Saturday 29 December 2012

Highs and Lows of 2012

We've reached that time of year again...

Best Opera: Not as good a year as 2011. Honorable mentions go to Aldeburgh Music's marvellous Knussen double bill, the Opera North Norma and the Berlin Phil/Rattle/Kozena concert performance of Carmen but the palm goes to ENO's superb new production of John Adams's modern masterpiece The Death of Klinghoffer reviewed here. A work which, as I said at the time, deserves to be staged widely and to remain firmly in the repertoire.

Worst Opera: There was a lot of very indifferent opera in 2012 but most of it was badly flawed in one category rather than across the board. Thus ENO's Julius Caesar and the Bayreuth Tristan were both awful productions but had redeeming musical qualities. So the award goes to an opera which I didn't review at the time, the awful Judith Weir Miss Fortune at the Royal Opera back in the spring.

Best Play: It's been a real bonanza year for theatre, even if much of it has been inexplicably over-looked by other awarding bodies. Josie Rourke's opening season at the Donmar was of generally high quality. The National had a number of gems of which the beautifully acted, moving Moon on a Rainbow Shawl deserved way more plaudits than it received. Gatz and the Yugoslavian-Albanian Henry VI were in different ways fascinating. However there were three plays which stood head and shoulders above the rest in all departments: the West End revival of Long Day's Journey into Night, the Chichester Arturo Ui and the Hampstead 55 Days.

Worst Play: The biggest disappointment of 2012 was the Almeida King Lear of which I had high hopes this time last year, but it was just dull and unenvolving rather than awful (the Almeida in general I'm afraid had an indifferent year). Big and Small avoids the palm by virtue of the presence of Cate Blanchett. Several works at the Edinburgh International Festival unsurprisingly came close, but are just saved by the Chichester Heartbreak House which was regrettably poor in every department.

Sunday 23 December 2012

Where's Runnicles' favourite recordings issued in 2012

2012 has been a good year for recordings, of which more in a moment. However before I get onto that, I find I must rectify two omissions from last year's list. The first is Mark Elder and the Hallé's majestic account of Vaughan Williams' London Symphony. I'm not sure how this escaped my notice on release since I'm a fan of the Hallé's label. The disc is for me the more impressive as I'm not the world's greatest Vaughan Williams fan, yet my first impulse on listening to it was to put it on again immediately.

The second omission is this BIS disc of Anders Hilborg works. This is actually a fortuitous omission since it ties in nicely to one of the themes of my music buying this year, which has shifted heavily towards digital downloads, which the independent labels do far better. I came across this via the eClassical store (which I've written about extensively here), and after staring at the intriguing cover image for a while, decided to give it a go. The four works on the disc are all performed by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, but with different conductors (Esa Pekka Salonen, Alan Gilbert and Sakari Oramo). King Tide, for which Oramo is on duty, is probably my favourite, fascinating because it feels both organic in the way the climaxes grow but also industrial at the same time. Hillborg creates generally energetic and intriguing sound worlds. He writes well for all sections of the orchestra and often yields a sound somewhat akin to a synthesiser, perhaps unsurprising given the liner notes mention a background in electronic music. (I mean that as a compliment, incidentally.) At times frantic, tranquil or muscular, and moving effortlessly between, it is an impressive disc and Hillborg is definitely a composer to watch.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

The Effect at the National, or, Yours Truly Wonders What Fellow Critics Are On

This show, I discovered on re-reviewing the reviews this morning, was even more overwhelmingly praised than I had thought. I cannot for the life of me think why. Of course, from my point of view it started with two big handicaps. The director was Rupert Goold, who has as yet failed to impress me, and the female lead was Billie Piper, who with my Doctor Who fan hat on made me grit my teeth in annoyance almost more than one or two particularly infamous companions of the classic series I could mention. Nevertheless, I retain, I hope, the capacity to have my prejudices overcome. Goold, Piper and their fellow collaborators largely failed to achieve this.

I didn't see Lucy Prebble's ENRON so I can't compare the two works, but this play for me committed a cardinal sin. It is a play about issues. Rather too many issues frankly including the nature of love, the morality of the drugs companies, the problems involved in tackling depression, or helping someone who is suffering from depression. These issues require a great deal of talk. Now I like a play with a message (see 55 Days or the best of Shaw when he's well done), but Prebble makes the mistake of sacrificing character for issues. The result was one which I have remarked on before and which is usually fatal for me in terms of my view of a piece, apart from one or two fleeting moments I didn't give a damn about any of the people on stage. I would also note that very similar subject matter has been far more effectively treated in the musical Next to Normal which sadly never made it to London.

The performers are nothing to write home about either. They're all perfectly solid, but nothing really leapt out and took me by the throat, though it is only fair to say they aren't helped by the material. Piper and Anastasia Hille as the depressed doctor have moments which do suggest that with a better script they could really shine, but it's not enough to save the evening.

Sunday 16 December 2012

The SCO present two Weber concertos for the price of one

Saturday's concert, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's last of 2012, is one of those I have been most looking forward to this season. It did not disappoint.

The reason for my interest was the two Weber concertos at its centre. Now, I am not especially a fan of Weber per se, nor do I know either the clarinet or bassoon concertos terribly well. What made this an interesting programme was the presence of two of the SCO's principals as soloists. This is a good prospect for several reasons. First, the orchestra is fortunate to have a number of exceptional players on hand. Indeed, last year when a newspaper waxed lyrical that the Berlin Philharmonic was hands down the best in the world and cited fine solos as evidence, my response (having attended the same series of concerts that prompted the piece) was that if offered the choice I wouldn't swap the SCO principals for theirs. Secondly, and because of this talent, it's nice to see them given the chance to do a little bit more.

Bassoonist Peter Whelan had his turn first. A few years ago we were treated to his reading of the Mozart concerto and he proved himself no less adept with Weber. Whelan has a beautifully rich tone to his playing and that was much in evidence, especially during the slow movement. In the outer movements Weber provided fiendishly rapid runs which were as breathtaking to listen to as one images they were to play, but Whelan was more than a match for them.  Beneath him the orchestra, under Pablo Gonzalez, provided well judged accompaniment, never in danger of swamping the soloist but packing ample punch where needed.

Meyerbeer's Robert le diable at the Royal, or, A Justified Revival

The opera year in London has ended with both major companies reviving neglected works: Vaughan Williams's The Pilgrim's Progress at English National Opera and Meyerbeer's Robert le diable at the Royal Opera House. Critical reaction to the former was largely positive, to the latter largely negative, and one has a slight sense that one of those critical mood swings is in progress with ENO on the rise after a long period of very justifiable criticism. The distinction in reaction is not in my view justified, and I'll come back to why at the end of the review.

Much to my surprise, I very much enjoyed the Meyerbeer. First of all there's Laurent Pelly's production. The visual colour and the flexible design is wonderfully refreshing – I have sat through far too many eyesore productions this season. Personally I thought the still life horses and knights for the tournament work beautifully (I slightly wondered if Pelly had seen A Knight's Tale), the mountainside that reverses to become the graveyard is a clever bit of flexible set, and the final tableau of Act III with Purgatory suddenly conjured among the graves was especially striking. For a moment or two in Act IV I could see why some critics had complained about the mobile set, but actually the pay-off of that movement creates an effective final image and you've got to do something because one of Meyerbeer's problems is that he's very bad at endings. I've also seen complaints about, I think, Monty Pythonesque knights, but I think a bit of tongue in cheek around the whole enterprise is no bad thing – god help you if you tried to play the thing entirely straight. Also worthy of mention are the effective video designs of Claudio Cavallari. Away from the visuals Pelly also scores with me by being a director who is not frightened of stillness. One of my bugbears is over-fussy movement, and the inability to create telling relations between people through their physical positioning, and Pelly did a good job in both those departments.

The only area which doesn't work is the choreography of Lionel Hoche. There are two issues with this. The cluttered tomb set for Act III Scene 2 looks good but is rather a minefield for the poor dancers making effective variety of movement near impossible to achieve. Within that limitation I just didn't think that Hoche made his zombie nuns debauched enough, although this is another place where Meyerbeer's limits as a composer are shown up.

Monday 10 December 2012

Opera on Screen - The Met's Un Ballo in Maschera

I dithered about buying a ticket for this. My last try of a cinema relay of classical music was the Berlin Philharmonic performing Bruckner, where I felt that it just wasn't possible to achieve a sufficiently close approximation of the experience of hearing Bruckner live to make it satisfying. I also noticed that this production was directed by David Alden, whose work I do not generally care for. But in the end curiousity got the better of me, plus the fact that I want to support the Lincoln Odeon now that they've decided to bring in the Met Relays for the first time. Overall, I was very glad I went.

The sound worked much better for this than for the Berlin Philharmonic. Clearly you are never going to recreate the precise experience of live performance in a cinema but I actually thought they got pretty near it. There certainly wasn't any moment when I felt the sound was detrimental to my enjoyment of the music. I did wonder if one factor was the screening taking place in one of the small cinemas at the Odeon rather than the vast space we were in for the Berlin concert.

I also take my hat off to the Met's broadcast team. I'm not generally a fan of Deborah Voigt as a singer these days but she makes a good presenter for this – although inevitably some of the singers were more interesting to listen to than others. There was an additional treat in getting to hear Joyce DiDonato rehearsing for Maria Stuarda (to be broadcast in January), and an unintentionally hilarious interview with David Alden in which he insisted on all sorts of things about the production which I have to say were not very apparent to me.

Monday 3 December 2012

Carmen at ENO, or, God preserve us from mediocrity

The return of Calixto Bieto to the Coliseum is a rather interesting phenomenon. His previous appearances there appeared at the time to contribute to the regrettable sacking of Nicholas Payne. The second of those two appearances, his production of Verdi's A Masked Ball was however the only production of his I've seen which I thought really worked. I also saw several others during the McMaster era in Edinburgh including a very boring version of a Spanish play by the name of Celestina and an unsuccessful relocation of Hamlet to the Palace nightclub. So I bought a ticket for this one mainly because I have developed a certain academic interest in watching the on-going saga of the Berry years.

It also has to be said that to wow me with this particular opera faced other challenges. It isn't a score I'm particularly keen on (this is the first time I've seen it staged in many years of opera going, and I don't think I shall be rushing to see it staged again). Further, I was privileged to hear it performed in Berlin in April by the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle, and with a cast led by Jonas Kaufmann and Magdalena Kozena. That was an outstanding evening (reviewed here by my esteemed brother). I'm afraid this performance didn't get near it.

Let us start with Bieto's production. This has divided critics into those who've raved and those who've loathed. Last night some debate unfolded on my Twitter timeline after one Telegraph critic announced that he had walked out in the interval. I can't really see any good reason for walking out of this for the simple reason that little of interest happens. In fairness to Bieto there are a couple of nice ideas – the big bull sign which is dismembered during the prelude to Act Four, followed by a bit of make believe bullfighting with the head is clever, and the encircling of Carmen and Jose in a bullring for their final confrontation likewise. But beyond that I found it a boring afternoon. There was little in the way of dramatic tension or erotic heat generated between the various protagonists, and Carmen's escape at the end of Act I was particularly unconvincing. More seriously, Bieto appears to regard all the sex in the show as being rather nasty and seedy. Well, I don't say this isn't a reasonable viewpoint but the problem is that it makes it rather difficult to care about any of the characters. I didn't find Carmen in the lest bit seductive, and couldn't really see why the men were falling over themselves to bed her. There were also the usual bits of incoherent staging – the opening chorus sings about all the people crossing the square – despite the fact that there's nobody else there, and when Escamillo enters in Act Four he comes in behind the chorus although they are apparently watching him out in the auditorium. Generally, I found Bieto's handling of the chorus ineffective.