Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Medea at the National, or, In Which Everybody Consistently (and Often Baffingly) Does the Very Thing They Ought Not to Have Done

As I made my way home from this rather dreary performance, I began to wonder if Greek tragedy has always been like this and for some reason I didn't tend to notice. That's to say, has everybody in these things always been behaving so stupidly and it's only now become apparent to me? The alternative explanation is that it is possible to give these characters more depth and make them more convincing and the fault here lies with performers and production team.

Problems start with Tom Scutt's set. This consists of a large wall. On top is an enclosed room in which, though it looks much to small for the wedding of a king's daughter, said wedding and one or two other off-stage events take place. In front of this room is a landing. A flight of stairs brings us down into Medea's large open-plan basement and behind that is a rather oddly located forest. The largest issue with all this is it completely fails to create any sense of entrapment. It feels as if anybody could escape in pretty much any direction whenever they wanted to. Cracknell ensures that her performers use the stairs and the landing but again they feel like a burden rather than an element adding power to the performances. Likewise that enclosed room I mentioned. Cracknell appears in two minds as to whether she wants to show us or not show us events which the chorus describe. We see some but not others – on the whole she would have been much better off showing us none of it.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Aldeburgh 2014 - And now for something completely different...Musicircus

It's not often you find Ravel on the programme alongside some bagpipes and Sousa's The Liberty Bell, but all that and much more could be found on Sunday when the Aldeburgh festival returned to the scene of last year's triumph, Grimes on the Beach. This year's use of Aldeburgh beach (or, for the most part, Crag Path which runs along just behind the beach) was in some ways less ambitious, requiring no stage, seating and lighting construction. In other ways, such as the better part of a thousand performers, it was more ambitious.



Musicircus is a concept credited to John Cage and first performed in 1967. Effectively it is a carnival of musicians. Think the Royal Mile in Edinburgh at the height of the Fringe (or, dare I say it, that scene a few decades ago before they tightened up on who could perform there) and you should have a rough picture.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Manon Lescaut at the Royal, or, Moderate Ado About Nothing

I previously saw this opera either seventeen or fifteen years ago at Glyndebourne, I haven't got the programme to hand to check. I didn't think much of it then. Really the only reason I booked to see this new Royal Opera production was because any chance to hear Jonas Kaufmann sing live is worth taking. Fortunately, he lived up to expectations. So did the opera, about which my views have not changed. I hadn't actually intended when I got home last night to write about any of this, but then I observed on Twitter that at least some audience reactions were strongly unhappy about the evening. I have rarely been so baffled by negative reaction to a performance.

I think this is the third opera I've seen which Jonathan Kent directed. I loved his Die Frau ohne Schatten in Edinburgh, and didn't think much of his Flying Dutchman at the Coliseum. This production falls somewhere between the two. It's a bit hit and miss, but his direction of people was effective and the basic interpretation of the work seems to me justifiable. It's beyond me how anyone could object to Acts One and Four which are really very straightforward and mainly focused on the individual relationships. There was a small amount of action on a high balcony in Act 1 that I couldn't see very comfortably, but certainly not enough to seriously annoy – I had no issues with sightlines in the rest of the piece. I thought the blasted flyover of Act Four was a perfectly effective alternative to the barren desert of the libretto given the production seems to have an essentially present day setting. Acts Two and Three arguably present some issues. Kent has obviously decided to play up the sordid dimension of Manon's relationship with Geronte turning the Act Two musical interlude (a dull bit of Puccini if ever there was one) into a cheap highly sexualised nightclub dance act. A traditional approach would presumably play this scene as a straightforward party and possibly this change was what infuritated some audience members. I didn't find anything appealing about Manon in this scene, indeed it was a bit revolting, but let us be clear, those elements were already present in the character and the relationship as originally written. You may prefer to take a rosier view of this scene, but Kent is perfectly justified in not joining you. In Act Three again Kent plays up the sordid element of prostitution, and the “Naivete” poster and the manner of embarking for the New World are the least convincing elements of the production but, again, the material for this is there in the work.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Aldeburgh Festival 2014 – A Marathon Festival Saturday

Saturdays at Aldeburgh Festivals tend to be busily scheduled, and the first of the 2014 edition proved to be no exception. Five concerts were on offer starting at 11am in Blythburgh and ending at 11pm in Snape. I managed four (skipping Richard Goode in the main evening concert as he previously failed to grab me in Edinburgh). With the exception of the last, it was well worth a slightly manic day.

Proceedings kicked off at 11am with three twentieth century French works for two pianos performed by Festival Director Pierre-Laurent Aimard and regulars Tamara Stefanovich and Nenad Lecic. This seemed to follow, to some degree, on the excellent two piano recital from the final weekend last year and once again showed Aimard as an astute programmer. The highlight of the first half was the original virtuosic two-piano version of Ravel's La Valse brought off with aplomb by Lecic and Stefanovich, but the heart of the recital came from the single work of the second half: Messiaen's Visions de l'Amen. I previously heard this work in a performance given as part of the wonderful Royal Bank Lates series at the Edinburgh Festival, but found it instructive to hear it again on the back of having got to know Messiaen's music a lot better. In consequence I felt I had a much clearer appreciation of the structure of the piece, and various key aspects of Messiaen's style. What also undoubtedly made this special though were the performances of Aimard and Stefanovich who made me feel I was listening to a single instrument. The stylistic range required from soft, delicate passagework to precise, emphasised loud staccato is impressive in itself, but the most striking aspects were the way both players conveyed such a complete grasp of the architecture of the piece, and thus were able, in an intense heartfelt reading to build to an overpowering climax. Aided by the superb Blythburgh acoustic it was a really special experience.

Aldeburgh Festival 2014 - Owen Wingrave, or, Marking a Different Centenary

Aldeburgh Music has an enviable track record in opera productions in recent years, but this year's offering represented a tougher proposition. While Britten's Owen Wingrave is a sensible choice for the World War One centenary year, it is a work one previous encounter with which led me to feel is not on a level with masterpieces like Grimes and Budd, and I wondered in advance how this new production would fare. Fortunately it has many positive things going for it.

Under the expert guidance of Mark Wigglesworth (a promising marker ahead of his assumption of the ENO Musical Directorship in 2015), the Britten-Pears Orchestra demonstrated again (as was the case in Grimes last year) just what energy, punch and sense of drama young players can bring to opera. I repeat what I said then that it is greatly to Aldeburgh Music's credit that they take the risk of mounting productions like this with such forces. The orchestral playing throughout was superb. Wigglesworth in his shaping of the piece also made the strongest possible case for the score – he even managed to make the ending less problematic, an issue that stuck out for me on first hearing the work at the Royal Opera.

The line-up of soloists was also very strong. Russ Ramgobin gave as strong a performance of Owen as I recall Jacques Imbrailo giving in the Linbury. Jonathan Summers was compelling both vocally and dramatically as Coyle (somewhat to my surprise as my recollection of the last time I heard him live was less favourable). There was a particularly sympathetically done turn from Samantha Crawford as Mrs Coyle, and an appropriately chilly, arrogant performance from Catherine Backhouse as Kate. The other supporting roles were all well taken.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Dialogues des Carmelites at Royal Opera, or, Agonies of Faith

My one previous live encounter with this work was a performance of excerpts (including the powerful final scene) in the final concert of the Edinburgh International Festival 2007. More recently I picked up the Chandos Opera in English recording. Both hearings made a strong impression on me, but I didn't expect to be so completely, overpoweringly gripped by last night's performance as I was.

Poulenc's work strikes me as remarkable. The orchestral writing may be often bare but it is captivating, and also allows Poulenc to use combinations of instrumental and volume build to powerful effect in the consistent racheting up of tension. The instrumental colour is telling, I was particularly struck by the interventions of piano and harp, and the soft playing demanded of the brass. Poulenc's vocal writing is remarkable in the way it gives such various characters to the principal roles while at the same time using the ensemble to create the community effect. All this builds with the intelligent libretto (also Poulenc's work) to produce a compelling, haunting exploration of the agonies of faith.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne, or, Bigger Problems than Octavian

Since this production opened a week ago seemingly endless column inches, tweets etc. have been concerned with the appearance of Octavian in it, and whether certain words used by certain critics to describe this were justified. Having now seen the show, I agree that neither Tara Erraught's vocal performance, nor Jones's direction and Nicky Gillibrand's costuming of the character are unproblematic. I also think that this show has bigger problems.

Richard Jones's directorial approach does not produce a convincing vision of the work as a whole. Much of the design and the direction seems intended to imply that the story should not be taken too seriously. I found the garish wallpaper, and, in particular, the costumes, rendered it difficult to believe in the characters or their relations. There are some individual moments of silliness – the staging of the haunting in Act Three with zombies and the noose is ineffectively bizarre, the plays on smell in the first Octavian/Sophie meeting are unnecessarily crude – though they fit with an attitude that too often suggests Jones does not believe in the romance of the piece. The less said about Jones's attempt to suggest Mohammad is going to be in bed with the Marschallin after the curtain has fallen the better. Movement, for which Sarah Fahie is credited, is also problematic – Octavian and Sophie spend much of that first moment of meeting singing to the audience instead of to each other; Sophie is placed on an enormous table and subjected to a bidding war later in the same scene – yes, okay, I take the point, but it's crudely done and I failed to see why she simply didn't get down. Jones is at his worst directing the crowd scenes. When the orchestra is going wild leading up to the Marschallin's entrance in Act Three there's a sad lack of threatened riot on stage, a) because Jones has trapped a large number of people in a space that is far too small and b) because he's had them all bring in chairs and line up in rows (there is far too much ineffective business with chairs and couches in this production).

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

King Charles III at the Almeida, or, An Unconvincing Fantasy

This attempt at a modern history play has been widely praised by other critics, is sold out for the remainder of its Almeida run, and is already being touted for West End transfer. As far as I'm concerned it has been overpraised.

Mike Bartlett, whose 13 at the National in 2012 also left me unimpressed, appears to have decided that he is up to imitation of Shakespeare on a grand scale. The title gives the first clue, the subject matter the second, the neo-Shakespearean verse writing the third. The results are problematic. Taking the plot first. The play deals with the immediate aftermath of Prince Charles's ascension to the throne. He decides to refuse royal assent to a bill regarding regulation of the press on the grounds that this is contrary to fundamental British freedoms. Before long this has escalated into monarchical dissolution of parliament (with Charles appearing in the precincts a la his Civil War namesake), violent clashes up and down the country, and a tank outside Buckingham Palace. My basic issue with all this was that I just did not find it convincing. In fact during the first half I was driven to considerable irritation by just how unconvincing I found it. If you're going to do a version of the future and you wish to use it to explore issues thoughtfully, as the second half suggests Bartlett wants to do, then failure to convince your audience that pretty nearly precisely this scenario could unfold is fatal. To give three instances of my problems. Firstly, while I agree that Charles is not the Queen and these secret consultations with ministers are troubling in terms of the proper constitutional order I don't believe that he's stupid and I therefore found it simply unbelievable that he would drive the country to the brink of civil war in this way – and particularly not over a bill for regulation of the press. Secondly, while our current class of politicians are a depressingly unprepossessing lot I still do not believe that any leader of the opposition would be stupid enough to abet a monarch in the proceeding shown here, involving a loss of power to the elected political leadership which would affect him should he succeed as a result in replacing the Prime Minister and which would be bound to be used against him in turn. Third, I find it equally difficult to believe that, in this day and age, nobody else would have done anything to stop Charles until the point in Act Two when William intervenes.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

English Touring Opera's Paul Bunyan, or An Important Conclusion to the Britten Centenary

Regular readers and twitter followers will know that Paul Bunyan is a work really close to my heart. In consequence I've been keenly looking forward to this new production from English Touring Opera (the first from one of our main companies since the Royal Opera House production in  1997/9). There is always a danger when you love a work and anticipate a new staging of disappointment. This performance was not flawless but the marvellous qualities of Britten and Auden's neglected gem shone through, and it passed that other test of making me think anew about certain aspects.

Paul Bunyan is an important work in Britten's output, his first major musical theatre work. I've always been a bit puzzled, from a musical point of view, that it seems to need special pleading. The richness of melody, the word setting, the punch of some of the choral writing (from the moon turning blue at the beginning, through to the Litany at the end) all of these things are worth multiple hearings. Clearly some people don't get on with Auden's libretto, even my parents were lukewarm about it this time round. Personally I enjoy the clever wordplay, which I think Britten manages very successfully, and I also find many sections powerfully moving, even though I know them off by heart. The moon turning blue, the brooding reflections on the future of America and Inkslinger's haunting little love song are particular highlights. I suspect also that the work suffers from being seen as not quite musical and not quite opera and therefore suspected by afficionados of both genres. There's no denying its a hybrid work, but again I find that a strength not a weakness. Finally as an American historian by profession with a particular interest in British representations of the United States I find it a fascinating work.

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.