Saturday, 30 May 2009

Three score and ten divided by two plus one less a day.

Woo. And yay, also. Birthday time has started. Having a small party tonight, but last night was the swish bit. Dinner at the Ivy (I know!) followed by Cosi Fan Tutte at ENO.

I'd never been to the Ivy before, but it certainly lives up to its billing. I hadn't realised it was such a lovely room, especially on a magnificently sunny afternoon/early evening such as yesterday's. I opted for Bang Bang Chicken followed by nettle and potato gnocchi, a kind of fusion cuisine menu I shall now christen 'Ithailian'. And they were very good, and that is my restaurant review. Oh no, I should mention the tomatoes. They were really small. Like, tiny. Size of blueberries, and they burst in the mouth in exactly the same satisfying way. So, my conclusion on the Ivy is that it's a pretty room where the tomatoes are really small.

My mother once devastatingly described a lot of Chekhov productions as having 'oatmeal sets and oatmeal costumes' and the same might apply to the new production of Cosi at ENO. It really is very very taupe indeed- sets, frocks, everything. The grand gesture of the set is its video wall- the chaps are watched by the bustling patrons of the 'Caffe Amadeo' (yeah, boom boom) in the first scene, then we get a nice big bay of Naples for most of the rest of the show. It adds much needed colour to the stage picture, and otherwise is used in a way which is sometimes charming (the gradual approach and departure of the boat either side of 'Soave sia il vento') and sometimes irritatingly tricksy (the filmed conductor and orchestra for the whole of the final scene raised a laugh but got pretty old pretty quick). Unfortunately, the video wall seemed to be the limit of the director's imagination. This was an achingly straightforward production. The three men raised glasses DS centre at the end of 'Una bella serenata', like they always do. The men stood to attention in the midst of the chorus during 'Bella vita militar', like they always do. Dorabella draped herself on furniture during 'Smanie implaccabili' and eyed up Guglielmo during 'Come Scoglio', as per. And if it took slightly longer for Fiordiligi to sink to her knees during 'Per Pieta' than usual, we all knew it was coming. I really can't think of a single piece of business that I haven't seen before, let alone an actual insight.

But the unforgivable element of this Cosi was that it was sexless. Neither 'Il core vi dono' nor 'Fra gli amplessi' generated any heat at all, despite by and large all the right things happening musically. The capitulation of the sisters needs all the help it can get- all those references to 'I can't believe it's only been a day and now we're getting married' don't make life any easier- but if you get no sense that they might actually fancy their Albanians, it just gets something close to silly. And then there's the ending. We all know that we like to get post-Freudian about the end of Cosi. There have been the traditional 'everyone gets married to their orginal partners and that's FINE thank you very much' productions, the 'let's stay with our second half partners because the duets suggest that'll be hotter' productions, and- most often, in my experience- the 'let's make everything dead ambiguous and have some exchanged glances or even do a strange kind of slo-mo minuet' productions. This one just dodged the whole thing. None of the four 'lovers' had any contact with the others as the finale was sung, in a straight line, facing out front, and then everyone rushed off excitedly, in different directions, as if they'd just finished the Marriage of Figaro, or Falstaff. A cop-out.

Musically, things fared a lot, lot better. The band sounded great under the direction of Stefan Klingele, who started very well, had a bit of a dip with a prosaic 'Soave' and a too-slow rendition of Dorabella's aria, and didn't subsequently put a foot wrong. He whipped up the end of Act One into something really a bit exciting. As for the singers- well, let's get one thing straight. I bloody love Susan Gritton. The tone quality is so consistently beautiful, her musicianship is exemplary, and there's just a glamour about her singing, as there is with all the best voices. If I were being picky I might say that the bottom of the voice isn't quite rich enough for Fiordiligi, and there were a couple of unfortunate phlegmy moments in an otherwise glorious 'Per Pieta'- but that would be very picky. Her singing in 'Fra gli amplessi' had me holding my breath, in that 'please let this never stop' kind of way that you really, really can't complain about.

As one of my companions of the night said, Gritton's voice is so beautiful in the flesh that it was really a little unfair to put Fiona Murphy as Dorabella next to her. Tall, flashing eyed, and with cascades of dark hair, she was reminiscent of Agnes Baltsa from where I was sitting- but while the face was more beautiful, the voice was a good deal less so. She sang very well- better in aria and duet than in ensemble- but the instrument itself isn't really all that. She has that glinty, slightly wiry sound familiar from singers such as Ann Murray or Delores Ziegler, and I guess I like a little more sofa-cushion in my Mozart mezzo sound. Sophie Bevan did a grand job as Despina. The lack of imagination in the production demanded no more of her than 'standard pert' which she pulled off well and to which she added some neat and polished singing. She was desperately unfunny as the doctor and the lawyer, of course, but then no Despina ever in the history of opera has pulled that one off.

Crikey, Liam Bonner's tall. It wasn't solely for this reason, though, that he was the most memorable of the men. This was a charismatic, cheeky, confident performance, very securely sung, and managing a real sense of rapport with the audience. Alone among the singers he managed to generate a few genuine laughs from time to time, which was welcome- and impressive, given the archness of the translation. 'Look, I'm rhyming' was the overall impression, and after ten minutes one wanted to sit the translator down with the Big Book Of How You're Not As Clever As You Think You Are. Thomas Glenn, the Ferrando, had a deal less presence than Bonner and at first I found his singing unpleasantly weedy. However, things began to change after one of the most purely beautiful renditions of 'Un'aura amorosa' I have ever heard, and he had a good stab at 'Tradito, schernito' and his part of the duet with Gritton. For once, it was a voice that I wouldn't have minded hearing in 'Ah, lo veggio', although of course that didn't happen. Steven Page is an old pro, isn't he? I mean that in the most laudatory sense possible. He didn't miss a trick vocally or dramatically, although he suffered from the fact that this production didn't have the first clue who Alfonso was or what he might have been for.

To wade into an ongoing debate, I think the odd bit of score-tearing, or someone writing 'ARIA' on a blackboard, or whatever, would have been welcome. What we got last night was some good acting and some excellent music making, in a production which was cautious, routine, and lazy. And for a masterpiece like Cosi, that ain't good enough.

Right. Off to get my hair cut and thence to my birthday party. Ah, the suffering of late-middle-youth.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

The Power Of Music*

I just popped out to the shop, at ten to midnight. The street was deserted, and the air was warm and heavy and sweet in that early summer way (bear with me, I'm desperately trying to avoid the cliché that is 'balmy').

The only sound was the loud music playing from the top flat of one of the buildings opposite, which was Sinead O'Connor singing 'Nothing Compares To You'. The whole set-up was so lovely that I stood and listened for a minute or so.

As I came back from the shop, I turned into my street thinking about that magical moment of stillness. Coming out of the same flat, even louder than the O'Connor had been, was 'Because I Got High' by Afroman. I was less inclined to stop and listen and think about stillness.

This is why people earn lots of money for film soundtracks.

*I was going to entitle this post 'Musik ist eine heilige Kunst' but even I am not that poncy.

One should always have something sensational to read in the train

I have recently received a couple of emails about things I have posted on here, which is both pleasing and disconcerting. It is of course tremendous to discover that even anyone is reading, but at the same time it's... odd.

*writes and deletes pages and pages of solipsistic, overwritten introspection*

*re-reads above sentence*

*goes to bed*

*ceases to write arch, faux-self-deprecating remarks in asterisks*


*just gives up*

See what I mean?

Monday, 18 May 2009

'a whole layer of tennisy nuances'

I wrote that phrase on another website earlier today.

It's not something I would ever have imagined myself saying.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Late night age terror.

Oh my dear lord. I've just realised that 1791-1756= 35.

Which means that in three weeks time, I shall be older than Mozart ever managed to be. And I'm not going to look up his birth or death day, because I might already have overshot him.

I've dealt with the rites of passage as they come. It starts with tennis players, moves on through Olympians to football (thank God for Mark Schwarzer, the only Fulham first team player who has had the decency to be born before I was) and then you find yourself moving into compromises like politicians.

But Mozart, that's a bad one. Obviously he was writing operas at 11, and all that kind of thing, so he had the advantage of an early start, but I don't think my few telly sketches and my critically-acclaimed Horatio in the Highlands really look that good when set against, you know, The Marriage Of Figaro. I haven't felt this pointless since Schubert (33) and Jesus (also 33, maybe).

I'm going to hold on to dear, dear Shakespeare, who gave us all hope by hanging in there until he was 52. And ignore the fact that by my age he'd already written Hamlet.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Well, at least they got his name right.

Killing time in Hammersmith before the Fulham game today (yes, we did, thank you for asking) I wandered into Books, Etc and spotted an unauthorised biography of Sacha Baron-Cohen. Now, he and I were in a couple of shows together back in the rah rah rah days of the alma mater, so I picked up the book and had a flick through the Cambridge chapter.

I think it might be the worst researched book ever. There's a quote from 'Footlights archivist Harvey Porter' (that'll be Dr Harry Porter, then) a reference to Sacha having performed in the 'annual Footlights review' (that's 'revue', and he didn't) and it's also observed that he received a 2:1 in his degree, but had he worked harder he would have been capable of getting a '1:1'. A score draw, presumably. Three points on your coupon.

But the footnotes are the real treat. The degree result gets a footnote to itself, explaining that it means an Upper Second, and that degrees at Cambridge are scored 'not from A to F, but rather from 1-9'. Now, I knew a lot of people who didn't work very hard, but I can't say as I knew anyone who got a Ninth. Best of all is Dan Mazer's description of Sacha as a 'cultural polyglot' - which is explained as 'Cambridge-speak for well-rounded'.

What a load of old bollocks, which is Cambridge-speak for testicles.