Saturday, 28 July 2012

La Boheme at Glyndebourne, or, A Confused Architect and Some Indifferent Singing

Well it had to happen sometime. I have been strongly supportive of much of the recent work of both Glyndebourne and tonight's director David McVicar. Tonight, I'm afraid was a bit of a failure in most departments (apart from the delightful company of my sister-in-law and the fact that it didn't rain).

David McVicar relocated the action to...well...quite honestly I'm not sure where we were except that it was a garret designed by a very confused architect, and there was a gas fire. This was, at least until Acts 3 and 4, an indifferent relocation – that is it didn't serious interfere with the drama but it did nothing to reinforce it at all, though it is never a good sign when in the opening moments the text is talking about smoke over the rooftops of Paris (or something like that) and one is wondering where in the world the performers actually are exactly. Nevertheless there is an awful lot of pointless busyness in this part of the staging (the fire jugglers added nothing), and I was sorely tempted to inaugurate a new award to be given to McVicar for superfluous use of revolve and insufficient use of gantry. After the interval things deteriorated further – in particular in terms of movement. First there was the problem of convincing one that Mimi is really dying. I realise that sopranos taking the role are unlikely (fortunately) to actually look consumptive so a director must find a way of disguising this. It was a great error on McVicar's part to place Mimi (Serena Farnocchia) centre stage in clothing which did nothing to disguise her healthy proportions. It was a further error to have Rodolfo (David Lomeli) pulling her upright periodically when she started coughing. The net result of all this was that I found it very difficult to believe that she was actually seriously ill. The second problem related to the issue of the bizarre architectural layout of the garret. For most of the action it appeared as if the four lived in one room beneath a gantry. How the gantry was supposed to relate to the room beneath it was beyond me. Moreover such limited use was made of this large, conspicuous piece of set as to make it seem fundamentally pointless. In Act 4, pointless became irritating. You may remember that Colline possesses a large overcoat which he bids farewell to in order to sell it to procure medicine for Mimi. As this moment approached it struck me that there was no sign of Colline's overcoat on stage. He departed into the wing (walking under the stage right set of stairs up the gantry) to collect it – nothing had previously been done to suggest there was any more of the flat in that direction. When he came back he walked in front of the set of stairs. I realise this may seem a small point but it was symptomatic of generally untidy and unconvincing movement and establishment of place. My wise sister-in-law did suggest that perhaps Colline had forgotten to bring the coat in with him on his original entrance, this is certainly the only explanation I can think of which would justify this confused piece of staging.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Kiss Me Kate at Chichester, or, Another Uneven Enterprise

This is the second time I've seen Kiss Me Kate live. The first time was a weak touring production in Edinburgh which mainly remains in my mind for my then girlfriend falling asleep during it (in fairness we went shortly after a transatlantic flight, it was also a fair comment on the quality of the performance). Chichester as one has come to expect throws everything at this production, but it is another Trevor Nunn enterprise that just doesn't altogether come off.

Part of the problem is the show itself and of course its source material. Apart from anything else it is just a bit difficult to take Kate/Lilli's submission to Fred/Petruchio seriously at the end since he has hardly been an angel – his sending a copy of their wedding bouquet to his new squeeze in Act 1 is especially low and he more than deserves to be on the receiving end of her temper. The only way I think that a production can really get round this is by convincing the viewer that there is a genuine, if ultimately somewhat irrational, love behind all the punishment the two visit on each other. Both Hannah Waddingham and Alex Bourne give solid performances but on this crucial point they did not convince me. My heart remained unengaged, at least by them.

The other problem with the material is trying to make the lengthy bits of Shakespeare in the show within a show come off. Here I'm not at all sure there is a solution – it is fundamentally a bit plodding – but I think you've got to try something other than just delivering it straight as here. Make more of the artifical quality of it perhaps, or have a couple of poor performances by the actors playing the roles within roles. Nothing along those lines, or indeed any other, is attempted here and the result is that these scenes drag.

Chichester's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, or, A Chilling Masterpiece

Sometimes as a theatregoer you are privileged to see a production in which everything works. The play is a masterpiece. The ensemble are spot on. The production is brilliantly judged. And the lead is giving the performance of a lifetime. Chichester's new production of Brecht's Arturo Ui is such an occasion.

Brecht's reimagining of Hitler as a small time Chicago hood taking over the grocery racket is fiendishly clever. It's often ludicrous (I don't think I quite appreciated before how potentially ludicrous the words 'cabbage' and 'cauliflower' are) but of course the ultimate effects are horrifying, and particularly as the play darkens after the inerval the audience are not spared. One other device to be mentioned is Brecht's clever use of Shakespeare – most obvious when having Ui appropriating snatches of Julius Caesar but present across the play and both serving as further mockery of the idea of taking the set up seriously (how can these gangsters be spouting lines of Shakespeare, and getting it wrong) but of course equally insisting that we do take it seriously – there is a Shakespearean tragic element to this enterprise only the culpable audience is much wider than the gangsters and politicians on stage.

As already mentioned, the supporting cast are uniformly excellent. This is a play that needs an especially versatile ensemble – it's a long way from the jazz which greets you as you take your seat to the fiery rant of the conclusion. It is worthy of note that most of the cast have to play at least two roles and they transfer between them seamlessly. Major contributions include William Gaunt's hapless Dogborough, Colin Stinton's courageous, doomed Ignatius Dullfoot, Lizzy McInnerny as his ultimately biddable wife, Joe McGann's fading Irish-American actor (whose scene with Ui provides a brief moment of hilarity in the descending darkness) and the trio of gangsters behind Ui. But everybody makes an important contribution to this stunning evening. At the centre though, is Henry Goodman's spellbinding Arturo Ui, who transforms before our eyes from the inarticulate butt of the joke in his first brief, silent appearance, to the searing, dominating dictator of the conclusion. So many little things contribute to this but I would single out two – the periodic, unsettling way that Goodman's wide staring eyes suddenly seemed to flash out at me, and his equally sudden transitions from reasonableness to vicious fury.

Heartbreak House at Chichester, or, Screwing Up Shaw

It's been some little while since I saw a show which almost uniformly fails to work. This is such an one. It's not a lack of good lines. It's not setting and direction totally contrary to the text. It's not that the performers are without talent. But somehow Richard Clifford, a director hitherto, and on this showing blessedly, unknown to me, has put these elements together and pretty completely failed to achieve lift off.

The fundamental problem is a desperate lack of conviction. Based on the several Shaws I've now seen I think there is often a danger of his characters falling into caricature. Genevieve O'Reilly's performance in the National's Doctor's Dilemma, while not perfect, did catch the essential living quality. Apart from odd moments from Derek Jacobi as Captain Shotover and Fiona Butler as Ellie Dunn performance after performance here lapses into caricature. I never really felt that most of the company believed a word they were saying and they consequently failed to make me believe or care about them. There are flashes of amusement to be had from these caricatures but emotional engagement is sadly lacking.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The Doctor's Dilemma at the National, or, All Love is Irrational, All of It

Note: This is a review of the final preview last night. The Press Night is today.

The publicity for this play gives the impression that it is a comedy about the medical profession. Actually, as Michael Holroyd's programme note half acknowledges it is really a play about love.

To do justice to Shaw, the first act of the play is indeed occupied with a satire of private medical practitioners as a group of them queue up to pay homage to one of their number, Colenso Ridgeon (Adam Gillett) who has just been awarded a knighthood in recognition of a revolutionary discovery in vaccination (it is never entirely clear whether this is actually deserved or not). There is some amusement here as the doctors ride their pet hobby horses, from Cutler Walpole's (Robert Portal) conviction that a simple operation will solve the blood poisoning problem which is at the root of the illnesses of 95% of the population to Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington's (Malcolm Sinclair) repeated declaration that treatment is all about fighting the phagocytes.

Into this medical melee comes the lovely Jennifer Dubedat (Genevieve O'Reilly) and from then on, slowly at first before the interval but with increasing power after it the play becomes a powerful commentary on the irrationality of love, most particularly Ridgeon's mad passion for Jennifer, and Jennifer's absolute incapacity to perceive any flaw in her husband – the latter marvellously played by Tom Burke.

Friday, 20 July 2012

The Royal Opera Rounds Off the Season (but can we lose the Russian now...please...)


Once again (people will be beginning to think I do this deliberately) I find myself somewhat out of step with mainstream critical opinion which has lavished praise on this revival. There are some good things in it, and overall it is never less than solid, but for me there was a crucial lack of electric drive from the pit which made it an ultimately unsatisfying evening.

The best of this performance came from the two leads, Anja Harteros's Desdemona and Aleksandrs Antonenko's Otello. Of the two I personally found Harteros more dramatically convincing and musically satisfying, particularly in Act 4, but Antonenko gives a perfectly fine performance. Harteros is scheduled to sing Elizabeth in next year's excitingly cast Don Carlo revival  making another strong reason for catching that. Unfortunately the third leg of the triumverate, Lucio Gallo's Iago was a different story. I have, I find, previously heard him in the Royal Opera Il Trittico where he did not especially impress me and it was the same here. The voice is not big enough for the role, and at times I felt he could have been reading his shopping list rather than planning villainies. The other supporting players don't have much to do in this but generally perform well.

The production is a solid Royal Opera classic dating back to 1987 and originally directed by Elijah Moshinsky. There are some beautiful stage pictures but there are also one or two places that now feel a bit mechanical (particularly the tableaux of the opening scene) and generally the movement has that classic revival feeling of a slight lack of sharpness.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Timon of Athens at the National

The best thing about this performance is that it has one of those moments about which I have written before, where everything else falls away and there's just you and these characters now. It comes probably about half way through the second half. Simon Russell Beale's Timon and Hilton McRae's Apemantus have been building up a nice head of steam in the trading of insults to show how they detest one another. “Rogue”, Beale roars, then each time more falteringly, “rogue...rogue.”  For a few brief moments the bond of love between them is almost bared. It gives to McRae's parting appeal to Timon – the blunt command to live – an added emotional weight.

Around this moment, there is a considerable cast grappling with a somewhat unwieldy play. The republic of Athens is crumbling. Lords led by Timon deal in lavish gifts and banquets while outside a revolt brews. It's not surprising that Nicholas Hytner has chosen to update it to reflect the Occupy movement and the current financial crisis, and this does yield some effective insights. But the thing about this play is, as the moment between Beale and McRae reveals, that it's really about the frailties of human beings, and most of all the troubled personality of Timon. It wasn't until late on in the second act as Beale's transformed homeless begger wrestles with the lure of fresh wealth that I began to think that really it is actually all about Timon – what is the driver in him that causes him to give and give and give in the flamboyant, ultimately crazed manner of the first half, and then to turn on mankind with such virulence after the interval. Beale nearly always delivers the language with point, is frequently compelling to watch (especially after his fall) but I think there's further for this characterisation to go. I'm also not altogether convinced that Hytner has quite got a full handle on the play. The updating, like Beale's performance has many striking moments but looking back at the first half having experienced the second I feel there needed to be more focus on Timon to begin with, a clearer attempt to tease out what is really going on. Beale's desire for release through death seems to suggest a sense of awareness of a kind of madness that the whole performance and the staging in which it's embedded could have followed through more fully.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Les Troyens at the Royal Opera, or, In Praise of the Textually Faithful Production

I've hesitated about writing up any thoughts from this performance. I suffer from time to time with a kind of anxiety and I was wrestling with that during parts of this performance which clearly makes me less able to judge it to my usual observatory standards. However, there is an issue about the best approach to operatic production which I think is raised by this production and by some critical responses to it which I feel strongly about. Because of this feeling I have decided to write up my thoughts on this performance, with the caveat that my observation may not have been as clear as I would usually hope that it is.

While freely conceding that this production is not the overpowering experience that McVicar's Meistersinger was at Glyndebourne last year it does do two things which I applaud in an operatic production because they are still not frequent enough. First, the settings are faithful to the stage directions and the text. We see the walls of Troy, we see the fabled horse, we see Dido stabbing herself on a funeral pyre. Second, though less successful here than in Meistersinger McVicar still demonstrates that he thinks about how characters are positioned in relation to each other on stage in order to more effectively bring out their relationships. Related to this second point I would also argue that McVicar is not afraid to allow his characters to be still and sing (something also in evidence in his Rigoletto and in contrast to the mad busyness of all too many operatic productions).

Now, having made those points I do concede the problems. There is perhaps more fire than strictly necessary. The appearance of a statue of Hannibal at the end of Act 5 is a bit overdone. The resetting to the Crimea doesn't really make sense (although it's hardly conspicuous). The less said about Andrew George's choreography the better, except that someone else should be got in to redo it if this is ever remounted. Yet, with the exception of the choreography none of these things seriously troubled my engagement with the evening as a whole, or roused in me that disconnection between work and staging which so often happens for me with modern opera productions.

Friday, 6 July 2012

The Last of the Haussmans at the National, or, An Oddly Personal Experience

At the interval of this play I was feeling rather lukewarm towards it. There was a stagey quality to Stephen Beresford's writing which left me feeling emotionally disengaged. Julie Walters seemed to be playing another version, almost a caricature, of her part in Dinnerladies, and other parts were unevenly played. But in Act Two two strange things happened.

The first surprise was the sudden flashing presence of Quakerism. Near the beginning of the play a character is mentioned “who was a glue sniffer and is now a Quaker.” As a Quaker myself I found this funny. But in Act Two there's a moment when Julie Walters suddenly describes what seems intended to be a transformative experience for her character, Judy. Up to that point its been all hippies and drugs and ashrams, but now we are at a peace group in Belsize Park. The character describes a Quaker coming to talk to them essentially about the light of God being in everyone and that if all those lights could join together the world could be changed. Her light, Judy insists, has never gone out whatever else may have been mistaken or gone wrong. I am not evangelical about my faith, though it is something that is very important to me on a personal level. As a Quaker you get sort of used to the fact that there isn't much reference to it in popular culture and generally speaking this isn't something that worries me. So I think my strong reaction to this moment was partly one of surprise – it was so unexpected to hear one of the central tenets of the Quaker faith being put forward from the stage of the Lyttelton. Unexpected and somehow very moving.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

The Prince of the Pagodas, or Who Would Have Imagined Britten Could Be So Romantic

I set off for the Royal Opera House on Friday night with some slight misgivings. My parents saw this show on Wednesday and their report was lukewarm. It had been a heavy week at work and it took some effort to drag myself back out of the house. But, as is so often the case, this particular show proved to be just the tonic I needed and a marvellous reward for a hard slog of a week.

The true revelation of the evening was Britten's score. I think I do actually have it on CD somewhere and therefore must have listened to it but I cannot recall it making any real impression at all, and I had booked out of curiousity rather than love. I can only say that it totally beguiled me. Yes, it may partly have been the effect of hearing a great orchestrator at work after Thursday night's one song to the tune of the same song at the Coliseum. But I think it is more than this. The sound world is beguiling, from the use of percussion to the brass and woodwind solos. There is a marvellous romantic, mysterious sweep especially to the second act which just completely carried me away. Barry Wordsworth drew compelling playing from an on form Royal Opera Orchestra for both of whom the cheers at the end were deservedly loud.

The design matched the music. Castles frame the stage, the Emperor whizzes around on a rather fun Heath Robertson type wheelchair, the lighting adds effectively to the mood. However, the more astute amongst you may have noticed that I have not yet mentioned the dancing or Kenneth MacMillan's choreography. I have stressed on previous occasions that while certain ballets have blown me away I am not a balletomane, so I don't feel as comfortable judging ballet choreography as I do other things. After a non-descript first half I thought things improved, but overall somehow MacMillan just didn't seem to rise to the magic of the music. All the emotion and character was there and the dancing just didn't quite match up with it. The Second Act has the best of it and so far as I could judge Sarah Lamb (Princess Rose) and Federico Bonelli (The Prince) danced perfectly well there and throughout but I wasn't held by the choreography as I have been in other ballets.