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Theatre / An Inspector Calls - Playhouse, London
« on: January 08, 2017, 10:21:42 pm »
I hadn’t seen the famous Stephen Daldry production of J B Priestley’s superb allegory before; so it was top of my list for my latest trip (largely because I thought it was my last chance but it seems the run has now been extended to late March).  I find it hard to believe this play was regarded as a wheezy old warhorse before Daldry breathed new life into it.  From reading and the odd minor production I’d always thought of it as a true classic and I still can’t see the necessity for the extra trappings of this ‘expressionist’ version; but the location of the Birlings in an oversized doll’s house does no harm given that there is no discernible messing about with Priestley’s text. And the co-existence of (at least) three points in history is not just a (unsubtle?) reminder that the play’s message is timeless but is also of a piece with the playwright’s well known penchant for toying with timescales.  The miniature house is raised on stilts and the action therein is clearly in the play’s designated year of 1912; but the stage below hosts a sort of mute chorus of WW2 figures – presumably representing the mid-1940s origins of the script – and below that is the present day audience at which the message is aimed. 

I wasn’t hugely taken with the way ‘Inspector Goole’ was portrayed.  Priestley already gives us a character who is more prosecuting counsel than copper but I imagine him as a cool, relentless type and Liam Brennan, for my money, gets far too angry too often in the role.  I feel that one of the intentions of the author was to get his audience angry at the unfairness of capitalist society – and letting the central character get angry on their behalf conflicts with that intention in my view.  That said, it’s almost certainly not Brennan’s fault as I expect he was under orders.  Does anyone remember how, say, Kenneth Cranham approached the role in earlier runs of this production?  I don’t suppose I was particularly badly served by the fact that Arthur and Sybil Birling were both played by understudies.  Perhaps Geoffrey Towers fluffed a line but he was otherwise very convincing and I don’t imagine Clive Francis would have been a lot better; and I certainly don’t see how Barbara Marten could have been more magnificently arrogant than Beth Tuckey as Sybil.  Matthew Douglas handled the tricky role of Gerald Croft (whose reaction to Goole’s revelations is very complex as he, more than anyone, seems genuinely chastened until he sees a chance of getting off the hook) very well.  I thought Hamish Riddle’s Eric was interesting though, in the end, he was just a bit too soppy (as opposed to sottish) for my liking.  As his sister, Sheila, Carmella Corbett gave a good portrayal of a person visibly reassessing the way she views the world as the play goes on.   Eric and Sheila are clearly representations of Priestley’s touching faith in the younger generation and, as such, are in danger of seeming a bit idealised; but they work if they are well portrayed.

I thought the music was rather too ponderous at times but, like the staging, it did no real harm.  The play is still a powerful reminder of the danger of abdicating social responsibilities.  Well worth seeing even if I found the Playhouse’s aggressive promotion of in-seat refreshments a big negative – the noise of rustling wrappers, crackling plastic cups, chomping and slurping was more prevalent than usual.  £20 Day seats shouldn’t be too hard to get.  They are usually in the back of the stalls but if, like me, you’re going on your own it’s worth mentioning the fact.  They found me an odd seat much nearer the front for the same price – presumably because single seats on their own are much harder to shift at full price.

Theatre / Re: Once in a Lifetime - Young Vic
« on: January 08, 2017, 10:12:00 pm »
I once got roped into an am-dram production, 13 years ago (can't remember which character, other than I was looking in a newspaper for horse racing results after having bet on a horse called Caliente).

I think this was a minor character, Jim; one of the stagehands or authors milling about at Glogauer Studios.  I remember the scene, though I couldn't swear to the name of the horse!

Theatre / Once in a Lifetime - Young Vic
« on: January 08, 2017, 12:46:23 pm »
I don’t really know what to recommend here.  If you go determined to enjoy an undemanding evening’s entertainment, you’ll probably succeed.  On the other hand, Moss Hart and George Kaufman’s 1930 play – adapted but not, thankfully, updated by Hart’s son Christopher – struck me as not being particularly good.  And I didn’t see many signs of that other staple reason for revival: topical relevance.  The background is promising.  In a depressed economy workers find themselves selling up and crossing a continent in search of a new start while those working the levers of industry grasp at anything, no matter how ludicrous, in an attempt to breathe new life into a sagging business.  But the messages for today just didn’t hit me in the same way as, say, The Entertainer or An Inspector Calls (which I saw the next day – report follows).  The business in question is the movie industry and the setting is around a time of fundamental change – not just the impact of talking pictures but also the tail end of the US industry’s relocation from New York to Hollywood.

The piece is awash with stock characters.  Claudie Blakley is May Daniels, the hard as nails young trouper, Lucy Cohu is the shameless, conniving critic Helen Hobart and John Marquez is George Lewis, the dull quasi-simpleton whose utterances are taken as wisdom by the studio boss and who gets the ditsy girl (Susan Walker played by Lizzie Connolly).  All three performances are fine but, imo, all three actors are crying out for better material (indeed I’ve seen all three in better plays).  Some of the character actors, too, have had more stretching assignments: for example, I’ve seen Buffy Davis in Hedda Gabler and The Hairy Ape as well as heard her as Jolene when I used to listen to The Archers.

The reason I chose this piece, though (apart from the fact that my train didn’t get in until after five and this was the best option for advance booking at a reasonable price) was the casting of Harry Enfield as Glogauer the studio boss.  I was under the impression that Enfield had given up the part of Dermot in Men Behaving Badly because he had come to the conclusion that he wasn’t really an actor.  He might well have been right; in which case he chose a very good role for his theatre debut because Glogauer (at least as envisaged by director Richard Jones) is essentially Enfield’s sketch character Ronald – in his work environment as opposed to on holiday with his wife Pammie.  Enfield might turn out, in the autumn of his career, to be a fine comic actor; but there was no real evidence of it, or any real need for it, in this production.

The staging is clever (or, more likely, I’m easily fooled) with a revolving stage containing a large variety of sets, as befits, I suppose, the cinematic theme.  The sets are simple enough – sometimes just painted scenery – but the way they get so many of them in is impressive. 

It’s selling quite well but there are tickets still available.  An interesting innovation is the £10 ‘Lucky Dip’ .  You buy a ticket for £10 then turn up half an hour before curtain when your seat will be allocated.  If you’re early and lucky you might get a top seat; if you’re very unlucky you’ll get a standing place.  I got a good seat (slightly to one side but still middle-front stalls and with a clear view); and I was shown where the standing places are and they’re pretty decent – behind the stalls and also with a clear view.  Bearing in mind that the cheapest seat you can reserve is £10 I’d recommend taking pot luck unless you really have a problem with standing and can’t risk it.

Only a week left if you want to give it a go:

The Coffee Bar / Re: The Waffle Thread
« on: December 27, 2016, 11:09:13 pm »
In retrospect, perhaps one needs to have several unsuccessful attempts before one can finally give it up entirely. And on that given day I simply stopped and never looked back. 

That strikes a chord.  Learning from past failures can be very useful.  While I’d agree with Selva that it does no good to obsess about the difficulties of giving up, I’m convinced that I finally stopped (in 1993) by adopting a healthy respect for the difficulties of withdrawal.  It was basically an intellectual process by which I accepted that severe discomfort was in store but that it was also very obviously possible to get past it.  I consciously refused to try and make it easy as I had a strong intuition that, say, substitution – whether in the form of alternative forms of nicotine or compensatory measures such as overeating – would do little more than spin out the process and increase the chances of relapse.

The financial incentive to give up is now even stronger now that people seem to be paying in excess of £6 for a packet of 20

I’m not sure about that.  Almost everybody I know is paying less in real terms than I was 20-odd years ago as it’s just so easy to get a steady supply without paying UK excise duty.  Even without breaking the law, it’s possible to get dozens of cartons tax paid from, say, Belgium or Slovakia if you or a relative travel frequently.  Brexit is almost certain to put the kibosh on that as allowances will fall to the non-EC limit of 200 ciggies or 250g of hand rolling tobacco.  But for now, smoking is still quite inexpensive for a lot of people.

Theatre / Mary Stuart - Almeida Theatre
« on: December 22, 2016, 10:48:18 pm »
I don’t know Schiller’s original at all, but I thought this ‘adaptation created by Robert Icke’ very poor stuff.  Even Lia Williams (a bit of a favourite of mine) couldn’t save it (as she and her fellow cast members did for Icke’s almost equally self-indulgent Oresteia).  Williams and Juliet Stevenson share the roles of Mary and Elizabeth with who plays whom decided on the toss of a coin at the start of the day’s performance.  I suppose this is to make a point about the interchangeability of the two characters – sort of ‘change places and, handy dandy, which is the ruler, which is the traitor?’.  Lia Williams has done this kind of thing before when she shared the roles of Anna and Kate with Kristin Scott Thomas in Old Times but in that production there was a published schedule.  With this one the only way to guarantee seeing both versions is to book both performances on a matinee day as, for some reason, on such days the evening performance doesn’t start with a coin toss but is the converse of the matinee.  For the record, I saw Lia Williams as Mary.

When I saw the simple set, concentric rings with retractable glass-topped tables set in the floor of the inner ring my hopes were raised.  There was to be none of the technical jiggery-pokery of 1984 or The Red Barn.  I wasn’t bothered by the modern dress; after all, modern dress hadn’t particularly marred Saint Joan the night before.  But when I heard characters who were clearly of the sixteenth century use words like ‘empathy’ and ‘paranoia’  I cringed.  After all, sharp suits aside, the action was clearly in period – communication was by smuggled letters, transport was courtesy of the horse and weapons principally blades – so, while I don’t necessarily expect a lot of thee and thou-ing, the use of such grossly anachronistic language just seemed wrong.  And when Mary’s steward Melville, in this production very obviously a woman (Eileen Nicholas) announced that she had secretly been admitted to the Roman Catholic priesthood and could administer communion to the condemned queen it was all I could do to avoid letting out an incredulous guffaw.  The fact that she had a holy wafer – blessed by the Pope himself- on her person to do just that was even sillier (I have had a quick look at the online text and it seems Schiller did include this ludicrous development; though his Melville was male).  As I said, I don’t really know how much of Icke’s plot is straight from Schiller, but the play I saw was close to melodrama with duplicitous characters revealing their true motivations and intentions via asides and soliloquies.  And despite some fine acting, not only from the two principals but also from Vincent Franklin as a ruthless Burleigh, John Light as a smarmy Leicester and Alan Williams as an almost too sympathetic Talbot, the three and a quarter hours really crawled by; and the relentless doom tinged soundtrack made it worse .  I certainly won’t be going to Icke’s Hamlet.

Runs until 21 Jan – so, as everyone except me seems to have loved it, details are here if you want to see for yourself.

Theatre / Saint Joan - Donmar Warehouse
« on: December 22, 2016, 07:06:30 pm »
There’s a lot to like about this Saint Joan.  Some of the performances – particularly Hadley Fraser’s Dunois and Jo Stone-Fewings’s Warwick – are very fine.  Unlike the disappointing Mary Stuart up the road (of which more later) it relies almost exclusively on the original text.  This has some (perhaps) unfortunate consequences such as showing us a popular French woman who thinks foreigners are ok as long as they stay in the country that god made for them and who pits ‘common sense’ against obstructive ‘expert’ opinion; but I prefer it this way rather than editing these aspects of the Maid’s character to suit fashionable sensitivities and risking accusations of censorship.  And, although Joan dominates the production rather more than I’d like, Shaw’s habit of not showing any character as utterly virtuous or completely villainous comes through despite the more gimmicky aspects of the production.

The big gimmick is to have Joan in medieval garb set against nobles and clerics portrayed as modern day commercial figures.  In itself this is not such a bad idea.   The concept of Joan as a person out of period is one which Shaw would almost certainly have embraced.   I think, though, that it was unwise to run too far with this conceit.  TV reports of the egg shortage with 'Eggs' quoted on the financial indexes and with their price running out of control were among the more absurd flights of fancy contingent on the ‘updating’ of the establishment that Joan challenged. 

These reports probably represented the only real spoken digression from Shaw’s text so,  I suppose, it wasn’t too bad.  But I would have preferred to lose them and reinstate some of the stuff that was cut.  To be fair, the editing didn’t take the craven course of cutting out references to Islam (as the NT’s Man and Superman did).  The contemptuous description of Mahomet as camel driver, antichrist etc is left in (as, of course, are the ripostes about the followers of Mahomet often being more civilised than Christians).  And, as I said, Joan’s proto-nationalism and tendency towards superstition is left in.  But the character of Bluebeard is heavily cut – he is listed in the programme as 'Monsieur de Rais' (Syrus Lowe) and his beard is completely missing, thus robbing us of the final element of the delicious line: 

She will know what everybody in Chinon knows: that the Dauphin is the meanest-looking and worst-dressed figure in the Court, and that the man with the blue beard is Gilles de Rais.

Worse still, in my view, the Epilogue is almost totally erased.  It is reduced to a short encounter between de Stogumber and the shade of Joan.  This means that, among other things, Shaw’s wonderful invention of the soldier released from Hell for one day each year as a reward for providing Joan with a makeshift cross in her time of need is left out.  Shaw, in his 1924 Preface, specifically argues the necessity of the Epilogue to stress the idea that Joan’s death is not an end but a beginning.  I think he’s right – and this brief nod to her rehabilitation and the regrets of her adversaries is not enough.

Gemma Arterton is a fine young actor and I was really looking forward to her Saint Joan; but, while I won’t say I was disappointed, I’m afraid one of my concerns was justified.  She’s just too gorgeous for the part.  I suppose very heavy make up might have masked her natural, and very feminine, good looks; but in a space like the Donmar it would have been horribly obvious.  Not her fault, I suppose, but I’m afraid that (to me) she also seemed to flirt in a very feminine way in her dealings with the grandees.  I couldn’t help thinking that she’d have passed for a soldier about as successfully as Gaby Glaister’s ‘Bob’.  She’ll be a fine Hedda or Cleopatra, though, I’m sure.

Worth seeing if you can get a ticket.  Standing comes up for some dates and there’s always the remote chance of getting a seat via the Barclay’s Front Row scheme.  The reviews haven’t been gushing so maybe returns will trickle back for later dates.  I hope so, because I was disappointed to see empty seats at the ‘sold out’ performance I attended.  I got upgraded from my standing place to the stalls (a very fine policy at this venue) along with half a dozen others, but there still seemed to be the odd gap that can onl be explained by no shows.

The Concert Hall / Re: Liverpool Concerts 2016 - 17
« on: December 10, 2016, 10:30:22 pm »
In a rare concession to nostalgia I went to see 70 year old Roy Wood on the Liverpool leg of his tour.  I couldn’t really see upstairs but extrapolating from the stalls attendance I’d suggest about 1000 people turned up to see man described, with a degree of justification by a member of the support band, as the neglected genius of British pop.  The aforementioned support was a folk-rock septet called Galleon Blast who, I think it’s fair to say, are no Steeleye Span (or even The Wurzels).  Their gimmick is to concentrate on songs with a nautical bent – which was entertaining at first but when they were still on stage five songs after announcing they weren’t going to outstay their welcome it began to grate badly.  When they made an attempt at A Fairytale of New York I’m afraid I was thinking – in a paraphrase of Kirsty – ‘your fifteen minutes started half an hour ago’.

That, then, begins the short(ish) list of negatives as far as this gig is concerned.  We had arrived ten minutes early for a 1930 start and an hour and a half later we were still waiting for our first sight of Roy Wood.  Secondly, his set was barely an hour long – which is rather short, though I suppose he is getting on.  Thirdly, the sound engineering was very ropy.  Finally, the set list was rather unadventurous.   I appreciate that this last won’t be much of a problem for an audience that was on its feet bopping to hit after hit from before half way.  Opening with California Man and Ball Park Incident it was clear Roy was going for familiarity rather than eclecticism.   Although I was delighted to hear classics like Flowers in the Rain, Blackberry Way, See My Baby Jive and others, I’d have liked more of the jazzier stuff from, say, Wizzard Brew.  The absence of a cello from the instruments on stage told me were unlikely to get 10538 Overture (though my hopes were raised when he left the stage mid concert and returned playing bagpipes).  I suppose the omission of the early Electric Light Orchestra hit might have been a mercy as the sound engineering seemed to take little account of the different sound sources. This was a shame as he had a good, tight horn section with him*, a very good drummer and a few others;  including vocalist Shell Naylor – who is a decent singer (though a very stilted dancer) and was probably needed as Roy’s lungs almost certainly can’t take the strain alone these days. 

The above reservations notwithstanding it was a good night out.  I wish they’d told me, though, that the dreaded Wish it Could be Xmas Every Day would be the last song.  I could safely have left 5 minutes earlier!  There are a few dates left this year and I cautiously recommend it for a fun night out.

*just two tenor, one alto and one baritone sax.  I wish I could have seen him with this lot (and a decent sound balance!)

Theatre / The Dresser - Duke of York's Theatre
« on: December 08, 2016, 09:43:58 pm »
I was rather hoping that Ken Stott, and live performance, would boost this play in my esteem but I’m afraid it didn’t happen.  My previous experience of Ronald Harwood’s play had been just the two well-known screen versions – with Albert Finney and Anthony Hopkins playing ‘Sir’ in the cinema and TV productions respectively.  I didn’t dislike it, but I find it hard to see it as truly top class drama or as ground-breaking edgy stuff.  Stott was decent enough but, for me, seemed to stay well within his comfort zone.  Of course, irascible, world weary characters with a quirky mixture of geniality and arrogance pretty much are Stott’s comfort zone so the play was hardly spoiled; but he seemed, to me anyway, to be playing himself rather than the character much of the time*.  Reece Shearsmith, too, was cast to his strengths but, for me, was more successful in inhabiting the character of Norman.  He could have got away with just being his usual camp self but I thought he got into the role very convincingly and gave the outstanding performance of the production.  Selina Cadell and Harriet Thorpe as Madge and Her Ladyship were also very fine.  Again, though, this kind of character is Cadell’s forte.  Thorpe I only really know as Fleur, a minor and very strange character in Ab Fab, so I can’t say if role in The Dresser was made for her – but she played it rather well.

The set is well-designed and quite thoughtful except for the fact that the exterior of Sir’s dressing room must be obscured from most seats in the house (though it is brought centre stage by a partial revolve when it’s the focus of attention).  A full revolve takes us to the back stage area from which we get a rear view of the King Lear performance and a chance to spy on the waiting actors and techies.  Incorporated in the revolve is a glimpse of the corridors and rooms between the stage and the dressing room.  There is also a gantry above the set on which various characters walk from time to time.  Unless I missed something, this doesn’t seem to add anything but a sense of atmosphere.

Music is in period – George Formby, Vera Lynn (I think), Noel Coward (for sure) and others - with support from timpani, wind machine and the Luftwaffe.  A programme note by Harwood (himself a dresser for many years) tells us that Norman is not an autobiographical character and that though, Donald Wolfit provided a lot of inspiration, ‘Sir’ is not Wolfit.  I’d have thought that was obvious from the chronology (Wolfit survived WW2 and lived another couple of decades); and perhaps it’s for the best – after all, a major character named Donald who calls his partner ‘Pussy’ might have occasioned a lot of unintended laughter.

Runs until 14 Jan.  It seems to be doing reasonably well but I had no difficulty getting a day seat in the front stalls for £20.

*He is also the worst corpse I’ve seen on the professional stage.  From the front of the stalls one could clearly see his chest heaving up and down.  If I hadn’t seen the play before I’d have been anticipating ‘Sir’ springing up and exclaiming ‘gotcha’.

News and Current Affairs / Re: Greg Lake RIP
« on: December 08, 2016, 01:28:57 pm »
I know 2016 has been a crappy year all round, but Greg's the second member of E.L.P. to go this year...  :(

Indeed, very sad.  I suppose at my age I shouldn't be that surprised when prominent artists from my youthful days start to fall away with depressing frequency; but it still seems, as you say, to be a dreadful year.  Meanwhile, Gisela May seems to have gone almost without mention last week.  I heard about it from my Dutch friend and, so far, haven't been able to find an obituary in any UK paper.  Perhaps they thought we'd confuse her with Brian or Theresa. 

RIP Greg (and Gisela).

News and Current Affairs / Re: Peter Vaughan, RIP
« on: December 07, 2016, 11:48:16 am »
I was saddened to hear of this - though there can be few for whom the phrase 'had a good innings' was more appropriate.  If you ask me to name a better character actor than Peter Vaughan I swear I couldn't do it - though I couldn't swear his name would be first to my lips if the question were put the other way ie 'who is your idea of the finest character actor'.  In a funny way, that's a bit of a tribute to truly fine performers like Vaughan - and Jack Shepherd, Clive Swift et al.  They always inhabit their character perfectly without drawing unseemly attention to themselves.  I never saw Vaughan on stage but I always thought he'd have been perfect for Max in The Homecoming - and can't help thinking he might have made a better Lear than most of the big names I've seen in that role recently.  Of course, I might be completely wrong and perhaps he was an actor who stuck to the screen where he was so very effective.  Like Jim, I found his performance in Our Friends in the North utterly convincing and heartbreaking.  Indeed, his passing has reminded me of just how many brilliant performances were in that series (Gina McKee, Christopher Ecclestone and Daniel Craig just off the top of my head) and, as I'm in London today, I might well go to Fopp and buy the dvds to look at over the forthcoming holiday.  But Vaughan wasn't just 'in the North' - sometimes he seemed to be everywhere and he will be missed - even by old gits like me who have never seen 'Game of Thrones'.


I wonder why it would seem that way (not having heard the Eötvös piece of course). Writing a companion piece to something that already exists is surely a valid form of "creative interpretation

Absolutely.  David Hare's South Downs, for example, struck me as a fitting companion for The Browning Version - Terence Rattigan's very fine, but rather short, play that had previously been paired with inappropriate pieces like Harlequinade

surely it's the production that subverts Bartók's piece, not the preceding music.

Again, I agree; but the main thing I found rather disappointing about the production was that it went some way beyond the 'companion piece' norm and ran the two pieces into each other by, for example, having no interval - but, most severely, by reducing Bluebeard's 'castle' to a hotel room - a very obvious reference to the hotel room that the characters of Senza Sangue plan to use at the end of that piece.  I should say that I enjoyed Senza Sangue, just as I enjoyed the (to me) previously unknown Il Prigioniero last time I saw Bluebeard.  I think Eotvos's piece could make a very fine companion but suspect that it has more of a future alongside more 'conventional' productions of the Bartok piece.  It was, indeed, Bluebeard that was a slight disappointment to me.  While Senza Sangue was almost completely representational, telling its story - albeit a story in which the ending was left suspended - in an almost unfashionably straightforward way, Duke Bluebeard's Castle had the stamp of the Regietheater in that if you didn't already know the story you'd surely be wondering why the two characters were rabbiting on about armouries, gardens, lakes of tears and, well, doors.  Perhaps I came across as a bit too negative - especially as I enjoyed this double bill much, much more than the previous evening's Salome.  I also wouldn't want to accuse Eotvos of arrogance but, although the director was Dmitri Tcherniakov, he was conducting both pieces.  What I should have said was that it might seem arrogant if he envisages future performances of his piece routinely accompanying a customised version of the Bartok.  I think, as with South Downs and The Browning Version, the two pieces have enough in common to complement each other very well without such adaptations.

If I am anywhere near this double production for not too great a financial outlay (and I mean comparatively a lot more than most people are willing to pay, travel, accommodation, meals etc, all up) then I will surely go and see it.

Unfortunately it finishes in Hamburg tonight.  There is a concert performance of Senza Sangue in Rome next month but I can't find any more plans to do the two together.  There would, however, seem to be competition for 'companion' status as The Eighth Door by Liam Paterson premieres alongside Bluebeard in Glasgow next Spring.  I might try and get to that, though I have never heard of Paterson:

The Opera House / Senza Sangue/Duke Bluebeard's Castle - Staatsoper Hamburg
« on: November 29, 2016, 08:10:54 pm »
Peter Eotvos evidently wrote Senza Sangue with an eye to the fact that one of the 20th century’s finest works, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, usually requires a companion piece to make up a night at the opera.  The similarities between the two pieces are very clear – seven scenes, one male voice, one female voice, a rather static setting – even without going into underlying themes and musical styles.  As presented in Hamburg, conducted by Eotvos himself, the new piece acts almost as a prequel or the first of two Acts.   Senza Sangue ends with the two characters agreeing to go from the town square café where the previous action has taken place to a hotel room; Duke Bluebeard’s Castle takes over, set in a hotel room, with no interval – not even a pause for the departing singers to take a bow.  In fact, given that Judit (Claudia Mahnke) and Kekszakallu (Balint Szabo) look and dress very much like La Donna (Angela Denoke) and L’Uomo (Sergei Leiferkus) of the first piece, if you don’t know the opening bars of the Bartok you might not even know a fresh piece was starting until you noticed that the singing was now in Hungarian rather than Italian. 

After the previous day’s non-dancing Salome, this Judit didn’t actually seem to open any doors – hardly surprising as, unless you count the wardrobe, there was only one door in the hotel room.  I suppose the charitable way of looking at it is that the action of Bartok’s masterpiece is best left to the imagination, so there’s nothing wrong with locating it in the imagination of the two characters.  Between the two operas a caption, replacing the original spoken Prologue, says ‘to create a made up situation and to live through it in the name of fictional characters is a way to overcome fear – the fear of talking about our real nightmares.’  All very well, I suppose, but it put me in mind of the reason why soap operas almost never show people sitting around watching soap operas.  However authentic it might be, it’s just not that interesting.  The themes are still there – Judit’s need for knowledge and reassurance, Kekszakallu’s desperate search for acceptance and love – but I still longed to see at least an attempt to portray the torture chamber, the vast domains, the lake of tears, the three wives etc.  The evening ended with a visual reference back to the back story of Senza Sangue - which I’ve deliberately left to the end so that anyone who doesn’t want to know the plot can stop reading now.


The back story of Senza Sangue (relayed, like the intro of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle via the surtitle display at the start) is that The Man (who first appears as a lottery seller in the town square) was part of a team that killed a brutal military doctor after a civil war.  Knowing that his comrades would kill her (following the standard assassin’s rule that you have to kill the children otherwise they’ll track you down and take revenge when they grow up) he fails to mention that he’s seen the doctor’s daughter cowering in a cellar.*  It seems the assassin’s rule held true as his comrades all died in suspicious circumstances and, at the start of the opera, he is confronted by The Woman – who is, of course, the doctor’s daughter.  They then repair to the terrace of a café in the square where a sort of truth and reconciliation process takes place which ends in her suggesting they repair to a hotel to have sex.  While I have no problem with the idea of forgiveness trumping vengeance, the psychology of wanting to seal the matter in the bedroom seems wrong but The Man (after protesting he is old and might not be the best partner in the world any more) agrees.  Of course, we don’t know that it’s not just a pretext to get him in a quiet, secret place and do away with him; because the opera ends there – and resumes, in this production at least, with Kekszakallu and Judit enacting Béla Balázs’s drama (or at least singing his words) in the hotel room.  When a door finally does open it’s the door of the hotel room and it clearly mirrors the cellar door of Senza Sangue's back story as the image of a little girl is projected behind it. 

The singing was of a decent quality, as one expects from the likes of Angela Denoke.  Before the start an announcement was made that Claudia Mahnke was not in very good voice (considering the announcements before Salome the night before I presume there must have been a bug going round Hamburg!) but I thought her Judit was fine.  I thought Eotvos’s score was an attempt to sound suitably like Bartok, though I don’t think he (yet, at least) has anything like the old composer’s mastery of orchestration.   The Bluebeard itself was, if I can be slightly harsh, a little underpowered but not badly so.  The tremendous door 5 climax was certainly not as shattering as it can be.  Balint Szabo’s Kekszakallu, too, was rather less sonorous than some I’ve heard, though that might have been a deliberate attempt to reflect the setting of a hotel room rather than a forbidding fortress.

While I certainly didn’t find this Bluebeard as disappointing as the previous evening’s Salome (at least it made a stab at a coherent drama) and the new piece had its moments I think Eotvos will struggle to find houses willing to subvert one of the great works of history for the convenience of his piece.  Perhaps it would be better to have a more conventional double bill with an interval and a more traditional Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, trusting the audience to note the parallels.  Apart from anything else, integrating his own work and Bartok’s as almost part of the same piece seems a little arrogant.

*a rather comic typo in the English synposis tells us  ‘He decides to spear the doctor’s daughter.

The Opera House / Salome - Staatsoper Hamburg
« on: November 28, 2016, 12:19:03 pm »
It was hard to see the point of Willy Decker’s Salome.  As (I think) I said to my neighbour afterwards in my poor German, I’ve literally seen more dramatic concert performances of this piece.  The set was almost non-existent: we didn’t see the cistern where Jochanaan  (Wolfgang Koch) was held, nor did we see Herod’s banqueting hall.  Everything that wasn’t offstage was played out on a huge flight of bare stone steps.  To make things worse, these were built up so high that (yet again) in a theatre with very good sightlines half the audience was denied a clear view because some of the action was located just below the roof!

I expect there was deep significance in some of the details.  Why, for example, were Herod and the two women in his life all shaven headed (or bald)?  Why did the two crowns (one for the tetrarch and one passed between Herodias (Ursula Hesse von den Steinen) and Salome (Allison Oakes) look like they came out of a Xmas cracker? And why did the executioner have similar gimcrack headgear only in red as befits his job?Of course, this symbolism might have been explained in a programme note I didn’t understand; but if it has to be spelled out then, arguably, it hasn’t worked.  A bit less obscure was the way Salome made use of the coat discarded by Jochanaan when he left after rejecting her adavances and the knife used by Narraboth (Daviet Nurgeldiyev – the outstanding performer for my money) to kill himself after being rejected by Salome.   But these were, for me, rare interesting aspects of the staging – and I even have a problem with one of them as I’ll explain later.

The infamous dance was a huge non-event.  I don’t expect a raunchy striptease a la Maria Ewing every time.  After all, as I think I’ve mentioned before, Wilde’s stage directions merely say something like  'she dances the dance of the seven veils', which leaves room for interpretation.  But literal-minded souls like me do rather assume we’ll  get seven something…or some veils…or a dance. In this production Strauss’s sensuous interlude is interpreted pretty much by Salome’s putting on Jochanaan’s overcoat, opening it up like a flasher in the park, then taking it off again.  For the rest of the ‘dance’ she wears the same white shift that she has on throughout the production.  And, if anything, Herod is more active than her; engaging in a few grubby attempts to molest his stepdaughter.  Towards the end of her performance she picks up Narraboth’s knife and, when demanding her reward, presents it and an empty salver to Herod.  This I found mildly interesting, but the knife symbolism is rather overdone when at the very end she uses it to kill herself – thus (if I remember the original plot correctly) doing some shield wielding extras out of a job.

Kent Nagano got a good sound out of the orchestra but I thought they were often too loud.  Or maybe the singers were too quiet (there was an announcement before the start apparently pleading for understanding as some singers weren’t in the best of health).  Certainly the offstage Jochanaan couldn’t be heard very clearly and Herodias was rather mute throughout.

I suspect I’ll be putting Willy Decker on my list of directors to treat with caution – alongside Peter Konwitschny whose Lohengrin (apparently set in a school) I chose not to see  yesterday.  I did, however, catch the double bill of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle conducted by Peter Eotvos and preceded by his own Senza Sangue. My report on that, when I get round to writing it, will be a bit more positive – but I can say in advance that after a Salome who doesn’t really dance I got to see a Judith who doesn’t really open any doors.

The Concert Hall / Re: Liverpool Concerts 2016 - 17
« on: November 19, 2016, 12:55:45 am »
Rather strangely, perhaps, it seems about twice as many people were willing to pay £15 for the 10/10 concert dedicated to James Wishart in the Phil’s Music Room last month than turned up for his free 60th birthday concert yesterday at the Capstone featuring RLPO stalwarts such as Jonathan Aasgaard, Ian Buckle and Thelma Handy.  The foul weather and the relative inaccessibility of the venue might go some way to explain the low attendance but it was still a bit of a surprise.  The quality of the musicianship was tempting enough and the programme – a mixture of pieces written by Wishart, pieces written for Wishart and classics that he was fond of by Debussy, Robert Schumann and Webern – was varied and attractive.

Performing as The Pixels Ensemble, Aasgaard (cello), Buckle (piano) and Handy (violin) – all principals with the RLPO - were joined by Fiona Fullon (flutes), Vicci Wardman (viola) and Hugh Webb (harp) to perform pieces by Matt Fairclough (…certain moments…) and Agustin Fernandez (James’s Fire) for that unusual sextet and other pieces for forces from solo piano upwards.  The other pieces in honour of Wishart (who, sadly, was again too ill to attend but will be given a video recording of the event) were Peter Dickinson’s up into the silence for violin, viola, cello and piano; John Moseley’s Elegy and Rout for violin cello and piano; Robert Orledge’s Une petite chose en deux parties pour JW sur son 60e anniversaire for string trio, flute and harp (with Buckle joining in as conductor!); Gary Carpenter’s For James for flute viola and harp; and Paul Roberts’s Riot for alto flute, harp and piano.  Wishart’s own work ended each session with “topologies of sound and silence…” for violin, cello and piano before the interval and the very moving The Leaving of Liverpool (no discernible relationship to the well known folk song as far as I could tell) for piano and offstage string trio.  Add Webern’s Variations op 27 for piano; Schumann’s Fantasiestuecke op 73 in a version for viola and piano; and  Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp and you have a varied (and quite lengthy) concert.  It’s a pity there couldn’t have been more to appreciate it – but the weather was particularly bad.  Indeed, I nearly didn’t get there myself as my chosen bus was left out and the next one was nearly ten minutes late (I was on the point of going back home when it turned up).

I wondered if The Pixels Ensemble was an ad hoc group so I googled it and it looks like there will be more opportunities to see them in various combinations;

The Concert Hall / Re: Liverpool Concerts 2016 - 17
« on: November 11, 2016, 09:03:29 pm »
I was a bit disappointed with the RLPO's performance under Cristian Mandeal last night.  The central concerto - Saint-Saens's 2nd PC with Ian Fountain as soloist - was decent enough (though I was rather surprised that no encore was offered in a programme with barely 75 minutes of music programmed).  The opening Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune was also perfectly adequate.  But after the interval something went wrong either with my ears or with the orchestra's performance.  The familiar opening to Brahms's 3rd symphony sounded almost distorted and, though normal service was resumed for the 2nd and 3rd movements, and most of the 4th, the closing bars also seemed to go a bit wrong. 

I thought it was rather optimistic to go for two performances of this programme with a guest conductor and the turnout yesterday seemed very low (certainly there were lots of empty seats upstairs and there didn't seem to be many in the public areas before and after).  Did anyone go this afternoon?

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