ENO emailed me an offer of a seat in row E of the stalls for the same price I paid last week to sit in the back row of the upper circle. I’m not a Puccini fan but this is his most famous opera and I thought, “why not give it a go? I am really glad I did. I have found Puccini on the radio boring but this was great theatre in a terrific production, originally directed by Jonathan Miller. It was credited as a revival by Natascha Metherell but Jonathan Miller came onto the stage at the end to take his well deserved bow. Robyn Lyn Evans was a last minute replacement for Gwyn Hughes-Jones as Rodolfo and I suspect Jonathan Miller was on hand to add some last minute direction. You would never have guessed Evans was a replacement apart from a few places where the largely unnecessary surtitles did not quite match the lines he sang.
One of the things that puts me off the Puccini that gets played on the radio is the vibrato used in many of the classic recordings. I am so glad it has gone out of fashion; I detected only the slighted traces of it in a couple of the excellent performances yesterday. Overall, it did not match the astonishing emotional intensity of last week’s Death in Venice but there is a place for both and it was certainly more tuneful.
This epic story (three hours + interval) concerns Nina and the men who love her throughout her life – father, lover, husband, son and “uncle” – although the only man she truly loved was killed in the first world war shortly before the start of the play which continues until the 1940s. Anne-Marie Duff is excellent as Nina, as is Charles Marsden as Charles Edwards, her “uncle Charlie” whose sardonic soliloquy opens the play. The use of soliloquy and frequent asides to the audience is slightly off-putting at first but I soon got used to it and welcomed the way it provides insights into the characters. Following Desire under the Elms and the wonderful Long Day’s Journey into Night last year, it is terrific to see this revival of interest in Eugene O’Neill.
This was as perfect as an opera can be. John Graham-Hall as von Aschenbach sang an extraordinarily demanding role perfectly. His final, vocally demanding aria, sung virtually unaccompanied, at the end of three hours was full of heartbreak. Deborah Warner’s direction, Tom Pye’s set and Jean Kalman’s lighting were all so perfect that I have to mention them, as I do the brilliant conducting of Edward Gardner. I was pleased to be sitting where we could not see the surtitles as every word John Graham-Hall sang was perfectly clear, as were most of the others. It’s only after reading other reviews I discovered they wisely chose not to use the surtitles. This should be standard for Britten operas: he wrote for the English language so perfectly you can almost hear the words in the music alone.
Michael Pennington is undoubtedly one of our greatest actors – to see him such an amazing performance in such a small theatre is an astonishing experience. Linda Marlowe, who was exceptional when I saw her in Mother Adam, plays a similar part as his wife. Christopher Ravenscroft, who was superbly nasty in The Stepmother earlier this year, is the benign cousin who witnesses their love-hate marriage. Inevitably, he becomes drawn in their poisonous relationship. Usually known as just Dance of Death, this version by Howard Brenton also includes Strindberg’s less performed second act. After the brilliant development of the characters in the first part, the plot then develops in the second part as a trio of decent young actors demonstrate the way in which the poison seeps into the second generation. I would guess the reason the second part gets left out is twofold: a doubling of both the cast and the length. Howard Brenton appears to have dealt with the latter by cutting many scenes down to just two lines and this works well, allowing the action to unfold at a cracking pace while leaving room for more extended passages to show further character development. I’d be surprised if I see anything this good in such a small theatre for a long time.
An Englishman and a Scotsman and an Irishman and a Welshman and a Frenchman and a Columbian and a Venezuelan and a horse and a helicopter walk into a bar. What’s this all about?” says the barman. “It’s an Eddie Izzard joke.” “OK,” says the barman, “but I won’t serve the helicopter.”
I suspect that isn’t funny if you didn’t see Eddie Izzard telling it but it is pretty much impossible to explain why he is so funny. Eddie Izzard’s show about gods and God (Steve God) is on for two nights but I noticed Mickey Flanagan has added a sixth date at the O2. Why? I’ve seen him live and he is funny, with his jolly banter about fingering and his Cockney walk, but can he carry out a sustained joke about Mark Anthony as a giant chicken with electronic legs? No competition.
Jonathan Miller skilfully directs this excellent play by Githa Sowerby who also wrote The Stepmother which I saw at the Orange Tree a few months ago. It is shameful that before this year I had never heard of her as she is clearly one of the finest British playwrights of the early twentieth century, comparable to Shaw or Chekov. Many themes of the play, money, family ties, loyalty and sexism, are as relevant today as they were when it was written almost century ago, even the class aspects apply frighteningly well to our Eton-governed country. Jonathan Miller’s skill is to find the good in the bad characters and vice versa.
An astonishing evening. No-one knew this would be Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojocaru’s final performances for the Royal Ballet until about two days before. I probably couldn’t have got a ticket if it had been known about when booking opened. The true story is about Crown Prince Rudolf, his love of guns and passion for women leading to the tragic final night in his hunting lodge at Mayerling where he injects himself with morphine, shoots dead his girlfriend then himself – a sort of combination of Sid Viscious and Kurt Cobain with their fame but not their music. The music in this case is that of Liszt but, as arranged and orchestrated by John Lanchbery. Its combination of pomposity, sweetness and musical fireworks may not be great music but it is perfect for this Austro-Hungarian melodrama.
The greatness of this ballet comes from astonishing choreography by Kenneth MacMillan, danced perfectly here by Kobborg and Cojocaro with two marvellous comic solos from James Hay as Prince Rupert’s cab-driver/entertainer Bratfisch. MacMillan takes classical choreography and adds less conventional moves to create a passionate intensity. Kobborg and Cojocaru, partners in real life as well as this ballet, danced with their own passion, adding an extra dimension for this final performance that drew a very long standing ovation, surrounded by heaps and heaps of flowers. I will be very surprised if I see any ballet performance this good for years. It has taken two days to write this review – it is still inadequate.