Archive | June, 2014

By the Rivers of Babylon – Verdi’s ‘Nabucco’ at the WMC

13 Jun


About a quarter of the way into Nabucco, I realised that director Rupert Frey has a fondness for wonkily-timed theatrical gunshots. Back last year, he gave us his take on Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, in which – contrary to what the history books will tell you – Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester drew a handgun and shot himself in the stomach. Here, in Verdi’s 1841 opera, we had the titular king (better known as Nebuchadnezzar II) pulling a gun and firing it into the sky, thus unleashing a torrential downpour of gold glitter.

If Maria Stuarda – and, indeed, all of WNO’s Tudor trilogy – were cavalier with history, Nabucco is positively reckless. For one thing, there’s the set… or lack of one. Act 1, which Wikipedia assures me is set in Jerusalem’s Temple of Solomon, happens against a plain black backdrop, with only a smidgen of dry ice accompanying the chorus and main characters. While the orchestra romp their way through a typically bombastic overture, the chorus stumble onto the stage looking shell-shocked and bewildered. Dressed in modern clothing, they look like the survivors of a terror attack, and we soon learn that their city is being invaded by the armies of Nabucco.

Kevin Short as Zaccaria

Kevin Short as Zaccaria

Well, I say we learn this… You see, unless you’re already familiar with the story of Nabucco/Nebuchadnezzar, it’s all a bit confusing. When Nabucco’s daughter, Abigaille, and a crack team of Babylonian soldiers enter the temple in disguise, they do so dressed much like everyone else, except they’re wearing glittery blindfolds. Well… I thought they were blindfolds, but I guess, seeing as the libretto later makes mention of them being in disguise, they were meant to be masks, and… oh… well, you see what I’m getting at.

Frey’s take on Nabucco is packed full of symbolism, I was just a bit lost as to what many of those symbols meant for much of the opera. It took me until Act 3 to realise glitter and gold represented Babylon and the worship of the god Baal (here referred to as Bel), and there was some symbolic connection between the Hebrews and black chairs, but I still haven’t got the foggiest what it was.

Eventually, I decided to surrender myself to it all, regardless of whether I was following the plot, and that was when I began to enjoy it, because there is so much to enjoy here… even if it doesn’t always make a lot of sense. The production’s brightest star is without a doubt Mary Elizabeth Williams as Abigaille. Oh, my word… Where do I even start? Her vocal range is jaw-dropping, and she plays the part with tons of panache, sassing her way through the aria (Salgo già del trono aurato – I ascend the bloodstained golden thronein which she plots to seize the Babylonian crown from her half-mad father. Whether the device of a Vegas-style backdrop, and Abigaille planting back feathers in the crowns of her balaclava-wearing chorus/backing dancers works – or, indeed, means a great deal – I couldn’t say; but bloody hell, it was fun.

Mary Elizabeth Williams as Abigaille

Mary Elizabeth Williams as Abigaille

The opera’s central plot – that of the madness of Nabucco and the power struggle between the pagan cult of Baal and Judaism (represented by Abigaille and her Jewish half-sister Fenena) – is just as bewildering. One moment, Nabucco is presented as a Gadafi-like military leader, the next as an almost Peter Stringfellow-like lothario. Actually… scratch that. If David Kempster’s Nabucco reminded me of anyone, it was of a certain former X Factor contestant.

I'll leave you to work out which one I mean.

I’ll leave you to work out which one I mean.

Kevin Short’s high priest, Zaccaria, has all the stentorian boom the part demands, but is lumbered with some distracting Vogue-esque dance moves, and while Robyn Lyn Evans sings the part of Ismaele beautifully, it’s one of those thankless, dreary roles that even the most spellbinding production would fail to make work entirely.

WNO’s Nabucco is paired, this season, with Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, under the loose theme of “Faith”. It’s interesting that there are so few operas based on biblical stories, though perhaps no coincidence, given that opera’s infancy coincides with those of humanism, the renaissance and the enlightenment. Art as a whole, in painting, literature and sculpture, was moving into more secular territory. This allowed composers and librettists to serve up the meat and potatoes of opera – love stories, revenge tragedies and comedies (or opera buffe), that are still easily understood today. You don’t need a degree in theology to get your head around Tosca or Don Giovanni.

The problem for a modern, even more secular audience, when it comes to an opera such as Nabucco, is that the story itself is increasingly remote. Verdi’s librettist, Temistocle Solera, saw no need for scene-setting exposition – their pious audience would surely be familiar with the story already. In 2014, however, the average audience member (if I’m anything to go by) needs a little help, a few visual cues to tell us what’s going on, and there’s little chance of that when a production opts for such oblique imagery.

Ultimately, WNO’s Nabucco left me thrilled and baffled in equal measure. The orchestra, conducted by Xian Zhang, were on top form, and – as with Moses und Aron – the company’s chorus was outstanding, delivering a spine-tingling rendition of the opera’s most famous number, Va pensiero, sull’ali dorate (better known as the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves). The artistic choices were often more curious than thought-provoking, but still allowed for some genuinely striking imagery, and I really can’t repeat this enough, but Mary Elizabeth Williams is incredible.

Nabucco is being performed at the WMC again on Saturday June 14th, at the Birmingham Hippodrome from the 19th-21st, and at Olavinlinna Castle in Savonlinna, Finland from July 29th until August 2nd.


Moses Supposes – Schoenberg’s ‘Moses und Aron’ at the WMC

11 Jun


In theory, I should have hated Moses und Aron, and I went into the auditorium at the Wales Millennium Centre fully expecting to come out with a puzzled, slightly agitated expression on my face and the bitter feeling that I would never get the last two or three hours of my life back. Firstly, it’s by Arnold Schoenberg, a composer most famous for inventing what I call “spiky-wikey, plinky-plonky music”, but which those in the know call twelve tone, or dodecaphonic music. Twelve tone music isn’t easy on the ear, it certainly isn’t something I would tend to listen to at home, and when you’ve got a whole opera written in that style, it’s unlikely that you’ll come away humming any of the tunes.

Secondly, the work is unfinished. Schoenberg began writing it in the late 1920s, and had only written music for two of its three acts when his family were forced to flee Germany in 1933, resettling in California, where the composer would live and work until his death in 1951. I’m never quite sure how I feel about unfinished works. An unfinished novel such as Gogol’s Dead Souls is a masterpiece, even if it does end mid-sentence. Nabokov’s Laura, on the other hand, is little more than a collection of Post It notes and doodles, of interest to no-one except the most die-hard of fans and scholars.

Moses und Aron has, at least, the virtue of a fairly familiar story – telling a truncated account of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, but focused largely on the period when they wandered the desert for forty years.

If they'd had Google Maps they could have been there in under a week.

If they’d had Google Maps they could have been there in under a week.

More specifically, it explores the relationship – albeit in fairly esoteric terms – between brothers Moses and Aaron (here spelled “Aron”, allegedly because of Schoenberg’s triskaidecaphobia – Moses und Aaron having 13 letters!) After witnessing the miracle of the burning bush, Moses (Sir John Tomlinson) finds his brother Aaron (Rainer Trost) and takes him on as his spokesperson, tasked with communicating the complex message of God to the masses. This, Aaron does with what it’s fair to call “mixed results”, and the opera takes us up to the moment when Moses comes down from the mountain to find the Israelites fornicating like jack rabbits and worshipping false idols as if both pursuits were going rapidly out of fashion. So far, so The Ten Commandments, but that is where all similarities with the Easter-Sunday-afternoon-swallowing Biblical epic end.

Plus, at just over 2 hours, Schoenberg's opera clocks in at half the length of this bad boy.

Plus, at just over 2 hours, Schoenberg’s opera clocks in at half the length of this bad boy.

The WNO have borrowed a production first staged by Jossi Wieler and Serge Morabito in Stuttgart in 2003 which updates the action from the almost featureless deserts of the Middle East to a large, retro conference room; reminiscent, in particular, of the UN’s General Assembly in New York and Ken Adam’s designs on films such as Dr Strangelove. The brothers spend much of the opening scenes moving around the empty banks of mauve, leatherette seating, the libretto – with its references to burning bushes etc – often seeming more symbolic than literal.

When at last the Israelites arrive, they resemble not a ragged bunch of Olde Worlde peasants but a coachload of hijacked tourists, clad in tracksuits, jeans and t-shirts; shuffling their way uneasily into the chamber and then clambering over the seats en masse, asking their prophet of choice for answers.

As for Moses… This certainly isn’t a be-robed Charlton Heston commanding the Red Sea to part. Tomlinson’s prophet prowls the stage like a lion with a thorn in his paw, and the part – though written for a bass – is performed in sprechgesang, or sprechstimme; a combination of singing and speaking. When miracles, such as the transformation of Moses’ staff into a snake, or water turning into blood, are depicted, they are shown either as conscious metaphor (we see neither a staff nor a snake) or as confidence trick, suggesting that Aron is a charlatan from the get-go.

All this – particularly the decision to give the piece a modern setting, could come across as gimmicky, and I’m sure many will feel that it’s just that, but for me it allowed the ideas (and the libretto is packed full of ’em) to breathe, and to resonate with a contemporary audience far more than they might if Tomlinson and Co. were wandering about between fibreglass boulders in long, flowing robes.

Take the main set design, for instance. As already mentioned, it’s reminiscent of the UN’s headquarters, a building completed in 1952, just four years after the creation of the state of Israel. Is the production drawing a parallel between those Palestinians who have been more or less stateless since 1948, and the wandering Israelites of the Old Testament? Perhaps. Does it beat us over the head with this? Thankfully not.

In the second (and final) act, this space is transformed into a cinema auditorium for the scenes in which the Israelites, in Moses’ absence, descend into utter depravity. This device is surprisingly effective. The comparison between a golden idol and the cinema screen is far from strained, with lines referring to “golden rays” uncannily appropriate in context. The fact that this “audience” of Israelites are actually watching us gives the scene another dimension again – it is implied they are watching scenes of violence and/or pornography, but if we are what they are looking at, we become complicit. We are the sinners.

"Oh my God... Have you seen what that woman in Stalls J14 is wearing?"

“Oh my God… Have you seen what that woman in Stalls J14 is wearing?”

What’s more, much of this happens over a prolonged instrumental, with Schoenberg’s jarring, jagged music sounding surprisingly like film music from the 1960s, whether it’s Kubrick’s use of Ligetti and Penderecki in 2001: A Space Odyssey or Jerry Goldsmith’s percussive score to Planet of the Apes. By the time the scene has hit its zenith – or nadir – of debauchery, music and action are perfectly in sync, hitting a gut-wrenching crescendo that’ll have you begging for Moses to get his arse down off Sinai to sort things out.

Ultimately, it’s useless pretending Moses und Aron will be for everyone. I’m pretty sure I could hear nostrils flaring during the orgy scene’s more explicit moments, and the bleakly ambiguous “ending”, with Moses’ lamentation that his God defies human words, may leave some feeling unsatisfied. This isn’t exactly an opera that makes you feel, not in the sense that La boheme will have you reaching for the Kleenex, but if you’re willing to engage with the subject matter, it’s certainly an opera that will make you think.

Both Tomlinson and Trost are excellent, but the show is stolen by the chorus. While our eponymous “heroes” remain distant and unknowable to the end, the chorus is us. Their questions are our questions. Their flaws – however ugly – are our flaws. The chorus capture this in their performances, and make grappling with Schoenberg’s notoriously challenging vocal arrangements look effortless.

Moses und Aron will appear at Birmingham Hippodrome on June 18th and the Royal Opera House, London, on July 25th and 26th.

For an opposing take on the same opera – albeit one that, in my view, completely misses the point – you can read the Western Mail’s review here.

Howard’s End – The CSAD Summer Show

9 Jun

Elaine Begley

I’ve a particular attachment to Cardiff School of Art and Design’s campus at Howard Gardens. Not because I studied there – my alma mater was at Dartington, in Devon; a college that has since amalgamated with Falmouth and moved a further hundred or so miles into the deep, dark wilderness of the West Country. But Howard Gardens was where my partner studied, and every summer since we “became an item” we’ve gone along to the student summer show there.

This year has a particular poignancy, as it’ll be the last CSAD summer show held at Howard Gardens before the school ups roots and moves across the city to the leafier environs of Llandaff. The move seems a shame for a number of reasons. First, Howard Gardens – while definitely in need of a lick of paint here and there – is an excellent building for artists-in-training, filled with workshops, nooks and crannies, and beautifully well-lit studios on the upper floors. Secondly, it’s well-situated, slap bang in the middle of town; whereas Llandaff’s setting is much more quiet…

Pictured: Llandaff, circa 2009

Pictured: Llandaff, circa 2009

Who knows… Perhaps the students will benefit from being somewhere that’s closer to nature and further away from quite so many Wetherspoons. All I do know is that having spent my 3 years at Dartington surrounded by fields and trees, I developed an unhealthy longing for McDonalds, multistorey car parks and graffiti-and/or-urine saturated underpasses.

Anyway… I’m kind of drifting away from the point, here, which was, of course, the CSAD summer show. Like any graduate show, it’s an inevitably hit and miss affair – lots of work by lots of artists of varying abilities – but there are always a handful of gems that make you genuinely optimistic for the future of British art. (Especially in a world in which a recent Martin Creed retrospective, featuring such seminal works as a blob of Blu-Tack stuck to a wall, received nothing but glowing plaudits on the now-defunct Review Show.)

Fucking seriously.

Fucking seriously.

Go to enough of these shows, however, or hark back to your own art school days (if you went to art school), and you’ll realise that certain trends pop up, year after year. Oh… You’ve taken a mould of your own vagina and reproduced it in plaster/plastic/chocolate? Well done, you. That’s one in the eye for phallocentric hegemony. You’ve nailed some bits of wood together and have them jutting out of the walls at funny angles? Yes… That really makes me reconsider this “space”.

But I’m being cruel. If you were born in 1993, and thus didn’t study at Dartington in the late 1990s or attend the last 5 or 6 CSAD summer shows, perhaps you’ve no idea that you’re not the first artist to serve up vaginas or bits of wood.

For me, though the overall standard of work this year was very high (even the plaster vaginas looked good, en masse) there were four real stand-outs. Beth Marriott’s exquisitely detailed matchbox tableaux, based on the ailing memories of her grandmother, are just stunning and packed full of detail. I only wish I’d had more time to look at them.

Elaine Begley has crafted wax cubes, each one filled with layers of detritus, that manage to be both a little bleak (they look like polluted ice cores dug up in the distant future) and very beautiful. Placed on a grid of pedestals they were visually striking and endlessly fascinating.

Pic by me

Pic by me

I do love a good, tactile, hands-on installation, and James George’s Brecon Beacons Project ticked all of those boxes. Set in a large chest of draws, the artist has carried out lengthy research; photographing, documenting and taking samples of material from the Brecon Beacons, before producing his own rough-hewn paper and notebooks, as well as perspex artworks based on the results. Like Marriott’s matchboxes, it’s a work I wish I could have spent more time looking at, as I felt I was only able to scratch the surface.

My personal star of this year’s summer show, however, was painter Helen Bur. Without realising it, I’d actually seen a number of her works before. She has painted giant murals in and around Roath, and exhibited at Milgi’s Art in the Warehouse, but her paintings on show at the CSAD are just exceptional. Reminiscent of Gerhard Richter’s portraits and character studies in their hazy, but almost photographic focus, I could have spent the whole day staring at them. Absolutely stunning.

The Leader by Helen Bur

The Leader by Helen Bur

Perhaps the best thing about the CSAD summer show is that you’re given no idea which students will be rewarded with the highest marks for their efforts. You might be able to work one or two out for yourself, but – unless you have a loved one exhibiting and are a bit biased – you really are free to pick your favourites, with no pressure to like any particular style. The artists are unknowns, without the weight and baggage of famous names that can make first-time gallery-goers feel obliged to like a certain work which, otherwise, they’d be quite indifferent to. As Grayson Perry pointed out in last year’s Reith Lectures, all galleries should have a sign over the door saying, “You don’t have to like everything”. A student summer show does more or less exactly that.

Having gone through the art school system, I can say this is probably for the better. The year I graduated, the vaginas received the only First Class Honours on the entire course.

The CSAD Summer Show is on at Howard Gardens until Friday 13th June.

The image at the top of the page is Elaine Begley’s own photo of her work Tranquility.

No Fit State Circus – ‘Bianco’

7 Jun


Until this week, I had only been to the circus twice. Once, actually, if we don’t include a 2004 performance by Circus Oz at the Royal Festival Hall. The only other occasion was in some muddy field in Cwmbran, and was a thoroughly depressing experience. Oh, I’m sure I probably marvelled at the animals and the trapeze artists and the clowns, but what stayed with me long after the show was the sight of a miserable-looking tiger, his chin resting dolefully on crossed paws, in a cage outside the big top. The sky was grey and it was raining. Even at the age of 8 or 9 I knew that was no place for a tiger.

Since then, circus animals have gone out of vogue, and have all but disappeared, leaving behind a slightly different kind of circus; one self-consciously old fashioned, but also artistically ambitious. Companies such as Canada’s Cirque du Soleil (est. 1984) have become global brands, with branches in Vegas and Disneyworld, and countless others have followed in their wake.

I must admit, I’ve been a little slow in coming to the No Fit State party. Though consisting of performers from around the world, the company has been Cardiff-based since 2006, and was founded all the way back in 1986, yet I hadn’t heard of them until they moved into a deconsecrated church a few streets from my home a year or two back. Suddenly it seemed as if everyone I knew had heard of them, and not only that but had signed up to the company’s circus skills classes.

"The dream of the '90s is alive in... Cardiff?"

“The dream of the ’90s is alive in… Cardiff?”

Like many other new circus companies, No Fit State specialise in themed, narrative-driven shows – though, to be brutally honest, I’m never entirely convinced a narrative is necessary. If Bianco is about something other than people in peak physical condition doing amazing things with ropes, I honestly couldn’t tell you what that “something” is.

Where No Fit State differ from the likes of Cirque du Soleil and Circus Oz, however, is in the staging of their shows. Like a traditional circus, they operate out of a big top (nicknamed the Silver Spaceship), but unlike a traditional circus, there are no seats. Once inside the tent, you are more or less free to wander around, to experience the show from different angles. Sometimes you’ll find yourself in the front row, sometimes the back row.  And no attempt is made to hide the mechanics of the circus from the audience – the athletically squirrel-like crew members clamber up and down the rigging in full view, and are often almost as compelling as the trapeze artists themselves.


The show begins with much of the rigging concealed behind translucent sheets, the performers visible only as shadows. Over the live band’s almost klezmer-like intro music they holler and whoop. As a newcomer to this kind of circus, there was the distinct worry in these opening minutes that what was about to follow would be much more fun for the artists than the audience… Thankfully, that worry was unfounded. Within minutes I found myself thinking, “I AM EXPERIENCING A CHILD-LIKE SENSE OF WONDER FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MANY, MANY YEARS.”


Whether it was Hugo Oliveira’s insanely dextrous juggling, or Elena Burani’s genuinely breath-taking trapeze work, there was constantly something happening that defied belief. You have to remind yourself – in an age when, thanks to CGI, movie characters can do just about anything – that this is really happening, that these people are actually doing this for real, in front of your very eyes, without the assistance of Industrial Light and Magic.

Reassuringly, the children in the audience seemed equally impressed, though they were considerably outnumbered by adults. This does make me wonder who, ultimately, modern circuses are for. One would hope they are still conceived with a family audience in mind, because it strikes me that we are desperately in need of family entertainments that aren’t screen-based, that today’s children are growing accustomed to the idea that the only things worth experiencing are experienced via a TV or tablet. The first thing I did, on stepping out of the big top, was send a text message to a friend with children, recommending the show; but I did so with the caveat that her son, now almost 11 years old, might have reached an age of peak cynicism, when the sight of someone almost literally flying might inspire nothing so much as a shrug and a “So what?”

"I have seen a man fly, and quite frankly, it was a disappointment."

“I have seen a man fly, mother, and quite frankly, it was a disappointment.”

Still, for this 36-year-old, Bianco was the stuff of wide eyes and a permanently dropped jaw. I was going to wrap this post up by telling you that those of you in Cardiff have one more night (June 7th) to catch it, but I’m both afraid and pleased to say it’s sold out.

Bianco goes on tour from June 14th, and will be appearing in Limerick, Rennes, Edinburgh and Utrecht between then and the end of September.