Sunday 27 February 2011

Elegising the vibe

It's actually something about 'harshing the vibe' which a transfigured Royal Opera Chorus sings in the company's smash-hit unveiling of Turnage's Anna Nicole. Librettist Richard Thomas certainly has an energetic finger on the pulse of American patois and cliche, and the lively filth which strews the racy first act doesn't outstay its welcome as did the childish repetitions of the tedious Jerry Springer: the Opera.

Plus, of course, Anna Nicole has much better music. Better even than I thought I was going to get this time round from the fitfully brilliant Turnage. It was back to the febrile pop-synthesis of his first great success, based on Berkoff's Greek, rather than the would-be respectability of The Silver Tassie, with its unforgiveably bad trenches scene redeemed by some superb music in the last two acts. But above all, it struck me how Turnage was tapping into what's always been his deepest suit. In amongst the fluent big-band false highs and the trashy neon there pulses the elegiac saxophone-drenched music which made me want to sob in his concert-hall masterpiece for jazz group and orchestra Blood on the Floor.

And this makes sense. In the lamenting slow movements of that work, he grieved for the brother who died of a heroin overdose. That's possibly why the most moving scene - and there are quite a few - in Anna Nicole is the one in which the misguided model's teenage son Daniel (Dominic Rowntree) comes back to life and sings a little list of all the drugs in the book. It actually works better, I think, than the abrupt end of the opera, but that's not bad either. Rowntree as Daniel is pictured below among Bill Cooper's production shots for the Royal Opera in the scene where Eva-Maria Westbroek's sympathetic-from-the-start heroine still craves the public adulation while her scumbag lawyer-boyfriend Stern (Gerald Finley, still too nice as always) plots the ultimate exploitations in another subcutaneously wonderful set-piece.

Did I say sympathetic-from-the-start? Well, I'd never have believed it, but the morality-tale model who crashed and burned so publicly does what she never did in any of the tabloid reports and makes us understand her own particular road to an American-dream fast buck. That's partly due to the goofy, Marilynesque charm Westbroek applies, which is never there in any of the real-life photos (I've not seen footage of ANS in action).

You do really believe that as a mother, she did what she could in her own uncomprehending way; that the marriage to nearly-nonagenarian J Howard Marshall II (Alan Oke, excellent in the role that Philip Langridge would have played so well) was clear-eyed on both sides; and the grind of low wages is, in any case, brilliantly summed up in a bluesy procession of Houston WalMart zombies.

There was never going to be any doubt that the winning team of Pappano, Richard Jones and top singers - a recipe so brilliantly served up this time last year in their perfect production of Prokofiev's The Gambler - would do it all the fullest justice. Jones adds to his armoury of Smileys and animals (this shot, I think, is by Tristram Kenton, who sees more of the bigger picture)

an ever-waxing team of sinister black cameraheads, and as usual knits everything together with splendid symmetry. Pappano seemed to believe in what he was conducting - the big Act 2 interlude burns - and the brass's big band sound was worthy of John Wilson. The ensemble includes some of the music-theatre names Jones likes to work with, and there's a blazing turn from Sue Bickley as Anna Nicole's morality-chorus Ma (pictured below with Westbroek).

In fact those two set me thinking: the Pappano-Jones partnership's next venture HAS to be the Brecht-Weill Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Westbroek would play Jenny, possibly to Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts's Jimmy Mahoney (give the guy a break, Covent Garden). And now that Anja Silja's just that bit too old, Bickley would play the Widow Begbick. That would be the perfect follow-up to this very Weill-for-the-millennium show.

Which, by the way, is very definitely an opera in its fluid/abrupt quick-changes as well as the demands it places upon the singers and orchestra. You may not come out singing the tunes - except the deliberately and ironically skewed homage to Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man - but melodic lines there are, and often very beautiful ones. Even if the end result is hardly profound - nor is it meant to be - the show's demands are too complex for the extra-operatic West End rep, and I'm sure that Jones, Pappano and Turnage will keep it to themselves at the high level it's given here. But it will be back, it looks like it's going to be filmed, and no doubt it will make it to the Met, too.

Saturday 26 February 2011

A week in Mahler

Barely a month goes by at the BBC Music Magazine* without a new Mahler recording or two to review, and the releases have been accumulating in the second of the two anniversary years. Do I ever get sick of the limited diet? Hand on heart, no, since these symphonies remain the supreme challenge of the orchestral repertoire - unless the performance happens to be lifeless from the start, which means there's an awful lot of unsatisfying listening ahead.

In terms of live performances, it's as well to ration, which means choosing wisely. I knew, for instance, that Belohlavek's Sixth would be the one to hear this year, since his long-term BBC Symphony Orchestra cycle has been so uniformly excellent, considered and - unusual for the unassuming Czech - exciting in spurts. This week there have been three concert events I'd have been stupid to miss, even at the cost of having to interweave them with three recordings in what might have been Mahlerian overkill.

After Nezet-Seguin's orchestrally inspiring Das Lied von der Erde last Saturday, the Rattle Berlin cavalcade began, or rather the full-orchestral part of it did, with rather more out-of-this-world Mahler - and Stravinsky - than I'd anticipated. So I was in a state of unnatural excitement about Wednesday's performance of the Third (photo of the morning rehearsal by Alexander Newton - at last I realised why I knew the name of Amihai Grosz, pictured right; he's the very lovely viola player from the Jerusalem Quartet, which he left for the Berlin Phil last autumn, and one of the world's best).

Alas, so perfect was Rattle's latest Mahler Third in detail, so attentive did he prove in getting the best from every orchestral soloist, contralto (the astounding Nathalie Stutzmann) and choirs, and then came that finale. I'd hoped for so much but it just didn't begin to compare with the arching, mobile adagios I'd heard when Belohlavek started his cycle, when Salonen took me by surprise with how far he'd come in an incandescent Philharmonia performance, and of course when the Lucerners included it in their cycle with Abbado.

Even that BPO/Rattle Fourth began to seem just one notch below the flexible best that can be achieved when on the Wednesday I finally caught up with Abbado's Lucerne performance on DVD.

The snag there is a seemingly demented and undersupported Kozena, but I feel I've moaned enough about her here and I get more unfriendly feelings off my chest in the BBCMM review, which will be in the April issue (as I wrote, you can always switch to the bewitching Juliane Banse on Abbado's other DVD Fourth with the superb Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, and just ignore the Ruckert Lieder here, which I endured so you don't have to). Curate's egg Jukka-Pekka Saraste completed the roster of the half-dozen performances I experienced this week, with a spacious, lushly phrased and well paced Oslo Sixth undercut by a far less convincing Ninth (guess Saraste has yet to get the measure of his Cologne orchestra). Again, these are BBCMM subjects, so the chapter and verse will eventually follow.

Anyway, at the last minute I decided I still hadn't had enough so we'll be going, after all, to Pappano's espousal of Das Lied in the Schoenberg chamber version at the Cadogan Hall tomorrow, with the little interlude of an American tragicomedy at Covent Garden tonight.

It's a risk above all because I've never liked to hear the mezzo replaced by a baritone - Mahler's second-best option - but, remembering the depths Thomas Hampson achieved with Pappano in the 'Strange Meeting' denouement of the Britten War Requiem (alas, his companion, Bostridge, did not), I reckon it might just work.

*have you voted for their 2011 awards yet? Please do so here, on condition that you take notice when I whisper 'Melnikov', 'Petrenko' and 'Rusalka' in your ear.

Wednesday 23 February 2011

Bells and farewells

Invited composer and Radio 3 presenter Robert Worby to talk to my BBCSO City Lit class last night - one of the few folk who can discuss really complicated things lucidly. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say he is to contemporary music what that real gent Brian Magee is to philosophy. The subject was something of a bete noire for me up to now, Brian Ferneyhough, prior to an 'immersion day' at the Barbican, and the students were gripped, though not perhaps entirely converted. If only the composer wrote as intelligibly about his head-music as Robert speaks. And just look at the crazy complexity of Ferneyhough's writing for string quartet.

One of the many dimensions touched upon was that of space, how RW's great inspirer Stockhausen especially distributes his forces. Robert spent quite a bit of time pointing out how we've been here before in most of the details, and in this case of course our man Berlioz was the pioneer (well, after Gabrieli, at any rate). In last Wednesday's electrifying performance of the Symphonie fantastique, the brilliant Yannick Nezet-Seguin paid special attention to the handful of spatial effects. So an oboe replied to the shepherd's cor anglais from a box high on the right side of the auditorium - not offstage, but ethereally hovering aloft, thus conjuring up a mountain landscape like this one in Verbier rather than the flat plains I've usually visualised in the Scene aux champs.

And the bells for the witches' sabbath were not only placed offstage left, with the doors spookily opening on an eerie white light, but doubled with a gong each for extra resonance. You can only see one of the gongs in the picture above, but here's percussionist Ignacio Molins demonstrating (he also rattled the military drum after the execution of the March to the Scaffold before leaving the platform for his final contribution). I heard the sound as if in the next room from the LPO office while waiting to go on for my talk, when in fact it was at least 30 yards away, and went to investigate. This is the result, all 21 seconds of it (mostly reverb).

The concert was a great event from the first, exquisite notes of Ravel's Sleeping Beauty to the last witchy stomp, drawing a roar from the crowd (Anna Caterina Antonacci's Cleopatra was riveting, too, though the double basses stole that particular show). My friend Edwina, whom I saw sitting some way away clapping her hands high above her head, said she thought it was the best concert she'd ever been to.

So we had to go back on Saturday to hear Yannick conduct Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, even though the Arts Desk's chokka music allocation meant it couldn't be written up there. The companion work, Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, was not a happy experience: YNS's lively, graceful conducting sat uneasily with the precious, effete playing of Stefan Jackiw and Richard Jongjae O'Neill (very weak viola sound from him). I could only think of Julian Rachlin and Lawrence Power at the Mackerras Memorial Concert, and wondered why the LPO hadn't settled for its excellent leader, Pieter Schoeman, and guest principal viola Tom Dunn.

No matter; we were there to hear how Sarah Connolly and Toby Spence fared in Mahler's most profound eastern philosophising. And the answer was, very well indeed. We know that our Toby's no heldentenor, but I beg to differ with the home Siegfried: in my view, he did ride the orchestra, acted out the feelings much more vividly than he used to and served the porcelain delicacy of the third song very well indeed (I well remember Jon Vickers crashing bear-like through that. Must have been with Rattle and Jessye Norman at the Proms. And I see, eeuch, Sir Si's forthcoming Birmingham Das Lied will be with the hardly up-to-the-Abschied Lady R, Magdalena Kozena).

La Connolly certainly pushed all the right buttons, found the right breath control and all the colours. And yet. There's still not the individual sound you got with Dame Janet, nor the sense of going deeper which nearly broke my heart when Christianne Stotijn - a mezzo with a much less secure technique - unfolded her meditational Farewell with Ivan Fischer and the Budapesters back in 2008. What really carried it all, for me, was YNS's marvellous sensitivity with every phrase, his cushioning of the singers, the sheer chamber-musical sweetness he got at the end of 'Von der Schoenheit'.

It was so nearly perfect, and yet I have to admit - a bit grudgingly, because I was cross with Tom Service among others for implying that British orchestras aren't as edge-of-seat exciting as their grandest continental counterparts (it's the conductor, Tom, always the conductor) - that in sound if not spirit the Berlin Phil under Rattle went just that bit further on Monday. In the wider scheme of things, I believe that Nezet-Seguin's care over every detail is bound up with just a bit more sweep and phrase-lifting than Rattle's micromanagement. But something had happened with the Mahler Fourth: I suggested in the Arts Desk review that he and the Berliners had learned a greater sense of playfulness, partly through recording that gorgeous Nutcracker. Here he is with some of his handsome players at the Barbican - two of the three leaders on the front desk. Both photos are by Mark Allan (and by the way, who was that infuriating unofficial photographer in pink whose clicks could be heard from rows back at the beginning of the Fourth Symphony's poco adagio?).

I left wishing I'd signed up for more of their four-day residency (couldn't make the Schubert last night because of the Ferneyhough class). And then it turned out that colleague Alexandra couldn't make tonight's Mahler 3 (plus interesting prefaces from Brahms and Wolf). So I jumped at that, and now I can't wait. Because, despite any perceived shortcomings, oor Simon does know his Mahler. And on Monday night, although I sat through the performances feeling rather objective, the words just came pouring out in the review and then I couldn't sleep, there was so much to process.

Monday 21 February 2011

Roll on, Percy

Better half of one evening in four among the Kings Place Grainger celebrations was a pianola demo by Michael Broadway "playing" Grainger. And he was right in what he said: there's some artistry in operating the machine, as befits a London College of Music-trained organist and viola da gamba player (some leap!). The visible demonstration reminded me a bit of our friend Cynthia Millar and her ondes martenot (back for a Messiaen Turangalila next season).

I've written at some length about this on The Arts Desk, and as little as possible about the - now I can say it - well-nigh-disastrous wind band event that followed (I tried to be diplomatic, but got much nastier comments for leaving half way through, something I've never done before while writing about something). I've so far bitten my tongue there when I wanted to respond that the article was supposed to be about Grainger on the 50th anniversary of his death- which was yesterday - and only about those players inasmuch as they reflected The Glory of Rome and the Christian Heart, an antiwar fantasia (they didn't). And so this is, too.

I put up something on the blog about PG's weird, warped greatness after Bengt Forsberg wowed us with To a Nordic Princess as an encore (!) at the Wigmore. That prompted me to read up and listen (to most of the 19 CDs in Chandos's collection) preparatory to a piece that in the end didn't happen. Anyway, it got me loving the wind-band pieces which Percy came to after his time as a US army bandsman (the nearest he was prepared to get to the war given pacifist convictions completely lost on Friday's players).

And I do continually marvel at Percy's pianism, both on the recordings he made - what a shame there's not more film of him in loose-limbed action - and the Duo-Art piano rolls. Loved the rollicking In Dahomey and the wacky Holbrooke pieces Mr. Broadway featured in his programme - and, of course, a special affection goes to a transcription he didn't include, the Rosenkavalier Ramble. Which I first heard played by that passionate proselytizer Ronald Stevenson at the 1982 Aldeburgh Festival when I was a Hesse student.

I'll nae forget Stevenson, in the audience for one of the Grainger concerts he wasn't playing in, tapping us youngsters on the shoulder and saying 'did Stravinsky ever write a melody like that?' Well, actually he did, I'll be hearing one such tonight when the Berlin Phil and Rattle play Apollon Musagete; and the two composers have more than a little in common. As they do with Strauss, but that's another story. Anyway, since both Rosenkav's 100th birthday and the Grainger anniversary have almost coincided, here it is, the free fantasia on the final duet. I have a suspicion the role doesn't match what sounds to me like the Nimbus studio recording, but the sound is good, anyway.

Sunday 20 February 2011

Kith unkind

Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, winner of the Prix Goncourt in France where it was first published as Les Bienveillantes, is the most disturbing book I've ever read. A big, important work, certainly, but I'm not sure if I would bandy the words 'great' or 'masterpiece'. Powerful, undoubtedly: I realised from an early stage that it wasn't for bedtime reading, which is why I took to turning the light off on stuff about royal gardens and Baltic islands, and when I recently neared the end, I found myself twice overshooting tube stops in my absorption.

The title is all important: Aeschylus's Eumenides are a presence practically throughout, in their earlier guise as Furies, to Nazi SD officer Aue - more of an Orestes, it's to transpire, than we could possibly imagine in the early stages (can't go further without spoiling the tension inherent in the narrative). He's there at many of the worst atrocities known to the Second World War, from Babi Yar through Stalingrad to the death camps and the fall of Berlin. Which is plausible, as is the violence, and the way it piles up and springs again just when you thought you'd reached a more lyrical stretch (the titles of Bach/French suites to each section - Toccata, Allemandes I & II, Sarabande, Menuet (en Rondeaux, Air), Gigue - are more ironic than apt).

I had two problems throughout. One is the knowledge that Littell Junior (his father, I think it is, writes the most wonderful post-Cold-War thrillers) researched for over a decade. It may well be that the monotonous listing of all the Nazi stratifications is deliberate, for numbing effect; but I was less convinced by the way that characters often speak like dense newspaper articles, as if all the research simply had to be crammed in, just as it seems to be in bad biodramas like Ronald Harwood's. And since the facts are wrong about Richard Strauss, the only area where I can claim any detailed knowledge, how much is dodgy elsewhere (a question I also found myself asking about Orlando Figes's Natasha's Dance)?

Is faction different from true imaginative creation? Jim Crace, after all, is the most evocative writer I know, yet he doggedly disdains research. And when Littell goes in for stream-of-consciousness writing, as in the ghastly Air sequence, I'm not entirely convinced (it may just be the translation, of course).

As, indeed, I'm not by what the author wants us to think of the most mixed-up character in literature. Clearly Aue's prefatory statement - 'I am a man like other men, I am a man like you. I tell you I am just like you!' - doth protest too much. Yes, maybe most of us would have been complicit in one way or another in 1930s and 1940s Germany. But not after the manner of this character. The novel might as well be subtitled A Psychopath's Progress, or even Dubious Memoirs of a Fantasist. I'm presuming we must take the later murders as part of that brainsickness, too? Is it a good thing that we're left uncertain? At any rate, having to consider the final pages as even possible truth seems like a step too far. It was all quite bad enough without the extra patina of whimsy.

You can see that I'm confused, and perhaps that's the idea. I didn't once think, yes, I'd have done that, or, yes, I can see how an arts-loving man could behave like that. Because of course at the heart of Aue's narrative is an almost - though, tantalisingly, not quite - total lack of empathy for his fellow man. The voices of conscience surface very briefly in the form of his twin sister and the sad, decent woman who looks after him during one of his breakdowns. But inevitably you wish someone had succeeded in putting a bullet through the protagonist's head long before he could go on to commit still worse crimes of his own. Curiously, there are fabulously evocative descriptions of Lemberg/Lviv/Lvov and Pyatigorsk which made me want to go and see those places, so the book's not without its beauties, Still, it's a case of Schrecklich, aber nicht unglaublich. Ending now on Shalom Goldberg's image of Babi Yar.

Friday 18 February 2011

The people are the heroes now

How could old production-rocker Peter Sellars not recall in interview that line of Alice Goodman's breathtakingly poetic libretto for John Adams when Nixon in China was screened worldwide the day after the fall of Mubarak? In fact the Met re-staging of an operatic masterpiece was even more vital for the history and the lessons of revolutions, violent or peaceful. By the way, I wasn't at the talked-up 'premiere of the year', Turnage's Anna Nicole, last night. I'll see it next week, and I expect it to be at the very least extremely well sung, played and staged (by Richard Jones the only genius of the theatre); but on previous form I can't imagine that Turnage, excellent when at his fitful best, hits the heights of Adams, who's given us the only core-repertoire grand opera of the past two decades*.

Nixon's ambiguous, often metaphysical dimensions show us that the euphoria of the moment always yields to a more complex aftermath. After the adrenalin charged 'gambe's/cheers and the salute to Washington's birthday of the big summit dinner between Americans and Chinese that cold February of 1972 (picture by Ken Howard for the Met)

come the private idealism of Pat - still, I think, the greatest soprano scene of the late 20th century, so affectingly done by Janis Kelly - and the reign of terror of Madame Mao. And the last act comes to seem like the opera's greatest achievement in its polyphonic interaction of the five private individuals, wondering 'how much of what we did was good?'

Those questions still resound in Egypt, of course, and resonate for Libya, Iran, Bahrain, the list goes on. What we can continue to do, for the moment, is marvel at the predominance of goodwill, how an educated middle class informed how well motivated were the crowds in Tahrir Square, how amazing that the young took charge and went around tidying up the streets and cleaning the anti-Mubarak slogans off statues once they'd got their way. The pride and optimism are incredible, whatever's still to come. I recommend an excellent programme I just heard on the BBC World Service, covered, as it should be, by a highly articulate Arabic reporter, Magdi Abdelhadi. All this, too, is possible: maybe we need the language-ignorant BBC reporters on the spot for the crisis, but afterwards, why not give the people closest to their people a voice?

The Trafalgar Square photos come by presumed courtesy of Amnesty UK, who shared them with us its supporters. I asked to use a couple here, but as I still haven't had a reply after three days, I'll take that as a yes and add any further credits if so requested. Anyway, Amnesty and human rights organisations worldwide should be feeling good about all this**. I felt that optimism at the end of last year, which I was amazed to see written off as a quiet one when WikiLeaks, for better and for worse, took charge and students here promised more protests. And much as I resist all pressures to tweet and to go on Facebook, I see their phenomenal influence where it counts, too. Interesting times indeed, and mostly in a good way.

*Not quite incidentally, the best and most detailed essay I've read on Nixon in China is to be found on Daniel Stephen Johnson's blog.

**20/2 As they must be, and I certainly am, reading about one promising volte-face in oppression-threatened Hungary: the Budapest Metropolitan Court's overturning of a police veto on extending a gay rights march in June. I read the articles of the European Union rulings with especial interest, and hope that sort of thing will be enshrined in law in Egypt and other countries soon.

Thursday 17 February 2011

A heart in winter

You never know what each film of Ferzan Ozpetek has in store. In Sacred Heart, he tries the visionary line. It's unsettling, beautifully filmed, challenging in every frame - even when most of what his extraordinary leading actress, Barbora Bobulova, does is simply to stare blankly. She can age or become youthful just by a flop of the hair, a widening or glazing over of those mesmerising eyes. She moves from reluctant hard-nosed businesswoman with buried family sacrets

to a confused being with a conscience - saint or schizophrenic?

I can't really say more without giving the film's totally unpredictable trajectory or mysteries away. Ozpetek's usual gay themes don't feature (though the cast does include the most unreally handsome priest I've ever seen). It's a gem: watch it in a double-bill with Le Fate Ignoranti, which would have to follow as redemptive romance. That's a desert island gem of the alternative society. But this one bored itself deeper in my unconscious and gave me very strange dreams. And Ozpetek's up there for me, among living European filmmakers, with Julio Medem and Arnaud Desplechin.

I'm not fishing for connections when I say it just struck me how like our shadowlands heroine were the features of Lynne Walker. I had such a shock when a mutual contact at the Halle told me she'd died last week. He'd already alerted me that she was quite seriously ill; I presumed chemotherapy might be doing the trick, didn't contact her as he didn't really want her to know he'd told me. And now I wish I had.

Lynne has been quite a companion in our profession over the years. She never much liked me pointing out that I was a mere student when she ran the press affairs of the Scottish National Orchestra - that aged her somewhat, she thought, though she always looked attractive and youthful - yet it was through her open arms that I got to interview Neeme Jarvi for the student newspaper ('an Estonian with SNO on his boots' ran the headline).

Subsequently Lynne took on a lot of editing work to complement her own lively writing, and we had such a healthy working relationship. Looking fondly through our emails, I'm amazed how many from her are titled 'thanks': she always responded to copy, which is sadly rather rare in the business. In fact we agreed between us that one should always tell someone if a piece or a performance has had an effect (I'm still harping on that theme).

We also shared a few pre-performance talks - she was quite a forceful interviewer - and a panel discussion at the end of the momentous Prokofiev celebrations at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, in 2003. How it makes my heart ache to look at the below picture and to realise that of the four personalities featured only Prokofiev's composer-grandson Gabriel is still with us. That, of course, is Ted Downes with Noelle Mann to his left, a lovely shot of both of them.

And here's the whole line-up, since Fiona McKnight of the Prokofiev Archive sent these pics over on request. Also in the 'cast' are Sasha Ivashkin at the end of the table, David Fanning to my right and my hero Michael Kennedy on my left.

Happy memories, but now a great sadness. There are some farewells, like the glorious Westminster Abbey thanksgiving for Joan Sutherland on Tuesday, where you can't feel too regretful because an existence has had its natural span. Lynne's and Noelle's hadn't, though both lived full lives. My thoughts to Gerald Larner.

Wednesday 16 February 2011


Only connect - Berlioz's first score of total bloody-minded genius, La mort de Cleopatre is really about Juliet after all; and so it's back to my idee fixe of last month. I listened to it again - Janet Baker with Alexander Gibson, both electrifying - in preparation for tonight's pre-performance talk before the LPO concert conducted by the electrifying Yannick Nezet-Seguin, another born galvanizer, with statuesque Anna Caterina Antonacci as the serpent of old Nile. Do come along to the main Festival Hall auditorium at 6.15 and I'll take you through some of the extraordinary sounds Berlioz gave birth to, in later composers as much as in himself. It's a help that Ravel, the other greatest orchestrator of all time, shares the programme.

So. Not only is the first part of the Cleopatra monologue hardly what the Prix de Rome judges were looking for in 1829 - it breaks up, it modulates restlessly, the aria proper never settles - but the ensuing 12/8 Invocation, vintage Berlioz, is really a preparatory study for Juliet's death (though its inspiration and final shudders are completely different from the tomb scene in the 'dramatic symphony').

Wrote Berlioz to a friend: 'I wish you could hear the scene where Cleopatra wonders "how her shade will be received by the shades of the Pharaohs entombed in the pyramids". It's awesome, tremendous! It's the scene where Juliet meditates on her entombment in the vault of the Capulets, surrounded alive by the bones of her ancestors and the corpse of Tybalt: the growing dread, the thoughts that culminate in cries of terror, accompanied by cellos and basses plucking the rhythm [which he writes out]. Oh!, Shakespeare, Shakespeare!'

Indeed. And this is another Berlioz inspiration where the music, if not the text, does the Bard justice. Anyway, I'm looking forward hugely to the performance. Better dash now, but if you can't make it, here's the peerless Dame Granite in the second-half Invocation:

Monday 14 February 2011

Perfumed genius

After our all too brief visit to the V&A's glorious Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes exhibition, the diplo-mate decided that he wanted the same perfume as that favoured by the dandy-impresario in the 1920s*. Today seemed like a good one to honour him with the results of my search - especially as a Christmas present had been wanting (you'll have to believe me when I say we are not, I think, a very materialistic couple).

Yes, the magic name of Guerlain, established in the early 19th century, is still producing Mitsouko, first unleashed in 1919. I read that 'the creation of Mitsouko was inspired by the heroine of Claude Farrere's novel La bataille, a story of an impossible love between Mitsouko, the wife of Japanese Admiral Togo, and a British officer' in 1905. The novel has died a death, but the scent which Diaghilev used to perfume not just himself but also the curtains wherever he was staying, lives very strongly on. I agree with Nicholas Blincoe in his New Statesman article, when he asks 'in what other field is it possible to use the exact same product as Queen Victoria (Fleurs de Bulgarie), Colette (Jicky), Diaghilev (Mitsouko), Marilyn Monroe (Chanel No 5) or me (Neroli Sauvage)? And with these perfumes, you are not buying a reproduction or an approximation. It really is the same perfume.'

So, with a new-found excitement over the world of living smells, I finally tracked down le tout Guerlain at a counter in Harvey Nicks'. In what's only my second visit - the first was last summer, when we took a giggling mother and daughter Lambton to try on identical dresses - I put my request to the shop girl. She'd never heard of Diaghilev, but she did point out that Mitsuoko was beloved of 'lots of celebrities' and had a very feminine fragrance (I had to put her right that it wasn't necessarily feminine I was after).

While I was waiting for the elaborate gift-wrap ritual, I had a good test of other Guerlain flower-potpourri fragrances. Mitsouko seemed to be the strongest, Champs-Elysees dated back to 1889, Nahema was my favourite (though J found the taster card too 'violety'). Imagine my excitement, though, when I got home to do some research and tracked down a passage I was looking for in the Prokofiev diaries. Yes, he was attracted to perfumes too, and to Guerlain, no less. For once, the brilliant Anthony Phillips needs a different letter in his transcription - the perfume in question is Kadine rather than Cadine. It came out in 1911 and was resuscitated in 2005, though bottles seem to be bandied around the net at c.$500 each (dearly as I love my main master, I'm not going there).

Here are some of the historic entries:

(4 March 1913) Tonechka Popova [fellow student at the Petersburg Conservatoire] has the most wonderful perfume. I fell in love with it before Christmas, but it got all used up before I could find out the make. Today both Popova and her perfume suddenly reappeared out of the blue, and I relieved her of her handkerchief. Mama thinks the perfume smells like the fresh melted water you sometimes get in the middle of a patch of ice, but I must find out the name of it tomorrow and buy myself some. There are times when I am very much drawn to a strongly aromatic scent. I remember the first time I was in Sukhum I could not get over the smell of the gardenias.
On 5 March Prokofiev is misled into thinking it's 'Guerlain Coty', but discovers this is a nonsense, so rings up Popova and persists. She tells him what he wants is 'Guerlain Kadine'. After doing the rounds of chemists and parfumiers, 'when at last I telephoned a big store on Nevsky [Prospect] they did have it, I was thrilled. It's not cheap: 10 roubles for a small bottle' (Mitsouko's not cheap either).

6 March: after composing part of the third movement of the Second Piano Concerto, 'I bought a bottle of Guerlain Kadine and am luxuriating in this scent, despite nagging doubts that it may not be the same as Popova's'.

I wonder if the two Sergeys ever discussed perfumes. I like to think so. At any rate it's a delicious link between the two - and me, and the diplo-mate.

*'30s' was a typo. I know all too well when Diaghilev died - shortly after the opening of The Prodigal Son in 1929, and in Venice, where else?

Sunday 13 February 2011

Portrait of the artist as opportunist

OK, so that's me messing round on the Leeds Grand Theatre stage, as snapped by my Radio 3 interlocutor, the ineffable Christopher Cook. But I'm talking about Chartkov, lonely protagonist of Nikolay Gogol's The Portrait as translated into music by Mieczyslaw Weinberg (aka Moysey Vainberg) in 1980. The opera, clearly, is no straightforward rendering of the short story, in which the portrait of a Satanic old moneylender is absolutely key throughout. That supernatural aspect wasn't much liked by critic Belinsky, whose more prosaic understanding of a central message about artistic compromise is shared by David Pountney in the Opera North production (the four production photos below by Bill Cooper).

In other words, he sees it more or less exclusively about what happens when a painter sells out, only to discover too late what dedication to real art is all about. Which is fine, up to a point. I like Pountney's central conceit, brilliantly supported by the sets and costumes of Dan Potra, that we start in a rainbow-oiled artist's studio in Petersburg c.1830

only to move forward to what society painters would have had to do in the Socialist-Realist world of the 1930s

and on to Warhol in New York.

That's fine. But, as has become Pountney's wont in more recent extravaganzas, the message is muddied. What are we supposed to make of the cracked-mirror 'portrait', the fact that the old moneylender with the evil eyes never appears, let alone steps out of his frame, to balance the vision of the artist's psyche muse, a leggy girl in bedshirt and high-heeled red shoes? Plus there are some declining old voices in the ensemble: Helen Field's is unbearable to listen to after a while, and I don't think it was just Peter Savidge's temporary indisposition which made his crucial, Death in Veniceish hymn to the true artist in Act Two so unpleasant to listen to (it's a tough sing, and we got a much better stand-in on Thursday, who sadly won't be heard on the broadcast).

Nevertheless it's tenor Paul Nilon's evening, and while this time he didn't have a character as interesting as Michel in Martinu's Julietta to get his teeth into, he did as good a job as he could to stop us wishing that the great Langridge had got hold of the role twenty or so years earlier.

So what of the music? A second hearing, not least because Rossan Gergov got far more impassioned and well-phrased playing out of the Opera North Orchestra than on the previous performance we'd heard, suggested pseudo-profundity in the last act when I'd been led to hope there might be real depths here. But Weinberg still finds inspired touches: the Lamplighter's ever more haunting ballads, in a simple vein that this composer could do so well, the muted violin solo for the evanescent Muse and the symphonic sweep from the A major eulogy in praise of the dedicated artist to Chartkov's panicky peripetaia. It never comes close to the operatic riches I heard once again in Saturday's Met screening of Adams's Nixon in China, so evidently a masterpiece even back in 1988 when I first heard it. But it's stageworthy and interesting. And the more I hear of Weinberg's music, the more I come to respect this composer who lived so much in Shostakovich's shadow after arriving in the Soviet Union from Poland.

Some of this I managed to say in our boxed conversation as we looked out on the splendours of the beautifully-restored Grand Theatre (above) before and during the show: we'll see what transpires when the Radio 3 broadcast is aired in May. I must say that I had a jolly time as always with CC - seen here framed -

as well as with producer Sam Phillips - who indulged me in a second visit to Hansa's Gujarati vegetarian restaurant, where I did indeed get to meet the great lady as I'd hoped - and the rest of the team. And, yes, I love Leeds now; though it seems unfortunate that Opera North couldn't have done more to fill the many empty seats in the Grand with young folk (I saw none on either visit). This is just the sort of piece that could have fired up many a school project.

Wednesday 9 February 2011

A grotesque old friend

When we last visited the Tower of London, I was a little sad to find that my favourite piece of armour from childhood visits, the grotesque helmet given by the Emperor Maximilian to Henry VIII, had migrated northwards to the new Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds. That was the driving force which propelled me along the River Aire from my hotel the morning after a not too thrilling first acquaintance with David Pountney's Opera North production of Weinberg's The Portrait at the Leeds Grand Theatre (I have to make a return visit for the BBC Radio 3 broadcast, so I'll reserve judgment here until I've seen it again).

The helmet, as it turns out, is the symbol of the museum, lodged in a fortress-like new building with an imposing entrance and a curious staircase extension housing the 'hall of steel'.

Well, it's all free, so I shouldn't even carp, but in addition to my customary plaint about the dismal shortage of postcards (hence the DIY photos), I found it problematic that the museum is so exclusively geared to interactivity and kids as to exclude the kind of aesthetic pleasure you can still get walking through what's left of the Tower and in the handsome royal armouries of Les Invalides. A moan you might find as odd as my new-found interest in the beauties of armour. That I think I can justify by the analogy with churches and cathedrals: similarly built as expressions of power, but crafted by masters and artists whose genius outlives the original purpose. The grotesque mask, in any case, seems to have been decorative tournament armour.

I found an interesting discussion on this which told me that 'tourneys where masks were used were called "Husaria" and were introduced from Hungary, where many Polovtsy clans had fled from the Mongols.' Another suggestion is that 'this helmet looks more like a grotesque iron "mask of shame", made in the 17th century in some German towns [and featuring] hooked nose, horns and glasses...maybe today we are not fully able to appreciate the Emperor's practical joke?'

Other decorated armour in Leeds includes (only connect with the above) this 13th century Mongolian helmet shell covered with lions and Buddhist monks

and while I can't get enthused about Japanese samurai getup, I did spend most of the time on the oriental armour floor. The Armouries' other great treasure, I reckon, is the Mughal elephant armour from the late 17th or early 18th centuries, a gift from Lady Clive in 1800 which ended up in Powis Castle.

In the same room, I couldn't resist snapping a couple of powder flasks - one late 18th century Rajasthani with a dragon's head

the other from Lahore incorporating a nautilus shell.

And here's the Florentine equivalent a specimen from 1565 possibly made for the Medicis.

I must say Leeds began to open up its well-concealed treasures this time. In addition to the new developments and old warehouses along river and canal

there were a few things to see in the early 19th century parish church of St Peter (quite a fine tower, that, for the 1830s), including the Hardwick memorial of 1577

and a tenth century cross which the Victorian architect had the nerve to appropriate for his own back garden down south, only for it to be reclaimed after his death.

And now I know two good eateries in Leeds: the splendidly muralled Safran Persian restaurant just under the railway arch on Kirkgate - ah, memories of Persepolis -

and Hansa's Gujarati vegetarian restaurant at 72/4 North Street, just up from the theatre (thanks to Graham Rickson for introducing me to that). Looking forward to more dhosas on the return visit, and hoping this time to catch a glimpse of the famous Hansa: Asian Business Woman of the Year 2003, 25 years in the business and still running the same establishment.