Friday, 5 November 2010

Weill, Songs from a Hotel Bedroom, 4 November 2010

Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

Angélique – Frances Ruffelle
Dan – Nigel Richards
Tango dancers – Amir Giles, Tara Pilbrow
Jimmy – James Holmes (piano, conductor)
Louis – Charlie Brown (violin)
Lester – Neil Charles (double bass)
Rich – Clive Deamer (percussion)
Mich – Steve Pretty (trumpet)
Nathan – Dai Pritchard (reeds, flute)
Romano – Romano Viazzini (accordion)

Kate Flatt, Peter Rowe (directors, scenario, and dialogue)
Kate Flatt (choreography)
Peter Rowe (dramaturgy)
Chloe Lamford (designs)
Anna Watson (lighting)

‘More in sorrow than in anger,’ is, like most, indeed perhaps all clichés, tedious; nevertheless, it is genuinely in sorrow and not at all in anger that I find myself having to write that I was straightforwardly bored with this show. Despite a generally high standard of performance, a slender storyline and lacklustre music from Kurt Weill’s American years combined to disappoint. Essentially, what we have is the on-off relationship of a French singer, Angélique and an American songwriter and bandleader, Dan Silverman. He treats her badly, disappearing on work for long stretches of time, when she would prefer them to set up home together. She eventually has enough. He writes to her once again and they meet, where he tells her he is dying and would – finally – like to spend the rest of his life with her. This involves reception of various letters and telephone calls, resulting, somewhat implausibly, in an immediate transatlantic flight taken during the austerity years following the end of the Second World War. Nothing untoward happens; there are no surprises or twists (unless one counts the self-referential framing of the action during the months ‘May to December’). As a story, one imagines it might once have found a place in a women’s magazine, but quite some time ago.

Sets, built and painted by Watford Palace Theatre Workshops, are simple but evocative. (The work is a co-commission from ROH2 and Segue Productions, and was premiered in Watford.) Stage direction likewise does the trick without drawing undue attention to itself. The brace of tango dancers, Amir Giles and Tara Pilbrow, impresses, providing a bite and slinkiness generally lacking elsewhere. Indeed, I thought the dance music more interesting than the rest; it came therefore as little surprise to note afterwards that it was drawn partly from earlier music, notably the ‘Tango Angèle’ from the 1927 Georg Kaiser collaboration, Der Zar lässt sich photographieren. James Holmes’s arrangements are skilful, as were his ensemble’s performances. Frances Ruffelle’s Angélique provided stage presence and a certain allure – so long as one were not expecting Marlene Dietrich – and showed that she could sing too, though she occasionally wavered between a ‘French’ and ‘American’ accent. The contrast with Nigel Richards was unfortunate: he tended to shout throughout, whether speaking or singing; the amplification may have been at fault, I think, but that does not explain the lack of variation in tone until the hammy ‘faltering’ end. Moreover, his acting was wooden in the extreme and, sadly, he looked a little long in the tooth to be a credible romantic lead in so ‘realistic’ a setting.

In September 1942, Weill wrote to Lotte Lenya concerning a meeting with Marlene Dietrich, during which he had tried to persuade her to star in the musical, One Touch of Venus: ‘Marlene liked the music, but started that old business about the different quality of my music here in America. I cut it short by saying, “Never mind those old German songs. – We’re in America now and Broadway is tougher than the Kurfürstendamm.” That stopped her.’ Perhaps it did, though I have no idea what he might have meant by that, nor why Dietrich should thereby have been stopped. For I am afraid, on the basis of the American Weill heard on the present occasion, I find it more or less impossible to disagree with Theodor Adorno’s obituary: Weill seems simply to have ‘become a Broadway composer modelled on Cole Porter’. What a terrible waste, whatever the reason(s). The Second Symphony and the Violin Concerto are masterpieces, not that we ever seem to hear them in concert, whilst the collaborations with Brecht and many other late Weimar works are indelibly part of what ‘Weimar culture’ and its opposition to what was to come mean to us. I wish it were otherwise, but I simply cannot understand how one can fail to see Weill as having sold out – completely. As his teacher – and fellow Busoni pupil – Philipp Jarnach put it in 1958, ‘These later works signify a complete renunciation of the composer’s earlier serious goals, and I believe it’s impossible today for anyone to cling to the notion that they have any stylistic significance.’ Next time, please mine the Weimar years instead…