Monday 24 November 2014

A thinker at Waldemarsudde

I was here, at Prince Eugen's residence on the exquisite Stockholm island of Djurgården, in the course of a gusty but bracing and mostly blue-skied afternoon in early October before the formal business of the Birgit Nilsson Prize. Imagine my feeling of strong serendipity when, a couple of days later, I picked up my copy of Curzio Malaparte's Kaputt - second in my reverse-reading of his great semi-autobiographical novels about the horrors of the Second World War, and it's he who is my subject rather than the Rodin edition in Waldemarsudde's grounds - to find that his first chapter begins here, too. Malaparte described 'a clear September day of almost springlike softness. Autumn was already reddening the old trees of Oakhill'. Don't know what that is in Swedish; I'll make do with a slope in front of the villa, on the left one of several sculptures by the inescapable Carl Milles, whose legendary house and garden elsewhere in Stockholm I meant to blog about but never found the time.

Malaparte gives the names of sundry creatures to the six sections of novelistic reportage around his journalistic time at the Eastern Front and near the Arctic Circle, fraternising uneasily with the supposed enemy: 'The Horses', 'The Mice', 'The Dogs', 'The Birds', 'The Reindeer', 'The Flies'. I'm reminded of the sequences of animals going wild when the protagonist is cast out in Kozintsev's masterly film of King Lear. The connections aren't always instantly apparent, but Part One instantly places its subjects in Chapter One, 'Du côté de Guermantes': Prince Eugen identifies the 'sad, yearning wail' heard across Stockholm's harbour as coming from ' the horses of the Tivoli, the amusement park opposite the Skansen', being led down to a small beach by a girl in a yellow dress.

The sun was setting. For many months I had not seen a sunset. After the long northern summer, after the endless unbroken day without dawn or sunset, the sky at last began to fade above the woods, above the sea and the roofs of the city, and something like a shadow (it was perhaps only the shadow of a shadow) was gathering in the east. Little by little, night was being born, a night loving and delicate, and in the west, the sky was blazing above the woods and the lake, curling itself up within the glow of sunset like an oak leaf in the fragile light of autumn.

Amid the trees of the park, the two statues, Rodin's 'Penseur' and the 'Nike of Samothrace' wrought in excessively white marble [artistic licence, see above] made one think, in an unexpected and peremptory way, of the decadent and Parnassian fin-de-siècle Parisian taste that at Valdermarsudden seemed artificial and uneal against the background of that pale and delicate northern landscape [further licence here, this time on my part, with another Milles bronze in the formal garden and the linseed mill of 1785 in situ].

In the Chinese-box construction of Kaputt, Malaparte uses his conversations with Prince Eugen at Waldemarsudde as a frame for flashbacks to various scenes on Capri with Axel Munthe, in the Ukraine, on the Finnish side of Lake Ladoga. And this last offers the most astonishing literary image in the book. Malaparte would have us believe that the horses of the Soviet artillery, in desperate flight from a forest fire, ran into the lake, which froze on them.

On the following day, when the first ranger patrols, their hair singed, their faces blackened by smoke, cautiously stepped over the warm ashes in the charred forest and reached the lakeshore, a horrible and amazing sight met their eyes. The lake looked like a vast sheet of white marble on which rested hundreds upon hundreds of horses' heads. They appeared to have been chopped off cleanly with an axe. Only the heads stuck out of the crust of ice. And they were all facing the shore. The white flame of terror still burnt in their wide-open eyes. Close to the shore a tangle of wildly rearing horses rose from the prison of ice...During the dull days of the endless winter, towards noon, when a little faded light rains from the sky, Colonel Merikallio's soldiers used to go down to the lake and sit on the heads of the horses. They were like wooden horses on a merry-go-round. Tournez, tournez, bons chevaux de bois - turn, turn, good wooden horses. The scene might have been painted by Bosch. The wind through the black skeletons of the trees played a sweet, childish, sad music; the sheet of ice seemed to turn, as the horses of that macabre merry-go-round tossing their manes would curve to the sad tune of the sweet childish music.

Natually I went online in search of photographs of this extraordinary event. I should have known from my reading of Malaparte's The Skin: none exists of the catastrophe described. What I did find was a still from a Canadian film clearly indebted to the novelistic treatment of this phenomenon, which makes me want to see the work of  Guy Maddin in what he calls a 'docu-fantasia', My Winnipeg. His horses have escaped from a burning racetrack to the Red River.

The line between truth and fiction is more than usually blurred in Malaparte's work, as I found out reading The Skin, or more specifically the surrounding essays giving background. And here, in an afterword by Dan Hofstadter, I learned things I'd rather not know. Such as, for example, that Malaparte's distaste at hobnobbing with the banality of evil in the shape of Reichsminister Frank, the Nazi governor of Poland, meetings which govern the shape of his novel's second part just as Prince Eugene is the connecting thread of the first, may have been real, but his attitude to Frank originally had a very different slant. The original draft, according to Lino Pellegrini, praised Frank to the skies when it seemed that Germany would win the war; 'later, seeing how the wind was blowing, Malaparte rewrote the manuscript'. He was not present at the Iasi pogrom, which he describes so vividly and horrifyingly; he did not see for himself the ghettos of Poland.

Perversely, I'm still not convinced by Hofstadter's detonation. I want to know more. The books burst with a sense of savage indignation that can't be faked. Malaparte may have been an opportunist, but he was also a profound artist. Unfortunately, given the nature of the hybrid form, it's not entirely enough to say that art is one thing, life another.

What he leaves us in no doubt of is the scarring-for-life nature of the horrors he witnessed, and nobody sets them before us with a greater strangeness of literary style. How Kurt Vonnegut dealt with his witnessing of the bombing of Dresden - or not, since he was walled up in the depths of Slaughterhouse Five while the firestorm swept through the streets above him - is cause for amazement of quite a different sort. Here the language is not florid and evasive but short and sharp in its irony and matter of factness. I've just read Charles J Shields' very readable biography of the great man, and I sense that it doesn't take into sufficient account the shaping effect of this trauma - Vonnegut was set to shovelling charred corpses in the aftermath - on an ambivalent personality.

His famous motto, or - let's not get the two confused - that of a key character, 'Dammit, you've got to be kind', was not always carried out in practice, least of all on those who ought to have been his nearest and dearest. But that's the human condition for you: which of us has always lived up to our ideals? Milton's seminal line on Satan in Paradise Lost, 'comprehending the good, but powerless to be it', surely applies to most of us. It's an upsetting mystery how the hell Vonnegut ended up in a second marriage with a careerist piranha whom nobody quoted in the book seems to have liked (and the first Mrs Vonnegut, Jane Cox, who strikes me as both brilliant and profoundly supportive, would have been relatively fine about it if he'd taken up with an earlier long-term mistress whose humanity she didn't doubt).

The book left me feeling very heavy, above all because Vonnegut seemed so miserable in his personal circumstances during the years leading up to his death. But the artist's life's his work, and there he made so many others happy and decisive. I was going to add a few lines about his son Mark's second book, Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So, but I ended up disliking this in many ways admirable man as I never quite could Vonnegut himself, so all the wisdom I thought I'd imbibed went up in smoke - unfair, perhaps, but there it is.

Another book both bitter and sweet, on a less cosmic scale than Malaparte's epics, perhaps, but no less resonant, and relevant here because of the past's effect on the present, is Maxim Leo's Red Love: The Story of an East German Family. Translated (superbly, I'd guess) from the German by Shaun Whiteside, Leo's history is essentially that of five people. There's the author himself, growing up in the crumbling East German system only to feel oddly bereft of a country when the Wall comes down, at least for a while. His parents, a rather beautiful couple if not without their troubles, are the wistful Anne who wants to believe in the system and how it can be changed from within and handsome artist Wolf, the eternal rebel who ends up being a man without a cause. And then, central to the book in every way, there are the two grandfathers: Anne's father Gerhard and Wolf's father Werner.

Gerhard's life seems like a screenplay, a story of unbelievable courage and integrity ultimately betrayed by a system. Max takes his days in the French resistance from Gerhard's own writings, which read like an adventure story too astonishing to be true, one you could film almost unfilletted; and yet since he seems to have been a man of total truthfulness, one could hardly impugn his veracity. The son of a courageous Jewish father, he escaped to Paris, then had extraordinary adventures and narrow escapes as a fearless youth plunging headlong into his work with the French resistance. Werner, on the other hand, seems like a feather for each wind that blows - a kind of Everyman, I suppose, with unbelievable luck. He adapts to Nazi ideology and the world of the GDR equally well, if not without repression and retribution. Having given us the two stories, Leo links them eloquently:

I think that for both my grandfathers the GDR was a kind of dreamland, in which they could forget all the depressing things that had gone before. It was a new start, a chance to begin all over again. The persecution, the war, the imprisonment, all the terrible things that Gerhard and Werner had been through, could be buried under that huge pile of the past. From now on all that mattered was the future. And trauma turned to dream. The idea of building an anti-fascist state had a beneficial effect on both of them. Gerhard could devote himself to the illusion that GDR citizens were very different Germans from the ones that had once driven his family out of the country. And Werner could act as if he had always believed in Socialism. All wounds, all mistakes were forgotten and forgiven if you were willing to become part of this new society.

New faith for old suffering: that was the ideal behind the foundation of the GDR.

That is the explanation for the unbounded loyalty with which Gerhard and Werner were bound to that country until the bitter end. They could never unmask the great dream as a great lie because the lie they needed to live would have been exposed at the same time.

And their children? They were hurled into their fathers' dreamlands, and had to dream along whether they wanted to or not. They didn't know that founding ideal. And because they had nothing to overcome, nothing to hide, they found faith difficult too. They saw the poverty, he lies, the claustrophobia, the suspicion. And they heard their fathers' phrases as they raved about the future. Much of the power and the euphoria had gone. And the grandchildren? They were glad when it was all over. They didn't even have a guilty conscience at kicking the state. What did I get from the great dream? Small-minded prohibitions, petty principles and jeans that looked like elongated Youth Front shirts. The energy of the state had been used up in three generations. The GDR remained the country of old men, of the founding fathers, and their logic no longer made sense to anybody.

There you have it; I hope the passage was worth quoting in full. The troubles of the fathers invade the hopes of their children, and children's children, more than we like to think. Inherited disposition to depression, for instance, may be a myth: was it not because my grandfather was an invalid for the last 24 years of his life, after his mustard-gas poisoning in World War One, that my father succumbed to invalidism in his late 50s, during five crucial years of my development, leaving me to deal with my own improperly unleashed demons in mid-life, too? But this is another argument altogether, for which all I recommend is that you read Darian Leader's superb little study Strictly Bipolar. And so it goes...

Which is why I should take us out of the woods of melancholy Waldemarsudde, round the bay on the south (above and below), which was always my intention to complement the north-side routes we took to and from the fabulous Thielska Galleriet in the early spring.

and in to the fruitful heart of Djurgården. Large co-operatives grow fruit and vegetables in a huge clear space in the centre of the island where the sunflowers still grew

and autumn was in the leaves but not in the light

while vines and lavender were still themselves close to the pavilion.

Now we head into the depths of winter, but bright, cold days like today can still lift the spirit. Nature is merely conserving its energy, not dead. Of course you knew that, but I find it comforting to remind myself.

Monday 17 November 2014

Wagnerian high seas in Lyon

Impressive, isn't it: this must be most people's ideal of a stage picture to go with the Overture to Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, if image there has to be, for it can't add anything in the mind's eye to the musical depiction of turbulent seas. Imagine the reddish-brown rusting hull going from the top of the proscenium arch most of the way down, and the projections on what turn out to be sand banks of rough waves moving vividly, with flashes of lightning in the sky. Those are exactly the kind of visuals we've come to expect from the Catalan co-operative La Fura dels Baus. They suit the opening of the Overture, can afford to calm down for the music of Senta's Ballad, but get a bit monotonous once we arrive at the music of the Sailors' Chorus. The actual scene of rival crews depicted below, one of five images by Jean-Louis Fernandez.

The Opéra de Lyon engaged Alex Ollé of the company on the huge strengths of the Tristan und Isolde and The Turn of the Screw (from Valentina Carrasco) I saw and loved there. So I was eager to catch the latest offering, and the fairest way to do it was to request an interview with Ollé which could appear on The Arts Desk (where we can't really justify one-off reviews of productions outside the UK). It was fun to hang around the office space on the top floor of Jean Nouvel's redesign, but not for that long. A Spanish TV interview wildly overran and I had to fight even for the bare half-hour. And then there was the fact that - though we might have conducted the conversation in French - the Spanish had to be translated by Ollé's very charming assistant.

So I ended up with very little, most of it in Ollé's French programme note. And when I saw the performance a couple of hours later, I realised that the basic premise was a bit of a washout, so I gave the Lyon press office the choice of my two options - to run the interview in a rather negative framework on The Arts Desk, or devolve to here for a more equivocal view of the performance. My chief beef about it was the unclear realisation of Olle's intended mise en scene. Where, he asked, would a belief in magic and a society where fathers sell their daughters still hold good (or bad) today? He decided on the port of Chittagong, polluted 'hell on earth', a graveyard of rusty ships disembowelled by scrap merchants and their workers. That this kind of thing can be done was exemplified in Penny Woolcock's poverty-today staging of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers at English National Opera.

Unfortunately I don't think anyone watching Ollé's production without this vital piece of information would be able to locate Daland's home. The 'spinners' are fiddling around with bits of scrap metal, the costumes are indeterminate. Ollé's chief point is the rather confusing one that Daland's ship and the Dutchman's are one and the same - the 'ghosts' come out of the bowels, and once it reaches harbour the dismantling begins, presumably disturbing the spirits.

The real problem is a common one of concept and design dwarfing the action, which hardly seems to have been worked on at all. So there's the usual stand and deliver. If Magdalena Anna Hofmann as Senta and Simon Neal as her fantasy are good actors, this production doesn't allow them to show it; and the voices are neither of them attractive - Neal's rather occluded, with strained top, Hofmann's useful up there but slightly unfinished. The world-class singers are the Daland, Falk Struckmann - could he not still be singing the Dutchman? - and the revelation of the evening for me, Vienna-trained lyric-heroic tenor Tomislav Muzek as the much-maligned Erik, who's already sung his role at Bayreuth (pictured below in a final tussle with Hofmann's Senta - note the old-fashioned spotlight, which didn't chime well with the designs). Here the acting is with the voice, the sound more lyric than heroic but with all the heft needed in the upper register, flawless in short. I look forward to seeing more of him.

Nor did Kazushi Ono's characteristic clarity and the beautiful timbre of the Lyon Orchestra fall short, with some especially neat handling of the more Italianate moments. Ono chose the revised, redemptive version of the Overture but the original, abrupt finale: fair enough. If only the last moments had been more theatrically effective.

It was the last warm evening of the year in Lyon on my arrival, with just enough time between interview and performance to walk a bit around the Croix-Rousse district, having explored its traboules back in the spring,. Torrential rain overnight eased off a bit on Sunday and I walked from Terreaux all the way down to La Confluence, the massively redeveloped old port area on the lip between the Rhône and the Saône, chiefly attracted by an image I'd seen of the outlandish Orange Cube.

This is the brainchild of Paris-based architects Dominique Jakob and Brendan Macfarlane. There are two large round holes at different levels on a facade of metal mesh, itself covered in circles of various sizes.

Somehow I fancy the uniqueness of the Orange Cube is a little undermined by a green counterpart from the same team which, despite the placement of its giant holes, isn't sufficiently different to let the original newcomer shine.

Since this is a kind of Canary Wharf with architectural imagination, nothing much was happening on a wet Sunday. It all felt a bit deserted and creepy, with nowhere looking very welcoming to stop off for a coffee, but I guess there was one connection with Chittagong - the barges with junk on them, like this one,

and while the Orange and Green Cubes were simply curious rather than fabulous, I loved what had been done, rather more spontaneously, to the old chamber of commerce, soon converted after opening in 1927 to a sugar store

with its anti-capitalist protest art

and its towers (can't find out more even in French).

I walked down as far as the iron bridge and another vast new building

and then turned back in search of somewhere good to eat in the middle of the afternoon. And at last I enjoyed bouchon fare in the tiny and welcoming La Traboulerie - 58, rue Merciere, highly recommended especially at weekends when it doesn't keep the very restricted bouchon hours of the weekdays.

With the clouds briefly clearing, there was time to stroll along a more traditional stretch of the Saône

before heading back to the hotel and, eventually, the airport.

Finally, a Wagnerian footnote: had a fun time moderating 'Brunch with Brünnhildes' in Birmingham the Saturday before last. As I wrote earlier, I've seen Susan Bullock a few times since meeting her at master coach Phillip 'The Sage of Neath' Thomas's 50th birthday party, and I like her a lot. Catherine Foster was new to me, and it's frustrating not to have caught Bayreuth's Brünnhilde of choice in the first and second runs of Frank Castorf's controversial Ring. Indeed, it would have been difficult to have caught her in the UK since after a few early appearances here Catherine went off to live in Weimar, without two beans to her name, as house soprano and has never looked back. Her British record is centred around early performances as Mozart's Queen of the Night - a role which, curiously, Susan sang in her early days, too. By the way, I asked her about the 'Sue' and she told me that everyone in the business calls her that, though she never encouraged it and her mum doesn't like it.

Neither diva had met the other before (nor were they likely to have done so unless one had happened to be singing Sieglinde and the other Brünnhilde). They complemented each other serendipitously in stylish black and gold, both seemed very grounded - essential if you're to survive as a Wagnerian - and gave us some revelatory nitty-gritty about the practicalities of getting through the role: what you do between performances, where you plan the toilet breaks, and how you have to hold on to the way you sing it, regardless of whether the orchestra is too loud or the conductor wilful (if you don't, you won't get to the end).

Catherine made the distinction between regie opera directors, who come with everything mapped out, and regie theatre folk, who ask you to do it twenty ways and then tell you they like them all*. Little wonder if Susan shunned that set-up (she's been lucky to work with directors she trusts: Keith Warner, Graham Vick, Richard Jones, who as she rightly says should win every award going this year for his triple whammy of Rodelinda, Rosenkavalier and of course The Girl of the Golden West in which she was so supremely touching). Did Catherine ever say she couldn't do what was asked? Yes, in the case of Castorf wanting her to whizz down a flight of stairs while singing in a blonde wig and slinky dress, pushing a pram that turned out to be full of potatoes. An actor was persuaded to do the scene in obvious drag.

The knowledgeable fellow-brunchers were delighted when both sang 'hoiotoho's in perfect synchonicity, at the same pitch, to illustrate a point, and we got a bit of the art of phrasing, too. It was a happy hour or so, and all I wanted was then to see both in action. That will just have to wait.

*19/11: Catherine and Susan enlarge upon the whole Regietheater issue in eloquent comments below.

Tuesday 11 November 2014

Captain George Nice

Until this September, I'd never seen a photograph of my paternal grandfather, George Nice. I only knew that he was posted by the British army to Secunderabad, India, where my father was born in 1912, and after that he served throughout the First World War, where he suffered mustard gas poisoning and was something of an invalid for the rest of his life. Strange, isn't it, that my father had nothing to show my mother of his past life, not even a picture, and was so secretive that only after his death did we find out that he had an elder brother, George - the name he took despite being christened Cyril - who died of tuberculosis (when I was up for my BCG jab, Dad kept completely stumm).

My father was two decades older than my mother, of that more rigid and unrevealing generation, but even for a man of his age seems to have been remarkably unforthcoming. He became an invalid after a stroke when I was 10 and died five years later, so the longer chats that might have come with maturity never happened. I think I understand: that the fact he never talked about his work as a London fireman in the Second World War must have been to bury unimaginable horrors, while the death of his brother must have been so painful, and loaded him with responsibilities as the eldest son, the new 'George' to look after his by all accounts formidable mother. There was another brother, Harry, an older sister, Hilda and a younger, Edith, who kept the family heirlooms in boxes barely touched until this year.

So it was to her daughter, my beloved cousin Diana in Reading, and Diana's husband Lee, who'd put together a kind of 'presentation' for me, that I went while my mother was staying there a couple of months ago. Lee first presented me with the photo from which the above detail is taken and asked me to guess the identity of my grandfather. The above standard-bearer wasn't my first choice.

He stands, if I've got it right, between Lord Jellicoe and General Gourand, at a Whitehall Remembrance Day ceremony. A second photo, less damaged, shows another scene from the same event.

From what I can make out, he served in the army until 1920 but maintained his duties with the British Legion until his death on 16 March 1944. There's a very touching and personal letter from Major Sir Brunel Cohen to his widow, my grandmother (whom I also never knew), which concludes thus:

I have known him for so long, 22 years, I think, and I would assure you that we shall miss him in the Legion more than I can say. He has been ill for so long and I have always admired his pluck in sticking to his job under such hardship and difficulty. A man of unimpeachable integrity!

I'm going to wind the clock back slowly. There are programmes from four Albert Hall ceremonies of remembrance, such large-scale events in the 1930s. This one took place on this day in 1937.

Here it looks as if my grandfather had gone to a commemoration on the battlefield itself, though there's no date or details.

He became a captain in 1920. He'd gone to France in December 1914 as a second lieutenant in the Fifth (formerly Seventh) Dragoon Guards, received one commendation for valour signed by Churchill and ended up with a special medal in addition to the three awarded to most soldiers who lasted the duration (known as 'Pip, Squeak and Wilfred'; if you got two, they were 'Mutt and Jeff').

The History of the 5th Dragoon Guards published by Blackwood in 1924 gives the details of the action which led to the most prized of the medals, describing events on April 7 1918 in Fampoux Field to the east of Athies:

Second Lieutenant Nice of A Squadron was afterwards awarded the Croix de Guerre for his gallantry in reconnoitring under heavy rifle and machine gun fire to try and find a route for the regiment to make a further advance in the direction of Greenland Hill.

Here's the other side of the Croix de Guerre:

and, quite confoundingly, I also identified a fifth medal as a German iron cross. The mind whirls at this and so much else. How did he come by it? Who will ever know?

Around the war, my grandfather served in Cairo, Secunderabad and Palestine. Slightly curious that I've been to all three places, though I sought out Secunderabad, now a chaotic suburb of Hyderabad, because it always had a magic ring to it when I was a child, knowing that Dad was born there and looking it up in an atlas. Not surprisingly I jumped at this picture, which shows ever stern-looking Elizabeth and George with two of their offspring.

But the children must be Hilda and George Junior, and the location is probably Cairo, because we also came across George's birth certificate, D.O.B. 16 January 1910, Abbasiyeh Garrison.

My father, Cyril, followed two years later. And here he is, seated and serious in front of his Mama, with George the cheeky chappie, young Harry - who went on to serve in the Second World War with the Chindits in Burma, ending up in a prisoner of war camp, an event which scarred him for life - and Hilda (Edith was yet to be born).

Closing in, I have to admit he looks very much like a picture of me with teddy and model racing car aged five, though in my case the serious look may be unidentified myopia. You're spared that pic since I haven't scanned it, but here's Dad again.

Among the papers we also found a photo of Dad in his late teens, signed to Hilda, in which he looks so handsome and happy. But this is about Captain George, so back to the Dragoons. The all-important horse:

and George, third from right, in cod-medieval garb for I know not reason

on the back of which card he's written, which shows he must have had some sense of humour, this to his beloved:

Two more shots will do, a group photo of the Seventh Dragoon Guards in their Abbasiyeh Garrison,  Cairo, before the First World War

amd another after it, of riding instructors, which clearly Captain George became, in 1920.

You can imagine the tumult of imagination this triggered in a grandson who now had some puzzle pieces to join together. I hope it's just the beginning of finding out more about my father's side of the family; it's only a shame I left it until this special year to embark on the discovery. Praise be to a blog, then, for enshrining the information. There isn't a lot about the Nices on the web - only a few 18th century American soldiers, and it's a common name out there, so tracing our Nices back, as we have done for the Parrises - earliest known ancestor a Huguenot refugee from the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre, Jean de Paris - is the next duty.

Friday 7 November 2014

Around the Black Square

For Kasimir Malevich, all paths seem to have led up to and away from this seminal abstraction - I'm trying so hard to avoid the 'i' word - which he claimed to have conceived in 1913, around the time of his geometric costumes for the futurist drama Victory over the Sun, and executed for the first time two years later. The above Black Square of 1915 is in Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery and it's too fragile to travel; the surface paint began to crack and so Malevich provided 'new' versions in 1923 and 1929, both in Tate Modern's stupendous exhibition (sorry, it closed at the end of October).

The cracking is surely part of the effect, intended or not: that I think of it as interference on a telly screen was fostered by its position in the December 1915 Last Exhibition of Futurist Paintings 0.10 where it took the place conventionally held by an icon in Orthodox homes. And that, of course, is a position often occupied by a TV screen now. We must count ourselves very lucky that a single photo exists of the 1915 layout

which allowed Tate Modern to locate nine out of the 12 paintings still in existence today in their rightful places. There are several classic Suprematist canvasses like this one.

Malevich's definition makes sense: to avoid counterfeiting nature, he avoids taking anything from it (though as we know nature also loves geometric shapes). 'Everything has disappeared; a mass of material is left from which a new form will be built'. Only a few years earlier, he was defining himself by reflecting other movements in art, as in this self-portrait of 1908-10

which makes a telling symmetry with the portraits of the last room. What could Malevich then do with Socialist Realism laying down its tenets in the early 1930s? Bizarrely, he depicted himself as a Renaissance Florentine.

Also symmetrically, the simplified peasants of 1911 recur in the late 1920s, when he was reconfiguring that style in an era when experimentation in art still remained free (the Twenties, as we know, were a fruitful era for avant-garde music, dance, literature and art in early Soviet Russia).

What fascinated me most of all was Malevich's response to the Revolution, draining his abstract shapes of colour and disappearing them in a sea of white. These seem like doves, the souls of an art which, Malevich wrote, 'died, like the old regime, because it was an organic part of it'.

Yet, of course, it didn't. Malevich must have been an inspiring teacher in Vitebsk and leader of the Champions of Art, UNOVIS, pictured below.

His pedagogic charts are works of art in their own right, placing Suprematist abstraction between religious and realistic art. And this period also saw a rebirth in art for the theatre, which is where the Victoria and Albert Museum's exhibition of designs from the fabulous Bakhrushin Museum in Moscow provides the continuity (or did, until the Malevich exhibition closed; the V&A's show is up for some time). Crammed into a space of odd angles attached to the tucked-away Theatre Museum, there are some revelations here if you find your way to see them (I went to the opening the other week, crowded with a zoo of Russians and Russianists and attendant tensions).

A few constructivist models like Lyubov Popova's above for Meyerhold's 1922 production of Crommelynck's The Magnificent Cuckold (wish there were more of these 3D efforts) show what the cue was for Yakulov when he designed Le pas d'acier for Diaghilev and Prokofiev in Paris. Geometric designs in the Victory over the Sun tradition have a very individual take from Varvara Stepanova in a costume for another Meyerhold special in the same year, Tarelkin's Death. 1922 seems to have been something of a milestone for both Meyerhold and Russian women artists.

I was also delighted to see in colour Alexander Rabinovich's most famous design for the hugely successful Moscow production of  Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges so I take the liberty of putting up my one shot.

I'm going back soon to spend more time and I expect to see a bizarre error corrected: the Princess Turandot referred to in the info for several designs could not have been Puccini's because he hadn't composed his opera then; everyone with an interest in the era knows that his source, Carlo Gozzi, was hugely popular in 1920s Russia.

Back at Tate Modern, an invite to see Richard Tuttle's not terribly thrilling installation in the Turbine Hall meant free admission to both exhibitions. So without wilting I complemented Malevich with Sigmar Polke one floor below. Like The Bride and the Bachelors show at the Barbican, this was one to make you smile or laugh at Polke's freewheeling exuberance. The later canvases become wearying, the earlier ones sometimes feel amateurish but again the central rooms yielded me, at least, the most pleasure, especially because one image incorporates John Tenniel's illustration of Alice and the Caterpillar.

Polke went trippy in more ways than one in the 1970s, driving to Afghanistan and Pakistan where he shot long, boring films in opium dens (I can trump him for interest on that front: in Peshawar, we were led by a dodgy self-styled friend of a Mulk Prince we were to meet in Chitral to a very dimly-lit stable where consumptive men smoked opium between the backsides of cows. We didn't partake, I hasten to add, not so much primly as because the coughing was not encouraging). Here Polke has hand-tinted and treated one of his photos.

Hookahs and mushrooms are the predominant theme around this time.

I also liked the ambiguity of the Watchtower paintings made between 1984 and 1988

though the last five rooms oppressed with their large, splashy canvases (and remember I went round the Polke first, Malevich second, so it wasn't a case of gallery fatigue).

While we're still in a non-Russian intermezzo, a brief word about a production which felt a bit underwhelming compared to Belvoir Sydney's The Wild Duck, second only to Janet McTeer's Nora in A Doll's House for sheer Ibsen poleaxing in my experience (and this was a fairly radical re-write). I went with director Ian Rickson's brother Graham - one of the (few) generous spirits on The Arts Desk, and he's been turning in his Classical CDs column weekly without batting an eyelid for years now - to see said sibling's Electra. I directed the Sophocles play, too, at the Edinburgh Bedlam back in 1981 and though I know we couldn't hold a candle to most of these actors, the idea wasn't so different: monumental set with giant doorway, vaguely archaic-Greek setting suggested through contemporary costumes, three actresses sharing the Chorus.

Don't most of us love Kristin Scott Thomas(pictured above by Johan Persson) as a screen actress? As Agamemnon's crazed daughter, she was intelligent, various and convincing when in full pelt; but I just didn't feel the pain of this bright middle-class lady. You need to wonder how on earth a great Electra can play the role night after night, and here it was all too clear. Most impressive actress for me was the young Chrysothemis, Liz White, a born speaker of classical verse. Diana Quick gave us a lucid Clytemnestra, but the revelation of maternal suffering wasn't as moving as I think it can be. With a weak Orestes, the recognition scene was bungled: given an audience ready to laugh at anything, really skilled actors would know how to play it so that the laughter came one minute and stopped the next. Not a bad evening, but a bit on the small side.

Here's a pair who I imagine would make a stunning Electra and Clytemnestra - Birgitte Hjørt Sorensen and Dame Harriet Walter. Fans of Borgen will know Birgitte as the feisty reporter, and admire her superb vocal range. I was starstruck to see her sitting there in the Donmar R&R space after recording Harriet in chapters from Tolstoy's War and Peace for my Opera in Depth course on Prokofiev's opera. Harriet was delighted to have the above shot, too, because she and husband Guy, currently in America, are huge Borgen admirers, as of course am I. So, having propounded my 'Borgen Hamlet' idea for the second time in a week - the first was to Lone Britt Christiansen at a Danish Embassy Nielsen pow-wow - it struck me: Birgitte would be the perfect Cordelia to Harriet's Lear (which we have to have).

What a marvellous, quick and intelligent reader is our own great actress, who squeezed in our two sessions between Saturday matinee and evening performances as Shakespeare's Henry IV (I hope to go and see Phyllida Lloyd's second 'women's prison Shakespeare' at the end of the month). This time we were recording Natasha's crisis confrontation with Pierre and her appearance to the dying Andrey. Each time Harriet reached a crucial line, she'd stop and re-record it with even greater depth. I'm so proud of having offered this as an extra to Prokofiev's scenes, even if I'm no professional sound editor.

The translation we're using, by Richard Pevear and Larisa Volokhonsky, isn't the easiest, but certainly the most faithful in its attempts to mirror Tolstoy's dogged repetitions - and to reproduce all the French with footnote translations, as he did. I was only dipping in for the relevant scenes but fatally I turned back to the beginning and can feel a third reading of the entire novel imminent.

I was delighted with the excuse to read Leskov's short(ish) story The Tale of the Cross-Eyed Left-Hander of Tula and the Steel Flea in preparing the programme notes for the Mariinsky Theatre's Barbican concert performance of Shchedrin's latest opera Levsha. The story is a marvellous fantasy; the opera, though too long, has its magical moments, not least the high-frequency music that accompanies the coloratura-soprano flea - an inspired idea, and bewitchingly realised on Tuesday with brilliant singer-actress Kristina Alieva   giving us her enigmatic smile for much of the action (pictured below by with Vladimir Moroz's Alexander I and Maria Maksakova's Princess Charlotte).

As expected with Shchedrin - and for all his inventiveness I have no idea who he really is as a composer - there are moments of bombast which Gergiev is all too ready to abet; I can still imagine the score being more lightly done. But it was worth breaking my year-long Gergiev embargo once only, and enduring the predictable one-hour delay while he made his way, with back trouble apparently, to the Barbican. The singers are all so well trained, the playing first-rate and above all the chorus, pandered to in the final orthodox burial ritual at odds with Leskov's satirical distance and reminding us that there are no choral singers in the world quite like the Russians. My treasurable Arts Desk colleague Alexandra Coghlan, whom I accompanied and who made the hour's time-killing pass very quickly, expands here.

So as an artist, Gergiev went some way to redeeming himself. As a human being, can he be redeemed from the Faustian pact with Putin? Not, in my eyes, until he explicitly rejects his two most pernicious publicly-stated equations: of homosexuality with paedophilia and the Ukrainian government with Nazis and Fascists who, had not his Beloved Leader ordered an immediate annexation, would, he says, have caused a massacre of thousands in Crimea (watch this interview with a Finnish journalist, which beggars belief. By the way, though the voice-over is Finnish, the interview is in English). To believe what he claims, he has to be stupid or lying.

Telling the truth was the topic of a very pithy discussion I dropped in on two Fridays ago before heading for The Wild Duck  Hosted by the Legatum Institute, the excellent Anne Applebaum questioned American and Ukrainian diplomats as well as two journalists on The Menace of Unreality: Combatting Russian Disinformation in the 21st Century.

Michael Weiss of The Interpreter (second from the right) was especially impressive: he proposed a veracity rating for major news channels and sites, headed by the BBC and Al Jazeera, a kind of unofficial club giving marks out of ten for presenting the facts. By which standards Russia Today, to which I'm told Nigel Farage regularly contributes, would get a one. Weiss pointed out how the BBC's very western quest for giving all sides a voice wastes too much airtime on spreaders of palpable nonsense, as for instance in the matter of who shot down the passenger plane over Eastern Ukraine. By the same token, I suppose it would have been fairer to have a Russian voice in this debate, which was bound to be one-sided. But I wouldn't contest anything that was said in its course: we see the same thing happening on messageboards infiltrated, each and every one by 'disinformers' (and it's not a conspiracy theory). Here's 45 minutes' worth of the talk on YouTube.

Last night I trained it down to Winchester to hear the English Sixteen in a work I wouldn't care to hear from the Mariinsky, Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 in Winchester Cathedral and from this visually if not acoustically wonderful location

was turned upside down by its dazzling invention. Had it not all been so sensational, Stephen Walsh would have had the green eye from me for attending the Mariinsky Chorus's Rachmaninov Vespers in Llandaff Cathedral; their infinite depths in Shchedrin's slightly synthetic Orthodox epilogue reminded me that there's no choral sound in the world quite like fully-trained Russian voices. I could potentially catch that touring concert in Birmingham on Saturday afternoon, as I'm up there to chair a 'Brunch with Brünnhildes' Sue Bullock (whom I know and like so much) and Catherine Foster, Bayreuth's Brünnhilde last year (whom I don't, yet - know, that is).

It wasn't too difficult to resist the offer of a ticket to the Mariinsky Siegfried later, part of an only half-sold Ring which looks hideous and didn't go down too well at the Royal Opera a couple of years ago. I'll also be on BBC Radio 3's Music Matters concurrent with the brunch, discussing the dire Covent Garden Idomeneo with Alexandra and Petroc Trelawny. It shouldn't be too much of a spoiler to say that Alexandra and I are singing from the same hymn sheet.