Monday 30 April 2012

Cherokees see Shakespeare slain

Here's a picture which is less remarkable for its execution than for capturing a slice of history not entirely unrelated to the worldwide Shakespeare carnival parading within the Globe. We arrived at the Victoria & Albert Museum the Sunday before last at 2pm, just too late to catch any of the art-college Shakespearean design ‘happenings’ which had by all accounts enlivened so many of the museum’s rooms and galleries. But I and Neapolitan visitor Clara were regaled with fabulously entertaining anecdotes about objects in the theatre collection by curator Geoff Marsh, who’d already given such good value at the time of the Diaghilev exhibition back in 2010.

He gave us the lively circumstantial history of this sub-Hogarthian artwork by William Dawes, The Downfall of Shakespeare Represented on a Modern Stage (click on the image for more detail). The darker-skinned spectators in the audience to the far right are two Cherokee Indians, part of a delegation visiting London in 1762. Chief Ostenaco, diplomatic in his relations with colonial big-wigs, met George III and sat for Sir Joshua Reynolds.

What they're watching is an allegorical murder: the triumph of Italian opera in the London of the mid 18th century  as represented, it’s thought, by Artaxerxes, over far superior native art (though if we're talking the Artaxerxes of Arne, he of Rule, Britannia! fame, both the libretto and the composer were English, so I'm a bit confused). Which is why Shakespeare lies dead while the operatic hero tramples pages of his plays. The V&A’s website page explains further: ‘In the 18th century Drury Lane and Covent Garden were the only theatres licensed to stage 'legitimate' drama. The popular Italian opera was the province of the King's Theatre in the Haymarket. Things changed in 1761 when the great English tenor, John Beard, took over the management of Covent Garden. He increased the number of opera performances and those of Shakespeare fell.’ More background here.

 Needless to say, rumours of our Will’s sudden death were greatly exaggerated, and now visitors once perceived as exotic are more likely to be playing Shakespeare from their own special perspectives rather than missing the chance to see his works on the London stage. I’ve now seen two more offerings in the great Bardic world meeting of Globe to Globe to follow the first play to be performed, Troilus and Cressida in Maori, and I’d be hard pressed to say which of the three was the best. No need to reiterate eulogies on The Arts Desk – on the Swahili Merry Wives of Windsor here and the Hindi Twelfth Night here – but let’s see a couple more images. First, Mrisho Mpoto’s Falstaff nimbly tumbling, if such a thing’s possible, into the buck-basket supplied by Mistresses Page (Chichi Seii) and Ford (Lydiah Gitachu; photo for Shakespeare’s Globe by Marc Brennan).

Now Geetanjali Kulkarni as a feisty Viola in The Theatre Company of Mumbai's earthy - but musically very sophisticated - Twelfth Night. Photo by Simon Annand.

For proof that at least half the audience understood the Hindi, see below. I should hasten to add this was taken before the performance, not during it. And yes, I abandoned my usual groundling place and opted for a seat, since heavy downpours threatened; in the event there was only one.

This week’s Globe to Globe  includes a handful of Italian actors taking on all parts in Julius Caesar; the appearance of the youngest nation, South Sudan, in Cymbeline; and Richard II from Ashtar Theatre, Ramallah, a staging which goes some way to meeting the objection of those (including Mark Rylance) who think Israel’s Habima National Theatre shouldn’t be allowed to appear with its Merchant of Venice.

Thursday 26 April 2012

Shakespeare's Maori warriors

With 38 theatre companies and as many languages descending on the Wooden O across the next six weeks, the least I thought I could do was to make a long-overdue theatrical outing and honour the Globe to Globe Shakespeare marathon at the earliest opportunity. I missed the opening, an evidently enchanting dramatization of Venus and Adonis by South Africa’s Isango Ensemble, but I hied me thither to catch the next event, an extraordinary Troilus and Cressida from the Maori company Ngakau Toa directed by Rachel House (production photo above by Simon Annand for Shakespeare’s Globe; shot below featuring Kimo Houltham’s Troilus/Toroihi and Awhina Rose Henare-Ashby’s Cressida/Kahira from the team’s admirable website). For a more detailed appraisal of the individual performances than I’m about to give, read my colleague Matt Wolf’s eulogy on The Arts Desk.

The overall look and sound of it will never be forgotten. Here were warriors to the life, acting out Shakespeare’s singular and troubling interpretation of episodes from the later stages of the Trojan war with incredible vigour, all feathers, bare chests and tattooed buttocks and thighs. They started with a traditional Maori Haka or war cry to the Prologue’s ‘In Troy [for which read Aeotearoa], there lies the scene’ - a ritual now on YouTube courtesy of a little Telegraph film -

 and there was an impromptu response at the end, too, as our neighbour-groundlings responded with their own earth-shaking tribute. At last we understood just how many audience members had been getting the verbal as well as the physical jokes; the Maori community in London must have joined the actors’ devoted fans from New Zealand.

All this was visceral, goosebump-raising and subtly complemented throughout the play itself by the refined, often spooky taonga puoro musicmaking of participant James Webster. Maybe the action itself came across as a bit too robust to suggest a war that’s been dragging on for years; there was little sense of the ‘botchy core’ eating away at notions of valour and love, though I liked the changes rung by an impish female Thersites (the chameleonic Juanita Hepi). But one big plus was that the fight scenes, which are usually the point at which even the best of British productions buckle a bit, provided a fitting climax, even if the horror of Hector’s ignoble death at the hands of Achilles’s Myrmidons went for little. 

One crucial accompanying element came as a bit of a shock. The digital panels either side of the stage gave us not a line of Shakespeare in the original, only the baldest of scene-summaries. So the Bard’s flights of fancy and disgust had to be semaphored at best, the war-council speeches – and I was alarmed to find how much of them I’d forgotten since a time when I knew the play well – passed us largely by, and identification of the warriors on both sides was even harder than usual (an opportunity missed by the supertitling in the early parade of Trojans, duly compared to big up Troilus in Cressida’s eyes by Rawiri Paratene’s authoritatively seedy Pandarus). Certainly words to the effect ‘Pandarus brings Troilus and Cressida  together’ were no substitute for the poetry in that initially tentative love-scene. So the language, except for those who understood the impressive Maori translation, was the biggest casualty. I wonder if the same opacity is to dog, say, the Serbian/Albanian/Macedonian Henry VI three parter?

Yet it has to be said that the audience went with the general sense of it all; the groundling zone remained as busy after the interval as it had been during the first half. As far as I could judge, this was the most compellingly-realised Troilus of the ones I’ve seen since Howard Davies’s Crimean War version many years ago, with Juliet Stevenson as an against-the-grain Cressida so shockingly bartered and traduced. The unique atmosphere of the whole will resonate in the memory long beyond any of those quibbles.

Full details of the Globe to Globe extravaganza here

Thursday 19 April 2012

Chopin list

On the stage of Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet in June 1909 were Vaslav Nijinsky in a rather unbecoming orangey-blond wig and attendant ethereal creatures including Tamara Karsavina and Alicia Pavlova. Down in the pit the orchestra played the joint creative input of six musical minds, colliding in a pretty mélange of sorts. Since three of them – Chopin, Stravinsky and Glazunov – are to meet in the Royal Ballet’s triple bill of A Month in the Country, A Birthday Offering and Les noces next month, and I needed to knit them together somehow in a programme article, the premiere of Les sylphides seemed like a very good place to start.

Digging out the whys and wherefores made me realize what a complex musical history this more or less plotless ballet, with its romantic poet flanked by long-tutued sylphs, has had. Not only does it tend to be most often performed, when it is performed at all, in Roy Douglas’s arrangement, but since the Russians other orchestrators have included Maurice Ravel in 1914* and Benjamin Britten, in a 1940 effort for an American ballet company sadly lost (and the editors of Britten’s letters must be believed on this, rather than Richard Taruskin, who claims the orchestration to be ‘in current use’. I wish it were).

So I thought as a kind of fridge-magnet memo to self I would attempt as un-drily as I could to list the path to the 1909 Les sylphides. Volume One of Taruskin’s Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions was a huge help, with detail from Lynn Garafola’s Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

Glazunov kicked off in 1892 with his orchestral suite Chopiniana, presumably inspired by what Tchaikovsky had done with Mozart piano pieces + the motet ‘Ave verum corpus’ Lisztified in his Suite No. 4. The four pieces in Chopiniana – none of them, note, used in Les sylphides – were the 'Military' Polonaise, Op. 40 No. 1; the Nocturne in F, Op. 15 No. 1; the Mazurka in C sharp minor, Op. 50 No. 3;  and the Tarantelle, Op. 43.

In 1907 Mikhail Fokine – pictured above two years earlier in costume for Paquita – choreographed Chopiniana for the Mariinsky. He asked Glazunov to make an additional orchestration of the C sharp minor Waltz, Op. 64 No. 2 with a bit of the Op. 25 No. 7 Etude to preface it. The waltz did of course survive into the Diaghilev-managed Les sylphides.

Chopiniana the ballet showcased national as well as classical dances – Warsaw ballroom style for the Polonaise, Capri-based folk dance for the Tarantella. That had little in common with Les sylphides. But the music and choreography for Fokine’s second Chopiniana ballet, entitled Grand Pas to Music by Chopin, certainly did. This retained only the C sharp minor Waltz and placed it alongside the six other numbers we know from Les sylphides (I'm getting opus fatigue now, and I'm sure you are, so we'll leave it at that until Stravinsky's contribution pops up).

 When Diaghilev turned to ‘the second Chopiniana’ for his Ballets Russes’ first appearance in the Parisian ‘Saison Russe’ of 1909, he clearly didn’t think much of its arrangements other than Glazunov’s; the rest had been hastily done by a répétiteur at the Mariinsky, Maurice Keller. So Diaghilev turned to Lyadov, Taneyev, Nikolay Tcherepnin and...the 26 year old Igor Stravinsky, who at the beginning of 1909 impressed him with his orchestral showpiece the Scherzo fantastique. I’ve not been able to trace the other arrangements, but Stravinsky’s not especially flavoursome yet historically fascinating versions of the Nocturne in A flat, Op. 32. No. 2 and the Grande Valse brillante, Op. 28 appear in rather poor sound – and with visuals you fortunately don't need to watch – via a performance from Sakari Oramo and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Don't ask me why there's a snippet of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto at the start, but don't readjust your sets - it quickly vanishes.

Which provides an excuse very belatedly to congratulate Oramo on his appointment as principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, taking up the baton in September. That fabulous Bax/Saariaho/Sibelius concert which was definitely one of the highs of 2011 clearly had its impact - and looking back at the associated blog post, I see there was speculation in the comments about who would take over the reins at the BBCSO. One thing I didn't know at the time was that it was the first occasion on which Oramo had conducted a London orchestra.

And while sounding the BBC note, fullish details of the works at the 2012 Proms (though minus artists) are here on the Arts Desk and here on the BBC Proms website, less easy to take in at once. All I’ll say is that there must be something there to satisfy everyone, and that if another Beethoven symphonies cycle would usually send me diving for cover, the fact that it comes from Barenboim and his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is a real coup for the world's biggest music festival.

*this added in the light of Shin-ichi Numabe's comment below.

Saturday 14 April 2012

In search of a shadow

The first time I saw Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s ‘massive and artificial’ (Strauss’s words) operatic fairy tale Die Frau ohne Schatten performed by Welsh National Opera, programme and posters were garlanded with images by the Belgian symbolist painter Fernand Khnopff, whose enigmatically titled ‘I Lock My Door Against Myself’ is pictured up top, his ‘Sleeping Medusa’ below. The opera’s unsettling, decadent atmosphere, its clash of spirit and human worlds, was not exactly Khnopffed but well served all the same by the spare yet effective and magically lit touring production (and great Norman Bailey sang the role of Barak the Dyer – I’m pleased still to have his singing in Act 1 on an old cassette).

Yet it’s worth remembering that, begun as it was before the First World War, this optimistic fantasy finally premiered in a Vienna stricken by post war austerity. The mood had changed – as had Strauss’s, who, as he waited for Hofmannsthal to get the last bits of text to him in 1916, decided that such monuments were now out of joint with the troubled times and felt ‘downright called upon to become the Offenbach of the 20th century’ instead.

Quite apart from its dodgy moral-majority message that you’re incomplete without children – which can be sidestepped by special pleading that the subjects are really creativity and compassion - Frau is, no doubt, problematic in that it starts out taking the magic seriously in an astonishingly scored first act and finishes by not believing enough in its happy end. But does this justify wrenching it to another time and place still reeling from calamities, a chilly 1950s Vienna of underheated recording-studio halls and drab winter clothing, where a stiff Christmas concert performance deputises for the portentous finale?

That’s director Christof Loy’s solution, and I’m still in two minds about his 2011 Salzburg Festival production, now preserved on an Opus Arte DVD. It does humanise all five principal characters – on one side the Emperor and the Empress who has not yet born him a child, on the other the dissatisfied wife who may or may not give up the shadow the other woman needs and her placid husband, with the Mephistophelean Nurse as conniving go-between. There is, though, one huge problem. I genuinely believe that, for all the mumbo-jumbo, the essence of Hofmannsthal’s plot is rather simple as it follows the Empress’s path to enlightened rejection of the shadow, the realization that she cannot buy her own happiness at the cost of others. Loy replaces, rather than parallels, it with a recording-studio ‘storyline’ that’s so oblique it doesn’t begin to make sense. His exhortation of Strindberg’s preface to A Dream Play suggests that he never intended it to. 

Anyway, it’s not my place here to discuss the DVD as a whole, which I’ve done within the constraints of a BBC Music Magazine review yet to be published. I will say that I was alternately fascinated and baffled, never repelled, by the production, but always in thrall to Thielemann’s magisterially beautiful conducting of the Vienna Philharmonic and to the Empress of my Straussian idol Anne Schwanewilms (pictured up top by Monika Rittershaus for the Salzburg Festival).

It’s not a flawless performance, but so expressively right for the translucent not-quite-earthly girl who becomes a deeply feeling human being. Prior to the DVD release with English subtitles, chunks of the telly screening went up on YouTube, so watch and hear, if you will, the Empress’s awakening scene in Act One – that’s a keenly-inflecting Michaela Schuster as the Nurse at the start, and you can decide whether you want to go on to their scene together, a bit of a trial without translation -

and the culminating ‘judgment of Solomon’ scene of Act Three in which the Empress has to decide whether to take the shadow or not. Maddeningly, there’s no dramatic substitute for the usual suspense as to whether the elusive shadow will appear on cue or not, or for the chilling sight of the Emperor petrified except for his eyes; but I reckon Schwanewilms holds the intensity of the drama with her vocal and physical expressiveness. Again, you can probably forego the barky aftermath of heldentenor Stephen Gould’s contribution.

Tuesday 10 April 2012

Easter Day at Ozleworth

Our Gloucestershire Sunday walk took us down through the woods of the Newark Park estate and up along the back lane to this isolated but spruced-up* gathering of barns, grand house and Norman church in a circular churchyard which I like to think reflects an original pagan site (the rest of the way back to our hosts' farm at Uley was cut short because we'd come out with the wrong Ordnance Survey map, and sniffing our route on and off piste was only partially successful).

The name is singular: the option I prefer interprets 'Ozle' as 'Osle' or blackbird - think of Shakespeare's Bottom and his 'ousel-cock so black of hue, with orange-tawny bill'. The site is the side of one of those valleys in which Gloucestershire abounds, less dramatic than the hilltop setting for the house at Newark; the ensemble here does not open itself up to vistas. But St Nicholas of Myra is quietly remarkable.

Its irregular hexagonal tower, dating from 1110-20, was probably built above the Norman nave of a small oratory. Enlargements were made in the early 13th and 14th centuries, and again in the 19th by clergyman architect William Henry Lowder. But the 'improvement' of the Victorian restoration is pleasantly offset by the building's current status under the Churches Conservation Trust, which always means clean-cut simplicity.

There are two fine arches, one chevroned in the west tower wall, the other more unusual around the south doorway (pictured above), which the detailed guide describes as boasting 'a finely carved exuberant decoration of stiff-leaf sprays set in six large lobes around the arch and supported by circular shafts with stiff-leaf decoration around the capital'. The font is 13th century, with dog-tooth and nail-head decoration

and, apart from the Flemish windows in the south-west tower, the only old glass is a medieval fragment of a saint at the top of the otherwise Victorian east window.

Prettily lichened cherubs grace a Warlock family tomb in the uncluttered churchyard (hard to fill given such a small parish).

Later we processed to a homespun Evensong in the local church at Owlpen, gaudy with Victorian and Edwardian mosaics which you'll admire if you like that sort of thing or find contributing to a 'special ugliness' if you share the sentiments of the Shell Guide's author. Anyway, the 1913 angel is at least bright and topical.

Our Easter fare was a last year's lamb from the neighbouring field, and the kitchen table was bright with eggs, including a few real ones from the bantams outside, and flowers from the garden, most intriguing of seasonal visitors, I reckon, being the snakeshead fritillary.

On a personal note, I count it as a big achievement to have ventured thus far, a small enough distance under usual circumstances but a major effort in the light of the past few months; the path to recovery surely (surely!) begins here.

*friend Cal says it was much more atmospheric when overgrown, and before socially competitive folk laid renovating hands on the site. But it's all lovingly done, I guess.

Monday 2 April 2012

Peddler’s tales for the low-gear reader

Dauntless Dervla Murphy has cycled what were, at her various times of writing, the undiscovered corners of the world – when she could, that is, because from the harshest winter on record which dogs the quickly-told early stages of her first journey, Full Tilt, to the incapacities and robbery which cut short her bike rides in a much later, train-dominated jaunt around Siberia, circumstances have not always allowed. She’s also trekked with daughter Rachel – when aged five, to southern India, when six, to Baltistan – as well as enlisted several mules or donkeys for company and baggage, treated with love but subject to the same erratic diet as well as the perilous ascents and descents la Murphy herself favours.

These are the only books I’ve found easy to read during my several sojourns in the underworld* – and to re-read with pleasure this time round, in most cases; new to the trusty library this year were Cameroon with Egbert, Transylvania and Beyond and Through the Embers of Chaos (a tough, singular take on the post-fractured Balkans) . It doesn’t worry me that our Dervla has become ever more wild with her punches at What The West Calls Progress. Unscientific she may be; language is often a barrier; but her unique ability to rough it on hard floors among bedbugs and rats wherever she goes opens her to other ways of life, and endears her to local people. She follows her instincts, which are usually right; shrugs off robberies and broken bones; and, in the later books, simply talks to the casualties of war and AIDS.

Though the personal tone is always companionable, the books are often as good – I suspect – as the editor and proofreader have made them. Which doesn’t stop me loving the rougher-hewn tomes, like Six Feet in the Andes. But the little masterpiece is surely Where the Indus is Young – for the pith of its encounters, unsentimentally recorded, with the Balts and others, for the guileless observations of young Rachel and above all for the sheer bloody-mindedness of a mother taking her daughter trekking with a mule from the dead of winter up to avalanche time as the spring thaw begins.

Something of the descriptions of the river and mountain landscape both here and especially in the later stages of Full Tilt, when Dervla heads out of Gilgit in several directions, brings back strong memories of our much less doughty Karakoram journey from Chitral to Gilgit by jeep (majestic Tirich Mir in the distance above); all we can claim in common is dossing down on local floors with mountain folk en route, waking to scenes like this.

When Dervla waxes lyrical, as she often does, about the beauty of high solitude, I can understand at least a little of what she means. And I guess the places we visited on the earlier stages of our trip, which took us up several valleys inhabited by different tribes under the aegis of the Kalash Environmental Protection Agency, aka another extraordinary woman, Maureen Lines, will now have slipped back post-insurgency into untouristed obscurity. Anyway, all hail to the great Murphy for providing an invalid’s solace.

And in another all too recent reminder that other places in the world once accessible to the tourist can so quickly become out of bounds, I’ve been following with alarm our dear Sophie’s narrative from her Hotel Djenne Djenno in Mali. When we were there it wasn’t exactly easy to get to Timbuktu

and back down the river Niger. Now not only is it impossible, as I hazarded before Christmas, to head north to what seems likely to become known as Azawad, but the trouble is very much on Djenne’s doorstep. With only the sketchiest of outlines to be gleaned from the international press, Sophie is perhaps the best port of call for a woefully under-reported crisis that’s worsening by the day.

*normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.