Monday, 25 May 2015

Catone in Utica: Leonardo Vinci (1728)

(Il Pomo d'Oro, directed by Riccardo Minasi)

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Yes, ladies and gentlemen: it's here. I meant to wait until Versailles before posting about Catone, but I've changed my mind. First, Valer Sabadus announced last week that he won't be singing either at the Opera Royal or Wiesbaden: illness prevents his rehearsing. Of course I'll miss him, but his replacement is Ray Chenez, who sounds rather exciting on the basis of his YouTube clips. I'm always happy to get to know a new voice. However, as Marzia is the main character, the two singers might bring slightly different nuances to the part, and I feel it's fairer on both Sabadus and Chenez to consider them individually. Furthermore, my post after Versailles will most likely be dominated by the sets, costumes and vast numbers of chandeliers. I'd like to have the chance to think about the opera itself first, without visual elements which may or may not add to its lustre.*

It's hard not to see Catone as an informal sequel to Artaserse. Again there's a historically-authentic all-male cast, and five of the six roles in Catone are taken by Artaserse alumni. Max Cencic is again at the helm of the production, this time singing the secondo uomo role of Arbace, the long-suffering prince of Numidia. Sabadus, as I've said, plays the prima donna Marzia; Juan Sancho is Catone; Franco Fagioli is the conquering primo uomo Cesare; and Vince Yi plays the seconda donna, Pompey's widow Emilia. They are joined by the tenor Martin Mitterrutzner as Fulvio, and this time the orchestra is the vivacious Pomo d'Oro under the leadership of Riccardo Minasi. It is, quite simply, a match made in heaven. You'll remember that Il Pomo d'Oro impressed me at the Wigmore in December, and they thoroughly live up to expectations here. Indeed, if you still have preconceptions about Baroque operas being mannered affairs full of prim harpsichords, Catone puts paid to that in the first two seconds of its opening sinfonia. We're whisked immediately into a tempest of horns and drums, giving way to a beautiful central section and concluding with a joyfully foot-tapping whirl. The brass plays a central role throughout the opera, giving a martial shimmer to grand arias such as Catone's opening Con si bel nome in fronte or Cesare's blisteringly exuberant Se in campo armato. The music is consistently pacy, vibrant and and infused with a keen dramatic sensitivity. It reminds you what this opera must have felt like to its first audiences: thrilling, swaggering, deeply cool, full of youthful vigour... and shockingly controversial.

You can find a summary of the plot here: Catone has a libretto by Metastasio, but although it does have the conventional two pairs of lovers, the tyrant or patriarch played by a tenor, and the sidekick, there's a lot that deviates from the norm. It was a risk that didn't fully pay off. The first audiences were baffled and a grumpy Metastasio was forced to rewrite it and give it a happy ending: but the very elements that failed to satisfy Baroque audiences might strike a chord with a darker modern sensibility. The opera throbs with pain and frustrated passion, showing us the gulf between the fantasy world where everything can be resolved with a lieto fine, and the harsh reality where love is torn apart by political expediency, vendettas consume the soul and dreams simply don't come true. By the standards of its time the libretto is magnificently bleak, presenting us with a complex and conflicted set of characters among whom there is no villain and no true hero. There are no scheming dukes or viziers here, and no wholly virtuous princes. Everyone is out for what they can get; but everyone also has their own suffering and their own form of virtue. Our title character is supposed to be a Republican hero, but his pride is so unyielding that a peaceful resolution is doomed from the start. This is opera as Greek tragedy: the story of one man's overwhelming hubris and the clash of two egos so immense that there is no place for them to coexist in one world.

An impossible situation: Juan Sancho (Catone) | Valer Sabadus (Marzia) | Franco Fagioli (Cesare)
By turns fragile, calculating and defiant, Marzia provides the emotional heart of the story. Valer Sabadus deftly makes the switch from Persian brat-prince to Roman maiden, his maturing voice given the perfect setting on the recording. (One of the pleasures of the CD is that everyone sounds even richer and stronger than they did in Artaserse.) Despite being the putative heroine and peacemaker, Marzia can also be strikingly cruel, and her unwelcome lover Arbace bears the brunt of her disdain. (Note that the role of Marzia was written for Giacinto Fontana, who also created the role of Mandane in Artaserse. If his characters bear any stamp of his own temper, he must have been quite a handful.) For example, when Catone first suggests the marriage, Marzia bristles in scorn: she is of Rome, born in the shadow of the Capitol; should she lower herself to marry a king?! And this sense of Republican superiority complicates her love for Cesare: when the two meet Cesare greets her adoringly but Marzia, conscious of his legions at the gates, is initially cold. 'Who are you? I knew a Cesare once, but he was a better man than you.' (In an ironic twist, Cato's real-life daughter Portia was the wife of Brutus; no great fondness for Caesar there, I feel.)

Marzia's first aria is the manipulative Non ti minaccio sdegno, which Sabadus delivers at a slower pace than I'm used to. However, this measured speed works well for me, because Marzia sounds as if she's thinking as she sings, slowly formulating the best way to deal with Arbace. 'Do as I say,' she tells him, 'and we'll see if you're worthy of a reward. But I'm not promising anything.' Sabadus' lyrical elegance comes into full play in In che t'offende, an interestingly psychological aria in which the lyrics are all about hope and optimism, but the melody already bears the weight of tragic inevitability. And of course, that comes to pass by the end, and Marzia's final aria is the fragmented Confusa, smarrita, a tumble of half-started sentences and caught breaths, in which she struggles to phrase her conflicted emotions into a coherent farewell to her lover. But she fails: Metastasio's lyrics, usually so carefully polished, shatter under the weight of human despair: 'If ever you think of me as you fight... I hope... You know... What sorrow!' 

If there's one person who gets to have a bit of fun in this opera, it's Marzia's beloved Cesare, a part originally written (like Artaserse's Arbace) for Carestini, and played here with predictable verve and brilliance by Fagioli. Soffre talor del vento is a swaggering, playful storm-aria in which, for once, the singer isn't comparing himself to the boat tossed upon the waves, but the rising fury of the wind itself. You might be forgiven for thinking that this is Fagioli's flashiest moment, but actually that's not true: Act 2 has one further treat in store. That is the frankly mental Se in campo armato, in which Fagioli swings into battle with bristling strings and trumpets, and manages to fit in a mind-boggling number of notes even by his standards. Either one of those arias could turn out to be the new Vo solcando: it entirely depends on how Fagioli decides to play it in performance, but if I don't get some crazy cadenzas and at least a couple of those fabled top notes, I shall sulk. But Cesare isn't just about flash and swagger. He's primarily the romantic lead and, though my head is easily turned by coloratura bling, his two most beautiful pieces are romantic arias. Ch' un dolce amor condanna is a rapturous declaration of love, whose melody is faintly echoed in the later Quell' amor che poco accende, an exquisite, achingly refined meditation on loss and heartbreak, which could well be the most beautiful piece of music in the entire opera. Cesare has all the lineaments of a hero, but even he has his dark side. He's willing to make any concession to Catone except the abnegation of his dictatorial power: he offers magnanimity in the knowledge that he won't lose anything. Having come, seen and conquered half the known world, this Cesare is already showing the arrogance that will lead (as Catone predicts) to the Senate house and the knife in the back. 

There are at least thirty recorded settings of Catone in Utica.** Here are some of the earliest. From left to right:
Vinci (1728), Leo (1729), Torri (1736), Vivaldi (1737), Graun (1743), Jommelli (1749) and Ferrandini (1743)

If Cesare is the unstoppable force, then Catone is the unmovable object. We meet him in the opening scene in Utica's armoury, grieving at the thought of imminent war: a man of profound conviction and high ideals. For him, Rome is everything: to be Roman in itself makes a man noble, as he explains to Arbace in the splendidly stately Con si bel nome in fronte. However, this virtuous friend of liberty is hard to warm to: he is also uncompromising and devoid of human tenderness. Juan Sancho brings all the gentleness of his rich tenor to the opening recitatives, as Catone contemplates the fate of Rome; but when his own daughter has the courage to admit her love for Cesare, he explodes into the furious Dovea svenarti allora, helped along by frantic, swirling strings. Sancho has an extremely expressive voice and he does a magnificent job of showing Catone's ruthlessness: if Marzia dares to love the man he hates, then she is no daughter of his - a vicious resolution which eventually breaks even Marzia's strong spirit. 

And Catone's chosen match for his daughter is no less complex. In a normal Baroque opera, Arbace would be the slightly oily unwelcome lover who pesters the heroine, but here he is strikingly sympathetic. He's a distinguished warrior, loyal and virtuous, and genuinely enamoured of Marzia to the point that he lets her treat him very poorly. That's his key flaw, if we choose to read it as weakness of spirit, but it might also be seen as constancy: misguided, perhaps, but still laudable. And Arbace's finest moment comes towards the end when, as the battle rages, he encounters Cesare in the dark of the aqueduct. The two men have never met before, but they know of one another: rivals in love as well as war. And then, realising that Cesare is in danger, Arbace offers to accompany him, to fight a path clear for Cesare to return to his camp. It's a startlingly noble offer. Cesare, for his part, is scarcely less noble: he declines Arbace's offer and asks the prince instead to go after Marzia, to protect her. It's a moment when these two enemies look one another in the eye and find something to admire in the other: so much to admire, in fact, that Cesare is willing to entrust the safety of the woman he adores to this man. It's interesting to have a character like this, whom the heroine loathes, but whom we as the audience know might not turn out to be such a bad match after all. And Max Cencic, of course, sings the role wonderfully, with a marked masculine edge to his voice that prevents him from sounding too much like Artaserse's Mandane. After a series of rather gentle arias performed with immaculate poise, including the self-pitying Che legge spietata, Arbace finally gets his bravura moment in Combattuta da tante vicende, in which you can almost feel Cencic's relish at having a moment to delve into flamboyance.

Max Cencic (Arbace) | Vince Yi (Emilia) | Martin Mitterrutzner (Fulvio)
(Yi needs to do a proper photo-shoot at some point so I no longer have to shamelessly steal his pictures from Twitter)

Emilia is perhaps the character who comes closest to conventional villainy, but even her machinations are based on an understandable desire for vengeance. She has seen her beloved husband horribly murdered in front of her very eyes, through what she believes to be Cesare's treachery. Her heart is still Pompey's, and she begs his soul's forgiveness even as she encourages the attentions of the Roman legate Fulvio, through whom she thinks she can strike at Cesare more easily. She's not a soft woman, but her determination is plausible. Somehow I feel that she 'should' be a contralto, but the casting of Vince Yi works very well: his extraordinary voice, with its soaring bell-like purity, gives Emilia a graceful femininity despite the force of her resolution. Yi also conquers some technically challenging moments, such as the beautiful but unevenly-paced aria Per te spero, whose zig-zagging scales betray the two-faced nature of the love Emilia professes for the legate. Fulvio himself is no better, perhaps: he does love Emilia, but he is double-crossing her as surely as she is him, hoping to frustrate her plot to ambush Cesare and save his friend. I haven't heard Martin Mitterutzner before, but his voice is just stunning (and somehow not what I'd expected based on his photos). His deep tenor has real power and resonance, and in Nascesti alle pene he throws in a sudden high note: you itch to hear what he sounds like when fully unleashed. He's quite a find: I can't wait to hear him live.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I'd once again urge people to stop falling back on outdated assumptions about the countertenor voice and actually start listening. This, like any other Baroque opera, has its tenors, its mezzos and its sopranos; and it's so exciting because it picks up where Artaserse left off and shows us how this team of singers is just getting better and better with age. And let's be frank: it's also thrilling because the music is so damn good. The more I hear of Vinci the more I love him: he has a simplicity and an accessibility that I don't find in the more highly ornamented Hasse. Maybe it's just because the recordings of his operas are so modern, performed by such lively orchestras who are breaking away from the staid older traditions of Baroque performance. It's true that Catone might not, as an opera, be quite up there with Artaserse in musical terms, and its brave, unusual ending does mean that its final scene tails off slightly; but it's still a gripping piece of work both musically and lyrically. Moreover, its characterisation has a psychological depth and power that I've rarely found in Baroque operas. It is to be highly recommended.

A small note on the CD design: this time the cover-boy is not the title character (in contravention of usual practice) but Giovanni Battista Piranesi, whose intricate, fantastical etchings echo Catone's towering pride. The image chosen for the CD is a pasticcio of ancient architecture, jumbled together in a splendid dream of Rome that could never have been built by men (just as impossible, perhaps, as Catone's Republican utopia?). However, Piranesi is equally famous for his Carceri or Prisons, whose labyrinthine arches and stairways draw the eye into their threatening, subterranean depths: not a bad mental setting for the opera's final act in the shadows of the underground aqueduct. It's an astute visual theme: I've heard it will continue in the set itself, so I'm looking forward to seeing how that works out. The libretto, incidentally, is the thickest booklet I've ever seen. I think it's just really expensive glossy paper, because it genuinely is mostly libretto: the essays aren't long and there aren't even photos of all the cast, which is a bit of a shame (Cencic, Fagioli and Sancho get photos but the rest of the boys remain enigmatically faceless, which I've done my best to rectify here).

An illustration from a late 18th-century edition of Metastasio's collected works.
Act 3: Scene 12: Catone: 'Swear eternal faith to Arbace and eternal hostility to the unworthy oppressor
of our nation and the world.' ... Marzia: 'O god, I swear it upon this hand.'

* We've seen some teaser images of the costumes. Let's just say the jury's out. But perhaps they haven't finished with them yet. 

** For some snippets from the ever-admirable J.C. Bach's version of Catone, see this impressive student production from Leipzig in 2011 (another part here, with a high note in Confusa, smarrita that I think might challenge even Sabadus).

Friday, 22 May 2015

The Land of the Rising Sun (Tokyo)

Tokyo skyscape | One of the more understated kabuki costumes at the National Museum | A whiskered dragon crouches on
an exquisitely detailed samurai helmet at the National Museum | The Kanda Myojin Shrine
In other news, I've just got back from my first visit to Japan: a week in Tokyo, on business, which turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and brilliant trips I've ever been on. I had the good fortune to travel with some really lovely colleagues from other companies, and our hosts could not have been kinder or more eager to help: Japanese hospitality truly is remarkable and I've certainly now been spoiled for life as far as business trips are concerned.

Japan isn't a country that I've ever particularly longed to go to: its romantic history of geishas and samurai has always had a slight appeal, and I'm very fond of some of Murakami's quirky, magical-realist novels (Kafka on the Shore is fantastic, if you haven't read it); but I wasn't sure that frenetic, neon Tokyo was my kind of place. I suppose I'd been slightly put off by Lost in Translation. How wrong I was. I only had two free days and so I spent them in the city, simply walking rather than taking the subway, taking in as many of the districts as I could. I was fascinated by the dual personality of this fascinating country: the respect for heritage and history set against the desire to embrace all that is new and shiny. The Imperial Palace rises out of its moat enclosed within great dark walls, formed of stones as large as boulders, with ancient pines leaning over the parapets. Beyond you can catch glimpses of fluted roofs and eaves, and the Imperial family are cut off from the real world by bridges which terminate at impressive gateways, guarded by the police. And yet this most traditional of complexes is surrounded on all sides by towering steel and glass: vertiginous hotels and office-blocks raking the sky. 

I spent my first free day at Ueno Park, basking in the 30-degree heat and exploring the the museums: pretty much a perfect recipe for a day out. I was particularly taken with the National Museum, which is admirably arranged with introductory chronological survey galleries on the top floor, and thematic galleries on the floor below. I predictably went into raptures over the samurai armour, with its exquisitely detailed patterns and unexpected details, such as the whiskered dragon crouched on one of the helmets. The kabuki theatre costumes were another highlight, beautifully embroidered in bold and dramatic colours (I'd hoped to see some kabuki while I was there, but alas, there simply wasn't time); and there were also some lovely examples of historical women's dress. Lacquerwork, ukiyo-e prints and netsuke sat alongside scrolls with elegant calligraphy; how I wished I could read them! One exhibit particularly took my fancy: an album or scrapbook filled with examples of fine calligraphy, included not so much for their content but the sheer beauty of the handwriting. Such books were sometimes given to brides to take to their new homes. It is such an elegant, simple, very Japanese tradition. 

The National Museum | A bridal gift: an album of exemplary calligraphy | A gorgeously evocative mountainous landscape
wreathed in mist on a folding screen, dated to around the 15th century and attributed to the ink painter Shubun or his workshop
The National Museum of Western Art, which stands just a five minute walk away in the same park, has a good survey collection of the Old Masters, which seems to have been carefully assembled in order to have one example of as many great names as possible; the highlights of the collection, however, are the Impressionist pictures. There are no fewer than twelve Monets, as the museum's founder was a personal friend of the artist. When I visited there was an exhibition on Guercino, including many paintings from Cento and Bologna which I'd never seen in the flesh before (but no drawings). It was rather strange to have to go halfway around the world in order to see them, but it was an extremely good show with virtually everything that you would want to see (save The Burial of St Petronilla, of course, but one must be realistic about the logistics). There was another interesting exhibition upstairs in the Prints and Drawings Gallery, focusing on French fin-de-siècle lithographs and etchings from the collection. Here I was particularly struck by Eugene Carrière's smoky, ghostly lithographed portraits, whose sitters included one of the Goncourt brothers, Verlaine and Rodin. They were splendidly evocative. I was delighted to see an impression of Mucha's 1896 poster for Musset's Lorenzaccio, showing Sarah Bernhardt brooding in Renaissance boy's costume, but perhaps my favourite works in this display were the etchings by Paul-Albert Besnard: a series of occasionally unsettling but always very beautifully conceived prints.

At the other end of the scale, I started my walk on the following day in the Akihabara district, a neon riot of signs and billboards which pretty much fulfilled the mental image of Tokyo that I'd had before I went. Here you find the new Tokyo: a mass of cheap electronics shops and multi-storey anime stores. I walked around two of these anime emporia, as a couple of colleagues had asked me to look out for certain things, and it was an astonishing experience. Anime isn't a genre that I've ever got into, though one of my close friends at school was very interested in it. As I wandered around these five-storey shops, I found my eyes and ears boggling: TV screens blared out a constant stream of high-pitched giggling voices or music; everywhere I looked there was a proliferation of frills and cat-ears and skimpily-dressed, large-eyed, long-legged girls. One of my missions was to find something suitable as a present for a ten-year-old girl. That proved to be remarkably difficult. So many of these images, despite looking initially innocuous, turned out to have skirts that were just that bit too short and revealing, or tops that were just that bit too low cut. Foolishly, I hadn't appreciated how adult a lot of anime is, nor how widespread its tendency to have homoerotic undertones of either kind. By the end, panicking slightly, I grabbed what inoffensive gifts I could - picking up a badge for myself in the process (I really couldn't resist) - and emerged gasping into the sunlight. However, I've certainly been left with a desire to investigate further. There are certain manga styles I like very much - the more elegant, willowy, wispy kind of art - and I've just discovered that there's actually a series about Cesare Borgia, called Cantarella, so naturally I've ordered the first couple of volumes and we'll revisit the topic in due course. Incidentally, if anyone knows of a good introduction to manga and anime styles, I'd love to know. I had a quick look on Amazon to see if there was some kind of 'dummies' guide', but there isn't anything immediately obvious; and I can't imagine that so popular and iconic a field doesn't have some kind of handy intro to help ignoramuses like me find their bearings.

We managed to pack so many wonderful experiences into just a few days. The food was absolutely delicious although, as we noted, it was a relief that we were all pretty competent with chopsticks, because there often wasn't any other form of cutlery on offer. On a couple of occasions we found ourselves in delightful traditional-style restaurants where we had to leave our shoes at the door: once we sat on the floor in a little room with a slatted, sliding door, where we sampled sake and cooked our own broth over a brazier. It was all new and different and yet, crucially, so much less daunting than I'd expected it to be. Everyone was welcoming, friendly and immensely patient with a couple of shame-faced foreigners whose only proficiency in Japanese was 'arigato', 'hai' and 'konichiwa'. In Tokyo, train and subway station signs show the names in Western script as well as Japanese, and many of the major road signs offer the same courtesy; many of the trains also have announcements in English (how Japanese visitors cope in stubbornly Anglophone London I simply do not know). 

I came home laden with impulsive purchases: beautiful stoneware teacups; a dip-glazed rice-bowl; a lacquered trinket box. It was the most wonderful trip and I've been left itching to know more about this remarkable land and, hopefully, to return one day and to have the chance to explore more of its countryside.

Street scene in Akihabara | One of the pavilions on the walls of the Imperial Palace | One of the wonderful meals we had
One of my keepsakes: I thought a chibi samurai girl was very 'me'.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Blood of Kings: Andrew James

A Novel of Betrayal and Warfare in Ancient Persia

(currently only available for Kindle on Amazon)

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There isn’t much historical fiction out there about Achaemenid Persia. Trust me: I’ve looked. There's the Athenian Letters, written by a group of friends as a commentary on Thucydides around 1740 (effectively early fan-fiction), and there are a few novels about Esther aimed at a religious readership; but that's pretty much it. And so, like a thirsty man in a desert, I homed in on Blood of Kings. It tells the story of the rise of Darius: son of the deposed king of Parsa, an impoverished member of the Persian nobility, a seasoned warrior and inspiring commander, who brings down a dynasty to claim the throne of Persia for himself. Naturally this all has relevance for my Xerxes Project, because it gives me a glimpse of the brat-prince’s father in his younger days. 

After a fleeting glimpse of Darius's boyhood, we find him in the wild mountains of Bactria, where he is one of a party of scouts. Somewhere behind them marches the army of their king, Cyrus of Persia; somewhere ahead, cloaked in the darkness, are the forces of the hostile queen Tomyris, whom Cyrus seeks to engage in battle. Surprised by an ambush, the scouts scatter. Darius is the only one who succeeds in seeing the massive enemy army for himself, but his reports are derided by the scouts' leader, the primped nobleman Vinda. As a close friend of Cambyses, the ambitious Crown Prince, Vinda appears to have instructions of his own to make sure that Cyrus goes into battle desperately under-prepared. And so Darius and his friends plunge into a battle which is driven as much by the dissensions within the Persian court as by the need for territorial expansion or consolidation. In the years to come, as servants of the new king Cambyses, this will become a pattern. Driven by this unstable man's vainglorious ventures, they form part of the mighty force that heads west for the subjugation of Egypt, the destruction of the worship of Ammon, and the obliteration of the Oracle at Siwa. This last doomed mission has gone down in history: the dispatch of an entire army into the sands, which never returned (archaeologists claimed, rather controversially, to have found the bones of the army a few years ago). Hardened by war, privation and the scorn of his superiors, Darius is motivated by only two things: first, his love for Cambyses’ niece Parmys and, secondly, his conviction that one day the crown of Persia is destined for his own head. 

The book has glowing reviews on Amazon, along with laudatory blurbs from eminent sources. However, I suspect that many of these readers may have judged Blood of Kings on its recreation of the military campaigns. These are indeed very interesting; but since the book evidently wants to be seen as a novel rather than a fictionalised military chronicle, I’m going to judge it as such. And that’s where we have some problems. 

But let’s start with the good. The battle scenes and campaigns are the best parts: full of vivid detail about the range of Persian troops, from archers to camel riders and cavalry and the crack infantry of the Immortals (the fabled Ten Thousand). Blood-drenched and full of grit and sweat, these sections give a plausible and almost cinematic sense of the kill-or-be-killed melee of ancient warfare. Even in peacetime James conjures up some thoroughly nasty scenes thanks to episodes of torture, the most memorable of which was an extremely detailed description of impaling. (In some ways, that was helpful because I’d been wondering exactly how they went about it.) This must have been what life was like in the ancient world: precarious, cheap and entirely dependent on the whims of all-powerful monarchs who may not have been quite as sane as they should be. Almost equally impressive are James’s descriptions of the landscapes, which show off his familiarity with the region. He says in his Author’s Note that he spent three years living in the Egyptian desert near Siwa while researching the book, which perhaps explains why we spend so much of the novel stuck with Darius among dunes and sandstorms, while the Persian-set sections are slightly more perfunctory. 

However, for a novel to be successful the characterisation has to be individual and powerful enough for me, the reader, to care what happens to these people. As I’ve said before, they don’t have to be nice: I like a bit of shadow and complexity, and a character could be full-on barking mad as long as I find them convincing. Unfortunately that’s where Blood of Kings falls down. Secondary characters are often painted with such broad strokes that they descend into cliché. You can tell within the first few words whether you’re supposed to like someone or not. Eunuchs are painted, mincing and untrustworthy: surely a case of 21st-century discomfort being projected back into the past, onto a group of people who were not only crucial to the running of the empire, but often very powerful within it. Vinda, although he does grow more interesting towards the end, begins as a stock-character haughty nobleman, a dandy who drinks from crystal goblets on campaign and hasn’t a clue how to command men. We see enough of Darius for me to feel some investment in his fate, but while the novel feels on fairly firm ground while off on campaign with the boys, it stutters whenever it tries to tackle romance. And that's an issue, because it chooses to place great emphasis on Darius’s relationship with Parmys. 

I wanted to like Parmys but she turned out to be only a shadow of the competent, proud and dangerous women who really inhabited her world. She is little but a cipher for Darius to adore, protect and attain: a pretty princess with a ‘pink rosebud’ mouth who is snatched and rescued by men. Occasionally she curls up by a cosy fire with her favourite clay tablets to show us that she reads and therefore has depths. (Did Persian women or men really settle down with a good book? Wasn’t literature still primarily recited aloud at this period?) But perhaps the most amusing and unrealistic thing about this romance was the lovers’ memories of their ‘moonlit trysts’. Now come: I can be a softy and I’m sure moonlit trysts are wonderful, but they belong to kitschy romance rather than to a novel like this which aims to have blood, sand and dirt under its nails (and is so serious as to give many of the places and people their original Persian names rather than the Greek transliterations we often see). When the young Parmys is locked in the 'seraglio', she persuades Darius to sneak in to see her. And so the book veers into the realms of star-spangled Arabian Nights fantasy: 
He had found a way into the palace gardens and on moonlit nights they had shared trysts beneath a cherry tree, among the peacocks and nightingales. It had been romantic and beautiful. 
Some of my friends may be reminded, with amusement, of the opening scene of Artaserse. They are not alone. And Darius, despite being so shrewd, smart and dynamic in battle, seems to undergo a complete character change when with Parmys, turning into some kind of teen-romance hero whom the infatuated princess conjures up, complete with his ‘expressive mouth … broad shoulders, straight-backed carriage, and soft, low voice’. It just doesn’t quite ring true. Nor does the fact that these two lovers are so in tune with one another that, even months of travel apart, they know when the other is in danger. At one point, when Darius is close to death, ‘He knew without a shadow of doubt that she was thinking of him at that very moment, willing him to be safe’, while at another moment, ‘Darius had an unshakeable feeling that Parmys was in mortal danger.’ This, again, strays into sugary romance and jars with the tone of the rest of the book. 

There was one character, however, whom I liked very much; and that was a relief because I’d really been looking forward to his appearance in the book and had been hoping he'd be well-written. This was the stout, genial and often slightly sozzled nobleman Megabyzus: an old warrior from a distinguished family who has cheerfully gone to seed, and who reminded me slightly of a Persian Falstaff with more integrity. (His rather brilliant grandson and namesake has become something of a historical favourite of mine over the last few months, and is partly to blame for the genesis of the Xerxes Project.) In the novel, Megabyzus injects a much-needed note of down-to-earth humour: for example, while Darius moons over the distant Parmys, he makes an endearing attempt to offer philosophical comfort: 
“Plenty more ducks in the pond, eh? And believe me, they're all much of a muchness. Been married to my wives for twenty years now and still can't tell them apart." 
You old romantic, you. 

 It’s a curious kettle of fish, this novel. I came to it with high expectations on the basis of the reviews and, had it been entirely focused on the military element I think I’d have enjoyed it more. However, the addition of the romantic theme weakened the book as a whole, throwing the occasionally awkward characterisation into high relief. I must just mention one final moment that made me laugh: at one point, one of the characters comments warningly on ‘Greeks bearing gifts’. The Persians might well have felt this sentiment, but it is entirely inaccurate to put this quote in the mouth of a man who lived a full half-millennium before Virgil wrote it in the Aeneid. As well have him quoting Shakespeare. 

So, how to sum things up? If you enjoy military historical novels then you might well thrill to the sieges, charges and carefully described tactical engagements. If you are looking for a more rounded piece of historical fiction, this might not be the first place to come; though, as I’ve said, it is virtually the only thing out there about the Achaemenids. However, as I realised shortly after starting the book, much of Darius’ story falls within the shadow cast by Tim Leach’s two excellent novels about Cyrus, Croesus and Cambyses. Thoughtful and elegiac, The Last King of Lydia and The King and the Slave might not have quite the blood-and-guts immediacy of James’s battle scenes, but I find them more powerful and successful as a whole. So, for the general reader, I might recommend turning to Leach first; even though James’s book does give you a vivid idea of how it might actually have felt to go out and wage war in Ancient Persia.


Sunday, 10 May 2015

My Cousin Rachel: Daphne du Maurier

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

««««

Spring cleaning is happening later than usual this year, in both blog and household terms, but I thought it was time to polish off some of the posts which have been lurking in my drafts folder. This, for example, is a book I read last summer, and I've no idea why I didn't post about it at the time, because the draft was virtually finished. However, better late than never. I'm aware that I am probably preaching to the converted here: My Cousin Rachel is a modern classic and I should think that many of you bookish types will have already read it. However, if there's anyone vacillating and waiting for a little bit more of a push, I'll be happy to add my voice to its advocates.

Philip Ashley is twenty-four years old: an innocent, unworldly boy who has spent his whole life in the orbit of his much older cousin Ambrose. For Philip, Ambrose has been guardian, friend and substitute father, and Philip has always known that one day he will inherit the rambling Cornish estate which is so close to both their hearts. But when Ambrose's health requires a stay in Italy, leaving Philip behind to run the estate, the precious balance of their lives is fatally disrupted. Ambrose's letters grow more infrequent; and then comes news that Philip had never dared even contemplate. Ambrose has fallen in love with a woman in Florence, the eponymous Rachel, an Anglo-Italian widow who shares his passion for gardening and who has unexpectedly conjured a flame in this old bachelor's heart. 

And worse news follows. Cloistered in Rachel's villa in Fiesole, Ambrose falls dangerously ill. Disturbing fragmentary letters are delivered to Philip in Cornwall. And soon Philip realises that he must go to his beloved cousin's aid in Florence; but he makes the long journey to no avail. Arriving to find Ambrose dead, the villa shuttered up, and no sign of Rachel except her shadowy lawyer Rainaldi, Philip all too soon has to make his way homeward, orphaned and bereft once again. But presently he receives more unsettling tidings: an unexpected and unwelcome visitor has arrived in Plymouth and is making her way to his estate. Cousin Rachel is about to reveal herself.

Helen over at She Reads Novels was working her way through du Maurier's entire oeuvre last summer and I was following her progress with interest. When I enthused over Frenchman's Creek, she recommended Rachel and I'm pleased to say that I thought it was a wonderful book. It wasn't what I was expecting - I think I'd anticipated something a bit more overtly eerie and a bit more along the lines of Rebecca - but in a way it was all the better for being different. There are many things left unclear, down to the time the novel was set (though I imagined it in the period around 1850), but in a way this just focuses attention on the timeless beauty of Philip's estate and on the unfolding relationships between the characters. While it doesn't have the same spine-chilling quality as Rebecca, it's a subtle and elegant study of manipulation and psychology. Watching Rachel insinuate herself into the lives of Philip, his servants and his tenants is a joy, like watching a consummate actress perform her part. And what is so exquisite is that one can never be quite sure about her motives. Nor can one entirely trust Philip: this is a book where the author pulls off that immensely difficult trick of creating an entirely convincing first-person 'voice' while at the same time showing us all too clearly the shortcomings and flaws of that character.

In some ways this is a very simple novel: much of its impact comes from the way it builds atmosphere and so it is hard to know what more to say than this; except to emphasise the fact that it was deliciously satisfying. I don't have any more du Mauriers lined up to read at the moment, but Helen said that I might like The King's General, so that'll probably be where I go next.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Research in Action: Shakespeare's Globe

Performing Gender on the Indoor Stage



We all know that in Shakespeare's day women weren't allowed on the stage. In recent years several productions have tried to recreate the flavour of those original performances: Mark Rylance's Twelfth Night and Richard III productions come to mind. But even these don't give an accurate flavour of what Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences would have seen. Female roles were played by young boys aged between 12 and 22 years old, highly skilled actors who would specialise in playing women until at a certain stage they were no longer able to convince with the illusion (many ended up transitioning across the gender divide and took on male roles within the company). Modern theatre companies are happy to put on all-male adult casts, or even all-child casts (the Globe's own company of young players has presented two productions: The Malcontent and Dido, Queen of Carthage, neither of which I saw, I regret to say). But, perhaps for obvious reasons, no one has yet put on a production with genuinely original practice, with an adolescent boy playing a woman opposite an adult man.

The Globe has an active research department, which constantly strives to examine what early modern theatre might have felt, looked and sounded like. They ask questions about the brightness of the candles and the way music was used; later this year they'll explore the way that 'outdoor' scenes were represented on indoor stages, and take a closer look at bedroom scenes in Jacobean plays. On Thursday night, they turned their quizzing-glass on the subject of gender. They chose three scenes from well-known Jacobean and Caroline drama: one from The Duchess of Malfi, one from The White Devil, and one from 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. Each of the scenes showed the female character in a slightly different light and at a different level of power. In Malfi, the young Duchess is entirely in control as she makes a proposal of marriage to her unwitting steward Antonio. In The White Devil, Isabella pursues her adulterous husband to Rome, only to find herself repudiated with scorn. In 'Tis Pity, Soranzo erupts with violent rage as he discovers that his new wife Annabella is already pregnant (little realising that the father of her child is her own brother). Each scene was played twice, back-to-back. Each time the male role was taken by the same actor - the very talented David Oakes (whom I last saw as a captivating Kit Marlowe in Shakespeare in Love and who gets immediate Brownie points for having also played Juan Borgia). And the female role was played once by an adult woman (Beth Park) and once by a 15-year-old boy from the Young Players company (Guy Amos).

All three actors were brilliant, of course. Seeing these scenes with full costume, wigs and make-up in the warm candlelight of the Playhouse only blurred the lines even further. Amos might only be 15, but he's been with the Globe for some years and he had formidable poise. The most interesting thing (for me) was that, while seeing a man playing a woman can often come across as camp, that wasn't at all the case with a boy. Amos wasn't necessarily trying to sound like a woman - he wasn't speaking in falsetto - but a 15-year-old's voice, by its very nature, is lighter and has a very different sound to that of a grown man. I was also intrigued to see how he moved and stood. When standing still he instinctively adopted a very straight, modest pose with hands neatly clasped in front of his skirts (he explained later it was the corset: "I can't slouch. And it feels really uncomfortable to have my hands hanging at my side." "It was considered shocking for a woman to stand with her hands at her side," commented one of the Globe's research team. Both Park and Amos jumped and quickly clasped their hands primly at their waists). But when Amos was acting, he often moved with a slight strut or swagger: the natural cockiness of a young lad. 

Twelfth Night | Slightly later in date, the female-role-specialist Ned Kynaston, whose story is told in Stage Beauty
The all-male production of Richard III which ran in rep with Twelfth Night
The fascinating thing was that this didn't undermine the illusion of femininity, but simply gave it a different emphasis. It worked remarkably well in the scene from The Duchess of Malfi. Here Amos's youthful masculine self-confidence gave the Duchess a real aura of power and authority, whereas when Park played the role she gave the Duchess a sweetness, flutteriness and fragility. Oakes, playing Antonio to both, confessed that opposite Amos he had felt an uncomfortable sense of being dominated by this boy who was half his age. Amos's youth was cancelled out by his own consciousness of his social status. He also had a mischievous approach to the scene that Park played down: Amos's Duchess gives Antonio the ring before telling him that she'd only part with it to her second husband. It imposes her decision on Antonio. Park's Duchess explained before handing over the ring, giving Antonio the choice whether to take it or not. Similarly, while the boy had a sense of dominance that the woman didn't, the woman implied a sense of flirtation and sexual frisson that was absent from the boy's scene. These are two very different forms of power being used: social and sexual, but in both scenes Antonio is conquered by them. 

The scene from 'Tis Pity was also extremely interesting. This is an immensely violent scene and Amos was on first. There were sharp intakes of breath as Oakes, as Soranzo, stormed through the doorway gripping Amos by the scruff of his neck and hurled him to the ground; Amos fell flat on his front and, thanks to his silk skirts, slid almost the entire width of the stage. Later in the scene he's thrown down again. When Park came on, she too was thrown down, but it somehow seemed less violent; although Oakes added a moment with her that he'd avoided with Amos, grabbing her by the throat up against the wall. The audience reaction to that scene was telling. We all felt that Oakes had felt freer to be rough with Amos, because he was a boy and there was that element of rough-and-tumble between two blokes; whereas he was holding back slightly with Park. When questioned, however, Oakes laughed: it was actually the opposite. He'd actually unleashed much more violence on Park, whom he knew had been trained in stage combat and was able to protect herself. Amos hadn't been trained, so Oakes had been very conscious throughout of trying to protect him. But that in itself shows that audiences are affected by their own social expectations. We thought it was more acceptable to see two men having a scuffle on stage. But Oakes put it in another light. "So you think it's more acceptable to see a grown man beating up a child than a woman?" Hmm. Good point. I'm not sure that anyone in that theatre actually remembered how young Amos was, because he was acting with such self-assurance. One thing - an obvious thing - did strike me about this 'Tis Pity scene. The whole scene centres on the fact that Annabella is pregnant. Neither actor made it explicit, but Park seemed more conscious of this fact. Whether that's because she was consciously trying to suggest it, or because it was innate, she instinctively seemed to protect her stomach - unlike Amos she didn't fall flat, and when she taunted Soranzo at the end, she did so on her knees rather than, like Amos, lying on her back with arms spread. 

Oakes is an actor who's used to playing opposite women who are women. How would the experience be different for an adult male actor who was used to his 'women' being played by teenage boys? It's hard to know. When asked how much the gender thing mattered, Oakes said that he'd spoken to colleagues who'd worked on all-male productions and they'd said you actually forgot about gender entirely after a while. It was about acting opposite a person rather than a gender - you reacted to the personality or the stage character, not the fact of its masculinity or femininity. One of the experts noted that in the late 16th and early 17th century, clothing was even more important than it is today. The existence of sumptuary laws reflected the fact that people placed so much emphasis on costume and dress. For audiences of this date, if a boy was up on a stage dressed as a woman, they would have accepted him as a woman in the context of the play (even though they would have known he wasn't; if that makes any sense). 

So interesting, not just from a theatrical point of view but also thinking about early operas and the fact that young castrati (of pretty much Amos's age) would have made their debut in female roles. The key legacy of this event for me will be the realisation that a boy probably wouldn't have played a woman weakly, as I might have imagined before: seeing Amos commanding the stage as the Duchess, I realised that actually these lads would have given these female roles a steely inner strength. ("How did it feel to have him throwing you around?" someone asked Amos after 'Tis Pity. "Well of course I wanted to get up and square off to him," he said with a shrug. "But I had to think, what would I do as a woman?") It was an evening that really raised a lot more tantalising questions to think about. I hope that one day the Globe decide to do a whole production with this kind of original casting. It is different seeing a boy play a woman, rather than a young man in his mid-twenties, which is what I've seen before. Amos and his colleagues are not shrinking violets to be protected: they are thoroughly aware of the texts and the roles and, if Amos is any guide, they're formidably accomplished actors. Seeing them (briefly) take back the roles they'd have had in an original Shakespearean company might turn an exciting and different light on the female characters in these plays.

And yet another reason why Twitter is amazing. I was resigned to not finding any photos of the performance...
From left: Guy Amos, David Oakes and Beth Park (#JacobeanSelfie?)
From David Oakes's Twitter account. I hope he'll forgive me for snaffling it.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Antigono: Christoph Willibald Gluck (1756)

(Ensemble Serse, Grosvenor Chapel, London, 25 April 2015)

««« ½

I know what you're thinking. "Serse again?!" But no: fear not. Today I'm rather belatedly posting about Ensemble Serse, a London-based company of young musicians and singers who specialise in ambitious resurrections of Baroque opera. Their mission statement is to offer a musical experience that's as close as possible to what an 18th-century audience might have heard. That means no cuts, all possible cadenzas and a take-no-prisoners attitude to singing. In the last few years their projects have included revivals of Jommelli's Didone, Hasse's Lucio Papirio Dittatore, Hasse's Cajo Fabricio, Hasse's 1733 Siroe, Vinci's Medo and, of particular interest to me, Hasse's Artaserse. I'd previously been to a couple of their concerts; but this concert production of Gluck's Antigono was my first encounter with a proper Ensemble Serse opera. 

Gluck's opera was first performed in 1756 but it was based on a libretto from 1744 and it's classic Metastasio. The Egyptian princess Berenice is betrothed to Antigono, king of Macedonia but, as their wedding draws closer she finds herself increasingly troubled by her feelings for Antigono's son Demetrio. For his part, Demetrio is desperately in love with his father's promised bride but has been fighting against his emotions with all the high-minded, self-sacrificing nobility of your average Metastasian hero. That hasn't prevented his jealous father banishing him from the city: an order that, under the circumstances, Demetrio chooses to defy. And that's because, as the opera opens, danger is in the air. The romantic tribulations of this central trio are overshadowed by the approach of the triumphant army of Alessandro of Epirus, who is set on adding Macedonia to his empire. As Antigono agonises over whether or not to flee, Alessandro makes an offer that really puts the cat among the pigeons: his army will stand down if he is given Berenice for his wife. This comes as particularly unpleasant news to Antigono's daughter Ismene who, as far as she knew, was meant to be marrying Alessandro herself. As the two kings square off against each other, Berenice is caught in an impossible situation, and the competing demands of duty, love and political expediency threaten to push the characters to their very limits. 

The singing was very good overall and, in a cast of four countertenors*, one soprano and a tenor, there was plenty to absorb. That was especially the case because Ensemble Serse's original-practices approach led to some interesting cross-gender casting, with Berenice and Ismene sung by men and Demetrio by a woman. One general point I would make is that, as part of their quest to recreate an 18th-century ambiance, Ensemble Serse also aim to replicate what they call the histrionic 'bad habits' of the original singers. While I find this interesting from a historical point of view, it isn't for everyone and I confess that there are times when I'd prefer a more toned-down modern approach. But that's just me. And there was lots to enjoy. 

As Ismene, Jorg Delfos had a light and pure voice (I'd go so far as to call it 'pretty'), which made an interesting case for gender-blind casting. If one thinks about casting a voice - and I'm fully aware this probably applies more to recordings, where physical mimesis isn't so much of an issue - then it should be the voice that best suits the role, regardless of whether it's male or female. Delfos's tone, with its light and agile high notes, was a perfect match for the naively lovelorn princess. Calvin Wells, the Ensemble's artistic director, took on the formidable role of Berenice, at the heart of the storm: his mad scene in Act 3, delivered with furious élan in a rather fabulous kimono, was certainly memorable, with some notes pushed up to incredible heights. Personally, however, I preferred him in a quieter moment: his rendition of Basta così, in which Berenice decides to sacrifice her own happiness to save Antigono, was full of poignant dignity. His Demetrio was sung by Milena Dobrzycka, who had the unenviable task of tackling some of the most virtuosic arias in the opera with some bell-like high notes. Her voice was pleasant and sparkling, with impressive control, but there were points where it was evident that she was having to work at it. Considering the technical challenges of the music, that's no great surprise; and the key thing is that Dobrzycka nobly stepped in a very late stage and, so I've heard, learned the role in a week. Considering what she had to handle, that's pretty astonishing.

The cast: Wells, Taylor, Gfeller, Dobrzycka, Delfos and Verney
Clearco, Alessandro's sidekick, was the only character (poor chap) who wasn't caught up in a romantic intrigue. He was sung by Tom Verney, whom I saw in one of the Ensemble's concerts earlier this year (Hasse's Marc' Antonio e Cleopatra) and was glad to hear again: his singing was refined, crisp and clear of tone, albeit occasionally slightly muffled underneath the energetic orchestra. A little bit more force and drama behind it would make all the difference. As the sole tenor, Simon Gfeller's Antigono very quickly made a fine impression: his light voice could adopt a lot of colours, from gentle to severe, and I particularly liked his aria È la beltà del Cielo, in which this (presumably) middle-aged king suddenly sounded as enamoured as a young lover. But perhaps his most splendid moment was Tu m'involasti un Regno, in which Antigono stands up defiantly to his conqueror. He clearly put a great deal into this performance, backed up by plentiful horns and a frenzied accompaniment from Gregory Batsleer on the harpsichord, and it really was extremely enjoyable. His acting was also very strong and that was a good thing, because he spent a lot of time sharing a stage with the inimitable Alessandro, played with effervescent verve by Michael Taylor. As regular readers will know, I have a weakness for swaggering in all its forms, and Taylor's bright, deft voice happily fenced its way through some challenging arias, most notably (for me) Meglio rifletti al dono, in which he tries to persuade Berenice into his arms. There was a very nice sweeping cadenza here as well as some pretty crazy vocal hopping around and I savoured every second of it. It also looked as though Taylor hadn't had the memo about this not being staged. From the second he got up from his chair he was firing on all cylinders, throwing imperious looks around the stage, reacting extravagantly to other characters' recitatives and striking Lord-Flashheart-style poses with hand on hip. By the end I was giggling every time he came on stage, even before he did anything. 

I was surprised to find so full an orchestra in this little church, and the size of the band made for a rich and very dramatic rendition of the music which left both me and my friend feeling that we'd rather underestimated Gluck. Conducted with dynamism by Batsleer, the musicians kept things bowling along at a good pace (with the odd stray horn here and there), and I was delighted by the drums and trumpets which were used in so many of the arias. Believe me: arias are always better with drums and trumpets. There was also a gorgeous cello solo from Anthony Albrecht (which I understand was improvised, which I just find incredible), a drum solo from Barnaby Archer (fantastically martial) and a hauntingly beautiful oboe solo from Leo Duarte (at the start of the aria sung by Demetrio which Gluck later transformed into Che puro ciel in his Orfeo). 

In the interests of full transparency, I'm not as completely detached from this production as I normally am from the operas I see, although I hope I've written this post with the usual levels of honesty and criticism. I've had the privilege of being able to watch Antigono's development during the past few months (though I am not associated with them in any way) and it's been immensely interesting, as well as rather daunting, to see just how much work goes into one night's performance. Much of that work was down to Wells himself, who transcribed and transposed the entire opera from its original score, added in the drums and trumpets which made the arias so dramatic, wrote the cadenzas, wrote the programme and assembled the singers and musicians. The programme is worth noting on its own, in fact, because it not only contains the entire libretto (including the preface and dedications) with an English translation, but also biographies of Metastasio and Gluck, an essay on the castrati and en travesti roles in 18th-century opera, notes on theatrical practice in the 18th century, a discussion of how Ensemble Serse adapted the opera, synopses in two levels of detail and biographies not only of the present cast and musicians, but also biographies of the original cast. It's quite a feat. Wells should be congratulated for the time and effort he has devoted to this; and it clearly paid off in the final performance.

Overall it was a great event put on by a creative young team, and I was just sorry that there weren't more people in the audience to enjoy it. It wasn't flawless, but it was presented with passion, dedication and real enthusiasm. It's very exciting to have young ensembles like this in London who are tackling such ambitious projects; and I hope that, if Ensemble Serse continue to unearth these 'forgotten' operas, they'll find a way to expand their marketing to get themselves better known. (And don't be put off by the prospect of a five-long-hour opera. Antigono was only four hours and it whisked by. And, if people are perfectly happy to spend five hours listening to Wagner, why not give Gluck or one of his contemporaries a go?)


* I know that some of the singers prefer to describe themselves as soprano or alto rather than countertenor, but I'm just sticking with the usual parlance of the blog to avoid confusion.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Pompeii

(directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, 2014)

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There's really a wealth of posters I could have
chosen from, but I felt this one covered
the essential details most clearly
And now for something completely different. I do like taking a break now and then to indulge myself with a spot of cheerful ranting. I wasn't even sure whether to write a post on Pompeii or not. I don’t like being overly critical and that’s doubly the case when a film doesn’t even have the courage to be as wildly barking mad as Anonymous was; but is simply a bit duff. In the end, however, I decided it was my duty to prevent anyone else wasting one-and-three-quarter hours of their life on this. (That's the equivalent of half a Baroque opera, two episodes of Game of Thrones or almost four episodes of Blackadder. Judge wisely.)

There are many things wrong with Pompeii, which I shall enumerate with great glee in a moment, but the overall problem is that the director has taken one of the greatest natural disasters in history and decided that actually it would be much better with a few more explosions and a storyline which can only be described as plotting by numbers. Add in some hammy acting and an unfortunate case of miscasting, and the scene is set for an underwhelming two hours, culminating in a staggeringly sentimental ending. 

Where to begin? You could be forgiven for assuming that Pompeii was a film of the book by Robert Harris. That’s certainly what I assumed until I saw the posters, where the presence of Kit Harington half-naked, carrying a sword, indicated that the action probably wasn’t going to focus on the scientific investigations of an aqueduct engineer. Personally, I would have preferred the latter. Instead the writers cheerfully depart from anything approaching Harris’s novel (assuming that was the original source) and give us a kind of hybrid of Gladiator and Titanic without the charm or power of either. Harington is our hero: a brooding gladiator who has made his name winning fights in Britannia, spurred on by fury at having seen his family murdered by the command of an evil Roman general. It is 79 AD and, in the ultimate example of wrong-place, wrong-time, he has been selected to make his Italian debut in a seaside resort near Naples. His name is Milo, but for anyone who (like me) has spent the last few years watching Game of Thrones, it is virtually impossible to think of him as anything other than Jon Snow. Milo comes from Northern Britain, sports an extremely familiar unkempt head of curls, and has a tendency to look serious and slightly pained. 

Milo’s affinity with horses brings him into contact with the heroine Cassia (Emily Browning), a Roman maiden with a very 21st-century sensibility. She is, somewhat implausibly, travelling by carriage from Rome to Pompeii unescorted except for her slave and an old driver. This well-born girl then blithely hops out of her carriage when her horse keels over next to a column of manacled gladiators and other ne’er-do-wells. No one bats an eyelid when she hunkers down next to Milo, who’s trying to see if he can help her horse; and of course, it’s smouldering glances and love at first sight. But our star-crossed lovers barely have the chance to exchange a couple of meaningful glances before it transpires that Milo has a rival for Cassia’s love. The Senate has sent a representative to Pompeii to discuss Cassia’s father’s plans to gentrify the city after the recent catastrophic earthquake. This happens to be none other than the wicked Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), who turns out to have designs on the virtuous Cassia. Also, by amazing coincidence, he just happens to be the evil general who presided over the slaughter of Milo’s entire tribe. (It’s remarkable how villains get around, isn’t it?)  

Milo (Kit Harington) | Cassia (Emily Browning) | Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), helpfully wearing black to show he's a villain
One of the impressive special effect scenes showing the amphitheatre
And so we find ourselves with our hearts in our mouths as the story unfolds. Will Cassia be able to evade Corvus’ dastardly plans and find a way to get a moment alone with the brooding Milo? Will Milo be able to prove himself to his frankly unimpressed fellow gladiators in the amphitheatre? (One of them, naturally, turns out to be the brother of someone Milo killed in Britain: again, incredible how these people get around.) And, most importantly, why does the camera keep focusing on that rather large mountain on the horizon? It’s tosh. It really is. And the worst thing is that it isn’t even bad enough to be good: it has an underlying earnestness which just makes its lack of plausibility even more annoying. I can’t understand why, with such fantastic material, it wasn’t possible to make a more original and gripping film. Too many of the gladiatorial scenes seemed to be thinly-disguised adaptations from Gladiator (e.g. the historical recreation in the arena which goes ‘wrong’, as the plucky victims slaughter their attackers). The romance is unconvincing, blossoming from nothing to ‘my one true love’ in the course of a handful of admiring glances, and a rather ill-advised riding excursion. The improbably liberated heroine leaps onto a horse with our hero and they ride off for an evening together on the slopes of Vesuvius, even though she’s never actually been alone with him before, he’s a gladiator and quite frankly they have all the romantic chemistry of wet fish. 

Browning is probably the most convincing of the lead actors, managing to convey Cassia's intelligence and sensitivity despite the leaden script. As the predatory Corvus, Sutherland roams around chewing the scenery, looking disturbingly like Jack Bauer in a toga, and cursed with a character of depressing one-dimensionality. Harington, on the other hand, is just miscast: he’s too small and slight to convince as a bullish gladiator who’s won every fight he’s been in; and his Milo spends far too much time looking emotionally tortured. Plus, since he looks and sounds the same as he does in Game of Thrones, it’s virtually impossible to shake off the feeling that at any minute someone’s going to turn round and say ‘Winter is coming’ in an ominous tone of voice. All right; it’s not all bad. There was the odd impressive aerial shot of Pompeii and, if I remember correctly, the street plan and temples and so forth looked pretty close to what is actually there. But the end. Oh God, the end. It was a rollercoaster of emotion, primarily because I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or to cry at the fact that I’d never get back these two hours of my life. If you think you might actually like to see the film, I would strongly advise you to reconsider, but if you really can’t be moved, then stop right here, because there are spoilers ahead. I’m not talking about the exploding volcano part, because really I think we all knew that was going to happen, and yet even that isn’t done very well. The director decides that the historical eruption wasn’t big enough and adds in rains of fire, random explosions and a massive tsunami (although I was grudgingly impressed by the trireme being swept along the main street from the port). And the characters’ reactions are just baffling. As the eruption rages, they spend far too much time getting involved in revenge battles, hunting each other down, or staring in despair as friends and loved ones die – rather than, like any rational person, trying to get the hell out. 

So. WHAT was that final scene all about? If you think you might actually care about any of this, you really won’t want to have this very special moment spoiled, so look away now. It was simply, magnificently bad. Milo, Cassia and their swift and unconvincing passion for one another are on the run. From a pyroclastic flow. I allowed myself to get happily wound up, berating them, “What are you doing? You can’t outrun it! It’s travelling at 200 mph!” But then the film pulls an absolute blinder. They don’t outrun it. For a moment I thought the film had redeemed itself. Such audacity, to incinerate your two protagonists in the final seconds! But then it segued into the final frame that was so saccharine, so mawkish, that I scarcely have words for it and was left spluttering in disbelief.

You could argue, of course, that a film could be regarded as worthwhile simply because it does elicit a strong emotional reaction. But there are limits, surely. Pompeii was a brave effort but ultimately it's just another film that is trying (and failing) to out-Gladiator Gladiator. I am consistently amazed at how difficult it seems to be to make a good film set in Classical antiquity of any shape or form; and yet, like the naive creature I am, I keep hoping...

As you can see, it's all starting to go horribly wrong | You can't help thinking it's really neither the time nor the place
Cassia admiring the newest addition to Pompeii's gladiator scene
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