Wednesday 27 February 2019

Early spring along the Thames

Should have been in the snowy valleys of Valdres, Norway, from last Thursday to Sunday, savouring the Hemsing Festival. But alas, my operation scheduled for two Tuesdays earlier, was cancelled without the Chelsea & Westminster Hospital admin even telling me; I only found out because I rang five times to check over confusion about a local or a general anaesthetic (the latter, obviously), to be told 'oh, they should have phoned you'. With the pain from the stent having intensified, and a cold on top of all that, I didn't feel I could cope with the travel. So I stayed at home, mostly rested and made some limited excursions which cost me afterwards but were well worth doing in such freakily warm weather (about which much has been said in a 'this-is-all-very-well-but' way I understand, though I do remember patches like this in mid-Feb from years back). And on Monday morning I had my op; stones and stent all out, so I'm moving more easily now if taking it quietly.

The above is spring tide at Chiswick Mall. Heading back from Chiswick House, I found a group of people, including cyclists with their shoes and socks off, hovering because the river water had come up on to the pavement as well as the road. But I could see it was going out, and waited, pleasantly chatting. Sometimes it's good to be detained by nature.

First springwatches, after various traversals of Brompton Cemetery on the way to and from the hospital, took place the previous week. First a Valentine's morning dream; high time to see what was going on in the walled garden of Fulham Palace. Not much, though the magnolia by the Tudor gateway seemed almost ready to flower

and potatoes were lined up In the glasshouse for planting.

This time we headed out of the south gate, to be faced by a very vocal robin on the fence that separates Fulham Palace gardens from All Saints Church

in the graveyard of which was the first crocus display I came across of any substance.

This one was especially surprising because of the humming of innumerable bees, which proves crocuses/croci are good for more than just saffron. I think the Palace is upping its supply of hives again after a big swarming left it with only one hive last year.

So we proceeded to a lunch in warm sun at the Garden Centre cafe, after which I wandered back to Fulham Palace to pick up a couple of scented geraniums from the cart for the window boxes (others have survived the winter so far). Time to admire the bare shape of the glorious copper beech, complete with nests, before it takes on its full beautiful leaf.

Next day, in the afternoon, to Kew for the first time this year. Its crocus patches used to be by the Victoria Gate, but now they're more extensive around the Temple of Aeolus

and in the arboretum area. From above:

and below:

with catkins to provide some contrasting colour.

More with a moon behind them between the larches of the lake

and same moon above one of the redone vases of the newly-restored Temperate House.

with that unique light of incipient leafing on the trees nearby.

After all this abundance, Chelsea Physic Garden wasn't doing a great deal, and I left in some dudgeon that the wonderful Tangerine Dream Cafe - slightly bohemian but easy going village-institute service, first-class food - had been replaced by some anonymous 'please wait to be seated' franchise; the corporate spirit has spread here (signed a petition some time back, but clearly the new director was not to be swayed). Much of the interest was in hangers-on from last summer and autumn - the pomegranates by the Swan Walk gate, being frequented by a squirrel,

a lone teasel with a backdrop of eucalyptus

and a sunflower husk facing the first flowering magnolia (M. denudata) I saw this year.

A frond of Dicksonia antarctica unfurling

and dwarf irises rather oddly displayed in an open-air cabinet were catching the light

while there was brilliant sunshine by the pond near Sir Hans Sloane's statue, the clam shells brought back from the voyage of Captain Cook's Endeavour.

Rather more classical ornamentation in what felt, in reality, like a really spooky late afternoon light at Chiswick House gardens the following afternoon

and more modest crocus displays than at Kew, but with a Palladian backdrop, and for free.

Camellias are already profuse in the Grade 1 listed, Lottery Fund-restored greenhouse (March is the official display month).

First coot nesting rather early on the lake.

The ring-necked parakeets which have spread upstream at least as far as Kensington Gardens are here too, as well as at Kew (top), and kissing on a willow by the Thames. Big debates going on now about culling, but still, to see them is as deceptively exotic as...high temperatures in February.

And so back as the sun set over Chiswick's church and brewery

with signs of spring life in some of the other gardens of Chiswick Mall

and another magnolia partly bloomed in front of the last house before the passageway with the Dove pub in it.

A new haunt discovered the following day when we attended a special commemoration of the great Blondin at Kensal Green Cemetery. But that's for another photojournal.

Sunday 24 February 2019


How many true Verdi mezzos are there in a generation? There was Olga Borodina, just a little contained but the real deal, and Luciana D'Intino stole the show, as the best Amnerises have a habit of doing, in a Zurich Aida. Some years later, along came Ekaterina Semenchuk, whose Azucena was subtle as well as bold and inflammatory in the Royal Opera Trovatore (in an inventive production I liked, as many did not). Now we learn that Elīna Garanča, who started out with Rossini and 18th century coloratura, is heading towards Eboli in Don Carlo, and from the evidence of her stunning Wigmore recital last Sunday, that sounds completely plausible. I haven't heard Georgian Anita Rachvelishvili in the rep, but from witnessing her on stage for the first time, diva to the life, in Rachmaninov songs with Antonio Pappano and the Royal Opera Orchestra the other Friday, I have no doubt that she'll cut the Verdian mustard, as she seems to be doing mostly at the Met.

Had as a result to hear her new CD, images for which by Gregory Regini are featured above. Star discs of bits and pieces don't usually hold much of a thrill, but when it's the music being served rather than just the singer, there can be exceptions. And this is one such special case from Sony, with a slight studio gloss but good partners in the RAI Symphony Orchestra and Giacomo Sagripanti. A light and very French sounding Carmen - kicking myself for not bothering to go and see another revival here with her in it - sits compellingly alongside the explosions of Azucena and Massenet's Charlotte. The inward spell she cast so beguilingly in the Rachmaninov sequence bewitches in the mostly unaccompanied song, Lyubasha's party turn in Act 1 of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride. This looks like a Tcherniakov production, though I'm not sure.

You want the blood and thunder? Rachvelishvili apparently stole the show - from the never quite spot-on Anna Netrebko - at the Met earlier this year as the fiery Princesse de Bouillon in Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur. This, her electrifying first appearance, explains why.

I was very sceptical of even looking at a YouTube clip of the mezzo tackling 'Summertime', but in this version with fine jazz musicians and the Georgian Philharmonic, she absolutely gets the nightclub style. Do give it a try.

So, very much the complete artist already. That I heard her and then Garanča in little over a week made me feel very privileged indeed. Great times - but then aren't there always great singers around, whatever the nostalgists might say? And how to account for the innate gift that goes with all the hard work? It's still a mystery.

Friday 15 February 2019

Ibsen's seascapes of the soul

The National Theatre of Norway's visit to Print Room at the Coronet last year with a lacerating production of Ibsen's Little Eyolf has led to one of the most exciting collaborations in London theatre. Whatever the disasters the removal of EU free movement may mean for our cultural scene, Norway has the funds to make sure that the new company founded by the Allmers in that production, top actor Kåre Conradi, flourishes. The Norwegian Ibsen Company's first major offering, a slightly adapted update of The Lady from the Sea, maintains the level of vision we saw in Little Eyolf.

In one way, it adds to it. There's a clear distinction in the play between those Norwegians who long for freedom and the sea on the one hand and the more contained land-creatures like Wangel, who has married Ellida, 'The Lady from the Sea', on the other. So a mixed cast of British and Norwegian actors, slipping naturally from one language into another (English translation on the back wall, as in Little Eyolf, when Norwegian is spoken) suits one theme of the play.

Let's get the only weak link out of the way first. For me, Adrian Rawlins' Wangel (pictured above with Pia Tjelta; all images by Tristram Kenton) didn't quite add up: too nervy, rather unconvincing in the explosions of anger. I can't help wishing that Conradi, superb as the teacher Arnholm who returns on a misunderstanding to 'claim' Wangel's older daughter Bolette, had taken the more crucial character. But Rawlins, like Øystein Røger as a silver-fox, all-too-real Stranger, interacted well with the mesmerising Pia Tjelta, returning after her great performance as Rita Allmers in Little Eyolf to take on another of Ibsen's most compelling roles.

Proud but terrorised by her long-term images of the man who tried to claim her soul at sea, Tjelta's Ellida lets us read every emotion in her face. The voice, deep and sensual, does half the work. We're stricken with pity that Wangel as doctor plies her with pills - anti-depressants, tranquillisers? - to which it turns out he's not averse either. And then the magnificent straightening-up in the moment of decision, when the weight of constraining fantasy is lifted off her shoulders; it carries what can be a difficult moment dramatically. Much as I enjoyed Kwame Kwei-Armah's production at the Young Vic, which perhaps had a lighter touch, it didn't drive home in the same way that outward forces can also get buried and distorted deep in the psyche. A myth of the elements becomes an introspective drama. I thought of Sibelius, where dynamics of the soul are too often taken for forces of nature - the music has both, of course - and of Wagner, the second act of whose Die Walküre Jurowski described as 'an Ibsen play put inside a Homer epic'.

The test for the ensemble - this version sheds one character, Ballestad - really comes after the interval, in a sequence of devastating one-to-ones. The casting of three young people fresh from drama school is inspired. Edward Ashley (pictured above with Tjelta) manages the difficulty of making consumptive young artist Lyngstrand sympathetic even in his expectations of what a woman-as-wife should be for her husband - how daring for 1888 to have the object of his expectations challenge this so directly - while Marina Bye, fresh from the Guildhall as Bolette (pictured below with Conradi), seems to follow in Tjelta's footsteps in showing us what this girl longing for freedom, maybe at any price, is feeling at every moment.

Molly Windsor (pictured below with Rawlins) tells us who dangerous, impetuous Hilde Wangel, longing for love, is immediately, and what she will become in The Master Builder.

These are strong and yet paradoxically vulnerable women (that's the ambiguity of Ibsen's infinite depths for you). Director Marit Moum Aune has a masterstroke at the end: I shouldn't spoil it, but let's just say it's a grouping of which a modern audience wholeheartedly approves. Erlend Birkeland's set, making good use of a wide-projecting stage, gives the characters plenty of sand to play with; Simon Bennison's lighting works its magic and, when necessary, mystery.

The false note for me was the anodyne and way too persistent muzak of Nils Petter Molvær; I concede that a little might be necessary for the supposedly supernatural element, but better none at all than this. Otherwise, on with the next project. I might just go and see this one again; it runs until 9 March. Meanwhile, onwards to a Lithuanian sea-picture and Grieg's incidental music to Peer Gynt in Birmingham on Saturday. Then it's back to Norway, and a snowy inland landscape for a music festival with a difference.

Wednesday 13 February 2019

The phantasmagoria of George Saunders

Distinguished writers can be as misleading as anyone when it comes to puffing people in their profession. I'm sure Zadie Smith reveres George Saunders, until recently confined by his own choice to the genre of the short story, even more than I now do. But it was frankly silly of her to declare that 'not since Mark Twain has America produced a satirist this funny'. Hello? Kurt Vonnegut? Philip K. Dick (whom I regard more as satirist through dystopia than a 'sci-fi author')? Without their examples Saunders' earlier work would surely not have been possible. But he has at his previous best equalled them in imagination. And with Lincoln in the Bardo, the full-length novel which won the 2017 Man Booker Prize, he seems to have produced 'a masterpiece' (Z Smith again, and I'll give her that one).

First, a bit about what I read after that - chiefly The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, which I'm glad I bought in an edition also including the 12 stories of In Persuasion Nation. Were one playing the 'first line of a book' game - details available on request if you don't know it - the real entry would probably stand out a mile when it comes to Frightening Phil:

It's one thing to be a small country, but the country of Inner Horner was so small only one Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside, and the other six Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their own country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner.

Casual introduction of alien vocabulary is very Dick-ian, and we soon take it for granted that the dramatis personae are made up of odd mechanical bits and pieces: the bolt holding Phil's brain in place 'on his tremendous sliding rack occasionally fell out, causing his brain to slide rapidly down his rack and smash into the ground'. So when nasty things are done to the Inner Hornerites, the 'dismantling' keeps explicit brutality at bay, but still somehow horrifies. Enough on that story; suffice it to say that border issues and the character of Phil, such as it is, keep it topical.  

The tales of In Persuasion Nation range from the comically disconcerting to the downright disgusting. The territory, in which commerce and mind-control come together in a sometimes plausible future, is familiar; I wonder if Charlie Brooker knew them and did likewise in Black Mirror (with very mixed results). But in the context of what's to come, the sudden deaths and casual slipping into Saunders' very own version of ghostlife at the very end of the last story, 'commcomm', show us where the essential weirdness of Lincoln in the Bardo comes from.

There's a difference, though, not just in terms of metaphysical scope but also in the setting, a very specific past time and happening, February 1862, and the death of Abraham Lincoln's 11-year-old son Willie. Not having read much about the construction, I was baffled at first: who's speaking, where and what is this character, that character? Ghosts, of course, stuck in a peculiar limbo and manifesting visuals - a gigantic member, multiple heads - which no film could easily render (I see from the below that there's been an attempt, but it limits what can be done, while Saunders' verbal imagination takes you much further).

There are incredible passages - well, it's all incredible, but I mean that in the sense of transcendent: the 'matterlightblooming phenomenon' with which angels whisk up some of the lost souls in the cemetery; the recollection of the past which an action of ghost-Willie brings upon the others towards the end of the fantasia. Why they choose to remain is unclear - vaguely, it's about to clinging on to life without realising you're dead, as I read it. But as in great poetry, you don't challenge the sense.

Saunders uses all this to give us a wide panorama of American life and characters both of that time - recounted in selections from the literature about Lincoln - and before it. There's also a very moving connection between Lincoln and two of the 'shard' souls, the spirits of black slaves. But to tell more would be to take away the magic. The aura remains. Buy the hardback Bloomsbury edition if you can, a beautiful piece of book production, and set aside a day to read it.