Sunday 22 August 2010

EIF 2010 - Idomeneo

One of the potential highlights of this year's Edinburgh International festival always seemed set to be the concert performance Mozart's Idomeneo, with a star studded cast, performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and conducted by Charles Mackerras.  The team have previously played all the major Mozart operas in concert at the festival, making recordings in tandem, most recently La Clemenza di Tito in 2005.  Sadly, Sir Charles's death last month meant that it was not to be and the performance was dedicated to his memory.  In many ways it was a fitting tribute to his contributions to the festival.

In his place, Roger Norrington had stepped in.  Despite Jonathan Mills' attempt to link them, I've never felt the two are terribly similar and often I find Norrington's personality gets in the way of the music.  I was, therefore, extremely pleasantly surprised that not only did I not feel that to be the case, but furthermore, I did not find myself wishing that Mackerras had been on the podium.  Norrington's approach was not overly hurried, as it can be.  Instead, he let the music breath, though it still bounced along nicely, and under him the orchestra were on sparkling form.

The cast were exceptional.  Thus it was the more impressive a feat that Joyce DiDonato stood out amongst them as Idamante.  It was not simply that she has a beautiful voice, though she has one of the best, but that in addition she is a wonderful actress and has the most tremendous stage presence.  Just take, for one example among so many, her cry of "Barbaro fato!" (cruel fate), in scene five of act one.  Fully trouser suited up, she convinced in her portrayal of a man.  In the title role, Kurt Streit gave an understated performance in the first act, but his act two aria "Fuor del mar ho un mare in seno" was extraordinary and he remained near that level for the rest of the night.  Both Rosemary Joshua and Emma Bell, as Ilia and Elettra, rivals for Idamante's affections, were on fine form.  Even in the smaller roles there were no weak links, such as Rainer Trost (who worked with Mackerras on Clemenza, when he stood in at the last minute for Bostridge), who sang Arbace so well you wished it was a bigger part.

Norrington also managed his forces well for dramatic effect, splitting the fabulous SCO chorus, sending half of them offstage when distant voices were required.  For the majority of their rehearsal period they had been working towards Mackerras's performance.  Clearly Norrington had a different view, but no problems from the change seemed evident and Gregory Batsleer once again showed he was an excellent choice as chorus master.  Offstage brass and timpani were managed similarly well.  Cellist David Watkin also turned in a very fine performance, doubling up on continuo while still leading the cello section.

It was a long evening, running close to four hours, partly because they'd included the full ballet music at the end.  But in Norrington's hands it worked, and the evening didn't really drag at all.

The only blemish was not the fault of any of the performers.  Jonathan Mills made a brief introductory speech.  This was fine, if a little faltering as he read from his notes.  He paid tribute nicely to Mackerras and explained that a full tribute would be made in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra concert on 1st September (BBC Proms take note of how it should be done).  The problem came afterwards as the PA continued to generate an annoying hiss for 25 minutes (the reasons for this are quite complicated as the comments below illustrate).  Still, so magical was the music, that it didn't spoil the evening.

There will be more Mozart opera from the SCO soon enough as Robin Ticciati will open their new season with Don Giovanni in October.  This, in many ways, is the finest tribute one could ask to Mackerras: namely that a tradition he instilled of concert performances of great opera by this fine ensemble will continue after him.


Anonymous said...

I hesitated about whether to reply to this, but one specific thing I can't leave uncorrected: it was not the Usher Hall staff who 'neglected to turn the PA off', it was EIF staff, specifically me. Only that isn't what happened, which is one of the reasons why it took a while to correct it: as is often the case, life is a little more complex than the judgements of critics would make it.

First of all, let me apologise to all the audience and performers of that night: the thought that anyone's enjoyment was lessened is absolute gall to me, and (I say with confidence) to all the staff who work to put on the Festival. We are none of us careless of your experience. But it's rare to the point of non-existence that 'our' side of these (mercifully rare) stories gets put, so I hope this may throw some light on the nature of our service to the Festival...

You assert that the system was 'incompetently' left on: I believe you're wrong about the incompetence, and you're only half right about it being left on. What in fact happened was that the mic channel that was used for Jonathan's speech WAS turned off immediately he finished speaking, using a remote switch called a Voltage Controlled Amplifer (VCA). This set-up has been used in the Usher Hall many times before on previous Festivals, and works a treat: any alteration to the level of the VCA is exactly matched by the same alteration to the audio level of the signal it's controlling. Turn the VCA down to zero - zero sound.

Only, for whatever reason (and we still haven't established that) this didn't happen; had Jonathan's mic been brought back on stage, nothing would have been heard should it have been spoken into. But what did come out was hiss. Unfortunately, the only chance I would have had to hear that would be as I walked in front of the stage left stack of speakers as I removed the mic and music stand: this didn't go quite according to plan, as Sir Roger entered the stage before I had even got both off the stage, never mind removed myself and the hardware, and thus my passage past said speakers was to the accompaniment of the applause welcoming Sir Roger to the stage, and thus I wasn't able to hear it. The entire system was left on as it was required for a thunder sound effect in the third act - but this was only made known to us on the previous day. Had there been more notice, the control of the system would have been arranged differently. But then, the defining condition of putting on a Festival is reacting to the unplanned and unexpected...

At that point there was no-one in the hall with any brief to be aware of the sound system, because, quite simply, there shouldn't have been even the whirr of an amplifier fan, let alone any noise coming out of the speakers. As it happens, one of the festival's staff WAS in the concert and left immediately to come backstage, but as, however many millions of pounds notwithstanding, the refurbishment of the hall hasn't stretched to sufficient accommodation to include the crew, I was tucked away getting changed in a place where no-one other than those very familiar with the intricacies of backstage would think to look for me, in the basement - and of course, neither was there any mobile reception available to me to pick up the messages they had left. On emerging from there, I was found by another of the festival staff who apprised me of the situation, and having decided that going on stage to rectify the problem would be too intrusive I immediately killed the power to the entire system - hence the large thump you may have heard, for which again I apologise - where I was doing the switching, I wasn't able to hear the action on stage to time it with a fortissimo or applause, else I would have done.

... to be continued...

Anonymous said...

The problem was then identified and rectified in the first interval, the system powered up again and left ready for its use in the third act and remained on to the end of the night in the state of silence which should have been its constant condition other than the thunder clap.

So I hope you and your readers may see that it wasn't quite as simple and careless as your first judgement assumed. Even now, two days later, I get a queasy feeling in my stomach even thinking about it - but that's the flipside of the immense pride I have in being part of the team that enabled such an exquisite piece of sound engineering as took place a night later with the Kronos quartet. The very essence of the Edinburgh International Festival in the 22 years I've been involved with it is that the technical team are as passionate about the productions as any of the audience, and frequently more so.

Tam Pollard said...

Thanks for setting the record straight - I have amended my review accordingly.

I apologise for not having checked my facts before rushing to blame Usher Hall staff, but that seemed the likely explanation. I have to say that I don't feel the Usher Hall is as well run a venue as it ought to be, which is partly why I rushed to judgement.

Anonymous said...

didnt notice it from the upper circle and it was a great perormance however as Tim Ashley of the Guardian said "perhaps the only in ternationally cast opera in the Festival" now thats a worry someone posted opn my Facebook site the other day the opening concert of the 1982 Festival the Verdi Requiem conducted by Abbado with Carerras Raimondi Norman and Pryce and we got El Nino!

Anonymous said...

An admirable performance, but ultimately not fully engaging. Partly perhaps the fault of the piece. It is possible to have too much recitative! The ballet music too was really anticlimactic.
Can't help comparing to La Clemenza di Tito a few years ago which was outstanding.

On another note, when will the festival swallow its pride and realign dates with the fringe? As London visitors there is no way we will ever come in the final week when neither fringe nor book festival is still going.

Tam Pollard said...

If you're referring to Ashley's review of the concert what he actually said was "this was luxury casting of a kind that we don't get at Edinburgh as often as we might" (though it's possible the article has been changed). It's true that on paper this is the strongest opera cast of the festival, but to be honest, I don't think you get an opera cast that solid very often anywhere (certainly not in my experience). I don't think the festival is generally short of big names - this year we have Lang, Brewer, Keenlyside, DiDonato and Finley to name five singers (and for my money five of the finest about). True, most of those are singing recitals rather than opera, and I suspect the reason more of them aren't doing opera comes down to money. We have things like the Concertgebouw under Jansons and the Finnish Radio Symphony under Oramo (none of whom will be at the proms this year). In short, I don't think there is any shortage of impressive names this year (something that wasn't the case in 2009). To be honest, I like Adams and thought El Nino made an excellent opening concert, indeed, I think it was one of the best choices in some years. Given it will sell out more or regardless, I think it was good to do something a little different.

As regards moving the dates of the festival I don't think it has much to do with pride. My understanding is that due to other festivals taking place on the continent, the big European orchestras can't come before the last week (certainly that would be borne out by the fact that in my experience ensembles like the BPO, the Concertgebouw and the Bavarians have only ever come in that last week; you see the same thing at the Proms). As such, moving it simply because it fits with the fringe would be crazy. There are still two and a bit weeks that overlap (of course, if the things in the third week are what you want to see, that's still a problem, but if it was moved they might not be there at all). That said, I suspect there are a fair few people who don't mind being able to come up for the final week after the fringe has died down.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how third week sales compare with weeks one and two?
Really thinking from a financial point of view given the financial pressure which can only get worse.
(Though on that note I am amazed at how few patrons etc. there are, esp given how cheap the patron/benefactor scheme is...)
We can only come up for 9-10 days anyway, so there are always things that we will miss, and of course we will always want to come when Edinburgh is firing on all cylinders.

Anonymous said...

It's probably cheap for London but though Edinburgh often seems incredibly well-heeled (it does to me, anyway), it's a well known fact in arts funding that the further you move away from London the less private funders are prepared to pay.

Post a Comment