Saturday, 24 January 2015

Orfeo: Claudio Monteverdi (1607)

(Royal Opera House in collaboration with the Roundhouse, 13-24 January 2014)

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In 1607 Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, came up with a rather original way to celebrate Carnival at his court. A few years earlier in 1600 he'd been a guest of the Medici in Florence, at the wedding celebrations of Maria de' Medici and Henry IV of France, and he'd been deeply impressed by the main entertainment offered at the festivities. It had been a new kind of play, set to music by Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini (who'd already produced a similar work called Dafne in 1597). The production designed for the wedding was called Euridice and it was a fitting story of the triumph of love over death (considering the circumstances, Peri and Caccini had given it a happy ending). It had such an effect on Vincenzo that, seven years later, he asked his maestro della musica to come up with something similar, and better, to divert his court during the festive season. That maestro was Claudio Monteverdi; the resulting production was Orfeo; and the rest, as they say, is history. Orfeo wasn't the first opera, but it was the first time that story, music and drama came together in quite such a compelling synthesis.

The Royal Opera's new production of Orfeo is a collaboration with the Roundhouse in Camden, a venue more associated with Deep Purple and the Rolling Stones than Monteverdi, and the unusual location gave the production a stripped-back emotional charge that I don't think would have been possible in the grand surroundings of Covent Garden. Even the poster that went up across the Underground network a few months ago felt different from the usual Royal Opera flyers: it was simple, dramatic and very cool (and why not? After all, Orpheus was the first rock star). The designer should be commended. Inside the Roundhouse, it was all very austere, kept to the absolute essentials: the odd chair; a gallery from which Pluto, Prosperina and Apollo surveyed proceedings; a few ropes; and, most significantly, a ramp leading from the stage up over the audience towards the heavens. I happened to be sitting right beside that ramp, so much of the action happened virtually in my lap; but no matter where you sat, I'm sure you would have felt the same immediacy. Performed in the round, this was an Orfeo that brought you face-to-face with the desire, the joy and the unbearable agonies of loss. Even if the performances had been mediocre, it would have been a memorable experience.

However, the strikingly young cast were also extremely impressive. I'd been looking forward to seeing Christopher Lowrey in the flesh - I noted him in Cavalli's Elena - and was very pleased by him, although I felt that Cavalli offered him slightly more scope than Monteverdi to display the full possibilities of his refined countertenor. He was the only singer I knew in advance; but the others struck me equally strongly: if I had to pick out individuals then I would note Callum Thorpe's Pluto and Rachel Kelly's Prosperina. For much of the production they simply watched from above - a slim, preternaturally beautiful pair who looked as much like languid vampires as Greek gods - and when they finally came down to sing, they were worth waiting for: Thorpe's strong, beautifully-controlled bass-baritone underlying Kelly's gorgeous pure soprano. Kelly particularly impressed me because she managed to convey the passionate intensity of Prosperina's attachment to Pluto, coupled with the lingering remnants of her desire to return to the upper world. There was a clever moment when, having made her plea for Euridice to be freed, she glanced up the ramp towards the golden light of the sun, and seemed to be drawn towards it, for just a moment, until Pluto drew her back down into thralldom and the dark. Beautifully done. 

Euridice (Mary Bevan) and Orfeo (Gyula Orendt) at their wedding | The opening Pieta | Orfeo felled by grief
The dual role of Euridice and Music was performed by Mary Bevan (sister of Sophie, who played Ilia to Fagioli's Idamante in Idomeneo). Her voice captured me from the word go: it was warm and rich and lyrical. Equally importantly in a role that required a lot of acting and not a huge amount of singing, she was a very eloquent physical performer. Her dignity and pathos in the prologue, when she cradled Orfeo's body in her arms (on which more below), gave way to an infectious delight in the opening wedding sequence - and then a gentle, subdued grace during the underworld sections. She was lovely to watch and I hope to see much more of her, hopefully in a role where she can make slightly more use of that beautiful voice.

Being unfamiliar with Orfeo, I hadn't realised that so much of it is pretty much a one-man show. The success of the production rests very heavily on the shoulders of its Orfeo, especially in a show like this where singers and audience are so close to one another. Fortunately, it was in very safe hands. Gyula Orendt proved to be the stroke of magic that brought the rest to life, transforming the story from a dusty distant myth to an agonisingly intense exploration of love, death and sacrifice. His earnest, eager Orfeo was completely endearing, from his almost goofy delight at getting the girl of his dreams in the opening scene, to the moment when his happiness visibly crumbled away as Silvia delivers the news of Euridice's death. He was living every inch of the role, and I say that with authority because he collapsed on the ramp mere feet from my head, and his grief was so palpable as to be almost painful to watch. He was actually crying. And to be so close to it, so involved, meant that you were grabbed by the throat and dragged into the drama in a way that would be very hard in a normal opera house. But he seemed to be very strong technically as well: I'm even less expert at judging baritones than I am at judging countertenors, but he had a richness and fluidity of tone that sounded wonderful. He seemed to manage very well with the tricky early Baroque coloratura in Orfeo's elaborate showpiece aria Possente spirto. That aria also worked well because, in counterpoint to the complexity of the singing, the staging was so simple, with Orfeo, Charon and his henchmen slowly circling one another. The audience seemed to be completely rapt. And, if we weren't already captivated by Orendt, the finale offered a final display of his skill: this time his sheer courage. Hoisted up towards the heavenly salvation promised by his father Apollo, Orfeo catches sight of Euridice reaching for him below. Orendt wrestled in his ropes with what seemed to be scant regard for his own safety, twisting and stretching in a desperate effort to reach his beloved's hand, and in the final dramatic moment slipped entirely out of the upper rope to effect a daring drop down - the entire audience seemed to catch their breath at once - and the final agony was that, still, their straining fingers fell too short of one another. A gorgeous ending, which summed up the despair of the whole and brought a final lump to the throat. (Orendt received not only frenzied applause but also a fair amount of energetic foot-stamping...)

The simplicity of happiness | The descent into Hades | Proserpina (Rachel Kelly) and Pluto (Callum Thorpe)
When I booked I hadn't been aware that Orfeo would be in English, but it actually didn't bother me overmuch in the end. There were points when the syllables in words and music didn't quite seem to match up, but I thought that Don Paterson's translation did a fine job of making it understandable without being colloquial. There was still a strong poetic emphasis to it. The one element of the whole show that didn't quite work for me - and I feel bad, because it sounds like I'm being a snob and I'm really not - is some of the choreography added by the young dancers assembled from community workshops. Much of their work was impressive, especially the writhing bodies in the Acheron (I've spent entirely too much of my life looking at Gustave Dore's engravings for Dante's Inferno, so appreciated these a great deal). But there were times when the choreography was a bit intrusive - even slightly amateurish - which undermined the professionalism and power of the whole. For me.

Just one thing before I finish: one interesting choice in this production was to transform Apollo into a bishop and Orfeo's shepherd friends into priests. Initially I dismissed this as a bit of a gimmick, but it swiftly began to fascinate me. I'd never really stopped before to think about the Christ-parallels in the story of Orpheus, but this production made it very clear: the opening image based on Michelangelo's Pieta, with Euridice cradling Orfeo's lifeless body; his descent into Hell and return; his final salvation by his divine father; his assumption into heaven; and the comment (after Orfeo's loss of Euridice) that the only one who could triumph in hell would be one who is able to triumph over his own human weakness. Much food for thought there.

Overall, a surprisingly powerful production with breathtaking emotional clout. Deeper-voiced chaps don't get much of a look-in on my playlist, but I will be keeping my eyes open for Orendt in the future, and I'm sure he's going to go far. For those of you who haven't had the chance to see this live, the ROH and Roundhouse decided with great foresight to film a performance, which is now available free of charge on YouTube for about the next six months. Do take the chance to have a look: I've no idea whether the impact will be as strong without actually being there, but it's a fine example of how productions can be done extremely simply without losing any of their force and eloquence. (For another review of the show, the night before I went, head over to Dehggial's blog and take a look. Like Dehggial, I was quite a fan of Prosperina's dress, but sadly I don't think I'd be able to carry it off nearly as well as Kelly did...)

The final dazzling struggle to reach back, before being parted forever | The end of love

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Pope Joan: Donna Woolfolk Cross

(published by Ballantine, $14.95, or from Amazon)

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I'd been keen to read this novel for over a year, so it felt like destiny when I spotted it in my local second-hand bookshop. The shadowy figure of Pope Joan has intrigued me ever since I first heard about her at university: the woman who disguised herself as a man and rose to the highest, most sacred position early medieval Europe could offer, before being unmasked when she gave birth to a child. Cross's novel, set in the 9th century when Europe was still being forged out of a struggling mass of tiny princedoms and counties, takes in the wild snowy forests of the north, Rome's faded glory, battles, Viking attacks and a protagonist who had the potential to be one of the most gripping characters I've read about for a long time. But unfortunately it never quite gelled into a satisfying whole for me.

Joan is born in Ingelheim, a little village on the Rhine, the daughter of an English canon sent to do missionary work among the heathen tribes to the East, and a Saxon mother whom he has brought back from one of his travels into those pagan lands. From the beginning she is told that, because she's a girl, she is inferior to her brothers; prone to sin; destined to a life of hard work and childbearing and serving her husband. However, her lively intelligence refuses to accept this. She learns to read from her older brother Matthew and when, one day, a Greek scholar named Aesculapius comes to visit her father, he is struck by Joan's quick mind. In defiance of her father's vigorous objections, Aesculapius resolves to teach her alongside her less gifted younger brother John. When he has to leave, he makes arrangements for her to continue her education at the schola attached to the bishop's palace at Dorstadt, where she continues to flourish, and where she conceives her first romantic attachments to the count, Gerold, who brings her to live with his family. Then disaster strikes. When Norse raiders attack Dorstadt, Joan loses everything. But the destruction also offers her the chance of a new start; and so the figure that walks out of the fires of Dorstadt, and joins the monastery at Fulda, is not Joan of Ingelheim, but a young man who calls himself John Anglicus. And it is John Anglicus, with his talent for healing and his intellectual curiosity, whose path will eventually lead him to Rome and the greatest honour of the Catholic world.

It should have been wonderful. Cross has researched the period and the characters very carefully: she writes a thorough note at the back discussing her sources, which of her figures are historically attested, and the minor changes she made to dates for dramatic convenience. But as I've said on other occasions, thorough research doesn't necessarily make for a good novel, and although this was perfectly enjoyable to read, there were several issues that prevented it from striking a spark in my soul. The most immediate problem was Joan herself. A considerable part of the book follows her up until the age of eleven, when she goes to the bishop's schola, and although I know she's meant to be intelligent, she is given the kind of logical and debating skills that make her sound as if she's in her late teens or early twenties when she's still only meant to be about ten. Her 'voice' never sounds appropriately childish. Moreover, she is not a convincing medieval character. She feels like a 21st-century woman in a medieval world: her attitudes are thoroughly modern. She takes it for granted that, as a woman with a bright, inquiring intellect, she should be able to study. More to the point, she uses logic to challenge the idea of the Resurrection and (implicitly) the very existence of God and divine grace even as a child. For me, this was an intellectual leap that was unconvincing both for her age and the period in which she lived. 

More broadly, the characters never really felt fully fleshed out; although Cross certainly does make an effort to give them inner struggles and complexities… but it just doesn’t quite come off. There is a rather one-dimensional division between 'bad' characters and 'good' characters, based on their feelings about educated women. The 'bad' characters, like Joan's father, react violently to the very idea; while the 'good' characters, like Aesculapius, find it natural that an enquiring intellect should be encouraged, whatever the sex of the body that holds it. While I have no doubt that some people did think this in the 9th century, there's something about the way they express their views which make them feel a little too modern. Similarly, I was curious as to why Aesculapius would have arranged for Joan to study at the schola. Admittedly the 9th century isn't my strong point, but wouldn't there have been more appropriate places? Weren't there convents or nunneries which might have welcomed a girl who had the potential to become a learned abbess? (Though of course she has to end up disguised as a man, for the purposes of the story.)

Elements of the romance also irritated me. In this story, more than any other, one has to have that strand in the narrative (Joan's femininity is revealed by giving birth, after all); but I began to grow annoyed with the almost God-given destiny of Joan and Gerold’s encounters. They're not wholly implausible - it’s made clear that Gerold is a valued official in the emperor’s service and so it’s reasonable for him to come to Rome as part of Lothar’s entourage – but I found myself thinking that 9th-century Europe in Cross’s novel must be a remarkably small place for these two people to keep finding each other with such ease. I'd have found it more believable if Joan had moved on from her childhood crush and somehow found another lover in Rome. (I'm don't necessarily grumble about implausible love stories - goodness knows I've seen enough of them recently - but when the author is clearly trying to write a gritty historical novel, a 'great love' of this type weakens the book's power. Joan and Gerold's great connection seemed to be dictated more by the rules of the romance genre and less by what might actually have happened.) I can’t help comparing this book to Hild: another novel set in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ with a female protagonist who finds herself challenging the conventions for her sex. The context is somewhat different, but I felt that Hild dealt with the emotional trials of being female but ‘different’ in a way that Pope Joan didn't manage. 

As I said, there is a sizeable author's note at the end discussing the ‘evidence’ for and against Joan’s existence. The key problem seems to be that, quite bluntly, there isn't any ‘in favour’, except legend. Although the author refers twice (in the note and the interview following) to ‘five hundred [her italics] ancient manuscripts’ which mention Joan's papacy, one has to take this with a pinch of salt. Here ‘ancient’ means late 14th and 15th century manuscripts: works written half a millennium after Joan’s lifetime, by which point she’d become a legend if she had ever existed at all. Indeed, all the evidence in favour of Joan’s existence – these references; the presence of a late medieval statue alongside other popes; even the 14th century interpolation of her name in the Liber Pontificalis – dates from a period so far removed from her own that it's like us looking back at the early 15th century. One can argue that it's all the result of suppression and whitewashing by the Catholic Church, but at what point does one have to start wondering if perhaps it's simply the result of nothing being there in the first place? There was a legend of a female pope, no doubt, but how much further can we go? It would have been a tempting legend to encourage. It would have been a warning against female education; against allowing women to get above themselves. And not only had a woman become pope (you can imagine deliciously scandalised churchmen saying to one another), she committed the ultimate sacrilege by giving birth while in office! 

It's interesting that one of the pieces of evidence cited in ‘favour’ of Joan’s existence is the famous chair, with a hole cut in its seat, which was used to check a papal nominee’s manhood before consecrating him. This practice existed up until the early 16th century (as anyone who's seen season 1 of The Borgias will know). Why the need for this, suggests Cross, unless there had been a female pope at some point in history and the Church was determined to prevent such a thing happening ever again? May I make a different suggestion, though? The Church is full of rituals that date from time out of mind and which probably began as adaptations of ancient customs. Isn't it more likely that the ritual of the chair could have developed from a memory of one of these ancient rites (could it have been some kind of fertility rite?). Perhaps the chair was not the result of a female pope; perhaps the legend of a female pope developed as a way to explain why the chair was used? I've absolutely no evidence for that whatsoever, of course, but history is full of strange stories which have developed to explain why things are done in certain ways. For me, that’d be a more logical explanation. 

As a historical work in favour of Joan's existence, this wouldn't persuade me; but it's a novel, at the end of the day, and although it didn't always convince me with its characterisation, it does offer an insight into a period of history that still remains comparatively under-represented in the historical fiction field. I enjoyed learning more about the legend and trying to understand how it might have happened, if it ever did; and, since my 9th-century reading has focused more on the wild north and the Vikings (or Byzantium), it was interesting to get a glimpse of what was happening in Rome at the same period. If anyone knows of other books set in Italy or Rome at this date, do let me know.

Oh, and for those who are interested (I am, rather), the novel was made into a film in 2009. How could any director resist such a story?! You can find further information here.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Partenope: Leonardo Vinci (1725)

(I Turchini with Antonio Florio; recorded at Murcia in 2011)

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Partenope (Sonia Prina) is queen and founder of Naples: powerful, majestic... and single. Rather like Elizabeth I of England, she has attracted a swarm of hopeful suitors. For the time being she plays one off against the other while weighing up their comparative merits. There’s Armindo (Stefano Ferrari), prince of Rhodes, who has brought a host of warriors to fight under Partenope’s banner and who languishes in the hope that one day she'll deign to return his love. But Partenope has a soft spot for his rival, the dashing Arsace of Corinth (Maria Ercolano). As the opera opens, a third suitor makes his presence felt: Emilio of Capua (Eufemia Tufano), who crosses Partenope’s borders with his Cumaean army. He helpfully tells her that she has a choice: marry him or fight. Showing satisfying gumption, Partenope disdainfully sends him away and readies her troops for battle, leading them in person to a triumphant victory (that’s not really a spoiler since it happens at the end of Act 1). 

You'd be forgiven for thinking that the story is about Partenope’s romantic and dynastic tribulations; but it isn't. The opera follows Baroque convention in that the title character isn’t the protagonist: they're just the person with the highest rank. The focus of the story is actually on Arsace, who finds himself entangled in a mess entirely of his own making. He’s come to Naples hoping to win himself a queen and a throne; but he’s neglected to tell anyone that he’s actually already spoken for: he's promised to Rosmira, princess of Cyprus (Maria Grazia Schiavo). And this comes back to bite him. Rosmira, like Partenope, is a particularly feisty example of Baroque womanhood. Furious at having been abandoned, but unable to shake off her feelings for her errant lover, she comes up with a spectacular plan to make Arsace's life very difficult indeed. And so, in the first scene of the opera, a stranger arrives in Naples: a young man who calls himself Eurimene, prince of Armenia. He claims Partenope’s protection and infiltrates himself into the court. Arsace, being a smart chap, isn’t fooled for a moment. As soon as he can get Eurimene on his own, he points out that Eurimene looks an awful lot like Rosmira. Rosmira berates him for his inconstancy and announces that she’s come in disguise to make sure that he’s punished for his infidelity to her. Arsace, whose affection for Partenope is largely political, simply doesn’t know what to do. He knows he's in with a strong chance to win the queen's favour, but how can he continue wooing her under the eye of the merciless, brilliant, slightly terrifying woman who should have been his wife? 

And things get worse. Rosmira extracts his solemn oath that he won’t tell anyone she’s a woman. She then sets about making his life hell. Disguised as Eurimene, she leaps with pantomime-boy gusto into her role: striking poses, striding around, bragging, taking offence at perceived slights and publicly tormenting Arsace. Armindo and Emilio marvel that the great prince of Corinth allows this whippersnapper to taunt him with no redress, but poor Arsace is sunk in utter misery. Now that Rosmira is physically back in his life, he’s reminded of all the things he loved about her. So he tentatively sets out to try to win her back and calm her scorn – discreetly, of course. But at the same time he has to tackle the chaos that ‘Eurimene’ is sowing by swaggering and posturing around the court; and Arsace can't even begin to explain to his baffled peers why he’s being so soft on this headstrong young idiot. Matters eventually come to a head when the belligerent 'Eurimene' makes Arsace's infidelity public and challenges him to a duel to avenge Rosmira's honour. 

Partenope (Prina on majestic form)  |  Rosmira / Eurimene (Schiavo) and Partenope  |  Emilio (Tufano) makes his entrance
Vinci was offered the commission to write this opera for the Venetian season in 1725 and had to pull something out of the bag at short notice. It was such short notice, in fact, that he cobbled together some pieces of instrumental music from his earlier works. Fortunately the libretto of Partenope (which was also performed under the title La Rosmira fedele) had already been set to music by Domenico Sarro and Vinci simply lifted Sarro's recitatives, which meant he only had to compose the arias. The result doesn’t quite have the musical integrity that Artaserse seems to have and, in any case, I don’t think Partenope is quite at the same level in general (I am trying, very hard, to be objective). The libretto is by Stampiglia and, having been spoiled by quite a lot of Metastasio, I didn't think Stampiglia quite matched up lyrically. Having said that, it's mainly about the music and Vinci managed to rustle up some fine arias. I found plenty here to add to my list of favourites. Act 1 offered a couple of highlights in the form of Arsace’s 'swallow aria', La rondinella che a noi sen riede, and Partenope’s splendidly martial A far stragi, a far vendetta. Act 2 added two more gems: the first was Rosmira’s Tormentosa, crudel gelosia, in which we have a glimpse of her inner misery, and which features an unbelievably catchy motif which I've been whistling all day. This was immediately followed by the kind of big, flashy aria that Vinci does so well: Arsace's Sento che va coprendo, in which he struggles to understand his feelings for Rosmira. In its spirit, its opening and the potential for bravura self-indulgence, it reminded me very strongly of Vo solcando and naturally I loved it immediately. Finally, Act 3 offered plenty of plot development but a more modest number of arias, and there was only one which really caught my ear here: Rosmira's Vuol tornare a la sua sponda, which was delightful partly for the music and partly for the minx-like mischief with which Schiavo performed it.  

I really warmed to Schiavo over the course of the opera. To be honest, I was already inclined to like her because I'd heard a clip of her singing Mandane opposite Fagioli’s Arbace in Hasse’s Artaserse, and anyone who tackles Mandane has a shortcut to my heart. At first I thought she had her strident moments (she doesn't hold back on the blistering high notes) but she completely won me over with Tormentosa, crudel gelosia and her Vuol tornare was just lovely. She's also fun to watch. I was similarly impressed by Maria Ercolano, whom I hadn’t come across before but whose warm, rich mezzo I liked very much. It’s difficult to feel entirely sorry for Arsace of course, because the whole situation is his fault, but Ercolano did a wonderful job of showing you his torn emotions and, especially in the final act, his distress at having to keep silent in the face of ‘Eurimene’s’ taunting. As for Prina, I’d been looking forward to seeing her in action; I've only heard her before, singing the dazzling S' impugni la spada originally from Vivaldi's Motezuma. She made a regal and magnificent Partenope (a role apparently originally written for Faustina Bordoni), even if Vinci doesn’t seem to have been quite as inspired with his arias for the contralto voice. Nevertheless Prina did a smashing job with A far stragi and showed us the human side of the queen in her anguished aria Godi e spera in Act 3. This was one of the few times that naturalistic emotion penetrated the stately elegance of the production. Tufano’s Emilio and Charles do Santos’s Ormonte had relatively little to do; and unfortunately Stefano Ferrari was more than a little overshadowed by the formidable ladies around him. He didn’t seem to have enough power behind his voice to hold his own with them and he looked self-conscious throughout – although that might have been due to his costume. 

Beltramme (Quiza) and Eurilla (De Vittorio) | The agonies of love: Rosmira and Arsace | Armindo (Ferrari) and Emilio look on
As you know, I’m a traditionalist and I doubt there'll be a more historically authentic production than this unless someone can find some castrati somewhere. The set is a palatial sweep of classical arches with Vesuvius painted on the backdrop; there are wooden waves rising and falling at the back; ‘Eurimene’ arrives on a Baroque fantasy of a Roman galley. The costumes are mercilessly faithful to 18th-century operatic practice, with classical helmets and massive plumes for everyone (male or female) and acres of lace. The men wear puffed, gathered sleeves, knee-high boots and the panniered kilts called tonnelets. Those singing arias descend to the front of the stage, while the other characters stand behind them in artfully disposed ranks, holding what seems to be the Standard Baroque Waiting Pose. Yes, it is a bit stiff and staid, but that's the point; presumably that's what it would have been like in the 18th century. Sometimes, to liven things up, there's a little ballet instead, in which decorative ladies and statuesque men play out the character’s emotional dilemmas; and occasionally there's more vigorous choreography, mostly notably in the battle at the end of Act 1. While Prina, in her splendid gown, crosses swords with Emilio, a gang of soldiers energetically bash one other in the background. That scene is enormous fun. The cast must be commended for taking it all absolutely seriously, because the faintest hint of irony would undermine the whole spell. 

Another element of historical accuracy is in the use of intermezzi. These comic interludes are interspersed with the acts, as they would have been in the 18th century. They fulfilled the same function as cartoons before the main feature at a cinema: to warm up the audience and to provide a temporary spritz of humour before we return to the serious matter of love, intrigue and politics. The intermezzi on the DVD (which don’t appear on the CD) are based on those by Domenico Sarro, and they feature two characters: the plucky servant Beltramme, who is attempting to woo the lady-in-waiting Eurilla. For added humour, both parts are played by men: Borja Quiza (Beltramme) is rather charming, with a lovely tenor, while Pino De Vittorio turns in a striking performance as the haughty grande dame Eurilla. This performance was recorded in Spain and so Beltramme and Eurilla bicker in Spanish and throw in fandangos and popular songs before returning to the Italian comic songs of the original intermezzi. It’s all done very well. Judging from comments on Amazon, some people aren’t overly keen on the intermezzi but I think it all depends on your attitude. I'd recommend buying this DVD not simply as a record of Vinci’s opera – for that, you can get the CD, which cuts out the intermezzi – but as a way to transport yourself back in time and to imagine what it would have been like to spend an evening at the opera house in 1725. Seen as an experience, not a text to be kept inviolate, the production suddenly gains extra life and vivacity.

This opera has been tackled by a number of people, notably Vivaldi and Handel, but I'm delighted that I saw it for the first time in Vinci's version and in this production. It was a super, colourful way to be introduced to such a fun comedy of manners, not to mention acquainting me with some more very impressive singers of the Baroque canon. 

Rosmira in all her glory | Arsace begins to realise that he's stuck between a rock and a hard place
While Arsace sleeps, Rosmira has a brief moment to contemplate her love for him

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

The Hound in the Left-Hand Corner: Giles Waterfield

(published by Washington Square Press, £9.39, or from Amazon)

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This was one of my Christmas presents and my mother confessed to having had qualms about buying it. It came strongly recommended by a family friend who thought it'd be just up my street, but, "It's just not the kind of book you read," said Mum, evidently concerned at the lack of a historical setting, duels, court intrigue, vast battle scenes or Vikings of any form. Fortunately I did enjoy it, immensely. (Thanks Mum and Dad!)

The action all takes place over one heady Midsummer Day in and around the Museum of British History on the south bank of the Thames (it's been known as BRIT for short, since the millennium, in an effort to make it sound more inclusive and relevant). It's a big day for all the staff: the grand opening of their new, highly anticipated exhibition, which goes by the self-consciously appealing single-word title Elegance. Focusing on the art and culture of the 18th century, the exhibition will be kicked off with an achingly stylish Georgian-style dinner, which is due to be attended by patrons, the glittering elite and even a member of the Royal Family. And absolutely nothing can be allowed to go wrong. As the day unfolds, the story follows a series of characters involved in the exhibition, each of whom has their own agenda. 

The wunderkind director Auberon Booth is nervously waiting to be interviewed for the directorship of the prestigious Bloomsbury Museum, and knows that a successful run for Elegance will help his application. Jane Vaughan, BRIT's chief curator, regards the exhibition as yet another example of populist culture and flashy marketing overriding academic rigour. Her junior colleague Helen Lawless has been given all the credit for the exhibition due to her cosy relationship with the director and chairman, and Jane can't quite decide whether her own unease about Elegance is down to having been passed over... or whether there is something not quite right. Then there's Lucian Bankes, the arrogant head of the Exhibitions department; his long-suffering, quietly ambitious deputy, Diana Stanley; and their luminous and disturbingly attractive assistant Hermia Bianchini. It's important for all of them that the exhibition goes well, although Diana wouldn't mind seeing Lucian taken down a peg or two. In the Security department, John Winterbotham rules his staff with a rod of iron, and is determined to make sure that nothing happens contrary to policy on such an important day; but his tyrannical rule is gradually undermined by the love blossoming between Bill and Anna, two of his guards. Then there are the Trustees, the catering firm, the Press Office and, last but not least, Sir Lewis Burslem, the museum's chairman. Not only is Sir Lewis the chairman, he's also the sponsor of the exhibition and, controversially, the lender of several works, most significantly the celebrated highlight of the show: a splendid rediscovered Gainsborough of Lady St John as Puck. As the evening draws closer, each of these cogs should come together into a well-oiled machine... But all is not well at BRIT. As Midsummer's Day progresses, and the enigmatic, puckish smile of Lady St John beams out from the publicity material, strange things start to happen. Tempers flare, emotions become tangled and, worst of all, questions start to be raised as to whether the star piece is really a Gainsborough at all... 

This is a glorious, gleeful farce which shows that life is almost always a thin veneer of civilised elegance over a substratum of blind panic, ambition and backbiting. It's very cleverly written and much of it is pitch-perfect. I felt slightly guilty, actually, because the much derided exhibition concept of Elegance sounded rather wonderful to me. An opening dinner themed around Vauxhall Gardens in the 18th century, with an orchestra playing Handel and waiters dressed as footmen? Goodness; yes, please! Incidentally, I should take this opportunity to point out that the Museum of British History does not exist, of course, and is a carefully constructed amalgam of various real museums, to prevent anyone getting too upset. The Bloomsbury Museum doesn't exactly exist either, although those familiar with a certain rather classical-looking building near Russell Square might be able to draw certain parallels. I couldn't possibly comment.

Waterfield is a former director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery and he clearly knows exactly how this world works: the tension between the commercial and academic branches of the art world; the question of what museums are or should actually be for; the influence exerted by the shadowy but powerful dealers and restorers of St James's; the strain between scholarship and fundraising; and, most significantly, the way that people deal with questions of authenticity in art. Every aspect of the book is spot-on: exaggerated, of course, but shrewdly done. I've spent my entire working life in the art world and the novel not only rang true but felt disconcertingly familiar: I get the feeling I've actually met some of these people. Indeed, my sources tell me that there was a minor sensation when the book came out, because some of the liaisons and characters were a little too true-to-life. Sadly I came into this world too late to know the truth of any of that.

Don't be put off, though: even if you have absolutely no familiarity with the machinations of the art world, this is still an amusing tale of intrigue and skulduggery. As the different characters converge on the museum for the grand opening, you grow to appreciate the complexity and effort involved in such an operation, from the management of the security guards to the catering team, the Education department and the curators, the sponsor, trustees and director, not to mention the journalists and press teams on whom so much of the exhibition's success rests. And Waterfield quietly, subtly adds a whole other dimension as the novel unfurls, which it took me far longer to notice than it should have done (the choice of subject for the famous Gainsborough turns out to be significant, as does the fact that the museum's director is called Auberon).

All in all, this is light and breezy and very good fun. For my friends in the art world, I can't recommend it highly enough: we can all read it and breathe a sigh of relief, while thinking, "Thank goodness that hasn't ever happened to me... yet..."

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

La Clemenza di Tito: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1791)

(Salzburg Festival 2003; Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt)

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For my first opera DVD of the new year, I decided it was time to make the acquaintance of Mozart's Tito. This is one of the most popular and frequently filmed operas out there and so it can be hard to know where to start; but fortunately there was help on hand in the form of Dehggial, who writes the knowledgeable and deliciously irreverent blog Opera, innit. Dehggial has a particular fondness for Tito and recommended this production from the 2003 Salzburg Festival. It's a rather austere, dark take on the opera with some splendid singing and powerful acting. It was only after buying it that I realised it had been designed by none other than Martin Kušej, which meant there were some interesting links with motifs from the Royal Opera House's recent Idomeneo

Sesto, best friend of the emperor Tito, is in love with the ambitious Vitellia. Unfortunately for him, Vitellia is just stringing him along while she tries to catch the eye of the emperor, for whom she believes she'd be the perfect wife. So far her aspirations have been thwarted because Tito had planned to take the foreign princess Berenice as his bride. But, as the opera opens, we hear that Berenice has been put aside due to popular ill-feeling and Tito is back on the marriage market. Vitellia's hopes flare up again; but they're swiftly doused. Seeking to flatter his friend, Tito announces that he'll marry Sesto's sister Servilia instead. Vitellia erupts into a vindictive fury. She's now been passed over twice and we all know what they say about women scorned. And in fact she isn't the only one vexed by Tito's decision. Servilia is already in love with Sesto's sweet, reliable friend Annio, who reciprocates her feelings; and so, plucking up her courage, she goes to beg Tito to excuse her from this 'honour'. Tito agrees, relieved that someone is speaking frankly for once, but in the meantime Vitellia's indignation has spiralled out of control. Using all her influence over Sesto, she seduces him into becoming her instrument of revenge, turning him against his closest friend with vague promises of greater favour afterwards. Little does Sesto know, as he wrestles with his conscience, that Tito's factotum Publio is on his way to finally offer Vitellia the emperor's hand in marriage. But Publio comes too late. By the time he arrives, Sesto has been dispatched on a crusade of vengeance which will leave Rome in flames and the emperor's life itself at stake.

It's all impressive stuff and fortunately this production has a cast who are more than capable of wringing out the drama and agony of the story.
Dorothea Röschmann makes an impressive Vitellia, full of fire and power-lust and completely aware of her own irresistibility to Sesto (indeed, she spends much of the opera in her lingerie and, when she does come in demurely dressed, this seems to be a significant comment on her psychological state). Although it'd be easy to dismiss Vitellia as a mere troublemaker, Röschmann does give her a bit more depth: she's a woman who relishes control, but has no way to secure the future she desires and has been pushed beyond her limits of endurance. Her physical presence was matched by a commanding, very versatile voice: she took on some thrilling passages of coloratura and made them look easy. 

The emotional tangle at the heart of the opera: Sesto (Vesselina Kasarova), Tito (Michael Schade) and Vitellia (Dorothea Röschmann) 
Elīna Garanča's beautiful clear voice seemed a very good fit for Annio, who came across here as earnest, decent and very young; but her restrained style of acting was ever so slightly overshadowed by the intense emoting going on all around her. Of the four leads, the one I had some difficulty with was Michael Schade's Tito. That wasn't due to Schade's performance, which was strong, nor to his voice, which tackled the music with a sensitivity and gentleness that truly fitted the part. But I simply didn't warm to the reading of the character here. In this production Tito's clemency isn't the sign of a wise and benevolent ruler, but of that a man who verges on simplicity. He's out of touch with the world around him, misguidedly determined to win over his people through forgiveness. Trapped in his labyrinthine palace and betrayed by those he loves the most, this Tito is a man-child, protected to some extent by his minder Publio. It's no wonder that more forceful factions have been plotting against him. For me, portraying Tito as a bit of a simpleton undermined some of the power and pathos of the story; but then again, I don't know how other productions have approached his characterisation. Barbara Bonney as Servilia was very enjoyable to listen to but rather overshadowed by the vocal displays of Kasarova and Röschmann; and Luca Pisaroni made a subtle, watchful Publio, with a pleasingly resonant voice; but, like Servilia, Publio doesn't get much of a chance to shine.

The highlight for me was Vesselina Kasarova as Sesto. She has a fantastically rich and mellifluous voice, with fluidly resonant lower notes and strong high notes; but she also turned in a psychologically shrewd performance. I obviously don't have any other interpretations to compare hers to, but I was very impressed by the depth that she gave to the character. She can convey volumes with the slightest change in facial expression. This Sesto knows that he's being used. He's a noble man undone by desire: you can practically see him giving way as Vitellia taunts him with Deh se piacer mi vuoi, and you can also see that he loathes himself for doing so. The powerhouse aria was Parto, ma tu, ben mio, which is an aria full of complicated emotions: it's the moment when Sesto realises that he's going to betray his friend - it's a realisation, not a decision, because he just can't help himself - and he's doing all this without being at all certain that Vitellia will actually be his afterwards. Kasarova started out with 'Parto, parto' as a gentle, exquisitely modulated phrase of complete wretchedness, followed by the whole gamut of betrayal and despair, before the middle section kicks in, the tempo picks up and Sesto visibly straightens up as his resolution firms. Not only was the acting very strong, but there were some blindingly good runs of coloratura at the end. (Speaking of the acting, I also loved the amount of emotion that Kasarova managed to pack into the two words 'Ingrata, addio' which Sesto throws at Vitellia after he's been arrested by Publio.) My one small gripe is that the costumes didn't do much to disguise Kasarova's and Garanča's all too feminine figures; but that leads into a whole other discussion about en travesti roles in Baroque opera, which has been touched on elsewhere and is too complex for this post.

I'm not sure how well I get on with Kušej as a designer. I can usually appreciate what he's trying to do and I find that many of his ideas are daring and creative, but there are some which don't quite work for me. However, I did like the fact that Tito, like Idomeneo, ends up being a meditation on power and offers a similarly bleak view of life at the top. That's made clear from the outset. During the overture we see Tito standing alone in the sprawling maze of his palace... dialling a number on the telephone. The phone rings, but no one answers. Tito's expression changes from one of cautious expectation to resignation, and then to suspicion. Not only is he isolated, but he feels he's being watched: he spends the last part of the overture frantically rushing through his palace, wrenching open doors and starting at half-heard noises. This is not a man who's happy in his position. Indeed, this Tito might well agree with Shakespeare's Henry IV: 'Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.'

The three-layered set during the finale with the baffling troupe of children  |  The tourists invading Tito's quarters
When I first saw the set - a three-tier warren of rooms and staircases on such a scale that the singers looked swamped - I couldn't imagine how the theatre audiences managed to follow it: this is one production which is surely far better seen on DVD, where you can fully appreciate all the subtleties of the acting. However, the set grew on me. Despite its austerity and rough industrial finish, its tiered openings reminded me of Classical architecture: the Colosseum or the labyrinthine ruins on the Palatine Hill. And these are handy parallels. Kušej's Tito unfolds in a barren world stripped of intimacy: an arena; a place where you are never sure whether you're alone or, crucially, whether someone else is watching. That sensation is helped by having the three tiers, each of which seems to have its own significance. The lowest level, where Tito holds court, seems to be the world of the frank, the open and the straightforward. Tito spends most of his time on this level and this is where the main public scenes play out. The second level seemed to be the sphere of intrigue and mixed messages. Sesto and Vitellia's scenes played out here and there was a lot of action on this level during the confusion of the fire sequence. The final, third level seemed to be reserved for surveillance or for deep introspection: Sesto retreated as far as he could into a corner of this level after he thought he'd attacked Tito. The idea of the different layers reminded me a bit of the dream-levels in Inception

But not everything works so well. I wasn't keen on the crowds of tourists who came barging into Tito's room just before the chorus of Serbate, oh Dei, custodi. They mill around, gawp at the furnishings and take photos with Tito while he sits motionless on his bed. I couldn't quite decide what to make of them. Was it a sign that Tito was being too open and trusting in his desire to win the love of the people? Or was it trying to make a further point about Tito's isolation, in showing that one can be permanently surrounded by people, but still lonely in the midst of a crowd? If so, then I appreciated the sentiment but I didn't like how it was carried out: it felt gimmicky. I thought the same point was made more successfully in Act 2 where Tito wrestles with his conscience beneath the eyes of a silent mob, pressed up against glass windows on the first-floor level like visitors at a zoo. As an emperor, even your deepest uncertainties and fears become public. 

The other concept that baffled me was one which also cropped up in Idomeneo: the unnerving children who appear during the overture and then again in the finale. At the beginning they stand silently in the openings of the vast set while Tito sits isolated below after his paranoid race through the palace. There was something rather ominous about the children, but I didn't quite understand what they were meant to represent. Eventually I cautiously decided that they might be symbols of Tito's enduring innocence, which will soon be dashed by his best friend's betrayal. That reading also worked in the disturbing finale, where the children reappear and are laid out on tables surrounded by grave black-clad adults. The tableaux looked almost like acts of cannibalism; but in my reading this represented innocence finally being overpowered and destroyed by age and cynicism. The problem is, I just feel that I'm being pushed too hard to read something profound into it. Still. Let's look on the bright side. At least there wasn't a shark.

This was definitely a very good introduction to Tito (so thank you, Dehggial!) and it's a good place to begin with an opera that seems to have more than its fair share of wacky productions. However, I am looking forward to seeing how a more traditional interpretation would fare. As we all know, I do like a bit of 18th-century costume and so I have my eye on the 2012 production from the Met in New York, which has Garanča as Sesto, so it'll be interesting to compare her treatment of the two roles. 

Friendship affirmed: Sesto (Kasarova) and Annio (Garanča)  |  "Is this a dagger I see before me?"
Friendship destroyed: Publio (Pisaroni), Sesto (Kasarova) and Tito (Schade)

Saturday, 3 January 2015

The Knight of the Burning Pestle

(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, until 11 January 2015)

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First of all, a very happy New Year to all of you! My first outing of 2015 was to the wooden galleries of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, to see Francis Beaumont's exuberantly experimental play The Knight of the Burning Pestle. This was such a success last year that it's been revived and it's simply perfect for the light-hearted Christmas season. Anarchic, raucous and full of music, it calls for audience interaction, conjures up plays within plays within plays, and offers a strikingly postmodern comment on the act of theatrical performance. It reduced me to tears of laughter by the interval. Imagine Don Quixote performed in the style of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, framed by sections of Shakespeare in Love, and animated by the spirit of the English pantomime, and you're halfway there. It all unfolds in the splendidly decorated theatre: fir and holly garlands draped along the galleries and decorations studded with dried oranges, cinnamon sticks and mistletoe, everything bathed in candlelight. The air smelled of wood and wax, cinnamon, cloves and mulled wine. Perfect.

The performance begins: it's The London Merchant, a play about the love between an apprentice, Jasper, and his master's daughter Luce. But Luce is already promised to another: the slimy Master Humphrey. Besides, Master Venturewell is hardly likely to look kindly on his apprentice's love when Jasper's father is a merry wastrel and has frittered away the family's money. In despair Jasper and Luce plan to meet in the depths of Waltham Forest and run away together... But what's this? There's some kind of audience commotion. A London grocer and his wife are sitting in the front row down in the pit. They aren't happy with being fobbed off with more plays about the London mercantile elite: they want to see something that represents their own experience. They're fed up of hearing about rich merchants: why isn't there a grocer in this? The Grocer demands that his apprentice Rafe should be given a part in The London Merchant to represent the ordinary city folk. But it's got to be a good part, mind. And so poor young Rafe is shoved up among the actors... but it turns out that he has his own vision of the role he wants to play.

Rafe doesn't want to be a random grocer in a play about two dull people in love. No! He wants to be a knight! He's read far too many chivalric stories and he knows exactly what he wants to do. He's going to play the part of a 'grocer errant' - bravely crossing deserts and wildernesses to rescue fair ladies and 'distresséd damsels', to fight giants and win renown to ornament the name of his beloved lady (Susan, the cobbler's daughter from down the Strand). And he's going to undertake these great deeds under the name - in honour of London grocery - of The Knight of the Burning Pestle! 

The only problem is that The London Merchant doesn't really offer plot openings of that sort - so Rafe press-gangs a couple of supporting actors from the play and brings them into his fantasy world. Tim and George become his squire and dwarf (because every knight errant has to have one of each, don't you know), somewhat grudgingly at first; but as time goes on they too get caught up in the adventure. Rafe also procures a faithful steed in the form of a Morris men's hobby horse, and sets off on a joyfully improvised quest. The cast of The London Merchant gamely carry on with their plot despite the excitable interruptions from the Grocer and his Wife, who frankly just want to see more of their beloved Rafe. And so for much of the play there are three parallel plots going on - the heckling from the pit; the increasingly frustrated actors of The London Merchant; and Rafe's glorious chivalric fantasy. Occasionally the latter erupts disruptively into The London Merchant, as when Rafe, his squire and dwarf make believe that they're riding across a fearsome desert, only to discover that they've actually stumbled into The London Merchant's version of Waltham Forest. It's one of those plays that simply has to be seen, because I suspect there was also a healthy amount of ad-libbing going on, as well as pratfalls, slapstick and all sorts of sight gags which added to the sense of incipient chaos. You wouldn't get half the joy from simply reading it.

The Grocer's Wife (Pauline McLynn)  |  Rafe (Matthew Needham)  |  The Grocer (Phil Daniels)
Everything was perfectly judged. Even the costumes varied subtly depending on which 'world' we were in. The Grocer and his Wife were dressed in their best for their theatre trip (the effect must have been wonderful back in Beaumont's day, when they must have looked like genuine members of the audience). The cast of The London Merchant wore showy, overly colourful, deliberately theatrical costumes from around 1600. Rafe and those he met on his quest were dressed in hastily cobbled-together ideas of chivalric finery, although Rafe did have a grand Henry V-style moment at the end when he came in wearing a more upmarket surcoat and armour. As the Grocer and his Wife proposed ever more absurd and elaborate scenarios for Rafe, which the cast of The London Merchant simply couldn't meet with their limited stock of props, there was an increasing sense of innovation. Rafe wants to fight a giant? Right, get Nick the Barber from The London Merchant dressed up on stilts and give him vicious scissor-hands. Rafe wants to journey to Cracovia and meet an exotic princess dressed in gold? Right. Get his squire Tim to go up in the gallery, give him a gold cloak, a hennin and a veil and get him to speak in a high voice. What do you mean, 'what about his beard'?! He can hide it behind the veil. It'll be fine. (And indeed, that scene was very funny. It goes to show that English humour hasn't changed over the last four hundred years. Dress a bearded man as a princess, get him to speak in a high voice, pretend that nobody notices he's a man, and you have comedy gold. The audience was laughing so helplessly that even Rafe, halfway up the wall of the theatre clinging to a pillar, forgot his lines and began corpsing as the 'princess' overacted down at him, but that might have been intentional for all I know.)

It was completely and utterly mental, and slightly on the long side, but it just brimmed over with joy. It feels invidious to pick out particular people, but I can't list the entire cast, so I'm going to note just a handful of performances that I especially enjoyed. Obviously the Grocer (Phil Daniels) and his Wife (Pauline McLynn) were delightful, ad-libbing down in the pit, rustling paper bags, arguing and occasionally offering sweets or beer to their neighbours. Dickon Tyrrell, whom I saw in Le malade imaginaire a month or so ago, was much more engaging as the unfortunate Humphrey, with his absurd wig, wringing every possible rhyme out of his lines. As Tim (and, briefly, the Princess of Cracovia) and George, Dennis Herdman and Dean Nolan were wonderful comedy relief; especially Nolan, who ended up pulling off some unexpectedly dramatic dance moves. Paul Rider was a superb Merrythought (Jasper's father), performing a whole series of songs and winning over the audience in the manner of a miniature, merrier Falstaff. And how can I avoid mentioning Rafe himself? Matthew Needham was wonderful as the dreaming apprentice, whose bravery only reveals itself in the fantasy of knight errantry. 

All in all, it was a simply fabulous evening - and not remotely the kind of thing I tend to expect from Jacobean drama. There'll be a return to normal service (i.e. blood, revenge and intrigue) in The Changeling in a couple of weeks, but for now I'm just bathing in the warm aftermath of last night's anarchic merriment. If you have a free evening between now and 11 January, and if you can get a ticket, go for it. It might well be one of the funniest things you see at the theatre this year.

Jasper's father Merrythought (Paul Rider) with the Boy (Samuel Hargreaves) | Mistress Merrythought (Hannah McPake)
and her son Michael (Giles Cooper) in the depths of Waltham Forest  | "Come, my loyal dwarf: with you
and my noble steed, I can accomplish anything!" Rafe and George (Dean Nolan) with Rafe's horse

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Merry Christmas!

Domenico Ghirlandaio, The Adoration of the Shepherds c. 1483, S. Trinità, Florence

It's that time of year again and I wanted to take a moment to wish you all an extremely happy Christmas and all the very best for next year. Just think: 2015 is already on the horizon: I can hardly believe it! Thank you all for your continued support of the Idle Woman and a special thank you to the loyal band who leave comments and send links and emails and all sorts of wonderful extras for me to follow up. You're all fab.

It's been an incredible year for me: something of an annus mirabilis in fact; and some of the fun has seeped through into the blog. I think we've all learned far more about men singing in high voices than any of us expected to, back in January, but that's the great thing about writing this: I never quite know where it's going to go next. The Baroque definitely promises to become a regular feature here - and I've had the pleasure of meeting so many marvellous people through this new hobby - but I'll also make sure that you also get your regular doses of books, Vikings and swashbuckling. Just in case anyone was concerned.

You're a lovely bunch of people. Corresponding with you is one of the great pleasures of life, so keep the comments and recommendations coming, and let's look forward to discovering a whole world of fabulous new stuff in the New Year. In the meantime, have a splendid holiday and hope you all get the presents you asked for...

Leander
x

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Uncle Rudolf: Paul Bailey

(published by Fourth Estate, £6.99, or from Amazon)

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The voice you can hear today on the Golden Age label gives just a hint of what he was about. It is bright and confident, as befits a reckless vagabond; a prince who believes he is a simple gypsy fiddler; a champagne-guzzling gambler who plays roulette with no thought of a ruinous tomorrow. These were the kind of improbable men Uncle Rudolf impersonated, giving them - for as long as he could bear to - angelic expression.  But the angel wanted to sing of other matters; of other, more serious, concerns, and he had already left it too late to do so by the time I arrived in his life.
One of my friends held a dinner party a couple of weeks ago and I ended up sitting next to another keen reader. He listened indulgently to my pitch about why he should go and read Dorothy Dunnett right now, and then not only made a recommendation of his own but actually gave me the book there and then. I've always thought it's rather brave to do that after only a couple of hours' acquaintance, but since I'd also mentioned the whole Baroque opera side of things, he said he thought I'd click with this. And he was right. I picked it up the other night, when I had a little time before going to bed and, to my surprise, simply couldn't put the book down until I'd finished it. It isn't all that long - 184 pages - and its atmosphere draws you into an elegiac bubble of a world which is best savoured all in one go.

Andrew Peters is living a lie: even his name is a benign, well-intentioned, comforting lie. Born in Romania in 1930, he was called Andrei until he was seven, when his parents' fear over the growing Fascist regime led to him being smuggled out of a suffocating, terrifying country. Sent from Paris to London under the care of a train guard, he is handed over on Victoria Station platform into the care of his father's brother: the larger-than-life Rudolf. Famed as the star of the most popular operettas of the time - a scourge of ladies' hearts - a matinee-idol charmer with a splendid voice - Rudolf Peterson has already undergone the same transformation as his little nephew. He too has abandoned one past, as Rudi Petrescu, and created a future for himself, under a new, Anglicised name in a more hospitable climate. To young Andrei (swiftly rechristened Andrew), his uncle is the most dazzling of grown-ups: always full of incredible stories, always in demand, always fresh from some new scandalous seduction, but from the very first moment determined to place his shy, gauche, homeless little nephew at the centre of his world. And so Andrew grows up in the orbit of this charismatic man, overwhelmed by his glamour and exuberance, only gradually coming to realise the depth of pain underneath the glittering successes. For Rudolf's dream has always been to sing the great operas and oratorios - Mozart and Handel - not the lightweight fluffy operetta with which he has become so entangled. And yet he is doomed to be remembered for the genre he treats with scorn, and never to make his mark in the world he so desperately aspires to be part of. As Andrew grows up, he gains a better appreciation of the brilliant, troubled uncle who has taken him unquestioningly under his wing, and must also learn to face the truths of his own half-remembered childhood in Romania.

It is a heartbreaking little book. It is so short and so exquisitely written that I can't say much more: it's the kind of thing you have to quietly discover for yourself. It's a story about displacement, about being forever unable to possess the thing you long for, and about the way that we interact with our pasts and shape our presents. But it's also about the way that certain adults can captivate us as children: the gift they have for bringing magic into real life and making even the mundane into a thrilling kind of adventure. Its two protagonists have both, in very different ways, been forced to accept that they can never be who they want to be and they have both chosen the path of resignation: secrets, old wounds and enduring sadness. Bailey's writing is perfectly-judged, evoking all the inward pain of things left undone, unachieved, unsaid. There is something about its poised, perfect irresolution that reminded me slightly of The Remains of the Day.

Having said that, I can well imagine there might be some people who don't like it. It is character-driven and skips around through memory as the elderly Andrew looks back over his life: it's a kaleidoscope of life rather than a neat progression. And there are elements which might make some people feel a little uncomfortable. But if you abandon yourself to its gentle wit, to its subtle nostalgia and eloquent regret, it's a treasure. It seems that my neighbour at that dinner party judged me well. And if you finish this book without a slight tear in your eye then you're a stronger person than me. 
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