Sunday, 28 February 2010

Edinburgh Studio Opera presents Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen

You wait years for a production of a Janacek opera, then all at once two appear, and of the same one at that. Of course, these aren't really comparable productions of The Cunning Little Vixen: one is at the Royal Opera House at next month under that doyen of Janacek interpreters, Sir Charles Mackerras, the other is a student production mounted by Edinburgh Studio Opera. And yet, despite tackling a work that is by no means simple, the amateurs need no apology.

That isn't to say this was a perfect reading, it wasn't. But it was a most enjoyable evening at the opera and, always important with such productions (given that friends and relations are likely to number heavily in the audience), it felt like someone meeting Leos Janacek for the first time might well be tempted to get better acquainted.

Wisely they had opted to perform the work in English (and if Charles Mackerras is happy to, and will be doing at Covent Garden, then who can object). This removed the need to master Czech and, in theory, the need for surtitles. And for the most part it did: the eponymous Vixen (a show-stealing performance from Louise Adler) was particularly clear, so to the Forrester (Philip Smith), who, along with the Fox (Suzanne McGrath), provided the evening's other vocal highlights. However, in some of the more minor parts, not a single word was intelligible (in fairness, this may not have been helped by a last minute juggling of roles occasioned by illness in the cast). In fairness to them, it must be said that I've heard worse diction from professionals. Given the straight production, there was little difficulty following the broad thrust of the narrative (though it was still probably as well to have read the synopsis first).

Nicholas Fletcher did a solid job conducting a difficult score, and for the most part the playing of the orchestra was good, bringing out Janacek's unique sonorities well (though some of the brass fanfares were cruelly exposing).

The production, from director Nicholas Bone and producer Nick Morris, was for the most part fairly traditional, and pretty economical, the set almost unchanged throughout. Notably though, the, shall we say, raunchier aspects of the plot were rather accentuated.

Some touches were nicely carried off: the TV wheeled on playing a fire image for the men to gather round was particularly nice. Other aspects worked less well, such as the somewhat comic choreography in the wedding scene or the instances at the start and end when some of those on stage were called upon to mime with instruments (something which, as a rule of thumb, should never be attempted unless absolutely unavoidable as it almost always looks silly - Update 2010-03-08: in fairness, as the comment below notes, given what's in the script this is hard to avoid). I'm not entirely clear what was going on with the chap twirling his umbrella and the trap didn't quite work, due to the way it was placed (doubtless where it was due to lack of stage space); all the same, it looked like it has been got out ready to be set, and then abandoned. There might have been more stage space to play with had they not dominated it with a huge raked platform, whose use didn't quite seem to justify its existence. Still, in an age where productions tend to wilfully and pointlessly flout the text and aim to confuse even those who know the work well, such reservations were fairly minor.

All in all, it was well worth seeing, and if you like Janacek, or even more if you've never encountered his music, it runs Monday to Wednesday at the Pleasance and you should try to catch it. Our Next Janacek fix in Edinburgh isn't until April's Excursions of Mr Broucek, I can't wait for that.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

The Scottish CHAMBER Orchestra play and sing Schumann, Brahms and Mozart

I've said it many times before, but I think the SCO's chamber concerts are one of the jewels of their season. What a shame, then, that they've become increasingly rare over the last couple of years. So, all the better when they do come round.

Sunday's concert was unusual in featuring a singer alongside the musicians drawn from the orchestra. It was to have been mezzo Karen Cargill, who has featured heavily this season, but sadly illness ruled her out (we wish her a speedy recovery). In her place came Julia Riley. I think it's always a high compliment of such late substitutions, given preparation time is doubtless less than ideal, that had someone walked in off the street unknowing, nothing about performance would have led them to suspect it. Overall she had a nice voice, if a little piercing at high volumes (though this may have been an unfamiliarity with the hall, leading her to sing louder than was absolutely necessary). True she didn't have quite Cargill's magic, but it made for a most enjoyable recital none the less. Riley was accompanied by Simon Lepper, who gave well judged support. Schumann was followed by two songs from Brahms' op.43. In a slightly odd choice, they ran right on, with barely a second's pause, so as to afford no gap for applause in between the two sets of songs.

The concert had, however, opened with a little more drama. Violist Jane Atkins took to the stage and, again with Lepper, provided a beautiful and richly toned account of Robert Schumann's Adagio and Allegro, op.70. However, at the key transition into the presto section, her bow quite literally fell apart. A few moments later, she returned to the stage with a fresh one and picked up utterly unfazed.

The first half was rounded off with more Schumann (Robert) in the form of his Marchen Erzahlungen. This time Lepper and Atkins were joined by Maximiliano Martin, the orchestra's principal clarinet. They blended well as an ensemble and suffered no lack of coordination. It was well played throughout, with the slow movement being particularly sublime.

After the interval Martin and Lepper were back for Schumann's Fantasiestucke, which was possibly the highlight of the afternoon. Playing without music, it provided Martin with an opportunity to really shine, and he was on sparkling form to take advantage of it with a tour de force performance.

Riley then returned for some more Brahms (the op.91), but this time accompanied not only by Lepper but also by Atkins, providing a nice added colour. These last songs seemed perhaps the best suited to her voice.

The afternoon closed with a little Mozart and, interestingly, the piece that first drew Martin to my attention: Sesto's Parto, parto aria from La Clemenza di Tito. In the 2005 Edinburgh festival Mackerras gave a superb concert performance with the SCO, one of whose many memorable features was Martin's continuo parts during this aria, for which Mackerras brought him to his feet. Half a decade later, it was beautifully played and well sung, though Riley's voice was a touch loud in places.

Walking home, I couldn't help but find myself wondering how orchestras and opera companies go about filling last minute gaps when a performer is indisposed. It must be some means other than tweeting "Anyone know a mezzo who's free next Sunday?" (though, actually, that would probably be quite effective). It might be an interesting topic for a future SCO blog post.

On a side note, I'm really enjoying the orchestra's participation in Edinburgh's Carry a Poem scheme, which is taking the form of printing the featured artist's favourite poem in the programme. This afternoon we learnt that Karen Cargill's [sic] was Liebst du um Schonheit by Friedrich Ruckert.

Sibelius and Wagner (abridged) from Järvi and the RSNO

The last time I had the chance to hear Neeme Järvi at the helm of the RSNO, Sibelius was also on the programme. On that occasion, at the 2007 Edinburgh Festival, he gave us a superbly structured and powerfully dark account of the fourth symphony.

On Friday it was the turn of the suite of incidental music from Pelléas et Mélisande. From the start, many of the same hallmarks were present. The RSNO were on their finest form, most notably evident in the wonderfully rich and evocative string tone they produced. I always find Sibelius one of the most visually evocative composers, and this was certainly the case with Järvi who produced sounds to almost rival some of my favourite recordings in this respect (I'm thinking of Bernstein's incomparably textured late Vienna performances); the sublime, rapid, shimmering bowing at the end of the first movement was a particularly good example. Throughout, Järvi opted for a gentle pace, the whole account weighing in at around thirty minutes. Yet never did it drag, quite the contrary, one could happily have listened to more, much more.

After the interval it was a slightly different kettle of fish: Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, in a novel arrangement by Henk de Vlieger. The word arrangement possibly conjures up expectations of something more radically unusual than was actually the case. In point of fact, the work is essentially just an hour long abridgement of the opera, sans voices (Järvi chose generally brisk tempi, especially in the opening, bringing it in a little shorter than that).

Certainly they played it very well and there were some glorious moments from the brass and elsewhere as Wagner's music resonated richly around the Usher Hall. The trouble is, I'm just not convinced by the idea underlying the piece. I think Wagner in concert works best when you have purely orchestral chunks, such as Siegfried's funeral march or the various preludes. Things get more problematic when you have vocal music without the voices (though in some cases, such as The Ride of the Valkyries and the Good Friday music it works so well that even your reviewer can forget the vocal parts exist [edited due to my error, pointed out by the arranger - see comments below]). Take, for example, the passionate act two scene between the titular lovers, without their delirious defiance of the march or time, punctuated by Brangäne's warnings, if feels somehow hollow, no matter how well it is played, which, under Järvi was very well indeed. The programme note remarks that "secondary matters, such as the singing sailors.... are not included", which seems a bizarre comment. Fair enough, excise them due to not wanting a choir, but they provide some wonderful music and a very important function of jolting the lovers back to reality at the end of act one after the potions have been consumed. Apparently, next time we see this team together, they'll be giving us de Vlieger's treatment of Meistersinger. I can't help wishing it was more Sibelius instead, why not a whole cycle, or at least a Kullervo?

Both pieces featured long and prominent cor anglais solos and in both Zoe Kitson performed superbly, with a wonderful tone and no fluffed notes, providing another of the evening's highlights.

Those with spotify, who fancy a taste of what de Vlieger does, can have a listen to his version of The Ring, as recorded by Järvi and the RSNO.

The Royal Opera House stages Prokofiev's The Gambler, or Good God, Antonio, Why???

I am filing this production under Opera, great mysteries of. Somebody in the Royal Opera House production department must have thought this was a good idea. Perhaps the idea of a satire on gambling seemed topical. Perhaps Pappano had seen it done somewhere and was desperate to conduct it? Whoever came up with the idea ought to have paid more attention to the piece itself. This is an evening of fairly continuous tedium. In fact, after Acts One and Two I was hard put trying to remember another opera which had musically so completely failed to grab me.

The libretto is based on Dostoevsky's novella The Gambler, and the first problem arises from the adaptation. Basically this is one of the worst librettos I've ever run across (or possibly one of Dostoevsky's less successful pieces, as the programme notes claim that Prokofiev was remarkably faithful to the original text). Scenes are choppy, none of the characters really engaged my emotional interest, and at times libretto and staging seem to combine to see who can be stupider. Thus the mistress, Blanche (Jurgita Adamonyte) of the General (John Tomlinson) wanders up to the front of the stage and the following exchange proceeds:

“Where has the general gone?”
“I think he's still in his room.”
“Where has the general gone?”
“Are you deaf you stupid old bat?” - that at least is what the reply ought to have been.

I suspect that a big part of the problem is that this is early Prokofiev who had not yet obtained the mastery of combining words and music which is demonstrated in War and Peace which although obviously condensed nevertheless captures so much of the spirit of the book. These textual problems are further compounded by the decision to perform the work in English. Now, forgive me if I am mistaken, but I thought the whole point of the Royal Opera was to perform works in their original language. As regular readers will know I am a staunch supporter of English National Opera and the performance of any opera in English, and would not normally mind if the Royal Opera chose to follow this line. But really, if you are going to do so, you ought to explain why, and you ought to hire singers who can sing convincingly in English (Angela Denoke's Paulina is especially at fault here) and who have semi-decent diction. Almost every time I stopped following the surtitles it became impossible to understand a word that was being sung on stage. The Royal Opera ought to have higher standards than this.

The music is very odd. The first two acts are possibly the most tedious two acts of opera I have ever sat through in my life. None of the singing caught fire, Pappano's conducting was leaden, indeed the most exciting thing to happen was a large seal ambling on behind his keeper at the end of Act One (set for reasons not entirely clear in a zoological garden). It was however difficult to tell at that point whether the fault lay with performers or the work.

In Acts Three and Four responsibility became considerably clearer. Here the music is much more recognisably Prokofiev (or at least recognisable to your correspondent who thinks War and Peace one of the great operas). In the pit, however, Pappano continued as if nothing whatever had changed. There were wistful haunting melodies reminiscent of the waltz from War and Peace and jagged, biting sections. The orchestra should have been moving from lush romance to savage attack, but Pappano elicited a sound and level of engagement which remained essentially unchanged throughout. There was simply no drama coming out of the pit at all, even in the pivotal scene in the casino, and quite often (at least in the gods) it was almost incredible to think you had a full symphony orchestra in the pit.

The singing was serviceable but again nobody ever really caught fire, one reserves judgement on their responsibility for this given the lack of assistance they received from both score and conductor. However, there is one point which has really got to be made. John Tomlinson continues to be a frequent performer at the Royal Opera. I must make clear that I consider many of his past performances to be as good as I ever expect to hear. However, the truth ought to be faced. Tomlinson has sung so much heavy material that he can basically do nothing now except boom in a manner which increasingly becomes a strain to listen to. He was able to get away with this sound in Birtwistle's The Minotaur because a kind of anguished roar was what was required by the part, but it didn't work effectively in the recent Don Carlos revival and it certainly doesn't work here. Royal Opera audiences may continue to cheer wildly every time he appears (they certainly did so last night) but Tomlinson would do his considerable reputation much more good if he followed the example of other great singers and accepted that it is now time to retire.

The staging, by Richard Jones, is remarkably inoffensive – though there was an increasing amount of running around by the chorus which seemed a bit pointless. Overall though it is no more capable of rescuing this second rate work than anybody else involved.

Where's Runnicles therefore endorses the comments of several colleagues in the print media who have commented on the bizarre decision of the company to stage this second rate work when so much other Russian repertoire is neglected by it (The Love for Three Oranges, War and Peace and Khovanschina to name but three highly deserving cases). One can only ask, Good God, Antonio, Why?

Friday, 19 February 2010

The Classical Shop - Chandos revamp their download store

[Update - 2012-03-26: Please note that the landscape has significantly changed since I wrote this piece and it is now outdated. My survey of classical download stores, written in March 2012, can be found here.]

Last June I had a bit of a rant at the expense of online download stores. None of which, if you want lossless classical music and use iTunes/iPod on a Mac, delivered as good a user experience as I felt should be the case.

Fortunately, Chandos have now updated The Classical Shop (which features not only their own label, but many others besides). Dowloads are DRM free and they offer a variety of lossless CD quality formats, not to mention some discs in studio quality (24 bit, 96 kHz). This is as before, though the high resolution downloads look new. The problem was never formats, but usability. If you were a windows user, or only wanted lossy MP3s, it was fine, you could in a few clicks download a single zip file containing all the tracks on the CD. The problem is that getting a WMA file to play on a mac is tricky, and requires a level of technical jiggery-pokery beyond the ken of the average user. While Chandos did offer FLAC (which is problematic for iPod users as for reasons passing understanding Apple don't support it, and even getting them to play in iTunes is tricky), WAV and, best of all, Apple friendly AIFF, this one click (ish) option wasn't available for these formats.

That, has now all changed. So, I headed over to the site and picked out a disc I've had my eye on: Gerald Finley's collection of Opera in English arias with Gardner and the LPO. Then it's a simple matter of selecting between MP3 and lossless (studio quality isn't available on this one), at the top of the screen, selecting the desired tracks (or all, via the add all button), clicking to buy and following through a fairly standard process. The price is a pound less than the physical CD on Amazon, or £4 less if you choose MP3.

When you get to the download screen you can select your chosen lossless format. One minor criticism is that the recommendations for what works with a mac/ipod could be clearer - otherwise some unsuspecting person might download FLAC and have problems. You then click the icon for that format below, click the zip box next to it, and then the zip box at the bottom of the screen and Robert is your mother's brother.

It isn't quite that simple as apparently they don't routinely store everything as AIFF, so the files have to be generated and then zipped up, however you can go away and leave the computer to do that. Once it's done, you click to download the zip file. Another minor grip here is that Chandos's servers are rather slow - I only got a download rate of 200KB while my connection can handle 1.7MB, as a result if you download anything in studio quality you'll be waiting a very long time.

That said, the big gripe before was that you had to click to download each track individually. As such, buying a full CD of AIFFs was a cumbersome operation that took several hours. Now, while it still takes a little longer than it ideally would, it only requires a few minutes of attention, after which the computer can be left to get on with it.

Once downloaded, there are another couple of minor gripes. I had to redo all the tags on the tracks once I got them imported into iTunes: apostrophes were missing from all titles that had them and each started 'CD01 TK01' (and so on - I can't think why anyone would want that), which had to be removed. Also, composer's first and surnames needed to be reversed so they'd index properly on the ipod. However, given that one has to rewrite the tags somewhat for just about any CD listing one gets out of the Gracenote database and anything one downloads, this isn't the end of the world. It isn't helped that there isn't a good standard way of tagging and I, like many others, have evolved my own that works for me. On the plus side, it should be noted that decent resolution artwork as well as a PDF of the booklet are also provided (and anyone, e.g. someone who owns the physical CD, can download these without purchase).

In summary, I can now recommend Chandos as the first port of call for classical downloading where I couldn't before. I think it very likely I'll be using their services again. This is a great upgrade that could prove expensive. Well done them for listening to feedback and correcting flaws in their service. If Passionato would offer AIFFs too, they'd get a similar recommendation.

What about the Finley disc? It's great and a review may follow when I get the time.

One big bugbear in all this is Apple's lack of native FLAC support in iTunes/iPod - if you feel the same way, why not pop over to their site and send them a feature request (for all the good it's likely to do).

Whelan, Ticciati and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra play Mozart, Ligeti and Bartok

It's one of the great strengths of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra that they can put their section principals front and centre as concerto soloists without generating any feeling that the listener is being short changed, such is the calibre of players like Maximiliano Martin, David Watkin and Nicholas Bayley (the latter unfortunately having now moved on to the fresh pastures of the principal bass's chair at the BBC Scottish). I'm sure this is true of most orchestras, but somehow the individuality of these players shines through that bit more in concert time and again, giving the ensemble one of its special characteristics. On Thursday, it was the turn of the Peter Whelan, the relatively new principal bassoonist. He took to the stage for Mozart's K191 concerto.

At least initially, the orchestra under Ticciati was rather too heavy in the tutti passages that opened the first movement (and also the finale), drowning Whelan out. This was, doubtless, an intentional choice, since elsewhere he balanced the forces perfectly. Nonetheless, it was a blemish on an otherwise superb reading: when the eye can see the soloist playing, the ear wants to hear him too. Fortunately, it was confined only to two brief passages. Thereafter, Whelan turned in a beautiful performance, nice and clearly phrased, and very unmannered, possibly a result of his experience with period performance, yet still having a distinctive tone. The piece is not without its difficulties, but he dextrously handled some rapid and very tricky passages and managed to ensure breathing never got in the way of the musical line. The cadenzas were a special treat to listen to, particularly the sublime one in the slow movement. It was a joy to hear, the kind of performance to have you craning forward in your seat to catch every last detail. Behind him the SCO were in period mode, with the horns playing on natural instruments, and Ticciati providing plenty of energy and directing a taut performance.


You know it's a good performance when you have to buy a recording during the interval (so much so that you do it, despite not having with you the £5 SCO CD voucher you keep forgetting to use). Of course, that recording features the SCO's wonderful former principal bassoon Ursula Leveaux. It makes interesting comparison now as I type this - two wonderful artists, yet so different. Whelan's is perhaps a plainer sound, but no less special for that, in its way purer. I wouldn't want to be without either and while there's doubtless little chance of it, it would be great if they could pop back into the studio and rerecord it with him too.

The concert had opened, however, with a more challenging piece: Ligeti's Ramifications. I don't know Ligeti's music at all well, but everything I've stumbled across in the concert hall I've liked very much. I like too that Ticciati is using his star power to play new music to packed halls. True, you'll always get some who'll sit with arms resolutely folded and refuse to clap, but those who opened their ears and their minds had a treat. Ticciati had chosen an interesting layout with the violas all in a line in the middle, the cellos in a row behind them. The piece itself, comparatively short, is a wonderful exercise in polyphony for string orchestra. Opening with some wonderfully quiet yet ever changing notes, almost like swarms of insects, gradually, organically, these almost other-worldly landscapes shifted and built to a wonderful climax before fading away again. I could have happily listened to much more of the same. It finished with several bars of silence, à la John Cage. Ticciati knew how to have fun with it and kept the orchestra poised, as if one final pluck was just around the corner, while he conducted the beats clearly. Nothing came, save an impish grin as he turned to greet the applause. More please!

I'm glad the SCO has chosen to abandon the off-putting (to some) Adventurer moniker, and fervently hope more interesting new music gets sneaked in like this next year (there's more Ligeti in April - sadly I'll miss it as I'm in Berlin to hear Runnicles do the Ring). Actually, I favour a guerilla new music approach, with short and unannounced works dropped in so people can't avoid them when booking and can't escape.

Following the interval were Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances. The last time I heard these was a fascinating concert by the Rose Street Ensemble under James Lowe which, owing to other commitments, I never got round to reviewing. What made it interesting was that prior to performing them, they played ancient recordings of actual folk music made by Bartok himself which provided a wonderful insight. Here they were slightly more of a party piece and a filler. Still, the ensemble had plenty of fun with them and they were very tightly played, with no signs of stress as they raced to the breakneck conclusion.

The evening closed with Mozart's 38th symphony, Prague. This, of course, is dangerous territory, being repertoire that Mackerras has performed with the orchestra to great effect, both live and on disc. Ticciati opted for a similarly brisk tempo, if not perhaps quite so quick, and led a crisp reading full of bounce and energy (though he seemed to omit the first movement repeat). The natural horns of the first half were joined by natural trumpets. One couldn't help but feel for Whelan who, despite having soloed before the interval, was back on duty for the Prague, which is by no means light on the bassoon. However, as he and Alison Green provided sublime duet after sublime duet, there was no sign of fatigue. Generally, the playing of the orchestra was of a very high order and held together well. It remains one of my favourite Mozart symphonies and was a fitting close to a great evening.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating. Under Ticciati the orchestra seem on to a good thing. Those in Glasgow tonight should catch the repeat, alternatively they're doing it in Turin on Tuesday. In between there is no rest, with a chamber concert on Sunday with Karen Cargill (well, I say Cargill, but I've just been to the SCO website and it seems that she's sadly out of action due to illness). Also worth noting that Peter Whelan will feature prominently in the SCO's subscriber concert next month (my form arrived earlier this week, and will be returned all the quicker after tonight).

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Popstar to [anything but] Opera Star, tweet by tweet, part IV - or could someone please buy the producers a copy of Kobbe

Whatever else you might say about Popstar to Opera Star, and there's plenty to be said, you might at least expect the popstars, albeit out of key and with electronic assistance, to sing things that, you know, actually come from operas. You would, however, be mistaken. What ITV are in fact inflicting on us, of a Friday night, is more Popstar to Anything That Sounds Even Vaguely Classical Star.

I mention this because of the five items in Friday's show only one (that's a measly 20%) actually came from an opera. Now, I know not every aria is appropriate to this mess, and, funny though it would be, I don't honestly expect to see anyone tackle Heil Dir, Sonne! or Ariel from Ades' The Tempest, but there's been an awful lot of opera written over the past couple of centuries, enough, surely, to sustain the show without needing to resort to film music. What's next Andrew Lloyd Webber? (Though, actually, they could include him and make a reasonable claim to opera since he shamelessly nicked the Music of the Night from Puccini.) Perhaps someone could give the producers a copy of Kobbe, they might learn something.

But, as ever, I digress. Here, tweet by tweet, as it happened, only a few hours later (once again I was at a concert), is last week's instalment of Popstar to Opera Star. Actually, the tweets being with a few mentions as I caught up with what everyone else had been saying.

As ever, the following may contain traces of irony:

Greatly enjoying catching up on #popstarstooperastars tweets from @Gert @EdibleDormouse @RuthElleson and @eflatmajor_

Apparently the consensus seems to be that Darius has a nice bottom (can't say that's something I've noticed myself)

Forgot to mention @OperaBritannia

Less delayed than last week, I should probably be going to bed, instead I'll start my live-ish tweeting of #popstarstooperastars

Tonight's whisky is a rather fine 18yr old Talisker (though, rather heretically, I think I actually prefer the 10 yr old)

The description of the panel as "our phantoms of the opera" is just loaded with dramatic irony isn't it

Why is Villazon introducing himself with a mime that seems to suggest he wants to grope a woman?

Dear me - Meat Loaf is getting rather friendly with Katherine Jenkins

And Les Filles De Cadix is from which of Delibes operas?

[And that's one nil against actual opera arias.]

@njhamer @EdibleDormouse whisky? never touch the stuff. Well, hardly ever.....

[The whisky that accompanies these tweets is purely for medicinal purposes, you understand. Extra points if you can get the reference in that last tweet.]

Hmm, her pronunciation leaves a little something to be desired

And why, please, is it praise, that she is able to sing it in the original key? Surely that is a minimum requirement in a sane world

Oh, the irony - the voiceover on these silly insets between the add breaks "the standard's really improving"

@EdibleDormouse I'm sure I'd rather hear you sing it that any of these people

God, now we have to put up with the rest of his band messing about and not singing opera properly

[Instead of any insight we had to watch the McFly chap mess around with the rest of his band.]

I know it's week four, so clearly we've exhausted all the well known opera, so the second aria is Funiculi Funicula

[Actual arias now two nil down for those keeping score. What's worse, this horrible song is infuriatingly easy to get caught in your head. Thanks a lot ITV!]

Try as I might I can't place the opera.... Wagner, maybe?

Why would anyone write a song like that? Is it used to interrogate prisoners in Guantanamo?

Katherine Jenkins saw his potential, if that isn't an endorsement to put on your CV I don't know what is!

@benanial I take it it was cut from the final version of Elektra then?

[@benanial had suggested it was composed by Strauss.]

Wow, I only know Ennio Morricone from his film music, I never knew he wrote any operas!

[Of course, he didn't. Opera arias now three nil down.]

Wow, a song so versatile that Russell Watson, Katherine Jenkins, Il Divo, Sarah Brightman and Paul Potts can all all sing it!

A standing ovation from Meat Loaf. That doesn't happen every day. Oh wait, yes it does.


Please excuse my shouting

@benanial I'd actually term G&S opera, and it takes a lot of talent to sing well. None of this lot could hack it

Good lord, an actual aria, from an actual opera. Good thing I wasn't drinking or I'd have spat out this 18 yr old whisky in surprise

[Figaro's aria from the end of act one of Le Nozze di Figaro - opera pulls one back but is still three one down.]

Someone on the song choosing team is going to be in trouble on Monday!

The audience are being a bit unfair to Darius, trying to throw him off by clapping along like that!

@benanial some Ades perhaps!

[We speculate on how fun it would be to watch them try some 20th century repertoire.]

Well, obviously we couldn't have two actual arias in a row, so we'll have Ave Maria instead

[And it's a whitewash - final score, opera loses four one.]

not that it matters, but in the interests of fairness the voting lines shouldn't open until after the judges have spoken

@benanial that would be so funny

[He had suggested some other interesting 20th century composers.]

"we'll get you your injection soon" Is that Laurence Lewellyn Bowen confirming that Meat Loaf is on something (it would explain a lot)

Make sure your favourite is back singing opera next week? On the basis of this week, there's at best a 20% chance of that, even if they win

And there was I thinking Mika was the string quartet for a moment (though that looked an unlikely pop star!)

Well, Danielle Denise has gone down in my estimation by a fair bit

[See for yourself, if you dare. @ OperaBritannia maintains she was miming. I'm not convinced so far as the solo bit goes.]

Not that I particularly care but why was Meat Loaf holding up a sign saying "Protest" and saying "that's for you Alan"

I mean, sure we all object to Titchmarsh hosting a show ostensibly about opera, but isn't that the pot calling the kettle black?

[If you want to know, see here.]

And that concludes where's Runnicles' live tweeting of last week's instalment of #popstartooperastar

Popstar to Opera Star, tweet by tweet, will return next week. In a shocking development, it may actually be live! The whisky will likely be this rather nice twenty-one year old Islay malt that I received this weekend as a delayed christmas present.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Am I HIP enough for Gardiner? - Beethoven 1 & 9 from the LSO

John Eliot Gardiner is one of the foremost exponents of Historically Informed Performance, and what this means when he works with the London Symphony Orchestra was something flautist Gareth Davies discussed recently in this very fine blog post, one that made me think of a number of things and promise a response that I still haven't written. This isn't that response, though it has some things in common.

One of the reasons I was curious to hear this concert is that Beethoven is something that Gardiner and the LSO have in common for me: namely my two favourite recordings of the fourth symphony, in turn one of my favourites. Gardiner's, with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, overflows with energy and excitement, and has no shortage of drama (the way he builds the tension in the opening is glorious). Haitink's, slightly lower octane but beautifully played reading, coupled with a glorious eighth is, for me, the highlight of his cycle with the LSO and one of my most treasured Beethoven discs. I'd love to hear what they'd do with the fourth, but it wasn't on the programme.

Instead they put Beethoven's first and last symphonies together, which is inherently interesting since it highlights nicely how far Beethoven travelled. Mackerras did something similar in his legendary 2006 Edinburgh festival cycle (they weren't in the same programe, since each symphony was in a concert by itself, but they followed each other in the last two).

Certainly, Gardiner gets a very different sound from the LSO than one might normally expect: gone is the vibrato, in with the calf skin timpani and hard sticks; phrasing is very clipped and he hits the accents with an almighty punch. The brass sound nicely brash in a way that I think always works well for Beethoven (something Mackerras achieves with the SCO by using natural trumpets - Gardiner hasn't gone that far with the LSO). And they played very well too, the strings in particular had a nice sound. The first symphony, which had the first half to itself, was very neat and tidy and it felt that everything was where it should be. Which, for me, was just the problem. I wanted more than that. I wanted more drama, more excitement, more passion.

Now, with works you know backwards, as I know the first, it's hard to find that danger and that unknown, yet somehow Mackerras does that, even with recordings I know well, he still surprises me. Somehow he finds the little details to bring out that you don't expect. Gardiner didn't. Mackerras often seems to get a lot of his excitement by knowing just how much to hold a pause, but last night there didn't seem to be any. The Mackeras comparison interests me because Mackerras is pretty HIP and yet I love what he does; but for him it never seems to be the ultimate goal, more a tool in delivering a performance (but I'm getting into my other post here). At other times, I found myself wishing Gardiner would give the music a little more room to breath. Were there, perhaps, lovely moments we were dashing past? But that probably wouldn't be HIP. It wasn't that it was bad, not by any means, and plenty of people loved it, it just wasn't quite to my taste.

The ninth that followed the interval was, at its best, much more successful, yet in its way even odder. There was a good degree of excitement, with Gardiner at times making the score feel very fresh indeed: there were plenty of moments where he surprised me in that opening allegro. The frenzied climaxes of the first and second movements were thrilling and left both a dry mouth and the taste of adrenalin that are side effects of good Beethoven playing; the breakneck pace of the second movement also helped. But other moments were frustrating: a fantastic climax would, almost immediately, bubble away into nothing, like all the air had been let out of the balloon. He didn't seem to hold the tension. If the pace had helped in the early movements, it hurt in the third. Now, of course, if you take a Furtwanglerian or Bernsteinian view (ultimately a Wagnerian one, I suppose) you are essentially flouting Beethoven's wishes to at least some degree, depending on how far you go. And yet, some way down that path there is the most staggering beauty, and you don't have to go to the absolute extreme to get it. Unfortunately, at the pace Gardiner took it, it was, well, a little banal. The two cutting chords towards the end of the movement, possibly my favourite moment in the symphony, were more or less lost.

The finale was again more successful in the manner of the opening movements, but here a fresh oddity was introduced: the LSO Chorus were absent. In their place Gardiner had brought his own Monteverdi Choir. Now, they're a very good choir indeed, but they're quite small. That's fine when they're with Gardiner's period ensembles such as the English Baroque Soloists and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, but paired with the LSO, even if it wasn't at its full strength, they were just too few. Gareth, in the blog post I mentioned earlier, maintains they sound like over two hundred; I can assure him that in the balcony they didn't, not close. When the orchestra was quiet these beautiful voices could be heard, when it was loud you could either hear them straining, and thus sounding less good than they ideally would, or barely at all. As a result it didn't have the force it should have. The soloists (Rebecca Evans, Wilke te Brummelstroete, Steve Davislim and Vuyani Mlinde, the latter especially) all sang well and, having heard it done twice in concert, I quite like sticking the soloists in amongst the orchestra like that; it didn't seem to matter that they were off to one side, doubtless a limitation imposed by the Barbican stage not being as roomy as some.

So, mixed then. If you're a fan of historically informed performance, you might well have loved it, as most present seemed to. I'm much more conflicted on the whole issue, having heard lots of historically informed things that I've loved and lots that I've felt haven't worked. However, this, for me, wasn't wholly successful. All that said, though, if there was a Gardiner/LSO Beethoven concert tomorrow I'd probably still go, because even when it didn't work for me it was still fascinating (in point of fact, there is another on Tuesday, but I'll be back in Edinburgh by then).

I should also report that tonight was something of an experiment. Normally I sit in the circle, but I was trying out the balcony as my brother had suggested the sound was superior. Of course, when the LSO were playing in a slightly different mode than normal probably wasn't the best time to try and find out. Certainly it was different - things seemed less dry but also a little dead. In some ways there seemed to be more clarity, but I don't think I got a good balance between winds and strings, such that when at the end Gareth Davies, principal flautist, was the first person brought to his feet, I couldn't understand why. Not, you understand, because there was anything wrong with his playing, he's excellent and there wasn't, just that I hadn't particularly noticed any flute solos, or they hadn't carried back to the gods (N.B. I think it was Gareth, I couldn't be 100% certain from where I was and the programme listed both principals, so please someone correct me if I'm wrong). I'm back in the balcony again next month when Adams is conducting which should give me a better comparison on the relative acoustics.

The whole question of how HIP things can and should be still weighs on me, and I haven't really addressed it in this review as fully as I'd like to. I plan to write a follow-up post on the subject but perhaps I really should have combined the two, it would probably have been a better review for it.

One small footnote on the choir, which puzzles me greatly. I was told a story recently about Gardiner doing something at the Edinburgh festival a few years back with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. Apparently he put their backs up so completely that the message went to the festival management that they wouldn't work with him again. Of course, working with amateurs is tricky in that they are there for fun and love not money (I know to some extent the same is true of our poorly paid musicians, but there is a difference) and so conductors who are too bossy or abrupt tend to go down very badly, though that doesn't necessarily mean a bad performance (but that's a subject for other post). I'm not suggesting there has been such a bust up between Gardiner and the LSO chorus in the past, but possibly such experiences have led Gardiner to insist on his own choir so that he can be sure of more easily getting exactly what he wants, even when it isn't entirely appropriate.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

TV review - I Believe In...

I Believe In... BBC Three, three episodes featuring Joe Swash, Danny Dyer and Jodie Kidd, series producer Jacqui Wilson, available on BBC iplayer.

"Is believing in something that most people find ridiculous really that stupid?" asks Danny Dyer, at the start of an hour of breathtaking inanity. After watching this short series of three celebrity poppycockumentaries, you can’t help but answer this question with a definitive and resounding ‘Yes’, before going on to question why the BBC actively sought the three most irritating and ineloquent personalities to front them.

So: Joe Swash believes in ghosts, Danny Dyer believes in UFOs and Jodie Kidd believes in miracles; they are given an hour each, not to discuss why they believe, to engage with the evidence for and against their beliefs or to look into the history of the subject, but instead to travel around meeting a somewhat random selection of other believers, remaining gormless throughout.

Let’s ignore the fact that their beliefs are transparently moronic and that the token skeptics are underused and selectively quoted; this is to be expected. What is unforgiveable is how weakly structured these investigations are. Each programme starts with the fool of the week saying something along the lines of “I know there are a load of cynics, and I’m not a hardcore believer, but I just have a gut feeling that there’s something bigger out there.” Then, after a tedious hour, they look into the lens and say, “At the end of the day, I know there are a load of cynics, and I’m not a hardcore believer, but I just have a gut feeling that there’s something bigger out there.” Swash, Dyer and Kidd learn precisely nothing, haven’t the intellectual curiosity to ask any searching questions, and they never encounter anything convincing or even quirkily interesting. Ghost-believer Joe Swash, for example, tries to spend a night alone in an Edinburgh cave, and runs out not because he sees a ghost, but because he thinks he might be about to meet a ghost. Thrilling TV.

Jodie Kidd: I Believe in Miraclesis probably the worst of the bunch, partly because it doesn’t even discuss miracles for the most part. Instead it turns out be about various con artists (faith healers, crystal therapists, shamans) who offer remedies aimed at promoting a vaguely defined new age sense of wellness. It should have been called Jodie Kidd: I Believe People Who Are in Some Way Ill Sometimes Get Better After a Reasonable Period of Time Has Elapsed. There’s one woman who claims to have experienced a sudden remission from terminal cancer, but the other purported miracles are staggeringly unimpressive.

The very end of the show, for example, includes an autistic boy whose parents think that some time spent riding horses might have a positive effect on his condition. And sure enough, the boy enjoys it, it helps him relax, and opens him up to a new experience; it’s unquestionably therapeutic. But it really doesn’t qualify as a miracle. A miracle is someone walking on water, or coming back from the dead or being respected after doing Celebrity Big Brother. Or Jodie Kidd speaking for thirty seconds without you wanting to punch her in the face.

She really doesn’t come across well in her programme. There’s a hilarious episode in which a Nepalese shaman predicts (by performing an elaborate ritual based on breaking open uncooked eggs and interpreting the contents) that she is about to get ill. Kidd then falls ill with Salmonella – you know, that one famously caused by handling or eating infected raw eggs. Blissfully unaware, she genuinely believes the shaman’s foresight to be miraculous. It’s that level of stupid we’re dealing with here. And it might just be my imagination, but there are times I swear you can hear the production team snigger from behind the camera.

VERDICT: Awful. I firmly believe that the I Believe In... series is part of a nefarious government scheme to so anesthetise us with bad TV that we’ll be too depressed to go out of the house and vote come the next election. The cynics will say there’s no scientific evidence for that claim, but I know it’s true.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Vanska and the LPO finish their Sibelius cycle in style

I've only heard Osmo Vanska live once before, that too was for an all Sibelius programme where he provided the highlight of the BBC SSO's 2006 cycle with blinding readings of the third symphony and Kullervo (which was sadly absent from the London Philharmonic's cycle).

We seem to get precious little Sibelius north of the border so these concerts were sorely tempting, but in the end only one concert was a realistic prospect. Fortunately that one contained the sixth and seventh, two of my absolute favourites (along with, in no particular order, three, one, four, two and five).

They began, however, with Tapiola. Composed some years after the last two symphonies it seemed a slightly odd choice. I must confess the work has never completely grabbed me in the way his symphonies do. I found it a little disjointed and while the orchestra played well enough, it didn't seem as vividly textured as the best Sibelius can: the string motifs evocative of icy winds felt neither quite icy or windy enough. It was not without its moments, but it didn't sweep me away.

It was followed by a pair of oddities Cantique and Devotion: Two Serious Melodies for Cello and Orchestra. These were rather nice, and Sibelius at his sunniest rather than the wintery feel that is more common. Kristina Blaumane was a rich and warm soloist. Yet, enjoyable though they were, one could see why they're not a regular feature in the concert hall.

The best by far was yet to come. The sixth symphony is achingly beautiful and Vanska judged the opening well. Everything felt sharper - the tones of the orchestra richer and move vivid. He gave the music a wonderful flow. The third movement was almost overflowing with joy. There was some fine playing from the orchestra, especially some of the rich cello chords in the finale. Yes, the sixth is my favourite. It has a beauty that at times brings the listener close to tears, though not because it's sad. True, Vanska didn't equal Barbirolli in this regard, but he got more than close enough.

They closed with the seventh, the first Sibelius symphony I ever heard (in a performance by Oramo and the CBSO in Basingstoke). Bad performances of it suffer terribly from what I like to call Mahler Nine Syndrome, namely the tendency both works have to sound like a disconnected series of miniatures when played badly (it's named after the Mahler because that's where I first heard it). There was not a trace in Vanska's reading, which flowed seamlessly from one section to the next. Indeed, as with all good performances, I was left wondering how Mahler Nine Syndrome can ever occur in the first place. Along the way Vanska found some wonderful details, an early section with the violas stuck out particularly. Then came perhaps my favourite moment: the wonderful trombone theme, but then I'm a trombone player, albeit a very bad one. He judged the balance well, with the theme carrying clearly over the orchestra and yet without being overly prominent. If anything, the orchestra seemed on even better form than for the sixth. I don't like 'top this' lists and 'greatest thats', but if you told me I could only keep one symphony in my collection, the seventh would surely be near the top of the shortlist. Within those twenty-two odd minutes Sibelius somehow manages to say everything that needs to be said. As the trombones make their return, with what I like to call the journey's end motif, I feel like I've been on an epic voyage; Vanska was no exception and he had showed plenty of wonders along the way. Actually, there's no question, the seventh is my favourite.

Okay, the truth is my favourite is probably whichever one I've just heard last. They're glorious works and well done to the LPO for celebrating them with one of the top Sibelius conductors.

It was well received, but the encore, Valse Triste, was a mistake. After the seventh nothing more needs to be said, and though they played it nicely, and Vanska clearly had fun, particularly with a pause at the end, the evening would in some ways have been finer without it: those weren't the bars I wanted ringing in my head as I left. True, it was not as if he'd followed Mahler's resurrection with an encore, and hence he doesn't get our inappropriate encore away.

Still, I do need to dole out an award. Etiquette for encores is tricky. If you decide to make your exit before the applause has ceased, you run an inverse musical chairs. Should the music start up again you have only one decent choice: freeze and, if you are lucky, sink into a vacant seat nearby. If you're very close to a door you can nip out the rest of the way, ditto if you have a exceedingly quiet step. Why do I mention this, you may well ask? Well, a gentleman, no, sorry, that's a serious abuse of the word. A person in the audience chose a third way: from three quarters of the way up the second aisle of the balcony, he clomped down the stairs and out of the hall, treading with what was clearly deliberate force, with a furious expression on his face as if to demand how very dare Vanska interrupt his exit with some music. It was staggeringly rude to players and audience alike. I mean, I might have preferred not to have an encore, but I have some manners. Of course, this presents a slight snag as far as our awards are concerned, since they are always eponymous, but we can rise to the occasion:

The Anonymous/[insert name here] Award for Staggeringly Rude and Unbelievably Obnoxious Behaviour by an Audience Member

If the person in question is reading this, and would like to claim his award, or apologise, the comments are below. However, it was not sufficient to detract from the superb music. Now, if only we could get a little more Sibelius north of the border.....

Friday, 5 February 2010

A Master Class with Donald Runnicles - A guest post by James Lowe

The question I most often get asked in pubs (apart, of course, from “Don’t you think that’s enough of that now?”), is what does a conductor actually DO? Isn’t it just a matter of standing at the front and waving your hands about whilst the musicians play in spite of you? My usual answer (when I haven’t had the forethought to tell them I do something more appealing for a living, such as working for the tax office or designing city-centre one-way systems), is obviously, yes. That is pretty much what we do...

This came up recently on the BBC Scottish Symphony Blog in an excellent post on the subject by cellist Anthony Sayer. He points out that conductors tend to get a bit defensive and edgy when they have to explain themselves. Gordon Bruce, a friend of mine who plays double bass in the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, told me his stock pub answer is to compare the conductor to a football manager. If you watch a match and try and figure out what Alex Ferguson is doing, he just seems to be turning red and generally getting worked up, never actually kicking the ball. His work has been done before in training, just as the conductor’s has been in rehearsal. It’s a neat analogy, but I think only tells half the truth.

I think the reality is that all great conductors somehow carry a sound of their own. The timpanist and composer Werner Thärichen tells a wonderful story of his time in the Berlin Philharmonic. Some average conductor or another was on the podium and they were in a “business-as-usual” rehearsal. Thärichen was busy reading his score during a stretch of rests when out of nowhere the orchestra’s sound changed into something much more special and beautiful than before. He looked to the podium and saw nothing new there, but then followed his colleagues eyes to the door. Furtwängler had just entered and was standing at the back listening.

It was his presence alone that had created this incredibly beautiful sound... [Furtwängler] carries the sound so strongly within himself that he brings out the sound in others… the most beautiful thing that an orchestra can experience is when this person is totally open, and you are invited to join him…. that’s when you make this kind of music.

Bernard Haitink, the revered elder statesman of conductors, has this quality in spades. He only has to raise his hands and somehow the Haitink sound - clear and balanced yet somehow warm - emerges immediately. Haitink is rare in being pretty much universally loved by the orchestras with whom he works. He also says very little in rehearsal (which helps), working instead by gesture and eye contact with the players and keeping anything he says short and deceptively simple. This is another great lesson for conductors. Our art (if I may grandly call it that) is a physical one. Players will happily listen to your hands, but hate it when you painfully explain the quality of sound you want. Neeme Järvi, the possessor of possibly the finest manual conducting technique around, goes further in stating that if a conductor can’t create a sound with their hands, they are not a conductor.

What is certain from the magnificent Bruckner Eighth I heard the BBCSSO give recently is that Donald Runnicles is certainly a conductor with a sound. With his baton in his left hand he coaxed textures from the orchestra that seemed to hang in mid-air. The high-points of the music shattering yet balanced. How exactly he achieves all this was the subject of his master class with students from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. The participants Duk-Kyung Chang, Alejandro De Palma Garrido, Hamdan Al Shuelly and Jessica Cottis conducted Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture and Elgar’s First Symphony, a work which in my humble opinion is a masterpiece, the slow movement alone being worth the price of your ticket.

Runnicles has real presence, but is very softly spoken. He refrained from demonstrating and was supportive but direct with the students. His main thrust was about contact with the players, asking again and again for the student not to conduct a universal play-with-me, but rather to “seek people out”. Not just the melody is important for him, but rather they should be constantly looking for something interesting ticking away under the hood of the engine. Two pearls were seemingly quite obvious: always tell the story of the music, and phrase it just as you would sing it. But like all the best crystallizations of knowledge, these things run far deeper than they appear to on the surface.

Technical tricks, such as holding the baton at the balance point to allow it to float seamlessly through a quiet passage, were balanced with some pretty good practical advice, such as when a student couldn’t quite get a subito pianissimo (suddenly quiet) moment: “Like when riding a horse you need to think the next jump well ahead.”

He also spoke a lot about what I would call being centred. This is a deceptively tricky thing to achieve. After all, we can all stand still at a bus stop without waving around like a reed in a storm, and yet put most young conductors in front of an orchestra and all of a sudden we seem to have flamingos' knees and the elbow joints of an octopus. Runnicles advised that we all need to find our central “Zen” place and that like an oak “the trunk never moves”. He advised them to imagine a wall behind their head with which they shouldn’t break contact.

He also passed on a superb story told to him by the orchestra at Bayreuth. The great Hans Knappertsbusch was conducting Götterdämmerung, Wagner’s epic summation of the Ring cycle. He sat for the entire performance until the climax of the Funeral Music when he slowly stood up. The effect was electrifying and the orchestra nearly fetched the plaster off the roof and the paint from the walls.

The impression Runnicles gives is one of a conductor who has arrived at a great simplicity through years of mastering the complex. Runnicles has taken the long way around to reach the top of his profession. He was not shot to the top at a young age, but rather has worked up from repetiteur (rehearsal pianist) in the German opera houses perfecting his craft all the way. This simplicity-through-mastery reminds me of when I was in Den Haag and went to visit the Mauritshuis gallery, which numbers amongst its treasures Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring. It’s such a familiar work, but one I’d never seen in the flesh before. The guide told me to get close up and peer deeply at the pearl. It is made with barely more than two strokes of the brush. A single twist of white paint and a small dab to pick out a reflection. In that twist-and-dab Vermeer captures a whole and perfect iridescence that seems to stand out from the canvas into reality. Simplicity arrived at though mastery.

Runnicles touched on a difficult subject, pointing out that for years all orchestral musicians have trained to be the best they possibly can, reaching a professional level that is simply staggering. Yet in an orchestra they have to subsume their musical desires to the whole, or worse still, to the conductor. Players always say that the best conductors are the ones who “don’t get in the way”, which can give a false impression of someone who they can easily ignore. I think that in actual fact the greatest conductors give room for all the musicians to play with their feelings and instincts, yet knit everything together into a single unity. Being the central point for chamber music, rather than a central dictator. When these stars are aligned, an orchestra takes flight.

It seems to me that within all of this is the essence of conducting. Now this is not, perhaps, the most simple explanation, but then again it’s not a simple matter. Perhaps I should print this off and take it with me to the pub so I can slip a copy to the next person who asks, “so what is it you actually DO.....?”

© 2010 James Lowe.

James Lowe is Artistic Director of both the Hallé Harmony Youth Orchestra and the New Bristol Sinfonia and has previously been of Associate Conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. He made his Scottish Chamber Orchestra debut in 2008, standing in impressively at the last minute. He is currently the only person to have receive two different Where's Runnicles awards.

Berlioz's L'enfance du Christ - Ticciati and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra

In the advance publicity, Karen Cargill, the superb mezzo who is featuring so heavily in the current SCO season, was front and centre. After the concert it's a little tricky to see why. That's not to say that she didn't sing beautifully, she absolutely did, but so too did Matthew Rose, Yann Beuron and Ronan Collett, not to mention the chorus, on fabulous form, and the exemplary playing of the orchestra; it's not as though Mary is a show stealing part.

Anyone who knew only the Symphonie Fantastique and was expecting a big orchestra and lots of razzamatazz would have been surprised. L'enfance du Christ may lack the out and out fireworks of pieces like The Damnation of Faust or Romeo and Juliet, or the epic forces of the Requiem, but it has something else very special indeed: it is one and a half hours of sublime beauty. That's not to say it isn't without some flashes of fire, such as during the march that follows the prologue or some of Herod's scenes, but they are few and far between and not the overriding impression the work leaves you with.

I never think French is the easiest language to sing in, and when done badly (Abbado's DG recording of Don Calros, I'm looking at you) it grates like nails on a blackboard. No such problems were present last night. Doubtless Yann Beuron, who sang the narrator, had the advantage of being Francophone by birth, but he was by no means head and shoulders above the rest. Cargill sang as clearly and beautifully as we have come to expect and was nicely complemented by Ronan Collett's Joseph. But for me the outstanding vocal performance of the evening was Matthew Rose's reading of both Herod and the Ishmaelite Father, the former especially chilling.

The chorus, under their recently appointed new master Gregory Batsleer, were on scintillating form (Batsleer, even younger than Ticciati, gets rave reviews from those I know in the chorus, and on the strength of last night seems a shrewd hire). Ticciati showed a Runnicles-esque flair in his placement of them, with the women spending the first part at the very top right of the organ gallery, giving their portrayal of the angels quite literally an added lift.

Throughout Ticciati balanced his forces to perfection. The orchestration was fairly light, more so when the brass and chamber organ left the stage after the first part. Often it felt like it had been written for string ensemble alone, from which he drew such beautiful sounds. The other orchestral stars were the flutes, especially Alison Mitchell, in their sublime trio with the harp, played to perfection. I've said it before, but one thing that really impresses me about Ticciati is his understanding of how less is often more, volume wise, and how, instead of deafening the audience, he brings out wonderful details in the score.

Ticciati had wisely chosen to play through without sapping the drama with an interval. Similarly, he allowed the work to sit in the programme alone. It was a magical hour and a half that required no accompaniment.

The only minor niggles were entirely beyond the control of the artists. The Usher Hall were doing their normal bang up incompetent job (no, I don't mean the fact that the temporary seat number signs are still wrong, nor the fact that the new hand rails clash with the existing safety rails): the house lights were dimmed such that it was very hard to read the text and it took until midway through scene four before they thought to turn them up a bit. I wouldn't mind, but this is a repeated problem at the Usher Hall. Listen Karl Chapman (general manager), it's not rocket science: if there's a sung text that isn't in English, we need the house lights on a bit. That and the fidgety woman next to me who seemed to think all Berlioz's orchestration wanted was an annoying jangling arm bracelet which hopefully won't trouble the Radio 3 broadcast you should all tune into in a month's time. Those in Glasgow and Aberdeen should try and catch the repeat performances.

Can't wait or make those? Well, Cargill, Rose and Beuron can all be heard on Colin Davis's rather fine LSO Live recording.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

The extraordinary District 9, or Sharlto Copley was robbed

Every year at Oscar nomination time I usually discover at least one performance or film which has been disgracefully overlooked. This year is no exception. Where's Runnicles has to ask, how could Sharlto Copley (District 9) have been overlooked in the Best Actor category?


Last night Mr P came round for dinner, bringing with him the District 9 DVD. I was initially sceptical. I had a vague recollection of seeing a trailer many months ago which looked very bloody and violent and not my cup of tea at all. How wrong can you be....yes there is considerable violence in this film (some of it pretty horrifying) but all of it is essential to the story, and that story is compelling and very dark.

The film begins as a documentary detailing the arrival of a huge alien ship above Johannesburg twenty years before. We follow in snapshots the adaptation of the aliens to a district in the city which gradually becomes a slum walled off from the rest of the city. We see the rising distrust, disgust and ultimately hatred of the humans towards these arrivals, a developing feeling given added point by the South African setting and the film's careful mingling of white and black faces. This backstory is interspersed with 'footage' of Multi-National United workers as they prepare for a huge relocation operation – moving the aliens out of the city to a new purpose built camp (for which read concentration camp).

From the very beginning the film plays with the viewer's expectation. Utilising the documentary format to begin with builds up the sense of tension and unease. It is clear that something is going to go badly wrong but when it does it was certainly not what I had anticipated. Design is also key here, the aliens are distinctly unappealing in behaviour and appearance, which makes the evolution in relations, and the viewer's reactions to them, during the film the more striking. The special effects work should also be singled out. I don't know whether producer Peter Jackson offered director Neill Blomkamp any advice on the basis of his Lord of the Rings experience but the achievement has its parallels – the aliens are completely integrated into the environment – that is I never doubted for one moment that these races were interacting with each other – it was wholly, often terrifyingly, real.

However, at the centre of the film, is the already mentioned extraordinary performance of Sharlto Copley. Copley plays Wikus van der Merwe, the junior employee appointed by MNU bosses to manage the eviction of the aliens. The brilliance of Copley's performance lies in the layering: again and again as the film goes on another layer is stripped away – the character's evolution from junior bureaucrat with a Napoleon complex to tragic victim is utterly compelling even when the bloodiness was forcing me to hide my eyes. It is remarkable that this should be his first major film role.

It is not really possible to write much more without giving away the plot, and this is to my mind undoubtedly a film which it is better to come to cold. Suffice it to say this is a film asking important questions at every turn, about the limitations of our humanity, about how we treat the other among us, about how far we are willing to go in pursuit of what we imagine are our interests and what we are prepared to sacrifice to that end. Many of the answers suggested are profoundly unsettling. Yet there remains hope – not a sugary fantastical hope, but something hard won, fragile and very moving. In short, see this film.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The third instalment of our infamous, absurdly time-delayed, tweet by tweet, coverage of Pop Star to Opera Star

There was no live tweeting on Friday (I had been at a colleague's leaving do, and returned a little too merry). Then, over the weekend, between a trip to War and Peace and some DIY not going entirely according to plan, I didn't feel at all in the mood.

However, Monday evening found me full of mushroom risotto and armed with a nice glass of wine. Bed beckoned, but somehow the prospect of being rude about terrible TV was more appealing.

So, here it is, tweet by tweet (albeit absurdly time delayed), as @wheresrunnicles saw it.

Warning, as with previous instalments, the following may contain traces of irony:

I should be going to bed now, instead I am commencing my much delayed live-ish tweeting of Friday's #popstarstooperastars

Tonight's whisky is, in fact, not whisky but instead a rather nice glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc

Jimmy is to sing a proper aria - that's a novelty. I wonder where they got the idea to do that

Good grief - who is that with the Marge Simpson tribute hair??!!!

Is Ronaldo Villazon now taking the same medication as Meat Loaf?

I'd say this lady singing Carmen has a slightly thin voice but that would be an understatement

I'm sure everyone said it on Friday, but how the [multiple expletives deleted] can a part possibly belong to someone who's never sung it!!!

Steady on Meat Loaf - there may be children watching (though for the sake of them ever developing a taste for opera I sincerely hope not)

"left him relying on the public to save him" hang on, don't they all?

side note, there's been nary a mention of the show at work (& normally my colleagues don't miss a chance to gas about talent shows)

which is my roundabout way of suggesting I don't think either that ratings can be very good, or this is likely to bring in new audiences

Alan thinks he's just been to the opera does he? Clearly he's never actually been then!

now judging them as opera stars are they - they don't resemble opera stars to my obviously inept ears

She's going to try the Queen of the Night aria - this should be funny

Because, of course, the Queen of the Night only has the one aria.......

Actually, in fairness, she didn't disgrace herself (though it was in the wrong key)

Listen Meat Loaf, pal, don't quote Shakespeare unless you can get it right: he did not say "call out the dogs of war"

Oh my God, they've got Russell Watson to help this guy (I feel rather sorry for him)

[Whichever pop star it was, not Russell Watson.]

Apologies for the delay there - I had to pause as twitter wasn't letting me update my status!

[The beauty of this summary is that, hopefully, there is no apparent delay. Of course, that does mean the last tweet makes precious little sense.]

Hmm - I just can't place what opera this 'Time to Say Goodbye' thing comes from....

Again I'm impressed with their ability to flummox me with obscure repertoire

@mlaffs I clearly have so much to learn from this show!

[@mlaffs had enlightened me to the fact that the Queen of the Night aria is the only thing Mozart ever wrote.]

Grenada - good lord, it's all go tonight, I've no idea which opera this comes from either.

But according to wikipedia that well known opera singer Frank Sinatra sang it, so it must be just another shocking gap in my knowledge

[And here's the wikipedia link if you're remotely curious.]

Darius had the chance to be classically trained, passed it up, but he's apparently making up for it now

Really? Perhaps my classically trained friends can correct me, but I doubt they went through anything much like this

Hmm a 50yr old singing Cherubino. Are they going for the Ian Bostridge/Captain Vere miscasting award?

Well, she tried very hard, and did creditably well, bless her, but it just didn't work

Hey, how come she doesn't get feedback from the judges? That surely isn't fair

Ah sorry, I spoke too soon there (the perils of live tweeting). Well, I say live.....

Wow, Ronaldo Villazon's career finally reaches the dizzy heights of singing amplified on TV - those years in opera houses weren't wasted!

Wow - they didn't bring it down to a tie-break this week. The panel was unanimous but I didn't think there was much to choose

Danielle de Niese is on next week. No, say it ain't so, surely she's better than that! :(

And that concludes tonight's massively time delayed live tweeting of Friday's #popstartooperastar

Don't worry, though, where's Runnicles will return to live tweet next week's [insert appropriate adjective here] instalment. It will not be live, of course (maybe one day, perhaps), instead I'll be at a proper concert, in London no less; but, via the magic of the internet, or by some other means, whisky, or equivalent alcoholic beverage, in hand, there will be tweets. Hopefully you'll not have to wait four days for them. Until then, I hope you had as much fun reading this as I did writing it.

Monday, 1 February 2010

The RSAMD presents War and Peace

If you're a War and Peace buff, Saturday night's performance, or the preceding ones in both Edinburgh and Glasgow, represent a particularly exciting prospect, since they present the premiere of Dr Rita McAllister's reconstruction of Prokofiev's original version.

I'm not a War and Peace buff, however, having never heard it before, save for a few radio broadcasts. I am, though, a great fan of live opera and there is precious little of that in Scotland, and what Scottish Opera does programme is often not that interesting, such that the RSAMD's annual production is very much welcome.

It's an impressively ambitious piece for any institution to take, requiring a cast of hundreds. In a sensible move, it is a collaboration with the Rostov State Rachmaninov Conservatoire, which provides a fair few of the key singers. Partly as a result, vocally the standards were high and everyone seemed comfortable in Russian. Michel de Souza was impressive as Prince Bolkonsky, so too Dmitry Ivanchey as Pierre. Elsewhere Maria Kozlova's Natasha was solid if unmoving. Acting was similarly decent and Rebecca Afonwy-Jones more or less stole the show for me when, as Maria Akhrosimova, she bossed Pierre around.

Sadly there are inevitable drawbacks to having such a uniformly young cast. For the most part their performances were sufficiently fine to mask such concerns but Aram Ohanian lacked, both in voice and physical presence, the feel needed for the aged Kutuzov - while I'm not his greatest fan at this stage of his career, this is the sort of role that cries out for the likes of John Tomlinson.

In the pit, Timothy Dean (the RSAMD's head of opera) led Scottish Opera's orchestra, augmented by academy students. The results were impressive: fine playing and sufficient drama. He was, too, a good judge of balance, ensuring his soloists were audible in a big house. And yet, it was good solid work without ever quite moving into greatness.

Given the epic scope of the narrative, director Irina Brown and designer Chloe Lamford have therefore done well in conceiving a production that is in many ways economical without appearing overtly so. The basic set, a vast pillared facade, set about two thirds of the way back on the stage, remains in place throughout, instead being modified by the opening and closing of sliding panels, lighting, and the addition of props, to double pretty effective as both Moscow drawing rooms and battlefields. It always manages to look suitably impressive.

However, it isn't always completely successful. Especially in the earlier scenes, the panels are rather over-used and slide about a little too much. Similarly, some of the scene changes are a little over-acted and seem played for silliness, particularly the case with the maid on the change into scene six.

More puzzling, there seemed to be an insistence in the first half that the cast always stand fully facing the audience. This doubtless helped ensure voices carried, and yet it led to blocking that, at times, felt oddly awkward.

When the setting moved to the war of the second half there were other minor irritations. The pyrotechnics promised by the warning posters escaped my notice if they were present at all. Were they missing from the repeated executions? Certainly they felt disappointingly underwhelming when simply mimed. As a result, there was not quite the spectacle that it felt there should be.

Elsewhere, one or two chorus members needed to bear in mind that while the sandbags they were lifting might not have been filled with actual sand, they ought to act as though they were, rather than, as sometimes happened, tossing them about like pillows. Similarly, having spent scene seven preparing an elaborate and visually impressive defensive position, trenches and all, it was a pity that when they finally took to it, while it looked quite exciting, it also looked for all the world like it had be designed by a general some way beyond incompetence.

There was, too, an unfortunate moment when the surtitle operator appeared to lean on the button and skipped through several pages of text. Fortunately Andrew Huth recovered his place with impressive speed.

Such niggles are, of course, minor. It was, overall, impressively done and very fine to hear and to look at. Certainly it's nice to see a straight laced production, free of the directorial silliness and excess which seems so fashionable these days. This was the kind of production that those both new and old to the opera house alike would have no trouble enjoying. The RSAMD and Rostov Conservatoire can be justly proud of what they've accomplished.

What is less clear is why the opera never won the favour of the authorities. It seems suitably stirringly patriotic. Apparently, this first version is the least over the top in that regard, with many more layers added subsequently. It's many years since I read the book, so I can't remember how much Pierre praises how great the peasants are or whether the triumph of the people motif is so strong. Similarly, I can't comment on the relative merits of this edition against those more normally performed. It's true, though, that it does feel rushed in places, adapting such a vast work how could it not? Yet at times this is unfortunate - Natasha's taking arsenic should not really provoke a titter of laughter. Perhaps this flaw was addressed in later versions, or was simply down to misconceived delivery of the line.

It leaves me wanting to get better acquainted with the work - it would be interesting to hear what Gergiev would do with it. It was nice to be back in the Festival Theatre again for some opera, though their front of house staff are clearly desperate not to be outdone by the Royal Opera House in snubbing the plebs: one bar was sealed off for a reception, fair enough, but did that make it essential to close down half the staircases while we were trying to get out? I'm surprised we weren't required leave by the tradesmen's entrance!