Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Highs and Lows of 2013

We've reached that time of year again…

Best Opera: Honorable mentions go to the outstandingly sung revival of Don Carlo at the Royal Opera (I was lucky enough to hear Anja Harteros's sole performance) and the Proms Gotterdammerung (Andreas Schager's moving Siegfried especially lives in my memory) but the outstanding opera event of 2013 was Aldeburgh Music's Grimes on the Beach in both its Maltings and seaside incarnations.

Worst Opera: The Edinburgh International Festival had a pretty terrible year as far as opera and theatre was concerned (the technology theme was almost universally a kiss of death) but the Lyon Opera production of Fidelio which Jonathan Mills unwisely programmed was especially awful.

Best Play: Sadly undervalued by other critics (Southern snobbery perhaps?), but for me the finest play of the year was the outstanding Port at the National Theatre, featuring Kate O'Flynn's remarkable debut there.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Satyagraha at ENO, or in which it is again demonstrated that Philip Glass is not up to writing the Big Ideas Opera

This was my third Glass opera. I had reservations about Einstein on the Beach and I thought The Perfect American dull so I did not have high hopes of this and went principally because I'm a completionist when it comes to opera and wanted to tick it off the list. It is clear that there is an audience for Glass, the Upper Circle was fuller than I have seen any part of the Coliseum for a very long time. That it was fuller than for the musically infinitely superior Billy Budd (the last time I sat in that part of the house) I find really quite depressing. Maybe it's me, but I just cannot see much in Glass at all.

Glass's first cardinal sin in this opera and the one that makes me angriest, is with regard to the text. Modern opera directors are always ripping established texts to pieces, or ignoring them, or interpolating bits of other classic texts. Glass has a different strategy here, and one already visible in Einstein on the Beach. He apparently thinks the text is irrelevant. This is the only basis on which I can see any justification for the rule that this opera must be sung in Sanskrit and that proper surtitles are not allowed. I now feel I have a somewhat better idea of what neophyte Wagner-goers must have struggled with in the pre-surtitle age. It is true that bits of text are occasionally projected onto the set but these were not always visible from my seat, and are sufficiently intermittent that one can rarely be sure who is singing what. It is no defence to say the text is printed in the programme or on a printed sheet – this is unreadable once the house lights go down. As far as I was concerned for most of the evening the performers might just as well have been singing “la” to everything. Maybe I'm old fashioned but I happen to think text quite important to successful opera.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

The Light Princess at the National, or, Unfortunately Sondheim (amongst others) Got There First

I wanted to love this show. I really did. It involves some of my favourite performers and production staff. I am a firm advocate for the production of musicals at the National. There are admirable things about this musical, but in the end it is overshadowed by a variety of predecessors, and hobbled by the inadequacies of the writers.

This show is a positive reminder that the National is a great place for musicals. I can understand why Hytner has tended to shy away from them. It is undeniable that Trevor Nunn did far too many. But I do think Hytner has gone too far the other way. Musicals that make it to the West End are distinctly limited. Other subsidised theatres, and perhaps most notably off-West End powerhouses like the Union and the Southwark Playhouse, have been doing sterling work, but there remain plenty of musicals which deserve revival on a bigger stage than those places can offer. I hope Rufus Norris will have a serious look at this question when he replaces Hytner next year.

In terms of this specific musical, there is one huge plus: the involvement of the magnificent Rosalie Craig. I've been a fan, as I may have mentioned before, ever since her hilarious performance in The Translucent Frogs of Quuup. Here she is the one performer who really manages to transcend the show's weaknesses, imparting genuine conviction to her character. That conviction is also vital to carrying off the realisation of the idea of a floating princess. Credit is equally due here to Paul Rubin (the aerial effects designer) and, I assume, the four performers credited in the programme as acrobats (Owain Gwynn, Tommy Luther, Emma Norin, Nuno Silva). The effect is as stunning as the horses in War Horse or the daemons in His Dark Materials.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Where's Runnicles goes to the movies - Rush and Star Trek Into Darkness

It's been a while since I wrote a film review, so why not two for the price of one. As a fan of Formula 1 racing and, normally, of Ron Howard's films, I've been very much looking forward to Rush, which chronicles the 1976 title fight between James Hunt for McLaren and Niki Lauda for Ferrari. In the end, while it is good fun (particularly for this McLaren fan to see them winning races after the season they've been having), it does not rank among Howard's best films nor even among the best Formula 1 films: the Senna documentary is both more powerful and better made.

The film's biggest problem is that it feels slightly disjointed. The first half is very entertaining and light hearted, then, following the dramatic events at the Nurburgring the tone changes dramatically. This section of the film is probably the best, and certainly the most compelling, though there are a number of moments that are not for the squeamish.

The two leads, Chris Hemsworth as Hunt and Daniel Brühl as Lauda, are both solid. Indeed Brühl's Lauda is a pretty uncanny impression. It helps, no doubt, that Lauda is still alive and cooperated, but that said, impression still seems the best word for it. Neither performance shows much depth beyond that, though in fairness this is down to Peter Morgan's script which isn't in the same league as his previous sporting endeavour The Damned United, nor his previous Howard collaboration Frost/Nixon. The supporting cast is even more thinly drawn and the likes of Steven Mangan and Julian Rhind-Tutt seem a little wasted.

EIF 2013 - The Fireworks Concert

As ever, this year's fireworks concert was a dramatic and enjoyable finale to the Edinburgh International Festival (and, indeed, the summer festivals generally). The elements remain fundamentally unaltered: the Scottish Chamber Orchestra playing in the Ross Bandstand while above them the better part of four tonnes of explosives (or 400,000 fireworks, depending on which measure you prefer) are let off from Edinburgh castle. And while the display is tailored each year, the main variable is the exact musical accompaniment to which it is fitted. Well, the main variable within the control of the organisers, anyway: the weather usually plays some part.

Golden fan

This year it was the turn of Ravel's arrangement of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. This probably represents the most successful choice since 2009 when Handel's firework music last had an outing. The score has plenty of big bangs for Pyrovision to choreograph, but there is also fun to had elsewhere such as the alternating purple flares depicting the crooked legged gnome. Meanwhile the waterfall, my favourite moment of the display, was as beautiful as always. (As I did last year, I just sat back and enjoyed it, having captured it to my satisfaction a few years ago.) It was joined by a second series of mini waterfalls that also made for a nice effect.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

EIF 2013 - Ensemble musikFabrik, or, Why did nobody tell me about Zappa before?

One of the real strengths of Jonathan Mills's tenure as Artistic Director has been the increased presence of contemporary music in the classical programme. It has also been encouraging this year, having attended most performances which could be placed in that category, to see what seems to be larger audiences at these events. I can remember occasions when merely playing one new piece in an otherwise safe Edinburgh programme was enough for attendance to plummet. This strand of the programme reached its Usher Hall climax last night (there is still Olga Neuwirth's new opera to come at the King's) with Ensemble musikFabrik's outstanding tribute to Frank Zappa.

Zappa was in fact only part of a very cleverly devised programme also including John Cage and Edgard Varese. The programme note begins from the premise that Varese is the link and that otherwise Cage and Zappa actually don't have much in common, but my impression from the performance was that this was actually not the case. There seemed in particular to be distinct parallels in use of percussion and rhythmic complexity between Cage's Credo in US and a number of the Zappa pieces.

Monday, 26 August 2013

EIF 2013 - Beckett's I'll Go On, or Outstanding. Just Go.

After a disappointing two weeks of theatre, the International Festival is ending on a high with the Beckett mini-Festival if the first performances I've attended are anything to go by (and I still have Michael Gambon to look forward to on Saturday).

In advance I anticipated great things of this adaptation of Beckett's trilogy of novels, Molloy, Molone Dies and The Unnameable performed as it is by Barry McGovern who was outstanding in last year's adaptation of Watt. This show lives up to that promise.

As last year, McGovern is mesmerising. He delivers Beckett's superbly crafted text with expert precision, no mean feat particularly in the last part of the show when the pace is rapid and unrelenting. McGovern never loses meaning, but also brings out a whole range of emotions from humour (the ludicrous logical dilemma of the sucking stones is a high point) to the black despair. It's a masterpiece of acting. Around him a spare set and simple lighting provide just the right amount of atmosphere.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

EIF 2013 - Oper Frankfurt Double Bill, or, Mr Kosky Is Indecisive

I didn't have especially high hopes of this pair of productions in advance, though Barry Kosky is clearly highly rated by some within the opera world including the Komische Oper, Berlin and Jonathan Mills. It wasn't as awful as his reinvention of Poppea back at EIF 2007, but in some ways Bluebeard's Castle was rather more of an endurance test.

In an interview I glanced at Kosky claims that he saw the pieces as completely separate entities. But in fact, to my mind, a similarly indecisive vision bedevils both of them – it's just that the music transcended it better in Dido and Aeneas. Now to be fair to the director, there are moments which work. After an opening to Dido which made me fear this was going to be non-interaction in extremis, there is some convincing direction of the romance between the two lovers. In Bluebeard it is a nice idea to have golden dust falling from two clenched fists as a symbol of weath for that particular door. The realisation of the lake of tears ought to have worked similarly well, but paled rather against Idle Motion's use of a similar device on the Fringe earlier in the week. But these moments have to do battle with Kosky's indecisive overall approach.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Edinburgh Fringe 2013 - Freeze, or, Odd, Impressive, Intense and Unclassifiable

Note: The show plays at Summerhall until Sunday 25th August from 6.15-6.45pm.

If I suggested to you that you might like to spend 40 minutes watching a Belgian Rock Balancer I suspect that even for Edinburgh in Festival you might think this was going a little far. But I can assure you it's worth it.

The set consists of 6 mirrored boxes on and around which are scattered various stones in a variety of shapes and sizes – it should be emphasised that none of them at first glance look easy to balance on any of the others. Kneeling centre stage, all in black with something that looks vaguely like a head torch but isn't strapped to his head is the Nick Steur, the Rock Balancer in question.

Once the audience is seated, a fair bit of voice over begins. This is somewhat impenetrable and to do partly with a Dutch saying about cats. I'm not sure whether one is intended to take much notice of it, and in practice I don't think it matters much – for me its main effect was to slightly leaven the atmosphere, while Steur does his thing.

EIF 2013 - Leaving Planet Earth, or, Great Idea Let Down By Execution


You've got to feel sorry for Jonathan Mills and the International Festival on this one. On paper it was such a good idea. Commission the top site-specific theatre company in Scotland, Grid Iron, to produce a new show in a venue in Edinburgh that most of your prospective audience have never been to, on the back of a string of 5 star fringe hits. Alas, the best laid plans of mice and Festival Directors...

Let us start with the positives. The Climbing Centre at Ratho is a stunning building, with a number of features cleverly suggestive of some kind of futuristic environment. The external landscape in particular, aided by a great deal of fortuitous fog, also fitted the bill. The ideas behind the show, a doomed earth, the old attempt to build a new utopia on another world, requiring the audience to think about their personal choice, are clever ones, but sadly insufficient attention has been given to the script, and the execution is not committed enough.

The show has two strands. The first is the journey, individual and collective, which the audience is supposed to be going on. The second is the behind the scenes problems of the new utopia which effectively functions as a pretty straight delivered, if insufficiently well interconnected, set of scenes. The two strands are not well enough related to each other.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Edinburgh Fringe 2013 - Wot? No Fish!!, or Simple is Best

Note: The show plays at Summerhall until Sunday 25th August, 3-4.15pm.

There has been a debate going on in certain quarters of the press and on twitter this week about the use of technology in live performance. One comment I saw stated bluntly that you can have all the technology in the world but if you don't have good acting and a good story it won't do you any good. Spot on. On the Fringe, which after years of avoiding I seem to have drifted back to this week, I have quite by chance ended up seeing a number of shows which have proved this point in the most positive ways. bread & circuses Wot? No Fish!! written and performed by Danny Braverman is one of the finest.

The show tells the story of Braverman's great uncle Ab Solomon from the 1920s onwards. Every week Solomon, a shoemaker, would receive a wage packet (a little brown envelope) on the back of which he would draw his wife a picture. To begin with this is just a little doodle in the corner of a saucepan and a brush but as the years go on these images became steadily more complex, and enable Braverman to chart the ups and downs of this segment of his family's past through war, marital difficulty, and the problems posed by raising children.

EIF 2013 - Late Night Aimard & Colleagues, or, Broadening the Ears

Regular readers will likely have marked that I have had some fairly critical things to say about aspects of this year's programme. This pair of late night concerts provides an occasion to praise it on a number of levels.

One of the best aspects of Jonathan Mills's tenure as Director has been to broaden the range of music covered by the Festival. While there was much marvellous music during Brian MacMaster's reign it would be fair to say I think that there was a bit of a bias towards the eighteenth and nineteenth century core German repertoire. Two differences under Mills have been especially marked, far more early music and far more contemporary music, including a number of Festival commissions. The latter has been especially bold and admirable, because it is an observable fact in Edinburgh that program a piece of new music in an otherwise safe concert, and audience numbers tend to drop significantly. It was therefore also encouraging that these two late night performances in the Hub were well sold. Both of them also reflected this year's theme of technology and art through their use of electronics.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

EIF 2013 - The Tragedy of Coriolanus, or, A Bit Baffled Really

I honestly don't know what I expected this production to be like. In recent years we've had quite a lot of Asian shows at the International Festival, including two Shakespeares back in 2011. In London the Globe has been taking the lead in bringing international Shakespeare to the UK. I heard great things about the Globe to Globe season and very much enjoyed the Balkan Henry VI which was the only part I managed to catch myself. I mention all this because I feel it at least gives me some qualifications for judging Shakespeare performance in another language. I feel the need to make that point because, unusually, I found it very difficult to know what to make of this performance.

It certainly is on an epic scale in ways which only the International Festival could afford to mount. There is an impressive company of extras playing the Romans/Volsces. My impression from the programme credits is that many of these extras were non-professionals but I may be mistaken on this – there are certainly issues with their performance which I'll come back to. Then you have the two much publicised heavy metal bands on trucks at either side of the stage. They are very loud and to start with their flourishes and drumming do give point to those expressions in the text, but I wasn't convinced their presence overall helped to make strong theatre. The set, on the other hand, is simpler than one might expect. I'm not sure the performance gained from the frequent grinding of the Playhouse pit lift (sounding badly in need of refurbishment), and I'd be curious to know if the ladders at the back of the stage belong to the theatre or the company – if the latter they were among the more pointless pieces of set I've ever seen as they were never used. The odd thing about all this bigness is that it is counterpointed by a lot of periods when very little is happening on stage at all, and even when all the people were present the atmosphere often felt just a little bit dead.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Edinburgh Fringe 2013 - Idle Motion's That Is All You Need To Know, or A Beguiling Example to Others

I'm very bad at going to things on the Fringe, so it was pure chance that I ended up at this performance, my much beloved former PhD supervisor having been handed a flier and then suggesting I come along. I'm delighted that I did. I badly needed to be reminded that plays can have characters, a narrative, and be emotionally engaging.

This is my first encounter with the company idle motion, but I shall be keeping an eye out for them in future years. What is especially notable about them to my eyes is their visual sense. This embraces their movement (which has a notable fluidity to it), and their imaginative use of sets and film (the latter is brilliantly integrated into the live performance, far more successfully and meaningfully so than anything Jonathan Mills's International Festival programme has so far offered). The filing cabinets are used in especially versatile ways – the water leaking was a brilliant touch.

Effective use is also made of oral history recordings of real life workers at the Park (often very moving), and archive wartime audio. Again this is a mark of the company's talents. I must have heard Chamberlain's speech declaring the country at war on numerous occasions, but the simply staged scene imagining contemporaries listening to it was freshly haunting.

EIF 2013 - Histoire d'amour, or, Finally An (unconvincing) Narrative

Note: A slightly belated review of the matinee performance on Saturday 17th August 2013.

Credit where credit is due, after three Edinburgh International Festival theatre shows where narrative has been either absent or cut to shreds, Teatrocinema at least tell a story. There are serious problems with this story, but it is at least a step back towards what I regard as theatrical sanity.

The story is about a particularly nasty form of love. An English teacher sees a woman on the subway to whom he is instantly attracted. He follows her home where he assaults her. She has him arrested. So far, so reasonably explicable if not very nice. However, it is at this point that things begin to go awry. The criminal charges against him are withdrawn (no explanation for this is offered). He nevertheless serves two months in prison. Released, he continues his pursuit of her leading to further acts of violence against both her and other people, in private and in public. I hung on for the one hour and forty minutes in the hope that there would be some satisfying pay off but there frankly isn't (at one point I began to wonder if it might all be revealed as a fantasy, but no).

Monday, 19 August 2013

EIF 2013 - On Behalf of Nature, or, A Display of Unmitigated Ego

The credits in the programme gave fair warning. They informed me that Meredith Monk was going to sing, had written and directed the show and assisted in the editing of the video. Were she a multi-talented genius all might have been well. Sadly, this is not the case.

The first crime this latest contribution to the 2013 Festival's so far dismal theatre programme commits is to once again assume that good theatre doesn't need any kind of text as a basis. Such shows have become increasingly dominant in the current Artistic Director's programmes, and nearly all of them have been failures. This was not an exception. Monk claims in her programme note that “On Behalf of Nature is a meditation on our intimate connection to nature, its inner structures, the fragility of its ecology and our interdependence.” Beyond some attempts at animal imitation (a genre in which Donald Swann and the Latvian Radio Choir are both infinitely superior) and some swinging rings which I suspect were intended to symbolise the planet in peril, I detected none of the above.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

EIF 2013 - Uchida, Jansons and the Bavarians PLAY Beethoven and Tchaikovsky (though their Mahler is not as convincing)

For my money, Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra are one of the finest conductor/orchestra partnerships available, and since both Beethoven's 4th piano concerto and Tchaikovsky's 6th symphony are favourites of mine, their first concert always had the potential to be one of the festival's highlights. Given these high expectations, it is doubly impressive that not only did they not disappoint but if anything they exceeded them.

For the Beethoven they were joined by Mitsuko Uchida. Together they delivered a spellbinding 3rd concerto in London a few years ago. The 4th, from its soft solo opening onwards, is perhaps even better suited to her delicate style (indeed, the movement of her fingertips reminded me slightly of Gergiev's conducting during the opening concert). Though nearly not, as just as her fingers were about to descend for the first time, there was a loud clang somewhere in the auditorium. Fortunately after recomposing herself she got started and proceeded to spend the next thirty minutes dazzling us, not only from the keyboard, but also with the wonderful look she gave to silence the audience before the second movement, and when discarding her flowing yellow silken top.

Beneath her Jansons provided supremely judged accompaniment so that no matter how softly she played the orchestra was never in danger of swamping her. Kazushi Ono (the conductor of Opera de Lyon's lamentable Fidelio) could have learnt a lot. Indeed, in the wake of that production, the Bavarians provided a much needed tonic by way of a masterclass in just how well Beethoven can be played. They found more drama in the intensely wrought opening chords of the slow movement than Ono managed in an entire opera.

Uchida was rapturously received and followed Beethoven with some sparkling Scarlatti. She returns to the Usher Hall this evening for a solo recital of Bach, Schoenberg and Schumann which I for one will not be missing.

EIF 2013 – The Wooster Group Hamlet, or, Theatre Is Not Dead, But It Very Soon Will Be If It Serves Up Diabolical Shows Like This

Regular readers will know that the Pollard Clan has a benchmark for awfulness, the legendary Edinburgh International Festival American Repertory Theatre production of Three Sisters back in 2006. As I reeled out of this ghastly evening, I was unsure whether this was worse, but it was certainly a very near thing.

The Wooster Group here present an idea that proves to be really quite remarkably Bad. Well, I say present, but it should really be re-present as it transpires from reading the programme that in fact they originally presented this back in 2007, something the Festival has gone out of its way not to publicise – had they done so I might have discovered the New York reviews I found upon my return home this evening and not made the mistake of buying a ticket. The show appears to have been resurrected because it fits Jonathan Mills's technology theme – a theme which has so far blessed us with two of the worst Festival shows in recent memory.

Monday, 12 August 2013

EIF 2013 – Contemporary Legend Theatre's Metamorphosis, or A Disappointing Return

Back in March when the International Festival programme was announced I made this one of my top theatre picks. I did so on the strength of the same company's excellent one-man version of King Lear. Sadly this return visit is nowhere near as good.

The big contrast with the 2011 show is that although once again Wu Hsing-Kuo is the single actor he just never rivets one's attention the way he did as the various protagonists in King Lear. His versatility, his balletic grace, his manipulation of costume (particularly the bug's remarkable antennae in Scene Two) are still impressive – but the script and the surrounding effects make for a far more distancing experience, and indeed one that seems to diminish rather than enhance his efforts.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

EIF 2013 - Gergiev and the RSNO set the stage with Alexander Nevsky

In the hands of Valery Gergiev, the festival's honorary president, Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky made for one of the best opening concerts we've had for a while. It was an all Prokofiev programme and this is sure ground for Gergiev, who has made a good survey of the symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra (and, indeed, played them at the festival a few years back). Last night they began with his third piano concerto. The solo part was taken by the very young Daniil Trifonov who played superbly, bringing both great virtuosity but also no shortage of subtlety when needed. This was even truer of his encore, from Nikolai Medtner's Fairy Tales op.51, no.2, which was beautifully poetic.

In the last two years, we have been treated to works that would charitably be described as damp squibs (Schumann's Das Paradies und die Peri in 2011 and Delius's A Mass of Life last year). Neither has anything close to the sort of energy raising potential needed to set the mood for three weeks of festivities. Fortunately the cantata made up of around forty minutes of music from Eisenstein's film most certainly does.

EIF 2013 - Opera de Lyon's Fidelio, or Falling Far Short of International Festival Calibre

The warning signs around this show have been there from the very beginning. The director, Gary Hill, has virtually no experience of directing any sort of live performance, nevermind opera. The concept (of setting it on a doomed spaceship) sounded worryingly at odds with the trajectory of the plot. When I read news reports that he had delivered all direction via an assistant and that he did not wish the characters to fraternise too closely with each other, my heart sank. That this production was an incoherent mess therefore came as no surprise. What I did not expect (given Opera de Lyon's blazing performances at the Festival in 2006) was that the performance would be so musically poor.

This production might be considered a typical instance of distrust of the form. I had wondered if it was mockery, but my companions suggested that that usually at least produces something coherent, and coherent this production emphatically was not. Gary Hill's distrust showed up in multiple ways. Many opera productions fall victim to the vice of pointless busyness – in this case it was pointless busyness in Hill's dreary repetitive video projections. Not unpleasant to look at for five minutes, extremely tedious when stretched across two and a half hours, so much so that it was difficult to see how he had achieved eminence in that field. I have said before that video/film intelligently used can be a powerful element in operatic productions (see the Knussen Double Bill at Aldeburgh last year, or Die Frau ohne Schatten at EIF 2011), but it cannot be the be all and end all (as this production decisively proves) and it would be nice if critics would stop pushing the line that it can (or indeed the claim that using it is bold and revolutionary).

Saturday, 10 August 2013

EIF 2013 - Christian Gerhaher/Gerold Huber, or, A Revelatory Recital

On paper, to anybody who pays any attention to the world of song recitals, this was the pick of the Queen's Hall series – a major opportunity for Edinburgh audiences to hear one of the greatest voices of the present day. Although it was announced that Gerhaher was suffering a slight cold, this in no way detracted from a stunning performance. Sadly though, there was a scattering of empty seats and I do wonder sometimes if Edinburgh pays enough attention to the musical world beyond Scotland.

Christian Gerhaher + Gerold Huber - Sat 10 August 2013 - The Queen's Hall, Edinburgh -0041

I previously had the privilege of hearing Gerhaher as Wolfram in the Royal Opera's superb Tannhauser in December 2010. That role has very much a lieder feel to it, so I was keenly anticipating hearing him in the real thing. My one small reservation about the programme in advance was that it was an all Schumann one. The Edinburgh Festival, in the years since I've been attending, has seen an awful lot of Schumann and not much of it has especially registered with me as work I wanted to hear again in a hurry. I have certainly heard Dichterliebe Op.48 live in that time, but hadn't remembered it as anything special. For me this was one of those revelatory recitals where the combination of performers and works is like drawing away a veil – you suddenly find yourself thinking, oh, so that's why Schumann is so highly rated.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Proms Ring Cycle (3) – Siegfried, or, Living with the Interpretation

I ended my piece on Die Walkure by suggesting there were two questions ahead of this performance, so we'll start with the answers to those. A) Lance Ryan is a very good Siegfried – not completely perfect but he more than meets the most crucial challenges. B) Act Three Scene One does not stand up well to the Barenboim approach – we'll come to exactly why later on.

The things that have been excellent about this cycle so far continued to be excellent in this third installment. Top of the billing here was the Brunnhilde of Nina Stemme. Obviously she has only a comparatively small part in this opera, but it's a crucial one, and she was simply outstanding. There were also strong contributions from three returnees from Rheingold, Eric Halfvarson's Fafner,  Johannes Martin Kranzle's Alberich and Peter Bronder's Mime. The acoustic did odd things to Bronder from where I was standing in Act One, but he was compelling in Act Two. The Staatskapelle Berlin continue to give an exemplary orchestral performance in terms of quality of sound. When Barenboim's approach fits best to Wagner's music – the best instances here being probably some of the Woodbird-Siegfried exchanges, and parts of the Brunnhilde-Siegfried scene – the sound is more beautiful than any performance I can recall.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Strange Interlude at the National, or, At Last! A Funny (and Moving) Mockery of Theatre

For years I have watched directors mock the whole idea of theatre. They rip classic texts to pieces, they transplant them to locales to which they are unsuited, they put items of furniture on stage whose point is entirely unclear, and, when all those methods are exhausted, they have the actors start declaiming at you about the pointlessness of it all. On just about every such previous occasion these efforts have either proved boring or highly irritating. And it is now clear that none of them need have bothered, for a master has got there before them. That master was Eugene O'Neill and the play in question Strange Interlude which the National has now revived (though I gather in a somewhat truncated form as this version lasts a little over three hours while the original lasted five).

The principle conceit of O'Neill's play is that characters speak their inner thoughts direct to the audience as asides both when alone on stage and in the middle of dialogue exchanges and we must believe that only we, the audience, are hearing those thoughts. Now it is only fair to say that this does take some getting used to in the early scenes, but it entirely justifies itself later on. O'Neill also crafts a highly complicated plot which does verge on the ridiculous – again I felt there was a point being made about the potential absurdity of theatre here. But, and this is the crucial point, neither of these things are simply arid devices. For O'Neill also makes his characters devastatingly human. The emotional engagement here is not so easy as in others of his plays that I've seen, but as their various crises become more acute, their lives more entangled, the various devices give the situations both humour and heartbreak.

Proms Ring Cycle 2013 (2) - Die Walkure

Following a Das Rheingold which didn't wholly convince me, the Proms Ring cycle continued on Tuesday with Die Walkure, the Ring opera which I've seen most often and with which I'm most familiar. This wasn't the most powerful performance I've ever heard, I continue to have issues with what seems to me to be a lack of drive from Barenboim in crucial places, but its impact was considerably greater than the Rheingold's and Act Three was pretty special.

For me the great contributions of the evening were Bryn Terfel's Wotan and Nina Stemme's Brunnhilde both of whom I was hearing in these roles for the first time (though I did hear Terfel sing the end of Act 3 in an Edinburgh Festival concert quite a few years ago). Here I must make a confession. I had been rather sceptical about whether all the hype surrounding Terfel's Wotan was justified – perhaps I was more swayed by his having cancelled on me on the one occasion I was due to hear him in the role and the famous dropping out from the Covent Garden Ring than was justified. I did also listen to some of the relays from the Met and he didn't make much impression on me. But last night I thought he was outstanding. He delivered the text magnificently, he really seemed to feel the part (more so it must be admitted than Paterson in Rheingold, but the latter is just starting out in the role) and he had the stamina to carry it through to the end. The Third Act in particularly going from rage to sorrow to authority was a tour de force. I was equally impressed by Stemme, indeed I'm not sure I've ever heard the role live so commandingly sung. She has power without being shrill and like Terfel did not tire. She did not make quite the overwhelming impression of the latter at all points, but there were I think other factors here.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Proms 2013 Ring Cycle (1) – Das Rheingold, or A Tendency to Beauty over Drama

I'm not of the Wagner persuasion who travel the world seeing Ring Cycles, but it does, I suspect, take some special kind of madness to sign up to stand for a Ring Cycle, and in concert at that. After Das Rheingold I can confirm that so far it has been worth doing, but I do have some reservations.

In terms of orchestral sound this has to have been one of the most beautiful Wagner performances I've ever been fortunate enough to hear. The Staatskapelle Berlin had marvellous richness in all departments. Barenboim's tempi, which we'll come back to, were clearly designed (at least to my ear) to accentuate space and beauty and there are places where this pays major dividends. I can't recall Froh's evocation of the rainbow bridge ever being delivered so clearly and beautifully.

Friday, 12 July 2013

The Britten Canticles, or, Musically Superb, Staging Mostly Mistaken


Britten's Five Canticles for various combinations of voice and instruments are not among his frequently performed works, and are certainly not often performed as a set. On the strength of this performance they should be done this way more often, but as straight concert performances.

All five works demonstrate Britten's skill in setting the English language. I was most haunted by the repeated refrain of “Still falls the rain” in the third Canticle, but in each one there is some moment to appreciate like God's call to Abraham which frames the second, or the way the three magi in the third repeatedly echo one another's remarks. Ian Bostridge, who I have not always enjoyed as a soloist, gives a superb performance in all five, making the most of the Linbury's resonant acoustic (the Royal Opera should consider more vocal recitals in there). He is ably supported vocally by Iestyn Davies and Benedict Nelson and with accompaniment from Julius Drake (piano), Richard Watkins (horn) and Sally Pryce (harp). Musically then this is another significant contribution to the Britten centenary.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Gloriana at the Royal Opera, or, A Window on a Vanished World

A slightly belated review of the performance on Thursday 4th July 2013.

Near the back of Royal Opera programmes is usually printed a short essay detailing previous productions and casting of the evening's work at the House. On this occasion it revealed that Britten's Gloriana hasn't been staged by the company since 1954. The work is genuinely a “problem” piece. But there are marvellous musical elements, Richard Jones's production is brilliantly devised, and taken altogether this is another important contribution to the Britten centenary.

The programme argues for parallels with Verdi in terms of the juxtaposition of public and private dramas. This is a somewhat unfortunate comparison because it brings Don Carlo to mind with which Gloriana does not compare. And yet the point is a valid one. Britten and his librettist William Plomer do consistently juxtapose the public (for example Elizabeth's public reception in Nottingham complete with masque) with the private (Elizabeth & Essex's two confrontations). The work is at its best in those two private encounters. Essex's lute song, and its later moving recall during their final, fateful meeting, show music and text in a much more harmonious partnership than is always the case elsewhere. Elsewhere, most particularly in the masque and in the rebellion scene (which is only reported by a Blind Ballad-Singer) some judicious trimming of the score and text was needed. Both Britten and Plomer do fall short in key moments. Plomer is too fond of obscure words, and the lyric for the chorus's evocation of Elizabeth's significance (“Green leaves are we, red rose our golden queen”) may be echt Tudor but it can't carry the emotional weight required. Britten also has problems with the ending where Elizabeth's final phrases are spoken, almost never effective in my experience in an operatic setting and this is not an exception. But despite these issues it is simply unjustified to dismiss this as an operatic dud.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Aldeburgh 2013 - The Church Parables

Grimes on the Beach has, understandably, garnered more attention in this Britten anniversary year but one of the other major productions, the performance of Britten's three church parables in their original location of Orford Church, is unmissable. (Judging from reports we have heard, Grimes should prove so as well - we will be there later in the week.)


Curlew River, Photo by Robert Workman

Director Frederic Wake-Walker has gone back to the source. I should perhaps let the composer himself explain. Writing in the programme for the 1964 festival, Britten said:
It was in Tokyo in January 1956 that I saw a Nō-drama for the first time.... The whole occasion made a tremendous impression upon me, the simple touching story, the economy of the style, the intense slowness of the action, the marvellous skill and control of the performers, the beautiful costumes, the mixture of chanting, speech, singing, with which three instruments made up the strange music - it all offered a totally new 'operatic' experience.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Aldeburgh 2013 - In Brief

As well as Volkov and the CBSO's concert, Saturday was a pretty full schedule with two sets of quartets. In the morning Quatuor Mosaiques treated us to Purcell, Haydn and Schubert. Haydn's op.76/6 quartet responded wonderfully to their period style but while Schubert's D887 quartet was very beautifully played I personally prefer a more romantic approach.


That afternoon in Aldeburgh church it was the turn of a quartet with a different style and period: the Arditti Quartet with works by Harvey, Britten and Anderson. I only really know Harvey's larger orchestral works so was glad to hear two of his quartets. Arising from the time he spent at IRCAM (with whom I've also heard him collaborate on Speakings) his fourth quartet was particularly interesting for its use of live electronics. Having said that, the first two sections took a bit too long to build up. They created some nice effects, particularly in the middle section which had a passage akin to whale song. Julian Anderson's Light Music left me rather cold and as was the case the last time I heard a piece of his, failed to evoke the the inspiration detailed in his programme note (so far as that could be deciphered).

Aldeburgh 2013 - Watkins, Volkov and the CBSO PLAY Harvey, Matthews and more

I know Ilan Volkov well from his successful tenure at the BBC SSO, prior to the man himself taking over. To some at the Maltings last night he was a new name, but judging from the reaction they were glad to make his acquaintance. Certainly I was not surprised that his interpretations of Jonathan Harvey and Colin Matthews marked the highlight of the festival so far for me (though I have only had four concerts to date). It helped, of course, that he had the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra to work with. I've praised them before, most recently after their Edinburgh visit last summer, and am rather jealous of their forthcoming season.



In the first half, though, the standout performance came from horn soloist Richard Watkins in Colin Matthews' superb horn concerto. I've not encountered the piece before but it should be done more often. According to the programme note, "the horn solo is, literally, a wanderer". And it was refreshing to find that they didn't mean figuratively. The concerto began with both Watkins and Volkov absent from the stage, the orchestra's leader Laurence Jackson beating slowly with his bow. Volkov then tiptoed onto the podium to take up the reins while Watkins made himself heard from the wings. As the twenty minute, single movement work progressed, he made his way across the stage. This was more than just a gimmick as the sound of the horn changed in interesting ways with the Maltings' acoustic: the effect as he stood close to the stage right wall, the bell pointing towards it, was particularly nice. If the need for this odyssey presented an added challenge to Watkins it was not apparent in his playing which was beautifully executed throughout, without a cracked or fluffed note in sight. And as if that wasn't enough, Matthews provided extra horns by the upper doors for a quadraphonic effect. All this made for an experience that was not only excellent musically but also theatrically. It is always nice to come out of a performance of a contemporary piece wondering why on earth it isn't performed more often, and this was certainly one such. (There is a recording available by Watkins, Mark Elder and the Halle on the orchestra's own label which I will now be checking out, though it will not be quite the same.)

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Aldeburgh Festival 2013 – A Festival Weekend, or Five Concerts in Two Days

The more astute observers of this website and my twitter feed may have noticed that I like to cram the culture in, and there are few better ways to do that than at busily scheduled Festivals. Aldeburgh isn't quite as mad from this point of view as Edinburgh, but yesterday in particular it kept us very pleasantly busy.

Saturday began at 11am in Aldeburgh Parish Church with Festival Director, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and his sister Valerie Aimard in a recital for cello and piano, both together and solo. The programme was a moderately demanding one of Kurtag, Carter, Shostakovich and Britten, and I fear I may still have been a little weary after a late night at Peter Grimes the previous evening. I got most enjoyment out of the Shostakovich (piano solo) and the Kurtag (cello solo). I was less convinced by the Aimards as a duo pairing. To my ear, and this was perhaps a consequence of being seated on the piano side, the sound didn't appear equally balanced, and Valerie Aimard I found a bit austere for my taste. It was never an uninteresting recital, and it was well worth hearing all four works, but she, in particular, didn't compare for me with Miklos Perenyi's performance on the same instrument in the same venue last year, or with Heinrich Schiff who used to come to Edinburgh in the McMaster years.

Aldeburgh Festival 2013 – Peter Grimes in Concert, or, I Simply Hadn't Realised

Prior to this performance, I had seen Peter Grimes staged twice. Once by Scottish Opera in a perfectly acceptable production but with an inadequate Grimes, and once in the ENO David Alden production which I detested. In contrast my first experience of Billy Budd (in the marvellous ENO Albery production) was overwhelming. I think it is in consequence of this that I have tended to have a grumble to myself on a regular basis at the insistence on Grimes as Britten's operatic masterpiece. After this performance it is clear to me that I simply had not had the opportunity to realise what an extraordinarily powerful piece it is.

This concert performance will be followed next week by performances on Aldeburgh Beach. This brought real benefits as, unusually for concert opera, the performers had all been rehearsing together for some time. It showed. The soloists were all off score and the individual characterisations were without exception remarkably vivid. I was very grateful to be close enough to the stage to really see every facial expression. Especially notable was the way in which expressions and body language in sections where individuals were not actually singing conveyed a continuing deep engagement with the drama. For example, in the build up to Ellen Orford's arrival at the pub in Act 1 Scene 2 Giselle Allen somehow gave a sense that she was out there on the storm tossed cart.

Hearing an opera score in concert often leads one to pay more attention to aspects which have previously not registered, and this also happened to me at Friday's performance. I was particularly struck by the brief flirtation at the beginning of Act 3 between Swallow and the nieces.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

The All Rise Playlist

Among the many virtues of music, one that I particularly prize is its ability to lift you up when you're feeling down: there's nothing quite like going into a concert you almost couldn't be bothered to attend and coming out grinning, or coming home after a long day and spinning a disc that takes your troubles away. It is in experiences like this that my all rise playlist has its origins. That, and I stole the idea from one of my favourite TV shows.



About seven years ago when the show was much closer to its prime, there was an episode of How I Met Your Mother called The Limo. In it the character Barney, played superbly by Neil Patrick Harris, explains the secret of why he is "so psyched so much of the time": he has a playlist, a "get psyched" mix, that instead of rising and falling is all rise. Now I should stress at this point that with his appalling treatment of women and general behaviour that is light years beyond questionable, he is hardly much of a role model. And yet this didn't seem like such a bad idea. Except that the actual track featured in the episode, Bon Jovi's You Give Love a Bad Name never struck me as terribly lifting with lyrics like "shot through the heart, and you're to blame, darling you give love a bad name". Obviously Barney has different ideas as to what lifts your spirits than I do. Ditto, frankly, the various full versions of the playlist that have appeared.

Monday, 13 May 2013

The BBC Proms booking system

In fairness to the Albert Hall and the BBC Proms, setting up a system that can adequately cope with a flood of thousands of people trying to book more than a hundred thousand tickets in one day is not easy. And though the system is not ideal it is also not the sort of disgrace we had up here with the Edinburgh festival Fringe a couple of years ago.

Before I get on to criticising I will note some things they get right. It is great that booking is on a weekend (as with the Edinburgh International Festival, at least for main public booking, and the Berlin Philharmonic). Contrast this with the Royal Opera House who use a weekday, which is problematic for people who work. Yes, some people work weekends, but fewer so a weekend is fairer and fairness is, in my mind, along with robustness, one of the most important requirements of one of these booking systems.

The key challenge is one of server demand. In an ideal world this would be solved by providing more server capacity, but resources are finite and even in these days of virtual servers I accept that may not be a practical solution. The Proms is not alone in this sort of problem: companies like the Royal Opera House and National Theatre have similar issues, though while I am not privy to the numbers, I suspect that in terms of number of tickets going on sale in a single day, they may have the biggest. As with the Royal Opera House, the Proms attempt to solve this with a queuing system. Again, this is broadly a decision I agree with. In theory it means first come first served and provides an effective way of managing the demand on the servers. In theory, that is.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

The 2013 BBC Proms

The BBC have announced their 2013 Proms season and while it is not perfect it still serves as a reminder of why the BBC offers good value to those of us who are fans of classical music in providing this unique festival. This is true even though it's been some years since I made it to the Albert Hall (not least as in many regards it can be argued that the best seat to listen from is actually your own sofa, especially now that Radio 3 is at 320 AAC online). I do find it puzzling that if you want an easy way to scan through all the concerts this is to be found via Bachtrack's clearly laid out site, which is much more user-friendly than the BBC's own if you want to look at the whole season rather than a specific Prom.

For me one of the expected highlights is the arrival of Sakari Oramo as the BBC Symphony Orchestra's new chief conductor. As I said when first proposing him for the post after a stunning debut concert, one of his potential strengths is that he is adept in both British music and new music. We shall see, hopefully, both of those traits in the first night, when he gives us a world premiere by Julian Anderson, Britten's Sea Interludes and Vaughan Williams' A Sea Symphony. I am particularly looking forward to the latter which is a favourite of mine and which I expect Oramo will ensure is suitably dramatic.

It is perhaps a slight shame that we will only see him twice this season, but hopefully that will expand in future years. His other programme mixes the world premiere of Param Vir's intriguingly titled Cave of Luminous Mind with Sibelius's violin concerto, Bantock's Celtic Symphony and Elgar's Enigma Variations. Oramo's Elgar was one of the many highlights of his decade in Birmingham, as evidenced by his recording with the CBSO of both Enigma and Gerontius. Similarly his recent Stockholm account of the second symphony. These are interpretations that are both powerful and feel fresh.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

The CBSO announce their 2013/14 Season

There are a number of fine companies around the world that I wish were within an evening's easy travelling time of Edinburgh. Many of them, such as Deutsche Oper or the Chicago Symphony are quite some way away. Others are a little closer, though would still require an overnight stay and lack conveniently situated friends or relations to stay with. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra falls into the latter category and their newly announced season has many tantalising items.

I was rather surprised to learn this will be Andris Nelsons' sixth season with the orchestra. How time flies. Since I will be unlikely to partake of much if any of the season, this will not be as detailed a roundup as the local bands get, just a few highlights I'm most jealous of.

First up, one of my favourite works, Mendelssohn's 2nd symphony, Hymn of Praise, gets a rare and well deserved outing under Edward Gardner as part of a complete cycle. This joyful choral work is notable for one of the finest trombone themes in music, indeed it opens with a trombone solo, and also has a claim to very little fame as the only piece of music I have arranged (very slightly) for public performance (or really at all).

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

English National Opera's 2013-14 Season, or, Oh God, All the Old Familiar Faces

Regular readers of this blog, or people who follow me on Twitter @heresfinn will know I have been strongly critical of the current artistic leadership of English National Opera. Recently, though, my frustration has intensified in the light of what has seemed to me to be a wilful determination on the part of many professional critics and arts journalists simply not to ask obvious questions about, or to ignore obvious explanations for, the state of affairs at the company (not least concerning possible reasons for its over £2 million losses in 2011-12 – which the company was bullish on today interpreted variously here and here and see further note at end of post). I have also been annoyed by the praise which has been directed at the company for being allegedly experimental and for its embrace of technology. There appears to be an idea, so far as I can judge, that opera is in deep trouble as an art form and that English National Opera's allegedly adventurous programming (such as the recent unimpressive Sunken Garden) is the path to a better future. I do not propose to go into a detailed analysis here of why I don't think the company should be regarded as especially adventurous, or presenting the future of opera. What I will suggest is that while we might debate some of this with regards to previous offerings under John Berry's leadership such adjectives certainly cannot be applied to a 2013-14 programme dominated by All the Old Familiar Faces and Approaches.

Let us start with the positives. The most exciting work on the agenda is unquestionably the world premiere production of Julian Anderson's The Thebans. I don't know Anderson's work at all, but I'm a big fan of anything related to Greek mythology. It's also great to see Roland Wood return following his superb performance in Vaughan Williams's Pilgrim's Progress last year. I'm also intrigued to see Pierre Audi in action whose work I don't think I have previously managed to catch. All that said, my brother heard an orchestral work of Anderson's at a concert last year and was not grabbed. [Editor's note. The piece was The Discovery of Heaven which I found dull and which did not to me evoke any of the things it was intended to, according to the programme. That said, I'm all for new opera and will certainly give this a try if I'm in the area at the right time.]

Also promising is the return of Terry Gilliam to direct Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini. Corinne Winters (the outstanding element of this season's La Traviata) returns, as does Nicky Spence. In general casting seems to be on more solid foundations across the season than has sometimes been the case in recent years which is certainly cause for a cheer or two.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The Edinburgh International Festival's new director

Just over six years ago, on Friday 30th March 2007 to be exact, we launched this blog. In large part, to talk about the first Edinburgh International Festival programmed by Jonathan Mills. I mention this because yesterday the festival announced his successor, Fergus Linehan. This came as a slight surprise. Although Mills is due to complete both the 2013 and 2014 festivals, last October the search for his successor was announced, with a view to them being in place as director designate from this summer, so I hadn't expected the news quite yet.

This is a positive development. Mills' appointment began less than a year before his first festival and given how long in advance classical and opera artists must be booked, the lack of an early start was an avoidable handicap. There are, however, some similarities between Linehan's appointment and that of Mills. Mills was previously director of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, whereas Linehan ran the Sydney Festival from 2004 to 2009, where he achieved a significant growth in turnover through increased ticket sales and sponsorship (perhaps he will look at some of the festival's pricing issues). Certainly their Instagram feed is always full of fun things (though that particular image came several years after his tenure). A tweeter who responded to my request for information was very positive about his tenure. That said, this slideshow from 2009 calls to mind the Fringe far more than the International. Prior to Sydney he directed the Dublin Theatre Festival.

Indeed, he seems to have a very strong theatre background, which will come as excellent news to those who most value the theatre and dance pillars of the festival programme. And, it could be argued, that following two more musical directors we are due someone from that area again. Frank Dunlop (1984-1991) was the last festival director to come from a theatre background.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

ENO's Sunken Garden, or, Proving that Michael van der Aa is not a Triple Threat

For the last few years English National Opera has escaped the Coliseum once a year for something smaller scale and generally more experimental. Because these tend to be short runs at an academically inconvenient time of year this is the first of these escapes that I've managed to catch. On the whole I rather wish I hadn't, though I can't say I wasn't warned.

Sunken Garden is advertised as a film opera. The programme notes go to great lengths to insist that the art forms are organically linked together, or as the composer, director and film-maker is quoted as saying “3D would be locked into the DNA of the libretto.” Sitting through it this was not my experience. In the first part the musical sections don't feel well connected to the films and in the second the Garden's visualisation in 3D could be dispensed with at no loss to anybody. The only person who can be blamed for this, with the exception of the libretto to which we'll come, is Michael van der Aa. Van der Aa apparently labours under the delusion that he is some new kind of operatic triple threat – equally talented as composer, director and film-maker. In fairness he is undeniably passable at all three, but on the basis of this show in none of them is he of a quality to make one want to rush to see/hear more of his work.

He is not, it has to be said, helped by David Mitchell's libretto which commits three cardinal sins. First of all it failed to create characters which engaged my emotions. Secondly, it engages in tedious moralising about needing to live every moment despite all the awful things that occur – as I've remarked in other contexts this kind of messaging only really works if connected to a character for whom one really cares. Thirdly, it leaves so many plot points unexplained as to have one gnawing limbs off in frustration. To give just a few instances: What is the Garden doing there in the first place? How come Dr Marinus has the power to destroy it? And why is Tobias's only means of escape to jump through the pond of water (which explodes so we can be reminded how clever using 3D film is) into the body of Zenna Briggs thereby undergoing a bizarre sex change? I failed to grasp any of this by listening to the piece and the two page plot summary in the programme is not much help either.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

EIF 2013 - The Music Programme in more detail

In a sensible change, the launch of this year's Edinburgh International Festival programme was slightly less frantic than is traditionally the case. In past years, booking has opened on the day of the launch, but this year we had fully 24 hours to digest the programme first. This was just as well as it featured some tough choices, though for me at least somewhat front loaded with the most clashes at the start. I've already offered my first impressions, but since public booking opens today, here, a little later than planned, are my fuller thoughts on the music programme. (My brother looks at theatre and opera here.)

The task of kicking off the festival is in the hands of honorary president Valery Gergiev, though not as one might expect with either of his regular partners, the London Symphony Orchestra or the Mariinsky. Instead he takes up the baton (or more likely the toothpick, as is his preference) with the RSNO for Prokofiev's 3rd piano concerto and Alexander Nevsky. It's unusual that we're not getting a single work but on the positive side, this should prove a far more exciting and appropriate curtain raiser than the damp squibs of the last two years.

This year sees a reasonable crop of visiting orchestras, chief among them the exceptional Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons. They were last here way back in 2007, Mills' first season. They impressed me so greatly that I travelled to London for a series of appearances they made at the Festival Hall over the following years (with programmes including Bruckner, Shostakovich, Strauss and Mahler). Sadly they have not been back lately, making their visit all the more welcome. For my money, this is one of the very best conductor / orchestra teams in the world and is absolutely not to be missed. Jansons is no slouch in Mahler 2 either, one of the works they're bringing, as he proved with the Concertgebouw at the Barbican a few years ago, rivalling the man himself for offstage brass placement. Be warned, he will almost certainly observe the five minute break Mahler marks in the score between the first and second movements (not a decision I agree with, and one which last time prompted me to fear seriously for his health).I'm even keener to hear what they can do with Tchaikovsky 6.

Peter Oundjian and the RSNO present Má vlast

While I've long been familiar with Smetana's Má vlast, it is only comparatively recently that I came to love it. That was as a result of a glitteringly persuasive account from Jiří Bělohlávek and the BBC SO at the Proms two years ago, so fine it swept me away completely even without being in the hall. Alas it has not been issued on disc.

A slight problem with having an experience like that is that nothing that follows quite seems to recapture it. This was the first time I've heard the piece in the flesh and so the fact that while I found the performance good, it didn't sweep me away, may owe something to that context.

Generally the playing was of a good calibre. The strings shone particularly, especially in some of the fierce chords found in Tábor. Oundjian's interpretation was rather what I have come to expect from him: solid, and often at his best in the realisation of some of the big climaxes. And yet, at the same time missing that extra x factor. In the smaller moments particularly he didn't let the score bloom and open up as it can. Interestingly, since it was the movement he chose to describe in his talk, for me Šárka fell flattest of all. He had said all the right things, but somehow he didn't bring them out.

Friday, 22 March 2013

EIF 2013 - The Opera and Drama Programme

Opera

The 2013 opera programme is dominated by two returnees. It begins on the opening weekend with a new production of Fidelio from Opera de Lyon who previously visited the Festival with Porgy and Bess in 2010 (which I missed) and in McMaster's last Festival with two superb productions (a Weill double bill and Tchaikovsky's Mazeppa). According to the International Festival's Twitter account, Jonathan Mills apparently claimed at the press release that this production was one of the 2013 Festival's boldest offerings. This seems a remarkable claim when a) Fidelios are two a penny and b) there is an awful lot of other programming in this year's Festival which given what I regard as the general conservatism of Edinburgh audiences is remarkably bold. I can only assume that the basis for Mills' claim is the production's concept. Apparently director Gary Hill is to set the opera “on board the doomed spacecraft Aniara as it hurtles towards infinity” (to quote the Programme guide). A little digging suggests that he may be thinking of a poem by the Swedish Nobel laureate Henry Martinson entitled Anaira (I haven't read it). More concerning is the fact that Hill's background seems to be almost entirely in video installations – apart from some kind of loose staging of works by Edgard Varèse he doesn't appear ever to have directed an opera before and I'm afraid the London stages in recent times have been littered with disasters resulting from putting opera into such neophyte arms. The other immediate question raised by the description in the programme book is whether Hill has realised that the opera has a happy ending – presumably the doomed spaceship is going to turn out in fact not to be. The production opens in Lyon towards the end of this month, so more information may then be forthcoming. Kazushi Ono, the company's principle conductor, conducts. He previously conducted the Ravel double bill and Hansel and Gretel at Glyndebourne, but lists no other UK operatic engagements in his biography – I heard good reports of the former. Erika Sunnegardh sings Leonore having previously sung it in Frankfurt and the Met. She and most of the other singers will all be new to me.

The second returnee is Barry Kosky, a Mills regular. This time he brings a double bill of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle and Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Apart from the fact that I have some doubts as to whether these two works will pair well together, I can't say that I am thrilled by the prospect of more Kosky who has not impressed me on previous outings (here's what I said about his ghastly Poppea in Mills's first year). The productions were originally staged in Frankfurt in 2010 and reviews for both plus a selection of images may be found here and here. Regrettably none of them are in English. Surprise is always possible, but I'm not optimistic.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The 2013/14 RSNO Season

Perhaps it's the fatigue of four programming announcements in eight days, but I'm afraid I can't get too excited about the Royal Scottish National Orchestra's 2013/14. In part, this may be because while a number of the individual works or concerts catch the eye, there is little by way of theme or overarching structure to tie them together.

The sole thematic exception is the programming of a number of works by Britten, including a his War Requiem, conducted by Peter Oundjian, who starts his second season, and featuring Susan Gritton among the soloists. This perhaps goes some way to explaining the absence of the work, and indeed the composer, from the Edinburgh festival this summer.

The Britten is not the only big outing for the RSNO Chorus. The other, which comes at the end of the season, is a performance of Mahler's titanic 8th symphony, again under Oundjian. That Erin Wall is singing will please those who recall her stunning voice when she sang it under Runnicles at the festival in 2010.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Here's Runnicles: The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra announce their 2013/14 season

Announcements appear to be like busses. You wait months for the Edinburgh Festival programme and then barely have you had time to digest it when two orchestras fire out their announcements. However, I must say that I rather like the fact that the BBC sent their announcement to the general public before the press.

Given the amount he's here these days, it's hard to remember there was a time when you couldn't hear Donald Runnicles conduct a concert in Scotland for love or money, outside the odd festival appearance. It's a little sad, therefore, that the orchestra has scaled its Usher Hall appearances back again from three to two, though the blame can probably be laid at the door of Edinburgh's audience who sometimes don't know a good artistic thing when it sets up and performs in front of them.

One interesting aspect of the season is the choice to pair Mahler with Britten. It's not a coupling that obviously jumps out at me so it will be interesting to hear. As we weren't swamped in Scotland during the anniversary year, three symphonies doesn't feel excessive, especially when two, the 5th and 9th, are conducted by Runnicles, always a sure Mahlerian. I'm particularly interested to hear the pairing of the 9th and Part's Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten which should work well.

The 2013/14 Scottish Chamber Orchestra season

Next year will mark the 40th birthday of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and their celebratory season has a lot to like. Following on from the model of Ticciati's most successful opening concerts, it begins with a performance of Berlioz's Béatrice Et Bénédict. The cast includes Karen Cargill and John Tessier in the title rolls along with Sally Matthews and others. That said, if I had a reservation, it would be that I think there are other composers and operas to which the SCO would be better suited.

Towards the other end of the season, the principal conductor presents what for me is his most intriguing pair of concerts, mixing Ligeti, Dvorak and Haydn. Early on in his tenure he delivered some impressive performances of Ligeti and some exceptional Haydn symphonies which were among the finest I've heard. Add to this Stephen Isserlis for the Dvorak cello concerto and they should be well worth hearing. In between, Ticciati directs a complete survey of Schumann's symphonies, though for me the most exiting aspect of those concerts is Paul Lewis performing Mozart's 25th concerto.

There are interesting guest conductors, both new and old. Christian Zacharias's return, after a couple of seasons away, is most welcome. His programme in December features Mozart's K271 concerto, Jeunehomme, along with Haydn's La Reine symphony, some Poulenc and some Ravel. Meanwhile towards the end of the year John Storgards is on hand for Sibelius's beautiful 6th symphony coupled with MacMillan and Vaughan Williams.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

First thoughts on the 2013 Edinburgh International Festival

So, the excitement of Edinburgh International Festival programme launch day is here again. Full thoughts will follow later, when such matters as work aren't inconveniently getting in the way, but in the meantime, a few first thoughts. (These were snatched on the bus and over lunch breaks, so please forgive the odd typo.)

Where is he?

With the BBC SSO, as expected, conducting the closing concert. This, too might have been expected since its Verdi's anniversary we're getting the Requiem. Runnicles does a good one, these same forces opened the festival with one in 2005. This time there is the added bonus of stunning soprano Erin Wall.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Konwitschny's Traviata at ENO, or, Oh Will They Never Learn

This is one of those occasions when no one can say they weren't warned. The advance publicity is careful to point out that the opera has been cut (something one feels so many current opera directors frequently yearn to do). The programme is even more explicit, Konwitschny having written his own version of the synopsis. It includes such memorable declarations as “he is a socially awkward bookworm” (Alfredo) and (of the conclusion of Act One) “In the midst of her philosophical and at the same time erotic reflections, Alfredo again points the finger of blame, whereupon she flounces off....” I can think of nothing in the text which suggests this of Alfredo, and I have clearly been utterly mistaken in previously thinking that the end of Act One sees Alfredo essentially pleading with her to trust in his love for her. The translation is not the one that I am perhaps overly familiar with from the classic Charles Mackerras recording and if I had time and a native Italian speaker to hand I should very much like their opinion on it. I strongly suspect it was being messed around with to fit Konwitschny's ideas about what the piece is about.

We'll come back to some of those a bit later, but a word must first be said about the performance's one outstanding feature: Corinne Winters's Violetta. I cannot remember a recent occasion where I have heard this kind of role performed so superbly at the Coliseum. Vocally she is really outstanding. Unfortunately there is a resultant problem – which is that the emotional richness of her musical portrayal only makes more obvious the emotional emptiness of the production in which she is stranded. Of the other two key roles, Ben Johnson makes a manful attempt at Alfredo but can't quite match Winters. Anthony Michaels-Moore's Germont pere growls his way through the part (with the occasional swoop) and I would have wished for a little more variation in tone and volume. But overall they are solid enough. The minor roles are well sung, and the ENO Chorus is in excellent voice. I had grave misgivings in advance about Michael Hofstetter's conducting after hearing him butcher Bach in Edinburgh a few years ago, but he is like other things solid enough, although there were places where I thought his tempi too slow (most conspicuously in Germont pere's great aria pleading with Alfredo to return home).

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Port at National Theatre, or, Just Go. Seriously.

I have developed a dubious habit of collecting theatres. This has meant that apart from the Christmas children's show and a couple of non NT productions I haven't missed a show on one of the National's three main stages since 2011. I mention this because it has meant that I am going to a lot of things which I might previously not have bothered with partly because I want to keep the run going. Apart from the fact that Marianne Elliot was directing it, there wasn't much else in advance that I was specially looking forward to about this. All of which goes to show that sometimes the best things come upon one most unexpectedly.

Port is first and foremost a really powerful play. As a story it is very simple – an oft told tale of a disfunctional family centred on the daughter, Rachael (the superb Kate O'Flynn). But just because it's simple doesn't lessen it as a work. Partly this is because Simon Stephens writes real poetry. This may seem suprising given that there is quite a lot of swearing, but for me this is like the swearing in Black Watch or D.C. Moore's The Swan. You could not tell this story about these people without it. It takes perhaps a scene for the ear to adjust and after that it just fits. The second thing about Stephens's writing is he captures those awful moments of trying to find words to express the hardest things. There are places where you can just feel the emotions under the surface that want to break out and can't. Perhaps the best way to sum up the play is that it feels emotionally true, and heartbreaking.

The play is ably supported by another excellent piece of work on the directing side from Marianne Elliot. As with The Curious Incident she's partnered by Scott Graham as Movement Director. I honestly can't think of another British director currently from whom one has this sense of care about the physical side of the performance. This manifests itself in the way the scenes flow into each other, in the awkwardness (which never feels staged) of the teenage encounter in the bus shelter, but also in those wonderful little moments I've talked about before which convey so much with so little. I could make a long list of them from this production, but I would single out O'Flynn hiding behind her locker door smiling as Calum Callaghan's Danny awkwardly tells her how much he likes her, and the early part of the hotel room scene with its undercurrent of breakdown.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Eugene Onegin at the Royal, or, On Discipline and Inspirational Conducting (or the Lack Thereof)

Setting out for this performance I was bracing myself for a long evening. My parents saw the show earlier in the run and were sufficiently unimpressed to advise me to get rid of my ticket. Contrary to my expectations, however, I found quite a lot to enjoy.

First off, though, it must be admitted that there is one big problem, and he's standing on the podium. I have heard glowing reports from my brother about Robin Ticciati's work with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and from my parents of his Mozart at Glyndebourne. Unfortunately he is on this evidence not a Tchaikovsky man. In the long first half, in particular, things plodded badly such that one had that terrible feeling at times that the cast might as well have been singing about the contents of their sandwiches. On one or two occasions Ticciati had a bizarre burst of speed (such as in the first big chorus number) – this wasn't much better. Things did improve after the interval, but I think a glass of wine may have assisted.

Much of the singing is also not entirely perfect. The best performance vocally was Peter Rose's magnificent Prince Gremin. It wasn't until I got home that I was able to check who was taking the role and I was somewhat astonished. I've heard him several times and have never been especially impressed, but tonight his performance was beautifully sung and very moving. I didn't find either Krassimira Stoyanova's Tatyana or Simon Keenlyside's Onegin entirely satisfactory. Stoyanova, especially in the first half, just sounded a bit too contained and somehow not the epitome of youthful exuberance. Keenlyside in a number of places disappeared under the orchestra. But again both were better after the interval, and never less than solid. Pavol Breslik's Lensky gave a fine account of his pre-duel aria. The rest of the singing was solid.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Charpentier's Medea at ENO, or, The Wait for a Hit Continues

English National Opera last had a hit by my reckoning exactly a year ago with John Adams's Death of Klinghoffer (there have been a couple of strong shows musically since, but nothing which ticked every box). Recent announcements of nearly £2.2million losses in the last financial year have demonstrated how badly they are in need of another one. On paper this was the best bet of this season's new productions for starting to reverse this situation. McVicar is one of the best opera directors currently working, who rarely succumbs to the kind of symbolic nonsense and ineffective management of personnel so beloved by so many. Sarah Connolly is one of the reigning mezzo-sopranos. Yet I did wonder even then about the wisdom of giving this work its British stage premiere, and I'm afraid I didn't feel the decision was justified.

As usual, let's start with the positives. There is some very good singing. Sarah Connolly gives a typically strong performance, though I didn't find her as commanding here as on other occasions. She is well supported by Roderick Williams's Orontes, Katherine Manley's Creusa and Brindley Sherratt's Creon. There is also one lovely McVicar directorial touch. In her few brief scenes, he turns Aoife O'Sullivan's Cleonis into a beautifully done timid, mousy lady-in-waiting (who quite frankly I would have taken out on the dance floor, providing she could put up with having her feet trodden on, in preference to either the dangerously barking Medea or the arrogant princess).

But, I'm afraid these positive elements are outweighed by the negatives. The big one from a performance point of view is Jeffrey Francis's Jason. Astute observers of the plot may notice that Jason is supposed to be irresistible to the leading women – Medea indeed is prepared to kill just about everybody else of any consequence in order to keep hold of him. Now it is true that Francis is not helped by costuming that appears designed to make him look as if he's old enough to be Orontes's father, but his acting doesn't help either – he just has no charisma. As a result I really couldn't see why anybody, and particularly any woman would waste their energies upon him. A ringing vocal performance would have helped too. Francis is passable in the role, but it isn't an exciting voice.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Julius Caesar at the Donmar, or, The Concept Rules (Ineffectively)

The pity of this performance is that there are quite a lot of talented actresses on the stage. Some of them, most notably Harriet Walter as Brutus, manage, often for long stretches, to transcend the ineffective concept of a production in which they are stranded. But in the end, Phyllida Lloyd's new production is a classic case of the arrogant director who having thrown out the original setting has nothing to put in its place.

Lloyd's concept appears to be that the play is being put on by a theatre group in a women's prison. I say appears to be because for much of the time we are simply in a pretty bare, empty environment. After the prisoners are marched in at the beginning, Lloyd appears to forget about where she's set the piece for two thirds of the play. The main consequence of this is that although there is some sterling delivery of text going on from some of the performers, much of it falls flat because the environmental context has been removed and replaced with, well, nothing very clear. Would that this had persisted to the end of the evening. Unfortunately, at about the two thirds mark Lloyd suddenly seems to remember that she's imposed this concept on the show and obviously feels that she better do something to justify it. First a minor Citizen Prisoner is summoned by the guard to take her meds. She is replaced by another unidentified prisoner (outside of their parts in the play there is almost no sense that they any of them have separate characters as prisoners) who reads the next scene from the script. Then in the big Cassius and Brutus reconciliation scene, some prisoners start giggling giving Walter the opportunity to deploy a few choice swear words in their direction. Having duly reminded us, in this baffling fashion, of her concept, the thing once again subsides from view.

Two other consequences of this concept need to be mentioned here. First, the normal Stalls benches have been replaced by grey plastic chairs which are increasingly hard on the back in a two hour sit. Secondly, the interval has been dispensed with. Given how half baked the concept is, I do not think either decision is justified.