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Posts Tagged ‘Royal Opera Covent Garden’

Opera

At the Royal College of Music, five mini-operas on the theme of Frankenstein – The Modern Prometheus saw five composition students produce very diverse responses, including misuse of digital data, genetic modification of babies and time travel. They were all staged professionally and beautifully performed and played by the students. It made me realise opera is a live art form and in these hands very much alive.

George Benjamin’s opera Lessons in Love and Violence at the ROH, about Edward II, lived up to the hype, and more. A brilliant piece of storytelling with great psychological depth, thrillingly dramatic music and some wonderful singing by a faultless cast. One of the best modern operas I’ve ever seen, proving how much you can achieve in 90 minutes without padding.

Classical Music

The BBC Singers continue to shine, this time at Milton Court accompanied by St James Baroque in an all Handel programme. I’d have preferred an all Handel choral programme; as much as I admired the organ concerto, it didn’t really belong. The choral pieces were lovely.

A lunchtime at LSO St. Luke’s saw the Academy of Ancient Music perform two of Handel’s Chandos Anthems in a sandwich with a Trio Sonata, and a lovely diversion it was too. All the works were new to this Handel fan, which was a bonus.

The UK premiere of Howard Goodall’s new oratorio, Invictus: A Passion, at St John’s Smith Square was a real treat. His classical works, like his musicals, are full of gorgeous melodies and this was no exception, beautifully sung by The Choir of Christ Church Oxford, with two soloists from The Sixteen and a small instrumental ensemble. It’s rare that Handel proves to be an anti-climax, but the Foundling Hospital Anthem which followed was; though it was another Handel piece that was new to me.

Contemporary Music

I tend not to go to cabaret, particularly ones made up of musical theatre numbers, as I’ve convinced myself I don’t much like them out of context, but every time I do go I enjoy it and say I should go more often! The first May bank holiday weekend gave me a double-dip, starting with one of my favourite performers, Clive Rowe, at the Orange Tree Theatre. His selection was mostly American standards and his piano and double bass accompaniment was first class, but it was the extraordinary warmth of the welcome and the absolute joy of the performance that made it for me. It was hard for the Stephen Sondheim Society’s monthly cabaret at Phoenix Artist Club to live up to it, but it was a jolly good night, thanks to MD Aaron Clingham and fine vocals and comic input from Sarah-Louise Young, Sooz Kempner and Tim McArthur. The bonus was vising a lovely new venue and feeling I’d brought the average age down, a rare occurrence these days.

I very much enjoyed the first collaboration between Welsh harpist Catrin Finch & Senegalese Cora player Seckou Keita five years ago, but the chemistry between them is now much developed as they proved back at Union Chapel with a new album to play, inspired by the migration of ospreys between their two countries. The big bonus was support from Gwyneth Glyn, a lovely Welsh singer with a great backing group, who was new to me.

I went to see folk ‘supergroup’ Imar at King’s Place on the strength of one number performed at the BBC Folk Awards on TV and a good decision it was too. Though lots of dance tunes can sometimes seem relentless, and leave you breathless, there were some slower numbers to bring some light and shade and I was anyway mesmerised by the musicianship. The camaraderie and banter added a warmth to the evening.

Effigies of Wickedness, a collaboration between ENO and the Gate Theatre, gets its title from a pre-war Nazi exhibition of ‘degenerate’ music, including pieces by Weill, Eisler & Brecht and Schoenberg. Sub-titled ‘Songs Banned by the Nazis’, it’s a cabaret made up of some of this music, but much more, with staging and design that is wild, colourful, loud and in-your-face and hugely committed performances and consummate musicianship from opera, theatre and cabaret professionals. It was often hilarious, but often chilling. Extraordinary.

Dance

Hofesh Shechter’s Show at the Lyric Hammersmith had his trademark earthiness and pounding, but it was also macabre and had some humour and a lightness that set it apart from the other works of his I’ve seen. It was rather mesmerising, with more false endings / curtain calls that you may ever have seen before.

Film

I haven’t looked away from the screen as much as I did in South African film The Wound, about a tribal manhood ritual, which was so authentic it felt like a documentary. Gripping stuff.

Tully was a film that lulled you into thinking one thing before it surprised you by being something else and I really enjoyed it. Charlize Theron was terrific in her frank look at motherhood.

I didn’t go and see The Greatest Showman when it came out because I’d just seen a revival of the musical Barnum, about the same man, covering the same ground, and the reviews were a bit ify. Word of mouth made me change my mind and I thought it was terrific, despite the schmaltz, and definitely worth seeing on a big screen. When the lights went up, I discovered I’d seen it alone!

Art

The Wildlife Photography Exhibition at the Natural History Museum seems to start as soon as the previous one ends; sometimes I think I’ve seen the current one but I haven’t, one day I’ll unintentionally go twice. It was great again, and blissfully quiet. I’ll never make a wildlife photographer – I don’t have enough patience, or a good enough kit.

Known Unknown at the Saatchi Gallery was the usual curate’s egg – good pieces hanging alongside dross. Still, the space is great, and it’s free!

London Nights at the Museum of London exhibits photographs taken over more than a hundred years of the city at night. It went off at a few tangents, such as fashion, but there was much to enjoy, including a stunning snap taken by Tim Peake from the ISS. Along the High Walk in the Barbican Music Library, there was a small display of photos and equipment Inside Abbey Road Studios but not enough from its iconic period in the 60’s for me. Jill Furmanovsky’s photos were great, but they were the wrong subjects for my timeline!

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Contemporary Music

Maria Friedman’s Bernstein / Sondheim cabaret at Brasserie Zedel, with her terrific pianist Jason Carr, was lovely. In addition to a great selection of songs, there were some great anecdotes. It was a new venue for me, which might well become a regular one.

The collaboration of favourite Malian Kora player Toumani Diabate and some Flamenco group I’ve never heard of was another of those punts at the Barbican Hall that paid back in abundance. They had no way of communicating with each other, no common language, but the skill was extraordinary and the sound uplifting and joyful.

Opera

Thomas Ades’ new opera Exterminating Angel at Covent Garden was musically challenging (as most modern operas are) but I got into it after a while. The orchestration was extraordinary and the ensemble of singers absolutely premier league. It’s based on a surrealist film by Louis Bunuel and it was, well, surreal, including live sheep on stage, who had done their business before it even started!

Ravi Shankar’s unfinished opera Sukanya, based on a section of the epic tale Mahabharata, got its world premiere on a short UK tour which I caught at the Royal Festival Hall. A real east meets west affair with the London Philharmonic & opera singers and Indian musicians & dancers, I rather liked it. It was the second of three occasions in six days that I saw the projection work of 59 Productions. It was lovely to be in a minority, with a largely Asian audience you never see at opera, though some of their behaviour was challenging!

Classical Music

The English Concert’s Ariodante at the Barbican Hall had lost two of its singers before the event, including personal favourite and star turn Joyce DiDonato. Despite this, it was a treat and Alice Coote rose to the challenge of replacing DiDonato in the title role.

On a visit to Iceland, I had the opportunity to attend a concert at their spectacular new(ish) Reykjavik concert hall Harpa, in which the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra played Brahms Violin Concerto, with Alina Ibragimova, and Shostakovich 5th Symphony, and jolly good it was too. The BA fiasco at Terminal 5, however, meant I returned too late for the LSO / Haitink concert of Bruckner’s Te Deum & 9th Symphony.

I like the originality, populism, informality and showmanship of Eric Whiteacre and his concert with the RPO was another good example of this. Mostly choral, with the terrific City of London Choir, they filled the RAH with sound (though sadly not the seats).

Dance

Northern Ballet‘s Casanova packed in a bit too much story for a dance piece to handle, but it looked gorgeous and I warmed to the film-style score. You could tell it was the choreographer’s first full length ballet, and the composer’s, and the scenario writer’s…..but an original dance theatre piece nonetheless, and another enjoyable visit to Sadler’s Wells Theatre.

Film

I was in the mood for escapist fun, and I thought Mindhorn was a hoot, with a fine British cast, an original story and some great views of the Isle of Man!

Woody Harrelson’s Lost in London is the first ever ‘live’ film and it’s a rather impressive achievement, though I didn’t see it live. It’s also impressive that he was prepared to tell a 15-year-old true story that doesn’t exactly make him look good!

Art

The annual Deutshe Borse Photography Prize at the Photographers Gallery breaks new ground again with brilliant B&W portraits, a story of death in photographs and items, stunning silver gelatine B&W landscapes and a room of both film and slide shows. Downstairs, there are fantastic 50’s / 60’s street life B&W photos by Roger Mayne and a five-screen slideshow of the British at play. What a treat!

A wonderful, contrasting pair of exhibitions at the NPG. Howard Hodgkin Absent Friends was great once you stopped thinking of it as a portrait exhibition. They are abstractions based on his own feelings and memories of the subjects so they mean nothing to anyone else, but they are colourful and often beautiful. The pairing of photographs, mostly self-portraits, by contemporary artist Gillian Wearing and early 20th century French artist Claude Cahun was inspired. Though the latter’s B&W pictures were small and a strain on the eyes, the former’s were big and often spooky. Wearing’s family album and future portrait speculations were stunning.

I visited and much admired the controversial Eric Gill The Body exhibition at Ditchling Museum of Art & Craft. I’m not sure allegations of paedophilia since his death should mean we avoid the art he made in life, however distasteful his actions might have been. It was my first visit to this lovely little museum and the lovely Sussex Downs village in which it sits.

After abandoning one visit because of the weather, I eventually made it to For the Birds as part of Brighton Festival. It’s a highly original night-time walk through sound and light installations in the woods on Sussex Downs, all of which are about birds. A bit exhausting at the end of a long day, but worth the effort.

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Contemporary Music

Richard Thompson’s solo acoustic concert at Cadogan Hall was a real treat – one guitar, no time-wasting and a selection of songs from his entire career. He responded to an audience request for Fergus Lang, his song about Trump’s (mis)adventures in Scotland before he put himself forward as a candidate and updated it, though as he said it needs updating daily! There was excellent support from Emily Barker; one to watch.

This was the first time I’d attended the Transatlantic Sessions at the Royal Festival Hall, the ultimate folk & roots supergroup with a core of players and guest singers, but it won’t be the last. The sound wasn’t great (sixteen players / singers in the mix) though it got better and from half-way through the first half it took off with lots of real highs.

Classical Music

Jonas Kaufmann‘s recital at the Barbican Hall was my first live experience of this much lauded tenor and he didn’t disappoint. I thought it was a well selected programme of Schumann, Duparc and Britten sung in German, French & Italian. Gorgeous.

Opera

Royal Academy Opera’s Orpheus & Enefers at Hackney Empire was enormous fun, but also of the highest quality, with the stage and pit bursting with talent, brilliant design and a conductor who was visibly having the time of his life in the perfect venue. Welsh soprano Alys Roberts as Eurydice is a real find; a future star if ever I saw one.

Adriana Lecouvreur was the best thing I’ve seen at the Royal Opera for some time. It’s astonishing that this was only the 15th performance of this underrated Pucciniesque 115-year-old opera. The design was sumptuous and handsome and in period and the four leading roles were stunningly sung. American tenor Brian Jagde was new to me and he was sensational. Angela Georgiou was excellent, but I do wish she didn’t milk her bows so much!

My February visit to WNO in Cardiff was a Puccini sandwich with Vin Herbe filling. First up was a revival of their lovely La Boheme which was even better second time round, largely because of faultless casting. This was followed by Le Vin Herbe, the UK stage premiere of Swiss Frank Martin’s take on Tristan & Isolde. He wrote it to reclaim the folk tale from the Nazi hijacking of Wagner’s opera. It was sung storytelling with the chorus centre stage, an unusual piece but it captivated me. The second Puccini was their 39-year-old production of Madam Butterfly. The design might look a bit dated, but everything else was fresh, with beautiful singing and playing. A terrific trio.

Film

I loved 20th Century Women, a quirky, very un-Hollywood film set in a Bohemian home in California. Annette Benning and her screen son were superb.

Hidden Figures had the usual dose of American sentimentality, but it seems timely to be reminded that segregation in the US was still there just fifty years ago, and the film does it very well indeed.

Fences was the least cinematic film I’ve seen in ages, feeling much like watching one of those NT Live screenings, but the direction and performances were stunning and August Wilson’s story was as intense and gripping as it was on stage.

Moonlight was my 7th Oscar Best Picture nominee. A beautifully crafted film; a compelling watch. Of course, like the other five, I didn’t think for one minute that it would beat La La Land, so the following morning I was both surprised and delighted that it did.

Art

The Paul Nash exhibition at Tate Britain was thoroughly comprehensive and mostly gorgeous. He lost me a bit with the still life’s and early ventures into surrealism, but on the whole a real treat.

Sculptor Richard Wilson is a real favourite. His Annely Juda exhibition was taxing on the brain, but worth the trip, with more David Hockney prints of his iPad drawings downstairs a real bonus.

The Gavin Turk retrospective at his chum Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery had its moments but you end up concluding he’s more of a minor than major contemporary British artist. I thought the ‘homages’ to Warhol and Pollock were lazy art and the final room of rubbish, well rubbish.

The late Zaha Hadid‘s exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery was a very pleasant surprise. A very beautiful selection of art meets architecture digital works which are technically accomplished but also very pleasing on the eye.

Anselm Kiefer‘s Walhalla exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey was vast, extraordinary and on the last weekend so popular you had to queue for a few minutes (I’ve never seen so many people in a private gallery). Mixed media and immersive art at its best; he shot up in my estimation.

The small Frank Brangwyn exhibition at the William Morris Gallery explored his Japanese influences and his relationship with a Japanese artist who made gorgeous woodcuts from some of his works. It really whetted my appetite for my visit to Brangwyn Hall in Swansea later in the same week.

Small too was the Australian Impressionists exhibition at the National Gallery, with only 41 pictures by 4 artists, some of which I’d seen the year before last in Melbourne and Sydney, but the quality more than made up for the quantity. Gorgeous.

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Contemporary Music

I was looking for something to take a visiting friend to. I looked at the Globe website and saw someone called Becca Stevens was playing. I’d never heard of her but I looked at some clips on u-tube and booked. Little did I realise that I was going to become a big fan. Her concert by candle-light in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was a lovely combination of folk pop and jazz. She has a beautiful voice and a terrific band and her love of her work and this venue was infectious. A real treat!

Sadly the following night’s Gospel Prom wasn’t a treat. It showcased lots of different British gospel styles but, with one exception, they were all pop-rock-gospel, way too loud and lacking in any subtlety or even genuine feeling. It was hosted by former Destiny Child Michelle Williams, which seemed very appropriate given the content.

I’ve seen guitarist Antonio Forcione many times, mostly in Edinburgh, but his Kings Place concert was the first solo one for a long time. His style is percussive and his talent virtuosic and he never disappoints, though I did miss some of the colour percussion and other instruments can and have added. Support Will McNicol was technically accomplished, but perhaps lacking in the flair and personality of Forcione. A nice evening.

KlangHaus: On Air was part rock concert, part art installation, a promenade performance in the roof space / plant rooms of the Royal Festival Hall, exiting onto the roof. It was put together by band The Neutrinos. The music ranged from neo-punk to gentle ballads. It was unique and extraordinary.

Part of the problem with the Bowie Prom was that most of the audience just didn’t know what to expect. They wanted a celebration, but they got an avant-garde neo-classical evening with a sometimes off-the-wall selection of songs and quirky arrangements. It was interesting but it disappointed nonetheless.

Opera

I haven’t seen that many productions of Il Travatore and haven’t seen it for some time. This Royal Opera production is unquestionably the best musically, with a fine quartet of leads, three new to Covent Garden, and the wonderful RO Orchestra and Chorus. As for the ‘concept’, I’ll just say tank, gypsy caravan and an army taking a selfie with their captured prisoner and you’ll no doubt get my view.

Classical Music

My first proper Prom was a lovely programme of rare Faure, Shylock, Stravinsky’s Pulcinella and Poulenc’s Sabat mater. I like all three composers but the works were new to me. Beautifully played / sung by the BBC SO and BBC Singers, this is just what the Proms are for.

My second proper Prom was an unusual combination of two choral pieces (one a world premiere, with composer Anthony Payne in attendance), a violin concerto (with an auspicious Proms debut by Taiwanese-Australian Ray Chen, playing the same violin the world premiere was played on in 1868!) and a symphonic poem based on Shakespeare’s Tempest – but it all worked brilliantly well under the great Andrew Davies.

My third proper Prom was Mahler’s 3rd Symphony, not one of my favourite symphonies, or even one of my favourite Mahler symphonies, but a fascinatingly structured, monumental work which the LSO did full justice to. The rapturous welcome and standing ovation given to 87-year-old conductor Bernard Haitink was very moving; the Proms audience is the best!

Dance

Natalia Osipova appears to be ‘doing a Sylvie Guillem’ with her first venture into contemporary dance at Sadler’s Wells in a collaboration with three top flight choreographers. The first piece, with two male dancers, was mesmerising, but the second and third, with her (life) partner Sergei Polunin, disappointed – the second was more movement than dance and the third more physical theatre. Overall, it didn’t really show off her talents and I felt she was showing off and being a bit of a diva. Failing to pick up two of the four bouquets thrown on stage at the end was a bit revealing!

Film

I enjoyed Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, but it was another one that didn’t really live up to the hype, and the huge number of cameos seemed a bit desperate. Probably worth waiting for the inevitable TV screening (it is BBC Films) rather than the trip to the cinema.

Romantic comedies are one of my guilty pleasures and Maggie’s Plan is a nice quirky one with some outstanding performances which feels like a homage to Woody Allen rather than a plagiarism of him.

Watching Star Trek Beyond in 3D, I realised how much technology is now swamping storytelling and characterisation. I found myself being wowed but not excited enough and not moved at all. Maybe 3D compounds this – at some points it was moving so fast I lost track of who was who and where each place was in relation to others.

The BFG was the most charming film I’ve seen since Paddington. Mark Rylance was perfect casting, the young girl playing Sophie was delightful and Penelope Wilton as The Queen. What more could you ask for? Rafe Spall as HMQ’s footman, of course!

Art

David Hockney’s Portraits (82 of them, plus 1 Still Life!) at the Royal Academy of Art works well as an installation, scanning the three rooms to get the effect, but as individual works you get bored very quickly, because each one has either blue background and green floor or vice versa, the subjects are all seated in the same chair and some subjects have been painted more than once! Downstairs, favourite sculptor Richard Wilson has done a great job on this year’s Summer Exhibition, which had a very different feel and was very playful.

Shakespeare in Ten Acts at the British Library is a superb celebration of the 400th anniversary of his death. It includes a mass of fascinating written material plus video interviews and performance extracts. It was worth going just to see footage of Peter Brook’s now legendary A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Improbable’s The Enchanted Isle for the Met.

Imran Qureshi’s modern miniatures in the Barbican Curve Gallery were a delightful surprise. With paint on the walls and floors and low lighting, it’s a fascinating and rather beautiful installation.

I liked both the portraits and landscapes in Adam Katz Serpentine Gallery exhibition, but there were only 20 of them. Fortunately the brilliant Summer Pavilion (and four Summer Houses inspired by the eighteenth century Queen Caroline Pavilion near them, a new innovation this year) made the visit very worthwhile.

I’ve always liked William Eggleston’s urban landscape photos, but had never seen the portraits in the NPG William Eggleston Portraits exhibition. They were original and striking and I liked them.

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Contemporary Music

It was obvious from the second number that Elvis Costello had a problem with his vocal chords, but he didn’t acknowledge it until two-thirds of the way through the main set. It’s a pity because the set for this London Palladium concert was new stuff and less obvious things from the back catalogue (only four or five crowd pleasers) which for me at least was very welcome. He was upstaged I’m afraid by two sisters from Atlanta going by the name of Larkin Poe who’s 30 min set as support was terrific. The evening partially redeemed itself by another 30 min set of Costello with the girls and a couple of crowd-pleasing solo encores, but in truth he should have postponed. There’s nothing sadder than seeing a hero die on stage.

Opera

How can you resist an opera set in a gay club with the toilet attendant played by Lesley Garrett?! As it turned out, Mark Simpson’s 70min 4-hander Pleasure at the Lyric Hammersmith proved rather good, and a hugely impressive operatic debut for this prodigious 28-year-old. The music suited a very dramatic story and the tension built well.

Many years ago I went to a shed in East London to see a bunch of mad Catalans perform a show in which they raced around wheeling supermarket trollies full of dead babies, throwing real liver around. That same company, La Fura Del Baus, are now at Covent Garden staging the UK premiere of Romanian composer Enescu’s only opera Oedipe, one of three 20th century operas based on the Oedipus myth and the most epic, telling the whole story from birth to death. Such is the world of opera in the 21st century. As it turns out, it’s a stunning production of a superb opera which was played and sung brilliantly. Why on earth has it taken 80 years to get here?!

Dance

I loved everything about the Royal Ballet’s Frankenstein. Liam Scarlett’s staging and choreography is excellent, there’s a great dramatic score from Lowell Lieberman and John Macfarlane’s designs and costumes are terrific. Pity the critics were so down on it. Why?

Film

Midnight Special is one of the best SciFi films of recent years. I was gripped throughout. The young actor playing the eight-year-old boy was extraordinary.

Eye in the Sky was another cinematic treat which I almost missed by reading the crits. Its edge of the seat stuff, but very objective in its examination of the ethics around drone attacks. One of Alan Rickman’s last roles, and he was great.

I have fond memories of Peter Quilter’s play Glorious, where Maureen Lipman played Florence Foster Jenkins, now played brilliantly by Meryl Streep in a film that is more poignant though also at times hilarious. A lovely film where even Corrie’s Mavis gets a bit part as a New York socialite!

The Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light was a good rather than great film, but it was well worth catching. Tom Hiddleston is excellent and I understand he does the singing himself, which makes it an even bigger achievement, as the segments when he’s onstage at the Grand Ole Oprey are particularly good.

Our Kind of Traitor is another good rather than great film, different from the normal spy movie, let down by an ending that was a bit too low key.

I went to see Everybody Wants Some!! on the strength of the director’s last film Boyhood and rave reviews for this. I’m afraid I was underwhelmed. It wasn’t exactly Porky’s 8, but it wasn’t far enough away from it.

Though its ending is somewhat implausible, Sing Street is a delightful Irish coming of age story, real feel-good stuff, with terrific performances from its young cast.

Art

Sicily: Culture & Conquests at the British Museum is a lovely presentation of the history of an island almost everyone visited, but most particularly the Greeks and Normans. It made me want to go back to Syracuse post haste.

I didn’t know much about the work of American photographer Paul Strand until the Strange & Familiar exhibition at the Barbican. In his retrospective at the V&A I loved his B&W portraits and films but the abstracts and B&W flora & fauna did nothing for me. Lots to like, though. Across the road at the Science Museum they look at the birth of photography with an exhibition featuring William Fox Talbot, who just about invented it. The thing that grabs you most is how much the art / science moved forward in its first decade; the difference between the 1834 pictures and the 1845 ones is extraordinary.

Other Worlds at the Natural History Museum was a spectacular exhibition of photographs of the planets taken from satellites and spacecraft then touched up in a real meeting of science and art. Across the road at the V&A again there was a hugely clever exhibition called Botticelli Reimagined which showed the influence of this 15th century artist on 20th & 21st century design, then on late 19th / early 20th century artists like the Pre-Raphaelites before leading you into the biggest collection of Botticelli ever seen in the UK. In this last section, I overdosed on Madonna’s and other religious subjects, but it was a highly original exhibition nonetheless.

Other

Trespass is the latest in the series of passionate, funny, campaigning shows from one-man opposition Mark Thomas. This one, visiting the Tricycle Theatre, looks at the erosion of our rights to roam this green and pleasant land. He was his own support, with different material. Great stuff. If only the real opposition could pack such a punch, as entertaining as they are!

 

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….and 1st March!

Opera

Seven operas in nine days, starting with the Guildhall School’s production of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, as good as any I’ve seen (and that includes Glyndebourne and Covent Garden). I particularly liked the design in a re-configured Silk Street Theatre, with the audience on three sides, and the singing was terrific.

Chabrier’s L’Etoile is more operetta than opera and has a preposterous plot, but I did enjoy it. The playful production at The Royal Opera House had a few too many cheap gimmicks, but it was fun overall. Vocal honours belonged to Kate Lindsey and Helene Guilmette.

WNO’s themed season of three operas that feature Figaro as a character, in chronological order, was a triumph. I’m not a big fan of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, but this production was frothy and fun. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro was one of the best I’ve ever seen (probably helped by my intentional rest from Mozart operas) and Elena Langer’s new piece, Figaro Gets a Divorce, was one of the best modern operas of the many I’ve experienced. It was great to see veteran design team Ralph Koltai and Sue Blane at the top of their game with beautiful sets and costumes respectively, and the playing and singing in all three (with Rhian Lois a terrific cover for Susanna in the Mozart) was outstanding…..and all of this for less than £100 in the best seats in the house!

Back at the Royal Opera House, it was great to see Puccini’s triple-bill Il Trittico as it was intended. I’d seen this Gianni Schicchi paired with a Ravel opera, but not the others. The diversity proves to be its strength – a revenge tragedy, a spiritual piece and a comedy! – and Richard Jones’ use of three different designers proved a clever way of emphasising their individuality. One of the best evenings at this venue in a while.

Perhaps the best was saved until last (at least, musically) with the English Concert’s concert version of Handel’s Orlando at the Barbican Hall. Five superb, and brilliantly matched, soloists, led by counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, complimented the crisp clean playing of the small orchestra and made the sort of heavenly uplifting sounds that Handel operas can make. A musical feast.

Comedy

Stand-up’s Elis James and John Robbins took a huge risk with their show at Cardiff’s Glee Club. Sitting at a table with microphones and two rows of their chosen beers, the less well-known Robbins read from his self-published autobiography while James listened and commented between chapters, and both got slowly drunk – for almost 2.5 hours. It sounds like an unlikely hoot, but it was very funny indeed!

Art

The Magical Lantern Festival at Chiswick House was a real treat. Lots of colourful tableau along a walking route through the gardens. I think this was a first, but hope it’s a regular feature.

Big Bang Data at Somerset House was an interesting exhibition, but maybe a touch over-ambitious. It tried to cover so much ground, it felt like little of it was in enough depth. Some interesting, thought-provoking facts, though.

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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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