Monday, 23 May 2011

Opera: Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne

The cast of Don Giovanni  Photo Glyndebourne

Mozart’s operas are usually fairly jolly affairs – by opera standards – and Don Giovanni, even though it deals with pretty tragic themes (rape, murder) is basically comic in character. Even so, when the wronged Donna Anna (Albina Shagimuratova) discovers her father is dead and begins her aria in the vast, luxurious theatre at Glyndebourne, tears started running down my cheeks. Crying during opera is an affliction I inherited from my mother, and however much I try, I cannot get rid of.  

Putting my silly weeping during operas aside, my first visit to Glyndebourne was a huge success. We were fortunate that the organising had been done for us by a dear friend – all the Englishman and I had to do was to be ready outside our door late Sunday morning. 

Even the train journey from Victoria and back was fairly painless, and the buses were waiting outside the station at Lewis to take us to the house and gardens at Glyndebourne as planned. 

I’d been fretting about what to wear – did I need wedges for the grass, would it be too cold and rainy for my long dress (‘it’s customary to wear black tie for men and long or short dresses for women’ the Glyndebourne site advised). I envied the Englishman for his simple choice of a black tie; why is there not a similar (although boring) alternative for women? However, there was a little mishap with Englishman's slightly tight dinner suit trousers - he's had the same suit for a few years now - but less said about that the better.

Blue skies at Glyndebourne

But you can see it wasn't terribly warm...

In the end I wore a Hobbs black and white maxi dress with a shrug and a black Marimekko jacket which I've had for more years than I can remember, together with white patent NW3 wedges. It was a good choice - I was warm outside and when inside just had to peel off a layer or two.

There was rain as the train pulled into Gatwick; after that the skies were bright. Even the brisk wind didn't worry us, because in honour of a birthday amidst our party, for the long interval (they know how to organise these events in the UK to maximise enjoyment!) we'd booked a table at the Middle and Over Wallop restaurant, which for the duration of the opera festival has been taken over by Albert Roux, OBE.  

I was astonished and honoured when at the end of a fantastic meal of asparagus, lobster and strawberries, and while sipping the rest of our vintage champagne, who else but the famed chef himself, supported by a cane, came and talked to a few of the guests – including us! I was so awe struck I didn’t even think about taking pictures, but it was incredible to talk to a man who, together with his brother, is responsible for such a food revolution in Britain.

Still, even food cooked by a master came second in the enjoyment stakes on the day, because Don Giovanni with London Philharmonic Orchestra was outstanding in every way. Firstly the staging was fantastic and suited the opera's dark themes to a tee. A gigantic pandora’s box of a set transformed itself from darkened streets, to the lavish rooms for Don Giovanni’s orgy, to a dark, sinister graveyard, and finally to a table set for a meal with a ghost. There was even a proper fire at the end of the Act I - it was just incredible!

As for the cast; their voices were incredibly polished – as I mentioned before I was particularly impressed by Albina Shagimuratova who sang the role of Donna Anna, but Lucas Meachem in the role of Don Giovanni should also receive a mention. His character who has to be both cruel, ruthless and seductive, demands incredible vocal attributes together with good acting skills. He has to invite the audience’s wrath as well as earn a secret admiration for his total lack of morals. Don Giovanni has to be a good 'baddie'. Same must be said for Matthew Rose who played Leporello, Don Giovanni’s trusted servant. His character, which is mainly comic, also has a serious side. He has the conscience which his master completely lacks.

When comparing different operas I've often cited Tosca, which we saw at La Bastille in Paris many, many years ago as the best I've ever seen. I'm afraid Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne trumps this by a mile. It was world class opera at its best.

Glyndebourne is screening some of the performances live in cinemas throughout UK this summer:

Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg by Richard Wagner on 26 June 2011
The Turn of the Screw by Benjamin Britten on 21 August 2011
Don Giovanni (recorded 2010) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 31 July 2011  

If you like opera you could do worse than go to one of these screenings - I think I'm going to see if I can get a ticket to the 2010 version of Don Giovanni.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Cherry Orchard at National Theatre, London

Zoe Wanamaker in The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov
This play cast such a spell over me on Friday night that I was still thinking about it as I opened my eyes Saturday morning. But then that is how Chekhov - done well - usually affects me.

I remember the first time I saw The Seagull at Kansallisteatteri (Finnish National Theatre) in Helsinki. I must have been about nineteen and I went on my own because my then boyfriend wasn't at all interested in theatre. I'd seen many plays before with my mother - I was born in Tampere which had a strong socialist theatre culture - but this Chekhov production blew me away. That night sitting in the dark theatre on my own, re-ignited my desire to become an actress, something I'd dreamed about all my childhood. For a few weeks I regretted my sensible choice of study, economics, but soon the bitter reality of life's limited choices hit me and I forgot about my arty ambitions.

Which is what Chekhov's Cherry Orchard is largely about: what is it that is important in life? Is it money, love or something higher - a responsibility to society and to other human beings? In this new version of the play by Andrew Upton, Zoe Wanamaker plays Ranyevskaya, the flamboyant owner of the Cherry Orchard which is under threat because of the debts this life-loving woman has incurred in Paris. She refuses to 'see sense' (unlike me at nineteen; more's the pity) and join a money-making scheme provided by a nouveau riche son of a serf turned merchant, Lopakhin (Conleth Hill). He wants to develop the land and build holiday homes on the Cherry Orchard. But Ranyevskaya cannot see that times are changing, 'Don't talk to me about money,' she says. Of course this deluded upper class attitude is her downfall.

Lopakhin on his part fails in something much more important: when faced with the chance for happiness he cannot bring himself to grab it. He truly believes money will bring happiness, however much people like the eternal student and philosopher, Petya Trofimov (Mark Bonnar), try to convince him otherwise. But even the tutor, Petya, is misguided; he thinks he's beyond trivial human emotions. Yet, while he's busy philosophising, he's also falling madly in love with Ranyevkaya's beautiful daughter, Anya (Charity Wakefield).

Last night made me again realise what a brilliant writer Chekov was. The same issues of love, power and society that affected people in Russia of the early 20th century, and which cut so deeply into my being thirty years ago, still resonate today.

Upton's new version brings Chekhov's dialogue up to date in a way that makes the interaction between the characters not just passionate but also funny. There's even a joke about the banking crisis when the batty uncle, Ranyevskaya's brother, Gaev, (played by James Laurenson) hears that he could borrow money to pay interest on their debts and then borrow some more to pay the interest on the second loan and so carry on indefinitely, 'It's easy,' he says. As a final irony, he later becomes a banker.

The human frailties which Chekhov excels in writing about are portrayed equally competently by the actors of this production. Wanamaker is singularly brilliant but her supporting cast are at least equal to her in their performances. The sets too are broodingly beautiful; the lighting alone should receive a prize. I was completely convinced I was in an old crumbling Russian Dacha and not sitting in the stalls of a central London theatre.

The set at the beginning of the second act.
I just wish I'd had the senselessness of Ranyevskaya at nineteen...ce la vie, eh?

The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov at The Olivier, National Theatre, London.
Opening 17 May 2011.
Length about 2 hours 55 minutes with one interval.
On 30th June 20111 The Cherry Orchard will be broadcast live to cinemas worldwide.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Frankenstein at the London National Theatre

People were taking in the late afternoon sun outside The National Theatre
There is something I need to get off my chest first regarding Danny Boyle's Frankenstein: the nudity.

The play opens with the birth - or emergence - of the Creature made by the 'mad' scientist, Victor Frankenstein. The Creature performs a series of very impressive physical moves  - naked. This sequence which lasts for some ten, fifteen minutes, has the actor lying face down on the floor with his legs spread, or standing fully doubled over with his back to the audience, or running around the stage in elation at being able to move. It's a beautiful and demanding part to play, and on the night we went we were lucky enough to have Benedict Cumberbatch do it. He and Jonny Lee Miller take turns between the roles of the Creature and Victor Frankenstein, and I've heard Miller is excellent too.

Cumberbatch and Miller Photo

The nudity was full on; the audience got to see every intimate detail of Mr Cumberbatch's fit body. Sex sells tickets, so sadly nudity scenes are often included in plays when there is absolutely no need for them, but here the play very much demanded it. And watching Cumberbatch struggling to 'come alive' naked wasn't at all sexy. At times it was painful, at times funny and at times sad, but never titillating.

The whole of the naked opening sequence set the scene for the dark themes that the play examined, and the tragic fate that the 'unnatural' creation of life brought everyone who came into contact with the Creature.

Miller's Frankenstein, the clever, but slightly autistic scientist, is in trouble from the start: he is the first human to reject the Creature and abandons him. After being beaten up by other humans he comes in contact with, the Creature finally finds someone who can accept him; a blind, retired teacher. The kind old man gives him language and teaches him human emotions such as love and longing. Here I think the script excels, suddenly the Creature becomes more articulate and deeper thinking than his teacher, 'Why can't I be King?' he asks. The poor teacher has no answer apart from assurances that one day he will be happy. This simple question echoes the changing times that the play is set in, 'Why aren't all men equal?' 

However, the teacher's family cannot accept the Creature and instil in him the one emotion that he comes to trust more than any other; hate. But first a beautiful dream gives him hope and the Creature decides to look for his creator, Frankenstein. If some-one is capable of loving him, or giving him some-one - a female Creature - to love, surely it should be his own creator?

Things go from bad to worse for both the Creature and Frankenstein, and while the plot thickens the audience is held on the edge of their seats. The play is nearly two and a half hours long and has no interval, and it could have done with a break. But I can see why Boyle decided not to put one in - the tension of the plot would have suffered from a break. 

This was a big spectacle of a play, with the set design playing almost as a large a part as the two leading men. There was a locomotive, real flames, rain, snow. Sets emerged from the floor, they were lowered down from the ceiling and appeared from the wings. There was  a church bell which made many in the audience jump (me included) when it was rung in the stalls even before the curtain went up. Though there were no curtains; the technology in theatres these days has all but made such an old-fashioned device obsolete.

The cast too, was on a grand scale; the company included nearly twenty actors. All of whom were expertly directed by Danny Boyle. And there's a rare thing - the acting, the set design as well as the script were working together in such unison that I didn't think about them as separate parts. I accepted the locomotive as a sign of the industrial revolution with its effects on the social structure, without it disrupting the flow of the play. The passing of time, and the change of seasons, were also cleverly woven into the script and the set design.

I completely suspended disbelief.

I wasn't alone in being bowled over by Frankenstein. On the night we went the company got a standing ovation - and rightly so. A woman sitting in front of us was sobbing and there were tears in the eyes of Miller and Cumberbatch when they accepted the applause. It was magical night at the theatre.

Frankenstein, a new play by Nick Dear based on the novel by Mary Shelley
Directed by Danny Boyle
The National Theatre, South Bank, London
Running time about two hours with no interval