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Posts Tagged ‘Joyce DiDonato’

Opera

ENO took Britten’s folk opera / operetta Paul Bunyan to Wilton’s Music Hall, where it somehow fitted like a glove. It’s an odd mythical concoction about the American Dream, but its real strength is its lyrical score, which showed off the young singers and chorus brilliantly. It seemed darker than the previous two occasions I’ve seen it, which seemed appropriate given recent events.

My 2018 Proms ended on a high the night before the Last Night with a lovely performance of Handel’s Theodora by Arcangelo and five excellent soloists. Despite being a chamber ensemble and small choir, they filled the RAH. The countdown to Proms 20-19 begins!

My only visit to WNO at the WMC in Cardiff this autumn was for Prokofiev’s epic War & Peace. It’s a flawed opera, with the first half a series of scenes lacking cohesion, and I thought their decision to translate it into English was a mistake as it came over as clunky, but the soloists were terrific and above all the second half showed off both the chorus and orchestra to thrilling effect.

Classical Music

For some reason, I was disappointed in the Berlioz Prom. It wasn’t the musicianship, which was extraordinary, but maybe it was a programme of lesser Berlioz. I just didn’t think it did The Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, John Elliott Gardiner, favourite Joyce DiDonato and viola player Antoine Tamestit justice. The rest of the audience and the critics appeared to disagree, so maybe it was just an off night for me.

A double-dip of two Proms in one evening proved very rewarding indeed, starting with a superb performance of Britten’s War Requiem from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra & Chorus, probably my favourite choral work, and continuing with 60 mins of 850 years of late night polyphony from the ever wonderful Tallis Scholars; it’s amazing how those 30 or so voices fill the Royal Albert Hall.

The Parry centenary concert at Wigmore Hall was a delightful way to spend an hour on a Sunday afternoon. Songs by him and his friends and contemporaries were beautifully sung by Louise Alder & Nicky Spence accompanied by William Vann and it was all very uplifting. Back in the same venue the following lunchtime, soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Joseph Middleton gave another lovely recital of English song from Purcell to Ireland, Walton and Michael Head, an early 20th century composer new to me. The folk song encores proved to be the highlight.

Art

As if to compensate for the hugely disappointing exhibition at the Weiner Gallery, Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919-33 at Tate Modern was a real treat, with artists new to me as well as those like Otto Dix I’ve seen vast amounts of this summer. Across the Bridge, Artist Rooms: Jenny Holzer was worth popping into, though much of it goes over my head.

A visit to Cornwall meant a second visit to Tate St. Ives, which had a hit-and-miss exhibition of Patrick Heron. I loved some of the colourful abstractions, but much of it left me cold.

Renzo Piano: The Art of Making Buildings at the Royal Academy covered his illustrious career from before the Pompidou Centre to The Shard by focusing on sixteen projects, built and unbuilt (yet). The trouble was it was all very static – each project a table on which there were notes, drawings and models with more drawings and photos on the walls around. The most interesting project was one I’m unlikely to ever see, in New Caledonia, in the Pacific Ocean! For architects and architectural students only, I’d say.

Film

BlacKkKlansman wasn’t an easy watch, but its humour and its chilling ending were enough to make it well worth seeing.

I enjoyed The Children Act, the second film of the summer featuring the consequences of Jehovah’s Witnesses fundamentalism, especially for Emma Thompson’s deeply touching performance.

Crazy Rich Asians was a great advert for the Singapore Tourist Authority, but I rather overdosed on rich Asians, crazy or otherwise. It had its funny moments, but there weren’t enough of them to warrant the reviews that sent me to see it.

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The Rest of 2016

I spent a third of the last third of the year out of the country, so my monthly round-up’s for this period have merged into one mega-round-up of the two-thirds of the four months I was here!

Opera

Opera Rara’s concert performance of Rossini’s rare Semiramide, the last Bel Canto opera, at the Proms was a real highlight. It’s a long work, four hours with interval, in truth too long, but it contains some of Rossini’s best music (and I’m not even a fan!). The OAE, Opera Rara Chorus and a world class set of soloists under Sir Mark Elder gave it their all, with ovations during let alone at the end. Brilliant.

I was out of the country when I would have made my usual trip to Cardiff for WNO’s autumn season, so I went to Southampton to catch their UK premiere of Andre Tchaikowsky’s The Merchant of Venice when I got home and I was very glad I did. It’s a fine adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, with a particularly dramatic court scene, and it was beautifully sung and played, with a terrific performance by American Lester Lynch as Shylock.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been to something that sounded so beautiful but looked so ugly. Handel’s Oreste, a pasticcio opera (a compilation of tunes from elsewhere, in Handel’s case his own works) which the Royal Opera staged at Wilton’s Music Hall. The singing and playing of the Jette Parker Young Artists and Southbank Sinfonia were stunning, but the production was awful. One of those occasions when it’s best to shut your eyes.

Classical Music

Another delightful lunchtime Prom at Cadogan Hall, this time counter-tenor Iestyn Davies and soprano Carolyn Sampson, both of whom are terrific soloists, but together make a heavenly sound. I was less keen on the six Mendelssohn songs than the six Quilter’s and even more so the glorious six Purcell pieces. It was a joyful, uplifting hour.

Juditha triumphans is a rare opera / oratorio by Vivaldi that was brilliantly performed at the Barbican by the Venice Baroque Orchestra and a superb quintet of female singers including Magdalena Kozena as Juditha. It took a while to take off, but it then soared, and the second half was simply stunning.

Visiting the LSO Steve Reich at 80 concert at the Barbican was a bit of a punt which really paid off. The three pieces added up to a feast of modernist choral / orchestral fusions. The composer was present and received an extraordinary ovation from a surprisingly full house.

Berlioz Requiem is on a huge scale, so the Royal Albert Hall was the perfect venue, and it was Remembrance Sunday, so the perfect day too. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, with ten timpanists and an enormous brass section of 50 or 60, occasionally drowned out all three choirs (!) but it was otherwise a thrilling ride.

Joyce DiDonato‘s latest recital with the wonderful baroque ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro was a bit if a disappointment. It had some extraordinary musical high spots, but the selection could have been better and she didn’t really need the production (lights, projections, haze, costumes, face painting and a dancer!). It didn’t help that the stage lights sometimes shone into the eyes of large chunks of the audience, including me, blinding them and sending me home with a headache.

At the Royal Academy of Music their Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Sir Mark Elder in a lunchtime concert of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony and it was thrilling. Sir Mark did another of his fascinating introductory talks, this time illustrated with musical extracts.

The BBC Singers gave a lovely curtain-raising concert of unaccompanied seasonal music by British composers at St Giles Cripplegate, half from the 20th century and half from the 21st, before the BBC SO‘s equally seasonal pairing of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve Suite and Neil Brand’s A Christmas Carol for orchestra, choir and actors in the Barbican Hall. This was a big populist treat.

I’ve heard a lot of new classical music since I last heard John Adams‘ epic oratorio El Nino, so it was good to renew my acquaintance and discover how much I still admire it. 270 performers on the Barbican stage provide a very powerful experience – the LSO, LSC, a youth choir and six excellent American soloists who all know the work. Thrilling.

Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley, accompanied by Sir Antonio Pappano on piano no less, gave a superb but sparsely attended recital at the Barbican Hall. It was an eclectic, multi-lingual and highly original selection, beautifully sung. More fool those who stayed away from this absolute treat.

The standards of amateur choirs in the UK are extraordinary, and the London Welsh Chorale are no exception. Their lovely Christmas concert at St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate included extracts from Handel’s Messiah, Vivaldi’s Gloria plus songs and carols. The soprano and mezzo soloists were superb too.

Dance

Rambert’s ballet set to Haydn’s oratorio The Creation at Sadler’s Wells was one of the best dance evenings of recent years. If you shut your eyes, this would be a world class concert with three fine soloists, the BBC Singers and the Rambert Orchestra. With a gothic cathedral backdrop, the dance added a visual dimension which wasn’t literal but was beautifully impressionistic and complimentary.

English National Ballet had the inspired idea to ask Akram Khan to breathe new life into Giselle and at Sadler’s Wells boy did he do that. It’s an extraordinarily powerful, mesmerising and thrilling combination of music, design and movement. From set, costumes and lighting to an exciting adapted score and the most stunning choreography, this is one of the best dance shows I’ve ever seen.

Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake the following week, also at Sadler’s Wells, wasn’t such a success, and steered even further away from its inspiration. It revolved around a 36-year old single man whose mother was desperate to marry off, but there were lots of references to depression and madness. I’m afraid I didn’t find the narrative very clear, its relationship to the ballet is a mystery to me and it’s more physical theatre than dance. It had its moments, but it was not for me I’m afraid.

Back at Sadler’s Wells again for The National Ballet of China‘s Peony Pavilion, a real east-meets-west affair. Ancient Chinese tale, classical ballet with elements of Chinese dance, classical music with added Chinese opera. Lovely imagery and movement. I loved it.

New Adventures’ Red Shoes at Sadler’s Wells might be the best thing they’ve done since the male Swan Lake. With a lush Bernard Herman mash-up score, great production values and Matthew Bourne’s superb choreography, it’s a great big populist treat.

Contemporary Music

Camille O’Sullivan brought an edginess to the songs of Jacques Brel which I wasn’t comfortable with at first but then she alternated them with beautifully sung ballads and I became captivated. She inhabited the songs, creating characters for each one. Her encore tributes to Bowie & Cohen were inspired.

There were a few niggles with Nick Lowe‘s Christmas concert at the Adelphi Theatre – it started early (!), the sound mix wasn’t great and he gave over 30 minutes of his set to his backing band Los Straightjackets (who perform in suits, ties & Mexican wrestler masks!) but (What’s so funny ’bout) Peace Love & Understanding has never sounded more timely and the closing acoustic Alison was simply beautiful. He’s still growing old gracefully.

Film

I loved Ron Howard’s recreation of the Beatles touring years in Eight Days a Week, plus the remastered Shea Stadium concert which followed. What was astonishing about this was that they were completely in tune with all that crowd noise and no monitors or earphones!

Bridget Jones Baby was my sort of escapist film – warm, fluffy and funny – and it was good to see Rene Zellweger and Colin Frith on fine form as the now much older characters.

I, Daniel Blake made me angry and made me cry. Thank goodness we’ve got Ken Loach to show up our shameful treatment of the disabled. Fine campaigning cinema.

I loved Nocturnal Beasts, a thriller that’s as close to the master, Hitchcock, as I’ve ever seen. I was gripped for the whole two hours.

Fantastic Beasts lived up to its hype. Though it is obviously related to Harry Potter, it’s its own thing which I suspect will have quite a series of its own. Starting in NYC, I reckon it will be a world tour of locations for future productions.

Kiwi film The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a very funny, heart-warming affair with a stunning performance by a young teenager, Julian Dennison, matched by a fine one from Sam Neill.

I loved A United Kingdom, based on the true story of Botswana’s Seretse Khama, leader from mid-60s independence to 1980. It’s the true story of a country that has been a beacon of democracy in a continent of corruption.

The Pass must be one of the most successful stage-to-screen transfers ever. I was in the front row at the Royal Court upstairs, but it seemed even tenser on screen. Good that three of the four actors made the transfer too.

One of my occasional Sunday afternoon double-bills saw Arrival back-to-back with Sully. The former was my sort of SciFi, with the emphasis on the Sci, and it gripped me throughout. I’m also fond of true stories & the latter delivered that very well.

I liked (Star Wars) Rogue One, but it was a bit slow and dark (light-wise) to start with, then maybe too action-packed from then. I’m not sure I will do 3D again too; it’s beginning to feel too low definition and overly blurry for a man who wears glasses.

Art

Sally Troughton‘s installations in the Pump House Gallery at Battersea Park didn’t really do much for me, but Samara Scott‘s installations in the Mirror Pools of its Pleasure Garden Fountains certainly did. A combination of dyed water and submerged fabrics created lovely reflective effects.

There was so much to see in the V&A’s You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970. It was an astonishing five years and the exhibition covers music, art, design, fashion, politics, literature…..you name it. I shall have to go again to take it all in.

Wifredo Lam is a Cuban artist I’ve never heard of, getting a full-blown retrospective at Tate Modern. There was too much of his late, very derivative abstract paintings, but it was still overall a surprising and worthwhile show.

South Africa: the art of a nation was a small but excellent exhibition covering thousands of years from early rock art to contemporary paintings and other works. Most of the old stuff was from the British Museum’s own collection, so in that sense it was one of those ‘excuses for a paying exhibition’ but the way they were put together and curated and the addition of modern art made it worthwhile.

The Picasso Portraits exhibition at the NPG was a lot better than I was expecting, largely because of the number of early works, which I prefer to the more abstract late Picasso. Seeing these does make you wonder why he departed from realism, for which he had so much talent.

Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy was also better than expected, largely because of the range of work and the inclusion of artists I didn’t really know. I do struggle with people like Pollock and Rothko though, and can’t help thinking they may be taking the piss!

The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition, back at the NPG, seemed smaller than usual, but just as high quality. I do love these collections of diverse subjects and styles.

Back at the Royal Academy, Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans was a very interesting exhibition of the work of an underrated Belgian master (with an obsession with masks and skeletons!) curated by a contemporary Belgian artist. I’ve seen samples of his work in my travels, but it was good to see it all together, and I liked the curatorial idea too.

At Tate Modern, a double-bill starting with a Rauschenberg retrospective. I’ve been underwhelmed by bits of his work I’ve come across in my travels, but this comprehensive and eclectic show was fascinating (though I’m still not entirely sold on his work!). The second part was Radical Eye, a selection from Elton John’s collection of modernist photography (with more Man Ray’s that have probably ever been shown together). It’s an extraordinary collection and it was a privilege to see it.

Star Wars Identities at the O2 exceeded my expectations, largely because of the idea of discovering your own Star Wars identity by choosing a character and mentor and answering questions on behaviour and values and making choices at eight ‘stations’ en route which were recorded on your wristband, in addition to film clips, models, costumes etc. The behavioural, career and values stuff was well researched and the whole experience oozed quality.

I didn’t think many of the exhibits in Vulgar: Fashion Redefined at the Barbican were vulgar at all! It was an exhibition made up entirely of costumes, so it was never going to be my thing, but it passed a pre-concert hour interestingly enough.

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Contemporary Music

A friend suggested going to see Welsh harpist Catrin Finch & Senegalese cora player Seckou Keita at Union Chapel and what a brilliant suggestion it was. Their instruments blend beautifully and create an uplifting sound. It was the perfect venue, with a quiet respectful audience. Gorgeous.

I really don’t know what to make of Elvis Costello‘s concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Part of BluesFest (what?!). He brings Steve Nieve & they play 8 songs together, some in radical new arrangements. His song selections are eclectic and perhaps a bit quirky. He’s often uncharacteristically flat or off key. He talks a lot. It contained sublime moments, but not enough of them. It was certainly no crowd-pleaser and the audience reaction was distinctly underwhelming. Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames, supporting, were great (though he talked a lot too). They played two songs together, one in each others’ set. I’ve seen almost every EC London outing in 30+ years and this was probably the least satisfying. Most odd.

Opera

The autumn Rossini pairing at WNO was amongst their best ever. Neither William Tell nor Moses in Egypt are typical Rossini (which may be why I liked them so much!); the latter more identifiably Rossini. Tell was the more satisfying all round – Moses was also a musical feast but the production wasn’t so good. Former MD Carlo Rizzi brought the best out of the orchestra and chorus (yet again) and there was no weakness in the soloists – just various levels of good to great.

The English Concert’s performance of Handel’s opera Alcina at the Barbican was a huge treat. A faultless cast was led by Joyce DiDonato & Alice Coote and the orchestra made a beautiful sound. I’d thought it might be a star vehicle for Joyce, but she was superbly matched by the rest and the audience showed their appreciation for them all.

I’ve seen a handful of Philip Glass operas, but until The Trial they’ve all been on a huge scale. What this chamber piece proves is how much more suited his music is to this smaller scale. It’s an absurdist, impenetrable story but it was superbly staged and performed by Music Theatre Wales in Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio.

Dance

Lord of the Flies is a big departure for New Adventures at Sadler’s Wells. With two-thirds of the large cast amateurs selected from workshops and open additions, there’s a freshness and energy thoroughly in keeping with William Golding’s story and contemporary dance is a suitable form to tell the tale. It was dark, but I loved it.

I don’t normally like mixed ballet programmes but Birmingham Royal Ballet‘s Shadows of War at Sadler’s Wells caught my imagination, largely because of the music. The first piece, to a Ravel piano concerto, was a bit frivolous for me, but the second was a fascinating re-staging of a Robert Helpmann work set in wartime Glasgow with music by Arthur Bliss and the third a lovely piece set to Malcolm Arnold and Benjamin Britten – and all at a half to a third of prices at the other Royal Ballet.

Cassandra is a rare modern dance piece from the Royal Ballet at the Linbury Studio. It was a nice combination of dance, music and film and it held me for 70 minutes, but in the end it was just OK. I think it was the lack of effective narrative drive / story that was its weakness.

Classical Music

I persuaded a friend who has recently taken up choral singing to go for one of those ‘scratch’ performances put together in one day. The choice of Elijah was ambitious, but they pulled it off. The soloists were terrific, particularly baritone Neal Davies, who gave it his all as if was at the Royal Albert Hall, and the orchestra of a handful of Philharmonia section principals with music students sounded great. It would have been good to see a much bigger audience – where were all the friends and families of the orchestra and chorus?

The third of the Composer Portrait series at St John’s Smith Square was the best so far. Reverie was about Debussy whose writings were spoken by Simon Russell Beale no less. Pianist Lucy Parham played his gorgeous music beautifully and it was a captivating couple of hours.

Film

As much as I loved Pride, the casting of so many English and Irish actors as Welsh characters did irritate me – though I suppose you need Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton to sell films like this. I was surprised I never knew the true story behind it, but maybe it didn’t get much news coverage at the time. It’s certainly the most heart-warming, feel-good film for a long long time.

Dylan Thomas centenary

I found out about the Dylan Thomas in Fitzrovia festival very late on, by which time the diary was choc a block with other stuff, but I did manage to fit in some. A Warring Absence was readings of writings by him and his wife about one another by Daniel Evans & Sian Thomas with accompaniment by the Bernard Kane Players as a Platform performance in The Olivier Theatre and it was original and fascinating.  I’d never heard the Stan Tracy Jazz Under Milk Wood before – read excerpts accompanied by jazz which somehow works brilliantly; again original and fascinating. The final Gala Concert I had known about and this proved a real treat. An eclectic selection of Welsh music played by Camerata Wales (including world premieres) with readings of letters and poems by Sian Phillips, Tom Hollander, Griff Rhys Jones, Robert Bathurst, Lesley Manville, Jonathan Pryce and Owen Teale and songs from Welsh tenor John Owen-Jones and old folkie Ralph McTell. Two of the pieces combined Thomas’ works with music very successfully. For an Englishman, Tom Hollander’s reading of Fern Hill was almost as good as Dylan’s own!

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Contemporary Music

Within minutes of taking my Choir seat behind even the sound crew, I began to wonder what I was doing at the Pet Shop Boys Prom. I hated the electromush of the 80’s with a vengeance, though I’ve liked some of the PSB’s crossover stuff – the musical, the ballet and the film live accompaniment. As it turned out, it wasn’t bad – a musicals style overture made up of nine PSB songs, another four PSB songs arranged for Chrissie Hynde (in white tails) and orchestra and a suite (?) about the life and loves of Alan Turing. I’ve never much liked narration to orchestral music (c/f Vaughan Williams Sinfonia Antarctica) and there was way too much in this (even if it was Juliet Stevenson), though the rest didn’t seem half bad. If only…..

Opera

Gloria A Pigtale was a quirky, surreal experience, particularly because it was at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio. The music reminded me of the more manic Kurt Weill and the staging and design (with a sausage curtain!) were great fun. Even though it was only 80 mins, it didn’t really sustain its length and would have been better as part of a double-bill (but with what?). Still, you have to admire an opera with a line of puppet frogs in red tutus!

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden gave me my third Maria Stuarda in nine months, following WNO and MetLive. It was musically stunning, with Joyce DiDonato at the peak of her extraordinary powers, as she had been in MetLive, but you had to suffer some preposterous stuff in a production which had the two queens in period dress and everyone else in modern dress and Elizabeth without her wig in public carrying an executioners axe! If only it had been the Met’s production and their Elizabeth (who actually shaved her head for the role!) with everything else from Covent Garden. Never trust a French-Belgian production team with British history (even when its written by Italians based on a German play)!

Classical Music

When I booked to see Thomas Tallis at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, I was expecting a candlelit concert by The Sixteen. As it turned out, it was a series of scenes from the life of the 16th century composer interspersed with a dozen pieces of his music. In addition to Tallis as a character himself, we got Henry VIII, the young Edward VI, Elizabeth I and Dr Dee amongst others, which illustrated how Tallis’ life and work were caught up in the flip-flopping from Catholicism to Protestantism in Britain at the time. Unexpected, but both biographically illuminating and an aural pleasure.

Dance

I’m not sure what I was doing at Brazil Braziliero, or indeed why it was at Sadler’s Wells (more Peacock Theatre, I’d say). The talent, energy and quality were all there, but the show that purported to present the history of the samba somehow seemed like one of those tourist culture shows they’re often trying to entice you to when travelling. It probably wasn’t helped by the emptiest Sadler’s Wells I’ve ever sat in. There were good individual components, but it just didn’t work as a whole for me.

Film

I broke my 15-week cinema famine by seeing Boyhood, filmed over twelve years as the actors aged and an extraordinary achievement. It fully sustained its 2h45m length and it was a great one for my return!

I enjoyed Begin Again, though it took a while to take off, the time switching was a bit confusing and Mark Ruffalo was initially very irritating. It won me over though with its feel-good story and unpredictability.

Art

David Hockney’s exhibition at Annely Juda contained new charcoal drawings and colour prints from the iPad paintings shown in his RA exhibition a few years back. The colour prints were editions of 25 for sale and all had been sold. I asked the price and then worked out that they would have grossed over £8m. A few days later I photographed the Monument to the Unknown Artist at Bankside whose inscription is ‘Don’t applaud, just throw money’!

The Hayward’s exhibition The Human Factor features sculptures of people, but only a handful impressed me. There was so much modern tosh that the good pieces were in danger of being overlooked. Unimpressed.

It was difficult to enjoy Matisse Cut-Outs at Tate Modern as it was so busy. At first, though I found it vibrant and colourful, I wasn’t convinced of their artistic merit. As it progressed I did warm to it and toward the end was more convinced. I will have to go back at a quieter time, though, if such a thing exists at a blockbuster exhibition these days.

I know I say this every year, but the NPG Portrait Award exhibition seems to have trumped itself again with a terrific selection. I noticed a trend towards realism this year, which in my more conservative view is no bad thing. Also at the NPG, an exhibition about Virginia Wolf brought together photographs, paintings, books and diaries by her and her circle, which seemed like a London who’s who of the first half of the 20th century. I have to confess I had no idea she was so prolific, or had so many famous friends!

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With the month split between five countries (six if you count Wales!), it’s a bit lean…..

Contemporary Music

I wasn’t expecting Nick Lowe to come on stage at Union Chapel on his own and I was a touch disappointed when he did. That lasted just a few minutes, as the songs began to shine, stripped back to voice & guitar. Later joined by Led Zep’s John Paul Jones on bass and even later fellow Abertridwr boy & regular collaborator Geraint Watkins on keyboards, this was an absolutely delightful evening, 80 minutes packed with Lowe’s short but perfectly formed songs and just a little of his charming and modest commentary. Growing old gracefully indeed.

The Rutles were a Beatles parody band created by Eric Idle and Neil Innes for a comedy TV programme called Rutland Weekend Television way back when. What was so good about the music was that, though a parody (with references to real Beatles songs), the tunes and lyrics were in themselves excellent. George Harrison loved them and supported the making of a full length feature film. I never saw them play live, so I was glad to catch this 2014 incarnation, with two original members and three new ones, in a small venue in Didcot (because I couldn’t make the London date). It was simply superb. Innes’ voice isn’t as strong, but everything else about the show was brilliant and the smile didn’t leave my face for the duration. Lovely.

Opera

I can’t imagine a more perfect production of Rossini’s Cenerentola than the one 3 million of us experienced in cinemas worldwide as part of Met Live. The production was fresh and very funny, with a terrific surreal design, but it was the matchless cast of seven principals that shone most. Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez are both at the top of their game as Angelina (Cinderella) and Don Ramiro (The Prince), but they were matched by five others and a great chorus (no bows?) and orchestra under Fabio Luisi. I have to say I do enjoy the interval interviews and behind the curtain scene changes and they all added up to my best Met Live experience so far.

Dance

Oliver Dubois’ Tragedie at Sadler’s Wells is nine naked women and nine naked men moving to a very loud and relentless electronica soundtrack for 90 minutes. At times it was hypnotic and mesmerising, but it was overlong. The formal ‘marching’ bits didn’t work as well as the anarchic bits. You have to admire their bravery and energy, though. Coming on dressed for the curtain call however was most odd!

Scottish Ballet’s Romeo & Juliet is a pared down version with a 20th century setting. I loved the style of it, the freshness of Krzysztof Pastor’s choreography and the energy of the unfeasibly young company. Though the score has been edited, the orchestra played it beautifully. Nothing will ever probably match Kenneth MacMillan’s Royal Ballet staging, but this was a treat nonetheless.

Art

Artangel’s latest off-the-wall installation takes us to a house in Brixton where Vincent van Gogh lived as a young man in the late 19th century. In Saskia Olde Wolbers work, the dilapidated house tells you its story in sound as you walk through three floors of rooms. It’s a bit like a radio play come alive. Fascinating.

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Contemporary Music 

I couldn’t make Neil Young’s concert at the O2 and it was always going to be risky going to Birmingham instead. Sadly, nine hours of my life and c.£130 weren’t really worth it; I’d have been better off staying with my memories of all his concerts since the first one 42 years ago! The core issue was song choice. 50 minutes in, four songs later, I began to despair. The new stuff is fine, though elongated – one ending with 10 mins feedback and another with 10-mins of ‘What a fuck up’ chanting (not wrong, there, Neil) – beyond my self-indulgence tolerance limit. In the first two hours, just two classics from the 45-year back catalogue (one also subjected to the endless ending). There was apparently another hour, but I had to leave – and in truth, didn’t feel too bad about that as I’d had enough by now. I suspect this will be my last NY concert; a sad way to end my relationship with a genuine genius I have virtually worshiped.

The world of wrinklie rock redeemed itself just four days later when The Who performed their second rock opera, Quadrophenia, live at the O2. This is a much neglected work and one I’ve always loved as much as Tommy. It sounded fresh, with an enlarged band including three brass, two keyboards, two guitars, bass and drums. The film / photo montage, put together by Roger Daltrey, and the lighting were brilliant and the sound was good. Modern technology enabled deceased band members to contribute vocals and a bass solo by video; very moving. The additional 45 minutes included tracks from Who’s Next which if anything sounded even fresher. Support band Vintage Trouble, an American retro four-piece, were well worth getting there early for and their hard work paid off with a great audience reception.

Opera

June was opera month – nine! – one of which, Grimes on the Beach, I’ve already blogged.

I’m not a huge Rossini fan, but it’s impossible to resist both Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez. La Donna del Lago is a bit daft, with a Scottish setting & characters but sung in Italian, and John Fulljames production is a bit odd, starting and ending in some sort of museum, but the music is good and the singing was sensational. In addition to my two faves, Daniela Barcelona impressed hugely in the trouser role of Malcolm. It would be great if the Royal Opera found a better vehicle for these extraordinary talents, though.

The Perfect American is Philip Glass’ new opera about Walt Disney and, of the five operas of his I’ve seen, I think it’s his best. The score has more variety and less minimalist monotony and his subject matter is fascinating. What takes it from good to great though is Phelim McDermott’s astonishing production, designed by Dan Potra, Leo Warner, Joseph Pierce & Jon Clark, which is packed full of Improbable’s trademark invention, with every bit of it appropriate and effective. In an excellent cast (with such clear diction that, for once, you could hear every word – it can be done!), Christopher Purves shone as Walt. One of the best evenings at ENO and of modern opera in a long time.

The summer pairing at WNO was another Cardiff treat. A new opera by Jonathan Harvey, Wagner’s Dream, set at the moment Wager died, was paired with his Lohengrin. Wagner had apparently been contemplating a ‘Buddhist opera’ and at that moment just before death he reflects on it as we see it performed behind him. Wagner’s moments are acted in German and the opera is sung in the ancient Buddhist language of Pali. With added electronica, it was played and sung beautifully and staging and design were both effective and elegant. Lohengrin will go down as one of WNO’s finest moments. Despite needing a stand-in for the big role of Telramund (well done, Simon Thorpe!), the musical standards were exceptional, with the orchestra and chorus soaring (at one point with four additional fanfare groups at four points in the auditorium sending shivers up your spine). Apart from a noisy scene change in Act Three (while the orchestra was still playing), the staging was highly effective. I love pairings / groupings of operas and next time we have Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy – an 18th century Italian spin on 16th century British history!

Britten’s Owen Wingrave was the first opera made specifically for TV and it’s very rarely staged; gold star then to the Guildhall School for this contribution to the centenary. It’s an excellent production of his pacifist opera about a boy who defies his family’s military traditions. The setting is contemporary and the traverse staging is ‘framed’ by scenes from modern warfare showing what might have happened had he not rebelled, with projections used very effectively. Amongst the fine cast, Joseph Padfield was outstanding as military tutor Coyle and Samantha Crawford and Catherine Blackhouse both impressed as Owen’s aunt and fiancée respectively. 

I very much enjoyed the first outing of Deborah Warner’s production of Britten’s Death in Venice at ENO back in 2007, but I wasn’t prepared for how much better a revival could be. With beautiful, elegant designs from Tom Pye, it really is a masterly staging, but the chief reason that propels it to ‘Masterpiece’ is John Graham Hall as Aschenbach. Very occasionally a singer inhabits a role in such a way that they begin to own it. Simon Keenlyside IS Billy Budd and now John Graham Hall IS Aschenbach; it’s mesmerising. I’m so glad the Britten centenary (and half-price tickets!) persuaded me to see it again as it will go down as one of my great nights at the opera.

Gerald Barry’s opera of The Importance of Being Ernest in Covent Garden ‘s Linbury Studio was a quirky affair. The small orchestra was on a series of white steps surrounded by white walls. The singers entered from the audience and occupied the rest of the steps. The instrumentation includes plate-smashing. Lady Bracknell is a man in a suit with no attempt at female impersonation. The music is strident, almost spoken. It’s more semi-staged than staged. I admired the originality, I loved the way the orchestra was part of it and the performances were very good – but I can’t say I loved the opera. 

The ROH contribution to the Britten centenary (and the queen’s diamond jubilee) is his only historical opera Gloriana and it proves to be a better piece than the myths suggest (though having seen the Opera North production 19 years ago I knew this!). The problem with this new production is director Richard Jones decision to ‘frame’ it by our present queen’s visit to see it at a village hall, complete with 1953 production values and visible wings. Even during the overture we get a brief appearance from every monarch between the two Elizabeth’s in reverse chronological order with olympic style name cards and a row of schoolboys holding up cards signalling their geographic origin! This all robs the opera of its grandness, majesty and pomp. Still, musically it’s first rate with the orchestra & chorus on top form and the largely British cast including many personal favourites. Susan Bullock makes a great queen and it was wonderful to see Toby Spence again, in fine vocal form after his serious illness.

Classical Music

Another Handel oratorio for the collection – Susanna – from Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company at Christ Church Spitalfields. It’s not in Handel’s premiere league, but it was beautifully played and sung and an uplifting end to a challenging day. Emilie Renard and Tim Mead, both new to me, were excellent as Susanna and her husband, and the small chorus was so good I yearned for more than the seven items they were given. Will I ever hear them all live? I doubt it!

Dance

I returned to see The Clod Ensemble after enjoying their last show at Sadler’s Wells. That one was in four parts, with the audience moving from upper circle to dress circle to stalls to stage! Zero was staged conventionally, on stage, but I’m afraid it did nothing for me. The blues harmonica got it off to a great start but it was all downhill from then. I don’t know what it was about, I wasn’t impressed by the movement and the 80 minutes just dragged.

Britten Dances at Snape, part of the centenary Aldeburgh Festival, was a lovely varied cocktail of four pieces from three choreographers – Ashley Page, Cameron McMillan & Kim Brandstrup –  and two ballet companies; The Royal Ballet of Flanders & our own. In addition to two Britten pieces, the musical choices included his arrangement of Purcell and a piece from contemporary composer Larry Groves’ which takes Britten’s take on a Dowland piece as it’s starting point! A unique evening and a unique contribution to the centenary.

Film

Behind the Candelabra was a must-see after the trailer. Though a touch overlong, what makes it worth going to is highly impressive performances from Michael Douglas, Matt Damon & an unrecognisable Rob Lowe. Hard to believe it isn’t getting a cinema release in the US; the land of the free is still the home of the bigots.

I rather liked the new Superman film Man of Steel, the ultimate in prequels, which starts with his birth on Krypton and ends with him getting his job at the Daily Planet. It’s all a bit exhausting, and I’ve seen better 3D (I think maybe I should give up 3D), but it’s gripping and new Superman Henry Cavill is very good. Russell Crowe plays Russell Crowe again as Superman’s dad.

If you like those American gross out comedies like Superbad, you’ll like This is the End and I do /did. This one adds gore and disaster to the cocktail and the effects are excellent. It’s one of those films that’s better in the cinema than at home, because there’s a contaigon about the audience reaction which improves the experience.

Art

A lean month for art. I did pop into the NPG to see the annual BP Portrait Award exhibition, though it seemed to ack sparkle this year. Over at the lovely new giant White Cube in Bermondsey, there are four North American artists on show, the best (and most) of which is Julie Mehretu (actually, she was born in Ethiopia). Her giant B&W canvases are multi-layered and grow on you. It’s like she started with an architectural drawing, they overlaid it with another , then another….Original.

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Opera

The Met Live Rigoletto was wonderful, though two long intervals did mar the dramatic flow somewhat. The staging in 60’s Las Vegas (brilliant design) worked as well as the ENO’s gangster Chicago one many years ago and the lead performances were simply stunning – Zeljko Lucic as Rigoletto, Diane Damrau as Gilda and Piotr Beczala (who I saw there in Manon on my US trip in 2012) as The Duke and there was brilliant support from Stefan Kocan as assassin Sparafucile. The production team were new to opera; in fact they were responsible for Spring Awakening, one of my favourite musicals of recent years (and one of my biggest theatre investment losses!).

My latest visit to WNO showed them off at their best and gave us a flavour of new Director David Poultney’s vision, with a pairing of his new production of Lulu and a revival of his 32-year-old production of The Cunning Little Vixen. They are far from my favourite operas, but I doubt either could get better productions. Lulu was a terrific visual spectacle on Johan Engels giant double-circle steel frame (with wings!), and the orchestra and singers, led by Marie Arnet’s wonderful Lulu, were sensational. Sadly, I find it hard to enjoy Berg’s music and the absurdist surrealist story doesn’t really engage me! Vixen fared better as the music is more accessible and the story, though somewhat slight, is more understandable. The late Maria Bjornson’s superb design, with people and animals popping up all over the place, doesn’t look in the slightest bit dated. Again the standard of singing and playing was exceptional (MD Lothar Koenigs again with the baton – boy, was he a good find for WNO!) with Sophie Bevan a delightful Vixen.

Classical Music

One would never have expected a free lunchtime concert at a music conservatoire to produce anything as beautiful and thrilling as Elgar’s 1st Symphony by the Academy Concert Orchestra at the Royal Academy of Music; it was as good as I’ve ever heard it. I’m sure having the great Edward Gardner to conduct helped, but nevertheless the musicianship seemed extraordinary.

Joyce DiDonato’s ‘Drama Queens’ concert (accompanied by the brilliant Il Complesso Barocco) had a slow start but when it got going, boy did it get going. In a stunning flame red Vivienne Westwood gown which transformed as the evening progressed, she sang eleven baroque arias, some by well-known composers like Handel and Monteverdi but a significant number of rarities. The fillers (breathers) by the ensemble were much more than that, most notably Vivaldi’s Concerto for Violin & Strings with a stunning solo from Dmitry Sinkovsky. Her personality always shines through and it felt like an evening with a very talented friend (and the best thing ever to come out of Kansas!).

Well the Britten centenary got off to a good start with a rare opportunity to hear all three string quartets in chronological order at the Royal Academy of Music. Three young quartets formed within the last six years – Leporello, Wilhelm & Jubilee! – did a great job. Two of them were all-girl quartets and the third had one girl; I’m not sure what to read into that! 17+ more centenary events to come!

Art

The NPG’s Man Ray exhibition only includes his photographic portraits but it’s terrific. Most of them are 20th century artists and other members of the avant-garde. Even though they are between 40 and 80 years old, they seem astonishingly contemporary; that’s style for you.

I had to abandon a visit to the cinema because they’d sold out a Saturday afternoon performance of a film that had been running for three weeks! Can’t we be impulsive any more? Well, we can because this gave me the impulse for a Mayfair gallery wander. Bruce Nauman’s neon works at Hauser & Wirth were great, though the narrow entrance to one (of only four) excluded the larger of us! I was impressed by the use of colour in Fiona Rae’s new paintings at Timothy Taylor, but couldn’t fathom why she’d spoilt them by including little Teddy’s peeping out all over the place. Fred Sandback has become a favourite and his works at David Zwimer were brilliant. It’s amazing what you can do with a bit of string, some white space and an imagination! Their other (group) exhibition would have been better if you’d known which artist was which. The final visit was entirely on spec (Time Out pointed out the others); an Azeri artist called Niyaz Najafov who’s red and black grotesques at Gazelli Art House were interesting but not particularly nice to look at. That’s art for you…..

The Wellcome Collection’s exhibition Death: A Self Portrait was recommended but the prospect of seeing it didn’t exactly capture my imagination. Finding myself nearby with spare time, I ventured forth to find it quite fascinating. It’s the personal collection of one man and the range – of sources, periods and themes – is extraordinary. More skeletons than you’ll see in a normal lifetime!

A trio of Royal Academy exhibitions in one day delivered fascinating and unexpected results. The Manet exhibition focuses just on portraits, so it does become a bit monotonous. There are some terrific pictures and I liked the way photos of the subjects were also displayed, but it’s patchy. It’s also padded out as four rooms are closed, two have no pictures and one has just one! In the member’s rooms, it was hard to get close enough to the many engravings that made up most of the British Landscapes show so it proved a bit frustrating. I liked the Turner and Sandby contributions a lot more than the Constable and Reynolds ones, but that’s the same as I feel about their paintings generally. The really pleasant surprise was the Mariko Mori exhibition in the new galleries. Her sculptures and installations feature light, stones and even water. It’s very different, all very cosmic and new age, and I loved it – a more soothing and relaxing experience than the other two.

Film

Hyde Park on Hudson was an enjoyable if slight insight into the relationship between King George VI and President Roosevelt (and Rooseveldt and his mistress) just before the Second World War. Bill Murray is very good as FDR as is Laura Linney as his mistress, but in all the publicity, the superb performances of Samuel West and Olivia Coleman as the King and Queen seem to have been ignored!

Beasts of the Southern Wild was another of my catch-ups and the third to reap big rewards. Sometimes the hand-held camera’s shakiness irritates, but the overall effect is extraordinary. This is a slice of poor America you rarely see, as shocking as much of what you see in the third world and the central performance by young Quvenzhane Wallis is simply extraordinary.

Despite a stunning performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, I’m afraid I found Lincoln pompous, overlong and rather dull. It focuses on only one aspect of the period – the vote to abolish slavery – but took forever to cover it. As always with Spielberg, he overdoes the sentimentality and loses cynical me by doing so.

Hitchcock is so much better than the critics would have you believe. It focuses just on the making of Psycho and both Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren are superb. It’s very funny and it seemed to me to be a particularly British humour, which may be why it hasn’t gone down so well in the US.

Zero Dark Thirty would be a much better film if they cut the first 90 minutes, before they establish the target, in half. The final hour as they mount the raid and assassinate Bin Laden, is terrific.

I’m puzzled again by the mediocrity of the reviews of I’ll Give it a Year, which I thought was a complete hoot. Rafe Spall and Stephen Marchant are the masters of foot-in-mouth clumsy behaviour, so this is a double whammy. A RomCom that’s as rom but a whole lot more com than the norm, populated with a fine cast of the best of British. Listen to me, not them!

Other

I’d been to Vintners Hall for a wine tasting (somewhat appropriately) but my second visit was a more thorough tour of the public areas. It’s one of the best livery halls in London and, with entertaining anecdotes from their GM, was a fascinating visit. It’s great that an ancient tradition like Swan Upping, part of this company’s heritage, continues today.

A sneaky afternoon off found us at the London Studios watching the recording of new sitcom Vicious with Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as a pair of old queens and Frances de la Tour and Iwan Rheon as their neighbours. It’s by a Will & Grace writer and it was great fun watching it being made (3 hours to make 25 minutes!). It’s on ITV in April (you’ll hear me laughing in Episode Three!). There was a lovely aside from Jacobi as he showed us the photo that was part of the set – a real one of him & McKellen at university in 1958!

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