Saturday, 3 March 2018

Dialogue of the Carmelites, GSMD

I joined a posse of colleagues to go and hear the Guildhall School Dialogue of the Carmelites (in French) as we knew a cast member. It's always nice to have a localised reason for going along to see a show such as this beyond the music as it changes ones focus - especially in a grand piece such as Poulenc's Revolution drama - and leaves plenty open to be a surprise.

It's a well-costumed show and excellently lit. The cast has a big range of voices, as one might expect, but quite a bit of strength in depth. The principal parts were well-cast. We sat near the pit which was a treat, as one could hear both the orchestral blend and individual colours with great clarity in this wide, dry theatre.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Iolanthe, Coliseum

A Cal McCrystal opera. Well, given that we had to leave One Man Two Guv'nors early having exhausted ourselves laughing in the first half, this conflagration demanded a viewing.

It's worth it alright. This Iolanthe from ENO is colourful and detailed (a tremendous final flourish from the late Paul Brown), with an extra proscenium and illustrated wing flats actually opening the theatrical experience out to the audience rather than presenting further 'fourth walls'... though part of this outreach to the audience was set in motion at the beginning by the actor Clive Mantle, who comes on in the guise of an Edwardian health & safety fireman to gentle rib the audience, introduce and then joke with the conductor (Timothy Henty) as well as popping up occasionally to extinguish sundry on stage pyrotechnics.

It's possible to argue that the music isn't always trusted to carry the show, with exhaustive pursuit of gags during lyrical moments - but then, what director hasn't tried to inject Handelian da capos with some fresh stage action? The chorus is in its element with almost every single individual essaying their own character in any available sliver of space (recurring jokes include the Screamer, the Repeater, the Drunk Lord, the Fopp) and in a fine supporting cast of animals of various states of animation, there's some excellent, understated work with a puppet dog.

And there's wire work.

And acrobatics...

... you get the idea. I might add that the principal singing is really rather good too, from the impeccable patter of Andrew Shore's Lord Chancellor to Ellie Laugharne's canny Phyllis and

And juggling

... and Bens Johnson & McAteer. We the audience also had a chance to sing but I wouldn't want to end on a damp note, which we can leave to the weather that put very few off an entertaining evening in St Martin's Lane.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Pierrot Lunaire, CWSO, Guards Chapel

Natalie Raybould preparing to perform Pierrot Lunaire
This was an unusual concert to attend by any reckoning - and that's before the weather turned very cold and snowy the night before. Luckily the audience wasn't put off, so there was a quorum of well over a hundred to hear the Countess of Wessex String Orchestra play 'Moonlight in Paris' themed pieces in the Guards Chapel on Birdcage Walk.

Programming is a funny art, and this classically eclectic mix walked the line between inspired and 'just making the criteria'. Vive la difference as intrepid and rather chilly audiences say in the Moonlight in London (although the obligatory National Anthem was indeed obligatory). So, we heard a Lully Overture, a fine, succinct Milhaud Symphony, mellifluous meditations by William Lloyd Webber and Fauré and a (Alto) saxophone concerto by Glazunov, excellently played by a member of the Irish Guards, Andy Braet.

I'm told that the ensemble are trying to programme repertoire outside what is familiar for all sorts of reasons and this is to be commended, as is their conductor Major David Hammond, who is ambitious enough to embrace this idea. It's a peculiar situation watching a uniformed unit, with a formal stage mannerism in keeping with their military basis playing music of a range of affect & temperament (and wit the shameless contemporary touch of reading off iPads with pedal turners).

All this cognitive chicanery was just warm-up for the single work after the interval though. Soprano Natalie Raybould has been performing Schoenberg's expressionist song cycle Pierrot Lunaire for the best part of twenty years and it shows. With its neither fish-nor-fowl vocal styling of Sprechstimme (the words of the poem are spoken but to the pitches and their duration specified in a conventional score) it is important to have a performer who not only knows precisely what they are doing but is also prepared to leave the page behind and grip the audience by its overcoat (put back on after the interval, since you ask).

This was a riveting account of Albert Giraud's poetry (in German, translated by Otto Erich Hartleben) in which the non-German speaker, such as this author, was able not only to hear the text but also understand it. This was also through the carefully detailed rendering of the score by the orchestra (a string quartet with two woodwind and the organist of the Guards Chapel, Martin Ford, on the piano), the most richly realised performance of the evening. Natalie Raybould's technique is something marvellous to watch and hear, pitched speaking of great colour and dynamic, with such a syllabic clarity that it appears her mouth is doing all the acting. My concern that a small group of military students behind me, who had expressed delight in seeing their first double bass earlier in the evening, might have found this a stretch was also put to rest as not a soul left the building until the performers has returned for a genuinely rapturous curtain call.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Salieri First the Music Then The Words, Lunchbreak Opera

There are three arteries by which one hears of shows going on in town: the company; the piece; or the performers. I'd heard that Caroline Kennedy was going to be performing in this one act four-hander in St Botolph's near London Liverpool Street, which is a strong recommendation in itself, though a new company and a little known Salieri piece concurrent with the National Theatre's Amadeus revival sealed the deal.

Lunchbreak Opera are a string quartet conducted from the harpsichord by Matthew O'Keefe. The instrumentalists sat at the back of the hall, by the door, which meant that the audience (which included a number of charming and engrossed 6-8 year olds on half term) was thrust forward to the front of the performing area. Salieri's opera was apparently performed without much cut (we were probably working to an 18th century Viennese idea of a Lunchbreak, then, at 85 mins) but plenty of style and energy. The cast had bent the Regency of St Botolph's parish hall to their whim with vigour, hunour and considerable costuming effort, not to mention generous singing, despite reels of recit. No doubt the ensemble issues that plagued the early performance I went to were resolved by the end of the full week of performances.

There was style and sonority aplenty here so one looks out for their next adventure.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Jakop Ahlbom's Lebensraum at the Peacock Theatre

A chance encounter with the trailer video (they do work!) had brought me to get a ticket to see Lebensraum. Advertised as based on a Buster Keaton silent film (The Scarecrow, 1920) I thought we might be going to see contemporary dance, until we found ourselves surrounded by posters of the London International Mime Festival at the Peacock Theatre. I was delighted that a paying punter had actually turned up in a breton top.

In fact, the strong design, loose narrative and and trio of mime artists made for an encounter that was essentially physical theatre. The show benefits greatly from an integrated band, Alamo Race Track, playing large-toned electric American folk as if in character on stage. There's lots of fun without recourse to all-out slapstick; when this happens its ambitious and occasionally breathtaking (there's a particularly alarming-then-astonishing coup de theatre near the end). Everything is geared towards entertaining the audience and, by this reckoning, the event was entirely successful.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Marnie, Muhly, ENO

Even in recent memory (I watched Hitchcock's film last month) I don't quite remember Marnie being so colour-saturated (the 1964 film is in Technicolor). The creative team that has helped stage Nico Muhly's new opera for ENO have managed to touch base with everything in the Pantone catalogue. The set & costume design, lit on a stage that accommodates more excellent projection work from 59 Productions, is a synaesthete's paradise. It is rather glorious.

It's design that is of a part with the music too. The orchestration is consistent and moves through just as many colours as the harmonic overlays and clusters. It's a score that deserves the over-used term kaleidoscopic.

This multiple facet reflects a key element of the subject matter of the opera. Marnie is represented onstage not only as a solo mezzo-soprano but also with a quartet of semi-alter egos and with a penumbrating ensemble of grey-suited demons in perpetual motion. Marnie herself is sung by Sasha Cooke, who sings superbly and behaves in the opaque manner of her character. The bulk of the rest of the singing is undertaken by the characters of Mark & Terry Rutland, Daniel Okulitch & Jamie Laing both finessing their 'meadow' & 'lies' set piece arias respectively; as their mother, Lesley Garrett commanded the most ready audience reaction (not least through noteworthily crisp English enunciation). The supporting parts have decisive contributions too: Diana Montague's Lucy and Alasdair Elliott's Mr Strutt are noteworthy. The chorus & orchestra are consistently fine.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Opera Passion, V&A

passion /ˈpaʃ(ə)n/ - noun: 
1. strong and barely controllable emotion. 
2. the suffering and death of Jesus. (via Google)
OK, so we're talking about the first definition here. Though if you've just come out of the V&A's latest exhibition Opera: Passion, Power and Politics you'd understand the etymology. The composers who bring the key works featured in the narrative of the exhibition are increasingly singled out, either as as heroes or agitators, suffering for their stubborn adherence to their muse.

#OperaPassion - to choose the hashtag-contracted title for social media - is a well-focused exhibition, tramlined along the triple rail of its own title. We get eight operas as a narrative armature: L'incoronazione di Poppea, Rinaldo, Il Nozze di Figaro, Nabucco, Tannhäuser, Salome and Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, with a smattering of others in allusion. There's also a large area near the exit given over to 'World Opera' showing clips from productions of the art's diaspora: Written on Skin, Licht, L'Amour de Loin, to name a few in the absence of a list or the patience to sit through and note them all.

The exhibition seems pitched just about right. The operas are fine repertory pieces, the extracts representative (and often catchy). Alongside projections, scores and source texts for libretti are paraphernalia from theatres and concurrent cultural bits n bobs (drinking tokens from early 18th century London, one picturing a lute). There are some fine artworks too, both of musicians but also as flags of the cultural diet from the period - an excellent landscape of a Viennese market and Francesco Hayez's 1859 Il Bacio (The Kiss) stand out. Particularly impressive is a staged film of a youthful Shostakovich 'composing' Lad Macbeth.

Of course, key to an operatic exhibition is the music. The V&A equip each visitor with a location sensitive mp3 player and (excellent) Bowers & Wilkins headphones. This arrangement, vaguely familiar from the Bowie exhibition in this museum of a couple of years ago, is slick and convenient. with hands free, one gets an aural impression of the exhibits dead ahead - including a reproduction baroque theatre. It's well-mixed and the transitions were smooth at whatever speed I walked.

It was also maddening. Part of the difficulty posed by music - by opera - is that it reveals itself at a set speed; equally that one must commit to listening for a set or minimum period of time. Part of my frustration with the first few spaces of the exhibition (beyond it being rather cramped to begin with) involved getting to grips with this dissonance: wanting to look at the exhibits at my own pace and having that pace dictated by the music, the the music's dependence on location.

This was as much an issue for me as for the curator. But then, I also considered how focusing on the content is part of a modern stumbling block with operatic attractions.

At the end of last week I attended one of the few live operatic productions staged at the V&A. Kepler's Trial concerns a religious cross-examination of Kepler's mother, tried as a witch (I was reminded of Vere in Billy Budd, 'It is not his trial, it is mine, mine!'). Tim Watts' music has plenty to recommend it, not least a modern appropriation of various period compositions, expertly rendered by the Gesualdo Six; the Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Lecture Theatre has great potential for musical events once the best way to stage music drama is settled on.

Yet the V&A isn't an auditorium. Kettling an audience between (excellent) pre-performance talk and show works against the best intent of exhibitor and audience alike, for all that there were drinks  available (for 45 mins we couldn't leave the building or get back in to our seats in the theatre). Securing a modern audience for operatic productions relies on an implied contract: welcome, join the audience in attentive silence for a couple of hours and we will deliver something worth this investment. Perhaps getting to grips with a novelty, like performing space (the lecture theatre) or process (perambulation-sensitive soundtrack) might be cast as attraction.

However, if the welcome itself is contingent - as we know from the enduring nonsense over ticket prices and dress codes that sticks to the word 'opera' like the smell of last night's dinner - then things are likely to get tricky.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics works as an overview of history and a particular component of that history. It's entertaining too. If there was not sufficient reference to the boom in the contemporary re-invention of the artform and the way in which it is produced (particularly in this country) then that'll largely be because of the remit of the museum - they have 400 years to cover - and also because we don't really know what the impact of operatic reinvention in the past decade has been, if any. One might remember that there is a dedicated 'opera' suite of rooms in the permanent collection of the V&A too.