Wednesday, 30 January 2013

The Mikado

English National Opera, 30 January 2013

As the production hs been around since 1986, it has been taped.
Here is the first scene, courtesy of youtube.

In presenting the operetta as 1930s screwball, this impressively musical production misses some of the edge in Gilbert.

Though The Mikado is a modest political satire, mostly on the law, it does parody cultural traits of the English, and one of those cultural traits now includes a passion for The Mikado. In this, it is a cousin of Wilde's contemporary The Importance of Being Earnest, which likewise considers Englishmen as children.

I don't think The Mikado operates at the same consistently high level as Wilde's masterpiece, but the comparison makes me think better of what can otherwise seem a trivial comic opera.

It's surely fair that unlike any other operatic collaboration, librettist Gilbert gets equal billing with composer Sullivan. For it's Gilbert that defines the partnership, with his groping for rhymes so that even Katisha's otherwise serious aria is comic through rhyming on I.

But Gilbert's humour also exhibits a peculiar form of bad faith, so that his parody of romance and opera in general seems bitter, rather than for example the balanced parody of Wilde. If Gilbert is sentimental, as often claimed, then it is a self-hating closeted sentiment.

While it's good to hear trained opera voices tackling Sullivan's music, Jonathan Miller's production (revived by Elaine Tyler-Hall) has flaws. By setting the action in England around 1930, the comedy is a little too obvious.

The actual Mikado should also seem genuinely powerful, which isn't the case here. I dislike Gilbert's respect-it subvert-it attitude to authority, but it is central to his work, and by reducing the visible threat levels, his drama loses some bite.

Intrusive peppy dancers and the occasional karate chop also seem to not quite capture the mood of the opera, and are distracting. The overall impression is that Miller doesn't really like the work, and I can't blame him, but presumably having some liking for the work is necessary to create an effective production.

My ambivalent feelings were not shared by many of my fellow audience members. The full house seemed to find everything worth appluading and laughing at, however feeble. I left feeling Gilbert's joke was on me somehow.

Monday, 28 January 2013


Silent Opera, 27 January 2012

Emmanuelle Haïm's recording of L'Orfeo, with an especially dramatic opening toccata.
From youtube.

An unecessary gimmick and poor acting doesn't undermine this strangely quiet tragedy.

The courtly origins of the first major opera can be detected in some of its characteristic longeurs, which surely would have been cut for a paying public. The endless marriage ceremony, the extended mourning scenes, even the lengthy soporofic 'possente spirto', all of these are closer to an entertainment than a focussed drama.

This, combined with the heightened singing speech of Monteverdi, produces a contemplative, serene effect unlike any other music drama.

Presented well, the wedding bliss makes the bride's death all the more affecting, and the subsequent mourning establishes the motive for Orfeo's challenge to death. The following success, his understandable sense of triumph, then his equally understandable doubt over his abilities, and the possibility of a cruel trick, push his final loss of Eurydice into tragedy.

Overall, a gentle tragedy, lacking hyperbole. Its ending must have presented its creators with a dilemma, and indeed we know of two.

The original draft ending, with Orfeo being torn apart, is therefore something of a dilemma. It seems appropriate yet at the same time the eruption of such extreme violence disturbs the mood of the pice. On the other hand, the second ending, which I heard here, does little more than end the music successfully.

Daisy Evans' promenade production retains most of the elegance and doesn't attempt too many special effects. Costume is a hybrid of renaissance and modern, which is a little confusing, and the libretto is a mix of the original Italian (for the udnerworld scenes) and Evans' English translation, which is well enunciated and commendably clear.

Silent Opera have a gimmick: the audience wears headphones throughout the performance, and the music is relayed there.

This might imply there are no musicians or singers in the performnce, and everything is mimed to a pre-recorded track, but that was not the case. The characters were played by singers, for the most part, who actually sang. And while some of the accompaniment was prerecorded (which cuts costs, i guess), some of it was also live.

The headphones allow for some added everberation and special aural effects, but robably added little to the performance, and detracted from our ability to tell who was actually singing.

The singing itself was adequate, though not astonishing, and the acting ws surprisingly rudimentary. Orchestration choices were generous, though not outlandishly so. The conducting, especially in the overture, could have been more dramatic and phrasing more incisive, as in Emmanuelle Haïm's recording.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Sappho in nine fragments

Second Skin theatre, 25 January 2013
The author, Jane Montgomery Griffiths, explains what Sappho is about.
Watch her, as she is much clearer than my review. From youtube.

This dramatic meditation on identity, filtered through a classicists appreciation of the great Sappho, is a triumph for everyone involved.

Yeats’ wry comments on scholars of Catullus, poring over the fiery love poets words, could be the best description of this drama on the poet who inspired Catullus to write about his muse Lesbia. A greater poet, perhaps, though so little of her survives now, and that which does has been patiently pieced together over centuries by the scholars. 

That those scholars recast the poet to fit their prejudices provides the humour and pathos of this monologue. The irony that without scholarship Sappho would not survive even to the extent she does is not lost on Jane Montgomery Griffiths, the author, herself a classical academic. 

We know that someone heard Sappho's voice on Lesbos, while nobody ever heard Orpheus sing. But almost everything else is conjecture, and she has become at least as mythical as Orpheus. I recently reviewed a fragmentary biography of the man; here is something similar, except on the stage, and rather better. 

The text is a marvel, poetic and punning, influenced by Joyce, whose Ulysses is now a classic model for modernising the classics. Here, Griffiths breaks up the Sappho soliloquy with a lesbian love story taking place in our society. 

Key fragments of the pioneering lyric poet are employed judiciously to link the two narratives, and the love story is essential grounding for the more necessarily more rhapsodic tour through what is doubtless called Sappho’s ‘reception’: how her image has changed over time. 

Everything we know about Sappho comes from men, some of them virulently homophobic men who grappled with a great poet who was clearly attracted to both women and men. The author doesn’t overstate this gendered aspect; she is subtle enough to merely note the irony. 

By reflecting the unreliable gossipy nature of our knowledge of Sappho onto the contemporary love story subplot, Griffiths may also be illustrating that our knowledge of anyone, even intimate partners, may be unreliable in a similar way as our knowledge of ancient Greek writers.  

However, success in this intimate venue, and with 70-minutes of nearly ceaseless talking, cannot be due to text alone. Victoria Grove’s performance, and the design team’s set, deserve a greater share of the credit in bringing the text to life. 

The deceptively simple set, all ropes and drapes, was used inventively by an acrobatic Grove, depicting the singer’s alleged death-plunge, or the role of her songs in marriage ceremonies. 

It wasn’t an acting performance from the inside, but then that isn’t what this fragmented Sappho requires. Grove’s external, rhetorical acting was appropriate and spellbinding.

Jessica Ruano’s direction was fine, though it would have benefited from a less frenetic pace. The monologue form can be exhausting for an audience; greater variety is ideally needed.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Uncle Vanya

Vaudeville theatre, 23 January 2013

Ken Stott as Vanya.
Something is wrong with this production, something that is damaging to the drama, but which may also highlight a weakness with the text.

For what’s wrong isn’t something that would normally be a problem, in say, Shakespeare or Ibsen. We are given an excess of vitality.  

These actors seem simply too energetic, too vital, too confident, ever to fall into the ennui and rural dead-ends that the author describes. At various points, when a character was talking about how they had wasted their life, or how pointless it was, or how unattractive they were, I felt like shouting ‘so go and change your life, do something, you obviously can, you are not a hopeless case’. 

Perhaps then, the actors in Uncle Vanya should seem as if they are indeed hopeless cases. A lack of hope characterises most of the characters from the start, and if this isn’t convincingly portrayed, I think the drama doesn’t work. 

Though this is the deepest problem with this production, there are others, also subtle. The staging is traditional, taking place in a large wood-lined house (a clever touch, visualising the environmental desecration that Astrov campaigns against). This would be fine, except that it presents the challenge of how to have conversations in front of a group without anyone eavesdropping. I feel this must be the hardest challenge in directing Chekhov, and it is not overcome here by Lindsay Posner. 

A final difficulty is with Ken Stotts vigorous, near-psychotic performance of Vanya himself. In some ways this is one of the most extraordinary examples of stage presence I have seen. Stott genuinely seems at risk of an aneurism when Vanya is distressed. His fury after discovering Yelena and Astrov embracing is something marvellous to behold. But he seems almost to occupy a different time zone from the other characters, and certainly shouts as if he believes the other end of the stage were a thousand kilometres away. 

These are subtle, ambiguous problems. They could equally be described as successes. A vigorous, vital cast compels attention. A beautiful, socially aware production: the class differences are well caught, as they should be but rarely are in modern productions. And Stott’s emotional typhoon, purely as acting, deserves the applause he received.

But taken together, the faults mitigate the virtues, and I was left unmoved by the experience, as if this were weaker Chekhov, rather than one of his mature masterpieces, a despairing comedy in which no disruptive act works, so that everyone returns to their ordinary, dreary lives.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Minotaur

Royal Opera House, 21 January 2013

The first 15 minutes of the opera, from the 2008 production (on youtube)

A revival of Harison Birtwistle's 2008 work confirms it deserves attention for its unflinching depiction of the effect of violence on the spirit.

The programme notes confirm what is clearly shown on stage; that librettist David Harsent is uncomfortable about notions of the heroic.  

I don’t mean this as a criticism; or perhaps I mean to suggest that this drama does not attempt to present a credible heroism. The kind of things heroes did – for example Theseus, the hero here – are no longer the kind of things most of us can value in any thought-provoking work.

However, the Minotaur, while sympathetic, is still monstrous, and this is something we can find credible, though often are not asked to. Instead, we are either given an unsympathetic villain or if we feel sympathy for him, he turns out to be much less villainous than we originally thought. 

Not so here. The Minotaur commits acts of grotesque violence, and no acts of kindness. His freakish appearance (and half-beast nature, as he and everyone else feels it) combined with his deprivation in the dark prison Labyrinth, combine to produce a plausibly vile disposition. Wretchedness breeds villainy, and it is not relevant that of course not all wretched people are villains, any more than all villains lead a wretched life. 

The Minotaur is not an anti-hero, for contrast with the hero Theseus. He is a villain, a monster, very well characterised. Here, Theseus is more the anti-hero, brave and well-intentioned but also pragmatic, unscrupulous and happy to murder his half-brother, for both he and the monster were fathered by the Sea God.  

[This last trait, while to us no worse than being happy to murder someone unrelated, was regarded by the ancient Greeks as a vile crime. More might have been made of this in the drama, but in any case Theseus is deliberately unmemorable.] 

Ariadne is more central to this drama than either the anti-hero or the titular monster. If she was present in the final scenes, this could even be described as her tragedy. Fearful and wanting to escape her homeland, she clutches at the straw promise Theseus makes to leave with her to Athens, though his subsequent desertion of her on Naxos is foreshadowed in the very opening of this work, as she walks lonely along the Cretan beach.
Birtwistle has tended towards both myth and violence in his operas, and here I think he finds the perfect subject. He depicts a violent, cruel world with appropriate music, including, surprisingly, very warm music on occasion when either the Minotaur or Ariadne are feeliong sorry for themselves, as well they might.
I think this uncharacteristic occasional venture into sentimentality is absolutely vital for this work. It humanises the effects of the violence and despite ourselves we feel pity for all those affected.
The flavour of ancient Athenian tragedy is captured by Birtwistle and Harsent. We don't leave the theatre feeling happier, or with greater understanding of our terrible condition, but we do experience it properly, and are repelled by it.
Cast, conducting and playing is all of the highest standard. Direction, sets and designs are unobtrusive and right. I hope this opera enters the canon.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the making of landscape

Royal Academy, 8 December 2012 – 17 February 2013

Dolbadern Castle, by JMW Turner, 1800. From the Royal Academy.
An opportunity to see the originality of Turner and Constable as landscape painters, by helpfully contrasting with both earlier masters and their immediate predecessors.

The subtitle is ambiguous. Does it mean simply the way landscape paintings are made, technically? Or does it mean something like the invention of landscape? Either way, it is misleading.  

I believe the curators mean to show how the sublime entered British landscape painting towards the end of the 1700s. This is a rather more modest claim, in keeping with the mere handful of oil landscapes from the three painters on display. 

The rest of the exhibition is mostly monochrome, specifically prints and drawings from the three great painters and from earlier landscape artists, along with some watercolours, mezzotints, etc. 

Something certainly enters the landscapes of Constable and Turner that is not present in the earlier landscapes here, but I am not sure it is ‘the sublime’. 

The great landscape painters were simply more receptive than earlier artists, more absorbed with representing the sky, the foliage, and how man-made objects interacted with these. With Turner the world seems awash with sunlight; with Constable woodland vitality overwhelms us.

A Prospect of the Chee Torr &c. on the River Wye, an engraving after Thomas Smith of Derby, 1743.
From the Royal Academy.
Earlier artists displayed here captured the grandeur of natural scenery, and may as a result be better candidates for sublimity. But overall, their landscapes display a sense of order and proportion, so that a ruined abbey reminds us that human works need not endure.  

By contrast, Constable and Turner at their most characteristic simply ignore human works. As with Wordsworth’s finest poetry, they have no need to find a conventionally sublime subject in order to evoke awe; any subject can evoke awe if, for example, the sunlight or woodland is as powerful as these painters made it.

In explaining these differences, there seems no need to use a treacherous word like sublime, which in the eighteenth century was contrasted with the beautiful. Surely the Constables are beautiful? Nor need we denigrate the earlier painters as merely picturesque or topographic, as though Turner and Constable didn’t care that they painted what they saw. The earlier artists seek something different, a more human scale (or when necessary a gargantuan scale, but to impress humans). 

Gainsborough’s headlining here is puzzling, as I would link him more with the earlier landscape painters, who were his contemporaries. His talent is greater, but the content is similar: ordered, contrasting the human with the grand.  

This is also found in the prints and reproductions of great masters that inspired all these artists. In the Italians, landscape is generally a stage for a human or divine drama. In the French, Dutch and Flemish masters landscape becomes an end in itself, but still confined within human reason, something to be admired perhaps, or if feared, feared for sane reasons.

With Turner, with Constable, we find a new focus, on the power of the imagination on nature (or perhaps vice versa). It is not so much the external world these painters depict, as the explicit effect of our imagination when observing the world. Constable is less dramatic than Turner, but conveys the same sense of heightened reality.  

Enough engaging with the curators. Go to see the great oil paintings, and admire the many prints and drawings.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Cotman in Normandy

Dulwich Picture Gallery, 10 October 2012 - 13 January 2013

From the Dulwich Picture Gallery website.

One for the specialists: restrained orderly landscapes that confirm that an older tradition lived alongside the Romantic revolution of the imagination. 

Supposedly the topographical representation of landscape so widespread in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe was replaced, by Cotman’s time, with a different kind of landscape depiction, more poetic than merely noting facts, and certainly imbued with greater dramatic tension. 

As this show proves, the recording of facts continued, with Cotman only mildly embellishing scenes from Norman landscapes. But it also confirms that facts are never mere when they have to be selected, and that drawing / painting etc require this throughout. 

Rather, it is the purpose and skill of the artist in selecting facts that transforms a dull topographic landscape into a masterpiece. None of the works in this exhibition are masterpieces, but some are very striking, and even the worst are picturesque, which as I understand the term means that they offer us an exotic, attractive, view. 

The exhibition has more interest for Sunday amateurs than for anyone seeking a great artistic experience, and the exhibition space cruelly tempted me with glimpses of the larger, more brilliant oil canvases hanging in the main gallery.   

This is an exhibition of quite small drawings and watercolours. They typically depict either a barren landscape, or more commonly a bustling medieval town scene from Rouen or Caen. Very few images suggest contemporary, nineteenth-century France; it was the medieval remnants that inspired the artist (and his friend Turner, also exhibited here briefly). 

This is a poor kind of inspiration, a variation on the landscape-with-ruin image that was central to the romantic oil painting of the era. But the mood is closer to the antiquarianism of the previous century, images depicting stillness (even in bustling towns), rather than intense emotion and feeling.

Mostly these are images of scenes and objects that are themselves supposed to be sufficiently exotic that they reward our interest. The contemporary Wordsworthian approach to imagination, that any scene can be infused with power if the artist is sensitive enough, is not in evidence. 

Put differently, the images depict a humanised world, one in which awe, when invoked, has its place in reminding us to find beauty in the natural landscape. The imagination is under control, whereas later, greater landscapes reveal the interaction of our imagination with the world. 

One or two images refute my claim. Two of the best are not by Cotman at all, but an idiosyncratic architect who saw beauty in the mismatch of building styles in Normandy towns. These images strongly appealed to me – all corners and strangeness, exactly how I perceive the urban space I live in. 

I don’t recall a similar image from Cotman. Rather, if the curators reflect it accurately, his trips to Normandy provided him with material that he later reworked and invested with sentimental nostalgia.

This is an aesthetic development, but not much of one, and my sense of Cotman as a minor figure best left to art historians was not altered by this show.