Monday, 9 June 2014

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS / Metropolitan Festival Orchestra / Review

Metropolitan Festival Orchestra
The Star Theatre
Friday (6 June 2014)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 9 June 2014

It was Richard Wagner who first conceived his operas as gesamtkunstwerk, German for “works of complete art”, a form that unites every facet of art and aesthetics into an exhaustive and all-consuming whole. The Ring Of The Nibelung cycle remains his ultimate achievement, a saga of four operas that runs over four evenings, spanning almost fourteen hours of drama and music.

The present-day analogy might be The Lord of the Rings, the three blockbuster movies directed by Peter Jackson, based on J.R.R.Tolkien’s epic novels on Hobbits and the war between good and evil set in Middle-earth. Its feat of story-telling would have been diminished without the expansive music of Howard Shore which accompanied about nine hours of non-stop action.

The Metropolitan Festival Orchestra (with the technical team from CAMI Music) performed the soundtrack to The Fellowship of the Ring, the first movie of the cycle, to critical acclaim in June last year. The second movie The Two Towers continued in similar vein, and three shows at the 5000-seat hall of The Star Theatre suggests there is a local market here for movies accompanied by live music.

Did the audience come for a movie or for a concert? The 80-member orchestra and 170-singer Vocal Associates Festival Chorus (including 50 children) were the centrepiece on stage. They were greeted with applause when conductor Justin Freer stepped on the podium. The film then rolled on the screen like in a cinema, except the performers were visible and illuminated throughout the show.

Unlike the Cineplex experience, there was to be no food or drinks and the movie’s expert pacing was suspended for a 20-minute intermission for the orchestra and choir to take a breather. Honestly this viewer could have easily forgone a toilet break for the sake of maintaining continuity. Another bugbear was the amplified orchestral sound mostly came through the venue’s speaker system rather than heard directly from the stage. Thus would one have preferred hearing an invisible London Symphony Orchestra of the original soundtrack rather than the live equivalent in the MFO? 

At any rate, the MFO performed creditably well, sustaining the tension through the climaxes without skipping a beat, and the choir with boy soprano Samuel Yuen prepared by Khor Ai Ming (sadly under-acknowledged during the curtain calls) sang with great purpose. Soprano Rosalind Waters, used for the flashback sequences involving Aragorn and Arwen, was sufficiently evocative but sounded dull and wobbly during the end credits.

This brings one back to the purpose of this exercise. Does live music enhance a movie experience compared with its canned alternative? In the case of Eisenstein’s war movie Alexander Nevsky with Prokofiev’s unforgettable sound track, modern orchestral accompaniment is certainly preferable to the wretched 1930s monaural recorded sound. For The Lord of the Rings, the answer is less clear.

Even as one looks forward to The Return of the King from the same forces in the near future, these same considerations should be taken into account. In the meantime, the trusty Blu-Ray DVD viewed on the widest plasma screen (with the mandatory popcorn) would be a more than satisfactory option. 

Photographs by courtesy of chrisppics+ and the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra.

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