Usher Hall / Church Hill Theatre, Edinburgh
In the second of its two Usher Hall appearances, the Oslo Philharmonic presented a star-studded programme. On the one hand they were joined by a pianist with a reputation for risqué showmanship – Juja Wang chose a tasteful dress collection for her two Ravel concertos – and on the other, chose to end with Shostakovich’s incendiary, hard-hitting Symphony No 5. This was also a first chance in these parts to experience live the impact the 27-year-old Finnish conductor, Klaus Mäkelä, has had on his Oslo orchestra since becoming music director in 2020.
What was instantly revealed in the Ravel concertos was a musicianship of extraordinary perception, vision and clarity. Mäkelä was as respectful to soloist Wang’s insistent self-belief as he was in driving his own agenda. They worked as a dream team, the opening volcanic tremors and graduated eruptions in Wang’s intense delivery of the Concerto for Left Hand aligning dramatically with a kaleidoscopic orchestral backdrop that Mäkelä masterfully shifted in and out of focus.
It was the perfect scene-setter, too, to the very different Piano Concerto in G, reflected in Wang’s rapid offstage change from slinky red dress to sparkling yellow. Again, the incisiveness of her finger technique and reading of the textural subtleties were a sheer delight. The prevailing tone was dizzy ebullience tempered by super-charged delicacy, and a generosity that allowed prominent instrumental counterpoints – the magical harmonics and glissandi from the harp, for instance – to shine through.
The Shostakovich shifted the focus exclusively onto the orchestra, and a performance that took a conclusive approach to an equivocal symphony. Was the composer, in his so-called “just response” to vicious criticism from Stalin, kowtowing to the powers that could so easily make him disappear, or had he laced it with vicious, vengeful irony?
Mäkelä’s superbly-paced reading asserted the latter, couched in cool perfection but also unmistakable provocation. The ecstatic final bars – their empty triumphalism – were a gripping summation to a harrowing journey, one that variously explored the ominously quiescent, or the downright truculent and grotesque. Mäkelä had its every measure. He and the Oslo Phil are a world-beating team.
Just as mind-blowing is Theatre of Sound’s radical take on Bartok’s short opera Bluebeard’s Castle at Church Hill Theatre. Stage director and author of a new English translation, Daisy Evans, doesn’t mess around. She goes for the jugular in the sense that Bluebeard and his latest wife Judith are no longer the dark protagonists of a Gothic-style horror in which Judith encounters the hideous fates of her predecessors; she’s now an ordinary housewife in a simple family house, suffering from dementia and its impact on her marriage.
It’s an uncanny fit with Bartok’s music, but it completely restyles the nature of Bluebeard, exhausted and frustrated, wondering what to do, sanguinely played and powerfully sung by Lester Lynch. In the end, though, this is Judith’s story.
Susan Bullock’s show-stopping performance guarantees that. From first note to last she is all-consuming and unwaveringly believable. You live through her confusion, feel the pain (and her husband’s) as she grapples with the memories contained in a single trunk and visions of younger versions of Judith personified by walk-on roles. There’s implied family tragedy too.
This is a hugely brave exploration of a sensitive issue, which does nothing to destroy the integrity of Bartok’s original. Even music director Stephen Higgins’ ruthless reduction of the orchestral score heightens rather than diminishes its impact, especially when he has the dynamic forces of the Hebrides Ensemble to hand. Rarely will you see opera so true to human experience.
(Bluebeard’s Castle is at the Church Hill Theatre till 27 Aug. Cast varies)