Monday, 10 June 2019

Drive-by Shooting at Aldeburgh, or, A Refreshingly Comic New Opera

When was the last time you spent most of an opera laughing with pleasure? It certainly hasn't happened to me very often, which made Saturday night's ten minute mini-opera at the Aldeburgh Festival all the more a refreshing surprise.

Originally produced in Dublin the opera by John McIlduff (writer) and Brian Irvine (music) tells of a crime of passion among the Dublin elderly. Furious at her husband's affair with their neighbour Maureen (I think) at number thirteen - the precision adds to the comedy giving the listener a distinct sense of the environment in which these events are taking place - the aggrieved wife has resolved to "shoot the fecker in the pecker." She has purloined a gun kept by her husband originally used by his father in the GPO in 1916 and the prospect of prison holds no terrors - for health care will be better there!

Friday, 24 May 2019

Stockhausen's Donnerstag aus Licht at Southbank, or, Striking...Excessive...Sometimes Incomprehensible...And Yet...

Note: This is a review of the first of two performances on Tuesday 21st May 2019.

Years ago I recall reading a newspaper feature about Stockhausen's Licht cycle which must at that point, I think, have been unfinished. It stayed in the back of my mind and I always thought it would be interesting to see what some of it was like in practice. But as I trekked off to the Festival Hall on Tuesday contemplating 4+ hours of a composer virtually unknown to me I did begin to wonder what I was letting myself in for. I won't say he never needed an editor, but on balance it was worth it.

The opera proper consists of three acts, preceded by a Greeting (played in the Clore Ballroom) and followed by a Farewell (played from the Balcony and the Terraces outside to magical effect by five trumpeters. I don't pretend to have grasped all the finer points of myth and plot, and the autobiographical dimension is not I suggest apparent unless you've read it up in advance. However, a central narrative does come through concerning the struggle between good and evil - personified by angels, particularly Michael, and the devil Luzifer. As part of that struggle Michael, for reasons which remain slightly opaque, has decided to experience life as a human. Act 1 follows his childhood, in Act 2 (the highpoint of the evening) he travels round the world, in Act 3 he returns to the stars. Finally, in Act 3 Scene 2 Michael tells us the whole story all over again (Wagner's Norns have nothing on him), providing some additional clues to the frankly rather confusing action of Act 1. To further muddle matters two of the principal characters - Michael and Eva (at times his mother and at times in some other guise his lover - again the relationship between the two never became wholly clear to me) are represented in multiple forms - dancer, singer, instrumentalist.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Billy Budd at the Royal Opera, or, In the Shadow of Past Glories

Note: This is a review of the performance on Monday 29th April 2019.

We've been lucky in the UK recently to have two excellent productions of this masterpiece - Michael Grandage's for Glyndebourne and Orla Phelan's for Opera North. Altogether this was, I think, my fifth production of a work I cherish. At both Glyndebourne and Opera North I was powerfully moved. Indeed, there were sections in the latter stages of Phelan's production that were overwhelming. Here, in Billy's monologue and his farewell with Dansker tears did come to my eyes, but overall this evening fell short in various ways of those triumphs.

Deborah Warner's production has been imported from Madrid, and arrives trailing praise. From my customary Amphitheatre perch I had more mixed reactions. There's an awful lot of ropes in evidence (something seen before in other productions) and sails (less common) but Warner is much less successful than others at creating that claustrophobic seaboard world so critical to the drama. For most of the evening the stage is very open and there is simply too much space, and not just around the sides. Despite the large numbers of extra chorus and actors credited in the programme they often feel lost in the space in the big chorus numbers, where they should be jammed in. Similar problems apply to the more intimate scenes - when Vere sings of his "narrow cabin" it just isn't. The open stage also, I suspect, has musical consequences diffusing rather than concentrating the vocal sound of all concerned making it harder for dynamic variety to impact and for individual voices to come through the texture at key moments.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Sweet Charity at the Donmar, or, A Flawed Concept

Note: This is a review of the first preview on Saturday 6th April 2019. The press night was (I think) last night.

I previously saw this musical when the Menier revived it - I was somewhat horrified to discover this was back in 2009. I remember being rather moved by it, and blown away by certain numbers. When this production was announced I looked forward to revisiting the show. There are moments of inventiveness in the staging, and fleeting emotional punch, but overall it doesn't reach the same level as that earlier version.

The fundamental problem is the decision of director Josie Rourke and designer Robert Jones to set the show in a Warhol-esque fantasy environment - the programme explains it is inspired by his Silver Factory period of the 60s. I'm not particularly well acquainted with Warhol's life story, but most viewers should spot the various Warhol lookalikes, and the take offs of aspects of his art which are everywhere. This fits the Fandango Ballroom, where Charity and co ply their trade, to an extent. It creates a sterile, bleak environment appropriate to the plight of the entrapped women. But unfortunately the effect goes further than that creating for me an emotional coldness which the show rarely transcended. This is partly also a consequence of the very classic Fosse like costuming of the women - black bodysuits and very little else akin to the London revival of Chicago. I confess I've never found this kind of costuming very sexy - in this case while I can see the point of playing up the transactional nature of the Ballroom world again I think the cost to the humanity and individuality of the girls is problematic for the viewer's emotional engagement with the show. It alienates rather than making us care.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Top Girls at the National, or, A Baffling Reputation

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 13th April 2019.

This was my fourth Caryl Churchill play. I didn't have high hopes in advance as none of the other three (Drunk Enough to Say I Love You (Royal Court), Light Shining in Buckinghamshire and Here We Go (both NT)) did much for me. But I was curious to see this particular play on account of its reputation as a classic. Perhaps it was all more daring back in 1982.

The story concerns Marlene (Katherine Kingsley) who some years back fled/escaped her Suffolk home and has built a successful career in London and abroad, ultimately achieving a senior management position in the Top Girls recruitment agency. The fantastical, apparently much famed, Act 1 sees her celebrating her promotion over dinner with an eclectic selection of historical and fictional women. Act 2 Scene 2 sees her and her associates in action at the agency. Act 2 Scene 1 and Act 3 take us to Suffolk.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Shipwreck at the Almeida, or, I So Wanted to Be Post This Play

Note: This is a belated review of the performance on Monday 25th March 2019.

There is, it appears, currently a competition going on between playwrights in Britain and the United States to write issue plays. For the former the subject is general state of the nation, sometimes with reference to Brexit, for the latter the subject is Trump. I cannot think of a single such play that I've seen that has been really good. This latest entry, Annie Washburn's Shipwreck, is long and dull.

My previous two encounters with Washburn's work were the uneven but interesting Mr Burns and her excellent adaptation of The Twilight Zone. Here Washburn tries to knit three strands together. First, a collection of eight liberal friends gathering for a reunion at a farmhouse one pair have recently bought somewhere in the United States (it is one of the failings of this play that it remains opaque where in the States we are). Secondly, the story of the immediately preceding white owners of the farmhouse (actual farmers) and their adopted Kenyan son. Thirdly, two fantasy scenes involving Donald Trump confronting George W. Bush (at the time of the Iraq War) and James Comey (at the famous dinner demanding loyalty).

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Alys, Always at the Bridge, or, What a Loathsome Collection of People

Note: This is a review of the matinee performance on Saturday 1st April 2019.

I must first admit that I wasn't in a particularly receptive mood when I arrived for this show. Only my completionist tendencies (and the cost of the ticket) had persuaded me to leave the comfort of the sofa after a heavy week at work. But a good show makes you forget you're tired (as the Royal Opera's magnificent Forza del Destino did the previous weekend). This tedious adaptation failed to achieve that for me.

Lucinda Cox/Harriet Lane's narrative concerns Frances (Joanne Froggatt) who finds herself alone at the scene of a car crash in which Alys dies. Alys's family then ask Frances to see them where the latter proceeds to lie about their loved one's final words. And so begins a narrative of scheming and deception which will see Frances, two long hours later, triumphant over everybody on stage in both work and relationships - she isn't actually surrounded by a pile of corpses, but the effect is very much the same.

Monday, 1 April 2019

La Forza del Destino at the Royal, or, Magnificent Musicians Transcend Muddled Story

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Sunday 24th March 2019.

My only previous encounter with this opera was at ENO in 1992 (thank you Google) with Josephine Barstow as Leonora, Richard van Allan as her father, and (it turns out) Edmund Barham as Alvaro. The evening hadn't stuck in my mind in such a way as to make me want to rush to see the opera again, and despite the outstanding musical performances which blessed this afternoon, that overall opinion was not altered.

As a work the piece suffers from various problems. The narrative is highly episodic and doesn't succeed in building dramatic tension through the piece in contrast to truly great epic Verdi like Don Carlo. Several of the choruses are both weak musically and hold up the drama, especially at the end of Act 3 (I puzzled over the fact that cutting this would doubtless be met with howls of protest but yet the House continues to cut the dramatically integral and musically far finer opening chorus of Don Carlo). It's too dependent on chance - Alvaro and Carlos just happen to meet in the army, it just happens that both Alvaro and Leonora seek refuge in the same monastery. Far too many false names are deployed. But fundamentally, the plight of the central trio just never quite got me emotionally. For me the most convincing dilemma is Guardiano's wrestling with his conscience and his faith as to whether to grant Leonora's request to live as a hermit - a scene superbly sung and acted here by the magnificent Feruccio Ferlanetto - a performer who understands the virtue of stillness.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Rossini's Elizabeth I at the Hackney Empire, or, Simple is Best

Note: This is a review of the first night on Saturday 2nd March 2019.

Regular readers will know that I'm a Rossini fan. There have been a few stagings of the rarer end of Rossini's prolific output at the Royal Opera in recent years, often irritatingly, sometimes bafflingly over-complicated though at least usually blessed with strong singing. One of the great pleasures of this thoroughly enjoyable evening therefore is James Conway's unfussy, straightforward production.

Musically there is likewise much that is excellent. On the podium John Andrews, with whom this was my first encounter, showed a perfect understanding of the Rossini style. The pacing, the build up of crescendos, that wonderful light sweep in the strings, the needed character (from playful to sad) in the winds and brass - Andrews draws all of that from his fine orchestra. As always with the best kind of Rossini performance when the mood is upbeat I simply reveled in the fun, but Andrews also knows where to linger to catch at the heart.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Tartuffe at the National, or, Insufficiently Fleet of Foot

Note: A review of the performance on Thursday 28th February 2019.

In the opening stages of this show I rather hoped for a fully comedic evening - in the present state of the world our theatres could, quite frankly, do with a bit more sheer escapism. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes clear that this comedy is married to yet another Norris era attempt to lecture us about that world beyond the theatre walls. That attempt suffers from a heavy handedness which infects the more comedic elements depriving them of the lightness, the ease of the best comedy. The result is another evening at the National which drags.

The show is blessed with an enjoyably opulent set (Robert Jones), even if the double doors at the back don't slam with quite the force or ease that the farcical element of the script really needs. Director Blanche McIntyre also successfully shrinks the large Lyttelton stage, although she has been less careful regarding sightlines for those on the front left hand aisle paying full price. With the help of physical comedy director Toby Park she engineers some brilliant surprise entrances. But pacing is often slow, the farcical elements never get quite wild or quick enough, there's an insufficient sense of affairs spinning out of control, and the tilting floor at the end is gratuitous rather than menacing.

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Kat'a Kabanova at the Royal Opera, or, Adrift in Spaces

Note: A belated review of the performance on Saturday 9th February 2019.

After last year's disappointing From the House of the Dead I'd hoped the Royal Opera's Janacek cycle was going to pick up with this second installment. Sadly, while it's mostly strong musically, Richard Jones's production left me emotionally cold and, in Act 3, increasingly irritated.

In the title role Amanda Majeski has been highly praised (some near me gave her a standing ovation). She certainly sings much of the role very finely - particularly her near monologue in Act 3. But in other places I would have liked a little more breadth to a sound that sometimes to my ear came across as a little shrill. As an actress she simply didn't make the same impression on me she seems to have made on others, though perhaps that was down to Jones's direction. The rest of the large number of solo roles were solidly taken but nobody consistently held me vocally. In the pit Edward Gardner making his house debut (and the latest candidate being advanced as Pappano's potential successor) shaped this score far better than Wigglesworth did last year's House of the Dead, and drew spirited playing from the Orchestra. But overall the musical qualities were not enough to distract from my irritation with the direction.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

When We Have Sufficiently Tortured One Another at the National, or, We Are Listening to You. For Hours.

Note: This is a review of the performance on Monday 4th February 2019.

It was instructive to see this show the evening after Ian McKellen's mesmerising solo tour de force at the Bridge. This show also possesses fine performers in Cate Blanchett and Stephen Dillane, with a strong supporting turn from Jessica Gunning. Blanchett in particular delivers a mountain of text as compellingly as McKellen. Unfortunately there's a considerable gap between the poetry of such great writers as Shakespeare and Gerald Manley Hopkins, and the prose of Martin Crimp.

I'd previously seen a revival of a Crimp play at the Almeida and his two operatic collaborations with the composer George Benjamin, none of which did much for me. This text is considerably worse. We are in a garage in which a couple are playing sex games, with an audience of four. Who exactly the couple are, why they've taken to this peculiar kind of role playing, why on the theme of Pamela (this show is allegedly variations on Richardson's novel - not having read it I can't comment on to what extent that claim stacks up), and why on earth three of the quartet of watcher-participants are involved are all questions which struck me as pertinent but which Crimp never answers. He does belatedly indicate that the fourth watcher is being paid - which given what we are expected to accept that gentleman is subjected to suggests that the unemployment situation is far worse than I'd realised. In place of meaningful exploration of character or motive, or indeed plot that goes anywhere, all we get is endless talk. It was not clear to me what the message was or even if there was one. Occasionally a striking image leaps out from the verbiage, but mostly, despite the best efforts of the performers I just could not get interested in what was going on.