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Posts Tagged ‘Scottish Ballet’

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

Contemporary Music

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

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

Opera

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

Dance

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

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

Art

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

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Well, I’ve got seriously behind with my blog, so instead of individual play reviews, I’m adding them to the customary monthly round-up, which given I only spent 12 days of April in the UK, wasn’t much to round-up!

The highlight was undoubtedly the ballet – Scottish Ballet’s new working of A Streetcar Named Desire at Sadler’s Wells. I felt just like I did the first time I really ‘got’ ballet as dance drama, when I saw Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet. This wordless form was more dramatic than any production of the play I’d seen – and both operas adapted from it. Starting with Blanche’s back story (way before her arrival in New Orleans when the play starts) was inspired. The drama unfolded chronologically from her childhood to her incarceration in an asylum by her sister Stella & husband Stanley. The fingerprints of director Nancy Meckler were all over it and the choreography of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa matched it seamlessly. Graeme Virtue’s jazz influenced score was hugely atmospheric, played beautifully by a small 13-piece orchestra. Niki Turner’s designs were elegant, evocative and simply beautiful. You got every bit of the play’s intensity, the longing, the sadness, the testosterone, the fragility….this is a masterpiece I can’t wait to see again.

The opera was ROH 2’s Opera Shots in the Linbury Studionew operas by those new to opera. Graham Fitkin’s Home wasn’t really an opera but a dance drama with music! Nice music though, and lovely flowing movement. What it was about is another matter; don’t ask me. Neil (the Divine Comedy) Hannon’s Sebastopol was more substantial, but still felt more like a staged song cycle than an opera. Again, nice music – though lots of missed words with opera singers singing the way they do i.e often unintelligibly!

I first saw Filumena in the West End in 1977 in a Zeffirelli production starring Joan Plowright – though I didn’t really know who Zeffirelli and Plowright were! Samantha Spiro at the Almeida makes a great Filumena and Clive Wood is an excellent Domenico. Robert Jones’ vast set is so realistic it looks fake (all those artificial plants!). Somehow though the play doesn’t seem that good now. There’s an implausibility to the story of a prostitute who ‘goes native’ but never manages to bag her man, even using the parentage of her sons as bait. A good production, but I’m not sure the play has stood the test of time.

I was recalling my first trip to NYC in my recent travel blog and in particular that one of the plays I saw in that 1980 visit was a preview of Arthur Miller’s The American Clock (which closed soon after opening, but got an NT production some years later). The co-incidence was that I’d booked to see it at the Finborough two days after my return – and very glad I was that I had. Director Phil Wilmott’s idea of framing the play with scenes at a present day exhibition of great depression photos was inspired and heightened even further the parallels between 1929 and today. Given the number of scenes, the production has to be simple and it was, and the acting was the usual high standard we’ve got used to at the Finborough – but what grabs you is the uncanniness of the contemporary relevance of Miller writing 30 years ago about something that happened 80 years ago. Spooky!

Big & Small’s big draw is its movie star lead – Cate Blanchette – and she is an extraordinarily good stage actor. Sadly, her vehicle here is a load of pretentious bollocks about a woman searching for meaning in her life. I will allow the director’s quotes in the programme to sum it up as I can’t – ‘It alludes simultaneously to the spiritual and political dimensions of life; macro / micro, cosmos / cell, state / individual, history / present, eternity / now. The expansion and contraction of being…..the seemingly fragmented de-centred dramatrugy…..the slow-motion detonation of character and narrative…..the existential puzzle…..the play offers a radical perspective on society. Lotte’s odyssey confronts us with the limits of rational order. She is a stranger in her own culture. A fool and a saint dancing on the rim of the abyss. As I said, bollocks.

Making Noise Quietly gets a gentle loving production from Peter Gill and the three playlets are finely acted. Again the problem is the material, Robert Holman’s 27-year old piece, now apparently an ‘A’ level text! Loosely connected by the second world war and the Falklands war, I didn’t really find them satisfying, particularly the last (title) play which I found unbelievable; I just couldn’t buy in to the characters and situation. Not the Donmar at its best.

Babes in Arms wasn’t the Union at its best either. Hampered by a weak book, this musical just didn’t sparkle as it could and has. The musical standards weren’t up to the Union’s usual high, though the choreography of Lizzi Gee was outstanding so all was well in the dancing department. Overall, a disappointment though.

I’ve lost track of the number of Alan Ayckbourn shows I’ve seen – maybe half of his 75? – but of late the new ones have seemed dated and the old ones like veritable museum pieces. Neighbourhood Watch at the Tricycle (what’s it doing here?) was no different. The one location and setting was dull and restrictive and the whole thing was just a bit predictable and dull. The premise was fine and it was nicely acted, but it didn’t sustain its 130 minute length and left me thinking ‘so what?’

Not the greatest eight days in theatre, then…..

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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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