I go and see FARINELLI and the KING

October 4, 2015 at 5:48 pm | Posted in music, reviews, theatre | 1 Comment
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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.

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Mum, not at ALL overexcited about sitting in ACTUAL BOX

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.
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Sadly surplus to requirements this time. But did you ever see anything this cool?

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I take the boiz to the OPERA and NOTHING BAD HAPPENS

April 27, 2015 at 11:09 am | Posted in music, reviews, theatre | Leave a comment
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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.

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Palpable tension in the air as we wait for tea to arrive

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.’

Rachael Canning Puppets for Swanhunter , Lighthouse Poole 21-04-2015We 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.

I go to a MASTERCLASS

March 20, 2015 at 11:05 pm | Posted in music, reviews | 2 Comments
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Ha! No, not to participate. My singing progress over the last few months may have been METEORIC [cough] but, sadly, I still don’t warrant the attention of Sarah Connolly and Julius Drake.

Peak eclipse selfie

Peak eclipse selfie

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.*

I, for one, welcome our robot overlords

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.

WP_004872Demonstrations 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.

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.

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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.)

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 | 4 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.

I go to some LOCAL OPERA

November 24, 2014 at 8:56 pm | Posted in music, reviews | 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.

I go to the BARBICAN

October 6, 2014 at 10:45 am | Posted in music, reviews | Leave a comment
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Day 250 - Stairs at the Barbican

Stairs at the Barbican. I love these stairs.

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.

Dueling Theorbos ~ Lynda Sayce and David Miller

Theorbos. I found out what they are called by googling ‘big lute’.

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**.

WP_003641Afterwards, 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?

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Barefaced backstage floozery has its benefits

 

* 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.

I go to GLYNDEBOURNE

August 20, 2014 at 9:58 pm | Posted in music, reviews | 9 Comments
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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.

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Dress code infringements are frowned upon

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Selfie, taken shortly before being frogmarched from the premises by smiling chaps in perfectly-pressed shirts

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.

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Spot of light bicycle maintenance, just to make me feel at home

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:

stuckinoregon's tweet

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.

Postscript

WP_003672Eager 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).

I get ready for GLYNDEBOURNE

August 10, 2014 at 12:30 pm | Posted in music | Leave a comment
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You may not have realised this but I’M GOING TO GLYNDEBOURNE!

WP_003086After putting up with me burbling on for WEEKS about how Rinaldo features FOUR (4) countertenors, which is basically UNHEARD OF, and one of them is ineffably marvellous IESTYN DAVIES, and it’s written by utter genius HANDEL and this is ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME chance and other stuff mostly in ALL CAPS, @spandelles buys me a ticket as a birthday present. Proving, once again, that he is the world’s best boyfriend.

Despite people warning me to pace myself, offering me training plans etc., I’m still ready to POP with excitement/ terror. I even have a Handel nightmare:

night terror

I decide to distract myself by sorting a few things out. It turns out that when you go to Glyndebourne there are an AWFUL LOT of things to sort out.

1. Outfit. Glyndebourne, terrifyingly, suggests ‘formal evening dress’. I google this to find out what it is. After a frenzied evening trawling through maybe 175842 dresses online, I realise I can put together a fairly respectable outfit from things I already own. None of them are in any sense ‘evening attire’, but I’m hoping if I sprint everywhere, they will blur enough to fool bystanders.

2. Handbag. Ransacking the house turns up three neon backpacks, several well-loved Carradice saddlebags and a Power Rangers lunchbox. Hmm. Tiffany, who is a Proper Girl, recommends TK Maxx. The boiz run about like CRAZY PEOPLE while I yell STOP THAT YOU PROMISED TO BE GOOD YOU BUGGERS and try to remember what colour my dress is. Against all the odds, something completely perfect leaps into my arms. The boiz take turns to cuddle it all the way home.

fyopera3. Accessories. My Loom Band bracelet collection may not cut it. I buy some divaesque dangly earrings, and a necklace which supplies you with all the letters of the alphabet so you can construct your own words. TOO MUCH POTENTIAL.

4. Tights. The less said about this the better. I now have some. That’s five hours of my life I won’t get back, Leeds.

5. Travel and accommodation. Thrillingly, I book a room right in the middle of Lewes, and fantasise wildly about singing in the shower and being Discovered. Or looking out the window and seeing Tim Mead walking past. Hi, Tim! Lots of Sussex people immediately volunteer to meet me for coffee, which is cheering.

6. Dining. This is utter MINEFIELD. Glyndebourne operas have a 90-minute interval, where you’re supposed to have a jolly champagne-sodden picnic with your chums. I’m going on my own. I toy with the idea of stalking the grounds with a Subway, coaxing people into doing voxpops into my Dictaphone. Then I see Glyndebourne has introduced ‘sharing tables’ especially for Wilhelmina-No-Consorts like me. I’d like a little more information on my potential tablemates, but beggars can’t be choosers:

glyndebourne sharing table

I cautiously book a meal, choosing the options which seem least likely to jump off the plate and down my front.

lightkeeper's doggerel 27. Homework. I read the synopsis on the Glyndebourne site, which makes no sense at all. I put this down to its overuse of passivisation and unclear reference, and go to Wikipedia instead. @Lightkeeper helpfully writes me some notes in a language I can understand.

Glyndebourne posts some pictures from the opening night on its Facebook page. Once I realise it contains bicycles, I know it’s all going to be fine.

iestyn on a bike

my night tweet

 

 

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