Once in a while you come across a production that makes you scratch your head - why did the company do this? How could anyone ever have thought this worked? But it is rare that you see something that makes you wonder why the institution is in receipt of a public subsidy to present a piece that fails not because it's daring or experimental, but just because it's so bad it should never have been staged.
OK, Johann Strauss II's Die Fledermaus is not my favourite lyric drama. I lack the taste for Strauss waltzes, so for me it's not even a great operetta. I'd rather see almost anything by Offenbach, Lehàr or come to that, Gilbert and Sullivan. But I have seen productions of Fledermaus that I could sit through without wanting to boo or leave before the interval, including a decent production at Glyndebourne in 2003 and a not despicable 1989 revival of the Covent Garden 1977 production with choreography by Frederick Ashton.
This new staging at the English National Opera is co-produced with Toronto, where it was performed last year, which should surely have stopped it being put on at the Coliseum. I (and probably the other national critics) went along because it is directed by Christopher Alden, whose opera track record includes a fine Partenope and a memorable Midsummer Night's Dream; and because the cast includes Tom Randle as Eisenstein and Andrew Shore as Frank.
There have been some ups and some downs among the events of this Wagner bicentenary year. There was the reportedly naff new Ring at Bayreuth - so bad, some of the press said, that the German state must now think again about its support for the Wagner family management of the Festival.
But there have been some high points, too. Daniel Barenboim was lauded to the skies for his conducting of the concert performance of all four operas at this summer's Proms; and what I heard of it on the radio was magnificent. I've already written here about the triumph of the staged Ring at Longborough. Now Simon Callow's one-man show, "Inside Wagner's Head" at the Linbury Theatre in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, is a masterpiece of a different order.
Pasquale has a dramaturgical problem.
The 70-something Pasquale wants to marry and produce heirs, as his young
heir-apparent nephew, Ernesto, has refused the arranged marriage proposed for
him by his uncle. Pasquale's doctor, Malatesta has nominated himself as
Pasquale's marriage-broker, but the woman he proposes is Norina, the young
widow who is the secret squeeze of Ernesto. Malatesta introduces her to
Pasquale in the guise of being his own sister, Sofronia, who has just left a
convent. Norina and Malatesta are in cahoots, planning to trick Pasquale into
marriage so that she can immediately lay claim to half the rich old man's property.
But they neglect to inform Ernesto of their plot, and chaos ensues.
Dr Malatesta (Nikolay Borchev), Norina (Danielle de Niese) and Don Pasquale (Alessandro Corbelli). Photo credit Clive Barda
Very recently the UK Border Agency refused visas to visit Britain to one of the curators of the Shubbak festival, an annual celebration in London of modern Arab arts. Also vetoed were visas for two authors from Gaza. Earlier this year, said Boyd Tonkin of The Independent (on 29 June), "a deal-hungry literary agent from Turkey, guest of honour at the London Book Fair" was denied entry to Britain.
The UKBA's latest stunt is to refuse a visa to a young woman coming to attend the 32nd annual Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, of which I am the chair. The Symposium meets from 5-7 July at St Catherine's College, Oxford, and the theme it will discuss this year is "Food and Material Culture." Among the plenary speakers are Joan Smith, giving the third Jane Grigson Memorial Lecture, and Bee Wilson, talking about the subject from the standpoint of her new book, Consider the Fork. The guest chef this year is Stevie Parle of the Dock Kitchen in London. The would-be Symposiast is a Southeast Asian studying in one of the European Union countries.
Symposium 2013 Food & Material Culture
The last "Ring" I saw was last autumn's revival of the Keith Warner production at Covent Garden. As in 2005/6 I had intended to write a book about seeing every Ring cycle produced in a single year, I not only saw the Bayreuth Ring in summer, 2006, but the earlier Manaus and Adelaide Rings. I've seen at least three different Bayreuth productions (each more than once) over the years, and have seen every production in London and Edinburgh in the last couple of decades, including the feeble Russian staging - my first ever being the ROH production in 1970. I relished the 1994-95 Richard Jones, unpopular though it was with my colleagues. Someone recently asked me how many Rings I've seen, and I realised that I couldn't answer without going through my old diaries and calendars. So the answer is: quite a few.
But I've never enjoyed one more than Martin and Lizzie Graham's Longborough Ring, whose first complete cycle has just ended.
In a former henhouse, at Longborough, deep in the Cotswold countryside, a very ambitious Ring cycle is shaping up. What, I asked myself, would its bombastic, luxury-loving author and composer make of it?
How would Wagner, who ordered his undergarments from a maker of bespoke women's lingerie, feel about designer Kjell Torriset's simple, effective, but hardly elegant costumes - of rough cotton rather than the silk the Master liked to feel next to his own skin?
How would the man who also built an opera house for himself, with all the then- current theatrical bells and whistles, feel about the basic, but comfortable auditorium, and the stage with Ben Ormerod's excellent, but limited lighting effects possibilities? And what would the man who called for circles of fire, dragons and rainbow bridges think about Mr. Torriset's (increasingly ingenious and impressive, superb but modest) special effects.
Above all, how would Wagner react to the intimate atmosphere of Longborough, where you can see the singers' faces from every seat in the house?
What would he make of presenting his Festival opera, his four-day affair, as a chamber opera?
It's a far cry from the Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney Hollywood movie where the two kids say "Let's put on a show," but the start of the 2013 Ring Cycle just outside the Cotswold village of Longborough has the same defiant D.I.Y. attitude.
Martin and Lizzie Graham have been thinking about Wagner's operas for 30 years, and in 1998 they mounted - in a converted hen-house on their farm - their first, but miniaturised, Rhinegold. Now the shed has become a rural opera house, with all the appropriate
theatrical paraphernalia, and (perfectly comfortable) red-plush seats rescued from the renovation of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.
Paul Levy is amost a citizen of the world, carrying the passports of the USA and the UK/EU. He writes about the arts in general for the Wall Street Journal Europe more
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