Tuesday, 31 July 2007

The Jacques Loussier Trio play Bach (and more besides)

It was Christmas 2005, it was late at night and I was packing for my holiday visit to my parents' home. It was roughly midway through Radio 3's Bach experience, and, much as I love the composer, it was starting to wear just the slightest bit thin. I turned on the small portable radio and heard something unlike anything I would have expected. I had to sit down, stop packing, and listen to the rest of the programme. I was hearing the Jacques Loussier trio play Bach.

Actually I, and probably you too, had heard them play before. Like most, when such things were still allowed on our television screens, I had seen the adverts for Hamlet cigars: the Loussier trio playing Bach's famous 'air on a g string' was their signature tune. First they played the prelude no.1 in C from the Well Tempered Klavier and then the pastorale in C major. I think I only tuned in during the pastorale, which was nice enough. Then came the 5th Brandenburg concerto and I was utterly swept away. I love hearing new things, I love to hear a take on something I know that is new and fresh. It's especially wonderful when done to a work that you know so well, and for me that is a large part of the appeal of Loussier's work. I was sold, and I soon hunted down the CD of this work, though have never got round to further investigation.

But when the Edinburgh Jazz and Blue festival programme came out, and Loussier was visiting the Queen's Hall, it as an opportunity far too good to pass up. I very much like what the Queen's Hall do during the Jazz festival: the rows of central stalls seats are cleared away to make room for a series of tables and I managed to get a seat at one of the front ones. Indeed, my view of the stage could hardly have been better and, unlike last year for Chick Corea's wonderful gig, the keyboard was in full view, but then that was from a last minute ticket standing in the gallery for less than half the price, so I can't really complain. My companion on that occasion (brother, and co-author of this blog) was in London, attending Salonen's Prom, so I was alone. Not that this mattered, as Finn doesn't care for Loussier much. I suppose he's one of those artists you either adore or just don't really get, or, I imagine, in some cases cannot stand for his defacement of Bach's glorious music (though I think it complements the composer wonderfully, and a lot more so than many a straight interpretation by some classical performers I could mention, certainly there was more passion in each note than in most of the recent Matthew Passion at Glyndebourne).

There's always a problem with concerts like this, though. There were certain pieces I wanted to hear, principally the 5th Brandenburg, and you can often spoil things waiting for your pieces. He jumped straight in with Bach and the prelude no.1 in C from the Well Tempered, and very fine it was too. Though the performance was pretty much as on my CD. Indeed, if there was a criticism in the first half, it would be that it did occasionally feel like they were playing the old standards by the numbers, as it were. It was all terribly nice, but that extra edge wasn't always there.

They moved into the pastorale, which isn't really my favourite piece, and doesn't respond quite so wonderfully to the treatment as some do. There were other problems too. The talented bassist Benoit Dunoyer De Segonzac and drummer Andre Arpino both took extended, extravagant solos (I don't recall, and have failed to note, in which works they did so). These were technically excellent, and there was a real passion to them, indeed, Arpino at times almost resembled Animal from the Muppets in his passion. I should stress I mean that comparison positively. Indeed, at one moment, the cymbal stand moving as he struck it, I did wonder if, a few feet away, I was entirely safe. The problem was that neither of these solos fitted with the Bach. They didn't really grow out of it, or fit back into it as they ended, and that's something I feel that a good jazz solo ought to do. It would have been interesting to hear these musicians in repertoire where such displays would have been a better fit.

But at their best they were sublime: "Here's a well known piece..." said Loussier dryly before playing 'air on a g string'. Truth be told, I was for a moment slightly disappointed as I had half-expected it as an encore. And then, to close the first half, I got my wish: the 5th Brandenburg. And it was superb. Everything I love about the recording, the colour, the texture, and the extra edge of the live reading. Loussier soloed, and his really fitted in exactly the way the others' didn't. Purists will baulk, but if I could take only one Brandenburg 5 to my desert island it would not be a conventional reading, it would be this one.

In the second half we left Bach behind. Personally, I would have preferred to have the composer spread throughout the concert, as this way left things slightly unbalanced. Still, I'd not heard Loussier's treatment on anyone else's work, so I'm glad he didn't just stick with his bread and butter. First up was Vivaldi. I don't like the four seasons very much. I think this is largely because it is played far, far too often. Indeed, we were once staying in a hotel for a week and every morning it was pumped into the dining room at breakfast. It was enough to remove the will to live. However, the Loussier take (they tackled 'Summer') is just the breath of fresh air needed, heightened by the bassist's enthusiastic bowing at the start and end. I think I may track down their disc to hear how they fare on the rest. Then we got a piece by Satie and then Ravel's Bolero, which, if anything, I like even less than the four seasons. And yet the Loussier trio made it enjoyable. The amount of different colour and texture they brought to this horribly repetitive work, that in most hands sounds soothingly akin to Chinese water torture, was impressive, though I think it helped that they were not entirely faithful to the composer's notes.

They were well received by the packed audience and we got one more piece of Bach as an encore. I think (I'm not entirely positive, as they repeated the annoying habit of most performers in not announcing what it was), this was Jesu, Joy of man's desiring (and the snatch of a conventional piano version I played on return home seemed to confirm this - I do have Loussier playing this as well, but by the time I remembered, and given he takes it so much slower on CD, I couldn't be 100 per cent sure). They raced through it with the kind of gusto that hadn't always been present in the first half. There was an absolutely magical interplay between bassist and drummer and I walked out of the hall now having to track this down as well.

Sunday, 29 July 2007

Elephant and Castle - where's Runnicles visits Aldeburgh

En route to London last month, principally to hear Sir Charles Mackerras conduct Kata Kabanova at the Royal Opera House and Mackerras and Uchida play the newly reopened Festival Hall, I stopped in Suffolk to see family and catch a little of the Aldeburgh festival. This is my second world premier here (well, almost, while I was at the first ever performance of Richard Ayres' The Cricket Recovers, tonight's was the second reading of Elephant and Calste).

So, the question on my mind prior to arriving: would this be an opera about a shopping centre in the middle of a traffic island, or was there something terribly symbolic in the title? It was the former. Clearly writer was, as a child, captivated by the name and, let's face it, who wasn't? But being captivated by a name is one thing, turning it into a working opera is quite another, and, given the subject matter, a not insignificant challenge.

The first scene unfolds on a stage projecting out from the ruined dovecote (soon to be refurbished as part of Aldeburgh's ambitious redevelopment plan) in what appears to be the interior of a council house. The two children (Hansel and Gretel - had I read the programme this might have given me a clue as to the plot) squabble while one dreams of visiting the mythic Elephant and Castle. The mother returns home, loses her temper at the mess they've made and throws them out into the street. Father returns and it is discovered that the children have gone. The music is reasonably interesting, but it's matched by horrible dialogue from Blake Morrison. The rhymes are cringingy predictable. It might be argued that this was a deliberate choice, and certainly for some characters you might want a simple style. But there is a world of difference between simple and bad, and I refuse to believe a writer deliberately writes badly.

The second scene is much better. We walk round the site to stand in front of the terrace outside the bar. There, a projection screen has been erected which gives us a tongue in cheek potted history of the eponymous structure. In a lovely touch, a split screen shows the Queen opening the Maltings and a man (indicated by an arrow to separate him from the crowd), the labour minister, whose name now escapes me, opening the Elephant and Castle. There is a wonderfully witty selection of newspaper quotes. And the score is magical, emerging as it does, electronically, from traffic noise, in a manner reminiscent of Miles Davis's autumnal album Doo-Bop. This is the work of the second of the two composers, Mira Calix, who has provided the electronic material. Interestingly, we were told afterwards, this was intended as the first scene, but the previous evening the 9pm start time had meant there was still too much light and the projections were largely invisible. This probably goes a fair way towards explaining the poor reaction on the opening night. I suppose it would have made more sense the other way round, since this does have the feel of an introduction, but it doesn't hugely hurt.

For scene three it is about face, looking out across the reed beds to where a giant backdrop has been erected and, once more, used for video projections. Now in appropriate costumes, the Hansel and Gretel link is completely obvious. The score is interesting and the quality of the script has picked up considerably. The only problem is that we're standing right in front of the speakers and it's too loud, painfully so.

Scene four contains some of the best music yet. Tansy Davies provides a haunting quartet (well, something of roughly that scale anyway) out on the lawn before the building's main entrance. True, the words on the board we're meant to be reading are not all entirely visible, but the music is such that it doesn't really matter. It was only marred right at the end when a member of the audience decided that it was a good time for a cigar. On the off chance he is reading: sir, you were mistaken! Fortunately, the rest of us had the last laugh as the action then moved inside and either he had to stub it right out or miss the next scene.

Into the main concert hall then, or rather bingo hall. Again, the music creates a nice atmosphere. But some things, for example the hordes of tiny wind-up toys scrambling across the stage, while nice enough, don't really fit. Apparently though, such fare is a hallmark of this director, Tim Hopkins. Mother and children are reunited and the distant strains of The Beatles are heard. We step outside to the terrace where scene two took place and, in the distance, before one of my favourite sculptures, inside a lorry, is a tribute band playing (rather well, it must be said) All you need is Love. And then, in a final scene reminiscent of slow-motion movie finales, the family is reunited before the backdrop on the other side of the reed bed. The fairy lights amongst the reeds are quite beautiful.

Neither the first or last scenes entirely work. Indeed, this is in part because the whole Hansel and Gretel story doesn't quite bolt on to the concept as neatly as the creative team think, or would have liked. However, it was stunning in places, made magnificent use of the site and, as should always be the test with this sort of endeavour, provided an enjoyable evening: we were not sorry to have gone. Certainly, this was a brave thing to have attempted. In the end, though, the magic evoked by the title was not quite equalled by the work itself. Perhaps they should have taken more of a cue from scene two, one or the most successful, and really made the Elephant and Castle the star, rather than trying to attach a human interest story.



The next morning, and it was off to Orford church for the Northern Sinfonietta and a concert of Britten and Respighi. While I'm a fan of the local composer, I didn't really know the sinfonietta, but I'm keen to get to know it better now. Typical Britten, both in orchestration (and texture) and tune. The forces then dramatically expanded for Respighi's Trittico Botticellanio. The piece had some nice colours but soon became rather samey (indeed, those I was with, who'd been treated to more of the composer's work earlier in the festival, found this trait even more pronounced). A much more significant problem, though, was that the church was far too small a hall for an ensemble of this size, and the sound suffered badly as a result. The forces contracted to a more sensible (though still too big for the hall) size for Britten's Simply Symphony. It was nicely played, especially the pizzicato second movement. A jolly reading of a jolly work.



It's always nice to be in Aldeburgh, or rather, the many venues used by Aldeburgh productions, and it makes me feel I really must visit for longer next year.

Where's Runnicles and the Author Laughing all the way to the Bank

You can't move for Pottermania. You would think that a cultural bastion such as ours would be immune. You would be wrong.

But before I discuss the latest instalment, I'll defend myself. I held out for quite a long time, maintaining a snobbish attitude that the books weren't any good. This was reinforced when a friend gave me Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (he gave me the American edition) and so horribly pedestrian was the writing that I struggled to get beyond page two. Where was the beauty, the poetry? How was this in any way superior to the great children's books of Kipling or Lewis? However, a problem arose, whenever I trenchantly criticised the books, and then was forced to concede that I hadn't actually read any of them, it weakened my argument slightly. They could, after all, argue that those flat opening pages were not typical. There was nothing for it, I would have to hold my nose, to lie back and think of Carroll.

There was a second reason: the films are actually quite good. And with the creme de la creme of British cinema and theatre it would be hard for them to be bad. Alan Rickman, Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman and Maggie Smith could be reading the phone book and it would still be captivating. And, at moments, that isn't a million miles from the truth. The trouble is, I like to know how stories end, in particular, I wanted to know that Ron and Hermione got together and lived happily ever after and if I'd waited for the films I'd have been waiting another couple of years yet.

Reading the books has actually been an interesting educational experience. Sadly, Rowling's use of words didn't much improve after the second page. What is interesting is the pattern that emerges. She writes 3 kinds of chapters. The first runs along the lines of: Harry, Ron and Hermione had a very boring magical history lesson, then had transfiguration where Hermione was a swot, then Professor Snape was mean to Harry during potions.... and so on, and on, and on. We must suffer the dullness in excruciating detail. Whole chapters that authors and editors with any sense would drop by the wayside grind down the senses. But help is at hand in the second type of chapter: the action. Fast, furious, and as often as not, not entirely sensical. This might be a quidditch match, it could be climactic showdown or Harry and pals evading capture as they sneak around the school all concealed beneath an invisibility cloak designed for one. But any lack of coherence is resolved by chapter type three: the exposition. Pages and pages of the stuff where, as often as not, Dumbledore explains to Harry the whats and wherefores of what has just taken place in the preceding chapter (in some cases the whole of the book). The other interesting pattern is that in large respects the plots are the same. Book 1, The Philosopher's Stone: something of great power is hidden in a secret dungeon of the school which Harry and co. must keep out of Voldemort's hands. Book 2, The Chamber of Secrets: something sinister is hidden within a secret chamber within the school, it is deadly and if Harry and the others don't sort it out the school will have to close. Book 3, The Prisoner of Azkaban is a little more original. An escaped con, who turns out to be a good guy, is mistakenly believed to be after our hero's blood. However, the climax involves a trek down a secret passage to a hidden shack that has secrets of its own. Book 4, The Goblet of Fire, is also something of a departure, but it has problems all of its own (aside from the fact that her editor has, by this point, given up and gone home). Voldemort wants Harry's blood to restore his power, he has managed to infiltrate one of his agents into the school. So, it's just a simple matter of the evil teacher, who quickly wins Hal's trust, convincing him he needs to draw some of his blood and air, or rather owl mailing it off to the dark lord. No, no, that would be far too simple. We need a plan more elaborate, more complex, with more scope for things to go wrong. In the words of Dr Evil, "I will place him an overly elaborate and easily escapable trap.... what?". That plot, is to enter Harry into a lethal tournament that he is too young to go in for, rig the selection so he is picked, influence the outcome further so that he wins and then ensure he touches the trophy at exactly the right moment to whisked off to meet his doom. What could possibly go wrong? And the portkey, the enchanted object that transports him could be anything - wouldn't it have been simpler to bewitch his pencil or his underwear! Once again our hero triumphs only because his nemesis is such a complete moron it beggars belief. But, at least it gave rise to a fine and reasonably original plot. It also marks the first, and subsequently obligatory, tiff between the friends. Book 5 is something of step back. Even less well edited, The Order of the Phoenix concerns something hidden in a secret chamber, albeit this time in the ministry of magic, which the dark lord is bent on obtaining. It none the less has its moments - the satire on poor teaching is nicely done, particularly when she instructs them simply to read from the textbook which, needless to say, Hermione has already done. Dumbledore's huge chunk of exposition at the close is amongst the clunkiest in the series. Book 6, The Half-Blood Prince is comfortably the worst, Harry Potter and the Six Hundred Pages of Exposition would have been more accurate. Harry has regular lessons in exposition from Dumbledore as he fills in the blanks in the plot. The plot of the book, such as it is, concerns the magical horcruxes into which the dark lord has split his soul to gain immortality. One of which is, needless to say, hidden away in a secret chamber (this time in a cave by the seaside) which Harry and his mentor must break into in the finale. Which brings us to the final offering: The Deathly Hallows. Picking up where book 6 left off, Harry, Ron and Hermione must travel off to destroy the remaining horcruxes and get rid of you-know-who once and for all. If you don't want to know what happens, you should stop reading now.

For some reason, they must do so all alone, without confiding in anyone at all. Unlike better written children's books, there is no particularly compelling explanation as to why none of the adults can cope with these tasks which 3 teenagers are apparently up to. They are not subject to terribly great hardships. True they must do without being at Hogwarts, but then since Snape murdered Dumbledore at the end of the last book (in an attempt to convince us he really was evil, honest), and got the job of headmaster, he'd only have been even meaner to Harry. Besides, our fugitives travel in style, Hermione's magical acumen means that not only do they have all the books and resources they could need, they also have a 5 star tent, all folded up into her handbag. Well, everything except food. Apparently this would contradict the magical equivalent of the first law of thermodynamics (though, interestingly, things that prohibits, like the creation of energy from nothing, present no problem for magic). By astonishing luck, they manage not to poison themselves on wild mushrooms and by dint of that absurdly over-used plot device, Harry's invisibility cloak, engage in some petty larceny. All isn't perfect, Ron storms off due to hunger (and nips his burgeoning relationship with Hermione temporarily in the bud) only to rejoin the quest not 50 pages later.

Rowling's style, for want of a better word, remains horribly pedestrian. Every verb must have an adverb, every noun an adjective. The prose is entirely functional, there is never the feeling that she appreciates the beauty, the rhythm, the pitch or the timbre of words, or how to combine them. Which is a shame. It takes a good twenty or thirty pages before the mind becomes numb to this and it ceases to be so infuriating.

This is the last book though, and, as the ante has been upped in terms of death for each of the last 3 outings, the only thing left is to do more, lots more. Indeed, from the very opening this resembles a PG rated version of the fight with the crazy 88 from Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill. First up is Harry's faithful owl Hedwig (perhaps Rowling was worried about the outcry from the RSPCA if she'd been carted around in Hermione's magic bag), seconds later it appears Hagrid too is for it, but Rowling is only faking. In interviews, she had seemed to state that 3 characters died, one of which was unplanned. I don't know which 3 she may have meant, in any event, either she has been misinterpreted or cannot count. Shortly thereafter the rather engaging (twisted and half-mad) dark wizard hunter, Mad-Eye Moody buys it. A shame, since he was one of the more interesting characters. Though, in common with other interesting characters, this was probably because we have never had his life story in detail. Like many in the book, his exit is off-stage. Most poignantly, about two thirds of the way in, faithful Dobby the house elf gives his life saving Harry (who has been captured by the staggeringly inept Malfoy family, who lock them in the dungeon without bothering to remove all the useful objects from their pockets which they might possibly use to escape). By the time we get to the battle for Hogwarts, they are dropping like flies. Professor Lupin and his new wife Tonks get killed (off stage, again), leaving an orphan child, one of the Weasley twins (Fred), Colin Creevey and, she tells us matter-of-factly, 50 more besides. Not to mention Professor Snape who, it shockingly turns out, is not evil after all. Indeed, Dumbledore (who'd manage to fatally poison himself at the start of book six) specifically asked Snape to kill him, thus once more swinging the character back to absolutely dull black and white.

So, having destroyed almost all the horcruxes, Harry heads off to face Voldemort. As should have been clear to anyone reading book six, Harry's scar was one horcrux (which explains why he has some of the dark lord's traits and why he can sometimes see into his mind - though surely this would work both ways and the dark lord, had he any sense, would use it to track down and kill Potter). This lead to the intriguing possibility that the only way for the dark lord to be defeated would be for Harry to die. There would have been a nice symmetry, but I didn't think it would come. Instead, Voldemort kills Harry, or tries to, but magically only kills the horcrux. He then sends one of his completely useless minions to make sure he's dead. For reasons that aren't terribly convincing she lies saying he is (as she wants the battle over sooner, though how long would it honestly have taken to finish him off with a blunt object?). These evil villains really need to find a better temp agency!

However, it is an excuse for Rowling to do something she's clearly been desperate for for most of the last 500 pages: a whole chapter of Dumbledore provided exposition, which is neatly possibly due to Harry's near death experience. Harry then duels Voldemort, providing yet more exposition as he does so, the dark lord tries to kill him for a second time and once again it backfires and he is finished for good.

The redeeming feature in the climax of the battle is, finally, Ron and Hermione's passionate kiss, prompted by Ron's conversion to the cause of elvish rights. This comes out of absolutely nowhere, but it's reasonably convincing in terms of providing Hermione motivation (as if she needed any). Much more disappointing is that while many students remain to defend the school, all the Slytherins leave, the implication that they, to a man, are evil. It's a shame, because whenever she touches on something interesting like this (or elvish rights, or Snape) things quickly revert to black and white.

But the day is won, the journey is over, and there's just time for a epilogue. Perhaps the most stomach turning four pages it has been my misfortune to read. Now, 19 years later, Hogwarts, the next generation, are gathering themselves on Platform nine and three-quarters. Ron and Hermione are now happily married as are Harry and Ginny. For reasons surely of increasing the sale of sick bags, their kids are named after his parents and their youngest after Dumbledore and Snape. The dialogue is such that it doesn't feel any later, nor do the characters seem to have aged a day. With everyone important quite so safe and well, it does make me wonder whether we won't one day see Potter 8. If there is a god, I'm wrong about this.

But, what's the harm in all this mediocre writing, after all, if it gets more children reading, or children reading more, then it's surely a good thing. Well, possibly, but I've not seen compelling evidence that it does either of those things. There's an argument to that it squeezes the market. Furthermore, a great many of those books weren't sold to children at all (at least the 7 I bought, well, six as the first one was a gift). They obviously do give some people a great deal of pleasure, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. But to claim, as some do, that these are great works of literature is patently absurd. It will be interesting to see how they stand the test of time.

Friday, 27 July 2007

Where's Runnicles on Excursion

After another year of living in an Edinburgh increasingly devoid of opera in the period between Festivals (and on this year’s showing not much improvement during Festivals) it seemed clear that a visit to a more adventurous location was required. Where’s Runnicles therefore brings you the following exclusive (and somewhat belated) report from the Munich Opera Festival.

The first thing to be said is that the images presented on the Bayerische Staatsoper’s website indicating the view from particular seats are wholly misleading. That is they give the impression that if you sit in the cheap seats in the centre it is the chandelier which may obstruct your view. In fact the problem in the front row of the Gods is the large safety bar, and the problem in the back two rows is that the seats are, in fact, bar-stool height benches – although, interestingly, the view is rather better from there than in the front row, and the price of the seat rather cheaper.

Moving on to the substance of events on stage. Being a completionist we crammed four operas into six days. We began with the odd double bill of Wolfgang Rihm’s Das Gehige (a festival world premiere) and Strauss’s Salome. The Rihm lasted an interminable half hour. It seemed, so far as I could tell, to be about a somewhat distraught woman arriving at the local zoo after closing time, removing most of her clothes, releasing an eagle (a dancer) from its cage (a lot of not very effective wires strung between two pillars and removed by cutting them with a pair of scissors the “heroine” happened to be carrying), having sexual intercourse with the eagle, killing the bird, and sloping off home. Frankly all very odd. The lady in question’s voice seemed to be strained in the part, and despite the best endeavours of soloist and orchestra I found the music repetitive and not particularly engaging (and before I am accused of not liking any modern opera I should perhaps add that I recently saw The Tempest and loved it, and I really wish some enterprising company would revive Stephen Oliver’s wonderful Timon of Athens).

Following the interval though, things improved enormously, with a fabulous performance of the Strauss. The production was on a grand scale. Columned floors and walls moved about with a technical wizardry I cannot imagine being achieved on a British stage. When Jokaanan was released from his grotto, this enormous rock with Alan Titus attached to it, rose up from the depths. The supporting roles, often problematic in Strauss, were all well taken, including a fine Narraboth, Herod and Herodias. The great comic moment where the Jews dispute as to whether the Messiah is coming or not was clearly sung and consequently funny. Above all, the title role received a magnificent all round performance from Angela Denoke. She made the Dance of the Seven Veils enticing and sexy, a feat productions often struggle to achieve, and even though she was somewhat hampered by the reappearance of the bird previously killed by the rampaging lover in the first piece. (In fairness to the director there is a reference in the libretto to the bird of death hanging over the palace but it is quite unnecessary to take this literally – in this case it was in danger of detracting from an otherwise powerful staging). Denoke also made utterly compelling the final sequence where she communes with the head of Jokanaan. If Alan Titus no longer quite has the vocal power to really bring off the part he was still perfectly acceptable. It was a highly auspicious start.

Unfortunately things rather deteriorated from then on. Our second opera was the other Festival World Premiere, Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland. It may give some idea of the problems of this piece if I say that those responsible succeeded in making this wonderful story boring. The first problem was the production. The director placed all the principals, except Sally Matthews (Alice) in a trench at the front of the stage, so that only their upper bodies and heads were visible. Any possibility of meaningful interaction between the characters was destroyed. We then had a sloped stage upon which hung nine dancers, “performing” the various characters in the different scenes. Mostly they signified their character by donning a mask, and as the character kept shifting to different dancers it further destroyed any possibility of narrative coherence. At first, I was impressed by the sheer ingenuity of the creation, but the novelty swiftly wore off and the whole thing just became irritating.

Now, the usual solution to this sort of production is to close one’s eyes and enjoy the music. The trouble is, as with Rihm’s piece, that Chin’s music was undistinguished. Her librettist had essentially furnished her with a text drawn almost verbatim from the book, and Chin seemed to have very little idea what to do with much of it. Many lines were simply declaimed by the singers in a variety of bizarre accents which to this native English speaker tended to sound artificial – further damaging any attempt to make the characters or story engaging or believable. Where Chin had ventured to compose some music it was decidedly episodic in nature. As other critics have noted these episodes included a Gershwin influenced clarinet solo to represent the caterpillar and a baroque style mad hatter’s tea party. The music as a whole lacked a sense of cohesion, of drive from point a to point b, and many of these episodes had simply been done better by the previous owners.
Of the singers, Sally Matthews gave the stand out performance, and I should like to hear her again in more distinguished repertoire. It was amusing to note that Gwyneth Jones’s diction has got no better since I last glimpsed here in a completely incomprehensible performance of Rule Britannia at the Proms.

A friend had informed me that the essential theatre to visit in Munich was the baroque Princeregent Theatre rather than the Nationaltheatre in which most of this festival takes place. So our third opera was Handel’s Alcina. After sitting through the appalling production of Orlando at the ROH earlier this season, I am getting a bit tired of modern versions of Handel operas. Such a directorial choice seems especially perverse when the piece is actually to be performed in a theatre of the period. But so it was. The set was a large cube, gradually dismantled as the opera proceeded and, as with Alice the director seemed incapable of crafting a real sense of interaction between his singers (although sending the remaining wall crashing to the ground in the third act was an impressive coup). Put simply I did not believe in the relationships being created, or rather not created by the singers on stage. In addition there was a troop of rather sloppy dancers to do various bits of modern choreography in the ballet sequences. Sometimes this can work well in such modern stagings, on this occasion it was ineffective (although they did produce a nice bit of military silliness in the last act reminiscent of the Glyndebourne Julius Caesar. The solution, as always in these situations was to close my eyes. Anja Harteros as Alcina sang everybody else off the stage. The supporting roles were much less successful, in particular Vessalina Kasarova as Ruggiero. I found her voice quite infuriating – it was as if the volume control was being persistently turned up and down. She received rapturous applause from everybody else. Otherwise the standout performance was that of Sergio Foresti in the minor role of Bradamante's loyal companion, who was about the only member of the company who really seemed to enjoy himself on stage.

Finally, on our last night, we saw Mussorgsky’s Khovanschina which was the show that originally led me to want to go to Munich. The only other time I saw this staged was one of those overwhelming evenings at the opera. It was done by ENO when they were still a really great company theatre. The cast included Willard White as Ivan Khovansky, Paul Whelan as Shaklovity and the incomparable Gwynne Howell as Dosifey. It was conducted by Sian Edwards, and the ending where the ENO chorus as the Old Believers basically formed a human wall across the full height of the Coliseum stage and were electrocuted was a stunning coup de theatre. I really wanted to be similarly carried away a second time, and, perhaps inevitably, it didn’t quite happen. The staging, as in Salome was very impressive, but on this occasion smacked too much of director’s opera. For most of the opera what one saw were five distinct rooms set into a granite like stone façade, with projections indicating the identities of their occupants (presumably on the assumption the audience was too stupid otherwise to understand the plot). Two of these rooms were occupied throughout by Tsar Peter and Tsarevitch Sophia. Now this was quite effective, though it went completely against the text where neither are visible because this was illegal at the time. The problem in staging really arose in the handling of the chorus. At ENO they were colour coded, the Strelsy were red, the Old Believers I think in grey and the mass of the people in some other colour – the point being it was quite clear who everybody was. Here, while the Strelsy were all in black leather, they and the rest of the chorus lacked the same sense of a collection of individuals that the ENO chorus in those days could create. As the show went on directorial follies became more marked. The slave girls dance for Ivan became extremely sordid, culminating in Khovansky firing off his revolver in a manner reminiscent of shots of Palestinians firing their guns in the air in celebration. Several of the slave girls fell down dead, and one of the survivors then proceeds to assassinate Khovansky. He was portrayed as so dissipated that you lost the crucial sense that he has the potential to really destabilise the throne. In addition, he then blew his dying self up with a grenade which also seemed to eliminate Shaklovity (the symbol of Peter) which is totally contrary to the text. This was followed by the mass execution of the Strelsy instead of their being pardoned. This, I subsequently discovered from reading the entry in Kobbe, is what is actually supposed to happen historically but it didn’t seem to add much to the drama of the story. However, there followed a real coup in staging, even more impressive than the wall crashing to the ground in Alcina. As a black cloth dropped over the façade, the entire construction slid back the whole length of the stage. Silently. Then out into this vast empty space came what must have been about a 150 strong chorus for the final scene. If they had been able to avoid fidgeting it might have been alright, as they couldn’t it lacked the punch of the ENO finish.

Musically the results were equally mixed. I have never heard the bells at the end of Act 1 sound the same (either live or on a recording) as they did in the Coliseum. Anybody wanting to put on this show should get in touch with Sian Edwards to find out how she did it. Similarly I remember the mass suicide being musically tumultuous at ENO and not on the Kirov recording or here. I think Edwards used an orchestration other than the Stravinsky one. Again, she should be consulted (ideally of course she should have made a recording, but the record companies never think of sensible things like that). [Subsequent investigation reveals that Edwards used a revised version of the Shostakovich orchestration – this is definitely to be preferred to the Stravinsky]. Those two moments therefore did not quite work. Elsewhere there was some very good singing from among the principals, especially Doris Soffel as Marfa, but Nagano’s conducting failed to drive everything along with the requisite punch. I felt in the end rather indifferent, quite the opposite to the effect of his Salome.

Where does all this leave the Festival? The sheer scale of it (some 18 or so operas) is far beyond anything we can boast of in the UK. Granted most of those are repeats of productions already premiered during the main season but that does not detract from the overall quality. The very existence of such a Festival, with such lavish production values (even when the productions themselves do not quite come off) puts the whole British opera establishment and its funders to shame. Munich is clear evidence that we can and should do better. Technically, too, the Munich theatre surpasses its British counterparts. I cannot imagine productions as complex, and on such a scale, being done in a British house. Again, it puts us to shame. And finally the musical standards. Yes, I carped quite a bit in my comments, but in general (with the exception of some of the singers in Alcina) there was no singer who was not serviceable, pleasant to listen to. Even at the Royal Opera this is often not the case; and at Scottish Opera one has in recent times been lucky to have one good voice in the entire cast. Munich then is evidence that in Europe they still do opera on a grand scale, and it is perhaps worth remembering that Munich is not a capital city. Compare it with the UK where Scottish Opera is presenting a measly four operas next season, and ENO which is reduced to buying in a Rosenkavalier originally premiered about four years ago in Scotland. It seems a shame that we can't do better, and with the Olympics apparently sucking up all the Arts budget and then some, it seems unlikely that we will, at least for the forseeable future.

Saint Aaron Returns

I don't tend to be a big fan of games like "What's the greatest..." and "If you could only have one recording of...", but one of the few exceptions is the sure knowledge that I would take The West Wing to my desert island (if the rules allow the taking of a TV series). Of course, I'd only take the first four seasons, despite the awesome acting talent on display it tailed off after that, and it did so for one reason: Aaron Sorkin, the creator and writing genius behind the show, left.

In fairness, there were two reasons, since his friend, director and co-executive producer Thomas Schlamme left as well. But it was the lack of Sorkin's sparkling dialogue that crippled the show. Gone was the delightful snobbishness about good writing; it had to go really, because those who were left did not write at the standard to carry it off. Yet one of the most impressive things about The West Wing in its heyday was that you genuinely believed that the characters who were writers where at the absolute summit of their profession. Not, as is so often the case, did one sit there thinking, 'If he's a prize winning author, I'm the pontiff'.

So why, though it's not like I need an excuse, the gushing eulogy for Sorkin and his finest creation. Well, finally, his new show has made it out to the UK, for some reason following the bizarre recent practice on the terrestrial channels of debuting hot new shows just as everyone is going away on holiday. Surely March would have been a more sensible time. To make matters worse, we already know the outcome: the show was not renewed for a second season. So, does it join the illustrious list of shows cancelled well before their time (Firefly, Futurama, Farscape, Sports Night and, I'm sure, plenty more besides)? Was it simply that, following The West Wing, expectations were impossibly high?

Sorkin's earlier work was not without its success: A Few Good Men and The American President, the latter containing intriguing hints at what would later come. Or, perhaps more accurately, ideas that would later be recycled. His fingerprints are also on the script of the silly action blockbuster, The Rock, and certainly the explanation for why the dialogue is a cut above the norm for the genre. But he is particularly suited to TV. Before The West Wing, came Sports Night. It's a testament to this writer that he made me love a show about an American cable sports show: I'm far from the world's biggest sports fan and certainly not of the American ones. It too contains its fair share of ideas that later crop up in the Bartlet white house.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, to give it its full title, treads familiar ground. Once more, we are behind the scenes, as we were in both Sports Night and The West Wing; and once again there are writers amongst the principle characters. Like Sports Night the behind the scenes in question is a TV show, this time a live comedy spectacular, think Saturday Night Live, but set in Los Angeles rather than New York. But there we part company. At least in this first episode, most of the cast are on the periphery. The central relationship is that of Matt Albie (played by former Friends star Matthew Perry) and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford, Josh from The West Wing). Albie is the writer and Tripp the director. And from the start this feels like Sorkin writing about his relationship with Schlamme. The two previously worked on Studio 60 but left amid less than pleasant circumstances and are now invited back to save the show (I wonder what can possibly have been the inspiration, how sad that the show failed then). True, it is not absolutely literal, Tripp gets the drug problem (whereas in real life it is Sorkin who has battled with this).

Off the top of my head, it's difficult to think of when a relationship quite like this has been put front and centre (of course, this may change in coming episodes), but for now it feels like a breath of fresh air. Rather like when, in Firefly, Joss Whedon decided to have one of the central relationships a passionate love (in an entirely appropriate sense) of a brother for his sister. Certainly it isn't unprecedented for a show to built around a strong friendship (though more often it grows out of an 'odd couple' thrown together in the pilot, as with Due South and most cop shows). This feels different, new and is the outstanding feature of the pilot episode.

That's not to detract from the rest of the cast, all of whom are very fine (and at least one is another West Wing veteran), but this isn't really their episode.

So, an unqualified success then? No. It suffers from pilot syndrome: the way that pilots often feel a little bit clunky and you are left a little surprised it was actually commissioned into a series (until things fall into step a few episodes later). In fairness, it doesn't seriously suffer, but this is not The West Wing pilot, arguably one of the finest ever made. It was effortless, the style virtually unchanged when the show went into production. All the hallmarks were there from the beginning: the witty snippets that introduced the characters, Leo (the late, great John Spencer)'s long walk and talk tour through the set (something else that vanished when Sorkin departed, presumably because remaining writers couldn't sustain them) and President Bartlet's taking the religious right down several pegs. Of course, The West Wing had a huge advantage here: it didn't really need to do the standard pilot thing of explaining what everyone was doing in the show, it was pretty self explanatory (unlike, say, Due South, where it wasn't immediately apparent why a Mountie would be helping a Chicago cop solve crimes). Here Sorkin does need to put all his pieces into place, and so we have that pilot feel, but it's not so bad you're left knowing you'll skip it over when you revisit the show again and again on DVD.

The other problem is the comedy. In The West Wing and Sports Night a geekish repository of facts was always enough to save the day. Here the subject is a comedy sketch show and it needs to be, well, funny. Of course, Sorkin can be very funny indeed and there are innumerable examples in The West Wing: Josh sitting on his removed chair (while Charie says "I work in the same building as the smartest people in the world."), Sam forgetting to change the opening line of a speech from "As I look out on this beautiful vista..." after it has been moved indoors and Charlie rousing the President from his slumbers with "I know you told me not to wake you unless the building was on fire....". Indeed, humour was one of the great strengths of The West Wing. It was very funny. As has often been said, it was an office one wished one was witty enough to work in. In this regard, it always felt more real than many dramas, particularly those made in the UK where humour seems to be largely taboo. The result is often wearing and not especially enjoyable. In all the work places I've experienced, people use humour to cope (generally more so the more stressful the environment). However, is Sorkin funny enough to convince on a sketch show as he convinced that Sam Seaborn and Toby Ziegler were great speech writers? In fairness, in this first episode the show within a show, confusingly also called Studio 60, is in the doldrums so it cannot really be judged. Yet the controversial sketch entitled Crazy Christians, the dropping of which, despite its alleged hilarity, precipitates the crisis at the show, remains a mystery. But, on the limited evidence so far, the verdict must be not proven.

Reservations not withstanding, however, this is still a foot smarter, and more delightfully written, than most of the nonsense on TV. As Albie says, you could put on two men masturbating together and it would still be the least embarrassing thing on the National Broadcast System. Channel 4, take note.

In short, you could do a lot worse than tune into More 4 at 10pm for the next twenty-one Thursdays.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Site Update

We're very pleased to be able to take down the Alan Johnston banner as he has finally been safely released. I shouldn't imagine such buttons made all that much difference, but we're none the less glad he's safe and well, and wish him a speedy return the airwaves.

With the Edinburgh festivals fast approaching, the Fringe kicks off on at the start of August (the programme for Venue 40, where I volunteer, is now out too), the International festival on Friday 10th and the Jazz festival even sooner, reviews should be appearing thick and fast. Last weekend's trip to Glyndebourne is now documented (see previous post) and my trip to London for a number of Mackerras concerts will appear in due course. The Proms too has started (though with a rather disappointing Elgar cello concerto and Beethoven 9th). See here for a roundup of my highlights.

St Matthew Passion at Glyndebourne

Or should that be Beslan? As the programme note makes explicit, and the set would, even if it didn't, this staging of Bach's great oratorio in the aftermath of a school massacre is not subtly so. Of course, to a purist, any staging of this work is a mistake, but given it is so intensely dramatic, should it be? Certainly many of the less than favourable reviews have placed the blame on Beslan simply not being the right setting. I'm not sure I agree: the idea of a troupe of performers giving the work, in which the grieving parents get caught up, is not, inherently, silly.

So does it work here at Glyndebourne? Things don't get off to a good start as Richard Egarr strides to the podium, stands there, silence descends and continues to stand in silence for an inordinately long time before the music beings. Things do not altogether improve. The initial fading up of the stage lighting is so jerky I cannot imagine it wasn't deliberately so (or else, that the lighting operator isn't feeling rather ashamed), but I can't for the life of me see why you'd want that.

But the real problems come in the silliness of the execution of the production. There are moments when things are taken overly literally: the bride flouncing onto the stage at the start, but in a manner which is almost comical. I should note here that, as she 'explains' in an insert to her programme note, the director has split the soprano role in two. Though, reading it, that line from the dedication to Byron's Don Juan "I wish he would explain his explanation" is called to mind.

It gets worse. Cups of sand (or possibly salt, or sugar, it's hard to tell) are poured over the table or stage. It becomes a running theme (though quite what it is supposed to represent was never clear to any of us). Similarly, at the last supper, Jesus's glass is filled with water, then overfilled, then overflows. Again, any meaning was lost to me. The oddities continue, apparently productions of anything these days must have fire, but when the bowl on the table erupted I half expected a waiter come forth and offer Jesus crepes.

When we made it to Garden of Gethsemane it got worse. The change of scene was achieved by unrolling a strip of turf onto the table. If the water and the sand came close to provoking an outburst of the giggles, it was only with superhuman control that I was able to prevent it here.

But of course, a terrible production should be bearable, this music is surely so wonderful that not even this silliness can cripple it. It's an interesting question, and a difficult one to answer since this was not a night to remember musically. Egarr's conducting was lacklustre to put it mildly. He did so from the keyboard (I think a clavichord was used rather than a harpsichord). Frankly, I think given his lack of operatic experience, to divide his attentions so was a mistake. He seemed to often be concentrating all his attention on the left side of the orchestra, and this was reflected sonically. He also was rather sluggish. Of course, if you're Richter you can get away with that. But with a period band like the OAE it isn't the same. As a result, the orchestra for the most part sounded rather off and well below their usual standards.

Above the pit, things fared worse. The chorus (the parents) sat on the left, facing across the stage. They had clearly been directed by Katie Mitchell to look at their librettos the whole time. The result was a shockingly poor choral sound. Similarly, when the members of the chorus were drawn out by the 'actors' to take solo parts, they sing hesitantly. This would have been okay once or twice at the very start, but the point of such a production must surely be for them to become caught up and sing wonderfully. Directing people to sing badly is, to put it bluntly, insane, and an insult to your audience.

A conductor with any sense would have told her that having your singers constantly looking down and away from the audience simply wouldn't do. Perhaps a kind explanation is that, in his inexperience he was unable to do this and his mounting dejection at the situation led to his lacklustre reading. Fair enough, you might say, but at this level that isn't really acceptable, this is not some operatic backwater (and certainly isn't priced as such). The applause that greeted the interval was brief and polite. Very polite.

So, to the interval. Frankly, part of the point of the event.And certainly the production gave us plenty to talk about, not always the case when all you can think to say are things like 'sublime' and 'magical'. The weather held (doubtless ensured by our last minute switch to the restaurant).

There was a little improvement in the second half. The choir found a measure of passion when singing "Jesus, tell us who hit you". Sadly, such brief and infrequent moments only highlighted how inadequate the rest of the endeavour was. The pouring of salt or sand, or whatever it was, returned with a vengeance. For the first time too we got an attempt at applause after an aria (well, one person clapped about twice before realising they were alone), markedly, and actually, blessed in my view, below par for this festival.

But again and again there was silliness. At one point a member of the chorus departed the stage with incredible energy, only the wander back in a few moments later. The table was thrown over in another fit of pique. Pilate seemed to be enjoying a gourmet meal of oysters for some reason. Then there was the soprano, first redoing her hair (when the words on the surtitles implied anything but), the fainting in passion, then getting rather friendlier with Jesus than the script would seem to imply. Shortly after came the loud bang of the first person in the audience having had enough. I was more puzzled about that than I often am, since say what you may, it certainly wasn't dull.

Indeed, the fault was often that it was too busy. Why, for example, did Jesus need to constantly be changing his tuxedo (or rather having it changed for him by the two women - whose role was not often clear - in the first half they arrested him, rather than logically using the whole chorus, then sang in speculation as to what might have happened to him)? Was it really necessary to torture him quite so maniacally, dunking his head over and over in a bowl of water? When this was followed by sand/salt being poured over his head, it was very nearly too much for me. And the oddities kept coming. The script specified a reed in his hand, a crown of thorns and purple robe. For some reason the director had decided the reed should be included but none of the rest.

The instrumental highlight of the evening came from the solo cello who was brought onto the stage (though complimented by the silliness of one of the sopranos pretending to play the piano). However, this didn't really last, as the tone of the staging and Egarr's conducting meant I really half expected them to lurch into a rendition of 'Always look on the bright side of life'.

In some ways that might almost have been better. Did the women need to climb on the table or flounce around pretending to be waltzing with imaginary partners, as if their hoping to land a role in an American teen movie? Did the salt/sand need now to cascade from above? Did we really need quite so much group hugging (actually, the audience could probably do with the counselling here)? Did Jesus really need to wail quite like that (and couldn't his death have had slightly more drama)? And if he's dead, should he not stay dead rather than being up on his feet again almost immediately? Why does everyone stand up when the word exhort the opposite?

The musical climax was spoilt by yet more pointless fire, and candles. Yet surely the music here is, if performed properly, a revelation all by itself. It doesn't need such trickery to make is special. Hilarity almost ensued again in the closing moments as the surviving child of the massacre is further abused by being dressed up as an angel, paraded about and almost set alight (as his wings are placed perilously close to those too many candles).

Ultimately, this is a performance that fails comprehensively, both musically and dramatically. Well, almost. One should always try to finish on a positive note, and there is a very strong one here: Mark Padmore. As the evangelist he puts everyone else involved to shame. His voice is clear, powerful and carries perfectly no matter which way he is facing. And there is drama and passion. Would that he had been better supported by everyone else. It would be good to hear him in a reading surrounded by talents on a par with his own.