Culture of the week

A not very significant British politician is supposed to have said "A week's a long time in politics." I've been thinking about my last week in "culture," which didn't seem very long at all; indeed, it passed in a flash, though there was a fair bit of commuting between Oxfordshire and London involved. 
The third revival of Elijah Moshinsky's 2002 production of Il Trovatore at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, was always going to be most interesting for  Roberto Alagna's having another crack at Manrico, following his booing at La Scala last year. For the first time I can remember, we had to leave the opera at the interval, as I was feeling distinctly queasy, and it wasn't the fault or Alagna or even of American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky's wobbly-intoned Leonora (I hear she improved later). So I didn't last long enough to hear that Alagna attempted only the top B Verdi actually wrote in "Di quella pura," rather than the show-off C most tenors interpolate. He certainly did nothing to light my fire in the first two acts. 

Malgorzata Walewska's Azucena was most notable for her scary make-up. Only Dmitri Hvorostovsky was in his best voice, and he acted the Count di Luna as though he was a large sculpture whittled from a particularly durable hardwood. Carlo Rizzi's conducting never really settled down before my tummy obliged me to leave, and even the chorus was having troubles with ensemble. Unlike most of my colleagues, I love Dante Ferretti's madly ambitious sets, in which the Act II convent looks like a cross between a railway station and a 19th century tropical greenhouse.
Somehow I'd recovered by 8.45 the next morning when I caught a train to go to the Royal Festival Hall for a 10.0 open rehearsal of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra. Gustavo Dudamel appeared in all his curly-mop-headed glory, and - without a score, so far as I could see - conducted his huge gang (eight double basses, two harps, eight horns) in Tchaikovsky Four and Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. Even at that hour, and half-dead with exhaustion (the night before still taking its toll), I couldn't help registering the extreme virtuosity of the young players - all of them. Even the last desk of second violins looked as though these kids could aspire to solo careers. What impressed me most, I suppose, was that the horns managed the first bars of the Tchaikovsky without the slightest break in their attack - and those were the first notes they played that morning.
Wednesday saw me on the train again, for a working lunch with some people from the Manchester International Festival, for whom I'm doing some consulting on the food side. Lunch deserves its own notice though, as it was at a new restaurant, Ba Shan, on the corner of Romilly and Frith Streets, exactly opposite its parent Sichuan restaurant, Bar Shu, now shut because of a kitchen fire. Fuchsia Dunlop is the menu consultant for both, and the new place has a small, but splendid menu of the sort of dim sum you get in Sichuan, Hunan and Beijing, very delicate steamed dumplings, and long crusty potstickers, rather than the more usual crescent-shaped variety. In a break with tradition there are also a few salady things. That's culture too, innit?
Thursday we motored to the Barbican to see the latest offering from Improbable, "Panic." In the Barbican Pit, the troupe whose radical work involves everything from puppets to giant stage sets (as in Satyagraha or Doctor Atomic) here performs a small-scale, improvisation-inspired tribute to the personal deity of the late E.M. Forster (and the subject of his worst work) the Great God Pan. I like Improbable's suggestion that Pan is an older, pre-Olympian god, a sort of leftover spirit of unregulated mischief. This staging is a vehicle for Improbable co-founder Phelim McDermott, who spends most of the 100 minutes larking about in his black y-fronts, exposing his nicely-increasing middle-aged row E we could see a vertical line from y-front top nearly to navel, but couldn't see whether it was hair or a very tidy surgical scar.
With his three nymphs (one of them, played by Matilda Leyser, an aerialist who explains that she's happier perched up high, because then she has a genuine reason for her chronic anxiety- her Panic), McDermott's Pan explores his beard and horns, walks on stilts to illustrate his hoofed nature, and has a go at making a connection with bees, to explain why Pan is also the patron spirit of beekeepers. In the course of this he also dons a five-foot wicker-work, pointy phallus, and attempts coitus with various items of furniture. It helps to have one of your own (a penis, I mean) to appreciate how carefully McDermott, directed by Julian Crouch and Lee Simpson, has worked out the mechanics of living (and moving) with a five-foot-long erection. By this sexist remark, I mean simply to indicate that the women in the audiences (my wife included), like the women critics, don't seem to find this interlude as amusing as I did - though I have to agree with them that there was - pun intended - a little bit too much of it.
Somebody in the design team of Julian Crouch and Phil Eddolls has an obsession with brown paper. The stage curtain looks like brown paper with four vertical slashes in it, one for each character. The paper has a forest projected onto it. Brown paper shopping bags carry loads of ludicrously-titled self-help books, that are dumped onto a table; the same bags are placed over the heads of the seated nymphs, and their own, slightly enlarged faces are projected onto them. Did I learn anything from this evening? A little. Was I entertained? Yes-ish.
Friday night was the private view of "Transmission Interrupted" at Modern Art Oxford. Artists Adel Abdessemed, Pilar Albarracín, Yto Barrada, Mircea Cantor, Jem Cohen, Jimmie Durham, Simryn Gill, Julia Meltzer and David Thorne, Lia Perjovschi, Michael Rakowitz, Ernesto Salmerón, Yara El-Sherbini and Sislej Xhafa present installations, films, videos and even a painting or two, in this excellent show (until 21 June)curated by Suzanne Cotter and Gilane Tawadros. 
What I liked about this show is its pace: there are few enough exhibits for the viewer actually to sit and watch Jem Cohen's film, NYC Weights and Measures (2006) with its beautifully coloured shots of city buildings twinkling in the dark, and to peer at Michael Rakowitz's models for The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (2007) "a gallery installation at Lombard-Freid Projects in New York,"  as Benjamin Tiven wrote in The Nation (Sept. 19, 2007): "In it, Rakowitz faithfully replicated the objects known to be missing or looted from the Iraqi National Museum during the initial US invasion, but he reproduced them in the cheap paper packaging of Middle Eastern import foods, or community newspapers,  along with comiclike drawings explaining the history of Iraqi archaeology." 
The exhibition is really about how artists subvert normal, ordinary forms of communication and information, whether in documentary films, models or diagrams - by doing something unexpected. The rhetorical flourishes of several of the exhibits (such as the gripping film of Meltzer and Thorne) mean it isn't all convincing as pure art; but then, what is nowadays? It makes you realise that such classifying is increasingly redundant; and if there isn't a great deal that's moving in this show, there is plenty that is provoking and entertaining.

April 20, 2009 8:00 AM | | Comments (0)

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This page contains a single entry by Plain English published on April 20, 2009 8:00 AM.

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