Credit Richard Lakos

Hi-jinx at the health spa

Die Entführung aus dem Serail* – Pop-up Opera @ Robert Kime Furniture Shop, then touring across England until 24 April 2015. (Venue and tickets)wpid-wp-1426112713834.jpeg

* ‘The Abduction from the Seraglio harem health spa’

Just as some people judge the arrival of spring by their first sighting of the swallow, Civilian Theatre – rather less inclined to nature – can say with some confidence that if it finds itself crammed into a most unusual location, wineglass wedged between its knees with a soprano hammering away at Top C just a few feet away then it can only mean one thing – Spring and the first show of Pop-Up Opera’s touring season.

A promising first encounter came courtesy of Bizet’s Le Docteur Miracle in Drink, Shop & Do, and the feeling that Pop-Up Opera were a company not to be missed came with a fabulously insouciant Cosi fan Tutte in a Mayfair bar. And as a result I find myself in the stylish surroundings of Robert Kime’s furniture shop for one of Mozart’s lesser known opera’s ‘The Abduction from the Seraglio’.

It is typical of the company that a lot of effort is expended to make a relatively obscure piece of music accessible to those who do not often find themselves frequenting opera houses. Purists may splutter at the idea of a classical piece being updated to include references to big brother, donkey kong and tinder but it is important that this doesn’t come at the expense of the music.

Pop-up Opera’s style is to leave the music to itself and pepper surtitle screens with mostly irreverent commentary. The comedy mainly hits the mark and provides an accessible and modern interpretation of the action that broadly follows the plot but which also recognises that humour occasionally needs to be updated if it will appeal to a modern audience.

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Britten: Mann and Boy

Death in Venice – English National Opera, Colliseum

English National Opera’s revival of Deborah Warner’s exquisite production of Benjamin Death in Venice - English National OperaBritten’s final opera is a masterclass in creating something accessible out of source material that can only be described as forbidding. A number of references have made reference to the austerity of Britten’s score but Edward Gardner’s conducting, allied to Warne’s vision, gives the piece a lightness of touch that it is impossible to avoid being drawn in to Britten’s deft recasting of Thomas Mann’s novella.

Whilst Death in Venice would be seen as something for Britten aficionado’s only, the sheer excellence of the production again casts into question the reasoning behind booking the revival for so few performances. If the ENO truly wants to widen its audience base, and encourage people to see operas outside of their comfort zone, then they have to allow people the chance to roll-up on the basis of reviews. However once again when the reviews went to print there were less than five performances remaining; it seems unlikely a hit will rarely cross over into the mainstream with this kind of scheduling.

It was ever thus, and carping should not distract from the magnificence of the production. Aschenbach is a demanding lead; on-stage for almost the entire running time and with the lion share of the libretto there is little scope for variation in tone. However, John Graham-Hall holds the stage with an acutely painful performance of an author dragged from an ascetic dedication to his craft as he becomes increasingly besotted with Tadzio, the son of a Polish family who shares his hotel.

Sam Zaldivar’s Tadzio gives a silent performance of extreme sensual grace and beauty. Kim Brandstrup’s choreography allows Zaldivar to imbue Tadzio with a lithe naturalness that flows through the character and counterbalances Aschenbach’s increasingly halting vocal. Zaldivar has a fluidity of motion that conveys a come hither playfulness that never fully escapes a sense of the mocking. For Graham-Hall’s Aschenbach, this noxious combination, reflected in the increasingly unhealthy Venetian air, comes to a head with the explosive ‘I love you’ that brings the interval on a wonderfully dramatic high.

The Pan-like Tadzio in Death in VeniceFor inspiration Warner appears to have sprinkled the fairy dust of Peter Pan over Tadzio. This is most evident in the final image of the play – with Aschenbach sprawled on the stage, Tadzio is seen in silhouette framed against a huge moon. It is a most fertile avenue for Warner to explore, as Mann’s novella explores the relationship of an author’s increasing obsession, chaste or otherwise, with a young boy. Written in 1912 and based on a real life child, it is hard not to think of J.M Barrie’s creation of Peter and Wendy in 1904, and his own questionable attachment to the Llewellyn Davies children.

Britten himself cannot have been unaware by the allusion when writing the opera. It is his final piece and one that wrestles with questions that, to his biographers, Britten had been troubled with for much of his life. It is a story that does not attempt to paint its lead as hero or anti-hero, but rather as a flawed human that is worthy of, at best, pity.

Death in Venice is a story of how obsession leads to tragedy, but even in this it is an indirect tragedy. Aschenbach dies not because of Tadzio – it is not a recasting of the Narcissus and Echo myth– but because his obsession blinds him to the wider danger of the foul air. Peter Pan is an appropriate representation as he is emblematic of an intoxicating sense of the eternal. However this eternality can never be shared and those around him – no matter how they chase it – are destined to grow old and eventually die. .

Peter Pan naturally echoes Pan, the Greek god. It is unclear whether Barrie overtly acknowledged the reference point but Pan had been revived by the Romantics by the time that Peter Pan was created. They share a mischievous spirit born out of a desire to play that can transcend into a darker malevolence; it is something that we see in Pan’s actions of those that refuse his love, and it is echoed in Peter’s attempt to make Wendy believe that her family have forgotten her.

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Malkovitch, Malkovitch, there’s no-one like Malkovitch

The Infernal Comedy – Barbican Hall, 17 June 2011

It is difficult to imagine the path that led John Malkovitch to decide that one of his rare forays into the theatre would involve producing a piece based on the true life story of the notorious Austrian serial killer, Jack Unterweger. If that is hard to picture then staging it is a darkly comedic one-man show, with a dead Unterweger recounting his life story alongside a string orchestra and two opera singers tackling selected arias from the likes of Mozart, Vivaldi and Haydn, must seem totally unfathomable.

To say that The Infernal Comedy is an original piece of work is something of an understatement. Sticking faithfully to the traditional adage of truth being stranger than fiction, the story of Unterweger is fascinating. Originally sentenced to 25 years for murder Unterweger became a cause celebre among liberal Austrian intellectuals, who held him up as a model for the powers of rehabilitation on the basis of his poetry and short stories.

In 1990 Unterweger was released; soon becoming a national celebrity and writing articles about the conditions of Austrian sex workers. However, within a year of his release he had killed six more prostitutes and, even more audaciously, murdered three more in California after being invited to America. Eventually caught, Unterweger hung himself in prison after again being found guilty of murder.

That this story works as a play is testimony to the virtuoso performance at its centre from Malkovitch. In cinema he has become the by-word for a certain type of ‘acting’. And whether you love or hate him there is denying that he is one of the few actors around today who envelops the screen whenever in shot. It is this magnetism that propels the play forward.  Continue reading here

Just enough Sturm und just enough Drang

The Damnation of Faust – English National Opera, Coliseum, 20 July 2011

3 Performances left before Tuesday 07 June

Reputedly when Hector Berlioz saw the first productions of The Damnation of Faust he concluded that it was impossible to stage as the production techniques of the time could not bring the drama to life. Had the risks of selling your soul to the devil not been made abundantly clear then I might have been sorely tempted to offer much in return for Berlioz being able to witness what happens when thoroughly 21st century technology is let loose on it. It is hard to believe that he would not be impressed with the result.

Some critics expressed surprise that the ENO would take a risk on Gilliam but it has hard to think of a film director who might be better suited to the demands of opera. A man often regarded as holding cinema’s most rampant, if occasionally incoherent, imagination seems like an ideal choice for a medium where the audience’s suspension of disbelief is often asked to hang off the smallest threads. His films demonstrate that he never lacks for ideas even if it does occasionally comes at the expense of a coherent narrative; The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus gave the sensation of being fed a succession of amuse-bouches, each one a delicate and delightful treat but in the end never providing the satisfaction gained by a well-planned three-course dinner.

However this approach makes Gilliam well suited to Berlioz’ Faust, a piece often described as a series of musical sketches rather than fully-fledged opera. It flits between styles and scenes in a manner that gives Gilliam free license to let his magpie approach to directing run riot. There is no unifying directorial style in the production but instead the audience are led, by Faust and Mephistopheles, through a history of unified Germany up to World War II; Faust’s final descent into hell appearing inextricably linked to a nation bent on following a similar path.

Gilliam, without forgetting the credit that is due to the brilliance of Hildegard Bechtler designs, has created an unforgettable masterpiece that creates substance out of style. Each scene is unique and can stand alone from the rest of the production; this leads to a potential disjointedness in the production but Gilliam’s vivid creativity and thoughtful transitions between scenes means the audience is not allowed to rest and are continually drawn into the immediacy of the production, senses overwhelmed by a panoply of sound and image.  Continue reading here.

Opera on a shoe-string

Coronation of Poppea – Kings Head Theatre, Islington, 19 May 2011

The Coronation of Poppea is on as part of the OperaUpClose repertory programme until the end of June 

Not always a nice man...

The startling success of OperaUpclose’s debut production, a modern-day, stripped-down promenade La Boheme, is the kind of story that semi-professional companies usually can only dream of. Six-months at the Cock Theatre in Kilburn put it in the record books as the longest consecutive run of any opera in history, and this was followed up by two six-week sold-out runs at the Soho Theatre. However this kind of instant success brings with it a level of critical scrutiny that might concern even the most long-established groups. Any new production is likely to be picked apart to see if it was a one-off, particularly among opera critics who have a reputation for being notoriously difficult to please.

Establishing a repertory programme at the Kings Head Theatre in Islington made clear that there was an enthusiasm to build on the popularity of La Boheme and bring opera to the masses (the well-heeled masses of Islington at any rate). A seasonal programme that mixed classics like Madame Butterfly and Barber of Seville with less well-known work such as Montiverdi’s Coronation of Poppea suggested a company that were savvy enough to know what would appeal to both mass audeinces and critics.

However early signs weren’t good as rumours about the exploitation of backing singers seeped through the press and a version of Madame Butterfly felt a big misstep; disjointed, badly staged and unsuited to the venue, it raised a big question-mark over whether La Boheme was anything more than an amusing one-off. A big problem with Madame Butterfly was due to the limitations of the Kings Head and the needs of repertory programming requiring much simpler settings meant the production lacked the basics that made La Boheme such an appealing prospect; promenade staging and a fantastically realistic set.

Knowing that these would not have been resolved for Coronation of Poppea meant the production was approached in trepidation. However, in a huge coup for OperaUpClose, Mark Ravenhill has been brought on board as an Associate Director of the company. The Coronation of Poppea marks his directorial debut and from the start it was clear that there was someone with experience working behind the scenes.  Continue reading review here