Posts Tagged ‘Phillip Glass’

Review – The Trial – Phillip Glass and Music Theatre Wales at Royal Opera House

October 15, 2014

I’m not a big opera fan, but I do really enjoy the music of Phillip Glass. So when I heard that his new opera … based on Franz Kafka’s classic novellette The Trial … was going to be at the small space at the Royal Opera House … well, it was a match made in heaven.

I wasn’t the only one to think that a dystopic cult novel and the American master of minimalism were the hottest opera ticket this fall … the production was sold out two months before it opened (and with stalls seats going for the fantastic price of £45, I say rightly so!). Fortunately it’s touring through November 10th so there are other chances to see it … Manchester, Cardiff, and Oxford being just a few of the venues that will host it. Now, the devoted will know that with the Royal Opera House, there are almost always a few returns on the day, so if you’re reading this in hope of getting a ticket to the London production, keep that browser open – it refreshes regularly and suddenly “SOLD OUT” becomes “BUY” … and there I was with two seats in row H in the stalls. Awesome!

So now that I’ve been, the question is: was it worth the bother? Did it meet the hype? Was it any good? I’m pleased to say, yes! (But I must caveat that this production hovered at the two hour mark …a fact which raised its value in my eyes.) Everything was stylized, with a stripped down set (iron frame bed, chairs, and table; eggshell walls broken only by seams of light and window-sized gaps), a monotone palette (that extended to the women’s hair), and a movement style that called to mind silent movies. A sense of claustrophobia was enhanced by the performers staying on the set or peeking in the windows when they weren’t part of a scene; you could never forget that Josef K was constantly being watched. And Glass’ music built like a storm surge, the pressure rising relentlessly as the trap slowly closed around our incredulous mouse. Innocence or guilt were not in question: there was simply no way to escape the conclusion of this bureaucratic machine.

Johnny Hereford was a wonderful Josef K; initially arrogant and unbelieving, at times passionate, finally resigned. All of the other performers were at least double cast and disguised well enough to move the story along despite it occasionally being clear we were watching the same person. But the narrative ruled the day, helped greatly by being performed in English. I was pulled in, and without a language barrier between myself and the sung word, the story became my world. It’s the best time I’ve had at the opera in years and I hope the rest of the performances meet with as much success as this run, in the deliciously intimate Linbury.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, October 15, 2014. It continues at the Linbury until October 18th, then goes on tour.)

Mini-review – The Perfect American – English National Opera

June 11, 2013

For me, the combination of the words “Phillip Glass” and “new opera” are pretty irresistible – which is remarkable if you consider how little I like opera. But his operas are, to me, perfect for the 21st century: very cerebral and extremely engaged with the high-culture zeitgeist. You might find this hard to believe about an opera with Walt Disney as its subject matter; but I think it’s just as applicable as it is for Einstein and Ghandi. Iconic figures with deep cultural impacts? You know that it’s true for all three of them. With Disney, you get an added layer of the image versus the reality – probably as true for Ghandi but manipulated in a more self-serving way for Walt. This production also dovetailed nicely for me with seeing Mike Daisey’s American Utopias in May; it explored the reality behind a lot of Disney mythology, as well as showing where Walt aimed higher than his successors were able to achieve. I felt convinced there was more than enough material to make an opera.

The story, though, winds up seeming a bit thin: it’s about Walt’s worries during his last few months of life. He sees himself as leaving a great legacy, as proven by his fame; but (as the opera shows) a lot of his achievements were based on editing out the past – both his crushing of the rights of his workers and his elimination of voices that spoke against his vision of what America was (nicely epitomized by the scene in which Walt lectures the animatronic Lincoln – from the Disneyland attraction – about how America was reduced as a nation if blacks are equal to whites – which it appears Walt had edited out of the speech Lincoln gave at his amusement park!). Walt cherishes the past he remembers growing up in Marceline, Missouri – but the abuse he and his brothers suffered (as revealed in the Daisey piece) is left out of the opera. Instead, we see his worried about getting his body frozen after his death, and his huge egotism … which really never falls like it would if The Perfect American had been plotted more like a Greek tragedy. Ah well.

Instead of rich story telling and immortal characters, what we get is a breadth of imagination in the presentation of this opera that I found so fully engaging it merits it the label “gesamtkunstwerk” – a full spectacle for the eye as well as being musically rich (in that Philip Glass way that I enjoy). While normally I hate animated backdrops on stage – too often they’re a choice made for cheapness, and/or they distract from what we should be focusing on, the performers – but in this show they are both incredibly appropriate and (shock!) gorgeous, in part because they are frequently shown on hanging cloth (which allows for additional dramatic manipulation of the images). There’s almost no animation related directly to the Disney ouvre, other than the melancholy three circles standing for the basic Mickey Mouse – instead, it shows the thoughts in Walt’s head or otherwise illustrates additively what is happening on stage. That said, the design isn’t overly reliant on the moving image – instead, there is also amazing use of subtle costumes (such as eyes drawn on hands that allow people to look cartoony – and blink), which allows us, the audience, to expand our imaginations and see birds, deer, squirrels, and monsters on the stage. I was entranced: everything was one hundred percent technically up to date and yet still adhered to the dictum of trusting us to make the leap rather than having everything spelled out for us.

While this show was not perfect, it was an excellent piece of theater and highly enjoyable. If you don’t like Phillip Glass, there probably won’t be enough to get you over the hump; but for me, it was as good as opera gets, and a wonderful opportunity to see a show that is really and truly fresh in a genre that is so frequently dominated by 19th century war horses illustrated with dusty realism. I’ll take Princess Mononoke versus Angry Birthday Walt any day, and so should you.

(This review is for a performance that took place on June 6th, 2013. It continues at the London Coliseum through June 28th.)

Review – Bolshoi Ballet triple bill (“Class Concert,” “Elsinore,” “Upper Room”) – London Coliseum

August 14, 2007

I went to the ballet tonight, hoping to be right distracted, but during the Arvo Part music/Hamlet themed ballet I was thinking about costumes, and the job sitch. Okay, let’s be honest, I was thinking about the job sitch all day and was completely NOT focused on doing any sort of work at all. But we’ll skip all that for now and just talk about the show I saw, which was the Bolshoi mixed rep at ENO.

Capsule review: piece one, “Class Concert,” to music of various Russian masters (in the order, Composer, his student, his student, his student) was GREAT, extremely energetic, building to a frenzied head as the dancers worked through harder and harder dance moves. It just felt SO much like members of the corps showing that they were ready for being promoted to bigger roles, and the energy was incredible. The section where the danseurs were THROWING the ballerinas through the air was crazy! (PNB needs to add this to their rep.) Section two, Chris Wheeldon’s “Elsinore,” didn’t really do it for me – the partnering was nice but actually having a story would have been more engaging than just being “atmospheric.”

The third bit, Twyla Tharp’s “Upper Room,” benefitted from some Phillip Glass music (recorded, though I think it didn’t matter), but watching these poor Russian ballerinas attempt to get some urban dance grooves going was painful. They’d absolutely hit these ballet moves (made so much clearer in my mind by watching the first piece), then struggle to shrug their shoulders in any kind of rythmn. One girl was actually “on,” and once ‘d pointed her out to me, I kept my eyes glued on her and enjoyed the rest of it more. But, well, of course, there were always the lovely macaroons my date had picked up from Paul, and great visits over the intervals … so it was a good night out, and I am reminded that I must get my dance tickets purchased for the Sadler’s Wells events and the City Ballet trip to London in the spring.

(Later: PS: The website says, “Completing the Triple Bill is Class Concert, the iconic ballet by Asaf Messerer not seen here since 1965. Using all the Company‘s principal dancers, the ballet reaches an exciting climax which only the Bolshoi Ballet’s legendary bravura can produce.” Um. Just what are they selling here again?)

(This review is for a performance that took place August 14th, 2007.)