Death in Venice at the Royal Opera House *****

Death in Venice

Royal Opera House, 3rd December 2019

Fresh from the superlative semi-staged version of Peter Grimes from Ed Gardner, the Bergen PO and assorted chums and straight into this. A top drawer new version of Death in Venice from David McVicar. I have fond memories of seeing Deborah Warner’s production of DIV at the ENO with, guess who, Edward Gardner on conducting duty, which also bewitched the SO, (who has also been persuaded by The Turn of the Screw and, though she may not know it, is going to be a fan of Britten opera).

Now I am partial to BB and his operas. As you can see from recent viewings documented hereabouts. They are up there with the best of British cultural expression, indeed the best from anywhere. But that doesn’t me they are all perfect or that creatives can’t fall down when tackling them. Paul Bunyan is a bit bonkers, (the recent ENO outing wisely went with the flow), the Rape of Lucretia has a pretentious and inappropriately Christian libretto from Ronald Duncan, you need to be in the right mood for the Church Parables, I have never seen Owen Wingrave live or in the TV original and Gloriana is, well, just a bit crap. Even the musically bullet-proof, Grimes, TTOTS, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, need sympathetic performers and directors. Billy Budd is always a tricky customer. The comedies/children’s operas are too generous to fail other than in the eyes and ears of the flinty-hearted.

Some say Death in Venice is also a trick(s)y opera though I have never really understood why .(Maybe it’s because it isn’t a simple, straight A to B, with obstacles, misogynistic love story). Here David McVicar got the Edwardian look and feel spot on. DIV is a set, costume and lighting designer’s wet dream and Vicki Mortimer and Paule Constable duly delivered to create exquisite, cinematic, vertical and horizontal tableaux across the 17 scenes with maximum efficiency and impact. The water of the lagoon ever present in the backdrop. With no f*cking around with interpretation. Visconti and Mann would be purring in their graves, (or suing for plagiarism), so precise was the realisation. Even the gondola looked real. And that was with two fellas pushing it. Lynne Page similarly brought just enough to the table with the choreography of the dance scenes. Realistic with just enough grace and artistry especially from our lovely, knowing teenage Tadzio (Leo Dixon) and his irate chum Jaschiu (Olly Bell).

But the real triumph was not having our van Aschenbach go too full-on, homo-erotic, pretentious, unhinged, tortured artist too early. He really is a bit of a ninnyhammer getting all lathered up with the young boys, the culture, the heat, the plague, the offuscazione, all those words, all that useless beauty, that Apollonian/Dionysian dialectic, all that bloody philosophising. (Honestly Gustav, don’t beat yourself up mate). He is though a clever cookie, in control mentally and physically until the lurgy properly strikes, and he can eloquently verbalise. At length. Immense length. In Myfanwy Piper’s appropriately mannered libretto. Brought to life by the beautiful voice of Mark Padmore. Who can act. Even to the back of the stalls.

This isn’t quite a one-man show. The support of Gerald Finley as Traveller/Fop/Gondolier/Manager/Barber/Player/Voice of Dionysius made this very special. Has there ever been a more inspired piece of operatic doubling (and not just in the service of cheap laughs and flimsy plotting) or a more talented singer/actor to pull it off? And, as if that wasn’t enough we get the sweet counter-tenor of Tim Mead interjecting as hunky tourist Apollo. And the never-ending stream of “extras” including the likes of Elizabeth McGorian as the Lady of the Pearls and, get this, Rebecca Evans as the Strawberry Seller.

But the ever present, tireless Mr Padmore is what made this special as we go deep inside von Aschenbach’s head. An operatic Hamlet. What is real and what is imagined? Messrs McVicar and Padmore don’t tell, giving the creepy Don’t Look Now Venice a wide berth, but do largely make sense of GvA’s meanderings and even make him seem human rather than the vessel for Thomas Mann’s symbolism and aestheticism. Not that it matters. BB’s music is so clever, haunting, sparse, ascetic, with the repetitions, motifs, and the gamelan shimmers, that it tells the story, conjures up place and inhabits character all by itself. Even at the end, like GvA consumed by his own mortality, BB was turning out perfection with that poignant passacaglia, (a link back to the Doric Quartet’s muscular performance of BB’s final quartet a couple of weeks previous), and Richard Farnes and the ROH orchestra know exactly what is required of them. This score then is the truly beautiful.

25 years since the ROH last staged DIV but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t come back soonest. So go see what I mean. And pay up for a decent perch as, by ROH standards, Britten comes cheap. All the toffs seemingly never tiring of OTT Italian C19 flim-flammery or worse still Wagnerian guff.

I see I have a couple more outings with Gustav van Aschenbach later in the year. Ivo van Hove and Ramsay Naar will be bringing ITA’s interpretation over to the Barbican in April with music from Nico Muhly and the great Greg Hicks will be serving up his solo turn at the Arcola in June. I expect they will be quite different.

Peter Grimes at the Royal Festival Hall review *****

Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Edward Gardner (conductor), Bergen Philharmonic Choir, Edvard Grieg Kor, Royal Northern College of Music Chorus, Choir of Collegiûm Mûsicûm, Håkon Matti Skrede (chorus master), Vera Rostin Wexelsen (stage direction)

Royal Festival Hall, 30th November 2019

Let’s not waste too much time on this. For this extraordinary evening is what happens when talented music-makers devote themselves to doing justice to a near perfect, no make that perfect, work of musical theatre.

The Bergen Philharmonic’s principal conductor Edward Gardner had already elevated Britten’s most complete opera into something special at the ENO (and the Proms) during his tenure there alongside Aussie heldentenor Stuart Skelton generally acknowledged to the best Grimes in the world today. EG’s Norwegian chums have taken The Borough to their hearts, what with fish, the sea, overcast skies, gruffness and chunky knit jumpers I guess it is no great surprise, and when they unveiled the fruits of this collaboration at the Edinburgh Festival a couple of years back the critics went mental.

As they did again after this. And they were right too. You will not hear a more powerful, dramatic, atmospheric, moving interpretation of the score. And Mr Skelton now captures utterly the ambiguity in Grimes as he bullies the apprentice (Samuel Winter), whilst just about retaining enough man-child humanity to justify Ellen Orford’s sympathy. And I doubt you will see or hear a better Ellen than Erin Wall. Swedish and Norwegian sopranos, Hanna Husahr and Vibeke Kristensen, brought a bit of Scandi glamour to the two nieces, joining a peerless Brit cast. Roderick Williams as Balstrode, Susan Bickley as Auntie, Catherine Wyn-Rodgers as Mrs Sedley, Neil Davies as Swallow, Marcus Fansworth as Ned Keene, Robert Murray as Bob Boles, James Gilchrist as the Reverend Adams and Barnaby Rea as Hobson. It doesn’t get much better in terms of matching voice to character.

Now the thing is, these semi- staged versions, here just costumes (dark blues, greens and black, with just one telling flash or red), some barrels, ropes and so on, standing in for the various Borough locations, mean everything is focussed on the music and the voices. Which partly explains just why this was so darned good. But it also means we the audience are not distracted by too much visual stimulus. Not that this is a bad thing in the best opera productions. But the absence thereof here meant that the performers could uncover all of the nuanced psychological insight that is afforded by BB’s music and Montagu Slater’s libretto. (And, to be fair George Crabbe’s richly descriptive poetry which inspired it). Which is what took this performance into a different league. Grimes’s otherness, his failure to fit in, the darkness, cruelty or worse, that torments him, the ordinariness of the villagers and their routines, the scapegoating, hypocrisy and vengeance, the landscapes. The ambivalence of people, place and purpose. The good, the bad and the ugly of humanity. This really digs in to the themes generating real drama in a way you rarely see in any theatre. music or otherwise. Setting the chorus (brilliantly assembled and marshalled by Hakon Matti Skrede) behind orchestra, with principals ranged at the front of the stage, was not the only echo of Greek tragedy.

I assume that this ensemble will set this down in a recording one day but it really needs to be heard, and seen, to be appreciated. So, if and when it appears again, do not hesitate if you have any interest at all in the work. I await Mr Gardner’s return to a London gig with the LPO with bated breath.

A Day in the Life of Joe Egg at Trafalgar Studios review *****

A Day in the Life of Joe Egg

Trafalgar Studios, 30th November 2019

Not a fan of the Trafalgar Studios which has been asking daft prices for mediocre seating in the last year or so, (though it seems to have eased up a bit now and is nowhere near as egregious as another ATG venue the Playhouse Theatre). So waited this out and finally secured a decent perch at the back (which to be fair is not too much of a problem in this venue, sight-line wise).

Peter Nichols’ most (in)famous play had been on my wish list for a few years. Written in 1967 and first staged at the Citizens Theatre, (also on my theatrical to-do list and mention of which just sparked a 3 hour diversion though the web – focus Tourist focus). The play, which has subsequently been turned into big and small screen versions, tells the story of married couple, stoical Sheila (here played by the marvellous Claire Skinner) and overwought Bri (equally marvellous Toby Stephens) and their daughter Joe, who has cerebral palsy, and is played by less-abled actor Storme Toolis. They are joined by liberal do-gooder Freddie (Clarence Smith), who runs the am-dram group which Sheila has joined, and his heartless younger partner Pam (Lucy Eaton) and then by Bri’s tactless and hidebound mother (effortlessly played by Patricia Hodge).

The caustic play examines the coping mechanisms that Sheila and Bri have created to bolster their failing marriage and to look after Joe, who is confined to a wheelchair and cannot directly communicate. Sheila just gets on with it but Bri is starting to unravel. What makes this such a powerful play is the tone that Peter Nichols adopts; an ironic, almost detached humour with little in the way of sentiment or homily. I can see why some might find Bri in particular, with his black humour and lack of fortitude, a difficult character and might view this approach to disability as somehow inappropriate or capricious. I disagree. The way the couple act and speak is entirely believable and relatable and shows the reality of disability and the love the family needs to stick together.

It is true that in the over 50 years since the play appears attitudes to disability have changed, (though as Storme Toolis observes in the programme less able young people and their families still often struggle to secure the resources they need to improve life quality), and the subject a far less “controversial” source for drama. The private role-play that the couple employ to verbalise and visualise Joe’s emotions and to leaven the routine therefore sounds even more awkward particularly in the hands of Toby Stephens who is, presumably at director Simon Evans’s behest, keen to show up Bri’s desperation and guilt at wishing for Joe’s institutionalisation. The differences between the couples attitudes to Joe, Sheila’s unconditional love compared to Bri’s self pitying are most visible in the direct to audience addresses that Peter Nichols’ uses to reveal their interior thoughts, (about each other and Joe), and to provide back-story.

In the second half, as the views of the other characters on disability, Joe and the couple are gently skewered, the humour becomes more comfortable and the play less raw, though maybe less powerful and humane as a consequence. Whilst the two leads excel the rest of the cast are careful to eschew caricature despite the obvious unease of their characters around Joe, and at the centre of it all is Joe. There is enough drama, and surprise, built into PN’s plot, even if it is unsurprising, and Peter McKintosh’s faithful 1960s room set, out of which Bri and Sheila step, alongside Prema Mehta’s broad lighting and Edward Lewis’s sound, create no serious distractions.

It probably comes as no surprise that Peter Nicholls, with wife Thelma, based the play on their own experience of bringing up disabled daughter, Abigail, who died aged 11. He went on to tackle big issues though the 1970s in other plays, The National Health, Poppy, Passion Play, Blue Murder and Privates on Parade, through formal experimentation (with copious reference, as in ADITLOJE to music hall and vaudeville), and ironic humour. However in 1982 he retired, apparently dissatisfied with the way his work was presented and was seen as unfashionable by many. Yet, based on this and what I have read about these plays, I would think there is an opportunity for contemporary theatre-makers to have a go at revisiting other of his frank, if sometimes unsubtle works, as has been done with Passion Play for example. Prickly and unsettling is not such a bad thing for theatre. PN passed away just before this revival opened but I hope he had a chance to see the justice that was I think done here to his breakthrough play.

Orphee at ENO review ***

Orphee

English National Opera, 27th November 2019

The Mask of Orpheus. Extraordinary music, fine singing, showy production. Orpheus and Eurydice. Fine music, mostly, superb singing, faulty production. So how would the Tourist fair in his third encounter with the Orpheus myth in the ENO season. Well since you ask. Best production of the three by far courtesy of Netia Jones, who also oversaw costume and video, and Lizzie Clachlan’s multi-faceted set. Mind you I knew just how good Ms Jones’s ideas can be, heavy though they are on monochrome video visuals, thanks to her memorable take on Britten’s Curlew River in 2013. Singing, well singing-through, since the libretto is a pretty straight, (here closely translated into English by the versatile Ms Jones and Emma Jenkins), lift from the Cocteau 1950 film script, that was more than up to the task notably from Nicholas Lester as our eponymous hero, coloratura Jennifer France as the baddie Princess and, unsurprisingly, Nicky Spence as the ominous chauffeur Heurtebise. Music faultlessly executed by the ENO orchestra as usual under the baton of Geoffrey Paterson, though it is near two hours of Philip Glass with all the good and bad that implies.

So why wasn’t I bowled over. Well I think that comes down to the source material. Jean Cocteau was a wilful fellow, with talent to burn across media, even when off his tits on opium, but he did have his bugbears and did not see any problem with excess self-love. His film is Art with a big A, about love, death and jealously like its source, but also about how the Artist operates in a realm far beyond that occupied by us ordinary mortals. Indeed Orphee here is a misunderstood poet who seeks immortality. With the help of a lot of mirrors. Cocteau thought he was special and was determined to show us. More Narcissus and Thanatos than Orpheus maybe, though with more than a whiff of grumpy old man misogyny. Mind you Cocteau himself came in for a lot of criticism from the artistic elite, notably the Surrealists, which was often tinged with homophobia. The most obvious inspiration for his aesthetic in the film is surely Man Ray.

The film is a mix of dream and naturalism set in 1950s Paris. A drunken night out ends with younger poet rival to Orphee, Cegeste (Anthony Gregory) mown down by a couple of motor bikes after a fight. The mysterious Princess steps in to help, but instead abducts Orphee to a chateau, where she, her lackeys and the reanimated (!) Cegeste disappear. No problem as Heurtebise returns Orphee to his hone where the coppers, wife put upon Eurydice (Sarah Tynan) and feminist friend Aglaonice (Rachael Lloyd) are wondering what he has been up to. Heurtebise moves in and falls for the pregnant Eurydice. Orphee gets obsessed with the radio which may be talking to him via some ropey poetry, Eurydice is murdered by the Princess’s lackeys and Heurtebise and Orphee make a trip to the Underworld. A dodgy Court says he can take Orphee back, subject to the usual condition, when he declares he no longer fancies Death/The Princess. Eurydice fatally looks at hubby in the car mirror and so back to square one, with Orphee joining her after getting shot at the bar where all this shenanigans kicked off. Back to the Underworld to have memories wiped for O & E with Death/Princess and Heurtebise checking in for good.

Worth knowing all this and brushing up on the synopsis though even so I confess to losing the thread a few times through the 18 scenes. And to not fully appreciating the point of the many “framing” extras that Ms Jones introduces. No matter. Glass’s score contains just enough variation to demarcate the shifts in the odd narrative and in character, (this was still well before Glass drifted into auto-pilot mode), and visually the production is a treat with Netia Jones emulating Cocteau’s own mix of lo and hi (for the time) cinematographic technique to provide an equally striking impression. Cocteau made it up as he went along. Ms Jones, along with Lucy Carter (lighting) and Danielle Agami (choreography), and unlike some other directors at the ENO recently, takes a far more methodical approach, which, deliberately mirrors the film (with direct video quotes), and its “making of” successor, Le Testament d’Orphee, whilst still remembering to be an opera. As I think Glass envisaged even if he wrote for French not English and maybe with a smaller stage in mind.

Philip Glass long harboured an ambition to convert Cocteau’s vision into opera after spending 1954 in a hedonistic whirl in Paris. (He returned in the mid 1960s to study under Nadia Boulanger). It was composed in 1991 just after his wife, artist Candy Jernigan, died unexpectedly from liver cancer. He went on to compose two further operas based on Cocteau’s films, La Belle et la Bete (1994) and Les Enfants Terribles (1996).

The Antipodes at the National Theatre review ****

The Antipodes

National Theatre Dorfman, 23rd November 2019

I’ll tell you what. That Annie Baker backs herself. Here is another long play, near 2 hours straight through, where, visually, nothing much happens, bar a properly weird interlude, and dense with word. And this time it is a story about stories, Yep that’s right. The meta of meta. Six assorted punters (five men and just one woman) are ranged around a glass, conference style table telling each other stories in an attempt to create a story. Mediated by their distracted passive aggressive boss Sandy (the ever wonderful Conleth Hill), with occasional interruptions from his chipper assistant Sarah (Imogen Doel) to take food orders, excuse Sandy’s absences and chivvy the crew, and the voice of mogul “Max” (Andrew Woodall) who is bankrolling the enterprise. And with a note taker, Brian (Bill Milner), who eventually, memorably, gets stuck in.

It looks and feels like a scriptwriter’s meeting but its real purpose is never fully revealed and the rules of engagement are vague. Just see what happens seems to be Sandy’s instruction and from this all sorts of stuff pours out, from personal disclosures and confessionals, jokes, classical myth and allusion, gods, monsters, religious dualism, stories about stories, right through to various creation myths. It is affecting, thoughtful, funny, intriguing. Chloe Lamford’s set, complete with Perrier overload, Natasha Chiver’s garish lighting, Tom Gibbons’s sound, Sasha Milavic Davies’s movement (much use of swivel chairs), all echo the hyper-reality, or do I mean hyper-banality, of Annie Baker’s text, which gradually shifts the apparently mundane into the realms of the extraordinary. No surprise that Ms Lamford and Ms Baker co-direct.

It doesn’t quite scale the heights of profundity that it sets out to achieve, or the genuine grace of predecessor John, and it probably stole 20 minutes of my life more than it should have, but you still couldn’t fault its ambition and verve. In trying our patience, and venturing into the Freudian “uncanny”, it gets right under your skin even if it doesn’t shed too much fresh light on the creation of collective, and self, narrative. But it does cover all the bases, maybe too many, as concept overwhelms even this committed execution. Though with actors of this quality, Fisayo Akinade, Matt Bardock, Arthur Darvill, Hadley Fraser, Stuart McQuarrie and Sinead Matthews as the writers), individual character emerges out of the ensemble.

I guess the point was that whilst the urge to share our truth and humanity, and bring meaning to pointless existence, through stories remains undimmed, our capacity to do so might be fading, (especially as chaos in the outside world seeped into the ill-judged ending). Or maybe not. The vagueness of purpose is all part of the attraction in Annie Baker’s practice, so best just to go with the intractable flow and don’t pull too hard on the individual, intellectual, threads. It won’t be one of my top 10 2019 theatrical events but was still a story that could not be missed.

The Doric String Quartet at Wigmore Hall review ****

Doric String Quartet

Wigmore Hall, 22nd November 2019

Benjamin Britten – String Quartets No 1 in D Op 25, No 2 in C Op 36 and No 3 Op 94

All three Britten string quartets in one evening. Courtesy of the Doric String Quartet. Who have been working hard on this very repertoire, visible in their recent acclaimed recording. The Quartet has a long association with Britten’s music, having formed at Pro Corda in 1998, the school near Aldeburgh, and with Helene Grimaud playing on Britten’s very own viola.

Britten’s music can, I imagine, sound either too austere or too cautious for many listeners, depending on their musical taste. Too flashy, relying on surface effect, in thrall to musical form, and not generating real emotion. A bit too obvious, even too “perfect” maybe, though not immediately appealing. For me though this is his genius. The musical ideas are clear, but still present a challenge to those of us who don’t really understand music, even though they are not actually that challenging. In 1970s football parlance, one of those technical European midfielders, “good on the ball” but somehow suspect, lacking passion or “an engine”. But with performers who love and understand the music, and locate its centre and line, then there is feeling and passion aplenty. Easiest to find in the vocal and choral works and the operas but also abundant, for me at least, in the chamber music and, specifically, the three string quartets.

Which is where the Dorics step in. For there is no holding back here. They have a big, muscular sound which, whilst never obscuring the clarity of thought which is BB’s trademark, especially in the super sparse Third gives the quartets a punch and a drama that I haven’t encountered before. Less ascetic, more buoyant. Though never too extroverted, true I believe to BB’s intentions. Though with plenty of volume when required.

The First was completed in 1941, to a commission from Elizabeth Coolidge during Britten and Pears’s US sojourn, (though it is not actually the first quartet, BB having revived an early composition in the key of D, when just 17, late in life). It starts with a yearning sostenuto, missing Blighty perhaps, is followed by a swanky runaround Allegretto, a nocturnal Andante led by Alex Redington’s violin and ending with the sparkling harmonies of a rondo finale. Easy to place in the flash harry early years for BB.

Which is why the Second Quartet composed just 4 years later, when BB was deep in Peter Grimes, is still so surprising to me. Commissioned to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death, BB’s beloved forebear, it kicks off with a full throated Allegro, owing much to Schubert in feel and Haydn in form. The terse Vivace which follows links this movement to the final, stunning Chacony. BB just loved this form, variously chaconne or passacaglia, but his one is a belter. Near 20 minutes long, it shifts its shape continuously and, in places, gets a bit weird. The Doric’s really got hold of it and gave it a good shake. Loved it.

Which in turn set up the Third. BB waiting 30 years before coming back to the form and was near the end by the time he started. Not quite as death suffused as DSCH’s final fifteenth quartet, but still pretty bleak. At least until the final Passacaglia movement. In a work that quotes liberally from the final opera Death in Venice, this movement, like its equivalent in the opera, suggests a peaceful farewell for the protagonist, whether Aschenbach or BB. Prior to that, in the oppositional two part Duets, the jarring Ostinato scherzo, the central poignant Solo cantilena for first violin and the scorching Burlesque which precedes the descriptive Recitative which introduces that Passacaglia, we hear some of BB’s best ever beats.

As good a performance of BB’s quartets as you are likely to hear and, a reminder of why they are up there with late Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Bartok and Shostakovich as the best of the form.

On Bear Ridge at the Royal Court Theatre review ***

On Bear Ridge

Royal Court Theatre, 21st November 2019

Knockout premise. Some splendid dialogue. Beguiling, complex characters. Inspired design courtesy of Cai Dyfans. Supported by the lighting of Elliot Griggs and sound of Mike Beer, And engaging performances from the outstanding Welsh cast of Rhys Ifans, Rakie Ayola (the first time I had seen her on stage), Sion Daniel Young and Jason Hughes.

So what was it that left me a little underwhelmed by Ed Thomas’s latest play On Bear Ridge, transferring to the RC after opening at Cardiff’s Sherman. I guess it was the age old problem of development and resolution. Having taken so much care to set up a potent setting, (not always the case when it comes to the theatrical post-apocalyptic), and to flesh out generous back stories for devoted couple, irascible butcher John Daniel and calming wife Noni, their slaughterman apprentice Ifan William (Sion Daniel Young) and the Captain, an exhausted, deserting soldier (Jason Hughes), the narrative seems to runs out of steam, even as the, often startling poetry, accumulates. This is a play about nostalgia, memory, loss and glottophagy (look it up), as the couple, holed up in their dilapidated Welsh mountain home, feel the past, and the wider world, slip away from them. Lists of meat cuts, old customers, even John Daniel’s trousers are seized on to fix their history. they reference a dying “Old Language”. It soon becomes clear though that what really holds them together, and Ifan William, is the love of Twm Siencyn, their son and his best friend/lover.

It is not a long play, just over 80 minutes, and, to be fair. never drags, but I wonder if Ed Thomas could not have been more incisive with his text. The Beckettian dialogue he spins is incisive and immersive, earthy and lyrical, fluently invoking time, place and character, but in the absence of evolution in the plot meant this might have worked better at under an hour. No shame in brevity when your facility with language is so adept, though ET has spent most of the last two decades writing for the small screen. Mr Thomas shared direction with RC head honcho Vicky Featherstone so I might reasonably assume that over-writing, not execution, was the cause of my slight misgivings.

I see the Sherman is set to stage another Welsh post apocalypse saga in the form of and adaptation Manon Steffan Ros’ novel Llyfr Glas Nebo. And JJoe Murphy, the incoming AD, is set to direct a new adaptation of An Enemy of the People, from Brad Birch (another doyen of the theatrical Welsh mountain sub-genre with Black Mountain), set in South Wales.