New Year’s things

Here’s a quick round-up of some things that have been happening this month. Culture-wise this is promising to be a good year – I have tickets booked to hear the OAE play some Beethoven with Marin Alsop, Stephen Beresford’s adaptation of Fanny and Alexander starring Penelope Wilton opens for previews in February, later in the spring there will be more opera, in May I’m seeing Joan Baez on her farewell tour (not sure I’m ready), and in July I have a trip to Glyndebourne to see Sarah Connolly once again sing Giulio Cesare planned. I’m also promising to see more things locally – in the spring and summer there’s usually a flurry of Shakespeare plays in Oxford, and there’s always music in the weekends.

  • this year’s first opera was Mozart’s Magic Flute by OperaUpClose in Oxford. The OperaUpClose is a small, touring indie company that brings opera to new, unusual venues and updates classics by using new translations; their first production, a modern retelling of La Boheme, won the Olivier Award in 2011, two years after its initial premiere. The company has done since around 25 productions, but hasn’t quite managed to recreate the success of that Boheme. The Magic Flute is set to a back alley outside a nightclub called “Queen of Night” and has a libretto full of colloquialisms; the orchestration is for a four-piece band consisting of piano, double bass/bass guitar, electric guitar and woodwind. Two casts of young singers alternate; in Oxford baritone Peter Brathwaite absolutely dominated the stage as Papageno, while the Queen had the notes if not quite the voice for the role. It’s fun and funny even if the story makes even less sense than normally, and as entertaining as it is ultimately unremarkable.
  • the second opera outing was non-standard too – Monteverdi’s Il ritorno di Ulisse, producted by the Royal Opera for the Roundhouse, and starring Roderick Williams as Ulysses. On Saturday night, the part of Penelope was sung from the by pit by Caitlin Hulcup and acted on the stage by the mezzo Christine Rice, suffering from throat infection. The Roundhouse as a venue is not without its problems – although it’s visually stunning, the acoustics are poor enough to force the singers to use body mikes (the sound disappears as soon as they turn towards the centre of the circular stage), and the auditorium seating (which I believe is not permanent) is noisy, making it at time hard to focus. You can also hear the Northern Line train rumble past every ten minutes or so. The director John Fulljames has taken full advantage of the circular space though – the stage is a rotating circle around an orchestra pit also slowly revolving to the opposite direction. The costumes are 1990s minimalism, the accents gold, Eumaeus’ sheep white balloons. It is mostly visually interesting, and it mostly works even if it isn’t inventing anything new. Williams’ Ulysses is great, beautifully sung and dramatically convincing. Of the other singers, the invisible Hulcup’s singing was fine tho she had a timbre I didn’t particularly enjoy, while Stuart Jackson as the glutton Irus was surprisingly moving. Fulljames finishes on an interesting note – after the husband and wife have been reunited after 20 years, Telemachus turns his back to his father and the rotating stage pulls Ulysses away from Penelope’s embrace, suggesting that the conflict between these characters has not been resolved by Ulysses’ return.

  • I am yet to go to a West End musical, and I’m not sure that Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan, qualifies as one. The overseas ballot for the Finnish election took me back to London after just four days on Wednesday, and having gained a free afternoon I decided to celebrate that freedom with a show. I picked this for its cast of Ciaran Hinds and Shirley Henderson, but also out of curiosity – I love Bob Dylan, but how do his idiosyncratic songs lend themselves to a musical? Really well, actually, although this is a play that appears to divide the audience sharply to those who love it and to those who hate it. McPherson had been given permission by Dylan to pick and choose anything, and despite setting the play in depression-ear Duluth, Minnesota in 1934, he has bypassed all the obvious choices. There are no out-and-out political songs here, McPherson’s picks instead carefully reflecting the inner life of characters. Girl from the North Country tells about the Laine family – Nick and Elizabeth, their biological son Gene, and their adopted daughter Marianna, a black child abandoned to their care as a baby. Gene is failing as an author, unable to find work; Marianne is pregnant but refusing to tell who the father is, Elizabeth suffers from dementia. Nick is running a failing boarding house, and the story is about how the guests impact the lives of the Laine family. There are the Burkes with their severely learning disabled adult son, Mrs Neilsen the youngish widow whiling her time away with Nick, waiting for her inheritance, and Joe Scott, a black former boxer on his way to Chicago, as well as Reverend Marlowe, a small-time conman with blackmailing tendencies. Before the play is over, someone has died, a surprisingly convincing marriage proposal has been made and rejected, and some – but not all secrets – have been revealed. If this play has one problem, it is the lack of coherent plot; we never learn the true circumstances of Marianne’s pregnancy for example, and Nick and Elizabeth’s story doesn’t reach any dramatic conclusion. The closing narrative shows the family in happier times, before Elizabeth’s illness, ending the play on a bittersweet note appropriate to the 1930s Great Depression. The singing is great all around, but the stand-out is Sheila Atim, whose Tight connection to my heart had me in tears.

The Return of Ulysses has three performances left, all this week, none of them sold out. The OperaUpClose continues to tour with The Magic Flute till May, the venues will include the Cutty Sark. Girl from the North Country plays in Noel Coward Theatre to the end of March.

The Victoria & Albert Museum’s opera exhibition closes on February 25th.

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