Thursday, 25 November 2010

Claire Booth at King's Place

Poulenc's La Voix Humane is essentially a solo opera, Poulenc setting of Cocteau's one-sided telephone conversation in which a woman talks with a former lover. In this technically impeccable performance, soprano Claire Booth was the desperate woman who, over the course of the call, disintegrates through anxiety, paranoia and the affirmation of her isolation.

Helpfully, King's Place produce a monthly podcast of their events including artist interviews. Booth refers to some source material used in preparation of this performance, including the 1966 film starring Ingrid Bergman (excerpt):



I found Poulenc's setting of the peroration rather unconvincing. Clearly the dialogue (this isn't a monologue or soliloquy) is a simple metaphor for the woman confronting herself at a psychological level. In this the music is functional, mono-dimensional. It neither suggests the man's ripostes nor elucidates her state of mind. There is no concession to the soloist. The piano's only role is mimicking the occasional ring or cut-off tone.

In a curious half-production for the King's Place stage, video artist Netia Jones attempted to address this with a sophisticated video installation, including both pre-recorded and real-time images of Booth. This certainly opened up some alternative visuals to feed the imagination. At the same time however, Booth performed the entire cantata sitting not only in the same place but also the same position, despite having a mobile phone as one of two handsets.

All this is a bit of a pity. The video itself was reminiscent of the Saul Bass title graphic to Hitchcock's Psycho (a 1960 film contemporaneous with Poulenc's opera, 1959). Negative images of overburdened urban telephone poles not only complemented this design but seemed to fit the jazz inflections of Poulenc's music, like shots of New Orleans street corners. The music itself takes flight in the latter half of the cantata and Booth takes the opportunity to sing with a generous line. Chris Glynn was the admirable pianist for this performance.

If I equivocate about the Poulenc it may be to do with the unquestionably brilliant opening to the recital, a performance of Berio's Sequenza No.3. Booth tore through the piece with a technical fire and finesse that left me gawping - it also seemed to work happily with Jones' video which moved at a contrasting breadth of intent than Berio's hysterical montage. On reflection, it also seemed a witty act of programming, as it has the same lurching inventory of sound as an old-fashioned dial-up modem. Inbetween the two vocal works Alasdair Beatson played Berio's Petite Suite, a singing performance that complemented the curiously techincal exporation of rhetoric that was the most rewarding part of the evening.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

A Dog's Heart, ENO

The first night of Complicite/ENO's A Dog's Heart was well-received. This short video (from the original production at De Nederlanse Opera earlier in the year) gives you a flavour of what it's about:



Alexander Raskatov's opera is based on a 1925 novel by Mikhail Bulgakov. ENO describe it as 'absurdist', Simon McBurney (dirctor of Complicite) as a 'satire'. It's both these things. Imagine a political version of Frankenstein played for laughs and you're basically there. The story is classically bleak. The dog is taken in by a politically connected professor who likes to stitch bits of different species together. The dog, Sharik, gets the testes and pituitary of a man; this transplant causes a basic metamorphosis into a coarse, needy human, Sharikov. Eventually the Professor can suffer no longer the trouble that Sharikov is causing, through a mixture of bestial impulse and self-pitying, and replaces his original organs. This tale doesn't pan out like David Cronenberg's The Fly, but rather with a more claustrophobic sense of inescapable social oppression.

McBurney uses the puppetry company Blind Summit to give life to a textile dog in a manner that may be familiar to those who have seen the National Theatre's Warhorse. It's a complicated but nonetheless convincing stage presence alongside its two voices. Yes, two - I initially thought internal and external but the programme suggests pleasant and unpleasant (which strikes me as closer to Family Guy's Brian on one of his drinking binges). Pleasant is the countertenor Andrew Watts (manifestly on a long run of good form) and unpleasant Elena Vassilieva, contorted with a megaphone (as in the clip). I liked this device very much (not least the idea that a megaphone, rather than amplifying, distorts - shouting becoming uglier not louder).

The manipulative doctor is played by Stephen Page, a singing actor of high all-round calibre. His is a commanding presence, a charismatic, iron centre to the production, entirely in keeping with the supremely self-confident but slightly unhinged professor. Around him revolve a small group of lackeys, either servants or nurses depending on his whim. Most notable is the maid Zina (Nancy Allen Lundy), who rushes about, twitching and singing in squeaky, pontillist music, as if having had some sort of transplant herself, perhaps from a mouse. Sharikov himself is sung by Peter Hoare who has impressed me no end in the last year (Wozzeck's Hauptmann* for Esa-Pekka Salonen, Albert Gregor for ENO) and really owns the show in this production, charging about the stage like a Chekovian buffoon with a hard-on.

Raskatov's music is functionally modernist. Rather than being an entity in itself, it provides a clear support for the play. There's a bit of speaking (Graeme Danby as the Grand Inquisitor-a-like Big Boss) and, as mentioned, id-coloratura for the semi-bestial objects of Shakirov's affection Zina and a wonderful cameo from Sophie Desmars, who ill-advisedly takes Sharikov up on an engagment proposal. Garry Walker conducts with clarity, although the orchestration doesn't need internal direction, being a spare affair (oddly there are a couple of moments in which snatches of melody bloom from the pit including one that sounds as if it's straight out of Star Wars. I wouldn't have mentioned it, only it seems too incongruous to have been unintentional, given the lyric desert of the rest of the music). I particularly liked the use of an amplified guitar, a liquid yet mechanical colour which fitted perfectly with the Eadward Muybridge (? I assume) Animal Locomotion films of dog and man.

McBurney has preserved the political allegory in the play. The chorus' demand for parity, largely in trying to occupy the professor's excessive domicile, end abruptly in an exchange of high-level phone calls. By the end everyone winds up behaving like the poor beasts that have been the centre of the show. What's interesting though is that, for all its counter-revolutionary, samizdat scorn, this plays equally well as a critique of our current political situation. At the close of the opera, the dog talks to itself (in its pleasant voice) telling itself it's been 'lucky'. It might as well be telling itself that it's 'never had it so good'.

*Indeed the Wozzeck reference is particularly pertinent; the professor begins his first domestic overtures towards his subject, Sharik(ov) with vocalising that includes humming, like the Doktor in Berg. Later in the scene we are met by someone else with designs on Sharikov, the communist apparatchik Shvonder, who has the same, high tessitura music as Berg's Hauptmann (and who is also in thrall the the professor's greater charisma, as the Hauptmann is to the Doktor).

UPDATE: At the centre of A Dog's Heart is a puppet dog. A wretched, mangy, skeleton of an animal, it really reminded me of something... and as one or two more on-the-ball reviewers have now pointed out, director Simon McBurney has based it on a Giacometti sculpture:

Friday, 12 November 2010

Without Warning, Trinity Laban College

This original performance piece, devised and executed by Trinity Laban alumni, Without Warning was a rather daring, abstracted affair. The seed idea for this heavily workshopped but essentially improvised work was An Evil Cradling, Brian Keenan's account of years spent in captivity in Beirut. It was performed in the backstage area of Trinity Laban's Bonny Bird theatre, an appropriate space for its bare, industrial appearance and stark lighting. We (the audience) found ourselves moving around like flocking starlings, either crowding to see performers on the floor or stepping back to let them through.

I'm unfamiliar with the content of An Evil Cradling, although I'd imagine it covers the pain and paranoia of brutalised captivity as well as the unique friendship that Keenan struck up with Brian McCarthy, his fellow cell-mate. Consequently, there was a great deal of interaction - largely dance - in pairs. Often strained, even mutedly aggressive, the movement was occasionally accompanied by music generated both diegetically (if you like) by the performers, or electronically by a sound designer in the flies. Much of this seemed pertinent to the basic idea of Keenan's incarceration.

More interestingly - and, dare I say it, importantly - is how the piece worked on its own terms. For me this meant the experience of being inamongst the performers. This isn't a situation I enjoy as there's the ever-present threat of 'audience participation'. It became apparent though that this was simply a conceit to encourage the sense of claustrophobia that is an important component of the drama.

Particularly intriguing about the experience was the proximity of the performers at given moments. There are some speedy and even violent manoeuvres at times and, given the clear sense of improvising, there's always the potential for collision, if not with the performers then with fellow audience members when trying to move out of the performers' way. My own experience was very instructive. I quickly found that I didn't want to move. I felt that I wanted to trust the performers to move around me if necessary and that I didn't want to move in the way of other audience members.

Above all, I felt a peculiar belligerence about being in 'the audience'. I felt that, in view of a lack of clear instruction of how I should be moving and the flexibility of the performers, that I would simply stay where I was and let the performers find their own way around me. I found this strangely empowering (especially on one occasion in which a flying toe tapped my chin) but this drew me towards the tension of the drama. It's as if I were no longer simply observing but adopting a role - not a premeditated role in the sense of 'oh, I must be one of the captors then' but a role defined by my own physical sensation in being in close proximity to the physicality of the performers in conjunction with the particular emotional content of that physicality.

Other thoughts revolved around the use of instruments in the performance. I didn't connect with the idea of An Evil Cradling until I read more about it after the show. Instead, I found that I was making connections with the idea of Tamino struggling with one of the trials of The Magic Flute or Orpheus attempting to rescue Eurydice. The music was entirely integrated into the performance though. Laura Moody's uncompromising approach to her cello and extended vocal technique was frighteningly unhinged; Peter Willcock's flute playing and humming (not to mention deeply expressive face) seemed rather more compos mentis, though consequently pitiable. As I suggest Lizzi Kew-Ross' choreography incorporated all of this, making it impossible to isolate, let alone commend individual performances of this intense, unusual and eventually rewarding project.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Performing Arts Colleges 100% Funding Cut

from today's Telegraph

Universities losing all government funding (include):

Central School of Speech and Drama
Rose Bruford College
Royal Academy of Music
Royal College of Music
Royal Northern College of Music
Trinity Laban
Goldsmiths College
Conservatoire for Dance and Drama
Leeds College of Music
Guildhall School of Music and Drama

a little staggered for now, so more later.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Singin' In The Rain, John Wilson & Philharmonia

I was at the Festival Hall this afternoon for another MGM score reconstruction from John Wilson. This time he had the Philharmonia Orchestra & Voices in tow to perform the much loved Singin' In The Rain with a cast of top-notch principals.
This rather blurry image serves to illustrate little more than my first observation, that the stage was packed to bursting, with added woodwind and brass, on top of the rhythm trappings of a big band score - a guitar, kit drum and piano. The performance was staged concert and so a strip of the available room was given over to the principals, who recreated the film by reading from a script prepared by director-narrator Kim Criswell.

The principal appeal of the event was the opportunity of hearing the music played live. This was an unequivocal success, the Philharmonia bringing a stock-in-trade virtuosic ensemble to the music. Though some moments lacked the froth and excess that seems characteristic of the film, the score was presented with great beauty and a stirring, authentic romance. The additional brass really came into their own in the swagger and drive of dance numbers and interludes. The programmatic Broadway Ballet that accompanies the solipsistic dance interlude of the film was a particularly well-rendered suite.

Of course, it would be too difficult to recreate the action exactly as in the film on stage (rain?!), just as it would be impossible for the principals to 'be' Gene Kelly or Debbie Reynolds (or Donald O'Connor). Consequently, the drama was played out with a mixture of reproduction, re-appropriation or, occasionally, allowing the music to take over.

Josh Prince's Cosmo lead the way in this respect with an economical version of the Make 'Em Laugh slapstick routine, which also made use of a game Wilson (not for the first time in the afternoon ahead). His tap dancing in Moses Supposes was also impressive, but he was chiefly an asset for his sure comic timing.

This really allowed Julian Ovenden, as Don, and Annalene Beechey, playing Kathy, to free themselves of the comic burden of the drama, and play - and sing - the romance. There's great ardour in the music, enough to prevent the caramelising of the melody in the theatrical coulis, and it had first class advocates in these two young performers.

Ovenden is not only strikingly handsome, his easy charm simply flows off the front of the stage (and he's likely to become even more widely known because of an upcoming film). The spirit of Gene Kelly was alive and well in him, although he chose not to dance during the Puddle de deux of the title song (the only questionable decision of the evening: a tribute to the indelible magic of the screen routine? The music cried out for a theatrical counterpart). Beechey's Kathy was a pitch-perfect foil for Ovenden's Don and commanded, arguably, the loveliest voice. Their falling in love at the end of the first half was entirely convincing, and even better than the experience of the film for not having its visual paraphernalia.

The slack of an orbiting company of smaller roles and extras was taken up by the uncredited big band frontman Matthew Ford and individuals popping out of the all-singing, some-dancing chorus to swing a racket or take a twirl in the 'rain'. Everyone on stage got involved in the splashes of hubbub as the history of the motion picture (literally) flashed in front of our eyes. This was a most lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon and made me wish that the rush of seasonal panto just around the corner might be so meticulously prepared and so ardently performed.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

The Magic Flute, Hampstead Garden Opera

Mozart's loopy-but-indestructible masterpiece The Magic Flute is a mixed blessing for a director. It's a piece that one can bend to almost any sort of concept but which has a very rigid internal centre to it. I'm not talking about black human certainties Mozart confronts, like suicide or rape. Rather, I mean the po-faced social constructs like Sarastro's gentlemen's club, assumed by most to be a Masonic tribute, which has the potential to occupy more than its fair share of the latter half of the opera.

It's an equivocal issue in James Hurley's production for Hampstead Garden Opera's current production at the Gatehouse Theatre. Hurley introduces a clever concept from the start. Possibly borrowing from Bergman (child-centric productions in both The Magic Flute and the child's doll-house-proportioned toy theatre from Fanny and Alexander) he has the unequivocal children of the three boys, or girls in this production, play with dolls that turn out to represent Tamino and Pamina. The parental figures of Sarastro and The Queen of the Night get involved in a rather more seedy game of their own before the Queen takes over, manipulating the doll of Tamino like a voodoo doll. This all happens during the overture: charm, sexual intent, vindictiveness and dark magic. It's a good start.

Whether or not Hurley has managed to explain himself to his cast, or indeed give them sufficient direction though is a different issue. From the outset the acting had patches of glazed functionality - entrances and exits particularly were often not dramatically causal, just the next thing to happen in the score.

This didn't become a problem because there was some pretty good singing going on. William Balkwill's Tamino really got into his stride in the long, high lyric music with solid support from a disparately-voiced but well-blended trio of ladies in Helen Bailey, Siân Cameron and Charlotte King. The first of my favourite three performers of the evening was Viki Hart's Queen of the Night, secure in sound but above all committed in character. This really helped carry Hurley's concept some distance - that the central Tamino-Pamina rescue drama might be a psychological construct of a woman at the sharp end of a warped and possibly failed marital relationship.

The next mature performance was that of the Papageno. Like Leporello, it is a gift of a role and baritone Daniel Roddick really fulfilled its potential. He was joined at the height of what the afternoon had to offer by a most remarkable Pamina. Raphaela Papadakis' greatest achievement might have been to have not overbalanced the production. Convincing onstage and with clear, measured diction in dialogue, her singing was a gulfstream of fine technique and emotional connection. Ach, ich fühl's (or, rather, Let me die in this translation by Stephen Fry, originally for Kenneth Branagh's 2007 film) was a rare, transporting, genuinely operatic peroration. For that and other vocal and dramatic commitment she should be commended.

Alongside this melodramatic perspective of the opera is cast the patriarchal ensmble of Sarastro, his followers and people. Chris Borrett's Sarastro is a young but hearty instrument. I would also have liked to have heard much more of the sound Alexandre Garziglia brought to a thoroughly satisfying Speaker. Benjie del Rosario's Monostatos was suitably comic-oily.

I still felt ill at ease though. The end of Act 1 brought us into Sarastro's home, which, with the women in frocks and masks could have started some interesting Eyes Wide Shut reference to the subjugation of women in closed male-run societies. Yet the opportunity lapsed through a general indifference. Conversely, though I enjoyed the pert, lively charm of Ri McDaid-Wren, Pippa Woodrow and Fiona James as the three girls, the dramatically important chastity of the trio was simply discounted with the first of a number of pubescently winsome smirks at the handsome Prince Tamino.

Musically this was a robust performance. The Dionysus Ensemble belied its skeletal corps with dependable playing of the score. All were conducted by an unflappable Oliver Ruthven, despite being necessarily tucked in a corner. The theatrical presentation of the opera did suffer from its shortcomings though. I imagine it is likely that the ensemble were saving a little for the later evening performance, happening as I type this up here.

Monday, 1 November 2010

First Night - an Opera Movie

There's a report today on a new movie that doubles as a vehicle for Cosi fan Tutte. At least I think I've got that right. It looks like this.



Now, first of all, having read the words Branagh and Mozart by the end of the second paragraph, I immediately thought of the fun, well-intentioned but flat 2007 film of The Magic Flute that Branagh directed. Yet producer Stephen Evans says that the film is "specifically not a movie of an opera. It's a movie set against a backdrop of putting on an opera".

Evans is a successful figure in the industry and he seems to think that the climate is right too:
The decision to make First Night was also prompted by opera's rising popularity. [Evans] was struck by the huge number of young people at a recent open-air screening at Somerset House of The Rake's Progress from Glyndebourne. "I was amazed by the youth there. It's Stravinsky. Not the most melodic of people," he said.
Indeed there's also a reference to the increasing interest in live relays of opera productions in cinemas, not to mention the popularity of large scale, one-off 'event screenings' of Royal Opera Productions.

The fact remains though that an opera is already a self-contained artwork. Making a film of it requires a meta-approach - just like the high concept inventively applied by Branagh to The Magic Flute, or indeed in this idea (which itself is rather like Michael Winterbottom's film of Tristram Shandy, for example). This is half the reason why Evans found that
People who didn't know opera were more excited than the people who did. The music is so wonderful, so lyrical. People uninterested in opera found themselves loving the music.
The music is undeniably wonderful, irrespective of the context of opera (and this is probably true of any good opera, not just those by Mozart). Lifted out of the socially-claustrophobic implications of this is an opera! it's easy to experience the music's charm.

I suspect that Evans is ingenuous about wanting people to experience Mozart - though his first priority, as a producer, will be to make a profitable film. Consequently, there is the ever present but entirely irrelevant 'don't worry, you're watching a populist approximation of opera' meme built into (not only) the film (but also the all-important trailer) with Julian Ovenden singing O Sole Mio.