Thursday, 3 September 2015

Der Fliegende Hollander, Bayreuth, 28 August 2015




RICHARD WAGNER: The Flying Dutchman

(Romantic Opera in Three Scenes)

Bayreuther Festspielhaus, 28 August 2015

Daland                                                    Kwagnchul Youn
Senta                                                       Ricarda Merbeth
Erik                                                         Tomislav Muzek
Mary                                                        Christa Mayer
Steersman                                                Benjamin Bruns
Dutchman                                                Samuel Youns
Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival
Conductor                                               Axel Gober                                       

I have finally achieved my ambition, and made it to Bayreuth...nothing will ever be the same for me after this first Pilgrimage up the Green Hill!! (Well, I got a taxi, since I have a mobility problem, but the effect is the same....still a pilgrimage for me). There are these rather entertainingly kitsch images of Wagner throughout the town....
Nothing really prepares you for experiencing the Bayreuth sound in real life....yes, I've heard countless broadcasts and recordings, seen countless DVDs, but this time I really felt the effect of the way the sound is projected by the covered orchestra pit. Such an exciting performance of the overture, the idea of the turbulent sea very convincingly portrayed, and the music of Senta's ballad echoing it sympathetically.
Musically, the performance was dominated by Senta (Ricarda Merbeth), making it as much her opera as the Dutchman's......she was well-matched by Samuel Youn as the Dutchman.
All the roles were well sung, Tomislav Muzek very lyrical as Erik, and Benjamin Bruns making the Steersman perhaps more interesting than usual, for reasons I shall come to when I discuss the staging. The chorus, such a vital part of this opera, were superb, their actions were choreographed almost like a ballet.
The production was a bit quirky, but I liked it. There isn't a vast amount of visual reference to the sea, but that doesn't matter, as it is so strong musically. The first scene seems to take place in the control room of a state of the art nuclear submarine (?), with Daland and the Steersman in a boat (lifeboat) hanging over the side. Unfortunately, I could not find an image of this impressive stage set, but here at least are Daland and the Steersman.

As you see, they are not dressed as sailors, but in rather smart civilian clothes, as are the other sailors.

There is a reason for this, in that there is a sub-plot in which Daland and the steersman run a (slightly dodgy?) business importing electrical goods, which is what the girls are unpacking during the 'Spinning Chorus'. I don't have a problem with this, the Spinning Chorus is just a plot device to mark the scene change (and if it were a Spinning Chorus, it would give me a chance to nit-pick about whether the spinning wheels were in any sense authentic!!) The sub-plot is going to turn out to have relevance to the Senta/Dutchman plot in the end.
I want to move on to the Senta/Dutchman scene - the 'Not Love Duet', as it were. (Remember he sings - translation by me - 'This deep burning sensation I feel....may I who am so wretched call it love? Oh no, it's the yearning for redemption....may it be mine through such an angel').  Senta has worked herself up into a passion of obsession during the Ballad, and the Duet was unbelievably intense. There is Daland's jolly tune as he exhorts Senta to seize the chance to gain a rich husband, and then it gradually dawns on him......they're doing just fine, I'll make myself scarce. (They are standing on the boxes that the electrical goods came in....there is a point to this!)

As soon as he leaves, the whole orchestral colouring changes, and any connection with ordinary life is isn't that they are actually communicating with each other, but that each is finding the fulfilment of their deepest dreams....she of the need to redeem him, he of the yearning for redemption. as soon as the duet is over, she goes up to him and grabs him, kissing him passionately.....just as Erik said she did in his dream narration.......and then they do communicate directly, and she reaches the height of exultation, as she goes to put on angel wings, and puts a crown (halo?) on the Dutchman's head. This was about the most intense performance, musically and dramatically, that I have seen...the production is perhaps built round Senta rather than the Dutchman, and I was impressed by the strong ringing tones, and the passionate characterisation.

For the chorus in the next scene, the girls have changed out of their blue overalls (about the only splash of colour in the staging), and put on party dresses in shades of while, grey and looks attractive, if somewhat stylised.
Then the final, she doesn't throw herself into the sea, she climbs onto the boxes on which he is sitting, and they are united in death.....the audience can see blood on his chest, earlier he tried to cut himself but of course nothing happened.......look at the blissful expression on her face as she cradles him.

In the final tableau, it looks as if Daland and the others have decided to make memorial statues of Senta and the Dutchman....that was the point of the packaging. I thought it was rather an interesting idea....they have achieved what they wanted out of life (i.e, death!!) but people will always remember them.

Such a splendid achievement by the Bayreuth team. Now I have to start saving up for next year!!!

Thursday, 12 March 2015

R.I.P. Terry Pratchett, 1948-2015

A very sad day for his many admirers - Terry Pratchett, author of the DISCWORLD series, has died aged 66. I can't believe there will be no more Discworld novels - he never seemed to run out of ideas, and was so witty and stylish.

This is my favourite quote:

The proliferation of iridescent crystals and luminous fungi in dark caves where the torchlessly improvident hero needs to SEE is one of the most obvious examples of the intrusion of narrative causality into the physical universe.  (The last Continent).

Can never decide which is my favourite novel, but I loved GOING POSTAL, which is really a polemic against privatisation. 

Oh to make some of Nanny Ogg's Carrot and Oyster Pie. I expect Terry is already leading Death a merry dance.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Anti-TTIP Protest, Brussels, 3-4 February. Day 2

The second day started with the Trojan Horse Protest outside the European Commission. This protest was organised in cooperation with Friends of the Earth Europe, who made this video of the event. The speakers explain why TTIP is considered to be a Trojan Horse, and why we should protest against it.

After the protest, we all walked (yes, including me!) from the European Commission to the European Parliament, to meet with our Green MEPs.

Our Green MEPs are Jean LambertKeith Taylor and Molly Scott Cato. Here they are at a discussion chaired by a member of the German Greens. They were also joined by Plaid Cymru MEP Jill Evans, who sits in the European Parliament as a Green. (I could hardly believe that I was really in Brussels, attending a meeting at the European Parliament. And they provided us with lunch!)

The Green Group has consistently opposed TTIP from its inception, as have the Left groups, but apparently not the Social Democrats. The discussion involved pointing out that there is much more to TTIP  than a trade treaty, it is not merely about 'goods crossing borders'. As we had already learnt, it is more about lowering standards of environmental protection so as to increase the profits of multi-national organisations, There was more discussion on ISDS, to which we had been introduced on the previous day, and we were reminded of the fact that corporations can sue governments, but not the reverse.  The introduction of TTIP would mean multinational corporations making the laws, not governments, The measure of the special tribunal would be whether INVESTMENTS had been damaged.

Keith Taylor pointed out that bilateral trade agreements are only about money (profits), and wider social and environmental issues are routinely ignored. 
Molly Scott Cato also spoke on the theme of finance, pointing our that a 'trade' treaty is really a corporate power treaty, enabling corporations to move finance, not goods.The banks are still not properly regulated, but TTIP asks for reductions on regulation.

Jean Lambert reinforced the theme that had already  been discussed, that implementation of TTIP would pose a threat to the UK National Health Service and to public services in general (throughout the EU).

Jill Evans spoke on the threat to food safety standards, and the question of food labelling, Apparently there is very little food labelling in the US, and the treaty would require a reduction in the standards of safety and explicitness in food labelling in the EU. It is a very political issue! 

We then moved on to a discussion with Labour MEPs, led by David Martin, a Scottish MEP. The Labour group are less committed in their opposition to TTIP than the Green group, perhaps more prepared to give it consideration under certain circumstances, David Martin said that he did believe in 'free trade if possible, but only if it's fair'. He said that there could perhaps be a 'good' TTIP, which would be good for jobs and good for growth,  but it would have to enshrine labour rights in law. He claimed that the discussions have not reached the point where it's possible to be for or against TTIP since it is still 'a blank sheet of paper'. 

He then told a heckler, 'If you're not here to listen, just piss off', which some of us thought was quite funny, but he then had to apologise. The hecklers were quite often does anyone get the chance to go to the European Parliament and discuss serious issues? 

That was the final meeting, and then we returned to London, with a lot to think about, and with the intention of continuing the campaign.

I'll just finish with something that  is not connected with the campaign, but I found rather amusing, one point a woman came up to me and asked where I was was from. I said, 'London - Green Left', and she said....''re not from Shetland, then?' This is why!!

This was what I was wearing......I did indeed knit it for Shetland Wool Week, interesting that someone in Brussels recognised the design!!

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Anti-TTIP Protest, Brussels, 3-4 February 2015, Day One

The protest against TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), was organised mainly by Global Justice Now38 degrees and War on Want. I went to represent Green Left.

 I must congratulate the organisers on the efficiency with which they  managed to get more than 100 people onto the right train and get us all to the right venue in Brussels. (Some, like myself, are elderly and disabled, and help was at hand). The venue was Mundo-B, which is a building ecologically renovated by a group of NGOs - it contains a conference centre, an organic cafe and organic garden.

I will outline as briefly as possible what TTIP is, and why we felt it was necessary to protest against it. It has been summed up by Global Justice Now as 'a race to the bottom, which doesn't pit the EU against the US, but people's rights against Big Business'. A good way of putting is in fact intended as a corporate takeover. The outline here is taken from information supplied by Global Justice NowJean Lambert MEPMolly Scott Cato MEP and Keith Taylor, MEP.

In essence TTIP is a trade agreement between the US and the EU which increases the power of multinational corporations at the expense of the governments and populace of EU countries. The National Health Service of the UK is particularly at risk. 'The stated aims of TTIP are to remove trade barriers in relation to the buying and selling of goods and services between the EU and the US.If health services were not exempted from TTIP, it would cause them to be traded in much the same way.....Specific concerns that have been raised include whether TTIP would make it impossible to repeal existing health legislation which encourages marketisation of the NHS, the extent to which prospective public health measures (such as introducing plain packaging of tobacco products) would be under threat of legal challenge.......(Matthew Hamilton, Royal College of Nursing).

 Food standards and environmental protection would also be at risk were TTIP to be implemented.
'The EU and US have very different food standards, and some of the US food safety laws are much lower than those in the EU.
For example, products such as bleached chicken and hormone-fed cattle products are sold on the US market, whereas we are protected from such products here in the EU. In the EU we also have much more stringent restrictions on GMOs and pesticides......The US meat and dairy industries have very openly stated that they want to weaken provisions for animal welfare in the EU. They say these provisions are 'barriers to trade', but this is irrelevant. The provisions were introduced for a reason - the welfare of animals - and so they must remain in place.......the corporations driving the TTIP agenda were not elected to make our laws, and have not been given any public mandate to do so, For them, the end game is profit.....TTIP must be stopped in its tracks. (Keith Taylor, MEP).

I will conclude this introduction by drawing attention to the most insidious danger of TTIP, the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS).This would give transnational corporations the power to sue European countries before secret arbitration tribunals, thus allowing US companies to bypass domestic European courts and sue for loss of profits from public policy decisions.
I am indebted for the following information to John Hilary, Chair of War on Want.

These are some examples of how companies have already used these powers.

1) US tobacco giant Philip Morris is suing the Australian government for billions of dollars in lost profits over the public health policy that all cigarettes must be sold in plain packaging.

2) Swedish energy company Vattenfall is suing the German government for 3.7 billion Euros over the country's decision to phase out nuclear power in the wake of the Fukusima nuclear disaster.

3) Veolia is suing the Egyptian government for loss of profits as a result of the county's decision to raise the minimum wage.

4) Ecuador has been ordered to pay Occidental Petrolium $1.77 billion in damages for terminating the oil giant's contract, even though the company had broken the law.

I will now turn to our protest. More than 100 people travelled to Brussels via Eurostar. On arrival in Brussels, we were taken on a walking tour of the corporate and lobbying quarter of Brussels - this visit was organised by Corporate Europe Observatory, who describe themselves as 'a research and campaign group working to expose and challenge the privileged access and influence enjoyed by corporations and their lobby groups in EU policy making'.

Because there were so many of us, we were divided into two groups - I elected to join the Food and Agriculture group. The other was Banking and Finance, but obviously there is an overlap, and we all ended up back together again in the Champs de Mars, the location of the 26 floor Bastion Tower, which houses the water and energy giant Suez, as well as several law firms and consultancies. (It is incredible how often we came up against corporate lawyers and consultancies!)

The Food and BioTech lobby operates through umbrella groups Eurobio and the European Seed Association. Biotech corporations including Monsanto, Syngenta, Pioneer, Bayer Cropscience, have their own lobbying offices in Brussels. According to the booklet provided by CEO, the biotech lobby want to get rid of the EU zero-tolerance policy for the presence of non-authorised GMOs in any imported food or feed.
The best known - and most hated - of the biotech corporations is Monsanto, which is based at 270, Avenue de Tervueren. The Monsanto Logo is no longer displayed on the front of the building, so it is possible that the company's decision makers are aware of the strength of feeling against them in the EU. Their website describes them as 'a sustainable agriculture company' which focuses on 'empowering farmers'.....whereas in fact the reverse is the truth.They are continuing to push for approval for RoundupReady soy in Europe - and also lobbies at the UN, pushing for GM soy to be recognised as climate-friendly. (This of course raises the whole question of soy and palm oil production!! I have included a link here to the Rainforest foundation, although this was not specifically on the anti-TTIP agenda).

Our attention was also drawn to Food and Drink Europe, which represents the multi-national food companies, including Uniliver, Kraft Foods, Coca-Cola and Mars. They were influential in a recent lobby battle over food labelling, campaigning to block consumer-friendly 'traffic light' labels - colour-coded labels for products containing high amounts of salt, sugar and fats. They succeeded in persuading MEPs that a voluntary approach involving guidelines would be preferable. The most recent entry on the their website reiterates this view.

There are many other influential lobby groups based in Brussels, including the all-important carbon lobby. Shell recently opened new premises on Rond-Point Schuman, a stone's throw from the European Commission. Both BP and Shell have lobbied to manipulate the EU's efforts to tackle climate change by promoting carbon trading as a solution.

After this fascinating, though tiring walk, we went to have a discussion and an evening meal with comrades and civil society activists, then returned to our various hotels.