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Wallowing in International Art while staying at home

By , 30/05/2010

The Habit of Art, by Alan Bennett

The National Theatre production, directed by Nicholas Hytner

Richard Griffiths (Fitz/W.H.Auden), Adrian Scarborough (Donald/Humphrey Carter), Alex Jennings (Henry/Benjamin Britten)

Film screened at the Penthouse Theatre, Brooklyn

Tuesday 25th May

Musings and a review by Peter Coates.

This week has been a very exciting one for me. Last Sunday I saw a performance of Wushu martial arts by twenty-four Chinese visiting experts. This was spectacular, colourful and beautifully choreographed and performed in front of an appeciative audience at the Wellington Town Hall. Modern dance choreographers in Wellington should have been along to witness it.

This was followed by another Chinese delight on Thursday. In this case it was an illustrated lecture by visiting sculptor Prof. Zhao from Shanghai. Prof. Zhao was visiting Wellington for a week, working with Richard Taylor, of Weta fame, on ideas of mutual interest.In a sensitively interpreted lecture, illustrated by a long parade of excellent visuals, we saw the dynamic sculptures of the professor, huge in size, using a wide variety of sculptural media mainly on what one would describe as ‘politically viable’ subject matter. Despite this he manages to gain strong individual expression in the subjects he chooses, and his technical brilliance is undeniable. His combination of technical skill and perceptive observation won his an award at a Venice Biennale. Prof. Zhao brought with him formulae for a form of clay unused in New Zealand which he demonstrated to Richard and his team, producing four portraits of Weta colleagues at a rate of 25 minutes each. We were lucky to have Richard along to add his experiences in China to Prof. Zhao’s story.

But this was only one aspect of his lecture. It was followed by an amazing collection of slides of the professors own collection of Chinese tradition craft – thousands of shadow puppets, pottery items, household utensils, weaving, printing blocks, painting ,calligraphy and sculpture. All had been assembled since the cultural revolution. Now highly regarded as important cultural heritage, the Chinese government is building a special museum to house this amazing collection. One day I would love to see this collection “in situ”. So much for the Chinese section of my week.

Next, the British section. On Tuesday I visited the Penthouse theatre in Brooklyn to see the British National theatre production of Alan Bennet’s “Habit of Art” . This is an example of the  relatively new technique of recording top performances overseas and playing then a matter of weeks later in  specially selected theatres throughut the world. This was originally recorded on  April 22nd ,and shown here last week. It is a system already used successfully in opera,but which is now moving into theatre. Having both produced and designed work for the stage and television – Stravinsky’s “Soldier’s Tale” in 1982 and recorded an opera “live” from the stage for television – Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” in 1979 – the prospect for me of seeing the effect of such work today outside my DVD library was very appealing.

Alan Bennet had constructed  a play that was particularly appealing to me. It was set as a  rehearsal for a play about the relationship between Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden,who had originally worked together on documentary films for the British Post office –

“This is the night mail crossing the border,

bringing the cheque and the postal order,

letters for the rich, letters for the poor…

For the shop at the corner and the girl next door……” etc. etc….

They must have had impact on my memory because I saw those films sixty years ago ! The other work I remember was Britain’s first opera “Paul Bunyan”- with the libretto by Auden –  which I saw at London’s Sadlers Wells in the 1960’s. I must admit to not remembering much about that opera, which was originally written when Britten was sheltering in the USA during the second World War.

“The Habit of Art” is a play within a play. The actors played themselves playing Auden and Britten, moving in and out of character as the rehearsal concept demanded. Richard Jennings as Auden (Fitz as the actor) was particularly brilliant, his size and facial characteristics being very appropriate, while Alec Jennings as the less charismatic Britten (Henry as the actor) caught the character of Britten brilliantly and played the piano accompaniment needed in scenes with a boy soprano,with great aplomb.

The action of the play was set while Britten was having trouble with the composition of what turned out to be his last opera “Death in Venice”. His apparent fascination with the theme of “lost  innocence”, a theme that permeates most of his operas, was getting his friends down. Even Peter Pears tried to dissuade him from completing the opera.  Britten in this play went to his friend Auden for reassurance. Despite having a similar homosexual background which allowed him some appreciation of Thomas Mann’s original text, on which the opera was based, the friends did not manage to resolve Britten’s concern. The play was full of brilliantly witty dialogue,which we are beginning to expect from Bennett, and it is well worth seeing if you are fortunate enough to go to London.

But not here in this production. The problem is that the Screen actors Guild will only allow three performances of these video productions over a very short period of time, so it is unlikely to be seen here again. What about a local production, Circa or Downstage ?

I personally thoroughly enjoyed the whole production. I could easily believe  that I was in the National Theatre, and joined in the reactions of the recorded audience. I heard every word  and the close-ups gave me a great appreciation of the  important detail of the acting performances of Richard Griffiths and Alex Jennings. As for the future don’t miss Dion Boucicault’s  “London Assurance” a National Theatre production coming  to the Penthouse soon. It is “an absolute corker of a production, one that will be talked about and chuckled over with reminiscent affection for years to come”says London’s Daily Telegraph critic. Later in the year we will be able to see the new NT production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” that is coming in the next season.

Now to the last, but certainly not the least, of my splendid cultural week. This time from the Metropolitan Opera, New York. It was the Sunday 29th May screening of Rossini’s  “Armida” production, starring the great Renee Fleming and five top coloratura tenors!!! I didn’t know the world had so many!

I suppose most of us have got used to the use of microphones on singers to allow most of the modern music theatre classics to be performed. But this is opera, and it is untainted accoustic sound we are dealing with. Singers must be able to project their voices through an eighty piece orchestra, and communicate to several thousand in a large, often accoustically unsympathetic, theatre.

The main problem is balancing the sound, and the placement and use of microphones so that they are not seen, but can balance the sound to fit the perspective of the picture. This an artform for the sound engineer, but I did spot one shotgun microphone in the orchestral pit. When recording the one opera that I recorded “live” from the stage with an audience I was lucky to have John Neill working with me to solve such problems. John is currently “Head of Sound” for Peter Jackson’s Park Road Post.

Although I did detect six “dropouts” during the four hour performance I was not at all put off the performance by these. I have only had the experience of two Rossini operas ‘the Barber of Seville” which I produced for television,and a brilliant “Count Ory”production by Antony Besch which I saw in London in the 1960’s. “Armida” was totally unknown to me, and because it was a first ever production by the Metropolitan Opera, it would be unknown to most opera lovers.

Unknown it might have been, but like all Rossini operas it was full of very tuneful music, the usual wonderfully accelerating finales that are a Rossini trademark, some absolutely wonderful tenor-soprano duets, coloratura tenor arias and duets, a tenor trio worth paying the thirty dollars entrance fee for, alone, and a dramatic coloratura aria of immense difficulty sung by the great Renee Fleming, that ended the opera with amazing elan.

Described by Renee Fleming as “the most difficult soprano aria in opera” this is amazing in its demands – especially with its wide vocal range and the coloratura gymnastics involved.  But this was not a one woman show. I must also commend the work of yet another great lyric tenor on the international scene – Lawrence  Browlee, a young negro singer who has featured in “The Barber of Seville” and “Cinderella” productions at the Met. He had plenty of top “C’s” and at least two top “D’s” to contend with in the opera, which he did comfortably; and his articulation of the coloratura was accurate and neat. Juan Diego Florez – who is my favourite tenor and who will be in next year’s Met Season playing the principal tenor role in “The Count Ory”- beware!

The opera, we are assured, is about love and revenge..but what opera isn’t ? To emphasize this point the producer creates two miming characters who play the roles of these two emotions – characters who press the point throughout the production. I was initially uncofortable with their use, but by the last act ,when they interacted successfully with Renee Fleming in her demanding final aria, I was persuaded. The concept was entirely justified.

Amongst the other gems in this production is a ballet involving female dancers dressed as soldiers, who become ballerinas and devils that become ballerinas and finally go back to being devils. Sounds odd ,but it is very amusing. The costuming throughout the opera is sumptuous and colorful, especially for the demons.The set is simple but accoustically excellent. The production had its weird elements – with huge insects inhabiting the stage during the third act – but most of the time it was highly entertaining.

One of the features that I particularly enjoyed was to hear the singers and producer talk about their roles during the intervals. Very interesting – but how do they do it, when it is obviously recorded during a performance of a a three hour opera that is so physically demanding for them?

Getting back to the theme of my article, isn’t it wonderful how we are no longer as isolated as we have been from the glories of world culture ? How we no longer have to pay vast fortunes to travel to Europe, Britain ,the United States or China to enjoy the cultural heritage of others and the latest plays and operas and the wonderful new stars that are seemingly being discovered all the time. In one week I saw some outstanding entertainment from Britain, the United States and China. It’s a sign of the times.

But this is only the beginning. In November the 2010 Met season will begin with eleven  new productions including both “Rheingold” and “Walkure” with Bryn Terfel, “Don Pasquale“ with Anna Netrebko, “Lucia du Lammermoor with Natalie Dessay, “Boris Godunov”,”Don Carlos”. “Il Trovatore”, and the “Count Ory” with Juan Diego Florez, and ”Capriccio” with Renee Fleming. Further film delights include “The full Monteverdi” in June…which looks and sounds – according to the brilliant trailer – absolutely  scrumptious. It looks like I’m going to be going to the Penthouse a lot over the next year…if my pocket can bear the strain !



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