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TLS Crit of The Skating Rink

Date: 20 July 2018

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ARTS

Mythical spaces

Opera, from an organ room to an ice rink

  GUY DAMMANN

Claude Debussy

PELLÉAS ET MÉLISANDE Glyndebourne Festival Opera, until August 9

David Sawer

THE SKATING RINK Garsington Festival Opera

The Glyndebourne Festival’s new pro- duction of Pelléas et Mélisande, con- ducted by Robin Ticciati and directed by Stefan Herheim, is the company’s fourth staging of the work, timed in celebration of the centenary of the composer’s death. The curtain opens, straight away, to reveal an oddly familiar space, in both senses of the term. A family and their servants are gathered in a great hall, overlooked by grand paintings and, more conspicuously, a large organ. They surround a kind of altar on which is laid the body of young woman, their apparent mourning led by Prince Golaud. In the minute and a half or so of music before the action formally begins, the com- pany dissolves, leaving Golaud, dressed in plus fours and a tweed hunting coat, lost in thought, to chance on the same young woman, equally lost and, with streaks of blood descending from her eyes down her cheeks, apparently blind, but now nonetheless living and breathing.

To a sceptical eye, much of this will seem ludicrously arch, particularly the set, which is a detailed replica of Glyndebourne’s organ room, an extension to the Elizabethan manor constructed by John Christie in the 1920s to accommodate the family’s increasingly ambitious musical life. The instrument, which looms almost preposterously large in the house (it is apparently the largest domes-

tic organ in Britain), has an even more power- ful presence on the stage, filling the entire width. This, and the way many details are crammed into the opera’s opening moments so we are equipped with the information we need to know, or to set aside, in order to understand what on earth has been done with the original scenario (in this case, “une forêt”), make for a somewhat worrying beginning. That said, Ticciati’s handling of the opening’s music is radiant, exquisitely shaded and calmly paced.

In the second scene, the rhythm of the stag- ing seems easier to grasp. The organ has shrunk to more homely proportions and the lighting acquired a more cheerful aspect, ren- dering visible the paintings as replicas of those hanging in the actual organ room next door. More important, however, is the way the movement of the singers becomes more immediately visible. This quality is particu- larly noticeable after Pelléas – dressed in a light, striped suit with a blue bow (possibly inspired by a photograph of Debussy picnick- ing) – has asked his grandfather’s permission to leave the castle to visit his dying friend. The answer is that he must wait at home because no one knows how Golaud’s return, with the mysterious princess, will affect the life of the family. The music at this point is full of dark shadows, but as the interview con- cludes it lightens until a beatific violin solo floats high above the swaying harmonies. At this moment on stage, Pelléas, his mother and

grandfather, who have been circling around each other, somehow coalesce, each leaning closely into the other, standing at an angle as if listening out for an image of beauty which might re-unite the family. The immense ten- derness of the moment, caught in arrested motion, seeps back into the gentle contours of

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Date: 20 July 2018

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the music, and yields a strange feeling of inti- macy with the usually mysterious and emo- tionally distant royal house of Allemonde.

The sense of watching a kind of pared-down ballet grows, as Golaud is welcomed back into the family and Mélisande introduced to them. The music is on tenterhooks at this stage, barely able to catch its breath, and the delicate state of relations between the characters, the balance of anxieties and tensions and the vari- ous requirements of affection and ritual, prece- dence and hospitality, are borne out in the way Herheim has the characters move in and out of each other’s orbit, as if the forces of attraction and kinship that operate between the members of this complex, taciturn but volatile family could be explained purely by the laws of gravi- tation. And indeed, the movement on stage matches perfectly the shifting focus of Debussy’s music and the way it settles, butter-

fly-like, on particular colours and motifs before being swept away by more powerful and fundamental forces; this illuminates how at its heart, Maurice Maeterlinck’s troubling and mysterious symbolist drama is basically about the tensions and paradoxes implicit in the laws of human attraction.

Another aspect, borne out in the distinction between Pelléas and Golaud, relates to ways of seeing. The two half-brothers live after all in the same castle with the same people, but they rarely see the same things. In the music, this is expressed through the contrast between the light and flowing lines of Pelléas and the dark and troubled contours of Golaud, and in the way Mélisande’s ambiguous harmonic world, though caught between the two, seems so ineluctably drawn to the former. Herheim enhances this by making Pelléas a painter, ill at ease with the feudal life of the castle but fluent in exploring its beauties. The third scene’s exploration of the kingdom becomes a tour of the organ room’s paintings, some of them works in progress, others new acquisitions brought home by Golaud on his recent journey with Mélisande. The contrast between Pel- léas’s concern with the look of things and Gol- aud’s desire to hunt and possess the objects of his awareness reaches its apex in their different

attitudes towards retrieving Mélisande’s lost ring, and in the ecstatic but all too fleeting music when the cave is illuminated with moonlight.

The soloists and orchestra are wonderfully responsive to Ticciati’s musical direction and seem entirely at one with Herheim’s under- standing of the drama. Christina Gansch gives a tremendously affecting performance as

Mélisande, while the distinction between Christopher Purves’s tortured and violent Golaud and John Chest’s ethereal Pelléas matches the framework perfectly. Brindley Sherratt’s Arkel is also affecting. Herheim’s pursuit of the logic of these characterizations can lead to odd conclusions, but the direction is always revelatory on some level, even though particular details take longer to digest than others. The action concludes, perhaps predictably, by returning to the opening funeral setting, showing the circularity of the family’s thirst for renewal. At the end, though, the characters melt away – an effect aided by Herheim and Tony Simpson’s extraordinarily dynamic lighting designs – and the room is suddenly filled with contem- porary opera-goers and tourists, keen to take in the organ room before progressing to the performance, accompanied by the luminous, peacefully lapping movements of the final bars. Again, it sounds arch, but the concern here seems to be not somehow to implicate the audience in the objectification of Mélisande so much as to illuminate how we all contribute to maintaining the mythical spaces that give life to the opera.

The mysterious laws of human attraction and gravitation are equally the subject of the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño’s first novel, The Skating Rink, in which a constant shifting between three narrators, and a focus on how each sees particular details in different ways, are used to gradually frame and explore the mysterious murder of Carmen, a beggar who once sang at the opera in Naples. Her body is discovered on an ice rink, built in secret with municipal funds in the swimming pool of an abandoned mansion. All of which makes it an unusual choice for operatic treatment – and yet

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somehow, in an ambitious new commission by Garsington Opera, the composer David Sawer and librettist Rory Mullarkey, together with the director and designer Stewart Laing and the conductor Garry Walker, manage to pull it off in one of the summer season’s most surprising triumphs.

Each narrator is given a single act – the drop- out poet Gaspar (Sam Furness), his smooth friend Remo (Ben Edquist) and the corrupt but still quite lovable town official Enric (Grant Dyle). The balance between narrative and action is managed superbly well, and the music fizzes with complexity, realizing its potential in a dizzying palette of styles but uniting in carefully structured rhythmic devices which seem to drive the action forward at break-neck speed – often faster than the characters would appear to be comfortable with. For a new, ambitious production, the musical standards are very high indeed. Each of the narrator-so- loists navigates the shifting between narration and interaction brilliantly, as well as capturing their contrasts in tonal colour and movement. Fine performances are also given by Susan Bickley (as Carmen), Alan Oke (as Rookie), and Lauren Zolezzio as the skater Nuria who, like Mélisande, is the object of fascination who brings together this fleeting community of nar- rators. The most surprising detail of the eve- ning, however, is that Laing’s clever, minimalist set is constructed on a kind of plas- tic which actually functions as a skating sur- face. Zolezzio – and more importantly her character-double, the skater Alice Poggio – can thereby give us a glimpse of the grace and beauty of movement that first brought the three conflicting narrators together.

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Date: 20 July 2018

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      John Chest as Pelléas and Christina Gansch as Mélisande

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Another good Crit.

Garsington Opera at Wormsley – The Skating Rink

Thursday, July 05, 2018 Opera Pavilion, Wormsley Park, Buckinghamshire, England

Reviewed by Alexander Campbell

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A murder mystery doesn’t necessarily sound like an idea that will work, but there have been stranger inspirations for opera plots. Rory Mullarkey has adapted Roberto Bolaño’s novel skilfully. Each Act tells the same story seen from the perspective of three of the protagonists. With each repetition there are important additions as the motivations or perceptions or influences – of or on – these characters become drawn in more depth. As these facets are revealed the viewer may have to challenge some pre-conceptions.

Since there is a murder we also need to know who stabbed the mezzo-soprano and that is revealed at the end (in opera it’s never over until…). The plot revolves round the differently focussed desires of two men, Remo and Enric, for the ice-skater Nuria. When she loses her funding Enric illegally provides her with a skating rink in the basement of a disused palace, embezzling local-government funds to fund the operation. Remo desires Nuria sexually, and jealousies erupt when his boss, Enric of course, discovers their relationship. Enric is under pressure from the politically ambitious Mayor of the seaside town reliant on tourism to clear the city of vagrants. He orders Remo to enact the clearance policy, but when the night-watchman Gaspar is tasked to evict two females, the manipulative singer Carmen and her friend Caridad, he reluctantly does so but falls in love with the latter. Seeking to help her he follows her to the palace where she has sought refuge and he discovers the rink. Carmen has also discovered it and blackmails Enric with seemingly fatal consequences. She is found by Remo stabbed to death.

Within the structure imposed by the libretto David Sawer has also woven in some clever stylistic repetitions, adding a satisfying cohesiveness. The action is narrated by Gaspar, Remo and finally Enric. Musically, each one introduces themselves, but the first scene of each narrative sees them interacting with one other character who they introduce. These encounters drive the action. Sawer has created a score full of mystery and at times seeming simplicity, and the vocal lines are attractive with scope for dramatic characterisation: every word of the text is audible.

Gaspar has lyrical lines generally voiced over a cushion of cool string sound. The lady Mayor, Pilar, given a superlatively biting interpretation by Louise Winter, has very angular writing often punctuated by bursts of brass. Some of the most beautiful music is given to Enric – his Act Three scene where he dreams he can skate (marvellously realised in the staging) is full of rich lyricism. Praise to for the wonderfully vital and responsive Garsington Opera Orchestra under Garry Walker; translucent textures, rhythmic brio – especially in the jaunty dance sections. There is also great intensity when needed. Stewart Laing’s staging is also very effective. Likewise the small army of extras depicting the life of the town’s inhabitants have a fluidity of movement which is unobtrusive and realistic.

Garsington has assembled a great cast. The focus is Grant Doyle as Enric. He sings with burnished tone throughout and is dramatically effective. Ben Edquist brings a more slender tonal quality to the macho Remo and Sam Furness a honeyed intensity to Gaspar’s lines. Susan Bickley is, as ever, impressive and engaging as Carmen. She projects ferocity and menace and yet can also beguile. Alan Oke’s Rookie also provides brilliant vocal contrast in defining this drop-out character. Lauren Zolezzi is a warm-voiced and sensitive Nuria, and Claire Wild makes much of Caridad. Hats off to Garsington!

Excellent Opera Today Crit for The Skating Rink.

The Skating Rink: Garsington Opera premiere

Having premiered Roxanna Panufnik’s opera Silver Birch in 2017 as part of its work with local community groups, Garsington Opera’s 2018 season included its first commission for the main opera season. David Sawer's The Skating Rinkpremiered at Garsington Opera this week; the opera is based on the novel by Chilean writer Roberto Bolano with a libretto by playwright Rory Mullarkey.

The Skating Rink, Garsington Opera

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Alice Poggio (Nuria skater)

Photo credit: John Snelling

, though not without lighter moments.From Morning Till Midnight seems something of a return to the darker, expressionist world of The Skating Rink, with a libretto by Amando Iannucci, perhaps failed to quite find its mark when premiered by Opera North in 2009. This new piece, Skin Deep , to his own libretto based on a Georg Kaiser play, was premiered with some success by English National Opera in 2001, though his second opera, in fact an operetta, From Morning Till MidnightThis is Sawer's third opera. His first,

Bolano's novel tells the same events from the points of view of three narrators, each of whom is involved in a different way in the events in a 1990s Spanish town on the Costa Brava, where love leads Enric (Grant Doyle) to build an illicit ice skating rink so that Nuria (Lauren Zolezzi and Alice Poggio) can train, but the murder of a former opera singer Carmen (Susan Bickley), now living on the streets, clouds issues.

Rather daringly, Sawer and Mullarkey take this structure into the opera: each of the three acts tells the same events from a different point of view. First, that of Gaspar (Sam Furness) the night watchman at a holiday camp, tasked with evicting Carmen and Caridad (Claire Wild) and in love with the latter, who eventually discovers the illicit rink. Then, Remo (Ben Edquist), Gaspar's boss, who is in love with Nuria and thinks that he has a relationship with her. And, finally, Enric (Grant Doyle), the fat and unlovely head of the town's social services whose obsession with Nuria leads him to build the rink for her. Each act advances the plot slightly: the first ends with the discovery of the rink, the second with the discovery of Carmen's body, and the third with the arrest of Enric. Then, in a Coda, we find out who really did the murder.

The result is rather multi-layered, the characters are unwrapped rather akin to a Baroque opera, in that we first see Enric through the eyes of Gaspar and Remo before we hear his point of view. Key moments are enacted three times, notably the eviction of Carmen and Caridad, but each time in a different context. Also, rather daringly, each of the narrators actually addresses the audience: Sawer and Mullarkey stop time and allow the narrators to address us and explain themselves. This means that some of the action is described rather than experienced. Again, this creates a complex multi-layering, the sort of remove from filmic naturalism which is essential when creating an opera and this new piece is thankfully anything but a sung play.

Ben Edquist (Remo), Lauren Zolezzi (Nuria). Photo credit: Johan Persson.

David Sawer is noted for the drama of his orchestral works, and he uses the orchestra in The Skating Rink to create, colour and animate the atmosphere. The orchestra becomes another protagonist and whilst Sawer's harmonic language might be complex and sometimes challenging, his textures and ear for timbres made the music often seductive and accessible. This is a highly coloured score, which reflects the subject matter, and Sawer weaves into it popular references, yet never directly. Having the opera singer Carmen entertaining in a cafe created a magical scene at the end of Act Two, and Act Three included a disco which managed to mix drama with a popular beat, not to mention actor Steven Beard doing a wonderful karaoke number! And, the use of a brass-band (off-stage and walking on), created some wonderfully Ivesian counterpoints.

It helped that Sawer and Mullarkey had created some strongly characterised, not to say meaty roles so that Garsington Opera's cast of singing actors had something to get their teeth into. Whilst this is not an opera that you will come out of singing the tunes, Sawer's vocal lines, though sometimes complex, were dramatic, enlivening and expressive; he never noodled. For the passages where the narrators addressed the audience directly, Sawer chose a simpler, plainer style, a more neutral type of discourse which threatened sometimes to lack dramatic interest.

Stewart Laing's production did not aim to give us naturalism. We never saw the Palacio Benvingut where the skating rink was built; instead, we had to rely on the descriptions from the characters. The basic set was a space with a backdrop of a plastic curtain, which evoked those found in caravans of the period, and the stage littered with packing cases. A mobile box structure became Gaspar's office, Remo's home and Enric's office, moving about as necessary. Other elements, such as tables and chairs were brought on, and the front of the stage had a boardwalk. Yet, throughout the first act we asked ourselves, where was the skating rink? In fact, it was there all the time, the floor of the stage was covered with a special material which enabled Alice Poggio to skate on it. (One of the male actors also skated, providing a dream image of Enric as he imagines skating on the ice.) Where necessary, the cast brilliantly evoked the trickiness of walking on ice with unsuitable footwear.

Alan Oke (Rookie), Susan Bickley (Carmen). Photo credit: John Snelling.

This was very much an ensemble production. Characters emerged and then retreated, and each singer gave a committed, engaged and engaging performance. Sam Furness was wonderfully passionate as the young Gaspar, whose obsession with Carmen's companion Caridad (Claire Wild) sets the plot in motion. Furness produced a fine stream of firm tone and strong emotion. This was a thrillingly committed performance. As Remo, Ben Edquist (making his UK debut) was cooler and emphasised the character's lack of self-reflection. Rather sex-obsessed, he never understands his relationship with Nuria (the tantalising Lauren Zolezzi), and is puzzled when she evaporates. Edquist has the work's final words, slightly enigmatic and wonderfully evoking the character's puzzlement at life. As the final narrator, Enric, Grant Doyle was particularly impressive having taken on the role at relatively short notice to replace an ailing Neal Davies. At first, we see Enric through others' eyes, fat, unlovely and rather nasty, and only in the last act do we find the passion and obsession underneath. Doyle gave a beautifully crafted, multi-layered performance which really brought the character alive and, surprisingly, made us begin to sympathise with him.

The limitations of Sawer and Mullarkey's approach was the other characters were slightly less well drawn. There was no authorial voice and this meant that we never heard things from Carmen, Caridad or Nuria's point of view.

Susan Bickley was superb as Carmen, fierce, troubled and rather crazed, yet complex, and revealing elements of the person she used to be in moments like her singing in the cafe, and her blackmailing of Enric (having discovered the skating rink, built with embezzled council money). Claire Wild was evocative as the troubled Caridad, whom we only saw her through Gaspar's eyes. Lauren Zolezzi really brought out the mystery and sense of contained distance in Nuria's character, as we see her through both Remo's eyes and those of Enric. And, she was allowed to develop most, as we learned more about her in the coda. The movement between Zolezzi as singing Nuria and Alice Poggio as skating Nuria was beautifully done, and the result was a very real character.

Louise Winter (Pilar), Grant Doyle (Enric). Photo credit: Johan Persson.

The role of Pilar the town's mayor might have been relatively small, but Louise Winter really made it count. Alan Oke was Carmen's would-be lover Rookie. Also living on the streets, the two have a love-hate relationship with a wonderful shouting match which concluded Act Two. Rather underused in the three main Acts, Oke created Rookie's character using a breathy form of sprechstimme, which blossomed in his final solo in the coda which revealed the truth of the murder in thrilling fashion.

Under Garry Walker's expert guidance, the orchestra drew a wide range of colours and textures from Sawer's score, giving as thrilling and committed performance as the singers on stage and making the piece really count.

Sawer and Mullarkey have created a new opera with a striking voice, one which managed to draw an enthusiastic response from a very engaged audience, without ever seeming to talk down and with music which was of admirable complexity and sophistication. The drama was handled in a confident fashion which really made you want to know what was going to happen. The whole received a strong performance from both cast and orchestra, and it is being recorded by the BBC for broadcast later this year on BBC Radio 3.

Robert Hugill

David Sawer & Rory Mullarkey: The Skating Rink

Ramo - Ben Edquist, Gaspar - Sam Furness, Enric - Grant Doyle, Carmen - Susan Bickley, Caridad - Claire Wild, Rookie - Alan Oke, Nuria - Lauren Zolezzi, Pilar - Louise Winter, Nuria (skater) - Alice Poggio; Director & design - Stewart Lang, Conductor - Garry Walker.

Garsington Opera, Worsley; Thursday 5th July 2018.

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The Observer crit of The Skating Rink

Last year, Garsington Opera staged a successful new community opera,Silver Birch. This year they have their first world premiere on the main stage,The Skating RinkbyDavid Sawer, with a libretto by Rory Mullarkey based on the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s novel. Told from three perspectives, the opera is set in a seedy Spanish seaside town, late season. Three narrators piece together the story: Gaspar (Sam Furness), the poet-campside attendant; Remo (Ben Edquist), a shiny businessman; and Enric (Grant Doyle), the paunchy civil servant prepared to embezzle local funds for love, building an ice rink for the skater, Nuria (Lauren Zolezzi), object of his and Remo’s passion. Other characters, including two homeless women – persuasively sung by Susan Bickley and Claire Wild – exist on the fringes of society. Alan Oke shows a new, foul-mouthed side as the vagrant, Rookie.

The Skating Rink – trailer

Adroitly staged and designed by Stewart Laing – a few tents, a boardwalk, a multipurpose, Perspex cabin – The Skating Rink grows in intensity with each act. Tough verbal exchanges are offset by magical, chilly instrumental music for the skating scenes, plucked, spiky sounds conjuring an icy underground world. Zolezzi’s double as Nuria, the skater Alice Poggio, pirouetted and twirled on the artificial ice rink, transporting us far from Buckinghamshire heatwave discomfort.

Sawer’s imaginative scoring, using a small ensemble with saxophone, harp, guitar and ukulele-like charango adding Latin accents, shifts freely but precisely from set piece (song, marching band, karaoke scene) to through-written fluidity. Cast and orchestra, conducted by Garry Walker, served the music admirably. I wasn’t engaged by Bolaño’s novel – my shortcoming; it is much admired – but Sawer and Mullarkey gave it heart.

Sunday Times Review of the Skating Rink

Opera review: The Skating Rink, Garsington Opera

This complex modern drama, brilliantly sung, is a frozen asset

Paul Driver

Outstanding: Susan Bickley and Grant DoyleJOHAN PERSSON
The Sunday Times, July 15 2018, 12:01amShareSave

David Sawer’s third full-length opera, The Skating Rink, had its world premiere at Garsington Opera, for which it was written, and it afforded the curious pleasure of seeing completely convincing impersonations of figure skating on a platform utterly un-iced at the height of a hot summer. The glass-walled opera house, in the midst of the almost ludicrously perfect English idyll that is the Wormsley Estate, in the Chilterns, was pierced by sun as the character in question spun round and round as if by magic — or, at any rate, with no sign of wheels on her feet.

It raised a cheer, which wasn’t really apposite, for we surely hadn’t come here to witness a spectacle, but to be moved by a musical experience. And, indeed, the score unveiled by singers and orchestra, conducted deftly by Garry Walker and making the keenest impact in a surprisingly vivid acoustic, was a palpably fine piece of work — full of flair and lovely inventions.The three-act structure has a libretto by Rory Mullarkey, adapting a 1993 novel by the Chilean Roberto Bolaño. This contemporary murder mystery, set in a Costa Brava resort, is very much a “structure”. Analogous narratives are told by a different character in each act, and we learn steadily more about what happens when the allure of a young skater, Nuria (Lauren Zolezzi), dropped from the Olympic team because the state has cut her funds for training, leads a civil servant, Enric, to imperil his career by having a rink built secretly in a decayed mansion, which becomes the scene of the crime.

The body of a blackmailing, vagrant former opera singer, Carmen, is discovered there, and a noirish chain of connections involves a young nightwatchman-poet, Gaspar; Remo (Ben Edquist), owner of a campsite from which Carmen and her friend Caridad (Claire Wild) are evicted (vagrancy is an idée fixe here); Carmen’s spurned vagrant lover (Alan Oke); and a manipulative mayor (Louise Winter).

It is easier to follow than might have been expected, because information is fed to us bit by careful (if tendentious) bit, constantly enlarging the dramatic picture. But I couldn’t help feeling the appeal for the creators of this unusual structure was progressively outweighing that of the actual characters. In the first two acts, the musical pointing of situation and emotion has a fleet and dazzling subtlety: one is ever aware of perspectives opening up behind the voices as Sawer’s small orchestra generates a cascade of images, often multilayered, always scored with masterful economy. The idiom may be broadly, even indulgently, tonal, but it never feels conservative, and Sawer is well off without that dry, arioso vocal writing that routinely mars modern opera. Drolly, he touches the other extreme of vocal style with a karaoke solo (Steven Beard) for the disco in Act III.

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Yet that act and the succeeding coda — revealing the now obvious identity of the murderer and ending with an awkward metaphor of ocean waves frozen in midair and a last-minute snow shower — are too engrossed with text and plot to allow much poignancy. For The Skating Rink to be more moving than, say, an Agatha Christie, it would need a proper musical crystallisation here, not a farewell sententiousness (“Each man kills the thing he loves”).

Still, the colourful design and partly in-the-round staging by Stewart Laing were enjoyable, the cast excellent. Outstanding were the tenor Sam Furness as Gaspar, Susan Bickley as Carmen and Grant Doyle as a stand-in Enric; not to mention the silent skater Nuria, Alice Poggio. There was something poetic about the image of the secret rink. And I loved the Handelian dash of the opera’s opening.

The Times seems to like The Skating Rink too....

There’s no excuse for losing the plot in David Sawer’s new opera. The same story, the same murder, the same array of sleazy, unhinged or rootless drifters washed up at a 1990s Spanish holiday campsite are chronicled three times in succession, each from the perspective of a different character.

Rory Mullarkey, the librettist, keeps the surreal low-life atmosphere of his source material — a novel by the Chilean writer Roberto Bolano — but tightens it into a terse, two-hour drama with all the twists and pace of a TV thriller. Sawer matches that with music as direct and striking as the material he sets.

His score is shamelessly and spectacularly eclectic. It embraces karaoke, a sinister Brittenesque deployment of the simplest tonalities and the Charles Ives-like entry of a marching-band as well as much more avant-garde instrumental techniques including eerie detunings.

As Sam Furness’s dishevelled poet-turned-caretaker Gaspar muses over his growing love for Claire Wild’s dead-behind-the-eyes junkie Caridad, the music has the open-chorded ingenuousness of Copland. Yet as Ben Edquist’s spivvy wheeler-dealer Remo and Grant Doyle’s corrupt local official Enric find themselves obsessing over the same girl — Nuria, an Olympic skater desperate for funding and a skating-rink to perfect her technique — Sawer’s score becomes much more brittle, abrasive and jazzy.

And yes, in Stewart Laing’s sets for his own staging there really is a working skating rink (although made of plastic rather than ice), gradually revealed under the detritus of the campsite. There’s real skating, too, from the lithe Alice Poggio, simultaneously cast as Nuria with the rising Australian soprano Lauren Zolezzi.

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It’s also on the rink that the murder is committed — of Carmen, a raddled old vagrant who used to be an opera singer (a magnificently grotesque performance by Susan Bickley, matched by an equally characterful cameo from Alan Oke as her croaking, alcoholic lover Rookie). She had claimed to know all about Enric’s embezzlement of public money to buy Nuria her ice-rink, but (spoiler alert!) that doesn’t necessarily mean Enric was the one who killed her.

At its bleak conclusion the opera presents a Samuel Beckett-like pessimism about life’s possibilities, but it also contains a wickedly funny streak of black satire, especially involving Louise Winter as the town’s ruthlessly self-promoting mayor. The score is vividly and virtuosically played under Garry Walker’s impeccable direction. Boldly commissioned by Garsington, it deserves many more outings. You can hear it on the BBC Radio 3 website later this year.
Box office: 01865 361636, to July 16

And another....

Der erste Teil des Abends bringt Novemberstimmung in die Koblenzer Rhein-Mosel-Halle. Benjamin Brittens Suite „A Time There Was“ schmeckt weithin nach nebelverhangenen grauen Frösteltagen. Die folgenden „Kindertotenlieder“ von Gustav Mahler verströmen Gram und tiefe Trauer. Nach der Pause übernimmt beim jüngsten Anrechtskonzert des Musik-Instituts mit Dmitri Schostakowitschs  5. Sinfonie opulent auftrumpfende Großsinfonik das Regiment. Deren Umsetzung durch die Rheinische Philharmonie unter Garry Walker wird zu Recht mit sehr langem und lautem Beifall gefeiert.

Hierzulande selten, in Koblenz womöglich noch nie gespielt, dürfte kaum ein Zuhörer Brittens Opus 90 über einige englische Volkslieder je gehört haben. Was vom Titel her simpel klingt, erweist sich als recht hakelige Komposition. Die verlangt von Musikern wie auch vom Publikum ab dem ersten Takt hohe Aufmerksamkeit. Ist das gewollt mit den schrägen Tönen oder spielt da jemand falsch? Gehört das so mit den teils wie hingespuckt wirkenden Soloeinwürfen?

Allenthalben Unsicherheit im Auditorium, das meist nicht einmal die dem fremden Werk zugrunde liegenden Volkslieder kennt. Spannend ist die Sache dennoch. Es steckt nämlich allerhand drin in dieser Suite, das der Entdeckung wert ist. Und spätestens, wenn man in deren vierten Teil „Hunt the Squirrel“, mit nachgeahmtem Dudelsack-Bordun und verfremdeter Pub-Fidel den vertrauten Boden des Scottish-Irish Folk unter den Füßen spürt, wird nachvollziehbar: Was Britten daraus gemacht hat und die Rheinische hier versiert umsetzt, ist hohe Kunst und auf eigene Art schön. (…)

Ruby Hughes führt einen angenehm unprätentiösen, hier in wunderbarer Schlichtheit auf zarten Liedgesang, nicht füllige Opernarie eingestimmten Mezzosopran. Zu diesem Schluss kommt, wer ihr inniges Singen denn deutlich hört und nicht nur ahnt. (…) Vor allem bei den tieferen Passagen verliert sich die schöne Stimme fast in den Weiten der großen Halle – obwohl Walker das Orchesterspiel, wo immer die Komposition es erlaubt, auf schiere Kammermusikdimension reduziert. Gleichwohl darf die Sängerin warmen, herzlichen Applaus entgegennehmen. (…)

Zur abschließenden Schostakowitsch-Sinfonie sei kurz, bündig, zweifelsfrei notiert: Die Realisation durch die Rheinische Philharmonie ist ein Bravourstück an orchestraler Stimmigkeit. Das Werk verlangt allen Instrumentengruppen höchste Präzision und zugleich gefühlige Feinsinnigkeit bei den Stufungen von zart-innerlicher Melancholie über Sehnsucht nach Lebensfreude wie auch das Ausleben selbiger quasi auf dem Tanzboden ab – bis hin zum Glorienbombast vorgetäuschter Massenglückseligkeit.

Und was das Werk verlangt, wird an diesem Abend auf allen Positionen sauber differenziert, sorgsam verwoben und zugleich mit inspiriertem Enthusiasmus geliefert. Walker fährt die dunklen Elemente in den ersten drei Sätzen etwas zurück, hebt stattdessen das menschliche Wünschen, Hoffen und die kleinen Freuden an.

Das unterstreicht jene von Schostakowitsch meisterhaft gearbeitete Heiterkeit, die der Sinfonie auch eigen ist – eine zeitlose humane wie musikalische Autonomie gegenüber den stalinistischen Zwängen behauptend, denen er bei ihrer Schöpfung ausgesetzt war. Was den allweil umstrittenen Schlusssatz der Fünften mit seinem scheinbaren Verherrlichungspathos der Oktoberrevolution angeht: Die bis in den ärgsten Furor hinein gefasste, disziplinierte Spielweise der Rheinischen schafft eine frappierende Durchsichtigkeit der Klanggewalten. Da kann der aufmerksame, nicht vollends im Klangrausch versunkene Hinhörer etwas von der raffinierten Doppelbödigkeit des Finalsatzes erkennen: Hier, da, dort distanziert sich der Komponist vom selbst geschaffenen Bombast.

Rhein-Zeitung │ 13. November 2017 │ Andreas Pecht

More Koblenz crits.

Das letzte Konzert beim Koblenzer Musik-Institut im alten Jahr hatte nur zwei Programmpunkte. Beides indes dicke Brocken, die mit 50 und 55 Minuten Spieldauer den Abend in der Rhein-Mosel-Halle prall füllten: das Klavierkonzert Nr. 1 von Johannes Brahms und die Sinfonie Nr. 1 von Edward Elgar. Brahms genießt hier quasi Hausrecht, denn die intensive Pflege seines Œuvres hat beim Musik-Institut eine große Tradition. Auch gastierte der Komponist selbst zu Lebzeiten wiederholt als Dirigent und Pianist in Koblenz.

Knapp eine Generation nach seinem deutschen Kollegen geboren, galt der Brite im United Kingdom seit der Uraufführung seiner ersten Sinfonie 1908 in Manchester als heimischer Superstar der Klassik. 82 umjubelte Aufführungen erlebte die Komposition auf den Inseln allein im ersten Jahr. Während die Briten sich freuten, dass mal wieder einer der ihren ein Werk von internationalem Format geschaffen hatte, blieben die Reaktionen im übrigen Europa verhalten. Bis heute gehört Elgars Sinfonie Nr. 1 auf dem Kontinent nicht eben zu den Programmhits – obwohl es sich zweifelsohne um ein bedeutendes Werk handelt und die hohe Orchestrierungskunst seines Schöpfers belegt.

Für Garry Walker, den schottischen Chefdirigenten der Rheinischen Philharmonie, ist es eine Herzenssache, dem hiesigen Publikum die Sinfonie seines britischen Landsmannes nahezubringen. Überraschend der humorige Einstieg mit einem fast latschenden müden Schrittrhythmus. Das ist gewollt: Des Dirigenten linke Hand wirft dem Orchester entsprechend kraftlose Impulse zu. Faszinierend, wie Zug um Zug eine energetische Verdichtung aufgebaut wird. Daraus erwächst leuchtend jenes majestätische Thema, das über vier Sätze in verschiedenen Instrumentierungen mehrfach wiederkehrt und das Werk so zusammenhält.

Es gibt wunderbare Elemente in dieser Sinfonie, die in toto vom Orchester fabelhaft realisiert wird: der knackige Marsch im zweiten Satz etwa; diffizile Hochgeschwindigkeits-Passagen, mit äußerster Präzision gemeistert; die eindringliche Schlussapotheose um das Kernthema. Indes – und da mögen die Meinungen nun auseinander gehen: Es ist die Komposition selbst, die zwischen solchen Höhepunkten bisweilen recht langatmig, weitschweifig oder ähnlich einem Gemälde William Turners vage und diffus wirkt.

Verglichen damit, kommt heutigem Publikum das Klavierkonzert von Brahms wie eine kompakte, klare, herrliche Sache vor. Das war freilich im Veröffentlichungsjahr 1859 noch anders. Bei der Uraufführung in Hannover ein mäßiger Anstandserfolg, bei der Zweitaufführung in Leipzig von zu keinerlei Applaus bereitem Auditorium abgestraft, setzte sich das Werk erst mit der späteren Berühmtheit des Komponisten durch. In Koblenz übernimmt an diesem Abend der britische Pianist Steven Osborne den Solopart. Er und die Rheinische liefern eine rundum feine Arbeit ab, aus der zwei Aspekte hervorgehoben seien.

In die gewaltige Orchestereinführung mit ihren beinahe zornigen Trillerreihen flicht Osborne schier unmerklich das lyrische Seitenthema ein. Es ist, als wachse der Piano-Ton aus dem Orchester heraus und verschmelze alsbald wieder mit ihm. Übergänge, Stimm- und Führungsübergaben innerhalb der Rheinischen sowie zwischen ihr und dem Solisten bleiben das komplette Brahms-Konzert hindurch eine bestimmende grundsätzliche Qualität der Aufführung.

Ähnliches lässt sich über die Umsetzung des Adagio-Satzes sagen: Walker nimmt das Orchester ganz weit zurück, bis das Pianissimo fast nur noch ein Flirren ist. Dahinein setzt Osborne, teils nicht minder zurückgenommen, versonnen die Klavierstimme. Heraus kommt ein gefühlvolles Konstrukt in entzückender Schwebe zwischen Romantik und Impressionismus. Vielleicht war das der, auch jahreszeitlich passende, schönste Moment des Abends.

Rhein-Zeitung │ 11. Dezember 2017 │ Andreas Pecht

Koblenz Crit Mahler/Mozart/Ibert

EINE WILLKOMMENSUMARMUNG
VOLL STURM UND DRANG

Der erste Eindruck hat keine zweite Chance: Wenige Millisekunden gestehen wir einem uns unbekannten Menschen zu, bevor wir ein Urteil über ihn fällen. Ähnliches gilt für Kollektive: Sekunden entscheiden darüber, ob für ein Orchester und einen neuen Dirigenten eine freudvolle Zusammenarbeit beginnt oder nicht. Genau diese Augenblicke zwischen dem Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie und dem Schotten Garry Walker fielen 2015 offenbar beglückend aus: Mit überwältigendem Votum erkor sich das in Koblenz residierende Orchester Walker zum Nachfolger Daniel Raiskins als Chefdirigent.

Beim ersten Anrechtskonzert des Musik-Instituts Koblenz ist das Publikum nun – nach einer Interimssaison mit wechselnden Dirigentenhandschriften – Zeuge einer beherzten Willkommensumarmung. Man spürt, sieht, hört: Was auf der Bühne passiert, will den Namen „Partnerschaft“ führen. Wie auch vor zwölf Jahren, beim gleichen Anlass, muss der alten Weisheit gedacht werden: „Neue Besen kehren gut.“ Was aber, wenn der Besen gar kein solcher sein will? Denn nach Reinigen, Ausputzen oder gar nach Aufräumenmüssen klingt dieses erste einer langen Reihe von Konzerten mit Garry Walker inner- und außerhalb von Koblenz überhaupt nicht, eher schallt dem Publikum ein ostentatives Wirgefühl entgegen. Die Rheinische hat ihren Beziehungsstatus offenbar auf „verliebt“ geändert und das hört man. (…)

Dabei gibt der Programmablauf zu einem potenziell prächtigen Finale hin den Verlauf praktischerweise vor – und das Ausschöpfen dieser Möglichkeit gelingt mit Gustav Mahlers erster Sinfonie auch plangemäß. Nicht nur für die damaligen Zeitgenossen der Uraufführung 1889 sprengte der offizielle sinfonische Erstling Mahlers alle Erwartungshaltungen, auch heutige Aufführungen des Fünfzigminüters stellen Anforderungen an Ausführende und Zuhörende, die in der Frage nach einem Spannungsbogen eine Schnittmenge teilen. Diesen Bogen vonseiten der Interpreten aufrechtzuerhalten, ist die wohl größte Kunst – gelingt sie, hat auch das Publikum die Chance gleichzuziehen.

Und diese Punktlandung gelang unter voll gesetzten Segeln und mit Sturm und Drang: Unter Walkers Leitung findet die Rheinische Philharmonie zu beeindruckendem Klangreichtum. Keineswegs nur im finalen Schlussjubel, auch in den vielen sphärischen Streichergeweben zu Beginn, dem gut präparierten Augenzwinkern der Bläser in den parodistischen Passagen und der Energieversammlung in vielen potenziellen Hakelstellen der Sinfonie erzielt diese Leistung zwischen berückend und beglückend (…) hohe Ausschläge auf der Emotionsskala.

Bei Mahler gelingt auch die interpretatorische Profilierung, die zu Beginn hinter dem allbestimmenden Gefühl begeisterter Leichtigkeit zurückzutreten bereit schien: Jacques Iberts „Hommage à Mozart“, ein fluffig-quirliges Auftaktstück, atmet zu viel Adrenalin (…) – was nur der Aufregung des Beginns geschuldet sein kann, denn das hohe Maß an Präzision, das Garry Walker in seinem spielerischen, hier fast tänzerisch-gelenkigen Dirigat vorgibt, ist auch für die Zuschauer nachvollziehbar.

Auch der erste Schwerpunkt des Konzertes, Mozarts „Jupiter“-Sinfonie, ließe Nachfragen zu. (…) Die hineindringende Moll-Welt des tieftragischen Mozart nicht ganz so offenbar zu betonen, eher gepflegt und mit feinen Unterschieden (…) zu phrasieren und auf Proportionen dieser Sinfonie gemessen hinzuweisen – gerade in Vorbereitung auf den formenlösenden Mahler: Auch das könnte natürlich durchaus eine, wenngleich ziemlich zurückhaltende Interpretationsabsicht sein. Und immerhin gelingt schon im Mozart-Schlusssatz ein Zusammentreffen der Fugato-Stimmen zu einem mehrdimensionalen, nicht auf Glanz und Nachdruck versessenen Klangrelief, das Lust macht auf die vielen nächsten Kapitel dieser jungen Beziehung von Dirigent und Orchester, die sich hoffentlich einen Teil des leidenschaftlichen Enthusiasmus des Beginns erhalten kann.

Rhein-Zeitung │ 25. September 2017 │ Claus Ambrosius

Koblenz Crit Haydn/Bartok/Kodaly

MIT EINEM SCHOTTEN
AUF UNGARISCHEN PFADEN

Er ist emsig, steht in seiner ersten Saison als neuer Chefdirigent der Rheinischen Philharmonie in rund zwei Dritteln aller Konzerte am Pult, auch beim ersten Orchesterkonzert im Görreshaus: Garry Walker, vor zwei Jahren unter mehr als 100 Bewerbern als Nachfolger Daniel Raiskins gekürt. Zum Einstieg wandert der Naturfreund Walker mit dem Staatsorchester nicht auf schottischen, sondern auf ungarischen Pfaden, unter dem Motto „Eljen a Magyar“, „Hoch lebe der Ungar“, entlehnt einer Schnell-Polka von Johann Strauß.

Die steht nicht auf dem Programm, dafür ungarisch Imprägniertes von Zoltán Kodály und Béla Bartók. (…) Die durch eine Haydn-Sinfonie gewürzte Mischung entspricht Walkers Konzept, dem Koblenzer Publikum erst einmal „a well-balance diet“, eine bekömmlich ausbalancierte Kost vorzusetzen. Schon bei Kodálys „Ungarischem Rondo“ (…) wird klar, dass diese Bekömmlichkeit keinesfalls Glätte meint. Da ist ein Ganzkörperdirigent am Werk, der, so Stimmen aus dem Orchester, zwar menschlich angenehm unautoritär und uneitel ist, musikalisch aber konsequent arbeitet. Der in Dynamik und Tempo auf Kontrast setzt, die typischen Synkopierungen und Punktierungen der ungarischen Volksmusik lustvoll mit dem Orchester ausreizt. (…)

Kodálys Kindheitserinnerungen an Sommertage in einem kleinen Städtchen, an eine dort auftretende berühmte Zigeunerkapelle verarbeitende „Tänze aus Galanta“ sind da doch ein noch lohnenderer Stoff mir ihren Wechseln zwischen temperamentvollen Verbunkos, Liedern und Tänzen, mit denen Soldaten angeworben wurden, und langsameren, elegischen freien Passagen. Virtuosen Klarinetten- und Flötensoli stellt Walker die Streicherregister desto geschlossener, klangvoller entgegen. Für dieses Dessert der Walker’schen Diät bedankt sich das Publikum mit minutenlangem Beifall.

Ein bisschen schwerer im Magen liegt offenbar einer der Hauptgänge, Béla Bartóks Divertimento für Streichorchester Sz 113. Das tut es vielleicht deshalb, weil dieses Werk 1939 zwar in sehr angenehmer Atmosphäre komponiert wurde – nämlich im Schweizer Chalet von Bartóks Baseler Mäzen Paul Sacher. Die Schatten des Krieges waren aber schon dort zu spüren. Sie verdunkeln musikalisch immer wieder das Divertimento, trüben, in Form unerbittlicher Synkopen, gleich das so lebenslustig mit einem schwungvollen Kolo startende Allegro. Sie verdunkeln bis hin zum Trauermarsch den langsamen Satz und verleihen dem neobarocken, mit Concerto-grosso-Effekten spielenden Finale einen bitter-grotesken Beigeschmack.

Das ist für Walker genau das Richtige, für einen Dirigenten, der gern den vollen Orchesterklang auskostet, dann aber intensiv am Leisen, an kleinsten Nuancen ziseliert. Das tut auch Joseph Haydns Sinfonie Nr. 70 D-Dur wohl, von Ungarischem gänzlich unbeleckt, aber immerhin zur Wiedereröffnung des Theaters in Esterháza erstmals aufgeführt. Eine Sinfonie, die zwar, vor allem in den Ecksätzen, entsprechend Pomp entfaltet, mit strahlenden Fanfarenmotiven zu Beginn, mit einer kunstvollen Tripelfuge im Finale, die jedoch in den Mittelsätzen unerwartet innehält mit klagenden Moll-Wendungen im Andante, einem bittersüßen, pianissimo-zarten Trio im Menuett.

Rhein-Zeitung │ 5. Oktober 2017 │ Lieselotte Sauer-Kaulbach