Tell me more…

Red Apple. [Creative Commons: Abhijit Tembhekar]

Tell’s famous shooting of the apple on Jemmy’s head was a brilliantly realised theatrical trick. [Creative Commons: Abhijit Tembhekar]

Having seen it at Sunday’s matinee, my thoughts about the Royal Opera’s new Guillaume Tell (production by Damiano Michieletto) will not rank amongst the more fulminating of the online debate. In short: musically stellar; visually interesting-tending-to-the-inert; dramatically stimulating. Notably, I didn’t find it – and that much-commented-upon sexual assault scene – particularly offensive.

I had expected to hate it. The way it was described conjured up the Royal Opera’s truly horrendous production of Rusalka, or the dull and pretentious Idomeneo. Both of those were in a league apart in terms of clumsy over-conceptual plot-handling and poor visuals. The atmosphere of Tell was well-established by the mud floor and general air of bleak oppression (however difficult it is to project a voice over so unreverberant a surface). On the night I had placed it in that miserable indefinably-somewhere-between-50s-and-70s period, but in fact it was set around World War 1, so my programme tells me. Chairs in abundance, against which much violence was wrought. Visible, hung strip-lighting as well. Baddies in combats wielding guns. It was not entirely cliché-free.  (more…)

The Dame, well-piqued

Queen of Spades, Russian Deck [Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain]Last Saturday we caught the opening night of English National Opera’s new production of The Queen of Spades. Not entirely a success, albeit with flashes of magnificence.

Most of the problem was David Alden’s: the production had an air of cheapness about it, not to mention laziness. Present were the trademark harsh side-lighting and oddball extras, as well as much piling up of chairs, not to mention the frankly puerile appearance of a bunch of stuffed carton character heads at one point. Of darkness and tension there was practically none. (more…)

Bye bye Bohème

Rooftops of Paris [(c) Mark Tyson]

Rooftops of Paris [(c) Mark Tyson]

So, it begins: the last run of Covent Garden’s production of La Bohème by John Copley, originally premiered during the period of electricity cuts and the 3-day week in 1974 – in fact, on the eve of Edward Heath asking for a dissolution of Parliament for the February 1974 General Election. In contrast 2015’s final revival saw ample full-on star-wattage blazing, albeit distractingly at times, from the two lead performers. In the meantime, the production showed its steadfast muted colours by carrying the the story with convincing straightforwardness. Nice though it was to see it a last time, I confess myself ready for something with rather more insight.

Given my lack of success in seeing her on the Covent Garden stage in the past, it was pleasing to note that Anna Netrebko was indeed present – and then some. As the evening progressed the celebrity sheen was slowly dimmed in favour of her genuine acting talents. Vocally as well, she seemed to ‘free up’ as the performance went on, after a first act in which her vocal voluptuousness threatened to tip over into an excessively mezzo-ish tone with stodgy consonants. Nonetheless, she won me back over as she stood behind the tumbril in act 3 and reacted most movingly to Rodolfo’s changing explanations of why he had left her. At the close, she anchored the death scene with her stillness, matching her vocal beauty to the failing health of the character. (more…)

Uneasy lies the head…

Duomo di Firenze, Georgio Vasari (detail) Photo: Mark Tyson

Duomo, Cattedrale di S. Maria del Fiore, Firenze; Georgio Vasari (detail) Photo: Mark Tyson

It’s a tricky one, don’t you find? When you’re struggling to maintain your grasp on regal power because the anonymous, writhing naked men dwelling in the depths of your psyche simply won’t stop distracting you. They become particularly lively, and things reach a particularly feverish and catastrophic pitch, when a so-called prophet rides into town promising all sorts of pleasures…

Thus runs, broadly, the theme (it’s not so much a plot) of Szymanowski’s Król Roger, at least in Kasper Holten’s well-judged production at Covent Garden. At last, a new production at Covent Garden that can be considered a fairly comprehensive success. The monumental head, filling the stage, starts out as some sort of totem of established worship, framed within a galleried set. As it turns, it reveals a metaphorical chamber, with enlightenment above (symbolised by piles of books) and the aforementioned baser elements slithering in the depths. This colossal stage-picture allowed the themes of Szymanowski’s opera to be very well elucidated: pulses of movement in the sensual depths accompanied each hint of King Roger’s seamier psychological undercurrents, until things disintegrated completely and broke free from the central cranium. Knowledge, again symbolised by books, was destroyed in a flaming pyre in the third act, giving way to the pursuit of pure pleasure – except for Roger, who sees a possibility of rebuilding a more meaningful life.  (more…)

A book backlog…

Pile of wonderful books

The persecutory culprits (artfully arranged, I should add, not ‘tossed’ into a heap!)

So if things have been a bit quiet around here lately, it’s one more sign that the 5:2 effect is in full force. I don’t mean the intermittent fasting diet, I mean the five days that pass in a blur of work and commuting, followed by two days in which you frantically try to pack in everything, from self-enlightenment down to mere life admin, not to mention sleeping, reminding yourself you have friends, and just sitting quietly and wondering about it all.

Amidst this frenzy, I’m becoming increasingly aware of my book backlog. Yes, let’s set aside for now the opera DVDs that are unwatched (in the proper sense of actually concentrating on them) and CDs unlistened to (ditto): there’s something about small piles of unread books that can gang together and take on a persecutory air.  My partner is a fantastic eBayer and peruser of charity shops.  Consequently I have a nicely growing collection of books that are antiquarian, or bordering on it, or otherwise quirky or interesting. A number of them just haven’t made it to being read yet… (more…)

Quick catch-up…

Programmes April 2015

It’s been a hectic old time the last few weeks, so capturing thoughts on performances has rather got forgotten. They’ve been a diverse bunch as well.

So, in brief: (more…)

Masterful Mastersingers

Woodcut of Nuremberg from the Nuremberg Chronicle [Wikimedia Commons Public Domain]

Woodcut of Nuremberg from the Nuremberg Chronicle [Wikimedia Commons Public Domain]

Anyone coming afresh to the superlative performance of The Mastersingers of Nuremberg at the Coliseum last night would be astonished to find out that the company behind it was facing such challenges as it is. English National Opera demonstrated in this one performance just how essential it is as a part of London’s operatic life. It was a performance of fresh immediacy, for once the English language translation absolutely sharpening its focus, and a production of inventive, well-observed detail. (more…)