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GLENN LONEY'S SHOW NOTES
By Glenn Loney, March 5, 2000
 London Calling!
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
 West End Revisited
 Alan Ayckbourn's "Comic Potential"
 Maggie Smith as "The Lady in the Van"
 Joe Orton's Agent—"Peggy for You"
 New Works at National Theatre
 "Battle Royal"—The Anger of George IV
 "Honk!"—New Musical Ugly Duckling
 ENO's Operas in English
 ENO Premiere of O'Casey's "Silver Tassie"
 Magical ENO "Magic Flute"
 Covent Garden's Royal Opera House Reborn
 Alagna & Gheorghiu in "R&J"
 Royal Ballet's Charming "Coppélia"
 The Millennium Wheel
 The Millennium Dome
 "1900—Art at the Crossroads"
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For a selection of Glenn Loney's previous columns, click here.
LONDON CALLING!It has been almost a decade since I spent any time in London—despite its tremendous attraction as a City of the Arts. Its theatre, musical, opera, ballet, and modern dance presentations are generally outstanding. And often they are challenging, provocative, and innovative. As well as in English—now a great international language for tourists.
Last Fall, I did at least spend the Bank Holiday in London—after my time at the Edinburgh Festival. But the major institutional theatres had not yet begun their seasons.
Fortunately, Sam Wanamaker's dream-project, the reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre III on the South Bank was open and performing. I was able to see the Artistic Director, Mark Rylands, cavort as the Egyptian Queen in "Antony & Cleopatra."
And to see my very own Stone in the entrance of Door Three. It says GLENN LONEY, but initially I did want, instead, to pay tribute to Sam & Will. That was not allowed.
There are a lot of famous names on the Stones in the doorways and the courtyard outside—including most of the Wanamaker Family, notably the dynamic actress Zoë Wanamaker.
If you cannot afford to put your name in stone over the entrance to some Regional Theatre or College Library, it's unfortunately too late to put it down in the Globe Yard—which would have been much less expensive.
You still can, however, have your Autograph etched in copper and installed in the handsome new Shakespeare Exhibition beneath the Globe. You can also—or alternatively—have your name attached to a seat in the Globe. Or wait for the completion of the onsite Inigo Jones' Cockpit Theatre.
For more information: Shakespeare's Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, London SE 1 9DT. Phone: 011-44-(0)20-7902-1400/FAX: 011-44-(0)20-7902-1460.
Of course I took the time to admire my autograph there, remembering all those years when Sam Wanamaker was trying so hard to enlist patrons and popular support for this project.
Every summer I came to London, I'd make a point of going to the Bear Gardens to interview Sam about the progress of the project. He was never entirely discouraged, but he was often sadly disappointed at the British Press.
The projected Globe was generally viewed as one of those "Crackpot American Schemes." And it initially attracted very little support from Brits and Londoners.
Today, it is the centerpiece of an amazing rebirth on the formerly shabby old Bankside lots along the Thames in Southwark. Nearby, the once demolition-threatened Art Deco Bankside Power Station is to open in May, reborn as the new Tate Gallery.
The Tate and the Globe will soon be linked with the City of London by a splendid new Millennium Footbridge—with Saint Paul's Cathedral at the other terminus.
With my reborn interest in London and its many attractions, I realized I'd have to do better than a three-day Bank Holiday. But there were two-week trips to Irish Festivals and Parisian performances already planned for the autumn.
As the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, had been closed for two years—to be completely rebuilt as a modern theatre-machine—I knew I'd have to see it backstage and in performance. Obviously, it would be overwhelmed with opera-lovers and journalists during its December re-opening.
So a week in the depths of February seemed a good idea. In the event, it proved a splendid choice, with sunny days and fairly mild weather. Not only was the Royal Opera a wonderful surprise, but other theatre-experiences—described below—made this a splendid way to become re-acquainted with the beautiful, fascinating, and historic city of London.
It's true that I stayed away from Paris—and the French—for some 43 years. But that aversion was born of different causes than my decade-long absence from London.
Quite simply, I used to stay enjoyably and inexpensively with various friends in London. But they either died or retired to remote rural areas.
The idea of paying £175 daily for a shabby hotel-room was an insuperable obstacle. I don't pay anything like that anywhere else in Europe in summer.
Fortunately, my opera/theatre week in London—and Virgin Air flight—cost me much less than prices customarily quoted to tourists. I did not do this Dot.Com, for you can have some horrible experiences with last-minute cheapies.
Instead, I had the entire package—excluding my press-comp and pay theatre-tickets—planned by MERCATOR TRAVEL, in mid-Manhattan. They book flights, rail-travel, & hotels for all my foreign theatre-adventures at impressive reductions. PHONE: 212-682-6979. FAX: 212-682-7379. Email: mercator11.aol.com
The West End Revisited—Scanning the London Theatre Guide, one has a strong sense of déjà vu. That is, we've already all seen most of these shows in London, on Broadway, or on tour.
Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap" is now in its 47th Year!
Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Cats" is now 19 years old at the New London Theatre, the insides of which I've not seen since the premiere all those years ago.
Lord Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera" is in its "14th record-breaking year." His "Starlight Express"—which had a very short turn on Broadway very long ago—seems ageless at the Apollo Victoria.
"Whistle Down the Wind"—which Lloyd Webber has transformed from its cinematic origins to a kind of musical combination of "Tobacco Road" and "The Fugitive"—continues to draw audiences. Last fall, I found it impressive in its mechanics, but bizarre in its Trans-Atlantic vision of life in a bigoted, ignorant, Fundamentalist American Southland.
In its "11th electric year" is "Buddy," which also was very, very briefly on the Great White Way. And that's about an American pop star, set in America, yet.
Willy Russell's "Blood Brothers" had a decent Broadway run, but its London career has been much more remarkable. A prize-winner way back in 1983, it had a long run. Then it was revived in the present production, now in its "12th hit year."
"The World's Most Popular Musical" is now in its 15th year at the Palace Theatre, owned and restored by Lloyd Webber. But it's not his musical. It is "Les Mis," by Boublil and Schönberg. Their "Miss Saigon" is mercifully no longer on view.
I cannot recall having seen it anywhere in the US, but "Blast! The American Musical Spectacular" in London has been called "Breathtaking" and "Unmissable." I missed it once again.
"Fosse," "Chicago," and "The Lion King" are also luring audiences, even Americans who can't get tickets for the Disney spectacular at home.
Lucie Arnaz is to appear in a musical version of "The Witches of Eastwick" come summer. Charles Aznavour's musical, "Lautrec," opens in April.
Although Bridget D'Oyly Carte long ago seemed to have wound up the family business and tired revivals of Gilbert & Sullivan comic operas, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company is back at its historic venue, the Savoy Theatre, with "H. M. S. Pinafore." The success of the G&S film, "Topsy-Turvy," may have something to do with the success of this venture.
J. B. Priestley's "An Inspector Calls" is in its "6th hit year," probably because of that cute model-house in the midst of a bleak stage. Priestley never had such a long-running success in his own lifetime, admired though his works once were.
But "The Woman in Black" is even older, now in its "11th smash year." This boring quasi-thriller is announced at the opening of each Broadway season for immanent production. F. Murray Abraham has been mentioned, on occasion, as the potential star. But it's not a cross-dressing role, fortunately.
Yasmina Reza's Parisian boulevard comedy, "Art," continues its long run, complete with a guarantee from Clive Barnes that "You'll roar with laughter." As the quote is from the NY "Post," he must have meant the Broadway production.
If you missed Conor McPherson's weird "The Weir" at the Walter Kerr, it's still running at the Duke of York's.
None of these appealed, as I'd seen them before or was still trying to avoid them. No, something new was in order.
Just now, laying out the programs from my very brief foray into London's West End theatre-district, I'm surprised to realize that all three of the currently popular plays I chose were written by playwrights with the first name of Alan: Alan Ayckbourn, Alan Bennett, and Alan Plater.
Broadway Potential in "Comic Potential"Some of Alan Ayckbourn's recent comedies have been very dark. The future of human relations has often seemed bleak indeed.
In "Comic Potential"—set in "the foreseeable future when everything has changed except human nature"—Ayckbourn has imagined life at its bleakest. And, at the same time, at its most hysterically comical.
Curiously, this is both a romantic love-story and a biting satire of TV programming and its [unseen] audiences.
The twist on the conventional boy-meets-girl plot is that the young hero is a would-be script-writer who falls in love with an Actoid.
These are cleverly programmed robots who have replaced temperamental live actors to enact the totally predictable rubbish of TV sitcoms and soap-operas.
David Soul is ferociously frantic as Chandler Tate, the former cinematic genius, now reduced to cranking out formula TV series shows on a tight schedule. His directorial skills no longer require coddling actors, for all his players are machines.
He works for the mysterious old Lester Trainsmith [John Branwell], a multi-media mogul, who employs an odd young man to push his wheelchair and speak for him.
Janie Dee is a lovely wonder as the pert blonde Actoid, Jacie Triplethree. Something strange is happening to her programs: She seems to be responding more and more as a human, using snatches of dialogue and expressions from old sitcoms and soaps.
Trainsmith's aspiring writer-nephew [Matthew Cottle] falls in love with her. But the path of True Love was never as hilariously obstacle-littered as the one Ayckbourn has constructed.
Among other road-blocks is the man-eating TV executive Carla Pepperbloom [Jacqueline King]. She makes New York's Power Ladies look like pussycats.
There's even a frantic chase-sequence, complete with a stop in a kinky London bordello.
Ayckbourn has staged his comedy with taut pacing, rising tension, and remarkable attention to intricate farcical encounters involving the Actoids.
Not only should this be a big hit on Broadway—and a staple of regional, stock, amateur, and college theatres—but also a MAJOR MOTION PICTURE.
Maggie Smith Is "The Lady in the Van"The soft-spoken, diffident, bespectacled playwright, Alan Bennett, has always seemed a bit ineffectual. His professional persona has been that of a disinterested but compassionate observer.
If something is gravely or comically wrong, he can describe or evoke that with incisive skill. But he doesn't get involved or offer any solutions.
Even in his first important public appearance—as one of the quartet in "Beyond the Fringe" at the Edinburgh Festival decades ago—his quizzical observations were made all the more hilarious by his non-meddling Bystander approach to life.
In real life, this is apparently not just a comic stance or persona. In "The Lady in the Van" and some of his other plays, this is made all too clear.
Miss Shepherd, the Lady in question—brilliantly played by Maggie Smith—one day enlists Bennett's aid in pushing her van into a more convenient position on his street.
As he soon discovers, she is pushy herself. And opinionated and not a little peculiar. The BVM—better known as the Blessed Virgin Mary—frequently shares her insights with Miss Shepherd. Who also smells rather strongly, eschewing bathing and clean linens.
Eventually, she has Bennett push her van onto his own property, where it and she remain for some years. To Bennett's bemused consternation and his neighbors' immense annoyance.
His toleration of his uninvited guest—it's her suggestion that she settle her van in his front-yard—may be a result of his own guilt in not permitting his old and lonesome mother to live out her life with him. Instead of sharing his bachelor house with her, he's packed her off to an Old Folks Home.
Only after Miss Shepherd's death in the van, does he find out who she really was and why she adopted her vagrant, if motorized, life-style.
There are confrontations, but not strong ones, and Bennett always backs down. He also manages to shield her from his neighbors.
In order to make this material function as a play—even a Memory-Play—he has doubled himself. An older, possibly wiser, Alan Bennett observes the events of the drama from his study. A younger Alan Bennett actually has to deal with Miss Shepherd, often with spectacular lack of success.
Part of the dramatic tension—which, in any case, is limited—results from the questioning inter-action of Bennett Senior and Bennett Junior. Nicholas Farrell and Kevin McNally manage to look rather like the author at two ages.
Unlike Ayckbourn, Bennett has not staged his own play. He has entrusted that to Nicholas Hytner, who has done his work with sensitivity and wry charm.
This doesn't seem a potential Broadway Blockbuster. But it should surely have a production in New York, possibly at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Primary Stages' primary-stage is just too small for the van.
Joe Orton's Agent in BioPlay:
Margaret Ramsay Revealed in "Peggy for You"At the close of "The Lady in the Van," Alan Bennett makes a reference to the late satiric playwright, Joe Orton. As he wrote the screenplay for the film about Orton—adapted from John Lahr's biography, "Prick Up Your Ears"—he knows a thing or two about Orton.
Curiously, Joe Orton is never mentioned in Alan Plater's new comedy, "Peggy for You." Orton was one of authors' agent Peggy Ramsay's most celebrated, if notorious, clients.
Plater's play is filled with anecdotes about Ramsay's often outrageous and high-handed treatment of her stable of writers—and of producers and publishers.
An initial example is her sending two quite different royalty checks to the wrong playwrights. Both of them are named Alan. But one [Alan Ayckbourn] lives in Scarborough. The other [Alan Plater, author of this bioplay] lives in Hull.
Her harried secretary [Selina Griffiths] is ordered to purchase an atlas to prevent such mistakes in future. The playwrights, however, have already sorted it out, Ayckbourn having earned far more than Plater. Contrasting this play with "Comic Potential," it's easy to see why.
But it is a loss not to have Peggy—played with antic verve by Maureen Lipman—describe having to identify the corpses of Joe Orton and his murderous lover, Ken Halliwell, at the morgue.
The insanely jealous underachiever Halliwell had smashed the sleeping Orton's skull repeatedly with a hammer. What amused Peggy—as she retailed her reactions to visitors to her script-crowded office—was the fact that Halliwell's cheap new wig had fallen from his smooth bald head.
"Ken was so proud of that ridiculous wig!" she told me. "And there he lay, with his head looking like an ostrich-egg!"
I had come to know Peggy Ramsay through having done interviews with a number of her clients. We got on very well, as she told me things about them I'd never have dared to put into a feature article.
Once, I asked her to intercede for me, as I wanted to buy Carl Toms' scenic sketch for the Young Vic "Scapino," starring Jim Dale. Carl had loaned it to me to illustrate the production book I had created for Dramatic Publishers, Carl was flattered that I liked it so much, but it was too costly for me.
As a result of admiring Joe Orton's first West End success, "Entertaining Mr. Sloane," and subsequently interviewing him the only time he was in New York—for the disastrous Broadway premiere—we became correspondents.
Every summer, when I came to London, we'd meet at the Arts Theatre. He'd treat me to lunch and then read recent reviews—the good, the bad, and the ugly—aloud to me, with acerbic comments.
He told me how excited he was that notable theatre people were taking him up socially. And also that he had to leave Halliwell. He already had another friend, but he didn't disclose his name.
His letters to me are now in the Berg Manuscript Collection of the New York Public Library. They are very amusing and sarcastic.
I thought they might make an interesting small book, but Peggy pointed out that, though I owned the actual letters, their contents were the property of the Orton Estate.
John Lahr, another Ramsay client, was chosen to write the definitive biography. Peggy noted that, not only was I not one of her clients, but also that I had not written "Notes on a Cowardly Lion."
So I gave John copies of all the letters. Since then, shocked colleagues have said to me: "You're in Joe Orton's Diaries!"
No. No way. Only in the footnotes.
Still, if Peggy Ramsay had agreed to represent me as agent, would I be famous today? Or would I have been as cavalierly treated as some of her unfortunate clients in "Peggy for You"?
The framework of the play—on which the anecdotes are displayed—is Peggy's question to every writer who calls or appears in her office on one anecdote-packed day: WHAT IS A PLAY?
An eager young would-be playwright [Tom Espiner]—"Shadows of Nothingness"—has been summoned to Ramsay's office. The script is dreadful, but he has a few promising scenes. She is obviously interested in him.
She is amused and surprised when one of her most successful writers [Crispin Redman]—whom she thought was gay—announces impending marriage.
One angry playwright [Richard Platt], feeling very neglected, lays her new carpet before breaking with her forever. Another dies, offstage. She has no sympathy for what she regards as failure.
Peggy Ramsay was one tough—but witty—lady. Maureen Lipman does her proud, almost as well as Vanessa Redgrave in the Orton film.
But Plater's play—staged by Robin Lefèvre—may be a bit too Brit for an Atlantic Crossing.
New Works at the Royal National Theatre:In its earliest incarnation, Britain's National Theatre presented its stunning productions at the historic Old Vic. Sir Laurence Olivier—soon to become Lord Olivier—directed its programs from some temporary office-boxes nearby.
It was there that I had a fascinating interview with the devastating critic Kenneth Tynan, one of the first Dramaturgs in the English-speaking theatre. Olivier, Tynan, and the entire NT ensemble were waiting for the new National Theatre to be completed on the South Bank of the Thames.
When this concrete blockhouse was opened, I had an interview with its architect Sir Denys Lasdun. The building had earned him a knighthood. And severe criticism from many critics, both from the worlds of architecture and theatre.
Sir Denys was convinced that the concrete would age well. And that the company would learn how best to use the theatre. For starters, the two-story revolving elevator-stage froze and wouldn't move.
The NT—now ennobled with the "Royal" patent—still has its critics, both as a structure and a producing ensemble. But its production-record over the years, in the huge open-stage Olivier, the proscenium-framed Lyttelton, and the intimate cockpit Cottesloe Theatres, has been outstanding.
Among its many notable premieres have been the adaptation of "Wind in the Willows" by Alan Bennett. And Bennett's remarkable historical drama, "The Madness of King George." This later became the memorable film, The Madness of George III."
There have been so many King Georges by now that overseas audiences need the numbers to keep them straight. HRH Charles, The Prince of Wales, is reported to be considering as his royal style & title: King George VII.
King Charles I was beheaded by Cromwell. King Charles II was a great profligate. One has to be careful about such matters.
Now the Royal National Theatre has a very stylish production dealing with the madness of King George III's son, the spoiled and effete Prince Regent. He's not quite crazy like his unfortunate father—who lost the American Colonies—but he is very mad that he's been forced into an arranged marriage.
"Battle Royal"—The Anger of George IV:
Playwright Nick Stafford lacks the wry regard of the past that distinguished Alan Bennett's drama about the Prince Regent's father. Nonetheless, I found this mini-epic both amusing and revelatory.
SHYLOCK UPDATED--Henry Goodman as the money-lender on trial in the new National Theatre production of "Merchant of Venice." Photo: John Haynes.
For audiences who know almost nothing about the Hanoverian Succession on the British Throne—especially of the rulers who immediately preceded Queen Victoria—this royal comedy-conflict may seem a bit underwritten. More background would be helpful, not to mention more depth of character and historical detail in action.
In Alan Bennett's play and film, the petulant and spendthrift Prince Regent and his clueless younger brother, Prince William—"Sailor Billy," later King William IV—were very clearly sketched and animated.
Perhaps the film should be shown as a curtain-raiser? Or both dramas presented in repertory?
That would make a really interesting double-bill.
As it is, the depth of the animosity of the Regent/King [Simon Russell Beale] towards his wife, the willful Caroline of Brunswick—ferociously played by Zoë Wanamaker, almost in her Elektra mode—is not made dramatically potent.
NOT EVEN QUEEN FOR A DAY--Zoé Wanamaker as King George IV's spurned wife, Caroline of Brunswick. Photo: Ivan Kynel.
Her manners are outrageous. She is bumptious and disrespectful. She doesn't change her drawers or bathe. She smells.
THE PRINCE OF WALES THAT WAS--Simon Russell Beale as the petulant dandy Prince Regent in the National Theatre's "Battle Royal." Photo: Ivan Kynel.
The fastidious bewigged Prince, all ribbons and silks, cannot stand to be near her. He doesn't even wish to see her.
But a legitimate Royal Heir has to be sired. That is why the German Princess has been brought to the English Court.
Unfortunately, her Royal Husband is already [illegally] married to a Roman Catholic commoner, Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert [Suzanne Burden]. As Head of the [Protestant] Anglican Church, that is a big no-no for him. His distant ancestor, the Defender of the Faith, King Henry VIII, also had some highly dramatic marital problems.
The Prince breathes a sigh of relief when his wife goes abroad on a royal subvention. She indulges herself royally, especially in Northern Italy—where she takes a lover [Duncan Duff], whom she ennobles.
When King George III dies, she becomes, in effect, Queen Caroline. But she is not acknowledged as such by her angry husband.
The Royal Contention becomes a political issue, with Whigs and Tories taking sides. Workers, sailors, and commoners rally to Caroline's defense. They see the King as a tyrannical wastrel, squandering the Royal Purse.
As Prince Regent, he was always deeply in debt. The fabulous Royal Pavilion in Brighton remains a vivid testimony to both the Prince's taste and waste.
Reading about this battle-royal years ago, I was impressed with the image of a frantic Queen Caroline, arriving for the Coronation at Westminister Abbey in her carriage, only to have the doors slammed shut in her face.
This could have made a powerful scene, but the structure, direction, and design of the play did not permit that. It's to be hoped the film-version will correct that.
In order to discredit her claims as Queen, a Parliamentary trial is invoked to prove her an immoral woman, unworthy of crown and title.
King George IV's Hanoverian ancestor, King George I of England, also had a problem with an adulterous wife. But she deceived this brutish monarch in Hanover with Count Königsmarck. When the Elector of Hanover was called to the English throne, he left her behind in permanent imprisonment in Schloss Celle.
There is a haunting color film about this tragedy: "Saraband for Dead Lovers." Peter Bull is the king; Valerie Hobson, his abused queen, and Stewart Grainger, her lover. Flora Robson plays the insanely jealous Lady-in-Waiting who betrays them.
I believe the unfortunate queen's name was Sophie Dorothea. Or was it Caroline Mathilde? Both these tragic queens were imprisoned by royal husbands for adultery. One in Germany, the other in Denmark, by the jealous and somewhat insane King Christian IX—played in another color film by Horst Buchholz.
Unlike the Impeachment of President Clinton—which resonates in "Battle Royal"—Caroline of Brunswick is humiliated, excoriated, but finally not vindicated. There is also obviously a strong parallel with Prince Charles' bitter divorce from Diana, Princess of Wales.
Both these recent references make this drama topical enough to find eager audiences beyond Britain. But a little more detail would not be amiss.
Director Howard Davies—using designer Rob Howell's two revolving columnar arcs and a central mobile columned podium—does very well to keep the short scenes scooting along. Even with this cinematic effect, the show still runs three hours.
Nick Stafford's problem—if he wants to see his play prosper abroad—is what to add and what to cut. And how to restructure what now may baffle non-Brits.
I found the deliberate spareness of the production less than regal and somewhat colorless. This was greatly offset by the vigor and elegance of the ensemble, which included Gemma Jones, Caroline Harker, Hugh Ross, and Michael Mueller.
Hans Christian Andersen Revised:
"HONK! The Ugly Duckling"
This charming musical may not be as thoroughly brilliant as Alan Bennett's "Wind in the Willows," produced by the National some years ago for the holiday season. But it nonetheless fulfills the function of the traditional British Christmas Pantomime.
DUCK FOR DINNER--Gilz Terera as the Ugly Duckling in "Honk!" at London's National Theatre. Photo: Catherine Ashmore.
Pantos are almost never about Christmas and they are certainly never mimed. Adventure stories and fairytales are their standard fare. "Honk!" qualifies on both counts.
Not only is it a retelling of a famous Danish fairytale, but it has been revised as a lively action-musical—complete with a life-or-death chase, as well.
On the great round open-stage of the Olivier Theatre, flanked with giant cattails to screen the wings, Mother Ida [Beverley Klein] keeps her huge eggs warm for hatching. There are four large white ones and a much larger speckled brown egg.
When the ducklings are born, they all quack. All except the Ugly Duckling [Gilz Terera], who emits an embarrassing honk. Ida loves them all, but Ugly even a bit more because her husband Drake [David Burt] and the neighbors scorn him.
Obviously, that's not enough to fill up an evening, waiting for Ugly to mature into a beautiful male swan. So librettist/lyricist Anthony Drewe has arranged an Ab-Duck-shun. His book is full of hilariously low puns like this.
An elegantly tailored male cat [Jasper Britton]—his hair stylishly teased to suggest a real Dandy of a tomcat—lures the lonely Ugly to his lair. He proposes some fun & games as he trundles out an immense dinner-table.
His big song is "You Can Play with Your Food." Intending to eat some hot Duck à l'orange, he has a frantic time trying to prepare his prey. But his fowl-play only leaves the audience bellowing with laughter, as Ugly escapes.
He doesn't give up. By no means. He's on the trail of the duck throughout the musical.
As is Mother Ida, leaving her ducklings with Drake, to go off in search of Ugly: "Every Tear a Mother Cries."
Pursued by the Cat, Ugly meets some helpful geese in "Wild Goose Chase." Later, he finds some swans—and falls in love with pretty Penny [Ceri Ann Gregory]: "Now I've Seen You."
On his picaresque but perilous journey, Ugly encounters a very musical bullfrog. This confident green gent does a Music Hall comedian's "turn," milking the audience, young and old, for repeats and applause.
He even gets spontaneous responses from toddlers in the audience. Or were those planted?
In his big song, "Warts and All," he shows Ugly how to be proud of himself. This very funny frog is played by David Burt, who is also Drake, the dad.
At the outset, Ugly feels the pain of not fitting in, as he sings "Different." At the close, of course, he's so wonderfully different that all the birds and fowls admire him.
To underline this show's message of tolerance and compassion, there's an Odd Couple, a domesticated Hen and a Cat, who are house-pets: "It Takes All Sorts To Make a World."
Diverted from his pursuit of Ugly, the Tomcat sees the Hen as a nice bit of Chicken à la King. But his libido is aroused by the Cat of the house.
Everything comes right at last, not least thanks to the charming tunes of George Stiles. This delightful production was staged by Julia McKenzie ["Side-by-Side by Sondheim"], working with the young NT Ensemble to develop it.
This would be a fine show for the New Victory Theatre on 42nd Street's Theatre Block. The NT program notes that the work had its American premiere at the Helen Hayes Performing Arts Center in Nyack, NY, mid-February. Presumably not with the NT Ensemble?
For those who are able to fly off to London in March or April, here are some productions in the current repertory: "Battle Royal," "Baby Doll," "Merchant of Venice," "Honk!," "Summerfolk," "Villains' Opera," "Oresteia 1 & 2," and the three Medieval Mystery Plays—Nativity, Passion, & Doomsday.
Opera Always Sung in EnglishA decade or so ago, before Sir Peter Jonas left the English National Opera to become General-Intendant of the Bavarian State Opera, he assured me that I would hear and understand every word of Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" from anywhere in the house.
At ENO—The English National Opera
This was quite a boast, for ENO performs in the London Coliseum, a huge barn of a theatre, designed by Frank Matcham—famous for his huge Empire Theatres all over Britain. The vast Coliseum is even adorned with Roman emblems and trophies, including two chariots pulled by three golden lions apiece on either side of the great proscenium arch.
The production—ingeniously staged by Dr. Jonathan Miller and innovatively designed by Richard Hudson—featured Bryn Terfel, then at the beginning of his career, as a raffish, scheming Figaro.
Because of overwhelming ticket-demands, I found myself way up in a corner, under an overhanging tier. As ENO uses no supertitles, I wouldn't have that now valuable aid to understanding.
All ENO operas are sung in English, so no titles have been thought necessary. Other opera-houses have found English supertitles a great help—even with librettos in English.
The reasons for this are several, not least because of the singers' desire to produce pure tones of exquisite beauty, flowingly phrased. Music critics like that a lot, caring less or not at all about the acting, sets, costumes, & lighting.
But pure tone can hamper clarity of articulation. And not all librettos in English are eminently singable and dramatic—unfortunately.
Even clearly sung words and phrases, if they are not issuing from a believable stage-character, in the grip of strong emotions, won't convey meaning and passion.
I had absolutely no problems hearing or understanding. And the musical and dramatic performances were superb.
But then I had heard "Figaro" countless times before at the Bavarian State Opera for some four decades. There, in Munich, I had learned to understand it in German, which was the stage-language of most German State Theatres before they assumed International Pretensions.
As has long been the case with the New York City Opera—in relation to its Lincoln Center neighbor, the Metropolitan Opera—ENO stands in a similar relationship to the Royal Opera, Covent Garden.
All four opera ensembles have large auditoriums, but both ENO and NYCO have production budgets which are almost insignificant, compared with their respective cities' International Houses.
This means that their productions have to be set, costumed, lighted, and staged with great ingenuity and novelty, to provide an extra lure for opera-lovers who expect stupendous and solidly built productions at the Met and Covent Garden.
Often, when two productions of the same opera are on view, it's ENO & NYCO who will have the more original and innovative stagings.
Of course small budgets also mean no huge fees for hefty tenors and bulky sopranos. Both ENO and NYCO have, as a result, been able to introduce and develop outstanding new vocal and dramatic talents.
Soon enough these shining novices move on to the Met, Covent Garden, La Scala, and Salzburg. In the meantime, however, you can still catch the Stars of Tomorrow at the Coliseum and the New York State Theatre.
Tickets at both these venues are substantially less expensive than at Covent Garden and the Met. At the Coliseum, seats can cost as little as £2.50 [$3.75], and more than half the seats in the house cost no more than £27.
O'Casey & Turnage's World Premiere:
"The Silver Tassie" Pacifist, Not Peaceful
Sean O'Casey, at the end of his life, was a somewhat cranky, embittered old man. Because of his celebrity—and my admiration for "Juno and the Paycock" and "The Plough and the Stars"—I went to see him in his retirement in Torquay, Devon.
IRISH FOOTBALL HERO--Gerald Finley as Harry Heegan in ENO's new opera,"The Silver Tassie." Photo: Bill Rafferty.
The brusque treatment he had received at the hands of his former friend and advocate, William Butler Yeats, a founder of the Irish National Theatre, still rankled. Yeats and Augusta, Lady Gregory, had rejected "The Silver Tassie" for premiere performance at Dublin's Abbey Theatre.
Both O'Casey's and John Millington Synge's realistic dramas of Irish life had infuriated unsophisticated Dublin audiences, resulting on occasion in lively fracases in the Abbey auditorium.
Yeats and Lady Gregory's excuse for rejection was their apprehension that O'Casey's portrayal of poor tenement-dwelling Dubliners during and after World War I would provoke even more riotous behavior.
Given the times, they certainly had a point—though it so infuriated O'Casey that he never returned to his native land.
Actually, given the anti-war nature of his drama, it could have angered Irish audiences even more. Fighting in the First World War—as did many Irish boys, both Catholic and Protestant—was perceived by many Irish patriots as helping the British maintain their domination over Ireland and other parts of her Colonial Empire.
Many an Irishman died in the senseless slaughters of the Somme and the Argonne. Those who returned home were often maimed or blinded—as in "The Silver Tassie." This was too much to bear for some, as Ireland had already had an abortive uprising against the British in Dublin in 1916, in the midst of the war.
Yeats and Lady Gregory could very well have rejected O'Casey's play for a quite different reason: it's not a very good drama. If it were, it would certainly be revived more often.
The last major production I have seen was mounted by the Royal Shakespeare Company in London at the Aldwych Theatre—more seasons ago than I like to remember.
The second act is unfolded in a quasi-German Expressionist style that clashes with the rest of the work. It belongs in another drama.
Unfortunately, none of the characters in O'Casey's play is especially sympathetic or interesting. Forget about compelling or unforgettable.
They are a dysfunctional community of poor Irish Dubliners. And when the young amateur football hero Harry Heegan returns crippled from the Great War, there is nothing but rage, loss, and fierce inadequacy to fuel the drama.
So, if I were going to create an opera out of an O'Casey play, as potential librettist I would choose "Juno and the Paycock." Certainly not "Cockadoodle-Dandy" or "The Silver Tassie."
But Mark-Anthony Turnage is a composer, not a librettist, so he must have seen something powerfully musical in this bitter, badly-constructed drama. This is his fourth opera, and he has been quoted in interviews that he doesn't want to write another.
I hope this is just Nerves on the Night, for his talent is indisputable. He needs, however, to develop a stronger sense of theatre, of drama, so that his score can be more effectively in service of a major event in Music Theatre.
Otherwise, ENO can save money on sets, costumes, lighting, and stage-rehearsals by presenting works like "The Silver Tassie" in concert. Turnage has, in fact, suggested that the four acts of his opera—with libretto by Amanda Holden—are symphonic in spirit and nature.
There is nothing wrong with that musically, but four or five movements of a symphony do not work quite the same way narratively, or even emotionally, as do the acts of a play.
The opera libretto focuses on three young Dublin chums, but especially on Harry Heegan [Gerald Finley], who helps them win the Silver Tassie football trophy in a crucial game. They return to their homes in triumph. They feel invincible.
But they are in danger of being AWOL from their army units, which are being posted to France. Harry's alcoholic and brutish friend, Teddy [David Kempster], regularly abuses his wife [Vivian Tierney], so his departure is tinged with relief as well as sadness.
When the trio return from the killing fields of France and Flanders, Teddy is helplessly blinded. He has to be led about by his long-suffering wife.
The once euphoric Harry is now crippled, confined to a wheelchair, consumed with bitterness. All he needs to make his loss and rage complete is his chum Barney's [Leslie John Flanagan] theft of the love of his former girlfriend, Jessie [Mary Hegarty].
London music critics generally applauded Turnage's achievement and lauded ENO's splendid production of the work. Curiously, one or two found fault with the fourth and final act.
For me, this was the most powerful, the most dramatically impressive, summing up in one man the death of thousands of bright young hopes, blighted and maimed by the Great War.
Harry Heegan's anger and loss dominate this act, and Turnage and librettist Holden have given him the musical and verbal means to voice his anguish and fury. Earlier in the opera, he is not permitted to make much of an impression as an individual.
Turnage's problem is a familiar one in so-called "modern operas," setting realistic texts, with often humdrum dialogue. All too often, the music seems background for the words, instead of giving them more power, profile, and emotional nuance.
By themselves, alas, the words do not sing. Recently, other modern opera composers have had similar difficulties.
Andre Previn's score for "Streetcar Named Desire"—despite the verbal power of Tennessee Williams' original—was bogged down in his attempts to set the dialogue. John Harbison's experiments with F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" were similarly unsuccessful.
Both Previn and Harbison were praised for adapting musical modes of the plots' periods into their scores. Turnage has done that as well, not only with some dance-music in the final scene, but also with Robbie Burns' old Scots song about a silver tassie.
The haunting second act of "The Silver Tassie," set somewhere at the Front, centering on a great gun, has justly been described as a mini-oratorio. A symbolic figure, the Croucher [Gwynne Howell], utters biblical allusions, while the amorphous chorus of terrified doughboys chant verse.
This second movement of Turnage's "Tassie Symphony" has a strange musical, dramatic, and visual power all its own—quite apart from the realism of the other three movement-acts.
Critics felt compelled to link Turnage with Benjamin Britten. There are some resonances, of course. But at least they did not see in him another Birtwhistle or Tippett.
The emotional impact of the opera was much enhanced by the realistic acting of the outstanding cast, staged by Bill Bryden. The ensemble also included Anne Howells, Sarah Connolly, John Graham-Hall, and Mark Le Brocq.
The stage-realism of "The Silver Tassie" was heightened even more by designer William Dudley's stark, barren evocations of an impoverished Dublin tenement, hospital, and football club social hall. Using Poverty as a watchword, designers cannot go wrong in sketching scenes for Irish dramas set before the 1980s.
His cannon-dominated battlefield was even more powerful, but, like the entire act, it seemed to belong in a different production. "All's Quiet on the Western Front" perhaps?
Obviously, a great deal of the credit for holding the entire stage-presentation together in performance and making it so powerful must go to conductor Paul Daniel. But he and ENO are fortunate to have a very good orchestra in the pit as well.
It will be interesting to watch the progress of this new "Anglo-Irish" opera. Will it be performed in Dublin, perhaps at the next Dublin Festival? That seems a logical development.
Not to overlook the possibility of also showing the ENO production at the Edinburgh Festival? That might make the Scottish Opera sit up and pay attention to what's happening South of the Border.
German opera-theatres are starved for new works. "The Silver Tassie" should have strong appeal. [Tassie, by the way, is both Scots and Germanic. In German, a Tasse is a teacup.]
The best test of the opera's viability, of course, is whether the "Tassie" remains in the ENO repertory.
Speaking of which, here are some other fine ENO productions scheduled for Spring and Summer: "Madam Butterfly," "The Pearl Fishers," "St. John Passion," "Ernani," and "Eugene Onegin."
ENO's Amazing "Magic Flute"
Nicholas Hytner's brilliant production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute" is the show that will not fade away. The January revival of this 1988 ENO staging was its ninth incarnation.
TAMINO TRANSFIXED--Barry Banks as the astonished prince in ENO's "Magic Flute." Photo: Bill Rafferty.
But it's not just the magic of Mozart's music that has made this mounting such a success. Hytner has devised stage-action and discovered character-relationships which illuminate this serio-comic masterpiece in new ways. Carlos Wagner restaged it this time round.
The ingenious and innovative Bob Crowley—who designed "Carrousel" for London and Broadway—has used Post-Modernist means to create a stage-environment which glows with bright white light. He hasn't encumbered the stage with tons of quasi-Egyptian scenery either. There is ample room for action and reaction, both gravely solemn and hilariously antic.
In fact, he has invoked a visual parallel of Sarastro's devout followers and English Quakers in costume and in manner. Egyptian accessories and set-props appear as needed.
And there are three dead-white sliding parallel panels center stage, covered with hieroglyphics, which help define different scenes. The whole stage-area is rounded with a great white wall that cracks to admit characters and visions from beyond.
But the real stage-magic is in the wonderfully acted and sung performances of the entire inspired and youthful cast.
Leigh Melrose is especially outstanding as a bumptious Papageno. Some once-popular Papagenos have made it—for a while, at least—more on charm than on voice and technique.
Melrose has it all. He has charm and charisma to spare. He's good-looking as well. And he can act as well as sing!
But his vocal timbre, power, and singing skills are entirely in service of the emotions of his character in action, and in repose—which doesn't often happen to Emmanuel Schikaneder's Papageno.
Melrose has been a member of the ENO Jerwood Young Singers Programme. So has his Papagena, the delightful Mary Nelson. If this duo is typical of the discoveries and development of singers in the program, someone is doing something very right.
Nelson is so spirited a performer, so amusing a comedienne, that one wishes Mozart's librettist and star Schikaneder had altered his plot to give Papagena more to do and sing on stage. But he obviously didn't want to be upstaged by one of his own ensemble employees.
As Tamino and Pamina, Barry Banks and Susan Gritton made a handsome couple, also well paired in their vocal powers. As an interpreter of emotions in character, Banks has the edge on Gritton. She tends to frown or scowl at times, so that viewers can't be certain whether Pamina is really suffering or Gritton is just making a serious vocal effort.
Crucial to the success of any "Magic Flute" is a Queen of the Night who can surely and effortlessly negotiate the fiendishly demanding coloratura of her thrilling arias. Cyndia Sieden did very well indeed. But she's not yet as commanding or as threatening a regal presence as some noted pros.
Andrew Greenan's Sarastro was magisterial, even fatherly, without being either commanding or threatening. His resonant voice gave weight and solemnity to proceedings otherwise too fantastic to credit.
Grant Llewellyn conducted with verve and sensitive variety, considering the range of musical demands made by Mozart. Matthew Morley's chorus was splendidly sonorous—and acted unspecified individual humans—Quaker or Egyptian—with dignity.
For any theatre-fan visiting London, this stunning example of Music-Theatre is a Must. It is much more rewarding than most of the long-running musicals in the West End. But then Andrew Lloyd Webber never pretended to be Mozart reborn, did he?
Lord Webber just borrowed Amadeus' tunes.
An evening at ENO—regardless of what is being performed—is not to be missed.
Covent Garden's Royal Opera House Reborn!The last time I saw the Royal Opera performing in its own home—as opposed to a black-tie & long-gown concert version of "Macbeth" at the Edinburgh Festival—was during the turbulent reign of Jeremy Isaacs.
He had enjoyed some success producing musical and opera programs for the BBC, and a change in administration at Covent Garden was very much needed. Both artistically and financially.
Isaacs understood very well the many problems of producing world-class opera in the Royal Opera's antiquated but Landmark-historical theatre. Many changes were in order, not least a complete reconstruction of the famed playhouse.
But he seemed rather proud of the cost of Covent Garden tickets, even though they did not then—and do not now—come anywhere near a budget-balancing break-even point.
"Here at Covent Garden," he told me, half pridefully, half ruefully, "we have the most expensive opera tickets in Europe. After the Salzburg Festival, of course."
Major productions at the annual summer opera-fest in Mozart's home-town cost some $400 per ticket!
One small step for fiscal soundness instituted by Isaacs at Covent Garden was the reduction of two comp press-tickets to only one ticket for London critics. And elimination of press-tickets entirely to foreign press, who had been warmly welcomed in the Golden Era of Sir Georg Solti.
So it was that I paid £150 for a front-row center ticket for A&G in R&J. That is about $250, as Yanks say, in real money. But it was worth it to be so close to the action. I was almost behind the conductor, Sir Charles Mackerras, whom I'd interviewed at the San Francisco Opera decades ago.
The transformation of the Royal Opera House as been very thorough. The great golden-horseshoe auditorium has had its layers of grime and dust removed. Some stubborn traditionalists regret this loss of "patina," but the restored and improved arena now fairly glows with gold, ivory and rich reds.
In the Stalls [Orchestra], the seats are now much more comfortable, as well they should be at such prices. In front row of the glittering Grand Tier, they seemed positively luxurious.
I didn't make it to the very top of the amphitheatre—where once I and hundreds of other poor opera-lovers jammed together on backless benches for 2S/6d—but the seating looks much more comfortable. The slips still look like the summit of Everest, however.
The front foyer has been handsomely redone, as has the salon [called a saloon in Britain] above it. This is now a gracious chamber with allegorical paintings, crystal chandeliers, and two new classical columns.
What used to be the "Crush Bar"—enclosed in glass like a conservatory on the front balcony outside—is now an attractive extension of the salon. Before this makeover, one was truly crushed, trying to wedge one's way up to the bar for drinks during the interval.
Mark White, Covent Garden's technical expert, gave me and a colleague the Grand Tour. He corrected my assumption that the former bar had been so named because of the crush of thirsty opera-lovers. In fact, he said, it was named for a special crush-drink.
Despite the elegance of these two spaces, few spectators paused in them. The masses streamed to the newly restored gem of Victoriana attached to the opera-house: The Alberto Vilar Floral Hall.
This radiant evocation of Prince Albert's Crystal Palace and other amazing 19th century Glass Palaces had for decades been derelict, used as an adjunct fruit & vegetable market when that was the main business at Covent Garden.
In fact, its cast & wrought-iron and glass construction had become so rickety that it was in serious danger of demolition. It has been remarkably restored, in newer, stronger materials, so it should last a very long time.
Its distinguishing feature is an immense three-story half-circle of a fan-shaped window of many panes, or lights. This is mirrored at the other end of the hall, which now connects with the new backstage sections of the opera-house.
On the hall's piano nobile, opera-goers can promenade, enjoy drinks, or sit at side tables. On the mezzanine surrounding this level, lunches and dinners are served.
An escalator takes the public up three levels to another dining, snacking, and drinking area, with a long window in the reflecting wall, looking out on the grand hall and the street. Here is access to an L-shaped outdoor terrace, overlooking Covent Garden Market, now teeming with souvenir shops instead of vegetable barrows.
At this level, entrance to the upper levels of the amphitheatre is greatly eased. Of course there are ample elevators, conveniences, and facilities for the handicapped, who are generally called "Disabled" in Britain.
On the street-level of the hall are a bookshop, cloakrooms, and a long counter of computers for speedy ticket-sales. That is, when performances are not completely sold out, thanks to the novelty of the restored, enlarged opera-house and the excellence of the new productions.
Alberto Vilar certainly deserves a full measure of praise for his patronage of the Royal Opera. He not only helped saved Floral Hall, but his generous subsidies have also aided where the public cannot see.
His name should be up in lights—were that not out of keeping with the dignity of the Royal Opera. Vilar has already given almost ten million dollars to the Salzburg Festival. He has aided Valery Gergiev and his famed—but seriously underfunded—Kirov Opera in St. Petersburg.
He saved the first season of the ill-planned Baden-Baden Festival. Anyone who asked could see its Kirov Opera programs for free! Last summer, the second season, they had to pay, but not so much, thanks to the subsidy.
Vilar is helping the Met and proposes to be an important patron for the Bayreuth Festival as well. And he doesn't just write checks. He's often at one of the opera-houses he supports, savoring performances.
Before its two-year closure, the Royal Opera House was essentially a large 19th century theatre, equipped for a limited number of two-dimensional drop-and-wing scenic settings. It was not yet even in the early 20th century in some technical aspects.
Aside from a re-wiring in 1960, the stage and backstage had not been improved since 1900! At that time, the traditional sloping, or raked, stage was leveled; stage-elevators were introduced, and the overhead grid for flying scenery was raised.
But not enough. I have sat in front of the stalls during performances and looked over the tops of the drapes, tied to the scenery-battens.
There was no room to build or store scenery. With two operas on the same day—matinee and evening—sets for one often had to be loaded onto vans out in narrow Floral Street before the scenery for the next could be brought in and hung or set up.
Now there are three stages equipped with scenery-wagons which flank the main-stage. One is directly behind it; the other two are immediately stage-right. Entire solidly-built houses, streets, and interiors can now be shunted into place very rapidly, while succeeding settings are set up behind sound-proof movable walls.
This is the system in use at the Met, which in turn is based on that of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. These earlier mechanized stages were designed by Professor Walter Unruh. Both these houses have wagon-stages on the stage-left sides as well. At Covent Garden, that would have been impossible. Floral Street is out there.
The Royal 0pera, like Munich and the Met, plays stagione, so only productions currently in the repertory need to be stored in the theatre. Great opera-houses customarily have from fifty to seventy complete productions—sets, props, & costumes—in storage.
The new machinery and technology backstage are very impressive. To give some idea of the new flexibility and complexity, there are 21 opera-wagons and 5 ballet-wagons. But then ballet doesn't need much 3-D scenery.
The expansion into the Covent Garden Market area has made possible a handsome small but very modern theatre, the Linbury, as well as the Clore Studio. The Floral Hall, the Crush Room, the Amphitheatre Bar, and the chorus rehearsal-room can also be used for presentations and functions, depending on the schedule of opera & ballet performances in the main auditorium.
A columned L-shaped corridor supports the new sections on the market-side. Along its inner wall are a series of popular shops. Liza Doolittle would feel right at home here selling her flowers.
A full—and fully-illustrated—report on the new Royal Opera House, backstage and forestage, will appear in a forthcoming issue of "Entertainment Design," formerly "Theatre Crafts." This has been prepared by my former Brooklyn College MFA student and faculty colleague, Ellen Lampert-Gréaux. Ellen has also written a design-feature on ENO's "The Silver Tassie" for ED. Please check them out!
While you are looking through recent issues, also note "Entertainment Design" for February. I contributed a back-page report on the Bayreuth "Lohengrin." As well as features on the Salzburg One-Ring-Circus "Magic Flute" and the Bregenz "Greek Passion," to be premiered at the Royal Opera in March. Both "Passion" and "Lohengrin were designed by the ingenious Stefanos Lazaridis.
In the forthcoming Spring repertory of the Royal Opera & Ballet are such works as: "Manon," "Rosenkavalier," "Flying Dutchman," "Greek Passion," "Meistersinger," "The Diaghilev Legacy," "The New World," and the admired "Coppélia."
Alagna & Gheorghiu as "Romeo & Juliette"
It was worth every penny of the $250 I spent to sit in the front row of the Royal Opera for my first exposure to the considerable vocal talents of Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu. Also a bit of a shock, for I am more accustomed to sitting much farther back in complimentary press-seats.
CAPULET WEDDING--Big scene in Covent Garden Royal Opera's "Romeo et Juliette." Photo: Catherine Ashmore.
I had never seen either of the international opera lovebirds—together or apart—onstage before. On CDs, they are very impressive indeed.
Their recordings and press-raves certainly do them justice. In Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette," their real-life romance—not apparently dampened by marriage—brought the chemistry in the score and libretto vividly alive.
Their varied vocal resources and techniques, of course, also made the pathos and majesty of this fable of doomed love soar potently. Seen together onstage, she seems almost matronly, caressing her rather slight younger brother.
In an acerbic London "Sunday Times" appraisal, opera critic Hugh Canning suggested this casting resembled Romeo and Lady Macbeth. Fortunately, not Tom Stoppard's notion of Shakespeare's original intention: Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate King's Daughter.
As the great names of international opera age, fade away, retire, and pass on—sometimes not without a protracted and painful struggle, both for them and audiences—Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu seem like a Second Coming.
Unfortunately for their public-relations, their almost instant stardom has proved something of a handicap. Alagana's demands at the Met caused the cancellation of their first scheduled appearance there. And there have been other altercations as well.
DOOMED LOVE--Angela Gheorghiu as Juliette and Roberto Alagna as Romeo in Gounod's opera based on Shakespeare. Photo: Catherine Ashmore.
Their success may be a case of Too Much Too Soon. Canning suggests as much: that they both should have gained more experience before ascending to stardom.
That's a clock that cannot be turned back, however. The larger problem, as Canning outlines, is that there are relatively few operas in which their distinctive voices would be well matched. Yet the opera public is panting for just such pairings.
Nicholas Joël is credited as stage-director, but he surely could not have asked Alagna to stand front and center, facing the audience, while singing a love song to Juliet—who is looking at his back?
Uta Hagen struggled for years at the Met to get Jimmy McCracken and other opera-heroes not to sing "I love you" to the audiences, even though it may well have been all too true.
The gang-rumbles of youthful Veronese aristocrats were very well suggested on stage, as were the vignettes at the Capulets' Ball. This was not easy to manage, given the coldly Post-Modernist fragmented Verona imagined by designer Carlo Tomassi.
Even in the depths of winter, Verona is a golden city, with its houses and palazzos painted warm earthy colors. Franco Zeffirelli certainly suggested the heat of that environment in his film-version of R&J. Tomassi's Verona could be Stockholm in January.
Set-elements rotated to provide fairly rapid changes of scene. I liked especially the evocation of a great Renaissance church: possibly St. Zeno or the Duomo? Later it loomed over the noble, if sepulchral, Capulet Tomb.
Setting Shakespeare to music for the opera, ballet, and musical-comedy stage is not an easy task, though many have tried, with varied results. Verdi could never find the key to "King Lear," though Boito's libretti for the Master's "Falstaff" and "Otello" solved the problem of reducing complex plots and dialogue for the purposes of opera.
Gounod's librettists, Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, provided the composer with a masterful, highly theatrical reduction to dramatic essentials. That doesn't by any means reduce the number of singing Veronese needed on stage. But it does omit some plot twists and turns such as the complications at the close with Count Paris—as well as the resolution provided by the Duke.
Over the past several decades, the great works of the French opera repertory have been less and less often played or revived outside France, at least sung in the original French. One of the reasons for that is the shortage—even in France—of talented musicians who can actually sing powerfully, phrase intelligently and emotionally, and articulate clearly.
French unfortunately, unlike Italian, has many nasal sounds, which can constrict an open throat and impair a pure tone. It is not an easy language to sing, nor—for non-French—is it easy to speak, at least to the satisfaction of Parisian purists.
So it is a godsend to find fine young singers who can make great French operas come into their own again.
A very gracious lady, seated next to me and my colleague, had brought her Royal Opera program from Alagna's 1994 debut in this production. Then he had a different Juliet.
And, from several reports, a rather fresher, somewhat different voice. Now there is an irritating Italianate sob in some phrases. But he can still sustain notes strongly and loudly, without having to catch his breath or cut them short.
The programs may have cost less in 1994. That would be reason enough to bring the now vintage program and get an evening cast-list insert.
Compared with free programs at the Met, £5 seems a stiff price, but these Covent Garden programs are full of scholarly information and speculation, as well as handsome illustrations. They compete with Munich and Salzburg in this regard.
Seated almost behind him and watching Sir Charles Mackerras skillfully conduct—with constant attention to the singers and his various orchestral forces—I was reminded of how many wonderful years he has been in the pit, guiding opera and ballet productions of note.
He could surely conduct R&J from memory by now, but not with his eyes closed. He's constantly watching every element in the production.
The Royal Ballet's Charming "Coppélia"
Although the fable of the wonderfully realistic mechanical dancing-doll was first devised by E. T. A. Hoffmann—in Der Sandmann—most theatre-addicts now know it as Act I of "The Tales of Hoffmann."
AIRBORNE AT COVENT GARDEN--Ethan Stiefel as Franz in the Royal Ballet's "Coppélia." Photo: Bill Cooper.
The insidious, devious, dangerous Dr. Coppelius has given the love-smitten adventurer Hoffmann some magic spectacles. These becloud his vision, rather than clarify it. He cannot see that the lovely danceuse is only a jerky wind-up toy.
The ballet libretto for Léo Delibes' "Coppélia"—by Nuitter & Saint-Léon—is much less interesting. The pert, snoopy Swanilda is intrigued by a lovely young woman who sits on a balcony. But this figure strangely does not respond to greetings.
THE DANCING DOLL--Miyako Yoshida as Swanilda/Coppélia, with Luke Heydon as Dr. Coppelius, in Royal Ballet production of Léo Delibes classic. Photo: Bill Cooper.
That is the narrative hook for the second act, but the first act is really an occasion for outstanding performances from girls in the corps de ballet in short but very difficult choreographic variations.
In the second act, Swanilda and her girl chums steal into Dr. Coppélius' workshop when he goes out. There they find—and accidentally animate—his Chinese, Spanish, Scottish, Crusader, and Turkish automatons.
Swanilda discovers the secret of the mechanical Coppélia and assumes her costume and movements, baffling and infuriating the furtive doctor when he returns. Alastair Marriott proved a scary, spidery presence in this character-role.
The traditionally costumed dolls obviously offer dancers the opportunity to show their skills in stereotypically ethnic dances. These were originally devised by the late Dame Ninette de Valois—after Ivanov and Cecchetti.
The entire production has been restaged by the current director of the Royal Ballet, Sir Anthony Dowell—with the assistance of Christopher Carr and Grant Coyle.
The preservation provenance of some beloved classical ballets can seem an endless chain of names from Petersburg and Paris. That is, those that have as yet escaped being completely rethought—with librettos set in Malibu or Manchester.
The third-act climax is a cornucopia of famous solo and ensemble dances, in the framework of a Masque of the Hours. These set-pieces were splendidly danced in the current production. Jamie Tapper was a radiant Aurora, with Muriel Valtat a less secure Prayer.
As Swanilda and her young swain, Franz, Sarah Wildor and Ethan Stiefel made a magical dancing duo. In their "everything you can do, I can do better" pas de deux, each excelled.
The designs for the two scenes—a village-square and the doctor's workshop—were long ago created by the late Osbert Lancaster. He specialized in visual spoofs of English life and architecture: "There'll Always Be a Draynefleet," for instance.
For those ballet-beginners hoping for a stage ablaze with Balanchine Jewels or just some sprinkles of silver-glitter, Lancaster's sets may seem a dull disappointment. They have of course been remade for the splendid new house, but they remain merely low-key backgrounds.
Lancaster could have done something really amusing in parodying a medieval town in Mittel-Europa, but he obviously didn't want to upstage the dancers visually. That is also why these are only two-dimensional cut-outs, leaving most of the stage open for the dancers. The last thing an ethereal, magical ballet needs is tons of solidly built scenery.
Nicolae Moldoveanu conducted with spirit, alert to the moods of the dancers and their dances.
London Eye/The Millennium WheelAmong the Prominent, Celebrated, and Regal to sample the lofty views and joys of the Millennium Wheel when I was in London was a charming family-group. Caught in one of the ovoid cells of the Wheel by a telephoto-lens, they were identified thusly:
"The Duke of York marked his 40th birthday yesterday by riding the millennium wheel in London with his former wife [italics added] and their daughters, Eugenie, left, and Beatrice. The clear weather allowed them 30-mile views."
Apparently Fergie—formerly Sarah, Duchess of York—has become a non-person. At least in Rupert Murdoch's London "Times."
London's beautiful and lofty Post-Modernist Ferris Wheel outclasses all others. Including the Riesenrad in Vienna's Prater, a haunt of the Third Man.
It is supposed to be a sometime thing, to be dismantled after the novelty has worn off. My guess is that it will stay in place, like Vienna's Giant Exposition Wheel and Paris' Exposition Eiffel Tower.
It is already a landmark and a tourist-magnet. At a height of 450 feet, it is the highest observation-wheel in the world.
Its outer ring has 32 high-tech clear capsules, holding as many as 25 people. It provides access for disabled or handicapped people.
Not only can riders see 30 miles distant, beyond the boundaries of London, but they can also have a real birdseye view of the most famous landmarks of this great capital.
It rotates very, very slowly, to allow each capsule to be emptied and filled at its lowest point. That gives those on high ample time to feel like monarchs of all they survey.
On a tight schedule, I was not about to stand in line to have the London Eye Experience. But even through my zoom lens, I could not see any emergency sanitary facilities. So, if you decide to ride when in London, wash your hands well beforehand.
Another reason this wheel should stay in place is that it makes a nice modernist contrast with the phony gothic of Pugin's Houses of Parliament on the other side of the Thames. Set against the boring Art Deco neo-classicism of the former GLC buildings, it is a positive visual energizer. It is already a Landmark.
The Millennium DomeOddly enough, the Millennium Dome was initially a Tory concept, but now the conservative press and reactionary politicians cannot say enough bad about it. As if it were just another of Prime Minister Tony Blair's sinister plots to deceive the British Public and become Master of the Universe.
Considering HRH Prince Charles' general aversion to Modern British Architecture—and his early endorsement of this Post-Modernist temporary exhibition structure—this stance is surprising.
When I arrived in London, newspapers were filled with reports of its dismal failure to attract visitors to its allegedly dismal displays and installations.
In only a day or two—coincident with the Half-Term holiday-break for school-kids and students—the site was suddenly overrun with hundreds of children and parents.
Complaints swiftly changed from lack of attendance to too much. Children reported standing in long lines for long periods before entering various attractions under the great yellow plastic curved dish, supported by high pylons jutting through holes in the disk.
I photographed the exteriors of this handsomely developed site, complete with a new Underground Station, Greenwich North. Even though press-people seldom stand in lines—there are usually VIP doors somewhere on the side so you can jump the crowds—I didn't have time enough to check out the varied informational and entertainment venues inside.
But the crowds could be even worse this summer. The Dome is supposed to stay aloft only for the Millennium Year, so the hordes of visitors who don't want to miss it will surely continue to increase.
The property-value of this formerly derelict and unreachable ground has suddenly multiplied exponentially. So Movers & Shakers might want to check it out as well.
I'm told the main reason for the sourness and negativity of the media—aside from adding this to their list of Tony Blair's presumed failures—is the foul-up at the official opening. Apparently, security concerns for the Royal Family and other dignitaries kept the minions of the press crammed in place in the tube-station for two hours or so.
At the Royal Academy of Arts
A Curious Backward Glance:
"1900—Art at the Crossroads"You have only until April 3 to experience one of the most interesting surveys of Western Art between two centuries. Currently on view at the Royal Academy of Art in London, the show is titled: "1900—Art at the Crossroads."
The inspiration for this resurrection was a watershed exhibition a century ago: the Décennale at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900.
A number of the canvases and sculptures in the current show were also in the original. Other works now displayed were not chosen at that time, but are by artists shown then. There are also those artists not included at all, who were nonetheless emblematic of the winds of change in the arts.
Among the latter are painters and sculptors still not well known in the New World, if at all. Some of their works can be seen in Paris at the Musée d'Orsay or in the brilliant Fauvist exhibition.
One of the reasons they are not household names among American art-lovers may be that they had no great celebrity in their own time. Or that their limited number of works were acquired by private collectors and museums in Europe.
There are some stickily sentimental paintings, as well as some pretentious historical themes. The worst and the best of 19th century academic tradition are on display.
But there are also outstanding works by Symbolists such as Belgium's Fernand Khnopff. And by Impressionists like Claude Monet. Here also are early works by Vasily Kandinsky and other heralds of the Art of the Future.
Deployed in 13 galleries, the artworks are organized by subjects or themes: Bathers & Nudes, Woman—Man, Portraits & Self-Portraits, Social Scenes, Rural Scenes, Landscapes, The City, Interiors & Still-Lifes, Religion, and Triptychs.
If you cannot fly off to London right now, wait until May. This remarkable show will be on view in New York at the Guggenheim Museum from May 3 until 13 September 2000!
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Copyright © Glenn Loney 2000. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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