Wednesday, 22 September 2010


21/9/10, ENO

Notes written at the time and transcribed two months later...

The Gounod version, directed by Des McAnuff, better known apparently for his musicals. His experience with Broadway shows certainly taught him something tyro opera directors who started in the theatre often can't handle, namely the chorus and how to get them moving together and (especially) how to get them on and off.

The interpretation was questionable. Things have been updated to the mid-20th century and the Age of the Bomb. Old Faust (Toby Spence) is a jaded atomic scientist, apparently. The flashback to his youth takes us to World War One and soldiers in those funny French helmets. They returned from the war in a terrible state (as you did after WW1) but that made a bit of a nonsense of their jolly drinking song.

There were awkward moments in the staging too. He didn't seem to know what to do with Margarita after the witches' sabbath. She stood at the back while Faust and Mephistopheles (or their doubles) ran up and down the spiral staircases at either side of the set more or less endlessly.

Margarita (Melody Moore) was in a clumping blue dress and brown shoes and short hair. She was a big girl: I'd like to hear her in Wagner. She wasn't quite convincing here, for all her power and rich tone.

Mephistopheles (Iain Paterson) was supposedly suffering from the aftermath of a chest infection but it wasn't evident.

Acts 1 and 2 went swiftly. Act 3 dragged for me, though it started well with a Faust solo aria, very affecting. Margarita's music is less immediately appealing. The closing trio brings the hairs up on your head. The closing chorus is noisy.

I thought we'd seen it before with Willard White as Mephistopheles but it must have been the Berlioz version. This one concentrates on the love story: passionate stuff, except it's all a lie because he knows he's not for real.

The brother comes back, finds his sister's pregnant, fights the duel and dies cursing his sister despite the chorus urging him to repent so that he will go to heaven.

There was a spectacular neon cross at one point for Margarita's salvation. But she drowns the baby in the font.

It is long.


19/9/10, Lower Belvedere, Vienna

A special exhibition of symbolist works arranged around Burne-Jones's monumental Death of Arthur, which he worked on for decades and never finished. It's full of tall, draped, angular figures, almost all turned towards the recumbent figure of the king in his temple-cum-tomb in Avalon.

There's Burne Jones's Sleeping Beauty sequence which obviuously made an impression on me at the time since I wrote it down in my notebook but which now conjures up no memories at all.

There's Leighton's Flaming June, whose seductive appeal lies partly in the beauty of his sleeping model, partly in her bright orange drapes and the sensuous curve of her thigh which fills the centre of the frame but mainly, I think, in the gold of the sunlight on the sea in the distance which positively shouts at you to be joyful and dream of some Mediterranean paradise.

Also Walter Crane's book illustrations, and a Rossetti of a Roman widow, all long neck and impossibly long tapering hands.


19/9/10, Belvedere, Vienna

Another of Vienna's spectacular museums. This one comes in two parts, each one a massive neo-classical pavilion, facing one another at either end of a long, sloping formal garden of gravelled walks and parterres and water features, built on a low hill overlooking the city by Prince Eugene (or Prinz Eugen).

Here they have Klimt's The Kiss, an image whose familiarity can't disguise its perfection, nor the impact all that gold has when you see it in the flesh. They have a lot of ther Klimts too: a portrait of a lady with a spectacular peacock-eye motif cloth on her chair, early impressionist landscapes, and unfinished paintings that are oddly swirly and tentative.

They have lots of Schiele too, the later ones rather gentler than some of the more turtured earlier ones. Among the later pictures there's a nude portrait of a man and a woman and a child squatting, the woman with her legs apart, and a portrait of Schiele's wife.

The gallery puts both Klimt and Schiele into the context of late 19th century Symbolism and of some of the earlier academic work against which the Symbolists and Secessionists and Impressionist and the rest of them were reacting. So there's David's Napoleon (Why here? Victor's spoils?) as well as some proper French impressionists, including Pisarro landscapes, Manet portraits and Monet's garden.

And there's a Kolo Moser picture of an avenue of trees leading to a house, all blue outlines, which could be Cezanne.


19/9/10, Kunsthaus Museum, Vienna

This place makes the V&A look modest. There's a circular entrance hall, tiling, a black and white floor, leading to a grand staircase with enormous frescoes by Klimt and others. One woman gasped audibly as she walked in and saw it, and well she might.

And then there's a spectacular collection of Old Masters. A whole room full of Breughels... really, really famous ones: Winter, the Tower of Babel, Children's Games, a painting of Christ Being Taken to Be Crucified which I think is another version of the one in Nostell Priory written up here in The Guardian:

And I haven't even mentioned the Conversion of Saul (actually that may be the painting which in composition resembles the Nostell Priory Procession to Calvary), the Massacre of the Innocents, the Peasant Wedding... They're all full of incredible detail, chunky figures, the wintry scenes so effective because there's so much white in them.

There's some pictures by Holbein the Elder -- decent but uninspired -- alongside Holbein the Younger's Jane Seymour, Dr John Chambers and two pictures of young merchants, greatly superior to his dad's stuff.

There's a vast painting by Albrecht Altdorfer of Lot's daughters, their father an old man with yellow skin looking lecherous, one daughter fully nude lying alongside and largely obscuring his withered body, the other kneeling by a stream in the distance; and there's a Cranach of the same scene in which the daughters are discreetly clothed.

There's a memorable Durer of Maximilian I in a fur cape.

And a whole room of Dutch group portraits from the great era of Rembrandt and his contemporaries. It was a temporary exhibition so I should have given it more attention, but by that stage I was glutted.


18/9/10, Volksoper, Vienna

The Staatsoper was dark; the Theater an der Wien, its smaller house, was offering Semele (would you believe?) and D vetoed yet another production of that (we wouldn't have got tickets anyway: Cecilia Bartoli was starring). So that left the Volksoper, Vienna's equivalent of ENO, though a good deal less plush.

Bernarda Bobro was Violetta, variously in a white shift, a dressing gown and an unflattering pierrot costume. Her voice was beautiful, powerful, lyrical, secure top notes, exactly what you want. But she was very dumpy and tended to galumph: not a convincing grande horizontale. Oliver Kook as Alfredo was a bit underpowered, stout, chunky and about the same age as the tall, European Morten Frank Larsen playing his father (rather well). Sometimes the degree of suspension of disbelief required of opera productions beggars, um, belief.

The directorial conceit had the whole thing staged as Violetta's dream on her deathbed. We first see her lying on it downstage right, her maid at the bedside, before the action starts (actually it was a substitute: the lights went out and the sub nipped off and Bobro nipped on at the beginning). There was a huge veil or gauze across the stage for art of the time; the revellers were dancing clowns in skull masks waving their arms in artistic poses. At the end the director managed to get Alfredo and his father kneeling and standing respectively centre-stage behind the gauze, singing at the audience, while Violetta is expiring off to the side. A mess. There was much use of the revolve and steps down through the centre of the stage for entrances and exits; plus a single door centre stage rear in the middle of the cyclorama. It meant getting the chorus and on and off was a long drawn out process.

The orchestral strings were a bit scratchy but well-paced (I take it this isn't Vienna's number one band).

There were moments that summoned the required shivers. Violetta's second act duet with Germont; Germont's song about the young girl at the end of tghe act; the duet with Alfredo towards the end. There's no question there are some great tunes: what a shame Verdi abandoned them in his later work; presumably he found them too easy.


18/9/10, Leopold Museum, Vienna

Vienna's museums are large, numerous, imposing. The Leopold Museum is a collection of 20th century, largely Viennese works housed in a handsome modernist building in the Museums Quarter, which was once I think the Imperial stables but now houses several exhibition spaces including two modern structures dramatically inserted into the courtyard (this is one). Plus cafes and all the usual paraphernalia. We sat out in the autumn sun and ate.

My notes (this is written up two months later) talk about Klimt and Schiele as the Jekyll and Hyde of the Viennese Secession. In Klimt's Death and Life a collection of largely naked figures, including a baby, float among Klimt's signature patterning (which always looks like a patchwork quilt) on a plain background, while off to the left a skeleton with a club wrapped in a darker patchwork leers at them. The subject matter is dark but the treatment glittering and seductive. Klimt is a beautiful draughstman (especially in his early portraits).

Nearby is Schiele's Levitation: a predominantly brown picture of dead figures with staring eyes, in a landscape of flowers painted to look like wagon wheels. It's an image that prefigures scenes of the Western Front in World War One. A dark subject, darkly treated. Likewise a Schiele full-frontal self-portrait, with legs akimbo, all browns and yellows but for the nipples, eyes and genitalia, all an eerie red.

You get some idea of how Schiele transformed what he saw by a small portrait of his mistress Wally, thin and wide-eyed, close to a portrait of what she looked like in reality (very different). The painting, which is mesmerising, was the subject of a long-running dispute between the Leopold and descendants of its original owners after it was sent in 1997 on loan to New York for an exhibition at Moma and seized by the authorities: the legal dispute was only settled this year. Details here:

Kolo Moser was new to me. A very diverse figure. I noted Wotan and Brunnhilde. A series of mountain landscapes including one with a bright yellow house, some very straight, some playing triks with light and colour. His later works were straighter, in some ways, his earlier figurative ones very bold and expressionistic.

And then there are the architects. Otto Wagner designed the U-bahn stations. But Joseph Maria Olbrich was the revelation, not least for his Secession Building of 1897 which is utterly extraordinary and staggeringly original (the Secession were so called because they seceded from the National Academy of Art).

Too many of them died young, Olbrich of leukemia in 1908 aged 41, the other three in 1918: Moser of cancer aged 50, Klimt of a stroke aged 56 (the stroke brought on perhaps by fathering no fewer than 14 children on various women, I read in Wikpedia) and Schiele at just 28 of influenza.


14/9/10, Gate

Missed it. Had to work. D said 'twas entertaining but "girly" and it may not have been to my taste.

Friday, 10 September 2010


10/9/10, Royal Albert Hall

1 hr 30 mins. Late-night Prom featuring the new incarnation of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, fronted by Arthur Jeffes, son of the original's founder-composer, Simon Jeffes. An 11-piece, joined by Kathryn Tickell (on both Northumbrian small pipes and fiddle), playing lots of Simon Jeffes' tunes and a handful of Arthur's, including a solo piano piece he wrote for his father's memorial service (SJ died in 1997) which he played as an encore.

Most of the old favourites were there, and they haven't lost their catchiness. We had Music for a Found Harmonium, Perpetuum Mobile, Giles Farnaby's Dream, Telephone and Rubber Band, all of which we have on disc at home. Plus some I didn't know like Organum (on which Tickell played the pipes) and Swing the Cat (in which she joined in some very fast fiddle ensemble playing, folk-style, much better in this performance than in a recording we've heard).

The line-up is very different from the original, which only had one ukelele (not three on occasions), didn't have a double bass, did have a trombone etc etc. This had two percussionists and Jeffes on piano, with only one guitarist. It meant the sound had a very different texture, and crucially was poorly served in the hall by the mix (it might have been different for listeners at home...). To begin with we could hardly hear the cello and the other strings, and though it got better it still wasn't entirely satisfactory.

Also Arthur's pieces (with the exception of the piano solo) aren't in the same league as his dad's, while some of the slower pieces had me drifting off (it was late night...)

All the musicians were pretty straight with the exception of one of the violinists who wore black plus-fours or jodhpurs and a black top hat and pranced around centre stage in a very "look at me" kind of way.

I'm glad we went but I think we'll stick to recordings of the original in future.

Monday, 6 September 2010


5/8/10, Royal Albert Hall

2 hrs 20 mins. Ulster Orchestra with Paul Watkins and pianist Stephen Osborne. Orchestra all in black except for Watkins in a lounge suit with white shirt and tie. A good night for the brass, with fanfares and marches galore. But the hall very empty, despite the crowd-pleasing nature of the programme, perhaps because there'd been a free Prom all afternoon recreating (with the addition of a 2010 world premiere BBC commission!) the last night of Henry Wood's 1910 Proms. The arena in particular very sparsely filled. This programme all works which had been premiered (or at least introduced to British audiences) by Henry Wood at the Proms.

There was a fanfare by Arnold Bax (or Sir Arthur Bliss?) written for Henry Wood's 70th birthday in 1944, noisy and brassy, and then A London Pageant by Bliss (or Bax?). It's a piece of light music really, a march, very silly. It comes to a crashing brass climax twice, only for the violins to keep going underneath very quietly; there's a discordant shift to the minor halfway through but it doesn't last, it's purely for effect. At the end there's an enormous climax with all the brass, the kitchen sink and the Albert Hall organ (the organist was wearing ear defenders)! It made me laugh. The string sound very English (ie sub-Elgar).

Then we had Dorothy Howell's Lamia, premiered in 1919 when she was 21. I'd never heard of her. She lived until 1982, dying at the age of 84 after a blameless life teaching at the Royal Academy of Music. So why, on the evidence of this, did she not compose more? It starts very softly and discordantly with just two flutes. It ends very softly on a dying fall played by the strings, just after a rather haunting solo by the leader. In between some lovely string music and colourful orchestration, plus the odd melody. Passed 12 minutes very agreeably.

Then Osborne played Rachmaninov's first piano concerto. I don't know this, but I suspect it was a rather spiky interpretation of the slow movement, which I'm sure is supposed to be lusher and more tuneful than the version Osborne gave us. The slow movement is also very short, but then the final movement has a crashing false start followed by a thoughtful piano solo before the finale proper starts, so you get two slow movements in effect. D liked it very much. Osborne played with a score and a blonde page-turner: the first time I've seen a soloist using a score in a piece from the core repertoire.

Part 2 started with Sibelius's Karelia Suite. Not as driven as some performances I've heard, but in the finale there were numerous swoops and twiddly bits from the horns and the brass I've never been aware of in recorded or broadcast performances. One quiet bit was ruined by coughing.

Parry's Symphonic Suite was inoffensive and rose to a suitable climax (brass-heavy, of course, and rather Elgarian) but my quota of concentration available for unfamiliar music was exhausted.

Then Tchaikovsky's waltz and march from Eugene Onegin. Familiar, tuneful, noisy: what's not to like? (Hard to credit that this was "new music" in Henry Wood's time.)

The Prommers may have hoped for an encore, but Watkins marched on after two or three curtain calls, looked pointedly at his watch and dragged the leader off.

Sunday, 5 September 2010


31/8/10, National (Olivier)

1 hr 55 mins (no interval). Buchner's 1834 classic in a new version by Howard Brenton. Directed by Michael Grandage of the Donmar with Toby Stephens as Danton and Elliot Levey (very good) as Robespierre.

You can see why Grandage wanted to do it. It's about politics, which clearly fascinates him (Camus' Caligula, von Kleist's Prince of Homburg), and about Romantic/tragic views of the individual, history, fate. It pits the extremist Robespierre, who equates virtue with terror, against the sensualist Danton, now sickened by revolutionary bloodshed (though whether that's on ideological grounds or because he's overhwelmed by Romantic ennui isn't entirely clear).

The ideas are interesting. Danton describes himself as an epicurean and wrestles with questions of how to find meaning in a world from which the revolutionaries have banished God; Robespierre and St Just are Maoists ahead of their time, committed to permanent revolution.

But it's just one damn speech after another, static and dramatically inert (despite the dramatic premise). Robespierre and Danton only have one scene together: there should have been more. I wanted the clash of ideas, not just their presentation, one after another, in ordered sequence.

The climactic scene of Danton's trial is a series of speeches. D is in the well of the court, holding the jurors spellbound before being silenced and bundled off. But Robespierre and St Just hold the high ground, literally, at the centre of a balcony which runs round the entire back of the curved set. We liked the set by Christopher Oram very much: stained wood, with several doors at ground level and the balcony, entered from either end, with shutters that could be opened and closed to reveal floor to ceiling windows.

There were some interesting interventions by the women: a prostitute near the start with whom Danton consorts and (am I remembering this correctly?) who tells him her sad life story; Danton's wife, who tries to save him and poisons him when she can't; and Camille Desmoulins' Lucille, who goes fetchingly mad in a white high-waisted dress.


28/8/10, Kings Theatre (Edinburgh Festival)

A combination of cinema and theatre. A fascinating idea which turned out to be profoundly disappointing in practice. See Guardian review, with which I largely agree:

It seemed pointless, alienating to no good effect, the actors locked into a mechanical presentation with no room for interpretation or to respond to audience reaction. Also the lighting was poor, presumably because bright lights would show through the front screen or wash out the back projection.

And the story, such as it was, was a farrago of Latin American magic realism which required a good deal of patience to take seriously.


28/8/10, Assembly Ballroom (Edinburgh Fringe)

Do Theatre: Russian mime. Very disappointing.

Started well. Three women in white lying sleeping at the back of the stage, another in brown downstage left in a hollow cube with red strands of wool going up into the flies and then back down to the sleeping women (who held the ends in their mouths). A man, very old, moving slowly and with great difficulty, enters through the auditorium with four scythes tied together acting as crutches and as supports for a sieve above his head which deposits fine drifts of flour/snow as he moves and shakes it. A second man does the music downstage right, his equipment including a theremin and an amplified box on which he dances. The woman in brown pulls the other three up by the red strands of wool; they waken and dance. The old man is stripped of his overcoat and scythes and turns out to be a young man in a suit, no shirt and shaven head.

After that... I lost track. There was a lot of rather random activity. The scythes were swung. The women changed dresses. The muso did a solo. The man was tied up in a cat's cradle of red wool hooked up to the edges of the stage by the women, and then cut free. There was continuous droning music. I lost interest, the thread and the will to live.

The hall barely a quarter full, and this on bank holiday weekend in one of the venue's bigger spaces. Word may have got around that it was boring. But there was also a piece in the Scotsman next day saying that, though overall ticket sales were up for the Fringe, some of the bigger venues were reporting thin attendances suggesting that some kind of ceiling may have been reached in terms of numbers of show outstripping the available audience.


29/8/10, Pleasance Dome (Edinburgh Fringe)

A real cracker by a company that calls itself Pants on Fire, a staging of Ovid's tales of transformations and (mostly) frustrated love, thwarted, unrequited or otherwise problematical. Endlessly inventive, witty, touching, superbly-drilled, it scarcely flagged.

Directed by Peter Bramley, who is head of movement at Rose Bruford College and was among the last batch of students to train with Jacques Lecoq before his death. He clearly knows all there is to know about movement, mime and physical theatre. The cast are all recent Rose Bruford graduates, who act, sing, play instruments (trombone, piano, flute, drum, accordion) and in one case operate puppets.

The conceit had the stories updated to World War Two, a sort of homage to Powell and Pressburger, and one scene (Theseus in the labyrinth) was a pretty straight lift from A Matter of Life and Death with the addition of a routine involving nurses and an inert patient who needs to be given a bed bath and a change which (judging by a video on the company's website) is something of a Pants on Fire signature.

Daedalus and Icarus were in fighter pilots' flying jakets; at one point three girls in 40s evening dress crooned into a microphone (Did I mention the music? Original songs in the style of the 1940s by Lucy Egger); Narcissus was dressed in a fetching fedora and great coat (in a video projection); Tiresias was in evening dress like a 1930s Berlin cabaret turn; the nymph Salmacis wore a blue swimsuit; Echo was a talkative cockney char in Rosie the Riveter-style scarf; etc etc etc.

There were remarkably quick changes, using moveable screens (upright and horizontal), appropriately for a series of stories about shape-shifting. Cupid was a surly little boy puppet with the (female) puppeteer providing his face and voice.

One might quibble that the Narcissus projection was a bit samey, that the actors struggled with the cut-glass 1940s accents sometimes, that it flagged a bit two-thirds of the way through and that the Semele episode looked distinctly under-developed after repeated recent exposure to Handel's version. But these are quibbles. I spent most of the time with a stupid grin on my face.

Unquestionably a company (and a director) to watch.


28/8/10, Pleasance (Edinburgh Fringe)

Recommended by A, who'd seen it and thought it very funny. Four young people (three girls, one guy) playing adolescents, members of the Stokeley Christian Club, prepare to enter the local talent competition with their gospel rock band: drums and guitar initially, then accordion ("Er, hello, this is my dad's") and finally flute.

I took my producer, E, poor woman, who was polite about it but would probably much have preferred some decent stand-up. She also thought young Christians would have been deeply hurt by it, though I thought the satire was aimed more at adolescents generally than young Christians in particular (indeed, I'd hazard the cast are/were young Christians themselves).

It was episodic, cartoonish, with lots of short scenes capturing adolescent gaucheness and interspersed with music. The drummer was pretty good, but not much of an actress (she gabbled). One girl, with goggle eyes, pretended to be French. The other twisted her mouth into a curious shape to convey teenage self-consciousness. At one point they all put on paper masks over the top halves of their faces, the boy's a cartoon devil, the girls' with glamour-girl eyes, and two of the girls snogged in slow motion. What was all that about?

It could have done with much tighter direction, let down as it was by poor staging, with loads of fiddly props, and four chairs which were endlessly arranged and re-arranged in the centre of the statge.