Friday 5 December 2014
'Great' is a term I hope I don't splash about too much, but it's always good to know who or what truly stands out, especially in the musical and operatic world where standards are generally so high already (one can't make the same generalisation about theatre). I stick by the publicity blurb I wrote for the flyer to advertise Sioned Williams's lecture-recital at St Andrew's Fulham Fields: she IS one of the world's great harpists. And Graham Vick enters the pantheon of top directors - not that it's overstocked, in my opinion - above all for his pioneering work on opera involving the community in Birmingham. As chronicled here and on a BBC Radio 3 chat with Tom Service, I went for the first time this year, to see the Big Top Khovanskygate, and it was certainly up there with the most extraordinary operatic experiences of my life. A total immersive experience, on our feet for three hours plus and no compromises - full CBSO, no miking, quality singers, chorus bolstered by professionals.
Actually I also owe Graham a debt for introducing me to Britten's Billy Budd and tackling the crucial gay issues in it back in the 1980s. When we talked together at the Opera in Depth class the other week, I said it had such an impact because it was the first time I saw it. 'And do you not think that might have been because my production was actually rather good?', he said, not boastfully but with a secure sense of his own worth (it was; only Tim Albery's since has come close).
Sioned first, anyway. She came with harp to St Andrew's Fulham Fields, where I'm running monthly classes linked to the BBC Symphony Orchestra courses as before, chiefly because after the City Lit debacle I still very much wanted to cover the Nielsen symphonies Sakari Oramo is conducting this season. Some of the players also volunteered to make appearances as before: cellist Michael Atkinson is getting the Merchant Quartet back together to work on Sibelius's great Voces Intimae Quartet, possibly a Nielsen too. And Sioned wanted both to make up for the fact that when she'd last come to the City Lit, it was at the end of a serious illness and she hadn't the strength to bring the harp too, and to reflect on her brilliant Purcell Room concert of six new works for harp commissioned by herself (read the Arts Desk rave - which is absolutely not because I know and like her).
So this time we brave few got the benefit of her insights into the differing virtues of the commissions. The harp is perhaps the trickiest of all instruments for a composer to know the strengths and limitations thereof; Paul Patterson, who came along as stalwart supporter again, and perfectionist Michael Finnissy are masters of the art, where one of the other works had asked the impossible and impractical and a great deal of collaboration was necessary.
We heard movements and selections again, often with an illuminating running commentary on what was going on pedal and string-wise; and the biggest triumph was to get screen and sound working - if only you knew how brinksmanlike that was - for Dominic Murcott's Domestica. I found it even richer second time around, knowing now that the domestic sights and sounds were filmed, oh so artistically, by Magali Charier in Sioned's and Ali's home, and that the ticking clock slows down (you don't sense this, or at least I didn't, at the premiere, though you do feel that the harp contributions become more introspective and poetic).And, small in number though the audience was this time, St Andrew's turns out to be a wonderful venue for subtlety and magic.
Graham's visit to my Opera in Depth course at the Frontline Club has trailed a host of wondering messages from the students which have left me in no doubt of his special connection. He spoke very movingly on the sense of change since he first directed Prokofiev's War and Peace at the Kirov, as it then was, when he was still a relative youngster full of romantic idealism back in 1991 (thanks to Peter Maniura, that first visit when Leningrad was turning back into Petersburg proved a bridge for me to devoting middle life to great Sergey Sergeyevich).
Now he wonders at how modern the music is, and was keen to redress weaknesses he'd felt in the characterisation of Prince Andrey (this time played by Ukrainian Andrey Bondarenko, his Glyndebourne Onegin and the one singer on whom he actually insisted). He wanted to refer back to Austerlitz and to keep the war in the peace sequence, and the private scenes more prominent in the war half.
The second collaboration with Gergiev originated in a mad idea to do the opera on the Edinburgh Tattoo parade ground during the Festival. 'And just as when you have to think a low note when you sing a high one, or sit if necessary on stage as if you were rising up, I wanted to make it about three people.' The project failed for lack of money, but Gergiev was insistent on Vick coming back to the Mariinsky for his roughly ten-year reassessment of Prokofiev's opera (with Andrey Konchalovsky's beautifully realised but heavily cut version in between). Graham says he was surprised at Gergiev's request for an openly gay director with a track record of controversial productions.
And yet Gergiev gave him total carte blanche. Going for the contemporary meant endless meetings with lawyers about what could and couldn't be represented on the Russian stage, but Vick says he fought tooth and claw, and succeeded in nearly everything. Even, note, in the slipped-in yellow, white and blue of the screens above, played out to the choral ode in the New Year's Eve ball scene, and returning in the 'war' sequence spattered with blood.
Anyway, it all happened; he hadn't heard from Gergiev what he thought - according to Caroline of the Mariinsky Friends, he was delighted - because the conductor only appeared for the final rehearsal. Even so, Vick thinks that things have now gone so far in Russia that he would have to think twice about returning. I can't wait to see the whole thing at the Frontline on Monday week.
The other great personage who's been keeping us company through the ten two-hour classes on War and Peace - for we've been following Graham's 1991 production on DVD alongside Francesca Zambello's Paris Opera show - has been Dame Harriet Walter (seen above in the first of Helen Maybanks' photos for the Donmar Henry IV). As you'll have read if you've been following the blog, she consented to my amazement to read those chapters or sequences of Tolstoy's novel which parallel Prokofiev's more or less faithful setting of them, and she's done it beautifully. I was especially moved the other week, recording Pierre's confrontation with Natasha after the failed elopement and Natasha's encounter with the dying Andrey, to find her stopping, going back and finding a depth in the speeches that was moving to tears. We reach the last two scenes on Monday so I'm looking forward to editing her last contribution for that.
Since we would meet in the break between Saturday matinees and evening performances of Henry IV at the Donmar, I was very conscious of that background. Not that I'd have missed Phyllida Lloyd's production for the world, but I pushed that little bit harder to get tickets and finally saw it the other Saturday. Folk have been split down the middle about it, but I found it electrifying - perhaps all the more so since I hadn't seen, more fool me, the Julius Caesar also set in a women's prison; but the use of simple props and the evocation of the background seemed to me utterly fresh and always pertinent.
This was true ensemble work, rather unconventionally so since there were beautiful verse-speakers like Harriet's King, Jackie Clunes's Owen Glendower and the fabulous Ann Ogbomo as Worcester, seen here in confab with the 'enemy'
alongside new talent, in one way less experienced but in another thrillingly immediate. I couldn't get it out of my head that Jade Anouka's Hotspur - even with an arm in plaster - wasn't some hyperactive, gifted but undirected black teenager from South London.
She was heartbreaking, especially so in the scenes with Sharon Rooney's Lady Percy, That's not a role that usually makes a huge impact, but as young, stressed, poor mother, the characterisation went straight to the heart- with an astonishing touch of physical knockabout added to the mix.
For me, there were no false notes. Falstaff, maybe, should be posh, but since he was being played by a prison inmate the take still worked in conjuring him as a sarf London wideboy; I laughed a lot not only at the fear of a burst balloon in the Gadshill episode, but the muttered remembrance of it as nightmare when Falstaff dozes behind the arras. The music was superbly placed and apt, the company routines brilliant, the whole thing pacy and vibrant. And the inclusion of two key scenes from Part Two added on to a fairly complete Part One was a fair compromise, short of having both in two performances - which I'll be seeing when the RSC production arrives at the Barbican, though I don't expect it to communicate quite as well as this.
A guest who will certainly be great has been staying with us in two spells. Eszter Bránya from Kecskemet, Hungary, Kitty Lambton's former classmate when the family spent a year out there, celebrated her 19th birthday here with a delicious cardamomy cake from the Swedish bakery Bagariet complete with a Carluccio's firework candle. Our young violinist came first for consultation lessons and then for auditions at the Guildhall and the Royal College of Music - successful in the first, waiting to hear about the second, though she went straight through to the scholarship second round - and all I'll say for now is that her tone is dark and powerful, from hearing her practise, her attitude incredibly quick and responsive, her dedication that of a serious artist. She'll go far, no doubt about that.
Tonight I have a great guest for 10 minutes of my 6pm talk before the BBC Symphony Orchestra concert conducted by one of the best, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, at the Barbican. He'll be presenting together the revolutionary Part Two of Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette, Prokofiev's shattering Third Symphony and Dramatis personae by the BBCSO's Artist in Residence Brett Dean (pictured above). Brett will be joining me hot off the plane from Australia; I look forward hugely to meeting him.