Saturday 28 April 2012

Rienzi at Deutsche Oper, or, Not Quite the Conflagration I Was Banking On

Wagner's Rienzi is rarely performed. It is now quite clear to me why. This an apprentice work which has deservedly fallen into obscurity. Deutsche Oper performed a heavily cut version clocking in at some two and a half hours. The original premiere apparently lasted six. All I can say is, Lord preserve me from ever having to listen to it.

The basic problem is very very simply. This is a distinctly uninspired score. It doesn't quite invite the remark made by cabaret duo Kit and the Widow about Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard (“We wanted to pay tribute to the big tune in Sunset Boulevard...the trouble is we couldn't find one). Wagner does have one big tune. Unfortunately he has already used it by the end of the overture (and on several occasions thereafter). Elsewhere there is the occasional moment when one is deceived that something musically engaging is going to happen, but it doesn't really. Instead the evening plods on, and on, and...well you get the idea.

For once no blame can really be attached to the production, although again the highpoint comes during the overture which features Hitler/Mussolini (there is some merging of historical personages at work here) sitting in Berchtesgarden, conducting a gramophone. Thereafter we are on a gradually declining slope from chaos of Weimar, through Fuhrer rallies and disastrous war to the Bunker. Torsten Kerl in the title role becomes nicely deranged – his bulging eyes in the filmed sections are especially notable. The chorus keep on stoically in a production which often by its positioning did not appear to be doing their sound and precision any favours. Generally, visually, it looks fine, but it can't rescue the score. It also has to be said that things become a tad confused and repetitive after the interval. After you have seen Kerl hammily delivering a speech once the novelty value is past. In addition, the management of personnel is problematic – Adriano apparently fails to assassinate Rienzi, is then locked up in the bunker (fully in view of the audience) but soon emerges having without difficulty escaped to try and persuade Irene to flee. The final disappointment comes at the conclusion when, given the bunker setting, I had anticipated some fire – there is sadly none to be seen and quite frankly this is a opera that badly needs some such visual excitement by this point!

Friday 27 April 2012

There's Runnicles – Jenufa at Deutsche Oper, or Christof Loy makes very nearly good

In advance, the odds of this performance scoring with me were finely balanced. On the one hand the man himself was in the pit and conducting possibly my favourite of all Janacek's opera scores. On the other, the director was Christof Loy, whose ROH Tristan I detested. In addition, the last time I saw this live at the Coliseum in the unusually excellent David Alden production, I found it an overpowering experience, and such a memory can often overshadow the next live performance of a work one hears. I'm pleased therefore to be able to report that, by Act Three, this performance had brought tears to my eyes.

Both conductor and director took a little time to settle. Indeed Loy nicely confused my brother who came out of the first act convinced that everyone was being doubled. This was an understandable confusion, partly because without English surtitles the specifics can become blurred, but also because of the way Loy deployed his personnel which in this act was not conducive to clarity. His big opening idea is that we start with the Kostelnicka in prison. This adds very little, Loy blends her back into the action in a rather muddled way and from then on we see no more of this so that one really wonders why he bothered: the more so given that the rest is a fairly minimalist production focused on effective direction of the protagonists. The white house, in which most of the action plays, does have a rather moveable rear wall, a little reminiscent of the pointless curtain in the ROH Tristan, but it functions here far more effectively. A few sparse landscapes are shown beyond the house – a telegraph line with a cornfield beneath it in Act One, changed to snow covered for the later acts – but basically we are confined within the house in a remarkably similar way to the Alden setting at ENO.

Monday 23 April 2012

Kozena, Kaufmann, Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker's dazzling Carmen

Berlin's Philharmonie impressed me greatly on my last visit, both for its design and its acoustic. If anything, my second trip leaves me more impressed. Initially I was concerned we'd been shortchanged on our tickets: pretty well side on with many of the band facing away, this did not seem like the second price bracket from the top. And yet excellent seats they proved to be, not only providing a fine view of both conductor and soloists but also seemingly not suffering acoustically. Sit in the nearest equivalent seat in Edinburgh's Usher Hall and you'll struggle to hear the cellos properly.

We were there to hear a concert performance of Bizet's opera Carmen, conducted by Simon Rattle and with soloists Magdalena Kozena and Jonas Kaufmann in the lead roles. It is far from being my favourite opera, but when performed as well as this, it made for a thrilling evening.

Wednesday 18 April 2012

Babes in Arms at The Union, or A Show to Make You Smile

Note: This is a review of the first preview on Wednesday 18 April. Press Night is Friday 20th April.

Note: This review carries a shameless plugs tag because the Music Director was a member of my old Edinburgh theatre society, though after I had left.

I booked for this show with a mixture of hope and anxiety. I previously saw Babes in Arms in the magnificent 2007 production (as an aside it is an indication of the flaws of the West End that the Chichester Singin' in the Rain was transferred there and Babes was not). My more observant readers may have noticed that I am notoriously picky, and I have a theory that the second time you see a show when the first time you were knocked out presents particular challenges. The novelty has worn off, and you have a strong memory against which to compare the new team. I'm delighted therefore to be able to report that this ensemble completely won me over. Yes there are a few rough edges. Yes a few voices are still settling into their roles. But there are some standout performances already, and if you don't come out of the theatre whistling some of the many fine tunes and smiling broadly then you're clearly even more cummudgeonly than me and there is no help for you.