Friday, 31 May 2013

Public Enemy

Young Vic, 31 May 2013

Why do I bother linking to trailers that give little idea of the drama? From here.

Ibsen's bitter 'comedy' loses much of its shockingly direct impact through a misguidedly understated production.

When the adaptation, director and star all conspire to ruin a piece, I am tempted to think it may be that I was mistaken in my high opinion of the original.

On reflection, though, I think rather that the production is simply mistaken, failing to grant sufficient power to the drama. Overall, while the updated set is bright, the acting is too low-key.

The critical scene is Dr Stockmann's rant to the assembly,  of course really the theatre audience itself, though I wonder how many of us are willing to accept the speech. It is the most direct assault on an audience in any major drama, excepting perhaps Shakespeare's Timon, and I find it deeply uncomfortable.

This Nietzschan diatribe against our slave selves and society makes me squirm, for I find the argument hard to refute, yet it seems to lead to autocracy or worse. As Stockmann exorts us to transcend our values, we ought to be thinking just how unlikely that is. 

I'm not sure any audience is really willing to hear this, but thankfully Ibsen was too great a dramatist to readily identify with his hero. So there are several ways a director can cushion the blow. Perhaps Stockmann has been driven mad by the town's persecution? Or, in the following scenes, he can seem self-ob sessed, the culmination of his earlier character? Or a connection can be made between his earlier, easygoing nature and his new 'strength'?

Of all these options, one of the worst would be to underplay the great denunciation, to have the doctor chummily engage with the audience as if he were a poor standup comedian. Yet somehow this is what adaptor David Harrower, director Richard Jones and actor Nick Fletcher contrive.

The production also highlights a weakness in the original, where Stockmann's speech moves without warrant from specific criticisms to bitter generalisations worthy of Timon. Part of the problem here is Harrower's editing, which reduces the sense of gradual erosion in the doctor that is present in the original. 

After the great speech, which has an impact even when traduced as here, Jones emphasises the self-obsessed side of Stockmann, a reasonable decision, but one that further weakens his criticisms of us.

The final moments, however, are very effective, partly because either Jones or Charlotte Randle moves one of Stockmann's lines to his wife, then proceeds to give her a potent half-laughing half-crying response to her husband's pathetic final repeated claims of strength. 

Actually Randle gives a great performance throughout, absolutely riveting. Her character is ambiguous in Ibsen, and could be portrayed as either critically supportive or as a desperate mother forced to stay with her impossible husband. Randle opts for the latter.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Lichtenstein: A retrospective

Tate Modern
21 February – 27 May 2013

 Landscape in Fog 1996. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012. From here.

A few of this distinctive artist's works go a long way, and although this retrospective dutifully covers his range, excess doesn't serve him well.

The works are big and bright, even those in monochrome, and for the most part vulgarly so, except for a charming series of Chinese landscapes executed at the end of the artist’s life.

Once he found his style, of scaling up a cheap, commonplace image (most notably graphic art in comics), he explored it thoroughly.

We get ‘pop’ versions of Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian and others; ‘pop’ versions of nudes, landscapes and still life, and so on.

A room alternating early and late abstract works made me wonder whether Lichtenstein had any talent for colour harmony. The later paintings are at least in his distinctive style, whereas the earlier are routine abstract expressionism, but in both the colours are too vivid, too clashing.

I suspect a direct comparison with his powerful precursor Mondrian, would emphasise the relative ugliness of the later artist’s distribution of colour.

Whether an ugly style or not, in isolation, the immediate effect of the art is playful, irreverent. In an exhibition that aspect is reduced through overexposure, so it becomes possible to more closely examine any message the style communicates.

If the message is supposed to be critical of our society, it doesn’t work. On the other hand, even the least effective works here only hint at the wealth-obsessed, inequality-enforcing vapid bling of the worst of Koons and Hirst. After the first pop artists, the deluge of crap.

But his works are seriously flawed. To take the late nudes as an example, the artist’s variations on modern advertising and preconceptions of a beautiful woman are more fond parody than incisive criticism.

Some charm, then, but the conversation dries up quickly.

Monday, 27 May 2013

The bride and batchelors

Barbican Art Gallery
14 February – 9 June 2013

Duchamp's Large Glass. Philadelphia Museum of Art. From here.
Duchamp's ambiguous legacy, both in his own terms and in terms of the art he influenced, doesn't distract from his originality and power.

This is a confusing exhibition. Duchamp’s works – among which may be the 25 years he pretended to be only a chess player – are complicated enough.

But this show also explores his influence on a later generation of artists in the US: the visual artists Rauschenberg and Johns, the composer Cage and the choreographer Cunningham.

Finally, an additional level of complexity is introduced by the curator, Philippe Parreno, who arranges ‘ghost piano’ versions of Cage’s work, ‘ghost dancer’ sounds of Cunningham’s and recordings of these artists speaking about their lives, inspirations, etc.

The exhibition is arranged thematically, which isn’t necessarily helpful, though the catalogue provides the works chronologically. The catalogue is also fairly dense, an anthology of writings as well as essays on these artists.

Amidst all of this information overload, it’s still possible to be impressed by the French master.

Quite properly, the exhibition ignores the obvious irony that an artist who explicitly sought to demystify his profession should have become talismanic to later artists.

Several of Duchamp’s greatest works are here, at least in replica, and they convey a good sense of his power and development, in much the same way as would be true of any great artist.

He appears to have pioneered all aspects of conceptual art, from chance and found objects to installations and performance.

I think the finest of the works from the later artists is Not wanting to say anything about Marcel, by Cage. The title sums up my feelings on Duchamp, while of course also attempting to use some of his ideas (in this case randomness, wordplay and painted glass) to create something interesting.

As the exhibition proves, whatever the master did, no matter how hard he tried to create anti-art, his ideas became the reference point for further variations, many of them interesting artworks.

A replica of his masterpiece, the Large Glass, justifiably dominates the exhibition, though his infamous sculptures were more influential (and we see them too).

It has surprising ‘wall power’, especially as it is free standing yet cannot be appreciated except from the front, as with more traditional paintings. Presumably it is an abstract – and sexualised – version of the Assumption, and a version that implies the physical mechanisms of the body while maintaining something of the spiritual mystery and yearning of the traditional concept.

It’s magnificent, but still within the boundaries of traditional ideas of art, boundaries that Duchamp was quixotically eager to destroy.

His US followers may also have wanted this, but were no more successful. Except, I suppose, in the sense that bad art, uninteresting art, is truly anti-artistic.

Much of this stuff is bad. John’s bronze casting of his paintpot has no appeal, especially subversive appeal, whereas Duchamp’s playful revising of an enamel tin is at least enjoyable, if frivolous.

Cage’s music, and Cunningham’s choreography, if it works, does so in spite of knowing the random methods employed. They may as well be created in the traditional manner.

Whereas Duchamp’s wonky versions of the standardised metre length raise the question of why a straight line should be our standard metric, rather than any other. Probably for aesthetic reasons, rather than mathematical ones; so here the artwork challenges this aesthetic notion.

I could continue: the artists, the catalogue, the mise en scene deserve it. But with limited space, I’ll finish by observing that MD was something of a dead-end, such that those he influenced were forced to be creative in a different way if they were to succeed. This is probably as close to anti-art as it is possible to get.

Sunday, 26 May 2013


English National Opera
25 May 2013

Trailer from here.

Perhaps a little is lost in translation, but this English version is otherwise so good that it doesn’t matter. I hope a DVD recording is imminent.

Director Carrie Cracknell sets it in or around a contemporary army base, and makes indirect links to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This dilutes some of the class concerns of Buchner’s original drama, but it does at least provide a clear social context for Wozzeck’s distressed mental health.

Sara Jakubiak's Marie perhaps has too posh an accent, but could conceivably be an army brat. Otherwise, the production and performances are exemplary. In particular conductor Edward Gardner gives the finest account I have heard. His pacing screws the tension to unbearable levels, and the orchestral playing remains restrained until the key climaxes, when the sound swells to levels I have not experienced before in any theatre.

Among the singer-actors, Tom Randle and James Morris must be singled out for the secondary roles of the tormenting Captain and Doctor respectively, but the whole cast is amazing, somehow convincing us that these are real people.

An essay in the programme claims that a famous problem with the opera is how such a tightly constructed composition could be used to convey the title character’s descent into homicidal madness. But really this presents no greater problem than Verdi’s Otello ie none at all.

The more substantial problem with the work is that it so perfectly imposes a structure on Büchner's fragmentary collection of scenes. True, these fragments are probably intended to reflect growing madness, but more importantly they convey the vicious meaninglessness of life.

The original drama, then, can leave the spectator dispirited but questioning: how might our awful lives be improved? Berg’s music drama instead gives the overwhelming impression that its protagonists’ lives are predetermined towards misery and wretchedness.

Further, in a musical performance as good as this one, there is no alienation. None of the singers succumbed to caricature, despite the grotesqueness of their characters. The orchestral sound, at times shattering, nonetheless conveyed as much beauty as noise; the influence of Mahler was obvious, and nowadays opera audiences don’t find the music exceptionable.

Ironically, then, Berg could be accused of employing bourgeois means to defang what might otherwise be a devastating critique of capitalism. I left feeling utterly powerless to even consider options of preventing the tragedy onstage.

I want to be clear: from one perspective, Berg is more mature than, say Brecht or Shaw, to take examples of alienation and satire respectively. His drama presents us with an unbearable situation, and doesn’t allow us to flinch. In fact, that is precisely how I felt watching it – that I must focus all my attention on what was happening, when i would otherwise want to look away.

At the same time, however, this is a drama that provides no possibility for hope. For many of us, the music itself is no longer ‘difficult’ or unenjoyable; but the music drama most certainly is unenjoyable. It is not flawed, nor is it frivolous, and so is a masterpiece but so bleak that it can only be adequately confronted occasionally.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Man Ray: Portraits

National Portrait Gallery
7 February  27 May 2013

Le violin d'Ingres. Museum Ludwig Cologne, Photography Collections (Collection Gruber)
© Man Ray Trust / ADAGP © Copy Photograph Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln
Some definitive portraits, but not enough to deserve an entire show, especially given the routine quality of many of the other images.

First off, as a record of European modernist pioneers, particularly in Paris, this exhibition is wonderful. The artist seems to have known, and photographed, everyone. He also has a talent for capturing either the intensity, or surprising lack of it, in some of his subjects.

Here is wide-eyed Picasso (over several decades), there is plump stately Matisse. On one side we are in the brooding presence of Schoenberg, in a timeless expressionist image reminiscent of his own mask-like painted portraits; on the opposite side we party with the ravishing Peggy Guggenheim, evoking the high hopes and new freedoms of her era.

Next, as expected, some surrealistic images, including portraits of muse and student Lee Miller and Ray himself, especially one of him sleeping under a female torso. But these are period pieces.

Then, we notice the size of the prints. Sometimes familiar images are revealed to be smaller (or larger) than we expect. It isn’t clear whether these historic prints reflect Ray’s intentions – there is an example of him producing two different crops for an image, which suggest he had some interest in this, though I didn’t notice much difference.

Some of the later colour portraits are printed so small as to part of the portrait miniature tradition, and presumably this was Ray’s intention. But hardly an inspired idea, and the actual portraits are bland fashion images.

And the fashion portraits are especially dull, and comprise too much of the exhibition, as if hackwork must be displayed simply to prove he did it.

The relation between cinema and photography seems particularly striking looking at these portraits. Perhaps directors and actors were influenced by the poses in Ray’s photos, but it mostly seems the other way around.

So the stilted unsmiling images of the silent era give way to disarmingly self-confident images of the 1960s, with variations recorded between these periods. 

Overall, a curiosity rather than a living body of work.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Don Carlo

Royal Opera House
21 May 2013 

Ferruccio Furlanetto (Philip II), eloquent at the opening of Act III. From here.

A good, but not great, production of an overwhelming masterpiece.

Verdi’s operas typically explore the standard, almost ubiquitous, suffering woman theme of serious Italian music drama. They also explore family relationships, like much of the non-musical theatre of the period. Only this work seriously examines existential concerns of our relationship with power and with faith.

Which is not to say Verdi didn’t employ his usual themes as a way to address these others. Elisabetta suffers, and Carlo has a murderous relationship with his father Filippo, but the overriding impression is rather the  painful way in which power and faith, while bolstering each other, do so only to make our lives worse.

Although the private scenes between Rodrigo and Filippo, then Filippo and the Grand Inquisitor, carry the weight of the work, that weight is created in the central public scene of the auto-da-fe, in which somehow Verdi succeeds in transfiguring the horrific. It is one of the most distressing scenes in all of art, yet oddly uplifting, as if the artist insisted that there must be a good outcome in the afterlife, contrary to all appearances.

Great voices are needed, but also good acting, and the production is critical. I’m not quite sure why Nicolas Hytner’s production doesn’t work for me, given its clear theatrical strengths.

For example, I hadn’t quite appreciated how indebted this work is to Scribe’s notions of a well-made play, in which every aspect contributes to the plot. Eboli’s song of the veil foreshadows her pretence in the garden, and so on. Hyntner is very good at this, but elsewhere presenting the opera as a grand old historical drama is detrimental, the costumes and pageantry a distraction.

Antonio Pappano has made this work something of a speciality, performing several different versions, and he and his orchestra endow the piece with beautiful, resonant tone. So I’m also not sure why I felt that both the conclusion of the auto-da-fe scene and the ending of the whole opera didn’t catch fire as in previous performances (pardon the pun).

The production also exaggerates Carlo’s role, with many scenes ending with him alone facing the grim façade of Filippo’s Escorial palace.

The voices were wonderful, being generally capable of both beauty and thrills. Unfortunately the acting was broad and conventional, a flaw also of the production.

La donna del largo

Royal Opera House
20 May 2013

Juan Diego Flórez, Joyce DiDonato and Colin Lee give some idea of the merits of this opera in their previous collaboration, in Paris 2010. 
From here.

Unbelievable singing and a thoughtful, striking production still cannot salvage a weak drama.

Quiz question: what opera features a woman singer who has to wear a skirt in order to be convincing as a man? Less a trouser role, then, than a kilt role. Is this a Rossinian joke?

John Fulljames' production employs a framing device: the work is apparently being created in the imaginations of early nineteenth century contemporaries of Scott, so that it takes place in an oak-panelled museum and culminates in a version of the British King George IV’s ceremonial visit to Scotland in 1822, which had genuinely been stage managed by Scott himself and concluded his invention of a romanticised Highland-focussed, tartan-and-kilt tradition of Scotland.

It’s probably useful to be reminded of Scott’s contribution to this nationalism, but it is confusing, and introducing peculiar anachronisms to the opera actually weaken the reference. There is little gained by turning the (Scottish) King and his soldiers into English redcoats. The Scottish tradition may have been invented after England had become the dominating force in the United Kingdom, but surely Scott intended his countrymen to be proud of their independent monarchical heritage?

What any of this has to do with Rossini and his librettists, and so with the opera, is a mystery. It seems to me the opera could plausibly be set anywhere, and while it is mildly concerned with patriotism, its real interest is in the tangled love story of its central character.

The production is handsome, and in general the stars look good. Ah, yes, the stars. Rather like Il Trovatore, this appears to require four of the best singers in the world, so it was just as well it got them.

It needs great singers because while some of the music is very beautiful, this tends to be the quieter, slower arias. Yet every aria, it seems, threatens to outstay its welcome, then proceeds to do exactly what it threatened by turning into a formidable cabaletta. The lack of variety made the evening something of a chore, though the voices were astonishing, and this was just about enough to maintain interest.

Rossini’s dramatic intentions coincide well with his style. His works, with almost any librettist, portray people as puppets, not really motivated by any inner sense. It’s as if we get the external show of emotion, but that as everyone gets the same musical treatment, that emotion is generalised.

This distinctive approach defines Rossinian comedy, a form of zany farce with pessimistic undertones. His comedies are near-masterpieces, but I think the approach is less special in the serious works, with only some parts of Guillaume Tell achieving a distinctive effect.

Perhaps this is because it is too easy to make melodrama a collection of generalised emotions, and Rossini doesn’t have anything new to add to the large number of eighteenth century opera seria in a similar mould.

Or does he? The ‘kilt role’ version of the trouser role may have been intentionally zany, and Fulljames only increases this factor with some very kitsch jarring effects such as rugged highlanders rum-ti-tumming on their shields, or the two male heroes heaving outsized swords for their duel.

Probably Rossini didn’t intend his beautiful harp ‘bardic’ music to be accompanied by the disembowelment of a sheep, but the effect gets the eyes rolling, and these are just the most obvious outlandish touches in this production.

That these peculiar effects didn’t seem to mar my experience of the opera may be the most effective criticism I can make of it. But the evening was enjoyable, just about, due to the voices. I can’t imagine the piece obtaining a better performance.

Thursday, 16 May 2013


Opera Up Close, King's Head Theatre
14 May 2013

Pavarotti and Millo in the great love duet from this opera. 
More designed for the opera house, as here, than a tiny theatre.

Un Ballo in Maschera in a version more likely to confirm prejudices against opera than gain it new converts.

Does it make sense to attend a performance of a repertory opera in a version that gives very little sense of how it would sound in a normal opera house?

I’ve seen Opera Up Close productions of La Boheme and Carmen, as well as pared-down productions of ‘classics’ at Grimeborn and elsewhere, and all of these have worked, even if I am aware that they would sound different with a full orchestra, and that something important is therefore missing.

Verdi showed surprising patience as A Masked Ball was renamed and relocated before its first performance, though I doubt the composer or his librettists would thank Opera Up Close for their conceit of placing it within an Ikea-like store (named Ballo) in a gruesome part of north-west London.

Naturally, the new English version of the text has undergone a massive transformation in order to accommodate this, and would confirm a sceptic’s sense that opera texts are absurd, suitable only for comic verse, in this case mildly funny but not especially so.

In fairness, the original presents major challenges too, wherever it is set. But by having the assassination plot centre around a King, or at least a Governor, the work gains an aura of seriousness that it doesn’t deserve. But stripping that aura weakens the whole, so that we are left with a murder plot against a store manager.

This may be an effective criticism or demystification of the original, but it doesn’t produce a good drama in itself.

The Opera Up Close aesthetic of a piano accompaniment, in this case a wretched upright, strongly complements the sense that we are witnessing a critique of standard opera rather than a genuine artistic re-imagining of a masterpiece. (It doesn’t help that the original is not a masterpiece, in my view).

As an aside, given the common criticism of Verdi as using the orchestra like a guitar, perhaps it might make more sense to use a guitar accompaniment rather than a piano. But I feel the criticism is misplaced in any event – Verdi’s orchestration is often sublimely appropriate, like Gluck’s.

Musically, these events can be trying, as opera singers project so forcefully that their voices, even if light, are overwhelming in such a small acoustic. I suspect only spoken drama can work in the King’s Head Theatre. But in this performance matters were made much worse by the choice of a male soprano for Oscar, rather than the usual soprano in a trouser role. I don’t mean to be harsh to talented singers, but the sopranist voice needs to be astonishing to work properly, and not sound, as here, like a screech.

On the other hand, the Amelia this evening (there are two casts) was impressive, given acoustic limitations, with some delightful dynamic and breath control and generally aiming for a beautiful tone.

If the sounds were galling, at least the enunciation was flawless, and it is a rare experience to be able to understand every word.

So given the number of revisions, perhaps this should have been given as a spoken drama rather than sung?

I think the singing was justified if only because Verdi's magnificent introduction and duet in Act 2 still worked its ecstatic magic despite all misgivings, and some wooden tempi. And if this was the highlight of an otherwise vulgar evening, the blame for that lies as much with the original as with this revision.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013


Little Bull theatre
Battersea Arts Centre, 7 May 2013

"Django Reinhardt" as Orpheus.
Entertaining pastiche Parisian Jazz Age hot club version of the Orpheus myth that nonetheless touches a tragic sentiment at the climax.

Sometimes site-specific theatre can create a powerful dramatic effect. My previous site-specific performance at the Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) was  Punchdrunk’s Poe interpretation, and I don't recall feeling moved. The Centre’s art nouveau architecture is much better suited to this ironic, but powerful, version of the Orpheus myth.

The conceit is that this is a 1920s Parisian Jazz setting of the myth, in a music hall that has engaged the great Romani guitarist Django Reinhardt as Orpheus.

The result of this playful idea is a burlesque that the actual Reinhardt, or indeed any of his contemporaries, is unlikely to have been involved in. For example, the production deftly parodies (and celebrates) silent films, in a way inspired by the recent film The Artist.

This doesn’t matter: what matters is that the combination of hot jazz, infectiously broad humour and quotations from the French classical tradition and Monteverdi’s Orfeo somehow works.

The details matter. From the poster design, to the drinks and food menu at the BAC, the spell is woven from many strands, and the effect is magical. If the result isn’t authentic 1920s Paris, it nonetheless feels much more romantic than 2010s London.

Django got a proper hommage during the interval, which ought to have gotten the crowd swinging like Josephine Baker, if only we weren’t all so bourgeois.

Eight musicians who can also act, dance and sing would be an impossible casting requirement, and we wouldn’t find such a cast in Battersea. So it’s just as well that this production was intended to be mostly funny; the entertainment value was very high, especially as the musicians were genuinely talented at evoking the period’s jazz.

But at the key moment, the dramatic potential of the Orpheus myth rightly superseded the humorous theatricality of the rest of the evening. Persephone’s aria, leading to Orpheus and Eurydice’s escape, and climaxing with Orpheus’ doubt and tragic second loss… all of this was played seriously and very movingly.

It was also original music, composed by this extremely talented company, Little Bull Theatre, of whom I hope to experience more great evenings.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Light Show

Hayward Gallery
30 January  6 May 2013 

Detail from Model for a timeless garden by Olafur Eliasson. From here.
Appreciation of the effects of light appears to have gone missing from contemporary art, and this selection of works from the last 30 years or so confirms this.

Simply celebrating light over darkness (or better, absence of light) has been central to our visual culture. Poets, musicians and philosophers may celebrate night but mostly reacting against what for most of us is our unquestioned preference for daylight.

The artworks here also celebrate light, and as the curators point out, are indeed comprised mostly of light, but it is dispiriting that the light in question is entirely manufactured, either lightbulbs or neon or LEDs; nowhere is there actual light from the sun, or the moon, or from candles / fires.

The quality of light links to another observation.

Depicting light’s effects in paint, or managing its effects in sculpture and architecture, is a critical part of representational art, at least in the Western tradition and since at least the Renaissance, but probably on-and-off in all regions and across much larger epochs.

I’ve just returned from Venice, whose painters and architects specialised in depicting and exploiting the effects of light in their city.

Clearly this assumes that when we look at a Canaletto, we see Venice, rather than small gradations of oil. Promisingly, the artists in this exhibition use light itself, directly, rather than attempting to represent light through oil.

Unfortunately the results are usually extremely crude, with little of the refinement of earlier masters.

Three rooms in lit by different colours: a work of greater subtlety than most in this outrageously popular exhibition. I accept the visceral effect of walking from one light-infused section to another is impressive, and the work also highlights our subjective experience of colour, how this changes relative to our context.

But is that it? Doesn’t Monet make the same point in infinitely finer style, to name unfairly just the greatest of possible comparisons?

Two works here are definitely worth experiencing.

Wedgework V by James Turrell is a genuine sculpture in light, similar to Barnett Newman’s paintings in the Tate, but even more hypnotic. But the artist requests 15 minutes of contemplation for the work to achieve full effect, which seems exorbitant, and nobody else managed it when I was watching.

Model for a timeless garden by Olafur Eliasson is stunning, various mini water spouts illuminated by white strobe lighting. For once, the cold ambience of the lighting really helped, turning the water droplets into gleaming crystals. It is the kind of marvel about which fables are written.