Friday, 6 November 2009

Chaz and Ben

Lord Britten would surely have forgiven Sir Charles all his past innuendoes and applauded his magnificent return to the fold if he could have seen the nearly-84-year old tearing into his most concentrated masterpiece, The Turn of the Screw, in the Coliseum revival of David McVicar's English National/Mariinsky Opera production. It prompted me to look back at what Mackerras had to say about his chequered career with the Britten establishment when I interviewed him for Gramophone in 1992 during the Gloriana sessions (and, yes, they were still amusing themselves in the control room with the notorious 'young boys...bottoms' text to the horn tune of the Serenade).

The great man, seen above in the first of several production photos by Clive Barda, returns from enforced time out to endorse Claudio Arrau's assertion that old age brings with it not the expected serenity but renewed intensity. The feral cannonades of the jungle drums beneath the Governess's coach-rocking journey to Bly, the shrill edge of the church bells and the sensual clamour of the night ensemble all bore that out. And the players must surely have been responding to Sir Charles's meticulous ear in their many nuanced solos.

Problems remain with the production, and looking back on what I wrote when I first saw it two years ago, they're much the same: the interfering scene-shifters/servants who ruin the stillness of the climactic interlude in Act One, the boards which creak under Quint's all too mortal feet, the over large spaces to fill - with panels that reminded my companion Edwina of bistro windows - and the unsubtle underlining of the children's unambiguous involvement with the 'ghosts'. I worried that Nazan Fikret, now surely in her late teens, would be too much the Infant Phenomenon as Flora, but her intense performance is still riveting even in the later, Linda Blair moments.

Only the males are slightly under par: Hugh Beckwith, the second Miles, remains too stiff and of course it's hard for a treble to project into the Coli vasts, while Michael Colvin's energetic Quint is too much the Quasimodoish Hammer horror and far from the seductive Andalusian serenader Britten surely had in mind at times.

Britten's taxing vocal battles/duets between powerful women mean that both Ann Murray and Cheryl Barker challenge Rebecca Evans's more dreamily lyrical Governess to rise to their searing levels. Evans floats lines with Mozartian perfection and acts the lady's nervous collapses very well indeed

but doesn't convey any innate neurosis in her voice and on this occasion didn't move me in the final scene (though other folk I respect were in tears at the end). I'd love to see what the lustrous Barker might make of the sinning-or-sinned-against dilemma; and isn't it time to welcome the ever-waxing Sue Gritton, who's just been wowing Cheryl's compatriots down under as Ellen Orford, to the role? Neil Armfield's village-hall Grimes looks fascinating.

Our friends in Sydney have been obsessing on this show, and it would seem with good cause. Read the polyphony of praise in the 'scrapbook' of Prima la musica (with thanks to Sarah Noble for alerting me to the Gritton gold nugget above).

Now, it's time for In the Cage, and I don't mean another of great Henry's short stories (good, by the way, to see another James lover come out of the closet in John Adams's surprising blog).

I'm going to make an odd comparison, but I do think that Britten's opera would have fitted far better in the relatively intimate space of the Playhouse Theatre where a reduced-scale but pretty perfect Cage aux folles is currently playing (production photos of the Cagelles and John Barrowman by Catherine Ashmore). And the other thing to say is that I not only laughed myself silly but shed a few more tears at Thursday's performance than I had the night before (and don't get me wrong, Britten's shocker can reduce me to pulp).

This was in no small measure due to the show-stopping heft of John Barrowman's 'I Am What I Am' and feelgood 'The Best of Times'. But I must reveal my ignorance and say how the whole, iron-fist-in-lurex-glove event took me by surprise. I either never knew, or had forgotten, that the songs were by Jerry Herman of Hello, Dolly! and Mame fame; but the penny was already dropping when one of the first act numbers reminded me of that hit song from Mack and Mabel so irresistibly sung by Bernadette Peters.

And, yes, the old-fashioned sweetness coats a show about gay togetherness, alternative families and acceptance of all sorts which hit the French cinema in, can I believe it, the late 1970s and took on a new lease of life when the great Harvey Fierstein wrote the book for the musical. There's an excellent article in the programme by Michael Coveney in which Fierstein tells us how he 'fought to cast homosexuals in the roles - if you stand up and sing "I Am What I Am" without feeling your sexuality and your persecution right down to your painted toenails it's never going to be quite the same thing'.

It would be fair to say that the lovely Barrowman, such a great role model even if he is gifted with an unusually pretty face and such fine teeth, does feel it down to his 'painted toenails', that Simon Burke as his loving keeper is just as good and touching, that the rest of the cast sing, camp and act their socks off. Here are Burke's Georges and Barrowman's Albin trying to play it straight for the son's girlfriend's family, with Syrus Lowe's maid/miniMozart Jacob incapable of doing so.

Anyway it all ends, as the Broadway show never could, with a passionate, tender kiss. So what's most extraordinary of all is that some members of my mother's village coven, several of whom have hitherto behaved more like the genteel vomiting ladies in Little Britain, can't get enough of this and keep going back. She's in for a treat when she sees it for the first time next week.


Miranda Hawkes said...

from Miranda Hawkes
What is all this about being gay OR having children(cf your previous blogs). Lots of gay couples I know have children through legal paternity or maternity rights - the law does not nor cannot stop this. One of the most devoted same sex couples I know, albeit wealthy and therefore able to obtain good legal advice, have each fathered a child(one son, one daughter) through a willing surrogate and donor insemination, and all seem happy and contented. This is the 21st century, and such things are socially and medically possible. Come on David!
Miranda Hawkes

Sarah said...

I absolutely agree about Susan Gritton as the Governess - that role has come up repeatedly as we've been talking about what we'd like to hear her sing, should Opera Australia ever manage to entice her back. Because of course, the entire opera-going population of Sydney is now completely and utterly in love with her after her Ellen Orford, and regretting not having taken measures to stop her ever leaving the country in the first place.

David said...

Miranda - erm, where did I exactly say either...or? I think you're referring to my comment to Lobo, in which I simply stated my own position, which was that for me the question of having children never arose. Surprise, surprise, I am well aware of the alternatives and delighted so many people take advantage of them.

Actually it's quite topical to La Cage aux folles, which as early as the late 1970s was presenting a gay couple bringing up a son together as utterly natural. And of course Harvey followed suit in Torch Song Trilogy.

Sarah - if a large-scale operation was to prove difficult in the immediate future, you Australians could do worse than engage La Gritton to sing Sibelius's Luonnotar, with or without the wacky wonderful set in which she appeared as part of the ENO double bill directed by Fiona Shaw. That was when I realised she'd successfully made the transition from light lyric to lyric-dramatic.

JVaughan said...


Thank you very much for referring us to that _Gramophone_ interview with Sir Charles during the _Gloriana_ sessions! I was unaware, until comparatively-recently, that the then-future Sir Charles had had any personal association with Britten, and that that association had gone bad at one point. I was further under the impression that this breach was never healed, but it would now appear, from this article, that a reconciliation was indeed effected. I wish we had a recording of the world-premiere performance of _Noyes_ _Fludde_, though the Del Mar account we do have, in the Church of the work's premiere, is indeed fine. To me, there is much of _Gloriana_ which sounds like it was written by a composer _MUCH_-more conservative than the one who wrote even _Peter_ _Grimes_, but I like the opera nonetheless, and _WHAT_ a cast Sir Charles had for that recording! I also like _Billy_ _Budd_, and have been debating as to whether or not to acquire the Mackerras DVD since the cast is virtually, if not exactly, the same as that on Britten's own recording. Yet, from what we heard on _CD_ _Review_, the Clagard sounded a bit more menacing than he did for the composer, and, if he really was, that could be a decider. I missed all but a few minutes of last Saturday's broadcast of _The_ _Turn_ _Of_ _The_ _Screw_ due to an important-for-me football game, which turned out _GLORIOUSLY_ (Navy won over Notre Dame for the second consecutive time in Notre Dame Stadium!), but I should have opportunity to hear it complete soon. If I am not mistaken, La Gritton has indeed sung the Governess already, or is it just in her repertoire? I join apparently many in liking her Miss Wordsworth! As for _Grimes_, I, probably heretically, would have to agree with Sir Charles about sometimes wishing for a singer other than Sir Peter, particularly at the point in his big final monologue when he sings that one of his apprentices died, just died. Unless I am mistaken, Sir Peter is the only singer I have heard who does not pause between "just" and "died," and I personally think a pause works well there. Yet, as Sir Charles and others point out, Britten would be happy if one does just what he asks for, and therefore we may have to defer to him on this, and other points if and where applicable. As for Britten and boys, someone in an Australian blog referred me to a _SCATHING_ article on this subject, which quoted Britten as making some _EXTREMELY_-coarse comments about the pleasures of molesting boys. Yet in your article, and from talking with a singer who worked closely with Britten, it would appear that he did not give in to any temptations he _MIGHT_ have had in that direction.

To close off topic, have you yet heard the new Somm recording of Elgar's _The_ _Fringes_ _Of_ _The_ _Fleet_, etc.? I personally find it a delightful programme, and am _MOST_-pleased to _FINALLY_ have Ansell's _The_ _Windjammer_ _Overture_ in its original orchestration, I having long loved this unpretentious gem, in a transcription for military band as performed by the US Coast Guard Band on a tape they kindly sent me in the 1960's. I cannot imagine "Shenandoah" being treated much more beautifully! And, having mentioned the US military, I would wish any US Marines, should they visit this space, a belated _HAPPY_ _BIRTHDAY_! I sometimes wish I could have worn that uniform!

Hoping, as usual, that this finds all of you well, and with renewed best wishes,

J. V.

David said...

There's a big debate on the R3 Messageboards about Britten and boys. It seemed to me that mixing up the problem of being gay in difficult times with falling in love with pre-pubescent boys was a sticking point. The simple fact is that, not having acted on his desires, Britten did the right thing. If he had acted and been charged by a victim, then now as then he would be facing a prison sentence (and my own opinion on this would be, deservedly so).

Yet there's no doubt that this fed into, and was sublimated in, his tortured and complicated art. Making Turn of the Screw just about paedophilia, though, is incredibly reductive.

For a sympathetic, complex attitude, I can't recommend John Bridcut's 'Britten's Children' too strongly.

JVaughan said...

It is good to know that there are homosexuals who are good enough not to impose their lifestyle on others. I have known, and know, some such!

J. V.

p.s. I have yet to get to _Death_ _In_ _Venice_, partly due to seeking the lowest possible price on the Britten recording, but must eventually do so.

David said...

Erm - I'm not sure that anything I wrote gave you cause for that remark, JV. I would only quote Goethe: 'to merely tolerate is to insult. True liberalism means acceptance'. And I think, in this country at least, we're getting there.

John said...

So it was Goethe who said that. I've been wondering what the source was for years. Thanks for identifying it.

David said...

So had I, John. I only came across it last week in Amos Elon's typically readable The Pity of It All ('a portrait of the German-Jewish epoch 1743-1944'). But I'd long been struck by the Latin root of 'tolerate', which means 'to bear'.

JVaughan said...

I was prompted by you discussing Britten's restraint when it came to boys, but there indeed have been, and are, homosexuals in my personal experience who have enough respect not to try to fondle, etc., people, whether they be child or adult, who they know to be heterosexual, and do not even need to ask if they may do so. Maybe the reference to imposing one's lifestyle was ill-chosen since the issue is doubtless overall rights for you. I myself am basically a conservative as I think I have told you, but have been reconsidering the matter of homosexuality after reading Professor Peter J. Gomes' book on the _Bible_, _The_ _Good_ _Book_. You might know that he is Minister in Harvard's Memorial Church. Though I have not read its specifics, I would tend to favour the newly-passed hate-crimes legislation in this country, though hope it does not curb the free speech of those who still oppose homosexuality, provided they can express their views without being viscious and the like. I heard a radio minister this past Saturday who favours the death penalty for homosexuals, and he was expressing his opposition in a viscious manner, using hateful terms. It further seemed that he favoured individuals having the authority to carry this out, whereas my current understanding of Scripture would have criminal matters of whatever legitimate sort, in New-Testament times at least, handled by the State (please see _Romans_ Chapter 13 in particular should you wish), our Constitution also stating that noone is to be denied life, liberty or property without due process of law. Mr. Sheppard should not have been subjected to the treatment that he was!

J. V.

David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David said...

It still concerns me that there might be a confusion in your mind between homesexuals and pederasty. I don't personally know any of the former who have an attraction to the latter (at least not that I'm aware of). Britten would seem to be a special case.

As for Christian acceptance, I can do no better than refer you to Bishop Desmond Tutu's amazing and clear introduction to Gene Robinson's book (and IMO the intro is more essential than the main text).

But I do like the fact that we can discuss such things fairly here, so thank you for clarifying.

David said...

Curses, I binned that once to remove 'homesexuals'. I know, people who get a thrill out of their own personal castle.

JVaughan said...

Does the addendum to your above repeated comment mean that you now understand what I was saying, about which you expressed concern? If not, virtually all of my last comment, apart from referring to homosexuals whether they be conventional ones or paedophiles, exclusively concerned the former, even though, of course, this discussion was rooted in whether or not Britten was a practicing paedophile. I was unaware of your considered observation, to the effect that you currently do not know of anyone who is both a conventional homosexual and a paedophile.

I obviously do not know how long you have been in your current residence, but I have been in mine for much of the past fifty years, that anniversary, if all goes well, to come on 12 February next. Need I say more?

J. V.

p.s. On the day you visited Belgrave Square, doubtless some pure and fair hearts were beating!

David said...

JV - not quite sure I understand the connection about my dwelling, or what you mean by the fair hearts in Belgravia comment?

JVaughan said...

In the first instance, I was responding to your comment about the typographical error you made once on "homosexual," "homesexual" or something like that, seeming to relate it to people's love of their castles, presumably meaning homes. I love _MY_ castle, and was trying to convey that. When you mentioned Belgrave Square, it reminded me of the lines in _Iolanthe_, "Hearts just as pure and fair may beat in Belgrave Square as in the lonely air of Seven Dials." I originally was going to phrase it something like, "When you visited Belgrave Square, I hope you found some pure and fair hearts beating," but later, being reminded of the serious, yet happy, nature of your visit, it was obvious that such hearts were beating there, thus the change." To be sure, this is all outside of Gilbert's original context, but I meant it as a jest, and hope the correction made it a bit more appropriate than it would have been had I made my original remark, though probably a bit less whimsical.

J. V.

Colin Dunn said...

I must see La Cage, David. Too good to miss (although it's not my thing generally), and you gave it a good write up. Your remark about an "iron-fist-in-a-lurex-glove" is perfect. Bravo!

Incidentally, I heard Turn of the Screw on Radio Three the other weekend and was more moved by it than I have been in years. The cyclical key structure has passed me by in the opera house, but on radio, in the privacy of my own kitchen, score in hand and concentrating on the music, it all made sense. One of those moments that makes you utter, "Why haven't I heard it before now?"

David said...

You'll have to be quick, Colin - I think John Barrowman leaves the cast at the end of this week to do panto.

I'm sure musically that TotS would have come across as a dream. There are infinite amounts of work to do on the theme and variations, but all of it pertains to the drama and its ambiguities, so it's worth it.

JVaughan said...

There is a detailed article about this opera on the Britten/Pears Website, so might do well to re-read it now that I am getting to know the work a little at least. I must, as you suggest, try to get better acquainted with the instrumental variations and how they relate to the drama. I listened to the Britten recording of _The_ _Rape_ _Of_ _Lucretia_, one of my favourites of his, the other day.

J. V.