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Opera

My winter pairing at WNO at the WMC in Cardiff was Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, a hugely underrated opera, and Puccini’s regularly revived Tosca. The former was an excellent new production and the latter a 26-year-old one which has stood the test of time. Both were beautifully sung and conductor Carlo Rizzi has real feel for the Italian repertoire, so the orchestra sounded gorgeous.

Jake Heggie & Terrence McNally’s opera Dead Man Walking has taken eighteen years to make it to the UK and even then only semi-staged by the BBC SO. Why on earth haven’t ENO or the Royal Opera staged this modern masterpiece? Anyway, at the Barbican Hall it was an absolute triumph with a sensational cast led by Joyce DiDonato, Michael Mayes, Maria Zifchak and Measha Brueggergosman and students from GSMD in smaller roles. I left emotionally drained but privileged to have attended something so special.

Classical Music

The LSO and LSC gave one of the best performances of Mahler II I’ve ever heard at the Barbican Hall. It’s a big work that’s often more suited to bigger venues like the Royal Albert Hall, but here it was uplifting and thrilling.

Attending an LSO rehearsal in the Barbican Hall proved fascinating. Most movements were played right through before revisiting sections at the request of the conductor, soloist or players. Elgar’s 1st Symphony sounded so good I almost returned for the concert, and the rehearsal introduced me to new pieces by Janacek and Bartok.

Another of those delightful Royal Academy of Music lunchtime concerts saw their Symphony Orchestra virtually on fire under the baton of Jac van Steen in a beautiful Sibelius programme. I so love these lunchtime RAM treats.

The Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra’s programme of more obscure Stravinsky pieces from the first ten years of his exile was more enticing on paper than it turned out in performance, though the eight visiting singers from Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Conservatoire were excellent, and their enthusiasm infectious.

Film

Phantom Thread looked gorgeous and the performances were outstanding, but I couldn’t engage with the rather flimsy and inconsequential story at all, I’m afraid.

I adored Lady Bird, a delightful coming of age film told through the relationship of a mother and daughter. It feels like an Inde film but its nominated for BAFTA’s and Oscars.

I try and see all the Oscar and BAFTA nominated films and only one or two normally disappoint. This year, in addition to Phantom Thread, it was The Shape of Water. There was a lot to enjoy, but it seemed a bit slight and overlong. A case of too much hype, I suspect.

Finding Your Feet is my sort of film, a quintessentially British cocktail of humour & romance within a well observed account of growing old. Laughter and tears. Loved it.

I, Tonya is the most extraordinary true story made into a brilliant film which is ultimately sympathetic to its subject in the same way Molly’s Game was sympathetic to its subject. Two great contemporary true stories in one year.

Art

A disappointing afternoon of art started with Peter Doig at the Michael Werner Gallery, where so many seemed sketches or unfinished works, and much smaller than his usual giant canvases. At the Serpentine Gallery, Wade Guyon’s digital paintings did nothing for me while up the road at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, Rose Wylie’s child-like pictures did a bit more, but not a lot. On to the National Gallery, where I fared much better with Monochrome, an exhibition of black & white, grey and one colour art throughout history, ending with Olafur Eliasson’s yellow room. Fascinating.

Whilst visiting Cardiff, I popped in to the National Museum of Wales to see Swaps: Photographs from the David Hurn Collection. This Welsh photographer did just that – swapped photos with other photographers he met, including global figures like Cartier Bresson, which he has now given to the museum – a brilliant idea and a fascinating collection. Another exhibition called Bacon to Doig showed 30 items on loan from a major private collection of modern art; a real quality selection it was too. Finally, in a room containing a decorative organ they have removed the art and someone plays and sings a piece by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson called The Sky in the Room continuously – beautiful!

The Royal Academy’s exhibition Charles I: King & Collector doesn’t really contain my sort of art, but I admired much of the artistry, the significance of the collection and was hugely impressed by the extraordinary achievement of getting all of these pictures from all over the world into one exhibition.

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Contemporary Music

There was a lot to love about Weimar Cabaret at Cadogan Hall.  The period and the place produced an extraordinarily eclectic collection of original music which gathered together has an eccentric, manic quality. The Australian Chamber Orchestra played brilliantly, in dark suits and trilbies, and Barry Humphries provided insightful and funny commentaries, and sang a song or two with cabaret star Meow Meow, who sang a lot on her own and with a lady violinist from the orchestra. I will never forget her Serenata Erotica! A unique evening.

John Wilson has a large, loyal and attentive following and last year’s brilliant Bernstein Prom propelled us to book for this year’s Gershwin Prom. I was expecting some, if not all of it, to be from Broadway, but it was all Hollywood, and a third of the songs were Ira Gershwin’s lyrics without the then late George Gershwin’s music. The first half disappointed; with little light and shade it was relentlessly showbiz and the sound mix wasn’t great, with strings buried beneath brass. It picked up significantly in the second half though, with better sound, some slower numbers and the ballet from An American in Paris as a closer. Overall, though, a bit too Friday Night is Music Night for me, and a rather expensive one too.

Opera

I’ve never seen anything in the Arcola‘s annual Grimeborn opera festival before but after their brilliant Tosca, very powerful at close quarters, I won’t make that mistake again. In fact, I’ve already booked for another two! The singing was superb and the whole score heroically played on one grand piano, and all for the price of a cinema ticket. Eat your heart out, ENO & RO.

My journey to and from the Arcola Theatre for my second Grimeborn production was more than twice as long as Rimsky-Korsakov’s rarely staged 40-minute opera Mozart and Salieri. Composed eighty years before Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus on the same subject, also derived from Pushkin’s play. It was a bit slight for me, though it was well staged and performed. I’ve only seen a few of his fifteen operas and this was more of a collector’s item than anything else.

Grimeborn reached its pinnacle with Opera Alegria’s Mozart Double – an opera he wrote when he was twelve, Bastien & Bastienne (not his first!), which may or may not have been performed at the time, and one from his late career when he was thirty, a satire on opera itself The Impresario. You can hear clearly how he matured, though both operas are good. As they both have dialogue they are technically operettas or singspiel and the settings in this production are contemporary, the libretto updated. The performances were brilliant and it was the most fun I’ve had in 35 years of opera-going.

Cape Town Opera‘s Mandela Trilogy at the Royal Festival Hall was a hit-and-miss affair. It told Madeba’s story in three parts – youth to University, the politicised years centred in Sophiatown and his trial & imprisonment through to his freedom speech on release. I liked the prologue and Parts 1 & 3 by Peter Louis van Dijjk, but though I liked the idea of the Part 2 jazz musical by Mike Campbell, I wasn’t convinced by the contrast its inclusion created. It was semi-staged but from our top price front stalls seats we couldn’t see the singers, which rather marred the experience.

Classical Music

The off-site Prom at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was an absolute treat and a triumph. Eleven piece ensemble Arcangelo led by Jonathan Cohen played Shakespeare-inspired music from the late 17th century by candlelight with three brilliant soloists, Katherine Watson, Samuel Bowden & Callum Thorpe, who animated the arias by interacting and moving around the space. Wonderful.

A gorgeous lunchtime Prom at Cadogan Hall paired viol ensemble Fretwork with vocal ensemble Stile Antico for a programme of 17th century Shakespeare settings (plus a few others) with two brilliant contemporary ones by Huw Watkins and Nico Muhly. A real tonic.

The third Shakespeare themed Prom showcased music for stage and screen, with the first half music by Walton, Finzi, Sullivan and Joby Talbot written for screen and ballet versions of Richard III, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Tempest, As You Like It and The Winter’s Tale and the second half music for the stage – Bernstein’s West Side Story based on Romeo and Juliet, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate based on The Taming of the Shrew and The Boys from Syracuse, a version of The Comedy of Errors by Rogers, Hart and Abbott. I really liked it, more than the Gershwin Prom (with better sound), and conductor Keith Lockhart engaged with the audience unlike most conductors.

European cities usually have a cultural black hole in August, but I managed to find a performance of the rare Cherubini Requiem in C Minor at the Liege Opera House during a short overnight visit. Though I’d never heard it before, it seemed a bit lacklustre – WNO on an off night (we don’t know how lucky we are) – but it was good to hear it, and the theatre was lovely.

Film

Matt Damon didn’t have many lines to learn for Jason Bourne which was all action, exhaustingly so, with an extraordinary car chase at the end that I honestly don’t know how they pulled off. Great fun.

I eventually caught up with the female Ghostbusters remake, which was good fun and technically accomplished, though hardly ground-breaking.

Art

The Liverpool Biennial Festival of Contemporary Art was absolute shite. It was devoid of any beauty, lacking in ingenuity and it all seemed derivative and dated. Fortunately, Tate Liverpool had three good exhibitions – Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms, Maria Lassnig & Ella Kruglyanskya, the latter two artists completely new to me. These, together with the permanent collections at Tate and the Walker and the Peter Blake designed Mersey Ferry, Everybody Razzle Dazzle, redeemed the weekend. I won’t get fooled again!

Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson‘s ‘exhibition’ at the Barbican was about as off-the-wall as it gets. The only live part was ten troubadours lounging, strumming and singing – for the whole 8 opening hours! There were records of previous projects, mostly on video, including a 9-screen installation recording a 1-hour concert where each player was in a different room of a house (including the bath!), brass players cruising whilst they played in Venice for six hours every day for six months, a crooner singing the same three words for 30 minutes, band The National singing their song A Lot of Sorrow continuously for six hours, 144 paintings of the same subject in the same place where they both spent six months and four 5-yearly videos of his mother spitting in his face. I rather liked it all!

I managed to catch the exhibition of Francis Townes‘ late 18th century watercolours of Italy on its last day at the British Museum. They were beautiful, though a touch faded and mostly behind glass. He was apparently never accepted by the art establishment, despite his undoubted talent.

The Travel Photographer of the Year exhibition has moved south-east and indoors to Greenwich University and, despite the journey, is better for it. It was the usual high standard but it made me feel less inadequate as, since last year, I’ve done a short photography course, had some coaching and went on some photographic safaris, so next year I think I might enter!

The Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at Tate Modern exceeded its expectations bigtime. A hugely comprehensive retrospective which also allowed you to learn about her life through photographs and room descriptions. I’ve always loved her work, now I’m virtually obsessed. I’ll be back!

The exhibition I went to the Photographers’ Gallery to see, as instructed by Time Out (!) – Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity – disappointed, but upstairs there were two floors of Terence Donovan’s wonderful, iconic, mostly black and white 60’s and 70’s photographs in Speed of Light. An unexpected treat.

Colour & Vision at the Natural History Museum sought to explain the evolution of vision in the animal world. It started well, with fascinating fossils in particular, but then threw in the kitchen sink and became overpowering and confusing. Shame.

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Contemporary Music

I didn’t consider SO Peter Gabriel’s ‘masterpiece’ until this concert. There are better songs on other albums, but somehow this one hangs together best. It was the ‘main course’ of a 140-minute meal which also included two new songs and lots more oldies. The visuals were excellent and the sound was superb. His voice sounds better than it ever did and the band of regulars were as tight as can be. There was a touch of theatricality and more than a touch of idiosyncrasy and I loved it!

I’ve waited 34 years to see Graham Parker with the Rumour again, but the wait was worth it. Always one of the great live bands, they never sounded better than this re-union. Combining songs from the new album with a whole load of oldies and no tuning and chatting time-wasting, this was 23 songs in 110 glorious minutes with his fans creating an extraordinary atmosphere at Shepherds Bush Empire. They even had The Silver Seas’ Daniel Tashian in support (though there was too much talking by otherwise excellent GP fans!)

A week / month for old rockers it seems.

Opera

The focal point of the autumn visit to WNO in Cardiff was ‘The Tudors’; a trilogy of operas by Donizetti in Italian based on British Tudor history – Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux – in chronological order on consecutive days! In truth, Bel Canto isn’t my favourite operatic sub-genre, but the prospect was enticing nonetheless. The orchestra and chorus were wonderful (sprightly young conductor Daniele Rustioni is a real fine) and there was some good singing but the productions, dressed almost entirely in black, were somewhat disappointing. The highlight turned out to be Tosca, added so that I could take some friends, with lovely singing from American Mary Elizabeth Williams as Tosca and Wales’ own Gwyn Hughes Jones as Cavaradossi.

Fiona Shaw’s production of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia for Glyndebourne on tour is the darkest I’ve ever seen. The theatre in Woking was a bit big for it, but the singing and playing was uniformly excellent so I’m glad I added it to my centenary collection. It looks like there will be three operas I won’t catch this year – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Billy Budd & Paul Bunyan, though I will catch up with that in Feb (having missed curtain up by falling asleep with jet-lag in Sept!); shame, that.

Classical Music

The LPO‘s Britten Centenary concert at the RFH put together an intriguing selection of rarely performed works. The lighter first half featured a ballet suite and a folk songs suite, but the second half was more melancholic, with the song cycle Nocturne, brilliantly sung by Mark Padmore, and the Cello Symphony with soloist Truls Mork. The orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski sounded wonderful and it made me regret not booking more of the The Rest is Noise series of 20th Century music, of which this was a part.

Film

I sneaked off for an afternoon to make a dent in my growing film hit list and saw both Sunshine on Leith and Le Weekend back-to-back. Though I enjoyed both, the former probably suited me better. There are too few film musicals these days and I found SoL heart-warming, moving and funny. LW is a great and highly original midlife crisis film and it’s good to see Hanif Kureshi back in the screenplay saddle and Lindsay Duncan back on the big screen.

Filth also lived up to expectations – a thoroughly original and anarchic film that could only be made in Britain. James McAvoy’s range as an actor really is remarkable and here he’s a drink and drug addled copper with a past he can’t shake off.

Another sneaky late afternoon / evening double-bill paired Blue Jasmine and Captain Phillips. The former really is a career high for Woody Allen, who already has a whole load of career high’s. Cate Blanchet is superb, but in getting all the attention, Sally Phillips brilliant performance is being neglected (A Brit & a Kiwi leading a US film – what do we make of that?). I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film which sustains tension for over two hours, but Captain Phillips certainly does. It’s a stunning achievement for director Paul Gereengrass and again, the attention on Tom Hanks (who is excellent) ignores the superb performances by the Somalian actors playing the pirates.

Art

Elmgreen & Dragset’s six-room installation at the V&A tells the story of a failed architect by letting you view his home, now up for sale. Butlers and maids occasionally engage you in conversation, telling you stories about him and you’re even given a copy of a play called Tomorrow that features him. Outside the building, a hoarding invites you to view the apartment. An extraordinary installation.

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