Friday, 23 March 2012

Circus Tricks, Tete a Tete, Riverside Studios

There's a sequence towards the mind-numbingly violent conclusion of Michael Haneke's Funny Games in which  the mother of a family, tortured by a pair of sadistic killers, shoots one of them. The other disarms her - and then, in a surreal but horrific twist, takes a TV remote and rewinds the very film that they're all in. Thus the hopeless scene plays out again without even the catharsis of revenge.

Now, Circus Tricks is no horror show but there is a deflating sequence towards the end which involves the rewinding of one character's solipsistic version of events. It's a clever little moment - staged in a not dissimilar fashion to an identical rewind in the Royal Opera's recent Miss Fortune - but the sense of disappointment that comes with it betrays the laboured path that the opera had taken. This is partly to do with the format: each character sings about their act in similarly technical vernacular and then this is inventory is repeated in the second half of the opera. It's (formally) reminiscent of the choral dances in Britten's Death In Venice, a ballet of beach games in which it quickly becomes apparent that each event is going to be described in an embarrassing action-as-poetry argot by the chorus.

Unlike Circus Tricks, the sequence of five events takes less than five minutes, has its own characterised subtext and a dramatic consequence.

Circus Tricks isn't a bad idea by any means. I liked the context and the characters. The set and costumes are competently designed. There's room for drama with all sorts of relationships hinted at from the start. Michael Henry's music is good - possibly a little anonymous but never simply selling out to pastiche. The Chroma ensemble sextet under Gerry Cornelius play the music with unity of tone and purpose (and no little stamina, I'd imagine). The cast sing it very well, particularly Lilly Papaioannou's enticingly languid, 'mysterious' Contortionist, the elastic coloratura of Yvette Bonner's Trapeze Artist and the peculiar falsett of Daniel Keating-Roberts' Acrobat Tom, the only strain in his voice being pertinent to his boozing character.

All this well-intentioned indutry is for nothing is the drama lacks a third dimension. This is promised in the rather informal opening as the characters lounge around the space, waiting to rehearse and perform. But with the exception of a lovely vignette in which the Trapeze Artist and the Trick Pony (brilliantly played throughout by Christopher Diffey) indulge a relationship unrelated to their work there is little interaction, ultimately prevented entirely by the performance set pieces. There is a also a remarkable lack of humour, with one consciously inserted joke (concerning traffic cones) taking most of its impact from the incongruity one associates from encountering a Tourettes sufferer.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Miss Fortune, Royal Opera

On the face of it, Judith Weir's latest work for the theatre, Miss Fortune, is both self-explanatory and timely. The story concerns a girl who shuttles between situations, apparently overdetermined by a meanie countertenor, before a prince charming appears to make it better. The episodes and their contemporary setting seems to reflect the economic downturn and its attendant redundancies and fear.

Yet I was far from alone in leaving the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden last night unmoved by personal drama or unedified by some sort of pellucid argument concerning 'money, fate and fortune' (to quote Weir's own writing on the piece). I simply couldn't find any way of getting involved. The score seems to have ironed itself out to accommodate the composer's own unremarkable libretto. With no contours in dynamic, texture or the sheer kineticism of the music it was as if the population of the stage were already somnambulant in the face of the shock of the rolling episodes of crisis.

The opening scene is a case in point. The staging is semi-abstract, with Tina wandering around a party that her parents are throwing either at home or the business in which they're clearly successful. When news breaks that there is a market crisis, the parents bail out, Tina decides to go her own way and the partygoers/employees are left to bemoan the crash. Yet the music suggests no sense of dramatic tilt, unlike in, for example, the Jungfrau shares scene that marks the downturn in the fortunes of Berg's Lulu halfway through that opera.

Admittedly, the nouveau riche posturing followed by a faintly comic exit gives the impression that the composer has equal contempt for the characters whether in plenty or in need. I don't think that this is a piece that deals in dramatic equivalence for its own sake though. There's no irony here, which, incidentally, is virtually impossible in Tom Pye and Han Feng's semi-abstracted design. Miss Fortune is not a work of satire. Satire on a lyric stage is quite tricky anyway, as it's a form interested in investigating, not undermining emotions.

Lest we get ahead of ourselves, it is worth noting the good music that does emerge periodically. I liked the piano embedded in the score for that opening party, at once both an orchestral colour and - played with great finesse in the pit - a suggestion of the lounge entertainment hired for the evening. The highlight of the piece for me was at the start of the second scene. Seeking her fortune, or maybe just adventure, Tina, sung by Emma Bell, sings of the 'Lonely night' with pared-down string ensemble, echoing Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. The music is introspective but optimistic, one of the opera's natural moments of stasis-but-not-inertia.

There are moments of drama to be had within the score as well. In the laundry sequence towards the end of the first act, two different musics overlap, creating an anticipatory tension appropriate for the expected arrival of a much talked-up client, Simon. Simon himself, sung by Jacques Imbrailo, has the best stretch of solo music when he returns to try and find the girl, and consequently saves the day (rather like Richard Gere in Pretty Woman, the aggressive businessman returning bearing flowers).

These gleaming moments aside, I simply found myself either anaesthetised or confused into disengagement. If the music wasn't soothing me with its homogeneity then the mixed signals of the production's intent left me bewildered. One of the significant talking points of the night will doubtless be the employment of a terrific breakdancing troupe, Soul Mavericks (backstage production video here), as the instigators of Fate's invariable malevolence. Their initial, dramatically purposeless formal ballet aside, they were well used as imps of free will and I found the closing-curtain tableau of their ensemble dancing rather affecting (succinctly put, the joy of dancing is not contingent on fortune). But the use of the troupe to evoke the August riots in destroying a small business not only transgressed their supernaturalism but also put the shackles of association on the (street) style of dancing - not to mention the ethnicity of the largely black troupe - which had hitherto been an intriguing idiomatic departure on the stage.

Furthermore we are left with a sense of moral equivalence as to the intention of the Fate character himself. Andrew Watts played the overdeterminator as having a fine old time (anyone who saw his Mephistopheles in Schnittke's Faust at the Festival Hall two years ago will know that he owns such characters), with the 'human' population of the opera at his will, but it is that human population to which our sympathies are naturally drawn; for them to be puppets of an apparently irrational god is simply not interesting.

Ultimately, the opera does seem to tie together around one character. Simon, dressed for the City with his three piece suit and red tie, sings his aria and then goes on to secure the happiness of all with his altruism not only of pocket but of soul. There are flowers for his admiring laundrette, cash for the struggling smallholder and in persuading Tina to come with him and enjoy his manifest security he also gets her to hand over a significant lottery winning to the down-at-heel proletariat. Politically this is a difficult conclusion to stomach, that the economic turbulence we see about us is the result of noumenal forces which may nonetheless be righted by a friendly, philosophically moral banker. Hmm. And as I've already noted, this isn't a satirical work.