Saturday 9 August 2008

Festival 2008 Opening Concert: Opera Singers make a hash of Musical Theatre

After last year’s blazing opening concert of Bernstein’s Candide, I had high hopes of Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. The RSNO is an orchestra on a roll, there were some starry soloists in the line-up (Willard White and Susan Bickley – although White cancelled days before the concert) and H K Gruber, the conductor, is supposed to be steeped in this musical world. Unfortunately I had forgotten the one problem with this kind of enterprise – that most operatic singers do not understand how to sing musical theatre – and more seriously, Gruber appeared to have failed to explain it to them.

However, before coming to the performance, a few words need saying about the cock-up which is the Usher Hall. In his opening remarks Jonathan Mills urged us to congratulate the many hard-working people who had made it possible to open the Usher Hall for this year’s festival. One cannot help feeling that if a few people had used their brains a bit more in the last few years we would not now be in this mess. The situation is worse than when the ceiling was being re-done some years ago. Outside one proceeds through a maze of wooden boards and hoardings and then up through what looks like scaffolding to the heights of the Upper Circle. This in itself is a pretty damning indictment of those in charge of one of the best concert venues in the world but the worst is yet to come. In the very large Upper Circle there is one set of loos to service the entire audience. I can only advise the ladies not to drink anything before or during the concert, and you will then not have to spend the entire interval in the queue.

Turning then to the music. The first problem was the accents. Mahagonny is set in the United States. Unfortunately, either none of the singers were American, or they were disguising it with a regrettable brilliance. The accents were all over the place. The worst culprit here was Susan Bickley whose spoken and sung accents were completely different and who seemed to change her country of origin from sentence to sentence. This collective failing made it very difficult to sell the text.

The second problem was that for inexplicable reasons there was a decision to partially mike the performance for the spoken dialogue. In my side part of the Upper Circle this produced an effect of disembodied voices. Several people might be standing up below and one could not always tell who was actually speaking. It also seemed to me wholly unnecessary – the acoustic in the Hall is if anything over reverberant – do they not teach singers how to project?

However, it was the music itself which raised the most serious problems. Put simply, with the exception of Gruber and the orchestra, the rest of the performers all seemed to think they were in completely different operas. Anthony Dean Griffey (Jim Mahoney) was actually singing Nanki-Poo in The Mikado and Susan Bickley (Leokadja Begbick) was singing Tosca neither of them delivering their lines with any conviction as to their meaning. Behind them, the Festival Chorus (returning to bad old habits of feeble sound and lack of bite) seemed to think they were singing a Handel oratorio. But by far the worst culprit was the infuriating Giselle Allen singing the prostitute Jenny Hill. The character is a rather seedy and steadily more broken-down whore. Allen played it like a prima donna opera star. The disjunction between text/music and actual performance was infuriating. It was as if Allen was simply not attending to what the text was actually saying. And nowhere was this more noticeable than in a section of sprechgesang. That can be extraordinarily moving, here it was completely unconvincing. I did not believe that Jim and Jenny felt anything for each other.

Among this rather disappointing fare, the RSNO provided the main saving grace. The brass and percussion sections in particular played superbly. It was a joy to hear Weill’s wonderful score in all its glory in that space. But here their enthusiasm was hindered by Gruber’s conducting. His failure to galvanise his singers has already been remarked on. His failure to harness the orchestra was more serious. Weill should be performed on the edge – it needs to be biting, jagged, uneasy. Even in those wonderful wistful solos there needs to be a drive, a push forward. Perhaps the trouble was that Gruber simply loved the score too much, but he was much too slow, and lacking in bite. Instead of dancing, the performance dragged. He also didn’t seem to have much idea of how to conduct the Chorus whose entrances and exits were sloppy. Most infuriating of all, he didn’t seem to have even pointed out obviously significant punctuation. One of Weill’s most biting lyrics concludes – ‘Fourth comes drinking: down the hatch!’ To make this line work you need to acknowledge the colon – otherwise there is no bite, no punch. Time after time the Festival Chorus ignored it. I could not understand why nobody had pointed this out to them.

So, one of the weakest openings for some years. Let us hope there is better to come.

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