Monday, 25 May 2015

'Woolf Works': The Ultimate Modern Masterpiece

Upon leaving the Royal Opera House, mid-Saturday afternoon, I was immensely and irrevocably
Ferri & Bonelli
moved. Woolf Works is, I mused, quite possibly the bravest and most profound work I've seen the Royal Ballet perform.

Unlike many others, I had no prior qualms about either choreographer or subject. Several amongst my acquaintance had previously waxed lyrical of McGregor's deficiencies - how inept they made him seem. From word alone, Raven Girl seemed dismal failure, and Tetractys a nightmare better forgotten. Yet, I was undeterred - more than once in my short tenure have I discovered that certain tastes lie very traditional indeed. Studies and the terrible May onslaught prevented me from catching what, by all accounts, seemed to be a most triumphant opening night - indeed, it was only for the final performance of the first cast that I found myself, once more, on that well-trodden path down to Soho.

As prudently advised, I had conducted my diligent research before-hand. Woolf I was scarcely familiar with; with a self-proclaimed history of preferring flowery prose, decadent in descriptors, the deconstructed nature of her writing seemed a fresh challenge. Yet, the more I read, the more intrigued I became; I could see it already - the abruptness, almost rudeness of unmitigated, unfettered thought - the flow and cadence of the subconscious - yes, it would suit McGregor very well indeed. There is an everlasting forlornness that dictates her words; a brevity and soliloquy to one's self. What a challenge lay before him! I waited for lights to dim with thinly veiled impatience.

It was a challenge most intimately and supremely met. I do not wish to delve into great depth and intricacies of the abstract tapestries McGregor slowly unfolded. If Woolf is to be taken in her true form, our view should be expansive, not detailed. Scrutiny of microcosms distort and deviate; McGregor presents theory, introspect and instinct as the supplanters of form and narrative. Movement pulses in one sinuous flow, each act bearing its own purpose and weight, but inextricably, undoubtedly bounded together in one heady vision.

Pulsating at the core is the luminous Alessandra Ferri, whom I finally had the pleasure of watching for the first time. I have seen many stars grace the stage; in the presence of many a illustrious artists have I sat, enthralled. Yet, there was no experience quite like this one, no immersion quite so recondite. Words fail to convey her power - the carriage of her shoulders, upon the first rise of the curtain in I Now, I Then; what a curious weight they bore! Every line of that sinuous body seemed erudite, achingly languid. Her gaze alone, watching her effervescent young self (Stix-Brunell) coquet with Sally Seton (Hayward) is terrible in its power, wistful as youth skitters and coltishly play in amongst the wood formations. Equally matched in power and emotional strain was Mrs Dalloway's 'twin' - the war-ridden Septimus Warren, who found a natural home in Edward Watson. How empty and pinched was his countenance; how jerked and paroxysmal his movements! Those long, marble limbs wept with unsaid misery - the plight of so many veterans. The interchange between Watson and Dyer as his departed friend, augmented so wondrously by Richter's score, is surely the single most magnetic modern pas de deux I have witnessed

Orlando moves away once more into more familiar McGregor terrain; sharp, acrobatic with a need for scissor-like accuracy. Yet, it was a necessary respite; the harsh and inhospitable new environment, the barely discernible figures shrouded in lasers and smoke were all deeply evocative of audacious and faintly hysterical world of Woolf's text. And then there was Osipova; so fearsomely, formidably extreme, a body truly made for McGregor choreography. Extreme pliancy, coated in icy metal, she dives and distorts into the most unforgiving positions, moulded by Watson and Mcrae. The passage between Watson and Osipova, right in the centre of the stage was serpentine and vagrant - most powerfully so. Yet, Orlando is without doubt a group creation - each dancer came forth with the same wild conviction and increasingly breathless audacity. The finale, mere shadows of gold and grey flitting through puddles of clear light at breakneck speed was intoxicating in its revelry. If anything, one must applaud McGregor for inspiring utter conviction out of such a wide array of contrasting dancers.

Thursday, however, marked a return to the dual world of Ferri and Woolf - indeed, it is more of a tribute of Woolf herself than Waves. There can be no other muse than Ferri herself; buffeted first by Bonelli, she is never reticent - even in the slowest, stillest movement, she undulates to the hypnotic rhythm of the tides - a trailing finger here, a worldly sigh there. McGregor focuses not on the inevitability of death, but the urgency of life; Lamb leads a bubbling gaggle of children daintily in languid patterns as Ferri looks on in wonder. And then there are the waves, made of the corps, rolling, rhythmic and almost extolling Ferri as she glides and slips from one watery embrace to another, dispersing into the restless depths until finally, she is laid to rest by Bonelli as the onrushing waves retreat.

Let it be known; this is, without peer a modern masterpiece of the most impeccable creation, the likes of which I have never witnessed before, complemented by a cast united with a shared vision. Rest assured. The future of ballet is in safe hands.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

'La Boheme' with Netrebko and Calleja

This run of La Boheme marks the final time Copely's handsomely dishevelled production graces the Covent Garden stage before it is retired for good. In a protracted farewell, this final cast is one of starry quality, headed by the elusive Anna Netrebko and Joseph Calleja.

It would be a while before the warm lushness of Puccini's most indulgent score penetrated the chill of the Parisian garrett. An odd sense of displacement interrupted the famous first act. Full of sparkling little jokes, shining like gems, the ponderous disconnect between stage and pit produced a ragged tempo which tampers most disconcertingly with Puccini. In La Boheme, where the orchestration is organic, mimicking the nuances and rises of speech, such liberal conducting is prone to elongate already extended passages, creating a general sense of sluggishness. Part of the fault must be chalked up to brief rehearsals; it was most apparent in Che gelida manina and O soave fanciulla that conductor and singer struggled to anticipate the other. Ettinger must refrain from waiting for the singer a guide them instead; the greatest vice that can befall a Puccini opera is over-indulgence - it can become unbearable in its saturation. I do not doubt that this fault that will dissipate over the run. 

Even working with such drawbacks, the quality of the cast cannot be overlooked. Beyond his overcooked Act 1 aria, Calleja was in good voice, clear and penetrating, although he must learn to connect more with the production. However, the making of the evening, as ever in La Boheme, lay with our Mimi, where Netrebko brought lustre and charm, if not quite the weight of believability. Yet, one must put their qualms about Netrebko's vocal suitability to one side and forget it outright, for it is inevitable. Any person who considers themselves to have any ounce of operatic knowledge will know that this magnificent singer has, in recent years, openly embraced the full thickness of her voice. She has traversed far and wide, Iolanta once minute, Lady Macbeth the next; she has already left the days where she could thin her voice to match Mimi's gentle tone far behind. Yet, there is still much to enjoy in her Mimi, even in the absence of youthful incandescence. Her voice remains hugely expressive, now endowed with both volume and gravitas. Her Mimi in Act 3 was a thing of great majesty; it is with eager ears and glad heart that Covent Garden welcomes her return and I can only hope that her next sojourn in London enables her to showcase her newfound tone to its most devastating effect. 

It may be said, however, that the most enchanting performance of the night lay with the other three occupants of the bohemian attic; Meachem's Marcello, Vino's Colline and Del Savio's Schaunard. When bandied together, they exuded a true sense of camaraderie, the sense of jovial warmth that brings heart and life to even the bleakest situations, a brief but captivating return to the heart of this historic production.