Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Edinburgh Players Opera Group: Götterdämmerung : Portobello Town Hall September 25th 2011

So just over a week ago it was that time of year again, when crazy people with more stamina than sense, obsessed by a love of Wagner music dramas, converged on Portobello Town Hall to put on a concert performance of Wagner's The Twilight of the Gods, or as one orchestra member christened it, Scotterdammerung. Wagnerites among you will already have figured out that we've been doing this for at least enough time to work round a Ring cycle. Actually this is year eleven: two runs around the Ring, with Tristan, Parsifal and Meistersinger tucked in between.

The game plan was this. Thursday evening, three-hour orchestra and chorus rehearsal (also the Prologue with the Norns). Friday afternoon and evening, eight hours of rehearsal for pretty much everyone bar the chorus. Saturday, eight hours for everyone. Sunday the performance. Or I should say the "performance": this used to be billed as "open rehearsal". Why not simply a performance without scare quotes? Well, that depends how much you wish to pay for your music hire. Bill it as an open rehearsal with contributions invited, and the music costs....quite a lot (big orchestra, long opera so big parts). Bill it as a performance with tickets on sale, and the price skyrockets out of the reach of groups such as EPOG.

If that all sounds like hard work, it definitely is. I can only speak as a string player (second violins) but we have around four and a half hours of opera (excluding inrervals) with no breaks from playing of more than about two minutes. It goes for the shoulders, it goes for the back, it also (unless you're careful) goes for the lower arm muscles. Act Two is the shortest, but much the hardest work for the strings who are scrubbing away at tremolandos for much of it. I got through the weekend on Tai Chi stretches and Pro Plus (no anti-doping controls in opera yet...)

Since it was formed in 2001, EPOG has been a labour of love by two extraordinary individuals. Mike Thorne, who was vice-principal of Napier University at the outset, moved to the University of East London and is now Vice-Chancellor of Anglia Ruskin University. Mike used to conduct concerts in Edinburgh of somewhat offbeat repertoire, such as Milhaud's Le Boeuf sur le Toit, and Peter Maxwell Davies's Orkney Wedding with Sunrise. I believe he still does that kind of thing down in England: now we only see him in Edinburgh once a year for a Wagnerthon. He reckons it takes him an hour a day to learn the score for a Wagner opera, but however long he spends he certainly knows it thoroughly. Though there is always fun with the different editions of the parts and scores ("Can we go back to wieder zurückhaltend, wind? What's that in your parts?" "Meno mosso" "Ah....")(The string parts invariably have both the German and the Italian so this is a fun spectator sport for us.) Mike somehow manages to keep not only his own spirits up but everyone else's, hauling us through these massive pieces in a ridiculously short rehearsal time for amateur players and coaxing performances out of us which, if not great, are at least presentable. The other extraordinary individual is Philip Taylor, eminence grise (more grise with each passing year) of Edinburgh Players, and leading light of EPOG. While Mike concentrates on the music, Philip does all the organising of players, singers, halls, music and such. From next year he will be handing over most of the donkey-work to a committee and taking a well-earned rest, but up to now it's been Philip who has made it all happen. A terribly nice chap who looks and sounds, if not quite like a character from P G Wodehouse then certainly like one from Anthony Powell.

EPOG manages, through Philip's cajoling and general niceness, to attract some stunning singers, some at the beginning of their career arcs, some well through theirs. We've had Elaine McKrill and Gerard Delrez on several occasions, which gives an idea of the level of talent we manage to get. The Hagen we had planned for this year had to change his plans when he was booked to sing at the Met (!) but we found a splendid replacement in John Cunningham. Our Siegfried was Jonathan Finney, who has been singing with us since Tristan in 2005 and seems to get better with every passing year. Elaine McKrill being busy with both Wagner and Strauss right now we welcomed back Kimberley Myers as another splendid Brünnhilde. Magdalen Ashman as her Valkyrie sister Waltraute was at least as good if not better: if the two of them both want to sing Kundry when we do Parsifal next year I'd hate to have to pick one over the other. Both of them really acted out their parts even though it was a concert performance: their scene together in act One was quite extraordinary. Nicholas Fowler as Alberich also deserves a mention for bringing the necessary menace to his brief appearance. The Norns and Rhinemaidens (Susan MacNaught doubled as Gutrune and Woglinde - I think the planned Gutrune was ill) were ace, and the chorus of vassals sang lustily (Mike tried to persuade them to drink Bovril for added power, but surely the emptiest vassals make the most noise?) .

Anyway, game over, job done, the fat lady sang (actually Kimberley Myers is far from fat) and having sung, caught fire to make the point that this was THE END. Enthusiastic applause from the hardy few who had come to watch and listen, including the editor of Wagner News (who joined the chorus). I look forward to reading what he has to say about us.

I was re-reading a copy of WN from a few years back in which Donald McIntyre was reminiscing about the Bayreuth Centenary Ring, directed by Patrice Chéreau and conducted by Pierre Boulez. Apparently when they came to make the film of the production, they spent two days on each opera: one to rehearse, and the next to do two performances of which the better was used. The mere thought of having to perform Götterdämmerung twice in one day boggles my mind. What do they make Bayreuth orchestral players out of? Titanium? Rhinegold? Depleted uranium? (If it wasn't depleted at the start, by the end of the second run it would be.)

Meanwhile here is a clip of those empty vassals from the Met production conducted by James Levine.



When my daughter was small we had recorded some children's film or other over the top of a videotape of this production, so that when one day the tape ran on she was presented with, pretty much, this. Faced with the question "What's the lady singing about?" (she starts just as this clip ends) I had to retrace Wagner's writing process, back up to the start of the Ring and run through edited highlights of all four operas. Whether or not the three-year old Wagnerite retained it all I don't know, but she watched the last two acts of Götterdämmerung at least a dozen times. Never let anyone tell you Wagner isn't for kids. Magic swords: disguising spells; love potions; a sleeping beauty; a dragon; treasure; love; treachery; evil dwarves; talking birds; and some of the greatest music ever written. Eat your heart out, J K Rowling.

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