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.