Sunday, 4 September 2011

Mike Figgis Deloitte Ignite, Royal Opera House

I suppose the best way to describe the 'Ignite' weekend at the Royal Opera House is to talk in terms of the village fete. The doors are thrown open and the public invited to wander the various spaces. There are half a dozen attractions from conventional performances in the Linbury Studio to a pop-up cinema in the Crush Bar. The Clore Studio, balcony and upstairs bar - though not the main auditorium - were also open and all the while there were talks, music and a pair of hard-working ballet dancers in the Paul Hamlyn Hall (the one that looks like a greenhouse, above).

One of the big draws of this weekend of events was simply coming into the Royal Opera House and wandering about. It is not only and interesting but also rather pleasant space and on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the view out onto a busy Covent Garden piazza is super. What did Mike Figgis, curating the event, want the weekend to be about though? The 'statement of intent' he publishes in the accompanying leaflet reads
I'm bringing together a cross section of the cultural community for a weekend of aesthetic intercourse that will be shared with the public... I'm intrigued to know what we all think about the state of the culture that we all exist in.
This is - in the chaos that is a village fete for the cultural village - exactly what was on offer. Initially I saw the rather more formal presentations. On arriving I went to see the first of Eva Yerbabuena's flamenco sets in the Linbury Studio. This half hour performance of flamenco given by Yerbabuena and her husband, guitarist Paco Jarana (and a percussionist) was as immediately arresting as I remember the Sadler's Wells performances to have been. It went something like this:

From there I went straight to the Crush Bar cinema to catch the last 10 mins (perhaps this could have been programmed better so as not to have overlapped?) of Mike Figgis' documentary film Flamenco Women (1997 - watch a clip here, including Figgis on trumpet). Immediately after this was a screening of a specially prepared interview with the critic and writer John Berger (famous for the aesthetic treatise, Ways Of Seeing), which I also saw.

It's interesting that in these two films, the style of Figgis immediately becomes apparent. He is unafraid to edit documents, which, on the face of it, risk the charge of changing what is being said. Though this was most apparent in the rapid cross-fading of what Berger had to say, on reflection this seemed most problematic when applied to the record of the flamenco. Having come from a performance in which the artist often left gaps or moments of respite from the intensity of performance, to watch a film in which the tempo and intensity is maintained through editing seemed strange (if breathlessly exciting!).

After this I submitted to the open circus of the rest of the event. I went up to the bar to escape the People's Band, a furious free jazz ensemble blowing any remaining cobwebs out of the hall. Wandering around the upper floor there were a number of dancers doing what they usually do behind closed doors on both the terrace and in the bar. I returned to see the end of Vincent Walsh's talk and listen to what else Figgis had to recommend about the rest of the weekend before heading off.

The nature of an event convening 'pure art' as a poster suggested is that it does risk pretension and exclusion, so it was good that Figgis and the Royal Opera House were prepared to risk this. Above all it was good the  Opera House was prepared to put on so many events and discussions whose content often challenged the very people who make up its core audience and benefactors. This struck me as more a statement of intent regarding its attitude to accessibility and the geenral purpose of the work that is put on on its stages than any marketing drive or publicity statement.

Friday, 2 September 2011

La Clemenza Di Tito, Opus Opera

La Clemenza Di Tito is the second opera that Opus Opera has mounted this year, once again a Mozart opera seria. An opera tilting toward the enlightenment, the same mixture of longing and deceit is removed from the god-fearing and fatalism of it's elder cousin Idomeneo and repositioned in a more day-to-day political situation. Though he is not always exactly inspired, this dessication is not a hindrance to Mozart, writing in this the last year of his life. However, the opera isn't helped by the rather prosaic and often long-winded recitative, almost certainly interpolated by a student. In this successful and coherent performance of the opera my only thought would be whether some judicious trimming of the recitative would have been appropriate (especially given that the performance was sung in Italian, without surtitling or libretti available).

In putting on this concert performance, resources went into providing an orchestra, a modest (though effective) chorus and, on this occasion, a fortepiano for the recitatives played by the musical director, Gregory Batsleer. The venue, Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, is a sizeable church whose marbled cavities are currently engorged by an absent organ. The sound is consequently a little unwieldy; not so much boomy as difficult to control. The young, undoubtedly late-convened orchestra's ensemble was never going to retain any fizz through this nebulous acoustic - this is a space ideal for a Coronation Mass, rather than a stage drama. Nonetheless with his assertive direction Batsleer did manage to pull some real definition from the score as well as some occasional loveliness, particularly from the upper woodwind.

Cutting through these inevitable compromises, the sextet of characters sang well, investing both Italian and  music with technical and dramatic fluency. Kirstin Sharpin's Vitellia gripped the story from the offset, wringing drama from the recitative exchanges with Emilie Alford's Sesto. Deh, se piacer mi vuoi showed range and bite. As the plangent Annio, Kate Grosset sang with crisp Italian, a nicely balanced counterpart to Rebecca Henning's Servilia. Their sweet love duet Ah, perdona al primo affetto achieved a natural, consoling lilt. When the eponymous Emperor finally appeared it was worth the wait. Ben Thapa sang right down the church without clubbing the sound. The space was no friend of the extremes of dynamic gradient he is able to achieve, but this power supports a lovely legato, allowing the character to remain above the fray but never forcefully imperious. Beside him Alexander Learmonth made the most of the functional Publio, allowing himself the occasional (and not unwelcome) Yes, Minister smirk to season his smooth, open baritone with some buffo. Careering inamongst the scheming, Emilie Alford was a flawless Sesto throughout. The disarming ease of a frighteningly vivace close-out to Parto parto should probably have prepared us for the time-stopping piano that finally tamed the difficult hall in the later Deh per questo instante solo. Classy singing.

One isn't always guaranteed such attention to the singing in the self-generated productions that orbit the West End of London. The preparation of the score by the singers certainly carried this performance and with some panache.