Doctor Atomic ENO Adams Woolcock

Doctor Atomic @ ENO, originally uploaded by Thoroughly Good.

English National Opera scheduled a history lesson this evening with a performance of John Adam’s Doctor Atomic, one which struggled to rise to the dramatic challenges posed by a plot of which the audience knew the denouement long before the houselights dimmed.

The UK premiere of the opera set in the run up to the testing of the first atomic bomb promised all the weight of Adam’s operatic success Nixon in China. An audience waited to be stunned.

But whilst the first scene delivered a grotesquely unnerving realism combining Adams’ skilfully gargantuan soundscape and the documentary evidence peppered throughout the libretto, the plot quickly gave way to seemingly vast expanses of weak character development on which the success of the work ultimately depended.

Director Penny Woolcock had already conceded in an discussion on Radio 4’s Start The Week this week that protagonist Oppenheimer’s wife had been subject to a certain amount of dramatic licence in the libretto compared to other characters in the work. What grated more however was Oppenheimer’s seemingly rapid move from total absorption in his work to near ecstatic intoxication by the smell of his wife’s hair (we were told it smelt of tobacco, opium and sugar) in the space of ten minutes.

When General Groves demanded a confirmed weather forecast on pain of death in the next scene followed by a detailed account of his daily calorific intake and its impact on his waistline, the reality of a balcony seat began to kick in for some of us. Was it really meant to be making light of the whole affair when the first scene had set some of us on a different path?

Surprisingly, casual disinterest at the beginning of the second half didn’t make the prospect of a further hour and ten minutes totally unbearable, possibly because most looked forward to the visual representation of what the detonation. The sight of the bomb and those busying themselves around it earlier on in the performance may have contributed to a feeling that the entire Manhattan Project had risked being a slightly Heath Robinson affair, but come the blast simplicity saved the day.

The audience rightly applauded faultless soloists and chorus and an orchestra at ease with Adams’ orchestration before running home to read over their programme and look for the next first night to attend.

ISIHAC or is it “Clue”?

There’s a comment on Mark Damazer’s latest Radio 4 blog from a reader who quite rightly points out that the Radio 4 show “I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue” is referred to by the cognascenti as “ISIHAC” and not “Clue”. Yes, I know it’s pedantic but that commenter is right.

Poor old Mark Damazer. He might be controller of Radio 4 and someone listed on the page marked “Very Important People To Keep Sweet” in my special never-to-be-seen notebook, but he’s taking a huge risk here announcing that Stephen Fry, Jack Dee and Rob Brydon will be guest-hosting the much-loved, almost cult show which made the late Humphrey Lyttleton a hero for his filthy misdirection and general affableness.

I’ve never met Mr Damzer or spoken to him, but I do feel a little nervous on his behalf. Truth be told, I’m not entirely sure why I’m feeling defensive or protective. Controller Damazer has stuck his head above the parapet by making the announcement about the forthcoming recordings of ISIHAC: “I am confident the shows will work. So, fingers crossed,” he writes on his blog. Really and truly, Mr Damazer doesn’t need the likes of me leaping to his defence. And yet I still feel a tiny bit protective.

On the basis that you may be someone who hasn’t listened to it, ISIHAC is an institution. Those who listen and have enjoyed it know there’s a special place in their heart especially reserved for this very programme. It doesn’t matter how many times those listeners have played the tapes they’ve acquired over the years, each listen is just as fresh as the last.

The show is about Humph. Humph and his vehicle has provoked warmth and love. Listeners of this programme don’t like change. We hate it even though we know we have to embrace it. Listen carefully and I’m sure I can hear hordes of spear-yielding listeners marching down Regent Street towards Broadcasting House with plans to puncture the tyres on Mr Damazer’s cars, thus delaying his journey home. I would join in the throng, but I need to go to bed.

Who’d be a controller? It’s got to be a tough, decidedly unpleasant job. All that ‘having to make decisions’ and hoping they’re the right decisions.

Stephen Fry, Jack Dee and Rob Brydon will do a great job. Personally, if I was forced to choose between them then I imagine I’d warm to Dee in the big seat on account of Fry seemingly being everywhere at the moment and Brydon always being my number three choice with everything anyway.

But that’s my view. It’s based on nothing but imagination. The fact is that whilst I’m reluctant to enthuse about the show I’ve adored listening to for years continue, I can think of no better people to take up the mantle.

One thing’s for certain. You can be assured that people will listen intently to the final product. Those of us who listen (the same who contacted each other when we heard that Lyttleton had died) will be chattering away when the new shows are broadcast.

There will be a buzz about this (I think).

Radio highlights: Sat 21 – Fri 27 Feb 2009

From my big bucket of radio titbits (well, let’s be honest, I usually only listen to Radio 3 or 4) I offer the following

The Saturday Play: The Lady In The Van
Saturday 21 February 2009, 2.30pm
Those frightfully important people at Radio 4 know only too well that Saturday afternoons are the best time to get stuck into a juicy play. Alan Bennett’s autobiographical play features this afternoon starring Maggie Smith. We love Maggie Smith, we do. >>
 Review [The Stage]

Desert Island Discs: David Walliams
Sunday 22 February 2009, 11.15am

There’s a cartoon picture of Little Britain star David Walliams in the Radio Times this week sporting a swimming cap. It reminds me of his Comic Relief effort to swim the channel for charity. That reminds me of a possible reason why Mr Walliams is on DiD. Comic Relief will soon be upon us … 

Archive on 4: Agony 
Saturday 21 February 2009, 8pm
You’d think I’d have a life and not be in on a Saturday night. Well, I don’t. So given that I’ll be in I’ll be listening to Jenny Murray explore the world of agony aunts and uncles, quite possibly because I did at one point in my teenage years engage in an exchange of letters with an agony aunt. (Be sure to listen to the full version on iPlayer if you miss it at transmission).

Drama on 3: The Time Machine
Sunday 22 February 2009, 8pm

Memories of reading HG Wells’ classic tale during english classes at school come flooding back whenever I think of The Time Machine. Now there’s a radio play even longer than the Saturday Play for me to indulge in. Nice. >> Review [The Stage]

It’s My Story: the Boxing Civil Servant
Monday 23 February 2009, 8pm

What posessed a 50-year old Department of Transport civil servant to launch herself into boxing promotion exactly? Journalist Jackie Ashley finds out. I hope the billing in the Radio Times doesn’t let me down.  

Cabin Pressure
Tuesday 24 February 2009, 6.30pm
Radio 4 Controller recently defended the number of repeats on the network on his shiny new blog. He seemed rather robust. Personally, I don’t mind repeats on Radio 4 so long as that which is repeated is good. Gentle and corny stuff in this series being rerun from July 2008. 

Seven Days
Thursday 26 February 2009, 8pm

Interesting piece of swiftly-turned around 30 minute radio journalism following people who have suffered as a result of the economic crisis in Stoke on Trent.

Afternoon Play: This Repulsive Woman
Friday 27 February 2009, 2.15pm

A fictional story inspired by recent events recorded the week before transmission. Impressive. 

The Verb
Friday 27 February 2009, 9.15pm
Yet more drama for me this week with an edition of Radio 3’s The Verb featuring new short radio dramas sourced from the BBC Writersroom initiative.  


Vita Nuova LPO Jurowski Martynov

It was an opera, originally uploaded by Thoroughly Good.

In theory, world premieres of anything must surely come with a selection of must-haves including an incomprehensible sound listened to by a confused audience engaging in an internal dialogue about the cost of their ticket, their proximity to the exit and the time of the next train home.

Tonight’s world premiere of Vladimir Martynov’s Vita Nuova (New Life) at London’s Royal Festival Hall might have contained all of these things. One member of the audience was seen walking swiftly out of the auditorium part way through the first half.

The majority of the audience remained throughout the entire performance however, despite what might have seemed on paper at least as an evening of challenging and impenetrable music. After all, if you know you’re going to listen to some new music by a relatively unheard of Russian composer who has in his past explored the avant-garde and serial technique, you’re going to make certain assumptions before you get to the concert hall.

In fairness, there had been a reasonable amount of explanation of Martynov’s musical influences and his intentions for the composition of his opera before the event. It certainly felt like that. But maybe I was just homing in on all the information I could find about the work before I attended it. I do like to go prepared if I’m about to hear something for the first time.

On Thursday 13 February, two days before the assembled company of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, soloists and Europachoraakademie began rehearsing for tonight’s performance, conductor Vladimir Jurowski hedged his bets on what the audience reaction might be in an interview with Tom Service for the Guardian

“ … to be honest, it could end up being a total misunderstanding – or the beginning of a very interesting discussion … Some people will find it confusing, even disgusting. Others, I am sure, will find this piece a revelation.”

It’s difficult to know how anyone would have been disgusted by the work or the performance. Confusion too was unlikely to be on the cards following Jurowski’s pre-performance talk during which a great deal of time given over to defending Martynov’s plundering of musical styles. The work was described by the host of the event as “user-friendly” with “plenty of melodies”. But it was the broad selection of musical influences imitated in nearly all (except for two chords) which Jurwoski explained was a deliberate on the part of the composer.

For Martynov, the second world war marked the end of an era of composing. Traditionally composed music of that which the European tradition had become accustomed to was now at an end. There was nothing more to write. Composers now turned to different compositional techniques as a way of trying to come to terms with what to do next.

Put like that, Martynov’s Vita Nuova was a work which documented the true period of composing, drawing on the works and styles of the past and combining them in a work which set out to make “music about music” combining plainchant, operatic recitative and traditional operatic styles.

Thus Martynov’s setting of Dante’s work La Vita Nuova shaped up to be more of a pragmatic (or possibly shameless) attempt at pulling in audience rather than the potentially powerful statement or call to action Jurowski claimed it might be in his Guardian interview.

One question remained. Was it really an opera ? Jurowski went to great lengths to point out that Martynov’s use of the word (it appeared on the front page of the score titled as an opera) was more a reference to the original meaning of the word – “the work” – than a literal reference conjuring up the kind of opera performances most audiences are accustomed to. .

The finer points of the conductor’s definition were somewhat lost come the performance, however. The use of Dante’s work, with a strong narrative set to music, executed by soloists, chorus and orchestra had all the hallmarks of opera. This combined with subtle stage lighting and a sedately choreographed chorus made the definition undeniably traditional. To all intents and purposes this was opera. Certainly no misunderstanding there.

Even if the resulting mish-mash of musical styles made it sometimes feel like a wander through a musical museum, Martynov may still have achieved something really quite impressive. The Festival Hall saw an impressive box office for tonight’s world premiere. The music was accessible, the story easy to follow and the stage visually engaging despite the cut-down drama of a concert performance.

Even without surtitles or a programme, it wouldn’t have taken much to follow what was going on. There may have been times when a spot of editing might have been in order (especially from the second half of Act 3 onwards) but the vocal work in the soloists, in particular Mark Padmore ensured attention remained squarely on the stage.

Its rich mix of musical styles combined with its simple yet effective staging opportunities make this an opera which has the potential of making anyone setting foot in the concert hall for the first time feel welcome and at ease. And for those of us who haven’t read Dante before, the prospect doesn’t seem anywhere near as daunting as it did before the performance.

Other members of the audience had a slightly different experience. Times Online reviewer Richard Morrison was scathing, Intermezzo seemed less than impressed in the work being “not so new after all” whilst Tweeter @helenium experienced “absolute weirdness, helped along by paedophilia, death and disease”.

TV: Rick Stein on Who Do You Think You Are?

Last night saw something of a present-day curiosity in terms of TV, a loosely termed family consisting of a married couple and their newborn baby, me and my significant other all sat around the kitchen table. Once we’d finished our meal, one of us piped up:  “Rick Stein is on that Who Do You Think You Are? this evening, isn’t he? Anyone fancy watching it?”

On paper, bipolar sufferer Rick Stein’s appearance on the genealogy show wasn’t guaranteeing anything other than doom and gloom. Precious little light relief was on offer. And yet, Stein shows physical signs of emotional damage which makes him and his story alluring.

That may sound deeply insensitive on my part, but it is honest. Mental health is an interesting subject and one which I’m immediately drawn to. It’s feeding a part of my brain I’m not necessarily very proud of.

The programme did spend a good twenty minutes exploring Rick’s condition, his relationship with his father and the possible causes of his and his father’s bipolar condition.

But although there were some surprises revealed about the success rate of electro-convulsive therapy in the 1960s, the implied answer to Stein’s nature versus nuture question about bi-polar was disappointingly predictable even if it did reinforce a by-now demystified view of what the condition really is.

Stein’s mother’s story provided some interesting observations especially about women at universities in the first half of the twentieth century. Learning that women studying for degrees in the 1930s still faced an uphill struggle seeking employment was interesting. So too her origins in Canton as a daughter of a Methodist missionary on the conversion trail in China.

I wanted him to delve further into the past and to be in pursuit of an answer to a question he hadn’t asked himself. That said, I wonder whether this maybe a symptom of someone who by virtue of his condition will probably have asked and possibly answered a great many unanswered questions already.

If anything the episode demonstrates how accustomed a TV viewer is to a TV format like this, so much so that when certain things are different the likes of us notice instantly. It seems I’m not the only one who thought that.

In comparison to the other celebrities in this series, this has been the only episode I’ve watched and on that basis the episode is still worth a watch. And of course .. if you’ve got HD, those shots of Cornwall are, frankly, to die for …

Watch Rick Stein on BBC iPlayer here.

Recap on previous episodes of Who Do You Think You Are here.