ENO’s Madam Butterfly: a feast for the eyes and ears

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Take several Japanese screens, a fair few Kimonos, countless lanterns and fans, and an incredibly moving score, and you have all the ingredients for ENO’s latest offering, Madam Butterfly.

Puccini once again hits the London scene, and the mix of orchestral masterpiece with stunning minimalist Japanese theatre is a feast for the eyes and ears. American soprano Rena Harms takes the title role, and is a beautifully sincere Madam Butterfly.

Yesterday’s opening night performance at the Coliseum was a success on all fronts; the talented orchestra transporting the London audience to the The opera is a classic tale of unrequited love, and of one woman’s faith that her American husband will one day return to Japan to her. This lady is one patient individual, but her three years of waiting flies by in ENO’s production. Innovative use of lights and silks as well as effective instances of puppetry ensure that not only is the audience gripped by the stunning melodies and impressive vocals, but also the visual cinematic masterpiece that is the stage. Costumes and set were equally colourful, and utilisation of shadow was simple, yet stylish.

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The characters of Suzuki (Stephanie Windsor-Lewis), Madam Butterfly’s maid, and her absent husband Pinkerton (David Butt Philip) matched up to Harms’ near-perfect performance. One of the most effective characters, I have to say, was that of Madam Butterfly’s baby son – a puppet so lifelike and so ingeniously controlled that after being on-stage for a matter of minutes, I was completely sure that it was a real person. Forget CGI, this is special effects at its finest.

Being an opera, and a Puccini one at that, the ending is an emotional culmination of three years of patience and love. A visually stunning, and musically enchanting oriental performance, Madam Butterfly at the ENO is one that may require a pack of tissues.

 

images courtesy of ENO (www.eno.org)

 

Money Money Money: Why the Hike in Theatre Prices?

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After a day at work staring at a screen, most people like nothing more than to come back home and, um, stare at a screen… Usually, this is from the comfort of a sofa or a bed, and more often than not involves, increasingly, watching the film/TV series via the world wide web as opposed to a DVD.

Whereas before, a cinema trip may have been a natural way to absorb a few hours entertainment of an evening, a rise in ticket prices coupled with vast developments of online, on-demand viewing platforms have meant that the cinema is now often reserved for Special Occasions. Just as going to the cinema has seen a rise in prices, so too has the theatre, a report has just announced.

Given the choice, I’d pick theatre over cinema any day of the week. There is something so gripping about a story being played out before your eyes, a few metres away, in which anything could happen. Without the novelty of multiple takes, or the fluidity of editing, the entertainment is somehow much fresher and more real. Add in the live music and the excitement of being in an historic venue, and a visit to the theatre is suddenly a fully immersive trip from curtain up until final bows. A precious few hours away from the digital world in which to watch non-pixelated people play out a story is, in our ever screen-ruled lives, most welcome and definitely needed. Why, then is the theatre becoming less affordable?

Despite the fact that touring shows are proving successful in allowing those without easy access to London to witness award-winning entertainment, the cost of attending is at an all-time high. Geographically, then, theatre is becoming more widely available: the monetary side of it, however, is increasingly limiting. This hike has been caused primarily by funding cuts for the arts from council and government grants.

According to a UK Theatre report, in the West End the average price of a single ticket has risen 5.1% to £42.29; this figure also reflects the customer’s growing preference to opt for higher-priced seats. Over £40 is, admittedly, fairly steep for a couple of hours of entertainment, no matter how spectacular. Essentially, for the same price I could buy two boxsets, four cinema tickets or over 6 months’ subscription to Netflix.

If these prices continue to escalate, soon the theatre will be a luxury for the wealthy, and will further alienate those who could most benefit from it; the underprivileged, the young, the ageing. Some institutions such as the National Theatre run a scheme which offers £5 tickets to those 16-24 year olds signed up to their ‘Entry Pass’ initiative: the Barbican run a similar youth discount programme. These schemes should, however, not be the exception, but commonplace; enabling affordable options to those who want to witness top-class theatre.

I am not denying that it is possible to go to theatre for less; usually involving substantial luck or rigorous research. Of course, day tickets, queuing up at dawn, severely restricted view seats offer cheaper tickets for London shows, but these are often difficult to come by, or fairly uncomfortable (and a bit of a trek to the ice-cream stall in the interval). My advice – sign up to every initiative available and even risk the bad views for a cheap trip. Take some time out, once every couple of months, to leave the screen and see the stage: maybe an increase in popularity is the only way to convince The Man that theatre should be a funding priority, and lower ticket prices a necessity . Whether this is to be or not to be, however, is the question…

Mamma Mia: Dancing Queens and Super Troupers

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Somewhere in the crowd, there’s you me. Aka the night I went to the ultimate Abba musical.

 

When it’s a cold, drizzly Tuesday evening in the city, a bit of entertainment is much needed. With the current steep cinema prices (enough to buy multiple DVDs from Amazon), seeing a film, albeit on a big screen, seems like bad value for money. For little more than a cinema ticket, however, you can see a real live show. Yes – one with actual people in – singing, dancing, making you feel good about the world. So, this Tuesday, I spent a reasonable £22 on going to the Novello Theatre and witnessed two and a half hours of Abba fabulousness: I saw Mamma Mia.

I remember the film Mamma Mia coming out a few years back (funnily enough, I did actually see it at the cinema – but this was back in the day when you got change from a tenner), and the stellar cast alone was enough to make the movie decent, even if the storyline left something to be desired. The London show uses the same narrative, songs and characters as the movie, and is reassuringly familiar, yet utterly different. Having seen the film, I couldn’t help comparing the stars of the stage show to Meryl Streep, Julie Walters and Christine Baranski. Despite their on-screen counterparts, these performers did a cracking job.

The music, costumes, comedy and (let’s face it) fairly very good looking cast made for a fantastic experience. Watching Mamma Mia made me realise a) just how many songs Abba wrote, and b) that I somehow knew nearly all the words to them all. That either makes Abba ridiclouly memorable, or me kind of embarrassing. Or both.

The best thing about seeing a live show is the reality that at any moment, something could go wrong. Admit it – when sitting in a theatre, there is a tiny part of you wondering what would happen if someone forgets their lines/trips over/gets drunk in the interval and changes the entire second half. That, thankfully, didn’t occur on this occasion, which was lucky as the final numbers of the show are incredible. A lot of shiny trousers, a fair few pairs of platforms, a tonne of energy and music, and you have the ultimate feel-good finale. The audience were up on their feet singing to Waterloo, and I realised that as much as my brain could have been broadened that evening by watching a BBC documentary, seeing a Shakespeare play or visiting a museum, Mamma Mia made me pretty much as happy as I could be on a weekday evening. Ultimately, the show reaffirms life’s positivity – a happy ending, a lot of singing, and a seat with a pretty good view that didn’t break the bank. This, my friend, is what London is about.

ENO’s La Bohème: A Modern Bohemian Rhapsody

enoLa Bohème at the London Coliseum

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‘We have, I am afraid to say, come across one of those technical difficulties that happen every so often in performances: we have a piece of scenery that is supposed to rotate, and due to power faults, it’s simply not rotating. But rather than exclude this part from our dress rehearsal, we have come up with a solution – we will rotate the set manually.’

So said the director of the ENO mid-way through La Bohème’s dress rehearsal last night at the London Coliseum. The second half thus opened with members of the cast, and a few helping hands from behind the scenes, pushing what looked like a very heavy piece of set so it rotated. Obviously, were it to do this of its own accord –aka fuelled by electricity rather than people power – it would have been a spectacle. The sight of a few opera singers making some substantial scenery spin, however, was priceless.

Attending a dress rehearsal of any kind comes with the possibility that things could go wrong – after all, a major aim of these runs are to make sure everything is going smoothly ready for the opening night. But despite this minor glitch, ENO’s latest production of La Bohème was a resounding success.

The production has an almost Shoreditch vibe: a warehouse style apartment which houses several creatives is the basis for the opera’s development. Lacking enough cash to keep warm (cue setting alight to the writer’s scripts) and pay rent (cue getting the landlord very drunk), the men in question muddle through on a chilly Christmas eve before braving the cold and venturing into town for a celebratory meal. Enter Mimi, the beautiful, if slightly sick, neighbour, and the start of the love story.

Far be it for me to begin to imagine what Puccini intended with his 1890’s opera, but I’m pretty sure that heroine injections, shopping trollies loaded with Tesco goods, and helium balloons didn’t feature. They do, however, make a successful appearance in this new interpretation; bringing the production right up to date and appealing to a slightly younger and arguably more ‘hipster’ audience.

As would be expected with a Puccini opera, the music is exquisite. This is the sort of music you’ll be humming on the tube home, and the accompanying translations were, on occasion, unforgettable (look out for the landlord’s ‘I’m sixty and sexy’). Walking out of the Coliseum after this show, I felt like I’d simultaneously been to a classical music concert, watched a dramatic soap on TV, attended a cinema screening of the latest tragic film, and admired a moving and atmospheric art installation. In short – this is value for money. This modern performance turns expectations of Puccini on their head, and I urge even avid opera-avoiders to watch this fantastic production (Shoreditch hipsters included).

https://www.eno.org/