Posts Tagged ‘ENO’

Mini-review – Duchess of Malfi – Punchdrunk with English National Opera

July 20, 2010

If you’re among the many who failed to get tickets for this sell-out, I say to you, cry no more. From the minute the horror of the location set in – a true horror, that is, as the show is done in a modern office park – I realized that this was Punchdrunk tripping over its laurels. There was no more magic in those dropped ceilings than in the diaper the fox left in my back yard last Sunday. While digging for either atmosphere or a performance (the hunt is always part of the Punchdrunk “experience,” or frustration in my case), I came upon room after room that had eminently failed to create the sense of mystery in every other show of theirs I’d seen: the feeling that I was finding clues that would tell me more about the story. Instead, the designer seemed to run out of ideas before he (or shee) ran out of rooms, leaving most of them just jammed full of junk. (The saving grace is the first floor bar; if you are somehow still going to see this show, perhaps just to feel like you got your 35 quid worth, a solid hour in the bar will go a long way to take the sting out of your evening.) If nothing else, it was air conditioned, but that is cold comfort indeed.*

And then there is the performance: bad modern dance and painful modern opera. God, I keep going to opera, again and again, and so many times it just fails, fails, fails, and here I got to watch it failing (though sung well) from mere inches away. I think I only saw four scenes at the most, and each of them was unpleasant, atonal crap. The dance is also weak. I think using it with opera is a good idea, but why couldn’t it have been good modern dance?

In the end the best moment of the night was watching a set of bass players throwing every bit of themselves into creating music while people turgidly crashed around on a large stage behind me. It shouldn’t have been the highlight of my evening, but it was the one moment when I was utterly caught up in what was happening in front of me. Otherwise, this was a painfully wasted evening. My consolation? I got to have a wonderful discussion about “Magic Flute: The Super-Mario Production” afterwards with my likewise disappointed companion. I’ll remember it much longer than this show.

*I couldn’t help myself. Sorry.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, July 19th, 2010. I was really let down. I don’t even want to look up links.)

Guest Review – The Duchess of Malfi – Punchdrunk and E.N.O. on location

July 18, 2010

(There is now also a mini-review of this show done by this blog’s usual author available here if you would like to read it.)

Promenade is all the rage, remember? And when it comes to promenade performances, Punchdrunk productions are acknowledged masters in creating sprawling, immersive environments around a story, and so the announcement that they would be collaborating with English National Opera on a new production of The Duchess of Malfi this year, it was clearly going to be event of the season. Demand was so high the day tickets went on sale that the E.N.O. ticketing system crashed, and the entire run sold out in short order.

So how is it? Well, keep an eye on the classifieds: you may see more tickets going cheaper as the run goes on.

It’s the standard Punchdrunk rules: audience members are given white masks to wear and are free reign to wander a bulding full of meticulously created environments which give various clues and information about the story, and often later become locations for specific scenes. Crew and ushers wear black masks, and performers are the only ones who have faces exposed.

This time the space fills a new-but-empty multifloor office building in the wilds of far East London. As usual, there is a forensic level of detail: notes left on tables and in drawers connect in fascinating ways; labels on medicine bottles are for characters we meet later; every love letter of hundreds crumpled in a corner is a genuine text, addressed to a different person. Where they’ve taken the time to fill the space, it is done with mind-bending completeness.

The problem, though, is that they’ve not been able to take the time everywhere. The building feels simply too big to fill. Empty space is used well in a few places, creating a grand sense of scale in a forest of trees, but elsewhere we find long stretches of nothing, which end up being reminders that we are just in an empty office building – particularly when in transit between floors, either via the internal stairwells or the elevators, both located in hallways which have been almost completely ignored.

As with most opera, it’s worth having an idea of the story beforehand, or at least the big idea. I think that’s key for any Punchdrunk production, actually, as it really helps to be able to put things back into context when you see them out of order. It adds to the experience. E.N.O. provides a synopsis on the website, but reading it after the fact I think huge sections of it are backstory which we never get in the performance. And there’s stuff which never quite made sense: There was something about lycanthopy going on in many of the notes and files found in the set dressings, which I saw incorporated visually in the performance but never really figured out. Librettist Ian Burton has distilled the entirety of the story into about 40 minutes total, presumably so they can run through it all twice before the finale. This is similar to the format Punchdrunk used for Masque of the Red Death, which gives the audience more opportunity to see more of the show. But as usual, things happen simultaneously, things appear and disappear (was that bar there the entire time? I’m sure I’d walked past that door before…) and there’s really no way you can or will see all of it, and it doesn’t actually matter.

Or does it?

The biggest question I had in thinking about this piece, before and after seeing it, is whether opera can work in a non-linear environment.

Now, I found this musically challenging in the first place. The production features a new score by Torsten Rasch which is largely in a twiddly, post-modern style I find unmusical and grating anyway – most notably the seemingly random octave leaps up and down, within a single sung line. Why? I admit I’ve not studied atonal composition theory so I’ve never really understood this particular school of music, but you know what? I don’t think I should need graduate-level academic knowledge to enjoy something created for public performance. And, while our singers were quite good (most memorably Claudia Huckle as the duchess and Andrew Watts as the falsetto Cardinal brother Ferdinand), more often than not the vocal fireworks meant I lost words and frequently entire lines of text, and I ultimately found myself frustrated, with very little verbal information about the story I was supposed to be following. There’s a reason E.N.O. still runs supertitles at the Coliseum even though their productions are sung in English.

That said, I also think there’s an inherent conflict in the structural requirements of an opera – or at least of this score – and the free-form, choose-your-own-adventure format of the production. A Punchdrunk narrative provides few clear stopping and starting points but instead creates a sense that something is always happening, and as a viewer you step in and out of the continuum as you move through the world they create. If you’re ever feeling out of the loop at a Punchdrunk show, the thing to do is just follow a character and interesting things will happen along the way. Music, by contrast, fundamentally relies on developing and exploring themes in a time-based, linear fashion. Following the tuba player between orchestral movements just doesn’t have the same effect. Watching the musicians set up and play kills the whole feeling that something interesting is happening elsewhere. It’s clearly where we’re meant to be at that moment in time, and that is in direct conflict with the best part of a Punchdrunk experience.

After roaming around for a couple hours, I decided I was done. I knew they’d be running things twice, and as I stumbled into a scene I’d already seen, I decided to head for the door. I didn’t like the music, I wasn’t getting much story, random moments of “neat” were few and far between, and combined with a long journey back to civilization it just wasn’t adding up to making me want to stay longer.

Heading down and trying to backtrack to where we came in, I was turned back at the next-to-last door, with the usher saying they were just about to do the finale so he needed me to go back in. I couldn’t leave! That unfortunately took me from “done” to “downright grumpy,” but I figured at least I knew it would soon be over.

As happened at last year’s Masque of the Red Death, the finale takes place in a space we’ve not seen before, large enough for everyone to be all at once and for a truly “big” finish – in this case a sizeable warehouse attached to the building. And, as I could have expected, the finale is indeed marvelously theatrical, the few bits of story I did have kind of came together into a clearer view of the whole, and there is a truly grand moment of spectacle. But it wasn’t enough of a payoff for me, and I didn’t dally after the lights went up.

All due credit for a valiant effort at something extraordinary. You can’t win if you don’t play, as they say, but for this gamble we get nothing extraordinary, or even particularly new. If you’ve seen Punchdrunk before, you’ve seen this before, and done better.

(This is for a performance which took place on July 13, 2010. Performances continue through July 24. Though the info page on the ENO site says it’s completely sold out, the ticketing system is showing some availability, and there’s of course gumtree…)

Casting for 2010 Mikhailovsky London Coliseum visit

July 13, 2010

Tonight’s the start of the Mikhailovsky’s summer visit to London, with five different ballets on offer and a wide variety of performers scheduled to perform. This cast list is copied from the Ballet forum for wider dissemination as I’ve also struggled with the English National Opera’s website (flash doesn’t work on my work computer or on my phone, so useless!) and have been wondering if I would be getting a chance to see any of the ballerinas I’d enjoyed seeing before. I was already feeling peeved about Zakharova’s disappearance from the Bolshoi’s summer tour (making me glad I actually still haven’t bought any Bolshoi tickets as I would have been outraged to have spent so much money and not have got what I was promised), so I wanted to cross-check and see just what it is I’m going to be experiencing at the Coliseum the next two weeks. I’ve starred the ones I am going to see. With luck I’ll end with new dancers to fangrrl over.

Swan Lake
July 13*, 14, 23, 25 – Borchenko, Shemiunov
July 17 (eve), 22 – Rojo, Phkhachov
July 24 – Perren, Semionov

Giselle
July 15 – Perren, Matvienko
July 16 – Perren, Pykhachov

Cipolino
July 17*, 24 – Kuznetsov, Yapparova, Korypaev, Kosheleva

Triple bill
July 18* – Perren, Shmiounov, Ploom, Arbuzova, Lomachenkova, Yapparova, Kochetkova, Korypaev, Yakhnyuk

Laurencia
July 20* – Perren, Matvienko
July 21 – Borchenko, Shemiunov

Review – Opera Macabre – English National Opera

October 10, 2009

Last night my friend Irene arrived from the states and we took her straight off to ENO for the sold out last night “Opera Macabre,” a show that looked like a lot of fun but was hideously marred by the sort of music (singing, really) that makes me want to stick knitting needles in my ears. What is up with modern composers and their desire to not bother with any kind of melody? Why is Squeak squeek SQUAWK foomp even worth singing, much less again and again? Now, mind you, seeing people fairly well having sex on stage, a man in drag being whipped by his mistress then forced to service her, and listening to Mr Death brag about being well hung may have been a different approach to opera, but it did not compensate for the horrible music. The cool set, the giant body of a woman who frequently had projections on her white skin (ie of all of the bones in her body), rotated, and had parts come off (the nipples), DID nearly hit the “cool enough” mark, but it would have all been so much better if we’d been wearing earphones we could have tuned to the kind of music we actually enjoyed. Spectacle it was and fairly watchable, but …. I leapt for the exit at intermission (gratefully leading my four companions) and headed to the pub next door for a consoling glass of wine and the comforting arms of “Disco Inferno.” Then we chatted (Obama, Nobel prize, why?) until it was time to head back to Tooting.

Really, modern opera. Next time I’m listening to the score before I buy tickets.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, October 9th. It is now over.)

Ballet Nacional de Cuba coming to London!

May 28, 2009

OMG OMG OMG ENO shows dates for Ballet Nacional de Cuba for March and April 2010 on their calendar! Swan Lake will be March 20 – April 4 and Magia de la Danza (“a mixed bill which brings together extracts from seven of Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s most famous ballets”) is set for April 6-11 .

I know people think I’m neurotically obsessed at times, but I’m putting this stuff in my calendar now!

(Oh, yes, bought Carlos tickets today – July 23rd, but £25 each, ouch!)

Apologies for a lack of posting

January 17, 2008

Well, after the frenzy of the holidays, it’s almost no surprise that I’d start the year exhausted – only it’s been a cold that’s taken me out. I managed to drag myself to the extremely charming Les Patineurs at the Royal Ballet on January 8th (I also saw the, er, cutesy but rather too long Tales of Beatrix Potter, what can you say about it but, “Yeah, those are world class ballerinas wearing squirrel costumes”), but haven’t been able to hold my head up long enough to write about it.

I have, however, cast my eyes toward the future. Coming up next is Othello at the Donmar, then hopefully Human Steps at Sadler’s Wells. In the next few months, I’m looking forward to seeing Chroma at the Royal Ballet (and hopefully Sylvia), Speed the Plow at the Old Vic, The Good Soul of Szechuan at the Young Vic (Brecht!), Dealer’s Choice at Trafalgar Studios (thanks to the ten quid tickets on Last Minute), Shen Yun at the Southbank Center, and the Pinter double feature at the Comedy Theatre. I’ve also got my eyes on The Mikado at ENO and the yum yum City Ballet at the same venue (two of the shows, the new choreographers and Jerome Robbins pieces). I want to buy tickets for them all NOW (oh, and the Chinese Opera at Sadler’s Wells this June) but post-Christmas finances are forcing austerity on me for now. Soon, my pet, soon!