Thursday, 23 October 2014

Two trials: Verdi and Glass at the ROH

My latest two visits to the Royal Opera House were both slightly out of the ordinary. The first because it was a rehearsal rather than an official performance; the second because it was in the Linbury Studio Theatre in the depths of the building, rather than the main stage.

The dress rehearsal I attended was Verdi's 'I due Foscari'. ROH rehearsals are, in simple terms, a perk. You can only book a ticket if you're in one of the membership schemes (I'm a 'Friend of Covent Garden', affable chap that I am), and they are very, very cheap. They don't sell the seats in the lower areas of the auditorium, presumably to minimise unnecessary distractions for the performers, should they still be thrashing out a few last-minute touches. We also get a brief introduction at the start, reminding us that while we can expect a full run-through, there may be the odd hiccup, repeat or similar if necessary.

I absolutely loved the whole idea. The orchestra were all in mufti, which appealed to me as I don't really have a 'non-mufti' setting. And I don't think it's a coincidence - because everyone there has some kind of personal (and financial) investment in the place - that it was one of the most quiet and attentive Amphitheatre audiences I've ever been part of. The stage might still be miles away, but when you notice the sea of empty stalls below, the actual effect is to make you feel part of a strangely intimate experience, shared with far fewer people than normal.

Speaking of the sea - instead of the usual curtain, we had a projection of waves heralding the start of the opera. The two Foscari of the title are father and son. Dad Francesco is the Doge of Venice, and his luckless offspring Jacopo is summoned back from exile to be tried for murder. In the opera's backstory lurk decades of feuding between Foscari and the villain of the piece, Loredano. Both Foscari as Doge and Loredano, who is one of Venice's 'Council of Ten', are among the jury in Jacopo's trial, and - on the available evidence - even Papa has to agree to a guilty verdict. This central conflict between the old man's inescapable duty and love for his son is the engine driving the rest of the opera. Ultimately, Jacopo is proved to be innocent, but dies of grief as he is forced to leave Venice a second time, and Francesco - relieved of power with unseemly haste by the Council - suffers a fatal collapse. Loredano remarks that he is avenged.

The production, by Thaddeus Strassberger, is muted and seems to cloak Venice in permanent night. Dull walkways and bridges reminiscent of old wood or rusty metal move slowly and smoothly across the stage, serving to bring characters temporarily together, then pull them apart. The Council's blazing robes provide the only flare of malevolent colour.

So - it's bleak and hardly action-packed. But at the same time, it has something: it doesn't outstay its welcome given how plot-light it is, and the real focus is on three key, completely contrasting roles: the Doge (baritone), Jacopo (tenor) and Lucrezia (soprano) - Jacopo's wife, who petitions her father-in-law tirelessly for leniency. The drama is in the tunes, with the voices playing off each other in various combinations: even Loredano - a baddie so 2D that the some of the audience booed his bow at the end in sincere appreciation - sings in a sonorous bass, the vocal equivalent of the doomy filmic chords that herald the onscreen arrival of an evildoer.

I admired Maria Agresta's performance as Lucrezia - convincing as her character's determination lapsed into a desperate mania, then resignation. And the standout voice for me was tenor Francesco Meli, all passion and panic, even when confined in a cage suspended above the stage. But inevitably the production was about Placido Domingo, who in these late stages of his career has added baritone roles to his repertoire - and drawn as much criticism as admiration for doing so. Here I have to admit my novice status - and let's not discount how monumentally thrilled I was just to hear PD sing live for the first time. I felt his voice sounded beautiful, and true. Even though I don't have years of performances in my memory to draw on, I'm aware by now that one of today's younger 'actual' baritones - a Keenlyside or Reuter, say - would have acted up a storm and taken out the back wall of the house in the process. But I fell under the spell of this elderly man - acting his age - with all of that famous charisma intact.

(The Royal Opera's brilliant poster for the cinema relay of 'I due Foscari'.)

The Linbury was home to a brand new Philip Glass opera from Music Theatre Wales: 'The Trial', an adaptation of the Kafka novel. Glass himself describes works like 'The Trial' as 'pocket operas', and on arriving at my seat at the very top of the auditorium - but bang in the middle - I immediately see what he means. Although I'd been in the Linbury before and was aware of its compact size, I hadn't really considered in advance what listening to an opera featuring a chamber ensemble would actually be like. Instead of the massed forces of the ROH's orchestra, I would hear one of each instrument, perfectly clear and close in the mix - and Glass maximises their individual effects brilliantly.

You might be familiar with the story, but just in case: Josef K, a bank official, is arrested on his 30th birthday. He has no idea why. K is allowed to remain free while the bureaucratic wheels turn - so has time to run the full gamut of emotional reactions: from terror and confusion to resignation and acceptance. His bizarre encounters range from his pompous lawyer - and said lawyer's seductive housekeeper - to the court portrait painter, all of whom seem willing to both help and hinder in equal measure. Every place he visits becomes another manifestation of the 'court', while he never gets anywhere near an actual courtroom. Beaten into submission, K allows the men who come for him a year later to kill him without any show of resistance.

I was already a fan of Glass's distinctive music, but even so I was struck by how perfect a match between composer and subject matter this was. The piece is about inevitability and dread: and Glass's writing for two instruments in particular brought this out. The cello's snaking, circling lines - textbook Glass patterns, simultaneously low and airy - encapsulated the story's black comedy in a kind of sinister, stealthy playfulness. And the incessant zig-zag riff of the xylophone sounded exactly like an implacable ticking clock, counting down to K's doom at the close.

The production is inventive - taking its cue from the mysterious court being both one place and all places, we remain in the same space with shifts in furniture and lighting suggesting changes of location. Everyone knows something K doesn't - so figures not actively taking part in scenes watch from an onstage window, and in a queasily amusing touch, hands (their owners unseen) reach on stage from gaps in the scenery at the sides to hand characters props and take them back. K truly is cradled into oblivion by the arms of the faceless State.

K - as Kafka's alter-ego, is a complicated man. While a victim from the outset, he is still a fully-rounded, awkward anti-hero - sexually active and successful, stroppy, difficult. I thought it was telling that Glass cast this role as a baritone: a robust, solid sound, rather than a more highly-strung, or fantasy-heroic - but then less 'everyman' - tenor. Johnny Herford, in every scene, made a superb K and was able to sing with a great deal of power while still using the vocal outbursts to convey his character's terror and weakness. Instead, the tenor character was, essentially, a fantasist: court painter Titorelli - sung and acted with a manically chirpy reassurance by Paul Curievici. Amanda Forbes also stood out in mirror roles as the alluring but ambivalent Leni, who may or may not be involved with any number of K's fellow defendants, and K's neighbour Fraulein Burstner, who may soon be able to give him legal help, but successfully escapes his advances.

Glass has his own record label, so I'm hopeful that 'The Trial' will at least make it onto CD, if not DVD at some point. The words are succinct and well-chosen (the adaptation is by Christopher Hampton), and anyone who's already a Glass fan - or is fascinated by how well the obsessive nature of a composer's music can map itself onto other, similarly driven works - will devour every note.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Underground sounds: Kaparte Oxjam 2014

Proof of a great gig: the high survives the night's sleep and lasts well into the next day. Happy to report that that's the state I'm writing this post in, after last night's Oxjam event at Surya (a subterranean room near King's Cross, London), put together by Klarita of Kaparte Productions.

Most people who've tarried on the Specs blog will know that some of my favourite musicians work within a kind of 'dark' dimension just below the mainstream surface, creating work that ranges from (and is influenced by) folk, classical and electronica. Kaparte is one of the foremost champions in the capital for this music, and Klarita had put together an extrordinary bill that captured how so much variety and individual intent could gel so well into one glorious entertainment.

Opening the evening was Lloyd James of the band Naevus, playing a solo set. Naevus in full band format have a unique, imposing sound which knocks a few normal rock band conventions a couple of notches sideways: Lloyd plays acoustic guitar, not electric - so at the core of each song there's a kind of natural earthiness anchoring the noise, and the drummer, Hunter, plays standing up, adding to the tribal volume.

So I was really looking forward to hearing how the songs would come across in more 'unplugged' versions - and their power remained utterly intact. I'm a huge admirer of Lloyd's guitar playing. It isn't showy in the least, but steady and unyielding; and I loved the fact that even by itself, it had a grappling, knotty quality - chords, but not necessarily as we know them - as though the guitar part had been hewn belligerently from the rest of the arrangement. To his credit, he didn't shy away from the fast and loud stuff - 'Bleat Beep' for example, which features a manic chant that must need superb control, both strumming and breathing. Another great effect was that Lloyd's deep voice - from intimidating yell to conspiratorial croon - seemed to sometimes go beneath as well as above the guitar, as though it wasn't so much an accompaniment as a joint partner. Disarming and dramatic.

The middle two bands were new to me. Fear of the Forest bring on stage some of the most alluring (well, for me at any rate) instruments ever invented, including cello, hurdy gurdy and hammered dulcimer. While this meant I'd more or less fallen for them before they'd played a note - *reactivates critical faculties* - they bring out all the instruments' strengths and somehow make their sounds work harder. There's no need for 'traditional' bass (double or electric) and no conventional rhythm guitar or keyboard either. The cello provides the melody flowing through each track and merges with the drone of the hurdy gurdy to give the arrangement its foundation. This low lead line weaves through the cascading chimes of the dulcimer, making the songs deceptively light and fleet of foot, even when the subject matter hurtles into the blackly comic. It also means that Kate Arnold's gorgeous but intimate vocals can be easily heard. Anyone who, say, rates the US band Espers or has fond memories of The Eighteenth Day of May will love this group.

Extraordinary gear change for band 3, Matawan. Again, no idea what to expect, except that the stage had been cleared of its chamber folk instruments, to be replaced by two chaps constructing a super-computer out of pedals. Each plugging in an electric guitar, they took seats and began to create a shimmering drone. It soon became apparent that their set would be one long track, as they used the pedals to build and evolve the sound. At first I found it odd, but it acquired a kind of genuine beauty: the reference points nudging their way into my head were Godspeed/Mt Zion post-rock, or Sunn O))) - also two men creating beatless waves of guitar noise. But this sound was aiming to bathe rather than batter me. The intensity grew as the pair seemed to stop using their guitars altogether (I spent some of this set trapped behind a tall person, so it acquired an even greater sense of mystique for me than the band intended) and essentially make all the gradual shifts in the sound patterns just through tweaking the pedals. I'm certainly intrigued enough to investigate further - I enjoy listening to artists like, say, Sleep Research Facility, who are closer to sound art than music as such, and I think Matawan's work is of similar stamp: it needs absolute attention, and ideally, headphones and darkness.

Headlining the event - and making this a completely unmissable ticket as far as I was concerned - was Sieben. I've written about Matt Howden's music in the past, so you can find more from me elsewhere in the blog on both his own solo work and as part of the Rasp project with Jo Quail. But as you're here: Matt writes and performs songs using just his voice, violin and a loop station. His music is like nothing else out there, I think, because he is restlessly innovative in so many ways. His albums are lessons in how not to repeat yourself: working within dark folk parameters in the early-to-mid 2000s, he created rapt love songs using flower names as a new language ('Sex and Wildflowers'), went down a more pagan/symbolic route ('Ogham Inside the Night') and followed the path to perhaps its logical conclusion with a complete mystery play in song, 'High Broad Field'. Then, turning the spotlight in on himself, the album 'Desire Rites' opens with a familiar sounding theme before literally changing direction in a brilliant 'coup de theatre' for the ears. (If you haven't heard it, seek it out - I won't spoil it for you.) The music is more furious and intense, and set the scene for a further run of records that push the Sieben sound in various directions: 'Star Wood Brick Firmament' perhaps veers towards a reflective tone before 'No Less Than All' blasts through it with complex, power-electronic beats. Then, to bring the story up to date - this year's 'Each Divine Spark' somehow marries the groove and intensity of the previous two records with a spacious and atmospheric production that melds the seductive and the sinister. And the genius tying all this together, to me, is the marriage of such invention, lyrically and melodically, with the looping technique - so that however arresting the imagery in the words, or involved the tune, the underlying repeat sequences lodge the patterns in your head.

'Each Divine Spark' is, I believe, the best Sieben album to start with, and possibly the best to date. But on the evidence of tonight's performance, Matt has not been resting for a moment. The set has typically, and beautifully, measured moments - 'Love Must Wax Cold', 'Sleep, Clara Bow' and 'A Firebug Nature' swoop and glide with characteristic elegance. But something else is unleashed. Always a compelling live performer - because every sound comes from the violin, Matt strikes it at various key spots to create the beats, and scratches his chin on it for a 'shaker' effect - he is now careering around the stage faster, soloing with greater ferocity. He asks more of his voice, and changes distance from the microphone to vary its place in the mix. Sometimes he sings into his violin pick-up (which bends and echoes the sound) and loops it alongside his 'normal' voice - to the point where my friend Jon, who came with me to the gig, remarked that it was like hearing the vocal harmonies for the first time.

A new track, 'Black Moon, Rise Again', has the feel of a ritual: it builds and builds to an epic length and sound, locking the audience into its mantra - yet similarly intense treatment is meted out to an old Ogham track and a Joy Division cover. Matt loops the songs to the point where there are long stretches when he doesn't actually have to play the violin, allowing him to focus on his soaring vocals and loosen up his body. His signature piece of stagecraft - the whirling of the bow on the tip of his finger (always after carefully testing the height of the ceiling, I've noticed - health & safety) has never felt more like an engine, a generator providing the power to ratchet up the energy levels.

I've never been anything less than elated by a Sieben gig, but I think this one was the most powerful I've seen to date. It acted as the genuine climax to the evening, with Lloyd's solo acoustic, Fear of the Forest's lilting darkness, and Matawan's ambience all providing the launchpad for Matt's heady mix of all that's compelling and creative in the scene - and highlighting the ongoing brilliance of Karita's programming. (Not to mention Slimelight's DJ Blackdeath 1334 - also known as Francesca - who sustained the mood during the changeovers with one superb track after another.)

Finally, can I recommend that you visit another review of this evening's delights by Miss Gish, who writes with an ideal balance of observation and enthusiasm - and who also captured some beautiful photographs of the performers in action. A must-read!

Thursday, 16 October 2014

It's him up North

Even the traffic cone gazes up in awe at the Angel of the North. As some of you will know, I occasionally post some of my (strictly amateur) photography on the blog. It's a really important creative outlet for me (so much of what I do in and out of work is verbal rather than visual) and takes me into a completely different place. I particularly like collaborating with friends on portrait projects (see here for example), but this post is different, 'looser'. Mrs Specs and I went to Northumberland for something like the 7th time last month. This is a casual but heartfelt photographic love letter to the place, one of our favourite parts of the world. I always have a high old time with the camera - some of these are just phone snaps, others involve ludicrous self-indulgence with both filters and alcohol... but they all remind me of just how fanstastic we feel when we're there. I hope you enjoy them.

A quick shot of the interior of Barter Books in Alnwick, one of the largest second-hand bookshops in the world. It's an old station building, and something akin to heaven on earth. Where else would I find four old Penguins full of operatic source material?

The columns of Brizlee Tower, an Alnwick folly hiding in plain sight.

There was a running theme throughout the holiday of 'coming across frankly scary pieces of art in the middle of nowhere':

Which brings me on to our 'border raid', into Mrs Specs's homeland to visit Abbotsford - residence of Sir Walter Scott. The kind of chap who liked to relax in his armoury, the walls were full of macabre delights...

but the environs were stunning, and the library a symphony of brown (and sometimes reddish) shades, leather and wood, as though he read in a permanent indoor autumn.

The county's new landscape feature, 'rejoicing' in the name Northumberlandia, is designed to represent a shapely damsel in hillock format. Which is why the Instagram below features one eye, a nose and two breasts. I suppose that's only one eye short of an actual woman. Realism.

And some of the viewpoints could have been more helpful.

Coast and river walks.

The abandoned farm Blawearie (near Old Bewick) had an eerie, desolate atmosphere that we'd not really felt anywhere else in all our trips to the region. Such was its magnetism that, even though we were on a walk, we stayed there for ages, still and silent one minute, fooling around with the camera the next. (Hence the horror film still at the end of this sequence.)

Mrs Specs is not quite as scary in real life.

Finally a view of Cragside, a property close by to where we stay - home of inventor-engineer and pioneer extraordinaire, William Armstrong, who made it the first house ever to be lit with hydroelectricity. A much-loved haunt (of the harmless variety) on quiet days close to the cottage.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Rhyme and punishment: 'Xerxes'

Was it fate? After celebrating this blog's century last time, I now find myself at Post 101. In the same spirit as its 'Room' namesake, would this entry find me having to write negatively for once? - even though I like to keep my nook of the net generally sunny, with only the occasional shower. Well, the answer is yes and, appropriately enough, no.

On an impulse, I booked a ticket to see Handel's 'Xerxes' at the Coliseum. As regular readers (thank you, darlings, thank you) will know, I tend to go to the Royal Opera House instead. The broad rule of thumb is: the Royal Opera perform the works in their original language (which I prefer), whereas the English National Opera - as the name suggests - perform in English translation. Where English is the mother tongue, it sounds more natural and doesn't cause me any grief at all: listening to Britten's operas, for example - or the ENO production of the new work 'Thebans' by Julian Anderson I attended a while back.

However, I was chancing my arm this time, for one reason: Alice Coote. I found out very late in the day that she was playing Xerxes (AC specialises in so-called 'trouser roles', where a male part - often sung originally by a castrato - is now generally performed on the modern stage by, say, a mezzo-soprano). Since she is one of my favourite singers (and gave an unforgettable performance of Schumann lieder I once attended), I felt I couldn't miss this opportunity to see her in action.

'Xerxes' is a bit like a romantic comedy that happens to be set 'at court'. King Xerxes of Persia - who has already agreed to marry Amastris - becomes infatuated with Romilda, the daughter of his top military man and, more awkwardly, his brother Arsamanes's girlfriend. Romilda's sister, Atalanta, also wants Arsamanes for herself, while Amastris turns up incognito to work out what Xerxes is up to - setting in motion a chain reaction of disguise and deception until it all turns out (more or less) happily.

(The picture is from the ENO website, copyright Mike Hoban. Alice Coote as Xerxes, Sarah Tynan as Romilda.)

Reminiscent at times of both Shakespearean comedy and bedroom farce, the production is set as if in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens of Handel's time. It mines the cross-dressing potential by doing something more or less equivalent with the voice casting: Amastris in in drag as a soldier, sung by a contralto; Arsamenes, heart-throb to two women, is sung comically in a high register - here a counter-tenor but also historically by a mezzo. Xerxes really is a mezzo in drag. The lackey Elviro, sung by a bass, is forced to dress up as a flower-girl. *Brain hurts*

I like my sugary 'stick of Baroque' fix as much as the next listener, and am very fond of Handel's music. I have a few CDs with some of his opera arias (none featuring anything from 'Xerxes', however) and am a huge fan of some of the keyboard works - a particular favourite being the recent Richard Egarr recording of the Great Suites on harpsichord. So I was expecting to have a fantastic time.

It didn't quite work out like that. Two aspects of the evening proved my undoing: the 'form' of the opera, and the libretto. Watching a relatively early opera like this brought home to me how I've almost got into the artform from the 'wrong end'. Always attracted to quite difficult and knotty music - underground metal and grind, free jazz etc - opera clicked for me with the Nixons, Elektras and Wozzecks (and, slightly insanely on reflection, a complete Ring Cycle) ... so I seem to be working my way backwards. As a result, I'm more used to the 'post-Wagner' (big simplification, I know) idea of fully integrating the mood, melody and voice with the dramatic action.

'Xerxes' might have had plenty of plot, but it didn't provide this kind of drama. Partly, I suspect this is the nature of the music. Obviously there were some variations in tempo, otherwise it would fall apart. But most of the time, that almost merciless Baroque perfection, underpinned by the harpsichord like a toy engine packed full of Duracell, didn't seem to let up, whatever was happening on stage. Someone could be going through an appalling emotional wrench, but the orchestra would be as dottily cheerful as if it was all one big party. All the same: why should this matter, when I'm happy to surround myself with the cascades of notes in Handel's instrumental music? Answer: the words.

The irony is that this particular translation, by the director Nicholas Hytner, is almost certainly a wonder of its kind. Full of rhyme, alliteration and assonance, I can well imagine that in its own way, it's a bit like an abbreviated version of Anthony Burgess's achievement when he managed to subtitle all of the Depardieu Cyrano film in couplets. But to my ears, the movement of the opera is hamstrung by the incessant repetition of these words - no matter how 'good' they are, their effect is dulled by hearing them over and over AND OVER again, and the painstaking rhymes and echoes actually worsen this effect. I discover afterwards (thanks, Wikipedia!) that even at the time, 'Serse' (the original Italian title) was considered odd because of its high number of short arias, better suited to the comic elements which were themselves an innovation - a 'serious opera' was expected to be just that, without any of your modern, tragicomic, blurred genre boundaries.

As a result - come the end of Act 1, I was having a high old time with the exuberant novelty of it all, and remember tweeting a friend in the first interval to say so. In Act 2 (which had some great set pieces and what felt to me like slightly more variation in the music), I think I peaked - then by Act 3, I was beginning to feel that, if every line in 'Xerxes' was sung just the once, the whole thing would be over in 20 minutes...

It's a shame, because all of my problems - and they are 'my' problems - were with the opera. Not the production, which I actually think had a real greatness about it. And some of the best elements seemed linked to what I thought were the opera's weaknesses - in other words, the less I appreciated the opera, the more I appreciated the staging.

For example, one scene has Atalanta outline a scheme to Xerxes - many, many times. Wittily, the direction picks up on this: Xerxes becomes increasingly fed up as every time it seems like Atalanta must have finished, she starts up again until the king nearly combusts with frustration. Another beautifully crafted scene has an open air tea-room populated with grey extras, who glide about their business in slow motion while the leads sing and move at normal speed - as if commenting that the main characters take so long to say or do anything that time must slow to a crawl to accommodate them.

And, to return to where I started, Alice Coote was magnificent. I was impressed to the point of awe by her almost 'method' personification of a man. She had perfected all manner of cocky smirks and angry scowls, and carried herself with a visibly bullish swagger. She even sat down like a bloke, sprawling in her chair with legs at 'alpha male' right angles. The voice, of course, was not male: it was both beautiful and handsome - the warm yet robust quality that I already admired.

(I think if I were to fling pet hates into Room 101, there would be precious little music or art I would cast into the abyss - a possible exception being the sounds, whatever they are, that today's feckless youth have taken to playing aloud on trains through their tinny phones. Instead, I would rid the world of coat hangers - at least until they invent a prototype that will allow me to remove just one from the cupboard without a further 27 following immediately after. Also: straws for grown-ups. Why, when I order a soft drink in so many restaurants, do they bring it with a straw? Since reaching adulthood - in fact, significantly before then - I haven't needed extra guidance equipment to deliver a drink from the glass to my mouth. Anyway. As you were.)