Monday, 14 December 2009
Scorched by the flames
The image I have in mind is the fire of art; but let's try another. How many singers have flown too near the sun and tumbled earthwards after singing Brunnhilde, Isolde, Tristan? At the Glyndebourne Janacek study day, I learned with sadness and shock that you could also add Jenufa and Katya Kabanova to the lists. Jenufa cover Miranda Keys confided movingly what Peter Wedd had told her: that wonderful Susan Chilcott believed the cancer which was to kill her had partly come about from taking her Janacek heroines home with her and letting their problems weigh heavy.
So how far should you go with a character who demands everything? Do you protect yourself and make the audience weep, but stay calm and objective? The question arose on Thursday night when glorious Christine Brewer (pictured below by Christian Steiner) seemed very much in command of her Isolde Liebestod and Brunnhilde Immolation Scene.
In terms of expression and colour, everything was there (see my review of this and Mackerras's equally commanding second concert on theartsdesk). But one distinguished audience member felt that she 'didn't quite go there'. Is that the price for survival? It put me in mind of all the great singers I've seen who gave what the X Factor folk like to describe as one hundred and fifty per cent, but who didn't last. Maria Ewing, yes, don't laugh, was an electrifying Composer when Glyndebourne brought Ariadne auf Naxos to the Proms. A few years later she was a ghost, or a parody, of her former self. Susan Dunn delivered the 'Libera me' in Verdi's Requiem as I've never heard it before or since, but less than a year later was off the scene.
And then, of course, I come back to Linda Esther Gray, whose problems were triggered by a life-or-death operation, but - never mind that; her Isolde with Goodall is a reminder of someone very distinctly 'going there', admittedly with more than a little help from her conductor, and taking us with her. She came to the Mackerras Wagnerfest with me and was as generous and exuberant as ever, quietly chuckling with joy when Brewer hit her top notes spot-on and clearly carried away by the return of Sieglinde's theme.
Afterwards, having gone backstage to see an understandably disoriented Brewer and Mackerras, we had a drink with Anthony Negus, backbone of Welsh National Opera and a superb conductor; I heard him take over from Jurowski in the baked-beans Wozzeck, and his last-minute rescue act for The Sacrifice when Jimmy MacM was stuck in Glasgow fog is soon to be heard on Chandos (I was delighted that JM, knowing I love this opera, asked me to write the notes, and seemed very pleased with the results). Here is a somewhat demonic looking AN with Linda, who guaranteed he wouldn't mind the picture appearing.
Having started with Rackham, let's end with Walter Crane. I was very, very moved by Angela Carter's re-telling of the Beauty and the Beast story in The Courtship of Mr Lyon, and struck by the links she makes with The Bloody Chamber. This is, indeed, the redemption of romance: A Winter's Tale to follow Titus Andronicus.
OK, so Crane's Beast is a boar and not a lion. But I still want to trouble you with Carter's ending. The spaniel mentioned in the last line, by the way, is Mr Lyon's pet, usually adorned with a necklace rather than a plain dog collar before she gets into a sorry state with the Beast's decline.
When her lips touched the meat-hook claws, they drew back into their pads and she saw how he had always kept his fists clenched but now, painfully, tentatively, at last began to stretch his fingers. Her tears fell on his face like snow and, under their soft transformation, the bones showed through the pelt, the flesh through the wide, tawny brow. And then it was no longer a lion in her arms but a man, a man with an unkempt mane of hair and, how strange, a broken nose, such as the noses of retired boxers, that gave him a distant, heroic resemblance to the handsomest of all the beasts.
'Do you know', said Mr Lyon, 'I think I might be able to manage a little breakfast today, Beauty, if you would eat something with me.'
Mr and Mrs Lyon walk in the garden; the old spaniel drowses on the grass, in a drift of fallen petals.