Friday 27 June 2008

From Oklahoma to Turangalila

Only in London, I'd guess, could you leap within an hour from a 'Thursday pops' concert in a classical Greek setting to a complete performance of Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony. As for the Messiaen, I doubt if I'll be doing it again: Neeme Jarvi, stepping in (which is the reason I went, as he's my hero) for an unwell Mariss Jansons with the Royal Concertgebouw at the Barbican, had the right idea, which was to keep it all as speedy, light and clear as possible. Jean-Yves Thibaudet is at his slick best in this 'lurex music' (as my pal Ed Seckerson unforgettably labelled it), and you can always depend on my old friend Cynthia Millar for some luscious swoops on the ondes martenot.

Yet what does it all amount to? It's a fascinating score to read, but easily three movements too long, and the effect is of surface. Celia Ballantyne of Harmonia Mundi was a bit startled when I said it was 'light music', but here's the paradox: an hour earlier, I had been more touched by a BBC performance of Sullivan's Iolanthe Overture. I reasoned you could achieve deeper effects with a genuinely inspired sentimental melody than with a vast orchestra writhing in erotic agony and ecstasy.

Now the context of the Iolanthe, as you may have gathered from the first photo, was a unique one in my experience. When I met with Janet Obi-Keller of the City Lit and Ann McKay and Alison Walker from the BBC Symphony Orchestra last week to discuss next academic year's course, Ann and Alison flagged up the Proms publicity stunt 'Out and About', and I was very curious to see what they'd get up to in the British Museum (other venues yesterday included St Pancras Station and Habitat on Oxford Street). I was directed to the 'Elgin Saloon', where beneath those glorious if mutilated figures from the pediment of the Parthenon were many familiar faces from the BBCSO masquerading as the 'BBC Light Orchestra' under John Wilson, doing their best in the bathroom acoustics with the 'Westminster Waltz'.

Then we had a splendid Oklahoma Overture - 'Jud Fry is dead' sounded especially menacing in its monumental context - and as I left for the Barbican, Coates's 'By the Sleepy Lagoon' (the Desert Island Discs theme) was bringing smiles to the audience. Alas, I never found out what other parts of the museum were going to play host to more BBC ensembles.

It's been a 'lite'ish week, necessary to offset all those obsessive Rachmaninov Etudes-Tableaux recordings. Bernstein's Candide at ENO turned out to be no better than I've found it on three other occasions: a few hit songs, ambitious idea in adapting Voltaire going horribly wrong and awful half-hours of nothingness (how do you turn so sharp and short a pamphlet into a real Titanic of a musical?) I don't think, however, that the production was at fault. Robert Carsen's instinct for beautifully lit stage pictures meant that there was luxury - this being a co-production with Paris and Milan - without overload, and I thought the 50s America transplant worked for the most part, though it resulted in some geographical confusion and an over-larded McCarthyan auto da fe. The end is chilling, if obvious: while the assembled company belt out the optimism of making their gardens grow, a big screen projects images of our crumbling planet. The telly is the overriding metaphor, screening the 'Volt-Air' channel - here, in the first of three production shots by Catherine Ashmore, is ever-improving lyric tenor Toby Spence as Candide in an especially desolate moment...

...while Cunegonde as Marilyn was a conceit that went on a bit, but meant that 'Glitter and be gay' became 'Diamonds are a girl's best friend':

Miking did coloratura soubrette Anna Christy few favours, and generally showbiz was in short supply: I know American accents are difficult, but Bonny Bottone's voice coach had not got good results. Towering charisma came from our Beverley Klein, the best Mrs Lovett I've ever seen and stealing every scene here as the monopygous Old Lady, and from Alex Jennings, our actor with the biggest and most operatic vocal range. He trebled effortlessly as a properly period Voltaire, a Tom Lehrerish Pangloss and a street-sweeper Martin, Pangloss's pessimistic double (difficult scene to bring off, but it half worked here).

How sad to think that Carsen's brilliant idea of having the utterly superfluous five rulers as politicians of the present - or, in two cases, very recent past - didn't go down well in Italy (apparently they resented that clown Berlusconi in tricolore trunks). What else could possibly work as well as this?

Yes, that was funny. But Bernstein's ambition to do G&S doesn't often work: it's all too knowing, and goes on a lot longer than the Victorian geniuses ever did. Give me the fresher spirits of On the Town any day.

Mention of G&S does allow me to take centre stage for a bit. On Friday, at the cabaret launch of St Andrew's mini music festival, I reprised the Lord Chancellor's Nightmare Song from Iolanthe. How strange to be doing it in front of the high altar (I crossed myself when the darkness has passed towards the end). I didn't have the full weaponry I'd enjoyed at Charleston some years ago (sight gag courtesy of Richard Jones's production of The Queen of Spades):

But I did keep the nightcap and bedshirt. Here I am without the nightcap and with the leading light of St Andrew's powerhouse team, Father Martin Eastwood:

Alas, tied down as I was to the Building a Library script most of the weekend, I missed several other events and couldn't make the choir rehearsal for the Festival Evensong. But I went to it, and heard Father Martin's bold introit as well as the three commissioned works, of which I liked the 'Nunc Dimittis' of Peter Aston's 'St Andrew's Service' with its pastoral decoration from the organ and Humphrey Clucas's sweet setting of the Lord's Prayer. The Bishop of London gave a theatrical but still somehow heartfelt hymn of praise to the power of music in his sermon. More of the same will certainly be forthcoming at St Andrew's and I hope they'll welcome 'my' quartet from the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Elgar and Vaughan Williams.

Saturday 21 June 2008

Pilgrim, 46, seeks Delectable Mountains

Any excuse, I know, to post yet another shot of my own delectable mountains, the Maiella range of Italy's central Abruzzo. Yet they did come vividly to mind at a point in Thursday's dress rehearsal of Vaughan Williams's The Pilgrim's Progress. I'd already been shedding tears for almost as long as I once did in Act 3 of Meistersinger (Norman Bailey as Hans Sachs). Then along come the Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains, who tell our pilgrim 'here the air is very sweet and pleasant, here you shall hear continually the singing of birds and shall see every day flowers appear in the land.' The Maiella moment was stretched to breaking point when a bird (the flawless Sarah Tynan) piped up with 'the Lord's my Shepherd'. Evidently VW was not averse to lying around on hillsides, either, as this 1929 photograph reproduced in the Proms/all-about-VW issue of the BBC Music Magazine goes to show:

Yes, the opera is a masterpiece of its kind, so long as you succumb to VW's protracted spiritual mode (which I certainly did in the astonishing Passion sequence and the fourth act). What heightened my emotions that morning, though, was a chain of events determined to remind me of time passing. I was 46 on Sunday - consort says 'four to six' - and I, as well as he, have been constantly meeting with faces from the past. The Philharmonia production was staged by David Edwards, who directed us in the not-so-great Poisoned Kiss 21 years ago, and the same designer who'd made such a thing of beauty out of the Cendrillon production the year before that, Colin Mayes, was again at work on the costumes. Margaret Gibbs, our MD, was in the audience, too, and I went with a friend made in those far-off days, Isabel, having met up with another, Claire Suthren, at my birthday picnic in Chelsea Physic Garden on Sunday.

Eliding what guests unfamiliar with this wonder had to say about it, we now dub it 'the psychic garden of Eden'. It was, in short, a very happy afternoon, and I was more than happy to take posses of kids round and round the pocket-handkerchief garden to look for newts, dragonflies, the famous cork tree, venus flytraps and more echiums to complement the Glyndebourne display last week (see below). Here are Claire and her middle offspring, Rowan, admiring them:

A little more now, though, on Pilgrim. My VW discovery, like that of so many others this year, sweeps on apace. Although I usually have problems with Hickox and his rhythms, I thought he had real feeling for the work. The cast could not have been stronger: Roddy Williams hits the blog for the second time in recent months with a truly great performance, and a demeanour that tells you he has to be a nice person. There were three leading, if cathedral-y, tenors - Andrew Kennedy, James Gilchrist and Timothy Robinson - and a hair-raising cameo from Gidon Saks as Lord Hate-Good. Mezzo Andrea Baker, a singer I've not come across before, stood out with a voice and acting of real individuality. As for the production, David adopted the maxim of 'less is more', avoided tweeness with certain Indian garments and hit the nail on the head, so to speak, in the very painful Vanity Fair/Passion sequence (tough music here, as in the Sixth Symphony). The Times photographer won't release her shots yet, so in the meantime I took the liberty of a stage view at Sadler's Wells after the rehearsal, as Hickox and Roddy Williams were about to go over a few points. The plywood panels, complementing the rather stark interior of Sadler's Wells rather well, were an inspired idea.

It was a perfect June day. Afterwards, drying our eyes, Isabel and I walked away from the theatre and came across a hand-made sign advertising 'Dino's Italian bar and pizzeria - outside garden'. So, taking a risk on food (we only wanted a snack), we plumped for the garden. This place in St John Street, the windy road leading down eventually to Smithfield Meat Market, is a gem.

The owner has only recently extended his premises to run to grub - OK, so it's not gourmet cuisine, but our pizzas were just fine - and there's a yard with bright Italian murals where we sat being regaled - and quite happily - with Dean Martin and Italian 50s hits. And so from monte to mare (or almost).

What a great day out in the middle of my labours over the latest Radio 3 Building a Library. I've now listened to every note of my eighteen and a half versions of Rachmaninov's Op. 39 Etudes Tableaux; but I have to keep my mouth shut on the choices until 5 July, the broadcast date.

Wednesday 18 June 2008

I say baton, he says toothpick

Having expected a polar-opposite experience between Gergiev's Mahler 9 at the Barbican the week before last and Haitink's Strauss on Sunday - both with the London Symphony Orchestra - I hung fire exploding about the 'mangy maestro' with the toothpick, as our uneven Ossetian has been so rudely dubbed (though he might equally well, on a good night, be called a charismatic magician of creative gestures).

Well, the near-conclusion of Gergiev's Mahler cycle was infuriating. I've missed all too many either through illness in the early part of the year or through disinclination to hear another 2 or 3 after several amazing live performances from other sources. What changed my mind about making the effort to catch the Ninth was this radical reinterpretation of the First on the LSO Live label:

I won't repeat myself about that - you'll soon be able to read the review in the Proms issue of the BBC Music Magazine - but so alive was it that I thought I'd be mad to miss the last Barbican concert in the series (the Eighth in St Paul's is not an option, given the dire acoustics for such a work). The June concert started with the Adagio from the Tenth, for which I'd written the note, and it was both appropriately beautiful from the strings and ear-splittingly frightening come the big dissonance at the climax. But the Ninth was simply horrible: over-urgent, superficial, played extremely well but without much feeling for what lies beneath. You can't wing a work like this on little preparation and the inspiration of the moment. My heart still remains with Belohlavek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the start of their cycle, which has been much more sensibly paced (one symphony per season). Gergiev is inspirational at his best, but he needs time to think and breathe. I suppose we should be reassured, at least, by the fact that his thoughts did not seem to be much on the hereafter.

And yes, the contrast with Haitink could not have been greater: effortless music-making in Mozart's Symphony No. 25, de luxe and even profound lining for the ever-poised and long-breathed Dame Felicity Lott in Strauss songs. But as Heldenleben winged its noisy way, I felt I could have done with a bit of Gergiev panache; if not taken to extremes, the more aggressive parts of this mock-epic seem simply banal. Haitink came into his masterly own, as predicted, in the 'Works of Peace' and the hero's withdrawal.

More of a useful polarity, perhaps, is between Gergiev at the LSO - unpredictable, exciting, edge-of-seat music-making that can disappoint - and Jurowski at the London Philharmonic - always immaculately prepared, intensely musical but just once in a while a little reined-in. His Glyndebourne Betrothal in a Monastery whizzes past with incredible detail and ensemble-work, but perhaps not enough of the love Gergiev displays for the young couples' moonstruck music. Anyway, I'm mighty glad Glyndebourne chose this as one of the first two releases from their archive:

More on that in the July BBC Music Magazine, which is a bit of a Jurowski love-in. But I'm awestruck by the man and his breadth of knowledge. I've never had a happier time on the lecturing circuit than the Betrothal study day back in May 2006. Here's a visual reminder, of VJ (who played for excerpts with four Glyndebourne chorenes and dug out for us a film of the Vakhtangov Theatre's Gozzi Turandot), the very interesting and friendly director/designer Daniel Slater and myself, taken by a lady who sent me the photo through the post, but whose handwriting I've never been able to decipher to send her a thank-you (could it be Alison Sayles?):

While Jurowski hands over his Onegin baton at Glyndebourne (see below) to the by all accounts very promising Kirill Karabits, another hero of the British opera circuit, Antonio Pappano, has been fighting manfully and behaving very considerately towards an ill-cast line-up in the Royal Opera Don Carlo. I did say in my Boccanegra blogspot that the present team would be very hard-pressed to come anywhere near the dream Boccanegra quartet of Harteros, Furlanetto, Gallo and Haddock. The fact that Furlanetto was Philip offered some anticipatory reassurance, and he was by a long way the star of the show in the greatest act of Italian opera, the Fourth. All the following photographs are by Catherine Ashmore for the Royal Opera:

As for the rest, Villazon and Poplavskaya were overparted, had to be cautiously nurtured by Pappano and occasionally produced the odd lovely phrase. But neither flips over the stave and blossoms in the way that Verdi demands. Pops' is a voice in parts, and if she sorts out her top, she'll still have a future. They were, at least, touching in the last act.

Or maybe it's just that the final duet, 'We'll meet in a better world', always reduces me to tears because the last time I heard it at the Garden, with the exquisite Mattila and Julian Gavin, was in the company of my dearest older friend Trude Winik. A long-term student of my opera classes, Trude had lost all her Viennese family in Treblinka and, having successfully escaped to England, spent every day of her life feeling guilty and depressed that she had survived. When she finally received her 'National Socialist Compensation Fund' money from the Austrian government, she spent half on a donation to Save the Children and the rest on a box at the opera for her closest friends. As she got into her taxi at the end of a truly great evening and there was a kerfuffle with the seatbelt, she told the driver, 'you can strangle me now, I've had my evening'. And she didn't really go out again after that until she died at the age of 87.

Had I taken her to the Hytner production, and not the Bondy show, I'd have had to muffle my disappointment. How odd that a theatre director who thrives on naturalism and human warmth in his National Theatre productions couldn't pare down the Italianate posturings of Villazon, Ganassi and a wobbling, frequently tone-sharp Greek replacing Keenlyside as Posa. The regal couple had dignity, but even Furlanetto, I imagine, could be persuaded to be more inward and less Italianate-sobby by a different director. The sets by Bob Crowley were inconsistent - some striking, others tacky - and the Auto da Fe scene mixed Pythonesque crowd babble with a not very convincing attempt at ritual humiliation:

Does it have to look so cheap and nasty? My companion for the evening, Jill Dunkerton from the National Gallery, pointed out that Philip, as Titian's patron, was an extremely cultured man: the Escorial is not about garish reds and golds. In any case, the director faces big problems with the crowd scene: how do you make such a preposterous ceremonial not seem absurd, however horrible? We're too tainted by Monty P and 'what a day, what a day for an auto da fe', with which I anticipate being sharply regaled in Robert Carsen's production of Candide at English National Opera next week.

Saturday 14 June 2008

A drink at the local

...which in my case, at least for one week a year, happens to be the Stella Artois Tennis Championships at Queen's Club. We locals have free admission after 5.30pm, on condition that we trade in our letters for a hand-branding, visible above but better seen in close-up thus:

But what am I doing writing about this here? Trying to please the Minister of Culture and Sport, or showing just how branche I am (and please note that this is the very non-sporty person who once won Trivial Pursuit on a football question, dredging the name of Franz Beckenbauer from memories of his childhood when he briefly tried to join the mob)? You can see from the below photo, as Jamie Murray strolls in front of it, that this was after all an ARTISTIC event.

Well, it was very involving, huge fun. Having decided not to queue for the centre-court £5 charity sell-ons, my regular QC companion Cal and I found ourselves outside one of the free public courts, No. 2 I think it was, just as a men's doubles match was about to begin. So we had just about the last seats for Hewitt and Guccione vs. Jamie Murray (Andy's one-year-older brother) and the tall, strapping Mirnyi. Of course I was soon backing the more handsome pair (the latter), and good tennis it was indeed; having lost the first set, Jamie and Mirnyi finally won on another tie-break. While QC tends to be full of ladies of a certain sort from the Home Caynties, we had good company: a nice Scots woman to my left, who kept on muttering 'come on, Jamie' sotto voce until excitement got the better of her, and two very vocal Aussies behind whose loud encouragement soon dwindled. I ended up shouting and sighing too. Here are the nice boys all leaving the court:

All this in two hours - the game finished just after 8 - so it satisfied my sporting spectatorship for another year (though I'll always go to a football match if someone stumps up the tickets, as our West Ham-oriented friend Nick did a couple of years ago). ADDENDUM: the handsome lads bowed out in the semi-finals, apparently. No intelligence about the winners.

Last of the player visitors on my BBC Symphony Orchestra course at Morley the following evening was a regular, Richard Stagg the flautist, who brought along a couple of shakuhachis. These deeply eloquent instruments - the name translates as '1 foot 8'- are slightly frowned upon by Japanese audiences, as Richard discovered on the first of his many visits to Japan. Here's a section of one (it looks big, but is nothing compared to the san-shaku, three feet long and apparently needing the player's toes to cover some of the holes).

In fact I wished I'd taken my camera along, especially as Richard had a piece of music notated entirely in katakana or samurai script. The work in question, which translates as 'The tenderness of cranes', sounded astonishingly modern in its bird-sounds (imitating the mother crane nurturing her young before they fly the nest). Yet it was first played over a thousand years ago, and notated at the end of the 18th century. Richard has recorded it, and I intend to find a copy, though sadly it's not on his compilation, which I think I'll get hold of anyway:

Thursday 12 June 2008

Heartbreak house

That was very much the sensation at Glyndebourne on Sunday, not only because Tchaikovsky's most personal opera is certainly deeply upsetting when done at this level of detail and naturalism (as pictured above in the final scene by Glyndebourne's excellent resident photographer, Mike Hoban), but also because it was a sunny June afternoon to break the heart in its beauty. Inevitably I'm going to sound Fotherington-Thomasy here, but I could have skipped around the lake, so glowing was it in the still-bright evening light. This may have been as much relief at having passed off the pre-performance talk successfully, and being able to sit back (or rather forward) and enjoy the show, as an immediate response to a perfect day.

First, then, Eugene Onegin itself in the revival of Graham Vick's clear production, 'this probably most enigmatic and most impossible to realize Russian opera', as great Vladimir Jurowski wrote in responding to my e-mail of warm congratulations. We anticipated orchestral work of intensive detail, and indeed there was plenty of witty pointing-up of ironic phrases (who says Tchaikovsky discards Pushkin's ironic commentary?). What I hadn't quite bargained for were the intense surges of emotion. Just occasionally in some of his work Jurowski loses sight of the passionate woods as he carves so painstakingly on the trees, but not here; and even the final duet suddenly blazed orchestrally just when one feared it was going to fall a little short of the rest.

The singers have not all been kindly received by the press. I did indeed fear that Maija Kovalevska's Tatyana could not live up to Glyndebourne's last great heroine Yelena Prokina, surely Pushkin's and Tchaikovsky's Tatyana incarnate. Yet if Kovalevska never quite reached that rare level of intensity, she made the role her own, with an abundance of tone colour and a more secure technique across the range than Prokina's. I wept in the Letter Scene, and indeed in the Nurse's narrative before it; and this was probably just as much to do with Jurowski's elastic support for the singers, whom he always gives space to manoeuvre; never have silences and pauses - the last, significantly, for Onegin alone at the end of the opera - been more effectively used. Jenis's Onegin needs to show us the sensitive soul behind the facade, but he sang and looked well enough. All the critical plaudits had gone to Massimo Giordano as Lensky, the very image of adolescent poetry, and if his Russian wasn't perfect, his phrasing certainly was.

The rest were as good as I've ever seen them. While Mikhail Schelomianski's very attractive Gremin was allowed a stately pace (and managed a pianissimo reprise) for Gremin's aria, Triquet's couplets flowed for once. How often has one heard them uncoordinated (Sokhiev at Welsh lost his tenor and couldn't pick up again) or deadly slow (Gergiev)? Here Jurowski's airy support gave Adrian Thompson all the elegance he needed, and with one verse in French and the second in Russian it was a delight. Having set up a rather ridiculous appearance, Thompson needed no silly mugging to make his point, nor did revival director Ron Howell allow him any such thing (second photo by Mike Hoban):

Veteran chorus member and paterfamilias Charles Kerry told me that it had been a very happy rehearsal period. I joined him for lunch in Lewes before the show, and lunch with Charles is always a special occasion as he flavours his food with local herbs and produce. The Richard Mabey of the South Downs, he gathers food as he goes. Our lunch was a simple bean soup, but graced with the delicious taste of sorrel. Here's the immortal - mashallah - Mr Kerry on his home territory:

My guest for the afternoon, consort having been too blase about 'yet another Onegin' (if only he'd known), was the delightful Anneli Halonen. Although she has travelled the world proclaiming the excellent cause of Finnish culture, she had never been to a performance at Glyndebourne before. And as she was able to sing reams of Onegin's arioso down the phone to me in Russian - she lived in Moscow for more than a decade - she certainly merited the treat.

The only slight disappointment was that the gardens weren't quite as blooming lovely as I've sometimes found them - the yellow tree peony had yet to burst, though the roses were in fine fettle. On the steps up to the theatre, however, there was a set of splendid echiums, surrounded by the humming of innumerable bees:

Now - weirder and weirder - what's this? Animal, vegetable, mineral? The clue is that it could be found on Glyndebourne soil, though I don't know if it ever has been.

The pretext was to provide a kind of link to the next strand with a second photo, looking even more like a UFO, but my nearest and dearest said that was too grotesque and would turn people off the site. Anyway, the answer to the surviving image is: two fireflies or luciolle, which alighted on a bush outside our agriturismo in the Maiella. As only the ladies give off the more intense light, the duo may have flown across the seas from Lesbos (I risk upsetting the inhabitants of that island, if recent reports are to be believed), but I'm glad at least they settled long enough to be snapped in an out-of-focus sort of way, since all the others were flitting around in their thousands. In England, I think we call them glow-worms and they like chalky, limestony and grassy areas. I garnered a few more details from the Torygraph's Umbria correspondent, who tells us that 'luciolla' is also the Italian slang for 'prostitute' and that Peter Hobday, who lives in the Val delle luciolle, calls it 'tarts' valley'. He continues: 'the Italian for "to get hold of the wrong end of the stick" is "to mistake a firefly for a lantern" '. I can see why.

The second shot showed my back as cupped by a ballerina: hardly the prettiest way of introducing Kim Mendez as a first-rate masseuse, but she located the source of my back problem immediately. And if I reserve judgment on her recourse to pre-acupunture Chinese wisdom (she arrived there at the time of the Tiananmen Square incident), I do believe that a better back-rub is not to be had in all London. Kim is based at the Pineapple Dance Centre in Covent Garden, another world to me and an enchanting one, and used to dance with all the leading companies. She still appears as a gracious lady in the Royal Ballet's Romeo and Juliet, among other shows, had many interesting observations on the dancers which I as an outsider couldn't possibly have known and was in awed respect of Monica Mason's humane and hands-on regime at the Royal Ballet. I won't cite the name of the ballerina I liked whom Kim criticised for not moving her head enough, but I will mention two of her favourites, Marianela Nunez and the promising Lauren Cuthbertson, since we both saw them in action on Tuesday in a perfect Royal Ballet double bill. Here's Cuthbertson portrayed by Bill Cooper - the photographer for the next two images too - in Jerome Robbins's Dances at a Gathering:

Dances at a Gathering is another case of delicate heartbreak, but also full of laugh-out-loud humour. Robbins's genius is close to Balanchine: he clearly listened to the hour's worth of Chopin piano pieces selected very closely, refusing to go in for straight reprises and often going against the grain in a very poetic way. The ten star dancers solo, duet, group and regroup, their personalities all brought out in a succession of witty and surprising gestures. I saw three of the following six - Martin Harvey, Laura Morera and Federico Bonelli; Sarah Lamb, Tamara
Rojo and Jose Martin were in the other cast. What an expression, though, of the sheer joy of dance.

Leanne Benjamin, a ballerina whose expressive individuality I can always recognise (some of the others merge for me), did an especially characterful turn as a slightly ungainly flirt. Here she is in the second part of the double-bill, Ashton's The Dream (though the Titania I saw was Roberta Marquez, not quite commanding enough and stepping in for an injured Cojocaru).

Perhaps it's less of the dance essence than the Robbins jewel, but Ashton's succinct retelling of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream was equally entertaining. It would be the perfect introduction to the work for several friends' children, narrating the story so well - especially so in terms of the four posturing lovers - and keeping all the action within the wood (for how would you do the mechanicals' rehearsing and performing in ballet terms?). In another stitching-together of genius, the late John Lanchbery has done a wonderful job with Mendelssohn's score, finding new contexts for some of the more unusual incidental numbers and even doing a lovely counterpoint of donkey and fairy music for Titania's infatuation with Bottom. 'The Dream will commence in five minutes' came a voice over the tannoy in the interval; but I was already in one, and had been from the first steps of the Robbins. Maybe I'm about to turn into a ballet fan in my old age?

Thursday 5 June 2008

Wars and lechery

Few, I think, would claim Troilus and Cressida as their best-loved Shakespeare play, but it exercised a horrible fascination on me when I was at university, and it does so still. None of the three productions I've now seen resembled the other two in any shape or form, and all of them raised more questions than answers.Declan Donnellan's modern-dress production for Cheek by Jowl, now enjoying a well-deserved residency at the Barbican Theatre, didn't start terribly well. Even for spectators like myself who knew the characters, it could be quite confusing working one's way through the vast dramatis personae, and three very puzzling performances didn't help: Alex Waldmann (appearing in the first photo above as taken by Keith Pattinson) and Lucy Briggs-Owen as the not-always-central lovers were compelling and even moving at times but I couldn't understand what they, or Donnellan, wanted to say about their capricious natures, while the bizarre delivery of Ryan Kiggell's Ulysses threw away two of the finest speeches in all Shakespeare (if I found myself switching off in them, what could it have been like for Troilus virgins?) In fact a great deal of the verse was poorly spoken, which as my friend Simon pointed out was particularly tough given the knotty language of this problem play.

Minutes into the second half, however, it all took wing and the intertwining themes of brutal war and vacuous vs fledgling love were compellingly presented. I enjoyed the Helen of Marianne Oldham (also pictured above by Keith Pattinson), a celebrity mannequin suddenly disturbed by all she's so unthinkingly been through, and there were two first-class interpretations: David Caves's noble, naive Hector, whose slaying at the hands of Achilles' myrmidons was rightly unbearable, and the production's greatest coup in having Richard Cant portray Thersites as a waspish drag queen with a cleaning fetish. The rendering of the scene in the Greek camp where he/she entertains the temporarily trucing enemies was unforgettable.

I'm glad to be able to say all this, because at the interval I was thinking like Troilus 'words, words, mere words, no matter from the heart', and reflecting on how much more touching in some ways had been the serendipitous performance I caught outside the White Tower on Friday. I'd taken my eight-year-old friend Lucien on a big day out in the city, an exhausting but thoroughly rewarding six hours' rambling. As we sat eating our sandwiches, a group of actors in Elizabethan costume stepped out before us on the ravens' lawn and started to deliver a little drama about mock sword fights to honour Good Queen Bess. They'd nicked some Shakespearean lines and the centrepiece of the portmanteau plot was a Shakespeare in Love-like idea about the wife of a weedy swordfighter outstripping him in combat. The drama was to be continued at 3pm, but Lucien, much as he loved it, thought we had yet more to see and do in the multiplicity of first-rate museums that is the Tower of London. Anyhow, here he is enjoying the show:

Monday 2 June 2008

'Sublime chords of tenderness'

Yes, I know it's not a silver rose, but this perfect specimen from the south side of the Gardens does seem to sum up the dreamy Straussian world in which some of us have been intermittently living for the past five weeks. I'm very proud of my Rosenkavalier classes at the City Lit, as I think I know this opera now better than any other and have unearthed countless interesting snippets - looking backwards to Strauss's other works, where there are many passages explicitly recreated in the opera, and forwards to composers as unlikely as Schoenberg and Britten. I even got hold of a copy of the 1926 film, with live accompaniment of Strauss's cobbled-together remake by the Staatskapelle Dresden and Frank Strobel (who does the same in Liverpool in a couple of weeks' time). The film's no masterpiece, but it is extremely interesting and I've managed to arrange an extra session at the City Lit to screen it.

English National Opera's first-time staging of the much-in-demand McVicar production was the payoff (though we've still one more class on the second half of Act Three to go). It wasn't perfect - we have seen too many all-time greats on DVD and live: the Marschallins of Dames Gwyneth and Kiri, the Octavians of Fassbaender and Kirchschlager, the Sophies of Popp and Bonney. But I've never seen a Rosenkavalier where all four principals were equally strong. Tomlinson's ease on stage makes up for his rather coarse, not often likeable Ochs, while Sarah Tynan's beautifully detailed Sophie is a credible teenager and grows up rapidly in the course of the drama; no cipher she. Most of the critical praise was lavished on Sarah Connolly's Octavian. I found her handsome indeed in middle range, a bit stretched by the soprano top of the role, and too confident for an impetuous boy - this Octavian would be in his early twenties at least. Janice Watson has evolved with great subtlety as the Marschallin: she's not aristocratic - in any case the lady 'married in' - but she is very, very feminine and soft to melting point in Act One. Here are the two, not quite sensuous in their bedroom scene together but a handsome pair all the same, as snapped by Clive Barda for ENO:

The second act came and went in terms of pace. Ed Gardner in the pit does so many interesting things, and knows the ENO strings can't reproduce Viennese bloom, so he made the waltzes more 18th century than usual (if you forgive the paradox, which of course is Strauss's). He did the Act One soliloquy and curtain with great refinement, but lost some of the momentum in Sophie's second duet with Octavian. The Presentation of the Rose, though, was a dream, and much helped by the dazzling Cavalier's costume:

Everything knitted together beautifully in Act Three, which for once didn't seem a moment too long, kicked off by a bewitching sight-gag with the orchestrally illustrated candles which I don't remember from the Scottish Opera original, and the first quarter of an hour was much enlivened by Connolly's northern 'Mariandel'(genuinely funny for once). The 'sublime chords of tenderness', as Strauss described them to Hofmannsthal, were certainly touched in the last half-hour, and not just in the Trio. A quality show indeed.

Talking of which, I was reminded for some reason of the Marschallin's high style in the latest exploits of our Sophie Sarin, muse of this blog. She's taken a few months away from her Hotel Djenne Djenno in Mali (see last year's entries) and has been designing more bogolan fashionwear, modelled here in Sweden by herself and her very game mama. As she says on her blog ( the hats might seem de trop, but they weren't supposed to go with the dresses.

As a timely transition to the Cinderella world below, here is our Sophe newly arrived chez nous, bearing from Holland not a glass slipper but a marzipan-and-chocolate one:

So - I had expected something of the Rosenkavalier sound in Chelsea Opera's concert performance of Massenet's Cendrillon, a real plum pudding of an opera in which I sang 22 years ago with City Lit Opera (that great cosmopolitan mix in which I made three good long-term friends and met the love of my life). With a mezzo Prince and a coloratura Fairy Godmother, Massenet's recipe for women's voices is at times almost as intoxicating as Strauss's. But Liora Grodnikaite, who'd lit up the stage as a replacement Varvara in the Royal Opera's Katya Kabanova, didn't quite get her big and vibrant voice into gear until the Wertherish Third Act, and the lovely Emma Selway sounded a bit less than her lustrous best. Still, Judith Howarth was a very meaty songbird, Elizabeth Sikora turned in a superb French comedy turn as Madame de la Haltiere and Dominic Wheeler, whose Gotterdammerung at ENO was one of the finest experiences of Wagner conducting I've enjoyed, sharpened up the largely amateur Chelsea Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

Dramaturgically the piece is a bit unwieldy, but all the music is good, the ballet music at the palace is beautifully crafted and there's a delicious last-minute bonne bouche in the shape of the Marche des Princesses, a Beecham lollipop if ever there was one. Covent Garden simply must do the opera; a dream cast recommends itself - Garanca as Cendrillon, Kirchschlager as the Prince, Dessay or Damrau as the twittering fairy and veterans Tomlinson and Felicity Palmer as the ill-matched elders. Pappano's French delicacy would be a wonderful asset, and I wonder if the very selective Richard Jones could be persuaded to take on this piece of enchanting froth?