Saturday 24 April 2010

Belohlavek, Aimard and the Berliner Philharmoniker play Janacek, Schoenberg and Brahms at the Philharmonie

Visiting Germany, and Berlin in particular, has been great, not least because I've been able to tick so many items off my list of things I want to do some day. I've heard the Berliners play twice before, of course, once at the 2006 Edinburgh festival and once at the 2004 Proms, but seeing them on their home ground is something else.

The Philharmonie is an extraordinary building. Yellow and angular it, like so many others on the Berlin skyline, looks amazing. In fairness, it does look a little too yellow for my taste, but come 8pm and time for the concert to start and it takes on a much more pleasant golden hue.

They don't seem to go in for the British system of having a separate counter for ticket collection, with all the tickets already printed out ready to hand over, yet the wait wasn't long. Then, the tickets are checked by the ushers using a very hi-tech looking barcode scanner. Perhaps this will pave the way for a nice green solution which would allow me to use my iPhone screen as my ticket.

There are several nice installations in the foyer, made up of a series of coloured discs, which appear to be lit from behind. It is a veritable maze of staircases, yet they are so well signed that we found our seats with relative ease, if they were nowhere near where I had imagined them to be from the diagram when booking. The interior of the hall is roughly rectangular, if a somewhat deformed and angular rectangle, with the seats all grouped efficiently into blocks served by separate doors and staircases. It's also more or less a concert hall in the round, meaning that even some way back, you don't feel as far back as you do, say, at the back of the Usher Hall. The eagle-eyed will spot the surprisingly small cameras which move around by remote control to capture events for the digital concert hall.

Friday 23 April 2010

There's Runnicles - all change for Siegfried in Berlin

Consistency in casting of CD Ring cycles is a well known problem (well, if you're a collector of such cycles it is). Take Solti - Wotan, Fricka, Mime, Faffner and Erda, to name but five, all change during the cycle. Karajan's cast is arguably even less consistent.

This problem is generally avoided with your live Bayreuth recordings, or live recordings generally. It was, therefore, something of a surprise when picking up the cast list last night (which is not free at Deutsche Oper, somewhere Covent Garden has an edge). For this third instalment there was a new Wotan, Brunnhilde, Mime and Faffner. Almost everyone, in other words. In the case of Wotan this was a blessing; in the case of Brunnhilde it was absolutely not.

However, it seems odd, to say the least. Surely when putting together a cycle you book a cast all the way through. I know that isn't what Gergiev does, but he does the operas on consecutive nights rendering consistent casting impossible. With several days between Walkure, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung, it is inexplicable.

Still, consistency aside (of which more anon), how did this third instalment turn out. As with the previous operas, Gotz Friedrich's production is generally strong; indeed, Siegfried is up with Rheingold in being the strongest of the cycle to date. The set for the forge looks the part (leaving aside that initially it does appear to be in a tent), though the backdrop conveying the forrest setting is perhaps a little cartoony. Burkhard Ulrich's Mime was superb, perfectly conveying the put upon and bullied smith. Stefan Vinke had plenty of force in the title role, though suffering from a cold his voice had a slightly odd tone. He was one of two singers for whom the management had craved our indulgence (neither we, nor the people sitting next to us, for whom German was their native tongue, caught the name of the other). He reforged the sword with great aplomb.

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Where's Runnicles in Dresden - Fidelio at the Semperoper

When if first premiered in October 1989, Christine Mielitz's production of Fidelio must have caused quite a stir; it was also pretty brave. Doubtless this context lends an added impact to Beethoven's profoundly human drama of love and freedom triumphing over oppression.

Mielitz's relocates the action to a stark grey prison, often under florescent lighting, clearly meant to be in the former DDR. How must it have looked in the finale, the massed (and I mean absolutely massive, giving the most glorious sound imaginable) choir of prisoners and the east German people, coming together to sing celebrating the freedom of a political prisoner to an audience that would have included government dignitaries in the royal box. Similarly, as members of the crowd rushed forward to support Florestan. Indeed, on that first night, the cast then bravely stepped forward and read a statement calling for more freedom.

What, then, of getting to hear an opera in the Semperoper, actually the third opera house to bear that name - the first having been destroyed by fire, the second having been built by Semper's son in consultation with the original architect (over 1,000 letters between the two reside in a Zurich archive), the third built in the 1980s, a reconstruction of the second, which was destroyed during the second world war. The first thing that strikes one is the sound. The resident orchestra, the Staatskapelle Dresden are, of course, one of the finest orchestras in the world, as their visits to Edinburgh attest. Hearing opera performed with this uniquely rich orchestral sound is the sort of thing that should be on everyone's list of things to do before they die. Of course, the wonderfully resonant acoustic only adds to this. Indeed, on a tour of the house early in the day, we were informed that when the house was rebuilt the university volunteered to improve it, before realising they could not.

Monday 19 April 2010

There's Runnicles - Die Walküre at Deutsche Oper

After last night's solid start, the second opera of Wagner's Der Ring opened even more strongly. From the outset the orchestral playing was wonderful, with a beautifully rich tone to the strings, especially in the love themes between Siegmund and Sieglinde. The brass fanfare that introduced Hunding (Reinhard Hagen, fresh from playing Fasolt) almost sounded as though the instruments had been placed offstage - given Runnicles' flair for this, it's entirely possible they were. The opening prelude, representing the storm in which Siegmund is caught, was vividly coloured in the orchestra. The major climaxes fired off the surges of emotion that the best Wagner does.

Vocally things were knocked up a notch too. Perhaps the outstanding performance of the evening came from Violeta Urmana, a favourite of mine who has previously appeared with Runnicles in a 2005 Edinburgh festival performance of the Verdi Requiem. She not only possesses a superb voice, which allowed Runnicles to turn the volume up without fear of drowning her, but she also delivered a wonderfully characterised performance. The voice was not simply power either, but had a wonderful tone to it and none of the excessive vibrato that I dislike.

It would, however, be a little unfair to single her out solely, for wonderful though she was, there were several other equally notable performances. Clifton Forbis was solid in the role of Siegmund. There were one or two moments when I feared for his voice, such as when he cursed his father as false and wondered where his promised sword might be, but it remained strong throughout the evening and his acting talents nicely complimented Urmana. He never wanted for passion, yet there was also tenderness. The beautiful act two scene with Brünnhilde was especially well realised (what a shame that that was the moment a mobile phone went off).

The big surprise was Brünnhilde. Always a tough role to sing and to cast, at the best of times, and given none of us had heard of Evelyn Herlitzius, there was a question as to how well served we might be. We should not have doubted. True, she didn't have quite the out and out power of a Nilsson, and it was a lighter voice than some, but the drama of her act two entrance wanted for nothing, and no matter how high Runnicles cranked the orchestra, she soared above it. In a role that often feels very masculine, she provided a nicely feminine feel. She also acted well, giving a feisty performance.

Sunday 18 April 2010

There's Runnicles - Das Rheingold at Deutsche Oper

There was a terrible moment, after I woke up on Thursday morning, when I wondered if I'd actually get to Berlin in time to see this production I'd been planning to attend for so many months. Actually, there'd been a good deal more than one such moment. As it turned out, though, not even a volcano suitably apocalyptic to feature somewhere in Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, could stop me from attending (full story of my epic journey to follow in a separate post).

Getting from the hotel to the Opera proved easy, it even has it's own metro station. This is how it should be:


Deutsche Oper is a modern house, and has a good clear acoustic. It's also cheap: our excellent stalls seats were less than half what they would have been at Covent Garden and the programme was a mere €4 (albeit of limited utility since Michel Thomas notwithstanding, my German is still rusty beyond belief). Surtitles were German only too, but I seem to know the piece sufficiently backwards that that didn't matter too much (and there were a surprising number of bits I could translate fine). Despite being off to one side, sightlines were still excellent.

Saturday 17 April 2010

Christian Zacharian and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra play Schubert

Each year, one of the regular highlights of the SCO season is the visit of pianist Christian Zacharias. Not only is he a very fine player, but he is also increasingly known as a dab hand with the baton.

Typically he has played a concerto, or similar piece, with the orchestra. Thursday's programme was rather interesting because, and this is a first in my experience of this team (and, I think, the concert hall), Zacharias wasn't directing from the keyboard, rather he played a sonata in the first half and conducted a symphony in the second. Sufficiently unexpected that it took Sean Rafferty by surprise when he was doing an interview for In Tune, though one can't help think that a professional interviewer might have bothered to look at the concert programme that was being plugged before starting the interview. But I guess silly notions like that are why he does Radio 3 and I just write a blog. Interestingly, as Zacharias revealed in the interview, the format was the idea of the SCO.

He had chosen Schubert's D850 sonata. It's not one of the ones I feel I know especially well, and yet at the same time it felt very familiar and has a number of beautiful and memorable tunes. Overall Zacharias gave a fine performance. He brought a nice delicacy, yet this was tempered by his ability to effortlessly ratchet up the power and weight for the climaxes. It wasn't quite perfect, and there seemed to be a smattering of wrong notes, but amid the depth and colour he brought to the piece, they didn't really detract from a spellbinding performance.

Thursday 15 April 2010

Scottish Opera presents The Excursions of Mr Brouček

Well, actually, that's not quite true, Scottish Opera are this month presenting The Adventures of Mr Brouček. I'm not sure why this is - Excursions seems a more fitting title, and that's how I'll always refer to it. Still, let's not get caught up quibbling over how to translate the title.

This marks my first visit to Scottish Opera in quite some time. Partly it's because of some rather disappointing experiences since the Ring ruined them financially (I remember an especially bad Don Giovanni), partly it's because of programming less exciting than a rained out day at Wimbledon (in fairness it's hard to be too daring when you're only mounting four full productions in a season, though that's another rant), partly it's because of generally rather second rate casting which doesn't even seem to be compensated for by any evidence of the company meeting what should be one of its primary missions: nurturing young Scottish talent. It is exceptionally telling that Jonathan Mills has only used them to stage one production in his four years as festival director.

However, the chance to see Janáček's rarely performed tale of a man whose drunken fantasies take him first to the moon, then to the fifteenth century, was not to be passed up. As added incentive, this was a co-production with Opera North who have been doing very well of late and who, incidentally, manage to mount far more productions each year than Scottish Opera, despite not being a national company.

Tuesday 13 April 2010

Here's Runnicles, and much more - The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra unveil their 2010/11 season

One of the things I most like about Donald Runnicles as a musician is his ability to surprise me. Take, for example, his recording of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. It's a piece we all know backwards, so to make it sound as fresh as he does is quite something. I mention it because on Monday morning I was having some random guesses as to what might be in the 2010/11 BBC SSO season. I felt pretty confident there'd be lots of Mahler (it is a double anniversary year after all). There isn't. But there's a lot of other great stuff instead.

Something I did see coming, and anyone who's listened to the interview will have, is concert opera. The season opens with Wagner's Die Walkure albeit, unfortunately, only Act I. Still, mustn't quibble - a whole act of Wagner from one of the leading interpreters is not to be sniffed at. It is preceded by Sibelius's violin concerto with soloist Janine Jansen. Both Jansen and Runnicles return a week later (Glasgow only) for the Brahms concerto and the Eroica.

As last year, the BBCSSO is venturing into Edinburgh in its regular season. It's still a fairly limited selection but probably contains the top highlights, and it is good that two concerts last season have become three. It is my firm hope that by the time Runnicles stands down, may that be many years hence, the BBC Scottish are playing a full season in Edinburgh. The gem of the Edinburgh concerts, and indeed, the season, is the February performance of Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem, preceded by Haydn's 44th symphony. Anyone who wants a taste can pop over to the Berlin Philharmonic's digital concert hall and hear the performance he gave there in December. This marks the continuation of the in season collaboration with the Festival Chorus which Runnicles initiated and which he confirmed in the interview would continue. And in what style! The final Edinburgh performance comes in April in a programme of Adams, Mahler's Ruckertlieder with Karen Cargill, and Brahms 2. It's a slight shame that Edinburgh and Perth audiences do not get a repeat of Stuart MacRae's Homage a Brahms which will have received its world premiere in the Glasgow concert a few days early. This is as puzzling as it is disappointing.

Runnicles makes his final appearance with a French programme including Ravel, Debussy and Dutilleux. It culminates in Bolero - can he convince me in a work that all too often reminds me of Chinese water torture?

Sunday 11 April 2010

Rossini at the Royal, or, At Last, Thank God!, A Hit!

Regular readers will know that my reports on the Royal Opera this season have not been especially favourable. I am therefore delighted to be able to say that at least the main stage has got a real hit on its hands with this superb revival of Rossini's Il Turco in Italia. I have to confess to a rather moorish love of Rossini, if that's the word I want. If you are feeling low it is just such a tonic. Done properly, his music can be wonderfully, gloriously uplifting, and so it is in this revival.

The plot is exceptionally silly, and takes three pages of the programme book to explain. Put succinctly an aging poet (Thomas Allen) is trying to find a plot for a new opera, and ends up focusing on the extremely coquettish Fiorilla (Aleksandra Kurzak) who is juggling at least three different men through the opera. Throw in a visiting Turk (one of Fiorilla's three lovers), and a band of gypsies and you just have an awful lot of fun basically.

The direction and the set support this too. The gypsies begin by stripping first a hiker and then a woman with a baby carriage down to their undergarments. Selim the Turk arrives in a magnificent boat (how wonderful actually to have a real boat, or a fair stab at one, on stage). Fiorilla seduces her victims in a gloriously garish apartment beneath a picture of Mount Versuvius, and the various protagonists all arrive for the Act I finale in cars or on Vespas, each mode of transport superbly in keeping with their various characters. The acting of the principles, particularly Fiorilla, her husband Don Geronio (Alessandro Corbelli), and Thomas Allen as the poet, is spot on throughout. Combined, the whole draws plenty of laughs and never fails to keep you interested.

A Brace of Janaceks - A Belated Where's Runnicles report from the London opera houses

ENO, Katya Kabanova

Beforehand we were warned that this production bore something of a resemblance to the dreadful Royal Opera House Tristan (which has inexplicably won the Olivier opera award). This is indeed so. The stage is pretty bare, and the main piece of set consists of a wall. But there all similarity ends. The wall (which never moved in Tristan) is versatile, opening up and closing down space on the vast Coliseum stage in accordance with the development of the narrative. More crucially, it is linked to consistently intelligent direction (from David Alden following on from his magnificent Jenufa) and some great acting all combining to make a very powerful evening in the opera house.

At its heart is a wonderful performance from Patricia Racette as Katya. She sang beautifully, and powerfully throughout, and successfully conveyed Katya's multifaceted character – ranging through submission, desire, despair. Above all, she met the key challenge of being able to commit suicide convincingly. The end of the opera has its Tosca moment, which failed miserably in the recent Royal Opera House revival (since unfortunately one could see the heroine walking unharmed off stage). Here Racette leaps off the back of the stage to be caught sharply in the light for one brief moment before vanishing. It was beautifully done.

As with the recent Jenufa, the supporting cast all do themselves proud, but particular mention must go to the young lovers. I had not up until now believed that Alfie Boe was anything much to write home about, but as with everybody else in this production he gives a fine singing and acting performance here. The character plays a crucial role in moving the narrative along and Boe carries it off superbly. Anna Grevelius, as Varvara, was similarly fine.

Wednesday 7 April 2010

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra unveil their 2010/11 season (and more)

One of the things on my to do list, following the success of my interview with Donald Runnicles, is to line up a few more. High on my list of potential interviewees is the principal conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robin Ticciati. One of the questions that I very much wanted to put to him, and one I put to Runnicles, is that given his operatic experience (Ticciati was music director of Glyndebourne on Tour for several years prior to starting at the SCO), is whether he might favour us with some opera in concert during the regular season.


I say wanted to put to him, because it's now rather redundant: Ticciati will open the 2010/11 season with a performance of Don Giovanni. The cast includes Florian Boesch as the titular Don, Kate Royal as Donna Elvira and Susan Gritton as Donna Anna. In the space of a couple of months we're going to be really spoilt for Mozart, as this follows Mackerras's festival performance of Idomeneo. The selection of Mozart is a canny one, capitalising on the legacy of the orchestra's opera recordings with Mackerras. True, it invites comparison to the great octogenarian, but Ticciati has trod this ground already, and generally with success. And, of course, there's the SCO chorus under Gregory Batsleer, who have plenty to sink their teeth into here and elsewhere.

Speaking of Mackerras, his annual in season visits are a regular highlight, all the better then, that this year we get two. Towards the end of November, he is on hand to conduct what promises to be a thrilling Messiah (presumably the original and not the Mozart arrangement he's recorded in both German and English). To make things better there are the soloists, who include Christine Rice and Matthew Rose (readers will remember his superb performance in Berlioz's L'enfance du Christ a few months ago). He returns in May 2011 to close the season off with an all Mozart programme featuring the Jupiter symphony (No.41) and the Requiem (presumably in the Levin completion he has recorded with the orchestra).

Tuesday 6 April 2010

The Britten-Pears Orchestra plays Beethoven and Haydn

In just over two months time I'll be paying my annual visit to the Aldeburgh festival (and for the third year running providing the most comprehensive written coverage of any media outlet - unless I have some unexpected competition). However, the easter weekend found me making an unexpectedly longer than planned stay trip south, and thus in the vicinity to make an early visit to the Maltings.

The Britten-Pears Orchestra is an interesting ensemble, featuring young artists, either conservatory students or recent graduates, selected through international audition and coming together four times a year. As something of a scratch ensemble, and relatively youthful, they can sometimes be a little rough about the edges, but their enthusiasm normally makes up for it, and it certainly did on Sunday. They were joined by conductor Antonello Manacorda, who helped found the superb Mahler Chamber Orchestra with Claudio Abbado.

The first half of the programme was filled with Beethoven's 4th symphony. Long underrated, perhaps as a result of being sandwiched between the Eroica and the fifth, it has always been one of my favourites. For me, however, Manacorda's approach didn't quite gel, seemingly unsure if he wanted to go down the historically informed or romantic routes. On the one hand there was the lack of vibrato (with the exception of one or two players) and the natural horns and trumpets (the former struggling a little with rather too many fluffed notes). Yet on the other hand he seemed to want to pull the score about a lot: he took the opening slowly, and often added emphasis, at times a little too much, sucking the flow out of the music. The quickly taken finale worked best.

Thursday 1 April 2010

Runnicles to pioneer innovative new production technique at Deutsche Oper

Before you take the following too seriously, please take a look at the date!

I'm very excited to have received another e-mail from Deutsche Oper this morning allowing me to reveal a portion of my recent interview with Donald Runnicles that had been under embargo.

Listeners and readers will remember that the maestro discussed the challenges involved in moving to a repertoire house and in particular in having to switch very quickly from one production to another. His solution, and one which will be trialed in his first new production for the house, Berlioz's Les Troyens, premiering in December, is the use of inflatable sets.

Edinburgh readers may feel something familiar here, doubtless recalling productions by The Strolling Theatricals, whose stagings of Shakespeare on bouncy castles have garnered much media attention at recent Edinburgh Fringe festivals. Indeed, Runnicles admits this was his inspiration:

When I was here last August for the festival, I saw that in the programme and since I had a few hours free I just couldn't resist. While sitting there watching Macbeth bounce up and down as he wondered whether he actually saw a dagger before him, the idea just came to me. We had anyway been debating how we might accomplish all the elaborate sets Les Troyens requires.

Readers may instantly wonder if we're quite ready to see the likes of Don Giovanni, Wotan or Leonora bouncing around the stage as they try to sing.