Thursday 7 February 2013

A moderate feast, and a silent opera

To the Young Vic last night, to see Feast - reflecting a resolution I made after seeing A Doll's House and Three Sisters there, to go more often. They seem to be doing some great work at the moment.

Feast was a slight disappointment, partly because it seemed a little over-hyped in the reviews. I went expecting to be exhilarated and was only really charmed.

The reviews had somehow led me to expect swirling costumes and beating drums, a whirl of colour - African cliches, perhaps? What was on offer was more thoughtful and measured, but sometimes lost its momentum. Ideas floated - the first actor on stage encouraged audience participation, but this didn't happen again - but then sank.

The evening was a sequence of playlets moving through history. The stage effects were great, the acting convincing, and the dancing excellent, and there were a couple of charismatic narrators, but what it lacked, for me, was a really strong narrative or any really dramatic moments. There was a little bit of everything, but not quite enough to bowl you over. Would I have minded, if I hadn't expected to be overwhelmed? I'm not sure....

Feast reviewed in the Telegraph.

Feast reviewed in the Independent.

And even Michael Billington in the Guardian liked it - which should perhaps have worried me, as he doesn't generally share my taste (he seems to loathe the Globe, for instance).

The friend I went with agreed with all this - but, as he pointed out afterwards, we haven't actually seen anything we disagreed about yet.

Last week I went to see the Silent Opera doing Monteverdi's Orfeo. That was fun as I went along with an acquaintance who's an opera director, so applied a critical, professional eye to the production. He was less than impressed, I'm afraid. For me, it was interesting to see how the gimmick had run away with things. In this case, they had continuo instruments - harpsichord, theorbos, harp - but no strings, brass or wind. The audience were all issued with wireless headphones, and the singers and instruments were miked up, but you only got the effect of the full orchestra if you wore the phones.

But there's something about having headphones clamped on that really distances you from the action - my friend and I spent the production taking them off at every opportunity. Suspicious minds might have seen it as a ruse to save money, since all those sackbuts didn't have to be paid to be there. But the other snag was that if you'd have taken out that element, what was left wasn't quite good enough. The staging was okay but could have done so much more: we'd expected to crawl through tunnels and get trapped in Hades; in the event we simply shuffled into the next room and went up some stairs and then down again – more like being on the tube than anything else. Not knowing the plot, I had no idea at what point we – or Orfeo – were crossing the Styx, and so a lot of the drama passed me by. This seemed a rather basic point not to have made.

It also meant that the chap I thought was Pluto was really Charon, though he did get the lion's share of the music - which was a shame as the singer wasn't up to it, simply ghosting the low notes. I happened to know the bass who sang Pluto, but my friend (who didn't) agreed that he'd have swapped the two singers. Pluto had a lot of groping, snogging and fumbling to do; there was rather a lot of That Kind of Thing, in fact, with a whole lot of dancers whose only function was to writhe on scaffolding. Which is fine if you want set-dressing, but you could have paid to have the sackbuts there instead. Not just for the ethics of it – having recorded musicians when you could have live isn't polite - but for the energy they bring: I really missed the visual aspect you get from string playing: the energy and rhythm of all those bowing arms, and the visual drama of sackbuts, which are beautiful things.

What I assumed should have been the pivotal moment – when Orfeo loses everything in a moment by looking back at Eurydice – was also oddly fudged. I thought I'd missed it: then Eurydice didn't seem terribly keen to stay anyway. It was all a little odd - whether it didn't go as planned or the effects were misjudged, I wasn't quite sure. The moments of really effective drama were mostly driven, come to think of it, by the quality of the music and the singing. The messenger who brings news of Eurydice's death to the wedding party sang her part beautifully: that was the one moment that brought tears to my eyes. And Orfeo's final raging, right across the audience, was very effective. A word for Musica, too, who had a lovely voice that rang out in her solos and also shone through the choruses.

On reflection, losing the mikes, the headphones and the ranks of mixing desks, and focusing on using the space effectively (considering what a schlep it was to find the place, we'd expected something more unusual), might have paid off better. I wondered if the problem with this kind of endeavour is that it's easy, once they're completed, to watch the finished product and point out exactly how they could have been improved. But there were a few terribly trendy elements to the  production which seemed to demonstrate that the gimmick was rather the point, and that the desire to be fashionable might have taken precedence anyway.

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