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 Anthony Marwood was guest director for the final set of concerts in the 2010/11 series from the Scottish Ensemble. 

Review appears on Bachtrack.

Intermezzo is an opera based on the real life happenings in the relationship between Richard Strauss and his wife Pauline, characterised on stage as Robert and Christine Storch.     

Roland Wood, Anita Bader in Intermezzo

Roland Wood, Anita Bader in Intermezzo Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Maestro Robert takes on a long conducting stint in Vienna, leaving Christine in her country house with their eight year old son Franzl, and a retinue of staff.    On a tobogganing trip, Christine literally crashes into fellow  aristocrat Baron Lummer, and they strike up a friendship ……… until he asks her for money.   Christine opens a letter addressed to Robert, and finds a note from a Mieze Maier asking him to meet her at the opera, and afterwards in the bar.  Highly strung Christine  immediately considers divorce, but the letter turns out to have been sent to Strauss in error, as Mieze mistook his name for Kapellmeister Stroh.  Robert returns home to fix things and domestic harmony is restored eventually.  

This little performed opera is arranged in two acts, each of several scenes with interlude music continuing through the changes.  It is a massive challenge for a designer who has to not only depict rooms in the Storch’s country house, but also an Inn, Lodgings, The Prater in Vienna, a ski slope, and much more.   Designer Manfred Kaderk cleverly used Klimt’s The Kiss as a theme, with the Storches’ house decorated with gloriously over the top Klimt-kitsch wallpaper.  At the start of the opera, in a nice touch, the two figures in The Kiss separated, and were reunited only at the very end.   

The music is a wonderful sound scape of rich, passionate, and dissonant notes, and the Scottish Opera orchestra (complete with harmonium) under Francesco Corti tackled this difficult score with aplomb.   The intermezzos were particularly engrossing, adding so much to the work, and giving the whole a very cinematic feel.  

Roland Wood was an excellently robust Robert Storch, whether battling with Christine to get his belongings packed up for Vienna, playing cards with his friends the Councillors of Commerce and Justice, Kammersanger, Kapellmeister (all in fine voice), or returning home to sort out the domestic mess.    Bavarian Anita Bader did well with the huge role of Christine, but lacked the power needed to get across Corti’s forces going at full tilt in the pit.   It was a pity, because the much anticipated big finish was  somewhat underpowered.   Scot, Nicky Spence sang the smarmy-but-broke  Baron Lummer with conviction.

There were some nice touches from director Wolfgang Quetes:  the clear hierarchy of staff in the Storch household;  the card game scene which erupted into ribald laughter and drink after Robert left the room after being teased about his difficult wife;  Christine throwing a large bunch of red flowers onto the stage, yet within minutes, sitting doucely on her husband’s knee and feeding him toast.

Christine Storch is portrayed as a really difficult woman who is horrible to her staff.    Family joke or not, I was left wondering what the real Pauline Strauss made of this opera when it was performed in 1924.

For seasoned opera goers, the phrase ‘Community Opera’ can conjure up all sorts of feelings – not all good.    These projects can sometimes be well-meaning,  worthy and just a bit dull unless you are taking part, or a parent of a young performer.

So it is a delight to report that the double bill of short community operas at the Glasgow Citizens was none of these things.   It was an absolutely  sparkling evening, as evidenced by the electric buzz in the foyer afterwards.

On the Rim of the World

On the Rim of the World - photo Citizens

On The Rim of the World by Orlando Gough was first on the bill, co-commissioned by all the main UK opera companies who have been performing it ‘in their own way’ ever since.    Glasgow’s turn drew on the well established Citizens Community Theatre together with 30 children from schools across the Gorbals also picked to take part.     Using the professional resources of the Citizens and Scottish Opera, and a visit from the Composer himself, this piece about children too awake for bedtime was worked up into a very special show.

With upbeat and singable music, we were taken on a journey into sleep with nightmare giant chickens, and a circus.    In a nice touch, the Dads were left at home coping with babies and the  lively children while the Mums got a night out.    

The stars of this show were the 50 strong ensemble who acted, danced and sang their hearts out.    With an able band in the pit, which included a saxophone and an accordion, there was so much to like in this wonderfully imaginative show.

Dr Ferret's Bad Medicine Roadshow

Dr Ferret's Bad Medicine Roadshow - photo Citizens.

The second opera, Dr Ferret’s Bad Medicine Show written by Stephen Deazley was commissioned by Scottish Opera to showcase the talents of  the young group of under 22s they have been quietly working with for the past few years.      Based on Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, we were told the much-loved stories  about Henry King and the string, Jim and the lion, George’s dangerous balloon and Matilda’s lies.   

The music was light and catchy with lots of singing for everyone.   Like the first piece, singing, and stagecraft were spot on.      Scottish Opera’s orchestra played the intriguing score with relish.   There was a massive array of percussion set out along the side wall, and watching Jay Allen get round it all was a show in itself.    This charming opera deserves to be performed again for a wider audience.

Most importantly, apart from being real fun for performers and listeners, this demonstrated how two national professional companies can work together, and can involve performers from the wider community to produce something very special.      Coming soon after Scottish Opera’s collaboration with RSAMD on The Cunning Little Vixen, this can only be good for future arts in Scotland.

Cunning Little VixenThe teaming up of RSAMD’s best students with Scottish Opera has now become a much-anticipated annual event:     it is a showcase of how a national opera company can work together with a national music conservatoire to provide immensely valuable experience, and a chance for the youngsters to work right alongside the professionals on stage, off stage and in the pit.

This year, the combined forces chose to revive David Poutney’s much-loved 1980’s WNO/SO joint production of Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen, not seen in Glasgow since 1997.    Always a charming piece, Poutney’s production was a landmark of its time, and the undulating forest design by Maria Bjornson adds much to the magic of the musical soundscape.

This year, for the first time, Scottish Opera’s Emerging Artists were added into the mix, as were pupils from Scottish Ballet.    To get the most value for the exercise, the main singing parts were double-cast, with a performance apiece in Glasgow and Edinburgh.   

The opera is on one level about the forest and its animals, and we follow the story of Vixen Sharp-Ears, taken back to the Forester’s home as a pet cub, but who quickly shows her true character by killing his hens and escaping.     She meets a mate, and they have playful cubs, but though she is shot and killed by the Poacher, it is clear that life continues in the forest year on year.  

And year on year, this opera is about old age, and loves which might have been:    the Schoolmaster misses his chance to marry Ternyka as his friend the Poacher beats him to it, and the Forester sings about old age and the shot vixen.   In the final moments, a frog jumps onto his lap, and reminds him that he is the grandson of the frog who did the same thing when he first met Sharp-Ears.

Janacek was 70 years old when wrote the Cunning Little Vixen and deep  in unrequited love with the much younger (and married) Kamila Stösslová, making the Forester’s final song all the more poignant.

Seen on its second night in Glasgow, the night belonged to Michel de Souza, Scottish Opera Emerging Artist who sang a wonderful Forester, and he was well matched by opera student Natalie Montakhab’s vivacious vixen who put in a simply  thrilling performance.      But that is not to detract from the large cast of singers and dancers whose enthusiasm  made this a memorable evening.

And finally, a special mention to Emily Chappell for the charming programme illustrations.

Boo!  Boo!  Boo! to Horsecross.   

rotten tomatoes for Horsecross

Rotten Tomatoes for Horsecross

Horsecross which runs Perth Concert Hall and Perth Theatre has just introduced booking fees after being booking fee free since it opened – apart from touring shows which imposed their own booking fees.

Booking fees are a rip-off tax on the arts, and Horsecross is charging 50p a ticket.    So I have just bought 12 tickets in one transaction for several events which comes to around £180, and I now have to pay an extra £6 “arts tax”.    

It does not cost £6 to process £180.

The lunacy is that if I buy 12 tickets for the same event the booking fee is waived on tickets 11 and 12.    That’s real Alice in Wonderland logic for you, as is the waiving of the booking fee if you turn up in person and pay in cash.

If I go into a supermarket, I don’t have to pay extra for the shop to process my transaction.    Horsecross should be no different.   There are plenty of arts organisations that don’t charge booking fees, and Horsecross should be one of them.

Consider this post a generous dose of virtual rotten tomatoes.

Strange things happen in bad weather, and in December, traffic wardens in Edinburgh were unable to operate properly due to the sheer volume of snow.   Parking bays, yellow lines etc. were completely obscured, and piles of snow were left at the side of the roads.

Many Councils, not just Edinburgh, were left without income from parking tickets for the duration, and are now feeling the pinch.   The army of Edinburgh traffic wardens have a reputation of being extremely efficient – they have a job to do and get on with it.    But  the staggering figure is the amount issued in parking fines every day in Edinburgh:   would you believe that this is £50,000?    EVERY DAY.

Edinburgh Traffic wardens

Edinburgh Traffic Wardens in the Snow - Gie them shovels!

It makes you think though:     if the citizens of Edinburgh want to teach Edinburgh Council a lesson  for introducing the stupid, stupid tram project, they just need to obey the parking rules to the letter for a few months.

Scottish Ensemble

The Scottish Ensemble - Photo Joannne Green

Outside St Ninian’s Cathedral in Perth it was minus 8 deg C, and pavements round about were extremely difficult to use due to thick uneven layers of ice.     Nevertheless, a decent crowd turned out for the welcome annual Candlelit Concert treat from The Scottish Ensemble at Christmastime:   the Perth concert was the last of a tour of Scotland, and in a week of difficult weather and cancelled events, the Ensemble had somehow dodged the snow and played every concert.

As Jonathan Morton explained, these concerts at Christmas time are not always Christmassy, and in the centrepiece of  a fine Czech programme,   Janacek’s Quartet No 1 – the Kreutzer Sonata, arranged for the Ensemble by Morton, was the certainly not festive.      Based on Tolstoy’s story of a jealous husband who murdered his wife because he thought, mistakenly, that she was having an affair with the  violinist whom she accompanied playing Beethoven’s Kreutzer’s Sonata.     The tale is told by a narrator on a train, as we hear the rhythmic clack of the wheels in the music from time to time.    Janacek visited turbulent themes in his operas, and was so taken by this story that he wrote the piece in only eight days.    In stark contrast to the evening’s bookended Dvorak pieces, this was splendidly spiky dissonant high energy music and  just the musical  territory the Ensemble likes to really get its teeth into playing.    The story was well told, with a special highlight being a duet between Jonathan Morton and Alison Lawrance on ‘cello in the third movement.

The piece was arranged by Morton from a string quartet, and I wonder whether the original would have had as much impact as this performance without the added double bass and other instruments.

Dvorak’s Nocturne in B Major for String orchestra started the evening.   One of the best things about a Scottish Ensemble concert is watching the interactions between the players, no more so than during a beguiling piece like this as the players were clearly enjoying themselves.

Because it was Christmastime, we were treated to a small extra:   Josef Suk’s Meditation on an Old Czech Hymn, which was delightful bonus.

The second half was just one work:  Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings in E.    As if to help us forget the elements outside, this brought sunny playing in the five movements.      It was  interesting to contrast these two composers, only born thirteen years apart, and so very different.   The programming encouraged us to search for premonitions of Janacek  in the Dvorak music, revealing perhaps the less obvious darker undercurrents.  

St Ninian’s cathedral with its was a nice warm acoustic looked very festive by candlelight with a large Christmas tree.    However, there were serious shortcomings with this venue as the heating battled against the frost and draughts blew down from the stained glass.   Few in the audience shed their warm outer clothing, a luxury not extended to the players who were clearly challenged by the conditions.    In this venue, the sight lines are very poor, and even from the 4th row back, most of the players are difficult to see as they are not set up high enough.   In the past, these concerts were in St John’s Kirk, which shared some of the problems at St Ninians, but was a better venue.    We moved into the new purpose-built Perth Concert Hall, which has great acoustic, excellent sight lines and proper audience facilities, and where audiences built up from the St John’s Kirk days.    It is a shame that these past two concerts have not taken place in the Concert Hall, which was surely built for occasions like these.    

Jonathan Morton thanked us for turning out, and we should thank him in return for pressing ahead with this wonderful concert in very much less than ideal conditions.

In The Penal Colony

New opera at the Traverse is becoming an annual exciting date to not to miss.    Music Theatre Wales made a return visit with In the Penal Colony by Philip Glass after their successful presentation of Letters of  Love Betrayed in 2009.    Before that, Lyall Creswell’s Good Angel, Bad Angel set a very high standard.   And in between, the Hebrides Ensemble performed The Martyrdom of St Magnus before taking it to Kirkwall Cathedral for the Orkney Festival.     The popular success of the Five:15 project from Scottish Opera demonstrates a healthy appetite for new chamber opera, and the Traverse had a waiting list for tickets for this one night only show.  
 
In the Penal Colony is based on a short story by Franz Kafka, with libretto by Rudolph Wurlitzer and music by Philip Glass.   The opera is 10 years old, but this tour was its first outing in the UK.      The setting was minimalist:   two singers, one actor and a string quartet (with added double bass) from Scottish Opera’s orchestra.    The stage had a table, a chair and a ladder.    
In the Penal Colony

In the Penal Colony - Photo, Clive Barda

The setting is a penal colony, with capital punishment in the hands of The  Officer, intent on doing things very traditionally and  superbly sung and acted by Omar Ebrahim.     The Condemned Man was expressively played by silent actor Gerald Tyler.    The third character was The Visitor, sung by Michael Bennett  sent to observe proceedings.   
The Officer shows the Visitor his brutal machine, and it becomes apparent that the killing takes  several hours – plenty long enough for a condemned man to see the error of his ways before he is finally dispatched.    The Visitor is appalled, and as it dawns on the Officer that the rest of the world has in fact moved on from the middle ages, there is only one course of action left – to turn himself over to the machine.

Glass’s music is based on repetitive but ever-changing motifs, and the musicians took up the challenge with clear relish.    However, it tended to get a bit samey after a while, and there were sudden halts where everyone turned a page, and there was a different lighting cue, which I felt spoilt the action.     The amplification of both the players and singers, which although reasonably unobtrusive, was perhaps not needed, particularly as the radio mikes were having a few buzzy problems.

I was just not sure this story worked well as opera.     There were times when there was not enough happening on stage.   Certainly, everyone turned in good performances, but the result was ultimately less than the sum of its parts, which was a little disappointing.

Roadkill

We tried to get to see Roadkill back in the summer at the Tron ahead of its run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where it scooped a clutch of awards, and where we also failed to secure tickets.   We tried again for the recent run at the Tron, and initially failed, but we were put  on a waiting list – luckily we were offered returns…….

We knew well in advance that this was a hard-hitting play about sex trafficking, and that it was to be played out to a small audience in a seedy flat somewhere in town.     As a theatrical experience, it was deeply disturbing, and raised all sorts of questions.

Roadkill

Roadkill - photo, Ankur productions

We got on the wee bus at the Tron, and last to get on was Martha, a young smart Nigerian lady with Mary, a 14 year old Nigerian girl, fresh off the plane, hugely over excited to be starting a new life in Glasgow.   The girl sat across the aisle from me.   We struck up a conversation about farming;   she talked about Glasgow pubs to someone else, and about the lack of people walking about on the streets, and the fact that she had seen few black faces.   

OK, so this was a game which we, the 15 of us who made up the audience played:   Mary was in character of course:   we knew, and she knew.    Making friends with us, her fellow passengers cleverly heightened the shattering impact of this play.

We drove past the Citz and the Tramway, and we all got out at a run down flat nearby.   There was a smashed up loo and basin beside the steps – put there by the company, or just simply ‘there’ in the street?  

Within the space of a few minutes, the bubbly excitable 14 year old had been raped by an Eastern European man who was running the flat of sex trafficked girls, aided by Martha, called ‘auntie’ by the girl.    She was introduced to prostitution, and given explicit lessons on how to cope with clients.     She was cruelly convinced that the money was being sent back home to her family in Africa.     

The performances from Mercy Ojelade as Mary, Adura Onashile, and John Kazek (who played all the men) were quite extraordinary and outstanding.    Real tears.   Graphic detail was conveyed by video projection and soundscape, one part featuring read out entries from a real website where clients post their experiences with various girls in the city, as if putting up reviews up for  hotel rooms on Tripadvisor.   It was grim stuff indeed

It was all very real and horrifying for us in the audience sitting on our small stools around Mary’s room.    What made it bearable was Mary’s inner strength, which she held onto despite what others were doing to her, and in the end offered a glimmer of hope of sorts.  

The location of the flat underlined that this is happening in everyday places we know – not the obvious red light districts.    It really did leave questions of us in the audience who almost felt like voyeurs into a parallel world happening right alongside us – only a short bus-ride away.   It was a powerful theatrical experience, but I feel very uncomfortable walking away from this if that is the only thing I do take away.   And perhaps that is director Cora Bissett’s aim – to highlight the problem, and perhaps galvanise  some sort of action.   In particular, she highlights the relationship between the older woman and the girl as repulsive and intriguing:   how can one woman do this to another?  

The bus ride back to the Theatre was very sombre and thoughtful.

Roadkill is available for touring, so hopefully will be performed elsewhere.

The publicity promised much:  Abigail Docherty’s  new play,winner of the Tron’s Open Stage Competition, given a full production by Andy Arnold and his team.    I wanted to know more about these Scottish women who headed off to World War One battlezones to do their bit.

Land and Sea and Sky at the TronThe play was a great disappointment, and told us little that we did not already know:   the posh and working class girls tumbled together, the horror and sheer overwhelming nature of what they were asked to do when they got there, the chaos of war, the loss of life and the mentally damaged survivors.

Although taken from real diaries, I was surprised by the course language and the complete lack of any organisation in the field.     I had thought that people got on with what they had to do and did their best.    Perhaps that is the version we are supposed to believe  and this was to tell us otherwise, in which case, fair enough  I suppose.     I just can’t believe that the nurse who dragged corpses around with her was not taken in hand by anyone – by colleagues or the person in charge.   This got a laugh (of all things)  in the theatre.

I really wanted to meet Dr Elsie Inglis who set up the field hospitals where the young women were recruited to work.  In taking a bigger view we might have learned more about the aim of the exercise, what was achieved and the failings. 

So, a disappointment all round.    The two rays of hope at the very end were just over contrived.