Saturday 25 February 2012

ENO's The Death of Klinghoffer, or, A Superb Performance of a Masterpiece

In reviewing this evening there is a first principle that has to be established. It is incredible (and says much about our capacity to evade the unpalatable) that it has not been established long before this. That principle is that John Adams's opera The Death of Klinghoffer is a twentieth century masterpiece of the genre and it should be being staged by every major company.

It was greatly to the credit of Scottish Opera that they staged the UK premiere at the Edinburgh Festival in 2005 (and it was nice to see that acknowledged in tonight's programme). It is equally to the credit of English National Opera that they have brought this stunning work to the London stage.

More to the point, it is cause for considerable rejoicing that at long last John Berry's various strategies have really paid off. This is a contemporary opera which urgently deserved a staging, and Tom Morris on his ENO debut proves to have an excellent grasp of what is needed to make a compelling operatic production. There isn't a weak link in the ensemble, and the ENO Chorus and Orchestra under Baldur Bronnimann play with precision, drama and passion. The whole experience took me back to company days of yore – in fact I think this is quite possibly the most complete work they have done since John Berry became artistic director.

The House of Bernarda Alba, or A Show Lacking that Certain Spark

The last show I saw at this venue was the disappointing My City back in September. Regrettably this new production of Lorca's play is also a bit of a disappointment. It isn't that there's something hugely wrong with it – the concept in itself isn't at war with the text, the acting is perfectly fine, but somehow that indefinable spark that turns something solid into something truly great is missing.

Director Bijan Sheibani has relocated the action to Iran. It was not clear to me until I looked again at the programme note after the performance (and then only because the years of birth of each character are indicated) what date the action has been relocated to, but it would seem to be pretty close to the present day. Now it isn't that this relocation is at serious variance with the text – I can see how Lorca's examination of oppressed women might have an additional resonance as a result. But Sheibani doesn't really seem to have followed through on it. There's a striking stage picture at the beginning with the stage filled with veiled women after the funeral but thereafter the performance lacks a strong sense of place.

Friday 24 February 2012

Where's Oramo? At the BBC Symphony Orchestra (from 2013)

Sakari Oramo ranks among my favourite conductors, and while I haven't heard him in the concert hall as often as I might like, he has never failed to impress, from the first time I encountered him in Basingstoke, when he and the CBSO introduced me to Sibelius via the 5th symphony, to last October when I made a mad dash down to London to catch his debut with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Sibelius featured there too).

Photo credit: Heikki Tuuli and Octavia

Prior to that concert, I had already spotted a useful alignment of diaries: Oramo's tenure with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra ends this year, so too Jiří Bělohlávek's with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (and Kenneth Walton noted that Oramo was keen to return to the UK, though the RSNO job he suggested never seemed terribly plausible). Thus, I hoped it would go well and that one thing might lead to another. Indeed it did, and now it has, with the announcement that Oramo will take up the Chief Conductorship with effect from the 2013 Proms.

Thursday 23 February 2012

Opera North's Norma or, By God there's something in this Bel Canto Business

I am normally not a particular fan of bel canto, and I am definitely not a fan of Christopher Alden as a director. I hadn't heard of any of the singers involved and it was therefore once again the completionist in me which drove me to book for a three hour opera I hadn't seen in the middle of the working week at a destination which public transport does not make it easy for me to access (and indeed the vagaries of public transport infuriatingly forced me to leave before the end of the performance). However, for once my vice was proved a virtue. This is a stunningly good evening of opera and anyone within striking distance of the remaining performances in Nottingham or Newcastle should not miss it.

A number of things combine to make this evening. The first is that the two leading ladies – Annemarie Kremer (Norma) and Keri Alkema (Adalgisa) are exceptional. To begin with I was a little more taken by the latter, but Kremer grows in power as the evening progresses. Both have the necessary dynamic range for these challenging parts going from exposed piano sections (magical in the second act as Alkema pleads with Norma not to sacrifice her children) to raging fury (again Norma's call to arms was spell-binding). This vocal prowess is matched to real electric stage presence from both women even when, as is occasionally inevitably the case this being a Christopher Alden production, they have been given silly things to do by the director.

Next to them the remainder of the cast inevitably has a bit of a struggle to keep up. Luis Chapa makes a creditable fist of Pollione and while one might sometimes wish for a bit more beauty of tone and a bit less sense of effort he brings off the ensembles well and gives a nicely judged acting performance going from pretty utter cad in Act One to somewhat redeemed cad in Act Two. James Creswell as Oroveso delivered his Act Two aria with good heft and presence, and otherwise hovers around looking suitably menacing.

Saturday 18 February 2012

The Muppets, or A Lesson in Having Faith

Many people coming to this film (or at least those bringing their kids) probably discovered the Muppets via the original television show. Although I can dimly recall the cartoon Muppet Babies when I was growing up, and the short-lived Muppets Tonight I first really remember getting the Muppets via two of their classic films – Muppet Christmas Carol (which a former flatmate used to invite friends around to watch before Christmas every year) and Muppet Treasure Island. I suspect this effected my taste in Muppets – I was fonder of Gonzo and Rizzo, and even more so of Sam the Eagle (who has a marvellous extended role in Muppet Treasure Island) than I was of those who were more central to the original show like Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and Doctor Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. All of the latter play a more central role than Gonzo, Rizzo (who is virtually invisible here) and Sam (who appears but rarely speaks) in this film. This reflects a broader return to the show's origins. In many ways this is an extended homage to the original show, but it is also a reminder both that these characters and some of the most central things they have said are timeless.

The central superb idea of this film is to establish a common humanity of humans and Muppets. Thus the key relationship of the film is between Walter (the new Muppet character) and his brother Gary (Jason Segal). On one level the connection Walter makes between himself and the Muppets when he first sees the TV show is perfectly obvious – he's a Muppet therefore of course he belongs with them, but it also captures an idea the Muppets have often stressed – that being a bit different from the herd, feeling a bit separate is nothing to be ashamed of – that you should in essence be happy in being yourself. By creating such a close human-Muppet relationship, this idea is rendered more powerful and poignant.

Saturday 11 February 2012

ENO's The Tales of Hoffmann, or in which Offenbach falls at the first hurdle

One of my vices is that I am a completionist. I had not previously seen Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann and I will always try and see an opera I haven't seen before at least once. Unfortunately, this one proves to be for me an opera I don't feel any need to see again in a hurry. Thus, although I also thought there were some musical and production issues it was the work itself which I think was most at fault.

The big problem with this opera is that it fails the first Dr Pollard test for a great work of art. That is it pretty completely failed to make me care about the fate of any of the protagonists. For those of you unfamiliar with the work it is about the poet Hoffmann's unfortunate romances. I think, if I have understood it correctly, he is in love (unsuccessfully) with a lady by the name of Stella who wanders around to not much purpose at the start and the end. To explain this love he tells three fantastic tales about three other women (Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta). Apart from the poor consumptive Antonia in Act II I found it all uninvolving. I suppose it's possible that it is trying to say some deep things about the madnesses of love but it did not come across to me here.

Beyond the plotline the work is also not helped by either music or libretto. I found both rather dull. The text didn't help convince me of the sincerity of the characters emotions, the music is a bit drearily the same from start to finish, though I don't think it was helped by Antony Walker's conducting to which we shall return.

Monday 6 February 2012

The Kronos Quartet at the Hackney Empire, 24 January 2012

Having had the pleasure of their stay in Glasgow last May, I was sorry not to make it down to London for the Kronos Quartet's Barbican residence at the end of last month. But you can't do everything. However, my mother Lucy provides this guest review.

It’s thanks to Where's Runnicles that I discovered the Kronos, first online, then in a recording, and finally yesterday in the flesh, which exceeded all expectations. I think it was the most exciting concert I’ve been to in a long time, partly because all the music was new to me, partly because of the visual interest, and partly because of the sheer passion and virtuosity of their playing. There wasn’t a dud piece, although there were a couple I didn’t like so much. The whole of the second half was taken up with George Crumb’s Black angels, an intriguing mix of sound and images, starting with the four instruments hanging on nooses from the flies, swaying gently. The players contribute vocal noises and play drums as well as the quartet instruments, and part way through the lights come up on three sets of wine glasses, which they also play, producing an other worldly kind of sound. At several points in the piece, three players come together on the stage and play (unamplified) some ghostly echoes of early music – nostalgic and haunting, somehow both suggesting the roots of the music and at the same time conveying a sense of loss and sadness.