Monday 18 August 2008

The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

Finn has already given us his thoughts on the opening concert of 2008's Edinburgh International Festival, mine are a little different, and for a change I find myself the milder critic.

Before the concert can be discussed, however, we cannot ignore the state of the Usher Hall. It has already wrecked the RSNO's programme for next season through its delays so we should perhaps be grateful that it seems only to be inflicting discomfort on the festival for which things have been made ready. Just. Wooden platforms have been constructed to replace the still absent steps to the various entrances. Bare wires dangle here and there. The bars look temporary to say the least (though the prices of £3.80 for a glass of wine given the situation suggest either a sense of humour or a bare-faced cheek). That said, you are best not buying a drink, or indeed drinking anything at all, since to say the toilet provision in the upper circle was inadequate would be kind. Still, when you finally make it to the auditorium (and if you enter via the Grindlay Street entrance, which necessitates climbing the scaffold, you may be some time) it is the same, and sounds just as good.

Before things kicked off Mills gave a brief speech, continuing his tradition from last year, which included a plea for forbearance regarding the facilities. It could, to my mind, have been just slightly shorter since he didn't say all that much.

When I first started attending the festival the RSNO were slightly the poor third man of the Scottish orchestras; this has now changed and last year's celebration of Poulenc buried the final traces of that notion. Weill's score is magnificent, and provided an excellent showcase for the ensemble in the way an opening concert should.

Problems began with the singers as the spoken dialogue was clearly and loudly amplified. My initial revulsion at this paled, as it did mean we could hear Brecht's biting script. It shouldn't have been necessary though and was mercifully absent in sung portions (at least it seemed to be, and since we couldn't hear much of the sung dialogue, so poor was the diction, that seems a reasonable conclusion), doubly unfortunately, the fading up and down of the mics was not always as precisely on cue as it should have been. There were also some distinct oddities in the semi-staging: such as when Jimmy was implored to put down his knife, despite brandishing a gun.

None the less, the novelty of the new score made for a hugely enjoyable first half. I then spoke to Finn, and another person more knowledgeable about Weill than myself, who highlighted flaws that then stuck out like sore thumbs in the second. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

The accents were not what they might have been. A more critical failing lay in the acting. There were some decent performances, particularly Stephan Loges as Bill and Susan Bickley as Begbick (despite the marked contrast between her sung and spoken accents). But elsewhere things were more problematic Anthony Dean Griffey seemed to think he was in Gilbert and Sullivan and Giselle Allen showed not the slightest emotion as Jenny. Indeed, even Hans Blix could not have located the chemistry between her and Anthony Dean Griffey's Jimmy. There was far too much hamming up of the parts, which completely undermines the sarcasm that gives the work such effect, no more so than when Peter Hoare's Jack ate himself to death.

All in all, then, a mixed bag, but an enjoyable evening in the Usher Hall none the less.

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