Monday, May 12, 2008

Viva la Diva

Did you know that Darcey Bussell could speak lines? Or that Kathleen Jenkins could dance? Pop along to your local arena then, and find out for yourself. I popped along to mine (May 10), which happens to be The Dome (remember The Dome?), which seats - eight thousand? During some boring moments of a rehash of The Red Shoes I started doing some sums: 8000 seats, average ticket price £50, crikey that’s a lot of moolah. Mind you, there were quite a lot of artists, technicians and managerial staff to pay, plus the hire of the Dome and shepherds to make sure us sheep got through the car parks and approach walks plus restaurants and shops to our seats.

So what kind of a show did the divas cook up? At least the programme book (price £10 – wow!) told us that the living divas (Bussell and Jenkins) had devised and written the entertainment themselves. Unhelpfully the programme book did not tell us what the items were, or give any credits to composers. The performing area consisted of a stage and a small upstairs space. The central part of the arena, stalls, are on the flat. Never mind, the audience can either look at that stage (performers look rather small) or at either of two large screens on which television cameras project the dancers and singers. Lots of dancers, about a couple of dozen, very good, hard working in a three-hour show (too long but you feel you are getting your money’s worth).

There are about twenty items, based on the work and songs of famous stars and shows of yesterday, stars of screen and records, Callas, Astaire, Charisse, Kelly, Garland, Day, Bassey, Piaf, Monroe, plus Chorus Line, Busby Berkeley, Bob Fosse and the Red Shoes numbers and a flamenco dance and chunks of Carmen and the Barber of Seville.

There is a lot of crossover and Darcey gets to do some snippets of ballet and they are brilliant, especially part of Elite Syncopations (Scott Joplin) and Red Shoes; her showbiz routines do not come off so well but she surprises us at the end with some spirited and efficient tap dancing.

Has Kathleen Jenkins swum into your ken yet? Did you know that she is the only singer in musical history simultaneously to hold the number 1,2,3 and 4 positions in the classical album charts, only last year? Her Piaf is not very good but her Rossini Una voce poco fa was, despite the fact that on certain notes she displays a king sized disfiguring judder.

What both Darcey and Kathleen have is charming personalities, beautiful faces and good figures. But they are short of sex appeal. Their costumes are gorgeous and they both can take the stage (and the screen). The show sometimes falls between the stools of televisions and theatre but on the whole it is efficiently done, imaginatively staged and the supporting dancers and band are first rate.

The audience? Well, the arena was absolutely packed. Where did they all come from and who were they? Middle class, those around me came from Purley, Streatham, Chelsea and Notting Hill Gate. Mostly middle aged, no foreigners, all white. They applauded dutifully but not over enthusiastically, not surprisingly since they were watching screens rather than the distant performers. I had the feeling somewhat that I was a prole in some 1984 entertainment, sitting in a vast arena, watching distant figures on a screen. But there was not Big Brother, only two talented likeable Big Sisters.


Chris said...

Dear John
Chris dying to relay last nights entertainment here in deepest tuscany but he's not too sure how to blogg.
Hope this reaches you in rude health on the eve of my darling sisters' birthday.
Did I get the comma in the right place?
Wish you were both here
All love Annxx

Chris said...

ps I meant to say how I enjoyed re- reading the Darcey Diva bitey reviewxx....

Chris said...

Chris is now trying to blog. He hopes it works. Very much enjoyed reading the review of "The Rest is Silence", the book which we discussed recently.

Last night we watched Rueben Mehta conducting the Vienna Phil complete with boys choir and dance troupe in a cavalcade of Strauss - unfortunately it was Johnas not Richard of course.

The sugary orchestration escalated in profiterol like structures as Gavottes were followed by polkers were followed by waltzes. The celebrity audience Sophia Loren was in the front row loved it all. We were initially appalled but found ourselves progressively entralled, due perhaps in part to our seductive new "surround sound" system so at the end we were just drooling at the fin de cycles extravaganza. Even Rueben got into the act with a funny hat and a whistle. Have we all gone ga ga? Happy Birthday to the special friend, love to you both.


Chris said...

Oooops, John, sorry. It was of cours e Zubin and Johannes with whom we were enthralled (with and h).

Love Chris

Chris said...

Dear John,

here are some thoughts on Bill Viola.


Finally caught up with the Bill Viola Tristan and Isolde. This production, originally launched late 2004 in Los Angeles and subsequently shown in USA and Europe has reached St Petersburg for the mid summer White Nights revelries. In truth, it is of course a Valery Gergiev production. The maestro has welded his magnificent Mariinsky Theatre Symphony Orchestra into a single instrument responding in colour both bright and dull according to the musical composition and his commands. The energy is sustained through the longeur of Wagnerian musical development. The famous thunderclap finish to the second act was particularly startling. He has the assistance of another instrument which is the amazing acoustics of the auditorium. The concert hall was installed 18 months ago in the old Mariinsky prop store. It is a temporary replacement for the much revered opera/ballet facility, designs for which are still being considered. Judging by the length of time it took to re-build the Fenice, it may be some while.

It is beyond the competence of this writer to comment on the vocal parts but the galaxy of stars – Gary Lehman as Tristan, Larisa Gogolevskaya as Isolde, Rene Pape as Marke, Yekaterina Gubanova as Brangane – guaranteed an evening of highest quality opera singing. The production was in concert format, but in effect was “staged” by reason of the singers performing from different locations within the auditorium. This no doubt they were able to do because of the unique acoustics. The effect certainly gave a multidimensional depth to the music. There was a thrilling moment when Tristan appeared in the aisle just two metres away and displayed the visceral qualities of the tenor voice.

The Viola intrusion may offend the purists but particularly since there is no theatrical element, they can always just listen to the music with their eyes closed.

Bill Viola’s now well established imagery – fire and water effects, land and water scape extravaganzas, slo-mo treatment and heavily stylised acting – were all deployed throughout the production. The imagery at no time gave a simple illustration of the libretto or plot. Rather more, the imagery was a parallel narrative to this famous Celtic myth, evoking mood and emotion as the action unfolded. The images came up on a 20 metre wide screen that spanned behind the orchestra. The lovers first appeared in the far distance and advanced slowly towards the screen, perhaps evoking memories of David Lean’s famous desert arrival in Laurence of Arabia. Once they filled totally the now double screen, a strip tease commenced as the lovers became acquainted. This may have added titillation to the performance but the disrobing was conducted on a split screen with no mutual contact and in such a formalised manner that there could be no suggestion of pornography. More passionate scenes were simulated under water where tumbling bodies seemed to dematerialize any suggestion of a salacious act. Perhaps it was the submerging of all of those bodily fluids that neutralized what might have been otherwise too controversial.

There was a spectacular moment in the second act when Isolde, in search of her lover, lit a candle. These proliferated into a huge tableau of candlelight, reminiscent of a Georges de la Tour. This image is characteristic of Bill Viola’s liking for classical references, antecedents often exploited in his earlier work. Another striking image was a single dot in the middle of the screen. The dot slowly started to expand and then separated into two parts. As the scene continued it became slowly evident that we were witnessing an aerial shot with a camera closing in on the heads of two lovers. The effect was of organic cellular growth, a mesmerising process.

It seems to this (incidentally only partially sighted) non purist that Bill Viola has pulled off the difficult task of respecting the original work without resorting to simplistic images of the content. The challenge was to match the undoubted power of the Master of the Ring. There are no units for measuring creative genius but it was demanded of Viola that he should be able to punch at a visual weight comparable with the magisterial score. This he seemed to achieve particularly in the final act when the screen was switched from horizontal landscape to vertical portrait format. The dying Tristan, all but consumed by the fires of hell at the base of the screen, is re-united with Isolde in a final submerged embrace. The couple float gently upwards as the music subsides and disappear apparently through the roof – an act of levitation that not even Wagner could achieve.