Noble and/or savage. In this Olympic summer the Proms have been lavish with opera productions, and I suppose the sheer Englishness of Peter Grimes made it an automatic choice. The production, done in concert without sets, came from the English National Opera with most of the original cast intact – it was first staged in 2009 – and was conducted for beauty and precision by the ENO’s music director, Edward Gardner. I’m getting the bare bones out of the way because it’s hard to revisit Britten’s seminal opera – the one that ratified his status as the greatest British composer since Henry Purcell – without feeling queasy.
Let’s do the twist! The Count sports a Sgt. Pepper mustache and velvet brocade bell bottoms. The Countess is dressed in a caftan that looks like William Morris wallpaper. Cherubino wears a skin-hugging flowery shirt. Yes, Glyndebourne has dared to set The Marriage of Fiagro as a romp through London in the swinging Sixties, and after holding your breath for the first ten minutes, it begins to work because it’s funny — a ridiculous sartorial period marries into the world of Marie Antoinette. Like a drunk uncle at the wedding, the swingers loosen everybody up. Once Countess Almaviva stops feeling sorry for herself and begins to frug — or is it the swim? — infectious absurdity wins the day.
Preggers. A bloke in a certain frame of mind, namely male, might wonder why he is sitting at Jumpy. April De Angelis’ new play, beginning its West End run after a success at the Royal Court, is very witty but also very hen-partyish. When the women in the audience laugh knowingly at a line like, “Is she metal-pausal?” some men might wince. Their eyes are likely to avert when a whoop goes up at the sight of a hunky young man entering stage left, starkers, except for modestly covering himself down there. This isn’t gender neutral comedy, and the territory it covers — the generation gap between a middle-aged mother and her mouthy sixteen-year-old daughter — has a case of galloping cliche.
Resistance movements. It didn’t take long for everyone to realize that they had a musical star in Vasily Petrenko, the boyish thirtysomething conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. He debuted with them in 2004 at the age of 28 with brilliant promise. No one spoke of promise after a concert or two; they were already floored. One of a star’s perks is a roaring welcome at the Proms. You’d have thought at the end of their concert two nights ago that the orchestra had just played Crown Imperial rather than the angst-ridden Shostakovich Tenth.
Gin and it.
There are cocktail parties, and then there are cocktail parties. Dramatists like to use them as a trope for the viral malaise that has infected middle-class life. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the unraveling of a marriage is x-rayed with malicious glee, while in the sedate confines of The Cocktail Party T.S. Eliot takes up his familiar, morose theme of “shoring up fragments against our ruin,” giving us hints of the Alcestis of Euripides so that the failed marriage at the heart of the play has mythic resonance. (Albee seemed to stretch for all-American resonance by naming his duelling couple George and Martha, although the relevance to George and Martha Washington never hit home for me — history is the last thing one thinks about as the air blisters and boils in the play.)
Loved to dearth. Without remembering any legal documents I signed that had Satan written in the small print, just when I forget how tawdry and thin Liszt’s Faust Symphony is, it comes around again and I give it another chance. Too late. I hear the old guy cackle and the doors of Albert Hall clanging shut. The only way to overcome the symphony’s clattering banality is for the conductor to bash the score within an inch of its life. The thing won’t die — no fear of that — and if there is truly inspired leadership, as from Leonard Bernstein and Jascha Horenstein in their classic recordings, the music will bring genuine pleasure, like the circus.
Too clever by halves. Although T.S. Eliot was describing Marlowe’s once popular, now buried play, The Jew of Malta, when he dubbed it a savage farce, the phrase is a wide paintbrush for Jacobean tragedy, whose absurd motivations, wildly outsized emotions and sheer body count tempt us to burst out laughing. One of the breeziest writers of the day, Thomas Heywood, shuffled genres like a card sharp, and there’s no reason to believe that he took his most famous tragedy, A Woman Killed With Kindness (1603) too seriously. There’s not much reason to revive it either, except as a study in stage contraptions antecedent to the great age of folderol bien fait in the Victorian theater, which gave us masterly contrivers like Scribe, Sardou, and the like.
Stilettos, ready! To keep the audience entertained, the postwar French choreographer Roland Petit resorted to high jinks, low jinks, whatever jinks he could summon. He’s a one-man, nonstop coup de theatre. Petit’s women, long-legged and aloof, aren’t asked to be graceful so much as dangerous and strange: they slither, prance and stamp, opening and closing their knees in insectoid twitches and mechanical jerks. It’s as if they are perched on high-heeled toes. The men must earn advanced degrees in acrobatics (with post-graduate liniment for their abused muscles) to perform Petit’s Cirque de Soleil cartwheels, tumbling, and feats of strength (such as forming a human bridge for the ballerina to stretch out on — at least she doesn’t walk over it in stilettos). These antics were on display in a triple bill mounted by the ever-ebullient English National Ballet, the romping younger sibling of the Royal Ballet, which soberly covets its right of primogeniture.