Yuletide Arts

Watch it ‘Time Out’, or the Culture Vulture’s Guide to Christmas

Far and away the most interesting theatre happenings this Christmas are taking place at The Place (Duke’s Road, close to Euston Station). Let me try to dispel the myth at once. All that goes on there is not for the devoted few, nor is it the obscure, didactic and deliberately esoteric stuff that the opponents of modern dance would have us believe. Sure, it’s nothing like what’s going on at the Garden. (And I say that with a huge sigh of relief!), but a good deal of it is clearer, more honest and certainly less cluttered. If you’ve never been to The Place, I can recommend it from many angles, besides the originality of its production. The price is right to start – tickets are usually 60p and 90p. The atmosphere is very relaxed and unpretentious. Definitely no dressing up! But despite all this, the audience is well mixed. The Place may have the informality of a club, but there’s no feeling of everyone having to wear the modern equivalent of the ‘old school tie’.

From December 18 until January 6 the resident London Contemporary Dance Theatre present a number of new works and the first London performance of a new piece by Robert North, one of the Company’s lead dancers, entitled ‘Brian’.

‘Dance Energies’, a new work by May O’Donnell recieves its world premiere on the opening night of the season. Also in the programme is Richard Alston’s ‘Tiger Balm’, remarkable not only for Robert North’s stunningly sinewy (and full frontal nude) performance as the tiger (no gasps in this audience) but also for the sometimes elegiac, sometimes anarchic choreography, which sticks irrevocably in the mind. The programme is completed by Robert Cohan’s ‘People Alone’. Here we encounter members of the Company in a series of solos, in which each expresses his or her own private misery, linked by comments from an updated version of the Greek chorus (they don’t sing of course, and wear what looks like satin jumpsuits, but don’t let that put you off, they’re great!)

Cohan (who is also director of the Company) was seriously ill earlier in the year. The original premiere was postponed several times, since he was not able to devote the time to it that he had anticipated. In fact, I understand that the work is still evolving. But when I saw it for the first time back in the summer, I was bowled over, so I am anxious to see how it has developed in the last few months.

Another highlight of the season is the British premiere of a work by American choreographer, Lotte Goslar, who is known for the clever use of circus elements in her shows. It’s entitled (temporarily) ‘Goslar Piece’.

At the London Coliseum, Sadler’s Wells Opera has gone ‘light’ on us. Over the Christmas period there will be just two productions on show – ‘The Merry Widow’ and ‘Die Fledermaus’.

Dec.
21 Merry Widow
22 Die Fledermaus
Theatre closed until
27 Merry Widow
28 Die Fledermaus
29 Merry Widow
30 Merry Widow
Jan
1 Merry Widow
2 Die Fledermaus

At the Royal Opera House, things are somewhat more varied (there’s always the incredible ugly sisters of Messrs Ashton and Helpmann in ‘Cinderella’ to give things a fun lift off, even if nothing else quite matches them).

Dec
21 Cosi fan tutte
22 Afternoon of a Faun/Giselle
23 Matinee – Cinderella
Evening – Cosi fan tutte
Theatre closed until
26 Cinderella (matinee & evening)
27 Cosi fan tutte
28 Rigoletto
29 Cosi fan tutte
30 Matinee – Swan Lake
Evening — Cinderella
Jan 1 Nabucco
2 Rigoletto

On January 3, Covent Garden sends off that ‘Fanfare for Europe’ with an extravaganza, that every megalomanic opera director dreams about. Think of a name, and the betting’s that he or she will be there dear departed excepted of course. (But come to think of it, they will have to have a trump card somewhere!) Described as ‘A Celebration in Words and Music’, in the honoured presence of Her Majesty The Queen and His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh, the artists taking part include such diverse personalities as Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Janet Baker, Laurence Olivier, Judi Dench, Regine Crespin, Tito Gobbi, Alberto Remedios, and Peter Pears. There will be the Trumpeters of the Royal Military School of Music (obligatory if there is to be an authentic fanfare I suppose) and even the not always so angelic Wandsworth School Boys Choir (Director Russell Burgess) will be represented. The whole programme is devised by Patrick Garland (just back from his Broadway production of ‘Hedda Gabler’) and John Copley. The designer is Carl Toms, the conductor Colin Davis.

Just in case you are tempted (and the price of the tickets should quickly destroy any inkling of that – stalls at £10) let me quote from the booking leaflet – Evening Dress and Decorations. Now let your imaginations run riot!

The National Theatre at the Old Vic has but one offering for Christmas. From December 26 to January 2 (the theatre is closed from mid-December until Christmas) they will be presenting the Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur ‘whiplash comedy’ (!?) about the raucous goings-on of tabloid journalism in the twenties. Astonishingly, the play has never been performed here before, although it has been filmed twice. The Observer said ‘Don’t miss it’ and somehow I’ve managed to do just that. Maybe this will be my golden opportunity, considering the frugal diet otherwise available. Perhaps some kind soul will even join me! (Don’t all rush, but offers please to Box 999). No we don’t get review tickets for the National Theatre, or any other theatre, more’s the pity. We do it all for love!

Before the Festival Ballet’s inevitable performances of Tchaikovsky’s ‘nutcracker’ (the title’s enough to send any self-respecting American into guffaws of laughter) take over at the Royal Festival Hall, there are still a few choice orchestral concerts to keep the music fiend happy.

On December 14, Ivan Kertesz returns to the orchestra of which for a short time he was Principal Conductor – The London Symphony. The programme consists of Mozart’s Six German Dances, his Serenata Notturna (K239) and Brahms’ Liebesliederwalzer. He is joined by Lucia Popp (currently singing Gilda in the Royal Opera’s ‘Rigolletto’) for excerpts from Strauss’ ‘Gypsy Baron’ and ‘Die Fledermaus’. I suppose we have to celebrate in the appropriately jolly style!

At the Queen Elizabeth Hall on December 15 Janet Baker teams up with Raymond Leppard and the English Chamber Orchestra for an evening of early Italian and English music — Albinoni, Cavalli, Monteverdi, Dowland and Handel.

Alfred Brendel gives a piano recital at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday 17 December starting at 3.15. He plays music by Schubert and Beethoven.

The London Symphony under Andre Previn (their present conductor) performs Brahms’ ‘German Requiem’ on Tuesday December 19. The soloists are Sheila Armstrong and John Shirley-Quirk, supported by the LSO Chorus. Stephen Bishop plays Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C (K 467) in the first half of the programme.

The last strictly live musical event before the Festival Ballet and opera films vanquish the South Bank takes place on December 20, when Andrew Davis (gladly not a relation of Colin) conducts the English Chamber Orchestra in a performance of Berlioz’ ‘L’Enfance du Christ’. John Shirley-Quirk is again one of the soloists, this time joined by Peter Pears, Patricia Kern, and Thomas Allen. They’re in the QEH while that monstrous proscenium arch is erected next door.

Meanwhile over at the Royal Albert Hall, the BBC is sponsoring the first ever series of Winter Proms, beginning on December 29 — eleven concerts.ten conductors and eight orchestras.

Agonised And Irrepressible

Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci
SADLERS WELLS OPERA at the London Coliseum

The agonised and irrepressible twins Cav & Pag returned to the London Coliseum last month in John Blatchley’s production for Sadler’s Wells, which up-dates both operas to what appears to be the fag-end of the 50’s. They are both set in the same Sicilian village, and the action of each opera now takes place only six months apart. The agonies of rustic life in what are the most famous examples of operatic ‘verismo’ are on the surface, therefore, not given a fantastically realistic head-start. With this as background, one might be forgiven for thinking that life in rural Sicily is unrelentlessly tragic. (Imagine two such dramatic deaths in a community of just over a hundred in only six months!)

But no matter how often these operas are performed, or in what manner, they still make an incredible dramatic impact; they still continue to work on an audience. There is a lot in this production, which I thoroughly respect. Many points have been rethought and re-interpreted, points which truly add to the audience’s understanding of the operas. One in particular seems completely successful — the deletion of the ear-biting as a form of challenge before the duel. Instead, Alfio flashes his flick-knife, an action which sets the matter into immediate perspective.

The production was mounted in September last year during a period of financial austerity at the Coliseum, but Blatchley has made it plain in an interview (published as part of the programme notes) that this had nothing to do with the austere style of his staging. (One gently raked platform does for both Cavalleria and Pagliacci, and the fluted, metallic grey back-drop remains throughout the evening.) Around 80 per cent of audiences in this country watching a performance in the original language does not understand what is being sung. Blatchley believes that too often these audiences have in the past been compensated for their lack of understanding of the libretto by “over-described decoration” and “an over-expressive, larger than life style of acting”. He feels that this style has permeated all operatic production in Britain, and is himself seeking to establish a subtler approach in the confines of the Coliseum, where one hopes every word may be understood by the audience.

There are two basic premises behind the stark, uncolourful staging. First, the obvious notion that without the fussy detail the audience will be nudged into concentrating on the work itself and not on the pretty accessories.

The second idea raises more interesting and far-reaching questions. Blatchley holds that the events of Cavalleria are “essentially plain and classical”. And with this I would agree. Certainly, it cannot be doubted that the earlier opera does have greater dramatic strength than the play within a play of Pagliacci. It’s true, too, that if we interpret “classical” as meaning Greek classical, then it is certainly true that Cavalleria displays the dogged singularity of plot and dramatic purpose typical of Greek drama. It has no intricate Shakespearean (or perhaps more aptly Verdian) sub-plot, and respects all three unities of time, place and action. But does “plain” simply mean thin? Is opera always more effective when it tells a clearly delineated story?

Even without John Blatchley’s programme notes, his economical staging (which incidentally includes such props as a child’s pram, bicycle, cash register and what looks like the remains of a World War I ambulance lorry from which the actors perform in Pag) after an initial shock reaction does justify itself and intensifies the drama. Blatchley is well served by a sensitive and highly musical cast.

Margaret Curphey sings Santuzza with an exceptionally poignant lyricism and appropriate sense of desperate fatalism. While I had gone to the Coliseum still expecting to hear Rita Hunter’s sharp-edged, powerful and always deeply dramatic soprano, my disappointment was quickly quietened by Margaret Curphey’s achingly pathetic interpretation of the role.

While occasionally, both she and Robin Donald, who plays Turiddu, sounded strained in some of the higher passages, she lacked none of the committed passion so vital to the part. The big test of “Voi lo sapete” was encountered with masterly “breadth” and drive, though lacking to some extent in articulation, and phrasing. My only regret is that she is made to look so dowdy. One wonders how the ‘heart-throb’ of the village would have taken it into his head to rob her of her virginity in the first place!

Ann Hood, playing Lola, both musically and dramatically seductive, is unfortunately decked out in a costume more appropriate for Olympia in “The Tales of Hoffmann”. She sings her delightful little solo, which contrasts so pungently with the harsh tone of the Santuzza-Turiddu encounter, with pure tone, and characterful delicacy.

Raimund Herincx gave a startlingly aggressive edge to his portrayal of Alfio, the murderously jealous husband, whose all-consuming hatred is aroused by Santuzza, who then quickly regrets her passionate outburst. There is no doubting Herincx’s musicality, and here, as in the Coliseum production of Berlioz’ “Faust”, in which he stunned us with his account of Mephistopheles, he gets to the very heart of the character, and clothes its every movement and involuntary twitch with a breathing reality.

Roderick Brydon drove the Sadlers Wells Orchestra to even greater and more exhilirating heights, getting every ounce from Mascagni’s big “production numbers”, and moving orchestral interludes.

Pagliacci seemed to me less of a triumph. Although I applaud some of the production details, (the narrator of the Prologue, here magnificently sung by Derek Hammond-Stroud with every syllable crystal-clear and true, appears in actor’s dressing-gown instead of the usual clown’s costume, for example), the dramatic conviction carried by all the central characters in Cavalleria has not spilled over into its successor.

Anne Evans as Nedda has a more accurate soprano than Margaret Curphey, but somehow her voice seems less subtle, less flexible, less moving. She certainly looked every inch the part, but she failed to capture the audience’s sympathy, and her final murder seems less of a tragedy than just deserts.

Canio, too, seems here more of a pastiche of a Chicago hood than a man tragically consumed, possessed, by the image of one woman and her infidelity. Gregory Dempsey gave tremendous energy to the part, but vocally he lacked the dynamite declamation necessary to bring off the final solo “Pagliacci non son”.

One singer, however, seemed completely in control of his part, both dramatically and musically. It’s a pity then that Silvio, though central to the plot, has relatively little to sing when the part is interpreted with so much artistry as by Norman Welsgey. The rich timbre of his baritone voice reverberated into every niche of the auditorium, he phrased every line with matchless understanding for musical line and dramatic effect, and beguiled Nedda with truly glowing sonority.

Orchestrally, the opera is near impeccable under John Barker’s precise yet passionate direction.

An Incredible Lady

In a month of frenzied musical activity, what to leave out? (Our editor has a space, not to say size, problem, you see). Dare I omit the Munich Philharmonic under Rudolf Kempe, who at one of their three Prom concerts gave a demonstration of how an anaesthetised performance of a Mahler symphony sounds or maybe Boulez’ cool, precise, and yet remarkably moving performance of Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’ (why does everyone still insist on treating this work as a religious observance? Wagner did call it a festival drama) or even the Berlin Philharmonic at the Edinburgh Festival?

The answer’s all three. For Rita Hunter’s back in town. The remarkable dramatic soprano, who so far has only appeared in a major role at Covent Garden by default (remember that incredible ‘Flying Dutchman’ story, complete with hair-curlers, mad, head-long dashes from quiet Norfolk home and German airline strikes?) returned last month to the London Coliseum to give what must undoubtedly be her most devastating performance to date. And the memory of her singing as Brunnhilde in the Sadlers Wells ‘Gotterdammerung’ has by no means begun to fade.

Rita Hunter sings the role of Leonora in the new Coliseum production of ‘Il Trovatore. It is scenically spectacular (though I did feel that Stefanos Lazardi’s costumes were a shade too lavish, possibly even garish) and vocally impressive.

There is practically always in this theatre a feeling of intense excitement which Covent Garden can rarely match. Perhaps it has something to do with the regular ensemble playing which is just not possible in a house like Covent Garden, where so many of the singers are imported temporarily from abroad.

The individual performances (with the exception of Miss Hunter’s) were not always faultless, but no matter. There was always a sense of involvement, of the true passion befitting Verdi’s most tuneful and grandly romantic opera.

My admiration of Norman Bailey’s dark-toned bass-baritone has always been high; from his masterly Hans Sachs, in the ‘Mastersingers’, his tortured Gunter in ‘Gotterdammerung’, through to his commanding, yet still fallible Wotan in ‘The Rhinegold.’ But here as Di Luna he did not seem fully at his ease and his voice occasionally came over jagged.

The Canadian mezzo-soprano, Gabrielle Lavigne making her first appearance in this country gave a fiery portrayal of the gypsy woman Azucena, who holds all the secrets of the plot, but her voice also tended to ‘spread’ and she was apt to sing sharp.

John Sydney, a young tenor from Australia looked every inch the part of Manrico; dashing, impetuous and handsome. But he could not always cope with Verdi’s taxing music, his voice turning throaty under pressure, though in the final dungeon scene he seemed to find better form. It is unfortunately in this scene that the staging seriously came unstuck with Manrico and Azucena manacled with elaborate and disturbingly noisy chains to opposite sides of the stage, so that in the normally beautiful duet ‘Ai Nostri monti’ their voices vie rather than mingle.

And what of Miss Hunter? Well, her voice is strong, metallic and true. It is also incredibly powerful. With those who are keen on pure limpid tone, Miss Hunter will not score high marks. But for those who like a soprano with a robust heroic timbre in her voice, astonishingly combined with a suppleness and instinctively well-timed musical phrasing, then I don’t think there is anyone else around at the moment to compare. And she can act!

Hers was a performance of perfectly judged dignity, which still displayed the moving spontaneity which distinguishes her interpretations of other parts. Always credible, she gave dramatic expression to every aria. Her duet with Di Luna came across with uncommon force. Whether heroic or tender, the artistry and musicality with which she moulded and phrased the music was superb.

I shall be very sad if, after her debut at the New York Met in December, we lose this incredible lady to more illustrious foreign opera houses. Let’s hope she likes Northolt. Perhaps if we put our minds to it we could even find her a reasonable pad in London Street! Think about it.