Tuesday 28 December 2010

Tannhauser at the Royal Opera, or in which it is proved that Wagner CAN be sung

How many times have you been to a Wagner opera in which not only is there not a weak link among the soloists but in which the tenor sounds as fresh at the end of the third act as he did at the beginning of the first?  The answer for me would be very very few.  This new production of Wagner's rarely seen Tannhäuser at the Royal Opera is one of those very very few occasions.  It is an absolute triumph and I am at a loss to understand the grudging tone of some of the reviews.

It has to be admitted that the piece is a strange one.  It is very definitely Wagner in transition.  Indeed it is rather as if in writing it he worked through a whole litany of Germanic influences (shadows of Bach, Mozart and Schubert were all, I thought, present) as well as anticipating a variety of themes from his later work (the parade at the beginning of the final scene of Die Meistersinger, Amfortas's wound, even it seemed to me Wotan and King Marke in the character of Hermann).  But the result is not a hodgepodge but something that at its best packs a real emotional punch – it is hard to think of anything quite comparable elsewhere in Wagner to the extraordinary chorale like section of Act Two following Elizabeth's intervention.

Monday 6 December 2010

Too many puddings from the Harth-Bedoya and the RSNO, but some stunning trombone playing from Magnussen

Perhaps the cold weather and thick snow helped explain a rather thin Usher Hall turnout on Friday; doubtless some unfamiliar works on the programme didn't help.  In truth, were it not for the rare opportunity to hear a trombone concerto, I'd have through twice about strapping on my walking boots.

Certainly the story of how former RSNO trombonist Bryan Free tracked down and reassemble Nathaniel Shilkret's trombone concerto, originally written for jazz legend Tommy Dorsey, is a fascinating one.  Sadly, the story is rather more interesting than the concerto, whose main merit was that it provided a magnificent showcase for the talents of the orchestra's young principal Davur Juul Magnussen.  He was very impressive, leaping around the full range of the range of the instrument: now muted, now glissandos, now playing three notes at once, in a wonderful rumbling sound generated by humming, playing and getting an overtone (something that Dorsey refused to play).  And not a cracked note in sight, no mean feat.  As a sometime, albeit infinitely less talented, trombonist myself, it's great to get the all too rare chance to hear the instrument shine like this.  Sadly, beyond that, the piece was eminently forgettable, and it was quite easy to see why it had been forgotten.  The boogie-woogie finale, complete with the sort of drum kit not often seen with a symphony orchestra, was fun, but it didn't seem in away way to follow from what came before.

Sunday 5 December 2010

There's Only One Sydney Bristow - Why Alias is one of the great TV shows of all time

Recently I watched All The Time In The World, the 105th and final episode of Alias.  It was, by my reckoning, the third time I've done so and, as on the previous occasions, it reduced me to tears.  It was end of a couple of months immersed in the world of Sydney Bristow and Milo Rambaldi, watching every episode in sequence.

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Then, a few nights later, I found myself chatting with a friend in the pub who complained that he won't buy TV shows from places like iTunes, in part because he only ever seems to watch episodes once.  This is a slightly baffling view to me, given I regularly return to my favourite shows and watch them all through in sequence, and Alias has been one of them for most of the last decade.  This is why.

Saturday 4 December 2010

Where's Runnicles' favourite recordings issued in 2010

Last year I listened to Radio 3's annual Critics' Choice roundup edition of CD Review and thought two things - firstly that there was very little, with the exception of a superb double disc of Schubert from the Belceas, that really grabbed me, and secondly that I couldn't think of very much that I would have put into my own such roundup.  2009 was not, to these ears, a vintage year for CDs (actually, thinking about it, there was Audite's superb box of Furtwangler's RIAS recordings and the Beatles remasters too, but still).

How much difference a year makes - in 2010 there was a flood of superb recordings in the first few months alone and things didn't let up much thereafter.  And yet, listening to CD Review again this morning, I find that none of my favourite discs have made the cut.  This, then, provides the perfect excuse for a selection of Where's Runnicles' favourite discs of the year.  Where possible, I've put them on this Spotify playlist so you can try before you buy (though not in the same order).

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Friday 3 December 2010

ENO premiers A Dog's Heart, or in which company resiliance and an excellent production are let down by a dog's dinner of a score

Since I have frequently had occasion to be highly critical of English National Opera in all departments in recent years let me start this review with the positives.  The production is the most impressive and successful I have seen on the Coliseum stage since John Adams's Dr Atomic.  The ensemble is the finest which has been seen at the Coliseum for a long time, and the whole feels suffused with the old Coliseum spirit which has been too long absent.  It is impossible to fault either.  But (knowing me you will have known there was a but coming) the trouble is that the work itself is a pathetic excuse for an opera, and one wishes that that spirit, and that production, could have been lavished on an artistic work deserving of them.

Alexander Raskatov's opera adapts Mikhail Bulgakov's novella The Heart of a Dog, banned during the author's lifetime and for years afterwards on account of its satires on Communist Russia in the 1920s, brilliantly explored in James Meek's instructive programme essay.  The story sees a mongrel dog from Moscow operated on by a bourgeois doctor.  He is given the testicles and pituitary gland of a drunk man.  The dog then gradually becomes human, turns the doctor's life upside down to the point that he finally reverses the process.  The story raises a variety of questions about the nature of humanity since the transformed Dog both lays claim to humanity, but shows himself to be capable of many of humanity's lowest acts.