Occasionally I’ve thought that in my role as The Berkshire Review‘s ‘London correspondent’ I ought to focus sometimes on things that are more culturally British; unfortunately, I just don’t think much of British culture generally, and with the Olympics now here, decimating arts funding and forcing friends and colleagues of mine out of their homes due to massive rent increases, I feel arguably less inclined than ever to take up the baton for this country.
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.)
The crowds begin as one approaches the rear of the building: a long line, snaking back on itself contains those hopeful of gaining one of the 500 tickets on sale each day; further on, is a smaller queue of the luckier ones who had snapped up all the online tickets during the first three days of sale. Overall, the crowds are well behaved—for this is England—and approach their goal with good humor and a touch of the spirit of Dunkirk as they descend upon the National Gallery’s runaway success, Leonardo: Painter at the Court of Milan. It is not a large show, only some sixty paintings and drawings, but then Leonardo only began a score of paintings in a career spanning four decades. Of those paintings, fifteen autograph works survive, and four of these are generally deemed incomplete. To assemble almost every surviving painting from Leonardo’s Milanese period in London is a notable achievement, and these works are supplemented by others associated with his followers and sometime collaborators in the most sustained period of productivity in the artist’s life.
Can anything new be said about Degas and the dance? Those beautiful pastels and oils of rehearsal studios, those figures framed by stage flats, the three-dimensional sculptures have all passed into the canon of art history, and they are as inseparably linked to Edgar Degas as are the subtexts of voyeurism and misogyny. But the Royal Academy’s current exhibition, Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, aims for something new as its subtitle suggests. Of course, there is plenty to delight the eye with a spread of some eighty-five works by one of the most idiosyncratic of Impressionist artists, and the range of major loans—especially from private collections—is staggering as is the quality of the selection. This bounty is not surprising, given that Richard Kendall, probably the doyen of Degas specialists, is the chief curator;” yet what makes this exhibition stand out among the generality of shows on Degas is that it contrives to mount two exhibitions at once: one on the artist’s obsession with the ballet and ballerinas, the other about the nineteenth-century’s obsession with deciphering locomotion.