Park passion, Saturday in the Hall with Steve

Our leading theatre directors are branching out in all operatic directions.

Michael Grandage and Jonathan Kent have made waves at Glyndebourne this summer, but two less lauded helmers, Jonathan Munby and Martin Duncan, have scored personal triumphs, too, in their respective revivals of Carmen and The Force of Destiny at Holland Park Opera.

The good thing about Holland Park is how much less rigmarole it involves than going to Glyndebourne; also, you don’t get peacocks and parakeets making themselves heard in the performance on the Sussex downs, as you do in the London park arena.

And it’s run by two happy fellahs, producer James Clutton and general manager Michael Volpe, a real pair of likely lads, who are as refreshingly direct and unpretentious in their programming as they are in their reception area.

They and their wives and colleagues stand by the entrance stairs with a huge bucket of iced water and wine bottles which becomes a sort of self-service refreshment facility for anyone they tip the wink to in the pre-show and the intervals. 

Many punters bring picnic baskets but, for the less organised, the bar offers a really decent smoked salmon sandwich and roast beef baguette, more than sufficient on a warm summer’s night.

I was keen to see Francesca da Rimini, a famous but rarely seen example of post-Puccini Italian verismo by Riccardo Zandonai, and particularly the “silent duet” between D’Annunzio’s heroine and her “proxy” handsome lover, sent along to soften the blow of her arranged political marriage to a crippled tyrant.

Needless to say, Francesca and Paolo, “il bello,” fall hopelessly in love and nothing ends happily. There are battles, complots, an unusual all-female chorus, and a lot of thud and blunder.

It’s all very well directed by an opera specialist, Martin Lloyd-Evans, unmindful of the piece’s medieval absurdity, patient with its lush and lumpy excesses, and the beautiful orchestrations are fully honoured by the City of London Sinfonia under Phillip Thomas.

But, my goodness, what a melodic disappointment. Despite all the huff and puff and sweet music making there’s not a tune to be had, and I guess this must account for the opera’s failure to enter the mainstream repertoire.

A little touch of Lloyd Webber in the night was sorely needed, a thought that crossed my mind in anticipation of the Proms concert celebrating Stephen Sondheim’s eightieth birthday on Saturday night.

This event was a bit of a self-indulgent, insider-ish love-in, but still highly enjoyable. The British public, which barely knows Sondheim, though, would be entitled to ask: where’s the Prom in honour of Andrew Lloyd Webber?

I fully intend to put this question to Roger Wright, the Proms director, when I cut along to his box in the Albert Hall tonight for a slightly more high-minded Prom performance.

Meanwhile, the BBC’s commentators — my old friend and smoothie-chops Petroc Telawny on the radio, the gushing, girlish Katie Derham on the televison — were, I suppose, suitably deferential on the matter of Sondheim’s undisputed genius.

This genius was certainly undisputed, at any rate, by the people involved in the concert. Not only was he a genius, according to Dame Judi Dench, he was Shakespeare. Steady on, old girl…he was what?

I was reminded at this point of the remark of the director Peter Sellars when asked if he thought Sondheim wrote operas. No he doesn’t, said Sellars; Mozart writes operas.
We can all agree that Sondheim writes great musical theatre, some of it with operatic elements, and that he’s the best and wittiest American lyricist since Cole Porter, with an added touch of mordant devilry (or devilish mordancy) about him.

And his career, from Gypsy and West Side Story, to A Little Night Music and (ho-hum) Passion, has been fairly sensational. But let’s just leave it at that, shall we?

Luckily, on the whole, the music did the talking: Bryn Terfel was a magnificent Sweeney Todd, Julian Ovenden a rather too expressive Bobby in Company (“Being Alive” ended with a goal-scorer’s yelp and leap in the air) and Maria Friedman, brilliant as Mrs Lovett, perhaps too over-emoting in “Children will Listen” from Into the Woods.

I liked the way Judi Dench just came on and went off, no fuss, with “Send in the Clowns,” but I didin’t really like how she sang it — heavily imbued with “significance” of some kind; never did in the National Theatre revival, apart from the rather melodramatic shaft of steel she now inserts.

The highlight, apart from Bryn’s barber, was “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” from Sondheim’s first Broadway show as composer/lyricist, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Daniel Evans — who looks like an alien, with his bald bonce and popping eyes — and a very roly-poly Simon Russell Beale raised the roof in their soft shoe shuffle routine, though there was too much camp leering in the bending over bits.
(Camp in Sondheim should be left to the genuine divas, mostly those of them who appeared in the first Broadway production of Follies; camp in other Sondheimites just looks cheap and tatty.)

Anyway, Evans and Russell Beale were then joined in later choruses by Ovenden and Terfel, and the number turned into a lovely riot.

Nice to see some familiar faces filling out the choric numbers: Sophie-Louise Dann, Anna Francolini, Jessica Martin and Simon Green all looked jolly pleased to be there, and Caroline O’Connor went a bit further than that, pushing her claim to be regarded as a musical zany with a good voice and funny faces.

The BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by David Charles Abell, was on splendid form; and take a bow, too, director Martin Duncan, moving within a week from epic Verdi in the park to Saturday in the hall with Steve.

The maestro himself shuffled down onto the stage at the end, and the audience went bananas. Luckily the telly broadcast tuned out at this point: Katie Derham had exhausted what little she had to say about Sondheim many hours previously.

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