Various friends converged at the tucked-away Regents Theatre for an intriguing performance of Puccini’s opera ‘Turandot’, refracted through the lens of Chinese culture and history. It’s a strange and dark tale, almost like a Miike movie – although love does triumph in the end! The idea was to take the story back to its Chinese roots – the militaristic Yuan era and the age of Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, as well as uncovering some of its Buddhist overtones. Director Jonathan Man and musical director Ruth Chan showed admirable thoroughness in their research of the artistic climate of the time, which they shared with us at the outset of the evening. We were also treated to wonderful examples of contrasting operatic style (Chinese and Western) before the main proceedings began – a fantastic opportunity to taste these unfamiliar traditions.
But how to bring everything together into some kind of whole? The company chose to give us two versions – one with words sung in Mandarin against a light background of traditional Chinese instrumentation (wonderfully provided by the SOAS Silk and Bamboo Ensemble led by Hwee-San Tan); and then a second version with the voices now in English and a fuller, again Chinese-toned accompaniment. Both versions were fascinating – and no bad thing at all to hear the fabulous melodies twice, in their different settings. Second-time around the singers (all excellent) were able to let rip a little more. This was far more than an academic exercise – we came to really care about the characters, their motivations and fates. That was the ultimate sign of the evening’s success – no longer were we listening to two disparate parts, East and West had combined to give us a human experience that we cared about.
‘Turandot Reimagined’ is playing for one more night only (tonight at 9pm!) at the Regents Theatre, near Kings Cross, part of the tete-a-tete opera festival.
Headed across town to the sound of Charles Mingus’ Ah-Um (still feeling the Waitsian after-hours jazz club vibe from yesterday) to catch the eclectic traditional music quartet Bal De Bourdon at Brixton Hootananny. The name means dance or ball of bees – a bees’ knees-up! Incredibly hard to believe this was their first gig – they’re so accomplished! Actually each member is a very talented and experienced performer in their own right, so this seemed like a perfect coming-together of fellow-spirits. A nicely unfamiliar set of songs from France and Cornwall, in tremendously subtle and effective new arrangements by the band, told stories of the sea, coastal-dwellers, dreamers and drifters – with a hint of magic and more than a touch of melancholy. As lead singer Evrah told us, even the song about the Cornishman kissing his sweetheart under the mistletoe ends with him dwelling on “the loneliness within himself”. Between-song explanations were super-helpful to our enjoyment of these undiscovered gems. And although we were happy to sit and listen, the airiness and lightness of touch suggested the dance-origins of much of the material. Superb musicianship from Jeremy Halliwell on guitar (what a sound!), Evrah on vocals, Martin Oakley on accordion and harmony vocals and Karen Yarnell on eclectic percussion left us wanting more! (Great house sound too – full marks to the soundman in his bullet-proof Perspex box!) Hopefully Passport can record an interview / live session with these musical explorers before too long…
The great thing is, with Tom Waits, there are so many YouTube clips that seem to materialise out of the ether. Just when I think I’ve seen every clip going, something new comes along. This one from 1979/1975 is such a grainy gem – where has it been hiding? I have to admit, maybe these are my favourite TW years, where the nicotine-stained, whiskey-drenched nighthawk / chronicler of illicit after-hours LA really comes on song. It’s like he’s actually become the persona that might have started out an act; or if it is an act, it’s a great one. These songs, they’re so unique and surprising, dark and funny, with quicksilver words and the imagery of ’40s film noir; gritty and tender, they’re still love songs underneath – which is what we love about Tom.
TW – daylight – the Westway – a Morris Minor!!!
Even more special is that some of these extracts were recorded in London (what do you reckon, Hammersmith Apollo?) I’m not quite so sure about the ‘staged’ numbers – but it’s an interesting idea! If you haven’t got 1:21:00 to spare, try ‘Red Shoes’ at c17:00 – I’ve never seen this one done live before, in all its sinister obsessiveness – or an up-tempo ‘Diamonds on my Windshield’ at c54:00. Or the crazy ‘Eggs & Sausage’ at 45:00 – take me to that diner!
Of course the other great thing about Tom – he’s still going strong!