Wednesday, 28 April 2010

The Professionals

Bodie & Doyle were unimpressed by the length of my last post

It's tweet update time!

The JonesMole gang have been busy again – MeisterMole tweeted the good news that WNO will take DMvN to this year's Proms. If you can't make it to the RAH in person you can hear it live from 4pm on BBC Radio 3 and for viewers in the UK there will be a delayed televised broadcast the same evening from 7pm on BBC 4. No word yet if S4C will be recording any of the staged performances at the Armadillo.

Meanwhile TraviataJones tweeted at the end of rehearsals last week, "It's been very very busy, but I can already tell you that if you've booked y'all are in for a treat!" But there's no rest for the wicked as she returned to action on Monday, "Week #2 of Meistersinger rehearsals to begin. Our Tenor Raymond Very comes to join us today, he's playing Walther. Be nice to meet him." To find out more about Raymond Very you can visit his website, where you can hear excerpts of him singing Lensky's Aria from Eugene Onegin and Don Juan's Aria in Schulhoff's Flammen.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Meistersinger – Week One – Act One – or just plain old WOAO

Walther catches up with Eva

First of all a word of warning to anyone considering listening to Meistersinger via earphones – don't. Just don't. Kindness to neighbours should only go so far and I'm drawing the line at deafness. Of course, if I'd checked the volume before I introduced a ton of Wagnerian brass to my eardrums then maybe I wouldn't be writing this. Sorry neighbours – it'll be two boxes of chocolates this Christmas.

Suped up brass bands weren't the only surprise that hit me when I took on the task of getting to know DMvN. Meistersinger a comedy? Wagner and humour? Surely a mistake? To be fair to Wagner most comic operas are usually anything but comic, and given that we're talking about works with well over a century to their names there's no great surprise that they are lip tremblingly amusing at best and frankly embarrassing at worst. Humour dates, badly. How many people find Charlie Chaplin's work truly funny? Inventive, yes. Funny, no. It's at this point that I'll scuttle my own argument by admitting I'm partial to the Marx Bros who predate the frankly **** My Family by the invention of colour and wipe the floor with the Harper family in the comedy stakes. I'm left then with one possibility, or perhaps two. Either Wagner's comedy genius up to DMvN was too subtle for me, or he just wasn't that funny. Will things change with Meistersinger?

***** Time for one of those spoiler warnings *****

Despite my pledge in an earlier post not to turn this into a review of the first act I couldn't come up with anything else…

The first thing I'm scratching my head over with a slightly furrowed brow and throbbing ears is the question of Die Meistersingers themselves. Who were they? As far as I can tell they seemed to be a self-appointed quango that decided what was hot and what was not in 16th century Nuremberg's music scene – a bit like bloggers (okay, just me), but with talent. Or to put it another way – they were the Big Bang for shows like X-Factor and Dance Fool You're on TV and You Need to Humiliate Yourself for a Minute of Fame. Thanks boys.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The cast of characters – look away now if you're Germaine Greer.

Of the named seventeen characters scientifically speaking 2.8976% of them are women (anyone who intends checking the veracity of this figure needn't bother – I'm useless at percentages and have made these up out of my PIN number). In other words fifteen are burly, manly men. Applying the Clueless-Dumbfounded Method reveals a slightly less skewed picture. There are seven principal roles, with roughly 9.875% being female. For laymen and non-mathematical wunderkinds like myself that's two out of seven. Eva (the love interest) and Magdalena (the reserve love interest).

Lined up to do battle for Eva is newcomer Sir Walther von Stolzing a young knight and Sixtus Beckmesser, the town clerk and a Meistersinger – I'm guessing he'll be booed by the end of the performance. Battling absolutely nobody for Magdalena is David, an apprentice to Hans Sachs, the Jimmy Choo of downtown Nuremberg and real life Meistersinger! The remaining numero uno character is bling daddy Veit Pogner who thinks nothing of offering his daughter (Eva) as the prize at an upcoming singing contest. He isn't completely on Germaine Greer's bad books though as he does offer Eva the possibility of turning down the winner – but she can't marry anyone else. For ever, and ever and ever. Bad man – he should be booed at the end as well.

Die Meistersingers warn off Walther and Hans Sachs photo

The crux of this first act is that Walther isn't a Meistersinger but wants to become one so he can win Eva's hand (and presumably the rest of her too). Invited to give his best he falls foul of Beckmesser who bad marks him to eternity for not following a set of rules designed to nullify creativity of any kind. Only Sachs sees the potential in Walther and sets out to train the young punk from the right side of the tracks in the sacred art of the Meistersingers. In 80's filmspeak he's a bit like Mr. Miyagi and Walther is Danny LaRusso, but with money. Wax on, wax off is in the offing then.

Less frivolity / waffle / idiocy – it's the important part where I pretend I know about proper musical things like singing above the staff and hitting an A flat minor at ten paces while blindfolded. A monkey can probably gush with more accuracy about what I've heard (and with a bit more eloquence to boot) – but as the monkey is fed up with writing my thoughts for me I'll have to finish this bit off myself and dock his wages.

So musically…speaking…the first act…

Okay, I'm no Daniel Barenboim but even to my ears DMvN (so far) is both a breakaway and a return to the same old paths for Wagner. Present are his love of long chats that can take a while to get to where they should – but nowhere near Tristan und Isolde levels. The thickly layered blankets of strings are there to sink my teeth into and enough idiosyncratic tunes (the leitmotifs – I am learning you see?) to wave a marking board at, some of which remind me of certain characters from the Ring. Above all the cohesion that marks out Wagner's scores is in full health and never lets up. I'd appreciate it if you forgot I've said all of this, as I'll probably be using it in my next post.

The pastures new come in the form of a lightness running through the opening act, almost whimsical in nature. It's this that makes the score probably as accessible to first timers to Wagner as Der fliegende Hollander in my shaky opinion. There's flexibility to the music that never allows the pace to drag, but at the same time I don't feel rushed and Wagner, the big old softy, even allows some of the singers a good run at their numbers with Romantic gusto required (I'm thinking primarily of Walther).

Is there comedy? I'd have to say yes. It's mainly character driven comedy with the jealous Beckmesser and the obstinate Meistersingers providing the laughs as they cling to their rules in the face of new ideas and youthful passion. Though I can't shake the feeling that Walther is carrying a tiny bit of Siegfried in his DNA. You won't be gasping for breath, but then you won't be wishing you were watching My Family either.

If you do want to be gasping for breath watch the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode from the second season called Trick or Treat where Wagner gets a run out and so too does the overture from Die Meistersingers.

At this early point in proceedings I'm a happy chappie – this is shaping up to be an entertaining opera that does quite a bit to shake the portentous cloud of intensity that's sat over Wagner in my eyes. Can he keep it up? Will Walther finish his household chores? Will Beckmesser try freestyle yodelling? Does Magdalena tire of being the number two in the love stakes and fix the brakes on Eva's sporty town wagon? All will be revealed next week in Die Meistersingers von Nürnberg – Act Two.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The Professionals*

Die Hunky Trio von Cardiff

While I rambled on about Roy Keane and CD's the people who are actually involved in DMvN just got on with things. MeisterMole tweeted the epic journey taken by Ran Braun, WNO's Staff Director for Sachs & Co who was grounded by the lnocvao with the Countdown conundrum name. Instead of sitting at home, Ran went all Aragorn and travelled through Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Belgium by car, hopped on to a train to Calais, caught a ferry to Dover and road the rails in time to reach Cardiff for the start of rehearsals on Monday morning at 10.30am.

Meanwhile TraviataJones has been tweeting about the same rehearsals that began on Monday morning – but before she could turn her attention fully to DMvN she trekked off to Bristol for the final Seraglio of WNO's tour, where the volcano had struck once more by waylaying Wynne Evans (Pedrillo) in South Africa, where he was filming a new ad for Go Compare. Performers have been accused of telephoning in performances on quite a few occasions…but unfortunately not on this one, because he would have needed to share the line with some of his colleagues. Petros Magoulas (Osmin) and conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini were downed in Greece and New York respectively. Surely one of them could have knocked up a raft out of lollipop sticks and picked the other two up in time? That's what Ran would have done.

But I'm rambling again - back to DMvN!

The sets have begun to roll out from their top secret location and Hans Sachs' pad has been described as huuuuge! by TraviataJones – after the Team Jones productions I've seen in the past year (and the one I frustratingly missed) I'm getting the same excited feeling I had before Christmas 1982 when a mini snooker table was in the offing.

Before I don my leather breeches and head out to play LOTR rpg with six foot hobbits MeisterMole also tweeted that more seats had become available for the Millennium Centre run of DMvN - if you haven't yet bought your ticket why not pop over to the WMC's website?

* And in case you don't know who die hunky trio are, follow this ooh die hunky trio link!

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Pre-Season Training

Roy Keane and Richard Wagner – two names I doubted I'd ever be writing in the same sentence, but then again who would have thought that the following combo of words would have ever graced your eyeballs – "Katie Price, best-selling author of… "

But back to Keano and Wagno. In his biography the current manager of Ipswich Town came up with one of those motivational sport phrases that normally include the words burn / pain / sacrifice – but in this instance involved nothing that suggested you were about to eat one of my culinary experiments. Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail were the words of wisdom that Keano bestowed upon our unworthy heads. I'm not suggesting that anyone going to see DMvN (to Calvin Klein the coming shebang) needs to undertake a month long boot camp into the world of Wagner's eighth published opera to enjoy it, but a little knowledge can make the experience that bit more pleasurable. Or at least it does for me. Before anyone utters the words anorak / geek / obsessive let me tell you a brief story. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin…

Once upon a time there was a prince, with the most wondrous head of hair, who liked to go to the opera. He liked it so much that when he went on his travels to foreign lands he would visit opera houses there as well. Thinking that he was possessed of immaculate linguistic skills the prince, with the silkiest golden locks the world has ever seen, decided that he didn't need to listen to Handel's Xerxes before a trip to Budapest and on a balmy May evening up went the curtain and so began several hours of enjoyable music making, exquisite singing and fantastically kitsch sets that were enjoyed by all. Except the dunderhead from Wales who hadn't thought of the recitatives being spoken in Hungarian and that his Italian, while okay for asking how much a pair of flip-flops cost, was restricted to goldfish memory sized chunks of usefulness – amore…mio…amore…mio…amore……mio.

I know that there'll be surtitles in English, Welsh and thankfully not Hungarian at the Armadillo but there's no mistaking the added enjoyment you can get if you're familiar with the characters and plot in advance. Also what would happen if a squirrel gnawed through the electric wiring running to the surtitles screen eh? Huh. Hadn't thought of that had you?

With this in mind I'm beginning my Keano Anti Failure Preparation Tasks ™ with the first hurdle – DVD or CD? Which is the best for that first close encounter? The benefits of DVD are obvious – the opera played out on your telly with usually excellent casts. You sit back and enjoy with wine, chocolates or fish fingers. CD gives you the opera for your ears with top-notch casts, and the words if you're lucky. You become glued to the libretto, wondering why Eva has suddenly developed into an unusually deep soprano, tip your wine and burn your fish fingers. Is one better than the other? It depends on what you want. If you're after the opera without the drudgery of hard work go for DVD. If you want to know what's being sung from the first, hundredth and final lines go for CD. This highlighted run of words will give you an idea of what's on offer at Amazon – including a very reasonably priced Met production on DVD.

Which did I choose? Call me geek. I went for CD. Unknowingly without the libretto, which meant that while I'm appreciative of Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues video, I decided to fork out for this libretto instead of producing yet another breeze blocked sized lump of A4 pages. This was the CD I ended up choosing for a few reasons. Reason #1 Among the cast were Gwyneth Jones and Kurt Moll, both were judges at last year's Cardiff Singer of the World and being the sentimental haircut that I am now and then I fell for it. Reason #35b As I'm as likely to get a ticket to the Bayreuth Festival as I am to swim the river Ogmore with a hydrophobic penguin strapped to my back I thought I'd listen to something with a touch of authenticity to it. Reason #96 was the most persuasive of all – it was ridiculously cheap when I bought it. You can call me Scrooge, I won't mind.

There now follows a critical appreciation of the first act…

Don't worry, I won't go down that road – Budapest is still fresh in my mind.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Meistersinger - Let the Tweeting Begin

In little over two months time WNO will unveil it's eagerly anticipated new production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, or as it's known to people who own a sundial – The Bloody Long One. Coming in at little under three days per performance it's an endurance test that will see sales of Red Bull soar in the Cardiff Bay area, prompting fears from local residents of an increase in pensioner driven crime involving battery by opera programme to feed these crazy thugs addiction to the blue cans and Wagner.

Heading the cast is the current Met menace, Bryn Terfel, whose odds at developing a Red Bull addiction have shortened considerably since word seeped out that this will in fact be the Director's Cut of Meistersinger. Rumours that the set will be flambéed at the end of each performance have been strongly denied by a WNO mole, although unnamed figures from Bayerische Staatsoper were spotted at a London hotel in January meeting their counterparts from WNO with both groups practising what's known in fire fighting circles as RBD (Rapid Bucket Deployment) wearing dampened towels over their heads.

In celebration of the coming production WNO have turned to twittering the build up to the opening of the production with a dedicated MeisterMole twitter. So far it's early days with no mention of any assassination plots or RSI injuries to WNO's brass section. But I have to disagree with the following tweet – "The American journo H L Mencken said 'Die Meistersinger' took more skill to plan and write than the whole of Shakespeare." Barbara Cartland maybe, but not the Bearded Wonder of Stratford.

Another twitter worth following is TraviataJones who, unless she's a relative of Walter Mitty, is an Assistant Stage Manager with WNO. The National Enquirer loving atoms in my being are hoping for photos / video clips as she tweets about weaning Bryn Terfel off Red Bull with countless cups of Nescafè Gold Blend.

Due to my contractual commitments to the Gods of Misplaced / Lost / Uncharged Mobile Phones I'll be un-de-non-participating in tweeting my own preparations for Meistersinger. Instead I'll chronicle my journey into the land of Nürnberg right here in the coming weeks. Read my musings as I contemplate philosophical questions such as – "How do I gain a fluent knowledge of German in eight weeks?" "Will it be okay to feign an ankle injury and con my way into a pensioner's aisle seat?" "Did Wagner suffer from narcolepsy and think his works only ran for ninety minutes each?"

So join me, if you can, and preferably with a monetary donation towards my own Red Bull / Nescafè bills over the next few weeks and experience the thrills, coffee spills and anguishes as I prepare to greet Richard Jones' Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (and possibly a programme wielding Bryn Terfel juiced up on Red Bull and looking for his next fix).