Culture

Culture

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

Pole position | 5 October 2017

Opera

Did you know that they used to make the Fiat 126 in the Eastern bloc? They did, apparently. There was a plant at Bielsko-Biala, and the car was widely driven throughout Poland in the 1970s, when you only had to wait a couple of years to buy one. It became an emblem of personal freedom,

Small wonders

Opera

It has been a reasonably good week for peripatetic opera-loving female-underwear fetishists. In La bohème at Covent Garden Musetta slipped out of her knickers and swung them round, as everyone, except me, mentioned in their reviews; and now, in Leeds, in the first of Opera North’s ‘Little Greats’, what laughter the actors in the drama

DIY Bohème

Opera

The Royal Opera’s one production that, it has always confidently been claimed, need never be replaced has been replaced. John Copley, vintage 1974, has given way to Richard Jones, in a production full of his trademark quirkinesses and mischief, though he is respectful enough of Bohème to keep his irony out of sight for the

Ave, Maria

Opera

Anyone who thinks that an artist’s life is irrelevant to their artistic achievement, and for that matter anyone who thinks that it isn’t, must be given pause by Maria Callas. It is now exactly 40 years since her death and everything she recorded is available on multiple pressings. But of the huge body of material

Viennese whirl

Opera

‘First performance: Vienna, October 3, 1880’ declares the programme for Opera della Luna’s new production of Johann Strauss’s The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief. ‘First British Performance: Wilton’s Music Hall, London, August 29, 2017’. They’re not joking: this really is the first full UK staging of the Waltz King’s single most successful (in his lifetime, anyway) operetta.

Grimes triumphant

Opera

‘Peter Grimes!’ Ranked high above us in the Usher Hall — a mob smelling blood, hot for the kill — the chorus let forth those three primal cries, and we were all lost. The modesty-curtain of civilisation was torn away, and our basest human urges — hate, revenge, suspicion of difference, delight at weakness —

Classy and classic

Opera

The Edinburgh International Festival began with a double helping of incest. Curiously, Greek — Mark-Anthony Turnage’s East End retelling of the Oedipus myth, which was greeted with universal acclaim at its premiere in 1988, and which has gone on to be one of British opera’s biggest export success stories — was tagged on the Festival

Strong stuff

Opera

The strings sweep upwards, the horns surge, and Leoncavallo’s Zaza throws itself into your arms. We don’t know it yet, but we’ve just heard the drama’s focal point: what David Lynch would call its ‘eye of the duck moment’. The same music recurs near the end of Act One, as the fumbling attempts at seduction

New kid on the block

Opera

The new Grange Park Opera at Horsley is amazing, as everyone who visits it must agree. In less than a year a pretty large, comfortable theatre, with excellent acoustics and a large stage, has been erected from nothing, and among the first productions is one of Die Walküre, a demanding work in all respects, and

Risk assessment

Opera

Someone at the Buxton International Festival had a wry smile on their face when programming this year’s trio of operas. To sandwich together Verdi’s Macbeth and Mozart’s Lucio Silla — charged tales of political tyranny, both — with Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring is a juxtaposition as canny as it is risky. Dictatorship takes many forms,

Dressed to thrill

Opera

Mitridate, re di Ponto was Mozart’s fifth opera, written and first produced when he was 14 years old. Absolutely amazing. Now we’ve got that out of the way, what about the work? Is it worth reviving, and if so how? The Royal Opera evidently thinks so, since it is reviving for the second time Graham

Roll over Beethoven

Opera

If you want to see an opera director kicking a genius when they’re down — and I mean really sticking the knife in and giving it a good old twist around — Fidelio is usually a safe bet. It’s one of Beethoven’s few undisputed masterpieces in which he’s not in absolute command of his medium;

Twin peaks | 22 June 2017

Opera

In an essay called ‘Wagner’s fluids’, Susan Sontag concludes, ‘The depth and grandeur of feeling of which Wagner is capable is combined in his greatest work with an extraordinary delicacy in the depiction of emotion. It is this delicacy that may finally convince us that we are indeed in the presence of that rarest of

Art of darkness | 15 June 2017

Opera

Brett Dean’s new opera for Glyndebourne is a big-hearted romantic comedy, sunny and life-affirming. Only joking — this is contemporary opera, after all. It’s about the usual stuff: neurosis, violence and toxic sexuality. Those seem to be the emotions most naturally suited to the language of mainstream contemporary classical music, and Dean speaks that language

Myths and morals

Opera

Handel’s Semele, one of the most enjoyable operas (or opera-oratorio, if you insist) in the repertoire, is, in its upshot, an enchanting display of thoughtless hedonism and a warning about what may happen, or even what is bound to happen, if you take hedonism too far. Wormsley, to which Garsington Opera moved several years ago

Music matters | 1 June 2017

Opera

The ancient Greeks had a word for it —katabasis, descending into the depths, to the underworld itself, in search of answers. To cross the threshold between life and death, innocence and knowledge, the everyday and what lies beyond, is an act woven through art, resurfacing in each generation. For Orpheus, and for Monteverdi, the journey

Death wish

Opera

Anyone who thinks they have experienced absolute boredom, or even doubts that such a state can exist, should go to Glyndebourne’s first offering of the season, Cavalli’s Hipermestra. The first two acts, played without any break, last for 130 minutes, the third for a mere hour. The audience broke into its normal rapturous applause at

False start

Opera

When a composer begins an opera, they create a world. You don’t need a full-scale overture: the tear-stained violins that Verdi drapes over the opening bars of La traviata do the job perfectly. The orgasmic upswing that launches Der Rosenkavalier, the cosmic hum that sets the Ring on its course — those very first notes

Mild things

Opera

English Touring Opera is playing safe this spring, with Tosca and Patience, and was rewarded, in Cambridge at least, with full houses. Its Tosca has been moderately reviewed, and that is about what it deserves. There is only one set, designed primarily with the tableau of chorus and soloists at the end of Act One

Stand and deliver

Opera

Some opera-lovers prefer concert performances to full stagings. I don’t. It’s that whole Gesamtkunstwerk thing: opera needs to be seen as well as heard. There’ll always be circumstances in which concert performances are welcome — to rescue a neglected score, say, or if a symphony orchestra wants to stretch itself. But when a major company

Fallen angel

Opera

The Adèsives were out in force at Covent Garden last Monday for the UK première of their hero’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, unable to contain their rapture until the piece was over, yelling their excitement even at the interval. Thomas Adès’s opera is closely based on Buñuel’s film of 1962, with the text adapted

Take a bow

Opera

Monteverdi 450 — the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists’ tour of his three operas to 33 cities across two continents — began with his penultimate work Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, at Bristol’s Colston Hall. It was a marvellous occasion, uplifting and entertaining. I hadn’t been to the Colston Hall before, and was most

Country pleasures

Opera

The English weren’t the first cowpat composers. Jean-Philippe Rameau raised the art of frolicking in the fields to such heights he filched pastoralism for the French. Rameau’s mastery of landscape is not just a question of orchestral colour, though that’s a large part of it — those goaty oboes, lowing bassoons, cooing flutes transport you

Blowing the bloody doors off

Opera

As we waited for curtain-up on Scottish Opera’s new production of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle a member of staff walked out on stage. Don’t worry, he reassured us, he wasn’t about to announce that a member of the cast was indisposed. Nervous laughter from the auditorium. Still in the same matter-of-fact tone, he carried on, and

Death becomes her

Opera

Opera is littered with the bodies of abandoned women. Step over Dido and Gilda, and you’ll still stumble into Donna Elvira, Euridice, Elisabeth, Ariadne, Alcina. The list goes on. Pop music might have ‘50 Ways to Leave Your Lover’, but opera has 500. Call it chauvinism or voyeurism if you like, but opera’s women are

Denial has rarely looked so good

Opera

Ceci n’est pas une Partenope. Forget the warring classical kingdoms of Naples and Cumae: this is surrealist Paris in the 1930s and imminent invasion is the stuff of conversational parenthesis, barely worth interrupting a rubber of bridge for, let alone an embrace. Man Ray, Lee Miller and their androgynous associates slink and affect their way

Fatal distraction

Opera

I don’t think that I have left a theatre many times feeling as depressed and irritated as after the Royal Opera’s Die Meistersinger, in the new production by Kasper Holten. The run of the Royal Opera’s recent productions of Wagner — appalling Tristans, a dire succession of Parsifals, mediocre Rings — hadn’t prepared me for

Scottish power

Opera

‘Perhaps in this world nothing ever happens without purpose,’ sings old, blind King Arkel in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, and that at least is something to hold on to. God knows, you need it. Peel away the fairy-tale trappings of Maeterlinck’s original play, and the world of this opera is profoundly cruel. Its characters are

Statue-esque

Opera

Why set a supremely great play to music? The Winter’s Tale, the play of Shakespeare’s that I love most, has much of his most beautiful and intelligent poetry, as well as some of his most condensed and puzzling lines. Ryan Wigglesworth, in several of the innumerable interviews about his new opera, says he has been