Saturday, 22 December 2012


We each have areas in which we like to indulge.  For some it’s food or wine.  I do that too.  Clearly though my key indulgence, as a profession and hobby, is the arts.  I am a self-confessed culture vulture.   

A case in point: a few mornings ago I was in bed catching up on Twitter while putting off going out for a jog, when an old friend, Henry, called to say he had a dress rehearsal ticket waiting for me at the Royal Opera House box office.  I jumped up, showered, caught the train and was running across Covent Garden within the hour.  The piazza looked wonderful decorated with trees, lights and baubles, and I had to fight the urge to stop and wander as the curtain would soon be going up. 

I landed in the seat next to Henry and Penny just as the conductor demanded hush and attention with the lift of his baton.  Surrounded by lush gold and red velvet, voices and publicity cameras silenced, the feeling came over me – the anticipation, the readiness to sink into another world, to indulge imagination and senses.  That delightful precipice lasts but a moment, a levitative pause like no other, but once addicted you’ll hunger for that feeling of artistic expectation forever.  And of course the ROH has a world-class orchestra and one of the more rich and beautiful auditoriums in Europe, so the effect as you anticipate the overture, and then watch the curtain folding and unfolding on a secret scene, is dazzling.

I didn’t care less what the ballet was going to be – are you kidding, the ticket was free and it was the ROH – I was simply lucky it was a Triple Bill starting with The Firebird.  I’d seen the Bolshoi present Stravinsky’s famous work before, but was excited to see this popular London production revived as many years ago I studied the orchestral score.  The overture starts with a sparse pianissimo, ever so gradually growing in depth and volume; the wooded warmth in featured oboe phrases deliciously suited to the forest setting about to reveal itself. 
As Mara Galeazzi, in the role of the Firebird, flutters unpredictably from wing to wing, nervous about the hunter’s attentions, the sharp-edged, occasionally angular manoeuvres in her dance, echo the provocative strides made by the composer with respect to a modern harmony.  When the strings give up their bows to pluck a number of rhythmic passages, accented dramatically with brass and percussion, Stravinsky’s gift to a new age of choreographers is palpably evident.  Then as the episodes evolve, something particular about Stravinsky strikes me: his melodic and harmonic shapes are edgy and innovative, pulsing with life because it isn’t clear how he is going to navigate from one chord or passage to another… and there on the stage the choreographer, Mikhail Fokine, seems to have intuitively understood and captured this dynamic exploration of shape.  I am so impressed with the aesthetically appealing angles of the forest creature tableaus, particularly when commanded by the Firebird to pay homage to Tsarevna (the enchanted princess) and Tsarevich (the peasant hunter soon to be made king), that I am almost sad when they move. 

Repeatedly Mikhail Fokine, with help from Christopher Carr (and original staging by Sergey Grigoriev and Lubov Tchernicheva), create original and innovative shapes and sequences.  To me this seems like a physical embodiment of the development of classically-proportioned triads into a bold and more chromatic twentieth century harmony, and I find it wholly satisfying.

The second and third acts in this Triple Bill are very different to the Stravinsky, but each with its own charm.  If you’re a traditional lover of dance, or would like to experience dramatic expressions of love and romance in physical and musical form, then In The Night set to glorious nocturnes by Chopin, recreated and restaged by Jennifer Tipton and Christine Redpath to original choreography by Jerome Robbins, is one of the most delightful twenty-two minutes you could spend in a theatre. It’s a shame to single anyone out when all three couples were tremendous, but Alina Cojocaru (from Romania) and Johan Kobborg (from Denmark) are so perfectly paired and delectable you could take a bite out of them. 

Then the consummate duo of Zenaida Yanowsky (from Spain) and Nehemiah Kish (from the USA) return in the third act for Raymonda which completely lacks a narrative but is an indulgence of design and costume and a romp from the opening pageant to the last musical and balletic variation; especially showing off to advantage a strapping Japanese dancer, Ryoichi Hirano, in pas de deux with Christina Arestis. 

Upon reflection, this is the kind of Triple Bill which someone who doesn’t usually spend their discretionary dollar on ballet should be convinced to taste.  Not only are the acts bite-sized but you also have the fabulous Royal Opera House champagne bar to lounge around in during the two generous intervals, with windows that rise to the sky with the same optimism and grandeur of the theatre curtain.

If you think my day of indulgence ended there, it didn’t.  I adjourned with Henry to a toasty bar beneath Covent Garden for hot chocolate.  After he left I wrote and posted some Christmas cards, then headed toward the Strand where I happened upon a charming café called Il Tempo serving traditional Italian aperitivo.  Sitting at the little bar (a quiet haven compared to pubs at this time of year) I met two chaps who’d been indulging their own passions at a pop-up restaurant temporarily housed on the top of the Royal Festival Hall.  Sponsored by Electrolux presenting Michelin Star Chefs such as Daniel Clifford, this glass kitchen, with eighteen seats and stunning views over London, has proven so popular with executives and foodies they’ve left it operating far longer than expected.  Over a glass of Italian red, which these nice gentlemen purchased for me, I got a detailed explanation of The Cube’s rich tasting menu - course after indulgent course for Andy and Jon the equivalent of the variations and acts I’d been enjoying at the ballet.   

My day of indulgence wasn’t yet over.  For I then rushed down the street smelling of truffle and garlic salami, under the arches to the Charing Cross Theatre, better-known as the Players, to see the OperaUpClose production of La Bohème directed by Robin Norton-Hale.  Dan was looking at his watch as I rushed in the door with the foyer bell ringing.  He’s an investor in the production and, as it happens, we first met in the bar at the Kings Head during the Carmen season.  We’ve seen many shows around London in recent months, separately and together, and it’s great to have a play-mate who loves the theatre as much as I do.  I was pleased to see this production of La Bohème again, this evening with a different cast, and enjoy the purity of tone of Susan Jiwey’s Mimi and the erratic passion of Phillip Lee’s Rodolfo.  It isn’t easy to sing opera in English – far too many consonants – but the translation brings out much of the libretto’s tension and humour, and the intimate experience of young, talented singers, bringing characters to life with realism rather than reverence, is a refreshing compliment to traditional interpretations of much-loved scores.    

As I walked home that evening, there were drunks and Christmas party revellers everywhere.  Yet in my head there was only space for the tones of my own dear father’s voice, walking around our family lounge-room singing Che Gelida Manina with exceeding warmth and tenderness.  I suppose when you’ve grown up with splendid renditions of Your Tiny Hand is Frozen as part of your daily routine, are taken to the Opera House and encouraged to study drama and music, it was highly likely I’d become an indulgent consumer and practitioner of the arts.     

And that’s an indulgence definitely worth passing on…