Sunday, 6 April 2014

Versailles at the Donmar, or, This Lecture will be in Three Acts

In case you haven't noticed, it's the anniversary of the start of the First World War this year. This, I assume was the starting point for the commissioning of this new play by Peter Gill, even though it deals with the peace rather than the war. It is of course also possible that Peter Gill had already decided he wanted to write a big play on the First World War and the Versailles Peace. Unfortunately, wherever responsibility is laid the fact remains that in creating this new work crucial elements needed for a good play have been sadly omitted. The result apart from a couple of good scenes in Act Three and fleeting moments elsewhere is dull.

Gill's cardinal sin is that of sinking his various characters under the weight of the many historical points he wants to make. In consequence, almost none of them (even those who don't spend most of the play delivering long, tiresome monologues which everybody else inexplicably listens to with insufficient interruption) come across as real, convincingly human figures but as mouthpieces for authorial opinions. This might not be so bad if Gill actually succeeded in telling us anything new, or showing anything from a new angle by this method, but he does not.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Royal, or, A Triumph of Head over Heart

When the Royal Opera announced their 2013-14 season last year, this new production of Strauss's too rarely performed masterpiece was the highlight for me. However, from the outset I had my doubts – not about the musical team which promised to be (and was) superb, but about the production, judging from reviews of performances at La Scala. Fortunately it isn't a production to make one want to howl with frustration. It's undeniably a very carefully thought out interpretation which can (though I think with some exceptions) be fitted successfully to the text. But as will be explained, there is a price to be paid, and in my view it is too high.

But let us start with the really fine things. Musically this is a remarkable performance. One of the reasons Die Frau is rarely performed is because of the difficulty of assembling the necessary vocal talent. The only previous time I saw it, a Mariinsky Theatre production at the Edinburgh Festival in 2011, the voices were not in the top class, though one forgave shortcomings because the production and orchestral drive were so spell-binding. This time the Royal Opera House has achieved remarkable things – there isn't a weak link in this cast. Johan Reuter (Barak) and Elena Pankratova (Barak's Wife) make the strongest impression in the first two acts – their emotional punch in terms of the narrative is least weakened by the production and thus the fine singing and the direction are in harmony. Emily Magee's Empress commits herself fully and convincingly to the production (which requires a lot of her), and her singing particularly in the taxing third act is again outstanding, but for reasons which we'll come on to the production contrives to reduce the emotional connection. Perhaps the mark of greatness to all three of them is their capacity not simply to power through the heavier passages but to sing with precision softness in the more intimate sections. Johan Botha (Emperor) I found less fresh voiced than in 2010's Tannhauser but he still holds forth strongly and ringingly. Michaela Schuster's Nurse has great presence and much of her singing has great character but it isn't a voice quite so much to my taste. The supporting roles were all impeccably taken, many of them by members of the House's Jette Parker Young Artists Programme. In the pit the Royal Opera Orchestra under Bychkov were on magnificent form. The richness of sound from all corners of the orchestra, but perhaps especially the string solos, was memorable. Bychkov doesn't approach the work with quite the white heat intensity of Gergiev in Edinburgh but he reads the overall shape far more convincingly (particularly in the Third Act), and the many intimate passages have a beauty here of a far superior order.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

The 2014/15 SCO Season

Today, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra launch their 2014/15 season. It opens with a work one would not immediately expect from a chamber orchestra: Mahler's 4th symphony. One might logically assume that it is one of the chamber arrangements (such as Erwin Stein's), but nothing in press information or the brochure suggests this. It must therefore be assumed that they will perform the full version, which would not be out of kilter with Ticciati's fondness for works more usually programmed with larger forces. After all, a couple of years ago they started with the Symphonie Fantastique. More interesting, to me, is the pairing: a new concerto for harp by Hosokawa.

Mahler is something of a theme, with Das Lied von der Erde cropping up later on (which this time is an arrangement, Cortese's though, not Schoenberg, as was the case when he programmed it a couple of years ago). Both concerts also feature Karen Cargill. I'm once again reminded of an April fool I considered a few years back involving an SCO season with a Mahler cycle, but I've written about that before (sadly season announcements in late March are not conducive to such a joke).

Fortunately, alongside one of Ticciati's less appealing, to me, programming tendencies as chief conductor, is one of his most: a series of Haydn's symphonies are scattered through the year, including 70, 101 , 103 and 104. Better yet, as I have long been requesting, he will take the orchestra into the studio with Linn to record six of them. I also look forward to hearing Ticciati's take on Schubert's great C major symphony towards the end of the season.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The 2014/15 RSNO Season

Today the RSNO launched its 2014/15 season, Peter Oundjian's 3rd as music director. Much of the programme leaves me fairly cold, mainly because thus far Oundjian has not impressed me. But there are a fair few things that do catch my eye.

To start with the positives, the orchestra also continues its collaboration with Thomas Søndergård who most certainly has impressed me (most recently with a dazzling account of Messiaen's Turangalîla symphony). I look forward to hearing him take on Strauss's Metamorphosen and Tchaikovsky's Pathetique (though he will have his work cut out equalling the account Edinburgh audiences were treated to by Mariss Jansons and the Bavarians last festival).

Søndergård is also at the centre of a strand that marks the 150th anniversary of both Sibelius and Nielsen. I am a great fan of both composers and wish we heard more of both of them here. That said, I'm a little wary of anniversary programming, and at least two of the works programmed (Nielsen's Inextinguishable and Sibelius's 6th) have been performed by the orchestra in recent memory. That said, drawing the 6th together with Lindberg's Clarinet Concerto does make for interesting programming, and I'm very glad of the opportunity to hear Nielsen's violin concerto.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Superman in Walthamstow, or when heroes were really heroes, all stage Chinese were like Cato, and musical comedies were really musical comedies

There's an awful lot of serious (or would be serious) musical theatre about these days. So it's an absolute joy to be reminded that sometimes musical comedy can be just that. Musical and genuinely, indeed hilariously, funny.

The ever-enterprising All Star Productions now bring, to their performance space above the Olde Rose and Crown pub in Walthamstow, the UK premiere of It's a bird...it's a plane...it's Superman (surely deserving of an award for one of the wackier titles in musical theatre history). The programme note reveals that the original Broadway production in 1966 featured a cast of some 40 people. All Star Productions scale this down to 14 – but with the strongest ensemble I've seen them field I never felt the show needed more people on stage.

The show tells, in a comic book style also reminiscent of the classic 1960s tv version of Batman, of the trials of the strongest man in the world who nevertheless is unable to sort out his love life (and, indeed, turns out to have some other psychological problems). But the plot isn't really the important thing about this show. Rather it's the glorious homage to the whole idea of the comic book hero and to Superman's many other incarnations.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

EIF 2014 - The Opera and Theatre Programme, or, Jonathan Mills Once Again Surprises Me

Jonathan Mills turns out to have a real knack of proving his critics (or at least this one of them) wrong. Last year (as regular readers may recall) did not prove a happy one for Opera or Theatre, mainly thanks to the kiss of death theme of art and technology. I was already mentally planning a shorter visit this summer, and preparing some choice words of advice for Mills's successor, and lo and behold, his final programme proves to be one of his most interesting.

Opera

The clear highlight of the opera programme, and indeed one of the highlights of the Festival as a whole, is the return of the Mariinsky Opera in three performances (part of the strongly programmed final weekend) of Berlioz's masterpiece Les Troyens. I was surprised to see on my twitter feed today quite such a vehemently negative reaction to the prospect of Gergiev's Berlioz. Now, I concede that I haven't heard him perform anything by the composer, but past experience has taught me that I can be surprised by Gergiev. I had doubts in advance of his 2011 Festival Die Frau ohne Schatten and it proved to be one of the most thrilling operatic evenings I've experienced, I similarly doubted whether I would like his Brahms at the 2012 Festival, and again I was surprised (read my brother's review here). Gergiev's other operatic appearances at the Festival in recent years have including several other stunners besides Die Frau so I am overall optimistic about this one. As with Die Frau there are two casts. The Thurs/Sat cast are mostly the same as those who performed this work over two evenings with Gergiev in New York in 2010 (well received herehere and here), I think they will all be new to me. The production by Yannis Kokkos dates from Paris in 2003 and is available on DVD. Some sense of the production's approach can be gleaned here. Will these performances equal the wonderful concert performances from Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra back in 2001? Time alone will tell.

The 2014 Edinburgh International Festival Programme

Today Jonathan Mills' launched his 8th and final Edinburgh International Festival. On paper, at least, the programme appears to be one of his stronger ones, presenting some difficult choices for the compulsive festival goer. You can't do everything, the old adage goes, and there have been years when one hasn't wanted to, but it is a very pleasant problem to have.



Oliver Knussen and the RSNO are on duty for the opening concert. The feature work is Debussy's Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien. I'm not familiar with it, and Debussy doesn't as a rule set my pulse racing so hopefully it won't prove one of Mills' damp squib openers, for which he has something of a tendency. (Initial research today on Spotify is not frightfully positive - and I guess I'll have to wait at least another year for the stunning opener Sibelius's Kullervo would make.) Still, Knussen normally brings plenty of energy. And the first half includes Scriabin's Prometheus - The Poem of Fire which should have no shortage of thrills.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

La Fille du Regiment at the Royal, or Take One Fantastic Tenor, One Veteran Soprano and One Very Silly Opera and what do you get?

This was a weekend for catching up with long running shows. Having been bowled over by Matilda the Musical yesterday afternoon, I caught up today with the third revival of Donizetti's comic opera La Fille du Regiment at the Royal Opera. It was perhaps a little unfortunate that although Donizetti does his best he just isn't as funny as Tim Minchin.

The opera tells the story of Marie (the daughter of the title), her problematic parentage and marital fate. She has, for those of you who haven't seen it, been raised by a multitude of Daddies (the regiment of the title) but is in fact the daughter of Old Battleaxe Number 1, a.ka. La Marquise de Berkenfeld. For reasons that do not need exploring (and are, so far as I recall, not provided), said Marquise while trying to escape the ongoing Napoleonic Wars runs into the regiment to which her daughter is attached in the Tyrolean Alps. Owing to Daddy-in-Chief Suplice's foolish eagerness to reveal the identity of her daughter, Marie finds herself spirited away to the Marquise's ancestral seat, ready to be married off to the absent son of Old Battleaxe No.2, a.k.a. La Duchess de Crackentorp, just as the passing Tyrolean (Tonio) she really loves (he having saved her, in one of the libretto's silliest devices, from falling off a cliff while she was out picking wild flowers) has enlisted in the regiment in order to allow Marie to fulfil her promise only to marry a member of said illustrious body of men. I trust you are with me so far?

Matilda the Musical, or, I loved it, almost without reservoirs.

Those of you who follow the London theatre news will have noticed that Sir Tim and the Lord have been complaining about the state of affairs for new musicals. This on the back of the early closing of their new shows From Here to Eternity and Stephen Ward the Musical. Sir Tim was quoted, I seem to recall, as complaining that there didn't seem to be a place in London for much apart from the jukebox musical. I can only assume that he hasn't seen Matilda, a show which definitively proves there is a place in London's West End for the non-jukebox musical, it just needs to be really good.

Obviously, I'm coming late to the party on this, but this is a simply wonderful show and I really hope that Tim Minchin (music and lyrics) and Dennis Kelly (book) will collaborate on something else. Like other recent musical theatre it is aware of the form's past. Miss Honey's moving Pathetic has a Sondheimesque wistfulness, the big musical number (possibly the Act One finale) when the light bulbs flicker round the blackboard echoes upteen similar finales, and Revolting Children was the best rock and roll pastiche I've seen for ages. But unlike so many other recent shows Matilda is enriched by this heritage, not buried. This show also succeeds in telling a good story (if I was going to be hyper critical it could be argued that there is a slight loss of focus in the second half, but the numbers are so compelling it doesn't matter) and being interested in its characters – two things, as regular readers will know, which I think essential to great theatre.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera, or, Is it possible to stage this work successfully?

This was my third staging of Don Giovanni. The two previous efforts were dismal: Tim Albery's Endless Pairs of Gloves version at Scottish Opera and Rufus Norris's confused attempt at ENO. Kasper Holten's new production for the Royal Opera is better than either of these but still left me increasingly unengaged and overall unconvinced.

The central problem with this staging is, it seems to me, that Holten can't quite decide (or at least fails to convey that he's decided) whether all the events and meetings described are really happening or whether they are figments of characters imaginations. This is the closest I can come to explaining why his attempt at the ending which should be chilling falls so flat. Up to that point, mostly, it seemed that Giovanni was really doing all the things he said, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, he appeared to have some kind of psychological breakdown. I just wasn't convinced.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Happy 40th Birthday SCO

Forty years ago today, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra took to the stage of the City Hall, Glasgow, for the first time. You can read, and indeed hear, more about it on their blog. It's probably fitting that they played some Beethoven, one of the composers they have played best and been most closely associated with, never more so than in that rather special cycle of his symphonies at the Edinburgh festival in 2006 under the baton of the late, great Charles Mackerras.

I've written about that cycle elsewhere, and about their association with Charles Mackerras at length, for that I point you to my obituary, rather than repeat it. But what he achieved with them was superb. I've heard different Mozart, but never better: see the recordings of late Mozart symphonies for Linn (or indeed operas for Telarc and concertos with Brendel on Philips). There is a rich legacy on disc and I wanted to accompany this post with a spotify playlist of some favourite recordings. Alas, too many from the likes of Hyperion (the Edinburgh festival Beethoven) and Telarc (Don Giovanni, Fidelio and a superb disc of Schubert's great C major and unfinished symphonies) cannot be found there. Indeed, fine recordings under other conductors are missing too: I can't find Tippett's concerto for double string orchestra, conducted by the composer himself.

For me, one of the orchestra's great strengths is the high calibre of their principals. A few years back, when the Berlin Philharmonic visited London for a residence, one writer was especially wowed by the solo playing within the orchestra, but I wouldn't take them up on a swap. The SCO can put the likes of David Watkin or Alec Frank-Gemmill, to name but two, on for a concerto without you feeling in the least shortchanged. Indeed, such concerts are often season highlights for me. This is exemplified in their disc of Mozart wind concerti for Linn which includes superb solo performances from flautist Alison Mitchell, clarinetist Maximiliano Martin and bassoonist Ursula Leveaux. Indeed my only criticism of the disc, is that it does not include a reading from Leveaux's replacement Peter Whelan whose very different style and unmistakable tone would make a fascinating contrast.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Stephen Ward the Musical, or, How is Andrew Lloyd Webber like Philip Glass?

Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest musical is, from the point of view of the musical theatre regular, an interesting beast. There's been a trend lately for musicals dealing ever more explicitly with sex, with plenty of bad language and nudity thrown in. Their creators, and some theatregoers appear to find this shocking (either pleasantly or horrifyingly depending on your point of view). I have usually found it ineffective and/or dull. Lloyd Webber's version of Stephen Ward feels a little like his attempt to join this bandwagon. That is there's plenty of swearing, nudity and sexual references. I'll grant you that this show produces a whole new interpretation of never having it so good, but apart from that none of this is new or terribly exciting – however it might possibly have passed the time better had Lloyd Webber not also wished to jump on a second bandwagon. This is the other principle of the modern musical that it ought to be trying to say something big – about sexual relations (e.g. Spring Awakening), religion (The Book of Mormon) or race (The Scottsboro Boys) to name a few recently used themes. I don't say this is necessarily a bad thing, but I think there is more room for the light frothy show other than the juke box musical (for example Kander & Ebb's Curtains) than this trend is allowing and a number of these shows are not nearly as thought provoking as they clearly want to think they are (The Scottsboro Boys is a notable, really hard-hitting exception). But to get back to the Stephen Ward story which is clearly rich ground for such an enterprise – miscarriage of justice, corruption of British political and criminal justice systems, British social hypocrisy. Here we run up against the other fundamental flaw in Lloyd Webber, and one I thought was also evident when I saw Sunset Boulevard. He just doesn't have the musical language to enable him to tackle such themes with success.