Sunday, 30 January 2011

Idomeneo, Opus Opera

This one-off performance of Mozart's cracking opera seria, Idomeneo, was produced by the most recent of small, budding companies to put on complete performances of operas at suitable (or at least sympathetic) London venues. Opus Opera is the work of two of the singers and the performance was designed to prioritise the music-making; no staging but a modest orchestra. This is the best alternative, I feel, for young singers wanting to try out roles and show themselves off and the performance reflected this with pretty good singing all round. The nicely spun out bel canto from Ed Saklatvala (Idamante) and Michael Solomon Williams (Arbace) were a good foil for the sheer power of Ben Thapa's eponymous king Idomeneo. Thapa makes him a bear of a character, wrestling with his fateful dilemma even within the constraints of the concert performance. Rebecca Henning, as one of the company's instigators, had clearly cherry-picked her role and she offered a sweet-and-even-toned Ilia. I was most impressed by Kirstin Sharpin's rich, accurate Elettra, providing a credible threat to Henning's charm.

A capable chorus joined the group for the not insignificant ensembles and the step-out roles were assuredly taken. Overall, frayed edges were, perhaps, inevitable for a group that had probably come together with little time and money but I suspect that willpower and the support of the venue, Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Square, were no little part in helping to make the evening a success.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Opera: Still Tricky

Out of the blue earlier in the week, this piece from the Telegraph's theatre critic, Charles Spencer (right):
I’m an operaphobe... When I turn on Radio 3 and discover that an opera is being broadcast, I feel slightly nauseous and instantly have to switch channels.
It's actually a highly forensic article, getting to the root of some serious issues in opera in a very short stretch of prose. He finishes with a plea:
I’d be very glad to hear from readers who once shared my allergy to opera and who can recommend a way of overcoming the aversion.
Well I can't claim to be a covert but I'd like to address his points.

1. overweight women caterwauling interminably

Recently, directors have been insisting that performers fit their dramatic role on stage physically. However, to a certain extent, the stereotype large opera singer that demands an audience suspend their incredulity lives on.

Caterwauling is a rude but not totally inaccurate way of describing the sound that many opera singers make when trying to fulfil the demands of singing a role.

2. I used to think it was the snobbishness that surrounded opera that put me off, but in recent years it has become far more democratic.

Quite so.

3. ponderous and often grotesquely sentimental storytelling

Yes, operatic drama often seems drawn out and emotionally sweetened.

One must realise that opera isn't a drama accompanied by music. The drama is in the music. Complaining about the ponderous, sentimental storytelling is rather like complaining about Bob Dylan's rough singing voice.

4. the need for surtitles

Again, Spencer is right. It's difficult to hear the words that most singers are singing, irrespective of the language. Surtitles are a well-meaning device (usually for translating foreign languages) but unavoidably come between an audience and their immediate understanding of the drama.

5. When I turn on Radio 3 and discover that an opera is being broadcast, I feel slightly nauseous

I sympathise. Opera is designed to be heard live in a dedicated space. The use of microphones will diminish that experience.

Microphone placement in a live performance is restricted by having to keep the stage clear, so the optimum mic placement will never be achieved anyway.

The fact that the sound is being picked up for broadcast also means further processing of the sound (usually compression, making the quieter music louder and vice versa) which further diminishes the artist's work.

6. and in such a small space the high notes were excruciating

Again, I agree. And once again, opera is designed to be heard live in a dedicated space. If the space is too cramped then not only does the sound not have a chance to breathe but the singer, feeling the acoustic inhibition of the room, may modify their technique to deal with it and diminish the quality of their sound - and consequently overall performance.

The same is true for large spaces where performers may feel a responsibility to reach the extremities with music - and its appropriately cast voices - that are intended for a space half the size. Distortion of a similar but opposite kind can occur.

7. over-trained voices

This is a most important issue. The question 'what is opera' is a difficult one to answer. I suspect that the clearest demarcation from other lyric theatre is the sound a singer makes. Katherine Jenkins can help us here: though she has never sung an opera she is considered an opera singer. This is because of the manner in which she produces a singing sound, not the content of the music that she sings nor the context in which she sings it.

Training a voice is the attempt to extend the capability of the natural voice. This is largely to do with projecting a voice into increasingly large theatres, and sustaining a voice across the increasingly extreme peaks, troughs and expanses of modern opera.

Technology has rendered this redundant in many respects. The traditional art of training a singing voice (which Spencer correctly identifies as bel canto, literally beautiful singing) is always held in false comparison with popular music, essentially a chamber art, that can be amplified to thousands (or broadcast to billions).

Additionally, as Spencer suggests, and as my crude similie to the work of Katherine Jenkins shows, it's the sound that people find difficult to deal with. In many cases this is fair, the application of the technique being part of the resultant sound and creating a mannered blend.

However, the very best singing renders technique transparent. The colours and quirks of a voice similarly dissolve - all the 'spontaneity and occasional roughness' of Spencer's pop background are similarly rendered obsolete. All that is left is plain speech attached to a remarkable open-ended chamber of resonance that takes in the whole space in which the audience sits, wihout source or destination.

I've only heard it rarely in London: Christian Gerhaher at the Royal Opera last year or Roderick Williams at ENO the year before. It's a central wonder of the alchemy of opera, the unrepeatable effect of direct communion with an artist using the focus of dramatic performance to give this aurora borealis of sound-in-technique artistic purpose.

Like all rare treats, it requires a certain faith on behalf of the listener who may be rewarded with myriad inklings or even short stretches of the prize along the way. To Charles Spencer of the Telegraph and others with imagination I recommend perseverance.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Wretched Bliss, The King's Head Theatre

This is precisely the sort of lyric theatrics that should be going on at The Kings Head Theatre: modest, unusual, experimental. I rather enjoyed this short comedy in which a relationship starts under a flimsy - i.e. drunken - pretext and, a short period into the future is in its inevitable death throes.

Stephen Crowe's angular music often gives way to speech and silence, as if the characters run out of the ability or will to express themselves. The fractious couple, Nick Dwyer and Zoe Challenor negotiate the odd contours of the music with some real singing, and exploit the comic potential of the silences well (although I felt that the spoken passages were awkwardly under-projected).

The evening's notable pleasure though is in the band. This is where the real expression - and expressionism - is happening, with tearing, louche strings alternating with tumbling, speak-first-think-later trumpet and saxophone. Genevieve Ellis directs the excellent quartet, the best reason to make the trip to Islington.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Madame Butterfly, King's Head Theatre

I was seriously disappointed by this Madame Butterfly. The serious limitations of putting on lyric theatre designed (acoustically) for a space several times larger were laid not so much bare as bald. Equally, the drama, as the company's increasingly elusive nom de geurre suggests, is Up Close. Too close for a melodrama that needs the space for the audience to engage in suspension of disbelief, in exactly the same way that acoustic sound needs room to breathe.

Part of the thrill of these productions is seeing exactly how the team make the necessary changes to the original to counter or cope with the limitations - or opportunities - the space presents. The greatest updating was to turn the Geishas into ladyboys. It might have had currency if we weren't forced into a double mental somersault, given that the men dressing as women are, through vocal necessity, actually women. This isn't the farce-functional layering of, say, Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. No, conversely the audience is burdened with a redoubling of imagination just so that the stageplay can be taken at face value.

There are two reasons for optimism. Firstly, someone has had the good sense to realise that whilst you can get away with all sorts of mucking about in a piece like this, you simply cannot half-bake the casting of the eponymous heroine, Cio-Cio San. Laura Casey had sufficient reserves of voice to make something of the sonority and sinuousness of this testing role. I found her always admirable and occasionally affecting and long to hear her sing in a more appropriate space.

Secondly I admired the nano-orchestra of a single violin and clarinet playing in tandem with the piano direction of Elspeth Wilkes. It's important not only for the aesthetics of the work but also the support of the singers to provide more than just a skeletal accompaniment to their sung roles - to provide a sense of the mist and nimbus of the orchestration. That I stopped worrying about this early on in the evening is intended as a complement.

If they're going to do Puccini, they should do Puccini. If they're going to do something based on Puccini, the production should be about the new idea not about the pilfered old one. I would also like to go and see production by a company which has a buzz because they put on fresh, engaging, well-prepared productions of opera - not the other way around. As Stephen Sondheim wrote, you've gotta get a gimmick: well, the company are giving the impression they've gotta get an opera to keep the exhausted gimmick in business. I hope that's not the case and I look forward to a more sensible choice of repertory opera (the forthcoming Coronation Of Poppea) with which to test the worth of the King's Head Theatre properly.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Chicago, Cambridge Theatre

This is what it's looked like on any one of the thousands of nights from the past 13 years of its run:



Last night I went to see Chicago (which I had already enjoyed on-screen) in its current incarnation at the Cambridge Theatre. It's a robust, slick show which leaves no time or even space for reflection. A very 'meta' show, the cast not only play a number of parts inside and outside its narrative but everyone on stage slips easily between roles and compering directly with the audience. As a statement of intent in this respect, having the band on show in the central stage set makes it clear that the story of "murder, greed, corruption, violence" (etc.) is never more important than the sexually gymnastic frenzy of the routines with which it is told.

The principals last night were a strong, sassy ensemble. Sarah Soetaert's Roxy is arguably the star, i.e. she controls the attention with the minimum of show, although she punches the routines hard. Vivien Carter's Velma is the opposite, working her legs tirelessly & immaculately and creating the only believable relationship with Jasna Ivir's prison warden 'Matron'. Terence Maynard has the front, if not the voice to carry off Billy Flynn. Perhaps the most surprising contribution is that of Daniel Goode as Amos, a straight man role to relieve the relentless opiate of physical fetishism. It's a thankless role which Goode manages with the same physical precision as the dancers, no less humour and a great deal of pathos. (I don't understand the final principal role, that of Mary Sunshine, a sort of buffo drag appendage).

Chicago's success may be down to its timing, with its themes of stars-in-their-eyes meritocracy very much a theme in the 1997-2007 boom part of the Noughties (a favourite topic of mine at the moment, I'm aware). The idea that someone not only without talent but also with negative attributes (breaking laws or moral codes) can turn that around by controlling the drip feed of that sensation to a media-nursed public is familiar from the boom in reality TV shows. Not only the story but the very nature of Chicago's drama does that as well - as an audience we are happy to indulge the sensation of semi-clad bodies performing remarkable physical routines rather than face the narrative reality of "murder, greed, corruption, violence" (etc.) which are not terribly nice things at all.

Perhaps what's missing in the stage show is the satire. To keep the razzle dazzle fizzing along, the performers are rather transparent, not characters but chameleons of the imagination. They are tropes who barely bother to change costume to adopt roles like jealous lover, judge or reporter, such is the evanescent nature of their contribution in our consciousness. There are really only three real characters in the show: Roxy, Velma and Amos. This is the greatest irony, the only irreducible satire - that apparently the least of these, Amos, who sings about not being noticed is one of the only truly substantive characters, unlike the other flimsy, 'cellophane' roles that are there to titillate and distract.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Betrayal, Comedy Theatre

I'm a sucker for Pinter, although I have a highly chequered relationship with productions at London's theatres. This Comedy Theatre production reminds me of trying to see The Caretaker (with Michael Gambon) from the balcony, where a mixture of vertigo and sheer discomfort in chairs not replaced since the war meant I left early.

Well despite having to battle once again (all of the above plus some muppet who'd brought their dinner in with them) my determination to get proper attentive traction on the play was well rewarded. Betrayal is tame Pinter, a Pinter explaining himself, honest but reaching out for understanding, rather than dissecting the idea of compassion with the playwright's scalpel. Told backwards - the chronology isn't exactly in reverse, with some scenes moving forward throughout a given year - the play isolates the temperature of the relationships within a veiled love-triangle over a decade (1968-1977). The likelihood that Betrayal is a prismatic account of Pinter's own adulterousness means, as I mean by 'tame', that the dialogue teases out the absurdities and discomfort of the situation but rarely throws punches or spits bile. I find this a disappointment. The lid-ripping of something feral was what was missing from this performance (probably as it's missing from the play). Instead I watched a world of unchannelled feeling in which a middle-class disinclined to rage but too upset to reason translates as a paralysis of positive action, the laconic non-action of this famous contemporaneous double portrait by David Hockney.

This is pathos in its own right, of course, and is what comes across in this beautifully played production. Kristin Scott Thomas is ideal casting: independent, but contingent, perpetually subsuming the moral kaleidoscope of her involvement in the comforts that it presents. Douglas Henshall is an open book, a warm man who is clearly the victim of his own volubility, even before we see the final scene - i.e. the beginning of the affair. Ben Miles makes up the trio as Emma's husband, a drier, more obscure presence. The production is clearly presented in a strongly lit, cunningly constructed set (revolving wings transform the space economically) and, mercifully, with a bare minimum of tasteful music. Quietly affecting, although it won't contort your world view like The Birthday Party or No Man's Land, for example.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Amphibians, Bridewell

There's been plenty of coverage of the 2012 PRS commissions, a substantive musical part of the trumpeted but hard-to-define Cultural Olympiad tie-in. Theatre company Offstage Theatre is ahead in this game, having collaborated with top competitors on a play about the experience of elite-level swimming. This glossy, Bill Viola-like company-produced trailer evokes the spirit of the show:



Despite being given towels as we went into the theatre - to sit on! - there is no water in the show although, serendipitously-by-design, the Bridewell Theatre is a former public bath and left as an undressed set for the production. Rather, the piece concerns two estranged former swimmers, trying to re-imagine their recalled experiences. I'm all for this outwardly rather 'artistic' approach: the natural drama of competition is already complete, so for successful theatre, different ideas are necessary.

Where this production succeeds is in the management of the flashback sequences which represent the memories of the two principals. As a technical piece of theatre, Amphibians is impeccable. Crisp lighting and sound design (Richard Williamson & Gregory Clarke) are effective and pertinent - I like the persistent background of electric crackle, again not a literal representation of water but laterally reminiscent of splashing, not to mention some synaptic interface, memory at work. Cressida Brown's direction uses the space to bring characters in and out of the audience's consciousness as smoothly as the principals' time-folding solipsisms. Notably there is a ballet to recreate a training swim which faithfully reproduces the apogee and perigee of glide and frenzy in a swimmer's action.

Unavoidably then, for all the artistic transliteration of the sport there's a certain amount of physicality involved. In addition to the choreography, the cast have to get in and out of the theatre's former pool a number of times, as well as spending the best part of the show in little more than swimming costumes. Presumably there has been some preparation in a gym as well as a rehearsal space as the company look fit, physically convincing as a group of sporting teenagers.


However, bodies are alluded to but not dwelt on in the script. What moment of real scrutiny there is becomes believable due to the fine physical condition of Louise Ford's Elsa and the particularly sculpted appearance of Sam Heughan's Max. Heughan plays him as hair-trigger unpredictable, irascible but needy. The two muddle through their encounter continually dipping a toe (if you like) in the water of nostalgia though for what purpose is not quite clear. The nebulous narrative of the encounter held me back from really engaging with the production. Nostalgia and flashback is a rewarding formal construct but needs a pretext which I just couldn't put my finger on.

Two further characters offset the central couple. Jan Knightley's Coach preaches sober realism in the same mould as Brian Glover's PE teacher in Kes but with compassion in place of belligerent pride. Around all this, and in keeping with the Tempest-like subject of magic realism, water and competition, an Ariel figure (Arion) articulates some sort of lyric, hidden truth. Gloria Onitiri's performance is - ironically, for such a mystic component - the most beautifully annunciated in the distanced acoustics of the space and even involves some competent singing (completing the Tempest allusion).

Amphibians is not an analytic work. It doesn't provide answers or explanation for the drive, experience and fallout of elite sportsmanship. On the other hand it does make a palpable connection with their essence (not least, I might add, in the use of the space, another of the company's claims fulfilled). I can recommend the show to anyone interested, particularly those who might still be scratching their heads, wondering exactly of what the artistic tie-in to the coming Olympic Games might consist.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Capturing Art

From an article in today's Guardian:
I reflect sourly on what the great German philosopher Herbert Marcuse wrote about how instrumental rationality undermines the emancipatory possibilities of technology, reducing it to a tool for our domination. What I think he meant by this was that instead of using technology such as camera phones to make our lives richer, freer and happier, we stand like lumps doing something socially irritating and existentially pointless, thereby ruining the view for everyone else. We have become snappers on autopilot, slaves to our machines, clogging up cyberspace with billions of images that nobody in their right minds – not even the person who sent them – thinks are worthwhile.
It's a nice, open-ended reflection on the pros and cons of the increasing ubiquity of cameraphones.

Those of us who work as a soldier-ants in the entertainment industries, reliant on localised, short-term contracts are increasingly at the mercy of the ease of digital video capture and dissemination.

I find it peculiar how the explosion of digital file-sharing over the past 10 years has revived live performance, only for those going in search of it trying to capture it as a audio-visual souvenir. It compromises not only their own experience but also that of others in the same situation. It simply isn't possible to have the live experience whilst trying to capture (and indeed distribute) it. Heisenberg had plenty to say on the subject.

Prince had the right idea, i.e. he was sanguine. I went to see him play the first night of his O2 residency in 2007. At the gate we were given the new album for free, just for turning up, such was the relatively low value of the CD in a global market climate where no-one was prepared to pay for it. Instead the big draw was the opportunity to see Prince perform live.



Prior to the show, it was suggested that we didn't need to take photos or video footage during the show but that we should treasure the experience. This was an mature approach to getting people to enjoy themselves, accepting of those who would want to take some sort of souvenir (as well as those chancers prepared to bag themselves an old-fashioned bootleg). Consequently the atmosphere was super - hey, even I took a snap of the show (right). It's instructive that the film industry has produced pre-feature advertisements explaining why one shouldn't capture and reproduce the film. It stresses the 'cinematic experience'.

That's the right idea but in purely artistic terms rather disingenuous. The experience of seeing a film is basically limited to what's on a screen. Beyond that the only added value for a consumer comes with the DVD special features before the whole experience becomes a lasting, petrified anachronism.

All this boils down to an issue of media. Cinema is a mediated art form by its very nature, in the same way that much pop music is processed, even if only through amplification.

What is interesting to me in all this is that the inability to faithfully capture and reproduce the experience of acoustic entertainment will be the salvation of live performance, defying the 'convenience' of recording. It proves redundant (i.e. it won't sound so good on a PC or phone) and the peculiar nature of acoustic art is that it draws you in.

For the time being, those of us involved in live performance must continue to adopt a professional but sanguine position - to take pride in doing the best that we do as the most magnanimous foil against its consequent reception and use. That's art.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

The Acoustic Art

For better or worse, classical music no longer inhabits a separate room; it is in the mix.

At the same time, classical music stands partly outside the technological realm, because most of its repertory is designed to resonate naturally within a room.
Listen To This, 2010, Alex Ross