Monthly Archives: February 2013

English National Ballet open day

I have been a Friend of the ENB for a couple of years (really good value if you are over 60) but only just got round to attending one of their open days. I should have done so earlier: it is an astonishing experience to be part of a small group (limited to ten) sitting in the rehearsal studio at Markova House while they practise. I was lucky enough to see a number of principals in duets from Sleeping Beauty, followed by Shiori Kase rehearsing for her performance in Diana and Acteon at the Emerging Dancer awards. To have dancers so close that you find yourself moving your feet out of the way (probably unnecessarily) is a very different experience to seeing them on stage (especially if you sit as far away as I usually do). Despite my comments on the importance of the music in ballet, it hardly matters in these circumstances that there is just a piano to accompany them. I also thoroughly recommend going to small theatres to see opera and plays. OperaUpClose, usually at the King’s Head but also touring gave an excellent, very involving performance of Britten’s Turn of the Screw a year or two back, whilst I’ve already said how much I enjoy plays at the Orange Tree and Pentameters.


Review: Quartet

Essentially, this was Midsomer Murders without the murders. It is just a touch classier, though, with a script by Ronald Harwood’s from his own play and a superb cast. Tom Courtney, Maggie Smith, Pauline Collins and Billy Connolly are the quartet of ageing opera singers in the old people’s home run by Sheridan Smith, with Michael Gambon occasionally stepping in to steal the limelight. It says Dustin Hoffman directed it but it didn’t really need much direction with a script and a cast like that. It grabbed this afternoon’s audience who sat through the credits for the cast then applauded.

Review: Paul Birtill double bill, Pentameters Theatre

Of these two one act plays, the Good Samaritan is a well acted, very dark comedy. It was everything I’d hoped for after seeing his excellent play, the Lodger, last year. The other short play, Death of a Hawker, felt more like a work in progress. That said, the Good Samaritan more than makes up for it – thoroughly recommended.

Review: Medea, English National Opera

Excellent singing, fabulous set, great direction and terrific dancing: everything about this production  is perfect. As with Castor & Pollux, Christian Curnyn conducts the orchestra beautifully, although this time the orchestra pit is sadly not raised. The dancers (excellently choreographed by Lynne Page) enhance rather than distract, deserving the spontaneous applause following their first appearance.

Medea, Sarah Connolly 4 (c) Clive BardaSarah Connolly as Medea (photo by Clive Barda, courtesy ENO)

Sarah Connolly gives a powerful performance as Medea, her passionate love for Jason turning to passionate revenge when he falls for another.

Medea, Roderick Williams, Katherine Manley 2 with dancers (c) Clive BardaKathering Manley as Creusa dancing with Roderick Williams as Orontes
(photo by Clive Barda, courtesy ENO)

Director David McVicar places the action in the middle of WWII, using the countries’ uniforms to make clear who is working for whom. The allied Thessalonian Jason (British navy) and Corinthian king Creon (French army) need the support of Orontes of Argos – enter the American airmen in their leather flying jackets. Creon promises Orontes his daughter Creusa in return for his support. Orontes prepares a celebration, featuring Cupid and her chariot (a glitter covered USAF plane) pulled by her Slaves of Love (sailors and tarts) in a fabulous parody of a Hollywood musical. I hadn’t realised before how close the Hollywood musical is in structure to that of Baroque opera with love songs and set dance pieces punctuating the unfolding of the story.

Medea 3 (c) Clive BardaAoife O’Sullivan as Cupid with her Slaves of Love (photo by Clive Barda, courtesy ENO)

Meanwhile, Jason and Creusa have fallen in love and Creon promises them they can get married once the battle is won. Medea finds out and reveals her dark side as a sorceress:

Medea, Sarah Connolly (c) Clive Barda
Medea gets nasty (photo by Clive Barda, courtesy ENO)

Using her blood, she calls up the demons from Hades (even spookier than the ghostly nuns in Robert le Diable):

Medea (c) Clive BardaHere come the demons! (photo by Clive Barda, courtesy ENO)

Medea relentlessly releases her powers, slaughtering all, even her own children, apart from Jason. I know I promised short reviews but this really deserved more and I only wish I had space to applaud the terrific performances individually. I may well have already seen my favourite opera of 2013 (and may go and see it again). By the way, I couldn’t see the surtitles from my seat but it didn’t matter at all as the singing was so clear.

Review: Ashton mixed bill, Royal Ballet

Ravel’s “la Valse” which opened the programme is a rich, intoxicating piece of music, matched by equally intoxicating ensemble dancing:

La Valse by AshtonPhoto Johan Persson, courtesy ROH

After this cocktail, Massenet’s “Meditation” from Thais was a teaspoon (just six minutes) of sweet, soothing cough medicine, a beautiful pas de deux from Sarah Lamb and Rupert Pennefather. We then had the equally short, fizzing Alka Seltzer of Voices of Spring with Alexander Campbell and a very mischievous Yuhui Choe who seems to have become my favourite principal dancer. I had not expected to enjoy a dance to the music of Johann Strauss this much; his music may be slight but it’s perfect for dancing to. After the interval came the first of the longer works, Monotones I & II set to the wonderful music of Erik Satie. The orchestration did elaborate unnecessarily on Satie’s very simple music but, particularly in Monotone II based on the well-known Gymnopédie 1, the abstract simplicity of the dancing almost had me in tears. Then came Marguerite and Armand by Liszt:

Marguerite and Armand-Triple Bill-Royal Ballet-7-10-11-533 Photo by Tristram Kenton, courtesy ROH

I don’t think I am a true balletomane (ugly word for the love of something so beautiful) as I cannot enjoy a ballet if I do not like the music and, as I said on my blog yesterday, I cannot appreciate Liszt. Ideally, I want music that I could enjoy in concert. This very much applied to the Ravel and I would have been quite happy to listen to the Massenet and Strauss as short pieces in a mixed programme. The Satie would also be worth listening to in concert, although I think I prefer the original solo piano version. I admit I am in a small minority on this; thinking back to concerts I have loved, this one by Nissennenmondai leapt to my mind as one of my all time favourites. Imagine a ballet to that!

Howard Goodall is wrong

It was Mozart who wrecked music, not Schoenberg. I heard Goodall attacking Schoenberg on Start the Week a while ago as making music inaccessible to people like me with no musical education. However, he speaks as someone with such an education and has no idea what music sounds like to us. I grew up thinking classical music was boring but gradually came across music that had some of the excitement of pop music, such as Mahler’s symphonies and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Then in the sixth form we watched a series by Peter Maxwell Davies on modern music. His ensemble, Fires of London, played Schoeberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and I was knocked out. I later discovered that there was some wonderful music before classicism too after a friend took me to see Monteverdi’s Orfeo and I’m really looking forward to Charpentier’s Medea from the ENO on Friday.

I was thinking about this after noticing that tonight’s Ashton mixed bill by the Royal Ballet includes ballets by both the wonderful Satie and his antithesis Liszt – will the latter send me to sleep like the Chopin nearly did? Satie was one of the first to break out of classical formality, abandoning keys and time signatures for much of his music. He made sure every note mattered whilst Liszt never made do with a single note when he could squeeze in five. Goodall’s list of ten great pieces of music includes Liszt but not Satie. To give him credit, he does include Stravinsky’s wonderful “les Noces” which I saw last year and went back to watch again the following evening.

Review: Life of Pi 2D

I am glad I saw this in 2D as it was totally immersive – I think I would have been seasick from the 3D version. As it was, I could swear that some things swam outside the frame of the film. I am a huge fan of Ang Lee since Eat Drink Man Woman and the the Wedding Banquet. Like most of his films, those dealt with personal relationships but every now and then he goes for visual spectacle instead, e.g. Crouching Dragon Hidden Tiger, Hulk and now this. I usually watch films on the small screen but this is definitely worth going to the cinema for (or in my case to the local theatre showing it – cheaper and a better behaved crowd).

It is very faithful to the book, adding nothing except the spectacle of seeing the unfilmable filmed. One person coming out said, “I don’t know what to make of it,” and I find it interesting to read the different readings of the story by various critics. I took it as “enjoy believing in the story that you want to believe in, even if it contradicts other stories that you also like to believe in”; that others choose to find other morals sort of proves mine!

Review: American Justice, Arts Theatre

I am glad I managed to see this on what was, sadly, its last day. I was put off by reviews which said it was about the American justice system when it is actually a very well acted psychological interplay between the two central characters. The prison setting is a great way to do this as it pushes together people who might well wish to be elsewhere, e.g. Bully Boy at the St James Theatre last year, or classic comedies such as Porridge and Steptoe & Son.

I am only bothering to write this review as I hope this play gets another run and it is such a shame this one is over.

Preview: The Stepmother, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

Katie McGuinness was again superb as the title character after similar successes in Nan and Mary Broom (both also at the Orange Tree), whilst Christopher Ravenscroft plays a much nastier and more complex character than the nice DI Burden he played in Inspector Wexford. As it was the first preview, a couple of slight glitches in the first part are easily excused, especially as the director, Sam Walters, was in the  audience ready to pick them up and make sure they are sorted by tonight. There was not a single fault in the second part which was sheer joy, the plot and performances picking up and driving forward to a perfect (but not predictable) ending.

I used to live closer to the Orange Tree Theatre, going regularly, and still try to go when as often as I can. Sam Walters specialises in finding relatively unknown, well-constructed plays from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  It is a crime that this play, written in 1924 by Githa Sowerby, has never been performed in the UK. As with many of his other finds, what surprises is not how dated these plays are but how they resonate with our current time. It may seem odd that the only purpose-built true theatre in-the-round that I know of in London should offer such a good home for 100 year old plays.

Review: Onegin, Royal Ballet

What a gorgeous ballet which I’d never seen it before. Frederico Bonnelli was excellent as Eugene Onegin, brilliantly haughty in the first act, gradually realising his mistake as he ended up killing his friend Lensky (Nehemiah Kish providing a very good replacement for Valentino Zucchetti) in a duel after flirting with his wife Olga (the always very enjoyable Yuhui Choe).

ONEGIN,The Royal Ballet

Picture by Bill Cooper with permission of ROH

Finally, he realises he has lost the woman he had loved after all – Laura Morera as a beautiful Tatiana, shown above dancing with her new husband, Prince Gremin, cleverly danced by Gary Avis to show the age of the character while losing none of the grace of his duet with Laura Morera. I am not a fan of Tchaikovsky’s music in its own right but it works beautifully as an accompaniment to ballet. The production was faultless but other aspects left a couple of little niggles. Does a 95 minute ballet really need two 25 minute intervals and, given that so many of the seats that us ordinary people sit in have restricted views, was it necessary to make so much use of the front corners of the stage? All in all the Royal Ballet remains the best value night out in London.