Tuesday, 1 September 2015

The Abduction from the Seraglio: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1782)

Die Entführung aus dem Serail 

(Glyndebourne, directed by Sir David McVicar, seen at the Proms, 14 August 2015)

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This post draws on two encounters with the same production: the live broadcast from Glyndebourne earlier this summer, and the pared down staged version presented at the Proms on 14 August. As has happened so often in recent months, I'd gone to see Seraglio without really knowing very much about it at all. I knew it was by Mozart and I knew it was about someone being rescued from a harem, but that was it. In my innocence, I assumed it was just another opera, but I discovered that I'd inadvertently introduced myself to a whole new genre: the singspiel. All the recitativo is spoken and in fact the overall effect is simply that of a play (in German) which happens to have a few arias scattered through it. Indeed, some characters - including the central role of Pasha Selim - don't sing at all. It was something rather different and I'm delighted to say that I adored the production, although much of that is down to its aesthetic beauty and the sheer verve with which the story was told.

The young Spaniard Belmonte arrives in Turkey hoping to rescue his beloved Konstanze, who has been abducted by pirates and sold into the harem of Pasha Selim. With her have gone Belmonte’s trusty manservant Pedrillo and the outspoken Blonde (often called Blondchen), who is Konstanze’s English maid and whom Pedrillo loves. But Belmonte discovers that his rescue plan won’t be as easy as he thought: Konstanze is not some lowly inmate of the harem, but the Pasha’s new beloved. Rather than force her into his bed, he is trying to woo her, to seduce her and to make her happy, and Belmonte is immediately struck with terror that he might be succeeding. And even Pedrillo and Blonde, who are at least able to see each other, find their love impeded by the presence of the hulking Osmin, the Pasha’s gatekeeper, who has been awarded Blonde as his own. So far, it seemed fairly predictable. Young hero; wilting heroine; a couple of Ottoman villains (scimitars, no doubt); and probably a happy ending. But actually it wasn't anywhere near that black-and-white. The thing which really appealed to me about Seraglio was its surprising tolerance and humanity, and I'm not quite sure whether to put that down to the libretto (by Christoph Friedrich Bretzner, reworked by Johann Gottlieb Stephanie) or the happy inspiration of this particular production.

Seraglio seems to belong to that moment in European history when the Ottoman Turks were no longer formidable ogres at the gate, but hadn't quite acquired the aura of profligate debauchery which came to dominate the more voluptuous kind of 19th-century Orientalist painting. And the results are intriguing. Mozart's singspiel was performed almost exactly a century after the Battle of Vienna in 1683, the decisive moment which halted the Ottoman advance into Western Europe. Just think: Vienna itself had been under siege by the Turks only two years before Handel was born! But then the 18th century fell under the spell of the East. Liotard made his name painting exotic young women in Turkish costume and, by 1782, Mozart and his librettists were able to present us with a strikingly sympathetic picture of a Turkish pasha. Selim isn't a stereotype: he desires Konstanze, but has the strength of character to control himself; he's not some two-dimensional heathen, but a man who's interested in gardens, architecture and the finer things in life. I found that rather intriguing.

The petitioners at Pasha Selim's gate | The magnificent opening scene | Blonde (Mari Eriksmoen) sees off Osmin (Tobias Kehrer)
Sir David McVicar's production emphasises the ambivalence. Belmonte is the ostensible hero, but he's only able to achieve his goal through Selim's nobility and generosity. (For Mozart's audiences, it was probably telling that Selim is said to be a convert: he retains the delicacy and values of a Westerner and that's what sets him apart from the more predictably vicious kind of Ottoman, like Osmin.) McVicar shows us a pasha who's a long way from the ageing, domineering despot you might imagine. The first time we see him, he rushes on in boyish delight on his way back from an excursion, whirling a startled Konstanze in his arms. He runs a well-ordered household; his door is surrounded by an eager group of petitioners hoping to benefit from his educated patronage; and his wives and children love him. McVicar has a giggling throng of children rush on and playfully mob their father on his return; a scene which gives us a greater sense of the kind of life Konstanze is being invited to join: a prosperous, polygamous but nevertheless loving household. And then of course, at the end, we see the true measure of the man: noble and gracious beyond the call of duty, and willing to sacrifice his own desires for the happiness of others. 

In short, based on this production, I couldn't quite understand Konstanze’s preference for loyal-but-bland Belmonte. Oh, but let's not be disingenuous. McVicar makes full use of Frank Saurel (Selim)'s brooding good looks, giving us the frequent feeling that Konstanze herself is on the brink of succumbing. Her head, we intuit, is firmly set on returning home to Belmonte; but her heart, seduced by this sensual, powerful, commanding lover, is beginning to lean in another direction. Just in case anyone in the audience was still unconvinced, McVicar turns the Act 2 scene between Selim and Konstanze into an erotically-charged bedroom scene that trembles on the edge of outright violence. For good measure, he has Saurel striding around shirtless for most of it. This, I must confess, was one of the sections that one could certainly appreciate more fully on the broadcast rather than from a rather precarious position at the Albert Hall.

Konstanze (Sally Matthews) and Belmonte (Edgaras Montvidas) find each other again | Konstanze 'resisting' Selim (Franck Saurel)
(Yes, it doesn't look like that to me either) | Selim realises he has been betrayed by Belmonte
Generally speaking, it is a very aesthetically pleasing production. The version I saw at the Proms lacked the gorgeous sets at Glyndebourne, with latticed windows and beautiful brick arches, and a glittering expanse of sea beyond. But the costumes did make it up to London. And ohhhh the costumes! Belmonte arrives in Grand Tour gear: a frock coat and breeches with a long banyan-style robe worn over the top with a straw hat; Konstanze is in a gorgeous silk gown; Blonde in a corsetted dress and vividly striped stockings. In the final act, both women change into harem pants and blouses, which Konstanze sets off with a rather pretty brocade-trimmed bolero. Osmin prowls around like the offspring of Obelix and a misplaced Viking, with straggling yellow hair and beard; the Pasha's wives are in a rainbow of Eastern fashions as if they've just stepped out of Liotard's studio. And Selim himself moves from Western-style army uniform to a flowing Turkish robe and then, in the final act, a long tunic and belt. Oh, and there were scimitars, I'm pleased to report. I just love the pictorial flair of McVicar's productions; his Giulio Cesare was the same, with a superb sense of light, setting and costume. 

I haven't mentioned the singing or the music, have I? Oops. That's probably telling, actually: for me, as a non-expert, this felt very much like a play and I found myself listening to it as such. But the music was delightful, performed with great energy by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under the baton of Robin Ticciati. This was the kind of vivacious Mozart that simply sparkles off the ears, and the overture brimmed with panache. The star of the singing was Sally Matthews, playing Konstanze, whose wonderfully resonant and agile soprano tackled these 'too many notes' with aplomb. For me her highlight was the Act 2 aria Martern aller Arten, a splendidly defiant rendition. As her Belmonte, Edgaras Montvidas sang with a melodious tenor that lent towards the low end of the scale, as refined and dignified as one could wish of a Spanish grandee. The problem is, though, that neither of these characters really comes across as being particularly interesting - the librettists' fault, I fear. Konstanze seems to have little more than one expression (alarm mitigated by impermissible desire), and that was only emphasised by the fact that Matthews was often acting opposite Saurel, who is an actor as opposed to a singer and therefore, I must say, performed with an intensity of conviction that was far above anyone else on the stage. Having said that, acting isn't just about emotion: I couldn't help but look forward to the comic scenes between Blonde (Mari Eriksmoen), Osmin (Tobias Kehrer) and Pedrillo (Brenden Patrick Gunnell). Usually comic characters drive me up the wall, but these three were an unfailing delight. Their flair, timing and sheer genius at slapstick were simply wonderful and offered a much-needed respite from all the angst going on between the more high-born characters.

All in all, this was a real treat. I think I enjoyed it so much because of its strangely hybrid nature: half play, half opera. (Perhaps pure opera buffs might not be so enthusiastic: it's certainly something to watch rather than just listen to.) I wish I'd seen it live at Glyndebourne, because I feel I missed out on so much of the atmosphere by seeing it without the sets, but at least I've seen the broadcast and that makes up for it. One thing I did notice - and this might be my memory playing up - is that there seemed to be much more recitative in the Proms performance than in the broadcast I saw, where certain bits seem to have been cut. I'm hoping that Glyndebourne will release the full thing on DVD so that I can check this out, and also because it's an absolutely stunning production, and a surprisingly engaging story, that I'd love to watch again.

Three photos from the Proms version of the production which I saw at the Royal Albert Hall
Konstanze in full swing | Selim en famille with children and wives | Pedrillo (Brenden Patrick Gunnell) in a rage against Osmin

Monday, 31 August 2015

Henry V

(Antic Disposition at Temple Church, 25 August 2015)

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One of the great things about living in London is the chance to see smaller theatre companies putting on plays in unusual spaces, and this was a great example. I've been on Antic Disposition's mailing list since I was bowled over by their magnificent Tempest in Middle Temple Hall some years ago, and when I heard they were taking on Henry V in the evocative spaces of Temple Church, I couldn't resist. This ancient building was once the home of the Knights Templar in London and its early medieval floorplan was circular, intended to recall the shape of the Temple in Jerusalem. With its later nave leading off to the east, it's a splendid building: the early rounded section at the end is the site of several burials including that of William Marshal. I'd only been to the church a couple of times before and it isn't always easy to get into Temple full-stop, so I was very keen to have the chance to see it out-of-hours in this rather special way.

Antic Disposition's production is dominated by a very original framing device. The action begins, rather disconcertingly, in World War I. An injured British soldier is helped in by a French comrade and treated by a couple of fluttering French nurses. The British soldier eases a small book out of his pocket and gives it to the Frenchman; the Frenchman, confused, asks what it is, and one of the nurses explains it's a play, about Henry V and about Agincourt. The Frenchman erupts - is this an insult? - but the British soldier tries to soothe him. It's meant to be a gift. A thank-you present. More French and British soldiers wander onto the stage: the book is passed around and then, with the British at one end of the long raised walkway between the church's pews, and the French at the other, each nation beneath their flags, the play begins. And so the idea is that this is a diversion, performed during a lull in the fighting, with French soldiers taking the French roles (I initially believed that they actually were French: their accents were remarkable. Halfway through, however, I realised that the French were doubling up in English roles, and their names in the cast list were distinctly English. Great credit should go to them for the accents). There's a bit of jostling and laughing: the young soldier playing Henry is given a crown made out of shrapnel or gun-mental, twisted into a circlet; the same is true for the French officer playing their king. Throughout the play there's a charming Heath-Robinson quality about props, a creativity imposed on this cast who are stuck in the trenches. Costumes are those of the First World War; and when the French herald brings the Dauphin's little gift to Henry's court - the box of tennis balls - it's actually a cardboard box full of rolled bandages. 

Fiction and reality: a wounded soldier transformed into Henry V; while a French officer takes on the persona of King Philip
Photos by Scott Rylander
Such additional layers, imposed on a Shakespeare play, sometimes work but sometimes don't. Here without a shadow of a doubt it worked, triumphantly. Indeed - and spoilers follow, so please beware - the framing device offered an almost unbearable sense of poignancy that gave the play a punch and power that I haven't found in it before. Initially however it just seemed like a bit of fun and horseplay: a chance to refract the story of Agincourt through a more recent meeting of the two nations, in much the same area of France (it's said at one point in the play that Henry 'has passed the river Somme', a line I usually don't even notice, but which in this context jolted me into awareness). But I rapidly came to understand the power of the setting. Antic Disposition are remarkably talented at adding music to their plays. I remember their Tempest had some beautiful music and here they frequently added in snatches of World War I songs (I don't know if they were original, or written especially for the performance, but they were spot on). Sometimes these songs were used to give us a glimpse, for a moment, through the play back into its framing narrative, and on one or two occasions they almost dragged your heart out of your chest. 

For example, the comic characters don't normally do it for me - I can take or leave Bardolph, Pistol, Nym - but here they became 'everyman'. As Henry's forces gather to head off to France, we were shown a line of laughing chaps in flat caps and braces, singing rousing marching songs as they lined up in front of an officer to sign up and receive their folded uniforms. And then, as Bardolph, Pistol and Nym - and the Boy - bid farewell to Mistress Quickly, I was almost overcome by the sudden poignancy of it: these men in their First World War uniforms, saying goodbye to London and ready to ship for France. The framing device brought a whole new level to the tale. And the same was true at the end of the first half (again, spoilers, please beware). Here Bardolph was dragged forth for judgement and Henry, torn between his duty and his old friend, chooses duty and grabs a revolver and holds it at his head. The soldier playing Bardolph (played in turn by James Murfitt), shaking like a leaf, went suddenly into a fit of shell-shock - the actors snapped instantly from play into framing narrative and the nurses rushed on to try to calm him. 'Henry' watched in horror and shame, realising that this play has a reality beyond itself. And we the audience realised that too. As the lights blacked out, shortly after that moment, I was in tears and I wasn't the only one. When the lights came up for the interval, several faces in the audience were pale with shock. It was superbly handled. 

The troops squaring off; Henry's doubts on the eve of Agincourt; one of the many songs which enlivened the play
Photos by Scott Rylander
Thus too at Agincourt, where Henry's stupendous speech is followed by a rousing cry to charge - British at one end of the walkway, French at the other, with rifles primed, ready to rush into the throng - but as they began to charge, there was a huge eruption and crackle of light in the rounded end of the church. Again, 'reality' imposed on the play. The soldiers, forgetting their mock battle, turned and stared in fear at this bombardment (as did we, the audience: their alarm was so palpable that I noticed several people craning round the columns to try to see). And for a moment, again, their concentration was lost, and yet they wrenched themselves back into the play. I realised then that, in the framing narrative, the play was becoming a coping mechanism for these men - an increasingly desperate attempt to create a new reality, where speeches were noble and victories were great and all ended with a graceful truce. And here (again I warn of spoilers) the closing scene of Henry V was delightful. Henry and Katherine were wonderful together: the wooing scene left me melting slightly with its finely-balanced romantic wit, and I thought I was going to finish the play with a grin on my face. No bad thing. But then, even as the actors celebrated their completion of the play, a man came on stage right with a telegram for their commanding officer. He opened it, read it - all very quietly, so you might not have noticed - and then said, "Fall the men in." Oh God, I thought, no... The young nurse playing Katherine began to cry; the soldier playing Henry began whispering, "I'll come back, I'll come back," and as the men formed up and presented arms - the French marching off one way and the British, singing another of their falsely cheery songs, off another, I found myself with damp eyes again. I'd fallen absolutely into the false sense of security they wanted.

I suppose I should say a word or two about the performance of Henry V itself, but I have nothing but praise for that too. Freddie Stewart made a very believable Henry (watch out for him: he's going places, I'm sure). He was young enough to have the necessary uncertainties and qualms, but he was also able to assume a calm gravitas and command that made you believe he was a force to be reckoned with. The scene where Henry prays on the night before Agincourt is always an interesting one to watch, because it gives us a glimpse of the young king's crippling inner fears, and Stewart did that beautifully - snapping back into the persona of the king when he's discovered by his uncle, and hiding his nerves behind irritation; before going on to give a lovely rendition of the 'St Crispin's Day' speech. I can't go through the entire cast, which grieves me, but suffice it to say they all performed splendidly: the greatest accolade one can give to a production like this is to say that the ensemble was so strong that no one stood out as being a weak link. Everyone was excellent. And again I must praise the accents of those playing the French - Dean Riley's arrogant, strutting little Dauphin; Marius Hesper's Montjoy; Louise Templeton's Alice (she also played Mistress Quickly); and Floriane Andersen (whom I suspect probably actually is French, but correct me if I'm wrong), who was brilliant as the lively princess Katherine. Great praise to all, and also to the directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero, whom I presume are responsible for the stroke of genius about the setting.

The most incredible thing was that there weren't more people in the audience, partly because the church is so small. But I say again: add Antic Disposition to your watchlists. Admittedly I've only seen two of their shows, but both of those have been sophistcated, articulate and creative productions which rank among my theatrical highlights. Unfortunately Henry V only has a few more days left to run: it finishes on 5 September, but if you can get to Temple Church before then, please go to see it and support this superb little company. You will not regret it. I only wish it were touring the country a bit, so that those outside of London might have a chance to savour it.

The many faces of kingship: Henry confronts Bardolph with justice; the isolating nature of a crown; wooing the French princess
Photos by Scott Rylander

Sunday, 30 August 2015

My Brilliant Friend: Elena Ferrante

(published by Europa, £11.99, or from Amazon)

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The Neapolitan Novels: Book I

About a month ago, several people recommended that I should read Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels. Then my local bookshop devoted a window display to her, so it seemed a good time to plunge in. The novels follow the friendship between two women, the narrator Elena and Raffaella, whom Elena calls Lila. Throughout the course of the series I imagine we'll cover most of the second half of the 20th century, but this first book sets the scene with the story of their childhood and adolescence in a modest, run-down suburb of Naples. From what my friends had said, I'd expected something dazzling, overpowering in its talent; but I actually found that the novel was much more subtle and thoughtful than that. We are offered a brief glimpse of the adult Elena at the beginning, looking back over her friendship with Lila, but for the most part we are firmly in the minds of two children, two smart girls who are trying to understand the way the world works, and to carve out their own places within it.

One of the lovely things about this book is that their world is such a circumscribed place, as happens in childhood. For Elena and Lila, nothing truly exists beyond their immediate neighbourhood in 1950s Naples. It's a community scarred by memories of death and collaboration in the war, and divided by ancient feuds and fears which the two girls simply accept, having no understanding of what came 'before' them. Their early lives barely venture beyond the courtyard at the heart of the tenement buildings where they live: their ogres are the people whom their parents fear, without explaining why, and their allies and enemies are the other children who attend their school. Even as they grow older, there's a very defined sense of the territory where they are 'able' to move: their homes, their schools and the public gardens by the church, where everyone goes for the passeggiata on a Sunday, in a rhythm of life that has governed their neighbourhood for generations. Even when they begin to venture out into the wider city, they can only legitimately do so with escorts: their bullish, swaggering, belligerent male peers, like modern incarnations of the Montagues and Capulets, always looking for an insult or a fight, envious of anyone with more than them, but ready to draw blood at the slightest imputation of inferiority.

Elena and Lila are both unusual in that they are bright enough to dream of futures beyond working in the local shops, helping their mothers at home, and becoming housewives with no thought beyond their chores and children. They're able to consider breaking the limits that have been imposed on them. At first they try to do so through study. Effortlessly brilliant Lila outstrips all around her, despite the bafflement of her humble, unschooled family; and Elena, fighting to keep up, is spurred by competitiveness to excel. This forms the basis of their complicated but always convincing friendship: the need to prove themselves worthy to one another, underlaid by fierce loyalty and frequent outbursts of almost unbearable envy (on Elena's part at least). One of the finest parts of the book is that absolutely accurate evocation of friendship, which is never a simple relationship. I especially loved the fact that Elena, despite all her academic flair, feels that Lila always manages to undermine her. Having discovered her intellectual gifts while trying to keep up with Lila, she clings to them and pursues them long after Lila has lost interest in such things. Defining herself by grades and scholarships and public praise, Elena feels that Lila has somehow negated her achievement by finding another, more rewarding, more profound way to tackle life. In all things - study, business, even love - Lila seems to have a talent for success. Yet throughout the book there's also a growing sense of Lila's fragility: a sense that this dazzling accomplishment won't last; a warning, perhaps, for what's to come. 

It's a rewarding book because it is so deeply humane and generous. The residents of this turbulent neighbourhood aren't stereotypes, but slowly and gracefully take shape as real people: Melina, Enzio, Donato Sarratore. With the same subtlety, we gradually begin to understand, through the girls' eyes, why certain families are respected and cannot be offended: after all, the tendrils of the Camorra stretch even here, into their modest lives. Everything feels so very true. I've no doubt that when I come to read the later books in the series I'll find that some apparently incidental scenes in My Brilliant Friend have some broader significance, some bearing on what happens in the future, and I suspect that this is going to be a series which can be read again and again, with greater appreciation each time. I understand that no one knows who Elena Ferrante really is, but this book has the conviction of memory and I can only assume that there is autobiography in there, to some degree. And if all the people feel convincing, there's none more so than Lila herself: hard, challenging, self-confident, irreverent, determined and creative - a quicksilver mind, and a wonderful creation. 

This isn't the kind of novel that I finish with the desperate urge to rush out onto the street, grab someone and press it into their hands there and then. It's a slow-burner: the kind of book that's still preying on your thoughts a couple of days after you finish it. Beautifully crafted, it develops a narrative through the slow accumulation of layers of meaning and understanding, offering a glimpse of a rough, ruthless and unforgiving world trembling on the brink of social change. There's one thing for sure: Ferrante, whoever she may be, is a consummate craftsman. Don't come to this expecting immediate flash and sparkle. Come to it with time on your hands, a cup of tea, and the will to let yourself be quietly sucked into the story, and enjoy.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Artaserse: Graphic Novel Update


Well, at last here we are! It's been eight months since I started work on the comic. The last four months have been particularly intensive, and it's finally done. This is just a place-holder post so that people who don't follow me on Twitter or Facebook will be able to see that the third and final Act has now been uploaded.

This post will be deleted in due course, so if you would like to comment (and I encourage comments with great alacrity), please follow this link and comment on the main post. Here you will also find some notes on Act 3 and, most importantly, a link to the comic itself.


Thank you for all your support!

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

All the Angels: Handel and the First Messiah

(A new play by Nick Drake, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 3 July 2015)

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Handel (David Horovitch)

Speech is but a whisper; but He delights to hear us sing.
(Handel, Act 1)

The Globe's increasing involvement with early music has been one of the unforeseen consequences (for me) of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. As I've said before, its intimate atmosphere and warm acoustics have encouraged some truly exciting developments over in Southwark. There's the exciting collaboration with the Royal Opera House to produce lesser-known early Baroque operas; there are concerts; and, least foreseen of all, new plays which explore the history of music. Last season we had Farinelli and the King, which will transfer to the West End this autumn and which has done so much to introduce a general audience to countertenors (and hopefully, for Iestyn Davies's sake, to the difference between a countertenor and a castrato). This summer season turned its focus from performer to composer, and served up an extremely limited six-performance run of this new play by Nick Drake, telling the story of the first performance of Handel's Messiah. It's a story that I didn't know, and one which turned out to be surprisingly moving. It was given musical flair by the Portrait Choir, directed by Gregory Batsleer, who provided some key pieces from Messiah, including some beautiful solo singing from the soprano Roseanna Skikun and the bass Robert O'Connell.

We begin in Chester. That isn't where we're supposed to be. We're supposed to be in Dublin, where Handel is meant to be rehearsing for the first performance of his new oratorio. The only reason he's stuck in Chester is because a great storm has kept the ships in harbour and so, temper fraying, he does what he can. Gathering a rudimentary choir from local churches, he tries to rehearse the great chorus of his masterpiece, but it does no good. His impatience is only assuaged by the presence of a young admirer, Charles Burney, who proves to have an ardent enthusiasm for Handel's work (just don't mention the opera). But all things have an end, even gales, and so finally Handel arrives in Dublin, where he meets his patron William Cavendish, gathers his proper choir and makes the necessary arrangements. His chosen soprano, Christina Maria Avolio, is on her way from London; but he begins to realise that he needs another voice. He needs a singer capable of taking the audience along with it on this monumental journey from promise to despair and final, everlasting hope. And, cometh the hour, cometh the man - or, in this case, the woman: Susanna Cibber, a talented actress who has come to Dublin to get away from the aftermath of a horrendously public sex scandal. They circle one another for a while, but it rapidly becomes clear that each of them can help the other. Famed for the emotive power of her performance, Susanna can give Handel's music the dramatic delivery it needs; and Handel, with his musical message of redemption, can help Susanna to find a way to face the world again. Woven into their story are two other tales: first we have the lyricist, the reclusive non-conformist Charles Jennens. A long-time admirer of Handel's, Jennens dreams of seeing his words turned into sublime music that will speak of a loving, forgiving, all-embracing God: the kind of God who could accept tortured souls like Jennens's brother Francis, who was driven by despair to suicide. And finally there is Crazy Crow, the Dublin porter who lurks on the margins, and for whom Messiah will offer a glimpse of transcendent beauty that challenges the cynical nihilism that has consumed his heart.

Crazy Crow (Sean Campion) | The Portrait Choir commanding the musicians' gallery
The emotional punch afforded by the second act and the powerful music combined to great effect and the general vibe as the playhouse emptied was very positive. I'm glad, because I hope it means that we'll get more projects of this sort; but I can't say I liked it unreservedly. The first act took a while to get itself in gear and, despite the strong performances, there were times when the play itself seemed to be meandering. With a cast of three (not counting the singers) on such a small stage, so close to a relatively small audience, you need something which grips from the very beginning and doesn't loosen its grip on your throat until the lights go up for the interval. Here I sometimes felt the play was trying to do too much. The scene with Charles Burney could have been cut without too much of a loss. Burney did meet Handel at this time, because he was a schoolboy in Chester, but the chat between them here just felt like a way to shoehorn in some exposition for the audience. It felt a little clumsy and we didn't learn anything that we don't also see later in Handel's interactions with Susanna (i.e. he doesn't like talking about his recent failed operas; he's not so bad underneath the gruff exterior). However, some of the other creative decisions were rather wonderful. The costumes, obviously, were stunning: the Globe is building up a fabulous collection of 18th-century dress and I hope it gets used much more in the future. I particularly enjoyed the decision to have Crazy Crow, Jennens and William Cavendish all played by the same actor - even though it came down to simply putting on a hat, or a pair of glasses, or a big wig, it was always perfectly clear who was who, and Sean Campion should be thoroughly congratulated for doing such a good job. 

That leads naturally on to the rest of the cast. David Horovitch made a wonderful Handel, with (on the night I went) a thoroughly convincing Germanic snap to his accent, and a lingering hint of sadness beneath the grumpiness. Kelly Price not only looked rather like Susanna Cibber but gave her a highly plausible blend of frailty and bravura. She was also a good singer - not operatically-trained, it seemed, but with just the right kind of voice to play this actress-singer. Between them, she and Horovitch were responsible for the scenes I found most moving, in which Handel and Susanna attempt to comfort and encourage one another without trespassing too far into awkward intimacy. Frustrated by her showy performances, Handel pushes her to filter her own shame and pain into her singing. 'Tell us the truth,' he urges her, 'and the words will move us with their beautiful necessity.' When all else fails, he forces her to sing the anthem 'He was despised' substituting the word 'she' for 'he' and making her internalise it as a commentary on her own experiences. For her part, Susanna almost goes too far in trying to empathise with the maestro's quiet bitterness. She decides that he must have been wounded in love; a fact that the play itself implies, although with intelligence and grace it doesn't descend into speculation. It also, thank heaven, resists the urge to imply any kind of romantic attachment between these two. Instead it's just a story of two wounded souls coming together and finding comfort in sublime music. As Handel says, 'When the heart sings, it cannot dissemble'.

One final thing. Yes, it would have been trite and it would have been a cliché, but surely the perfect way to end the play would have been with a rousing Hallelujah chorus? After all, we begin with the ragged version in Chester, with the provincial choir quailing under the master's disapproving eye. Why not finish with that perfected, triumphant affirmation of faith and victory? It seemed so obvious an ending that I was waiting for it, convinced it would come even as the cast took their bows. Perhaps it was eschewed precisely because it was so obvious; and yet, though I'm normally in favour of people doing things differently, here I felt we actually needed it, to draw a line under the story, to emphasise the message of redemption, and to send us out into the night as Handel's first audience must have gone, transported.

Handel (David Horovitch) with his unfortunate chorus | Susanna Cibber shows off her acting finesse (I like the billowing mantle)

Monday, 3 August 2015

The Testament of Mary: Colm Tóibín

(published by Penguin, £7.99, or from Amazon)

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A woman sits in an empty house, waiting for the men who come to interrogate her. They claim to be protecting her, but she knows that they are also dangerous in their own way. They're gripped by the urgency of an idea that needs corroboration: a story that in their own minds has taken on a different reality which they now intend to present to the world. But the woman resists. For the story that these men are trying to change is the story of her son; and the more she hears them speak, the more she realises that her own past, as she remembers it, is bearing less and less resemblance to what will become 'fact'. And so she decides, while she can, to set down what remains of her memories, before her son's tragic history is appropriated and burnished to become something that is no longer itself. I would note that the book's so short that it's hard to discuss without spoilers, so I would be wary of reading further if you want to experience it fresh for yourself.

Colm Tóibín's little tale, also on the 2013 Booker shortlist, has an impact that outweighs its modest size. It has been described as provocative and haunting, and it is, but I was interested to discover that it isn't provocative for the sake of it. It is thought-provoking rather than shocking and Tóibín avoids the easy sensationalism to which a lesser writer would have resorted with such a story. He does not openly deny the presence of miracles. Indeed, his Mary reports a number of events which are unexplained and troubling. That which I found most striking was the tale of Lazarus' resurrection; but in her telling of it, it becomes less triumphant and more horrific. And since Mary herself wasn't there at the moment of Lazarus' return to life, she has to rely on what others tell her and that, in itself, is dangerous, because people are already beginning to remember things in ways that should not be. We never quite know what we should believe about Lazarus, but the fact remains that his 'resurrection' is not successful: avoided and feared by his community, and half-unhinged by the horror of what has happened to him, he lives a half-life of unbearable physical and mental pain. Similarly, Mary's memory of the Wedding at Cana is confused: she remembers her son calling for stone jars of water; and she remembers that afterwards they poured wine from the jars; but she cannot say for sure that the jars held water to begin with. There is a suggestion that, even from the very beginning, her son is conscious of what his ever more infatuated followers desire from him. The impact of Tóibín's book comes from the way in which Mary struggles to distinguish between what she thinks she remembers and what she is being told, by her earnest captors, that she should remember.

If this book is troubling, that's because it forces you to look at these figures for a moment as real people - and I don't mean in the Counter-Reformation way of imagining their sufferings in order to emulate the fortitude of their faith. It makes you consider the foundation and formation of stories. It makes you think about how clever young men - whose qualities may make them outsiders - sometimes find scope for their charismatic talents in the fervour of religious conviction. And it emphasises the precarious political situation in Judea at this time, with foreign authorities ready to clamp down on dissension, and native elites eager to show their loyalty by making scapegoats. I was struck by the sense in this novel of being watched: the implication of spies and agents scattered among the population, reporting back tales of sedition and non-conformity. This is a world stretched to its limit, a volatile historical moment merely waiting for its touchpaper. Mary's demanding, opinionated visitors think that their story is the spark that will change that world. And maybe it will be. There are other questions. Where does power lie? Who owns the story? Does Mary have a right to her own memories? Is her son the author of his own destiny? Or is he an unfortunate, caught up in politics beyond his control, the victim of his own desire to be recognised? Are his so-called friends now taking the agency and appropriating his story for their own complex and ambitious ends?

One of the blurbs cited on the back of the book calls it 'entirely heretical'. I'm not sure how far that's true (or indeed, how far anything can be called heresy nowadays). Certainly there is something unnerving about Mary's persistent, slightly threatening visitors, who are very far from being golden, divinely-inspired apostles. But there are only a few moments where Tóibín directly contradicts the official version. His Mary, for example, is not at the tomb on what will become Easter Sunday; but then, who is she to deny what people are saying about it? She does not believe it likely; but she was not there. And, perhaps more significantly, there is the way that Mary talks about her late husband. It is a small thing, but she makes a point of remembering her son's childhood, and when she speaks of their family, she always speaks of her husband as 'his father'. A very small thing but, from the point of view of this subject, enormously significant. There, if you will have it, is your heresy.

Ultimately, though, this is a book about an everywoman: a woman who has lost her child in tragic circumstances, and who is going back over what happened trying to understand. However, Mary isn't trying to impose a story or a narrative on events. She's not trying to make it part of something larger and therefore, somehow, to make it more bearable. She is explicitly and firmly trying to maintain the senselessness of it, the horror and agony and unplanned pain of her son's fate, in the face of the story which her two visitors are so determined to write. She fights for her right to her own memories. And so, strangely enough, in telling a story which deliberately sidelines the condition of divinity, Tóibín tells a story which strikes at the very heart of the human condition itself.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Xerxes: George Frideric Handel (1738)

(Longborough Festival Opera at the Britten Theatre, 30 July 2015)

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After Highgate and Dusseldorf, the third and final stop on this year's Xerxes trail was the Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music, where the Longborough Young Artist Production was showing for one night only. I assume that by now everyone knows the story of this opera back to front, so I shall plunge straight into the action. In the unlikely event of your feeling lost, take a look at the plot summary in my post on the ENO production I saw back in September. 

There were several immediately striking things about this production. First, it was sung in Italian. I've been desperate to see an Italian Xerxes ever since the ENO and now my wish was granted! Congratulations to the production team for deciding to stick to the original. No matter how excellent the translations that I've seen used, it's wonderful to hear the words for which the music was written. The second striking thing was the profusion of pink palm trees: there was something rather fabulous about Xerxes singing Ombra mai fu while reclining on a couch beneath the feathered fronds of a fake pink palm. The trees were part of the retro setting: a slightly seedy nightclub, sometime around the 1950s, whose short-tempered proprietor seems to be part-ringmaster and part-mob boss. It was a clever concept and certain aspects of the opera worked very well. Romilda catches Xerxes' attention with her singing, so it makes sense that she should be the club's leading showgirl; her father Ariodate becomes one of Xerxes' fixers, skulking around with a mysterious briefcase (I couldn't quite see inside: bundles of cash? Diamonds? Drugs?). Elviro is the club's janitor, while Amastris makes her arrival in the guise of a well-heeled patron: dark glasses, voluminous tulle skirts, white fur cape. (Soon, however, she's holding up a terrified employee at gunpoint and demanding his clothes.) Not everything worked though. There was no real attempt to show the famous bridge, which meant that one of the main episodes of the plot didn't make much sense; and from a staging point of view things could be slightly static, as characters often ended up simply singing from the club's podium. (And a small technical gripe. The surtitles were not only poorly proof-read, but also very slow and sparse. I'm lucky because I know what's going on, but for newcomers there were whole swathes of recitative where there wasn't any text to tell them what was happening. Could do better.) But overall it was a design and concept that I liked very much: colourful, original, gutsy and fun.

Romilda (Privett) and Arsamene (Oney) | Xerxes (Arditti) holding court | Harmony restored just in time for the final curtain
One of the selling points about this production (had I needed persuading) was the presence of two very good young countertenors in the leading roles, neither of whom I'd seen before. Tai Oney made a sleek Arsamene, singing with expressive power and a strong command of coloratura, his voice bringing in some lovely warm lower notes, although I occasionally found him shrill in his highest passages, where he didn't seem to have quite such firm control. He was a good comic actor too: this Arsamene was very much the long-suffering younger brother, rather than the more dominant figure imagined in Hampstead Garden Opera's version. Oney had plenty of opportunity to look mournful at the sheer absurdity of his situation. His Romilda was Alice Privett, one of the most memorable singers of the night for me. She had lovely control throughout her arias, especially in the gentler, sadder pieces, with bright and clear high notes, and a velvety depth to her voice which gave it resonance. As a character, Romilda doesn't usually grip me, but I liked this production's take on her. The team emphasise the age gap between her and Atalanta, making their rivalry into a half-playful tussle between sisters. Romilda doesn't seriously see Atalanta as a threat until the episode with the stray love letter - while Atalanta, for her part, is the generic annoying little sister who has a crush on her big sister's boyfriend and wants to grow up right now because it's clear that adults have more fun. Abbi Temple was utterly delightful with her bunches, ankle-socks and buckled shoes, getting in everyone's way and bubbling over with mischief. Her Un cenno leggiadretto was lovely, sung with sparkling verve while she clumsily tried to emulate showgirl moves, but she came across very much as an over-indulged teen rather than the sexual predator of the Dusseldorf version: kitten not vixen. 

And what of our thwarted princess? Lucinda Stuart Grant certainly had an impressive entrance but I felt that she lacked a little confidence in the first half; I would have liked a touch more commanding ferocity, but perhaps it was a deliberate decision to make this Amastris more thoughtful and patient, quietly gathering material for her grand denouement at the end. In the second half she sounded stronger and turned in a very beautiful rendition of Cagion son io, one of the most heartbreaking arias in the opera, full of lyricism and deeply-felt emotion. As usual, the final scene with the reconciliation felt unconvincing and rushed, but that is a criticism of Handel and Stampiglia rather than the singers, who did their best to make Xerxes' change of heart and Amastris' forgiveness seem credible. As for the other two secondary roles, they don't have an awful lot to do, being there primarily to offer comic relief among all the intrigue, but both were well-performed on Thursday. Jon Stainsby played Ariodate as well-meaning and slightly slow, while Matthew Durkan made the most of his opportunities as Elviro, turning up to hawk coloured feathers while dressed in an overstretched red spangled showgirl's dress. (It is true, though, that HGO's creative interpretation of the character continues to hold the crown.)

(Most of) the team: Oney (Arsamene) | Temple (Atalanta) | Privett (Romilda) | Stuart Grant (Amastris) | Arditti (Xerxes)
But the real success of a Xerxes rests on the shoulders of the main man. I'd listened to fragments of Arditti's singing on YouTube and liked what I heard, but I didn't have enough to form a clear opinion. Reviews from Longborough in the last few days had, however, suggested that I was in for a bit of a treat. The opening of Ombra mai fu was slightly tentative, but I've yet to see anyone tackle that killer messa di voce without a shade of caution; and Arditti swiftly settled into a very refined rendition. I became steadily more impressed throughout Act 1. Although he's probably still horribly young, he already has the kind of voice that works so very well in this particular role: rich, supple and beautifully controlled, underlaid by a hard masculine edge. He came into his own in Se bramate d'amar: I wish it had been ever so slightly faster, but even so it was an excellent performance of posturing petulance, and finished with a stroppy cadenza that left me grinning like a fool. After that I was waiting impatiently for Crude furie. When it came, I felt the first section was slightly less forceful than Se bramate, but Arditti ramped up the swagger during the B section and the da capo absolutely blazed. It was helped along by the most splendid tantrum I've seen on stage: potted plants and even a Rococo sofa went flying across the set, and Arditti conveyed a chilling physical aggression, circling his terrified dependents and darting at them like a cobra testing its range. This was the first credibly dangerous Xerxes I've seen: not a pompous little man trying to puff himself up, or an arrogant dandy full of comedy bombast, but a man who genuinely inspires fear with his unpredictable temper. And I loved it.

It was an engaging production, designed with flair and with an impressive cast who are no doubt going on to even greater things. While I liked the nightclub-mobster vibe, I felt that it wasn't quite as psychologically astute as the HGO production (whose shock ending has pretty much ruined any other reading of the final scene for me now); nor did it have the anarchic daring of the Dusseldorf version (which, let's face it, is probably a good thing). There were times when I longed for a little more pace and oomph from the orchestra, especially on the angry arias, but that's personal preference and overall both playing and singing were of a very fine standard. But let's be honest. The most exciting part of this evening was the chance to hear Arditti. I'd go so far as to say that he's the best Xerxes I've seen on stage so far. He's got the acting ability to pull off the tantrums while maintaining the necessary sense of danger; and he's got exactly the right voice for the role. It's a Yuriy Mynenko kind of voice (not as powerful or flamboyant yet, but the potential is there), with the agility and panache to tackle the crazy stuff, but also a suave grace that he can bring to bear on the gentler arias. I'll be watching with great interest to see what he does next. 

Well, ironically you'll certainly be hearing about what he does next, because I already have a ticket for it: I hadn't realised that he'll be singing the role of Amore in the production of Poppea in Vienna this autumn, sharing the stage with Valer Sabadus, Christophe Dumaux, Emilie Renard and Rupert Charlesworth among others. It's going to be a bit of a dream team.

A curtain call photo courtesy of BaroqueBird: Xerxes (Arditti), Arsamene (Oney), Romilda (Privett) and Atalanta (Temple)


Thursday, 30 July 2015

Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self: Claire Tomalin

(published by Penguin, £8.99, or from Amazon)

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Jane called us up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City ... By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down to-night by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish-street, by London Bridge. ... [I]t begun this morning in the King’s baker’s house in Pudding-lane ... So I down to the water-side, and there got a boat ... Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that layoff; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.
Sunday 2 September 1666

On 1 January 1660, a young clerk in the Exchequer in London began to keep a diary. He wasn't the first diarist in history, far from it; but he was the first to find such potential in the form, and to make of his diary more than a dry chronicle of the times, or a self-examination of sins. This diary was different. From its very first page it showed an almost shocking candour as the young clerk recorded not only his work and social life, but also the most frank and intimate details about his marriage and his own turbulent sexual desires. This honesty sat alongside a lively intelligence which drank in all the events of the world around him. This clerk was Samuel Pepys and, from a historical point of view, he couldn't have chosen a better moment to start such a detailed account of his life. He wrote in his journal daily until 31 May 1669, when he laid down his pen with regret, fearing that such close work was damaging his eyes. When he began writing, England was still a Commonwealth, but Oliver Cromwell had been dead for more than a year and Parliament and the army were at each other's throats. Pepys allows us to see at first hand the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660; the initial enthusiasm for the king and its gradual falling away as he proved to be feckless and irresponsible; the plague year of 1665, which Pepys lived through in a kind of carpe diem delirium; and the Great Fire of 1666, which reduced his world to ashes. And in this time Pepys himself rose to great things. When the diary begins he's only a clerk, a grammar-school boy made good from a very undistinguished family. His father was a tailor and Pepys made his way by hard study and thanks to a few very useful connections (most notably Edward Montagu, Lord Sandwich: a prominent Parliamentarian commander who later played a key role in bringing back Charles II, and who benefitted accordingly from his shrewdness). Pepys and his wife live relatively simply at this time, with one (long-suffering) servant. But by 1669 he's become an administrator on the Navy Board, an acquaintance of the king, a member of the Royal Society, and a man of wealth, with a smart new house, a large collection of books and curiosities, and several servants.

I've had Tomalin's book lying around for a while, because I felt I should read it, but the moment never seemed apposite (I'm not a big reader of biographies). I picked it up after Meadowland because I realised it was a long time since I'd read anything 'improving', but fortunately it turned out to be much more engaging than I'd anticipated. Tomalin writes with warmth and affection: she clearly developed a great fondness for Pepys in the course of her research, and her enthusiasm is infectious. But she doesn't gloss over his weaknesses and faults, of which there are many: she maintains the same balance as he himself put into his diary. Pepys was, remarkably, willing to show himself in a brutally honest light. He takes bribes; he launches himself lecherously on the servants and on any woman in his social circle with whom he thinks he has a chance; he holds grudges with a resolute pettiness; he's baffled by and slightly scared of his wife; and at some points he comes across as an overgrown man-child. I was struck (though it's not surprising, I suppose) at how strongly I was reminded of Rose Tremain's roistering, lascivious Merivel. But the wonderful complexity of Tomalin's book is that you get a sense of all this alongside a great admiration for Pepys's excellent qualities: his organisation; his love of his work; his poetic eye for detail; and his clarity of understanding. In later life he introduced key reforms to the running of the Navy: he made it obligatory for captains to keep written records while at sea, and he stressed the importance of having an exam for young officers to ensure their competencies before putting them in charge of ships. Tomalin has also unearthed an absolute wealth of everyday detail with which she puts Pepys in context. The problem with being a historian and reading a book like this is that I find myself always asking, "But where did she find that? How did she know how often the carrier went from London to Huntingdon, and where did she find that it left from Cripplegate?" I'm daunted by her research skills as much as by the easy flow of her writing.

Let me admit it now. I've never read the Diary. We had a copy at home when I was a child, but as far as I remember I just skipped through looking for details of Pepys's sex-life. (What a little heretic I was.) Now I would love to read it. From the sections quoted in Tomalin's book, it has the joint appeal of giving a lively window onto another world, and offering glimpses of a lifestyle that isn't all that alien. I was tickled to hear Pepys speak of going 'clubbing' with his friends when he was a young clerk in Whitehall - he meant to alehouses and coffee-houses, no doubt, but the word has a familiar snap to it that dissolves the three hundred and fifty years in between. Tomalin paints a picture of young men on the prowl, perhaps drawing on self-help books which advised them on chat-up lines and how to seduce girls, such as The Mysteries of Love and Eloquence; or, the Arts of Wooing and Complementing, published in 1658 by John Milton's nephew. Pepys's quarrels with his wife , his ambition to better himself, and all his small, silly foibles are things that any one of us can relate to today. They're what make us human. And it's rather wonderful to know that humanity was much the same in the 1660s as it is in the 2010s. Tomalin notes that the Pepys of the Diary feels so alive, so real and vibrant, that when it finishes the reader feels almost bereaved. It was a sensation that he himself recorded when he decided to end it:
Giving up [his diary] was, he wrote, like a form of death, 'almost as much as to see myself go into my grave'. This was not rhetoric but a serious statement. He was killing off a part of himself, the self created daily in his narrative, a creature more complete than he could ever allow himself to be again ... The loss for his readers is brutal as they find themselves suddenly stranded, the brilliant, troubling intimacies of the Diary replaced ... by official papers... Once the form he had created was abandoned, he and the world stood in a different relation to one another; and, as well as losing him we are losing an unequalled record of the events of the time.
Fortunately we can always go back and reread. I'm happy to report that Pepys has seized the opportunities offered by modern technology and his diary is now appearing day-by-day as a blog (the website is currently posting 'on-this-day' entries for 1662), with highlights being posted on Twitter. The only downside is that these entries are taken from a bowdlerised Victorian version (I have an innate dislike of any editor who presumes to know what is 'suitable for my eyes' or not), so you might miss out on some of the more colourful passages. And for those, like me, who are daunted at the thought of taking on such a behemoth of literature without more context, I can thoroughly recommend Tomalin's book as a primer. Lucid, warm and generous, it's a biography fully worthy of its subject.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

The Car Man: Matthew Bourne

(Sadler's Wells, 19 July 2015)

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When I went to see Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty two years ago, I wrote about the frustration that I often feel when trying to understand classical ballet, and my corresponding fondness for Bourne's irreverently gutsy style of storytelling. My favourite production by him will always be Swan Lake, but my first encounter with him was via a TV broadcast of The Car Man when I was a teenager. I think it was at a stage when I was trying to be cultured, and so my mum and I settled down to watch this ballet based on Carmen, which sounded suitably highbrow for my pretentious adolescent purposes. Needless to say it wasn't quite what either of us were expecting, but it made a powerful and enduring impact. Now this seminal production is back in London for a very short time and I was lucky enough to get to see it live at last.

Bourne famously doesn't provide synopses in his programme, preferring the audience to interpret the story for themselves, but he has said that The Car Man is loosely based on the classic film noir The Postman Always Rings Twice. It's the classic story: a tall, dark stranger walks into town bringing trouble in his wake. In this case that stranger is Luca (Chris Trenfield), who turns up looking for work in the little town of Harmony, with a strong Italian-American community. Dino (Alan Vincent - who danced the role of Luca in the original production) is looking for another mechanic for his motor-repair shop, but his 'man wanted' sign takes on an ironic quality when his wife Lana (Zizi Strallen) sets eyes on Luca. Desire simmers under the surface, driven on by the summer heat and the dalliances of the young mechanics and their girlfriends, and it is only a matter of time before the sexually-charged situation explodes into danger. While Lana plays with fire in seducing her husband's newest employee, her sister Rita (Kate Lyons) pines after sweet and sensitive Angelo (Dominic North). This bookish lad has been ruthlessly tormented by his fellow mechanics but Luca soon takes him under his wing and teaches him to stand up for himself... and a few other things, behind Lana's back. And all the while Dino lurks in the background, cumbersome and slow, but perhaps just beginning to understand what is happening in his domain. Lust and jealousy collide in a potent cocktail that, all too soon, leads to murder and revenge.

I should clarify that, unlike Swan Lake, the Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty (the other Bourne shows I've seen), The Car Man doesn't stick to Bizet's own arrangement of the Carmen music. Bourne took his point of departure from the Carmen Suite, a reinvention of Bizet's music in 1967 by the Russian composer Rhodion Shchedrin; but, as that is only forty minutes long, he asked the composer Terry Davies to work his magic on the rest of Bizet's score. The result might be rather discombobulating if you know Carmen well, but it works perfectly for the sleek and sexy setting of Bourne's ballet. It's quite a modern sound, by turns gleefully exuberant and creepingly eerie, and there were several moments where I was reminded not so much of Bizet's toreadors as West Side Story.

Luca (Chris Trenfield) and Lana (Zizi Strallen) | The mechanics in full swing | Rita (Kate Lyons) and Angelo (Dominic North)
Bourne translates the showy swaggering of his characters into a gloriously earthy, muscular style of choreography. Much of his work inverts the usual emphasis of ballets by focusing attention squarely on the beauty of the male body, and that's very much the case here. This is dancing with grit under its fingernails: raw, sensual and audacious. Bourne has perfect comic timing: he manages to make the piece humorous without ever undermining the sense of danger and predatory sexuality. And he's able to offer sudden contrasts: for example, the sweetness of Angelo and Rita's pas de deux against the erotically frank, occasionally crude dancing of their companions. His style may not have the formal, lyrical lines of classical ballets, with their elegant gestures and the graceful obfuscation of strong emotions, but that doesn't mean it's any less demanding. His dancers have incredible skill. Luca's first solo, in which he asserts his place in the local pecking order - flirting with the women and idly squaring off to the men - is a masterpiece of physical control. After the frenzied dancing of the mechanics and their girls in the opening scenes, Luca's arrival raises the bar not by adding in flashier moves but by echoing their style of dancing and making it slower, more powerful and perfectly executed. I was amused to see hints of the Swan in his dancing: there were gestures and movements that looked very familiar, and I wonder whether Bourne has a kind of choreographic shorthand to indicate domineering maleness. Similarly he is very good at suggesting the awkwardness of those who don't have physical confidence. Much of Angelo's choreography suggests the crippling shyness of someone who is uncomfortable in his own body - much like the Prince at the beginning of Swan Lake - and North beautifully expressed the character's emotional torment in a physical way, twisting his body in a peculiar mixture of gaucherie and gracefulness. It's interesting that I should have seen this the day after watching Alcina. Both are shows driven by erotic power, but they couldn't have been more different: Alcina was awkwardly, uncomfortably deviant for both cast and audience; but The Car Man pulsed with a simple, primitive, almost savage physicality. Matthew Bourne could teach the choreographers at Aix a thing or two.

Ultimately Bourne is a storyteller: he strips a plot back to its bare essentials to tell a narrative which is urgent and raw, and his dancing has the same quality. There is no throwaway prettiness here, just magnificently blunt, expressive and gripping choreography performed by an immensely talented cast. As Bourne says with wry humour in the programme, it's never going to be suitable for the Sadler's Wells family Christmas slot, but it's the kind of dance that goes straight to the solar plexus. On the night I went, as the lights blacked out at the end, there was an almost immediate roar of acclamation and the entire audience was on its feet, applauding, even before the dancers had got themselves in gear for a curtain call. It was a thrilling reaction. For me, I must confess, nothing will ever be able to match Swan Lake, but The Car Man is highly recommendable nevertheless. And, even if you can't make it to Sadler's Wells before the run closes on 9 August, the original production is available on DVD. (And the excellent Sleeping Beauty will be back for another run at Christmas.)

Lana and Luca are discovered by Dino (Alan Vincent) | Letting off steam with a motor race | More frenzied dancing from the ensemble
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