Saturday, 13 February 2016

Tsars now and then

This one

stands roughly in relation to that one

as did Boris Godunov (c.1551-1605)

to Ivan IV, 'the Terrible' (1530-1584)

Why do I make the point? Because until Russian history stops repeating itself, we are likely to go back to truth-telling poets of the past to find the present in what they write. It was a scene in Pushkin's Shakespearean history-drama Boris Godunov not in either of Musorgsky's operatic versions which pulled me up short in the opera class last week. The poet uses one of his ancestors, a not exactly admirable plotting noble, to make the second of the comparisons above. 'He rules as did Ivan,' claims Afanasy Pushkin:

What good that public hangings are no more;
That on a bloody stake, for all to see,
No longer do we sing our hymns to Christ;
That we're not burnt alive upon the square,
The Tsar to rake our ashes with his staff?
Are our poor lives in any way more safe?
We're threatened every day with some disgrace:
Siberia...the dungeon...or the cowl,
And there, in some forsaken place, to die
From hunger or a strangler's knotted rope...

Remove the religious associations - though those, of course, are coming back under a repressive Patriarch - and the cowl and the strangler, and you have a proper equivalent to how Putin wields his power as a Stalin for our times. In one way, it's devilish cunning: as Peter Pomerantsev puts it in his giddying evocation of his recent years in Russia, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, this political system thrives on 'democratic rhetoric and undemocratic intent'. Plus the belief that if you lie often enough, people might start to believe you (look at Medvedev's bare-faced declaration that Russia is not bombing anybody but IS in Syria, that the west is creating a cold war. The Lithuanian President retorted that Russia is doing everything it can to make this a hot war.

Pomerantsev's subjects are chosen and paraded to give a lurid whirligig of absurdity and horror. He worked on Russian TV documentaries, so he knows that state control of Ostankino is making the country into one big grotesque (non) reality show. He gives us a terrifying portrait of Vladislav Surkov (pictured below speaking for his horrible creation Nashi, the new version of the Hitler Youth), the clever, cynical amoralist who has 'privatised the Russian political system', whose style of authoritarianism 'climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd...The Kremlin's idea is to own all forms of political discourse, to not let any independent movement develop outside of its walls. Its Moscow can feel like an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state for bedtime'.

The different aspects are tellingly exemplified: the models and mistresses whose coaches turn back to pumpkins when their  multi-timing masters have tired of them, and who turn to the kind of cults not unknown here but operating on a more sinister scale there, a route ending in madness and suicide; the businesswomen who finds herself, totally innocent, caught in the mesh of corruption and an imprisonment which she's told can only be terminated by a large bribe to a lawyer - she turns to another route which only works because of a bigger political expediency; the hood who's a hero in his home town; the brutality facing army conscripts; the Russian 'offshore' in the rest of the world; the very differing fates of the former oligarchs now that all wealth is under state control: and the wholesale destruction of old Moscow - I knew very little about this and haven't been back since 2000 - so all businesses can be physically close to the Kremlin, the dead centre of all things.

What's fast being knocked down is chronicled by one of the few good guys in the book, Alexander Mozhayev, a kind of architectural Pimen (and definitely not to be confused with the pro-Russian separatist). What's going up, in the plethora of kitsch styles, includes such throwbacks to the 1950s as this

and this.

All government-approved politicians are adept at using the jargon of western capitalist companies, a trick learned by the proliferation of the latter in Russia during the 1990s. And everyone plays the game, knowingly or not; a dissident individual or organisation can be given a brief limelight, only to be dragged out of the spotlight the next day.

In fact this is the most potent aspect of the whole thing which reminds me what I read about Stalin's game - the rules could be changed daily or by the week, so that no-one ever knew where they stood. Keep everyone in a state of fear. At the moment, this is why it's impossible to win within the country, though some unimaginably brave individuals still keep on trying. Eventually this madness has to come to an end, but will Putin have succeeded in his biggest wish, to drag down Europe before Russia itself totally implodes? I know this: that I have never lived through worse times for the world.

We have our own Surkovs, of course, though they're not as clever. Thankfully we also have the freedom to bring pressure to remove them. It's hard work but it can be done.

Please sign this Government petition against one of the biggest liars in the Conservative Party (and that's saying something) before he takes our precious NHS beyond repair. A reminder, too, that the ENO needs saving from its own management in a microcosm of what's happening with the junior doctors (chorus and orchestra shouldn't be in the line of fire). If you haven't already done so, sign and comment on The Spirit of Lilian Baylis's petition.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Sondheim's Cain and Abel

Well, not quite - I don't think it's a spoiler if I say that no-one in Road Show gets killed, but there are slow deaths of the soul involved - quite quick ones, actually, done with the master's usual succinct virtuosity, since this is a (long) one-act distillation of what started life as Wise Guys in 1998, became Bounce in 2003 and ended up in its present form five years later. Don't know how I missed the UK premiere at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2011, and only heard of this Union Theatre staging in time thanks to a punter commenting on my Arts Desk review of Chabrier's L'Étoile at the Royal Opera (his gist was that the Union evening turned out wittier and all the more effective for being done imaginatively on a low budget, and he turned out to be right). All production photos here by Scott Rylander.

Anyway, the show smacks neatly of so many American myths - the Cain and Abel aspect of Steinbeck's East of Eden, the get-rich-quick side of Brecht and Weill's Mahagonny and the schizoid relationship of their two sisters journeying through America to make money in The Seven Deadly Sins, not to mention its feeling at times like the third in a chamberish trilogy by Sondheim himself (Pacific Overtures and the IMO much stronger Assassins being the first two instalments)Needless to say, the real-estate aspect is the most pertinent, as a clever final tableau at the Union underlines.

The two facets of the same personality are to be found in Sondheim's and John Weidman's portrayal of real-life Wilson and Addison Mizner, jumpers on the bandwagon of the new (20th) century. Wilson is the brilliant short-hauler, the doer whose plans never come to proper fruition (brilliantly captured in the ensemble number 'That was a year'). Addison has a run of bad luck to start with - comparable treatment in 'Addison's Trip', pictured above, encapsulating two years' of world wanderings - but builds on his mistakes. Quite literally, in his dubious success with serving up the rich villas in hotchpotch styles in Palm Beach. He, at least, doesn't pretend or falsify; but when Wilson comes back fatally into the picture to develop a Mahagonny at Boca Raton (that delightfully hooey fantasy sequence pictured below), it all goes decisively pear-shaped for the last time.

All this is economically staged, with slightly irritating invisible props, by Phil Willmott, whose Lear with Ursula Mohan at the Union I so admired, and the entire company struts its thoroughly professional stuff very well indeed in the tiny space. But what makes this an unforgettable evening is the superb casting of the four main roles. You can tell that huggable Howard Jenkins (pictured up top on the right with Andre Refig) is keeping his Broadway belt in check to suggest the sensitivity of gay Addy, and when he does explode towards the end, it's spine-tingling (I can't tell if the music is up to the mark here, but the performance absolutely is). Refig's Wilson might arguably be a mite more charming, but we do get to see his vulnerability.

Joshua LeClair (pictured above with Jenkins and Refig) is spirited as the poor little rich kid Hollis whose dreams of an artists' colony are doomed along with his reciprocated love for Addy. This is a first for Sondheim, a mutual gay declaration of [You're] 'The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened To Me' that doesn't make a fuss about itself - the relationship just is, even it's bound to be destroyed by Wilson. Cathryn Sherman's Mama Meisner is so good and true that I had to wonder why I didn't know this singer-actress.

Her 'Isn't He Something' is the nearest Road Show gets to deeply moving. But it's always effective, and the contrast between American dreams and the shoddy reality is typically strong. Even middle-range Sondheim is better, in the way the lyrics so effortlessly fit the tunes, than any musical by anyone else currently operating, at least that I've seen (the hit-and-miss Grey Gardens, for example). Fabulous musical underpinning, too, by MC/pianist Richard Baker, violinist Katt Robb and percussionist Richard Burden - and look, no miking (except behind the mirror). I'd like some company to perform all three (or four) versions of this experiment that Sondheim never lost faith in, but in the meantime catch the Union's Road Show if you can, and if/while there are still tickets - not easy to come by in this lovably miniscule venue. It's on until 5 March. In the meantime, I've bought the Nonesuch recording, and perhaps I ought to invest in Bounce as well.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

In the footsteps of Mackerras

It was hard sitting on the news for so long: the six of us privileged to spend a long but rewarding day adjudicating the final for English National Opera's Mackerras Fellowship, which offers a promising conductor a chance to work in depth with the company for two years, more or less made up our minds at 6pm that evening. Details and approval needed thrashing out by Mark Wigglesworth and the trustees of the Fellowship, but my suggestion that since we couldn't agree between us on two, we should split it, was essentially adopted. Thus the two were chosen, still young by conducting standards - Toby Purser, enterprising founder of the Orion Orchestra,

and Matthew Waldren, whose conducting of Delibes's Lakmé at Opera Holland Park I'd already admired, with only a qualification about pace (photo by Fritz Curzon).

They're no spring chickens, and I suppose we might have hoped for a) younger talent and b) a woman or two, at least in earlier rounds, but you have to choose the best. I also had a soft spot for Christopher Stark, co-ordinator of the Multi-Story Orchestra which gives concerts in a Camberwell car park (I have yet to hear one). He spoke very eloquently and clearly - we could hear every word right at the back, from where we were sitting just behind the brass and alongside the percussion - and showed flashes of brilliance, especially for Tom's first aria in The Rake's Progress, which he's conducted.

The snag with the morning's three competitors was that they didn't really seem to take into account the singers, standing on a platform just to the conductor's left, and slightly behind him. This was the first time any of them had got their hands on the ENO Orchestra, sounding rich and lovely from the start, so it was perhaps understandable that most of the work went on orchestral detail. And I wondered if there had been more liaising with soprano Eleanor Dennis, mezzo Rachael Lloyd, tenor Rupert Charlesworth and baritone Matthew Durkin in the piano sessions the day before, but apparently not.

So it was hardly surprising that, when Waldren got Charlesworth to come and stand right in front of the orchestra, my vivacious fellow-outsider whom I already know and like a lot through a mutual friend, Phillip Thomas, and from our Brunch with Brünnhildes, that great Wagnerian soprano Susan Bullock, exclaimed 'thank you, God!' Sue and I were additions to a panel that already included ENO Head of Music Martin Fitzpatrick, Senior Artistic Advisor John McMurray, Head of Casting Sophie Joyce and of course Mark himself.

Waldren was the only one we witnessed to make true music-theatre with both singers and orchestra; the Dorabella-Guglielmo duet from Cosi really changed and developed as a result. Invidious to say too much about the other conductors, but here's the weirdest thing: the one who baffled us the most was the players' favourite, adduced from a questionnaire they'd been given. And yet from the minute he stood up in front of them, the orchestra suddenly lost all its tonal beauty and sounded a bit like a brass band. It may just be that this was in the dead spot of the day, mid-afternoon, but I remembered John Carewe's comment that the sound of an orchestra adapts to a conductor the minute he or she first raises the baton.

The main point is that, as I've already written in replies to comments on previous posts, I found it one of the most exhilarating if exhausting days of my professional life, and I learnt a huge amount (never noticed, to take one small example, that a harp softens the processional theme of the Mastersingers - two of the competitors drew attention to it). Discussions at lunchtime and afterwards were very lively, and I found the perspective of leader Janice Graham - she who played Leonora's theme in Act Two of The Force of Destiny so seraphically - especially fascinating. I must have been nuts to go on to the first of Dudamel's concerts with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela - by the time I reached the Festival Hall I just wanted to sleep. But there's no kipping through Stravinsky's Petrushka or The Rite of Spring, even in erratic performances.

This is perhaps the right moment to hail a by all accounts fabulous new Music Director for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, 29-year-old Lithuanian Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. I haven't caught Gražinytė-Tyla in action yet but Richard Bratby, who heard a specially scheduled CBSO concert with her in January, is someone whose opinion I trust completely. I asked him if he'd react on the morning of the announcement for The Arts Desk and he did so, beautifully. It's especially felicitous for another potentially great Balt to follow Latvian Andris Nelsons.

Bad times, not artistically but financially, for ENO just got worse with the Board's proposal to cut salaries for the chorus by 25 per cent. As last year's Mastersingers triumph showed most powerfully at a similarly vital time, they are a backbone of the company; I know Richard Jones especially adores them. If morale drops just at the time when Mark Wigglesworth is invigorating, by all accounts, everyone who works there, it could be the beginning of the end. I don't know the figures - I must find out - but bearing in mind something has to give, I wonder whether it shouldn't be in the very large administration. Why are the artists always the first to suffer? If you want to defend the company, you should sign both the petition set up by 'the Spirit of Lilian Baylis' and the one on Equity's site.

As with Mastersingers last year, one in the eye for the ludicrous Arts Council 'punishment' which had just been meted out, along came a first night yesterday of such brilliance that one could only wish to fight the proposed cuts with fiercest might (pictured above, ENO principal flautist Claire Wicks in the first of production photos by Robbie Jack). I hadn't much enjoyed Simon McBurney of Complicite's production of The Magic Flute the first time round; this revival was as different from the ENO premiere as day from night. Much of that must be ascribed to the electrification of Mark Wigglesworth and his players, raised up virtually to stage level as before so that the interaction between singers and orchestra could only be the stronger (and there was no problem at all hearing just about every word).

It's a truism that pace is everything in Mozart, but I hadn't really taken that on board until I heard Jonathan Cohen conducting a Glyndebourne on Tour Marriage of Figaro that just zinged; you thought, especially in the first two acts, 'how on earth does Mozart keep it up?'

Here you could only feel the cumulative effect at an incandescent lick, which is probably why I found myself weeping with sheer pleasure just into the Act One Quintet. But there was plenty of space for Tamino's and Pamina's great arias to breathe. And I doubt if I''ll ever see a better, and certainly never a more sympathetic, pair than Allan Clayton and Lucy Crowe.

Clayton (pictured above with the Three Ladies, Eleanor Dennis, Catherine Young and Rachael Lloyd, and also of course above that with Sarastro's brotherhood) has a flawless technique and a fearless sense of engagement; what joy to hear a real tenor in the role after all those choral-scholar ombre pallide.

I wept again at lovely Lucy's 'Ach, ich fühl's' and almost sobbed out loud at 'Tamino mein' - as one should. The buzz in the house at the end was palpable. I won't go into further detail - my colleague Alexandra Coghlan has said it all on The Arts Desk - except to give a special accolade to the Three Boys (Jayden Tejuoso, Fabian Tindale Greene and Louis Lodder), perfectly together with the orchestra throughout,

and to say that the production which had left me cold first time round now seemed near-perfect; I laughed a lot. So, a huge triumph again for ENO. And Wigglesworth has now proved his versatility with Shostakovich, Verdi and Mozart in the first half of the season.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

High lights in the West End

Highlights, too, of Lumiere London 2016 (reported over on The Arts Desk, but with photos by others), one of Cédric Le Borgne's Les Voyageurs flying high above St James's Square, and the jellyfish by Janet Echelman called 1.8 London floating over Oxford Circus.

The palm for the light spectacular, at least monumentally speaking, has to go to Patrice Warrener's The Light of the Spirit on the west front of Westminster Abbey.

With 31 installations shared between Mayfair, the West End and Kings Cross, the experience was bound to be hit and miss. Our own trail on the Friday night took some time to yield wonders - proceeding from Lumiere's VIP HQ, we hit the light fantastic at Keyframes figures climbing up a Regent Street facade. Good to see the thoroughfare closed to traffic, but was there enough going on here? 1.8 London looked nothing from a distance - I was to find out how wrong that impression proved on Sunday evening - and there were modest pickings around Carnaby Street. J told me Elephantastic worked better on a bridge in Durham than it did above the arch near the Regent Street curve.

Then, however, we hit Porté par le vent's barrage-balloon fish Les Luminéoles swimming above Piccadilly like some sort of phantasmagorical celebration of Chinese New Year. Kids gaped in wonderment and so did we - this time the pedestrianisation proved a triumph. Shame about the blaring Harry Potteresque music.

Having taken an unimpressed look at NOVAK's 195 Piccadilly, we followed the Voyageurs trail from St James Piccadilly

downwards to the Square I hardly ever walk through (not a member of the now-exorbitant London Library, you can tell). A cold, clear night with a half moon gave the figures a goal to reach

and I also wondered if the buildings were normally illuminated as well as this. Certainly the Theatre Royal Haymarket glowed in its rightful perspective from one of the Square's exits. Trafalgar Square was underwhelming, Centre Point's neon sign taken down and squatting in front of the National Gallery, but Leicester Square's garishness was well served, as I've already pointed out in an earlier blog entry, by TILT's Garden of Light.

No harm in reproducing the giant ?peony? blooms again, this time by flashlight.

That was our early evening stroll done before going up to supper in Primrose Hill. The couch potato would not acquire legs for a Sunday evening attempt to catch up on the rest, but I was glad I went, and phoned from Westminster Abbey to say he had to come and see this.

For the first time I looked properly at the 'martyrs' placed in the previously empty niches above the west door back in 1998.

They are, left to right, Maximilian Kolbe, Manche Masemola, Janani Luwum, Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, Martin Luther King, Óscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Esther John, Lucian Tapiedi, and Wang Zhiming.

Nice, also, to bump into three people I knew, have the admiration compounded and be told what was worth seeing of the rest.

I took the Victoria Line up to Kings Cross, where a whole procession of lightshows was to be seen on the walkway up to Central St Martins, but there was such a static queue in the tube tunnel that I turned turtle and took the southbound train to Oxford Circus. Which turned out to be the right thing to do, since 1.8 London proved a wonder close up.

Green-jacketed stewards were yelling through megaphones that no-one should stop on the pavements - a reasonable enough request, as it turned out, since you could do what you liked in the roads and on the Circus itself.

I thought the Grosvenor Square zone would be less crowded than the rest. I was wrong, so I did a quick whizz around the neon birdboxes of Sarah Blood's Sanctuary and avoided the throng in the Square itself, which was fine since Ron Haselden's Brothers and Sisters could be seen perfectly well from the other side of the railings outside the American Embassy.

And in a last bout of mad indulgence, I let myself get hemmed in by the crowd pressing forward to see Aquarium in a phone box by Benedetto Bufaino and Benoit Deseille. Very good-natured it all was, with children refusing to believe there were real fish in the booth until they got closer, and one Scouser on his mobile phone saying 'I don't know exactly where I am, but I'm standing near a phone box with fish in it'.

So I squeezed along and got a close-up glimpse before taking the No. 10 bus home. And that's not quite the end of it, because there will be a Lumierisation of the Guildhall on Shakespeare's birthday.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Dam(s)e(l)s in distress?

A second viewing of the Maysles brothers' classic 1975 fly-on-wall documentary Grey Gardens after seeing the musical at the Southwark Playhouse makes me wonder whether Edith and 'Little' Edie Bouvier Beale were more than passingly in distress. These one-time socialites now seem more like independent-minded women doing their thing in the dilapidation and squalor of their bohemianised Long Island mansion. And what lovely eyes they both had.

In Charles Court Opera's pantomime Mirror Mirror at the King's Head, which came to an end just after the Christmas season, Snow White was a six foot four dame more than able to look after herself. There, I've tried to justify the links, or not, between two shows with accomplished singer-actors carrying material of varying qualities. My thanks to theartsdesk's resident photographer Bill Knight for the pantopics, and to the Southwark Playhouse photos of Scott Ryland.

If you hadn't heard - and a lot of my friends, unlike adorable Jinkx Monsoon on RuPaul's Drag Race, had never even come across the original - Grey Gardens got turned into a musical giving the Ediths more of what they'd always wanted - more song, more dance. It finally arrived at the Southwark Playhouse with two consummate showgals in the lead: Sheila Hancock - whom I well remember as Mrs Lovett to Dennis Quilley's demon barber in the London premiere of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd - as Edith senior in her old age (Ms Hancock is 80, and still croons rather beautifully), and a personal favourite, Jenna Russell, of whom one can usually only sigh 'lovely lady, lovely lady' as my favourite teacher Mr 'Tibby' Bircher used to do over Desdemona. Here she's only a little bit lovely, but very funny, in a double act as Edith in her prime and 'Little' Edie past hers.

The headscarved, self-styled revolutionary fashionista was a good deal more softly spoken in real life; Russell does a hilarious version which often veers into Australian. No matter; she gets the best number, the opener of Act Two, alongside which the rest tends to be either nostalgic pastiche or sub-Sondheim patter with some infelicitous rhymes and stresses. Composer Scott Frankel is pretty good, but Stevie he ain't (who could be when such geniuses only come along once in a lifetime?) and if Doug Wright's book along with Michael Korie's lyrics are aiming at the sophistication of The Philadelphia Story in Act One, they don't come close. As for the slice of life that is Grey Gardens the documentary, amazingly it's all on YouTube, though can't be embedded, so follow the link here. A still, in the meantime, will have to suffice.

Nevertheless the crazy-family set-up which gives some kind of context to the 'prologue' - a whole act - of 1941 is well enough portrayed in the clutter of Thom Sutherland's slick Southwark production, and though I didn't much care for the token camp bunged into the script, Jeremy Legat as George Gould Strong, Edith's resident musical genius, sure could play, act and sing. Not so certain about Young 'Little'/'Body Beautiful' Edie in the somewhat strident tones of Rachel Anne Rayham - surely nobody needed mikes in that place, stuck on their foreheads like unbecoming tikka marks - but she had a neat song-and-dance number, a bit reminiscent of Street Scene's 'Moon Faced, Starry Eyed', with the dashing Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr of Aaron Sidwell ('somewhere in Athens a plinth is missing its statue' got the measure of it).

Act Two needed better torchsong numbers, but Hancock did carry off 'Jerry [the boy who visits and does small kindnesses for the recluses, also played by Sidwell] likes my corn' . Didn't think much of 'Around the World' or 'Another Winter in a Summer Town', and the sentimental ending dragged; the real crux was 'Little' Edie's cri de coeur in the climactic argument - dialogue, regrettably - where Russell's ever-impressive truthfulness kicked in. Not the greatest of musicals, then, but a real treat at close quarters - and what a luxury to have such an excellent nine-piece band under Michael Bradley (can they make any money at the Southwark Playhouse?).

I love that part of town, Borough heading on towards the hopeless case of the Elephant and Castle, and I love Islington in the patches which aren't chain restaurants and cafes - to whit the King's Head Pub and Theatre where we used to go for supper and shows of high quality, and where we now try to catch everything put on by charismatic singer/impresario John Savournin and his Charles Court Opera. After his triumph as a 'Judge Judy' of sorts in an hysterically funny Trial by Jury,  Savournin gave us Snow White the Dame, mourning her late husband Barry and subsequently the murder of dwarf  Half Baked.

That naming's a result of one running gag - that Disney's copyright-crazed heirs don't like the original names to be used, so out went Dopey, for instance. All seven, being impersonated by Matthew Kellett, never appeared on stage at the same time until the curtain call.

Here's a joke I rather like, not that it featured in the panto: did you know that six out of seven dwarfs aren't Happy? (Audience groans).

As we know, this is a highly professional, energetic company of opera singers who do pretty good dance routines to boot; as J said, you can't fail to like them and laugh along. Lovely work, as always, from Amy J Payne as the Prince and Nichola Jolley as her Dandiniesque sidekick, destined for frogdom. All the ingredients of traditional panto were here. I imagine Savournin has studied the doyen(ne) of pantomime dames and script writers Eric Potts, who held his own alongside Dame Edna Everage in Wimbledon's superb Dick Whittington. There were the necessary couplets, the obligatory kitchen-chaos theme with audience participation, asked for or not,

and while I missed the evening performance not having any kids among us, I'm very grateful to the company for singing 'Happy Birthday' to Dancing Delice aka goddaughter Mirabel when she went with her little friends for a matinee before Christmas. Mother Edsy has seen the show four times, and I can see what appealed to the animal-dressing artist in the glove-puppet backing group for two numbers which made us roar with laughter. It's also all too easy to forget that the entire show is carried by five talented performers on a tiny stage and a master musician at the keyboard(s). Onwards, then, CCO, and may we see your Patience soon, pray.