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.