Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Beware of critics on a cold night

The first night of Hansel und Gretel at Glyndebourne was cold and damp, so broadly speaking, ignore the bad reviews. They only mean that certain people couldn't picnic on the lawn.

Laurent "La fille du regiment with Florez and Dessay" Pelly's junk-food-nightmare production is audience dynamite: pertinent, original, unsentimental, touching. Yes, the family live in a cardboard box; yes, the witch's house is a humungous structure made up of four supermarket aisles piled high with packets of cakes and crisps and fizzy drinks. As for the witch itself (word chosen with reason), the progress is from the humorous - the Witch's Ride is a shadowplay in which Witch tests recalcitrant broomsticks, progressively smaller, culminating in a mop - through the supermarket checkout lady from hell, to the truly loathsome: a hermaphrodite monstrosity with massive boobs and a bald pate, whom you can easily believe would cook and eat the kiddies. It's quite a relief when they get rid of her/him/it. An admirable performance by tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke,

Yes, H&G is a sensitive subject for Glyndebourne, land of privilege and Pimms, where the interval is usually spent overindulging in some style. But my dear colleagues have short memories: if you think this is overdoing the point for the Glyndebourne Guzzlers, please note that it isn't so long since Graham Vick's parting present to the place was Don Giovanni gorging on the innards of a dead horse.

The vision scene with the skittering kiddies in white is indeed slightly disappointing given the transcendental and inexplicably tear-provoking marvel of the music, but there are moments of real magic elsewhere. Gretel - the radiant Slovakian soprano Adriana Kucerova acting her ankle-socks off - peers through a coloured plastic bottle drawn from the litter strewn across the dead forest, and our world turns momentarily orange and purple. Later, she takes shelter and sings huddles up under a haphazard log, vulnerable as an abandoned kitten. Irmgard Vilsmaier as Mother nearly stole the whole show: powerful presence and more powerful voice, despite the pink slacks and house-coat.

As for the obese children clustering around at the end - well, what else could come out of Planet Junk alive? If there's pain in this production, there's a good reason for it: it gets under the fat, straight to the bones.

Friday, July 18, 2008

A fun activity for the weekend

Why not devise your own Fantasy Football Prom, or several, or season, and post to the Comments box, or email them to me, and we'll see if we can beat Messrs Kenyon & Wright at their own game here on JDCMB?

It's Friday, it's mid-July, it's tonight...

...and it's the First Night of the Proms. Less celebrated than the Last Night, but musically rather more rewarding.

Read my piece from today's Indy on Everything You Wanted To Know About The Proms But Were Afraid To Ask.

UPDATE, 11.20am. Oh dear, my friend Pliable at the Overgrown Path is upset, mainly because of a passing remark about Britten. As I've explained in my response to his post, he has taken this out of context. Of course there's more to Britten than 'chilly glumness', just as there is more to Walton than 'social climbing' and a hell of a lot more to Elgar than 'pomp and circumstance', but what we were doing at the time was plugging Vaughan Williams. And 'chilly glumness' is not why there's no Britten in the Proms this year, at least I hope it isn't. In fact, I don't know why there's no Britten as I don't make the decisions. Presumably it's for the same reason that there is no Korngold, no Rautavaara, no Barkauskas, no Shchedrin and no Indonesian Gamelan. Come to think of it, I didn't spot any Birtwistle either. Everyone always wants their 'thing' better represented at the Proms.

Even in 76 concerts, you can't do everything. It really is as simple as that. If it is any comfort, I have shouted loudly about the wonders of Stockhausen, Messiaen and Elliott Carter.

What's more, it is true about the high heels. Please don't remind me of the time I wore the wrong shoes to Des canyons aux etoiles. It doesn't bear thinking about. And Pliable would presumably suffer even more than I did were he to arrive in stilettos for Saint Francis.

Lighten up, folks. This piece was meant to be fun. Or is that forbidden within a 20-mile radius of opening Proms night?

Monday, July 14, 2008

The frog prince, aka JDF

Midway through the second half of his sell-out 'recital' at the Barbican on Saturday night, Juan Diego Florez vanished. A chap in a suit appeared and had a quiet word with maestro Carlo Rizzi, who trotted after him off the podium, then vanished too. Minutes ticked by (and the orchestra, bussed in from Welsh National Opera, was probably trying to calculate what time they'd get home to Cardiff if he left it any longer). Eventually they came back and Florez made a little speech.

"Global warming," he said, "seems to be affecting tenors too these days." He had a 'frog' in his throat. A little problem of phlegm, which he was sure would be better the minute he got under a hot shower, but meanwhile there were all kinds of fluids around and the audience members in the front row opposite him should beware! Before 'Amici miei' (Italian version of 'Ah, mes amis' - and it sounds better in French), he disappeared again. Long pause. Carlo Rizzi turned to the audience and raised one immensely expressive eyebrow...

Florez sang beautifully anyway, most of the time. When he was singing at all, that is (the programme, entirely bel canto to help launch JDF's new album, consisted of six short arias and five long overtures). That voice was still that voice; but what was missing was the sense of effortlessness, the flying honeypots of exquisite legato that we remember from La fille du regiment, the total technical security which makes his singing such a joy. When he wasn't turning on the charm and making the audience laugh, he looked uncomfortable, holding on to the chrome rail around Rizzi, his expression visibly anxious.

What happened? I have a little theory.

Saturday night wasn't especially warm - this summer has been c*)p, wet, miserable and chilly, and that evening was no exception. But the Barbican was heaving. The concert hall was sold out, with a queue for returns. So, too, was the theatre, which is staging the massive hit Black Watch, also with a queue for returns. The restaurants were busy, and the foyers and bars teeming. And, in the concrete bunker of the Barbican, there was no air.

I felt it pretty badly in the audience - rarely have I been so relieved to get out into the rain - and I can't imagine how the performers must have felt. Well, I can, as my companion for the evening had friends in the orchestra and we went backstage to say hi. "It's really hot out there..." they said, clustering around the water bottles.

The Barbican's artistic programme is one of the best in the entire world. But it's not my first choice of venue for a fun night out. Twenty-one years ago, I bottled out of the Barbican-based Guildhall School of Music and Drama after only three weeks - long enough to start thinking that the place might have a bad case of 'sick building syndrome'. The Guildhall - which I'm glad to say is now constructing a state-of-the-art new block over the road, due to open in 2011 - is directly above the Barbican's car park and we all suspected that the CO2 was wending its happy way up into the school and our lungs. What's certain is that there wasn't one day during those three weeks in which I didn't go home with a headache and nausea. The Barbican itself, meanwhile, seems to have a ventilation problem, not to mention a serious lack of natural light. There was no air in that hall on Saturday night. No wonder Florez was feeling froggy.

As a cheerful footnote, my companion assessed the frog prince and his gleaming smile, then remarked that he looked like one of those footballers who are brought on at the end of the match to do the penalty shoot-outs and win the game without having played it.

Here's JDF himself singing 'Ah, mes amis' in the Laurent Pelly production of La fille du regiment last year in Vienna.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Observer asks...

..."Is it curtains for critics?" This article asks whether bloggers are putting the pros out of business.

It ignores several big points:

1. A number of bloggers are also professionals in their field.

2. A lot of critics are amateurs. Total amateurs.

3. The issue is focusing attention on the role of the critic as never before. Until arts blogging came along to show that commentary is both wanted and needed, newspapers could shed critics and arts coverage with equanimity. Perhaps they need us more than they thought.

Present blogger/critic is happy to send own list of credentials to anyone who wants it.