Friday, 2 June 2017

Uchida and Haitink prove a massive hit

Mitsuko Uchida – musical genius
There are too few days and too few hours and two few minutes, of course, but having said all that, I don’t go to enough concerts.

It was 2008 when we managed to catch one of Daniel Barenboim’s cycle of Beethoven sonata concerts at the Royal Festival Hall.

As the music began, everything else simply disappeared: imagine being at the centre of a leap to warp speed in an episode of Star Trek. There was just Barenboim, his piano and me.

It was the most personal experience that I have ever had – and light years away from listening to any recording, no matter how good. It took Beethoven away from the polite academics and restored to him the passion and the fire that saw him build the bridge that led from the Classical period to the Romantic one.

Last night, at London’s Barbican, the experience was not much different, as the London Symphony Orchestra, with Bernard Haitink in charge and Mitsuko Uchida at the keyboard, gave us old Ludwig’s piano concerto 3 in C minor.

Penned in 1800, it was first performed in 1803 with the composer as soloist. In three movements – conventional at the time – but when it was premiered, the composer had barely sketched in the final stages of the final movement and played them from memory.

Thus it was an ‘unfinished’ work.

Here, Uchida gave us a performance of exquisite playing: firm and yet light of touch; music to set the nerves tingling; perfect phrasing and a glorious sense of the ebb and flow of the piece. And alike absolutely heaving with emotion.

The second movement in particular was simply sublime.

And the orchestra, with which I have been less than enthralled on previous occasions – not least during during Valery Gergiev’s time, as he actively wrecked his own reputation as some sort of conducting ‘great’ – was on very fine form under the vastly more restrained but powerful baton of Haitink.

At 88, there are no wasted gestures from the maestro. If he has to take it slow moving between podium and back stage, it is without doubt clear that he retains the knowledge and musical understanding of decades.

That really is the best that I have heard from the LSO – and that was a band that, during the second half, need a bunch of its horn players top switch to Wager tubas.

Bernard Haitink – musical genius
Note: they’re not really part of the tuba family but they are fabulous in tone.

Acoustically, incoming director Simon Rattle has supported a new concert venue for the capital and the LSO, on the grounds of the acoustics, being not great.

For the Beethoven, in my opinion, they were superb. For the Bruckner – one could tell he has a point ; certainly when a full-blown Romantic sound is required.

It was a really fine performance. This is big music. We have eight French horns that become four – and then four Wagner tubas (which are mis-named), but which, irrespective of name, have a fabulous richness of tone.

Bruckner, dying as he was, dedicated this work to God. Yet it has a sense of raging against the fading light, before the sweet and calm resolution with which we are left (this too was unfinished).

Fabulous stuff, certainly, though one could be forgiven for having a sense that the composer enjoyed a certain post-Wagner sense of creating ‘noise’ rather than ‘music’.

Not that that is bad under the circumstances, but it does suggest a dying of the romantic light.

Still, we are left with only one conclusion – that in such a venue, Beethoven, played by one of the world’s greats, sounds better than a lesser work.

And if you ever needed an incentive to get to a concert – take it from this. Because the experience is beyond what most get to know.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Yende and Avetisyan shine in ROH's L’elisir d’amore

Pretty Yende and Liparit Avetisyan
It would not be difficult to imagine that The Other Half and I were jinxed in our relationship with the Royal Opera House. On our first visit in early 2015 was to see Der fliegende Holländer, but Bryn Terfl was ill. In which case, we had the chance to be introduced to Latvian bass-baritone Egils Silins, who had flown in from Hamburg to take the lead.

Just over a year later, it was Tannhäuser and Peter Seiffert unable to continue for the final act, giving heldentenor Neal Cooper the chance to step in with minutes to go and do an amazing job.

Yesterday’s first performance of a revival of Laurent Pelly’s production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore gave us the much-anticipated opportunity to see South African soprano Pretty Yende’s house debut, but it also brought the chance to see Liparit Avetisyan instead of Rolando Villazón, who had had to withdraw for medical reasons.

But this proved to be a massive bonus. The Armenian has mostly been seen in serious roles, but he took the chance in London to turn in a wonderfully funny performance as the naive Nemorino, who is besotted with beautiful landowner, Adina.

Written in 1832 – in 14 days, according to myth, but probably in more like six weeks – it’s a light piece with a surprisingly satisfying underlying discourse about what love really means.

Nemorino adores Adina. She has no time for him and appears more interested in the swaggering Sergeant Belcore.

When visiting quack Dulcamara brings his wares to the small, rural village, Nemorino leaps at the hope that the same magic elixir that made Isolde love Tristan will resolve his little matter of the heart.

Set in a rural Italy of the 1950s, with tractors, a scurrying dog, cycles and plenty of physical humour, it works well, sending up the crassness of advertising and the gullibility of those who buy the spurious claims of adverts.

The music is charming throughout – and in Nemorino’s late Una furtive lagrima, gives us one of Donizetti’s finest moments, delivered here quite superbly by Avetisyan in only his second appearance at the Royal Opera House.

Yende is a delight as Adina, the character's casual capriciousness halted in its tracks when things stop going the way she expects. She has a soprano that soars with ease to hit some beautiful high notes, and great charm and warmth on stage.

The leads made a wonderful pair and were leant strong support all round – particularly from Paolo Bordogna and Alex Esposito as Belcore and Dulcamara respectively.

The chorus – such an important part of this piece – is wonderful, although the appearance of chorus master William Spaulding for the curtains is odd, especially as he seems to be directing them to turn into stiff mannequins.

Fortunately, in the pit, Bertrand de Billy directs the orchestra with a light touch that perfectly suits such a delightful score.

As the applause suggested at the end, this was no missing-performers jinx: this was a night when the audience could say that it had seen not one, but two new stars shine brightly on the stage at Covent Garden.

L’elisir d’amore is in rep at the Royal Opera House until 22 June.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Alien: Covenant – frustrating and fascinating

If ever a film was deserving of the description ‘mixed beast’ then Alien: Covenant is it.

Dissatisfying and satisfying in approximately similar amounts, it prompted me to consider ratings and what I’d give it, and I’d probably do three stars out of five.

On the cons side, it suffers from a number of things –- not least being the latest instalment in the Aliens franchise. Part one is an icon of the horror genre, with part two not far behind. Part three was dire, while the fourth instalment is as divisive as Marmite (I like it).

Then there was a long gap before Prometheus. Which was awful – a point not helped because it didn’t ‘feel’ as though it belonged to the same family as any of the films that had gone before.

In many ways, neither does this. It feels as though it belongs somewhere else – and that's not a bad thing.

It begins before Prometheus, with the perfect synthetic David being ‘awoken’ by his father/creator Peter Weyland, and then moves us fast forward a decade to the ship Covenant, which is on a long trip to set up a new colony, with 2,000-odd humans and a thousand embryos sleeping/stored until they arrive.

The crew too is asleep with only a synthetic, Walter, around to run routine operations with Mother, the ship’s computer, when a fluke of an accident sees the crew woken and the captain dead.

As they repair the ship, the crew comes across a human transmission – someone singing a John Denver song. When they discover that the signal is from a nearby planet that seems perfectly suited for human habitation, reluctant acting captain Oram overrides arguments that it’s all too good to be true, and sets them on course to investigate.

Down on the planet, Oram and a team find more than they bargained for  not least, David – ‘brother’ to Walter and last survivor of the Prometheus.

Frankly, the first chunk feels slow and is far from great – not helped by having a generally unmemorable crew. Compare that to the first film with it’s outstanding ensemble.

Katherine Waterson as Dany and Danny McBride as Tennessee are really the only two who make – are allowed to make – any impact.

Where the film starts coming into its own is when David and Walter meet – and it benefits hugely from two superb, intertwined performances by Michael Fassbender as both synthetics.

There are gory deaths aplenty as we are introduced to whole new flavours of aliens – someone has been playing god with genetics. And there are some very clever twists amid the horror – slipping on blood in an attempted escape is just one.

Some of the visuals are superb, but the script by John Logan and Dante Harper is flawed.

While there are enjoyable elements of philosophical questioning – the nature of gods/creators and the act of being creative; the question of artificial intelligence overtaking the human intelligence that creates it and more – having made a point of Oram having a religious faith, it then fails to explore this.

One is left only with the vague notion that perhaps Oram’s ignoring of reasoning in his desire to quickly find a paradise, is indicative of religious faith.

Perhaps much of this is director and producer Ridley Scott continuing to work through some of the same subjects that he has for years – see Blade Runner, for instance – with the added intensity of age.

The ending is genuinely creepy and the use of Entry of the Gods into Valhalla from Wagner’s Das Rheingold to bookend the film is actually very effective, not least because of the different ways it’s played: by solo piano initially and then in the full orchestral version – indicating a theme developed.

Flawed without doubt, it is a movie that nonetheless gets under the skin. But while the themes can be explored in other settings and contexts, please let’s make this a day for the Alien franchise.

Friday, 19 May 2017

A galaxy of fun with Groot and the gang

With Marvel now apparently able to pump out successful films at will, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 landed this spring to an expectant global audience that had made the first film such a massive – and unexpected – hit.
Set just a few months after the first instalment, this one sees our disparate bunch of heroes fighting off attacks by the genetically engineered Sovereign people, after Rocket steals from them for the sheer hell of it.
Hopelessly outnumbered, they bump into a godlike being who helps them escape – but what does he want in return?
In the meantime, the leader of the Sovereigns has hired Yondu to hunt them down, Gamora and Nebula are continuing their sibling rivalry and Baby Groot is slowly growing, but is confused about buttons on nuclear bombs.
It’s been suggested that this new film doesn’t feel as fresh as the first – well, there was never going to be quite the surprise factor – but it’s a rollicking good romp, with banter, action and laughs by the bucketload.
Chris Pratt as Star Lord, Zoe Saldana as Gamora, Dave Bautista as Drax, Bradley Cooper as Rocket, Vin Diesel as Groot, Michael Rooker as Yondu and Karen Gillan as Nebula all reprise their 2014 roles, while they’re joined here most noticeably by Kurt Russell as the celestial Ego and Sly Stallone as a Ravager leader.
And of course, Stan Lee gets to have his now expected cameo (except here, it serves to ensure that Stallone is not the poorest actor in the whole shebang).
It would be easy to assume that a film like this is easy money for Diesel, who only has one line to say as Groot – I am Groot” – but he has to say it so many different ways and say it so slowly that it wont be lost when its processed that he more than earns his corn.
The underlying theme of family works well and benefits from being handled lightly and never allowed to water down the rebellious nature of a bunch of characters who are accidental heroes with attitude rather than boring, sanctimonious super saints.
The whole looks great and the latest Awesome Mix Tape helps keep things going nicely.

So, it’s huge fun – do wait until the very, very end of the titles before leaving – and more than enough to make you glad that writer and director James Gunn has made it clear that there will be a third film.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Comics: making and maintaining mythologies

Cometh the hour, cometh the latest comics review, with examples of graphic pleasure that illustrate – since this is sometimes still needed – just how versatile the medium is.

First up, a two-part retelling of the iconic German Expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. with script and art from Diego Olmos, published by Amigo Comics.

Robert Wiene’s original film was intended as a devastating damnation of the imperial German establishment that had led the country into the catastrophe of war in 1914, but against a context of new global sabre rattling and populist nationalism, it has an uncomfortable prescience.

A faithful adaptation of the film, it’s told in black and white throughout, presumably with the aim of capturing the disorienting and highly experimental nature of the film.

Hopefully, it will introduce more viewers to the cinematic masterpiece that gave rise to it, but otherwise one wonders if rethinking the visual look might not have allowed it to have a greater impact.

Also with a sense of echoing our troubled times is Royal City from Jeff Lemire, who is both penning and drawing this new story about a dysfunctional family in a dysfunctional North America.

A panel from Royal City
Against a background of changing industrial times, one family finds itself forced to look at an uncomfortable past full of ghosts. 

An excellent double-sized issue launched the work, giving time to establish the central background and then leave the reader with plenty of questions. and a sense of unease.

Depending on where Lemire takes everything, this new series from Image has the potential to be very big indeed.

From the pen of Kim Newman comes Anno Dracula – 1895: Seven Days in Mayhem, an original Titan comic instalment in his ongoing series of novels.

At the back of the first issue of this steampunk vampiric romp, there’s a handy timeline of titles so that we can see this comes after the first Anno Dracula novel and before Anno Dracula 1899 and Other Stories, which was published three months ago, which itself comes before Anno Dracula: the Bloody Red Baron.

As an aside, this also shows that a new novel, Anno Dracula 1999: Daikaiju is slated for later this year.

Anyway, this is the expected fun, with words from Newman himself and artwork by Paul McCaffrey.

It’s easy on the eye and has all the fun – including the alternate history references that help to make the novels such a thoroughly entertaining and satisfying read.

The second issue arrived at the same time as the first and ensured that the start was no fluke.

American Gods is Neil Gaiman’s award-winning novel from 2001, which takes as its central idea a battle for supremacy between the old American gods and those brought to the United States by immigrants to those shores from their original homes, and the ‘new gods’ of technology and consumerism.

A fabulous read, it now has a new life as a comic from Dark Horse, with art by Scott Hampton accompanying Gaiman’s own text. Unlike Anno Dracula, this doesn’t constitute a new entry in a particular universe – although it does diverge from the novel in some ways – but it’s good and welcome anyway.

And of course, this is at the same time as a new TV version of the same novel has debuted on Amazon Prime in the UK.

Ricky Whittle makes an impressive start as the strong, silent Shadow Moon, with Ian McShane as Mr Wednesday – otherwise known as Odin – doing a spot of inevitable scene stealing as we got under way.

But such contrasts are part of why the pair spark so well from their first scene together. 

As has become the norm for the box set generation, it takes time to establish mood and context – and thank goodness for that. Broodingly atmospheric with some stunning visuals, this promises to be a stunningly good watch.

But back to paper.

Bill Willingham’s The Greatest Adventure sees the creator and writer of Fables bring together a group of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s heroes in a brand new adventure that involves saving the Earth.

With artwork by Cezar Razek, the first issue gave us a pacy and entertaining introduction to the premise.

Published by Dynamite comics, it’s going to be interesting to see how Willingham develops this and whether it will be a straightforward romp or have some of the heft of Fables.

Given the success of that previous work, will simply entertaining be enough for an entry on the Willingham CV?

We can but wait and see.

So, an entertaining selection. With the exception of Royal City, all take their inspiration from elsewhere – either from earlier works by the same writers or from even earlier works by other creatives.

What that means in terms of these projects ultimately remains to be seen, but while there might always be a fear that some of this is simply reinventing the wheel, they also give us an insight into how mythology works and grows in our modern, digital era.

Friday, 14 April 2017

A Butterfly that takes flight for the heights

Over the years, Puccini might have been scorned by some as penning scandalous operas, but his works hold four spots in the top 25 operas performed globally. Only Verdi has more entries.

Scoff at the plots if you want, but these works are much loved.

At number six is Madama Butterfly, currently enjoying a run at the Royal Opera House and the latest stop on my own operatic journey.

The plot is wafer thin: US naval officer marries teenage Japanese woman, gets her pregnant, leaves, returns three years later with American wife and demands they take the child, leaving her to kill herself.

Based on real events, part of its power is that however easily and quickly you can outline that story, there is far more to it than simple melodrama.

At the core of events is the callous nature of US imperialism (and imperialism and colonialism in general) and its inherent racism.

Even before we see Butterfly herself, Pinkerton has made it clear that theirs will be a marriage of convenience until he finds a ‘proper’ American wife, and that he regards Japanese customs around contracts and divorce as being amusingly easy to subvert to his whims.

Butterfly has converted to Christianity secretly before the wedding, taking her impending marriage incredibly seriously and determined to fully become American. Yet not only has Pinkerton no intention of taking her to the US, her own family, on discovering her conversion, disown her.

Here then are ideas to contemplate about the interaction of cultures.

Ermonela Jaho – described by The Economist as one of the world’s most acclaimed soporanos – is simply wonderful as the eponymous Butterfly, conveying the necessary vulnerability of the character, but without overdoing the sense of victimhood or making her naïve faith in Pinkerton seem unbelievable.

Her singing is simply gorgeous – and Un be di vedremo, when she explains how she believes that, one fine day, Pinkerton will return to her, is one of those moments when the goosebumps rush across the skin and the eyes prick.

Marcelo Puente as Pinkerton is a fine tenor and does well to bring some multi-dimensionality to this deeply unsympathetic character (there were one or two boos when he took his bow at the end).

And Elizabeth DeShong is also excellent as Butterfly’s loyal servant Suzuki.

Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production is excellent, as is Christian Fenouillat’s deceptively simple and beautiful set.

Antonio Papano and the house orchestra are bang on form in a production that is simply a joy.

You have a few chances left to see this revival (albeit without Jaho). My goodness – it’s a powerful experience that promises to stay with one for some time.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Courage and love amid the brutality of apartheid

In 1976 in South Africa, riot police shot and killed black children and young people who were protesting against being taught many of their lessons in Afrikaans, viewed as the language of apartheid.

The government tried to claim the death toll was 23 students. It is usually now given as 176, but some estimates put it at up to 700.

One of those influenced by the massacre was Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu, who joined the ANC’s militant wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) shortly after.

After training, he and two comrades were sent back to South Africa with pamphlets and arms. But when the mission went wrong, all three tried to flee police.

Mondy Motloung shot two innocent civilians before he and Solomon were caught.

After it dawned on the authorities that torturing Mondy to the point of severe brain damage meant it couldn’t make him stand trial, they decided that Solomon would be the one to pay, under a doctrine of common purpose, though he had not shot anyone.

Mandla Dube, a US-trained cinematographer who has lectured at Wits University, has spent nine years bringing Kalushi to the big screen.

At a QnA after a BFI screening on 6 April – the date of the arrival of Jan Van Riebeeck in the Cape in 1652 and thus the date symbolically chosen for Solomon’s execution in 1979 the director made it clear that they had not set out to make a film about apartheid: it is, instead, the story of one young man’s rite of passage; of what he does when he’s been backed into a corner.

But while one of those present whined that there was no politics in the film, this is utterly ridiculous: if apartheid (and politics) is not the theme of the film, then it is the context, and in that respect, the film is most certainly a political film.

How else could it be?

It depicts the state-sanctioned murder of children; brutality, torture and humiliation meted out by police; a corrupt judiciary and political regime that deliberately sets up to use the system to take symbolic revenge, irrespective of the facts of a case.

The same whinger also tried to complain that the film had not mentioned Angolan training camps where Cubans helped to train the volunteers. At this point, he was getting really funny looks, because, y’know, that white geezer in military uniform, with the beret, the Spanish accent and the great big cigar …

One can only assume that it was all too subtle for someone who was desperate that the protests outside the South African embassy in Trafalgar Square should somehow have been shoehorned into the story – presumably so that he himself could claim some of the glory for the defeat of apartheid.

Six hours of agitprop might have made him happier – but this will be seen by and will move and make think far more people.

If it does not directly ask questions of the viewer, it is good enough to leave you with questions. The most obvious here, is if you were in Solomon’s shoes, what would you do?

And with a regime that was quite happy to shoot children, how can one condemn an armed response – though the film is careful to stress that MK’s manifesto was absolutely clear about not targeting civilians and avoiding casualties. 

This is a very good film. It doesn’t gloss over problems, but its core is Kalushi’s personal journey to becoming a hero of the struggle against apartheid. And the character’s evolution is delicately drawn and beautifully acted by Thabo Ramesti – the first South African actor to actually play an icon of that struggle on screen.

He’s given excellent support from the rest of the cast, including Thabo Malema as the unstable Mondy, Welile Nzuza as Tommy London and Pearl Thusi as Solomon’s girlfriend, Brenda Riviera.

No matter the darkness of the subject matter – this is a powerful reminder of the nature of apartheid – ultimately, it is also an uplifting piece of cinema.

If you get the chance to see it on the big screen, then do. But it should be available on disc in the future, together with a documentary that Dube is working on.

@KalushiMovie – #GoSeeKalushi