Review: Captivate Theatre’s Oliver!

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“Oliver, never before has a boy—“ no, sorry. I have come to review Captivate Theatre’s Edinburgh Fringe production of Oliver! at the Rose Theatre, not to launch into the big titular number. Hard to resist it, though.

Oliver! does such a good job of adapting Oliver Twist that it begins to seem strange that so many ‘period drama’ adaptations are joyless, homogenous, National Trust-branded awkward nonentities. Oliver!’s formula is, after all, rather simple. The musical understands that the titular character doesn’t need to be particularly compelling or the centre of attention. This is a parish boy’s progress, not a Hero’s Journey. Oliver is the youthful plot impetus rather than the psychological agent his successors David and Pip will be. Oliver! relishes the novel’s dialogue and lifts it where possible. It gets the book’s jokes and tells them well, it makes a meal of Dickens’ big, theatrical characters, and it’s more interested in the themes and mechanical tensions of the story than in re-enacting every element of the plot with slavish fidelity.

Read full article here at the Dickens Society blog.

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School of Rock (West End Production, soft-opener)

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We accidentally saw some kind of benefit performance of School of Rock, having simply booked regular preview tickets. Michael Caine was there, and Fergie (actual Duchess, not funkstress), and so too were the men (well, maybe we’ll just go with ‘Tory peers’) responsible for the show: Julian Fellowes (he of Downton Abbey) and the mystery cat himself, Andrew Lloyd Webber. I was thus unexpectedly confronted with the very face of the beast.

When I was little and stupid, as little people often are (the worshipful ‘I have an insight into childhood!’ neo-Victorian tone of many very good writers aside—people are often bloody awful, why not small people?), I fucking loved Webber. The only thing I can say in my own defence is that I always, always hated Cats. But I loved JCSS; lush, camp Phantom—I read the book it was based on; I even thought Evita made complex political points, god help me. When you are the sort of person who cruel nature has predestined to Like Musicals and you’re exposed to very few of them, the pumpkin spice latte of the genre will more than content you.

No, let’s be fair: I still like Webber. This is either because I am the sort of philistine who also thinks the schmaltzier the Romantic composer, the better (and who thinks Queen may be the greatest band-qua-band of all time), or because I was weaned on him from a young age. I’m not sure the two things are easily separated. The fact remains that while I haven’t listened to Phantom for some years, and was never ‘in the fandom’ as it were, I am nonetheless almost certain I could sing the entirety of Phantom right now. Don’t worry, I won’t, this is a terrace house and our neighbours have done nothing to deserve that.

I even liked Webber’s seeming perpetual bafflement in the idiot reality show I watched a season of, which turned the already-torturous casting process into a farcical quest to find out which girl best embodied the true spirit of the nothing part of Dorothy from Wizard of Oz. For some reason or other, can’t think why, I’ve recently come to find reality shows featuring conservative political figures deeply depressing and repulsive, so it’s a no from me on any more of that, ever.

Looking at what my sister kept describing as Webber’s ‘horrible wizened lizard face’, because she’s a bitch (but a bitch with eyes), I knew not what to feel. With erstwhile collaborator Tim Rice, ALW forms a substantial part of my cultural landscape. They sunk deep roots into me at a time when I knew no other West End caliber theatre at all. I still like a lot of ALW’s earlier work, but I distrust my own liking. Now I consider him the bourgeois, conservative hack he’s become, and probably to an extent always was. I don’t think it’s just that I’ve gotten older: I think Webber has matured into the worst part of himself.

I have a strained, awkward relationship with this old friend, who, since about eighteen, has grown into her worst qualities. These were always there, but she used to be a pretty good person. There once was this real opportunity for her to grow into someone I can’t quite imagine now, from where I’m standing. Different from me, different from who she became—a full realization of a girl now lost. I can’t see most of the things she used to be in her anymore, though I’m sure if she’d kept a journal during those years or something, we’d have some remnant of her still. Essentially, Webber’s like that, with the work of his good period standing in for those hypothetical journals.

ALW came on stage, rambled about the benefit and assured us that the children all played instruments. People had been asking about that, he told us, but indeed, his merry band of ragamuffins did make all their own noises! Presumably he said this for my benefit, and that of everyone in the audience who intended to write about the show afterwards (this charity gig, to be matter of fact rather than cynical, must have doubled as PR—‘oh look, Fergie tweeted about that hot new musical’). With that, my disappointing old flame slunk off to a seat just behind the prime circle, which was currently filled with rich donors. He watched his own show, which he must have seen fifty times at least between its New York incarnation and this new one. How can he bear it? Practice, I suppose. It’s very possible that ALW is on a spectrum with Gaiman and Dickens and other artists who have been too fucking famous in their own lifetimes: there are several ways to react, but these positions as National Treasures, living members of a Pantheon (in a pop-culture version of the French sense of the term), exert(ed) a personality and art-warping weight on them all.

Webber was right to highlight the children: his Gypsy band was the consistent highlight of the show. We sat next to two proud mothers who’ve been more often even than they were given comp tickers for. My sister struck up a conversation with them about child acting regs in the UK. We learned that it’s hard for the kids to speak in American accents, except for the one native speaker and the girl who attends an American school in Richmond, but the moms say their kids love being in this show, would suspend time if they could in order to ward off puberty and stay in it forever. I believe these moms, to the extent you can know that kind of thing: they seem sensible, and on stage the kids seem delighted in one another’s company, energetic and flushed with praise for their hard work. William Morris contended that people like work, when their circumstances aren’t exploitative and awful—that it can easily be a pleasure unto itself. He was probably right.

The show is most appealing when these kids are on. Before they arrive on the scene, it drags, and when they’re off-stage much of the energy goes with them. My partner pointed out that it’s tough to adapt School of Rock, which is simple and lovely in its original form, without losing some of its charm, and I don’t think she’s wrong. It’s good to see diversity in this cast, though. However, just to note, it is bloody always gay male parents, isn’t it? At this rate the first lesbian parent I’m going to see is myself in a few years.

The venue, the New London Theatre, exists to make the National look less hideous. It’s comfortable, and I suppose it suits some productions (because god knows I’ve been thrown by ‘Book of Mormon in an art-deco palace’), but it has that soul-deep commitment to ugliness Britain used to be capable of back when it could still muster up commitment to anything in particular. I think this might have been its last gasp, actually. My partner dutifully protests that she likes the National. My stage manager sister amends that she too likes the National: its handsome lighting rig, its huge budget. As far as its face goes, well.

The one real complaint to make about the NLT as a production space rather than as an aesthetic experience is that the show’s sound mixing was way off. This is probably an issue with the architecture of the building, which was perhaps not meant to handle a musical like this (thank fuck they didn’t put Hamilton in here). The speakers were all positioned down from us, so the tech team was fighting a losing battle. The upshot is, best-in-the-business techies gave me something that, in the cheap seats, often sounded like shit. I couldn’t hear a lot of the lyrics. I’m sure it was gold for the circle, but if your whole audience isn’t baseline-served at a West End musical, that’s really not acceptable.

Part of that ‘sounding like shit’ wasn’t really down to the sound system. It certainly wasn’t down to the kids, who played songs the film had given the musical very, very well. But where new songs were required, either lyricist Julian Fellowes phoned it in or he just wasn’t up to scratch. I winced in anticipation of some of the crapper rhymes, and, inexorably, they came: exactly what you’d expected. A small schoolchild sings “I needed respect/I needed a chance/And only you would listen/I couldn’t connect”. ‘I couldn’t connect’, like we’re in a naff therapy session. Things generally should be funnier than they are, and almost every song is musically and lyrically limp (not to mention repetitious). You could swap “If Only You Would Listen” into about eight other musicals and no one would notice.

The weirdest thing about School of Rock is, it’s a musical about rock by the guy who brought vast audiences the rock musical and who remains strongly associated with that genre, and the songs by and large do not rock for shit. The protagonist’s boss, a lapsed rock chick, laments her lost sense of self and lapsed love affair with music in a meebly trad-musical number. We have only just been told this bitch would straight die for Stevie Nicks, and somehow, somehow, I am not listening to a wailing, face-melting, Fleetwoodish, raging, nostalgic, bitter belter? I got more musical wham out of that Stevie Nicks Fajita Roundup skit. This musical ought to have been a sampler of the different things rock can be and do, but every song new feels perfunctory. There is one chord unique to this musical rather than the film that lingers with me a week on—the notes that go with the kids’ “stick it to the man” chant. However it’s awkwardly reminiscent of a chord Pink used in her 2008 single “So what?” (“I’m gonna get in trouble, I’m gonna start a fight!”), which seriously predates ALW’s adaptation. My sister points out this too is a musical quotation, but the point remains: the one memorable bit of music in this whole shebang isn’t even Webber’s. The father of rock opera didn’t turn out one.

It’s pretty enjoyable, though that’s largely down to the kids’ work and not Webber’s. (I’m remembering Hamlet on child theatrical troupes as gimmick, though.) What can I say? After a string of flops (Phantom II, anyone?), Webber, who self-invests like he’s Trump, turned out something safe. Relentlessly safe. And I’m sure it’s a tidy money-maker, and again, it’s not bad. (I can’t help comparing this to the Groundhog Day musical, which was competently if not exquisitely adapted by the original script writer and elegantly staged. It didn’t add much to the film really, and I can’t say the songs have stayed with me, but it was like a slicker, more careful version of what this was trying to do. It too didn’t have good enough music, but I felt it had more of an excuse.)

School of Rock is, however, structurally awkward in a way I think will sit in the backs of the audience’s brains. The overall ideology of this play about rock as rebellion is controlled and conciliatory. We’re told the kids are over-scheduled, and at the end of the musical the protagonist’s rock lessens become one more fucking thing they have to do while still poised for hygienic lives of unfaltering achievement, adding to their burdens while lessening them. They have Free Expression Hour, yay!! It’s especially ironic that it’s Tory Peer ALW talking to you about freedom and rebellion. In a hyper-establishment West End musical. K.

And then there are the people the band cannot include. One wonders, as in the film, about the kids assigned security detail, or designing costumes no one ends up using (though that gay or playing-gay kid is a fucking star—he was a true delight). It’s odd that in the musical the discovery of the key singing talent was left until 36 hours before the final competition. It just feels like the protagonist literally has not spoken to this student all month after his initial attempt at outreach. Summer, the bossy Hermione Granger of the class, is ‘part of the band’: one of ours. We root for her. Yet the two adult women she’s like either:

  1. need to distance themselves from their ambition and/or find it incompatible with living a personally fulfilling life (the principal), or
  2. are (and this is the protagonist’s roommate’s girlfriend) uppity, fun-spoiling bitches who want like, paid rent, ever, or for their boyfriend’s weird and mean high school band mate not to live with them in their apartment she partly pays for anymore, now that they’re all in their mid-thirties, or for children not to taught by a dodgy rando with no license. You know, crazy shit like that. Maaaaaan what a drag.

So how can we celebrate Summer when her eventual fate, despite her reasonable concerns and her hard, helpful work, is to be rendered ridiculous, naggy instead of powerful. Summer says some shoehorned thing about equal pay, and you can feel the musical working to earn its credibility here. But in the wake of Trump’s election, the protagonist’s claim that Summer will be the first female president of the United States is hollow and painful. Also terrifying—what is that, 40 years to wait? Shit, at this point I hope there still is an America in 40 years.

Obviously the movie did some of these objectionable things too, but small script changes in the adaptation process have actually altered the undergirding of the musical and rendered its ideology creepier. Seemingly insignificant, surface-level changes can have that kind of deep-structure effect! One might say, ‘surely the original film’s promise of rebellion was reconciliatory bullshit, because how can a major motion picture, a mass media product made by the forces of capitalism working on a grand scale, ever say anything interesting about rebellion against convention?’ Well, indeed, but I’m more Benjamin than Adorno in this as in everything, and thus I have more time for the potentialities of mass culture. Adorno doesn’t significantly account for transformative reception and a polyvocal, multi-authorial text. Bakhtin done told you this, son! Plus, I see a lot of value in Olga Goriunova’s Autonomist Marxist-inspired ‘breaks’ formation, which stresses the possibility and importance of micro-fissures: small moments of rupture in capitalist hegemonies, cracks that let light in and allow minds trapped in late capitalism’s material and intellectual death-grip to imagine radically other futurities. I think mass culture products are capable of letting light in, sometimes.

Grimeborn Opera Festival, Arcola Theatre (2016)

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This festival, with a name that apparently puns on a more famous festival I’m not opera-savvy enough to be aware of, has been running some years and is a really cool idea. The Arcola, a Fringey Dalston space that does a lot of good work, put together a season consisting of 16 opera offerings. If you bought the festival Passport you could see five productions for a tenner each, which really isn’t bad—less than the cost of a movie in London, unless you’re getting a special deal. This is about the only way I was ever going to be able to see enough live opera in a concentrated spurt to actually decide whether I liked the medium.

Ultimately, I’m still ambivalent. Despite the insights into the phenomenon of opera-crying offered by Thomas Dixon’s excellent Margaret Are You Grieving? A Cultural History of Weeping, the phenomenon remains unfathomable to me at a fundamental level. When I cry about art it is almost always because of a conceptual source of sadness. I cried a lot during War and Peace, for example when the young Rostov boy dies, because he is so young and so undeserving of this and was only the night before offering fellow officers his treats to get them to like him and trying to come off as such a grown up. He was a baby, and his death is so stupid and worthless. It’s not him I’m sad about precisely, nor is it exactly Margaret I mourn for, my own death in his. It’s the whole idea. This isn’t said to big myself up because I virtuously find Great Art sad: as a child I also cried when Qui-Gon Jinn died in The Phantom Menace, and all the intervening years have not cleansed me of this sin. When a certain friend of mine cries about art, it’s because a character is thwarted, made unhappy. As with opera crying, I don’t understand the form of identification or empathy that enables or forces her to cry because a character is rendered miserable. And I have also known real-life opera-criers, capable of being pushed to the edge not by an idea, but by a vibration. The world is SFFnal: this is true, and yet it is as fantastic to me as faeries.

This suggests to me that, for some people, opera has a ready way in. A Royal Road and all that. I love a lot of music very much indeed, but I don’t have a physical or acculturated response to it that enables me to be moved to tears by the beauty of sound alone. I relate to opera like I relate to plays and songs and musicals, and end up judging it by some mixture of the demands of those categories. I lack familiarity with the form, and I always find it difficult to engage with and be moved by something I don’t understand. I’d say ‘so does everyone’, but I’m not sure about the universality of my feelings, given that apparently sounds make people cry, but not me.

My feelings on opera are still vulnerable, unusually determined by the strength of the production I’m watching at a given moment, the last thing I saw. I still dimly remember, though, learning to watch plays. Up until maybe eight years ago, I think I’d seen perhaps 15 plays in total, which doesn’t sound so bad until you think about how many films you’ve seen or books you’ve read by 22. Take it back to ten years ago and the number drops lower, to perhaps ten, baring the handful of student things I’d been in. I was almost invariably cast as old women in these. If there was a battleaxe grandmother, I was she. I don’t exactly know why. The world/Rock Bridge High School was apparently not yet ready for my cross-cast, played-gay Hungarian linguist in Pygmalion, I guess (though I maintain that was a good audition).

I might be selling this short. My mother, always anxious to assure herself and everyone else that her children were impeccably provided for, prepared for their launch into adult life like royal yachts, would probably credit me with scores. But I’m don’t think I’m underselling it by much. My family was relatively privileged and my mom sometimes bought me tickets for touring productions of things that came to Jesse Hall, the university venue in my hometown. But the offerings in our then-smaller, then-poorer town were far more limited than they are today, and they were and are nothing whatever in comparison to those of a bigger city. Theatre is expensive in America, and to us it was a pretentious luxury item. As a family we were weirdly both ‘interested in culture’ and totally not. My mom had acted a little in local amdram as a younger woman, but she also never read a book, other than out loud to me (I think primarily for child development purposes, but perhaps that’s being uncharitable), either for information or for pleasure in my entire time living at home. It’s really remarkable to think how precious the worst Jeff City amdram Shakespeare in the Park was to me. I was David Copperfield levels of enthused about anything. I knew so little, I relied so much on crumbly old VHS recordings of Phantom and ancient records of G&S. I was the only person I knew, baring my mother and grandmother, who know what the hell they were. I was so stupid, and so hungry.

Learning what the fuck I was looking at with plays took watching them, again and again and again. Thus I understand the possible necessity, and am prepared to do the work, of learning new rhetorics for opera. I think I’d need to, so that I can come to love it as I do plays: with an abiding faith that underlies even the worst productions, with a trust in the medium. When I review a bad book, I still know War and Peace exists, and so do Jane Austen Book Club and Bridget Jones’ Diary and everything else worthwhile in the world. I know what this bad book is saying about books full-stop and what if isn’t. I know the lines between the production and the play and the medium (if you’re about to make a Marshall Mcluhan sort of point about how that is not possible to absolutely know, the door is to your left). I could get there with opera in time, but I’m not sure the medium and I are well-suited enough for me to grow into that relationship with it. I’m still looking for other things in opera—for the dialogue of a good play, and the music-staging of a competent West End piece, and the accessibility of a song.

So there are all your caveats before we begin.

TOSCA

An opera takes a long time to cover basic plot occurrences. I’m aware this is probably a really facile thing to say, but there it is. The first scenes of Tosca take ages, and the pacing kicks up dramatically in the second half.

Tosca’s big selling point for me is the titular character (Natasha Jouhl), a singer who’s jealous and perhaps too-easily moved by others’ suffering, especially if she cares about them. By that same turn, she’s great-hearted and capable of drawing on reserves of inner strength. Her plan in this story, which is good but not quite good enough, her successful attack on her would-be rapist and her song about how she’s always lived decently and been devoted to her art and doesn’t deserve the big slice of bullshit she’s being served right now are all involving. Her political painter boyfriend Cavaradossi (slight shades of B/A fic here) doesn’t have much to do besides get tortured, but he too doesn’t deserve this crap.

Scarpia, the lascivious sadist antagonising her, is, alas, fairly recognisable. He’s well-played in this production by a malevolently-grinning Freddie Tong, whose tight-held, military-uniformed body exerts a force of weight and menace. Tosca’s final remarks on how she knows her business as a singer and will tell Cavaradossi all about how to pretend to die in order to escape his captors are pert and cute, right up until they’re a sad joke at her expense. Because of course Cavaradossi actually gets shot, which Tosca ought to have guessed might happen (she’d made a bargain with the untrustworthy Scarpia, which Scarpia never intended to honor). She was fairly stressed out by dealing with her boyfriend’s torture, her own sexual assault and stabbing Scarpia to death, however, so you can see why Tosca wasn’t thinking that clearly. The scene where she and her lover discuss the murder and Cavaradossi insists she’s not to blame for any of it, nor has she been befouled by her actions, and they move past it together shows that they have a strong relationship to lose. Yes, Tosca is jealous and histrionic and comical, and she’s less able to withstand pain endured for a good cause than her lover, but that doesn’t diminish her fuller personality, or her capacity for serious moral action. I like the opera’s matter of fact treatment of her sexual agency.

There was a particularly good aria (If that’s the term I want? I think so, but it might not be quite correct.) at the beginning of the second act (?), one of Tosca’s I believe, but overall the music wasn’t a chief selling-point for me here. The staging ranged from ‘fine, but nothing to write home about’ to slightly awkward (Cavaradossi’s friend’s dead body lies immobile on a little raised platform for the whole second act). I could have done with a bit more Gareth Thomasy rebel charm from Cavaradossi, but again, the script doesn’t allow him that much scope. Glancing at Wikipedia, I find that “[t]urning the wordy French play into a succinct Italian opera took four years, during which the composer repeatedly argued with his librettists and publisher.” I might have preferred it if he’d left more meat on those bones, personally. Further, “[w]hile critics have frequently dismissed the opera as a facile melodrama with confusions of plot—musicologist Joseph Kerman famously called it a “shabby little shocker”[1][2]—the power of its score and the inventiveness of its orchestration have been widely acknowledged.”

It is, perhaps, difficult to access the full force of the score and orchestration via the quite small group of players the space admitted. I’m sure they performed well (the more trained people with me voiced no complaints on that score), but a smattering of players isn’t a full orchestra. Perhaps it works well if you know Tosca, and are bringing that knowledge of the full score to this small rendition. It’s possible that via this exposure, I’ve sort of bypassed one of the major draws of the piece. I liked Tosca, but feel I ought to have liked it better than I did.

MOZART & SALIERI

Well, this was a mistake. Hauled ass across town for some little 45 min spit of an opera, clumsily translated into English and modernised in that jokey way I hate, where the fact that they mention Dalston is somehow inherently hilarious. ‘We could go to the Turkish place.’ What larks. In part my not wanting this is my own fault. I should have read the program better (forty-five minutes). I’d been curious about how they’d adapted such a short play into a full piece, too. Answer: they didn’t.

I liked the effort at meta-theatrical staging, though this looked really gestural compared to the National’s treatment of Amadeus a couple months later. This should have been absolutely my thing. The premise starts queer and the execution got well gay. But even that couldn’t save it.

The acting lacked particular conviction or charm (especially on Salieri’s part), both of which one expects given what the filmic Amadeus has done with this story. This is an operatic setting that renders even the encysted Mozart fairly lifeless, which is dangerous business considering that this play is predicated on artistic jealousy. The poison element comes across as fairly comic. Why did Salieri’s dead wife give him a poison ring? Which he now keeps about his person at all times? ?? Questions.

I first encountered the original play in uni, when I also read Schaffer’s play because I was obsessed with Amadeus the film and had an idea of doing something with the story myself. It’s been eight or nine years so my memory isn’t crystal clear, but while I remember finding it a little nothing, I don’t think it left me with the total ‘…oh’ reaction this did. The play script had a weird, humming, sexualised energy slightly reminiscent of Wilde’s Salome. I thought the opera’s lyrics clunky and the plotting feeble. So does the fault lie in the operatic setting or in this translation thereof? The only moment the opera sort of falls into place for me is in the two men’s final pre-poisoning conversation about admiration. The finale, a soft thunk of ‘can geniuses be murderers?’, needed some editing. I don’t care if some of these problems are inherited from the original, you can and ought to fix things in subsequent layers of adaptation (and this has two).

THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO        

I had a terrible migraine and so sat out the first half of this, crumpled in the lobby. I had seen a Figaro before at the ENO, home of shite productions, and not liked it all that much. This Figaro was probably better, or at least I enjoyed what I did see of it significantly more (my partner assures me the first half worked similarly well). This was the most fully staged of the productions we’d attended thus far, with the biggest cast, the most complex plot, and I believe the most complicated orchestral arrangements. It enjoyed quite a solid English translation, the sort that almost makes you see the point of opera translation in a world with good surtitles. It also featured competent singing, and I think possibly still-better acting. The emotional through lines made sense and the whole was imbued with energy and fun. It stood up well as a farce, though of course Figaro lacks the thundering majesty of really good Mozart, sitting more in Mozart’s Casiotone plinky-plink music box range. Don’t @ me.

(It might be worth mentioning that I have awful classical music tastes, probably. I really like huge, lush, romantic Brahms and Tchaikovsky and shit, which means that the studied precision of Mozart at his most Period isn’t ever going to do it for me, because what I find affecting is in some ways a reaction to the tradition the over-neat, studied, mathematically precise portion of Mozart’s output epitomises. Again, I don’t know much about classical music, and I prefer any Mozart whatever to such post-Stravinsky chromaticism Benjamin Britten business as goes on in avant-garde opera that isn’t like, Brecht. I don’t think I’m using the right terms. I remember distinctly that there was atonal shit I fucking despised at the end of music appreciation, but not the language or the name of that awful German? Russian? East European? thing. Alban Berg’s Wozzeck? I think it might be!

Wozzeck is generally regarded as the first opera produced in the 20th-century avant-garde style and is also one of the most famous examples of employing atonality (music that avoids establishing a key) and Sprechgesang. Berg was following in the footsteps of his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, by using free atonality to express emotions and even the thought processes of the characters on the stage. The expression of madness and alienation was amplified with atonal music.”

That. I fucking hate that. I’d apologise for my pedestrian and conservative taste, but I do get the feeling that if I knew better I’d consider this music in about the same light as I consider high Modernism. Which is to say, I’d think it largely pointless, self-absorbed, butch titwank that is considered and, what’s worse, thinks it is more experimental than it ever was—certainly more boundary pushing than it actually is in a modern musical context.)

I quite like that there are a few plays and operas set in this universe. I didn’t know before this that Marriage was sort of a sequel to Barber of Seville (though the plot of the subsequent play sounds like a hot mess).

THE DOWAGER’S OYSTER

The program said ‘like G&S and Agatha Christie’, but what you got was a bad Fringe show that was really not ready for professional public airing in any forum, in any capacity. Actually, a miscommunication between partner and self led me to believe this would be an adaptation of a Christie book. That would certainly have resulted in a better plot structure and a better treatment of queer themes (JC Bernthal’s Queering Agatha Christie could argue the later contention better than I could).

The libretto was painful, the plot incoherent and dull (and a cosy murder mystery plot’s under a special obligation to function, in order to enable the puzzle to work), the characterisation vacuous and confusing, and the music was badly sung and not strong to begin with. I’m sorry to be awful, but there it is. This piece simply was not ready.

The casting doesn’t really work for the murderers, but past that the acting wasn’t all that bad. Everything was earnestly and energetically acted dull crap, like Sleepy Hollow without the strange charm and good visuals. The investigator brought some life and comedy to the piece, but I felt bad for everyone involved while watching. This ought to have been high camp comedy (that’s not the only way to handle the prompt, but it’s a way that would have worked), but it’s played too straight. Which is ironic, considering.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess this was written by a gay man with a vague taste for the period, who wanted to get a bit of the old Gay Representation in there. As a gay lady with similar susceptibilities, I can’t really bitch on that score. There’s something of a Talented Mister Ripley, Hitchcock vibe between the romantically-involved male murderers. Lord knows I’m fairly easy for that shit, but drawing those comparisons makes this sound better than it is. Basically, because he needs money, a gay man has gotten engaged to a woman he’s not interested in (which reminds me, I should call my gay dad back, I said I would two days ago).

Fatal Fiancé’s also living the high life, chasing waterfalls that are a bit too much for his gay partner’s tastes rather than sticking to the rivers and the lakes and the boyfriend that he’s used to. But this thread is sort of lost when the murder plot kicks in. Because, via a weird series of events the audience could know nothing about (that’s Knox’s Rules and the audience’s intellectual engagement with the plot out the window), our lovebirds came to the island the fiancé and her mother are staying on and set up the mother’s murder. Why not wait until after the marriage, when the men’s claim to these funds was better established? I don’t remember any indication that they could have known where the mother would be eating lunch that day, gotten oyster-poising materials in order to spring upon this contingency and controlled which oysters she would consume at this restaurant. How will this death facilitate the lovers’ plans, exactly? What even are those plans? Murder, ???, Profit! Eh.

Essentially this is a reboot of a retro Lavender Menace plot. We get a word about the cruel society that restricts these men’s love, but in-story it doesn’t seem to be restricting it (they’re off lavishly sampling the delights of Morocco bath houses in the first half and no one even suspects them of impropriety) so much as not just gifting them with boatloads of cash for nothing. And it’s hard to feel that much sympathy when their oppression and specific needs aren’t made palpable here, and when they are the murderers of an annoying but largely unconnected-to-them woman (like a crap Crime and Punishment).

The flat, ungenerous but textual reading of the piece is thus ‘oo, those devious queers, they’ll deceive you and kill decent people as soon as look at them, anything to feed their immoral desires!’ I mean the thing is too inchoate to quite register as evangelical propaganda, but we move from an after school special ‘love is real’ ballad I can’t take seriously to the balladeers getting hauled off to prison. If there was a sly, playful, sexy reworking of queer crime/suspense traditions in the works here, that didn’t come through.

With a full, Sunset Boulevard level re-write, the idea isn’t awful. I could probably edit this and turn something out, given that it’s a musical play, a form I’m very familiar with, and not an opera, a form I’m not. Not that I mind much, but I think technically this was a musical rather than an opera. It might have been good for that to have been made explicit in the advertising materials. But this is the least of the show’s problems.

GIANNI SCHICCHI / PAGLIACCI

These were my favourite of the bunch. This was a short-piece double bill in a different, smaller space than the main theatre that had hosted the others. The cast shifted a bit between these two, but there were some holdovers. The first piece was translated, the second wasn’t. (Is it still called an opera if it’s one-act? I guess.) In the climactic final scenes of Pagliacci the surtitle machine broke, but one got the gist and I looked the lyrics up after.

Gianni Schicchi is a simple ‘wily old trickster’ story that worked elegantly. A rich man dies and his greedy family discover, to their comedic dismay, that he’s left his money to the monks instead of them. The best of the lot suggests they call in Gianni Schicchi, a man without great wealth or familial connections who is, nevertheless, the father of the girl he wants to marry. He is also, the young man claims, the cleverest man in the city. He’ll be able to sort this out, if anyone can. And so Schicch does—to his own advantage, for the most part, though his machinations also enable his now rich daughter to marry the lover who would have taken her when she was poor.

The music was excellent, and the Florence aria (which I gather is The Famous One) was superb. Given that this piece was translated, she sang that aria again at the end in the original (something of a money shot for opera fans, I think, that they might have been sorry to miss out on the received version of). The translation, acting and singing were all successful. The wonky mid-century set design reflected the family’s claustrophobic, wonky relationships and priorities. Actually the set felt as designed as they were designing. A simple evocation and reflection, but an effective one. If anything it was a bit too dark for the piece, which isn’t that black a comedy, but that’s a slight complaint. This was a lot of fun.

The second piece of the night was the most consciously ‘staged’ of any of the operas we’d seen, with an easy to follow but non-literal opening that gained resonance when the play finished and the cast returned to this configuration. In watching it I realised how comparatively basic a great many of the previous operatic stagings had been, and the degree to which they’d felt old-fashioned or under-worked to me as a result of this, without my quite identifying the cause of my disquiet until now. Is this typical of opera staging, or did I just happen to see four productions in a row that hadn’t done that work? The former feels more likely, to me? Maybe part of the reason I had trouble connecting with these is that the visual and structural language and work I expect to encode and convey meaning aren’t present here in the ways I’ve come to rely on them being. We’re back again at the introduction’s point about the relationship of expectation, understanding and enjoyment, I guess. But also, possibly opera staging needs to git gud.

Pagliacci was musically gorgeous, though the plot (revenge on a cheating wife, ‘Is life art?! I’m not for saaaale, maaaan.’) was in some ways more annoying than that of the previous piece. Even I knew the big ‘I am a sad fuckboi’ aria, and it’s great, if too ‘about a sad fuckboi’. The spectator-chorus ranged along the back wall did good work. The meta-theatricality of the play-within-a-play was interesting, and even though I’ve slagged them off the themes did more for me than any of the others. There were bigger questions being asked, and explored in a decent way.

The characters were decently drawn and their relationships fairly compelling. (Poor benighted ‘let’s just put on this fucking show’ guy.) Cross-casting a woman as the cringing, brutal, Snidely Whiplash-ish clown lusting for the heroine slightly reminded me of Dowager’s Oyster’s underworked Lavender Menace thread, but it didn’t bother me much in this far more solid and self-aware production, where the clown’s lust and the menace characterised her more specifically than her orientation. Her desire exerted a compelling, rare force. You see so few lesbian stagings of anything.

If I had to pick a total favourite, perhaps it was this one.

IN SUMMARY:

* Fuck knows what I feel about opera, but I like good opera better than bad opera, and staging matters more than one might think, affecting one’s perception of material in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. ‘Duh’, but true, and often I do forget it, or half-entertain some fantasy that I can access the material in a purer way than that. With a medium I know well I can to a fair extent, but the less familiar I am with a mode the less I’m able to identify its elements and guess what’s working and what isn’t.

* Throwing in gay elements doesn’t automatically make your story Queer Positive. I’m not asking for twee, rah-rah depictions of queer people and desires across the board, just a considered approach that doesn’t accidentally replicate and reify harmful tropes. Including queerness to be Provocative often comes off as condescending and stupid. Being queer yourself is not a perfect protection against making a poor show here.

* Translating opera into English can work well and may especially help comic opera, but on balance I don’t think it’s a great idea in terms of the music. It especially lays bare any repetitious passages.

* The repetition and banal lyrics in some quite well-regarded opera can drive me mental, as can the thin plots.

* It seems less easy to do good opera with a bare minimum of people and on a tight budget than it is to do good theatre with the same resources.

* I would still rather see a decent play than a decent opera, I suspect. Possibly it’s a phase, possibly it’s just me, or possibly opera is culturally-cathected as an elite art form over and above its merits.

Don Giovani, ENO 2016

CONTENT WARNING: SOME DISCUSSION OF SEXUAL ASSAULT (which occurs in the opera)

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I hated the ENO’s production of Don Giovanni so much that after seeing it I was trapped for a day or more in an existential confusion spiral, left wondering whether I hated this production specifically, the ENO, Don Giovanni in general, Mozart or all opera. The theatre is powerful. It can make you question things, like whether you only hallucinated everything you ever liked about a composer.

The ENO is bedded into the old Coliseum theatre, so the venue’s gorgeous in this cheesy, dear, bust-encrusted sort of way, but the cheap seats are uncomfortable. Not Haymarket legendary ass-torture bad, but not good either. A Dark Truth Revealed: I was also a bit afraid my pants were riding too low (come on, you also worry about this at the theatre with a dudesman right behind you, you too are mortal). This resulted in me weirdly shifting a lot. As did boredom.

The English National Opera’s schtick is that they only do English language opera, so shit is always translated there (baring when they wheel out like, G&S, as they are perpetually doing: the ENO’s finances and operations are, I am told, a hot hot mess at the moment, so the money from said wheeling doesn’t come amiss). Because lines sung as opera remain hard to make out even if they are being sung in your native language (though not everyone in a London audience is necessarily super-proficient in English, of course), the ENO still does surtitles. But! only for songs proper, not sung dialogue. So like, good luck making the dialogue out.

Essentially, I think the ENO’s mission is kind of pointless now that surtitles are so well done. Why translate the opera on stage, given that you still need the surtitles? You can see how it’d bodge the music. But this is the organisation’s raison d’être, and while you can argue with this organizing concept’s utility and results, you do have to acknowledge that mission statement’s role in the ENO’s operations (something those angry over Emma Rice’s dismissal from the Globe do not, I think, adequately admit when dismissing historically-informed staging, aka Wanamaker’s organising principle).

Act 1 took nine hours, minimum, and not much happened during that period: it was like one of the more tiresome gothic novels. You could argue (and after this staging I wondered if one ought to) that not much happens in any opera, honestly. They’re usually a sort of bad play, with a thin plot and shite dialogue. A conversation with my sister, who’s classically trained (at everything, really, Meghan sings and plays a disgusting number of instruments), gave rise to examples of really good librettos and talked me down a bit as far as All Opera goes. But some combination of this libretto and this translation resulted in essentially the same bad lines repeated over and over for stretches of several minutes. Day-long, three-play Young Chekhov at the National earlier this month was less tiring (and the lines were generally worth hearing once, and maybe even multiple times, though I was never asked to do so).

Now, again, I don’t have a good enough ear to distinguish whether the problem was the score or the performance, but I came away from this production thinking ‘20% of Mozart is really good. REALLY good, as good as Amadeus promises you. The rest is plinky boring Cassio keyboard midi file hell.’ In this case we were stuck, musically, with a Diet Coke Figaro. Actually the opera-savy acquaintance I was with, who I’d also seen a Figaro with earlier this summer, wasn’t terribly impressed by the singing herein.

The set design, blocking and acting strongly reminded me of a uni production, but with a more adult budget thrown into achieving those uni-level effects. Here we are with the cast all in black and the set all in green—a sort of mid-century German minimalist look. But these choices were to no evident particular purpose. I can’t tell you what they did for this staging. It felt like the production team decided they had to do something and plucked this out of a hat without any particular vision of the effect they were going for. Same with the blocking/acting, which wasn’t so much about creating and conveying characters’ emotional through lines as giving the actors and extras Business. The most egregious moment in terms of blocking occurred during the party scene at the end of Act I. A ton of extras feebly seize-jived for ages (dark! sexy!) in the same positions as the core cast kept tripping over streamers these extras had thrown out. It was am-dram as hell—excruciatingly so, given that the National was concurrently staging Amadeus, and that their New Years party scene had a very similar moment, but staged just ridiculously better and to excellent, enthralling, chilling effect.

Yet singling out this moment downplays how many awkward impasses this production came to. The choice to stage Don Giovanni fairly naturalistically results in a lot of odd blocking, just to fill the physical space of longish arias. We opened with overture acting—never a great choice, because it tends to Stage Business. We meet Don Giovanni as his assistant helps him procure a chain of women. The Don goes into a room with each woman (and one man, oh aren’t we naughty here are the ENO) for 30 seconds, and sure, I get it’s a montage, but between this and the fact that you cast an older dude who, per my girlfriend, looks like a mid-level mobster: wtf, he seems bad in bed (30 seconds, eh?) and not hot, why are these women into it?? And they are so into it: this production if anything amps up Giovanni’s engrossing power over women.

Apparently there’s a stage tradition of playing with the complicity of Donna Anna, a woman who, per a flat reading of the libretto, Don Giovanni attempts to rape at the start of the opera. In this production, Donna Anna willingly played a rape-fantasy sex game with Don Giovanni. This went wrong when her father burst in to save her from her attacker and Giovanni killed him. Intervention in the text or no, this staging falls firmly into the ‘bitches lie about rape’ camp (the effect is exacerbated as the production goes on). Is this the staging choice you want to make right now, when rape culture is such a public discussion? Clearly this is what they’ve pinned their characterisation of all Donna Anna’s relationships in this production on, but I’d argue that doesn’t do enough for the staging to justify the choice. Besides, those relationships are kind of incoherent and unsatisfying in this rendering, so, what was the point?

Also it’s just practically awkward, because this sex game is taking place in something like a dingy hotel, but her dad is Also There with a prostitute in another room, and like… he doesn’t say ‘hey, why are you here with my daughter?’ or anything like you just… would? In such a circumstance? I begin to resent ham-fisted attempts to insert utterly silent big side plot arcs that work against the text in ways the text would comment on if this inserted development were the case. I’ve seen it a lot now with opera and Shakespeare. I am all in favour of interpretive stagings, but when your desire to mark the text or ‘add spice’ over-rides your desire to create a cogent production, ya done the badfic. The clever subversion that actually isn’t, what we’re left with is an OR DID I JUST BLOW YOUR MIND?? sophomoric, self-important mess of commentary.

As a result of this production’s initial choice to render Donna Anna complicit, we also get her lying about her father’s murder and obfuscating her knowledge of it, not wanting her fiancé at all for reasons we know nooooothing about, and, worst of all, after all her hatevows, apparently fucking Don Giovanni again in Act II during her song to her lover about how she’d never be cruel. That’s just fucking odd in the action of the story.

At the end Don Giovanni plays the gothic ghost scene like he’s not at allllll afraid, and the gothic just doesn’t work like that. There’s no trace of religious awe, for sure. The ghost scene is not operatic here, it’s not scary or grand or particularly funny. It’s just a dude in a suit and a trap door. Nothing. You’ve removed all my ability to cathect one of the big endings in opera, you stupid bastards.

Don Giovanni also switches places with Leporello, his aforementioned servant, when the devil tries to drag him down to hell. He abandons his servant to his own rightful fate and then goes back to his old tricks at the end. Essentially: Don Giovanni experiences no terror, the ghost grabs him, Don Giovanni’s a bit put out, Leporello tries to save him, Don Giovanni switches places with Leporello. Down his sole homie, Don Giovanni gets another servant to wear the Leporello wig and fucks another thousand Spaniards, raping here and there, I guess. He’s not really an amusing merry rogue, he’s a garden creep: all too mundane. How many of his seductions are just pressured servant girls? It’s sort of implied, and that’s also just dull, predictable rape. Even his lack of punishment’s mundane—he’s probably a promising athlete or something.

My girlfriend likes the idea of this non-traditional, very much not in the script ending because it makes sense for Don Giovanni’s character and picks up on an earlier farsical identity-swap. And it’s not a bad idea, but again, it’s a big SILENT CHANGE in the plot, working against the voiced text. I mentioned the shake-up to a friend who likes the opera a lot. She was kind of horrified by the loss of the story as she conceives of it, and wondered how the emotional arc could work with this particular altered ending. I could go with the swap more than I could go with the Donna Anna fucking Don Giovanni in Act II weirdness, but I see her point. I have only ever seen one good thing at the ENO (Sweeney Todd with Emma Thompson), and honestly I need to remember never to try again. I’ve been more than twice burned, and the ENO does not help me decide whether opera could be my thing, like, at all.

Links, August 12

GENERAL MUSIC









Meh?

OTHER MUSIC ADJACENT
21 of the best insults in classical music
Kate Bush’s Home to Be Reclaimed by the Sea
How to advise a student that music is not the right career
How Well Do You Know The Lyrics To Billy Joel’s ‘Piano Man’?
Robin Thicke’s #AskThicke Hashtag Goes Hilariously, Gloriously Wrong
Nigel Farage blasts Eurovision ‘prejudice’ against UK
David Bowie – replaceface best pillow ever
This Woman Can Sing Multiple Notes At Once
Label to allow retroactive product placement in music videos
Pop Sonnet
All the Crazy Stuff You Can’t Bring to Coachella
Taylor Swift Made Ed Sheeran a Drake-Themed Needlepoint
Songs From A Decemberists Album Where Nobody Gets Murdered

Links, August 11

GENERAL MUSIC







Sergei Polunin, “Take Me to Church” by Hozier, Directed by David LaChapelle
Kelis – Food: Album stream
Listen to Niia’s Body-and-Self-Loving Sex Jam ‘Body’
Young Ruffian Remixes Lana Del Rey’s Trippy ‘Once Upon a Dream’
Tori Amos: “Trouble’s Lament”
ROUND 1: Vote for Your Favorite Cover of Miley Cyrus’ ‘Wrecking Ball’
Stronger than you vs Harder Better Faster Stronger (Mashup)
The New Kylie Minogue B-Side Is Here And It’s Awesome meh
FKA Twigs’ Cover of “Stay With Me” Is Perfection
This Mashup of Taylor Swift and Nine Inch Nails Is Way Better Than It Should Be
Watch: Tori Amos Performs ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’ By Conchita Wurst In Austria
BANKS – Are You That Somebody (Acoustic Aaliyah Cover)