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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Murray’

Opera

Verdi’s Les Vepres Siciliennes is rarely performed and after almost four hours standing at the back of the Royal Opera House’s stalls circle it was easy to see why. There’s not a lot of story for four hours and Verdi’s music is nowhere near his usual standard. The singing wasn’t particularly distinguished, but I liked the production (which most don’t seem to!).

The GSMD excelled itself again with an unlikely double-bill of Debussy’s earnest but beautiful L’enfant prodigue and Donizetti’s comic one-acter Francesca di Foix. The Donizetti, in particular, was a little gem and an absolute hoot, given an inspired staging in modern settings (a smart clothing shop and a tennis court) but with period clothes. Beautifully played and sung, Anna Gillingham in the title role and Joshua Owen Mills (Welsh!) as the Duke were terrific.

In the BBC SO‘s semi-staged Albert Herring at the Barbican, this comic opera proved to be a minor masterpiece. Britten’s friend Steuart Bedford led a wonderful small ensemble and a first class cast, led by Andrew Staples as Albert, without a weak link in it. You could hear every nuance of every instrument and every sung word. A real highlight of the centenary.

The Early Opera Company’s concert performance of Handel’s Acis & Galatea at Wigmore Hall was a delight. The 13-piece ensemble under Christain Curnyn played the score beautifully and there were fine performances from Robert Murray and Sophie Bevan in the title roles. Matthew Rose was a stand-in as the giant Polyphemus but his powerful baritone nearly blew the roof off. Minor Handel maybe, but gorgeous nonetheless.

Dance

I’m not very fond of full-length ballets that are excuses for showcasing ‘turns’ by dancers in various combinations rather than telling the story (think The Nutcracker) and I haven’t enjoyed previous productions of Don Quixote that much, but I rather liked Carlos Acosta’s for the Royal Ballet. With handsome designs by Tim Hatley and fresh choreography, it often sparkled. The leading lady was injured during Act One and Marinela Nunez (who originated the role with Acosta as partner) took over and this somehow added even more sparkle. Sadly, Acosta didn’t come on as sub in Act Two or Three!

Another dance contribution to the Britten centenary from the Richard Alston Dance Company at the Barbican, with four short pieces (including two world premieres), each set to a chamber piece, three of them vocal. In Phaedra, the soloist interacted with the dancers, which I loved (and which reminded me of Seven Deadly Sins at Covent Garden a few years back), but Illuminations was the most uplifting. Poor time management meant interval overuns so it took 130 minutes to stage 65 minutes of dance!

Choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui takes a really fresh look at tango with m!longa at Sadler’s Wells and it comes out as a sexy display of virtuosity, relationships silently played out by intricate movements. The five couples – four kosher tango ones and one contemporary dance duo – were all terrific, and the five-piece band were sensational.

The Stuttgart Ballet‘s Taming of the Shrew to a mash-up of Scarlatti at Sadler’s Wells was a bit of a punt that turned into a major treat. Though over 40 years old, apart from the sets, it felt fresh. I’m not sure I’ve seen a comic ballet before and I have to say, the form was perfect for Shakespeare’s comedy, the dancing was terrific and we laughed aloud a lot. There were beautiful romantic moments too and it all added up to a thoroughly enjoyable surprise.

It’s a while since I had a fix of favourite choreographer Mark Morris, so I went to both programmes at Sadler’s Wells on consecutive nights for a feast of seven works. With one exception, they were accompanied by live music – a small ensemble and three singers – which is key to Morris’ success. The best of the first programme was Socrates, set to music by Erik Satie for tenor and piano, which looked like Greek statues come to life. In the second programme, Festival Dance, to a wonderful piano trio by Hummel (who?!) led by stunning piano from Colin Fowler, was thrilling, and as close to Morris’ undoubted masterpiece Handel’s L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato as he’s got since. The one piece to recorded music was In A Wooden Tree. Only Morris would use the songs of Ivor Cutler and it was a delight; quirky even by Morris standards.

Classical Music

The rarely performed song cycle Our Hunting Fathers, sung by Ian Bostridge, was the centerpiece of The Britten Sinfonia‘s namesake’s centenary concert at the Barbican, but it wasn’t the highlight. It’s possibly the quirkiest song cycle I’ve ever heard, but the orchestration is brilliant. The real treats were the orchestral pieces played by a chamber orchestra that seems to me to be absolutely at the top of its game.

The Royal Albert Hall is the perfect venue for Britten’s War Requiem and Remembrance Sunday the perfect day to hear it in this centenary year. The BBC SO under Semyon Bychkov did it full justice, with the boys choir sounding beautiful up in the gallery and the male soloists, Roderick Williams & Allan Clayton, on fine form. The ‘amen’ was extraordinarily moving, hopeful and uplifting; I felt like my body was rising in my seat.

St Cecilia’s day (the patron saint of music). The 100th birthday of my favourite composer. My favourite music venue. The Sixteen‘s recital of Britten choral works – mostly unaccompanied – at Union Chapel was an absolute joy. The acoustic was perfect, the selection eclectic and the voices beyond wonderful. As you can gather, I liked it!

Film

The big film catch-up continued with One Chance, the story of Britain’s Got Talent winner Paul Potts. Apart from some puzzling accents (parents Welsh, Potts West Country) and a touch of resentment that Welsh characters weren’t played by Welsh actors, I rather enjoyed it. Undemanding, feel-good stuff – a touch too sentimental, but very heart-warming and funny.

The Selfish Giant is one of those gritty British films I thought we’d forgotten how to make; even the master, Ken Loach, seemed to have gone a bit soft. It’s not an easy ride watching hopelessness, but its a superb piece of film-making full of stunning performances from people you usually see on TV in things like Shameless, and the two leading boys are simply extraordinary.

I can’t begin to put into words how good a film Philomena is. I’m glad I hadn’t read the book as it surprised and confounded me. Judi Dench is sensational and Steve Coogan a revelation in a straight role. Perfect in every respect, but tissues necessary. The things that have been done in the name of god!

Gravity reminded me of Duncan Jones’ Moon, though it’s (virtually) two people in space rather than one. The 3D is (mostly) brilliant, for once very realistic, and the story is gripping, but I’m not sure it quite lives up to the hype – I’m glad I went, though. 

Art

My second visit to the George Watts Gallery near Guildford was to see the Frank Holl exhibition. It was a bit small and a bit sad and may not be worth the trip on its own, but with another chance to see Watts’ own pictures and combined with opera in Woking and lunch at the retro Withies Inn in Compton it proved worthwhile!

Daniel Silver’s DIG seems to be an archaeological site in a building site where statues have been uncovered and laid out in various states of restoration for you to view (but most oddly pristine white). I’m not sure what point he’s making, but it was quirkily intriguing.

Masterpieces from China at the V&A had some stunning paintings covering 1200 years. The Tang Dynasty seemed underrepresented and it was a struggle to absorb it all with the necessarily low lighting and difficulty getting up close, so I might well have to go again.

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With eight days at the paralympics at the beginning of the month, five days housebound at the end of the month and seven shows in-between, there wasn’t much room for ‘the rest’.

Opera

We’d seen both productions in our autumn visit to WNO in Cardiff before – Handel’s Jeptha some years back and Puccini’s La Boheme just 3 months ago. Neither were quite up to their earlier incarnation, but both were well worth re-visiting. Jeptha was never meant to be staged and it is directed by my bête noire Katie Mitchell, but despite that I like the modern war-time staging and the music is simply gorgeous. Robert Murray was excellent in the title role. The La Boheme staging is one of the best, but the new Mimi, Giselle Allen, wasn’t really believable. This was a ‘safe’ visit – the next one is Janacek and Berg and the one after Wagner and a modern one about Wagner, so they should be more challenging!

Ballet

I was persuaded to go to San Francisco Ballet by some visitors, but came out glad I was. The very diverse third mixed programme was a veritable feast. It started with a quirky and camp Mark Morris piece (not his best), then we got a more classical piece (to a lovely Prokofiev symphony), a captivating Japanese dance drama and some more modern dance with a blend of early and contemporary music. It seemed like a very young company which is probably why it all felt exuberant and fresh.

Art 

Another London at Tate Britain was both a superb idea and a brilliantly curated exhibition of B&W photos of London taken by foreign photographers. It included most of the 20th century’s iconic photographers and though it focused a bit too much on ‘grimy poor London’ it was unmissable.

At the Photographers’ Gallery, the annual Deutsche Borse Photography Prize exhibition was the best ever, in particular the images of Ghanaian scavengers and the arty Japanese selection. The new galleries have been improved since they moved in and now provide an excellent space to show these works.

The Korean Eye exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery was one of the best of their recent overseas contemporary art exhibitions with a nice combination of sculpture, installation and painting (yes, painting!). An excellent bonus during this visit was a small but hugely creative exhibition of chess sets by British artists (the usual suspects such as Hirst and Emin). How does this gallery survive without subsidy?

At the ICA, I liked Bruce Nauman’s soundwork Days – you walked through a space where speakers on both sides projected people speaking. Sadly, the rest of the soundworks ‘exhibited’ at the same time were hugely disappointing.

A brilliant trio of exhibitions at the NPG this month with the BP Portrait Prize living up to its reputation, photos of people associated with London 2012 (not just athletes) all over the building and a surprisingly interesting exhibition of pictures and photos of the queen  I’m no monarchist, so enjoyment of the latter was a bit of a shock!

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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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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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