Thursday, 30 June 2011

Jonas Kauffman Munich Florestan LIVE streaming

Mark it down, Friday 8th July 1945hr European time - online broadcast of Fidelio from Munich, with Jonas Kaufmann as Florestan. Anja Kempe and Adam Fischer. Here is the link. It's the Calixto Bieito production premiered last December, which is now avaialble on CD. I'm still stunned by Kaufmann and Stemme in the Lucerne broadcast last year with Claudio Abbado, but this should be very, very interesting.  Major league broadcasts like this are a good thing because they raise the bar for everyone.

Glyndebourne appoints Robin Ticciati as Music Director

Glyndebourne Opera has just announced that Robin Ticciati will succeed Vladimir Jurowski as Music Director from 2014.  Ticciati's rise to prominence has been swift. He made his professional debut as opera conductor with Glyndebourne Touring Opera as recently as 2004. He's since conducted four productions at the main house at the Glyndebourne Festival, including Don Giovanni this summer.

Outside opera, he's known for his work with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, who are very good. Only 2 years ago they created a buzz, touring the Highlands and Islands. The BBC did a show on that, very lively. Youth is on his side! photo credit : Chris Christodoulou

One Fine Day in new context!


Grace Chang (Ge Lan) sings Un bel di Vedremo in Mandarin. But what makes it a really big deal is the context. The clip is from the film Wild, Wild Rose  (described in detail here). Rose is obviously extremely well educated through she went on the streets aged 14. But that was during the Japanese invasion and Chinese civil war. Millions of tragedies like that, which is the point of the film.  She's become a popular nightclub suinger whose forte is western opera arias. Not a crooner. Read the whole story on the link for context. At this point in the story, she's forced to go back to work after having tried a stretch as a "nice girl" but everything's gone wrong and she's broke. So it's deeply ironic that she has to play at being a subservient geisha. The words are poignant because ex pimp came back from prison and her lover went to jail for knifing him. Rose's friends know the story, which is why they're proud of her comeback.  She ends up dead, like Carmen, but this Madama Butterfly isn't a passive victim. The pianist looks weedy but even he has a story to tell. (read the synopsis)

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Intelligent Puccini Madama Butterfly - Royal Opera House


When the current production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly premiered in 2003, I remember being startled at how stark the production seemed, with its clean horizontal lines and open spaces. Very different indeed from the over-stuffed, over-fussy clutter of fin de siècle clichés about Japan. Western Japonisme as decorative wrapping has little to do with reality. Madama Butterfly is a powerful opera because it deals with real human dilemmas, by no means unique to Japan or to the early 20th century.

Instead, this production, directed by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, uses the Japanese context intelligently so it works with the drama. Japanese art is stylized, blank spaces part of the design, so key details stand out in sharp focus. The sets in this production, designed by Christian Fenouillat, are clean and open, so there's no irrelevant distraction. The backdrop of shoji screens allows quick scene changes, contrasting the interior with the vast panorama outside. It's a telling comment. As Goro points out, changing the walls changes perspective. This opera isn't really "about" Japanese society as much as about the way people don't perceive things in the same way.

As Caurier and Leiser said in a recent interview, Madama Butterfly is "not a beautiful story, it’s awful, it’s violent. Yes, you see the flowers but you must have the smell of blood running through them”. Throughout history, those with wealth and power have always been able to exploit those who don't. Pinkerton buys a package, house, servants, mock family and  girl to use as sexual covenience. He's infatuated temporarily by Butterfly's beauty but he's under no illusion that he's interested in her other than as an object to gratify his ego. Perhaps that's why he takes the child. He can't concieve that its mother or culture mean anything.

Butterfly is so desperate to escape her background that even before she meets Pinkerton, she's obsessed about becoming an instant American. She invests so much in her delusion that she can't cope with reality. She kills herself, not simply because harakiri "is" custom, but because she's invested so much into her fixation that she can't live with reality. "....nulla, nulla, fuor che la morte".


Although this is the third revival of this production since 2003, the performace felt fresh because it was directed, not by substitutes but by Leiser and Caurier themselves. Every performance has to be "new" because casts change and circumstances change. Patricia Racette, who has sung Cio Cio San many times before, pulled out at the last minute, but in some ways that was fortunate, because Kristine Opolais, making her Royal Opera House debut, throws herself so convincingly into the part that she makes it her own. She's young enough to convey Butterfly's innocence but has strength of personality, which comes through in her singing. She sings the love duet with such intensity that you wonder how a 15 year old could find such passion, especially for a stranger she's just met. This emphasizes Butterfly's single-minded determination. Reality doesn't get in the way of imagination.

Opolais's Butterfly is wonderfully varied. After the Bonze's curse, her voice takes on a tense edge, showing that Butterfly is deeply traumatized. Then she switches quickly back to sweetness when she turns to Pinkerton. Swift reactions, for Cio Cio San is always adapting, and living intensely in the moment. Opolais genuinely interacts with Dolore (Niklas Allan). She's not singing to an object, or a puppet, but as real mother to real child. Madama Butterflies stand and fall on Un bel di vedremo, and Opolais conveys complete emotional engagement. She's not merely describing a sequence of events, but how they feel to her. An interesting voice, with good range, and a natural acting singer. She's a regular at the Berlin Staatsoper, where she'll be singing Butterfly in March 2012.

James Valenti as Lt. Pinkerton is rather less successful, although he has had the role in his repertoire for years. Arguably, Pinkerton is emotionally more buttoned up than many men, but Puccini builds a lot more into the part than repression. Perhaps further into the run, Valenti's voice may blossom, and hopefully be preserved at its best in the film that's being released on BP Big Screen and cinemas on 4th July. Anthony Michaels-Moore sang Sharpless with warmth, for the Consul is a figure of reasonableness in this claustrophobic world of extremes.

From the vigour with which Robin Leggate sang Goro, it was hard to believe that he's retiring after the end of this production, his 909th performance at the Royal Opera House, since 1977. This Goro is directed so he moves swiftly, reflecting the character's quick wits and cunning. Leggate sings with unflagging energy, despite having to be fleet of foot.

Similarly, Helene Schneiderman's Suzuki was vibrant and expressive. There's a lot more to this role than mere servant. Suzuki can be cocky, although she's loyal. Cio Cio San isn't completely the mistress even at home. Schneiderman intones her prayer to the gods so forcefully that when she sings with Butterfly, you pick up on the undercurrent of tension even that exists in their relationship. Suzuki's gods will win, Cio Cio san hasn't a chance.

Buddhists don't normally curse people, and in Japan, Buddhism co-exists with Shinto quite happily. Buddhists have a lot in common with Christians too. This Bonze is a figment of Puccini's imagination, created to inject extreme panic, smashing forever Cio Cio San's links with her past. Perhaps that's why in this production, he appears all-white, like an apparition of a ghost from a Japanese horror story, not as a living monk. Jeremy White's Bonze bursts onto the scene, screaming violently, striking terror. Great theatre, as Puccini must have intended.

Zhengzhong Zhou sings Prince Yamadori and Daniel Grice sings the Imperial Commisioner. Both impressed, proving how the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme nurtures singers in good directions. Yamadori is an interesting role which could be developed more than it usually is. Why would a prince marry a second-hand geisha, and one who's been cursed for consorting with foreigners?  He rides a carriage up the steep hill, whereas everyone else in this opera walks. Why would a man of that status humiliate himself by divesting all his other wives? Zhou sings the part with tenderness, creating a sincere Yamadori who is emotionally honest and vulnerable though he has all the trappings of power. Pinkerton in reverse?

Over the years, I've grown to appreciate this production for its depth and sensitivity, and would heartily recommend it to anyone who really wants to understand the human - and political - story Puccini might be trying to tell us, beneath the surface gloss. FULL review with photos and cast details, etc in Opera Today

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Pinkerton or Sharpless?

Patrice Caurier and Moishe Leiser talk about their production of Puccini Madama Butterfly at the Royal Opera House in an interview with Opera Today. Very good insights into the art of stagecraft and sensitivity. But even more challenging in a way is how they see the relationship between some (not all) audiences and artists.

Sharpless, the Consul, has lived in Japan long enough to realize that the country is complex and the ways of the west aren't necessarily the ways of Japan. He engages and learns. Pinkerton, though, couldn't care less about Japan or even about other people's feelings. All that matters to him is instant, short term gratification. To him Japan is no more than something to be consumed and exploited. So what are we in our lives, Sharplesses or Pinkertons? Read the interview and think on Butterfly's fate.

Lots more to come on Madama Butterfly! Please keep coming back to this site because here you'll get a completely different perspective to usual.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Not Peter Grimes, not the Dutchman but L’Étranger

A stranger lives outcast from a small fishing village. He's the nameless L’Étranger. Everyone hates and fears him, but in fact he's a kind of Christian ascetic. Vita, a local woman is bethrothed to André, a customs officer - great marriage prospect, but he's dry and unemotional. Vita and L’Étranger fall in love but he's pledged to his sacred mission whatever it might be. (he's a fisherman but wears an emerald necklace).

Massive storm at sea, the village battens down, a ship is dashed onto the rocks.  But L’Étranger heads out alone into the surf to save the crew of the shipwreck. . Vita decides that she'd rather risk death with him.. Supernatural spirits: Vita throws an emerald into the storm, and the skies and seas light up virulent green. Peter Grimes? The Flying Dutchman? Even Lohengrin? This opera is contemporary with Pelléas et Melisande and La Mer.  It's Vincent D'Indy, his 1903 opera L’Étranger which is still available online on BBC Radio 3 til Thursday. The hyperbole of the plot is matched in the music - sharp rivulets tearing thru masssed tutti, gigantic swells that suggest the power of the ocean or whatever unnatural force is behind it, lyrical passages that suggest the tenderness none of these tortured souls can express.

The performance comes from the Radio France and Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon Festival, recorded July 26. 2010. Fabulous performance, not that I know this music at all, but it's tightly conducted so the tension in the huge surges of sound  doesn't dissipate. This suppressed energy reflects the repression in the plot and its cathartic release. Superb cast, too. Ludovic Tézier sings L’Étranger. He has the stamina to sing extremely long arias where the voice is driven, like the character and the music. He's amazing. Listen for him alone if you must, this is how pointedly pungent French singing can be. No need for text, his diction's so clear. (The score is public domain). His voice cracks on the final Adieu! which is fair enough. A mysterious horn calls from afar. Then Cassandre Berthon's Vita throws herself into the fray, frightening long, high legato held heroically. Attends-moi!  The orchestra explodes, and the choir intones like spirits of the sea. D'Indy isn't fashionable but this opera ia fabulous, mixing verismo and totally off the wall symbolism. For me a real discovery.

Vivaldi put to the test, Garsington Opera

" Vivaldi's La Verità in cimento (Truth put to the test) and Garsington Opera have a hit on their hands if the first two performances are anything to go by." writes Sue Loder who is a passionate baroque specialist. "The characters are a dysfunctional royal family whose ruling Sultan is a well-meaning tyrant who makes that one big decision but then lives to regret it as his extended family start to tear each other’s throats out ". Read her comparison in Opera Today between Handel operas and Vivaldi, which explains why Vivaldi can't be judged on Handel terms.  Some seats available for upcoming performances. Vivaldi won't reach mass market but those who appreciate a real baroque romp might like it as much as she did.  

Coming up Butterfly and Meistersinger!

Lots on Madam Butterfly at the Royal Opera House, coming up soon, and on Die Meistersinger from Glyndebourne at the movies. Please click on related posts under Puccini, Chinese stereotypes, Wagner, Wagner Meistersinger

Photo is Macau circa 1900  showing the 16th century fort and the 17th century church beside it. 500 years of mixed race community. So Butterfly isn't "just" an opera to me. My reviews on Meistersinger at Glyndebourne are easy to search, but what's coming next is a piece on the wider impact of film on opera.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Glyndebourne Die Meistersinger in cinemas

The new Glyndebourne production of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg will be shown in a number of cinemas in the UK, including several in central London and suburbs (Google for details), at 3pm tomorrow, 26th June. The production will also be webcast by the Guardian on the day and will be available for seven days afterwards.

For my review of the production see HERE further discussion here and in Opera Today here  

Nico Muhly Two Boys ENO

Nico Muhly says he likes "shiny things" which might, or might not explains something. Shiny things are instantly attractive, but often they don't turn outr so great. Manhattan was sold for a few shiny baubles. Bubbles sparkle but there's nothing inside. Last year Mulhy arrived in Britain as part of a massive publicity campaign. Lots of coverage of his music. Conscientiously I listened carefully, and to much of the music in the latest publicity blitz. Muhly's persona is shaped so he's presented as a new Britten, minus the quirky originality that makes Britten so challenging. There are many who think it's OK to design music for public consumption. However there are still some who think true art just "is" and springs from deeper sources. Muhly's marketed as vaguely British which sells well in some places, where any "British" is siupposed to be classy.  It's effective product placement. However in Britain we have a lot of the real thing. On the other hand, no-one wants to rock the boat. What bugs me is that we are being used so that when the show opens at the Met they can quote how ecstatic the British Press were, when it's not necessarily the case. So please see Boulezian who stands up and says what he thinks. And here's the one in Opera Today. (good on the "achingly trendy" aspect.) What bothers me about Two Boys at the ENO is that hardly anyone mentions anything about the music. The publicity is all skewed towards building up Muhly's persona and about the premise of the plot (as opposed to plot development). Subjects like that have been part of opera since Monteverdi. So what's new? Nothing wrong with this per se but if the music were strong enough on its own would it need so much window dressing? Everyone adored A Dog's Heart, but would anyone listen to that composer as music, without Complicité?

Friday, 24 June 2011

Madam Butterfly in real life.

Strictly speaking, Madam Butterfly isn't "about" Japan. Japan is an exotic context, building upon Europe's fascination with things oriental. This fascination with alternatives to mainstrean western culture had a huge impact on the development of western music and art. To Puccini's credit, he took the trouble to find out as much as he could about Japan even though there are things in the opera which aren't historically accurate. It tells little more about real Japanese society than Gilbert and Sullivan. The important thing is that Puccini is psycholgically accurate.

Moreover, Puccini picks up on the basic premise of imperialism that that some cultures are "superior" and have a right to exploit others. Lt. Pinkerton is the ultimate colonialist. For him, the east gives him the freedom to behave in a way he wouldn't dare at home. Ther locals don't matter, nor their culture. They exist for his own use, not as themselves. In the end he takes Butterfly's child, denying her her one comfort and identity as a mother, and foisting a perpetual reminder onto his new wife that she wasn't the mother of his first child. Sexist creep. Few, however, question the assumption that the child might be better off in America. But the fact is that the US was a racist society. Ask blacks and Native Americans. Orientals were seen as The Yellow Peril, almost as non-humans, and a threat to white values. In parts of Canada and the US, intermarriage was forbidden by law. Mixed race kids didn't fit in. So the idea that Pinkerton is somehow redeeming himself isn't true. He's an imperialist who thinks that non-white cultures are inherently inferior, so taking the kid is a further insult.  Any cross culture adoption is fraught with issues, but a man as insentive as Pinkerton will probably never learn. He's even more of blind bigot than the opera portrays.

Non-western cultures were a lot more enlightened than the Pinkertons of this world then and now realize. The Japanese, for example, absorbed change readily. Much of Japanese culture stemmed from China. In the 16th century, hundreds of thousands converted to Christianity. It wassn't just the introduction of Portuguese guns and cannon that interested them. Then the revolution of the Meiji, when Japan transformed from feudal to modern within a few years. The Japanese even adopted colonialism, assuming that if the west could demand concessions from China, so could they. They were nearer, after all, and needed the natural resoures. One of the ironies of the Second World War is that it took the Japanese invasion to end western control of China. Obviously core values don't change but Japanese culture's a lot more adaptive than many.

But not all colonials were Pinkertons. British India isn't typical because British society was exported wholesale. Prior to the arrival of Memsahibs and the High Raj, people mixed. Millions of Madam Butterfly situations that weren't necessarily exploitive, as the number of Anglo-Indians and Luso-Indians indicate. People are people ! From the shores of Africa to the shores of Japan, hundreds of mixed race communities, which developed their own identity and sub-culture. First-generation mixed race had something to turn to, even if it was never easy being different. (that's why anyone who mknows Asia will know there was never, ever an ur-Butterfly).

A while back, there was TV documentary in which a British actor traced his origins. He'd assumed his ancestress in what is now Ghana, was exploited, but it turned out that she was a prosperous businesswoman who'd had a family with a Dutchman. He didn't abandon her and left money in his will to his children. Millions more stories like that, all over Asia and Africa. As one Eurasian super achiever told me, "We have to try harder because we have to prove ourselves". Fundamentally, it's just not true that mixed race situations are prostitution arrangements doomed to failure. That's "colonial thinking" implcitly assuming the inferiority of "lesser breeds" (as they were actually called once) . Obviously there were horrible things, because that's the way the world is. But the idea that non-whites are vaguely inferior, persists. Even now mixed race communities are dismissed by those who think in simplistic black and white terms (sic). It's a throwback to colonial racism, even if it's completely unconscious. Mixed race sub cultures are  important because they show the way ahead in a world that's becoming increasingly mixed. Trouble is, they're not studied properly because they don't fit easy classification.

Click on photo to enlarge. Plenty more on this site about cross culture, yellowface, Japan, mixed culture and stereotypes.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

"We're more than mobile scenery"

Composers don't write character parts for nothing. These roles can be the pivot on which a drama turns.  Divas and divos get headlines, but character singers can make an opera work.

This month, three operas in which the character part is critical. In Tosca, it's the Sacristan, who is the counterfoil to Tosca's extreme emotion and Scarpia's cynical coldness. He shapes Act One, where he represents values of sense and reason. He disappears thereafter, but you don't forget what he means when all else goes haywire.  In Cendrilllon, it's the King around whom the high voiced hi jinks spin. In Madama Butterfly, it's the Bonze who appears for but a minute and seals Cio Cio San's fate, reminding us that beneath all that pretty fripperie, it's an opera about exploitation and cruelty.

Jeremy White sings all three parts, not quite at once. He's been singing at the Royal Opera House for 20 years, and before that sang with the BBC Singers, who are formidably good. Before that, he was one of the founders of the Tallis Scholars and also sang with The Sixteen. Extremely wide range and huge eperience. That's what goes into putting the character in character singing. It's a very different set of skills from ordinary singing because the parts are so concentrated. Dependable, flexible singing skills. Major acting skills, too.Lots of great character singers in the British tradition - John Dobson, Philip Langridge, Graham Clark, tenors. Eric Garrett, Gwynne Howell and to some extent John Tomlinson, baritones/basses. Please read more here, where Jeremy White talks about the specialism. 

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Why Vianna da Motta is interesting

Listening to Daniel Barenboim play Liszt last week stimulated me to listen again to Liszt's music as music, free from the flash of popular performance practice. Music and performance aren't necessarily the same thing. Then I remembered José Vianna da Motta, one of Liszt's pupils. Vianna da Motta was born in the islands of São Tomé off the coast of Africa in 1868, yet by age 14 he was in Germany, studying piano and composition.  He was a pupil of Franz Liszt in Bayreuth, and after Liszt's death, worked with Hans von Bülow. A devotee of Liszt (about whom he wrote a memoir), but deeply immersed in Wagner whose music he adored (despite first hand knowledge of Wagner the man and the way he treated Liszt).

Da Motta became a prominent soloist, appearing at the Wigmore Hall in 1903 when it was known as the Bechstein Hall, a mecca for pianists. Obviously he played Liszt and Chopin, but he was also an important interpreter of Bach and Beethoven (playing all 32 sonatas in 1927, the Beethoven anniversary year)

Da Motta was one of Ferruccio Busoni's closest friends. Busoni and da Motta formed a duo. Recordings still exist of them playing together. They were so close that da Motta provided commentary on Busoni's music  and no doubt was thoroughly familiar with Busoni's theories on art and culture. Both of them were outsiders, with perspectives on the mainstream others might not tap. Da Motta might look like a dandy in this early photograph but anyone so close to Busoni cannot have been an airhead. In his autobiography, da Motta mentioned how he and Busoni would scrap,  Busoni mocking da Motta's fondness for Wagner, da Motta mocking Busoni's thing for Berlioz.

Da Motta was also a composer. His 1895 symphony À Pátria is fairly well known as it's a stirring piece, very much of the period. It's really quite a sophisticated piece for a composer aged 27, and shows an awareness of current trends around him. Quite lyrical in parts too. More readily available is the CD from Hyperion with Artur Pizarro.  This contains da Motta's Piano Concerto in A,  Ballade and Fantasia Domestica. Because da Motta was a pianist, his works for piano are worth checking out - downloadable from amazon. I first discovered da Motta through his Lieder, mostly written before the First World War, also very much of the period. Much better than Franz Scheker's Lieder, for example, they're more pianistic and at ease with the idiom. Da Motta may have been Portuguese but he was absolutely fluent in German and in German culture, but maybe people typecast composers into boxes. Da Motta got sidelined because he went back to Portugal, and you need mainstream presence to get a mainstream profile. It's a pity he's not better known as he's pretty good. Here is an extract of the Piano Concerto in A, and the Finale from À Pátria


Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Das Westpreußenlied


Westpreußen, mein lieb' Heimatland, wie bist du wunderschön!
Mein ganzes Herz, dir zugewandt, soll preisend dich erhöh'n.
Im Weichselgau ich Hütten bau', wo Korn und Obst der Flur entsprießt,
wo Milch und Honig fließt.

O Land, durch deutsche Tüchtigkeit und deutschen Fleiß erblüht,
dir schwört mein Herz Ergebenheit und Treue mein Gemüt.
Durch deutsche Kraft und Wissenschaft sei deutsches Wesen, deutsche Art
dir allerzeit gewahrt.
 
Das Westpreußenlied was written in 1902, text by Paul Felske, music by Hugo Hartmann, who came from Marienberg/Malbork, near Elbing/Elblag. There's a clip of the 13th century castle in the clip. (see Hartmann's great  grandnephew's site for more).  It's like a window on a world that's completely disappeared. West Prussia is now part of Poland. English speakers might take task with the second  verse about German Industry and Science, but 110 years ago Germany was an industrial and scientific power, just as Victorian/Edwardian Britain was. They're thinking of the shipyards of Danzig/Gdansk, the world's biggest cigar factory, farmers, workers, citizens. This was a more innocent form of national pride than we're used to today. The rivalry between Britain and Germany led to the First World War and all that followed. No-one has a monopoly on virtue. There's a third verse, which this clip doesn't include, which runs

Wie lieblich grüßen Wald und Feld, manch blauer See im Tal.
Drum steht mir auf der ganzen Welt kein schönres Land zur Wahl.
Im Weichselgau auf blum'ger Au will ich dereinst begraben sein,
ich zur Ruhe sein.

Jane Henschel's wicked Mrs Sedley

“It’s one of the advantages of being a dramatic mezzo rather than a dramatic lyric soprano; I love getting my teeth into these roles, taking an audience by surprise … and I really enjoy playing ‘nasty’ sometimes!”
Britten's Peter Grimes opens today at the Royal Opera House, with Jane Henschel singing Mrs. Sedley. Haha! Now she can do creepy, whiney, laudanum addict who gets her jollies by denouncing those whom she'd just love to be!  Even more sinister than Peter Grimes himself.  Claire Seymour, who wrote The Operas of Benjamin Britten, (Boydell & Brewer 2007), spoke to Henschel about the part and her career. Read the interview in Opera Today.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Gay Salomé 1923 - full movie download

Full download of the 1923 movie Salomé, notorious because the cast and crew were all supposed to be gay. What do you expect, from a film that pays direct homage to Oscar Wilde? Salomé is played by Alla Nazimova who was openly gay, as was her scriptwriter and designer Natacha Rambova, the director Charles Bryant and probably others. But their sexuality isn't actually relevant, though there are many delicously camp male parts which could rate a scream on the drag circuit. What makes the film intriguing is that  it was made as direct homage to Aubrey Beardsley.

Nothing is straight in this movie, whatever the orientation of those involved. Nazimova's film uses Beardsley's stylization to create a deliberately anti-naturalistic aesthetic that reflects the unnatural nature of the plot. Arch surtitles - "Thou wert" and "Thou rejectedest me". They reflect Beardsley's own words which twist and curl as if in feverish delirium.. The sets are spartan, lots of white space, in the manner of Beardsley's etchings, which seemed shockingly alien to a world used to over-stuffed Victorian excess. Beardsley's aesthetic is  far from Alma-Tadema's hyper-realistic orientalism, which cloaked outright prurience with a veil of fake academicism. Beardsley doesn't do veils.

At the heart of this story is Herod's unclean lust for his own daughter, Salomé. Secondary dynamic is the relationship between Herod and Herodias, his long-term wife whom he treats like dirt. The Herodias in this film is much meatier than the Herodias in Beardsley - she has hair like a lion's mane and wears a leopardskin jumpsuit. Tina Turner, but 60 years too early. Female sexuality as opposed to Herod's leering infantilism. She looks at Herod with disgust. Because the set looks so neat it makes the fundamental perversion feel even more unclean.

Interestingly, Jokanaan looks exactly like Beardsley himself, only more repellent, hawk-like features and a skeletal ribcage that looks like Christ on the Cross in Spanish art. This adds a piquant twinge to the proceedings, as Jokanaan can't stop denouncing "The Whore of Babylon", as if all the sins of the world were caused by women, not men.
It's pretty strange that lesbian Nazimova really makes a point of sexual attraction. "All other men were hateful to me". Before she dies, she looks like she's having an orgasm. "The mystery of Love is greater than the mystery of Death".

Wonderful minor figures - Black executioners, little black kids in headresses as tall as they are, strangely louche male attendants (nipple rings like targets). One lusts for Salomé while the other lusts for him. Attendants dressed in crazy turbans, and in the dance, women dressed as screens, surrounding Salomé as she switches from boyish androgyny to female demon (white hair cut in angles).  The Dance is magnificently choreographed - fast forward to 44 minutes. You can see the influence of Diaghilev and Nijinsky, whom Nazimova, a Russian, would have known of, even if she hadn't seen them in action. Salomé as The Afternoon of a Faun.

While the stylization is fundamental to the whole concept of this film, it makes for semaphore acting. In 1923, this wasn't such a big deal, since moving pictures were still a novelty. But we've become used to Hollywood ultra-fast action, so we need to switch off the autopilot assumption that drama has to be fast and butch. Much like we've lost the art of appreciating music that's not raucous and exaggerated.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Movie as social comment

 Chinese film has social conscience. The Great Devotion (可憐天下父母心) was a huge hit because it showed the lives of an ordinary family in Hong Kong in the 1950's. Chan Chi-hong (Cheung Wood-yau 張活游) and his wife Lee Yuk-mei,  the incomparable Pak Yin (白燕) celebrate the Lunar New Year with a huge plum blossom tree that costs HK$25. Chan's a schoolteacher, prestigious job, but he only earns $45 so it's an extravagance. But plum trees represent hope for the future, so it's OK. Guests arrive, everyone's happy.

Already there are hints of darker reality. One of the guests is Lam Lo See (old master Lam) an educated man now reduced to living in a muk uk (wooden shack) in a shanty. Then  Chan loses his job. No education system then, schools were unregulated and unsupported and failed like businesses do. Social security? Hong Kong in the 1950's? Forget it. The family live in shared communal apartments as people did then, but because the tenants can't keep up the rent, the owner shuts off the water supply. Since water was only on for four hours every four days during the emergency restrictions of the late 50's, that was serious. Lee goes to her rich cousin who's having a soiree in a mansion. No help there, of course.

Watch this film and understand what filial piety really means. When the family has to pawn their blankets, the parents wrap the kids in a threadbare sheet. But the kids put on all the clothes they have so the parents won't freeze. "If anything happens to you, Dad and Mum, we kids are lost anyway". In times of trouble, the family fall back on relationship systems. Saam sum (Third Aunt - the doughty Lee Yuet-ching 李月清) arrives from the country with rice, which is pretty noble considering there were famines in China. But people share when they have, when they can. Two comic relatives, who are labourers, not literati like Chan, also help. Moral obligations, even to those you don't know. Chan gets a job offer but turns it down because it will deprive someone in even greater distress than he.

The kids hatch a plan to beg for money in the streets, but ask the wrong man - it's Dad! They get smacked with a feather duster. Begging then was life or death, not something to be done casually. One day, Dad sees a crowd, They're looking at Old Master Lam, now a street sleeper, his literary talent now reduced to writting begging notes on cardboard scarps. Both Chan and Lam are mortified.

Saam sum comes to adopt elder daughter so she can be raised in the country, easing the burden on her parents. At the farewell dinner, mother gives daughter a salt egg - special treat - but youngest daughter grabs it. Eldest daughter is Lee Oi-ming, superb actress but youngest steals the show - she's Fung Bo Bo, aged 3, who went on to be a mega star. Better to keep the family together, says Saam Sum, unity better than material gain.

The new baby dies and the family is forced to borrow from triads who charge extortionate rates and beat Dad up because he can't pay. By now, he's contracted TB which was endemic then, and thinks he'is going to die. Humiliated because he can't support his family, he disappears to committ suicide but can't face it. As Mother says, it's not fair on the family, if he dies, they all do. Chan's friend, the idealistic young teacher Gwok-hung, has turned to crime in desperation. He stands on a parapet, ready to jump, but his long lost mother appears. She's a prostitute. "If you're ashamed", says mother, "how do you think I feel? " She did it to put him through school and have a better life than she had. "If you're going to die, I will too!" Again the theme of communal reciprocity.

Then, by a miracle, the novel Chan had written earlier is published and sells so well, the family's fortunes are reversed. The cycle of luck and disaster turns again. In Hong Kong people,lived constantly on the edge, knowing reversal could happen at any time. Materialistic hedonism, driven by extreme anxiety, born of tough experience. Free public education, health, housing, things people take for granted now, didn't exist then. It's quite a miracle when you think it about it. That dynamism that's so much a part of Cantonese culture made it possible. When you watch this movie, you understand Hong Kong and Cantonese values. The Chinese movie industry had a moral conscience right from the start. Of course many movies were pure escapism, but film makers often dealt with social issues. It's a western myth that Hong Kong was "apolitical". Peopledidn't agitate, but they didn't stop thinking. A different form of political action, than in the west.


Pak Yin (1920-87) was one of the biggest stars of the time, specializing in morally courageous characters as well as in the usual beauties and maidens. Such a strong, mature personality, even in more sentimental movies. One of my childhood role models. Despite her wealth and busy career, she produced this movie herself.  I think her character shines through in this movie. (the photo shows Pak Yin with Fung Bo Bo in the mid 60's). Significantly Great Devotion  launched the writing and directing career of the prolific Chor Yuen (楚原). Here, he's also the actor who plays Gwok-hung, whose fortunes parrallel those of the Chan family. 

Although Great Devotion is a melodrama, it is a film that should be studied, because it says so much about Hong Kong in the 1950's, and indeed, the whole experience of displaced communities struggling to surviuve in difficult situations. It ought to be a classic of world cinema.  It's available on DVD, pops up on HK TV and "other sources" (Youtube) and it's wonderful to hear Cantonese spoken so clearly. But it needs subtitles to reach the international market. Nonetheless it's so vividly filmed you can follow it visually. For example, the kids do a dragon dance at New Year. Then when they have to move to poorer housing, they re-enact the dance with furniture. Plum blossom appears at critical junctures, symbolizing spring and optimism. Superlative acting, even though many of the cast pop up in many different movies.(The industry was intensive, some movies made with 3 week turnover),  Here, they all seem to be doing their best work as if they known that this isn't the usual potboiler. Great clips of early Hong Kong and Kwong Wah Hospital. Historic material!

Friday, 17 June 2011

Aldeburgh - food and shopping

Only in Aldeburgh will you find a clothes shop called Butchers, a butcher called Salters and a chemist called Shooter. But each of these local landmarks make visits to Aldeburgh a pleasure.

Salters The Family Butchers is a must for craftsman quality cuts of locally sourced meat. Know exactly what you're eating, and where it comes from - and delicious, too. Even if you don't do meat, go to Salters because they have excellent picnic supplies - quiches and cakes baked by farmer's families, regional cheeses, Suffolk apple juices etc. at reasonable prices. The Salters really are a traditional family butchers, incredibly friendly service. They greet me each year - they remember! It's wonderful. They've now got a website where you can order all kinds of meat, though how far they deliver I don't know. In theory you could fill a freezer box.

Butcher the clothes shop is like stepping back into another world. Top brands like Barbour, Betty Barclay, Fitflops etc but displayed in a shop fittings straight out of the 1950's. Was this where Britten and Pears bought their socks?

Barry Shooter the Chemist is another place of pilgrimage. I wait all year to stock up.  Again, traditional shop with unusual and really useful stocks. L'occitane, Dr Hauschka, treats and the best range of Dr Scholl's outside a specialist shop. Big chains don't do nearly so much variety or such good quality. At Shooters, shopping is fun, unlike the impersonal deserts you get in the city. Shooters also carries a good range of holday items, like tan creams and toys for the kids. I used to have a photo of the shop in high summer, festooned with nets, floats, buckets and spades.

Also make a point of visiting Lawson's the Delicatessen. (stylish website) Exceptionally good salads, pies, breads. This is the place that convinced me Coronation Chicken could be real food. Lawson's won Deli of the Year last year and you can see why. Esoteric and superlative quality. This is where you go if you're self catering and want easy meals that wouldn't shame Mayfair. They cater and do hampers, too. You pay for what you get but it's exqusite and you can feast in style.

Restaurants in the Aldeburgh area aren't too good apart from Fish and Chips places - some have queues of 30 or more at opening time.  Otherwise, stick to farm pubs like the Crown at Snape where you can watch the pigs and eat the pork inside. Also Anglo-Nubian goats whose cheese you can enjoy. I also have a thing for The Ship at Dunwich but you may need to book. Excellent beach and so quiet at night it's spooky. Also hugely recommended is Aldeburgh Market in the High Street. It was started by an ex-City couple who've now moved on but still very hgh standards. Mostly fish menu, though supplies come from Billingsgate. It's the seaside! But you often see vegetables delivered so fresh the mud is still on them. Great for lazy breakfasts. And don't forget, tucked away near the Jubilee Hall, a tiny tea shop with home made cakes, run by a group of sisters, lovely rose filled patio.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Cheery cherry L'amico Fritz - Opera Holland Park

Crusty old Confirmed Bachelor seduced by kid with fruit! Said Mascagni, "I want a simple libretto, something almost insubstantial, so the opera will be judged entirely on its music."  Verdi said the libretto of L'amico Fritz, now on at Opera Holland Park, was "the worst libretto I've ever seen". Certainly it has its charms, rather like the painting here by Georg Roessler (1861-1925)  Imagine, it's 20th century! The kid has cherries hanging from her ears like earrings. But on the other hands there's a lot to said for cheery cherry escapism. And as Mascagni hoped, the music does stand on its own. "The happy ending may never be in doubt, but what it lacks in dramatic tension is more than compensated for by the opera’s glorious, irresistible music. This romantic fable set in an idyllic rural world is just the thing to beguile one’s cares." Read more in Opera Today

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

New directions at the ROH

Many changes at the Royal Opera House. Elaine Padmore retires, and Kaspar Holten takes over. John Fulljames appointed Associate Director of Opera. Artistic and day to day management get sorted. And the big question : Who, after Tony Pappano leaves? Please read the article here in Opera Today.

Friends have seen Juan, Holten's film based on Don Giovanni - interesting reprorts! I'll post something soon.

Chinese Children Mighty Terror

Mighty Terror Trinidad Calypso singer of the 1950's. By no means the most un-PC song he does but yow, is this pungent. But that was life. There is/was a huge Chinese communiuty in the Caribbean and Central America, descended from indentured labourers in the 19th century - the notorious "coolie trade". As they were all single young men, they intermarried with the locals, settled and started creole communities which still exist today. Many moved back to China in the 1920's and 30's after anti-Chinese pogroms. Some were able to integrate into Chinese society, some had almost no connections to fall back on, so when the Japanese invaded, thousands died.  A long and complex story that needs to be told.

Anyway, here is Mighty Terror's take. He's with a woman called Imelda, who has been "Romancing with Chung Lee".  It's been 10 months since Mighty Terror kissed her but "that bald-faced women, she says, any child that gets born in my house I'm the Daddy".  Chorus :  "I'm so ashamed, I don't tell nobody, and my mother she wants to beat me, when Chinese children calling me daddy. I'm Black like jet, they  should be looking  like tar babies, (but) blue eyes and looking like Chinese....left, right, in front and behind me, Chinese children, calling me Daddy". 

"I can't  make no baby so chinky, it's very plain to see, some Chinese putting milk in the coffee......I have done with Imelda, I'm going with Tanya. I say when a negro pass with a negro, can't make no child other than a Congo.".  (Apparently "Congo" was a derogatory term used by Indian Caribbeans to describe Africans.) To our modern ears this might sound racist, but this song is a historical document that reflects what people thought 60 years ago.  In any case the song is really about a man being cheated by his partner. As he says "the results don't bring it back to me".  Now we appreciate mixed race hybrid vigour is a good thing. Hallelujah for all us creoles over the world. It's the world that's got to stop thinking in stereotypes, and recognize that there are millions who don't fit no mould.

Berg Lulu Suite Abbado Berlin Prohaska


Hear the whole concert on the Berliner Philharmoniker site !

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Barenboim Boulez, Wagner Liszt Staatskapelle Berlin South Bank

At first I thought, I can't write about this, I can't do it justice. But then I thought, that never stopped anyone else. So I stayed up late in the hope that Mark Berry at Boulezian would be writing and sure enough, he popped up. Worth waiting for! Why can't more music writing be as thoughtful as this? Here's another good link, to Edward Seckerson.  Less technical but perceptive and sincere. I read reviews to learn how people relate to what they hear, not simply to see who was where when.

Liszt is a composer I associate, rightly or wrongly, with flamboyant virtuosi who scream "Look at me!" when they play. So the prospect of Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez doing Liszt was hard to resist. Barenboim's playing was dignified with classical restraint, but not dull, emphasizing the solid structure beneath the flash. For a non-Lisztian like me, it was fascinating to hear how Boulez integrated the piano part with the orchestra. Giving the soloist more space made for greater classical balance, further complementing Barenboim's music-focussed approach. Different, but stimulating.

For Barenboim and Boulez, it's the music that counts, not celebrity. They challenge you musically. Thus Wagner's A Faust Overture. A cheeky choice, since Liszt's Faust Symphony is by far more sophisticated, Liszt wins hands down, there. In the hands of lesser conductors, Wagner's Faust makes little impact. Boulez, brings out the structure so at least we can hear how Wagner might have been thinking in terms of in his youth.

Boulez's Ring for Bayreuth was a revolution.While Patrice Chéreau's direction was striking at the time, Boulez's conducting still sounds so fresh that it still sounds innovative. You feel you're hearing Wagner come alive from the score, undimmed by performance traditions. In the opera, you have to connect to Siegfried, but in stand alone concert performance, you hear it "as music" on its own terms. Siegfried the character, though a hero, is also an immature prat, which is why Wagner offs him. Boulez is anything but stupid. This Siegfried Idyll was extraordinarily personal, and expressive. Perhaps it's because the orchestra knows Boulez so well, that the playing seemed much more intimate than it does normally.

An intimate, personal Siegrfried Idyll? But Boulez made it feel that way. It flowed, mightily, like the Rhine itself, with an inexorable sense of direction. This is what the river symbolizes and why it's such a powerful metaphor for the undercurrents in the Ring. Exquisitely defined details along the way,so beautiful that it's almost heartbreaking to know that they must inevitably pass away.

All of us go on a Rhine Journey of our own through life. Listening to Boulez and the Staatskapelle Berlin made me think what the music might "really" mean, as symphonic statement. Don't swallow the superficial clichés in the media, but go to source, like he does with music. This performance was overwhelming because it was so deep and intense. Only an automaton could fail to be moved. Boulez has had a remarkable life : perhaps he's thinking on where he's headed. But from the passion he puts into the coda, it feels spiritually affirmative and uplifting. Like his Mahler. Mass standing ovation, from an audience who'd most likely come for Barenboim, not Boulez.

Luke Bedford Seven Angels - first glimpse!

Luke Bedford's Seven Angels premieres in Birmingham on 18th June,then tours, and comes to the Linbury, London on 12 July. Anything Bedford writes is an event, because he's one of the best British composers around. He's especially good at writing for voice. Get to it if you can. It sounds intriguing. (My first review is just up HERE)
Opera Today carries a big interview with Bedford about Seven Angels. A scoop - nothing as detailed as this so far. Bedford talks about the opera and its music, and also about its genesis from concept to production. Writing for the stage is different to writing for the concert hall, so read how Bedford goes about doing it. Glyn Maxwell's libretto is so poetic it seems to sing off the page. Director is John Fulljames of The Opera Group. "He has a deep and sensitive understanding of what I'm trying to do", says Bedford.

Since no-one but those involved has yet heard Seven Angels, the Opera Today article is good background. Amazing story..Click on the link, which leads to other links about the production, The Opera Group, BCMG and the Royal Opera House. Below is a a clip courtesy of The Opera group. (Luke Bedford's photo copyright Ben Ealovega)

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Aldeburgh Rattle CBSO Mahler Messiaen

This year's Gala opening evening at Aldeburgh sold out to top, top level Friends within moments. Thousands wanted to hear Simon and Mrs Rattle back with the CBSO, his old band, Aldeburgh regulars for many years.  The choice of  programme was daunting : Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde after Messiaen's Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum. Could any contrast be more extreme? And in a small auditorium like the Maltings at Snape ?

Messiaen dreamed that Et expecto resurrectionum mortuorum could be performed in the mountains of the French Alps, booming across vast valleys. It's probably the most monumental piece in the whole repertoire and can even raise the roof at the Royal Albert Hall. At Snape, it's a wonder Health & Safety didn't intervene. Anyone with migraine or inner ear problems is probably still suffering. 

I've been writing about Messiaen and about Et expecto resurrectionum mortuorum  for years, so please look up this link HERE which leads to other links, so you can keep exploring. Rattle conducted a good Messaien Et exspecto at the Barbican earlier this year, but at Snape sound considerations did make a difference, which you can even hear on the BBC broadcast.

More interesting was Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde.  When Magdalena Kožená first started singing Mahler, she didn't seem like a typical Mahler mezzo. On the other hand stereotype delimits.Nothing in the rule book demands dark-hued sobriety. Indeed, as Claudio Abbado showed in Berlin, translucent, shining textures emphasize the uplift in the music. There Anne Sofie von Otter's singing was pure and deeply committed. Diva doesn't sit well in a piece whose whole message is transcendance over worldly pettiness. Kožená's voice is prettier than von Otter's but she hasn't quite the same fierce sense of character. On the other hand, it was clear from this performance that she wasn't herself: her chest sounded constricted. Pacing herself carefully to conserve her reserves, she couldn't let go as she would probably have done in better circumstances. 

Michael Schade has sung the tenor part in Das Lied von der Erde many times: nothing spectacular but also nothing wrong, either. Fair enough, considering that this was the gala opening of a non-Mahler festival and no-one was nit picking. Rattle and the CBSO were the draw and fans would not have been disappointed.

Aldeburgh Britten Rape of Lucretia Kirchschlager

Limited internet access just yet so I'll be brief,  but major news!  Last night at Aldeburgh, Benjamin Britten's Rape of Lucretia. Astounding performance, conducted by Oliver Knussen who understands Britten's deep inner quirkiness. Britten was never "Establishment". Snape is surrounded by reed beds. An outside observer might assume that they look orderly and tame, like soft grasses. But venture in and nothing is as it seems. Reeds are tough, they're used for building. They grow in marsh which is neither land nor water. Myriad wildlife - birds, insects, animals you won't find elsewhere. And through the reed beds at Snape continue on through the  whole delta to Aldeburgh and beyond.

So too with Britten. He's spikier, tougher, rougher than one might think, and the undercurrents in his work flow in murky, mysterious ways.  The orchestra was the Aldeburgh Festival Ensemble, thirteen hand-picked musicians,  top players from big-name orchestras.  Knussen's quirky too, in a different way, but that helps him access the more disturbing currents in Britten that perhaps reveal more about his art.  Knussen  highlights the dark murmurings, the shimmering harp and violins.  Vocal parts merge with orchestral. Britten opera isn't like conventional opera,  the dramatis personae grow from the music, rather than from the narrative as such. Hence the Male and Female Chorus, which comment, fill in background, and expresses what the characters cannot say. Britten's drama isn't naturalistic, but stylized. It isn't simply because Britten's writing quasi-Greek (Early Roman) narrative.

This emotional opaqueness is very much Britten's personal signature. As a man and as an artist, he shielded his deepest sensitivities. Clubbable he wasn't. Thank goodness! But that is also why The Rape of Lucretia is dismissed by those who don't realy understand Britten's work.  He was fascinated by early forms of music, seeking means oif expression that weren't 19th century verismo. Hence Midsummers Nights Dream and Gloriana, for example where form itself becomes integral to meaning. Britten uses structure as an emotional cloaking device. Penetrate the code, as Knussen does, and The Rape of Lucretia makes even more sense. Lucretia  is yet another Britten innocent, destroyed by the venality of the public world. This rape isn't erotic but a weapon of political aggression.

Ian Bostridge and Susan Gritton sang the Male and Female choruses. Both excellent, but Bostridge was outstanding. He can be very variable, but when he's inspired like this, he's transformed.  No-one , not even Peter Pears, intuits Britten's inner conflicts like Bostridge does.  His voice seems to hover, suggesting cryptic nuances beneath the surface. His voice curls and twists, slithering along the arch, stylized lines, so the sharp, crisp consonants cut into the legato. Diction as drama. This duality expresses the quirkiness of Britten's way of disguising emotion behind studied reserve.

Britten's female characters aren't often particularly feminine, but Angelika Kirchschlager brings out Lucretia's vulnerability so well that the horror of what happens to her is heart-rending. Kathleen Ferrier's Lucretia created the mould, but Ferrier's personal vulnerabilities were never far from the surface. She was statuesque but not a statue. Kirchschlager doesn't look quite so imposing, but she expresses her emotional strength with a combination of gentleness and firm modulation.  She feels like a real woman, in contrast with the male-oriented power politics of the world around her. Kirchschlager's Lucretia is an uncommonly prescient understanding of Britten's psyche.

Non-staging concentrates minds on the music, which in Britten is so much a part of the drama that it's clear why he didn't worry too much about writing symphonies per se. In his opera, the orchestra functions as part of the narrative. Male, female and orchestral choruses, one might say.  Excellently focussed,  Claire Booth in fine form as Lucia; Hilary Summers not at her best, but still better than many.  Christopher Purves sang Collatinus, Benjamin Russell Junius and Peter Coleman-Wright Tarquinius. When Christopher Maltman did the role ten years ago, he did it naked. Marvellous sexual malevolence, like a wild animal.  Coleman-Wright instead develops Tarquinius's inner animal, for his Etruscan origins make him an outsider in the competitive, macho world of new Rome.

This production moves on the Holland Festival in Amsterdam next week, and then on to the Grand Théatre de Luxembourg. It was also as being recorded, so let's hope it's released on CD, as well as the broadcast on Radio 3.  This performance is a landmark in Britten interpretation, so it needs to be heard.  Longer review to come when I can use 2 windows at once.
PS !!! A reader just told me that there is a very rare recording on Amazon - Britten's Rape of Lucrezia Borgia ! Sure enough, click on the link. Imagine.....

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Henze's Phaedra in Philadelphia

Hans Werner Henze's Phaedra makes it to the US, where he was banned in the 60's for his left wing ideas. As far as Henze was concerned, he didn't care. In 1968 he was so traumatized by an event still shrouded in mystery today, that he was unable to compose for a long time. Henze's intergrity has been vindicated.  After his break, his music returned with new vigour. Phaedra, coming decades later, after another period of trauma, is a declaration of what henze stands for and believes in most deeply.

Here is a link to a review of Henze's Phaedra in a new production by the Opera Company of Philadelphia. It "may well be the most important and ambitious new work presented by any American company this season". Here's the review from the Wall Street Journal.  Most perceptive of all, though is David Patrick Steanes in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Too often, reviewers assume it's the work, not themselves, that fails if they don't get all of it at once. Steanes knows that Phaedra isn't an opera that can easily be fully taken in on one hearing, and without background.

Henze is a very prolific composer, but even among his many excellent works, Phaedra is a masterpiece.  It's intensely powerful and passsionate - a protest against dishonesty, domesticity and death. Indeed, it's hard to take in completely on a single hearing, especially as Henze's embedded many references to other works, his own and those of composers he's admired, like Benjamin Britten. Please see my article on the similarities between Britten's Phaedra and Henze's Phaedra and the critical, very deliberate differences. Phaedra is like a statement of Henze's entire life philosophy. Integrity, restated with passion at a critical time in his life. It's an amazing work, that I think grows with time and experience.

The Philadelphia production seems quite straightforward, which is fine. The Berlin production, which I attended, was astounding, staging and music working together perfectly. Incredibly perceptive and imaginative, like the opera itself. If I hadn't seen the Berlin staging with its magical refracted mirrors reflecting the orchestra and the singers so the lines between reality and image kept switching – reflection, refraction,  illusion, just like the ideas in the music – I don't think I'd have got into the opera so quickly. It was the premiere after all, no-one had any idea what to expect. It was one of the great experiences of my life. With all respect to Philadelphia, it's unlikely that it was as white-hot as the Berlin cast and orchestra. Again, not a problem, as iut's a start. "You ain't seen nothing yet" as the song goes.

Read about the Berlin premiere  HERE. How lucky I was to catch the same cast and orchestra in the concert performance at the Barbican a while later. Read HERE. Second time round, the impact was even more profound. Henze's Phaedra is so deep that the more you get into it, the more wonders it reveals. So here is a really useful link to Chester Novello, the publishers, from whom you can get the score. Good synopsis.

Friday, 10 June 2011

John Fulljames - why he's Good News for ROH

Exciting  news that John Fulljames has been appointed Associate Director for Opera at the Royal Opera House. He'll be working with Kaspar Holten who becomes Director from September 2011.  Fulljames is a daring, but inspired choice. This is significant news because it might mean a shift towards a more creative approach to opera.

As Anthony Pappano says in the press release, "we're constantly striving to present the very best on our stages". What that may translate to, who knows? But it's better than endless revivals of safe repertoire aimed at the West End market rather than at opera aficionados. I've wriiten about Holten before. Read here about his Copenhagen Ring which is interesting enough to stimulate Wagnerites and accessible enough to engage new audiences. A friernd has also written me about his movie Juan, based on Don Giovanni - more about that soon ! (there's a video clip on this site already, from March).  Fulljames is a daring, brilliant choice because he's close to cutting edge but isn't self indulgent. Look at the photo (Courtesy Johan Persson, BCMG).  Fulljames is looking at the singers while following a score !  

Think on that. In theory, everyone's supposed to work from the score. In practice we get abominations like Monty Python Faust. Fulljames got a First in Physics at Cambridge but all along has also been a musician. He even sang, for a while, so he understands voice. Each production he's made grows from understanding what's unique in whatever opera he's staging. This makes his work so stimulating because he seems to hear things with fresh ears. I adored his George Benjamin Into the Little Hill  last year. Read in detail about it at Aldeburgh and at the Linbury, ROH. Quite detailed description but read it to see why Fulljames's work is such a unique fusion of musical and visual expression. Berlow is a photo of Fulljames and Claire Booth preparing Into the Little Hill.(Courtesy BCMG, Katie Leedale) Again, the score is the star!

Fulljames is currently working on Luke Bedford's new opera Seven Angels with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and the Opera Group.  It's Bedford's first opera, eagerly anticiapted because he's perhaps the brightest young hope in British music, and one with a natural gift for writing for voice. Writing for stage is different to writing for the concert hall, so Bedford worked right from the start with Glyn Maxwell the poet. The text is ravishing, and so is what I've heard of the music. BE THERE. Bedford also worked with Fulljames and artist Takamine Tadasu almost from the onset, so the production grows organically from the music. "He has a deep and sensitive understanding of what I'm trying to do", says Bedford.

Fulljames's recent productions for The Opera Group include George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill, Kurt Weill’s Street Scene, Jonathan Dove’s The Enchanted Pig and Galt MacDermot's Human Comedy (all three with the Young Vic), Elena Langer's The Lion's Face, Varjak Paw, The Shops, Blond Eckbert and Shostakovich The Nose. Street Scene recently won the “Best Musical” award at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards. Recent productions elsewhere include The Excursions of Mr Broucek, Romeo et Juliette and Hansel and Gretel (Opera North), Gianni Schicchi, Zemlinsky Florentine Tragedy and Mavra (Greek National Opera), Von Heute auf Morgen (Lyon) Tobias and the Angel (Young Vic), Nabucco (Opera Holland Park). In 2008, John directed Rimsky-Korsakov’s Snegurochka for Wexford Festival which opened the new opera house in Wexford, Ireland. John’s previous productions in Ireland were Susannah (Wexford) and The Emperor of Atlantis (OTC) both of which won the Best Opera Production Award at the Irish Theatre Awards. He's worked with many of the great directors in Europe and even directed The Ring in Bilbao and Seville.

More detail to follow in an article in Opera Today.

The secret history of Ghana Freedom revealed.


Ghana Freedom is a cult song, known to most Ghanaians under the age of 60 through the recording by E T Mensah made for Ghana's independence in 1957. The tune is irrepressible, but the story behind it is even more irrepressible than most  realize. This is a scoop for African history!  In 1977, one of the regular readers of this blog unearthed papers in Colonial Office Archive to explain the mystery.

He found a clipping from The Morning Telegraph, a Sekondi newspaper, dated 5 February 1952, which states "As an expression of solidarity between Africans of the Gold Coast and people of African descent in the West Indies, Trinidad calypso singers, headed by George Browne have composed a calypso called Freedom for Africa. The new dance song is dedicated to the Honourable Dr Kwame Nkrumah, Prime Minister and Chairman of the Convention People's Party, popularly known as the CPP" ..... "the background music is provided by African drums  played by two Gold Coast Natives, Alfred Payne of Accra and Kofi Mensah of Cape Coast. The calypso has an attractive tune and should be popular among dancers as well as among supporters of the CPP". Here are four of the eight verses::

From his Ussherfort Cell, where they bolted the doors so well,
Nkrumah made his clarion call, and the people voted him one and all.

Chorus : Freedom, freedom is in the land, Friends, let us shout, Long live the CPP! Which now controls Africa's destiny. 

They called us all the verandah boys, they thought we were just a bunch of toys, But we won the right to vote at midnight hour, came out of jail and took power.

With Appiah  the ambassador, Casely Hayford the barrister, 
these two gentlemen did quite well, they got us out of the jailhouse cell.

The British MP Gammans was rude, by his dog in the mangerish attitude, 
But like the ostrich we know that man can go bury his head in the sand

Apparently several thousand records of the song were to be made and shipped to Africa, but the Colonial Office probably wasn't pleased. In those days, The Crown Agents held a monopoly of all government business and locals weren't supposed to act independently. So if a colony grew cotton, it had to buy cotton textiles from Manchester, via the CA.  In a minute preserved in CO554/595 dated 5th January 1952, officials are discussing the activities of men like "Mr Appiah of WASU" (Joe Appiah of the West African Students Union).  Making mass copies of a recording which criticized the government would not go down well. No-one really knows what happened to the first pressing of Ghana Freedom, but quiet words may have been said in London, where the master tapes were. Colonialism was sinister and pernicious, even though there were many good idealists, like Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke and Stafford Cripps whose daughter Peggy married Appiah. Their son Kwame Anthony Appiah is professor of philosophy at Princeton.

The recording is "lost" as far as can be ascertained. Maybe someone has a copy somewhere? George Browne, aka Young Tiger, was also quite a character- here's his obit.  E T Mensah, who made the recording that filled the gap left by Young Tiger's song, is even more fascinating. He was a qualified pharmacist who worked for the government by day and had a huge career in hilife music at night. Plenty more on this site about calypso, Ghana, Africa and political song and Weimar cabaret.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Major Broadcast of the Ring from Paris

Starting Thursday 9th June on BBC Radio 3 (1400 slot but available online 7 days) a complete Ring Cycle over the next month. It's from Paris National Opera, conductor Phillipe Jordan.  This should be interesting as Jordan (son of Armin] has a sharp, distinctive style. Of his Wagner I've only heard Tristan und Isolde from ages ago when he was still in Switzerland. Production awful, uneven singing but good orchestra.
Look up the BBC site for details of Das Rheingold. Falk Struckmann is Wotan, Kim Begley is Loge and Sophie Koch is Fricka, Pity it's not video as this Mime is Outrageous Wolfgang! 

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Puccini Tosca Royal Opera House June not July

Quick note about Tosca at the Royal Opera House last night. First thoughts below. But please see HERE for the full review.

First thoughts :
It's a revival of the Jonathan Kent production of 2006 which originally has at various stages starred Bryn Terfel, Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann. How does it stand up without mega mega stars? Pleasant enough, but wait for the mega mega star repeat together in two performances on 14th and 17th July, which is being filmed for broadcast.

That said, Martina Serafin's Tosca delighted, and Juha Uusitalo's Scarpia was better than expected. He's done the role many times, it's one of his signature roles. The confidence showed, as he showed an interesting, almost sympathetic side of Scarpia. Toscas are usually so overwhelmingly diva that you don't really take in the hysterical, megalomaniac side of her personality. She's a bit of a fantasist. Scarpia is a realist, he does realpolitik. Maybe Tosca's attractive because she is a challenge. Anyway, the joke is on both of them.  Generally, Uusitalo hasn't overwhelmed me in the past, but here he was convincing enough.

Contrary to popular opinion, Scarpia doesn't have to be a boorish buffoon.  He's powerful because he's risen by stealth. He's the opposite of Tosca who wears her heart on her sleeve. In connection with the 2007 revival of this production, I interviewed Paolo Gavanelli about interpreting the role. He had plenty of perceptive things to say. Please use the search box on this blog search on Gavanelli Scarpia.

Sheer volume goes a long way in the potboiler that is Tosca, and audiences come to be blown away by the tunes, climaxes and very loud singing.  Had Verdi written Tosca, things might be different, but Puccini works fine when he's over the top. Serafin's Tosca wasn't refined or particularly deep psychologically. You can hear the orchestra welling up after the attempted rape so you know something shocking is about to happen. But when Serafin stabs Uusitalo, it's so polite and underwhelming that she might as well have been adjusting his tie. If he had one, that is.  Generally very buttoned up performance, dutifully presented.  Even Anthony Pappano seemed on formal best behaviour.  Puccini and Verdi are composers Pappano can do extremely well.  Except here. The orchestra were playing the right notes nicely, but the music didn't catch fire. Maybe this was a rehearsal for July, when chances are that Pappano will really show what he can do when he's fully charged and inspired.

Marcello Giordano started off as if this was a rehearsal, too, and later had some good moments. Then in the all-important Act 3 arias, his voice cracked badly. Volume at the expense of feeling and modulation. not a good idea. He's done this part inn this production before, so maybe he thought he had it pat. He didn't.  I winced, but most of the audience didn't seem to mind.  Tosca is wonderful theatre, so if the singing goes awry, it's still a good enough night out.

One unexpected bonus of this performance was that it was an opportunity to pay much more attention to the set. Can't do that when Terfel, Gheorghiu and Kaufmann are about. Although the designs (Paul Brown) are  only five years old, the first two acts seem dated already. They'll pass muster for a few years yet and look good on film. The Third Act is brilliant, though. The music gets to work its sinister magic without distraction. Yet the set's contributing, too. The soldiers wear colourful hats - there's a name for them which I can't remember. But soldiers kill.  Fancy hats and costumes are part of the theatre of power. So Jonathan Kent (original director) has a man slowly getting dressed, alone. First, he's a man in his underwear.  On goes the uniform and he's a killing machine.

Scarpia conned Tosca into thinking she could save Cavaradossi. Tosca's deluded because killing Scarpia will unleash mayhem even if Cavaradossi does escape. Poor Cavaradossi hasn't a chance either way. Tosca ends up off the wall, in more ways than one. The set in this final act is eloquent, because it depicts the stark nightmare of the situation, shrouded in murky darkness.

Currently I don't have proper internet access, but a full review will shortly appear in Opera Today.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Rossini Maometto Secondo

Another Rossini Turk in Italy! Rossini Maometto Secondo, or Mehmet II (1432-1481) Fatih Sultan of the Ottomans, who took Constantinople, and ended the Byzantine Empire. Next ambitious plan: to conquer Rome, thereby linking Europe and Asia under Islam. Mega geopolitics. Venice was the front line because Venetians traded throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. For Venetians, Turks posed a genuine threat to survival. This Turk was no buffo.

Perhaps that's why Rossini's Maometto Secondo flopped in Naples in 1820 but was a hit in Venice in 1822. Although the opera fell out of the repertoire, it's come back into favour now that European and Islamic nations reassess their relationship.  Rossini with political depth? Surprisingly, yes, for he treats his characters as individuals rather than cardboard stereotypes. Paolo Erisso is chief of the Venetian outpost at Negroponte in Greece. It's besieged and finally taken by the Turks. Oddly enough, Erisso's daughter, Anna, has a secret lover whose identity she doesn't know. Guess who? Maometto, himself, whom she recognizes when the defeated Venetians are rounded up. Maometto loves Anna so much that he pardons Erisso and gives Anna his official seal to keep her safe when he has to go back into battle. Anna is torn between love and duty. He father chides her and she obeys by marrying Calbo, a Venetian nobleman, and uses the safe conduct pass to let the Venetians escape. News comes that Maometto's lost the second battle, and Erisso's saved the city, but somehow Maometto appears in her chambers, and she kills herself.

Order is restored, but in the process we glimpse another type of Turk,. In real life, the Ottomans consolidated their Empire by intermarriage - Maometto was part-Greek - so at the time, theirs was a more sophisticated authority model.  For 19th century audiences, Turks were supposed to be the enemy, so the idea of Maometto as lover must have caused frisson.

There are several recordings, of different versions of the opera, but I'm fascinated by the second  DVD version, filmed live in 2005 at the Teatro La Fenice di Venezia. In this version, emphasis is entirely on the drama in the music itself. The set is beautiful, but pure and spartan. Negroponte is Frontier Venice, not the metropolis itself. Simple backdrop of ruined church, which expresses the idea of Negroponte as a city on the edge, which could fall either way in the struggle of empires around it.  The Venetians are dressed in shades of white and grey. Anna herself (Carmen Giannatasio) is so pale she's unnatural, which stresses her position as the pivot between two cultures. Maometto (Lorenzo Regazzo) and his men are dressed in rusts and scarlet. Not aggressive, so much as offering a red-blooded alternative to the pallid Venetian world.

Minimal as this staging is, it's elegant and reflects the spirit of the plot and the music. The dilemma Anna faces is stark and she faces it with clear-sighted dignity. This comes though in the music too. It's melodious, but simple and unfussy. The long orchestral overture and interludes are sharply structured, a nice balance between lyrical and monumental. The vocal lines are direct, embellishments supporting character rather than for display's sake. In this version, some of the longer recitatives have been cut, but the action flows so naturally that their omission might be of greater interest to pedants than to those who enjoy music as drama.  Seldom have I enjoyed a staging as much as this, which, in its understated way, absolutely enhances the singing and playing.  The director and designer is Pier Luigi Pizzi, whose interest in baroque stylization comes through clearly.

The conductor is Claudio Scimone. Performances are good though not earth shattering, which isn't a demerit, in a drama whose very point is the human side of cosmic clashes. Regazzo's Maometto could be more forceful, and Maxim Mironov's Erisso looks and sounds too young. Carmen Gianattasio's Anna is nicely even. Anna Rita Gemmabella's femininity cannot be suppressed, so her Calbo doesn't convince. But the balance is good and the ensemble passages nicely done, so much so that when the main parts adventure into vocal flourish, they sound completely sincere. Rossini isn't Verdi, and 1822  was closer to Mozart and Haydn in spirit than to the furies of late 19th century maximalism. I'd love to hear Rossini Maometto Secondo again, in another staging that makes the most of its fine qualities.