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Posts Tagged ‘Simon Keenlyside’

Opera

La Voix Humaine is a rarely staged 50-minute one-woman opera by Poulenc, one of only three he wrote, and Opera Up Close are to be congratulated on an accessible, high quality production at Kings Place starring Sarah Minns with the score played on piano by Richard Black. Captivating.

A French double-bill at the Royal College of Music proved to be a delight. Chabrier’s Une Education Manquee, about a couple who didn’t know what to do on their wedding night, and Poulenc’s rather surreal cross-dressing boob-expanding Les Mamelles de Tiresias worked brilliantly together and the singing and playing was divine.

I saw the rarely performed Leoncavallo opera Zaza in concert a couple of years ago, so I was looking forward to seeing it staged. Sadly, the staging and design were so incompetent and inconsiderate (sightlines and audibility) that I wished I was hearing it in concert again! The final straw was a downpour soon after the second half started, where the noise of the rain on the canvas roof virtually drowned out the singers – but that wasn’t Opera Holland Park’s fault.

The Arcola‘s enterprising Grimeborn (geddit?) opera festival staged a musical-opera hybrid called The Marriage of Kim K which was a great idea, very ambitious and had its moments, but didn’t entirely work. It alternated between the story of Kim Kardashian’s short marriage to Kris Humphries, Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro and a British couple (him composer, her lawyer) on a couch fighting over the remote and switching between the two. It was this middle section which let it down by being rather dull and underperformed (and often out of tune). Gold star for trying, though, and hopefully we’ll see it again re-worked and improved.

Classical Music

I don’t think I’ve ever reacted so differently to two halves of the same concert as I did at Simon Keenlyside’s recital at Wigmore Hall. I adored the first half of Vaughn Williams, Finzi and Sibelius, but didn’t care for the more frivolous selections of Poulenc and Mahler in the second half, despite the obvious skills of the performers. A matter of taste, I guess.

The BBC Singers / Eric Whitacre concert at GSMD’s Milton Court was an absolute gem. An eclectic programme of ten pieces by living composers from five countries, including four world premieres and one UK premiere, with all composers present, with Whitacre’s first and latest compositions included. To cap it all, an encore of favourite Laura Mvula’s own arrangement of her song Sing to the Moon. Wonderful stuff.

Andrew Norman’s children’s opera A Trip to the Moon, based on the 1902 French silent movie of the same title, was paired with Sibelius 2nd Symphony in a terrific LSO Discovery concert in the Barbican Hall that saw the former involve local communities and both involve GSMD students, under Simon Rattle. Watching the white-shirted post-grad students sitting alongside the black-shirted LSO players provided a great sense of current musicians nurturing the next generation, which really moved me – and they sounded bloody great together too.

Soprano Sophie Bevan & tenor Allan Clayton gave a lovely recital of 28 Shakespeare songs by 20 different composers at Wigmore Hall, a very diverse and sometimes unpredictable selection. The acoustic was unkind to the soprano as it was to Simon Keenlyside’s baritone last week, which is a bit odd.

Contemporary Music

My first Prom this year was a late night celebration of Scott Walker‘s late 60’s solo albums, songs that have never been played live by anyone let alone Jarvis Cocker, John Grant, Suzanne Sundfor & Richard Hawley, with small choir and big orchestra! I didn’t think Cocker’s voice suited Walker’s songs, but the other three were terrific. I’m not a huge fan, but it was well worth the punt.

Film

Seeing Baby Driver broke a two-month film famine. It wasn’t the sort of film I usually go to – glorifying violence in a Tarantinoesque way – but it was exciting and brilliantly made, though let down by the implausibility of the ending.

Dunkirk is an extraordinary film about an extraordinary event. It was tense for the whole 100 minutes, but deeply moving too. Unmissable.

Dance

The Barbican gave over their Art Gallery for four weeks of performance art, well dance really, created by Trajal Harrall. There were lots of short works in different places, so I planned my visit to see as many as possible. Sadly, they weren’t as organised as me so I ended up having to go with the flow a bit, but that proved to be fun. I managed to sample about twelve pieces over a couple of hours and left feeling rather pleased with myself.

Art

A lot to catch up on…..

The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition was great this year, though I missed all those architectural models I’m so fond of. Still, the biggest selling exhibition of them all had a lot I would have bought if I bought art!

If I wasn’t a Friend, I probably wouldn’t have gone to the Sargent watercolours exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, which would have left a gaping hole in my life because I loved it! Portraits, city scenes and landscapes, they were all wonderful.

A visit to Whitechapel Gallery en route to a concert proved disappointing as Benedict Drew’s The Trickle-Down Syndrome was slight, A Handful of Dust was a bit pointless and the ISelf Collection underwhelming!

White Cube Bermondsey is such a big gallery that trying to fill it with women surrealists was bound to lead to variable quality, but fortunately there was enough good stuff to make Dreamers Awake worthwhile.

You don’t expect to see Picasso in a private gallery, let alone 111 paintings, drawings, sculptures, tapestries & ceramics of Minotaurs and Matadors, all bar one from private collections! It wasn’t a selling exhibition and entrance was free, so I’m not sure how the Gagosian funds it, but I’m glad they do.

Gregory Crewdson‘s heavily staged and artificially lit photos are like stills from an indie movie or paintings by Edward Hopper, which appear to tell a story but tantalisingly don’t, quite. His Cathedral of the Pines exhibition at the Photographers Gallery puts nudes in white clapperboard houses in snowy landscapes. Weird but a little bit wonderful.

A lovely double-dip at the NPG en route to the theatre, starting with the excellent class of 2017 at the BP Portrait Award, followed by The Encounter, featuring drawings from the 15th to 17th centuries, mostly culled from private collections including fifteen, a third of them, from the Queen! Another treat.

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at Tate Modern took me by surprise. Covering just 20 years of Black American art from the outset of the 1960’s civil rights movement, it contained some powerful, bold political statements alongside some terrific abstract pictures.

Though low lighting and overcrowding made Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave at the British Museum a bit of a challenge, it was great to see his complete range of gorgeous, finely detailed work. I shall now pour through the catalogue to see them properly!

The month ended on a real art high with Alma-Tadema at Leighton House, an artist I’d never heard of whose very comprehensive retrospective was absolutely fabulous.

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Contemporary Music

On the eve of my birthday with a 0, I went to see a role model who is 2 years and 15 days older, growing old gracefully and still seriously cool – Nick Lowe. A nice small venue, very attentive audience and great sound contributed to what was a brilliant experience all round. His keyboard player, Geraint Watkins, who hails from my village Abertridwr and went to school with my brother, also played support. An uplifting evening.

Opera

Miss Fortune is the fourth Judith Weir opera I’ve seen, but sad to say nowhere near as good as the other three. It’s a slight tale of a girl who becomes destitute after a financial crash and seeks to make a living from sweatshop to kebab van to laundry, stalked by Fate and his posse of break dancers. For a small show it gets a BIG production which it just doesn’t deserve. There’s a lot of talent on stage and a lot of talent behind the scenes, but it left me largely indifferent – with the exception of seeing an excellent break-dance group on the Covent Garden stage (and all credit to the ROH audience; they got the biggest cheers!).

Classical Music

The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Shakespeare themed concert at the Barbican was an unusual affair as the audience was almost entirely there for the second half – the UK premiere of the orchestral versions of Rufus Wainwright’s five settings of Shakespeare sonnets, sung by him and spoken by actress Sian Phillips. The first half was a very accessible combination of Korngold’s Much Ado suite and Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet suite (plus a John Adams opener), the Prokofiev a favourite of mine. The sonnets were lush, lovely and moving – beautifully spoken, sung and played – but I enjoyed the evening as a whole because the theme of inspiration by the bard really came through.

It’s a long time since I saw Elijah; an oratorio I like very much. The Britten Sinfonia & Voices under William Carne (new to me) gave a simply brilliant performance at the Barbican, helped by four wonderful British soloists – Andrew Kennedy, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Lucy Crowe and most importantly the incomparable Simon Keenlyside as Elijah. An exhilarating end to an otherwise shitty day!

Art

I enjoyed Jeremy Deller’s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery much more than I thought I would. He’s a complete original, a real one-off, and I found the playful work, and description, videos and records of past work, absolutely enthralling.

Film

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a lot better than some of the reviews. It’s one of those feel good films (well, for people of a certain age – like me!) with a set of fine performances by wonderful actors also of a certain (but older!) age like Judi Dench and Penelope Wilton. Dev Patel rather over-egged the clumsy but lovable young Indian entrepreneur, but hey it was harmless fun.

 

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Opera

ENO has given us its best work for ages away from home at The Young Vic, The Return of Ulysses. This 370- year-old opera is given a radical updating that for once works. It’s staged in and outside a modern apartment that revolves, fully transparent on all sides – a sort of mini Big Brother house. There are two shop style cameras that project close-ups and detail onto two screens at either side of the stage. At the start it’s sparkling and new, but as the opera progresses it becomes smeared and more. You completely believe Pamela Helen Stephen (terrific – never better) has been waiting 20 years for her man, as you do Tom Randle (wonderful)’s exhaustion after such a long war. There isn’t a fault in the rest of the cast (even an understudy as Eurimaco) who sing Monteverdi’s music beautifully, accompanied by a lovely sounding 14-piece ensemble situated stage left where you can hear every note. It’s a masterpiece of staging and acting when you can take a shower fully naked in a revolving glass room without showing any of your bits, as Randle managed! Despite this undoubted success, I’m still somewhat nervous that Terry Gilliam (as opposed to Berlioz!)’s The Damnation of Faust next month will take a few steps back after this huge leap forward.

Opera Shots was a double-bill of new operas at the ROH’s Linbury Studio. The first is a 30-minute mess by The Police’s Stewart Copeland in a gothic / commedia dell arte style with a ragbag of musical styles; the design is the best thing about it. The second is a 60-minute comic gem from Anne Dudley and Monty Python’s Terry Jones – tuneful, very funny and positively charming.

I’m a bit indifferent about Covent Garden’s Aida. The design has one of those big walls that revolves (yawn) and some quirky costume combinations. The singing by a UN cast (Russian, Polish, American, Korean & British) is mostly good, in that vocal-power-at-the-expense-of-beauty-and-characterisation way, but the acting is wooden. The chorus didn’t start well, but get better. One expects better from a world class opera house.

Classical Music

When the LSO decided to change its plan to screen Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible accompanied by Prokofiev’s score played live to a concert performance of the oratorio, I almost sold my ticket back. How glad I am I didn’t, as it was a fascinating evening. The 75-minute piece for orchestra, chorus, mezzo and bass has a lot of flaws but it was always interesting and showed off the power of the LSO and LSC. I could have done without the live Russian narration and wished I hadn’t followed the surtitles of the preposterous and pompous words and just listened to the glorious sound. The opener was his Violin Concerto, another piece new to me that I also enjoyed.

The first two acts of the concert performance of five-act Pelleas & Mellisandre were a little subdued, restrained and static, but things picked up in the third act and the fourth was thrilling. The Orchestre de Paris and a largely French cast clearly had an affinity with their composing compatriot, but it was Laurant Naouri as Golaud and Simon Keenlyside as Pellaes who shone. Natalie Dessay kept her head in the score and failed to animate Melisandre for me, I’m afraid. This orchestra is the first I’ve seen that credits the designs of its outfits!

Dance

Balletboyz the Talent was absolutely mesmerising and one of the best evenings of dance ever! The three pieces were very different but together made an exciting combination. It was edgy, original, thrilling and sexy and I loved it.

Art

It’s amazing what you can do in a morning at the British Museum! On this occasion, we took in the fascinating exhibition of treasures from Afghanistan, with some wonderful 2000 year old gold, accompanied by a little display showing the importance of the Afghan city of Herat in the history of Central Asian art, followed by a small but fascinating Eric Gill display showing designs for stamps, coins, books etc which I never even knew he did and finally a selection of their huge collection of drawings that included anyone and everyone. This is surely the world’s greatest museum?

Back to the Barbican Gallery to catch the other two performances as part of their New York Avant Garde ‘exhibition’ and they were both worth seeing – in one, the container divided by doors is occupied by five dancers moving fast and often confronting one another and in the other, three are climbing a wall with holes for hands and feet. Fun!

At Karsten Schubert, there’s a small but excellent exhibition of sculptures and pictures by American Fred Wilson on the theme of race politics. The most striking is a series of heads of Nefertiti that look like they are Egyptian antiquities and that go from white to black via shades of grey.

The Cult of Beauty at the V&A links together the late 19th century aestheticists – Leighton, Morris, Rosetti, Burne-Jones, Dresser et al. There are some beautiful paintings, designs and objects but as a whole it was somewhat over-powering.

Royal Family at the Hayward Gallery is a tiny exhibition about representations of its title. The only thing I liked about it was how they made an exhibit of a letter from Charles’ people declining to loan them a statue of him in heroic pose presented to him on tour by people in the Amazon!

It’s amazing how many exhibitions you can take in walking from the tube to the pub if your route takes you down Cork Street and you’ve got some time to kill! I started with William Nicholson at Browse & Darby – almost 60 pictures loaned from private collections including some absolutely stunning landscapes. Across the road at the Waddinton, I found Bill Woodrow’s sculptures / installations dated and faded, but a few doors up at Hay Hill there was a lovely exhibition of contemporary Icelandic artists; I was hugely impressed by the paintings of Tolli and the photos of Iris Thorstenindottir. On the way home, I took in the Deutsche Borse Photography Prize exhibition, which is underwhelming this year except for the political documentary work of Jim Goldberg which was deeply moving.

The art month ended back at the V&A for Figures & Fictions, a selection of contemporary South African photography and a stunning collection it was too; I’d be surprised is you could put together a better British collection. Then I popped into the Yohji Yamamoto fashion exhibit on the way out and it proved that fashion isn’t me!

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Monday started with England’s best baritone (and the world’s second best – guess who’s the best), Simon Keenlyside, in the lovely Queens Hall with a programme of Rorem (never heard of him until this year, now featured in two concerts in quick succession), Buttterworth and Schumann. The Butterworth songs were gorgeous and the Rorem intriguing, but I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the Schumann so much; I normally find German lieder a bit too strident, but this was beautiful – though we had some strident Shubert for the encores****

I’m off to the Outer Hebrides on Friday, staying in Stornaway on Lewis, so I was thrilled to find that the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland had combined their collections of the Lewis Chessmen for a special exhibition here in Edinburgh. The story of the pieces (well, what’s known of them) was well told, but it was disappointing to find the pieces split up within the exhibition – I’d have liked to see a complete set at some point***

I lost a shit load of money investing in the West End production of the rock musical Spring Awakening – a critical success but a financial loss – but I have to say I’m proud to have been a small part of it as I consider it ground-breaking stuff and I’ve been thrilled to see the talented cast subsequently turn up all over the place; the last occasion only 6 days ago at the National. I couldn’t resist seeing the first amateur production by the Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama here at the fringe. The decision to cast the London production with raw talent was completely vindicated. In the hands of singers /actors in training at a premiere league conservatoire, it lost a lot of its edge. Though it was well sung (and particularly well played by the small band) there was a sort of ‘posh boys saying fuck to be cool’ about it – though I have to say the ending was somehow more moving***

Back at the main festival in Greyfriars Church we went to some Latin American Vespers that were both fascinating and beautiful. I’d had no idea how liturgical music was transported with Spanish colonisation (and apparently back again). There were fewer Latin American touches than I was expecting, so it did sound rather European, but a treat nonetheless****

Monday ended with our first stand-up (we missed Sarah Milican because I’d misread the 24-hour clock and double-booked us), Shappi Khorshandy. She’s gone through a divorce recently and she chose to make this a very personal show (therapy?) and I thought it was very funny; she has a genuine charm and appealing self-deprecating humour***.5

Back at the Traverse Tuesday morning for a play called Girl in the Yellow Dress about the relationship between an English teacher and her French (adult) pupil. It took an age to take off, but the second half – when the psychological games between them unravel – was excellent***

The rest deserted me at this point, but I stayed for a quirky show called The Not So Fatal Death of Grandpa Fredo. I’d seen a show before by the same company and I liked their cartoonesque style with ingenious sets and great use of music. This wasn’t as satisfying as the previous show, but it was even more inventive as a small hut became, amongst other things, a diner, a laboratory, and ultimately a boat on a lake in Norway!***.5

We had lunch 100ft above Edinburgh at a table raised by a crane – this is true!!! It was a great experience and the food was surprisingly good. I had to have a drink beforehand for Dutch courage, but it actually wasn’t scary at all and I even looked down and twirled my seat!****

I saw the original production of Five Guys Named Moe at its first outing at Stratford East (that night local boy Dudley Moore was in the audience and in the interval impresario Cameron Mackintosh allegedly made the Theatre Royal Stratford an extraordinarily generous offer for a speedy transfer) and subsequently in the West End and in Germany. It’s based on the terrific 30’s / 40’s jazz of Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway and this new production is at least as good as the original. Its toe tapping, funny, high energy stuff which they’ve updated cleverly without losing the essence.  All six performers were outstanding and the six-piece band was terrific. Catch it when it comes back to Stratford East, though I suspect its West End bound once more****

Tuesday ended at a Comedy Gala for AIDS charity Waverley Cares with 26 stand-ups over 3.5 hours. In truth it was exhausting and I suspect less would have been more, but there were excellent mini-sets from Welshman Mark Watson, Edinburgh’s Danny Bhoy, Aussie Adam Hills, Tooting’s Stephen K Amos, and archetypal Englishman Simon Evans. It’s a great way to ‘sample’ and decide who to see next time***.5

Two more days to go……..

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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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