tue 22/09/2020

The Telephone, Scottish Opera/Cargill, RSNO, Søndergård, Edinburgh International Festival online - human emotions in digital form | reviews, news & interviews

The Telephone, Scottish Opera/Cargill, RSNO, Søndergård, Edinburgh International Festival online - human emotions in digital form

The Telephone, Scottish Opera/Cargill, RSNO, Søndergård, Edinburgh International Festival online - human emotions in digital form

EIF 2020's 'My Light Shines On' series kicks off musically with Menotti and Mahler

Jonathan McGovern and Soraya Mafi in Menotti's 'The Telephone'Mihaela Bodlovic

Lockdown, perhaps more than any other time, has amplified how modern technology can be both a blessing and a curse. Of course, it’s wonderful to have the means to connect with friends and family scattered across the globe; carry on working, learning, eating, praying etc. with others; and enjoy art in new and innovative ways, such as this particular digital series.

Lockdown, perhaps more than any other time, has amplified how modern technology can be both a blessing and a curse. Of course, it’s wonderful to have the means to connect with friends and family scattered across the globe; carry on working, learning, eating, praying etc. with others; and enjoy art in new and innovative ways, such as this particular digital series. But how many of us have felt the exhaustion that comes from back to back zoom meetings, the ennui that comes from barely leaving our homes and the self doubt that comes from others’ social media streams? (Does my garden look as nice as my colleague's? Is my sourdough starter as bubbly as my neighbour's?) Whilst some lockdown restrictions may be more ill-advised than others, we can surely all agree how nourishing it is to finally be able to meet up with others again. Though there’s still always that one person that’s glued to their bloody phone!

Gian Carlo Menotti’s one-act comic opera The Telephone has never felt more relevant, despite being written in 1947, six decades before Apple introduced the iPhone. It tells the tale of Ben, a young man who wishes to propose to his fiancee Lucy before leaving for a long trip. They arrange to meet, where Ben plans to pop the question, though he can’t get a word in, as Lucy is constantly distracted by her phone. In this video version, produced by Scottish Opera and commissioned by Edinburgh International Festival as part of their My Light Shines On series, director Daisy Evans brings Menotti’s work ingeniously up to date, in a delightful film that’s both lighthearted and poignant. Filmed in the circle bar at Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre, Lucy - phenomenally acted and sung by soprano Soraya Mafi - orders a cocktail and takes a couple of #instafriendly selfies as she waits for Ben, ardently sung by Jonathan McGovern.

In a comic modern twist, Lucy, enamoured with her phone, asks Ben if he wants to know the exact time. Of course, instead of calling 123 to reach the talking clock (which, if you’re wondering, does still actually work - I just tried it with my own smartphone earlier), she googles it, with some humorously apt suggested results coming up on screen. Another more moving 21st-century touch is when Lucy consciously leaves her charger behind the bar as she goes to run after Ben, who’s left her obliviously chatting away as he goes to catch his train. Under the baton of music director Stuart Stratford, the 24 players of the Orchestra of Scottish Opera who performed on this recording sound sharp and piquant, buoying the story as it speeds along.

Watch 'The Telephone' on YouTube

This is a charming production, and a superb example of high quality art under Covid-19 conditions. Though it harnesses the power of digital technologies, it also is a much needed reminder that virtual connections should never be at the expense of real, human ones. Plus, at 25 minutes, it’s easily digestible to watch on your laptop screen - or even on your smartphone!

Another small but perfectly formed offering is Scottish soprano Karen Cargill’s recital of three of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, with a (somewhat) scaled down Royal Scottish National Orchestra. "Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft" ("I breathed a gentle lime fragrance") beautifully evokes the sweet scent of blossom, with a gorgeous flute solo rounding off this tender rendition. The drama with which "Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!" ("Do not look at my songs!") opens, under the keen direction of conductor Thomas Søndergård, with a drama that belies the orchestra’s small forces. The third and final song in this bite-sized concert, "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" (" I have become lost to the world") is particularly moving, with a lush orchestral opening. Cargill sings with a deliciously dark tone, beautifully illuminating the range of emotions in Mahler’s passionate score.

Watch the three Mahler Rückert-Lieder on YouTube

A performance where scaled-down Mahler doesn’t work so well is the RSNO’s presentation of his Seventh Symphony in chamber form. That’s not to say Klaus Simon’s arrangement isn’t skillful, nor that Søndergård’s interpretation, and the orchestra’s performance are anything but brilliant, it’s just that the piece as a whole sounds a bit "low fat", and, like most things, the full calorie version is infinitely more enjoyable. I look forward to the time when this orchestra can play the large, lush, romantic repertoire at which it so excels with its full forces.

The smaller number of musicians and the necessary spacing between them leave the music very exposed, with some of the piece's nuances not as cleanly executed as they should be. There’s also a feeling which comes across in the first movement of this being a large orchestra with some players taken out, rather than a socially distanced chamber orchestra, though the musicians seem to gel more as a small team as the piece goes on. Simon makes clever use of the forces available to him in his arrangement, with pianist Lynda Cochrane deftly playing a piano prepared with tin foil to evoke the trills of a mandolin in the fourth movement, the second "Nachtmusik", Andante amoroso. Woodwind here are on fine form, with delicate, crisp articulation in the movement’s final bars. With an uplifting finale, the rambunctious spirit of the Rondo-Finale comes across nicely, though still feels a bit too thin to truly shine.  

While of course nothing can ever replace the magic of live performance, these videos do wonderfully capture the essence of Edinburgh's festival spirit, and inspire hope that not only does its light shine on, but continues to burn brightly for years to come.

 

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