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Posts Tagged ‘Wagner’

Film 

A bumper 12 movie month, as January always is, leading up to the awards season and filling the gaps in a lean theatrical period. Here’s a whistle-stop tour:

I’ve been critical of how Peter Jackson has strung out The Hobbit to three long films, but I’m a completeist so I had to see the last one and decided to go out with a bang and see The Hobbit – the Battle of the Five Armies in the IMAX. It is overlong, the 3D and CGI is often disappointing and there was something tired and earnest about the performances, so it ended with a yawn.

I adored Paddington, a lovely, charming, heart-warming tale filmed and performed to perfection. I was almost put off by ‘kids film’ branding; what a relief I succumbed.

Though there was much to enjoy in Birdman, I wasn’t as euphoric as the critics. Too much of people shouting at one another for me, and overlong to boot. Good rather than great.

I was somewhat apprehensive about seeing the film adaptation of a favourite musical by one of my heroes, but Into the Woods exceeded expectations bigtime. Brilliantly cast, superb production design and some decent singing. You have to suspend disbelief a lot in the theatre (beanstalks, giant, castle ball….) but the film opens it right up. There was even a delicious moment right at the end when Simon Russell Beale is revealed as the ghost of Baker James Corden’s dad!

It is Benedict Cumberbatch’s great misfortune that The Theory of Everything is released in the same awards year as The Imitation Game, for his superb performance is eclipsed by an even more superb one from Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking. It’s another captivating biopic of another great Briton and we are lucky to have films like this still being made here.

I enjoyed Testament of Youth, an unsentimental yet moving depiction of the First World War from the perspective of one woman, her family and friends. It was well paced, so it sustained its 130 minute length and the performance by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who I’d never seen before, was superb.

Foxcatcher really caught me out. Reluctant to go and see a film about wrestling, it turned out to have great psychological depth and a superb performance by Steve Carrell. It’s a slow burn, but it’s worth staying with it.

Whiplash was another psychological thriller masquerading, this time as a film about jazz. This one grabs you from the off and doesn’t let go. A thrilling ride.

American Sniper is a very well made film but I found it hard to swallow the delight taken in killing, whatever the rights and wrongs of it. Exceptional performances, especially from Bradley Cooper and an unrecognisable Sienna Miller, weren’t enough to redeem it I’m afraid.

A Most Violent Year is the third great thriller this month, also covering new ground (battles between and corruption within oil distributors in 80’s New York). A slowish start but it draws you in.

Alicia Vikander turned up again in Ex Machina, an interesting if slight and slow film about AI, in a completely contrasting role; definitely someone to watch.

I ended the film-going month with the populist – Kingsman – The Secret Service – which was rather fun. It was extraordinarily violent (not something I usually like) but it was comic rather than realistic violence, so I could stomach it – most of the time.

Dance

I recall being a bit underwhelmed by the first outing of New Adventures’ Edward Scissorhands at Sadler’s Wells nine years ago, but the consensus of ‘much improved’ encouraged me to re-visit it. Sadly, I remain underwhelmed. There’s a lot of moving about but not enough dance for me – a bit like New Adventures recent Lord of the Flies, but without the strong narrative that had. It just seemed like a series of set pieces and I didn’t really engage with the main character or the story. I did like the music though, and it picked up a lot in the last few scenes.

This is the third time I’ve seen BalletBoyz (The Talent) and it’s great to watch them grow and mature. This show, Young Men, also at Sadler’s Wells, is made up of 10 themed scenes about, well, young men and war. The soundtrack by Keaton Henson is brilliant and the design beautifully atmospheric, but it’s the dance that thrills most. Mesmerising.

Classical

It was only my second time seeing the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela under Gustavo Dudamel, but they continue to impress. The first of their two RFH concerts paired Beethoven’s 5th with selections from Wagner’s Ring cycle and their interpretations of both were often thrilling. They’ve all grown up playing together in the El Sistema process and I’m sure this is why they sound so tight and cohesive.

I’d never heard Schumann’s oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri (like almost everyone else in the audience it seems!) It’s rare amongst choral pieces as it’s both secular and romantic, maybe even sickly and sentimental. It was given a thrilling outing by the LSO & LSC at the Barbican with six excellent soloists and a female quartet from GSMD under Sir Simon Rattle. If the rumours are true we might get a lot more of him in the future, which would be the best possible appointment the LSO could make!

Opera

I liked the Royal Opera / Roundhouse co-production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, one of the earliest operas ever written, but more for the music than the production. The differentiation between hell and the real world was lost in a sea of black and grey costumes and the writhing people in grey boiler suits were very distracting. Orfeo acted well, but his singing was uneven, but the rest of the cast were excellent.

Contemporary Music

A Little Night Music isn’t my favourite Sondheim musical but given the casting I couldn’t resist the 40th anniversary concert performance at the Palace Theatre and was very glad I didn’t. The large orchestra sounded lush, Sondheim’s sharp and witty lyrics shone in this setting and, despite some fluffed lines, the performances were excellent, with Laura Pit-Pulford bringing the house down with The Millers Son.

Art

I very much liked the Sigmar Polke retrospective at Tate Modern. He’s clearly an artist who has not lost his creativity as his work has evolved and the artistic journey is brilliantly presented. A second visit beckons methinks.

Its extraordinary how a little known 16th century Italian portraitist can pack them in at the Royal Academy, so much so that it hampered the experience of viewing the Moroni exhibition in its final weekend. Round the back in Pace Gallery there was a fascinating and original exhibition of large B&W photos of museum dioramas of landscapes with wildlife by Hiroshi Sugimoto that I thought at first were paintings. Next door at the other RA galleries the Allen Jones retrospective was the highlight of the afternoon. Even though he was obsessed with women’s legs, the vibrancy and pizazz of the work was terrific.

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Contemporary Music 

I couldn’t make Neil Young’s concert at the O2 and it was always going to be risky going to Birmingham instead. Sadly, nine hours of my life and c.£130 weren’t really worth it; I’d have been better off staying with my memories of all his concerts since the first one 42 years ago! The core issue was song choice. 50 minutes in, four songs later, I began to despair. The new stuff is fine, though elongated – one ending with 10 mins feedback and another with 10-mins of ‘What a fuck up’ chanting (not wrong, there, Neil) – beyond my self-indulgence tolerance limit. In the first two hours, just two classics from the 45-year back catalogue (one also subjected to the endless ending). There was apparently another hour, but I had to leave – and in truth, didn’t feel too bad about that as I’d had enough by now. I suspect this will be my last NY concert; a sad way to end my relationship with a genuine genius I have virtually worshiped.

The world of wrinklie rock redeemed itself just four days later when The Who performed their second rock opera, Quadrophenia, live at the O2. This is a much neglected work and one I’ve always loved as much as Tommy. It sounded fresh, with an enlarged band including three brass, two keyboards, two guitars, bass and drums. The film / photo montage, put together by Roger Daltrey, and the lighting were brilliant and the sound was good. Modern technology enabled deceased band members to contribute vocals and a bass solo by video; very moving. The additional 45 minutes included tracks from Who’s Next which if anything sounded even fresher. Support band Vintage Trouble, an American retro four-piece, were well worth getting there early for and their hard work paid off with a great audience reception.

Opera

June was opera month – nine! – one of which, Grimes on the Beach, I’ve already blogged.

I’m not a huge Rossini fan, but it’s impossible to resist both Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez. La Donna del Lago is a bit daft, with a Scottish setting & characters but sung in Italian, and John Fulljames production is a bit odd, starting and ending in some sort of museum, but the music is good and the singing was sensational. In addition to my two faves, Daniela Barcelona impressed hugely in the trouser role of Malcolm. It would be great if the Royal Opera found a better vehicle for these extraordinary talents, though.

The Perfect American is Philip Glass’ new opera about Walt Disney and, of the five operas of his I’ve seen, I think it’s his best. The score has more variety and less minimalist monotony and his subject matter is fascinating. What takes it from good to great though is Phelim McDermott’s astonishing production, designed by Dan Potra, Leo Warner, Joseph Pierce & Jon Clark, which is packed full of Improbable’s trademark invention, with every bit of it appropriate and effective. In an excellent cast (with such clear diction that, for once, you could hear every word – it can be done!), Christopher Purves shone as Walt. One of the best evenings at ENO and of modern opera in a long time.

The summer pairing at WNO was another Cardiff treat. A new opera by Jonathan Harvey, Wagner’s Dream, set at the moment Wager died, was paired with his Lohengrin. Wagner had apparently been contemplating a ‘Buddhist opera’ and at that moment just before death he reflects on it as we see it performed behind him. Wagner’s moments are acted in German and the opera is sung in the ancient Buddhist language of Pali. With added electronica, it was played and sung beautifully and staging and design were both effective and elegant. Lohengrin will go down as one of WNO’s finest moments. Despite needing a stand-in for the big role of Telramund (well done, Simon Thorpe!), the musical standards were exceptional, with the orchestra and chorus soaring (at one point with four additional fanfare groups at four points in the auditorium sending shivers up your spine). Apart from a noisy scene change in Act Three (while the orchestra was still playing), the staging was highly effective. I love pairings / groupings of operas and next time we have Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy – an 18th century Italian spin on 16th century British history!

Britten’s Owen Wingrave was the first opera made specifically for TV and it’s very rarely staged; gold star then to the Guildhall School for this contribution to the centenary. It’s an excellent production of his pacifist opera about a boy who defies his family’s military traditions. The setting is contemporary and the traverse staging is ‘framed’ by scenes from modern warfare showing what might have happened had he not rebelled, with projections used very effectively. Amongst the fine cast, Joseph Padfield was outstanding as military tutor Coyle and Samantha Crawford and Catherine Blackhouse both impressed as Owen’s aunt and fiancée respectively. 

I very much enjoyed the first outing of Deborah Warner’s production of Britten’s Death in Venice at ENO back in 2007, but I wasn’t prepared for how much better a revival could be. With beautiful, elegant designs from Tom Pye, it really is a masterly staging, but the chief reason that propels it to ‘Masterpiece’ is John Graham Hall as Aschenbach. Very occasionally a singer inhabits a role in such a way that they begin to own it. Simon Keenlyside IS Billy Budd and now John Graham Hall IS Aschenbach; it’s mesmerising. I’m so glad the Britten centenary (and half-price tickets!) persuaded me to see it again as it will go down as one of my great nights at the opera.

Gerald Barry’s opera of The Importance of Being Ernest in Covent Garden ‘s Linbury Studio was a quirky affair. The small orchestra was on a series of white steps surrounded by white walls. The singers entered from the audience and occupied the rest of the steps. The instrumentation includes plate-smashing. Lady Bracknell is a man in a suit with no attempt at female impersonation. The music is strident, almost spoken. It’s more semi-staged than staged. I admired the originality, I loved the way the orchestra was part of it and the performances were very good – but I can’t say I loved the opera. 

The ROH contribution to the Britten centenary (and the queen’s diamond jubilee) is his only historical opera Gloriana and it proves to be a better piece than the myths suggest (though having seen the Opera North production 19 years ago I knew this!). The problem with this new production is director Richard Jones decision to ‘frame’ it by our present queen’s visit to see it at a village hall, complete with 1953 production values and visible wings. Even during the overture we get a brief appearance from every monarch between the two Elizabeth’s in reverse chronological order with olympic style name cards and a row of schoolboys holding up cards signalling their geographic origin! This all robs the opera of its grandness, majesty and pomp. Still, musically it’s first rate with the orchestra & chorus on top form and the largely British cast including many personal favourites. Susan Bullock makes a great queen and it was wonderful to see Toby Spence again, in fine vocal form after his serious illness.

Classical Music

Another Handel oratorio for the collection – Susanna – from Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company at Christ Church Spitalfields. It’s not in Handel’s premiere league, but it was beautifully played and sung and an uplifting end to a challenging day. Emilie Renard and Tim Mead, both new to me, were excellent as Susanna and her husband, and the small chorus was so good I yearned for more than the seven items they were given. Will I ever hear them all live? I doubt it!

Dance

I returned to see The Clod Ensemble after enjoying their last show at Sadler’s Wells. That one was in four parts, with the audience moving from upper circle to dress circle to stalls to stage! Zero was staged conventionally, on stage, but I’m afraid it did nothing for me. The blues harmonica got it off to a great start but it was all downhill from then. I don’t know what it was about, I wasn’t impressed by the movement and the 80 minutes just dragged.

Britten Dances at Snape, part of the centenary Aldeburgh Festival, was a lovely varied cocktail of four pieces from three choreographers – Ashley Page, Cameron McMillan & Kim Brandstrup –  and two ballet companies; The Royal Ballet of Flanders & our own. In addition to two Britten pieces, the musical choices included his arrangement of Purcell and a piece from contemporary composer Larry Groves’ which takes Britten’s take on a Dowland piece as it’s starting point! A unique evening and a unique contribution to the centenary.

Film

Behind the Candelabra was a must-see after the trailer. Though a touch overlong, what makes it worth going to is highly impressive performances from Michael Douglas, Matt Damon & an unrecognisable Rob Lowe. Hard to believe it isn’t getting a cinema release in the US; the land of the free is still the home of the bigots.

I rather liked the new Superman film Man of Steel, the ultimate in prequels, which starts with his birth on Krypton and ends with him getting his job at the Daily Planet. It’s all a bit exhausting, and I’ve seen better 3D (I think maybe I should give up 3D), but it’s gripping and new Superman Henry Cavill is very good. Russell Crowe plays Russell Crowe again as Superman’s dad.

If you like those American gross out comedies like Superbad, you’ll like This is the End and I do /did. This one adds gore and disaster to the cocktail and the effects are excellent. It’s one of those films that’s better in the cinema than at home, because there’s a contaigon about the audience reaction which improves the experience.

Art

A lean month for art. I did pop into the NPG to see the annual BP Portrait Award exhibition, though it seemed to ack sparkle this year. Over at the lovely new giant White Cube in Bermondsey, there are four North American artists on show, the best (and most) of which is Julie Mehretu (actually, she was born in Ethiopia). Her giant B&W canvases are multi-layered and grow on you. It’s like she started with an architectural drawing, they overlaid it with another , then another….Original.

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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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