Wednesday, 29 September 2010
Melancholy, geriatric Eastbourne is where I liked to be beside the seaside as a child. The parents would drive down there about once a month on Sundays in spring and summer, and our rituals would take us from the Wish Tower Cafe, where a difficult friend of ours more recently fled the smell of incontinence on our last revisit, to the Martello Tower, the Lifeboat Museum, the bandstand and the Redoubt.
Returning there to catch the last day of the Ravilious(es) exhibition at the Towner Art Gallery earlier this month, I persuaded my companions to indulge me on a trip down memory lane. We'd done a bit of it when J was singing in a Carmina Burana up the coast with the divine Mary Plazas and a very competent school orchestra. But we hadn't retraced the old route. And I found nothing much had changed. Maybe the older generation is marginally less in evidence, and a few cafes along the prom-prom-prom serve espresso, but that's about it.
The 1930s bandstand, replacing the Victorian 'birdcage' original, was still in full working order. My old dad used to love this music (in fact the only piece I ever heard him hum was 'The Yeomen of England' by Edward German*). And it's still playing to the same sort of crowds (since I assume that the original senior citizens are mostly no more).
This time I had a little more admiration for the design.
Incidentally, I can't remember where I recently read it, but Debussy apparently didn't actually compose La mer at the Grand Hotel nearby; he simply put some finishing touches to the manuscript. And he thought Eastbourne rather drab, though I must say the Duke of Devonshire's white stucco buildings and the gardens are a bit jollier than the post-bombing mess they made of Dieppe central.
On, then, to pay homage to the slot machines on Eugenius Birch's thousand-foot long 1860s pier
and along the East Parade to the Redoubt. Built between 1804 and 1812 as another protection against the Napoleonic invasion, it was always my favourite haunt as a child for what it housed - not so much the model village but a fantasy grotto, apparently mocked up in the early 1960s. What magic I found in its fluorescent fibreglass rock acquarium and its lilac-lit parade of Ionic columns and classical statues. All removed about a decade ago, the nice man in the military museum told me. Anyway, the Redoubt itself has been handsomely restored to something like its original state, and was completely untouristed when we arrived in the mid-afternoon.
The attendant also persuaded me to buy a little clutch of heritage walk leaflets, not by any means wasted as I wanted to explore one area I hadn't seen as a child - the old town which preceded the rail-inspired bathing resort by many centuries. There's not much to see there, and it's quite a hike inland, but worth it for the church. We approached via the posh Victorian west end and the grandiose town hall ('free renaissance' says Pevsner).
St Mary-the-Virgin, on the slopes of the Bourne stream, has suffered from - or been saved by, depending on which way you look at it - Victorian restoration. Still, it's a much-loved place of worship with a healthy 50-strong choir, we were told. The Norman nave yields to a very wide and large chancel with romanesque-style capitals.
In the Gildredge Chapel there's a very fantastical, blow-dried St Michael conquering the dragon by Hugh Easton, made after the 1943 bombing.
The church's most fascinating memorial commemorates the untimely death of Henry Lushington, who survived the Black Hole of Calcutta by drinking his own sweat only to be 'deliberately and inhumanely murdered' in Patna at the age of 26 by 'the Nabob Cossim Ally Kawn'. His parents erected a bust by Sir Robert Taylor above their long and loving inscription.
Outside, the church with its massy 14th century tower is complemented by an adjoining 16th century rectory manor.
There's not a lot of medieval building to be seen in the vicinity, so we headed down to the pretty Motcombe Gardens and a house opposite where an iron silhouette marks the home of the very late, great Tommy Cooper (!)
And just like that we were back at the station for the return train to London.
*Talk of the devil and here it is. I never thought to hear the tune my father never sang beyond the first line, and always studiously avoided an LP of Merrie England in the local library. But in the recently recreated Prom Last Night of 1910, there it was from the very unlikely, and now rather knackered, vocal chords of Sergei Leiferkus. The rendition is idiosyncratic, to say the least.
If you want less bizarre diction, Peter Dawson can be heard on YouTube too. But a minute and a half is quite enough for me. G&S's Yeomen of the Guard - now that's quite another matter.
Tuesday, 28 September 2010
Good in parts is the best I can clergically say for everything I've seen in the last week - except Alvin Ailey's troupe, that is, which was wholly inspirational in terms of the execution, though even there the choreography could be dodgy in places. No need to recap on Jurowski's fascinating Mahler 3 with the oh-so-slow (but still oh-so-well-played) finale nor Gergiev's horrid Shchedrin and masterly Musorgsky-Ravel; both I've written up on The Arts Desk, so click on those links if you want to read further.
I must say I wondered if I was going to agree at first with colleague Igor's rave about Niobe, Regina di Tebe at the Royal Opera - and I went because of his review and what a charming student, Caroline Kennedy, had written about it. I detected only three and a bit signs of blazing originality in the hitherto-obscure Steffani's first act, chiefly the string revolutions of the celestial spheres observed in his Palace of Harmony by King Anfione (the self-styled Polish 'soprano and tenor' Jacek Laszczkowski, pictured above by Bill Cooper, who took the Royal Opera shots it's now OK again to feature on blogs, thanks to all the comment fuss over at Intermezzo). There were also an irregular, dancing ditty and a quirky lovesong respectively for secondary lovers Tiberino (Lothar Odinius) and Manto (Amanda Forsythe).
Then, in the second and third acts, the wonders of Lukas Hemleb's sometimes bizarrely costumed Schwetzingen-originated production began to work together with Steffani's more outlandish inspiration. Laszczkowski, a singer of rare stage presence but holey technique (cloudy middle range beneath stunning soprano top), elevated with Anfione's divine illusion
and his consort Niobe (Veronique Gens) sported in equally illusory fashion with the false Mars of Creon (Iestyn Davies). They get a gorgeous duet and a levitational scene with floating balloons which worked its way into my dreams last night.
The fascination of the mangled myth, so horrifically treated in Ovid's Metamorphoses (I re-read the Ted Hughes translation before going to sleep last night), takes over for the closing scene. The would-be divine consorts have their hubris duly punished; their children are slaughtered, Anfione stabs himself and his life leaks away in an extraordinary chromatic death scene that peters out, while Niobe turns to stone in an even sparer number that also has no chance to conclude. Gens turned in an exemplary, fashion-plate Niobe, inspected here as a golden statue by Tiresias (Bruno Taddia) and nurse Nerea (Delphine Galou).
With the exception of Laszczkowski's erratic vocals, more than mitigated by his handsome charisma, the cast was outstanding, with Davies (seen here in his iffy get-up with Alastair Miles's Poliferno in tow) the most stylish of the lot.
The vitality which suggested that perhaps there was more good music in the work than is in fact the case came from Thomas Hengelbrock and his electrifying Balthasar Neumann Ensemble. O numi, o ciel, the second barockfest I've enjoyed in a month - what's come over me?
Whereas David Alden's production of Janacek's The Makropulos Case at English National Opera was a known quantity, one I'd been stunned by when Cheryl Barker took on the role of the 337-year-old diva heroine first time round. I thought this was going to be just as good: Richard Armstrong proved both precise and headlong stepping into the late, great Sir Charles Mackerras's shoes; Amanda Roocroft caught the playful side of Emilia Marty's bizarre historical perspectives very well in the first two acts and pierced the soul in her asides about her dried-out life (photographs for ENO by Neil Libbert).
The great final scene, however, lacked for me both the cosmic perspectives opened up by Anja Silja in Nikolaus Lehnhoff's Glyndebourne production and the sheer vocal allure of Barker last time round (Roocroft can't always be heard, and you never know whether the sound above the stave is going to come out frayed or spot-on).
Plus there's the problem of the way Alden stages the end. I take his point about the men who've always dictated the way E.M. led her life, and I liked the use of the blackboard to spell out the complications of the legal case, the simplicity of the essence ('Makropulos' in Greek) and the algebra of the immortality potion. But the supposedly spectacular coup of the formula sticking to the heroine's hand at the end won't do.
I discussed this with the City Lit students last night (we're spending five weeks on the opera). They're an open-minded bunch, and fans of Jones et al for the most part, but they were surprised when I read them the stage directions: 'Krista [the young girl previously infatuated with Marty's divadom] takes the document and holds it over a flame until it catches fire. Stage lighting changes to red. Marty: Pater hemon [Our Father, not translated at ENO]? (crumpling up). The document is consumed in the flames'.
What's more, we hear the flames in the music. But the way Alden played it out, the ending was indeed as nihilistic as Igor found it. No liberation from the hell of everlasting life, no purification. That has to be wrong. At least we got real fires (and how) in Niobe.
Sunday, 26 September 2010
So many premature auguries of Autumn recently that I'm loath to accept we may be almost there. The prognostications included the winds which brought down the leaves in the Rietpark of Zurich's Villa Wesendonck in Zurich during late August (above and below); within days we were sweltering in the last heatwave.
And it certainly felt very autumnal walking along the Thames from London Bridge to St Paul's the other week against rainbow and yellow skies
yet I did the same last Thursday, going on to the Angel via St John's Street (fascinating), and sweated in my thick woollen jacket.
Thought this rather optional weatherchat might be the good place to post shots of the fungi we encountered during the sunny, warm afternoon of our Norfolk Churches Walk along the river Nar (funds are still coming in; it's never too late). No mycologist, I can't identify these two but I live in hope that some expert reader may may able to help me out:
and while the little 'uns may be a familiar sight in many gardens, the patterns they made in West Acre fields seemed rather singular.
The August rains have ripened both the mushrooms and unusually rich blackberry pickings in the hedgerows this year.
Meanwhile, in Djenne, our beloved Sophie's hotel is bracing for the annual invasion - looking a litle more serious this year - of the waters. She's in Tunis with husband Keita for his crucial stem cell treatment - which, praise be, the Malian government finally agreed to fund - so she finds herself on the horns of a dilemma, how long to stay and what good it would do to go back. I take the liberty of including this dramatic photograph from several years back to point you in the direction of her ever-incidentpacked blog.
Anyway, Weill's September Song is on my mind. I remembered our friend and ondes-martenotist Cynthia Millar waxing lyrical about Walter Huston's version, but it didn't do much for me beyond its novelty value. And the song needs careful handling if it isn't to sound rather square. So three cheers for Chet Baker's trumpet, and - here - the words as well from Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown:
Friday, 24 September 2010
Had to see the second programme of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre after last week's revelation(s), and it confirmed for me that this is one of the very local wonders of the world, like hearing the Glinka Choir of St Petersburg, Wagner at Bayreuth or the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Another performance of Revelations, another cast, with seemingly effortless balance from Constance Stamatiou and Antonio Douthit for 'Fix Me, Jesus' and a moving-to-tears solo from Amos J Machanic Jr in 'I Wanna Be Ready'. Yes, it's a masterpiece, a 50-year old classic that's anything but ossified. And it converted my companion to the belief that modern dance really could express the depths of the human spirit, as his grand criterion for Great Art has it.
I learned a lot, too. Judith Jamison's Hymn (company pictured above by Andrew Eccles) to her predecessor and founding father, the great man himself, does something that may well be commonplace in the contemporary dance world, but which I've never come across before. They dance, in places, to the spoken word alone, with only a minimum of mime. As someone who's fascinated by the potential of speech melody in Janacek and Steve Reich, I found this balletic equivalent enthralling.
OK. so the score by Robert Ruggieri isn't up to much, and the documentary speeches of company members are a little stagily narrated by 'actress/raconteuse' Anna Deveare Smith (the volume, which could have been reduced by at least 20 per cent, probably made her contributions sound unnaturally harsh at times). But there's certainly melody in her declamation, and when the music stopped and several solo dancers just expressed the text, it was thrilling. I liked most of all Khilea Douglass's solo 'The Mask', about a dancer's reflections on her grandmother in Africa. My Arts Desk colleague Judith Flanders was a little tougher on the overall impact, but she loved the rest.
No solos on YouTube, but here are a couple of minutes of the company in action (go fullscreen for symmetry):
Anointed, choreographed by Christopher L Huggins, struck me as amazingly complex dance to monotonous music (by Moby and Sean Clements), a score which only served as a clean slate to write on. But I did a double take when halfway through a poetic Pas de Deux, the female dancer lifted her male partner and held him in perfect poise. It didn't happen again, but it was a moment of did-I-really-see-that magic.
And my evening was enhanced by meeting South African-born dance enthusiast Pami Preller, who's been to all the performances and still finds something fresh and extraordinary, a panache and an equilibrium which she reckons even the Royal Ballet can't quite match.
Anyway, you have until tomorrow night to catch a phenomenon in action at Sadler's Wells, after which you can see it on tour.
Wednesday, 22 September 2010
And in the Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes exhibition opening on Saturday at the Victoria and Albert Museum, it's not just the familiar story of The Rite of Spring's notorious opening night (Roerich's designs pictured above, with extra dummy). We had the rare pleasure of a preview tour around the show by the V&A's Director of Theatre and Performance, and co-curator of this exhibition, Geoffrey Marsh. So affable, enthusiastic and un-self-important was he that he pulled us up short when he told us how he'd canvassed for this or that costume, attempted to buy some vital sketches at auction or gone to extreme lengths to get an old Russian recording of a folk singer much admired by Stravinsky.
Diaghilev retrospectives have never been thin on the ground, though the last big one at the Barbican turns out to have been 14 years ago (it was at a talk there that I met our now dear old friend Ross Alley). But I was more thrilled by this one than by any of the others. Already, as we entered through the back route, I caught a glimpse of the vast forecloth for Le train bleu, Picasso's celebrated image of the two big-armed and -breasted woman running down the beach. You can see them behind his costume design for the Chinese acrobat in the epoch-making Parade.
That canvas is huge, of course, as is Natalia Gon(t)charova's backdrop panoply of onion domes for the 1926 revival of the pioneering Firebird. Both are owned by the V&A and simply can't be displayed other than in exceptional circumstances like this: if anyone has the right space for the Gon(t)charova, Geoffrey would appreciate a call.
It's discreetly lit in a giant space flanked by clever films of a silhouetted firebird spinning to the infernal dance.
Incidentally, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the BBC website still has up and running the film of last year's pre-Prom Stravinsky discussion chaired by Chris Cook in which I get to exchange ideas with the admirable Stephanie Jordan.
Anyway, the visual aspect of the show is done with all the panache you'd expect from the revitalised V&A (and a bit more than the not-quite-as-bad-as-usual Proms backdrop above). And what costumes they have, either original or lovingly remade. Standing out in room one is a Bakst cossack from Thamar in 1912, complete with pockets full of cartridges. Geoffrey told us they'd heard from a lady in Wales whose mother had been a Georgian princess of the same name as the ballet's bloodthirsty heroine, and in the days of the great Ballets Russes costume sales, her husband had bought her a clutch of costumes. Most had been eaten by moths tucked away in an attic, but this one survived and has been spectacularly cleaned (no image here as yet; you'll have to see it for yourselves).
Some tough decisions had to be taken. Nijinsky's costume as the Spectre of the Rose wouldn't do, because most of the roses had been removed and the tights would prosaically remind us what thick legs he had (rather like Nureyev). See for yourself in this photograph from 1911. Sadly it doesn't catch the famous leap through the window, so poetically described in Tony Tanner's one-man Diaghilev show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
A fun story attaches itself to Cocteau's caricatures of the impresario dressed up as the lady in that ballet and a prancing Nijinsky as the object of his/her admiration. They'd been put up for auction at a ridiculously low £800, Geoffrey went along with the cash - but the first bid, from choreographer John Neumeier, came in at five figures, so that was that. Neumeier has, however, loaned to the exhibition, as have all sorts of collectors and Russian plutocrats.
There are the expected Bakst designs, Diaghilev memorabilia, models and useful little films, all punctuating the rooms in a noisy melee which will presumably sound less distracting once the space fills with crowds. The costume displays are the thing, though, and very tellingly placed. Apart from the Sacre room with its billowing green clouds and films of alternative choreographies, I especially liked the juxtaposition of Bakst's return to the 18th century in his costumes for the 1921 revival of The Sleeping Beauty with flower-power Larionov's designs for Chout, that Prokofiev masterpiece about the buffoon who outwitted seven other buffoons. Last June, I put up a few of Millicent Hodson's and Kenneth Archer's design-reconstructions, so it was very exciting indeed to see them realised in the shape of the fantastical attire for the buffoon and his wife here:
And what about Matisse's vision for Le chant du rossignol in 1920? Again, a costume ahead of its time.
I'll certainly be returning to examine at leisure. But yesterday morning, I spent some time in the V&A's theatre and performance rooms, a zone I'd never visited since the demise of the Covent Garden Theatre Museum. There was a splendid little exhibition of even more futuristic work by Edward Gordon Craig who created many of his strongest theatre designs in Moscow. And in the free selection of designs here, who could resist Dame Edna's Sydney Opera House hat for Ascot?
The London Design Festival is also pervading the already giddying spaces of the V&A this week. Nothing quite as comprehensively wonderful as last year's diplo-mate-encouraged In Praise of Shadows, and I didn't come across many of the buried objects, but on Sunday we did admire Michael Anastassiades's pendulum light amid the rococo of the Norfolk House Music Room.
And there's Oskar Zieta's Blow and Roll in the Madejski Garden.
I'd say I'm only touching the tip of the V&A iceberg. It's at least half a dozen major museums rolled into one. What a lifetime's resource to have on the doorstep.
Monday, 20 September 2010
Shouldn't be pre-empting my BBC Music Magazine review of the Met's 2003 Ariadne on DVD, but I did want to say how it made me do a volte-face on Deborah Voigt. I'd always thought of her as a useful dramatic-lyric with a rich middle range but a rather frayed sound up top. Not here, where she is as good a certain type of Ariadne - the statuesque post-Jessye Norman variety, rather than a psychologically interesting one a la Anne Schwanewilms or Petra Lang - as I've seen.
This was, of course, in the days of the big Prima Donna before all the kerfuffle about fitting into the little black dress demanded by Christof Loy's production at Covent Garden. She lost weight and came back four years later, supposedly in triumph (though at that stage I was too sniffy to go and see for myself). I guess just about every opera queen/lover has seen the very witty little film about the situation, but here it is for good measure.
Yes, Debbie does comedy. And she did it superbly back in 2003 throughout Strauss's desert island opera (my own, too, perhaps, when the singing's as good as this), looking like some Dickens comic caricature in the Prologue and rolling her Buzz Lightyear orbs at the brilliant business of Natalie Dessay's perfect (and perfectly human) Zerbinetta. I haven't encountered Voigt much since, but I have heard that the sound has lost its luminosity, which would raise the big question: would you rather see a fat lady sing superbly, or a thin lady more realistic on stage even if a bit less lustrous vocally? I used to think the latter, then I changed my mind when I saw Jane Eaglen's Tosca in her heyday - Robbie Coltrane in a hideous orange wig, but such sound, and such acting with the voice alone. For Ariadne c.2003, anyway, Voigt was ideal. And she always could act, and hold the stage, and make people laugh.
Another tenuous link, but since it's heading the Met's way, I should add a word or two about Des McAnuff's new ENO production of Gounod's Faust. My sharp-witted colleague Igor Toronyi-Lalic on The Arts Desk said it all for me: no point expending Relevance on an operatic treatment of the Faust story which has all the probing intelligence to be found in an episode of Sunset Beach. And it was a mess, and it didn't read, and mostly (apart from the video projections, especially the flowers, seen in the below production image by Catherine Ashmore) it looked horrid.
But it was well sung and conducted. The chorus, as good as the orchestra given Ed Gardner's inspiring lead, raised a few goosebumps. The heft that I noticed in Toby Spence's brilliant concert performance of Don Ottavio's 'Il mio tesoro' a few years ago continues, with all the tricky top notes ringingly intact. I liked Melody Moore's Marguerite, convincingly developing from chaste young girl to tragic single mum, and the sound is warm, if not quite blossoming above the stave. And Iain Patterson is a fine singer, though as a baritone miscast as Mephistopheles. Goddaughter Evi got it in a nutshell, too: wasn't the music all too pretty? Where was the demonism her mum so loved in the Berlioz? What did all that science stuff have to do with this opera? So we agreed: it was an OK evening, just not great.
Sunday, 19 September 2010
Looking for copyright permissions in trying to put up a few of James Ravilious's Devon photographs when I was writing about the Towner exhibition of his and his father's work, I started by contacting the Beaford Archive. Gracious permission came a week later, and then I realised that the chief image I wanted didn't come from that source. So I wrote to the James Ravilious website, and received a very personable reply from James's widow Robin.
She told me that the 'View towards Iddesleigh and Dartmoor' I'd loved so much was taken on a large plate negative. Reproduction on this small scale probably doesn't do the photograph many favours, but I include it with Robin's copyright all the same.
Robin added: 'This was very much a favourite view of James's, and one of the two images he was proudest of (the other being the one of Archie on the cover of An English Eye)'. That I included in the previous entry, but it's worth adding a few more photos (the Beaford Archive website has six galleries' worth). In addition to the lovely image of a farmer at his window above, here are Archie and Ivor Brock moving a sick ram at Dolton
and Archie out in bad weather again, with his dog.
Still on the English theme, I took goddaughter Evi to look at the galleries of the Imperial War Museum, since we were in the area. The current selection, Breakthrough, has one Eric Ravilious, the watercolour Room 29, Home Security Control Room painted a year before his plane was shot down on a mission to Iceland. But the real surprise was Paul Nash's strange depiction of the Battle of Britain, the 70th anniversary which is of course being commemorated right now. I have a feeling the meanders depicted might be those of Ravilious's beloved Cuckmere Haven, though obviously nothing is on a realistic scale.
In the room at the end, devoted to the work of the Royal Army Medical Corps, were strange and moving pastels by Austin Osman Spare, including a giant canvas with the half-destroyed Ypres Cloth Hall in the background. But what stunned me, as ever, was the masterpiece in the 'Hall of Remembrance', John Singer Sargent's Gassed, and the complementary scenes by Stanley Spencer and the Nash brothers.
Saturday, 18 September 2010
More immersion in delectable Leo Delibes after the Building a Library Coppelia, this time for the Royal Opera's website composer profiles, led me back to listen more carefully to the bits and bobs he wrote around the masterpieces. That's to say, his additions to Le Corsaire and his contributions to La Source - at least three unforgettable inspirations - as well as his incidental music for the 1882 revival of Victor Hugo's Le roi s'amuse (on its fiftieth anniversary, as the above playbill tells us).*
That's better know to us as Verdi's Rigoletto (Hugo's role, the jester Triboulet, has some of the hugest speeches in the repertoire, as Ken Stott so grippingly proved in Tony Harrison's brilliant adaptation for the National Theatre, The Prince's Play). The character Verdi presents to us as the Duke of Mantua was originally the French king Francois I (here seen in the famous portrait by Jean Clouet)
hence Delibes's little numbers in all sorts of period styles. He uses the same Pavane from Arbeau's Orchesographie to which Warlock later turned in his Capriol Suite, but the real delights are his own memorable and delicately-scored inventions. They include the opening Gaillarde with its sublimely simple trio section - inspiration, surely, for the beginning of Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin; the 'Scene du bouquet' with its melancholy, pizzicato-accompanied cello theme; the Madrigal, which could be an Elgar miniature - remember that Elgar loved and often played these French bon-bouches; and the famous Passepied. Here it is in the composer's own transcription as fleetly played by Ossip Gabrilowitsch.
The orchestral performances to hear are those of Sir Thomas Beecham, always a perfect encorist (lollypop man, as he preferred): indeed, to set alongside these, I find only Sibelius's 'Song I' from The Tempest to be of such comparable understated, temperature-lowering but heart-warming perfection.
A corny link here, but the other French delicacies I have in mind are comestibles, those exquisitely prepared by the chef of the French Ambassador's residence. The menu reads like a poem, and not all the words in this strange new vocabulary could be translated by the French diners.
The menu was for the farewell of the gorgeous Laurence Auer, a never-too-grande dame I'm proud to call my friend since she has so much warmth and naturalness that I find it hard to believe she carried out so hyper-efficiently all her duties as the head of the French Institute (well, natural warmth is not inimical to high-flying hard work). She now leaves to take up an even more elevated cultural role in Paris.
Sante, Laurence, and congratulations on your recent marriage to the charming Bertrand, who played on Tuesday in loving honour.
*Rumour, or maybe more if scholarship has moved on, would have us believe that he also wrote the ballet music for Gounod's Faust - and missing it tonight in ENO's so-so new production, it struck me that apart from the trio tune it's the only musical inspiration in the later stages of the opera worth its salt. And there's even a hint of sensuousness in some of the numbers - which Delibes could manage, and which I find not a trace of evidence elsewhere to the effect that Gounod could, too.