Friday 29 July 2011

Lavender fields forever

Mitcham, suburb of south London where my old mum grew up, used to be the epicentre of the lavender growing trade - though a bit before her time; camomile, liquorice and anise were strong 18th century contenders until Ephraim Potter and William Moore found another candidate for their physic gardens amenable to the place's rich black loam and from which, according to my fabulous Brewer's Dictionary of London Phrase and Fable, was distilled 'Mitcham lavender oil'.

Well, yesterday, on a flying visit to said mater, I brought away with me - largely to repel the small population of clothes moths not horribly murdered by the ghastly pheromone-trap Mottlock, which I'll never use again - a bottle of Mayfield Grosso lavender oil. Lavender fields thrive again on chalk, as the Mayfield website tells me they used to do around Banstead, Woodmansterne and Carshalton as well as Mitcham. This organic, award-winning venture is a fabulous local amenity - there's clearly a beneficial, stress-reducing effect to be had from wandering along the grassy lanes between the beds or sitting picnicing under the lone tree in the field (Oaks Park, favourite childhood haunt though since deprived by the hurricane of its biggest specimens, is just across the road).

Mayfield grows three varieties - two of the English lavender variety Angustifolia (Folgate and Maillette). Can't tell you which of the two this is

but what's for sure is that it's well pollinated, as could be detected from the buzzing of innumerable bees

and at the top of the field sloping eastwards is the more pungent overseas variety, Grosso, a strain of X Intermedia with much longer stems.

A short trip, but an enchanting one. On a not entirely unconnected note, I was amused to hear that in the heart of genteel Banstead, a stone's throw away from the maternal home, two Vietnamese lodgers cultivated 200 cannabis plants in the bedroom of a small house. The police chase when they got busted ended in a kerfuffle down my old street, Glenfield Road. So much happens within several hundred metres; only a few years ago, the Waitrose built on the site of my first, infant school, burnt down...but I can tell you're falling asleep already and await my 'kitten rescued from tree' tale.

Just let me end, then, more soberly, with another imagined fragrance. My e-friend Deeyah, whom I hope to meet next time she comes to London - the champion of Muslim women artists around the world, a passionate fighter for all sorts of musical and other freedoms, born in Oslo - drew my attention to one of the many noble young people's statements about meeting hate with love. Now it's all about meeting hate with roses: I got choked up again hearing how the streets of the Norwegian capital were blocked with them. So here's mine, in heartfelt admiration and support of the great human values Norway shares with Denmark, Sweden and Finland: beacons to us all.

Thursday 28 July 2011

Tcherniakov: redeemed by Macbeth

To be fair, it was already a draw from my perspective: two productions which created their own, consistent visions and two which were a bit of a dog's dinner. Now the balance has swung back in favour of Dmitri Tcherniakov, in my view the most interesting opera director to have emerged since Richard Jones (and his design sense is singular, too).

Tcherniakov first stunned us with a Eugene Onegin in which the heroine comes across as a manic-depressive and the duel's a nasty accident in a dining room with a gun (all the action takes place around tables) and a production of Prokofiev's The Gambler set in a blue, contemporary hotel and every inch as compelling as Jones's more kaleidoscopic Covent Garden staging. Then he lost me at times with Don Giovanni from Aix as a family saga (Donna Anna is Zerlina's ma, so out with all the class distinctions) and the recent Simon Boccanegra at ENO, good in the early stages but seeming to lose the plot towards the end.

So how glad I was to have reconvened the City Lit Opera in Focus group on Monday for a free end-of-term screening of this Paris Opera Macbeth (production shots via the company and Ruth Walz). Tcherniakov's 2009 Verdi is certainly more of a piece than this year's Boccanegra and veers between a grim small-town square full of locals (not witches) and the Macbeth mansion; aerial shots on a screen establish where we are and, later, how order has broken down.

The crowd scenes don't appear to work at first; why no weird sisters, why have the men mime the lines of the women's chorus too? But they begin to take off as Banquo is murdered in the thick of the crowd and Macbeth comes back for a consultation, only to be presented with the return of bobble-hatted little Fleance.

The 'Patria oppressa' chorus, though not as well sung as some, is as dramatically moving as it can be, with the people bringing with them treasured objects from their deserted homes and then Macduff (Stefano Secco, excellent) tearing his heart out from a child's play pen.

In fact all of the set-pieces work superbly as dramatic monologues. Lady Macbeth - and there can be none better or more assured than the never-disappointing Violeta Urmana - delivers her two imperious cabalettas to her husband, setting up the relationship between them more assuredly than Verdi officially permits. She does party tricks to the Brindisi, with increasing desperation (who knew this woman could act? She's normally seen in tatty old revivals where she only has to stand and deliver). And 'Pieta, rispetto, amore' really is done in extremis by Dimitris Tiliakos, who starts with an over-pronounced vibrato but quickly gets better and better: this is a real characterisation, which is more than can be said for Simon Keenlyside's inexplicably muted performance in the recent Covent Garden revival.

The last two scenes take place in the despoiled mansion; Lady M's somnambulistic antics involve doctor and lady in waiting much more than usual, with all the earlier gestures and party-tricks brought back meaningfully, while Macbeth gets his 'Mal per me' from 1847 in an otherwise 1860s edition (no ballet) and is forced to hear the choruses proclaim victory offstage.

There's a rumour that Tcherniakov couldn't get the chorus to act, so left them in the wings and replaced them with actors who then couldn't mime, and in turn replaced those with twelve extra singers...but you couldn't fit a full chorus in the Macbeth room anyway, and it makes dramatic sense. So I don't buy that, unless you accept that the Paris Opera Chorus isn't up to much and he made the most of that. Otherwise, it's musically resplendent, though young Teodor Currentzis does like extremes and tosses his locks rather more often than is seemly in a disciplined maestro. On the evidence of this and his work on the world premiere of Weinberg's The Passenger - pity he isn't conducting the ENO staging in September - he's a major talent.

Tuesday 26 July 2011

Bizet à la Petit

Nearly missed the chance to see the score I'd been living with so long for the Radio 3 Building a Library, Bizet's L'Arlesienne music, choreographed by the intriguing Roland Petit. My dance-distinguished colleague Ismene Brown duly commemorated his death earlier this month at the age of 87 with an obituary on The Arts Desk, and she also drew my attention to the English National Ballet's Petit triple bill at the Coliseum, which I went along to see on Saturday evening. The photo below comes from Thomas Peter Schultz via Wikimedia Commons; the production shots are by the very generous permission of John Ross, whose other superb ballet images can be seen on the site.

As everyone seems to have pointed out, the three ballets all deal with distressed young men seeking out death. Petit offers very personal, if slightly repetitious, takes on the bare bones of Daudet's L'Arlesienne, a Carmen story of sorts (it can hardly be called Merimee's, and only loosely Bizet's) and a Cocteau melodrama about a tortured jeune homme in a garret who hangs himself at the instigation of a lady in a yellow dress who turns out to be La Mort and shows the hanged man Paris by night.

L'Arlesienne, the latest (mid-70s) choreography of the three, keeps Daudet's central triangle of Frederi, the sweet village girl Vivette he's supposed to marry and the invisible girl from Arles who's driving him to madness. The corps participation is rather wonderful, with some stylised head-crooking and elevating straight out of Nijinska' work on Stravinsky's Les Noces to suggest the pressure of conformity. I actually thought the best number was the one Bizet uses to depict the unrequited Vivette, here another corps + soloists ritual. Vivette in the ballet (Erina Takahashi) gets the rather bland Minuet from La Jolie Fille de Perth as her solo; Frederi (the attractive Esteban Berlanga) does his leapy-leapy stuff to the Pastorale, though he spends more of his time in the early stages frozen with anguish.

The main drawback is that Frederi starts distraught with nowhere to go; at least in the play there's a brief interlude of happiness in the general drama of pain. And the old people's Adagietto is too settled for this central mesalliance. If Petit had gone to Bizet's melodrama numbers, he would also have found a more tragic musical ending. As it is, Frederi whips himself up in a dance of death to the Farandole and defenestrates himself in the final bars. At least Berlanga did this Orestes-pursued-by-invisible-Furies number well, with the final leap brilliantly caught in John Ross's photo.

Petit's Carmen was a sensation in 1949 - all that sex, the wonderful oddity of the uptight young man rather than the Carmen dancing the Habanera while the corps mockingly shout the words 'l'amour est enfant de boheme' etc, the brutal denouement to thwacking timps (Begona Cao and Fabian Reimar pictured below).

But the way the score's used is a mess - how much better a job Shchedrin made of it for Plisetskaya some years later - and Petit manages to complicate a simple story. Instead of village soldier boy corrupted and maddened by femme fatale this Don Jose seems to be a proud matador, while Escamillo is a camp sideshow who couldn't on his own precipitate the final tragedy. Cao, despite great long legs, seemed to be having a charisma bypass, and there was no chemistry with Reimair. Even the central Pas de deux was rather irksome: why use the scene with castanets when the bugle calls offstage signify nothing in your own take on the drama?

Most fun of all, if pure melodramatic tosh (blame Cocteau, and Petit's showbusiness instincts), was Le Jeune Homme et la Mort - and here Benjamin Pope's rather solid conducting of an astonishingly high-class ballet orchestra (Gareth Hulse and Katie Clemmow the oboists) came into its own with Respighi's grandiose arrangement of Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. Yonah Acosta, nephew of Carlos and pictured below in Arnaud Stephenson's rehearsal photo working with Luigi Bonino, is a powerful physical presence, well able to do 101 things with table annd chairs, and the right age for adolescent angst, too: I thought he could well be a star, but balletomanes who know more than I do weren't so sure.

Anyway, with no actual production pics of Acosta Jr, how could we not see how the original jeune homme, Jean Babilee, made a cultish figure of protest. You'll need to bypass a minute or so of talk for the excerpts.

And similarly, how could we not see the beautiful Rudolf as a slightly more ballet-conscious young man? Interestingly, and I think less impressively, this features the Bach organ original rather than Respighi's orchestration.

And now I'm off to find a copy of Black Tights starring charismatic Mrs Petit (Zizi Jeanmaire), Moira Shearer and Cyd Charisse. I also want to see the Petit ballet with the Tchaikovsky arrangements John Lanchbery was most proud of, Puss in Boots. Sadly there are only a couple of clips on YouTube, but the chaste (compared to Stravinsky) treatment of Tchaik miniatures is impressive.

So, it was an interesting but very mixed week, with no total hits: the Brian - time to move on from that - followed by the brave, clearly gifted Belarus Free Theatre actors trying to make something out of execrable texts at the Almeida, Katie Mitchell's idiosyncratic but not often well-acted take on a Jacobean domestic tragedy at the National (which has at least got me reading more), the curate's-egg Halle Prom - worth it for Schiff in Bartok 3 and the Proms premiere of Sibelius's Scenes historiques Suite 2 (now there's a mini-masterpiece) - and finally this. I guess the bottom line is that ENB's was a rather inhibited English take on French style, despite its truly international team of dancers.

Monday 25 July 2011

Cooler city

Cooler, certainly than New York or Ottawa, where friends are sweltering. But should a heatwave hit us this year - and for all the grumbling about the absence of the British summer, remember we had one early, for several months - there will be plenty of places to find shelter. The fountain in St. James's Park is cooling just to look at; those aggressive pelicans love basking in its spray when the wind whips it in their direction. And on my way to A Woman Killed with Kindness at the National, I finally took in the extent of the Southbank's homage to the 1951 Festival of Britain's seaside section.

They reminded the public back in '51 that nowhere in Britain is more than 80 miles from the sea. The above beach, cordoned off by ungainly fencing after dark, is 70 metres long. The people of Southend-on-Sea contributed the world's longest strip of bunting and its Borough Council designed this rather pretty little garden.

There's another up on the roof of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, created in partnership with Cornwall's Eden Project. It didn't look great when we visited it after the show, but the vegetable plots are thriving.

How much we miss when we're rushing about town. It's many years since I wandered the precincts of Westminster Abbey, but on my way to meet the diplo-mate in Smith Square, I ventured in to the cloisters again, passing under the lamp which hangs at the gateway in Dean's Yard.

At 5.30 on a Friday afternoon, there was only the occasional spattering of tour groups, and a handful of folk sitting peacefully on the stone benches. What handsome views, too, out on to the Abbey's buttressed south side.

I walked over Clementi among others, one of 200 graves and monuments in the cloisters alone, on my way to the Quiet Garden in the Little or Infirmary Cloister, 17th century but much restored after WW2, with a view over to the great tower of the Houses of Parliament, always glowing in late afternoon sunlight. As the years go by, I only marvel the more at what a miraculous complement to the old Abbey is Barry's and Pugin's Victorian Gothic.

On which note, I can't resist adding that the highlight of our ultimate destination, supper with our good friend Ross Alley in Marylebone High Street, was his sudden whipping-out of a set of Queen Victoria's underwear, a legacy to dear departed Betty Beasley, the great lady with whom he lived for so long in Harley Street. They're absolutely enormous - that mightly little empress was as wide as she was tall - and I won't embarrass Ross with a shot of his demonstrating that fact, so you'll have to be content with a glimpse of the royal insignia.

Saturday 23 July 2011

For Norway

Choked up by PM Jens Stoltenberg's words about support in a time of mourning. Instantly thought of this, which I posted several months ago in the form of Anne Sofie von Otter's song-interpretation. Here's Grieg's string version which so moved me when Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic performed it as an encore at their Berlin concert back in April.

To be proud of your number one composer, by the way, and to let him provide some small consolation is a sign of patriotism, not nationalism. I can't remember where I read the distinction being eloquently made recently, but it seems helpful at this terrible time.

My thoughts are with all friends and acquaintances in Norway.

Later - one woe treads close upon another's heels: news is just breaking that Amy Winehouse has been found dead at the age of 27. I don't know why I connect it, but the pattern of violence - in this case self-harm - wiping out youthful promise seems almost too much to bear today. She was certainly one of the great voices of recent years in any sphere. Just noting it here as I sit at home on my own - J off at an Oscar Wilde lunch in Oxford - helps relieve a little of the pain.

Friday 22 July 2011

Electric Nevsky

Polymath BBC TV producer/director David Thompson couldn't have chosen a better place to film our talking-heads interval five minutes on the forthcoming Prom featuring Prokofiev's cantata-version Alexander Nevsky (short of going to Russia, that is, and the budgets are, shall we say, a little limited these days). I haven't been to the Electric Cinema in the Portobello Road for some years - now they only show mainstream hits for the most part, as befits the area's very mixed population - and I'd forgotten how spectacularly beautiful it is inside. In the meantime, here's one more from without.

Opened early in 1910 as an offshoot of the original in Birmingham, the Notting Hill Electric's interior still retains the elegance of Gerald Seymour Valentin's Edwardian baroque. In 2001 it re-opened after an impressive £2 million restoration, which means wide leather seats and tons of leg room/drinks space. David, incidentally, used to work there, which puts him in the very dubious company of the Rillington Place murderer Christie (a projectionist, apparently).

We filmed at the back; my good colleague Marina Frolova-Walker turned up just as I'd finished and she was to be captured in front of the screen - which now has a mechanical device for popping out of its frame for widescreen films. I hope I answered most of David's questions (to which he already knows most of the answers himself in detail, certainly more so than me when it comes to the Eisenstein aspect), but I was conscious of keeping them more soundbitey than usual given the limited time and how much is inevitably going to end up on the cutting-room floor. At the end I turned my far less impressive minicamera on the team: David left, sound man Paul Vigars barely visible and cameraman Mike O'Halloran, who said he'd sorted the problem of my old glasses with their worn non-reflecting patina (still haven't replaced the more recent ones which got mangled up in the bikesmash).

I think I have Prokofiev's part in film and cantata pretty much off pat now, but it was a good opportunity to try and understand better Eisenstein's very detailed analysis of what he calls the 'congruence of the movement of the music with the movement of the visual sense' in his first major book The Film Sense, of which I am very proud to own an austere war-economy first edition copy. The diagrams in the text - he devotes thirteen pages to twelve shots - are a bit scary, but it does make good sense when you fold out the diagram in the back of the book.

The main point here is that the music's rising, plunging and horizontals are reflected very precisely in the composition of the images. It might become clearer if I reproduce a close-up of the first three shots with diagram and music.

Anyway, I waved The Film Sense around in trying to talk about it for the little documentary, so I hope it adds up sufficiently to be used in the film. Inevitably I wanted to say a little bit more about Ivan the Terrible, which is surely a much deeper, more wide-ranging collaboration between Prokofiev, Eisenstein and the cinematographer Edward Tisse, but Nevsky's Battle on the Ice sequence is where it all began in the sense of the film being composed to the music, and not vice-versa. It's to be found here, with the passage in question starting 10m27s into the sequence (if you want the full Battle on the Ice you'll have to go on to the next segment once this one reaches its end). The soundtrack is famously poor, though listen out for the trombones blaring directly into the microphone, a celebrated sound-innovation.

The cantata version is, of course, very different, and sounds so symphonic when in fact it's just Prokofiev's usual suite-like stitching together: except that the climax is a radical departure from the percussion-only thrash of the icebreak in the film. Svetlanov's performance is peerless, and I'm so glad it's there on YouTube, though I expect Andris Nelsons to make a thrilling job of the cantata on 30 July (just one thing - what were they thinking in scheduling Strauss's Salome's Dance at the end? An official encore? Anyway, Nelsons does that brilliantly too).

Better not spill any more beans, otherwise you won't tune in to BBC Two. One thing I can't recommend too highly is the stunningly comprehensive Criterion three-disc set of Eisenstein's sound years.

It features not just Nevsky and Ivan but also deleted scenes, a reconstruction of the film-maker's unfinished and much criticised Bezhin Meadow and a documentary which gives more detail on the Hollywood/Disney/Stokowski connection than any I've seen.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

After the ball

So our three City Lit Opera in Focus classes on Massenet's Cendrillon - it should have been five, but Verdi's Macbeth took more time, which I still think was right - came to an end yesterday. I haven't converted everyone; one of my students still thinks Massenet equals operetta, and that operetta is a bad thing. But the main thing is that I treasure the opera even more for what it is now, with its delicate shifts of tone, and Massenet's orchestration, sense of timing and gentle melodic gifts seem to shine the brighter to me now.

I've been doing a bit of soul-searching in the light of the Havergal Brian debacle (by which I mean not the performance, impressive in itself if hardly beyond reproach given some of the ludicrously awkward writing, but the work itself, which should have been laid to rest after its last two Albert Hall outings). Surely there's much more substance in supposed froth like this than in a failed attempt at more profound thought. Especially in the sphere of music where, as in art as Delaunay had it, 'colour itself is form and subject' - or at any rate can be.

The instrumental ingenuity Massenet lavishes above all on his ballet music, following his good friend Bizet's example, seems boundless. I thought yesterday we'd listen to an Act 2 divertissement with a difference, starting with the chorally elaborated Entree du Roi/Les Filles de Noblesse and ending with the Rigaudon which incorporates the arrival of Pandolphe with Madame de la Haltiere and her daughters. I'd happily have played the three dances in between, all of them brilliantly costumed by Laurent Pelly at Covent Garden and choreographed with abundant invention by Laura Scozzi. Instead, I inserted the Castillane, Aragonaise and Aubade from Le Cid, even more dazzling in terms of orchestral colour and dance panache, shown to best advantage in one of the best ballet performances I've ever heard, with Jean Martinon conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

The best Cendrillon orchestral number of all is surely the culminating Marche des Princesses in Act 4, again wittily staged by Pelly as a slipper-fitting. This YouTube recording isn't ideal, but it gives a sense of its 'allure gaie'.

So we moved on rather swiftly yesterday to the two love duets. It's almost a paradox that the one which, dramatically speaking, is redundant should contain perhaps the most inflaming music in the opera. I still wish Pelly had given us not chimneystacks but a big oak in a broom-flowering heath with the moon and the sea in the background, not least so that it would be made clear how the Fairy Godmother makes the Prince Charming and Lucette invisible to each other by conjuring up a fragrant hedge. But it still sounded good, with the great Alice Coote burning as ever. I still don't mind going back to a tenor Prince since Gedda and Von Stade are so fine on that recording. I've since found a 1973 snippet - not enough, alas, to take us back to the magical framework - with Marilyn Horne as the Prince and a young Von Stade. The tempo for the 'extase supreme' sequence is terribly slow, as conducted by Horne's husband Henry Lewis, but the voices do fire us up.

The scene prompted a bout of pure indulgence yesterday. Which are the French duets which make the concept of the 'melodie eternelle' shine brightest? Two, I thought, from Delibes's Lakme - the passionate exchanges of the heroine and her English army officer - and three from Esclarmonde, that piece of dramatic hokum and rare musical genius composed for the freakish compass of beautiful American soprano Sybil Sanderson.

I'd have particularly liked to illustrate Esclarmonde's Act IV glory here, but all we have duets-wise on YouTube is the middle to the end of the 'nuit d'amour' in Act 2. At least it gives us a chance to hear one of the most beaten-bronze tenor voices of all times, that of Giacomo Aragall, alongside Sutherland.

Ici, tout fini bien: we've had our fun with Cendrillon, and now it's back to the Russian whetstone.

STOP PRESS: You may have guessed I've been fiddling about with this while listening to - rather than watching - the Murdoch enquiry. And then, suddenly, cries of 'outrageous' - I flick to pull up the screen, and it's frozen. Shots of a wall which looks like it's had three stripes of paint chucked over it. What I've just been getting, along with half the rest of the country, is a repeated 'Portcullis House. Line 4. The Wilton Room'. Beep. We'll all know the rest imminently - it seems Rupert Murdoch's been attacked by someone in the public gallery with a plate of shaving foam...Such is the strangeness of blogging 'real time'.

Sunday 17 July 2011

Two cheers for three cantons

That oath on the Rütli pictured above by one-off Fuseli - there's a great Swiss-born artist for you - and ingeniously composed by Rossini for different choruses representing the ‘men of three cantons’ was an absolute highlight when I heard Chelsea Opera Group perform Guillaume Tell in concert last year and fell in love with it properly. At last night’s Prom,I wasn’t quite so convinced: the performance was undeniably sleeker and more nuanced, as you’d expect from a great animator-conductor like Antonio Pappano who’s been performing this operatic swansong with his Accademia di Santa Cecilia for quite a few years now. But it may well have been the alienating effect of being too far right and above the orchestra in the treacherous South Ken colosseum which made me feel far less involved than I had been in the Queen Elizabeth Hall with COG’s valiant effort. Yesterday I found myself longing instead for the way Verdi does the whole oath stuff so much better.

Several friends were a bit puzzled, too, that I’d flagged up Act 2 as far and away the greatest of the four. It didn’t sound it, and that may have had quite a lot to do with accomplished soprano Malin Bystrom – my pal Igor on The Arts Desk hits the nail on the head when he says that her 'buttery voice had a tendency to melt away just as you were beginning to believe in it' – not having a great rapport with star tenor John Osborn. I take it all back re the tenor: he was vocally even stronger than the compelling Mark Milhofer for COG, and cut through the Albert Hall oilslick effortlessly, but ultimately the voice wasn’t quite as singular nor the introspective moments as sensitive. As I think perhaps you can just about gauge from this soundclip of Milhofer singing 'Asile hereditaire' on YouTube - maybe from that very performance, it doesn't state the source.

The crucial solo of the fisherman Ruodi has also found its way onto YouTube from the COG performance, where Luciano Botelho's tenor made more of an impact than the perfectly good Celso Albelo last night. COG fixer Duncan Orr certainly knows where to find them.

Now I’m going to say something which, if I were on reviewing duty, would have me taken out and shot, and rightly (I’ve only ever left one event halfway through during my official critical years – a beyond-bad military band massacre of Grainger earlier this year – and incurred a stream of invective for saying so). What I decided to do at the end of Act 2 was to go home and listen to the rest on the brand-new Pappano recording.

Why? Artistically speaking, because I thought I’d rather hear Gerald Finley in Tell’s famous command to his apple-topped son, ‘Sois immobile’ than the grainy oldster Michele Pertusi, taking over for the Prom. That also meant I didn’t get the live sensation of Osborn’s top Cs and C sharps in the cabaletta to ‘Asile hereditaire’ (still think Milhoffer did a better job here, from the evidence of the recording). But I reckoned that from where I was sitting I wasn't getting the full impact of a live performance anyway.

Personal reasons: didn’t want to leave the diplo-mate pining at home - yeah, right - for longer than I had to, and needed to provision at Whole Foods (a rare luxury, and boy is it overpriced) before it shut at 10pm. How bourgeois and shallow can you get? Here's what I left behind - the Accademia looking sweepingly elegant and sounding better under Pappano than I've ever heard it. The photo is by Chris Christodoulou, whose professionalism leaves most others standing: for TAD, we get pictures in the interval, if possible, and at the end. Quite apart from all that, he's the best; the photo gallery of conductors which he kindly supplied to TAD last year shows his range superbly. Helps, I suppose, that the BBC Proms office is so well resourced.

Anyway, the serious listen to Acts 3 and 4 was postponed until this morning. And then, of course, I had a shock: on the recording, as in the Prom (or so the programme informed us), Pappano had cut the women’s woodwind-accompanied trio and the prayer in Act 4. Crazy: this is some of the most sensitive music in the score, and I see when I look back on the review that I loved the trio as a 'moment of stillness' in the COG performance. You get it all here, albeit in Italian, in Muti’s La Scala performance, Studer leading the way – and, no, it isn’t anything to do with the Italian version; these numbers were part of the French original.

Naughty Maestro P. Especially as the lovely Pat Bardon at the Prom would have been deprived of her finest moments. Never mind; this was certainly an event worthy of the first Proms weekend, and gave huge pleasure to everyone I spoke to.

The ending, of course, is unexpectedly glorious, and absolutely worthy of Turner's pioneering take on Switzerland from a quarter of a century earlier (that was Ruskin's visionary view of Lucerne's old walls above, by the way): a new dawn for 1829, except that Rossini had already sung his major operatic last...Here it is in the same Scala version.

One bonus to the COG experience: Pappano conducted all the ballet music, including the Act 1 Pas de Six better known in its Britten arrangement as the first of the Matinees Musicales but conducted here by Toscanini. Why the fryup picture I've no idea, but the sound is decent enough:

Think we ought to see Toscanini conducting a version of the Overture that begins with unison cellos, not the solo who so spellbindingly launched last night's prom. But stick with it for some extraordinary results later.

And That Galop sprang more lamb-like with Pappano. I have to end on a splendidly vulgar note with the sublime Australian yodeller Mary Schneider segue-ing naughtily between Tell, Carmen and Orpheus. Thanks to our friend Phillip Thomas for introducing us to this. Enjoy.

Saturday 16 July 2011

London: pictures in place

Cities are waking up to how you can change the look of a favourite location by installing temporary artworks to grace, contradict or change it. In November Durham will come alive with a festival of light that includes a stunning projection of Lindisfarne Gospel images on to the cathedral, which they did a couple of years ago, and which will be repeated along with much that's new. I hope London will do the same at that darkest time of year: remember the sunflowers projected on to the big arch in the middle of Hyde Park Corner?

In the meantime, one of the happiest serendipities was to stumble across Swedish photographer Anders Ryman's UNESCO-backed Rites of Life exhibition on the embankment just outside City Hall.

Quite apart from the fact that these images of people of all ages ceremonially marked out for a big change are stunning, they make a startling foreground to monuments we know all too well - not least the Tower vs the young man and Ethopian rituals as pictured above and this young woman (a Berber ceremony, I think, but I need to go back and take a closer, less hurried look, and maybe buy the book).

Then there's the baby further softening the curve of Boris's City Hall.

No time, alas, to linger: I was on the way to meet the Suthren-Lanes to experience in a very different fashion from its first night Laurent Pelly's mostly wonderful Royal Opera production of Massenet's Cendrillon. I knew from the 2009 screening of Rossini's Barber of Seville that the image and the sound of the big screen experience, in Trafalgar Square at any rate, is first class, and, ma foi, how the craze for this sort of thing has grown.

I couldn't quite get over the predominance of the young, in all shapes and sizes, happy to sit through an entire opera, maybe to picnic and chatter a bit, but as I wrote in the Arts Desk Buzz piece, everyone around me was quickly hooked by the look of the thing, and the sound of it, too, not least in the shape of our fabulous Ewa Podles with chest notes to die for as the affected stepmother.

A sly shot of diverse neighbours near the fountain:

and a more professional panorama by Rob Moore of the crowd at the previous Butterfly screening, kindly supplied by the Royal Opera.

Well, there's opera for the people indeed - though at the slightly questionable price of BP's conscience-salving excursion into the arts (all this was cleverly and not aggressively raised by the White Swan campaign I quoted in the piece; shame I missed the 'guerrilla ballet' performance). And when it comes to concerts for the people, the fiver that will buy you the only place to be in the Albert Hall, albeit standing, has to be the best bargain in the world. I warmed by degrees, as I think did the performers, to the First Night of the Proms, as you can read in my Arts Desk review. But here's a shot of the first approach, 7.15 yesterday evening, with the building part-wrapped in what looks like a Christo art work and the strange man who wanders about with a book of photos sitting hopefully, or maybe resignedly, at the top of the steps.