Saturday, 13 December 2014

Max Emanuel Cencic: Venezia

(with Il Pomo d'Oro, directed by Riccardo Minasi, Wigmore Hall, London, 12 December 2014)

First I must apologise for the recent hiatus in my posting. For the last few weeks life has been little more than an extraordinary barrage of events that finally came to a head this week in surreal but glorious fashion. You wouldn't believe me if I told you. Now it's all over and I can slowly get back into my normal rhythm again. There are lots of things that have been going on which I'd love to share with you in due course. And I'm going to kick off with the most recent and the most exhilarating. As you'll remember, I began my Baroque concert-going career in fine style back in September with Franco Fagioli's epic Porpora recital at the Wigmore Hall; and last night, in the same venue, I had the privilege to hear another stellar voice from Team Artaserse. This time it was the guiding genius behind not only that opera but Alessandro, Tamerlano, Siroë and so many of the exciting recent revivals: the stunningly versatile Max Cencic.

For those readers who aren't Baroque geeks, I should give a bit of background so you realise what a remarkable character Cencic is. He's been performing since the age of six, progressing from singing lead soprano in the Vienna Boys' Choir to touring in his late teens as an independent soprano. There was a slight shift down the register in his early twenties to mezzo-soprano and, more recently, he's developed a broader range with gorgeously rich, dark low notes. You've come across him before in these posts several times, singing the dazzling, fiery female role of Mandane in Artaserse, the elegant Sposa in Sant' Alessio, and the put-upon Ottone in Poppea. He's also sung a fabulously febrile, unstable Nerone in Poppea (post coming soon). In all his roles he displays absolute class: sheer professionalism coupled with sensitivity and grace, and a voice which (depending on the role) can be beguilingly feminine as well as commandingly imperious. Last night he was accompanied by the sparky young ensemble Il Pomo d'Oro, directed by the gloriously energetic violinist Riccardo Minasi. 

We started, as seems to be traditional, with an instrumental piece in the form of Vivaldi's Concerto in C for violin. I rapidly began to realise exactly how impressive Il Pomo d'Oro are: I have friends who are very enthusiastic about them but, as someone whose interest is very much on the vocal side of things, I hadn't been sure that I would be able to understand their brilliance. Usually I'm guilty of treating orchestras as simply the backing group for the singer. Tonight, however, that changed completely. I got a wonderful sense of the synergy of the relationship and I've come away with a great deal of fondness for this lively young band. The concerto was performed with energy and verve with Minasi himself as soloist, leading his ensemble through a terrifically jaunty first part, with some amazingly dexterous fingering on the violin, followed by a hauntingly beautiful and gorgeously controlled middle section, and rounded off with a perky third part. It was the perfect way to start. The Hall then crackled with expectation as we waited for the door at the back of the stage to open: for me, that moment of anticipation is always delicious, as I wait for one of the singers whom I've been listening to for the last few months to step off the cover of a CD and out onto the stage in front of me. My companions and I (fagiolisti in September and now cencicisti) had been wondering beforehand what Cencic might be wearing, as he has a certain sartorial reputation to keep up, and he didn't disappoint, emerging resplendent in a fabulous red-and-gold jacket covered in Baroque acanthus patterns. 

The full glory of the jacket could only really be appreciated at close range  |  The dream team (picture from Facebook)
Cencic opened with Pianta bella, Albinoni's lament for Apollo from Il nascimento dell' Aurora. This has always been one of my favourite pieces on the album and tonight he performed it with melting beauty. In this case, as in many of the other arias, he exploited the deeper ranges of his voice, which seems to have grown even richer since he recorded the album in 2013. This very elegant beginning was followed by the more energetic Barbaro, non comprendo from Caldara's Adriano in Siria, and if I explain that this is an aria sung by the Emperor Hadrian, you'll understand part of the reason why it makes me so happy. It's a stupendous piece and Cencic was ravishing, starting at a fairly low pitch but working up a level with every repetition and throwing in phenomenal, bubbling coloratura (indeed, the coloratura impressed me so much that I've mentioned it twice in my typically excitable notes scrawled over the programme). After this there was another instrumental piece: Brescianello's Sinfonia in F, which was sparkly and elegant in the first part, followed by a sedate and graceful middle section full of trembling violins, and then back to an energetic conclusion. The verve with which Il Pomo d'Oro play is truly remarkable: they're practically fizzing over with glee as they perform. Cencic returned to the stage to sing Dolce mio ben from Gasparini's opera Flavio Anicio Olibrio, which was a piece of such mournful, exquisitely controlled beauty that it almost brought tears to my eyes. Again we had those sumptuous low notes which show off the texture of his voice, like the burr around a drypoint line or the nap on a piece of velvet. It was so lovely that I actually sighed aloud at the end. And this led into another bravura piece: Vivaldi's Mi vuoi tradir from La verità in cimento. As is amply demonstrated by Artaserse, Cencic is extremely good at 'angry' arias and this piece was elaborated with insane runs of notes and rich elaboration: the perfect contrast to the more romantic, slower pieces which made up much of the programme. He is remarkable precisely because he can do the dramatic bravura arias and the gentler, more introspective pieces equally well: there might be singers who can compete on either the flamboyant pieces or the seraphically divine, but I've yet to hear anyone who is as strong across the board.

After the interval, we found ourselves treated to two slower, more stately pieces which lulled us into a slightly false sense of security before the splendour that followed. First we had Baldassare Galuppi's Concerto a quattro No. 1 in G minor, whose refined, delicate opening led into a smoothly elegant middle section and rounded off with a gorgeous whirl of violins. Cencic then joined Il Pomo d'Oro to sing Giovanni Porta's Mormorando quelle fronde from La costanza combattuta in dimore. This is a beautiful piece but quite low-key and even on the album it feels like a way to let the listener recover slightly from the glamour of the other arias: there were lots of rippling lower notes and it felt slightly like sophisticated downtime. It gave us a chance to catch our breath before the aria which turned out to be the showpiece of the evening: Geminiano Giacomelli's Sposa, non mi conosci from Merope. This was simply electrifying. Cencic had been quite restrained in his performance until this point, but this aria for the vengeful son Eptitude was performed with such passion and power that it left me breathless. It began as a delicately grief-stricken piece, but swiftly progressed into an expression of raw, almost unbearable anguish, culminating with a high note of such ringing clarity and brilliance that it took your heart up with it and left you choked. Indeed, I was in such an emotional tumult afterwards that to my shame I missed half the first section of the following Concerto in E minor by Vivaldi (Il favorito). Once I caught up, I enjoyed more divinely dexterous playing from Minasi who, after a haunting middle section, plunged with gusto into a simply joyous conclusion, practically romping around the stage to the delight of the audience. Cencic then came back for the final section, to sing A piedi miei svenato, a commanding and dramatic piece from Vivaldi's Argippo and closing with one of the Venezia album's highlights: the deliciously elaborate Anche in mezzo aperigliosa from Vivaldi's L'odio vinto dalla costanza. Full of tripplingly ornamented runs of notes, this was a real treat to finish. However, despite his phenomenal singing (and the jacket) Cencic was slightly in danger of being overshadowed at this point by Minasi, who went gloriously berserk on stage, pushing along the pace of the aria to breakneck speed.

The audience was slightly better behaved than they were at the Fagioli concert, with less excitable whooping - this seemed to be an elegant Wigmore crowd rather than the so-called 'groupies' who enlivened the Hall in September - but the reception was nevertheless very warm and enthusiastic. There were two encores, both Hasse. I missed what the first one was and, although I meant to ask Cencic afterwards, I forgot, so if anyone knows, please tell me, because it was splendid. It offered a taste of a more showy sensibility which was in a slightly different spirit to the Venetian grandeur we'd been treated to for the rest of the evening. The second encore was Hasse's Vo disperato a morte from Tito Vespasiano, which is something of Cencic's trademark at the moment: not only did he perform it gorgeously on his recent Rokoko CD, but he added it in to the production of Hasse's Siroë, which he has just designed, directed and starred in to almost universal acclaim at Versailles (and which I profoundly wish I'd been able to see).

I consider myself truly blessed that, so soon after discovering this wonderful genre, I've had the chance to see arguably the two greatest living operatic countertenors live in London. (If only I'd been able to get a ticket for Jaroussky last Monday, I could have ticked another off the list as well, but that concert was sold out as long ago as August.) With Fagioli so fresh in my mind, I found it rather interesting to compare Cencic's style of performance to his: they have strikingly different 'personalities' as singers. Fagioli's gleeful exuberance comes through even in his interaction with his audience, whereas Cencic is a much more poised, reserved and self-contained performer (which surprised me, considering his flamboyant fashion sense), often keeping his eyes downcast on his music. But he is phenomenally elegant and we were treated to a catalogue of wonderful Baroque gestures, some of which took me straight back to Artaserse and made me very happy. My one regret is that, having made his first entrance in that dramatic jacket, Cencic didn't then turn up in a different jacket every time he came back on stage. I heard several people laughingly expressing the same regret throughout the course of the evening. It could have been not only an intoxicating vocal extravaganza but also an introduction to the riches of the Cencic wardrobe. Maybe next time. 

But that will be some distance away. For my non-barocchisti readers, you have a bit of a break from the Baroque for the time being (once I've caught up with my outstanding posts). From now on we have a couple of months of countertenor downtime, until February and the much anticipated Farinelli and the King with Iestyn Davies at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. (Well, barring any DVDs or albums I might happen to buy or be given for Christmas, of course...)

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Rembrandt: The Late Works

(National Gallery, London, until 18 January 2015)

The National Gallery is currently playing host to another winter blockbuster. Rembrandt might not be quite as unbearably crowded as the Leonardo show was a couple of years back, but I've heard that queues are still snaking around the building before opening time. A few days ago I was lucky enough to see the exhibition at a relatively quiet time and it made for a gripping and illuminating experience. There's a lot to see, which isn't always a good thing when you have to elbow your way past other visitors, but it's worth a visit for the sheer quality of the exhibits. The highlights for most people will be the paintings, which are deservedly celebrated, but for me the greatest legacy of the exhibition will be a better appreciation of Rembrandt's achievements, daring and creativity as a printmaker.

Covering the period from roughly 1650 until Rembrandt's death in 1669, the exhibition looks at his remarkable technical and artistic innovation in these years. Like many artists, he became more ambitious as he got older and, although it's hardly original to compare his late work to Titian's, we see a similarly vigorous style of painting in the later phases of both artists' lives. In both cases they made increasing use of the physical properties of paint - applying it in thick strokes of impasto which gave texture to their work - and they also turned to darker tones set off with dramatic lighting effects. Sometimes this is explained as the psychological result of the artist's awareness of age and mortality, but I see it more as the natural consequence of an artist's maturity, at a stage where he is knowledgeable and confident enough to be that little bit more daring. Mind you, those who seek a psychological explanation for Rembrandt's darker, grittier late works have plenty to draw on. His wife Saskia had died in 1642, while in 1649 his mistress Geertje Dircks sued him for breach of promise, for failing to marry her. As if that wasn't bad enough, his spendthrift youth was catching up with him and in 1656 he declared himself bankrupt: in the following two years his house, his furniture and his lovingly-formed art collection was auctioned off to pay his debts. At least there was still some love in his life - his beloved son Titus and his new mistress Hendrickje Stoffels - but even darker times were on the horizon. Amsterdam in the 1660s was ravaged by outbreaks of plague: Hendrickje died in 1663, while Titus followed in the autumn of 1668. Rembrandt outlived him by just over a year.

Details of Rembrandt's self portraits from 1659, at the age of 53 (NGA Washington) and 1669, at 63 (NG, London)
It's dangerous to read too much into an artist's paintings, of course, but it's tempting to draw parallels between Rembrandt's own precarious existence and his immense sympathy for human nature. The show opens with a room of self portraits - three paintings and one tiny etching - showing the artist ruthlessly probing his most frequent subject: himself. It's interesting to come to these immediately after looking at Rembrandt's Self portrait at the age of 34 (from 1640) which is in the National Gallery's own collection: that glossy, prosperous, self-contained gentleman has quite disappeared in these later pictures. The two which struck me most were the Self portrait of 1659 from Washington and the NG's Self portrait at the age of 63 from ten years later. The latter is a sensitive, elegiac portrait in which the frail old man seems on the verge of dissolving into the darkness around him: the paint is applied with tremulous touches and the eyes look as if they've seen all the sorrows of the world. The former shows a more robust man (Rembrandt was 53), wearing a fur thrown over his shoulder as he might have done in one of his more youthful, optimistic self-portraits; but here the greatest thing is the expression on the face. Rembrandt looks startled, as if transfixed by a sudden searchlight; more than that, he looks guilty, as if we've caught him playing at dressing up, like the smart young artist he used to be. His expression is hangdog with a touch of defiance. Remarkably it's a picture that should look dignified, but it's undermined by the artist's lack of confidence in the persona he presents. And yet, if the persona is unconvincing, the technique is stupendous. The face is painted with strong swirls of pinks and greys and slashes of white, with ochre touches to suggest the last threads of red in his hair and beard, and to give a slightly sallow hint to the skin. The bags beneath the eyes sag with impasto and the hollows of the cheeks are softened with fleshy jowls; the forehead is all lines and ridges: the landscape of a hard life.

Rembrandt's an extremely economical artist: he only adds what has to be there, but he makes it count. In the past I've encountered this most frequently in his drawings, where a few brisk lines conjure up the pose of a standing figure or the expression on a face. However, the same principle appears in his late paintings. Standing a few feet away from a picture painted in the 1650s or 1660s, such as the Juno or the Washington Lucretia, the technique can look sloppy. Rembrandt doesn't finish things off neatly: there are dry streaks of oil paint across the canvas; blotches of white or gold to suggest highlights, and swirls of thick impasto. But then step back (if you have space) to seven or eight feet away. Those broad, rough strokes suddenly coalesce into something astonishing. The picture glows with translucent shades of ochre, rust, crimson and gold, and although the rich fabrics of the costumes aren't depicted literally, you understand exactly what they must have looked like. 

Juno in all her glory  |  The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis  |  Lucretia
The exhibition covers the whole range of Rembrandt's activity, showing his big commissioned pieces as well as his more intimate portraits. One of the most impressive things in terms of size is The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis from Stockholm, a massive canvas which was painted for the Town Hall in Amsterdam in 1661. It should have been one of Rembrandt's greatest triumphs: a prestigious public commission which was meant to bring him a much-needed sum of 1,200 guilders. But something went wrong. The painting was delivered and hung in 1662; but within a matter of months it had been replaced by a picture of the same subject by another artist. Why? Did the city fathers dislike it? Was Rembrandt asking for too much money (he was in debt again)? It's a strangely amorphous and unresolved picture for so prominent a place: haunting and odd, with the hidden candles on the table giving an unearthly glow to the faces, and unflattering, stock peasant types playing the roles of the noble leader and his generals. If it was an experiment, it went too far. Rembrandt never received his 1,200 guilders and instead, to pay his creditors, had to sell off Saskia's grave. The painting itself, a great monumental thing, rarely leaves Stockholm and it's quite a coup for the NG to have secured it for the exhibition. 

It's funny that Rembrandt never quite seems to have clicked with big flashy commissions. There's always some bit of it that feels hurried. Take his Portrait of Frederik Rihel on horseback, for example (1663; NG), almost three metres tall. The face is well-painted - a smug businessman made good, showing off his horsemanship - and the silver braid on the sleeve is one of the most exquisitely-rendered pieces of fabric in the show. But the horse is incredibly weak. One must give Rembrandt the benefit of the doubt and presume that he did, at some point, study a horse in preparation for the picture; but it's clear that he didn't enjoy painting it. Compare that portrait with Rembrandt's Portrait of Margaretha de Geer, wife of Jacob Trip from around 1661 (also NG). This is a moving, humbling picture of dignified age. Her black fur-trimmed gown melts into the background: the portrait is dominated by her fabulous wheel-ruff with its translucent pleats and by the breathtaking painting of flesh. Again Rembrandt uses dabs of greys and pinks to suggest the soft wrinkles of Margaretha's face and the thin papery skin on the backs of her hands, which moulds itself to the bones of her hands and shows the blue veins beneath. I must have seen this portrait before, a hundred times, but this time I was rooted in front of it, in awe.

Frederik Rihel and his unconvincing horse  |  The exquisite Margaretha de Geer (both details, both NG)
And then there were the prints. Rembrandt has always been celebrated as one of the greatest etchers who has ever lived, but this exhibition shows you why he deserves that accolade. There are several cases where a print is shown in different states and impressions, which enable you to understand more about how and, crucially, why Rembrandt was so obsessive about his printmaking. The same state, printed on different coloured papers, could alter the emotional charge by changing the tone of the print: the underlying paper colour could add warmth or coolness to a scene. The expensive support of vellum could transform an etching into a luxury object, but also alter the way that the ink behaved when it was printed. And perhaps the most striking thing in Rembrandt's printmaking is the ambitious changes he made between states. With other printmakers, changes between states are subtle - a hand changes position, or a pot or a tree is added. Rembrandt goes further. 

I was struck by The Three Crosses, which was shown in the first, third and fourth states: the first, printed on vellum (British Museum), has a velvety softness as the lines of ink blur slightly on the smooth surface. The third state was refreshed with hatching and is shown here printed on crisp, bright paper. That support, showing through the ink, gives the scene lightness and clarity: Christ's figure seems almost spotlit on the cross. And then the fourth state changes the whole mood: the scene is reworked into a breathtakingly dramatic tableau where the sides of the composition are plunged into blackness. Darkness threatens to swamp everything, relieved only by thin bright strokes of divine illumination from above, lancing down into the crowd. A similarly striking compositional development can be seen in the three exhibited states (first, sixth, eighth) of Christ presented to the people: the first state shows a crowd clustered noisily in front of Pilate's palace, cluttering up the yard in front of the dais where Christ is shown bound. By the sixth state, these people have been removed and the clear bulk of the dais draws the eye more effectively to Christ; but by the eighth state Rembrandt had changed his mind again. Perhaps feeling the dais was too blank, he added two cellar openings and, between them, a strange bearded figure which reminded me of a pagan river god. It's fascinating to follow the progression: to see Rembrandt's restless, questing mind in action.

Christ presented to the people: first and eighth states  |  The powerful fourth state of The Three Crosses
There is so much more I could rhapsodise about, because I love Rembrandt - and I haven't even mentioned the adorable Portrait of Titus - but I have to stop somewhere. So I'm going to close with the piece I would most like to take home with me. Rembrandt's picture from Glasgow of A Man in Armour, sometimes called Alexander, is a tour-de-force of light and texture. Again the strokes are broad and loose, blocking in areas of highlight or shadow, but from a distance they once again come together in an almost alchemical fusion. This is some of the best armour painting I've seen: not because it's a faithful and accurate rendition, but because it gives you all you need to imagine the armour for yourself: the hard sweep of the breastplate; the differing textures of cloth, steel and leather; and the way that a fire, somewhere else in the studio, creates a sheen of flame on the curve of the helmet. There are unexpected details which you notice as you study it for longer: a curling strand of hair straying from under the helmet, painted like a filament of gold; or the foppish pearl teardrop hanging from the warrior's ear. It's a stunning picture and, like so many of Rembrandt's works, it's the devil's own job to find a decent reproduction of it on the internet. Every photo I've found looks brown and dusty: a dried crisp of an autumn leaf compared to the vivid fire and shine of the original. If nothing else, this is a reason to go to the show and savour it in reality.

It's a big show and it isn't easy to take everything in on a first visit, especially if you have to wrestle your way through the crowds, but it is certainly worth a visit. The catalogue eschews entries on specific exhibits, which is a growing trend (to my personal regret), but it contains some good essays and it's complemented by the free booklet you can pick up on your way into the show. The exhibition is on at the National Gallery until 18 January and then moves to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam from February until May, so hopefully some of my European friends might get the chance to see this too. 

Rembrandt, A Man in Armour (Alexander), Glasgow Museums (detail)

Saturday, 15 November 2014

The Soldier of Raetia: Heather Domin

(published by Amazon as a Kindle edition, currently £1.98)

««« ½

Valerian's Legion: Book I

This was an automatic recommendation from Goodreads, which clearly leapt to certain conclusions about my reading preferences based on the large number of books I own by Mary Renault. However, as has happened before, their suggestion hit the mark. Domin writes beautifully, creating rich and believable characters, and succeeds in giving the flavour of an historical period without overloading the exposition and research. I'd never have stumbled across her book by myself and, even if I had, I might've (unfairly) been a little cautious because it has only been published digitally. In that case, I would have missed a rather lovely novel. It was a very pleasant surprise; and I'm pleased to hear there's a sequel in the works about the same characters.

Lucius Manilus Dardanus comes to Rome at the age of twenty with a letter of introduction and some serious misgivings. His ambitious father has sent him as a suppliant to Marcus Cassius Valerian, the famously self-sufficient general, hoping he might be persuaded to act as Dardanus' sponsor for his military career. Such sponsorship is the only stated aim of Dardanus' arrival, but it's also tacitly understood that Valerian is rich and has not yet named his heir. For his own part, Valerian has faced innumerable young men hoping to make a good impression, and the prospect of another awkward new arrival - from Helvetia, of all places - doesn't fill him with high hopes. But Dardanus turns out to have qualities that this jaded general can respct: despite being young for his age, he shows modesty, determination and a willingness to learn. And so, contrary to his usual practice, Valerian decides to give the young man a chance and offers him a home at the Villa Cassia while he undertakes his training at the military school. Dardanus can hardly believe his luck: with Valerian's name behind him, he immediately gains the best possible chance of success and he works hard to be worthy of it. As the training progresses, and he makes friends among his fellow recruits, he proves himself a capable and reliable soldier; and when, at the end of the summer, the new recruits head north with their general, Dardanus goes with the knowledge that he has justified Valerian's faith in him. In northern Raetia - near the banks of the Danube, where the Germanic tribes are still struggling to assert themselves - Dardanus and his cohort will find their courage tested to the max as they are flung into the horrors of battle and made responsible not only for their own survival but that of their friends.

Let's be frank about this: it's a love story too, and that's another reason I was wary, because I've bought a couple of books recently which turned out to be rather simpering romances and which exasperated me no end. I enjoy well-written relationships between characters whom I care about - look at The Vizard Mask, for example, which I loved - but I can't stand self-indulgent mooncalfing, or supposedly adult characters who turn into angsting teenagers the minute they conceive a fancy for someone. Fortunately Dimon more or less avoids this trap. It's true that you can see what's going to happen from a fairly early stage, but she focuses on the characterisation rather than the romance itself, and that makes a world of difference. Her characters are dignified, sensitive and sensible, and their relationship feels like a natural development, albeit a very neat one. Since I'd had time to grow to care about them as people, I had greater emotional investment in their affection for one another. Although there are a couple of rather explicit scenes, just to forewarn anyone else who's easily embarrassed, these are consistent with the level of description in the rest of the story and didn't make me feel uncomfortable; which I often do. No mooncalfing here, thank goodness: just two fully-rounded, modest, slightly shy people trying to do the right thing.

Moreover, it's set in the context of other equally important and equally plausible relationships - friendships, rivalries and working partnerships - so it feels like part of something greater than itself. There are a couple of big, cinematic battle scenes which do a very good job of conjuring up the horror of being in the middle of a bloody fight to the death, and the psychological difficulties that follow it. The dialogue is well-written and there's banter which actually works: that rarest of things in a novel. In fact there's just one character who didn't work for me. I won't name him, to avoid spoilers, but in playing the role of traitor in the company, he felt a tiny bit like a plot device rather than a real person. Apart from him, however, everyone seemed to be very nice and noble and accepting; I enjoyed reading about these peripheral characters, although I have my doubts about whether a Roman legion was really full of quite such cuddly chaps. It's probably no surprise that I particularly warmed to Valerian, with my weak spot for noble suffering. How could I fail to feel sympathy for this emotionally wounded man, whose severe persona masks his grief at the death of his young wife and his determination never to care for anyone, or to be hurt, so deeply again? (In my mind he looked rather like Viggo Mortensen, which probably didn't hurt either.)

I'd be very keen to read more about Valerian as a character, and more about the setting, which Dimon seems to have researched well but which is written with a light and unobtrusive touch. She includes an interesting author's note at the end, explaining the historical facts behind the novel, and she also - much to my amusement - included a playlist which presumably reflects the tracks which became associated in her mind with each part of the story. More writers should do this: it's a fun insight into the process. The novel isn't quite up there with Renault, but in its flavour, and its fundamentally thoughtful and well-intentioned characters, it reminded me a little of Paul Waters's Of Merchants and Heroes. And, considering how incredibly cheap the ebook is at the moment, you probably can't go wrong.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Idomeneo: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1780)

(Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, until 24 November 2014)


Overheard by my friend in the ladies' loos during the interval: "Do you think he's a real castrato?"

There's something rather exciting about going to see a production which has divided opinion as starkly as this new staging of Mozart's Idomeneo. There has been at least one one-star review and one five-star review, but most critics seem to come down somewhere in the middle, struggling in a sea of interesting ideas which never quite come together. I sympathise with them. There were certain things I liked very much and some things I found self-indulgent and silly, but my overall impression was that it was a mixture of promising concepts which lacked the Promethean spark to bring them to life. In my thoughts below I'll be referring quite a lot to the production of Idomeneo performed in Salzburg for the Mozart Festival in 2006, which I watched on Sunday night as last-minute prep. It makes an interesting comparison and I'll be talking about it separately soon. But for now, get yourself a cup of tea or a glass of wine and let's focus on the London version.

Written when Mozart was 24, with a libretto by Giovanni Battista Varesco, Idomeneo takes place on the island of Crete at the end of the Trojan War. The king, Idomeneo, has been away fighting at Troy for ten years and, in his absence, his son Idamante has grown up and become a man. Too young to remember his father properly, Idamante can only see him in the traces of the oppressive regime he has left behind: the kind of society where Trojan refugees, snatched from a shipwreck, have been cast into prison as enemies of the people. And Idamante believes a better world is possible. He has fallen in love with one of these Trojan prisoners: no less than Priam's fugitive daughter, the beautiful Ilia, who is disconcerted to find herself returning Idamante's love. But nothing is that easy (it's an opera, after all). Idamante is already promised to Electra, the daughter of Agamemnon, who has come to Crete seeking sanctuary from the horrors of her native Argos; and Electra has developed an all-consuming, jealous passion for the young prince. She seethes at the thought that Ilia is stealing him away from her; but there is nothing she can do. Even as they're told that Idomeneo is on his way home, a storm arises, and the next news comes that all the king's ships have been lost. Idamante is horrified at the thought he has come so close to regaining his father, only to lose him again. 

While wandering on the shore, he discovers a stranger: a man washed up from the sea. He offers him hospitality, but is confused by the stranger's hostile attitude. The stranger, for his part, is stricken by the kindness of this unknown young man; because the stranger is Idomeneo, saved from the sea by Neptune in answer to an impulsive, horrific vow. Idomeneo has sworn that, to save his own life, he will sacrifice the first person he meets on the shore of his native land. And the gods, who do enjoy their little jokes, have brought him face to face with none other than his own estranged son. Idomeneo's shame manifests itself in coldness; while Idamante is dismayed that the father he's dreamed of is so distant to him; and Ilia, who has hoped for happiness, finds her future cast into doubt when Idomeneo decides to save Idamante by sending him away, with Electra, to rule with her in Argos. Of all the characters, Electra is the only one who looks set to get her own way; but the gods don't like to be cheated. As Idamante and Electra prepare to leave for Argos, Neptune unleashes a terrifying vengeance on Crete, laying waste to its people and drenching the land in blood. To Idomeneo's dismay, he must again contemplate the horror of sacrificing his own innocent son to placate the gods.

Arbace (Stanislas de Barbeyrac) | Idomeneo (Matthew Polenzani) | Idamante (Franco Fagioli) | The High Priest (Krystian Adam)
It's a powerful story and offers a neat bookend to the sacrifice of Iphigenia at the beginning of the Trojan War. Needless to say, the production doesn't stick to the historical period: no chitons here. Based on what I've heard about Martin Kušej over the past week, I was actually expecting the production to be a lot more bizarre than it was. The action unfolds in a timeless war-ravaged Mediterranean state which teeters on the brink of political implosion. Kušej's vision makes itself felt in the dark, threatening tone and in the way that religion is a means of repressive control rather than the expression of divine will. In the Salzburg version, Neptune himself is an omnipotent, chilling presence; but here the gods are absent. Their grim thirst for blood is embodied here by Neptune's High Priest (Krystian Adam): an ominous, lurking libertine in a black leather coat who seems to be pulling the strings of the whole tragic puppet show. As I understood it, the High Priest is anxious that Idamante's more liberal rule might threaten his own hold over the people and so he joins with the forces of repression in an attempt to preserve his own power. This is faith as mind control and nothing proves that so much as the bit with the shark. The shark I could handle, more or less - it was making a tangentially interesting point about religious extremism and the fear that can compel people to worship - but the problem is that the shark has already become a bit of a cult comic element. When it appeared, the audience laughed. It undermines the seriousness of what the production's trying to do. And I didn't understand the two scenes with the 'crowds' standing around holding fish. Maybe there was some profound meeting to it that escaped me ("cod philosophy," I noted to my friend), but you've got to be careful, especially in England, to mind the boundary between creative provocation and just being daft. And those scenes crossed it.  

The first half didn't impress me much. The staging was static and the singers spent too much time standing still looking uncomfortable with their arms at their sides. Despite flashes of red, the costumes and set were rather monochrome and it all made for a rather ponderous experience. All the singers initially sounded rather muted, swamped by the orchestra (this seems to happen a lot; maybe it's just the operas I choose, or maybe my ears). They all got stronger as time went on, but the first act was a bit of a struggle; and that's a shame. The first few arias in Act I can be powerhouse displays of emotion and drama, but unfortunately no one here was able to wring the same passionate engagement from the music as the team in Salzburg did. And the fact that everyone had trouble makes me think that it's not the singers themselves at fault. Malin Byström's vampish Electra had moments of very impressive power in her voice; Sophie Bevan tackled some very pretty Mozartian music without letting go of the sense of Ilia's inner tragedy; and Matthew Polenzani caught my attention at the end of his Neptune aria with a heart-rending cry about the implacability of fate. The stand-out performance, however, was Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Arbace: his powerful, effortless voice reached right up into the amphitheatre and every word was crisp and clear: he won the audience's hearts not only as a singer but also for his role as a hapless Everyman. The designers didn't do him any favours by giving him a bobble hat and an accordion, which made him look more like a kooky hitchhiker than a man whom a king would ask for advice. Nor did I understand why his Act III aria has been moved into Act II. De Barbeyrac performed it very well, but it doesn't make sense to have Arbace offering up his life to the gods to save his prince when he hasn't even been told about Idomeneo's vow. (That wasn't the only illogical moment. For example, Idomeneo swears to sacrifice the first person he meets on the shore. In this version, that's the High Priest himself, who comes running to the king with tales of Idamante's excessive liberality.)

Electra (Malin Byström)  |  The Bit With The Shark  |  Ilia (Sophie Bevan) 
As most of you will know, my friend and I had gone to hear Franco Fagioli's Idamante. In the first performances, this role was sung by the castrato Vincenzo Del Prato; Mozart later transposed it for the tenor voice and, ever since then, it's been sung by either tenors or mezzos. I think I'm right in saying this is the first time a countertenor has tackled the part and, in retrospect, it strikes me as an odd and rather unforgiving choice. As you can see from my opening quote, Fagioli definitely had an impact on those unfamiliar with his voice; but, knowing what he can do with that voice, I felt there was something strangely constrained about his performance. He sounded as if he wasn't being allowed to venture outside the mid-to-upper part of his very large range, and consequently the notes lacked the wonderful warm resonance and the power that usually underlies his singing even at highest pitch. It made me think, to my surprise, that Idamante isn't actually so good a role, especially for someone like Fagioli who thrives on playful improvisation: not something one can do with Mozart, I've heard, because the music is so complex that it demands complete subservience. 

Like all the singers he had moments when he was stranded statue-like in the middle of the stage, but Fagioli has always been a good actor and, since I was lucky enough to have opera glasses, I noticed his subtle reactions to those around him. From the moment his eyes meet Ilia's across a crowded prison, you believe that Idamante is captivated by her: his eyes keep drifting back to her when she's on stage and their tactile duets together convey a genuine sense of romance. Unlike the Salzburg version, though, this one undermines the love story. Why are Idamante and Ilia in love? Is there really such a thing as love at first sight? Or have these two young people, both desperately looking for a way out of their situation, confused love with alliance? If Idamante really does love Ilia, how on earth can we justify his ambivalent reaction here to Electra as she seduces him? I'd thought that Idamante was meant to be impervious to her charms, but this one was rather too ready to respond; it was my first inkling that perhaps this was a darker (and more interesting) young hero than the one I'd seen in Salzburg.

The second half perked up: I don’t know what did it, but I suddenly found that the ideas which had whipped around so wildly in the first part came together into a coherent dramatic push. There were also fewer fish. Suddenly the story began to make sense as a struggle between the ambitions of father and son. Idomeneo's intransigence provokes the wrath of the people and the only way to bring about peace is to bow to the irrational fury of the masses (riots and guerilla warfare take the place of the famous sea monster here as the plague of Crete). All this came together, rather impressively, in the sacrifice scene. And here too, for the first time in the show, my friend and I saw flashes of the Fagioli we know and love. Though his singing was still reined in, he suddenly came to life as an actor and his performance invested this whole scene with an intense, knowing cynicism which was entirely absent from the Salzburg version. His Idamante staggers in, exhausted, blood-drunk, having risked his life to save his people from their own rage; and yet, in his moment of triumph, he finds that his father is determined to carry out his primitive vow of sacrifice. He sings the requisite lines about being glad to offer up his life to the one who gave him life, but the delivery is laced with bitter irony. At one point he simply sinks to the floor and laughs at the whole stupidity of the thing, unable to deal in any other way with the horror of the situation. 

Ilia: the innocent in the bloodbath  |  Idomeneo steeling himself for sacrifice  |  The High Priest and his cronies look on
And – I wondered later – perhaps this Idamante has already sold his soul, conniving in the popular uprising. Perhaps he’s already agreed to become king to quell the chaos; already accepted that his father will have to be removed to make the peace complete. The final scene takes that irony further. Idomeneo sings his aria in which he abdicates power to Idamante and begs the people to love and obey Idamante as they would him; he speaks of the royal wedding about to take place and invites the people to join him in celebration. In the Salzburg version it's a cuddly, sunny piece: the prelude to a happy ending. But here Idomeneo sings his aria alone, on an empty darkened stage, beaten and blinded, his bloody eye-sockets covered with a stained bandage; he’s already halfway into madness, belatedly showing fatherly affection for a son who is no longer there – who no longer cares – who might even have been complicit in his punishment. And that idea is reinforced by the final dumbshow, which presents us with the happy couple poised on a spill of white silk, like the figures on a wedding cake. But darkness gnaws at the edges. Idamante fidgets; runs an uneasy finger round his collar; reaches to steady himself against the wall and tries desperately to scrub away the blood that comes off on his hand. The turntable rotates, gratingly slowly - presenting us with angelic children dressed in white and casually toting machine guns, to represent the future Crete has chosen for itself - and turns again. This time the white silk is drenched in blood. Idamante holds his crown loosely in his fingers; he glances sideways at the stiff, frightened Ilia; while on either side of them the High Priest and his minions are arrayed along the blood-stained walls: the true victors and the true rulers. (There were more fish after this, which I wish hadn't been there: it undermined what could have been an immensely powerful and unsettling final scene.)

I was on tenterhooks to see what the audience would make of it. The applause, initially polite, rapidly became enthusiastic: all the principals received a warm response and I was deeply happy to hear cheers for Fagioli, who seemed to feel that all had gone well because a broad grin scarcely left his face during the curtain calls. There were standing ovations scattered throughout the audience and afterwards the mood was one of intrigued debate: if nothing else, this production makes people talk; it makes you think about the story and the characters and why they do what they do - and anything that provokes discussion is a good thing. I feel that the production did have weaknesses which can't be overcome unless Kušej is willing to relinquish some of the fish imagery, and I don't think the show is kind to its singers, who all seem both vocally and physically restrained at times, but it isn't anywhere near as bad as I'd feared from some of the reviews. Fagioli has taken the brave step of being one of the first countertenors to challenge mezzo dominance of primo uomo roles in this country, and he's done that in one of our most daunting venues. It wasn't going to be easy for him, coming up again a rather conservative audience, and unfortunately neither the role nor the production allowed him to shine as I know he can; but the key thing is that his performance has got people talking (I didn't hear any criticism) and he's opened up their minds to the possibility of something new. I hope that he, or others, can find a way to take advantage of that in the future. Maybe next time he can sing Serse - I was listening to Crude furie earlier today and that's got his name written all over it...

The price of power: Idamante discovers that even good intentions can be corrupted

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Treasure Island: Robert Louis Stevenson

(my edition published by Collins, 1940; also available on Amazon)


Fifteen men on The Dead Man's Chest -
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest -
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!

There haven't been enough pirates around here recently (indeed, is it possible to have enough?); and, when I was looking for a quick spritz of a book to get me into autumn, I decided it was time for Treasure Island. This is without a doubt one of the greatest children's stories or adventure novels ever written, but I'm ashamed to say I'd never read it before. I'm not quite sure how I managed to avoid it: there was plenty of piratical spirit in my childhood. I grew up in Bristol and we spent our holidays caravanning in Devon and Cornwall, armed with an inflatable dinghy we'd christened the Black Pig. How did I avoid the Great Pirate Novel? On the bright side it means I can come to it now, older, wiser and perhaps even more prone to adore it because I can savour its enormous impact on popular culture. For a little book, it casts a long shadow. Davy Jones's Locker, pieces o' eight, rum, parrots, peg-legs, buried treasure and, of course, maps where 'x' marks the spot... this is where it all began.

When a grizzled old sailor takes up residence in the West Country at the Admiral Benbow - his mother's inn - young Jim Hawkins is fascinated. The old Captain takes long walks along the cliff tops looking for ships and sings rum-soused songs, but it rapidly becomes clear that he has a dark past behind him and that history is on his tail. Indeed, when he is visited by an old shipmate one dark night, the Captain becomes the recipient of that dreaded pirates' warning: the Black Spot. It is too late for the Captain to escape his enemies, but Jim finds himself unexpectedly drawn into a thrilling and very dangerous mystery. Rifling through the Captain's sea-chest, Jim has laid his hands on a map which will lead him into the greatest adventure of his life: the chart of an unknown island labelled with evocative names - Skeleton Island, Mizzenmast Hill, Spy-Glass Hill - and, more importantly, marked with red crosses. When Jim shows the map to the local landowner Squire Trelawney and the physician Dr Livesey, they realise that they have the clue to finding the great hoard of treasure buried by the notorious buccaneer Captain Flint, and (as you do) decide to set off in search of it. But all does not go easily. When the squire goes to Bristol to fit out a ship and assemble a crew, word of Flint's treasure gets out. Soon it will become clear that some of the crew on the Hispaniola have more than a passing acquaintance with the old pirate: none more so than a congenial old fellow with a pet parrot and one leg, who serves as ship's cook and goes by the name of Long John Silver.

Of course I loved it. There was never any question that I would. It's a gloriously old-fashioned tale with a plucky young hero whose resourcefulness and wit is pitched against the dastardly plots of piratical mutineers; and yet there is something rather modern about the subtle humour which underlies it all. Stevenson was writing for children, but he knew that the book would be read to them by their parents, and so there are moments when the novel has a surprisingly psychological edge. I found Silver completely absorbing as a character: you know how interested I am by people who shift in the grey regions between starkly 'good' and 'bad'. Silver is an untrustworthy, unprincipled blackguard of the first water - that goes without saying - but Stevenson gives him a beguiling charisma that means the page sparks into life whenever he appears.

If you've also managed to miss Treasure Island, then now is the time of year to read it. It isn't really a summery kind of story. It's the type of book to reach for as the nights draw in and the rough winds rattle the windows, and the surface of the Thames grows hard and iron-grey. Wrap yourself up in a blanket, get a cup of tea (or a snifter of rum), curl up by the lamp and lose yourself in a Sunday-afternoon-romp of a story, 'full of sea-dreams and the most charming anticipations of strange islands and adventures'. For my part, this has given me the impetus to seek out some other good pirate stories for the winter: I think it might be time to revisit that other great literary pirate, Captain James Hook; and it's probably high time to track down the ever-reliable Sabatini's Captain Blood.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Original Scores: Le Malade Imaginaire: Molière (1673)

Last Monday I ventured away from my usual theatrical fare of blood-soaked Jacobean vengeance and tried something a little different. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are performing some candlelit concerts in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse this season, based around the concept of 'original scores'. They present incidental music which was composed for early theatrical performances, originally intended to accompany ballets or intermezzi. This music is almost always stripped out of modern productions, leaving us with the bare unadorned text and, perhaps, depriving us of some of the subtleties which the playwright originally intended. Incidental music could offer relief from the mood of the play; it could harmonise with it and reinforce it; or it could playfully undermine it. This particular concert focused on the music composed by Marc-Antoine Charpentier for Molière's 1673 Le malade imaginaire (usually translated into English as The Hypochondriac). The programme noted that modern text-only productions of the play give the impression of a rather black comedy; but the music adds a light and playful touch. Molière's original audiences would have seen something very unfamiliar to modern theatre-goers: a spirited blend of play, opera and ballet.

I liked the idea very much and was intrigued to discover that the concert was partly dramatised. After all, incidental music without its play makes even less sense than a play without its incidental music. As it turned out, semi-dramatisation presents problems of its own; but we'll come to that in a moment. First: the music. I don't have many parallels to draw on yet - I'll have a splurge on Lully operas at some point but I want to get my head round the Italians first - and so the best I can do is to say that Charpentier is contemporary with late Cavalli. Le malade imaginaire was performed some thirty years after Elena and fifty years after Monteverdi's Poppea, just to put it in context, and there's a definite kinship in the music. I'm not sure how far that just reflects the style of the time, or whether it's deliberately sending up Italian opera. It can't be accidental that Charpentier is at his most Italianate in the tongue-in-cheek love scene between Angelique and her lover (who is masquerading as her music master). Their improvised opera wallows in bucolic-pastoral clichés - there's a shepherdess called Phyllis, for example - and Charpentier's music takes on the rhythms of early arias or madrigals. He's also rather Italianate in the intermezzo which features Pulcinello, and again I'm sure it must be a deliberate, rather comic touch: a humorous scene derived from the commedia dell' arte, accompanied by recognisably Italianate music. And yet, for all the nods to Italian composers, Charpentier is at his most vivid and delightful when he allows his innate playfulness to break through. 

Moliere crowned with laurel, modest, retiring chap that he was | The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse | (Probably) Charpentier
The musicians were extremely good, as far as I can judge, and played with great gusto: the concert was obviously focused on them and, once you get a harpsichord, three violins, percussion, a cello and a theorbo on the Sam Wanamaker stage, there isn't much room for acting in any case. The four singers doubled as actors (there were also two other actors who didn't sing) and of these I most enjoyed Giles Underwood, who was listed as a bass but sounded more like a baritone to me. He didn't just have a lovely strong voice: he was also a lively actor and he made a commendable job of singing falsetto at one point, where he pretended to be the maid Toinette at her window. I was also very interested by Samuel Boden (the lover Cleantes), who was listened as a tenor but whose voice was pitched far higher than I was expecting; he'll be singing in Purcell's King Arthur at the Wigmore next year, so I might try to get to that. Sophie Junker was also present: I was very fond of her Drusilla at the Barbican, but I couldn't help feeling she was a little underused here. I kept waiting for her to be given the chance to do something sparkling, but she was only brought on for three short pieces. Rosie Hilal, playing Angelique, was more actress than singer, but I liked her rendition of the mock-opera with Boden and she was immensely sympathetic as the lovelorn daughter tyrannised by her self-centred father. The two non-singers were Mary Doherty, whose sparkily engaging Toinette was very much a proto-soubrette. Of all the actors, she was most at ease with the script and the performance: she really lit up the stage whenever she came on. Dickon Tyrrell, who doubled as Argan (the titular Hypochondriac) and Pulcinello, wasn't quite as comfortable and unfortunately that posed a problem, although I did think he made a splendid job of the final 'examination' scene. 

'Semi-dramatised' meant that extracts of the text were performed between the pieces of music, to keep us up to date with what was happening in the play and to provide context. The English translation by Caroline Williams was excellent: witty, bright and vulgar in all the right places. But the problem was that the actors didn't seem fully prepared for their roles: everyone read from their scripts, which is the kiss of death for any dramatic performance. Delivery was stiffened and some of the life drained out of the acting: there was a back-and-forth between Pulcinello and the orchestra, for example, which would have felt much less stilted if it had been rattled off 'spontaneously' rather than read aloud from a book. There wasn't anywhere near as much to remember as there would be in a proper play, and unfortunately the reliance on the scripts made the whole concert feel slightly like a rehearsal rather than the finished product. 

I don't want to be too critical, because it's so interesting to see the music being restored to its place in early theatre, and an acknowledgement of the original interplay between actors and musicians. And it was lovely to hear the OAE in such a beautiful setting; I'd certainly be keen to go to another similar concert. However I would have very much preferred a more natural performance of what text there was: I think it's wise to keep parts of the play, but the actors need to have time to learn their parts. You can't perform a play 'in concert' as easily as you can an opera, after all; and I couldn't help feeling that this production was a curious beast, neither fish nor fowl. As sometimes happens, I'm rather a lone voice of dissent: the overall audience reaction shown in this post-show video was immensely positive (it'll also give you a flavour of the performance, for those unable to get to the theatre). And, if you'd like to judge for yourself, you can see the same programme performed on Sunday 9 November. And then you can come back and tell me how wrong I am...

However, my interest has certainly been piqued and further investigation has unearthed something which might appeal to those who are now wondering - as I am - what a full original performance of Le malade imaginaire might have been like. The doyen of Baroque theatre, William Christie, marshalled his ensemble Les Arts Florissant to perform a production in Paris in 2012, complete with full text and intact intermezzi (or so it seems), along with stupendous costumes which are spot-on for the 1670s date of the play. The bad news is that there doesn't seem to be a DVD release, which is sad because it would have gone into the basket straight away; but the good news is that you can watch it on YouTube. It lacks subtitles, but looking on the bright side it'll force me to practice my French. 

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Giovanni Battista Moroni

(Royal Academy, London, until 25 January 2015)

He's a familiar sight in the National Gallery: a young tailor distracted in the middle of his work. Resting his scissors on the table for a moment he glances up, as if you've just wandered into his workroom, half-inquisitive, half-challenging. His clothes are simple but well-made, showing off his craft: his cream doublet is elaborately pinked and finely-detailed lace peeks out at collar and cuffs. In a moment his assessing gaze will shade into something more specific: a frown at being disturbed, perhaps, or a welcoming smile, but for now he's captured in that split second where everything is still possible: a moment of infinite potential. Giovanni Battista Moroni, a 16th-century painter from Bergamo, was a master at conveying that unsettling quality of naturalism. Artists throughout the Renaissance had been praised for the 'speaking likeness', the kind of portrait where the sitter seems on the cusp of talking to you, but Moroni's portraits go beyond that. His sitters not only seem to be aware of your presence: they seem to watch and weigh you, judging your quality. To look at one of his pictures feels like stepping into a dialogue with the past.

Moroni was born in the early 1520s, more or less at the time that Raphael died and only a few years after Leonardo's death in France; Michelangelo was forty-five when he was born. It's strange to think that he was so early: his portraits, in particular, have little of the Renaissance about them. If Moroni's works echo any of the great masters, it's Titian, who was some thirty years older than him; but we're not sure if they ever actually met. In a way, Moroni invites comparisons with later painters born shortly before his own death: his psychological intensity would be echoed in Rubens's portraits, and the pared-down, freeze-frame quality of his compositions would be developed more famously by a painter who was only eight or nine when Moroni died and who'd been born a mere sixteen miles away from Bergamo in the little town of Caravaggio. Moroni himself trained with Moretto da Brescia, a successful artist whose works are still very much of the Renaissance, but who also painted penetrating portraits like that of Fortunato Martinengo Cesaresco (National Gallery), which must have had quite an impact on his young pupil.

The exhibition doesn't include every picture by Moroni because that would be impracticable and, besides, it's in the Sackler Galleries so there isn't enough space; but what it does do, rather well I thought, is to give us a rounded picture of Moroni's artistic output. The portraits are his most memorable and successful works, but the show makes the point that he also received commissions for religious pictures. These are where we see much more of Moroni's Renaissance heritage coming through and we see explicit examples of the young artist reacting to the past: his Trinity, for example, painted in his early thirties, which is a direct reworking of a composition by Lorenzo Lotto executed thirty years earlier (conveniently hanging alongside it here). Of the two, I found Lotto's original more attractive. It has greater softness and mysticism, whereas there's something hard-edged and less fluid about Moroni's: something a bit too didactic and a bit less suggestive. But that's telling: Moroni had spent some time in Trent at exactly the time the Council was laying down new rules about the role of art in promoting Catholic doctrines and religious narratives. He is more accomplished in his striking portraits where we see his sitters in contemplation of the Madonna and Child or the Baptism of Christ. These aren't like the Renaissance sacra conversazioni where patrons implausibly turn up kneeling, eavesdropping on the Madonna and saints. On the contrary, the sitters are engaged in the kind of religious meditation encouraged in the Counter-Reformation world, and it's as if we are somehow miraculously seeing with their inward eye and sharing their visions.

Portrait of Prospero Alessandri  |  Portrait of a gentleman contemplating the Baptism of Christ  |
Portrait of Lucia Albani Avogadro (detail)
But the most spectacular aspect of Moroni's work will always be his portraiture. The room of aristocratic portraits in the exhibition is simply ravishing: every picture is a masterpiece and every sitter has an air of enigma sufficient to inspire a novel. And the fabric painting...! Indeed, if you're liable to get bored by me rhapsodising about Renaissance costume, I'd just cut your losses now and skip to the last paragraph, because here there are enough soft velvets and cool satins, gold braids, dagged and frayed edges, pleated cuffs and blackwork collars to keep me going for hours. My personal highlight in this room was the Portrait of Giovanni Gerolamo Grumelli, commonly known as The Man in Pink for obvious reasons. He wears a splendid rose-coloured suit with doublet and hose embroidered with floral motifs in silver thread; seed pearls and braid decorate his knee garters and his shoes are of slashed rose velvet; even the blackwork on his collar and cuffs is pink. It's important to remember that at this date pink was considered to be quite a manly, virile colour: it was a shade of crimson, the high-status colour of senatorial robes, and thus a perfectly appropriate colour for well-born young men. 

And indeed, Grumelli looks like the kind of man it would be unwise to cross. He glances out at you, wary and considering, perhaps with a hint of mischief in the slight tilt of his eyebrow. He stands in a blaze of Renaissance grandeur among the fragments of antiquity, with a new dawn just showing above the crumbling, ivy-covered wall. He's twenty-four years old and the world is at his feet. And one of the gifts the world offered him, a year after this portrait was painted, was Isotta Brembati, whom he married after the death of his first wife. She hangs beside him in the exhibition: a shrewd and redoubtable lady. Indeed, she seems more than a match for her pretty young husband. She wears a marten fur as protection against death in childbirth (is that how Grumelli's first wife died?), but the most striking thing about the portrait is her gown, in stunning green and gold brocade, set off with an unexpectedly frivolous fan of pink and white ostrich-feathers. And her jewels are gorgeous too: the light dances on the curve of her pearls and plays in the depths of the garnet beads around her neck. She looks every inch the prosperous matron: it seems that neither she nor her husband felt the need to advertise her talents as a poetess.

If you crossed Isotta, you might pay for it with a sonnet or two, but some of Moroni's sitters could deal with you in a decidedly more conclusive kind of way. His portrait of Gabriel de la Cueva is a wonderful example of coiled power: this Spanish grandee served as Governor of Milan for seven years from 1564 and Moroni painted him four years before his appointment. The man we see here is an ambitious, worldly courtier waiting for his moment: he has a Spanish taste for luxurious understatement and his doublet is embroidered black-on-black, that most expensive of colours, while the crimson embroidered velvet of his hose is slashed to show silk beneath. He appears calm, even at ease. Unlike young Grumelli he doesn't pose: he leans back, feigning nonchalance, against a plinth. But the sword at his side is no aristo plaything but a serious piece of kit, and he stares out at us with calculating, narrowed eyes; if we needed any further reason to be wary, his motto on the plinth would give it to us: 'Aqui esto sin temor y de la muerte no he pavor' [I am here without fear and I have no dread of death]. Attaboy! 

He's matched for swagger by Faustino Avogadro, who hangs here beside his wife Lucia Albani Avogadro (both usually found in the National Gallery as well). Faustino is determined to show us his martial glory: he wears a buff jerkin over chain mail and his very serious-looking sword denotes him a warrior, even before you notice the decidedly over-the-top tournament helm propped on the side with its profusion of plumes. Usually you'd be tempted to dismiss such a man as a swaggerer, the kind who tells endless stories of deeds that probably never happened. But Faustino was a dangerous sort. By marrying Lucia he'd got caught up in her family's feud against the Brembati (Isotta's family), which culminated in 1563 when one of the Brembati nobles was murdered in church. Faustino's servant was arrested as one of the murderers, which made it clear enough where the guilt actually lay; Faustino and Lucia fled Bergamo and went into exile. For all his posturing, Faustino's end was rather undistinguished: he apparently fell into a well while drunk (although, having read too many novels, I can't help wondering whether he fell or was pushed).

Gabriel de la Cueva (full portrait and detail)  |  Giovanni Gerolamo Grumelli (detail and full portrait)
All these faces are full of stories and if I said all that I wanted to say about each one, we'd be here forever, so I'm going to limit myself to just a few more. In the following room are a few more intimate portraits, always with the same degree of psychological acuity, among which is the gorgeous Portrait of a girl of the Redetti family. This child, who can't be more than three years old, is dressed in a miniature version of adult's clothing: black-on-gold brocade, with a pleated ruff and cuffs and a string of pearls around her neck. More pearls are twined in her hair and she wears a little earring with three seed pearls set in it; you can just glimpse the coral bracelet she wears as protection against the evil eye. But what's most remarkable about this little girl is her air of self-possession. She is dressed like an adult; she has the cautious gaze of an adult; and yet Moroni doesn't make her look remotely adult-like, in contrast to so many painters at this period who had immense trouble painting children. She must be one of the most delightful painted children of the century.

The final room displays some of Moroni's later portraits, including my beloved Tailor. These lack some of the glamour of the showy aristos in the earlier room, but Moroni continues to probe into his sitters' souls. His portrait of Antonio Navagero is delightful, though probably not for the reason the patron intended: Navagero's sober fur-trimmed gown reveals a suit of surprisingly tight crimson satin, with a short doublet, narrow breeches and the most insistent codpiece in the entire show: an ensemble which sits rather ill at ease with his cheerfully ruddy, round-cheeked face and the threads of silver in his beard. Despite the surviving descriptions of Navagero as an 'intelligent' and 'prudent' man, who served with 'care and diligence' as podestà in Venice, you can't help thinking that he'd be the kind of dinner guest who'd drink more than his due, tell riotous stories and end up trying to chase the maidservants. Poor Navagero. A more distinguished picture is presented by Giovanni Gerolamo Albani, which shows Faustino Avogadro's father-in-law and fellow conspirator against the Brembati family. This magnificent old gentleman wears a sumptuous amount of ermine and his clothes are all black - which, remember, was the most expensive dye - while a jewelled crucifix hangs round his neck. Unlike every other sitter in the show he meets our gaze squarely and without wariness. He has been distracted from reading his book; he seems about to rise from his chair; but for now he just studies us with the politely indifferent air of a patriarch who fears nothing. He must have already known that Moroni would do justice to him, because the portrait was commissioned under flattering circumstances. Giovanni had (so they say) been in Venice, where he'd visited Titian and tried to commission a portrait. On hearing that he came from Bergamo, Titian had asked in some surprise why Giovanni wished to commission a picture from him; he advised him to get one from the talented Moroni instead. It's a good story and probably did Moroni no end of good when it circulated in Bergamo. Personally I don't believe it for a minute, because Titian was a canny fellow and I can't imagine him casually turning away trade; but it makes a good tale.

And Moroni deserved such praise. Every time I go to the National Gallery I stop for a moment in front of his portraits - they're on my personal highlights tour - and I really hope this exhibition will introduce him to a new audience. With his realism, his dazzling technique and his perceptiveness, Moroni is one of those painters who feels startlingly modern and whose pictures erase the five centuries that separate us from him. He deserves to be better known and I urge you, if you're in London, to visit the RA and to encounter him for yourselves - and to make the acquaintance of this gallery of lords, ladies, clerics and rogues who populate his stunning portraits.

Portrait of a girl of the Redetti family  |  Portrait of Giovanni Gerolamo Albani (detail)  |  Portrait of Antonio Navagero
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