Tags: castrati, classical, countertenors, duke of york's, fangirling, farinelli, iestyn davies, mark rylance, music, opera, theatre
Well, I wouldn’t want to share a stage with Mark Rylance. It must be like having Hemingway show up to your creative writing class. However good you are, his performance is so subtle, so natural, so nuanced, it makes everyone else look like they’re trying a bit hard.
I often feel this way about Iestyn Davies, too, so it was a rare treat to have both these luminaries under the same roof. The original run of Farinelli and the King, in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in Shakespeare’s Globe, sold out in approximately three seconds, so I didn’t get to see it. But The Duke of York’s theatre is a good alternative venue; warm, informal-feeling and intimate under candlelight, and small enough that I didn’t need my James Bond-style opera glasses, even peering from the Upper Circle. I’d upgraded us at the last minute to a box – I KNOW – and Mum and I arrived to find the Ambassador Experience awaiting us. Gosh. I’m absolutely SURE the free cava did not influence my appreciation of the production in ANY way – I am a professional, after all – but it certainly got us in the mood for this sensitive, witty and absorbing play.
You’ve probably read 673 reviews of it by now, so I won’t go over the plot again. But it’s a story that resonated for me: the healing power of music, the experience of being transported by a magical voice. I loved the idea that the King and Farinelli were both lost in lives they hadn’t anticipated and couldn’t control. Mum wasn’t sure about the BOGOF Farinelli – ‘Iestyn definitely could’ve acted the whole thing!’ – but I thought it worked well: the confident, assured performer and his diffident, boyish twin. When Farinelli and Carlo finally parted, it was understated and moving.
The story developed believably with only a couple of clunky moments – ‘But the Pope doesn’t approve of your scientific ideas!’ – and there were lovely portrayals of the European opera scene, and the life of stardom and adoration Farinelli had left behind. Some scenes were partly onstage and partly in the auditorium, and the audience were cheerfully roped into bits of the action: hints of the experience you might’ve had if you’d gone to the theatre in the 18th century.
The music was the real star of the show, though. The whole place sat perfectly still when Iestyn sang. I thought about the very first time I heard him, and how I found tears running down my face; and I hoped everyone else was experiencing that, too. The arias reflected the range of Farinelli’s skills – from the coloratura pyrotechnics of Venti, turbini to the clear poignancy of Lascia ch’io pianga – and the tiny orchestra, costumed and bewigged and acting along, were the perfect match. It was so spellbinding, that sometimes it felt odd when the other characters went, ‘Well, anyway, as we were saying…’ rather than weeping, fainting, or throwing knickers. But still. It was the King that mattered, and it was completely credible that this bewitching voice could have saved him.
- Farinelli and the King runs until December 5. Day tickets are available for sold-out performances. You’ll need to queue. It’s worth it.
Tags: art, bronte parsonage museum, bronte sisters, bronte society, dance, diane howse, exhibition, haworth, music, review
It’s easy to see how people become obsessed with the Brontës. The interweaving of their short, strict lives, their intense fictional worlds, and the unforgiving landscape they inhabited is heady. This small exhibition by Diane Howse and collaborators encourages these kinds of connections, and plays with them. Quoting from the brochure, The Silent Wild ‘… takes as its starting point the written word, and how silent shapes on a page have the power to conjure whole worlds of sound, noise and commotion.’
Situated in the Brontë Parsonage, the exhibition interacts with the existing layout. The Parsonage is part museum, part reconstruction. The rooms are decorated with historically-accurate papers and paints, and are largely set up as they were in the time the family lived there. Cases display Brontë relics – Charlotte’s wedding dress, a first edition of Shirley – alongside Mr Brontë’s piano, the children’s bed, and Branwell’s portraits of his sisters.
The effect is to pull you in and out of the Brontës’ world, real and imagined, and their stories, factual and invented. The exhibition is focused around sound: the sounds of words themselves, and the sounds the Brontës might have been surrounded by – the tick of a clock, the tinkle of a teaspoon on a china saucer.
Some exhibits abstract tiny elements from the writings of the sisters – single words (silent), phrases (not a fluttering lark or linnet), or quotations. If your impression of Wuthering Heights is all doom and gloom, you might be surprised to learn that giggle, laugh and chatter feature in it, alongside shriek, howl and wail. It’s not over-explained, this exhibition, which I liked; I came away chewing over thin murmurs of life, wondering if this was about the potential of written words, the Brontës’ own brittle existence, or the resilience of their writings.
It’s easy to become immersed in brooding over these driven, gifted women and their fierce lives. The best thing about this exhibition is it takes us out of this inward spiral, and pushes us to think about bigger things. The dance piece, The Silent Wild, does this beautifully. Set to music constructed from found sounds in the Parsonage and readings of the Brontës’ works in many languages, the dancer starts on a floor plan of the Parsonage’s small dining room, reproduced in the enormous empty space of Salts Mill. His props are a dining table and chair, like those in the Parsonage. This is a special dining table, of course, as it’s the place where Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and other works were written. The dancer moves around, testing his physicality against these hard surfaces, exploring their affordances; small movements give a sense of internal focus, of potential. He moves outwards and inwards, under the table then outside the limits of the room: claustrophobic, then agoraphobic. To a rising cacophony of unknown languages, he pirouettes over and over, ending up with a crash under the table again. The table supports him, launches him into the world, then protects him again.
I found myself pondering what we know, and what we imagine. The museum hints that we can over-romanticise the Brontës’ lives; for example, although many people assume they didn’t travel, one exhibit is a trunk used by the sisters on trips to London, Ireland and Brussels. It wasn’t quite the claustrophobic, intense life we imagine. The house is small, and the weight of the tragedies it saw hangs heavy. But it’s also possible to imagine it as a refuge from the heave and thrust of life; there’s a quotation from Mr Bronte on how his little family comforted him, and brought him happiness after the death of his wife. It’s easy to focus on the heartbreak, but there’s life and potential here too.
- The Silent Wild continues at the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth, West Yorkshire, until 28th September 2015.
Tags: children, family, fangirling, jonathan dove, kids, music, opera, opera north, review, swanhunter, the wrong crowd
In between building Lego spaceships and using unlucky shrubs as goalposts and designing underground lairs to live in when they’re grown up, the boiz have been vaguely intrigued by my Damascene conversion to opera. They peer over my shoulder, going ‘Is that Iestyn Davies AGAIN?’, and hum Handel/Thunderbirds mashups while eating their tea. I came out of Rinaldo last year thinking the 9yo would have loved it, so I got all excited when I spotted Swanhunter – a short opera by Jonathan Dove, written with younger audiences in mind, brought to The Lowry* by Opera North in collaboration with The Wrong Crowd.
In proper opera-going fashion, we got dolled up and headed for Pizza Express. Me: ‘That’s the bar where the bouncer gave James Laing the side eye.’ Boiz: ‘Yes mummy. Can we have ice cream?’
Suddenly it was five to seven. A last-minute dash got us to our seats in the lovely, intimate Quays Theatre; row J gave us a brilliant view. The 6yo sat on my rolled-up coat. ‘When’s it going to staaaaart?’ ‘Soon.’
Swanhunter opens with the cast swapping stories around the campfire. The opera is based on a Finnish legend: Lemminkäinen travels to the frozen North in search of a wife, where the Mistress of the North sets him three perilous tasks involving mythical beasts before she’ll allow him to see the girl of his dreams. This is a tale of love, bravery, foolhardiness, death, resurrection and the magical power of song; pretty spot-on for an opera.
It’s a small-but-perfectly-formed production: six cast members, a variety of clever props, and a kooky little folk-meets-classical band including a squeezebox, a harp and a French horn. Marvellously, the music wasn’t at all dumbed down for kids, apart from in the shorter running time. It was a proper opera. Dove writes amazingly for voices, teasing everything out of the singers’ vocal and emotional ranges; the Swan’s stunt aria knocked all our socks off, and there was so much to love in both solo and ensemble writing, brought to life through some terrific singing and playing. (We particularly liked how the Mistress of the North had her own theme, a bit like a character from Bod.) Despite it being all modern and everything, I was relieved to see a few operatic rules being adhered to. The hero was a tenor, his mother a contralto, the baddie a bass. There was no cross-dressing this time, sadly (though I can imagine a reprise with a countertenor as the Mistress of the North, in her Brighton Rock wig). I could say to the boiz with honesty at the end, ‘The operas I go to are just like that. Just bigger. And longer.’
We go to the odd kids’ play, and I tend to avoid puppetry, finding much of it uninteresting compared to real people doing actual acting (though this may have its roots in my pathological childhood fear of the Muppets. I’m fine nowadays. Really.). But the puppet animals stole this show. The Mistress of the North’s dogs, scenting something suspicious from the South; the Devil’s Elk, all red leather antlers and torchlit eyes; the huge Devil’s Horse, pawing the ground and rearing, but eating out of Lemminkäinen’s hand by the end.
It was pacy and witty and dark and scary and moving and surprising. The 6yo sat there for an hour with his mouth open. (Boyf: ‘I’ve never seen him sit still for that long.’) There were some jolly small people in the audience (one mother had brought a booster seat for her daughter to sit on), but I didn’t hear a squeak from anyone the whole way through.
When the lights went up, the 9yo stretched and said, ‘Well… That was long.’ But on the way out he was talking excitedly about the singing and the way the music made the dogs bark and how Lemminkäinen was his favourite. Me, to the 6yo: ‘What was YOUR favourite bit?’ Him: ‘I just liked it all.’
Nobody wanted to go and hang around the stage door, despite me insisting that it wasn’t a proper trip to the opera unless you did a bit of fangirling. But I cheered up when the 9yo put his hand in mine. ‘I’d like to go to the opera again.’ Job done.
* More Local Opera Locally
Swanhunter’s tour continues to Alnwick, Hexham, Canterbury and Harrogate.
Tags: fangirling, julius drake, lieder, masterclass, mezzo, opera, pianist, rncm, royal northern college of music, sarah connolly, singing
Going along to watch them coaching people who DO know what they’re doing, though, was VERY appealing. I saw Sarah in the Barbican’s Poppea last year and was instantly smitten with her voice and her terrific stage presence. She was lovely in person – gracious and funny – and I was intrigued to see how she’d work with student singers. Plus, a bit of a jolly to Manchester on a Friday morning? What’s not to like?
Excitement only mounted further on the train, where we crafted pinhole cameras from business cards and projected the eclipsing sun onto the carpet. COSMIC. (This was only slightly dampened by a conversation about exactly how old we were all going to be for the next one in 2026.)
A trot down Oxford Road noting what has survived the twelve years since I worked at the University (On the Eighth Day), what is sadly no more (Amigos) and what is moribund (the Cornerhouse and the pub where I used to go salsa-ing), delivered us to the Royal Northern College of Music. I love the RNCM: you can sit in the café playing Trombone? Or Uzi? while gifted types waft around buying coffees for their ‘cellos. It feels like there’ll be a sudden blast of music and everyone will leap onto the tables and break into Hot Lunch.*
We took our seats in the cosy concert hall. The audience was small but keen. Everyone moved down a bit, so Sarah didn’t have to shout. The masterclass participants were four student mezzo-sopranos and their accompanists. One by one, they sang a song (or songs) they’d chosen, then had around twenty minutes of detailed critique.
Gosh, this was fascinating. I mean, really. Sarah and Julius quickly homed in on improvements for each musician. Everyone came out of the experience sounding different. The singers (and pianists) had very different qualities, but themes emerged. Do exactly what the composer’s written on the music. Keep to the tempo. (Sarah [pointing at score]: What was going on here? Singer: Um. I was fiddling around with it. Sarah [with a smile]: DON’T.) The music is moving along, even if it’s slow; work out where it’s going, and make sure you are heading there. Don’t predict the song’s ideas for the audience; present it in such a way that they work them out for themselves.
There were some surprisingly simple adjustments. Pianists, make sure you can see the singer. Singers, stand with your feet far enough apart to form a steady base. There was a lot of emphasis on posture and good physical support for singing, and even on facial expression – one singer was told to ‘smell the roses’ for the high notes, to make them gleam.
Some points were very subtle, like the difference in feel between 6/4 and 6/8 time, and how the pianist can ‘allow herself some space’ while still keeping to the tempo. There was a lot of fine-tuning of French and German pronunciation (Sarah: Whose recording have you been listening to? Singer: Yours.).
And there were some things to try at home. Declaim the text dramatically, in time, before you sing it. Start consonants on the note, not below the note. (Sarah: I don’t THINK I do that. I probably do. Haha! Now I’ll go and check.) Add a subtle /h/ when the first word in a phrase starts with a vowel, to avoid starting on a glottal stop.
Demonstrations from Julius and Sarah were stunning; you realised what stars were in the room with you. I was in awe of all the students. It’s one thing to perform; another to perform in front of people of stature; yet another to subject yourself to their critique in public. It felt like a tremendous privilege to be there watching these learning processes unfold. Sarah and Julius expected a lot from them, and got it; that they did this leaving everyone grinning is testament to their thoughtfulness and skill.
I left wanting to burst into SONG, but knew I’d be swiftly frogmarched from the premises by the GMP (Genuine Musicians’ Police) if I dared open my mouth. Instead, I headed for Johnny Roadhouse Music where I bought a capo for my guitar and fell in love with a drumset sized perfectly for a six-year-old. And when I got home, there was an email waiting for me with a sheaf of barbershop music attached, in time for next week’s rehearsal. As International Happiness Days go, this was pretty much up there.
* So far this has never happened, but I live in hope.
Tags: 2015, figaro, humour, le nozze di figaro, leeds, leeds grand, marriage of figaro, music, opera, opera north, review
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.
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
*** if I had the cash, I’d go back later in the run, as this may have been a first-night effect
Tags: countertenors, elizabeth kenny, fangirling, iestyn davies, liz kenny, lute, music, recital, review, shoreditch, songs, spitalfields, st leonard's
Well, 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.
The 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.
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
Tags: Coronation of Poppea, countertenors, emilie renard, fangirling, james laing, katherine manley, L'Incoronazione di Poppea, lowry, monteverdi, music, opera, opera north, review, sandra piques eddy, sex, SFW, violence
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.
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.
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.
* 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.
Tags: acting, am dram, amateur dramatics, Benedict Cumberbatch, cinema, Frankenstein, humour, jonny lee miller, National Theatre, review, theatre
I used to love a bit of theatre. I mostly blame my Dad, who was an am-drammer in the great Coarse Acting tradition. At school, I hammed my way through Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the Wizard of Oz, and directed one of Dad’s tiny plays for the drama competition (I credit myself with discovering the huge comedic acting talent that is Ralph Bailey, who is now, er, a vet. Such a waste.)
This carried on for a bit at university, where my strategy of auditioning for everything in sight and hoping I got into something generally worked. The Crucible, where I did that popular staple, the All-Purpose Crucible Accent, and the other actors were brilliant, and I cried every night at the final scene. Who Killed Cummings?, a spoof whodunnit written by the director which we (unbelievably) took to the Edinburgh Fringe.
It all started to go a bit wrong with The House Of Bernarda Alba. Cast as ‘a maid’ (not even ‘THE maid’), I had to come on first, and deliver the terrible, portentous line that would set the stage for this most desolate of plays: ‘Dong, dong, dong!’
I started to doubt my commitment to the Craft. Halfway through rehearsals for The Real Inspector Hound, I had that sinking feeling: ‘Oh, no. This is going to be terrible. And it’s too late to pull out.’ Gradually, I found other things to do, like writing essays.
There’s something about being in a lot of risible am dram productions that colours your view of theatre forever. You Know Too Much. You can see the workings; you can’t stop yourself. Did he bring that hat in himself, and insist on wearing it? Was that boat meant to fall over? Are we supposed to notice that ‘a maid’ and ‘a prostitute’ are being played by the same person? And is she Scottish, or Irish, or South African, or what?
Despite all this, I set off to watch the National Theatre’s live ‘Encore’ screening of Frankenstein with high hopes. After all, Cumberbatch! And Jonny Lee Miller! And a full six hours in make-up! What’s not to love? Fiona and I settled down right at the front with our cups of tea and glasses of wine and acres of legroom (I love Hebden Bridge Picture House).
The initial scene – the ‘birth’ of the Creature – was terrific. Cumberbatch slowly learned to control his unfamiliar limbs: to stumble, then walk, make sounds, lit by striated flashes from thousands of lightbulbs. It was like watching dance: absorbing, fascinating.
It all went a bit pearshaped when people started talking. The play aims to tell the story from the Creature’s point of view. When he is the focus of the action, this works well; scenes where he learns about literature and morality from a blind man, or meets a child and tries to make friends with him, or confronts his maker are well-handled and gripping.
The trouble is, a lot has to happen without the Creature, and these scenes were less believable. Frankenstein does a lot of striding about wringing his hands and shouting things like ‘I must go to England! They are far ahead in Electricity!’, while Elizabeth pleads with him to reconsider in that ineffectual way fiancées have, and his father dejectedly strokes his chin and wonders where he went wrong (a baritone role, if ever I saw one). There was one brilliant moment where I thought Elizabeth was going to abandon decorum and become his partner-in-crime, but then she went back to furrowing her brow and being all moral. Frankenstein’s motivations remained unexplored: Jonny Lee Miller’s body language and all the SHOUTING indicate madness, but what kind? Frankenstein struggles with all sorts of incompatible drives – the desire to see his name in lights, a real commitment to Science, the need to put right the errors he’s made, the bizarre inability to think through the consequences of his actions. It would have been fun to see these tackled with a modern eye.
A lot of energy went into the relationship between the Creature and Frankenstein, and these scenes were the best: you could almost forget for a moment that Cumberbatch was up there Doing Acting, and lose yourself in it. Sadly, everything else felt a bit pencilled-in and last-minute; supporting characters were sketches with no hope of three dimensions, relationships strange and implausible. There was even a woman doing the All-Purpose Crucible Accent, just for me.
It’s not ALL their fault. After decades of watching cinema and TV drama, where nuanced, naturalistic performances are possible, I found it hard to go back to theatre, with its Declaiming and Projecting and Enunciating and Making Sure You End Up On This Spot Under The Light. But for a subject with so much potential, this just lacked life.
Tags: 2014, aam, academy of ancient music, andrew tortise, barbican, fangirling, iestyn davies, monteverdi, music, opera, poppea, review, sarah connolly
A Saturday night, and @spandelles and I found ourselves ALONE in LONDON. The excitement! As anyone who’s attended a fortieth birthday party knows, you let a bunch of parents of under-10s off the leash at your own risk. What to do with all that freedom? Go to the OPERA, of course.
We bounced off to meet the lovely @adrianartn for snacks. He kindly walked us to the Barbican in time for the pre-concert talk. Standing room only; the powerpoint was postcard-sized; the title was The Full Monte(verdi). Boyf: This is just like being at work. Me: Shall we go and get a cocktail? We sloped out, with the slight thrill of bunking off, and perched at the Martini Bar. The appropriately dry @Adrie_vdLuijt arrived to tell us stories of Joyce DiDonato ordering her audience to drink Standing Ovations*.
Gad, it’s hot in the Barbican. We removed all the clothing we felt we could get away with, and went off to find our seats.
Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea is one of the earliest operas-as-we-would-recognise-them-today. Based on a true story (a groundbreaking approach for the time), it’s a tale of sleeping your way to the top, and the destruction left in your wake. This production was ‘semi-staged’, which means there are no lavish sets or complex choreography, but it’s more than just singers standing in a line. It featured a bit of fighting, some rolling around in front of the theorbos, some pacing up and down the steps in anguish, as well as that (admittedly ever-impressive) operatic staple, people singing while lying on the floor. Some characters appeared suddenly on the balcony, or wandered through the stalls. All this made it a lot easier to follow what was going on, as did the librettist’s habit of helpfully giving people lines like ‘Ah! Ottone! I am secretly in love with you!’ every now and again.
Like all good operas, it had men dressed as women (the show-stealingly fabulous Andrew Tortise as Poppea’s nurse, who was the perfect comic turn: funny and endearing, but still real enough to pull off a beautifully clear and nuanced lullaby), women dressed as men (the utterly wonderful Sarah Connolly as Nerone, who, with her stage presence and showstopping singing, quickly confirmed herself as my new girlcrush), and men pretending to be women by putting a Special Cloak on (the reliably marvellous Iestyn Davies giving a very believable performance as poor Ottone, jilted by Poppea as she heads thronewards). There’s a fair amount of falling in love instantly and seeking bloodthirsty revenge for infidelity, but also some thoughtful musings on being an ageing woman and the place of philosophy in everyday life, and an interesting duet featuring Nerone and his manservant (Nerone: Let us sing together of my lust for this woman! Her eyes! Her breasts! Let us writhe around together! Manservant: Er, OK, my Lord!)
The Academy of Ancient Music orchestra was small but impressive (two theorbos, two harpsichords – the C17th equivalent of two drummers and banks of synths) and it was brilliant to have them in full view on stage, rather than in the pit. But it was sometimes hard to hear what was going on in enough detail. (Boyf: Ah, that’s the Barbican. It’s basically shit. Everyone hates playing here.) Some lovely singing was rewarded with silence from the audience, which I found a bit disappointing; perhaps the enthusiastic applause for arias at Glyndebourne wasn’t How Things Are Normally Done**.
Afterwards, we loitered. @didoregina and @operacreep were sensibly hiding from people wearing jokey necklaces, but I got accosted by @automatamaker (Her: Excuse me! Are you from Hebden Bridge?) who’s a massive Sarah Connolly fan. Emboldened, we headed for the stage door:
Me [enormous smile]: Hallo!
Doorman: Are you on the list?
Me: I shouldn’t think so.
Him: Shall I put you on it?***
We had jolly chats with Iestyn and Sarah Connolly and Andrew Tortise (who greeted me with a hearty ‘Hallo, Fangirl!’). We discussed train routes and York nightlife and Hong Kong tailors and inter-countertenor intrigue and where EXACTLY in Barnet I am from. Iestyn’s delightful girlfriend took my picture with him. The boyf quietly took advantage of my habit of shamelessly striding up to people I don’t know, and talked to them knowledgeably about music, much to their surprise. Evenings rarely go this well: can you blame me for being an opera convert?
* Yes, I’m working my way thru’ my twitter friends in alphabetical order
** Or perhaps just London too-cool-for-schoolness
*** Boyf: How did you do that? Me: I’m not sure.
Tags: anthony roth costanzo, countertenors, GFORinaldo, glyndebore, glyndebourne, handel, iestyn davies, Lewes, music, oae, opera, orchestra of the age of enlightenment, review, rinaldo, tim mead
After all that anticipating, the day finally arrived. The train journey was hyperventilated away in SECONDS, and I arrived in Lewes to brilliant sunshine and a room booking cock-up. Luckily the White Hart had a space. ‘We’ve got a gym, sauna and swimming pool.’ Always pack your cossie.
I changed into my Opera Outfit, packed my handbag according to the list of instructions I’d left myself*, and tripped down to the station to catch the Glyndebourne shuttle bus, feeling a bit like Eliza Doolittle. Would I maintain my cover? Or would I, overcome by emotion, leap out of my seat and yell COME ON IESTYN! MOVE YER BLOOMIN’ ARSE!
A nice chap called Justin befriended me in the queue. Me: I’ve been DESPERATE to see this so I’m DEAD excited. Him: I’m not much of an opera buff. Tell me about it. Me [enormous breath]: WELL… He left me graciously at the bar, probably to go for a quick lie down.
Glyndebourne is what Dr No would build if he were an opera fanatic: a modern, 1200-seat opera house in the middle of someone’s Sussex garden. I wandered around with a bitter lemon, looking at people unpacking coolboxes and taking pictures of each other by the lake. (I loitered by one group for a while as I thought they were speaking German; they just had really strong Essex accents.)
The sun shone. The bees buzzed. Men in kilts ambled past. Suddenly, it was five o’clock, and impeccably-coiffed chaps with startling grins were ushering us in. Finding myself sitting next to an elderly Austrian couple, I excitedly engaged them in German conversation. Me: You are come to England special-like for the opera only? Them: Yes, we came for Rinaldo because we love Handel and we’ve never seen it. Me: Ah, that is cool. Them: You like Handel, then? Me: Very! And I love the, how you say, countertenors.
And so, to business. Rinaldo’s a tale of Crusades, heroes, maidens, boats, magic, Furies, and people falling in and out of love quicker than you can sing ‘He is more handsome than I’d imagined!’ This production set the story in a schoolboy’s imagination: Rinaldo dreams of fighting glorious battles and winning fair maidens in his school uniform.
The staging was brilliantly inventive: clever use of (often quite simple) ideas and props. The Furies were a bunch of rebellious teen freak-chicks; journeys were mapped out in chalk on the blackboard; the army went into battle on bicycles; the final skirmish was a football match. (The elderly Austrians didn’t think much of this. Them: This modern malarkey doesn’t suit Handel. Me: Ah! But think you not the fantasticality of the story means one cannot it seriously staging?)
The singing was breathtaking. I’m still enough of an opera newbie to be totally blown away by the fact that people are up there making this surreally beautiful noise, live, for my listening pleasure (never mind all the riding bicycles, cracking whips, and writhing around tethered to beds that they’re engaged in while doing it). Act I ended with Iestyn Davies pedalling hard as his bike soared towards the rafters; that he did this while singing Venti, turbini, prestate perfectly is beyond my understanding. Listen to this version for an idea why:
Highlights… well, the highlight for me was obviously Iestyn. In a kind of C18th ultramarathon, Rinaldo is barely off the stage, and Iestyn was mesmerising throughout, his gorgeous voice infinitely flexible and expressive**. Four (4) countertenors was a TREAT, and I was fascinated by differences in vocal qualities. Argante was indisposed, and his role played by Aubrey Allicock; I loved his richness of tone. I’m not always a big fan of women’s voices (me, to the boyf: Are there any operas that only have men in them?) but Christina Landshamer and Karina Gauvin sounded lovely to me; Lascia ch’io pianga rang round my head the next morning.
Some voices got a little lost towards the back of the stage, and the (brilliant) Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment sometimes overwhelmed the singers (perhaps historically-accurately, according to @stuckinoregon). The cast got up to lots of ‘business’ while the main action was going on: although this was beautifully done (e.g. the tender, credible silent conversation between Rinaldo and his lover Almirena after their reunion), it could be distracting. But these are minor niggles. We were vastly entertained. For all I’ve read recently about How To Behave In Classical Concerts, the audience was rowdily engaged. Arias were loudly applauded; visual gags raised snorts; there was a groan of ‘Here we go again’ laughter as baddie Armida announced herself suddenly in love with her captive, Rinaldo. (Their subsequent duet, which translated roughly to ‘Come here! / Get OFF me!’, was received with giggles.)
As an opera, Rinaldo’s pretty upbeat; while there are some beautiful arias (and moments of loveliness in other bits), it’s not the kind of thing that makes you sob into your Pimm’s. So I was surprised to find myself full of tears at the end. I hid in the loo for an America’s Next Top Model-style weep***, and wondered what was wrong with me. The expectations and build-up had been so intense that people on twitter were worrying about me:
but it had all gone astonishingly well. All the bits of the day I’d been worried about turned out, instead, to be little gifts. The trips on the bus; the sitting next to cantankerous-but-chatty Austrians; the way you’d keep going off and having a wander round the gardens or a glass of something, then there would be MORE OPERA! Even the dinner interval was a delight, despite my lonesome status. I was assigned to a table of People Who Don’t Mind Sharing****. They turned out to be two retired women (‘We’ve known each other for forty years, so we thought it might be fun to chat to someone else’) and we had an unexpectedly jolly time discovering overlaps in interests. And then of course the opera itself; I’d been so crazily overexcited about it, yet it was better than I’d dared hope.
So it felt a bit like I’d been to a secret island hideaway, where Dr No, grown mellow in his old age, presided genially over beauty, serendipity and harmony. And I just cried because it was over.
Eager readers are no doubt wondering about the FANGIRLING opportunities afforded by Glyndebourne. My top tip is to get the last shuttle bus back into Lewes as this, the BUS of CELEBRITY, contained not only Iestyn but also Tim Mead (who kindly but firmly deflected my attempts to make him laugh with beard banter) and Anthony Roth Costanzo (who I rugby-tackled as he got off at the end). I managed to corner Iestyn and burble incoherently at him (‘Oh it was MARVELLOUS and you RULED and I LOVED it and I don’t have any more words’) while probably hugging him a bit too often. Thank the Lord he’s such a stoic.
(I later immortalised the experience in cake.)
* good job I did this as otherwise I’d’ve packed three tubes of toothpaste and a Gideon Bible, I was in such a state
** yes yes I KNOW but LOOK the critics agree with me
*** the one where you weep facing the floor so your eye makeup doesn’t smudge
**** (@sallyhinch commented that this was better than People Who Definitely Don’t Want To Share, and we agreed it was probably safer than People Who Are Very Keen On Sharing).