Thursday, April 12, 2007

Les Miserables, Pimlico Opera, Wandsworth Prison

Not long ago there was an Indian girl called Wasfi Kani. She was a conductor who ran a chamber opera company called Pimlico. A compassionate person and a super-competent organiser she had the idea of taking opera to prisons and her visit was to Wormwood Scrubs where Pimlico performed Figaro and Walton's The Bear. The next year, 1991, she took the idea further, incorporating the prisoners in the performance of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd but including a few professionals in the leading parts. This took place in the Scrubs wing where all the inmates are lifers (i.e. in for murder). I took a tape recorder to the dress rehearsal and interviewed some of the cast - more of that by and by.

The following year it was Guys and Dolls in Wandsworth, West Side Story, in 1996 Dublin and Oxford. Performances followed in Downview, Surrey, Winchester, the Scrubs again and Ashwell in Leicestershire. In 2006 it was Chicago in a women's HMP in Bronzefield, near Heathrow and it was brilliant. By now Wasfi was more of a producer in the film sense that she did the paperwork and proved to bet a wizard at getting dosh from sponsors and donors, thus able to provide quite lavish decor and costumes, and to hire bands. Even more important perhaps than the artistic results was the result in human terms, giving the prisoners responsibility for learning words and music (very few of them could read music) and taking part in a company event. Most of them had never been in a theatre so that performing was a new, absorbing and therapeutic gift. What is also touching is that the printed programmes contain testimonies to the inmates's life, expertise and what it means to them to take part.

The audience has to arrive early for security reasons, sometimes having to dye thumbs and wear identity bracelets. Present are sponsors, guarantors, relatives and friends of the inmates. The venue is usually a large warehouse-type space with no windows.

The music, Les Mis was composed by Schoenberg - no, not Arnold but Claude-Michel, the other Schoenberg, the text is based on Victor Hugo (hélas!), it has not come my way before now and I must confessIwas underwhelmed. The narrative seems to me unconvincing, characters do not develop. The music plods along four-in-a-bar almost throughout and, though charming at first, soon palled, there being too much of typical American musical manufactured lyrical climaxes (as in Sondheim and not, definitely not, as in Bernstein's superior West Side Story).Choruses were lustily sung and the band, under John Beswick, was quite satisfactory.

Now last year's Chicago was a fizzing show but Les Mis I found disappointing, not inventive and not inspiring the amateurs in the cast to rise to a show of professionalism. Was Michael Moody, director since the beginning in 1991. having a fallow year? Wandsworth being a male establishment, girls were brought in for the show but all but two (Cosette and a tall girl with comedy and good projection) were feeble and their voices (and some of the men) badly needed the mikes they didn't have. Excellent were the professionals Elliot Goldie (Javert) and Blake Pischer (Valjean). Costumes conventional to the point of banality.

To return to my 1990 visit to the Scrubs. I took a tape recorder and, after interviewing Wasfi and various other principals I talked to a chorus member. For the first time in my broadcasting career, I made the mistake of getting off my subject by asking him: "What is the worst thing about being banged up for life?" "No visitors". "What, no nice girl friend to come and see you ?" "Well, I killed her. didn't I ?".

Royal Ballet is the tops

This is a good time to visit the Royal Ballet and to be proud of its achievements. And, look you, the top price for the seats is roughly a third of what an opera stall would cost you. But, more important even than the cost, what you get is aesthetic satisfaction. O.K no Fonteyn, no Helpmann, no Constant Lambert and no great new works. In the last decade or so policy has changed, as it did with the Opera a long time ago; the idea of a national company has given way to an international one; it must be babel backstage. The new order has some disadvantages but on the whole the result is advantageous.

In fact many of us consider that, under the sensible and sensitive direction of Monica Mason, the company is peaking as never before. The soloists excel and the corps de ballet has a wonderful discipline as near perfect as dammit (very nearly as good as the Kirov). Mind you, the roster of ballet conductors could be improved but the choreographers seem to have realised at last that the composer's tempo is more important than theirs. In terms of repertoire one of the revolutions has been the continuing inclusion of Balanchine works, formerly looked down on by 'Madame' de Valois - they are good for discipline as well as being masterpieces in their own right; and bridge the gap between the classical dancing and the neo-classical style. Also of course his ballets have respect for music in a remarkable and unique way.

One aspect of things today that is not satisfactory is the paucity of good new ballets, a weakness that I am sure Monica Mason is aware of. But then there is a paucity of good choreographers today (why not bring in John Neumeier ?). The vast space of the Covent Garden stage is no place for a try out for a not fully-fledged choreographer.

These thoughts were proved by two visits, one to see a triple bill (March 13), the other to see a three-acter (March 21), Onegin, as fine an example of the narrative ballet as Balanchine's is of the more abstract species. Stravinsky's and Balanchine's Apollo is a landmark in the annals of ballet, a perfect fusion of a score especially composed to be danced to, the neo-classical style, and Balanchine’s poetic and analytical choreography. It was first performed in 1928 when Balanchine was only 24. Stravinsky himself was forty-six; his choice of a string orchestra to complement a neo-classical ballet was inspired - a kind of white-on-white combination of sound and vision. The score is curious in that it manages to evoke memories of Tchaikovsky yet also including glimpses of popular music - there is a quote, for example, of The Stein Song, a hit of the late twenties. Yet withal the atmosphere is one of purity. Led by Federico Bonelli as the burgeoning Apollo the three Muses were perfectly represented by Terpsichore (Zenaida Yanovsky), Calliope (Isabel McMeekan) and Polyhymnia (Deirdre Chapman) - the four dancers being respectively Italian, French, British and American.

Next came a new ballet by the British choreographer Alastair Marriott, Children of Adam, that was sniffed at by the ballet critics as being too strongly influenced by other people's works. Myself, a non-technical ballet person who loves the art more from the musical angle, found much to enjoy in this Cain and Abel fable danced to Concerto per Corde, a concert work by the American composer Christopher Rouse. The references to the Prokofiev-Balanchine Prodigal Son seemed intergrated in this study of a younger brother (the brilliant emerging star Steven McRae, Australian) sexually enthralled by the woman of his brother who comes back from the dead to comfort his sibling (Freud fodder).

Finally another Balanchine master work, Theme and Variations that complements his earlier Ballet Imperial which was almost the first of the Georgian-born choreographer ballets to be danced by our Royal Ballet. At the premiere I saw Fonteyn fall flat on her face; as a result she refused ever to dance the part again. Both these ballets - music by Tchaikovsky, this one the finale from his Suite No. 5 in G - look back to the splendours of Imperial Russia, nostalgia, grand and glamorous, a perfect vehicle for the company and in particular for the great Darcey Bussell (soon to retire, alas) and Carlos Acosta, giant of near perfection. Orchestra excellent under Barry Wordsworth.

The surprise feature of the Onegin ballet is, that although the plot follows closely Pushkin and Tchaikovsky's opera, the choreographer John Cranko (1965) used a score that contains not a single bar of the opera. Surprise no 2 is that this works well. Kurt-Heinz Stolze, the concoctor, has taken bits , mostly piano pieces, by Tchaikovsky (just a couple that Stravinsky lifted for his Le Baiser de la fée), and orchestrated them. However for the last scene of all, where Tatiana, although she still loves Onegin, sends him packing (hooray for Women's Lib), uses to great effects the latter part of the tone-poem Francesca da Rimini. The South African born John Cranko devised a masterpiece that makes one regret all over again his death at the age of forty-five on a plane when he choked after having taken a sleeping pill.

The story of Tatiana, sister Olga, her lover Lensky and Eugene Onegin is told elegantly and powerfully. Cranko’s invention was never more fruitful than here with ingenious lifts and dramatically telling gestures. Has any choreographer kept his dancers in the air more than Cranko? And one feature is that Onegin's hauteur and disdain is conveyed more effectively than in the opera. Martin Harvey (good English theatrical name) brought the character vividly to life. The Spanish dancer Laura Morera was a touching Tatiana; Lensky's solo before the duel and Olga's charming capriciousness also come off better danced than sung. The sets are charming and the evening's entertainment was complete. The principals on March 21 were not the most famous or starry but the satisfaction they gave is a measure of the Royal Ballet's strength in that the second, third or fourth casts can give great pleasure. Let us cherish the company and salute Monica Mason.