Sunday 15 March 2020

Susanna at the Royal, or, Opera in a Time of Pandemic

This was one of the strangest live performance experiences I can recall. Not for the performance itself, which was well sung and played in a production which had strong elements but didn't quite cohere. No, it was strange rather because of the external health crisis and the way that kept impinging, do what I would, on my mind as I watched and listened.

I had havered for the last few days as to whether to attend. I have found it difficult, both in my professional life and in relation to this performance to be sure institutions in this country are doing the right thing in carrying on when universities and arts venues on the continent are closing down for weeks. Let me be clear - I am quite specifically not making a judgement on whether the policy is right, I am not qualified so to do, but talking about how I have felt. Nevertheless, in the end I decided I would attend this performance. The run has been sold out since booking opened but there were enough empty seats to suggest others had reached a different conclusion, and I saw at least one audience member in their seat wearing a face mask.

Wednesday 4 March 2020

Fidelio at the Royal, or, And Then the Curtain Rose on Act 2

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Sunday 1st March 2020.

At the interval of this performance it seemed as if we were heading for a solid, if not a stellar afternoon. Then the curtain rose on Act 2 and I realised we were in for a very long fifty minutes.

But let us start with the music. This is generally a strong if not, from where I was sitting, outstanding set of singing performances. Lise Davidsen (Fidelio) clearly has a voice of enormous power which punched through physically to the Amphitheatre in a way few singers do. She does her best to carry off dramatically the increasingly unconvincing direction. She also delivers some of the more intimate moments with great character - for example the Act 1 Quartet (which was probably the single most satisfying moment of the whole performance). But in some of the exchanges I'd have liked more flexibility and variation in volume. We were asked for our understanding of Jonas Kaufmann (Florestan) before the curtain rose so this was not an occasion on which to judge his capacities in the role - he sang creditably under the circumstances. There was finely sung supporting work from Amanda Forsythe (Marzelline), Robin Tritschler (Jaquino) and Georg Zeppenfeld (Rocco). Simon Neal brought a rich bass to Pizarro but didn't always cut through the orchestra at full tilt.

Tuesday 3 March 2020

Death of England at the National, or, Too Much on One Level

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 22nd February 2020.

It takes great talent to sustain a 100 minute single-hander play. Rafe Spall throws a huge amount of energy into this new work at the National, but from where I was sitting he didn't equal the recent, subtler work of Laura Linney and Maggie Smith at the Bridge, though he is hampered by aspects of both script and staging.

Clint Dyer and Roy Williams's play concerns Michael, a white man running a flower stall struggling with problematic relations with his family and generally furious with the wider state of the world. The authors' aim, I think, was an investigation of white racism, of the kind of people who are thought to have voted for Brexit. It is certainly significant to have such an investigation written for the stage by two black writers - but they don't achieve a penetration of those issues to compare with recent work on the American dimension of these themes by the black American writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (most notably in his fine Appropriate seen recently at the Donmar). We may hear a great deal about what Michael thinks but the play does relatively little to explain how he has come to think this way. Its treatment of politics is superficial - there's a moment when Michael admits that he didn't even vote in the Brexit referendum which is just crying out for further exploration, but rapidly passes as the rant continues. As a result the play doesn't emotionally earn the closure it conjures. Indeed it did worse than that for me, with its (spoiler) use of a voice from beyond the grave, which effects a too easy reconciliation, and again does not allow for sufficient examination of how the situation allowing for that voice had arisen.

Monday 2 March 2020

Luisa Miller at ENO, or Musically Blazing, Shame About the Production

Note: This is a review of the performance on Saturday 15th February 2020.

I don't go to ENO very regularly these days for a simple reason - I don't trust the management's commissioning policy when it comes to directors, and the prices are now so high below the uncomfortable Balcony (I can usually sit in a decent seat more cheaply at Covent Garden) that one resents having paid them if a key aspect of the show is weak as it has too often been ever since the John Berry era. However, I do still go if they stage a work I haven't previously seen, and that was the primary reason I attended this performance.

It's easy to see why this Verdi work is not often done. The plot creaks - particularly when the hero decides that he'll poison the beloved he thinks has betrayed him, rather than, oh I don't know, sit down and try and discuss the matter first - especially when the production at any rate has made it abundantly (arguably too abundantly) clear that the person whom she is supposed to have betrayed him with is one of the villains. A follower on Twitter afterwards also made the shrewd comment that the creakiness of the plot is more exposed when presented in English as opposed to Italian. The overall effect would I suspect make it difficult even in an excellent production to achieve really strong emotional engagement, but this production despite being very strong musically causes it to fall short of that a fair bit.