Colours: Hodgkin, Kapoor and poor Tchaikovsky

Tomorrow at the Gagosian Gallery at 17-19 Davies Street, London W1, my close friend Howard Hodgkin has a show of ]Seven New Paintings.  I saw some of them in his studio, small, vigorous, and fresh, and so recognisably, uniquely, by Hodgkin, that I was able to spot what was in the envelope bearing the announcement from seeing the brush-work of one detail of Embrace (below). Another Hodgkin treat is at the newly opened Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, where several of his paintings are on view in one of the contemporary galleries - including a picture he made as a 16 year-old, Tea Party in America, a work of astonishing maturity, which shows how clued up he was, just after the War, about cubism, German expressionism, hard-edge painting, and colour, and which also contains a passage that you would not be surprised to find in one of his current paintings. Another exhibition, the most fun show in London, is on for one more week at the RA, which will stay open till midnight on Friday, 11 December, the last day of Anish Kapoor's spectacular.
Hodgkin Embrace 2008-9.jpg

Howard Hodgkin, Embrace, 2008-2009
"Highlights include," says the publicity, "the monumental work Svayambh (2007), a vast block of red wax that moves slowly through the galleries across the entire breadth of Burlington House and Shooting into the Corner (2008-09) in which projectiles of red wax are fired into a corner by a cannon." This is scarcely adequate to describe the mess the molten scarlet wax has made of the RA's lovely rooms. Looking at the domestic-room-sized red  juggernaut moving on tracks through the archways of the enfilade of galleries gives the spectator a thrill of infantile voyeurism at seeing such tremendous naughtiness. And the cannon is a drama queen's wet-dream. I suppose the RA's conservation people have put an invisible protective skin over the walls and mouldings, but you still ask yourself how the hell they're going to get all that red wax off the place. 
My culture week included a performance of Tchaikovsky's rarely performed opera, Cherevichki, which the Royal Opera House calls The Tsarina's Slippers, in a new production directed by Francesca Zambello, with Russian designers doing the sets and costumes, and Russian singers in the principal roles. I hated it.
Not the opera which, weirdly enough, I've seen before, in a wonderful 2004 production at Garsington Opera. Maybe it was the small Garsington budget, or maybe it was the intimacy of the small house there - but it was possible to appreciate the music, some of which is Tchaikovsky at the top of his operatic game, without the distraction of ugly, ugly, expensive costumes and silly sets - and awkwardly moving, minimally-acting singers. The colours of the costumes and of the sets were particularly strident and distressing. Even the Royal Ballet's dancers seemed clumsy. Ms Zambello's idea of direction does not seem to have extended beyond spending lots of money.
The worst of it was the casting. Singing the role of Oxana, the not totally likeable, petulant heroine, who refuses the sincere attentions of the village blacksmith, Vakula, unless he brings her a pair of fashionable slippers like those the Tsarina wears. Siberian-born soprano Olga Guryakova has a voice that can shatter glaciers and turn icebergs into slush. She has nowhere to go but Wagner, and I don't look forward to hearing her Brünnhilde any more than I do her Isolde.  The RO's publicity claims that she recently sang Onegin's Tatyana in Moscow. I don't believe it. She has no volume control at all, and can offer only two dynamics: very loud -  and even louder. The poor tenor singing Vakula, Vsevolod Grivnov, never stood a chance. One blast of her voice above-the-stave was enough to overwhelm him, and probably give him a splitting headache. It did me, and I was sitting in the gods, almost as far as you can get from the stage in the amphitheatre, where I haven't been for 45 years. By the way, the seating there is as uncomfortable as Ms Guryakova's voice.

December 4, 2009 4:47 PM | | Comments (0)

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