Toy shop, sweet shop or simply heaven?



For those interested in the arts, the metaphor for being in London this summer  is what? - a kid in a toy shop or sweet shop? Or maybe a religious trope is more appropriate - a believer finding himself in heaven or paradise (and with no shortage of virgins at the British Museum's newly opened exhibition, Garden & Cosmos)?
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To start: a new Così fan tutte from the English National Opera at the Coliseum (8 more performances until 2 July), last year's production from the Aix Festival, staged by the Iranian film director, Abbas Kiarostami. But the oafish British philistines and louts who deal with UK visas in Teheran gave him such a bad time that he was unable to get to London for the rehearsals here, so Elaine Tyler-Hall, who worked with him in Aix, directed the production, conferring with Kiarostami by email. It is possible that this was responsible for the lack of a viewpoint when it came to the resolution of the plot. Did the pairs of lovers reconcile after the women showed they were inconstant? Did they decide to switch partners (as in some productions) or the boys even go off with each other, as has happened in at least one staging? We don't know, because the finale in London was all smiles and (apparently) no tears. Maybe Kiarostami's presence would have changed this.
It didn't make a great deal of difference to me, because I had the good luck to be taking as my guest someone who had recently found an interest in opera, and had never before been to a performance. I say "luck," because it was enchanting to be seeing the piece for the nth time, but through the eyes of an opera virgin. What a good choice the Mozart/da Ponte collaboration is for a first-timer, and what a perfect production. Malika Chaveau's Amalfi Coast-villa sets and pale-coloured period costumes were highlighted and emphasised by Mr Kiarostami's cinema backdrops. 
Thus the first act has us looking at Don Alfonso (Steven Page, sounding and looking just the right, mellifluous age) and Gugliemo (a tall, very young-looking Liam Bonner) and Ferrando (shorter, dark, with a sweet, medium-weight tenor voice that dealt handily with the coloratura passages). In back of them, on a large screen framed by the colonnades, we see a crowd projected. They are drinking in the "Café Amedeo" and looking at us, the audience, as well as at the singers. This conceit returns in the finale, when the stage orchestra projected on the screen seems to be the pit orchestra, and the conductor's movements precisely echo those of the conductor we can see in three dimensions before us. In between the projections are ravishingly beautiful shots of waves gently breaking in the Bay of Naples.
All gorgeous, as is the glorious, almost mezzo-coloured singing of Susan Gritton as Fiordiligi. What she lacks at the very bottom of her register, she makes up for by the accuracy of the top, especially in her several scary octave-leaps. Fiona Murphy looks as good as she sounds as Dorabella. The surprise is that Sophie Bevan has almost too dramatic a voice for Despina - a voice that seems to me to be beyond soubrette roles. Stefan Klingele conducts nicely, on the whole - though needs to watch the ensemble a bit. The acting was uniformly good, if a touch overstated, a fault in the right direction. My only real complaint is that, being the ENO, it's sung in English, using Martin Fitzpatrick's translation that seems to cram too many syllables into the lines too often - we can usually tell what they're singing only because of the English-language surtitles. Thus this production (which will surely be around the ENO for years) makes the strongest possible case for singing it in Italian, and restricting the hard sing of the Fitzpatrick translation to the surtitles. 
The Chichester Festival production of Ronald Harwood's pair of plays about the music world of post-War Germany, Taking Sides and Collaboration, have transferred to the West End at the Duchess Theatre. Bad luck on  me this time: I was only able to see Taking Sides, about the de-Nazification interrogations of Wilhem Furtwängler, first staged in 1995 and turned into a film in 2001. Having seen and enjoyed the 1995 production, I was disappointed in the extra-crude overacting  by David Horovitch of the American mid-western interrogator, though I have no complaints about Michael Pennington as Furtwängler, and Martin Hutson was especially good (because low-key) as the American/German Jewish lieutenant. Philip Franks is the director presumably responsible for the hamming. I hope to catch up with the second play, in which Pennington plays Richard Strauss - and hope I'll have reason to change my mind. 
At the National's Olivier Theatre is the best All's Well that Ends Well I've ever seen - by a long chalk. Director Marianne Elliott, designer Rae Smith and the projection and lighting designers have turned the large thrust stage into a Disneyish fairy-tale setting that exactly captures the atmosphere of the plot. In which, you'll remember, a marriage is arranged between a boy of high degree and a girl of lower - the twist being that it's the girl who chooses the boy, and the boy who rejects her.
In a continuing shadowplay at the top of the stage, birds of various sorts swoop and fly, mysterious towers with trees sprouting from their turrets appear and vanish; the stage is at one moment the king of France's court, at another moment a tavern.
Claire Higgins is magnificent as the widowed Countess of Rossillion who has bittersweet fun with her late husband's knave (played both tenderly and cynically by Brendan O'Hea) and her Rocky-Horror-Show steward (an hilariously cadaverous Michael Mears), but whose moral sense is the backbone of Shakespeare's problem play. Parolles is played by Conleith Hill, costumed as a hybrid of a cross-gaitered Malvolio and a demented Morris Man. George Rainsford is a pretty-boy, totally selfish Bertram. Oliver Ford Davies is a twinkling king, at least when he's cured of his fistula by Helena, who asks for Bertram's hand as her reward. Michelle Terry is a formidable poor relation at the countess's court, who, despite being besotted by Bertram, himself a moral cipher, grows in wisdom and moral stature even as she plans her bed trick. At the end, as the anachronistic court photographer takes their wedding snaps, the pair leave us wondering whether they are happy, annoyed, or perhaps are having a premonition of the years of marital bickering that lie before them. And there is some brilliant original music by Adam Cork.
Now for the treat of the week (or perhaps of the entire summer): Garden & Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur at the British Museum, in the new gallery space above the Reading Room.  This show has been seen at the Freer and at Seattle, but I at least knew nothing at all about it before having the joy of seeing it entirely on my own last week. 
It is a very remarkable group of 55 paintings, never seen before outside India - and, indeed, newly discovered in the royal collection of the Rathore dynasty of Marwar. (The collection is in the Mehrangarh Fort Museum in Jodhpur. Unlike any Indian paintings most people have ever seen, because they are large format, they use the techniques of the more familiar miniature paintings of the Rajput court. They're more than striking - they're the sort of images you can't take your eyes off, or look away from. Looking at them you suddenly understand what being an Indian monarch was all about, and also gain an intuitive understanding of Hinduism. For though these use the techniques of Persian and Moghal art, these show the evolution of a Marwar school. 
Before 1947, when it was merged into India, the state of Jodhpur-Marwar was the 3rd largest (after Kashmir and Hyderabad). Nagaur, one of the artistic centres of the region, went back and forth from Hindu to Muslim. The Marwari rajas were Hindus, and there are several pictures here devoted to Krishna, in which we're to understand that an analogy is being made between the maharaja and the beautiful blue god. This show is full of revelations, both artistic and cultural, about the early modern period in India, and covers the reign in Nagaur of Maharaja Bakhat Singh (1725-51); and in Marwar of Maharaja Vijai Singh (1752-93) and Maharaja Man Singh (1803-43). The Hindu kings were heads of the Rathore clan of Rajputs, and of the Kshatriya warrior/ruler  caste. 
The first reign is characterised by images of courtly pleasures - the numbers of women represented in the zenanas is staggering, and there are several paintings in this first section where the maharaja is the only man in a dense crowd of women. There are depictions of gardens galore, and of gopi girls frolicking with Krishna - in one painting the blue god has reproduced himself many times over, so as to satisfy the large number of the cow girls. Still, there are not quite enough Krishnas to go around, and some of the gopis have wound their legs around tree trunks - in frustration, or more likely in ecstasy. Hard to tell even on this larger than usual scale, as the expressions of the gods and gopis are all identical. The colours are always gorgeous, often highly saturated, and there is a great deal of gold. As you progress through the installation, you begin to notice, with a small thrill of discovery,  that the images suddenly imply a single perspective.
The early 19th century Maharaja Man Singh devoted his kingdom to the teachings on an ascetic, heterodox yogic order, the sectarian Naths, which stirred up the Brahmin religious establishment, displaced some of the maharaja's kinspeople, and alarmed the hell out of the British East India Company. It's a terrific story, but the art is even more exciting, as you see court artists trying to depict nothingness, with big areas of very large pictures devoid of anything but a decorative motif, and pictures that have to be read as maps - of the sacred realms, or perhaps of the psyche. Not to be missed; and the catalogue is going to be one of my most cherished books.


June 3, 2009 12:41 PM | | Comments (0)

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