Why you should become a FIEND

February 19, 2015 at 2:16 pm | Posted in music | 4 Comments
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Members’ booking opened today for Jonas Kaufmann’s gig at the Royal Festival Hall. The programme’s still unconfirmed, so it may be Yodelling The Classics or perhaps an Eartha Kitt retrospective, but frankly, we don’t care. This is the Greatest Living Tenor, and we want IN. Unfortunately, so does everyone else.

Being a Friend, of course, is the way to go. Pay your yearly fee, and get priority booking. The price depends on the venue. Some charge one flat sum for everyone; others propose a scary hierarchy of increasingly exclusive ranks of Friendship, from entry-level, giving you a badge and a t-shirt, up to £HE,LLO.OO, which lets you jump the toilet queue in the interval, say ‘The usual, please, Fiona darling’ to the bar staff, and lick peanut butter from the belly of your favourite performer up to three times a year.

The arts need supporting, of course, and there’s a long tradition of benefaction (if that’s a word). But what about impecunious fans, unable to cough up membership fees for every venue in which our favourites might perform? After all the Inamorati, Friends-With-Benefits, Exes-We’re-Still-On-Good-Terms-With, Slight-Infatuations, Friends-of-Friends, Facebook-Friends and People-We-Nod-To-Uncertainly-In-The-Street have had their share, there may be precious few tickets left for us to scrap over.

exam

Tension mounts as Joyce DiDonato fans struggle to remember her favourite pizza topping

That’s why I’m proposing a new category of ticket purchaser: the Fiend. Become a Fiend, and book first for all events your favourite is performing in, regardless of venue or price. That’s FIRST. Before EVERYONE else. There’s no joining fee or annual subscription: being a Fiend is entirely free of charge. All you have to do is answer a set of questions, randomly selected from an enormous database, under exam conditions. Examples for Jonas fans are given below:

  1. Jonas was amazed that his Andrea Chénier costumes lacked…
    1. Whalebone corsetry
    2. iPhone pockets
    3. Automatic poppers
  2. Jonas has described learning to use his natural tenor voice as…
    1. Like driving a truck
    2. Like growing a beard
    3. Like waiting for a bus, oh my GOODNESS, totally incredible, you know, how you wait for HOURS and then three come along at once, haha!

(Databases for other stars are still under construction; sample questions can be provided on request. The Iestyn Davies exam, for example, is expected to include advanced matching of Farrow & Ball paint shades, and the practical identification of dog hair on settees.)

The benefits to fans of the Fiend scheme are obvious, but venues will also profit; no longer will they need to employ ushers with long sticks to prod snoring audience members, or devote scant staff resources to fielding 176 phone calls a day from the same person enquiring about returns. And EVERYONE will need to buy a programme. If only to fan themselves with it.

(Thanks to @SecondNorn for the conversation that provoked this, and for her unrivalled JK knowledge.)

Go-Round: how to organise your own Hour attempt

February 8, 2015 at 5:13 pm | Posted in cycling | 3 Comments
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Everyone’s talking about the Hour record. Why not do more than just spectate? My handy guide shows you how to organise your own attempt at the Hour, using facilities that are readily available in your local area. Grab a bike and a ruler and Go-Round!

Venue. Velodromes are pricey, but there are plenty of alternatives.

Sports halls provide hot snacks and seating for spectators; a range of helpful lines are painted on the floor for guidance and with all those aerobics classes, someone’s bound to have Eye Of The Tiger in a drawer somewhere. If you want to take advantage of altitude, look for one at the top of a hill.

If you can’t persuade the dodgeballers to vacate the premises, use the swimming pool. Once you’ve sent someone with a Bronze Survival award down to pull the plug out, the tiles provide a nice smooth surface, there’s a welcome second or two of respite as you roll back down towards the deep end, and your lycra trunks are half a skinsuit already.

Indoor venues are good for keeping things predictable, but they get noisy and hot. What about the park? Outside, you face unpredictable weather, but you won’t be distracted by the smell of the spectators’ chips, and if you make a bad start, well, the sun must have been in your eyes.

91:180 on 5-20-11Why leave home at all? Move the table into the middle of the room and bingo, kitchen velodrome. The audience will have to sit on the stairs and the timekeeper in the sink, but that’s a small price to pay for the familiarity and cost-effectiveness of a home-based attempt. Family members can enjoy VIP dining while you whizz past their ears, and if you run up and down the stairs a few times afterwards then get in the bath, that’s basically a triathlon.

Come to think of it, the bath itself provides the smooth corners and steep angles that could propel you to a new record. Just remember to bunnyhop the taps.

Equipment: Go-Round regulations are less strict that those imposed by the UCI on professionals, in order to encourage participation. Any human-powered vehicle with fewer than four wheels is acceptable (vehicles with stabilisers are exempt). No motors, sails, wings, clockwork or rubber bands.

Validation: All Hour attempts require officials to measure the track, time the attempt, and do the maths. Primary school children are ideal, as these are Key Stage 1 skills, and the sound of a classful of six-year-olds chanting one-banana, two-banana should take your mind off the pain. Failing this, just put your Garmin on. You won’t make it into Cycling Weekly’s Ten Strava Maps That Look Like Guinea Pigs feature, but it’ll prevent arguments over your dad’s measuring-the-OS-Landranger-with-a-bit-of-string technique.

Publicity: You may wish to invite the local press along to write about how you are tearing up the grass and trampling the daffodils and ruining the park for law-abiding motorists and bringing house prices down and wasn’t the Tour de France last year, anyway? Alternatively, just bribe the above-mentioned schoolchildren with Percy Pigs to yell HOORAY and KEEP ‘ER LIT and NNNEAAOOOWWW YAKATAKATAKATAK and IS THAT MUMMY WELL IT LOOKS LIKE MUMMY.

Heineken Beer Advertising BikeSupport team: Friends and family may be keen to paint banners, wave pompoms and tweet using the official hashtag. But even if your only spectators are a couple of seagulls and a pre-teen practising endoes, someone to put your bike in the shed and run you a bath will make you feel loved, and a takeaway will alleviate the post-race comedown. Don’t forget to scrub the tyre marks off the bath.

I go to the GRAND to see FIGARO

January 27, 2015 at 8:22 pm | Posted in music, reviews | Leave a comment
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The Rules

Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro premiered in 1786, a tad late for a Baroque chick like me. But everyone said ‘Oh, Figaro, such a treat!’, and it was just up the road, and the last Local Opera I went to was a triumph, so what could possibly go wrong? The boiz dutifully signed the Riot Act in triplicate; we left them with my Mum, a stack of fish fingers and a Tintin boxset, and made a dash for the train.

Now, Leeds Grand. That’s a proper theatre. It’s gorgeous: all red and gilt and plush, with art deco lighting and beautiful Victorian tiles. As you meander along the corridor looking for the bar [cough], the curve and gentle rise give you the sensation of being on a very stately boat. And it’s the first theatre I’ve been to since schooldays that has opera glasses between the seats. WIN.

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Squeeee!

I’d done a smidgen of homework – enough to realise that the boyf singing FIGARO FIGARO FIGARO FIGARO was a cunning ploy to distract me* – but I’d never heard the opera before. Actually, of course, I had; a lot of it, at least. Figaro’s pretty much Now That’s What I Call Mozart – all those tunes you know from the radio, adverts and hold music. My Mum complains that the beauty of the music in Figaro is let down by the triteness of the story. It IS a bit of a romp, with some of my favourite operatic tropes: The Rudimentary Disguise That Somehow Fools Everyone, Even Your Husband; Chicks Playing Chaps (in this case, Chicks Playing Chaps Playing Chicks); and enough mistaken identity, misconstrued eavesdrops, sneaking in and out of rooms and trousers-round-ankles to fill a couple of Alan Ayckbourns. Everyone’s trying to sleep with/ marry/ outwit/ avoid someone, and women mostly triumph** – Figaro even has an MRA-style rant about how fiendish and untrustworthy the ladies are.

Casting this opera must be tricky: everyone needs to be a comic actor as well as look the part. The acting was consistently excellent: Helen Sherman was great as randy pageboy Cherubino, Silvia Moi’s Susanna was lovable and intelligent, and Jeremy Peaker stole all scenes as the call-a-spade-a-shovel Gardener. There were some standout musical performances: Richard Burkhard was a terrific Figaro, with an impressive sound throughout his range, and Ana Maria Labin’s delicious voice made the Countess’s arias things of utter beauty (even if some of them were about writing giggly letters). But I wondered about the matching of voices to some other parts. While Ellie Laugharne’s acting and physical type suited Barbarina perfectly, I wished her gorgeous voice had been given more to do. Quirijn de Lang made a devilish Count (you could almost hear him murmuring, ‘With MY reputation?!’), but I wasn’t sure he quite commanded the role musically***.

Unusually, there was no FANGIRLING to be done this time, so the boyf and I and Hannah and Mr Fish roamed the streets hungrily, looking for a bar that wasn’t going DOOFDOOFDOOFDOOF. The kitchen had closed at Veeno but they magicked up cheese to go with our wine, and the boyf and Mr Fish talked audaxing while Hannah and I tried to pinpoint the exact year in which everyone suddenly decided it was fine to wear patent platforms to graduation.

And the Figaro verdict? Well, I laughed a lot, but remained otherwise strangely unmoved (noteworthy, for me, as I’ve been known to cry at Charlie and Lola). The boyf pointed out that we were under the balcony, so this muffled the sound; maybe that had something to do with it (back to the Upper Circle next time, then). But I came away wondering whether I just didn’t like Mozart much. I know, I know, this is heresy. I can hear that it’s beautiful and clever and witty, but it leaves me cold. It’s a bit like George Clooney: I can see he’s terribly good-looking, and I know everyone is NUTS about him, but he just doesn’t float my boat.

* it’s from The Barber Of Seville. When I pointed this out, the boyf switched to singing AI NO CORRIDA! instead. Okay

** Hooray!

*** if I had the cash, I’d go back later in the run, as this may have been a first-night effect

When the crit hits the fan

January 23, 2015 at 5:51 pm | Posted in music | 2 Comments
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Fans have a rough time. We admit to a Bit of a Thing for someone, and immediately give up all hope of being taken seriously. The Arts World looks on us with faint distaste. Can’t we keep our silly emotions to ourselves? Whatever will become of rationality, if we allow ourselves to be swayed by something as base as looks?

Cumberbitch leggings, by Poprageous

I can’t not have these

There’s so much wrong with this. First, it’s more than just a question of looks. Fans react to the package (sorry): the acting, the singing, the musicianship, and yes, the looks (though looks can, believe it or not, be secondary: think of the Cumberbatch fans who only really fancy him as Sherlock). The ability to inhabit a part, to make us believe; to transport us, to sing us into submission. And, as I’ve pointed out before, esteem takes many forms, and it can be hard to figure out which one someone evokes in us. Admiration, inspiration, identification, #voicecrush, #mancrush…

Second, just because we’re fans, it doesn’t mean we don’t know or care about music. Well, OK, I don’t know much [cough] but others do. And admiring the cut of a tenor’s jib doesn’t negate this knowledge. We know a poor casting decision, a below-par performance, a phoned-in contribution when we see one. And we’re interested in the rest of the production too, not just ‘our’ star.

Third, there’s an element of sexism lurking here. While there’s the odd joke about fanboys, most of the disparaging comments I see are about women. Dirty, dangerous, lustful thoughts, we women have. How dare we? Can’t we have a cup of tea and a nice, safe, clean, intellectual think about things?

Lastly, and most importantly, emotion is part of life. Emotion is, very obviously, part of music. Why is it OK to admit to some emotional reactions to music (joy, pain) and not others (fascination, desire)?

Because YOU HAVE THESE FEELINGS TOO. Yes, you, Mr. Serious Critic. You may think you’re overcoming them, evading them; that your emotional reactions can’t possibly be influencing your intellectual assessment of a performance. But they are, because you’re human.

Iestyn Davies

This picture of Iestyn Davies is entirely necessary to the narrative. (c) Benjamin Ealovega

I’ve been listening to lots of countertenors recently. I bring this up, not just because it’s an excuse to burble on about Iestyn Davies again, but because it’s a good example of a response that isn’t intellectual in nature. I’m busy learning about different genres and techniques and approaches to the art, and starting to understand the immense skill and artistry that goes into classical singing. But I know that part of my obsession is just because some countertenor voices do inexplicable things to me. (Not everyone shares my view: my twitter friends’ reactions have been fairly evenly split between ‘God, that’s amazing! His voice is like a musical instrument!’ and ‘Ooh no, he sounds like a GIRL!’)

So, to some extent, we like what we like. And this is interesting in itself. I’d love to explain to you how the B-52s are the most criminally underrated band in the history of pop. I could go on for ever about the lyrical faux-naïveté, the clean-as-a-whistle vocals, the undercurrent of danger in the drumming. But I know it won’t make you like them (unless you do already, in which case, highfive!).

This fascinates me. But rationality has such a hold on our approach to criticism that we minimise the importance of these responses. People feel the emotion so strongly, and yet are so convinced of lovely clean tidy rationality’s priority over base messy mucky emotionality, that they seek intellectual explanations. It’s in the chord structure, the cadences, the phrasing. It can’t just be me, happening to like it. Do you like it too? You see! It must be universal!

I mentioned this to the boyf, and he brought up Adorno (he has a habit of doing this, but that’s what you get for living with intellectuals). Apparently, Adorno said that our reaction to an artwork is both rational and emotional, and it’s folly to think we can have one without the other. Instead, the tension between rational and emotional reactions creates the ‘problem’ of art appreciation; this ‘problem’ is, of course, what makes art interesting.

So I say it’s time to bring emotional reactions back into the critical fold. Accept them; learn to recognise them in yourselves; see them as part of your appreciation of performances, rather than some kind of dirty little secret you have to suppress. Start to understand their interplay with rational, intellectual interpretation. And stop looking down on fans, with our love and our pain and our joy and our desire so close to the surface. We might be closer to the truth than you think.

Le test formidable de vocabulaire Spiral-based!

January 10, 2015 at 7:59 pm | Posted in language | Leave a comment
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(An updated version of this test is now on the Guardian TV & Radio blog.)

Get into the mood for the return of Spiral with my French slang test. Below are a set of phrases you may hear as Laure, Tintin, Gilou, Pierre, Joséphine et al. go about their business. Just pick a translation for each and check your answers at the end. Bonne chance!

Disclaimer: this quiz contains strong language from the start, mild peril, and scenes of a sexual nature.

1. T’es niqué, mon pote!

a. You’re fucked, me old beauty!

b. Put your trousers on, sunshine, you’re nicked.

c. Ooh, you’ve cut yourself! That looks nasty.

2. J’en ai marre de tes conneries!

a. Enough of your idiocies!

b. Enough of your lies!

c. Enough of your Bond impressions!

3. Je bosse demain, quoi.

a. I’ve got work tomorrow, innit.

b. Might have a duvet day tomorrow, yeah.

c. TOMORROW I WILL RULE THE WORLD!

4. Merde! Ce sont des échangistes!

a. Shit! They’re foreign students!

b. Shit! They’re swingers!

c. Shit! They’re cross-dressers!

5. Putain! C’est quoi, ce bordel?

a. Heavens, this is tedious. Anyone fancy a game of bowls?

b. Goodness! Are these the courtesans of the Russian president?

c. What the fuck’s this fuckup, for fucksake?

6. Dégage, espèce de salaud!

a. Goodbye, and thanks for your call!

b. Bloody vegan restaurants! I’m off for a kebab.

c. Bugger off, you lowlife!

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Answers: 1. b; 2. a; 3. a; 4. b; 5. c; 6. c.

Five or six correct: Bah, vous êtes dingue de l’argot, quoi? You’re totally qualified to turn off the subtitles. In fact it’s a good idea, as otherwise you’ll just be sitting there going ‘Well, that’s not actually what she said, you know, not in Parisian French, at least.’

Three or four correct: Pas mal, mon pote! Keep at it, and soon you’ll be swearing along with the telly like the best of us.

One or two correct: Bah, t’es pas dans ton assiette, hein? Never mind. Écoutez, et répétez. It’ll come.

Why cyclists get five copies of Cav’s autobiography for Christmas

December 27, 2014 at 6:09 pm | Posted in cycling | 4 Comments
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Every December, cyclists helpfully leave their copy of Cycling Monthly open at the ‘On Test: Fifteen Windproofs To Blow You Away’ page, and drop oh-so-subtle hints while wandering round the Ratha Coffee Club, in the hope that some lovely, sparkly new bicycle kit will find its way under the tree.

Vintage Ad #2,274: Family Christmas...Schwinn StyleAnd on Christmas Day, they open three Tour de France DVDs, some bicycle coasters and another copy of Cav’s autobiography. Where did they go wrong? Why are people so insensitive to their needs?

What they forget, of course, is that this conversation happened a few weeks previously.

Significant Other: Right. Christmas. New waterproof? You’re always complaining about that one flapping.

Cyclist: Ah. Nice idea. But not unless it’s, well, you won’t be able to afford it, and I’m pretty sure they’re sold out in my size anyway. Apart from in fluoro. And I don’t want fluoro.

S.O.: All right. Jersey, then? You said you wanted a new longsleeve one.

Cyclist: Ah. Yeah. If it has a full zip. And you can work the zipper with one hand. And three pockets, and a separate zipped pocket, a waterproof one. And the arms are long enough. And it’s not too long at the front. And you’ll need an XS, and they always sell out first. Unless it’s Italian, in which case it’ll be an S.

S.O.: Hmm. How about some kneewarmers? Those ones are full of holes.

Cyclist: Well, if they have those wide grippers, maybe. And they don’t make my legs look like a string of sausages, or cut off circulation in my calves. But they mustn’t slip down, either. And no daft colours. And not Roubaix. I mean, Roubaix kneewarmers? Who thought that up?

S.O.: Base layer?

Cyclist: Oooh. Well, I’d love a shortsleeve merino one. As long as it’s proper merino, not that itchy stuff. And the sleeves need to be long enough to tuck into my armwarmers, but not so long that they poke out under my jersey. And it’s got to be nice and long at the back. But not too long, or it’ll bunch up, and people’ll think I’m wearing pants under my shorts.

S.O.: Look! These t-shirts are great. Funny! And you like that colour.

Cyclist: Yeah! That’s an MTB, though. I don’t ride MTB.

S.O. [patiently]: Okay. Socks?

Cyclist: I dunno. They have to be right. Not too long, not too short, not too thick, not too thin. They need to go with my new shoes. No, not those ones: they’ve got LOGOS on them.

S.O.: Bidons?

Cyclist: Um. They don’t all fit my bottle cages. And those ones, they’re really hard to get open with your teeth. Not those, either: the necks are so narrow, you just get Science in Sport all over the kitchen.

S.O.: Book?

Cyclist: That should do it. WP_001462

The housebound cyclist’s festive calorie counter

December 23, 2014 at 7:31 pm | Posted in cycling | Leave a comment
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For those of us who like riding up the occasional hill without having to get off and push, Christmas is a scary prospect. All that rich food! All those weird bottles of sticky stuff that Auntie Lil brought back from Kos! All that sitting about watching It’s A Wonderful Sound Of Bridget’s Friends, Actually, Arthur!

At this time of year, fitness magazines like to lecture us on how many miles we need to ride in order to burn off each Miniature Hero, but what can we do if the family have trapped our bikes ENTIRELY by accident behind a teetering mountain of hastily-wrapped Christmas presents? My handy list maps Christmas treats onto a range of festive household activities, so that you can maximise your caloric expenditure while going about your normal holiday business.

  • RHelp! I'm drowning in Quality Street!epeatedly blowing up spare bed that has a slow puncture you can’t locate: 1 medium glass mulled wine
  • Two-minute cold shower ‘cos the boiler’s conked out and nobody can look at it until at least next Tuesday: 1 pig-in-blanket
  • Filling the bath with twenty-five kettles’-worth of water: one spoonful brandy butter
  • Peeling and chopping vegetables for sixteen people while singing along to Phil Spector: 1 turkey thigh
  • Stumbling around the living room with your uncle who says he knows how to jive: 2 roast potatoes
  • Sweeping up broken ornaments elbowed during above-mentioned ‘jive’ session: 1 prawn vol-au-vent
  • Particularly rousing game of Pictionary: 1 small glass brandy
  • Scrabble argument over whether ‘NOPE’ is a word, involving five people, three dictionaries and somebody tweeting at Victoria Coren: 2 dessertspoonfuls gravy
  • Running upstairs to get your reading glasses, then coming down again because you forgot what you went up for, then going upstairs again to get them, then remembering they are on your head: 1 portion bread sauce
  • Turning house upside down looking for things you can cannibalise 6 AAA batteries from, to avert toddler tantrum: 1 glass dessert wine
  • Going through the Hoover bag looking for Luke Skywalker: 3 Brussels sprouts
  • Lifting an eight-year-old into the wheelie bin, demonstrating how he has to jump up and down to crush the rubbish, then calling fire brigade to fish him out again: 3 roast parsnips
  • Hoovering dog hair off the bed that Fenton won’t go on, no, really, he won’t, he’ll just sleep right here in his basket, honest: 2 Quality Street
  • Maintaining cheery demeanour for three days in the face of parental passive-aggression: 16 mince pies and a bottle of Bailey’s

 

The Xmas Factor: how to do your own Christmas cover version

December 22, 2014 at 7:05 pm | Posted in music | Leave a comment
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Tired of listening to everyone else’s howling, overblown Christmas cover versions as you wander round Paperchase? Why not make your own? I’ve helpfully produced this step-by-step guide. Listen, and sing along! (Lyrics sheet below.)

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(Listen via Dropbox, if audioboom won’t work)

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Christmas Disco!You can do a Christmas cover!

Slow it down, to make it fly

Add some stunt R&B ornamentation

And a touch of vocal fry

Don’t think that it sounds too strange

To use the extremes of your range

Add a falsetto

Make your Christmas cover… ghetto

Hey, good lutin’

December 7, 2014 at 5:36 pm | Posted in music | 2 Comments
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animagicaWell, we know opera’s brilliant. You get to watch your favourites striding around the stage brandishing swords, singing gorgeously while lying on their backs, and being hoisted into the air in the middle of impossible arias. But it’s quite another thing to be up close and personal. A candle-lit church? Lute songs? With formidable lute star Liz Kenny and the incomparable Iestyn Davies?* Ah, go on.

This gig was part of Spitalfields Music Winter Festival. Mum and I loitered around Shoreditch for a bit, with her peering into galleries and me taking pictures of particularly risible bits of bike lane. We didn’t need to sharpen our elbows for the unreserved-seating scramble after all, as everyone was jolly friendly and shoved up and passed the Lockets, and we ended up with a very good view (though not quite as good as some audience members, who were bravely sitting on the ACTUAL STAGE next to the performers). Sanae, Founding President of the Iestyn Davies Appreciation Society, located me in my pew; we’ve chatted on FB for a while now and she turned out to be just as crackers and delightful in person.

Elizabeth KennyThe programme was Purcell, Dowland and Handel. I’ll admit I was mostly there for the Dowland, having had Iestyn’s CD on heavy rotation for months, and even crucifying bits of it myself in singing lessons. It was odd for me to go to a gig where I knew all the words; every time I recognised an opening bar or two, it was hard to resist going HOORAAAAY and singing along, like you might at Beyoncé (especially as the lyrics were helpfully printed in the programme).

One thing about knowing the CD backwards is spotting differences when you hear the songs live. (Mum asked me if the ornamentation in one song was the same as on the CD: it made me feel pleasantly nerdy to say ‘No’**.) Come Again, Sweet Love Doth Now Invite was taken at a right old clip, the music’s bubbly optimism contrasting more than ever with its lovelorn message, and the passive-aggressive digs in Can She Excuse My Wrongs shone through clearly with Iestyn’s spirited delivery. Relatively unembellished singing in Now, Oh Now, I Needs Must Part gave space for some stunt ornamentation from Liz. Dowland’s at his best when he’s REALLY down in the dumps, though. In Darkness Let Me Dwell, with its sustained notes that grow and fade, was spine-tingling, and Iestyn brought a proper pathos to Sorrow, Stay with its descending refrain of ‘Down, down, down I fall.’

(I know this is the trailer for a different gig, but that’s In Darkness Let Me Dwell, on the soundtrack.)

There were some revelations in the repertoire I didn’t know so well, too. Purcell’s Music For A While was gorgeous, with some delicious high notes. I love Handel’s O Lord, Whose Mercies Numberless, with its gradually-building insistence and beautiful melody, but it was quite different transcribed for lute; with orchestra stripped away, it was inward-looking and contemplative, almost a lullaby. One encore saw Iestyn doing an aria from Rinaldo (remember Rinaldo? Of course you do) transcribed for lute; the other was Thomas Morley’s innuendo-soaked Will You Buy A Fine Dog?***

It all felt astonishingly intimate, despite the high ceilings and ringing church acoustic. Iestyn perched on a high stool, on a level with Liz, and the smoking candle behind him gave the whole thing a bit of a Jazz Club feel. I like concerts where the performers chat to us, and there were droll explanations of different types of lute, and personal anecdotes. Lutes are quiet, so the singing was often quiet, too; sounds from outside the building penetrated, but didn’t break the spell (even when Liz had to wait for a particularly Hawaii Five-O siren to fade before she started one song). Instead, the occasional reminder that 21st century London life was still going on outside made it all the more special to be immersed in this world of long-past beauty.

iestyn at signing by Sanae Takeyama 2

Iestyn, signing CDs so fast his hands are UTTERLY a blur. Yes, those are stocks behind him. Don’t give us ideas. (Picture (c) Sanae Takeyama, used with kind permission.)

Yes, yes, I know. What about the FANGIRLING? Iestyn set up shop in the foyer and signed CDs with gusto, his PR people charging out to the car at one point for more supplies. I had a chat with Liz, who seemed a bit surprised to be accosted but took it pretty well. Then I joined the end of Iestyn’s ENORMOUS queue, and we exchanged a few words in which I told him off for not doing I Saw My Lady Weep, completely forgot to say how utterly marvellous the gig was, and also failed to invite him for a drink. MUST CALM DOWN. Mum took me off to Pizza Express and bought me wine and listened patiently to me doing Venti, Turbini with all the actions, instead. Bless her.

* insert your favourite Fast Show line, here

** pleasantly nerdy. And maybe just a tiny bit obsessive

*** it’s heartening that serious classical music audiences still giggle helplessly when someone says ‘dildo’****

**** apparently music scholars argued for YONKS that ‘dildo’ was just a refrain along the lines of ‘fa la la, hey nonny no’ and ABSOLUTELY DIDN’T MEAN WHAT IT DOES TODAY. This is, of course, rubbish

I go to some LOCAL OPERA

November 24, 2014 at 8:56 pm | Posted in music | Leave a comment
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Opera! On my DOORSTEP! Well, almost. Opera North’s The Coronation of Poppea came to the Lowry, a mere hour’s drive away, and it would be daft not to, wouldn’t it.

Now, you’ll remember my trip to the Barbican to see what is known in Opera North circles as The Other One. The prospect of seeing Poppea fully-staged was exciting, not least because I could pretend to be a Proper Critic and do oh-yes-well-the-last-production-of-this-I-saw and all that. Gosh! I packed my notebook and practised my Serious Opera Expression.

Still behaving ourselves at this point

The Serious Opera Expression didn’t last long once I met Mary, who’d answered my twitter plea for a partner-in-crime. Like all the best people, she turned out to be crackers, and we got on immediately. We stuffed ourselves with pizza and repaired to the Upper Circle in a state of high excitement, pausing only to chat to a Professor of Child Language I used to work with [name-drop face].

Here’s a quick quiz to refresh your memory. Poppea is a tale of (tick all that apply*):

□ Blood               □ Guts                 □ Loyalty            □ Betrayal          □ Manipulation

□ Power              □ Lust                  □ Revenge          □ Love                □ Social climbing

This production committed itself to exploring these themes in loving detail. The opening scene set the tone for the evening: Virtue, Fortune and Cupid debated their relative power over mortals against a backdrop of wine-drinking, guffawing and lurid snogging. They then settled back in cinema seats to munch popcorn as a Tarantinoesque evening of bloodletting, gun-waving, knife-wielding and sex unfolded.

The shockwaves caused by Nerone’s infatuation were tangible, and as the opera was sung in English, it was easy to become immersed in the action (even if rhyming ‘strumpet’ with ‘crumpet’ did raise a few titters from the audience). The staging made clever use of a small set of flexible props. I particularly liked how Bloody Marys symbolised Ottavia’s despair, and her dismissal by Nerone; at the end, a fridgeful of jugs of the stuff portended the carnage to come.

Did I mention the sex? GOSH. I mean, PHEW. Nerone is usually sung by a soprano, but James Laing’s countertenor suited the role perfectly, and he was a rangy, rakish emperor, louche and petulant by turns. He and Sandra Piques Eddy’s pulchritudinous, silk-clad Poppea were gloriously matched, dragging each other about half-dressed, barely able to keep their hands to themselves.

James Laing as Nerone, Sandra Piques Eddy as Poppea. Photo (c) Robert Workman, used with kind permission

James Laing as Nerone, Sandra Piques Eddy as Poppea. Photo (c) Robert Workman, used with kind permission

I wondered at first about the pairing of their two voices – Poppea rich and powerful in a grand-opera style, Nerone much more Baroque – but decided it reflected the power dynamic quite nicely: the initial scenes, where Nerone is on the back foot and Poppea is busy manipulating him, contrasted effectively with the final love duet, where their voices merged so convincingly that it was hard to tell who was singing what, especially as they were on top of each other on a table, and it was so lovely, I had a bit of a cry.

There was a real synergy among the musicians and the cast, so much that it feels odd to pick out individuals in what was so obviously a group enterprise. But I’m going to do it anyway. James Laing was a revelation; I’d only seen him previously as the Magician in Rinaldo, where he didn’t get much to do. His voice is powerful, well-modulated and expressive, and the top end is truly stunning; I’ve added him to my list of People To Follow Around Slightly Obsessively. Emilie Renard was a gorgeous Cupid, funny and well-judged with a delicious voice; another one to watch out for**. I loved Sandra Piques Eddy’s just-the-right-side-of-bitchy Poppea, and Katherine Manley brought a witty girlishness to poor, doomed, trusting Drusilla.

Mary and I nearly went straight home at the end. We really did. But, you know. No opera’s complete without a bit of fangirling. We gushed excitedly all over Emilie and James, and got invited for a drink! Heavens. This conversation ensued:

Bouncer [to James]: What’s in the carrier bag?

James: Er, I’ve got my stuff from the theatre, and…

Me: DO YOU KNOW this man is INTERNATIONAL OPERA STAR who’s just been on stage at the LOWRY?

Bouncer: [side eye]

We ended up in the venue bar where everyone was utterly sweet and friendly to us and we talked about LOADS of stuff and it was someone’s birthday and if you’ve never heard a whole opera cast break into Happy Birthday spontaneously, well, that’s what I want for mine next year, if that’s ok. What a terrific night. There’s one more performance, in Nottingham next Saturday: I’m seriously considering leaping in the car and driving down, it was that good, so GO, get a ticket. Go on. I’ll see you at the stage door.

B3FVI-rIgAAmhlg

Emilie, Mary, me, James #adventuresinfangirling

* answer: all of the above

** She also ticked the chick-playing-a-chap box; as you know, all proper operas involve a bit of cross-dressing.

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