Two big opera things today:

1) The ROH starting their new season by chumming up to readers of The Sun again, this time with cheap tickets to Carmen. It was the Don last year.

2) Lots of extra grant money for English and Welsh opera.

The Manchester Report

Back in January when I bought my tickets to see the world première of Rufus Wainwright’s first opera at the Manchester International Festival I was expecting to see a pretty piece of music.  Something that blended Wainwright’s distinctively melodic pop styling with (what I hoped to be) a competent homage to his favourite nineteenth century composers.  I was sceptical about the dramatic possibilities of his ‘day in the life of an opera singer’ concept, but hoped he could pull it all together.

Primma Donna

Prima Donna jumped a few hurdles to get on stage at Manchester this year – originally commissioned as part of a new talent project by the New York Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center Theater, Wainwright and Met general manager Peter Gelb had a few disagreements about the piece.  Gelb wanted an American opera in English for a vacancy in the 2012 season, Wainwright’s Parisian diva couldn’t wait to get on stage.

Luckily Manchester International Festival, Sadler’s Wells, Luminato (Toronto Festival of the Arts and Creativity) and Melbourne International Festival took on the commission: it’ll be produced at Sadler’s Wells and Luminato again next year (I haven’t found dates for Melbourne quite yet).

Prima Donna was surprising. In parts the music was the sort of grand romantic reminiscence I had expected, in parts quite modern and minimal.  Dramatically I was impressed.  What could have turned out quite silly and dull – the reflections of a grand dame in the twilight of her career – just wasn’t.  This is Puccini gone PoMo.

Postmodernism worries opera critics.  It tends to only rear its mangled head in production design  – cameras on stage, characters dressed as famous historical figures, photos of recent military conflict projected behind Giulio Ceseare – more than it is intentionally embraced in modern compositions.

But Prima Donna would fill almost all the rows of Ihab Hassan’s definitive table of the postmodern.  Ageing diva Régine (Janis Kelly) is kept company by a Rossini worthy slapstick posse: Her butler Philippe (Jonathan Summers), maid Marie (Rebecca Bottone) and doorman Francois (movement artist Steve Kirkham).  She is visited by a journalist (William Joyner), and together they sing a duet from her most famous role, Alienor d’Aquitaine, then share a passionate kiss.  In the company of Marie the next day, Regine reflects on her career, romantic life and time as a student at the conservatory, accompanied by some very lovely deconstructed arpeggios dragging out a fantastically sinister tone.

But it is not just the opera-within-an-opera metafiction that makes Prima Donna dramatically interesting.  Toward the end of the second half Andre the journalist returns, explaining to Régine he cannot stay because he has plans with his fiancée Sophie  – who then appears silhouetted in the doorway dressed as Madame Butterfly.  Régine dismisses Andre and her staff, and after signing one last record for Marie, climbs through the window, prepared to plunge to her death like Tosca.  In the light of the Bastille day festivities she sings her last aria, and decides not to jump.  Accepting that her career, like the fireworks, could be both brief and spectacular.

I really enjoyed it, and judging from the number of curtain calls, so did most of the audience.  Parts were Janis Kelly and Rebecca Bottone sung together were particularly beautiful, Summers and Joyner both suited their roles very well.  Daniel Kramer’s direction and Anthony McDonald’s design worked really well in highlighting the vibrancy of the opera. We waited around for a little while outside after the performance to see Rufus who, resplendent in top had and madras tail-coat, also seemed quite happy with the show.

Rufus in hat

Rufus, mingling with fans after the performance.

Prima Donna
By Rufus Wainwright

Palace Theatre, Manchester
12/07/09

Performances 14, 17 & 19 July, some tickets remaining (Edit:  all gone!).

I just got a call notifying me I’d won tickets to a surprise free gig Rufus is putting on “as a thank you” to fans. I won’t be in Manchester on the day, so I turned them down – but I recommend anyone who bought tickets through Quaytickets keep their phone handy.

The very lovely Joyce DiDonato, who I saw play Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni last year, slipped during a performance of The Barber of Seville at the Royal Opera House on the weekend and broke her leg.

DiDonato proved herself quite the trooper and finished the performance, first limping, then shuffling about with the help of a walking stick.  It wasn’t until after the show anyone realised the severity of the injury.  She’ll be singing the rest of the run from a wheelchair.

It seems to be all Rufus, all the time leading up to the première of Prima Donna on Friday Night (I’ve already taken note of things I anticipate will annoy me in press coverage of the event here.)

Last night BBC1 aired a documentary about Wainwright and his new composition, combining a quite thorough profile of his life and career thus far with some great footage of early Opera North rehearsals for the upcoming show.

A highlight was an interview with Renée Fleming, who was very complimentary towards Wainwright’s music and spoke out against the way opera is increasingly becoming a museum art form.

Wainwright spoke passionately about opera “his religion and saving grace”, and shared some hilarious videos of himself as a teenager acting out his favourite operas with his cousins.  In Tosca he played Scarpia and swept about narrating in an impeccable pantomime villain voice.

If you want to see an example of Rufus’ love of opera, google his video “April fools” (It’s not on youtube at the moment for some copyright reason or another).  It’s just one of his pop songs, but in the clip he gallivants around with several doomed opera herones, including Tosca, Cio-Cio San from Madama Butterfly and Mimi from La Boheme.

The program suffered from some of the usual hyperbole  “…we follow Rufus as he takes on his biggest challenge yet.  Creating from scratch a new opera” (as opposed to all those old operas he’s composed by running together advertising jingles), and excessive focus on his personal life and struggles with drug addiction.

As I’ll be reviewing Prima Donna on the weekend I might as explain how I came to be a fan of Rufus (the story of why I’m a fan of opera is a longer story that will have to wait for another day).

It starts with Bowie.  All good stories begin with David Bowie.  I was at a music shop and picked up a copy of Wainwright’s fourth album, Want Two, thinking it was David Bowie’s  The Man Who Sold the World. They do look pretty similar:

Bowie in a dress.

Bowie in a dress.

Rufus in a dress

Rufus in a dress

I eventually realised that it wasn’t some new release of Bowie, but bought the CD anyway and was very impressed by Rufus’ melodic, instrumental style.  I saw him play in Sydney early last year and was blown away by his performance on stage.

Now I’m not claiming that Rufus is going to win the prize for young-ish-musician-sort-of-like-Bowie (because I’ve already handed that prize out to someone who shares his interest in electronic music) but I think Rufus and Bowie have a similarly theatrical performance persona.

I’m not jumping to any conclusions about what sort of composer Wainwright will be.  I realise Prima Donna might not be any good.  At very least he seems to be passionate enough about the form to give it a really good shot – non-traditional composers have done opera really well before.

But I love new music, and can’t wait to get to Manchester and have a look.

I recently took a trip back to Australia, my sunny homeland, to spend some time with my family (and avoid writing my dissertation).

It’s a long flight.  Three flights actually, plus bad transfers.  Thirty one and a half hours from door to door.

Drifting through Heathrow I noticed the jolly security officer manning the x-ray device take a defibrillator medical card off the man directly in front of me.  The officer suddenly bashed his chest wildly like a one-armed Tarzan.

“We’ve got a ticker!” He hollered, smiling in the direction of  his colleagues behind the metal detectors. Pointing the man towards a little grey gate to the side of the machines.

I laughed only to see the man smiling at me.  “Let’s get those dancing shoes off, missy.”

I handed him my scuffed trainers and he shoved them in a plastic tray.  The shoes and I made it home eventually.

While in Sydney I went to a performance of Elling at the STC.  A play based on an Oscar nominated Norwegian film of the same name (2001), Elling deals with the lives of two men living together in Oslo away from institutional care for the first time.  The film was adapted into a play by Simon Bent in London in 2007, and well received at Bush Theatre, transferring then to the Trafalgar Studios in the west end.

It must be difficult to make a film (or write a play) about mental illness, particularly when aiming for broad humour.  I haven’t seen the film, but I hope it’s a bit more sensitive than the unstable slapstick of the stage production.

The problem with Elling is that the jokes do not hinge on the way that these characters are treated by people in the world, but rather depend on people laughing at mentally unstable people behaving abnormally.  That isn’t a particularly sophisticated type of humour.

There were a two great short sketches of bad poetry readings nicely performed, but otherwise  the funniest part of the whole piece was a brief burst of diegetic music between scenes; Norway’s Eurovision winning ‘I’m in love with a fairytale’.  But I probably found my friend Anna’s instant hysterics on hearing it more amusing than the actual musical interjection.

Australian comedian Adam Hills had a column on the BBC’s online disability resource ‘Ouch!’ where he discusses various aspects of living with a disability – including this great article on clearing security in the US after 9/11 with a prosthetic leg.  In his articles he makes the case for the place of humour when talking about disability, not because there is anything non-intentionally funny about disabled people, but because often the world is organised in a way that makes everyday things a little absurd for the disabled.

That’s why I particularly liked the gruff man on security at Heathrow.  He seemed to understand the absurdity of a safety system that isn’t very well suited to people partly made of metal.

Elling
Adapted by Simon Bent from a film by Petter Næss

Sydney Theatre Company
15/06/09

P.S.  I am very sad to be missing the new production of Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire in December. Cate Blanchett as Blanche.  I can’t imagine it being anything but fantastic.

OR: The Prima Donna drinking game.  Take a shot each time…

1) Wainwright himself  is described as a ‘diva’ or ‘prima donna’, and/or the plot of the opera is described as autobiographical.

2) The word ‘popera’ is used.

3) Confusion over why the libretto is in French/why Wainwright is not performing.

But I am very much looking forward to seeing it.

Prima Donna at the Manchester International Festival.

UPDATE: read my review here.

Orange

On Monday night I was lucky enough to see Patrick Wolf’s London show at the Electric Ballroom in Camden.  Most of the songs he played were from his new album The Bachelor, but he did play a few songs from his last album The Magic Position; the title track and ‘Accident and Emergency’.

Wolf and crowd

I’m a big fan of Patrick Wolf. He’s one of a few pop/indie musicians around at the moment who write really interesting music

Patrick Wolf and violin

This quite interesting article goes into Wolf’s background in performance art collectives and electronic instrument construction.  In it he is compared to my favourite pop musician David Bowie.

I’m not entirely sure that you can compare the two.  The 1970s had a very different musical landscape, and Bowie’s experimental approach to performance was ground breaking at the time.  But the more I think about it the more the comparison makes sense.

For one thing look at this –

Bowie’s first dabble with electronic music Earthling (released in 1997):
bowie-earthling

And a better view of Wolf’s flag outfit on Monday night:
Union jack

The lyrics for Bowie’s ‘Battle for Britain’:

Don’t be so forlorn, it’s just the payoff
It’s the rain before the storm
Don’t you let my letter get you down
Don’t you, don’t you, don’t you, don’t you

Don’t you let my letter get you down, down, down, down
Don’t you, don’t you, don’t you, don’t you
Don’t you let my letter get you down, down, down, down
Don’t you, don’t you, don’t you, don’t you

Down, down, down, down, down, down
Down, down, down, down, down, down
Down, down, down, down, down, down

And Patrick’s ‘Battle’:

Battle the Patriarch
Battle for equal rights

Battle, battle, battle
Battle back your liberty
Battle the long night
Come on
Battle battle battle
It’s your time

So I suppose even if Wolf isn’t the new Bowie, they certainly both have a penchant for union flag clothing and defiant British electronica.

What is great about Partrick Wolf isn’t really his outlandish outfits or confident stage presence, but his musical talent.  Wolf has the confidence to try different styles of music and write songs about different emotional, political and fictional themes.  Listening to Wolf you can really feel his passion for sound.  And I can never resist a fellow harpist.

Patrick Wolf is touring the US for the rest of June, heading back to the UK for the beginning of festival season.  Highly recommended.

Patrick Wolf

02/05/09
The Electric Ballroom, Camden.

Quick edit to add:

Here is a post from Style Bubble about Wolf’s clothes and costumes.  And here is a more recent post on his Battle costumes, including a very Saint Sebastian-esque speared jacket.

DSC03548.JPG

Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes tells the story of a misunderstood fisherman who just doesn’t seem to be able to keep hold of a decent apprentice.  The boys keep dying on him.  But Grimes is not really about fishermen or child abuse – it’s a story about the persecuted outsider, and music for the sea.

I saw the last show of the opera’s run, and so unfortunately missed out on seeing Stuart Skelton’s reportedly brilliant take on the title roll.  I’ve been lucky enough to spot Skelton in real life (backstage at a rehearsal of Previn’s Streetcar Named Desire in Sydney) and he is a very amiable man.  It’s great to see an Australian performer achieving such success overseas.  I doubt John Daszak was as strong as Skelton in the role – but I didn’t find that this interfered much with my enjoyment of the piece.  The role after all was originally written for Britten’s partner Peter Pears, who didn’t have great Wagnerian range like Skelton. The Act I aria ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’, apparently written on Pears’ only good note (E-natural a third above middle C) – was very beautifully performed by Daszak.

I have slight reservations about the ENO production.  Captain Balstrode (sung by the fantastic Gerald Finley of Doctor Atomic) was inexplicitly missing an arm.  Auntie (Rebecca de Pont Davies) cross-dresses in a vaudevillian tux.  Her two ‘nieces’ are dressed as identical school girls, who alternately pound the heads of their dolls into the ground and stroke each other’s thighs.  These drag and sideshow elements are intended to draw attention to the dance hall-esque parts of the score and evoke Kurt Weill.

This works to some extent, but it also interferes somewhat with the subtle way that more restrained productions of Grimes can make a very ordinary seaside village seethe with menace.  By making all the townspeople a little odd, the idea that  regular people are just as likely to be evil as those who stand out (like Grimes) is lost.

On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better minimal staging of an opera.  The main set pieces where three large benches, used to best effect piled up on each other to suggest Grimes’ cliff top hut.  The boy’s accidental death was brilliantly staged. A very strong production overall.


Peter Grimes
By Benjamin Britten

30/05/09
ENO at the London Coliseum

DSC03544.JPG

It can be disconcerting when you feel rather lukewarm about a play that ends up getting generally positive reviews.  But I’ll stick with my original assessment.  All’s Well That Ends Well is the National’s new Shakespeare production, directed by Marianne Elliott.  All’s Well is one of the ‘problem plays’ and not very frequently performed.  It’s a bit of a challenge; not a story audiences are familiar with, or one that has a great recent history of interpretations to respond to.

Helena, the orphaned daughter of a well regarded daughter, cures the King of France of a fistula.  As a reward the King promises her any man in the kingdom as her husband.  She chooses the son of her Lady, Bertram, who isn’t too keen on marrying a common lass.  He declares he can not be called her husband until she is carrying his child with his ring on her finger.  So with the help of a young lady in Florence, a blindfold, and lingerie with a fox tail attached (in this production), she tricks Bertram into consummating their union.

Here Elliot decided to frame the story as a dark fairytale; with moving castles, animated owls and wolves.  I imagine this was a strategy to introduce the unfamiliar play to the audience without confusing or boring them.  It wasn’t a bad idea, but was probably taken a tad too far.   Helene leaves her sparkling pink slippers centre stage just before interval, with a spot was trained tightly on them as the house went dark – she’s both a lost Dorothy and an abandoned Cinderella.  The rings the two mismatched lovers exchange are fitted with little light bulbs, fairy lights adorn Florence on the soldiers arrival. Ninox would have cringed to see the 1940’s camera flash cliché is still going strong on stage.

The performance I saw was a preview and there were a couple of teething problems.  The lights in the rings kept switching off unexpectedly.  Janet Henfrey (playing the widow) took a tumble on the slippery paper petals carpeting the stage at the end of the play.

I particularly disliked the sound direction – not only did the first half suffer from electronic wind syndrome, wolves howled and owls whooped over almost every softly spoken line.

As I said at the start, the play has otherwise been very well received, and all of the actors’ performances were very satisfactory.  It just seems that theatrical restraint is passé.

All’s Well That Ends Well
By William Shakespeare

National Theatre London
26/05/09

ETA.  The Independent’s Rhoda Koenig isn’t too keen on it either.

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