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2003-2004



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A Quarter Review

by Tom Carlisle

I reluctantly put pen to paper at this rather late date to record a few thoughts on a production I almost saw of Der Rosenkavalier at Covent Garden last April. Or to be more precise, one quarter of the performance I saw from the worst seat I have ever had in an opera house in the entire world (that really means Europe and the U.S.A.). (At left, the view from B71. Below, how it is supposed to be seen.) I have had better visibility from standing room in most theatres. Be cautious of tickets that say “seat with restricted view,” which I have had before at Covent Garden, but never this bad.

About the only thing I can review at this point would be the orchestra playing under Sir Charles Mackeras , which was sumptuous, and the singing, but very little of the portrayals of the principals. Most memorable was Angelika Kirchschlahger as Octavian, in good voice and very convincing as the young nobleman, and Simone Nold, a very young and pretty sweet-voiced Sophie. Kurt Rydl was a dependable, if not totally convincingly boorish, Baron von Ochs. Felicity Lott is a mainstay at Covent Garden, but I found her Marschallin unmoving particularly in the final scene of Act I, which almost always brings me to tears.

Not being able to see much of the action onstage, I concentrated (with the help of opera glasses) on the makeup and costumes of the participants I could see. The latter were outstanding but I found the makeup to be atrocious—I am sure by intent. Everyone was extremely white and pasty, and Angelika had huge bags under her eyes, which I do not remember seeing at a Christmas party at Pamela's, when she was here for The Merry Widow.

The Covent Garden seating plan


“The Quarter Review” could also refer to the four plays I saw in London at the same time. Unfortunately for anyone heading to London this summer, they are no longer on the boards, but here goes. The very best of all happened to be All's Well That Ends Well with Dame Judi Dench as the Countess of Rossillion, and an outstanding cast of supporting actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company. Though not perhaps the leading role of the play, she nevertheless always commands the stage when she is on it. I would also like to make a small plug here for one of my favorite young actors on the British stage, Guy Henry, who was insidious as the rascally Parolles. I once rode a bus with him in Straford-upon-Avon, and one and a half hours later saw him on stage in The Virtuoso , and I have seen him proceed to prominent roles in the subsequent fourteen years, such as the poet Turgenev in Tom Stoppard's masterful The Coast of Utopia .

Tom's traveling companion Guy Henry (left)

Another stage treat was the rarely performed Henry IV by Luigi Pirandello (there was an Italian film version several years ago with Marcello Mastroiani , as the French Henri IV, which I guess no one saw but me. This is a new, and I must say, delightfully short, translation by Tom Stoppard at the Donmar with an excellent cast headed by Ian McDiarmid (who seems to have been in all of the Star Wars movies) as Henry (shades of Olivier in his mad scenes) and Francesa Annis bringing the whole play to a shockingly dramatic climax.

On the lighter side was a delightful comic romp starring Simon Callow (remember him from Four Weddings ?) as a ruthless press baron on his way to a nervous breakdown and its aftermath, written by Simon Gray , author of Butley and other West End hits. The sight of Simon Callow stripping down to his jockey shorts in one scene was quite unnerving and I am glad he didn't go any further.

The biggest disappointment, at least for me, was the National Theatre's production of Cyrano de Bergerac. I was looking for a traditional, old-fashioned romantic tearjerker and what I got was a mishmash of styles, time periods and a chorus line of dancing cadets. As the Daily Telegraph critic (not the) Charles Spenser put it: “As perverse an assault on a much-loved classic as I can recall.” When you have a new translation (by Derek Mahon) which combines references of the world of Louis XIII with corporate executives, tax evasion and other modern evils, contemporary slang and Cyrano telling an adversary to f*** off (I guess if it's good enough for our vice-president…) and other expletives I care not to mention, it made for one distressing evening. Stephen Rea was exceptionally energetic in his own puppy-dog way and did bring a bit of poetry to the balcony scene with Roxanne and Christian. But to quote Charles Spenser again: “He was never allowed to succeed in breaking your heart.”

Cheerie pip, toodleloo and all that rot, don't you know!