Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Opera: Tannhäuser

The hours seemed to fly by watching the Royal Opera's new production of Tannhäuser on Monday evening. The opera about man's dilemma between passion and purity is told on a grand scale with an enormous cast and all are in very fine voice. Johan Botha in the title role is the man unhappy with the excess of Venusburg and unsatisfied with harsh earthly realities. There is no pleasing some people I suppose, but he manages to give this story credibility and power throughout the four hours of the performance.

The production itself is minimal with the orgiastic excess of Venus's grotto Venusburg limited to the Royal Opera's velvet curtain and a rather large dining table. When a sensual and athletic ballet emerges from what started to look like a gala dinner at the opera you couldn't help but wonder if all opera fundraisers are that fun. If there was only one disappointment here it was thinking that Venus (the lovely Michaela Shuster) should not be in a dinner dress as it just wasn't as hot as everything else being served up. Not that she could not cut through the most loudest of bellows from the orchestra. As for the ballet, it not only looked great, but you couldn't help but be impressed by it's ability to set the story. It did not look easy either and I was exhausted just watching them. Given Tannhäuser was also a big man, you could understand why he was exhausted with all the goings on in Venusburg as well...

Of course back at the earthly Wartburg the grass was not greener. Nor was the shepherd boy who heralds Tannhäuser's return to the Wartburg particularly melodic. But particularly nice about this version was the Eva-Maria Westbroek's ambivalent sexuality she conveyed as Elisabeth. It will be fascinating to see what she does in the upcoming production Anna Nicole. Again the simplicity of the production design adds to its wonder. The song contest at the Wartburg was so dramatic, with parallels drawn to a more recent European war a nice touch. Aiding to the drama was the fine voice of Christian Gerhaher in the role of Wolfram, who remains in love with Elisabeth (just to keep things a little complicated).

While at times the opera grinds to a halt with little action and an awful lot of libretto, what could have been a chore to watch was quite engaging with a great production and terrific cast. The audience loved it as well, although unlike Adriana Lecouvreur, no teddy bears were thrown from the circle. Conductor Semyon Bychkov received some well deserved cheers for keeping this performance engaging and fluid.
And in case you missed it, and will not be able to make the final two performances, the Radio 3 broadcast is available on iPlayer until the end of the week.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Movies: Loose Cannons (Mine Vaganti)

A rare trip to the cinema this week during the snow was also a chance to catch Ferzan Ozpetek's latest film Loose Cannons (Mine Vaganti). It is a family comedy drama with a gay twist. It was well worth the trip out in the snow to see a film that was well acted and nicely shot.

But along with The Kids Are All Right, it is probably one of the few films playing at the moment that is worth venturing out in the snow to see (unless you have diabetes perhaps). It's playing at the moment at some sensible London cinemas.

Another look: Love Never Dies

It is nice to get out the week before Christmas and see a show. Particularly as an attempt to see La Boheme at the Cock Theatre Saturday was thwarted by too much snow. So as a break from the usual Christmas festivities, I took Gio and Bill to see a refreshed version of Love Never Dies at the Adelphi Theatre. As we left the theatre by one of the fire exits, we brushed past a man who resembled Andrew Lloyd Webber racing the other way. It most likely was ALW and Gio and Bill wanted to stop and chat / stare / gawk or do whatever fans do. I pushed on as there was nothing to see only the composer...

When I last caught Love Never Dies I was a little bit disappointed by the plot, the gloomy characters and the unintentional hilarity of it all. Nine months have passed and in what must be some sort of theatrical gestation, the production has been reworked and it is a substantial improvement. The story is clearer, the characters make more sense and things generally flow a bit better. There are even some choice improvements to the lyrics. Having seen an early preview it is fascinating how some minor (and a few significant) changes make a difference.

The show has ditched the dreamy start and musings of an old lady and now starts with one of the stronger numbers (Till I Hear You Sing). This gives some context to the show and gets it going with a bang. The focus is now constantly on the central characters and there seems to be much less doom and gloom. The famous jacket throwing at the end of the first half is gone as well. In fact, there are even a few welcome gestures of humour. Ramin Karimloo as the Phantom, Sierra Boggess as Christine and Joseph Millson as Raoul all have fine voices, but also a great chemistry between them.

Of course the story is still a melodrama, but with some of the more curious aspects of the original production removed, it is an easier journey to go along with. And without the unintentional humour that previously existed. The revisions have also wisely not laboured the ending as before and like the best melodramatic operas, the curtain comes down quickly. I was still none the wiser about the motivations of two characters who are responsible for most of the mild peril in this show, but overall this is a ride you won't mind being taken on. It looks good and sounds good and now won't have you wondering what the hell was all that about. Some of the background to the revisions is below.

As to the final message of the show. Maybe it is love triangles end in tears. Or that at some stage of your life a man is going to make you do something you don't want to do because he has a big jewels. Even if you don't run into the composer as you leave, you are sure to have a good time now... Post show Audioboo musings were as follows...


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Theatre: On The Twentieth Century

Tuesday night was an opportunity to catch the first preview of On The Twentieth Century at the Union Theatre. Cy Coleman's 1978 musical is set in the 1920s (or it could be the 1930s) where producer Oscar Jaffee is trying to score a hit again with his former leading lady, who has gone on to bigger success in the movies.

I had not previously seen this show, but over a pre-theatre fish and chips (or as they tend to call it in south London, fush and chups) at Masters Super Fish, Johnnyfox was waxing lyrical about how wonderfully rich and inventive the overture to the show was. So I felt his disappointment when the overture was arranged by musical director Oliver Jackson for a saxophone quartet and piano. It was still wonderful but not quite so rich. Actually throughout the show Johnnyfox was mostly singing along so I could sense it was going to be one of those evenings where I would be experiencing quite a lot of audience participation...

Anyway, this was the first preview and no doubt the performances will get better as the run progresses, but as a Twentieth Century virgin I had a great time. The performances of all the leads were great and I particularly liked Rebecca Vere as the star Lilly Garland. I last saw her in Batboy and comic timing and vocal range are perfectly suited for this role. She also looks great (although not that you can tell from the above cast photo). Valda Aviks also had a little star turn as the nut Letitia Primrose. It was particularly nice she singled out Webcowgirl as in need of repenting for a life in the cheap seats.

If there was one quibble it was that the staging of the show could have made more of the confined space of the Union Theatre, rather than spanning such a length that watching the show felt like being at a tennis match. But this still is a classy little show and an excellent little diversion over the Christmas period (particularly if you don't fancy seeing a panto).

On The Twentieth Century continues at the Union Theatre, until 15 January 2011 (no performances 24/12-3/1) Tuesday-Saturday at 7.30 and Saturdays and Sundays also at 2.30. Tickets typically £16.50 (£13.50 concessions). Box Office 020 7261 9876, or with a fee from TicketSource.

Audioboos from the jaded and usual suspects are as follows:


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Overheard on the bus Monday evening

Man: There are elements of the play that just allow for those sorts of pathos...
Woman: Yes I would have to agree there
Man: Of course for other people it would be like oh yeah I would just rather watch Eastenders

Friday, December 10, 2010

Music: Andreas Scholl and Philippe Jaroussky

Purcell - Philippe Jaroussky,
Uploaded by midu92. - See the latest featured music videos.

An evening with two countertenors might be one thing, but when they are Philippe Jaroussky and Andreas Scholl it makes for quite a night (albeit an androgynous one) at the Barbican. The countertenor is the twentieth century response to the castrati performers of past. But the arrival of some very talented (and rather good looking) men such as Scholl and Jaroussky has put this singing onto a whole other level.

I'm assuming the above video from a previous performance was posted on the internet by one of Jaroussky's groupies, who travel the world to see him perform (and reportedly go weak at the knees and post loads of clips on Youtube). The fan base is probably too sophisticated to throw knickers on stage at the end of the concert, but at Tuesday night's sold out performance there were plenty of fans of both men there, and they showed their appreciation instead through rapturous applause. And of course the men deserved this attention.

What was striking about this concert were the performances and when the two performed together their voices complemented each other beautifully. The audience was generous in its praise and while Purcell like other early music composers is not necessarily the first music I would turn to listen to, I was more than happy to enjoy an evening of it.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Opera: Adriana Lecouvreur

I finally managed to see la Gheorghiu perform in an opera. It was at Saturday's Adriana Lecouvreur at the Royal Opera. David McVicar's new production has received rave reviews, but seeing it for yourself is another matter. There was such anticipation ahead of Gheorghiu's first appearance, and she did not disappoint. And neither did anyone else in this production. In what at first appears to be a convoluted story, it boils down to a simple love triangle. Besides when Jonas Kaufmann and Gheorghiu are singing together, you are less concerned about the plot anyway. Filling out the triangle was Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina who added to the fireworks.

Star power aside, this opera manages has a series of substantial supporting roles that draws out some excellent performances. It was hard to believe such a good cast and an elegant production could make such high melodrama feel so glamourous. The show has sold out this run (including with the alternate cast), however as it is a co-production with four other houses (the Vienna State Opera, San Francisco Opera, the Liceu, Barcelona, and Opéra Bastille) it is bound to be seen elsewhere soon.

At the curtain calls the audience leapt to their feet, and from somewhere in the circle two teddy bears found their way onto the stage. A brown one for Kaufmann, and a white one for Gheorghiu. While I wondered what was the thinking behind the differently coloured bears for the two performers, it was probably a sensible choice since throwing violets might have raised a few eyebrows. I was not close enough to the stage to determine if they are singing opera bears, but this could be a new trend for audiences to follow at the Royal Opera. Say it with bears... Grr...

Semi-naked scenes from Kings Road Chelsea Saturday

The weather outside was delightful, but perhaps going in budgie smugglers (tight speedos for those not versed in Australian) to do Christmas shopping was a step too far...

Friday, December 03, 2010

Theatre: Grand Guignol

On a chilly Tuesday night, I caught a few thrills and chills with Johnnyfox at Theatre of the Damned's Grand Guignol, which is playing at the Etcetera Theatre above the Oxford Arms on Camden High Street. The Grand Guignol was a playhouse in Paris that for 65 years presented a series of grisly melodramas and cruel plays. It sounded like a smashing place but nowadays it is a term that is more generally used to refer to any sort of horror play. Cheap thrills aren't always easy to find at the theatre nowadays. The Southwark Playhouse does a good job with its Terror season, but it is nice to see there is also a production company dedicated to scaring the pants off audiences.

Presented here are three very fine plays that will alternatively make you jump or make you queasy. Given that, it is probably a good idea to go to the bathroom before it starts as if you wet yourself during the performance, there is no intermission.

The first play, Crime in a Madhouse, a young woman in an insane asylum is taunted by two women who want to get her. The thrills and shocks were somewhat dissipated when Johnnyfox suggested one of the women looked like Vivienne Westwood with better teeth, but it was still an enjoyable story with some excellent performances (particularly by Christine Edwards as Vivienne Mrs Cornish). The second play The Final Torture is as a tense play set during the Boxer Rebellion in China where paranoia abounds. Both of these plays were adapted from original plays presented at the Paris Grand Guignol. The final play, The Art of Death, is an original piece that pays homage to a Parisian theatre of the macabre with a producer who is seeking the ultimate special effect. Particularly creepy is Simon Evans who plays Gilles, the very talented special effects man.

The production and acting are all of high standard. What also makes these plays work is the claustrophobia, the lighting and the sound effects. Sometimes the horror is hilarious, and that's part of the fun. If there is a complaint, it could be that sometimes the dialogue is redundant and the punchlines unnecessary. But this is a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent production. It runs until December 12. Definitely worth a trip out in the cold for a few thrills... I can't wait for their next spooky production.

First impressions, including my inability to pronounce Grand Guignol (I add this to my list of words to stumble over, which includes proscenium, achluophobia and Menier), are in the audioboo below