Monday 30 June 2014

Salonen Mahler 8 - not a Symphony of a Thousand

Mahler's Symphony no 8 was given its title "The Symphony of a Thousand" by a promoter who wanted to attract the kind of crowd who like blockbusters, but don't necessarily care much about music. Judging from the delirious applause at last night's Royal Festival Hall concert, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, that kind of audience is all too common these days, too.

The Mahler anniversary year murdered Mahler. Everyone seemed to jump on the bandwagon. Shameful exploitation, like "The People's Mahler", cynical commercialism, sloppy clichés instead of scholarship.  The cause of Mahler was set back 50 years just as the composer was at last being understood with more sophisticated depth.  I will not blame Esa-Pekka Salonen for this brutishness. He conducted an excellent Mahler Symphony no 3 a few years ago that emphasized the open-air summery optimism in the symphony: definitely a valid insight. Salonen also conducted an astute Mahler 7th (read more here). He's not by instinct an idiomatic Mahler conductor, but he's worth listening to.  I should however have reckoned with "South Bank Mahler" created for first-time listeners, their enthusiasm whipped up by the excesses of Mahler Year. But there is infinitely more to Mahler than loud and brash.

"Veni, veni creator spiritus". This opening is wonderfully theatrical, exploding as it does from near silence. On the other hand this explosion was so violent that it seemed more like an aggressive call to arms. If the spirit of creativity is personal, and private, it would wither in this blast. And so the choruses continued, forceful and strident, in the manner of Victorian massed choruses, for which quantity mattered more than quality. Salonen's approach was closer to Mahler the man of the 20th century, more questioning and more agile. His tempi were fleet, and apart from some sad blips from the trombones, the Philharmonia responded with alacrity. Sometimes you can visualize  banners flying in the wind, in the tempestuous first part of this symphony: Mahler seems almost giddy with expectation and creative verve. The choruses, however, seemed to prefer to march at their own pace.

Mahler 8 employs a lot of singers but fundamentally it's a symphony rather than a choral work per se. The best Mahler 8th I've ever heard was at the Philharmonie in Berlin, which is roughly comparable in size to the RFH. I've even heard it in an 8,000 seat velodrome in Paris, better suited to rock concerts than to symphonies, and that worked well, too. Large choral pieces do work well in the Royal Festival Hall, so it wasn't a matter of performance space but performance.

Significantly, there's a pause for silence between the two parts of this symphony; that alone should be a cause for reflection. The second part begins with a long, ruminative section where the orchestra sings, not the voices.  This part of the symphony refers to the final scene in Faust, where Faust is raised to Heaven. Goethe places the scene in a bizarre landscape inhabited by anchorites, complete with tame lions who pace about stumm-freundlich (placid and peacefully)..Here, Salonen and the Philharmonia achieved much better results. Solo instruments interacted well with larger groupings : particularly lyrical flutes and high winds, suggesting purity and upward flight.

"So far I have employed words and the human voice to express symphonically only with immense breadth", said Mahler of this symphony, "But here the voice is is also an instrument.... used not only as sound but as the bearer of poetic thoughts."  

These words are important for interpretation, though Mahler 8 can support many interpretations, even Bělohlávek's completely unidiomatic but genially Bohemian-flavoured Proms performance. But the voices have to connect to the music.  In this performance, the soloists stood at each end of the platform, between the orchestra and the choruses, probably because there isn't much space on the RFH platform to squeeze them anywhere else.  Unfortunately that meant that the soloists had to shout to be heard.  Roland Wood usually has good pitch and a voice which projects well on stage, but here his Pater Ecstaticus was untypically rough.  Elizabeth Llewellyn, fortunately, sang a lovely Una Poenitentium /Gretchen.  Garlanded by harpists, her singing was balm. Judith Howarth, replacing Elisabeth Meister, sang a well-balanced Magna Peccatrix.  From up in a box, Lucy Crowe's voice created a luminous Mater Glorioisa. The Tiffin Boys Choir showed how refreshing choral singing can be when it's connected to music.

Saturday 28 June 2014

Knussen Aldeburgh - Carter, Webern - and Mendelssohn ?

Mendelssohn Symphony No 1, with Elliott Carter's Instances for chamber orchestra (2012), written shortly before his death aged 103. Trust Oliver Knussen to come up with a programme that blends Mendelssohn, Dallapiccola, Carter, Webern and Ligeti, conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe at the Maltings, Snape, Aldeburgh, part of this year's Aldeburgh Music Festival. Knussen's programmes are intriguing, always planned with musical nous and intelligence.

At first, I was shocked. Mendelssohn played with exuberance that veered close to wildness? Definitely not the kind of over-processed, over-manicured performance that puts too many  people off Mendelssohn. Instead Knussen made us think of Mendelssohn as audacious and free-spirited. Our perceptions are shaped by received wisdom, tainted by Wagnerian prejudice asnd boring, safe performasnce practice. Knussen might shock, but boring he never is.

Mendelssohn and Elliott Carter have a lot more in common than one might expect. Geniality and good humoured wit, for example, and an appreciation for stylish bon mot. Carter's Instances for chamber orchestra is an eight-minute piece for a medium-sized orchestra. In the first six minutes "a seemingly random sequence of sonorities and figures are are playfully flung at the listener", to quote Bayan Northcott, who writes serious programme notes, the kind that deserve to be quoted and remembered, infinitely more rewarding than the superficial pap that programme notes have beome (other than at Aldeburgh),  ".... culminating in a surging tutti, suddenly broken off. At this point a slower chorale-like texture previously adumbrated by  the brass, is taken up mainly by the strings in a more sustained and touchingly valedictory coda".  Then a deliberate pause, and a two minute "second movement" asserts itself, reiterating the ideas in the first movement with joyous, epigramatic concision.  As so often with Carter's later work, the piece seems intimate, as if the players were conversing, delighting in exchange.

Hearing Anton Webern's Symphony Op 21 (1928) after Elliott Carter made me realize how much Carter and Webern have in common, too. Two distinct movements within ten minutes, and an orchestra pared down to basics. The first movement "Ruhig, schreitend" employs an "Exposition comprising an intricate double canon, But the lines are so fragmented and criss-crossed " that they seem processional.  The double canon repeats  "but with the note values so altered, and the dynamics intensified, it sounds quite different", adds Northcott. The second movement "Variationen" develops the theme yet again, in even more distilled purity, ending elusively, as if the symphony, such as it is, will play out in the imagination.

A listener request, phoned in by another composer! Knussen has a thing for repeating shorter works in a concert. This time, he repeated the second movement of Webern's Symphony, so we could further savour its elusive, tantalizing promise.

Ligeti's Melodien for orchestra (1971) concluded the programme. Spastic pizzicato suggesting kinetic, oddly organic flickerings, glimpses of half-hidden images barely grasped in the undergrowth.  Carter, Webern and Ligeti forming a trinity  in which the idea of a symphony take new fiorm.  Earlier in the programme, Knussen followed Mendelssohn  with Luigi Dallapiccola's An Mathilde, a cantata based on three Heine poems, Den Strauss, den mir Mathilde band,  Gedächtnisfeier, and An die Engel. The soloist was Katrien Baerts. An interesting piece, which should be heard more, but this concert favoured the orchestra rather than voice and orchestra.

Tonight, Klangforum Wien presents two equally fascinating concerts under Ilan Volkov, the late night concert featuring Tristan Murail's Winter Fragments (2000) and Gérard Grisey's Vortex Temporum I, II and iii (1994-6) Alas, I can't be there but you can read about the pieces HERE and HERE. Klangforum Wien is one of the finest new music ensembles of its kind, so I hope the concert is recorded.

Leoš Janáček : The Cunning Little Vixen, Garsington Opera

"Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it. In a letter to Kamila Stösslová dated the 10th of February that year he writes wistfully “I have begun writing The Cunning Little Vixen. A merry thing with a sad end: I am taking up a place at that sad end myself ……and I so belong there”."

Douglas Cooksey enjoys The Cunning Little Vixen at Garsington Opera at Wormsley. Read the Full review HERE in Opera Today

Interesting aside : How does Oliver Knussen's Higgelty Piggelty Pop ! compare to The Cunning Little Vixen ? Both operas are whimsical, but both pack a punch. Red in Tooth and Claw? Claire Booth and Lucy Schaufer star in both. Read more about Knussen's Higgelty Piggelty Pop! HERE.

Photo: Clive Barda, Garsington Opera at Wormsley.

Thursday 26 June 2014

Ariadne auf Naxos - Royal Opera House

Karita Mattila's presence guaranteed success for Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos at the Royal Opera House. Strauss was a pragmatic man of the theatre, who knew how a Big Name could win audiences. Mattila delivered. Her presence was commanding - every inch the glamour queen the primadonna is meant to be. She had the grand gestures and right amount of theatrical excess. But Ariadne auf Naxos isn't about ancient Greece. It's an opera about an opera, or rather,  as the Composer discovers, about the un-making of an opera. 

The Composer  (Ruxandra Donose) wants to write  about Ariadne, abandoned on an island. Strauss builds in references to Mozart, making wry jokes on the nature of art. If the Composer were really good he wouldn't be imitating someone else.  The Composer disappears after the Prologue, but Mozart lingers eternal. One of the Dryads, Ariadne's handmaidens, is costumed as Mozart. Appropriately, this Dryad is Echo (Kiandra Howarth). But even Mozart can't save things, as the show is taking place in the house of "the richest man in Vienna". His Major Domo (Christopher Quest) clashes with the Music Master (Thomas Allen). The man with the money wants fireworks and comedians and what he wants will happen.

This production, directed by Christof Loy, with designs by Herbert Murauer, emphasizes the duality in the opera. "Upstairs" in the Prologue is elegant but empty, and soon dispensed with. Loy stresses the individuality of each singer, so their purpose can be understood even by those in the audience who aren't familiar with the opera.  This further underlines the concept of multiple realities so fundamental to this opera.  That is the magic of theatre: it's not literal reality. Singers become supernatural maidens, and comic rogues become Commedia dell'arte archetypes. But Ariadne, too,  lives in a strange, unnatural reality . She's been on Naxos since Theseus dumped her there after giving her a kiss to steal the secret of the Minotaur. For years, she's lived in a cave driven half mad by her dreams of love.  It's Bacchus (Roberto Sacca) who brings her deliverance.  And Bacchus, the god of wine, brings intoxication, the illusion of escape.

Visually, the second act glows with jewel colours, emerald and sapphire, lit with details of gold and candlelight. The room is lined with late baroque wallpaper depicting Arcadian scenes, rich European fantasies of wilderness. Because we're seduced by this luxury and beauty, the ultimate tragedy hits even harder.  Ariadne isn't going to find happiness. The future lies with Zerbinetta (Jane Archibald)  Ariadne obsesses about death and misery. Zerbinetta gets on (and gets off), exuberantly, full of vigour and life. Strauss is writing about the making of theatre, but also commenting on music.  Looking backward is all very well, but the nature of true art is originality and creative renewal.

Karita Mattila's Ariadne is courageous. Mattila throws out her notes in the second act with bravado,  diva reborn. but Strauss created the part for an older singer, thoughtfully limiting vocal extremes to flatter voices that are still loved, and function well enough, even if they aren't quite at their peak. Zerbinetta's music, on the other hand, races up and down the scale, demanding great technique and coloratura display  Archibald's  "Grossmächtigen Prinzessin" was done with vigorous zest. Although she doesn't have the finesse of some of the great singers who have done this role, her vivacity compensates. Ariadne  may be comforted by the words, but how discomforting the singing must be for any older singer.

Ruxandra Donose sang a remarkably convincing Composer. It was hard to recognize her costumed as a man, but the distinctive timbre of her voice was unmistakable. What a pity Strauss dismisses the part: Donose makes the composer sound interesting as a person. Very strong singing in the other parts, enhanced by a staging that emphasizes their place in the opera. Markus Werba's Harlequin was superb,, as energetic and as witty as Archibald's Zerbinetta, which is quite saying something. Excellent ensemble work : Werba, Jeremy White, Wynne Evans and Paul Schweinester interacted  with precision, moving as a unit even when they weren't close together. That's good movement direction (Beate Vollack).

Antonio Pappano has been working flat out this week with Manon Lescaut (read my review here). He must have the stamina of a superman. I could have used more "fireworks" at the cataclysmic end of the Prologue. Pappano is a genius Puccini conductor, but he gets the lively gaiety in Strauss quite well.

One big plus : no ritual booing. Booing is a form of intimidation.  Booers have no right to inflict their opinions on others.  Almost inevitably booers don't really know the score and don't have the ability to take on board the simple fact that other people might be allowed different opinions. Booing is vulgar and coercive, a form of expression used by those too ill bred and ill informed to respect anyone other than themselves. Perhaps the penny has dropped that booing inhibits creativity and is fundamentally anti-art. 

Brno salutes Janáček with beer

Starobrno Beweries salutes the Star of Brno, Leoš Janáček, whose 160th birthday is next week. Free beer on a specially-commissioned train ! No idea if they're doing sausages as well.  Just the sort of earthy celebration Janáček would have enjoyed, I think. Alas I can't be there but I'll raise a tankard, too

Wednesday 25 June 2014

Discovering the Gramophone

Chinese villagers near Shanghai, gathered around a strange contraption, from which sounds emerge. They've all be lined up by the photographer, John Sullivan (born Bristol 1885). Lovely shot! This was taken in 1910, when gramophones became (relatively) common.  Below a photo of a shop in Hong Kong from the same period which advertises the latest "No Horn Gramophones"

Monday 23 June 2014

Broadcast Alerts - June July

Thank you, as always, to the intrepid Andrzej !

SPECIAL APPEAL TO EUROPEAN READERS ESPECIALLY In HUNGARY !!!! Please send details of transmissions the rest of us might miss.. Piotr Beczala is appearing on Hungarian TV in September  please help !

  13 Jul 2014    23.20    Dialogues des Carmelites PARIS Arte TV

    14 Jul 2014   Bastille Day Concert at the Champs de Mars (with JDFlorez) Paris France 2HD

  14 Jul 2014    19.15  Maria Stuarda ROH BBC Radio 3

  16 Jul 2014  19.00   Ariadne auf Naxos ROH  BBC Radio 3

  19 Jul 2014  Tosca Hannover NDR HDTV

  27 Jul 2014  17.00    L'Orfeo (with Christian Gerhaher)  Munich Internet Stream
  28 Jul 2014  20.50    La forza del destino  Munich Arte HD

Friday 20 June 2014

Francesconi Quartett Linbury Royal Opera House

Luca Francesconi's Quartett has at last made it to Britain. Francesconi is hardly obscure. His music has long been championed by Irvine Arditti and the Arditti Quartet , and is regularly heard in European new music circles. There's even a Francesconi premiere at this year's BBC Proms (apparently cancelled some weeks ago, see below).  Maybe the British don't like intellect. But any serious art requires an element of intellectual and emotional input. Surely that cannot be beyond us?

What kind of minds dismiss a culture whose language and mores they don't understand  Quartett may not appeal  to the G&S set, or the G&T set for that matter, but that doesn't make it invalid. There are many - even in London - who know Francesconi's language but yet again, the British media seem more concerned about themselves than about music. Daily Mail aesthetics are not mandatory!

Quartett might seem gruesome but no more so than the original story, which was written in 1782. In Choderlos de Laclos's Les Liaisons dangereuses Valmont and Merteuil play kinky mind games. They manipulate other people , and pride themselves on their cynical lack of emotional engagement. They're specially drawn to good people like Madame de Tourvel, because they get a special kick from destroying genuinely good and sincere people. The original book is so well known that it should be part of basic education, but there's also a summary on Wikipedia and a Meryl Streep movie.

Francesconi's  setting, based on a play by Heiner Mueller, predicates on the idea that Merteuil and Valmont  are alone in an apocalyptic wasteland. It doesn't really matter what disaster has befallen them, save that they've lost the wealth and privileges that let them get away with so much for so long.  Perhaps they're in Purgatory, forced to face the consequences of what they have done. Can there be any greater hell for two people who have wiggled out of responsibility all their lives  At first we see a woman ( Kirsten Chávez) in the tatters of an 18th century noblewoman's gown, her corset still tightly laced. Despite what's around her all she can think of is sex. "The skin remembers touch", she groans, "whether hand or claw". At least she's facing one aspect of her depravity. Significantly, the word "Tourvel" intrudes on her consciousness. Tourvel, the virtuous wife Merteuil challenged Valmont to seduce. Tourvel gave into Valmont out of warped Christian generosity  because she thought her love might redeem him: the complete opposite of Merteuil  Thus Meretuil is obsessed with her memory

Les Liaisons damgereuses is a collection of letters, reputedly exchanged by Merteuil and Valmont as they plot their stratagems and taunt one another. In a modern novel, we read multiple points of view, and the author's commentary. In letter-novels we have only the letter writers' perspective: we have to guess between the lines how other people feel. The structure of Francesconi's Quartett replicates this  anomie, so fundamental to the emotional disengagement Merteuil and Valmont seek to achieve.

The epistolary nature of the original also influences Francesconi's dramatic form. Miniature  scenes progress seamlessly, ideas and persona changing back and forth.  The vocal lines are arch, like the tone in the letters. In the opera, Leigh Melrose sings great falsetto! Valmont and Merteuil act out different scenarios, like method actors, trying to find their way into an experience. They switch rapidly between personas, sometimes reversing  parts. Francesconi's mentor was the late Karl-Heinz Stockhausen. Hence Fransceoni's use of spatial relationships in the performing space, and his use s of electronic media. Sometimes the singers stand silent, listening to recordings of their own voices singing other parts, reflecton on "themsleves" but not themselves. . Perhaps that's why the opera is called "Quartett", though there are only two players. It may also refer to the chamber music upon which Francesconi's reputation was built, where players interact with each other in intricate formation.

Andrew Gourlay conducted the London Sinfonietta. This isn't easy music to play although it's so atmospheric that it sets the background to the story. The orchestra murmurs comment, and screams in frustration, suggesting the unseen voices of people whom Valmont and Merteuil block out of their consciences. Quartett is much more sophisticated and satisfying than much of what the
London Sinfonietta has been doing in recent years.

Gradually Valmont and Merteuil  get deeper into the wider implications of what they have done.  Valmont and Merteuil  think of Cécile, the young virgin straight from convent whom Valmont seduced, and ruminate on the idea of sin and the church, They ponder the irony that the parts they pollute once gave them life.  Do they find wisdom ?  In the book, Valmont is thrown off his scams because he developed genuine feelings for Tourvel. Merteuil had to acknledge that she had feelings for him under her tough exterior. Perhaps, as Valmont sings, they'll get together in hell. Thus he willingly drinks poison, while Mereteuil looks on, waiting.

John Fulljames's staging highlights the psychic dislocation. Soutra Gilmour's simple panels of fabric hang down from the ceiling, giving a vertical dimension to the horizontal stage. With intelligent lighting (the wonderful Bruno Poet) the fabric can resemble torn lace, or mountains, or reversed, black flames reaching upwards from Hell.  Sounds Intermedia mixed the electronics. Ravi Deepres created the video projections. Mark Stone and Angelica Voje sing in the second cast.

Please also read Susana Malkki on Francesconi 

Also read Leila Josefowicz, on Francesconi's Duende, which was commissioned for her. She did the world premiere in February. Apparently, she is pregnant and has had to cancel engagements until November. For contractual reasons no other soloist can do the piece, so the BBC has had to rustle up a replacementwork for Prom 28, so the announcement was made only last week.

Photos Copyright Stephen Cummisky, Royal Opera House
This review appears in Opera Today

Wednesday 18 June 2014

Provocative but Werktreue, Manon Lescaut Royal Opera House

Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true value in love.

When Antonio Pappano is fired with the passion he feels for this music, few other conductors even come close. He' was phenomenal. He took risks with depth and colour, which pay off magnificently. He wasn't afraid of the way the music at times veers towards extremes of vulgarity, expressing the greed and nastiness of nearly every character in the plot.  In this score, there's no room for polite timidity. Themes of  freedom occur throughout this opera, which Pappano delineates with great verve. Yet there's discipline in Pappano's conducting. His firm, unsentimantal mastery keeps the orchestral playing tight. Manon may lose control of her life, but Pappano keeps firm a moral compass. In the Intermezzo, this tension between escape and entrapment was particularly vivid. No need for staging. Instead, Puccini's quotation from Prévost's text was projected, austerely, onto the curtain.

Kristine Opolais created a Manon that will define her career for years to come, and become a benchmark against which future Manon will be compared. Her voice has a lucid sweetness that expresses Manon's beauty, but her technique is so solid that she can also suggest the ruthlessness so fundamental to the role. The Act Two passages she sings cover a huge range of emotions, which Opolais defines with absolute clarity. In every nuance, Opolais makes us feel what Manon might feel, so intimately that one almost feels as if we were intruding on Manon's emotional privacy. It's not "easy listening" but exceptionally poignant.

In the final scene, Puccini specifies darkness and cold, undulating terrain and a bleak horizon. There are no deserts around New Orleans, which is on a delta.  Opolais lies, literally "at the end of the road", suspended in mid-air devoid of every comfort. Then Opolais sings, transforming Manon from a dying wretch in a dirty dress through the sheer beauty and dignity of her singing. "Sei tu, sei tu che piangi?", she started, building up to the haunted "Sola, perduta, abbandonata, in landa desolata. Orror!"". The glory of Opolais's singing seemed to make Manon shine from within, as if she had at last found the true light of love. I was so moved I was shaking. Anyone who couldn't be touched by this scene and by Opolais must have concrete in their arteries, instead of blood.

Opolais and Jonas Kaufmann are so ideally cast. Their presence might push up the cost of tickets, but think in terms of investment. These performances will be talked about for decades to come. Kaufmann's deliciously dark-hued timbre makes him a perfect Italianate hero.  On the first night, in the First Act, some minor tightness in  his voice dulled his singing somewhat, but he's absolutely worth listening to even when he's not in top form. In the love duets, his interaction with Opolais was so good one could forgive him anything. By the crucially important last scene, his voice was ringing out true and clean again - a heroic act of artistry much appreciated by those who value singing. He'll get better as the run progresses.

Manon Lescaut is very much an ensemble piece although the two principals attract most attention. Christopher Maltman sang Lescaut, Manon's corrupt brother. Lescaut is low down and dirty, a calculating chancer with no scruples who'll gladly set upon his friends if it suits him. Maltman's gutsy energy infused his singing with earthy brio, completely in character. Maurizio Muraro sang an unusually well-defined Geronte, who exudes slime and malevolent power. How that voice spits menace!

The lesser parts were also extremely well delivered. The Sergeant is a more significant role than many assume it to be. Jihoon Kim sang it with more personality than it usually gets. he makes the role feel like a Geronte who hasn't made enough money to kick people around, but would if he could. Significantly Puccini places the part in context of the female prisoners who are Manon manquées.Benjamin Hulett sang Edmondo, Nigel Cliffe the Innkeeper, Nadezhda Karyazina the Musician, Robert Burt the Dance master, Luis Gomes the lamplighter and Jeremy White the Naval Captain. Good work all round. Although attention focuses on overall staging, the director's input in defining roles should never be underestimated. Jonathan Kent's Personenregie was exceptionally accurate.

This production attracted controversy even before the performances began.  However, it is in fact remarkably close to Puccini's fundamental vision. Those who hate "modern" on principle often do so without context or understanding. So what if the coach at Amiens is a car? How else do rich people travel? So what if Manon wears pink? Puccini's Manon Lescaut hasn't been seen at the Royal Opera House for 30 years, but Massenet's Manon is regularly revived. So Londoners are  more familiar with Manon than with Manon Lescaut. Yet the two operas are radically different. Mix them up and you've got problems.  In Massenet, Manon and Des Grieux have a love nest in a garret. But Puccini goes straight past to Geronte's mansion and to the sordid business of sex and money.All the more respect to Puccini's prescience. Anyone who is shocked by the this production needs to go to the score and read it carefully.

Geronte thinks he's an artist. Because he thinks he owns Manon – so he uses her as a canvas to act out his fantasies. Jonathan Kent isn't making this up. Read the score. One minute Manon is in her boudoir, putting on makeup, talking to her brother. Next minute, musicians pour in and the have to be shooed out. Then  "Geronte fa cenno agli amici di tirarsi in disparte e di sedersi. Durante il ballo alcuni servi girano portando cioccolata e rinfreschi." ( Geronte beckons to friends to stand on the sidelines and sit. During the dance some servos are bringing chocolate and refreshments). The guests know that Manon sleeps with Geronte. They have come in order to be titillated.  It's not the dancing they've come to admire. They're pervs. Geronte is showing off, letting his pals know what a catch Manon is. Hence the dancing: a physical activity that predicates on the body and the poses a body can be forced into "Tutta la vostra personcina,or s'avanzi! Cosi!... lo vi scongiuro" sings the Dancing master. But he has no illusions. "...a tempo!", he sings, pointing out quite explicitly that her talents do not include dance. "Dancing is a serious matter!" he says, in exasperation. But the audience don't care about dancing. They've come to gape at Manon. There's nothing romantic in this. Geronte is a creep who exploits women. It's an 18th century live sex show. Geronte's parading his pet animal.

So Manon concurs? So many vulnerable women get caught up in the sick game, for whatever reason. The love scene that follows, between Opolais and Kaufmann, is all the morer magical because we've seen the brutality Manon endured to win her jewels.  Perhaps we also feel (at least I did) some sympathy for Manon's materialistic little soul. She knows that money buys a kind of freedom.When news of Mark Anthony Turnage's commission for Anna Nicole first emerged, some were surprised. Others said "Manon Lescaut". The story, unfortunately, is universal..At first I couldn't understand what the film crew and lighting booms meant but I think they suggest the way every society exploits women and treats them as objects for gratification. Later, the lighting booms close down like prison bars. Some of the women being transported are hard cases but others are women who've fallen into bad situations, but are equally condemned.  Far from being sexist, this production addresses something universal and very present about society.  I'm still not sure about the giant billboard "Naiveté" but there is no law that says we have to get every detail at once. Perhaps Kent is connecting to  advertising images and popular media, which is fair enough.

 People  wail about "trusting the composer". But it is they who don't trust the composer. Any decent opera can inspire so much in so many. No-one owns the copyright on interpretation. But the booing mob don't permit anyone else to have an opinion and insist on forcing their own on others who might be trying to engage more deeply. It's time, I think, to call the bluff on booers. They don't actually care about opera. Like Geronte, they're into control, not art..

This review appears in Opera Today
photos : Bill Cooper, Royal Opera House.

Manon Lescaut, ROH - first thoughts

First thoughts on Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House. Genius Kristine Opolais, genius Pappano, and Kaufmann genius after the first Act.  This production is so powerful that it's bound to shock. But why not? If we aren't horrified by what happens to women like Manon Lescaut, the fault lies with us. Anyone who can't be moved by that final scene must have cement for blood. My full review is HERE. - Provocative but Werktreue - Manon Lescaut, Royal Opera House

Why is the production controversial? Puccini's Manon Lescaut hasn't been seen at the Royal Opera House for 30 years, so Londoners are probably much more familiar with Massenet's Manon, revived at least twice in the last 5 years.  But they are radically different operas. Mix them up and you've got problems.  In Massenet, Manon and Des Grieux have a love nest in a garret. No wonder those familiar with Manon expect Manon Lescaut to be similarly romantic. But Puccini is not sentimental. He goes straight to Geronte's mansion and to the sordid business of sex and money. Anyone who's shocked ought to read the score, instead of imposing their own expectations. 

Geronte thinks he's an artist. Because he thinks he owns Manon, so he uses her as a canvas to act out his fantasies. Jonathan Kent isn't making this up. Read the score. One minute Manon is in her boudoir, putting on makeup, talking to her brother. Next minute, musicians pour in and the have to be shooed out. Then  Geronte fa cenno agli amici di tirarsi in disparte e di sedersi. Durante il ballo alcuni servi girano portando cioccolata e rinfreschi. (Geronte beckons to friends to stand on the sidelines and sit. During the dance some servos are bringing chocolate and refreshments). The guests know that Manon sleeps with Geronte. They have come in order to be titillated.  It's not the dancing they've come to admire. They're pervs. Geronte is showing off, letting his pals know what a catch Manon is. Hence the dancing: a physical activity that predicates on the body and the poses a body can be forced into "Tutta la vostra personcina,or s'avanzi! Cosi!... lo vi scongiuro" sings the Dancing master. But he has no illusions. "...a tempo!", he sings, pointing out quite explicitly that her talents do not include dance. "Dancing is a serious matter!" he says, in exasperation. But the audience don't care about dancing. They've come to gape at Manon. There's nothing romantic in this. Geronte is a creep who exploits women. It's an 18th century live sex show. Geronte's parading his pet animal.

So Manon concurs? So many vulnerable women get caught up in the sick game, for whatever reason. The love scene that follows , between Opolais and Kaufmann is all the morer magical because we've seen the brutality Manon endured to win her jewels.  Perhaps we also feel (at least I did) some sympathy for Manon's materialistic little soul. She knows that money buys a kind of freedom.When news of Mark Anthony Turnage's commission for Anna Nicole first emerged, some were surprised. Others said "Manon Lescaut". The story goes on an on.

At first I couldn't understand what the film crew and lighting booms meant but I think they suggest the way every society exploits women and treats them as objects for gratification. Later, the lighting booms close down like prison bars. Some of the women being transported are hard cases but others are women who've fallen into bad situations, but are equally condemned.  Far from being sexist, this production addresses something universal and very present about society.  I'm still not sure about the giant billboard "Naiveté" but there is no law that says we have to get every detail at once. Perhaps Kent is connecting to  advertising images and popular media. Suddenly the billboard reverses and we see behind the facade. By the way, there are no deserts near New Orleans, so anyone screaming for "realism" should remember that opera is art. Manon and Des Grieux are in a metaphorical desert, literally at the end of the road. I'm still reeling with emotion at that last image of Opolais  and Kaufmann suspended in  mid air, "orizzonte vastissimo, cielo annuvolato".  Only boors could boo after that.

People  wail about "trusting the composer". But it is they who don't trust the composer. Any decent opera can inspire so much in so many. No-one owns the copyright on interpretation. But the booing mob don't permit anyone else to have an opinion and insist on forcing their own on others who might be trying to engage more deeply. It's time, I think, to call the bluff on booers. They don't actually care about opera. Like Geronte, they're into control.

Review to follow in Opera Today
photo : Bill Cooper, Royal Opera House (details embedded)

Tuesday 17 June 2014

BBC Ten Pieces - Motherhood and poisoned Apple Pie

What's really behind the BBC Ten Pieces? Mass public applause, but what else would we expect? Populist appeal is like Motherhood or Apple Pie. In reality not all mothers or apple pies are good things but woe betide anyone who dares question.  With the shadow of Harriet Harman looming on the horizon, arts organizations don't have any choice but applaud, even if there are much better ways of reaching the public than silly Diktats like Ten Pieces.So it's up to people who care about the arts to respond.

There's not much point querying the Ten Pieces per se. They've been dreamed up by middle-aged, middle-class suits who assume that young people are too stupid to like anything that's not loud and brash.  The real danger is that such narrow-minded rigidity is inherently opposed to the  richness that makes the arts worthwhile. Creativity thrives on imaginations, individuality and freedom of expression. The BBC Ten Pieces are like a Stalinist Five Year Plan. What looks good on paper - and to politicans - doesn't work in real life.

In March,  Tony Hall unveiled his masterplan for the BBC and arts policy. Read more here. In theory, it could work. The BBC really was the centrepiece of the British arts world once, with imaginative, adventurous vision. But Ten Pieces trivializes the whole concept. Music education isn't just for the young, but for everyone, and it's a continuing process. "Ten Pieces" is a slogan like "The Great Leap Forward". What does it really mean? Designated playlists? Uniformity instead of diversity? If listeners get turned off by some of those choices (rightly so in some cases) will they be turned off the arts in a wider sense? Committee-think is for robots. Maybe politicians and bean counters like that sort of thing. But real people, and those who value the arts, aren't robots. 

Monday 16 June 2014

Britten Owen Wingrave Aldeburgh Music Festival

An ideal choice for this year's Aldeburgh Music Festival, Britten's Owen Wingrave. From a very early age, Britten was incensed by bullying and repression.  Indeed, the protection of innocence and the condemnation of cruelty runs through nearly all Britten's work, powerfully informing his whole creative persona.  Owen Wingrave is critical to any real appreciation of what Britten stood for. The Aldeburgh Music Festival and the Britten-Pears Foundation are wise to stage Owen Wingrave again, in the same place where the composer conducted the first public performance back in 1970. In 1914, men marched to war because they were led to believe that they were fighting "the war to end all wars".  One hundred years later, those who believe in military solutions seem to have learned nothing from a century of almost incessant warfare. More than ever, we need Owen Wingrave and Britten's passionate opposition to mindless conformity.

Owen Wingrave was commissioned for television. Nearly a quarter of a million people watched it when it was first broadcast by the BBC in 1972, reaching audiences far beyond any opera house. That in itself is a statement about its significance. Composers wrote for film almost as soon as technology  added sound to movies. Britten enjoyed going to the cinema, and spent his war years working for the GPO Film Unit. In Owen Wingrave, music and an understanding of film technique go together. The abstraction of music can be expressed through devices like split frames and juxtaposed images. On the physical stage, such things aren't easy to carry off.  At Aldeburgh, director Neil Bartlett has chosen a minimalist set, enhanced by dramatic light effects (Ian Scott). This reflects the austerity in the music, which in turn reflects the stark moral situation Owen is faced with. "Listen to the house!" the female singers repeat, their lines intertwining, as if a knot - or noose - were being drawn tight. For the house does speak - "creaks and rustles, groans and moans" .The oppressiveness is almost palpable.  "The "boom of the cannonade", created by percussion and low brass is so sinister that we could be hearing a thousand years of ghosts marching relentlessly towards death. The spirit of Paramore looms so large in the music that we don't  need to see the house to feel its malign presence. Better the dark shadows and spartan set, so our imaginations can conjure up unseen images of horror.

In the original film, portraits of Wingraves past line the walls, menacingly, and come alive, leaping at Owen, just as the present members of his family scold him, singly and in unison. On film, that's plausible, on stage it would be contrived.  Bartlett, and choreographer and movement director Struan Leslie, use a group of young soldiers as a silent chorus. They operate in tight formation, as befits soldiers, but their movements also reflect figures in the music: a very subtle effect, which  justifies their value in the production. They're also useful for technical reasons - they move such furniture as there is on the bare stage, "building" the haunted room by reversing the panels that serve as walls. Most perceptive of all, the soldiers are young, inspiring more sympathy than if they mere replicas of wizened old Wingraves,  ghosts perhaps of young men sent to early deaths. Victims and perpetrators, harnessed together in perpetuity, like the ghosts in the haunted room, like Owen and Paramore.

The stark staging has a further advantage in that it throws extra focus on the singers and on the Britten-Pears Orchestra, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, designated Music Director at the ENO when Edward Gardner moves on. Britten, Nagano and Richard Hickox hover over Wigglesworth, but he gives a good account of the music, stressing the clarity of the writing for solo instruments versus larger groups. Excellent experience for the young players in this orchestra, many of whom will go on to play in larger ensembles.

Ross Ramgobin sings Owen. Again, one retains memories of Gerald Finley and above all, Jacques Imbrailo, who created the part ten years ago when he was still a member of the Jette Parker Young Artists programme at the Royal Opera House. Imbrailo is perhaps the ideal Owen, since his voice shimmers with preternatural purity, but Ramgobin does well against such competition, which says a lot in his favour. Ramgobin's voice is agile and light, with a much more convincingly youthful timbre than Benjamin Luxon and Peter Coleman-Wright.

Susan Bullock sings Miss Jane Wingrave. The part contains sharp edges, to emphasize the character's sterile frustration. Bullock creates the effect of strangled tension without tightening throat or chest, but articulates her words with rapier-sharp diction. Catherine Backhouse sings a pert Kate, and Janis Kelly sings her mother Mrs Julian. Isaiah Bell sang Lechmere unusually well, his voice adding colours to the part, which could otherwise be interpreted as bland and callow. A singer to watch. Jonathan Summers sings Spencer Coyle and Samantha Crawford sings his wife, artfully suggesting the dynamic between the couple, where he controls and she is left to flutter prettily, but bleakly along. Richard Berkeley-Steele sang General Sir Philip Wingrave and James Way sang the Ballad singer, again with more personality (a good thing) than the part might otherwise attract.

This review appears in Opera Today. Please see my other posts on Britten, Owen Wingrave and Aldeburgh by using the labels below.

Sunday 15 June 2014

Blair, Britten and Owen Wingrave

In the Red House, Aldeburgh, where Benjamin Britten lived while Owen Wingrave was being written. Read my review of Britten Owen Wingrave at the Aldeburgh Music Festival here This is part of the library which Britten and Peter Pears used. The décor is totally of its time, preserved much as it was when they chose it. Who sat in the red chair?  Who sat in the white?

Off to Aldeburgh now, for Owen Wingrave at Snape. It's the fourth production I've seen. What period is Owen Wingrave really set in? Can a militaristic family who worship sacrifice really survive from Agincourt to Kandahar? Statistically they'd have been wiped out long ago. Soldiers who die young reproduce less frequently than most men. Rather, I think Paramore is a state of mind. The house is a metaphor for closed minds and conformity. Henry James, a psychologist, might have intuited it as a kind of mental prison, with the haunted room at its core. Maybe that's why the family is so afraid of the legend. It's significant that the women in Owen Wingrave are just as psychotic as the men, perhaps even more so. Mental rigidity is the antithesis of the creative spirit. Perhaps the men in this family run away to war to escape something even more horrible than physical death?
When Owen confronts it, he's confronting the source of the psychosis in his family. That's why they are so terrified of the room. They'd rather get torn apart by sabres on the barttlefield than confront the darkness in their psyches. Owen is not a hero in the usual sense of the word.  His whole persona seems to go against flag waving and bombast. For me a key to his character is that he is one of Britten's innocents. Purity of spirit is the most elusive form of bravery, ever. Although Owen Wingrave connects to The Turn of the Screw, in many ways another connection is with Billy Budd, who doesn't conform to any simplistic idea of "hero". Captain Vere spends the rest of   his life trying to figure out why Billy went willingly to death. When Owen is kicked out of Paramore by his grandfather, he finds peace. Perhaps he could have walked away and started a new life from scratch. But Kate, his childhood buddy, confronts him. She might be little more than a child but already she's been poisoned by the family mass hysteria. So he goes into the room. What happens next, I've often wondered ? Is Kate saved ? Does the family collapse?

Britten adds an extra layer of pacifism to Henry James's original, expanding the psychological with the political. It's absolutely valid that this aspect of the opera should be developed in this year when we remember 1914-1918. Pacifism isn't easy.   Defying the forces that push nations to war requires great strength and committment. It is by no means the easy option. Today, when Tony Blair refuses to connect his WMD lies with the present destabilzation,  we need more than ever to recognize responsibility for our actions.  In 1914 men marched to serve "the war to end all wars". But war did not stop war.

Please see my other pieces on Owen Wingrave, Britten and Aldeburgh by clicking on the labels below. Review to follow.

Saturday 14 June 2014

Britten Owen Wingrave - made for TV

This year's Aldeburgh Music Festival begins with Benjamin Britten's Owen Wingrave, which Britten himself conducted in the same theatre in November 1970. For my review of the Aldeburgh production see HERE.  While the opera was in gestation, the revolutions of 1968 were raging. Paris was brought to a standstill by Danny The Red and student protestors. Russian tanks rolled in to crush the Prague Spring. Buddhist monks burned themselves alive on the streets of Saigon. The US military was bogged down in the unwinnable quagmire of the Vietnam War. Britten saw these images only in print. He didn't, as yet, own a TV set. Yet Owen Wingrave was planned for television and broadcast to the nation by the BBC. It says much about modern Britian that such investment in artistic vision would be permitted today.

The original BBC film of Owen Wingrave is worth watching for obvious historical reasons: the audio-only recording is a benchmark  The cast included most of the Britten specialists of the time, such as Benjamin Luxon, John Shirley-Quirk, Heather Harper, Janet Baker, and  Jennifer Vyvyan. Peter Pears sang Sir Philip Wingrave. Poor Pears, he's a brilliant singer, but he can't act, even when he's playing a stiff old man.

Concentrating on the audio alone, and using your imagination for the visuals is a good idea, because you can engage with what the music depicts. "Listen to the house!" the female singers repeat, their lines intertwining, as if a knot - or noose - were being drawn tight. For the house does speak - "creaks and rustles, groans and moans" (to quote Mrs Coyle). The oppressiveness is almost palpable.  "The "boom of the cannonade", created by percussion and low brass is so sinister that we could be hearing a thousand years of ghosts marching relentlessly towards death; Paramore is thoroughly haunted. Who is the ghost of the boy in the locked room? Is he the bully or the murdered boy, or is he the malevolent force that's been driving Wingraves for centuries?

At first, the original BBC film seems realistic in a conventional sense, traditional enough to please the most narrow-minded conservative. Late Victorian or Edwardian costumes, a period décor. Spencer Coyle's home is a horror of overstuffed furniture, all flat surfaces cluttered with knicknacks. Fans of Antiques Roadshow will swoon. But the opera starts in Paramore, where the portraits of Wingraves past glare down from the walls. But look carefully: the portraits are most definitely not "period" but hideous pastiche. Paint in thrown on in globs, faces distorted as if the Old Masters who painted them were prototype Francis Bacons.  Don't assume the paintwork is disintegrating : perhaps these portraits tell us more about their subjects than we dare know. "Listen to the House!"

As the music leads Owen towards Paramore, we see a series of drawings of the house, from different angles- hideously drawn like bad images off cheap paintings : weeds grow in cracks, the house is in decay. The interior with its wide staircase belongs in a horror movie. When the music depicts fanfares, we see real flags, but made of roughly painted rags. Those who demand "historical realism" in opera stagings absolutely do not get the point. It's also relevant that Britten and Pears were fond of relatively modern art.

Although Britten didn't watch TV until fairly late in life, he watched a lot of films, so he knew very well how film might support abstract musical ideas. Indeed, composers wrote for film almost as soon as sound movies wewre made. Britten's war work included Night Mail. When Owen sings his soliloquy "At last, it's out"  he's seen alone in the park, while images of his family are transposed over him, as their voices intrude upon him. Cinematic technique adapted to music, and vice versa. The interplay between film technique and music is even more interesting in the scene "There was a boy" when the legend of the house is told. The narrator is  heard through an echo chamber -boys voices heard from a distance, and the sound of toy horns and bells. The boys are seen in sepia slow motion, as if in early film. An eerie effect, suggesting a time tunnel.

Owen is probably not much more than 18, between school and a military commission, and Kate's not much older. Indeed, a sub-theme of youth versus age runs through the opera, though it's not dominant. Owen and Kate's music, however, is far too sophisticated for teenagers.  Benjamin Luxon was only 34 when the film was made, but looks and sounds somewhat overblown. Those who insist that appearances matter more than singing just don't understand opera, or indeed art. My ideal Owen is Jacques Imbrailo, not because he looks young but because his voices glistens with purity and strength.

Colin Graham directed the staging, while Brian Large directed the film.  Stage directing and film directing are different disciplines with different perspectives. Very few directors can do both equally well. A good film director takes his cue from the stage director, and both take their cue from the music and the meaning. Large was only 32 when he made this film. He was to go on to become a pioneer in the art of filming opera. Although this film is very dated - it reeks of the 70's  - it's worth seeing because it shows how much more finesse there is today.

Friday 13 June 2014

Help wanted - BBC

Details of a job at the BBC: Radio 3. Read more here. Anyone who doesn't know the specs shouldn't apply. Chances are, in any case, it's a headhunter deal. As it says in the ad, don't apply to the website but to the recruitment consultants. 

In any case, it's not so much the person as the political climate he or she will have to contend with. Will we get a corporate crawler? Much more likely than someone with flair or imagination. Roger Wright was hamstrung by forces greater than himself. If anything these pressures are even greater now. Good people can't work in environments that place bean counting and political correctness above creativity. The knives after Roger Wright were sharp enough to cut him down but not sharp enough to know how the business really works. Congratulations, "Friends" of BBC Radio 3. Worse may well happen.

Thursday 12 June 2014

Century of Chinese Cinema BFI

Just started, a month-long series "A Century of Chinese Cinema, at the British Film Insitute. It is worth going to if you don't speak Chinese and haven't seen many Chinese films or know much about Chinese history or culture. Perhaps this is inevitable, but it really would have helped if the choices had been more characteristic, and the introduction more helpful. Most people don't know anything about China, or the role film played in modernizing the country and transforming society. Without context, it's impossible to genuinely understand Chinese cinema.  Watching kung fu movies is no qualification.  Tourists can learn words like "chop suey" but that doesn't mean they can appreciate the Classics

 Nearly the whole of the first section features one film, Spring in a Small Town (1948). It's inevitable that the BFI would need to leave out other equally iconic films of the era, but it's a start anyway. The Director was Fei Mu, 費穆 (1906-1951). It's poetic and very beautiful but part of its impact comes from its context. A young woman is caught in a sterile marriage with an ailing husband. Once, the heroine, Wei Wei and her husband were progressive students in the big city, full of dreams. Now he's slowly dying, from physical ,or spiritual causes, it's not clear. But they're now in his feudal mansion, partly destroyed by war. The walls around the town are ruins, too, but hark to a time when the town was a centre worth defending. Now Wei Wei, much impoverished, walks the old walls, unable to face her sterile present. Of course it's a story about lost romance, but the film became an icon because it expresses a concept of China itself.  It inspired the director Tian Zhuangzhuang (田壯壯) who also made The Blue Kite to revisit Spring in a Small Town in 2002. His version is more than a remake, for it's informed by what was to happen to China after Fei Mu died. Tian faithfully studied every document he could get, and worked together with Zhou Yuwen, who played Wei Wei in 1948.  There is also a film about the remaking of the film which is exceptionally poignant. The actress who played Wei Wei in 1948 speaks with the actress who played the part in 2002. Incredibly poignant and almost as important to film history as the films themselves.

The BFI season includes milestones like Labourer's Love (1922) the earliest existing full film and Dream of the Red Chamber (1927),  and Song at Midnight (1937). Labourer's Love, also known as the Romance of the Fruit Pedlar, looks charming but has a savagely potent subtext, lost on those who think primarily in western terms. Dream of the Red Chamber, based on a traditional saga, was the most ambitious film of its time, made by Law Man Wai, the father of Chinese cinema, whose influence on both Cantonese and Mandarin cinema was far reaching. Song at Midnight isn't simply a horror flick but has musical/political significance.  But what about the many other important films, actors and studios left out? There are numerous DVDs around, many with English subtitles, so it's not as if BFI couldn't have tried harder. Indeed Chinese film seasons are nothing new in the UK. Channel 4 and BFI used to screen them in the past.

In the second section, "The New China", there are two films from the Red Guard period, Red Detachment of Women and The East is Red. These reinforce the stereotypes many in the west have about Chinese people, but strictly speaking, the Red Guard period was an abomination, not the norm. Why not show The White Haired Girl, which explains a lot more about why people thought Communism was a new dawn? It's worth seeing An Unfinished Comedy, This Whole Life of Mine and Two Stage Sisters to appreciate how the creative drive in Chinese film didn't succumb altogther. Without this period, we wouldn't have the later generation of directors, like Zhang Yimou, or Chen Kaige.

Run Run Shaw, who died last year aged 107, transformed Chinese cinema by making big budget extravaganzas based on Chinese history and literature, and distributing them on a world scale. Without Shaw, no Golden Harvest, No Bruce Lee movies, and the whole later genre of historic fight flicks.  Luckily, BFI will be screening one Shaw film,  Love Eterne starring Ivy Ling Po, one of its greatest hits. This is based on an ancient tale of a girl who dresses as a man to study, but falls in love with a fellow student. It's a beautifully made film and a wonderful example of why Shaw Studios was so special. Rights have been sold to a new distributor who hopefully will reissue than in clean format with English subtitles, so that new generations of Chinese - and overseas Chinese who don't speak Chinese - can engage with their culture. Ling Po wasn't the only Shaw Brothers mega star, and certainly not the only megastar in Chinese film. But BFI barely scrapes the surface, missing giants like Lin Dai,  Grace Chang , Li Li-hua, Yam Kim Fai and the myriad stars who combined careers in Chinese opera and Chinese  film. In the west, such crossing of genres would be unthinkable. In Hong Kong it was perfectly natural, because the stars were so good. Non-Chinese film critics and audience might not appreciate the finer points of Chinese opera in its different forms, but ignoring that aspect of Chinese cinema neutralizes  much of the cultural importance.

Two absolutely superb Cantonese dramas. First,  Parents's Love (父母心, 1955) stars Ma Si-Tsang, probably the greatest Cantonese opera star of all. Here, he plays an opera singer down on his luck who ends up singing on the streets for a pittance. He wants his sons to succeed where he's failed This is one of the finest films ever made anywhere, I think, and one of my all-time favourites. I've never seen a copy with English subtitles, so grab the opportunity to see it, even though it probably won't convey the pithiness of the Cantonese dialect. It's utterly amazing, tracing the father's growing humiliation and fear as he realizes that the world is changing and he can't help his sons succeed. Ma Si-Tsang is such a good actor that every muscle in his face expresses feeling: when his voice as the opera singer cracks, it's overwhelmingly painful to watch. His eldest son is played by Lam Ka Sing, the mega opera star/movie star of the next generation.

In the Face of Demolition (危樓春曉1953) isn't quite in that stratosphere, althought it's a beautiful example of the social conscience message in nearly all Chinese movies, at least up til the 1970's. In the 50's people used to live in apartments without walls, subdivided into bedspaces for mutltiple occupants, a microcosm of society. The good guys live by the motto "All for one, one for all". The "respectable" teacher dreams of being a writer, but sinks in desperation to becoming a rent collector, the lowest of the low in this small world. This movie is much loved though there are many others which are even better, such as Father and Son 父與子(1953) and Parent's Love 寸草心 (1953), made in Hong Kong, but in Mandarin. The director was the iconic  Li Pingquan and the cast Fujianese who had fled the Communists.

The last section in the BFI Century of Chinese cinema features "Swordsmen, Gangsters and Ghosts". Fists of Fury and other Bruce Lee movies transformed Chinese cinema. For the first,time a Chinese beat up foreigners! In colonial times that was shocking indeed. People who have grown up since, or who never experienced such things just don't know.  I wonder if people even begin to appreciate Bruce Lee, who was a child star in the golden age of Cantonese film and immersed in its traditions. The BFI is also showing Wong Fei Hung : the Whip that smacks the Candle (1949) which I've written about HERE. This is even more interesting than it might seem, because it's a movie that morphed with numerous retellings and changes of director, over many years. This first film, though, made with the co-operation of Wong Fei Hung's people, is particularly good because it was made lovingly by a company that valued Cantonese cultural heritage. .

More on Chinese film (in English) than almost anywhere else. Please explore. Try Chinese Carmen : The Wild, Wild Rose   and Street Angel (1936) for starters

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Richard Strauss Remembered - BBC classic

"Our future lies in art, especially in music. In times when spiritual goods are rarer than material ones, and egotism, envy and hatred govern the world, music will do much to re-establish love among mankind" - Richard Strauss. born 150 years ago today.

How the world has changed since Richard Strauss was born !  Through his music we might come to know the man he was and how he coped with the horrors of what happened around him, for better or worse. Today I have been watching Peter Adams's documentary Richard Strauss Remembered. It's a remarkable film. We see most of the extant film footage of the composer and also clips from films and stills of early performances - including Feuersnot.  There's also footage from Robert Wierne's 1926 silent Der Rosenkavalier (read more here)  Members of Strauss's immediate family came together with Alice, his secretary, daughter-in-law and devoted champion. They are seen in Strauss's home in the Bavarian Alps, decorated with elk and deer horns, preserved as it was in his time. It must have been quite an occasion. The musical clips are archive classics, and the script is well written.  As the film ends, we see Strauss in his garden, and hear Kirsten Flagstad sing Im Abendrot as the camera pans on the mountains Strauss loved so dearly.

This film was made for the BBC in 1984. It's a wonderful example of the high-quality work the BBC produced in those days, when the government supported the pursuit of excellence.  Hopefully, the BBC will be able to release it again this anniversary year as a public service. The copy I watched has serious sound problems. Richard Strauss remembered is an exceptional  film because it touches on the value of the arts in difficult times, and on personal integrity. On the other hand, maybe the film is too dangerous given present political pressures.  Goebbels couldn't shut Strauss down, so let's hope "egotism, envy and hatred" don't do so now.

Harriet Harman's plans for arts funding

Harriet Harman, shadow Secretary for State for Culture, Media and Sport made a statement Monday on arts funding recommending drastic changes to the way the arts would be supported if she came into power. An arts minister doesn't need to like the arts but also should not be actively hostile. Read the consultation document  "Young People and the Arts" download here  for a sermon on the role of the arts in the education system.

Harman said recently that she "couldn't see in the (ROH) audience anyone who wasn't like myself: white, metropolitan and middle class".and that  she seldom sees people from her south London constituency at the BBC proms. "It doesn't have to be like that. But to change audiences, there has to be committed, focused intervention".  But that very kind of diktat bothers me.  Why shouldn't people do what they want ? It's not a crime, yet. Surely the arts, by their very nature, are individualistic. Taste cannot be imposed from the barrel of a political gun.

Indeed, the basic assumptions stink of chauvinism, since they're so firmly based on the idea of culture as something that has to be imposed from above onto primitive natives. Read my article "End the Missionary Position in Classical Music" HERE. The document reeks of the very elitism it claims to oppose.  There are many different forms of cultural expression and many different audiences. Anything imposed top down goes against the very nature of creativity. Arts organization will have have to spend more time covering their backs from punitive bureaucracy, diverting funds towards navel gazing, rather than getting on with what they're supposed to be doing.

Harman is using the arts to further an agenda which fundamentally isn't the fault of the arts.  The root of the problem lies in society, not in the arts. In countries like China, South Korea and Japan the arts are honoured because they are intangible assets..The arts cannot be valued in simple terms of mass appeal. They represent the ideals and dreams that drive civilization. At the root of anti-intellectual philistinism lies selfishness. Last week, a friend of mine was accosted on the train to Glyndebourne by someone who despised opera, saying it was "not for her". What does that prove ? Only that some people need to prove something to themselves.

Society is unequal. As long as there are people who feel excluded, there's something wrong with the system.  It's deeply worrying that the post Blair Left finds more mileage in playing on class divisions than on addressing the realities of class and race. Schoolchildren won't be culturally enfranchised until they are economically and socially given the wherewithal to do whatever they want to do with their lives. Why not address illiteracy, or deprivation,  or the many other reasons kids may never overcome their situation ?  What purpose will be achieved by putting pie charts in arts venues achieve? Nothing in real terms, except to whip up class resentment and win votes for unscrupulous MPs. .

Arts organizations will need to divert even more time and money to fulfill bean counting obligations. Most of them already have extensive outreach programmes and involve the community. Not just one offs like giving the homeless jobs in Dialogues des Carmélites, but wider activities like next year's Roundhouse Monteverdi. Schools are cash and time strapped too. Although the arts are part of basic education, schools are already under enough pressure teaching kids how to read, write and count.  When they get support for that, they can support arts activities. The Coalition didn't suddenly curb music education in schools. That's been gradually eroded for the last 30 or 40 years. Fix basic music education before all else. Forget silly gimmicks, like insisting that every child has to attend a concert or opera once a year. That would be counter productive. Young people rebel (thank goodness).  Force feeding would only reinforce the idea that the arts "are not for them". No-one benefits but the army of enforcers. However, a n education in basic human values gives people the ability to think for themselves, in their own time. There must be thousands of people who came to opera as they grew older and more mature. he arts are about choice : each person in his or her own way, in his or her own time. What's so threatening about that ?

So "serious" music is loved by a relatively small section of the community  People don't have to be "stakeholders" to value the arts. Classical music is a form of cultural heritage, which we are all part of, whatever our class or colour or interests. Not everyone needs to go to Covent Garden to prove they care who Mozart was. The important thing is that people value the idea of culture, as an ideal for which anyone can aim for. It does matter that kids from families who don't officially "do culture" should at least know that it's out there for them, if and when they want it.  A minority kid doesn't need to know Beethoven, but he or she does need to know that such people  matter, and that they can aspire too, should they wish to. A friend of mine, now an international scientist, was told at school he could work in a chemist shop. But his parents had ideals and let him he be whatever he wanted to be.

Cutting arts funding harms everyone (except bean counters) because it kills the very thing that makes the arts so valuable. If a product is good, it attracts customers. Adulterate quality, ruin the product.  Why should the disenfranchised pay attention if the so-called toffs themselves destroy the product ? If we don't value the arts for what they really represent, we might as well forget the whole exercise of believing in values at all.  Not everyone has special talents, and some must strive hard to achieve excellence.  That's why excellence is an elusive goal, reached by only the very few. Sure, it's "elite". But that kind of elitism excludes no-one who is prepared to appreciate how it's achieved. Unfortunately we live in a shallow culture where anyone can be an instant expert by misusing google, and genuine knowledge is resented. That's the kind of elitism excellence represents, and which we need. 

Political stereotypes in Britain have changed drastically since 1945. Pity that some folks still cling to cloth cap deference. Maybe the British are too hamstrung by perceived barriers ?  Maybe it's a wider problem. When I hear the Met announcers whisper like children I cringe. Opera isn't only for an elite, or for "grown ups". To put things in TV terms, why should "Downstairs"defer to "Upstairs" ?  That's the premise of The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. To some extent opera is constrained by those who actually want it to be backward-looking, and have a stake in keeping others out. But good music education (not just for kids) teaches people how to think and listen for themselves without carrying the baggage of false expectations. It's this baggage that stifles appreciation, not the art form itself.

Harriet Harman's proposals are flawed because they destroy the very ideas that make the arts - and education - worthwhile. The arts aren't a form of political football. Winning on points is stupid if the pitch itself is wrecked.  Read more here with- Patrick Wintour in the Guardian, Matthew Holehouse in the Telegraph, both political writers : hardly a peek from arts writers who ought to be concerned.  Another article in the Guardian here. The second write reveals rather a lot about her priorities. .

photo : Lewis Clark