Tuesday 30 December 2014

Highs and Lows of 2014

It's that time of year again...and it hasn't been an especially vintage year...

Best Opera: Dialogues des Carmelites at the Royal Opera by a country mile. The only perfect marriage of production, work and performance this year. Honourable mention to Birtwistle's Yan Tan Tethera at the Barbican.

Worst Opera: There was plenty of indifferent stuff, particularly at the Royal Opera towards the end of the year where, thus far, the Holten regime is having more misses than hits, but nothing was truly awful.

Best Play: I saw a lot of indifferent theatre this year, and none of the London houses I regularly attend had an especially strong year, but one show stood out from it all – the stunning (and bafflingly ignored by other end of year round ups) My Night with Reg at the Donmar. A show that reminded, as so often, that strong characters and narrative still trump most everything else. It transfers to the West End in the new year and is unmissable. Honourable mention for EIF's The War in what was a uniquely good (in my 17 years experience) year for drama at the International Festival – visually stunning and ultimately moving.

Worst Play: Henry IV at the Donmar made a valiant effort to win in this category but just escapes by virtue of the presence of Harriet Walter. As a result the palm goes to a show I didn't review at the time, the dull, unconvincing Little Revolution at the Almeida.

Saturday 20 December 2014

The Merchant of Venice at the Almeida, or, Waiting in Vain for Revelation

I think I read this play at school, but it has not particularly stuck in my memory (I hadn't for example properly registered that “prick us do we not bleed” etc. is in it). I've only seen it staged once, in an Edinburgh Lyceum production of which I retain no particular memory. This performance convinced me that there are powerful and disturbing elements to the play. Unfortunately it also demonstrated that Rupert Goold as a director lacks the ability to make those elements tell.

My previous encounter with Goold and Shakespeare was his bafflingly over-praised kitchen-set Macbeth. His Merchant has more going for it but is, ultimately, not much more successful. This time Goold has relocated the play to Las Vegas. Or at least he's relocated about half the play there. After the interval, as the play darkens, although the basic set remains exactly the same (minus the slot machines, and with the Almeida's back wall exposed through the gaudy set) it is sadly unclear where we are, with unfortunate results for the play.

While the Vegas setting is being played up, the visuals (blue and gold colouring), the trappings (the aforementioned slot machines and card tables), the extras (Lancelot Gobbo's Elvis and a number of scantily clad women) present plenty of spectacle. The problem is there's insufficient behind it. For example. Antonio plays his opening scene with Bassanio seated at a card table losing chips. Presumably we're meant to link this with a wider narrative of ridiculous gambling – all those enterprises set forth, the insanity of the contract with Shylock. The programme notes, which I read afterwards, comment the play is sometimes seen as Shakespeare's “gay play” and looking back I can sort of see suggestions of this in Goold's reading. But none of it is fully developed, or knitted together into a convincing whole. Even more bizarre is Lorenzo's “abduction” of Jessica in which they are dressed up as the Adam West/Burt Ward Batman and Robin. There's no sense of the sort of mind or life story that either of them would need to come up with this scheme and, beneath that, their relationship is left frustratingly blank – what exactly is the feeling between them, why have they together agreed on this course of action? The result is that later Antonio's plight, and then Lorenzo/Jessica scenes where you feel Goold wants to suggest troubled relations don't pack the punch they ought because those well staged moments are built on such thin foundations. The same problem goes for just about every other character and relationship in the show.

Treasure Island at the National, or The Shallow Comedic Version

Shows often have a moment which encapsulates either everything that's right with them, or everything that's wrong. A recent example was the extraordinary dance sequence in the final act of My Night with Reg. In the National's new adaptation of Treasure Island, the moment comes in Act Two during the fight for the stockade (well I say fight but two bullets is about your lot). Those who've read the book will recall that as he's directing the defence Captain Smollett is hit, but not killed. In this adaptation he dies, sprawled on the front of the Olivier stage. It isn't just the textual liberty, nor the one dimensional nature of the writing of him which makes the moment go for nothing, but the ridiculously overdone chest wound with which make-up and costumes curse him – from Row D of the Stalls it was wholly unconvincing. When death becomes ludicrous in a pirate play you have, I would suggest, got a problem.

Now it is a long time since I read Treasure Island. And maybe I am misremembering it. But my recollection is of something which was very tense and exciting, with a strong sense of threat and convincing violence. Almost from the word go, this adaptation plays it for laughs. If I say there's more chill in the delivery of the Black Spot in Muppet Treasure Island (incidentally a film I love) you'll appreciate that things have gone sadly wrong here. Actually, comparing this to the Muppet version of the story is generally instructive. There's plenty of comedy there too – think of Sam the Eagle's terribly unsafe jolly boat, or Fozzie Bear's hapless Trelawney, or Stadtler and Waldorf saving the film by saving the pig and the frog or...I could go on and on. But the difference is that all their sillinesses are part of much deeper characterisations. There's so much more to them than just the comedic moments – whether it's Bryony Lavery's script or Polly Findley's direction, this staged version fails to make any of its adult characters (with passing but not sustained exceptions for Long John Silver and Ben Gunn) into anything other than shallow butts of jokes. As a result, and distinctly unlike in the original, I never had the slightest doubt that Jim (or Jemima) would win through in the end, and, more seriously, I increasingly felt that the various adults deserved to be killed because they were behaving with such impressive stupidity. Is there now some rule that a children's show should have no convincing adult characters in it – the National might next time like to call to mind His Dark Materials, full of powerful, rounded adult characters – and consider whether this rule needs a rethink. Incidentally, it also should be noted, that the jokes in this are generally not funny enough – leave out the payoff of the Mr Grey running gag and Ben Gunn's double identity and the pickings are regrettably thin.

Tuesday 9 December 2014

In Praise of Recognising and Rectifying a Mistake

Just under a month ago, the Edinburgh International Festival announced new booking arrangements for Festival 2015. First, that the programme would be released in two segments - concerts and recitals on 3rd February and the rest of the programme on 18th March. Second, that booking for the Festival would be similarly split. Here at Where's Runnicles we have long urged a return to earlier publication of information about the Festival programme (as used to occur during the McMaster era), so announcement of such earlier publication was very welcome. However, we were strongly opposed to the proposed staggering of booking which seemed to us to make more difficult rather than simplifying Festival planning (today's announcement suggests we were not alone). Personally as someone who travels some distance to attend the Festival, and whose Festival booking is a complex jigsaw trying to fit in concerts, staged opera, theatre and if I can find space a bit of dance I was especially concerned that the new arrangements would make much harder my kind of Festival. We raised these issues with the Festival via a number of avenues.

The Festival assured us that it was listening to concerns. In today's world, however, one does become cynical about that kind of statement. I was therefore both delighted and surprised to receive Fergus Linehan's announcement this evening that booking arrangements have been revised. Concerts and recitals will still be announced in February, but booking for them will not open until after the full programme has been released on 18th March.

We live in a society where organisations often seem reluctant either to admit they have made a mistake or to take meaningful action to remedy it. It therefore seemed important to publicly thank Fergus Linehan and the International Festival for responding so constructively on this issue. Personally, it's a relief that an obstacle to my Festival planning that I really wasn't looking forward to negotiating has been removed. Instead, I now look forward keenly to finding out what artistic riches the Festival has planned for 2015, and catching as many of them as possible.

Friday 31 October 2014

Henry IV at the Donmar, or Phyllida Lloyd Doubles Down

Note: This is a review of the performance on Tuesday 28th October 2014.

Back at the end of 2012 Phyllida Lloyd staged Julius Caesar at the Donmar with an all female company (review here). Despite the best efforts of Harriet Walter as Brutus it was not a success. The all-female casting had nothing to do with this, the problem was Lloyd's bizarre concept of setting the evening in a women's prison. This evening suggests that Lloyd is not a director to change her mind. We're back for two pretty interminable hours in the same setting, with even less to redeem it than last time round.

My irritation with the whole enterprise began when I received an e-mail on Saturday informing me that the performance was going to take place in a secure premises on Earlham Street and that I must present myself at the Seven Dials Club (42 Earlham Street) in order to be directed to these premises. What this in practice means is that you enter via the back stairs of the Donmar rather than through the normal front of house areas, and are confronted by uniformed FoH staff clearly intended to be impersonating police officers. I was thankful that I had learned from Julius Caesar and purchased a seat in the Circle as the horrible grey plastic chairs which were inflicted on Stalls patrons for that production were once more in evidence. This whole charade is annoying and as far as I was concerned thoroughly ineffectual in terms of persuading me that I was inside a prison. I did not start the show feeling particularly warm towards the enterprise.

Wednesday 29 October 2014

I Due Foscari at the Royal, or, Just Because You Can Do Things Doesn't Mean You Should

When the first attack of premature enthusiasm struck Monday's audience, pretty much as soon as the tenor had finished his first aria, I feared we were in for a long night. And so it proved.

It did not surprise me that this was only the thirteenth performance of I Due Foscari at the Royal Opera House. It is not one of Verdi's masterpieces, though I do think it would be possible to make a more convincing case for it. The major problem with the work is that so little happens. Foscari's son Jacapo is condemned to exile from Venice early in Act 1 but takes until the middle of Act 3 to actually go. It must surely qualify as one of the longest departure scenes in operatic history. To fill in the somewhat lengthy gap between decision and execution Jacopo (Francesco Meli), Mrs Jacopo (Maria Agresta) and Father Jacopo (Placido Domingo) sing a number of arias and ensembles bemoaning the miserable situation in which they find themselves. As a rehearsal for later Verdian struggles between public duty and private feeling it's mildly interesting, as a dramatic narrative in itself it really isn't. This performance didn't have the finest line up of soloists but I suspect even with that it would be a struggle to make of this more than generic Verdi – pleasant to listen to but lacking the punch and depth of Traviata or Don Carlo or Falstaff. As a work it is just all rather unmemorable.

Sunday 12 October 2014

Gypsy at Chichester, or Lara's Turn

Note: This is a review of the performance on Saturday 11th October 2014. It is not listed as a preview in the brochure but the Press Night does not take place till Tuesday 14th.

Gypsy is a nastier show than one first realises. I came to see this without knowing anything about the narrative and I kept waiting for things to come out right. Of course, this being a show with a Sondheim element to it, I should perhaps know better. That said, there is usually a redemptive element to his principle characters. I found it hard to see one in Momma Rose and thus, while I was moved by things in this show, they did not include her.

For those who don't know it, Gypsy tells the story of Momma Rose's (Imelda Staunton) insatiable attempts to craft a triumphant stage career first for her daughter June (Gemma Sutton) and then for her daughter Louise (Lara Pulver). Given that the final result, or at least one of them, is the appearance of the legendary stripper Gypsy Rose Lee it could be said that she succeeds. But the price is a high one.

Strictly speaking Gypsy is a musical (music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sondheim). But there are rather fewer standout numbers than the form usually commands. Many of the musical numbers are intentionally terrible (the stage performances of the troupe until you get to the actual appearance of Gypsy Rose Lee), and some of those intended, I assume, to be of a more standard kind are pretty forgettable (Mr Goldstone for example). My point is, however, that this doesn't matter the way it might because this is really for long sections much more a play with music rather than a standard musical, and as a work in that form it's powerful.

Taken at Midnight at Chichester, or A Well Crafted Visit to Familiar Territory

During the first half of this new play by Mark Hayhurst, I found it difficult not to compare the work to Chichester's most recent visit to Nazi territory – the chilling revival of Brecht's Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui. Compared with that play, and despite the moments of brutality, there's a slight feeling of being on safe ground here. Good and bad are fairly clearly delineated, the differences between the three political prisoners imprisoned together feel contrived, and I agree with the critic who regarded it as just a bit too convenient that one of them happened to be carrying a false moustache. None of it is badly done but despite the cast's best efforts I felt uninvolved.

But after the interval one of those curious theatrical twists happened. Not in terms of the play which remains on fairly safe, familiar ground, but in terms of engaging me. Penelope Wilton playing Irmgard Litten has at last been allowed to send books to her imprisoned son. She describes going to see a bookseller and, in a moment which is madness in the new Germany, telling him who the books are destined for. The bookseller refuses to take any money. It's moving because it's such a small, almost pitiful gesture and yet, in a country in which you are no longer free to speak such things take on a strange resonance. The second thing that adds power to Act Two is the realisation that Wilton is not going to win. It's obviously deluded to imagine that she will, but not knowing the story one madly hopes for it. John Light's Dr Conrad, the Gestapo officer with whom Wilton is forced to struggle, is convincingly enigmatic and thus fosters the delusion that there may be some sane Nazis. The final meeting between Wilton and Martin Hutson's Litten brutally snatches away any such escape.

Saturday 11 October 2014

David Watkin leaves the SCO

He plays with such huge commitment. He is a great inspiration to me, especially in Mozart.

I can't claim credit for those words, instead they belong to the late, great Sir Charles Mackerras, but I thoroughly endorse them and am greatly saddened to learn today that David Watkin, principal cello of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, is leaving the ensemble.

When Watkin joined the SCO around 10 years ago, Mackerras would have already known him from his time as principal cello of both the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Philharmonia. At the same time. This hints straight away at his versatility: he is equally at home with a period cello as with a modern one. And it doesn't end there: during his tenure we've heard him direct the orchestra from the cello in Mozart; he has performed Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time; he has been the soloist for concertos and Bach cello suites; and he has done the double of leading the cellos while also undertaking the continuo during performances of Mozart operas. And that's to say nothing of his recordings with the Eroica Quartet, the most recent of which have been fine discs of Mendelssohn's Octet and a pairing of Debussy and Ravel.

Mackerras and the SCO in action in Mozart's Haffner symphony

Wednesday 10 September 2014

My Night with Reg at the Donmar, or, Time, the Enemy in All of Us

Note: This is a slightly delayed review of the performance on Saturday 6th September 2014.

There's a moment towards the end of this play which is breathtakingly beautiful and utterly heartbreaking. Struggling to come to terms with a tragedy, Daniel (Geoffrey Streatfeild) puts on a record called Breakfast Disco and he and John (Julian Ovenden) dance for a few moments as if, by that physical action they can turn back the clock to one moment at university when a bond of friendship between three men was formed. Recapture that joyous carefree moment, escape the pain that they've since suffered. We know and they know that it's impossible, that the heartbreaks characters and audience have been subjected to cannot be undone, but that dance both brave and desperate longs for the world to be otherwise.

It's a moment that's a remarkably long way from where the play starts. At the beginning this is an almost farcical show, as we slowly realise that virtually everyone on stage has been getting off with Daniel's unseen boyfriend, the Reg of the title, without Daniel's knowledge. There's also a touch of the stereotypical at first glance to several of the characters – particularly the flamboyant homosexuality of Daniel, and the obsessive neatness of Jonathan Broadbent's Guy. But one of the clevernesses of Elyot's writing is that even in the often farcical first act there's a care to give human depth to the stereotypes. You think you know these types, the play seems to say, but you don't know these particular people and I shall make you know them.

Sunday 31 August 2014

EIF 2014 – Delusion of the Fury, or, The Return of the Brilliant, Unclassifiable musikFabrik

The German ensemble musikFabrik were first seen at the International Festival last year with a tribute to Frank Zappa. It was one of the highlights of the programme. So I was delighted that Jonathan Mills made sure to invite them back immediately, this time with this bizarre but fabulous piece of music theatre. It was great to see a more youthful audience than usual at an International Festival performance, and a fuller Stalls overall at the King's, and there is food for thought for the Festival about timing of such performances and advertising, marketing and flyering which if such a performance had taken place earlier in the three weeks could have been used to encourage this element in the audience to try something more mainstream in the programme.

But to get back to Delusion of the Fury itself. It is a piece by the twentieth century American maverick Harry Partch. Partch, as the programme makes clear, was very much a loner who rejected just about all of the classical tradition of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – though I actually did not find his musical world as challenging to engage with as I thought in advance could be the case. In carving out his own distinctive path one of his major actions was to design his own instruments with a heap of bizarre names (ranging from the Adapted Viola to the Blo-Boy). One of the most remarkable achievements of this show is the work of Thomas Meixner (predominantly) in building new versions of these instruments (based on the only extant full set now in New Jersey which for preservation  reasons can no longer be used for performances). The result is an absolute visual feast. Some of these are outwardly familiar – the two organlike creations that stood at the front corners of the stage. Others, like the set of glass lampshades at the back, or the rows of what look like up-ended coloured bottles, or the giant bellows are very unfamiliar. The members of musikFabrik showcase their impressive versatility, moving about amongst their orchestra with grace and agility – one of the biggest pleasures of the performance is the simple joy of watching these remarkable creations being played. It is certainly some way away, and pleasurably so, from what can sometimes be the rather buttoned up environment of the concert hall.

Friday 29 August 2014

EIF 2014 – Mariinsky's Les Troyens, or, Failing to Really Catch Fire

In advance of this performance my hopes were for another evening of the intensity of the same company's 2011 Die Frau ohne Schatten where a superb production and Gergiev's driven account of the score offset vocal weaknesses. But it was not to be. There were good things about this performance, but too many problems for it to qualify as a vintage evening.

As in 2011 the production is cast from the depth of the company. Unfortunately, most of them just aren't sufficiently suited to the roles to really bring them off. The finest solo performance for me was Alexey Markov's Chorebe who showed a vocal flexibility coupled to real presence which others lacked (though some of the responsibility here is clearly the director's). Although the match with Mlada Khudoley's Cassandre was not perfect, and I thought Gergiev didn't quite have the last ounce of drive in “Quitte nous des ce soir” their duet as a whole was one of the most satisfying portions of the evening. Elsewhere Khudoley was capable of powerful moments but lacked the richness in the lower register the part really needs, and as with others, there were issues with the direction. Ekaterina Semenchuk's Didon was generally also of a high standard. She has a thrilling intensity in her lower voice which packs a real punch and was capable of rising to the necessary heights elsewhere. But she did disappear under the orchestra in the softer moments and tenderness, which the part does sometimes need, especially in the great love duet, is not really her thing. Finally, and most disappointingly, among the principals we had Sergey Semishkur's Enee. He was anonymous in his Act Two encounter with Hector's ghost. By Act Five it was clear he'd been saving himself and there he could at least do the high notes, but they were barked rather than ringing and he was often not very pleasant to listen to. Like others tenderness was not something he was really capable of, contributing to the flatness of the love duet. Ultimately, he really doesn't have the heft or the flexibility for the role. Among the supporting parts the best performances were Yevgeny Akhmedov's Hylas and Ekaterina Krapivina's Anna (though the latter did not erase the memory of Hanna Hipp's marvellous performance at the Royal Opera).

Friday 22 August 2014

EIF 2014 – The James Plays, or Of Theatre and Politics

I've hesitated a great deal about whether to publish my thoughts about this trilogy of plays because I haven't found it possible to review them without reference to my personal feelings about the independence referendum. I have felt at times in the last few months that being an Englishman who now lives down south again I'm not supposed to have feelings about that referendum, but I do, and I found it impossible to keep those feelings from affecting my reaction to parts of these plays, though I also think that these plays commit other theatrical sins which would have annoyed me regardless of the opionions they ultimately seemed to me to be trying to advance.

These plays aim to "bring[s] to life" the historical eras of James I, II and III of Scotland. The programme note and publicity are coy about the extent to which it is intended that this examination should have a resonance with respect to the current debate but by the end of the evening it seemed to me that all pretence was abandoned. During the first two plays it is also difficult to avoid comparison with Shakespeare's history plays, though an interview with Rona Munro in the programme pleads that we should. Perhaps it would be more possible to do this if the settings were not so RSC reminiscent, or if the pre-performance publicity did not make the comparison so unavoidable. In the first two plays that comparison is often unfavorable for reasons we'll come back to, the third play focuses almost exclusively on the women of the royal household, is thus the most successful in escaping the Shakespearean shadow, but suffers from other shortcomings.

Tuesday 19 August 2014

EIF 2014 – Kronos Quartet & Beyond Zero 1914-1918, or, A Little Over-fragmented

I think, on investigation, this was my first live encounter with the Kronos Quartet (I thought they were the quartet in Eraritjaritjaka at a long past Festival but was mistaken) and I was certainly glad to finally hear them live even though I was not wholly convinced by this particular programme.

This show fits effectively into Jonathan Mills's theme of impacts of war, particularly the First World War. That theme is working convincingly across theatre, opera and music programmes this year  something that hasn't always been the case with Mills's themes (I haven't seen enough of the dance strand to be able to judge whether it applies there also). This show is formed of two halves without interval. In the first the Kronos play a selection of pieces which, on close study of the programme, appear to span the period immediately before to immediately following World War One under the title of Prelude to a Black Hole. In the second, archive (often very archive) film of the conflict, recovered by Bill Morrison, is shown accompanied by a new score written by Aleksandra Vrebalov and played live by the Quartet.

Sunday 17 August 2014

EIF 2014 – Minetti, or Successfully Skating on Potentially Thin Ice

Thomas Bernhard's Minetti is a show focused on a subject which has caused many other shows to come a cropper. A key aim is to discuss the meaning and or point of art. Many previous attempts to do this which I've sat through discarded character and narrative and thereby became either infuriating or dull. In the first half the plight of the central character sometimes felt a bit emotionally remote, but the treatment of the ideas is compelling as is the central performance, and by the end I'd revised my opinion. I'm not sure shows on this subject will ever be my favourite form of theatre, but I forgave this one for choosing it, and it left me oddly thoughtful.

Bernhard's play, almost entirely a monologue, portrays the aging actor Minetti who hasn't appeared on stage for thirty years since he “rejected the classics” (I think that's the term used). To begin with we are led to believe that he's been summoned to a meeting on New Year's Eve in a hotel in Ostend with an old childhood friend now director of a nearby theatre who wants him to reprise his celebrated King Lear for the theatre's bicentenary. The date should perhaps give more of clue than I at first appreciated. As Minetti rambles on and on about this and related matters one becomes increasingly doubtful as to whether there ever was a meeting, ultimately, whether Minetti really is the famous actor he insists that he is. Additional layers operate on top of this. Thus, Minetti becomes Lear-like in his isolation – raging on, compellingly to those of us beyond the footlights, but facing boredom and rejection from others in the on-stage hotel. Beyond this there is, of course, the bigger question, deftly posed here as to whether there's any point to this kind of performance at all.

Saturday 16 August 2014

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 – SmallWar at the Traverse, or, Inexplicably Big in Belgium

The Big in Belgium mini-strand at last year's Fringe produced a number of highlights including the film Bonanza (a fascinating slice of tiny-town Americana) and the exhausting rock-balancing Freeze! It also seems to have included BigMouth which I missed, and whose follow on piece SmallWar now arrives at the Traverse. All I can say is that if BigMouth was anything like SmallWar I cannot think why it has succeeded.

SmallWar is a one man show performed by Valentijn Dhaenens and several pre-filmed projections of himself. Based on testimonies of soldiers experiences from Atilla the Hun to the present day Dhaenens has fashioned a script which is supposed to be, according to the programme note, “an emotional reflection on the trauma and repetitiveness of war”. It left me cold and increasingly bored.

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 – The Factory at Assembly, or, The New Musical's Problems Have Reached New Zealand

Note: This is a review of the performance on Thursday 14th August 2014.

This is a sadly disappointing show and it is not surprising that the Main Hall at Assembly was fairly empty for this performance. I cannot think word of mouth can be doing much for it despite the commitment of everybody on stage.

The basic fatal flaw is the show itself which is undistinguished to poor in every particular apart from the basic subject matter. This is noble – an apparently largely forgotten story of Pacific island immigrants coming to New Zealand to work exploited in factories. The intention to bring this to wider notice is an admirable one, unfortunately the writers are not up to the job. The music is derivative (the villain's strange resemblance to Fagin is particularly bizarre) and forgettable. The lyrics are too often indeciferable (despite the miking). The worst part of it is the book which made me want to cringe. A whole range of stock characters are present, young lovers, tyranical parents, a camp cross-dressing relative all of them played with a deadly seriousness of tone which coupled with excessive over-emphatic gesturing does little to help the script's believability problems. Musical performances are also uneven, the sometimes excessive miking exposes some vocal flaws and some of the lead soprano's tuning at the top of her range was suspect. As already noted the performers do give this everything, but mere energy is not enough to save it.

Londoners worrying about the health of the new musical may console themselves that, on this showing, things are worse in New Zealand. Honest reporting does however compell me to note that quite a few of the audience bafflingly rose to their feet at the curtain call. I'd like to think they were as desperate as I was to get out. One to avoid.

EIF 2014 – Ute Lemper at the Usher Hall, or, In the Presence of Greatness

There are some live performance occasions when critical comment almost becomes superfluous and you simply have to acknowledge that you were privileged to be present while greatness was at work – such was the case with Ute Lemper in last night's festival concert.

In advance of this performance I had high hopes. I'm a big fan of Weimer era cabaret, and indeed cabaret as an art form more broadly. One of the best things about Mills's period as Festival Director has been a willingness to bring more cabaret and musical theatre material under the International Festival umbrella with highlights including his very first opening concert of Bernstein's Candide, and Camille O'Sullivan's cabaret inflected performance of Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece. However, there were dangers about this particular collaboration. Classical orchestras trying to do cabaret inflected work can come a cropper (as with the concert performance of Weill's Mahagony some years back at the Festival). The Scottish Chamber Orchestra and conductor Lawrence Foster's work was not without blemish, but so outstanding was Ute Lemper that I forgave other infelicities.

Sunday 10 August 2014

EIF 2014 – The War, or, A Pretty Stunning Piece of Theatre

When I arrived and bought my programme for this performance my heart sank for several reasons. Firstly at the discovery that the show was to last two and a half hours without an interval. Secondly at the fact that it was meshing a number of different texts together (principally Richard Aldington's World War One novel The Death of a Hero and Homer's Iliad) – an approach to scripting that I have seen go badly wrong on far too many occasions. How wrong I was. This is powerful, compelling theatre, and deserves a much bigger audience than it seems to be getting.

Perhaps people are put off by the fact that it's in Russian with surtitles. But you shouldn't be. This is one of those rare occasions when the language barrier is largely transcended. The stunning visuals, the central role played by music and the highly physical performances are crucial here, but the fact that the trenches and Troy are familiar stories also assists, as do the cast's occasional, impressive breakings into English.

The visual experience ranks up there with Theatre du Soleil a couple of years ago. Just watching this performance is a rich experience – use of aerials, of a small piano and a large chandelier as props, empty uniforms conjuring an army, the multiple uses of oars. The high point is probably the gas attack towards the conclusion but there's as much brilliance in many of the smaller moments. The way that certain scenes portray the family at home reliving the narrative of their deceased son's war as if they've stepped out of a Chekhov play is a particularly clever touch. A tiny thing like the knitting which seems bizarre to begin with develops poignant meaning by the conclusion.

EIF 2014 – Ganesh and the Third Reich, or, Trying to Survive with Fewer Words

Regular readers will know that I put a high value on the text. Words matter a great deal to me. I think they continue to be quite crucial to successful theatre and that far too many modern theatre pieces don't recognise the script as a sufficiently key element. Given this belief (others might call it prejudice) this show presented me with particular problems. The programme note puts it as follows: “With our actors it is difficult to work with a text written beforehand.” This is because all but one of the performers in this show are in some way disabled. The script apparently evolves through improvisatory rehearsal and therefore can't be judged in the same way I might judge other such devised theatrical pieces. There are plenty of strong things about this script but I also can't deny I had problems with the textual result which we'll come back to later.

First the unquestionable positives. The ensemble – Mark Deans, Simon Laherty, Scott Price, Brian Tilley and David Woods give committed and often striking performances. My memory is not good enough to single out exactly who plays which part but Ganesh, the Jewish concentration camp prisoner who befriends him, and the all too controlling director stand out. The disabilities of the other two performers, from the point of view of what I'm used to watching, means (and I should emphasise this is a comment against myself) that I found it harder work to engage with them, but they are compelling presences even when in the Upper Circle I was straining to make out the text. The visuals of the play within a play sequences are stunning – the use of plastic curtains, projections, basic tables and chairs and lighting to conjure environments from train carriages to forests to a ruined Berlin are all brilliantly done – particular credit here is clearly due to the lighting designer Andrew Livingston. Finally the narrative of the play within a play (that is the Ganesh retrieving the swastika bit) works well – perhaps too well in relation to the rehearsal process as I was more engaged by those characters and began to get frustrated by the frequent cutaways.

Saturday 9 August 2014

EIF 2014 – The Opening Concert, or, A Justly Resurrected Rarity

In advance of this year's opening concert I had my doubts. Jonathan Mills has several times resurrected neglected works which prove to be deservedly neglected (Delius's Mass of Life springs to mind). I recalled listening to a recording of the Debussy which made little impression on me. And Oliver Knussen at Aldeburgh tends towards the over full programme. As it turned out, Debussy's Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien proved well worth hearing.

The concert actually began with Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces and Scriabin's Prometheus, the Poem of Fire. I don't think I've heard either of these live before. About the first I was sufficiently distracted by disruptive audience behind me that I don't feel I can properly comment. The second is a typical piece of large forces  madness – huge orchestra, wordless choir and organ towards the end – which builds to an enjoyably loud climax but has a somewhat meandering feel up to that point. It isn't as satisfying a piece as The Poem of Ecstasy, but it was finely played and sung by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Festival Chorus and pianist Kirill Gerstein who I hope to hear again in solo repertoire. It's also always a treat to hear the restored Usher Hall organ in action, however briefly.

Thursday 31 July 2014

Tannhauser at Norwich, or, Aimless Wandering I Am Thinking

Note: This is a slightly delayed review of the performance given on Sunday 27th July 2014.

According to the programme, fully staged Wagner was last seen at the Theatre Royal, Norwich in 1997. Before anything else therefore, it is cause for celebration that the management have brought Wagner back once again. The musical strengths of this performance fully justified the decision though the staging was sadly (probably unintentionally) by turns baffling and hilarious.

The best of the evening was musical. The Opera Freiburg Chorus and Orchestra played and sang superbly. The sound in the stalls at the big choral climaxes was extraordinary, and overall the ensemble showed both quality and precision. The soloists also impressed. Okay, these are not singers of the calibre of Gerhaher and Botha (whom I had the privilege of hearing as Wolfram and Tannhauser in the Royal Opera production) but you really can't expect quite that standard and the soloists in this performance stood up well as representatives of the tier below those exceptional artists. Marius Vlad's Tannhauser had stamina and necessary power and was especially compelling in his Act Three monologue (one of the rare places where the production was temporarily not requiring a double of him to wander about). In an ideal performance I would have more beauty of tone in the softer passages, but he was not unpleasant to listen to, and power and stamina are the more crucial attributes for the part. It was more difficult to completely banish the memory of Gerhaher while listening to Alejandro Larraga Schleske's Wolfram, but that said (and despite having one of the worst directorial misjudgements visited on him in Act Three) he did have beauty of tone, if not of quite the same order, and an impressive stage presence. Among the smaller male roles I was impressed by the vocal heft of Shinsuke Nishioka's Heinrich and the combination of beauty and strength of Roberto Gionfriddo's Walther.

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Medea at the National, or, In Which Everybody Consistently (and Often Baffingly) Does the Very Thing They Ought Not to Have Done

As I made my way home from this rather dreary performance, I began to wonder if Greek tragedy has always been like this and for some reason I didn't tend to notice. That's to say, has everybody in these things always been behaving so stupidly and it's only now become apparent to me? The alternative explanation is that it is possible to give these characters more depth and make them more convincing and the fault here lies with performers and production team.

Problems start with Tom Scutt's set. This consists of a large wall. On top is an enclosed room in which, though it looks much to small for the wedding of a king's daughter, said wedding and one or two other off-stage events take place. In front of this room is a landing. A flight of stairs brings us down into Medea's large open-plan basement and behind that is a rather oddly located forest. The largest issue with all this is it completely fails to create any sense of entrapment. It feels as if anybody could escape in pretty much any direction whenever they wanted to. Cracknell ensures that her performers use the stairs and the landing but again they feel like a burden rather than an element adding power to the performances. Likewise that enclosed room I mentioned. Cracknell appears in two minds as to whether she wants to show us or not show us events which the chorus describe. We see some but not others – on the whole she would have been much better off showing us none of it.

Tuesday 24 June 2014

Aldeburgh 2014 - And now for something completely different...Musicircus

It's not often you find Ravel on the programme alongside some bagpipes and Sousa's The Liberty Bell, but all that and much more could be found on Sunday when the Aldeburgh festival returned to the scene of last year's triumph, Grimes on the Beach. This year's use of Aldeburgh beach (or, for the most part, Crag Path which runs along just behind the beach) was in some ways less ambitious, requiring no stage, seating and lighting construction. In other ways, such as the better part of a thousand performers, it was more ambitious.

Musicircus is a concept credited to John Cage and first performed in 1967. Effectively it is a carnival of musicians. Think the Royal Mile in Edinburgh at the height of the Fringe (or, dare I say it, that scene a few decades ago before they tightened up on who could perform there) and you should have a rough picture.

Wednesday 18 June 2014

Manon Lescaut at the Royal, or, Moderate Ado About Nothing

I previously saw this opera either seventeen or fifteen years ago at Glyndebourne, I haven't got the programme to hand to check. I didn't think much of it then. Really the only reason I booked to see this new Royal Opera production was because any chance to hear Jonas Kaufmann sing live is worth taking. Fortunately, he lived up to expectations. So did the opera, about which my views have not changed. I hadn't actually intended when I got home last night to write about any of this, but then I observed on Twitter that at least some audience reactions were strongly unhappy about the evening. I have rarely been so baffled by negative reaction to a performance.

I think this is the third opera I've seen which Jonathan Kent directed. I loved his Die Frau ohne Schatten in Edinburgh, and didn't think much of his Flying Dutchman at the Coliseum. This production falls somewhere between the two. It's a bit hit and miss, but his direction of people was effective and the basic interpretation of the work seems to me justifiable. It's beyond me how anyone could object to Acts One and Four which are really very straightforward and mainly focused on the individual relationships. There was a small amount of action on a high balcony in Act 1 that I couldn't see very comfortably, but certainly not enough to seriously annoy – I had no issues with sightlines in the rest of the piece. I thought the blasted flyover of Act Four was a perfectly effective alternative to the barren desert of the libretto given the production seems to have an essentially present day setting. Acts Two and Three arguably present some issues. Kent has obviously decided to play up the sordid dimension of Manon's relationship with Geronte turning the Act Two musical interlude (a dull bit of Puccini if ever there was one) into a cheap highly sexualised nightclub dance act. A traditional approach would presumably play this scene as a straightforward party and possibly this change was what infuritated some audience members. I didn't find anything appealing about Manon in this scene, indeed it was a bit revolting, but let us be clear, those elements were already present in the character and the relationship as originally written. You may prefer to take a rosier view of this scene, but Kent is perfectly justified in not joining you. In Act Three again Kent plays up the sordid element of prostitution, and the “Naivete” poster and the manner of embarking for the New World are the least convincing elements of the production but, again, the material for this is there in the work.

Sunday 15 June 2014

Aldeburgh Festival 2014 – A Marathon Festival Saturday

Saturdays at Aldeburgh Festivals tend to be busily scheduled, and the first of the 2014 edition proved to be no exception. Five concerts were on offer starting at 11am in Blythburgh and ending at 11pm in Snape. I managed four (skipping Richard Goode in the main evening concert as he previously failed to grab me in Edinburgh). With the exception of the last, it was well worth a slightly manic day.

Proceedings kicked off at 11am with three twentieth century French works for two pianos performed by Festival Director Pierre-Laurent Aimard and regulars Tamara Stefanovich and Nenad Lecic. This seemed to follow, to some degree, on the excellent two piano recital from the final weekend last year and once again showed Aimard as an astute programmer. The highlight of the first half was the original virtuosic two-piano version of Ravel's La Valse brought off with aplomb by Lecic and Stefanovich, but the heart of the recital came from the single work of the second half: Messiaen's Visions de l'Amen. I previously heard this work in a performance given as part of the wonderful Royal Bank Lates series at the Edinburgh Festival, but found it instructive to hear it again on the back of having got to know Messiaen's music a lot better. In consequence I felt I had a much clearer appreciation of the structure of the piece, and various key aspects of Messiaen's style. What also undoubtedly made this special though were the performances of Aimard and Stefanovich who made me feel I was listening to a single instrument. The stylistic range required from soft, delicate passagework to precise, emphasised loud staccato is impressive in itself, but the most striking aspects were the way both players conveyed such a complete grasp of the architecture of the piece, and thus were able, in an intense heartfelt reading to build to an overpowering climax. Aided by the superb Blythburgh acoustic it was a really special experience.

Aldeburgh Festival 2014 - Owen Wingrave, or, Marking a Different Centenary

Aldeburgh Music has an enviable track record in opera productions in recent years, but this year's offering represented a tougher proposition. While Britten's Owen Wingrave is a sensible choice for the World War One centenary year, it is a work one previous encounter with which led me to feel is not on a level with masterpieces like Grimes and Budd, and I wondered in advance how this new production would fare. Fortunately it has many positive things going for it.

Under the expert guidance of Mark Wigglesworth (a promising marker ahead of his assumption of the ENO Musical Directorship in 2015), the Britten-Pears Orchestra demonstrated again (as was the case in Grimes last year) just what energy, punch and sense of drama young players can bring to opera. I repeat what I said then that it is greatly to Aldeburgh Music's credit that they take the risk of mounting productions like this with such forces. The orchestral playing throughout was superb. Wigglesworth in his shaping of the piece also made the strongest possible case for the score – he even managed to make the ending less problematic, an issue that stuck out for me on first hearing the work at the Royal Opera.

The line-up of soloists was also very strong. Russ Ramgobin gave as strong a performance of Owen as I recall Jacques Imbrailo giving in the Linbury. Jonathan Summers was compelling both vocally and dramatically as Coyle (somewhat to my surprise as my recollection of the last time I heard him live was less favourable). There was a particularly sympathetically done turn from Samantha Crawford as Mrs Coyle, and an appropriately chilly, arrogant performance from Catherine Backhouse as Kate. The other supporting roles were all well taken.

Sunday 8 June 2014

Dialogues des Carmelites at Royal Opera, or, Agonies of Faith

My one previous live encounter with this work was a performance of excerpts (including the powerful final scene) in the final concert of the Edinburgh International Festival 2007. More recently I picked up the Chandos Opera in English recording. Both hearings made a strong impression on me, but I didn't expect to be so completely, overpoweringly gripped by last night's performance as I was.

Poulenc's work strikes me as remarkable. The orchestral writing may be often bare but it is captivating, and also allows Poulenc to use combinations of instrumental and volume build to powerful effect in the consistent racheting up of tension. The instrumental colour is telling, I was particularly struck by the interventions of piano and harp, and the soft playing demanded of the brass. Poulenc's vocal writing is remarkable in the way it gives such various characters to the principal roles while at the same time using the ensemble to create the community effect. All this builds with the intelligent libretto (also Poulenc's work) to produce a compelling, haunting exploration of the agonies of faith.

Sunday 25 May 2014

Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne, or, Bigger Problems than Octavian

Since this production opened a week ago seemingly endless column inches, tweets etc. have been concerned with the appearance of Octavian in it, and whether certain words used by certain critics to describe this were justified. Having now seen the show, I agree that neither Tara Erraught's vocal performance, nor Jones's direction and Nicky Gillibrand's costuming of the character are unproblematic. I also think that this show has bigger problems.

Richard Jones's directorial approach does not produce a convincing vision of the work as a whole. Much of the design and the direction seems intended to imply that the story should not be taken too seriously. I found the garish wallpaper, and, in particular, the costumes, rendered it difficult to believe in the characters or their relations. There are some individual moments of silliness – the staging of the haunting in Act Three with zombies and the noose is ineffectively bizarre, the plays on smell in the first Octavian/Sophie meeting are unnecessarily crude – though they fit with an attitude that too often suggests Jones does not believe in the romance of the piece. The less said about Jones's attempt to suggest Mohammad is going to be in bed with the Marschallin after the curtain has fallen the better. Movement, for which Sarah Fahie is credited, is also problematic – Octavian and Sophie spend much of that first moment of meeting singing to the audience instead of to each other; Sophie is placed on an enormous table and subjected to a bidding war later in the same scene – yes, okay, I take the point, but it's crudely done and I failed to see why she simply didn't get down. Jones is at his worst directing the crowd scenes. When the orchestra is going wild leading up to the Marschallin's entrance in Act Three there's a sad lack of threatened riot on stage, a) because Jones has trapped a large number of people in a space that is far too small and b) because he's had them all bring in chairs and line up in rows (there is far too much ineffective business with chairs and couches in this production).

Tuesday 6 May 2014

King Charles III at the Almeida, or, An Unconvincing Fantasy

This attempt at a modern history play has been widely praised by other critics, is sold out for the remainder of its Almeida run, and is already being touted for West End transfer. As far as I'm concerned it has been overpraised.

Mike Bartlett, whose 13 at the National in 2012 also left me unimpressed, appears to have decided that he is up to imitation of Shakespeare on a grand scale. The title gives the first clue, the subject matter the second, the neo-Shakespearean verse writing the third. The results are problematic. Taking the plot first. The play deals with the immediate aftermath of Prince Charles's ascension to the throne. He decides to refuse royal assent to a bill regarding regulation of the press on the grounds that this is contrary to fundamental British freedoms. Before long this has escalated into monarchical dissolution of parliament (with Charles appearing in the precincts a la his Civil War namesake), violent clashes up and down the country, and a tank outside Buckingham Palace. My basic issue with all this was that I just did not find it convincing. In fact during the first half I was driven to considerable irritation by just how unconvincing I found it. If you're going to do a version of the future and you wish to use it to explore issues thoughtfully, as the second half suggests Bartlett wants to do, then failure to convince your audience that pretty nearly precisely this scenario could unfold is fatal. To give three instances of my problems. Firstly, while I agree that Charles is not the Queen and these secret consultations with ministers are troubling in terms of the proper constitutional order I don't believe that he's stupid and I therefore found it simply unbelievable that he would drive the country to the brink of civil war in this way – and particularly not over a bill for regulation of the press. Secondly, while our current class of politicians are a depressingly unprepossessing lot I still do not believe that any leader of the opposition would be stupid enough to abet a monarch in the proceeding shown here, involving a loss of power to the elected political leadership which would affect him should he succeed as a result in replacing the Prime Minister and which would be bound to be used against him in turn. Third, I find it equally difficult to believe that, in this day and age, nobody else would have done anything to stop Charles until the point in Act Two when William intervenes.

Saturday 26 April 2014

English Touring Opera's Paul Bunyan, or An Important Conclusion to the Britten Centenary

Regular readers and twitter followers will know that Paul Bunyan is a work really close to my heart. In consequence I've been keenly looking forward to this new production from English Touring Opera (the first from one of our main companies since the Royal Opera House production in  1997/9). There is always a danger when you love a work and anticipate a new staging of disappointment. This performance was not flawless but the marvellous qualities of Britten and Auden's neglected gem shone through, and it passed that other test of making me think anew about certain aspects.

Paul Bunyan is an important work in Britten's output, his first major musical theatre work. I've always been a bit puzzled, from a musical point of view, that it seems to need special pleading. The richness of melody, the word setting, the punch of some of the choral writing (from the moon turning blue at the beginning, through to the Litany at the end) all of these things are worth multiple hearings. Clearly some people don't get on with Auden's libretto, even my parents were lukewarm about it this time round. Personally I enjoy the clever wordplay, which I think Britten manages very successfully, and I also find many sections powerfully moving, even though I know them off by heart. The moon turning blue, the brooding reflections on the future of America and Inkslinger's haunting little love song are particular highlights. I suspect also that the work suffers from being seen as not quite musical and not quite opera and therefore suspected by afficionados of both genres. There's no denying its a hybrid work, but again I find that a strength not a weakness. Finally as an American historian by profession with a particular interest in British representations of the United States I find it a fascinating work.

Sunday 6 April 2014

Versailles at the Donmar, or, This Lecture will be in Three Acts

In case you haven't noticed, it's the anniversary of the start of the First World War this year. This, I assume was the starting point for the commissioning of this new play by Peter Gill, even though it deals with the peace rather than the war. It is of course also possible that Peter Gill had already decided he wanted to write a big play on the First World War and the Versailles Peace. Unfortunately, wherever responsibility is laid the fact remains that in creating this new work crucial elements needed for a good play have been sadly omitted. The result apart from a couple of good scenes in Act Three and fleeting moments elsewhere is dull.

Gill's cardinal sin is that of sinking his various characters under the weight of the many historical points he wants to make. In consequence, almost none of them (even those who don't spend most of the play delivering long, tiresome monologues which everybody else inexplicably listens to with insufficient interruption) come across as real, convincingly human figures but as mouthpieces for authorial opinions. This might not be so bad if Gill actually succeeded in telling us anything new, or showing anything from a new angle by this method, but he does not.

Monday 31 March 2014

Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Royal, or, A Triumph of Head over Heart

When the Royal Opera announced their 2013-14 season last year, this new production of Strauss's too rarely performed masterpiece was the highlight for me. However, from the outset I had my doubts – not about the musical team which promised to be (and was) superb, but about the production, judging from reviews of performances at La Scala. Fortunately it isn't a production to make one want to howl with frustration. It's undeniably a very carefully thought out interpretation which can (though I think with some exceptions) be fitted successfully to the text. But as will be explained, there is a price to be paid, and in my view it is too high.

But let us start with the really fine things. Musically this is a remarkable performance. One of the reasons Die Frau is rarely performed is because of the difficulty of assembling the necessary vocal talent. The only previous time I saw it, a Mariinsky Theatre production at the Edinburgh Festival in 2011, the voices were not in the top class, though one forgave shortcomings because the production and orchestral drive were so spell-binding. This time the Royal Opera House has achieved remarkable things – there isn't a weak link in this cast. Johan Reuter (Barak) and Elena Pankratova (Barak's Wife) make the strongest impression in the first two acts – their emotional punch in terms of the narrative is least weakened by the production and thus the fine singing and the direction are in harmony. Emily Magee's Empress commits herself fully and convincingly to the production (which requires a lot of her), and her singing particularly in the taxing third act is again outstanding, but for reasons which we'll come on to the production contrives to reduce the emotional connection. Perhaps the mark of greatness to all three of them is their capacity not simply to power through the heavier passages but to sing with precision softness in the more intimate sections. Johan Botha (Emperor) I found less fresh voiced than in 2010's Tannhauser but he still holds forth strongly and ringingly. Michaela Schuster's Nurse has great presence and much of her singing has great character but it isn't a voice quite so much to my taste. The supporting roles were all impeccably taken, many of them by members of the House's Jette Parker Young Artists Programme. In the pit the Royal Opera Orchestra under Bychkov were on magnificent form. The richness of sound from all corners of the orchestra, but perhaps especially the string solos, was memorable. Bychkov doesn't approach the work with quite the white heat intensity of Gergiev in Edinburgh but he reads the overall shape far more convincingly (particularly in the Third Act), and the many intimate passages have a beauty here of a far superior order.

Thursday 27 March 2014

The 2014/15 SCO Season

Today, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra launch their 2014/15 season. It opens with a work one would not immediately expect from a chamber orchestra: Mahler's 4th symphony. One might logically assume that it is one of the chamber arrangements (such as Erwin Stein's), but nothing in press information or the brochure suggests this. It must therefore be assumed that they will perform the full version, which would not be out of kilter with Ticciati's fondness for works more usually programmed with larger forces. After all, a couple of years ago they started with the Symphonie Fantastique. More interesting, to me, is the pairing: a new concerto for harp by Hosokawa.

Mahler is something of a theme, with Das Lied von der Erde cropping up later on (which this time is an arrangement, Cortese's though, not Schoenberg, as was the case when he programmed it a couple of years ago). Both concerts also feature Karen Cargill. I'm once again reminded of an April fool I considered a few years back involving an SCO season with a Mahler cycle, but I've written about that before (sadly season announcements in late March are not conducive to such a joke).

Fortunately, alongside one of Ticciati's less appealing, to me, programming tendencies as chief conductor, is one of his most: a series of Haydn's symphonies are scattered through the year, including 70, 101 , 103 and 104. Better yet, as I have long been requesting, he will take the orchestra into the studio with Linn to record six of them. I also look forward to hearing Ticciati's take on Schubert's great C major symphony towards the end of the season.

Tuesday 25 March 2014

The 2014/15 RSNO Season

Today the RSNO launched its 2014/15 season, Peter Oundjian's 3rd as music director. Much of the programme leaves me fairly cold, mainly because thus far Oundjian has not impressed me. But there are a fair few things that do catch my eye.

To start with the positives, the orchestra also continues its collaboration with Thomas Søndergård who most certainly has impressed me (most recently with a dazzling account of Messiaen's Turangalîla symphony). I look forward to hearing him take on Strauss's Metamorphosen and Tchaikovsky's Pathetique (though he will have his work cut out equalling the account Edinburgh audiences were treated to by Mariss Jansons and the Bavarians last festival).

Søndergård is also at the centre of a strand that marks the 150th anniversary of both Sibelius and Nielsen. I am a great fan of both composers and wish we heard more of both of them here. That said, I'm a little wary of anniversary programming, and at least two of the works programmed (Nielsen's Inextinguishable and Sibelius's 6th) have been performed by the orchestra in recent memory. That said, drawing the 6th together with Lindberg's Clarinet Concerto does make for interesting programming, and I'm very glad of the opportunity to hear Nielsen's violin concerto.

Saturday 22 March 2014

Superman in Walthamstow, or when heroes were really heroes, all stage Chinese were like Cato, and musical comedies were really musical comedies

There's an awful lot of serious (or would be serious) musical theatre about these days. So it's an absolute joy to be reminded that sometimes musical comedy can be just that. Musical and genuinely, indeed hilariously, funny.

The ever-enterprising All Star Productions now bring, to their performance space above the Olde Rose and Crown pub in Walthamstow, the UK premiere of It's a bird...it's a plane...it's Superman (surely deserving of an award for one of the wackier titles in musical theatre history). The programme note reveals that the original Broadway production in 1966 featured a cast of some 40 people. All Star Productions scale this down to 14 – but with the strongest ensemble I've seen them field I never felt the show needed more people on stage.

The show tells, in a comic book style also reminiscent of the classic 1960s tv version of Batman, of the trials of the strongest man in the world who nevertheless is unable to sort out his love life (and, indeed, turns out to have some other psychological problems). But the plot isn't really the important thing about this show. Rather it's the glorious homage to the whole idea of the comic book hero and to Superman's many other incarnations.

Tuesday 18 March 2014

EIF 2014 - The Opera and Theatre Programme, or, Jonathan Mills Once Again Surprises Me

Jonathan Mills turns out to have a real knack of proving his critics (or at least this one of them) wrong. Last year (as regular readers may recall) did not prove a happy one for Opera or Theatre, mainly thanks to the kiss of death theme of art and technology. I was already mentally planning a shorter visit this summer, and preparing some choice words of advice for Mills's successor, and lo and behold, his final programme proves to be one of his most interesting.


The clear highlight of the opera programme, and indeed one of the highlights of the Festival as a whole, is the return of the Mariinsky Opera in three performances (part of the strongly programmed final weekend) of Berlioz's masterpiece Les Troyens. I was surprised to see on my twitter feed today quite such a vehemently negative reaction to the prospect of Gergiev's Berlioz. Now, I concede that I haven't heard him perform anything by the composer, but past experience has taught me that I can be surprised by Gergiev. I had doubts in advance of his 2011 Festival Die Frau ohne Schatten and it proved to be one of the most thrilling operatic evenings I've experienced, I similarly doubted whether I would like his Brahms at the 2012 Festival, and again I was surprised (read my brother's review here). Gergiev's other operatic appearances at the Festival in recent years have including several other stunners besides Die Frau so I am overall optimistic about this one. As with Die Frau there are two casts. The Thurs/Sat cast are mostly the same as those who performed this work over two evenings with Gergiev in New York in 2010 (well received herehere and here), I think they will all be new to me. The production by Yannis Kokkos dates from Paris in 2003 and is available on DVD. Some sense of the production's approach can be gleaned here. Will these performances equal the wonderful concert performances from Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra back in 2001? Time alone will tell.

The 2014 Edinburgh International Festival Programme

Today Jonathan Mills' launched his 8th and final Edinburgh International Festival. On paper, at least, the programme appears to be one of his stronger ones, presenting some difficult choices for the compulsive festival goer. You can't do everything, the old adage goes, and there have been years when one hasn't wanted to, but it is a very pleasant problem to have.

Oliver Knussen and the RSNO are on duty for the opening concert. The feature work is Debussy's Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien. I'm not familiar with it, and Debussy doesn't as a rule set my pulse racing so hopefully it won't prove one of Mills' damp squib openers, for which he has something of a tendency. (Initial research today on Spotify is not frightfully positive - and I guess I'll have to wait at least another year for the stunning opener Sibelius's Kullervo would make.) Still, Knussen normally brings plenty of energy. And the first half includes Scriabin's Prometheus - The Poem of Fire which should have no shortage of thrills.

Sunday 9 March 2014

La Fille du Regiment at the Royal, or Take One Fantastic Tenor, One Veteran Soprano and One Very Silly Opera and what do you get?

This was a weekend for catching up with long running shows. Having been bowled over by Matilda the Musical yesterday afternoon, I caught up today with the third revival of Donizetti's comic opera La Fille du Regiment at the Royal Opera. It was perhaps a little unfortunate that although Donizetti does his best he just isn't as funny as Tim Minchin.

The opera tells the story of Marie (the daughter of the title), her problematic parentage and marital fate. She has, for those of you who haven't seen it, been raised by a multitude of Daddies (the regiment of the title) but is in fact the daughter of Old Battleaxe Number 1, a.ka. La Marquise de Berkenfeld. For reasons that do not need exploring (and are, so far as I recall, not provided), said Marquise while trying to escape the ongoing Napoleonic Wars runs into the regiment to which her daughter is attached in the Tyrolean Alps. Owing to Daddy-in-Chief Suplice's foolish eagerness to reveal the identity of her daughter, Marie finds herself spirited away to the Marquise's ancestral seat, ready to be married off to the absent son of Old Battleaxe No.2, a.k.a. La Duchess de Crackentorp, just as the passing Tyrolean (Tonio) she really loves (he having saved her, in one of the libretto's silliest devices, from falling off a cliff while she was out picking wild flowers) has enlisted in the regiment in order to allow Marie to fulfil her promise only to marry a member of said illustrious body of men. I trust you are with me so far?

Matilda the Musical, or, I loved it, almost without reservoirs.

Those of you who follow the London theatre news will have noticed that Sir Tim and the Lord have been complaining about the state of affairs for new musicals. This on the back of the early closing of their new shows From Here to Eternity and Stephen Ward the Musical. Sir Tim was quoted, I seem to recall, as complaining that there didn't seem to be a place in London for much apart from the jukebox musical. I can only assume that he hasn't seen Matilda, a show which definitively proves there is a place in London's West End for the non-jukebox musical, it just needs to be really good.

Obviously, I'm coming late to the party on this, but this is a simply wonderful show and I really hope that Tim Minchin (music and lyrics) and Dennis Kelly (book) will collaborate on something else. Like other recent musical theatre it is aware of the form's past. Miss Honey's moving Pathetic has a Sondheimesque wistfulness, the big musical number (possibly the Act One finale) when the light bulbs flicker round the blackboard echoes upteen similar finales, and Revolting Children was the best rock and roll pastiche I've seen for ages. But unlike so many other recent shows Matilda is enriched by this heritage, not buried. This show also succeeds in telling a good story (if I was going to be hyper critical it could be argued that there is a slight loss of focus in the second half, but the numbers are so compelling it doesn't matter) and being interested in its characters – two things, as regular readers will know, which I think essential to great theatre.

Sunday 2 February 2014

Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera, or, Is it possible to stage this work successfully?

This was my third staging of Don Giovanni. The two previous efforts were dismal: Tim Albery's Endless Pairs of Gloves version at Scottish Opera and Rufus Norris's confused attempt at ENO. Kasper Holten's new production for the Royal Opera is better than either of these but still left me increasingly unengaged and overall unconvinced.

The central problem with this staging is, it seems to me, that Holten can't quite decide (or at least fails to convey that he's decided) whether all the events and meetings described are really happening or whether they are figments of characters imaginations. This is the closest I can come to explaining why his attempt at the ending which should be chilling falls so flat. Up to that point, mostly, it seemed that Giovanni was really doing all the things he said, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, he appeared to have some kind of psychological breakdown. I just wasn't convinced.

Monday 27 January 2014

Happy 40th Birthday SCO

Forty years ago today, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra took to the stage of the City Hall, Glasgow, for the first time. You can read, and indeed hear, more about it on their blog. It's probably fitting that they played some Beethoven, one of the composers they have played best and been most closely associated with, never more so than in that rather special cycle of his symphonies at the Edinburgh festival in 2006 under the baton of the late, great Charles Mackerras.

I've written about that cycle elsewhere, and about their association with Charles Mackerras at length, for that I point you to my obituary, rather than repeat it. But what he achieved with them was superb. I've heard different Mozart, but never better: see the recordings of late Mozart symphonies for Linn (or indeed operas for Telarc and concertos with Brendel on Philips). There is a rich legacy on disc and I wanted to accompany this post with a spotify playlist of some favourite recordings. Alas, too many from the likes of Hyperion (the Edinburgh festival Beethoven) and Telarc (Don Giovanni, Fidelio and a superb disc of Schubert's great C major and unfinished symphonies) cannot be found there. Indeed, fine recordings under other conductors are missing too: I can't find Tippett's concerto for double string orchestra, conducted by the composer himself.

For me, one of the orchestra's great strengths is the high calibre of their principals. A few years back, when the Berlin Philharmonic visited London for a residence, one writer was especially wowed by the solo playing within the orchestra, but I wouldn't take them up on a swap. The SCO can put the likes of David Watkin or Alec Frank-Gemmill, to name but two, on for a concerto without you feeling in the least shortchanged. Indeed, such concerts are often season highlights for me. This is exemplified in their disc of Mozart wind concerti for Linn which includes superb solo performances from flautist Alison Mitchell, clarinetist Maximiliano Martin and bassoonist Ursula Leveaux. Indeed my only criticism of the disc, is that it does not include a reading from Leveaux's replacement Peter Whelan whose very different style and unmistakable tone would make a fascinating contrast.

Friday 3 January 2014

Stephen Ward the Musical, or, How is Andrew Lloyd Webber like Philip Glass?

Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest musical is, from the point of view of the musical theatre regular, an interesting beast. There's been a trend lately for musicals dealing ever more explicitly with sex, with plenty of bad language and nudity thrown in. Their creators, and some theatregoers appear to find this shocking (either pleasantly or horrifyingly depending on your point of view). I have usually found it ineffective and/or dull. Lloyd Webber's version of Stephen Ward feels a little like his attempt to join this bandwagon. That is there's plenty of swearing, nudity and sexual references. I'll grant you that this show produces a whole new interpretation of never having it so good, but apart from that none of this is new or terribly exciting – however it might possibly have passed the time better had Lloyd Webber not also wished to jump on a second bandwagon. This is the other principle of the modern musical that it ought to be trying to say something big – about sexual relations (e.g. Spring Awakening), religion (The Book of Mormon) or race (The Scottsboro Boys) to name a few recently used themes. I don't say this is necessarily a bad thing, but I think there is more room for the light frothy show other than the juke box musical (for example Kander & Ebb's Curtains) than this trend is allowing and a number of these shows are not nearly as thought provoking as they clearly want to think they are (The Scottsboro Boys is a notable, really hard-hitting exception). But to get back to the Stephen Ward story which is clearly rich ground for such an enterprise – miscarriage of justice, corruption of British political and criminal justice systems, British social hypocrisy. Here we run up against the other fundamental flaw in Lloyd Webber, and one I thought was also evident when I saw Sunset Boulevard. He just doesn't have the musical language to enable him to tackle such themes with success.