30 December 2007

La Cage aux Folles - Menier Choclate Factory - Friday 26th December 2007


Georges and his lover Albin, who stars as Zaza at their St. Tropez drag nightclub, "La Cage aux Folles," have lived happily together for many years. Their apartment is also home to their black "maid" Jacob. Georges' son Jean-Michel (the offspring of a confused, youthful liaison with a woman named Sybil) arrives with the news that he is engaged to Anne Dindon. Unfortunately, her father is head of the "Tradition, Family and Morality Party," whose stated goal is to close the local drag clubs. Anne's parents want to meet their daughter's future in-laws. Jean-Michel has lied to his fiancée, describing Georges as a retired diplomat. Jean-Michel pleads with Albin to absent himself (and his flamboyantly gay behaviors) for the visit - and for Georges to redecorate the apartment in a more subdued fashion. He will invite Sybil--who has barely been involved with him since his birth--to dinner in Albin's stead. Albin's feelings are hurt – he has been a good "mother". He departs in a huff.

The next morning, Georges suggests to Albin that he dress up as macho "Uncle Al". Back at the chastely redesigned apartment, Georges receives a telegram that Jean-Michel's mother Sybil is not coming, and Anne's parents arrive. Hoping to save the day, Albin appears as Jean-Michel's buxom, forty-year-old mother. The nervous Jacob burns the dinner, so a trip to a local restaurant, Chez Jacqueline, belonging to an old friend of Albin and Georges, is quickly arranged. No one has briefed Jacqueline on the situation, and she asks Albin for a song. As Zaza, Albin yields to the frenzy of performance tears off his wig at the song's climax, revealing his true identity.

Back at the apartment, the Dindons plead with their daughter to abandon her fiancé. But she is in love with Jean-Michel and refuses to leave him. Jean-Michel, deeply ashamed of the way he has treated Albin, asks his forgiveness (which is, of course, lovingly granted). The Dindons prepare to depart, but their way is blocked by Jacqueline, who has arrived with the press, ready to photograph these notorious anti-homosexual activists with Zaza. Georges and Albin have a proposal: If Anne and Jean-Michel may marry (and really, the Dindons have no choice in that matter), George will help the Dindons escape through La Cage aux Folles next door. The Dindons do so, dressed in drag as members of the nightclub's revue, and all ends well.

Seemingly inexhaustible trips to the theatre to round off 2007! Our Boxing Day jaunt was back to the Menier Chocolate Theatre (fast becoming a favourite haunt of ours, it seems!).

One of the things I love about this place is how they are endlessly inventive with such a small space – never the same thing twice. This time we had a classic proscenium arch draped and swagged with pink curtains, with two rows of café tables in front of the usual block seating. We arrived rather late so had to take one of these tables – but this turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I gather that the seating behind was more than usually cramped and uncomfortable. It also meant that a certain Bloody Old Ham by the name of CBB managed to worm his way into the limelight, dammit, being flirted with, fed olives by and generally tarted around with by Philip Quast. Doors had to be widened to accommodate heads on the journey home, believe me.
What I don’t like about this place is its “unreserved seats” policy – this means that you’re all held together in the bar outside a pair of folding metal screen doors until they open, at which point there is a general rugby scrum with arms and legs flailing all over the place and lots of pushing and shoving and losing of scarves. If anyone fell, I think the poor bugger would end up as a small mushy heap on the floor. It created a lot of unpleasantness when it was appeared that they had sold slightly more tickets than there were seats and several muttered conversations with front-of-house staff seemed to be taking place. Not a good start. Neither do I like the fact that I got charged a tenner for two warm gin and tonics in the interval.

This was a generally smaller scale production of this show than is usually seen, which didn’t hurt it a bit – it gave it a sense of reality and rather homely warmth. The downside is that it therefore had a very small chorus of “Cagelles” – 8 guys in total – which meant that their numbers were a bit underpowered vocally. You had to listen really carefully to catch the words of the first number. Mind you, they looked great, in that slightly frightening way that young drag queens do –rather scarily smooth and plucked, a bit like clingfilmed chicken wings. I bet most of them are right bitches off stage. Still, I expect that young, slim, orally talented dancers are not that thick on the ground in the vicinity of XXL (in-joke there for us boys in the know).

Also somewhat offputting was the presence in the cast of one Una Stubbs (what do you mean, Who? She was in Summer Holiday with Cliff Richard, for godsake!) in a couple of tiny roles in Act I, each entry and exit accompanied by whispers of “ThatsUnaStubssThatsUnaStubbsThatsUnaStubbs” from older members of the audience to their bewildered offspring. As such, she did tend to stick out rather like a sore thumb on stage – shame.

It was obvious that Douglas Hodge was a little under-rehearsed. I did hear that he had been taken ill during early rehearsals, so perhaps this was the reason. A couple of times he looked distinctly at sea during dance numbers but this was really only apparent if you were looking closely. He gave a very cuddly, affectionate portrayal of Albin – looking a bit like your favourite auntie when she’s all dolled up for a night out; all Ell-nette and pearls. He was bested however by Philip Quast as Georges – urbane, witty, charming and all over CBB like a feckin’ rash. The only problem was (call me old fashioned) but his costume did look slightly grubby in the trouser department – Wardrobe please note that a damp sponge and a hot iron can do wonders. Neil McDermott was nicely clean cut as Jean-Michel and his costume was spot on for a 20 year old in 1970s Paris – all checked flares and sprigged cotton shirts with big collars. I thought Jason Pennycook as the “maid” Jacob was actually rather good but CBB didn’t think that he did all that was possible with the part, only all that was necessary. I can’t recall the name of the guy playing the Stage Manager but he was strangely sexy and he had a very nice butt!

All in all, a lovely warm cuddle of a show, one that sent us singing out into the night to brave the transport difficulties home. Remark heard on the way out – “Well, I think Emily understood most of it – but then she is nearly twelve……” Priceless.

27 December 2007

Les Patineurs/Tales of Beatrix Potter - Royal Opera House - 23rd December 2007

Two essentially plotless ballets for our Christmas visit to the Opera House, which was packed out with posh anklebiters called Jocasta and Jamie with their suited Daddies (still slightly hung over from the office Christmas bash) and their dressed-up-to-the-back-teeth mummies. How I do loathe the over-privileged little bleeders!

Les Patineurs (The IceSkaters) is a lovely little ballet about several groups of people iceskating. Nothing else - no plotline, no real story, just nice music and pretty dancing. And very charming I found it too - the set was lovely, with arched trellises hung with Chinese lanterns against a darkening and starry sky. All the various couples danced wonderfully and with a sense of humour appropriate to the lighthearted choreography. The one soloist - The Blue Skater - was fantastic and his final set of pirouettes (maintained as the curtain came down, went up again and came down for the final time) deservedly got a huge round of applause.

I had a bit of a problem with Tales of Beatrix Potter - and I think backstage had trouble with it too. The format is difficult - some of the stories are portrayed with considerable detail, others are reduced to mere vignettes. Peter Rabbit, for example, is reduced to doing a bit of a jig about in front of some cabbages, and thats it, Jeremy Fisher hops about, goes fishing and has a spot of bother and thats it - and then we get Pigling Bland trotting about the countryside for nearly 15 minutes, while Johnny TownMouse is reduced to a bit part in one dance. Bizarre. I concluded that you had to be far more familiar with some of Potter's more obscure characters to really know what the narrative thread was. There were several very dodgy lighting cues and Jeremy Fisher was desperately underlit throughout.

My favorite section "Two Bad Mice" was probably the best of the lot, but even this wasnt without its technical problems - the front of the dolls house rose, got stuck, stayed there for at least three minutes and then continued going up - only just in time. CBB thought afterwards that it might have been that the backstage can't really cope with a huge number of quick scene changes - if this is so, then they're all bloody well overpaid!

24 December 2007

Much Ado About Nothing – National Theatre - Saturday 15th December 2007


The war is over. Pedro Prince of Aragon, with his followers Benedick and Claudio, visits Leonato, Duke of Messina, father of Hero and uncle of Beatrice. Claudio falls in love with Hero and their marriage is agreed upon. Beatrice and Benedick despise love and engage in comic banter. The others plot to make them fall in love with each other, by a trick in which Benedick will overhear his friends talking of Beatrice's supposed secret love for him, and vice versa. Meanwhile Don John, the prince's misanthropic illegitimate brother, contrives a more malicious plot with the assistance of his follower Borachio: Claudio is led to believe that he has witnessed Hero in a compromising situation on the night before her wedding day – in fact it is her maid Margaret with Borachio. Claudio denounces Hero during the marriage ceremony. She faints and on the advice of the Friar, who is convinced of her innocence, Leonato announces that she is dead. Beatrice demands that Benedick should kill Claudio. The foolish constable Dogberry and his watchmen overhear Borachio boasting of his exploit and the plot is exposed. Claudio promises to make amends to Leonato: he is required to marry a cousin of Hero's in her place. When unmasked, she is revealed as Hero. Beatrice agrees to marry Benedick.

I’ve seen a couple of bad productions of this – one so bad that I actually walked out during the interval, and a severely lacklustre production reviewed earlier on this blog. So it was nice to see this version in good hands – Zoe Wannamaker can do no wrong in my book and, although I’m not really that fussed about Simon Russell Beale (I find the way he constantly spits at people during his dialogue rather icky) I come down from my lofty ivory tower for a moment to admit that he’s half-decent if you catch him in the right thing. I did initially worry that both of them were... shall I say... rather too mature to be playing Beatrice and Benedick - but then, of course, if you actually listen to the words, the reasoning becomes obvious. These two have a Past - they've tangled in love with each other before, been hurt and retreated and are now taking refuge from the lists of love. In this production, Beatrice is seeking solace in the bottle, and Benedick in pretend bluster. But they both come to realise that they are staring into the abyss of lonely old age and that the person they have been waiting for to deliver a emotional rescue has been under their noses all along…..all credit to both of them for excellent performances throughout. I did think it rather pushing the envelope of credibility that Beatrice’s cold (caught after an unscheduled dip in the pond) and which was made rather a lot of, seemed to have completely disappeared by the wedding (in terms of the play, only a few hours later).

This is possibly Shakey’s sunniest play – it portrays a leisured, happy world where the next meal is only ever a couple of hours away, and until then there is time to sit in the shade with friends, drink wine and indulge in wordplay or just listen to the crickets sing. This was nicely portrayed by the set, which showed a back wall of slightly crumbly plaster, pierced by shuttered windows and iron balconies. Centre stage was a rather odd loggia on a broadly cruciform pattern, giving pathways and little nooks as well as larger, more public spaces, and this was nicely used for the most part, giving plenty of opportunity for all the overhearing (yet remaining visible to the audience) required by the plot. Leonarto’s garden is mentioned as a place “Where honeysuckles, ripened by the sun,/ Forbid the sun to enter, like favorites,/ Made proud by princes, that advance their pride” and it would have been nice to have had this hinted at by the set – but it was greenery-free. There could have been a stunning bouganvelia – or indeed honeysuckle - growing up the loggia but nary a one was there. In fact, the sense of smell was the only sense left unstimulated by this production – it needed the smell of plants like rosemary baking in the sun or the hot, scorched smell of late afternoon, or a waft of cooking from the kitchen. Maybe they could have put something in the airconditioning? Just a thought.

I did feel that the dark side of the play was subservient to the sunny side – there seemed to be far more emphasis on the latter. In fact, it felt like the director could have really cut all that silly business about Hero and Claudio and just gone straight for the comedy. At a remove of time (I’m a bit behind in my reviews!) I find that the happy side of the play is really all I can recall and that the darker side made very little impression. However, I do remember all that silly stuff with the Watch (Dogberry and Verges et al) which I rate as Shakespeare’s most unfunny comedy. He could never really write good comedy, I think, and this is some of his most laboured. It didn’t really help that Mark Addy (the fat guy from The Full Monty) didn’t really seem up to the role of Dogberry (I know its difficult being a Shakespeare “Clown” so you need a really good actor to pull it off) and Trevor Peacock was, frankly, naff as Verges. A couple of times he wandered from the text and I just got the impression that the whole audience was just waiting for his Vicar of Dibley “No, no, no, no, no….yes” routine. A missed opportunity for an (OK, admittedly cheap) laugh.

Costumes were nicely rustic yet non-period specific, again reinforcing the impression of a land where time stands still and each day is much like the last – long, faded skirts, straw hats, white shirts with dropped shoulders and floppy collars and so on. The music in the play was nicely thought out– the setting of “Sigh no more” was good and didn’t feel forced in unnaturally as it sometimes does. And it was really fab for the play to end with a rousing set of “play out” music from the onstage musicians – its rare that Shakespeare ends with the entire audience home clapping happily along in time with the band. I got the impression that everyone – cast and audience - had had a really good time. And how often do you get to say that about Shakespeare?
What the critics said:

19 December 2007

The Merry Widow – Budapest Operetta Theatre – 13th December 2007


Act I
In the Pontevedrian Embassy in Paris, a great ball is being held in honour of the Grand Duke's birthday. Valencienne, the beautiful wife of Baron Zeta, the elderly ambassador, is flirting with a young French officer, Camille de Rosillon but her husband at the moment has a more serious problem. How can he save his country from impending bankruptcy? Anna Glawari the widow of a Pontevedrian banker, who has left her 50 million (of whatever currency they use in Pontevedria), has just arrived in Paris. If she marries a Frenchman, her millions will be lost to the Fatherland. The ambassador is determined that Anna, the Merry Widow, shall marry a Pontevedrian husband, and has selected the first secretary of the embassy, Count Danilo Danilovitch as the ideal bridegroom. But the ambassador is worried. The handsome Danilo has not yet appeared at the party. Anna Glawari arrives, escorted by a galaxy of hopefuls. The Merry Widow sweeps into the ballroom and, in the waltz that follows, reflects that she might be loved for her millions rather than for herself. The ambassador escorts her to supper, when Danilo, who has been found at Maxim's,
arrives. He hasn't slept for several nights, so he decides to have a rest.Anna appears and wakes the sleeping Danilo. The two meet -- again. Years ago Danilo had wanted to marry Anna, but she was the daughter of a small farmer, and his aristocratic family would not consent; thus Anna married the rich banker, Glawari. She reminds him of their old affair, but Danilo tells her that for all her money he will never propose. When ladies' choice is announced, all the men hope to dance with the widow, but she chooses Danilo.

Act II
The following evening, Anna gives a real Pontevedrian garden party at her house. She sings the famous "Vilia," about an alluring forest sprite. After various complications, including the misappropriation of Valencienne's fan on which Camille has written "I love you," Anna announces her engagement to Camille. Danilo, unable to disguise his grief, storms off to Maxim's, and Anna realizes at last that he still loves her.

Everybody meets at Maxim's, where the grisettes perform their famous can-can. By now, the ambassador, convinced that his wife is having an affair with Camille, decides to divorce her, and in the name of the Fatherland ask for Anna's hand. She tells him that unfortunately, by the will of her late husband, she loses all her money if she remarries. Danilo interrupts her: if she loses everything, he can now propose. And she, triumphant, explains to him that when marries, her money and property becomes the sole property of her husband. The finances of the Fatherland are saved, and Anna and Danilo are finally happy.

Our final theatrical trip of the holiday – and something very informal and relaxed and completely different in tone to the rather starchy formality of the Opera House. Even though the Operetta Theatre is a beautiful and rather grand building inside, there was still an air of happy expectation in the audience for this, the opening night of a new production of The Merry Widow. And what an event it was! There were no pre-opening photographs of the production available, not even in the programme, apart from one rather small and dark picture of what looked rather like a bridge of a ship and which made me feel slightly concerned about what was to come. The Merry Widow is a classic, and a show in which both CBB and I have performed more than once (and in CBB’s case directed as well) so we both, I think, feel slightly proprietorial towards it. I think we were both dreading that it was going to be “messed about with”, having initially assumed it would be a strictly “trad” version. But we needn’t have worried – we were in safer hands than we knew.

Instead of being set firmly in period (roughly 1900), the action was updated slightly to the mid to late 1920s. The “Pontevedrian Embassy” was not, as usual, all pillars and marble, but slightly Art Deco in feel, boxy and mahoganied, with a candlestick telephone and a quite severe staircase leading down from a balcony ringed with high arched windows and potted palms. The kind of embassy Hercule Poirot might conceivably be called to. It was a lovely set, but I think both CBB and I felt a slight prickle of consternation when the curtain rose. But the ensuing performance swept our doubts away (even though it was in Hungarian with German subtitles – more than slightly surreal!). So we couldn’t actually follow the dialogue, which was a pity as this production was a brand new version and it would have been nice to understand what everyone else in the audience was laughing about. And laugh they did – discreetly at first in that kind of “we’re not quite sure whether it’s the done thing to be laughing at The Merry Widow” way, but then more and more openly. There was lots of quite physical clowning and the interpretation of character was excellent, particularly from Baron Zeta (I don’t have the programme to hand so unfortunately can’t refer to the actors by name) and Negus – usually a rather stuffy Embassy factotum but in this case a bowler-hatted, bow-tied, trousers-are-too-short and rather inky clerk. The great “set piece” of Act 1 – the Widow’s entrance – was handled magnificently with at least 20 men in the chorus if not more – a truly enormous amount compared to some productions we’ve been in or seen. The Widow herself was not dressed in her traditional black sparkly hoped ballgown, but in a magnificent black and gold 20’s sheath dress and beaded cap, topped by one of those wonderful opera cloaks with huge fur collars that one sees in the fashion plates by Erte and the like. A long cigarette holder and a Chauffeur holding a tiny pampered pooch completed the impression that this Widow had drawn up outside the Embassy in a loooooooong, elegant motor car glistening with chrome and a real silver hood ornament. When she raised her cigarette holder and every man on stage whipped out a lighter, the image was complete, and any doubts that this was going to be a Widow to treasure were stilled. It helped that the actress had complete self-possession (the kind that serious money brings) and a gorgeous, slightly fruity voice, as well as great comedy timing – unusual in this role.

Only one possible stumbling block remained, and that was the casting of Count Danilo. This is often a problem – he’s got to be suave, sophisticated and urbane, yet slightly shady and even a little rough round the edges – the kind of man that makes women go all gaga, heterosexual men go slightly defensive and gay guys start slobbering. And this is exactly what we got – a superb actor portraying Danilo as an unshaven, rumpled and slightly dangerous “man about town”, with shirt untucked and open to the navel under his smart jacket. He may not have had the greatest voice in the show, but he overcame this with sheer acting ability and style. There was more than a slight hint of the “gypsy boy made good” about him.

It was good to see the rather twee and annoying Camille/Valencienne subplot more sidelined than in the traditional version, with more emphasis paid to the minor characters of the ambassadors St. Brioche and Cascada and their love interests. Cascada in particular was excellent, played with great energy and sexual spirit as a randy Spaniard by a small, dark and extremely athletic actor. There is not an awful lot for the ladies chorus to do in Act 1, but they were beautifully dressed and contained several “proper” dancers among their ranks and who were given exciting and quite challenging choreography.

Act II is usually set at a garden party at the Widow’s mansion, but in this production, the party was taking place on board the Widow’s yacht; the “Hanna Glawari” – obviously a gift from her late husband! It gave a completely different feel to the proceedings – as did the fact that the yacht was crewed by some extremely humpy Matelots!

Any production of Widow stands or falls by the “Vilja” number – and on this occasion, it was a true showstopper. Not only because of the incredibly beautiful, sensitive, virtuoso singing of the Widow but with the vignette that accompanied it. “Vilja” is about a wood nymph of the same name, who seduces a huntsman and then vanishes – and in traditional productions, the number is either sung with no action taking place on stage or by a dancing couple taking the parts of the nymph and the hunter. Here, the Vilja was a trapeze artist and ballet dancer, and cleverly portrayed the girl who was later to become the Widow Glawari, falling in love with the young Danilo. Here the hunter became the hunted, and the depiction of their whirlwind romance followed by the heartbreak of their parting was movingly and hauntingly portrayed. The audience stamped and roared and applauded their approval, and quite rightly so.

The Camille and Valencienne partnership was showed off to good effect later in the act, with the Camille effortlessly reaching his top notes. His slightly pudgy frame, clothed in a tight and shiny suit, did rather make him look like a Vegas nightclub host though, and I thought that Valencienne was portrayed as rather more dippy than usual and therefore did the part no justice. There was, again, some incredibly energetic dancing in this act by all on the stage. All credit to the costume designer for the Widow’s stunning gowns.

Act III, usually set at Maxim’s, was set again on the “Hanna Glawari” – and here again there was a departure from the norm. A new character – not one that appears in the established version. I had been paying attention to the German surtitles and some of the dialogue, and I think that the new character was Hanna’s mother who, it also seemed, had had a romance with Baron Zeta at some time in the past. Could Hanna possibly be their child? We will never know – but it certainly adds a different dimension to the plot! She was a slightly Ethel-Mermanish character – obviously an established favourite at this theatre – and she gave a wonderfully spirited performance, even getting up from her wheelchair and joining in the incredible can-can number, danced not only by Valencienne and the Grisettes, but also by 6 incredibly sexy men in open silk shirts and leather trousers. Something for everyone, one feels! And its not every Hanna Glawari that can do the splits in a tight and sparkly cocktail frock! Brava, madame!

Alas, the show was over all too soon, even though it had been running nearly 3 hours. The cast had to take several curtain calls and they earned every single one of them. This company came to London a year or so ago to perform Countess Maritza and if there is even the slightest chance that they will return to bring The Merry Widow to our shores, I will be the first in line to buy tickets. And I encourage you all to do the same. Truly a Widow to judge all subsequent Widows by.

17 December 2007

The Nutcracker - Hungarian State Opera House - 10th December 2007

Herr Stahlbaum and his wife are giving a Christmas Party. Clara and Fritz, their children, greet the guests. Suddenly, Dr. Drosselmeyer arrives and entertains the children with his magical tricks and wind-up dolls. Drosselmeyer brings a special gift for Clara - a wooden nutcracker. In a jealous fit, Fritz breaks it. Dr. Drosselmeyer quickly repairs it. The party ends, the guests leave, and the Stahlbaums retire for the night. Clara awakens as a mouse runs through her room. The clock strikes midnight. Suddenly, the room fills with giant mice who attack Clara. Life-size toy soldiers, led by her valiant Nutcracker, come to her rescue. The King Rat attacks the Nutcracker, but Clara hits him with her shoe and the Nutcracker wins the battle. After the battle, the Nutcracker is transformed into a handsome prince. The Nutcracker Prince turns the Stahlbaum’s house into the Land of Snow. Clara and the Nutcracker Prince dance with the Snowflakes, then depart for the Kingdom of Sweets in an enchanted sleigh.

Clara and the Nutcracker Prince continue their journey across the Lemonade Sea . They are greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy. In Clara's honor, the Sugar Plum Fairy arranges for the inhabitants of her kingdom to entertain them while they eat: chocolate, a Spanish Dance; coffee, an Arabian Dance; and tea, a Chinese Dance. Clara is also entertained by the dance of the Mirlitons, a Russian dance, and the Waltz of the Flowers. Then, the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker Prince dance a grand pas de deux. As the celebration draws to a close, Clara drifts off to sleep. She awakens in bed, as the Nutcracker Prince salutes his princess Clara.

Our second visit to the opera house to see something! We managed to get tickets for this the previous day, having thought it was completely sold out beforehand, so there had been a bit of a flap. And it rather turned out to be a case of Much Ado About Not A Lot. Presented in such a “trad” way that you could almost taste the dust on the backdrops, I felt it was heavy with the weight of decades. OK, I’ve been spoilt by the fact that I’ve seen the Birmingham Royal Ballet production of this – possibly the best Nutcracker EVER and after which any production is going to be a disappointment. (If you’ve never seen the BRB production, go buy yourself a copy of the DVD now!)

The only saving grace of this production was its scenery, much like La Boheme the previous night. The curtain rose to show the outside of the Staulbaum’s house, covered in snow and with guests arriving for the party – truly beautiful. Then the scene changed to the drawing room, where things went rapidly to pot (those not familiar with the ballet need to know that this scene contains no ballet as such, merely a series of festive dances and the first threads of the plot). This scene is important because it gives opportunity for establishing characters such as the strange Dr. Drosselmyer, the heroine Clara and her relationship with the Nutcracker. But it was all flat as a leftover gin and tonic the day after a party. Choreography was at best stodgy, at worst completely glossed over or even missing. Drosselmyer’s magic tricks were uninspired and bland and there was little sense of him being a mysterious manipulator of the senses. At the point where the party ends, the act usually continues to show Clara’s midnight adventures with the Mouse King and the start of her journey through the snow to the Kingdom of Sweets. But in this production, the first act ends with the end of the party, leaving a curiously hollow feeling and the sense that not much has really been achieved in terms of the story.

The second act was also extremely disappointing – it should be full of magic, adventure, danger and darkness as Clara and the Nutrcracker join forces against the Mouse King, and of glitter, sparkle and light as they begin their journey through the snow. Instead, it was all again very stodgily danced and with very little sense of spectacle. The growing of the Christmas Tree, which should be darkly magical and slightly threatening, was deeply disappointing – this tree was just a flat painted cloth, half of which was obviously in folds on the floor, so just raising it up on string was supposed to make it appear to “grow”. Unfortunately, it “grew” so much that the base ended up being about 2 feet off the floor. There were several duff lighting cues and, again, the choreography was distinctly unexciting – never more so than in one of the great set pieces of the ballet – the snow storm in the wood. In the BRB version (and in other more traditional versions I’ve seen) this is glittery and exciting and wonderful and danced with verve and passion, echoing the way that the music mimics the sudden blustery squalls of a real snowstorm. In this production, however, the snowflakes were danced by lumpy looking ballerinas wearing cotton wool wigs and strings of bobbles on their arms. Making them look rather like one of those knitted dolly toilet roll covers that your gran used to knit. The choreography failed to do justice to the wonderful, wonderful set of a snowy, night time forest lit by shards of icy moonlight. A few unconvincing flakes of snow fell, making one think that the snow machine had gone badly wrong. What should have been a blizzard was just a damp squiggle.

In the Act III prologue, lighting was uniformly dim and didn’t show off the cave set to anything like its best advantage. I could, however, ramble on for hours about the beauty of the main Act III set – the Kingdom of Sweets. It quite literally got a gasp of admiration from the audience and deservedly so. Again, what spoilt it was the blandness and uninspired nature of the choreography. The Russian Dance was particularly bad. The by now “grown up” Clara (no Sugar Plum Fairy in this version) seemed uneasily partnered with her Nutcracker Prince – it seemed as if they had not rehearsed together enough and made an uneasy partnership with little interaction and very little emotion. This, coupled with the two intervals instead of the usual one, plus the appalling behaviour of several young children in the audience, made this Nutcracker feel like a stodgy, oversteamed Christmas Pudding soused in brandy butter that sits heavily in your stomach and makes you feel like an overstuffed sofa. Much better to enjoy the light, tangy zest of the BRB version.

16 December 2007

La Bohéme– Hungarian State Opera House, Budapest – 9th December 2007


Act I
A consumptive seamstress called Mimi, comes upstairs to get a light from the poet Rodolfo. They fall in love.
Act II
Everyone except Alcindoro has a good time at the Café Momus on Christmas Eve.
Mimi and Rodolfo don't separate.
Act IV
Mimi dies.

Its Holiday Time – and time for the annual endurance test; opera. It’s something I have to suffer for the sake of peace, quiet and maybe a historic garden to mooch round. (Last year, for instance, the annual endurance test was 4 ½ hours of Handel for chrissakes – but I traded that off for the Alhambra in early summer 2007) But, in Hungary in the middle of December, there’s not much happening on the horticultural front, so CBB won this trip hands down. To be honest we really only bought these tickets because we thought that we couldn’t get into The Nutcracker the following day. But then we found we could do both. So Bohéme it was – even though the Hungarian title of Bohémélet makes it sound either like a very small Bohéme or an omelette made with poverty stricken Parisian artists. “Two students or three, Monsieur, in your Bohémélet?” “Four please, and a pretty but consumptive needlewoman from the garret downstairs”.

I must admit that my interest was piqued by a tour of the opera house that afternoon, during which we managed to catch some of the set being installed for that night’s performance. The guide said that their set dated from 1936 and was the oldest in their collection. We were suitably impressed – but it wasn’t until we started looking at the pictures in the programme that we realised the whole production dated from 1936! From the set through the direction and lighting right down to the same costumes! Of course, it may be argued that “if it aint broke, don’t fix it” but come on! 70 years in the repertoire! That’s older than The Mousetrap! The thing only premiered in 1926! CBB settled down with that “I’m seeing an historic performance” look on his face and I knew I was in for a long night. The fact that it was in Italian with Hungarian surtitles just added to the surreal feeling. I comforted myself with the fact that I had bested CBB with the question “What is the name of the picture being painted as the curtain goes up?”. Answer came there none and I think he was a little pissed. Tee hee. Email me if you know the answer!

But you know, it was pretty. Like something off the lid of a chocolate box wrapped in sugar pink ribbons. Bohéme as you expect it to look. The first set, the garret, didn’t take up the entire stage like it so usually does (bloody big attic, you always think) but was a small “island set” against an enormous backdrop of the Paris rooftops. In fact, so small was it that the singers really had a lot of difficulty remembering their lines and not bumping into the furniture. And the costumes were pretty and Mimi (Klara Kolonits) wasn’t fat and past it, but slender and quite cherubic, even if her ginger wig did look a little like Shredded Wheat. And the diction was good and the sound wonderful……so why couldn’t I engage with it? Why did it leave me completely unmoved, even during the “Soave fanculia” duet? I have really no idea.

Again, the set for Act II was everything you expect – a small square, wrought ironwork, a red café awning, little bentwood chairs. Trouble is, there were so many peasants, hot chestnut sellers, soldiers, prostitutes and Parisians in General on stage they had barely room to move – and I was particularly amused to spot that practically everyone who drifted off stage, drifted back on again not more than 10 seconds later so that their numbers never decreased. There was also some spectacularly self-conscious “acting” going on – particularly from a couple of teenage girls who totally overdid the “We’re warming our hands over the chestnut brazier” bit for so long that I eventually couldn’t take my eyes off them. Everybody looked well nourished and clean, even if you did have to doubt their sanity for strolling about on Christmas Eve in their day clothes with just a scarf or shawl on. I also got a great deal of pleasure in this act from Cleo Mitilincou who played Musetta in the style of one. E. Whittlesea of my acquaintance and greatly resembled her too. She held the stage magnificently all through the act, but I thought it a great pity that she was dressed like an orange and yellow silk chicken (far too much marabou, darling) when something nonetheless flashy but more appropriate for the winter season would have been a better costume idea. Anyone dressed like that on Christmas Eve would have frozen her nipples off! But, apparently, that's what Musetta wore in their 1936 production, so.....

The set for Act III was the kind that makes the audience go “ooooooooh!” – a snowy street on a February morning, with a perspective of gas lamps winding into the distance, and all surrounded by bare and snowy boughed trees; a Parisian Narnia, almost. It was stunningly lit, and had obviously been created at the time when a set designer was a draftsman first and an artist second – so accurate was the perspective that it was an effort to “read” the set as two dimensional canvasses. It was easier just to sink into it visually. When the gentle flurries of snow started to fall, I felt a big lump in my throat. Call me old fashioned, but it was truly beautiful and the kind of stage set you just don’t see anymore.

Scene IV was the garret again, although “boxed in” on all sides and no backdrop. I thought Mimi’s pink winceyette frock was dreadful with her ginger wig, and she must have caught a form of consumption that left no visible trace because she looked just as chipper as before. But again, for some reason, I just didn’t engage with it. Her death left me relatively unemotional, even though her performance was superb. But then, its well known opera just ain’t my thang – even if it is this pretty.