Archive | March, 2014

Visit to the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh – 24 March 2014

26 Mar

Parliament sideOne of those visits I have been putting off for years. The Enric Miralles design has always been in my head a muddled failure, a confused, over-ornamented building. Having now visited it I still think the external treatment of the façades is too fragmented and the mix of materials, despite being symbolic, over-complicates what could have been a much cleaner look.

This muddle becomes most obvious on the staircase leading up to the debating chamber. Within a 20 metre run the surface underfoot alternates from concrete, to oak and granite a confusing sequence that add very little to the actual experience. One undeniable fact is the quality of the construction, the concrete surfaces are seductively well finished with a subtle sheen and a velvety touch. Especially the grand entrance hall with its almost medieval vaulted appearance has a sense of pleasing solidity and the quirky angled skylights bring in the sun in unexpected ways.

The debating chamber itself is a wonderful space to sit in. Warm, welcoming and open. The view of Holyrood Palace and the surrounding hills at unconventional angles becomes a fascinating play of light and creates a connection with the outside world unlike most parliament buildings that are hermetically sealed. It is also fascinating that the busy roof structure, heavily rigged with lights, speakers and monitors ensures the constant streaming of the proceedings go out in the best possible quality, with each MP having three spotlights pointed at them at all times. Democracy in action is now a game that is livestreamed online.

The external landscaping hugs the contours of the site with great elegance but judging by the bare patches of the grassed-up banks, the users of the space like to cut across the long walkways which look great in CAD but are not that user-friendly when one is in a rush or walking their dog. I am also not a fan of pools of water in such a northern climate, architects fall in love with reflecting their ego aka buildings in water, not taking into account the implications for maintenance and location.

If you are in Edinburgh and like modern architecture it is well worth a visit. Miralles provided a building of distinction if a little bit too indebted to a language of post modern ornament and quoting too directly natural forms that many may find gimmicky.

 

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Two Manons in MK / Boulevard Solitude + Manon Lescaut / Welsh National Opera / Milton Keynes Theatre – 13+14 March 2014

24 Mar

WNO Boulevard + ManonThe programming of the Welsh National Opera under David Pountney’s leadership is continuing to explore themed seasons that make an intellectual argument in addition to adding to the repertoire mix of what must be Britain’s most ambitious regional opera company. Currently it looks at fallen women, a subject that fascinated composers and librettists and created some of the most frequently performed works, like La Traviata and Madama Butterfly.

The particular pairing of the story of Manon and how it was treated by Henze and Puccini is one of those rare opportunities to look anew at those two works and to uncover the common threads that run across them, especially with one director working on both works. Trelinski brought across his Manon Lescaut production as seen at La Monnaie  two years ago and intriguingly he built his new production of Boulevard Solitude as a development of the same ideas. A very suitable way of working when one deals with the same story despite the diversity of treatment by the two composers.

Boulevard Solitude was for me the great winner of this gamble by WNO. The fragmented reality modernism of the set and direction. Heavily dependent of imaginative use of body doubles of Manon to display her states of being was a great match for the Henze’s rather playful jazzy score that fizzes and pops with the use of vibraphone, glockenspiel and an assortment of xylophones and moving mandolin cadenzas. In lesser hands this score could have been a souped up mess but Henze adds nuance and feeling in the sheer variety of his vocal writing, particularly apparent in his treatment of the male and female singers.  He is obviously regaling in bringing the nocturnal, sleazy jazziness into the heart of the score.

Boulevard Solitude was clearly the stand out production where Trelinski and Henze truly had a meaningful meeting of intellects. His treatment of the story puts a visual emphasis on the one true sypher of the work, Manon herself. Sarah Tynan becomes the available femme fatale in her underwear and suspenders wandering across the three part set (railway station / bar / apartment) in a vicious cycle of destruction and the one that gets split in three personalities by the use of two actresses/body doubles. The overall effect is a surreal dream of Manon through the eyes of Des Grieux but without any of the implied misogyny of the her downfall being a payback for her immoral actions. This Manon is as fragmented and as complex as the score and libretto imply. Her singing as strong as one would hope and filled with a particularly appropriate frosty sexuality.

The telling casting of Des Grieux with a young all american singer is a clever choice, as Jason Bridges offered the wide-eyed simplicity and the unshakable belief in true love. The Lescaut of Benjamin Bevan was a solid attempt at an utter sleazeball, a man only ruled by the morality of money and pimping his own sister. The Lilaque of Adrian Thompson sounded a little bit pinched at times but delivered a spirited performance that underpins most of the director’s concept. The common thread of all seven scenes is the gradual lead to Lilaque’s shooting by Manon. In the first scene two police officers put numbers on the floor and take photographs of the supposed crime scene, later on the bloodless body of Lilaque will lie there in position to be drawn around with chalk. By the time he is shot in the final scene we are all complicit to the conclusion of this human drama. We expect it and yet we are gripped by Manon lifting her gun and shooting the old man. Tellingly Lilaque, a creature of luxury and excess, smears his own blood all over his face after being shot, as if to enjoy the taste of his own blood before he dies. An image both repugnant and yet in character for a man who consumption is the core of his being. He goes full circle and consumes his own blood.

Manon Lescaut was much less successful as Trelinski diverts too much from Puccini’s ideas and gets fascinated by the psychology of the characters. The overall darkness and sense of isolation and misanthropy that emanates from the direction is a very intriguing mix and it does concentrate the ear to Puccini’s more modernist stylings that usually get lost in period productions and their decorative sets. But the main failing is the lack of a sense of place. The faceless railway station set and how it metamorphoses into a high society salon and a train carriage is very well done but it lacks any individuality. The fast paced action with many actors, the half naked prostitutes and the impotent Geronte who takes off his oxygen mask and uses it to smell the genitals of one of the dancers adds to the dystopian feel and look. Manon again becomes the great unknown with body doubles that show up and create cinematic tableaux.

His great idea is for Act Four to be a post-death meeting for the two lovers in the purgatory of the railway station. They connect and disconnect in an endless parade of different facets of their lives up to that point. A great intellectual idea that adds much needed emotional weight to a production that stuns by its coldness and meat market treatment of the human body. At least Manon’s final scene is left without any clever interventions and Chiara Taigi is left to weave her dark hued voice into a spine tingling finale. The video projection of hills and wilderness, making the only reference to Puccini’s Louisiana desert setting. The deportation scene earlier on was turned into a cruel freak show with bystanders lifting cards to mark each prisoner as they cat walked their degraded self down this path of scorn. A horrid depiction of Manon’s downfall and a time when the sleek surface of the direction shows this self-satisfied crowd as the main villain of the work. Manon is being judged by society and cast aside.

A night at the opera should not always be a comfortable night of entertainment and after leaving this Manon I was left with many questions and thinking about the nature of the work but ultimately felt that it was a let down at an emotional level. The singing by Gwyn Hughes Jones, (who started in an underwhelming fashion) and David Kempster (in full on 1980s pimp mode in white suit and silver chain)  was ideal in creating the two opposites male characters that dominate Manon’s life and add further contrast.

Both productions benefited by the excellent conducting of Lothar Koenigs and the clearly well rehearsed orchestra and chorus. The multifaceted nature of Henze’s writing was brought in vibrant, quivering life by the alertness of the instrumental solos. Puccini’s score was also rendered with great vibrancy and made me notice the lurking modernism under the 18th century gloss. Also worth mentioning the stage management team of WNO who have to tour those busy productions around England and Wales while keeping continuity despite the different capabilities of each venue.

WNO Boulevard + Manon List

Curtain Calls

Some tweets from the two evenings

Click here to read the very interesting Trelinski interview on the two productions 

Visit to the Riverside Museum, Glasgow – 21 March 2014

22 Mar

ZahaManaged to visit for the first time Zaha Hadid’s Riverside Museum and I can declare that was less underwhelmed than I thought I would be. The way the building reads from afar is not particularly alluring or that sleek looking (the metal skin looks far too patchy from the distance, while strangely looking much more unified at close inspection) but Hadid’s references to the curvature of the river and the nearby warehouses comes through and despite the strange choice of a pistachio green colour for the interior of the roof, the building feels welcoming and spacious.

The displays tend to jar from two styles, the old fashioned “period street” look full of recreated shops to the over-designed motorbike and car displays that scale the walls. The most satisfying aspect are the shop-like parade of fairly standard looking rooms for individual modes of transport and eras. Particularly good examples are one on the 1950s and one on Glasgow’s cinema boom in the 1930s. The bright green portals hiding both the doors for when the displays are being swapped and also create a bright visual rhythm across that parade. A quirky addition is the model ship conveyor belt on the top floor adding movement and visual interest.

Hadid’s staircase to the upper floor is also very successful in harnessing the angular language of the building with a post modernist twist. Again the choice of that green is unfortunate and verging on the quirky.

But I was very surprised to see that the inset architectural lighting is made out of neon tubes. A very expensive and difficult to look after medium, as proven by the over ten tubes that were not functioning just three years after the opening. Let’s hope Glasgow Museums will have the deep pockets to look after this star-architect product and hopefully help the regeneration of the surrounding area.

More information

The home page of the museum

Information on the project on Zaha Hadid’s office website

Sing-along Bizet / Pop-up Opera / Le Docteur Miracle / Drink, Shop & Do – 10 March 2014

11 Mar

Pop-up Opera Dr MiracleI may not be the world’s biggest fan of small scale/fringe opera efforts. But last night’s performance of Bizet’s Le Docteur Miracle largely changed my mind by offering an appropriate work in the appropriate setting. Bizet’s youthful effort was after all written for a competition organised by Jacques Offenbach and is both suitable frothy and requires a small cast of singers.  Here we didn’t feel like we are missing out on the great orchestral colours of mature Puccini and Verdi but more like discovering repertoire rarely performed and in a format that would make it an entertaining introduction to the world of opera. 

The theme of food runs through the plot of the work and here was given a Masterchef twist, while adding segments of Carmen to the mix (apologies for the obviously awful pun). The projections accompanying particularly the omelette quartet were hilarious with quotes sourced from the TV programme and topical news references. Audience participation was not too taxing even if some got kissed and cuddled by the daughter of the family (Laurette) most of the time we contributed ingredients to the egg mix, clapped along, sang a bit of Carmen karaoke or even played hang man with the dramatically bearded Dr Miracle. It was all good fun and didn’t try too hard to be a tedious animateur routine. 

The performances by the four singers were suitably bubbly and fun. The childish enthusiasm of Aurélia Jonvaux was the driving force for most of the plot alongside the comical reinventions of Robert Lomax who metamorphosed in Dr Miracle after having spent the previous two hours in a chef’s outfit and stripped down to his boxer shorts and t-shirt.  The impressive presence of both Sarah Champion and Benjamin Seifert helped create the contrast for the slapstick of the younger characters to flourish. Like any other shoestring opera production special mention for the long suffering pianist, Elizabeth Challenger who played with spark and ebullience.

If you fancy a good belly laugh and like your opera silly it is worth catching up with this mobile opera company. Find more about their tour here: http://popupopera.co.uk/whats-on I can imagine even the grump of the family will have a little smile at the end of the show.

Pop-up Opera Dr Miracle List

A few tweets from the evening 

Branded by Jones / Rodelinda / English National Opera – 2 March 2014

10 Mar

ENO RodelindaLove him or hate him Richard Jones is a meticulous and provocative director. He surely thinks through his productions and tends to vehemently stick to the ideas that underpin them. Saw his Rodelinda for ENO  a week ago (his first Handel opera in 18 years) and still swirls around my head. His take on Handel is full of contradictions and theatricality, full of poetic moments and uncomfortable silliness.

For all his splashy visuals this production come through as thoughtful and wanting to pick an intellectual argument with its audience. Rodelinda’s role in this opera is thoroughly dissected. She becomes the object of fascination that is spied on by CCTV cameras. The play thing of destiny that threatens to crush her. But also the strong, virtuous mother that will fight to her last breath for her son and her social position.  Despite the busy production, including some unnecessary projections in between scenes that are meant to introduce us to the next locale accompanied by very loud pre-recorded soundtrack and the three damned treadmills . The centre of the action never wavers far away from Rebecca Evans. She brings unique dignity and vigour to the part with spectacular singing.

Jones’ central visual motif is the presence of tattoos, to denote relationships and changes to the state of mind of the characters. Grimoaldo initially sports one with the name of Eduige and as he starts falling for Rodelinda he quickly gets it covered up and a huge new one across his back spells the name of his captive and under surveillance prey. The exploration of the use of body marking to express love, being a great match for the production’s setting in Italy in the 1950s. The time when tattooing started to break free from the confines of prisons and the navy and started to denote a fashionable tribe badge. This aesthetic choice even adorns the artwork on the programme cover.

In this opera people that are brought together by circumstances and breeding are brutally separated by politics and animosity. The indelible mark on one’s skin becomes an act of emotional engagement and an attempt to brand one’s feeling for all to see. That mix of public display and vying for attention is at the heart of this work.  As the central power triangle of Rodelinda, Bertatido and Grimoaldo is motivated by a potent mix of sex and political power. The impressive sets by Jeremy Herbert (especially the impossibly phallic monument to Bertarido) convey a polished, design conscious Italy of the  post Musolini era, a perfect setting for a work that is so enamoured with the surface of power and the nature of love.

The only seriously problematic choices  were the use of slapstick  particularly in the last Act, turning violent confrontations into a Tom and Jerry cartoon fight, getting hold of progressively bigger weapons until the ultimate cartoon weapon shows up to the chagrin of the audience…the oversized dynamite roll that is used to explode Bertarido’s monument. A diversion into farce that undid many poignant moments of the previous two hours.  The other issue was the presence of the three treadmills at the front of the stage used most of the time as a cliche to animate when the different characters chased one another and seemed to not be that integrated in the overall design by being obstructive and at times becoming just immobile pedestals creating an obstacle course for the singers. Maybe an aspect to re-think before the staging moves on to The Bolshoi in the near future.

The two moments of absolute beauty that will remain indelible in my memory is Rodelinda’s mourning aria  Ombre, piante, urne funeste, staged in the simplest fashion possible putting the focus on Evans and her hear wrenching, achingly gorgeous singing. As she laments the supposed loss of her husband at the base of his monument. One of those very special moments that make the world feel immobile, the ultimate declaration of sadness and loss.

But the greatest moment of this production came at the end of Act Two with Io t’abbraccio man and wife have finally come together once more but the world around them has irrevocably changed. Jones’ had the ingenious idea to use the separated three part set as the material manifestation of the mind of the two singing characters and the mute presence of the crushed Grimoaldo in the centre. As the two lovers sing their rooms move apart to the side of the stage until they disappear into the grey walls leaving the pathetic figure of the fallen dictator isolated and broken.  An image so potent and when accompanied by such wonderful, passionate singing and Handel’s ethereal music became a great example of how opera above most art forms can express emotion in the most direct way possible, devastating in its potency and yet life affirming.

The two tremendous vocal triumphs by Evans and Davies were underpinned by the light voiced purity of Christopher Ainslie who created a notable contrast to the more muscular sound of Davies, relieving any possibility of counter-tenor fatigue. Despite all the involved acting by John Mark Ainsley sounded uncomfortable on the higher lying parts of his role, making some of his arias feel like hard work. Susan Bickley acquitted herself nicely with her usual colourful, characterful singing.

The conducting by Christian Curnyn was of the high standard, we have come to expect from him. Well judged tempi and a definite rapport with the cast. It was a shame the pit wasn’t raised slightly as it was done for Castor and Pollux but I’d think it has to do with sharing the venue with Rigoletto on alternate nights. But it was a delight to have Handel’s glorious score being played with such fluency and love. And in a production that despite any farcical diversions was emotionally potent and a great exponent of what the ENO does best, though-provoking director’s opera. If you can make it, well worth catching the handful of performances left or pop over to Radio 3 and listen to the live broadcast from last Saturday. 

ENO Rodelinda List

The ENO Podcast

Some tweets from the evening

Radio broadcast promotion on a different level

8 Mar

wig-red.pngThis morning on Twitter was notable for the tragicomic tweets of Iestyn Davies, trying to bring to his followers’ attention that tonight’s performance of Rodelinda is live on Radio 3.

Clearly informed by all the reviews and a few sour blogs written about the production he probably made a much better promotional effort than any official opera house twitter account could have ever hope to.

As a tribute to the hilarity and oddball passion here are some of those tweets 😉

I saw the production last Sunday and has been swirling around my head ever since. My thoughts will settle in the form of a blog post…soon. In the meantime listen to the radio this evening, it was musically very rewarding.

While ENO’s promo was a bit more…sedate

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