Saturday 30 June 2012

Billy Budd at ENO, or Britten, Gardner and the ENO Chorus and Orchestra Triumph over Others' Inadequacies

I bought a ticket for this show with considerable misgivings. Unlike others I detested both previous efforts by the Alden brothers to direct Britten – Peter Grimes and A Midsummer Night's Dream). But Billy Budd holds a special place in my affections. I find it an extraordinarily powerful work which is not performed nearly as often as it should be. Indeed I would argue that it deserves to be as prominent in the repertory as Grimes, and in the end the opportunity to hear it live again was too enticing to pass up. Overall, the evening was worth it.

The best thing about this performance was the quality of the singing and playing from the ENO Chorus and Orchestra. The augmented male chorus produce a volume of sound which took me back to the glory days of the house. The orchestra deliver a blinding account of the score shaped mostly compellingly by Edward Gardner on the podium. His shaping is perhaps not quite as absolutely spot on as Elder's was at Glyndebourne in 2010 but it's pretty damn close.

In terms of the individual roles things are a little more uneven – but many of them are not helped by the problematic production. Darren Jeffrey (Flint), Henry Waddington (Ratcliffe) and Jonathan Summers (Redburn) bring off the trial scene effectively and Summers announcing the execution in the final scene was chilling. Gwynne Howell's Dansker got a bit swamped in the final scene of Act 1 but elsewhere his singing has real humanity and he radiated presence despite the oddities of the direction. Nicky Spence's Novice has garnered considerable critical praise – he sings the part well but I found his acting post-flogging unconvincing and he was particularly hampered by the costuming and make-up which to my eyes made him look like something out of a Hammer horror film. The off stage sailors were well sung.

Friday 29 June 2012

Dr Dee at ENO, or Pageantry is no Substitute for Heart (or indeed Score)

One of the mantras of ENO's Artistic Director John Berry has been his desire to get new audiences into the opera house (he has often seemed less concerned with retaining his old ones). As such the chance to stage a new 'opera' by former Blur frontman Damon Albarn must have seemed like the answer to his wildest dreams. For this member of the old ENO audience the evening raises two rather tricky questions: Whether it is a) an opera and b) deserving of a staging in one of London's two subsidised opera houses.

However, let us start with the positives. This is a show which looks stunning. Indeed “Dr Dee: A Pageant” would be a rather more appropriate advertisment than “Dr Dee: An Opera”. The flexible books enlarging to walls or imitating slinkies, the massed ships of the English fleet (though I was irresistibly reminded of Stephen Oliver and Tim Rice's Richard I setting off on crusade in Blondel to a much better tune), and the stereotyped English dancers throwing themselves backwards into the void were particular highlights...not to mention the gratuitious use of birds (feathered) at start and end.

The trouble is that visual sumptuousness will carry you only so far and regrettably everything else in this show sags. It isn't infuriating, it isn't badly done, it just isn't very interesting and it failed the key Dr Pollard test of making me care about the protagonists. In short, God save us from the mediocre.

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Aldeburgh 2012: Ives Symphonies, or, Going out with a Bang (well quite a few bangs really)

The 2012 Aldeburgh Festival ended on Sunday with one of those large forces extravaganzas that might have been specifically written for just such a purpose. It also ended with a European premiere, which makes it rather interesting that the whole enterprise seemed to have escaped the attention of the BBC.

The programme was made up of Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, and two symphonies by American oddity Charles Ives, his moderately well-known Second (though it was completely new to me) and his Universe Symphony (the aforementioned European premiere). Under the direction of Ives scholar James Sinclair, an enormous number of student musicians from the Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra, the Britten-Pears Orchestra, Aldeburgh Young Musicians, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the Royal College of Music and the University of London Symphony Orchestra threw themselves into the performance with gusto.

A word first about the Universe Symphony. Ives only completed a Prelude and two movements – in fact reading the detailed programme note by Sinclair it seems more accurate to say that one movement (Earth) is complete and this was followed in this performance by a Coda originally intended to form part of the Heaven movement. There have been attempts at completion but this was apparently the most that can be performed while remaining 'true' Ives as it were.

Saturday 23 June 2012

Aldeburgh 2012: From Darkness into Joy and Light

Towards the end of Brian McMaster's tenure at the Edinburgh Festival he devised a brilliant series of late evening concerts and other performances under the sponsorship of the Royal Bank of Scotland – the Royal Bank Lates. Since his departure the late night performance has rather disappeared from Edinburgh programmes and excepting the OAE's Late Shift isn't much in evidence elsewhere, so it was lovely to be reminded on Friday night in Leiston what a sense of magic performing at that time can bring to a show.

Before Life and After was a site specific combination of film with three song cycles for tenor and piano in the Long Shop Museum in Leiston. The film element, and the direction of the tenor were both provided by Netia Jones fresh from her triumph with the Knussen Double Bill which opened the Festival. This is the third site specific performance Jones has undertaken at the Aldeburgh Festival and I had heard glowing reports of both the previous two. The song cycles, Britten's Winter Words, excerpts from Finzi's A Young Man's Exhortation and Tippett's Boyhood's End, were performed by James Gilchrist (tenor) and Anna Tilbrook (piano). The music was all new to me and I was especially glad to discover the Britten and the Hardy poems which it sets – particularly 'Before Life and After'.

The venue was well chosen. With its beamed roof high overhead, glimpses of the darkening sky through the odd pane of glass and a steam engine concealing the piano it is a visually striking space with what proved to be a suitably resonant acoustic. The images generally fitted well with the texts of the songs and were linked to some nicely judged acting from James Gilchrist as a station master coming, I presumed we were supposed to imagine, towards the end of long service on the Aldeburgh-Leiston branch line as the axe of closure falls.

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Aldeburgh 2012 - Britten's GPO Films

Parts of Britten's work on the soundtracks of some thirty odd documentaries and adverts made by the GPO film unit in the 1930s are pretty well know, especially those which set Auden's verses such as Night Mail and The Way to the Sea. Yet they come from an intense period at the very start of the composer's career and many of them are much less well known, which begged the question of whether they would be sufficient to fill more than two hours of concert programming. The answer, in the hands of Nicholas Collon, the Aurora Orchestra and Sam West, was emphatically yes.

Getting them to the stage in the first place was not an entirely straightforward process, as Collon explained at a talk earlier in the day. The scores exist, but as is the way with the process of editing films, the existing scores do not precisely match up with the existing pictures. Bigger complications were to be found in some of Britten's more adventurous percussion choices: the cart drawn along an asbestos surface is no longer practical. Fortunately, the work that had gone into re-editing and re-scoring paid off and, as narrator Sam West assured us, no percussionists were injured. Indeed, the live concert setting ensured Britten's scores could be heard rather better than they are on the original films, which not only suffer the sorts of issues of fidelity one would expect of recordings made nearly eighty years ago, but also some decidedly ropey playing in places.

However, the programme opened without a film, but instead with the score to Men Behind the Meters, the print having been lost. As Collon himself remarked, it is not typical Britten. Indeed, the first part sounded almost like the sort of muzak you might get in a not very good restaurant. It's rather a pity we couldn't see what pictures it was meant to serve.

Monday 11 June 2012

Aldeburgh Festival 2012: The Alienating Manner of Peter Serkin

It has been some little while since I came out of the first half of a recital feeling quite so irritated. The pianist Peter Serkin had not especially wowed me when performing with the SCO at Saturday's concert, but I had certainly not anticipated my unusually extreme reaction to him flying solo.

The first problem with this recital was the basic programme. Serkin had chosen to combine a 55 minute first half of contemporary works by Knussen, Goehr, Takemitsu and Wuorinen with Beethoven's hour long Diabelli Variations. In any hands I suspect this would have been a challenging combination to bring off, Serkin's manner for me made it a real endurance test.

Things began innocuously enough with Knussen's Variations. This passed my first test for any piece of new, or in this case comparatively new (1989), music heard for the first time – my attention was engaged and I felt I would like to hear it again. Thereafter the trouble started. Returning to perform the Goehr, Serkin seemed to pause for an excessive period of time before commencing the piece. The same thing happened again before (and indeed at the end) of the other three items in the first half. At the start of pieces one felt as if Serkin was waiting for there to be complete silence and indeed if it did not arrive that we might be waiting there all night. Such silence is particularly difficult to achieve in the Maltings where the seats naturally creak. Whereas on Saturday, Knussen's determination to hold stillness after pieces felt like a request, a suggestion, Serkin's felt like an order, and not one that his playing had moved me to naturally obey. The problem was compounded by the fact that Serkin's style often left me uncertain (including at the end of the Beethoven) as to whether or not he had actually finished.

There's Runnicles - Lohengrin at Deutsche Oper

Last time we came to Berlin, it was to hear the man himself work his magic with Wagner's Ring, so it was good to hear him flex those same muscles again, this time in a new production of Lohengrin.

The title role had gone through several changes. Initially it was to be filled by Marco Jentzsch who did not impress as Walther in Glyndebourne's Meistersinger, then a few weeks before the run began it was announced that Klaus Florian Vogt would take his place. Unfortunately, the morning of the performance we attended found Vogt indisposed and Stefan Vinke standing in for him. You would not have known from his performance, so assured was his command both of the staging and of the vocal part. There were occasional cracks in his voice but overall not much to quibble about in a strong reading. Most crucially, he held sufficient force in reserve to deliver a powerful final scene.

Sunday 10 June 2012

Aldeburgh 2012 - Knussen and the SCO play Ives, Goehr, Stravinsky and Berg (but not Knussen!)

Normally when I go to hear the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, they're kind enough to be playing at the Queen's Hall, a convenient two minutes or so from my front door. Sometimes I have to venture a little further when they present a bigger work at the Usher Hall, and very occasionally I'll make the trip over to Glasgow to hear them at City Halls. Since I can, and do, hear my local band all the time you might reasonably ask if it was worth coming all the way to Aldeburgh to do so. Of course, I haven't come to Aldeburgh just for them, but they were one of the items that made this first week appear the more compelling of the two when I was making my decision about when to visit. The Snape Maltings is one of my favourite concert halls in the world and its size and acoustic are an ideal fit for the SCO. Add to which, they were playing under the baton of Oliver Knussen, who conducts them regularly in Edinburgh and for whom they always play very well.

The concert did not disappoint. Well, leaving aside perhaps the slight regret that the Knussen premiere which should have been the centrepiece went unheard as it is unfinished at the time of writing - Aldeburgh will just have to get them back next year to play it! As Knussen himself noted in his witty and self-effacing acceptance speech when he was presented with the Critics' Circle award afterwards, he was "a little embarrassed that it takes place on the occasion of the non-delivery of another piece". But it would be wrong to dwell on that, since there was not the slightest sense that we had been musically short-changed.

Aldeburgh 2012 - Perényi plays Bach and more

It is generally quite nice to start an Aldeburgh festival day with some chamber music in a Suffolk church, and this proved especially true of Miklós Perényi's recital in Aldeburgh church on Saturday morning. His programme, the first of three this week, was built around two Bach cello suites, part of a complete cycle.

He opened with the first, in G major, BWV 1007, which received a compelling and unmannered performance. Perényi is not a cellist I have encountered before, but his technique is of the highest calibre. True, the reading might not have been as emotionally engaging as some, and certainly it was very different from what we might have heard from Rostropovich (whose previous fund-raising performance of the suites in the same venue was referred to in a brief speech before the concert started), though this is not necessarily a bad thing.

And he was not without charm as a performer, drawing the audience in in a nicely understated manner: every now and then there was a playful spark in his eye as he glanced out towards us, or a smile as he prepared to embark on a particular movement. Still, the second suite, or rather the fourth in E flat, BWV 1010, was more emotionally satisfying with the Sarabande and the second Bouree being especially moving, but in part that is because there is more weight to the work. Both performances left me feeling rather sorry that I won't be making it to the other concerts; but, as ever at a festival, you can't do everything. If you can make Monday and Tuesday's performances at Blythburgh church, they should be well worth the journey.

Saturday 9 June 2012

Aldeburgh Festival 2012: Knussen Double Bill, or, Fairy Tale Magic and Morals

After last summer's amazing Louis Lortie performance at the Snape Proms it was firmly in my mind to make it to some of this year's Aldeburgh Festival. Then the opening weekend was announced and I knew I couldn't miss it. I first discovered Oliver Knussen's two operatic one acters based on Maurice Sendak's childrens books from a BBC Proms television broadcast. I was sufficiently beguiled to buy the CD but I'd never had the opportunity to hear them live, so I have been looking forward to tonight's opening performance with great excitement. I was not disappointed.

The production by Netia Jones and Lightmap put many of those on our main stages this season to shame. Using some of the most imaginative animation I've ever seen and, at least as far as Where the Wild Things Are was concerned (I don't know the book of Higglety Pigglety Pop to be able to judge) staying very faithful to Maurice Sendak's original illustrations, Jones conjured up beguiling imaginary worlds. By themselves the visuals were beautiful, but what made the dramatic side of the evening was the near seamless interaction between cast and animations, whether it was Lucy Schaufer's Jennie biting leaves off an animated plant, or Claire Booth's Max kicking his animated bedroom door shut. We do not see that kind of detailed performance often enough in an operatic context. There was more wonder and drama and emotional punch in these two one acters than in much other opera I have seen this season.

Musically it was fascinating to really listen to these works in a live context once again. I realised how much my ear had changed, how much more music I've heard since that Proms broadcast which I think took place back in 2002. Then I remember being sucked in by the way Knussen set the words of Higglety Pigglety Pop – the simple yet so true meditations of the dog Jennie on how dissatisfied one can be even when one seems to have everything, the quest for “experience” - and the not realising one is getting it at the time. This time I felt I appreciated much more in Knussen's score including the humour – for example, the repeated chorus which ends Pop.

Thursday 7 June 2012

Caligula at ENO, or, A Dull Dictatorship

Concealed among the adverts at the back of the programme for this production is one which sadly reveals that there is a CD recording dating from roughly 2006 of this opera. I say sadly because had those making the artistic decision to stage this piece had only material on paper on which to base their decision it would have been more justifiable. Had they listened to it in advance a discerning ear might have paused.

The best writing in this score is in the orchestra, but this isn't saying a great deal. There are a couple of striking climactic moments but Glanert has problems with how to proceed after them. There's a not ineffective strangulation scene – a nice variation on the usual love duet, and a briefly melodious, almost poetic trio for Caligula, Caesonia and Scipio towards the conclusion of Act One. Otherwise the problem is, as others have observed, that Glanert doesn't seem to be able to write very effectively for voices – this is particularly exposed by the number of times they break into straight speech, and by a lack of differentiation between many of the parts.

But the problem with the evening is not simply confined to the score. The production's approach is mistaken. It's not so much a question of design (the basic set is a section of a stadium) or costuming (although that of the chorus becomes increasingly bizarre as things progress), or even the inevitable full frontal nudity, but of fundamental atmosphere. It's all very well, up to a point, to play up the bizarre, crazed silly side of Caligula's behavior. But that has to be matched to a sense of chill – one has to feel the threat beneath it all the time that, at any moment, he may decide that someone must be killed. It isn't that plenty of people don't get killed in this production – quite a few of them on stage – but it left me indifferent verging on bored. Now this is partly the text/music which is poor at engaging the emotions, but the staging could have done something to mitigate that and here Benedict Andrews and his team fail.

Tuesday 5 June 2012

The Physicists at the Donmar, or Proving that Plays that Preach are often Problematical

Note: This is a review of the preview performance on June 5, 2012. The press night takes place on June 7, 2012.

After the two blazingly good productions which opened Josie Rourke's tenure as artistic director at the Donmar (The Recruiting Officer and Making Noise Quietly) I had high hopes for this. There are good moments but as a whole it doesn't reach the same standards, though allowances must be made, at least as far as pacing is concerned, for the fact that it is still in previews.

The first issue is Durrenmatt's play. It starts off in decidedly comedic vein – indeed the first fifteen minutes as Inspector Voss struggles with euphemisms for murder are very enjoyable. But thereafter the comedy becomes sparser and sparser (although I loved the line - “the location is abominable but the air conditioning is excellent”). This would be okay if one felt the sense of sinister threat which seems to be implied by the text, and certainly by the final speeches, but somehow I just didn't. The ending struck me as preachy, and fell flat.

There are also problems with the performances. The centre of the play is that all the characters are finely balanced between sanity and madness and most of them are at the moment coming across as neither sufficiently mad nor sufficiently sane but too much on one level. Exceptions here are John Ramm's Detective Inspector (though he is perhaps assisted by mostly being the straight man to the lunatics) and Joanna Brooke's Nurse Boll who brings just the right implication of craziness into her manner and delivery. The three physicists of the title – Justin Salinger's Newton, Paul Bhattacharjee's Einstein and John Heffernan's Mobius are trying hard and all have some good stretches of delivery and manner – with a few more performances they may get it more completely right and this will probably help to carry the whole thing more successfully.

O'Neill's Long Day's Journey, or, A Masterclass in Every Sense

This production has been running in the West End for about two months now, and consequently just about every other reviewer has got to it before me. I don't have a lot to add to the praise which it has widely garnered, but I think it is important to record those rare occasions when one is lucky enough to see true mastery at work in live performance.

The mastery in the evening exists on two levels – the first is that of the play itself, the second that of performers and production. This is my fourth O'Neill play and I've really fallen for his writing. There's a wonderful poetry to it. Occasionally it can seem drawn out, perhaps a monologue a little too long, or a scene too extended but those moments of unevenness are part of his magic. Just surrendering to his world is a rich experience.

The performances in this revival are uniformly excellent. This is the first time I've seen David Suchet on stage and he was mesmerising. Two things especially struck me – his Act Four monologue which was one of those occasions when the whole theatre is just silent, hanging on every word, every pause, and the way that the Irish tinge to his voice becomes more pronounced as the evening, and the character's drunkenness draw on – the latter is a subtle thing, part of Suchet's deep performance. He is well matched by the crazed performance of Laurie Metcalf as his wife. I was really looking forward to seeing Metcalf again as she previously impressed me as the President's lesbian speech-writer in David Mamet's gem of a political satire November (when is somebody in London going to notice that Mamet has written a few things in the last few years and stage them over here?). Her performance in this production is testament to a remarkable range – it's a completely different kind of part and she is spot on. Again it's little things that stand out – the character has an awful lot of dialogue that has to come out at high tempo – Metcalf never loses the speed, the madness and yet every word is delivered with an extraordinary clarity. Also delivering excellent performances were three performers new to me – Trevor White and Kyle Soller as the sons and Rosie Sansom as the maid.