Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The ENO Don Giovanni, or, in which Rufus Norris gets lost on the way to hell

It is rarely a good sign when one spends the overture at the opera trying to work out what on earth is going on on stage, and Rufus Norris's ENO Don Giovanni is no exception.  We had what looked to me like two pieces of London Underground track with which various fluorescent jacketed men were fiddling (they may, or may not at this point have been wearing masks).  Eventually, these (the girders not the men) rose upwards and a girl in a green dress wandered on.  She was stopped (well I say stopped but this is one of the production's many unconvincing moments of movement) by these men, stripped of her dress which the Don then donned and off he went to rape Donna Anna.

This, believe it or not, is at the coherent end of the production's spectrum and from then on it goes steadily downhill.  The root cause of this can be traced right back to the opening sexual act.  If you decide that Donna Anna is to be raped before the intervention of the Commendatore, then you are also deciding that she is lying to Don Ottavio when she describes the scene later and you have to work out what her inner motivations are and how you are going to convey them.  But this is just the very thing that Norris seems to have been completely incapable of doing.  Instead, he has directed a series of individual numbers (and frankly there seems to have been little direction to most of those except that the protagonists should stand around dithering) which show a complete failure to think through what happens before and after.  He has also taken the typical route of the director who is frightened by the music and filled up as many moments as possible with pointless business, balloons rise up and do a little dance in the scene between Elvira and the Don in Act One, the set whizzes around with pointless rapidity guided by an ensemble of demonic types who look as if they have got lost from the recent Faust, and the Act Two sextet is reduced to complete idiocy with Don Ottavio inexplicably undressing and Donna Anna doing some kind of crazed solo line dance.  When we finally reach the lead-up to the descent into hell, Norris plays half-heartedly and ineffectively around with whether or not the Commendatore is visible to everybody, and has Iain Paterson writhing feebly and unconvincingly on the edge of a hole below which presumably is hell, before finally electrocuting him with a couple of feeble flashes from the gantry which turns out to have been hovering above the protagonists for this very purpose.  Frightening it is not.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

The ROH Adriana Lecouvreur, or you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear (especially without your lead soprano)

When the Royal Opera's 2010-11 season was announced, fellow blogger Intermezzo commented acerbically that the company were taking a real risk casting a lead singer notorious for cancelling (Angela Gheorgiu) as the leads in an opera which is basically a vehicle for two stars.  Having had experience of a Kaufmann cancellation before, I thought I would be very lucky to get both stars the night I happened to be going, and so it proved, as the posters outside announced that Gheorgiu had cancelled (explaining the furious expression on the face of the woman in front of me in the ticket collection queue).

However, as other commentators have already noted, I have never heard anything like the reaction which greeted the announcement of her withdrawal from the stage.  We have heard from the stalls; I can only add that the reaction in the Amphitheatre was every bit as ferocious including sustained booing and shouts of “Again!”“Again!”.  One presumes if the management has any sense they will think twice about engaging Ms Gheorgiu for any further productions.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Interview with Gregory Batsleer (Chorus Master of the SCO Chorus)

Way back in March, I had the chance to interview Donald Runnicles and it marked the launch of the Where's Runnicles podcast.  I said at the time that I hoped it would be the first of many.  The second has been a little while coming, but I hope you'll agree it's worth the wait.

Back in August, I met the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's new Chorus Master, Gregory Batsleer.  In the interview, he talks about topics including how he got into singing, how he works with the choir and other ensembles, outreach, the choir's programme for this season and more.  There's also some interesting discussion about their superb performance in Idomeneo at the Festival (the interview was recorded on the morning of the concert).

Tomorrow and Friday, those in Edinburgh and Glasgow will have the chance to hear the results of Batsleer's work when the SCO Chorus perform Handel's Messiah with the orchestra, conductor Andrew Layton and soloists including Christine Rice and Matthew Rose, so what better time to get an insight into what goes on behind the scenes.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Superb Schuman and Brutal Beethoven from Storgards and the SCO

Somewhat inauspiciously, William Schuman is best known to me because whenever I import a new disc by Robert Schumann into iTunes and type his name it always wants to autocomplete it to Schuman because it comes first alphabetically and I have disc of his in my library meaning, annoyingly, I have to type Schumann out in full.  I may soon add a second to it, having heard his fifth symphony played by John Storgards and the SCO.  Scored for strings alone, it has in some respects a similar feel to works Tippett's concerto for double string orchestra (admittedly without the double) or even Ades' violin concerto in terms of the intensity.  Each of the three movements ends where it began, giving a nicely circular feel.  This is most strong in the extraordinary slow movement, starting soft and captivating before building to an intense climax and then fading away again.  However, it was true of the work as a whole, both start and finish being driven and full of energy.  The strings of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra were on top form for it.

This was followed by an even newer piece: the UK premiere of Albert Schnelzer's oboe concerto (an SCO co-commission).  As a piece it didn't especially speak to me, feeling somewhat disjointed.  Rarely did it seem to evoke its title of The Enchanter.  At times, though, it was magical, such as in the delicate reintroduction of the orchestra after the first cadenza and also at several other points (mostly the quite passages).  Elsewhere I found it a little too much of the whir-plonk school of composition and in particular the solo part (taken by Francois Leleux, also the dedicatee) a little screechy, or, put another way, I don't think it showed off the instrument half as well as did the solo passages in Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin the previous evening.  Often after hearing a new piece, I find myself wishing I had some way to listen again but not this time, some very fine playing notwithstanding.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Stéphane Denève and the RSNO do some Graffiti

Magnus Lingberg's Graffiti represents the biggest and most adventurous piece of programming so far in the RSNO's Ten out of 10 series, in that it was the feature work of the concert, having the entire second half to itself, and the largest piece to date.  Contrast this with earlier efforts which have tended to be sandwiched into programmes built around big and popular works.  The orchestra is, therefore, to be applauded.


I'm not hugely familiar with Lindberg's music, but Eric Sellen's programme note (whose contributions are, in my view, a weak link of the series) seemed to spend an excessive amount of time apologising for the choice of Graffiti to represent Lindberg.  It seemed odd when reading it before the concert and odder still after the performance.

Monday, 15 November 2010

A musical tribute to Charles Mackerras

It's difficult to review this concert objectively.  Charles Mackerras was probably my favourite conductor and, as I explained in my tribute to him, he provided me with many unique musical experiences and shaped my tastes massively.  This concert, which comprised many works with which he was closely associated, frequently brought those things to mind as well as the gap that he leaves behind.  It was an extremely emotional experience, but I expect that would have been the case had the players come on and sat in silence for three hours.  To these ears, though, just as well that they didn't!

The programme was divided between two London orchestras with whom Mackerras enjoyed long relationships.  The first half, or rather, the first third, was given over to the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment.  Appropriately they played the Handel's firework music.  Appropriate because back before period performance was cool, Mackerras unearthed, premiered and recorded, the original wind arrangement.  Sadly that wasn't what we got, but it did have a satisfyingly rasping quality and as much of a richness as you could get without the absurd numbers of wind instruments called for.  In the hands of Steven Devine it also benefitted from not feeling routine or twee, as it too often can.  It wasn't perfect though, and while it's true that playing period horns without without cracks or fluffs is tricky, the sheer quantity was far, far more than should have been the case.

They were then joined by soprano Mhairi Lawson, standing in for Rebecca Evans, for two Handel arias.  Lawson possessed a nicely toned voice, though it was fairly small and needed slightly more sensitive accompaniment than Devine delivered.  Of the two, Let the bright seraphim from Samson was the most impressive, not least for the trumpet solos that David Blackadder delivered alongside Lawson.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Stéphane Denève's Fantastique (and Frank Peter Zimmerman's pretty exceptional too)

The headline item of this weekend's RSNO concerts always seemed set to be pretty special.  Conductor Stéphane Denève always seems most at home with extravagant and dramatic pieces, or pieces by French composers.  Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique is both and thus expectations were high.  They did not disappoint.  Not only was there plenty of excitement but also some exceptional playing from the orchestra, both as an ensemble and in solo passages, especially Zoe Kitson on cor anglais in the third movement and principal flute Katherine Bryan (whose playing once again reminded me that I should check out her new disc).

Denève provided a reading full of contrast, both in volume and texture, such as the super pianissimo string playing that began the Dance of the Witches Sabbath after mighty conclusion of March to the Scaffold.  He did well at holding back the full power of the orchestra in the opening movements, instead building the tension continually; this meant that when they let loose in the last two movements the effect was all the more devastating.  There were plenty of nice touches along the way.  Perhaps, he read my review of Runnicles' account a little while back, which had superb placement of offstage forces.  Similarly, it was impossible, from where I was sitting, to spot the offstage oboe, which had a nicely etherial effect; ditto the bells at the end.  It was the kind of performance to have you struggling to sit still, whether in those frantic closing passages or earlier during the ball, which really did dance.

In most concerts this would be sufficient to put the rest of the programme into the shade.  Not so here.  The evening had opened with another in the RSNO's Ten out of 10 series of new music.  Young Scottish composer Helen Grime has impressed me when I have heard her work before, and Virga was no exception.  In a spoken introduction she listed Ligeti and Knussen among her influences, which perhaps explains this.  The piece takes its name from precipitation which never reaches the ground and, in the space of six minutes, says so much that one to some extent regrets that Denève was joking when he suggested they would play it six times to compensate for the length.  It was both turbulent and extremely vivid; some music, such as Sibelius, always fills my mind with images and this piece seems to fall into that same category.  She also made wonderful use of the orchestral textures at her disposal, this was especially apparent as she built her forces back up following a passage for first violins alone.