Monday, 20 August 2018

EIF 2018 - Xenos at the Festival Theatre, or, The Importance of Narrative

I'd had high hopes of this show in advance based on the reviews and social media commentary. There's no question that Akram Khan is a remarkable dancer. There are also a number of arresting images. But in the end, despite the subject matter, for much of the performance I remained emotionally at a distance.

The subject matter is actually less clearly reflected in the dance than might be imagined. There is one overt reference - a song about the battalion hanging on the old barbed wire - and quite a number of coded ones - but the First World War setting is less concrete than I'd expected. The structure is also episodic - presumably intended to reflect the confusing experience of the Indian servicemen but for this viewer the piece suffered from the lack of a clear narrative. Episodes include the barbed wire one already referred to, the laying of communication wire, and the ever-present threat of death.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

EIF 2018 - Ringstad and Meier at the Queen's Hall, or, A Refreshingly Diverse Programme

After three years when post-1945 classical music has been conspicuous by its thin representation in Festival programming, after the transformative work of Jonathan Mills, this year has seen a slight up-tick. It's also seen something of a return to the Mills practice of encouraging mixed programmes which I think, by their number, did help to build up an audience willing to risk the occasional new work as opposed to when I first started attending the Festival, when such a work in a programme was usually guaranteed to drastically reduce the audience, even for major visiting orchestras.

On paper, and despite the more unusual instrumental soloist (viola as opposed to the more regular piano or violin) I'd have hoped to see a larger audience for this programme - given the inclusion of crowd pleasers like Tartini's Devil's Trill and and Ysaye's Caprice d'apres l'Etude en forme de valse de Saint-Saens. But it was a stronger audience than might have been seen for a programme with a world premiere in the McMaster era.

Friday, 17 August 2018

EIF 2018 - Hansel und Gretel at the Usher Hall, or, A Slice of Faerie

After nearly thirty years of regular opera-going it's getting rarer for me to encounter a work I haven't previously seen or heard. But this was one such occasion. In advance, I wasn't expecting a great deal - one of the reasons I hadn't previously heard this work was that family opinion towards it was not favourable. But it seems to me if done in the right spirit, as this performance unquestionably was, it's a piece which is a lot of fun.

The opera is a concise rendering in three short acts of the familiar fairy tale, ending up with the witch vanquished by being shoved into her own oven - in principle a fairly gruesome moment but not one on which the work dwells. There are clear Wagnerian overtones to the score, and I also thought anticipations of some of the natural world elements of Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten. But I rather like those sound worlds, so this didn't bother me. The score has a nice range from fun (particularly in the witch's music), to beauty (Sandman/Dew Fairy) and drama (the Witch's Ride) - all of which were brought vividly to life by the RSNO in fine form, under the expert dramatic command of Andrew Davis.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

EIF 2018 - Samson at the Usher Hall, or, An Evening of HIP Handel

I'm generally a fan of Handel's operas and oratorios, and I was also looking forward to hearing the Dunedin Consort for the first time, especially after the recent furore over the cuts to their funding (later I think reversed). This was a very strong evening, though I still retain some personal doubts about aspects of historically informed performance.

This typically epic oratorio follows the Biblical story of Samson. Strikingly, though, much of that saga has taken place by the time the work opens. Samson has thus already been betrayed by Dalila, had his hair shorn, and is languishing in prison. The bulk of the three acts here are therefore concerned with everybody's lamentations about this and worrying about what is going to happen next, until Samson finally pulls down the Philistine temple (off-stage) in Act III. There are thus some issues with dramatic tension. It was interesting to compare this with Saul, which I saw at Glyndebourne last week. But in addition the emotional dilemmas of the characters are less compelling than in, say, a Handel opera like Ariodante. In this performance, a decision was also taken to retain the many lengthy recitatives. I wasn't wholly convinced by this - there are some nice moments, but the text adapted from Milton amongst others is not the best Handel ever set, the music is not particularly interesting, and these sections further slow up the dramatic momentum.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

EIF 2018 - Autobiography at the Festival Theatre, or, And the Connection with the Human Genome?

In advance of this show I had high hopes after the powerful experience of McGregor's Woolf Works at the Royal Ballet last year. Unfortunately this new commission is not in the same league.

According to Uzma Hameed's programme note "a library of movement material has been generated...to reflect the 23 pairs of chromosomes that contain the human genome - refracted and abstracted through McGregor's choreographic processing". What this in practice means is a sequence of 23 movements - I think, they are not performed chronologically and I didn't bother to check them all off - with short titles starting with "avatar" and including such things as "sleep", "nurture" and "scenes from nature".

Monday, 13 August 2018

EIF 2018 - Hocus Pocus at the Studio, or, The Problem of Dispensing with Text

One of the EIF innovations of recent years has been to include a show or two for children. I've now seen a couple of these - Dragon back in 2015 and this show. Obviously I'm not the target audience but, that said, I found this ultimately a little thin.

The show, devised by Philippe Saire with Philippe Chosson and Mickael Henrotay-Delaunay collaborating on the choreography, is comparatively simple in style. Two dancers (Henrotay-Delaunay and Ismael Oiartzabel) perform a series of scenes lit only by two strip lights placed horizontally a little way off the ground to create a square viewing space.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

The Lehman Trilogy at the National, or, American Dreams...American Nightmares

Note: This is a belated review of the performance on Thursday 26th July 2018.

This show is full of things that in other contexts I've hated - long sections of descriptive narration, projections, gimmicky staging ticks. Here they all work, supported by extraordinary versatile acting from the three performers to create a beguiling and ultimately rather sad American history.

The show, adapted by Ben Powers from the original Italian, tells the story of the Lehman Brothers firm from its creation by three German Jewish immigrants in a small room in Montgomery Alabama, with a door handle that sticks, to its demise in a tower of glass in New York City.