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Michael Coveney: Operatic extremes, failing lights and top pop art

By • West End
Well, if I'd gone away for the weekend I wouldn't have had nearly so much fun. It all started on Friday night with the London premiere of George Benjamin's extraordinary opera, Written on Skin, at Covent Garden: text by Martin Crimp, direction by Katie Mitchell, design by Vicki Mortimer and fantastic singing by Christopher Purves, Barbara Hannigan and Bejun Mehta.

The programmes now cost a whacking £7 but at least they contain fine essays and good background material. And I didn't even mind paying £65 for a good stalls seat. It's a 13th century French tale of love and murder uncovered in a sort of archaeological dig by a supporting cast of secular angels. I love Benjamin's music, but there is so little of it; he's a mean and amazingly precise composer, but I had no idea he could be so passionate and evocative as well.

It was 90 minutes of swirling passion and musical brilliance, and it almost compensated for an early supper of devastating mediocrity in Joe Allen. What's going on here? The theatrical favourite has been taken over by Carluccio's - always, admittedly, an unreliable food chain - and you can't even order calves liver and spinach any more.

The checked table cloths are long gone and the tables are pre-set with wine glasses to create an anodyne "could be anywhere" atmosphere. The lighting is as mysteriously darkened as ever, but that's now so you can't see what you're eating. The Waldorf salad,  once a signature dish, is a sorry little portion of meanly chopped up greenery, but at least I can be certain that the rubbery chicken isn't horse. Would that it had been.

After the draining intensity of the Benjamin, Saturday night at the Hackney Empire with a superb English Touring Theatre production of Donizetti's The Siege of Calais felt like a relaxing reward.

You know the story from Rodin's famous sculpture of the six burghers who saved their town in the Hundred Years War by volunteering to be executed, only to be pardoned by royal intervention. That happens in Donizetti's third act, here cut, unfortunately. But the experts - a gang of music critics and Bryan Dickie, former administrator at Glyndebourne, invited by Sunday Times critic Hugh Canning to a riotously enjoyable post-show buffet in his apartment five minutes from the Empire - assure me that, musically, the third act is no great loss.

The heart sinks slightly at the realisation that ETO have set the scene in a bombed out bunker "inside the wall" more suited to the Siege of Stalingrad. But there's a timless, mythical quality to the performance - it reminded me of middle-period Edward Bond - and the singing is first rate, and so is the band under Jeremy Silver. The Hackney Empire - like the Coliseum, a Frank Matcham masterpiece, only more intimate - has a perfect acoustic, and a wonderful atmosphere; the audience cheered to the rafters as the six men faced extinction.

ETO's spring repertoire also includes Cosi Fan Tutte and Simon Boccanegra. The company is in Leicester, at the Curve, tonight and tomorrow, coming back to the Churchill in Bromley at the end of the week before striking out once again to Exeter, Norwich, Poole, Sheffield, York... I wouldn't want to miss them if they came anywhere near me, and neither should you.

It's so unusual to go to the theatre where serious technical hitches occur that Saturday's matinee at the Jermyn Street of Graham Greene's The Living Room almost acquired a novelty value. They simply couldn't make the sound or lighting work.

As we sat patiently in the comfortable new seating, the production team contacted the theatre manager, Penny Horner, who came rushing in muttering that this sort of thing would bloody well happen on her day off, and started fiddling in a corner with wires, plugs and switches. After 45 minutes, she got the sound on, and director Tom Littler said to the audience they could either reclaim their money and go home, or stay on for an "unlit" performance and have a free drink at the interval. Nobody left!

And, in that interval, Penny got the lights working, too... suddenly we saw the play in 3D and could fully appreciate what even the most rudimentary of lighting plots does to a show; the piece was not only re-lit but re-animated and fully restored. It's a very fine play, and a very good production, with a wonderfully named newcomer, Tuppence Middleton, soon to be seen in the BBC's re-make of The Lady Vanishes, playing the role of the sexually awakened teenage marriage-wrecker first played sixty years ago by Dorothy Tutin.

Incidentally, The Living Room was the first play ever reviewed by the Financial Times. The chairman Lord Drogheda had already installed Andrew Porter as music critic (there was no such thing as an arts editor in those days) and on 18 April 1953 Derek Granger - later best known as a television producer responsible for Brideshead Revisited - wrote a witty, sensitive notice as evidence of the newspaper's "widening range of interests."

You might have thought all that was quite enough excitement for one weekend. But on Sunday we had tickets booked for the Roy Lichtenstein exhibition at Tate Modern - it's absolutely brilliant, and an eye-opener if you thought the high priest of pop art just painted comic cartoons with lots of small dots - and after lunch there was the high excitement, and huge disappointment, of Tottenham Hotspur's defeat at Liverpool on television, almost as draining an experience as George Benjamin's opera.


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