Archive for June, 2008

This opera is based on the true story of the martyrdom of sixteen Carmelite nuns from Compiegne during the French Revolution.     It tells the story of Blanche from an aristocratic family who joins the order after being menaced by a mob in the street.    She is interviewed by the Old Prioress who becomes ill and dies, but before she does, has a vision of events to come and cries out against God.   The political situation deteriorates.   The chaplain of the convent is no longer allowed to officiate at Mass, and the convent is to be closed.   The nuns are given civilian clothes.    They take a vow of martyrdom, and are taken to Paris and condemned to death.  

The singing from all the principles from the Glasgow Opera School was all good, with Catherine Rogers as Blanche particularly outstanding, and the RSAMD orchestra in the pit conducted by Timoth Dean played generally well – and Poulenc’s music is so involving to listen to.

The production from Nicolette Molnar was ably directed, and use was made of a silent but very menacing mob of french peasants.     Alison Nalder’s lattice design fitted well.

Of course, as soon as this begins, the question is:   how will they do the final scene?    All the nuns sing ‘Salve Regina’ and as they each face the big blade, the chorus is reduced in number until only Constance and Blanche are left singing, and then they go too.   As each one dies, there is a loud clang from offstage percussion.     In previous productions, I have seen nuns climb a scaffold, and a guillotine wind up each time before crashing down.    In this production, the nuns faced us, walking into individual pools of bright white light before falling to the ground.    The amount of dead bodies on the stage at the end of this opera makes it hauntingly disturbing.

But it was well done, and no weak links.

Read Full Post »

St Magnus Cathedral - KirkwallPeter Maxwell Davies wrote his short opera The Martyrdom of St Magnus for the first St Magnus Festival in Orkney in 1977.     It is a chamber piece, based on the book Magnus by George Mackay Brown.    It tells the story of the two Earls of Orkney in the 12th century Hakon and Magnus, and of the fated peace treaty on the isle of Egilsay.     Magnus is killed, but there are reports of miracles at his tomb, and in this story, Blind Mary has her sight restored.

St Magnus’ skull is buried  inside one of the pillars of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, and when Peter Maxwell Davies conducted the first performance there, he found that he was standing right beside the very pillar.

The opera had five hand-picked singers each performing a whole range of characters from Magnus, the Bishop, Hakon, rowers, Blind Mary and so on with onstage changes of costume.    Using a couple of long boxes and a few flags, the stage became two warring boats in the Menai Strait, or the Monastary on Birsay and St Magnus’ tomb.    The chamber orchestra were set to one side, but the percussionist arranged his whole extensive workshop right across the back of the stage.    It was a nice design by Monica Nisbet.Martyrdom of St Magnus

 The singing and playing were of extremely high standard.    The Hebrides Ensemble conducted by William Conway really got their teeth into the strange music, and would have been very watchable in their own right, but the intensity of the performances from the singers on stage actually made it very difficult to take your eyes off them, even for a second.    John McMunn gave a robust strong performance as Magnus, and tall Paul Whelan was authoritative in the bass parts of Hakon and the Bishop.    Leigh Melrose was a beguiling tempter, bearded Jeremy Carpenter looked like and sang the King of Norway, as well as the poor butcher Lifolf who is forced to dispatch Magnus.    Bookending the opera was Louise Mott singing Blind Mary, who also laid a heartfelt curse on the horsemen warriors for killing a farmer for not being able to provide bacon:   the farmer had no pigs.

Maxwell Davies writes fairly strange music, and in George Mackay Brown’s writings, he is perfectly matched.     In the book, Magnus, just before the killing, we are taken years forward to Nazi Germany, where the man chosen to be the butcher is Lifolf, the German recruited to do the cooking for the officers and prisoners in the Jewish camp.    The killing then becomes ‘any wronged prisoner’ who is put to death.      In the opera, the music suddenly changed, and the singers became reporters with torches and megaphones.    It was a strange surreal moment, and I was glad to get back into the distant past for the last scene.

And what a last scene it was.    The orchestra downed their instruments and four monks entered and sang strange plainchant accompanied by a single tuned bell.     Blind Mary received her miracle of sight, and dismissed the audience to carry the peace of Christ into the word, as the plainchant died away into the distance and the monks processed out with their candles leaving the single candle on Magnus’ tomb.   Wow – what a finish.

Benjamin Twist directed his forces with a light and effective touch.     He is becoming a favorite for chamber opera, as he was involved in the Five:15 project with Scottish Opera, as well as with the Hebrides Ensemble, directing the haunting Good Angel, Bad Angel.    

There were only three performances of this – one in Inverness, one at the Traverse in Edinburgh (it was packed out), and one back in St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney where it all began, and where it really must have sounded truly marvellous.

Read Full Post »

Harvest activity here meant I missed The Bacchae at the Edinburgh Festival, and also the Glasgow run last summer.    Happily it is being resurrected, with a few cast changes,  for a handful of performances in Aberdeen and Inverness before heading off to New York.

A likeable show, even if it does not all quite work.    Another tremendous soundscape from Christopher Shutt set the tone even as we took our seats, with ominous growlings.   

Alan Cumming  as Dionysus made the now well-known but still breathtaking entrance at the start, and held court.    The son of Zeus who demonstrated that he can burn the place down one moment and render himself so bright that mere mortals like us cannot look at him, Cumming was totally integral to this performance, and was missed as soon as he left the stage.

David Greig’s script says that “Thebes lies at the confluence of two major rivers – never a good sign” – Cumming, clearly seizing a chance not available in Edinburgh or Glasgow,  delivered these lines with relish as the Aberdeen audience got the reference.    

The Greek chorus were a black gospel choir, dressed in individually different  shaggy bright red dresses.  A nice touch.   They moved and acted well, but while there was an odd good voice, the general standard of singing let them down, particularly in the exposed final number.    There have been a few cast changes here since Edinburgh, and this was the ‘first night’ for most of them.    I was also not sure that the sound balance was correct, and the quality was rather ‘radio-mike tinny’ if you know what I mean.    They will have to sharpen up their singing for New York.

There were some very good performances:   Cal Macaninch as Pentheus, Prince of Thebes, deliciously tricked into dressing up as a woman to peep at the Bacchae in their drunken rituals on the mountain, was particularly enthralling.    Not many men could wear a dress like that.     Paola Dionisotti returns to her role as his mother Agave, who unknowingly murders him and carries his head home to Thebes triumphantly, believing it is the head of a mountain lion.      It is left to Ewan Hooper as her father, Cadmus to so gently inform her about the terrible truth – extraordinary performances from both, and a highlight of the evening.

But just how sorry were we meant to feel for Pentheus?    Dionysus played a cruel trick indeed, yet Cumming spends most of this play drawing the audience to his side, and we were so taken in.     Right from the start when he says “You know the story.”    Most of us don’t, of course, and so we have it explained about Semele and Zeus’ thunderbolt.    We are immediately in Dionysus’ confidence.    Which makes the play all the more shocking of course.

It was Alan Cumming’s show.     Blood everywhere.    The full house in Aberdeen loved it.

Read Full Post »

Lisbon Treaty

At least the Irish were given the choice, although, Zimbabwe style, they may get another vote to come up with the ‘correct’ answer next time.

In the UK, we have no choice – Gordon Brown and his chums have railroaded this through parliament and approved it on our behalf.      It is an undemocratic disgrace.      We should have been given the chance to choose.

NO means NO.   What part of that do the eurocrats have a problem with?

Don’t know if these things do any good, but if feel hard done by, you have until 22nd June to sign this petition:   http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/Abandon-Lisbon/ 

Read Full Post »

E.S.T. Esbjorn Svensson

Absolutely shocking news about Esjborn Svensson, the jazz pianist who died while scuba diving in Sweden last weekend aged 44.  

I first heard the Esbjorn Svensson Trio being played on Radio Scotland a few years ago, and was knocked out by a track from Seven Days of Falling.   I heard them play live in Dundee when they were very new to the UK and also when they played in Perth last year.    Their music is very classically based, and acoustic with carefully added electronics – it is by turn exciting, enthralling, haunting and incredibly beautiful and lyrical.     To put it in a box called ‘Jazz’ is only because it overlaps with so many musical forms.

Svensson formed E.S.T. fifteen  years ago with bassist Dan Berglund and schoolfriend drummer Magnus Ostrom.    They moved on from playing standards, through Monk to all original material, and their approach was deliciously inventive yet always accessible.    The trio worked seamlessly together to evolve their new music, sparking ideas off eachother in live performance, so that each performance of a familiar E.S.T piece was completely unique, and often very different from the original.    Indeed – sometimes when they got to the end of a piece, it had arrived at such a different place, they had forgotten what they had started playing.   

They took their own sound engineer and their lighting designer with them on tour, as they considered both to be integral to the performance.    The group won many awards, including a BBC Jazz Award for best international Act in 2003.

Fifteen years is a long time for a group to evolve together.    E.S.T. were continually inventing new and wonderful music, and looked to have many successful years ahead of them.    They had so much still to do.

To have all this so cruelly cut short is truly heartbreaking.     Obit. in The Scotsman.

Esbjorn Svensson


Read Full Post »

Dundee Rep have assembled their ‘A’ team of actors to tackle the 1938 Parisian shocker Les Parents Terribles by Jean Cocteau in a translation made for the National Theatre production by Jeremy Sam.       I knew nothing about this play when I went, but it is a totally absorbing five-hander.

Diabetic and permanently pyjama-clad Yvonne, convincingly played by Anne Louise Ross and her 22 year old son Michael (a bouncy and at times, petulant Kevin Lennon)  have an uncomfortably close relationship – bordering on the Oedipal.     Yvonne’s husband George ( John Buick – in splendid form) was actually engaged to her sister Leo (Irene Macdougall), before breaking it off, and Leo is still understandably bitter after all these years.     The play begins with Yvonne lying on the floor in a diabetic coma, and it is clear that Michael has stayed out all night.    Aunt Leo says that Michael  has been with a woman – and he has, of course, much to Yvonne’s astonishment and disgust.     We learn that George has also been secretly seeing a woman.    The same one:   Madeleine, nicely played by Emily Winter.    The family pay a visit to Madeleine’s apartment, and the sparks really start flying.      Madeleine has a really dirty trick played on her, but in the end it is Leo who holds the cards, and Irene Macdougall gave a well judged performance.

Les Parents terribles    

Kevin Lennon, Emily Winter and Anne Louise Ross in Les Parents Terribles.    Picture – Dundee Rep.

 This was a very stylish production indeed.    Stewart Laing directed with attention to detail, and he also designed the extraordinary ‘dolls house’ type set, with ‘the family’s’ drab and dark untidy bedroom and bathroom in the lower half, and Madelaine’s bright and ordered apartment in the upper half.    The whole was stunningly lit by Mimi Jordan Sherin, an internationally renowned lighting designer.    Set and lighting are potentially award winning.

Les Parents Terribles must be a tricky play to bring off, as the continually shifting balance between the main characters has to be caught ‘just so’.    The advantage that Stewart Laing had was that this team of actors has been working together for so many productions.      The benefit of the permanent ensemble working at Dundee Rep was once again demonstrated, and this was a good night out at the theatre.

Over at View From the Stalls, Statler and Waldorf have discussed the problems of theatre audiences.    We have actually had a pretty good run recently, but at this performance there were three large women along the row and in front of us who ate throughout, and I am talking about crisps+.     They really had brought a picnic.   Not exactly silent.      Also we had two different people wandering out and wandering back in again.    And a lot of coughing.    Must be the Dundee haar.    

Read Full Post »

So, Waitrose want to sell milk in bags.     What goes around, comes around.

I remember that in the 1970s, milk came in bags.   You were given a special plastic jug to stick your milk bag in, cut off the corner with a pair of scissors, and simply poured.     As long as you were nifty with the scissors the pouring was drip free.    Too small a hole, and it took aeons to fill a glass;   too big and the whole lot came out in a tidal wave totally flooding out your breakfast cereal.     Milk speedily moved on to tetrapak and we now have the hard plastic bottles.

Interestingly, Canada stuck with milk bags, and now sells 60% of its milk that way.     We could save 100,000 tonnes of waste plastic bottles if all the UK milk came in bags.

I think this time round though, you are supposed to empty the whole bag into the jug.

Waitrose Milk Bags

Read Full Post »

I tend to enjoy derived theatre – that is a play which is constructed by the creative team as it goes along, and when everyone is happy, written down and performed.    It is a risky strategy, because as performance deadlines loom, the pressure incresases to get it in its final form.    When it works, it can capture the inventive and imaginative more than rehearsing a play from a fixed script.     Thankfully, most derived theatre tends to work pretty well, and this was no exception.

As a starting point, Jan Švankmajer, a Czech surrealist artist made a film of this dark tale in 2000, and this was an attempt to stage the piece.     In essence, the tale is about a childless couple who are desperate for a baby, and end up adopting a piece of wood.   The wood becomes an animated creature, grows and has an unusual and voracious appetite.    “Be careful what you wish for …..” might be the moral.

But it is in the telling that the tale becomes alive:    told through the thoughts of a young child, a role marvelously inhabited with uncanny eeriness in an astonishing performance by young Rebecca Smith.    At the start, with the house lights still up, she wandered down through the auditorium , bouncing a ball – she threw it to a member of the audience, climbed over a seat or two, and held out her hands for the ball back.    She knew more about her community than she let on – about the childless couple, about the paedophilic old man and about the cellar – she had power over the adults and knew how to use it.      Hers was the pivotal role of the piece;    it was at times a very disturbing performance to watch, and it was very unusual to see a professional production where a performance by a child is central to the action.

We were taken into a magical and sinister world through Kai Fischer’s sets and lighting and into the minds of the characters through use of Finn Ross’ projections, adding a whole new dimension to the piece.   Babies appeared in the glass panels of the childless couple’s door, embryos covered the walls of the apartment and flocks of birds and butterflies crossed the backdrop.    The stage floor was peaty earth, but symbolically barren as it was dry and waiting for rain.     Matthew Lenton directed exciting and busy ensemble set pieces, such as when the rain finally arrived, but also vignettes like the old lady pulling whole cabbages out through the peat – almost like a birth process.     There was a real cat – taken from a pram.    We were in a wonderfully surreal place.

Christopher Shutt’s soundscape complimented the staging.    He has worked with Theatre de Complicite including on Street of Crocodiles (and I think I recognised the ‘drip’ in the cellar) and must have relished this project.

The rest of the cast worked hard and really brought the story to life.   Not quite a 5 star show, as it flagged in the middle a little, could have a few rough edges developed, and I am still not sure if this play was just about the main story, or whether we were supposed to examine the paranoia of child safety, and the isolation that can bring.      Indeed, with the news that modern children are suffering as a result of over-protection in a report by the Children’s Commission to the UN , it could not have beem more timely.    It was a very interesting night out.    The National Theatre of Scotland was able to resource this production, and allow it to travel beyond the Citizens in Glasgow.     


Read Full Post »