Saturday, 13 September 2008

Vernon Handley (1930-2008)

I only ever encountered Vernon Handley, who died on Wednesday aged 77, once in the concert hall. In retrospect it was a thoroughly atypical programme from the conductor. It took place in December 2004 at the Anvil in Basingstoke. Handley conducted the London Mozart Players and was joined by trombonist Christian Lindberg (who stands out more in my memory of the evening for his rather unusual choice of dress - a very loud shirt and leather trousers). The programme included Mozart's 4th horn concerto (transcribed by Lindberg for trombone), Leopold Mozart's trombone concerto and finished up with Beethoven's eroica symphony.

Handley, of course, was best known for his love, and championship, of British music, from his cycles of Vaughan Willams' symphonies (EMI), Elgar's work (EMI), Simpson (Hyperion) and his award winning Bax (Chandos). Perhaps this is in part what left him more obscure than many others.

Handley, or Tod, as her preferred to be known, a reference to his toddling walk, was also well loved by orchestral musicians, though he never rose to terribly prestigious appointments or high honours (most recently, in 2004, a CBE). However, there were plenty who would prefer him to many more feted names.

He was also one of the few people to actually participate in a recording with Joyce Hatto. When the scandal first reared its head his recording of Bax's Symphonic Variations was held up by some as an example as to why her recordings must be genuine (when the existence of many of her collaborators was questioned), surely he would not be involved in such a deception. I was never impressed by Hatto (or whoever was playing on the recordings I listened to), and despite being among those raising questions when Radio 3 started playing them, this fact bothered me too. Of course, it was genuine as it was much earlier than the fakes.

His Elgar, which I have never explored, but long been meaning to (unhelpfully Classics for Pleasure have not boxed them into a convenient slim-line set, maybe now they will). I recall a documentary about Elgar, where he discussed how he was the only one who actually followed the composer's instruction in a particular section of the second symphony. There was something understated about the way he spoke, as there was about his conducting and his manner onstage.

Of course, Handley couldn't go that whole concert at the Anvil without playing one obscure British work: John Moeran's Sinfonietta. And like much such repertoire, he caused one to wonder why it was as obscure as it is. He provided excellent support for Lindberg's superb trombone work in the two concertos and gave a good Beethoven 3rd symphony. Indeed, I think it was one of the first times I heard a really convincing account of the finale of the work. The LMP were one of the mainstays of the Anvil's concert schedule and not always terribly impressively so, their concert with Handley was their best and indeed one of the highlights of the season, behind a splendid Mackerras Brahms 4 with the Philharmonia.

I remember wondering why Handly wasn't Sir Vernon. Others on the BBC Radio 3 message boards have been wondering the same thing. Possibly in part this is a result of his decision to decline an OBE in 1988. Still, if Roger Norrington can have a K it seems perverse in the extreme that Tod didn't.

He will be missed, not least by the British musicians he was such a champion of.

Mozart, Mackerras, Keenlyside - What more could you ask for?

The Royal Opera House's 2008/9 season opener was always an exciting prospect: Don Giovanni, conducted by one of the finest Mozartians around, Charles Mackerras, and with Simon Keenlyside as the Don. It did not disappoint.

It occurred to me that this is now the opera I have seen live most times (edging above the many that tie on two performances, such as Don Carlos, Vec Makropulos, Figaro, Rheingold and Walkure). The first time I saw it was with Opera North (I think, though it may possibly have been English Touring Opera) in Norwich in 2005. That was an excellent production, slightly modern with a large scaffold that allowed plenty of chasing and people not running into one and other, as the script often requires. It also didn't get in the way of the story. Next up was a dire attempt that represented yet another nail in Scottish Opera's coffin. The team of conductor Richard Armstrong and director Tim Albery who'd brought such success to the Ring should have ensured success. They didn't. The production was so poorly lit throughout that nothing was visible much of the time (most so in the party in the Don's house where, rather than suspend disbelief they'd gone for a level of illumination authentic to what candles might have provided). Then there was the Don constantly discarding pairs of white gloves, doubtless to represent the women he deflowered. But it just looked very silly indeed. In the pit Armstrong was somewhat beyond leaden.

Things last night were better, much better. From the opening bars of the overture the orchestral playing is superb, and superbly directed by Mackerras. The curtain rose to reveal a slightly odd set, dominated by a large, curved truck that was clearly meant to be the outside of a large house, actually not a million miles from Opera North in effect. The production isn't new, and dates from 2002. The wall opens out and Keenlyside athletically clambers down having attempted to ravage Donna Anna. Keenlyside is superb as the Don - incorrigible, caring about nobody but himself. I wasn't overly impressed by Marina Poplavskaya when she sang Elizabeth in Don Carlos and she is fairly unremarkable here. Then the Commendatore enters and Eric Halfvarson is every bit as impressive as he was as the Grand Inquisitro. Joyce DiDonato is a beautiful and convincing Elvira, not always the easiest role to carry off, particularly as to why she is so forgiving of the Don, but DiDonato manages it. Kyle Ketelsen is a good Leporello, but plays a little too much for laughs. I've still seen nothing to compare with the way Opera North's performance gave me a genuine sense of a man conflicted, this Leporello seemed merely out to save his skin. Ramon Vargas sings nicely enough as Ottavio but is a little wooden in his acting and lacks a little bite. Elsewhere, the Zerlina of Miah Persson is mesmerising and Robert Gleadow's Masetto is good. The simplicity of their costumes also contrasts well with the Dons and Donnas and gives a nice homely feel.

It's worth noting at this point that midway through the run the cast switches for a less impressive one on paper and Poppano takes over as conductor. That said, Rebecca Evans' Zerlina will be interesting to see. The only really big name in the second half is Ian Bostridge who takes over Ottavio. Now, I'm most grateful he wasn't onstage for me as I cannot bear to watch a man who constantly looks for all the world like he is about to be sick quite violently, and provokes a similar reaction in me. But can it be coincidence that he and Mackerras are not together? I think I'm correct in saying the two haven't worked together since Bostridge dropped out of recording sessions for Clemenza di Tito and the subsequent 2005 Edinburgh Festival concert, throwing them into doubt. Thankfully Reiner Trost stepped in at the last minute.

The production did well bringing out humour in the score, not least from Keenlyside and Ketelsen's wonderful range of expressive sighs and grunts. However, towards the close of act one, we got our first clue that director Francesca Zambello may have misplaced the plot somewhere along the way. Having surrounded the Don, Anna, Elvira and Ottavio put a gun to his head, and then do nothing for no apparent reason, enabling him to escape by climbing up the wall on a rope which the band throw down to him, clearly they are anxious to ensure they are still paid (the set by this point having revolved completely so we are within the house). Indeed, there is more of the same when they capture Leporello in act two, as he impersonates the Don, a noose is dramatically tied, and then used only to tie him up. The words of Dr Evil "I'm going to place him in an overly elaborate and easily escapable trap..... what?" sprang to mind. However, for some reason that isn't clear the walls close in on everybody. There is, though, some nice acting from the onstage musicians who duck for cover at the first sign of trouble and then peek back over the parapet.

More comedy is to follow in the second half, with Leporello's disguise as the Don carried off especially well. Mackerras's conducting remains on fire. There is a rightness to his choices of tempo and, as always, solid support for his singers. Sadly the director goes on to lose the plot completely. A crack opens in the wall to reveal a bizarre shape which defies accurate description (a tube-shaped thing but not entirely solid - writing in the Guardian, Erica Jeal suggests it is the Commendatore's finger, if she says so) which swings back and forth but is clearly meant to represent the Commendatore's statue. When Leporello mimes that it is nodding his simply looks ridiculous. However, his terror at having to invite it to dinner is well conveyed. Things take a turn for the worse as we enter the Don's dining room (which has a look completely out of kilter with the traditional setting of the rest - a series of oddly shaped tables that wouldn't be out of place in a pretentious modern restaurant). For some reason that never becomes clear, unless it is to show of Keenlside's rippling torso, it is the Don's custom to strip to his boxer shorts when expecting company for dinner. There are still some sparks, humour is found at the Figaro tune from the onstage band (though not as well as Opera North who ad libbed about that hack Mozart) and Leporello's theft of some food from the Don's table. All well and good, but I had lingering doubts as to what would happen when the weird swinging thing came knocking at the door, which it weirdly did. Fortunately Halfvarson then rose through the Don's table with a metallic hand. Then cue fire, and frankly very impressively so. Huge tongues of flame licked upwards from the various tables, though the roman candles being used burnt out in turn, which did seem a little odd. Halfvarson did not memorise the order though, as his gestures to the various tables did not match the fires starting. And then, a weird thing that looked like a slightly hollowed out head of the golden condor from The Mysterious Cities of Gold swung across the stage spurting a bit more flame as Keenlyside's obstinate Don was dragged down to some applause. Musically, it was stunning and I suppose it was fairly spectacular. I wasn't quite sure though, if some thought that was the end there.

The curtain then dropped and the remaining leads, having quickly changed their cloths to white (were they purified by the Don's demise?), appeared before it to sing of the morals of the tale. For the first few minutes I wondered why Mozart hadn't had the sense to stop with the dramatic finale, but then Mackerras brought out the music of the lessons to be learnt so beautifully that I remembered why. Zambello had saved her final insanity for the end, the curtain fell away revealing the house wall with a red gap in which Keenlyside stands, stark naked, carrying a woman, possibly the maid he serenaded earlier, such as to conceal his modesty. Why? Surely at this point he is in hell, and if that means beautiful women are provided to him, surely the Devil needs to have serious words with some of his minions.

There were one or two other irritations. Despite having got an ideal seat on the aisle, in the front row of the amphitheatre it was slightly spoilt by a gentleman next to me who was a little too large for his seat, and a couple behind who insisted on talking and kicking my
seat (though most of the talking stopped after I glared in the overture). Clearly the man was tall and therefore was constantly shifting his legs. However, I'm tall and I manage not to kick people's seats. He eventually moved to sit on the steps just before the interval. The usher came to ask him to move, without even bothering to try to lower his voice. I expect that of the ushers at the Festival Theatre, not at Covent Garden, who are normally excellent (and have a correctly cast iron policy on latecomers).

Still, such irritations shouldn't detract from what was a superbly enjoyable evening. Mackerras showed an absolute mastery of the score and kept a brisk pace, though in common with recent performances his age now seems to be bringing a slight slowing (from a pace that rose steadily all the way up until his 2006 Beethoven cycle). By comparison, his Scottish Chamber Orchestra recording of 1995 feels brisker, but this felt righter somehow.

It is a superb evening at the opera and thoroughly to be recommended if you can track down a ticket, though the long returns line indicates this may be tricky. And while at times the production grates, closing of eyes is, for the most part, not required. It was broadcast live to cinemas on opening night and the cameras last night suggest an Opus Arte DVD is to follow, which I will acquire for the music if not the staging.

Friday, 12 September 2008


Stephen Sondheim's Assassins has never really enjoyed great commercial success. The off-broadway premiere ran for just 73 performances, despite a strong cast that included Victor Garber and John Wilkes Booth. The revival was dogged by being scheduled to start shortly after 11th September 2001. When it finally arrived in 2004 it ran just 101 performances, though this time round received the critical acclaim it deserves (and 5 Tony Awards).

It has, however, enjoyed much greater success amongst amateurs and on college campuses. This year in Edinburgh punters had two productions to chose from (though they didn't overlap so no comparison is available from Where's Runnicles). This review considers the one from the Durham University Light Opera Group which took place at the Bedlam Theatre. Unfortunately, as no programme was handed out, we are unable to credit any of the cast.

As the title suggests, Sondheim (with book by John Weidman) tells the story of the men and women who have assassinated, or attempted to assassinate, a President of the United States of America. The musical opens in a purgatory-like shooting gallery, though in this production it becomes bar, when the Proprietor greets them, persuades them to play and try to kill a president, Everybody's Got the Right, and solve their problems. A balladeer helps link things together and provide narrative, in a manner not completely unlike Britten's Paul Bunyan (though here the balladeer duets with the other characters).

Often very little is known of each assassin as, for example, Booth's (Abraham Lincoln's killer) ballad makes clear - did he do it to slay a tyrant or because of bad reivews? While Booth remains thought provoking, the explanation for Zangara's attempt of Roosevelt is limited to his belly hurting and while "have you tried killing President Roosevelt..... It couldn't hurt" is funny, it doesn't explain things. Of course, it is probably often the case that there aren't explanations and the intent is to challenge the audience, which it frequently does. Such as when guns are pointed at the audience and we are told "when you've got a gun, everybody pays attention"

Czolgosz is much more convincing, but then it is also a better part. His song of the plight of the working man is powerful, and his motivation for his successful attempt on William McKinley at The Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, is one of the strongest songs in the musical. The contrast of the line of "everyone can work their way to the head of the line", which Czolgosz does in order the be in place in the greeting line to shoot him, and yet that he cannot do to get out of his position, is extremely powerful. It is the American dream and the reality for many set next to one another.

It is also at times very funny, such as Samuel Byck's tape recorded message to Leonard Bernstein. Latter he would attempt to hijack a jumbo jet and crash it into Richard Nixon's White House. The two women, Sarah Jane Moore and Lynette Fromme, both of whom tried to kill Ford, provide a good deal of comic relief, no more so than when Moore has brought her son (hilariously played by the same actor who portrays the Santa costume clad Byck, later the jacket comes off revealing an 'all I want for Christmas is my constitutional rights' t-shirt) to the attempt. Ford, portrayed bumbling, helps them as they drop their bullets.

Charles Guiteau is a real character, alternately a preacher, author and wannabe ambassador to France, requests the honour from James Garfield and kills him when turned down. John Hinckley, who stalked Jodie Foster and then tried to kill Reagan, is also disturbingly portrayed.

The show culminates with assassins complaining that their deeds haven't solved all their problems. This is juxtaposed with the balladeer's defence of America "the mailman won the lottery..... the usher who's a rock star". But he is shouted down and then hounded from the stage.

Having spent most of the musical wondering whether it will tackle Oswald, we see him for the finale, as Booth and the others persuade him to kill Kennedy in order to make all their lives meaningful. It doesn't quite work, or at least didn't in this production.

It is also easy to see why success has been elusive: a musical that sings "Damn you Lincoln" or suggests that "Lincoln who got mixed reviews, because of you John now gets only raves" is not designed to win a popularity contest. In How I Save Roosevelt various average Americans claim responsibility for ensuring Zangara's bullets went wide of the mark, and could be said to mocking them.

I think this is a misplaced view. It is one of the finest, funniest, most compelling and thought provoking musicals I have heard. How then, did the DULOG performance stack up. Well, bear in mind it was entirely new to me going in, so that always puts the bar lower. However, this was a fine performance none the less, not least because the next day it prompted me to go out and buy the two available recordings. I will now, therefore, do the very unfair thing of comparing this amateur group to those professional productions. Actually, it is very favourable.

First up, it should be noted that the accents, both spoken and sung, are beyond reproach, no mean achievement (those responsible for casting Mahagonny in the International Festival take note). The Proprietor in this production seemed more cynical and harsher such than on both recordings, where he seems soft in comparison (though better in the 2004 revival) and less powerful as a result. The balladeer was excellent too, and gave a very similar reading to that on the off-Broadway recording and arguably a more suitable one than the excellent Neil Patrick Harris gave in 2004 (whose voice is less folksy and whose singing voice at times strains ever so slightly, though his overall performance is so good the flaws don't matter too much).

Booth was okay, but couldn't hope to match Victor Garber (as the rival actor in the revival CD also fails to do). Guiteau was wonderfully characterise, as too were Byck and Czolgosz. On the other hand Zangara was less convincing, although in part that is due to the role. Oswald did a good job, not least given he appears cold just ten minutes before the end. The chorus were okay, and well characterised both in the McKinley and Roosevelt scenes, though in the latter their diction was not good enough. In fairness, it is a very tricky song, but the recordings demonstrate it can be done.

All in all, though, this was an excellent production of an excellent work and one well worth checking out. The two recordings are also both well worth acquiring and both needed. Each have some performances stronger than the other. The original has Garber's Booth and the more folksy balladeer. On the other hand the revival has a harder Proprietor, Neil Patrick Harris, a new song (written for the 1991 London performances, and the need to capture America's sorrow at the events and make up for what might be seen as the mocking of the American people in How I Saved Roosevelt) and much more, though sadly by no means all of the text. Indeed, that is perhaps the great reservation of these recordings, there is so much wonderful dialogue omitted from both, such as Byck's message to Bernstein, or Moore and Fromme's various discussions. Still, both can be had for around £5 on Amazon so there's little reason not to own both.

The Reluctant Cannibal

Cannibalism is not, you might think, an altogether appropriate subject for humour. And yet there are several examples of just that, from the Flanders and Swann song from which this review derives it title to Trey Parker's pre-South Park film upon which this Edinburgh Festival Fringe musical is based (though at least one of Parker's cannibals is far from reluctant).

The musical opens with silent film of a group of people being massacred in a wooded area. There is a nice use of written dialogue: "Oh, no" is the expression that appears on the screen for one of the actors, whose lips to me made a rather stronger statement.

We are then plunged into the courtroom where Alfred Packer is being tried for cannibalism and Polly Pry (a journalist) is attempting to coax the true story out of him. But first we need to learn about his unhealthy affection for his horse (played by a lady in a very low cut outfit), "the sky was blue when I was on top of you", he sings, and we wonder whether the RSPCA should be alerted to what's going on. This particular double entendre has now replaced my brother's previous favourite where a diplomat, returning to his wife after having left her with the natives, asks "Were you bored?" to which she replies "Only in the engineering sense."

Soon, however, we learn that Packer had agreed to take over when a group of miners lost their guide, though as the plot progresses it becomes clear his sense of direction is nothing to boast about, to make matters worse he seems more concerned about recovering his horse, Liane. As he leads them further astray, the eponymous cannibalism occurs.

Musically it is not the most distinguished work ever written, Stephen Sondheim need lose no sleep, but it is perfectly decent. The lyrics are by no means great either, but they are very funny. Filled with dirty jokes and double entendres, such as the offer of "Fudge, Packer". Essentially, this is a work of utter silliness and if viewed with that in mind is very enjoyable indeed. Quite why the writers felt the need to constantly compare everything to a baked potato is not clear, but it is amusing, and would doubtless make the sound basis of a drinking game.

The performances are strong. Unfortunately, I am unable to name the most of the actors as no programme was distributed. Bell, the preacher (played by our friend Andy Pugsley, and thus earning this review a shameless plugs tag), Packer and the Trapper are all excellent and Liana manages to act the part of a horse well, and also doubles up as the Indian Sudoku, which is presumably an addition to this performance as the craze hadn't struck when the original film was made. The wider supporting cast of gold prospectors is also a wonderful range of caricatures, from the sex starved young man (who has a very detailed list of the things he wants to do before he dies) to the one who refuses to sing, to the one who has an extreme eagerness to build snowmen at every opportunity and tap dance, and though it's not explained how this is meant to work in the snow the script at least recognises this and makes a joke out of it. It is this last behaviour that leads to Bell shooting him in frustration and leading them onto the road to cannibalism. When Packer returns from seeking help, Bell's descent to madness is complete and his refrain of "the Lord works in mysterious ways" even more amusing.

The set is sparse, but they make the most of it, and much comedy from it: "Look at all the teepees" says the Indian chief. The use of a projector helps give a sense of place much of the rest of the time. Other things, such as the bear trap in which Bell's leg is repeatedly caught, are entirely and convincingly mimed, and with Andy Pugsley timing his screams to perfection. Similarly when they leap into a river, the choreography as they are swept downstream and off stage is convincing.

One criticism would be that the journalist was much more obviously mic'd than everyone else and at one point Pugsley lost his microphone altogether, though such is the power of his voice that nobody in the audience actually noticed.

All in all, this is one to put your mind firmly into neutral, get a large glass of your favourite tipple, sit back, and laugh very hard indeed.