by Rachel Beaumont

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Aimard surprise: George Benjamin and the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall

Sir George Benjamin: A Duet and a Dream
George Benjamin, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, James Hall and Philharmonia Orchestra
Royal Festival Hall
Stalls A24, £17.10
5 March 2020
Southbank page

Programme:
Knussen, Choral
Messiaen, ‘Le merle bleu’ from Catalogue d’oiseaux
Benjamin, Duet for piano and orchestra
Benjamin, Dream of the Song
Janáček, Sinfonietta

I felt a bit of a noob as I traipsed down to the empty front row of the Royal Festival Hall and acquired my seat in the middle of it. But the ticket was cheap(er) and I’ve never sat there before – and, at least, for the first half of the programme, it answered my desire from earlier in the evening to sit with my head inside the piano, here for Aimard’s as ever wondrous Messiaen. And for the second half I was able to retreat to the third row so that I wasn’t sitting right under singer James Hall’s nose. I’m not sure it’s an experience to be repeated for anything other than an exclusively Aimard show.

I bought this ticket on the basis of the Benjamin without even checking the programme, a dangerous habit in general but paying off here with a carefully constructed set. Out of very many things to enjoy the highlight was unquestionably the Messiaen: a small dose, if you like, and interestingly juxtaposed to Benjamin’s piano concerto to the advantage of each. Right up close I don’t doubt there are things you lose with solo piano – but the payoff is the intimacy of a recording combined with the immediacy of live performance. Aimard’s playing was blisteringly precise and beautifully coloured, a sensuous revelment in Messiaen’s many marvels.

Both Benjamins impressed, as usual, with the immaculacy of their construction, even if the Philharmonia’s performance was scrappy at times. Neither piece was known to me and both, unsurprisingly, warrant careful relistening. For a first impression of the piano concerto, my proximity probably didn’t give me a good idea of the intended balance; but I enjoyed what felt like its steadily growing, glowering malevolence, and am surprised to learn of its temporal distance from Lessons in Love and Violence given what felt like many resurfacings of ideas. For Dream I was almost distracted by countertenor Hall’s excellence to properly think my way through the piece, and I think it likes some thinking. I’ve heard of Hall but this is my first time listening in the flesh: I was mightily impressed at his diction, accuracy and the virility of his sound. I’d be interested to know how well it travelled to the back of the hall. He looked needlessly nervous, understandable with such a task before him but quite undeserved for the quality of his singing.

I usually find a Knussen piece a morsel of rare delight; while I enjoyed Choral a lot and certainly see its inspiration of a distant funeral cortège, it didn’t hold my attention as I would have expected – perhaps a victim of my not being able to see more than the shoes of most performers. Further to my shame, I think I may never have heard Janáček’s Sinfonietta live before. I’m not sure how I could have managed such a feat but I’m glad the omission has been rectified, without conscious decision. Perhaps primarily on the back of yesterday’s concert I heard a lot of Barry in the piece, lifted slightly on its gravitation to tonality but pleasingly persistent nonetheless. I’ve often found Janáček’s operas hard work but the Sinfonietta is a very cool piece.

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Another good deal: Music by Xenakis and Reimann at the Royal Festival Hall

Music by Xenakis and Reimann
Nicholas Hodges and members of the Philharmonia Orchestra
Royal Festival Hall
Free
5 March 2020
Southbank page

Programme:
Xenakis, Evryali
Reimann, Piano Concerto no.2

Somehow the Philharmonia’s Music of Today programme and its handful of free concerts has until now passed me by. It seems a pretty good deal: interesting music, strong performers, free. The turnout was also pretty strong for a 6pm concert of relatively little known music, although we felt few in the grandness of the Royal Festival Hall.

Xenakis arouses strong passions in me but Evryali was unfamiliar – I clearly need to do more sofa research. The programme’s artistic director Unsuk Chin explained in a short introduction that the written music is specifically unplayable, which seems a nice way to acknowledge the necessity of interpretation in any written music. I don’t know yet how Hodges’s rendition compares to others', but on its own the density both of notes themselves and their directions of movement were thrilling. My only thought was whether this might be even more fun if you sat right up with your head almost in the piano – I wonder if the piece’s extravagance is a little tamed in the RFH, even with Hodges untiring effort.

Reimann is an acknowledged blind spot for me, but even so I am mightily surprised that this wonderful piece from 1972 is only now receiving its UK premiere. The piece's shape was a bit obscure, unlike in the Xenakis which even in its multiplicity has clearly defined proportions; but I attribute this obscurity more to my ignorance of Reimann than anything else. Instead my focus was predominantly on the charming variety of sound coaxed from the 19-part orchestra, and particularly the voice-leading between them. It’s all written with the utmost skill to create a seamlessly meshed web around the piano, ably directed by Roland Kluttig.

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Barriers dropped: Gerald Barry and the BBC Singers at the Barbican

Music by Gerald Barry
BBC Singers
St Giles’ Cripplegate
Unreserved, £10
4 March 2020
Barbican page

Programme:
O Lord, how vain
The Coming of Winter
O Tannenbaum
Long Time
Schott & Sons, Mainz

This short programme of short a capella works by Gerald Barry interestingly demonstrates the variety of his muse – not something I’ve always found evident in his longer works. The programme as a whole and particularly the final work also made me realise that an implicit assumption I have, over the eternal irony of his music, may not be as accurate as I’ve thought. So in all a very valuable programme, and valiantly performed by the BBC Singers – though sadly not well attended.

The four first works in the programme span a period from 1995 to 2013 and each delighted me in one way or the other. O Lord, how vain, the earliest work in the programme, surprised off the bat with its commitment to textual clarity. The declamation of the 16th-century source text mingles with complex part writing (reminiscent of some of the writing for quartet in Alice’s Adventures Under Ground) and extensive tuneful, virtuoso whistling for the whole choir that generates a very pleasing effect.

Long Time shares a similar declaratory dedication. It sets the opening paragraphs of Proust around regeneratively inventive use of the C major scale: there is not a single non-diatonic note and yet the piece’s seven minutes feel full of invention. I feel I’m cheating slightly, as in a short interview with Barry himself before the performance he mentioned that the C major framework came naturally but seemed to allow a certain clarity the text’s stasis between sleep and non-sleep – but I buy it.

The two shortest pieces, The Coming of Winter and O Tannnenbaum, each touch on the mock anger – or what I’ve always thought of as mock anger – that’s a common thread through Barry. In different ways in their concise durations they call for a braying vocal strength on which the BBC Singers ably let rip.

But the piece that most made me most re-think was Schott & Sons, Mainz, which uses extracts from Beethoven’s letters to his publisher from the last years of his life. A wild bass solo, performed by Jimmy Holliday, has the brutal virtuosity familiar from Barry’s operas (again, it was nice to hear Barry talk in the performance of the divinity he found in vocal virtuosos), while the chorus writing has the complexity and flibbertigibbet enunciation of the other works on the programme. The text itself seems a gift to Barry’s humour, with its accidental references to Stockhausen and Darmstadt, and the opportunity to sing out Beethoven’s musical corrections to his errant publisher.

In the context of these jokes I was troubled at many points by the bass solo’s recourse to a throated shouting. Is this mockery of the deaf Beethoven? With the barrier of the perpetual irony that I assumed was in place there seemed no other explanation. But this can’t be right: why would you mock such an illness, such a person, especially if you’re as entranced by Beethoven as Barry? Thinking further I wondered that maybe part of my discomfort and assumption of irony is over a worry that Beethoven probably did shout. How frustrating, how cruel that must have been. This switch within me, combined with the final letters’ pleas for wine, set piteously, ragingly, matter-of-factly by Barry, achieved what few other works of his have for me: an emotional investment, and a troubled sadness.

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Less than the sum of its parts: Fidelio at the ROH

Fidelio
Royal Opera
Royal Opera House
Balcony standing B70, £22
1 March 2020
ROH page

This new production of Fidelio has, on paper, a lot going for it. Conducted by Antonio Pappano, starring two of the most sought-after voices today in Lise Davidsen and Jonas Kaufmann, and the Royal Opera’s (I think sole?) contribution to the Beethoven anniversary, this is a hot-ticket event, no doubt about it. And yet, as in the last Pappano/Kaufmann collaboration of Il forza del destino, the result, for me, does not add up. Even though I really, really like Fidelio.

That starry casting is part of the problem. Hearing Davidsen in the first act reminded me of my first John Tomlinson experience, as Gurnemanz at ENO. Then as I now, I had been blithely enjoying the preceding singing – here exquisitely tasteful work by Amanda Forsythe as Marzelline and Robin Tritschler as Jaquino, his musicality in particular to die for – when on comes a force of nature that completely transforms the aural landscape. Davidsen is SO LOUD it is not true. She is louder than her co-stars combined, she is louder than the orchestra. It feels there no place she could be and not be heard. She has an existential loudness. As in my first experience of her at the Wigmore but for different reasons, the loudness is not always pleasant: probably because of her remarkable youth, the loudness sometimes comes at the expense of complete accuracy. But if anyone needed any more evidence that this is the voice that will define her generation, Davidsen provides it in Fidelio.

Kaufmann is many things, I thought to myself at the interval (i.e., before his first appearance), but loud is not one of them. Beautiful, yes. Dramatically nuanced, yes. Musically intelligent, very much so. Loud, no. And accordingly this star couple’s eventual reunion does not enable Kaufmann’s strengths to shine. I was reminded of Forza, where he and Anna Netrebko spent barely any time together. Is this a tactical rep decision between Kaufmann and Pappano? It might well be wise, but as otherwise Florestan has just the one aria Fidelio might give the game away too much. In ‘Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!’ Kaufmann certainly capitalises on the wonderful opportunities Beethoven gives, nourishing the long starting note with a breathtaking fragility and ache that was sublime. But that is one moment. With it came the now familiar finery of epic ticket prices, crashing websites, an audience of bigwigs, two philanthropists credited with supporting Kaufmann’s role and a grand ‘Fidelio celebration’. Even Kaufmann looked embarrassed. This was Davidsen’s show, but Kaufmann is still the commercial bait.

Tobias Kratzer’s new production caused me further confusion. The first half looks so similar to David McVicar’s prize Le nozze di Figaro for the Royal Opera that I almost wondered if Kratzer had been sent a DVD as part of instructions for how to avoid another Guillaume Tell incident. It’s all fine, I thought, and looks nice, and maybe this is what the people want – but is it not, well, a bit of a capitulation? I also worried over a piece of blocking where Marzelline discovers Leonore’s secret identity during one of her arias: this seemed a major intervention of something definitely not covered in the music for such a traditional production. So I confess my heart lifted as the curtain rose on the second act, revealing no dark prison at all but a brightly lit plastic rock with a Kaufmann chained to it and the chorus in modern funeral ware gathered round on chairs. ‘Ah ha’, I thought to myself, ‘something interesting is going on!’

But I’ll be damned if I can work it out. Massive, beautifully shot video of the chorus reacting to stuff are broadcast on the back wall, to… I don’t know. Help the audience know how to react? That can’t be it, but try as I might I can’t think what else it is for. Maybe it's to make us aware of the luxury of our surroundings and the plight of others less fortunate than ourselves. But if so it’s a very gentle, easily missed nudge. Otherwise, Kratzer continues with his intervention in Marzelline’s character: she apparently sounds the bugle, shoots Pizarro and leads the prisoners in an uprising. What a gal! And what weight does that carry when the whole opera is about Leonore’s heroism? I guess it’s to say that there are heroes everywhere, and that a true story is never about an individual. But again, that’s a guess with little corroborating evidence. Kratzer and his team were booed at the curtain call and even that I don’t understand (although to be fair I never understand booing). How could you feel strong enough to boo?

And lastly, I think Pappano might be my problem, too. As I say, I really, really like Fidelio. But this performance left me almost untouched. I have only a few specific criticisms. The chorus seem to have been encouraged to welly it in the second act and the result is impressive but harsh-sounding, quite unnecessary for this piece. The orchestra at a few points sounded strangely tentative, as though they weren’t quite sure where to come in. But otherwise everything seemed in place and well rehearsed, but with none of the accumulating musical weight that Fidelio usually amounts so magnificently. Maybe, for me, this is just not Pappano’s repertory.

Post scriptum
In this interesting Bachtrack article Kratzer explains: ‘The first act is an historical melodrama about love and personal fulfillment in post-revolutionary times. The second act is a political essay about the responsibility of the individual: a timeless appeal for empathy! My task as a director is therefore not to “solve” a problem, but rather to make the special structure of this opera visible to the audience – and try to make what might be considered a weakness of the piece a strength of its own.’ So it was my mistake to try to resolve the two halves. Perhaps that would have felt a more natural thing to do if I’d been able to see the width of the stage; as it was I was missing the right wall.

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Not my cup of tea: Dances at a Gathering / The Cellist at the ROH

Dances at a Gathering / The Cellist
Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House
Amphitheatre A38, £17
28 February 2020
ROH page

As with the new Isadora-inspired work UNDA at the Barbican last week, I can see many strengths to Cathy Marston’s new work for the Royal Ballet, The Cellist, inspired by the life of Jacqueline Du Pré. And nor do I really begrudge it the positive reception it has enjoyed. But I can roundly confirm it not to be my cup of tea, nor, to my mind, a favourable companion to Jerome Robbins’s lovely Dances at a Gathering – and nor something I can imagine audiences returning to in years to come.

Let’s start with the strengths. Marston is an elegant dance-maker, and she has a large fleet of almost preposterously elegant dancers at her command. The enchainement is always fluid and attractive. The writing for corps, even if narratively vague, is always visually pleasing. The storytelling is on the whole articulate, the exceptions being more, I suspect, the bulk-inducing need to make the most of the Royal Ballet commission than a lack of clarity on Marston’s part. The dancing is throughout superb, even barring a few second-cast nerves within the lead trio of Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Matthew Ball and Calvin Richardson, and even barring Richardson’s creepy moustache. I want also to single out the fleeting pleasures offered by the enormous cast, including Christina Arestis, Gary Avis, Ashley Dean and Thomas Whitehead in bit-parts, and the impressive Emma Lucano from the Royal Ballet School.

However. The music, by Philip Feeney, is no doubt for many absolutely harmless enough, but is objectively total snoresville: a bland, television-drama-soundtrack nonentity that gratingly must incorporate famous sound bites from famous cello works. This naff score did not provide the impetus I needed to overcome an instinct that a human being pretending to be a cello (especially one with a creepy moustache ) is silly – and that other human beings pretending repeatedly to play the ‘cello’, or alternatively to mime, beautifully but also grotesquely, what it is to play an actual cello, is even more silly.

But say I had been able to put aside my prejudice. What is it that Marston does with this instrument, as so registered in the credits? As well as being a literal cello Richardson in some way represents the experience of listening to music, as in a repeated motif where he lifts the sitting Stix-Brunell by her ears and swings her around a bit (it looks better than it sounds). He must also be something like the spirit of music, passed between generations by the magic of the record. Uncharitably he might also be read as some kind of divine touch, a gift dropped in Du Pré’s lap without her having to do anything at all – making her a human vessel for that spirit of music to make manifest itself on earth.

What happens when Du Pré’s illness sets in? She pushes away the cello, apparent cause of her pain, and the frustrated Barenboim. She passes quickly from tremors attractively shivering her limbs to a final immobility (I guess the in-between bits are hard to do in ballet). From this end Richardson sallies forth to lift a new young girl by her ears and swing her round a bit. I don’t know enough about the real Du Pré’s final years to know if this is a fair representation; perhaps it is. But as it is it feels wretchedly melodramatic, and distastefully beautifying of the progress of a horrible disease. I know, I know: realism and ballet are rarely obvious partners. But ballet and psychological truth can certainly go hand in hand; and here I felt only emotional manipulation.

Ah well. Better to rest on the unchallenging pleasures of Dances at a Gathering – unchallenging for the audience, that is. This really is something of a brutal ballet, leaving the 10 principals completely exposed over a long duration. Not all of this cast is entirely up to the task: a slip from Sarah Lamb in her stilted partnering with Reece Clarke; a great trembling from James Hay as he lifted Meaghan Grace Hinkis; an occasional and perhaps inevitable parting of musical ways when more than one couple took the stage; pianist Rob Clarke’s perfunctory performance. But these are most uncharitable complaints in what is a very pleasing ballet, its deftly American and characterful choreography perfectly tuned to the wilful oddities of the Chopin, topped here by some glorious performances particularly from Marcelino Sambé, Mayara Magri and Tierney Heap.

4 Mar 2020, 10:04 p.m.

Rachel

Thanks, Olivia, for your comment. Interesting that that was the take chosen in the programme: maybe it suggests a strong steer from Marston.

3 Mar 2020, 12:09 p.m.

Olivia Hetreed

I saw a different cast - Marcelino Sambe and Lauren Cuthbertson, who were excellent and no creepiness or moustache but absolutely agree with your frustrations with this piece. Also the programme notes make a big deal about it not being biographical and then it's laden with fussy biographical detail at the expense of emotional truth. Disappointing.


Suspiciously enjoyable: Explore Ensemble at City

664 love songs
Explore Ensemble
Performance Space, City, University of London
Free
25 February 2020
City page

Programme:
John Croft, Sextet
Lisa Illean Weather a Rare Blue
Edwin Hiller, Plastica
Horațiu Rădulescu, Lux Animae
Oliver Leith, 664 love songs guaranteed to cure heartache

Firstly, all praise to City’s free music programme. I’ve only been once before but that is my loss. Interesting programmes, strong performers, free – what’s not to like?

I was impressed by the diversity of compositional voices in this programme. There are maybe some similarities between the Croft and the Illea, and between both and the Leith, but even so each piece defined its own distinct character – not a given by any means, especially when the same forces are used. There was also only one piece I substantially didn’t like, a suspiciously high hit rate for a programme of largely new music.

I rather liked the Croft premiere – its structure is clear and straightforward with enough that still surprises, and I enjoyed the central conceit of the piano trying valiantly and failing to hold the other five instruments (string trio, clarinet, flute) to concert pitch. My companion – who wishes it to be known he is called David – was not wrong, however, when he commented that the piece is ‘a bit droopy’; perhaps an inevitable consequence of tuning strings flat, just like the tortuous retune before the next piece.

The Illean, with its recurring pedal notes, feels close kin to the Croft, and programming them next to each other is maybe not wise. Explore Ensemble were more confident in the Illean, which was not a premiere, and the piece has more going on than the simplicity of the Croft – but in part because of this complexity, where the structure was for me a little less followable, I found my attention drifting. Unfairly, no doubt, and I’d like to hear the piece again in a more independent context.

The Hillier, another premiere, was by far the most ambitious piece in the programme (disclosure: Edwin is an old friend). Though that ambition introduced some no-doubt hair-raising moments for performers and composer – a fault with the electronics about halfway through necessitated a re-start – it was refreshing and often thrilling to hear a wildness otherwise absent. In fact I wouldn’t have minded more wildness, to keep me in that Boulez-y happy place, and I wonder if the piece was constrained by the commission’s relatively short ten-minute run-time (no doubt a foolish thing to say given the work involved). It will be interesting to listen again on the radio broadcast (on Radios 3’s New Music Show some time in the future) to get the fullest effect of the pleasingly grockly surround-sound electronics.

The Rădulescu was as enjoyable as ever as the play chases themselves into silence, ably performed by violist Morag Robertson. I’ll take this opportunity also to praise flautist Taylor MacLennan, a steady hand at the tiller as well as deft in Hillier’s extended technique requests, and clarinetist Alex Roberts, who used the HIllier re-start as an opportunity to put his back into it to cheering effect.

The title work, 664 love songs guaranteed to cure heartache for quartet and projector, pleased me not. I might have enjoyed it more without the guaranteed-to-cause-headache projections but even then I’m sceptical: its three movements are all of the same vaguely tonal melancholy, regardless of the captions asserting their difference. I was at first intrigued by this song setting without song, the words on screen tied via click-track to gentle melodies picked out of the ensemble – but the sameyness soon annoyed me, along with it seeming very likely that all the purported statistical analysis (most common words from x songs etc) is surely made up. It’s all the kind of thing that Philip Venables does a lot better, and even then it’s a dangerous game.

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She was then but is she now?: Isadora Now at the Barbican

Isadora Now
Viviana Durante Company
Barbican Theatre
Upper Circle A14, £22
22 February 2020
Barbican page

Programme:
Isadora Duncan, Dance of the Furies
Frederick Ashton, Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan
Joy Alpuerto Ritter, UNDA

Dance of the Furies is the first time I’ve seen any Isadora Duncan live and it pleased me, even with the hoary old recording of the Gluck used (I assume either a gesture to the style of musical performance in Duncan’s day, or just an out-of-copyright recording). There’s a simplicity – my companion called it naivety – to Duncan’s gestures and their open-hearted response to this entertaining music. It made for a very interesting comparison with Wayne McGregor’s cerebral take at ENO last year – no second-guessing but a sweet and straightforward manifestation in movement of the shape of the music. Professional dance almost never makes me want to dance, but this time I felt my bones wanting to join in.

At times seeing the legendary Viviana Durante dance Ashton’s Five Brahms Waltzes I felt some scepticism, a scepticism I probably shouldn’t admit to. As is the wont of some dancers she anticipates the beat, placing herself at a dancerly remove from the music’s spirit. In this respect I felt an unfavourably comparison with Romany Pajdak’s interpretation for the Royal Ballet however many years ago. But it would be wrong to deny the beauty of Durante’s line and its ever-moving energy, always plastic and supple and gorgeously shaped so that the movement is constant and and the enjambment sinuous. And ultimately the Ashton is a lovely piece and it felt lovely in Durante’s hands.

The crowd went wild for Joy Alpuerto Ritter’s UNDA and I can see why. The music by Lih Qun Wong combines pulsing dance beat with yearning cello line, and seeing her perform live on the side of the stage is impressive. The six dancers, including Ritter herself, are superb and their bodies beautiful. There are gestures both to the Duncan and the Ashton we’ve just seen, and to recognisable still images of Duncan. The piece is nevertheless unquestionably of its own stamp and character. The choreography for an all-female group is refreshingly free of male tropes – the few lifts are saved to the climax and are handled collectively – and there is much material that can be interpreted as a hymn to sorority and unconstrained liberation.

Despite all this, UNDA left me cold. I might have responded differently had it not been presented in a Duncan programme. Wong’s music, while undeniably impressive and of the moment, is notably lacking in good toons, unlike the Brahms and Gluck. Ritter’s choreography, as befits a professional choreographer today, is highly professionalised and, let’s face it, very serious, a long way from the carefree freedom seen in the Duncan and Ashton. Of course it would have been wrong to expect the same kind of tribute Ashton made from Ritter – but in this context I focused on the deadly seriousness of the music, the deadly seriousness of the choreography and then the handful of attributes of Ritter’s art that seem just part of the same old toolbox of contemporary dance. These, unfortunately for me, rose to a pitch in the piece’s finale, where Wong’s music becomes suddenly thumping and punchy and the six women engage in a lot of hair flicking. ‘I bet the audience is going to go wild for this’, I thought grumpily to myself. And so they did.

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Bloated sentimentality: Death of England at the National Theatre

Death of England
National Theatre
Dorfman Theatre
Gallery R34, £26
21 February 2020
NT page

I wonder if I would have thought more of Death of England in its original ‘micro-play’ format for the Royal Court. In its current shape at the National it is a very well produced, slickly designed piece of sentimentality. As such it’s a squandering of the energy and dare-I-say scenery munching lavished on it by the one man star Rafe Spall.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not unenjoyable, or not particularly unenjoyable, anyway. There are some fun jokes near the beginning. There’s affable audience interaction. The production is snazzy. And Spall, nearly hoarse, is tireless in his devotion to the cause.

But the play haemorrhages tension from early on, probably because note there’s not really enough material to cover an hour and forty minutes. Dramatic non-sequiturs abound. The lengthy funeral speech is caught between extracted absurdity and a striving for realism. The climax, constructed around an undisturbed search history, is unconvincing, and the consequent resolution unearned.

There is a final nail in the coffin. Writer Roy Williams and I guess his mentor Clint Dyer, who also directs, seem unable to resist tying everything up with a nice, sweet bow. Wouldn’t it be nice if we were all nice to each other? they earnestly say at the play’s end. But I already know that it would be nice if everyone were nice. I need a bit more to get me going than that.

I suspect what started out as a striking snapshot of an angle of English experience has been bloated out, David-Tennant-era-Doctor-Who-style, into having to support tepidly huge questions that it was never meant to bear. It’s toothless and a bit boring. But maybe Spall deserves his standing ovation nonetheless, if nothing more than for the sacrifice of his voice.

23 Feb 2020, 10:52 a.m.

Rachel

Thanks for your comment, Angela. I haven’t read the play. I think you’re right that in my review I’ve been unfair in focussing on what disappointed me about it at the expense of discussing its strengths. It requires bravery that you don’t often see to depict racism as Death of England does. Though it’s more common to see masculinity addressed as Williams does here, the balance and care taken are good to see. I should have acknowledged these; but I guess it’s because of these strengths that I was disappointed by a structure and final third that, to my mind, fobbed us off with a simplistic and easy resolution. I’d be interested to hear how you find seeing the full play in comparison with the micro-play.

22 Feb 2020, 6:01 a.m.

Angela

I look forward to seeing this in late February and appreciate your thoughts/sentiments on it. I am currently reading the play and wonder if you’ve done the same. I am an historian who focuses on African-American gender politics and identity during Jim Crow, or legalized race segregation in the United States. Perhaps digesting playwright Williams’s work might provide useful contextualization of the play’s themes that extend beyond mere sentimentality. I am always receptive, and appreciative, given my scholarly preoccupation, of writers and artists that seek to complicate and.bring nuance to ideologies of race, class, gender, and nationalism. From what I’ve derived from reading the play, and viewing video commentary from the writers/ director, this theatrical production has endeavored to do just that. I don’t think concluding the play with a nod to kindness — “can’t we all get along” negates that complex Ideological dynamic. P.S.,the micro-play was brilliant!


A dispiriting evening: Luisa Miller at ENO

Luisa Miller
English National Opera
London Coliseum
Balcony B26, £10
12 February 2020
ENO page

I’m the sort of person who sometimes has to remind themselves that Verdi is supposed to be enjoyable. And I usually find a bit more effort is required when he’s being sung in English. Nevertheless, there aren’t too many opportunities to see Luisa Miller in London, and so I felt I should give it a go, on the chance it might charm me like Un ballo in maschera, move me like Rigoletto or seriously creep me out like most of the others.

Sadly, I think I cannot make a general judgement on Luisa Miller on the basis of this viewing. What I can say is that Barbora Horáková’s new production pleased me not. Indeed, it so grieved my companion after exposure to just the first hour that I had to send him home, for fear of violent mutiny. Fortunately I am made of stronger stuff, though I’m not sure what fortune that brings. Maybe for you, my dear reader, if this review saves you two and a half hours to do something other than sit through this grim Luisa Miller.

Horáková makes almost every low-level abuse of opera direction it is possible to make. I say low-level because the story is intact, though that’s not much to be grateful for. Horáková leaves the bones of this wretchedly silly, samey story there and instead saps away all the colour Verdi has tried so hard to add. There are four beruffed dancers who are there to, I guess, fill some space; they never interact with either the characters or the music. The chorus is only ever on stage because the score says they have to be, not because they have a role in the narrative. All efforts Verdi has made to give the villainous Count Walter some non-villainous depth are counteracted by the staging, which ticks off tropes to show us what a very bad man he is. There’s generally some black oil dabbed around a bit, because, you know, loss of purity.

All of this is mealy-mouthed in its deployment. Even the oil, a potential for visual spectacle if not a very original one, is always safely confined to barrels that are never overturned, instead only shyly dribbled. Everything looks lame and everything feels lame. The production is in every way conceivable dispiriting: predictable and unwelcome, ugly and tame, unimaginative and irrelevant.

In this context there’s not much conductor Alexander Joel can do to bring some fire, though I think he does his damnedest. There are a few moments where he and the reasonably tight-sounding ENO Orchestra come close, but only enough that I can sense how Luisa Miller could work in happier circumstances. Ensemble with the chorus is not great but then it could be worse and no doubt will improve. The full-throttle sound of chorus and orchestra is loud and strong but, again, never enough to overcome the deadening inertia of the staging.

The singers were generously received at the curtain calls, and it is certainly heartening to see a relatively diverse cast. Christine Rice as Federica and James Creswell as Walter were the standouts for me: ever-solid, dependable singers, comfortable in this repertory. Soloman Howard as Wurm has a very impressive, loud, boomy bass, though it’s enough of a consonant-free zone to make me think he’s overdoing it a little. Olafur Sigurdarson as Miller sounded a little strained. I wasn’t sure about Nadine Benjamin as the heroine’s friend to start with, but she sounded delightful in Act III. It’s good to see David Junghoon Kim in a lead role as Rodolfo; I think his sound has promise, even though here he’s a little generically ping-y (ping not a bad thing but not enough on its own) and breaks some of the lines. Elizabeth Llewellyn as Luisa has a blooming, lustrous top register which she exploits at every opportunity; it’s impressive and pleasant, though I wouldn’t have minded a bit more nuance in the rest of the sound.

And all of those estimations should be taken with a pinch of salt. Perhaps I would adore Llewellyn in other circumstances; but Horáková leaches the savour from everything.

13 Feb 2020, 9:45 p.m.

Rachel

Oh well, can’t win ‘em all.

13 Feb 2020, 5:43 p.m.

Tina

I gave up reading your review after I came across your incredibly pompous literary style. I know it’s my loss, but life is too short.


Piqued: The Visit at the National Theatre

The Visit
Olivier Theatre
National Theatre
Circle C78, £32
7 February 2020
NT page

I think The Visit is the first play I’ve fallen asleep in. I’m rather annoyed about it, and mention it here at least in part so you can decide how much of this review you want to pay attention to. But I think it may also be not irrelevant to an evaluation of Tony Kushner’s self-indulgent adaptation, or Jeremy Herrin’s ponderous production – which, admittedly, is still in previews, so may well liven up.

Further to my shame, while I would like to say my main motivation for paying more than I usually would was the opportunity to see a Friedrich Dürrenmatt play, an important writer whose works I’ve never seen and whom I’ve never even read, it was instead the draw of Lesley Manville, who is to my mind the kipper’s slippers. So she is here, and had she stayed on stage for all of Act III I think I would have had a better chance of evading Morpheus’ pawing caress.

Despite my lacklustre performance, the experience has nevertheless given me an urgent spur to go away and read some Dürrenmatt. The Visit is tonally dissimilar from most things I can think of. It sits somewhere between Brecht and Ionescu, but where the comedy is still grotesque it seems somehow removed from the core of the play. The effect is those comic forays perch with something of an unsettling glower, lurking at you malevolently. In this respect it makes me think of Thomas Bernhardt, though the writing is very different in other ways. Call me intrigued.

I’d like to read The Visit divorced from its forced relocation to America in Kushner’s adaptation. I shouldn’t attribute all of my inner groan to Kushner; maybe if this were an American company in an American town it wouldn’t have felt so silly, but watching an almost exclusively British troupe gurn their way through hokey Americana is not a fertile ground. And given the adaptation seems to be a commission from the National I feel Kushner and some other people should have known better.

But my more serious complaint is that I suspect the play’s relocation from 1950s Switzerland to 1950s USA distracts its focus and makes it rather less interesting than it is. The benighted town Slurry has lost its industry and the fast train never stops. Fine. The Arrival of Claire Zachanassian and her promise of a billion dollars releases all the town to buy on credit. Vicki Mortimer’s designs show us that overnight Slurry transforms from grey post-war slump to vibrant 60s beehives. This bothers me. What I think is the play’s abstract concern of the omnipotent power of money over man becomes thus tangled with thinking about the New Deal and the Marshall Plan, about the strength of US manufacturing in this period, about Willy Loman and the other sources of consumerism beyond the availability of credit and how I trust Arthur Miller to write about his time more than I do Kushner in nostalgic retrospect. In short, I don’t really buy this lazy American wrapping and feel it confuses, distorts and clutters – with the effect that final-act just switcheroo couldn’t keep my attention which I really wish it had.

Part of the problem, to be fair, is that I’ve encountered a lot more things about post-war America than I have about post-war Switzerland – like, I imagine, most of my fellow audience members. An American setting must have seemed an easier way in than a Swiss. But if that’s the case, might it not have been interesting to set it somewhere in the UK? Maybe even try relocating it to our contemporary? But then you wouldn’t hire Tony Kushner, and I suppose then you might not get Lesley Manville or Hugo Weaving.

Manville is perfect for the role: cold, dangerous, quixotic, sympathetic, surprising. Weaving’s pretty good too, though his character is less fun and he does make me think The Matrix is a really long time ago. I was not charmed by the rest of the cast but this was because they were all trying to sound American – though I should make an exception for Sara Kestelman as the schoolmaster and her pleasingly resonant voice. The production was blighted by preview errors but on the whole doesn’t do much beyond swinging some big neon signs down from the flies. Maybe the train station worked better from the front row of the stalls, but from where I was the effect was lost.

So there I am, piqued in more ways than one. At least I take away an incentive to read more Dürrenmatt.

13 Feb 2020, 9:46 p.m.

Rachel

Thanks, Jan, that’s interesting.

12 Feb 2020, 3:13 p.m.

Jan B

Interesting review. I think there is a problem with the rights to this play which means any English-language version has to be based on the existing Maurice Valency English version which is set in USA. Hence the choice of Kushner (Valency is also credited). I agree that all other things being equal a version preserving the original setting would have had more interest for me.

10 Feb 2020, 10:45 p.m.

Rachel

Thanks for your comment, Nate. It did feel like a very long evening...

10 Feb 2020, 10:31 p.m.

Nate

Excellent review. Could not agree more. We left after the first act...acting was more than fine, sets were clever and interesting, but it just all added up to nothing. I don’t leave early as a matter of principle but this one really grated.