Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Spaghetti Western Orchestra, or, excuse me while I massacre this innocent cabbage

I think I better begin this review with a confession.  Despite the fact that I spend my life teaching and researching the United States of America, I don't think I have ever actually watched one of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns.  Other westerns yes (Rio Bravo being one of my favourites) but not one of his.  I mention this because I suspect this show has an awful lot of in jokes in it that I wasn't completely getting (judging by the hysterics of the gentleman on my right).

The Spaghetti Western Orchestra show is frankly pretty nearly indescribable.  Nevertheless, in the interests of you, our loyal readers, I shall attempt it.  If you think of something which is a cross between an episode of The Goon Show, the Frasier episode where he recreates an old-style radio drama and the Edinburgh Fringe show where the Australian band Blue Grassy Knoll played live accompaniments for Buster Keaton movies, you may approach somewhere close to this madness.

Orchestra in this case denotes five multi-tasking performers on, according to the publicity (and I think it is pretty fair), about 100 instruments ranging from the obvious (for a western) trumpet and drums, to the slightly more unusual bassoon (a lovely reminder of what a gorgeous instrument it is), to the frankly downright bizarre (sound of walking manufactured by a boot and a packet of corn flakes).  This is as much a visual as an aural spectacle.

Mitch Benn and the Distractions - for goodness sake go and see them!

The last time I saw Mitch Benn live was the better part of a decade ago.  He was the only memorable one of three comedians booked one evening at the Bristol university bar where I worked.  I went up to him afterwards and made a complete fool of myself by telling him how much I liked his work on the 11 O'Clock Show.  The few of you who actually remember that, most notable for having introduced Ali G to the world and a hilarious sketch (in very poor taste) about Henri Paul, will remember that he had nothing to do with it.  Of course I meant The Now Show, a mainstay of Radio 4's Friday night comedy slot, for which Benn writes two satyrical songs each week.

Mitch Benn - Fri 29 October 2010 -0406

How then, would this back catalogue of songs, which can slip out of date faster than, well, some of the celebrities or news stories they're mocking, fare in the concert hall.  The answer is very well indeed.  In large part this is because much of the set was unfamiliar to me, despite being a pretty avid listener to The Now Show.  They had several things in common: they were funny, often very, very funny, generally fairly timeless and well programmed.  In some ways it was a bit like the difference between the main body of Tom Lehrer's catalogue and the That Was The Year That Was stuff.

Friday, 29 October 2010

ENO revives Miller's La Boheme, or, About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters

This is a production in which a master has been at work.  Towards the conclusion of Act 4, there is a moment when the other friends leave Rudolfo and the dying Mimi alone.  All the text gives a director to work with is Colline's advice to Schaunard that while he is selling his overcoat, his friend should leave the apartment also.  Miller, aided by Isabella Bywater's versatile set has Schaunard close the flat door, walk slowly down the stairs, and then just sit, alone and somehow hopeless at the bottom.  Just that simple choice adds a telling emotional layer to the story.

The whole second half of this show (Acts Three and Four) is an object lessen in management of relations between singers and overall stage pictures.  Telling image follows telling image, like a series of old paintings capturing moment after moment.  The clever placing of Mimi in the alley, overhearing Rudolfo confess to Marcello his conviction that she is dying, the counterpoint of Mimi and Rudolfo leant against the side of one building, barely touching, while the other pair argue across from them.  Miller also understands the value of stillness.  Unlike so many opera directors (but interestingly similar to McVicar's Rigoletto at the Royal Opera) he is not afraid just to have his characters stand or sit there and sing to each other, but, and this is the crucial thing, that stillness develops naturally from the characterisation – it is never lifeless or dull, but compellingly effective.

To execute Miller's masterful design, ENO has assembled their best all round cast so far this season.  Not everybody is perfectly cast but the singing is in the main excellent and there are some real standouts both as actors and singers.  Of the two leads, Gwyn Hughes Jones (Rudolfo) is consistently superb.  He has a ringing, yet also lyrical sound voice, and his diction is pretty much spot on.  I was less convinced by Elizabeth Llewellyn, winner of the inaugural Voice of Black Opera competition in 2009, here making her house debut.  To my ear there is an odd contained quality to the voice that sometimes makes the sound produced a little off-putting, and some phrases sounded a little snatched.  That said there is potential there, she has the stamina for the part, there were some moments of beauty and giving young British singers a chance is one of the things ENO should be doing.  Jones was well matched by Roland Wood's Marcello, especially in their third act scene where they discuss Mimi's condition, but again he had a slightly under par partner in Mairead Buicke's Musetta.  All eyes should really be dazzled by her in the cafe scene, but her presence (both physically and vocally) was not quite commanding enough.  Among the other supporting characters, I particularly want to note George von Bergen's Schaunard.  His characterisation is beautifully judged throughout, diction excellent, tone of voice commanding.  I hope we shall see more of him.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Problems with Ping

Everybody, it seems, must do social networking these days.  Companies seem to think it's obligatory to get in on the action - I could, if I was so inclined, become a fan of my toothpaste on facebook.  Quite why on this earth I would want to is beyond me.  The point, though, is that companies often seem to be doing social networking simply because they think they have to, rather than because they have something to say or there is a demand for them to say it.  I've experienced this with two voluntary organisations I'm involved with and for which I now run the twitter and facebook accounts.  In both cases it came up that this was something we should possibly be doing, though most people had no idea what the point might be.


What does this have to do with Apple's Ping?  Well, having played with it a bit, it very much feels like there was a meeting a Apple where someone said (doubtless because people may have complained there are no social features in iTunes) that they should add social networking.  And that sentiment is right: iTunes is ripe of the addition of such features.  My iTunes music library, which runs to over 137GB, contains thousands of albums, painstakingly ripped so that I can have easy access to the better part of my library when I'm on the move.  How great would it be, with just a few clicks, to share one of my favourite discs, tracks or artists with my twitter or facebook friends, or to blog it.  Big brotherish though it is, it might also be cool if iTunes saw, say, that I have dozens of discs featuring the London Symphony Orchestra, and gave me the option with a single click to follow their updates.

Bells are Ringing, or, A Star Turn takes the Stage in Southwark

London seems to be developing a nice little line in revivials of neglected musicals in small venues, or possibly this has been going on for years and I've only just woken up to it.  On the heels of the magnificent Jermyn Street Theatre revival of Anyone Can Whistle at Easter, comes a revival of Bells are Ringing at the Union Theatre in Southwark.  Apparently, so the lady behind the bar told me, the theatre has been running for thirteen years, but until I came across the details of this show on the web, entirely by accident, I had never even known it existed.  The management may rest assured I shall be keeping a close eye on their programmes from now on.

Bells are Ringing is a 1956 musical with book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (better known to me at any rate as the geniuses behind the same element of Bernstein's neglected gem Wonderful Town) and music by Jule Styne (better known to practically everyone for his collaboration with Sondheim on Gypsy).  Inspired by the real life Mary Printz and her Belles Celebrity Answering Service it tells the story of what happens when Ella Peterson (Anna-Jane Casey) becomes too involved in the life of her client Jeff Moss (Gary Milner).

As regulars will know I place a high value, probably higher than others, on the book of a musical and there are plenty of gems here, not least because of Comden and Green's wealth of playful cultural references.  To give just two there is Sandor's fake record company, rumbled by the delivery boy, who points out that all these customers keep ringing up for Beethoven's Tenth Symphony, and, my particular favourite, Ella's former employees, the Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company.  The songs include several which are now established standards, such as The Party's Over) and the wonderfully playful Is It a Crime? about Casey's problematic moral choices.  This richness, and Casey's mesmeric performance, means that one is drawn past the fact that the minor characters are a bit underwritten in places (it would have been lovely to have had more of Sandor and Sue's disastrous romance) and the whole situation around Ella's falsified identity is just that little bit too easily resolved.  As a character, Ella recalled to me both Ruth Sherwood in Wonderful Town and Flora Metsouaris in that neglected gem Flora, the Red Menace both of which are ultimately that bit more rounded as complete shows.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

How to follow, even top, a star-studded performance of Don Giovanni - Brönnimann and the SCO provide the answer

I'm not sure how Saturday's concert came about, whether it was a genius idea cooked up when thinking about what could possibly follow the previous week's blockbuster season opener, or whether it owed more to a need to fit in with Glasgow's minimalism festival which is happening this weekend.  Most likely it was a combination of the two.  Regardless, Saturday's programme (Friday in Glasgow) was a triumph, what a pity then that the Queen's Hall was so empty, but then with three of the four works by living composers this was, perhaps, to be expected.

There was a strong minimalist flavour running through the evening, though I don't think such a tag quite applies to everything.  The stronger theme was the fact that all three composers hailed from America.  Conductor Baldur Brönnimann, whom I last heard presiding over ENO's musically stunning production of Ligeti's La Grand Macabre, opened the programme with Ives' Three Places in New England.  He started as he meant to go on, providing a tightly controlled reading and drawing some impressive playing from SCO.  The minimalist chords on which the St Gaudens was built were followed by the rambunctious Putnam's Camp, depicting the mind of a child at a picnic, Brönnimann himself leaping around the stage with every bit as much energy and mischievousness.  The piece displays Ives' love of quotations and these were highlighted nicely.  Equally fine was their account of the final place, The Housatonic, a riverside walk with his wife.  Brönnimann for the most part displayed a strong understanding that you do not need to play loudly in the Queen's Hall, all too rare (though a couple of the sustained climaxes were a bit too much).

Ives was followed by John Adams.  The Wound Dresser combined many elements that would be familiar to fans of Adams' work: low, in some ways repetitive and minimalist string chords, an electronic synthesiser blending cleanly with the acoustic elements, and on top of this a superbly chosen and powerfully set text.  The text in question was Walt Whitman's intense and harrowing The Wound-Dresser (or, rather, selections from it), the reminisces of a civil war surgeon.  In the solo part, baritone Christopher Maltman filled the hall with an effortless and chilling power, while beneath him Brönnimann ensured the accompaniment was perfectly judged.  Repeated and mournful trumpet fanfares, beautifully delivered by Peter Franks, only heightened the emotion. The result was emotionally devastating, such as when the surgeon reflects he'd give his life to save one of his patients, or at any number of other points.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Alexander Goehr's Promised End, or in which your correspondent confesses to uncertainty

I set out for the Linbury Theatre this evening with low expectations.  The reviews for English Touring Opera's world premiere production of Alexander Goehr's Promised End had been uniformly dire, and my doubts were increased when close inspection of various interviews with the composer and the cast list on the ROH website revealed that he had excised two of the protagonists whose journeys most engage me (Kent and Albany) from the action.  At the interval I was on the whole indifferent to the piece, though not desperately bored as many critical colleagues clearly were.  By the end I was in a great state of uncertainty about it.

The first, most important, and clearest thing to be said about this work is that it isn't Shakespeare's King Lear.  That is it is absolutely fatal to go to this with some kind of expectation that it will be the play only sung.  But nor is this a hatchet job of the kind frequently perpertrated by modern directors on Shakespeare (and indeed many other dramatic masters).  It would perhaps be most accurate to regard this as Alexander Goehr's King Lear.  That is the piece focuses on those elements of the original which are of most interest to the composer.  This makes for a most odd experience if you know the play well as I do having studied it at A-Level.  It is quite impossible not to be aware of everything that has been omitted and to some degree I think I found my preferred focus in the play at war with Goehr's.  This is frustrating, and when combined with Goehr's unforgiving musical language can wear one down (I was somewhat so by the end of the first half) but boring is really not the right word.

The next thing you have to be prepared for is the stylistic approach.  I wish I knew more about Japanese theatre, and the programme is not especially helpful on this point but there is a stylisation to the acting – the most obvious aspect of which is the box of sand which each performer steps in (at least in the first act) before entering a scene.  At least initially this makes a lot of it feel rather artificial, but as with other aspects of the piece I did feel the effect gained more punch as the opera went on.

Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Dvořák from Urbański, Lill and the RSNO

It was a little odd, perhaps, that for this second in the RSNO's great concerto series, the rather effective decision to place the concerto at the end of the concert, as happened with the Emperor two weeks ago, wasn't repeated.  After all, the concert was marketed as John Lill Plays Tchaikovsky, and certainly the famous first piano concerto will have been the primary drawn for many.  Then again, given the performance it received, this was not as much a handicap as might have been the case.

The evening began, however, with Beethoven's Coriolan overture.  Unfortunately, this proved a damp squib in the hands of young conductor Krzysztof Urbański (more than giving Robin Ticciati a run for his money in the 'how young can the conductor look' stakes despite actually being older, though with the leather jacket clad publicity shot he is perhaps trying for a different image).  His style on the podium was very odd, marked by extremely jagged and angular movements.  He clearly wanted abrupt chords and pauses, but if this was intended to engender suspense and excitement it failed.  Most of all, he needs to learn how to hold a pause to maximum effect, or indeed, any effect other than sucking the life out of the music.  When I tweeted to this effect, someone replied that it was Coriolan, what did I expect?  Not a bit of it: in my view, this is a thrilling piece, or can be.  This is a ludicrously unfair comparison, but Furtwangler, knew how to hold a pause to the point where you are on the edge of your seat with tension before crashing in with such force as to knock you right out of it.  It wasn't just about pauses though, the whole thing felt dull and lifeless.  More fair would be to note that even a then 24 year old Daniel Harding was capable of delivering an account fizzing excitement.

Urbański seemed much more fluid and at ease in Tchaikovsky's famous and rather overplayed first piano concerto.  In addition, he got some impressive and exciting moments in the bigger climax.  In the softer passages, though, he was less persuasive.  In the solo part, John Lill was okay, but next to Paul Lewis's masterclass in clarity and poetry two weeks ago he was rather bland.  More critically, at many of the quicker tempi in the outer movements, his playing became rather muddy, almost as though his fingers weren't quite quick enough.  He was much more impressive in the slow movement, displaying both a nice delicacy and a sparkle.  The major problem was familiarity.  Here comparison with the Emperor is instructive.  Both are so often-played, over-familiar, that artists really need to have something to say in order to stand out, otherwise they risk blandness.  Two weeks ago Lewis and Deneve did; last night Lill and Urbański did not.  That said, much the rest of the audience seemed far more convinced.

The Where's Runnicles Album of the Week - Terminal, by Peter Gregson

I realise it's been so long since I last did an Album of the Week that the very concept has taken on a massive dollop of irony; unfortunately, international festivals and the like have got in the way doing it as regularly as I had planned.  And, to be honest, this one is a bit of a cheat.  It's not Terminal isn't a superb album, it absolutely is; indeed it is one of the best I've heard this year and thoroughly deserves having the Album of the Week badge slapped on it.  However, normally in these posts I make a passionate argument for why I think an album is so special and pick out a few of the great things about it.


I'm not going to do that for the very simple reason that I already have.  Back in June, I wrote a review extolling its many virtues and rather than repeat myself, I'm simply going to suggest you read it if you haven't already.

What has changed since June is that Terminal is now widely available: as a lossless download from Bandcamp, from iTunes (if you prefer that sort of thing) and, most crucially from the point of view of this segment, on Spotify, meaning you can have a listen (though, as ever, if you find you love it, I'd urge you to buy it, as it's my understanding that the royalties paid by Spotify are pretty paltry).  In some ways it's a pity that Steve Reich's Cello Counterpoint, hasn't made it to these new releases of the album.  On the positive side it does mean the remaining six tracks are pure Gregson (with producer and co-composer Milton Mermikides).  The result makes for interesting listen - much more introspective and consistent in style.  The technically demanding and acrobatic Cello Counterpoint is a remarkable piece, and Gregson gave it a fine performance on the original (and one that deserves to see the light of day more widely), and yet one could strongly argue that Terminal is a better album without it, in the sense that it is a more artistically consistent statement; it has a little more of that sense of flow that makes for a really great album.

Friday, 15 October 2010

ENO's Radamisto, or Handel's Forgotten Masterpiece about Falling in Love with the Wall

English National Opera has some pedigree with Handel.  David Alden began a revival of interest with a production of Ariodante which blew me away at the time but I found less convincing when I watched the DVD more recently.  There was also more recently an excellent new production of Semele.  Unfortunately, this particular Handel is another glass half empty for the company.

David Alden is an annoyingly unreliable director.  He can be marvellous (his recent Janaceks here) or diabolical (his recent Peter Grimes).  This production of Radamisto, originally produced at Santa Fe Opera two years ago, falls about midway between the two – that is it's annoying but not to the dangerous to one's blood pressure levels of the Peter Grimes.  Essentially, Alden's concept here seems to be that Handel wasn't dealing with love between human beings, but love between human beings and the walls and floor.  Either that, or something had gone badly wrong in construction and the singers were preventing the set from falling over.  The result of this is pretty rapidly to suck the emotion out of the performance since characters even when singing to each other rarely seem to look at each other, not to mention the amount of time they spend rolling around on or dragging themselves across the floor.  In the second act, Alden obviously felt the audience might get bored with this (I certainly was) and fell back on the old cliched solution of directors who can't cope with Handel, of adding lots of pointless business into every da capo aria so we don't have to listen.  This presumably explains the dragon's head on the wall which periodically spouted flames, and the incredible bottomless bowl of wine that various characters kept drinking out of as they staggered around the stage looking for a wall to embrace.

Sometimes this kind of thing can be rescued by the musical performances, and to some extent that is true here.  Delivery of numbers is generally very creditable, and sometimes outstanding.  Others have rightly singled out the rich tone of counter-tenor, Lawrence Zazzo in the title role, Ailish Tynan in the trouser role of Tigrane settles down as things go on, James Gower stood in impressively for an indisposed Henry Waddington as Farasmane and Sophie Bevan is simply outstanding as Polissena.  Unfortunately their collective vocal heroics are hampered by two problems: one of tempi, the other of ornamentation.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

The Royal Opera Revives Rigoletto, or, This is what it's all about

There are people who will tell you they cannot be doing with opera.  They may perhaps suggest that it is unrealistic for people to sing about their emotions, or that it makes no sense that having been stabbed the heroine spend five minutes singing mournfully of her imminent death.  I have never been one of those people.  Yet there are times when I seem to have had a particularly lengthy run of serviceable, or indeed far from serviceable, evenings at the opera such that even I begin to wonder whether the magic has gone.  And then you see a show like this and you remember that this is what great opera is like.

The programme book will tell you that this is the 6th revival of David McVicar's production, but I was seeing it for the first time, and frankly if I hadn't read the programme or reviews I doubt that I would have been aware this production had been around since 2001.  It is fresh and sharp.  I suspect one of the reasons for this is that it is not a production in constant conflict with the music (unlike so many others I could name).  The set consists of a great sloping shiny wall, which forms the backdrop to the Duke's court (signaled by a suitably baroque chair) and from within which is formed the shabby, shadowy houses of Rigoletto and Sparafucile.  It's quite simple, and very effective.  Within this world McVicar (sustained by revival director Leah Hausman) creates a series of effective images: the sickening debauchery of the Duke's court, that court surrounding the desperate jester, the grim haunt of the assassin, and the final tragic tableau.  I mention Leah Hausman incidentally, because this is an object lesson in revival directing (in notable contrast to the far less slick management of The Makropulos Case at the Coliseum a couple of weeks ago).

The design and direction then give this revival a good basis for success; when you add to that a pretty uniformly excellent cast and a conductor who knows what he is doing you clinch it.  At the centre of the experience is Dmitri Hvorostovsky's Rigoletto.  I am not completely convinced by McVicar's hampering him with a pair of crutches, but once you get used to the idea, Hvorostovsky increasingly rises beyond them.  His singing is impressive throughout but what gives it the emotional power is the range, from mocking jester, to loving then tragic father.  It's a great operatic performance.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Ticciati opens the SCO season with Don Giovanni

Last, but most certainly not least, among Scotland's three main orchestras, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra opened their season on Thursday and Friday with concert performances of Mozart's Don Giovanni.  They had also chosen the occasion to pay tribute to their conductor laureate Sir Charles Mackerras.  It was a fitting choice.  Within the significant chunk of his epic discography featuring the SCO, which includes cycles of Brahms and Beethoven symphonies, two fine braces of late Mozart symphonies, some stunning Schubert, Mozart concerti with Brendel, and much more besides, by far the largest single chunk is occupied by his survey of Mozart's major operas.  Between 1991 and 2005 they recorded all the Da Ponte operas (including both the Prague and Vienna versions of Don Giovanni) as well as Die Zauberflöte, IdomeneoDie Entführung aus dem Serail and finally La clemenza di Tito.  Picking through the various sets, which were often made in the run up to concert performances at the Edinburgh International Festival, reveals am impressive list of singers.  In short, it would be difficult to deliberately programme a more fitting tribute to this great artistic partnership.

If Robin Ticciati, who has recently extended his contract with the SCO, was awed by stepping into these vast shoes, it was not apparent.  He kept up a brisk pace, and yet it was not overly hurried (as, say, Daniel Harding's recording with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra is).  The playing of the orchestra was impeccable.   Indeed, in a way it was almost invisible.  That is not meant as a criticism, rather to say that the playing never upstaged the drama as a whole, not even the flamboyant David Watkin, once again doubling up very well on cello continuo; instead it was merely there, beautifully, in the background, supporting the overall drama perfectly.  Indeed, so uniformly fine was it that, despite looking out for any exceptional flashes to single out, I found none, often a mark of an exceptional performance.  Ticciati showed his pedigree with Glydnebourne Touring Opera, both in the emotion and humour he found, and also with his generally sensitive accompaniment of the singers.

Among a strong cast, Kate Royal stood out as with a moving and well acted Donna Elvira, so too Rafal Siwek's powerful Commendatore.  Susan Gritton's Donna Anna, though nicely sung, wasn't quite in the same league.  In the title role, Florian Boesch was generally excellent but at some of Ticciati's brisker tempi he lost his diction (especially during the champagne aria).  I always feel Don Ottavio is a rather wet and thankless role, but Maximilian Schmitt turned in as persuasive a performance as I've heard.  Vito Priante made for a fine Leporello, nicely capturing the oscillation between being pressed unwillingly into service and abetting the Don.  Malin Christensson's beguiling Zerlina and David Soar's largely (and justifiably) dour Masetto rounded off the cast.

Monday, 11 October 2010

There's Runnicles, with Berlioz, Brahms and Beethoven

A while back, Donald Runnicles delivered a (sadly) still unbroadcast reading of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique that was absolutely thrilling and which made me appreciate just what a magnificent piece it is.  I was reminded of this as he opened Thursday night's concert with another piece of Belioz, the overture from Béatrice et Bénédict.  Many of the hallmarks of the earlier performance were present - there was precision, poise, drama and a lovely bounce to their playing.  So much so that one longed to hear an entire Berlioz opera (and was once again tempted to pop over to Berlin to catch Les Troyens in December).  But there was also something more.  Once again the orchestra delivered a very impressive string tone - Runnicles may only have been in post a year, but I would argue that the ensemble's already fine sound is changing and improving.

After the previous week's concerto/act of opera pairing, this second concert of the season opted for the more conventional overture/concerto/symphony arrangement.  For the concerto impressive young violinist Vilde Frang was once on duty, this time for the Brahms.  She proved as persuasive a soloist here as in the Sibelius, her playing both technically to a high standard but also well characterised and passionate, always things that make a soloist stand out.  Accompanying her, Runnicles kept the orchestra well balanced and found a good deal of the yearning that makes for fine orchestral Brahms.  Yet, all said and done, despite some excellent playing, it didn't sweep me away as the Sibelius did the Sunday before.  But then the Brahms has never been among my favourite violin concertos.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Ticciati is here to stay

It has been something of a whirlwind romance for Robin Ticciati and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.  All it took was a tour of the highlands for players to beat a path to the management's door and suggest they hire him to fill the vacancy that existed in the orchestra's Principal Conductor spot.  He took up this post in December.  Today, less than a year later, it was announced his initial three year contract will be extended by another three to 2015.

It is not hard to see, or rather to hear why.  As I remarked to a friend recently, Ticciati gets a better sound from this orchestra than anyone save Charles Mackerras.  His programming has also been interesting, on the one hand bundling in new music, on the other bringing concert opera to the regular season.  In short, this is very good news for the SCO and for music making and concert going in Scotland.

Why is Ticciati so well liked?  Well, reports from rehearsals of Don Giovanni suggest that he is both charming and extremely knowledgeable.  A friend in the chorus recalled to me a moment when he'd asked the orchestra to play a section differently in order that it properly fitted with the ongoing action at the time.  Persuasion, rather than a dictatorial demand.  That charm was evident the first time I saw him, when he turned to the Queen's Hall audience and addressed us as the real SCO audience.  Which leads on to another feather in his cap - he understands the acoustic of that building in a chamber orchestra context (a rare talent).

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Here's Runnicles with act 1 of Die Walküre

It wasn't too long ago that I was madly dashing back and forth across London in a desperate effort to make it into the last available Eurostar seat out of the UK after a certain Icelandic volcano had the temerity to misbehave.  The reason: I had to get to Berlin before Donald Runnicles raised his baton on Deutsche Oper's most recent revival of the Ring cycle.  A little less than six months later and he'd brought a small but perfectly formed slice of that action back home to Edinburgh to open the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's new season.


Indeed, he'd brought more than that: Reinhard Hagen reprised his role as Hunding and Heidi Melton, fresh from doubling up as both the third norn and, in a last minute but exemplary stand-in, Gutrune in Götterdämmerung, was perfectly cast as Sieglinde.  They were joined by tenor Stuart Skelton as Siegmund.

A key challenge in bringing opera to the concert hall is maintaining the drama without sets, lights and fire.  From the dramatic opening bars, as turbulent and vividly evocative of a storm as you could wish, it was clear that this would not be a problem.  Runnicles' direction was matched by superb playing from the BBC SSO, on the absolute top of their game.  One particular highlight was the sweetness of the horn playing, nowhere more so than after Sieglinde has offered Siegmund a sweetened drink.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

ENO's The Makropulos Case, or, the importance of having benchmarks

Regular readers may have observed two facts about my opera-going.  First, that I have a bit of a bias for English National Opera and, particularly the Coliseum, over the Royal Opera and their House.  Second, that I have been rather critical of the present management at English National Opera.  Shortly before heading off to London last weekend, it struck me that I could conceivably manage to take in every production being mounted by English National Opera and that this would enable me to make perhaps a fairer judgement of the company's health, than is it strictly fair to do from a mere two or three productions a year.  In pursuit of this goal, therefore, I headed off last Sunday, for the second time in less than 24 hours to the Coliseum.  This time on the bill was the first revival of the season, Janáček's penultimate opera, The Makropulos Case.  Our fellow critics have, in general, raved about it.  Unfortunately, I cannot agree with them.  The production is unsatisfactory, and my benchmark musically for this opera is the original performances of this production under the late, great Sir Charles Mackerras in 2006 which this revival does not surpass.

Let us start with the production.  ENO has two other excellent new Janáčeks in its repertoire at the moment (productions of Jenufa and Katya Kabanova).  Both were particularly effective in their construction of the relationships between the characters.  Rather like Faust, this production is not infuriating but it is irritating, and in fact somewhat more so because rather more aspects of it are in conflict with the music.  My brother, in tweeting his memories of the 2006 production, noted the contradiction to the libretto at the end where Emilia Marty stumbles round the stage, the infamous formula stuck to her hand, rather than it being burnt as the directions stipulate.  This is actually a problem relating to the whole characterisation of Marty.  The text makes absolutely clear that she has to be a spell-binding presence until the top of the third act, with only occasional chinks in her armour.  In this production, the chinks are gaping holes – not least when she seems to have some kind of hot flush in the middle of Act One and goes reeling round the length of the stage.  I also didn't find Amanda Roocroft as commanding in the part as I recollect Cheryl Barker being in 2006.  Her diction becomes muddy under pressure and the link between sung text (often perfectly finely sung I concede) and action is not effectively brought off.

Next to this central problem the other irritations of the production are really just that, irritations.  I cannot see why the troop of men have to keep chalking up details of the case on the blackboard at the back when the nature of the story is perfectly clear from the sung text.  It is overly fussy and again detracts from the human collisions between the protagonists.  Similarly the profusion of flowers in Act Two and the cascade of legal papers falling across the stage at the beginning of the opera.  These at least have the merit of a textual justification but again it is fussy and undermines the emotional power of the piece.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Paul Lewis rounds off his summer of Beethoven beautifully (with the help of Denève and the RSNO)

As Stéphane Denève noted in his remarks at the start of last night's concert, Paul Lewis has spent the summer working his way through the Beethoven concerti at the Proms. with a range of conductors.  As regular readers will know, I've been most impressed, having reviewed all the concerts bar the final one with the RSNO and featuring the Emperor (see here, here and here).  I skipped that because less than a month later they were due in Edinburgh to play it to us live.  They did not disappoint.

All the hallmarks of Lewis's Beethoven, so familiar from the first four concertos, and indeed the superb survey of the sonatas he gave at the Queen's Hall between 2005 and 2007, were present.  Those wonderful mixes of speed and clarity, weight and delicacy, were coupled with a feeling of authority.  As his fingers danced up and down the keyboard the results were simply magical.  Alongside him Denève proved a sensitive accompanist, ensuring an excellent balance between soloist and orchestra.  The extreme pianissimos, something that showed a bit of a wobble in last week's Dvořák, were carried off well by the RSNO who were on top form throughout the evening.

Time and again they nailed the key moments, such as the way they built the tension in the lead up to the finale, a wonderfully mischievous grin on Denève's face as he turned to Lewis to ensure they broke in in perfect unison.  Similarly, there was the way they drew out the quite fade-away false ending, before the drama and energy of the final few bars.  Then there was Lewis's spellbinding playing in the last of the mini-cadenzas of the first movement, first its demonstration of his expertise in moving from force to subtlety, then as he seemed to toy with the music, drawing us to the edges of our seats in anticipation of the orchestra's return.  It wasn't quite perfect: some of the orchestral passages could have had a touch more punch and have been that bit crisper, but it was more than good enough.  And the slow movement, a general highlight of the Proms cycle, was sublime.  In an astute programming decision, the Emperor was alone after the interval where it belonged, thus making it rightly the focus of the evening.  This is the second time I've heard that done and it has worked well on both occasions.  It's been said before, but that's no reason not to say it again: Lewis really is among the finest interpreters of Beethoven around today.  A future project is his recording of the Diabelli variations - I can't wait.