Yes, yes, I know… this is becoming a habit. Another roundup of several things at once because I haven’t got around to writing anything about them sooner. So, today we have: Felicity Lott at the Hampstead & Highgate Festival; The Barber of Salisbury; and a quick reference to the (non-musical) Yes, Prime Minister (for the sake of getting it off my chest).
Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson at Hampstead
Flott at Hampstead Parish Church was everything hoped for, with the one exception being programmes that lacked the words, in French or English, which meant that a slightly obscure selection washed past with a sense of something missed. She was in fine voice, perhaps with just a hint of gravel which added to the expressiveness of the singing. The classical church interior (as witnessed from three rows back) provided a rather cool and detail-revealing acoustic. The theme was Diaghilev, which Graham Johnson at the start admitted posed challenges for a lieder recitalist, but it brought forth songs by composers including Berlioz, Stavinsky, Berners, Satie and Poulenc: mostly French territory on which Lott excels. What were particularly nice – and helped, given the omission of words from the programme – were introductions to the songs given by Johnson and Lott before each batch. It gave the concert a conversational air that really suited the setting and the atmosphere of the festival. Particularly enjoyed Lott getting out her specs to read a passage of poetry with a ‘Yes, it’s come to this!’ And mention has to be made of a rousing performance of ‘Come On, Algernon!’ by Lord Berners. If you’re familiar with the Champs Hill Disc just release (Call Me Flott!) then you’ll know why. Overall, though, this lieder recital felt a serious endeavour that wore its seriousness lightly, and provided a warm welcome to some unfamiliar territory.
The Barber of Seville (or Salisbury)
This is how OperaUpClose billed their foray into Rossini in the first outing for London’s Little Opera House, more usually known as the King’s Head Theatre. It has a fantastically shabby and makeshift air to it. The piano was a jangly upright, which jangled just a little too much at times, but provided mostly sensitive accompaniment under the fingers of Musical Director Alison Luz. The set was simple, involving pictures on the back wall, curtains to provide places to hide, and a door to left and right. Visual mania was supplied by chairs of varying Regency styles on wheels.
The singing was mixed, which is not to say that it wasn’t pleasurable. In case you hadn’t guessed from the title, the whole thing was upped and moved to Jane Austen’s England. Philip Lee was, therefore, the Marquess of Bath, rather than the Count of Almaviva (although they insisted on using ‘Marquis’, with Rosina being invited to become Marquise rather than Marchioness, but hey ho). Bartolo, played by John Savournin, was Dr Bartleby (is someone an Archers listener with a fondness for Joe Grundy’s horse?). Don Basilio became Mr Basil, in the hands of David Freedman. It all worked reasonably well and, with some cuts it formed a reasonably spirited package. I found myself admonishing myself on a number of occasions for thinking ‘it’s not Juan Diego Florez, is it?’ which is an absurd comparison to make, but it is difficult not to yearn for more fluidity in coloratura and a lighter tone than Philip Lee brought to it. His acting was a little stilted as well. Aurore Lacabe was a late stand-in and again I wished for a bit more easy fluidity in the voice, but it had a rich and solid tone, and she did a sterling job of projecting Rosina’s spirit whilst carrying a libretto and trying to adapt to the ‘business’. Richard Immergluck’s Figaro seemed not to be quite the centre of things, possibly due to some of the cuts, but enlivened his entrance aria by ranging around the auditorium picking on audience members. Freedman’s Mr Basil boomed through the role and relished his Calumny aria. Finally, the most successful overall singer and actor was Savournin, who brought an expert G&Ser’s skill to depicting the complex mix of brutal and hapless that is Bartolo/Bartleby. He was consistently the best actor and a joy to watch. The ends of the scenes – marked by everyone rushing off stage en masse – was made hilarious by his trick of stopping a few paces from the door, drawing himself up with faux grandeur, and covering the remaining few paces in a stately manner. Overall, the show – and this style of opera presentation more generally – might benefit from a little reining in of the hyperactivity, but a good, fun evening was had.
So, does it work? In earlier posts I lamented that London doesn’t have a theatre that is given over consistently to opera and which seats fewer than ca. 2,500. Should I be careful what I wish for? Well, yes and no. At around 120 seats, though it feels smaller, the King’s Head is the other extreme, but there’s no danger of it replacing the ROH or ENO. It’s a very different animal indeed. With careful choices – such as the Barber of Seville – and spirited performances – which, for all the flaws, this undoubtedly was – this could be a remarkably successful addition to the London opera scene. Bravo the King’s Head.
Really, Prime Minister?
Speaking of successful endeavours, I need to comment on Yes, Prime Minister at the Gielgud Theatre. Because successful it most certainly was not. The loudly-proclaimed four-star reviews must have been for a different show. The ‘story’ centres on an international conference that is to be the saviour of the European economy but is imperilled by a fictional country’s Foreign Minister’s request for an underage prostitute to be delivered to his room at Chequers. It was lame. Worse than lame, it was crass and offensive. Why the hell ‘invent’ a country called Kumranistan? Why try a debate in intercultural moral relativism if the characters having the debate are so one-dimensional? I adore the television series, but Jonathan Lynn and Anthony Jay have seriously imperilled its reputation by attempting this revival. The acting was mediocre, but given the poor quality of the writing – which fell far below that of the original television series – it is hardly surprising. Sir Humphrey’s monologues were inserted into the surrounding drama rather than emerging from the banter. Had Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne been around to take part, do I think that they would have done? Not in a million years. Despite the audience around me falling about laughing – and I should add that they made the Friends of Covent Garden look like spring chickens – this was one of the worst visits to the theatre that I have made in a long time. Very disappointing stuff indeed.
If anyone wants me I shall be at home, watching my Yes, Minister DVDs and trying to forget. I want my £30 back. After all, that’s what I’m paying for my Rigoletto seat at the ROH tonight, and it shows every sign of being a top notch experience.