Saturday 24 October 2009

A Brief Report from Sadler's Wells

Every so often Mrs Pollard announces that the time has come to go to the ballet again (normally about once a year, although this was our second trip in three months). Fortunately, she usually makes a good selection for this, and tonight's trip to Sadler's Wells was no exception.

The company in question was Christopher Wheeldon's new transatlantic ballet troup, Morphoses, in a mixed programme of three works, two choreographed by Wheeldon (Continuum, to music by Ligeti, and Rhapsody Fantasie, to music by Rachmaninov) and one choreographed by Paul Lightfoot and Sol Leon, of Netherlands Dance Theatre (Softly As I Leave You).

The programme was introduced by Wheeldon himself, who provided useful insight into the choreography (particularly the moment in Continuum inspired by his cat and dog having a spat. It also featured film of the company in rehearsal, and the final work included projected drawings by an artist who had sat in on those rehearsals.

Of the three I was most powerfully captivated by Softly as I Leave You. Beginning with a woman trapped in a backlit box, moving into a spellbinding pas de deux, the whole piece is haunting. The other two pieces also contained some striking moments. The final image of the dancers in Continuum had them crouched down, silhouetted, hands held out in supplication, and for some reason brought the word pieta to my mind, and made me think of old master paintings of appeals to God. All three pieces saw the dancing effectively integrated with music and, more unusually, lighting. Overall though, despite this effective integration and impeccable dancing Wheeldon's two pieces, for me, a little overstayed their welcome. Mrs Pollard suggested that it was a bit like watching Wheeldon's sketches – they didn't quite build up to a whole as they might have done, and this seems fair.

Having said that though, it is still a privilege to spend an evening watching such world class dancers. A company of this standard deserves to be showcased. The Edinburgh Festival director ought to take a look at them. In the meantime our New York readers (should we have any - Editors note: 9 in the last month) can catch the company on the next leg of their tour.

The Old Vic Does Darwin (Disappointingly)

On paper the combination of Trevor Nunn, Kevin Spacey and David Troughton in a play based on the infamous Scopes trial looked like a winning combination. Sadly, this Old Vic production doesn't live up to expectations.

As already noted the play, Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee is based on the 1925 prosecution of a Tennessean schoolteacher, John Scopes, for teaching evolution to his pupils. As the play correctly retells, the trial saw William Jennings Bryan (three times presidential candidate and counsel for the prosecution) cross examined as to the Bible's literal accuracy by defence attorney Clarence Darrow, and concluded with Scopes's conviction and fining of $100.

Given the present strength of fundamentalist Christianity in the United States, renewed attempts to force the teaching of intelligent design in schools and the general assaults on free speech which have gone on in both the UK and the US in the face of the terrorist threat, the play would seem ripe for revival. Equally, the programme notes that when originally written it was also responding to the similar issues raised by the McCarthy witch-hunts. Plenty of interpretations to play with then.

Unfortunately, Nunn makes completely the wrong choice. To my mind the success of this play hinges on taking the fundamentalist religious view seriously. The audience must believe in the sincerity of Matthew Harrison Brady (the stand in for Bryan), and the local reverend Jeremiah Brown, not to mention the townspeople who cheer them on. But Nunn appears to have taken the decision to mock their beliefs from the outset. He overdoes the preaching, the hymn singing, the whole atmosphere to the point at which it simply looks staged. This has serious consequences for the characterisations – Brown's sermon is delivered in so overblown a way that his anguish over his daughter's reluctance to go along with him against Cates (Scopes) falls flat. Similarly, the various interjections (“Amen”; “Praise the Lord” etc.) delivered by the townsfolk in the court room didn't convince me that they actually believed these things. Above all, Nunn's decision not to take the fundamentalists seriously sadly undermines Brady (played by David Troughton), making him rather a bloviating joke for much of the play where he should be a powerful and ultimately tragic figure.

Nunn's use of hymn singing also causes a further problem. It slows almost to a crawl the progress of the first act where things should be wound up to fever pitch. Scene changes take twice as long as necessary, but the religious atmosphere isn't improved or made more convincing as a result.

There are some fine performances in this play. Kevin Spacey as the Darrow stand in – Henry Drummond – is typically mesmerising, and plays the aged lawyer so convincingly that one almost does not recognise him. Sonya Cassidy (Rachel Brown) and Sam Phillips (Bertram Cates) also deserve a mention. Overall however, compared to other recent productions treating similar subjects, perhaps most notably the National's chilling St Joan this is a pale narrative. Clearly one cannot put Armstrong and Lee in the same bracket as Shaw, but it is to be regretted that Nunn was not more willing to let the play stand on its own merits.

Leif Ove Andsnes returns - Deneve and the RSNO play Dutilleux, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky

Perhaps it's just that I'm not used to having the RSNO back in their regular Friday evening slot, but for whatever reason, this concert had completely slipped my mind (despite a ticket being in my desk drawer and a colour-coded entry existing in my calendar; oh yes, I can be amazingly anal sometimes). It was just as well, then, that it was being trailed in the Metro, since I'd be kicking myself if I'd missed another chance to hear Leif Ove Andsnes.

Regular readers will recall he last came to Scotland back in May with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. That concert saw him as both soloist and director, firmly in the classical period with concerti by Mozart and Beethoven (with a Haydn encore thrown in for good measure). Last night found him in the great and sweeping romantic territory of Rachmaninov's fourth concerto, a work which, apparently, he has not done before, not that you would have known that.

The piece provides a very different style, one where the soloist seems at times just another instrument, rather than dominating the proceedings. However, Andsnes was always audible and Deneve ensured the orchestra never swamped him. He found the power that such works call for, yet without recourse to excessive thumping of the keyboard and without any loss of clarity. There was delicacy too, when the score allowed for it, and throughout a wonderful poetry to his playing. Let us hope he returns to Scotland soon, perhaps as a soloist/director with the SCO; that would certainly be worth hearing.

The heavily loaded second half concluded with Stravinsky's Firebird (or, rather, the 1919 suite). This is the kind of piece where Deneve always seems particularly at home as it is something of a party piece, especially in the Infernal Dance of King Kastchei. He was in control throughout, drawing wonderful precision from the orchestra and providing a thrilling close to the evening, greeted by loud cheers from the audience. It made you wish they'd played the full ballet.

The only disappointment concerned the work that opened the evening: Henri Dutilleux's first symphony. As ever, Deneve insisted in giving an overlong talk introducing it. I don't doubt that Dutilleux is a lovely man, but did we really need to hear so in quite such effusive detail, or how Deneve had once encountered him while shopping for shrimps in Paris? Only about half the talk was devoted to the actual music. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, while I'm not a huge fan of talking conductors, the ones who do it well provide a big insight into the music without needing to pad it out with the other stuff.

The piece itself was rather a dull damp squib, and seemed long for what it contained. This is all the more of a surprise given that the combination of Deneve and a French composer can usually be relied upon to be a thrilling experience. Audience reaction was rather polite in comparison to the other pieces. That said, I'm always glad to have heard new music at least once, even if I'll be in no hurry to hear this again.

Glaswegian readers still have time to catch the concert this evening and it will be broadcast on Radio 3 on 29th October.

Sunday 18 October 2009

Tristan und Isolde take two

My brother has already given his take on the Royal Opera House's new Tristan, which had its final performance tonight, since my experience was rather different (and for some interesting reasons), I thought I would add my two cents.

First things first: vocally, this was a pretty special night. Nina Stemme's Isolde was simply stunning. I've not had the pleasure hearing her live before, but she clearly follows in a long line of great Scandinavian Wagnerian sopranos. There is the effortless power, the wonderful tone and the clarity and precision of her sound. It is a tireless voice too, sounding completely fresh when, after five hours, she reached the Liebestod.

Of course, my brother had Ben Heppner as Tristan, battling off illness and showing it. So dependent is the work on these two characters that having a weak link can make for an experience that really drags. Heppner bowed out of the run earlier this week and instead Lars Cleveman stood in, having already sung the role from the side while Heppner acted on Thursday. Fortunately, he did the whole part tonight - I find singing from the side looks silly and have never seen it carried off well. Given that Cleveman's replacement was announced to us via e-mail on Friday, there was ample time to reprint and copy the cast list inserts for the programme, or at the very least provided a biographical insert as they have always managed to do in the past. That Covent Garden seemed incapable of doing either, despite the hefty £7 fee for a programme is, frankly, pathetic. Fortunately, there was nothing pathetic about Cleveman's singing, quite the reverse. He had a fine voice, if perhaps a little small, and sang the part well. Indeed, so much so that given reports I've read of Heppner's performances, I think we probably had the best deal.

Elsewhere the cast was never less than good, from Michael Volle's powerful Kurwenal and Sophie Koch's Brangane to Matti Salminen's solid King Marke.

In the pit was Pappano. He has, of course, already recorded the work with the Royal Opera House orchestra and Stemme, a recording notable for featuring Domingo as Tristan, something impossible on the stage. His reading didn't quite seem to have the fire of those discs and while he achieved wonderful sounds and superb playing, something was missing. He didn't seem to get the flow to the music or the inevitability of the finest readings. At times during the opening prelude I was slightly concerned the whole thing would grind to a halt. However, the orchestra played their socks off and cannot be faulted.

But what, then, of the production, which has occasioned such fullsome praise from many critics and such vehement booing on the opening night? Well, in the first act, I was more than a little bored. There seemed to be little by way of chemistry between the cast, and the blocking often seemed odd, with everybody intent on never looking one and other in the face.

Then, during the interval, I went downstairs from the amphitheatre to talk to two people who had been in the stalls. They had had the opposite experience. For act two, then, I made hefty use of my binoculars. Sure enough, there was some pretty impressive acting taking place down there, and a phenomenal chemistry between the lovers. The only problem was that because much of the acting was so subtle, and the stage so dimly and indirectly lit, this was largely invisible to the naked eye. Now, opera almost always looks better from the expensive seats, as it should, there's a reason for the price difference, after all, but it should look better from my not exactly cheap £50 seat in the gods than it did. Opera glasses should be on hand for the occasional close up, constant use makes it very difficult to read the surtitles. I found myself imagining clever binoculars with build-in subtitles.

That said, I do like a lot of the ideas of the production, and there is a lot to be said for just having the lovers with no fuss, as was often the case. I don't at all mind not seeing boats or the absence of other literal things. The dream world/real world conceit, provided through the curtain dividing the stage, did provide some interesting insights, especially in the third act: I felt at times I wasn't sure whose imaginings these were; it helps make sense of the strength the mortally wounded Tristan finds.

Sadly, there were many silly things from director Christof Loy that either added nothing or actively took away from the drama. At one point the curtain pulled back during the act two love duet to reveal Brangane keeping watch. So far so effective, but why did Kurwenal need to be fondling her? When it pulled back in act three to show the wannabe Reservoir Dogs slow motion fight amongst dinner jacketed wedding guests, it neatly undercut much of what had been built up.

Apparently even more silliness had fallen by the wayside, perhaps to make the production easier to learn for Cleveman, as he and Isolde no longer had to serve one and other dinner during act two.

The set itself, which was positioned with much of the action taking place up against a wall extreme stage right, was probably a mistake, and one that helped with the boos on opening night (since so many could see nothing). Certainly, if they revive it, go and sit on the right side of the auditorium. I've heard that this was rearranged to make the problem less acute. Sitting on the right side myself it's hard to be certain, but it certainly did look that way (the construction of the wall visible in a way that suggested that was not how it had been intended to be placed). All I know is that if I'd been unable to see much on opening night, and my seat hadn't been sold as restricted view, I'd have booed (something I generally oppose).

All of which does say something worrying about the House's management. Just because people pay less, unless the seats are sold with a caveat, they should still get a decent view. Loy didn't really provide this. A good director should have a good sense for his house, and Loy appears not to have. It's all very well headlining it in the programme note as a "chamber drama", but you need to remember the place seats over two thousand people. Surely a competent production team wants as many of them as possible to get the best possible experience but it didn't feel that way. It's rather shocking that nobody in the house spotted this prior to opening night. Such things are not rocket science.

Then again, the house's management seems to have developed a contempt for those of us in the upper seats. I notice that the stairs straight down to the coat check area are now closed at the end of the show and we're sent the long way round. Doubtless this is to help ensure the people in the expensive seats get to the head of the queue. For a publicly funded organisation this is a pretty shocking bit of a elitism. I wonder if the management has any comment?

So, would I go back and see it again? Probably not. Without a stellar cast the production could become annoying. Then again, if were one Donald Runnicles in the pit....

Up, up and away from Monday Night Film Club

Monday Night Film Club hasn't, unfortunately, been happening much lately, so when a friend offered me a free ticket to an advance screening of Up, Pixar's latest triumph, I jumped at the chance.

But first, as ever, before the main title came the latest short - Partly Cloudy. And, equally predictably, it was a beautiful little gem. Telling a wordless story of storks collecting babies, human and animal, from their cloud factories and centring on a hard done by bird forced to deliver the young of all the most violent animals. I won't spoil the ending for you but, suffice to say: genius!

The film opens with a young boy, Carl, watching a news reel at the cinema, telling of a legendary explorer whom he worships, his trip to Paradise Falls (based on Angel Falls, located at a table-top mountain in Venezuela) and subsequent disgrace. He leaves the cinema intent on pursuing a career in exploration, in the process encountering Ellie, a similarly inclined girl. There follows a ten minute montage that charts their life into old age, time and again showing how fate prevents them from travelling until finally Carl is left a widower.

Adults be warned, this is not the only point in the film where you may need to dry your eyes. I wasn't seeing it in 3D, but the New Statesman notes that doing so behind the glasses is a challenge.

Finally we reach the present day where the house in which they spent their lives has been crowded out by developers and their sky scrapers. Amidst his dogged refusal to sell up, an unfortunate and all to understandable altercation leads to him being ordered to be sent to a retirement village. Instead, Carl ties a vast number of brightly coloured helium balloons to his house and flies away, destination Paradise Falls.

At this point, you will either suspend your disbelief or you won't. So powerfully emotionally grounded is the narrative that only those with a heart of stone should have any trouble doing so and enjoying the glorious hour or more of magical realism that follows. There is no need to quibble this, or other aspects such as whether the number of balloons would provide sufficient lift, or whether dogs can be made to talk.

You may, of course, be wondering whether there are any laughs at all. There is no cause for concern. Unlike Cars, this is an extremely funny film. Carl is saddled with Russell, a young boy scout (or equivalent), desperate to gain his assisting the elderly badge and, as the film progresses, an increasing host of side kicks including a talking dog and a giant flightless bird. It is these interactions that provide much of the comedy. On top of this come such things as the malfunctioning collar of the Alpha dog, giving him a voice like Yeardly Smith and some crazy action, particularly in the finale.

The animation is beautiful, though perhaps not quite so visually stunning as was the case in Wall-E. While the table-top mountain looks impressive, the real thing is better.

However, unless I'm very wrong about the demographics of this blog, such factors aren't the reason it is worth going to see, which is Carl's poignant emotional journey, realising what things are really important; the extent to which the house comes to inhabit the film as a character; the way Ellie's presence haunts the narrative.

Only occasionally does it cease to overflow with originality: the bird's first appearance is rather too reminiscent of confrontations between the Road Runner and Wile E Coyote (fortunately the similarity passes quickly), and the reappearance of the aged explorer, still bent on its capture, rather too predictable. But such reservations are insignificant.

This is not only one of the finest films it's been my pleasure to see this year, it is one of Pixar's finest to date and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Rigoletto at ENO (with added jukebox, gangsters and Hopper)

There's been considerable talk in the press lately about how conservative opera goers are, in light of recent controversial productions of Tristan (which I'm seeing this afternoon) and Turandot (which I'm not). Some have trotted out the argument that anything less than a fully traditional staging is despised by some, others that there is a dislike of theatre directors working in opera. If any production can put the lie to these statements it is one of the standard of Jonathan Miller's Rigoletto.

He updates the setting to revolve around a bunch of gangsters in 1950s New York. As is the trick to making any such staging work, this is unobtrusive and serves merely to underscore what's already in the text, namely that the whole thing is really rather seedy and criminal. It is of little surprise that the production has been regularly revived since its 1982 inception.

Unfortunately, and perhaps because of this, there is a relative shortage of top names. For some reason, I had in my head that Edward Gardner was conducting, perhaps because of the superb Aida he gave two years ago. Obviously I had not read the bumf, most unlike me, or I would have known we were getting Stephen Lord. It takes a little doing to book a conductor I've never heard of before. From his sparse, mainly America based, biography I assumed he must be some up and coming youth only starting to make a name for himself; it was, therefore, more than surprising when he took to the stage at the end with his white and receding hair. From the pit he had provided a respectable but unremarkable reading of the score. A recent article argued that conductors make little difference: if ever evidence of how wrong this is was needed, one has only to listen to the orchestra of ENO under Lord, then again under Mackerras or Gardner.

Headlining the cast was Anthony Michaels-Moore in the title role and singing more than well enough for a slightly erratic hunch to be forgiven. Elsewhere things were more problematic. Diction was generally poor, and understanding would have been next to impossible without surtitles. A conductor who pays attention to this can deliver much better results here. Similarly, the trap of Verdi in English sounding rather too much like Gilbert and Sullivan was not avoided as much as it could have been.

As luck would have it, I seemed to have caught the B cast, with neither Iain Paterson nor Matthew Best scheduled to appear. That said, both alternates were among the stars of the cast, Freddie Tong's Monterone standing out particularly, so much so you really wished it was a bigger role.

Katherine Whyte was making her ENO debut as Gilda, and, by all accounts, debut in a role of this size (certainly as far as performance at a major opera house is concerned). She wasn't bad and the voice was nice enough, but it was nothing special either. Her acting was unremarkable too and, critically, she didn't convince as to why she lays down her life for the Duke.

The star of the evening, though, was Jonathan Miller's production. Wonderful designs by Patrick Robertson and Rosemary Vercoe provided a visual feast, from dark alleys to the fabulous act three bar, which looked like a painting by Hopper at his voyeuristic best. There was wit too, as The Duke plays the "why should men care" aria on the jukebox, pausing to thump it when it cuts out.

Worth seeing then, but how much better to have had it with a slightly stronger musical team.

Saturday 17 October 2009

Here's Runnicles - MacMillan, Mozart and Ravel from the BBC Scottish

You go years without regular Runnicles concerts in Scotland and then, all of a sudden, two in the space of five days. No matter that the second necessitated a dash across to Glasgow; it is, after all, always pleasant to experience the superb acoustic of City Halls.

They kicked off the evening with James MacMillan's The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, effectively a requiem for a woman killed for witchcraft in Nairn in 1662. The piece was premiered by the orchestra back in 1990 and, as the programme notes, has become "a long established BBC SSO party piece". In some was, perhaps, a slightly unfortunate wording, and yet, musically it certainly is just that. From the slow, lyrical and haunting string theme at the start, to the huge chord, repeated thirteen times (doubtless symbolising the thirteen 'witches' in the coven), it is an astonishingly vivid composition. It requires impressive playing too, particularly in the work's frenzied climaxes, and the orchestra more than rose to the occasion; the trombone parts seemed particularly tricky but were carried off superbly. The string theme returns again at the end, punctuated by explosions from wind and brass, and builds to an ultimately uplifting finale in the face of such horror. All told, a wonderful orchestral tour de force.

MacMillan was followed by Mozart and the K503 piano concerto. As ever, it seems a slight shame that out of more than twenty concerti, we get so few programmed with any regularity; as ever, my favourites don't lurk amongst the most popular. However, it's always nice to get any Mozart concerto. The pianist on hand was Shia Wosner, fresh from performing K491 with the same team at the Proms. Certainly his playing was very delicate, and there was not the hint of any thumping in sight. However, and I never imagined I might say this, it was if anything a little too polite for much of the opening movement, right down to the way Wosner kept wiping they keys. Behind this Runnicles provided solid and punchy accompaniment. Yet, interestingly, not clashing with Wosner as might be expected from such descriptions. It was only with the cadenza that Wosner really opened up, showed some personality and started to win me over. From there on in, things were superb, with an especially sublime slow movement and a well judged finale. Certainly Wosner would seem to be one to watch.

After the interval, they closed with Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe, not simply a suite therefrom, but the complete ballet score. As such, it's perhaps a little surprising that the hall wasn't completely packed out for this comparative concert rarity. The more so given it featured a rare out of season collaboration with the Festival Chorus. I've never heard the full score before but it was astonishing. Runnicles inspired stunning and world class playing from the orchestra, illuminating Ravel's varied and wonderfully coloured orchestration. He exerted tight control, taking the audience, seemingly effortlessly, from sublime beauty to climaxes every bit as frenzied as the MacMillan, especially during the warriors' dance and finale. Such was the calibre of the playing, lacking any weak link, that it would be both difficult and unfair to single anyone out. Amidst all this the Festival Chorus, singing without words, provided an additional instrument. Yes, there are not enough men, as too often is the case these days, but there was a wonderful sound none the less. All involved thoroughly deserved the loud cheers they received.

It was particularly good to see the chorus in action outside of festival time. I hope Runnicles continues this. I've often felt that it might be able to draw a bigger pool of singers if it sang the year round. If you're a man, can sing, and are reading this, please sign up.

A minor reservation concerns the ushers who seemed to be on loan from the Festival Theatre (whose staff are notoriously bad in this regard). People kept being let in mid-movement, to loudly clomp loudly along the wooden floors to their seats (including one who made his way to the his mid-row seat during the Mozart, whispering constant apologies as he went). It isn't rocket science: you don't admit late comers until a suitable break (that means between works).

Sadly, that's it from Runnicles until January, when we can look forward to a mix of Wagner and Bruckner's eight symphony. I, for one, can't wait. In the meantime, broadcast is due on Radio Scotland on 1st November, and subsequently on Radio 3.

Monday 12 October 2009

Here's Runnicles - This should be the start of a beautiful partnership

I've been looking forward to this concert for some time. Two years in fact, long before the programme was even announced. However, it really is that long since it was announced that Donald Runnicles would take over as Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Given that one of the first things I head them do together back in 2005 was Mahler's third symphony, the news that his first concert in post would feature the first symphony was fantastic. Best of all, for the first time, the orchestra are venturing over to Edinburgh for some regular season concerts, albeit only two.

Earlier in the week, the concert was bafflingly undersold. True, the Usher Hall hadn't been selling it as hard as they might or should, and yes, Edinburgh audiences aren't used to the BBC Scottish coming outside of the festival, but baffling none the less. Come Sunday, however, while the Upper Circle had been closed, both the Stalls and the Grand Circle were pleasingly packed.

In a theme of new beginnings, the programme led off with another first symphony, this time Beethoven's. The last time I heard it was also in the Usher Hall, but under the baton of Charles Mackerras, a tough act to follow. Where the octogenarian was light and witty, Runnicles took a different tack, a slower and more romantic one, filled with weight and drama. It was nicely played and finely controlled, the opening of the slow movement especially, where Runnicles, in a series of broad gestures, almost like brush strokes on a canvas, built up the orchestra sound. There was a wonderful energy to both the menuetto and the finale. A fine curtain raiser then.

Beethoven was followed Berg and his Seven Early Songs. They were joined by Heidi Melton, doubtless known to Runnicles from her days in the San Francisco Opera young artists programme. She sang nicely, her voice having a good tone and no excess of vibrato. Runnicles proved a fine accompanist, as ever, never crowding out her voice, and bringing out some wonderful textures in the orchestration. It's only a shame the Usher Hall didn't think to put up the house lights so that we could read the text (this is typical of the hall's staff, and baffling - it's not rocket science).

Then came the meat. The playing of the quiet opening passages of the Mahler was, if anything, thinner and more delicate than I would have imagined possible. In typical Runnicles style, the off-stage trumpet fanfares were balanced wonderfully. I'd spotted the camera to cue them lurking in the organ gallery during the first half. If I'd been using my brain I would have put to and two together during the interval regarding the TV screen and music stands outside the doors to the Grand Circle. I'm glad I didn't, as it made for a nice surprise. A few fluffed entries early on were soon washed away in the extraordinary sound of the movement's climaxes. From there on in things only improved with a dynamic and exciting second movement, Runnicles often exerting his control with minimal gestures. Following the current fashion, he elected to play the "Frere Jacques" bass theme at the start of the third movement with all the basses rather than as a solo. I wasn't convinced by it when Harding did it recently and I'm still not. As was the case then, it's not that basses played badly, they didn't - just that with a solo you get something much more powerful with more character, this would have been especially true given the presence of Nicholas Bayley as principal (a recent move from that post with the SCO). However, it is a minor splitting of hairs about a brief part of the movement, which was in general superb. It was followed by a simply awesome finale. In a series of climaxes Runnicles each time unleashed more force than before, and more than you might have imagined was left in reserve. The sheer walls of sound produced were incredible. Yet, it wasn't all volume. Indeed, here, as elsewhere, Runnicles gave us Mahler riven with contrast, from extreme pianissimo to double forte in a hair's breadth. In the closing moments, nothing was spared in an effort to maximise the drama, as the eight horns were brought to their feet.

It was glorious, and rapturously received. Those Edinburgh bound will have to wait until March for the next visit, when Christine Brewer will be on hand to sing. Those of us willing to catch the train have only to wait until Thursday when they do Daphnis et Chloe in Glasgow. I'll certainly be there.

If you're further afield still, or inexplicably missed the concert, you can catch the BBC2 Broadcast of the Mahler here and the whole thing is on Monday's Performance on 3.

Only one question remains: can we have Mahler's other nine symphonies now please?

Friday 9 October 2009

The Royal Opera House Tristan, or the Tragic Tale of the Allergy Ridden Heldentenor and the Director who despised the Text

Readers of other arts websites will be aware that this production has attracted a fair amount of commentary, including rumours of a sightline screwup of Biblical proportions and a denunciation of the booers on opening night as, essentially, rich philistines. As I was seated on the right hand side of the auditorium, I cannot report on the sightline issue (though it did look to me as if adjustments must have been made), I can say that having been in doubt about my position on booing during the first two acts, I suddenly understood at the beginning of the third the raging fury that must have gripped them.

We will start with this moment as it pretty much sums up Christoph Loy's near complete contempt for the text. You may remember that the first lines of Act 3 are given to the Shepherd, who asks Kurwenal whether Tristan is awake. The stage was set as follows. Tristan, down stage right seated – Shepherd, two feet away and looking straight at him – Kurwenal far away on the other side of the stage and looking anywhere but at Tristan. Now I ask you, what is the point of the Shepherd asking Kurwenal whether Tristan is awake? Presumably he can see for himself, unless he was blind, a point not established by the staging. Some may think this a trivial complaint, but the point is that it was symptomatic of Loy's whole approach. It isn't simply that the staging almost never takes any notice of the settings described in the set, but that it makes a mockery of great swathes of the characters' actions. So, on the same theme, Kurwenal next explains that they are in Kereol (I think – anyway Tristan's ancestral castle) not Cornwall – Tristan can hardly be blamed for his confusion since the two places in this staging look identical. Next, Tristan raves and passes out at the back of the stage having carefully wrapped himself in part of the curtain. Kurwenal cries out in apparent distress from the front of the stage before remarking that it's alright because Tristan is only unconscious – how he can possibly know this when he has never bothered to look round at his beloved master is a mystery (to say nothing of the indifference to that master which Loy apparently believes Kurwenal is feeling in total contradiction of the text). Finally (and as so often one was profoundly grateful for it), Isolde's ship arrives and Kurwenal and Tristan stand next to each other at the front of the stage giving their two completely different descriptions of the ship's approach. Since they are either both seeing the same thing, or both seeing nothing at all, the only conclusion one can come to is that this is a hallucination – a contention which Wagner makes nonsensical moments later when everybody starts pouring off the ship to, among other things, slay Kurwenal – unless of course he is imagining his own death. My disgust and indeed fury finally passed off the scale when the curtain drew back for the upteenth time to reveal eight or so dinner suited men fighting in slow motion, blood gradually becoming evident on their white shirt fronts. I should perhaps add that the fighting in this production is probably the least convincing I have ever seen.

Compared to the infuriating third act, the first two are simply a combination of silly and boring. Loy provides a lengthy programme note to justify the splitting of the stage by a crimson curtain which opens and closes ad nauseum through the opera. The front part of the stage is apparently supposed to represent an existential space in which Tristan and Isolde converse with each other (which would be fine except that all sorts of other people including King Marke show an odd propensity to invade the space and deliver speeches addressed to other people besides the lovers). The back part of the stage is filled with dinner tables which apparently represents the public world of Marke's court, and finally becomes the setting for a bizarre game of musical chairs during Tristan's ravings at the end of the second act. Almost the sole change in the set during the entire evening is the periodic movement of the curtain, a device which becomes less and less effective as time goes on.

Within this barren landscape the singers meander with seemingly little purpose, although one increasingly suspects that Loy has firmly ordered them not to fraternise too much. Indeed, he repeats a trick from a previous ENO production (every bit as fatal here as there) by practically stopping Tristan and Isolde from touching during the great love tryst in Act Two. The result is that despite some stellar singing, the opera left me completely cold.

Musically, the laurels go firmly to Nina Stemme's Isolde who did her best to make up for the staging with her magnificent singing. It says something about the overall experience that even her performance of the Liebestod was not enough to salvage my mood at the end of Act 3. Matti Salminen gave a fine King Marke but their excellent musical moments were flowers drowning in thorns. Ben Heppner's Tristan was nearly disastrous. He sounded strained and feeble in Act 1. Act Two verged on the catastrophic with Pappano having to slow the orchestra to a crawl, which did little to cover the increasingly sour sounds from Heppner. At that point I was fairly convinced that there would have to be a substitution. Before Act 3 it was announced that he was suffering from an allergic reaction but would continue and thereafter there was a modest improvement – but I am not sanguine on this showing, and allowing for his indisposition, about his ability to last out the run or his long term future in the role. Michael Volle (Kurwenal) and Sophie Koch (Brangane) both sang impressively, though why they were wrapped in each other's arms in Act Two when the text specifically states that Brangane is watching alone was beyond me. It is probably not fair to judge Pappano on this performance, as his vision of Act Two plainly had to be sacrificed for the mere achievement of somehow reaching the interval, but whether it was the production or something else I did feel that his reading lacked dramatic punch – particularly in Act One things seemed to plod, with moments like Isolde's command to Brangane to summon Tristan before her - “I command it, I Isolde”, which should be powerfully chilling falling very flat.

Taken as a whole this is an evening at the opera which ranges from the boring to the infuriating. Critics who have raved over this and attacked the recent Don Carlos baffle me. More, even with the blessing of Stemme, there is simply no comparison with the amazing Glyndebourne production. My advice – sell back your tickets and start saving for the next Glyndebourne revival.

Saturday 3 October 2009

The RSNO comes home

In a way, it's oddly fitting: this is, after all, the year of Homecoming Scotland. For the last two years, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra have been homeless in Edinburgh during their regular season concerts. While the Scottish Chamber Orchestra can decamp to the Queen's Hall, where the majority of their concerts anyway take place, there really isn't another suitable venue for the a full symphony orchestra. They've played assorted odd days and times in the Festival Theatre. Unfortunately that wasn't designed to host a symphonic concert and, consequently, it is acoustically far from ideal. However, the Usher Hall is now finished, or, at least, finished enough to be used for the season; and so the RSNO could come home:


Well, their Edinburgh home, anyway, before someone points out that Glasgow is where they're based. It's great to have them back in one of the finest concert halls of its size in the UK. Better yet, perhaps the hall's management read this. They have finally done what we asked and put visible signs outside the auditorium doors indicating seat numbers. Sadly they didn't check them first. The signs in the Grand Circle have two rows, with different numbers, both labelled A-G (when clearly one was meant to be the first few rows and the other the rear ones - since they are different). But enough such talk, what about the music?

Appropriately enough, Stephane Deneve kicked off the evening with some fireworks: Oliver Knussen's Flourish with Fireworks, to be precise. A fun four minute orchestral showcase, originally written for Michael Tilson Thomas's first season at the LSO, it made for a perfect curtain raiser. The orchestra played well, including a some lovely solo flute work from Katherine Bryan and some wonderful pizzicato playing.

Then Deneve returned to the stage and picked up the microphone and proceeded to talk for longer than he'd just played for. Did we really need to know he had a new podium made by one of the violas? Yes, it's great that Knussen has a history with the orchestra, but did it in anyway aid our appreciation of the music to have Deneve examine what seemed to be his entire family tree for their Glaswegian connections? The proportion given over to the second Knussen piece was small in comparison. Talking to the audience can be done well, especially when the conductor links together the pieces in the programme. If Deneve is going insist on carrying on with this, he would do well to get in touch with his compatriot Pierre Laurent Aimard who may be able to show him how it is done.

The second Knussen piece was The Way to Castle Yonder, from Knussen's opera Higglety Pigglety Pop!, which has just been released on to DVD. A slightly longer piece and scored for smaller forces, this was superbly textured, especially in the first section, with the orchestra vividly calling to mind the horse drawn cart, down to the clip-clop of the hooves. It only left one eager for more.

The stage was then reset once more for Mozart's piano concert K491 (for some reason the programme omits the K number - perhaps that isn't cool these days - and it was the second paragraph before the key got a mention). Last time I heard Deneve play Mozart, I didn't entirely get on with him. It was much the same this time round. There was nothing inherently wrong with it, per se, it was just that I would prefer something altogether crisper and more agile in this repertoire. Of course, there is a way to bring of heavy Mozart, you have only to listen to Furtwangler, but to me this fell uncomfortably between the two. The pianist was Lars Vogt. Certainly he can play very beautifully, cadenzas especially so, and he is superb from a technical standpoint. But, to these ears, he lacked that extra sparkly I find in, say Paul Lewis. However, this is the sort of thing where it's just a case of personal taste (others will doubtless read this and be shaking their head in bafflement).

They had saved the best until last, and the piece gave the concert its Arabian Nights title: Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. Deneve is often at his best when he gets a chance to exhibit his flare for the theatrical, never more so than in the superb Celebration of Poulenc. Scheherazade is not quite so overtly dramatic, though, and while the composer himself eschewed the narrative headings that have come to be attached to its movements, you can hear why they've stuck.

To make matters even better, Deneve drew wonderfully rich playing from the orchestra, while holding them in tight control and thereby achieving maximum drama, turning on a dime from thrilling fanfares to gentle string playing. Amidst this, no more so that at the start and end of the piece, guest leader Mia Cooper tugged at the heart strings with her solos. There were very fine contributions from the principal flautist (again), bassoonist David Hubbard and some fiendishly rapid trumpet work from John Grace and Marcus Pope (not to mention the expended percussion section, and, frankly, the whole orchestra). The finale provides a real orchestral tour de force, but the work opts not to close with a showy tumult, rather returning to the beginning, to the violin and soft strings via a beautiful series of rising wind chords.

There was but one blemish, the three somewhat 'tired and emotional' gentlemen, wait, yobs, to my right, one of whom appeared to believe Rimsky-Korsakov had scored a part for him to sing, who not only made a lot of noise but, with inexcusable rudeness had a go at a person in front who had only attended the second half. Next time some politician mouths off about anti-social behaviour and the youth of today, I'll remember these three people of advancing years, in the Usher Hall for a classical music concert. I wish I'd had the courage to give them a piece of my mind (but the last time I did that, I got threatened with being beaten up, that too was at the Usher Hall).

However, sour taste though that leaves, it shouldn't detract from what was an otherwise superb second half, a generally fine concert and a great way to re-christen the Usher Hall for regular season use. It's good to be home.