Seraglio at the Hackney Empire review ****

Seraglio

Hackney Empire, 4th October 2019

Or to give it its full name Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail or The Abduction from the Seraglio. Here though Seraglio, not just to reflect the fact that this English Touring Opera production is sung, (and spoken), in English following a colloquial translation by Andrew Porter of Gottlieb Stephanie’s original German libretto, but also to deflect away from the abduction and attempted rape which lies at the heart of the story.

And that’s not all. The setting, the seraglio, (where wives and concubines were confined), of Pasha Selim, reflects the fascination in late C18 Austria with an exoticised Ottoman Empire which had recently been decisively defeated by the Hapsburg forces. A story of racist superiority is what patron Emperor Joseph II expected to see at the premiere in Vienna in 1782 and this is, broadly, what he got, notably in the character of the Baddie henchman overseer Osmin. But Mozart being Mozart, with his quirky Enlightenment sensibilities, he took something of an axe to audience preconceptions by, eventually, showing the Pasha as selfless in relinquishing his claim on Konstanze and passing her to our hero Belmonte. Put like that it doesn’t sound much more palatable. Yet this twist is what directors in the modern age have clung on to fuel their interpretations. Stephen Medcalf, the experienced director here, was no exception.

If you want to enjoy Mozart’s operatic genius you are going to have to take the historically conditioned plotting rough with the many-noted, (this is the piece about which Emperor Joe made his famous, though apocryphal, comment), smooth. This is not the best of Mozart by a long way. Gottlieb Stephanie’s libretto relies on spoken word to advance the plot, and was not built for recitative, and some of the tunes are a little bit too pastiche Turkish. Even so there are some very fine arias however, which hint at emotional depth, and are some of the most challenging the boy Wolfgang ever penned, and there are plenty of comic sparks. For Seraglio is, despite its dubious content, a comedy which pivots on two “love” triangles.

As usual then the Tourist has to get comfortable with the idea of a Mozart “comic” singspiel opera rooted in anachronistic tropes before he can sit back and enjoy, but also, as is usual, eventually the music takes over. Mind you when I say sit back that is a bit of an exaggeration. At just £15 the side of the Upper Circle at the Hackney Empire is a steal. Sight-lines are fine and you are close enough to the pit for the acoustic not to be an issue. These are not the comfiest of chairs. On the other hand they are no worse than the equivalent cheapest seats at the ROH and the ENO. And there you need oxygen and 8×40 binoculars. So I will take this option every time, (and so should you with a Cosi and a slimmed-down version of their Giulio Cesare to come in ETO’s spring season).

The sets in the handful of ETO productions I have seen have always impressed. Not too abstract but not too conservative. Touring plainly focusses the creative mind. Adam Wiltshire has devised a collection of gilded bird cages to symbolise the seraglio which swivels to provide Osmin’s Moorish gatehouse cum workshop, all framed by David W Kidd’s colourful lighting design. Costumes are faithful to the early C17 setting. Though it takes a little time before the big reveal given the perky extended orchestral intro that Mozart scored to show off his skills and introduce his themes. The Old Street Band orchestra, on top form under conductor John Andrews, was the standard 29 strong HIP Classical set up with a bit more percussion and wind (particularly convincing) to beef up the “Turkish” passages.

Enter Spaniard Belmonte in the form of John-Colyn Gyeantey who has come looking for his betrothed Konstanze (Lucy Hall), her maid Blonde (Nazan Fikret) and his steward Pedrillo (Richard Pinkstone). The two ladies have been captured by pirates and sold to Pasha Selim (Alex Andreou) who keeps perving the still virtuous Konstanze, with Blonde given to Osmin (Matthew Stiff, a well upholstered fellow much like the Tourist), as a slave. Osmin badmouths Belmonte, and then Pedrillo, prior to the two lads reuniting and hatching a plan to spring their lady loves. Pedrillo persuades the Pasha to give Belmonte a job as, er, an architect.

Act II. Blonde and Konstanze rebuff the advances of Osmin and the Pasha in turn. Pedrillo challenges Osmi to a drinking game. The two couples happily get together though only before, usual opera sexist nonsense, the fidelity of the ladies is confirmed.

Act III. Ladders. Distraction. Capture. An unfortunate bribe by Belmonte when it turns out his uncle Lostados is Pasha Selim’s sworn enemy. Likely torture and death until the Pasha’s extraordinary switchback as he decides he can make his point better by showing clemency. Happy ending.

Daft eh. Well yes. And torn, as was the Western intellectual and political fashion at the time, and maybe since, between admiration for “Oriental” culture and fear of the brutish “Muslim” other with sexual corruption a barely concealed sub-text. Mozart wasn’t the only composer of an “abduction/escape” comic opera. Audiences lapped them up. But whilst it takes a little time, the Pasha’s sensitivity and dignity, is eventually revealed, and Belmonte and Konstanze both explicitly voice their respect for him at the end. The finale may be a cheesy six way encomium, which puts Osmin back in his box, but the message of tolerance still shines through.

This doesn’t mean a get out of jail free card, (the pun is deliberate), for the comic shenanigans that precede this, even if there is more to the Pasha and even Osmin than meets the eye. And this is where the translation, the performances and Mr Medcalf’s clear-sighted direction persuaded. The acting, choreography and singing of the scenes between Pedrillo and Osmin (“Solche hergelaufne Laffen” and “Vivat Bacchus! Bacchus lebe!”), Osmin and Blonde (“Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln” and “Ich gehe, doch rate ich dir”) and Konstanze and the Pasha (“Martern aller Arten” which is about as good as it gets Classical soprano wise), are tender and funny largely because they are the tussles of equals. Osmin’s amazing aria, (“O, wie will ich triumphieren”) where the bass part descends to a low D, is an empty triumphalism. Conversely there is a sense in Belmonte’s set pieces (“Konstanze, Konstanze, dich wiederzusehen … O wie ängstlich” and later, “Wenn der Freude Tränen fließen” and duet  “Welch ein Geschick! O Qual der Seele…. Weh, du soltest für mich sterben”) that he isn’t just going automatically win back Konstanze. In a plot built on rash negotiation the women here are definitely more in control.

It is still built on disconcerting premises but with acting and singing of this quality, especially from the feisty soprano Nazan Fikret, the dextrous light tenor Richard Pinkstone and plaintive Matthew Stiff, and the secure voices of John-Colyn Gyeantey, (bar a few wiggly vibratos), and Lucy Hall, it was impossible not to get carried along and I ended up thoroughly enjoying this production. Mozart wrote the parts for specific, and very talented, singers of the day, and Lucy Hall and Matthew Stiff particularly, were up to the task of navigating them. Alex Andreou was able to bring an air of thoughtful grandeur to the non-singing Pasha despite limited opportunity and a few shouty moments, especially when describing how he was so wronged by Belmonte’s uncle. And the small chorus of four, two guards, two concubines, (Rosanna Harris, Holle-Anne Bangham, David Horton, Jan Capinski) gamely mucked in with prop moving alongside their vocal duties.

So there you have it. A thoughtful production where director and designer simply nudge the material into the c21 and then allow the talented cast and well drilled orchestra to highlight the comedy in Mozart’s music and in the plot. And, for once, I didn’t really need the sur-titles. In my still far too limited experience opera either works or it doesn’t. Sometimes you can stake high and lose big. Not here though. A massive beat to expectations as I might have said in a past life.

The Intelligence Park at the Linbury Theatre review ***

The Intelligence Park

Linbury Theatre Royal Opera House, 2nd October 2019

I have no-one else to blame for this. Having now heard a smattering of his larger scale works thanks in large part to Thomas Ades’s advocacy in his Beethoven cycle with the Britten Sinfonia, having invested in a CD of his chamber works and having thoroughly enjoyed the semi-staged version of his opera The Importance of Being Earnest at the Barbican a few yeas ago, I would certainly count myself a fan of Gerald Barry’s bracing, spikily rhythmic composition.

There were plenty of knowledgeable commentators however, including the composer himself, who warned that this, his first opera from 1990, is not the most transparent of entertainments. Though it was lauded on its first showing at the Almeida, largely for the music I gather, its plot is convoluted, the libretto from Barry’s Irish countryman, and Joycean scholar, Vincent Deane is florid, bordering on the impenetrable, and the aural intensity unyielding. Barry delights in music that bears no necessary connection with character, action or phrasing. 90 minutes, even with interval, is probably as much as even the most sympathetic of listeners can take.

And yet, out of this assault on the senses, comes something which is, well if not enjoyable, is certainly remarkable. The story, whilst admittedly needing more than a nudge from the programme synopsis, is no dafter than most opera buffa, complete with a knowing meta quality which I suspect would have appealed to C18 audiences. Something that Haydn would have attempted. Though also with an underpinning of Handelian serioso that the setting of this opera, and its successor, The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit, (how’s that for a late C18 opera catch all title), implies. Even so GB has said “as to what The Intelligence Park is about, I have no fixed idea” though there may have been with tip of tongue in cheek.

It is Dublin. 1753. Composer Robert Paradies (bass-baritone Michel De Souza) is struggling to complete his opera on the romantic tryst between warrior Wattle and enchantress Daub. Best mate D’Esperaudieu (Adrian Dwyer) pitches up to remind him of his impending marriage to Jerusha Cramer (Rhian Lois) which is required if he is to inherit Daddy’s riches. The boys pitch up to a party at Sir Joshua Cramer’s (Stephen Richardson) townhouse. Jerusha starts singing but is interrupted by her teacher, visiting castrato Serafina (Patrick Terry) who is in attendance with his bessie Faranesi (soprano Stephanie Marshall). Paradies falls for Serafina and falls out with D’Esperaudieu.

Then it gets properly weird as the Wattle and Daub characters, complete with puppet heads (!), pitch into the real proceedings and we find out Jerusha also has the hots for Serafina. Fantasies, arguments, elopements, a series of comic (sort of) vignettes, revenge, a banquet and death all pile up as art and life collide. Though frankly, even as I had secured a better viewing perch, (a few punters gave up at the interval), it all got a bit confusing post interval. No matter. The tropes of classical opera, (and Georgian comedy), were all on show, no doubt there were allusions and quotations that went right over my head, which Nigel Lowery’s ironic, cartoonish Baroque vision, as set and costume designer, director and lighting designer, sought to play up. Think Hogarth on acid.

I also gave up on the subtitles. Not because I could make out what the cast were singing. That was impossible. Not because of any failing on their part. To a man and woman they were tremendous given the singing, acting and, critically, concentrations demands made upon them by GB’s score. Take Stephen Richardson’s bass part which keeps flipping from its lowest register into falsetto, sometimes mid line. (Hats off to repetiteur Ashley Beauchamp who certainly earned his fee). No the fact is, after a while trying to take in Mr Deane’s densely connotative text, it just became too much to take in alongside the music and the visuals. In my experience contemporary opera can veer towards the sombre and static. Not here. This is intensely theatrical.

So you are probably thinking, based on the above, that this was all a bit shit and only really shows the Tourist up as the pseud he is. Well no actually. Just because I can’t cover all the bases in terms of plot, character, message, text doesn’t make this a bad opera. The story is deliberately confusing and the music deliberately unsettling and that is what makes it interesting and intriguing. Being challenged by art is all part of the deal and opera is pretty binary when it comes to comfort or challenge. If you want the former then Handel or Mozart will probably float your boat, and I admit, often mine too. But sometimes exposing yourself, as here, to their evil twin can be bracing. Remember the first time you heard the Sex Pistols? Same thing.

Barry has described The Intelligence Park as being set an an “unsettling diagonal”, a fair description. TIOBE, and Alice’s Adventures Underground which will appear next year on the main ROH stage courtesy of WNO, in part because we know what we are looking at (even through the looking glass) and because they are funnier, (deadpan humour is a big part of GB’s shtick), are easier fare to digest but GB’s musical language is still a long way from most of his historical, and contemporary, peers. Opera, however daft or reactionary the plot, insists that the participants really mean what they are singing. Emotions run high, feelings are big and bold. GB undercuts, though doesn’t subvert, all of that with his music normally going out of its way to upset the expected code. Shifting time signatures. Voices careering across the register. High notes when there should be low and low when they should be high. Stopping mid line. Repetition but of the wrong word at the wrong time. Exaggeration at points of banality or curious indifference at points where emotions should be highest. Unusual accentuation as GB terms it. The plot may be linear. The music is not. There is steady pulse and rhythm often at a fairly brisk lick, with one beautiful lyrical passage excepted, and there is plenty of noise when required. But none of the “divine” interplay of music, libretto and emotion that Mozart and da Ponte conjured up. These obsessive characters are not in control of the music, they are being attacked by it.

This relentless energy and manic aggression is tiring and sometimes frustrating but it is undeniably thrilling and there are so many brilliant, unpredictable musical ideas that it is better to go with it than set your will against it. After all, whilst there may be dissonance, there is harmony, lots of it, just not always pretty. Needless to say the London Sinfonietta took the score in their stride, they thrive on stuff far more challenging than this, but it takes a conductor of guts to take this on. Jessica Cottis is rapidly becoming the opera conductor of choice for challenging new and recent opera and here she wisely promoted vigour and animation over precision.

After the six performances, (same number as for next year’s sold out Fidelio – go figure), at the Linbury this Music Theatre Wales/Royal Opera co-production went on to Cardiff, Manchester and Birmingham. So bravo to them for reviving this, bravo to everyone involved to bring it to fruition despite its challenges and, why not, bravo to all us who listened to it.

Natalia Goncharova exhibition at Tate Modern review *****

Natalia Goncharova

Tate Modern, 26th August 2019

Right cards on the table. If I don’t start getting a move on I am never going to catch up in terms of documenting my cultural adventures on this blog, Which would render it even more pointless and too much of a chore. So focus Tourist. Focus.

Cards on table again. I had a vague idea who Natalia Goncharova was before I pitched up to this. But I knew she was “important”, the reviews said go and Tate membership needed justifying.

Wise call. My guess is that I had seen some of her work in the Russian Art post the Revolution at the Royal Academy a couple of years ago. Mind you as someone who never fully signed up to any art movement, in fact quite the reverse as she plundered from everywhere and everyone, I can’t be entirely sure. What I can be sure of is that NG was an artist in the very top rank in the first half of the C20. Which is a pretty crowded field.

Quick bio. She was born in 1881 into an impoverished aristocratic, but academic, family, (shades of Chekhov), with money coming from textiles, in a village 200kms south of Moscow, to which she moved with her family in 1892. Studied sculpture at Moscow Art School at the turn of the century and met life long partner, and tireless advocate, Mikhail Fedorovich Larionov. European modernism, direct from Paris was an early influence on NG, but her early work actually drew more on traditional Russian folk art, most obviously the lubok, a popular coloured print format with simple graphics. Yet the works that she contributed to the first exhibition of the radical Jack of Diamonds Group in 1911, whilst still portraying folk art subjects, offer an abstracted, fragmented perspective clearly in debt to Cubism.

In 1912 NG and Larionov did found a school dedicated to traditional Russian art formats but this was quickly followed in 1913 by their so-called rayonism which took the geometric forms of futurism and vorticism but with subjects lit by prominent rays of light. In September of that year NG held her first solo exhibition in Moscow, comprising over 800 works, in a jumble of styles that peers dubbed vschestvo or “everythingism”. You get the picture (forgive the pun).

She then moved with Larionov to Paris where she fell in with the beau monde and specifically Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes for whom she designed costumes and sets most notably for works by Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky and Stravinsky. She was the go-to designer when Russian folk stories graced the bill whilst still continuing to paint, teach and illustrate books . Contributions to exhibitions in London and New York in the 1920’s and 1930’s extended her renown but commissions dried up through the 1940s and 1950s. In 1955 she and Larionov married and there was sufficient interest in their work to mount a major retrospective by the Arts Council in London in 1961. NG died in Paris in 1962.

This varied practice was fully represented in this extensive exhibition with 170 contributions from numerous private and public collections, especially her native Russia, and specifically Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery. It kicks off with early works and her own collection of objects that show, for all her affinity with up to the minute modernism, her life long connection to Russian folk art. One word people. Colour. For this is what leaps out across NG’s work. Take the electric orange she sprays around. Or the cobalt blue. Straight out of the tube with no attempt to dull then down or change the tone. Just delicious.

The second room takes pieces drawn from the collections of turn of the century Moscow industrialists, Ivan Moroznov and Sergei Shchukin, which mixed the best of post-impressionism and early modernism with traditional Russian folk art. Alongside NG’s own syntheses, seen in the work taken from the her 1913 exhibition, it is the bold colours, simple forms and flat surfaces which links everything together. The nine part (seven are brought together here) series of large scale oil paintings, Harvest, dominated by bright blues, oranges and purples, are probably the most striking examples of this synthesis but it is there across all the pieces from this period, whether prints, drawings, textiles, wallpapers or designs for theatre and clothing. It might look like a Cezanne, Gaugin, Matisse or Picasso, but the feel is recognisably NG.

This individual style wasn’t just in her art but also in her self. NG strutted around as a full-on boho, face painted, showcasing her own designs, which led to commissions from the trendiest Moscow couture houses. Remember this was still the streets of Moscow not Paris, at a time of massive social upheaval. The 1905 Revolution may have loosened things up a bit in Russia but this was still the most conservative country, give or take, in Europe. When WWI opened the couple were in Paris but had to return to Moscow in August 1914 when Larionov was called up, though it wasn’t long before he returned, wounded, from the front line and was then demobilised. NG’s response was a series of lithographs, Mystical Images of War, which combined the national symbols of the Allied Powers with images from Russian liturgical works and medieval verse. Angels wrestling biplanes, the Virgin Mary morning the fallen, Death’s Pale Horse.

These are tremendous, and served to broaden NG’s reach, but they are surpassed by the selection from the Evangelists series in room 6. These large scale, powerfully direct images were based on the tradition of icon paintings but proved too much for the Russian authorities who had them removed from the 1912 exhibition. and again in 1913, this was not just because NG was a woman co-opting an exclusively male artistic tradition but also because of their astonishing modernity. (This wasn’t the first time the Russian “taste” police took offence: her 1910 painting The Deity of Fertility was confiscated and she was charged with some “corrupting the public morals” bollocks). The label “Neo-Primitive” is sometimes applied to NG’s work, including these, but, like the term Flemish Primitive to describe the early Northern Renaissance, it is misleading. Lines may be simple, forms resolutely modernist, colours flat, but these induced a similar reaction in the Tourist to the jewels of the early C15.

All her ideas are also reflected in the collection of book illustrations, catalogues and other promotional material that NG produced in the 1910s and 1920s when she was at the centre of artistic life in Moscow and then Paris. Following this are works from NG and Larionov’s response to cubism and futurism and specifically their rayonist manifesto. Now the subjects are machines and urban, not rural, life and movement and energy are the forces she seeks to capture. Landscapes, plants and people still appear but NG quickly veers to abstraction. Remember this was still 1913, pre WWI, making NG, in her prolific abundance, one of the first major artists of the time to embrace specifically non figurative art. Mind you the years just before the outbreak of WWI might just have been the most fertile in the history of Western art and ideas circulated so quickly it is tricky to know who influenced who. Anyway the point is that NG and ML were right in there.

Now in some ways, given all this outpouring of beauty, that NG got somewhat hijacked by the commissions for fashion, costume and interior designs that flooded in as her work became widely known across Europe and into the US. Teaching also took up her time. The 1920s and 1930s revealed a fascination with Spanish culture and the iconic Spanish Woman is featured in much of her non-theatre work in those years. The final room is devoted to the set and costume designs for the Ballet Russes and others, accompanied by early film performance footage and music. The “exotic” vision of the East has been a staple of C19 and C20 Western performance art, and NG’s physical representations, for the likes of works such as Le Coq d’or, the unperformed Liturgy, Les Noces, Sadko and L’Oiseau de feu are as much a part of the aesthetic, if not more so, than the music of Rimsky-Korsakov or Stravinsky.

There isn’t much other work from the 1940 and 1950’s as NG turned to a more neo-classical style, maybe harking back a bit too much to her younger self, and rheumatoid arthritis took its toll. NG may be one of the most “valuable” woman artists in the auction room but I can’t help feeling her career, after the massive creative outpouring at the beginning, and even allowing for the beauty of the theatrical design, got pushed towards design and away from “fine” art. The world is catching up with the brilliance and diversity of women artists at work prior to the second half of the C20, though it has taken long enough, but, I would contend, NG stands somewhere near the forefront, for who she was as well as what she created. Modern and traditional and overflowing with life. Apparently she once punched a bloke for calling her “Mrs Larionov”. And not just because she was by far the more famous, and talented, artist.

As it happens this is only the second exhibition dedicated solely to her work outside of Russia. Mind you although she left all her work to her native country it didn’t appear in state museums until glasnost and even then it was only in 2013 that the collection was presented en masse in Moscow.

Noye’s Fludde at the Theatre Royal Stratford East review ****

Noye’s Fludde

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 3rd July 2019

You might think it’s a bit sad really. A grown man in his 50s on his own at a children’s opera performed by a community that he cannot claim to be any part of. Unfortunately my kids never caught the Britten bug when younger, despite what I thought were subtle attempts to influence them, and are now way too old to traipse along with Dad to this sort of thing. Actually what am I talking about? There was never a cat’s chance in hell that they were going to fall for Britten or opera, children’s or otherwise. A situation likely shared by 99.999999999% of the population. Which meant I was pretty much the only audience member there for the opera than the performers.

For this was the only Britten opera, (if you discount his version of Gay’s Beggars Opera), that the Tourist had never seen. And completism, as my regular reader undoubtedly registered sometime ago, is one of the Tourist’s many vices. As is condescension. So forgive me when I say that the bulk of the audience probably had next to no interest in Britten or his operas. But they did have a vested interest in seeing their little darlings on stage. And I can assure you that those kids made them properly proud. Though I would contend that, without the genius of BB, and the unnamed writer who created the Chester mystery play text from which the Victorian writer Alfred W Pollard drew his adaptation, this wouldn’t have been anything close to the uplifting entertainment it was.

BB had already written a little children’s opera, The Little Sweep, in 1949 (part of Let’s Make an Opera) and also previously adapted text from the Chester play cycle for his Canticle II, Abraham and Isaac. To Pollard’s text he added a few hymns, a Kyrie and an Alleluia chorus. There is a spoken Voice of God, played by acting royalty Suzanne Bertish no less, and Noah and his wife are both professional roles, here Marcus Farnsworth and Louise Callinan. Whilst Mr Farnsworth may be better known in recital he also has a distinguished opera CV to date and Ms Callinan is a veteran of multiple European houses. This, along with the 15 members of the ENO Orchestra, Martin Fitzpatrick, (Head of Music at ENO who conducted), Lyndsey Turner directing, and the likes of Soutra Gilmour (designer), Oliver Fenwick (lighting), Luke Halls (video), Lynne Page (movement), Oliver Jeffers (artwork) and Wayne McGregor (choreography), shows just how seriously the ENO took this production. This serious intent though never crushed the joy of its construction.

For Noye’s Fludde is really all about the amateur participants across the named human, (Noah’s sons and their wives and some gossips), and animal, (plenty of these, as you might expect), roles and the chorus. Step forward and take a bow Brampton Primary School, Churchfields Junior School, Newham Music and Newham Music Hub, and all the other local musicians and singers who were a part of this mammoth effort. And the Mums, Dads, siblings, Grannies, Grandads, carers, teachers, teaching assistants, community assistants, chaperones, ENO and TRSE back and front stage folk who chipped in. I hope you enjoyed it. I certainly did, even without any companions.

Special thanks though to BB. The idea of Noye’s Fludde had kicked around for a few years but it was a TV commission, eventually championed by Lew Grade at ATV, that spurred BB on to completing the score in March 1958. The wonder is that such genuinely inventive and atmospheric music should have been so brilliantly created for amateur musicians, as well as the professional core. And not just for the bugles, (hand)-bells, whistles and all manner of other improvised instruments that populate the music. No, there are proper parts for violins, violas, cellos, double basses and recorders. More than that these parts vary in difficulty with each section led by a professional. And there are plenty of passages which flirt with dissonance, in the manner of BB’s “grown-up” operas, well beyond the stuff you might expect from a “children’s” piece.

Listen to the first hymn which has an out of step bass line motif to contrast the chorus which lends a darker quality. This bass motif is taken up by the timpani to herald the first of God’s warnings. The syncopated song which follows as the Noah family come up is much more upbeat. The jaunty Mahlerian march which accompanies the Kyrie presages the entry of the animals and follows a striking, literally, as all manner of percussive effects are provided by the amateurs, passage as the Ark is built. There is a clever three part canon to introduce the birds. The storm scene at the centre of the opera is that old BB favourite an extended passacaglia, which uses the whole chromatic scale. Mugs hit by wooden spoons simulate raindrops, recorder trills become wind, strings become waves, percussion thunder and lightning, pianos provide the motif. A pastoral follows when the storm subsides and then, obviously, there are simple waltzes on cello and recorder to see off Raven and Dove. As the Ark empties out the bugles sound with handbells, (who pop up throughout until the very end), signalling the appearance of the rainbow. A rainbow that here spreads right across the stage, a fitting symbol of pride, to set alongside the. ecological message.

The way in which BB takes his trademark sound, simplifies it and recasts it for the different skills of his performers is really very, very clever. That it also able to incorporate all these various voices, including, sparingly, the audience and still create really effective, and moving, theatre is even more extraordinary. And just in case you are thinking this all sounds a little too tricksy-twee-schmatlzy-worthy there are plenty of clever visual gags from the animals to undercut it all.

BB specified the opera be performed in public, community spaces or churches rather than theatres. TRSE is such a dear old place however, and the “child’s picture book” design here, (which expertly captures the professional/amateur essence), so enchanting, that I am sure BB wouldn’t have complained. No idea if BB ever even met the architect of TRSE’s heyday Joan Littlewood but it is fitting that this vital piece of community theatre should have been so splendidly realised in such a space.

Britten Sinfonia Beethoven cycle at the Barbican Hall review *****

Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades (conductor),

Barbican Hall, 21st and 26th May 2019

  • Lawrence Power (viola)
  • Eamonn Dougan (director)
  • Jennifer France (soprano)
  • Christianne Stotjin (alto)
  • Ed Lyon (tenor)
  • Matthew Rose (bass)
  • Britten Sinfonia Voices
  • Choir of Royal Holloway
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 7 in A majpor, Op 92
  • Gerald Barry – Viola Concerto
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 8 in F major, Op 93
  • Gerald Barry – The Eternal Recurrence 
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 9 in D minor, Op 125

I have banged on before about just how revelatory Thomas Ades’ Beethoven cycle with the Britten Sinfonia has been. Well it seems that, for the final couple of concerts, the rest of the world, (well OK a few Beethoven nuts in London, Norwich and Saffron Walden) has caught up. A near full house for the Choral and a much better turnout for 7 and 8 than in previous installments.

The combination of, largely, modern instruments by an orchestra of solo and chamber specialists, (and now my favourite British ensemble), who have completely bought into the lessons of HIP under the baton of, again for my money, Britain’s greatest living composer, have produced Beethoven symphonies that surely reproduce the thrill of their first performance. Appropriate forces, minimal vibrato, tempos that believe Beethoven, textures exposed and perfectly combined. I have bloody loved the first four concerts and was really looking forward to the final pairing.

I wasn’t disappointed. The best Ninth I have ever heard. Ever. Soloists perfectly balanced and all as clear as a bell over the sympathetic accompaniment. And the choirs were immense. You don’t need a cast of thousands. How on earth Mr Ades and Eamonn Dougan managed to make the voices sound this perfect in this acoustic was a miracle. And everything Mr Ades drew out of the previous three movements before the finale was perfect.

Best Eighth I have ever heard live too though here the competition is, I admit, somewhat slighter. I will be honest and just say I never knew it was so good. It is short, it is jolly, with no slow movement, but it is full of intriguing, if brief, ideas. I finally got it. The Seventh wasn’t quite up to the same standard with the opening Vivace with all those abrupt early key changes not quite dropping into place and with the stop/start of the Allegretto funeral march maybe too pronounced. Minor quibbles. Still amazing.

The Barry Viola Concerto takes the flexing and stretching of a musical exercise with a simple melody and subjects it to all manner of variations. It ended with Lawrence Power whistling. It is, like all of Barry’s music in the series, immediately arresting, just a little bit unsettling, rhythmically muscular and very funny. Terrific.

The Eternal Recurrence which proceeded the Choral is equally unexpected. Extracts from Nietzche’s Also sprach Zarathustra are delivered in a string of high notes by the soprano, here the fearless Jennifer France, in an a parlando, actorly style which is designed to mimic speech and not to sound “sing-y”. It’s a bit nuts and undercuts the text in a slightly sarcastic way, a bit like, some would say,Beethoven does with Schiller in the Ode to Joy. It reminded me of Barry’s The Conquest of Ireland which was paired with the Pastoral earlier on in this cycle.

I gather Gerard Barry uses a similar technique in his opera The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, (based on the Fassbinder film). That is now firmly near the top of my opera “to see” list but for the moment I am very pleased to see that both The Intelligence Park and Alice’s Adventures Underground are coming up at the Royal Opera House. Thanks to Thomas Ades I think I can safely say I am now a fan of Gerard Barry. And the old fella has style and is generous to the performers of his music as we see when he takes his bow at each of these performances.

I won’t go rabbiting on about the musical structure or context of the Beethoven symphonies. You will know them. And if you don’t then frankly you are only living half a life. Beethoven wrote the greatest music ever written. If you don’t believe me then why not start next year when a recording of this cycle will be released and when there will be wall to wall live Beethoven performances to celebrate 250 years since his birth. Here’s a list of the best of them in London. They’ll be more.

  • 6th January, 6th February, 27th February, 19th March, 2nd April – Kings Place – Brodsky Quartet – Late Beethoven String Quartets
  • 19th January – Barbican Hall – LSO, Sir Simon Rattle – Berg Violin Concerto, Beethoven Christ on the Mount of Olives.
  • 1st and 2nd February – Barbican – Beethoven weekender – All of the Beethoven symphonies from various UK orchestras and much much more – all for £45
  • 6th February – Barbican Hall – Evgeny Kissin – Piano Sonatas 8, 17 and 21
  • 12th February – Barbican Hall – LSO. Sir Simon Rattle – Symphony No 9
  • 20th February, 4th November – Kings Place – Rachel Podger, Christopher Glynn – Beethoven Violin Sonatas
  • 1st to 17th March – Royal Opera House – Beethoven Fidelio
  • 15th March – Royal Festival Hall, PO, Esa-Pekka Salonen – 1808 Reconstructed – Beethoven Symphonies 5 and 6, Piano Concerto No 4, Extracts from Mass in C, Choral Fantasy and more
  • 4th April – LPO, Vladimir Jurowski – The Undiscovered Beethoven – inc. The Cantata for the Death of Emperor Joseph II
  • 8th April – Barbican Hall – Anne-Sophie Mutter, Lambert Orkis – Beethoven Violin Sonatas 5, 7 and 9
  • 11th to 16th May – Barbican Hall – Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Sir John Eliot Gardiner – the entire Symphony cycle.
  • 22nd November – Kings Place – Peter Wispelwey, Alasdair Beaton – Beethoven complete Cello Sonatas

Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) at the Lyric Hammersmith review ***

Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs)

Lyric Hammersmith, 22nd May 2019

Never seen John Gay’s ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera, though have seen Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, on which it is based, a couple of times. Have been waiting patiently for a production of Britten’s 1948 adaptation to pop up again having missed a couple of past opportunities. So it seemed a good idea in the meantime to take in this version, co-produced by Kneehigh and the Liverpool Everyman/Playhouse in which writer Carl Grose, composer Charles Hazlewood and director Mike Shepherd have reimagined the story for a contemporary audience using an eclectic mix of musical genres.

And, by and large, it was a good idea, even if it was a little overstuffed with Kneehiggh’s usual bag of tricks. The John Gay original was written as an antidote to the ever more preposterous gods, monsters and love story Baroque Italian style operas filling London theatres. Often cobbled together from other works with divas insisting on their own favourite arias regardless of context, rambling on for hours and with daft plots, they were ripe for satire. Remember too that the early C18 was a golden age for political satire led by Hogarth, Swift and Pope in print. (In fact it was the latter two who first suggested the idea of TBO to Gay). C18 toff Britain was busy racking up debt, sticking it too Johnny Foreigner and getting rich on the proceeds of slavery, whilst all around absolute poverty was rife. Sound familiar?

Gay and the other writers of so called Augustan drama were also pushing back against the Restoration comedies and nasty she-tragedies of the previous decades, creating middle and lower class characters mired in a world of corruption. The aim was not necessarily to highlight the social and economic injustice meted out to the poor, there was still a strong Christian and moral tone of instruction to the works, but to vent the frustration of the mercantile “libertarian” class at the “conservative” aristocracy and its political sycophants. Gay’s particular target in The Beggar’s Opera was actually the divisive Whig prime minister Robert Walpole and specifically his involvement in bailing out the original investors in the South Sea Bubble.

The 69 songs, across 45 short scenes, originally were to be sung without musical accompaniment but Johann Christoph Pepusch was brought in at the last minute to create a score for the mix of largely Scottish and French folk melodies, chucking in popular broadsheet ballads, opera arias lifted straight from the like of Handel, church hymns and even an overture. The punters lapped it up and it spawned multiple imitations, (though this is the only ballad opera which is still performed), and influenced much of the comic opera and musical theatre which followed in the C19 and C20. I see that it enjoyed a lengthy revival at this very theatre in the 1920s.

Carl Grose has kept most of the main characters, the Peachums (Martin Hyder and Rina Fatania), daughter Polly (Angela Hardie), Lockit (Giles King) and daughter Lucy (Beverly Rudd), Filch (Georgia Frost) and, of course Macheath (Dominic Marsh), and the bones of the plot including a repurposed, and instructive, parody ending, though here Macheath is a contract killer tasked with bumping off the virtuous Mayor, (and his innocent mutt), to make way for Peachum. Charles Hazlewood has thrown in electro, grime, dubstep, noire, trip hop rhythms as well as some punk and ska, alongside snatches of Purcell, Handel and even Greensleeves (from the original), to foot-tapping effect. By and large it all hangs together and I can’t fault the cast for effort. The dance routines (courtesy of Etta Murfitt) are entertaining and there are some effective visual treats, not least of which is the titular dead dog in the suitcase. The on stage musicians, who also take on key parts, notably violinist Patrycja Kujawska as Widow Goodman, cannot be faulted.

But Michael Vale’s set, complete with scaffolding and slide, whilst initially impressive, at times becomes an obstacle course for the cast to negotiate and multiple costume changes only add to the complications. Adding in a Punch and Judy routine, assorted puppetry (marshalled by Sarah Wright)and other creative trickery ends up slowing down proceedings and interrupting the momentum in what is intended to be a high energy entertainment. Sometimes less is more, especially if the intention is to make some points about the iniquity of the contemporary political class. I know this kitchen sink, amateur circus look is a keynote of some of Kneehigh’s work but it does rather blunt the satirical intent.

Still I can’t pretend I didn’t laugh, or jig about a bit, and the whole thing is done in just over a couple of hours. There’s a few days left at the Lyric and then the production moves on to complete the tour in Exeter, Cheltenham, Bristol and Galway.

Paul Bunyan at Alexandra Park Theatre review ****

Paul Bunyan

Alexandra Park Theatre, 11th May 2019

What was that all about? Benjamin Britten and WH Auden’s “choral operetta” which premiered in 1941 when they were in America, is a fable, structured like a Broadway musical, with an array of musical styles, (though BB’s hand is always clear), sometimes camp, sometimes deadly serious with a libretto which, allegorically and sometimes explicitly, takes aim, and occasionally misses, at a whole host of, then, fashionable artistic targets. It got panned, was shelved by Britten until his very last days in 1976 when he revised it for a performance at the Aldeburgh Festival, (which sadly he didn’t witness), and it has gradually clawed its way back into the repertoire.

I saw it decades ago when my head was nowhere near capable of making sense of it and I had intended to see it at Wilton’s Music Hall where this ENO production fist surfaced, but, you know, stuff. Anyway the reviews persuaded me and, by and large, I am glad I listened. I can’t imagine a production that could better convince me of its peculiar merits, and the themes started to resonate, but I still confess I am not convinced by Britten and Auden’s motives. They were a clever couple of lads no doubt, (go see Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art to be persuaded), and this must have looked good on paper, particularly in the intellectual climate of the time, but it does feel like they over-egged it, and, for something that is supposed to be performed by semi-professional groups, it doesn’t seem to have a clear audience home.

Paul Bunyan, and his faithful companion Babe the Blue Ox, is a staple of American folklore, who apparently came out of the oral storytelling tradition of American loggers. He is, just run with this will you, a giant lumberjack, who, along with his trusty crew, set off across the US to perform feats of superhuman strength and carve out the landscapes of the US. Or maybe he wasn’t. Perhaps he was dreamed up by an adman, William B. Laughead, to promote the Red River Lumber Company in 1916, whose exploits then became a staple of kids books. Or maybe not. Maybe he was an actual lumberjack in Canada by the name of Fabian Fournier. Who knows? Whatever his origin he has been the subject of all manner of creative endeavour ever since and I gather the US is littered with oversized statues of the fella.

Already you can see why a couple of posh gay Brits, in love with America and its meaning, and keen to give something to the country in which they have, temporarily, taken refuge, might see the potential in such a subject. You might not know the Paul Bunyan legend but their hosts, across society, certainly did. The homegrown art of the US in the C19, (after all the portraiture of the late C18 and early C19 in common with Europe), was focussed on nature, the immensity of the landscape, and especially on man’s conquest of nature. This was fundamental in creating a powerful new identity for the young nation. The Hudson River School, pioneered by Thomas Cole, led the way. I knew f*ck all about this until I, with no great intent, saw the recent exhibition at the National Gallery of Cole’s work and specifically his allegory The Course of Empire. Very interesting.

Now you may wonder what a massive lumberjack, (here I have to ask you to listen to the Human League’s Empire State Human – wry banality is a sadly rare quality in pop music’s lyric history), and his blue ox might have to do with this. Well its springs from the same well. The creation of America though internal colonisation. Both good and bad. Now sticking with art history by the time we get to the 1930s, (BB and Peter Pears arrived in 1939 just after WHA and Christopher Isherwood), US art was torn in four ways as far as I can see. A more or less folksy nostalgia for America’s rural past and founding myths, or something far more critical which recognised the damage that had been done to the heartland by the Depression and Dustbowl. Or even something which stood, ironically, in both camps, with Grant Wood being the most powerful exponent. Then there was art which celebrated, or lamented, the march of US capitalism and power and the impact of technology on the city. As the America After the Fall exhibition, this time courtesy of the knowledgeable people at the Royal Academy (and elsewhere) and America’s Cool Modernism at the Ashmolean amply demonstrated the 1930’s, for those of us who like paint, figurativism and context, this was a fertile period and stateside.

Will you please get to the point Tourist? Well, the point is that Paul Bunyan the operetta represents the same optimism and pessimism, the celebration and subversion of the rural, mythic pas,t and the way the change to the urban would potentially upset it, that American pictorial art was exploring. And not just pictorial art. Take Our Town by Thornton Wilder in theatre from 1938, in film, Stagecoach and Modern Times in there very different ways, and art music, notably Aaron Copland, who Britten befriended and whose musical influence is also clear in Paul Bunyan. (As it happens Copland was a mentor to one Leonard Bernstein who left his own indelible mark on US musical culture after the war, and an early champion of Charles Ives who was exploring the very territory I am describing, the clash of past and present, some thee decades earlier).

Now musical theatre in 1930s US was a serious business. By which I mean that the government, specifically with its Federal Theatre Project in drama, stood firmly behind cultural revitalisation to match the economic recovery underpinned by the New Deal, and that some musicals even offered a deeper social and political message. Take Porgy and Bess at the high art end of the spectrum. BB and WHA had form back home when it came to a political message with their documentary collaborations and song cycles such as On This Island and the under-rated Our Hunting Fathers.

And at the end of Paul Bunyan, in the final Litany, they lay it on thick with the paean to the individualism and acceptance they see in America and the psalm chants of the animal’s petition in the preceding Christmas Party scene. It may be idealistic, even naive, but it is, especially in this production, undeniably effective.

So there you have it. My take on what it’s all about. No f*cking use whatsoever. So you could profitably enjoy PB without agonising about its messages and context and just as a story with some, this being BB, wonderful tunes. A story about some old trees who get warned by three geese that they will be in big trouble when the moon turns blue for that is when PB is born. A narrator, well three to be exact, tell of PB’s early life before we join him and Babe in the forest with his team of Swedish lumberjacks, a pair of culinarily challenged chefs, a bookkeeper, Johnny Inkslinger, and assorted cats and dogs (yep they sing). PB goes off to fetch his daughter Tiny but the crew gets unruly whilst he is away and a bloke called Slim turns up. PB returns, offers some of the lumberjacks the option of farming, the leader of the Swedes, Hel Helson, talks to all sorts of animals, before being egged on by his Scandi mates to pick a fight with PB, which he, unsurprisingly loses. Tiny and Slim fall in love and Helming realises the error of his ways. Christmas Eve. Slim and Tiny and Slim are to marry, Hel is off to Washington to join the Administration and Johnny is going to Hollywood.

I mean all fairly routine no? OK maybe not. It is as bonkers as it sounds and BB takes full advantage by chucking his take on all manner of musical genres, folksongs, ballads, blues, county & western, hymns, Broadway, cabaret, even ad jingles into the pot, and WHA lets rip with his precise poetry. knowing irony and unexpected vernacular, (Scandinavia rhymed with behaviour).

Even if doesn’t all quite add up it isn’t for the want of trying from the ENO players and chorus under James Henshaw, the cast, designer Camilla Clarke and, especially, director Jamie Manton. Whilst the execution was undeniably as serious as if this were, say Wozzeck at the Coliseum, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves so eventually, despite my reservations, it just seemed easier to go with the flow. And, I figured, maybe this “plot” was no dafter than the gods and monsters of the early Baroque.

For all the pastiche the score is bursting with BB’s melodic gift and ear-catching invention. He even offers a test of what was to come decades later with a hint of the singular scales of Balinese gamelan. And there is, in the choral and instrumental passages, even some “serious” opera to savour.

The Ally Pally theatre offers a beautiful, but voluminous, space so, given the transfer from the intimate surroundings of Wilton’s I was a bit concerned that this might, like the Headlong Richard III, get a bit swallowed up. Not in the slightest. Ensemble on a platform at stage rear, another platform for our three narrators, Claire Mitcher, Rebecca Stockland and Susanna Tudor Thomas, (when they are off-duty from being geese of course), projection stage, wheelie bins, blue Smeg fridges symbolising ox, constant motion, dance, costume designs John Waters would have embraced for his films. All presided over by a giant neon blue PB – did I mention we don’t actually see Paul Bunyan – never mind. We do hear him though booming out in the mellifluous shape of none other than Simon Russell Beale. And the chorus makes full use of the aisles, slips and rear, of the auditorium.

Which, when you have the mighty presence and voice of New Zealand based Samoan baritone Benson Wilson on your shoulder, turns out to be a hell of thing. Mr Wilson, who also plays farmer John Shears, was the winner of this years Kathleen Ferrier Award. I must say I was much taken with the big fella. I have never head an operatic voice up that close. More fool me. At somewhat lesser proximity I was also taken with Elgan Llyr Thomas as Inkslinger and Rowan Pierce as Tiny. But honestly this whole ensemble was just another reason why I prefer the ENO home grown talent to the ROH fly ins.

So there you have it. BB went on to bigger and better things, (and fell out big time with Auden), though this work, for all the funs and games, shows why no-one should have been surprised when, four years later, and back in Blighty, BB pitched up with Peter Grimes putting us back on the operatic compositional map 250 years since Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Don’t feel too sorry for clever clogs Auden. He went on to write the libretto for Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.