last) symphonies. I don’t normally like narration but the latter had acting royalty Clare Bloom which helped. It was well paired with Bernstein’s flute concerto Halil and the adagio from Mahler’s (unfinished) 10th but in the second concert Mahler’s twice-as-long 1st, as much as I loved it, hijacked Bernstein’s bash by swamping his 1st.

Dance

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Aladdin at Sadler’s Wells looked gorgeous and I loved the score, but the choreography seemed somewhat uninventive and I didn’t really engage with the story, I’m afraid.

Film

Call Me By Your Name is a quintessentially ‘continental’ film that’s (mostly) in English and I thought it was delightful, living up to its 5* reviews for once, and a brilliant advert for visiting Italy.

Paddington 2 is as charming as it gets, a delightfully funny film with a British who’s-who cast.

I loved Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool and was surprised, at the end, to find it was based on a true story. That’s what happens when you don’t read the blurb and the reviews!

Beach Rats was a bit slow, inconsequential and overrated, I’m afraid. Another case of reviews leading me astray.

I can’t recall the real events depicted in Battle of the Sexes, but they made for a very good film, with Emma Stone impressive as Billie Jean King.

Art

I surprised myself by how captivated I was at Basquiat: Boom for Real at the Barbican Art Gallery. An untrained Haitian-American who started as a graffiti artist, this year one picture sold for £80m! Given he only lived 28 years, his influence is extraordinary. In the Barbican’s Curve Gallery, there was a climate change installation by John Akomfrah featuring a one-hour six screen film, two triptych’s and hanging containers, all of which I found rather powerful in making its point.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic at the British Library was an excellent 20th anniversary celebration of the phenomenon, illustrating J K Rowling’s take on magic with real historical writings and objects, with handwritten drafts of the stories and book illustrations thrown in as a bonus, including very good ones by the author herself. Well worth a visit for potterheads!

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Opera companies are attracted to Stephen Sondheim’s musical masterpiece and it’s easy to see why, though it’s been to mixed success. I’ve seen it done by Opera North and at Covent Garden. This year, ENO imported a New York production, though more of a concert, and with only one kosher opera singer. Now it’s Welsh National Opera’s turn. I’ve also seen ten productions by theatre companies (two of them four times each) so you could say I’m familiar with and fond of the piece! WNO is also my ‘opera home’.

The production is an import from the West Yorkshire Playhouse. It’s a sort of industrial building with two double-height containers for the barber’s shop and Joanna’s bedroom. The chorus are the inhabitants of Bedlam. The setting isn’t Victorian, but more recent, with hints of the 50s / 60s in some of the props and costumes. One of its best ideas is fake barber / faux Italian Pirelli’s use of a Reliant Robin. The stage seemed much further away than it has when I’ve sat in similar seats for the opera on many occasions here before.

One of the chief pleasures of opera company productions is the musical standards and here the orchestra shine. Even though I’ve seen it work perfectly well with little more than a piano, the full orchestra brings out every nuance of the score. Using opera singers is sometimes less successful, though Janis Kelly is a fine Mrs Lovett and Steven Page an excellent Judge Turpin, neither falling into the opera singer trap of putting vocal perfection above lyrical clarity. Kelly is a good actress, with good comic timing too, and Page is suitably intimidating, with great presence. I also liked Paul Charles Clarke’s Pirelli. Soraya Mafi was less successful as Joanna, with a voice that was too high and too operatic. During God, That’s Good the chorus chewed the lyrics as opera choruses sometimes do.

Three roles are cast by musical theatre performers, with London fringe favourite Jamie Muscato a particularly good Anthony and George Ure delivering as Tobias, particularly in his duet with Mrs Lovett, Not While I’m Around. The weak link, I’m afraid, is David Amsperger’s Sweeney, with an inappropriate mannered performance style and nowhere near enough menace (though I have been spoilt by having Jeremy Secomb staring me in the face and scaring the pants off me on four occasions in the past thirteen months in Tooting Arts Club’s Pie Shop Sweeney). He also lost a few too many lyrics when it mattered, notably in A Little Priest.

Good to see (at a fraction of the price of ENO’s unstaged American import), but overall both the Twickenham and Tooting Sweeney’s of the last year or so have delivered more. Perhaps its time for opera companies to stick to opera?

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Contemporary Music

I wasn’t sure I wanted to see Rufus Wainwright again after being disappointed by his last outing promoting the over-produced Out of the Game, but solo and at The Royal Hospital Chelsea? Oh, go on then. There wasn’t much atmosphere in the hall-full space (when will promoters learn that there is a limit to the prices people will pay, however much of a fan they are) and the lovely weather turned 30 mins before he came on stage, but the rain stopped after 10 mins. Rufus’ concerts are inconsistent and uneven because he has a tendency to attempt under-rehearsed and / or overly-ambitious things, resulting in stops & starts and forgotten chords & words, covered up with clumsy humour, but when he’s good he’s stunning, and there were enough stunning moments to make this one very worthwhile. There were bonuses too – a duet with Neil Tennant on Poses, and support from The Villagers, who sounded lovely in the open air, in the sun.

John Hiatt‘s welcome return to Under the Bridge saw a fairly predictable, populist 2-hour set, but it was sung and played very well, and there were two new numbers. The usual final encore of Riding With the King was movingly dedicated to the recently departed B B King. You have to admire the bravery (or foolishness?!) of support act Josh Savage who walked into the club crowd to play an acoustic number with audience participation, but he just about got away with it.

Opera

A Henze double-bill was a also brave choice for the June GSMD opera production & it got a small but largely appreciative audience – an odd choice too, as it only enabled them to showcase nine singers. Ein Landarzt was a short absurdist Kafka monologue set to music, a very early work. Phaedra was his last work and got a really striking production. I had to pinch myself when Chinese counter-tenor Meili Li switched to baritone!

Musically, ENO‘s Queen of Spades was one of the best things they’ve ever done. The orchestra under Edward Gardner were on fire and all of the soloists, especially Peter Hoare as Hermann, were outstanding….. but the staging made little sense. Such is the arrogance of opera directors.

I enjoyed the double bill of Harrison Birtwistle operas in Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio TheatreThe Corridor and The Cure are both based on Greek myth, both two-handers, written five years apart but fitting together perfectly. Mark Padmore and Elizabeth Atherton were extraordinary and the London Sinfonietta (costumed in the first) sounded great.

Classical Music

The world premiere of Nico Muhly’s song cycle Sentences, inspired by Alan Turing, at the Barbican was superb. It was beautifully sung by countertenor Iestyn Davies (who also sampled and sung with himself!) with the Britten Sinfonia and Muhly conducting from the piano. The rest of the programme was well chosen, with a Dowland song and a Britten piece for viola (Lawrence Power) inspired by it and Vivaldi’s Sabat Mater for solo voice (Davies on top form again) and ensemble. A lovely evening.

Film

The second spy spoof of the year, cleverly called Spy, is even better than the first, Kingsman: the Secret Service, and Melissa McCarthy is wonderful, with the bonus of Miranda also cast as a CIA operative. I laughed a lot.

The film of London Road is as ground-breaking as the stage show, but not as good. I’m not sure they did NT Live when it was first on stage, but I think that would be a better experience (and judging by the tiny audience in the cinema, more commercial sense too).

Art

The latest at the Saatchi Gallery – art from Africa and Latin America – is their best for ages, with some great paintings and only a few of those installations that can often be pretentious and dull.

The Ravilious exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery was a real treat. His wistful, very British paintings range from landscapes to port scenes to war art but they all have a very distinctive style which I love. The best exhibition I’ve seen in a long while.

The Alexander McQueen exhibition at the V&A, Savage Beauty, also blew me away. I’m no fan of fashion, but I do love creativity and ingenuity and McQueen clearly had an imagination the size of a planet. In a brilliantly theatrical presentation, you learn a lot about the man and his influences – a lot more than the 100 minute play I saw the Saturday before, in fact – whilst looking at his beautifully crafted clothes.

I was less fond of David Hockney’s Painting & Photography exhibition at Annely Juda than I was his earlier landscape collection, though I liked the way it played with both art forms, and played with your head by having paintings in photographs and the same people turning up all over the place in both forms.

It was good to go back to the Estorick Collection of modern Italian art, though the Modigliani Drawings exhibition which took me there was much of a muchness – too small, really. Re-viewing the one-room permanent collection and three rooms of a current selection made it worthwhile though.

The latest double-dip at Tate Modern yielded an unexpected treat and something dull from two 20th century female artists. Sonia Delaunay‘s colourful work spanned portraits, abstracts, textile patterns and clothes   – diverse but uniformly cheerful. Agnes Martin was Rothkoesqe pretension – all dots, lines and hardly discernible colour.

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Contemporary Music

The return of Graham Parker has been one of the great pleasures of the last twelve months and this third concert saw him and Brinsley Schwarz as a duo in the lovely Union Chapel. A largely different selection of songs again, great intimacy and much good humour. Support act Tristan McKay was hugely impressive and added much to make this a very special evening indeed.

I felt obliged to see Paul McCartney one more time in case it’s the last! It was my 6th in 22 years. His voice clearly isn’t as strong now (well, he is 72) and it cracks occasionally, but in the grand scheme of things – a 3-hour set, 41 songs including 25 Beatles, great band, terrific lights video & pyrotechnics and a loving audience of 23,000 with an age span you rarely see at concerts, whose combined warmth lights up the O2 – it hardly matters. If only for an evening, the years fall away and you replay an earlier part of your life. Wonderful!

Opera

You might wonder if the world needs another Pirates of Penzance, but ENO‘s new production has much to commend it, not least beautiful orchestral paying and some lovely voices. Mike Leigh, who directed the terrific G&S bio-pic Topsy Turvy, treats the material with respect and I rather liked Alison Chitty’s simple bright colourful sets and period costumes. The singers were occasionally too quiet, which begs the question as to whether operetta (with dialogue) should be amplified in the cavernous Coliseum, and not every word was audible, with surtitles which didn’t seem to cover everything. I don’t know whether its me getting old or G&S ceasing to seem old-fashioned, but their renaissance continues, though this one isn’t as good as the Union Theatre’s all-male version currently on its second UK tour.

The spring visit to WNO in Cardiff paired Debussy’s underrated Pelleas & Melisande with a new opera of Peter Pan. I’m told the Pelleas production resembled Game of Thrones, but I’ve never seen that. It was certainly less classic ‘fairytale’ than I’m used to, but it worked, it was beautifully sung and the orchestra sounded like they were making love to the gorgeous score. I was too tired to get the best out of Peter Pan, but it was faithful to the story, musically accessible and the design was delightful. It was great to see so many kids enjoying themselves at an opera that was written for them rather than me, and WNO had as usual organised lots of excellent foyer events to accompany and enhance it for them.

Classical Music

I found I Fagolini’s Betrayal really original, beautifully sung and highly atmospheric, though it was dramatically obtuse and very tiring. The Village Underground space was turned into a large crime scene with chalked bodies and evidence everywhere. The six singers and six dancers performed in pairs in separate parts of the space. They were singing unaccompanied 16th century polyphonic madrigals and enacting crimes of passion. Standing around them was tiring, moving less so, but it did distract from the enjoyment.

Dance

Seeing Sylvie Guillem‘s farewell tour at Sadler’s Wells was a bittersweet experience. Wonderful to see her again, still at the top of her game, but sad that it will be the last. This was no ‘Best of’, with a new solo work and a new duet, her first with another woman, but it did end with the brilliant and appropriate Bye, which I had seen and loved before. Having seen her triumph a few times in the classics, it has been great to follow this reinvention in contemporary dance in the final stage of her 39 year career.

Film

I loved Far From the Madding Crowd. Despite being a period piece, it seemed so fresh, Dorset looked gorgeous and the performances were great.

A Royal Night Out was somewhat implausible and very sentimental, but I still liked it. Heart-warming, with great performances.

I don’t know why we’ve lost Spooks from TV but gained Spooks: The Greater Good, but I thought the transition to the big screen worked well and was much better than the reviews suggested; it gripped me throughout.

Rosewater tells the story of the imprisonment of British Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari. It’s directed by American satirist Jon Stewart, who would have made a better film if he’d made it even more satirical. As it is, the long dry interrogation segment at its core drags it down and lessens its impact.

Art

I didn’t think I was going to get into Inventing Impressionism at the National Gallery as I left it until the last few days, with rumours rife of a sell-out. Despite the fact it’s in their dreadful Sainsbury Wing galleries and despite the crowds, it’s unquestionably one of the greatest collections of impressionists in one place, containing no less than 23 Monet’s and 14 Renoir’s (some of the best I’ve ever seen). The story of art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who does appear to be responsible for their discovery, was captivating too. Unmissable – and I didn’t!

 

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Opera

A bumper month, with no less than five operas (well, six if you count a double-bill as 2!).

First up, another excellent double-bill at GSMD, this time an unusual pairing of Donizetti’s one-act operatic farce I Pazzi per Progetto, set in a psychiatric institute (!) and a rare and underrated but less manic Malcolm Arnold comic one-acter The Dancing Master. Production and performance standards were, as always, sky high with a stunning performance from Alison Langer and great contributions from Alison Rose, Szymon Wach and Lawrence Thackeray.

Korean composer Unsuk Chin’s opera of Alice in Wonderland was a real treat. Brilliantly staged by Netia jones behind and around the BBC SO on the Barbican Hall stage, with terrific projections, including Ralph Steadman’s caricatures, and excellent costumes, the adaptation darkened and deepened the work and the music was very imaginative and surprisingly accessible (for modern opera!). Rachele Gilmore was a magnificent Alice with outstanding support from Andrew Watts, Marie Arnet and Jane Henschel amongst others.

The Indian Queen is an unfinished semi-opera by Purcell set in pre-colonial and colonial Central America which director Peter Sellers has played with by adding music, dancing and dialogue to make it a rather overlong 3.5 hours. It has its moments (mostly musical) but he pushed it too far, particularly adding five ‘Mayan creation’ dances before it even starts. They’ve programmed eight performances at ENO and judging by the empty seats on the night we went, that’s 3 or 4 too many

Handel’s ‘opera’ Giove in Argo is actually a ‘mash-up’ of stuff from other operas, called a ‘pasticcio’. I didn’t enjoy the first act of the London Handel Festival production at the RCM’s Britten Theatre because the singing seemed tentative and the production dark and dull, but it picked up considerable in the following two acts. Overlong at 3h15m, but with some lovely music and some stunning singing by Galina Averina and Timothy Nelson and a spectacularly good chorus.

The Rise & Fall of the City of Mahagonny at Covent Garden may never have been, or will ever again be, sung and played as well, but somehow Brecht & Weill’s ‘opera’ doesn’t really belong there. The whole enterprise seems at odds with their ethos. It’s a satire that for me didn’t have enough bite in this production, though it’s fair to say that the rest of the audience seemed to be lapping it up. That said, the quality of the singers, chorus and orchestra under Mark Wigglesworth blew me away.

Classical Music

An evening of French music at the Barbican introduced me to two unheard pieces by Debussy and Faure and renewed my acquaintance with Durufle’s beautiful Requiem, which I haven’t heard in ages. Stand-in conductor Dave Hill did a grand job, with the LSO and LSC on fine form.

Contemporary Music

The Unthanks at the Roundhouse was short(ish) but sweet. I liked the line-up, which included string quartet and trumpet. The songs from the new album sounded great, if a bit samey (as they do on record), and a selection of old material responded well to new arrangements. In the end though, it’s the heavenly voices of the sisters which make them so unique. Gorgeous.

Art

Magnificent Obsessions at the Barbican Art Gallery was a fascinating exhibition built around the personal collections of 14 artists. You can see how their collectibles influenced their art, some of which is also showcased. My favourites included Martin Parr’s collection of old postcards and Andy Warhol’s kitsch cookie jars. Fascinating.

I tagged the Paris Pinacotheque Vienna Secession exhibition to a business trip and it was a superb review of the movement, though a bit cramped in their space. Lots of Klimt, but others I was less familiar with. A real treat.

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I wasn’t going to blog this because I considered it a concert and I confine those to my monthly round-ups (life’s too short!). I changed my mind because it’s more than a concert, I’ve got a lot to say about it and I woke up with it going round in my head. I’ve seen this show more than any other, including Pimlico Opera, The Royal Opera and Opera North (with Welsh National Opera already booked for later this year), but mostly fully staged by theatre companies, latterly Chichester Festival Theatre, the ill-fated Twickenham Theatre and Harrington’s Pie Shop here in Tooting, now ‘up west’ and I will confess to being a touch biased, though still I think objective.

I was in the US when the original US ‘production’ was aired on PBS, but it was timed for the east coast and I was on the west coast and couldn’t stay awake for the whole thing. It starts as a seemingly straightforward concert with the orchestra on stage and the singers mostly in DJ’s and gowns. In a superbly audacious move, they throw down the scores, overturn the music stands, tear off the formal clothes and generally rough the place up. What follows is semi-staged with a few props, some cleverly purloined from the orchestra, banners from the boxes announcing the location of the scenes and a graffiti backdrop. It works, but it isn’t staged.

One of the chief pleasures is hearing this score from a full orchestra on stage; it does sound brilliant. The chorus too is full throated (sorry!) and by moving around the stage and auditorium it animates the ‘staging’. I’m a huge fan of Bryn Terfel and I’ve seen him as Sweeney before, in another semi-staged production at the Royal Festival Hall. His booming baritone suits the role superbly, though he isn’t as scary as he was closer up at the RFH (or as Scarpia in Tosca) and his operatic style of singing sometimes loses words, as opera singers often do. Emma Thompson proves to be a terrific comic actress, relishing Mrs Lovett’s brilliant lines and lyrics, though I’ve seen better vocal Mrs Lovett’s. It’s great to see Philip Quast again and he’s wonderful as the Judge, as is John Owen-Jones as Pirelli and Katie Hall as Johanna, singing the role beautifully. I’m also a fan of Alex Gaumond, but I thought he was too young and not oily enough as The Beadle, and the Beggar Woman isn’t a role which does justice to Rosalie Craig’s extraordinary musical theatre talent. Matthew Seadon-Yoiung and Jack North were good rather than great as Anthony and Tobias respectively, the later with a very off-putting Rod Stewart wig whilst working for Pirelli!

It was a much-hyped show and the audience reaction was ecstatic, saving the biggest ovation, quite rightly, for Mr Sondheim himself. I’m very glad I went, though I don’t consider it the pinnacle for this show that some do. I wasn’t as scared and I didn’t laugh as much as I did down the road and that’s the one I would return to – and will, fully accepting accusations of bias.

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Classical Music

I was perhaps a little too excited about the Berlin Phil / Rattle Sibelius cycle at the Barbican. I enjoyed it very much, but it wasn’t the life-changing event the eye-watering prices and the hype might make you expect. It dipped a bit in the second concert with the particularly dark and difficult 4th, but it was great to hear them all together again, one of the best sets of symphonies ever written.

Another free lunchtime concert at the Royal Academy of Music proved to be a real treat. It’s wonderful to see world class conductors like Sir Mark Elder give up their time to helm and nurture the Academy Symphony Orchestra and his introductions are informative and welcoming. The newly orchestrated Six Songs from a Shropshire Lad (Butterworth / Houseman) were beautifully sung by Henry Neill and this was followed by a thrilling interpretation of Shostakovich’s 6th. Lovely.

Any qualms I had about the Sibelius cycle were wiped away by the same team’s concert at the Royal Festival Hall of Mahler’s 2nd symphony. Joined by the LSC, CBSO Chorus and two soloists, this was unquestionably the best I’ve heard this work. The chorus sung without scores and there was some interesting offstage positioning of musicians. The power of 250 performers is extraordinary.

Back at the Royal Academy of Music, this time for Rachmaninov’s 2nd symphony conducted by Edward Gardner. I’d never heard it before but is was accessible on first hearing and packed full of lovely melodies. The talent on stage was extraordinary; if you’d paid full whack at a major concert hall, you’d go home happy. This was a lunchtime freebie!

Opera

I’ve seen opera in the cinema before, but Der Fliegende Hollander was my first ROH Live experience. Favourite baritone Bryn Terfel as the Dutchman wasn’t the only great thing about it – the Senta, Adrianne Pieczonka, was new to me and I thought she was wonderful and the orchestra and chorus sounded great. With top price seats in the opera house at £190 (four times as much as seeing Terfel in the same opera in Cardiff, albeit not as good a production) I felt my £13 cinema experience was terrific value.

I’d seen the production at ENO of Mastersingers of Nuremberg when WNO premièred it in Cardiff (again with Bryn Terfel, but in German and at a third of the price!) but decided I’d like to see it again. I enjoyed it just as much from my more expensive less comfortable seat further away! The cast was faultless and the orchestra and chorus soared. There’s a lot of flab in this opera, but when it shines it takes your breath away.

Film

What a wonderful film Trash is. Stephen Daldry has given us a thriller with a heart set in Rio and performed mostly in Portuguese, which would have been a BAFTA and Oscar Best Film nominee if it hadn’t! The child actors are extraordinary. Unmissable.

I admired Inherent Vice but it lost me after 30 mins or so and never fully recovered. Joaquin Phoenix is terrific and the depiction of the 70’s is great, but it’s overlong and a bit too convoluted.

Shaun the Sheep is another delightful family film, this time from trusty Ardman. I was surprised but pleased to find it had no dialogue and the visual humour was wonderful, some reserved for the adults like all good family entertainment. Brilliant.

Love is Strange was an impulsive punt based on Time Out’s review. It’s a beautifully understated and unsentimental love story which is also achingly sad. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are so believable as the couple whose lives are turned upside down in the 40th year of their relationship.

Selma is an excellent film, though the events depicted made me very angry and I was astonished when I realised this was only 50 years ago. The failure to nominate David Oyelowo for either the BAFTA’s or Oscars is a disgrace; Eddie Redmayne’s achievement is probably greater, but this is still a superb performance.

I’m a sucker for British romantic comedies and The Second Best Marigold Hotel was a treat. It might be safe and predictable, as the critics suggest, but it’s warm-hearted, charming and entertaining, with a cast of our best thespians having a ball.

Art

A richly rewarding morning in Oxford provided one major exhibition and three smaller ones at the lovely Ashmolean. As major exhibitions go, the William Blake one is small, but beautifully formed. It provides insight into his life and embraces the full range of his talent, as engraver, poet, painter and drawer. Chicago artist Ed Paschke is new to me and I liked his colourful, vibrant, stylised and a touch surreal pictures. The Tokaido Road print series by Japanese master engraver Hiroshige provided a brilliant contrast and a diverse selection of paintings by contemporary Chinese artist Fang Zhaoling completed the visit. A treat.

A less rewarding visit to Tate Modern started with Conflict, Time, Photography. It’s a very good idea – photographs of war zones taken at various times after a conflict – but it’s vast, daunting and relentlessly dark and depressing. It covers conflicts over a 150-year period, but it concentrates on the last 65. It comes to life occasionally, but its a case of more is less I’m afraid. In the Turbine Hall, Richard Tuttle’s installation is probably the most uninspiring they’ve ever had, but the visit picked up seeing South African Marlene Dumas’ The Image as Burden, a highly original portraitist whose images are somewhat spooky but high in atmosphere. Fascinating.

 

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