Thursday, 11 August 2022

EIF 2022 - There's Runnicles with Fidelio, or, A Powerfully Felt Performance

 Regular readers will know we are admirers of Donald Runnicles at this blog, well our name is a bit of a giveaway. His performances of concert opera at the International Festival over the years have consistently been highlights, and it's been really excellent news that after the baffling gap of the Mills era, Linehan has in recent Festivals resumed inviting Runnicles to give concert opera. I sincerely hope Nicola Benedetti will continue to do so when she takes over as Artistic Director next year.

My history of staged Fidelios has been pretty dismal, in fact I think I've probably seen more failed productions of this opera than of any other. The last time the Festival included the work was a candidate for the worst opera staging I've ever seen, and since then the Royal Opera and Glyndebourne have added problematic productions. It occurred to me after this performance that directors perhaps start from the premise that the work is a problem and feel they have to do drastic things to it - not least because of the chunks of spoken dialogue. Somewhat to my surprise Runnicles had decided to include some narrative summary between the musical numbers here - adapted by Sir David Pountney and delivered by Sir Willard White (also singing Don Fernando). The odd thing for me was that as the performance went on I think I was tending to tune the summary out and feeling the musical performance as a compelling drama in its own right. Maybe it's because I now know the work well and my mind could fill in the gaps, but I also think it's to do with how much is there in the libretto and Beethoven's music, assisted here by the deeply felt performances of all the musicians on stage. In other words it really struck me that actually this work doesn't have to be nearly such a problem piece as directors have so often seemed determined to treat it - everything you need is there for powerful emotional drama - done more straightforwardly on stage as it essentially was here it could be gripping, moving - as this was for me.

Tuesday, 9 August 2022

EIF 2022 - The Pulse at the Playhouse, or, Simply Mesmerising

 At the start of this performance, Gravity & Other Myths and the National Youth Choir of Scotland conducted by Mark Evans lulled this viewer into thinking he had seen it before. The Choir are singing numbers - 1,2,3,2,1 etc. (I suspect a Glass setting) and the movement of the acrobats recalled to mind the work of others - William Forsythe's choreography, Glass's Einstein on the Beach. Then the acrobats subvert it as they climb on one another's shoulders - forming first a set of two person towers, and then moving up to three - the moment when the set of trio towers cross through each other was the first of a stunning series of acrobatic peaks. From then on I was gripped by a show of mesmerising movement and acrobatics which makes full, successful use of the often tricky Playhouse space.

Gravity & Other Myths have three styles - those breath-taking set pieces, the ground level collective movement (both as individuals and in small groups - there are some lovely human mobile moments late on), and individual turns - the guy towards the end who slid along on his back and then bounced upright as though made of rubber particularly sticks in my mind.

EIF 2022 - Rusalka at the Festival Theatre, or A Superb Substitution

 When the 2022 EIF programme was announced I confess to a lukewarm reaction to Rusalka as the sole staged opera simply because it's never been one of my favourite works and I've seen it a couple of times and not been wowed. I booked for this run of performances more for completionist reasons. As it turned out this is a show that is well worth seeing and makes a very strong case for the merits of the piece.

Before we go on to any other aspects of the evening Elin Pritchard, stepping in to the title role for the indisposed Natalya Romaniw must be singled out for special praise. Pritchard gave a compelling singing-acting performance. It obviously must have helped that she covered the role during the Garsington run, but had an announcement not been made I doubt anyone would have realised she was stepping in. Both as an individual and in her interactions with the rest of the ensemble, aided by Jack Furness's thoughtful direction of people, she really brought the character and the story to effective, moving life. The moment in the third act when she kisses the Prince & Dvorak's score climaxes was especially powerful. She also has a voice of distinctive character with great power at the top of the range, and is clearly thinking about the text she is communicating - the force of some of the repeated single words in the lower register particularly struck home. 

EIF 2022 - Burn at the King's, or, Mr Cumming is Self-Indulgent

 I was sceptical about this show in advance. When it began with a projection of the title (a theatrical tick I particularly dislike) on the back video screen my scepticism increased. The subsequent hour did not change my mind.

There's no doubt that Alan Cumming is a compelling stage presence - having that indefinable quality of charisma I've observed in very few performers in my years of theatregoing and which renders the individual inherently watchable. He is also a very effective deliverer of text. But neither these qualities nor throwing the kitchen sink at the staging can disguise the fundamentally thin character of this show.

Friday, 3 June 2022

Samson et Dalila at the Royal, or, I'm Sorry, Mr Jones, We're Fresh Out of Pillars

 I have a recollection of listening to a classic recording of this opera, I suspect one of a number of opera CDs inherited from a beloved uncle, and finding it enjoyable. There's certainly a lot of beautiful music in the piece, and I'm not sorry to have heard it live, but it is also not a mystery to me that it has largely fallen out of the repertoire.

The first problem lies with the way Saint-Saens structures the piece. The drama has an episodic feel, and tension both musically and dramatically has a tendency to drop. The balance between ensemble spectacle and exploration of the principal characters doesn't seem quite right. Most seriously there appears to be a glaring omission to stage a key plot point - that is so far as I could judge Dalila never does get the secret of Samson's power out of him at the climax of Act Two thus making it inexplicable that he can't escape from the mob.

Thursday, 2 June 2022

Oklahoma at the Young Vic, or, A Dissenting View

Oklahoma is not a musical about which I previously had strong opinions. I saw it once more than a decade ago in an amateur production in Edinburgh (I think put on under the auspices of the Catholic Chaplaincy) and it didn't leave me with a desire to see the show again. I mention this to stress that I don't think I arrived at this performance wedded to the view that the show should be staged in a particular, say traditional way. I wouldn't even say, based on that one previous viewing, that I thought it was a show that especially needed a revival. Given those feelings and the fact I didn't need to see it in order to tick it off my list of unseen musicals, I really only booked because the production came trailing so much praise from its New York City run and because I thought it might be thought provoking. I left the theatre bored and baffled.

The problems start with the failure of the set (co-designed by Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher) to give much in the way of a sense of place. We're in a bare space with two trestle tables making a T and a further single line of tables down the right and left sides separating audience from playing area. The railings of the upper level have been covered over with wood on which guns are hung. The thing never loses the sense of being a hall which could, frankly, be any number of places. The corn fields and farm drawing on the back wall is nice to look at but feels increasingly disconnected from the action. Productions with little sense of place seem to be in vogue these days (see most recently the Donmar's Henry V) and was one of a litany of things about this production that struck me as wearily familiar rather than daringly original. It is worth noting here that it may be that if seated downstairs the show works differently (we were in the gallery).

Wednesday, 23 March 2022

Peter Grimes at the Royal, or, In the Shadow of Past Glories

 This production has garnered pretty much universally high praise. In advance I was sceptical, having not been wholly convinced by Deborah Warner's Billy Budd for the House back in 2019. From my vantage point in the Amphitheatre I thought the production strengthened as the evening went on, but despite some fine individual performances it never gripped me with the emotional intensity of either the Snape Maltings concert/Grimes on the Beach experience or the Bergen Philharmonic/Edward Gardner concert performance at the Edinburgh Festival.

The main reason for this is a production which can't decide between abstract or realist approaches. The contrast shows up between the Prologue and Scene 1. The Prologue plays out on a bare stage. Grimes (Allan Clayton) appears to be almost dreaming it. Nearly the only light comes from the electric torches everybody is holding (from the Amphi much of Act 1 is too dark generally, though this is rectified in the later Acts). Scene 1 by contrast is a rather cluttered fishing market set-up, with a low wall which did remind me of Aldeburgh. We never get back to quite the spareness of the Prologue but the show has an uneasy feeling of being caught between those two approaches. For me it thus never fully achieved immersed me in its world. Elements of geographical confusion - particularly as to where Warner imagines the sea to be (in Act 1 it could be in at least three directions) - also do not help.

Saturday, 5 March 2022

Henry V at the Donmar, or, Back to the Same Old, Same Old

Note: This is a review of the preview matinee on Saturday 19th February 2022 and written shortly afterwards. In view of the Covid cancellations and delayed press night I decided not to post until after the press night which has now taken place.

 Henry V feels to me like one of the more frequently staged Shakespeares (certainly among the history plays) and a new staging consequently runs up against the challenge of how to make the work fresh. It is a challenge which this production sadly fails to meet.

This was my first encounter with director Max Webster, though family members had recently reported positively on his Life of Pi. Webster and designer Fly Davis go for a very bare staging. There's a metallic like backdrop and a three level raked bare platform on which virtually the only furniture in three hours are occasional plastic chairs which look more suited to a classroom than a throne room. There is little concrete sense of place at any point - the single sustained exception is the Henry/Mountjoy scene towards the end of the first half. For atmosphere Webster is reliant, as far too many current directors seem to be, on projections supplied on this occasion by Andrzej Goulding. These are used in three ways - to explain elements of the plot (fair enough on the Salic Law speech, superfluous when we're on the road to Agincourt), to project the faces of the two monarchs, and to reinforce the text (waves to make clear that we're travelling by sea when the Chorus is describing this). As a whole the projections make little impression, and particularly in that last instance, suggested to me a lack of confidence in the audience to use their imagination. Overall the environment is dull to look at, and feels like a repeat of an approach I've seen often before.

Monday, 23 August 2021

EIF 2021 - Lonely House, or, An Outstanding Evening of Song

 When the International Festival announced that this year's programme was to take place almost entirely in tents two events stood out - this performance of Kurt Weill's songs dating from his exiles in Paris and New York, and Alan Cumming's appearance on the final weekend. This is not to say that there aren't other world class performers in this year's programme but these two shows were instances where I knew in advance that they could almost certainly transcend what I expected to be the acoustic limitations of the tents because they were shows that would have been miked under regular circumstances. In this first instance my supposition proved correct. This is the first of the four shows in the tents I've attended which transcended their limitations as performance spaces. As the songs progressed I increasingly forgot the sound of the rain, the chill in the air and was simply immersed in the mesmerising artistry of Katharine Mehrling and Barrie Kosky.

Kosky previously showed himself adept in this kind of collaboration at Festival 2019 when he brought colleagues from his Komische Oper, Berlin for a marvellous late night performance of Yiddish opera excerpts at the Lyceum. This was Mehrling's debut at the Festival, and what an electrifying performance it was. 

Sunday, 22 August 2021

EIF 2021 - Dido's Ghost, or The Perils of the Sequel

 A standout in last year's BBC Radio 3 Proms Archive season was a rebroadcast of a 2003 late night performance of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas which reminded me what a masterpiece it is. I think it is therefore fair to say that to attempt to write a sequel to it is a brave decision, and, even more so, to construct that sequel such that the new work incorporates what sounded to me like a pretty complete performance of Purcell's original.

Composer Errollyn Wallen and librettist Wesley Stace have in fact a strong idea for their new work - which is to pick up the story with Aeneas some years later in his new kingdom, haunted by his treatment of Dido. The problems lie in the execution. Aeneas's immediate mental crisis is triggered by the arrival in Lavinium of Dido's sister Anna. Aeneas offers her the sanctuary of the palace. Once there they all - Aeneas, Anna, and Aeneas's new Queen, Lavinia - proceed to take up roles in a re-enactment of Purcell's opera. I'd arrived almost as curtain was going up, so hadn't time to read the detailed synopsis in the programme which, judging by a reading after the event, might have helped. As it was I could only go with the narrative as presented on stage, and I'm afraid it just made no sense to me that such a performance would be organised in this context, nor was I convinced by the reasons provided for the characters assuming parts within the masque. That synopsis suggests that it is all being masterminded by Purcell's Belinda, except that she is now supposed to be the Spirit of the Theatre - in other words the Gods are to blame - but I'm afraid a convincing controlling spiritual power was not created as far as I was concerned. From near the very back of the auditorium I also ended up in one complete moment of confusion at the start of the Witches scene in the Purcell when it seemed as if there were two Aeneases in the action and one of them had taken on the role of the Sorceress - I think a contributory factor here may be the very minimal costuming which doesn't always help to distinguish characters.

Sunday, 2 May 2021

Remembering Michael Collins – A LUCKY man we were LUCKY to have

“Well, I kinda have two moons in my head, I guess, whereas most people just have one moon. I look at the moon, just like everybody else who’s never been there, and, you know, there it is, and I’ve always thought it was interesting, whether it was full or just a sliver, or what have you. But every once in a while I do think of the second moon, you know, the one I that I recall from up close, and it is kinda hard to believe that I was actually up there.”

Michael Collins speaking in the 2007 documentary In the Shadow of the Moon. It remains one of the greatest records of the Apollo programme, not least due to the wit, the poetry, and the sparkle of Collins’ interviews. It is also one of my favourite films, and Collins my favourite Apollo astronaut and a real inspiration, so the news of his death last week from cancer at the age of 90 was particularly sad.


Collins training for Apollo 11. Photo NASA.

Monday, 3 August 2020

BBC Proms 2020, or, A Proms Miscelleny for Week 3

Welcome to the second instalment of this rather mad combination of Previously at the Proms/What the critics said...

Monday 3rd August - Lunchtime Chamber Music - Liszt, Prokofiev (2011)

This was Katia Buniatishvili's debut at the Festival. She returned in 2018 to perform the Grieg Piano Concerto.

Intriguingly, given for most of its history the Proms was primarily an orchestral festival, this was the third performance of Liszt's Piano Sonata. On both occasions, it was paired with major symphonies - Bruckner's Fifth in 1984 and Beethoven's Ninth in 1989 (played by Lazar Berman on the first occasion and Peter Donohoe on the second). It's quite hard to imagine such a pairing featuring on a programme now. Liszt's music featured in the very first Proms season - his second Hungarian Rhapsody (heard in the orchestral version at the First Night) and Third Liebestraum (which Buniatishvili also plays, and which had gone unheard at the Proms between 1905 and 1997). This was the eighth performance of the Liebestraum (and its only other performance since the early days of the Festival, in Evgeny Kissin's 1997 solo recital, can be heard later in this archive season). Liszt's music overall has notched up just over 600 Proms appearances partly aided, as with Berlioz, by multiple performances in the early years of what I think Henry Wood referred to as lollipops - most frequent here was Liszt's Hungarian Fantasy. But his overall output is more widely reflected than I'd expected. The Piano Concertos have unsurprisingly appeared frequently (the First can be heard in tonight's Prom), but Les Preludes beats the Second Concerto and remained a regular feature of seasons through to the Last Night in 1963 after which it disappeared until Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra brought it back in 2009. Almost as surprising as the popularity of Les Preludes to me was the discovery that both his large scale symphonies have appeared more than once - the Dante Symphony receiving its Proms premiere back in 1904 (though it was not heard again until 1986). Henry Wood evidently had a fondness for the Faust Symphony, giving it complete on four occasions in the 30s (often alongside Liszt symphonic poems). The list even includes a performance of the rarely heard Christus in 1978 - I can't recall this being done in the UK since I started attending concerts - I wonder if that is still in the archive.