Tuesday 22 July 2008

Arrivederci, Morley

With a certain reluctance, I said farewell to Morley College earlier this month as 'Inside the BBC Symphony Orchestra' moves to my other adult education base, the City Lit, in September. There was much about Morley that I liked, and the new brooms certainly seem more efficient, but over the decade I served there, the sound equipment was never right for more than a week or so.

It was always worth the pittance to think that one was following in the footsteps of Holst and Tippett (that very human artist Maggi Hambling, incidentally, still teaches there). Imagine my astonishment when I took out scores of Holst's The Planets and Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, and discovered GVH's signature in both. I told the library to put them into their special collections immediately, which (eventually) they did. One of the people I shall really miss at Morley, head librarian Elaine Andrews, has been helping me to look at other papers they have, including a handwritten essay on Holst by Vaughan Williams. On Friday I duly took photographs of some of the more valuable documents. Above are the Choral Hymns, and below a first edition of The Planets which I imagine is a little more valuable for the addition of the great man's signature.

After the valedictory visit, it was only a very short bike ride via Evans' Cycles to the Young Vic, which I was seeing for the first time inside since its revamp. It's now an ace bar with a theatre attached, and I don't suppose the youth drinking there have much to do with the stage. Can the punters get a drink in the interval now? Not on a Friday night, at any rate.

But that wasn't the reason for going, which was to see one of America's greatest pieces of music theatre - possibly THE greatest between Porgy and Bess and Sweeney Todd, Kurt Weill's Street Scene. Like The Pilgrim's Progress the other week, but for a completely different reason, this was another trip down memory lane as it's nearly 20 years since I attended the Decca sessions for the work in Glasgow. That was when John Mauceri resuscitated Street Scene's then rather faded fortunes, and by the time David Pountney's production, orginally for Scottish Opera, came round at ENO for the second run, even those who'd scratched their heads about this curious hybrid were ready to declare it a masterpiece.

Remembering Glasgow 1989 was also a time to mourn again for Jerry Hadley, such a nice guy and a deeply expressive tenor at his best, as in Street Scene's 'Lonely House', The Rake's Progress and a disc of Britten song cycles for which I have a special fondness. Arleen Auger, co-cameo nursemaid with Della Jones, is also no longer with us: and what a delightful, funny person she was, too. I'm so glad I met her then.

This latest staging, in which John Fulljames directs a group of singers most of whom I'd never even heard of before and Patrick Bailey conducts a more than respectable orchestra, together comprising what is called The Opera Group, had an almost unbearable intensity in the small space of the Young Vic. Again it drove home how Weill's and Langston Hughes's adaptation of Elmer Rice's hard-hitting play about New York tenement life interlaces sassy numbers extolling hard-working immigrants' American dream with darker operatics undercutting those characters' hopes, if not entirely negating them. Elena Ferrari invested so much energy and focus in the central role of Anna Maurrant, the housewife whose life has become so meaningless, and vitally, too, the lyric soprano playing her nice, sensible daughter Rose, Ruby Hughes, carried on the torch after Anna's murder. Where else in opera, it was asked in the programme, does the action carry on for a scene following the death of the heroine? I could think of only one other example, The Cunning Little Vixen by the equally offbeat Janacek, but that's about the continuation of the natural order, while Street Scene offers no such consolation. Here are Ferrari and Hughes together, as photographed for The Opera Group by Alistair Muir:

Most of the not-so-bit parts were strongly taken, too (and always have been: I well remember Catherine Zeta-Jones in 'Moon faced, starry eyed' at the Coli, and found in the same programme a credit for the student Rosemary Joshua as 'first graduate' in the tearjerking scene when the daughter of a dispossessed family comes home with her school diploma 'Wrapped in a ribbon and tied in a bow'). Who knows how many of these ones will go on to greater things? The kids, especially, were terrific, and there was a huge chorus as well as a full orchestra with the strings on the ground floor, wind and brass coming across beautifully clear in Weill's often romantic orchestration from the first. Three cheers for his ever-relevant humanity.

Monday 21 July 2008

The splendour falls on castle walls

...as it certainly did from my central vantage-point in the Great Hall of Savonlinna's Olavinlinna Castle on my first night there, when the Egyptian trumpets of Aida's ceremonial scene ricocheted left and right. I suppose Verdi's Macbeth would be the ultimate experience in this venerable 15th century Finnish fortress; and yet we were not disappointed by the heavy rain which fell in ever increasing torrents on the acoustic canvas covering just as Mefistofele led Faust to the wild witches' sabbath in Boito's kitsch take on Goethe, nor by the screaming seagulls punctuating The Flying Dutchman.

The biggest surprise was to find how sharp and clear both the voices and the superlative composite Finnish orchestra sounded in this spectacular venue. Aida was glowingly if unobtrusively conducted by Paolo Olmi, with the most electrifying and tonally various heroine I think I shall ever see and hear in the title role, a young African American called Adina Aaron (note that name; and I'm told the other Aida, Kristin Lewis, was just as good). Her demeanour immediately suggested a downtrodden slave, not a proud prima donna, and as well as acting everyone else off the stage, she had both the drive for 'Ritorna vincitor' and the ethereal beauty for the final duet (only a tiny part of 'O patria mia' gave her a bit of trouble). How rare for the soprano to win more of a roar from the crowd than the mezzo Amneris, though Elena Bocharova was as equal to her task as any of the cast, which also included a stalwart (if loud) Radames, Dongwon Shin - Botha had been singing before him - two first-class basses as Ramfis (veteran Finn Jaako Ryhanen, still one of their best and a relaxed Daland two nights later) and King (the young Pole Rafal Siwek). The Amonasro, Mikail Babajanyan, was reliable if wooden, but then the production didn't encourage acting of any individuality; that Aaron won through was due to her innate intensity. Here she is with the other Amonasro, Lado Ataneli (all production photographs taken for the festival by Timo Seppalainen).

Came the second night, and the relative merits of production and singers were reversed. While the casting was by no means as strong, there was fun to be had from the staging by wacky Swiss Dieter Kaeti which didn't take Boito's pretensions very seriously (and for heaven's sake, or hell's, it's not much more Goethe than Gounod). An ocean-liner 1920s entertainment was the framework into which not everything fitted very easily; but there was a fabulous Classical Walpurgis Night turned into a Hellenic pageant with a fat-lady Helen (the resplendent Elena Pankratova) and camp muscle marys in Greek poses:

The festival made a bit of a mistake in flagging the all-too-young home-grown bass Mika Kares as the devil: he had neither as yet the voice for the role, nor the charisma which Chaliapin had stamped on it (and through whom, I guess, the rather amateurishly executed piece still survives in the rep). There were an OK Faust and an execrable Margarita, though we were back on international form the following evening when Pankratova returned as a rather Gorgonic Senta who might have eaten both the solid Erik and another uncharismatic protagonist, the unfocused Dutchman of Jason Stearns, for breakfast. She sounded, however, like a rock-solid potential Brunnhilde with a gleaming middle register and a top which, when it worked, thrilled. Stefan Soltesz's hell-for-leather pace set the second act ablaze, and to run from the excitement of the duet to more splendid antiphonal choral singing in the great Act Three battle of Norwegians and demons really was quite something.

Now, this has turned into more of a straight review than I'd intended. Yet Savonlinna was a magical summer place to be for three days, despite spells of torrential rain. The worst cleared as I enjoyed a marvellous lunch with distinguished TV director, commentator and festival doyen Aarno Cronvall at a top-notch brewery restaurant by the water, the delightful Huvila with its home-made bread and cider perfectly complementing lake-caught pike-perch (I also became addicted to the local fried fish, muikku, which I ended up eating at least twice a day).

With the skies clear by then, it seemed a bit of a waste to be stuck indoors for an hour watching a children's opera, The Seven Dog Brothers. But it was a treat to experience the excellent wooden theatre behind the casino, and the opera was a little gem: a lively staging by Johanna Freundlich of Finland's most famous work of literature next to the Kalevala, about a group of hicks who eventually settle down and get an education though not before getting up to all sorts of larks, drawn and retold with gusto by the very witty Mauri Kunnas (even more famous for The Canine Kalevala). The picture-book production was complemented by Markus Fagerudd's lively score - not too difficult for the children's choir, more so for the crackling orchestra and a good team of soloists. Here are the canine siblings, led by Hannu Jurmu's loveable Juhani.

Anyway the kids seemed to love it, and since they understood Finnish better than I, they clearly didn't find it just ten minutes too long. I took even more pleasure immediately afterwards in plunging into the lake behind the hotel. Here it is on first acquaintance:

There can be few bathes more delicious than those in a northern lake. I took one every day, with the extra pleasure of swimming round a small island with querulous birdlife on it. By midnight of the same glorious day, when the mosquitoes made a further dip hazardous, the sun finally set behind the same island of Sievensaari:

My last pre-performance treat the following morning was a trip up the lakes to the arts centre at Retretti. I was delighted to have the company of composer, conductor, professor and animateur extraordinaire Tapani Lansio and his wife. We spent the two-hour journey, hosted by the lovely Katya from the Press Office, and half the time while walking through the gallery's underground installations, Leonardo machines and comprehensive exhibition of the admirable artist Ellen Thesleff chewing the contemporary cud and generally finding we agreed on everything (I won't say whom among his peers the forthright Tapani especially admired and whom he treated with a little more caution - Finland is a relatively small pond, after all, despite its immense cultural wealth). Here we are just after disembarking from the SS Heinavesi.

And so the daytime and the after-Dutchman time passed very warmly and pleasantly indeed. To round it all off neatly, back at Helsinki airport I bumped into the delightful Tasmanian lady I'd met on the plane to Savonlinna, Elizabeth Ruthven, who'd enthused me with tales of the 15,000-strong choirs in Latvia. Hobart and the mountainous island don't sound bad places at all, and even more attractive now I understand that Tasmania has a more liberal government. Next stop?

Saturday 12 July 2008

Mahler 8: cathedral and studio

Only a professional engagement could have made me eat my words below about not going to the great blaze-up finale of Gergiev's Mahler cycle ('the Eighth in St Paul's is not an option, given the dire acoustics for such a work'). I went on Wednesday - Alberto Venzago's photos above and below are taken from the final rehearsal - because I had to go into the BBC on Thursday to comment on the second of the two live performances with Petroc Trelawny and Ed Seckerson. I knew that sitting in a studio with a score for this of all epics would be nothing like experiencing all those forces, however muddied, in a great building. So I prima-donnaishly told the nice City of London Festival press officer Emily Caket that she was - tall order, owing to demand - to get me a seat under the Dome, otherwise I wouldn't go.

She did, and even there some of it was the expected horror story. Where were the off-offstage bands? What were the strings up to, most of the time, except when they finally got to sing their hearts out as Goethe's Mater Gloriosa soars into view in Mahler's Wagnerian second 'act' (and Gergiev, with his superb rubato, handled that so beautifully)? Was the Mater Gloriosa herself, one of many Russian imports, singing so desperately flat because she couldn't hear the orchestra from wherever she was suspended?

And yet...and yet much of it was so spirited and, ultimately, painfully moving. I was amazed at how disciplined Gergiev's beat can be when he can't have the creative freedom he wants: just keeping those mighty forces in order in the welter of the Pentecostal Hymn's turbulent belly was a major task, and I thought he handled it superbly. Many of the Russians did justify their appearance, even if they wouldn't usually be natural casting for the heavyweight parts: Anastasia Kalagina (soprano 1 for one night only) didn't soar over the top like her 'second', the interesting Ailish Tynan, but came across nice and clearly in middle range, while the tenor Sergey Semishkur - only in Russia would a Fenton also engage in heldenrep - and baritone Alexey Markov did as good a job on their rhapsodies as any I've heard. Choruses could have done with some professional ballasting; why fly over the Choral Arts Soc of Washington when a dozen or so BBC Singers would have backboned better? But the Eltham College kids, everyone agreed, were superbly cheeky, cupping their hands around their mouths to get the message across.

As for curate's egg Valery, this was a first-rate showing after the ineptly Ferrari-style Ninth last month.

Ed doesn't think he gets the easy-going, folktale aspect, and I'd agree, though as I said the quotient in the Eighth isn't high. He and I disagreed over Gergiev v Nott in Mahler One - he finds the Nott more imposing than I do - but concorded, as we often do, over some other aspects. Anyway, we both agreed that the BBC engineers had done a supernatural job in rescuing the performance from St Paul's acoustics. But I was so glad I went on Wednesday, and I even look forward to the LSO Live release.

Packing into St Paul's reminded me that it's exactly a year since we attended friend Andrew Hammond's ordination as deacon there. Yesterday (as I add this footnote it's Sunday morning) we attended his Biggest Day Yet, the one in which he got the green light to give communion as a fully-fledged vicar. This was at his church in St John's Wood, and the service went on much longer than Mahler 8 (it also, incidentally, included the 'Veni creator spiritus' which Mahler sets at such length in the first part of his symphony). There are trimmings of high Anglicanism which aren't to my taste - all part of the ongoing ambiguity in my agnostic relationship with the church - and yet I'm very happy for Father Andrew. Once again the Rev. Alice Goodman was there (see May blog), this time with her godfather, composer Hugh Wood, whom I was delighted to meet as I remember being a great fan of his Symphony as a teenager (it was performed at the Proms and I still have the tape). I don't know why I haven't really followed anything he's done since. Here he is with his equally distinguished goddaughter.

A final footnote: while Father Andrew was giving his first communion the following evening, the openly gay American Bishop Gene Robinson was speaking, and being heckled, in Putney. The church is tearing itself apart, and how can those who exclude Robinson and his like truly be called Christian in spirit? Andrew's sermoniser, Archdeacon Mark Oakley, spoke obliquely but eloquently of the church as a Noah's ark in which the privileged few should make room and straw available to any 'weird and wonderful' fellow animal seeking refuge. The gist of this is also to be found in his article for the Church Times. Nicely put, and who's to say he should have been more direct? It's a difficult time for the Anglicans.

After the light of those rather exhausting church services, darkness visible. Having seen eight productions and concert renderings of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, I'd resisted going to see Tim Burton's film on the strength of the clips I'd seen: Jonny Depp doing a cutprice David Bowie on the songs, a low-key and seemingly unfunny rendering of the vaudeville 'Little Priest' number (which, as it turns out, makes sense in context). I knew I'd have to see it sooner or later and last night we watched the DVD which friend Simon, who's seen it three times, gave me for my birthday.

I was amazed. Yes, it's odd to hear Sweeney and Lovett crooning rather than respectively operaticising and showbizzing, but the world that Burton creates along with Depp and the as always surprisingly good Mrs B, Helena Bonham-Carter, strikes no false notes. A master filmmaker now, he tells the tale through visual elan, and thus dispenses of the ballads, which I didn't think I'd approve, but in this context I do. All the suppporting roles are impeccable taken - OK, Joanna's briefly irritating, but when is she not? - and the idea of taking brutalised serving-boy Tobias from an adolescent-sounding tenor and giving the role to a Dickensian waif with a very strong treble voice worked superbly (never has 'Nothing's gonna harm you' sounded stronger or less sentimental).

Of the cut numbers, I missed only the dizzying Act one Quartet, and the horrifying finale was much tightened up. Tunick, I think it is, has underscored the new material with consistently haunting orchestrations, and how wonderful that millions - including, according to my teacher friend, countless kids who shouldn't have seen this very bloody 18-certificate - can become acquainted with top-notch music theatre (the film respects the musical in running for the first fifteen minutes without the score coming to a halt). Only one cavil: how in a film can a sexually debased beggar woman not be allowed to sing 'how'd you like to push me crumpet' and yet the throat-cuttings, above all of the Judge, be executed with such gut-wrenching goriness?

Finally, another DVD which I've had on the stocks waiting to wax lyrical over for some time.

This utterly charming French road movie makes so light of the fact that its hero is unemployed, gay (and happily 'married'), HIV-positive and half-North African (except where it tells in the plot). His one-to-ones with gradually assembling members of an alternative family on the way to find his father in Marseille are consummately done with a superb supporting cast (and a very sexy 'cousin'). We're getting a lot of pleasure from LoveFilm, though haven't been in to watch any recently; however I don't mention the dross, of which there's been plenty, especially in the 'gay arthouse movie' category. And we've had enough of Robert Bresson, though I see the point - must have been amazing at the time.

Tuesday 8 July 2008

The Progress of a Rake begins

In fact, for me and my fellow-travellers on the City Lit Opera in Focus course, his progress began a few weeks ago as we crowded into the amazing picture room of Sir John Soane's London house to look at Hogarth's eight paintings: my first ever art-historical lecture, with much assistance from the notes of Hogarth expert Christine Riding (with whom I shared an Aldeburgh pre-Rake event). 'The Soane' is still the same as ever, with the best-informed wardens in London and a limited-entry policy so that you never feel you're sharing the treasures with hundreds of (other) tourists.

It was, however, the set of etchings which inspired Stravinsky and Auden, not the paintings, which is why I've illustrated them throughout alongside comparable scenes in Robert Lepage's Royal Opera production as photographed by Bill Cooper. Lepage is, of course, a director with the greatest sense of visual beauty - on a par with Carsen, and perhaps even more unconventional - and his 1950s update works even better than Carsen's Candide. Perhaps that's because the music operates at a different level: Bernstein was no Stravinsky, though a genius in every other sphere. You really need a conductor with a better sense of rubato, pace and elan than Thomas Ades; having arrived at the Opera House fresh from illustrating Anne Trulove's aria with Upshaw, the Orchestra of St Luke's and Zinman, as well as swathes of Act 2 from Chailly, I didn't find this to soar and sparkle in quite the same way, though there were interesting sounds.

Lepage, at least, gets off to a lively start, and there are some unthought of solutions: the brothel, far removed from Hogarth's Rose Tavern, Drury Lane, as a Hollywood filmset directed by Shadow:

while both Anne and the newly-married Rakewells arrive at the grand opening of 'Tom Rakewell and Baba the Turk' by car: this bearded lady steps from a very different sedan than the one Auden and Kallman had in mind:

The madhouse scene follows Annabel Arden's even more disturbing clinic setting at ENO. The gibbering of the lunatics is kept to a minimum, but the stillness of the Hockney/Cox asylum fitted the music better. Still, there was real contained heartbreak as 'Venus' Anne sings 'Adonis' Tom to sleep, beautifully played out with refined singing from Sally Matthews and Charles Castronovo:

We'd been spoilt at the City Lit by the very best: Upshaw, FLott, Langridge, Hadley, Ramey, Alexander Young. Yet although Matthews's far-back production is odd, she gears up to the top notes excitingly and is always a sympathetic stage presence. Castronovo does the beefier stuff well, though his pathos in earlier stages was hampered by Ades's slow tempi. Relyea came alive in the electrifying graveyard scene, though to be fair Nick's music in Acts 1 and 2 is less interesting than the others' set pieces. Good to hear a quality-voice Baba in Patricia Bardon, silenced in a swimming pool. The chorus weren't a patch on their Glyndebourne counterparts.

Still, what a surprising work it is: if Ades missed the sheer soaring beauty of the first two acts, ineffably done by Jurowski and by Brabbins at Aldeburgh (ingenious Neil Bartlett production-on-a-shoestring), the unremitting gravitas of the last two scenes pulls down the painted illusions, already in tatters. I never cease to wonder at the intelligence and soul of Auden's and Kallman's lyrics, especially in Tom's disaffected aria of Act 2 Scene 1. At the City Lit we only have a class for Act 3: it won't be enough.

PS (Sunday 13) - the reviews of this show I've seen have been unremittingly negative. Were we at the same performance? Christiansen found Ades's 'buoyant' (!) conducting the saving grace, Clements - well, let's pass on him, and Ed Seckerson (haven't even looked up his review yet) told me he was disappointed in Lepage's conceit - and that from a man of the theatre. No-one mentioned the poleaxing impact of the final scenes, which suggests to me that, as Simon Callow wrote in his book on acting, most critics make up their minds before the interval.

Simpler 18th/early 19th sensibilities are reflected in delightful Tom Moore's Irish melodies. I know no other less contrived way of linking to our Irish sojourn, but here he is at Derreen, looking down on a group of music-makers devoted to Rodgers and Hart, whose words are all known by heart by our glamorous grande dame Norah Morrice (the only one with her face to the camera):

Derreen lives on as a country house on the Beare peninsula of south-west Ireland, on this occasion filled with 16 harmonious souls and set in the middle of a lush subtropical garden. Its treasure, apart from the extraordinary setting overlooking Killmackilloge Harbour, is The King's Oozy. With its snaky path winding through a glade of eucalyptus trees and a superabundance of that splendid tree-fern Dicksonia Antarctica, it could be in Australia or New Zealand:

In vivid contrast to this luxuriance are the bare hills around. Knockatee, visible from a very romantic seat in the gardens, is relatively low level but looks imposing:

And it's even grander and bleaker on the heights, the borderland between Cork and Kerry:

Apart from the pleasures of the loveable company, mackerel fishing, hiking, swimming in the harbour and pottering around amiable and quite swish Kenmare, the highlight was a trip from Glengarriff harbour past colonies of seals out to the Harold Peto-designed island garden of Ilnacullin. The setting, with the sugarloaf mountain and the bay behind the stage set of the Italian garden, is dreamlike, and there was hardly anyone there on our late afternoon visit.

Any reason for indulging my love of it here? Only a feeble link to GBS, who worked on Saint Joan while he was staying there.

Finally, the secret's out, if anyone really cares: Rustem Hayroudinoff carried the sop-to-the-public palm of my R3 Building a Library - available to 'Listen Again' on line for the rest of the week - on Rachmaninov's Op. 39 Etudes-Tableaux (we're forbidden, and rightly, to speak of winners: 'this is not Ascot', solemnly declares the BBC):

But as I said in summing up, I'd also have equal need of the weightier, even more philosophical Alexander Melnikov:

Both these pianists see the set as a cycle, Rachmaninov's finest achievement in the solo-piano sphere. Melnikov's disc is of special interest as it includes the near-contemporary songs for Nina Koshetz, also products of the composer's last years in Russia, and his next spate of composing for the piano alone when the well-spring had partly dried up, the Corelli Variations. And now I must get back to that very disc, and polish off a full review of it for the BBC Music Magazine.