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Posts Tagged ‘Opera North’

Composer Adam Guettel has had an erratic musical theatre career. He began with Floyd Collins and produced too more in quick succession, then five years later he came up with this Broadway success, but nothing for fourteen years (though he appears to have a few in the pipeline), the time its taken for the show to reach London, and in a new big scale short run rather than the more typical West End transfer.

It criss-crosses the musical theatre line between opera and musical, with a lush score that requires, and here gets, a mix of opera trained and theatre trained singers and a full 40-piece orchestra. The musical standards are sky high, with the amplification working for them rather than against. With the orchestra of Opera North behind and above the relatively small playing area, it’s surprisingly intimate (well, from the front of the stalls at least) given we’re in the Royal Festival Hall.

Based on Elizabeth Spencer’s 1960 novella, which was made into a film just a couple of years later, it concerns a visit to Florence by wealthy American Margaret Johnson and her daughter Clara. Margaret is reliving part of her past and Clara is being introduced to the joys of Italy. She falls in love with Fabrizio, which forces Margaret to confront the issue of her mental health; she’s not had full capacity since an accident in childhood. Fabrizio’s family are also phased by the age difference; Clara is some six years older than Fabrizio.

Craig Lucas’ book tells the story with clarity, leaving the score to deal with the emotional arc of the piece. They’ve chosen to leave the partial Italian dialogue and lyrics untranslated, with brings an authenticity without losing much understanding. Robert Jones’ very Italianate design adds to this. Daniel Evans delicate staging emphasises the period and plays up the romance. You rarely hear a full orchestra like this at a staged musical these days and the sound proves glorious.

The trump card though is the casting, with Renee Fleming incandescent as Margaret, singing beautifully. Alex Jennings is a quintessentially English gentleman, yet here he transforms himself into un perfetto gentiluomo Italiano, aided by natty suits, cool specs and silver hair! Rob Houchen is a real find as romantic lead Fabrizio, with a simply gorgeous voice. Dove Cameron, a Disney regular with zillions of Instagram followers (who I suspect is cast for bums on seats) was indisposed, which created an opportunity for understudy Molly Lynch to steal the show with a performance of great charm and vulnerability and a heavenly voice. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent.

They seem to be struggling to fill seats – the balcony was closed – largely because of the ridiculous pricing, I suspect, but I hope the reviews help fill them as it deserves to succeed, though the producers need to learn that lowering the prices can actually increase their income! Despite the cost, I was very pleased I went.

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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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The last time I saw this show, it had the resources of Opera North – probably enough to run this fringe venue for a decade – and tickets were four times as much. Big budgets don’t always result in the best shows though and I enjoyed this production a lot more – perhaps the best this enterprising venue has (so far) given.

Kurt Weill’s score only has one real standard – Speak Low – but it’s a consistently good score, and here it’s beautifully played by MD Aaron Clingham on his baby grand (in the room this time, thank goodness!) and beautifully sung (unamplified) by an exceptional cast.

The story is a bit daft. An ancient lost statue of Venus ends up in a New York gallery where it is kissed by a drunken man, comes alive and they fall in love. Rodney is already engaged (bring on dumped fiancée with screechy voice and stroppy mom) so Venus makes her disappear. It takes a farcical turn as Gloria’s mum wants justice and the gods want Venus back.

Sarah June Mills has created an excellent modern art gallery with paintings that are more than they seem. Lydia Milman Schmidt’s staging is excellent and choreographer Rhiannon Faith manages to create a superb second act  ‘ballet’ in this tiny space. The production values are very high for the fringe and a lot higher than we’ve seen at Ye Olde Rose & Crown before.

The ensemble is outstanding and the leads are great. Kendra McMillan is appropriately statuesque and other-worldly as Venus and David Jay-Douglas captures the naivety of lovestruck Rodney. The world of modern art is brilliantly represented by James Wolstenholme’s gallery owner Savory and his protective secretary Molly; a fine performance from Danielle Morris.

Weill was unique amongst the composers of Broadway’s golden age (well, as a man from decadent Berlin escaping the Nazi’s, he would be wouldn’t he!) and his shows are distinctive because they are not formulaic; each one tells a different story differently. We don’t have revivals anywhere near often enough and this outstanding production is very welcome. Don’t miss!

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My review of 2012 takes the form of nine awards. There are none for performances as I find it impossible to choose and invidious to select from so much amazing talent. Here goes:

THEATRICAL EVENT OF THE YEAR – The Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, showing the world Britain at its theatrical best, and Globe to Globe, inviting the world to perform its greatest playwright on his ‘home stage’ – both once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Honourable mention to the The Bomb at the Tricycle, the latest in their deeply rewarding reviews of history, world events and global issues.

MOST EXCITING EVENING OF THE YEAR (or possibly my life!) – You Me Bum Bum Train, the most extraordinary adrenalin rush as you perform in 13 scenes from conducting an orchestra to operating a digger, travelling between them through pipes, holes & chutes.

SOLO SHOW – Mark Thomas’ autobiographical Bravo Figaro, funny and moving in equal measure.

BEST OUTSIDE LONDON – National Theatre of Wales’ CoriolanUs in an aircraft hanger at RAF St. Athan; the other highlight of the World Shakespeare Festival, part of the Cultural Olympiad. Wonderful Town is worthy of mention as the touring musical that really should have come to the West End.

NEW PLAYThis House at the Cottesloe, a play about British politics from 1974 to 1979 that was more enlightening than living through it (by a man who is too young to have lived through it), yet entertaining and funny. Honorable mentions to Red Velvet at the Tricycle, In Basildon at the Royal Court and Last of the Haussmanns & The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime – both also at the National, which at last found its new writing form.

PLAY REVIVAL – Desire Under the Elms at the Lyric Hammersmith, a stunning revival of an OK play in a year of many gems, amongst which I would single out A Doll’s House at the Young Vic, She Stoops to Conquer at the NT, Philadelphia, Here I Come at the Donmar, Cornelius at the Finborough,Vieux Carre at the King’s Head, A Long Day’s Journey into Night in the West End and both of the radical Julius Caesar’s – the African one for the RSC and the all-female one at the Donmar.

NEW MUSICALA Winter’s Tale at the Landor. The easiest category to call in a very lean year, with Soho Cinders, Daddy Long Legs and Loserville the only other contenders – but that takes nothing away from the gem that Howard Goodall’s show was.

MUSICAL REVIVAL – Sweeney Todd, though this is the toughest category with no less than 10 other contenders – Patience, The Fix and Call Me Madam at the Union, Gay’s the Word & Merrie England at the Finborough, Guys & Dolls Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Curtains at the Landor, Boy Meets Boy at Jermyn Street, Merrily We Roll Along at the Menier, Opera North’s Carousel at the Barbican and another Chichester transfer, Singing in the Rain, in the West End.

TURKEY OF THE YEAR – The NT’s Damned for Despair, though this year there were also a trio of visiting turkeys, all at the Barbican – Big & Small, Nosferatu and Forests – and a pair of site specific turkeys – Babel & The Architects.

2012 will be hard to beat!

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I wasn’t sure I needed another Carousel – it wasn’t long since I’d been on the last one. Then I remembered how much I’d enjoyed Ruddigore last year (also at the Barbican, also Opera North, also directed by Jo Davies) so, encouraged by a ticket offer, I succumbed in its last few days.

Rogers & Hammerstein’s show was way ahead of its time given the seriousness of its subject matter. Julie Jordan falls for fairground worker Billy Bigelow who gets involved with a bad ‘un and gets shot during a botched robbery which he’s persuaded into so that he can make a life for his now pregnant wife. Their life is in stark contrast to that of Julie’s friend Carrie who marries dull-but-good Enoch Snow and has nine children! It takes a surreal turn in the second half as, on the way to the afterlife, he’s offered the chance to return to earth one more time.

It’s an uneven show because the second half is a lot better than the first and it doesn’t get going for a while – until the second scene, when ‘June is bustin’ out all over’. This production looks gorgeous with Anthony Ward’s set and costumes. With a full opera orchestra and chorus it also sounds gorgeous. Sometimes the voices of opera singers just don’t suit musicals (the recording of West Side Story with Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras and anything Lesley Garrett has been in, including the last West End production of this, come to mind) but that isn’t the case here. There are two sets of leads and I saw Eric Greene as Billy, who acted brilliantly and sang beautifully. Gillene Herbert and Claire Boulter were lovely as Julie & Carrie and Elena Ferrari was a fine Nettie. Joseph Shovelton came into his own as Enoch in the second half.

Yet again, an afterthought proves to be a treat. Quite why a publically funded opera company up north were down here doing a musical is beyond me, but I’m glad they were.

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The Rest of November

Contemporary Music

Blind Malian’s Amadou & Mariam staged their concert in complete darkness. The effect was to heighten the listening experience of their uplifting music. I could have done without the life story narrative, which was a bit naff, but otherwise it was an extraordinary experience.

Roy Harper is another of those artists who are part of the soundtrack of my life and Stormcock one of my very favourite albums. I haven’t kept up with his later work and haven’t seen him for some time, but his 70th birthday concert at RFH was irresistible. It proved to be deeply moving – he appeared to be ‘signing off’ and almost cracked up a few times. The 8-piece brass and string ensemble meant he focused mostly on my personal Roy Harper period and I loved it. When Jimmy Page guested for the double-guitar fireworks (on 5th November!) of That Same Old Rock (he played on the album) it was absolutely magical and the hall erupted.

I was amazed when they decided on Hammersmith Apollo for the Gillian Welch concert. It’s a shabby, tacky and dirty place and ever so big for two acoustic musicians. Though I would have much preferred somewhere like the Barbican or the Southbank Centre, she did pull it off. I like the new album and the first set was largely taken from it. The big surprise though was how this was a mere taster for an outstanding second set which ended with superb encores of country classic Jackson and Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit . I’ve waited a long while to see her, but it was well worth the wait – next time, somewhere else though? Please…

Taking eight people to Ronnie Scott’s to see jazz vocalist Ian Shaw was always going to be a risk, but one that paid off. The musicianship shone through and the audience were suitably attentive. His band included a silver-haired bassist who played with Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker. Wow! Astonishingly, it was my first visit to RS, but now that they have shows at civilised times I shall be back!

Opera & Classical Music

The operatic adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness seems to me to be a great success. Set mostly aboard a boat in the Congo, it has great atmosphere and tension thanks to Robert Innes Hopkins superb design and Tarik O’Regan’s music. There was some excellent singing from Alan Oke, Gweneth-Ann Jeffers and Morten Lassenius Kramp with the small ensemble Chroma under Oliver Gooch providing a colourful orchestral background. Just what the Linbury Studio is for.

The Guildhall School of Music & Drama have uncovered a neglected comic gem with Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor, Nicolai(who?)’s take on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s given a sparkling and fresh modern dress production by Harry Fehr with a brilliant set and costumes from Tom Rogers. For some reason Nicolai changed the names of the Ford’s and Page’s but not Falstaff or Fenton. He’s dumped Mistress Quickly, Bardolph and Shallow, but otherwise it’s true to its source. Barnaby Rea is excellent as Falstaff, Ashley Riches is very good as the second cast Fluth (Ford) and Ellie Laugharne is a sweet-voiced Anna – but its Sky Ingram’s show; her Frau Fluth (Ford) is fabulous; we’ll be hearing a lot more of her for sure.

I’ve wanted to see Vaughan Williams’ Hugh the Drover for a very long time, so Hampstead Garden Opera’s production was very welcome indeed. I have to confess though that I wasn’t expecting it to be such a good opera and for the musical standards of this ‘amateur’ production to be so outstanding. It was beautifully played by The Dionysus Ensemble, a group of music students & recent graduates, under the leadership of Oliver-John Ruthven. The leads were also students & recent graduates and they were also exceptional. David de Winter was terrific as Hugh, with Elaine Tate a lovely sweet-voiced Mary and Ed Ballard fine as baddie butcher John. This ballad opera is so so underrated, but this new chamber version will hopefully lead to more productions. A whole packet of gold stars to HGO for leading the way.

Handel’s Saul is a lovely dramatic oratorio and Harry Christophers & The Sixteen delivered an excellent interpretation at the Barbican, helped by a set of outstanding soloists including Sarah Connelly, Christopher Purves and Robert Murray. The quality of the choir is exceptional with a handful of them stepping forward to sing the smaller solo parts.

Opera North’s Ruddigore is destined to be as classic a G&S production as ENO’s The Mikado still is many years on. It’s a completely preposterous story of course, but it’s given a sparking fresh production by Jo Davies, with sepia design from Richard Hudson, and is an absolute delight. Grant Doyle is an excellent leading man, Hal Cazalet (who trained next door at GSMD) acts and sings superbly well as sailor Dauntless, Heather Shipp is as batty as Mad Margaret should be and there’s superb support from a few old favourites I seem to see too little of these days – Anne-Marie Owens, Richard Angas and Stephen Page. I sincerely hope their visits to the Barbican become regular – it would d be good to have good quality opera at decent prices here in London!

Dance

I loved the Scottish Ballet programme I saw a couple of years ago in Edinburgh, so I booked to see their new double-bill at Sadler’s Wells. The first piece – Kings 2 Ends – was playful, funny and quirky. Choreographed by Jorma Elo to music by Steve Reich and Mozart, this young company excelled. Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth to Mahler’s song cycle took a short while to settle but soon became spellbinding. More classical than the first piece, I liked the contrast, though the dancers seemed to find it more of a challenge. I liked soprano Karen Cargill but I’m afraid tenor Richard Berkeley-Steele was nowhere near as pleasing on the ear!

I’m new to Ballet Rambert and this second showing didn’t live up to the first. It was certainly a diverse triple bill. RainForest was a somewhat abstract 40-year old piece by Merce Cunningham with an electronic score, danced in Jasper Johns costumes in an Andy Warhol setting. Seven for a secret, never to be told was Mark Baldwin’s exploration of child behaviour to a Ravel score and Javier de Frutos’ Elysian Fields was a steamy and violent homage to Tennessee Williams and A Streetcar Named Desire in particular, danced to that film’s score with unnecessary and intrusive dialogue. A bit of a mixed bag – I admired the dance / movement but didn’t really find anything entirely satisfactory.

Art

The Royal Academy’s Degas & the Ballet – Picturing Movement should have been subtitled ‘A study in obsession (with a touch of pedophilia)’ It pushed the dancer theme just a bit too far for me. There were some exhibits that I felt were padding (animation and panoramas) and I think it would have been a better 5-room exhibition than it was an 8-room exhibition. That said, the penultimate room of 13 paintings was simply glorious and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Also at the RA, Building the Revolution – Soviet Art & Architecture 1915-1935 was a small but fascinating series of pictures and drawings which illustrated the iconic art deco / modernist hybrid that existed there and then. Most of these buildings are now run down (or worse) and I was struck by how many I’d seen on recent trips to the Ukraine & The Caucasus.

The most extraordinary thing about Gerhard Richter’s retrospective at Tate Modern is that it feels like a show by a bunch of artists rather than one. He completely reinvented himself on a regular basis so there is much diversity on show here. It didn’t all work for me, but as a body of work it’s certainly impressive.

Grayson Perry moved from my list of OK-but-overrated-modern-British-artists to the premier league on the strength of his brilliant exhibition at the British Museum. His own work is interspersed with items from the BM collection (few of which I’d ever seen before). It was equal parts learning, fun and beauty and I was bowled over by it.

Another pleasant surprise was the John Martin exhibition at Tate Britain. This early 19th century artist created vast canvases, mostly on dramatic religious themes like Sodom & Gomorrah. They seem to be the precursors of / influence for apocalyptic films like Independence Day and covers for 1970’s progressive rock albums by bands like Yes. In their day they toured the country with sound and light shows to accompany then, seen by millions of people, so it was terrific that they created a modern version for the Judgement Day triptych – a first for an exhibition? How can I have lived this long without ever knowing about this man?! Upstairs, sculptor Barry Flanagan’s early work seemed tame and dull, I’m afraid, but it did mean you get to climb their brilliant and bright newly painted staircase!

I was smitten by the Pipilotti Rist exhibition at the Hayward Gallery last month and almost smitten by George Condo’s Mental States, which is now sharing the venue. His portraits are like a cartoon version of Francis Bacon and his abstracts like Picasso on acid. I’d never heard of him before, so it was good to see such a comprehensive and fascinating collection. Also at the Southbank Centre, the 2011 World Press Photographer exhibition maintains the standards of this superb annual tradition. It’s often hard to look at, but the photography is always outstanding.

Visiting Two Temple Place is a double-dip treat. The former Astor home is a riot of carving, stained glass and OTT decoration and it currently houses a William Morris exhibition with a superb collection of tapestries, fabrics, wallpaper, paintings and drawings. Gorgeous.

Just as gorgeous was the Royal Manuscripts exhibition at the British Library, a stunning collection of richly decorated books from the middle ages. It’s superbly curated and, provided you go at a quiet time, it’s a real treat.

Film

Two excellent British films this month, the first of which was Weekend, about an intense gay relationship which begins and ends in, well, a weekend. Chris New and Tom Cullen were both outstanding and it was beautifully shot. The second, Resistance, is set in Wales after the failure of the D-Day landings resulting in an invasion of German troops, a small group of whom have reached a Welsh valley! It explores the reaction of the locals and their relationships with the invaders. It’s a bit of a slow burn, but eventually draws you in and becomes deeply moving without a touch of sentimentality. There are some lovely performances, most notably from Andrea Risborough.

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The National Youth Music Theatre doing Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd? This makes the decision of RADA, the UK’s premiere drama school, to do Company seem decidedly unambitious. Despite the fact people like Jude Law, Sheridan Smith and Matt Lucas did their first work for NYMT, I was still somewhat sceptical…..

When we entered the former Victorian warehouse closer to where its set than any production before it (apart from the Bridewell Theatre’s virtually in Fleet Street itself), we’re confronted by ‘the outsiders’ wandering around the space talking to themselves, pushing supermarket trolleys and generally behaving spookily. This could be completely naff, but it’s actually rather disturbing and uncomfortable and a great scene-setter.

It’s performed on the floor of the space in a sort of traverse staging with seats on three sides and the barber shop on the fourth and it’s very atmospheric. The action mostly takes place in the centre with the ‘barbering’  and ‘baking’ on a two-level platform at one end.

The 25-piece orchestra, hidden behind screens behind & to the side of the audience plays this complicated score superbly; you’d never believe this was a youth orchestra. The performances are simply extraordinary – Matt Nalton and Lizzie Wofford are terrific as Sweeney and Mrs Lovett and in an outstanding supporting company, a very young Michael Byers as Tobias is so good it takes your breath away.

I’ve seen nine Sweeney Todd productions before this, including Covent Garden, Opera North and the National Theatre and it has never been better than this. It’s a triumph for NYMT and a highlight of Sondheim’s 80th celebrations; I really hope he’s hung around after Saturday’s Prom to see this as the enthusiasm of the young cast and the excitement of the young audience prove that his legacy as the king of musical theatre will be as long-lasting as fellow American 20th century theatrical gods  Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller.

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