I have seen far too few concerts this year. I’m really glad I saw Jah Wobble at last (I didn’t see Public Image until after he left) but I think it’s the last time I’ll be able to stand up waiting for a band to come on late in the evening. The Wigmore Hall lunchtime concerts are more my thing nowadays. However, it was well worth going out in the evening to see two massive works as part of The Rest is Noise: Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony and Tippett’s Child of Our Time. Both overwhelmingly good but there are a dozen other concerts I’d have loved to go to as part of this season – if only they did matinees.
This category covers any event that happened during the year and doesn’t fit into the other categories. I did consider the strangely beautiful performance work Above Me the Wide Blue Sky at the Young Vic. There were also some enjoyable days out, such as the London Film and Comic Con in July and the ENB open day. However, there is no doubt that Brasserie Zédel’s celebration of Bastille Day wins out. The brasserie is one of my favourite restaurants in London, an art deco shrine which serves classic French food at decent prices, and the prix fixe is a decent pre-theatre meal for under £10. On Bastille day they offered a free menu formule to regulars (or anyone on their mailing list) wearing a beret and a Breton sailor’s top. The atmosphere was fantastic and fun-filled. It was also lovely to wander up Regent Street afterwards, shut to traffic for the day, even if it did mean spending what I saved on food on silk ties instead.
I should have seen this quite a few nights before Christmas but the opening was delayed – always a bad sign (qv The Drowned Man). I booked tickets for a play, only to find they’d added some poor songs and a dreadful dance to what, underneath, could have been a good play. The acting is excellent, even though two of the characters are clichés (one even accuses the other of being a cartoon). The basic premise is clever – has an elf fallen through the ceiling or is he just a burglar dressed as an elf? Along the way comes the inevitable self revelation and an interesting twist on the lives of the elves; there is even a very clever take on the “I believe in fairies” chant from Peter Pan. Unfortunately, the good aspects only make the worst parts – some of the dialogue, the singing and the terrible dance – even more annoying.
I’ve made it clear that I think Stravinsky was the greatest composer for the ballet and I have really enjoyed some of his classic ballets this year: the Royal Ballet performing Firebird and Rite of Spring, and English National Ballet’s interpretation of Fokine’s Petrushka. Surprisingly, my favourite interpretation of his music this year was Boston Ballet’s flawless performance of Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements. However, I was just astonishingly lucky to see Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg’s final performance with the Royal Ballet: two of today’s greatest dancers giving what might have been their greatest performance to date. The event was amazingly emotionally charged, a couple in real-life as well as on stage, saying goodbye to the company in one of the most romantic ballets.
I had to see this after laughing so much at The Play that Goes Wrong from Mischief Theatre earlier in the year. Many of the jokes were very similar but I still cried with laughter, maybe not quite as much. I went to a matinee and there were a lot of children in the audience and their presence of made me realise how much more this was than simply slapstick, with moments of pathos coming through. The highlight of this was their re-working of the magical “I believe in fairies” call. I can’t say more than that without giving it away but it was a beautiful, emotional moment. I do hope they win best new comedy in the What’s On Stage awards. You can add your vote here.
The three great productions this year for me were the Royal Ballet’s Wozzeck, ENO’s Satyagraha and this. Death in Venice had to win, though, as on of the most moving productions I have experienced in any medium. I suspect I appreciated it more for being old (although I loved the original story by Thomas Mann over 40 years ago). It is not just a story of an old man longing for an unobtainable youth – this production makes it very clear that it is a story of an old man longing for unobtainable youth. The production was magical, the scenery and lighting complementing the underlying feelings perfectly and the words came through crystal clear with no need for surtitles, demonstrating Britten’s place as the greatest composer of English opera.
This ballet is a collection of three short works by Balanchine, Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds. I expect jewels to sparkle, but Emeralds, danced to music by Fauré, didn’t – more like jade than emeralds. Rubies really did sparkle, the costumes and choreography echoing an American parade – all it needed was a few batons to twirl. The music it was set to by Stravinsky was also much more to my taste. The final ballet, Diamonds, fell between the two, more exciting than the first, lacking the pizzazz of Rubies but replacing it with glorious sumptuosity with music by Tchaikovsky. I left having enjoyed it all but not quite sure what was lacking until I remembered Boston Ballet’s interpretations of Balanchine’s choreography earlier in the year (which included another Stravinsky piece). Boston Ballet understand how to swing; Royal Ballet do not. Indeed, I wonder if there is any British ballet company that could have really done justice to this work. All the same, a very enjoyable afternoon, particularly for Rubies.
I still think it’s best Nutcracker around. Wayne Eagling’s choreography has steadily been tweaked over the years, so that the rather clumsy switching between the handsome young man at the ball and the nutcracker is now handled very neatly. I went to a matinee and did not expect top casts but Laurretta Summerscales and Max Westwell seemed pretty top notch to me, both dancing perfectly, as did the entire company. The only mistake I made was in getting a seat in the balcony. It’s so much less comfortable than equivalent seats in the Covent Garden amphitheatre, at least for long legged people like me. Still well worth it thanks to an £11.50 offer at LastMinute.com.
How wonderful to see such a well-crafted play resurrected. I’ve seen an awful lot of pantomime lately – great fun for children but not worth reviewing here – and there seems little else around, so this is particularly welcome. It is unfair to compare this with Chekov as one or two reviewers have. This was written two generations earlier before the emancipation of the serfs. It was a time when the wealth of a “gentleman” was measured in the number of serfs he owned (serfs he could buy, sell, mortgage and abuse in any manner he liked) and the play is very much about what a real “gentleman” is. The four main parts are acted superbly: the very rich, brutish gentleman; the penniless gentleman he bullies, who lives on the charity of others but would never dream of demeaning himself by taking a job; the lady who has inherited the estate, and the young gentleman she has just married who is part of a new generation of “gentleman.” He does have a job and actually cares whether the serfs he has inherited through marriage have access to doctors, teachers and “spiritual guidance.” The play brilliantly morphs from comedy to tragedy and back and provides a fascinating insight into mid 19th Century Russian society backed up by the excellent programme.
There were no subtitles and the opera was sung in Sanskrit, so there was nothing to do but sit back and absorb the astonishing beauty of the music and the excellent production. When you get older, it is easy to forget the pleasures of childhood when there was much that was incomprehensible but still wonderful like this. It obviously had that effect on many others in the audience as I’ve never seen a standing ovation at a final matinee of an opera before. The last part of act 3 was particularly stunning as the orchestra built up very, very slowly, in the background the figure of Martin Luther King silently addressing a distant crowd. One expected a final chorus but instead there was a long, sustained aria perfectly sung by Alan Oke as Gandhi that almost had me in tears at its beauty. Walking past the South African embassy on the way to the Coliseum and seeing the tributes to Nelson Mandela, it was a timely reminder of how long the struggle against racism in South Africa and elsewhere has been going on. I had that feeling I remember from childhood again: even if I didn’t understand it, it all made sense.