Wednesday, 31 December 2014

War, peace and love

This last post of the year looks forward to 10 hours of War and Peace on Radio 4 tomorrow, but mainly back to the last great treat of 2014. Love is the only way to describe what so many of us feel about Tolstoy's complicated creatures, and how we respond, too, to Prokofiev's gift for homing in on scenes and lines to bring them fully to life in operatic terms. Tough love is how I might define Graham Vick's second interpretation of the opera 23 years on from the groundbreaking 1991 Mariinsky production; as he told us when he came to talk to my Opera in Depth students at the Frontline Club, he'd been romantic and relatively young when he first tacked the epic then, and now he saw both Natasha's near-breaking on the corrupt society wheel as well as Andrey's endless sufferings in a much harsher light. Production shots here of the 2014 Mariinsky War and Peace, starting with Aida Garifullina's Natasha and Andrei Bondarenko's Andrei falling in love at the ball, by Natasha Razina and Valentin Baranovsky.

We got to see this endlessly resourceful and perfectly realised take on Tolstoy and Prokofiev as an extra to my ten classes, making extra space from 12.30 to 4.30pm on a mid-December Monday. It was the final highlight of a year which I and my Arts Desk colleagues have chronicled, live-wise, in as much detail as we could: concerts round-up here, opera top 11 here.

All bar one of the students were knocked for six by Vick's special putting-it-together, even without subtitles (those will, of course, appear, when the DVDs are released some time next year, as they must be). It was going to take a superlative portrayal of Natasha to budge my allegiance to one of the greatest singing actresses of the last three decades, Yelena Prokina, but the less tutored and polished Aida Garifullina's performance is just that, in a slightly different way. Graham had spoken of her being, well, just a natural: even if she doesn't always know what to do with her body and hands, the face speaks every emotion - and her beauty even surpasses Netrebko's back in 2000; we had better beware that an oligarch doesn't lock her up in an ivory tower. Which would be a loss as the voice, too, is a beauty, warm and vibrant, as telling as Prokina's of what she's singing about.

The first part, which Prokofiev was at one point urged to call Natasha Rostova, charts her enchanted falling in love with Andrey followed by the unnatural pressures under which she's put in their year-long separation. Vick gives us the moonshine as wonderfully as Konchalovsky did in 2000, all the more heart-flipping since we first see Andrei Bondarenko's Prince contemplating suicide before the voice in the night air turns his thoughts to spring again. 'One must believe with all one's soul in the possibility of happiness' runs the Tolstoyan line on the blackboard.

In the next scene he's lost years, smiling, rapt in love as who wouldn't be with this Natasha at the ball?

Then the fall. Graham was right: in a contemporary setting, it's all the more disturbing. In today's society, the feckless set led by Helene and Anatol would be off of their faces on cocaine, as we see the lady of the beautiful shoulders in the washroom of Scene Four and the lads in the planned abduction scene.

For Vick, it's all about consumerism, the mores of the I Want It Now generation; fur coats suggested by gypsy Matryosha's sacrifice of hers dangle spookily from the heights, to be predictably replaced by hanging corpses once war begins, a billboard offsets the tank that's mostly present, while Anatol's limo provides a useful prop for Pierre to bang his head against and slam the door into him. It's good to see the rake as a feckless young man: Ilya Selivanov is a superb actor and has a golden tenor voice of the kind the Russians produce in droves.

'War' is harder to pull together, especially if you insist, as Gergiev still does, on the complete score (for me, Tim Albery's ENO production provided the best solution to judicious cuts, shedding most of the later Soviet ballast). Vick's fluent parade wings us brilliantly from suggestions of the Ukrainian conflict - it remains a miracle how in today's Russia he got away with a socialist realist poster of happy peasants in yellow, white and blue, later bespattered  -

- to the canonization of Kutuzov (veteran Gennady Bezzubenkov), unpacked from a museum crate

and holding the council of war at Fili with other Russian commanders in 1812 costume ( '450,000 dead' is chalked up on the blackboard). Compare Vick's tableau with a late 19th century painting.

Natasha's scene with the dying Andrey is fascinating to compare with the 1991 version, which was a proper deathbed scene. One of my students didn't get the Carousel idea of Andrey as spirit trying to communicate with a bewildered Natasha in worker's gear; I thought it was shatteringly moving and gravely beautiful, since both protagonsts are remarkable singer-actors ('I will no longer exist' is the Tolstoy phrase he's chalked up here).

The open door to death is all the more striking now that (2/1) I've heard the radio dramatization, which reminds us that Andrei talks of it in his last days, and how a spiritually exhausted Natasha longs to go through it later in the novel. Here she remains onstage through the final fallout, a further demand successfully carried by Garifullina the actress, to end up sitting opposite Pierre at a bare table in the final moments.

No superlatives are too much for what's been achieved here, least of all in 2014 St Petersburg. In short, Vick's panorama eludes being tied to any one war, any particular era, just as in his Birmingham Khovanskygate (it even has elements of the audience integration so crucial to that once-in-a-lifetime experience). Some see this as faulty vagueness, but it's a lot harder to bring off than one dogged centripetal idea.

I didn't watch the livescreening in the summer simply because I was sure it had to become some sort of nationalistic pageant. But that was to reckon without the trust placed in Vick by Gergiev, who goes a small way towards redeeming his rant against the Ukraine and his unapologetic, unthinking equation of homosexuals with paedophiles (for which, come the end of 2014, he's clearly never going to apologise). Clearly a divided soul who's signed a Faustian pact, but when he conducts well, as he does here, there's still a touch of genius.

At the same time as the first term's classes came to a close, I got to the end of reading my first book of military history, Dominic Lieven's Russia Against Napoleon. The reality probably lies somewhere between Tolstoy's view of history as chaotic flux and Lieven's chessboard, but the facts as Lieven arranges them are an interesting counterbalance.

The biggest importance of the history is that it restores an overview based on research in Russian as well as French archives, one in which the French retreat from Moscow in 1812 is only the first stage in a strategy to push them back as far, as it turned out, to Paris in the campaigns of 1813-14. And the movers behind all this are seen to be Alexander I, whom Tolstoy gave scant credit for planning ahead, and Barclay de Tolly (striking how many non-Russian names figure in the high command of the Russian army - how confusing when they have French names like De Langeron).

Even so, old Kutuzov remains a hero of sorts for his very restraint: a seasoned fighter knew better than to waste soldiers in unnecessary battles and skirmishes. His response was partly pragmatic - without an army, there would be no Russian nation - but it also stands in opposition to the younger hotheads who thought they'd be hailed as heroes for sacrificing whole divisions in impulsive onslaughts. But how like a nursery-room battlefield with toy soldiers Lieven makes so much of it sound: thousands are lost in this or that fight, and if that also means wounded and deserters, it's still shocking in its casualness and frequency.

Ultimately, the real truth lies with the human perspectives of Pierre or Nikolai Rostov on the battlefield: what on earth is all this for? By the way, in looking for images I was surprised to find so many 're-enactments' by Vereshchagin, one of the great war artists, probably most famous for his pyramid of skulls.

This is such a good cue for the Napoleon-at-Borodino scenes in the novel and opera, where by the way the sole survivor of the 1991 cast, Vasily Gerello, was still in splendid voice in 2014 and even more magnetic.

I'll be curious  to hear what remains tomorrow in Timberlake Wertenbaker's 10-hour adaptation on BBC Radio 4*. I slightly baulk at 'dramatisation, since I don't see how you can dispense with Tolstoy's authorial voice. They did that the last time, and I gave up sharpish. I may do so again in the morning, but I've cleared a space and taken a long walk this afternoon in anticipation of being glued to the 'wireless' all New Year's Day. The cast is extraordinary and I'm delighted to note a happy reconciliation. Harriet Walter recommended Joel MacCormack fresh out of RADA for my German Romantic Opera Discovery Day in Birmingham, and wonderful he was too:  they're re-united as Drubetskoy mother and son.

That was a highlight of my year, my first ever 'curatorship', and another was Harriet saying yes to recording chapters of War and Peace for my class, not to mention doing so with such spellbinding sensitivity. On which note I can't resist reproducing the alternative shot (with rather than without flash) of a serendipitous meeting just after one such session: another heroine of mine, Birgitte Hjørt Sorensen 'as seen in' Borgen, had dropped in to see Henry IV and they were as happy to meet each other as I was to snap them both.

Happy 2015/ s novim godom/bonne année a tous

*Review now up on The Arts  Desk here .

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Mirabel's wonderland, 1927's dystopia

It's been a staggering year for opera in the UK: quite how staggering I didn't realise until I tried to compile a shortlist 'Best of 2014' for The Arts Desk, and even then there wasn't time to slip in a mention for one of the best children's operas I've seen, partly because this was its second year of performances - Will Todd's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland around the lawns and glades of Holland Park.

It isn't my intention to go over that magical ground again - I've already done so in review and on the blog - but it crops up again because Mirabel, my youngest goddaughter by 16 years, deep joy to go back into childhood again with words and music, is still caught up in the wonderland magic. She's pictured up top with the enchanting Alice of Fflur Wyn after the show - 1927's production of The Golem, seen above in the first of Bernhard Müller's production photos, will have to wait to move into the limelight - and below treading the Mad Hatter's teapot carpet.

I went up to Islington to deliver gifts for her fourth birthday just over a week before Christmas: Lewis Carroll's own under-10s version The Nursery Alice, the only time John Tenniel ever hand-coloured his own illustrations (specimens below) and with a very different if sometimes, for us, slightly cloying, wit and wisdom for the tots, plus the DVD of the Royal Ballet Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and my own CD compilation of music to go with the book. Note to self of what's on it as I didn't keep a copy, and I can cut and paste this in an email to Mirabel and ma Edwina:

The White Rabbit - 'The Interrupted Departure', No. 17 of Prokofiev's Cinderella

Wonderland and Alice's growing/shrinking - 'The Aquarium' and 'Personages with Long Ears' from Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals

Swimming in the Pool of Tears - 'Panorama' from Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty

The Caucus Race - Galop from Khachaturian's Masquerade Suite

The Caterpillar - 'Arabian Dance' from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker

Alice arrives at the Duchess's house, the crying baby and lost in the woods - Sequence from the 'child at play' movement of Strauss's Symphonia Domestica

The Mad Hatter - Polka from Shostakovich's The Age of Gold

Court of the Queen of Hearts and Lobster Quadrille - March and Gavotte from Britten's The Prince of the Pagodas

Trial - second half of Debussy's 'Fêtes' from Nocturnes

Back on the river bank - closing sequence of Debussy's Prelude à l'après-midi d'un faune

It later occurred to me that I could also slip in the end of 'The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin' from John Lanchbery's marvellous score to the Royal Ballet's The Tales of Beatrix Potter' for Bill the Lizard shooting through the chimney and ' Puss in Boots and the White Cat' from Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty for the Cheshire Cat.

But enough already. The results of this chez Mirabel I have yet to see, but while I was there the young miss bossed ma and me around in scenes from the book in which we both had to play various parts (ma did well when assigned the Duchess) but M was always Alice. I was dead impressed that she cited 'Caucus Race' as one of our scenes, but then I would be, wouldn't I? And apparently 'baroque' is a palace in the sky, stemming from an Aurora Orchestra performance she attended in which that image stood for the style of music.

Before I finish the adoration of young Dancing Delice, as I call Mirabel - as she may or may not embark on the Suzuki method, she may also become Fiddling Felice - I have to put up three shots by mama of her spontaneous and (Edsy swears, and she wouldn't lie) unassisted Lego response a week after she'd been to Holland Park. The Caterpillar:

The Mad Hatter:

and Mr Pantz as the White Rabbit.

I should explain that Mr Pantz is a bad-tempered toy elephant, excluded from Mirabel's christening service but caught eating cake and quaffing champagne at the reception, who is central to artist Edsy's film mythology. Watch him animated (or rather not) in pursuit of mammal studies besides Lake Leman here. And behold him below pictured with some batty friend (apparently).

It's not too tenuous to link the weird and wonderful E Ashton world to the genius I saw on the Young Vic stage the other Saturday. The young and brilliant company 1927 - still not got to the origin of the date-name, but I assume it's to do with a heyday of silent film expressionism - gave us their own 90-minute take on the Jewish myth of the Golem (pronounced Goe-lem, hence not to be confused with Tolkien's little monster), that clay mannekin which takes on a life ot its own. My colleague Alexandra Coghlan's five star review on The Arts Desk was all the encouragement I needed to go back to my favourite London theatre. If you think video production has been overdone in theatre, think again. This is one long animated film, brilliantly realised by Paul Barritt, in which the cast of five play live parts.

Not only that, but two or more of them keep the piano and percussion score by Lillian Henley going. It's based almost entirely on tritones and obsessively monothematic, never monotonous, and for the second time at the Young Vic since Richard Jones's sensational Annie Get Your Gun, with its anti-choreography, we get show numbers which are the antithesis of showy. Except, that is, for the songs of the punk band run by the sister of the protagonist, who narrates this fable of technological 'improvement'.

Should I give the story away? I think I'll let you see how they tell it for yourselves; suffice it to say that Golem One sets in the rot, Golem Two is a control-freak who helps the 'hero' to what he wants, including two girlfriends

and Golem Three is IN US. I have only one slight cavil, that the material is a touch overstretched, but there's so much to take in at every point that it's never exactly boring. It ought to run off with every award for theatrical ingenuity; certainly it's one of my shows of the year.

When senior goddaughter Rosie May asked me what she should take her 15 year old brother Paddy to see, I suggested this. As it turned out we didn't go to the same performance that Saturday - we got in to the matinee, she and Paddy attended the evening show - but we still met up for a burger lunch at the excellent Young Vic cafe. As not all adults in the below photo wish to have names attached to the jolly pic, suffice it to say that Paddy and Rosie are on the right.

After lunch, the two young 'uns went off to the Imperial War Museum, we were ready for the show and after we came out were rewarded by a sunset on The Cut

which simply got richer as we stood outside chatting.

Half the country may be groaning under heavy snow, but here in London it's been more often than not bright and crisp. And now I must go out for a bike ride while the sun is still shining before the next bout of entertaining.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Festive Oslo

Not surprisingly given that Norway furnishes Trafalgar Square's Christmas tree every year,  its capital has a fair share of illuminated firs - no less than seven that I saw outside and within the National Theatre (pictured above, National Opera below the first photo) when I began my Peer Gynt foray for The Arts Desk with a lunchtime performance of Ibsen's flexible epic as adapted by brilliant director Alexander Mørk-Eidem.

I think I've assembled all the details necessary for the big piece, but frustratingly I can't find anything much online about the building or its marvellous collection of portraits beyond the fact that it was the work of Henrik Bull and opened in 1899 with a festive programme which included Ibsen's An Enemy of the People on the first two nights, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson's Sigurd Jorsalfar on the third. If we know the latter at all, it's through Grieg's heart-of-oak Homage March. So it's odd to see the statues of the two men flanking the building in equal stature. Ibsen's the one we recognise, of course.

The handsome lobby has the fifth tree.

Should have gone round the foyer spaces and staircases during the interval with my notebook, left inside the auditorium. The statue here is of early-ish Ibsen heroine Hjørdis.

Of the actresses featured, I can only tell you that this is Liv Ullmann - I failed to note the artist -

and though I identified a few playwrights and actors, I picture knowingly only a fine portrait of the Master, on loan from the National Gallery I loved so much on my first visit earlier in the year.

Otherwise, all I can do you are people and portraits, the former a very mixed bunch as the matinee was full of school groups, lively and vocal around the performance, extremely attentive during it - as how could they not be, given such a stunning and lively show.

Curiously none of the production pics shows the controversial painting which forms the backdrop for this Peer Gynt's devastating coup, corresponding to the storm for Peer's homecoming in the original. Norwegian-based Vanessa Baird's To Everything There is a Season caused a storm in the wake of the Breivik attacks in the city and on Utøya island, despite the fact that the toppling buildings and falling paper had been painted before it. Debate continues as to whether it should continue to hang in a public space, so all credit to Mørk-Eidem for making it part of his commentary on the point at which Norway could never be the same again. There's a reproduction of part of the original canvas over on the Arts Desk.

 Who knows what Ibsen would have thought of that? I hope he would have welcomed only one of many approaches to his endlessly fascinating myth. This time I got, as originally intended, to the House-Museum, which I've also written about in the Arts Desk piece. Two peripheral pleasures I didn't mention, or expand upon, were the tiles in the gents' loo, including Ibsen's specimens of handwriting,

and another tree or shrub of sorts for the natural ecosystem in Old Ekdahl's loft in The Wild Duck as realised by artist Lucie Noel Thune, who's been a friendly correspondent since my visit.

Only when close up do you realise it's constructed of hundreds of duck eggs. A nice complement to the real wild duck wandering the black glass box of my year's theatrical highlight, Belvoir Sydney's production - another wonderful adaptation - of that great and ambiguous play.

Jüri Reinvere's opera, the premiere of which I saw at the National Opera the following night, makes more explicit reference to the Breivik attacks at the same point as Mørk-Eidem does in his production of the play. Here Peer imagines he takes the Troll King's 'be yourself - and to hell to the rest of the world' to its natural, Breivikian extreme of indiscriminate shooting. The music there is at its most powerful, so I bought it as most of Oslo, apparently less interested in the score than in the situation, has not. I had reservations about some of the work, but I respect Jüri's right to treat it from his own unique perspective. I've met him twice - once through Berlin critic Jan Brachmann, when he came to the local cafe, and a second time after I'd seen the play - informally, not for an interview, though it was helpful to have his perspective in mind.

Then it was off to a splendid theatrical happening rivalling the play Peer Gynt, all thanks to this intriguing screen I saw as I was passing the Norwegian Theatre.

The result was even more amazing than I'd expected, a Hamlet like no other inhabiting a unique world - more about it over on the Arts Desk piece.

There remained only the event for which I'd been invited back to Oslo in the first place. Audience members were invited to a post-show party in the foyer on the first night of the operatic Peer Gynt only to find they had to listen to the speeches without a drink in hand unless anyone had bought one: that's a first for me. Anyway, there was always the tree in the splendid foyer - which I wrote about in my first Arts Desk piece on Oslo - to feast on.

The Thursday of my arrival (at midnight) was one of those crazy excursions I occasionally indulge in. That meant catching a morning train to Birmingham for a lunchtime pre-performance talk for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra before Andris Nelson's afternoon concert of Schumann's Piano Concerto with Stephen Hough and Bruckner's Seventh Symphony, the main thrust of my talk (though I started with Schumann's Rhenish opening as the example of a more usual sort of symphonic start). In a tight schedule, the rehearsal had only just finished when I came on to the concert platform for a brief sound check - and there was Andris discussing a point with CBSO leader Laurence Jackson.

He and Stephen were as friendly as I'd expected from the few words we exchanged. Also had a good chat with my main inviter and now, I hope, friend Richard Bratby who organises the talks; I'll be sorry to see him go early next year but the good thing is that he may be freed up to review CBSO concerts, inter alia, for The Arts Desk. Sadly I couldn't even stay for the first half of the concert as I'd left my passport at home, which in the end meant only a brief excursion before going on to Gatwick for the Oslo flight.. I'd like to have spent longer in Birmingham not only for that but also because the Christmas Fairl there seemed so jolly.

All I had time for was a ridiculously large plate of fried onion flower which caught surprised comments as I stood dipping it in garlic mayonnaise.

Then off to the train, and on to two and a half days in Oslo which were as gloomy as the weather in Birmingham, and of course much colder, with no more than a dusting of the snow which had made the first visit such fun. I can at least say I've seen the sun in that city, if only on rising at 9.30am - as I know from Iceland in January, it's the mornings which remain dark for so long - in my hotel room on the 32nd floor, looking east to the hills

and south to the Opera House and the harbour.

Anyway, we're sitting tight for once over Christmas itself, maybe off for a bit in the New Year. Happy holidays to all, with a final tree, or rather shrub, greeting: for the first time ever, camellia Debbie in the back yard has flowered unseasonably early, allowing me to display it alongside a couple of our Indian hand-painted Santas. An e-card on the same theme will be reaching those whose addresses I've not been able to track down.