Tuesday, 31 August 2010

The end of Scotland Street?


For me, certainly. It's the Big Brother misadventure all over again. In that instance, I got hooked early on, told all the disbelievers how much it could reveal about human nature in the long term, how much more kindness was dispensed than vile behaviour, etc. Then decadence quickly set in and I stopped watching, except for the 'celeb' edition with Shilpa Shetty. And all those disbelievers said, 'told you so'.

Thus it is now with the latest of Alexander McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street novels, serialised in The Scotsman (better point out straightway that's not Scotland Street up top but Northumberland Street, close enough in Edinburgh New Town terms). It was bound to resonate: Edinburgh as I'd known and loved it, with recognisable types, not least in the shape of two characters who wore out the quickest, anthropologist Domenica and washed-up artist Angus Lordie. We all fell for perennial five- or six-year old Bertie, and the high watermark for me was his trip to Paris in Espresso Tales where he falls in with a group of existentialist students and makes his profound pronouncement on Melanie Klein, force-fed him by his mother Irene: 'she's rubbish!'


Downhill thereafter, I fear. The homilies get preachier; the characters have stood still, good only for cheap pot-shots (what's the point of baby Ulysses throwing up over mummy Irene because he, like the rest of us, can't stand her?) Bertie still touches the heart, but there's not enough of him this time. A colleague of AMcCS implied he's got a bit grand: the chauffeur and the limo sit outside the coffee shop on Dundas Street while he conducts interviews. And he thinks he's writing for ladies from Colorado. Hence the odious myth of a perfect Italy which is the damp-rag climax of the latest and most disappointing in the sequence, The Importance of Being Seven.

Anyway, the novels may stand still but Edinburgh has just enough dynamism to change a bit and yet stay itself. We only had a day and a half there - staying just a block up from my happy home of nearly three years in Dundas Street - after visiting the godson and family in the Borders, but I think I chose well for the three events I saw on the Friday.


Much the best was Pants on Fire's stunning 1940s revue-style treatment of Ovid's Metamorphoses, which I duly five-starred for The Arts Desk. I doubt if I'll see a more bracing or consistently inventive piece of theatre this year. The review, like the successful theatrical attempt at Gesamtkunstwerk, got a bit buried under all the comedy, which strikes me as marking out another kind of decadence for the Festival Fringe, but each to his own. After a late lunch out in Gilmerton with darlin' Ruthie, who's been putting some of her work to good use on her terrace



we headed back for a low-key but consummately done hour with Diaghilev in the shape of veteran Tony Tanner's one-man show Charlatan (reviewed under the Ovid in the Arts Desk wadge). And on to a curate's egg of a Scottish Chamber Orchestra concert, rounded off by haggis and chips from the Alba d'Oro ('established 1975', it proudly proclaims, as if that were history, five years before I went to Edinburgh). Wasn't because of that, I don't think, that I was sick four times on the train to London - all contained, you'll be glad to know; just part and parcel (and plastic bag, on the one occasion I couldn't make the loo) of an especially hideous cold, which may be the result of veering between heatwave Zurich and freezing late night Rosslyn.

At least I got to welcome all the pleasures sans the impediment that struck on the way back. And managed to give my second Rake's Progress talk at Glyndebourne on the Sunday without losing my voice completely - even if I sounded, as I apologised at the start, more like a cracked Nick Shadow than a clarion Tom Rakewell.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Sisters of the Villa Wesendonck


It's not so much the building, constructed in 1857 by Leonhard Zeugheer along the exact lines of the Villa Albani in Rome for Otto and Mathilde Wesendonck, as the so-called Rietpark of the Villa Wesendonck in Zurich's Enge district which I love so much. The Wagner connection, of course, is inescapable - he worked on Tristan in a now-defunct building on the other side of the cobbled street which leads up and over the hill, down to the Zurichsee on one side and the residential district where Lottie and our goddaughters now reside on the other.

But I've written about that before, and all I need to reiterate here is that the park has proved the perfect summer retreat over two years for reading, writing, napping or just enjoying the excellent produce of the Rietberg Ethnographical Museum's cafe at various tables dotted around under the old trees.


The neoclassical fancies and Pompeiian reds have been freshened up a bit in the latest stage of restoration. But I'm still not sure what to make of the building. It's one of many luxury villas dotted around Enge, and their greenery can accompany you all the way down the hill to the lake if you walk through the Rietpark


and across the road to the grounds of the Villa Belvedere. Then you can manage it so that you reach the Sukkulentenhaus by the lake, another of my favourite Zurich sites with its phenomenal collection of cacti and its Madagasque centrepiece.


At the Belvedere, it's not so much the main building as the double-villas flanking the main entrance which prove of interest. Seestrasse 127/9 was constructed in 1895 by Hermann Stadler and Emil Usteri in the new-baroque style


and is remarkable chiefly for its ironwork.


Quite different is the huge block down the other side of the Rietberg, Zum Wolfsberg, built by Jakob Habler and Carl Schindler in 1910 as a living-space with workshops for the owner, lithographer Johann Edwin Wolfensberger. In 1911 he opened an art gallery here which was to display for the first time many works by Dix and Beckmann. The Jugendstil ornamentations to the rather severe facade are by Wilhelm Schwerzmann.


Clearly the wolves are a play on the proprietor's name, but what to make of the vulpine-headed nudes which adorn the main doorway?


Round the corner, the wolf-theme vanishes and the designs between windows vary from bees


to - what? Monkeys? Putti?


So much for uniformity in Zurich. It doesn't yield up all its secrets on a first visit, but the artistic hotchpotch continues to fascinate.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Rosslyn's floral forest


Made a spontaneous decision to go and see Shadwell Opera's production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Rosslyn Chapel on our first night in Scotland. Not quite what I expected, but still the students put their hearts into it: review over on The Arts Desk. Was upbraided for not choosing the mainstream festival option of The Sixteen and distinguished soloists in Purcell at the Usher Hall; yet I thought the humbler enterprise merited our support, especially as nice Elly Brindle from the Cambridge group had written and they seemed so well organised. I didn't regret it.

Above all we had a chance to see this singular and mysterious creation without having to share it with hordes of Dan Brown admirers (apparently the grail trail of The Da Vinci Code leads here, though the author never came and readers might be disappointed not to find the odd detail in situ). The place is shrouded in mystery and legend; yet its origins are quite concrete: no saint's sanctuary but the only executed part - a choir and retro (Lady) chapel - of a Catholic family church built by William Sinclair, First Earl of Caithness, from 1456 (Rome granted the charter ten years earlier).


The detailed carving, which supposedly took over 40 years to complete, is breathtaking and outlandish. I have one big question, though: do we know how much was added in the major Victorian restoration? Would that account for maize appearing on an arch some decades before Columbus reached America? Not to mention the proto-Masonic symbols such as the roped fallen angel (all photographs here courtesy of Wikimedia, as you're not allowed to snap inside, and though I could easily have done so after the show, I honoured that injunction).


At any rate much of the carving is like nothing I've seen from that period, and of course what looked from where we were sitting like an ambulatory, where the orchestra was placed behind the small stage platform, provided the stone forest necessary for the Dream. There are 100 green men, carved in various stages of their life-development including this rather alarming wee chappie:


and a bizarre sequence of 213 patterned cubes projecting from arches in the retro-chapel (you can see some of them at the top of the Apprentice Arch in the picture reproduced below). Their geometric designs have recently - if inconclusively - been interpreted as a musical score. Wiki tells me that they 'resemble geometric patterns seen in the study of cymatics. The patterns are formed by placing powder upon a flat surface and vibrating the surface at different frequencies. By matching these Chladni patterns with musical notes corresponding to the same frequencies, the father-and-son team of Thomas and Stuart Mitchell produced a tune which Stuart calls the Rosslyn Motet.' Must hear that - there's a download available, though at a cost.

The jewel, though, is the so-called Apprentice Column, which 18th century legend has it was created by said apprentice in master's absence, whereupon on his return master struck apprentice dead in horror at his superior work. Si non e vero...


All the grail and secrecy stuff seems to have been a later accumulation, though I'm fascinated by the idea of a sealed vault which is supposed to be as high-ceilinged as the chapel itself. Waiting for our lift to Broughton after the show, J spoke to the night watchman, who comes on the bus every evening from Hawick. He'd heard strange whisperings in his ear, and a stone was thrown one night. Wanted to make our flesh creep or quite sincere? Well, I didn't find it spooky. But it was wondrous strange.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Tove Jansson: summer and winter


My thanks to Minnie for putting me in touch with a highly popular man of blogging ideas, Norman Geras. He invited me to select a favourite book for his series of writers' choices, and after wandering in mazes for weeks I settled on one I happened to have just read. The piece is here, so I don't really need to explain or expand on the perfection of Tove Jansson's The Summer Book. I will at least reiterate that it tied in so hauntingly with my time on Bergman's magical Fårö, more images of which I take the liberty of scattering here.


What I would like to add is simply that since than I've also read Jansson's The True Deceiver, which Norman admires in equal measure. It's the dark shadow of The Summer Book, though since Jansson is interested in a spare approach to human truth, neither is black or white, and both are tough. This time it's winter on the Swedish coast, and snow coats everything in near silence. A strange woman goes out of her way to move in on a solitary old artist and provide a decent home for her simple brother Mats. But she isn't just the big bad wolf in a fairy tale, nor is the older lady the rabbit. These are human beings in all their mystery and inconsistency.


I'd like to leave the last word to Ali Smith, who writes so eloquent an introduction to The True Deceiver:

'Mats has no secrets. That's why he's so mysterious.' Jansson's own texts, works which seem so simple as to be near-throwaway, are always honed to perfection, given a lightness that proves deceptive, an ease of surface which, like a covering of ice over a lake, allows you a rare access to something a lot more feisty and profound. 'Rarely do books give as clear an impression as yours that they simply matured to the point of inevitability', Jansson's...Swedish publisher wrote to her when she was struggling with difficult work.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Abbado: the zenith (2)



Such calibrated yet still white-heat perfection defies us supposed wordsmiths, as I gathered from an awestruck review of the Lucerne Mahler Ninth in the Neue Zurcher Zeitung. Having now seen the livestream and one live performance, I'd better get my own thoughts together. The eight pages in my holiday notebook - taken during the livestream, I'd never do it in the hall - run wild with exclamations and quite a few illegible signs, but it might be worth jotting down a few slightly more finished notes here in a way that proper published reviewing doesn't allow.

Photographs of Abbado were taken during the two performances, reproduced by permission of the Lucerne Festival. Top image is by Priska Ketterer, the second by Peter Fischli and the third by Georg Anderhub (that's the wonderful Kolja Blacher leading the Lucerne Festival Orchestra).


First movement: total silence before it. Abbado comes on, blinks, smiles as he always does so collegially to his handpicked players, and begins. The veiled sound of second violins comes from their placing left behind the firsts, not apparent in filming (the crucial violas led by the superlative Wolfram Christ are to Abbado's right). Every time the 'ewig'-without-the-tonic nocturne returns, the heart leaps: it's to do with what are often the subtlest of Luftpausen. Violas plunging more clearly than I've ever heard before the first big climax, though it's not overdone. The struggles quicken, as they did in Abbado's volatile Berlin interpretation; the collapses aren't overstressed and the balances remain clear, the clamber out of the abyss goes ghostly with the celebrated Abbado pianissimo (the great Natalia Gutman still there among the painfully climbing cellos). Woodwind, Jacques Zoon's flute especially, lead us into chamber music - compassionate, transparent. The first string shock is the 'Leidenschaftlich' writhing (at 211), dark intense sound like I've never heard before, and sustained with a line going through it, even somehow building. The last descent inevitable even after the leaping collapse: the funeral march not overdone, evolving naturally back into the last proud processional with fraught brass clashes (overall the LFO ensemble is integrated beautifully, the brass sound never forced). Warm horn solo from Bruno Schneider, mit innigster Empfindung; final pizzicato-flageolet and piccolo note - the tonic at last - overheard rather than heard. Abbado still keeps something in reserve: I've heard performances of the movement so entire in themselves and so exhausting that I didn't have much energy left for the rest, and in those I felt the final Adagio couldn't, and didn't, live up to the opening Andante. Not so here.

Scherzo: playful-heavy at first rather than dark or sarcastic: Abbado moves in and out of sinister colours with undetectable sleight of hand. I still don't know how he resolved it from the scary penultimate chunterings and stabbings to a witty resolution. Again, seeing the second violins biting into their dance-stomp just after the start highlights the links with the first movement. And the Tempo III Landler treads air. Sabine Meyer leads dark cohorts of clarinets in a uniquely hollow low sound.


Rondo-Burleske: determined, disciplined, not wild until the final speedings. All the counterpoint is deadly clear and ruthlessly well executed. Reinhold Friedrich's trumpet comes truly as a voice from another planet - no slowing from Abbado, rightly, it's all in a tone like none I've ever heard before.

Adagio: yes, here words should fail. It either works totally for me, and I can't remember it doing that since Bernstein, or not really at all until the final whispers. This was the total experience: string playing I've waited all my life, I think, to hear in a concert hall - somehow contained, not passionately emotive at first though rising by degrees to that, weighted by cellos and basses in a way that you can't define to anyone who wasn't in that amazing Lucerne hall. The richer the harmonies and the counterpoints become, the more stops Abbado pulls out. And the line, the line through... In between, sensitive bassoon solos and a cor anglais to break the heart. Everything moves to the final climax, a glimpse of some almighty in the trumpet blaze before the cry of violins: again, never heard it like this before and never will again. Transcendental close, stretched to infinity, going in deeper like the best meditation. Of course I wasn't aware of the length of silence in performance, but I timed it at the end of the livestream: two minutes.

If you don't get all of the above, or think I've waffled unduly, it doesn't bother me. I've had my vision and I'll say it again - I'm happy to have lived in such times to hear such playing. But don't forget that if you can access Arte, it's broadcasting the concert on 19 September.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Joyce meets Mahler



In my currently overheated imagination, that is. Despite failing the eminent Dr Senn in missing the James Joyce Centre of Zurich's weekly Thursday reading of Finnegans Wake and losing out on a repeat of last year's experience, I did finally kickstart my long-delayed second attempt to re-read Ulysses on the train to Lucerne, and haven't looked back since.

How little it meant to me on my first cavortings around European railways back in the early 1980s. I think I did read two-thirds, but without absorbing or understanding much - and retracing those steps now I wonder why on earth not. Anyway, the point here is that Joyce's cornucopia of reference, his sublime mix of the ordinary and the sublime, his easy snatches of popular song in amidst life-and-death reflections, all seemed to connect with the Mahler Ninth I was so privileged (again I use the only possible word) to hear Abbado conduct in Lucerne.

Still gathering my thoughts about that, but in the meantime, it's been an oddly connected time, filtered through our many reflections in the Rietberg Park of the Villa Wesendonck, now my most familiar numinous site in any city. Yesterday I braved the latest heatwave to make a pilgrimage from Enge to Fluntern and Joyce's grave. Again, the strands along the way seemed so diverse, so Joyce-Mahler and so contradictory of the order and uniformity which are supposed to reign in Zurich. A balafonist in the Saturday flea-market, a Siberian throat/overtone singer in the crypt of the Grossmunster - neither indigenous, both consummate - and a colourful, ululating protest favouring a united Kurdistan complete with Ocalan posters and national flags, crossing the bridge from the Fraumunster with police cars at either end revealed the city's multikulti side.

I was also out and about to complete my collection of Giacometti's breathtaking stained glass on both sides of the Limmat. Then I doffed my cap again as I walked up through the garden of the Thomas Mann residence and wove my way to the Zurichberg past psychiatric clinics, resthomes and grotesquely overornamented villas. The final haul took me through a field of sunflowers, the forest flanking Fluntern Cemetery, and a first glimpse of Joyce's statue through the fence.

Though seemingly all too close to the local hospitals like many of its kind, the cemetery actually has a less grim neighbour than most, the zoo, so the shouts of children and the continuation of other species resonate next door. The plots are a little over-ordered for my taste, but it made another nice symmetry with last year's hunt for the grave of Joseph Schmidt on the opposite hill. Not to mention Mahler's last resting place (pictured above) in Vienna's Grinzing, well away from the touristic heurigen.




I sat in the shade, replaced the fluids lost through excess perspiration with gallons of water and finally settled down to the 'Aeolus' chapter I'd just reached in Ulysses. And the hour or so's sweat uphill was offset by a straight number 5 tram ride all the way back to Enge. Mission accomplished.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Abbado: the zenith




Ever since I first clapped eyes and ears on Claudio Abbado's inaugural concerts with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 2003, I knew that orchestral music-making never gets better than this. In their annual three weeks of working together, they've given us astounding Mahler, of which I've been uniquely privileged to hear the First and Seventh Symphonies live. All can be seen on expertly directed DVDs, with the exception of the Fourth - surely overdue for release.

Tonight marks what has to be an Alpine peak for both: the Ninth Symphony, written under a sentence of death similar to the one which afflicted great Claudio some years ago, and from which he miraculously emerged, frail in physical terms but stronger than ever interpretatively, capping even his years at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic with fresh wonders at Lucerne.

Let me simply draw your attention to the Festival's livestreaming in collaboration with Arte tonight (18.30 UK time). I'll go even hyperbolically further and add that if you only see one concert in your life, this has to be the one. And if you miss the live event, don't worry - it should be out on DVD in less than a year. Tschuss.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Merciful rescue


They were never really in danger, and following the demolition of the Middlesex Hospital in 2008 the four paintings known collectively as Acts of Mercy that had hung in two different entrance halls, starting in 1915-20, were acquired by the Wellcome Library. Now they're being splendidly exhibited in the National Gallery's Sunley Room until October.

Never heard of the artist, Frederick Cayley Robinson? Neither had I, and I thought I'd be in and out of the room in a flash. But I was caught immediately by the geometrical, frieze-like compositions and the magic realism of the streets and windows. Cayley Robinson studied in Tuscany between 1898 and 1900, so he probably knew the tradition of paintings for charitable institutions from Domenico di Bartolo's fresco of orphans received into Siena's Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala. He would certainly have been familiar with the kind of storytelling perspectives offered in this rather marvellous painting by Sandro Botticelli of scenes from the life of Saint Zenobius. It hangs in the National Gallery, though I'd never noticed it there, and is reproduced by courtesy of that institution.


Cayley Robinson's series derives from the seven Corporal Acts of Mercy, six of which are very poetically described in Matthew's Gospel. The first two paintings depict the Middlesex Hospital's tradition of raising orphans. There are mysteries in 'Orphans' I (depicted at the top). Why the girl in the patterned dress illuminated by lamplight? And the birds flying from the campanile outside the high window - could they have something to do with Cayley Robinson's designs for Maeterlinck's The Blue Bird (which I'd love to see)? All four Middlesex Hospital/Wellcome Library paintings reproduced by courtesy and with the copyright of the Trustees of the Wellcome Trust Ltd.

In the painting which always hung to the right, and does so now, the girls - in orphans' uniform, though they could almost be nurses in training - continue to process. The almost mystical gap below the window with the bust suggests a kind of imprisonment - is Cayley Robinson criticising the straitjacketing of these young women?


The sombre fallout of the Great War enters the picture with the last pair, collectively known as 'The Doctor'. In the first, actually painted last in 1920, there are nurses, physically and mentally wounded soldiers, enigmatic onlookers and weirdly lit streets with factory chimneys behind.


The last is almost post-PreRaphaelitey, too much so for me, with the costumed mix of periods, but I like the tree breaking up the ashlar, the birds and the semi-lit houses.


Not only is this a fascinating little exhibition, also featuring's Piero della Francesca's hauntingly cool Baptism of Christ and a few more Cayley Robinsons, one alongside a Puvis de Chavannes; it's also the one place in the height of summer where you can escape the gaping parties in the main galleries - usually so empty at certain times of day. By the way, it looks as if reintroducing entrance fees for museums and galleries is NOT on the cards of the new government. But maybe one good solution for swelling the coffers would be to incorporate a £10 culture charge in tourists' air tickets.

Anyway, it's marvellous as a Londoner to be able to drop in on any treasure for half an hour or so. And this encourages me to visit the Wellcome collections and the Foundling Hospital (which I think does charge for admission, but I'm happy to pay) some time soon.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Wild Glyndebourne, civic Lewes




Don't know what the current Glyndebourne head gardener has been up to, turfing over bits of herbaceous border, pulling up the roses and thinning out the planting. But where nature is left to run its course, parts of the Glyndebourne grounds have never looked better.

Meadow zones are the new gardening black, of course, and there are more of them towards the east end of the lake where we usually set up our picnic (can't recommend too strongly, by the way, that you go to Bill's fabulous deli emporium in Lewes and get yourself one of their £11 boxes - superb salads, best quiche, fruit cocktail-drink, cake). The trees, of course, look more glorious than ever swaying in the wind on the other side




and the north walk can be especially magical in the late afternoon light, if it's sunny, which it was on Sunday and most of Monday.


The border I still approve is the one that runs alongside the organ room and house. Here there's a buddleia of an almost phosphorescent lilac.


More formal and blowsy in effect are the plantings in the council-owned Southover Grange Gardens of Lewes, one of several places I saw for the first time following a Tom Paine trail (he played bowls on what's supposed to be the oldest green in the country, pictured up top and another area I'd overlooked on a previous trip to the castle). To celebrate the diplo-mate's birthday, we stayed for once in a hotel - Pelham House. Pricey, but worth it, because here are idiosyncrasy and a real link to the civic fibre of the town, appropriate since the council once held court in the newer wing. Our room was decorated with images from the covers of the excellent free Viva Lewes magazine, and the hallways had plenty of town images from talented local printmakers. The jewel is the hallway ceiling painted by Cressida's brother Julian Bell, a trompe-l'oeil tightrope walk which reminds me of those Moscow metro friezes.




All this ties us more closely to the place, though I've learned one thing: not to think of buying a house on the lovely south slopes of the town, could we afford it, as the noise of the nearby A27 is all too apparent. Better to think of being up the hill to the north, where Glyndebourne education dynamo Katie Tearle and husband, that incredibly knowledgeable and flavoursome music writer Mark Pappenheim, live. We popped in for coffee and to see Mark's bees, which were buzzing around rather frenetically. He's full of apine wisdom and presented us with some honeycomb from this year's relatively rich takings.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Parallel rakes



Surprising results from a two-day Glyndebourne stint. I was there to give a talk before the opening performance of The Rake's Progress, and stayed on not just for the show but also for this season's new production of Don Giovanni the following day - an extended treat for the diplo-mate's birthday. He, of course, has fond memories of what, for better or for worse, has become known as 'the Hockney Rake' from the Glyndebourne tour of 1992. He permits himself to appear below in yet another disguise as a chorene whose make-up increasingly came to resemble something from Cats. His 'wife' (his jest?) is the redoubtable Rachel Tovey, currently wowing 'em in Stockholm as Brunnhilde and in Bonn as Turandot.


Was expecting much from Topi Lehtipuu's Tom Rakewell (pictured up top with Matthew Rose's Nick Shadow for Glyndebourne by Alastair Muir, who took the other Rake pics below) and somewhat less from Gerald Finley's Giovanni (in the grips of another bass, Alastair Miles as a Hammer-horror Commendatore, as photographed by Bill Cooper, responsible for more Mozart shots here).

In the end, the expectations were reversed, at least as far as the overall castings went. Ed Seckerson has put his finger on most of the problems I had with this Rake revival in his Arts Desk review. Yes, the scene changes are intolerable, when each 3x3 act is supposed to fly past unbroken; how odd that Hockney should have gone for the illusion of a recomposed 18th century and not availed himself of the machinery which in Mozart's time could have flown drapes and flats in and out. All this was compounded by a restless, bangle-jangling and sweet-unwrapping crowd around us, who took every orchestral prelude played before the drop-curtain as a cue for chatter, ballet-audience style, and then oohed and aahed every time the curtain rose, fatal for the essential stillness of the Bedlam scene. Still, it does look handsomer than ever; I gather major work has been undertaken on sets, lighting and costumes, now officially 35 years old.

And the accents: a slight tinge of Finnish and Swedish would matter less in a more straightforwardly-inflected setting of Auden and Kallman. But Stravinsky knew what he was doing in making all things lopsided. Lehtipuu and the usually adorable Miah Persson, struggling with her upper range now, didn't quite grasp or project the subtler kinks. She did apply the lovely purity it needs to Anne's miraculously simple lullaby to the mad Tom in Bedlam, accompanied by two flutes only, though it's probably the only time I've sat through the restrained heartbreak of the final scene dry-eyed.


Lopsided, too, is Stravinsky's perception of what WHA & CK thought of as recitatives. Fine for the way Glyndebourne's supertitling has chosen to handle them if they were all with harpsichord. But there are numbers within numbers, and some rather thickly scored passages. By cutting out the text at these points, Glyndebourne is bound to puzzle anyone unfamiliar with the piece.

What worked? Well, above all, the most deliciously thick-accented of them all, Russian Elena Manistina as the most exotic Baba the Turk I've ever seen or heard, just superb. And apt, of course, for the authentic exotic of St Giles's Fair.


Graham Clark's bumptious, camp auctioneer set an example in diction; and some of Jurowski's crisp tempi, graced by a superlative LPO trumpeter, worked well. I can understand he wanted to get a move on in the difficult early scenes, but a conductor who really lets the cantabile woodwind sing as did Martyn Brabbins at Aldeburgh can show us more readily how emotional Stravinsky's score really is. But this wasn't Jurowski's aim.

Where I do bow to him in awe is for all the work he's so evidently put in to a crackling but not consistently hasty Don G. By the time we saw it, he'd handed over the baton to Brno-born whizzkid Jakub Hrusa, new Glyndebourne On Tour director. Golden days begun under Ticciati are bound to continue with Hrusa. From where we were sitting, we could see his hyper-alert, immaculate manner. Hard to say what was Jurowski's Giovanni and what Hrusa's, but I was impressed by the way the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on absolutely top form suddenly pulled all the tragic-dramatic stops out for the recit leading up to Donna Anna's 'Or sai che l'onore'. Compelling, too, the small string group around the cello obbligato of Zerlina's 'Batti, batti' - double-bassist Chi-Chi Nwanoku as mobile as ever - and the consummate artistry of mandolinist James Ellis in the Serenade.

At points like these I was distracted away from the perfectly decent singing of Gerald Finley and Anna Virovlansky. Finley is a keenly-inflected protagonist, but he never emanates sex or threat; in those respects, the superlatively adaptable Leporello, Luca Pisaroni, and the charismatic Masetto, Guido Loconsolo, would probably have served the part better. Here's Pisaroni on the right with Finley's Mastroiannish Giovanni and Kate Royal's nervy Elvira.


Royal came into her own for a stunningly fluid 'Mi tradi'. But the show's true royals were Anna Samuil's Donna Anna and William Burden's Don Ottavio. Here they are to the right in an especially glorious Act Two sextet (Virovlansky left, Pisaroni spinning lines of gold, Royal in the red dress and Loconsolo complete the line-up).


Samuil shone in the astounding Salzburg production of Eugene Onegin by Andrea Breth, and here she shows all the gleam of a proto-heroic soprano with total flexibility: I've never heard the runs at the end of 'Non mi dir' more flawless, on stage at least. And she's beautiful, a wonderful actress and an intelligent musician given the freedom to do what she needs by Hrusa. Found the aria performed by her on YouTube, with Michael Schade and the 'VFO' (would that be the Vienna Festival Orchestra - and who's the conductor?)



Burden brought real Italianate touches to 'Dalla sua pace' as well as sensitivity; what a shame the Vienna version deprived him of 'Il mio tesoro' and all the lovely stuff in the centre of the final ensemble (is that a Vienna thing? Or just impatience with the good guys on conductor's or director's part?)

This was the best production I've seen from Jonathan Kent, and I'm not usually a fan. The definition of the Italian 1950s setting was a bit loose, the Act 1 finale a confusion throwing away Mozart's gift of the three dance bands, the class distinctions uncertain. Nothing, it's true, as novel as some of the ideas in Dmitri Tcherniakov's Aix family saga, but nothing as crass as Zambello's attempt to put on a show at Covent Garden.

And a show this certainly was, dominated by Paul Brown's amazingly complicated set - all elegant opening boxes and marbled spaciousness in Act One, all steep rakes and decay in Act Two. The graveyard and guess-who's-coming-to-dinner scenes really worked; the brilliant ensembles carried all the bigger numbers. All things considered, the best Don Giovanni I've seen on stage, if not as thoughtful a concept as Deborah Warner's last-but-one Glyndebourne production. And what incredible futures all these singers have.