Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Glorious, Festive Nutcracker!

The art of ballet has its canon of imperishable classics, works which are continually re-interpreted by new generations of artists in new and timely ways.  Among them, of course, are the "Big Three" with music by Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker.

It seems odd to reflect that Tchaikovsky himself did not really enjoy the subject as he worked on this commission, nor did he feel that the music was out of his top drawer.  It's a totally safe bet to state that more people have heard the score of The Nutcracker performed live than any other work by the composer, perhaps more than any other classical work of music -- although Messiah would be in a neck-and-neck race there!

But about the timeliness: the National Ballet's famous version, choreographed by James Kudelka and designed by Santo Loquasto, celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year.  Twenty years.  That's a number worth considering.  During those twenty years, this one production has been seen by over one million people.  Let that one sink in for a moment.  And yet it still seems to me fresh and new.

Of course, The Nutcracker is a seasonal staple among ballet companies all over the world -- and among orchestras too, where ballet companies do not exist.  But after seeing video recordings of half a dozen other versions, I have yet to find any other Nutcracker which is as glorious, as festive, as entertaining -- indeed hilarious -- as this one.

In brief, it's a fantastic cross-fertilization of comedy and theatre and dance and music, all rolled into one.

Two couples were talking beside me at the intermission.  One woman asked the other couple whether they enjoyed it.  Here are the replies:

HE:  The sets and costumes are really great.

SHE:  It was nice once the ballet got going in the snow scene.

That made me laugh (talk about the two extremes) but both of them, in their own terms, were right.

A dance purist might not enjoy the long opening party scene.  This is where most of the Keystone Kops comedy moments occur -- including a runaway rat in the barn, a teetering tea tray, dancing and roller-skating bears, a dancing horse, a snowball fight, and more.  But hey, it's set at a Christmas party and if anyone's ever been to a Christmas party where everyone stood decorously in a line, in exactly identical poses, and making exactly identical movements, I can only say that they have my sympathy.  A Christmas party ought to balance right on the verge of anarchy!

Anarchy is mainly supplied by the two children Kudelka has placed at the centre of the story, Marie and her brother Misha (danced last night by Maya Fazzari and Maximilian Raszewski).  As one would expect of two small children, they are mischievous little imps, cute and sweet one minute and devilish the next.  What is totally unexpected, compared to many other Nutcrackers, is that they, and their numerous peers, actually dance -- and dance a great deal too.

Such dancing as does occur is heavily flavoured with the styles of Slavic folk dance, appropriate since this version is set in Tsarist Russia.  This is especially true of the mysterious character of Uncle Nikolai who provides the magic that entertains everyone through the party.  Kudelka's choreography for him is unique -- part Russian folk, part modern, part classical, and all very high energy.  When Uncle Nikolai dances -- and especially when he spins -- the skirts of his heavy red coat fly out all around him.  His pas de deux with a horse which is itself animated by two dancers is one of the great comic highlights of the show.  Robert Stephen generated plenty of zip and go in this key role.

(Conflict of Interest Alert:  Yes, he's my nephew -- but first and foremost he's a damn good dancer!).

The battle scene doesn't make any more sense than in any version of the story, but it does have the merit of including large numbers of costumed animals and soldier mice, a cue for introducing students from a number of Toronto schools alongside the dance students of the National Ballet School.  Incidentally, the battle also brings in the famous cannon scene, with the two "Cannon Dolls" at each performance played by two locally prominent people -- in this case, a Toronto city councillor and spouse.

After the battle, though, as the toy nutcracker metamorphoses into the Nutcracker Prince, the stage smoothly morphs into the snow-glistening birch forest to some of the most beautiful, heartfelt music Tchaikovsky ever composed -- music whose every bar is steeped in yearning or perhaps nostalgia.  Kudelka's exquisite pas de trois for the Snow Queen and her two Icicles is majestic, stately, eminently royal and gravely beautiful -- a hand-in-glove fit to the music if ever there was one.  It was beautifully danced last night by Jenna Savella, Giorgio Galli, and Jack Bertinshaw.  Savella in particular conveyed an air of deeply-rooted joy which I can't recall ever feeling in this scene before. 

At the same time, it's sometimes hard to avoid being distracted by the gigantic snowflakes rotating slowly in the air at the top of the proscenium!

The second act takes us into the red and gold spectacle of the Sugar Plum Fairy's magic palace.  She appears almost immediately from inside her giant Faberge egg to dance her famous solo.  Jurgita Dronina, a new principal dancer with the company, was making her role debut this year.  Her dancing as the Sugar Plum Fairy was precise, clean, and rock-steady -- all wonderful attributes.  It's a difficult role in which to find much emotion, but again I sensed an air of joyfulness.  And after all, that's probably the character's principal function -- to spread joy around her.  

Her Nutcracker Prince was Naoya Ebe, also making his role debut.  In his first act appearance as Peter, the stable boy, I liked the playfulness with which he interacted with Marie and Misha.  In the second act, he was all ardent youth and high spirits.  The choreography calls for him to be smitten with the Fairy as soon as he sees her, and this was convincing.  It's only there, really, to lay the groundwork for the emotional climax of the evening -- the grand romantic pas de deux.  Ebe, in face and gesture alike, beautifully conveyed the yearning which again comes to the fore in Tchaikovsky's music.  Dronina counterpointed it with a sudden lighting of her face, in almost a mischievous grin, as she turned back to him at the end after seeming to bid him farewell.

In between these two moments comes more comic business (a runaway chicken), some heavily gymnastic dancing by four waiters and Nikolai, a charming little dance of baby sheep, the vigorous Spanish Chocolate dance and the hypnotically stylized Arabian Coffee -- followed by the swirling colours of the famous Waltz of the Flowers.  The tutus are layered with what look like large petals, and there are at least three different multi-coloured designs in play.  Colour and contrast is provided by four "Branches", male dancers in forest-green velvety costumes.  Part of the stage-filling effect of this dance is the way Kudelka gives different groups of dancers very different movements, and then puts them all into motion on the stage at the same time (a technique also used by Balanchine, among others).

According to tradition, the final waltz brings back multiple dancers from earlier in the act.  In a way, it's almost like the precursor of a "dancing curtain call" in a modern musical show.

This Nutcracker truly has something for everyone.  Amazingly, it still seems as fresh and inspired to me today as the first time I saw it, 20 years ago.  Odd details here and there make it plain that the dancers do bring their own little touches into their roles, so that the show is indeed never quite the same twice running.  

Considering that the company does over thirty performances a year, the sheer joie de vivre of this performance, so near the end of their grueling run, was even more remarkable.  

Thursday, 26 November 2015

New Hall, Classic Orchestra

I'm currently on holiday, and staying for just 3 nights in London after flying over from Canada.  But it's November, and the arts season is in full swing.  So, unlike the height of the summer, there are classical concerts all over the city -- in every venue from huge concert halls to little churches.

I had half a dozen choices for my two available nights, and finally opted for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra tonight, largely because they were playing in a venue I'd never heard of before: Cadogan Hall.  I would urge you to google the Hall's website and have a look, because it's quite the place with quite the unusual history.

But long story short: it's a former Christian Science Church that's been completely renovated into a beautiful concert hall, somewhere between neo-classical and art deco in style, with lovely acoustics and less than 1000 seats, making it more intimate than such venues as the Barbican, Royal Festival Hall, and especially the gargantuan Royal Albert Hall.  Tonight's concert was conducted by Christoph Koenig and featured cellist Laura van der Heijden.

The concert opened with Schubert's beloved Unfinished Symphony.  Koenig's performance of this work was classically shaped and avoided all interpretive excesses -- except one.  I felt the entire symphony was just a little too fast.  But this is a matter of personal taste.  Certainly Koenig heeded the famous advice of Sir Donald Tovey that the basic tempo of the two movements should be beat for beat identical, and if anything slightly faster in the second "slow" movement.  Koenig allowed the music to breathe beautifully without obviously speeding up or slowing down, and that's an art that seems to escape many conductors nowadays.  This entire work brought the most beautiful and poetic playing in the critical horn parts, and the clarinet's sustained lyrical lines in the second movement were an absolute delight too.

Believe it or not, this is the first time I have ever heard the Unfinished played live.  It seems to have become one of those works, like Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, that are "never played because everyone has heard them so often."  Well, after this concert, I can only say, "That's a pity."

Cellist van der Heijden then took centre stage for Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme.  In all honesty, I have to admit that this is not one of my favourite works, either by Tchaikovsky or for the cello and orchestra.  But if we are going to have it, then van der Heijden and Koenig certainly teamed up to show us how it ought to be done.  Solo playing was crisp and clear at all times, with even the quiet notes coming across clearly thanks to Cadogan Hall's live and open acoustic.  The orchestra's role often requires them to "interrupt" the soloist, and these interruption entries were neatly done too.  The performers worked up to a rousing ending.

After the intermission, the concert concluded with Dvorak's impassioned and tragic Seventh Symphony.  This, too, was a first-time-live for me, and I was certainly not disappointed.  This work brought the largest orchestra of the evening with five horns and three trombones. 

Considering how many trombone jokes one hears going around, the quiet playing of that section was certainly admirable.  After one weak moment in the first movement, the horns excelled themselves again, as did the clarinet and oboe.  The cello section in particular impressed with their beauty of tone in the slow movement. 

This is a powerful work, designedly so.  Dvorak wanted to prove that there was more to him than pretty tunes and folk dances, and he definitely achieved that end.  It's actually a pretty rare bird in the repertoire, a symphony that ends in the height of its dark and tragic power.  Gone is the idea of the progression from darkness to light that was so common from the time of Beethoven onwards.  Indeed, the massive and tragic coda of the final movement is the most powerful moment of the entire symphony.

If there was ever a work that would tempt a conductor to over-conduct, this would be it -- but Koenig didn't fall into that trap.  With a simple clear beat, and sparing interpretive gestures, he led the orchestra in a reading that brought up all the power and drama of the work without overriding any of the quiet lyrical moments that provide necessary relief.  Noteworthy was the gentle lilt of the third movement, a piece whose cross-rhythms sometimes seem to make players and conductors edgy and nervous -- if one can judge by recordings.  And the final coda was big, bold, and dramatic enough for anyone's taste while still maintaining perfect balance among the various sections.

By any standards, this was a very rewarding concert indeed -- and to say that I was greatly impressed by the beauty and quality of Cadogan Hall would be a gross understatement!

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Poetry in Motion

This week's highlight -- one of the highlights of the entire fall culture season for me -- is the Canadian premiere of the National Ballet of Canada's newest production:  The Winter's Tale, derived from the late Shakespeare play.

This full-length new work comes from the same creative team as the wildly successful Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:  choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, composer Joby Talbot, and designer Bob Crowley.  The similarity stops right there.

Alice is wildly dynamic, like its source material: fast-paced, even frantic at times, hilariously absurd, and brilliantly costumed.  The Winter's Tale owes its very different tone to its very different source material.

This play is one of a quartet of late plays by Shakespeare sometimes called the "romances":  The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, Pericles, and The Tempest.  Only the last-named is at all well-known.  All four share some common thematic material.  Each one features tales of people who are lost and then rediscovered.  Each one has its innocent character who must become acquainted with the wider world.  Each one revolves around some terrible wrong or injury maliciously done by one character to another, and the process by which the injury is set right again usually involves some sort of magical or divine intervention.  Each play ends with a scene of recovery and reconciliation, a scene in which the mystical tone is well to the forefront.  In current modern usage, I'm tempted to call these the "karma plays" because of these common thematic threads that weave them all together.

From this brief synopsis, it's not surprising to find that the play takes a very poetic approach to the subject.  The artists creating this ballet have wisely done the same.  The result is involving, gripping, thought-provoking, and does indeed rise to the purest form of poetry in motion -- especially in the final scene, a near-miracle of emotion conveyed through dance.

One of the difficulties of the play is the disjunct nature of the script: four dark and dramatic acts set in the kingdom of Sicilia frame one much lighter and more comical act taking place in the kingdom of Bohemia.  The scenario of this ballet has succeeded, with a little rewriting of the story, in linking the two kingdoms more firmly together and thus integrating the entire main plot line.

The settings for Sicilia have a formality, rigidity and sterility that reflects the emotional coldness of that kingdom.  The dominant colours are monochrome -- whites and greys.  Rectangular pillared archways move in and out, statues appear in different positions, a staircase has a solid block-like banister, and everything is plain to the point of dreariness.

Bohemia, by contrast, is a kingdom bubbling with life and energy, and its setting naturally matches that quality.  The curtain rises on a marvellous "tree of life" taking up three quarters of the upstage wall.  It's such a spectacular sight that the audience instantly burst into applause, and no wonder.  Poised high on lacy interwoven roots with air space clearly visible between them, the tree looks gentle and delicate and yet possesses great strength as people climb it on ladders, sit on the roots, even step inside the gap in the trunk.  The entire tree is coloured in the most vivid greens, colours that appear almost greener than green under the lights.  What a wonderful metaphor for life itself, in all its fullness!  The costumes in this act capture an appropriately peasant look, with earth tones predominating, although brighter colours appear too.

A key visual effect is a series of projected backdrops which provide the sky for each scene.  In Sicilia the sky is normally a dull mass of clouds.  Bohemia's sky is brighter, more colourful, more lifelike.  This is no accident.  A front scrim projection of a sailing ship at sea is used to great effect for the two voyages which link these disparate kingdoms together.

Joby Talbot's score for this complex story is vivid and colourful, often lacking the structural strength that informed his Alice score, but very effectively supporting the action and the stage pictures all the same -- and in some scenes contributing heavily to the emotional atmosphere.  In that respect it resembles the best of film music.

The stakes for Christopher Wheeldon, already set high in Alice, are raised still further here.  His choreography is rooted in classicism, yet consists as often as not of steps, lifts and turns that derive from modern dance.  The fusion of the two into a single rich choreographic language is critical to the success of this piece.  It gives the dancers the power to express the full spectrum of human emotion, even at its rawest, while still maintaining the poise which reminds the audience that this story is, after all, still a fable and should be examined as such for the meaning beneath its surface.

Some of the most spectacular choreography of the entire ballet comes during Act II, the Bohemian act.  The first and third acts, by contrast, are dominated by the characters of the story.  These are the Sicilian acts.  A short prologue introduces us to two young princes who grow up as the best of friends.  When grown to manhood, they become the kings of the two kingdoms.  A brief but telling segment shows the wedding of Leontes of Sicilia and Hermione, with the stylized gestures they each make to the other taking the place of more conventional balletic gestures to the ring finger and heart.

In the first act, Leontes becomes convinced that Hermione has borne two children to his good friend, Polixenes of Bohemia.  The moment when this horrible jealousy first touches him is tellingly underlined by a switch of the music from stylized harmonious tones to grinding dissonances.  Leontes (portrayed by Piotr Stanczyk) dances a jealousy solo which is gripping in its hard-edged, enraged quality.  Hermione (Hannah Fischer) pleads with him but is banished and Leontes tries to stab Polixenes (Harrison James).  So great does his rage become that his son Mammilius drops dead and Hermione -- after giving birth to a daughter -- also dies of grief.  Leontes orders the baby girl to be left by the seaside to die or live, as the case may be. 

In the play, the mistress of the household, Paulina, begins to rage at Leontes for what he has done.  The appropriate physical equivalent comes here when Paulina beats on Leontes with her fists until he collapses in despair on the ground.  Xiao Nan Yu was already powerful as Paulina in this scene, but there was much more to come.

Paulina's husband, Antigonus, is given the duty of taking away the baby princess.  He sails with her to Bohemia, there leaves her on the beach in a basket, and then is pursued to his death ("Exit, pursued by a bear" is the infamous and laconic stage direction).  The almost magical appearance of the bear at this point was not the least of the gripping visual images of the ballet and the music underscoring it was also gripping and intense.

The Bohemian act, as already described, is a vivid picture of springtime and the first coming of love.  The infant princess has been raised by a shepherd and his son, played by Etienne Lavigne and Dylan Tedaldi.  Tedaldi was very effective in the comical caperings of the young shepherd, often leading the corps de ballet alongside a shepherdess danced by Jordana Daumec.  This couple sets the light, playful tone of the entire second act, a tone sustained by the generally energetic -- and occasionally clumsily comical -- choreography.

Indeed, this act really belongs to the corps de ballet, lock, stock and barrel.  There's an onstage banda playing on traditional instruments, and the music incorporates earthy rhythms that demand to be danced.  The corps have a whole series of wonderful folk-dance styled pieces in this act.  The music is frequently shot through with added and dropped beats.  I have it from an authoritative source (my nephew Robert Stephen, who dances in the company) that the dancers are doing a lot of counting in their heads and it's no wonder!  I'm sure the orchestra musicians are too -- but the game is definitely worth the candle, as the whole vivid act pulsates with life and energy and growth and generation.

This is where we meet the young princess, now called Perdita (Jillian Vanstone), who has fallen in love with the son of Polixenes, Florizel (Naoya Ebe).  In the theatre these are considered plum roles for rising young actors, but here they are danced by two principal dancers in the fullness of their artistic maturity.  Vanstone and Ebe made a fine partnership, convincingly portraying the youth and lighthearted high spirits of first love.  Their energetic dancing was as delightful as the lyricism of their slow pas de deux.  Vanstone has always been good at playing under her age (her Alice a notable example) but this is the first time I've ever seen Ebe loosen up and grow into a role this believably.  Only for one or two brief moments was I aware that there were dancers before us executing complex steps.  Wonderful work from both!

Harrison James convincingly portrayed the rage of Polixenes at discovering his son on the point of marrying a low-bred shepherd girl.  Edgy, yes, but also noticeably different from the abandoned jealousy previously shown by Leontes.  In a few brief seconds, James told us everything we needed to know about the differences between the two kings -- a telling moment of characterization indeed.

The final act seems at first blush to be hurrying to the conclusion of the story.  The mourning ritual of Paulina and Leontes is emotionally intense in slow motion.  Here above all, Xiao Nan Yu gave 110% of herself in some the most powerful dancing of the entire work.  Her sad yet lyrical solo certainly held me rapt with attention under the spell she cast.  Truly a remarkable performance.

The arrival of Perdita and Florizel, Leontes' recognition that Florizel looks like his lost friend Polixenes, Paulina's recognition of the green emerald around Perdita's neck which proves her Leontes' daughter, the arrival of Polixenes and his reconciliation with Leontes -- all this passes quickly and without much chance to register. 

But the emotional climax comes when Paulina unveils a new statue of Hermione -- and the statue comes to life.  In a heart-tugging reminiscence, Hermione repeats the stylized gestures made at their marriage, and then takes Leontes by the hands and leads him through the ritual as well.  The following pas de deux of love reborn and trust restored between Hermione and Leontes is the true emotional climax of the ballet.  Here, Fischer and Stanczyk amplified and extended the rapt, dignified quality of Yu's solo a few minutes earlier with stunning grace and emotional force.

My one beef has to do not with the performance itself, but with the description given in the programme and in Ballet Master Lindsay Fischer's pre-show talk.  In both cases, we were told that Hermione was concealed for 16 years until Leontes came to his senses -- whereupon she posed like a statue for that final scene.

But the play doesn't tell us that.  As Hermione returns to life, Paulina simply says that she has done this without resorting to the dark powers.  The text is ambiguous on what has actually happened, very cleverly so -- and I am convinced this is deliberate.  Whether in fact Paulina has used magic or not is left to the audience to decide, and the stage production I saw was content to leave it there.

It's a pity that the choreographer decided to shut off the possibility of some magical element so definitely.  In a fable, why not admit magic?  That little "what if..?" underlines the crucial need for balance to be fully restored to the lives of the central characters in the story -- the karma, if you like.  More's the pity that Wheeldon chose not to allow that idea, for it weakens the emotional impact of that final scene.

This magnificent new full-length ballet is truly a landmark in the development of contemporary story ballet, and will certainly repeat in coming seasons.  I for one will be looking forward to that, and to seeing this marvellous creation danced again with new and different casts adding their own depths and dimensions to the piece.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

The Danish Powerhouse

Saturday a week ago was the "final" repeat of the National Theatre's NT Live cinemacast of Shakespeare's Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role.  I admit that my title conveys a pun, considered in relation to the royal family of the play, but really has much more to do with the performing style.

This is one of several productions featured in the NT Live series which in fact do not originate with the National Theatre.  It's a production staged by West End producers Sonia Friedman Productions, and filmed before a live audience at the Barbican arts centre in the City of London.

Another such production, by the way, was the Donmar Warehouse's staging of Coriolanus, starring Tom Hiddleston, which is being called back by popular demand for a repeat cinemacast on November 19 (you can read my review of it here:  Sheer Stage Power ).

Anyway, to the production at hand of Hamlet.  Apart from Cumberbatch, none of the other actors appearing in the show are likely to be at all familiar unless you are a close follower of the English theatre.  All, however, showed considerable gifts in interpreting the maddeningly human contradictions which run through all the characters in the play.

The Barbican's theatre is a flat-floored arena below raked seating, and Es Devlin's set was arranged on this floor as an asymmetrical "V" shaped wall, with the apex of the "V" well over towards upstage right.  It included multiple doorways, an upstairs gallery on the stage right short wall, and a long flight of stairs across the back up to the gallery. 

This sounds big, but the floor is bigger still -- and so there was ample room to stage whole scenes down centre with the walls completely in darkness.  The most startling scenic effect came at the beginning of Act 2, after Hamlet's departure to England, when the entire stage was covered with a litter of broken fragments of what appeared to be rock.  The piles grew higher and the fragments bigger as you looked backwards through the open double doors, until the far end of the palace corridor was stacked up at least halfway to the ceiling with heaps of rubble -- a powerful visual metaphor for the collapsing world of the Danish royal family.  The whole set -- the palace, really -- was coloured in dull shades of assorted greys and blues, creating a dark and dismal effect -- more like a medieval castle in spite of the unmistakable "palace" décor.

Director Lyndsey Turner made full use of all the possibilities in this set, adding in movable set pieces to create the different room environments required by the play, as well as the outdoor moments.  Cuts in the text simplify the main line of the story, at the cost of heavily shortening the parts of a number of minor characters.

Music effects were mainly used to bridge scenes, and heightened the tension very effectively too, with much of the music depending on dissonant chords, deep rumbling basses and shrill high notes.

As noted, this is a highly physical production of the play.  Given the huge space available, that's not so surprising.  But the extent of the physical activity certainly is.  Characters race up and down the long staircase.  The graveside fight and duel scenes are loaded with energy.  The scene where Hamlet is to depart to England turns into a Saturday-cartoon-like chase scene up and down a corridor and in and out of the doors on both sides -- but because it was all deadly serious, nobody laughed.

This brings out one of the serious drawbacks of the live-to-cinema telecast.  After that hugely energetic duel, it's simply not possible for the actors to die and then lie still on the floor when they are still breathing twice each second -- and it's impossible to conceal the breathing from the all-seeing eye of the close-up camera.

This production was notable for the strength of the performances right across the board and down to the smallest minor parts.  The overall tone of  this court was not so much courtly as bureaucratic, supported by both voices and physicality.  The chief bureaucrat, Claudius, set the tone altogether in his first appearances, although he revealed more and more of his tyrannical side as the play progressed.  Ciaran Hinds built up the interpretation to a powerful prayer scene in which he shared the focus equally with Hamlet.

Anastasia Hille presented a believably conflicted Gertrude, and reached a peak of vulnerability as she described the suicide of Ophelia.

Ophelia herself was played by Sian Brooke with great subtlety in the opening scenes, and with anything but subtlety in her mad scene.  She packed more physical tics and jerks and spasms into ten minutes than many actors could do across an entire evening. 

Jim Norton played Polonius as a consummate bureaucrat, always with a useful suggestion or two (or more) at his fingertips.  His advice-to-Laertes scene sounded just like an executive summary of the main points at the end of a 4-hour meeting.

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith gave us a Laertes who became an erupting volcano of rage, his anger smothering over any sadness, on his return to Elsinore.  For me, this was one of the more one-sided characterizations in this show.

Ruairi Conaghan and Diveen Henry formed an excellent partnership as the Player King and Queen.  They started inside a small portable proscenium almost like an overgrown puppet theatre (placed upstage centre), playing their romantic scene in a fashion of a fairy-tale cartoon.  The Player King's murder was then enacted downstage centre, forcing the entire "audience" for The Mouse Trap to turn their backs on the "stage" and face us.  The point became clear when we saw the facial reaction of Claudius to the murder scene, but it was a clumsy and awkward way of letting us view him.

The one character who rather disappointed me was Horatio, played by Leo Bill.  Admittedly it isn't a clearly-defined character, but Bill's anonymous and rather faceless student seemed like a most unlikely friend for Benedict Cumberbatch's energetic Hamlet. 

And Hamlet was energetic, as energetic a Hamlet as I have ever seen.  No chance for this Hamlet to be stalled into immobility.  Even his indecision was a constant war of nerves within himself, and the entire performance was shot through with that kind of nervy, edgy quality.  Note that this did not make Hamlet fidgety-nervous.  Cumberbatch kept his nerves on a tight rein, but the very tightness of that rein was the measure of how edgy he became.  If in the process the character as a whole became a bit more "stagey" than others in the play, no harm was done because this most definitely was a Hamlet searching for the proper role he was to play in avenging his father. 

The soliloquies are, as always, central to the character.  With this Hamlet, these became the moments when he could unwind a bit of his tension by talking things through to himself.  The soliloquies had something of that self-conversational tone to them, and it served the play very well, giving the audience and actor alike a most necessary respite before the tension was ratcheted up again.

This production was called the "Most In-Demand Theatre Production of All Time" when the entire 12-week run sold out in seven hours, more than a year before the show opened (that's close to 100,000 tickets!).  It's now been seen by millions more worldwide through the NT Live cinemacast and multiple rebroadcasts.  The theatre I was at used one of its largest auditoriums and was probably 80-90% filled.

Was it artistically good?  Definitely.  Was it a best-ever in any way?  Certainly not.  The fascination of Hamlet is that there are always more ways to play this tragedy than anyone can dream up -- in which this endlessly challenging and provoking drama perfectly mirrors Hamlet's famous words that "there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."  And was it just my imagination, or did Cumberbatch change "your" to "our"?

Saturday, 7 November 2015

To Lead and to Follow

Last week I took in a most unusual concert of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, a concert in which three of the four works were played without a conductor! 

We've become so used to the institution of the conductor-led orchestra that it's sometimes hard for us to remember that this is basically a nineteenth-century invention.  In previous periods, the orchestras were smaller, and could be quite readily directed by one of the players -- sometimes the first violinist, or the keyboard player on harpsichord, piano, or organ.  This was the procedure followed in this stimulating programme.

The concert opened with a work entitled Steps to Ecstasy by Canadian composer Marjan Mozetich.  It's a work for strings and a few winds, inspired by the music and the sculpture of the Baroque era.  The sound textures of the piece were truly fascinating, and there was an ongoing energy to the music which ensured that time passed in a regulated, rhythmic fashion throughout.  It was almost startling to hear a contemporary composer writing music which made such extensive use of Baroque style in its phrases and cadences.  This is a piece I would definitely like to hear again.  It was led by the orchestra's concertmaster, Benedicte Lauziere.

There then followed two piano concertos, both led from the keyboard by pianist Orion Weiss.  First we had the A Major Concerto, K. 488, by Mozart.  This concerto had two unusual features: first, it uses clarinets instead of oboes, and second, its slow movement is one of the very few times Mozart ever wrote in the key of F sharp minor.

This was a fine classically balanced reading, a feature undoubtedly determined by the fact of the conductor doubling as soloist.  Romanticized excesses in tempo or dynamics would be far too hard to manage in such a situation.  Tempi were well chosen to provide contrast without extremes, and the finale in particular was characterized by a light, playful tone quality.

After the intermission, we were given Bach's keyboard concerto in D major, BWV 1054, itself transcribed from the earlier E major concerto for violin, BWV 1042.  Here I felt that the speeds got a little too fast, making the union of keyboard and orchestra a bit uneasy.  This was particularly true in the finale, where blurring of the sound resulted as one instrument or another got a bit ahead of the beat or behind it.  Perhaps more time needed to be given to this in rehearsal.

The concert concluded with Haydn's Symphony in E Flat Major, No. 103 ("With the Drum Roll").  Here the orchestra was at last conducted, by Assistant Conductor Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser.  Right off the bat, I felt that the famous opening drum roll was far too prolonged.  It's true that Haydn gives the drumroll a 3-beat adagio bar with a fermata (pause sign), but I felt that stretching it to three times the length of the subsequent bars or more was milking the gesture to excess -- and it became even more irritating when the drumroll recurred near the end of the first movement, and that hugely long hold brought the entire symphony to a momentary standstill.

After that overdone start, though, the performance as a whole was most rewarding -- sparkling with energy, woodwinds nicely balanced against the strings, solos highlighted without being over-emphasized, and the music always proceeding with a spring in its step.  For me, that's the essential characteristic of Haydn's music, that sense of cheerfulness and life-enhancing energy.  The vigorous finale came to vivid bouncing life under Bartholomew-Poyser. Taken as a whole, this was a fascinating and truly delightful concert.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Realms of Magic Again

When Opera Atelier staged Handel's Alcina last fall ( Magic Shadows ), I was immediately intrigued by the resemblance of the storyline to Tasso's famous Renaissance romance of Rinaldo and Armida.  Lo and behold, Opera Atelier's opening presentation for this season is a remounting of their production of Lully's Armide!  And so we revisit similar story material, but with a very different musical and scenic emphasis.

Armide was one of Lully's last works, and exemplified the new style of the tragedie lyrique which he helped to evolve.  It's notable as one of the very first times that an opera devoted so much time to the development of a character -- and that character is, remarkably, not the Crusader knight Renaud but the pagan sorceress Armide.

The contrast to Handel's great masterpiece is striking.  By the time Handel composed Alcina, the Italian opera seria was hedged around with a whole range of conventions of style -- and some of those conventions, such as the show-stopping virtuoso aria, continued to operate well into the twentieth century.  Lully's work is a very different sort of creation altogether, closer in style to one much earlier masterpiece, Monteverdi's L'Orfeo.  In Lully, the music is most often shaped by the dramatic need of the moment: recitative to present narrative information, accompaniment added to infuse shades of feeling, short arioso or duet segments when a character's feelings come foremost, and choral numbers to accompany the ballet which was such an essential part of the French court operas.

As always, Opera Atelier has come up with a truly sumptuous production to present this wonderful music drama.  Gerard Gauci's sets abandon the elaborate trompe l'oeil effects of some of his other productions in favour of a plainer style of flat backdrop painting which still conveys location very effectively -- and there are a number of locations in this work.  The costumes adopt bright primary and secondary colours for the ladies of the singing cast and for all the dancers of the ballet, while the men in the singing roles are clothed in variants of dark brown, but with luxurious materials.  The swirl of colours in the ballet sections is one of the great visual delights of this production.

Given the emphasis on the character of the Islamic sorceress Armide, her role requires a first-rate singing actress.  Armide has to be mobile and emotive; plain old stand-and-deliver singing would be fatal to the part, and to the opera as a whole.  Peggy Kriha Dye gives a first-rank interpretation of a complex character part.  She makes use of all the shades of a very flexible voice, soaring gloriously in one passage only to fall to a whisper of sound a few minutes later, or turn to an outright snarl when her hatred dominates her.  The critical solo where she tries to kill the sleeping Renaud, only to struggle with her own emotions as she finds herself falling in love with him instead, is the true dramatic highlight of the entire piece.

Around her is gathered a strong cast, some familiar to OA audiences, and some less so.  Several people have to play multiple roles.  Among the more striking was baritone Daniel Belcher in his role as the allegorical figure of La Haine ("Hatred") -- darkly, intensely powerful in the third act exorcism of Love.

Sopranos Meghan Lindsay and Carla Huhtanen were especially memorable in the comical fourth act as they played evil spirits trying to seduce two Crusader knights from their mission to recall Renaud from his spell-enslaved state.  Tenor Aaron Ferguson and bass-baritone Olivier LaQuerre as the knights matched the two spirits in clear singing mingled equally with comic byplay. 

This scene, incidentally, ended with a staging goof that really caught my attention.  The two knights are bearing Armide's magic sceptre to protect themselves, and bringing a magical diamond shield to show Renaud the reflection of his true state.  At the end of the scene, having successfully (although barely) withstood the wily lures of Lindsay and Huhtanen, the knights headed jauntily off stage, leaving the shield and sceptre behind.  The "error" became glaringly obvious moments later when they reappeared in the next scene safely carrying the sceptre and shield!  It was noticeable precisely because Opera Atelier productions usually pay close attention to such details!

Tenor Colin Ainsworth took the role of Renaud, believably capturing the almost arrogantly self-aware knight and the spell-struck lover equally well. 

The Atelier Ballet contributed significantly to the overall impact of the production, not least in the dance where several of the dancers discreetly used finger cymbals, bells, and castanets, to fine exotic effect.

As ever, the entire production rested with utter security upon the crisp, sprightly playing of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, with the entire performance strongly directed by David Fallis. 

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Reliable Laughs

Mrs. Parliament's Night Out
by Norm Foster
directed by Mark Mooney
Presented by Theatre Woodstock

It's not hard to understand just why Norm Foster has become the most phenomenally successful playwright in Canadian theatrical history.  His name on a theatre poster is almost a foolproof guarantee of some good laughs.  He creates memorable characters and juxtaposes them in intriguing situations.  His characters are endearingly familiar to us, yet endlessly varied.  He's not afraid to grapple with difficult situations in life, and his plays almost always seem to have one or two people in them whose stories do not end happily.

From the foregoing, it will be obvious to anyone not already familiar with his work that his plays are full of popular elements, yet resist easy classification.

This particular play can perhaps best be described as a homely comedic riff on the themes of Shirley Valentine.

Mrs. Parliament's Night Out is a fairly recent addition to the Foster canon, having been first staged in 2012.  And I have to say it bluntly: I don't think it's one of his best.  The complex situational comedy of Act 2 can be seen coming a mile away -- in fact, I guessed two plot twists that were going to happen in Act 2 well before they took place.  The performer taking the role of the title character is forced by the script into an unending one-note samba of nervous mannerisms.  A number of characters flirt with the edge of becoming merely stereotypes, and several actually tumble headlong right over that edge. 

The name of the title character seems to set you up for some sort of hidden political message, but if there was one concealed there it remained hidden from my view.  If there's no such message, then why such a choice of a name with very definite layers of meaning permanently attached to it?

Compared to other plays by Foster, this one is unusual in demanding rapid shifts of location at frequent intervals.  I didn't keep count, but there must be several dozen distinct scene shifts during the show, and this requires special attention from all involved in the production.

Director Mark Mooney also designed his own set, and it was both simple and useful in dealing with a multi-scene script like this one.  The stage was set as a box of blacks, with three standing light boxes across the back.  The lights inside these boxes could vary in colour.  Characters could enter and exit from the sides or around the light boxes.  The actors moved simple furniture (such as lightweight patio furniture) on, off, and around the stage.  The one really big mobile set piece was a grocery store produce counter, mounted on wheels to be rolled on and off stage.  The lighting design of Rob Coles worked very effectively to set moods and times for all of the many scenes.  With the help of this simple but versatile design, all parts of the stage were used from time to time.

At the centre of the cast is Elizabeth Durand, in the key role of Teresa Parliament.  Durand captured perfectly the nagging sense of life-passing-me-by in the early scenes, and flung herself with equal abandon into her many new adventures.  The nervousness was well played, and when it did become tiresome that wasn't really Durand's fault (see above).  I particularly enjoyed the way she finally allowed herself to blossom in the long closing scene, making believable what the script (I felt) presented rather lamely.

Don Connolly as her husband Chuck was an equally convincing portrait of a type of man that can be found everywhere.  His single-minded self-absorption was as believable as his desperate flailing about for some solution when he realizes that he's going to lose his wife.

John Hammond gave a warm-hearted portrayal of Steve Blackburn, the man who manages to capture Teresa's attention by giving her true attention first.  With numerous subtle touches of voice and face and gesture, he gave life to his character in an understated but totally effective manner.

Acting as a kind of Greek chorus, outside this triangle but commenting on it, are next door neighbour Carl Lewicki and grocer Alonzo Marx.  Paul Blower's presentation of Carl managed at first to avoid the stereotypical Jewish nosy neighbour that lies waiting in the script, but by the last act he was beginning to sound like any number of Jewish stand-up comics I'd heard when I was young.  In spite of that, he gave a sympathetic portrait of a very lonely man.

David Butcher as the grocer provoked uproarious laughter, talking most believably to invisible customers between his all-important chats with Teresa -- a prize comic role indeed. 

Around these five key personalities appear a whole range of others, many of whom appear for less than a minute: sales clerks, coaches, teachers, drug addicts, wine tasters, a boxer, and the list goes on and on.  There are 15 of these side characters altogether, divided between five different actors.  Kudos to all five -- Vanessa Giulano, Kim Serendiak, Fern Tepperman, Brian Moore, and Eric Terry -- for bringing these wildly varied little comic vignettes to brilliant life.

These short little comical scenes, by the way, are really difficult to bring off in a stage play because of the frequent pauses for changing locations.  Under Mooney's direction, these scene changes were handled very quickly without seeming rushed, so the pace never had time to flag.  Similarly, pacing within scenes was nicely varied without ever becoming lie-down-and-die slow.

Take it all by and large, I found Mrs. Parliament's Night Out to be very well staged, very well acted, and mildly to moderately amusing.  What I missed was the strong sense of humane empathy which I have found in full measure in many of Foster's better plays.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

The Symphony at Sea

It was a simple, bold programming idea, and somewhat daring with it.  This week the Toronto Symphony Orchestra mated together two major works, both composed in the first decade of the twentieth century, and both using the sea as a theme.


It sounds obvious, and yet it's hard to imagine anyone else pairing the music of Debussy and Vaughan Williams on the same concert.  All the more praise, then, to music director Peter Oundjian for this imaginative and compelling programme concept.


Debussy's La Mer (The Sea), aptly subtitled "Symphonic Sketches", was composed in 1903 and eventually became popular after Debussy himself conducted a performance five years later.  Before that, I'm sure orchestras and conductors alike had trouble with his novel idiom.


Even after more than a century of acquaintance, La Mer can still be a tough nut to crack.  The constant shifts in tone, dynamic and instrumentation add up to a convincing tone portrait of the sea in many different moods, but also contain any number of traps in interpretation -- not least in terms of the careful attention to balance of the various elements which has to happen so that whatever needs to be heard is audible at every turn.


I have to tread carefully here, because I was seated well over to one side of the hall and the sound picture may not be as true as in other locations.  But I did feel there were moments in this performance when balance suffered, when the heavy brasses became too overwhelming in the wrong way or the cellos and violas too quiet.


Certainly Oundjian's performance of La Mer lacked for nothing in energy, spirit, and motion -- and all three are essential.  The best parts overall were the quiet passages where sound seems to shimmer rather than vibrate.  But the buildup to the majestic final coda was also beautifully handled, and here the balance problems certainly did not occur.


Of course, it doesn't help matters that La Mer is not really among my favourite Debussy works!


The new and more detailed program book included a detailed three-page graphic diagram illustrating the ebb and flow and development of the music in a pictorial manner which is new to me.  I look forward to sitting down at home with this and listening to a recording of the music again with these graphics in front of me.


After the intermission, the large, majestic, grand first symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams:  A Sea Symphony, composed between 1903 and 1909, and first performed in 1910.  This 70-minute work for choir, soloists and orchestra is truly symphonic, and a first rate conductor and orchestra are absolutely essential to bring it fully to life.  I've heard it sung before by a fine choir which was let down by the relatively weak contribution of the community orchestra called upon to do the honours.  So, in a very real sense, last night marked the first time I had truly heard either of these fine works.


A Sea Symphony shares with Mahler's mighty Symphony of a Thousand (premiered the following year) the idea of an opening that reaches right out, grabs the audience, and pulls them forcibly into the music's world.  The brass sound a fanfare in B-flat minor, the choir enters unaccompanied on the same chord, and the full orchestra and organ leap in at the choir's fourth note (which happens to be the word "sea") as the key flies upwards to D major.  This opening has to be both pinpoint precise and visionary in its impact.  Oundjian and company launched the lengthy voyage with both those qualities in full measure.


A few minutes in there's a shift of tone as the orchestra launches into a folk-like tune, sounding for all the world like an old sailors' sea-chantey -- although it is an original melody.  Here, baritone Russell Braun had to lead the choir into this rapid song, and then into the succeeding slower passage on "And out of these, a chant for the sailors of all nations".  I felt that he was straining at the notes in these pages, and the uncomfortable edge of the solo contrasted notably with the free and open sound of the chorus.


Soprano Erin Wall made her first entry after a reiteration of the opening fanfare, and her trumpet-like tone fitted the moment perfectly.  One of the things I admire most about Wall is her ability to bring her big sound right down to a single thread of tone while remaining both completely pure and rock-solid in pitch.  This was amply proven at the end of the first movement, when she floated her final pianissimo "Behold the sea itself" with both security and serenity above the murmuring of the choir.


The second movement nocturne, "On the beach at night alone" showed Braun to much greater advantage.  Here, his lieder-like tone was absolutely to the point in the gentle evocation and meditation on "the clef of the universes".  Balance between soloist and choir was impeccable, and the long quiet orchestral postlude beautifully shaped.


The scherzo, "The Waves", had plenty of energy, and the big tempo change for the grand procession of "Where the great vessel sailing" was perfectly managed by Oundjian.  The Mendelssohn Choir are absolutely in their element in such complicated music, the sort of piece that has everyone madly counting beats and rests in their heads when they're learning it!  The power and vigour of the music were perfectly captured, and perhaps only the last inch of joyous abandon was missing as the choir flung the last word, "following," off into space.


The long final movement brought the loveliest singing of the evening, in the quiet choral chanting of "Down from the gardens" and in the long, lyrical duet of the two soloists.  The grand outburst of "O Thou, transcendent" was beautifully shaped and sung loudly, but not too loudly, to leave still some room to grow into the final climax a few moments later.  Braun and Wall again sang as one in the urgent passage of "Reckless, O Soul, exploring."  Here, these two were indeed "carolling free" -- the text exactly describes the quality of their duet.  Then came the soaring climax, with Wall's voice ringing securely out above all else on "Sail forth!", and Oundjian powering through the complex orchestral combination of three major themes, with all of them clearly audible -- a magnificent moment.


I could have wished for a longer breathing space before Oundjian launched into the quiet epilogue, but there's always the danger of false applause! 


That epilogue was masterful, gentle, withdrawing into the infinite distance as the lines of poetry clearly indicate ("O farther, farther, farther sail.").  Once again, soloists and choir floated the high notes gently into the air while the orchestra as gently pieced out the final chords.  Pure magic.


Peter Oundjian has certainly shown his mastery in the music of Vaughan Williams in the past -- even winning kudos from Gramophone magazine for his live recordings of the Fourth and Fifth symphonies -- and this performance of A Sea Symphony fitted right into that line.  If the pairing with La mer was unexpected, it certainly worked well and made for a truly memorable evening of fine music.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Stratford Festival 2015 # 5: The Karma of Greed

I doubt if the word "karma" was known in London in the early 1600s, but in its common use today it perfectly describes the moral lessons contained in Ben Jonson's comedy, The Alchemist.  Every single character in the play, in some way or other, gets roughly pulled up short on account of his or her own greed.  What's truly remarkable is that nobody, and I mean nobody, escapes unscathed.

Alchemy was a pseudo-science which claimed to be able to convert base metals into gold.  While it was a popular belief of the Middle Ages, and the belief still existed in Jonson's day, in practice it was less reliable even than a lottery ticket.  But that didn't stop serious thinkers and con artists alike from claiming that it was possible to achieve this strange goal.

Jonson's play takes as its point of departure an outbreak of the plague, a far-from-uncommon occurrence in medieval cities with their deplorable lack of public sanitation.  Since Lovewit, the master of the house, has shut up his house and left town to escape the plague, his servant Jeremy has joined forces with two other lowlifes -- con man Subtle and prostitute Dol Common -- to lure the gullible into the house and fleece them by a wildly diverse range of deceptive tricks.

Their "customers" run the gamut from an uneducated man trying to operate a shop through a couple of self-righteous Puritans to an egotistical man of means, but one and all fall for the various scams to which these pretenders subject them.  And in the end, the three tricksters each get what's coming to them as well -- and it isn't the proceeds of their con games.

This is an especially tricky play to stage well, perhaps the reason why it's not often produced.  The action becomes increasingly complex as the story unfolds, with the victims coming into the shysters' den in multiples, rather than one by one.  The contortions of trying to keep each gull in play while preventing them from seeing each other suggest a farcical treatment, and that has certainly been done.  But on the other hand, the script is emphatically verbose in a way that's needed in order to give depth to all the characters, and those lines really do have to be heard.  The clear delineation of the characters is essential for us to understand the increasingly contorted twists and turns of the plot in the latter innings.  I picture the script in my mind as being almost a rope with language tugging on one end and action pulling the other end.  Or, as another writer put it, the play actually has to proceed at two different speeds simultaneously. 

Stratford's current production of the play successfully solves most of these difficulties -- but not without getting into some other deadly traps that could easily have been avoided.  Director Antoni Cimolino and assistant director Graham Abbey have captured a good balance between the opposing forces of language and action.  Designer Carolyn M. Smith has created a simple environment defined by a sizable table at one end of the long stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre and a smaller reading desk at the other end, with a couple of branched candelabra to add a bit of height.  Upon these pieces of furniture appears a delicious assortment of beautifully conceived props: an alchemical book, a crystal globe, an orrery, a lantern, an elegant cushion which actually proves to be a hat, and on and on.  It sounds overly busy as described, but actually there is still more than ample room to move around -- and all the space does get put to good use.

That long, narrow arena stage really forces actors to keep moving so that all the audience in turn can see and hear what is happening.  This aspect of the show worked well.

The three con artists anchor the entire show, their convoluted trickeries providing the through line that the entire play runs upon.  Stephen Ouimette plays a gruff, even truculent, and definitely sloppy and slovenly Subtle (the alchemist of the title).  Jonathan Goad gives a multi-personable reading of Face, the trickster who is really Jeremy, the servant in charge of the house.  He appears by turns as several different people, and gives each one a convincing reality.  Brigit Wilson is a raffish Dol Common.  It's a testimony to the strength of her art that, although playing here a character very similar to her Bawd in Pericles, she comes across as a very different sort of person.  The Bawd was very businesslike, rough but brisk, but Dol Common plainly comes from a much lower and rougher-edged stratum of the world's oldest profession.  These three actors clearly capture the uneasy nature of the alliance that binds the unholy trio together in their pursuit of wealth.  The opening quarrel scene might soon be forgotten but whenever they are on stage together there's always an underlying edge of tension between them.

Among the rest of the cast, I especially enjoyed David Collins in the role of Lovewit, when he returns at the end of the play to discover the shenanigans that have been going on in his house.  Antoine Yared came across well as the naïve and suggestible Dapper.  Steve Ross is excellent as Drugger, the shopkeeper who desperately wants some extra help to succeed in his business.  Wayne Best is exactly what his character name says he is -- Surly -- and also gives a great performance in both physical and verbal comedy when he reappears disguised as a Spanish nobleman.  Rylan Wilkie roused plenty of hilarity as the young, impetuous Puritan Ananias while Randy Hughson struggled to control him as the older Tribulation.  Jamie Mac had a few good moments as Kastril, the young nobleman who wants to learn how to quarrel effectively, but at other moments his performance did become rather "stagey".

That was even more true of his sister, Widow Pliant (portrayed by Jessica B. Hill).  For whatever reason, this character was turned into a two-dimensional walking cartoon caricature -- certainly not a believable person for me at any rate. 

The other serious miscalculation occurred with the character of Sir Epicure Mammon.  This should rightly be one of the comic gems of the production.  Sadly, here too there was an element of caricature, and it arose from the costume.  It's all very well to suggest that this gentleman of means and leisure has ample wealth -- but was it really necessary to give him an ultra-ample doublet that would have fitted your average grizzly bear with room to spare?  That silly costume forced Scott Wentworth into ridiculous "stagey" business which detracted from his otherwise strong performance.  For anyone who has ever read a delightful book called The Art of Coarse Acting, that was exactly what was happening with Sir Epicure Mammon -- and with the Widow Pliant and Kastril too, come to that.  Actors of this quality do the audience no favour when they reduce their work, or are reduced, to that level.

So, what we had was a funny production of one of theatre's most incisive and surgically precise satires -- a production with many strengths that was sadly let down somewhat in a few key areas. 

No question about it, I laughed -- but there were also times when I found the show a good deal less than funny, and that should certainly not have happened!

Monday, 28 September 2015

The Beethoven Marathon

The Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra launched their 70th anniversary season this weekend with a unique Beethoven marathon.  Three concerts (Friday evening, Saturday afternoon and evening) presented the complete cycle of Beethoven piano concertos plus several other works.  The piano soloist was the young Canadian virtuoso, Stewart Goodyear.

It was a remarkable weekend of music, not least for pulling up a few real rarities of Beethoven's that are almost never performed live.

So I'm going to start with some comments about those other works before getting to the main events, the concerto performances.

Friday night's concert opened with the Grand Philharmonic Choir joining the orchestra for Beethoven's brief cantata, Meeresstille und gluckliche Fahrt (most accurately translated into English as "Becalmed sea and prosperous voyage").  This work sets a pair of short poems by Goethe, the first describing the edge of terror besetting sailors who are stuck at sea with no wind to fill the sails, and the second describing the rise of the wind and the resumption of the voyage, up to the point where land is sighted.  The choir and orchestra alike performed the slow, quiet opening portion with incredible precision -- essential when combining staccato sung notes with pizzicati from the strings. The rush of the rising wind was played with beautiful realism, and the choir swung energetically into the joyful allegro of the prosperous voyage.  Fine performance of a true rarity.

Since the Saturday afternoon concert involved only one concerto, this was the performance which really showcased the orchestra.  The concert opened with a work which is probably better known, but not much more often played: the overture to Coriolan.  It's an intense, stormy piece, accurately depicting the vehemence of mood of the title character, and with a quiet ending which almost perfectly pictures his death.  This work has many sudden silences built into it, and many sharp attacks by the full orchestra so precision is essential.  Music director Edwin Outwater led a fiery, edgy account that emphasized these dramatic contrasts.

This concert also included the so-called "little" Eighth Symphony.  It may be the shortest of the famous nine, but that certainly doesn't make it an also-ran for either structural or emotional interest.  I'd bet that when Beethoven described this creation as little, he was being heavily ironic to someone who couldn't tell that legs were being pulled!

Outwater and the orchestra made the most of the sudden loud-soft contrasts and silent pauses which pepper this score as much as Coriolan.  The use of the so-called European seating plan with first and second violins on opposite sides of the conductor paid stereophonic dividends in some of the antiphonal passages.  Throughout the symphony, tempi were brisk and the music always went with a lift and a swing.  It wouldn't be far wrong to describe this as a playful reading, even if some of the jokes are on a practically gigantic scale.  Only in the finale did the music become perhaps a shade too hectic.  The gimmick is that the rich resonance of the Centre In The Square can make mush out of rapid passagework which might sound clear in another venue.

The Saturday night concert opened with another rarity, the overture to King Stephen.  This incidental music was composed late in Beethoven's life for a play presented as a companion piece to The Ruins of Athens.  I think it's best described as "quirky", at least in terms of the odd chord progression and the little organ-grinder-type tune which opens it and interrupts the flow from time to time.  The main theme, allegro, is more conventional but good and lively all the same.

And then, of course, there was the centrepiece of the entire weekend: the five Piano Concertos, spread out with # 1 and # 4 on Friday night, # 3 on Saturday afternoon, and # 2 and # 5 on Saturday night.  All of these performances were noteworthy for the close communication between conductor and soloist and for the consequent tightly-integrated performances.  No less noteworthy or fascinating for the audience was the giant overhead video screen giving a live camera feed focused on the piano keyboard -- for once you didn't have to be sitting on the left side of the hall to see what the pianist was doing!

Although the big, dramatic passages may be more remembered by many, this series of concerts has reminded me forcibly of how important the quieter pages are in Beethoven -- not just in the slow movements, but also in many passages of the outer movements.  In the first two concertos we are still in the world of Mozart, and the music we encounter is scaled appropriately.  By the time we reach the last two we are completely into the world of Beethoven, the Olympian world of musical drama that we have come to know by his name.  Even there, though, the piano spends a surprising amount of time playing quite quietly.  Many of the most important structural features of these works also occur in quiet passages.  Think of the three quiet rising scales played by the piano at three key points in the opening movement of # 5, the so-called Emperor Concerto.

Already in Concerto # 1, Goodyear's quiet playing indicated something special.  As always, I couldn't help getting annoyed at the cadenza which goes on and on and on, and is far out of scale with the rest of the first movement!  The slow movement was captivating in its lyrical inwardness, and the finale brimmed with life and vigour. 

In # 4 (my personal favourite of the cycle), Goodyear's performance of the first movement was imbued with distinction, and an air of fantasy that suits this more lyrical music very well indeed.  Not that his playing of the louder passages was lacking anything, far from it, but he showed on that first night that he knew what could be done in the quieter music (other than just marking time until the next big showpiece moment arrived).  The dialogue of the slow movement between orchestra and soloist, a truly unique conversation in music, was nicely balanced although perhaps lacking the last degree of intensity.  The opening of the finale was almost too quiet, but still filled with energy, and the volume came soon enough -- yet without abandoning the essentially lively, joyful tone of the music.

In the more dramatic and fiery # 3, Goodyear worked on the widest scale of tone and treated us to a remarkable cadenza at the end of the first movement.  He then gave a lovely, inward account of the hymn-like opening of the slow movement.  The finale sparkled joyfully at the opening and gradually grew in power until the final pages flashed fire through to the rousing ending.

The best was kept for last.  Saturday evening's concert contrasted the second concerto (which was actually the first in order of composition) with the fifth and last.  And what a contrast it was!  The finale of # 2 is one of the lightest, brightest, most playful rondos Beethoven ever wrote.  But # 5 is of a totally different order, the prototype for the later concertos of Brahms -- more on the scale of a symphony with a piano part embedded in it.  Nothing symbolizes this change quite so much as the fact that Beethoven wrote out the cadenzas in full -- no improvising allowed here! -- and kept them terse to the point that one almost doesn't notice them in passing.  More to the point, Beethoven actually opens the work with its biggest solo cadenza, an innovation which was duly noted and stretched right to the limits by almost every composer of a piano concerto for the next hundred years.

And here was also where we got the biggest range of playing style and scale of tone, from both soloist and orchestra.  In keeping with its lighter character, Concerto # 2 was played with wit, flair, and a strong sense of fun -- especially in the central episode of that rondo finale.  Piano and orchestra alike took on a totally different sound, richer, weightier, and altogether larger in # 5.  Indeed, Goodyear's piano sound was so full that in the infamous fortissimo scale passages in the first movement the accompanying bassoon figure had trouble making itself felt.  Despite that, there was no doubt in my mind that the performance of # 5 as a whole was the most strongly integrated, the most fully realized, of the entire cycle.  The intensity generated in the huge opening movement was sustained through the quiet slow movement and the quick transition into the finale. 

Right at the end of that third concert, when both orchestra and soloist could reasonably be expected to start flagging a bit, the finale of the "Emperor" was treated to a fire-eating performance that sacrificed nothing of clarity or musicality while still achieving a hair-raising intensity.  The standing ovation with four calls by the soloist and conductor and volleys of cheering from all over the auditorium was richly earned and deserved.

I think I was most surprised by how tired I was after it ended.  I'm used to attending multiple concerts a day at the Festival of the Sound, but this was an experience of a wholly different kind -- intensely musical and fascinating insights into well-known and well-loved music, but also very demanding on the listener.  I'm sure that the sizable number of music lovers who took in all three concerts all felt themselves amply rewarded for their time, as I did.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Shaw Festival 2015 # 3: An Unconventionally Conventional Comedy

In some ways, You Never Can Tell is one of Shaw's most conventional plays.  It thrives on the devices of nineteenth century romantic comedy -- the confused identities, the missing persons rediscovered, the peculiarly crossed wires of relations between the middle class and the servant class, and so on.  But underneath all that are other and more unusual elements already visible, elements which were destined to come to fullness in succeeding works.

One of the unusual elements is the setting.  Instead of the conventional drawing room location so beloved of all his contemporaries, Shaw opens up the atmosphere by locating this play in a seaside resort, at the "Marine Hotel" -- a typical seaside-resort-hotel name of the period.  These resorts were the ideal getaway for the Victorians of all classes except the very wealthiest (who did the Grand Tour of Europe instead), with different resorts catering to people of different economic stature.  So Shaw manages at the same time to respect and subvert the conventions of his day, a trick which he was destined to raise to an art form in its own right.

You Never Can Tell is one of a group of plays published in a volume entitled Plays Pleasant -- a successor to the original Plays Unpleasant which had posed such a forceful challenge to social mores in the established theatre around the end of the nineteenth century.  With You Never Can Tell, Shaw determined to write a commercially successful play without sacrificing his socialist and modernist principles.  It was first performed in 1897.

Lighthearted this play may be, yet it is truly Shavian in its continual reversals of conventional expectations.  Consider as an example the relationship which develops between Valentine, the self-described "duellist of sex", and the deadly-serious "new woman", Gloria.  At first glance, a most unlikely couple.  And yet, in the end, this proves to be the first and one of the funniest of Shaw's numerous stage relationships in which (as John Tanner later would remark in Man and Superman):  "Woman is the pursuer and the disposer; man, the pursued and the disposed of."

But it's easy to get distracted from the prototypical Shaw relationship so presented when you are confronted with the sometimes-ineffectual "modern" blusterings of Mrs. Clandon, the breezy antics of the young twins Dolly and Philip, and the delightful philosophic musings of the waiter, one of the prize comic roles of the entire Shavian canon.

The play interests me in another way -- namely, that I find it impossible to discern a single character who is Shaw's mouthpiece for his own views (Tanner again being an obvious example).  Instead, the Shavian lessons are spread across several different people from time to time, a fact which reduces the tendency Shaw displayed in others of his early plays to forget the theatre and slide back into socio-political pamphleteering.

So, to the current production, which is the Shaw Festival's seventh staging of the play.  In this production, designer Leslie Frankish has made the most of the confined stage space of the Royal George Theatre by suggesting expanses of space in front of the stage (i.e. in the auditorium).  The terrace scene features a staircase down to the beach (running down into the underworld right across the front of the stage), with the implication that the beach is out where the audience happens to be sitting.  Another useful and sensible trick is to place the dentist's chair of the first act on a small rolling platform which can simply be wheeled off stage to reveal the set for Act 2.  The final scene at the masquerade ball uses brilliant colours to suggest the festive atmosphere.

Director Jim Mezon has nudged and steered the company into one of the strongest ensemble performances I've seen at the Shaw -- no mean achievement when this company is renowned for its strength of ensemble playing!  Not least of his achievements is the avoidance of some of the excesses of "acting" suggested by Shaw's prolific stage directions in favour of a purely natural, human-scaled manner for all of the characters.

The effortlessly charming Valentine is played by Gray Powell with an understated air of Don Juan about him.  The understatement totally suits the character but also suits the overall tone of the play.  His one over-the-top moment comes when Gloria is first ushered into his room and he completely loses it and stands staring at her with his mouth hanging open.  The contrast is both striking and hilarious.

Gloria, the young woman of icy self-control and formidable intellect, comes across powerfully as presented by Julia Course.  Indeed, "icy" and "formidable" are the perfect descriptive words for her entire performance, until the final scene when the thaw sets in -- not swiftly but at a believably human pace.

Her mother, Mrs. Lanfrey Clandon (we are never told the origin of this intriguing name), is a character type found from time to time in Shaw's works: a person who was advanced in her day but has now been left far behind by the march of "progress".  In her case, the excuse is that she has been living in Madeira with her children for 18 years.  Although by nature a woman of considerable force of character, she simply cannot stand up to her children.  This is a complex and tricky role to bring off, and Tara Rosling is definitely the person to do it.  Particularly appealing in her performance is the perennial air of being thrown off balance by everything that happens.  Rosling plays her ongoing sense of discomfiture very effectively, as a subtle undertone to everything that she says and does.

Patrick McManus strongly presents the growling, fuming Fergus Crampton (Mrs. Clandon's long-separated husband).  From his first appearance in Valentine's dentist chair he exactly treads the line between appealing and maddening -- and this balancing act is the essence of the character.  A fine performance indeed.

Peter Krantz turns in a well-nigh perfect portrayal of Finch M'Comas, the family solicitor -- the very epitome of the man who is constantly pushed, pulled, bullied and buffeted by everyone around him.  He protests mightily (Krantz's deep, big voice here put to great use) but to absolutely no avail.

Bohun, a lawyer who appears as a kind of deus ex machina in the final act to sort out all the confusions and resolve all the questions, has to be imposing.  Even without Shaw's stage directions, the mere lines of the part make that very clear.  His job is to put every other character in his or her place, as often as necessary.  At one key moment, when four people all begin talking at once, he simply shuts them up by saying, "One moment."  Of course, this has to be done in a very commanding tone!  (Shaw's stage direction here is "Thunderously.") 

I wasn't at all sure that Jeff Meadows was the man for the role, as I'd only seen him hitherto in rather more affable parts.  But no fear.  He dominated the stage effortlessly, throughout the scene, and his voice drowned out the other four with no trouble at all -- and with no artificial amplification either, thank goodness!

Now, all of this is very well and good as far as it goes.  But this play absolutely stands or falls by the performances of the three remaining principal characters.  All three of them were simply magnificent.

Jennifer Dzialoszynski was flippant, voluble, inquisitive and high-spirited as Dolly, the younger Clandon daughter.  Her partner in crime, her twin brother Philip, was played with equal flippancy, energy and high spirits by Stephen Jackman-Torkoff.  These two aren't meant to be two of a kind at all.  Rather, they share between them an intriguing range of characteristics -- Dolly the more childlike and manipulative, Philip the more self-possessed and mock-pompous.  It's easy to take these two characters and push them right over the top, but here more than anywhere else was where the human scale of the performance as a whole paid enormous dividends.  The twins were full of life and energy, but always believable and very lovable human beings -- never did they descend into comic caricature.

And finally, the presiding genius of the Marine Hotel, William the waiter.  Out of all Shaw's characters, this is the one I would want to play myself.  He's an absolutely delightful man: warm-hearted, philosophical, funny, observant, and thoughtful.  He goes far beyond mere waiterly skills in making his hotel a friendly, comfortable, sane environment for everyone.  As I said earlier, an absolute prize of a comic role.

Peter Millard crowned this show with a wonderful assumption of the role of William, full of little nuances of speech and grace notes of physical mannerism and facial expression.  It would be useless to try to single out particular moments in such a consistently and fully realized portrayal.

Really, that could stand as my reaction to the show as a whole.  Of the three times I have seen this play staged, I felt this was by far the most accomplished, the most enjoyable, and certainly the most uniformly excellent.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Shaw Festival 2015 # 2: Polishing Up the Icon

There's an almost iron-clad rule in the arts that creative artists who are highly praised and famous in their own lifetimes must go through a kind of artistic purgatory after death -- during which period their work is then scorned and derided as fuddy-duddy, old-fashioned, antiquated, or just plain out of date.  At some much later date, the qualities which made their work so valuable in their lifetimes may come in for a fuller appraisal and then be deemed of high quality and worth again.  This rule applies in the worlds of music, painting, sculpture, and all the stage arts, and the theatre is no exception.
 
It seems to me that George Bernard Shaw's plays are currently suffering through this artistic purgatory.  Whether this is fair and reasonable or not, only a couple of centuries of further time will be able to fairly determine.  But at the moment, it is fact.  And it poses some interesting problems for his namesake Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  Originally founded at a date when Shaw had the highest reputation in the English-speaking theatre world, second only to Shakespeare (and not even second to him, in Shaw's own mind!), a festival devoted to the works of this literary giant seemed like a totally natural development.
 
Tempora mutantur.  As Shaw's works have fallen farther and farther out of public esteem, the Shaw Festival has necessarily had to keep changing and broadening its mandate.  The results have certainly been intriguing, and often much more than just that.  But the fact remains that Shaw himself has become so unpopular that his plays in recent years have more often been consigned to the intimate Royal George Theatre rather than the more spacious and capacious Festival Theatre.
 
All of which brings me around to the current production of Pygmalion, which the management has -- rather daringly -- placed back in the main stage space.  I classify this as a daring move because the play itself has become largely unknown even to the bulk of the theatre-going public -- the ongoing popularity of the offshoot musical My Fair Lady notwithstanding. 

The musical took this intriguing parable of male attempts to reshape women, and managed in the end to reshape the play itself as a more conventional romantic comedy.  But that was not Shaw's intention, and he himself made that abundantly clear.  To me, the reference which Pygmalion more often brings to mind is Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew -- a tale which similarly looks at a man in the process of moulding a woman to suit his ideas.  But of course, both process and results are quite different in Shaw.  The result is one of Shaw's oddest endings.  The play just... stops.  There's no sense of any final resolution of any of the elements in the story.  Indeed, the outcome of the play is sufficiently uncertain that Shaw later wrote a lengthy prose epilogue outlining what he foresaw as the future of the Eliza-Higgins-Freddy triangle for many years yet to come.

So, then, to this particular production.  I was concerned ahead of time about the Festival's description of this Pygmalion as being reimagined for modern times.  That very ambiguous wording made me wonder just how much rewriting the creative team intended to do in Shaw's work and I wasn't at all sure I wanted to attend a production of Pygmalion if it were substantially altered.  I must not have been the only one so concerned, as the Shaw Festival began advertising the show in June as having "not one word altered" from Shaw's original text!  It certainly isn't necessary to alter Shaw's text as the issues with which the play deals -- issues of social standing and the language and behaviour which determines it -- are not really as far different today as many people thoughtlessly suppose.
 
(In practice there were a few alterations to words not currently in use such as "fire irons", to amounts of money specified in the text in order to bring them into a more realistic relationship with the present day value of money -- and one other much more noticeable change which I will mention below.)
 
With director Peter Hinton at the helm this was sure to be a bracing and invigorating reading of the play.  This I expected.  What I did not expect was that it would tilt so strongly towards the dark side, with the most actively disagreeable and nasty Higgins I have ever encountered, and with Doolittle played (in his first scene especially) as a very vehement and angry man rather than the affable philosopher so often depicted in this role in the past.  It's all there in the script.  What counts is the presentation of the material, with less of a nod and a wink than usual.  None of which stopped people from laughing at favourite lines and moments. 

One element of the production grated on me in particular, and that was Eo Sharp's glossy (literally), cubic, black and white set.  Totally appropriate for Mrs. Higgins' home and studio (since she was reimagined as a couturiere), it struck me as completely wrong for Professor Higgins and his study -- particularly when that man had been portrayed as more than usually sloppy and slovenly in his dress.  I admired the imaginative use of computers as a tool of his trade, but was grateful when I heard that a whole bank of TV monitors above the proscenium hadn't made their appearance due to the damage caused by a rain-in a few days ago.  I like the idea of incorporating technology into the theatre in theory, but I also find that its easy to go to town and end up with altogether too many distractions from what is happening on the stage.  Bad enough that actors have to compete with the multi-track minds of modern audiences, without also forcing them to fight against their own production for a share of the attention.

The opening scene of the play features a whole crowd of over a dozen street people with distinct and different personalities, modes of dress, voice and action.  This scene was admirable for the clarity of the staging that kept the key characters visible when they needed to be without emptying the stage for their benefit.

Julain Molnar as Mrs. Eynsford-Hill was as crisp and neat as her very precise dress and hat.  Her daughter, Clara, played by Kristi Frank, came across as the wannabe echo of her mother, but with an added veneer of what can only be called "stereotypical blonde."  Clara's brother, the likable but somewhat vacuous Freddy, was well cast with Wade Bogert-O'Brien who has made something of a specialty of playing the likable, vacuous young male characters which litter the British theatre from the 1800s to the present day.  For those thinking in terms of My Fair Lady, forget it:  Freddy's part in that show and film was greatly amplified as part of the transition to traditional romantic comedy.  In the original play his part is not large, and while on stage he does little but stare, goggle-eyed at Eliza and suffer the slings and arrows of his mother and sister.

In some ways the most thoroughly up-to-date character in the play was Higgins' housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce.  As played by Mary Haney, she abandoned the politesse of the well-bred woman of the servant classes in the original in favour of a put-upon, frustrated, even petulant woman who has no problem telling it like it is.  Her accent, understated but clear, underlined the difference in upbringing between her and Higgins.  No difference in intelligence.  This Mrs. Pearce sees much farther and deeper than her employer.

Colonel Pickering was played by Jeff Meadows as a pleasant gentleman whose politeness to Eliza didn't always match her description of it -- it was as if he turned his manners on and off like a bathroom tap, an intriguing approach to the part.

Peter Krantz played the dark, unconventional Alfred P. Doolittle to which I referred earlier.  His imposing stature and booming voice abetted the impression of an angry man, and the anger came right into the open on his last words to Eliza in his first scene.  In his second appearance, his facial expression took on the mournful look of a starving bloodhound as he described how his life was over, thanks to middle class morality.

Donna Belleville made a magnificent Mrs. Higgins, at once magisterial, concerned, caring, and incisive in dealing with her temperamental son.  It was a prize performance of a prize role.

And this brings me to Harveen Sandhu as Eliza.  This role poses exactly the same problem as the part of Lady Bracknell in Earnest:  how in heaven's name are you supposed to come up with a way of playing it that doesn't make everyone think you're copying a famous performer of the past???  Sandhu's assumption of the character was fresh, brisk, and made much of the considerable mental and emotional backbone which keeps Eliza going through all her trials.  This was, in fact, a strong-willed woman who was every inch a match, and more than a match for Higgins -- and how often have we seen her played that way?  The final scene made that point painfully clear, as she repeatedly skewered him on the points of her forceful sentences.

I must describe her finest moment, because it highlighted an important point.  Hinton chose to underscore the show with a wide range of different music styles at various points.  Some of the underscoring continued into dialogue scenes and interfered with audibility of the lines.  But there was one scene that reached a rare degree of emotional intensity.  At the opening of Act IV Eliza roams around the room in her formal gown, having just returned from the ambassador's garden party (which in the original was an embassy ball, the sort of event that just doesn't happen anymore).  As she moved slowly about, obviously trapped in a whirlwind of emotions, the opening bars of Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia played.  I would never have guessed, but it made a remarkably apt counterpoint to her slow, sad walking about -- an intense and beautiful stage moment indeed.

And certainly not least, Patrick McManus as Henry Higgins.  As already indicated, this is a very sloppy, very casual Higgins, a man who feels quite at home sitting around in khaki shorts with his bare feet propped on a chair.  His vehemence boils over at every opportunity.  His behaviour towards Eliza goes beyond the unthinking and right into the actively abusive at times -- an impression which is part face, part voice, and part action.  It undoubtedly gave her a good strong opposition to force her to draw out her own strength.  But I can't help feeling there is more to Higgins' character than that.  It was very difficult to take him seriously in the last scene when he spoke of having learned from her, and said that he would miss her.

These two strong characters undoubtedly struck sparks off each other, as they must, but each in turn descended into silly cartoonish foolery at times -- and that worked against both of their characters.

The language: in the first London performance of the play, Mrs. Patrick Campbell as Eliza created an absolute sensation (and one of the longest timed laughs in the history of the theatre at 105 seconds!) when she uttered the legendary line, "Not bloody likely!"  Hard for a Canadian audience to relate to just how offensive that word would have been in Britain in 1913, so this production very sensibly altered it to "Not f___ing likely!"  The uproarious laughs ensuing proved the point.

All in all, I thought this was a good strong production of a play whose very familiarity disguises the traps that abound in the script.  Some of the excesses worked against the performance.  Sophisticated plays like this one, though, had much better never receive a perfect production -- because there would then be no point in anyone else taking it on again!

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Stratford Festival 2015 # 4: A Voyage of Discovery

One of the rarely-staged Shakespearean romances, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, is receiving only its fourth production in the six-decades-plus history of the Stratford Festival (previous mountings were in 1973-4, 1986, and 2003).  As with so many of the Bard's plays, the exact circumstances surrounding it are far from clear but it's generally believed to have been co-written with another author -- George Wilkins the most likely candidate.

It shares with the other late romance plays some common thematic streams: the essential nature of reconciliation and forgiveness, the concept that a wayward world needs to have its balance restored, and the use of a divine or magical intervention to assist in restoring that desired order and harmony.

Unlike the others of the group, Pericles has no sub-plot.  Its single story line unfolds instead over a period of many years, and in many places around the Mediterranean world.  As Pericles makes his way through this literal journey, he's also being taken on a metaphorical voyage of exploration to discover the qualities of an ideal state and ideal society by experiencing the less-than-ideal conditions prevailing in many of the states he visits.  The play also displays an oddly modern preoccupation with the unsavoury treatment of women in a patriarchal society.

The curious parallels prevailing among the many scenes of the story naturally suggest to a modern eye the idea of archetypal figures.  Director Scott Wentworth has deliberately underlined this part of his interpretation by using parallel casting of the same actors in different scenes. 

And that's precisely where I found the greatest weakness of this production.  It involved the use of Deborah Hay playing both the wife of Pericles, Thaisa, and his daughter, Marina (they only appear together on stage briefly in the last stage, where a substitute filled in for Thaisa).  Hay's distinctive face and voice could not simply be wished away, and it lent an overtone of incest to the scene where Pericles at last meets his daughter -- one of the two moments of wonder unnecessarily blotted with a hint of evil.  It didn't help matters at all that Hay had also played, in the Antioch scene, the role of the daughter (and incestuous lover) of the tyrannical ruler, Antiochus.

The other problem occasioned by the double casting had to do with Wayne Best as the unsavory and malicious Antiochus, and later as the pleasantly playful Simonides in Pentapolis.  Best escaped the similarity of voice by shoving his voice up in pitch and resorting to a high-pitched, silly giggle as Simonides.  The character is undoubtedly a humorous man, and certainly a bit of a joker, but he's not one of Shakespeare's foolish village idiots -- and that's how he sounded.

In both these cases, I felt that Wentworth's double-casting idea had backfired.

Otherwise, casting was strong throughout, and even minor characters were well-delineated.  Deborah Hay was in her best form as Marina.  Stephen Russell presented a steady air of gravity as Helicanus, the regent governing Tyre in Pericles' absence.  David Collins presided gently and benevolently as the lord Cerimon over the near-ideal commonwealth of Ephesus.

At Mytilene, the scenes involving Marina's abduction and sale into a brothel produced some of the most memorable performances.  Keith Dinicol as the Pander and Brigit Wilson as the Bawd played the management of the house with style and substance alike, two experts with their eagle eyes always trained on the profit margin.  They wouldn't have been at all out of place in a staging of Dickens -- an impression strongly reinforced by Patrick Clark's Victorian costumes.  Antoine Yared's performance as the governor, Lysimachus, managed the rapid transition from the customer ready to rape Marina to the considerate gentleman proposing marriage to her very believably.

Anyone who knows the script of this play is probably wondering what happened to Gower this time!  (I was wondering myself beforehand, as his name didn't appear in the program's cast list).  The medieval author John Gower (1330-1408) had told the story used for the play in his poem Confessio amantis.  Wilkins and/or Shakespeare brought him into the play as a chorus figure to advance the action from place to place -- a very helpful device in an age before the invention of printed programs with scene lists!

Unfortunately, Gower's part provides the biggest weakness of the script -- what one writer has described as the most execrable rhyming couplets in the English language.  Modern directors have tried all kinds of devices to make Gower palatable, often involving singing -- the use of those couplets does tend to suggest music. 

Wentworth's conception here was as inspired as his double-casting scheme was flawed.  He made extensive use of the goddess Diana and her maiden priestesses (garbed all in white habits like nuns) as a chorus to sing the lines in multi-part harmony -- indeed, almost chanting them at times.  Other choral parts were broken up and shared among the actors in the play, in plain speech.  I suspect there was also a certain amount of cutting. 

At any rate, this serene and lovely choral singing not only lent beauty to the lines, but also clarified and reinforced the idea of Diana as a moving force in the story (she is mentioned several times throughout the play, although she only appears and actually speaks at the end).  The chanting cast a ritualistic light across the play as a whole, an impression strengthened by those parallels among the scenes.  I suspect this music also provided the cue for the fixed set, which consisted of a scrim curtain behind which appeared a wall set with numerous candles of varying heights -- a clear symbolic evocation of the temple of Diana at Ephesus, where the story reaches its culmination.  This was placed beyond the tall doors at the far end of the long, narrow platform stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre, where the candles were periodically revealed whenever the doors were opened.

If this production of Pericles isn't a complete triumph, it's still an involving and thought-provoking look at a play that is a true rarity.  That is partly due, no doubt, to the disjointed and sometimes slackly-written script, but also -- I think -- because Pericles makes us take a hard look at things that we know are real, but we'd rather not think about too much.  It's not comfortable material.  And that's definitely as it should be.  In this respect, Wentworth and his company of fine Stratford actors have clearly hit the target in this presentation.