Wednesday, 28 August 2019

EIF 2019 - Breaking the Waves at the King's, or The Things We Do for Love

Staged opera has been a bit of a challenge for the International Festival in recent years, so it was a pleasant surprise when this year's programme was announced to find that one of only two staged operas was to be a European premiere. I'd read a positive note of Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek's new work in the New Yorker. I'd also been a huge fan of Tom Morris's production of John Adams's masterpiece The Death of Klinghoffer for ENO. The signs were encouraging. This proved to be a gripping evening of music theatre, introducing me to a work which deserves to be widely seen.

The new opera is an adaptation of Lars van Trier's 1996 film of the same name. I haven't seen the film so I can't comment on how the adaptation compares. What particularly surprised me was the sudden realisation a few days before I attended that both have a Scottish setting. Given the Festival has been anxious to play up Scottish content in recent years it fascinates me that more emphasis was not placed in the marketing of this run on that Scottish setting. I wonder if the darker Scotland portrayed here may be a factor - a community whose narrow minded, intolerant religion has terrible consequences. I actually thought this story had more interesting things to say about Scotland than most of the recent newly commissioned Scottish plays the Festival has offered - not least because it is centrally concerned with a darker Scottish world than those plays have often wanted to address.

Thursday, 22 August 2019

EIF 2019 - Stephen Fry's Mythos at the Festival Theatre, or, Excuse Me While I Digress

At the start of Part 3 of this epic there was a striking moment, indicative of what could have been a rather different show. Fry comes on stage (I think to some music and lighting effects) and lies down. A ball rolls up to him. Then, without preamble or side note, he starts to tell a story - a traveller washed up naked on a beach, taken in by the local rulers, fed and clothed. Fry takes care not to name the traveller, and while some in the audience (myself included) may remember the episode, this gives it an air of mystery - we want to know who he is, what will happen next. The local bard is asked to entertain them and starts in on the tale of the Trojan War, and the princess sees that our shipwrecked traveller is weeping. This is my story, he says...

That opening is a tight, focused piece of storytelling. It's also part of a narrative (effectively the Trojan War and Odysseus's return) which provides Fry with a coherent dramatic shape. As a result, although Part 3 doesn't manage to maintain the high standard of the opening throughout it is more satisfying than the other two segments. The problems elsewhere arise from several factors.

Friday, 16 August 2019

EIF 2019 - Eugene Onegin at the Festival Theatre, or, Is it raining? I hadn't noticed.

It's a comment on the limitations on EIF finances these days that this, one of only two staged operas at the 2019 Festival, only arrives at the end of the second week. It received a rapturous reception from the audience, but from where I was sitting I was less convinced.

This was a return visit for Komische Oper and director Barry Kosky. This pairing was last seen at the Festival with their disappointing Magic Flute in 2015, with Kosky having been a fairly frequent visitor since the Mills era. I've also seen several Kosky opera productions in London. He has a considerable reputation, but I still can't see why, and this production did not change my mind. This evening was, however, an improvement on my only previous live encounter with this work - Holten and Ticciati's flawed recent version at Covent Garden (though I was interested on re-reading my blog on that performance that I liked that production more than I'd remembered).

Thursday, 15 August 2019

EIF 2019 - Angela Hewitt at the Usher Hall, or, A Masterclass in Pianism

The last time I heard Angela Hewitt at the Edinburgh Festival (I'm pretty sure) was way back in the mists of time in 2002. On that occasion she was a substitute for Andras Schiff and performed the Goldberg Variations to a sold out Usher Hall as part of the wonderful Royal Bank Lates. I remember that concert for several reasons. I hadn't planned to go when it was originally advertised because I'd heard Schiff in several Queen's Hall recitals and hadn't cared for his style. Nor was I, then, very keen on Bach. But when the substitution was announced I thought I'd like to hear Hewitt live. I credit that concert with making me realise that Bach can be a rather amazing composer. So when the programme was announced for this year's Festival, these two marathon concerts of the complete Well Tempered Clavier were top of my list of things to catch. It proved to be a memorable experience.

Hewitt's programme note, matched to her approach to grouping in performance, proved very helpful to this listener effectively encountering the work for the first time - I recognised the occasional individual prelude and fugue, and the phrase that Kit and the Widow satirise as Lloyd Webber borrowing. Hewitt suggests that it is helpful to approach the preludes and fugues as groups of four. This gave shape to the evenings and assisted me to retain a sense of place within the journey.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

EIF 2019 - Roots at the Church Hill, or, An Underwhelming Afternoon

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Sunday 11th August 2019.

My only previous encounter with the company 1927 was their Magic Flute, staged for Komische Oper Berlin in collaboration with Barrie Kosky which visited the Festival back in 2015. I was underwhelmed. I thought that perhaps seeing one of their own shows would explain their reputation to me, but I'm afraid this anthology while technically impressive and delivered by a versatile ensemble of musician actors (Susanna Andrade, Esme Appleton, David Insua-Cao, Francesca Simmons) left me rather cold.

This new show, co-produced by Edinburgh and receiving its European premiere here, is a collection of folk tales including a greedy cat, patient Griselda (whom it is difficult not to regard as out of her mind in this version) and an ant who loses her mouse husband in a stew accident. The company's approach is a repeat of that used in The Magic Flute, with the benefit here that they can precisely tailor the constant musical accompaniment to fit their needs. So the staging consists of a white screen on which everything required is projected, with a few holes cut in it through which faces and hands can appear.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

EIF 2019 - The Secret River, or, Under Very Challenging Circumstances

Note: This is a review of the matinee performance on Saturday 10th August 2019.

A pre-curtain announcement from director Neil Armfield hinted that the run of this production was continuing under challenging circumstances, but it was only the result of a conversation afterwards with a relative that I learnt just how challenging. Frankly, it is astonishing that the rest of the cast are managing to continue under those circumstances and the remarks that follow must be presaged by an acknowledgement that we were lucky to see the show at all, and a sincere hope for the recovery of Ningali Lawford-Wolf.

To turn then to the show itself. I haven't read Kate Grenville's novel, so I can't comment on how Andrew Bovell's adaptation compares. We follow the fortune of now pardoned convict William Thornhill (Nathaniel Dean) and his wife Sal (Georgia Adamson) as they attempt to occupy a hundred acres of land on the Hawkesbury River in colonial New South Wales. Thornhill attempts to convince himself that the land is virgin, that they are entitled to take possession. His wife, still longing for a return to her native London (evocatively conjured in text and, at moments in staging) is much more sceptical. The story focuses on exposing the fallacy of Thornhill's claim. We find his family at first alongside the First Nation people who have inhabited the area for far longer, and watch as tensions mount to inevitable violence.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Present Laughter at the Old Vic, or, Acceptable Revisions?

Note: This is a belated review of the performance on Thursday 25th July 2019.

Like buses you wait ages for a revival of a work, then two come along in quick succession. This is a much stronger production of Coward's play than the disappointing Chichester version last summer. Andrew Scott is outstanding in the title role. But it is not a flawless evening.

The highlight of the evening is unquestionably Andrew Scott's Garry Essendine. He's a commanding, charismatic stage presence. It's completely believable that he's been packing theatres for years - whenever he's on stage it's almost impossible not to watch him. Yet at the same time Scott is aware of the need, in a way that Rufus Hound wasn't at Chichester, for a distinction between Essendine's on-stage and off-stage character. There are a number of fine, subtle moments when Scott dials the energy, the forcefulness right back to reveal a touching, believable vulnerability. In particular, a tiny moment when his wife Liz has clearly rung off abruptly caught at my heart.

Friday, 26 July 2019

The Hunt at the Almeida, or, Focused on the Wrong Story

Note: This is a review of the performance on Monday 15th July 2019.

This is the second London play in recent months focused on child sexual abuse. As an exploration of that subject it is less effective than the recent Downstate at the National which in turn was less effective than David Harrower's superb EIF commission Blackbird back in 2005. However, there is also a second narrative here exploring how Tobias Menzies (Lucas) interacts, or struggles to interact, emotionally with others. Menzies's character in this regard is a type of man I feel we don't see that often on stage, and in the rare moments of stillness and character-led drama his struggle really moves. Would that the play had focused on that narrative.

Instead, of course, this adaptation of a Danish film (I haven't seen the original so can't comment on how convincing it is by comparison) is primarily concerned with the accusation of abuse and the community's reaction to it. I have no idea whether such an accusation would play out in this way in reality, all I can say is that the play pretty much failed to convince me that it would. The child's accusation is treated unquestioningly - indeed it is difficult not to feel that the first investigator manipulates the alleged victim by his approach to questioning. The inadequacy of the process in relation to the accused struck me forcefully and, as tensions rise, the complete absence of police protection for an accused whose vulnerability is evident for some time before the increasingly deranged community acts just does not convince.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Peter Gynt at the National, or, Another Flawed Epic

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 13th July 2019.

In recent years one strand of Edinburgh International Festival theatre programming has been securing higher profile co-production partnerships in the English-speaking theatre world. The idea is admirable but the results have been mixed. The last link up with a major London house (the Old Vic) two years ago produced the disappointing epic The Divide. This year Edinburgh audiences will soon be visited by a new version of another epic - Ibsen's Peter Gynt, this time in co-production with the National Theatre. In advance the show had one clearly positive element - the casting of James McArdle as the lead following his magnificent performance in Angels in America. But there were also question marks - the last Ibsen Jonathan Kent directed at the National - the epic Emperor and Galilean was flawed, most of adaptor David Hare's recent work has been, from where I've been sitting, undistinguished, and the designing of a production that would work equally well in the Olivier and the Edinburgh Festival Theatre did not strike me as straightforward. Sadly, this proved to be a disappointing afternoon.

The one saving grace of the show is James McArdle who makes a valiant, though ultimately vain effort to bring it to life. He has great presence and energy. He ages strikingly - the old, embittered Scotsman of the last act is a particularly fine piece of work. But he failed finally to make me care enough about Peter, or to conceal the considerable flaws of the rest of the show. Credit is also due to Oliver Ford Davies, whose delivery brings a welcome authority to the concluding scenes. Jonathan Coy finds occasional sparks as Bertram. The rest of the ensemble work hard but none of them make a particularly strong impression, though this may be to some extent a consequence of the adaptation or Ibsen's original.

Monday, 10 June 2019

Drive-by Shooting at Aldeburgh, or, A Refreshingly Comic New Opera

When was the last time you spent most of an opera laughing with pleasure? It certainly hasn't happened to me very often, which made Saturday night's ten minute mini-opera at the Aldeburgh Festival all the more a refreshing surprise.

Originally produced in Dublin the opera by John McIlduff (writer) and Brian Irvine (music) tells of a crime of passion among the Dublin elderly. Furious at her husband's affair with their neighbour Maureen (I think) at number thirteen - the precision adds to the comedy giving the listener a distinct sense of the environment in which these events are taking place - the aggrieved wife has resolved to "shoot the fecker in the pecker." She has purloined a gun kept by her husband originally used by his father in the GPO in 1916 and the prospect of prison holds no terrors - for health care will be better there!

Friday, 24 May 2019

Stockhausen's Donnerstag aus Licht at Southbank, or, Striking...Excessive...Sometimes Incomprehensible...And Yet...

Note: This is a review of the first of two performances on Tuesday 21st May 2019.

Years ago I recall reading a newspaper feature about Stockhausen's Licht cycle which must at that point, I think, have been unfinished. It stayed in the back of my mind and I always thought it would be interesting to see what some of it was like in practice. But as I trekked off to the Festival Hall on Tuesday contemplating 4+ hours of a composer virtually unknown to me I did begin to wonder what I was letting myself in for. I won't say he never needed an editor, but on balance it was worth it.

The opera proper consists of three acts, preceded by a Greeting (played in the Clore Ballroom) and followed by a Farewell (played from the Balcony and the Terraces outside to magical effect by five trumpeters. I don't pretend to have grasped all the finer points of myth and plot, and the autobiographical dimension is not I suggest apparent unless you've read it up in advance. However, a central narrative does come through concerning the struggle between good and evil - personified by angels, particularly Michael, and the devil Luzifer. As part of that struggle Michael, for reasons which remain slightly opaque, has decided to experience life as a human. Act 1 follows his childhood, in Act 2 (the highpoint of the evening) he travels round the world, in Act 3 he returns to the stars. Finally, in Act 3 Scene 2 Michael tells us the whole story all over again (Wagner's Norns have nothing on him), providing some additional clues to the frankly rather confusing action of Act 1. To further muddle matters two of the principal characters - Michael and Eva (at times his mother and at times in some other guise his lover - again the relationship between the two never became wholly clear to me) are represented in multiple forms - dancer, singer, instrumentalist.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Billy Budd at the Royal Opera, or, In the Shadow of Past Glories

Note: This is a review of the performance on Monday 29th April 2019.

We've been lucky in the UK recently to have two excellent productions of this masterpiece - Michael Grandage's for Glyndebourne and Orla Phelan's for Opera North. Altogether this was, I think, my fifth production of a work I cherish. At both Glyndebourne and Opera North I was powerfully moved. Indeed, there were sections in the latter stages of Phelan's production that were overwhelming. Here, in Billy's monologue and his farewell with Dansker tears did come to my eyes, but overall this evening fell short in various ways of those triumphs.

Deborah Warner's production has been imported from Madrid, and arrives trailing praise. From my customary Amphitheatre perch I had more mixed reactions. There's an awful lot of ropes in evidence (something seen before in other productions) and sails (less common) but Warner is much less successful than others at creating that claustrophobic seaboard world so critical to the drama. For most of the evening the stage is very open and there is simply too much space, and not just around the sides. Despite the large numbers of extra chorus and actors credited in the programme they often feel lost in the space in the big chorus numbers, where they should be jammed in. Similar problems apply to the more intimate scenes - when Vere sings of his "narrow cabin" it just isn't. The open stage also, I suspect, has musical consequences diffusing rather than concentrating the vocal sound of all concerned making it harder for dynamic variety to impact and for individual voices to come through the texture at key moments.