Showing posts with label O2 Arena. Show all posts
Showing posts with label O2 Arena. Show all posts

Monday, January 02, 2012

Cracking the O2 Nut

Rewind to Millennium year. Tony Blair's government has decided to leave us as its legacy the most magnificent flexible performance space in Europe. Audiences of many thousands can flock to the east London riverside to see rock concerts, ballets, operas, superstar lectures and big-screen spectaculars, to name but a few possibilities. The Proms consider relocating in order to treble the audience size and improve the sound quality. The seats are comfortable, the acoustics state-of-the-art and adaptable to any occasion, the sightlines carefully considered at all levels. The foyers are warm, pleasantly designed, friendly and welcoming, the food outlets offer - besides pizza, or fish and chips - falafel and organic salads, home-made chocolate cake and fresh juices. Soon no visit to London would be complete without a trip to the People's Palace of the Arts.

Instead...they built the Millennium Dome. A great spawling shell containing...emptiness. Think of the length of time it took to decide what to do with the damn thing. Think of the cost, dear readers. Think of the waste. Then think how different it could have been if only they'd decided to build it as a proper venue in the first place.

I trotted off to the Dome last week. It's now comfortable enough in its adopted skin as the O2, but still - what a missed opportunity it is. It doesn't feel only 12 years old: it has all the atmosphere of a miserable 1960s relic, with stairs that look as if they've been exported from the old Swiss Cottage swimming baths, and an all-pervasive smell of beer and burgers.

But the Birmingham Royal Ballet's production of The Nutcracker was of course the purpose of the visit. And whoosh - two bars of Tchaikovsky and the entire O2 was transported to dreamland in one swoop. It was absolute magic from start to finish. If this Nutcracker can transcend that venue, then it can do anything.

Here's my review, for The Independent. (Not sure if it has already appeared in the paper - it isn't online yet.)





Balletic bravura, dazzling transformation scenes, a giant flying goose – Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker has become a national favourite. Still, with so many different Nutcracker stagings grinding away this Christmas, especially in London, bringing it to the gaping spaces of the O2 had to be something of a gamble, and not only because of the challenge of selling enough seats. Can its dream magic survive the transition from traditional theatre to an outsize arena with popcorn and eat-in-your-seat pizza?

It also had to survive an unfortunate late addition to the line-up: Joe McElderry crooning three Christmas carols in hideous, sickly arrangements. Goodness knows why he was there. But as soon as the show got underway, the spell created by Tchaikovsky and BRB’s expertise spun its joys unhindered on the sizeable stage.

Moving this complex showpiece to a space that neither it nor the company had inhabited before must have been a gargantuan task, yet glitches were few and far between – just a little over-enthusiasm with the dry ice for the battle of the rats, perhaps. A large screen brought us the welcome option of close-ups, the amplification of the orchestra was unintrusive, and best of all, the superb cast seemed to rise to the evening’s demands by bringing out any extra percentage of energy they might conceivably keep in reserve.

In Peter Wright’s Nutcracker – his own choreography rubbing shoulders with Lev Ivanov’s and some by Vincent Redmon – the momentum of demanding dance scarcely lets up. The party scene brings us three generations of a family happily taking turns on the ballroom floor, from the excellent children to some lovely vignettes for David Morse and the great Marion Tait as the grandparents. Our heroine, Clara, is barely off stage in either act, although when she is finally transformed into the Sugar Plum Fairy for the great pas de deux, it’s another dancer who takes over. Rather like bringing out Wayne Rooney for the penalty shootouts.

Still, Clara has plenty to do already, and Laëtitia Lo Sardo joyously captured the adolescent girl’s voyage of discovery as she balances on the cusp of womanhood. Her Nutcracker Prince was the dashing César Morales, Robert Parker conjured a flamboyant magician-uncle Drosselmeyer, and the unshakeable Nao Sakuma as the Sugar Plum Fairy offered a tranche of ideal classical control.

Did it work? The ultimate verdict must come from the many children in the audience – for in the interval, through those soulless, stadium-style foyers, virtually every little girl was dancing. That’ll be a ‘yes’.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

They're queuing overnight at Covent Garden

Yeah, classical music is really dying...not. Tonight at the Royal Opera House there's the first of two all-star performances of Tosca. Angela Gheorghiu, Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel are Tosca, Cavaradossi and Scarpia and we've learned that people have been queuing overnight outside the theatre for day seats that go on sale this morning. Don't despair if you can't get in: the thing is being filmed, along with the second performance by said megastars on Sunday, and it will be broadcast and (I think) cinecast later this year.

Last night the ROH beamed Massenet's Cendrillon into Trafalgar Square where a huge crowd listened to those mellifluous mezzos Joyce DiDonato and Alice Coote in rapt respect. What's that? Massenet's Cendrillon? No, we'd never heard it before either, but the ROH, the performers and the doughty director Laurent Pelly have apparently done it proud: thus Massenet has claimed his moment in the moonlight alongside the much more predictable Puccini. Last week's Trafalgarcast of Madama Butterfly attracted a crowd of 8000 - with another 2000 spectators turned away because there wasn't enough room for everyone in the UK capital's largest square.

Such is the popularity of opera that's it's outgrown its theatres. At Bayreuth, with about 1800 seats, it's almost impossible to get tickets, even if you can afford it. Glyndebourne, with around 1200, is probably not truly untouched by the financial crisis, but it can certainly look that way. Those are, admittedly, the slenderer-sized jobs, but even so Covent Garden, as we just noted, is packed out.

ENO has the biggest theatre in London and fewer appearances by the DiDonatos and Kaufmanns that draw the hordes; ergo, it's easier to get in. As for its ballet runs, I've managed to get hold of a good seat to see Osipova and Vasiliev. But when the reviews came out yesterday it seemed apposite to book in as PDQ as possible. The Coliseum, too, can sell out - witness the visit of Terry Gilliam to Berlioz.

So is it just the star names that sell? They don't hurt, that's for sure. Yet Madama Butterfly didn't involve megastars at all; instead it featured a comparatively little-known Latvian soprano, Kristine Opolais (left), who stepped into the role at very short notice after the scheduled singer fell ill. The budding diva is no longer so little-known. With Cendrillon, it was the other way round: a virtually unknown opera that, with Joyce and Alice aboard, and a production by the director who worked wonders with La fille du regiment a few years ago, was able to pull and get its coat.

As you'll know if you read my piece in the Independent a few weeks ago, I've some reservations about live opera on the big screen. For the audience it's not truly live; and because the stage demands one approach and film another, you see all manner of things that you'd prefer not to, while the sound can be flattened, or simply made too loud. I'm reliably informed, incidentally, that opera houses risk losing rather than making money on cinecasts - but in this day and age, it's expected of them for "access" etc. Still, what's the alternative?

Bigger opera houses? The chances of a Met-sized theatre being built in the UK are zilch: no money and no space. And huge theatres have their drawbacks; after seeing Eugene Onegin some years ago from the back row of the Met's balcony and finding I needed a NASA-sized telescope, I've never wished to try the place again; I'd rather go to the cinema. For similar reasons I avoided the Royal Ballet's Romeo and Juliet at the O2...OK, maybe I need a visit to the optician. I  hope I'm less short-sighted in observing that these performances and screenings are going down very, very well. Now that they've 'bedded down' in public consciousness, there's a real and increasing demand. If you build it, they will turn up with their sandwiches and a bottle and have an excellent evening.

I'm not going to risk pre-judging the forthcoming appearance of Placido Domingo and Angela Gheorghiu at the O2 on 29 July. I'm not a fan of either the place or the concept, but if it works, it works. Everyone deserves a chance to hear them and this is probably the only way to do it.

I've always maintained that we, the public, are not as stupid as some people like to think. When there's an artist of genuine star quality around, and when music truly speaks to us - no matter its genre - we go and enjoy. You can manufacture artists all you like, with sexy photos, fake-fur marketing and so forth, but ultimately that will be futile if the talent is not there to support it. The star has to be able to cut the mustard on stage, because there you can fake nothing.

Nothing is more exposing than to step forward and perform. Yes, I've witnessed some total charlatans receive standing ovations from time to time - but these are not the musicians whose performances are being beamed around the world to six or seven-figure audiences, or for whom Londoners are ready to camp out overnight on a cold Covent Garden pavement. You can't fake a Kaufmann. And people whose artistry is of that level are in short supply. They always were and they always will be. There is such a thing as magic.

The picture at the top, of Angela (credit: Jason Bell), is from the ROH's 2012 Olympics campaign and says it all.