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?

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