Monday, 30 September 2013

The Coronation of Poppea

English Touring Opera
28 September 2013

The final duet, sung by Marie-Nicole Lemieux and Philippe Jaroussky.
Would you believe these characters are psychopaths? From here.

A triumph, focussing on the serious side of this masterpiece.

ETO's current season is a superb idea: three operas from the period, let's say 1640-1720, when Venice was the centre of the newly-created artform.

Among the three, the earliest composed is not only the greatest opera before Gluck's mature period from the 1760s, but one of the greatest of all dramas, and I think the only opera to genuinely compare with Shakespeare's works in style and power.

Even Shakespeare might have found this difficult: low comedy, high tragedy and a final celebration of the immorality of love. The love between Nerone and Poppea does not transcend good and evil, but is shown directly to be evil, though it is also shown to be so much more vivid, more alive, than anything else.

Seneca's death scene is extremely moving: the composer cannot be accused of stacking the odds against him. But it is ineffectual, as is any other effort, against the overwhelming passion of the central lovers.

The opera starts with the god of love asserting he will dominate the goddesses of virtue and fortune, but in fact only Nerone's love triumphs; Ottone's fails, for example. So while love is important, power is shown to be at least as important, though part of this work's own enduring power arises from the way love and power are not contrasted, but linked.

Setting this masterpiece in Stalin’s Russia works extremely well, though it seems to have encouraged director James Conway to excessively telegraph the eventual brutal fate of Poppea, caused by her lover’s rage.

It’s understandable: Stalin has always seemed more brute than libertine, regardless of his early poetic pretensions. Throughout it is clear that Poppea’s power hungriness blinds her to Nerone’s dangerously idealised and self-centred form of love; during the ravishing final duet she finally seems to understand, too late.

I felt this was a mistake, undermining the music which makes it clear these two genuinely love each other, at least for now. But it's an illuminating mistake, not seriously harmful.

I also regretted the cutting of the 'low' comedy, but perhaps I would have found a full performance more trying, so the losses are not grievous.

Monteverdi benefits from being given in English: his flexible recitative, into which almost the entire work is cast, is much harder to appreciate in surtitles. This version by Anne Ridler, amended by Conway, seemed to fit the music perfectly and convey the composer's word setting.

Paula Sides is a sexy Poppea, even in a terrible blond wig (why was that?) and Helen Sherman was a terrifying Nerone. Importantly their voices blended well in the final duet.

The standout performance though was Piotr Lempa's grave and dignified Seneca, in a role that can easily become parody (the music perhaps facilitates this). It is vital that Seneca's death be genuinely tragic, as here is a sane man who is willing to stand up even to Nerone, despite his fear. Yet in the end, he accepts death rather than struggle to overthrow evil, and this resignation permits evil to triumph.

The Britten theatre at the Royal College of Music is ideally sized for this work, and the orchestra produced a full sound despite being often reduced to one or two instruments.

Recording Hedda

New Diorama theatre
28 September 2013

The finale of Diana Rigg's performance of the central role. From here.

The core of Hedda Gabler survives this misguided ironic updating, though it would help if you know the original.

I don’t understand what special value was gained by this production’s reworking of Ibsen. A group of actors and writers are doing a radio recording of Hedda Gabler, though here it is claimed to be a new piece by one of the characters, Tansman.

He’s also hoping to stage the work, as a vehicle for his wife, G, the central character. He wants to stage it in an avant-garde theatre called the Black Box – the New Diorama stage here is basically a darkened box. So far, so self-referential.

The radio version quickly takes second place to the drama enacted behind-the-scenes, which turns out to be a fairly faithful updating of Ibsen, ‘vine leaves in his hair’ and all.

Towards the climax, the radio play and the ‘real life’ play merge imperceptibly. It’s all very postmodern, but in the worst sense of adding nothing and subtracting rather a lot.

If the original is wrongly felt to be melodramatic, then things are made much worse here, depicting actors in their studio. If Ibsen’s dialogue is wooden, this was no less wooden. The audience wonders whether these people overacting on purpose, because that is what they always do?

The updating makes some of Ibsen’s plot devices implausible – surely Tansman would text Løvborg to tell him he found his precious manuscript?

These anachronisms are jarring, but worse is the reduction of all the characters to drama professionals. Perhaps the bored daughter of a general would become an actress, though this surely requires more dedication than Hedda grants herself.

But reducing Judge Brack to an actor is disastrous – this monument to cynicism, dead inside as Hedda observes, loses much sense when he isn’t also a pillar of society.

If anything of Ibsen survives, it is at least the strongest part. Hedda is fascinating and absorbing, even here, where Sarah Head spends too much time searching the middle distance with her eyes.

Actually most of the actors do this, and it’s a sign the director hasn’t helped them understand their character – at one point G confesses she hasn’t grasped Tansman’s play… another painful self-referential moment, for I would suggest these actors didn’t grasp it fully either.

Still, for all that Hedda fascinates. This production doesn’t – cannot – make her any sort of a victim. Clearly she could divorce Tansman, or abort her unwanted pregnancy, options not easily open to Ibsen’s original. Even Brack’s blackmail carries little conviction here.

It’s possible to present Hedda as a victim, or as a monster, or bits of both. Here she is clearly a monster, though both charismatic and understandable, so that we cannot easily be appalled by her actions.

In this, the drama faithfully reflects an important aspect of Ibsen’s magnificent creation.

Saturday, 28 September 2013


Almeida theatre
27 September 2013

A trailer inspired by paintings by Vilhelm Hammershøi
Not really relevant to the the drama, but evocative.

A devastating analysis of family life, in the greatest production it is likely to receive.

This was one of the most harrowing experiences I have had in a theatre, a triumphant vindication both of Ibsen’s most affecting tragedy and of director Richard Eyre’s traditional approach.

I must admit that when I first saw the set, I feared this might turn out to be the kind of comfortable experience in the theatre that people in Ibsen’s own time expected, and which really hasn’t changed since.

But Eyre’s direction is so assured that Ibsen’s unfolding plot reduced me to an emotional wreck within the first few minutes. Thankfully both Ibsen and Eyre lighten the tone a little, providing enough breathing space that the tragic climax is almost unbearable when it comes.

Lesley Manville’s central performance of Helene Alving was astonishing. She appeared near sobbing at the curtain calls, and applauding seemed in bad taste – it really was as if we had just seen her kill her only son, and only remaining lifeline.

It wouldn’t have worked so well if the rest of the cast were any less impressive. Will Keen’s Pastor Manders in particular seemed close to apoplexy throughout, as Helene revealed the full situation, her misery and the terrible consequences of what he felt was the greatest struggle of his life in rejecting her.

In a production as good as this, the full impact of Ibsen’s dissection of our families could be realised, even though Eyre blended acts to permit the whole thing to be played without interval.

The most important of Ibsen’s revelations was given full significance. Helene realises that she played a role in making her husband unhappy; that both were trapped in a situation neither could control. The misery of the moment is almost unendurable but in fact we have to endure worse shortly afterwards.

What distinguishes this from other miserable dramas, what elevates it to tragedy, is Helen’s gradual self-realisation, and hence the tragic grandeur she achieves when she understands she must kill her son.

Everyone else, while important and well constructed characters, are important mostly because of the way they help Helene – and us – come to her understandings.

Everyone should see this production. And we should all be grateful for Manville in giving us this unique and terrible experience.


25 September – 18 October 2013

Penelope, by Becky Allen.

Mildly political artworks reflecting the social and economic history of Spitalfields.

Passing through the City proper to reach neighbouring Spitalfields is as strange an experience as it must always have been. Thronged streets of suited men and women, giving the impression that they want to make an impression, give way to informal markets and cafes peopled more leisurely.

The Leyden gallery is situated between the financial centre and the old garment district, which is still in use as a clothing market area, though I doubt many of the suits from the former are made now in the latter.

Fabricate is one of the current exhibitions at the Leyden. The other, a collection of treated flower / leaf photographic prints by Alexander Hamilton is more commercial, perhaps intended to attract a purchaser from the city who is idly passing on their lunch break.

The larger exhibition is more ambitious, more thought-provoking, and involves more artists. Perhaps it is also weaker artistically, being more of a work-in-progress as the gallery curators style it.

This is art about textiles, rather than textiles as art, though Zhenhan Hao appears to have a couple of ‘collectible’ items of handmade clothing on display.

Principally the artists are making political or social comments about clothing. My favourite work here is Hao’s Portrait with Apple, which would surely have pleased Magritte, whose style it copies. This is an ironic comment on China’s ability to manufacture goods, including iphones, based upon designs found elsewhere. And the painting itself is a product someone has bought, based on a Belgian design.

If that were the whole of it, it would be merely a decent joke, but thankfully Magritte is a good painter to copy, and the work is striking.

Sue Clayton’s series of photographs, supposedly depicting a white Victorian seamstress returned to dwell amongst current Spitalfields residents, is both more ambitious and more problematic.

The images celebrate the diversity of Spitalfields, while retaining the sense that these are still poor people making their living from textiles. Whether this accurately reflects economic reality in this gentrified area, I don’t know, but large parts of the East End no longer suggest nineteenth century urban poverty.

The seamstress is unsmiling: is she unhappy with the changes? Or with how little, in the end, has actually changed? Is it misleading to depict a white woman as the Victorian resident exemplar, given the racial diversity that the area has had since reformation times?

The other artists in this show, Hilary Ellis and Becky Allen, have produced abstract responses conveying something of the texture and mystery of fabrics. They nicely complement the narrative work of the first two artists.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Roméo et Juliette

Royal Festival Hall
26 September 2013

The great love scene under Salonen, this time with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Proms in 2007. 
From here.

Beautiful playing from the Philharmonia misses some of the work's passion in favour of establishing symphonic credentials.

Although you can see why Berlioz called this masterpiece – one of music's pinnacles – a dramatic symphony, it’s a misleading and indeed oxymoronic title: a symphony is already a form of drama in music.

It is because he took things rather further, and linked his work closely to Shakespeare’s drama, adding arias and choruses, but although I feel this is an important attempt to ‘realise’ Shakespeare’s tragedy in music, that isn’t the central achievement here. This is firstly a symphony, albeit a strange one.

For one thing, the work doesn’t end in tragedy, but rather in reconciliation and hope, more related to Beethoven’s ninth than anything in Shakespeare (except The Tempest). Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen was especially good here, expertly pacing the final movement’s transition from conflict to peace, itself reminiscent of the last few minutes of the ninth.

The finale is less important than in other major post-Beethoven symphonies because its composer sidesteps the problem of how to craft a finale that will sounds effective after a profoundly searching slow or tragic movement.

Berlioz’ slow movements are an ecstatic love scene and a Gluck-inspired funereal chorus, both extremely moving though the love music carries off the palm by virtue of being some of the most beautiful music we have (as Toscanini claimed).

The last movement instead contrasts with and follows the jarring, forceful music of the movement titled ‘Romeo at the Capulet’s tomb’. Salonen’s pacing and dynamics were excellent in both of these tricky movements.

Berlioz isn't self-evidently successful in creating a symphony out of these disparate movements, though the sense of being jolted around is much less prevalent here than in his other characteristic works, and there is less of the sense of frantically running without moving.

I have some sympathy with those critics, starting with Wagner, who adore parts but find the whole tiring. This may be because the aria-and-chorus concerted bookends can seem problematic. The first movement is described as a prologue even by champions like David Cairns, and the symphony does seem to be launched twice. The ending, as described above, counterbalances sudden and shuddering violent death rather than overwhelming grief, which comes earlier and is in any case classically restrained.

So it’s to Salonen’s credit that he imparts full gravity to these outer movements and makes them work.

It is a pity his approach was less successful elsewhere. Partly this was due to lack of ferocity or crudeness, common among conductors wanting to place Berlioz within the pantheon of sober symphonists. Partly it was also due to insufficient romance, either in the first movement or more seriously in the love scene.

But this is actually a small quibble. Is a more magical experience possible than when the offstage voices fade away and the love scene properly starts? And wasn’t Toscanini right? This is the kind of experience that transforms the way we feel, at least for some decent time afterwards.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

An Enemy of the People

Albany theatre, Deptford
25 September 2013

One of the most unlikely attempts at Stockmann's great anti-people speech, from Steve McQueen. 

Community pettiness and NGO arrogance equally lampooned in this updated production... almost.

Rebecca Manson Jones’ loose adaptation of Ibsen’s drama retains the spirit rather than the letter of the original, except in the final scene. She sensibly suggests this supposed comedy could be better called ‘the do-gooder’ in English.

The upright Dr Stockmann is here a former NGO campaigner, bringing ethically sourced palm oil to a Cornish village. The up-to-the-minute text, larded with references to tweeting and crowd sourcing, requires some barely plausible contortions to remain close to the original – the Stockmann siblings want to create a rival to Brighton in Cornwall, the local newspaper becomes a symbol of the end of the print age, and so on.

This updating doesn’t significantly alter the work, though I’m not sure Sarah Malin’s convincingly professional campaigner, working late on a media release, would genuinely encounter a ‘lightbulb moment’ in the great community hall speech scene.

If there is humour in this comedy, it is bitter, and at the expense of the idealistic Stockmann, whose family suffer as a consequence of his (in this case her) stand for the future, which achieves nothing in the present and indeed climaxes in a shocking denunciation of the rest of us.

Though right, at least in the beginning, during her great anti-democratic speech she sets herself against almost everyone, rather as Brand did in an earlier drama, and an audience that is paying attention should certainly question its sympathy with her.

This production brilliantly recreated the atmosphere of a community meeting, and asked the audience to vote on whether Stockmann was indeed a public enemy.

The majority sided with her, which is itself quite disturbing. Presumably we voted for her earlier self, the one Ibsen and Manson Jones succeed in making sympathetic, heroic. But are we really agreeing with her that we are upsided cockroaches with our legs twitching?

Ibsen surely knew better when he had his community reject Stockmann. Here, the final scene was a skilful piece of montage conveying an overall sense of hope. Only here did the adaptation differ from Ibsen in spirit, and I think for the worse. His version, with Stockmann confident but ruined, is more challenging.

Unlike many other great dramatists, Ibsen’s endings are important, for he drives us towards them with all the mechanical skill of the nineteenth century well-made play. So changing the tone of his endings is a serious mutilation; nor was the risk one worth taking here.

Aside from this limitation, everything else in this production worked wonderfully well. The Stockmann family was presented so naturalistically I thought the actors must be related. Elizabeth Elvin, in the role of the representative of the town’s small businesses, stole every scene she was in, but every cast member seemed to embody their role.

If only his ending could be preserved, I can’t imagine a better updating of Ibsen’s work: this should be seen.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

In the Jungle of Cities

Arcola theatre
24 September 2013

A trailer that tells you absolutely nothing about the work. From here.

Unfamiliar uncompromising early Brecht that deserves more performances, on the strength of this production. But it could be clearer.

A self-consciously difficult drama from the young Brecht, this sequence of scenes is made even less easy to understand through some of the choices of director Peter Sturm.

It is not easy to follow the various choices and outcomes in this non-naturalistic and existential fight between the rich Schlink and the poor Garga, whom the weary Schlink appears to select as a challenge, given the young man’s strong sense of dignity and self-worth.

In the programme Sturm claims his version is a psychodrama, with the events taking place in Garga’s imagination, but that isn’t clear from this production, nor, I think, would such a conception do justice to the author.

Brecht was aiming for a poetic depiction of cities, and ended up with whores and gangsters, families tearing themselves apart due to poverty and other premonitions of the Threepenny Opera, though the vein of black humour in the later work is missing here.

He is fascinated by our capacity to endure beyond what our sense of dignity or self-respect allows. The grotesques are taken from the expressionist zoo, and he shares the expressionist interest in degradation, but doesn’t delight in it. Brutally unsentimental, it is still certain that he disapproves, and wants us to share this disapproval. A political theory would later be developed to provide justification, but this early works shows that he always felt it, whatever he thought about (other?) bourgeois morality.

Another aspect of the playwright is apparent in this production, perhaps one he would also vigorously deny: an attraction to imaginative, forceful characters.

Schlick, the Malay who starts the fight, is undeniably sympathetic, at least as embodied here by Jeffery Kissoon. He rises to romantic heights during his suicide, and has already won our admiration for his strange courage in destroying his own financial security in order to challenge Garga’s sense of self-worth.

Of the two, Schlick seems the most understandable, despite his peculiar risk-taking. I suspect Brecht intended him to seem more inscrutable, in a racist way, but that wouldn’t work now so Sturm and Kissoon open him to us. Though rarely dignified in a conventional sense, he is never wretched, suggesting that  irreducible dignity is found elsewhere.

Schlick, then, contradicts a view that poverty is incompatible with dignity, though the dignity that can be kept in poverty is not our usual sense of it but something deeper. I suspect Brecht would object to this view, and undoubtedly it is problematic, but it keeps this dramas alive.

In contrast, Garga is confusing, probably only worsened in this production, which has him peculiarly dragged up after he has become rich, to suggest links with his equally degraded ex-lover Jane.

But it would also be possible to see Garga, who after all is the central character, as a poetic description of the compromises that someone in the city must make in order to survive, much less thrive, though his thriving has little to do with his own efforts and more to do with random chance. It isn’t surprising that the character is confused and confusing, and Joseph Arkley conveys this in a very physical performance.

The three women actors deserve special credit for turning Brecht’s one dimensional proto-whores into living creations.

And the Arcola deserves credit for tackling this intriguing, maddening work.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

American Lulu

Young Vic theatre
23 September 2013

The original production in Berlin last year was significantly different to the Young Vic production.

A challenging and absorbing variation on the Lulu myth.

What attracts us to the Lulu story? I asked this as a steady trickle of audience members left during what is after all a very short opera – just 100 minutes. Were they bored, offended by the music, offended by the subject?

More specifically, what drew composer Olga Neuwirth to effectively recompose the first two acts of Berg’s original work, and compose an entirely new final act?

Perhaps a desire to give Lulu’s side of her myth, as the composer suggests in an informative programme essay. But we only learn things that Berg, Pabst or Wedekind could have provided, if so inclined: that our heroine suffered a history of abuse, or that she was a hardened criminal age twelve.

Lulu has no true inner life, and this is central to her appeal, which may also be the appeal of her story. As her lovers point out, she combines fatally irresistible physical charm with a disarming lack of self-awareness, or even interest in herself. She is no scheming femme fatal.

Berg surrounded her with a rogues gallery of expressionist stereotypes, which Neuwirth sensibly maintains, with one unfortunate exception. Still, nobody steals the limelight from the central character.

Changing the setting to the US straddling the civil rights and blaxploitation eras, and making Lulu herself African-American, is a mixed blessing.

Textually, it is a mistake. We first hear Martin Luther King describe the kind of person who engages in conspicuous consumption rather than in political action, and recognise he is describing the Lulu we see on stage. Can Neuwirth really be attempting to lecture African-Americans in this way?

Musically, it works. Neuwirth’s reorchestration, or full-on rewriting of Berg results in a sound-world that has echoes of blues, jazz, hot buttered soul and so on, all presented in a thrillingly ‘make it new’ modernist idiom. Berg would surely have approved.

The composer is right to criticise Berg’s perfunctory conclusion, but her own solution is no better. Lulu, it seems, must die violently. But worse than this, something goes terribly wrong with her lesbian lover Geschwitz. The most sympathetic character in Berg’s work becomes a mess here.

Part of the fault may lie with the director, John Fulljames, who may have violated Neuwirth’s intentions by suggesting that Lulu is freed by the Athlete, rather than Eleanor (Geschwitz). Certainly Eleanor’s brutal rape is even more unpleasant if we feel it is pointless. Certainly glimpses of the original Berlin production (above) suggest a different approach is possible.

But as Neuwirth explains in her essay, she contrasts Eleanor’s painful self-determination favourably with Lulu’s supposed lack of the same, as the latter appears content with being a lust object. In practice, this is a peculiar misstep, and I felt very little for the smug, preachy Eleanor, whereas Berg’s hopelessly infatuated Geschwitz is extremely moving.

Here the composer momentarily lapses, by passing judgement on the amoral Lulu. Berg doesn't quite make that mistake, though his Geschwitz gets more of our sympathy.

I’m not sure Berg’s opera is a masterpiece, and this doubt applies moreso for Neuwirth’s new work. But both seem very powerful, and for the most part gripping.

In any performance of any Lulu, the lead actress must somehow compete with the iconic Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box. Angel Blue’s acting and singing were impressive, even if she seemed too self-aware for this role.

Other parts were well-taken, with Robert Winslade Anderson’s Clarence as scene stealing a performance as it should be. The London Sinfonietta under Gerry Cornelius gave a confident performance of what must be a very difficult work.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Private Lives

Gielgud Theatre
20 September 2013

Tame violence in the climax to the second act in the 1976 BBC TV production.
To the extent Coward is 'modern' this potentially upsetting scene is the touchstone.

Although the marital violence is thankfully not underplayed in this production, this comedy has less to say about romantic love than self-love.

Coward’s biographer Philip Hoare, in the programme, claims his subject imbued this drama with tragedy, and that he is the descendent of Wilde and precursor to Beckett. All this is ridiculous, and not simply because the Irish dramatists are on a different order of achievement.

The physical violence in this comedy would be unthinkable in Wilde’s equivalent, and is far too easy compared to Beckett, who after all lived through a terrible war. Coward’s surrogate Elyot is that type of overcompensating sissy that Gore Vidal memorably identified in many of the warmongers of our age.

Nor, in this drama at least, does Shakespeare seem to be a strong presence, and this is probably a good thing for its survival. Though superficially about the battle of the sexes, in fact the bickering lovers are almost identical narcissists, as if the same character were duplicated on stage.

This may be a consequence of Coward’s closeted nature, but in any case, as he said about this work, it lacks a complete psychology. Elyot and Amanda are the same person, and I was struck with the thought that the real precursor here was Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, except that this really is the unintentional satire on romantic love that some critics bizarrely find in Wagner, presumably because they are deaf to his transfiguring music.

The core of the work, indeed it’s only interesting scene, is the second act, where the principles are together on stage. The first act is exposition, and the third act is a weak farce with an unsatisfying conclusion: we simply don’t care enough about the underdeveloped secondary characters, again something Coward acknowledged.

The central act remains effective in showing how self absorption can be self destructive, especially if you are as basically childish as Elyot/Amanda. Perhaps they are child-like, which would be much more charming and interesting, but this production nudges these precariously balanced characters towards the annoying.

Coward may have intended to make points about how intense romantic love operates in the real world, that such lovers neither cope together nor apart. But lovers are usually different people, indeed sometimes opposites in personality – I can’t believe Elyot and Amanda are different at all, except that Amanda is slightly sharper than her entirely tedious first husband.

Jonathan Kent’s production is too reverential. Some dated lines should have been cut (the audience knows what brioche is) and some crude aspects should have been subdued (an angry servant is not funny simply because she speaks only French). At least the set looked gorgeous.

Toby Stephens is miscast as Elyot: he doesn’t do camp very well, approaches hysteria at points, and is too muscular to make his fights with Amanda seem plausible. Anna Chancellor is an excellent Amanda, and if she gurned excessively, I suspect she had no choice given the script.

Monday, 16 September 2013


15 September 2013

A new star tenor? An example of his Duke of Mantua, if you are into that. From here.

An inspired concert performance of this dark-tinted drama.

Rigoletto not only announced Verdi's maturity as a dramatic artist, it is also better than most of his subsequent works. Perhaps Victor Hugo's source drama contributes but it is an uncomfortable, wholly Verdian idea to make the audience fall in love with the Duke, quite as much as Gilda does.

The second act is nearly perfect, though so distressing I can only assume applauding interrupting audiences aren't paying sufficient attention. The Duke sympathises with the abducted Gilda, swears vengeance, proclaims a new leaf, and is entirely convinced of it himself, according to the music. When he learns the girl was abducted for his benefit, he quickly forgets about her distress and focuses on his upcoming pleasure. When we finally see Gilda the tense duet with her father makes it clear she has been raped. Rigoletto gets bitter pleasure from the thought of vengeance, but the suddenly banal music shows it is a weak compensation.

Admittedly Gilda is a pathetic figure, of a type the composer avoided using again until his Desdemona, who is much more spirited. What might properly be her tragedy is transferred instead to her father, a more complex and unlikeable figure, even compared to the Duke.

It may be a flaw that we are manipulated into caring more for the two most unpleasant characters – the Duke and his jester – than for the person who sacrifices herself at the end. The drama’s verdict is damning. Both the fortunate sybarite and the wretched waspish Rigoletto survive, indeed thrive in some form, while the innocent lover sacrifices herself without meaning.

Given the bleak situation throughout the work, in direct contrast to at least the singing of the Duke and Gilda, this is much more of a conductor’s opera than is typically supposed. Recordings by Giulini and Sinopoli should have established that, and the recent Covent Garden performances with Eliot Gardiner confirm it.

I didn’t find Gianandrea Noseda quite as convincing as Eliot Gardiner, but my memory may be faulty, for it was still a very impressive performance with the LSO, even if they were reduced to ‘opera pit’ size. Only a few times did the prominence of the on-stage orchestra threaten to overwhelm the singing, but Noseda maintained the necessary momentum and when needed obtained suitably vigorous climaxes.

The cast were excellent, with some genuinely impressive acting, despite this being a concert performance. A highlight was when Rigoletto turns his back on his newly disgraced daughter: a response both understandable and horrific.

Dmitri Platanias was open-throated in the title role, and this is surely the only way to do it, much as it might wreak havoc with the voice. Desirée Rancatore was a limpid, girlish Gilda, though hers is a lyric not dramatic soprano voice. Saimir Pirgu’s Duke was appealing in both voice and appearance. Smaller roles were taken well.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Brahms, Mozart, Mahler: concert

 St Alfege's church, Greenwich
14 September 2013

First movement of Brahms' clarinet trio, in a classic performance by Kell, Pini and Kentner. 
From here.

Ambitious and interesting free concerts showing that even the largest scale works can be given revealing performances in more intimate surroundings.

My heart sank when I learned that instead of Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night, the Kantati Ensemble were going to play a chamber version of Mahler’s First Symphony complete their free concert in Hawksmoor’s relatively intimate St Alfege’s Greenwich.

My fears proved mistaken. Undoubtedly some weight was lost, but the cramped acoustics ensured that conductor Lee Reynolds carefully worked up to the climaxes. And this helped strengthen the performance: I think Mahler benefits from a measured, rather than rhapsodic or excitable approach.

As this quixotic programme selection indicates, his rise in popularity and esteem continues. Perhaps his musical anxiety and neurosis reflects our present condition, but I don’t believe this is what we feel when while we listen. Surely his success is due to his sheer sound, the remarkable lyricism and orchestral colour combined with resounding climaxes.

Mahler’s makes famously original use of the different sections of the orchestra, so that a chamber version really highlights that variety.

The first is his most straightforwardly enjoyable work, also relatively unambitious, so didn’t lose as much with reduced forces. Chamber orchestras rarely get to make so much noise, but on the evidence of this performance they can produce revealing performances of these orchestral monsters.

Before the interval, Mozart’s fifth violin concerto made an interesting, perhaps unintentional comparison. Ideas are thrown around with a similar profligacy, but the effect is different. Mozart certainly didn’t intend to throw his audience around, as Mahler did.

Soloist Beatrice Philips gave a sweet-sounding, quasi-romantic account of the violin part, though this is not an inspired work: I assume the composer wanted to write it for piano instead.

A desultory performance of the same composer’s Figaro overture opened the concert, but in fact this industrious ensemble had already provided a more effective opening an hour before, as three of its members played Brahm’s masterful Clarinet Trio in the same church.

Here the comparison with Mahler was explicit. The programme pointed out that both composers used a ländler in the works we heard, and handled them very differently. And the finale of the chamber piece prefigures later rhythmic developments. Brahms the progressive, indeed.

This is a subdued work, far removed from the exertions of Mahler (the programme notes plausibly suggest the latter was attempting to blow Brahms out of the water with his first). It was given a committed performance, though given the venue I would have liked softer playing.

Friday, 13 September 2013

West Side Story

Sadler's Wells theatre
12 September 2013

The trailer, which gives some idea of the drama's vitality, and wetness. From here.

Authentic, youthful production captures the impact of the astonishing original, but 55 years on, there is room for improvement.

The first thing to note about this revival is that it is taking place at Sadler’s Wells rather than say English National Opera. And that is appropriate, because although composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim contribute significantly to the effect of this work, the words and music are rather less important than Jerome Robbin’s choreography.

Which isn’t to say that the words and music aren’t effective – some of the finest songs in the Broadway canon, and Bernstein produced a masterpiece in his dance music, which captures youthful energy and brashness as no other music does.

But this drama is weaker than its parts, and relies more on the dancing to maintain interest than the music, the lyrics or the text itself. The first part feels overlong, and is required to cover too much ground, right up to two murders, which feels at least as tragic as Tony’s death at the end of the second part.

In the second part, the marvellous comic number Gee, Officer Krupke does not operate in the Shakespearean manner of diffusing tension but rather seems crassly inappropriate, especially as these are not ‘low characters’ irrelevant to the main plot but the Jets, who have been involved in a murder earlier that night. Sophisticated rhymes seem wildly inappropriate.

Some of the most serious dramatic weaknesses could be salvaged in a less reverential production: the dated slang, or the painfully chic Somewhere dream sequence. The final procession, hinting at reconciliation, should be ditched. In Romeo and Juliet hope is spoken, not shown, thus leaving it open to justified doubt after so many deaths.

The visuals are the absolute highlight of this near-masterpiece, and have dated the least, except in the trivial sense that Robbins’ moves have been widely imitated. Overall, the work is part of the US invention of the teenager throughout the 1950s, and strikes me as the greatest description of teenage energy and futility we have.

Someday, somewhere, somebody will update the setting, remove the sogginess and produce a version that properly respects what is great about the piece. Until then, if we must have dusty museum performances that undermine the original freshness, let them be as good as this one.

As usual with music theatre, there is one vital caveat: the unnecessary amplification. It seemed to me that even the energetic dancers could probably project clearly without it, so good were they, and so the amplification does harm by effectively generalising their voices and preventing an unmediated understanding of who on stage in singing.

But the singing was fine, the accents authentic (so vital, I think, in US music theatre) and there was the pep so vital in the key numbers such as America, while A Boy Like That was as urgent and distressing as it ought to be.

It is rare to experience Broadway music theatre in London rather than an anglicised approximation. The difference is important, and this is the real thing.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Much ado about nothing

Old Vic theatre
7 September - 30 November 2013

James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave an untypically  elderly Benedick and Beatrice.

When only Dogberry sparkles, a production of this comedy must be a failure, despite some interesting ideas. 

In the one brilliant idea in Mark Rylance’s production, the moment when Claudio accuses Hero of being a whore – on their wedding day, to maximise the pain, as Beatrice points out – the association with Othello is visually reinforced. Claudio, and his friends, are played entirely by black actors. Hero’s circle is white.

In both Othello and Much Ado, catastrophe results from sexual jealousy on absurdly weak grounds. If sense is restored in this comedy, in some ways that is actually less justifiable than in the tragedy.

What motivates Leonato’s horrifying response when he believes his daughter has deceived him? After she has witnessed these rages from her father and future husband, can Hero genuinely forgive and forget?

So “much ado”, even if it were about something, rather than nothing. This other great exploration of sexual jealousy is just as shocking as Othello, though the author stabilises us by adding the wonderful Dogberry and company at the key moment.

The catastrophe is almost impossible to ruin in the theatre, and this production conveys its power, thanks principally to a marvellous performance of Michael Elwyn as Leonato.

That Claudio is subsequently willing to marry practically anyone, so long as he can reduce his guilt over this catastrophe, provides the Shakespearean uneasiness over endings in marriage.

This is ingeniously signposted by the parallel betrothal of Beatrice and Benedick, and the boisterous expectation of infidelity. Given prior events and with Othello in our mind, theirs is a healthy attitude, though nihilistic, raising the question of quite why they decide to give in to each other.

New light is shone on this question by the production’s major innovation: having the bickering lovers played by James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave, 82 and 76 respectively.

“The world must be peopled” is Benedick’s rejection of his sempiternal batchelorhood, but it can be peopled without marriage. Perhaps he is thinking of the effect being a bastard has on the villainous Don John. Here, given their considerable ages, Benedick’s argument is especially unconvincing.

Unfortunately neither actor is especially convincing in these roles, which are the glory of the drama. Redgrave has the stronger part, as usual with this author, and does more with it, but the prose is especially hard to bring off in the theatre, and much of their bickering was lost on me.

When actors fear Shakespeare’s now-archaic jokes are going to fall flat, they are tempted to broad physical comedy, and Rylance should have reined this in. There is a difference between two elderly actors rejecting the dignity we assume they must want, and actors of any age whatsoever behaving like buffoons to get a  laugh.

The setting is 1940s England, with Don Pedro and his team being African-American airmen stationed in a cosy English village. In fact, cosy is the word for at least the whole first half, which was so enervated I struggled to maintain any interest at all.

If after the interval things picked up, at no point did they fizz as needed in a witty comedy.

Sunday, 8 September 2013


National Theatre
23 April – 5 October 2013

Rory Kinnear (Iago), Adrian Lester (Othello). Photo by Johan Persson.

In failing to make sense of the key characters, this contemporary Othello is a relative failure, though that doesn’t significantly reduce the powerful impact of this tragedy in the theatre.

Since FR Leavis argued that Othello is clearly supposed to be a villain, the older view, which rather took the hero’s own position that he loved not wisely, but too well, has been harder to maintain, at least in the theatre.

I think this is partly due to our mistrust of heroism. In Nicolas Hytner’s updated production, the Venetian general is in the British army, in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and consequently wears combat fatigues. This pretty much guarantees he will be seen as ambiguous, if not downright villainous, as soon as he wears them.

Luckily this isn’t how we first see him, after he has successfully wed Desdemona. He wears a smart suit, looks attractive and seductive, although not necessarily heroic.

I don’t think the creative team intended to confirm Leavis’ interpretation, but that only reveals the pitfalls of modern productions of this drama. The central conceit, that a supposedly great man kills his wife in a rage of sexual jealousy over a handkerchief, might be thought almost too absurd, though it is clear to me that the author was fully serious, including stressing Othello’s genuine greatness.

I take the drama as an attempt to illustrate the degradation of a great man and the sickening reality of murder. Iago, who tends to dominate the drama with his multiple soliloquies, is too quick-witted a creation if we assume Othello is credulous. A malevolent buffoon does not need an honest Iago to lead him by the nose.

Undoubtedly Shakespeare did not help a modern producer or actor in trying to convey his central character’s positive qualities. At the beginning, and then pathetically at the end, Othello reaches great poetic heights, but otherwise he is perhaps undercharacterised.

Gravitas, charisma; these are the essentials in playing Othello, and sadly these are not parts of Adrian Lester’s performance. There are many fine details, but these tend towards the Leavis view, as when he essentially bullies his men after striking Desdemona in public. Conversely, he makes too little of some of the greatest lines, such as ‘the pity of it Iago’.

Rory Kinnear’s Iago is better, but this is very often the case. A very blokey performance, which makes sense in context, though as usual, it is not easy to see why he is willing to risk so much to destroy Othello, given that he is cunning enough to exploit people like Roderigo with no-one the wiser.

Ideally, an Iago would somehow make his absolute loathing of the moor obvious in almost every scene, and Kinnear doesn’t do that – in fact, he doesn’t convey convincing hatred at any point. This seems a mistake.

As if to compound criticism of Shakespeare’s characterisation in this drama, Desdemona is also a fairly passive thing, which makes her on stage murder all the more shocking, even now.

But the actress can grant her greater presence than does Olivia Vinall, who creates a convincingly flirtatious teenager, but one who is merely petulant in response to her husband’s mistreatment, thereby avoiding the possibilities of being either noble or pitiable.

After all this, Emilia’s characterisation would surely be unimportant, except she somehow connives with Iago over the without handkerchief connecting this to later events. I didn’t see this explained through Lyndsey Marshal’s portrayal, though Hytner highlights the fateful handkerchief theft appropriately.

The production has many good touches, such as Othello’s epilepsy taking place in a lavatory. And the final scene is indestructibly powerful and affecting. Finding fault in a performance of Shakespeare is something to do upon reflection, for in the theatre I am simply grateful for the overwhelming experience.

Bach, Bruckner: concert

Royal Albert Hall
6 September 2013

Looking suitably excited, Maazel conducting the finale of Bruckner's eighth, with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. 
From here.

Resounding night-before-the Last-Night Prom.

I spent the majority of the Bruckner 8 in a state of rapt attention, in what I imagine would be a suggestible hypnotic state. It is an effect peculiar to Bruckner, and different from the state that, say Gorecki or Glass can induce with their slow or fast repetitions respectively.

Unlike our contemporary long-spanned composers, Bruckner is not exploring a single emotional state at great length. His symphonies are intensely dramatic, in the line of Beethoven, and actually the older school of Brucknerians, archetypally Furtwängler, created a much less rhapsodic effect with extreme tempo fluctuations.

The current tradition in playing these masterpieces is a steady, broad pulse with emphasis on projecting their astonishing grandeur. As happens here, this risks downplaying the significance of the final climax of the first movement, a moment of terrible crisis which haunts the following two movements and is only resolved after a struggle in the finale.

In other Proms concerts, some members of the audience applaud particular movements, and this is understandable. Here, I doubt anyone imagined applauding until the end of this enormous work, and this could either reflect the exhaustion we feel after each movement, or our awareness that the symphony must obviously continue, to resolve in some way.

The Royal Albert Hall felt saturated with sound, a wondrous experience, and I assume that conductor Lorin Maazel must take some credit for this, as the ‘sound’ of a work is one of the areas in which he is highly regarded. I imagine the Vienna Philharmonic could play this music in their sleep, and so deserve even more of the credit.

The finale is a great challenge, and part of this is because Bruckner must have found it formidably difficult to compose, much as he later did with sketches of a finale for his ninth. What can properly relieve the previous three movements, most especially the intensity of the preceding slow movement?

I didn’t notice any great difficulties in the tricky transitions in the finale, though I did wonder if Maazel had really plumbed the depths and heights in the slow movement. But the only serious blemish was the trio in the second movement, driven too hard and fast.

The first part of the concert was almost inevitably obliterated in comparison, but was a thoughtful example of programming: Bach organ works and transcriptions, played by Bruckner’s current successor as organist in St Florian.

Klaus Sonnleitner grappled with the unwieldy brute of an organ, hardly optimised for Bach, and produced excellent results. His encore was much better suited to the instrument, but that didn’t matter. The sense that Bruckner was at the organ, as indeed he was in 1871, was a magical prelude to what I believe is the greatest of orchestral works.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Schubert piano recital

Royal Albert Hall
5 September 2013

Schubert's sonata played by Sviatoslav Richter, a more forceful interpretation than Cooper's. 
From here.

70 minutes of sustained and profound lyricism, courtesy of Schubert.

Programming Schubert’s piano sonata in C minor (D958) followed by his ‘Grand’ piano duo in C major (D812) worked sublimely, for the reason given by pianist Imogen Cooper in the programme guide: the sonata creates a dark impression, which is then dispelled by the fairly upbeat, bright duo.

This composer must be almost synonymous with musicianship, a word that can otherwise be difficult to articulate. It is distinguished from technical skill, though usually is required alongside that skill, such as in the piano works of say, Beethoven or Chopin. This isn't really the case with Schubert.

The sonata, under Cooper’s hands, is projected lyrically, and I was forcefully struck with a sense of unending melody, not an unfolding in the way that for example, a Bellini aria unfolds, nor the working out of an argument as in Beethoven, but maybe closer to Wagner in the way that attention is maintained, though surely to a very different end result.

A beautiful and moving experience. Perhaps Cooper’s approach doesn’t bring out all of the dramatic potential of the work, as Richter does above. Her flowing approach also made her sound quite fast, and it is possible to make the sonata sound considerably slower and more intense. But this masterpiece benefits from multiple interpretive styles.

Cooper’s particular style made especially good sense given her programme. Had the sonata been a shattering experience, the duo would have seemed impertinent. Instead, the mood gradually lifted to one of celebration.

In Paul Lewis, Cooper must have found an ideal partner. Certainly they seemed of one mind, not to mention gesture. If the duo is a symphony in fancy dress, as some believe, I would think this performance was inadequate, for I couldn’t imagine it orchestrated. It seemed entirely suitable to the sound of the piano, right down to the chiming at the end of the piece.

Verdi, Tchaikovsky: concert

Royal Albert Hall
5 September 2013

Joseph Calleja singing Verdi's imperishable La donna è mobile, this time in context. 
From here.

A great composer filleted, but the concert redeemed through championing an interesting Tchaikovsky work.

The Verdi bicentenary has hardly been noticed at the BBC Proms: it has received less attention than the anniversaries of Wagner and Britten, and less attention than Tchaikovsky, whose complete symphony cycle was finished in the second half of this concert, as if to add to the insult. Verdi maybe rates a little higher than Granville Bantock, but I’m not even sure of that.

A selection of orchestral excerpts and five tenor arias is a highly misleading way to represent this great musical dramatist, even if the arias, from his early and middle period, give the impression they can stand alone. But this is utterly untrue of La Traviata’s wonderful prelude, and as it died away I felt cheated that the ball scene didn’t immediately follow.

The overture to La Forza del Destino is more of a showpiece, but it was again jarring to hear Aida’s Triumphal March out of context, even if Verdi’s special trumpets are always worth hearing.

With one exception, the arias were from lesser-known Verdi operas, and oddly covered the same sentiment, a hero remembering past love. None showed the composer at his best, apart from the exception, La donna è mobile from Rigoletto. Tenor Joseph Calleja must be one of the finer Verdi tenors today, with an ardent, appealing tone that nonetheless pings as needed.

Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony is also poorly known, despite being composed between his mature fourth and fifth symphonies. It ought to be better known, if this performance by Xian Zhang and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi is any indication.

As the composer recognised, the first movement is the strongest, a powerful depiction of crushing melancholy or depression, which eventually overcomes any pleasant memories. The remaining movements are less inspired, culminating in a clattering finale that is supposed to represent a demonic orgy but is completely sexless, and too reserved in this performance to truly sound demonic.

If that doesn’t sound like the strongest recommendation, there is still much to enjoy, in Tchaikovsky’s tuneful, colourful manner. In this performance, it seemed longer than its inspiration warrants, and it isn’t a masterpiece on the level of his sixth, but the handling of the obsessive idée fixe seems to me better than in most of Berlioz and perhaps this is the best representation of that concept in music.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Gorecki, Vaughan Williams, Tchaikovsky: concert

Royal Albert Hall
4 September 2013

A plug for this excellent genuinely Polish recording (unlike the more famous interpretation with Dawn Upshaw). 
From here.

Three melancholy, mildly sentimental works in an interesting programme.

Gorecki’s third symphony may be almost as popular as Tchaikovsky’s sixth, though I suspect it works better for home listening than in a concert hall, whereas the opposite is true for the sixth.

The world of intense, ritualistic solemnity in the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is far removed from the manic depressive mood swings in the Pathétique. There is scarcely any drama in the former, while the latter is one of the most dramatic pieces of music in the repertoire, significantly moreso than all but a few dozen operas, in fact.

We might fault the state of hypnosis that Gorecki induces in his audience in order to maximise the impact of his first, and key, song, a pieta prayer spoken by Mary over her dying son, Jesus. But that would be to dismiss the entire style of the work. I think a greater problem is the basic sentimentality of each of the song settings, relating to women and loss.

I don’t complain of the effects used to make us sympathise with the horrors faced by each woman, but rather with the small touches that imply without justification that there may be hope for them, and a world where this can happen. Any attempt at consolation cheapens these desperately sad poems, regardless of whether such touches are necessary musically to prevent monotony.

It’s a bind that the highly religious Gorecki could ignore. Musically, some form of consolation is required, otherwise there would be even less drama than there is. Even for Gorecki, this is unwarranted without a textual reference to God's mysterious justice.  But given the overall bleak impression, I don’t find this a devastating problem with the work, which deserves its place in the repertoire.

Tchaikovsky cheapens his music in the opposite way. So desperate to avoid boredom he lurches from one extreme to another. It’s a little like watching a great weeping and wailing, and remaining external to it. As with Gorecki, the sentiment doesn’t seriously mar the work, for the listener is surely fully committed by the great finale.

Conductor Osmo Vänskä produced a magnificent account of the symphony, somehow managing the orchestral balance so that many details could be heard without loss of weight in the strings. It wasn’t a hard-driven account, and was generally measured, but this can produce a shattering effect, and did here.

The makeweight in the programme was Vaughan Williams’ Four Last Songs, bloodlessly orchestrated by Anthony Payne. He couldn’t have been inspired by these slight pieces, which are nonetheless interesting for any fan of the composer (and everyone ought to be a fan).

It is hard to believe these repressed verses about love and death could have been set by the composer who much earlier in his life produced settings of Walt Whitman.  Their unassertiveness is a moving response to death’s approach, and if their intimacy precludes close involvement and so makes them sentimental, once again, it seems the composer recognised this in his doubts that they were suitable for public performance.