Friday, 6 November 2009
Chaz and Ben
Lord Britten would surely have forgiven Sir Charles all his past innuendoes and applauded his magnificent return to the fold if he could have seen the nearly-84-year old tearing into his most concentrated masterpiece, The Turn of the Screw, in the Coliseum revival of David McVicar's English National/Mariinsky Opera production. It prompted me to look back at what Mackerras had to say about his chequered career with the Britten establishment when I interviewed him for Gramophone in 1992 during the Gloriana sessions (and, yes, they were still amusing themselves in the control room with the notorious 'young boys...bottoms' text to the horn tune of the Serenade).
The great man, seen above in the first of several production photos by Clive Barda, returns from enforced time out to endorse Claudio Arrau's assertion that old age brings with it not the expected serenity but renewed intensity. The feral cannonades of the jungle drums beneath the Governess's coach-rocking journey to Bly, the shrill edge of the church bells and the sensual clamour of the night ensemble all bore that out. And the players must surely have been responding to Sir Charles's meticulous ear in their many nuanced solos.
Problems remain with the production, and looking back on what I wrote when I first saw it two years ago, they're much the same: the interfering scene-shifters/servants who ruin the stillness of the climactic interlude in Act One, the boards which creak under Quint's all too mortal feet, the over large spaces to fill - with panels that reminded my companion Edwina of bistro windows - and the unsubtle underlining of the children's unambiguous involvement with the 'ghosts'. I worried that Nazan Fikret, now surely in her late teens, would be too much the Infant Phenomenon as Flora, but her intense performance is still riveting even in the later, Linda Blair moments.
Only the males are slightly under par: Hugh Beckwith, the second Miles, remains too stiff and of course it's hard for a treble to project into the Coli vasts, while Michael Colvin's energetic Quint is too much the Quasimodoish Hammer horror and far from the seductive Andalusian serenader Britten surely had in mind at times.
Britten's taxing vocal battles/duets between powerful women mean that both Ann Murray and Cheryl Barker challenge Rebecca Evans's more dreamily lyrical Governess to rise to their searing levels. Evans floats lines with Mozartian perfection and acts the lady's nervous collapses very well indeed
but doesn't convey any innate neurosis in her voice and on this occasion didn't move me in the final scene (though other folk I respect were in tears at the end). I'd love to see what the lustrous Barker might make of the sinning-or-sinned-against dilemma; and isn't it time to welcome the ever-waxing Sue Gritton, who's just been wowing Cheryl's compatriots down under as Ellen Orford, to the role? Neil Armfield's village-hall Grimes looks fascinating.
Our friends in Sydney have been obsessing on this show, and it would seem with good cause. Read the polyphony of praise in the 'scrapbook' of Prima la musica (with thanks to Sarah Noble for alerting me to the Gritton gold nugget above).
Now, it's time for In the Cage, and I don't mean another of great Henry's short stories (good, by the way, to see another James lover come out of the closet in John Adams's surprising blog).
I'm going to make an odd comparison, but I do think that Britten's opera would have fitted far better in the relatively intimate space of the Playhouse Theatre where a reduced-scale but pretty perfect Cage aux folles is currently playing (production photos of the Cagelles and John Barrowman by Catherine Ashmore). And the other thing to say is that I not only laughed myself silly but shed a few more tears at Thursday's performance than I had the night before (and don't get me wrong, Britten's shocker can reduce me to pulp).
This was in no small measure due to the show-stopping heft of John Barrowman's 'I Am What I Am' and feelgood 'The Best of Times'. But I must reveal my ignorance and say how the whole, iron-fist-in-lurex-glove event took me by surprise. I either never knew, or had forgotten, that the songs were by Jerry Herman of Hello, Dolly! and Mame fame; but the penny was already dropping when one of the first act numbers reminded me of that hit song from Mack and Mabel so irresistibly sung by Bernadette Peters.
And, yes, the old-fashioned sweetness coats a show about gay togetherness, alternative families and acceptance of all sorts which hit the French cinema in, can I believe it, the late 1970s and took on a new lease of life when the great Harvey Fierstein wrote the book for the musical. There's an excellent article in the programme by Michael Coveney in which Fierstein tells us how he 'fought to cast homosexuals in the roles - if you stand up and sing "I Am What I Am" without feeling your sexuality and your persecution right down to your painted toenails it's never going to be quite the same thing'.
It would be fair to say that the lovely Barrowman, such a great role model even if he is gifted with an unusually pretty face and such fine teeth, does feel it down to his 'painted toenails', that Simon Burke as his loving keeper is just as good and touching, that the rest of the cast sing, camp and act their socks off. Here are Burke's Georges and Barrowman's Albin trying to play it straight for the son's girlfriend's family, with Syrus Lowe's maid/miniMozart Jacob incapable of doing so.
Anyway it all ends, as the Broadway show never could, with a passionate, tender kiss. So what's most extraordinary of all is that some members of my mother's village coven, several of whom have hitherto behaved more like the genteel vomiting ladies in Little Britain, can't get enough of this and keep going back. She's in for a treat when she sees it for the first time next week.