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Posts Tagged ‘Susan Bickley’

Opera & Classical Music

I really liked Nico Muhly & Craig Lucas’ Two Boys. It’s an original subject for opera – internet chatrooms – and it unfolds like a detective story with great pace and narrative drive. I loved the chorus with laptops representing chatroom activity, with projections adding much to the impact. The music creates an atmosphere of suspense for the story-telling and is much more accessible on first hearing than most modern operas. It’s a fine cast, with Susan Bickley shining as the detective. One of ENO’s more successful ventures into modern opera.

The Consul was the first Menotti opera I saw, years ago in Stockholm when I was there for an opera festival I didn’t know they had. A few years later, I was in the attic room of a freemasons hall in Edinburgh late at night (as one does at the fringe!) for another of his short operas and in the tiny audience was Menotti himself, now retired to a castle in Scotland. It has now been re-named The Secret Consul and presented as a site-specific opera in the derelict Limehouse Town Hall. Sadly, it only partly works. Despite the fact the audience was exactly the same size as the cast, they weren’t able to marshal us unobtrusively without confusing and / or irritating us. Apart from the first scene on the stairs, the opera takes place in different parts of the same large room, so you’re just changing direction (most seated) not promenading. The acoustic echo made it hard to understand the English libretto, though you never fully understand a libretto even when it’s in English, so it was difficult to know exactly what was going on. The leads were good, though, and the quartet – piano, cello, violin and clarinet – played the score well.

Bampton Classical Opera is an annual affair showcasing one opera in the garden of a house in Oxfordshire. It punches way above it’s weight, with very good production values and excellent young professional singers. They’ve been invited to Buxton Opera festival this year and will also perform the opera in concert in London at St John’s Smith Square. This year’s offering is a late 18th century light comedy, The Italian Girl in London, by Cimarosa, directed by Jeremy Gray. Cimarosa is best known for The Secret Marriage (he apparently wrote 70 operas, but that’s the only one now produced regularly). It’s the usual fare of this period, a romantic comedy with an implausible plot and a happy ending, with the addition on this occasion of a preposterous yarn about becoming invisible by holding a ‘bloodstone’, but well suited to the venue and occasion. Nigel Hook has managed to create a delightful small London hotel with bar and, most importantly, a food hatch, and the musical standards are very high. There is a small chamber orchestra conducted by Thomas Blunt and five well-matched soloists. Kim Sheehan is lovely in the title role and Nicholas Merryweather gives a fine comic performance as the Italian who loves her and is looking for her but can’t recognise her in disguise as a French maid! I also liked Caryl Hughes hotel proprietor who courts English Lord (Robert Winslade). I’m not sure why we need Dutchman Sumers, but Adam Tunnicliffe sings the role well. They were all almost upstaged by the non-singing policeman, an auspicious debut from local man Martin Havelock; one to watch!

Iestyn Davies’ lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall was an inspired and eclectic programme from 12 composers spanning 400 years. I’m not a huge fan of the counter-tenor voice, but his is very beautiful and this concert showed his range. There were three thematic groups – nature, night and spirit – to hang this diverse collection together. A lovely hour, encoring with Purcell’s Music For A While, which was probably the best of them all.

Dance

Sylvie Guillem’s show at Sadler’s Wells was an extraordinary display of skill; she does things with the human body you don’t think are possible – and she’s 46! There was a duet with Nicolas Le Riche choreographed by William Forsyth, a solo piece choreographed by Mats Ek and a duet from Aurelie Cayla & Kenta Kojiri choreographed by Jiri Kylian. I can’t say that any of the dances meant anything to me, but the artistry had me spellbound.

Hofesh Shechter’s Political Mother at Sadler’s Wells was more like a rock concert than contemporary dance. There’s a 20-piece band on three levels like a wall at the back of the stage and the lighting is extraordinary. The dance seems more like unchoreographed people at a rave (not that I’ve ever been to one!). I’m not sure I got the war references but it was a brilliant spectacle.

Film

Bridesmaids is another of the new breed of quirky American comedies which are often laugh-out-loud funny with a fair dose of satire and good bad taste. Being American, it had its ration of sentimentality, but it was funny enough to get away with it and it’s send-up of wedding obsession was delicious.

Horrible Bosses was another and I liked it. It won’t win any prizes and I probably won’t remember it in my dotage, but it was a good laugh, helped by an outstanding cast, with Kevin Spacey giving us another fine turn.

Beginners was a bit of a slow burn, but I eventually succumbed to its thoughtfulness and quirky structure & style. Ewan McGregor’s relationship with his father Christopher Plummer was very authentic (as it was with his girlfriend and dog!). I don’t know whether it is based on a true story, but it really felt like a true story. A complete contrast to Horrible Bosses.

Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows II was a whole lot better than Part I and quite possible the best of the series. Apart from the three main leads, yet again it’s a Who’s Who of great British actors. This one was brilliantly paced (though I was less convinced by the IMAX 3D) and I left the cinema rather sad that there would be no more. I think I shall have to work my way through the DVD’s now.

Art

Every year I say I’m impressed by the standard at the BP Portrait Award and this year is no exception. Lest you think it’s a dying art form, this years prize-winners are more than thirty years apart in age. There’s a very diverse range of styles and subjects and there was hardly a dud in this years selection.

I turned up at Whitechapel Gallery for an exhibition that had yet to open(!), so I had to make do with a small selection from the government’s art collection, some local photos from the 70’s and a re-visit to Fred Sandbach’s extraordinary string installations. The government has a huge collection of British art which moves from office to office and embassy to embassy seemingly based on the taste of the occupants. This small collection was selected by Nick Clegg, Peter Mandelson, Samantha Cameron and a few others. The most fascinating thing about it was seeing the history of one Lowry painting – everywhere it had been since it was purchased for £120, including photos of it in situ.

Whilst in Manchester for their International Festival, I went to the Art Gallery and caught a little exhibition of some terrific Grayson Perry pots with museum objects selected to sit alongside them plus a small selection of pre-Raphaelites as a preview of a bigger exhibition this autumn; but the artistic highlight was a side trip to Liverpool at see the Magritte exhibition at Tate Liverpool which is a really comprehensive collection of his work. In some ways, in terms of the impact the pictures have, more is less but it was fascinating to see such a range of work. The sculpture exhibition also on at the Tate was so-so, but a hell of a lot better than the Royal Academy one a few months back.

If Time Out hadn’t told me to go to Hauser & Wirth at 196 Piccadilly to see an art installation, and I had just popped in from the street, I really would be thinking that I was in the Piccadilly Community Centre, a space on four floors with canteen, computer room, bar, meeting rooms, charity shop, prayer room…… This was a surreal and extraordinary experience created in impeccable detail by Swiss artist Christoph Buchel! I’m still not sure if it was or it wasn’t…..

The NPG has yet another photo exhibition; this time B&W portrait photos of Hollywood stars from 1920 to 1960 called Glamour of the Gods. Some are iconic and some are quirky, but they are very compelling.

The Courtauld Gallery’s last in-depth exhibition was of one picture by Cezanne and it was a surprise treat, so I went back for a second one; this time a look at the relationship between artist Toulouse-Lautrec and dancer Jane Avril. They’ve brought together pictures and other items from 15 museums, archives & private collections in France, the US and the UK and it was another insightful treat.

The Vorticists at Tate Britain was one of those exhibitions that introduces you to a little known (well, to me anyway) art movement which seems to have had a profound influence on subsequent art and design. I’d seen the portraits of Wyndham Lewis before, but here was other work by him and his contemporaries that was new to me. It ‘s influence clearly lasted much longer than it’s 8-year life as a movement. Fascinating. Whilst there, I took the opportunity to see Mike Nelson’s Coral Reef installation – a maze of rooms with creaky doors to up the spook effect that you get lost in. I’m not entirely clear what it all means, but its huge fun!

Other

Also in Liverpool, I was privileged to get to both Lennon and McCartney’s childhood homes, now National Trust properties. I’d been to McCartney’s before but it was great to visit John’s and indeed both together, even though abandoning the audio tour at McCartney’s is in my view a mistake. You really get a sense of these young lives and to see a photo of them actually writing I Saw Her Standing There on the wall just above where they did still sent shivers up my spine. Being in John’s house is rather moving, though the signs of Ono’s control-freakery are evident. There’s a certain irony to the fact that ‘working class hero’ Lennon lived in middle class comfort whilst much maligned McCartney was squashed into a tiny council house with his mum, dad and brother. For someone for whom the Beatles are a major part of the soundtrack of my life, this was thrilling and the fact that the bus driver’s soundtrack got to Penny Lane just as we drove past it’s street sign was spooky!

A Royal Academy Friends visit to Ironmonger’s Hall (with lunch in the hall) was preceded by a short walking tour that included Paternoster Square, St Paul’s Churchyard, the rooftop views at One New Change and Postman’s Park (where unsung heroes are commemorated by ceramic plaques) and it was a treat. I do love these livery companies and even though I’ve walked this way many times before, with a City blue badge guide you always learn something new.

I visited the shell of the new Jacobean theatre at Shakespeare’s Globe’s and it inspired me as much as the Globe itself did when I first went there. It’s going to be a great indoor space for a completely different complimentary winter season. Donate now – they need £7m!

Down in Somerset visiting friends, my attempt to wrench some value from my National Trust membership took me to four properties in the south of the county – the lovely gardens at the intriguingly named Tintinhall, the even lovelier house and gardens at Lytes Cary, the rather more grand Montecute and Barrington Court for a nice lunch made from local (and mostly estate) produce. This is the first year I feel I’ve had my money’s worth!

What a busy month!

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I don’t normally blog opera, except briefly in my monthly round-ups (life’s too short to blog everything fully!), but I’m making an exception as a new opera is rare on the main stage at Covent Garden (and rarely good too). The scene is set as soon as you enter. In the foyer, all the pictures and memorabilia have been replaced by Anna’s. In the auditorium, the angels behind the lights have been given Anna faces, there’s a big one above the now pink curtain and even the royal crest has changed from ER to AR!

Twenty years ago, I saw an exciting opera debut at the Edinburgh Festival by a young 30-year old based on Stephen Berkoff’s play Greek; it showed great promise. Ten years later, I saw the first and best opera of the last decade based on Sean O’Casey’s play The Silver Tassie by the same composer. It’s taken another eleven years to get Mark Anthony Turnage’s third – he’s talented, but not very productive (opera-wise)!

So it’s good to report that it was worth the wait. It lives up to the hype and may well be the best modern opera ever staged at Covent Garden (it’s a small short-list, with Thomas Ades’ The Tempest and Birtwhistle’s Gawain and Minotaur vying for the accolade). It’s a very operatic modern story and Turnage has found the perfect collaborator for the subject matter – Richard (Jerry Springer – The Opera) Thomas’ libretto is sparking, shocking and suitably satirical. He has chosen a more accessible musical theatre style for the music (with added jazz) which again suits the subject matter; there are times when the score, played by the great RO orchestra under Anthony Pappano’s direction, really shines.

The first act shows us her rise to fame and it’s irreverent, blissfully funny and brash beyond belief. There is a huge shiny suited chorus of clones who narrate her story from trailer trash waitressing to marriage to an 89-year old billionaire via lap dancing. Her family is gross, the places she works tacky and even with wealth, tastelessness reigns (design Miriam Buether!).

In the second act, the billionaire (Alan Oke – terrific) dies and we see her decline through drug and food abuse, her pay-per-view birth, her son’s death and reality TV. It actually does become sympathetic and you do see her as a victim. Her predatory lawyer becomes the baddie to end all baddies (a great performance from Gerald Finley). In a brilliant stroke, the chorus become walking cameras who follow her around everywhere.

Richard Jones is the perfect director to pull all of this together and he’s done a cracking job. Eva-Maria Westbroek is excellent as Anna, Susan Bickley (though occasionally inaudible, even from the second row of the stalls) gives a fine characterisation of her mother and Peter Hoare impersonates CNN’s Larry King brilliantly. All of the many other small roles are expertly cast.

Now they have a hit on their hands, I suspect the inevitable revival will be at higher than the musicals ticket prices applied for the premiere, which would be a shame as for once, the lower parts of the house were accessible to mere mortals – appropriate for an opera about a mere mortal…….

 

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DANCE

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

CLASSICAL MUSIC

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

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

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

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

CONTEMPORARY MUSIC

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

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

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

FILM

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

ART

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

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

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

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

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