Sunday 26 September 2010

Faust at ENO, or, we are now collecting for the put the old warhorse out to grass fund

Our regular readers will know that I am compiling a gradually expanding little list of Great Operatic Mysteries (for the curious the last one was why on earth Royal Opera decided to stage The Gambler?).  The English National Opera season opener provides a new one: how on earth has Gounod's Faust managed to remain in the repertory?

Let us start with the positives.  The production itself, by Des McAnuff (whose main claim to fame is directing Jersey Boys) is inoffensive.  I don't think that translating the story to the eve of the nuclear age adds much to the piece, but this is not a show where one spends one's time in a state of bafflement or fury at each new piece of staging.  Actually, to some degree, the whole concept of World War One to World War Two seems a little flat and half baked.  The set and costumes are much of the time so non-descript that if I hadn't read the programme note I would have been hard put to know that the setting had been updated.  Where the updating is most obvious there are some effective aspects (the lab setting for Faust at the beginning and the end) and some totally ineffective aspects (the atom bomb test that the demons of hell seem to be witnessing at the top of the Fifth Act).  McAnuff conjures up the odd striking stage picture, (e.g. Marguerite's appeal to God in Act Four) but otherwise offers regrettably little distraction from the music.

Turning to the musical performances things are rather more uneven.  Toby Spence performs heroics in the title role.  I didn't feel the range was quite right for him, and in the lower register he often disappeared beneath the orchestra, but he produced some fabulous ringing top notes and an effective characterisation of Faust both before and after his transformation.  Iain Paterson (Mephistopheles) is beginning to worry me a little.  I am informed that he was ill earlier in the week and maybe this accounts for it, but something of the command and power I recall from earlier performances was also not quite there when I saw him in Elektra in January.  It's not that there's anything wrong with his performance here, per se, but it doesn't completely catch fire.  As for Melody Moore as Marguerite, one could live with the dramatic problem that it is rather hard to see why her beauty beguiles Faust, if vocally she was up to the part, but she isn't.  She was particularly laboured in the famous Jewel Song which I assume ought to bring the house down, elsewhere she was serviceable.  Of the supporting cast, there was a nicely characterised Siebel from Anna Grevelius.

Saturday 25 September 2010

@wheresrunnicles passes 1,000

If that means nothing to you, then you should probably stop reading now.

If, on the other hand, it does, then you'll know that the twitter account that accompanies this website recently passed the 1,000 follower mark (thanks to all those who follow - I never thought there'd be half that many).  By way of celebration, we're having a little competition.  Some people give away a prize to whomever happens to have been lucky enough to be number 1,000 but this strikes me as both arbitrary and unfair to loyal folk who've been around since day one.  So, anyone can enter this competition, as long as they're on twitter and following me - even if you're not on twitter you can sign up right now and enter.

The next question, then, is what the question should be?  Perhaps some Runnicles based fact to see how closely you've all been paying attention, such as what was the first piece I saw him conduct?  However, beyond putting your googling skills to the test, it doesn't really tap your creativity in the way that, say @missmussel's wonderful #operaplot does.

Instead, then, I've gone for something in that vein.  So, in order to win, all you have to do is send me a tweet which, in less than 140 characters, contains a description of, or interesting trivia about, Donald Runnicles.  The best one (as judged by me - unless anyone fancies volunteering as a celebrity judge), will win.  You can enter as many times as you like, the only restrictions are nothing libellous and that entries are kept within the bounds of taste and decency (wit and humour are perfectly fine, to be encouraged even).

Denève and the RSNO start their new season with the New World

It was slightly unfortunate that Stéphane Denève and the RSNO had chosen to open their 2010/11 season with Dvořák's 9th symphony, albeit a rather obvious choice, as Denève himself admitted.  The problem was not so much the work in and of itself, but the fact that it is so over-played, which means that it doesn't always work too well if the performers don't have something special to say about it.  Problematic too because we've been rather spoilt lately for good and fresh performances, such as Nelsons' excellent turn at the Proms and, more crucially, the performance by Runnicles and the BBC SSO not one month ago in the same venue.

Sadly Denève and RSNO didn't come close.  Where Nelsons banished all hint of routine, and Runnicles provided electrifying climaxes and nail-biting tension, Denève didn't seem to have terribly much to say at all.  Not only was the result rather bland but, more critically, the ensemble playing was not nearly as tight as it should have been.  Numerous entries, especially in the slow movement, were just a little rough around the edges, balances between sections jarred slightly, the brass were rather woolly and the strings struggled to sustain the extreme pianissimos they were called upon to produce.  It wasn't that the playing was bad per se, just that it wasn't up to the very high standards this orchestra can produce, and did produce just a month ago at the festival.  And, indeed, the standards they had managed in the first half of the concert.  I've no idea if it was the cause of the problems, but it would be interesting to know how much rehearsal time the symphony got - it felt like it could have used that bit more for some fine tuning.  Then there was the failure to build or sustain tension, the lack of drama.  All told, it was an adequate performance, the trouble is that this is a work were adequate isn't really enough.

Despite better playing, the first half was also a little hit and miss.  They opened the programme with MacMillan's Three Interludes from The Sacrifice.  Now, the first thing I want to know when presented with a suite from an opera is where in the opera the music was taken from, what dramatically is going on, so the music is properly in context.  Sadly the programme notes didn't provide this (there was a synopsis of the whole piece, but nothing to relate that to the suite), and Denève in his remarks only briefly touched on it.  As such, well played though it was, if the work isn't as fiendishly tricky as some of his earlier compositions which I've heard recently, I didn't feel that I was getting out of it everything that was there.

Passion at the Donmar, or nobody's written an epistolary novel since the eighteenth century

Regular readers will know that I am a Sondheim aficionado.  It may therefore come as something of a shock when I say that this is the only Sondheim show I have so far seen (unseen to date are Company and Pacific Overtures) which has not worked.

First off it is only fair to say that neither the production nor the company can be faulted.  Both make the best possible claim that can be made of this show, Sondheim's last major work (Road Show, formerly Bounce having apparently been workshopped to death).  Granted I did at times wonder if Fosca is meant to sound so much like Edith Piaf, but this may have been a consequence of having read Elena Roger's bio before the show started.  As in other productions at the Donmar, the show makes a virtue of the limited space and successfully conjures up railway stations, sun-drenched rooms, grim provincial military outposts.  The evocative lighting and clever painting of the back wall reminded me of the superb production of The Chalk Garden.

Of the three leads Scarlett Strallen and David Birrell give particularly good performances.  Strallen benefits from having the most internally convincing character to work with.  The supporting cast, mostly playing members of the military garrison, are all nicely characterised and Ross Dawes and Tim Morgan have brilliant little cameos as Fosca's parents.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

Into the Woods at the Open Air Theatre, or Laughter, Tears and some Niggles

WARNING: The view of a Sondheim aficionado follows.

When it comes to this musical, I am notoriously hard to please.  It was the first Sondheim show I ever saw, in the original London production, with Julia Mckenzie as the Witch, Ian Bartholomew as the Baker and perhaps above all Imelda Staunton as the Baker's Wife.  I knew nothing of Sondheim then, and consequently subconsciously expected it to have a happy ending.  I have never forgotten the shock of the second act.  After years of waiting for a professional revival we have now had two in succession – the Royal Opera production and now one at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park.

I first tried to see this just under two weeks ago and was defeated by the rain.  Life is rather hectic at the moment, and given the pressures of work, the threat of further rain, the reports of transport chaos, and general exhaustion, I nearly decided to give up the whole arduous business of a mad dash in from Lincoln for one night.  Thank goodness I didn't.  Despite some minor flaws, this show packs the necessary punch, and, as it has done nearly every other time I've seen it, had me weeping by the middle of the second act.

The production makes the most of the open air setting with an audacious multi-layered set, topped by Rapunzel's tower and shrouded by the actual trees.  As darkness falls the shadows make an ever more effective wood.  There is a consistent inventiveness – Cinderella's birds are nicely realised, the use of green umbrellas to create the beanstalk is magical, only the giant really doesn't work on the scenic front.  Usually she is just an offstage presence, and on this showing it just isn't possible to make her sufficiently threatening when seen.  There was something of a Doctor Who monster on insufficient budget about her which rather undid Judi Dench's Shakespearean delivery.

Sunday 5 September 2010

Here's Runnicles with Mahler 8 and the EIF 2010 closing concert (or, list of lifelong dreams you are now one shorter)

I first heard Mahler's epic 8th symphony eight or nine years ago, via a recording by Giuseppe Sinopoli and the Philharmonia Orchestra.  It, along with a recording of the 5th, was my first serious exploration of the composer.  From the opening bars, the massive forces, the low rumbling organ, the cry of "veni, creator spirtus" through the next ninety minutes or so, I had never heard anything like it.  I've dearly wanted to hear it live ever since.  At the closing concert of this year's Edinburgh festival, in the hands of Donald Runnicles, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the massed voices of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus (supplemented by singers from the RSNO chorus and the SCO chorus), the RSNO junior chorus and an impressive line-up of soloists, the result was more powerful than I could have imagined.  Indeed, it is the kind of event for which the word awesome was surely invented.


That opening movement, done right, should feel like you've been hit by a train (in a good way, if that's not a contradiction in terms).  In Runnicles' hands it seemed to happen repeatedly, and several of them appeared to have been carrying a cargo of nuclear explosives.  He deployed his innate theatricality to thrilling effect as, at the close, brass reinforcements appeared at three most central dress circle doors giving the kind of effect that sets the heart racing, the legs shaking, the mouth open and gaping, and is impossible to recreate on a CD.  I'm not sure I could have got to my feet if I'd wanted to - I have no idea how the performers carried on for another hour.

Friday 3 September 2010

EIF 2010 - Steven Osborne, or, I had no idea Rachmaninov wrote Jazz

Edinburgh audiences have a slight tendency to be a bit po-faced.  I recall well the criticism levelled at Jonathan Mills when he opened his first festival with a concert performance of Bernstein's Candide.  It was pleasing therefore to see a full house at the Queen's Hall for Steven Osborne's jazz laced program on Tuesday morning.

Osborne has been a regular performer at the Festival as long as I have been going, and many of those performances have been unforgettable.  I recall a mesmerising Vingt Regard sur l'enfant Jesus in the same venue, and a glorious Bartok Third Piano Concerto with a Keith Jarrett encore in the Usher Hall.  However, this year's recital programme was especially intriguing, beginning with a mixed bag first half including pieces by Ives, Gershwin, Scott Joplin and Oscar Peterson, before turning to Ravel and Rachmaninov in the second.

The whole was a delight.  I was initially slightly distracted by the sight of Jonathan Mills tapping away to the Maple Leaf Rag, but the music quickly took precedence.  Osborne's playing has two major characteristics.  First, his sheer virtuosity.  In a big tour de force piece like Oscar Peterson's (Back Home Again in) Indiana which brought the house down at the end of the first half, he simply dazzles the ear.  Osborne's technique is impeccable and the piece certainly kept me on the edge of my seat.  Elsewhere, though, he is capable of the softest, lightest touch to conjure introspective, wistful moods, particularly evident in George Crumb's Processional and the Kapustin Jazz Preludes.  One of the things which has been exciting about this festival (though arriving in Edinburgh late on in the Festival I have not been able to enjoy as much of it as I should have liked) is the much wider range of music being presented, particularly from the twentieth century, and Osborne certainly contributed to that here.  Perhaps hearing Kapustin's complete preludes they might overstay their welcome but the ones played here were beautiful miniatures.

EIF 2010 - Bliss

It was a brave decision to end the opera programme of this year's festival with a new work from a composer who is not a household name, not least given the costs of importing an opera company all the way from Australia.  Yet, in Bliss, Jonathan Mills' gamble paid off and handsomely: it made for a fine and memorable night in the theatre.



Stephen Smith (Police Officer) & Peter Coleman-Wright (Harry Joy) in Opera Australia's 'Bliss'  (Photo: Branco Gaica)


The production was instantly striking, with three sides of the stage enclosed by walls covered in lightbulbs (actually LEDs) of constantly shifting colours, in which various doors opened and closed seamlessly, allowing singers and set on and off.  In stark contrast to the derivative and often intrusive use of video projection in Porgy and Bess, these were employed to inspired effect: some windows here made a house, the green line of the ECG machine reminded us of Joy's fragile health and transported us to the hospital and the flames of hell licked up from below (they even illustrated the elephant in the room - of which more anon).  This was coupled with a simple revolving stage that reinforced the fluid changes in and out of scene; nowhere was this more so than in the second act which alternated between a hotel room, with a bridge visible outside, and the family home.  All credit then to the production team of director Neil Armfield, set designer Brian Thomson (also responsible for those magical lights) and choreographer Kate Champion: together they have produced a production that is clever, inventive and doesn't get in the way as so many do, rather it effectively serves the text.

Wednesday 1 September 2010

EIF 2010 - Jansons and the Concertgewbouw

Recently it was announced that Mariss Jansons was to withdraw from some concerts this autumn while he undergoes a scheduled operation.  His health has been a concern since he suffered a heart attack while conducting La Boheme in 1996.  I mention this because, as he danced about on the podium (his own, a metal framed construction that seems always to accompany him whether I hear him in Edinburgh or London), you would not have supposed that to be the case.

His last visit to Edinburgh three years ago, with his other band, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, was rather special.  Having heard him with the Concertgebouw in the less than ideal acoustic of the Barbican, their two festival concerts promised to be a treat.  Certainly in terms of pure orchestral beauty they were.

Their first programme began with Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments.  There were some extremely beautiful moments, especially in the chorale section at the end, and it provided a nice showcase for the Concertgewbouw's winds to shine.  And yet, it was slightly underwhelming as a curtain raiser, something of a curiosity and not Stravinsky's greatest work.

Much better was to follow with Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.  It was wonderfully played from start to finish, especially the wonderful pizzicato sections in the second movement.  Jansons ensured both tight playing from the ensemble and plenty of drama.