Just checking in

Greetings, dear reader. Thought I’d just drop by to see how you’re doing; well, I hope! That’s good. Oh, I’m fine too, thank you for asking.

Taj MahalIf you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that what you normally get here is a lot of theatre stuff, a bit of travel, the occasional Eurovision meanderings and the odd what-not. Well, I had planned a nice set of travel blogs for you about our fascinating trip to India, that should have been going on at this very moment in time. Unfortunately, owing to circumstances beyond our control, this trip has had to be postponed – probably until this time next year. So not only am I unable to bring you first hand experiences of Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Udaipur and Pushkar, I also haven’t got any theatre trips booked for the moment. Next planned theatrical extravaganza is for about three weeks time when we will be taking in the Menier’s Merrily We Roll Along – that should be excellent.

Privates on ParadeSo here’s a chance to look forward to some more great shows that will be coming our way – and by consequence yours once I’ve written about them – into December and the New Year. After Merrily, we’ve got some Christmas shows – the Northampton Derngate’s panto Cinderella, and their festive play, A Christmas Carol; we’ll be going up to Sheffield again to see their panto, Cinderella (again, shame), and their new production of My Fair Lady, which I expect will be brilliant. We’ll be going into London to see the first of the new Michael Grandage season at the Noel Coward Theatre, Privates on Parade – that’s one of my favourite plays; Mrs Chrisparkle has never seen it, and I took my first girlfriend to see the original production back when I was 17, so that will be nice. Spymonkey are reviving their Cooped at the Royal Northampton, which should be a laugh; we’ve got the touring productions of The Ladykillers and Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty at Milton Keynes, as well as the next in the series of Royal Philharmonic Concerts at the Derngate. And that’s all in January!

A Chorus Line - poster obtained from Drury Lane on the last night 26th March 1979February sees the return of the Trocks to the Birmingham Hippodrome – we always have to see them, as their combination of skill and comedy is out of this world. We’ll be seeing Sheffield’s new Full Monty, the return of A Chorus Line to the Palladium (still my favourite show of all time), Ellen Kent’s production of Carmen, which boasts a real Andalucian Stallion – not sure if that’s simply “bigging up” the guy playing Escamillo; and the touring production of The 39 Steps at Northampton which will be a hoot. March brings the prospect of The Book of Mormon in London (can’t wait) plus a comedy gig from Harry Hill. So there’s definitely loads to look forward to. I think the Royal and Derngate announce their spring season next week, so no doubt the credit card will be working overtime again.

Annual Chrisparkle AwardsEarly January will also see the Third Annual Chrisparkle Awards, a star studded gala gathered on my desktop to select the finest contributions of the year. In 2010 The Big Fellah, Thomas Morrison, Tracie Bennett, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake and Paul Sinha won best new play, best actor, best actress, best dance, and best standup. Last year it was One Man Two Guvnors, Derek Jacobi, Gina McKee, The Trocks and Jason Byrne. Who will be festooned with plaudits this year? Only a few weeks till we find out.

Loreen in full flowAnd of course we are coming in to the Eurovision season. So early, you ask? Absolutely. Lithuania have already had three heats and (I think) five countries are choosing their songs in December. Preparations get earlier and earlier every year. Swedish Television have already made their mark on next year’s contest by shaking it up a bit. For the first time that all important running order will be decided by the show’s producers rather than by a random draw. The idea is that they can construct a more balanced programme by choosing a suitable order for the songs. That will probably work; but every fan knows that you can’t win from second position, and that every winner since 2004 has come from the 17th – 24th slot, so this is highly manipulative of the final outcome. Personally, I’m not happy about it. The fans who go to Malmo will also be largely standing in the centre of the stadium, which again will probably look lively on TV but will be a pain in the legs for some people, and anyone on the short side probably won’t get value for money for their €345. Still, it’s all good fun, isn’t it!

Work in progressSo please consider this meandering blogpost as representative of work in progress. It’s like one of those spacers you’re meant to put against the wall when you’re trying to do some tiling – not very attractive in itself but a tool to separate two more important items of décor. Or maybe like a red carpet; a glamorous conduit leading VIPs from one artistic event to another. Or just as a filler because I have nothing else to blog about at the moment.

Review – Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Slovak National Theatre, Bratislava, 25th February 2012

Eugene OneginMrs Chrisparkle and I have actually seen very few operas over the years, and our most recent experiences have been in eastern European cities – Carmen in Leipzig; Nabucco in Riga and now Eugene Onegin in Bratislava. I find I get an additional thrill about seeing an opera production somewhere that used to be behind “the Iron Curtain”. I always think that thirty years ago or so it would have been where the people who had aggrandised themselves to Positions Of Importance by treading on the aspirations of ordinary members of society went to See And Be Seen. It’s basically a sense of being privileged. But nowadays it’s a more acceptable and less oppressive form of privilege – at least I hope.

FoyerFrom the outside the theatre is elegant, smart and beautifully lit at night. Ascend a few steps and you enter a wide and simply tastefully decorated foyer, all creams and golds. A gentleman sells programmes – 1,90 euros for a slim booklet in Slovak; 3,50 euros for a slightly fatter more detailed book translated into English and German. It is virtually compulsory to use the cloakroom, so you go down some staircases to another wide foyer, at one end of which about seven attendants await your coats and scarves; at the other end of which is the bar.

BalconiesAs people remove their coats you get to see how well dressed they really are. In the UK we don’t tend to dress up for the theatre anymore. Not so in Bratislava. Evening dresses, dinner jackets and bowties were in high evidence; the less formal men were wearing lounge suits and ties and their ladies in attractive dresses and outfits. Mrs C, of course, looked stunning in her jacket and smart trousers – but I was just “Man from Levi’s” and felt a little over-denimmed. Surprisingly though the staff behind the bar were rather scruffy. We had a glass of the Hubert Brut each – yes they actually had some – and it’s a perfect way to add to the sense of occasion.

Adriana KohútkováInside the auditorium the balconies and boxes are extremely ornate in their baroquish gold swirls and elegant balustrades. But what surprises you is that although the stage itself is very wide and you can get a lot on there, the stalls themselves don’t go back very far at all. It’s like you’ve arrived at a sawn-off London Palladium. They also sport the most uncomfortable seats you could imagine. Normally when you fold a theatre seat down, the base of the back rests a little bit above the seat pad. In this theatre there’s about a six inch gap between the base of the back and the seat, plus the seat pad is pushed forward a good few inches too. The only way I could find to sit in the seats with any degree of comfort was basically to hunch down and sprawl widely which I’m not sure was appreciated by the lady to my left. I think the seats must have been designed by the Sales and Marketing Department of Bratislava Chiropractors, Inc.

Pavol RemenárBut what of the performance itself? Well, to my inexpert opera-going eyes, I thought it was excellent. It’s a modern staging, full of downbeat looking peasants, and men slouching over empty bottles of vodka, making a vivid contrast with the bookish decency of Tatyana and the exuberant naïveté of Olga, as well as the stolid goodness of Lensky and the devilish sophistication of Onegin. Tatyana was sung by Adriana Kohútková and she was brilliant. In the early parts of the opera the plot focuses heavily on Tatyana and she delivered a really powerful performance. I enjoyed the way they had stacked her books slightly proud of the main curtain so when she was clambering over them trying to find somewhere to sit and write her love letter she was more exposed; then on scene changes I liked how she would pull the curtain half across the stage, cowering in the protection it gave her, peeping round its edges scared of what she might see.

Gustáv BeláčekSurrounding the substantial orchestra pit is an apron that provides a complete circular walkway (well, square really) from one front corner of the stage, out past the orchestra, all along right in front of the first row, and back to the stage again. When the main characters came out and used this apron, you really felt as though you were in the thick of the action. Miss Kohútková was stunning when she was out on the apron. You couldn’t take your eyes (or ears) off her.

BoxesPavol Remenár’s Eugene Onegin also made excellent use of the front apron, mainly in the penultimate scene where he confronts Tatyana and her new husband Gremin (the crowd-pleasing deep bass of Gustáv Beláček, who was fantastic) tearing his hair in anguish and singing for all he was worth. In the earlier scenes he was excellent as the slightly foppish chancer who flirts with much of the chorus and breaks the heart of Tatyana. Funny to think that Pavol Remenár attempted to represent Slovakia at the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest – it’s great when two worlds collide! Tatyana and Gremin spent the ballroom scene actually in a box watching the stage like everyone else, and sang their roles from that spot, so that the people sitting in the box one level above them were visibly perplexed as they knew something was going on underneath but couldn’t quite fathom out what.

Jitka Sapara-FischerováSome other very nicely done moments included the kindly but humorous performance of Jitka Sapara-Fischerová as Filipievna the nurse, the over-the-top French song of M. Triquet sung amusingly by Ivan Ožvát, and the staging of the duel between Onegin and Aleš Briscein’s Lensky,Ivan Ožvát where both characters were surrounded by their seconds and other onlookers, gradually closing in on the pair of them till you heard a shot, and Lensky’s body just slowly fell out of the crowd onto the stage in front. I really loved Lensky’s aria that he sings just before the duel – even though I didn’t understand a word of the Russian Aleš BrisceinI found it very moving and superbly performed. After Lensky’s death the music becomes very vital and exciting – a fantastic tune and its juxtaposition with Onegin’s static soul-searching regret for what he has done made for a surprisingly effective moment.

Final sceneThe opera ends with Tatyana’s and Onegin’s finale scene where the lives are visibly ruined and nobody wins – except the audience who were witness to a fine performance. The orchestra conducted by Jaroslav Kyzlink sounded fine to me and all in all it was a wonderful evening. It certainly gave us a taste to widen our knowledge of opera and if you’re up for a bit of culture in Bratislava I would definitely recommend a performance at the National Theatre.