Thursday, 13 November 2008

All's well that ends well?


Would that it were so, that I might bask in the reflected glory of my fellows in Prokofiev studies. Earlier this year, in May, hopes ran high indeed when scholar Simon Morrison came to Goldsmiths to demonstrate so eloquently what Prokofiev's original thoughts on Romeo and Juliet might sound like (hopefully encapsulated as clearly as I could manage back in this blog entry).

When the Mark Morris Dance Group came to the Barbican last week, we did indeed get the promised happy end of the original 1935 score, in which following Friar Laurence's timely intervention, Juliet stirs in the nick of time and the lovers get to dance again in a fantasy-world of their own. Above is the perfectly photogenic pair I saw on Saturday night, Maile Okamura and Noah Vinson, as photographed for the Barbican Centre by Gene Schiavone. I guess Morris did as well as he could with that unlikely premise (which Simon thinks, perhaps debateably, is the result of Prokofiev's Christian Scientific beliefs in the best of all possible worlds). Otherwise, this choreographer can either rise to the heights of genius, as in the almost unbearable lightness of his exultant approach to Handel's L'allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato, or he can be horribly disappointing. And I'm afraid that I, and those around me, were disappointed by what he'd come up with for an alternative Romeo.

It wasn't quite as dire an evening as Michael Clark's Stravinsky project in the same theatre, and certainly improved in the first part of the third act. Still, there was nothing radical except for a desire to squeeze in a bit more of the Shakespearean story line - though usually when the music, especially in the little codas, is trying to focus on the characterisation - and no chance of rivalling the sumptuousness of the indestructible and now far from routine Kenneth MacMillan classic at the Royal Ballet. The Morris crowd scenes, according to J (and I can only concur), looked a bit like the valiant efforts of our friend Danni - formerly Danielle Sophia of the 'Tumbling Elsters' - and her fellow hoofers in the annual Poole showbiz revue. Which is not to belittle the latter, only to point out that they're amateurs in the best sense, and this lot are supposed to be professionals. I fear I can't bring myself to illustrate the Morris group in this, so let's have a comforting sideways view of how the Capulet ball ought really to look in the Royal Ballet production, courtesy of Dee Conway.


Yes, I know it's probably time for something new, but there's more vitality in a minute of that heart-in-mouth show than in the three long hours we spent at the Barbican. Occasionally Morris gives his company an interesting and graceful pattern to execute, but where were the testosterone of violent Verona or the panache of youthful high spirits? Maybe there was a point in having women play Mercutio and Tybalt - and Amber Darragh's prankster stood out as better than the rest, though that's not saying much - but surely less cliched gestures could have been found for such numbers as the Dance of the Knights.

Morris's steps frequently reach a standstill while the dancers look as if they're thinking what to improvise next. You need a lyric and dramatic sweep, and it reminded me how of how, in total contrast, Nureyev used to be criticised for 'overfilling' his choreographies. But that came out of being head over heels in love with the physical act of dancing, and on Saturday I could only hark back to having watched (as part of my DVD ballet batch for the BBC Music Magazine) Nureyev's Paris Opera Ballet Cinderella on Opus Arte, lavishly restored after his death with the wistful-lovely Agnes Letestu (such arms, such telling expressions - shouldn't dancers act intensely with their faces as well as their bodies? They certainly tend to now at the Royal Ballet). Given the relocation to Hollywood in the 1930s, there are Chaplin, Groucho, Fred-and-Ginger, Keystone Cops and even King Kong routines. Some ideas work, others don't, but it's all alive.


But back to Saturday. Compound Morris's often tentative, sketchy steps with the unhappy situation of the reduced pit orchestra confined to the shoebox under the stage - supposedly the LSO, though there were quite a few deps on Saturday night - and the tough set-pieces could only turn out to be damp squibs winning no applause. Conductor Stefan Asbury had an easier task making the more intimate music of Act Three glow, and briefly our lovers shone in the buff. But Morris really hasn't taken advantage of all the dance vocabulary which has accrued since Balanchine to give his Romeo and Juliet their own special eloquence and poetry, and this is probably the only 'balcony scene' where instead of being moved to tears I found that my mind was elsewhere.

Given that the bitty original ending was immeasurably improved in Prokofiev's tragic rewrite, that we only lose one dance which might be worth hearing and that the first version doesn't cut down on all the crowd-reprises of Act Two as I'd expected, this will surely turn out to have been a once-only outing. I'm glad Simon has put in all that work, especially so that we could hear where the music of the Fifth Symphony's scherzo fits in an improbable last-minute melee, but it would be a mistake to plead that 'this was what Prokofiev wanted'. First thoughts are rarely the best; revision makes perfect - equally true, in my opinion, of Musorgsky's Boris Godunov, Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet and Sibelius's Fifth Symphony (though there's more interesting stuff in all of those Version Ones).

Anyway, I'm glad that the geniality of the Prokofiev Association's 25th anniversary party before the performance on Thursday wasn't immediately blunted by my experience of the ballet (which I saw two nights later). Many of the Prokofievs were there, though Sviatoslav had felt too unwell the day before he was due to travel. Here, at least, is his son, Serge Junior, who looks more like his grandfather than either Sviatoslav or the late and much-missed Oleg, and whose designer's eye gave us the splendid image of 25 Sergey Sergeyeviches on the invite. My beloved Noelle Mann, guiding force of the association, journal and archive for so many years, holds it aloft for inspection.


Simon, of course, was there, seen on the right with a distinguished Russian colleague, now based in Tel Aviv, who's also contributed invaluable research on the history of Prokofiev's Romeo, Nelly Kravetz.


Lady Joan Downes wanted me to take this photo from a distance of Sir Edward, who of course has given so many great Prokofiev performances over the years, in conversation with Anastasia Prokofiev, since Lady J remembered a similar encounter when Anastasia was but a toddler.


Finally, a bit of topical Obamiana sported at the reception by the vivacious Alice McVeigh, former cellist with the BBC Symphony and other orchestras, now focusing on motherhood but also continuing to wield a lively pen.


I subsequently got hold of Alice's little book on how to survive in orchestras, All Risks Musical, and found it painfully funny at times, if rather dispiriting. This may seem a little Pollyannaish, but I do believe from my experience with the BBC players that orchestral musicians are becoming less rather than more cynical.


Sunday culminated in a rather more profound musical experience, Britten's War Requiem in a Royal Albert Hall performance with Pappano conducting Royal Opera forces. I'd asked to be allowed to write the lengthy note in the programme because I wanted to analyze why this great masterpiece still stuns me if well performed (and I try not to hear it more than once every five years). That it did here was due partly to the weight and cut of a professional opera chorus, to Christine Brewer's aching musicality in the 'Lacrimosa' and to Hampson's dedicated projection of the Owen texts. Bostridge was more perfunctory, and wicked impersonations of his head-voice singing complete with inappropriate mid-range break have been going on here ever since, but at least he knows how and where to nuance. The Albert Hall blunted much of Pappano's finer focus, but it was a treat to hear the boys' choir ringing down from the gallery. My dear old friend Martin Zam, who died in his mid-nineties, always remembered this as an essential part of the War Requiem experience in such a singular venue.

Accordingly, here's the war memorial in my old home 'village' of Banstead, which I saw again on a visit to the maternal earlier in the day. I well remember how we choristers used to freeze in our cassocks and surplices, Remembrance Sundays usually being rather colder back in the 1970s.


Just along from the memorial is the well, symbol of old Banstead.


And here's my alma mater church of All Saints, where choirmaster 'Uncle Dah', an inspirational force in many ways if a little dodgy in others, nurtured us all in some surprisingly fine musical experiences.


That gives me the final cue to thank all those who sponsored us on our Norfolk Churches Walk, for which we've finally assembled the money - a grand total of over £1,000.

8 comments:

albert said...

Wonderful Post, David and enviable life! However my heart is broken that you did not mention the Cranko/Stuttgart R&J with the greatest Haydee and Ricky Cragun -- she, pigeon breasted but heartbreak personified, he a fantastic virtuoso and great beauty, her husband for a time - more a spiritual than physical match perhaps. I have never cried so much (except in my real life) as at their various Romeos, and their insane Onegin with its unbelievable leaps in the last scene (Francesca da Rimini the music). Wonderful company back then -- hilarious Taming of the Shrew and an incredible ballet to the Poulenc Organ Concerto (I saw them first in 66 and steadily for about ten years) -- not all great technicians but wonderful dancing actors in story ballets.

God I saw ancient Margo in what must have been her last Juliets with Rudi in McMillan and I saw him give a performance where he never seemed to touch down with the greatest Sibley -- everybody stood up and screamed after the balcony scene.

Though I will be a Blanchine Obsessive 'til I die (I AM Violette Vardy!!! and thank God for pirates and that I know them), Cranko always got to me...

david said...

Well, therein hangs your greater experience and chapter/verse thereof, which is why we all love to hear from you about just about anything musical. If I'd ever SEEN the Cranko or indeed Margot in action, I should have commented, of course. But you'll make me hunt out the Cranko version now.

I'm no expert in ballet steps - I want to take a course to learn more - but it has struck me recently that it should come across in the same vivid way as music or theatre - ie if the dancers don't communicate their characters fluently, however wonderful their technique, it don't mean a thing to the ordinary punter.

Well, I peer in at Parterre occasionally, and it seems to be circling around its own parochial hell at the moment (and though I'm sorry for what's happening in the arts there, which will follow here, I do think the arguments could be opened up a little). Occasional developments, like when someone I like says he hates the Rake, make me want to contribute and tell him why he's WRONG in thinking it dessicated. But I'll desist.

Forgive in the earlier post if I borrowed a Claggartism and declared 'I AM Ponto' to Murr - I like that.

david said...

PS (can't be bothered to bin the above and start again): I do love bits of the Cranko Onegin (not when the sisters turn up at the duel!). Have seen it very poetically danced by Rojo and Cooper at the Royal Ballet, which as I've said is on a real high. Good to have records of their Beauty - with Cojocaru simply amazing in the Rose Adagio, though too much music's cut - the wholly delicious Fille mal gardee, even though man-incarnate Acosta drops femininity-incarnate Nunez - and the Giselle. And though Balanchine is the one for me, I did melt at their Robbins Dances at a Gathering (maybe mentioned in an earlier blog - one of the most nee-hah exhilarating and happy things I've ever seen).

Pirates? Quoi?

albert said...

David, these great performers MUST be documented, hence PIRATES!!!!! Parterre est fini pour moi -- the most recent (of 10,000) attacks on poor Renee just showed what an asshole Jordan is and those anonymous fools are. The other 'news' can be got from other sources, that failed drag queen has no secret sources, I hear plenty more than he (?)does but I don't post it. So he's (?) ahead maybe by a day of the papers and never knows the whole story. It's La Sorda or La Stupida NOT La Cieca as far as I'm concerned.

I knew Robbins, a great theater person, a twisted man who was very nice to me. Many find his ballets too "broadway" -- maybe, but you haven't lived until you've see The Cage, Afternoon of a Faun and Other Dances, my fave.

david said...

Well, anyone who understands that Ghosts of Versailles is meretricious stuff can't be all bad...but I do wonder why so much pride is taken in announcing NYCO's travails - the (not always accurate) messenger is enthroned above those who are trying to create something valid in that difficult and poisonous climate.

albert said...

David, Ghosts is horrible shit or should I say shyte since I'm here. I created a scandal at the NEA by lobbying to reject it for a grant when C. wanted to rewrite it. Why, I asked, it was quite bad enough the first time. Oh, was I hated! (I didn't prevail but three years ago was asked back by Dana Gioia who remembered my opposition to it and had not dared mention it then; now I am sorry to say I won't continue to read anything that is stupidly diatonic or idiotically derivative. I have had it with that bullshyte.)

Mortier seems like a whacko but I think the only hope for NYCO is his kind of thinking, though maybe from someone very different personally. Many Europeans don't understand that box office is at best 40% of cost in USA, unions have a strangle hold on most companies, and fund raising at a high level for such a big company must be more or less continuous.

That said I think there IS a paying audience for much new and recent work. Satyagraha really sold out to a very non Met audience. That idiot queen, La Sorda alluded to Dr. Atomic being papered. But my inside sources said they did only what they'd do for Tosca -- some discreet freebies at the top of the house and some discounts for schools to 'fill out' some sections. There was far more papering at a Lucia I saw, after the word had gone out it was great.

Dr. A is NOT a great work but I LOVED it as much for what it was so sincerely trying to be (and almost getting to) as for what it was, intermittently gorgeous and frequently absorbing if just short of riveting. I don't think La (or Il or does it matter?) Sellars helped this time out, in fact I was quite annoyed by his work but I saw it twice and am GLAD!!!!

david said...

Oh good, I didn't think for a moment you'd buy that Coriglianiana. One of the most embarrassing experiences I had was writing for the Guardian about his symphony dedicated to AIDS sufferers. Given the worthy aim, should one gun at its supposed sincerity so harshly? Well, yes, because the music was rubbish (to use great critical eloquence).

Some have said the same about the War Requiem - ie we're all programmed to find it moving because of the subject matter, and Britten just did it by numbers. I don't buy that for a moment. Even as a literary compendium, before we even start on the music, the juxtaposition of Mass and Owen poems is masterly. I read it often.

david said...

And I so want to like Doctor Atomic when it arrives here next year (the Sellars production, with Finley - and no, I didn't see the Met broadcast). What little I heard in a Prom, about fifteen minutes, was disappointing. But as you know I still think Nixon is the most sure-fire opera of the last three decades, and El Nino was dazzling if high on information overload. Still waiting to see Klinghoffer staged in London, didn't for me quite live up to its first half-hour.