Thursday, August 27, 2015

"Saul" - one of the most original and brilliant experiences in the musical theatre you'll ever have

The diversity of the musical theatre is one of the delights of the Arts world and the old division between "popular" (often a Broadway musical) and "serious" (Opera) has largely broken down. Is "West Side Story" less serious than "Carmen" - or less musically brilliant? Glyndebourne has mostly eschewed "crossover" which is a bit of a shame. I'd love to see them tackle a Sondheim - "A Little Night Music" perhaps, or "Sunday in the Park with George" . One day maybe? For now we have some of the most accessible productions of "serious" opera which, for me this season, has included a Carmen revival, a Ravel double bill and an engaging and beautifully sung and staged production of Mozart's "Die Entführung aus dem Serail". But the work that has really generated critical acclaim this year has been Handel's "Saul". 

The staging of oratorios is not uncommon but for me this was a first. It isn't Opera nor is it conventional musical theatre at all. Handel wrote it to be sung by soloists and a choir in a concert hall or a church. But the story is so vividly visual that it has been staged from time to time and this year Glyndebourne engaged Conductor Ivor Bolton and Australian Director Barrie Kosky to create a new production. With artists of the quality of Lucy Crowe (Merab), Christopher Purves (Saul) and that most musical of counter-tenors Iestyn Davies as David a treat seemed to be in store. And it was!

The staging is spectacular. The first Act full of colour, dance and gaiety - there is nothing reverential or holy. The second Act is sombre and more monochrome. I felt that the production in its special effects and pace had to some extent evolved from the best of the West End or Broadway musical - Les Miserables or Phantom or Miss Saigon. This is meant to be a compliment for if you combine Glyndebourne's in house resources for design, costumes and props with staging of the spectacular impact of a Les Mis you will get an extraordinary even unique experience. And you do. The opening of the second Act with Glyndebourne's large stage initially empty save for a thousand or more candles (real ones!) flickering in the dark takes the breath away.

The principals were superb and the Glyndebourne chorus sang and acted magnificently. For all the performers it was a remarkable feat of memory alone - this is a long production and of course at a concert they would have the music and words in front of them! There was also a talented and funny group of dancers - another distant nod maybe to the ballet and dance sequences in Musicals like Carousel or Oklahoma? This production of "Saul" transcends genre and defies categorisation. It is wonderfully sung - a presquisite obviously - and the "Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment" , a Glyndebourne favourite, were in top form. Glyndebourne is taking the production on tour and if you can I urge you to see it. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

There’s only one Frank Sinatra… and this wasn’t it!

Francis Albert Sinatra, and a very pale shadow.
“All this music is stuff that came out of Hollywood” says Seth MacFarlane (see photo – left!) at the beginning of the BBC Proms “The John Wilson Orchestra performs Frank Sinatra”. That should have been the warning that we were not in for an event that real Frank Sinatra fans would treasure – and so it proved. Of Sinatra’s around 1200 individual song recordings many did originate in the movies – but some did not. “The Great American Songbook” , of which Sinatra was perhaps the greatest interpreter, included songs from the musical theatre and stand alone songs by the great composers - Gershwin, Berlin, Porter, Mercer, Arlen, Rodgers and the rest. The point about Sinatra’s work is not that the songs originated in Hollywood (or anywhere else). The point is that Sinatra created albums from the early 1950s onwards which had unique arrangements for every song – unique to Sinatra that is. He didn't make the albums because the songs were from movies – he made them because they were great songs.

I have no problem at all with the Proms branching out and recognising music from other genres. I went to and enjoyed Prom 35 the “Story of Swing” with two big bands belting out the classics and with vocalists who could sing. But the Sinatra evening was something else – ill-conceived, ill-performed and, frankly, insulating to the memory of the great man.

“I’ve Got You Under My Skin” is a Cole Porter standard recorded by a hundred or more artists including Ella Fitzgerald, Carly Simon, Diana Krall, Rod Stewart, Mel Tormé, Peggy Lee, Perry Como – and of course Frank Sinatra! Sinatra sang it on his famous 1956 album  “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers” in an arrangement by Nelson Riddle. At the Prom this arrangement was used by the John Wilson Orchestra to accompany a performance by Seth MacFarlane. Now there is no reason at all why the latter should not join the many who have recorded this song. But when you have the Riddle arrangement you can only do it with Frank, or perhaps (at a pinch) with someone who can impersonate Sinatra well. MacFarlane did not attempt to do this but sang it in his own not particularly distinguished voice. It didn't work - and some. The familiar arrangement, faithfully reproduced by Wilson, is imprinted on the collective memory of Frank Sinatra fans. If it ain’t Frank singing it ain’t going to work. The same with MacFarlane’s rather flat version of Johnny Mandel’s “Foggy Day”, and his unmusical “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” to Billy May’s arrangement. “It Happened in Monterey” – another Riddle classic- sounded like an also-ran in a talent contest in MacFarlane’s inept version. All the time we had John Wilson’s excellent replication of the original orchestrations and then the disappointment that “The Voice” wasn't there!

Sinatra was called “The Voice” because he was unique. There is nothing wrong with all the many versions of Irving Berlin’s  “Cheek to Cheek”, and I’m sure that Jamie Parker could sing a pleasing version as well. But when he sang to the Billy May “Sinatra” arrangement it was so far away from the original to grate. He was right not to attempt a Sinatra impression, but he could not possibly carry the song with Frank and May’s  orchestral version behind him.

Sinatra was unique because he was uniquely good. For me only Garland, Streisand, Presley are in the same (but very different!) class in modern times. This means that if you set up a Sinatra tribute it is very unlikely that you will do justice to the great man – not least if you use all of the musical arrangements that Frank used. Take “Come Fly with Me”. In Sinatra’s version – another Billy May arrangement -   you can clearly hear every word. MacFarlane mumbled his way through this great song and whereas Frank puts the emphasis on the first Syllable of “Acapulco” (bay) MacFarlane put the emphasis on the third. It sounded wrong because behind the singer John Wilson was doing Billy May – an arrangement only used by Sinatra and to which Frank had performed. First syllable and all !

Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Johnny Mandel and the rest did their arrangements for Frank Sinatra and only Frank can do them justice. Without him it just doesn't sound right. It was asking a lot of a couple of occasional singers (actors turned singer I think) to perform in this situation and it was pretty dire. The one number where it worked proves the point. This was “Guys an Dolls” from the eponymous musical film and MacFarlane and (especially) Parker did well with this as a duet (its a trio in the film) because, in a way, this is less “holy” Sinatra material and it’s a jolly romp of a number. Jamie Parker is to play Sky Masterton in the revival of "Guys and Dolls" at the Savoy Theatre later this year and that looks to be good casting.

Claire Martin is one of my favourite Jazz singers and is at her best in a small scale cabaret type setting. She sang “This Can’t be Love” with MacFarlane and this duet, like the one from Guys and Dolls, was fine. It was not ersatz Sinatra. She also sang a decent version of Peggy Lee’s “Folks who live on the hill” – it wasn't Peggy Lee but Martin, a truly consummate professional singer, did a decent job.

The Peggy Lee song was there on the rather tenuous grounds that Sinatra had conducted the original session! In truth it was for Wilson to show off his skill in replicating the Nelson Riddle arrangement – which he did superbly. And here we get to the real rationale of the evening. This was for the John Wilson Orchestra to do some numbers from the American Songbook in the original arrangements. That's what they do! The “Frank Sinatra” theme was secondary – almost a pretext. We also had  some purely orchestral moments that had little to do with Sinatra at all – and very good they were. I'm happy to see Wilson  and his band any time. But  after the band had brilliantly played the Nelson Riddle arrangement of “I've Got You Under My Skin” (if only the distinctly unmusical MacFarlane had not be warbling along!) MacFarlane referred to them as “The finest orchestra in the land”. Well on the very stage where he spouted this hyperbolic nonsense the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic, The Halle and a few others during the Proms  might challenge that “award”!

This was a mostly depressing concert because it was so flawed in concept. Others may have enjoyed it – that’s fine. And I admit to being that most awkward of fans where Sinatra is concerned. But please don’t mess with Frank !