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. 

Monday, 27 July 2020

BBC Proms 2020, or, A Proms Miscelleny for Week 2

One of the pleasures of programmes at BBC Proms concerts (one or two of the opera houses also do this) is the little information box "Previously at the Proms" telling you how many times a work has appeared at the Proms. In the absence of a Proms Guide, or concert programmes, and courtesy (for all the stats and details of performers) of the excellent Proms archive (though any faulty counting is entirely me), here follows a combination of the Proms performance history of this week's works and artists, and a compilation of what the critics said at the time (in so far as I've been able to locate their pieces). I hope the BBC will not object to this use of their publicly available archive data, but of course if they should do so we will be happy to remove this post. It is intended purely for the enjoyment of readers who may be making up for the absence of live performance by listening along to the season.

Monday 27th July - Lunchtime Chamber Music - Martinu, Dutilleux, Prokofiev (2011)

This was the fourth of Emmanuel Pahud's, to date, six Proms appearances as soloist. He first performed at the festival in 1998 in Mozart's Concerto for Flute and Harp with Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic and he'd already appeared at the 2011 Proms season to give the London premiere of Marc-Andre Dalbavie's Flute Concerto with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Theirry Fischer. This was Eric Le Sage's Proms debut and, to date, only appearance.

Saturday, 25 July 2020

The Arts and Covid-19, or, Serious Questions for Oliver Dowden and the DCMS

On the 5th July when the government announced its £1.57 billion arts support package I honestly hoped it would mean I could stop having to ask questions of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and the Secretary of State Oliver Dowden. Sadly here we are three weeks later and there are again reasons to be seriously concerned.

Overnight on the 22nd/23rd July the Commons Select Committee for the DCMS published a report on the DCMS's (& to an extent the wider government's) response to Covid. It's an admirable document, from a Committee with a Tory majority, which lays out in detail the devastating impact which Covid has had on the cultural sector (Section 3). It makes a series of detailed recommendations for assistance to the sector (Conclusions & Recommendations, Sections 10-19), many of which have been proposed during the crisis by the sector itself. Among these are a call for extensions to the furlough scheme for these sectors where recovery will be delayed, extending the cut in VAT on ticket sales, and ensuring financial aid is not confined only to those previously receiving subsidies.

Monday, 20 July 2020

BBC Proms 2020, or, Archival Mysteries

This past weekend would normally have seen the start of the Proms. As with other summer Festivals that usually have a significant broadcast presence (Aldeburgh and Edinburgh for example), Radio 3 has marked it with a season from the archive. Given the restricted conditions under which we're all operating at present it is clearly a significant feat to have pulled this six week season together. The opera selection is especially rich: Donald Runnicles, Nina Stemme and Deutsche Oper in Salome, Bernard Haitink and the Royal Opera in Don Carlo, Jiri Belohlavek, Karita Mattila and the BBC SO in The Makropulos Affair, and Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin in Die Walkure (again with a very starry line-up of soloists, though my preference from that cycle would have been Gotterdammerung for another chance to hear Andreas Schager's Siegfried - the only live occasion I've been really moved by his death). It's also worth noting that, contrary to my first impression, the balance between core repertoire and new works looks pretty close to what it would be in a standard season, and there is appropriate representation of the eclectic genres and performers often seen in the late night slots. The opening weekend hadn't especially stood out for me but turned out to be gripping listening - with Birtwistle's Panic and the energy of Gardiner's Leonora particularly surprising me. All that said, there are (as with the Aldeburgh and Edinburgh broadcasts) significant limits to this delving into the archive which, bizarrely, the BBC seem disinclined to discuss in any detail.

The BBC has talked up the season as a celebration of archival treasures across four decades - but given this would have been the 125th season to go back only 40 years presents a rather truncated picture. Moreover the actual representation of those 40 years in the 2020 season is uneven. It breaks down as follows:

2010s - 28 and a bit concerts, plus 8 chamber recitals
2000s - 16 concerts, plus 2 chamber recitals
1990s - 10 and a bit concerts
1980s - 3 concerts

The earliest of those 1980s concerts comes from 1987, the other two from 1989 - so the season hardly gives much reflection of that decade. As an aside I find it striking that I haven't seen any professional journalist undertake this straightforward bit of maths.

Thursday, 18 June 2020

The Arts and Covid-19, or, Notes from an Inadequate Press Conference

The crisis in the arts sector continued to gather pace yesterday. We've already this week seen further reporting on the desperate situation facing freelancers and the establishment of a campaign to draw attention to this. On Wednesday Cameron Mackintosh became the latest figure to announce that performances will not resume until 2021 - in this case of four West End musicals (Mary Poppins, Les Miserables, Hamilton and The Phantom of the Opera). In consequence a redundancy consultation process has commenced for staff employed on those productions. Earlier in the day the Creative Industries Federation released a report commissioned from Oxford Economics predicting a £74bn drop in revenue in consequence of covid-19 and 400,000 job losses. The RSC announced it would have to go into "drastic hibernation" without "urgent support" and the latest in what has become a string of open letters from the industry was published. The signatories to this letter provide a further worrying sign. For the first time senior arts executives were prominent among those who signed. This is a critical group who have been cautious so far in their public statements. Much like the statements being issued and decisions taken at the end of last week this suggests to me that nothing concrete is coming out of whatever private discussions are going on.

So it was an interesting day for the government to decide to send Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport out to lead the daily briefing. One might have expected that he would have something of substance to say about the issues outlined in the previous paragraph. But it was not to be. Most of what Dowden had to say in relation to the areas for which his ministry is responsible was concerned with the restarting of sports fixtures (most notably football). This was in keeping with the content of his twitter feed in recent days where he responded to Michael Vaughan, former England cricket captain, asking about the resumption of that game, and celebrated the return of football but had absolutely nothing to say to the many tweets and reports of desperation and anxiety from the arts sector (as noted below this changed after the press conference).