Monday 28 March 2022

The greatest Grimeses

There was Pears, of course - it was a surprise to me to find how fine an actor he was, as well as a singer, in the 1969 film of Peter Grimes conducted by Britten. But in my opera-going experience no-one can possibly be greater than the late Philip Langridge.

I saw him three times, twice in Tim Albery's very fine English National Opera production, and once in a Barbican concert performance conducted by Richard Hickox, where his pacing around at the foot of the stage before the final scene seemed horribly real. In fact his madness came across as not acted at all, which is why when we watched the scene in Grimes's hut in the fourth of my Opera in Depth Zoom classes on the work a few weeks ago, the students expressed concern for the (surely too young) boy he roughs up.

That of course wasn't a problem in Deborah Warner's production, now running at the Royal Opera, where the character of Grimes is softened to the point of sentimentality and he never manhandles his apprentice; the boy can touch him tenderly but it doesn't work (as far as I remember) the other way around. Cruz Fitz and Allan Clayton pictured below by Yasuko Kageyama.

Surely we're all in agreement that Allan Clayton manages every vocal aspect of the role superbly, but for me this fisherman wasn't a credible character. Note to director: you don't have to love the protagonist to feel pity for him.

The libretto does present difficulties, of course - how to tie up the visionary with the rough, abusive outsider? But not to have him strike Ellen in Act 2 Scene One - he knocks her to the ground in a scuffle as he makes off with the boy - is a step too far. I didn't like the keening over the corpse to the 'relief' of the Moonlight Interlude, either. This isn't the first time there's been a shying-away from the uncomfortable: I was astonished to discover that Jon Vickers changed two of the lines in the hut scene to avoid the physical assault on the boy (thus avoiding the con violenza written into the score)

Anyone coming to Grimes for the first time, or even after a long time of not seeing it in action, is bound to think 'this is the greatest' - that's partly because of the nature of Britten's inspiration, which as Mark Wigglesworth, recording a Zoom chat with me for one of the other classes after we'd listened to his Glyndebourne/LPO performance of the Passacaglia - the most electrifying I know - is 'bulletproof'.

Our first guest was the ever-generous and articulate Sue Bullock, who spoke with shocking frankness about playing Ellen Orford in the first run of the Albery ENO production - she alternated with Josephine Bartstow - to Langridge's Grimes. They both felt that the tension of the scene outside the church had built to such a pitch that to fake the slap diffused it. So SB gave PL the licence to hit her (that's me being astonished as she tells me below). And she remembers standing in the wings crying while Langridge himself wept real tears in the 'mad scene', then going home - still in tears - fretting that she hadn't done enough to save him. 

Talk about the role taking over (but I also remember Simon Keenlyside telling me how he paced the streets of London in the small hours after singing the finest Prince Andrey I think I'll witness in Prokofiev's War and Peace).

I was saving the equal generosity of Richard Jones, another regular visitor, for Samson et Dalila next term, which he convinced me was worth spending four or five Monday afternoons on (as did Nicky Spence, but alas, he's had to withdraw because of the steady convalescence needed to restore his two broken legs to full health). But we were so stunned by RJ's Milan production, which I ended up using the most when it came to playing full scenes on DVD, that I asked if he'd be willing to talk about it. 

Richard always declares that these things were too long ago to remember much, but then he goes and delivers fascinating and unexpected takes with great vividness. He was especially good (and funny) on the disjunct between music and text: 'part of my affection for it is this very extraordinary, eerie and incredibly memorable music combined with this Listen-With-Mother, Ealing vowel text, and I like that disparity very much'. 

Responding to Mark's comment about Grimes being 'bulletproof', he declared that 'there are certain pieces where you can have your day in the sun as a director - one is Jenůfa, another is Grimes'. 

So far he's only directed it once, but would be up for another shot (which, given his capacity for re-imagining, would probably be very different). I just don't think there could a more intense and upsetting experience than what he and his choreography Sarah Fahie get out of the Teatro alla Scala forces and the principals: all the more remarkable given the chorus's threat to walk out at one stage (or perhaps because of it: needless to say Jones enjoyed facing an angry mob). 

The two leading performances are devastating. John Graham Hall may not have the tonal beauty of a Pears or a Clayton, but like Langridge's, his is a Grimes on the edge from the start. 

It's the only time I've seen the Apprentice played by a teenager (Francesco Malvuccio, who spoke no English, but as Richard says, that may have been an advantage). So there's a boy who can stand up for himself a bit, but is still physically dominated by the abuser.

The biggest rethink is the role of Ellen Orford. Jones believes there are no good people at all in Grimes, and she's horribly deluded, an ex-cultist who never notices what's really going on. That doesn't stop us feeling pity for her as she falls apart. 

Susan Gritton sings and acts better than any other Ellen I've seen. Wigglesworth conducted her too, and advised me to get her along. By which time, alas, it was too late in the course and she was taken up with performances on the weekend we might have spoken. But we had a splendid email exchange. 

I was also hoping for another appearance from the supremely eloquent Robin Ticciati, who conducts the La Scala production magnificently, and who was looking forward to telling some memorable stories. But he was taken into hospital to be operated on for a kidney stone, so that was not to be ditto Felicity Palmer, who gives an interesting Auntie, but declared it wasn't a role she felt close to. No matter; we watched so much of the film, and I urge you to do so if you think a Grimes can't be more intense than the Royal Opera one. For me this is the greatest Grimes, while Langridge is the greatest Grimes. Get hold of the Arthaus Musik DVD of Albery's ENO production too, if you can.

These, for me, are benchmarks, and yet there was so much new and perceptive in the latest comer. I just didn't come away from it wrung out. To me it seemed that Clayton was a truly great singer who acted well, not a born singer-actor. But then RJ, who hadn't seen the production at the time of our conversation, reminded me of his astonishing delivery in the Royal Opera 4/4 staging of H K Gruber's Frankenstein!!!, and yes, that did make me think it was the director's job to bring out the best in him. I think the RO should bring back the film complete now that a star is truly born, but this minute is good enough to show you the audacity, weirdness and agility.

Friday 18 March 2022

A tale of cock and despot

English Touring Opera's new production of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel made me decide to give a one-off Zoom class on his satirical swan-song (the fact that the event itself turned out to be a bit of a turkey is incidental now). It may not be as profound as its immediate predecessor, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, where the myth of the disappearing city which sinks beneath lake waters to preserve itself from the marauding enemy might be repurposed now for Ukraine, or as bewitchingly lovely as The Snow Maiden, but it does encapsulate many of Korsakov's styles and innovations, taking them one step further down the road of a modernism he professed to hate.

As I made clear in the review, there's one aspect of the fable - drawn by Pushkin from Washington Irving's 'Legend of the Arabian Astrologer' in his delicious Tales of the Alhambra, which he read in a French translation - with obvious connections to now: a capricious ruler sets off on a pointless campaign, with disastrous results. For the poet, disaffection with Nicholas I was part of the picture; for the composer and his librettist Belsky, the evident twilight of Nicholas II's reign and the disastrous Russo-Japanese War of 1905 would have been pertinent. 

There's also a parallel real-life story which makes me very proud to have picked up a copy of the vocal score when I was last in Moscow, albeit a battered edition. As Sergei Bertenson and Jay Leyda, Rachmaninov's best biographers to date, record, the composer, leaving Russia towards the end of 1917, 'carried one small suitcase: the only music in it was his first act of Monna Vanna [the opera he never completed], sketchbooks containing the new piano pieces [the Op. 39 set of Etudes-Tableaux, for me his piano masterpiece], and the score of Rimsky-Kosakov's Golden Cockerel' - the same edition as the one I proudly possess. 

Later, in 1934, Rachmaninov wanted it sent from New York to his wonderful new Villa Senar on Lake Lucerne along with The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh. 'Just to read a score by Rimsky-Korsakov always puts me in a better mood, whenever I feel restless or sad,' he declared.

Less valuable but much treasured by me are two editions of Pushkin's original tale. Artist Tatyana Mavrina's illustrations for Pushkin fairy-tales bound together by the story-telling cat of the poem that prefaces Ruslan and Lyudmila were published in 1984 by Detskaya Literatura and won the international Hans Christian Anderson Medal. This was one of the last things I bought from the long-defunct Collets on Charing Cross Road.

You also get the tales of Tsar Saltan, the Dead Tsarevna, the Fisherman and his Wife, and the Priest and his Worker Balda. But the Cockerel is what concerns us. I reproduce two of the three-page spreads below.

The most famous illustrations are those of the great turn-of-the-century artist Ivan Bilibin. They're not part of the beautifully-printed Everyman's Library of Children's Classics volume, from which I used to read to my godson Alexander the Tale of Tsarevich Ivan, the Firebird and the Grey Wolf with sound clips on cassette I took from Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninov (he remembers that experience to this day, I;m so happy to say). But I found them in a slightly rougher-and-readier Pushkin volume published by Literatura Moscow, accompanying a dual Russian and English text. That's the ill-fated Tsar Dodon being pecked to death up top, This is the tailpiece

this the Tsar being presented with the Cockerel by the Astrologer,

and this the first manifestation of the mysterious Shemakhan Queen.

She's a fine manifestation of woman power, albeit only through using feminine wiles. The female heroines of Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories aren't all-powerful, but that truly great writer has plenty of interesting new takes on the fairy-tales of Perrault and others. I returned to this beautiful spider's web of fantasies when I was covering Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle in my Hungarian music course, and realised I hadn't read beyond the titular narrative.

I soon realised that the 10 tales are much richer if read in context. 'Puss-in-Boots' serves as a kind of entr'acte, and animal metamorphoses are rife. Most remarkably, there are refrains that serve like musical themes, recurrent but altered by the context, and re-reading makes it all even richer. Stuck on a train without another book, I decided to turn a second time to the two stories I found the most hauting and poetic. 'The Courtship of Mr Lyon' and 'The Erl-King', with its fabulous descriptions of natural detail in a wood, and found even more connections in retrospect. If I still composed - I dabbled as a teenager - I'd be spoilt for choice to make mini-operas here. One could even use the same soprano (or mezzo) and baritone for a triple bill... Well, I can dream, can't I? But the music is already there in Carter's perfect prose. What genius.

Wednesday 2 March 2022

The bombing of Babyn/Babi Yar

The name has horrific connotations for all of us. Yesterday Russian forces hit not only Kyiv's TV tower but also the memorial which hadn't been constructed at the time Yevtushenko wrote his famous poem, marking the Nazi massacre at the ravine outside the Ukrainian capital. Four people visiting it were killed. I found on YouTube film of a performance of Shostakovich's Thirteenth Symphony, setting this and other Yevtushenko poems I didn't know had taken place - conducted by Thomas Sanderling, Russian-born son of Kurt, on the very site last October, to mark the 80th anniversary of the atrocity. As there are no subtitles, here's a translation of the poem by Benjamin Okopnik. Here's a link to the website where I found his translation. Certain horrible ironies resonate there now.

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.

I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o’er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails.

It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself.
The Philistines betrayed me – and now judge.
I’m in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I’m persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.

I see myself a boy in Belostok
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.

I’m thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of “Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!”
My mother’s being beaten by a clerk.

O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.

I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The antisemites have proclaimed themselves
The “Union of the Russian People!”

It seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I’m in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other’s eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed – very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.

-“They come!”

-“No, fear not – those are sounds
Of spring itself. She’s coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!”

-“They break the door!”

-“No, river ice is breaking…”

Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.

And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.

No fiber of my body will forget this.
May “Internationale” thunder and ring
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.

There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!

And here's heroic President Zelenskyy's reaction yesterday:

Tuesday 1 March 2022

Hungarian music course: songs of lamentation

Last Thursday I'd spent all morning in a mood of heartsick distractedness, following the latest developments in Ukraine. The plan in our seventh class was to move on to Kodály's Háry János. But I was in no mood for light-heartedness, and at the risk of depriving students of their 'safe space', I turned explicitly to music that somehow reflected the grief and fury we all feel about Putler's senseless invasion.

The biggest work to fit the bill was Kodály's Psalmus Hungaricus, a work I've never heard in the concert hall. And why on earth not? It's a masterpiece, setting a gloss on King David's Psalm 55, "Hear my prayer" (that same text which inspired Purcell's radically chromatic anthem and Mendelssohn's famous anthem for treble and choir, in which I was lucky enough to sing the solo part before my voice broke). The image above is of King David painted on an egg by my dear but long since unheard-from St Petersburg friend Natasha Romashova, who moved to Sacramento some years ago as the wife of a Russian dentist; her wonderful mother Sima joined her later.

The Hungarian version is by the 16th century poet, preacher, and translator Mihály Vég, written at a time when Hungary was under Turkish occupation. The 1923 Budapest concert in which Kodály's work had its premiere was supposed to be a 50th anniversary celebration of the unification of Buda, Pest and Óbuda, so this Biblically derived, plaintive offering must have seemed odd, even though it moves finally to thanksgiving. The wails, the powerful climaxes and above all the transcendent moment when Kodály anticipates Martinů in an extraordinarily levitational passage are all perfectly placed. 

I listened first of all to István Kertész's splendid Decca recording with an excellent soloist, Lajos Kozma, and a not quite incisive enough Brighton Festival Chorus. On YouTube there's a film of Péter Eötvös conducting the International Chorakademie Lübeck and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra with tenor István Kovácsházi (not as expressive as Kozma, but the choir is better). but that performance also features in one of those labours of love in which the poster has added the score. Especially useful since you can also read the text in English translation.

Leading up to this, what I'd already planned made sense last Thursday. First. the three soldiers' songs Bartók added in 1918 to an earlier set. Finding these evocative 1928 performances on YouTube was a revelation. I'm delighted to have got hold of a copy of the long-deleted Pearl CD. That's Bartók and his only close friend Kodály' in 1912 on the cover.

The Hungarian-Greek contralto Mária Basilides is so fine-tuned to Bartók's piano-playing in the first four (one of the original eight is omitted); then at 5m05s comes the tenor Ferenc Székelyhidy - a great voice, a fine artist, one of so many Hungarian musicians of whom I knew nothing until I started this course (and there's not a lot out there). I'll preface it with the texts of the soldiers' songs: 


Recruiting Song 

They are filling the great forest road

Taking away the Transylvanian soldiers,

Taking the unfortunate ones,

Poor Székler young men.

They take them away to that place

Where the road is red with blood,

From the men whom the bullet, the lance,

The sharp sword have cut.


Soldier's Farewell

My work has always been the spring plowing,

Cutting grasses in fields and gardens;

Now my ox is in his place, my horse is saddled,

My whip ready, the halter in my hands.

The day has come when I must leave,

To depart from my home, my country, with a heavy heart,

To take leave of my parents in tears,

To leave my dear wife alone.


Soldier's Spring Song

Snow is melting, oh my pretty little angel, spring is coming.

How I wish to be a rosebud in your garden!

But I can’t be a rose; Franz Josef wilts me.

In the big three-storey Viennese barracks. 


A reminder again that the Soldiers' Songs begin at 5m05s, though it's worthing hearing the full seven. 

From the same recording sessions I took Székelyhidy and Bartók in Kodály's powerful arrangement of 'Rákóczi's Lament', a memorialisation of that early 18th century Hungarian warrior's unsuccessful cause. No translation here, I'm afraid; and translations generally have been a problem. So has English-language study of Hungarian music - I guess few musicologists ever get to grips with the language.

Who'd have thought we would actually comprehend the heroism of taking a stand against an overpowering enemy? But in President Zelenskyy we have it as I've never experienced in my own lifetime. Tomorrow I'm putting up a piece on The Arts Desk celebrating Russian musicians around the world in solidarity with Ukraine, and I'm doing what I can with constant posting on LinkedIn, much as I detest the site's inaction on disinformation. But I'll leave you with this speech for the ages. Zelenskyy has just made another one today to the European Parliament which was even more emotional. Slava Ukraini!