Wednesday 29 July 2009

Launching the Proms Stravinsky

Performances of Stravinsky's complete Firebird (Karsavina and Bolm pictured above) and Petrushka (the composer featured with Nijinsky) are hardly thin on the ground, and have become tests of a big orchestra's mettle as much as Mahler symphonies or Strauss tone poems. If you're lucky, you'll get an interesting juxtaposition, like Jurowski's Proms blockbuster last year which twinned Firebird with one of several operas by Stravinsky's meister Rimsky-Korsakov exerting an inescapable spell on the younger composer, Kashchey the Immortal.

The first of this week's three Stravinsky Proms, featuring Petrushka in a not-quite-intact form, made further intriguing connections; but its real significance was to kick off the spectrum of the 20th century's greatest ballet composer (yes, I know, there's Prokofiev and the greatest full-length ballet in Romeo and Juliet, but even he didn't run Stravinsky's gamut from working with Fokine in 1910 to the last fling for Balanchine in 1957).

For context, you can watch or listen to yesterday's pre-performance talk in which I joined animateur par excellence Chris Cook and Stephanie Jordan, Research Professor of Dance at Roehampton University. A film of the event can now be seen in all its 41-minute glory (?) on the second of Radio 3's Proms Plus webcasts. An edited version was broadcast on Radio 3 in the Prom interval, and is available to hear online for the next six days.

Stephanie covered the choreographic aspects, and I dealt with what I could of the music, so between us I think a reasonably comprehensive picture emerges. Here are my fellow broadcasters on the stage of the alarmingly over-resonant Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall in the Royal College of Music, tarted up especially for these Proms events.

What of the music-making? Belohlavek promised us the 1947 re-orchestrated Petrushka, but actually gave us even less, as BBC Symphony violinist Danny Meyer warned me he would when I bumped into him before the concert. There's an alternative 'concert ending' which rounds off the fairground masquerade with a trill, giving us no death of Petrushka and no ghostly nose-thumbing from the roof of the puppet-theatre; though to my knowledge Stravinsky the conductor never used it when he conducted the complete 1947 version. Glad I knew this in advance, otherwise nine-year old Lucien who joined me with his mother Clare would have been mighty puzzled not to hear what I'd told him he'd be hearing.

Never mind, let's be thankful for what we had: a rhythmically supple, discreetly coloured Petrushka, maybe not as raucous or earthy as I'd have liked, but with polished solos from the BBCSO's new first trumpeter Martin Hurrell - relieved, apparently, not to have to shrill as Petrushka's ghost in the 'real' ending - flautist Daniel Pailthorpe and that consummate pianist Liz Burley. As she and Martin have been regular visitors to the BBCSO course, I know her well enough to ask if she'd meet Lucien afterwards. A fierce steward kept us away from the sea of the concert platform, preventing what would have been an absorbing demo from Liz on the celesta, but at the ocean's margin I managed to get a photo of her together with Lucien by one of the very grand pianos used that evening.

Having exuberantly told me the plot of Trovatore - he knows it better than I do, and stood through it all transfixed at Covent Garden - Lucien was a bit awed by meeting an orchestral star. But it was apt, because yesterday we heard he'd got a distinction in Grade One piano.

Anyway, most of you, reasonably enough, couldn't care less and want to know a bit more about the music. The highlight for me of the two days of Prom-going so far was the revelation of Martinu's Concerto for two pianos. Characteristically elusive in its themes, harmonies and moods, it fitted the washy acoustics well, with outstanding young Czech pianists Jaroslava Pechocova and Vaclav Macha glistening and swimming in the vasts of the Albert Hall. The slow movement is a gem even among late Martinu works: recitatives for the two pianos, poignant wind choruses enhanced by a solo viola, the perfect and tear-inducing placing of a few major triads.

Lucien - somewhat to my surprise - and Clare enjoyed this even more than the fizzing Smetana Bartered Bride Overture and the Bartok Dance Suite, where the muted trombones were a special fascination for the first-time concertgoer. I haven't got L's detailed opinion on the Petrushka yet, but I must make one important point. It sounds a bit 'oh, black people in a concert'ish, but that is, alas, rare, if slowly changing, and so it's worth noting that the beautiful mother with two sons several rows in front immediately rose to her feet in wild enthusiasm with the youngest boy at the very end. The BBCSO's outreach is doing its job.

Yesterday offered a chance for Londoners to catch the exciting work young Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons is doing with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Here he is in action last night as photographed for the Proms (as is Hough further down) by Chris Christodoulou. Couldn't make up my mind whether I preferred him looking young and sweet...

or a bit of a monster:

The CBSO/Nelsons Firebird was chock-full of bewitching detail, maybe a little over fussy as is a young conductor's prerogative (the narrative in the first half of the ballet needs to get going) but with daring pianissimos in the opening - inaudible on the broadcast, which I've just dipped into on R3's Listen Again facility - and the clearing of the air after Ivan has smashed the egg containing the ogre's soul. NO-ONE in a packed hall coughed here until the famous horn solo dissolved the tension. The finale, Stravinsky's biggest apotheosis right at the start of his career, raised the Albert Hall roof, of course. But there's tough competition in the memory stakes, and for me this by no means eclipsed Jurowski's LPO performance at last year's Proms or Gergiev's hyper-dramatic LSO interpretation. It did bring new insights and fresh sounds, however, and that's still quite something.

Twenty one minutes of orchestral time - and more immaculate preparation - were more or less wasted at the beginning of the concert by John Casken's Orion over Farne. Impressionistic effects are fine, and Casken can certainly orchestrate, but you need strong ideas too, and the best Casken could offer was sub-Messiaenesque. I'm afraid I knew exactly what we were in for, indiscriminate use of the tongs and bones included, in the very first bars.

Then the much-feted Stephen Hough continued his Tchaikovsky piano concertos series with the Second. I'm a bit sorry that in trying to rescue this concerto from undue neglect - a mission that is worthwhile, for it has some wonderful themes - folk are liable to forget what a trailblazing work the First was for its time. My own personal favourite of the three-and-a-half is the dazzlingly original Concert Fantasia*.I'm not sure that Ziloti's cuts in the Second were a bad thing, at least in the long opening movement; when Postnikova played it with husband Noddy Rozh last year, the recap seemed like one repetitive chunk too far. Hough, on the other hand, rushed through much of it like a bull in a china shop, smothering any wrong notes with the sustaining pedal.

This sort of 'showpiece imperial' really needs an effortless Russian who can manage charm at that level of weighty virtuosity. But SH, who perhaps would do best to stick to Schumann et al but is a brave chap who likes to push the boundaries, did find poetry in the lyrical respite of the first movement and - along with a few extra twiddlings** - throughout the central Andante non troppo, where I salute Pyotr Ilyich for a rare vein of Brahms-style objectivity in the violin and cello solos. Hough also whipped up a frenzy in the finale, which would sparkled more if it hadn't been so breathless. Still, it was a heck of a lot better than his Rach 2 last year, very much alive, and the audience loved that.

Balm to the soul, if still a very alert sort of spirituality, was the late evening Prom with John Eliot Gardiner bringing his Monteverdi Choir and a handful of his English Baroque Soloists to the Proms in Bach motets. How I love the numinous soprano chorale in 'Furchte dich nicht'. And when I sang in 'Jesu, meine Freude' we never came anywhere near the rainbow of dynamics and expression discovered by the Monteverdis. Gardiner is a compelling presenter, since he's known these works inside out since childhood. He spoke engagingly of Bach satisfying both hemispheres of the brain, and of course he does. I still want to carry out the unfulfilled aim of listening to a cantata every morning, born during JEG's early St John's sessions before the big Bach pilgrimage began. The welcome stream of CDs reflects the move from this, one of the St John's releases:

to this, as the JEGmobile moved from city to city and went its own enterprising way recording-wise.

Of course, I covet every instalment.

Next stop will be a mini Proms Mendelssohnfest at the end of the week. No, I'm not, unless the Hochhausers can manage it, doing Gergiev's Wagner Ring at Covent Garden. Although he's finally caved into pressure and dragged in a kosher director to fill out his by all accounts unsatisfying ideas, if the concept is anything like the leaden, monumental one he and designer Tsypin imposed upon Boris Godunov on their last visit, it'll be deadly. And there seem to be too many veterans in the cast. I wrote a note on leitmotivation in the programme, but at the moment it looks as if that's as close to the latest Mariinsky experience as I'll be getting.

*where the structure and the interplay between soloist and orchestra are so outlandish. I'm a little surprised to read on SH's entertaining and beautifully written blog that he resented the piano's subordinate role in the Second Concerto's middle movement, and 'reassigned to the pianist some of the music originally given to the solo violin and cello in the recapitulation'. Come on, Stephen, Tchaikovsky knew what he wanted, even if it wouldn't be to the main soloist's liking.
**see the above footnote.

Tuesday 28 July 2009

Urban Jerusalem

For all his rural roots, Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron (see below) would be tickled pink, and no doubt painted green, by the Peoples (sic) Republic of Stokes Croft. Reclaiming a black hole of Bristol from the council, and regenerating it through a Banksyan manifesto of public art, the Republic is in tune with the times: up the hill at the City Museum and Art Gallery, you’d have to queue for an hour or two to see Banksy’s artworks, currently the most popular exhibition in the country and luring allsorts as no show of its kind has ever done before.

Well, it was too hot and bothersome to join the queues, but we did make a lengthy expedition of Bristol on foot. All I’ve seen of the city before have been the unlovely theatre where WNO’s Queen of Spades was running and the building right next to Temple Meads Station where a starry misalliance of closed minds talking about Empire took place a couple of years ago. On Saturday we struck out from friends Daniel and Frith through St Andrews Park to Gloucester Road with its trendy cafes, Amnesty Shop stocking a wide range of sheet music – among others I picked up a Belyayev score of Scriabin’s Prelude and Fugue for left-hand piano - and general feel of Antipodean counter-culturalism, with all the concordant friendliness and openness that implies.

A short way down the hill through no-man’s land, you hit Stokes Croft. At a sale of odds and ends outside an artists’ loft with room on the wall for any sculptures you might wish to lodge, I picked up an old Dorset guide.

Then we wandered down the neighbouring street with its bohemian shops, Italian deli of long standing and the odd boutique before heading back and on for the PRSC Headquarters, outside which street artists were hard at work enlivening the local walls.

We spoke to Chris Chalkley, passionate Chairman of Stokes Croft, about his Utopian vision and found out how well it seems to be working – though he was having none of J’s suggestion that the best way to influence the Council would be to become a Councillor himself and work from the inside. They were holding a Dutch auction of very variable artworks (ie bid the price you think the work will get) and awaiting the Royal Visit of Brad and Angelina, enticed to Bristol like so many other celebs by the Banksy show. True story: the man of mystery wanted no merchandise on sale, but one day a box of Banksy stickers and cards turned up at the Oxfam Shop opposite (we have the road sign of ‘Slow Children’, two obese icecream eaters).

One more local artwork just opposite the HQ: a Hokusai wave with a more recent addition in a different style:

I could go on to extol the often crumbling Georgian terraces of Bristol, the leafy heights of Clifton and the views over the suspension bridge and the Avon from Observatory Hill, but it’s more apt, perhaps, to move on as we did on Saturday evening to artworks in a very different setting. Detained in Venice by an easyjet travel nightmare scenario – which of course gave us the glorious sunny day exploring Bristol - Deborah and Andrew van der Beek picked us up from Daniel and Frith’s and drove us to their, um, somewhat idyllic home in Lacock, which they lease from the National Trust.

This is the house at the epicentre of the ‘panic’ in Cranford – best of all BBC classic serialisations, in my opinion – from which the shot is fired to protect Mrs Jamieson. It is also Casa Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) in the latest Harry Potter film, and several American tourists who were old enough to know better accosted us to ascertain this ‘fact’.

Now it’s a kind of freedom hall for serpent and sackbut doyen Andrew, who's run several of his enterprising summer schools here, and for Deborah’s astounding paintings and sculptures, including her Ned Kelly sequence which she brought to the Twelve Star Gallery last year. I’m so pleased that, following our discussion at the exhibition (though not through my sole influence by any means), Deborah subsequently turned to my literary hero of heroes, Don Quixote, and his poor old nag Rosinante. There’s a big Don Q beneath a Ned Kelly picture

and a smaller model which started life as a maquette, and which I covet:

There are plenty of ‘bests’ for me here: best Don Q sculptures, best bathroom since Parmigianino’s Diana and Actaeon frescoes in Fontanellato, decorated by D in A’s absence...

...and best garden, or multiplicity of gardens – herbaceous borders, hedges, stream-girded meadows, kitchen garden - dominated by this green giant

with another impressive earth-woman in a central rotunda (open to the skies as yet).

We packed a great deal into one Sunday, but I’ll have to postpone a few thoughts on that as I’m off to talk before the CBSO/Nelsons Firebird Prom tonight. More to follow, too, on last night’s bumper concert with lively, if truncated, Petrushka and the wondrous Martinu Concerto for Two Pianos.

Thursday 23 July 2009

Green and pleasant land?

That, without the question mark, was how some unwitting PR person advertised a Royal Philharmonic concert last season ending with the big bang, grand slam of Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony; black and brutal would have been closer to the mark. And in Jez Butterworth’s new play (I wouldn't advertise it as a comedy, exactly) Jerusalem at the Royal Court Theatre you know that the show-song delivery of the Parry/Blake anthem by a winged fairy (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) beneath a faded St George flag can only be rudely interrupted. Later the fairy is revealed as a missing 15 year old girl (and I'm not giving away much of the plot there). All Royal Court production photos here are by Simon Annand.

The memorable stage and lighting designs, by the way, which don't figure enough in the images I have, are by the great Richard Jones's regular collaborators, Ultz and Mimi Jordan Sherin, here working for Butterworth's director of choice, Ian Rickson.

The vocal-solo 'Jerusalem' is blasted away as the dropcloth rises on a rave outside the trailer of Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron: king of a Wiltshire wood, former local Evil Knievel until he ‘died’ in a bike-leap too far, now forest troll, Peter Pan, Pied Piper and refuge both for the aimless young and the lost not-so-young (Mackenzie Crook as Ginger, a consummate performance). Byron’s time is up: in the morning fall-out, a Community Liaison Officer posts an eviction notice on the caravan door.

Does Butterworth sentimentalise country semi-ferals? They’re all likeable; and yet in my limited experience the Glastonbury and Taunton folk dabbling in the spiritual smorgasbord of pagan England present a sadder, more complex picture. Is it enough to offer local youths anaesthetics from the pain of life and baldly declare ‘school is a lie’? Isn’t it harder to try and show active beauty in music, nature, words (oh dear, here I go Fotherington-Thomasing again)? Butterworth raises laughs that are sitcommish at times, yet they’re thrust home by a mostly brilliant ensemble with a good sense of comic timing. Playing the not-entirely-devoted courtiers of Mark Rylance's Falstaffian lord of misrule here are Crook, Charlotte Mills, Jessica Barden, Danny Kirrane and Alan David (very touching as a poetic old professor).

I felt slightly uneasy, all the same, surrounded by a fashionable throng of soap stars and other actors watching their friends play rural chavs.

Two things make this a rich experience, and they’re inseparable. Butterworth gives the chameleonic, ambiguous Rooster speeches and scenes which make you believe in the numinous power of country lore; and that charismatic, unpredictable genius of our stage Mark Rylance makes time stand still when they happen.

He stumbles over his lines a bit at first, maybe deliberately to give an air of realism, but already that uncanny knack he has of fixing individuals in the audience makes you complicit. In the second act, he impersonates the 90-foot giant with whom he’s supposed to have conversed, a moment of sheer theatrical hold-your-breath magic. And in Act Three the full stillness, danger and pathos come through. As I have the programme-text and the windbaggery of blogging means I don’t have to watch my word count, here he is talking about some of the things he’s witnessed in his romany existence:

‘I’ve seen a lot of strange things in this wood. (Beat.) I seen a plague of frogs. Of bees. Of bats. I seen a rainbow hit the earth and set fire to the ground. I seen the air go still and all sound stop and a golden stag clear this clearing. Fourteen-point antlers of solid gold. I heard an oak tree cry. I’ve heard beech sing hymns. I seen a man they buried in the churchyard Friday sitting under a beech eating an apple on Saturday morning. When the light goes, and I stare out into the trees, there’s always pairs of eyes out there in the dark, watching. Foxes. Badgers. Ghosts. I seen lots of ghosts. (Beat.) I seen women burn love letters. Men dig holes in the dead of night. I seen a young girl walk down here in the cold dawn, take all her clothes off, wrap her arms round a broad beech tree and give birth to a baby boy. I seen first kisses. Last kisses. I seen all the world pass by and go. Laughing. Crying. Talking to themselves. Kicking the bracken. (Beat.) Elves and fairies, you say. (Beat.) Elves and fairies.’

All this has an authenticity because I know that Rylance holds fervent beliefs in alternative ritual. Some of this is touched upon in a vivid Torygraph interview which makes me feel very nostalgic for the Globe's golden age (it seems I must have seen Rylance in Brenton's Bloody Poetry at the Royal Court, too, before I knew who he was, though I remember it as utterly compelling).

So the final drumming to summon spirits – I’ll say no more – feels very real. If Rylance doesn’t walk off with a clutch of awards come prizegiving time, there’ll have to be an even more astonishing performance in the offing. Jerusalem may not be a great play throughout – of that I’m still unsure – and it's generously overstuffed with ideas, but it does have a great last act, and that’s one of the hardest things in the world to bring off. It haunted my dreams and I'm still, as you can gather, thinking about it. Good news: the sold-out run has been extended to 22 August.

Moongazing is one of the few country activities not much touched upon in Jerusalem. To complement that fun Melies image, here’s the cover of an old ‘man on the moon special’ I dug out from what remains of my childhood collection (I’ve still got a Doctor Who 10th anniversary brochure, which I’m assuming the fanatics would pay a fair bit for, and a few old film mementoes).

So forty years have passed since those images hit our black and white telly. I remember them well.

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Diverse Violettas

Marie (born Alphonsine) Duplessis, seen here at the opera or the theatre in a watercolour by Camille Roqueplan, was the real-life model for Dumas fils’s Dame aux Camellias, Marguerite Gautier, who in turn became Violetta Valery in Verdi’s La traviata. A fortnight ago we ended our five Mondays on the opera at the City Lit having sampled multiple Violettas as well as more than a few Alfredos and Germont peres.

Even though it’s the second time in twenty years I’ve taken the students through Verdi’s middle-period masterpiece, I came away with new respect and amazement for both the intimate cast of the love-music and the music-theatre boldness in so much of the score. I suppose the biggest revelation of all was listening to what Muti does with the action numbers at Flora's party on what is unquestionably the best CD Traviata I've heard.

Violetta has returned, heartbroken but secretive, from her country idyll to her old Parisian haunts and her old patron; Alfredo frenziedly misunderstands and torments her. The card-playing scene, its hectic twitching three times interrupted by Violetta’s plaintive phrases at the same tempo – only Muti and Scotto, in my experience, manage this – is followed by the equally pregnant exchange between the lovers at loggerheads. There’s enough material here for a couple of extended duets, but Verdi compresses it all into two minutes.

It always interests me more to get to the nub of how the music informs the drama in these classes than to linger over too many interpretations, but Violetta’s big Act 1 monologue cries out for it. And so, because I don’t believe in the handout culture but I think many of the students wanted an aide-memoire of what they’d heard, here it is in the shape of a short summary as to how we worked our way through the aria and cabaletta.

We used Callas’s masterclass as transcribed by John Ardoin as a constant companion, and heard her in the celebrated (if in the last act disinctly dodgy) ‘Lisbon Traviata’ work her way through the recit. Compared the short, breathy rests at the start of ‘Ah, fors’e lui’ with Gilda’s ‘Caro nome’, both sung by Sutherland. Then heard how a couple of autocratic Russians did their own thing with the refrains and fancy cadenzas: Antonina Nezhdanova in 1906, and Maria Kuznetsova in 1920. Luisa Tetrazzini in 1911 had to take the palm for her cadenza and the whole of ‘Sempre libera’.

Thanks to a link on jondrytay's blog, a film of Edita Gruberova revealed to me that she’s more than a match for Tetrazzini in both 'Ah, fors'e lui' and 'Sempre libera'. As for ‘to sing the extra E flat at the end or not to sing it’, we had Sutherland in ‘The Art of the Prima Donna’ giving us the fullest note you could wish to hear, and Scotto past her vocal but not her expressive prime let off the hook by Muti, who never approves of such things. We watched Gheorghiu for Solti doing the lot on DVD; I recalled how he told me at the time ‘the girl is a piece of butter toast, she can do anything’, and back then, she certainly could.

As an optional extra not entirely approved of by some students, we heard The Worst Singer of All Time, Las Vegas socialite Sari Bunchuk Wontner, trying to get on track for eight hellish minutes (though the orchestra and tenor she hired are just fine). I remain eternally grateful to La Cieca for prodding me in the direction of this piece of sheer vocal filth, to be found on a superbly well presented disc showing us how much worse than Florence Foster Jenkins it’s possible to get.

Moving on to the matter of theatrical expression, I was more or less won over to the sometimes slapdash art of Anna Netrebko in the febrile Willy Decker Salzburg production on DVD.

Both Trebs and Villazon burn for their director, and in Rolando’s case it’s surely a case of burn up. He seems, shall we say, a little hyper in the accompanying documentary, which makes for fascinating viewing. Although the second party scene is shatteringly intense, I didn’t so much like Decker’s last act, so we turned to Stratas in the Zeffirelli film and I found to my horror that he’d shorn about ten minutes off that most succinct of endgames. Never mind, Stratas is magnificent, especially in ‘Gran dio, morir si giovane’.

Well, I shall no doubt watch Renee's Covent Garden Traviata when it comes out on DVD, but from the clips I’ve seen, I don’t hold out too much hope. Her new verismo arias disc is very curdled, the emoting in the extremes of 'Sola, perduta, abbandonata' horribly forced, though as ever there’s plenty of unknown rep alongside the plums (who knows Leoncavallo's Zaza, for instance?). The 1998 Decca Rusalka, on the other hand, is amazingly good. As with Trebs, I eat my words when I hear such great singing; though it’s still the case with both that you never know what you’re going to get.

Tuesday 21 July 2009

Two wheels through the Weald

Yesterday I put my bike on a train at Charing Cross, alighted at Robertsbridge in East Sussex and cycled to just beyond the Kent border near Bodiam to see an amazing collection of Russian scores and manuscripts. I won't write about that in case hordes should invade the Weald privacy of the collector's delightful widow, who served me an excellent lunch and put me to work planting a couple of rosebushes, but it's time to touch on a few incidental churches.

St Mary's Salehurst - 'long and large...built of Hastings sandstone between 1250 and 1360'(W.S. Mitchell in the Shell Guide to East Sussex) - boasts a grand nave, one of the biggest in Sussex.

As I was taking a guilty diversion on my journey, I didn't stay for long enough to discover the 14th century birds in one of the windows, but I did like the 15th century glass in St Nicholas Sandhurst. 'Poor quality', opines John Newman in the Pevsner guide, 'as C15 glass often is' - but the naive execution has bags of charm. Here's St George

and a jolly little pig at the foot of a saint with a sword* I couldn't identify:

St Nicholas also boasts a massive tower of 'golden sandstone' (Pennethorne Hughes).

Unfortunately there's local controversy afoot about the lights installed by a certain big cheese. We know how resistant the regions are to any sort of change (viz the absurd fuss over Maggi Hambling's Britten memorial scallop on Aldeburgh beach, which I adore) but these are hideous, don't you think, and too claustrophobic as they hang from low arches.

The whole day had a dreamlike quality, and I must confess the many Weald hills had me dropping from exhaustion - I had to get off and push the bike up several - but at least there was a bonus of beech-shaded lanes (pictured at the top).

I promised not to talk much about the Russian scores, but let me just say how amazed I was to see a facsimile of Musorgsky's original Pictures at an Exhibition. The handwriting is so incredibly neat and pleasing to the eye. I wouldn't have expected it from the bleary alcoholic of the famous Repin picture - though that, of course, was painted just before Musorgsky's death. The original m/s is lodged in Moscow.

This reproduction cuts off the right side of the page, and doesn't show the most amazing parts of the writing (notably a cross-hatched removal of one bar in the 'Great Gate'), but it gives some idea.

*Or it might be a monk with a staff, if I re-read my Pevsner correctly.

Friday 17 July 2009

Pre-Proms surfacing

This has become relentlessly operatic, I know, but to paraphrase the motto of our Yankeediva (see below), ‘it’s all been good’ – unsurpassably great, in fact, what with Rusalka, Falstaff and Barbiere close on the heels of meeting the Anderssons. And it may continue a bit operaticky for a while, when it continues at all, until I get to my first Proms the week after next. Photos above and below are by Chris Christodoulou for the BBC, whom I'll be calling upon over the season as before.

Was going to Haitink’s Mahler 9 on Monday but decided to give up the ticket as friend Andrew Hammond is celebrating his imminent succentorship at St Paul's Cathedral in style. I felt it would do him a dishonour to roll up late and Gustav-drunk (those last cries and whispers, if they work, are not going to leave one in a party mood). How many times do I need to hear Haitink conduct Mahler 9, anyway? Supreme musician though he is, his interpretations are rather carved in stone these days, so I don’t expect much variation from the last occasion. The LSO, at least, will be relieved to be digging a little deeper than they did with Gergiev last June.

So my first two Proms will probably be Petrushka with an 8-year old on 27 July and Firebird on the Tuesday because I now have to talk Stravinsky with the best animateur in the business, Chris Cook, at 5.15 in the Royal College of Music just south of the Albert Hall. I’m replacing indisposed choreographer Richard Alston, big shoes into which to step. The scheduled appearance is for 19 August, when I’ll be discussing Shostakovich with that nice Andrew McGregor and a fellow Russianist I very much respect, Philip Ross Bullock. Edited versions are due to appear on R3 in the 20-minute intervals. Crikey, the studio folk will have to work fast to whittle us down from the three-quarters-of-an-hour mark.

The next week and a bit, where no Proms hugely appeal, will be a good time to take stock, have leisurely suppers with friends and maybe catch up on a play or two. In the meantime, the Proms schedule is once again to be found here.

Amazing how many Proms have sold out already (in the seats department only, of course – I intend to hit the arena for quite a few).

On Sunday - just a couple of updates to 'Farewell, Ted and Joan', which was so soon left behind in the ongoing whirl of life. There's an informed precis of the various obits on, while in the Observer, Boudicca Downes talks about her extraordinary parents and the last moments. Incidentally, the naming of 'Crac' (Caractacus) and 'Bo' misled me into thinking Ted and Joan must be flag-waving tories, whereas he was a staunch socialist and a passionate NHS supporter. Their liberal conversation soon disabused me of that error.

Thursday 16 July 2009

Nelson salutes the Barber

Horatio met his Trafalgar, so to speak, eleven years before the premiere of Rossini's Barber of Seville at Rome's Teatro Argentina (still a beautiful theatre, incidentally, though the production of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte we saw there was atrocious). I'm sure the old seadog would have enjoyed the Royal Opera's live, five-star screening beneath his column (did he go to the opera in Naples, I wonder? He turns up in Sardou's - though not Puccini's - Tosca). A preliminary word about the amateur shots: I'd never do it in the theatre, not even for the curtain-calls (a recent bane of blogging IMHO), but the relaxed spirit of the occasion and the nature of the piece encouraged me in this instance.

A vast crowd of floaters, dogged Prommers like myself and the comfortably seated cognoscenti loved it, and were honoured with not only great vision but also excellent sound. Not having sampled one of these events al fresco before - jondrytay has a vivid report of Renee's Trafalgar Traviata on his blog - I was tickled pink by the sheer accessible, perish the word, exuberance of it all. Proud, too, that even those passers-by who didn't, to be honest, seem to cast even a glance at the screen, could if they wanted see attractive stars at the top of the vocal game in such a colourful (Caurier/Leiser aka 'Mosh and Posh') production.

The huge publicity surrounding Joyce DiDonato's foot mishap onstage and her subsequent determination to play Rosina in a wheelchair can only have helped.

It only goes to show not only that a Yankeediva can be practical, but also that someone with La DiD's dramatic flair can make a real interpretation out of a spirited young girl even more restricted in her movements than Dr Bartolo intended. As she says on her blog, three weeks of intensive rehearsal went out the window and everyone moved hell and high water to do the business around her. Clearly it was she who should have wrecked the room during the storm rather than directing Berta (the splendid Jennifer Rhys Davies, a dead ringer for Montserrat Caballe with a schnozzle) to do it for her. But she carried it all off with energy and style, and her wheelchair acting was far more convincing than Anthony Sher's thousand and one things to do with a pair of crutches as Richard III.

And the singing, my word, the singing: such artistry and playfulness from DiDiva to match Juan Diego Florez's Almaviva.

Actually, I can only take what sounds to me like a rather reedy tone in small doses, certainly not a whole recital's worth, but boy, can Florez deliver the coloratura goods and the top notes in the big final aria, 'Cessa di piu resistere' (the one that's usually cut and which Rossini recycled for Cenerentola). The crowds both in the Opera House and out in the London night went wild.

Since Caurier and Leiser are no Jones or Kupfer, they didn't get evenly accomplished acting across the board; the less thoughtful the actor, as with Pietro Spagnoli's good-enough Figaro, the more pantomimic the results. But there was a de luxe 'Calunnia' from the great Furlanetto, and Corbelli as Bartolo would have to top the bill in teaching everyone how to do classic buffo acting without going over the top. The lady on the controversial empty plinth wasn't going to look at Basilio or pay much attention to Bartolo's hectoring.

I reckon she could have livened up her act with a pair of opera-glasses, but all she had with her was a camera.

Pappano is as adjusted to the spring of the Rossini style as he is to everything else he touches (Wagner maybe still excepted, though I didn't catch his last Ring, so I can't say how he may have progressed there). Here he is in front of the Royal Opera curtains introducing the show, personable as ever albeit at a distance. By the way, the often torrential rain stopped just before the opera began and held off for the rest of the evening, leaving in its wake some dramatically lovely skies.

As in the wonderful Figaro a couple of years ago, Pappano opted to sparkle on the continuo, too, though I couldn't hear the harpsichord from our coign of vantage below the portico of the National Gallery (we dashed off for a plate of pasta at the interval, which meant we missed only the music lesson scene, shockingly casual I know, but I don't think Rossini would have minded, and got seats for the rest of Act Two).

Now WHAT, by the way, is NG supremo Nicholas Penny thinking of when he goes so far as to say he wants the pedestrian walkway in front of HIS Gallery turned back into a road? I'm disappointed, though I can see where his argument about rabble-rousing and ear-splittingly loud amplified events began. Yet for every ten bad buskers, there's an event like this which has to make it all worthwhile. I have nothing against the temporary occupation of the plinth, either. My companion of the evening and I both had the same idea: if we'd booked a slot, we could have read Books I and II of Paradise Lost out loud, for our own pleasure if the crowd couldn't hear us.