Theatre/Opera/Dance reviews and news

Archive for June, 2011

Romeo et Juliette, Gounod Review

Attending an event at Teatro ala Scala in Milan is always a grand event. Tourists and Milanese alike are dressed in their finery. It is as much of a social event as it is an artistic one.  The last performance of Romeo et Juliette (1867)  was just such a night.

This is not a commonly produced piece by French composer Gounod, in fact it has been absent from La Scala since its last staging in 1934. The production, directed by the Tony Award-winning Bartlett Sher, had been a success the Salzburg Summer Festival in 2008 with Netrebko and Villayon in the leads.  This staging brings together two glamorous stars Nino Machaidze and Vittorio Grigolo.  The La Scala opera was under the baton of young maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who was recently named the eighth Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the American “big five” orchestras, to start the 2012-2013 season.

Upon entering the theatre, the curtain is already raised, already the line between the dramatics of attending La Scala has already begun to blur with that that is soon to occur on stage.  The actors process out and then, very strangely an in an act that I still have yet to place significance, there is a group rape of the serving made on stage. No research suggests this to be in the work, nor was there ever any returning to the theme again later in the opera. It was most disturbing and extremely unnecessary.

Romeo (Italian Grigolo) is a powerhouse of a tenor at only 28 years of age. The strength and tenacity of his voice are astounding and he excelled within his musical phrasing. He brought Romeo through the impetuousness of youth through to a matured, heartfelt husband. Juliette (Georgian Machaidze), despite her horrific costumes which were both aesthetically and historically ill-chosen, was enchanting. The audience could not take their eyes off of this blossoming girl. She went through the character, moving from the young love-struck child into an anguished woman who gives her life to be with her husband. The death scene was truly moving.

There was a strong supporting cast that provided many comedic moments, particularly Paris. Tybalt (Juan Francisco Gatell) had a demanding stage presence. Mercutio (Braun) was a rapscallion through and through and successfully pulled off his “Ballade de la Reine Mab.  Juliette’s maid Gertrude ( Susane Resmark) was indeed a force to be reckoned with.  Yet the staging in the fight scenes was off. It seemed as if Mercutio died of little more than a paper cut and Tybalt was merely glanced. At this level, such basics need to be spot on.

As always, the La Scala chorus, dressed in exquisite 17th century costumes of Catherine Zuber, the likes of which are rarely seen today, was impeccable. Though the costuming did little to differentiate between the Capulets and Montagues.

Michael Yeargan’s set was uninspiring and remained the same throughout the three hours.  There were moments of beautiful dawn lighting through the windows, but then a green was soon to emanate. I have never seen green light shine from the sun.

Someone would do well to remind the audience that applause is not necessary after each and every song. One would think that an audience of such stature would know better.

The performances were breathtaking, but the set and attention to detail was at times simply not intriguing enough. Gounod’s music, while beautiful, has a tendency to remind you of something else you have heard. It lacks a certain inspiration and originality much like this production.
www.teatroallascala.org


Emperor and Galilean review

The English premiere of what Ibsen considered to be his greatest triumph is not an easy piece to digest. This, his longest play which, like Peer Gynt, was written to be read rather than staged, indeed requires from its audience a theatrical endurance of epic proportions. Emperor and Galilean, like a marathon, feels worthy upon completion. Originally intended to be nine hours, Ben Power judiciously trimmed this gargantuan piece of two parts of five acts down to four acts which together come in just under four hours with a cast of 50.

It is astounding that this ambitious work of Ibsen’s, despite being penned in 1873, has never been performed in the United Kingdom considering his relative success on the capital’s west-end boards, with A Doll’s House, Peer Gynt, and Ghosts being particular favorites. The last Ibsen production I saw in London was Ralph Fiennes starring in Brand at the Royal Haymarket in 2003.

The tale the fourth-century AD Roman emperor Julian the Apostate (Andrew Scott), the last of the pagan emperor’s epic rise and tumultuous downfall, is the principle focus of the play. Laid before us is one man’s tortuous search for a philosophical truth and religious identity. Julian, through his tutor Maximus (Ian McDiarmid), questions free will and destiny, politics and religion, the body and spirit. The juxtaposition of human conceits and folly to that of our great endeavors and aspirations in this one work is scintillating. In true Ibsen form, the text provides a wealth of literature, biblical, and historical references that stay with the viewer long after the curtain goes down.

Andrew Scott is truly beginning to make a name for himself. He was recently seen briefly in the BBC’s Sherlock and at the Old Vic in Noel Coward’s Design for Living. Each time I see him onstage, I am ever more convinced of his talent  and impeccable timing. He somehow succinctly conveys the warring need for power and intellectual stimulation in this rather weak minded man. His performance was inspiring. O’Reilly’s character, similar to her performance earlier this year at The Comedy Theatre’s Birdsong, lacked substance. McDiarmid played the manipulative advisor Maximus frighteningly well.

It is due to the great capacities and capabilities that the National’s Olivier provides that this piece truly comes to dazzling light in this theatrical cathedral. Jonathan Kent’s staging effectively segments this monolith of a revolving stage. The death scene Helena (Genevieve O’Reilly), the multiple three levels created on the stage, and the ethereal lighting was breathtaking. In fact, it was the subsequent lack of levels and staging that somewhat disappointed in the second act. The military march through Babylon lacked resonance and Julian’s final death, after such great feats of staging, felt somewhat flat in this dessert between East and West.

There are a number of faults to be pointed out (Evian water bottle, confusing props, some fumbling with lines), but as the night I saw was a very early preview, I assume most of these will be smoothed. The contemporary screen projections with airplanes, the use of fluorescent colours on some of the costumes, and the camouflage on the soldiers all seemed at war with the epic tale being told. Somehow the details did not quite align in harmony. But so great was the tale, so impressive Scott’s performance that all minor criticisms seem of little import in the face of such a monumental production.

http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk


Betrayal review

Harold Pinter’s Betrayal was premiered way back in 1978 at the Lyttleton and the play is just as strong today as it was back then and will not lose any of its punch if it is played out for audiences in 30 years’ time. This is because the central theme of infidelity is something that will always be a pertinent subject and it is becoming all the more ubiquitous in our highly sexualised age.

Harold Pinter understands this very well because this play was inspired by an affair he had during the 60’s with BBC Television presenter Joan Bakewell

Ian Rickson’s production at the Comedy theatre centres around a love affair between Jerry (Douglas Henshall) and his best friend’s wife, Emma (Kristen Scott-Thomas). It opens on a meeting between the two philandering characters in a pub. You learn that their affair has since come to its climax and we are witnessing something of a reunion. The play then gradually moves back in time, allowing for insight into the secrets, deceptions and exertions of passionate love that ultimately lead to the events of the first scene.

Through Pinter’s ingenious reverse chronology of the narrative, dramatic irony is used to powerful effect which, coupled with Pinter’s economical use of dialogue and the subtleties that resonate through each multi-layered interaction, makes for a beautifully pitched piece of theatre, although this production is certainly not perfect.

The cast play the disingenuous and reticent characters very well, convincing in their utter disregard for one another’s feelings. I felt tenderness between Jerry and Emma, the breaks in the dialogue communicating a much greater and purer intent, contradicted of course by their rather insensitive behaviour towards their respective friend and partner. These were two characters that had lives to lose, bound into a commitment through what they believed to be love, forced into secret meetings because their everyday lives were not satisfying enough; their love though not strong enough to break the confines of their prospective marriages.

The mise- en scene was also nicely communicated with a bed being present almost throughout the entire production- a constant reminder of the scene of the betrayal.

I did however struggle with Douglas Henshall’s arrogant and at times dis likeable Jerry. This is clearly a man in the throes of love and passion but that was not truly communicated. I felt there could have been an incandescence to his character that was sadly lacking. Both Scott-Thomas and Ben Miles were strong as the couple emotionally wrenched apart by their selfish actions.

Ultimately this robust production left me satisfied although I feel with a text so rich, so nuanced and so beautifully complex, I wanted more from the performances that felt, at times, a little sterile.


Tosca review

Tosca is one of Puccini’s great masterpieces and the Royal Opera House’s revival of Jonathan Kent’s 2006 production brings the drama to glorious life.

The setting is the eve of the Battle of Marengo as Napoleon’s army caused disarray throughout the city states of Italy. It is a moving tale of love, personal freedom, ideals, betrayal, and redemption. Tosca (Martina Serafin), Rome’s most beautiful opera singer is in love with a painter, Cavaradossi (Marcello Giordani).  Act I, placed in a cramped, split-level chapel with the altar above and the crypt below feels too small for this much drama. However, despite the limited space, the soprano and tenor movingly portray the tensions and placations of two young lovers. But yet, the waters are not calm as political betrayal is underfoot in the form of a dissident escaping from prison and begging Cavaradossi to aid hm in his escape.

Enter the villain. What a vile, putrid individual is the Baron Scarpia (Finnish baritone Juha Uusitalo making his Covent Garden debut). He even purports to prefer to have his women on the run from him rather than swooning in romance for him. It is the fear and hatred that wets his lustful appetite. Charming. Uusitalo was so effectively repugnant in his portrayal of this loathing man that he makes the viewer’s skin crawl.  While chasing down the escaped political prisoner, he arrests Cavaradossi in the two-fold aim of finding the prisoner and sating his lust for Tosca. To save her lover, Tosca must make the ultimate sacrifice to the hated Baron Scarpia.  Serafin’s portrayal of this woman’s inner turmoil was elegant and emotive, her warm voice growing as the anguish in heart at the thought of being betrayed by her beloved god crescendos.

Despite the current cast being a warm up for the power cast to come, their performances were moving. The vocal performances where unusually matched in theatrical capability by this production’s stars. Serafin’s shining star of Tosca evoked great passion, sympathy, and admiration. She gave an accomplished performance. The only critique was that at times she felt encumbered by her overly elaborate costumes. Giordani’s Cavaradossi was a well-rounded, traditionally Italian tenor. Uusitalo’s Scarpia while menacing and imposing in stature, did eventually feel a bit repetitive and caged in by his staging.

Antonio Pappano’s conducting draws Puccini’s precision and passion from this talented orchestra. The elaborate, gothic set designs of Paul Brown are as powerful and dramatic as the plot. The monumental statue, moody settings, and in particular leaving Scarpia’s study nearly bookless were all well-chosen for dramatic effect. I left the production pondering what we are expected to give sacrifice love and how hope, in the face of great adversity, can make believers of us all.


One Man, Two Guvnors review


Richard Bean has successfully transferred Carlo Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte comedy to the National Theatre Olivier’s stage.  The play is moved seamlessly from Venice in the 1740s to Brighton in the 1960’s.

The evermore chaotic plot circles around Goldoni’s Truffaldino, Bean’s newly christened Francis Henshall (James Corden) the joker in the tale, who finds himself to be working for two “guvnors”. The first is Rachel Crabbe (Jemima Rooper), disguised as her dead twin who was in fact killed by her boyfriend. The other govner is indeed, and most unfortunately for Henshall, Rachel’s boyfriend, snooty public school boy Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris). Neither is aware of the other’s presence in Brighton and a great deal of the comedy arises from Henshall’s elaborate attempts to keep each guvnor in the dark and himself fed.

What makes this rather traditional, predictable comedy shine is the seamless combination of verbal and physical humour. The text is full of one-liners and running gags. Of particular note is the dinner scene. Triffaldino / Henshall runs back and forth in an ever greater frenzy between his two employers all the while trying to eat as much of the food as possible himself. In between totters the octogenarian waiter (Tom Edden) whose performance of instability is brilliant.

Corden is back at the National with director Hytner for the first time since 2004 when he shone in The History Boys. Despite harbouring some doubts regarding Corden, he gave an impressive performance that even included audience involvement. On the preview night, when asking (probably rhetorically) where he should take Dolly (Suzi Toase) on a first date, someone in the second row shouted “Somewhere with tablecloths” to which Corden sharply replied, “Hang around after the show and we’ll use your shirt”.

While Corden is the undoubtedly the paper chewing, hunger motivated, attention seeking focus of the plot, he is surrounded by strong performances. Chris plays the twit Stanley’s public school arrogance to clichéd perfection. Daniel Rigby’s would-be actor is spot on. Suzi Toase plays the redheaded secretary right on the edge between a hard headed woman and a lady in love. Her comedic timing is impeccable.

What really brings this joyful performance to life is the musical interludes led by composer Grant Olding. Walking into a theatre filled by swinging sets the scene for fun. The following solos by the principal members of cast gives a feeling that everyone is here to have a good time and helps the nearly three hour show fly by.

Mark Thompson’s set design feels like the scene of a Brighton post card come to life. The numerous scene changes keep the story fresh and alive.

This is not something new. Many of these gags were already done in Noises Off. It is not an outstanding, exemplary production, however it is great fun and you will leave with a smile on your face and feel you have indeed enjoyed an entertaining evening at the theatre.

Following its run at the National, One Man, Two Guvnors will go on tour, visiting Theatre Royal, Plymouth (October 4 – 8); The Lowry, Salford (October 11 – 15); New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham (October 18 – 22); and King’s Theatre, Edinburgh (October 25 – 29).


Moonlight review at the Donmar Warehouse

I feel rather fortuitous, given that I stumbled upon an advert for Harold Pinter’s Moonlight at the Donmar a full two months before the performance was to commence. With that knowledge in mind, I swiftly snapped up a pair of tickets with the only drawback being that I had to suspend my anticipation for what seemed like aeons before I had the opportunity to see it on stage- woe is me!

The performance did not let me down as I was compelled, emotionally roused and drawn to constantly search for my own interpretation within Pinter’s typically tacit and nuanced play. The intimate Donmar was the ideal venue for this tragic tale of the embittered Andy, lying on his death bed with his long-suffering wife, Bel, meditating on his past, speaking lucidly and with caustic reverie of his past indiscretions. The two other main characters are their sons, Jake and Fred, who live in a dingy bedsit, both bedraggled and offer no sympathy and very little mention of their dying father, choosing rather to indulge in intellectual wordplay- a clear indication that Andy was perhaps not exactly a model father. Andy and Bel’s deceased daughter also makes a couple of fleeting appearances, to bridge the gap between life and death.

The performances across the entire cast were excellent, with particular reference to David Bradley’s Andy. Bradley has the face of a man who has suffered, worn away by the pitfalls of life and rendered in to a scathing, scabrous malcontent. This play was a meditation of the final moments of death, when you have nowt to do but to think of the most significant memories that have defined you over the years, when all you can do is reminisce and try and celebrate what you have achieved. There is no celebration of life through Andy however as he questions why his sons have not visited him which is never explicitly answered, though through certain allusions to the past you can safely deduct that his rather bitter behaviour has contributed to his loneliness in death. Bel, played by Deborah Findlay, acting as the voice of calm and reason, is a brilliant counterpoint for Max; dry in her delivery but with an undercurrent of warmth that becomes clearer as the play reaches its climax.

It is not difficult to admire the genius of Pinter, his superior command of the language, lines of dialogue which are eloquent and forever poetic and this play showcased his talents in spades. The set was perfectly structured, with the two settings placed next to one another that allowed for swift interchanges between the two scenes; and, owing to the intimacy of the venue and the standard of performances across the cast, it at times felt as if this was not a work of fiction but a tragic slice of real life.