Culture

Culture

The good, the bad and the ugly in books, exhibitions, cinema, TV, dance, music, podcasts and theatre.

On the road | 25 October 2018

Opera

Wolverhampton; Workington; Blackburn; Sheffield; Lancaster; Hackney. Every year English Touring Opera does what our national opera company doesn’t: packs up its props and takes to the road, bringing opera to the bits of the UK other companies don’t even think about reaching. And not just Traviatas and Toscas either, but properly interesting, often unusual, repertoire.

Top scorer

Opera

Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess springs to life fully formed, and pulls you in before a word has been sung. A whirlwind flourish; the hectic bustle of violins and xylophone, and then a quick fade into an image of a woman cradling a child and ‘Summertime’, the very first number we hear sung. The aria’s fame

Ring leader

Opera

‘On Brünnhilde’s rock I drew the breath that called your name; so swift was my journey here.’ It’s Act Two of Götterdämmerung. Siegfried, entoiled in evil beyond his comprehension, has unwittingly committed the betrayal that will tip the whole vast drama into its final collapse, and at this point Covent Garden’s Ring cycle really does

The naked and the dead

Opera

Yes, Oscar Wilde never wrote it. No, Strauss didn’t intend it. In fact, the composer famously demanded the Dance of the Seven Veils be ‘thoroughly decent, as if it were being done on a prayer mat’. But that doesn’t stop this striptease and musical money shot being the look-but-don’t-touchstone of any Salome. A blonde, blank-faced

Murderer or Madonna?

Opera

At the end of Act Two of Tosca there are some 30 bars of orchestral music — accompaniment to a very specific set of stage directions. During this time Tosca takes two candles and places them on either side of the dead Scarpia’s head. She then removes a crucifix from the wall and lays it

Great expectations | 9 August 2018

Opera

‘Outside this house the world has changed. Life is swifter than before; there is no time for idle gestures.’ Anatol, in Samuel Barber’s opera Vanessa, doesn’t pretend to be a romantic hero. The son of Vanessa’s old flame, he’s arrived by night at the remote mansion where she’s waited for 20 years with her elderly

Ariadne’s thread

Opera

‘They’ve dined well, they’ve drunk their fill, their brains are dull and slow. They’ll sit snoozing in the dark until they hear some applause, and then, out of courtesy, they’ll wake up’. Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s words, not mine. I’ve never bought the notion that Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s Der Rosenkavalier somehow predicts the first world war.

Too much information | 12 July 2018

Opera

When Kasper Holten’s production of Don Giovanni was first staged at the Royal Opera in 2014, I disliked it intensely, even more than I have disliked most of his other productions, or for that matter most productions of Don Giovanni. I missed the first revival, but when I saw it this time round my reactions

Darkness and light

Opera

The femme fatale was invented in France. A giddy, greedy child in her first incarnation, as the antiheroine of Abbé Prévost’s L’Histoire du Chevalier Des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (1731), she had no voice of her own. Reshaped as a sphinx by Alfred de Musset, made over as a gypsy by Prosper Mérimée, plumped

Scent and sensibility

Opera

Patrick Mason’s new production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette reminded me of something, but it took a while to work out what. We saw shiny black walls with chrome Bauhaus details, and a swirl of mist through which beautiful people moved in black formal wear. Then Olena Tokar made her entrance as Juliette, and as

Handel for hipsters

Opera

On a sward of AstroTurf somewhere off Silicon Roundabout, Mountain Media is hosting its summer party and, well, it’s the sort of bash you’d pluck your own eyes out to avoid. Hipsters sprawl on dayglo beanbags. Lads wearing fairy wings strike aftershave-advert attitudes as they swig bottled lager, while girls in vintage dresses pout into

Slippery slope

Opera

Longborough Festival Opera, refuge for British Wagnerians fleeing unidiomatic musical performances and idiotically irrelevant and insulting productions, has rounded off its Wagner canon with its first Der fliegende Holländer. Next year a new production of the Ring begins, so presumably the small stage is considered inappropriate for the three Wagner dramas with indispensably large choruses.

Laughing matters

Opera

‘Comedy for music by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Music by Richard Strauss.’ That’s what the creators of Der Rosenkavalier wrote on the score, but don’t expect to see it reprinted in any programme books. Their careful wording doesn’t fit modern assumptions about Der Rosenkavalier, and not merely because it gives the librettist first place. There’s that

Lessons in refrigeration

Opera

There is no such thing as a moderately good performance of Madama Butterfly, or, to be more precise, it’s not possible to be slightly or rather moved by a performance. As with some of Shakespeare’s plays, and most of Wagner’s music-dramas, one is either shaken and overcome, or refrigerated and indifferent. So it’s sad to

Russian ragout

Opera

There is famously no door into the late-night diner of Edward Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks’. Its three silent patrons are trapped behind the plate-glass window — specimens of urban disaffection and isolation. In Richard Jones’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk it’s the windows that are so disquietingly absent. John Macfarlane’s designs propel the action of Shostakovich’s final opera

Kid’s play

Opera

It’s been a good couple of weeks for cuddly toys in opera. A big floppy Eeyore is the only comfort for 11-year-old Coraline at the darkest moment of Mark-Anthony Turnage and Rory Mullarkey’s new opera. The teenage Composer in Antony McDonald’s production of Ariadne auf Naxos has a Beanie Baby panda as a sort of

The lady vanquishes

Opera

At last, a great time at the Royal Opera: a magnificent performance, in every way, of Verdi’s Macbeth, curiously but pleasantly beginning at 3 p.m. This is the fourth outing of Phyllida Lloyd’s 2002 production, and the finest by a long way, though each of the previous series had its merits. If my memory serves

Love Handel

Opera

Handel’s Rinaldo has not been highly regarded even by his most ardent admirers. I have never understood why — even less so after the recent performance at the Barbican, with stunning forces, including the English Concert, under the inspiring direction of Harry Bicket. Certainly the plot is absurd, with a last-minute mass conversion of Muslims

What’s in a name

Opera

Janacek is the master of the operatic title. Think of the slippery, sleight-of-hand emphasis of Jenufa in its original Czech —Her Stepdaughter — or the elegant misdirection of The Beginning of a Romance. It encourages the suspicion that when Janacek christened his final opera, deliberately truncating the title of Dostoyevsky’s Siberian prison camp-inspired novel Notes

It’s the music, stupid

Opera

‘Welcome to our hearts again, Iolanthe!’ sings the fairy chorus in Gilbert and Sullivan’s fantasy-satire, and during this exuberant new production by Cal McCrystal you could almost hear the assembled G&S fans sighing in agreement. Iolanthe is our trump card against the sceptics, and not merely because Gilbert’s digs at parliamentary politics are still so

Accentuate the negative

Opera

A chaste act of adultery and a silent conversation: these are the encounters at the heart of Un ballo in maschera. On paper Verdi’s opera is a hot-blooded political thriller climaxing in a regicide, but in the watching it’s something entirely other. Just like the buoyant score, whose ‘aura of gaiety’ seems so at odds

Body language | 25 January 2018

Opera

One of the Royal Opera’s greatest virtues is the care it takes with its revivals, even those that are virtually annuals, such as Jonathan Kent’s Tosca, the unnecessary replacement for Zeffirelli’s classic production. Kent’s version, with elaborate sets by the much-missed Paul Brown, was unveiled in 2006 and now has its ninth revival. It is

Up the revolution

Opera

Spoiler alert: the final image of John Fulljames’s production of Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses at the Roundhouse is haunting. Ulysses (Roderick Williams) and Penelope (Christine Rice) stand facing each other at last, arms outstretched. But Penelope is on terra firma. Ulysses stands on the revolving walkway that has served as the stage throughout most

Sonic youth

Opera

Everyone knows — don’t they? — that the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain is the UK’s youngest world-class symphony orchestra — an ensemble of musicians aged 18 and under that’s the equal of any professional band (and better than some). But it’s also the largest, and we don’t hear enough about the sheer sonic

Passion killer

Opera

The late arch-Rossinian Philip Gossett regarded Semiramide as a neoclassical work, vaguely and alarmingly suggesting to me a musical equivalent of Canova, a sculptor I detest. Actually, I don’t think the terminology is helpful. Nor is Semiramide monumental in the way that the programme book suggests. There is a notable lack of ensembles and of

Unclear Handeling

Opera

ENO has revived Richard Jones’s production of Handel’s Rodelinda. It was warmly greeted on its first outing in 2014, though Jones was, as he remains, inveterately controversial. The opera itself seems to command universal admiration among Handelians, and widespread approval among those of us who have never quite managed to call ourselves that. The most

Irish ayes | 26 October 2017

Opera

Luigi Cherubini is the pantomime villain of French romantic music. As head of the Paris Conservatoire in the 1820s he was the embodiment of obsolescence: Berlioz’s Memoirs recount an occasion when some state functionary told the ageing master that he should really write an opera. ‘One can dimly imagine the indignant consternation of the author

Mad Men – The Opera

Opera

Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti begins not with a prelude, but a jingle. In Matthew Eberhardt’s production a trio of session singers clusters around a studio microphone. A clarinet throws out a slinky riff, the ‘On Air’ light blinks on, and they’re off: a swinging hymn to postwar suburbia, in Andrews Sisters close-harmony. Then we

Soap opera

Opera

Previously on Giulio Cesare… English Touring Opera’s new season caters cannily to the box-set generation by chopping Handel’s Egyptian power-and-politics opera in two, playing each half on consecutive evenings as edge-of-your-seat instalments in a sort of baroque House of Cards. Will Cleopatra outwit her wicked brother? Will she and Cesare ever get together? Will Sesto