Music and Opera

Our curation of music and opera reviews

Better than expected (but my expectations were low): Back to Black reviewed

When the trailer for Sam Taylor-Johnson’s biopic of Amy Winehouse, Back to Black, first landed, her fans were gracious. ‘This,’ they said, ‘is going to be terrific.’ I’m winding you up. They were horrified. It’s too soon, they said. It’s exploitative and trashes her legacy, they concluded, from having watched two minutes of footage. I can only say that, one, fanatical fans are like that whatever you do, and two, this is better than I expected (although my expectations were low). It does seem softened at the edges, and one can never forgive a falling-in-love montage set at London Zoo – ever – butI (mostly) didn’t cringe and it is

In defence of noise music

It’s curious to consider what a venerable old thing noise music is. That this most singularly untameable of musics – the place where melody, harmony and pulse all go to die – is an Edwardian invention. It first arrived in this country 110 years ago when futurists Filippo Marinetti and Luigi Russolo set up camp at the London Coliseum a month before the start of the first world war and, over ten consecutive nights, blasted the West End audience with their ‘noise-tuners’ or intonarumori, alongside diverse variety acts. I say blasted but making a decent racket was the one thing these homemade instruments were incapable of doing. ‘It could have

Damian Thompson

The greatest British symphonist you’ve never heard of

Grade: A Rejoice! A glorious symphonic cycle by a British composer has been issued as a set for the first time. George Lloyd (1913-98) was treated with lofty condescension by the musical establishment because his twelve symphonies contain barely a single dissonance. They’re sprinkled with jaunty tunes that have the feel of an Ealing Comedy – heresy! Also, it didn’t help that for decades Lloyd made his living as a mushroom farmer in the West Country. But he was no amateur: he could write perfect fugues as a teenager and by his early twenties had a fine opera under his belt. Then in 1942, the ship on which he was

The mayhem ‘Born Slippy’ provoked felt both poignant and cathartic: Underworld, at Usher Hall, reviewed

On the same night Underworld played the second of two shows at the Usher Hall, next door at the Traverse Theatre, This is Memorial Device was midway through a short run. Seeing both within a matter of hours, I felt an exchange of currents, a renewed awareness of the short distance we travel between euphoria and sorrow when we start mixing music and memory. The short play, adapted and directed by Graham Eatough from the novel by David Keenan, concerns the brief, wayward life of a (fictional) 1980s cult band from Airdrie. We see how the group’s complicated yet charismatic personal dynamic, intense improvised music and quasi-occult power was once

Wise, passionate and soul-stirringly withering: remembering the great Michael Tanner (1935-2024)

Michael Tanner, who died yesterday at the age of 88, lived two parallel lives. To many Spectator readers, he was the magazine’s peerless opera critic: wise, passionate, thrillingly disputatious, intensely funny, extremely generous with the Semtex. Essential reading. He wrote The Spectator’s weekly opera column from 1996 to 2014 and continued to review – and raze to the ground where necessary – concerts, books, albums and opera, whatever we flung at him, right up until 2022.  To countless others, however, he was one of the great philosophical scholars. A celebrated authority on Nietzsche, he was the author of the introductions to the Penguin editions of The Birth of Tragedy (1993) – which he also edited –

Choreographers! Enough with the reworkings of Carmen and Frankenstein!

Carmen and Frankenstein are without a doubt two of the most over-worked tropes in our culture, the myths of the evasively seductive gypsy and the human monster machine being lazily recycled and plundered and vulgarised in various forms to the point at which their authentic primal power has been altogether deflated. So it was with a heavy sigh that I anticipated their two latest danced iterations. No surprises were likely, and none were delivered. It’s not bad, it’s just not good enough – yet another retread of familiar material The list of choreographers – Roland Petit, Alberto Alonso, John Cranko, Mats Ek, Antonio Gades, Matthew Bourne, Carlos Acosta – who

Lloyd Evans

Exhilarating: MJ the Musical reviewed

If you’ve heard good reports about MJ the Musical, believe them all and multiply everything by a hundred. As a music-and-dance spectacular, the show is as exhilarating as any Jackson produced while he was alive. The sets, the costumes, the choreography and the live band deliver an amazing collective punch. When he removes his black trilby he looks like Rishi Sunak at a karaoke bar The script, by Lynn Nottage, takes us into Jackson’s twisted personal history. He was one of ten children raised in a four-room shack in Gary, Indiana, by weirdo parents. His mother was a Jehovah’s Witness who refused to celebrate birthdays or Christmas. His father, Joseph,

Rod Liddle

Clever, beautiful and sonically witty: Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter album reviewed

Grade: A+ Carter is a useful surname to have if you’re making a country album. So it is with Beyoncé: she married into the name when she got hitched to Jay-Z, but he is from New York, not Poor Valley, VA. Helps if you’re from Texas too – just to convince folks that this bit of genre-hopping is rooted in authenticity. It isn’t – but who cares? This is a clever, beautiful and sonically witty album. Country music’s conventions draw out of Beyoncé perhaps the most sublime melodies she has written, or part-written. There are cameos from Dolly Parton, half-forgotten black sharecropper’s daughter Linda Martell, Willie Nelson and the ghost

Why Easter is the most rock and roll religious holiday 

Easter is by far the most rock and roll religious holiday. Christmas might be the time when the pop vultures circle, plucking from the bones of garish sentiment, but the wham-bam narrative mic-drops of Holy Week are of a different order. Easter has provided a dramatic template for every rock opera, concept album, heroic comeback and combustible band dynamic this side of the Chatterley trial and the first Beatles LP. ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,’ runs the opening line on Patti Smith’s debut album, Horses. Maybe so, but she understood the innate power of this stuff. Smith’s second LP is called Easter, and it is replete with overtly Christian imagery. The liner notes

Death of a choir

Always make your redundancy announcement when the people at the receiving end of it are on a high. This seems to be the favoured method of today’s managing executives, who perhaps imagine that adrenalin will somehow anaesthetise the blow of getting the sack. For the Cambridge student choir St John’s Voices, the news of its imminent disbanding and the redundancy of its director Graham Walker came just two minutes after the light was switched off at the end of a three-day recording session of Russian choral masterpieces last week. Does egalitarianism have to be promoted at the expense of up-and-running excellence? In a two-paragraph round-robin email to the choir that

Lloyd Evans

If you hate the Irish, you’ll adore this play

Faith Healer is a classic Oirish wrist-slasher about three sponging half-wits caught in a downward spiral of penury, booze, squalor, sexual repression, bad healthcare, murderous violence and non-stop drizzle. The mood of grinding despair never lets up for a second as the healer, Frank Hardy, along with his moaning wife and their Cockney sidekick, motors around the British Isles trying to cadge pennies from cripples in exchange for bogus cures. Every cliché in the rich thesaurus of Celtic misery is brought together in this rancid melodrama about mob justice. Every cliché in the rich thesaurus of Celtic misery is brought together in this rancid melodrama Brian Friel’s play premiered in

From the sublime to the ridiculous: Royal Ballet’s MacMillan triple bill reviewed

My feelings about the genius of Kenneth MacMillan have always been volatile, but in the course of the Royal Ballet’s current triple bill, they veered even more wildly than usual between uncomplicated delight, awed reverence and embarrassment. A revival of his early Danses Concertantes, firing off Stravinsky at his most effervescent and designed with exuberantly colourful Festival-of-Britain jazziness by Nicholas Georgiadis, provided half an hour of pure joy. Stylistically an exercise in the neoclassicism that dominated the postwar era, it’s witty, chic and upbeat, exploring sharp angles rather than smooth curves and lyrical lines. MacMillan’s choreographic invention is profligate, with little twists and unexpected turns, all infused with an infectious

Think flute-playing Sir Keir will rescue opera? Look at Labour-run Wales

A tale of two opera companies from the Land of Song. After its distinctly gamey new Cosi fan tutte, Welsh National Opera has sprung dazzlingly back to form with a new production of Benajmin Britten’s final opera, Death in Venice. It’s directed by Olivia Fuchs, in collaboration with the circus artists of NoFit State, and in a word, it’s masterful. Fuchs’s Serenissima is a city of shadow, its landmarks glimpsed distantly in smudged, restless scraps of black and white film. The tourists and locals wear monochrome period dress; only Aschenbach (Mark Le Brocq) is in a noncommittal grey. The colour has drained from his world and from the peripheries of

Sam Leith

The joy of jump-scares in gaming

Grade: A- One thing videogames are surprisingly good at is scaring the willies out of you. Claustrophobia, unease, jump-scares, anxious-making camera-angles… Gamers of my generation will not have forgotten the spooky crackle of the Geiger counter in Silent Hill; nor needing fresh trousers after that dog jumps through the window in the first Resident Evil. The granddaddy of them all was Alone in the Dark – which, when it came out in 1992, essentially invented the survival horror genre. It sent you crawling through a spooky old mansion solving puzzles, fretting about your inventory and being jumped by sluggish monsters. Now a lavish and loving reboot stars B+-listers David Harbour

The horror of London’s music venues

There were headlines last month about the plight of live music in Britain. More than a third of grassroots venues are making a loss; more than 100 of them are ceasing to put on live music or closing altogether. Cue the stories about how, if it wasn’t for these broom cupboards giving musicians the opportunity to learn their trade, you’d never have got all those acts you know and love. All true, of course. We need small venues, and not just for the health of the music industry but for the simple pleasure of sipping a pint watching a young band in a small room. What use is a venue

Damian Thompson

Lang Lang’s wretched new album

Grade: F At the end of his life Sviatoslav Richter decided to try his hand at the Gershwin Piano Concerto. It was a ghastly experiment, but his admirers were used to his quirkiness, knew his powers were fading and so sensibly forgot about it. Now we have Lang Lang playing Saint-Saëns. It’s an even more wretched mismatch than Richter and Gershwin – but I learn from a Deutsche Grammophon press release that fans of the ‘Chinese superstar’ have pushed this horrible album to the top of the UK classical charts. The liner notes are beyond parody. I counted ten photos of the superstar, in which he’s clutching a flower, playing

Jenny McCartney

The BBC seems to have come around to catcalling – in the Caribbean

Where in the world is it best to be a woman? You might think that’s a tricky question to answer, given the number of factors that go into the mix, but a new BBC podcast has pledged to find out. The format of the show is that on any given topic – body image, say, or fair pay – two women will speak from two countries that ‘are getting things right’. The one that proves more convincing could win ‘a place in our female fantasyland’, the composite, woman-friendly utopia that the programme is building as its ultimate goal. Although the word ‘wellbeing’ was flourished in the pitch, the hosts Sophia

Lloyd Evans

As dry as a ghost’s burp: Donmar Warehouse’s The Human Body reviewed

Set in 1948, The Human Body is about four heroic women fighting to create the NHS despite opposition from right-wing extremists led by the ‘snob’ and ‘warmonger’ Winston Churchill. One of these heroic women is a Labour councillor, another is a physician on a bike, the third works at Westminster for a socialist MP and the fourth is a hard-working mother married to a violent drunk. What’s odd about Lucy Kirkwood’s new play is that these four women co-exist within a single figure: Dr Elcock (Keeley Hawes). Bob Geldof was the Greta Thunberg of his day, a whingeing, sanctimonious diva Dr Elcock is a housewife, GP, alderwoman and healthcare activist

The Black Crowes’ latest album shows they truly are the American Oasis

Leonard Cohen used to speak self-deprecatingly about his sole ‘chop’ – that mesmeric, circular minor-key guitar pattern deployed on so many of his earliest and greatest songs. It was a classic Cohen humblebrag, the implication being that, in popular music, practical competence at just one thing was acceptable – but any artist with multiple ‘chops’ was to be viewed with great suspicion. The slightly strange notion that anyone peacocking their technical mastery is covering up for some other inadequacy – usually a lack of heart or, worse, of ‘authenticity’ – has found widespread acceptance in the field of music criticism over the years. It’s hard to think of another art