29 August 2012

Pucell's The Fairy Queen at Glyndebourne (2012)

When I saw this production back in 2009 I wrote, "I guess that means I will be going to the revival in a few years time." And that prophecy came true.

The purpose of the second visit was to try and catch more of the complex production that hard far more in it than I could take in at my first sitting and I spent most of the evening saying to myself that I did not remember that bit from the last time.

Anticipating the same problem again I took a few notes in the bar immediately afterwards. I thought it unwise to try to do so during the performance.

It is hard to classify The Fairy Queen, other than to say that it is not an opera.

It opens with an extended spoken piece that explains the main story. Girl A and Boy B love each other but A's father insists that she marries Boy C who also loves her and is loved by Girl D.

Clearly the two couple are going to get together happily and it is just a question of how they get there.

Not helping too much are the faeries Oberon and Titania who have some troubles themselves, hence Titania finding herself in love with a former servant who is now a donkey.

There are more spoken words after the music and singing have started as attempts are made to explain what is going on. There is little point in this as what is going on is madness and of little consequence.

Instead it is better to treat The Fairy Queen for what it is, a collection of loosely connected scenes that mix words, music and dance. The posh word for this is masque.

The dancing made more of an impression on me this time and I found it beautiful.

It was there for a lot of the production but often just as a touch of colour at the back of the stage or a short fill-in while something on the set was moved. Even then it was captivating.

There were usually just two dancers (and no more than six) and their modern dance made extravagant shapes out of their bodies. There was also a lot of impressive tumbling and rolling that made no sound.

The main point of this production of The Fairy Queen (forget the plot) is ribald humour. Carry On Faeries if you like.

In one scene we see an innocent Adam and Eve wearing just a few fig leaves then Eve eats that apple and starts to get flirty. She shares her apple with another cast member and the flirting spreads.

In another a man and a woman emerge from a haystack and than man makes his intentions towards the woman very clear and he is not at all put off by the fact that the woman is so clearly a man.

We have another man playing a woman when the cleaners do their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe. The point is driven home when one of Thisbe's false breasts falls out and rolls towards the orchestra.

One of the scenes takes us through the four seasons and Summer is also a man dressed as a woman. Incidentally this is quickly forgotten when Winter arrives and delivers a beautiful song.

And there are the bonking bunnies too. They are only on for a short while but are the icons of this production. So much so that two of them were seen wandering the gardens during the long interval and the conductor took his bow at the end with a bunny costume under his black jacket.

One of the starts of the show is the staging. Bit of the stage rise and sink, people fly through the sky and one fights his way along the front row of the stalls. It is busy and clever and keeps you totally immersed through what is quite a long performance.

The humour runs thick and deep through the evening and there is a lot of genuine laughter from the full house. Then the highlight of the evening hits you like a lottery win. The song "O let me weep" is slow, mournful and very very beautiful. It ends slowly too and the audience is left stunned and in such a sense of reverence that clapping is not considered despite being fully deserved.

The time for clapping comes at the end and it comes eagerly bringing foot stamping with it.

Whatever The Fairy Queen is it is a good one of those and I am so glad that I went to see it again.

28 August 2012

The Last American by Mike McMahon (and others)

Wikipedia informs us that "The Last American is a four-issue comic book mini-series released by Marvel's Epic imprint in 1990. It was written by John Wagner and Alan Grant with art by Mike McMahon." Which is true, but there is more to it than that for me.

I came across the art of Mike McMahon in 2000AD where he was the artist that made A.B.C. Warriors my favourite story. John Wagner and Alan Grant were there too on stories like Judge Dredd.

The transfer of British talent to American comics has always been erratic and I was delighted when Marvel gave some of 2000AD's greats a chance. The reaction to The Last American suggests that this was a chance that they did not take but I blame the other readers as I loved the book.

I bought it in its four parts when it first came out and it is now safely filed away in my study and I am sure that I could find it within a day or two of looking.

Then David Gibbons, another 2000AD hero, tweeted that the collected edition was available digitally for a measly £2.99. In a few minutes it was purchased and nicely ensconced on my iPad.

The opportunity to read it came just a couple of days later on the train ride back to Richmond from Newport. I loved it again.

The art work is why I bought and lived it the first time and that was true again twenty two years later. McMahon's style is angular and brutal, and that's a compliment. It is easy to say, and see, that this suits machinery very well but I love his figures and landscapes just as much.

The page construction is dramatic too. The panels are traditional boxes, this was 1990 after all, and the drama comes from the different perspective in each panel. In this typical page we have a mix of close-ups (from different angles) and two middle-range shots one looking down and the other looking up.

It is serial storytelling that forces you to stop and look at every picture and rewards you for doing so. This is why I read comics.

27 August 2012

The Sound of a Voice at Grimeborn

As one festival closed in an opera-heavy Summer another one opened.

The excellent Tete a Tete Opera Festival had just finished at the Riverside when the new Grimeborn festival started at Arcola Theatre on the other side of town. Meanwhile Glyndebourne still had one more show to go for me.

The Grimeborn programme was full of familiar names, like Mozart and Handel, but the intention was to give them a modern spin. We'll see how that goes.

My first visit was to see the UK Premiere of The Sound of a Voice by Philip Glass and David Henry Hwang. Clearly unmissable.

The Sound of a Voice is actually two different plays by Hwang, The Sound of a Voice and The House of Sleeping Beauties, both from 1983. They share themes and work together as a pair. Their union is cemented in a single score, this is typical rhythmic Glass with melodic Japanese overtones, and a shared set.

In the The Sound of a Voice a mysterious traveller seeks shelter at a house occupied by a lone woman. He is reluctant to say where the is going and she is equally reluctant to say anything about herself other than to say that time has no meaning for her except when she has a visitor to measure it by.

He is persuaded to stay a while and mysteries start to unravel such as the fate of the previous visitors and the real purpose of his visit. This all happens slowly and carefully and when the dramatic ending comes we are prepared but still stirred.

It was a simple haunting story brilliantly related by two very good singers. I loved everything about it.

The House of Sleeping Beauties was just as mysterious.

An old man visits a brothel wishing to learn about it rather than to use its services but after a conversation with the madame over a cup of tea he is persuaded to visit one of the girls who, we are told, is asleep.

Something happens, possibly violent, certainly unusual.

He returns several times and we learn more about him and the madame as he does so. He claims to be writing an article on the house she has ways of keeping the police away. Sleep and sleeping potions are mentioned.

Their story also ends dramatically having built to the crescendo steadily and naturally. It is rather like a slow-motion car crash. I loved it too.

There was a rousing reception at the end and it was fully deserved. The four singers were all superb, as was the small orchestra, and the staging maintained the sense of mystery and menace beautifully. This was my kind of opera, in spades.

25 August 2012

Last night at Tete a Tete Opera Festival 2012

I'm a glutton for pleasure and so I went to the Tete a Tete Opera Festival 2012 four times altogether finishing with consecutive nights. That made it eleven operas in all and six in two days. Nothing wrong with that.

Mermaid of Zennor was my first choice of the evening.

We entered in to a darkened Studio 2 to find a man unconscious on the stage. The ropes, nets, blue hues (and the title of the opera) tell us that he has washed up on the shore.

He slowly recovers and in-between his waking and dreaming he is visited in turn by a mermaid and a tourist walking the coastal path.

The music is slow and haunting as the three figures take it in turns to describe what they see without interacting with each other or even being particularly aware of each other's existence. The only reality is the view of the tourist and all she can see is the man.

The music was surprisingly playful and while it is a new piece it reminded me of Walton's Facade in its jauntiness and the way it played with pitch.

It's a sad story but the mood of the myth triumphs over that and the lasting memory is of mystery not the outcome.

The Yellow Dress was had a surprisingly similar musical feel to it and also featured a drowning (or two) but it was a completely different kettle of fish.

We meet an old woman in a care home. She has fleeting memories of the past most of which involve fondness for the sea which we could see playing out on the screen behind her.

Her daughter comes to visit and this is clearly a duty rather than a love, though there is affection there.

As they sing to each other we learn more about them and their past. After setting the steadily setting the scene and just when you think you know where the story is going it goes somewhere else.

First we learn the mystery of the yellow dress and the young girl who was wearing it. Then the daughter's lover arrives in a similar dress. The lover comes up with a simple plan to free the daughter from the mother and the opera ends as she puts this plan in to action.

This is a very operatic story and leaves you with a very satisfied if disturbed feeling.

Amerika ended the evening on a light note.

It adapts the first part of Franz Kafka's story of the same name about a young man sent to 1920's America to escape personal troubles in Europe.

He goes through a series of episodes in a carefree manner meeting people who try to help and hinder him along the way.

The opera stood out immediately because of the purity of the singing from the two male leads.

I sat in the second row for most of the operas (and scowled when somebody took "my seat") and even from there some of the voices in some of the operas were a little hard to follow, there were no surtitles here. I had no objection to that, I did not expect Glyndebourne singers at £6 a pop, but it was always nice to find a clear voice and here we had two.

The humour was played nicely mostly thanks to the acting and this was reinforced by the scrolling backdrop that carried sketches related to the scene, e.g. the story opens with a picture of a liner to tell us that we are on a ship.

The post-performance questionnaire suggested that this opera might also be extended, presumably to cover the whole book, and while I am not against that idea I think that it would only work if the various episodes had some mood changes. The slapstick humour worked well for an hour but I am not sure that it would stretch beyond that.

My last day of the festival was rich and rewarding taking me sweetly through myth, murder and mirth. All three operas played their parts well telling different stories differently.

And all that means that I will be going to the Tete a Tete Opera Festival 2013 (hoping there is one) quite a few times.

22 August 2012

Back to Cardiff Bay

I am still working in Cardiff and staying there for a few days every week but the unseasonal wet Summer and the long working hours have conspired to stop me from doing much in the way of exploration, or even walking much further than Wagamama which must be almost 100m away from the hotel.

So when the weather finally relented and I was able to escape from the office in time to catch the 5:44 bus back to the city centre I jumped at the chance.

My Cardiff hotel, the Radisson Blue, is on the south-side of the city centre, close the station. From there is it a simple and straight walk down to the Bay.  That's where the tourists go and I went to.

Pride of place there goes to the Wales Millennium Centre (WMC) viewed here through the fountains on the other side of the road.

In front of the WMC is a large pedestrian area where the Torchwood Tower lives. It probably has a formal name but I think that the popular one is better.

For some reason Torchwood have allowed their secret entrance to be decorated with falling strawberries.

As a temporary display I appreciate the playfulness of it all but I would not want it to look like this forever.

This is a tourist area so it is full of restaurants. Many of these are chains, e.g. Wagamama and Pizza Express, but there is also Moksh which has good unusual food and excellent service. A highlight was the frothing vase served with the meal to add a delicate scent to the air.

I had been there before and will go again.

I avoided the quick walk back to the hotel along Rhodfa Lloyd George and chose to loop back via James Street instead. I had planed to walk the long way via Corporation Road (you know you are in an commercial area when roads are called this) but a whim, or a wish yo get back faster, took me up Dumballs Road instead.

That proved to be something of an experience.

This is a bus route (I saw bus stops but no actual buses) and was quite busy so I was not worried but the low cost housing and the light industrial properties made it quite obvious that I had left the Bay.

The clincher came when a Hummer with a personalised plate drove past me and in to the estate. I may be wrong but I think that I know how the owner got the money to buy it.

Drawing close to the hotel and the station there are two large traffic islands so isolated from the rest of the city that only tramps go there. Tramps and me. One of them has the rather jolly water feature that deserves far more than to be abandoned to an urban race track.

Cardiff has still not done enough to convince me that I would want to live here but it has proved to be a reasonable place to work for the last year.

21 August 2012

An operatic evening in three parts

The hardest thing about the Tete a Tete Opera Festival 2012 was deciding which operas to see. Each of the operas is on only once or twice and there are two operas on at the same time (in studios 2 and 3 at the Riverside) which means that to see everything then you have to go every night.

The operas are only £6 each (i.e. it's £18 a night) so money is not a problem but time is. Especially when you are working in another country (Wales) during the week. That is why this year I was only able to get there on four evenings to see a total of eleven operas.

The third night was the best so far.

The Shadow of the Wave was a well crafted one-act opera.

Two sisters and their two husbands meet up in a country retreat, the wrong sister goes after the wrong husband, madness and deaths ensue.

Musically it was lyrical and well sung. The acting made the opera and while it is easy to highlight the mad bad people all four characters played their parts.

The wicked sister, in an appropriate bright red dress, is scheming and feisty, the other sister is a quiet contented wife, the contested husband is a troubled artist and the husband nobody wants seethes in his frustration.

This is all very traditional opera condensed in to a manageable portion and served with menace. A wonderful start to the evening.

A Voice of One Delight changed the tone completely.

The performance was delivered by a lone singer, Clare McCaldin,accompanied by a pianist who surprised me by turning pages of music when it seemed unlikely that the random twinkles had been composed.

The vocals were pretty strange too mixing speech and song with the occasional use of a microphone.

The set was as simple as you would expect for a modern opera but there were some nice touches such as the projection of words on to the cardboard boxes and the use of a blue tablecloth to represent the sea.

There was not a story as such, or if there was I missed it. Percy Bysshe Shelley had died (one of the many drownings in the festival) and been cremated on an Italian beach. We then witness the aftermath of this as his works and life are reassessed and represented.

If that all sounds a little weird that is because it was. But I like weird and this was the sort of weird that I like. It was undoubtedly "challenging" and that was welcome but it did mean that A Voice of One Delight was hard to digest on a single sitting and I would like to see it again.

All to Play For closed the evening and was the surprise hit of the day.

To be honest, an opera about football seemed rather trivial and I only went to it as I was there anyway for the other two operas.

We entered the studio to see a man stalking the stage while restlessly watching a football game. A late goal clinches it for his team.

The team enter in celebration and we learn that he is the manager. They have won the semi-final of the Champions League and are now one game away from glory.

The team swig champagne as they sing their joy but elsewhere things are less happy. The manager complains that when the team wins the players get the credit but when they lose he gets the blame, and he is under pressure to win the final. His assistant feels overlooked and underused and has a secret offer from somebody else. One of the WAGS delights in the extra publicity for her that the victory will bring while another wife regrets the same.

There is a lot going on in the story and that is reflected in the music. We have the manager's solo, the team's chorus and the WAGS duet.

The opera ends brilliantly with all the story loose ends clearly exposed and none of them resolved. There was a suggestion in the feedback form that the opera might be finished which I think would be a mistake as the non-end works just fine as an ending.

These were three very different pieces and each was very good in their own way. And that made it an ideal evening of opera that entertained, challenged and surprised.

19 August 2012

A stroll in Kew Gardens (August 2012)

Kew Gardens offers many pleasures and the first decision on each visit is which ones to go for. This time I went in through the Lion Gate, not long after it opened for the day, and walked through the woods on the southern edge before hitting the Thames and turning east.

This is the quietest section of the garden being furthest from from the main gates (e.g. ones that you can park near) and not having any of the main physical attractions such as the greenhouses.

This is why I like it so much.

There are flowers as well as trees along the way and they appear in wild patches, not manicured like they are in the formal sections.

I am not completely fooled by this apparent randomness, everything in Kew is managed to some extent but it is nice to pretend that this is entirely natural.

Avoiding the main paths (I do not like the way that the grey tarmac both scars the greenery and attracts people) I headed vaguely towards the Palm House.

As always in these meanderings it is nice to have a destination in mind and nicer still to be deflected from it by distractions along the way. This time it was the call of the bamboo garden and Minka House. These are places that you only find by accident and are all the better for it.

The main attractions could not be avoided forever and nor did I want to. The helpful Kew Gardens iPhone app told me that the borders along the main path to the Orangery were worth seeing, so I did.

These borders are most welcome as this stretch is quite dull otherwise. It suits its main purpose of getting people from the main entrances to the main places but the path is wide and flat and, frankly, boring.

The kidney shaped borders are strewn along the side of the path and have been designed to please the pollinators. They certainly do this and they were buzzing with all sorts of insects.

The borders have also been designed to be attractive in a classic way with low plants at the front rising to tall grasses at the back. I do love grasses.

The most spectacular arrangement of flowers are in the Parterre in front of the Palm House. These are guarded by a row of heraldic creatures frozen in admiration of the colours and patterns.

Inside the Palm House, like its near twin the Temperate House, combines and contrasts the natural beauty of the tall leafy plants with the neat arrangement of white metal and glass.

It is a view that I never tire of and is why one of these two greenhouses features in almost every visit.

There is the The Princess of Wales Conservatory too but this lacks the grandeur and stature of its much older relatives.

Before leaving through the nearby Victoria Gate there was just time for a latte in the recently extended cafe.

I was in Kew Gardens for around two hours which is how long my visits tend to be. That is plenty enough time to explore large sections of the gardens and to take in one or two of the main attractions without being too long for tiredness and garden fatigue to take a grip. It also leaves much unexplored and that's a good excuse to go back again.

Kew Gardens is a delight that I like to consume in small measures and that makes it a fresh treat every time.

18 August 2012

Arthur Brown at the Half Moon

Every time that I see Arthur Brown in concert I am reminded why I keep going to see Arthur Brown in concert.

And this time it was even better than usual.

I arrived at the Half Moon in Putney with plenty of time to spare (I knew that there was a support band on but had no idea when Arthur would be on) and was at the bar getting my first pint when in trots the fabulous Ms Angel who invited Pete and I to join the others outside. The others included Arthur and the band and over the next hour or so conversations were had about the gig in a Soho cafe and, it had to be asked, the status of the Astoria DVD. It's coming.

Inside I managed to get a front-row spot just left of centre which gave an excellent view of Arthur and the band.

Arthur was font and centre with the band arranged in a semi-circle around him. The two ladies, Lucie Rejchrtova on keyboards and Nina Gromniak on lead guitar, occupied the two wing positions and the lads, Jim Mortimore on bass and Samuel Walker on drums, held the defensive positions at the back.

That left Arthur a lot of room to move in, which he took full advantage of.

The set-list was much as expected with most of the songs having featured regularly in his shows for as long as I have been going to them. There were the (very) old favourites like Fire and Devil's Grip, some more recent songs like All the Bells and Voice of Love and a whole swathe of covers like Kites, Misunderstood and Spell on You.

The late sixties set-list was mirrored by the late sixties sound mainly thanks to the keyboard sound. Think of Light my Fire by Doors and you'll get the picture.

Arthur did all the usual Arthur things which involves far more bouncing around the stage than you would expect from a man now in his seventies.

Lucie takes Arthur's lead and is almost as energetic. She is (mostly) tied to the keyboards and makes up for this limitation in her movement by playing on her knees etc, The one chance she gets to move is when Arthur picks up the keyboard and walks away with it dragging the still-playing Lucie with him.

Another touch of dramatics came from Ms Angel who made a few appearance during the evening, but nothing like as many as she does with Space Ritual where she is on stage most of the time.

As usual she had a different costume each time the most extravagant of which was a set of glittering bat-wings (though they probably have a more exotic name) that she fluttered with extended arms.

The final icing on the rich cake was meeting up with some friends old and new, such as the ubiquitous Melissa and big Hawkfan Martin.

Frankly, music evenings do not come much better than this. I just wish that Arthur got out a little more often.

15 August 2012

A curate's egg from Tete a Tete

Throwing myself heavily in to the season's Tete a Tete Opera Festival produced a Friday night of mixed blessings.

The Magic Mirror/One Small Step was on first and proved to be a mixed bag within a mixed bag.

We had a long explanation of what Momo will be and then two songs from it. In the first Momo, a young girl, sings alone in a strange language and in the second she sang a duet with a young man strumming a guitar.

The second song was rather lovely and I would have liked to hear more from Momo.

Instead I got One Small Step where a couple sing about the joys of their child's first steps, their hopes that this might make them tired and sleep more and realisation that more things will now have to be put out of reach. It was a nice enough song but had nothing to do with Momo.

And that was it. Just three songs. Not a great start.

Next up was The Trial of Jean Rhys, a proper opera. The trial is Jean Rhys' hard life rather than anything criminal and we see this through flash-backs. This was not that obvious at the time and it took a quick scan of the Jean Rhys article in Wikipedia to confirm this.

The story may have been a little confusing (because of my lack of pre-research and refusal to buy a programme) but it was still a story and that makes it an opera in my mind.

The scenes flowed smoothly and the reasonably large cast played their parts well enough though I learnt in the bar later that most of them were students.

I did like the opera but, a few days later, I am struggling to remember much about it,

The third and final show was The Sandman, and this was completely different again.

We had the familiar story of one friend fooling another in to drinking weed killer which puts her in to a dream-like state where strange things happen.

In that context having the orchestra in their pyjamas is quite appropriate.

The dream, if it is a dream, is suitably weird with weird characters doing weird things. Like the centuries old cow singing about the moon.

From that you will probably guess that it was a story thick with humour though a dark edge stopped it from being frivolous.

The music was sharply modern with screeches and scratches that I loved.

Of the three pieces The Sandman had the most complete vision and delivered it more completely. The other two had their moments too and considered as a package it was another challenging and rewarding evening.  Not all challenges work but then they would not be challenges if they did.

12 August 2012

Two operatic views of Miss Havisham

I missed most of the Tete a Tete Opera Festival late last year due to holidays so I am trying to make the most of it this year. When the programme was first announced I booked eight operas on three evenings. Not bad.

Then I found that I had a Sunday free that I was not expecting and a quick look at the schedule revealed two more operas that looked worth a try. As with everything at Tete a Tete it is all freakishly new so there is no pedigree to work with and every booking is a game of chance.

One of the appeal of these operas was that they both included Miss Havisham, famously jilted at the altar in Great Expectations.

The Lady of Satis House told Miss Havisham's story from her perspective.

We find her in her wedding dress at a table still set for a wedding that was meant to happen years ago. The mice have been busy with the cake and the spiders have laid their webs everywhere.

Miss Havisham tells us how she feels, and she is not happy. In fact she is bitter and plans to get her revenge by passing her pain on to Pip.

The rest of the story we know and we follow it all the way through to its fiery end.

Miss Havisham is the only character in the opera, we see Pip and Estella as dolls only, so a lot is down to the soloist musically and dramatically. And she was very good. Able support came from the string quartet.

The music was modern without being acerbically so and in many ways this was a normal short-form opera. I love string quartet music and I loved this. High marks all round.

Jilted was quite different.

Here we saw an imaginary meeting between the jilted Miss Havisham and the abandoned first Mrs Dickens.

Despite the double woe, the story is told with humour and wit. Miss Havisham is sparkly and mischievous while Mrs Dickens is homely and resigned. They made an unusual Laurel and Hardy.

They complain to each other about they have been treated, and they have some justification in this, but they are more concerned to out-score the other in the sympathy stakes than to heap anger on the men responsible for their plight.

At one point their contest becomes physical and they play a sort of top-trumps card game. At one point Mrs Dickens plays the "ten children" card only to have it trumped by Miss Havisham's "no children".

They sing without any instruments to guide them or to detract from them and that gives a simplicity and purity of sound that is just right for the story that they are telling us.

I enjoyed both operas immensely and they were made a little better by being offered together on the same day. I expect the Riverside to provide interesting theatre like this and they are to be congratulated for teaming up with Tete a Tete to extend their franchise in to opera.

10 August 2012

Le nozze di Figaro at Glyndebourne (2012)

My fourth trip to Glyndebourne this season was to see The Marriage of Figaro, or Le nozze di Figaro as they prefer to call it.

This was the family trip which meant taking Dad (81) and eldest son (21). Youngest son not interested.

The logistics of getting us all there were complicated by Dad's age and son's commitment to an Ultimate (a.k.a. Frisbee) training session in Southampton and I did a lot of driving in three days to collect and return people.

The weather was kind to us and this was by far the most pleasant day in Glyndebourne this year and I think it is the first one where the patio heaters were not required.

We started the afternoon with tea and scones in Mildmay. The Archbishop of Canterbury was on the adjoining table. Celeb spotting is another Glyndebourne tradition and while I've seen lots of people famous enough for me to know them none have been special enough for me to make an effort to talk to. I only grunted at Michael Portillo last time because he parked next to us so that does not count.

After three cups of tea I took advantage of the good weather to walk around the lake. There were several new statues along the way and pride of place went to the diver at the far end.

After the walk there was just enough time to go to the Long Bar for the traditional, and most welcome, glass of Pimm's.

At the sound of the first bell we made our way up to the Upper Circle where we had fairly central seats in the front row. This is the view that £110 gets you.

I like this part of the house I like the best, mainly because it is about half the price of the Circle below and I think the view is just as good, if not better.

The last Figaro that I saw at Glyndebourne had a modern minimalist staging and it was immediately clear that this was going to be more normal as we see a full street scene welcoming the return of the Count and his wife. The classic car was bit of a surprise and it got one of the best reactions of the night.

The rotating stage was used to move between sets. We had several indoor and outside scenes and the stage just rotated between them. Obviously some clever work was being done behind the scenes to change one set for another as the turntable could only hold three scenes and more were required.

Clever stuff but not too clever to be distracting. Likewise each of the scenes were rich in detail and decoration but only enough to enhance the story and not too much to overpower it.

Figaro is a popular opera because of its complex plot (A pretends to be B which fools C but not D who plays along with the joke) and the range of lead characters.

Making the first impression is the Count. When he appears at the door of Susanna's room we know exactly what is on his mind.

The women are the strong characters in the story and while the Count and Figaro may think that they are in control at times it is really the Countess and Susanna who make sure that we get to a happy ending.

The acting is excellent and that makes the opera immensely watchable. The music is by Mozart so you know what to expect. There are no grand moments, no stand-out arias, but there are no weak moments either.

If this production has a weakness then it is in some of the singing. Again there is nothing particularly wrong with any of it but nor does any of it grab you. This was clearly a shared view and during the curtain calls there were no shouts of "bravo" and no stamping of feet - both of which you expect at Glyndebourne.

I guess that makes Figaro just an average Glyndebourne production, though, as I have said before, that is a high average and it was still a superb family day out. We'll be back next August.

8 August 2012

Black Shot Rose at the Fox and Duck

Black Shot Rose were the jam in an odd musical sandwich. I went to the opera on Friday and Sunday but on the Saturday I went to the Fox and Duck for some heavy metal.

The pub puts a banner outside adverting that week's band but that is usually handwritten and the 65 bus goes past too fast for me to read it. So I use the Lemonrock iPone app instead.

This told me that the band on were Black Shot Rose and that they are a metal covers band doing songs by the likes of Metallica, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.

No further invitation was needed.

Musically they sound as if they grew up listening to Metallica and then discovered their dads' Led Zep albums. They play all eras heavy metal with the carefree thrashy sound of eighties America rather than the slower more poetic style of Britain in the seventies.

It works and I loved their reinterpretation of songs like Free's All Right Now. I loved their other stuff too even though the more recent songs were unfamiliar to me and some were completely unknown. For example, they finished with a sing by System of a Down who I had heard of but I could not name any songs or albums by them.

They were loud too and that always helps. The police made an appearance around 11:30 but they were politely informed that everything was within the rules and nothing changed other than to be absolutely certain that they finished before the midnight curfew.

As musicians they were all very good and the sound they made was rumbustious, driving and solid.

These were not really my songs (with a few exceptions) so I would probably not go too far out of my way to see Black Shot Rose again but I'll certainly go if/when they make a return visit to the Fox and Duck.

7 August 2012

Olympic Reception at the Slovak Embassy

This event was as unmissable as they come.

The invitation read, "The Ambassador of the Slovak Republic H.E. Mr. Miroslav Wlachovský requests the pleasure of your company at the reception on the occasion of the XXX. Olympic Games London 2012 and the visit of the President of the Slovak Republic,H.E. Mr. Ivan Gašparovič."


Then it went on to say, "Together with the opening of the exhibition „Čičmany“ – village known as the first folk architecture reserve in the world. National motive of Čičmany is designed at the Slovak Olympic uniform."

Even more unmissable as I had visited Čičmany the last time that I went to Slovakia.

I like the Slovak Embassy a lot and it is well suited to receptions like this. I took advantage of the mezzanine floor to take a few photos during the introductory speeches and here you can see L-R the President and the Ambassador.

After the talks I grabbed a glass of sparkling wine and had a close look at the exhibition.

This took the form of approximately 1m square photographs of the wooden houses in Čičmany arranged artistically on the high walls.

There is a common style to the decorations but the markings are all unique.

The photos were arranged in around a dozen clusters around the room so there was plenty to look at. And plenty of sparkling wine to drink while doing so.

There was an excellent buffet too but the Slovaks do not really understand vegetarians but that was all-right as there was plenty of bread and cheese too. And did I mention the sparkling wine?

While mixing among the pictures the President circling intercepted mine and he shook my hand and we exchanged the briefest of pleasantries.

This closer encounter confirmed the impression that I had made earlier that I really want a shirt like that. It has the Čičmany pattern on the Mandarin collar and down the front and is rather special.

Slovakia does not seem to have fully embraced e-commerce yet and I've failed to find a web site that sells it.

Alpine pro boast that they are an official partner to the Slovakia Olympic team but they only seem to have sports and casual clothes, nothing smart like this.

I might have to buy one of their t-shirts anyway, just as soon as I can find somebody to help me to navigate the website that is only in Slovak (one of the many languages that I should have a reasonable working knowledge of but do not).

The invitation that I was so pleased to receive when to many of the usual suspects from the British Czech and Slovak Association so I was not short of people to talk to while sipping sparking wine.

Most (but not all) of them had read the presence of the President as a suggestion to dress very smartly but I was working from home that day and so was suit-less. I did dig out what is possibly my best shirt, it is certainly the most expensive even though it was reduced by two thirds in a Liberty Sale twenty years ago, which wins its class and earns its price through the embroidered roses on the front. Everybody else was taking lots of photos so perhaps one of me will turn up one day.

Until then you'll just have to settle for another photo of Čičmany designs, this time with a chicken.

The swirls here remind me of the pattern in the Russian Olympic outfits so they may have had the same idea of going back to their folk routes.

To reinforce the Slovak folk roots we also had a couple of people in traditional dress and a couple of them sang a folk song that was, frankly, a little weird.

It had far more whoops and claps than the average English folk song.

The last touch of authentic Slovakia came from the beer that I moved on to once the sparking wine ran out. It was one I had not had before.

I was a little uncertain about dragging myself in to Central London for an event with and uncertain agenda, it was billed as just a "reception", but the reputation that the Slovak Embassy has for these sort of events convinced me, and how right I was.

Now all that I have to do is work out how to buy that shirt and the experience is complete.

5 August 2012

Phill Jupitus and Marcus Brigstocke at Jackson's Lane

It's that time of year when comics want to try out their Edinburgh shows which can mean cheap tickets for good comedy. And so I found myself back at Jacksons Lane to see the double bill of Phill Jupitus and Marcus Brigstocke.

Marcus Brigstocke was the main draw for me as I have enjoyed seeing him live a few times, though not for four years apparently. Having Phill Jupitus on the bill too certainly made the decision to go much easier.

This was my fifth trip to Jackson's Lane and was my first conventional show there. It is good to have venues that are prepared to put on such a diverse range of shows. It is just a shame that they are on the other side of Town.

Marcus was trying out his Brig Society show and made no pretence of this being anything other than a work in progress by bringing the script on stage and leafing through it during the performance to decide which part to do next.

It was a fairly typical Brigstocke rant, or collection of rants, against the Government and it hit some easy targets.

The Big/Brig Society featured in the opening and closing sections and the middle was more commentary on other foolish aspects of modern life.

It was a very rough and ready show at the time and, judging my his tweets, it is just now settling down a couple of performances in to the Fringe run proper.

That's not to say that it was not funny because it certainly was, it is just that the delivery was broken and it did not flow naturally as a set. But that's why comedians do try-out shows.

In the last segment Marcus chose people from the audience to take leading positions in the Brig Society and sitting in the middle of the second row (the front row was too low) we were natural victims so Howard became head of Treasury and Richard head of Eduction. Last time we saw him me had a go at Howard's long hair and this time he picked on Richard's It's nice to keep things like that in the family.

A short beer break and then the second half with Phill Jupitus.

One the stage was a simple board announcing the name, title and dates of a dead U-Boat captain from WWII.

On walks Phill dressed nautically. He gives us a little spiel about himself, his brash wife who lives in the East End of London (the war made their relationship a little strained) and the efforts he went to to avoid sinking allied ships.

Then it was audience questions.

This was then all unscripted though some of the questions had probably been asked before, such as how he met his wife, and that allowed expansive and often surreal answers. From this we learn that he spent some of WWII hiding in Lulworth Cove and his favourite food was bagels with crab meat.

A quick costume change and he returned as the dead himself from the future and happy to answer any questions about the time from now until his death. Here the questions were less constrained and most of the answers were devised there and then, often causing Phill to snort a few laughs before he could bring himself to speak. We found his answers funny too.

In the final, brief, Q&A session with Phill as himself he explained that he was trying an unscripted routine simply because he was getting tired of writing jokes all the time, and with such a quick wit he does not need to.

The contrast between the two shows worked well too and it was another entertaining evening in Highgate.

4 August 2012

Porgy and Bess at ENO

I like to try different things so when friends suggested going to see Porgy and Bess at ENO that was an easy thing to say yes to.

My knowledge of Gershwin was limited beforehand and hardly stretched beyond Summertime, which opened the show. It is sung as a lullaby as we are introduced to the scene and the characters.

This is a poor black community in South Carolina in the then present age, that is the 1930's. Then the marks of slavery heavily scar their lives and while they are nominally free they are far from equal.

They are consoled in their lives by the little pleasures of games like craps, some drug taking (Happy Dust) and a heavy dose of the religion that white men gave them.

Porgy is disabled and moves around on a cart that is little more than a board on wheels. Bess is the baddie's floozy and is one of those that uses Happy Dust.

After the craps gave a fight ensues, a man is killed, the baddie runs away to hide and Bess ends up with Porgy. The story develops from there.

The story is told in spoken words that are punctuated by songs so you could argue that this is more a musical than an opera, but that is just semantics.

The songs are surprisingly slight musically. For example, we all know the rich sound of Summertime but in its opera form it is a thinner and shorter song. It is sung several times though.

The only other songs that I recognised were I Got Plenty o' Nuttin' and "It Ain't Necessarily So, but that says more about my knowledge of Gershwin than it does the strength of the songs.

There is a plot and one that twists and turns a little and also flows up and down emotionally so there is plenty to get involved with. I loved the feeling from the community too, these were people that I cared about.

The singing and acting helped me to care. These were quickly people that I could believe in and share the pain of their existence as a group and individually.

There are several ways that you can read the plot, and I am sure that my reading is not what any of the authors intended, but the message that I got was that their religion gave them nothing but false hope and the only certainty that they had was in drugs.

I would be hard-pressed to say that Porgy and Bess is now one of my favourite operas so I'll simply say that I loved the plot, loved the characters and quite enjoyed the music and would have liked more of it.

2 August 2012

Sir John Soane's Museum is bonkers

Sir John Soane's Museum is yet another one of those places that I have been meaning to go to for donkey's years and it took a day's holiday in London to finally do so.

The Museum is on the top-side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a pretty enough location, and that is just south of Holborn where I worked for a couple of years on a project for BT waaay back in the late eighties.

Outside it looks like all the other houses on the square but inside it is completely bonkers.

There are lots of small rooms that are ridiculously stuffed full of arcane artifacts from Sir John Soane's personal collection.

The contrast with the Wallace Collection that I saw a couple of days before could not be more marked. There the rooms were large, laid out simply and almost empty but here they were small like a toddler's bedroom, arranged like a toddler's Lego bricks and stuffed like a toddler's toy box.

The poster above gives you an idea of what to expect, it is exactly like that. It is so hard to weave through some of the rooms that all bags must be either handed in or put inside a plastic bag to stop sharp corners from doing damage.

The picture gallery was a particular favourite. There are several large canvasses but as this is a small room they are not on the walls, instead they are housed in a large display like those often used for railway timetables so you can only see one at a time.

Sadly photography is not allowed in the house (I can see why) and it is heavily policed so there was no opportunity to bend the rules.

The Museum is going through a restoration programme that is both restoring the original rooms and also creating some new spaces.

In one of these new spaces is an exhibition called Stadia: Sport and Vision in Architecture.

The similar exhibition that I saw at RIBA earlier was on this year's stadia whereas this one (mostly) covered old stadia including, for example, Roman Arenas and Spanish Bullrings.

This exhibition is sponsored by Populous so we get the now familiar exploding view of their stadium for London 2012.

The contrast between the two exhibitions suits me (they  may claim an architectural link but that is tenuous) as I love variety and surprises. The Museum provides both.

Sir John Soane's Museum feels like somebody has tried to recreate the V&A in a private house. And that is most definitely a good thing.

1 August 2012

Celebrating Fifty Years of the Kingston upon Thames Society

2012 is the fiftieth anniversary of the Kingston upon Thames Society and we celebrated it with, what else?, an afternoon tea party.

We had cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, glasses of bubbly and more cake than it was sensible to eat. But that is not what I wanted to write about. The celebration included this display, excellently prepared by Committee member George Rome Innes, which brilliantly summarised the Society's history.

The story starts in the top left corner with a proposal fifty years ago to build a central ring-road through the historical town centre. The Society was formed then to fight the proposals and we are all glad that this is a fight that they won.

What I especially like is that George has identified the same three purposes of the Society that I have, though we use different words. He has rows of photographs showing buildings that have been saved, things the Society has produced to inform residents about their heritage and things that have been improved.

Below this are pictures of buildings that gone. A harsh reminder of what has been lost and a spur to keep the Society going for another fifty years.

The bottom half of the display (you can only see part of it here) shows the buildings that will be open to the public in September as part of the Society's Heritage Open Days. This is part of the Society's programme of activities to engage the public with the heritage around them. The more that we appreciate what we have now, the more that we are likely to fight to keep it. And that is what the Society is all about.