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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

Alain (Les Mis) Boublil’s play with music, Manhattan Parisienne, was workshopped before an audience in The Other Palace Studio Theatre. It tells the story of the brief relationship between a French actress stranded in NYC and a gay cabaret pianist. Its structure was overly contrived – within, within, as it were – and some of the song choices, from both the French & American songbooks, a bit quirky, but it was performed well and as work-in-progress showed promise; well, some.

Martin Simpson’s Kings Place concert was a treat, particularly the song selection in the second half. The superb sound showed off his guitar and banjo playing and an attentive audience ensured you heard every note. Lovely.

The first concert at the new Bridge Theatre was folk-rock hero Richard Thompson, and after a hesitant start where he seemed a touch unhappy, it became one of his best solo concerts, with a superb selection from his back catalogue, great sound and a respectful audience. How wonderful to be top of your game at 68!

Opera

AAM’s contemporary semi-staged, Brexit-themed version of Purcell’s King Arthur at the Barbican Hall didn’t really work, but I admired them for trying and it was worth going for some lovely music and narrator Ray Feardon’s Henry V speech.

A challenging WNO three-opera weekend at the WMC in Cardiff started with a gorgeous Eugene Onegin, then an often thrilling Khovanshchina, culminating in From the House of the Dead, one of the first operas I ever saw, 32 years ago in the same production at ENO. The orchestra and chorus shone in all three and though by the third I was a bit exhausted, you have to admire WNO for their boldness, whilst others play safe.

Brett Dean’s opera of Hamlet at Glyndebourne (Touring Opera) proved to be one of the best new operas I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen many); indeed, one of the best operatic productions I’ve ever seen too. With music all around the auditorium as well as on stage and in the orchestra pit, it was tense and hugely atmospheric. If you think the touring cast and orchestra (starting with three performances at home) would be second best, think again – they were sensational!

Dance

14 Days is the fourth Ballet Boyz show I’ve seen at Sadler’s Wells and quite possibly the best, largely because it consists of five very different pieces, each by a different choreographer and composer, each one mesmerising from start to finish. Wow!

Film

Victoria & Abdul was a delight, much funnier than I was expecting, a sumptuous production with superb performances.

I liked Blade Runner 2049, though it was too long and a touch overblown. Brilliantly filmed, though.

I enjoyed The Party, and the ending was a genuine surprise, but at 70 mins in B&W maybe I should have waited for the inevitable TV showing?

The Death of Stalin is Armando Iannucci on audacious form again, this time with a cast to die for, including a rare film appearance from acting hero Simon Russell Beale. Brilliantly blackly funny.

Art

At the RA there are another two great exhibitions to add to Matisse in the Studio. Dali / Duchamp is fairly small, but a fascinating comparison and juxtaposition of two artists, contemporaries and friends. Dali comes off better. Jasper Johns’ Something Resembling Truth is much bigger, and a revelation for me, though I did begin to overdose by the end, and on number pictures before then!

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Opera

Handel’s Radamisto at GSMD had some lovely singing and playing, I liked the design and also the idea of framing it with an audience of leaders in conflict as a nod to its premiere before a royal squabble, but it was played too much for laughs, particularly the comic book King.

A summer visit to WNO at the WMC in Cardiff for Strauss R’s Der Rosenkavalier and Strauss J’s Die Fledermaus proved a treat. I love the former and it was the best production of it I’ve seen, with the orchestra under its new MD sounding great and a full house of terrific performances. I’m not really an operetta man, but it was hard to resist the fun of the latter, again well played and sung, with the cameo non-singing role of the gaoler brilliantly played by Welsh actor, Stella’s Steve Spiers.

There was some lovely singing in Charlie Parker’s Yardbird at Hackney Empire, but the subject didn’t really suit the opera form. Though it’s a story full of tragedy and emotion, the opera had none; I think a jazz musical would have served it better. Good to see work like this, a visit by Philadelphia Opera, on at Hackney though.

Contemporary Music

Smiles of a Summer Night was an evening of Sondheim songs from eight soloists, a twelve strong chorus and full orchestra at Cadogan Hall and the musical standards were sky high. It wouldn’t have been my selection of songs, but that might be a good thing as there are rarely heard items as well as well worn ones. Alex Parker, the musical director, has given us a superb concert version of A Little Night Music and a terrific production of compilation show Putting it Together, and this is yet another fine achievement.

Art

Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction at the Barbican Centre is a very broad selection of paintings & drawings, story-boards, props & models, games, films, books, comics & magazines in three locations and the foyers. It has even taken over the Pit Theatre for three months with a giant installation. Fascinating, but too dense for just one visit.

I loved Chris Ofili’s new tapestry at the National Gallery, placed onto B&W walls decorated by him, in an exhibition called Weaving Magic that included preparatory sketches and drawings. Lovely.

I’m used to bright, colourful, uplifting paintings from Per Kirkby, so the exhibition of older 80’s dull and dark work at the Michael Werner Gallery was a big disappointment, I’m afraid. Shame.

Fahrelnissa Zeid was another artist unknown to me, and her retrospective at Tate Modern showed both her art and her life were fascinating, going from portraits to two different forms of abstraction and back to portraits, with a side-trip to sculpture along the way, and from Turkey & Iraq to Germany, France & Britain and finally Jordan. Intriguing.

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Contemporary Music

Rufus Wainwright returned to form with an eclectic concert as part of the new Festival of Voice at the WMC in Cardiff. In addition to a fine selection of his own songs, we had an aria from his opera, a sonnet from his recent collection and a whole host of show tunes from his Judy Garland tribute, with stunning accompaniment from a cabaret pianist. His own vocals and piano playing were faultless and the sound and audience silence were a rare treat. Support Ala.Ni sang beautifully, with just guitar accompaniment, though I was less enamoured with her retro songs, which were a bit samey. She charmed the audience, though, with her infectious enthusiasm and excitement and complimented Rufus.

I very much like Elbow and booked for three concerts in Guy Garvey’s Meltdown, though one was cancelled when Robert Plant had to hot foot it to LA to defend Stairway to Heaven against copyright infringement some forty years on! Mr Garvey himself was a bit low on solo material so his own concert was short but sweet and very good-natured and warm-hearted. There was excellent support from the delightfully melancholic Jesca Hoop. Laura Marling, the second Meltdown concert at the Royal Festival Hall, was a bit of a disappointment. It was so slick, clinical and soulless, a bit monotonous and lacking in any excitement or emotion. At 75 mins with no encore for £40, I also felt more than a bit cheated – 50p per minute! Another good support act in Marika Hardwick, though.

The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, many refugees, were invited to Europe by Damon Albarn and world music champions Africa Express. At their Royal Festival Hall concert, they played Syrian music with guests from five African countries, the US and the UK, including Albarn and Paul Weller. It was welcoming, uplifting, positive, inspirational and heart-warming – the day after the referendum result!

Opera

Welsh National Opera’s 70th Birthday pairing of their first ever staged opera, the classic verismo double-bill Cav & Pag, and a brand new one, In Parenthesis, at WMC in Cardiff was inspired. I have never seen a better Cav or Pag, a great production that were beautifully played and sung. Iain Bell’s new opera followed the National Theatre Wales in commemorating the Battle of Mametz Wood (part of the Battle of the Somme) where many Welsh soldiers met their end; it was an impressive new work. Both showcased WNO’s not-so-secret ingredient – its superb orchestra and chorus – as well as featuring some fine soloists.

Opera Holland Park provided a rare opportunity to see Iris, a full evening opera by the man best known for the Cav half of Cav & Pag. It’s an odd story set in Japan, before Puccini wrote Madam Butterfly, made odder by a third act that seems to be bolted on for dubious reasons, but it’s lush romantic music with particularly good choruses and here it was played and sung beautifully.

Classical Music

At the Royal Academy of Music, the hugely talented Symphony Orchestra gave a lunchtime concert featuring unlikely Scandinavian bedfellows Sibelius & Neilson which proved to be a real treat. Melancholy + Thrills under the encouraging baton of Sir Mark Elder, who continues to defy convention and provide informative introductions. Lovely.

The Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra gave a short but beautiful early evening concert of English Orchestral masterworks by Vaughan Williams, Gurney & Britten. I am in awe of the talent of these college players. Even the conductor of the VW piece was a student.

Art

Newport Street Gallery, Damien Hirst’s new initiative, opens with a Jeff Koons show. I’m not mad keen on the mounted hoovers or his porno pictures, but the more playful stuff such as giant steel balloon animals and piles of play doe make me smile. It’s a lovely bright airy space and free and I’m looking forward to returning regularly.

Performing for the Camera at Tate Modern was interesting in telling the story of how photography is used to record performance, but as an art exhibition it was rather dull. It was very hard work looking at walls and walls of mostly B&W, mostly small framed photographs.

Dulwich Picture Gallery provided another opportunity to discover an unknown artist (well, to me) Winifred Knights. Though there were only c.20 paintings, and c.5 major mature works (and a lot of studies for…) what was on show was a significant quantity of her limited output and all very beautiful.

A members preview of the Tate Modern extension turned into an art feast, but not because of what was in the extension (largely dull, the space for collections is c.30% of the total space, but the building’s nice!). Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar’s retrospective was wonderful – quirky, original and colourful – and I surprised myself by loving about a dozen of Mona Hatoum’s large sculptural / installation pieces. It was also good to see Ai Wei Wei’s tree in situ on the bridge, though I was puzzled by two mounted police riding around it!

Sunken Cities: Egypt’s lost worlds at the British Museum was as good as an archaeological exhibition can get. In addition to the items recovered from the Med, there were terrific pieces from the museums in Alexandria and Cairo. Wonderful.

Painting with Light at Tate Britain showed the impact of the invention of photography on art and was rather fascinating, with some particularly good pre-Raphaelites on show. Upstairs Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979 just proved it was a movement better forgotten! Meanwhile in the Duveen Galleries Pablo Bronstein has built replicas of both Tate Britain facades and painted geometric patterns on the floor where dancers perform period works in contemporary clothes. Outside in, old and new. Very clever.

The Deutsche Borse Photography Foundation Prize shortlist exhibition at The Photographers Gallery was the best for a long while, and for once they got the winner right! The four projects covered the Arab Spring uprising, European immigration, space & surveillance and car restoration!

Ethics of Dust is an extraordinary installation in Parliament’s Westminster Hall. The artist cleaned the east wall during the hall’s renovations by capturing hundreds of years of dust in a thin latex cast which has now been hung in the hall. Extraordinary.

Film

Nice Guys was a fun caper movie, but it was way too violent for the genre and my taste and overall a bit beyond preposterous.

I very much liked Money Monster, a real thrilling ride with some great performances, a snipe at financial sector ethics but a bit of a depressing ending.

Love & Friendship was an odd affair. I liked it, but again not as much as the hype. A tongue-in-cheek interpretation of a surprisingly racy Jane Austin novella!

Much of the sentiment in Michael Moore’s documentary Where to Invade Next could be applied to the UK as well as the US. As we’ve blindly followed their model, we have lost our way. I thought it made some good points very well.

I loved Adult Life Skills, a lovely independent British film that was again way better than its critical reception with another extraordinary child performance.

I don’t know how much of Elvis & Nixon is true (it’s based on a photo!) but it made for a quirky and funny film which I enjoyed more than I thought I would.

Other!

The Greenwich & Docklands International Festival specialises in outdoor events and everything is free if you stand, and very cheap to sit. My first visit this year was to the Queens House at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich for a spectacular called The House that included dance, projections and fireworks – and the wonderful Sharon D Clarke. I’m not sure I quite got the narrative, but I certainly enjoyed the spectacle! Six days later in Bethnal Green, Polish theatre company Theatr Biuro Podrozy performed Silence which I think was about refugees, but the narrative was even less clear than The House. Still, it kept my attention, though it was beyond melancholic so I ended the evening feeling rather sad. I first saw this company in Edinburgh 23 years ago and it was one of those shows that you’re still talking about, well, 23 years later.

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….and 1st March!

Opera

Seven operas in nine days, starting with the Guildhall School’s production of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, as good as any I’ve seen (and that includes Glyndebourne and Covent Garden). I particularly liked the design in a re-configured Silk Street Theatre, with the audience on three sides, and the singing was terrific.

Chabrier’s L’Etoile is more operetta than opera and has a preposterous plot, but I did enjoy it. The playful production at The Royal Opera House had a few too many cheap gimmicks, but it was fun overall. Vocal honours belonged to Kate Lindsey and Helene Guilmette.

WNO’s themed season of three operas that feature Figaro as a character, in chronological order, was a triumph. I’m not a big fan of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, but this production was frothy and fun. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro was one of the best I’ve ever seen (probably helped by my intentional rest from Mozart operas) and Elena Langer’s new piece, Figaro Gets a Divorce, was one of the best modern operas of the many I’ve experienced. It was great to see veteran design team Ralph Koltai and Sue Blane at the top of their game with beautiful sets and costumes respectively, and the playing and singing in all three (with Rhian Lois a terrific cover for Susanna in the Mozart) was outstanding…..and all of this for less than £100 in the best seats in the house!

Back at the Royal Opera House, it was great to see Puccini’s triple-bill Il Trittico as it was intended. I’d seen this Gianni Schicchi paired with a Ravel opera, but not the others. The diversity proves to be its strength – a revenge tragedy, a spiritual piece and a comedy! – and Richard Jones’ use of three different designers proved a clever way of emphasising their individuality. One of the best evenings at this venue in a while.

Perhaps the best was saved until last (at least, musically) with the English Concert’s concert version of Handel’s Orlando at the Barbican Hall. Five superb, and brilliantly matched, soloists, led by counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, complimented the crisp clean playing of the small orchestra and made the sort of heavenly uplifting sounds that Handel operas can make. A musical feast.

Comedy

Stand-up’s Elis James and John Robbins took a huge risk with their show at Cardiff’s Glee Club. Sitting at a table with microphones and two rows of their chosen beers, the less well-known Robbins read from his self-published autobiography while James listened and commented between chapters, and both got slowly drunk – for almost 2.5 hours. It sounds like an unlikely hoot, but it was very funny indeed!

Art

The Magical Lantern Festival at Chiswick House was a real treat. Lots of colourful tableau along a walking route through the gardens. I think this was a first, but hope it’s a regular feature.

Big Bang Data at Somerset House was an interesting exhibition, but maybe a touch over-ambitious. It tried to cover so much ground, it felt like little of it was in enough depth. Some interesting, thought-provoking facts, though.

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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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