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Posts Tagged ‘Falstaff’

The Rest of July

Contemporary Music

My respect for Tom Jones has grown significantly in recent years, largely due to his terrific blues and gospel albums, at a point in his career when he could so easily be banking money from Las Vegas shows, and his open-air concert at Englefield House in Berkshire didn’t disappoint. A lovely evening, brilliantly diverse set list, a great band and excellent audience engagement combined to produce a very satisfying evening indeed.

Opera

The Royal College of Music put together an excellent double-bill of Huw Watkins’ In the Locked Room and Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse. The former was interesting but the story too obtuse for me, but the latter was terrific, beautifully sung and played and thrillingly dramatic.

GSMD showcased three short operas by students on their composition course in their Milton Court Studio Theatre, performed by first year students on the opera programme. The first was an incomprehensible fantasy, the last a bit of a puzzle, but the middle a good slice of SciFi. Whatever you think of the material, all were superbly performed, though I’m not sure I liked the idea of including four scenes from three classic operas which spoilt the flow of the new for me.

I don’t go to the Royal Opera much these days, but I was drawn to Falstaff by the casting of Bryn Terfel and it turned out to be a real treat – relocated to the 50’s, brilliantly designed, with a faultless cast, though with their obscene top price of almost £200 I was only prepared to pay for a restricted view seat.

My first Prom was an opera, and it proved a bit of a disappointment. Pelleas & Melisande doesn’t really lend itself to a concert, even semi-staged, so however good Glyndebourne Opera’s singers and orchestra (the LPO) the other-worldliness it needed was something the RAH couldn’t provide, so it was devoid of atmosphere and engagement. In some ways, it might have been better in concert rather than clumsy semi-staging. It reminded me of the days when I avoided opera outside the theatre altogether.

At Opera Holland Park, the UK premiere of a century old Mascagni opera, Isabeau, inspired by the Lady Godiva legend (no, she didn’t!), was a real treat. Great choruses, lush orchestrations and two wonderful young leads.

Opera Rara have dug up some gems over the years, most notably Donizetti’s Les martyrs. L’ange de Nisida isn’t the best, but it’s the world premiere of another Donizetti, ‘lost’ for 180 years, newly reconstructed, and sung and played brilliantly by the Royal Opera chorus and orchestra under Mark Elder, with five fine soloists, at Covent Garden. A treat.

The Arcola’s annual Grimeborn Opera Festival got off to a cracking start with an intimate, intense production of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia which was so well sung and played, any opera house would be proud to have it. Our five opera ‘passport’ means we see them for £11 each, the best opera bargain ever!

Our second Grimeborn treat was Spectra Ensemble‘s production of the very underrated suffragette Ethyl Smyth’s early 20th Century comic opera The Boatswain’s Mate which was a delight. Great singing, but also great musicianship from a powerhouse trio of piano, violin and cello. Again, the intimacy of the even smaller studio served it well.

Classical Music

Mahler’s 8th, the ‘symphony of a thousand’, belongs in the Royal Albert Hall and the 2018 Proms saw the BBC National Orchestra & Chorus of Wales plus five other choirs and eight soloists succeeded in filling it with joy. From where we sat, the acoustics weren’t the best, and there seemed to be more subtlety in the second half, but thrilling stuff nonetheless.

My third visit to the Proms was a lovely evening of English music from the beginning of the 20th Century, indeed the beginning of modern English classical music, with five works by three people who knew one another – Vaughn Williams, the very underrated Parry and Holst – three of them I’d never heard before. The BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales were again on top form.

My fourth Prom was another treat, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra pairing two London symphonies 120 years apart – Haydn and Vaughan Williams. The Haydn, in particular, sounded better than any other symphony of his I’ve heard. Great to see a full house for something without ‘stars’.

Film

It was good to see Yellow Submarine again after 50 years in a superbly restored version. The artwork is astonishing, though the story is rather naff!

Mamma Mia: Here we go again was way better than the reviews would have you believe, better than its predecessor in fact. The antidote to the hate that now pervades our lives on a regular basis.

Art

Another of those bumper catch-up months for art.

Aftermath at Tate Britain, an exhibition of post-WWI art from Germany, France & the UK, was more historically fascinating than aesthetically appealing, though there were some great pictures. As if seeing 300 Otto Dix pictures in Chemnitz last month wasn’t enough, there were 18 more here!

I don’t normally like staged and posed photos, but I loved Alex Prager: Silver Lake Drive at the Photographers Gallery, a very cinematic show which included two captivating films.

Howard Hodgkin, who died last year, became a favourite artist of mine after an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery many years ago, so his final paintings at the Gagosian Gallery was essential viewing. It was more of the same, but the same is simplicity and colour.

I caught up with the Royal Academy of Art’s reconfiguration and renovations in a lovely morning feast of art that started with the excellent Grayson Perry curated Summer Exhibition, which can now breathe, with the Sackler Galleries added for the prints. Then there was The Great Spectacle, a terrific exhibition covering the 250 years of the Summer Exhibition which linked the existing John Madejski Fine Rooms with the Weston Rooms in the main space. Then through a newly opened tunnel to the Burlington Gardens building for the Summer Exhibition’s great (free) fun room, after which It ended on a bit of a low with Tacita Dean Landscape, which did marginally more for me than her companion exhibition at the NPG.

Shape of Light at Tate Modern examines the relationship between photography and abstract art over 100 years. Though fascinating, the photos were largely aesthetically unappealing and it all seemed a bit nerdy. Thankfully, the art was great, with the recently visited Bauhaus featuring.

South Korean artist Lee Bul’s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery was full of quirky things, many involving reflections. Some individual works were excellent, but it was the impact of the whole lot that made it worthwhile, a very original riot of brightness. In the project space, Yuan Goang-Ming’s video work was intriguing.

A theatrical day trip enabled me to pay a visit to the Southampton City Art Gallery. In addition to a small but impressive collection of masters, there was the terrific room showcasing the 10-picture The Perseus Story by pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne Jones, exhibitions by living artists George Shaw and Kelly Richardson and Coast, photos of the nearby coastline and seaside by the local Photographic Society. In the University’s new John Hansard Gallery, a Gerard Richter exhibition proved fascinating, though I’m not his biggest fan. It’s a lovely new space.

At the Guildhall Art Gallery, the William de Morgan ceramics exhibition was a delight. It tried to focus on his use of mathematics, but I couldn’t get past the beauty of the pots, plates and tiles! A short walk away, it was the turn of the Barbican Art Gallery to wow with a double-bill of photographic exhibitions – American documentary photographer Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing, with photos taken in the Great Depression and of Japanese internment and migration, and British photographer Vanessa Winship: And Time Folds, an extraordinarily diverse range of work in which her travels in the Balkans and countries around the Black Sea captivated me most.

At Newport Street Gallery, True Colours brought together the work of Helen Breard, Sadie Laska and Boo Saville. I loved Beard’s bright and colourful style, but it was rather sex obsessed, all bar one featuring explicit sexual acts. The other two did nothing for me. I’m glad it as a pop-in-while-passing visit!

At the Serpentine Galleries there was one treat and one pointless exhibition. The treat was Tomma Abts’ geometric pictures in the Sackler Gallery, which surprised me by their beauty. In the main gallery, there was an exhibition showcasing the historical outdoor work using barrels of Christo & Jeanne-Claude through drawings and models, mostly of the giant Mastaba they created for the UAE. They created a smaller one for the Serpentine Lake from 1500 barrels which seemed like much ado about nothing to me. Fortunately, this year’s Pavilion is lovely – from the inside. It doesn’t look great until you enter and see that it’s made of roof tiles with a reflective roof and water on part of the floor providing lovely images.

I would never have gone to Michael Jackson On the Wall at the NPG if I wasn’t a member; £18! I certainly wouldn’t call myself a fan, though I liked some of his music, and the messianic behaviour of his late career didn’t sit at all comfortably with me. This exhibition of artworks of and inspired by him was however fascinating, so I was glad I did go!

At the Design Museum, a fascinating exhibition called Hope to Nope: Graphics & Politics 2008-18 about the impact of graphics on politics and protest in the last ten years, including the use of social media and movements like Occupy and #MeToo. A great idea, well executed.

Julie Becker: I must create a Master Piece to pay the Rent at the ICA is one of the worst exhibitions of recent years, and the ICA seems to be in a right old state. I blame you, Time Out. Again.

One of my wanders around Mayfair’s private galleries brought rich pickings. At Hauser & Wirth, August Sander: Men Without Masks showcased the German photographer’s obsessive but brilliant B&W portraits of people of the 20th Century. In their gallery next door, Spiegelgasse (Mirror Alley) was a mixed show of Swiss artists since the 1930’s with some striking individual works by people I’d never heard of. Down the road at LAZinc, Banksy comes in from the streets for Greatest Hits 2002-2008, paintings and sculpture which do prove his worth. Next stop was Spruth Magers where 13 Cindy Sherman staged and posed character self-portraits, some multiples, each in an edition of just six, were valued at over $24m! They were good, but not that good!

Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up at the V&A had some lovely paintings, a selection of her clothes that showed her unique style and fascinating biographical material, but it was too overcrowded, claustrophobic and poorly curated to really enjoy. We fared better in the more spacious, less crowded and cooler The Future Starts Here which was a fascinating peep into the future through current projects and initiatives.

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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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