Category Archives: Reviews

Royal Opera Live: Il Trovatore

Everyone knows that opera doesn’t make any sense. Even if you allow for the fact that someone dying of consumption is unlikely to look quite so well fed and sound quite so note perfect, there’s the small matter of the often-awful plots. But even in this realm of slight and changing motivation and wafer-thin connection to reality, Verdi’s Il Trovatore deserves some kind of prize. It is utterly nonsensical. It is, however, also musically wondrous and brings out moments of emotional clarity and beauty.  You just need to have amazing singers and a staging that allows you to forget the silly bits.  And, credit to Royal Opera, they’ve managed it.

As someone who doesn’t even need an excuse to wheel out a badly whistled, hummed and foot-stomping version of the Anvil Chorus, I’m obviously going to be quite partial to a well-delivered Trovatore.  But, despite that bias, I think this is a production, and quartet of lead performances, that deserves a loud and long round of applause with multiple shouts of bravo.  If you don’t like this version you’re not going to like any version.

Leonora loves Manrico. Manrico loves Leonora. But Leonora is also pursued by the Count di Luna. The Count di Luna is fighting a war, in part to locate the younger brother his family are convinced did not die as a baby when it was thrown onto a fire by the gypsy Azucena. His family are right. Manrico is actually his brother although he has been raised as a son by Azucena who, all those years ago, threw the wrong baby into the flames.  We all make mistakes.  There are themes of vengeance, of love, of redemption.  And in the end everyone is either dead or broken.  In this staging directed by David Boesch and designed by Patrick Bannwart, they lie, fallen, beneath a buring heart.  It works brilliantly.  As does most of the rest of the production – armies are grey and fearful, gypsies are colourful but ragged, freedom is stopped by guns and barbed wire. The palette looks like Pan’s Labyrinth without the grotesque fairytale monsters. Brutality is commonplace, love struggles to shine through.

The singing is very good, although I’m sure people who know more could find some fault.  Lianna Haroutounian as Leonora and Gregory Kunde as Manrico have the range to cover all the emotional territory required, Vitaliy Bilyy does both dastardly and love struck very well. But the best of the bunch is Anita Rachvelishvili as Acuzena. Don’t worry about the plot or why things are happening when that voice and that music tells you all you need to know.

The direction for the cinema relay worked well – a nice combination of semi close-up (but not too movie-esque) and pull back to reveal the whole stage.  I’m not sure the speakers at the Hastings Odeon did justice to the chorus but everything else was nice and smooth. Clemency Burton-Hill was nicely enthusiastic and knowledgeable on presentation duties although I didn’t need to hear the Carruso quote about ‘needing the four greatest singers in the world’ quite so many times.  The only real downside was the quite low turnout – definitely the smallest crowd I’ve been in for any relay, opera or theatre.  Maybe folk didn’t want to venture out in the rain or maybe Celebrity Big Brother really is that  compelling this year.

So, overall, a splendid evening. A production that takes what works and made it fly – and managed to distract you from the stuff that doesn’t work. And leaves you applauding a screen and wanting more.  All good.


On the radio: Music on the Brink of Destruction

It’s rather eerie to be driving through fog and have, as your only aural accompaniment, a crackling, vibrato-heavy recording of a man singing a composition written for and performed to the inhabitants of a 1940s Jewish ghetto.  To then be told that this particular person was murdered by the Nazis in a concentration camp a few years later merely added to the feeling. An entirely narcissistic response, it’s true, but then the contention of Shirli Gilbert’s excellent programme was that the music created during the Holocaust creates a more personal connection than virtually anything else.

A surprising amount of material about the music of those persecuted and then murdered by the Nazis has survived either in contemporary recordings or notes, or in the thousands of hours of tapes collected by determined men in the days, months and years after the liberation of the camps.  Some of the tunes are, as you would expect, downbeat but most are cut through with either defiance or hope.  A select handful seem to have made their way into either the classical or folk canons in the years subsequently but, sadly, far too many languish now unheard. And that was Gilbert’s parting shot: people made this music to feel alive in some way in the midst of an industrialised, dehumanising, killing programme. We should make time to seek it out, not out of duty, but because this music and its stories are vital in the truest sense of the word.

A good place to start looks to be here.  And I shall be following several of the other leads Gilbert mentioned in this compelling Sunday Feature.

Film Review: Hell or High Water


Hell or High Water is a film that could have been made at virtually any time since the dawn of cinema.  The story is simple and only a handful of characters and locations are required. But whilst we could have been looking at a simple re-run of a bank robbing story, thanks to a sharp script, some strong acting and engaging direction we are instead treated to a compelling and up-to-date film whose two hours more or less fly by.

Welcome to West Texas. You’ll recognise the landscape. It may not be the exact geographical spot but in years gone by Smokey and the Bandit raced across this kind of world. But now the fun has gone and all the signs ask about how much debt you’re in. The brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster respectively) have picked up the family debt and are about to lose their ranch.  They have a plan. Rob some of the sleepier branches of the Texas Midlands bank and pay off the debt in the nick of time. On their tale are two Texas rangers of advancing years (Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham) who exchange racist banter and T-bone steaks whilst trying to track the brothers down.

This is a very male world, deliberately so as,  so what the film is keen to show are the fag days of an era.  Nobody robs banks like this any more.  When we come across a traditional cattle drive the lead rancher complains about the work and says his son will get a better job.  The towns built on earlier prosperity are now reduced to run down restaurants and, in the words of a ranger, hardware stores that cost twice as much as Home Depot.

There is a lot of warmth and humour in the script in amongst the barbs and bitterness. The direction reveals the grandeur and beauty of Texas whilst leaving us in no doubt of the toughness of the life there. The human interaction and actual bursts of action are very well handled. Bridges, looking every day and then some of his nearly seventy years, takes the plaudits as Marcus, the near-retirement ranger, but the main quartet all deserve note for their portrayals.

Hell  or High Water is a smart and enjoyable film.  Definitely one to catch.

On the radio: Britt Marie Was Here

Using the vocal talents of a couple of the cast of Parch (one of my favourite programmes) to bring to the radio an adaptation of a work by the author of A Man Called Ove (one of my favourite books) was pretty much guaranteed to be pleasing to me.  And so it proved as, over two parts, we had the story of Britt-Marie, who needs purpose in her life and seeks to find it in the forgotten and forgettable town of Borg.

Part of the Reading Europe season, Britt-Marie Was Here, drew our heroine, voiced by Pippa Haywood, to Borg in reaction to the failure of her marriage to Kent.  Britt-Marie makes lists of things to do.  She buys only one brand of window cleaner. She does not understand what it means to support Tottenham Hotspur.  You would not be surprised to learn that by the end of the book she has seen the light on Kent, has done things not on the list, cleaned windows using a generic brand, and has a fuller idea of what each team in the Premiership represents to people in Sweden who support them.  So whilst, in a general sense, there was nothing too surprising going on there were details and moments that were rather well done, and the dialogue (and, unusually, narration) was clever and fun throughout.  The adaptation by Charlotte Jones was sparky and human.  And rarely has a 14-1 defeat sounded so glorious.

There’s a lot to find annoying about radio drama and Britt-Marie Was Here won’t really have changed anyone’s mind on that but, as an example of the type, there won’t be many better examples this year.  And that’s finer praise than it sounds now I’m reading it back.  Maybe, like Britt-Marie, I need to find my own Borg and work out how to express myself more clearly.

At Wolverhampton Art Gallery: Roy Lichtenstein “Artist Rooms”


The excellent Artist Rooms initiative, which has an impressive collection of contemporary art touring the UK in single-artist exhibitions, has brought Roy Lichtenstein to Wolverhampton. The Wolverhampton Art Gallery, itself a fine example of a gallery and museum working hard to engage an audience, thus has three rooms of seminal pop-art on display although, should you enter the building through the wrong door (as we did) you might find yourself as confused as the letter writers demanding to know why £100,000 of taxpayers money was used to secure “In the Car” for the nation.

There are three rooms and, broadly, three themes in the exhibition. We look at the reflection series of works through which Lichtenstein obscured or revisited previous themes and works; we see a selection of homage works, including some complex takes on Monet’s water lillies; and, lastly, we have ‘In the Car’ and the confusion and fury around its value (in 1980) when it entered the collection of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.  As well as the expected angry letters to the press we are also shown correspondence from potential funders of the purchase, including one advising that an application for more conservative eighteenth century art would be likely to be more successful.

Obviously Lichtenstein, and indeed Pop Art as a whole, retains something of a marmite character. But this exhibition does its job remarkably well. A neat selection of works, some strong themes and then let the art speak for itself. And, despite the maze that is the entrance to Wolverhampton Art Gallery, a steady flow of folk finding their way to look – which is exactly what Artist Rooms is all about.

At Wolverhampton Art Gallery: Rosemary Terry – The Projected Kitchen

The Projected Kitchen by Rosemary Terry at Wolverhampton Art Gallery
The Projected Kitchen by Rosemary Terry at Wolverhampton Art Gallery

There are bigger names and more exotic pieces to draw you to Wolverhampton Art Gallery but there is a more domestic work that may not have the same draw but is worthy of a good look. Rosemary Terry, Wolverhampton-based, has used wood (often considered an inadequate material) to draw attention to the shapes and sights of a traditional kitchen.  In virtually every way it’s the opposite of the big and brash of modern art – and it’s all the better for it.

It’s 2D made 3D. The oversized spoons and utensils stay flat – like an old style BBC cartoon – and they are quirkily distorted and not in proportion with each other.  It’s surprisingly calming and altogether endearing.  It’s nice to take time to wander around it, remembering all the time that the soul of a house is shown best by what happens in its kitchen.

On the radio: Sunday Feature – David Attenborough: World Music Collector

A rather lovely Sunday Feature saw Radio 3 depart from its usual commitment to esoterica and instead give its listeners a nice Christmas treat in the form of David Attenborough playing through some old recordings of traditional music from around the world that he’d thought lost.

The recordings were made 50-60 years ago and, in Attenborough’s words, once the tapes were handed to the BBC that was pretty much it. They were never heard of again. It was only when he was clearing out a cellar – presumably more space was required for awards or somesuch – that he realised he was in possession of some copies. And thus we were given a forty-five minute tour of some of the highlights.

It flowed a little like an episode of Planet Earth. One moment we were in amongst some music played before the Tongan royal family, the next village gamelan players were giving their all. So much variety and, as is so often the case, so utterly compelling because Attenborough’s desire to share his enthusiasm.

It was a simple programme but all the more effective for it. The beauty of music recorded almost by accident decades ago, and stripped of any desire to be part of ‘world music’ in the contemporary sense, shone through. I loved it and if there are more tapes that David Attenborough would like to share then I’d be pleased if Radio 3 could give him the opportunity again.