This week, London’s poshest stages -Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House and English National Opera’s Coliseum- have both an incredible beast performing on their boards. The similarities probably end there however, as both performances have very different results…
The Royal Opera House premiered just yesterday Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein ballet, with music by Lowell Liebermann and choreographed by Liam Scarlett. The production here was delightful, as usual: the sets, the props, the make-up and especially the incredible costumes, even for the chorus dancers… many operas in the world would die to have half the budget for their shows. In fact one wonders what is the percentage of the budget that has gone to the production, as the appointment of Scarlett -a young choreographer, from the company- must have allowed for higher costs elsewhere. Special mention to the painted curtains with expressive projections on top for the beginning of each act, a great effect.
The dancers also performed at their usual top level, with Sarah Lamb shining over anybody else in her light gracefulness and emotive expressions. The main role characters were understudies in the performance I saw, which clearly impacted the fluidity of the duets, especially between Victor and Elisabeth. The chorus had also here and there small inaccuracies, which together with the unequal performance of the orchestra -lack of direction in dynamics, unevenly defined sound planes- gave the impression that a few more rehearsals would have been ideal for the work -again, budget.
Perhaps the weakest point of the piece is its very main concept: such amount of pantomime in this ballet is unnecessary when we all know the story by heart, as well as forcing birthdays and wedding balls as a pretext for a ballet… The part where it works best is in the last scenes of the first act, with the students, doctor and nurses in the classroom frenzy. Scarlett’s approach to the choreography is very very traditional, daring just to introduce a few contemporary movements. They are so few that they feel out of place. This was a big disappointment for me, with such a modern title. At least, I expected Frankenstein to have moved, if not in a different way to the rest of dancers, in a much more brutal way. I expected from him tons of jumps, but instead we got pirouettes and relevés. Also, the repeated elements once and again in the choreography felt honestly boring. The music wasn’t remarkable either. It started with the right amount of mystery, it provided efficiently the emotion and tempo needed for the action, but it lacked memorable moments. I wouldn’t be able to name any specific section that struck my ears… As a musicologist, I missed some melodies, some themes, some materials to have reached me, but all I got was soundtrack music for a thriller -which shouldn’t have been.
In a nutshell, Frankenstein could have been a great 21st century premiere, but a lack of vision, a stubbornness in old-fashion styles, turned it into a very prescindible piece that will soon be forgotten. It will sell well, it will be a success today, yes. But it’s not an art work that can endure time.
Just a few blocks down, the beast filling not only the stage of London’s Coliseum but also its whole seating capacity is Glenn Close, who is finishing her Sunset Boulevard revival this week. I confess I hated the production, as I was expecting the usual level of ostentation at the English National Opera. Why so? The orchestra takes half of the space on stage, and just a couple staircases with some props move us from Norma’s house to the Paramount Studios… Said this, I learnt days ago that the show is sold as SEMI-STAGED. Oh well, oh well… I have seen properly staged operas with fewer elements than this semi-staged production, so I will eat my own words and say it was a fabulous set. The costumes again were fabulous, especially Glenn Close’s, who must have changed like ten times, each one more glittery and pompous than the one before.
This wasn’t a premiere, so we knew what we were going to see: Her. The days she was sick, people panicked, as everyone had bought their ticket to see Glenn Close live. Ria Jones’s voice captivated them afterwards, but people booed when their wishes were crashed due to a starring sickness… And we also were going to see Billy Wilder’s script. Well, the musical adaptation, but the amount of dialogue copied from the movie is so vast that it feels like we’re watching the movie… and that’s probably the weakest point of this musical: that it’s trying to make a film script work without the camera magic. Oh, and there’s the music too of course, the least inspired and most repetitive score from Lloyd Weber’s pen… I would only save the three songs by the main characters: ‘With one look’, which sets the crazy state of the faded star; ‘Sunset Boulevard’, where the main actor depicts both the Hollywood ruthlessness and his own lack of morale; and the absolute jewel of the musical ‘As if we never said goodbye‘.
This song alone makes the whole musical worth it. And it needs the rest of the play to really stand out and become as big as it is. The careful setup of the emotional situation, the perfect accompaniment for the voice, the most delightful melody supporting the words that bring you back to anywhere you want to go… The first time I heard it I cried. Every time I hear it, it makes me really emotional. And if on top of that, you get Glenn Close performing with her incredible expressions, you feel in heaven. It doesn’t matter that her voice isn’t perfect for a musical -she’s playing an old woman role after all. It doesn’t matter that the conductor needs to follow her or that the musical phrases aren’t as alive as they could be… The song plus her acting are already working wonders in you, and your heart starts to melt without understanding exactly why.
The rest of the cast was brilliant, especially Michael Xavier who sings spectacularly, plays his role flawlessly and gets half naked in such style. We all loved-hated him. He totally got us just as he got Norma. Michael Reed managed a beautiful compact sound out of the orchestra, although sometimes it felt like he forgot he could do music on his own, when he wasn’t accompanying the singers…
So yes, it has been a great week of good arty monsters, which won’t really give me creeps or nightmares but keep my imagination and fantasy alive and wandering. Thanks to both opera houses for their efforts getting these on. And lucky me that I have been able to enjoy both!