Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Brexit, EU, disinformation: three good reads

The first is by the supreme stylist of the Irish Times, Fintan O'Toole,

the second by the outstanding author of The Capital, enlarging upon his time in Brussels,

the third an alarming but by no means despairing sequel to the writer's chronicle of where it all began, during his time in Russia.

The rest of the pictures, for punctuation's sake, are drawn from our last big march in October, as jovial and inventive as the others; we missed the bout of rain, having retreated to the ICA for lunch, meeting the same folk with 'my' Tillmans T shirt as before - pictured below - after which I went down to Parliament Square and caught the last four speeches).

Meanwhile, to the books. All three give us a bigger perspective than you can glean from journal or newspaper articles. Fintan O'Toole traces the Brexit delusion to England's (note: not Great Britain's; O'Toole is careful to make the distinction) swivelling between abjection and grandiosity after the Second World War, the self-pity of winning the war but losing the peace (including resentment that Germany prospered thereafter).

 'In the English reactionary imagination dystopian fantasy was and is indistinguishable from reality', and O'Toole uses an address to the anti-European Tories of the Bruges group as one example.

The sleight of hand was not subtle: Hitler tried to unite Europe, so does the EU, therefor the EU is a Hitlerian project. But the lack of subtlety did not stop the trope being used in the Brexit campaign. 'Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this [unifying Europe], and it ends tragically. The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods,' Boris Johnson told the Daily Telegraph on 15 May 2016, a month before the Referendum.

O'Toole tracks Johnson's mendacity back to the beginning, too. It's why he was able to paint such a devastating portrait for the New York Review of Books, 'The Ham of Fate', last August. I learnt much more that was painful-funny here, including the absurd and slippery speech the person we must now know as Diana Ditch made for his selection as Tory candidate in the safe seat of Henley-on-Thames. All O'Toole has to do is quote the supposed sleight of hand with which he turns his selfish act of depriving his pregnant wife of toast in hospital into his attempt to buy some more, only to find that 'you can't pay for things on the NHS...we need to think of new ways of getting private money into the NHS'. Job done; Johnson replaced the retiring Michael Heseltine, irony of ironies (MH is our greatest Remain speechmaker, if you didn't know).

There's more, including some outrageous playing with facts about our not-so-easy-to-check medieval history. O'Toole refers to La Ditch's brand of absurd equations as 'Brexit camp...edgy clowning in which everything is at once very funny and highly sinister'. But I hope no-one's laughing now. Those who vote for this criminal liar, and they include Theresa May, happy to canvas for someone she has said has no 'moral integrity', have given up any moral pretence whatsoever.

It has to be admitted, though, that while Diana and co were playing with our future, successive governments did next to nothing to enlighten us about why the European Union matters. Which is why Robert Menasse's Enraged Citizens, European Peace and Democratic Deficits should be essential reading everywhere, not least in schools. It presents as a rather dry little handbook, but Menasse's style, as translated by Craig Decker, is anything but. Arriving in Brussels for his research period, he notes his objections to the project, and how pleasantly surprised he was at both the openness and the anything-but-faceless so-called bureaucracy. But while he praises the Parliament and the Commission, 'two supranational institutions, which are truly European in their aspirations and duties', Menasse is critical of the Council, 'an institution in which national interests, national sensitivities, national fictions, etc. are defended', thwarting 'logic and rationality in a wretched game of national affectations and so-called interests'. And the power of that Council has been strengthened, not weakened.

For whoever supports nationalism - 'because that's just the way people are' - will be swept away by nationalism, because in the European Union and the globalized world, national furore can never really be satisfied. And the rage will become extreme once people realize that the 'defence of national interests' was a fraud from the get-go. The only things being defended are the interests of the national political and economic elites.

Sound familiar? One of Menasse's solutions is for the EU to abandon nations in favour of regions, the only areas in which we're truly rooted. 'Europe, in point of fact, is a Europe of regions. The task of European politics should therefore be to systematically recognise and develop what Europe, in fact, already is'. And has already been acknowledged as such through the European grants to restore deprived areas like Sunderland and Cornwall (who collectively were too stupid to realise that where their government had deserted them, the EU stepped in). Cultural diversity must be celebrated, too, and yet the EU's cultural department is, in budgetary terms, the worst off. That has to change. And I think it already is changing. Let's hope against hope that little England will not be cut off from the move.

Peter Pomerantsev's Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, about his time in Russia, was a work of tragicomic despair. There's more hope about This Is Not Propaganda, interweaving the present information war with the tale of Pomerantsev's dissident parents, pursued by the KGB before they made a new life in this country, in that it cites the marvellous people around the world trying to fight misinformation and tyranny with their own tools - Srdja Popovic with his worldwide training courses, courageous Alberto Escorcia in Mexico, Babar Aliev in Eastern Ukraine, to name but three. Escorcia sums it all up when he defines the Internet as 'a great battle between love, interconnectedness on the one side and fear, hate, disjointedness on the other'. It seems as if the fear and hate are winning at the moment, but all is not lost.

And the UK's ties with the rest of Europe won't be broken, whatever happens. Recently took delivery of the latest Europe Day CD, and though it's a real shame that, in a convoluted chain of ever more surprising disingenuousness, Eldbjørg Hemsing refused permission for her brilliant part in the spectacular finale, Cristian Lolea's arrangement of Enescu's First Romanian Rhapsody, to appear, there's plenty of top-quality nourishment here.

Its sequel will be a 10th anniversary disc of highlights from the concerts across the years. So much to celebrate!

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Peace and space at the Alaverdi Monastery


Travelling to Georgia - something I've dreamt of and even semi-planned for years - and not going hiking in the high Caucasus is a bit like going to Switzerland and not walking in the Alps. Let me say that I was very fortunate to go at all this September, courtesy of the amazing Tsinandali Festival, and grateful that I could look out on those mountains, albeit in varying conditions, always grey, from my superb hotel room above the concert halls and the English park beyond, which Alexandre Dumas the Elder, visiting Prince Chavchavadze here in his summer mansion, described as 'the garden of Eden'.

Better still was the chance to swim, come rain or - no rain, in the pool on the roof terrace. No wild dipping to be had on this trip - the rivers were mostly dry anyway - but this was a splendid indulgence.

Concert and workshop schedules, plus work most hours for the first two days in between on some programme notes I needed to complete, were such that there was no chance to leave our oasis, but I was determined to get to the Alaverdi Monastery, some 25 km away on the Kakheti plain and just that bit closer to the mountains. The only way to do it was to ask if the driver taking me back to Tbilisi could make a detour, and amen, that was possible.

From the modern facilities opposite the monastery, I guess coachloads must come here. But my only companions were a very quiet group of Russian pilgrims and their driver, here talking to the watchman. It's a fully functioning monastery, so no fees but also very strict rules about decorum. Founded by Assyrian Father St Joseph, the present mighty Cathedral of St George, built from local travertine stone, dates back to the early 11th century, but has been much rebuilt following invasions and earthquakes. For over three centuries the 50 metre high dome was the highest in Georgia, and it's still awe-inspiring.

The defensive walls were added in the 18th century, the gateway in the next century; the most recent restoration of the complex was made in 2010. Some of the hives producing the celebrated Alaverdi honey under the Taplikatsi label are placed around the orchard-moat

and seem to be thriving.

The display vineyard within the walls has over 100 varieties of grape.

There's a solitary old olive tree, handsomely offset by the travertine south wall

and gravestones in front of the west entrance.

Whitewashed over by the Russians, some of the old frescoes have come to light, especially around the west door.

Above is the patron saint

and to the right St Peter - note also the bunch of grapes. Winemaking in Kakheti is ancient, and some of the kvevri or large terracotta pots used in  the process were discovered in a cellar here.

Within, all is peace - so much so that I got a bit teary, even though I know that the Georgian Orthodox Church is rigidly conservative and an impediment to civil liberties. Obviously no photos allowed, so just this one from the doorway gives a glimpse of the magnificent dome inside (alas, there are no postcards or a guidebook to show illustrations of the interior).

Further time spent lingering along the south wall

and out past the stream

where I was delighted to see the exquisitely coloured Eryngium I've tried - and failed - to grow in the back yard. I thought it was a marine plant, but the title of this hermaphroditic species tells the truth: Eryngium caucasicum.

The complimentary butterfly is, I think, only a Common blue (Polyomattus icarus), but still good to see in this context.

And the sun came out after many shades of grey and wet. I wish I'd engaged my very benign driver, who only spoke a few words of English, earlier in asking him to play some semi-traditional music he liked; we had a splendid selection for the last 45 minutes of the journey. Before that, he kindly offered to stop at the top of the Gombori Pass - yes, it looks like Box Hill in Surrey but 1620m is still something -

which is approached by splendid woods on the Kakheti side and remains fairly lush on the summit.

Hives were plentiful here, too, guarded by the honeysellers who would seem to be camping up here for the peak gathering season.

My alternative to Alaverdi would have been to spend more time in Tbilisi, but I hope I'll be coming back, and I had three hours on the Sunday morning before leaving for Tsinandali. After a Saturday flying via Istanbul, I was too knackered to get up early as friend Cally had suggested to go out and catch the church singing, and it was bucketing with rain, which, once glimpsed, sent me back to bed until 10am. Even so, I had a good expedition. I'd hoped to get to the botanical gardens where swallowtail butterflies were promised, but that proved too far once I'd made an unintended detour below the Kashveti Church

where people were pouring out after the big service. Eventually I found my way inside the old town, which deserved much more time than I had. Disused churches falling apart, but in a very picturesque way,

and green-clad buildings in various stages of decrepitude

including this one, beyond the gate of which - before I snapped this photo - an old lady feeding a kitten was pure Dutch genre painting,

run parallel to other streets fully restored for the tourist route, though it's lovely to see the stray dogs, all tagged with yellow discs to show they've had their injections etc, very much tended to by the locals.

Most suggestive of the churches is surely the Anchiskhati - I was told I should have caught the choir here, Tbilisi's best

while the Sioni Cathedral is well looked after

with a replica of the highly-venerated St Nino's Cross (I think) in the courtyard

and the neoclassical edifice over the way where Griboyedov married Prince Chavchavadze's daughter Nino (I've written briefly about the link on the Tsinandali piece).

Tbilisi is an exhilarating mix of old and new - the latter mostly tacky, as this seems like Potterville Central with its abundance of casinos -

but still I can't wait to return, and then head up to Svaneti. Very regretfully, I had to turn down an offer of a trip to Armenia this month, simply because the death of the great Kancheli meant I would have felt duty bound to attend the event celebrating him in a contemporary festival on the Sunday, and couldn't have got back in time for my Monday opera class. And anyway, GOT to stop flying everywhere.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Handel's Roman romp

Let's be honest, I was wary of devoting even three classes, rather than the usual five, of my Opera in Depth class to Handel's Agrippina. Could I do much more than just play various performances of the arias, touch on the loosely-adapted history? Would I find a good version on film? The answer to both questions, happily, was a , certo.

You can't help regretting the sometimes lumbering succession of arias in later Handel operas compared to the dramatic speed and agility with which, for instance, he deals with Agrippina's manipulation of the crowds in Act One or the swift reversal in Ottone's fortunes on the Capitol in Act Two (those three ariettas, albeit called arias, in which the two leading ladies and Nerone in quick succession kick him when he's down, one of the best things about Barrie Kosky's hit and miss Royal Opera production, pictured up top by Bill Cooper with Joyce DiDonato in the title role). This is true music-theatre, partly thanks to Cardinal Grimani's agile libretto: closer to L'incoronazione di Poppea than to a later Handel opera like Ariodante.

Filling its energy rather than overdoing it like Kosky is Robert Carsen's ever-stylish production for the Theater an der Wien (pictured second down), and having got hold of that on DVD I decided in the second class that we'd actually have four, and trim Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice back by one (making four, four and two - on Weill's Der Silbersee - in a rather unusual term). For screening, I took sequences from each act in the Carsen production - Agrippina's deception of Poppea with Claudius's first visit to the younger woman's bedchamber (Patricia Bardon and Danielle de Niese, amazingly good, Mika Kares as a Berlusconi emperor, pictured below); the desertion of Ottone (countertenor Filippo Mineccia, new to me, is well complemented by Jake Arditt's well-acted, kid-psycho Nero); and the bedroom farce of Act 3. Never thought I'd find myself objecting to cuts and re-ordering, but I missed the arias Carsen axes, and some of the dramatic sequencing.

Aria-wise, there was one top recording to use as a benchmark, orchestrally the liveliest of the lot from John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque soloists -

and a good chance to catch great Handel voices, among them Ann Hallenberg, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Catherine Robbin (whatever happened to her?), Veronique Gens and Philippe Jaroussky. Most interesting to me were the comparisons to be made with Handel's later adaptations of many of the arias, already drawn from his many Italian cantatas. For these, I'm immensely grateful to Winton Dean and John Merrill Knapp in Handel's Operas 1704-26 (Oxford), providing a table at the back showing just what was re-used where. Admittedly this only got me as far as Rodelinda, but I was already tying myself in knots searching for correspondences. Three are particularly interesting, only one of them, I think, as successful as the original: Agrippina's 'Alma mia', splendid in itself - this is Anna Bonitatibus, vocally splendid at the Grange Festival, though the orchestral support is not ideally well sprung -

only needs a couple of notes turning around as Armida's 'Molto voglio' in Rinaldo (Carsen's durable Glyndebourne schoolroom production, with Brenda Rae - a marvellous Lulu at ENO).

Postscript: listening around, as I often do when I don't want to let a subject go, I found an old LP with Janet Baker singing two of Handel's Italian cantatas, a labour of love between her and the late Raymond Leppard conducting the English Chamber Orchestra. Contrary to his assertion that 'Ah! crudel, nel pianto mio' 'was probably composed in England towards the end of Handel's life', it's one of the many Rome works dating from 1707. And here, in the extended Sinfonia which has very little to do, mood wise, with what follows, is what can safely be said to be the first version of the oboe tune used in the two arias above. With apologies for the artwork, here's that performance on YouTube.

Ottone's aria which marks the high expressive point and lowest ebb of fortune in Agrippina's Act Two, 'Voi che udite', loses the emotional twist of the first oboe so important throughout the opera (was there a master exponent in Venice?) and some of its depth as Teofane's 'Affanni del pensier' in Ottone; while Claudio's 'Io di Roma' - magnificently rethought as a moment where everything turns nasty for Poppea in Carsen's production - is just the right length, but becomes over-extended as Polyphemus's 'Cease to beauty' in Acis and Galatea. Most surprising is that the splendid and seriously underrated chorus-for-the-principals 'Di timpani e trombe' becomes in part Argante's utterly memorable 'Sibillar gli angui d'Aletto' in Rinaldo (so well sung by Gerald Finley on the Hogwood recording).

There's more, but I mustn't regurgitate everything the students got to hear. Gluck should be a very different 18th century experience. Delighted that Ian Page of Classical Opera, whose performance of the trimmed Orfeo for ducal nuptials was fascinating to hear, and Iestyn Davies - Ottone in the Royal Opera Agrippina (pictured above with the equally fabulous Lucy Crowe ar Covent Garden) and Orfeo in a new recording of the Gluck - will be our very special guests on two of the Mondays.