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Posts Tagged ‘Ottone in Villa’

It’s sixteen years since my last visit to the Buxton Festival and twenty years since my first, and boy has it grown. Then there were two operas, now there are eight. It has dropped ‘Opera’ from its title and added recitals, lots of spoken word and more. It has grown a fringe that, like Edinburgh, has got bigger (though maybe not better – yet!) than its parent. Fortunately, it hasn’t succumbed to dressing up and other poshness, though the average age seems to have gone up (same audience getting older?) enabling me to feel good about bringing it down!

The first opera was Vivaldi’s first. He apparently wrote 50, but we rarely see any. By the interval I thought I understood why – mediocre music, perfunctorily performed here – but he saved his best tunes until the second half and the cast responded by raising their game significantly. Ottone in Villa is one of those silly love quadrangles with trouser roles and implausible disguises, but when the music was good, it didn’t matter – though three stifling hours on the hottest day of the year was a challenge!

The same first half / second half contrast occurred in the double-bill, with the first opera, Saint-Saens’ La Princesse Jaune, creaking somewhat, despite a clever set and good singing. It has been relocated to Paris and set in an attic where Lena is pursuing her cousin Kornelis who has an opium-induced fantasy about an oriental woman! A bit slight and a rather dated feel to it. The second, Gounod’s La Colombe, made up for it though; a delightful comedy about how a parrot gets killed for love! Beautifully sung, with Jonathan Best’s Maitre Jean a masterclass in comic opera performance. Les Brotherston’s clever set relocated this in the apartment below the attic of the first opera, which was still in view, as the top of the apartment had (just) been in the first opera without giving the game away.

I’d failed to get tickets for Britten’s Church Parables in Aldeburgh, but managed to get them for the same productions here, and what a treat they were. Written at two-year intervals over four years in the mid-60’s and performed in the same four-day period in June, they are now rarely staged (I’d only seen them once, in a concert hall). Though each lasts just 70 minutes or so, they have huge atmosphere when staged in a church, weaving an extraordinary spell. Singers process as monks to a high stage where they play out the parables – a woman’s search for her lost son in Curlew River, a father’s unconditional love in The Prodigal Son and Nebuchadnezzar’s killing of three Israelites in The Burning Fiery Furnace. Director Frederic Wake-Walker has infused them with Japanese, Middle-Eastern and Balinese influences respectively and it works. A big feather in Mahogany Opera’s cap and yet another treat for the Britten centenary.

The unexpected highlight was Literary Britten, which interspersed two Britten song cycles, beautifully sung by tenor Andrew Kennedy, with poems and letters to Britten by WH Auden read by Alex Jennings no less. There was a bonus too – a world premiere of Tim Watts’ excellent new song cycle. It was a perfectly formed 70 minutes and I was a bit surprised the audience weren’t cheering loudly – I think this might have been the inclusion of Auden’s more racy letters; it’s a conservative crowd here!

Add in a talk by former Labour MP and writer Chris Mullin and a walking tour of the town and you have as fine a festival weekend as you could wish for – despite the fact it wasn’t really the weekend to spend indoors! It was good to return and I hope (and suspect) it won’t be another 16 years before my next visit.

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DANCE

Well, you wouldn’t call The Merchants of Bollywood subtle! The story is rather banal and in some ways a bit pointless, because what the show really represents is energy, enthusiasm, colour, glitter and sequins; in short, a lot of fun! The sets and costumes are great though the music is relentlessly monotonous, but the show doesn’t take itself seriously and it’s quite refreshing to go to something that has no pretensions, just entertainment.

CLASSICAL MUSIC

Susan Bickley’s Sunday afternoon recital at the Wigmore Hall was an eclectic collection of 20th century English songs which included a lovely selection by Ivor Gurney, four gorgeous settings of Walter de la Mare by Richard Rodney Bennett and some funny cabaret songs by someone new to me, William Bolcom. There were also five from the NMC Songbook, which included one setting words from the National Trust Handbook and another listing the kings and queens of England! It was rather empty, which may be the reason why her voice sometimes sounded harsh in the resulting acoustic.

Rolando Villazon only managed a three-quarters full Festival Hall – take note, concert promoters, prices are deterring people (this one was £75 top price, though I didn’t pay that). I love his album of Handel arias, but I’m afraid the concert rarely took off for me. His enthusiasm is infectious and his empathy with the audience is terrific, but he insists on ‘acting’ the music, sometimes at the expense of the vocals. The decision to end with Bajazet’s death scene from Tamerlano was bizarre, though the two encores lifted the mood before we went home. Lucy Crowe got the biggest cheers for her two Cleopatra arias from Giulio Cesare and the Gabrieli Players (over 80% ladies!) under Paul McCreesh sounded lovely.

Handel’s La Resurrezione was only the third of his twenty-six oratorios. The Gabrieli Consort (again!) gave a lovely performance as part of the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music in St John’s Smith Square. Somewhat ironically, the two substitute soloists – Gillian Webster and Jeremy Ovenden – were the stars.

Vivaldi isn’t known for his operas; Ottone in Villa was his first, and based on this excellent concert performance by Il Giardino Armonico, it seems to me they may well deserve the resurgence Handel operas have had in the last 20 years or so. There’s some gorgeous music here, with one Act II aria an absolute gem. I loved the visible enthusiasm of the players and singers and a young Russian soprano, Julia Lezhneva, made a most auspicious professional British debut – you’ll hear a lot lot more about her; remember you heard it here first!

CONTEMPORARY MUSIC

Cesaria Evora, the barefooted Cape Verde godmother of world music, and her terrific band gave a masterclass in their unique Latin blues at the Barbican. The 68-year old spoke just one word to the audience (obrigado!) and smiled only occasionally, but she was the centre of attention and the reason why a full house cheered and stood in appreciation. I could have done with a little more light and shade – those rhythms can be exhausting! – but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

I’m not a huge Randy Newman fan, but I admire his song-writing and couldn’t resist the rare opportunity to see him in concert. The RFH is a vast space for a man and a piano and I’m not sure he really filled it. The voice has weakened and the piano playing is far from perfect, but he’s an original and refreshingly cynical songwriter with a great sense of humour and his personality won the day.

This was the first time I’d seen the new line-up of what was once Rachel Unthank and the Winterset and is now The Unthanks. Not being able to make the London Union Chapel gig, I headed to St Georges Church Brighton (if anything an even better venue) and boy was I glad I did. The new ten-piece line-up, playing 16 instruments between them, really opens up the sound and both the new material written for it and the older stuff worked wonderfully. There was very good support from Hannah Peel, one of The Unthanks, who makes punchtape for her tiny music box and a quirky local duo called Rayon Breed – cello mostly played pizzicato and a range of percussion including stapler! Local promoters Melting Vinyl are to be congratulated for value for money, excellent organisation and a lovely venue.

FILM

Chris Morris’ Four Lions is brave, hilarious but ultimately chilling. The story of incompetent British jihadists at first just seems like farce – very very funny farce – but in the end it does make you think about the motivations of people like this. Brilliant!

ART

The Concise Dictionary of Dress is one of those unique experiences you’ll be talking about for a long time. Turning up at a pre-booked time at the huge Victorian building which houses the reserve collection store and archive of the V&A (the building shared with the British Museum and Science Museum), the three of us were taken on a walking tour to see eleven ‘installations’, each with a (somewhat obtuse) reference to something in the collection. I enjoyed the experience of seeing the building as much, if not more, that the art! From the roof to the coal bunkers via the vast textile room, a room of sliding archive shelving, the sword store and much more. Artangel does it again!

The British Museum has a brilliant pairing with Renaissance drawings and from the same period, West African sculpture from Ife. The former, the 5th (?) exhibition in the wonderful Reading Room, works on so many levels, covering the materials and craftsmanship as well as the art itself, taking in preparatory drawings and finished pieces. In one room, there are giant projections of the interior of Santa Maria Novella in Florence which zoom to reveal detail corresponding to drawings on the walls of the same room; this is terrific 21st century curating. I knew nothing about the kingdom of Ife, now in Nigeria, and was blown away by the beauty of the 600 year old bronze sculptures. The terra cottas were fascinating, if less aesthetically appealing, and the whole exhibition was again curated really well.

Smother is another, less successful, Artangel commission. This time you are taken in a small group to a tiny five-story house where the issues facing young single parents are presented through video, sound, installation and a few real people. There’s a fine line between overly staging and a failure to lead the audience and in this case the latter means you don’t get as much out of the experience as I suspect you could and should.

In the coal holes of Somerset House, Bill Fontana has created River Soundings – soundscapes recorded at various points along the Thames (which once flowed under this building) from Teddington Lock to the Thames Estuary, combined with video of locations such as Tower and Millennium Bridges. Hugely atmospheric and great fun

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