Archive | September, 2013

“Off with her head!” – The WNO’s ‘Anna Bolena’ at the Wales Millennium Centre

28 Sep

Anna Bolena

I’d been pre-warned, before watching Anna Bolena, and by someone who knows his stuff when it comes to opera, that Donizetti isn’t for everyone.

“He’s been compared to Gilbert & Sullivan,” said my friend. Without adding whether or not this was meant as a compliment.

As such, I approached the show (is that the right word?) with more than a little caution. Also, it was to be my partner’s first experience of opera – four years into our relationship, with me having spent the last 2 or 3 years trying to persuade him that he would enjoy it if he could only experience the real thing, live. Really he would.

“Oh dear,” said my friend. “You do realise Anna Bolena is almost 3 hours long, don’t you?”

Anna Bolena

“Couldn’t we have gone to see Mamma Mia?”

The opera (Donizetti’s 34th) is being performed in a loose trilogy by the WNO, one of three operas the composer wrote on the subject of the Tudors, alongside Maria Stuarda (Mary Stuart, or Mary Queen of Scots to us Anglophones) and Roberto Devereux (about the tempestuous relationship/affair between Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex). Like countless present-day movie makers, Donizetti had a somewhat cavalier attitude towards British history, and obviously – being a Catholic composer, writing for a largely Catholic audience – he takes a somewhat dismal view of the Tudors (and Henry VIII in particular), but if any British royal family was the stuff of opera, it’s the Tudors.

You see, that’s the thing people who haven’t seen or listened to an opera, the ones who think it’s “not for them” don’t tend to realise. The plots of operas are very rarely complicated. In fact, they’re usually sub-Hollyoaks in complexity. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no expert, but of the 9 or 10 I’ve seen performed live, almost all of them revolved around extramarital affairs, and all – and I mean all – of them ended with one or more of the main characters dying. Spectacularly.

Though, admittedly, not as spectacularly as John Malkovich in Con Air.

Though not as spectacularly as John Malkovich in Con Air.

In that respect, Anna Bolena ticked all of the boxes. It’s about not one but multiple affairs, real and imaginary. The diabolical Henry VIII (baritone Alistair Miles, looking distinctly Game of Thrones) wants to get rid of his young wife, Anne Boleyn (Serena Farnocchia) and marry his mistress Jane Seymour (Katharine Goeldner). To do so, he invites Anne’s old flame Lord Percy (tenor Robert McPherson) back from exile, hoping they will rekindle their affair so that he can accuse the queen of adultery. Added to the mix we have Smeaton, a young lad (played by soprano Faith Sherman) who is smitten with the queen, and who finds himself embroiled in the whole tawdry mess which follows.

Throughout, the chorus of courtiers – all clad in black, against a similarly single tone black backdrop – chime in with gossip and observations, and things build to the predictable climax in which the disgraced former queen must meet her fate. It’s all very stirring stuff, or at least it would be very stirring stuff if it weren’t for Donizetti’s music. I’ve read other reviews (by people who… you know… know what they’re talking about) that wax lyrical about the complexity of Donizetti’s score, but for me it’s just frustratingly MOR, and I suddenly realised what my friend was talking about when he compared it to Gilbert & Sullivan.

Gaetano Donizetti. Looking like a member of Mumford & Sons, appropriately enough.

Gaetano Donizetti. Looking like a member of Mumford & Sons, appropriately enough.

Given its turbulent subject matter, you might expect the yearning and heartbreak to scale vertiginous heights and for the thunder, doom and despair to plumb the depths of hell itself, but it does neither. Instead, what you’re left with are arias that build and build and are then cut short by an awful lot of tum-ti-tum-ti-tum filler. This is used to good effect just once when, near the end, Anne hears the fanfare for the king’s new bride, Jane Seymour, at the exact moment when she – Anne – is facing execution. The horrible contrast between Anne’s despair and this mercilessly upbeat march is truly affecting. Otherwise, it feels like Donizetti is afraid of getting too emotional, of working too hard on his audience’s feelings, and as a result ends up pulling his punches, over and over again.

It’s a shame, because the WNO’s production has all the ingredients in place for a heart-stopping melodrama. The stage design, though a little murky and eye-straining in the first half, opens up into a dramatic, starkly lit space in the second, and a turntable stage is used to impressive effect throughout. Most of the performances are excellent, and the costume design complements the bleak, black set wonderfully.

Anna Bolena

OK, so I did find myself on the verge of standing up and telling Lord Percy to zip it (every time he opens his mouth, someone gets in trouble), and the libretto makes curious over-use of the word “trembling” (everyone “trembles” in this opera, whatever the context), but none of that is the WNO’s fault, and should be laid more squarely at the feet of Donizetti. Where the Italian composer does excel, however, is in any set-piece involving three or more singers. Here, lines weave in and out of one another and overlap with great dexterity, and the chorus is given plenty of bombast to wrap their vocal chords around.

As with the set design, so the second half is where the opera’s music also picks up the pace, but there’s still a notable absence of anything “hummable”. Not the most important criteria in an opera, perhaps, but still… if you’re a layman like me it’s up near the top of the list, surely.

Where Anna Bolena exceeded expectations – and thus redeemed itself – was in its very last act. Here the staging, performances and – for the best part – the music combined for an edge-of-your-seat climax, with Farnocchia’s Anne donning a dramatic red cloak and utterly dominating the stage before disappearing into a mist of dry ice. Not the tear-jerking finale you – and, presumably, Donizetti – might have hoped for, but definitely enough to quicken the pace.

Even my partner – who rolls his eyes and tuts whenever I insist on listening to Radio 3 – enjoyed it enough to sign up for the next installment, Maria Stuarda. We may have found a convert.

Insidious Chapter 2 (as experienced at the AMC Loews on 34th Street)

21 Sep

AMC Loew

It appears to have been almost a month since I last posted anything on here, which is a little tardy of me, I know, but it’s been a very busy month. As well as gearing up for the release of my new novel (out now, people), last weekend I went to New York. I don’t mean to say that in a casual and slightly wanky way, as if I “pop over” to New York all the time. This trip was months in the planning, was the highlight of the year so far, and the Boyf and I had been looking forward to it for months.

As you may be able to tell.

As you may be able to tell.

We did all the usual sightseeing stuff, like taking couples’ selfies atop the Empire State Building (see above), and getting a free drive-by of the Statue of Liberty on the Staten Island Ferry, but on the Friday night we did something we could just as easily have done back home in Cardiff. We went to watch Insidious Chapter 2. 

"Shh... No-one tell them it had exactly the same release date at Cardiff Cineworld."

“Shh… No-one tell them it had exactly the same release date at Cardiff Cineworld.”

For the uninitiated, this is the sequel to James “Saw” Wan’s effective, low-budget horror movie from 2010. The original film featured some surprisingly ghost-train-like ghouls and ghosties, lots of 1980s-ish, Elm Street style dry ice, and the most terrifying use of Tiny Tim’s Tiptoe Through the Tulips you are ever likely to experience. It was sillier than a bucket of frogs, but genuinely frightening in a primal, stuff-of-nightmares kind of way, and a whole lot of fun.

Prior to watching Insidious Chapter 2 in New York, I’d been led to believe that some US audiences are more vocal and reactive than us Brits, so it made perfect sense to watch a horror movie with a crowd of locals. And by God… they didn’t disappoint.

Here in Britain, if your ticket says the movie stars at 6:30pm, it means the adverts start at 6:30, trailers will begin around 6:45, and the movie itself will start at 7pm. We entered the auditorium at 6:30, and found the place already packed. The audience, predominantly African American and Latino, had been sitting there for half an hour or more by the time we arrived, and had been watching commercials for some time.

Still... At least I now know it's pronounced Verizon-rhymes-with-horizon, not Verizon-rhymes-with-venison.

Still… At least I now know it’s pronounced Verizon-rhymes-with-horizon, not Verizon-rhymes-with-venison.

Taking seats in the first 5 rows, and having to tilt our heads right back to see the screen (more a trapezoid, from our vantage point, than a rectangle), we settled down. When some audience members cheered the trailer for the next Hunger Games movie, it became clear we were in for an amazing experience.

Don’t get me wrong… I’m usually the first person to get pissed off when my fellow audience members talk through a movie. But, you see, that’s because when British people talk through a film, they’re not reacting to the film, or talking back to the characters. They’re continuing whatever conversation they were having before the movie began, or talking about where they’ll go afterwards, and this isn’t restricted to teenagers. Go see any “art house” movie, and you’ll invariably find yourself sat in front of some 40-something couple who feel the need to mutter about their dinner reservation throughout the first act.

What I loved about the audience at the AMC Loews was their ability to shut the hell up during important dialogue, but to scream, laugh, whoop and cheer at exactly the right time. And Insidious Chapter 2 is exactly the kind of film to which an audience should scream, laugh, whoop and cheer. Like its predecessor, it’s daft, over-the-top, downright laughable in places, and surprisingly scary. It’s also a lot cleverer than any hastily-churned-out sequel has any right to be, casting new light on events from the first film in a way that borders on the ingenious.

It also somehow manages to make that Scary Old Woman character from the first movie even scarier. Brrrr.

It also somehow manages to make that Scary Old Woman character from the first movie even scarier. Brrrr.

Like the first movie, the last act is a bit of a mess, but I honestly didn’t care, because the New York audience made that film for me. I had a blast from beginning to end, and am now determined never to watch another horror movie with an audience that’s anything less than 80% African American ever again. (I’ve watched horror movies with a predominantly white audience in the Midwest, and it was not the same).

I came out of that cinema angry at how po-faced and unresponsive British audiences can be with the very movies that deserve – no, demand – a little audience participation. Next time I have to sit through a 90 minute slasher movie, I’ll be yelling “Oh no she di’n’t” in a way that’s neither dignified nor politically correct, and encouraging others to do likewise. Trust me… It adds a whole other dimension to the movie experience.