We've reached that time of year again...
Best Opera: Not as good a year as 2011. Honorable mentions go to Aldeburgh Music's marvellous Knussen double bill, the Opera North Norma and the Berlin Phil/Rattle/Kozena concert performance of Carmen but the palm goes to ENO's superb new production of John Adams's modern masterpiece The Death of Klinghoffer reviewed here. A work which, as I said at the time, deserves to be staged widely and to remain firmly in the repertoire.
Worst Opera: There was a lot of very indifferent opera in 2012 but most of it was badly flawed in one category rather than across the board. Thus ENO's Julius Caesar and the Bayreuth Tristan were both awful productions but had redeeming musical qualities. So the award goes to an opera which I didn't review at the time, the awful Judith Weir Miss Fortune at the Royal Opera back in the spring.
Best Play: It's been a real bonanza year for theatre, even if much of it has been inexplicably over-looked by other awarding bodies. Josie Rourke's opening season at the Donmar was of generally high quality. The National had a number of gems of which the beautifully acted, moving Moon on a Rainbow Shawl deserved way more plaudits than it received. Gatz and the Yugoslavian-Albanian Henry VI were in different ways fascinating. However there were three plays which stood head and shoulders above the rest in all departments: the West End revival of Long Day's Journey into Night, the Chichester Arturo Ui and the Hampstead 55 Days.
Worst Play: The biggest disappointment of 2012 was the Almeida King Lear of which I had high hopes this time last year, but it was just dull and unenvolving rather than awful (the Almeida in general I'm afraid had an indifferent year). Big and Small avoids the palm by virtue of the presence of Cate Blanchett. Several works at the Edinburgh International Festival unsurprisingly came close, but are just saved by the Chichester Heartbreak House which was regrettably poor in every department.
Saturday, 29 December 2012
We've reached that time of year again...
Sunday, 23 December 2012
2012 has been a good year for recordings, of which more in a moment. However before I get onto that, I find I must rectify two omissions from last year's list. The first is Mark Elder and the Hallé's majestic account of Vaughan Williams' London Symphony. I'm not sure how this escaped my notice on release since I'm a fan of the Hallé's label. The disc is for me the more impressive as I'm not the world's greatest Vaughan Williams fan, yet my first impulse on listening to it was to put it on again immediately.
The second omission is this BIS disc of Anders Hilborg works. This is actually a fortuitous omission since it ties in nicely to one of the themes of my music buying this year, which has shifted heavily towards digital downloads, which the independent labels do far better. I came across this via the eClassical store (which I've written about extensively here), and after staring at the intriguing cover image for a while, decided to give it a go. The four works on the disc are all performed by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, but with different conductors (Esa Pekka Salonen, Alan Gilbert and Sakari Oramo). King Tide, for which Oramo is on duty, is probably my favourite, fascinating because it feels both organic in the way the climaxes grow but also industrial at the same time. Hillborg creates generally energetic and intriguing sound worlds. He writes well for all sections of the orchestra and often yields a sound somewhat akin to a synthesiser, perhaps unsurprising given the liner notes mention a background in electronic music. (I mean that as a compliment, incidentally.) At times frantic, tranquil or muscular, and moving effortlessly between, it is an impressive disc and Hillborg is definitely a composer to watch.
Tuesday, 18 December 2012
This show, I discovered on re-reviewing the reviews this morning, was even more overwhelmingly praised than I had thought. I cannot for the life of me think why. Of course, from my point of view it started with two big handicaps. The director was Rupert Goold, who has as yet failed to impress me, and the female lead was Billie Piper, who with my Doctor Who fan hat on made me grit my teeth in annoyance almost more than one or two particularly infamous companions of the classic series I could mention. Nevertheless, I retain, I hope, the capacity to have my prejudices overcome. Goold, Piper and their fellow collaborators largely failed to achieve this.
I didn't see Lucy Prebble's ENRON so I can't compare the two works, but this play for me committed a cardinal sin. It is a play about issues. Rather too many issues frankly including the nature of love, the morality of the drugs companies, the problems involved in tackling depression, or helping someone who is suffering from depression. These issues require a great deal of talk. Now I like a play with a message (see 55 Days or the best of Shaw when he's well done), but Prebble makes the mistake of sacrificing character for issues. The result was one which I have remarked on before and which is usually fatal for me in terms of my view of a piece, apart from one or two fleeting moments I didn't give a damn about any of the people on stage. I would also note that very similar subject matter has been far more effectively treated in the musical Next to Normal which sadly never made it to London.
The performers are nothing to write home about either. They're all perfectly solid, but nothing really leapt out and took me by the throat, though it is only fair to say they aren't helped by the material. Piper and Anastasia Hille as the depressed doctor have moments which do suggest that with a better script they could really shine, but it's not enough to save the evening.
Sunday, 16 December 2012
Saturday's concert, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's last of 2012, is one of those I have been most looking forward to this season. It did not disappoint.
The reason for my interest was the two Weber concertos at its centre. Now, I am not especially a fan of Weber per se, nor do I know either the clarinet or bassoon concertos terribly well. What made this an interesting programme was the presence of two of the SCO's principals as soloists. This is a good prospect for several reasons. First, the orchestra is fortunate to have a number of exceptional players on hand. Indeed, last year when a newspaper waxed lyrical that the Berlin Philharmonic was hands down the best in the world and cited fine solos as evidence, my response (having attended the same series of concerts that prompted the piece) was that if offered the choice I wouldn't swap the SCO principals for theirs. Secondly, and because of this talent, it's nice to see them given the chance to do a little bit more.
Bassoonist Peter Whelan had his turn first. A few years ago we were treated to his reading of the Mozart concerto and he proved himself no less adept with Weber. Whelan has a beautifully rich tone to his playing and that was much in evidence, especially during the slow movement. In the outer movements Weber provided fiendishly rapid runs which were as breathtaking to listen to as one images they were to play, but Whelan was more than a match for them. Beneath him the orchestra, under Pablo Gonzalez, provided well judged accompaniment, never in danger of swamping the soloist but packing ample punch where needed.
The opera year in London has ended with both major companies reviving neglected works: Vaughan Williams's The Pilgrim's Progress at English National Opera and Meyerbeer's Robert le diable at the Royal Opera House. Critical reaction to the former was largely positive, to the latter largely negative, and one has a slight sense that one of those critical mood swings is in progress with ENO on the rise after a long period of very justifiable criticism. The distinction in reaction is not in my view justified, and I'll come back to why at the end of the review.
Much to my surprise, I very much enjoyed the Meyerbeer. First of all there's Laurent Pelly's production. The visual colour and the flexible design is wonderfully refreshing – I have sat through far too many eyesore productions this season. Personally I thought the still life horses and knights for the tournament work beautifully (I slightly wondered if Pelly had seen A Knight's Tale), the mountainside that reverses to become the graveyard is a clever bit of flexible set, and the final tableau of Act III with Purgatory suddenly conjured among the graves was especially striking. For a moment or two in Act IV I could see why some critics had complained about the mobile set, but actually the pay-off of that movement creates an effective final image and you've got to do something because one of Meyerbeer's problems is that he's very bad at endings. I've also seen complaints about, I think, Monty Pythonesque knights, but I think a bit of tongue in cheek around the whole enterprise is no bad thing – god help you if you tried to play the thing entirely straight. Also worthy of mention are the effective video designs of Claudio Cavallari. Away from the visuals Pelly also scores with me by being a director who is not frightened of stillness. One of my bugbears is over-fussy movement, and the inability to create telling relations between people through their physical positioning, and Pelly did a good job in both those departments.
The only area which doesn't work is the choreography of Lionel Hoche. There are two issues with this. The cluttered tomb set for Act III Scene 2 looks good but is rather a minefield for the poor dancers making effective variety of movement near impossible to achieve. Within that limitation I just didn't think that Hoche made his zombie nuns debauched enough, although this is another place where Meyerbeer's limits as a composer are shown up.
Monday, 10 December 2012
I dithered about buying a ticket for this. My last try of a cinema relay of classical music was the Berlin Philharmonic performing Bruckner, where I felt that it just wasn't possible to achieve a sufficiently close approximation of the experience of hearing Bruckner live to make it satisfying. I also noticed that this production was directed by David Alden, whose work I do not generally care for. But in the end curiousity got the better of me, plus the fact that I want to support the Lincoln Odeon now that they've decided to bring in the Met Relays for the first time. Overall, I was very glad I went.
The sound worked much better for this than for the Berlin Philharmonic. Clearly you are never going to recreate the precise experience of live performance in a cinema but I actually thought they got pretty near it. There certainly wasn't any moment when I felt the sound was detrimental to my enjoyment of the music. I did wonder if one factor was the screening taking place in one of the small cinemas at the Odeon rather than the vast space we were in for the Berlin concert.
I also take my hat off to the Met's broadcast team. I'm not generally a fan of Deborah Voigt as a singer these days but she makes a good presenter for this – although inevitably some of the singers were more interesting to listen to than others. There was an additional treat in getting to hear Joyce DiDonato rehearsing for Maria Stuarda (to be broadcast in January), and an unintentionally hilarious interview with David Alden in which he insisted on all sorts of things about the production which I have to say were not very apparent to me.
Monday, 3 December 2012
The return of Calixto Bieto to the Coliseum is a rather interesting phenomenon. His previous appearances there appeared at the time to contribute to the regrettable sacking of Nicholas Payne. The second of those two appearances, his production of Verdi's A Masked Ball was however the only production of his I've seen which I thought really worked. I also saw several others during the McMaster era in Edinburgh including a very boring version of a Spanish play by the name of Celestina and an unsuccessful relocation of Hamlet to the Palace nightclub. So I bought a ticket for this one mainly because I have developed a certain academic interest in watching the on-going saga of the Berry years.
It also has to be said that to wow me with this particular opera faced other challenges. It isn't a score I'm particularly keen on (this is the first time I've seen it staged in many years of opera going, and I don't think I shall be rushing to see it staged again). Further, I was privileged to hear it performed in Berlin in April by the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle, and with a cast led by Jonas Kaufmann and Magdalena Kozena. That was an outstanding evening (reviewed here by my esteemed brother). I'm afraid this performance didn't get near it.
Let us start with Bieto's production. This has divided critics into those who've raved and those who've loathed. Last night some debate unfolded on my Twitter timeline after one Telegraph critic announced that he had walked out in the interval. I can't really see any good reason for walking out of this for the simple reason that little of interest happens. In fairness to Bieto there are a couple of nice ideas – the big bull sign which is dismembered during the prelude to Act Four, followed by a bit of make believe bullfighting with the head is clever, and the encircling of Carmen and Jose in a bullring for their final confrontation likewise. But beyond that I found it a boring afternoon. There was little in the way of dramatic tension or erotic heat generated between the various protagonists, and Carmen's escape at the end of Act I was particularly unconvincing. More seriously, Bieto appears to regard all the sex in the show as being rather nasty and seedy. Well, I don't say this isn't a reasonable viewpoint but the problem is that it makes it rather difficult to care about any of the characters. I didn't find Carmen in the lest bit seductive, and couldn't really see why the men were falling over themselves to bed her. There were also the usual bits of incoherent staging – the opening chorus sings about all the people crossing the square – despite the fact that there's nobody else there, and when Escamillo enters in Act Four he comes in behind the chorus although they are apparently watching him out in the auditorium. Generally, I found Bieto's handling of the chorus ineffective.
Thursday, 29 November 2012
A poorly maintained elementary school ceiling collapses, and at the last moment a young child catches the falling masonry and saves the day.
The boy's name is Matthew Bright. It is the first indication that anyone in the town of Pederson, Illinois, is different, or rather special, and it is one of the key images of Joe Straczynski's comic book masterpiece Rising Stars. The image seems to have its roots in the cover of Action Comics #1 (the first appearance of a slightly better known hero by the name of Superman) and it recurs three more times in the story, even once with a car. It defines Bright, one of the story's key characters, and his determination to put the lives of others before his own.
Tuesday, 20 November 2012
Next week sees the release of an updated version of Jeff Wayne's musical version of The War of the Worlds. I'm really quite excited about this. The original is tremendous fun; silly, but gloriously so. A new version is therefore to be welcomed, and I look forward to hearing it.
However, it seems that not everyone shares this view (how dull that would be). The Arts Desk featured it as their disc of the day this morning. I was rather surprised to discover that 'disc of the day' was not, apparently, meant as a compliment since they appear to have awarded it a solitary star. Clearly not to the reviewer's taste, then. For me, unless there are major deficiencies in the new cast as compared with the original, one star would be a travesty. But this isn't a post about the album or the show. If you want that, read what our friend and past contributor Andrew Pugsley had to say when it toured in 2010. Nor is this a dig at The Arts Desk. Rather, it is a riff on their subheadline:
The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one, they said. But twice?
Clearly I've been listening to too much More or Less lately, but this got me thinking. What are the chances of anything coming from Mars twice? What follows is a slightly eclectic, more mathematical and frankly very silly departure from our normal fare.
Sunday, 18 November 2012
Once again the Union Theatre has done musical theatre fans a great service by staging the European premiere of Kander and Ebb's 1997 musical, Steel Pier. While the score of the show is not the duo's finest, this actually isn't a problem. Because really, it struck me as the show drew on, this is almost more a play with music than a classic musical. And in that context, the music does exactly what it needs to do, which is drive forward the relationships between the characters. And the characters are completely compelling.
The story concerns a dance marathon at the aforementioned Steel Pier. As the show begins, Rita Racine (Sarah Galbraith) is waiting for her partner to show up. When he fails to appear she finds herself saddled with daredevil pilot, Bill Kelly (Jay Rincon). To tell you any more would spoil the plot, and this is emphatically a show that benefits from one not knowing in advance how it's going to go (although apparently I discovered afterwards if you've seen the film They Shoot Horses Don't They this may give you some clues). Suffice it to say that it's more than a little Capraesque, that the ending brought tears to my eyes, and the moral seemed to be speaking to me.
Director Paul Taylor Mills has assembled an excellent cast. It's always a big test of a musical like this whether the romantic leads can make you believe, and Galbraith and Rincon pass this test with flying colours. Some will possibly find the scripting of their scenes a bit too melodramatic but they're played with enough sincerity that it works. There's a particularly lovely moment when Rincon says something like “You dance like this and in a moment your whole life can change” which is the kind of line that gets me every time. Aimee Atkinson's Shelby has the show's biggest number - “Everybody's Girl” - and duly brings the house down (this is probably the only time you will ever find me pleased to have been sat in the front row), but she is also moving in the scene where we see behind the mask. Also worthy of particular mention is Lisa-Anne Wood's Precious Maguire who gets impressively more ghastly as scene follows scene. The supporting ensemble execute Richard Jones's impressive choreography with remarkable flair considering the space restrictions. But Jones also has a nicely inventive eye for the smaller moments - like the use of a simple white umbrella in "First You Dream".
Saturday, 17 November 2012
This is the third unmissable show of the year. It is up there with the West End Long Day's Journey into Night and the Chichester Arturo Ui. That is how good it is.
Howard Brenton's materials are superbly dramatic in themselves. He takes us through the 55 days from the purge of Parliament for having voted against trying Charles I through to the sovereign's execution. As we watch, men and women wrestle with a fundamental impossible dilemma. How do you deal with a man who refuses to accept that anybody except God has power to judge him. It really is a case of observing the collision of two diametrically opposed opinions. Cromwell in particular, in this version of history, finds it inconceivable that Charles can actually possibly believe what he says – that no power on earth can judge him. Moreover, Cromwell, unlike Charles, is all too horribly aware of the price the Civil War has exacted from the populace of England. Though we see no battles in this production, the weight of the violence, the tearing of society is very present. As long as the dilemma is unresolved, it is clear things cannot be healed.
This is a profoundly political play. Some may perhaps find it too much so, but I found it completely compelling. It is also a play which has resonance way beyond its immediate subject matter, and as with all such plays which are truly great Brenton has no need to spell it out for us, it is there, unavoidable. Have we really shed the delusions of pageantry and monarchy? Did Cromwell succeed in creating a better order? Two moments among scene after scene that capture these dilemmas really stood out for me. First, when Cromwell asserts passionately that after the trial and execution is done Parliament will be sovereign and men will think it glorious to be citizens of England because of her Parliament. Oh, if it were only so. Second, when one of the commissioners, after the decision is made, praises Cromwell and moves to kiss his hand.
Brenton's text is given powerful life by a magnificent company. At their head is Douglas Henshall's Cromwell. When we first see him he is still one among equals, and slowly, inexorably, he becomes the figure to whom persistently, inescapably, eyes turn for guidance. The genius of Brenton's text and Henshall's performance is to sustain one's belief that Cromwell genuinely does not want that power. Henshall delivers a number of speeches with that command that just holds, but I found especially powerful his description of the Scotch boy rebel staring up at him as at some creature of horror. Mark Gatiss as Charles I has in some ways the harder part to sustain – his arrogance and certainty make him more difficult to sympathise with. Yet this doesn't make his performance any the less compelling, and the trouble is that he does have a point – Cromwell and co. find themselves having to bend the law to gain their ends – as the play goes on the gap between them narrows, and narrows.
I have to begin this review by acknowledging that there are very plainly two viewpoints on this work. There are those who find it a powerfully moving, in many cases deeply spiritual experience. Then there are those, of whom I am one, who do not. Given that there were the usual swathes of empty seats (at least in the Dress Circle) I suspect I am not alone.
The most positive aspect of this performance was the musical performances led by Roland Wood as the Pilgrim. He's not always well served by the direction (when he's armoured up in particular the thing has a rather unfortunate Monty Python air to it) but his diction is excellent, he sings with great character, and has the stamina to carry this challenging role. The various supporting camoes are all well taken, but none of them really have enough time to make a great impression. Of them I especially enjoyed hearing Kitty Whately again, who previously impressed me in Handel with English Touring Opera – though I was fascinated to discover from looking at the programme this morning that she was supposed in one scene to be a woodcutter's boy. Ann Murray also has two nice turns as Madam Bubble and Madam By-Ends. They were ably supported by the conducting of Martyn Brabbins and the singing and playing of the ENO Chorus and Orchestra, all of whom do their best with this problematic score.
About the production I was less convinced. The idea is that Bunyan himself has been imprisoned, imagines his journey to the celestial city, and at the end is back in prison again. Well fair enough. It isn't irritating but I didn't find it very inspired. There was to my mind a lack of a real feeling of a journey. The chorus have some bizarre Selleresque gestural moments. Oh, and big and not terribly effective puppets appear to be in (I couldn't really see why the Pilgrim didn't just dodge round the unmanouvreable Apollyon). The second half generally works less well than the first, the film shots of the First World War trenches didn't really fit, and the arrival in the Celestial City just doesn't come off dramatically.
Saturday, 20 October 2012
ENO's Julius Caesar, or, Undaunted by Past Disasters the Ship of Berry Sails Blithely On (to Yet Another Reef)Posted by Finn Pollard at 10:32
The vast majority of reviews of this production have been poor. But there is little sense from most critics that this is more than an individual flop for the company. To my mind it is symptomatic of the company's ongoing problems of artistic direction. This review will therefore deal both with this particular production, and those wider issues.
I could write a long review about the surface idiocies of this production: the slug, sorry egg, balancers, the de-tonguing of the giraffe, the inexplicable appearance of the garden hose. But this would distract from the central, fatal flaw, which on this showing ought to disqualify Michael Keegan-Doran from any further ventures outside of straight choreography. Keegan-Doran fundamentally appears either incapable of, or to have had no desire to, actually dirct his principal cast. Line after line is rendered ludicrous by their being no attempt to direct the performers in a way to render their interactions dramatically convincing. The direction affords none of the performers any depth – here and there some emotional connection is occasionally salvaged, by dint one suspects of the performers innate musicianship (and in one case real dramatic presence). But it is insufficient to salvage the evening.
The one area where Keegan-Doran's impact is all too evident is the choreography. Choreography married to Handel can make for an exceptional performance – see the current Glyndebourne production of this opera. But not here. Keegan-Doran's dance ensemble basically seem to be in a completely different show from the singers. They add nothing, except irritating distraction, to the evening. It is never clear who these people are, why they are there, or why, given that they are there, they are dancing – there is no dramatic or emotional benefit from their presence at all, and one is driven to the conclusion that Keegan-Doran, being an inexperienced and unconfident director retreated to the world he knows best (compare with Mike Figgis's attempt to direct an opera in the 2010-11 ENO season).
Sunday, 14 October 2012
Back at the tail end of last year I had this down as one of the shows I was most looking forward to in 2012, but I'm afraid this is a show that just doesn't live up to its advance prospects, for all sorts of reasons.
The first big problem is the design where Tom Scutt seems to have come over all Christopher Marthaler. This is the dullest thing to look at for three hours since the dreadful Bayreuth Tristan. The stage is basically bare for the entire show – apart from occasional pieces of furniture and the enormous and as far as I could see wholly pointless dead fox strung up at the back at one point in Act One. There is really no meaningful attempt to locate the action anywhere concrete – beyond some kind of ruined castle at some undetermined point. Scutt claims in his programme notes that “If you try and pin it [Lear] down or set it too tightly in a time and a place, it kicks like a mule.” Frankly, I wish it had kicked him harder.
If you're going to drain away the feeling of concrete and differentiated places from a production then you have to be able to replace them with more than usually effective management of your ensemble. They are going to have to create the world by speech and movement which the production has decided not to attempt. Unfortunately Michael Attenborough's direction falls down here. There's a sad lack of those crucial moments of tension that make truly great theatre. Indeed, one almost feels after a while as if one is watching old style stand and deliver. Moments in the second half when, for example, Goneril is being affectionate with Edmund, stand out starkly because there's not enough of such loaded physical connection elsewhere in the performance. The rare occasions when clear direction is in evidence tend to the bizarre. Other critics have commented that Attenborough's idea seems to be that Lear has sexually abused his elder daughters. This is brought out in one or two places but nowhere near consistently enough to make it work. In any case I am far from convinced that this is a viable interpretation – I find it difficult to see how we can sympathise with Lear as we really need to as the play goes on, if he has committed so vile a crime – and indeed one further wonders given that implication why Cordelia dotes on him. In short, on this showing at any rate, it is an interpretation that does too much violence to other parts of the text with not enough return from the places that it does illuminate. Elsewhere I felt too often that the text was passing Attenborough by – for example that marvellous moment when the Fool replays the “Nothing will come of Nothing” exchange which seems to me the point when Lear begins to recognise his folly goes for nothing in this staging.
As I can't be whole-heartedly enthusiastic about this revival, let me start with a word of praise for the Union's upcoming schedule, which like so much non-West End stuff seems to get little notice in the mainstream press or indeed elsewhere in the blogosphere. I only hope fellow musical theatre afficionados are paying attention. Coming up there in the next three months we have Kander and Ebb's Steel Pier and Mary Rodgers's Once Upon a Mattress – I can't recall either having been staged in London in my memory, though doubtless somebody will correct me. Whatever else you do in the next few months, if you're a musical theatre fan, give the tiresome long-running nonsense in the West End a miss and head out to Southwark.
On balance you should also head out there for the venue's current production of Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam. You may know this from the film version which stars Ethel Merman (who originated the role of Mrs Sally Adams on stage) and the incomparable Donald O'Connor (better known as Cosmo in Singin' in the Rain). My recollection of the film was of a patchy experience made by the stars rather than the show, and on the whole the same is true of this production – except that it just hasn't got quite enough stars to achieve the same effect.
The best thing in this performance is Lucy Williamson's performance in the Ethel Merman part. Williamson's particular brilliance in this show is that she manages at pretty much every turn to transcend its limitations. There are little bits of business – gestures, expressions, asides which go to make up a great characterisation. She draws the eye when she's onstage and is consistently funny to watch. If Williamson were on stage the whole time the show would be pretty triumphant. Unfortunately she isn't.
Sunday, 26 August 2012
This was my last International Festival drama for this year, and by goodness it was a marvellous way to finish. After one too many over elaborate and dull nonsenses, this performance is a reminder that to create great theatre you don't need more than a fine text (Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece) and a world class singing actress (Camille O'Sullivan).
O'Sullivan like Barry McGovern in Watt knows the dynamic of story telling. At the beginning she has that quiet authority of the great narrator leading you into the labyrinth. She has the art of voice and gesture which means that throughout the story even though the stage is basically bare you really feel that you see the defiled bed, the hapless Lucrece, the lust filled Tarquin. She switches effortlessly from the outside authority to the three principal characters of Lucrece, Tarquin and Lucretius (Lucrece's despairing father who has a powerful speech towards the close). She also makes you feel the weight of fate – the balance in the story that on some level longs to hold back the disaster and knows that it must come.
The story is delivered in a mixture of speech and song which I found wholly compelling and very moving. But I think the heart of O'Sullivan's achievement is that she can really deliver Shakespeare – this is far more difficult and far less common than you might imagine. But O'Sullivan really knows how to make the phrases live, she is consistently spot on with which words to give weight to, which phrases to linger on.
As I descended the stairs of the Kings Theatre after this tedious matinee I heard a fellow audience member describe this show as a Russian Revolution. The temptation to utter a sharp retort was exceedingly strong, but I resisted. There is nothing revolutionary about this show. It is another tedious exposition of many tired cliches of the modern theatre director which have previously been more than sufficiently exhibited in other offerings of the International Festival's Drama programme.
Director Dmitry Krymov follows in the footsteps of Silviu Purcarete. Like Purcarete with Swift, Krymov appears for reasons not wholly clear to be unable to face staging Shakespeare's play complete. He therefore resorts to an alternative we have often seen before – he'll attempt only a small section of the whole. The section Krymov has chosen is the Mechanicals play. In the Shakespeare I shouldn't think this can last more than half an hour, in Krymov's hands it is elongated to an hour and forty minutes. You may possibly be thinking that there cannot be enough material in the Mechanicals play to sustain such an extension and you would be absolutely right.
This is even more the case because Krymov is not in fact interested in delivering much of Shakespeare's text at all – vast swathes of this play are textless, with occasional interventions from the Duke's court (ranged along the side of the extended stage and in the boxes) who don't succeed in being funnier than their Shakespearean counterparts who were not terribly funny to start with.
Before I start in on this review I must be very clear. Unless Mills can afford to invite Mnouchkine back again you are unlikely to see anything like this in the UK again in a hurry. I unequivocally urge you to get a ticket if you can and experience it despite the overall reservations I shall make in the course of this review about the show. This justifies the trek to Ingliston as neither of Mills's other two shows there have done.
This show takes place on a vast stage which is visually very striking. We are in an enormous rooftop space above a restaurant somewhere in Paris (I think) on the eve of the First World War. Sets manouvred by the cast appear and disappear from the rooms off stage and from the rear curtained off portion of the main area. In the centre a complex system of pulleys and counterweights is constantly in use to suspend surtitle screen, actors and other elements of the design. The attention to detail in the visuals throughout this epic recalled to my mind some of the lavish toys from the film of that name, and the theatre as constructed in Moulin Rouge. But these aren't things I can recall ever seeing on a British stage.
The conceit of the show is that filmmakers who have walked out of the leading French company have taken over this space to make a film based on an unpublished Jules Verne novel Les Nuafrages du Fol Espoir. Although the programme argues that the making of nine silent film episodes is interpolated within the overall story of the making of the film in practice the piece is dominated by those filmmaking episodes and they are much the strongest element. The brilliancy of their evocation – shipwrecks, howling wastelands, falling snow, birds, men rowing small canoes across the stage – cannot really be described in prose but has to be witnessed. It is unquestionably a magnificent achievement.
Tuesday, 21 August 2012
The first half of this evening's double bill is an excellent piece of theatre. Three women debate what should be done with the villa of the title where torturing and killing took place under the Pinochet dictatorship. Certain aspects of the piece could so easily lead it into the kind of desiccated territory inhabited by some of the deconstructionist theatre showcased elsewhere in this year's festival – most notably the fact that the three characters are to an extent denied individuality. They are all called Alejandra, what backstory we do learn about them (up until the final moments) is often subsequently called into question. But their doubtful characters, the question mark over their individuality does not end up lessening their humanity and crucially does not stop them from engaging the audience's emotions – or at least did not prevent my emotions from being engaged.
The play is also concerned with a large theme – how do you come to terms with this legacy of torture, of death. But it doesn't get sunk by that theme – rather it is by turns both solemn and playful. There are several set pieces of real poetry as the women defend particular positions – should the Villa be re-created exactly as it was, should it be turned into a museum? But there is also a wonderful self mocking section which points out that everybody who comes there will interpret it differently – laugh at it, cry etc. It's also a gentle mockery of writing a play about it but done with a wit that similar interludes such as Marthaler's completely lacked.
Above all, the play is a reminder that even with this awful legacy so forcefully before them humans do not necessarily become better people. The three women are met in committee because the larger group in charge of the project have failed to reach agreement. Pretty soon these three are also at daggers drawn, there are unpleasant attempts at manipulation, even momentary flare ups of violence. The gulf between the women and the world whose remembrance they are grappling with proves not to be as wide as one might wish to imagine.
Monday, 20 August 2012
Regular readers will know that I do have a prejudice as a reviewer. Well actually I probably have a number of prejudices but there is one thing I care about more than anything else. I want a performance to engage my emotions. I want to care. For this reason I have even got more out of shows that have made me violently angry than shows in which I have simply been bored (neither of which circumstances I hasten to add applied to this one). I did not expect to be moved by this evening's opera, Charpentier's little known David et Jonathas. I don't usually care for music of that vintage and I booked with my completionist hat on rather than out of a strong desire to see the piece. Yet, as the evening drew on, and as I conquered my initial attack of exhaustion (brought on by yesterday's late night jaunt up Arthur's Seat) I found the work increasingly powerful.
The plot is Biblical and somewhat muddled but the main things you need to know are that Saul is jealous of David and will indeed end up being replaced by him, and David and Jonathas (Saul's son) are in love, and it will all end badly.
The staging, by Andreas Homoki is a bit uneven. The set is basically a confined wooden box which can be broken up into several rooms, and with moveable walls to adjust the spaces with psychological implications for different characters which are clearer at some points than others. The movement of walls is not unreminiscent of some of Christoph Loy's recent productions (and the bits of business with chairs reminded of Marthaler) – clearly these are in elements in current European opera production, but fortunately neither are irritatingly distracting. Homoki's management of his cast is also uneven. There are some very effective images – for example at the height of Saul's torment he finds himself surrounded by images of his wife – but equally tension in staging and movement is often allowed to dissipate. But when Homoki is at his best he really nails it – the moments following Jonathas's death, and the hollowness of the crowning of David are spot on.
This four concert series was one of the longer festival residences I can remember. In the past, it has sometimes been the case that after such a sustained exposure to a single group of artists one can tire of them. So it is pleasing to report that after four consecutive nights of Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra surveying the symphonies of Brahms and Szymanowski, as well as the concertos of the latter, such fatigue was not in evidence.
Brahms and Szymanowski were perhaps not the most obvious pairing, and even after the cycle they remain so. That is not to say the two composers sat together uneasily, in general the programmes fitted well, but rather that their combined presence didn't appear to offer great insight into each other's works.
Going into the cycle, I had misgivings about the Brahms. While I admire much of his work, I do not always get on with Gergiev's interpretations. For example, although it is well regarded in some quarters, I cannot stand his Mahler. Fortunately, such concerns were largely misplaced. This was helped to a great extent by the exceptional playing of the LSO. I fear in the past I have not rated them quite as highly as they deserve, though this is because I normally hear them in the horribly unflattering acoustic of the Barbican. In the Usher Hall, the quality of their string sound was really a treat, especially when playing at fully strength. The same must be said of the winds, and these performances brought out many details in Brahms' writing for them more clearly than I've noticed before. Indeed, technically speaking, over four nights there was little to fault in the whole orchestra.
This latest loose version of a classic text offers something of an advance over Meine faire Dame. It has at least got something to substitute for the character and narrative which it has, in the typical manner of the modern European theatre director, decided to dispense with. In fact it has about 45 minutes worth of substitute material. Unfortunately this show lasts for an hour and a half.
Director Silviu Purcarete is also refreshingly, almost amusingly honest about his approach. One of the early images (after a horse has been led round the stage – an animal presence which is justified in the final image but not here) is of a man clearly intended to be Swift/Gulliver being knocked out by a company member, and the book from which he is about to read ripped to shreds. No one can say that Purcarete has not made his intentions clear.
Pucarete then picks a single aspect of Swift's book – the concept of the Yahoos and spends the rest of the show indicating that man is a brutish unpleasant beast through a series of tableaux. Some of this is very visually striking – especially the shadowplay, and the chorus acting as miniatures being played with by a human. But nearly all the episodes (especially the final one which is rather sub Einstein on the Beach) outstay their welcome, and there is too much hanging around between them. Above all, they have nothing to say beyond repeating the basic point, which is why I suggest that the whole thing would have been much stronger condensed to about half the length.
Wednesday, 15 August 2012
Let us start with the positives. There were some funny moments. Some of the music was well sung. The performers themselves can't be faulted. But overall this was dull, over-long and self indulgent. It was, in short, a classic example of deconstruction theatre.
The EIF programme note may lead you to believe that this is going to be a deconstruction of My Fair Lady. This material lasts Christoph Marthaler for about half of this two hour show. To fill up the rest he turns to among other things bits of Lohengrin, The Magic Flute, various pop songs and, I think, Lottie in Weimar. You may wonder how these elements fit together. The answer is that they don't really.
Each episode (for this is largely a show of episodes) outstays its welcome. Some moments (the girl with a problem getting down the stairs for instance) could be really funny but are run over and over again until the life has been sucked out of them. The overall effect is typical of this kind of deconstruction theatre. No meaningful relationships are created between the characters, in the audience I was left feeling emotionally cold.
Regular readers may recall that one of the first crims in my staging failures book is dullness. I take my hat off to this production – it uses every cliché in the Reinvented Classics book and yet most of it ends up being pretty boring.
Before we get to the various sillinesses (like the inexplicable rabbit and magician) let us begin with the far more fundamental problem. Delivery of the text in this production is diabolical. It's not quite so infuriatingly slow as in the legendary American Repertory Theatre Three Sisters but it is a damn close run thing. There is also the bizarre additional issue that the company seems to believe that doing silly voices or other vocal effects (the version of “Sir, Yes, Sir” became especially annoying) is dramatically effective in itself. It isn't. Pretty rapidly I ceased to believe a word anybody was saying and consequently to give a damn about any of the protagonists.
The staging is proof that you can throw shedloads of money at a production to no good effect. It consists of an architecturally muddled house of four rooms. We may possibly be somewhere in the Middle East but this is never established with any conviction. Scenes take place across the four rooms and a couple of balconies with little evident reason as to why they do so. Creation of effective tension between performers through movement and stillness (in other words basic stagecraft) is depressingly thin. The various explosions and gunfire, impressive in themselves though the former in particular were, in practice did little than to momentarily arouse me from the torpor into which the rest of this tedious performance was dragging me.
This show is proof of a remark I have made before that very often simple is best. It consists of what I suppose one could call edited highlights of Samuel Beckett's novel Watt performed by Barry McGovern on an almost bare Royal Lyceum stage.
The novel tells the tale of Watt, his journey by train to the house of Mr Knott where he is to work, his life there and his eventual departure. Much of the pleasure is derived simply from Beckett's tongue twisting word games which McGovern brings off with real dexterity helped by his voice being one which I could listen to for hours.
For much of the show it feels funny, and inconsequential. But as the show reaches its conclusion one realises the story actually has a moving depth, and a lot to say beneath the word games about fundamental human dilemmas.
Sadly the run has ended so I can't urge you to catch this, but those outside Edinburgh should look out for future touring performances.
Tuesday, 14 August 2012
Two brief reports follow on performances which for different reasons just didn't carry me off.
Greyfriars – His Majesty's Sagbutts and Cornetts and Concerto Palatino
Early Music has been a regular feature of the International Festival during Jonathan Mills's directorship. Generally speaking this is not an era of classical music that does much for me and I have consequently not attended many of the concerts in this strand over the last few years. However, I've always been intrigued by the idea of an ensemble of Sagbutts and Cornetts so I decided to give this performance a try.
The concert celebrated the 400th anniversary the day before of the death of Giovanni Gabrieli with an hour long selection of his instrumental pieces featuring various combinations of sackbut (the predecessor of the trombone) and cornetts – described in the programme note as “made of wood [with] finger-holes (like a woodwind instrument) but [using] the cup mouthpiece more often associated with brass ones.” The selections were taken from three collections of Gabrieli's music – the Symphoniae sacrae (1597), the Canzoni per sonare (1608) and the posthumously published Canzone e sonate (1615).
The quality of the playing was excellent and I found more to interest me in the pieces of later date which sounded more complex musically to my unfamiliar ears. That said an hour of this sound world was quite sufficient for me. I'm interested to have heard these performers once but I don't feel I need to hurry to hear them again. This is not a comment on them, but on myself – it rather proved to me that early music is just not really my cup of tea.
When the Festival brochure came out this was one of the show's I hesitated about. I wasn't at that stage sure how long I was going to come up for, I could (transport permitting) see it in Nottingham in the autumn, and I had recently seen the ENO revival of this opera. Suffice it to say that I was extremely glad I decided to join my brother at last night's performance.
Opera North has very strong recent pedigree in Janacek, as I noted when I previewed the opera programme, including a marvellous From the House of the Dead last year. This production continues in that fine vein – especially on the musical side - making this a worthy return visit to the Festival for them.
The opera is performed in English, and with one slight exception which I'll come on to, this is an entirely happy decision contributing to the real dramatic punch of the evening. The company's diction is mainly excellent, with the text delivered clearly and with point. This is an opera which, with its large number of medium sized parts, needs a really strong ensemble, and Opera North have assembled one including Paul Nilon (Albert Gregor), James Creswell (Kolenaty) and Stephanie Corley (Kristina). The only singer who is not wholly satisfactory is Yiva Kihlberg's Emilia Marty. She doesn't quite have either the stage or vocal presence to dominate proceedings in the way the character should and as Cheryl Barker did for Mackerras in the original run of ENO's current production. Part of the problem is I think that she, unlike the rest of the cast, is not wholly comfortable with the English – or at least she didn't sound wholly comfortable – and I would be interested to hear her perform the role in Czech. But too much stress should not be placed on this, – it is a very creditable attempt and there is much to appreciate in her performance.
Monday, 13 August 2012
Before setting out for this performance I was hopeful. The source material – the myth of Elektra - is dramatic stuff, and I had seen Asian theatre at last year's festival which was enthralling. Sadly this one makes for a dull 75 minutes.
According to the programme note Tadashi Suzuki, whose company this was, thinks that “all the world is a hospital” and had consequently set the drama in one. If he does this for all his shows, as said note seems to imply, I can't help thinking the novelty must have worn off some time ago. From my perspective this setting did nothing to illuminate the drama.
The best of this performance comes in the first ten minutes. The chorus appear in wheel chairs and execute a number of manouvers about the stage culminating in a very fast circuit round and round before crashing off stage left. This was visually quite striking, but it completely escaped me what relationship it was supposed to have to the story proper.
Sunday, 12 August 2012
After Friday's opening damp squib, it was fortunate that the man himself was on hand with the sort of work genuinely capable of blowing the doors off buildings: Richard Strauss's Alpensinfonie. The contrast with the Delius could hardly be more stark as Strauss employs similarly epic forces but orchestrates them to create jaw-dropping effects and vistas as he takes the listener on a climb through the alps.
In the wrong hands, the symphony can feel too episodic but with a Strauss conductor of the calibre of Runnicles such was never likely to be the case, and sure enough the music and narrative flowed smoothly and naturally. As the orchestra led us higher up the mountain they unveiled stunning alpine scene after stunning alpine scene. About the only reservation would be that the opening and closing nachts were not quite as pin drop quiet as needed for ultimate effect.
The piece places significant demands on the players, most notable the brass who have no shortage of the exposed entries. Here the BBC SSO acquitted themselves superbly, joined, it must be noted, by what must have been most of the professional brass players in Scotland. It wouldn't really be a Runnicles concert without some superbly placed offstage brass, and true to form a substantial battery of players had been located just outside the doors of the grand circle, creating a wonderful stereo effect where we were seated.
When hearing a live performance of a neglected choral epic there are broadly speaking two reactions, either "why isn't this performed more often" (e.g. Sibelius's Kullervo) or "that's been justly neglected". Delius's A Mass of Life fell firmly into the latter category, as well making a strong running for the title of most ironically named piece, seeming neither to effectively celebrate life nor contain a significant quantity of it.
It must be stressed that, for the most part, this wasn't the fault of the performers. The RSNO are generally a good orchestra and tend to be on the top of their game when under the baton of Andrew Davis as they were for this. Yet try as they might, they were unable to resuscitate Delius's score which remained stubbornly bland and devoid of emotion. They were joined by the festival chorus who didn't impress quite as much as they have done in some recent performances, though I am reluctant to criticise them too much since Delius's writing didn't seem designed to flatter them. The weak link in terms of performance was the quartet of soloists, particularly baritone Hanno Muller-Brachmann who seemed a little strained, though in part this may have been because he had by far the most to do. And even if you assembled the finest fantasy quartet in musical history it wouldn't make this work a much more appealing prospect.
The most significant flaw is probably Delius's inability to set text effectively. True, Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra is a pretty mad affair but it is not without its moments, no more so than with "the world is deep" which Mahler sets so effectively in his third symphony, leaving you to feel as though the world has opened up to swallow you; Delius might as well be expressing a preference for the extent to which sandwiches should be filled. Elsewhere the bariton sings of the pangs of his heart, not that you would have any clue of that from the music.
Thursday, 9 August 2012
For one all too brief scene two singers in this production rise about its lunacies. This blessed occurrence happens in Act Three Scene One. After the opening the chorus are not on stage and we have just the interaction between Klaus Florian Vogt's Lohengin and Annette Dasch's Elsa. The set is still not without its problems – I didn't think the cordoning off of the bed as if it was an art exhibit or the emergence of the swan boat from within the bed added anything to the scene – but for virtually the only time in the evening Vogt and Dasch were allowed to explore the relationship between their two characters without a lot of pointless busyness disrupting the engagement of the characters. For that one scene staging was in harmony with music. It was a telling illustration of just what a great house Bayreuth could be if they actually hired directors interested in achieving this on a more regular basis.
Unfortunately, as will now be clear, the rest of the opera does not match this – at least for me. It is not as awful a production as Marthaler's Tristan for two reasons – the principals are allowed to interact with each other most of the time and there is a certain fascination from trying to work out what the hell director Hans Neuenfels is trying to say, but as I found the former was surrounded by the silliness of the latter and I found it impossible to discern what the point of the latter was it was a pretty close run thing.
According to people I talked with at the interval the setting is supposed to be an animal testing laboratory in which Lohengrin is the only normal person. Consequently the chorus are all dressed as white, black or pink (Elsa's bridesmaids) rats. There are also a number of people wandering around in blue nuclear protection suits. The fact that Lohengrin is not from this place is indicated by his spending the Act One prelude trying to break into it. Quite why he wanted to break into it was never established and while I was watching this dumb show it was not in fact clear to me that that was what he was doing. What any of the rest of them are doing in an animal testing laboratory, what their roles are there or how any of this setting is supposed to illuminate text or music was not apparent to me either.
Wednesday, 8 August 2012
The director of this production, Christopher Marthaler, makes his Edinburgh International Festival debut next week. According to the Festival, Marthaler is one of Europe's leading and most influential directors whose work has rarely been seen in Britain. All I can say is that if this production is a fair sample of that work then the less we see of him in UK houses the better.
Let us start however with the positives. Musically this was a very fine performance. Indeed after Act One I frequently closed my eyes and this improved the evening considerably. This was my first experience of Bayreuth. It is very clear that there is a distinct difference musically in terms of how Wagner sounds here as against other houses. Most notably the balance between voices and orchestra is rarely a problem – in fact just occasionally I felt the voices were over-favoured. The acoustic also gives a wonderful clarity to the orchestral sound – I felt I heard individual lines in the orchestra more clearly than I recall doing in other houses.
The stand out singer was Irene Theorin's Isolde. I was previously due to hear her in the ENO revival of Parsifal from which she withdrew, but apart from that if she has sung in the UK I have managed to miss her. I will be keeping a close eye out for her from now on, and UK houses should be rushing to engage her. She has a marvellous Wagner voice – warm, rich, ringingly powerful but not losing it in the quieter passages and tireless. She is also an excellent actress and did her level best to transcend the follies of the production.
Friday, 3 August 2012
Note: This is a review of the final preview on Wed 1st August. The press night took place yesterday, Thurs 2nd August.
I would have liked to take an audience straw poll after this show to find out what percentage had read the book, and then to discover how they found it. I have not read the book, so I was able to enjoy this show simply as a play and after a few moments of doubt at the beginning I was swept along.
On the face of it the narrative concerns the struggle of Christopher, who has Asberger's Syndrome, to solve a number of mysteries in his life – it starts out as the mystery of the death of his next door neighbour's dog but becomes about rather more than that. Most poignantly it's about the effect of having a child like that on a marriage, and about the lies we are capable of telling even, perhaps especially, to those we love when we are in pain. I won't give away any more than that because I don't want to spoil the story for anybody else who may see it not having read the book.
This story is brought to life by some superb acting. The central role of Christopher is played by Luke Treadaway, and I found him completely convincing. There's the striking mix of knowledgeable assurance in the areas about which he knows far more than the 'ordinary' people he encounters, but the production also brings out the overwhelming impact on him of new experiences like the, for most of us, simple business of train travel. His parents Ed and Judy are played by Paul Ritter and Nicola Walker. Both are very good but I would especially single out Ritter. The way in which his pain, desperation and guilt are gradully revealed is powerfully done. In the very first moments I was doubtful about Niahm Cusack's Siobhan – this is because it appears as if large chunks of the play are going to be narrated by her and something about her initial vocal tone grated for me - but fortunately this is not the way the adaptation goes and Cusack's performance after that moment was spot on. Behind them is a six strong ensemble who perform multiple roles – all to a high standard.
Saturday, 28 July 2012
Well it had to happen sometime. I have been strongly supportive of much of the recent work of both Glyndebourne and tonight's director David McVicar. Tonight, I'm afraid was a bit of a failure in most departments (apart from the delightful company of my sister-in-law and the fact that it didn't rain).
David McVicar relocated the action to...well...quite honestly I'm not sure where we were except that it was a garret designed by a very confused architect, and there was a gas fire. This was, at least until Acts 3 and 4, an indifferent relocation – that is it didn't serious interfere with the drama but it did nothing to reinforce it at all, though it is never a good sign when in the opening moments the text is talking about smoke over the rooftops of Paris (or something like that) and one is wondering where in the world the performers actually are exactly. Nevertheless there is an awful lot of pointless busyness in this part of the staging (the fire jugglers added nothing), and I was sorely tempted to inaugurate a new award to be given to McVicar for superfluous use of revolve and insufficient use of gantry. After the interval things deteriorated further – in particular in terms of movement. First there was the problem of convincing one that Mimi is really dying. I realise that sopranos taking the role are unlikely (fortunately) to actually look consumptive so a director must find a way of disguising this. It was a great error on McVicar's part to place Mimi (Serena Farnocchia) centre stage in clothing which did nothing to disguise her healthy proportions. It was a further error to have Rodolfo (David Lomeli) pulling her upright periodically when she started coughing. The net result of all this was that I found it very difficult to believe that she was actually seriously ill. The second problem related to the issue of the bizarre architectural layout of the garret. For most of the action it appeared as if the four lived in one room beneath a gantry. How the gantry was supposed to relate to the room beneath it was beyond me. Moreover such limited use was made of this large, conspicuous piece of set as to make it seem fundamentally pointless. In Act 4, pointless became irritating. You may remember that Colline possesses a large overcoat which he bids farewell to in order to sell it to procure medicine for Mimi. As this moment approached it struck me that there was no sign of Colline's overcoat on stage. He departed into the wing (walking under the stage right set of stairs up the gantry) to collect it – nothing had previously been done to suggest there was any more of the flat in that direction. When he came back he walked in front of the set of stairs. I realise this may seem a small point but it was symptomatic of generally untidy and unconvincing movement and establishment of place. My wise sister-in-law did suggest that perhaps Colline had forgotten to bring the coat in with him on his original entrance, this is certainly the only explanation I can think of which would justify this confused piece of staging.
Wednesday, 25 July 2012
This is the second time I've seen Kiss Me Kate live. The first time was a weak touring production in Edinburgh which mainly remains in my mind for my then girlfriend falling asleep during it (in fairness we went shortly after a transatlantic flight, it was also a fair comment on the quality of the performance). Chichester as one has come to expect throws everything at this production, but it is another Trevor Nunn enterprise that just doesn't altogether come off.
Part of the problem is the show itself and of course its source material. Apart from anything else it is just a bit difficult to take Kate/Lilli's submission to Fred/Petruchio seriously at the end since he has hardly been an angel – his sending a copy of their wedding bouquet to his new squeeze in Act 1 is especially low and he more than deserves to be on the receiving end of her temper. The only way I think that a production can really get round this is by convincing the viewer that there is a genuine, if ultimately somewhat irrational, love behind all the punishment the two visit on each other. Both Hannah Waddingham and Alex Bourne give solid performances but on this crucial point they did not convince me. My heart remained unengaged, at least by them.
The other problem with the material is trying to make the lengthy bits of Shakespeare in the show within a show come off. Here I'm not at all sure there is a solution – it is fundamentally a bit plodding – but I think you've got to try something other than just delivering it straight as here. Make more of the artifical quality of it perhaps, or have a couple of poor performances by the actors playing the roles within roles. Nothing along those lines, or indeed any other, is attempted here and the result is that these scenes drag.
Sometimes as a theatregoer you are privileged to see a production in which everything works. The play is a masterpiece. The ensemble are spot on. The production is brilliantly judged. And the lead is giving the performance of a lifetime. Chichester's new production of Brecht's Arturo Ui is such an occasion.
Brecht's reimagining of Hitler as a small time Chicago hood taking over the grocery racket is fiendishly clever. It's often ludicrous (I don't think I quite appreciated before how potentially ludicrous the words 'cabbage' and 'cauliflower' are) but of course the ultimate effects are horrifying, and particularly as the play darkens after the inerval the audience are not spared. One other device to be mentioned is Brecht's clever use of Shakespeare – most obvious when having Ui appropriating snatches of Julius Caesar but present across the play and both serving as further mockery of the idea of taking the set up seriously (how can these gangsters be spouting lines of Shakespeare, and getting it wrong) but of course equally insisting that we do take it seriously – there is a Shakespearean tragic element to this enterprise only the culpable audience is much wider than the gangsters and politicians on stage.
As already mentioned, the supporting cast are uniformly excellent. This is a play that needs an especially versatile ensemble – it's a long way from the jazz which greets you as you take your seat to the fiery rant of the conclusion. It is worthy of note that most of the cast have to play at least two roles and they transfer between them seamlessly. Major contributions include William Gaunt's hapless Dogborough, Colin Stinton's courageous, doomed Ignatius Dullfoot, Lizzy McInnerny as his ultimately biddable wife, Joe McGann's fading Irish-American actor (whose scene with Ui provides a brief moment of hilarity in the descending darkness) and the trio of gangsters behind Ui. But everybody makes an important contribution to this stunning evening. At the centre though, is Henry Goodman's spellbinding Arturo Ui, who transforms before our eyes from the inarticulate butt of the joke in his first brief, silent appearance, to the searing, dominating dictator of the conclusion. So many little things contribute to this but I would single out two – the periodic, unsettling way that Goodman's wide staring eyes suddenly seemed to flash out at me, and his equally sudden transitions from reasonableness to vicious fury.
It's been some little while since I saw a show which almost uniformly fails to work. This is such an one. It's not a lack of good lines. It's not setting and direction totally contrary to the text. It's not that the performers are without talent. But somehow Richard Clifford, a director hitherto, and on this showing blessedly, unknown to me, has put these elements together and pretty completely failed to achieve lift off.
The fundamental problem is a desperate lack of conviction. Based on the several Shaws I've now seen I think there is often a danger of his characters falling into caricature. Genevieve O'Reilly's performance in the National's Doctor's Dilemma, while not perfect, did catch the essential living quality. Apart from odd moments from Derek Jacobi as Captain Shotover and Fiona Butler as Ellie Dunn performance after performance here lapses into caricature. I never really felt that most of the company believed a word they were saying and they consequently failed to make me believe or care about them. There are flashes of amusement to be had from these caricatures but emotional engagement is sadly lacking.
Tuesday, 24 July 2012
Note: This is a review of the final preview last night. The Press Night is today.
The publicity for this play gives the impression that it is a comedy about the medical profession. Actually, as Michael Holroyd's programme note half acknowledges it is really a play about love.
To do justice to Shaw, the first act of the play is indeed occupied with a satire of private medical practitioners as a group of them queue up to pay homage to one of their number, Colenso Ridgeon (Adam Gillett) who has just been awarded a knighthood in recognition of a revolutionary discovery in vaccination (it is never entirely clear whether this is actually deserved or not). There is some amusement here as the doctors ride their pet hobby horses, from Cutler Walpole's (Robert Portal) conviction that a simple operation will solve the blood poisoning problem which is at the root of the illnesses of 95% of the population to Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington's (Malcolm Sinclair) repeated declaration that treatment is all about fighting the phagocytes.
Into this medical melee comes the lovely Jennifer Dubedat (Genevieve O'Reilly) and from then on, slowly at first before the interval but with increasing power after it the play becomes a powerful commentary on the irrationality of love, most particularly Ridgeon's mad passion for Jennifer, and Jennifer's absolute incapacity to perceive any flaw in her husband – the latter marvellously played by Tom Burke.
Friday, 20 July 2012
Once again (people will be beginning to think I do this deliberately) I find myself somewhat out of step with mainstream critical opinion which has lavished praise on this revival. There are some good things in it, and overall it is never less than solid, but for me there was a crucial lack of electric drive from the pit which made it an ultimately unsatisfying evening.
The best of this performance came from the two leads, Anja Harteros's Desdemona and Aleksandrs Antonenko's Otello. Of the two I personally found Harteros more dramatically convincing and musically satisfying, particularly in Act 4, but Antonenko gives a perfectly fine performance. Harteros is scheduled to sing Elizabeth in next year's excitingly cast Don Carlo revival making another strong reason for catching that. Unfortunately the third leg of the triumverate, Lucio Gallo's Iago was a different story. I have, I find, previously heard him in the Royal Opera Il Trittico where he did not especially impress me and it was the same here. The voice is not big enough for the role, and at times I felt he could have been reading his shopping list rather than planning villainies. The other supporting players don't have much to do in this but generally perform well.
The production is a solid Royal Opera classic dating back to 1987 and originally directed by Elijah Moshinsky. There are some beautiful stage pictures but there are also one or two places that now feel a bit mechanical (particularly the tableaux of the opening scene) and generally the movement has that classic revival feeling of a slight lack of sharpness.
Wednesday, 18 July 2012
The best thing about this performance is that it has one of those moments about which I have written before, where everything else falls away and there's just you and these characters now. It comes probably about half way through the second half. Simon Russell Beale's Timon and Hilton McRae's Apemantus have been building up a nice head of steam in the trading of insults to show how they detest one another. “Rogue”, Beale roars, then each time more falteringly, “rogue...rogue.” For a few brief moments the bond of love between them is almost bared. It gives to McRae's parting appeal to Timon – the blunt command to live – an added emotional weight.
Around this moment, there is a considerable cast grappling with a somewhat unwieldy play. The republic of Athens is crumbling. Lords led by Timon deal in lavish gifts and banquets while outside a revolt brews. It's not surprising that Nicholas Hytner has chosen to update it to reflect the Occupy movement and the current financial crisis, and this does yield some effective insights. But the thing about this play is, as the moment between Beale and McRae reveals, that it's really about the frailties of human beings, and most of all the troubled personality of Timon. It wasn't until late on in the second act as Beale's transformed homeless begger wrestles with the lure of fresh wealth that I began to think that really it is actually all about Timon – what is the driver in him that causes him to give and give and give in the flamboyant, ultimately crazed manner of the first half, and then to turn on mankind with such virulence after the interval. Beale nearly always delivers the language with point, is frequently compelling to watch (especially after his fall) but I think there's further for this characterisation to go. I'm also not altogether convinced that Hytner has quite got a full handle on the play. The updating, like Beale's performance has many striking moments but looking back at the first half having experienced the second I feel there needed to be more focus on Timon to begin with, a clearer attempt to tease out what is really going on. Beale's desire for release through death seems to suggest a sense of awareness of a kind of madness that the whole performance and the staging in which it's embedded could have followed through more fully.
Tuesday, 10 July 2012
I've hesitated about writing up any thoughts from this performance. I suffer from time to time with a kind of anxiety and I was wrestling with that during parts of this performance which clearly makes me less able to judge it to my usual observatory standards. However, there is an issue about the best approach to operatic production which I think is raised by this production and by some critical responses to it which I feel strongly about. Because of this feeling I have decided to write up my thoughts on this performance, with the caveat that my observation may not have been as clear as I would usually hope that it is.
While freely conceding that this production is not the overpowering experience that McVicar's Meistersinger was at Glyndebourne last year it does do two things which I applaud in an operatic production because they are still not frequent enough. First, the settings are faithful to the stage directions and the text. We see the walls of Troy, we see the fabled horse, we see Dido stabbing herself on a funeral pyre. Second, though less successful here than in Meistersinger McVicar still demonstrates that he thinks about how characters are positioned in relation to each other on stage in order to more effectively bring out their relationships. Related to this second point I would also argue that McVicar is not afraid to allow his characters to be still and sing (something also in evidence in his Rigoletto and in contrast to the mad busyness of all too many operatic productions).
Now, having made those points I do concede the problems. There is perhaps more fire than strictly necessary. The appearance of a statue of Hannibal at the end of Act 5 is a bit overdone. The resetting to the Crimea doesn't really make sense (although it's hardly conspicuous). The less said about Andrew George's choreography the better, except that someone else should be got in to redo it if this is ever remounted. Yet, with the exception of the choreography none of these things seriously troubled my engagement with the evening as a whole, or roused in me that disconnection between work and staging which so often happens for me with modern opera productions.
Friday, 6 July 2012
At the interval of this play I was feeling rather lukewarm towards it. There was a stagey quality to Stephen Beresford's writing which left me feeling emotionally disengaged. Julie Walters seemed to be playing another version, almost a caricature, of her part in Dinnerladies, and other parts were unevenly played. But in Act Two two strange things happened.
The first surprise was the sudden flashing presence of Quakerism. Near the beginning of the play a character is mentioned “who was a glue sniffer and is now a Quaker.” As a Quaker myself I found this funny. But in Act Two there's a moment when Julie Walters suddenly describes what seems intended to be a transformative experience for her character, Judy. Up to that point its been all hippies and drugs and ashrams, but now we are at a peace group in Belsize Park. The character describes a Quaker coming to talk to them essentially about the light of God being in everyone and that if all those lights could join together the world could be changed. Her light, Judy insists, has never gone out whatever else may have been mistaken or gone wrong. I am not evangelical about my faith, though it is something that is very important to me on a personal level. As a Quaker you get sort of used to the fact that there isn't much reference to it in popular culture and generally speaking this isn't something that worries me. So I think my strong reaction to this moment was partly one of surprise – it was so unexpected to hear one of the central tenets of the Quaker faith being put forward from the stage of the Lyttelton. Unexpected and somehow very moving.
Sunday, 1 July 2012
I set off for the Royal Opera House on Friday night with some slight misgivings. My parents saw this show on Wednesday and their report was lukewarm. It had been a heavy week at work and it took some effort to drag myself back out of the house. But, as is so often the case, this particular show proved to be just the tonic I needed and a marvellous reward for a hard slog of a week.
The true revelation of the evening was Britten's score. I think I do actually have it on CD somewhere and therefore must have listened to it but I cannot recall it making any real impression at all, and I had booked out of curiousity rather than love. I can only say that it totally beguiled me. Yes, it may partly have been the effect of hearing a great orchestrator at work after Thursday night's one song to the tune of the same song at the Coliseum. But I think it is more than this. The sound world is beguiling, from the use of percussion to the brass and woodwind solos. There is a marvellous romantic, mysterious sweep especially to the second act which just completely carried me away. Barry Wordsworth drew compelling playing from an on form Royal Opera Orchestra for both of whom the cheers at the end were deservedly loud.
The design matched the music. Castles frame the stage, the Emperor whizzes around on a rather fun Heath Robertson type wheelchair, the lighting adds effectively to the mood. However, the more astute amongst you may have noticed that I have not yet mentioned the dancing or Kenneth MacMillan's choreography. I have stressed on previous occasions that while certain ballets have blown me away I am not a balletomane, so I don't feel as comfortable judging ballet choreography as I do other things. After a non-descript first half I thought things improved, but overall somehow MacMillan just didn't seem to rise to the magic of the music. All the emotion and character was there and the dancing just didn't quite match up with it. The Second Act has the best of it and so far as I could judge Sarah Lamb (Princess Rose) and Federico Bonelli (The Prince) danced perfectly well there and throughout but I wasn't held by the choreography as I have been in other ballets.
Saturday, 30 June 2012
Billy Budd at ENO, or Britten, Gardner and the ENO Chorus and Orchestra Triumph over Others' InadequaciesPosted by Finn Pollard at 22:47
I bought a ticket for this show with considerable misgivings. Unlike others I detested both previous efforts by the Alden brothers to direct Britten – Peter Grimes and A Midsummer Night's Dream). But Billy Budd holds a special place in my affections. I find it an extraordinarily powerful work which is not performed nearly as often as it should be. Indeed I would argue that it deserves to be as prominent in the repertory as Grimes, and in the end the opportunity to hear it live again was too enticing to pass up. Overall, the evening was worth it.
The best thing about this performance was the quality of the singing and playing from the ENO Chorus and Orchestra. The augmented male chorus produce a volume of sound which took me back to the glory days of the house. The orchestra deliver a blinding account of the score shaped mostly compellingly by Edward Gardner on the podium. His shaping is perhaps not quite as absolutely spot on as Elder's was at Glyndebourne in 2010 but it's pretty damn close.
In terms of the individual roles things are a little more uneven – but many of them are not helped by the problematic production. Darren Jeffrey (Flint), Henry Waddington (Ratcliffe) and Jonathan Summers (Redburn) bring off the trial scene effectively and Summers announcing the execution in the final scene was chilling. Gwynne Howell's Dansker got a bit swamped in the final scene of Act 1 but elsewhere his singing has real humanity and he radiated presence despite the oddities of the direction. Nicky Spence's Novice has garnered considerable critical praise – he sings the part well but I found his acting post-flogging unconvincing and he was particularly hampered by the costuming and make-up which to my eyes made him look like something out of a Hammer horror film. The off stage sailors were well sung.
Friday, 29 June 2012
One of the mantras of ENO's Artistic Director John Berry has been his desire to get new audiences into the opera house (he has often seemed less concerned with retaining his old ones). As such the chance to stage a new 'opera' by former Blur frontman Damon Albarn must have seemed like the answer to his wildest dreams. For this member of the old ENO audience the evening raises two rather tricky questions: Whether it is a) an opera and b) deserving of a staging in one of London's two subsidised opera houses.
However, let us start with the positives. This is a show which looks stunning. Indeed “Dr Dee: A Pageant” would be a rather more appropriate advertisment than “Dr Dee: An Opera”. The flexible books enlarging to walls or imitating slinkies, the massed ships of the English fleet (though I was irresistibly reminded of Stephen Oliver and Tim Rice's Richard I setting off on crusade in Blondel to a much better tune), and the stereotyped English dancers throwing themselves backwards into the void were particular highlights...not to mention the gratuitious use of birds (feathered) at start and end.
The trouble is that visual sumptuousness will carry you only so far and regrettably everything else in this show sags. It isn't infuriating, it isn't badly done, it just isn't very interesting and it failed the key Dr Pollard test of making me care about the protagonists. In short, God save us from the mediocre.
Tuesday, 26 June 2012
The 2012 Aldeburgh Festival ended on Sunday with one of those large forces extravaganzas that might have been specifically written for just such a purpose. It also ended with a European premiere, which makes it rather interesting that the whole enterprise seemed to have escaped the attention of the BBC.
The programme was made up of Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, and two symphonies by American oddity Charles Ives, his moderately well-known Second (though it was completely new to me) and his Universe Symphony (the aforementioned European premiere). Under the direction of Ives scholar James Sinclair, an enormous number of student musicians from the Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra, the Britten-Pears Orchestra, Aldeburgh Young Musicians, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the Royal College of Music and the University of London Symphony Orchestra threw themselves into the performance with gusto.
A word first about the Universe Symphony. Ives only completed a Prelude and two movements – in fact reading the detailed programme note by Sinclair it seems more accurate to say that one movement (Earth) is complete and this was followed in this performance by a Coda originally intended to form part of the Heaven movement. There have been attempts at completion but this was apparently the most that can be performed while remaining 'true' Ives as it were.
Saturday, 23 June 2012
Towards the end of Brian McMaster's tenure at the Edinburgh Festival he devised a brilliant series of late evening concerts and other performances under the sponsorship of the Royal Bank of Scotland – the Royal Bank Lates. Since his departure the late night performance has rather disappeared from Edinburgh programmes and excepting the OAE's Late Shift isn't much in evidence elsewhere, so it was lovely to be reminded on Friday night in Leiston what a sense of magic performing at that time can bring to a show.
Before Life and After was a site specific combination of film with three song cycles for tenor and piano in the Long Shop Museum in Leiston. The film element, and the direction of the tenor were both provided by Netia Jones fresh from her triumph with the Knussen Double Bill which opened the Festival. This is the third site specific performance Jones has undertaken at the Aldeburgh Festival and I had heard glowing reports of both the previous two. The song cycles, Britten's Winter Words, excerpts from Finzi's A Young Man's Exhortation and Tippett's Boyhood's End, were performed by James Gilchrist (tenor) and Anna Tilbrook (piano). The music was all new to me and I was especially glad to discover the Britten and the Hardy poems which it sets – particularly 'Before Life and After'.
The venue was well chosen. With its beamed roof high overhead, glimpses of the darkening sky through the odd pane of glass and a steam engine concealing the piano it is a visually striking space with what proved to be a suitably resonant acoustic. The images generally fitted well with the texts of the songs and were linked to some nicely judged acting from James Gilchrist as a station master coming, I presumed we were supposed to imagine, towards the end of long service on the Aldeburgh-Leiston branch line as the axe of closure falls.
Tuesday, 19 June 2012
Parts of Britten's work on the soundtracks of some thirty odd documentaries and adverts made by the GPO film unit in the 1930s are pretty well know, especially those which set Auden's verses such as Night Mail and The Way to the Sea. Yet they come from an intense period at the very start of the composer's career and many of them are much less well known, which begged the question of whether they would be sufficient to fill more than two hours of concert programming. The answer, in the hands of Nicholas Collon, the Aurora Orchestra and Sam West, was emphatically yes.
Getting them to the stage in the first place was not an entirely straightforward process, as Collon explained at a talk earlier in the day. The scores exist, but as is the way with the process of editing films, the existing scores do not precisely match up with the existing pictures. Bigger complications were to be found in some of Britten's more adventurous percussion choices: the cart drawn along an asbestos surface is no longer practical. Fortunately, the work that had gone into re-editing and re-scoring paid off and, as narrator Sam West assured us, no percussionists were injured. Indeed, the live concert setting ensured Britten's scores could be heard rather better than they are on the original films, which not only suffer the sorts of issues of fidelity one would expect of recordings made nearly eighty years ago, but also some decidedly ropey playing in places.
However, the programme opened without a film, but instead with the score to Men Behind the Meters, the print having been lost. As Collon himself remarked, it is not typical Britten. Indeed, the first part sounded almost like the sort of muzak you might get in a not very good restaurant. It's rather a pity we couldn't see what pictures it was meant to serve.
Monday, 11 June 2012
It has been some little while since I came out of the first half of a recital feeling quite so irritated. The pianist Peter Serkin had not especially wowed me when performing with the SCO at Saturday's concert, but I had certainly not anticipated my unusually extreme reaction to him flying solo.
The first problem with this recital was the basic programme. Serkin had chosen to combine a 55 minute first half of contemporary works by Knussen, Goehr, Takemitsu and Wuorinen with Beethoven's hour long Diabelli Variations. In any hands I suspect this would have been a challenging combination to bring off, Serkin's manner for me made it a real endurance test.
Things began innocuously enough with Knussen's Variations. This passed my first test for any piece of new, or in this case comparatively new (1989), music heard for the first time – my attention was engaged and I felt I would like to hear it again. Thereafter the trouble started. Returning to perform the Goehr, Serkin seemed to pause for an excessive period of time before commencing the piece. The same thing happened again before (and indeed at the end) of the other three items in the first half. At the start of pieces one felt as if Serkin was waiting for there to be complete silence and indeed if it did not arrive that we might be waiting there all night. Such silence is particularly difficult to achieve in the Maltings where the seats naturally creak. Whereas on Saturday, Knussen's determination to hold stillness after pieces felt like a request, a suggestion, Serkin's felt like an order, and not one that his playing had moved me to naturally obey. The problem was compounded by the fact that Serkin's style often left me uncertain (including at the end of the Beethoven) as to whether or not he had actually finished.
Last time we came to Berlin, it was to hear the man himself work his magic with Wagner's Ring, so it was good to hear him flex those same muscles again, this time in a new production of Lohengrin.
The title role had gone through several changes. Initially it was to be filled by Marco Jentzsch who did not impress as Walther in Glyndebourne's Meistersinger, then a few weeks before the run began it was announced that Klaus Florian Vogt would take his place. Unfortunately, the morning of the performance we attended found Vogt indisposed and Stefan Vinke standing in for him. You would not have known from his performance, so assured was his command both of the staging and of the vocal part. There were occasional cracks in his voice but overall not much to quibble about in a strong reading. Most crucially, he held sufficient force in reserve to deliver a powerful final scene.
Sunday, 10 June 2012
Normally when I go to hear the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, they're kind enough to be playing at the Queen's Hall, a convenient two minutes or so from my front door. Sometimes I have to venture a little further when they present a bigger work at the Usher Hall, and very occasionally I'll make the trip over to Glasgow to hear them at City Halls. Since I can, and do, hear my local band all the time you might reasonably ask if it was worth coming all the way to Aldeburgh to do so. Of course, I haven't come to Aldeburgh just for them, but they were one of the items that made this first week appear the more compelling of the two when I was making my decision about when to visit. The Snape Maltings is one of my favourite concert halls in the world and its size and acoustic are an ideal fit for the SCO. Add to which, they were playing under the baton of Oliver Knussen, who conducts them regularly in Edinburgh and for whom they always play very well.
The concert did not disappoint. Well, leaving aside perhaps the slight regret that the Knussen premiere which should have been the centrepiece went unheard as it is unfinished at the time of writing - Aldeburgh will just have to get them back next year to play it! As Knussen himself noted in his witty and self-effacing acceptance speech when he was presented with the Critics' Circle award afterwards, he was "a little embarrassed that it takes place on the occasion of the non-delivery of another piece". But it would be wrong to dwell on that, since there was not the slightest sense that we had been musically short-changed.
It is generally quite nice to start an Aldeburgh festival day with some chamber music in a Suffolk church, and this proved especially true of Miklós Perényi's recital in Aldeburgh church on Saturday morning. His programme, the first of three this week, was built around two Bach cello suites, part of a complete cycle.
He opened with the first, in G major, BWV 1007, which received a compelling and unmannered performance. Perényi is not a cellist I have encountered before, but his technique is of the highest calibre. True, the reading might not have been as emotionally engaging as some, and certainly it was very different from what we might have heard from Rostropovich (whose previous fund-raising performance of the suites in the same venue was referred to in a brief speech before the concert started), though this is not necessarily a bad thing.
And he was not without charm as a performer, drawing the audience in in a nicely understated manner: every now and then there was a playful spark in his eye as he glanced out towards us, or a smile as he prepared to embark on a particular movement. Still, the second suite, or rather the fourth in E flat, BWV 1010, was more emotionally satisfying with the Sarabande and the second Bouree being especially moving, but in part that is because there is more weight to the work. Both performances left me feeling rather sorry that I won't be making it to the other concerts; but, as ever at a festival, you can't do everything. If you can make Monday and Tuesday's performances at Blythburgh church, they should be well worth the journey.