Tag Archives: Mark Anthony Turnage

My top 11 discoveries / realisations of 2011

19 Dec

This was a pretty intense year and thought it would be good to make a list of inspirational mainly operatic highs of 2011

1 Twitter

It was the first full year that I’ve used the network as a great resource for news and also as direct communication on matters operatic and not. Met some great people through it and started some very interesting conversations.

2 Beverly Sills

This year I immersed myself in the recorded output of the diva from Brooklyn. A great artist with an intriguing personality to boot. Surely one of the finest coloratura sopranos of the 20th century and worth going back to her for renewal and inspiration.

3 Veronique Gens

The year (almost) started with her magisterial Niobe at Covent Garden and finished with her fantastic  recital at Wigmore Hall. A diva cut off the old cloth of greatness.

4 Allan Clayton

First noticed him this year in a small part in Britten’s Dream, then I saw him triumph in Castor and Pollux and L’Enfance du Christ. A loud voice for the future, hope ENO and RO will give him more substantial roles to sink his teeth into.

5 Iestyn Davis

Never one for countertenors, but his performance in Britten’s Dream was magnetic and his Niobe contribution very substantial. A young British voice to shake up the world of opera and early music.

6 LSO

Have always loved the London Symphony Orchestra but this year they have been stunning. Also one of the most adept to Twitter orchestras on the planet. A band all Londoners should be proud of and should patronise with frequency.

7 Anne Sophie von Otter

Like a well aged Claret, ASvO is a European treasure. Her captivating Wigmore Hall recital was intoxicating to the max. Greatness without the hollow diva attitude. Looking forward to her LSO collaboration early in  February 2012.

8 Alice Coote

Listened to her sing Les nuits d’été years ago at the Proms and was terribly impressed, her triumphantly sulky Prince Charmant in Cendrillon was breathtaking. Her upcoming Winterreise  at Wigmore Hall will be an early highlight of 2012 (there are still a few tickets left, grab them quickly!)

9 Joyce DiDonato

The Yankeediva is a charismatic performer that elevated Cendrillon to stratospheric heights, her Ariodante was to die for, despite the awful orchestra and still a fun Twitter person to have disagreements and banter with.

10 Mark-Anthony Turnage

He gave us Anna Nicole, which was plethoric in its gay abandon and a great showcase for the considerable gifts of Eva Maria Westbroek, the darkness of Twice Through the Heart with the excellent Sarah Connolly and his remarkable music for Undance.

11 Sylvie Guillem

Managed to see her new mixed bill evening at Sadler’s Wells in its two outings back in early July and late September. She was absolutely wonderful both times. A rare dance treat. She continues to be the measure of all dancers, a standard for excellence.

If you had an epiphany of an artistic nature in 2011, feel free to add your top whatever in the comment section and Merry Xmas 😉

Murderous passions and Muybridge / Twice Through the Heart + Undance / Sadler’s Wells – 3 December 2011

5 Dec

A night of passion, conflict and energetic dance. That would possibly be the simplest way to sum up the advertised ‘evening in two parts’. Once more I am grateful that Sadler’s Wells continues to support new productions that are experimental and bring together collaborators of that high quality.  Turnage’s Twice Through the Heart is (in complete reversal to its premiere by English National Opera) used to extend the evening due to Undance being too short to be the only work of the evening. And we have to be grateful, as having the chance to listen to Sarah Connolly is always a treat.

TTH is a wonderful scena, cum operatic monologue. The libretto is made of Jackie Kay’s poetry, based on her script for a 1993 TV programme having as its subject Amelia Rossiter, a pensioner who murdered her abusive husband and was finally released on appeal. Kay’s poetry creates the confines for Turnage to paint the scene with an expressionist flair. In at times chilling contributions from the percussion, jazz quotations and Alban Bergesque angular strings creating tension. The vocal writing is very much in the same mode as the darker moments of this year’s Anna Nicole, that I enjoyed very much.  Turnage is managing to create a complete soundworld with only sixteen musicians (in this case including his wife  and brilliant cellist, Gabriella Swallow, who also fixed the band of players for these performances). Sarah Connolly did delve into the core of the character in her bluish/purple patterned blouse and camel skirt, unfolding the story of a suffocating paternalistic society and how the suffering of domestic abuse can drive one to the extremes. Unfortunately she had to sing behind a semi transparent screen in order to allow for the 3D projections to be shown on by (the very new media titled) OpenEndedGroup who created drawings with a chalky texture. Sometimes they occupied the opposite end of the stage as Connolly and others they would take over the whole stage. I’m feeling torn about them as I’m finding Connolly highly watchable in this piece without the need for the projection, her table and chair would have been fine for me. But this is a dance venue and most people I’d imagine came for the second half, so adding an extra visual element was a good commercial decision. When the drawings were very scratchy and shifting in perspective mirroring the thickening texture of the music, it worked well. But this was from my standpoint, coloured by the excellent performance by the orchestra and Connolly, who sang with deep conviction, marvellous diction and crystal clear projection. No wonder she has been much in demand (as the programme puts it too). The incisive cooler voice she found for the character was a perfect match to the material. The drama culminated with her undressing down to her negligee and singing China Cup, the last part while she tumbles and writhes on the floor and makes her way to the table and chair to sing her last phrases ‘Locked in, locked in’.  A truly riveting half an hour. Kay’s poetry and its shifting metaphors and focus on female experience, Turnage’s colourful music, beautifully played sang by one of the undeniable star mezzos of our era. Shame how she only got a pretty short burst of applause…had this been the ENO we would be clapping for another ten minutes.

After a much needed ice cream and spotting both Connolly and Turnage at the foyer the time came for the main event of the night, Undance, the collaboration of Turnage/Wallinger/McGregor. Against most usual ways of putting a new dance piece together and against most traditional involvement of a visual artist with a choreographer, here Wallinger essentially put the parameters on the table that both the composer and the choreographer had to take as the basis for development. Mark Wallinger is a fascinating, varied and truly profound contemporary artist. His obsessions have been: the class system, war, religion and pop culture. His reflections on those themes have always been ambivalent and mostly quiet. He was possibly the only one artist of the YBA generation that did not compromise his integrity and did not grow predictable.

Clearly the collaboration was intense and based on a text given to them by Wallinger to start the conversation. It was about performative actions DO/UNDO/UNDANCE as the programme puts it. His starting thesis is the work of Eadweard Muybridge and his set up for his series of photographs published as: The Human and Animal Locomotion Photographs. He used a three meter high grid backdrop that was based on Alberti’s veil, the archetypal measurement system used in western art as a way to bring the 3D world on the 2D surface of a painting. Muybridge captured movement and for the first time studied in detail animal and human movement in frozen in time moments. He was also a showman and with his zoopraxiscope he toured and lectured about his new discoveries under the name Helios (meaning Sun in ancient Greek).  The exhibition last year at Tate Britain (and the Corcoran in Washington, earlier) must have been a huge source of inspiration for all three. Even the staging seemed to use the back projection in the same way as Tate’s exhibition had in the last room, where a glazed wall made all visitors specimens in front of a Muybridge/Alberti grid. In the staging the dancers (wearing flesh coloured two piece outfits) were dancing in front of a full length screen that shows out of sync video of them against the grid. Either side there is a backlit photo canvas with a UN compound gate somewhere in the world (possibly Afghanistan?). The idea of the United Nations as the failed force that is trying to undo the bad politically motivated actions of different governments around the world is clearly part of the concept. It may be seen as one of Wallinger’s cruel jokes or as an extension of his interest with modern warfare and politics. Most strikingly expressed by his 2007 State Britain installation in the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain, where he recreated Brian Haw’s banners and protest camp as originally was set up opposite the Houses of Parliament. A striking confrontation with a fiction of one’s imagination (as the Met Police confiscated and destroyed most of the original banners) some instant archaeology of our recent past. It was a butch pronouncement of anti war sympathy but with an economy of means that made it both intriguing and visually striking. In many ways Undance is similar in that front, the following sections became the basis of the choreography: Action/Iteration/Mirroring/Reversal and vice versa. This creates open ended movements that fold into each other and reopen the same section. A continuous unfolding story over four movements doubled up/mirrored to become eight.

The first four movements have obvious fades from theme to theme, where Turnage’s music is distinctive between them creating a spare, frequently strings dominated soundstage. Strikingly a brass marching band like sound is giving vitality to a brisk third movement where all ten dancers are intertwining in pairs and slowly engaging as one group. Violins and cellos gave an intimate, jazzy, sexy sound to the fourth movement, a heated Pas de deux almost reminiscent of Kenneth MacMillan held the stage. The movement quoted Muybridge photographs throughout and found its culmination in a live zoopraxiscope like display at the end of the seventh movement when a strobe light gave the circular running of the dancers look like one of Mr Helios’s touring projections, concluding with the music dying down and the heavy breathing of the dancers becoming the sound till the lights fade once more. The last movement summed up all the broken movements in pairs and the en masse group actions into an almost training camp exercise class, with arms rotating in the air, that led to the culmination of a grandiose unfolding of the dancers using the perspectival depth of the stage. Creating a visual reference to the Darwinian development of man from the ape to homo sapiens and of course a reference to the progressive nature of Muybridge’s series of photographs allowing the progressive unfolding of a single movement. This last thrust of the dancers froze on its final unfold into this beautiful human fan shape. A logical and handsome end of this exuberant but idea heavy new dance creation.

For hardcore fans of Wayne MacGregor this evening may have possibly been a disappointment, as his much more aggressive  confrontational style was virtually absent but Turnage’s accomplished, varied and highly danceable music gave the piece a sharp focus on physicality and a melting flow. Wallinger’s shaping role created an interesting frame for the other collaborators to react against and to be constrained by. In many ways it lacked the astounding wow of a truly incredible creation and had more the searching intellectual brand of Wallinger’s other work, it left me questioning and wanting more. He is scheduled to work on a new ballet for the Royal Ballet next year, to which I’m looking forward to already. Undance will surely return to Sadler’s Wells next year in order to recoup some of its costs, as usual with their own productions. If the above seems interesting look out for it in 2012.

Find out more:

Mark Wallinger’s text is reproduced in full on Random Dance’s website

http://www.randomdance.org/productions/past_productions/undance/scenario

Muybridge was the recent subject of a play / Studies in Motion: The Hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge: 

http://exposureroom.com/members/dmbvideo/46ab09abae764eeb921ab9d52d5b643e/ )

A 2002 Guardian interview with Jackie Kay:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2002/jan/12/fiction.features

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s official bio: 

http://www.boosey.com/pages/cr/composer/composer_main.asp?composerid=16405&ttype=BIOGRAPHY&ttitle=Biography/

State Britain by Mark Wallinger:

http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/mark-wallinger-state-britain

 

Anna Nicole

2 Mar

I’m putting out there a few of my thoughts after seeing the opera this evening, feel free to comment and share your views on it.

Why I went
When I booked my tickets back in October 2010 I did on the strength of my fantastic experience with Niobe Regina di Tebe which was brilliant and totally out of the usual fare at Covent Garden. A new commission was carrying the promise of something interesting and a possibility to see a work outside the usual canonical programming choices. Another important motivation was the cast, having Eva-Maria Westbroek and Gerald Finley committing themselves to the project left very little doubt in my mind that it would be worthwhile.
Let’s fast forward a few months and March 1st arrives and my turn has come! Today was the fifth performance of the work and my chance to experience it. Read a number of reviews in the last week and a half since the premiere and had seen far too many production shots to have a good idea what the opera was like!
The music writing
The friend that accompanied me found it accomplished but cold and superficial. Which got us talking on what avenue Turnage took with Anna Nicole. He went for a (well reported by this stage) bluesy, US jazz sound with echoes of Stravinsky in his US retirement. In many ways that could be seen as a safe choice verging on the superficial route. In my mind he could have gone a much more melodramatic route and give us a Traviata for the 21st century and I’m glad he didn’t do that. The writing is fairly small-scale in most passages with more focused crescendi around pivotal points in the plot. It allows the singing to shine through and in my mind the two absolute stars with the best material were Anna Nicole (Eva-Maria Westbroek) and old man Marshall (Alan Oke). They were given enough interaction with other characters and they both managed to create warm stage personas that could communicate to the audience the heart of the story.
Staging
I thought it was very effective and actually it felt less glitzy than the publicity shots, which was a very positive surprise. One major failure was the way they portrayed Wal-Mart (as the archetypal evil empire…all very original, I know), with the same old faceless workers trying to make ends meet with the minimum wage. The supposed ironic use of the uniform to show their unhappiness just felt too cliché and surely needed a lighter hand…maybe Richard Jones got carried away by the really didactic bit of libretto that accompanied the scene?

Acting
Westbroek, gave us an Anna Nicole that is playful, vulnerable, ignorant, dependant, questioning, loving, fun, compassionate. She had also captured some of Smith’s physical expressions and body characteristics that gave her a theatrical completeness. The way she carried herself in the Larry King interview scene was masterful, she was a lovable rogue, at once a junkie and at the same time a girl with dreams and an acute love of dogs *giggle*. All very Anna Nicole and surely a great shorthand for Smith’s public persona. The way she was personified I felt compassion and even protective of her and never thought she was becoming a monstrous caricature, which in my eyes is a major achievement.

The od(bv)ious elephant in the room
The Libretto, Richard Thomas came up with a million and one descriptions of breasts which it momentarily amused but quickly seemed overwrought and silly. Another major misstep were the ariettas written for Virgie, Anna Nicole’s mother (Susan Bickley), a lot of the reviews I have read praise her as the moral centre to this tale of celebrity excess. I have to disagree, most of the lines she was given were just preachy and trite. Especially at the close of Act One her description of the relationship of men and women was going to such an extreme to make it plain show-offish gibberish, was Thomas just trying too hard to shock with adding cum bucket in the libretto? It did not shock me, it just made me question his motives and the more I think the less I trust his heart, with this character, was in the right place. Also another mention that was really pointless and just there for effect was in Finlay’s “Hollywood” moment in the Second Act where he mentions her lesbian PA and how Anna Nicole was riding her…it just seemed such an easy way to a gag that made it pointless and with an unwelcome hint of misogyny. Another issue for me was in the,otherwise, truly effective finale when he made Anna Nicole utter America you whore, which was just a horribly predictable and cliché response to the shuttering of the American dream. For me it ruined a couple of minutes of her monologue before the end which was a true shame, as Eva-Maria was truly remarkable as she is dying in a maelstrom of cameras recording her last moments.

In Conclusion
Anna Nicole may not be revolutionary theatrically or musically but is an interesting addition to the annals of contemporary opera. It was thrilling to watch, despite it’s -mainly- textual failings. The story is coming through loud and clear and the space for character development is there and all it needs is a really good cast to sympathise with the material and bring it to life. The Royal Opera has indeed endowed it’s first outing with a wonderful cast that is both inspirational and starry. For me the greatest achievement of the night was Eva-Maria giving a heart-felt performance with true empathy and understanding. I really hope that we will see her more and more in London in the coming years as she is a truly interesting singer with a great voice and magnetic presence. Of course the big overall question is how much will the work suffer in the hands of a less charismatic lead? I do think a less engaging soprano will expose the numerous shortcomings of the libretto. Let’s hope that if the production is sold to another company or when it returns to the Royal Opera they will iron out some of the clunky dialogue and crass references that have no place in it and do actually jar with the music.

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