Saturday, 17 November 2007

Aida at ENO, or the Company partially redeemed and the critics shown to be fools

As regular readers will know, I have made no secret of my contempt for the present ENO management of John Berry and Loretta Tomasi, especially after the utter shambles which was Kismet at the tail end of last season. Thus, having followed the reviews of the first two productions of this season (Carmen and The Coronation of Poppea) I was thoroughly prepared to deliver the last rites on seeing the new production of Aida. This anticipated viewpoint was strengthened by a hatchet job of a review in The Guardian which suggested yet another production working totally contrary to the text, and the obsessive publicity surrounding the costumes. Contrary to all these anticipations this production is very solid, has some moments of absolute genius, some beautiful singing and playing and has been most outrageously treated by the critics of The Guardian and The Observer.

The production is opulent, but it is opulent to a purpose. Pyramids, hieroglyphics, Egyptian headdresses – the style certainly seemed convincingly Egyptian to me – a nice change from the endless parade of modernised productions we are so often forced to sit through. This achieves its greatest effect in the military parade that follows the Egyptian victory at the end of the second act. It is very easy for these ballet interludes in Verdi to be tedious. This was exciting with a distinctly military air including a stylised re-enactment of the battle just fought. The onstage brass were note and move perfect, and the offstage chorus also impressed. But the highlight was Radames’ triumphant entrance (which The Guardian critic ignored and The Observer critic turned up his nose at). The only other time I saw this opera, Radames was perilously borne in on a boat like object which the bearers looked as if they might drop, and he looked as if he might fall off at any moment. Here, he is born in on the back of an elephant, while dancers manipulate giant ears and a giant trunk. It is a real coup de theatre and completely appropriate to the moment. The other highlight of the production is the burying alive of our heroes at the conclusion, another problem moment, which is brilliantly solved.

Turning to the musical side of things. Here it has to be acknowledged there are some shortcomings. Both John Hudson as Radames and Jane Dutton as Amneris both take a little while to warm up. However, Dutton in particular is giving a powerful performance both vocally and dramatically by the second half. In Hudson’s case one slightly yearns for an over-powering tenor voice but accepting the fact that there are very few such voices available his is ultimately a serviceable performance. And the other performances are in the main stunning. Claire Rutter is an excellent Aida, her voice soaring over the orchestra, and Iain Paterson a very impressive Amonasro. The confrontation between Rutter, Paterson and Hudson in Act 3 is a particular highlight musically and dramatically and again illustrated the strong points of the production. When Radames surrenders his sword, he actually throws a sword down before the enraged priests. How often does one see such moments staged literally? It is very refreshing.

Finally, in the pit, Edward Gardiner drives the whole thing forward, again drawing fine, exciting playing from the ENO Orchestra. For possession of him alone the company deserves to be sustained.


Sunday night took me to the South Bank for the first visit in a four year residency from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. I will leave it to my esteemed brother to explain why Janssons’s interpretation of the third movement of Mahler’s 5th Symphony was wrong and confine myself to noting that I have heard this piece in concert on two previous occasions and it did not work for me. I felt it seemed like five chunks which didn’t quite go together, that it never seemed to reach the climax one always felt was around the corner. For me, Jansson’s performance was utterly compelling. Exciting where it needed to be, ethereal, other-worldly in the adagio, and an ending that did reach a climax. It was fascinating, as in Edinburgh to watch him conduct. At times he seems to do almost nothing and yet there is no flagging, or loss of precision and direction in the sound. One can see exact responses to gestures. It was a telling example of that most elusive of performing qualities – emanation. Finally, particular kudos have to go to the First Trumpet who made his tricky exposed sections simply sing. I’m not sure I can recall hearing a trumpet play so beautifully quietly before. A memorable evening, and an orchestra-conductor pairing that nobody should miss hearing. Full credit to the South Bank Centre for signing this deal.

Parade at the Donmar

About a month ago now (can you tell my day job is keeping me busy) I attended the Donmar Warehouse’s musical of the season, the London premiere of Jason Robert Brown’s Parade. I previously saw Brown’s The Last Five Years at the Menier Chocolate Factory, so I was hopeful about this show – and it is always interesting to see new musicals (especially given the time-lag which tends to intervene between a New York premiere and the arrival of the show in the UK – when is The Light in the Piazza ever going to reach us?) There is no denying that parts of this show are powerful, particularly the two lead performances, but it ultimately came across, as my better half suggested afterwards, as a show which had been workshopped to death.

The show dramatises one of the most notorious miscarriages of justice in American history – the trial of Leo Frank, a Brooklyn Jew transplanted to Georgia, for the murder of a 13 year old child labourer in 1913. Apparently the show did not play well in the States, and it is easy to see why. It exposes the nastiest sides of the post-Civil War South, but it is not altogether friendly to the Jewish man in the dock. And yet, when one compares it with similar attempts to expose the darker side of the American dream through musical theatre, perhaps most obviously Sondheim’s Assassins, this show ultimately has too many agendas, and lacks real savage bite.

The major problem, possibly a consequence of that over workshopping already mentioned, is evident through the lengthy first half. While Leo and his wife Lucille (powerfully played by Lara Pulver) come across very convincingly, the characters around them tend towards the stock. This is particularly the case with the murder victim herself. The murder occurs roughly about scene three, by which point we have had only the very briefest acquaintance with the victim. She seems flirtatious in a deliberately provocative way – and she certainly does not come across in Jayne Wisener’s portrayal as a 13 year old. For me the consequence was that her actual murder left me cold – like something you might read of in the “in brief” column of a broadsheet newspaper. This had a knock on effect through the first half because, for the dramatic tension really to work, one needs to believe in the image of the victim presented by family, friends and trial witnesses and one had not seen enough of the victim to be convinced (and what one had seen somewhat contradicted their story). A further problem in this first half is the number of characters jostling for attention. A washed up newspaper man, the governor worrying about his popularity, the scheming police chief, the fire-eating reverend all get their moment in the sun of centre stage but again none of them is given enough space to develop as a fully rounded character. The show goes off in too many directions. Consequently, crucial arenas of the narrative are too condensed, most notably in the trial which concludes the first act. It is explained towards the end that a defendant in a murder trial is not allowed to take the stand, and I’m sure this is historically accurate. I find it more difficult to believe that throughout the forty day trial, the defence attorney never cross questioned any of the witnesses or made any significant statement at all – yet this is the scenario the show requires you to believe. The trial is simply too staged.

In the second half things do improve considerably. The show seems to settle down and decide that what it actually wants to be about is the relationship between the Franks. This is accompanied by a picking up in the musical quality. One of the problems in the first half is that too often I didn’t really feel there was a compelling reason for this to be a musical – the music was not adding much to the drama. In the second half this changes. The Franks have three excellent duets, the Governor has a nice dreamy dance number, and the Judge and the police prosecutor a telling ballad about the lost glory of the Southland. The direction also tightens up – the segue from husband and wife’s reunion into the chilling final scene is especially effective.

That direction needs a little additional comment. Maybe it’s a consequence of the emphasis on the persecution of the Jewish outsider, but the colour barrier in this staged South is not effectively dramatised. The company includes at least two black performers. The characters they are given to perform are either stock servants of the merry plantation type (which made me more uneasy than any of the attacks on Jewish ways), or they are slotted into ensembles as if their colour was irrelevant. In 2007 casting terms of course this is perfectly correct, but in 1913 Georgia it is wholly incorrect. Thus you have these cast members happily cheering Confederate Memorial Day, and later donning KKK hoods with the rest of the white company. This is not my specialist period so it is possible the former might have historical evidence to back it up, I find it unbelievable that any black would have been admitted to membership of the KKK. If you are going to try and conjure a historical period you have to get this kind of detail right.

It’s good to see darker musicals being written in the States, and getting a hearing over here, and this is a show worth seeing for the two central performances. It also seems probable that some of the use of Jewish idioms (particularly the mockery of the wedding ceremony) would have a much stronger impact with a New York audience. As a complete musical though it doesn't ultimately work.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

The Scottish CHAMBER Orchestra

In addition to the regular evening concerts and the Cl@six concerts, a third string to the SCO's programme is its Chamber ensemble. Performing at 2.30 on a Sunday afternoon, this season's first programme proved that they are something of a treat. We were given Dvorak's string quintet in G and Brahms sextet in B flat.

Both might as well have been selected just for me as they have prominent cello parts, and I'm very fond of the instrument. In the Dvorak, as the programme note tells us, the double bass takes the bass line away from the cello allowing it greater freedom. And the cello here, Su-a Lee, is always a joy to hear. The SCO is extremely lucky in having not just one exceptional cellist but two (principle cello David Watkin will be playing later this month in Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, which promises to be rather special). The rest of the ensemble was excellent too.

Interestingly, perhaps because they come from an orchestra, the communication between the players was more subtle than in some ensembles I've seen, but must have been there as the playing was very tight. I recalled the Janacek quartet playing the piece at the 2005 Edinburgh festival, but on examining my programme it seems we actually got the quintet in E flat. I remember not being especially bowled over by it, and wondering if Dvorak's string quartet writing was to blame, this performance suggests otherwise.

The Brahms was interesting too. Again, the extra instruments freed the first cello, though this piece is for slightly odd forces: absent the double bass one might expect and instead pairs of violins, violas and cellos. Together they produced a wonderfully rich sound and some stunning playing, particularly the pizzicato at the close of the first movement or the beauty of the cello part in the slow movement.

A lovely concert, and a fine way to spend a Sunday afternoon. It left me with the sneaking suspicion that these may be the highlights of the season. What a pity, then, that the Queen's Hall wasn't a little fuller.

where's Runnicles? flying south again tonight - Thomas Dolby plays the Carling Academy, Islington

In another one of the mad dashes south to catch a single concert for which this blog is justly famous (or for which it would be famous, if it were famous, which it probably isn't), on morning of Wednesday 10th October, I jumped on a plane down to Stansted in order to hear Thomas Dolby live, and have the opportunity to misquote a line from his song Flying North (although, given that's based on the fact that most planes head north immediately after taking off, to do with flying fuel efficient routes in grand circles, switching the compass point makes it somewhat meaningless).


I should also point out, right at the start of this review, that this is going to be neither objective nor unbiased, due in large part to the fact that there is a glaring conflict of interest: Mr Dolby (not his real name) is our uncle.

As such I've been a fan of Dolby's music for as long as I can remember. I can remember, for example, dancing around with my brothers to such hits from the 1988 Aliens Ate My Buick album as Hot Sauce (and listening to it again now, and the nature of some of the lyrics, I'm a little surprised my parents didn't mind). However, he hasn't produced an album since 1994's The Gate to the Mind's Eye (well, this isn't quite true, there's been a 'best of album', some remixes and several live recordings but no new studio album). In fairness, he's been busy working at his company Beatnik, which is responsible for software in some roughly two thirds of the worlds mobile phones and is used to create the polyphonic version of the annoying Nokia ringtone. I should stress that that sound is not representative of what you hear at a Dolby concert. However, it has meant that at every family gathering for the last decade or so, he's had to put up with me asking him when he's going to record a new album.


So it was excellent news when a year or so ago he decided to return to music. He started out with a solo tour of the states, finishing up with two gigs in London. In part because one of these was at the Wireless festival (which is televised), I decided not to make the trip down. When it turned out that only 30 seconds was broadcast, and after the rave reviews of the Scala gig that preceded it, I rather wished I had. I contented myself with the rather fine DVD and CD that he made out of the American performances. However, when he was visiting Scotland with his family a year or so ago, we made the point of insisting that when he toured the UK he made it up here. He hasn't (I'm told this was because they couldn't make a date work), so there was nothing for it but a trip south.

So, after meeting up in a nearby pub, the Angelic (which has an interesting Tapas menu - Tapas fish and chips, who would have thought it?), with several of my cousins and my sister-in-law-elect (joke will be lost on all non Gilbert and Sullivan fans) who kindly let me use her spare bed, but alas not Finn, whose job kept him away, or my younger brother, who was sick, we headed in to the Carling Academy. An interesting venue, located as it is in the middle of a shopping centre. As we arrived the warm up act was still on stage, I have no note of who they were, and there doesn't seem to be on the venue website. They were not memorable though.


At a little after 9pm Tom took to the stage and played what seemed to me to be a new song: Your Karma Hit My Dogma. At least, I've never heard it before (and it's on none of the many CDs I own), but then given the way he introduced a new song later on, I'm not certain. Then it was into The Flat Earth, Europa and the Pirate Twins and One of Our Submarines (the later a slightly different mix, without much by way of bass lines, this prompted by a computer issues at a previous gig and him having decided that he thought it worked rather well this way). One of the reasons it's interesting to hear Dolby live is that the songs sound rather different than they do on the studio album, the sounds and textures he's used the way he builds them up may be rather different. It's also fascinating to watch him put the tracks together.

Hot Sauce Horns.JPG

At this point the Hot Sauce Horns (a trumpet, trombone and sax) were brought onstage. Apparently, these were something of a last minute addition owing to visa problems with the musicians Thomas had intended to bring, though you wouldn't have guessed that to hear them play. They also integrated well to Dolby's electronic one-man rig and added a nice extra colour to the sound.

Someone (screen name heretic) on the forum on Dolby's website posted this playlist (which looks roughly correct, I wasn't keeping note):

Your Karma Hit My Dogma
The Flat Earth
Europa and the Pirate Twins
One of our Submarines

With the Horns:
What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend (Cover of the Specials track)
The Key to Her Ferrari
May The Cube Be With You
My Brain is Like a Sieve
Jealous Thing Called Love? (new song)

Introduces Kevin and Matthew
I Scare Myself
She Blinded Me With Science

Thomas and the horns:

Introduces Lene Lovitch and Les Chappel
New Toy
Sway (duet with Lene)

Thomas and the Horns close with
Hot Sauce

Encore (just Thomas)

A look at the list shows a number of songs not there in the Sole Inhabitant tour. It was particularly nice to hear May the Cube Be With You, a favourite growing up, similarly Airhead. Sadly though, both here and on the Sole Inhabitant DVD the woman (presumably the eponymous airhead) saying "Oh, you speak French" in response to the line "Quad erat demonstrandum baby", which has, in my view, always been one of the funniest in the song, was absent.

The new song was rather hard to judge, I didn't quite catch all the words, and I think judgement is best reserved until it appears on the new album that Thomas is working on.

He was also joined on stage by a number of people whom he'd worked with some years back. All of them were unknown to me, but it added more colour and variety to the show. They were clearly all having fun together and that always makes for a better performance.


If I had to make a criticism it's that after a few weeks on the road, both here and in the states, you can tell from the voice, but that's inherent to this sort of live concert tour. Another might be that it would have been nice to have heard some of the material from Astronauts and Heretics, in particular Close But No Cigar. However, now he's back in the UK for a while, we'll doubtless get the chance to hear him live again before too long.

All in all, a great evening's entertainment, and something I've wanted to hear for some years now. And even if you're not related, and the name Dolby means nothing more than surround sound processors to you, his blend or electronic sounds and intelligent lyrics is well worth investigation.


Saturday, 3 November 2007

There's Runnicles (or, rather, there was Runnicles, way back in August - a belated review)

The craziest, and briefest, of your correspondent's several dashes down south to catch one artistic highlight or another was prompted, of course, by the namesake of this blog. The chance to hear Donald Runnicles at the Proms, conducting Wagner, and with none other that Christine Brewer singing Brunnhilde, was simply too good to pass up. The more so as Mr Runnicles was, as we have pointed out once or twice, not least in the very title of this blog, shamefully absent from the Edinburgh festival this year.

However, there were complications that made this an especially mad dash. In their infinite wisdom, the minds behind the BBC Proms had scheduled this concert for the opening weekend of the Edinburgh festival. The previous evening would see Jarvi doing Sibelius, the following Ades and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, neither of which I wanted to miss. Not to mention my duties at a small Fringe venue. There were but 24 hours to fly south, catch the Prom and return. It was mad, crazy, insane, but was it worth it?

Gotterdammerung is, of course, a long slog to sit through, but I had taken my precautions. Cunningly I had also booked tickets for Finn to use for an earlier Prom (featuring Salonen's piano concerto), this enabled me to get priority booking, since the scheme is designed to encourage people to book new music. I hasten to add that had I been able to spare more time in London, I would have booked something along those lines for myself, rather than slightly abusing the system. Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised it had got me the aisle seat, front row, centre stalls with only the prommers in the arena before me. Armed with a notepad and a rucksack filled with a bottle of water and a sandwich, I was prepared (and pleasantly surprised security didn't relieve me of it).

The BBC Symphony Orchestra forces were impressively padded out (at least, I assume some of the 6 harpists aren't on the regular payroll). The start of Gotterdammerung is tricky to pull off. The last of Wagner's Ring cycle, it suffers from having been written first, then having a prologue added to explain things, then three more operas added to explain the prologue. This in itself is not a fatal flaw, or rather would not have been, had Wagner shown some willingness to make the odd cut or two. He didn't, and the result is half an hour of three people bemoaning what has happened in the previous nine hours. That said, in concert this could be an advantage, since we hadn't had the preceding nine hours, or, at least, we'd had them but over the past three years. But in the opera house, if not well staged (as it was in the Albery produced Scottish Opera Ring, where they wove around the stage with a luminous rope), it can be rather dull, you have only to watch the Met Ring were the three Norns spend the whole time sat in a tiny hole in the middle of the stage (but don't waste your money just to find out). At £3 and with a full libretto (typed nice and large and including stage directions) the programme offered better value that we would have had in Edinburgh, but the person responsible for typesetting could learn something from them: printing in light grey in the top right hand corner "please turn pages quietly" doesn't work. It should be in the bottom right and in black bold, so that it's the last thing you read before turning the page. It's impressive how much louder the page turning was than in Edinburgh. Another hair to split is the further listen suggestions. I have no trouble with the recommendation of Runnicles, Brewer and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Tristan und Isolde (indeed, I have recommended it on these very pages), but to point to Tomlinson in the Haitink Ring cycle..... Of course, the Bavarian orchestra plays beautifully for him, and he shows the score in a fresh light. Tomlinson sings well too. The problem is Eva Marton's Brunnhilde is poorly balanced and sounds unpleasantly like a police siren. It is impossible to set the volume so that you can hear everyone else and don't suffer bleeding from the ears every time she sings. Those of us with out a remote control on our amplifiers are therefore constantly up and down out of our seats.

But, to the music itself. The BBC Symphony Orchestra could have been sharper, and it did rather make me wish he had been conducting the BBC Scottish for this, as he gets a more impressive sound from them. However, when Runnicles got them going, they produced a wonderful richness. The norns themselves were something of a mixed bag. The second norm, Natascha Petrinsky, was not very good but Andrea Baker and Miranda Keys were much better. It was with a stunning reading of the Rhein journey that the evening really began to shine, displaying Runnicles' marvellous trick of making the familiar fresh: a very brisk pace, and yet it worked. Of course, Christine Brewer's entry didn't hurt, as she soared effortlessly over the orchestra. Stig Andersen gave cause for concern though, with a shakey start as Siegfried, his voice cracking slightly, it didn't seem likely he would cope. But he improved as the performance went on and turned in a creditable performance. True, you can expect better performances of the role, even in this day and age, but not hugely much so. Then came what was, as far as I am concerned, a misguided casting choice: John Tomlinson as Hagen. This will doubtless be controversial and cause ire amongst his legions of fans. Let me preface my remarks by saying he is an amazing artist and a fine singer. But he is no longer in his prime. True, the sheer characterisation and drama he brings makes up for the technical imperfections in his voice. But casting is not an isolated thing and when your actor playing Hagen is old enough to be Alberich's father, when the reverse should be true, and both looks and sounds it, you have a problem which the suspension of disbelief didn't counter for me. It was also the case that the strain caused his face to turn worrying redder as the opera progressed, so much so that my enjoyment of his performance was muted by concern for his health. The sad thing is that he'd have sung a magnificent Alberich, and been well cast in the role. But elsewhere Karen Cargill sang a fine Waltraute. Alan Held's Gunther was okay. But there was little question that the stars were Runnicles and Brewer, and a lingering wish for the BBC Scottish.

One other point should be noted: semi-staging. At least this concert performance in the Royal Albert Hall was allegedly semi-staged. And that's been done before at the Proms (the Mackerras performance of H.M.S Pinafore from the 2005 season provides a textbook example of how this can be done). The programme even gave a credit to one Paul Curran. I sincerely hope that none of my licence fee or ticket price went into his pocket since there was not the slightest evidence that he had done anything at all. True, all the characters walked on and off the points marked in the libretto, but it surely doesn't require a director to point those out. I've heard a great many operas in concert at the Edinburgh festival and never seen a director credited before. Even in the Poulenc concert recently (which 'staged' the executions).

Another moan concerns the staff at the Hall. After a nice sandwich on the steps of the Albert memorial, I went back into the hall, and an usher informed me I'd have to check my bag into the cloakroom. I noticed a large number of other people, and virtually everyone in the arena, were not subject to this. I don't mind having rules, and I can even see the logic of this one. But such rules should be applied fairly and to everyone and I don't think I should have to check my small rucksack when everyone in the arena seems to be allowed several hampers.

But that didn't matter. Act two was nothing short of exceptional. True, the Alberich/Hagen scene didn't quite work, for the reasons outlined above, but from there on..... Conducting and playing were electric throughout and any doubts and roughness about the orchestra's playing were erased. Some wonderful singing. Another Runnicles hallmark was the cleverness of the orchestral placement, brass and horns from every balcony and gallery the hall has. That and the sheer precision and drama he brought. It was nothing short of magical and, as always when one is that completely swept away, the words don't quite do it justice.

Act three was very fine too, though perhaps not quite so brilliant as act two. Siegfried's voice was a little thin when imitating the woodbird, but then aside from Wolfgang Windgassen, whose isn't? Gweneth-Ann Jeffers' Gutrune lacked power. The Rheinmaidens (Katherine Broderick, Anna Stephany and Liora Grodnikaite) were good, even if they didn't look even vaguely like sisters. Siegfried's death and funeral march were thrilling and once again Runnicles brought an amazing freshness to the score. And again horns were placed offstage to perfection. The only reservation was the light show (the ceiling flickering orange and red like the ultimate damp squib), which added nothing the drama and perhaps only existed for Curran to demonstrate his fee had actually achieved something. It was well received and the Tomlinson fan club was out in force, his cheers outdistancing the quality of his performance by some way. I'm not sure everyone needed huge bouquets of flowers. But none of that really mattered. This was a thrilling, draining, magical evening of music. May it find its way to CD post haste. And may Donald Runnicles get together with the BBC Scottish and Brewer and commit an entire Ring to disc. In the meantime, and retreating from the fantasy world, we must content ourselves with Tristan and, if we can find it, the excellent, and mystifyingly deleted disc of orchestral chunks with the Dresden Staatskapelle.

I reached Gatwick at around midnight, too late for the last flight. With four hours to kill I tested out the ludicrously overprice pod hotel. It was mad, it was tiring and it was more than a little silly. But I wouldn't have missed it for the world (the performance, that is, not the hotel), and would dash down again in a heartbeat. Of course, come 2008, I won't have to.