Thursday, 19 November 2009

The garden this week

I have been ill recently, and have consequently been neglecting the garden. Two days ago, however, I decided it was really time to rake up the leaves.

The idea of this, as I assume every gardener knows, is to use them as leaf mould......
I went out to get a paper, and when I got back, there was someone from Camden's privatised refuse collection service, SWEEPING UP THE LEAVES!!!
Oh, how wonderful, I thought!! I told him how grateful I was, and said I assumed he was going to put them in the compost bin for me...(If I do it myself, I put them in biodegradable compost bags, and store them in the shed for a few months, but I thought that would be a bit of an imposition...)
"Uh, compost bin?!"
*Yes, it's just here..."
I pointed to the compost bin. He said,
"Well, someone's just going to come with a van and take them all away...but I suppose I could put some in the compost bin if you want....."
But later I discovered that he hadn't put ANY in the compost bin...obviously the foreman had come past and told him not to!!!
So now I am wonderiing....what does the council DO with all the fallen leaves? I have seen people sweeping them up, but they obviously don't use them as leaf mould......surely they can't just throw them away, though???!!!!

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Philip Langridge 70th birthday concert

Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday 3 November 2009

Philip Langridge 70th birthday concert

Philip Langridge  tenor
David Owen Norris  piano
Doric String Quartet

Franz Schubert                    5 songs from Die schoene Muellerin
Ralph Vaughan Williams    On Wenlock Edge


Sir Harrison Birtwistle       From Vanitas (world premiere)
Benjamin Britten               Who are these children?
Franz Schubert                 Five songs from Winterreise

A varied programme to celebrate the 70th birthday of one of our most renowned tenors. It must be admitted that he had a few vocal problems in the opening Schubert songs, and could not quite manage the high notes....even so, it was a subtle, nuanced interpretation and his technique is still sound. ( I was also at the Wigmore Hall the day before at the lunchtime concert in which Christopher Maltman sang the whole of Die schoene Muellerin, so it was interesting to compare the two performances. I will confess to a slight preference to a baritone over a tenor for this song-cycle).
With  the performance of Vaughan Williams' On Wenlock Edge, of course there was no more question of vocal difficulties - a superb performance of a wonderful work! I especially liked the haunting chords of the mysterious poem 'From far, from eve and morning',and the desperate pathos of 'On Bredon Hill'. The last song, 'Clun', has a beautiful postlude for piano and quartet that fades away into quiet serenity (acceptance of the inevitablity of death).

(During the interval, someone did come out and apologise for the vocal difficulties that Langridge had experienced, and said it might have been due to the air-conditioning, that had now been turned off).

The second half of the evening began with the world premiere of Sir Harrison Birtwistle's From 'Vanitas'. to a text by David Harsent, who was also the librettist of Birtwistle's The Minotaur.

The images in the poems are based on the memento mori images of 17th century Dutch paintings, 'a skull, a cut flower, an hourglass'; Birtwistle's setting reflected some of the images perfectly, especially in the lines

"darkness settles to perfect night: the bell

carries a note too deep or else too shrill
to break the silence. Best to be watchful now, best to be still...."

Birtwistle was actually present in the Wigmore Hall to take the applause.

I couldn't decide whether the high point of the evening was the Vaughan Williams or Britten's Who are these children? This is a song-cycle of the poems of William Soutar (1898-1943), a Scottish poet who was a socialist and a pacifist.....obviously close to Britten's heart, then! It is less well-known than the Vaughan Williams, or than Britten's other song-cycles; it was originally commissioned for the National Gallery of Scotland in 1970. It takes the form of songs in Scots dialect, about childhood experiences, interspersed with four anti-war poems; the title song, Who are these Children? is an ironic juxtaposition of a hunting party in a 'peaceful' village, watched by children in a world at war.
The song The Children was the one I found most striking...I will reproduce it here, so that you can see what I mean. When I heard it, I thought it might be about Guernica, and having just checked various websites devoted to Soutar, I can confirm that this is indeed the case.(I have just discovered that James MacMillan has also written a setting of this poem).

Upon the street they lie,
Beside the broken stone,
The blood of children stares from the broken stone.

Death came out of the sky
In the bright afternoon,
Darkness slanted over the bright afternoon.

Again the sky is clear
But upon earth a stain:
The earth is darkened with a darkening stain.

A wound which everywhere
Corrupts the hearts of men:
The blood of children corrupts the hearts of men.

Silence is in the air:
The stars move to their places:
Silent and serene the stars move to their places:

But from the earh the children stare
With blind and fearful faces:
And our charity is in the children's faces.

Britten's setting and Landgridge's performance made this a deeply moving experience.

Langridge concludes the recital with the last five songs from Winterreise, closing the circle, as it well he conveyed the desolation of Der Leiermann!

For encore, he sang first of all a short song of mock-pathos, then Gilbert and Sullivan's "A tenor can't do himself justice".

Thursday, 22 October 2009

RIGOLETTO, English National Opera, 17 October 2009

English National Opera, 17 October 2009

Giuseppe Verdi, RIGOLETTO. 

Cast  in order of appearance

The 'Duke'                                                       Michael Fabiano
Borsa                                                               Peter van Hulle
Ceprano's wife                                              Fiona Canfield
Rigoletto                                                         Anthony Michaels-Moore
Marullo                                                            Daniel Hoadley
Ceprano                                                          James Gower
Monterone                                                      Freddie Tong
a professional hit-man                                   Brindley Sherratt
Rigoletto's daughter                                      Katherine Whyte
Giovanna                                                        Judith Douglas
A Secretary                                                    Karen Foster
A Henchman                                                   Andrew Tinkler
Maddalena                                                     Madeleine Shaw

Chorus and orchestra of English National Opera.
Conductor                                                     Stephen Lord

Director                                                         Jonathan Miller

Almost incredible to think that this production by Jonathan Miller was first seen in the early 1980s - almost long enough ago to make it a 'traditional' production! It still works as convincingly as when I first saw it - in fact I would go so far as to say that it is MORE convincing than some genuinely 'traditional' productions I have seen....the Mafia-dominated 1950s New York is just as corrupt as the court of the Duke of Mantua (Francois I of France in Hugo's Le Roi s'amuse - Verdi had trouble with the censors again), and it is still about a powerful 'boss' who can - and does - have any woman he chooses and discard her once he gets bored with her, who has henchmen who don't hesitate to dispose of anyone who crosses his will.
Watching this production, I was struck again by the attention to detail displayed by the chorus and the singers of the minor roles, who all actually looked very smart in 1950s costumes. (The photo here is of an performance some years ago, with a different cast, but I have included it to give an idea of how it looks).

The conductor, Stephen Lord, making his ENO debut, is currently Music Director of the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.  If he is intending to work in the UK on a regular basis, he has made a good start, conjuring the right tones of menace from the orchestra in the prelude, and also whipping up extremes of excitement where necessary, and also seems to have a good rapport with the singers.
The role of the 'Duke' was this time taken by Michael Fabiano, also making his ENO debut. Here he is with Anthony Michaels-Moore, the Rigoletto, and with the henchmen in Act II.

 He looks the part, as well as having a pleasant tenor voice with little diffiuculty in reaching the high notes. I always like the way "La donna e mobile" is staged in this production: inside Sparafucile's sleazy downtown bar, the 'Duke' puts it on the juke box, and when the orchestra pauses for a few bars, he kicks the juke-box to get it started again...

Anthony Michaels-Moore has returned to the ENO after too long an absence, and this is one of the best roles I have seen him perform. It's true that he doesn't look particularly 'deformed', or disabled, he just limps a bit and perhaps one shoulder is higher than the other, but I found this sufficiently dramatically convincing. Do you need to be a hunchback when you can sing and act with such passion? This is the scene in which he mocks Monterone,(a small role, but pivotal to the plot, competenly sung by Freddie Tong) little dreaming that his mocking will back-fire on him.

He looks threatening enough in this scene with the henchmen, demanding that Gilda be returned to him. "Cortigiano, vil razza dannata....." Excellently and convincingly translated as "Filthy bastards, you liars, you rabble...."

During this aria, of course, Rigoletto runs the gamut of emotions from anger to despair, by the end he is no longer threatening but pleading.....and Anthony Michaels-Moore really got under the skin of the part, desperately begging for them to just give him back his daughter, please. The Mafia henchmen, of course, show no sympathy.
Gilda was sung by Katherine Whyte - also making her ENO debut. Her voice is sharp and bright, perhaps a little hint of shrillness at the end of "Caro nome", but it didn't really matter....she did convincingly convey the character of an innocent young girl, so sheltered that she is bound to fall in love with the first handsome young man who crosses her path - this is the problem, of course, Rigoletto wants to protect her from the corrupt world of which he is a part, but he protects her too much......

Here she is pleading with Rigoletto to spare the man who has betrayed her.

I was unfortunately unable to find a graphic of Brindley Sherrat as Sparafucile.....he looked such a menacing hoodlum! Sherrat's dark deep bass was exactly right for the part. The role of Maddalena was sung bhy Madeleine Shaw, who infused the role with the ideal amount of sultriness, as a complete contrast to Gilda.

A very satisfying evening of musical theatre.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Alban Berg: WOZZECK, Royal Festival Hall, 8 Oct 2009

 Semi-staged performance of WOZZECK, Royal Festival Hall, 8 October 2009


WOZZECK....................................Simon Keenlyside
MARIE............................................Katarina Dalayman
DRUM MAJOR..............................Anthony Dean Griffey
ANDRES....................................... Robert Murray
CAPTAIN.......................................Peter Hoare
DOCTOR.......................................Matthew Best
MARGRET.....................................Anna Burford
FIRST APPRENTICE...................David Soar
SECOND APPRENTICE.............Leigh Melrose
IDIOT...............................................Ben Johnson

Philharmonia Orchestra
Philharmonia Voices

CONDUCTOR...............................Esa-Pekka Salonen

This was the culmination of the VIENNA, CITY OF DREAMS project by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen. I had previously attended a concert at which they performed Berg's Violin Concerto - soloist Chrstian Tetzlaff - and Mahler's 6th. Symphony.

WOZZECK is a harrowing work, ending bleakly without any hint of hope....nevertheless, one of the greatest of 20th century operas. (Just as an aside...the work of Berg's that I love best is the Violin Concerto, with its haunting, melancholgy strangeness).
Simon Keenlyside's performance as Wozzeck was appropriately harrowing, really getting under the skin of this hapless victim - of circumstances, of society, of poverty - and his descent into madness was truly frightening and absolutely gripping.

For this semi-staged performance, some costumes were worn - mainly soldiers' uniforms, as in the image here, and it did start with Wozzeck shaving the Captain (Peter Hoare). (I couldn't find a graphic of this).
I liked Matthew Best's performance as the Doctor, a witty parody - Best's rather dry voice was ideal for this part.

One of the scenes which I found most striking is the scene in which the Doctor and the Captain, having spent several minutes 'discussing' various medical symptoms and differing methods of treating them, turn on Wozzeck as he enters and join in baiting him about Marie's infidelity, in terms that he at first affects not to understand but which are a further step on his road to desperation and madness.

Hat Er nicht ein Haar aus einem Bart in seiner Schuessel gefunden?

Haha! Er versteht mich doch? Ein Haar von einem Menschen,
vom Bart eines Sappeurs, oder eines Unteroffiziers,
 oder eines Tambourmajors.
(Didn't you find a hair from a beard in your soup? Haha! Of course you understand me! A person's hair....from a sapper's beard...or an NCO....or a Drum Major).

Was der Kerl fuer ein Gesicht macht! Nun!

Wenn auch nicht grad in der Suppe,
aber wenn Er sich eilt
und um die Ecke laeuft, so kann Er vielleicht noch
auf einem Paar Lippen eins finden! Ein Haar naemlich!
(what a face the chap's making! Well...perhaps not exactly in your soup, but if you get a move on and run round the corner, you can probably find one on a pair of lips! A hair, I mean!)

The Drum Major was sung by Anthony Dean Griffey, with just the right combination of arrogance and 'macho-ness', erupting into the sad, poverty-stricken world of Marie, who succumbs to him without too much difficulty, as he represents at least a temporary escape from her miserable existence. Katarina Dalayman's soprano was more than equal to the demands of the role. (The graphic is just a photograph of Dalayman).

The orchestral playing under Salonen was very subtle and nuanced, I would single out for special mention the luminous clarity of the strings. I love the way Berg parodies the Viennese Waltz in the music for the Drum Major and the 'garden of the inn' scene, during which two apprentices sing a drunken chorus while Marie dances with the drum major. The instruments Berg uses for this scene are, according to the programme notes, the characteristic instrumental ensemble of Viennese tavern music - (violin, clarinet, guitar, accordion).

Finally, a few words about the live video background, created especially for this performance by Jean-Baptise Barriere. It was obviously an attempt to reproduce the colours and shapes of Expressionist paintings, especially those of Kandinsky, and probably especially this one.

The faces of the singers were then seen out-of-focus behind the images.
I appreciated the idea - I think! - but after a while it just ended up looking like a wallpaper advertisement, not really adding to the effect of the semi-staged performance, which was in fact very effective on its own.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009


This seminar was held in London on 12 September 2009, and was jointly organised by Green Left and Socialist Resistance.
It was held at Friends House in Euston Road. In the entrance there is a poster with the slogan, PEOPLE NEED WATER, NOT WEAPONS.....a slogan which we could well  adopt for our own campaign!

The open plenary, chaired by Duncan Chapel of Socialist Resistance, was addressed by Romayne Phoenix, Green Councillor in Lewisham, and Ian Angus, author of the CLIMATE AND CAPITALISM blog, and editor of THE GLOBAL FIGHT FOR CLIMATE JUSTICE.

 The main thrust of the argument was the repetition of the idea that the economic crisis is also an environmental crisis...a fact of which we on the left have been aware for years, but is perhaps not universally recognised. Climate Change will inevitably change the NATURE OF WORK in the coming decades, and it is imperative that workers be financially supported during any necessary retraining.
 The point was made that the idea of free market capitalism being a guarantee of individual freedom was a delusion,and that even the Wall Street Journal admitted that "emissions trading is a money making venture for large corporations". (Wall Street Journal, 2007). Global warming is in essence a form of Class War. We need to move to a world of co-operative internationalism, in which we consume less, work less and share more, and uphold human rights for everyone on the planet.
Ian Angus then began his presentation by saying that we are not just heading for Socialism or Barbarism, we are heading for Socialism or Destruction. He raised doubts as to whether the Copenhagen meeting on Climate Change would really lead the world's governments to implement the necessary changes. He followed up with an analysis of Capitalism, that it in is the nature of capitalism that capital has to grow...the only measure of success is how much is sold matter how it is produced and how much destruction comes in its wake. Furthermore, pollution is no accident, it is inherent in the way the system works. One half to three-quarters of input into industrialised countries becomes waste within twelve months, and over half the food produced today is wasted, as it is  NOT PROFITABLE TO STOP WASTE. Most of us (population of the world) are the victims, rather than the perpetrators.
Ian then went on to remind us that ecological ideas are deeply embedded in Marx and Engels, although this tradition was largely ignored by Socialists in the 20th century, who concentrated instead on productivity and industrialisation.
Ecosocialism stands for qualitative growth, not quantitative growth.

After the Opening Plenary, we divided up into separate workshops.
I chaired the workshop on Women, Climate Change and Ecosocialism, at which the speakers were Sheila Malone and Terry Conway. I was glad that I'd been asked to chair the workshop, and I wanted to get more deeply involved in the discussion of the specific contribution women make to the eco-socialist movement.
The meeting began with the observation that women are seen as the main consumers, therefore the main target for advertising. It was also pointed out that most of the world, whether the affluent North or the Global South, is still largely dependent on women's domestic labour and food production.
Sheila Malone then introduced a discussion of Reproduction and reproductive rights, a complex topic which is perhaps avoided in Red-Green discussion groups...for reasons which will become apparent. Governments do have policies on fertility, longevity and mobility and we need to develop a response. Capitalism needs a workforce, and a (docile!) pool of unemployed labour - people are seen as 'economic units'. But there is a colonialist agenda on population - it is nearly always "We" (the affluent North) who think "they" should limit "their" population (with the unspoken sub-text that the population should be tailored to "our" needs for cheap labour). If Family Planning Clinics are to be provided, who should provide them?
The responses from Phil Woods and David Landau reminded everyone to be very wary of the Optimum Population Trust, who may be well-intentioned, but whose policies in fact border on eugenics, and is  a prime example of the imperialist population control policy that had already been touched on. We found the idea of "population control" suspect...just who is controlling whose population, and why?
Terry Conway then spoke on the topic of the intersection of the climate crisis and the economic crisis from the point of view of women. She maintained that ecosocialism without a feminist dimension isn't ecosocialism. She has in fact written an article on this topic for the journal Socialist Resistance - Women and the Crisis of Civilization, which you can read here.

Women are the hardest hit by the environmental crisis in poorer countries, especially as women globally are responsible for 80% of food production (as had already been observed in the introduction). In many countries of the Global South, women are the main providers of food, water, firewood and childcare, but have little say in society. Loss of traditional resources often means that women are being increasing pressurised to sell sex.
The campaign for equal access to resources for women is linked to the campaigns of indigenous peoples worldwide.
Reference was made to women who were in the forefront of the struggle in the past, such as Rachel Carson, and to women who are active today, such as Vandana Shiva.

In the afternoon I attended a workshop on Sustainable Cities. The emphasis was on transport, with a speaker from the Campaign for Free Public Transport in Manchester.

The current public transport stystem in the UK is unsustainable and inequitable, and perhaps what is important is to reduce the need to travel. ("Is your journey really necessary?") Instead of closing local post offices, hospitals, schools and services, we should be re-building local communities, and reduce the amount of out-of-town business parks and shopping centres, as they are difficult for poor people to access - in fact, they are also difficult for disabled people to access.  One urgent necessity is to develop a travel/transport system that is more broadly affordable, and this is where the Campaign for Free Public Transport comes in. The example of the town of Hasselt in Belgium was cited - it was very congested and in 1996 it was decided to make public transport free. The consequence was a great increase in the use of public transport and a corresponding decline in the use of cars, and also an expansion of cycle paths.
Another example of a cheap and well-organised public transport system is that of Mexico City, but this has a downside, in that the reason for it being cheap and well-orgnaised is that the poor live in barrios and have to use the Metro to go and do jobs for rich people, who have no need of the public transport system.

I will sum up by quoting from Liam Mac Uiad's speech at the final session:

“We very deliberately set out to make it internationalist and pluralistic. As you will have seen it was a genuine collaboration between Socialist Resistance and the Green Left. Both of us brought something of our own approach. Neither side was interested in ‘poaching’ a couple of the other’s members.

“I’m not privy to their inner secrets but I’m guessing that Green Left is not planning entry work in Respect anytime soon and we won’t be joining the Green Party either. It has been a genuine example of two currents who agree on the importance of ecosocialism working together. Nothing more and nothing less.

“The result has been a better event than either of us could have pulled off left to our own devices. Being in separate organizations is a lot less important than agreeing on many aspects of the politics and the event today shows that it is possible to organize together around those parts of politics on which we have a shared understanding.”

It was a really interesting and successful meeting of various strands of Red-Green opinion.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, Royal Opera House, 2 October 2009



YOUNG SAILOR.............................Ji-Min Park (Jette Parker Principal)
ISOLDE...........................................Nina Stemme
BRANGAENE................................Sophie Koch
KURWENAL..................................Michael Volle
TRISTAN........................................Ben Heppner
MELOT...........................................Richard Berkeley-Steele
KING MARKE..............................John Tomlinson (29 Sept, 2, 5 Oct)
                                                      Matti Salminen (9, 15, 18 mat Oct)
SHEPHERD...............................Ryland Davies
STEERSMAN............................Dawid Kimberg (Jette Parker Young Artist)

Chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

CONDUCTOR........................................Antonio Pappano
DIRECTOR.............................................Christof Loy

I absolutely LOVED this peformance, including the staging....of which more later, since it has proved so controversial....but I will discuss the music first! (That's what I went for....the staging  was an added bonus).

Antonio Pappano could be the greatest Wagner conductor of our times. The prelude was so intense, so FOCUSED, reaching a pitch of almost unbearable tension at the climax......I was literally on the edge of my seat at this point, and it wasn't the last time; Pappano has great sensitivity to the nuances of the strange sound-world of TRISTAN, and transports us there right from the TRISTAN-chord. In fact it's the day after, and I am still trying to come down from my Wagner-induced high!
Right, the production....yes, it IS very sparse, austere, almost minimalist, and this is what I loved about it. I wasn't expecting to like it quite so much, although I did like Loy's LULU as well. What he did in LULU he has done again in TRISTAN, stripped it to its essentials so that the audience can concentrate on the text and the music, which was Wagner's point. After all, nothing 'happens' in TRISTAN, in the sense of stage business, it is nearly all narrative, as in Greek tragedy.

Behind the curtain that covers the back of the stage there is a dining room, so they are not really on a ship (although some irreverent souls suggested that it reminded them of the dining room on the TITANIC).
The drama unfolds in front of the curtain. Isolde (Nina Stemme) comes in front of the curtain wearing a white dress (possibly a wedding dress....some it has been suggested that the dining room represents the wedding breakfast of Marke and Isolde). She changes into a black dress for her confrontation with Tristan.

She is joined by Brangaene (Sophie Koch).

There is a striking contrast between the soaring soprano of Nina Stemme and the burnished mezzo of Sophie Koch....Stemme brings such passion and conviction to the role, as well as beauty of tone and soaring high notes; a really exciting, convincing portrayal of Isolde's confusion and desperation, her unwillingness to admit that she doesn't hate Tristan, she loves him. The Brangaene of Sophie Koch is an ideal foil to Stemme's Isolde.
There is one chair, on which sometimes Isolde sits, sometimes of the fascinating pieces of stage business (with ONE CHAIR, and an almost bare stage!) is that when Kurwenal (Michael Volle) comes to summon them to land, he sits on the chair, stretches his legs out and puts his hands in his pocket....showing his dislike for Isolde even in body-language. He has a stong, ringing baritone, plays Kurwenal as a straightforward character, perhaps with a military background.
Ben Heppner, unfortunately, could not quite match Nina Stemme's achievement, his voice tended to crack rather alarmingly on the high notes.

But he recovered at the end of Act II, and sang "Wohin nun Tristan scheidet, willst du, Isolde, ihm folgen?" with beautiful serenity. And at this point, Kurwenal starts to shiver and pulls his jacket close, as if he is slowly realising....this isn't just rhetoric, he really means it.

 So yes, perhaps he could have been a bit more passionate in the Love Duet, but the orchestra under Pappano was really where the focus was, a very nuanced and sensitive portrayal of....well, it's not passion or love, really, is it, it's obsession. Neither singer was overwhelmed by the orchestra, but the music reached the heights of intensity which Heppner sometimes couldn't quite manage.

It must be admitted that John Tomlinson's voice has developed a noticeable wobble, but I thought in the final analysis this didn't detract from his portrayal of King Marke, torn between grief and anger, not really wanting to take the vengeance that Melot keeps urging on the end it is the grief rather than the anger that gains the upper hand with this tragic figure.

At the end of the act, neither of them having swords, Melot pulls a knife and Tristan runs on to it....
I will just mention, before turning to discussing Act III in general, that perhaps the staging of this could have been better managed, and the fact that at the end of Act III one of the chorus ends up bludgeoning Kurwenal to death was the one flaw in this otherwise excellently staged production...there is really no reason why he shouldn't die off-stage. But this is so minor, really, as the production - the staging, was generally of such a high standard.

Act III is Tristan's act, just as Act I is Isolde's. It is true that Heppner was still a little bit plagued by the cracks in the high notes, but in a way this was almost in character for the dying, hallucinating Tristan. Again the scenery is reduced to a minimum, a chair for Tristan and a table, on which sometimes Kurvenal sits while he is listening to Tristan, trying to make sense of what he is saying...but Tristan isn't really communicating with anyone, except in his mind with Isolde. Heppner achieved a melancholy beauty of tone when Tristan thinks back to his orphaned childhood.....and then Nina Stemme crowned the evening with her passionate, soaring performance of the Liebestod, at the end of which she falls exhausted into the chair......

A final moment of searing tension, again supported with great intensity by the orchestra under Pappano.

I will finish by saying that I found this staging brilliant and inspirational...I literally do not understand why people booed it. I found that it went right to the heart of the drama, supporting and emphasising every nuance of the text and the music.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The Garden in Italy

Me with my partner Tobias Abse outside our house in Nugola, near Livorno, Tuscany.
This isn't a particularly good view of the wisteria.....look at this, though! There are cascades of it during the spring and summer, and it smells gorgeous!

We have a lovely old fig tree, from which I collected a lot of fruit in the summer....gave most of it away to friends, though!

One of the most beautiful parts of the garden is the rosemary hedge planted by my mother-in-law about twenty years ago. When you arrive at the house, there is such a wonderful scent of rosemary! It has tiny blue flowers in the spring.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

LA TRAVIATA, Royal Opera House, 3 July 2009

(This performance took place in July, but I have only now been able to transfer this review from the old blog).

LA TRAVIATA, Royal Opera House, 3 July 2009


Violetta...............................................Renee Fleming
Flora...................................................Monika-Evelin Liiv
Marquis d'Obigny.............................Kostas Smorignas
Baron Douphol................................ .Eddie Wade
Doctor Grenvil...................................Richard Wiegold
Gastone.............................................Haoyin Xue
Alfredo...............................................Jospeh Calleja
Anina..................................................Sarah Pring
Giuseppe..........................................Neil Gillespie
Giorgio Germont..............................Thomas Hampson
Messenger.......................................''Charbel Mattar
Servant...............................................Jonathan Coad

Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, conducted by Antonio Pappano

Such a wonderful performance, with a dream cast and conductor! Right from the first note of the prelude, Pappano conjured incredibly wistful sounds from the orchestra, and the entire performance was of this high standard.

Renee Fleming was the best Violetta I have seen in years, looking beautiful though fragile, as Violetta should. She gave a very nuanced performance in Act I, pensive in fors'e lui and frenetic in Sempre libera, with a sub-text almost of hysteria, as she acknowledges that she knows she is dying, and is determined to enjoy what life remains to her. I was delighted that she and Pappano didn't leave a space for the audience to applaud between the two halves of the aria!! (They did at the view is that it spoils the continuity by interrupting Violetta's train of thought).

Calleja as Alfredo was perhaps less subtle and sensitive in Act I, but then he is playing a rather unsubtle and insensitive young man, so this was in character! Certainly he sang the high notes of his Act II arias with ringing confidence.

Thomas Hampson brought his usual mellifluousness of tone and elegance of person to a character with whom the audience usually has difficulty in sympathising.

One has to realise that Alfredo's father is, by his lights, doing his best for his family, by trying to ensure that his daughter- and, in the fullness of time, his son - can make an avantageous marriage, and the tragedy is that Violetta realises that, in that social milieu, he is right and she can't win...Fleming conveys this so movingly, and Hampson gives the father a feeling of humanity underneath the self-righteousness. I have included a YouTube clip of this scene.

I've never heard anyone sing "Amami, Alfredo" with such passion and desperation, and the orchestra reflected Violetta's feelings with equal intensity....I had already started to cry during the scene between Violetta and the father, but this literally had me sobbing. (I didn't bother to try to control it, as nearly everyone else in the audience, at least near me, was crying too!)

I'll just make a few comments about the production. It's a 'conventional' production, i.e. set in the nineteenth century, but I don't have a problem with that!! In the first act, Violetta is wearing a white dress, which one might have thought was unsuitable for a woman in her profession, but (a) it's a beautiful dress and Fleming looks gorgeous in it (b) in fact the statement she is making is..."I can afford this". When she comes to Flora's party in Act II, she is wearing a equally expensive and bejewelled black dress.

After the shocking scene in which Alfredo throws the money at her, the father gives her his hand and escorts her from the room - this wasn't done in the production before, could it have been Thomas Hampson's idea? It's this sort of detail that makes or breaks a production. The point is that just after Alfredo has thrown the money and she collapses, the father offers to help her and she turns away, but then later she accepts his help....

The Prelude to Act III was unbearably poignant - of course, as I intimated, I had already started crying long before. "Addio del passato", of which she gets both verses, was heartbreaking, I am sure that she and the orchestra deserved the applause but for me, I just sat in stunned silence!

William Morris: the first Green Socialist?

(This is a modified version of a paper I originally gave at the Socialist History Society)

"Our cities are a wilderness of spinning wheels instead of palaces; yet the people have not clothes. We have blackened every leaf of English greenwood with ashes, and the people die of cold; our harbours are a forest of merchant ships, and the people die of hunger."

RUSKIN; The Crown of Wild Olive.

I have made the title of this paper into a question rather than a statement,since what I want to investigate is the extent of the Green movement's debt to Morris. Some research on this topic has also been done by Florence Boos, who has also edited Morris's Socialist Diary.

I want to suggest that many of the ideas and practices which we advocate today in the Green movement owe their origins to Morris - perhaps indirectly. (footnote 1*)

He seems to have been one of the first Victorians to address himself consciously to the question of our relationship with Nature, the natural world - i.e. rather than just write about it, or paint it, he suggested concrete steps that might be taken to preserve and enhance the beauty of the natural world and of the countryside. Some of his major interests are those which are still very much central concerns of the Green movement today - for instance his concern with THE NATURE OF WORK. His discussion of the Nature of Work develops from ideas first discussed by Carlyle and Ruskin.

We will first of all consider the final paragraph of A DREAM OF JOHN BALL

But as I turned away shivering and downhearted, on a sudden came the frightful noise of the "hooters," one after the other, that call the workmen to the factories, this one the after- breakfast one, more by token. So I grinned surlily, and dressed and got ready for my day's "work" as I call it, but which many a man besides John Ruskin (though not many in his position) would call "play."

This is a point that Morris develops at greater length in NEWS FROM NOWHERE. Because Morris enjoyed his work and was self-employed - indeed, was an employer - many people would have thought of his work as play, because it was enjoyable. It seems as though the section on Workers' Rights in the Green Party's Manifesto for a Sustainable Society
WR101 We define work in the full sense, not the traditional limited definition as employment in the formal economy. Green thinking recognises the latter as one part of the whole - a large part, but not the only one. Work exists in a variety of forms, each related to and often affecting others, like species in an ecosystem. Work covers all the activities people undertake to support themselves, their families and communities.

I referred to Carlyle because he perhaps stimulated Morris's examination of the Nature of Work. Carlyle himself never really tries to define what work IS, and he certainly has no truck with the idea of Pleasure in Work - in fact he more or less dismisses the idea of happiness as an irrelevance; he almost seems to advocate 'useless toil' as being at least preferable to 'idleness' - however you define idleness. Certainly Carlyle, writing in 1843, was in a position to observe the Industrial Revolution at first hand, and to see the degradation of the worker from an 'artisan' to a 'hand', the appendage to a machine. But the remedies he proposed were vastly different from those proposed by Morris - not only is Carlyle vague about the definition of work, but he sees restoration of feudal authority as the only true remedy for the evils of laissez-faire capitalism. In fact both Carlyle and Ruskin seem to hold the view that if everyone remained content in their stations, and the workers worked and their 'natural superiors' recognised and lived by the principle of noblesse oblige everything would be fine and there would be no need for revolution.

Perhaps Morris's concept of The Nature of Work should be seen as a reaction against the Protestant ethic expressed in Ruskin's writings, and the dour Calvinism of Carlyle" [Footnote 2*] I think the problem with Carlyle and Ruskin was that they never quite came to terms with the fact that work basically consists of the production of commodities, or more properly the production and exchange of commodities; Morris had grasped this even before he read Marx, and he discusses:

(a) what commodities should be produced.
(b) how they should be produced.
(c) by whom they should be produced.
(d) for whom they should be produced.
(e) how they should be distributed.

A related theme is the question of how Morris's expression of his love of nature, of landscape, of the English countryside, (a) is expressed in his poetry and later prose works; how it changed and developed as he travelled the road to Socialism - I think it can be convincingly demonstrated that it did change. Look at these excerpts from the Prologue to The Earthly Paradise:

Dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time
Why should I strive to set the crooked straight?
Let it suffice me that my murmuring rhyme
Beats with light wing against the ivory gate,
Telling a tale not too importunate
To those who in the sleepy region stay,
Lulled by the singer of an empty day.

Forget six counties overhung with smoke,
Forget the snorting steam and piston stroke,
Forget the spreading of the hideous town;
Think rather of the pack-horse on the down,
And dream of London, small and white and clean,
The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green;
Think,that below the bridge green lapping waves
Smite some few keels that bear Levantine staves,
Cut from the yew-wood on the burnt-up hill.

(this introductory stanza continues with images of a thriving medieval port).

The discussion therefore involves two main themes, following on from the above quote.

1) Morris developed from a poet who claimed to be a 'Dreamer of Dreams' and asked the rhetorical question, "Why should I strive to set the crooked straight?" into someone who took action to set the crooked straight, both literally and metaphorically. In fact I could almost have taken 'Setting the Crooked Straight' as my title. The 'crooked' meaning - the injustices of laissez-faire capitalism, which he wanted to set right. In all the early poems we can clearly see his love of nature and of the English countryside - and some of this is in the tradition of pastoral poetry. Pastoral poetry doesn't necessarily lead to a Green Socialist position - the point being that in order to write pastoral poetry you need to know about the tradition of pastoral poetry, not to be aware of the realities of sheep farming - this may in fact detract from the idyllic nature of the landscape described in pastoral poetry.

2) HOWEVER, in works such as News from Nowhere, is he any less a 'dreamer of dreams'? I think not - and in many ways this dreams resembles his vision of the Middle Ages, certainly in the way people dress and the style of their houses and gardens. (I shall return to the topic of gardens later). His vision of the world as it had been (or as Morris thought it ought to have been!) is similar to his vision of a harmonious socialist society in News from Nowhere.

I should also like us to examine the following passage from SIGURD THE VOLSUNG, which appeared in 1876. [Footnote 3*].

Now sheathed is the Wrath of Sigurd[footnote 4*]; for as wax withstands the flame,
So the kings of the land withstood him and the glory of his fame.
And before the grass is growing, or the kine have fared from the stall
The song of the fair-speech masters goes up in the Niblung hall.
And they sing of the golden Sigurd and the face without a foe,
And the lowly man exalted and the mighty brought alow;
And they say, when the sun of summer shall come aback to the land,
It shall shine on the fields of the tiller that fears no heavy hand;
That the sheaf shall be for the plougher, and the loaf for him that sowed,
Through every furrowed acre where the son of Sigmund rode.

Now this does demonstrate at the very least a concept of Victorian philanthropy, and also contains Biblical references or echoes. [Footnote 5]. SIGURD is actually full of Biblical references, for reasons which need not detain us here, but I think we may remind ourselves that the development of Socialism in England owes something of a debt to the Methodist church, although this is something in which Morris himself had no interest.

Thus we could say that Morris's vision of the Middle Ages as a time of artistic excellence (he regarded the Renaissance as the beginning of degeneracy and decay in the arts) functioned as a blueprint for what the world might be like after the Socialist revolution. He did not idealise the medieval period in the way Ruskin did, or the way the Pre-Raphaelites did in their paintings, but he was aware that the art/craft of the medieval period was an expression of some creative spark that (he felt) the Victorian period had lost. Thus in some ways Morris could hardly be said to have idealised the medieval period at all. He admired the art of the period, which is not quite the same thing.

I did say that his expression of his vision changed - but the vision itself did not change all that much. He saw Socialism as the means to achieve his vision of an integrated, whole society, in which the landscape was not damaged, and in which the stark division between town and country was abolished - expressed most elaborately in News from Nowhere, of course. The idea of the abolition of the division between town and country (i.e. the abolition of large manufacturing districts such as, in the 19th. century, Leeds, Manchester, etc) was a common feature of Utopian writing. [Footnote 6*] - and Marx had stated that one of the tasks of Socialism would be to end this division. Again, this is something that most environmentalists regard as a priority, even if they may not have heard of Morris and don't approach the question from a Marxist perspective. Note, for instance, these extracts from the Green Party's MANIFESTO FOR A SUSTAINABLE SOCIETY

:CY201 We believe that is is a fundamental human right and obligation for people to live in a style that ensures the can hand on to their descendants an environment that is at least as rich in wildlife and attractive landscapes as when they inherited it.

CY202 Rural and urban communities meet the many different needs of people in a healthy society. They are not separate from each other and one should not dominate the other. In a green society, towns will not grow beyond the ability of the countryside around them to provide fresh and healthy water and food, recreation, timber and wildlife habitats. There will be a constant flow of environmental, social and cultural information between them. Towns will return compostable materials to the countryside. These urban communities will integrate into all their decisions the impact on a vital, thriving rural community.

The germ of these ideas can be found in Morris's Useful Work versus Useless Toil and Art and Socialism. In Useful Work versus Useless Toil, a talk given at the Hampstead Liberal Club on January 16, 1884, Morris said;

'There are few men, for instance, who would not wish to spend part of their lives in the most necessary and pleasantest of all work - cultivating the earth. One thing which will make this variety of employment possible will be the form that education will take in a socially ordered community.'

Art and Socialism was a talk given to the Secular Society of Leicester, Jan 23, 1884, in the course of which Morris asks,

What are the necessaries for a good citizen? First, honourable and fitting work¦.
The second necessity is decency of surroundings, including
1. Good Lodging. 2. Ample space. 3. General order and beauty. That is:

1. Our houses must be well-built, clean and healthy. 2. There must be abundant garden space in our towns, and our towns must not eat up the fields and natural features of the country. Nay, I demand even that there be left waste places and wilds in it, or romance and poetry, that is Art, will die out among us. 3. Order and beauty means that not only our houses must be stoutly and properly built, but also that they be ornamented duly; that the fields be not only left for cultivation, but also that they be not spoilt by it any more than a garden is spoilt; no-one for instance to be allowed to cut down, for mere profit, trees whose loss would spoil a landscape; neither on any pretext should people be allowed to darken the daylight with smoke, to befoul rivers, or to degrade any spot of earth with squalid litter and brutal wasteful disorder.

The vision of society in NEWS FROM NOWHERE is one that is close to the vision of a possible future society expressed in many green/environmental manifestos and blueprints. For instance, the Thames is so clean - due to a lack of industrial pollution - that there are again salmon in the river near Hammersmith. The society has no money, it is a barter economy, people produce (a) what they need (b) what they LIKE. Piccadilly is a market, but one 'ignorant of the arts of buying and selling' - beautiful hand-made craft goods are exchanged and donated. The whole of London has reverted to being villages and parks. All the houses have gardens and (of course, this being Morris's dream!) all the buildings are well-built and attractively ornamented, but NOT VULGAR.

Morris repeated over and over again his hatred of the ugliness caused by rapid industrialisation; poisoning of the atmosphere by sulphurous emissions from factories, pollution of rivers, cutting down of trees - in short, the wholesale destruction of what we should now call the environment. The following examples are taken from Art Under Plutocracy, delivered at University College, Oxford, November 14, 1883. The meeting was chaired by Ruskin: Morris's lecture caused a furore, especially at the point at which Morris declared his adherence to the Socialist cause and asked his audience to support it, at least financially if in no other way.

a.To keep the air pure and the rivers clean, to take some pains to keep the meadows and tillage as pleasant as reasonable use will allow them to be; to allow peaceable citizens freedom to wander where they will, so they do no harm to garden or cornfield; nay, even to leave here and there some piece of waste or mountain sacredly free from fence or tillage as a memory of man's struggles with nature in his early days; is it too much to ask of civilisation to be so far thoughtful of man's pleasure and rest, and to help so far as this her children to whom she has most often set such heavy tasks of grinding labour? Surely not an unreasonable asking. But not a whit of it shall we get under the present system of society. That loss of the instinct for beauty which has involved us in the loss of popular art is also busy in depriving us of the only compensation possible for that loss, by surely and not slowly destroying the beauty of the very face of the earth.not only have whole counties of England, and the heavens that hang over them, disappeared beneath a crust of unutterable grime, but the disease which, to a visitor coming from the times of art, reason and order, would seem to be a love of dirt and ugliness for its own sake, spreads all over the country¦.

b.And why have our natural hopes been so disappointed? Surely because in these latter days, in which as a matter of fact machinery has been invented, it was by no means invented with the aim of saving the pain of labour. The phrase labour-saving machinery is elliptical, and means machinery which saves the cost of labour, not the labour itself, which will be expended when saved on tending other machines.

c.I tell you that the very essence of competitive commerce is waste.

Morris owed something to Ruskin, who certainly had an instinctive hatred of the ugliness and pollution of industrial landscapes, but whose expression of this hatred failed to reach as far as an attempt to analyse the causes - Morris did try to analyse the causes, once he became an active Socialist. And the actual pollutants were d -ifferent; that is, pollution didn't to any great extent result from the use of pesticides on agricultural land this is more of a 20th and 21st century phenomenon - it resulted from the production methods in the manufacturing towns, and though Morris was unable to suggest solutions himself, he did suggest that research should be done to find solutions, as in this extract from THE LESSER ARTS, (originally entitled THE DECORATIVE ARTS), which was the first lecture he gave; it was given to the Trades Guild of Learning, April 12 1877.

Is money to be gathered? Cut down the pleasant trees among the houses, pull down ancient and venerable buildings for the money that a few square yards of London dirt will fetch; blacken rivers, hide the sun and poison the air with smoke and worse, and it's nobody's business to see to it or mend it. That is all that modern commerce, the counting-house forgetful of the workshop, will do for us herein.

And Science - we have loved her well, and followed her diligently, what will she do? I fear she is so much in the pay of the counting-house, the counting-house and the drill sergeant, that she is too busy, and will for the present do nothing. Yet there are matters which I should have thought easy for her; say for example teaching Manchester how to consume its own smoke, or Leeds how to get rid of its superfluous black dye without turning it into the river, which would be as much worth her attention as the production of the heaviest of black silks, or the biggest of useless guns.

It is as well to recall here that the terminology we now use was not used by Morris and his contemporaries, although I am suggesting that he gave the impetus to many of our own environmental concerns. At certain points Morris still used vocabulary such as "conquering Nature", "our struggle with Nature" and so on, which indicates that, though he did his best, he could not entirely free himself from the mind-set that saw Nature as a hostile force to be conquered and subdued, or the Conquest of Nature as something desirable - although his awareness of humanity as a part of Nature is usually to the fore. It is possible that he used this terminology as an initial point of contact with his audiences.
 For most of the 19th century, "environment" [Footnote 7*]was a neutral term meaning "the surroundings", "where we live" - it didn't have the emotive weight it carries today. Similar, the word "ecology" (first recorded in English in 1893 according to Ecology for Beginners, but used by Thoreau in 1856, according to the OED) was not used with any positive or negative connotations - the general public were less aware of what an ecosystem was and how it could be damaged. [Footnote 8*]

I want to add here something about public awareness - Morris at least was very aware of potential, indeed actual, damage to the environment, even if he did not use this terminology. This contradicts the claim made by Hans Magnus Enzensberger in his Critique of Political Ecology (New Left Review, 84, pp. 3-32, 1974). He was obviously totally unaware of Morris's writings when he claimed that "Industrialisation made whole towns and areas of the countryside uninhabitable as long as a hundred and fifty years ago -.the ecological movement has only come into being since the districts which the bourgeoisie inhabit and their living conditions have been exposed to those environmental burdens that industrialisation brings with it. What fills their prophets with terror is not so much ecological decline, which has been present since time immemorial, as its universalisation".[Footnote 9*]

Morris, like Engels, (and even Ruskin and Carlyle, as we have seen), was perfectly well aware of the dehumanisation of work and of the degrading, cramped and unsanitary conditions in which the working class lived. And he did set out to campaign against all this. He did visit industrial towns and saw how ugly and dirty they were, and was indignant at the conditions in which the workers lived. My point throughout has been that Morris's ideas on the environment have had a great influence on the environmental movement, and Morris never denied that he was a member of the bourgeoisie - what is true is that has taken a century or more for some of these ideas to be taken up by large numbers of people. Unfortunately, it has to be conceded that the Green movement is still perceived in some quarters as something of a middle-class hobby, at least in the UK and the USA.

It should also be observed that Morris's interest was also - indeed primarily - in the BUILT ENVIRONMENT - his first overtly "political" act (According to E.P. Thompson in his biography of Morris) could be seen as the foundation of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. (Still in existence today).

One of the contradictions in Morris's own working life, of course, is that his own dictum of "have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful", could not be universally applied, and one of his major complaints was that much of the work of the Firm of Morris & Co.consisted of "ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich". He wanted his art to be available to everyone - and, perhaps more importantly, he wanted everyone to be able to practice ART, and for ART to have the widest definition possible. This is another field in which the Green Party's Manifesto for a Sustainable Society seems to have taken Morris's advice to heart:

AT101 We respect individual and group creativity in all its diversity and value freedom of expression. A list of examples of the type of activity to which this statement relates would include painting, sculpture, drama, music, dance, photography, film, writing, crafts and design, and other types of creative activity not specifically mentioned here.

AT102 We value participation as well as excellence in the arts: we do not value hierarchy.

AT103 Artistic expression permeates all human activity and can be thought of holistically as part of, not separate from, people's lives.

Morris would obviously have given pride of place to craft and design, and he himself was not interested in the performing arts, so drama is not specifically mentioned in NEWS FROM NOWHERE, but this is probably just forgetfulness rather than anything more sinister!

So perhaps I could sum up by saying that Morris has influenced the Green movement in ways which he could not have anticipated, but would surely have been happy to know about. I think, though, that it was his perspective as a Socialist activist that enabled him to develop ideas and theories that could have practical application; as a young man, his poetry celebrated the beauty of Nature, but it is in his prose writings and lectures that we see a development towards an active 'Green Socialist' perspective.



[1] It is also vital to acknowledge Morris's own debt to Ruskin - he himself never tired of reiterating that he owed a great deal to Ruskin in the field of aesthetics,though he soon parted company with him on the subject of 'Political Economy'.But what they shared was a love of the countryside - what we should now call the environment - and a dislike of the ugliness and pollution brought about by the industrialisation of the early to mid-nineteenth century. This is why this paper starts with a quote from Ruskin, rather than from Morris himself - the difference being (as you are no doubt already aware!) that Ruskin was reluctant to contemplate any solution to this problem that could have been described,however loosely, as Socialist.

[2] Although it is always possible that none of the social criticism of the 19th. century would have been possible without Carlyle

[3]I will briefly observe here that the date 1876 is not without significance; it is the year that Wagner's RING was first performed at Bayreuth. I have argued elsewhere that SIGURD THE VOLSUNG is an anti-RING. (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Leeds, 1993).

[4] His sword

[5]'The lowly man exalted and the mighty brought alow' is a reference to The Magnificat; 'He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble.'

[6] Although not universal - Bellamy's LOOKING BACKWARD is a very urban (or suburban!) Utopia,and NEWS FROM NOWHERE developed at least partially as a response to this. (It's also very American, though - did Morris take this sufficiently into account?) [

7]It appears that it was Carlyle who first used the term 'environment' in the sense in which we now use it, although we are accustomed to think of Morris, rather than Carlyle, as the 'proto-Green'.Sadly, Carlyle is more deserving of the term 'proto-Fascist' than either 'proto-Green' or 'proto-Socialist'. Of course the term Fascist had not been coined during the lifetimes of Carlyle and Morris,but it is true that some of Carlyle's idea contained the germ of what became Fascism - which presents itself initially as anti-capitalist and in tune with Nature. It cannot be denied, however, that he did have some influence on the development of Morris's Socialist thought.
[8] Also, now we practice and discuss Organic Gardening, but the Victorians gardened organically anyway, as the use of chemical fertilisers was in its infancy, and pesticides were almost unknown, so they didn't use the term 'organic', at least not in the way we use it today, because there was no NON-organic horticulture or agriculture to oppose it.

[9]Although for all I know this claim of Enzensberger's may by now have been refuted - or just dismissed as obviously rubbish. It was written in the 1970s, and may not still be current.