Friday, 28 December 2012

Dickens' house museum

27 December 2012
Mr Fezziwig's ball, an illustration from A Christmas Carol.
This image of conviviality is what we've inherited from Dickens' view of Christmas.
Yet it effectively exists only in Scrooge's imagined happy past life.
It's how Scrooge chose, and chooses to respond to this vision that matters.
The reopening of his house museum is an opportunity to evaluate Dickens’ highly idiosyncratic views on Christmas. 

Dickens didn’t invent the nineteenth century obsession with Christmas, but this year, his two hundredth birthday, it is worth reflecting on how much he popularised the event, and what it seems to have meant for him. 

While he decorated yuletide with all the trimmings, and these trimmings are what we continue to associate with this time of year, his central interest was very different, and not at all Christian, though he might have objected to this. 

He perceived Christmas as a time of ghosts, both in the form of subjects of scary stories and metaphorically as a time for remembering our past life and perhaps changing our future approach based on this consideration. The Christmas Carol accommodates both these aspects, and when haunted Scrooge returns to the wonderment and imagination of his youth, the power of this imagination rejuvenates him.  

For Dickens, then, Christmas was principally a time when the imagination could work on us, and although his Christmas stories have the conventional happy ending, as with Scrooge, there is always the possibility that its workings will have a negative effect, as when we think on deaths in the family. 

The Dickens house museum, located in one of his early London residences, reopened in December just in time to capture those wishing to celebrate both the man and his connection with Christmas. 

The house was closed in order to extend the amenities, and allow more people to experience the original house. Nonetheless over the holiday period the house was extremely crowded, which limits the enjoyment.

It also suffers from the curse of all new museums – the interactives don’t work, nor is the guidebook back from the printers yet. Oh well, those wrinkles will be sorted out. 

Otherwise, I had mixed feelings. Too much focuses on what is referred to as Dickens’ sympathy with the poor, unparalleled in his time. Perhaps Dickens felt sympathy with the poor, though it would be hard to tell from his writing about them, always external to their situation, always sentimentalising much as he did with everyone.  

Moralist critics of Dickens, starting with his mentor Thomas Carlyle, have always complained about his sentimentality. These critics may miss the point, but they are at least accurate, unlike his moralist supporters, who claim that he was a champion of the oppressed.

The upper floor of this house is dedicated to this vision of Dickens, wildly wrong as would be observed by anyone simply reading how he described his temporary confinement to a blacking factory as a child, the great trauma of his life.  
 
In these words, he shows no sympathy for his fellow workers, most of whom were there for much longer than he. Rather, he is concerned that nobody noticed he was destined for much better things, as indeed, he was.

He knew his genius; he followed it; and on the side, like anyone with scruples, he expressed concern for the plight of the poor, though it had nothing to do with his talent, nor was it something he focussed upon unduly.

Dickens combined a vivid imagination (natively amoral, but trained into a conventional strict morality) with a love of theatre, especially comedy, and of conviviality combined with hard work. It is this mixture that produces what is distinctively great about his writing, which has almost nothing in common with that of any writer of his time.

Some of his strengths are reflected in the exhibits here. A playbill from one of his private performances of a Wilkie Collins melodrama (and notable, a farce afterwards). A dining room where we’re told he somehow entertained 18 people, which must have been very cosy, and a feat worthy of his Pickwick.
 
What a pity that here, as elsewhere, what is most important about Dickens, what makes him live, is buried amongst a focus on poverty that, if we seek for it in his works, does neither the author nor his current readers any credit.

Monday, 24 December 2012

The Hobbit: An unexpected journey

23 December 2012

Hobbit trailer. From youtube.

It wasn't broken, so it hasn't been fixed. And with only a few exceptions, repeating the same tricks doesn't yet bring weariness, which is a remarkable achievement.

I am probably the ideal audience for this film, given that I greatly enjoyed the same team's Lord of the Rings trilogy, in both cinema and extended DVD versions.

So I want more of the same, perhaps endlessly. That's what this film provides, and it seems we will get two more films, probably doing much the same thing.

I'm entranced by the mythic character of these films, taking place in a setting both recognisable and yet far removed from our direct experience. Perhaps fantasy worlds are uniquely suited to the immersive quality of cinema, although I accept that some aspects of myth cannot be treated easily on film.

Storywise, these trilogies are quests where the central character chooses to leave his life of prosperous rural bachelorhood in order to help others, and experiences various dangers before achieving the object of his quest, learning the value of friendship, and maybe self-sacrifice, though that is secondary.

To complain that the films lack sex, or sexual tension, is as meaningless as complaining about their bad grasp of economics.

The weakest aspects of these films so far have been the external villains. These have a brutish motiveless malignity, with a weak exception in Gollum's obsessive attachment to his one possession, which makes him convincingly wretched and disturbing.

Especially poor is the depiction of hordes of villainous orcs and goblins, where the occasional sympathetic trait doesn't prevent the heroes slaughtering them by the hundreds.

I don't imagine race-hate is considered a virtue by the filmmakers; probably they intend the villains to be just part of the challenges on the mythic quest. But there is something wrong in suggesting that peace and harmony can only be achieved with the extermination of whole races of speaking others. If that is found in all myths then that only confirms we need new myths.

The value of these films lies elsewhere than in the depiction of heroes and villains. Foremost, I think is the sense of spectacle, and particularly viewing new lands.

The films are tourist advertisements for the scenery of New Zealand, and landscape depiction remains awe-inspiring in this latest instalment. But the films also succeed in depicting other spectacles, whether large-scale battles, storms or detailed urban fantasies.

The design, whether physical or computer generated, is literally jaw-dropping. The designers create something with a convincing sense of history, to an extent seemingly impossible in other contexts, and this is the greatest debt the films owe to their original source, Tolkein's vast (mostly unpublished) writings on the history of his Middle Earth.

Director Peter Jackson (with editor Jabez Olssen) also has an unusual talent for thrills, combining the fluid camerawork of Sam Raimi's best films with the timing of Steven Spielberg's. Howard Shore's romantic motive-ridden music is so prominent that the films might almost be regarded as music drama.

Casting is inventive, given the challenge of differentiating all the dwarves, and Martin Freeman is particularly effective at grounding the film as the titular hobbit.

All the ingredients are present for many more hours of finely crafted escapism. I'm hooked again.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Cendrillon


Royal Opera House DVD, 2012

One of the coloratura highlights, which give a good indication of the rest of the work.
From youtube. 

Beautiful, boring and empty, this version of the fairy tale cannot be saved even by an amazing cast.

Once a popular composer, the hundredth anniversary of Jules Massenet’s death passed almost unnoticed in London, so I’ve opted for reviewing a 2011 Royal Opera production of his opera Cendrillon (Cinderella) on dvd.

Active during the decadent late nineteenth century when the concerns of high romanticism had become weary, the composer is most well known for his self-consciously lush sentimentality, allergic to the idea of a greater significance.

The director, Laurent Pelly, has done marvels with comic music dramas, from Rameau through Offenbach. Here, it is hard to tell if the tone of the piece reflects Massenet’s intentions, or Pelly’s comic interpretation, not that there is much humour amidst the camp.

Massenet and his librettist Henri Cain somehow manage to increase the sentimentality of the original Perrault folk story, so that it becomes so cloyingly sweet that it can only be intended as a kind of satire on the composer’s other works which are usually in a similar, though more explicitly realistic, vein.

This is an especially self-conscious work, which assumes familiarity with the story, but more than that, assumes that the audience will find the story naïve, and does nothing to dislodge that prejudice.

Comparison with Rossini’s earlier masterpiece Cenerentola seems useful. Both composer/librettist teams are faced with the same problem, of how to set a familiar story.

But Cenerentola, written in the first period of romanticism, is much the more lively work, compared to the deliberately tired approach at the other end of the century.

Where Rossini and librettist make Cinderella’s relatives unpleasant and at points extremely cruel, Cendrillon’s relatives are merely vain or weak-willed. Where the Italian prince is energetic and clever, the French hero is insipid and languorous. And most fatally, where the earlier drama maintains tension, the later one almost entirely removes it, so that we are almost always certain of a happy ending.

Musically, the piece is one long wallow in swooping strings, harps and long-breathed melody, broken with bright ‘magical’ coloratura or snatches of dance tunes attempting to evoke the elegance of the past.

Taking its description as a fairy tale literally, the opera makes great use of the fairy, who controls everything so completely that she might as well have written the tale, which is helpfully implied at the end of this production.

Unable to find any deeper interest in the work, I was left admiring the costumes and the singers. Pelly designed the former, which may explain his involvement.

The singers were perfect, and much better than the work deserved. Joyce DiDonato must have given the definitive performance of the title role, though I’ve no wish to sit through another performance to compare.

Ewa Podles has one of the darkest contralto voices I’ve heard, and gave good front as the snobbish stepmother, but Eglise Gutiérrez stole the show as a camp, busty, stratospheric fairy.

Bertrand de Billy’s conducting was soporific, though I don’t see how he could have energised this score. 

No amount of magnificent singing or costuming can bring this work to life; Massenet’s claims to our attention must lie elsewhere.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Robert le diable

Royal Opera House, 21 December 2012


The ballet of undead satanic nuns from Robert le diable, painting by Edgar Degas (1876).
From the V&A museum.
A talented cast and creative team cannot revive a lifeless treatment of a misguided 'virtue vs pleasure' myth.

Once hugely popular and influential, Meyerbeer's operas are now extreme rarities, even less popular than those of Gluck. But whereas Gluck deserves, and could surely sustain, a proper revival, I think posterity has judged Meyerbeer fairly.

I wouldn't dispute his importance, as his 'grand operas' established conventions for everyone else in the nineteenth century: tight plotting, a contrast between grand public scenes and intimate family relationships, and some form of redemption or heroic sacrifice.

But there is a great gulf between his ambitions and his achievement. The obvious comparison, in terms of themes, is with Wagner, but this is ridiculous. Even without examining the purpose to which Wagner's orchestral soundworld is put, its effect on us is radically different from Meyerbeer's, and in every sense greater.

A more useful comparison is with Verdi, who wrote at least two explicitly Meyerbeerian masterpieces (Don Carlos and Aida) or with Mussorgsky, whose two operas seem to me the pinnacle of what Meyerbeer is usually considered to be attempting, which is something political.

Mussorgsky first, because easiest. His rejection of conventional melody through his use of the rhythms of ordinary speech is extremely powerful for conveying the political world. It is also an innovation that places him in a different universe to Meyerbeer, for whom tunefulness is an axiom.

Verdi is the harder comparison. He seems extremely similar to Meyerbeer, in both approach and strengths (much moreso than Wagner).

Unhelpfully, I would describe the difference with the word gusto, as used in Hazlitt's crucial essay. Verdi's music gives his characters life in a way that Meyerbeer's cannot, beautiful though it sometimes is. Or rather, Meyerbeer only occasionally achieves this, and not so far as I heard in this particular opera.

His music is notoriously challenging for singers, and perhaps with a suitable cast it might come to life. But that is a serious criticism of it, as Verdi too blooms fully with great singers, but as with other great opera composers, his music works perfectly well without them.

I've now strayed into reviewing this production, and implied that the cast weren't great. They were only very good, which of course is not 'only' at all. Outside of New York, we're unlikely to get a better cast, so I'm not going to dwell on it.

In any case, I was more interested in the direction of Laurent Pelly, a director of comic opera whom I greatly admire.

He develops all of the presumably unintentional aspects of this version of the Faust myth. Comedy seems the correct tone for a story about a hero's indecision between heaven and hell, especially when this choice is mediated by his parents, the first dead and so speaking through Robert's saintly 'sister' Alice, the second alive and in vigorous malevolent health as Bertram, his diabolic new friend.

Equating hell with pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, effectively hobbles even the greatest artists, so that even Wagner cannot convince us that we should want heavenly non-pleasures, no matter how hard he tries, and this is very hard, in his Tannhauser.

Meyerbeer and his creative team don't even try to convince us. His dreary heaven wins only because the game is rigged: Robert doesn't choose, he merely vacillates until hell's (and Bertram's) time is up.

With considerable hindsight, it is clear that the supposed tension between virtue and pleasure explored so obsessively by the early nineteenth century romantics was a false dichotomy. In those works where the Faust legend retains its appeal, it is because the artist didn't centre their work on that dichotomy.

In rendering this opera as fundamentally comic, the production makes it entertaining once again, but I left suspecting Meyerbeer would be almost as unquiet in his grave as his famous satanic nuns.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Turner Prize shortlist 2012


Tate Britain, 2 October 20126 January 2013
 
A still from the film All Divided Selves by Luke Fowler, 2011.
Taken from here.
A fractured documentary on psychiatry is the highlight of a fairly uninspired exhibition.

We are not so very different from the ancient Greeks. Their games were occasions for prizes to both athletes and artists, and despite some ambivalence on our part with regards the latter, we still have things like this prize for visual art.

The fours artists, Spartacus Chetwynd, Luke Fowler, Paul Noble and Elizabeth Price, are all good, but none of their works are exceptional.

Tate Britain’s director claims the prize is neither a survey nor a barometer of contemporary British art, but I don’t believe this Its aim is “to promote discussion of new developments in British art”, but I wasn't sure what was supposed to be new here.

In terms of medium, the mix is unsurprising, indicative of what galleries are displaying and donors supporting. Fowler and Price provide video or film based exhibits (perhaps better expanded cinema), while Chetwynd’s is performance-based. This leaves Noble as the representative of plastic art, in a series of drawings and sculpture.  

Content-wise, Noble is also the most intentionally old-fashioned, with surreal drawings and globular erotic sculptures. I longed for some colour amongst these pseudo-architectural drawings, or perhaps some three-dimensional models of the proposed structures.

Chetwynd is the most political, coordinating an ensemble of amateur actors in anarchic events structured around the act of voting, in this case. That the voting process is peculiar and readily manipulated is not the most interesting thing about it, but that, along with some wacky humour, was what I took away from this exhibit.  

I’d seen Price’s video trilogy before, by chance, when it was exhibited at the BALTIC in Gateshead earlier this year. It seemed much more mysterious there; at Tate Britain I felt I could interpret it better, which may say something about the ‘hanging’ of video art. The suggestive narrative, linking architectural features in gothic churches with a fire in a department store, made me rethink gothic churches as representations of hellish afterlife, but nothing more. The handclaps in the soundtrack are effective though. 

Fowler’s 90-minute film meditation on RD Laing’s views on madness and psychiatry was the standout in the exhibition, for having a fairly clear meaning and one that is not trivial, unlike Chetwynd’s. A kind of biography of Laing, this focussed specifically on his still-controversial observation of the importance of social factors on mental health, something that by now ought to be acknowledged wisdom, but clearly isn’t. Laing is the hero of the film, and fascinates as much for his powerful personality as for his theories.

I’d give the prize to Fowler, if only because he addresses himself to a serious subject and treats it seriously. That said, Chetwynd’s irreverent approach to serious topics is interesting and I’d want to see more of it, though this particular piece left me cold.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Orpheus: The song of life


Ann Wroe
Published by Pimlico, 2011


Lamentation d'Orphée by Alexandre Séon (1896)
 An innovative prose poem biography that doesn't explain this hero's mysterious appeal.
 
I'm late reviewing this book, which was published in 2011, but I couldn't leave the London Olympics year without at least one review relevant to Ancient Greece...

In the future, we may feel this book is a pioneer of Wikipedia world, a product of our current Light Age, where so much information is available that organising it will be a work of art in itself. I suppose this raises the question of whether Google is a work of art, but I will leave that aside. 

Orpheus, the singer who descended to the underworld and returned, may seem a relatively simple hero of the ancient Western world, his story a convenient model for composers. But his mystery cult in ancient Greece influenced Plato and was once felt to be a harbinger of Christianity. For this if nothing else he deserves this innovative biography. 

I see nothing wrong in writing a biography of myth. While we’re certain that nobody ever heard Orpheus play his lyre, and are equally certain that many people heard Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, nobody we know has heard either, and artists and biographers are required in both cases to interpret. 

Wroe organises her facts under seven themes (or strings to Orpheus’ lyre), arranged broadly in a standard life cycle. So a section on love precedes a section on death. The material in each section is necessarily drawn from a wide range of sources, far-flung chronologically, geographically and linguistically. 

We get ancient Greek figure vases, ancient Roman poetry, early Christian philosophy, medieval romances,  renaissance paintings, modern films, and of course operas. The variety is bewildering, and the author cannot intend us to remember, for example, whether  contemporary readers of Orpheus on the Argonautica also knew of his love for Eurydice. 

Less a detached biography than a love song, the prose is breathless and poetic, as if the narrator were reciting one of Orpheus' hymns. We gain a unifying image of Orpheus out of the chaos, and he would seem to be the narrator’s wish-fulfilment, a beautiful non-sexual sensitive young man who is too wise to be truly attached to anything or anyone, though this only makes it easier to fall hopelessly in love with him. 

Sometimes, the narrator references something that wouldn’t be so easily located on wikipedia, such as a busker on the London Underground, singing to the shades that pass him, perhaps searching for his Eurydice. I wish there were more of these lateral references in this book; as it is, we are given Orpheus ‘straight’.  

Even here, though, some of his mystery has been conveyed better by other writers.  

The German poet Rilke features prominently in this book, with regular quotes from his Sonnets to Orpheus. Yet Wroe doesn’t seem aware of Erich Heller’s wonderful essay on Rilke and Nietzsche, in which Orpheus becomes for the poet something like a composite of Apollo and Dionysus for the philosopher. 

This is the biggest disappointment with the biography. It presents the facts in an entertaining manner, but doesn’t attempt to explain Orpheus’ significance, especially his significance to us, now. The affirmation of life in spite of its horror; the role of style in mediating between Dionysus’ indivisible terrifying truth and Apollo’s false yet beautiful mastery; all of this goes unmentioned.

But perhaps the book itself is an attempt to achieve that style, that balance. The last line, involving a coffee cup, cake and primroses, might suggest this.
 
On the whole, though, I feel Orpheus keeps his mysteries.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Koyaanisqatsi

Barbican, 14 December 2012

An excerpt from the film, depicting urban industrial life.

A peculiar birthday celebration for a great composer, showing a film that beautifies even industrialisation.

This review falls naturally into two parts, first on the form of this event and then on its content.

This was a concert performance of Philip Glass' music for the film Koyaanisqatsi. The film was shown on a screen behind a fairly large orchestra and choir.

The effect, then, was quite different from watching the film in a cinema. The screen was further and smaller, the sound more immediate. Whereas the stream of images comprising the visual aspect of the film would take precedence in a cinema, here it was the music that had the greater sensory impact.

We're familiar with this idea in relation to rescoring of silent films from 80 or so years ago, but this was the first time I'd experienced a film with its original soundtrack presented in this way.

The experiment was unwise. Scoring that may have been justified for the film in cinemas seemed extravagant for a concert hall. What were all those string players doing? And the brass? For most of the time they seemed silent, needed only for the crescendos of the insistent 'tracks'.

The concert was staged as part of the Barbican's birthday celebrations for the composer's seventieth, but I felt it didn't display his music at its best. I hadn't heard it previously; perhaps in its original cinema context it comes across as less second-rate Glass.

The images might also have been more impressive if they dominated my field of vision, as they would likely do in a cinema. Especially the first part, astonishing footage of various natural wonders and landscapes.

I suspect director Godfrey Reggio intended to have a very different impact than the one I experienced. Apparently the title translates from the Hopi as 'a life out of balance'. The first part of the film depicts 'unspoiled' majestic nature and the second part shows us our urban experience, or parts of it, normally sped up.

Presumably I was supposed to feel our lives are out of balance, something I would normally be receptive to. Instead, the images of urban life formed as beautiful a pattern as the previous images of rural solitude, and I experienced man's supposedly despoiling effect on the environment as something wholly natural and even beautiful.

It is strange to witness the grinding monotony of industrial life and feel nothing, except perhaps that it is possible to find transcendent beauty even there. A disturbing consequence is the viewer's collusion in dehumanising workers, but if the images are beatiful and the music is beautiful, I don't see how the effect could be otherwise.

Art lies, but I doubt this was supposed to be the response I left with.

I want to end the review on a positive note. The concert reminded me that Glass is a major composer, prolifically creating music that is popular, individual and influential. His willingness to collaborate with others is commendable, personified here in his willingness to become just another player in the orchestra, conducted by Michael Riesman.

The audience gave him a standing ovation, and this seemed fully deserved, in his roles as both composer and interpreter of his music.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

The Casual Vacancy

JK Rowling
Published by little, brown book group, 2012
 
Part of the Forest of Dean (UK), apparently the model for Rowling's Pagford.
According to Robert McCrum in the Guardian.
Teenage angst in a small town with big problems, this 'condition of England' novel is weakened by an unecessary lunge towards tragedy.

It’s not embarrassing, nor is it masterful. It is decent, and worthy, and though I resented reading this when I could be reading greater works, it moved me, and so was a distinct improvement over the author’s previous work. 

The startling success of the Harry Potter series  still needs explaining, for Rowling wasn’t exactly original, crossing Enid Blyton’s Famous Five with Tolkeinesque fantasy. Maybe that particular mix was original, though I think rather that the growth of the characters over the books contributed more than other factors to the series’ success.  

That growth from childhood to adolescence continues . The latest novel is not quite aimed at adults, whomever we might be, despite the publishers hype. The central characters are teenage school students, and the conflicts are between these young people and their parents.  

So this is more of a teenage novel, or a novel for parents of teenagers. These relationships are presented believably, though I think my idea of believable might be drawn from TV soap opera, and so too Rowling. 

In any case, although the parent-child relationships are the most memorable aspect of this novel, Rowling has a frame – and plot – within which to showcase these relationships.  

The setting is a rural village with a housing estate on its outskirts, and the plot contains a political battle to either retain or detach responsibility for this estate. Given her huge potential readership, this is a commendable subject, and broadly speaking the author’s sympathies are in the right place. She gives a voice to the wretched and oppressed, while not sentimentalising them. 

A sort of sentimentality does creep in though, and it can be found tainting the representation of the major villains, the village old guard. They are presented as grotesque in almost every way, and the author ensures they receive a 'poetic' comeuppance.

More problematically, the plot climaxes with a double death on the estate. For the first, of the toddler Robbie, we feel nothing, as he remains throughout a cipher, symbolising the failures of both his family and our care system, or, from a different angle, the last remaining hope of his half-sister Krystal. She is a more substantial character, and her subsequent suicide is clearly supposed to have a tragic sense.

Krystal’s suicide doesn’t achieve tragedy, though it is moving. She too must receive punishment for her behaviour as we have seen it in the novel. She has been reckless, epicurean, resentful, and leading good young men astray. Her punishment is as just as that of the reactionary grotesques who despise her. 

Wait a minute. I’m sure this wasn’t Rowling’s intention. We must be supposed to feel remorse at her death, as the other characters do. Somehow we have failed her, this potentially brilliant young woman, who simply needed a little help in life. 

That both of the previous paragraphs might be true needn’t be a problem – ambiguous cruelty is the very heart of tragedy. But I felt that Rowling wasn’t trying to be ambiguous, and so in the end wasn’t in control of her material. Again, this needn’t be a problem, as some of the greatest artworks seem to have operated counter to their makers’ intentions, but here the effect is in the opposite direction, of bathos rather than pathos.

If the plot doesn’t quite work, the pacing is fast and clear. It’s easy to criticise Rowling’s style, but in focussing on plot she deflects this criticism. She isn’t a stylist, but many stylists can leave the reader bored. She isn’t a literary genius, but it is hard to detect these among living authors, so I don’t think this can be a serious criticism of her.

I’m hoping her next novel will focus on adults, with teenagers and children secondary. Here, when the focus is on adult relationships, disbelief is poorly suspended. 

Pre-Raphaelites

Tate Britain, 12 September 201213 January 2013

Laus Veneris by Burne-Jones. From the Tate website.
Nature depicted with such intense moral significance: are we in purgatory?

Their typical style is distinctive: strong lines, bright colours, and lots and lots of realistic detail. Their typical effect is also distinctive, a hypercharged naturalism, as if every blade of grass were contributing to a message.

Many of their pictures indeed have an explicit moralising message. It is a relief when we come across a Holman Hunt painting without one, as his belated protestant reimagining of devotional christian works are usually hectoring sermons, sometimes unintentionally funny, as in the muscular pop star depiction of Jesus dominating one of the rooms in this exhibition.

Within their peculiar style, each of the principle members of this movement were able to distinguish themselves. Throughout this exhibition it is possible to guess which painter was responsible for which painting.

A detail from Millais' Isabella, taken from here.
Everett Millais, in particular, is shown achieving a dubious eminence. Technically, he was astonishing: the Isabella on display is as great as anything else shown, and he was a teenager when he painted it. But he appears never to have acquired gusto, so that his mature works are merely tasteful, or 'harmonious' albeit in an extremely refined manner.

Looking at Millais' famous Ophelia, a more fundamental ambiguity emerges. It is probably the extreme example of the pre-raphaelite tendency to make the background so detailed, so vibrant, that it overwhelms the foreground.

Only later in both the exhibition and in time, with the arrival of paintings by Burne-Jones, does this ambiguity seem to resolve itself, with compositions that balance subject matter and setting. But his paintings have as many points of contact with the broader Symbolist movement as with the pre-raphaelites proper.

The central artist here, appropriately, is DG Rossetti, the lynchpin of this amorphous movement. I'm perplexed that this great poet felt his true calling was painting. Yet he certainly possessed greater imagination than the others, shown by his hugely influential images of beatiful women.

Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) by Rossetti.
From the Tate website.
Something of the character of his poetry (and life) can also be seen in other paintings here, such as his Annunciation, in which Mary looks terrified of sexual abuse by the archangel. This is the most memorable and disturbing image in the exhibition.

Given this, I'm not surprised that Rossetti could not finish Found, with its piously misogynistic moral worthy of Holman Hunt.

Proper appreciation of this movement's achievement must also consider poetry and other works. In particular the poetry and prose of Rossetti and Morris significantly transforms the model of Tennyson, who might otherwise be falsely seen as the key pre-raphaelite poet, given that his poems provided many of the subjects for the paintings, though these were equally transformed.

And of course, several other major poets were associated with the movement, including Swinbourne, Meredith and Holman Hunt's poetic counterpart, the powerful Christina Rossetti.

The curators claim that these painting represent the Victorian avant-garde, which doesn't really guide the visitor through these earnest, intense pictures. A glance at the Turners in the Tate is enough to show where the the persisting 'avant garde' lies. How did his abstract late paintings, all created before any of the works in this show, fail to influence Millais et al?

The catalogue is a thorough reference work on the paintings and their reception.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

L'elisir d'amore

Royal Opera House, 28 November 2012
 
Enrico Caruso singing Una furtiva lagrima from this opera in his 1904 recording.
Magnificent singing, though the opera would probably work better without this aria!
 
A committed cast and engaging production make the most of this charming, almost flawless masterpiece.

L'elisir d'amore (the love potion) is an undemanding, charming comedy. I didn't find it funny, even in the experienced hands of original director Laurent Pelly and the director for this revival, Daniel Dooner. Comedy is extremely hard, and music comedy seems to be even harder.
 
The integration of music with a comic drama can heighten the mechanical sense of a farce, as in the zany, cruel operas of Rossini. It can also add emotional depth as in Mozart, with the sense that these are real people and that in real life, the drama would have the opposite of a happy ending. Sometimes it can heighten the actual humor, as in the works of Offenbach and his best librettists Halévy and Meilhac.

Most often, it is used to add charm and interest to what might be thin stuff in a non-musical drama. That is what happens here.

The composer is helped by a strong plot, adapted from that master of plotting Scribe by the talented Romani. Strong in the sense that the many implausibilities do not include anyone acting contrary to their estabilished character. The implausibilities are 'external'.

Nonetheless, a long unfunny comedy with just 5 singing characters, one of whom is extremely minor, could easily bore. Donizetti keeps everything tuneful and charming, while generally avoiding any attempt at pathos.

With one exception. The tenor aria Una furtiva lagrima, extremely famous at least since Caruso sang it so perfectly, is a misguided addition to the work. It is lachrymose and pointless, especially as the audience already knows that Nemorino has won Adina.

This overall economy of means has to rely on the chorus to achieve variety, and Pelly/Dooner excel in breathing life into these villagers, with judicious use of actors among the singers.

The chemistry between Adina and Nemorino is the other key to the success of this production. Clearly part of this is the director's skill, as it has worked with different singers, but this time round the interaction was noticeably improved, which is to the credit of Aleksandra Kurzak and Roberto Alagna, respectively.

Alagna was completely convincing in his role, which might sound like a backhanded compliment as Nemorino is described by his rival Belcore as the village idiot, and is sometimes played like that. But this Nemorino was charming, energetic, playful and trusting, and finally generous towards Belcore.

Nothing in the libretto or score requires him to be an idiot; rather he is effectively crazed by hope, even if in the end his hope is rewarded. Mozart and da Ponte might have made more of that, and made us aware of the fallacies of hope, but that would be a very different work.

As the quack Dulcamara, Ambrogio Maestri reminded me of Verdi's Falstaff, and I don't think that is only because he is alarmingly corpulent. Impressively self-aware, to the point of admitting Adina is smarter than he is, and almost as credulous as the villagers when it seems his wine might actually work as a love potion. And then leading the villagers in a final chorus praising his elixir, which happens incidentally to praise wine.

I wasn't in the mood for a comic opera at the start of this evening. When I left Covent Garden, I was buzzing and cheerful.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Triple bill: Kenneth MacMillan

Royal Opera House, 27 November 2012
 
Requiem (1976), Richard Cragun. Photo © Leslie E. Spatt. From here.

Three ballets illustrating what can be done with dance, though camp is an unpleasant companion in each, whatever its other strengths and weaknesses.

This tribute to the Royal Ballet's former choreographer comprised Concerto, Las Hermanas and Requiem, the last itself a tribute to choreographer John Cranko.
 
The pieces were well chosen to show the range of modern choreography. The first was abstract and undramatic, the second dramatic and tragic, the third abstract yet dramatic and poignant.
 
Concerto, to Shostakovich's second piano concerto, seemed to me the least successful work, though this may have been due to being placed first in the bill. It stressed the delightful aspect of the concerto, with perky ensembles in bright colours, much leaping and prancing and some forced smiles from the straining dancers.
 
Choosing this concerto in the first place was a great idea, given its relentlessly tuneful nature. But the finale was taken much slower than it would have been in a normal concert, and while this is an understandable concession to dancing, the effect further reduced the presence of intoxicating dionysus in favour of serene apollo.
 
The piece also highlighted what seems a common problem with dancing to anything other than a minimilist score. There is at least one moment in the slow movement where the emotional involvement deepens, and this wasn't reflected by the dancing.
 
Emotional intensity was if anything a little overdone in Las Hermanas, a short tale of repression, lust, sibling rivalry and finally suicide. The dancing was extremely expressive, but the result was more hothouse melodrama than proper tragedy. I think this must be because the timeframe was so compressed. We didn't receive a full impression of each of the relevant characters.
 
A striking aspect of this work is its negative portrayal of men, or at least, the only male character, who is so priapic that at one point he rests on his haunches like a sexually frustrated ape. MacMillan is deft at portraying his obvious appeal to the sisters, but given his one-dimensional sexualised nature, without even courage, so that he runs when threatened by the aged mother, he is a weak point in the drama. Can these women really be so passionate over such a trivial figure?
 
I don't want to be too negative. If it is a weakness to portray the man as one-dimensional, this at least inverts the usual situation of the one-dimensional sexpot woman.
 
Requiem is clearly intended to be a Major Statement. Any audience member applauding during the scene changes was shushed by the conductor, ballet veteran Barry Wordsworth.
 
It's extremely impressive, though the effect on me ranged from mild disgust to sorrow, a range probably not intended by MacMillan, and certainly not by composer Faure, though his mass for the dead normally affects me in this way.
 
I suspect that having chosen this particular piece of music, there was little chance MacMillan could have effectively subverted its sentimental, candles-and-incense catholicism. He certainly tries, and the result is surprisingly moving, a series of tableaux representing the the masculine and feminine parts of a soul presumably passing into the afterlife, and its effect on the community they leave behind.
 
Camp was not wholly avoided: pastel lighting, noble expressions and, in particular the shuffling company at the very beginning. But the overall effect was the best interpretation of this music I've experienced.

The distancing, belittling effect of camp seemed close to the surface in each of these pieces, what with the bright prancing of Concerto, the impression of drag-queen hysteria in Las Hermanas, and the pastels of Requiem. On reflection, I don't feel any of these pieces needed a camp element for their efectivenesss, so conclude it is either intrinsic to MacMillan or to the current production of these works.

Performances were exceptional, and it would be unfair to single any out, though I can't resist praising Zenaida Yanowsky in Las Hermanas if only because of her elongated frame and her commitment to exploiting this oddity to the full in her interpretation. Inspired casting and brave acting.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein

Royal Collection (London), 2 November 2012 - 14 April 2012

Noli me Tangere, by Holbein.
From the Royal Collection.
The tensions of the reformation emerge as stronger influence on northern art than that of classical antiquity, with some profound, and some unpleasant consequences for the art itself.

Both words in the title of this wonderful and thought-provoking exhibition are problematic, the first for curatorial reasons, the second for more interesting ones.

Northern, in this context, is necessarily a little limited, even when assumed to refer to Europe. There are no Scandinavian painters, nor any from countries in the north and east, such as Poland or Lithuania.

Of course, even the largest collection would have trouble representing all of these areas, and even within the geographic remit, some major artists are missing. I learnt from the detailed catalogue that the Prince Regent failed to buy Van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait in 1818 so that none of that great pioneering oil painter can be found in this exhibition, though a short trip to the National Gallery rectified that, thankfully.

But was this a 'renaissance'? A comparison with Italian contemporaries is interesting, for south of the Alps painting, whether in oil or onto walls, was more sculptural, more obviously influenced by newly unearthed antique statues.

A kind of intense faith seems to have been a more important development in the north, and I don't see how this can easily be ascribed to rediscovering classical values. Humanism was a strong current, but it clashed with faith instead of complementing it, as in Italy. The curators provide details of the complicated political backdrop against which the humanists and the reformers clashed.

From the former tradition, Erasmus and Thomas More are represented through both multiple portraits and through their (printed) books. For Erasmus, tellingly, this is his edition of the Greek Testament, rather than his non-Christian works. Erasmus' enemy Luther is directly represented by his characteristically savage attack on Henry VIII of England, though his presence is implicit almost everywhere.

Faith emerges unexpectedly. Even when Cranach is painting (erotic) classical scenes in the best renaissance tradition, these turn out to be alternatives to biblical scenes, which were considered suspect by the reformers.

To take an example from the greatest art, Dürer's series of engarvings on the subject of the apocalypse, widely expected in 1500, can be compared with Botticelli's Mystic Nativity, happily nearby in the National Gallery. Both masterpieces are dramatic, but the first seems terrifyingly Christian, while the second is delightfully pagan.

Perhaps given these different concerns of artists in the north and south, the curators avoid any stereotypes about the supposedly one-way influence of art from Italy. Indeed, I learnt that Vasari and Condivi describe a young Michelangelo painting a scene based on a print by Schongauer, the artist who also influenced Dürer (see below).
The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Martin Schongauer.
From the British Museum.


The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Michelangelo.
From the Kimbell Art Museum.
Enough of the art history. What of the art itself? Much of it is great, some of it is mediocre, but as usual, the greater artists are improved when set in context.

For me, this was especially true of Holbein, whom I'd previously disliked. In addition to some beautiful portraits (beautiful because not especially true to life, I think, despite contemporary claims for their realism), there is a wonderful Noli me tangere.

It is profoundly spiritual, with verdant foliage seeming to sprout from the risen god, and radiance within the tomb. But it is also appropriately human, from the expressions of the angels to the eye contact between the principles. Best of all, the way the composition draws the eye to the expressive gestures of the man and woman.

Another National Gallery comparison came to mind: Titian's version of the same subject. At first, I preferred the greater torsion and drama of the earlier Italian work, but I now think the German painting is the more emotional piece, though with a more disturbing religious connotation, as the human woman is more distant from the god man.

These contrasts came to mind as a result of the cumulative impact of the exhibition, which leaves a powerful impression. With so much to ponder, I should have doubled the length of my visit.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

The Master

Aubin cinema, 23 November 2012

Teaser trailer from here.

A promising idea derailed by choosing to focus on the wrong lead character.

"If you can go through life without serving a master, any master, then come back and tell us about it, because you'd be the first person in history to discover how," says the master of the film's title, a US cult leader bearing a resemblance to the founder of scientology (here called The Cause). He is speaking to his difficult disciple Freddie, and it is mostly through Freddie's experiences that we approach the cult.

This is an ambitious film, exploring both the nature of cult and of leadership, or perhaps the ubiquity of master/slave relationships.

Clearly a central challenge must have been the casting of the master himself, and Philip Seymour Hoffman conveys the right amount of self-belief, furious when contradicted, charming when not. It's a charismatic portrayal, though I was unfavourably reminded of his performance in The Talented Mr Ripley, in which his character effortlessly conveyed the charm and self-confidence that can come with inherited wealth.

The most interesting parts of the story happen tangentially, and involve the master's apparently inexorable rise.

We first see him commanding a yacht. It emerges he has been loaned this by rich socialite acolytes. We don't see these again, but at a later point he is arrested and subsequently fined heavily for damaging the yacht and defrauding these friends. He is unfazed, and this is utterly convincing, as is the reference to past wives hounding him.

And despite his mysterious interest in Freddie, long after everyone else has given him up, he issues an ultimatum in their final scene: serve me or become my mortal enemy in a future life.

Such uncompromising self-aggrandizement, when spinning a vast fantasy, can be compelling, though perhaps more beneficial in creatives than in politicians or faith leaders.

These are not comparisons developed, or even suggested, in this film. Rather, it is part of the tradition of examining confidence tricksters or charlatans, for it is clear that The Cause is founded on hypnotic suggestion and paranoid science fiction.

It would be interesting to wonder what circumstances permit the success of one charlatan over another. Is there something about the society? It shocked me when we see The Cause opening a massive school in the UK. I'm sure part of my response was chauvanistic, but partly it was because this particular cult seemed peculiarly keyed to US culture; not that a similar cult mightn't work in the UK, but that it would probably need a different set of crazy tenets.

The film is silent about this wider cultural context, and this is a symptom of its biggest flaw. By choosing to centre the narrative on the shell-shocked malcontent Freddie, we necessarily lose wider contexts.

The Freddie focus has a more serious problem. It licenses the kind of showy 'from the outside' performance that mars many films aiming at Oscars. Joaquin Phoenix gives us a lip curling, inarticulately savage, shuffling, oversexed performance of such ugliness that it is amazing Freddie has even the modest success with women he is shown to enjoy.

This walking parade of tics capsizes the film. Paul Thomas Anderson both wrote and directed Freddie, so he must take the blame for ruining his own film.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

The Pilgrim's Progress

English National Opera, 20 November 2012

An aria from the Pilgrim's Progress, details here.
 
A magnificent but disturbing work, constructively subverted by the production.
 
Much as I love the music of Vaughan Williams, I wonder what drew him so obssessively to Bunyan's allegory, given that he avoids most of the more appealing human aspects of that work in his adaptation for the stage, and in one vital respect stresses its least appealing aspect for a liberal audience, its puritanism.

Having the Pilgrim (Christian in the book) centrestage requires us always to recall that this is a morality tale, and that we are meant to be judging the joys of Vanity Fair as harshly as Bunyan thought we ought to. But this is simply not how we read the book, with its vital characters who only incidentally happen to have a didactic purpose.

Things would be much better if the composer had been able to breath erotic life into the music of Vanity Fair, or satanic glory into Appolyon. As it is, we are left with piety and landscapes, a kind of self-parody. The Pilgrim's Progress is not undramatic, as some people seem to think, but it is poor theatre and needs a lot of help to work.

It gets it here. Yoshi Oïda sets the imprisoned Bunyan's dream within the prison itself, so that the journey from this life to the next amounts to preparation for a public execution.

The grotesque conclusion might seem to completely undermine Vaughan Williams' incredibly beautiful and spiritual music, but instead the music transfigures what we see on stage. I would be interested to learn how a US death-penalty supporting christian evangelical might experience this production. I suspect they might approve, so that this drama is a powerful reflection of views diametrically opposed to my own.

For when presenting the slow attainment of this dubious grace by the Pilgrim, the music is overwhelmingly powerful, a mixture of introspection and rhapsody, and fully justifying the composer's belief this was his masterpiece.

Conductor Martyn Brabbins deserves the credit here, maintaining momentum and managing transitions masterfully. Acting and singing reach a very high standard.

A drama that exhalts humility and the spiritual life over the pleasures of the flesh, or even of affable sociability is hard to take, especially when the exhalting is quite so wonderful and the pleasures so meagre. English National Opera have shown how it can be done.