ENO shows an interesting early Baroque opera, Castor and Pollux (composed around 1730): a typical “numbers” opera, consisting of individual arias , joined (imperfectly) together by recitatives. A few decades later, Mozart still used the same basic technique, but with a lot more connectivity, until later on the “interruptions” via recitative had disappeared altogether. This just shows the great advances that occurred throughout the 18th century. The opera centers on the two brothers and their infinite love for each other, in spite of a number of personal (women) and supernatural (gods) forces that separate them. They each want to die for the other, when the time comes. All this is set in a large box of very light wood (birch?) which is open to the front, but shows very well the seclusion and separation (from the world outside) of the brothers’ real concerns. The personages show their frustration convincingly by (too) frequent running across the box into the opposite wall and resting there, or alternatively, banging against the opposite wall in an attempt to overcome the sorrow, frustration and rejection they experience. This is oddly contrasted by a heap of loose soil through which and from which the brothers descend to and emerge from the underworld. In the latter case, very surprisingly and effectively when Castor stirs from the heap and first a hand becomes visible, before his whole body emerges. The reward for this unending self-sacrificing brotherly love is finally their sublimation into a star configuration in the sky. The brothers were superbly sung by Allan Clayton and Roderick Williams, the warring sisters less convincingly by Sophie Bevan and (stronger) by Laura Tatulescu.
Michael Sheen, known to me as a very smug Tony Blair in the fabulous The Queen movie and as the cunning Robert Frost getting Ex-President Richard Nixon to admit that he engineered the Watergate break-in (Frost/Nixon 2008), plays a convincing Hamlet as an psychiatric ward inmate. Before the show, the audience is led – in small groups- through endless corrdidors, ostensibly of a psychiatric ward, with door inscriptions and announcements characteristic of such a location. Thus, the whole play become Hamlet’s phantasy, who affliction obviously has been brought on by the (real or imagined) murder of his father. This is an interesting concept which works well. It becomes especially lucid when the scene where Hamlet sees the ghost of his father, is played out as a Hamlet phantasy, where he (schizophrenic?) becomes his father’s ghost who commands him to exert revenge. This is what religious or murderous fanatics experience when they say – post facto – that a voice ordered them to commit their deed: so happened to this Hamlet. Sheen does a great job to portray this increasing isolation and transition and fixation, where Polonius’ death is accepted by him as “collateral damage”. Also convincing his mother Gertrud as initially playing doting and giggling groupie to her new lover and husband Claudius, following willingly his every whim and later as a completely spineless and helpless heap of helplessness after Polonius’ accidental murder. Her husband is portrayed as a “Vorstadt Casanova” (suburb Casanova) a vain and immature gigolo with slicked-back hair who relishes his sudden power and sex toy. Less convincing Ophelia, torn between her love of Hamlet and devotion and obedience to her prudish and cautious father.
The play takes place in a room in a psychiatry clinic, with a glass door in he back through which sexual foreplay between Gertrud and her new husband, the entrance of Rosencrantz and Guldenstern, who have to take off their laced shoes in favour or flipflops sans laces, and psychiatry wardens are visible. In the end, this is the staging ground for galactically-dressed Fortinbras who observes the carnage. The last scene is ingeniously staged in a square sandpit, like a beach volleyball field, which initially serves as backdrop to the Yorick scene and later to the duel rink for Laertes and Hamlet, where eventually everybody dies. A very convincing production.
A very traditional production of Tosca, again in the Coliseum at the English National Opera. An exception to traditional staging is the third act, where the Castel d’Angelo is portrayed as a very wide barrel-shaped ramp slanting upwards from front to back, where in the end Cavaradossi is shot and Tosca lets herself fall backwards into the Tiber river . Superb singing by Gwyn Hughes-Jones as Mario Cavaradossi, more than outweighing (pun!!!) his significant overweight. His very clear tenor manages easily and beautifully especially the high notes, but also the lower and very lyrical passages – a real delight from the start to the end: too bad he had to succumb to Scarpia’s devious machinations. Equally overweight, but also remarkably good vocally, if at the end audibly tired, was Claire Rutter as Floria Tosca. She started slightly insecure, rose to great form in her jealousy and love arias, but weakened towards the end. Less convincing Anthony Michaels-Moore, an optical and presentational delight, but too weak of voice to equal the two protagonists. A very good evening, though.
In between, a grandiose sound experience with Mahler’s 8th symphony in the gigantic Royal Albert Hall, with a 600 strong choir. These beautiful voices nearly drowned out the orchestra, but made for a wonderful event, jubilating, whispering, threatening, repenting – and making the whole hall shake. Quite stunning!
Next day a complete contrast program, with the folk-rocker Martyn Joseph in the Camden Green Note Cafe. Joseph – unknown to me – obviously has quite a large local following: the evening gig was sold out, the matinee packed full with people of all age groups, from 7 to 75, many singing along. He has a remarkable stage presence, drawing the audience in very easily. His very wide song repertoire , sung in a slightly husky voice with tremendous fervour, spans from very sad love songs, to political protests describing the sad fate of ex-miners and their families as a result of closed-down Welsh coal mines, to Americana a la Pete Seeger, celebrating pioneers and lambasting racketeers, US landscapes and cities, to the sad story of a 81-year old Las Vegas cab driver from Nebraska, to hopes for a (peaceful) revolution (“occupy movement”?). Joseph’s take-offs of Elvis Presley, his boyhood idol, to the early Bob Dylan, are hilarious and original, while never without respect to the greats. An optimistic strain pervades his songs, celebrating the remarkable resilience of trodden-down individuals through friendship and love. Extremely enchanting his song about god “being one of us” (on i-tunes). Should be heard more often.
In between a memorable art exhibit in the beautiful Dulwich Picture Gallery South London, showing early 20th century painting by the Canadian “Group of Seven”, completely unknown to me. These are nearly exclusively landscape paintings, mainly from the Eastern parts of Canada, around the Great Lakes, later also from the Rockies and a bit from the Pacific coast. These paintings combine the light skies of Scandinavian paintings with the tree portrayals of Klimt and Schiele, but in a very original way, befitting the (then) extraordinary and beautiful and harsh Canadian landscape. Clouds, windblown waves, streams, snowy fields, semi-smothered (by snow) barns and houses, but very few portraits are the characteristics of the great group of painters. It is too bad that much of this landscape has disappeared, but it is great to observe the dynamic, individuality and stylistic originality of this group.
Back to work!