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.