Last night; Natural History Museum Annual Science Lecture by Professor Sir Martin Rees.
Wednesday night; Late night opening at the Science Museum.
Tuesday night; Calixto Bieto’s “Carmen” at the ENO.
It isn’t fair of me to say “Opera nil”, actually, as it was a reasonably competent performance. But it wasn’t much more than that (except when one particular singer was on stage - more of that anon!).
Calixto Bieto has this reputation as a shocker and a bit of a sex-orgy-man, but there was relatively little shock and almost no simulated sexual behaviour to be seen; we got one male nude, dancing about slightly feyly, and some fake fellatio, tastefully obscured behind a parked car (it’s a modern dress production, in case you’re thinking “Cars? - in nineteenth century Seville?”). But the real problem was that, all matters of taste aside, it was basically rather an uninspired production, and way, way too bl**dy busy.
Busy-ness on stage is becoming a bit of a bugbear of mine, I have to admit. There was so much charging around, waving of arms and brandishing of stuff and rushing hither and thither; it was confusing and irritating. I don’t want the music to be drowned by forty extras running about and stamping arrhythmically in army boots. I don’t want to have masses of distracting background activity. I don’t want bizarre things happening on stage, at least not if they are pointless things that mean nothing. If they have a point, I’ll give them fair consideration on their merits. But if they are completely extraneous and incoherent, they just piss me off.
Why, for example, in this production, do the gypsy smugglers put their child to bed on the bonnet of their car, and not on one of the seats as anyone sane would do? And why do they push their car everywhere? There’s already been a car driven across the stage by that point, and plenty of raucous noise, at times covering the music entirely. So it can’t be because the engine doesn’t work, since it clearly does, and it can’t be because the engine will drown the music, since clearly no-one in the production team cares. So why? It doesn’t clarify or illuminate the action, or create a startling visual metaphor, or anything; it just looks stupid.
There is one great moment; just at the point when I was beginning to give up hope of a single fresh idea, the huge bull silhouette of the iconic Osborne’s Sherry hoarding that had dominated the set for Act 3 was suddenly thrown down and dismembered by a team of cheerful workmen during the introduction to Act 4. As a metaphor both for the coming bullfight and the coming destruction of Carmen herself, this was a fabulously effective bit of staging; simple, dramatic, clear, striking – everything the rest of the production, frankly, had not been.
On the plus side, the orchestra played their socks off; one would never have thought this was some of the most clichéd music on the planet, it sounded so fresh and potent. On the singing side, things were patchier. Ruxandra Donose sounded good (I like a Carmen with a nice deep growl), but isn’t much of an actress, and wasn’t helped by a production that saw Carmen as completely two-dimensional. The Don José shouted a lot, and I’m afraid the Escamillo wasn’t terribly exciting either.
Anyway, I can’t really complain, since the only real reason I had gone was to hear Elizabeth Llewellyn in action again, and she at least did not disappoint. Oh boy, did she not disappoint!
The more I hear of her, the more convinced I am that she is on her way to being one of the great singers of our time. A lot of Micaëlas go all out for the “unworldly-innocent-girl” thing, and end up acting dumb and sounding bland. Miss Llewellyn’s singing has enough heft and plangency to make Micaëla sound like a real, three-dimensional, thinking person, yet also has the unerring sweetness that is so vital for the character. There’s no discernible break in her voice, she soars into the top notes as if they were the easiest thing in the world, she is both lyrical and dramatic, and the timbre of her voice makes the hairs on the back of my neck prickle up. And she’s beautiful, and she can act. The perfect package.
But the production overall just didn’t have anything much to offer me. It wasn’t shocking, except for being shockingly unexciting. Each time Miss Llewellyn came on, the whole thing went through the roof – she has the same kind of absolutely committed engagement on stage as Simon Keenlyside or Sarah Connolly, so that one is simply riveted to her from the moment she appears. But Micaëla isn’t around very much, and the rest of the time I’m afraid it was all basically rather dull.
Which the science events were not.
Wednesday, I went along to the Science Museum Late largely to support the Dipgeek, who was one of the semi-finalists in a kind of public-speaking rally for wannabe science communicators. To my indignation, she was only the runner-up, despite being easily the best speaker. I don’t say that just because I’m prejudiced in favour of my friends, by the way (although obviously I am!). The winner was a scarily bubbly lass who gave a terribly jokey talk that was clearly aimed at kids – to an adult audience. I guess I don’t like being talked down to, even when the talk is about something I know b*gger-all about (stem cell research, in this case). Anyway, as far as I can understand it this means the Dipgeek may yet make it to the final, which is in April and clashes with a concert featuring Nikolai Lugansky playing Tchaikovsky 1 at the Festival Hall. Aargh! Support friend, or support Lugansky? Friend or pianohunk? For that matter, friend, or Tchaikovsky at his most passionate and dramatic? Aargh...
The rest of Wednesday evening I mooched in the Science Museum, enjoying the late-night party atmosphere; had a glass of shiraz, amused myself playing with all the push-the-button, watch-it-explode hands-on stuff one normally can’t get near for screaming kids, and went on the Apollo Launch simulator thingy, which turned out to be at one and the same time both slightly cheesy and one of the most exhilarating things I’ve done in ages.
Last night I met Jane for a pre-birthday treat of a crêpe and a lecture on cosmology. Professor Sir Martin Rees looks like an elderly sparrowhawk and is a terrific speaker who can make the most mind-boggling stuff sound comprehensible, even to a total layperson like me. He’s the Astronomer Royal (I didn’t know we still had one!) and as science communicators go I don’t think they get better than this. I haven’t a hope of summing up his talk, but it was witty, fascinating and thought-provoking, and illustrated with some excellent slides - images from the Hubble Space Telescope, computer simulations of galaxies crashing into one another and so on.
Today I had a fairly busy day at work, and this evening I am doing my packing, eating one of those slightly-odd “use everything up” suppers, and trying to get a couple of hours’ sleep before getting up in the wee small hours to take a night bus to Victoria Station, and a night train to Gatwick Airport, and my flight to Paphos and the joys of brandy sours and good Cypriot food, fresh sea air, and hopefully some sunshine on my birthday...