Friday, 6 March 2015

Hercules: George Frideric Handel (1745)

(The English Concert directed by Harry Bicket at the Barbican, 4 March 2015)

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Alice Coote: a superb Dejanira
Six months into my Baroque voyage of discovery, it'll soon be time to jump in at the deep end for the London Handel Festival. From fully-staged operas to concerts, solo recitals and pasticci, the next month will offer a veritable banquet of Handel in all his forms. Before the Festival proper gets underway with Semele next week*, the first item on my menu was an oddity: Hercules, first performed in 1745 when Handel had moved away from the Italian operas with which he'd made his name and was writing oratorios, better calculated to appeal to English taste. Hercules sits uneasily between the classical themes of Italian opera and the oratorio format of the (largely Biblical) new works Handel was producing for his London audience. It's neither fish nor fowl and, for a newcomer (as, perhaps, for Handel's own public), that can prove challenging.

What to expect from a tale of Hercules? It could well have been a rambunctious comedy about the hero's love life; but Handel chooses something very different. He focuses on the end of the legend. Hercules (Matthew Rose) returns home to his palace in Thessaly in triumph, laden with the spoils of victory. Fragile and isolated, his wife Dejanira (Alice Coote) has been waiting: less placid than Penelope, increasingly convinced that her long-absent husband must be dead. His return throws her into a tumult of joy; but that is short-lived. One of Hercules' captives is the lovely Iole, princess of Oechalia (Elizabeth Watts); and no sooner has Dejanira laid eyes on her than she begins to wonder. What hold does this virginal beauty have over her husband? Denials are in vain. The green-eyed monster has Dejanira in its grip, leading her to a desperate, fatally misguided attempt to reclaim her husband's love. Circling this tragic trio are Hercules' and Dejanira's son Hyllus (James Gilchrist), who pines with unrequited love for Iole; and Hercules' loyal herald Lichas (Rupert Enticknap).

Reviews from every leg of this concert tour have been hugely positive and indeed I have nothing but praise for the performances of the musicians of the English Concert and the talented singers. However, I confess I wasn't hugely won over by the music itself. Perhaps it just shows that my head is easily turned by the flashy and the flamboyant, but I found Hercules considerably more demanding to listen to than something like Serse, which it postdates by only seven years. Hercules obliges you to concentrate: it expects you to work at it. I can well imagine why Handel's first audiences found it so difficult (it received only two performances in January 1745): the opening is unremittingly bleak. It only springs to life with Dejanira's Begone my fears; and in the entire piece there was no melody that lodged itself in my head. Having said that, there were plenty of moments which struck me, primarily because the cast and orchestra skilfully drew out the drama of the music. For example, the final chorus of the first part - 'Jealousy, infernal pest' - captured me with its crisp articulation and measured, slow-paced beat, which lent it the appropriately ominous feel of a hangman's drum. The martial paean preceding Hercules' triumphant entrance was also a stirring moment, but that's primarily because I'm a simple soul and if you give me a rousing chorus accompanied by trumpets then I'm happy. But there were two performances in particular where this 'English opera', for me, flourished into life.

Harry Bicket | Bicket with members of The English Concert
If dazzling vocal elaboration impressed me in the recent Oracolo, then Hercules balanced the scales with some powerful emotional engagement from its two female leads. Alice Coote, who was the first singer I saw live in a Baroque opera (ENO's Xerxes back in September), turned in a veritable tour-de-force of gnawing jealousy as the troubled Dejanira. Her acting, which was initially (appropriately) restrained, blossomed in Begone my fears and her expressive, mobile features came to life. Armed with opera glasses, I spent much of the time watching her face as Dejanira's riot of emotions tumbled across it: grief dispelled by joy; girlish light-heartedness; and then, slowly, insidiously, the rising tide of envy. While most of her colleagues sang from their music stands, Coote effectively gave a semi-staged performance and the real high points came in the second half, where she drew every shade of dramatic feeling out of her two big scenes, both of which brought the house down.** 

The first of these was the wonderful Resign thy club, in which the music itself echoed the relentless, needling nagging of martial discord. Matthew Rose sat back in his chair looking weary and sullen with one foot resting on the opposite knee, the very image of a henpecked husband, while Coote gradually whipped herself up into a shrewish frenzy, whirling back and forth. Her mockery was echoed by the sudden dragged-out yowl of violins underscoring her complaints about Cupid, the 'whining boy', which made me laugh. And visually the scene was played for humour too: Coote's dynamic, indignant, coiled energy suddenly brought up against Rose's towering figure. (A similar impact to the physical stand-off between Rose's Seneca and Sarah Connolly's Nero in Poppea.) And if this scene was played well, the same or more is true of the mad scene. Where shall I fly? was the only piece of music I knew in advance*** and Coote carried it off superbly. Veering from cold horror into frenzied visions of Furies and serpents, she punctuated it with moments of almost fearful yearning. "Hide me!" was breathed, as a sudden halt to the tumult of imagination - and then she swept back into an insanity that bordered on hysteria. This was a woman convincingly unhinged by grief. It's a long scene and much of it is recitative but Coote kept everyone absolutely gripped. Spiralling from throbbing low tones to the odd piercing high note, she overcame the Barbican's dodgy acoustics without seeming even to try; and yet there were moments when her notes were almost whispered: as fine and delicate as cobwebs. Her fine singing was very much bound to her emotions, which added to the dramatic impact of the character. Dejanira is a grand, almost Shakespearean role, I think - her misguided jealousy echoes that of Othello and there were shades of Hamlet or Lear in her recitatives. I was very impressed: we were very, very lucky to have seen so consummate an actress in the role.

My other high point was Elizabeth Watts. I'd been looking forward to seeing her live, having got to know her voice through the CD of Arne's Artaxerxes (another Mandane!), and she rewarded my anticipation: her voice a velvety dark soprano and her performance as deeply felt as Coote's. Iole doesn't have as many chances to show fire, but Watts turned in some gorgeous gentler arias, such as the heartbreaking Peaceful rest, and the bucolic How blest the maid. I'm never quite convinced by high-born characters longing to be humble shepherds, but Watts sang with some lovely rippling notes which echoed the bubbling of the streams and springs referenced in the aria. She was another one I watched closely with the opera glasses: when she was out of her seat, her face always reflected exactly the right emotions, whether she was singing or not; and her grief and torment were palpable. When she sang My breast with tender pity swells she seemed to take her identification with the character to the point of tears; I don't know if they were real or not, from that distance, but the point is that I believed them to be. However, Iole does have a moment of greater vocal splendour in the dramatic Ah! think what ills the jealous prove at the end of the first part; and Watts was excellent, with a commanding high note on one of her Adieus that thrilled me to the bone. I long to see her in a more imperious role: I'll have to keep an eye on her schedule.

Matthew Rose (Hercules) | Elizabeth Watts (Iole) | James Gilchrist (Hyllus) | Rupert Enticknap (Lichas)
In the face of such towering performances from the two ladies, the men seemed slightly overshadowed; and I say that despite Rose's Seneca having been one of the reasons I bought this ticket in the first place. (Me! Booking a ticket on account of a bass! I can feel the shockwaves going through you now.) I was happy to finally hear a little more of Enticknap, whom I recently encountered in Vivaldi's Oracolo. His Lichas doesn't have a huge amount to do, but his big moment is the long recitative in the final act which reports Hercules' fate: here he sang with sombre grace and a sense of growing horror which I found very effective. As Hyllus, James Gilchrist was vocally striking with a light tenor that was surprisingly agile. I'm not used to hearing such lively coloratura from tenors and so it sounded strange to my ears at first, though it grew on me. However, I don't think I'll offend anyone by pointing out that visually he didn't quite convince as Coote's and Rose's son; although he certainly did suggest an air of youthful shyness and self-deprecation. Indeed, there were moments where his Hyllus seemed almost neurotic, with his nervous gestures echoing the fluttering coloratura of his voice.

By now I shouldn't be surprised that Rose, playing the title character, had relatively little to do: despite the title, there's no doubt that Dejanira is the musical and emotional heart of this piece. Nevertheless he had some fine moments and I thought again - as I did in Poppea - that compared to other basses I've heard, he seems to have a lot of richness and colour in his tones. He has some swaggering coloratura here, very appropriate to such a character as Hercules, and his stand-out aria for me was the deliciously self-aggrandising Alcides' name in ancient story. Even here, though, Coote's reaction shots stole the show: she perched at the edge of the stage peering back with growing disbelief at her husband's pompous catalogue of his glories.

So: what to make of this curious piece? For the singing and the musicianship I was conscious that I was in extremely good hands, and yet the music itself left me a little cold, for which I can only point the finger at Handel himself. Other reviews by more knowledgeable people have been so enthusiastic that I'm sure I'm missing something, but I felt that large parts of it were slightly too long and slightly too heavy. That said, it's no bad thing to have to work at appreciating something once in a while: I can't always have bravura sparkle handed to me on a plate, much as I love it. And even though certain parts of it were challenging, I had the joy of watching Alice Coote in full dramatic flow, and the pleasure of hearing Elizabeth Watts in the flesh. These two splendid women dominated; and it looks likely that my main legacy of the evening will be a renewed determination to see them tackle other roles in the Baroque canon.

* Many thanks to a friend for pointing out that this wasn't actually part of the Handel Festival: it's simply a very serendipitous coincidence that it's scheduled the week before. It really is perfect timing.

** As a newbie, I was surprised that no one applauded after the arias in the first part. There were certainly some which deserved it; and I wondered if this was due to differing audience traditions between the opera and the oratorio type - the gentleman next to me didn't applaud once, save at the interval and the curtain call. However, in the second part the audience suddenly woke up and there were several cases where individual arias met with applause.

*** It was one of the arias in focus during Sarah Connolly's Insights masterclass at the Royal Opera House, which I attended a few weeks ago.

Friday, 27 February 2015

L'Ormindo: Francesco Cavalli (1644)

(Royal Opera House in collaboration with the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 3 February-5 March 2015)

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The battle begins: Amidas (Ed Lyon) and Ormindo (Samuel Boden) squabble over who has the better claim to Erisbe.
Please note that all production photos appear to be from last year's run though costumes and actors are the same.
In writing about Cavalli's Ormindo, it's hard not to feel that everything has already been said. (But I'm going to say it again anyway.) This production made its immensely successful début in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse last year, blending the musical expertise of the Royal Opera House with the theatrical immediacy of the Globe. It is, quite simply, a match made in heaven: Cavalli's operas, which predate the swaggering show-off arias of the high Baroque, feel like exuberant plays that just happen to be set to music. Naturally there's nowhere in London more skilled at bringing such things to life than the Globe. There are no sets or backdrops here, save the large painted backcloth that goes up in Act 2, showing dragons snarling around the mouth of a cave. Instead, to convey changes of scene or space, the singers adopt usual practice at the Playhouse: clambering through the audience and leaning from balconies (for the inevitable prison scene), making the whole performance wonderfully immersive. That sense of intimacy is heightened by its beginning. You file into the auditorium to find the singers assembled on stage in their dressing gowns, chatting as they do their make-up by candlelight. It's a conceit that I've seen used before, both in opera and plays, and I always enjoy it: it emphasises the artificiality of the world we're about to enter, but also provides a moment of transition which draws us into the fantasy along with the cast as they transform themselves.

There's nowhere to put surtitles in the Playhouse and so the opera has been translated into English, but the remarkable thing is that Christopher Cowell's translation feels utterly natural and homogeneous. It worked even better, for me, than that of the Roundhouse's Orfeo, which I thought generally good but sometimes self-consciously archaic. Cowell's English has a 17th-century flavour but it ebbs and flows with consummate ease, peppered with rhymes and half-rhymes but never feeling forced. It never feels like a translation. Most crucially, it also manages to preserve the liveliness, wit and raciness of the original - with some very clever adaptations. For example, in the prologue Music floats down from the ceiling in a billowing white gown and superb plumed headdress. She begins with the allegorical declamations familiar from other operas by Cavalli and Monteverdi, but it rapidly becomes clear that, with tongue firmly in cheek, she's deviating slightly from Giovanni Faustini's original libretto. In a 17th-century style she references the Thames, Shakespeare and the oaken walls and arches of her new home, now a year old. The audience loved it and it set the scene perfectly. In the hands of this gifted team, Cavalli's opera feels as fresh, lively and daring as if we were that very first audience at the theatre of S. Cassiano in Venice in 1644.

The plot is relatively simple. Two princes, Ormindo (Samuel Boden) and Amidas (Ed Lyon), have come to Morocco to offer their aid to old King Ariadenus (Graeme Broadbent) in his war against the marauding Spanish. However, their noble intentions have been undermined by a more powerful force: Love. Each of them is besotted with a beautiful woman. As old friends, they're naturally pleased for each other (though each is convinced the other's beloved can't be as lovely as his own). However, when they laughingly exchange miniatures of their ladies to compare them, it turns out, to their horror... yes, you've guessed it. They're both in love with the same woman: Erisbe (Susanna Hurrell again), the flirtatious and bored young queen of tottering Ariadenus. Each of the friends is convinced that Erisbe would be his, if only his rival would stop bothering her. But how to prove this? As Erisbe confides to her maid Mirinda (Rachel Kelly), she's enjoying herself so much that she has no intention of choosing between the two (and, indeed, would be perfectly happy to entertain both at once)... While the friends wrangle over Erisbe's affections, and the hapless servant Nerillus (James Laing) wrestles against the sinful allure of cosmopolitan life, Amidas little guesses that his own past is coming back to bite him. It comes in the form of an exotic veiled gypsy girl, who arrives at the court with her old hag of a companion, and sets about telling scarily accurate fortunes. You won't be particularly surprised to learn that (in true Baroque fashion) this gypsy is none other than the princess Sicle (Joélle Harvey), formerly loved by Amadis and abandoned by him in favour of the flighty Erisbe. Not being the sort of girl to sit back and mope, Sicle and her nurse Eryka (Harry Nicoll) have tracked down her errant lover to Morocco, determined to remind him where his duty lies. The scene is set for a romantic farce which has moments of real beauty and tenderness alongside occasionally very bawdy lyrics. (If you think early music is staid, pretty much any Cavalli opera will put paid to that idea extremely quickly.)

Sicle (Joélle Harvey) in her gypsy's disguise | Amidas is visited by the 'shade' of Sicle | Love-starved Erisbe (Susanna Hurrell)
Cavalli, as I've said, doesn't give his singers the same opportunities to show off as composers would sixty or seventy years later. Ormindo feels very much like an ensemble piece but, nevertheless, the young cast are all extremely good. Where they triumph over even some of the starriest singers that I've seen live is in their acting. In a space like this there's nowhere to hide but equally the cast can act in a subtle and naturalistic way that would be lost in a larger theatre. Lyon's and Boden's muttered ad libs and black looks as they squabble over their princess are a delight and I thought Lyon in particular a very emotionally nuanced actor. His confident, rich tenor is backed up by a smouldering swagger which would have made a strong impression even if he hadn't been rather easy on the eye. Boden attracted my attention in Le malade imaginaire back in the autumn for his remarkable voice, which seems (to my inexperienced ears) to be a very high tenor of the sort called haute-contre in French opera.* His character doesn't undergo quite the same development as Amidas, but Ormindo does get some beautiful music, and the high point is the gorgeous duet he has with Erisbe in Act 3 as (spoiler!) they face up to the likelihood of death. 

I thought Hurrell was technically very good: she dazzled me from the moment she began swooping up those scales in her Prologue, and her voice was set off well both in her scenes with Ormindo (Boden's light voice echoing her bright soprano) and in those with Mirinda (where Kelly's more voluptuous tones suggested the contrast in worldly experience between mistress and maid). Of the women, however, I found Harvey the most enjoyable to watch because her rich, powerful voice could hop with such facility between accents: the eastern lilt of the gypsy, the pure melancholy of the forlorn Sicle and the brash American twang of Lady Luck ("Are you on Twitter?" she demanded of someone in the pit). She and Lyon were also responsible for one of the most moving scenes, as Amadis is confronted by the supposed shade of the 'dead' Sicle. Of the other cast members, I must mention the two 'comic relief' roles. I don't always get on so well with these parts, because they can feel forced, but both Nicoll and Laing did very well. Laing (who alternates in the role with Rupert Enticknap) was a very gifted physical comedian: the role didn't really give him the opportunity to make the most of his voice, but he drew out all the humour of Nerillus's immaturity; and Nicoll was on fine form in the traditional dame-like part, complete with what can only have been a pair of balloons stuffed down his dress. Laing also made an appearance in a couple of scenes as Love, which involved (in his most dramatic entrance) being winched down from the ceiling half-naked, carrying a bow and arrow and wearing a blindfold, glittery red lipstick and a heart-shaped tutu. Give the man some respect.

All was delightful; costumes were deliciously extravagant. The 'gypsies' wore strings of coins and layers of veils, while Erisbe made her first entrance in a pink satin dress that incorporated its own bed (hard to describe), which literally formed the perfect backdrop to her pouting lament about the miseries of being married to an old man. Everything had a faintly Moroccan flavour, from caps to slightly curling shoes. It would be remiss of me, perhaps, if I didn't note that the production is also very aesthetically pleasing in other ways - something it knows only too well. This becomes clear when the two male leads strip off their shirts during their jostling braggadocio at the end of Act 1: a moment which gratified all the ladies in the audience enormously; and probably some of the men as well. Shamelessly exploitative of course; but I find it hard to criticise. 

The run is pretty much sold out, as far as I'm aware, but there are occasional returns. If you haven't seen this yet, I urge you to go. If you like early music, it's a chance to see a production that brings Cavalli back to rousing, pulsing life. If you like Shakespeare, it unfolds like a riotous comedy. Either way, you're in for a supreme treat. Let's hope that this, like last year's Duchess of Malfi, is either broadcast in cinemas or released on DVD, so that more people around the world can savour it; because it really is something worth sharing. And, most importantly of all, let's hope that the great success of Ormindo (not to mention Farinelli) paves the way for many more Baroque operas to be staged in this perfect little venue.

One of my opera buddies, who was at the same show, has now posted his own review, so hop over to see what The Operatunist has to say. I'm glad to see that my comparison between Ed Lyon and Rollo from Vikings made it into the finished article, so thanks for that, my friend... The London contingent have been busy, in fact: Dehggial saw Ormindo last week, and you can find Opera innit's take on the show here.

Nerillus (James Laing) receives unwanted attention | Lady Luck (Joélle Harvey) | The nurse Eryka (Harry Nicoll)
* But I'm perfectly ready to be rushed at and corrected by hordes of cognoscenti, so please go ahead.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

L'Oracolo in Messenia: Antonio Vivaldi (1737)

(Europa Galante, directed by Fabio Biondi, at the Barbican, 20 February 2015)

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The excellent Marianne Beate Kielland (Merope)
In late 1737 the composer Antonio Vivaldi found himself in dire straits. He'd been planning to put on a series of operas in Ferrara for the Carnival, but all his plans had gone wrong when the religious authorities refused him permission to enter the city. (They took exception to the fact he was a priest who never performed Mass and was known to travel in the company of a female singer.) Faced with the prospect of losing an entire season's income, Vivaldi pulled some strings and managed to get hold of the Teatro S Angelo in Venice. With less than a month to prepare, he needed to get together a programme (I don't quite understand why he couldn't use the one he'd been preparing for Ferrara, but I'm sure someone can tell me). He resurrected one of his early operas and then, pressed for time, put together two pasticcios: Rosmira fedele (based on the same libretto as Vinci's Partenope) and L'Oracolo in Messenia. But here the waters become muddy. When we say that L'Oracolo is by Vivaldi, then most people will think that means he composed the music. In fact, the original Oracolo would have been a medley of various arias both from Vivaldi's own operas and those of different composers, melded together and amended by Vivaldi to get the effect he wanted (basically a Top of the Baroque Pops). The pasticcio was the perfect solution for a composer who was up against a deadline and, although nowadays it feels a bit like cheating, audiences at the time didn't mind hearing familiar music from other contexts as long as it all came together to tell the story at hand. But the waters are muddied further in this case, because we don't actually know which music Vivaldi used for the original Oracolo: all that survives is the libretto. And so the piece we hear today recorded and performed by Europa Galante is in fact a speculative reconstruction by Fabio Biondi: a modern effort to put together something similar to what Vivaldi's audience might have heard. It's an impressive achievement but, as I said to a friend, there perhaps isn't quite as much Vivaldi as you might expect.

Following the murder of his father and brothers ten years ago, Epitide prince of Messenia has been brought up at the court of Etolia. As a young man he returns to Messenia to claim his birthright, disguising himself under the name of Cleon. He finds the throne occupied by the wicked tyrant Polifonte (whom we the audience know to have been behind the murder of Epitide's father), who plots to make his reign secure by marrying Epitide's widowed mother, the dowager queen Merope. 'Cleon' arrives on an auspicious day: the Messenian populace are plagued by the ravages of a monstrous boar and, guided by the proclamation of an oracle, Polifonte has promised favour and a rich marriage to the hero who can rid them of the beast. Fortunately 'Cleon' turns out to be a dab hand at boar-extermination and his reward, to his delight, is the hand in marriage of Polifonte's royal hostage, who just happens to be the princess Elmira, daughter of the king of Etolia, with whom Epitide is in love. Now all Epititde has to do is convince the grieving Merope that 'Cleon' is her long-lost son. However, Polifonte and his pet assassin Anassandro have realised who this young man really is; and they begin to weave a web of suspicion between Merope and Epitide, in the hope of extinguishing the royal line of Messenia once and for all. 

Fabio Biondi | With the members of Europa Galante
There was an extremely good cast for this concert performance on Friday and my main gripe about the evening is that I'd have liked to hear them better. The Barbican acoustics were at their very worst: we were in the third row of the dress circle (hardly in the far reaches of the gods), and yet the sinfonia and the first couple of arias sounded as if they were being played at the far end of a long tunnel. It was immensely frustrating, especially because whenever the arias strayed into the middle of the musical spectrum (which happens a lot with mezzos, unfortunately), the notes were drowned in the music. If the Barbican want to do more of this sort of thing, with modestly-sized ensembles, they've got to find a way to do justice to their musicians and their audiences. I know the prospect of microphones is anathema to some, but really, if it's a choice between having a little discreet amplification and not being able to hear the finer details of the opera I've come to see, I know which I'd choose. However, the singers seemed to realise the problem and began projecting their voices more, which was a relief: the performance included what is probably my favourite aria* - which I was going to be hearing live for the first time - and I would have been furious if I hadn't been able to savour it properly. Luckily, as you'll see, that didn't turn out to be an issue.

As the villainous Polifonte, the tenor Magnus Staveland was an absolute dream: even though this was a concert performance he brought the character vividly to life, striding around the stage, throwing gloating asides at the audience, looming over his co-stars, and clearly relishing every second of it. The only thing missing was a cloak for him to swirl. For sheer personality he almost eclipsed everyone else on stage, but there was another outstanding character performance: Merope, sung here by Marianne Beate Kielland (the role was sung by Ann Hallenberg on the CD). I haven't stumbled across Kielland before, but she was simply excellent. By now you've probably realised that I like strong female characters - we'll call them Uppity Women of the Baroque - and Merope has just been fast-tracked into the Hall of Fame. Every single one of Kielland's arias was a stunner, not only because she sang them with such fire and passion but also because of her physical presence on the stage. I adored her furious aria entitled Barbaro traditor, which she sang standing hand on hip, darting proud and ferocious glances around the auditorium. What a glorious role Merope is! The hero of the piece, Epitide, was sung by Vivica Genaux; and I must confess that her performance didn't do as much for me as I was expecting. I'm not sure I can explain why: she had a wonderfully warm and expressive voice (a touch too much vibrato for my taste) and was very good at conveying Epitide's conflicted emotions; but the role just didn't quite seem to come alive as some of the others did. Thanks to the devilry of the acoustics her voice was particularly hard to hear; and in any case it probably didn't help that her big aria, Sposa... non mi conosci, was overshadowed for me by Max Cencic's memorable performance in December. Perhaps I just need to see Genaux in a different role; and in a venue with better acoustics. Hopefully she'll come to the Wigmore one day.

Vivica Genaux | Magnus Staveland | Julia Lezhneva | Franziska Gottwald | Marina de Liso | Rupert Enticknap
The secondary roles were all sung very well, even if the opera itself never quite allowed them to develop fully as characters. Elmira was sung by Marina de Liso, whom I saw as Ottavia in the Barbican Poppea, and who here turned in another lovely performance with buttery dark tones to her voice. Franziska Gottwald played Licisco, the Etolian envoy and Epitide's friend. For much of the opera she only had bit parts in the recitative, but in Act 3 finally had the chance to show off a little with an aria. To my surprise this Nell' orror di notte oscura turned out to be set to the tune of Fra l'orror della tempesta from the first version of Hasse's Siroe**; with her rich, melodic voice, Gottwald did it extremely well. The role of the repentant murderer Anassandro was sung by Rupert Enticknap, taking over at short notice from Xavier Sabata (himself taking over from Franco Fagioli in Frankfurt; it's like countertenor musical chairs). I hadn't heard Enticknap before but he tackled his one aria, Sento già che invendicata, with great ease and I'm keen to hear more of him because that strong, rounded voice sounds like one to watch. Luckily he's also singing in Cavalli's Ormindo at the Sam Wanamaker at the moment, so I'm really hoping he'll be performing on the night I go next week; I'd like to hear his voice at closer range. That leaves me with one last role to mention: the chief minister, Trasimede. Although he doesn't have much to do in the opera - beyond pine hopelessly for Merope - this minor role is, rather unexpectedly, blessed with the two most virtuoso and dazzling arias in the piece.

Fortunately Biondi has on hand one of the most agile voices in the business: Julia Lezhneva, whom I know from her collaborations with Max Cencic on the recordings of Alessandro and Siroe. Her delivery of S'in campo armato in Act 3 was a characteristic blend of exquisitely pure soprano tones and elaborate coloratura, and under normal circumstances it might have been the stand-out aria for me. However, it languished in the shadow of an even more phenomenal performance by Lezhneva halfway through Act 2. This had brought the house down and resulted in several solid minutes of exhilarated, extremely noisy and well-deserved applause. It was the big aria of the night: the one I'd been giddy with excitement at the prospect of hearing: Broschi's blissfully insane Son qual nave, written for his brother Farinelli and designed to show off every facet of his technical brilliance. They do not come any grander or flashier than this. Just to put it in perspective, I have four recordings of this aria and the average time is around the ten-minute mark. Lezhneva plunged in with a vengeance and brought it home in less than seven minutes (considerably faster than the recording from the CD; faster even than this 2012 recording from Moscow). She was unbelievable and, most incredible of all, she made it look effortless. I watched the entire thing perched on the edge of my seat, scarcely daring to breathe or blink, and discovered afterwards that I'd been so caught up in it, I'd managed to get biro all over my trousers. It's hard not to feel that this is one of the greatest performances of an aria that I will ever see.

So in summary: despite being overshadowed by the poor acoustics, this was a superb night out. Son qual nave alone would have made the ticket worthwhile, but I was also able to see in the flesh an incredibly good cast. Kielland's and Staveland's characterful performances have made me keen to seek out more of their work, and Enticknap has gone onto my list of young countertenors to watch; hopefully I'll be able to report more on him after Ormindo.

The curtain call: Photo via @inter_mezzo. I fell slightly in love with Gottwald's black frock coat with silver trimmings.
* Before some of you splutter in disbelief, I should point out that this isn't necessarily the same thing as my favourite performance of an aria: and we all know what that is.

** The tune is also used for Armindo's aria Fra l'orror del grave affanno in the Rosmira fedele from the same year.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Bernini's Beloved: Sarah McPhee

A Portrait of Costanza Piccolomini

(published by Yale University Press, 2012, £32.82 or from Amazon)

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Late summer in Rome in the year 1638 was hot, the days long and oppressive. For weeks it would not rain. Dust in the streets, churned by the wheels of passing carts and carriages, thickened the air... Costanza, the comely young wife of the sculptor Matteo is living in a rented house at the foot of the Quirinal Hill... At mid-morning her husband is at work carving stone in St Peter's... Costanza escorts her lover to the door and returns to bed. Not long after there is knocking. A servant sent by another lover enters the house bearing two flasks of Greek wine. Costanza receives the gifts in her bedclothes, thanking the messenger. With a single rapid gesture he brandishes a razor, slashing her cheek and disfiguring her face. The messenger has been sent by an artist, the most famous in Rome: Gianlorenzo Bernini... That morning Bernini himself had watched Costanza's door... The lover who left the house was his younger brother, Luigi.
Now here is a love story with a sting in the tail for Valentine's Day. Written with novelistic verve by Sarah McPhee, a professor at Emory University, it is an example of how art history can be brought to scintillating, pulsing life when done well. McPhee's point of departure is a striking marble bust of a woman, carved by Bernini in 1637 and traditionally believed to record the features of a woman named Costanza with whom he was passionately in love. Her husband was one of Bernini's assistants. On that hot summer day in 1638, having watched his servant go in to exact his savage revenge on Costanza, Bernini then strode off to find his errant brother. He attacked Luigi with an iron rod in St Peter's itself and, when his brother managed to get away and claimed desperate sanctuary in S. Maria Maggiore, Bernini went after him with sword drawn. His rampage was only halted by the intervention of the Pope himself. Luigi was (temporarily) sent away to Bologna; the cuckolded sculptor Matteo (temporarily) left Bernini's service; and the woman at the heart of it all, the engimatic Costanza, drops out of history entirely. She has been remembered only as the subject of a marble bust and as a woman briefly loved by a powerful man. Her portrait has cast quite a spell: unusually intimate for the time, it shows its sitter dishevelled, lips parted as though about to speak, with a challenging, startled gaze. Its compelling spirit has excited the poetic faculties of male art historians throughout much of the 20th century, but until now no one has really asked who this woman actually was.

McPhee's greatest achievement is not the fluid readability of her text, but the staggering task of unearthing and compiling the documents from the Roman archives which allow her to reconstruct the biography, the lifestyle and the legacy of the remarkable Costanza. We are able to trace this woman's life from her childhood, when she was granted dowries by two confraternities, through her marriage and the horrific attack on her, following her through her months of enforced confinement in the Domus Pia for fallen women, and then back to her husband's house. We can watch the household's growing prosperity and McPhee has even managed to find documents which enable her to describe what the house looked like: to follow the improvements which Costanza and her husband made to their home and to take a virtual tour through the reception rooms, to the point of establishing which paintings the couple had in their widely admired collection. I can't even imagine how much time it must take to track down such details: McPhee has ranged through the archives of Roman noble families, parish and confraternity records, the Easter census returns, notaries' documents and court case transcripts. Almost half the book is taken up with appendices reproducing the text of these documents in their original Latin and Italian, so it is a work that's important not just for the story it tells but also for making such records more widely available. 

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Portrait Bust of Costanza Piccolomini, 1637, Museo del Bargello, Florence
Yet the book is so interesting because it uses Costanza's story as a springboard to explore various broader aspects of life in Rome in the Baroque period. What was the role of a confraternity? What criteria were considered when granting a dowry? How were legacies administered? What did it mean to be a woman in this male-dominated world? McPhee reproduces sections of contemporary maps where possible, to give her story an accurate sense of place. There is a section discussing the significance of the sfregio, the act of slashing a face and the scar that resulted, as a visible sign of dishonour - the face, as the mirror of honour, was permanently disfigured. The sfregio was used on men (Caravaggio, unsurprisingly, had one) but it was most frequently a way of attacking women, usually prostitutes, who relied so much more heavily on unblemished beauty. It was clearly fairly common: fascinatingly, McPhee reproduces woodcuts from surgical texts of the time which specifically advise on the best way to sew facial wounds so as to minimise scars. She also uses the story as a way to reconstruct the career of Costanza's husband, the sculptor Matteo Bonucelli, who not only carved sculptures for Bernini and on his own account, but seems to have acted as a dealer and restorer of antique sculpture. McPhee's exploration of the art and antiques trade in 17th-century Rome brings to life an intimate and tightly-knit world in which cardinals and kings compete for the best canvases and sculptures, and in which the Bonucelli family brushed shoulders with Poussin, Velazquez and agents of Cardinal Mazarin and the King of Spain. It is the most rewarding kind of book, which illuminates the case study at its heart but also raises masses of questions that leave you wanting to head off and read more on the period.

The most shocking thing about the book, for me, was the need to completely recast my mental image of Bernini. This just shows how little I'd read about him before: Rome is still dominated by his architecture and sculpture but I'd always had a very hazy idea of the man himself. I'd imagined him as a polite courtier of the chisel, adept at making friends with the right people, poised and self-controlled. But how wrong I was! Bernini was born in Naples, after all: his family settled in Rome when he was five, at a time when the city's artistic world was dominated by tempestuous brawlers (the Bernini clan arrived two years before Caravaggio's fateful tennis match with Ranuccio Tomassoni). McPhee does a great job of bringing that lawlessness to life. Bernini emerges as a hothead swaggerer: a man of supreme arrogance who knows that he can do whatever he likes because no one will dare to touch him. And that's backed up by the aftermath of his attack on Costanza. His servant was exiled; his brother was sent off to safety in Bologna; Costanza herself was immured in the Domus Pia; but Bernini...? Nothing. All that happened was that the Pope wrote to Bernini assuring him of his regard for his dazzling talent and noting that his divine abilities set him above the penalties to be exacted from ordinary men. It's no wonder his own mother referred to him as the padrone del mondo. And yet, again, why should I be surprised? Bernini carved some of the most breathtakingly erotically-charged sculptures in the history of art. It feels unimaginative to refer to the Pluto and Persephone in the Galleria Borghese yet again, but it is such a perfect illustration of the point: look again at the way Persephone's thigh softens into dimples under the grasping pressure of the god's fingers. How can we doubt that Bernini was a man of intense, tumultuous feeling when even his marble sculptures have the sensual pliancy of flesh? 

Spiralling outward from a single beautiful sculpture, this is a gripping and thought-provoking book. There are places where it repeats itself, which sometimes jars slightly; but that is a small criticism. It is lavishly produced with a wealth of colour photos, especially of the bust itself. I don't remember ever having stopped to look at the statue, but I now feel I know it very well and, on my next visit to Florence, I shall make a special pilgrimage to the Bargello to meet Costanza in person.

The pliancy of marble: details of Bernini's Portrait of Costanza and the superb Pluto and Persephone
(the latter 1621-22, Galleria Borghese, Rome)

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Farinelli and the King

(a new play by Claire van Kampen, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 12 February-8 March 2015)

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Corrado Giaquinto, Portrait of Farinelli, c. 1755
Civico Museo Bibliografico Musicale di Bologna
Everything in this world has its shadow.

One of the most anticipated new productions of the season, Claire van Kampen's play explores the relationship between two men who have been elevated above their peers through no desire of their own: two sacred monsters, if you will, forced at a young age to adopt a way of life that they can never put aside. One of these men is Philip V (Mark Rylance), the Bourbon King of Spain, a Frenchman placed at the head of a foreign kingdom by the will of his grandfather Louis XIV. Wearied by the demands of his position and crippled by bouts of terrible depression, Philip slips into a melancholy from which nothing can rouse him - the remedies of his doctor Jose Cervi (Huss Garbiya) prove just as ineffective as the love of his wife Isabella Farnese (Melody Grove). It looks as though the king is lost in dreams and delusions, while his minister De la Cuadra (Edward Peel) quietly gathers the reins of power behind his back. 

Isabella is at a loss; but then an idea occurs to her. She travels to London; then to Vienna, where she appeals to the poet Metastasio (Colin Hurley) for his help in securing the service of his friend, the singer Farinelli (Sam Crane). At this point it's 1737. Farinelli is thirty-two: the most celebrated, successful and adored singer in the world. He's making a fortune from singing in London; but Isabella's appeal moves him, and he agrees (to Metastasio's indignation) to come to Spain. There, king and singer find themselves in a curious equality: the king can lay aside his crown and become a man again, moved by the power and simplicity of music. The singer dares to believe that he is needed for himself, as a human being, as Carlo Broschi. At last he can shrug off the suffocating weight of being Farinelli: that glittering monstrosity who can command the adoration of thousands, but whose world offers no respite. But as time goes on, one begins to wonder whether he may have simply exchanged one gilded cage for another. (At one point Isabella gives him a gift of a mechanical bird in a cage; when wound up, it sings. Farinelli's expression on seeing the present is priceless: here is his own fate, in microcosm.)

Many of you will know that I've been looking forward to this play ever since I heard of its existence last summer and it was a great pleasure to go along to the first night and see the immensely warm response: the most energetic applause I've yet seen for a production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, complete with lots of bravos, standing ovations and drumming of feet. It's a wonderful, challenging story to have taken on and Claire van Kampen's script strikes a good balance: explaining what the castrati are, for those in the audience who are less familiar with them, while avoiding the temptation to drown us with exposition. Mark Rylance (her husband) is reliably fluid and spontaneous as always in the role of the troubled king, giving the impression that Philip is speaking off the top of his head rather than performing from a script. He conveys a pathos which is necessary if we're to care about Philip: Rylance manages to suggest that beneath the rages and absurdities there is a rational, dignified man looking out, wondering when it all went wrong. From the opening scene he had the audience in the palm of his hand, as we find him futilely fishing in a goldfish bowl. It's comic, but Rylance changes the shading of his voice ever so slightly here and there to suggest the deep tragedy beneath the humour. Acting opposite him must be a total nightmare, of course, because it's very hard to match his easy naturalism, but the rest of the cast did very well: I was particularly taken by Melody Grove's Isabella, whose affection for her afflicted husband sits alongside a growing sense of frustration. Colin Hurley's Metastasio was wonderful - I have a deep fondness for Metastasio (I'm reading his letters at the moment), and perhaps Hurley was more sarcastic and less mellifluous than expected, but he was a joy to watch. I wish there had been more of him.

Sam Crane as Farinelli | Mark Rylance as Philip V | Melody Grove as Isabella Farnese, Mark Rylance as Philip and
Edward Peel as De la Cuadra (photos by Marc Brenner)
But the main question with this play was always going to be: but what about Farinelli? When I heard that Iestyn Davies and William Purefoy would be sharing the role*, I was thrilled that music was going to play such a key role (as indeed it had to); and to have a singer of Davies's calibre involved was terrifically exciting. I was then puzzled to see Sam Crane billed as Farinelli too; in the end he acted the role and for the arias was joined on stage by (in this case) Davies in the same clothes, who stepped out to the front and took over. A quick word on Crane: he has a bit of a poisoned chalice because the key thing about Farinelli was that he was terribly nice. If you're playing someone whose main characteristics are modesty and being a jolly good sort, then it's hard to give them the kind of dramatic impact that you can if they're a temperamental diva. However, what the play - and Crane - does well is to suggest that beneath this courteous, obliging exterior there's a man haunted by his own success; embittered by the memory of his own brother arranging for his castration at the age of ten; worn out by the strain not only of playing the roles he performs on stage, but of playing the role of his own alter ego. The glamour of Farinelli offers Carlo a mask to wear against the world, but it's also a heavy, cumbersome thing: like the armour he remembers having to wear in a London performance. The debut was a triumph, but he doesn't remember it like that: he remembers the panic he felt at not being able to see clearly through the helmet and the terror that his voice would choke on the heavy perfume of the flowers thrown to welcome him. It's a psychologically astute treatment of a historical figure who remains tantalisingly elusive.

As to the doubling-up of the role... I've been thinking about this and actually I'm beginning to see that it's an astute dramatic choice. First, it's the best possible solution when you can't have one person acting and singing. The alternative would've been to have Davies singing from backstage and that wouldn't have worked well: Crane would have had to mime some pretty tricky arias, we wouldn't have been able to see Davies in action, and you might as well have had the arias on tape. At least this way we had the sheer pleasure of seeing Davies in a space more intimate than any opera house or concert hall could offer. He seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself, poised at the front of the stage in wig and frock coat, one hand propped on his hip; the audience hanging breathless on his every note. But it's also a very clever way of representing the duality within the character - the man Carlo versus the 'star' Farinelli. More on that below. As to the arias, we had Acio's aria Alto Giove from Porpora's Polifemo (it was the one aria you could guarantee was going to be in it), Almirena's Lascia ch'io pianga from Handel's Rinaldo, Rinaldo's own arias Cara sposa and Venti turbini from the same opera and (I think; forgive me if I have this wrong) Poro's aria Generoso risvegliati o core from Hasse's Cleofide. I'd heard Davies perform Alto Giove on Radio 3 a couple of weeks ago, but I hadn't heard him sing any of the others before and I'd been interested to see how he'd do with the flashier arias, because the CDs I have by him are very much geared towards slower, purer arias. And I must say that I enjoyed it all immensely: his Venti turbini was superb and his voice was extremely well-suited to those intimate, warm acoustics.**

Iestyn Davies as Farinelli | Iestyn Davies and Sam Crane: two facets of the same man (photos by Marc Brenner)
(Enlarge for the full glory of the costumes)
There were a few things which didn't quite work for me (spoilers ahead). First, I wasn't convinced by the suggestion of a romance, or even a romantic understanding, between Farinelli and Isabella. I felt as if it had been put in to meet audience expectations rather than because it was true to the characters: I felt the ménage might have been more powerful if the subtle potential for such feelings had been preserved, rather than making them explicit. And it slightly undermines the fact that (as far as I'm aware, and I could be wrong) Farinelli was almost the only castrato who isn't known to have been involved in any romantic intrigues. I also felt the play petered out a little with the final section set in Bologna, which seemed to lose the strong dramatic drive of the rest of the action. Having said that, I thought the concluding moments were gorgeous: the perfect way to bring it to a close, as the retired singer is convinced to perform one final aria. Davies strides onto the stage, resplendent and the theatre is filled with the sweet, pure agony of Lascia ch'io pianga. Afterwards Davies as Farinelli (in full frock-coated splendour) pauses for a moment beside Crane as Carlo (in humble house-coat and night-cap). The two look into one another's eyes: two facets of the same man - and then Farinelli smiles slightly, rests his hand on Carlo's shoulder, and vanishes forever. There was a bit of a lump in my throat, I admit.

Perhaps I can't be fully objective with a subject that's so close to my heart, but I found this a thoughtful and powerful exploration of the relationship between patron and artist, king and singer, captor and captive - and between the outer and inner man. The production values were typically sumptuous, with gorgeous historically-accurate costumes (you see: I didn't even remember to speak of the costumes!) and splendid music (how they got that harpsichord up onto the gallery, I'll never know). It's an exciting concept and one that I hope will be explored more in the future: and this is precisely the right venue to experiment with such blends of acting and song. I suppose many of the people who go to this play will be Globe regulars rather than Baroque geeks, and I'd love to know what the reaction to the singing was from those less familiar with the voice type. Judging from the applause at the end and the comments I heard as I left: enraptured. Let's hope it will be filmed. 

It was very exciting to finally get to meet the lovely Dehggial at this performance after our near-miss at Poppea, so pop over to Opera, innit for another take on the show (broadly similar to mine, I'm pleased to see).

*I saw the play for a second time on 14 February with William Purefoy singing the role of Farinelli. His voice sounds slightly richer than Davies's but he is less experienced and that did come through at some points. He seemed a little nervous at the start with Alto Giove but after the interval his voice sounded much warmer, stronger and more assured. His Cara sposa and Lascia ch' io pianga were beautifully handled: the intimate space allowed him to sing with a sensitivity and delicacy which would have been lost in a full-sized opera house, but which here had people leaning forward from the galleries, hardly daring to breathe. Really very well done. The play as a whole flowed more easily than it did on Wednesday: the cast seemed more confident with each other and the Farinelli / Isabella question troubled me less, perhaps because I knew to expect it, but perhaps also because Crane and Grove seemed to have a greater sense of ease with one another. I was also pleased to see more emphasis on the idea that Carlo and Farinelli are distinct aspects of the same man: there were moments where they visibly squared off against one another, but that beautiful moment of farewell at the end remained. Yes, on a second visit those final moments with Lascia ch' io pianga struck me all over again. It is an excellent ending. Once again there were cheers, whistles, wild applause and foot-drumming. I'm delighted to see it doing so well. 

**Farinelli was one of the most dazzling vocal technicians in history. The arias included here are mainly of the gentle type, appropriate for drawing a man out of his melancholy, but if you fancy hearing one of the craziest, most ambitious arias written for Farinelli, sung by one of the closest modern equivalents, lend an ear to this pyrotechnic wonder written by the Saxon composer Hasse.

Edward Peel (De la Cuadra) | Huss Garbiya (Dr Cervi) | Melody Grove (Isabella) | Colin Hurley (Metastasio)

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection

(Leighton House, London, until 29 March 2015)


Tucked away in a quiet street near Holland Park, Leighton House is worth visiting at any time of year, but at the moment it offers more than just the usual dose of elegant Victoriana. Since November the pictures that usually hang on the walls have given way to a selection of paintings from the collection of Juan Antonio Pérez Simón, a Mexican businessman with a particular fondness for British 19th-century painting. Many of the great Victorian pictures are still in private hands, so quite a few have appeared at auction over the last thirty years; but despite some renewed interest in the field, it's still a comparatively uncommercial part of the art market and Pérez Simón has been able to build up a simply staggering collection in a relatively short period of time. Many of these pictures are among the most famous and characteristic works of their respective painters, so even if Victorian art leaves you cold (as it does some people), it's still a very useful initiation to the genre. For me, it was a nostalgic delight to wander round the house: my introduction to art came via the Pre-Raphaelites and Waterhouse and Leighton, and here I found old favourites hanging alongside canvases I barely knew.  

The pictures are roughly divided up into themes - literary sources; female beauty; the Orient; the ancient world - but these categories are little more than an excuse: the exhibition is simply a series of beautiful things. I found myself gravitating towards lesser-known artists and pictures: Burne-Jones and Rossetti both featured, but I found myself drawn instead towards the delicate, ethereal paintings of John Melhuish Strudwick - an artist with whom I fell in love as a teenager but have barely looked at since. His Ramparts of God's House (c. 1889) was familiar to me; his Passing Days (1878) less so. A young man is enthroned at the centre, turning his back on the present and reaching out towards the fading figures of the past: a futile effort, since the scythe of Time separates them from him. On the left come the spectres of the future: old age, sickness and death. Yes, such overworked allegories may be sentimental, but they have a poetic eloquence to them, an air of dreaminess. It seemed appropriate that they hung in the same room as Simeon Solomon's Hypnos (1892): a sensuous red chalk drawing showing the god's head wreathed in poppies - a drawing so faint and fugitive that the image seemed on the verge of dissolution. 

John Melhuish Strudwick, Passing Days (1878). Click to enlarge for full detail.
In the following room, female beauty was upheld by two pictures by John William Waterhouse, another of my teenage favourites. His famous Crystal Ball (1902) was hung beside A Song of Springtime (1913), the latter a remarkably loose painting in which the brushstrokes shimmer and fragment in the dappled sunlight. Being a contrary sort, however, my favourite picture in this room (and perhaps in the whole show) was a little oil sketch, not of a woman but of a young man - Leighton's gorgeous study of the Head of a Musician (c. 1853), a study for his Madonna of Cimabue which now hangs, half-ignored, over the main staircase in the National Gallery. I can't easily describe what drew me to this study. Certainly the sitter has a dreamy, Raphaelesque beauty with his sleek shoulder-length hair and Titian-scarlet robe; but there is also a wonderful richness to the colouring overall: a sense of southern light distilled into paint. The oil sketch hung above Leighton's preparatory drawing propped on a chair, which shows off his immense precision and finesse as a draughtsman. There is less idealism and more individualism in the pencil drawing, perhaps; but the oil study is more beautiful.

Upstairs there are mythological and historical subjects, including a couple of old favourites which I have to mention for nostalgic reasons. Leighton's Antigone (1882) is a striking example of sculptural stoicism: the doomed heroine turns her head to look over her shoulder, the muscles tightening in her neck, her expression noble and resolved but also forlorn. It was the first time I'd spotted the resemblance to the sculpture of the Dying Alexander in the Uffizi: Leighton would have known this bust and the extreme torsion of Antigone's pose must derive from it. She hangs near another dramatic mythological picture: Edward John Poynter's Andromeda (1869), where the princess despairingly twists in her chains, conveniently showing off the full length of her (very naturalistically) nude figure. Her vertical form offers a steadying point in a composition full of curves: surging, swirling waves and billowing draperies that echo those of Raphael's Galatea

Given the context, it feels very appropriate to speak of 'stunners', and the resident stunner here was Lawrence Alma-Tadema's immense picture The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888). The subject was extrapolated from a passing reference in the Historia Augusta, telling the story of a dinner party where the young emperor sought to entertain his hangers-on by dropping an avalanche of rose petals on the rest of his guests - smothering and suffocating them beneath the flowers. This was a picture I knew very well from books, but I'd never seen it in the flesh before. I expected to be slightly underwhelmed: such things tend to be smaller or less impressive in reality. But this! Displayed by itself in a gallery leading off Leighton's studio - a gallery scented with rose petals, no less! - it made a terrific impact. It isn't the most visceral or emotional painting, that's true. Heliogabalus himself shows a passing interest in events, but the guests under their drifts of petals look uncertain or surprised rather than in mortal danger. I appreciate the argument that Alma-Tadema wanted the scene's horror to dawn gradually on its viewers, but there's no horror to dawn. Even knowing the story, it looks like nothing more than a rather refined prank. But emotional sincerity isn't really the point. This was painted to impress with its technical quality, and that remains breathtaking: it's a tour-de-force of texture. The tumbling rose petals have a convincing waxy softness; you can almost feel the light plumes of the white feathered fan in the foreground, or the braided yellow hair of the Gaul on the right. Look too at the details, such as the way the golden spiral armband presses into the flesh of the guest at the back beneath the tripod. It is a truly magnificent thing. And here it is in all its splendour. If you click it to enlarge it further you'll get a better idea of the detail.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888)
Ultimately your feelings about the exhibition will depend on your feelings about Victorian art. It's still fashionable to be a bit dismissive of the period - the Telegraph, for example, really didn't like it, implying that it would have been much better with some 'proper' art like Turners or Constables. I can sympathise with the author's gripe about there being too many inert semi-naked women. But it grows more and more difficult to write off fifty years of British art as a bit of an embarrassment. There may not be sublime power here; there may not be the grit and the passion and the Romantic grandeur which we find it so easy to empathise with nowadays; but there is elegance and a drive to tell stories and, very often, astonishing technical skill. And we can't condemn these artists for failing to embody principles which they deliberately eschewed: the whole purpose of the Aesthetic movement (for example) was to produce art for art's sake: to delight the eye with contrasts of colour and form, rather than to provoke strong emotions. And in my opinion the exhibition is made more irresistible by its very location. Leighton House is the perfect place to display these paintings, not in the cool featureless halls of a gallery's exhibition wing, but in the kind of richly-decorated rooms for which they were originally painted. 

Even if you can't make it before the end of the exhibition, the house is worth a couple of hours of your time. Recently restored to its former glory, it offers a glimpse of the luxurious lifestyle enjoyed by the painter Frederic, Lord Leighton, whose glittering career was crowned by his appointment as President of the Royal Academy in 1878. The Arab Hall is one of the most beautiful rooms in London. Inspired by La Zisa, the 12th-century retreat of William II of Sicily, this room is a paradox - every surface is covered in decoration, and yet the whole effect is one of beguiling serenity. Like the atrium of an ancient Roman villa, it centres on a little fountain that bubbles softly beneath a gold-painted dome, with a stunning chandelier hanging overhead, glowing copper and gold. The walls are decorated with the white, blue and green of 17th-century Iznik tiles showing grapes or flowers or the calligraphic sweep of Islamic script. Pink marble columns with gilded Corinthian capitals lead out to the hall; golden mosaics by Walter Crane, showing deer and peacocks and legendary creatures, flow around the upper part of the walls; and, above, there's a zenana, a wooded gallery with latticed shutters brought back from a mosque in Cairo, where it was used to segregate women from the rest of the congregation. Now it offers a tantalising oasis of exoticism in the heart of Kensington.

Frederic, Lord Leighton, Head of a Musician (c. 1853) | The Arab Hall | Edward Poynter, Andromeda (1869) |
Frederic, Lord Leighton, Antigone (1882)
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