Monday, 3 August 2015

The Testament of Mary: Colm Tóibín

(published by Penguin, £7.99, or from Amazon)


A woman sits in an empty house, waiting for the men who come to interrogate her. They claim to be protecting her, but she knows that they are also dangerous in their own way. They're gripped by the urgency of an idea that needs corroboration: a story that in their own minds has taken on a different reality which they now intend to present to the world. But the woman resists. For the story that these men are trying to change is the story of her son; and the more she hears them speak, the more she realises that her own past, as she remembers it, is bearing less and less resemblance to what will become 'fact'. And so she decides, while she can, to set down what remains of her memories, before her son's tragic history is appropriated and burnished to become something that is no longer itself. I would note that the book's so short that it's hard to discuss without spoilers, so I would be wary of reading further if you want to experience it fresh for yourself.

Colm Tóibín's little tale, also on the 2013 Booker shortlist, has an impact that outweighs its modest size. It has been described as provocative and haunting, and it is, but I was interested to discover that it isn't provocative for the sake of it. It is thought-provoking rather than shocking and Tóibín avoids the easy sensationalism to which a lesser writer would have resorted with such a story. He does not openly deny the presence of miracles. Indeed, his Mary reports a number of events which are unexplained and troubling. That which I found most striking was the tale of Lazarus' resurrection; but in her telling of it, it becomes less triumphant and more horrific. And since Mary herself wasn't there at the moment of Lazarus' return to life, she has to rely on what others tell her and that, in itself, is dangerous, because people are already beginning to remember things in ways that should not be. We never quite know what we should believe about Lazarus, but the fact remains that his 'resurrection' is not successful: avoided and feared by his community, and half-unhinged by the horror of what has happened to him, he lives a half-life of unbearable physical and mental pain. Similarly, Mary's memory of the Wedding at Cana is confused: she remembers her son calling for stone jars of water; and she remembers that afterwards they poured wine from the jars; but she cannot say for sure that the jars held water to begin with. There is a suggestion that, even from the very beginning, her son is conscious of what his ever more infatuated followers desire from him. The impact of Tóibín's book comes from the way in which Mary struggles to distinguish between what she thinks she remembers and what she is being told, by her earnest captors, that she should remember.

If this book is troubling, that's because it forces you to look at these figures for a moment as real people - and I don't mean in the Counter-Reformation way of imagining their sufferings in order to emulate the fortitude of their faith. It makes you consider the foundation and formation of stories. It makes you think about how clever young men - whose qualities may make them outsiders - sometimes find scope for their charismatic talents in the fervour of religious conviction. And it emphasises the precarious political situation in Judea at this time, with foreign authorities ready to clamp down on dissension, and native elites eager to show their loyalty by making scapegoats. I was struck by the sense in this novel of being watched: the implication of spies and agents scattered among the population, reporting back tales of sedition and non-conformity. This is a world stretched to its limit, a volatile historical moment merely waiting for its touchpaper. Mary's demanding, opinionated visitors think that their story is the spark that will change that world. And maybe it will be. There are other questions. Where does power lie? Who owns the story? Does Mary have a right to her own memories? Is her son the author of his own destiny? Or is he an unfortunate, caught up in politics beyond his control, the victim of his own desire to be recognised? Are his so-called friends now taking the agency and appropriating his story for their own complex and ambitious ends?

One of the blurbs cited on the back of the book calls it 'entirely heretical'. I'm not sure how far that's true (or indeed, how far anything can be called heresy nowadays). Certainly there is something unnerving about Mary's persistent, slightly threatening visitors, who are very far from being golden, divinely-inspired apostles. But there are only a few moments where Tóibín directly contradicts the official version. His Mary, for example, is not at the tomb on what will become Easter Sunday; but then, who is she to deny what people are saying about it? She does not believe it likely; but she was not there. And, perhaps more significantly, there is the way that Mary talks about her late husband. It is a small thing, but she makes a point of remembering her son's childhood, and when she speaks of their family, she always speaks of her husband as 'his father'. A very small thing but, from the point of view of this subject, enormously significant. There, if you will have it, is your heresy.

Ultimately, though, this is a book about an everywoman: a woman who has lost her child in tragic circumstances, and who is going back over what happened trying to understand. However, Mary isn't trying to impose a story or a narrative on events. She's not trying to make it part of something larger and therefore, somehow, to make it more bearable. She is explicitly and firmly trying to maintain the senselessness of it, the horror and agony and unplanned pain of her son's fate, in the face of the story which her two visitors are so determined to write. She fights for her right to her own memories. And so, strangely enough, in telling a story which deliberately sidelines the condition of divinity, Tóibín tells a story which strikes at the very heart of the human condition itself.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Graphic Novel Update

Just a short note to alert those who don't use Twitter or Facebook that Act 2 of my graphic novel based on Metastasio's and Vinci's Artaserse is now live. Find more information here.

This post will be deleted in due course, so please leave any questions or comments on the post I've linked above.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Xerxes: George Frideric Handel (1738)

(Longborough Festival Opera at the Britten Theatre, 30 July 2015)


After Highgate and Dusseldorf, the third and final stop on this year's Xerxes trail was the Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music, where the Longborough Young Artist Production was showing for one night only. I assume that by now everyone knows the story of this opera back to front, so I shall plunge straight into the action. In the unlikely event of your feeling lost, take a look at the plot summary in my post on the ENO production I saw back in September. 

There were several immediately striking things about this production. First, it was sung in Italian. I've been desperate to see an Italian Xerxes ever since the ENO and now my wish was granted! Congratulations to the production team for deciding to stick to the original. No matter how excellent the translations that I've seen used, it's wonderful to hear the words for which the music was written. The second striking thing was the profusion of pink palm trees: there was something rather fabulous about Xerxes singing Ombra mai fu while reclining on a couch beneath the feathered fronds of a fake pink palm. The trees were part of the retro setting: a slightly seedy nightclub, sometime around the 1950s, whose short-tempered proprietor seems to be part-ringmaster and part-mob boss. It was a clever concept and certain aspects of the opera worked very well. Romilda catches Xerxes' attention with her singing, so it makes sense that she should be the club's leading showgirl; her father Ariodate becomes one of Xerxes' fixers, skulking around with a mysterious briefcase (I couldn't quite see inside: bundles of cash? Diamonds? Drugs?). Elviro is the club's janitor, while Amastris makes her arrival in the guise of a well-heeled patron: dark glasses, voluminous tulle skirts, white fur cape. (Soon, however, she's holding up a terrified employee at gunpoint and demanding his clothes.) Not everything worked though. There was no real attempt to show the famous bridge, which meant that one of the main episodes of the plot didn't make much sense; and from a staging point of view things could be slightly static, as characters often ended up simply singing from the club's podium. (And a small technical gripe. The surtitles were not only poorly proof-read, but also very slow and sparse. I'm lucky because I know what's going on, but for newcomers there were whole swathes of recitative where there wasn't any text to tell them what was happening. Could do better.) But overall it was a design and concept that I liked very much: colourful, original, gutsy and fun.

Romilda (Privett) and Arsamene (Oney) | Xerxes (Arditti) holding court | Harmony restored just in time for the final curtain
One of the selling points about this production (had I needed persuading) was the presence of two very good young countertenors in the leading roles, neither of whom I'd seen before. Tai Oney made a sleek Arsamene, singing with expressive power and a strong command of coloratura, his voice bringing in some lovely warm lower notes, although I occasionally found him shrill in his highest passages, where he didn't seem to have quite such firm control. He was a good comic actor too: this Arsamene was very much the long-suffering younger brother, rather than the more dominant figure imagined in Hampstead Garden Opera's version. Oney had plenty of opportunity to look mournful at the sheer absurdity of his situation. His Romilda was Alice Privett, one of the most memorable singers of the night for me. She had lovely control throughout her arias, especially in the gentler, sadder pieces, with bright and clear high notes, and a velvety depth to her voice which gave it resonance. As a character, Romilda doesn't usually grip me, but I liked this production's take on her. The team emphasise the age gap between her and Atalanta, making their rivalry into a half-playful tussle between sisters. Romilda doesn't seriously see Atalanta as a threat until the episode with the stray love letter - while Atalanta, for her part, is the generic annoying little sister who has a crush on her big sister's boyfriend and wants to grow up right now because it's clear that adults have more fun. Abbi Temple was utterly delightful with her bunches, ankle-socks and buckled shoes, getting in everyone's way and bubbling over with mischief. Her Un cenno leggiadretto was lovely, sung with sparkling verve while she clumsily tried to emulate showgirl moves, but she came across very much as an over-indulged teen rather than the sexual predator of the Dusseldorf version: kitten not vixen. 

And what of our thwarted princess? Lucinda Stuart Grant certainly had an impressive entrance but I felt that she lacked a little confidence in the first half; I would have liked a touch more commanding ferocity, but perhaps it was a deliberate decision to make this Amastris more thoughtful and patient, quietly gathering material for her grand denouement at the end. In the second half she sounded stronger and turned in a very beautiful rendition of Cagion son io, one of the most heartbreaking arias in the opera, full of lyricism and deeply-felt emotion. As usual, the final scene with the reconciliation felt unconvincing and rushed, but that is a criticism of Handel and Stampiglia rather than the singers, who did their best to make Xerxes' change of heart and Amastris' forgiveness seem credible. As for the other two secondary roles, they don't have an awful lot to do, being there primarily to offer comic relief among all the intrigue, but both were well-performed on Thursday. Jon Stainsby played Ariodate as well-meaning and slightly slow, while Matthew Durkan made the most of his opportunities as Elviro, turning up to hawk coloured feathers while dressed in an overstretched red spangled showgirl's dress. (It is true, though, that HGO's creative interpretation of the character continues to hold the crown.)

(Most of) the team: Oney (Arsamene) | Temple (Atalanta) | Privett (Romilda) | Stuart Grant (Amastris) | Arditti (Xerxes)
But the real success of a Xerxes rests on the shoulders of the main man. I'd listened to fragments of Arditti's singing on YouTube and liked what I heard, but I didn't have enough to form a clear opinion. Reviews from Longborough in the last few days had, however, suggested that I was in for a bit of a treat. The opening of Ombra mai fu was slightly tentative, but I've yet to see anyone tackle that killer messa di voce without a shade of caution; and Arditti swiftly settled into a very refined rendition. I became steadily more impressed throughout Act 1. Although he's probably still horribly young, he already has the kind of voice that works so very well in this particular role: rich, supple and beautifully controlled, underlaid by a hard masculine edge. He came into his own in Se bramate d'amar: I wish it had been ever so slightly faster, but even so it was an excellent performance of posturing petulance, and finished with a stroppy cadenza that left me grinning like a fool. After that I was waiting impatiently for Crude furie. When it came, I felt the first section was slightly less forceful than Se bramate, but Arditti ramped up the swagger during the B section and the da capo absolutely blazed. It was helped along by the most splendid tantrum I've seen on stage: potted plants and even a Rococo sofa went flying across the set, and Arditti conveyed a chilling physical aggression, circling his terrified dependents and darting at them like a cobra testing its range. This was the first credibly dangerous Xerxes I've seen: not a pompous little man trying to puff himself up, or an arrogant dandy full of comedy bombast, but a man who genuinely inspires fear with his unpredictable temper. And I loved it.

It was an engaging production, designed with flair and with an impressive cast who are no doubt going on to even greater things. While I liked the nightclub-mobster vibe, I felt that it wasn't quite as psychologically astute as the HGO production (whose shock ending has pretty much ruined any other reading of the final scene for me now); nor did it have the anarchic daring of the Dusseldorf version (which, let's face it, is probably a good thing). There were times when I longed for a little more pace and oomph from the orchestra, especially on the angry arias, but that's personal preference and overall both playing and singing were of a very fine standard. But let's be honest. The most exciting part of this evening was the chance to hear Arditti. I'd go so far as to say that he's the best Xerxes I've seen on stage so far. He's got the acting ability to pull off the tantrums while maintaining the necessary sense of danger; and he's got exactly the right voice for the role. It's a Yuriy Mynenko kind of voice (not as powerful or flamboyant yet, but the potential is there), with the agility and panache to tackle the crazy stuff, but also a suave grace that he can bring to bear on the gentler arias. I'll be watching with great interest to see what he does next. 

Well, ironically you'll certainly be hearing about what he does next, because I already have a ticket for it: I hadn't realised that he'll be singing the role of Amore in the production of Poppea in Vienna this autumn, sharing the stage with Valer Sabadus, Christophe Dumaux, Emilie Renard and Rupert Charlesworth among others. It's going to be a bit of a dream team.

A curtain call photo courtesy of BaroqueBird: Xerxes (Arditti), Arsamene (Oney), Romilda (Privett) and Atalanta (Temple)

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self: Claire Tomalin

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

«««« ½

Jane called us up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City ... By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down to-night by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish-street, by London Bridge. ... [I]t begun this morning in the King’s baker’s house in Pudding-lane ... So I down to the water-side, and there got a boat ... Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that layoff; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.
Sunday 2 September 1666

On 1 January 1660, a young clerk in the Exchequer in London began to keep a diary. He wasn't the first diarist in history, far from it; but he was the first to find such potential in the form, and to make of his diary more than a dry chronicle of the times, or a self-examination of sins. This diary was different. From its very first page it showed an almost shocking candour as the young clerk recorded not only his work and social life, but also the most frank and intimate details about his marriage and his own turbulent sexual desires. This honesty sat alongside a lively intelligence which drank in all the events of the world around him. This clerk was Samuel Pepys and, from a historical point of view, he couldn't have chosen a better moment to start such a detailed account of his life. He wrote in his journal daily until 31 May 1669, when he laid down his pen with regret, fearing that such close work was damaging his eyes. When he began writing, England was still a Commonwealth, but Oliver Cromwell had been dead for more than a year and Parliament and the army were at each other's throats. Pepys allows us to see at first hand the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660; the initial enthusiasm for the king and its gradual falling away as he proved to be feckless and irresponsible; the plague year of 1665, which Pepys lived through in a kind of carpe diem delirium; and the Great Fire of 1666, which reduced his world to ashes. And in this time Pepys himself rose to great things. When the diary begins he's only a clerk, a grammar-school boy made good from a very undistinguished family. His father was a tailor and Pepys made his way by hard study and thanks to a few very useful connections (most notably Edward Montagu, Lord Sandwich: a prominent Parliamentarian commander who later played a key role in bringing back Charles II, and who benefitted accordingly from his shrewdness). Pepys and his wife live relatively simply at this time, with one (long-suffering) servant. But by 1669 he's become an administrator on the Navy Board, an acquaintance of the king, a member of the Royal Society, and a man of wealth, with a smart new house, a large collection of books and curiosities, and several servants.

I've had Tomalin's book lying around for a while, because I felt I should read it, but the moment never seemed apposite (I'm not a big reader of biographies). I picked it up after Meadowland because I realised it was a long time since I'd read anything 'improving', but fortunately it turned out to be much more engaging than I'd anticipated. Tomalin writes with warmth and affection: she clearly developed a great fondness for Pepys in the course of her research, and her enthusiasm is infectious. But she doesn't gloss over his weaknesses and faults, of which there are many: she maintains the same balance as he himself put into his diary. Pepys was, remarkably, willing to show himself in a brutally honest light. He takes bribes; he launches himself lecherously on the servants and on any woman in his social circle with whom he thinks he has a chance; he holds grudges with a resolute pettiness; he's baffled by and slightly scared of his wife; and at some points he comes across as an overgrown man-child. I was struck (though it's not surprising, I suppose) at how strongly I was reminded of Rose Tremain's roistering, lascivious Merivel. But the wonderful complexity of Tomalin's book is that you get a sense of all this alongside a great admiration for Pepys's excellent qualities: his organisation; his love of his work; his poetic eye for detail; and his clarity of understanding. In later life he introduced key reforms to the running of the Navy: he made it obligatory for captains to keep written records while at sea, and he stressed the importance of having an exam for young officers to ensure their competencies before putting them in charge of ships. Tomalin has also unearthed an absolute wealth of everyday detail with which she puts Pepys in context. The problem with being a historian and reading a book like this is that I find myself always asking, "But where did she find that? How did she know how often the carrier went from London to Huntingdon, and where did she find that it left from Cripplegate?" I'm daunted by her research skills as much as by the easy flow of her writing.

Let me admit it now. I've never read the Diary. We had a copy at home when I was a child, but as far as I remember I just skipped through looking for details of Pepys's sex-life. (What a little heretic I was.) Now I would love to read it. From the sections quoted in Tomalin's book, it has the joint appeal of giving a lively window onto another world, and offering glimpses of a lifestyle that isn't all that alien. I was tickled to hear Pepys speak of going 'clubbing' with his friends when he was a young clerk in Whitehall - he meant to alehouses and coffee-houses, no doubt, but the word has a familiar snap to it that dissolves the three hundred and fifty years in between. Tomalin paints a picture of young men on the prowl, perhaps drawing on self-help books which advised them on chat-up lines and how to seduce girls, such as The Mysteries of Love and Eloquence; or, the Arts of Wooing and Complementing, published in 1658 by John Milton's nephew. Pepys's quarrels with his wife , his ambition to better himself, and all his small, silly foibles are things that any one of us can relate to today. They're what make us human. And it's rather wonderful to know that humanity was much the same in the 1660s as it is in the 2010s. Tomalin notes that the Pepys of the Diary feels so alive, so real and vibrant, that when it finishes the reader feels almost bereaved. It was a sensation that he himself recorded when he decided to end it:
Giving up [his diary] was, he wrote, like a form of death, 'almost as much as to see myself go into my grave'. This was not rhetoric but a serious statement. He was killing off a part of himself, the self created daily in his narrative, a creature more complete than he could ever allow himself to be again ... The loss for his readers is brutal as they find themselves suddenly stranded, the brilliant, troubling intimacies of the Diary replaced ... by official papers... Once the form he had created was abandoned, he and the world stood in a different relation to one another; and, as well as losing him we are losing an unequalled record of the events of the time.
Fortunately we can always go back and reread. I'm happy to report that Pepys has seized the opportunities offered by modern technology and his diary is now appearing day-by-day as a blog (the website is currently posting 'on-this-day' entries for 1662), with highlights being posted on Twitter. The only downside is that these entries are taken from a bowdlerised Victorian version (I have an innate dislike of any editor who presumes to know what is 'suitable for my eyes' or not), so you might miss out on some of the more colourful passages. And for those, like me, who are daunted at the thought of taking on such a behemoth of literature without more context, I can thoroughly recommend Tomalin's book as a primer. Lucid, warm and generous, it's a biography fully worthy of its subject.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

The Car Man: Matthew Bourne

(Sadler's Wells, 19 July 2015)


When I went to see Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty two years ago, I wrote about the frustration that I often feel when trying to understand classical ballet, and my corresponding fondness for Bourne's irreverently gutsy style of storytelling. My favourite production by him will always be Swan Lake, but my first encounter with him was via a TV broadcast of The Car Man when I was a teenager. I think it was at a stage when I was trying to be cultured, and so my mum and I settled down to watch this ballet based on Carmen, which sounded suitably highbrow for my pretentious adolescent purposes. Needless to say it wasn't quite what either of us were expecting, but it made a powerful and enduring impact. Now this seminal production is back in London for a very short time and I was lucky enough to get to see it live at last.

Bourne famously doesn't provide synopses in his programme, preferring the audience to interpret the story for themselves, but he has said that The Car Man is loosely based on the classic film noir The Postman Always Rings Twice. It's the classic story: a tall, dark stranger walks into town bringing trouble in his wake. In this case that stranger is Luca (Chris Trenfield), who turns up looking for work in the little town of Harmony, with a strong Italian-American community. Dino (Alan Vincent - who danced the role of Luca in the original production) is looking for another mechanic for his motor-repair shop, but his 'man wanted' sign takes on an ironic quality when his wife Lana (Zizi Strallen) sets eyes on Luca. Desire simmers under the surface, driven on by the summer heat and the dalliances of the young mechanics and their girlfriends, and it is only a matter of time before the sexually-charged situation explodes into danger. While Lana plays with fire in seducing her husband's newest employee, her sister Rita (Kate Lyons) pines after sweet and sensitive Angelo (Dominic North). This bookish lad has been ruthlessly tormented by his fellow mechanics but Luca soon takes him under his wing and teaches him to stand up for himself... and a few other things, behind Lana's back. And all the while Dino lurks in the background, cumbersome and slow, but perhaps just beginning to understand what is happening in his domain. Lust and jealousy collide in a potent cocktail that, all too soon, leads to murder and revenge.

I should clarify that, unlike Swan Lake, the Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty (the other Bourne shows I've seen), The Car Man doesn't stick to Bizet's own arrangement of the Carmen music. Bourne took his point of departure from the Carmen Suite, a reinvention of Bizet's music in 1967 by the Russian composer Rhodion Shchedrin; but, as that is only forty minutes long, he asked the composer Terry Davies to work his magic on the rest of Bizet's score. The result might be rather discombobulating if you know Carmen well, but it works perfectly for the sleek and sexy setting of Bourne's ballet. It's quite a modern sound, by turns gleefully exuberant and creepingly eerie, and there were several moments where I was reminded not so much of Bizet's toreadors as West Side Story.

Luca (Chris Trenfield) and Lana (Zizi Strallen) | The mechanics in full swing | Rita (Kate Lyons) and Angelo (Dominic North)
Bourne translates the showy swaggering of his characters into a gloriously earthy, muscular style of choreography. Much of his work inverts the usual emphasis of ballets by focusing attention squarely on the beauty of the male body, and that's very much the case here. This is dancing with grit under its fingernails: raw, sensual and audacious. Bourne has perfect comic timing: he manages to make the piece humorous without ever undermining the sense of danger and predatory sexuality. And he's able to offer sudden contrasts: for example, the sweetness of Angelo and Rita's pas de deux against the erotically frank, occasionally crude dancing of their companions. His style may not have the formal, lyrical lines of classical ballets, with their elegant gestures and the graceful obfuscation of strong emotions, but that doesn't mean it's any less demanding. His dancers have incredible skill. Luca's first solo, in which he asserts his place in the local pecking order - flirting with the women and idly squaring off to the men - is a masterpiece of physical control. After the frenzied dancing of the mechanics and their girls in the opening scenes, Luca's arrival raises the bar not by adding in flashier moves but by echoing their style of dancing and making it slower, more powerful and perfectly executed. I was amused to see hints of the Swan in his dancing: there were gestures and movements that looked very familiar, and I wonder whether Bourne has a kind of choreographic shorthand to indicate domineering maleness. Similarly he is very good at suggesting the awkwardness of those who don't have physical confidence. Much of Angelo's choreography suggests the crippling shyness of someone who is uncomfortable in his own body - much like the Prince at the beginning of Swan Lake - and North beautifully expressed the character's emotional torment in a physical way, twisting his body in a peculiar mixture of gaucherie and gracefulness. It's interesting that I should have seen this the day after watching Alcina. Both are shows driven by erotic power, but they couldn't have been more different: Alcina was awkwardly, uncomfortably deviant for both cast and audience; but The Car Man pulsed with a simple, primitive, almost savage physicality. Matthew Bourne could teach the choreographers at Aix a thing or two.

Ultimately Bourne is a storyteller: he strips a plot back to its bare essentials to tell a narrative which is urgent and raw, and his dancing has the same quality. There is no throwaway prettiness here, just magnificently blunt, expressive and gripping choreography performed by an immensely talented cast. As Bourne says with wry humour in the programme, it's never going to be suitable for the Sadler's Wells family Christmas slot, but it's the kind of dance that goes straight to the solar plexus. On the night I went, as the lights blacked out at the end, there was an almost immediate roar of acclamation and the entire audience was on its feet, applauding, even before the dancers had got themselves in gear for a curtain call. It was a thrilling reaction. For me, I must confess, nothing will ever be able to match Swan Lake, but The Car Man is highly recommendable nevertheless. And, even if you can't make it to Sadler's Wells before the run closes on 9 August, the original production is available on DVD. (And the excellent Sleeping Beauty will be back for another run at Christmas.)

Lana and Luca are discovered by Dino (Alan Vincent) | Letting off steam with a motor race | More frenzied dancing from the ensemble

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Triumph and Disaster: Medals of the Sun King

(British Museum, until 15 November 2015)

Louis XIV's most iconic medal, designed by Louis Douvrier with the motto Nec pluribus impar (Not unequal to many)
When you think of Louis XIV, chances are that you think of Versailles. The Hall of Mirrors; the fountains and festivals; the gold, glass and glitter of the Ancien Régime. But medals? Maybe not. And yet Louis was responsible for one of the most ambitious and innovative of all medal series, the Histoire medallique. Published in 1702, towards the end of his reign, it aimed to celebrate and promote his victories, both as a military commander and an administrator, and to gloss over his defeats and failures. Throughout his life Louis was acutely conscious of the importance of 'glory and memory' and the Histoire medallique was an attempt to impose on the world a vision of his reign as he wished it to be remembered. This small but fascinating show, tucked away on the upper level of the British Museum, tells the story of how this remarkable work of propaganda came to be created, and places it in the context of other medals produced throughout Louis's long and eventful reign.

Indeed, medals played a large role in establishing the cult of the Sun King. When Louis came to the throne in 1643, his finance minister Colbert commissioned a medal to celebrate his accession. On one side the five-year-old king appears in profile in classical dress, wreathed in laurel. His mother Anne of Austria is depicted in profile behind him, as you find on antique cameos. On the other side of the medal, Louis is shown in the guise of a fully-grown Apollo, driving the chariot of the Sun and guided by Venus, the Morning Star (a flattering reference to Anne's regency). Ten years later he appears as Apollo again, this time on a medal struck to commemorate the end of the Fronde: a decade's worth of uprisings and riots against the influence of Anne of Austria's favourite, Cardinal Mazarin. Here Louis/Apollo is shown in a chariot, his rearing horses ready to plunge straight out from the medal's surface, beneath an inscription proclaiming 'Serenitas' - a touch on the optimistic side, one feels. As the years passed, the emphasis shifted. The king was no longer identified with Apollo but with the Sun itself, a comparison which reached its apogee in the medals designed by Louis Douvrier. He was responsible for the most famous of Louis's medals, in which the king is shown as the radiant face of the Sun, beneath the motto 'nec pluribus impar' ('not unequal to many'). That boastful motto would come back to haunt Louis, as the exhibition shows.

Medal from 1643 showing Louis with Anne of Austria (obverse) and Louis as Apollo (reverse) | Medal from 1653 to celebrate
end of the Fronde with Louis (observe) and allegory of Serenity (reverse) | Medal proclaiming importance of hard work: 'Assiduitas'
Each of the cases in the exhibition looks at a different aspect of Louis's medals. It begins with a practical look at their design: how could one present a historical event clearly and concisely within such a small space? Several examples are given. Sometimes the designers focused attention on a few key figures to represent a wider scene, as in the Reception of the Ambassadors from Siam. Alternatively they might transform the event into an allegory which allowed for a more creative representation of historical fact, as in The Crossing of the Rhine. Each of these medals is shown with a photo of the same event recorded in a different medium: painting or sculpture. It makes a good point about how different formats forced different considerations on the artist. But how did you decide which events to represent? Louis and his advisers produced medals of two different sorts, broadly speaking. First there were those showing his achievements as a good ruler. Louis was keen to publicise his virtues: he also wrote memoirs, while still a young man, which were designed to be a handbook in good governance for his infant son. And so the medals of this sort mark his foundation of charitable institutions, such as Les Invalides (1676), or the splendid buildings built by his command. The exhibition includes medals showing two rival designs for the Louvre: that submitted by Bernini in 1665, which was rejected, and the successful design proposed by Claude Perrault in 1667. There were also medals celebrating the king's personal qualities, such as 'assiduitas'. Louis as Apollo once again, drives his chariot across the sky, indicating the importance of hard work (the king did at least five hours' work a day). 

But the other kind of medal did even more to burnish his reputation. These showed scenes of military glory. Due to the demands of the medal format, battles and victories were often represented in allegorical form, and that's shown here in examples such as The capture of Tortosa (1648), in which the Catalonian city appears as a woman leaning on an anchor with a ship beyond; or The capture of Bouchain (1676), in which Louis appears as Perseus transfixing his enemies with Medusa's head.

Different points of view: Louis's version of the Peace of Algiers, showing the town grovelling at his feet | Two foreign medals
parodying Louis's defeat at the Battle of La Hogue: he is thrashed by Neptune (reverse of second medal)
and his flagship explodes (obverse of third medal) while Louis escapes in a frog-drawn sea-chariot (reverse of third medal)
Medals were a great form of propaganda; but unfortunately Louis didn't have a monopoly on their production. His pompous self-celebration made him an easy target for his enemies, who swiftly began producing medals of their own to undermine him. There are some great pieces here which show that Louis might remember an event in a very different way from his rivals. A good example is the medal struck in 1684 to celebrate the Peace of Algiers. Shown in classical robes, a personification of Algiers kneels before Louis, who is the very picture of a benevolent classical conqueror. But the story in a Dutch medal from 1689 is a little different. Here Louis, in a fancy dressing gown, grovels before two Oriental potentates beneath the inscription 'gallia supplex' ('France begs'). Things got worse in the 1690s and 1700s, as Louis's rivals gained the ascendancy in Europe and his much-vaunted glory as a commander became even more overshadowed. In 1690, for example, Louis had himself represented as Neptune on a splendid medal commemorating The Battle of Beachy Head. Two years later, in 1692, the Germans struck back after Louis's defeat at the Battle of La Hogue with a medal showing the Sun King being royally thrashed by the god for his presumption. And the bombastic motto 'nec pluribus impar' offered a wealth of opportunities for parody, most wittily in the Dutch medal issued after the Battle of La Hogue, where the French flagship Le Soleil Royale exploded. One side shows Louis in the background, scrambling out of his sea-chariot pulled by frogs. On the other, his flagship is shown sinking, while an inscription notes laconically: 'nunc pluribus impar' (now unequal to many). 

The exhibition concludes with a case devoted to the men who made the medals happen. Colbert, whom I mentioned earlier, was behind the earliest medals of Louis's reign, and he founded the Petite Academie, a group of historians, writers and scholars who decided which events should be represented and how. Later, having acquired the grander title of the Academy of Inscriptions and Medals, this same committee oversaw the production of the Histoire medallique itself. There was initially some debate over how the king should be depicted on the medals, but thanks to the strong classicist faction in the Academie, the iconic image was adopted which is now so familiar to us: Louis in classical-style armour with a rather incongruous periwig. Throughout his reign, the medals' designers included some of the most famous artists of the age, including Charles Le Brun and Antoine Coypel, and among the medallists themselves were phenomenally gifted craftsmen like Jean Warin, who appears in a charming portrait at the Monnaie de Paris teaching the young Louis how to understand medals. And just to conclude, we have a glimpse of the practical side of medal-making. There's a wax medal design by Giovanni Hamerani in which every detail is crisp and clear, from the king's curling hair to the scales and the gorgon's head on his breastplate. There are even examples of the puncheons and dies actually used to stamp the design into the medal (those shown here are for a medal of Isaac Newton, but the principle was the same), and a photo of the screw-press used to make Louis's medals.

I thought this was a great introduction to an aspect of art that I really don't think about enough, but which was so significant at the time. I was already aware that Louis's use of medals inspired similar projects in later centuries, most famously perhaps the analogous Histoire medallique planned by Napoleon and overseen by Vivant-Denon. But I hadn't ever had the chance to look so closely and thoroughly at medals before, and it really repaid close attention. The show has raised lots of questions that I now have to go away and find out about: how many medals might have been produced of any one design? Realistically, how widespread were they and how useful as propaganda? How much might you have to pay for a medal? Were they objects that ordinary people might have seen or was their circulation very much restricted among the political classes? And how many other rulers were inspired to try the same sort of thing? A number of medals were struck by William III of England, which were often used to satirised Louis even while William was emulating him, right down to the classical-armour-periwig combo he adopted for his portraits. Much to explore, I feel. If you're around the BM before November, do seek it out in Room 69a.

The distinguished medallist Jean Warin teaches the young Louis XIV to understand medals in this painting from the
Monnaie de Paris | The medal showing the audience of the ambassadors from Siam | The same scene shown in
Sebastian Le Clerc's print made for the companion volume to the Histoire Medallique. Note how even between
medal and print there are differences: the engraving allows for a lot more detail in Louis's dress, hair and throne

Monday, 27 July 2015

Don Giovanni: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1787)

(Royal Opera House, directed by Kasper Holten, 1 July 2015)

««« ½

On the hottest day since 2006, I found myself standing at the back of the stalls in the Royal Opera House for my first encounter with Don Giovanni. Having come at opera by a rather niche route, I've managed to avoid virtually all the great blockbusters and so I knew nothing about Don G beyond the plot. I hadn't heard any of the music before. And I have to be brutally honest and say that I didn't immediately warm to it as an opera. Some parts of the music felt very familiar, of course - there were still flashes of the old opera seria style, to which Mozart returned in La Clemenza di Tito four years later. These were offset, however, with swathes of more typically classical music, which felt rather heavy in comparison. It just lacked spark. Perhaps it was the heat. Or perhaps its status as a taken-for-granted masterpiece means that I had expectations which couldn't be met. Probably I need to listen to it several more times, and I've dutifully taken a recording out of the library. However, I did think that this production was a very good introduction to the opera, with an impressive cast and some extremely intelligent designs which made for an exciting and engaging aesthetic. 

The Spaniard Don Giovanni is a nobleman, seducer and general all-round rake: Casanova would have been grudgingly impressed by him. Women across Europe have fallen at Giovanni's feet - two thousand and sixty-five of them, to be exact; and he can be exact, because his long-suffering valet Leporello notes down their names in a little book, his 'catalogo', with which he tracks his master's depravity. As the opera opens, Giovanni bids farewell to his newest conquest, the aristocratic Donna Anna; but as he escapes down a ladder in the dark, he's challenged by her elderly father, the Commendatore. A struggle follows and gets out of hand: Giovanni fells the old man with a mortal blow before striking a hasty retreat with Leporello in tow. The distraught Anna has no idea what to do and, when her fiance Don Ottavio arrives to comfort her (too little, too late), she can't explain what has happened. Nor, rather implausibly, does she seem to know the identity of the man who's just ravished her, even though it becomes clear that she, Ottavio and Giovanni all move in the same social circle and know each other well (it must have been very dark). She and Ottavio vow to track down her father's murderer; but they aren't the only ones who are after Giovanni. In a familiar plot development, he's also being hunted by his scorned fiancee Donna Elvira, who unfortunately isn't disguised in an amusing way but is nevertheless dead-set on making an honest man of this reprobate. And Giovanni does himself no favours by being distracted by yet another pretty face, immediately after his dalliance with Anna. He glimpses the peasant girl Zerlina on her wedding day, and her pugnacious husband Masetto rapidly joins the army of those who are itching for revenge. But Giovanni's greatest enemy is yet to reveal himself: for the Commendatore himself cannot rest in his grave until he has brought his murderer to justice.

There was a starry cast, as you'd expect of something at this level, but I didn't quite understand why some singers got so much more applause than others at the end. For example, I was thoroughly unimpressed by Rolando Villazón. Since seeing the opera I've read that he's recently had vocal issues and is making a comeback, which earns him some indulgence; but on the night I was baffled by the audience's enthusiastic reaction. His tenor sounded thin and brittle, especially on his high notes, and I didn't feel that there was much warmth or power in his voice. Granted, he had a devil of a role. Ottavio must be the most boring man in opera (he's even wetter than Poppea's Ottone, which is saying a lot), and it's no wonder that Anna's head has been turned by Giovanni's swaggering sex-appeal. I have to agree with Dehggial, who said that Ottavio's and Anna's scenes were just rather dull. Conversely, I was pleasantly surprised by Julia Lezhneva's Zerlina. I know some people find her voice a little too pure and cold, but I thought she did well here, especially because she couldn't hide behind the kind of blinding coloratura that served her so well in Oracolo at the Barbican. Her voice was brought out in the open, and put on display with a series of more lyrical arias than I've heard her sing before. Even if I concede that her vocal performance lacks emotional depth (if the role of Zerlina requires that), I thought she sang with flirtatious charm and acted her socks off. I prefer listening to her tackle the complex coloratura of Baroque music, but her crystal-clear soprano proved a pleasant contrast here to the slightly more rounded voices of the two leading ladies. I was glad to see some energetic applause for her at the end. Albina Shagimuratova's Donna Anna, however, received the lion's share of the cheers. I certainly thought she was an fine singer, and she had a marvellously anguished aria in Act 2 (Non mi dir, I think), in which she tries to reconcile her grief over her father's death with her love for Ottavio. That was a fine performance and moved me very much. Perhaps my overall appreciation of the role was blurred by my confusion over the characterisation. This Anna was unwilling to let Giovanni go at the start of the opera (even though she doesn't know who he is, which I still find implausible); and, throughout, there are hints that she would just have to be left alone with him to fall again. To me that sits ill at ease with her supposed desire for revenge over her father's death. Maybe there are nuances I'm missing. I should try to rewatch it via the Royal Opera House's broadcast.

Don Giovanni (Christopher Maltman) stalking Zerlina (Julia Lezhneva) and her husband Masetto (Nahuel di Pierro)
Giovanni unwillingly accosted by the one conquest who just won't let him go: Donna Elvira (Dorothea Röschmann)
For me the stand-out female voice was Dorothea Röschmann's Donna Elvira: she just seemed to be thoroughly attuned to the music and I had the strange feeling that Mozart sounds more like Mozart when she sings it. Perhaps that's because I know her primarily for her excellent, vampish Vitellia in La Clemenza di Tito, and her voice retained something of that opera seria quality here, whereas Shagimuratova, for example, sang in a more classical style which didn't seem to bring out Mozart's shine quite so muchRöschmann has a brightness and suppleness to her voice which hints at imminent sparkling cascades of notes, and a resonance which effortlessly rang off the stage. She sang Elvira with a mixture of pathos, fury and icy dignity, and I thought she was immensely good. And what of our Giovanni? Well, I'd expected great things from Christopher Maltman and he delivered in spades. I've been rather fond of his voice ever since I saw his Achilla in the Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare, but here in Don Giovanni he sounded even better: robust, honeyed and thoroughly sensual where necessary. He also has great stage presence: Giovanni is a swine through and through, but he needs charisma. We, the audience, need to be seduced by him just that little bit, so that we care about what happens to him. And I think Maltman played it absolutely perfectly, treading the high-wire between amoral bastard and charming scoundrel.

The most striking thing about the production, though, was its design. The basic set was the standard rotating building, with stairs, landings and windows lending themselves to eavesdropping and concealment. But everything was enlivened by a remarkable use of projections, which helped to set a mood and resulted in some very clever trickery (the scene where Leporello is disguised in Giovanni's clothes, for example). As the overture builds, the facade of the building becomes covered with hundreds of women's names, appearing as if a hand is scribbling them down, as if they've crawled out of Leporello's little book. Throughout the show, these names appear at various points to taunt the women: both Anna and Elvira, trying to stand on their dignity, find themselves undermined by realising that they're just another notch on the bedpost. And, if the names haunt the women, then Giovanni has his own spectres: ghostly figures in gauze and muslin who creep through the rooms of the building, half-seen, representing all the women he has betrayed. I found these silent figures very effective and unnerving: they set up a sense of supernatural justice right from the beginning, even before we knew about the Commendatore. At other times the projections help us to see through Giovanni's eyes, as a way of showing the complexity of his thinking. As he stands at an upper window, planning the great ball where he intends to seduce Zerlina, his thoughts spiral out from him in a vertiginous swirl of projections, boxes within boxes, swirling and expanding faster and faster. It reminded me a little of the mind-palace graphics used in Sherlock and had the same implication: trying to use visual means to show the workings of a shrewd mind.

These projections had a large part to play in the finale too. Initially I was a bit underwhelmed by this ending: I might not have known much about Don Giovanni but I did know about him being dragged down into hell by the Commendatore and I'd been looking forward to it. But at first it all felt a bit limp. Where was the hellfire? The fiends? The melodramatic ending? In this production Giovanni is simply abandoned on the steps of the building, beneath the scrawl of his conquests' names. And then the women's names begin to disappear. Giovanni watches as they vanish: his life, his conquests, all is fading away, ceasing to exist. He's not vividly dragged down into hell: he's just being rubbed out. Finally all that is left is a single spotlight on Giovanni himsef; before that, too, winks into darkness. I found this a very clever ending. It doesn't have the brio and shock value of devils and flames and so forth, but maybe it taps into modern sensibilities in a more unnerving way. Hell? Few of us really believe in that nowadays, let alone in literal fire-and-brimstone and pitchforks. But to be forgotten? For our attention-seeking age, which thrives on public recognition, perhaps that's the worst fate of all.

At the end of the performance, I'll be honest - no matter how much of a philistine it makes me look - I had no great desire to see the opera again. I'd been there, done it, ticked it off. But I've just discovered that Hampstead Garden Opera are doing their own take on it in November and so I might well go back and give it another go. It'll be interesting to see another take on the production (their concept sounds rather fun) and, as I said earlier, I probably just need to listen to the music a bit more in order to better appreciate the opera. So come back in the autumn and we'll see whether I get on with it a little better then.

For a more informed commentary on the opera and a comparison to last year's run of the same production with a different cast, take a look at Dehggial's blog.

The Commendatore (Eric Halfvarson) closes in on Giovanni | The Don's licentious party in full swing

Sunday, 26 July 2015

The Idle Woman's 4th Birthday

Because, frankly, life is better with dinosaurs. Or are they dragons?
I've now been writing this blog for four years, rather incredibly. It certainly doesn't seem that long and I actually entirely forgot the anniversary last year. Oops. My first cautious (and incredibly short!) contributions to the blogosphere in July 2011 were on the stage production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the frankly baffling film The Tree of Life and How to Train Your Dragon: I was keen from the beginning that it shouldn't be deadly serious. In the three years since then, the blog's morphed and changed to keep up with my enthusiasms, but I hope that my long-term readers still find things of interest now and again. As ever, I'm enormously grateful that writing the blog has allowed me to meet so many interesting and brilliant people. It continues to be an excellent motivation for getting out and doing things, rather than sitting at home rewatching past seasons of Game of Thrones, which quite frankly is what I'd be doing otherwise. 

A special thank-you to those who take the time to leave comments. It means such a lot. Writing the posts is only part of having a blog, although it's the most time-consuming aspect: the most wonderful part is discussing the book, play, exhibition or opera further with other people, and it always gives me a thrill whenever a new comment pops up. If you read but don't comment, please take the plunge at some point! It'd be lovely to hear from you. 

So, I raise a glass to you all, and look forward to another year of blogging - as last year showed, the whole emphasis of the blog can change dramatically in twelve months, so goodness knows what new delights are on the horizon this year. Thank you for your continued support. You're all fabulous.


Saturday, 25 July 2015

Bacchae: Euripides

(The UCL Classical Play; directed by Emily Louizou, at the British Museum, 20 July 2015)

««« ½

Bacchae was the first classical play that I saw, way back in 2000, and it's still my favourite. When I heard that UCL Classics students were performing the play on Thursday night at a British Museum Members' Evening (sold out), and there was a free dress rehearsal on the Monday, I jumped at the chance to attend. Performed in an English translation by James Morwood, this was a promenade performance, unfolding amid the columns, steps and statues of the Museum's Great Court. It was a creative and largely successful adaptation of a challenging space. (I say 'largely' because there's only so much you can do about the posters, gift-shop paraphernalia and ticket desks.) I should also add that cast and crew are old hands with the play. Earlier this year they had a successful run at the Bloomsbury Theatre, which I wish I'd seen; they also took the production on tour and performed it in the ancient Greek theatre at Messene, which must have been pretty special. 

This is a dark and chilling story about what happens when gods and mortals clash, and there's plenty of opportunity for goosebumps. The story takes place in the Greek city of Thebes, where the elderly king Cadmus has ceded the throne to his grandson Pentheus. Some years ago, Cadmus' daughter Semele was killed, struck by a thunderbolt which incinerated her body. Her sisters (one of whom is Agave, Pentheus' mother) claim that Semele was killed by Zeus as punishment for her wild claims that he had fallen in love with her and fathered a child upon her. Logically, the child could not have survived the inferno which consumed his mother; but Cadmus knows that logic means nothing to the gods. He has been listening to disturbing stories rising out of the east about a new god, wild and seductive, who has consumed Asia with dancing and the lethal revels of his rites. And the god is coming west, leaving Media, Lydia and Persia smouldering in his wake. He claims to be Dionysus, son of Zeus and Semele, and Cadmus both fears and honours him. His concern is shared by Tiresias, the blind prophet, who comes to warn the Thebans to bow down and worship the god. Even Semele's sisters, who once sneered at her, have been unaccountably seized with a Bacchic madness and have fled to the hills, dressed in animal skins and carrying the thyrsus, to follow strange rites forbidden to the eyes of men. But Pentheus, young and full of self-confidence, will have none of it. He sneers at the fretting of two old men, and when he hears that a mysterious stranger has arrived in Thebes, with an entourage of half-wild, delirious women, he simply decides to arrest them all to stop them disturbing the peace. But the beautiful stranger will shatter Pentheus' conviction of his own rationality. It's effectively a tale of an atheist coming face to face with a god, and the ruthless, exquisitely modulated cruelty that results.

The make-or-break role in this play is Dionysus. If your leading man lacks charisma, the premise of the whole production crumbles. Fortunately UCL are in safe hands. Pavlos Chrisodoulou may not have the flowing golden locks or the girlish looks mentioned in the text, but he turned in a performance of broodingly sensual, feline grace. There was a sense of underlying menace even during his laddishly flippant answers to Pentheus' interrogations (I was amused that, when disguised in human form, the god slipped into a London accent). Pentheus himself was played magnificently by Adam Woolley, who showed the young king's physical disintegration from a roosterish pragmatist into a man undone from within by divine spite. In the scene where Pentheus consents to be dressed as a woman (so he can spy unseen on the maenads), you could see Woolley visibly crumbling. In fact, that was the most powerful scene in the show. UCL did a great job of showing that it isn't a comic scene ("Look! Man dressed as woman!") but something much darker and more vicious. As Pentheus was stripped and dressed again, Dionysus began to sing in Greek - I've no idea what it was, alas - but Crisodoulou's voice raised hairs on my arms: it was haunting and ancient, a raw, ululating paean that showed the boundaries between human and divine were falling away. 

Images from an earlier rehearsal in the space: Pavlos Crisodoulou (Dionysus) and his maenads take over the Great Court
(Images from here)
You begin to pity Pentheus. It's not just that Dionysus has tangled his mind: in changing his clothes, he has lost his own physical sense of himself. As Woolley pattered down the steps in his robe, he seemed to have taken on some girlish traits, simperingly allowing Dionysus to adjust his veil for better effect. It's played for laughs, but the humour is undermined by Dionysus' dark satisfaction. He has already succeeded by making this hard, respected man into an effete laughing stock; but he won't stop there. The gods are unforgiving when they're crossed, and Dionysus' ultimate target is not Pentheus but Agave and the other sisters of his mother Semele. This was the other particularly powerful moment, as reality (literally) dawns on Agave in the final scenes. As she leaps down from the mountains, blood-soaked and exulting, it falls to the sorrowing Cadmus (Jack Tivey) to break the news of what she has done. The moment where he takes his daughter's shoulder and asks her to look at the sky was gentle and heartbreaking - did the sky look different to her now? She was uneasy: "It looks a little brighter than before." And that moment heralded the slow return to realisation, and the full horror of understanding what she has done. Charlotte Holtum didn't quite capture the raw agonies of what a mother would feel in these circumstances, but she made a fine, proud Agave while still in her Bacchic frenzy, and her return to sanity was thoughtfully done. 

This was a dress rehearsal, of course, and some things were still being ironed out. Some of the places where we stopped on our promenade could have been dropped without much of a loss (Dionysus and Pentheus confront one another against the bright signs of the ticket desk, for example), but on the other hand the use of the sweeping steps around the Reading Room to suggest the mountains of Kithairon was excellent. There were also slight audio glitches which I imagine were smoothed out for the final performance. The audience were given headphones which were supposed to overcome the acoustic problems caused by the vast space, but personally I found these more hindrance than help. I could hear far better when I took them off, and there was something even more powerful about hearing the voices and singing echoing around the court. 

Despite these technical matters, it was a striking and accomplished performance by all concerned. The costumes, choreography and use of music were all very effective, and I'm delighted to have had the opportunity to see it, even if it was sometimes slightly disconcerting to be so close to so many frenzied maenads. I do hope the final performance went well, but I'm sure that the combination of the cast's energy and the unusual location made for a great success. I'll be keeping an eye on UCL to find out what they choose for their Classical Play next year; and next time I shall make an effort to see it in a theatrical setting. 

The dress rehearsal: Dionysus (Crisodoulou) endures Pentheus' (Adam Woolley's) questioning | The maenads in all their finery
(Photos by Kat Cristidi)

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Alcina: George Frideric Handel (1735)

(Freiburger Barockorchester, directed by Andrea Marcon, Aix-en-Provenance, 9 July 2015)

««« ½

Many posters give only a vague idea of what to expect from an opera production, but this is especially innocuous
Spare a thought for the modern opera singer. You spend years training and auditioning; you finally make it and become a leading soloist, a master of your craft; and then you find yourself at Aix, hands bound and blindfolded, singing while some guy you met at the first rehearsal last Tuesday beats you with a riding crop in front of a thousand-strong audience. At which point do you begin wondering, "Where did this all go wrong?"

This Alcina at the Aix-en-Provence festival, broadcast online, is going to be a memorable one. It was memorable for me because it's the first time I'd seen the opera, but it's been causing a sensation even among more seasoned opera-goers. According to a completely unscientific poll (I talked to a few people on Twitter), some gave up watching the broadcast after Act 1. That's a shame because the staging had a lot of very clever ideas and managed to tell the story clearly and well. But there's certainly a lot of sex. Baroque opera audiences are used to eyebrow-raising scenes, but this production has a strong BDSM streak running through it which pretty quickly turns from titillation to tedium. Few of the cast escape. Katarina Bradić's Bradamante has scarcely arrived before she's been press-ganged into frisking the nymphomaniac Morgana with a feather duster. And I doubt Philippe Jaroussky expected to end up lying between Patricia Petibon's legs with his head up her skirt. There's an awful lot of dressing and undressing - again, usually Jaroussky - and it's all just a bit too much. It's a shame because, with a lighter touch, these elements could have brought a piquant sexiness to a story that is, after all, about the exploitation of erotic power. But it's overused and it's brought on too soon. In the opening scene, a startled Bradamante and Melisso are welcomed to Alcina's magical island first by the febrile Morgana and then by Alcina herself, who strips and ravishes Ruggiero before their very eyes. Sorceresses have an odd idea of hospitality, evidently.

As you all know, no doubt, the plot of Alcina is drawn from Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. In the course of his travels the knight Ruggiero has ended up in the island kingdom of the beautiful sorceress Alcina. Taking a fancy to him, she ensnares him with her magic and, stupefied by pleasure, he loses all thought of duty and valour. Fortunately there are other people looking out for him: his tutor Melisso and his long-suffering, short-tempered fiancée Bradamante, are on his trail. As as the opera starts they arrive at the island intending to rescue Ruggiero and destroy Alcina's enchantments. Time is of the essence, because Alcina has a reputation for tiring of her lovers and, Circe-like, transforming them into beasts or rocks or plants. But their arrival adds new tensions to the atmosphere. Bradamante, as is de rigueur for any practical warrior maiden, is dressed as a man. Unfortunately Morgana takes an immediate shine to this handsome young 'knight', which brings poor Bradamante into conflict with Morgana's rebuffed lover Oronte. The race is on to break the spell, bring Ruggiero back to his senses and escape from the island before Alcina turns all of them into wild beasts. But it isn't quite as black-and-white as all that. As far as Melisso and Bradamante are concerned, Alcina is the enemy - in the original text it is a simple matter of Christian virtue versus pagan magic. But the libretto makes things a little more complex. Alcina has actually fallen in love with Ruggiero and towards the end of the opera she becomes a rather sympathetic figure as she begs for the love of the one man she desperately wants, but who - when he's in his right mind - simply refuses her. The conclusion might be a victory for Good over Evil, but it's also a small tragedy as Alcina watches her magic fade and all her carefully-constructed world crumble away.

Bradamante's rather unnerving welcome | Alcina and Ruggiero as the spell falls away | Our introduction to Alcina and Ruggiero
Let's just put all the undressing and bondage gear in a little box over there in the corner for the moment, and turn our attention to the rest of the opera, because there was actually a lot to enjoy. When you have such a 'magical' story, you have to decide whether to try to rationalise it or whether to go for special effects, which might be prohibitively expensive, and which would have to be pretty creative to impress an audience used to cinematic CGI. This production comes up with a simple but extremely clever way to indicate the presence of enchantments and the difference between appearance and reality. The island becomes a mansion (it's another of those two-storey sets with various rooms) and most of the action takes place in a grand salon on the ground floor, where Alcina and Morgana appear to their guests as beguiling, beautiful women. But on each side of this salon there are doors leading into shabby side rooms, where the betwitched Ruggiero never ventures. The women stride out of the salon in all their youthful beauty, but when they emerge from the other side of the door into these side-rooms, they appear as they really are: old women, their hands and arms wrinkled with age, their faces sagging. It was a fantastic conceit: despite the thin walls there must have been hidden entrances at the back so that Patricia Petibon (Alcina) and Anna Prohaska (Morgana) can switch places with their older alter egos: respectively, Juliet Alderdice and Jane Thorne. It was smoothly done and, although it felt like a gimmick at first, it soon became just part of the magic. A stroke of brilliance there. There was an equally clever solution to the transformation scenes. On the upper level of the mansion is a huge machine, into which Alcina's drugged lovers (or, at the end, Bramante) are fed by conveyer belt. In one end they go, and out the other end they come as stuffed animals or birds. It was, again, done extremely well.

The singing seemed to be rather good, as far as I can judge on one run-through. Petibon made an impressive leading lady, managing to suggest Alcina's sensitive side while maintaining her authority, and tackling some demanding arias without much sign of effort. I shall have to look up some of her other roles. Prohaska's Morgana was also strong, although unfortunately she suffered the brunt of the S&M arias and so one doesn't tend to remember her singing so much. As Ruggiero, I thought Jaroussky was vocally stronger than usual - often he doesn't convince me with his coloratura, but here he had a good level of snappiness and his gentler arias, such as Mi lusinga, were reliably gorgeous. Admittedly he still doesn't have the greatest expressiveness as an actor, but the role doesn't demand fire and brimstone. As his tutor Melisso, Krzysztof Baczyk didn't have an awful lot of singing to do, but provided a doughty and capable presence, as able to whip up a quick bag of explosives as to dress his erstwhile charge in his 'armour' again. There were long periods when Melisso didn't come on stage at all, and I couldn't help thinking that he was off doing Manly Things like booby-trapping the mansion, while everyone else stood around and sang at one another. There was definitely more of the commando than the professor about Melisso. Anthony Gregory's Oronte similarly felt slightly underused, but came across very well in his vindictive Act 1 aria where he threatens the hapless Bradamante. There was a role I particularly liked, and probably no wonder, because I like to see women standing up for themselves. Bradić's Bradamante took the role of miffed fiancée to new lengths, channelling a kind of Baroque Lara-Croft quality that left no doubt who'd be wearing the trousers in that relationship. Indeed, as the curtain came down at the end, we saw Bradamante furiously berating a quailing Ruggiero, while Melisso patiently held them apart. But quite apart from her acting, she also had a rich, warm contralto which occasionally soared up into some lovely high notes. Some of the biggest cheers, however, were for Elias Mädler, playing the boy Oberto who has come in search of his missing father (now unfortunately transformed into a stuffed lion). Mädler had a strikingly good voice, still a little uncertain in the lower parts but pure and strong in the soprano register. If he can sing Handel arias with such confidence now, it will be very exciting to see what becomes of him in five or ten years' time.

Overall, a production which had some great ideas and concepts, and some good performances from a very impressive cast; but which ultimately let itself down by going too far. I'm sure that there's always pressure on the designer to come up with something attention-grabbing in modern productions, but there's a fine line between getting attention, and your audience thinking, "Oh Christ; not again," as another cast member gets tied to a bed. As I said with Catone, sometimes you've just got to trust the audience's attention span. Otherwise you risk your carefully-crafted show turning into 'the one with the shark / parrot / S&M'. And it's a shame that this is going to be remembered as the 'Fifty Shades' Alcina when it could instead have been remembered for its very clever staging of the magical elements. Ah well. To think that, when Jaroussky was so charming to us in Halle, he was beginning rehearsals for this on the following day! Poor, poor boy...

Oronte tries to prove his love to Morgana as Alcina listens | Oronte comforting Alcina | Bradamante reassuring Oberto
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