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July 10, 2009

Manchester Festival Diary

By Spear's

I have gone to the Manchester International Festival and will be blogging about the sights and sounds of the city and its biennial

I have gone to the Manchester International Festival for a couple of days and will be blogging about the sights and sounds of the city and the second iteration of its biennial

Sunday 12:00
Zaha Hadid created this concert hall for solo performances of Bach. Installed in the Manchester Art Gallery (too many pre-Raphaelites), the hall is in many ways exactly what you would expect from Hadid: its curved form spirals around the room, creating its own boundary, bending back on itself.

Its whiteness allows for projections (e.g. of scores) during the concerts, which were given by Royal Northern College of Music students at lunchtime and by professionals in the evening. The black Werner Panton chairs are a typical Hadidian contrast. The twisting, widening and narrowing ribbon evoked musical staves lifted off the page and into animated reality, the music swirling around you in every sense.

‘Flailing Trees’ by Gustav Metzler is an installation in the Manchester Peace Garden, behind the town hall, of willows planted, roots up, in concrete. This brutalism is at odds with the Neo-Gothic town hall and the innocent trees, right way up, around the Garden, and speaks of a (once-again relevant) nuclear future. A salutary reminder.

Saturday 16:00
While I am up in Manchester, I’m staying at Malmaison, a boutique chain whose joys I have never yet experienced (they opened in Oxford’s old prison while I was at uni, but this meant I had no need to stay there…). This Malmaison (the name, incidentally, comes from the house Josephine extravagantly bought for Napoleon) is right at the heart of the city centre yet feels well-insulated.

It’s very theatrically gothic, with black and flashes of scarlet lighting up lifts and curtains and suites. This makes it intimate and (assuming you’re with the right person) a little sexy. This dramatic contrast with the streets of Manchester makes you think you’re a world away.

My room is perfectly quiet and comfortable, a respite from the mania of the festival. Between the operas and the exhibitions and the tramping all over the city (including to a good second hand bookstore run by a man with no hands), you need a haven. The bed has made it a trial to get up, despite the pleasures waiting outside.

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The banquets of my breakfasts have been very enjoyable, with a wide choice of extremely fresh fruit and pastries. Others tucked into what looked like delicious cooked breakfasts with (according to the menu) locally-sourced meats; had I not been careful, I might easily have fallen into a delicious Eggs Benedict. The only downside was the gentleman at the table next to me who kept helping himself to my toast.

Malmaison? Surely Bonmaison? Groan.

Saturday 13:00
With the virtuosic score, intellectual scintillation, metatheatricality, dramatic boldness and flourishing colour we have come to expect from Rufus Wainwright, his first opera, Prima Donna, premiered last night at the Palace Theatre as part of the Manchester International Festival. Being Rufus, it was also flawed – but grand, magnificent, and always human.

The scene is a Paris atelier in 1970, where acclaimed soprano Regine Saint Laurent (Janis Kelly) has retreated for the six years since her career-climaxing performance in the premiere of Alienor d’Aquitaine as the queen of England and France. She performed the role once, then fled from the stage, unable to hit her final note in the climactic love duet.

In the grip of nightmares and surrounded by a domineering majordomo, Philippe (Jonathan Summers), who is a Josef von Sternberg from Sunset Boulevard with greater self-interest and malevolence and a neon green suit, and her new maid, fresh from the provinces, Marie (Rebecca Bottone), Regine prepares to return to the stage to sing Alienor once more. A journalist (William Joyner) comes to interview her, but ends up singing the duet with her though she cannot reach her final note still and stirring up her memories of the fateful performance from which she did not recover. He also releases in her long-dormant passions which promise to revive and threaten to undo Regine.

As you would expect – and hope – Prima Donna combines the very best that nineteenth-century Italian opera and twenty-first century theatre have to offer, with a sophisticated, harmonious score, a fantastical, lurid, inventive set and almost more irony and reflexivity than one stage can take.

Wainwright and director Daniel Kramer run with this reflexivity. As well as writing an opera about an opera singer who sings about being afraid to sing, Wainwright even gets his revenge on Puccini: when the journalist, whom Regine has fallen for, returns with his fiancé, she is Madame Butterfly. She may not sing, but the kimono says it all: this time Butterfly wins. It is a brilliant, overwhelming touch, indicative of Wainwright’s love of opera and sense of humour, but perhaps also of the problems of this opera.

Rufus in the foyer of the Palace Theatre, dressed as Verdi, before the performance

The metatheatrical cleverness at points confuses. In the second act, when Regine plays the record of her singing the climactic duet from Alienor, we disappear into almost a dream-sequence where the original production plays out on stage, complete with Regine and the king (played by the journalist, of course), a common play-within-a-play motif. This creates the beautiful irony that while she sings the notes on stage she cannot sing on stage, it is only as a recording – yet it is a live ‘recording’. After she is done, the curtain falls and Regine takes several bows, accepting flowers, while the real audience applauds. This draws us into the conceit but breaks the illusion of the opera entire and disturbs the drama. Also, Regine hitting her note in the recording should be a triumphant moment (in an ironic mode), but it does not fulfil the expectation of the note created to that point.

The set moves from darkened, bare apartment, to theatre-within-a-theatre, with the maid and majordomo taking up their seats to watch Regine and the journalist, complete with its own proscenium and red curtain. Towards the end of the second act, where Regine’s world starts collapsing, all of the sets collide: bed, record-sequence table laden with candles, apartment window, dayglo kitchen, red curtain.

A less ambiguous problem than Pirandellian tricks is the lack – for want of a better word – of a tune, a single outstanding aria for Regine. You would think that after a century of Callas and Gheorghiu and Netrebko, Wainwright would want to offer his leading lady something to get her teeth into, but the closest he comes is the beautiful, baleful lament of Marie that ‘Paris is not Picardie’, where she sings of the recklessness of metropolitan love (a recurring theme of Wainwright’s). It is a shame that I came out of the theatre whistling Vissi d’arte.

Nevertheless, Regine is given the whole final sequence, once the butler and the maid have been banished and she has decided, Dietrich-like, on solitude henceforth. She emerges onto her terrace, high above Paris (for a moment I thought Wainwright was going to have her Tosca herself), to watch the Bastille Day fireworks, and sings from the joy of the fireworks and from her new freedom. This is a triumphant scene: the staging has all fallen away apart from her windows and terrace, set against a screen which changes colours with the fireworks, and the music fizzles and sighs and pops with the fireworks, a passage of outstanding imagination and sophistication and (simply) beauty. Kelly’s voice is free, yet falters as she confronts her future, moving around her repeated phrases with a fawn’s tentativeness, eventually emerging into golden confidence.

The score as a whole is a masterpiece of sophistication, with all the lessons of the great Italians learnt. (Indeed, Wainwright took his bow dressed as Verdi, complete with beard.) This will not come as a surprise to extant fans of Wainwright, who have heard everything from chamber quartet (Leaving for Paris II) to Mass (Agnus Dei) to three orchestras at once (I Don’t Know What It Is), but that he maintains his grasp of orchestration for a full opera, overture, arias and two acts, ensuring complex melodies and individual lines across the instruments, creating a delicate score which surges with passion and retreats with regret, is a triumph. Writing an opera in the late nineteenth-century Italian mode is today revolutionary in its conservatism, but Wainwright was not simply content to produce a pastiche: with his twenty-first century eye for irony, his wit and the beauty of his music, he has done his forebears proud and produced an opera which – with some work – will endure.

Friday 11:00
Last night I saw Carlos Acosta at the Lyric Theatre in the Lowry Centre. Acosta is the world’s most famous and brilliant dancer, a Cuban by origin who has made the world fall in love with his passion and skill. I’ve never seen him before, so I was curious about just how good he might be; abandon all hype ye who enter here.

If other ballet dancers hate Acosta, I could understand why after his programme of three dances (Afternoon of a Faun (Jerome Robbins/Debussy), A Suite of Dances (Robbins/Bach) and Apollo (Balanchine/Stravinsky)): once he has danced these roles, it seems like no-one else ever can. He incarnates such beauty that it seems only natural he takes them.

For example, A Suite of Dances is set to four movements from Bach’s Six Suites for Solo Cello, each one with a different mood and tone of movement. From the first movement, slightly hesitant and restrained, to the fourth, where Acosta spins and cartwheels and almost ecstatically jives, he has created both beauty and personality. There is nothing forced, nothing harsh.

Apollo was the second half entire. It showed Apollo being educated by three of the Muses, each of whom took turns front stage and solo, but it was when Apollo was dancing with all three, graceful in control, or in his pas de deux with Terpsichore, where he proved eminently responsive to and in harmony with his partner, that we saw the wonder of Acosta. His precision and passion combined, each move invested with fluency and meaning. It was perfect acting without words. The final image of Apollo and the Muses arrayed as one like a bird in flight took the breath away.

There was (in the first act) a response to Apollo, a new work called Young Apollo choreographed by the Texan Adam Hougland with music by Britten. This was a pas de deux which started before the curtain rose and the music sounded and continued after it fell and became silent, implying the eternity of this dance, as did the way in which Junor de Oliveira Souza swung Anais Chalendard around him, gracefully yet erotically. This was indeed an erotic piece, the sort of dance the libidinous Apollo might have delighted in, with sharp, identical moves by both dancers evincing their passions.

The music – provided by the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Andre de Ridder – was sharp and passionate, with Philip Glass’ Overture for string orchestra played with urgency and crispness.

Tonight I’m seeing Rufus Wainwright‘s new opera, Prima Donna. Stand by for thrills, spills and (probably) pills.

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