Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Goya: The Portraits

(National Gallery, London, until 10 January 2016)

As someone who focuses on drawings and prints, I'm most familiar with Goya as a dark satirist, haunted by nightmarish images of witches and tumbling figures, like those in the recent show at the Courtauld. It's easy to forget that his contemporaries knew him best for another very different aspect of his art, which forms the focus of this brand new exhibition at the National Gallery: his portraits. It was a genre that Goya didn't really begin to explore until his late thirties, but he quickly became celebrated for the bravura of his technique and his ability to capture, honestly and unflinchingly, the personalities of his sitters. His success was crowned in 1786 with his appointment as Painter to the King, and his subsequent portraits of the Spanish Royal Family and their courtiers provide a glimpse of a glittering, privileged world that would soon be torn apart, first by internal strife and then, later, by the French invasion. 

The exhibition is much more than a simple parade of one beautiful picture after another. Goya's portraits are shrewd, wary, witty, warm and challenging, because he's rarely content to simply paint the outward show. That's not to say that he skimps on grandeur, because Goya at his most flamboyant is one of the most daring painters of the period. The gold trimmings on Ferdinand VII's crimson cloak are evoked with dots and dashes of black, white, yellow and red, tumbling over the canvas with impressionistic verve. The uncompromising, fierce riot of colour made me think of Jackson Pollock. But for Goya the clothes do not make the man. He's more interested in painting what lies beneath the finery and so, for all the grandeur of Ferdinand's gold braid, my memory of that portrait is dominated by the face. It's not a kind face, but one that seems self-satisfied, spiteful and pusillanimous. Compare this with Goya's treatment of his friend Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, who sits half-lost in mournful thought, represented with a softness and affection which is a world away from Ferdinand's brash strutting. The catalogue suggests in its opening essay that Goya was an objective painter, but I find it hard to see this. Perhaps it's simply my imagination going into overdrive, but when you look at a Goya portrait it seems immediately obvious whether he felt a sympathy for his sitter or not: he had a particular gift of representing people in a way that suggests an entire personality.

Take the handsome Marquis of San Adrián, for example. Painted in 1804, he leans nonchalantly on a pillar exuding self-confident charisma, from his fashionably windswept hair down to his yellow buckskin breeches, whose broad highlights suggest their softness. The book in his hand acknowledges his status as a scholar and patron of the theatre, but the wicked eyes and slight grin give a flavour of a lively character which almost crackles off the canvas thanks to Goya's vigorous brushwork. Compare him to the Duke of Alba, patron of Haydn and a gifted violinist, who was painted in 1795 in almost exactly the same pose but in reverse. The Duke has none of the Marquis's extrovert playfulness, though he's just as elegant. Reading a Haydn score, with his violin close to hand, he's a thoroughly serious, self-contained figure, although there's still a brooding intensity to his stare. And then compare both of these gentlemen to Don Valentin Bellvis de Moncada y Pizarro, painted at much the same date as the Duke. Goya 'zooms' in on Don Valentin, who nevertheless still looks small and slightly isolated against a broad dark background. His hands close tightly on the handle of his cane; he glances towards the viewer shyly, almost furtively; and the soft quirk of an eyebrow suggests hope, fear and uncertainty all rolled into one. But there is a great humanity in Goya's portrayal of all three men: an equal warmth, even as he implies three very different personalities in his portraits.

Portrait of Ferdinand VII, showing the tremendous evocation of light on gold, and the king's rather untrustworthy face
Goya's friend Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos | The Marquis de San Adrian in all his grandeur
It seemed to me (based on this show, anyway) that Goya rarely reached the same level of psychological engagement in his portraits of women. These feel more traditional, as swagger portraits that seek to convey the sitters' wealth, status and beauty without probing in quite the same way into their inner lives. He is much admired for his famous portrait of the Duchess of Alba, but while it's technically impressive for its rendering of black lace and gold sleeves, and the free washes of the background landscape, I don't get much sense of the Duchess as an individual. She stands pointing down to the words 'Solo Goya' written in the dust at her feet. Traditionally interpreted as proof of a love affair between her and the artist, it's now thought that this is just Goya showing off; and certainly there's little sense of emotional attachment. The Duchess is grand; she's inaccessible; she's defined by her rank and status rather than by her personality. It's interesting to see that, while Goya's men are often individuals, his young aristocratic women usually have similarly idealized pale oval faces, thick dark brows and clouds of frizzed hair. For me, broadly speaking, he's less interesting as a painter of women than as a painter of men. 

But of course there are exceptions. His full-length portrait of Queen Maria Luisa of Parma is sensitive even as it is ruthless, showing the queen as the rather plain woman that she was, but gently filling out her cheeks to disguise the fact she'd lost her teeth by this date. Goya could be kind. Look too at his deeply sympathetic, but very honest portrait of the Dowager Marchioness of Villafranca, whose dignity and warmth are palpable even as her jowls begin to softly sag and dark circles form under her eyes. And one of the most remarkable portraits in the show is the Marchioness of Santa Cruz, painted as a Muse in 1805, shortly after her marriage. But, beyond the crown of vine leaves and the obligatory lyre, there isn't much that's mythological: this beautiful young woman reclines on a very contemporary divan, wearing a low-cut shift that's so sheer you can see the dip of her navel beneath it. It's a robust, mischievous, sexy picture and it seems terrifically daring for this date and social context. In the immediate context of the exhibition it's also rather unnerving because you've seen the same woman, just a few rooms beforehand, as a pretty four-year-old in a group portrait of her family (the Osunas). 

Don Valentin Bellvis de Moncada y Pizarro | The Dowager Marchioness of Villafranca | The Marchioness of Santa Cruz as a Muse
It also becomes clear that Goya's own attention wasn't always focused on the sitter in his paintings. Throughout his career his penetrating, shrewd portraits sit alongside pictures which fail to capture the same intensity. This can't be blamed on Goya's gifts as a painter, obviously, so perhaps implies that in the process of painting he became pleasantly distracted by some other part of the picture: the rendering of lace or decoration, perhaps; or incidental figures; or circumstantial detail. In The Family of the Infante Don Luis, the family themselves are rather posed and staid, but their servants have a much greater charge of reality; and the highlight of the whole picture is the man on the right, who grins broadly out of the canvas at us. Similarly, the famous Portrait of Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga presents its young sitter with a delicacy and caution that neuters some of its power. But the little boy is accompanied by a cage of captive goldfinches in the lower right corner (as well as the cats who receive so much attention when people write about this picture). The birds in their cage are vividly alive, painted with streaks of green and white, and dabs of red. For me, this was the most dazzling part of the picture. 

And I think that this aspect was one of the most interesting about the exhibition. While it's aesthetically pleasing to look at a series of masterpieces, it's more instructive to be able to compare the brilliant with the slightly less successful and to think about why there's a difference. Was the artist less engaged? Did he find it difficult to relate to the sitter? Did he feel it wise to keep at an emotional distance in certain cases (like the young women whom he paints with such inoffensive grace)?

But there's one area in which Goya felt entirely free to scrutinise and harrow to his heart's content, and that's in his self-portraits. An admirer of Rembrandt, he subjected himself to the same self-investigation and it's interesting to compare the self-portrait made in his early thirties (which opens the exhibition) with that painted thirteen years before his death (which you find towards the end). The technique is different, of course: the later portrait is freer and more dynamic, while the earlier picture is still influenced by the polished portraits of Anton Raphael Mengs, who'd been one of his teachers. But in both you have a sense of Goya pushing, studying himself, trying to go beyond mere representation - on the one hand, the young man eager to impress and progress; on the other, a man worn out by the miseries of his country and his own misfortunes. And these are joined by a third image of the artist, the 1820 Self Portrait with Doctor Arrieta, in which Goya shows himself in the throes of a dangerous illness he'd recently suffered, tended by the doctor who had seen him safely through it. It's a brutally frank portrait, a long way from the composed self-studies of earlier years. Both a shocking tribute to human frailty (Goya's) and human endeavour (the doctor's), it shows Goya exploring new themes and formats of portraiture even in the last years of his life. 

Creative, insightful and technically dazzling, these are pictures that deserve to have time spent with them. No doubt the exhibition will be very popular, but be prepared to brave the crowds: this is a wonderful introduction to the lesser-known side of Goya's activity as an artist, away from the dark horrors of the Caprichos. And I've barely scratched the surface here: I've left plenty of wonderful portraits for you to discover for yourself. (If you can't discover them in person, you can do so through the catalogue.) It's especially recommended to those who enjoyed the psychological intensity and splendid costumes of the Moroni exhibition at the RA, because in many ways Goya is Moroni's 19th-century successor: another portraitist who is able to pierce the carefully constructed façades of social status and fashion, in order to reveal the characters within.

Goya's self portraits: from left, at the age of 34 in 1780, at the age of 74 in 1815
and his powerful Self Portrait with Doctor Arrieta, painted at the age of 79 in 1820

Monday, 5 October 2015

The Heresy of Love

(Shakespeare's Globe, 28 August 2015)


Like men, do [women] not have a rational soul? Why then shall they not enjoy the privilege of the enlightenment of letters? Is a woman's soul not as receptive to God's grace and glory as a man's? Then why is she not as able to receive learning and knowledge, which are the lesser gifts? What divine revelation, what regulation of the Church, what rule of reason framed for us such severe law?
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, 'Response to Sor Filotea', 1691 

I saw Helen Edmundson's play The Heresy of Love over a month ago and, since the run finished in early September, there may be little point posting on it now. However, in recent days I've been turning it over in my mind again, thanks to the novel I'm currently reading: Flow Down Like Silver, about Hypatia of Alexandria. The parallels between these two brilliant women are obvious and crushing. Both were rich in intelligence and wit; both were faced with a new and unforgiving religious regime, which couldn't tolerate that which it couldn't control; and both were punished because they strayed beyond the confines of what was considered acceptable for a woman to know. Both stories provoke me to anger. Both deserve to be better known.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695) was something of a prodigy. By her mid-teens, when she joined the viceroy's court in Mexico City as a lady in waiting to the vicereine, she was already noted not only for her beauty but also for her theological understanding, her knowledge of Latin, Spanish and Nahuatl, and her gifts as a poet. It's said that, like a latter-day St Catherine, she astonished an assembly of philosophers and clerics at the age of only seventeen. A glittering future beckoned: court patronage and a splendid marriage, no doubt. But Juana herself had other ideas. Determined to find a place that would give her space to think and write, she entered the convent of St Jerome in 1669 and became a nun. Although this was technically a closed order, she was far from deprived. Excavations suggest that some cells were more like suites, with private bathrooms and living rooms, and Juana was able to receive visits from the vicereine and other friends from court. It was to them that she dedicated her works: poems, passion plays, hymns, secular songs and at least two theatrical plays. Celebrated and admired, she'd found the perfect niche in which to survive as an intellectually curious woman who wished to avoid the loss of independence that would come with husband and family. 

Angelica (Gwyneth Keyworth) and Juanita (Sophia Nomvete) | Sor Juana (Naomi Frederick)
But then - and this is where the play begins - a new archbishop comes to Mexico City from Spain, with the threat of the Inquisition in his wake. Shocked by the licence he sees all around him, Aguiar y Sejas (Phil Witchurch) is determined to save the souls of his people, who have been misled by aristocratic indulgence and frivolity. Many things in Mexico horrify him, but one of the most alarming is the news that a nun is writing plays for the court and openly discussing theology. She must be stopped. But the Archbishop's task won't be easy. Juana (Naomi Frederick) has many supporters, drawn not just from the social elite but also from the Archbishop's own subordinates. Her confessor, Father Antonio (Patrick Driver), remains her friend even as he struggles with his own doubts over the propriety of her lifestyle; and she has also stimulated the interest of another powerful cleric: the ambitious Bishop Santa Cruz (Anthony Howell). Nursing a bitter fury that the archbishopric has gone to Aguiar y Sejas, and not to him, Santa Cruz sees Juana as a weapon in his own advancement. Plotting how best to discredit the Archbishop and take his place, he decides to favour this remarkable woman and, through becoming her friend, win the favour of the viceregal court. 

He isn't prepared for what he finds, though: a sharp, witty, down-to-earth woman who is still beautiful, and who for her part is intrigued by this clever, personable man who has taken such an interest in her. A connection made purely for the sake of ambition threatens to become clouded with something else; but Santa Cruz is too wise for that. After all, there might come a time when it's no longer convenient to be seen as this woman's friend, and he can't afford to completely cut his ties to Aguiar y Sejas. Juana, too, has other concerns. As the new Archbishop tightens his grip, she finds herself being denied privileges that she'd come to take for granted. She begins to fear that soon she might even be forbidden to think with the mind God himself has given her. She too must be careful, fighting for her independence without overstepping the line. And it won't be an easy battle, for she has enemies even within the convent, such as the envious Sor Sebastiana (Rhiannon Oliver), who feels that her own ecstatic visions deserve as much attention as Juana's worldly thoughts. And then there is another kind of trouble: Angelica (Gwyneth Keyworth), Juana's irrepressible niece, who has joined the convent as a novice. However, as adolescence creeps upon her, Angelica is discovering that the world holds things much more to her liking than a nun's habit.

Triumph and disaster: Juana is charmed by the friendship offered by Santa Cruz (Anthony Howell)
At the end of all, even Father Antonio (Patrick Driver) can't find comfort in the chaos
Having first come across Sor Juana several years ago, via the sprawling and rather unpleasant novel Hunger's Brides, I was keen to see what Edmundson would make of her. It would've been easy and unchallenging to make this into a straightforward story of 'woman oppressed by patriarchy'. But, while that's true, The Heresy of Love presents us with villains who have principles and heroines who are flawed. Juana, for all her nobility and intellectual vigour, is naive in thinking that everyone is as rational as she is. Capable of writing plays full of sophisticated understanding of the human heart, she fails to see the needs of Angelica under her very eyes. Amazed by the potential of the human mind, she doesn't realise that not everyone sees questioning and exploration as a virtue. Some see it as a threat. And by the time Juana does understand this, it is too late. By the same token, the Archbishop is driven by a deep desire to prove himself in an unwelcoming country, and to enforce the same virtue and piety that he has seen back home in Spain. Even Santa Cruz, with his soliloquies and his realpolitik, is corrupted by the genuine injustice of being passed over for a job he knows he could have done well. 

And these subtleties were brought out further by the actors. Frederick was luminous and forceful, giving Juana a human warmth while showing the firmness of her resolution and the lack of wisdom with which she sometimes deploys her intellect. As her friend-turned-nemesis, Howell made an imposing Santa Cruz: handsome, arrogant and ironic in his monologues, drawing the audience into his schemes and making us complicit even as we longed for him to fail. The supporting cast of nuns and nobles were all strong, with Sophia Nomvete giving a particularly enjoyable turn as Sor Juana's irreverent servant Juanita; but the prize of the night must go to Keyworth's Angelica. Skittish, silly and unbelievably innocent, she came across as the Lydia Bennet of Baroque Mexico: the girl who's still dismissed as a child by all those around her, but who is beginning to know herself as a woman, without yet knowing the trouble that she can unleash. Every time Keyworth bounced onto the stage, I perked up: she was utterly delightful.

The play itself is not flawless: there were moments, perhaps, when it was trying too hard to make its point, and it didn't always flow entirely smoothly. That said, it's thought-provoking and does exactly what you want from a play based on a historical figure: it shows you Juana's remarkable ability without ever placing her on an unreachable pedestal. It acknowledges her flaws and makes her human. To risk spoilers, her final choice in the struggle with the Archbishop may not be the showy defiance of martyrdom, but it is in some ways a harder choice to swallow: deprived of all she holds dear, forced to deny of the value of what she has spent her life achieving. She succumbs and diminishes herself to fit within the measure of another man's compass. It was a gentler end than that afforded Hypatia, but it shows that in the course of fourteen hundred years very little had changed in the way that the establishment treated educated women. One would like to imagine that, in the four hundred years since Juana's death, we've made some progress...

If you have the chance to see a revival of The Heresy of Love, I'd recommend it. It might not be entirely perfect, but it's a fine introduction to the life and legacy of a remarkable woman. You can also buy the play as a text; and of course there are many studies of Sor Juana, but I haven't read any of them so can't point to one over another as being particularly good. I'd very much like to know whether anyone else has read anything about, or indeed by Juana, which might be a good place to start for further investigation. I leave you with one more quote from Juana herself, which might be worth bearing in mind when we come back to talk about Hypatia in a few days' time:
Is not God, who is supreme goodness, also supreme wisdom? Then why would he find ignorance more acceptable than knowledge?
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, 'Letter to her confessor'
Two portraits of Sor Juana: as a 15-year-old prodigy, before taking the veil (by J. Sanchez) and
a later portrait by Miguel Cabrera (c. 1750, Chapultepec Castle) showing her in her study

Sunday, 4 October 2015


(directed by Justin Kurzel, 2015)

«««« ½

Your face, my thane, is as a book where men
May read strange matters... Bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower
But be the serpent under 't. He that's coming
Must be provided for; and you shall put
This night's great business into my dispatch;
Which shall to all our nights and days to come
Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom.
Lady Macbeth, Act I, Scene 5

When enthusing about Dorothy Dunnett's superlative novel King Hereafter, or Kurosawa's gripping Throne of Blood, I'd always felt a secret shame that I hadn't actually ever seen the source material: the Scottish play itself. But now I can hold my head high thanks to Justin Kurzel's new film, which sounded so promising that it persuaded me to go to the cinema for the first time since March 2014; and with a couple of friends I descended on the Covent Garden Odeon for opening night.

Macbeth is Thane of Glamis: a Scottish nobleman and warlord, who has gained great renown as general of the armies of King Duncan: as the play opens, he and his fellow general Banquo have just crushed the forces of the rebellious Macdonwald. While surveying the carnage, the two men come across three mysterious women (Kurzel adds a silent, unnerving child and, later, a babe in arms), who give them a troubling greeting. They hail Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor, 'that shalt be king hereafter' and acknowledge Banquo as the father of a future line of kings. When the women vanish into the mists, the two men scarcely know what to make of it. Macbeth is Thane of Glamis, not Cawdor. How can such a prophecy be believed? But presently a messenger arrives from Duncan, bearing congratulations on the victory and gracing Macbeth with a new honour: the title of Thane of Cawdor. Slowly, almost frightened to accept it, he begins to understand that the prophecy is true; but still he wonders what must be done to bring about his final elevation to the crown. In the meantime, since Duncan proposes to enjoy their hospitality at Inverness, Macbeth sends word of their imminent arrival - and the puzzling prophecy - to his wife. If he has qualms about how to act to seize power, Lady Macbeth has none: she is ambitious, proactive and ruthlessly persuasive. She sees only one solution: Duncan must die, so that Macbeth can take his place. But this step, once achieved, leads only one way, and that to madness. As both husband and wife struggle with the consequences of their treason, and as Macbeth grows ever more determined to prevent the prophecy doing good to anyone but himself, a dark spectre of tyranny begins to spread its wings over Scotland. And far to the south, in England, Duncan's exiled son Malcolm gathers soldiers, watches and bides his time.

King and Queen: the pressure begins to tell on Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and his wife (Marion Cotillard)
Banquo (Paddy Considine) knows the writing is on the wall
Part of the reason I've never made more of an effort to see Macbeth is because I had the impression that it was little more than a ghoul show, full of witches and visions and ghosts. By the same token, part of the reason Kurzel's film works so incredibly well is because he turns the supernatural elements into monsters of the mind. The play becomes a disturbing study of trauma and psychosis: an exploration of psychological disintegration which cuts out the bats and newts and leaves us with a splendidly austere morality tale whose spirit is echoed in the bleak landscapes that sweep across the screen. My friend thought, in fact, that the scenery was too beautiful: she said that it felt more like an advert than a film. And it's true that Scotland has rarely looked so precipitous, so gorgeously desolate, as it does here. But for me, the barren beauty had a purpose. The open vistas of moorland and mountain somehow emphasised Macbeth's increasing psychological isolation and exposure. The splendour of nature only threw into relief the ugly pettiness of human ambition, and the sense of something greater and more eternal. In that context, the weird sisters feel less like storybook witches and more like pagan symbols of life and nature: they come and go with the mists, and the child with them grows older throughout the film, a discreet but unsettling sign of the passage of time. They are eerie in a much more satisfying way than the chanting hags I've seen in clips of other productions.

Every detail in the film looks gorgeous, not just the landscapes. Costumes are ancient and timeless, though we felt the general time period was probably meant to be eleventh or twelfth century. The weave of the homespun fabric is almost palpable through the screen, while there is little glamour about any of the characters: faces are lined and worn; the men are battle-scarred; the children preternaturally wide-eyed; the women, in some cases, luminously beautiful but also haunted. And the cast is full of the cream of British character actors, by which I mean those with subtle, understated acting skills and interesting faces (this is a long way from the kind of Working Title spot-the-celebrity-Brit casting). David Thewlis made a gracious and quiet Duncan, a man too gentle for the times in which he found himself; while Paddy Considine was Banquo, shrewd enough to know that the prophecy can only spell danger for him, and wise enough to be troubled by Macbeth's increasingly strained pretence of affection. I spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out where I'd seen Macduff before: Sean Harris didn't just look familiar, but I knew that light, raspy voice very well indeed; and it was only after working my way through the entire cast of Game of Thrones that I realised he was Michelotto in The Borgias. His Macduff was a wonderfully rich figure: stricken in turn by grief and bloody determination, but still subtly grieved by the necessity of killing his former friend turned enemy.

Narratives of loss: Macbeth is haunted by those he's killed; Lady Macbeth by the death of her own child
But the film belongs to Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Before going to the cinema I'd read that Kurzel viewed Macbeth's mental disintegration as a symptom of post-traumatic stress. Having spent his adult life wading through blood on the battlefield and brutally carving up men at arm's length, he is beginning to crack under the strain. Here the ghostly apparitions are visions of those Macbeth has killed and seen killed: the expression of his enormous guilt, not just for the murders he's committed (or so I read it) but also the guilt he feels for having survived where so many of his friends and colleagues have been cut down. Fassbender, who looks different in everything I've seen him in, bulks up to play this battered, wearied warrior: blood-streaked and seared by the sun, lined and weathered, he convincingly looks like the kind of man who could come out of a battle alive. But he also conveys Macbeth's softer side: the uncertainty and unwillingness to break his vows by murdering his king; the flashes of irony and humanity which gives you a sense of why he is such a good general; and, most of all, his love for his wife. Cotillard is no hard, icy virago, but simply a determined, strong woman who finds herself in a position to better her own state and that of her husband. She isn't willing to accept that the crown is a futile ambition for a childless couple: who's to say they might not have another child? She's still young and the film subtly shows that their bond as a couple is based as much on sexual attraction as ambition. But Lady Macbeth, too, has her weakness. The film opens with them burying their infant child: a loss which clearly works on her as his treason works on her husband. In a powerful scene, Kurzel shows her descent into madness - 'To bed, to bed: there's knocking at the gate. Come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What's done cannot be undone' - while she sits on the floor of her old home in Inverness, lost in visions of her dead child. This was the moment in which Cotillard impressed me most: her hair shrouded beneath an almost Biblical veil; her eyes fluid with tears which built up and then, achingly slowly, fell down her cheek. She looked like a weeping Venetian Madonna. And there is another powerful moment: the point where Macbeth condemns the family of Macduff to death, and Lady Macbeth realises to her horror that he has gone past the point where she can control him. Until that point, knowing his inner frailty, she has shielded him and guided him, taken on the weight of decisions and prompted him along the 'right' paths; but now his psychosis has taken him into places she can't follow. And it seems to be that - the loss of the one she loves, at a moment when everything is teetering on the edge of ruin - that pushes her into her own decline. Both actors are magnificent: to see them together is sheer cinematic magic.

There are certain things which won't appeal to everyone. Even I had a bit of trouble with the accents at the beginning: everyone speaks with a Scottish lilt, some more impenetrable than others, and it is not easy to follow. You get into it, but the troublesome accents and the innate complexity of the dialogue might prove a bit too much for some. And the film is also very slow, even though my friend explained that quite a lot of the dialogue had been cut (having flicked through the play this afternoon, I think this is a rare case in which the cuts make for a more powerful, affecting story). The pace has been picked for a reason, though: it builds up the tension incrementally, and allows the characters moments to ponder their situations; moments in which (thanks to the cinematography) you can almost hear the high-pitching wind shivering among the crags. But it won't grip those who've come in search of battles and witches and shrieking madness. Some people walked out of the film on Friday. I think they were mad to do so, but it proves that it isn't for everyone. For me, though, it was an absolutely perfect way to encounter the play for the first time. In fact, ironically, it didn't feel like 'a film of a Shakespeare play': it worked superbly in its own right and had a deep integrity which shows that you don't have to update Shakespeare in order for it to feel original. Yes, it demands a measure of patience that not everyone nowadays can manage, but it rewards you with a nuanced, sophisticated and starkly beautiful reading of the play. It was a production well worth waiting for, and it deserves all the plaudits it's been getting.

And, to round off, here are some alternative film posters, showing the leading couple in all their state.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Handel House Talent Scheme 2015-16

I was flattered and quite frankly rather astonished when Handel House invited me to join them for their 2015-16 Talent Scheme launch event on 21 September (to watch, not to participate, obviously). Every year they take on half a dozen scarily talented young musicians who specialise in Baroque music and provide them with a space to develop their skills with masterclasses, performance opportunities and other guidance. It's still a very new initiative - last year was the first intake, I believe - but it seems destined to go from strength to strength. As you know, I'm always delighted that the Baroque scene in London (or at least the bits of it I tend to see) are full of young, vibrant performers; so it was wonderful to spend an evening in Handel's rehearsal room, getting a sneak peek at the new crop of participants, as well as hearing from some of last year's talent. Here are some of the names you should be looking out for in the future.

We kicked off with the Ensemble in Residence: recorder quartet Block4 (Emily Bannister, Lucy Carr, Katie Cowling and Rosie Land). Well: their instruments were allegedly recorders but they looked like no recorder I've ever seen before. Imagine what you might get if Leonardo da Vinci designed a periscope, and that gives you some idea: utterly extraordinary objects. And yet the sound produced by them was gorgeous: rich and fluting, with an almost medieval grace in the first piece they played, Handel's Fugue in C Minor. That was followed by something completely different: Wicked by the Dutch composer Michiel Mensingh (b. 1975). Here the music sounded almost electronic: jagged and staccato, rather like the music that used to be on computer games when I was at school. Block4 pulled it off with aplomb and great skill: there seemed to be almost circular breathing going on at one point. They also perform with normal-looking recorders, of course, but you should definitely look out for these strange wooden contraptions. Quite remarkable. They have a recital on 3 December which should be worth a look, showing off their chronological range with music from Caccini to Pärt.

Block4 (photo courtesy of Handel House) | The incredible recorders used on the night (photo from WildKat PR's Twitter account)
Before we heard from the new intake, we had a couple of performances from participants on last year's scheme. First up was mezzo Cathy Bell, whom I'd come across by name several times but never actually heard. Regular readers of this blog will know the kind of voices I enjoy, and she was definitely my kind of mezzo: on the deeper side, with sumptuous dark velvet on the low notes and plenty of colour. To make matters even better, she chose to sing Venti turbini from Rinaldo, which meant I started the evening on a delicious bravura high. A mental aria like that must challenge the musicians as just much as the singer but Bell's fellow scheme members, Katarzyna Kowalik (on the harpsichord) and Elspeth Robertson (on the recorder), offered brisk and confident accompaniment. Robertson's recorder took the place usually occupied by the strings, and the result was rather beautiful, with fluttering notes almost like birdsong setting off the agility of Bell's voice. Following this devilish aria, we had a performance by the cellist George Ross. He played a Capriccio in C minor by Giuseppe Maria dall' Abaco (1710-1805), a Flemish-born Italian cellist and composer who spent about a decade working in London in the mid 18th-century, but whom I'm embarrassed to say I hadn't heard of before. Calm and measured, this capriccio was a striking contrast to Venti turbini, and Ross played with understated intensity, head bowed over the cello, picking out a freshness in the music that worked very well in that intimate space. Indeed, there was an almost magical sense of spontaneity about it, as if he were simply creating the music on the spur of the moment. 

Last year's participants who performed tonight: Cathy Bell | George Ross | Katarzyna Kowalik | Elspeth Robertson
Photos courtesy of Handel House
After a little talk by Laurence Cummings welcoming the 2015 intake, we moved onto this new crop of talent. The harpsichordist Satoko Doi-Luck (who is also a composer) got us underway with a Suite in D major by Purcell. Having been somewhat scared off by The Indian Queen, I haven't listened to much Purcell, but this piece was delightful: an underlying rhythm that blithely tripped along, overlaid at first with a sequence of lovely rippling notes, smoothly changing pace from one section to the next, and rounding off with a very lively hornpipe. Doi-Luck was absolutely in control, without suppressing the vigour of the piece at all. As someone whose own musical skills are non-existent, I'm always staggered by how musicians actually create these sounds. Harpsichordists and pianists leave me in awe at the sheer amount of finger-movement that goes into those flowing sweeps of notes, although I was shortly to discover that recorders demand no less dexterity. That realisation came courtesy of Olwen Foulkes, who stepped up next to play Telemann's Recorder sonata in C major, with Doi-Luck continuing on the harpischord to offer accompaniment. A shimmering opening switched back and forth from adagio to a warbling allegro, delivered at impressively high speed; then giving way to an elegant sicilienne; and finishing off with a vivace that lived up to its name and sounded rather like a nightingale on steroids. Clearly I need to look at Telemann in more detail.

Handel House not only have a Talent Scheme and an Ensemble in Residence, but also a Composer in Residence, which is likewise an annual award. The new composer is Hunter Coblentz, who overcame the electrical challenges of an 18th-century townhouse in order to play us (from speakers linked to his phone) one of a series of songs he'd recently composed. All are based on the poetry of Sylvia Plath and this song was titled Death and Co, including parts for soprano, alto flute, bass clarinet, cello, piano and mixed percussion. (I'm very glad I was taking notes.) Now, you must forgive me: I feel slightly out of my depth with anything written after 1800, so all I can say is that it was an evocatively unsettling piece, which I imagine (given the title) was precisely what was intended. There was a subtle, building sense of menace beneath the music, occasionally pierced by eerie snatches of flute; and I positively marvelled at the stratospheric heights reached by the soprano at the end. It's going to be very interesting to see what Coblentz comes up with during the year of his residency and I imagine in due course he'll be taking over the Composer in Residence blog currently helmed by last year's incumbent, Edwin Hillier.

Satoko Doi-Luck (harpsichord) | Olwen Foulkes (recorder) | Hunter Coblentz (composer)
Photos by David Brunetti, courtesy of Handel House (details used here)
To round things off, we moved back into Baroque territory. The baton was passed on to Aidan Phillips, a harpsichordist, who performed a suite written by the French composer Antoine Forqueray (1671-1745). Originally intended for the viola da gamba and transcribed for the harpsichord, this piece is called 'La Leclair' and - I'm sure the world will correct me if I'm wrong - was written as a musical portrait of the composer Leclair, Forqueray's contemporary. It was a terrifically jaunty piece with veritable waterfalls of notes and, although I couldn't see Phillips's hands, I can only imagine that his fingers were flying over the keys. It was immensely enjoyable; and provided a good contrast to the final performance of the evening, from the mezzo-soprano Eleanor Minney. Like Bell, she is the only singer in her intake. She gave us part of a Bach cantata, the so-called 'Sorrowful Song' commissioned by Leipzig University to lament the death of Queen Christine of Poland, who'd died young. It began with a sober recitative in which Phillips, still on the harpsichord, emulated the tolling sound of bells; and gave way to an elegiac aria stressing the peace of death. Minney drew out both the sorrow and the austere beauty of it, offering a closing note of haunting calm after the exuberance of the Forqueray. Truly lovely. All in all, it was a great evening. Not only have I now added several more names to my watchlist, I've also been introduced to a couple of composers I hadn't previously heard of. Beautiful music and a learning curve. What could be better? There will be plenty of opportunity to see these young musicians in masterclasses and recitals next year, so keep your eye on the website and get ready to pounce quickly if you see something that you like: the rehearsal room is tiny and events sell out quickly. 

Proof of that is offered by the current series of concerts being offered by last year's participants. You can find the (nearly sold-out) programme here and I'll be reporting back, probably with much excitement, from Cathy Bell's Raging Roland recital next week. We'll also have the chance to hear all six of last year's intake in December, along with a world premiere of the piece composed by Edwin Hillier as the culmination of his residence. This festive showcase will be on 10 December at St George's, Hanover Square: according to the website, we'll be hearing from Cathy Bell, George Ross, Katarzyna Kowalik and Elspeth Robertson, as well as their fellow participants Caoimhe de Paor (who plays the recorder) and Marie van Rhijn (you might remember Marie from her recital with Randall Scotting which I wrote about earlier this year). 

It was a real treat to have a taster of what's coming up over the next year, and I'll keep you posted on future recitals and other sightings of this talented bunch of people. 

Aidan Phillips (harpsichord) | Eleanor Minney (mezzo) | Mirjam Münzel (recorder), who wasn't able to join us on the night
Photos by David Brunetti, courtesy of Handel House (details used here)

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Pantomime: Laura Lam

(published by Strange Chemistry, £7.99, or from Amazon)

««« ½

Micah Grey: Book I

I can't quite remember how this book ended up on my Kindle, but I suspect it was another Goodreads recommendation. I've always enjoyed novels about theatre and performance, and this one promised something along the lines of The Night Circus: blending the sleight-of-hand of the circus with a more mysterious, elemental kind of magic. I freely confess that the 'young adult' designation put me off reading it for some time: nothing but a silly prejudice of mine; and one that I regretted as I was drawn into the story. I wonder in fact why it needs to be tagged with that label at all. Lam develops the traditional coming-of-age fare into a sleek gender-bending fantasy thriller, set in a world tinted with Victoriana and with a mechanical edge which frequently reminded me of The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters. Light and of modest length, it proved to be perfect travel reading on the way home from a business trip. Before I start, I will say that there are spoilers ahead and it's not really possible to avoid them, so if you prefer not to be spoiled, tread carefully.

The teenage runaway Micah Grey is skulking outside R.H. Ragona's circus, long after the end of the show, when he's discovered and hauled in front of the ringmaster and assembled company. When challenged with a sneer to show off his skills, Micah knows exactly what he can do to impress. Displaying his head for heights and dexterity at climbing, he succeeds in prompting a grudging offer: a new start with the circus, and a chance to train as an aerialist. Over the coming months, he is licked into shape by the two existing aerialists - gruff Arik and beautiful, captivating Aenea, who becomes the object of his shy adoration. As he builds his natural affinity for the trapeze and tightrope, he strives to fit into this eccentric, touchy group of people, who have closed ranks against the world outside the circus, which has only ever regarded them as freaks and outcasts. And that's a situation with which Micah can sympathise. He, too, has spent his whole life failing to meet up to the world's expectations.

The first problem (this is where the spoilers start) is that Micah isn't a penniless street rat but the scion of one of the wealthiest families in this city of Ellada. Used to moving among the social elite, he has been blessed with a good education, fine clothes and a comfortable - albeit increasingly confusing - life. That confusion is founded in Micah's second secret: he is not, strictly speaking, a boy. Raised as Iphigenia Laurus, the daughter of a distinguished family, he has just been presented in polite society as a debutante, and the prospect of a 'suitable' marriage is already looming on the horizon. But there's the issue. Technically he's not quite a girl either. And his desperate flight from home is not some rich-kid attempt at slumming it, but a response to two shattering discoveries. First, his lifelong round of doctors' appointments is to be crowned by an imminent visit to a surgeon, who plans to 'cure' his 'disability' by the knife. Secondly, the people he's always believed to be his parents are in fact merely his guardians, given custody of him when he was a baby. In the face of this attempt by his elders to impose a life for which Micah feels increasingly unsuited, he panics, and runs. The circus offers him a chance to take stock: to slowly explore who and what he is, and to understand the conflicting emotions running through him: raised to be female, with a mind that is increasingly more male, and yet in a body that sits uncomfortably somewhere between the two. But the problem with having formerly been Iphigenia Laurus is that it isn't easy simply to disappear. People are out on his trail, and Micah is rapidly learning that he can't just step out of one life and into another.

I wasn't expecting such a sensitive approach to gender and sexuality in a 'young adult' book, though I thought it was very slightly undermined partway through the story. Having been impressed by the unusual decision to have an intersex hero, I was then slightly disappointed when Micah's hermaphroditism is explained, or excused, by an apparently mythological pedigree (no doubt this will all become clearer further down the line). However, that doesn't take away from the care and openness with which his adolescent confusion is represented. Indeed, if The Night Circus casts a long shadow over Pantomime, so too does Jeffrey Eugenides's moving and brilliant novel Middlesex. And, like that book, Pantomime is a story where a first-person narration is absolutely perfect: we get to know Micah as a person without it really mattering whether he's male or female or neither or both, and I enjoyed the twist on the usual adolescent self-fashioning. Naturally, as the novel concluded on something of a cliffhanger, I'm keen to find out what happens next. As luck would have it, the second novel Shadowplay is already out; though not, unfortunately, on Kindle. Hopefully the sequel will tell us a bit more about Micah's world, deepen the characters further, and throw a more light on the otherworldly elements - such as the mysterious Kedi, with whom Micah increasingly seems to be connected; and the mysteries of Penglass, the ancient relics which glow beneath his touch (and which unavoidably remind me of the Elderglass in The Lies of Locke Lamora). I'm just hoping that it manages to keep its current tone and doesn't turn into a generic Heir-to-Ancient-Magics-Battles-The-Dark-Lord sort of thing. We shall see...

All in all, it's certainly something to look out for if you fancy a light but engaging steampunk-style fantasy. There's much promise here and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the story tightens and grows richer and more complex in the later books: I believe this is meant to be the first of a trilogy. It has also been a welcome wake-up call to the fact that I had a rather snobbish attitude to young adult fiction. I'd be interested to know about other books which you might have encountered, packaged as 'young adult', which work just as well for a broader readership. (Just as long as there aren't any sparkly vampires in them.)

Monday, 28 September 2015

The Goldfinch: Donna Tartt

(published by Abacus, £8.99, or from Amazon)

«««« ½
People die, sure. But it's so heartbreaking and unnecessary how we lose things. From pure carelessness. Fires, wars. ... I guess that anything we manage to save from history is a miracle.
To say that The Goldfinch is a good book, now, feels rather superfluous. Everyone has already read it and written about it and the most surprising thing is that it took me so long to read it. But its size was daunting and I'm always slightly put off by a book during its moment of high fashion, when it crowds in on you from every bestseller table and 'must read' list. This weekend, having to take two unplanned cross-country train journeys, I grabbed the closest thing to hand that would get me through four hours of the British rail network, and it just so happened to be a dogeared copy of The Goldfinch that I'd snaffled from the informal lending library at work.

On a wet April morning when he is twelve years old, Theo Decker goes with his mother into the Metropolitan Museum in New York to escape the rain. They have some time before an appointment at his school to discuss his suspension, so she takes him into the current exhibition on Dutch Golden Age painting, eager to track down her favourite picture: Carel Fabritius's painting The Goldfinch. Distracted and anxious about the forthcoming school meeting, Theo doesn't take in much of the painting. While his mother stands rhapsodising in front of the picture, Theo is more interested in a pretty redheaded girl about his own age, who's going round the exhibition with an elderly man. His mother darts off to have another look at The Anatomy Lesson; Theo stays, shyly trying to catch the girl's eye; and then, in another moment, everything changes. A bomb goes off in the museum gift-shop, the exhibition suite takes the force of the blast and Theo, knocked out but otherwise unhurt, comes round in a terrifying world where nothing makes sense any longer. After spending a few dazed minutes with the redhead's dying companion, trying to comfort him, Theo staggers away with the old man's urgent pleas in his ears, the man's ring in his pocket, and a dusty bundle under his arm: The Goldfinch, knocked from its frame but like him miraculously unhurt. He takes it for his mother, in a confused desire to protect it; but his mother is already dead. That one act will reverberate down the years for Theo, coming to represent the defining moment of his life from which he will never be able to escape.

The Secret History, Tartt's first book, is one of my all-time favourites. I wasn't so keen on her second, The Little Friend, but I'm pleased to say that The Goldfinch is a tremendous return to form. Theo is not a million miles away from Richard Papen, the narrator of The Secret History: another artistic, troubled misfit always on the outside looking in. It's a story about compulsion and obsession: about the domineering power of memory, and the human inability to leave things behind. It'll never quite have the place in my heart claimed by The Secret History, with its Greek allusions and Bacchic frenzies, but it is a powerful and painterly book with - to maintain the metaphor - a broad canvas and passages of beautifully-observed minutiae.  An antique shop is a wonderful dusty cave of treasures, with light shimmering in a tarnished Venetian glass somewhere in the background. A gun is 'chrome silver, mercury black, with a smooth density that blackly distorted the space around it like a drop of motor oil in a glass of water'. And that's not taking into account the way she writes about art itself, with a huge sensitivity to the expressive quality of paint. Of course I loved it. Tartt has a wonderful turn of phrase and a store of references which hugely appeal to me: the excessively grand engagement party of a society girl to an unsatisfactory groom has 'a grim sense of ceremony, as if [she] were some lost princess of Ur to be feasted and  decked in finery and - attended by tambourine  players and handmaidens - paraded down in splendour to the Underworld.'

My only criticisms would be that sometimes the book feels ever so slightly overlong at 864 pages - and that I felt it somehow lost its heart in the final section, which should theoretically have been the most gripping and exciting part of the story. What I cared about was Theo's struggle against himself, and the switch to the pace of the art-heist thriller seemed to move attention away from what was really important. I also found the end somewhat neat and a touch too preachy. But these are minor points, really. This was the perfect kind of book for long journeys: gripping, written with a magnificent eye for detail, and full of rich settings and well-drawn characters. It also created its own atmosphere - tinged with regret, but full of gentle beauty - that lingers with me even now. I'm very glad I finally got round to reading it. And now I'm sorely tempted to return to The Secret History and indulge myself some more... but that will have to wait a little while.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

L'Incoronazione di Poppea: Claudio Monteverdi (1643)

(Norwegian National Opera 2010, conducted by Alessandro De Marchi)


I'd been itching to see this production of Poppea for some time, ever since stumbling across some clips of Tim Mead's E pur io torno on YouTube. The clips showed a bare, stripped-back set and a very striking use of colour, and the cast list looked promising. So on Saturday night, after a rather draining couple of days, I settled down to lose myself in one of my favourite operas. As you'll be able to deduce from the rating, it wasn't quite the treat it was meant to be. The story must be pretty familiar by now. Our cast of characters are the emperor Nero (Nerone); his mistress Poppea, hoping to claw her way into power; the snubbed, desperate empress Ottavia; Nerone's former tutor, the grim stoic Seneca, too pompous to realise that his time of influence is gone; Poppea's old flame Ottone, lingering at her house and making a nuisance of himself; the pretty lady-in-waiting Drusilla, who hopes to salve Ottone's broken heart... and a small crowd of servants, retainers and hangers-on. This is the third Poppea that I've written about (the others here and here), so if you'd like a plot synopsis, take a quick look at those.

Despite the glamour of the cast list, the singing is mixed. It isn't helped by a slightly odd, hollow sound across the board, which made voices sound sharper and shriller than they should be. Mead was one of the pleasantest surprises. He makes a fine Ottone, probably the best I've seen; but I knew that already from his turn in the Cencic version (which I haven't written about yet). In both cases, Mead gives the character an edge which makes him less of a languishing whimperer. Here, in natty suit and close-trimmed beard, he looks like the kind of slightly hipsterish young guy who might work at a think tank. You can understand why Poppea might have decided to amuse herself with him. Crisp, clear and strong, his singing helps to give the character unusual clout. Poppea herself, sung by Birgitte Christensen, doesn't have the smoky, predatory air brought to the role by Danielle de Niese or (especially) Sonya Yoncheva. She comes across as humbler: a full-figured, bored, stay-at-home wife, perhaps, who can't quite believe her luck at having won the attentions of the emperor. Once she has her claws in, she's determined to do all that she can to haul herself up onto the throne - this Poppea, certainly, has one eye firmly on the crown and won't blanch at anything she has to do to get there. Christensen has a perfectly strong, attractive voice but, as I've said, it doesn't have that seductive richness that I've admired so much in other interpretations of the role. Nor did the production allow her to develop anything approaching a psychological basis for the character: the camera is only interested in certain of Poppea's assets, none of which were between her ears.

Apart from Mead, I found most to enjoy in the smaller parts. Giovanni Battista Parodi was a particular delight as a schoolmasterly, sternly attractive Seneca, with the kind of rich, agile bass that I always enjoy. Although I usually find Seneca a bit of an old prig, Parodi's gentleness and world-weariness made him the most sympathetic character in this production. I was amused by the appearance of a young Emiliano Gonzalez-Toro as Arnalta, a role he would reprise a couple of years later in the Cencic version; but here already with that wonderful comic timing that made him such a joy to watch in Elena. And Patricia Bardon, of course, won my admiration for her Ottavia: a dignified, truly Italianate empress, given life by that low, gorgeous voice. Initially I'd been quite excited to see that Magnus Staveland was singing Lucano, but unfortunately his performance didn't have quite the same panache as his wonderful Polifonte: it came across as a throwaway role, a temporary foil to Nerone. Naturally I'd been interested to see Jacek Laszczkowski singing Nerone. Although I think of him as one of the 'old guard', along with Rene Jacobs and Dominique Visse, he's younger than them and (as this DVD shows) was singing leading roles at around the time the current crop of countertenors (whom I think of as the 'young Turks') were cutting their teeth. Indeed, Laszczkowski sings Cesare on the 2001 Vivaldi Catone in Utica recording where a very young Jaroussky sings Arbace; and their voices have much in common, both pitched at the higher end of the scale; although Laszczkowski hits some notes in this Poppea that would probably make even Valer Sabadus's eyes water. But the simple fact is that, whereas Laszczkowski had a good voice in 2001, this 2010 recording shows that his lower range had become breathy and precarious, though he could still hit the high notes. I also really didn't like his characterisation. This Nerone is vicious and psychopathic, permanently teetering on the edge of what seems to be giggling, drugged-up neurosis - even his act of grace towards Ottone at the end is a spiteful joke. I'm not saying that I want the emperor Nero to be sympathetic, but I'd like him to be slightly more interesting than this.

Spoiled for choice: Poppea (Christensen) | Nerone (Laszczkowski) | Ottavia (Patricia Bardon)
At root, the thing I really didn't like was the production itself. It's self-consciously stylish and modern - yes, it looks great - but style has been achieved at the expense of any kind of warmth or engagement. The set is a steeply sloped inverted arch, austere and hard, down which characters teeter and blood flows in sluggish rivulets. There is a music-video quality to the whole thing: freeze-frames, repeated frames, and Latino-accented jazz over the credits and occasionally between scenes. I've no idea how colourful the show was for those sitting in the steeply-raked seats of the Norwegian National Opera, but the film has been drained of colour, desaturated to the point that there are only vague flushes of blues and greens at certain moments, with only the red tones left to offer the stark painted-on sensation of red lips and more blood. There's a lot of blood. Most of it is CGI, as you can tell from the moments when characters brandish blood-stained hands, the computerised paint struggling to keep up and leaving them momentarily with white, clean palms. 

There's also a lot of vulgarity. Once again I find myself taking on my 'maiden aunt of Tunbridge Wells' persona, but I disliked this much more than I did the Dusseldorf Xerxes. There it was the expression of a tumultuous, gleeful, over-the-top farce. Here it felt cold and calculated, intended to shock and always taken just that bit too far. Ottavia's elderly Nutrice (Tone Kruse) advises her to take a lover while brandishing cucumbers from her shopping basket. That had a kind of half-amusing inevitability about it; but for her to start galloping around the stage with the cucumber between her legs felt a bit much. Nerone begins his argument with Seneca from behind the back of the curved stage, visible from the waist up, while someone unseen (it's implied) is on their knees in front of him. In the opening 'farewell' scene, Poppea lies back on the stage and spreads her legs to Nero, hitching up her skirt to show him what he's leaving. Lucano kicks off the singing contest by sticking his hand down the trousers of Seneca's corpse, before he and Nerone roll glorying in the sheets of blood spilling down the stage. And yet, bizarrely, the moments which actually work best with an erotic charge fell flat. The singing contest feels like grotesque mockery rather than the sexy, unsettling power-play I've seen in other productions (which, I agree, is a perfectly legitimate reading of the scene even if here it became positively nasty). But the greatest disappointment of all was reserved for the end: Pur ti miro, stripped of all its aching sweetness. I'm not missing the point. I can entirely see that Tandberg's concept seeks to rip away that strangely feel-good ending and to emphasise the point that the libretto is making at its heart: these people are absolutely amoral. They're reprehensible murderers, vicious, ambitious, social-climbing monsters, and why the hell should we feel any sympathy for them? Let them sing their duet while all their court lies dead around them and Poppea's sumptuous dress gradually soaks up blood from the pool in which they stand. But it doesn't work for me. It never gives us a way in - this production never allows us, as others do, to make that momentary slip of cheering on the central characters. It never lets us forget how terrible they are and, although Tandberg is going for the Scandi-crime angle and the brutal, superficial shock of blood and lust, it completely lacks the emotional complexity that makes the traditional productions so engaging and also so troubling. Watching horrible, irredeemable people frolic around in blood for three hours doesn't leave me thinking, "Wow! That was a searing, contemporary, relevant production!" It just leaves me feeling that I should go and scrub my skin on the inside. 

Cold, bleak and occasionally downright unpleasant, this managed the remarkable feat of taking a nuanced, sophisticated story and stripping it back to bleached bone and blood, motivated solely by sex. Certainly, this may be a Poppea for our desensitised, cynical, self-centred era but, if so, that doesn't say much about our era. There will be people out there who liked it very much, and who will condemn me for my fusty old-fashioned views and for lacking the imagination to appreciate this radical, irreverent treatment of the text. So be it. I itched to give it a lower rating, but when all's said and done I can appreciate its ideas. I can see what they were trying to do, and some things (such as Ottone's fate) had a dramatic flair which I admired. I know it's unjust to dock stars simply because I didn't like its angle: that seems petulant, when even the unpleasant ideas had more rationale behind them than sharks or flying fish in other productions. But it simply didn't draw me in. More than that, I actively disliked it, more than any production I've seen for quite some time, and I have no desire ever to watch it again.

I just hope the Vienna production in just under a month's time is more to my taste.

Seneca (Giovanni Battista Parodi) follows his emperor's command | The blood-soaked final scenes
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