Friday, 29 April 2011

Rocket to the Moon at the National, or, A Play is more than One Line after Another even if they are good One-Liners

As I was leaving the half-empty Lyttelton auditorium last night an elderly lady in the row in front, with an accent that sounded as though it had got lost en route to the Abbey, declared loudly to her companion something to the effect that there had been some serious miscasting and the girl couldn't do the American accent. This would be an easy explanation for things not altogether working in this show (indeed pretty seriously not working in the first half) but it just isn't sufficient.

The first problem is the play itself which suffers from the Wilde syndrome. Odets clearly liked his one-liners. The trouble is that most of them sound rather forced and their style has a tendency to reduce the utterer to a caricature. In addition this is a very wordy play – there is simply an awful lot of text between the one-liners for perfomers to grapple with. For much of the first half the ensemble shows a tendency to collapse under the weight of the beast – the one-liners don't garner much in the way of laughter, the performers fail to bring to life the human beings delivering these lines. But, as I said at the beginning, I think it is too simple to blame the performers. And this is because, against the run of form of the first half, in the second things begin to happen.

This is centrally a consequence of Joseph Millson's performance as the hen-pecked Ben Stark. His disintegration becomes convincingly real. His despair as Jessica Raine (Cleo Singer) goes out to dinner with another man is palpable. Emotions break beyond the text convincingly. It was this performance that began to give me a clue to what has gone wrong elsewhere. Each of these performers needs to get inside their characters that bit more, get past the text to who these people are under all their words. In the third act, Millson refers to the fact that he is shortly going to be forty. It suddenly struck me that this statement could inform the whole story of the character – this passage of time, this loss of opportunity is what is nagging him – unconsciously in the first scene with his wife, overwhelmingly as the loss of Raine looms ever larger. This doesn't necessarily need to be the central factor, but each of these performers needs to find more definition – and the material to make those definitions clearer is there within the layers of text. My sense of this play is that it is about putting up a flood of words as a mask (in the same way that Cleo Singer compulsively invents herself), while beneath these lurk fearful realities.

London Road at the National, or, I see your violent fisherman and I raise you one serial killer

Some critics have expressed the view that this is subject matter that shouldn't work in musical form – that is the story of a serial killer. The obvious caveat to this is that Sondheim has dealt with a related subject brilliantly in Assassins. The more relevant caveat is that this show really isn't about the killer or his victims (except in one brief interlude in Act Two) but about the community in which they took place. As such apart from the discomforture of seeing certain aspects of human life on stage I didn't find the subject matter especially unsettling.

The defining quality of this show is the source of its material and the way the performers are required to deliver it. This is the first time I have experienced the approach of the Recorded Delivery Theatre Company of which Alecky Blythe is the Artistic Director and my overall feeling is that while there are effective aspects to it there are dangers of repetition which this show did not completely escape. I should note that it is the techniques of the company which are employed here. These are to go out into a community (in this case London Road, Ipswich) and record interviews. Performers are then required to reproduce as exactly as possible the speech patterns of, and exact text spoken by, the interviewees. On the face of it, as composer and lyricist Adam Cork notes in the programme, this might seem difficult to do with the addition of music but Cork actually finds a musical language (which we'll come back to) which successfully reflects Blythe's style.

The world into which we are taken is that of the London Road Neighbourhood Watch association, revitilised following the disruption to their community of the murders, as police and journalists swarm over the street. Normal access and services are disrupted, and one feels for the couple stuck next door to the house of the murderer – I can't have been the only homeowner in the audience contemplating the likely effect on the value of their house of such a circumstance. Nor is one kept from moments of cringing – at the AGM which begins the show, the chairman comments that the remnents of prostitution may have been pushed into a neighbouring street - “but we can't worry about that.” The faintly pushy, sometimes slightly desperate edge to the group events is similarly unsettling. Blythe and Cork, perhaps in a sense the residents themselves, also expose the darker sides of our natures from the comparatively obvious suggestion that an immigrant must be to blame, to the really unsettling cafe scene where two teenagers watch a set of single male patrons (one of whom with book, and overcoat not dissimilar to my own was particularly unnerving to watch) and ponder whether the murderer could be him.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

The Tsar's Bride, or the Royal Opera continues its Russian excavations

Rimsky-Korsakov's operas are rarely performed outside Russia, although this is a staple of the repertoire there according to the programme notes. This production, the first at any of the major UK opera companies suggests that this neglect is unfair, but also shows up some of the problems involved.

High praise must first be accorded to the production, directed by Paul Curran with sets and costumes by Kevin Knight. Curran's name rings bells, but I can't on the basis of his programme bio find any evidence that I have seen any of his stagings before. He and Knight successfully transport the action to Putin's Russia creating effectively ominous environments in which violence is never far away, but also suggesting ways in which the old ways linger – whether it be the wedding candles set down around the businessman's roof-top swimming pool, or the fabulous gilt-hall of the death scene, haunted not just by the mad bride but by Tsars and regimes gone by. For me the most effective part of the whole staging is Curran's brilliant handling of the opening aria. I won't spoil it for anyone who may go, but it's a superb example of effective directorial interpretation of the text, and creates a sharp sense of the lurking presence of violence which hangs over the whole opera.

Friday, 22 April 2011

ETO's Fantastic Mr Fox, or The Vexed Question of Opera for Children

Normally when I write a review for this site it is a comparatively straightforward prospect. With operas I judge the performance in question from my perspective as an almost 33 year old opera fanatic who has been attending performances regularly for going on for 20 years. It would be easy enough to write a review along these lines of last night's performance which, from that narrow perspective, did nothing for me. However, I am clearly not the target audience which seems at least to some degree (which we'll come back to in a moment) to be children, most of whom will probably not have been to an opera before. It therefore seems to me that the issue that is really raised by this show is the vexed question of opera for children – what we intend by this idea, and how we can best realise it. This I have tried to address, though I have found it in practice impossible to completely eradicate my normal perspective.

Before coming to the wider question, the intentions of the show need to be identified. The ETO website actually doesn't refer to it as a children's opera but rather as “a new family opera.” They go on to stress though that it is “Perfect for seasoned opera goers and first-timers alike.” The programme note, by librettist Donald Sturrock, argues along similar lines, quoting the General Director of LA Opera, the late Peter Hemmings, who commissioned the work in the 1990s, as saying “There must be something for parents to enjoy too.” There is a slight implication here that you have to be in a family group to enjoy this and the single opera goer should therefore steer well clear.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

The Royal Opera House, 2011-12 Season

Astute readers of the major cultural blogs will have noticed that the supposed ROH 2011-12 season reveal last week was preceded by a reveal a few weeks earlier to high ranking doners and pretty completely run down by intermezzo. As the information was not formally in the public domain we have held off writing it up till now.

Top billing in what is a bit of a mixed season for me, is the new production of Berlioz's still criminally neglected masterpiece Les Troyens. David McVicar is generally reliable (though his big test for me will be the upcoming Glyndebourne Meistersingers) so we should be spared a production too at odds with the music and text. Musically the line-up is exceptional with Jonas Kaufmann as Enee, the wonderful Anna Caterina Antonacci in the key role of Cassandre (who I last saw in Charles Mackerras's blazing concert performance of Maria Stuarda in Edinburgh), Eva-Maria Westbroek as Didon (who I last saw at Christmas in the Royal Opera's magnificent new Tannhauser). There is every hope then of a production and performance which will do this wonderful work true justice.

The premier of Judith Weir's new opera, Miss Fortune, also looks exciting. I regret that I have never seen any of Weir's operas live (a mark of how bad British companies are at sustaining new work in the repertoire), so I'm looking forward to rectifying this. Paul Daniel has been a bit variable of late (unlike others I didn't particularly rate his direction of the ENO's diabolical Lucrezia) but he is perfectly capable of directing a commanding performance. The pick of the singers is unquestionably Jacques Imbrailo, who was an outstanding Billy Budd in last summer's Glyndebourne production.

ETO's Puccini Double Bill, or Simple is Best

I realise that here at wheresrunnicles we are joining the critical chorus on this show rather late in the day, but, and here's something we don't say very often, they are completely right. These are two little one act gems, and if you haven't yet caught them, there is still just under half the far flung tour left in which to do so.

As the title of this review indicates these are beautiful little productions. Both stagings reflect the text (with impressively detailed sets considering these are touring shows) from the berthed barge in Il Tabarro to cluttered room of death complete with bird-cage adorned balcony in Gianni Schicchi. There are no points of bafflement or fury in these stagings at all. The same commendable simplicity applies to the movement. Both James Conway (Il Tabarro) and Liam Steel (Gianni Schicchi) create effective tension between their protagonists without any of the fussiness or downright idiocy of so many modern operatic productions. The stillness and snatched glances of the first half are a long way from the caricatures and physical comedy of the second, but both are embued with real dramatic intelligence. The highlight though, is Liam Steel's (at least I presume it was Steel's) brilliant piece of silent comedy extracted from the single order in the text to go and feed the birds and hilariously executed by Paula Sides (Lauretta). All I can say about this is that most of the scheming about the will in Gianni Schicchi passed me by as I tried to stifle my increasingly hysterical laughter.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Here's Runnicles, with Adams, Mahler and Brahms

The audience in the Usher Hall was depressingly thin on Sunday night: even with the upper circle closed, there were huge swaths of empty seats. This despite a programme that was hardly adventurous, featuring as it did romantic mainstays Mahler and Brahms.

Possibly some had been put off by the presence of John Adams, whose work opened the concert. If so that would be a pity as for me it was in some ways the highlight. My Father Knew Charles Ives most strongly evokes the eponymous composer in its opening movement, with its parade and frenetic climax (not to mention some fine trumpet work from Mark O'Keeffe). It is an evocative piece throughout, the second movement full of shimmering textures that perfectly describe the water of a lake. Then, in the final movement, Adams takes us to the mountains. Here were stunning and dangerous vistas, as clear as anything in Strauss or Sibelius.

Brahms 2nd symphony, which closed the evening, is perhaps my least favourite, and yet when played like this I am given to wonder why. From the start Runnicles elicited a fine and rich sound from the BBC SSO and there was a strong sense of yearning that is often synonymous with a fine Brahms performance. Yet there was not a hint of the stodginess that can mire Brahms and this symphony in particular, indeed what marked the reading out was the great lightness of touch and nimbleness which they brought to it. Capped by an exciting finale, it made a fine and emotional finish to the concert and indeed this Edinburgh season.

Monday Night Film Club - Source Code

I've been keen to see Duncan Jones's Source Code ever since I first heard of it, primarily because his feature debut, Moon, impressed me greatly two years ago.

Though it has a different writer (Ben Ripley), and Jones shares no story credit, the film has a lot in common with its predecessor. Firmly science-fictional, it focuses on a central character in a claustrophobic environment: both the eight minute segments of time he is forced to repeat and the capsule he finds himself in after each mission. Similarly, his interactions with Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), who might best be described as mission control, via only a computer monitor, have a certain something in common with GERTY. Chesney Hawkes' The One and Only, which features as Christina's ringtone, is also a nice callback to Moon. Here, as there, it has a wonderful dramatic irony, since, of course, he is not (though in a different way).

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The BBC SSO launch their 2011/12 season (and here's Runnicles to tinkle the ivories)

After Mahler and Wagner, Donald Runnicles has made a somewhat bolder choice to open his third season as Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, selecting a newish work receiving its Scottish premiere: James MacMillan's St John Passion. If the brief snippets I've heard from the LSO's recording are anything to go by, it should be quite something. To perform it they are joined by the London Symphony Chorus, who premiered it, and also the BBC Singers and baritone Tommi Hakala. Discussing the season, Runnicles described the work as having a rare level of spirituality, though he also suggested that it isn't necessary to share MacMillan's Catholic faith to fully appreciate it.

The only shame is that it's not one of the concerts coming to the Usher Hall. As was the case last year there are three, all with Runnicles. They lean slightly conservatively. In addition to the absence of MacMillan, the programme that features Brahms' Alto Rhapsody and his 1st symphony, along with Schumann's 4th, has been shorn of Detlev Glanert's new work. Something similar happens with the last concert of the three: where in Glasgow they get Osvaldo Golijov's Mariel, we get Mozart's clarinet concerto (though in the hands of Martin Fröst it should be rather special). And the works that we are getting should be real treats. After the glorious Bruckner 8 Runnicles did last season, the 7th is not to be missed. Ditto the first concert, which they don't get in Glasgow, which features Strauss's last four songs with Michaela Kaune and Elgar's 2nd symphony.

Friday, 1 April 2011

The Where's Runnicles Album of the Week - Thomas Dolby's Oceanea

This week's Album of the Week is even more of a misnomer than usual. In the first place, it's been far more than a week since I last did one (that much is normal), and in the second this isn't an album, but rather a three track EP; still, it's sufficiently great that it deserves inclusion all the same. It's also the work of Thomas Dolby, who happens to be my uncle, which earns this post a Shameless Plugs tag.

Dolby's last studio album, Astronauts and Heretics, was released nearly two decades ago, back in 1992, after which he spent his time working in technology in Silicon Valley, which meant a drought for those who love his music. A few years ago he moved back to the UK, more specifically to the stunningly bleak and beautiful Suffolk coast, and once again began working on music in an old lifeboat that sits in his back garden and which has been converted to a high tech, wind powered digital studio. (Which, at the very least, meant he no longer had to put up with me asking him when he might record something new whenever we met up at family gatherings.)