Saturday, 30 March 2013

Matthew's Passion

29 March 2013
'Mache dich mein Herze rein', sung by Thomas Quasthoff.

An attempt at reproducing a performance Bach might have heard proves less than authentic regarding the truths of the work itself. 

This performance was something of an extreme in period practice, and while it was worth experiencing, it didn’t capture the greatness of this masterpiece. 

Apparently replicating the conditions of a 1729 vespers performance arranged presumably by Bach himself, there was a thought-provoking sermon before part two, and congregational hymns before each part. This conceit worked until the end, when not only was there another hymn, but a motet also, which while beautiful quite ruined the supreme finality of the Passion’s ‘Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder’. 

Even if this gross artistic blunder was actively approved, rather than endured, by the composer, that would be no reason for repeating the mistake now. 

Listening to a back-slapping celebration of historically-informed performance on BBC Radio 3 today, I could appreciate that the effort to perform works as the composer might have expected to hear them has been beneficial; but in this Passion, at least, there are surely various satisfying ways to perform it, and the larger, more romantic performances of old take the work more seriously. 

This is the grandest, most solemn artwork in our tradition. Listening to it with reduced forces (choral, vocal and orchestral) gives a sense of lightness and vigour more appropriate to the Messiah. Contemplating the meaning of Jesus’ death – avoided entirely in Handel’s masterpiece – brought out the weightiest side of Bach, and this should be reflected in performance. 

Perhaps a faster Passion, timewise, is considered sensible. But this avoids the challenge to the conductor and performers, for the great slow Passions of old recordings do not seem to take longer than the faster versions. It’s one of the oddities of music. 

This Passion got off to a terrible start, with an opening chorus that sounded light and chaotic, whereas when done differently it can be overwhelming, and yet somehow, magically, not so overwhelming that the rest of the work suffers in comparison. 

Certainly the rest of the work was an improvement in this performance, and generally the solo arias and recitatives did benefit from the intimacy of the setting. 

My feelings were mixed over the chorales. The setting made sense of them: the sense of a congregation was clear. But they were treated perfunctorily, whereas in better performances they add cumulatively to the Passion’s effect. 

And what is that effect? The sermon helpfully highlighted Jesus’ basic passivity. He is not a tragic figure in the usual sense – as he says, he could escape his fate anytime he wanted to.  

The mystery of this fate, whether his sacrifice is needed, his anguish both in Gethsemene and on when crucified, are captured both in the apostle’s text and in the surrounding enhancing meditations, but most of all in the music. 

So the effect is tragic, powerfully so. But there is also hope, most wonderfully expressed in arias such as ‘Mache dich, mein Herze, rein’. 

What hope there might be, after such passively accepted cruelty, whether necessary or not, is mysterious to me. But I think it is the central mystery of the Christian faith, and in addressing it directly, and so wonderfully, this Passion is the most effective expression of that faith, so far as I have experienced. 

With a work of such importance, I should not overly complain about how badly this well-intentioned, interesting performance served it. The piece seems to me indestructible, and in any particular hearing criticism takes second place to grateful experience.

Monday, 25 March 2013


St John's, Smith Square, 23 March 2013
I Know That My Redeemer Liveth, sung by Kirsten Flagstad.
Almost nothing like the more intimate performance I review, but a marvellous version nonetheless. From youtube.
Handel's deceptively simple masterpiece, in a fresh, invigorating performance.

Could any venue be better for this work? Handel may have viewed the piece as theatrical, but it is surely his most intensely religious composition, where he achieves an almost overwhelming proselytising effect through means that suit him ideally – namely, upbeat tuneful arias and stirring climaxes, choral in this case.  

A church converted to a concert hall is surely his ideal. The small orchestra and choir gave an intimate, generally fast and snappy performance, with weight only when necessary. 

It’s an uncanny masterpiece, in several respects, mostly related to Jennings’ text, which is set with such simplicity and genius by Handel that we can assume the text spoke to him as directly as the whole thing now speaks to us.  

First, while everyone notices the narrative is episodic, unlike the operas and oratorios based fully upon the Hebrew Bible, it is more idiosyncratic than that – it glosses Christ’s life with almost embarrassing haste, moving from birth to death without mention of his ministry.

It’s as if Christianity, here, is all about the coming of the redeemer, who will judge in fire, both 2000 years ago and presumably forever more, thanks to his resurrection. 

Second, while Handel gives definitive voice to Isaiah, the Hebrew Bible is powerfully rewritten as being completed by Christ, as if Messiah were the culmination of the efforts of John and Paul in the Greek Testament. 

The high point in the work is the Hallelujah chorus, immediately followed by the sublime ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’, music that might not be out of place even in Bach’s incomparable Matthew’s Passion. But this completely subverts the intention of the Hebrew Bible – it quotes Job, who does not believe in a redeeming God, much less Christ; he is referring to a vindicator, who will prove he has been wronged by God.  

So if the Messiah is a collection of inspired tunes, and memorable phrases, it is also a near-abstract drama, subverting both Hebrew and Christian traditions yet has somehow become central to the faith of millions of people worldwide.

In short, by avoiding or subverting most of the substantial aspects of the Hebrew and Greek bibles, yet drawing upon them for poetic effects, Messiah promotes an evangelical, feel-good Christianity.

This was a mostly thrilling performance, without major solo stars, but with great commitment. Only William Berger took time to get to grips with his arias, though by the last one he was properly relishing the text.

Sunday, 24 March 2013


22 March 2013

Trailer. The film was showing as part of the 2013 Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

The heroine's struggle against religious hypocrisy gets slightly sidelined by the simpler, vicarious intrest in her setting.
It seems likely a film evokes the sense of a specific place more vividly than other dramatic art forms, and that this evocation may at times be so vivid that it overrides the purely dramatic aspects of the work. 

In visual arts, the setting can sometimes be more interesting than the specific art; with a film, the setting within the film itself can be more interesting than the drama. 

This film was shot within Saudi Arabia, and much of its appeal is in representing that country and its culture, a form of filmic tourism I suppose.  

I came away feeling I had been given an insight into the country, including such things as the colour of the sky, the feel of the streets, and so on. Some observations engaged my curiosity, my need to know more: yellow buses with ‘school bus’ written on them, in English. 

The setting, the ‘local colour’, is especially misleading in a film, for it is to some extent an artifice of the filmmaker, much as the plot and drama is.  

The plot here concerns a schoolgirl and her quest for a bicycle, most unlikely to be fulfilled given society’s disapproval. It’s an entertaining quest, and involves her learning to recite quranic verses for a school competition. 

The climax, the successful recitation, is both beautiful oral poetry and ironic, for the recitation requires Wadjda to believe the verses ‘in her heart’, and the text is a marvellous denunciation of the religious hypocrisy that has prevented Wadjda from expressing herself, and which is likely to continue to oppress her, and her lone parent mother, for the rest of their lives. 

The film slightly pulls back from the bleakness of my last sentence in its final scenes. I’m not sure the sense of hope is justified, especially as the film’s major villain is the school principal, a woman who has learned to use religion as a form of power, but who is nonetheless oppressed by it. This vivid hypocrite significantly tells Wadjda that they share a similar approach to life.  

Presumably, Wadjda may still become the villain. Her other role models are limited, and hope alone is shown elsewhere in the film to be damaging (Wadjda’s mother, for example). 

Despite its attempt at hope, in the end, the film is more powerful for discreetly showing us how hard the struggle against ingrained religious hypocrisy can be. In some ways it is fairly respectful of Saudi society, but it portrays an environment where hypocrisy and degradation can become institutionalised, meaning extremely difficult to dispel. 

The film is shot in the ubiquitous docudrama style: intimate, naturalistic, with some languorous scenes interspersed with more rapid editing. The acting is thoroughly convincing.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The Sessions

11 March 2013

The official trailer. Watch this, and you have no need to watch the whole film.

Extremely slight idea, not developed beyond stating it. Worth nobody’s time.

A woman sex therapist (sexual surrogate) helps a man paralysed from the neck down to have his first sexual experience.  

That’s it. 

I suppose there must be more, to fill out the space, both in the film and in this review. She is married to a mostly understanding man; she provides some extremely obvious therapy, suggesting the central character blames himself for getting the polio that crippled him. 

Plausibly, he falls in love with her. As he is a poet, he is somehow able to get her to reciprocate, implausibly.

I can’t think of a good reason to watch this film. It has some cute moments, most involving his Catholic priest, and is frank about sex, and sex for disabled people in particular.

However, the film is mostly curious for its treatment of disability. Mark is mostly confined to an iron lung but appears remarkably chipper. And financially secure. Is he getting his money from writing? How can he afford a nice house and to pay for a full-time carer, much less sex therapy?

All of this seemed extremely implausible, though as this is ‘based on a true story’ I suppose it’s broadly accurate.

Nonetheless the filmmakers have chosen to provide an account of disability that ignores all social and economic questions beyond sex. Even the religious support (the priest) is so worldly he might as well be a guy down the pub. 

I appreciate this is a relatively upbeat story about disability, presenting a positive view, rather than suggesting lives of unbearable torment. 

But does this warrant a focus entirely on sexual satisfaction as being the most important thing in life? The sexual therapist has a very pragmatic approach, but the filmmakers disregard this in the sentimental closing scenes, which suggest that having known the love of three beautiful women makes life in an iron lung worthwhile. 

It’s all very anodyne, and gives the impression of straining for Oscar-worthiness, as if all that a US film has to do to be an artistic success is sympathetically portray increasingly extreme states of physical or mental disability.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Written on Skin

Royal Opera House, 8 March 2013

To the left of the stage, and above: the modern world of the angels.
To the right, the medieval world of the protagonists, one of whom is an angel. From here.
An ambiguous success for a work that might be better suited to a simpler theatrical treatment.

I knew nothing about this opera’s story when I watched this, and until I read the programme, I didn’t understand several important aspects of it.

Does this matter? I was impressed by the work, and willing to accept some things were mysterious, before I understood the creators’ intentions in the bits I didn’t understand. So the opera passed what could be called the Debussy test: I reacted favourably on first experience. 

But I’m not sure that the production can be regarded as a success if it doesn’t make clear what the creators intended.  

Specifically, this is supposed to be a drama managed, or recreated, by angels. A grisly twelfth century Occitan story is presented by these angels, resurrecting two of the three protagonists for our contemporary ‘enjoyment’, with the third protagonist (a boy) taken by another angel. 

I didn’t understand any of this. Better informed, on reflection, I still don’t understand why the stage was split, with the angels operating in our time and sometimes moving in slow motion relative to the re-enacted medieval scenario.

The two contrasting time periods (medieval, real people: contemporary, angels) only seemed to add a level of confusion to the drama, as did the poetic tendency of the medieval characters to talk about themselves in the third person. 

Such self-conscious theatricality isn’t new – it might be as old as Aeschylus – but I don’t see that it adds anything. I suppose it’s necessary to alienate the audience from a horrible event, and librettist Martin Crimp does his best here, given a myth about a man serving his wife the heart of her lover (the boy).

However, we are also well used to horrific acts on stage, and this isn’t especially disturbing. Crimp implicitly accepts this by focussing more on the wife’s rebellion against the order imposed by her husband, also referred to as the Protector. This is signified by her naming. She is the only character to receive a name, and this is clearly a step on her way to self-realisation, as something other than a possession. 

Onto this straightforward but powerful story, Crimp adds layer upon layer of unnecessary metaphor, as if doubting the power of his tale. The boy (and angel) is an illustrator of manuscripts, writing the biography of the protector. The metaphors tumble over one another, from the fall of Eve to the branding of Auschwitz inmates.

It’s all very dense, and the distancing effect of the angels, supposedly detached but in this production dubiously so, obscures rather than enlightens.

Remarkably, Crimp appears to be given priority over the composer, at least in the programme. But George Benjamin’s tasteful, unobtrusive music heightens every aspect of the narrative, and this is a greater achievement. 

The music is refined, by which I mean it is Pelleas-esque, and this makes it less insistent than most music dramas. But it seemed effective at maintaining and improving interest in this otherwise overloaded story.

Apparently the composer wrote with these voices in mind. I suppose this must be close to an ideal realisation of his music. As mentioned above, I've some doubts that Katie Mitchell's direction is a similarly ideal interpretation, but I suspect the work is unlikely to receive a better all-round performance.

Friday, 8 March 2013


English National Opera, 6 March 2013
Audio-only recording of Act 3, under Emmanuelle Haïm. From youtube.

A triumph. Despite some jarring directorial campness, this long overdue UK premiere confirms the work as one of the greatest revenge dramas.

Seventeenth-century operas tend to be neglected, but even so, I was surprised to discover this was the first staged production of this work in the UK, as it usually described as the greatest French opera of the period.

Perhaps I am damning with faint praise, for the alternatives – the operas of Lully – are almost completely inert, as if drama were too coarse an idea to impose on music, or, more likely, due to an excessively ceremonial idea of what drama set entirely to music should be about.

It is good to report that this work is both stageable and a dramatic success, perhaps a masterpiece.

It is not perfect. The first two of its five acts contain the decorous music common to Lully, accurately described as bland in the programme. The prologue has been cut, which is a blessing, and it might have been sensible to cut more (even all) of the dance numbers. The creative team’s solution to these tedious interludes was mixed – a camp ballet is jarringly inappropriate, though I thought the choreography was inventive.

The human background to Medee’s plight is essential for creating sympathy for her during the next three acts of her blood-curdling revenge, so I can’t excessively criticise Charpentier or his librettist Corneille (Thomas, not Pierre) for boring us in the first act.

The last three acts, and especially the hinge third act, are intensely dramatic, but also, perhaps even moreso, intensely theatrical. I don’t recall experiencing the same impact from recordings of this piece.

This is a drama where the words and actions matter most, and the music enhances these words at key moments. Even the dance numbers can be integrated effectively, as here (from Act 3 onwards), if taken as expressions both of the title character’s magic and her desperate condition.

This brings me to the meaning of the drama, less urgent than its dramatic stageworthiness, but still important.

Medee only appears to take control of the situation. In fact, there is a terrible irony that with all the power she can employ in vengeance, she is unable to prevent the need for that vengeance. Surely this is how we should interpret her magic – as the purely destructive power of revenge.

Once unleashed, her revenge is outside of her control: she becomes its instrument. This is clear from Creon’s murder of Orontes at precisely the point when Creusa has submitted to Medee’s demand to marry him.

Given the potency of the central character, I’m astonished this piece isn’t in the UK repertoire, much less that it is unstaged. Sarah Connolly dominates the stage whenever she is present, singing both lyrically and dramatically, and acting up a storm.

She is helped by David McVicar’s direction. He has a lot of useful experience in keeping the acting plausible even during lengthy baroque irrelevances. The setting is the 1940s during the world war, though I don’t see it sheds any new light on this story. A near-modern setting is now the standard for mythic dramas, which is a bit odd, though inoffensive. 

The rest of the cast is excellent, with the important exception of Jeffrey Francis’ Jason, who acts and sings a sort of blustering heroism, but doesn’t provide a reason for why he should be so loved, as he boastfully reflects in an early scene.

Sunday, 3 March 2013


Live cinema transmission from Metropolitan Opera, New York
Cineworld West India Quay, 2 March 2013
The key moment in Act 2, as Parsifal first misunderstands, then understands, the true nature of Amfortas' wound.
In Syberberg's film version, this moment transformed the gender of the hero, an apt response to what is going on.

A powerful production of the most controversial music drama in the canon, and one that confirms Wagner's subversive, humane exploration of compassion.

Wagner’s last work almost too-neatly concludes the explorations of his mature supreme masterpieces but it is considerably more controversial than Tristan, the Mastersinger or the Ring. The wider controversy, over the artist’s extreme racial prejudice, seems to me to rely upon a more work-specific controversy – that this music drama is Christian, so that Parsifal is a non-Jewish 'pure' version of Christ.

I grappled with this second and broader controversy, first articulated by Nietzsche, while watching this beautiful new production by François Girard at the Metropolitan Opera screened live at the cinema. [But I mustn’t mislead by suggesting this was a central theme of the production.]

Perhaps prejudiced, I concluded that with great audacity and originality, Wagner directly uses, confronts, and ultimately subverts, Christian mythology in this work. So I believe Nietzsche is interestingly wrong.

Admittedly, in this drama the Redeemer exists, and his Eucharist is given uniquely powerful expression through the grail music, but astonishingly he must be also be redeemed, specifically by Parsifal.

The extreme sufferings of Amfortas and Kundry, so shatteringly portrayed by singers and orchestra at the Met, are not eased by the Redeemer, despite their heartbreaking pleas.

Indeed, for all its beauty the grail appears to be useless, possibly destructive in hands other than Parsifal’s. Its ambiguous knights are not shown doing god’s work. In this production they are depicted as sensitive ‘new men’ but focussed too inwardly, and effectively damaged by lack of femininity, with the women from whom they are divided standing invisible to them on the other side of the stage.

Crucially, Parsifal’s transformation into somoene who can redeem even the Redeemer is one that owes nothing to the Redeemer. In a sense, his discoveries in Act Two are a more successful version of Siegfried in the Ring Cycle, a free agent who can save others and transform the world without god’s help.

Quite how this self-enlightenment happens is described in words (and powerful music) during the second act’s long seduction scene between Kundry and Parsifal. It is hard to follow, even if we know the words beforehand, so it is enormously enhanced by seeing the close-up acting of both participants, as here. Here, actors, director and especially the director for cinema surpass themselves: we see the reactions of both characters as their complicated dialogue unfolds.

Following reflection, it may be hard to accept that Parsifal’s type of compassion – which is not intended to be magical, but relevant to you or me – can genuinely improve the way we live our lives, as it so evidently does for Kundry and Amfortas. But in the theatre, or here cinema, Act 3 marshals the most impressive music-dramatic resources imaginable to convince us that this is true.

Daniele Gatti’s conducting, impressive enough in the other acts though perhaps too slow, really fits the final act, as it should. Everything convinces us that Parsifal is learning how to genuinely help others, how to redeem them, and I couldn’t see why belief in Christianity is required at all here. 

It is true that as the act progresses, Parsifal adopts some of the outward symbols of the gospel’s Jesus, but this is shallow identification – in every significant way he is different, and he effectively usurps the Christian model with Wagner’s own. 

Surely a drama that concludes transcendently with the Redeemer being redeemed by a mortal cannot be Christian in any obvious sense.

A more plausible association with pragmatic Christianity is the focus on lust’s negative impacts. And this is easily the sexiest Parsifal I have seen, both Jonas Kaufmann in the title role and the production itself – the flowermaidens are finally genuinely seductive.

It can seem as if Parsifal is renouncing sex, especially when the seduction is as effective as this. But for Wagner, sexual desire represents all desire. And Parsifal claims that while desire need not be a bad thing, we err in thinking escape from states of extreme desire lies in sating the desire itself.

This review has gone far beyond the production but I hope it is clear I found it so impressive that I was able subsequently think of the deeper issues around this masterpiece.

Only some very great works of art are worthy of such reflection, and only some very good productions facilitate such thoughts. This is one of them.