Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The Best of Everything: Rona Jaffe

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


The easiest way I can describe this book, which follows four young women working in a New York publishing house in the early 1950s, is to ask you to think of Sex and the City crossed with Mad Men. With that description in mind you might be tempted to write it off as sugary vintage froth: a feast of twin-sets, cocktails and giggling bespectacled secretaries called Mary-Jane or Betty-Ann. But you'd be doing it an injustice. First published in 1958, this novel was written before the period had a chance to be romanticised, when the author herself had similar experiences fresh in her mind. It's darker, shrewder and considerably more rewarding than you might expect. 

At the beginning of 1952 Caroline Bender arrives for her first day at Fabian Publications, thrilled by the possibilities opening out before her. She's still reeling from the end of her engagement to Eddie, the love of her life, and she's come to New York seeking something different. Dazzled by the confident, capable-looking working girls she sees around her, she wants to become one of them, wearing her success like an armour to shield her heart from more disappointments. This novel follows Caroline, and three other girls at Fabian, over the next three years as they weigh up priorities, carve out careers, fall in love (or not) and realise that schoolgirl dreams mean nothing in the big city. Sensible and pragmatic, Caroline hopes to show her quality to Fabian and dreams of one day becoming an editor. As she claws her way up the professional ladder, she endures dull blind dates well-meaningly foisted upon her by friends of the family, increasingly frustrated by her inability to find a man who moves and challenges her. Barbara Lemont married too young and is now divorced, living in modest circumstances with her baby daughter and disengaged mother, quietly working away at the job she loves and wondering whether she will ever find a man willing to take on the challenge of a ready-made family. Pretty, bubbly April Morrison is too naive for the wiles of New York and falls in love too easily, too flattered by the glamour of the young men around her to believe that their intentions can't be honourable. And Gregg Adams, a bit-part actress, cultivates a knowing cynicism about the world but is inwardly just as vulnerable and in need of visible affection as anyone else. Each of these four girls faces up in a very different way to the demands of big-city life. That life can be a jungle. There are plenty of older men who hope that, with their wives away in the country, they can enjoy a bit of fun with pretty employees. Then there are the younger men, dull and eager or brash and heartless, who offer an interchangeable parade of suitors. And last of all, there is one's own company, the everlasting plague of any girl alone in a big city: emotional isolation, loneliness, and the fear of having somehow missed one's chance.

Jaffe writes very simply and the book follows a gentle chronological round from season to season. It offers a vivid evocation of New York throughout the year, from the bitter cold of winter to the sweltering summers, and the ebb and flow of social seasons too: the cocktail parties, dinners and bars; country clubs and the few days of vacation;  and weekends at home with parents. In many ways it's a love letter to the city and I was delighted that most of the book takes place in the one part of New York I do know, in the streets around Rockefeller Plaza and Radio City. But it's deceptive. The title itself is knowing. Jaffe's young characters are exploited by those they should be able to trust, and one of the disturbing undertones of the novel is the way that men constantly try to take advantage of women, seeing themselves as lords of the universe and the girls as so many silly pretty things to be seduced and casually put aside once they've made their conquest. This isn't new, of course - fiction's been focusing on this for years - but Jaffe's story has the quiet conviction of real life. And, to be fair to her male characters, there are good men among the cads: men worth waiting for; and men who are probably good, but are also misguided and insensitive; along with men who are so good that they offer no excitement whatsoever to the female psyche. For those who've watched Mad Men, that interplay between the sexes will feel very, very familiar: that sense of male entitlement and female calculation as to which sacrifices can be made without too much danger. Some of the girls seem very slow on the uptake, but I suppose Jaffe accurately represents the way in which we read too much into situations and impose our dreams on the realities that are actually there before us. And, although I'm not going to say anything that remotely counts as a spoiler, not all the endings can really be called happy, which adds to the sense that this is real life, not convenient fiction.

It was a far more sophisticated book than I expected, and although it does little more than focus on the romantic lives of these girls, it does so in a way that grips you. And there's more. You realise, after a while, that there are still aspects of this life that feel very familiar. Which single working girl hasn't felt once in a while that her parents would actually be relieved if she'd just get married and have children like all the other girls from her school? Which of us hasn't had the sneaking feeling that somehow getting married is a kind of social validation - proof that we're 'wanted'? Most industries, I hope, now have executives who realise that their female staff are there for more than decoration, but I've seen some places where older attitudes are proving hard to shift. You might shrug this off: plenty has changed. We might take a little longer to grow up nowadays, 30 is the new 20 and people are more relaxed about sex, but essentially the tangle of emotions and worries felt by Caroline, Gregg, April and Barbara are still familiar to many single girls in modern London. Plus ça change...

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Don Giovanni: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1787)

(Hampstead Garden Opera, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, 6 November 2015)


This is well overdue and I hope Hampstead Garden Opera will forgive me, but they can rest assured that my further tentative shuffle out of the Baroque was very enjoyable. Six months after their simple and smart Xerxes, they've taken on another heavyweight of the operatic canon and given him their own ineffable twist: none less than the Don himself. Having only recently seen the Royal Opera House's version, which was intellectually and aesthetically striking but lacked an emotional core, I was curious to see how HGO would tackle the story. The result, I'm delighted to say, was yet another conceptually brilliant reading of a familiar story, with generally strong performances and a secret weapon in the form of a sparkling, irreverent English translation by Benjamin Hamilton, who should be greatly commended.

The scene is set in present-day Oxford at a (discreetly!) unnamed college. It's graduation day and students cluster eagerly around for the presentation of diplomas by the Master. Mortarboards are thrown and champagne swigged beneath the benevolent eyes of the academic staff: the Master himself; his professor daughter Anna; her fiancé Ottavio, a serious, anxious college Fellow; and the literature don Giovanni. Everything seems glorious, but in just a few hours Anna will have been sexually assaulted and the Master killed, both by a mysterious masked man. Helpless in the aftermath of these events, Anna and Ottavio turn for help to their colleague Giovanni, little suspecting how intimately he's been involved, and increasingly concerned by the agitation of a young girl Elvira, who's turned up at the College insisting that Giovanni has made promises to her. Something of a celebrity don, Giovanni exerts a rare glamour for the young students of the college and his interest in the pretty girls flocking around him has, regrettably, a less than pastoral nature. It's through conquest that he gets inspiration for his bestselling novels (in the party scene at his house, we see posters of their covers hung along the wall: one is titled The Queen of the Night). As with Xerxes, HGO had two alternating casts for Don G and on this first night I saw Joseph Kennedy in the title role: a perfect fit, from his towering physical presence and air of inviolable privilege to his sensual voice. In that small space he managed to project a charisma which ensnared not only his victims but also the audience. If he felt slightly less devilish than Maltman's Don, that fitted with the tone of the piece overall: HGO steer away from the supernatural as much as possible and this is a Giovanni for our own times, shocking not in his spiritual debauchery but in his barren ethics.

As always, Giovanni came across as the most appealing of the four main characters, although I felt Ottavio was much better served here by Timothy Reynolds than he was by the frankly limp Villazón at Covent Garden. Here Ottavio became a very plausible sort of meek, self-effacing academic: he's used to being overshadowed by his girlfriend but rises to the occasion when said damsel is in distress. In Reynolds's deft hands he became lovable and earnest, veering between owlish bafflement and the fierce determination of a tenacious gerbil. I wasn't quite so convinced by Anna herself, sung by Emma Dogliani, who was a little unstable now and then, and was really pushing for some of her high notes, but I did like her characterisation. One of my issues with the ROH's production is that Anna seemed too complicit in her seduction: this Anna, by contrast, was evidently a dignified and serious woman who is deeply shocked by the train of events and I thought Dogliani handled her dawning moment of horror and realisation very well. Sofia Troncoso's vivacious Zerlina just about managed to convince us of her character's good intentions despite some deeply questionable behaviour. I found her performance very engaging, to the point that I preferred her to Lezhneva at the ROH. Troncoso's clear, vibrant soprano was gorgeous and I noted that some judicious cuts were made to give Zerlina a bit more feminist clout (none of this 'beat me, Masetto' business here, thank goodness). Instead, this young graduate had her husband-to-be wrapped around her little finger. Masetto, played I think by Shaun Aquilina on the night I went, comes across perfectly as the self-conscious outsider thrust into his fiancee's university world: Giovanni's taunting of him as a country bumpkin has the eternal undertones of Town vs Gown at its heart. 

Leporello (Samuel Lom) fails to impress Elvira (Heather Caddick) | Giovanni (Joseph Kennedy) revels in his plans
Ottavio (Timothy Reynolds) comforts Anna (Emma Dogliani)
Photos by Laurent Compagnon
Alongside Kennedy there were two other singers who particularly caught my eye. One, perhaps unsurprisingly, was Elvira (a character I'd already warmed to at ROH: after all, she's the Classical descendent of the Baroque Avenging Rebuffed Girlfriend). Here she was sung by Heather Caddick on blazing form as a London girl descending on Oxford to track down her errant lover, swerving from Valkyrie to vulnerable. Her complicated feelings about Giovanni were made much more credible by the modern setting: we came in after the interval to find Elvira and a friend slumped on the set drinking wine while Elvira swipes gloomily through her iPhone photos of her and Giovanni together (projected onto the back wall), deleting some and tearfully pointing out others. Yes, she hates him; but given half a chance she'd take him back, despite the fire and brimstone. 

And last but not least - the star of the show for me - Leporello. It's very odd that at both HGO productions I've been drawn towards the kind of comic characters whom I normally don't much like. Is it because the space is that much more intimate than usual, meaning that the comedy works better than in a big theatre? Or have they just managed to track down two really gifted actors? Xerxes was memorable for its Elviro; and Don G was brought to life by Samuel Lom's put-upon postgrad Leporello. Having come to Oxford especially to study with the brilliant Giovanni, he's found himself transformed into a guard dog, keeping an eye on his master's rooms and ready to record on his iPad for blackmail purposes. He hates it - hates himself - hates Giovanni - but he's been seduced in his own way by the don's intellectual cachet and hopes that, if he helps Giovanni now, it might further his academic career. His grumbling in the first scene made it quite clear that the translation was cheerfully diverging from da Ponte. Sulking, the neglected student appeals to the audience: "Am I supervising him? No! No! He is supervising me!" This set off a superb performance of hangdog thralldom: Lom is a truly excellent comic actor and he couples that dramatic skill with a strong, rich voice and clear diction. Another of his highlights (I won't mention the scene where he's stripped and staked out in the College quad) was the production's take on Madamina il catalogo è questo. Here, updating the 'little black book', Leporello scrolls through his iPad to show off Giovanni's dating-website activity to the horrified Elvira. Dating profiles flash across the wall at the back of the stage. Giovanni no longer counts women by country, but by platform: 5,000 connections on Tinder (for the sake of argument), 1,000 on OK Cupid, Plenty of Fish etc. The aria becomes a love song to the diversity of assignations made possible by technology and, although da Ponte purists might shudder, I thought it worked wonderfully well.

So, HGO have done it again. I'm afraid the run has now finished but really do keep your ear to the ground for their future projects, because they're full of very bright ideas. This Don was a delight, with some wonderful performances, an endlessly smart translation and - for me at least - the odd nostalgia of seeing an entire opera staged in subfusc. They really had it right, down to the black tights for the girls (you got told off for flesh-coloured tights). The sophisticated update gave the story a freshness and relevance that completely passed me by at the ROH, and played on very modern themes of online duplicity, personal reputation and teachers abusing positions of authority. A very engaging show. They're doing Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci next year in May, in their new home at Jackson's Lane. I'm not sure if I'll go, as that really is way out of my comfort zone, but there's little doubt that it's going to be enormous fun and very cleverly performed.

Giovanni (Kennedy), Elvira (Caddick) and Leporello (Lom) as the trap closes in
Photo by Laurent Compagnon

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Arias for Caffarelli: Franco Fagioli

(Wigmore Hall, with Il Pomo d'Oro directed by Riccardo Minasi, 13 November 2015)

It's just over a year since Franco Fagioli made his solo London debut at the Wigmore, a night which was memorable for several reasons. It was my first Baroque concert, and it also introduced me to a wonderful circle of friends with whom I've since travelled to operas and concerts across Europe. When we were in Halle in June we heard a very similar programme to that offered in Fagioli's second London recital at the Wigmore last Friday, but his great strength as an artist is that he never sings an aria the same way twice. For me, the London concert was more adventurous and more emotionally engaged than the recital in Halle; and, in any case, there were two mouthwatering new additions to the programme: Se bramate d'amar and Crude furie. Franco Fagioli doing Serse? Now this promised to be seriously good fun.

Fagioli was accompanied by a core team from il Pomo d'Oro, headed by the inimitable Riccardo Minasi on lead violin, and they got things underway with a Sonata for strings in G minor by Angelo Ragazzi. This was new to me: an understated opening giving way to an elegant central section, and a third part which shifted from staccato bursts into broad sweeps of melody, set off with delicate little solos by Minasi. The Hall then bristled with anticipation and Fagioli duly made his appearance, getting things underway with Porpora's Passaggier che su la sponda. He'd started with this in Halle too but here he seemed to be playing across his passaggio a lot more, a transition which sounded smoother than I'd heard before; and he also seemed to leap more quickly into the elaborate coloratura. Right from the start he threw himself into the story behind the aria, this time glancing back and forth with wild eyes like the poor stranded traveller in the opera. Next up, as in Halle, was Ebbi da te la vita, where Fagioli seamlessly transitioned into the character of self-satisfied villain for the wicked Medarse. The flamboyance was kept strictly under control here and the result was delicate and very pretty. Our next orchestral interlude was equally new to me, I think: Nicola Fiorenza's Concerto in A for 3 violins and continuo, which offered a welcome luxuriant measure of calm before ramping up the jauntiness (I thought parts of the first section sounded a bit like Vivaldi, but according to my friend I think everything sounds like Vivaldi). There were then two more arias before the interval, which kept to the programme as it was in Halle: first, Leo's Misero pargoletto. This isn't normally an aria which makes me sit to attention, but Fagioli gave the most desperately moving performance of it that I've heard, not just vocally but in his physical performance. His entire being was suffused with grief and agitation; those repeated cries of 'No' seemed to catch in his throat; and at one point he half-reached out for the child his character is losing. It was far more powerful a rendition than you'd expect from a recital. Halfway through I was struck by the (absurd?) thought that the entire aria was strangely ironic: this tragic vision of fatherhood was originally intended for someone who had no chance of ever having children. The Hall remained silent for a few seconds after he finished, absorbing it; but we didn't have all that much time to breathe, because we swept into the closing piece of the first half: my old favourite Fra l'orror della tempesta. It was the perfect uptempo counterbalance to Misero pargoletto, with swirling strings, Il Pomo d'Oro bowling along at high speed, and Fagioli firing on all cylinders from the very first line. Sometimes, indeed, there was so much going on that you didn't quite know how to process it all.

Riccardo Minasi and Stefano Rossi take their bows | Fagioli soaking up the applause (and some slight whooping)
Photos from @baroquebird
Let's take an interval breather for some quick thoughts. Every time I see Minasi in action I admire him more. He's the perfect match for Fagioli's style, combining deep sensitivity with panache, and one gets the impression they instinctively bounce off one another. This concert felt a bit like a double act, with Fagioli playing up to the stereotype of the flamboyant primo uomo and Minasi dry, down-to-earth and ironic. On several occasions, as we waited for Fagioli to emerge, Minasi would glance into the audience and raise long-suffering eyebrows; once he mimicked Fagioli having a quick cigarette backstage; and at another point he ostentatiously passed the time admiring the floral decorations on the side of the stage. And, when Fagioli himself came on for each aria, his own enthusiasm was infectious. You felt that he genuinely loved being up there, and responded to the increasingly warm audience by giving us ever more vibrant, vivacious performances. He seemed to be making a real effort to treat every piece differently in the kind of ornamentation he chose, rather than using the predictable low-high sweeps that we heard from him earlier this year. For the most part it worked very well but he sometimes tended towards coloratura so frilly that it ran the risk of obscuring the tune. And it's true, as Dehggial and I discussed, that his diction still needs a fair bit of work. Some of the professional critics have been grumpy about that in retrospect. But the fact remains that when you see Fagioli live it's very hard not to be utterly charmed. (I needed to be charmed on Friday: I'd had a pig of a week and had been very cross with people, to whom I apologise.) By the interval I was not only disarmed but captivated. There's a playfulness to Fagioli, despite the grand gestures: a sense it's all a game and he can't quite believe his luck. And he is so dramatically committed to his roles. This matters. Before each aria he switches into the mindset of his character, and he knows the parts inside out. Unlike certain singers, who stare at their music the entire time, he barely looks at his score. He flicks through to keep his place, but he clearly cares about the music so much that he knows it by heart. Especially in the second half, there were long periods where he didn't even bother looking at the score at all. 

That second part began with an elegant interlude: Rendimi più sereno, a track from the Caffarelli CD which we didn't hear in Halle and which is most notable for its gentle runs up and down the scale. It was ornamented here by judicious little trills and by an extensive cadenza at the end which fluttered across the octaves before being neatly tied up to close. It was a lovely performance, but I must confess ever so slightly overshadowed for me by what was looming on the horizon. Yes, folks. The brat-prince was about to make his entrance. And what an entrance... Fagioli was enjoying himself and from this point on seems to have decided to stage his arias single-handedly. He gave us the A section with chin held high and flashing eyes, full of imperious, spiteful pique, pugnaciously squared up to the front of the stage. And then, when he paused at the beginning of the B section you could see his Serse shrinking back, his spirit failing; until the da capo swept in with a vengeance and he regained his arrogance. With pacy accompaniment from il Pomo d'Oro and plenty of Fagioli's characteristic ornamentation in the da capo, it was capped by a soaring final note. A tantrum worth waiting for and my favourite aria of the night - or at least my favourite on the programme (here's a clip of him singing it at Ambronay last year). We had a chance to recover ourselves after that firestorm while Il Pomo d'Oro took over for Angelo Ragazzi's Sonata for strings in F minor. Somewhat embarrassingly, I heard this in Halle and completely failed to register that the adagio (which I specifically noted that I liked!) is a blatant rip-off of the opening of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, in which Ragazzi had played for the first performance. This sonata was published in 1736, the year that Pergolesi died, so perhaps it was a form of tribute. I do feel rather silly for not having spotted it before.

The massed forces of il Pomo d'Oro, wonderful people that they are | Fagioli in a recent photo from his Facebook page
Next up was Lieto così talvolta from Pergolesi's Adriano in Siria. We'd heard it in Halle and I've also heard it since, sung very beautifully by Erica Eloff. I felt that Fagioli sang it with even greater grace and feeling on Friday than he did in the summer - which probably isn't that surprising, since he's recorded the role of Farnaspe in the interim - and there was a lot to love here. Again it was virtually staged, and despite Fagioli's fondness for vocal decoration he kept most of this very plain, lyrical and meltingly romantic. The result was gorgeous, even better than his performance in Halle. The final cadenzas were a particular highlight, with Fagioli challenging Minasi to echo his ornamentation on the violin, until the latter (perhaps in a nod to the castrato-instrument duels of yore) conceded defeat. Our final instrumental piece was also familiar from Halle: Giuseppe Avritano's Sonata in D for 3 violins and continuo 'L'Aragona'. I'd been looking forward to this because I remembered the delicious presto section, and it was just as swift and sweeping as I recalled. And then we were at the final item: nothing less than the strop to end all strops: Crude furie. It was certainly a firecracker piece; the high sweep of notes at the end was stunning; and I haven't heard anyone tackle that rapid coloratura quite as easily as Fagioli; but for me it wasn't quite as successful as Se bramate d'amar had been. While I enjoyed much of the ornamentation, especially the sudden drop into baritone for one of the da capo references to 'gli orridi abissi', there was sometimes just a bit too much going on. This was also one case where, for me, diction really did matter: my favourite rendition of this aria is sung almost through the teeth, with the consonants clashing like blades, and some of the definition was lost here. But it was nevertheless a showpiece: a tumultuous, glittering, blazing flash of temper. I do wish Fagioli would do a staged Serse. I'm going to have to cut back on travelling next year, but I'd genuinely go anywhere in Europe to see that.

So. The encores. Our first encore was Dopo notte from Ariodante, which we'd had as an encore in Halle (and you can see a more sedate version from Ambronay here). Fagioli took the time to explain that he was particularly excited to have the chance to sing it here, in the city where it was first performed by Carestini; and he did it delightfully, full of joy and optimism. I know Dehggial is a particular fan of this aria so I advise reading her thoughts on this section. The second encore, though, was unexpected and utterly wonderful - and again, something sung by Carestini rather than Caffarelli. Early last week, I cheekily asked Il Pomo d'Oro if we could put in requests for the encores, fully expecting them to politely say no. But they invited me to go ahead and, being the terribly predictable person that I am, I asked for Vo solcando. I got into Baroque six months too late to see Artaserse live, which will be a lifelong regret; and frankly, if you're going to request something from your favourite opera, why not go for the most mental and dramatic aria? In any case, it was half a joke. No one listens to random people on Twitter, do they? So I was stunned to silence when, after Dopo notte, Fagioli turned to the audience and said playfully, "Do you know Artaserse by Vinci?" It wasn't to be Vo solcando, alas, which is fair enough: a seven-minute pyrotechnic display after nine other demanding arias might not have done his voice much good. But it was a condensed gallop through Fra cento affanni e cento, one of Arbace's other splendid arias from the opera, and it was more than I'd ever expected. A little bird tells me that it had been on the shortlist and perhaps my plaintive tweet helped nudge it in the right direction. I do hope that means more Artaserse might be spontaneously thrown into a concert one day. 

At the risk of sounding like a breathless schoolgirl, that'll be the abiding memory of this concert: the pure magic of hearing Fagioli sing at least some of my beloved opera, in London, just a few feet away from me. It was a dream come true.

And we'll just have to get him to do Vo solcando next year.

At the curtain call. Photo via @amanamourspain

Saturday, 14 November 2015


It was a brutal shock last night to leave the Wigmore Hall buzzing with excitement, only to be immediately faced with news of the terrible events that had been unfolding in Paris. My heart goes out to all those affected or who have friends or family in the city. I hope you have been able to contact your loved ones and that they are safe and well.

My initial reaction was that it'd be inappropriate or indelicate to write a post gushing about wonderful music in the face of these horrific events, but I've changed my mind and there will be a post on Franco Fagioli's wonderful concert in the next day or so. This is why. Here is a picture shared this morning on Twitter, drawn by a cartoonist from Charlie Hebdo. I applaud its sentiments exactly. If we allow these people to silence our love for beautiful things, and to make us feel ashamed of our joie de vivre, then we have allowed them to win. And that cannot be allowed.

Monday, 9 November 2015

The Marriage of Figaro: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1786)

(Royal Opera House, via Vue Cinemas, 5 October 2015)


About a month ago I went through a spate of 'firsts': my first Macbeth, in the striking film version and then, just a couple of days later, my first Figaro, thanks to the Royal Opera House's excellent live cinema broadcasts. Heloise has been urging me to watch Figaro ever since I first expressed a cautious interest in opera about a year and a half ago. She can feel herself vindicated at last. Of course I would have loved to see the show in person, but thrift is of the essence and so I plumped for the cinema, and three hours of stunning close-ups and lush, intoxicating detail. (Although I always prefer to see something live if I can afford it, cinema broadcasts can be great fun. Vue staff even went round selling ice creams in the interval, which was rather sweet.)

Much of my breathless adoration was directed at David McVicar's gorgeous staging. You can get a brief flavour of it from the trailer, which uses footage from a previous version of this production. I've rapidly fallen in love with his opera designs, thanks to his witty Giulio Cesare and the sensuously Orientalist Abduction from the Seraglio. His concepts are sensitive, sumptuous and evocative: they exude painterly quality, down to the treatment of the light and the wealth of incidental detail. Even when the main characters are holding the limelight, life goes on in the background and McVicar has a field day with the bustle of this sprawling country house. His anxious lovers are surrounded by a bevy of servants, gardeners, tenants, hangers-on and pretty country lasses. The action unfolds in cluttered side-rooms, sunlight-flooded salons and moody moonlit gardens, while the costumes and hairstyles have been discreetly updated to around 1830: the women could have stepped straight out of a Lawrence portrait. Since everyone else has probably seen Figaro fifty times, I doubt I need to give a synopsis; but, just in case... Figaro and Susanna are to be married, but Susanna is afraid that their employer, the Count, will try to exact his droit de seigneur upon her. The Countess, who knows her husband's weakness, regrets the loss of his love and plots with Susanna, her maid and confidante, to teach him a lesson. Figaro is determined, by fair means or foul, to get his marriage solemnised as soon as possible. And the Countess's adolescent page Cherubino, who has been driven half-mad by his turbulent hormones, believes himself in love with her. Oh, and the conniving Marcellina has turned up at the house claiming that Figaro promised to marry her several years ago. All in all, the scene is set for - as the opera's subtitle has it - a truly crazy day. Who will prevail? 

The Count is nominally the villain of the piece, but even he has human follies and frailties. Stéphane Degout played him as a calculating aristocratic lecher, but one who genuinely believes himself to be suffering from the pangs of love. Thanks to Degout's height and ramrod posture, he was a marvellously authoritative presence; but it felt like a mask, easily unsettled. One of Degout's finest moments, I thought, was in the Act 2 finale. Here the Count has been trying to force his wife to open a closet in her room, convinced she's hiding a lover there. When he's proven wrong, he begs forgiveness, but we can tell that he still thinks he's been tricked. Degout's voice echoed the character's dramatic descent from triumphant scorn into baffled anxiety. I got the impression he didn't necessarily think the Countess unfaithful, but he just couldn't countenance the possibility that he might be wrong. I do wish I knew the story of the 'prequel', The Barber of Seville, because that might throw some more light on the character and how he came to be married to his beautiful, but clearly unhappy wife. Ellie Dehn performed the Countess with an almost seraphic grace. She has the patience of a saint: injured by her husband's suspicion, she's nevertheless willing to give him the chance to redeem himself. And if, in the meantime, she shyly enjoys the boyish advances of her silly pageboy, then what of it? As Cherubino clumsily hints at his adoration for her, Dehn's Countess actually blushes, touched by the kind of awkward admiration she no longer receives from her husband. Of course most of her music was rather serious, but her mellifluous voice elegantly put across the pain of unrequited love, and her (somewhat baffling) commitment to her husband.

There don't seem to be any photos of Bevan in this production, so here are some cast photos from other performances.
The Count (Degout) woos Susanna (Anita Hartig) | Figaro (Schrott) and Susanna contemplate their problems
The Countess (Dehn) and Cherubino (Lindsey)
For me, however, there were three stars of the show and, perhaps fittingly, they were Susanna, Figaro and Cherubino. Remember, I'd never seen the opera before so had no preconceptions, but I loved the way these characters interacted and how they loyally came up with ever more creative ways to protect and defend one another. Anita Hartig has been singing Susanna for most of the performances in this run, but on the night of the broadcast she was indisposed and so the role was taken over by Sophie Bevan (who was already slated to sing the part on 7 and 14 October). Between you and me, I couldn't have been happier to see Bevan.* I saw her in the odd Idomeneo last autumn, where the singers seemed to be ground down by the weight of Concept, and I was delighted to see her given the chance to shine here in Figaro. She'd posted mock-anxious tweets earlier in the day when the cast change was announced, but there was no sign of nerves in the finished performance. Her Susanna was an unparalleled joy: radiant, mischievous and warmly engaging. She was full of life and energy, and she had an excellent chemistry with her Figaro, even in the final scenes as she gently pushes him to see how far he trusts her. 

And, if I can't imagine a better Susanna, I would be equally hard-pressed to think of a better Cherubino. Yes, I know that the role has been increasingly sung by countertenors in recent years (I'd love to see Ray Chenez's take on it in full), but there's just something about Kate Lindsey's boyish roles that I find irresistible. I came across her as a loose-limbed Annio in the Met's Clemenza di Tito and loved her performance. I didn't even realise she was in this until I was reading the programme in the cinema, before the lights went down. There are only a few singers who'd prompt me to squeak with delight on seeing their name on a cast list; but she's one. A marvellous surprise. Her Cherubino has the same DNA as her Annio, but he's a bit less naive and a little more predatory: that lovely, throaty mezzo took on Voi che sapete with ease. Ironically, Lindsey's brilliance at playing young lads came through most strongly when Cherubino is dressed as a girl: rather than ease back a layer (i.e. girl-playing-girl) she added one (girl-playing-boy-playing-girl), emphasising Cherubino's adolescent awkwardness as he galumphs around the stage, mortified by his disguise.

The abiding memory of the night for me, though, will be Erwin Schrott's Figaro. When Simon Callow interviewed him during the interval, he said that Schrott was 'the Figaro of our day' and that it was a role he was particularly familiar with. You could see that. It was one of the best performances I've yet seen: his singing was wonderful, and he was incredibly naturalistic in a way that I haven't seen with many other opera singers. His reactions and expressions felt utterly real and spontaneous, and he had an easy way with broad Italianate gesture. Laid-back, easily confident, quick thinking and good natured, Schrott wasn't just performing Figaro; he became Figaro, and commanded the emotional heart of the production.

This production made me very happy. Figaro must be the most familiar opera in the world: even if you haven't seen it, it turns out that you know half the music simply through osmosis. I came out of the cinema with a stupidly big grin on my face and sang Non più andrai and Voi che sapete all the way home. When I go to an opera I'm often amused or engaged or challenged, but genuinely heart-warming happiness is rare. I know that this production has been filmed in one of its earlier incarnations at Covent Garden, with a younger Schrott singing Figaro; but I do wish that they'd release a DVD with the cast from the broadcast. Really, Bevan and Lindsey were so perfect in their roles that I can't imagine anyone else pulling it off so well. It was a delight, pure and simple.

Plotters ahoy! Bartolo (Carlo Lepore) and Marcellina (Louise Winter) plan Figaro's undoing | Figaro preparing to take on the world
Cherubino edging away from the unpleasantly smarmy silkiness of Don Basilio (Krystian Adam, of High Priest in Idomeneo fame)
* Indeed, the timing of this post immediately after my thoughts on Rossi's Orpheus gives the impression that the Bevan sisters are single-handedly taking over London's opera scene.  

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Orpheus: Luigi Rossi (1647)

(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, in collaboration with the Royal Opera, 8 November 2015)


Eurydice (Louise Alder) and Orpheus (Mary Bevan) celebrate their forthcoming nuptials (© Royal Opera House)
Hot on the heels of Ormindo comes another partnership between the Globe and Covent Garden, which offers another treat of early Baroque opera in the unique ambiance of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. This time it's Orpheus, directed from the gallery by Christian Curnyn with a select force of musicians from Early Opera. Orpheus was the first opera commissioned for the French court, ordered by Anne of Austria under the influence of Cardinal Mazarin, and performed in 1647 before the nine-year-old Louis XIV with an all-star cast. The primo uomo was Atto Melani, who had a sideline as a diplomat and sometime spy for Mazarin. The secondo uomo Aristeus was sung by Marc' Antonio Pasqualini, one of Rome's most celebrated castrati, who had a sideline as a composer. Six years earlier Pasqualini had been painted by Andrea Sacchi in a rather odd portrait: he stands off-centre, wearing a fur mantle and casually picking out a tune on his clavicytherium, while the foreground of the picture has been hijacked by a monumental nude Apollo who presents him with a laurel crown.

Rossi's version of Orpheus is much more complex and considerably more fun than the familiar renditions of the myth that we get from Monteverdi or Gluck. Here our leading couple don't even get married until the end of Act 1 and the snake incident takes place at the end of Act 2, with only a single act left to cover the whole underworld business. The librettist Francesco Buti pads out the narrative with additional characters who help to keep the pace tearing along: thwarted lovers, squabbling gods and sidekicks. What's impressive is that the opera veers between low comedy and high pathos without ever losing its balance and, even more impressively, the production pulls off the same feat. Musically there are still hints of Monteverdi but the structure is noticeably different. Arias are beginning to sneak in here and there, although Buti and Rossi seem slightly uncomfortable with the idea of one character holding the stage for so long. Although recitative is sung, we know that within the world of the opera the characters regard this as speech; an aria, though, seems to need special pleading and, even 'inside' Rossi's opera, appears as music. In each case we're given particular circumstances which make it plausible that someone would suddenly burst into song: a character sings to pass the time, or we see an actual performance (like Orpheus before Pluto), or someone goes mad and so the rules of reason no longer apply. It's interesting to see this, because in Cavalli's Xerse, written seven years later, there's no longer an attempt to explain why characters are singing: there the arias are taken for granted. I wonder why that should be. Was Cavalli more confident? Did Rossi feel that a measure of explanation was necessary for the French court, who were less familiar with this sort of thing? A puzzle.

Eurydice (Louise Alder) | Cupid (Keri Fage) and Orpheus (Mary Bevan) (© Royal Opera House)
So, Orpheus has won his Eurydice. Fortunately Mary Bevan has now recovered from her throat infection so she was no longer miming (her opening lines sounded ever so slightly raspy but when she warmed up that vanished). It's rather ironic that I should now see her as Orpheus, of course, because she was Eurydice earlier this year in the Roundhouse production of Monteverdi's Orfeo. Rossi makes us wait until Act 3 to really hear Orpheus in action, and Bevan made a lovely job of his plaintive performance to Pluto; but her finest moments were the duets with Louise Alder's Eurydice, in which their two voices blended together to wonderful effect - especially in the duet as they wind their way up through the underworld towards the light of day. That whole section was done extremely well, with Bevan really fighting not to look at her Eurydice, while the moment of the fateful glance is so sudden that it catches you out even if you're expecting it. Wonderfully, in all the versions of this story I've seen, people in the audience always gasp when Orpheus looks back. Alder herself, golden-voiced and glowing, benefitted from Buti's strong writing of her role: Eurydice usually has little to do except get stung and get 'rescued', but Buti gives her a slightly high-handed resilience as she constantly asserts her love for her poet husband. One gets the sense that Eurydice is Orpheus' muse: with her, his voice can rise to dizzying heights of beauty, but when he loses her he's rendered literally speechless. One of the most powerful moments of the opera, strangely enough, was the conclusion of Act 2. Eurydice lies dead on her bier; black-draped figures bearing candles stand around in the Playhouse, singing a funerary dirge. Orpheus staggers in, almost physically unable to look at her. When he does look, his face contorts into a scream of agonised grief as he crumples to the floor; but it's a silent scream. Our poet, our musician par excellence, finds that in the depths of despair his voice deserts him. It's a striking inversion of what you'd expect. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back to the beginning. 

As our lovers wait impatiently for their wedding, everyone around them shares their joy. Well, almost everyone. Everyone except Aristeus, who's hopelessly in love with Eurydice and has issues about letting things go. Rather than face up to the fact he's never going to have her, he's decided to mope around for the rest of his life like a personification of Melancholy from a Jacobean painting, trailing misery in his wake. In the original, I presume Aristeus was a straight tragic role, but here he flings himself around in such overblown despair that he becomes a figure of fun. I suppose the joke is twofold: first, Aristeus insists on acting as if he's in a melodramatic tragedy, whereas in fact his scenes usually have a robustly comic element; and secondly, the poor fellow thinks he's the leading man and can't quite grasp that the opera isn't about him. But he came very close to stealing the show for me. That was entirely down to Caitlin Hulcup, who not only made a very good man with body language and posture down pat, but also threw herself into plenty of slapstick without ever letting Aristeus' fragile dignity slip. And her voice... I hoped I was going to like her live, because I've heard her on recordings as Arbaces in Arne's Artaxerxes and Cesare in Vivaldi's Catone in Utica, and to my great pleasure she lived up to all my expectations: fortunately, thanks to the original casting, Aristeus has some very good music. Despite being a bit of a spineless wet blanket, he always manages to remain sympathetic, down to his sorrowful mad scene at the end.

Aristeus (Caitlin Hulcup) | Orpheus meets the Maenads as Venus (Sky Ingram) restrains Cupid in the background (this version threatens
to end with a mythologically-accurate fate for our hero, but luckily Jove intervenes) (© Royal Opera House)
I should add that Aristeus is the son of Bacchus. That's an important plot point, because it's not wise to upset a god who has hordes of wild women at his command. But it also means that, as Aristeus mopes around Arcadia, he's accompanied by the Satyr (Graeme Broadbent), who occupies the traditional comic servant role, but comes across as an unwilling minder rather than a friend. Admittedly I didn't originally realise he was meant to be a Satyr: being of a sensitive disposition, I was distracted by the hair, braided beard, black leather doublet, thigh-high boots and whip, but I caught up at the first interval. Broadbent didn't really get to sing at great length, even in his alter ego as Pluto, but I was very impressed by his handling of the Satyr's wisecracking recitative and his perfect comic timing. It was an extremely strong performance. (I only realised afterwards that he was the old king Ariadenus in Ormindo.) And, if Broadbent was looking after one end of the comedy, the other end was handled with equal brilliance by Mark Milhofer who commanded the scene in each of his three roles. As Momus, the god of gossip, Milhofer tried to liven up Orpheus's nuptial banquet while wearing a fabulous plumed hat; and as Jove, in the final scene, he strode on as the spitting image of Charles I, beard and all. But his greatest moment was as Alkippe, the old hag as whom Venus disguises herself. Personally I think it isn't a proper early Baroque opera unless there's a tenor got up in skirts as a comedy nurse or similar, and Milhofer was just superb as the old crone with a vamp inside fighting to get out. He was lucky enough to have a little aria and his voice was lovely: a strong light tenor, set off with real comic panache. And if I had to pick one final secondary character, it'd be Keri Fuge's Cupid: a delightfully mischievous performance, full of charisma and boyish swagger, set off with a really gorgeous bright soprano that rang off the galleries. Watch out for her.

Some other thoughts: Rossi really makes good use of ensembles. All 3 acts are rounded off with choruses, with a particularly effective one at the end of Act 2 when the sombre mood was underlined by the singers performing a cappella, their candles flickering in their hands. The final chorus at the end of Act 3, however, seems to come a little too quickly: perhaps it's the editing of the score (which was originally six hours long), but I didn't really feel that loose ends were tied up. Certainly Jove has prevented Orpheus being ripped to pieces by Bacchus's slavering maenads (which is always such a downer at the end of a show), but this doesn't feel like a happy ending. It seems that Orpheus will only reclaim his Eurydice among the stars, and he doesn't look remotely happy about the prospect. Moving on, the translation was by Christopher Cowell, who also did Ormindo, and there's a similar refreshing feel to this English libretto. The comic characters have throwaway phrases which sound so modern they could be ad-libbed ("Come here you little bastard!" snarls Alkippe to the disobedient Cupid, following it up with, "I'll rip your sodding wings off!"). But I presume it was always thus - noble, high-minded characters have always spoken verse and the plebs, as happens here, speak robust and uncompromising prose. Personally I had no issues with the translation: I thought it was fun enough to keep everyone engaged without departing too far from the original spirit. Costumes were, as usual, mouthwateringly gorgeous and designed with a strong flavour of 1647 about them. The men were in baggy breeches, loose shirts, fitted doublets and high-heeled shoes tied with ribbon, with the occasional periwig; the women in fitted bodices and skirts; the gods in classical-accented costumes. And, although the Sam Wanamaker doesn't allow excessively flamboyant effects, there were trapdoors aplenty, and a clever use of a long red 'thread' during the scene where Orpheus consults the Fates. But when you have an energetic, talented cast and the magic of candlelight, you don't need extravagant effects.

Naturally this is going to be compared to Ormindo and for me it didn't quite have the same finesse and dramatic force as a production. It was sometimes too crowded, not just in the amount of action on the stage, but also in the cluttering of tables in Acts 1 and 2, which allowed for some clever effects but also took up a lot of room on a stage that really isn't big. For all that, I did enjoy it very much and I found that it was helpful to remember why this was written in the first place: not as an opera in the 18th-century sense of that term that we use nowadays, but as an entertainment. And by God, it was entertaining, full of colour and spirit, and treading a very satisfying line between laughter and poignancy.

Cupid looks on | Marc' Antonio Pasqualini, the first Aristaeus (detail of the picture by Andrea Sacchi at the Met, 1641) | Eurydice

Sunday, 1 November 2015

The Creation: Joseph Haydn (1798)

(Bath Assembly Rooms, 31 October 2015)

««« ½

Haydn has rather slipped under my radar so far, partly because his few operas don't form part of the standard repertoire, and partly because a friend of mine was a little dismissive of him so I didn't actively seek him out. But on the basis of The Creation, performed on Saturday at the Assembly Rooms in Bath by the Bath Choral Society and the Bristol Ensemble, I'm going to have to revise that opinion. Haydn may not quite be at the heights of my personal pantheon, but he's definitely on the upper slopes: I found his music to be gutsy and vividly colourful and, even though I haven't been a big fan of oratorio so far, I really enjoyed this. He was evidently a composer who knew exactly how to make an impression on his audience and, as my father noted during the interval, seems to have invented the wall of sound two hundred years before Phil Spector.

Inspired by the Handel oratorios which Haydn had heard during his visits to London in 1791 and 1794, The Creation had its première in Vienna in 1798. This first performance had a libretto in German, but Haydn's original source was an English poem and, when The Creation was due to be performed in England, he insisted that the libretto should be translated back into English. We listened to a revision of this English libretto on Saturday, which led to lots of quirky 18th-century phrasing (as ever, it reminded me why opera usually sounds best in Italian): my two particular favourites were 'Here vent their fumes the fragrant herbs' and 'Multiply, ye finny tribes, and fill each wat'ry deep!' Having enjoyed great success in London, the oratorio was performed at the Assembly Rooms in Bath on 10 December 1800, so it was very apt to see it unfold once again in the Ballroom designed by John Wood the Younger in 1769, beneath glittering chandeliers and stucco cornices. 

The Bath Choral Society was accompanied by three soloists: the soprano Helen-Jane Howells, taking the roles of Gabriel and Eve; tenor Nick Pritchard, singing Uriel; and bass James Platt, singing Raphael and Adam. Those of you with sharp eyes will recognise Pritchard's name: I saw him as Aquilio in Bach's Adriano in Siria back in the spring. All three were good, and Platt was most memorable: his bass was warm and supple and, as we went along, he became more animated in his performance. Howells was the most expressive from the beginning, with a delicate soprano that I imagine would work well in soubrette roles: it was a pretty voice (very fitting for an angel), but her highest notes were a little on the strained side. I was glad to see Pritchard again, since I found it hard to get a good idea of his voice in Adriano. His light tenor worked very nicely with the music, but he could do with pushing his projection a little, and trying to act the text even if it's only through expressions or the tones of his voice; he looked a little nervous throughout. The forces of Bath Choral Society, whose singers are talented amateurs rather than professionals, backed everything up with immense gusto. They contributed to much of that 'wall of sound' feel, and I must doff my hat to Haydn as one who clearly felt a section was incomplete unless it was rounded off with full-on choir, orchestra, horns and drums wherever possible. Well done that man.

As this was the first time I'd ever heard this music, I was primarily bowled over by Haydn's descriptive brilliance. The Creation is really a series of paintings in music and I found it positively magical how he managed to simulate such effects. One of the most thrilling bits (which I now see is very famous) was the representation of the creation of light: truly a stunning moment. The music has been showing the soft, listless furling of chaos in the darkness and suddenly light explodes into existence, with strings, brass and choir combining to build up a scintillating, triumphant sunburst of sound. Haydn also manages to differentiate the sounds of gentle rain, hail and light snow; to depict the tumultuous waters being drawn back to form the earth, while furious storms rage overhead; and to show the newly-created sun rising, piercing the first dawn with its light. When God creates the animals and birds, phrases of music represent the roaring lion, the tiger, the soaring eagle, the ponderous whales in the ocean depths, the lark, cuckoo and nightingale. I haven't ever heard a composition which so successfully replicates vision in music. Perhaps it was for this reason that I thought Parts I and II were stronger than Part III, by which point creation itself is over, and which is devoted to Adam and Eve praising God, while angels warn them cryptically about the dangers of pursuing knowledge. But overall it's an exciting and impressive piece of music with truly splendid choruses. I can't say it's entirely banished my wariness of oratorio, but it's certainly left me eager to know Haydn better. (Given the date of composition, it's hardly surprising that The Creation feels Classical rather than Baroque: there are some bits which hint very strongly that Haydn had been listening to Mozart. I'm now keen to dig out the recording I have of Haydn's opera Armida to see how he copes in opera seria mode.) Handel's Messiah, which I'm going to be seeing for the first time in early December, will have to do a lot to match up to the sheer impact of The Creation.

Before I conclude, a word or two about some practical matters. Bath Choral Society, or whoever was responsible for running this concert, have got to get themselves in order. The organisation of Saturday's event was, to put it kindly, a shambles. We'd booked our tickets online, half an hour after they went on public sale, by which point the entire front of the seating plan was showing as sold out. This was evidently a glitch because on the night only half the seats in the entire hall were taken - perhaps a sign that publicity needs more work - and the front rows were mostly empty. Then, having found our seats, we discovered a man sitting in them who refused to move, claiming they were unreserved despite the patent evidence to the contrary on our tickets. We appealed to a steward, who appealed in turn to the box office manager, who rather alarmingly claimed that our row number didn't even exist. This did not inspire confidence, since said number was printed both on the ticket and on a large notice at the end of the row. Since the steward personally knew the man who was occupying our seats, she didn't want to confront him and instead - very kindly - moved us to excellent seats in the third row, which offered a much better view than those we'd originally booked. We were grateful, of course. But a palaver like that shouldn't happen. The high performance standard deserved more professional and efficient organisation, and much better publicity. If Bath genuinely can't furnish enough people to fill the Assembly Rooms on a Saturday night for a classical music concert, then we're in dire straits indeed. Let's hope there's a better turnout for Sarah Connolly's concert at the Guildhall in a couple of weeks (I won't be there, alas).

Friday, 30 October 2015

Master and God: Lindsey Davis

An Epic of Rome, Tyranny and Love

(published by Hodder and Stoughton, £6.99, or from Amazon)


I discovered this novel tucked away near the back of our little lending-library shelf at work. I'm not all that familiar with Lindsey Davis's Falco books, but I've read the one where he goes to Alexandria and remembered enjoying it, so I decided to give this standalone novel a try. Like the Falco series it's set in ancient Rome, this time roughly covering the period of the emperor Domitian, from 80-96 AD. However it isn't a mystery and, as far as I know, the characters are entirely different from those in Falco. From the very first line ('It was a quiet afternoon on the Via Flaminia') I was drawn into Davis's world, and can honestly say that this has been one of the most heartwarming, lovable books I've read in a long time. Thanks to a rather crazy few months, however, it's also the one I've had to restart the most: I probably began it four times before I finally managed to get through to the end without being interrupted, but that tenacity in itself proves how determined I was to find out what happened to the characters.

The day that Gaius Vinius Clodianus meets Flavia Lucilla is memorable for all the wrong reasons. She is a young freedwoman, an apprentice to her hairdresser mother, while he is an investigator in the vigiles, Rome's proto-police force and fire service. She turns up at his office to report a robbery on what seems to be an unremarkable summer afternoon, but by that evening her complaint will have been forgotten. It is 80 AD. Titus is emperor and is down in Naples dealing with the aftermath of one tragedy: the horrific eruption of Vesuvius. But another disaster is about to happen: in his absence, Rome catches fire.* Fighting the blaze with his colleagues, Vinius is dragged into days of waking nightmare. When it is over, he inadvertently comes to the attention of Titus's younger brother, who is representing the imperial family in Rome: a quiet, introverted, thoughtful type called Domitian. This will have remarkable (and unwanted) consequences for his career, as Vinius finds himself promoted into the ranks of the Praetorian Guard, but he finds that he can never quite forget the skinny, indignant girl he'd met on the afternoon of the fire. For her own part, Flavia Lucilla barely thinks of him: she's too busy establishing a career, developing her skills and building a client base among the imperial ladies, who value her deft fingers and imagination (Davis playfully suggests that Lucilla and her mother Lachne were responsible for the absurd crescent of curls that was high fashion among the Flavian aristocracy). But, years later, the two cross paths again when, by pure coincidence, they end up sharing a smart, newly-renovated and overpriced apartment. The result is a complex relationship founded on territorial negotiation, friendship, confidences, squabbles, discretion and goodwill. Vinius finds a kindly ear to listen to his woes, as a man cursed with serial monogamy. Lucilla finds a protector, a valuable asset in a world where a single woman is all too easily seen as prey. Both of them, now and then, find themselves wondering whether this couldn't all work in a slightly different way. But it's no time to fall in love. With their connections to the imperial court, both of them can see all too plainly what is happening. Domitian, who has succeeded Titus as emperor, is becoming steadily more dangerous: unpredictable, impulsive and paranoid. 

Davis knows her period so well, and has enough confidence in her own storytelling, that she can get away with some lovely irreverent touches. This is a novel that is firmly placed in the past, but which recognises that its readers come from the future (a difficult thing to pull off). Take for example this digression on the dramatic name of the Dacian capital:
Any Dacian might well believe that all roads led to Sarmizegetusa. Though not snappy in any language, it had a certain portentous quality, whereas 'all roads lead to Rome' can sound by comparison like a line in a comedy musical.
That's an accurate flavour of the style as a whole. It isn't earnest or heavy at all. It's written with lightness and flair, with an awareness of the intrinsic absurdity of life, and the foibles of human nature. Davis has sympathy even for the devil: she shows Domitian in a reasonably fair light, highlighting his hard work to renovate and restore Rome to its former glories, and celebrating his administrative flair. He may be a monster of sorts in the end, but he's also a man oppressed by the knowledge that he can never match the charisma of his much-beloved brother. Everyone in this book has their strengths and their weaknesses, and that's what makes them feel so real. The characters pulse with life, showing humanity in all its petty, generous, sullen and admirable aspects. They're so easy to warm to because they are so endearingly, unselfconsciously ridiculous. Some of the scenes I enjoyed most are the everyday interactions between Lucilla and Vinius as they face the challenges of flatsharing. Anyone who's ever flounced out of a room and then hung around outside to listen to the reaction, or avoided doing something 'stupid' only to spend the rest of the day beating themselves up for having no courage, or taken a violent and irrational dislike to someone based on some sartorial foible, will find something familiar here. 

I can't quite bring myself to give this five stars because, despite my enormous fondness for it, there are points when one feels the research being laid on slightly too heavily. The story stops moving with its usual cantering freshness, and sags slightly beneath historical context. There are also some bits that felt unnecessary and slightly laboured: I didn't understand the point of having a chapter from Musca's point of view, for example. But for the most part this is an absolutely delightful book. I'm even considering buying my own copy, because I know I'm going to want to read it again; it might well join that pantheon of my comfort books, which I turn to when in need of a boost of happiness. I simply loved the gentle humour, the lovely characters and the way that Davis writes about Rome as if it were a modern, vibrant, up-and-coming city, which is exactly what it was at this date. And I loved spending time with both Lucilla and Vinius, both of whom had vivid, rounded personalities. (In defiance of the description given in the novel, I can't help imagining Vinius being rather like Tito Pullo in Rome, though with slightly more brains. It's not even the way he looks but his mannerisms and the way he sounds.) 

Despite the romantic element heralded in the title there's nothing cutesy or sugary about it: those who shudder at the thought of reading 'romance' don't have to fear. This is a witty, down-to-earth book about two adults who try to be mature and sensible (and occasionally fail), pushing on with life in the vague hope they won't screw everything up too badly; while trying to survive in a political climate which sprouts more thorns day by day. It's also refreshing to read a novel about a less familiar period of Roman history, which looks beyond the well-worn territory of the Julio-Claudians. Definitely something to try if you enjoy historical fiction. And it probably bodes ill for my own future domestic comfort, but I'm fondest of stories in which the couples are witty, sharp and fiercely independent: as Benedick says, 'too wise to woo peaceably'.

* Presumably the fire that dominates Mozart's Clemenza di Tito.
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