Thursday, 6 December 2012

From Bronze to Carmen

It was one of those embarrassingly rich London days, preceded by a convivial evening (drinks at the Garrick, the perfect meal at Terroirs). Our dear friend and terrific artist Ruth Addinall had come down from Edinburgh to see us and catch the Royal Academy’s Bronze exhibition before it closes on Sunday. So I took most of Tuesday off and accompanied her around town. The exhibition at  the RA and the opera at the Coliseum were our two mainstays, though the unplanned interludes turned out to be fun – Ruthie trying on trousers and jumpers, and I searching in vain for more bright blue moleskins, in Cording’s, and snatching a falafel in Gaby’s (reprieved, it seems, from its threatened demise).

Sculptor Jon Edgar, whom we've come to know through Ruth, joined us for the exhibition, and it was good to have his expert knowledge, though once past the first big room we went our separate ways. The keynote piece at the start would be worth the price of the admission alone. In the late 1990s, Sicilian fisherman dredged up first a leg and, a year later, the torso of what is known as the Dancing Satyr (though as Bryan Sewell points out, since the foot is not a goat’s hoof it is much more likely a human follower of Dionysus). It would be exciting to accept the attribution to Praxiteles and date it to the fourth century BC, though probably it's Hellenistic. The flowing-haired beauty is skilfully lit and comes alive in his celebration from every angle you look.

Follow that? Well, the first room did pretty well with the human figure, mixing up centuries and races with delicious abandon. A noble Roman towers over a Nigerian bowman. A stick-thin figure looks like a Giacometti; it turns out to be an Etruscan votive figure from the second century BC. The giant ensemble of Rustici’s John the Baptist preaching to a Levite and a Pharisee stands at the end of the room alongside a cast of Cellini’s Perseus, their monumentality gently mocked by Donatello’s tiny Putto with Tambourine.

To the left of the big saloon is a crystal-clear exposition of the process from wax model to treated bronze (I won’t attempt to précis the technique); to the right the exhibition continues with a slight diminishing of interest in the subject matter, from animals to functional objects, though the Etruscan Chimera of Arezzo is a fabulous sight

and it’s fun to have a Louise Bourgeois spider (IV)on the wall.

In between the feral animate and the inanimate is a room of group figures, again ranging from the monumental to a real miniature beauty, Riccio’s tender Satyr and Satyress. The scope expands to early wonders like the 14th century BC Chariot of the Sun from Denmark, Chola bronzes and Buddhist figures. Those look especially handsome in the Gods and Goddesses room, eastern ascetics sitting alongside elegant Renaissance divinities; en route, the reliefs section has Adriaen de Vries’s magnificent muscled blacksmiths at work in Vulcan’s forge.

The last room rises to the heights again with heads of all ages. I’m at one with Ruth and J in adoring the Ife brass Head with Crown, its fascination compounded by striated lines down the face.

Hard to say which object to take away, this or the Dancing Satyr – probably the latter,  if I’m to be true to myself and let an ideal of male beauty take the palm.

So onwards, eventually, to the Coli. Calixto Bieito’s production of Carmen, which had quite a few attractive masculine torsos on show, arrives at English National Opera bronzed and polished after ten years doing the rounds. I enjoyed it far, far more than I expected after the aimless shenanigans of his Don Giovanni – I was bored rather than shocked by the mess he made of the Act One Finale – and his Ballo in maschera, which started well but suffered from the law of diminishing returns in its random sexual violence. There was probably too much not terribly convincing prodding and fondling in the first half of this Carmen, a few non-readable ideas (the man in white at the start, for instance – fateful controller? He turned out to be Lillas Pastia, king of the gypsies, but I wouldn’t have known that without reading the programme). Nor was Bieito's avowed period, Franco's Spain in the late 1970s, evoked by the action as far as I could see.

Acts Three and Four, though, were much the best I’ve seen in the opera house (Ruxandra Donose as Carmen and Adam Diegel as Don José in both the above pictures). The five Mercedes – six, as has been often pointed out, if you include Carmen’s girl-friend and add the French accents – were terrific props to animate a scene where all you normally get is brooding gypsies hunkering on a dimly lit stage. And the silhouette bull sign looked good at the back of Alfons Flores’s often unencumbered arena (huge variety of lighting, too, from Bruno Poet).

The act also contained the two musical highlights: Donose, possessed of a beautiful if not tonally very varied mezzo instrument she takes some time to engage, rose to the most dignified Card Scene aria I’ve heard. Then there was Elizabeth Llewellyn’s powerful Micaela, hints of Leontyne Price honey at the top of the voice. Shame her characterization was ill defined by Bieito – first she’s too forward with José in Act One, then too timid, and the fuck-you gesture to Carmen as she goes off with him to the supposedly dying mother didn’t work.

Musically, there was good co-ordination between soloists, chorus and orchestra. On Tuesday night the conductor was ENO Head of Music Martin Fitzpatrick. I’d hazard a guess that he pulled out more stops than Ryan Wigglesworth, responsible for the worst conducted concert I’ve heard in a long time (a couple of years back with the BBC Symphony Orchestra). But the less accomplished of the two Wigglesworths – no way to be confused with the masterly Mark – may have improved since then.

Hunky Duncan Rock’s Corporal Morales (pictured above with the fabulous Llewellyn) and Leigh Melrose’s slightly seedy bullfighter Escamillo should probably have swapped roles, since Rock’s voice is more ample; but Melrose is an excellent musician and played with the phrases rather well. American tenor Diegel as Don José has a slightly nervy, raw sound which came into its own for the nailbiting final duet, though before that he sang flat too often for comfort and didn't unbend enough for the physical violence. Promising sounds came from the Mercédès, mezzo Madeleine Shaw. As with Bronze, Sunday is the last day to catch the show, though no doubt it will be back for a good many seasons: I'm glad that ENO has at last hit on a lively production for a core component of its more pack-em-in rep.

My apprehension about going to see it at all was based on how spoiled we’d been throughout the seven glorious Opera in Focus classes we spent on Carmen at the City Lit. It’s a hell of a role to pitch at the right level between sex and dignity. On disc the voice can do it alone: of the Habaneras we compared – from Supervia, Dusolina Giannini, Troyanos, Obraztsova, Moffo, Callas, de los Angeles  and a young Marilyn Horne dubbing Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones – de los Angeles (pictured below) and Moffo were the most liked by the students, Giannini the least, while Troyanos tended to steal the show in the Seguidille and the Card Scene.

Yet having never seen a totally convincing Carmen on stage, I and the students were knocked for six by Elina Garanca in the DVD of Richard Eyre’s Metropolitan Opera production. You know what it feels like when the ideal for a role pops up once in a lifetime – Gheorghiu in her first Covent Garden Traviata, Bryn as Hans Sachs? Garanca is in that league. Though she’s a natural blonde, she looks utterly convincing all dusked up. The voice is vibrant and utterly consistent from top to bottom of the register – actually in that respect the same could be said of Donose – and as sexual predator she’s dangerous, wild and funny without being tarty. There’s real electricity between her and Alagna’s compelling José. Judge for yourselves in the final scene, though do try to get to see the characterization as a whole.

Credits: all ENO Carmen photographs by Alastair Muir

Bronze images kindly supplied by the Royal Academy (except for the top picture which is mine) with the following credit details:

Dancing Satyr, Greek, Hellenistic perios, 3rd - 2nd centuries BC Museo del Satiro, Church of Sant'Egidio, Mazaro del Vallo
Photo Sicily, Regione Siciliana - Assessorato Regionale dei Beni Culturali e dell'identita Siciliana/© 2012. Photo Scala, Florence

Donatello, Putto with Tambourine, 1429
© Staaliche Museen zu Berlin - Preussicher Kulturbesitz, Skulpturensammlung und Museum fur Byzantische Kunst, J P Anders, Berlin

Chimera of Arezzo, Etruscan, c. 400 BC
Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Toscana
Photo Antonio Quattrone, Florence

Louise Bourgeois, Spider IV, 1996
The Easton Foundation, courtesy Hauser & Wirth and Cheim & Read
Photo Peter Bellamy/ © Louise Bourgeois Trust

Adriaen de Vries, Forge of Vulcan, 1611
Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich
Photo © Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Walter Haberland

Head with Crown, Nigeria, Ife, 14th - early 15th centuries
National Museum, Lagos, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria
©  2012. Photo Scala, Florence


Laurent said...

I was wondering how you had gotten the photos of the Bronze exhibition. I wish I could have taken some photos.

David said...

You saw the credits, I assume? Only under the aegis of the RA until the exhibition closes on Sunday. I was lucky to have had the permission.

Jolly glad no-one tried to take photos when I was there - strictly verboten, of course.

Susan Scheid said...

The bronzes are exquisite—what a wonderful concept for an exhibit, and clearly wonderfully realized. If I were allowed to take one home of those you show, I think it might be the Etruscan Chimera of Arezzo. Fabulous sight, indeed. As for the opera segment of your program, a production of Carmen was the first opera I ever saw live, as it happens. This week, I saw a production of Don Giovanni (my second in this year’s series) and, though I was reminded of the loveliness of Mozart’s music, this production was certainly not anything to write home about. Perhaps the most peculiar moment was the Don’s descent into hell. Live flames onstage! Watch to see if the opera house goes up in flames as well! Cheap thrills! Belonged in one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway extravaganzas (I was persuaded by a friend who extolled it to go to Phantom of the Opera. Once. Never again.)

Colin Dunn said...

Thank you for such wonderful reviews, David. Bronze is an exhibition that I've been to twice and am hoping to go again before it closes. I agree with you: the first room (that octagonal rotunda) is so spellbinding and moving that it's hard to leave it because one believes that everything else will just be a flop. Far from it, of course. The Pompeiian senators, the extraordinary Etruscan figure juxtaposed with Giacommeti (doing the same thing aesthetically), the wondrous figure of blessed Virgin from Killin Parish Church in Scotland (which was also in the 1900 exhibition at the RA twelve years ago), and the vast figures at the far end ... all deeply impressive and moving, and worthy of study.

For me the exhibition ended with a cry and a laugh. The former was realising that the "shouting" head of a man, used in the publicity material, is actually a man screaming in Hell. The latter was the bust of an eighteenth century Swedish king, with lowered eyelids partly covering staring (possibly inebriate) eyes. He'd had more than a few elegant sufficiencies in his time, and it showed. Of course, I agree with you again - the head from Ife is wonderful, and utterly beguiling in its beauty.

I must find that DVD of Carmen from the Met. Another thing to enjoy...

David Damant said...

Who was it wrote the brilliant and true comment that "Love is a sculptor greater than Praxiteles" ?

David Damant said...

In the context of real flames on stage, when I was in Vienna once the performance of Wozzeck had to be arrested in mid show, as the staging caught fire. As we trailed out I noticed that the day before the opera had been Gotterdammerung. What if the fire had broken out during the fall of Valhalla? "Ah, sehr realistisch! " they would have said, before being consumed in the flames

David said...

Sue - Zambello's banal and tacky-to-look-at Royal Opera production also had flames (you could feel the heat from some way off). Re Phantom, all I needed to know was that some over-emoting show singer being played in the HMV Shop made me laugh so much I had to ask the shop attendant who it was - Michael Crawford as the Phantom. So it's not just snobbery that stops me going to ALW musicals.

Colin - delighted to see you here again and have your perspective: I must admit I missed the Virgin of Killin. BTW our National Gallery restorer friend thinks the room explaining the techniques is superb. Hope you get to see it again.

David - 1) who else but your idol P G Wodehouse? 2)real Flames are a bit panto, aren't they? I'd rather it was done with lighting and set design.

David Damant said...

Yes the statement that Love is a sculptor greater than Praxiletes is in the PGW story about the only non-beautiful girl that was ever to appear before the Knights of the Round Table. But I have always thought it was a quotation?

David Damant said...

If you dip into Sorokin's "Social and Cultural Dynamics", or his "Dynamic Forces of Creative Altruism" - the (large) volumes of which are in every home - you will see his hypothesis that art begins by being focused on an idea ( such as religion) and therefore constrained ( such as early Icons). But then the beauty of the world and the marvel of man's place in it have their effect and the result is a balance of the intellect and sensuality which produces the highest art ( for example the Renaissance)- which he calls Idealistic, before the decay sets in following the too great influence of sensuality ( late Victorian culture). The Ife Head with Crown is a clear example of Idealistic art ( though one suspects the wearing of the crown to be a tough cookie). A powerful recommendation for African culture

David said...

That's by and large borne out by the show, though different cultures advance/decay at different rates (there are astonishing Chola and Buddhist works from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though essentially they're building on what went before).

And there's always Rodin, Brancusi and Picasso to provide exceptions to the rule.

David Damant said...

The cultural cycles are indeed not without overlaps etc. Nevertheless after the 19th century decline into sensuality and sentimentality( Pre-Raphaelites, The Lost Chord etc), Sorokin argued that people become dissatisfied,,,,,,but no one knows what the fundamental ideas should really be. So whereas when moving from ideas such as religion through the periods of balance between the ideas and worldly inputs there is an agreed set of ideas, after the reaction against the sensate period there is no concept of where we are going - and therefore chaos. The career of Picasso perfectly exemplifies that chaos. "When I was young I painted like Raphael " he said and, dissatisfied, he went to cubism etc etc seeking a new set of principles. Throughout the 20th Century this chaos continued and those who attacked Picasso as not painting realistic art ( such as Munnings in 1946) just did not understand. The interesting question is whether we are now arriving at a new consensus. I feel that we are in music, but I am not sure.

Susan Scheid said...

OK, so now I've just wandered in to a post-graduate course on cultural history and theory. But before we get to that, had to look up "panto," and finally found a definition that fit: "a peculiarly British tradition of winter musical comedy theater." Yup, that's exactly what I and my friend thought of the flames at the opera (although for the Met’s Götterdämmerung, some might find live flames an improvement . . . ) Ah, well. Why DO they think they need to do this (no need to answer, I suspect I can guess)?

I am fascinated by David D's mini-course in cultural history, and particularly his closing comment: "The interesting question is whether we are now arriving at a new consensus. I feel that we are in music, but I am not sure."

I hope he or you or someone here will speak to that further. I'm sitting here trying to put together a 2012 list of music for a year-end blog post and can't even come to a consensus with myself, so of course I'm dying to know, what might the consensus be?

David said...

Sue, do you remember panto enlightenment this time last year, via the Dame Edna Dick Whittington which I loved so much? Canadian blogger pal Willym is so keen on the genre, and the housewife superstar of Moonie Ponds, that he came over specially to see it.

On which note, I may be repeating myself, but I love the retort of pantomime dame (and all round great actor) Desmond Barritt (sp?) when faced with a stony audience: 'Oh come on, this is panto, not Pinter!'

Isn't the consensus now that anything goes? I look forward to your little list.

Susan Scheid said...

With your prompt (I grow old, I grow old, though I know it's no excuse . . .), I do indeed remember that—not to mention the "panto, not Pinter." I suspect I looked "panto" up then, too, and have since forgot. Really pathetic. That aside, a wonderfully witty line, and probably apt for much of what goes on in life.

(As for my little list, after two days hard at it, I have settled on one. I just have to sit on my hands when I think, but what about this? And what about this? I'm so glad I’m not required to do this to for a living. For one, I can't possibly stick to what's come out in 2012. There is too much I didn't know and must celebrate having come to know to be confined to that.)

Meanwhile, I have been thinking of you and what you've taught me today in particular, which had much to do with informing my comment on this article: here. The Juilliard Journal has requested permission to print the comment in its hard copy journal, too. Of course I said yes. (I hasten to say that you are NOT in any way responsible for what I've written, though I do wonder what you might think.)

David said...

Good for you. The idea of amplifying orchestras more than discreetly - which I understand is done for acoustic purposes in some of our halls - fills me with horror. As Stenz says in the Arts Desk interview I put up at the weekend, places like the Albert Hall are most magical when you're drawn in to listen to a handful of players.

And the sound levels of the pre-recorded orchestra for the Bourne Cinderella were horrific. I was told by Bourne's pals that he likes the pumped-up volume, and more important that young audiences expect it. The answer to which of course is don't pander to them, open them up to realistic levels. At least the Beauty sound was better.

Susan Scheid said...

Thanks for noting the Stenz Q&A, definitely on point, and also makes clear how much these issues need to be in the thinking of the conductor. I've been persuaded, in debating this issue with some good music friends here, that some halls need a bit of help, though as you say, "discreetly." But I'm with you, the emphasis on making it louder as a general premise seems very wrong-headed to me.

David Damant said...

I think that it may be true that anything goes nowadays, at least in sophisticated circles, but "anything goes" can mean that nothing is rejected, and this openness to experiment (etc) is of itself valuable. But "anything goes" may not mean that everything is seen as intrinsically valuable, as would be the case if there was a wide consensus as to what was intrinsically valuable. My feeling is that such a consensus may be forming.