Monday 28 May 2012

The Cunning Little Vixen at Glyndebourne, or, Once More Magic

As with last year's extraordinary Meistersinger, this new Glyndebourne production has attracted at least two carping reviews. For my money these are just as inexplicable as were the same persons criticisms a year ago.

Director Melly Still passes my ultimate test for an operatic director in this production. She convinced me that she had read the libretto and listened to the music and that an understanding of both those components informed her whole conception. Assisted by Tom Pye's sets, Dinah Collin's costumes, Paule Constable's lighting, Maxine Doyle's choreography and above all by Vladimir Jurowski's spot on reading of the score this is a true complete operatic evening in which stage, pit and performers form an organic whole.

This successful construction is begun by a beguilingly beautiful set. In the centre, stretching pretty much the height of the Glyndebourne stage is a large tree made of a whole series of pieces of wood, in which perch the observant birds. Behind it stretching up within the hillside is a twisting tunnel which doubles through the show as Badger/Vixen's underground burrow, human trackways through the forest, and in the final moving moments a path perhaps to whatever might lie beyond. The subtle changes of the seasons which are so integral to this story are picked out with spot on use of lighting and the simplest of stage effects – the fall of leaves, the billowing of snowy sheets. And the pacing of those effects perfectly matches the tempi of the score.

Thursday 24 May 2012

Antigone at the National Theatre, or It's All in the Delivery

Note: This is a review of the second Preview performance. Press Night is on Wednesday 30th May.

The life lessons I gleaned from this show can be summed up in three statements:

1) It is an almost infallible rule (the only exception I can immediately think of being the original London Into the Woods) that putting a clock which changes time during the show on stage is a serious mistake.

2) “There is no hatred more terrible than that of two people who used to love each other.” As someone who has endured an unpleasant divorce I know this to be all to sadly true.

3) It's all in the delivery.

Life Lesson No.3 became apparent because almost nobody manages to deliver the text effectively in this show. There is such a widespread problem of odd pauses and emphases as to make me wonder if some kind of foolish directorial instruction has been given, but whether actors or director are responsible swift action is required. For in much of this play everything depends on one believing what one is being told. The chorus has to make you see the things they describe. They have to make you believe in their fears. There are occasional flashes of this but nowhere near enough. Another factor may well have been the decision to split the chorus's lines around an ensemble of ten. None of them are given much individuality by costuming or direction, or enough lines to really establish their presence. They fade in, speak a few lines (too often to little effect) and fade out again.

Flora the Red Menace in Walthamstow, or, Break Heart, I prithee Break

I first saw this show in a production by the Dundee Rep at the Edinburgh Lyceum in 2004. I fell for it then and have been a devoted advocate ever since, an absolute believer that Kander and Ebb's first collaboration is a musical theatre masterpiece. I was thus thrilled when I saw that a London fringe production was being put on (the first professional production in the city in 17 years and, as far as I'm aware the first professional production in the UK since Dundee in 2004). As I say I was thrilled, but I was also afraid that I would be disappointed. Thankfully this was not the case. Everything in this production is not perhaps as it would be in my ideal staging. The company is not as uniformly well cast as might be desirable. But there is plenty to like in both, overall they allow this great work to shine, and, above all, this is an evening blessed with a stunning performance by Katy Baker in the lead role (deservedly nominated for an Offie).

For those who don't know this work, it is set in depression era New York and follows the attempt of our heroine Flora to get a start in life (alongside a community of her friends), and as a result her meeting and romance with Harry who turns out to be a Communist. Both book and lyrics are often witty, and the musical includes, for my money, some of Kander and Ebb's best numbers including Flora's introductory 'The Kid Herself', Harry's paean to the Communist party ('Sign Here'), and the little gem of a trio 'Where Did Everybody Go'. And yet this show has not entered the mainstream and remains better known for giving Liza Minnelli her start.

Saturday 19 May 2012

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau Remembered

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau died on 18th May 2012, a little over a week before his 87th birthday. He was without doubt one of the finest lieder and opera singers of his, or indeed any, generation. I will leave the writing of obituaries to others, but I thought I would put together some of my favourite recordings. The result can found in this Spotify playlist:

Wonderful Town, or it pains me to say this, but...

I wanted to love this performance, I really did. In fairness everybody on stage and in the pit are giving it their all, and that includes the most problematic performer of whom I shall have cause to say more later. But beyond that particular issue there is something broader that isn't quite right with this show, and when I observed that both choreographer and designer were also involved with last year's Singin in the Rain, the nature of the broader issue became clearer. It isn't that anything in design or choreography is mistaken but somehow that quality of naturalness, of humanity – that thing that makes you feel this story is being lived now before your eyes just wasn't quite there. Now it is true that this performance had a very tough benchmark to live up to as the last time I saw this show was in the marvellous Broadway revival with the incomparable Donna Murphy as Ruth and Gregg Edelman as Bob. However, I think this performance could have come a lot closer, even with the caveat already mentioned, but for the other elephant in the room.

For the sad, harsh truth is that Connie Fisher is not good enough to play Ruth Sherwood. This is not for lack of effort on her part. She tries to project the necessary personality which done right should make the character the electric centre of every scene she's in, but she just doesn't have it. And there is a more serious problem – the state of Fisher's voice. Despite miking it simply isn't strong enough for this kind of lead performance, and this is sadly exposed every time she's in a duet situation – Lucy van Gasse (Eileen), Michael Xavier (Bob) and Tiffany Graves (Helen) all sing her off the stage. If Fisher were able to compensate for vocal weakness with stage presence it might have been okay but as already noted that presence just isn't sufficiently there.

Monday 14 May 2012

Globe to Globe's Balkan Henry VI, or Shakespeare transcends the Language Barrier

You're going to all three parts of Henry VI in three different Balkan languages? Are you mad? That is what I suspect most people would have said to me had I informed them this was what I was up to yesterday. However, after some early qualms when I gathered the surtitles would only indicate scenes and characters I can say it was a fascinating, for long stretches enthralling, day, which I would have been very sorry to have missed.

We started with the National Theatre of Serbia in Part One which they dismissed in two hours. There was some fine Shakespearean delivery from the start with Predrag Ejus's delivery of the Bishop of Winchester's eulogy on the deceased Henry V. Excellent use was made of the set of metal tables and chairs, for sound effects, for emphasising the division of kingdoms, for allowing ambush parties to rise up from beneath and drag bodies to their doom. Indeed one of the things that not understanding the language makes one appreciate far more is the movement and gesture. In this first part I was also much beguiled by Talbot's duel with Joan of Arc (or rather with the whole of the rest of the company), and her trial scene. However the highlight was the comedy turn of two messengers (I think but can't be absolutely certain played by Pavle Jerinic and Bojan Krivokapic). I can't recall how these figure in the original text, but having in the opening scene given us two nicely disputed versions of events in France, they rounded off this interpretation with a mostly mimed summation of the genealogy of the plot thus far – the payoff being that in a final attempt to get everything clear they deploy Henry V's ashes (which sat balefully overlooking proceedings through the rest of the play) as a prop, with predictable but entertaining results. All in all it was an auspicious beginning.

Sunday 13 May 2012

The Flying Dutchman at ENO, or in which the ship just never quite sets sail

This ENO production has been widely praised. It left me completely cold and fairly unimpressed. Pondering this overnight, I do think it is possible that going straight from Glass on Friday to Wagner last night simply overloaded my system and I was just not in the right place to get on with this performance. I also think it's possible that my ears were spoilt for this by having so recently heard really first rank Wagner under the baton of the man himself in Berlin. Finally, I conclude that this is an opera that I just do not like very much. Allowing for all these caveats, let me try and explain why for me this evening did not work.

The first issue is the work itself. This is only the second time I've heard it live. The previous occasion was the last time ENO mounted it in the unsuccessful elastic band production. It didn't make much impression muscially on me then, and a second hearing has not changed my mind. It does not seem to me that the Dutchman shows much evidence of Wagner having developed beyond the thin inspiration of Rienzi, and I find it interesting that the far more developed and fascinating Tannhauser fails to hold a comparable place in the repertoire.

The second issue is the problematic question of benchmarks. Quite a few of my recent Wagnerian performances have been truly musically great – in this category I would include the Berlin Lohengrin, the Glyndebourne Meistersinger, the Royal Opera Tannhauser and Lohengrin – all of them were strong (in two cases extremely powerfully so) in production terms. I just do not think that this performance/production of The Flying Dutchman got near that category. In a sense it seemed to me to illustrate the gulf that exists between the Coliseum and those other companies. Now you can of course argue that those other companies have greater resources, can employ the best singers and conductors in the world and so on and so forth. Perhaps the comparison is an unfair one, but I found it last night inescapable.

Friday 11 May 2012

Einstein on the Beach, or, Satirising the Form will Carry You Only So Far

I had in my head written a number of openings to this review before I left for the show (which of course one is not supposed to do). Given what I had read about it I anticipated ripping it to shreds as it seemed likely to fail fundamental requirements for my having an enjoyable evening. I even thought that it might finally be the show to shift the legendary Edinburgh Festival Three Sisters off its podium as worst show a Pollard has ever endured. But my reaction to it was nowhere near as extreme as this. I was neither bored out of my mind, nor ecstatic. There are a number of interesting, even some striking, things in this show but it does not stand up to four and a bit unremitting hours of scrutiny.

The first point that has to be acknowledged is that this is an opera. Some may well be discomforted by the idea of placing this piece alongside such operatic luminaries as Mozart and Wagner but it is I'm afraid inescapable. Glass clearly has a knowledge of the form – arias, choruses, orchestral interludes are all to be found here.

To a certain extent the way this piece plays with operatic conventions and styles is engaging. The libretto is (until the very last scene) almost entirely meaningless – or at least extremely ambiguous – and there are plenty of operatic librettos that are not far from that or are nearly rendered to that state by being set to music. Numbers are placed in no particular order, cannot reinforce emotions or plot (because basically there is none of either) and again, as the piece goes on one feels that, on one level, a big joke is being had at the expense of the unrealism of the form.

Tuesday 1 May 2012

There's Runnicles, Don Carlo at Deutsche Oper or A Dramatic Reading Triumphs Over the Odd Obstacle

My brother came out of this production cursing the director and indifferent about much of the singing. From the perspective of the head I could to some extent see his points, but I found this performance so dramatically compelling that flaws which on another night might have had me cursing too faded into insignificance.

This was the more remarkable as the version which Runnicles chose to perform here was the significantly truncated four act version. The first time I saw Don Carlos staged was in the classic David Pountney production at the Coliseum, sadly never revived. On that occasion the five act version was performed, including not just the Fontainbleau Act which is now usually included but also the opening chorus of lamenting French peasantry. I am a firm advocate for the inclusion of both these elements, and I above all think that if performing the Fontainbleau Act you should never omit the chorus whatever version you are using as it gives crucial dramatic point to Elizabeth's acceptance of Philip. In last night's performance, we began in the monastery at St Juste. It says a great deal for the dramatic cogency and musical power of the performance which followed that I forgave the truncation.