Wednesday, 18 December 2013


Live cinema screening from Royal Opera House
Greenwich Picturehouse, London
18 December 2013

Pappano conducting the Prelude. Ends abruptly!  From here.

A intriguing, detailed approach to this masterpiece that may work better in a revival.

Child abuse can be avoided if both parents stop hurting each other and start over. I've no idea if that's true, but it has nothing to do with Parsifal, and director Stephen Langridge can't have intended that to be the main message of the evening. But his final scene was only the most disastrous example of bathos in this new production, though the good news is that he had many extremely interesting and good ideas, some of which I'll come to.

Parsifal's music is so beautiful that it's possible to enjoy the whole thing as a sort of enormous symphony with voices, and to neglect what is happening on stage, apart maybe from expecting some lovingly recreated medievalist and Christian images.

Comments overheard from my fellow audience members suggests that what they were doing, and the perfunctory introductory and interval discussions from Covent Garden didn't improve the situation.

But the meaning of this overwhelming work does matter. Clearly it is an exploration of the growth and nature of compassion, through the lens of a Christian myth. But a number of problems arise. I think the only serious problem is whether the piece is Christian at a deep level, or at any rate espouses an eccentric form of Christianity. Nietzsche thought so, and was disgusted.

He also claimed Wagner's characters were one step away from the hospital, and Langridge agrees in a literal sense. The set is that of a hospital in a forest, with Amfortas a suffering patient. Kundry is presented as if she ought to be a patient, suffering from hysteria. Indeed, this production plausibly makes Kundry the centre of the work.

That addresses another, less serious problem. The grail knights, usually presented favourably, are also criticised for mortifying their flesh. Kundry, presented superficially unfavourably, is shown to be at a different extreme, a sex addict. But is this really the other extreme from mortification? Is it so very bad? And is the work basically misogynist?

If anything, the production goes too far in rebutting all that. The grail knights are shocking. The grail is presented as a boy whom they bleed for their fuel. Meanwhile Kundry's problem is accurately shown to be one of uncontrollable mocking laughter, rather than hedonism. In the second act she is much less glamorous than the Flower Maidens, and seduces through her pitiable state.

All of this simplifies Wagner, but it's in the right direction. Unfortunately there are also a number of risible moments. It's fine to show the rejuvenated community as being open to women, but having Kundry and Amfortas leave the stage together implies they are about to start a new life together, an inane idea. I didn't understand the brief reappearance of the grail as a young man: this too seemed a wildly inappropriate joke.

A cinema screening requires many close ups of the acting singers. When the acting is as good as Angela Denoke's Kundry, this is wonderful. When it's as bad as Simon O'Neill's Parsifal, it's annoying or worse, comical. Some acting may work better in the theatre, such as Gerald Finley's Amfortas.

The acting overwhelmed the singing, for good or bad. I thought Denoke was underpowered, O'Neill indifferent and Finley probably excellent, but it was hard to tell. The other cast members were fine but in less important roles.

Antonio Pappano conducted so as to minimise any drama or tension in the score. If that wasn't as mutilating as it should have been, it is a testament to the production.


Barbican, London
17 December 2013

Countertenor Iestyn Davies in Handel's Eternal Source of Light Devine,. 
Not from the Messiah, but gives some sense of what Davies can do with decent accompaniment. From here.

A tedious performance wasting talented musicians.

This was the most anaemic Messiah I have encountered. That’s not necessarily because the forces were small, though in the Barbican it didn’t help.

It’s more that conductor Bernard Labadie adopted a deadening approach to tempi, and phrasing.

Handel, I feel, could have set the phone book in a pulse-quickening manner. In this work almost every aria, and every chorus, is exciting or memorable. Contemplating the refiner’s fire, or the wrongful sufferings of Christ, or the justice of the last judgement, brings out the best in the composer. Messiah also confirms that music can be dramatic even if there is no clear narrative, or characters.

On the plus side, the excellent diction from the soloists and chorus allowed us to recognise Jennens’ contribution in selecting some of the best verses from the King James’ Version of the Bible.

On the minus, I left wondering how Handel could have orchestrated the work so feebly. Perhaps this is the test of a decent performance. It should make us ignore the orchestration.

Slow tempi needn’t be a problem, but consistently smoothed-over phrasing certainly is. Every opportunity for contrast and vigour was missed, producing a single mush of beautiful, polite tones. The Hallelujah chorus lacked gusto, or even vulgarity, which would have been an acceptable substitute.

I suppose the many fans of countertenor Iestyn Davies would be happy, at least. His voice is beautiful, but that doesn’t in itself create drama, and in the event his arias only intensified the somnolescent effect.

The other singers also had ‘period instrument’ voices, ie no vibrato, which is a pity but it is not possible to blame them for the overall dreariness of the evening. Amazingly, the greatest aria in the work, I Know That My Redeemer Liveth, worthy of Bach, was a failure,  and surely that does reflect badly on soprano Lydia Teuscher.

Unwisely, this was a full-length performance, lasting around 3 hours (with short interval). An endurance test.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Seagull

Etcetera Theatre, London
8 December 2013

Fiona Shaw and Iain Glen in Peter Stein's acclaimed production, seen at Edinburgh in 2003.
From here.

Enterprising but disappointing student performance of a demanding piece.

Performing Chekhov requires high ambition, despite his great popularity. This production, from students at University College London, was not a success, but some of the reasons for its failure are interesting.

His mature full-length works are ensemble tragedies, a form I think Chekhov pioneered and which hasn't been successfully imitated, so far as I know, despite his huge influence on subsequent dramatists.

We're used to ensembles in comedies and historical dramas, and suchlike. But tragedy would seem to require a focal point or two. Chekhov contrives to show us that everyone is suffering, and that everyone's suffering is equally worth our attention.

Of course, if he actually did that it would be a miracle. Clearly some characters matter more to us than others. But while experiencing the drama, rather than reflecting on it at leisure, I feel everyone matters.

That is, in a successful production. And I think The Seagull simply cannot be successfully performed by a group of young people, however talented.

Part of the author's skill is his realistic mix of ages, so that the older characters, with their sense of wasted years, provide repellent role models for the younger characters, who are nonetheless doomed to the same outcome, unless something drastic happens such as a suicide attempt.

Student productions can prove very effective in masking the age difficulty, but not here, where it is so important. The actors playing older characters are too obviously playing a part (this is not their fault of course). As a result, everyone seems merely bratty.

This drama contains plenty of comedy, and that works well here, but overall it is profoundly tragic, so that the central themes of this work are lost in the production.

Other factors only made matters worse. The text is abbreviated into one act, which only heighten the sense of hysterical youth. The charming animated backdrop, which ought to be a strength, sometimes depicts  childlike interpretations of what we are witnessing. This is a terrible mistake, unnecessarily patronising and strengthening the feeling of watching immature spirits. This surely cannot have been the concept behind this production?

Etcetera Theatre does nobody a favour by not producing even a list of cast and crew. It would be unfair to comment on particular acting anyway, given the straitjacket imposed from the start by attempting this work.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Carol recital

St Mary-at-Hill, London
5 December 2013

Warlock's Adam Lay Ybounden, in its more familiar choral version,.
The words are gratefully indistinct, even when sung by the Choir of King's College Cambridge. From here.

Making the words of carols audible only highlights the vulgarity of Christmas, with few exceptions.

Yet another cleverly programmed free lunchtime recital in a London church, scandalously under-attended. I haven’t seen anyone at these events who looks like they work in the capital’s financial district, so it’s sad that these great venues and concerts are inconveniently located for music-lovers.

The paradoxically austere intimacy of Wren’s church, lit by the midday sun, jarred with the traditional idea of a carol concert, but actually this wasn’t too traditional. For one thing, the words were clear.

Regarding the mismatch between words and music, carols represent an extreme version of all that is despicable and complacent in modern Christianity. The music of the worst example here, Cooke’s O Men from the Field, blithely ignores the understandable fear the poem states the shepherds felt when angels appeared and directed them to God’s incarnation. The Holly and the Ivy, also presented here, has one of the finest poems addressing what is supposed to be a mysterious fusion of joy and tragedy, but nothing of this is evident in Sharp’s famous but sentimental musical setting.

The problem is highlighted, but not solved, in two appealing carols by a contemporary composer, Thomas Hewitt Jones. Here the words struggle with the myth of the tragic incarnation, but the result is a victim of its own success: the repellent aspects of a god sacrificing his own son are out of synch with the rest of the carols. Perhaps they are better suited for Easter.

Two of the finest works here were settings of disturbing poems. Rubbra’s Rune of Hospitality sets a poem that treats Jesus as if he were the Caliph Haroun Al-Rashid, disguising himself as a beggar to test his people’s charity. So generosity to the poor is linked firmly with self-interest. The other disturbing highlight was Warlock’s setting of the medieval Adam Lay Ybounden, an astonishing celebration of the redeeming power of sin that boldly reinforced the ‘acetic priest’ underpinnings of the religion.

Robert Smith, the pianist, is also an organist, so the concert contained two solo organ works by Buxtehude, and two songs accompanied on that instrument. Turning the necessity of having to move around into inventiveness, the seating plan allowed the audience to focus on the architecture, a very good idea given the visual dullness of a typical concert.

Tenor Charles MacDougall gave helpful synopses of the carols and why they were in this particular order; song texts were unnecessary given his clear diction.

Performance-wise, the only mistake in the programme was Adam’s rapturous O Holy Night (in English); otherwise the recital seemed ideally chosen to reveal the rottenness of this season.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Ravel's operas

Royal College of Music, London
4 December 2013

The opening of L'Enfant et les sortileges, from Glyndebourne in 1987. From here.

The important half of the evening was a complete triumph, and the lighter half didn't pall.

The ambition of the Royal College of Music is impressive. Ravel’s short operas pose enormous difficulties for production teams. L’Heure espagnole is a farce, the most difficult of theatrical genres; L’Enfant et les sortileges requires animated furniture and animals.

The farce wasn't funny, which is the same as to say it was a disaster, but that would be extremely unfair to everyone involved. It was pleasant enough and raised a smile occasionally, which is more than many musical comedies manage. And best of all it was brief, so didn't have time to become tedious.

Straight farce is difficult enough; musical farce, where the music and performers must match each other perfectly, seems impossible, though Mozart certainly managed it sometimes. The basic plot is a good one, revolving Feydeau-esque around sex, so that'll never become outdated.

I think one problem lies in the dialogue, which is apparently funnier in French than in translation. Another is that despite the sex, the work does rely upon national and class stereotypes that no longer work. But director James Bonas introduced his own faults. A fat old banker really does require at least grotesque makeup and a fat suit, humble though such visual jokes are. And the work is incredibly sexy. With such an attractive young cast, surely some sex appeal could have been possible?

The composer claimed to have created amusing music, which would indeed be pioneering, but I didn't notice it. In fact the music didn't seem especially distinctive, though it would have helped if conductor Michael Roswell had injected some sparkle into the orchestra. Perhaps on another night, he did.

Thankfully Ravel (and Roswell) was fully inspired for L'Enfant. The second scene, in the garden, is genuinely chilling, and contrasts with the daft humour of the first scene, as objects come to life.

I find it odd that the only great dramas I know of successfully depicting childhood are music dramas, specifically this one and Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel. Perhaps the added artificiality of opera makes these children, always played by adult women, believable.

Enchantment, yearning, fear, sex, violence, humour, pathos... it's all here in Colette's libretto, and Ravel enhances the text with some of his finest music, appealing and wonderfully direct. Of course, as with Humperdinck's work, this is intended for an audience that recalls childhood, rather than an audience of children. In both cases I suspect many audience members don't notice (or repress) the conclusion that these theatrical children are us, that we're not so far removed from the anxieties of childhood as we believe.

The creative team excelled themselves in bringing all this to life, and if anything oversold the moral by having most of the animals and objects wearing adult Edwardian clothing. But emphasising the social aspects of this masterpiece is not really a bad thing.

In both operas, the singing, and for the most part acting, was superb. If the farce was stillborn, I don't think this was a comment on the singing actors, who did their best to administer musical CPR.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and the Imagination

School of African and Oriental Studies, London
 11 October – 15 December 2013

Cyrus Cylinder, Babylon, 539-530 BCE. A statement of religious tolerance (relative). From here.

Fascinating if inevitably facile exploration of a religion mysterious to most of us. But get the catalogue.

The catalogue claims this is the first art exhibition devoted to Zoroastrianism in the UK. Part of its purpose, then, is also to inform us about the history and context of the religion, and I’ll address that before coming to the aesthetic value of the exhibition.

Before going, and especially before reading the enormously informative catalogue, I had thought Zoroastrianism was one of the first monotheistic religions, along with Judaism, though located in ancient Persia rather than in the Levant.

The actual archaeological picture appears to be more complex, as indeed it is with Judaism. Even without archaeology, references to gods in the texts and artworks are enough to make us question the monotheism, though Christian and Muslim saints might be seen the same way, and perhaps monotheism itself is a clay-footed idea.

It would seem we know very little about how ancient Persians (Iranians) worshipped, as they didn’t have a single canon, and that this canon was eventually imposed on the religion as a result of contact with Christians and Jews. Christian scriptures are of course relatively recent, but there is also controversy over the age of the Hebrew canon; probably Zoroastrianism’s canon is not much more recent than anyone’s, in the end.

Appropriately aware that even revered traditions can be invented, we can see, with our detachment, that the question ‘what do Zoroastrians believe?’ has different answers at different times. I find this bewildering, as it would be ridiculous to say this applied only to a relatively small Persian religion and not, say, to Islam or Christianity.

So, from purely an anthropological perspective, this exhibition is a success, though I would have preferred more comparisons with the claims of Zoroastrianism’s ‘sister’ monotheist religions.

Aesthetically it’s much more of a mixed bag. The curators are divided between giving us an insider’s view and presenting the orientalist view. So we see various European depictions of the religion, most obviously the ‘magician’ Zarathustra. All of this obscures the presentation of an authentically Zoroastrian art, if such exists.

But the vast scope of the exhibition also defeats the curators. Ancient Persian/Iranian art mixes with medieval art, through to the nineteenth century resurgence in Iran and India, through to modern-day practices, interestingly recreated.

I would have liked to see much more of the crucial period when Islam became ‘Persianised’ and what I assume to be the lasting and profound influence of the earlier religion on the later.

As it was, I came away with a single sobering thought. The Cyrus Cylinder is a testament to Ancient Persia’s religious tolerance. But it comes before the religion was codified and made ‘official’. And that occurred due to Christian influence.