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Category archive: Classical music

Friday July 28 2017

Where were you when England won the World Cup? I’m talking about the women’s cricket World Cup that England won, a week ago tomorrow?  It looked like rain might wreck the occasion, but they got the full hundred overs of cricket and a grandstand finish.

While all that drama was unfolding, I was, as already reported, out in the countryside to see and to hear GodDaughter 2 and her pals performing a Mozart opera.  The journey to this opera required me to arrive at Alton Station, in time for another pal to collect me from there and drive me the final few miles.

Given the choice between using public transport to get to an unfamiliar destination just in time, or getting there far too early, I greatly prefer the latter procedure.  Last Saturday, the trains of the south of England lived down to their current low reputation, with postponements all over the place.  Trainline had told me to change at Wimbledon, but at Vauxhall they told me to change at Clapham Junction, and it all took quite a bit longer than it should have.  But I had left so much time to spare that I still had over an hour to kill at Alton Station.

Google maps had informed me that a short walk away from Alton Station there is a quite large pond, which I checked out.  It is the home of numerous birds, including these ones:

image

I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve ever set eyes on non-baby but nevertheless non-adult swans.  I have certainly never noticed such birds before.  Are they really that colour, like they’ve been mucking about in a coal cellar?  It would seem so.  Cameras can lie through their teeth these days, but my one isn’t lying, I can assure you.  That is what they looked like.

I always photo signs on days like these, and when I got home I learned that in refusing to share any of the food I had brought with me, I was also following local instructions.  As the big sign said, you can help care for the pond by:

image

And the sign went on:

(Uncontrolled feeding leads to over-population of birds, too many for the pond to support, as well as water pollution from droppings and rats feeding on uneaten bread).

So, good on me for resisiting the temptation.

Wednesday July 26 2017

I have a new camera, and I am not as happy as I would like to be about the photos I am photoing with it.  They often seem vague and blurry, as if seen through a mist.

But then again, the humidity levels during the last week or two have been very high.  Maybe the views have all looked as if seen through a mist because they were seen through a mist.

Here, for instance, is a photo of a favourite building of mine, the big decorated box that is the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, as seen from Westminjster Bridge, which is quite a way away:

image

But I got to work with my Photoshop clone, and beefed up the contrast, and darkened things a bit.

Thus:

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Which looks a bit better.  I’ve chased away some of the mist.  The trees look greener.  The details of the ROH’s exterior decoration are clearer.

I have a vague recollection of trying to reset my camera, so that it did things more darkly and more contrastingly.  Maybe at that point, I contrived to do the opposite of what I thought I was doing.

But then again, not long after taking that photo, I took this one, of the giant 4 outside the Channel 4 headquarters building at the top end of Horseferry Road, a short walk away from where I live.  I often go past it on my way home after an afternoon of wandering, and so it was that day, nearly a week ago now:

image

That looks bright enough and clear enough, doesn’t it?  That’s without any zoom, i.e. space filled with blurriness.  And without this weather making its presence felt, the picture doesn’t look like it needs any artificial editing attention.  So maybe the camera is fine, and it has been the weather.  And I just made the weather better.

Sunday July 23 2017

Today is the Women’s World Cup Final at Lord’s, mentioned here earlier.  They’re calling it the biggest game in the history of women’s cricket, and they’re not wrong.

So, what does the London weather do?

A dry start for many with some sunny spells. Through the morning scattered showers are likely to develop, locally heavy with a risk of thunder in the afternoon before dying away during the evening.

Could have been worse.  Sounds like (a) they’ll get a game, but (b) it will be a terrible let-down, involving Duckworth and Lewis.  This is the much feared and universally not understood formula for deciding who wins a cricket match, by calculating a revised target in fewer overs for the side batting second, or, later, by guessing who would have won if it hadn’t rained so bloody much and put a stop to everything.

Meanwhile, I’ll be journeying to Newton Valence, in faraway Hampshire, to see GodDaughter 2 in Le Nozzi di Figaro.  This was to have been outdoors, but wisely, it has already been moved into the barn:

The Long Barn is one of the most spacious and exquisite barns in Hampshire. Nestled in the picturesque village of Newton Valence, amidst spectacular rolling countryside, The Long Barn offers breathtaking views from one of the highest points in the South Downs National Park.

But how breathtaking will those views be today?

Let’s hope those sunny spells make their presence felt.

Friday July 14 2017

I spent a frightening proportion of my waking hours last week scouring London for the exact sort of computer screen than I wanted, and sorting out the resulting mess caused by one of the screens that I bought malfunctioning and then its identical replacement malfunctioning in the exact same way.  I may write more about that, but threaten nothing.

My scourings took me all over London.  On Tuesday, having had no success in any of the electronic toy shops of Tottenham Court Road and nearby places, like John Lewis in Oxford Street, I journeyed West, to Peter Jones in Sloane Square.  On my way, I had the latest of many goes at photoing the statue of the young Mozart in Pimlico Square, and this time, I quite liked the result:

image

That’s not a very good likeness of the statue, but I quite like the photo, because of all the rather nicely lit greenery, and even despite that strange object in the tree with wires coming out of it.  Something to do with electrical lighting, I think.  Next time I am there I may check, if I remember.  If you want to know more about the statue, you surely know how to do that, now that you know, if you didn’t already, that it’s there.

Peter Jones having not provided me with a computer screen, and me having then drawn a similar blank at PC World in Kensington High Street, I journeyed on Wednesday to Brixton, where PC World has what turned out to be an impressively large super-store.

On my way there, I wasn’t looking for photo-ops but encountered quite a few, including this one:

image

That’s a bust of Sir Henry Tate, in front of Brixton Library, which he founded and paid for.  Also Streatham Library, apparently.  And yes, Tate also founded a big old Art Gallery right near where I live.

To me, one of the intriguing things about my photo is the strange pattern of greenness (copper oxide?) which only partially covers the bust.  Most of the photos you get if you image google for this thing do their best to minimise this effect.  I made a point of capturing it, because it was what first got my attention.

Wednesday July 05 2017

The best thing about seeing Turandot at the R(oyal) O(pera) H(ouse) earlier in the week was definitely seeing Turandot.  But almost as good was what I saw during one of the intervals.

So, do you remember this?

image

The “this” I am referring to is the disembodied rectangular box hovering up near the roof there.  I copied and pasted the sanskrit my blogging system demands for that photo from this earlier ROH posting.  To quote my earlier description in that earlier posting:

I especially like that disembodied clutch of drinkers, suspended up there as if in mid air, but actually in mid mirror.

All of which means that you don’t need to remember it, because I just told you again.

Well, during the interval in question, I found myself stretching my legs inside this aerial box.  From it, I got views like this:

image

Which was all very fine, although I can’t really tell how good or bad this photo is, because I only have this terrible little replacement screen to look at it on.

But then, things got even more interesting.  I looked through that big semi-circular window, and saw other interesting things.  In particular I saw this:

image

That is one of London’s finer assemblages of roof clutter, made all the more magnificent by being anarchically perched, like a tiny shanty town, upon one of London biggest and blandest and most geometrically severe pieces of sculpted Big Thingness from the Concrete Monstrosity era.  Namely: One Kemble Street, which used to be known by the much cooler name of Space House.

If you image google for One Kemble Street, you get a deluge of photos of One Kemble Street, but just about all of them are taken from below.  It’s like they’re ashamed of that marvellous roof clutter.  But why?  It is magnificent.

Here is another view of part of this roof clutter:

image

That was taken in December 2014, on the same day I photoed the floating bar in the sky, in the first photo, above.

Memo to self: check it out again, and try to photo the whole thing, in nice weather like that.

Tuesday July 04 2017

Yesterday I attended a Royal Opera House Covent Garden dress rehearsal, of Puccini’s Turandot.  Never having seen Turandot on stage before, I learned a lot.  The singing was pretty good, especially the choral singing, but maybe I say “especially” about that because I generally prefer choral singing to “operatic” solo singing.  The staging looked appropriately splendid and exotic.

But the best fun of all was, afterwards, finding this bizarre piece of writing by Michael Tanner, for the Spectator.  What is bizarre is that Tanner disapproves of the characters and he disapproves of the “happy ending” at the end of Turandot, like some myopic Victorian moralist objecting to King Lear because of what sort of people they are and because of what happens at the end of that.

Turandot is obviously a very wicked and tyrannical ice-queen type of a woman.  But Calaf earns Tanner’s special condemnation.  This is because Calaf, being from Asia in olden times rather than the Home Counties of England now, prefers conquest, sexual and political, to the love of a good woman.  He is going to subjugate Turandot, sexually and politically, or die trying, and damn the consequences.  But in Michael Tanner’s world tenors are not supposed to think and behave like that.  Their job is to embody virtue, not watch while the slave girl who has been in love with Calaf throughout the opera is tortured and then commits suicide to spare herself more torture. After which Calaf carries right on with subjugating Turandot.  But the fact that Calaf is not the sort of person whom Tanner would want marrying his sister is rather beside the point.  Or to put the same point a quite other way, it is exactly the point.  It isn’t just the setting of Turandot that is exotic.  These are profoundly different sorts of people to those that Michael Tanner, or for that matter I, approve of.

This is like denouncing the Ring Cycle because Wotan is a god rather than a geography teacher, or because the dragons in the Ring Cycle do not behave like hedgehogs.

Calaf was also criticised by Tanner for standing still and just singing, instead of doing lots of “acting” in the modern style.  But Calaf’s whole character is that of a would-be ultra-masculine tyrant.  And tyrants instinctively exude power and strength, for instance by standing still in a very masculine chest-out pose, and singing very sonorously, rather than by doing lots of fidgety acting.  It is their underlings and victims who do all the acting, by re-acting to people like Calaf.

However, it often happens that critics who denounce works of art in rather ridiculous ways nevertheless understand them very well, and often a lot better than the people who say that they like them.  They absolutely get what the artist was doing.  It’s just that they don’t happen to like it.  I recommend Tanner’s piece as a way of understand how very different Calaf and Turandot are from their equivalents in, say, La Boheme.

Friday June 30 2017

Last night I sent out the reminder emails concerning my meeting tonight, the first of the ones listed in the previous posting, and I hoped for a few more replies saying: I’ll be there.  So far: nothing.  So now I am worried there won’t be enough people, and I will look like a plonker.  This morning I woke up, but then went back to sleep and had a scary and absurdly over-the-top warning dream about what a disaster tonight is going to be.  The plot line was: I went out shopping for stuff, and didn’t even get back in time myself.  Maybe the message was: relax.  It’ll be bad.  But it won’t be this bad.

So, now I face a day of fretting, and a day of making optimistic preparations for what could be a fiasco that won’t need them.  So, what did I just do?  I dashed off a Samizdata posting about the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, and what a bad thing this is.

This is not as crazy as it sounds.  If there is one thing that will totally ruin by last-Friday-of-the-month meetings it is the universal (but unstated-to-my-face) understanding that I am now a person of zero significance, the significance of whose meetings is likewise: zero.  But, I like these meetings, so long as people attend them in sufficient numbers, and I would miss them if I stopped doing them.  So, I need to put myself about more, on Samizdata and generally.  Even though what I really like doing is reading books about people like Chopin, listening to music by people like Chopin, wandering around London and posting pretty pictures of it here, waffling about them, and troubling nobody.

When you get old, you have to go on being what you are and doing what you do, even if you’d rather not.

Sunday June 25 2017

I’ve been reading Adam Zamoyski’s book about Chopin.  So far, I love it.  And I love learning so much about a fascinating man, of whom I knew just about nothing besides his music, and the fact that he was Polish and is a very big deal in Poland, but that he lived mostly in France.

I have, in particular, learned just exactly how Polish Chopin was, and was not.  His father, Nicholas Chopin, was French.  But when the Polish aristocrat for whom he worked went back to Poland, Nicholas went with him.  In Poland Nicholas married a Polish woman, and Frederick was thus born in Poland, but with his French-sounding name.  It sounds French because it was French.

So far, I have reached the stage where Chopin has played his first few concerts at which he performed, to great acclaim, his first few compositions, most of them for piano and orchestra.  (I am very fond of these pieces, the two piano concertos and the various other one movement works for piano and orchestra.)

As for how Chopin played, Zamoyski supplies this especially pleasing quote, from an unnamed Warsaw newspaper critic:

He emphasised but little, like one conversing in the company of clever people, not with the rhetorical aplomb which is considered by virtuosos to be indispensable.

But Chopin found it difficult working with orchestras, and I’m guessing that this is partly why that stopped, and he concentrated henceforth on solo works.  But as I think the above quote reveals, that probably suited his manner of playing better.

Wednesday June 21 2017

One of the many aspects of the horrible Grenfell Tower fire that makes it such a compelling news story is that the scene of the crime (which is what most now assume it to be) is so very, very visible.  This is not the kind of horror that can be sealed off by the police and hidden from view.  There it is, in all its photogenic horror, and there it will remain for quite some while yet.

Yesterday I lunched with GodDaughter 2.  She has been allowed no time to recover from her recital (the pizza in yesterday’s posting was consumed just after that happened), but instead has been plunged into rehearsals for this showVery hot, apparently.  Lots of stage lighting, and lots of standing around, as is the way with complicated rehearsals.  I, meanwhile, was also nearly immobilised by the heat, and just wanted to get home again and be truly immobile.  So, we spent less time together than we would have had the heat been less hot.

imageBut she did show me this photo, on the right there, which was taken by a friend of hers and along with a million other such photos, has been circulating on social media.  This particular photo was taken (I think I have this right) after the fire had erupted, and then been turned entirely black and dormant by the firemen.  But then, the fire got back into business, nearly a day later.  And I bet the heat made a difference to that too.

As for the politics of this, I don’t think Mrs May will recover from the bad press she has had as a result of this disaster.  (GD2 was very eloquent about that.) But my hope is that the Corbynistas are overplaying their hand.  People, says John McDonnell, have a right to be angry.  Of course they do.  But if too many of the people being angry are thought to be politicos who are merely pretending to be angry but who are really having the time of their lives, the Corbyn project might suffer.  I’m sure the Corvbyn high-ups are aware of this danger, but knowing what is happening with something is not the same as necessarily being able to stop it.  (Ask any fireman.)

In general I hope that what I heard Matthew Parris saying on the television on the night of the election is right, to the effect that the Corbyn phenomenon will now be subjected to the sort of serious critical scrutiny by the voters which last time around they bestowed only upon Mrs May.

Monday June 12 2017

Today I was part of a impressively numerous gang of friends and family who attended GodDaughter 2’s end of third year recital, at the Royal College of Music.

The RCM, seen from outside the Royal Albert Hall, looks like this:

image

This photo was taken from just beyond the statue of Prince Albert outside the Royal Albert Hall, to the south of it.  By most standards, this statue is pretty imposing, but it is a miniature compared to the vastly bigger Royal Albert Memorial, which is to the north, the other side of Kensington Road, in Hyde Park.

After GD2’s recital, we went out and celebrated.  We ate.  We drank.  We photoed each other.  I photoed us photoing each other.  And I also took a few dozen photos in and around the RCM and its various Albert memorials, both before and after the recital.  More of that may follow (although I promise nothing).

For now, I’ll just say that although it is very hard to be objective about a person whom I have known since she was about four or some such tiny age, GD2, who is a mezzo-soprano, really seems like she is going to be the real deal.  Her voice gets stronger and more expressive, and her command of it more impressive, every time I hear her.

GD2 herself is not in the slightest bit strange, but when singing, she does strange, wonderfully.  Her performances of two of the songs from Day Turned Into Night by Iain Bell were particularly fine.  These songs feature Queen Victoria describing the life and death of – you’ve guessed it – Prince Albert.  The two that GD2 sang are very strange indeed.

Tuesday May 02 2017

Speculation: every lover of music has a particular style of music-making that he likes so much that he even likes it when it is done rather badly.  He likes, that is to say, not only this particular sort of music, but also the mere sound that it makes.  The Sound That It Makes music is, by definition, a kind of music that only you and a few like-minded freaks like.  All it takes is an efficient market and suppliers of such music will bid down the prices of it, and thanks to amazon, that efficient market now now exists.  There are bargains to be had, and I do like a bargain.

Here are my last dozen amazon.co.uk classical CD purchases:

imageimageimageimageimage
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imageimageimageimageimage
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Click on any of these if you want to take my word for it that this is nice music, but really, that isn’t my point here.

These CDs almost all fall into two very clear and distinct categories.  1.1, 1.3, 2.1, 2.3, and 4.2 are all of music by famous, front-rank composers, namely: Mozart, Liszt, Rachmaninov, and Beethoven.  Big names.  Top music.  The sort of music that all lovers of classical music tend to admire.

But, 1.2, 2.2, 3.1, 3.2, 3.3 and 4.3 are CDs of music by much less well known composers.  Louise Farrenc, Ludwig Thuille, Ferdinand Ries, Franz Limmer (a completely new name to me), Hummel (the least unknown of his lower division bunch), George Onslow, Franz Danzi, and Florent Schmitt.  The first names are included because these guys are not so well known.

4.1 is a box of recordings by Martha Argerich and friends, at the Lugano Festival of 2015.  Three separate CDs, of chamber works, some by big names like Brahms and Beethoven, Schumann and Schubert, and others by somewhat lesser personages, including Ferdinand Ries.  (RIes was a close friend of Beethoven.)

But what all of these CDs have in common is that they feature the piano, and in all but one instance, other instruments, mostly in quite small numers.  The outliers are the solo piano disc of Liszt, and the concerto discs by Mozart, and by Mozart and Rachmaninov.  But even Mozart piano concertos are famous for having what critics call a chamber music “feel” to them, with important parts for woodwind soloists, who often dialogue as equals with the piano soloist.

This, then, is my favourite musical style.  Piano, and a few other instruments.  There is no other musical styles where I buy bargain performances of pieces by composers where the only thing I know about them is when they lived.  Do the critics not rate the composers?  Do they think the performances are lousy?  Don’t care.  This is my kind of music.

When I was a kid, I played the flute, and the most fun I had doing that was when me and my siblings played together.  My two older brothers both played the piano and my sister played the oboe, all very well and better than I played the flute.  Was this what got me started with this sort of music?  Is this why I love it so much.  Maybe.  Don’t know for sure.

What is you favourite sort of music?  Remember my definition.  You love the music.  But even if the music is rather mediocre, you love the sound that it makes.

By the way, yes, that is a swan in the bottom right hand corner of the cover of 1.3.  But this is part of why this CD was so very cheap.  All over the world, tasteful classical music fans said to themselves: yes, this is quite good playing, but I can’t have a CD with a swan like that on the cover.  And nor can I own a CD which, on the back, quotes the pianist saying:

“I was always aware that my first recording had to be a portrait of Lizst.  Only he would enable me to present as a unity the many aspects of my soul.”

Me?  I just think that’s funny.  And Khatia Buniatishvili can really play, so who cares about the embarrassingness of her mere words?

Friday April 14 2017

As related last Wednesday, I heard GodDaughter 2 (and others) perform this:

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What a strange piece it is.  To an atheist like me, the plot is very simple and wholly disastrous.  Mother watches her only son being tortured to death.  Yet Rossini makes a lot of it sound rather up-beat, even jolly, despite it mostly being in a minor key.  This effect was strengthened in this performance by the fact that instead of the orchestra that Rossini specified, they made do with two pianists playing one piano.  Don’t get me wrong, these guys did fine.  But the inevitable emphasis that a piano places, unlike wind and orchestral stringed instruments, on the beginnings of notes, especially when two pianists need to keep in time with each other, created a mood not unlike a rather jolly brass band, of the sort manned by men in leather shorts.  Put on top of that singing that was more operatic in manner than traditionally ecclesiastical, and you can see why (I just learned this (blog and learn)) Heinrich Heine described the work as “too worldly, sensuous, too playful for the religious subject”.  Playful is exactly the word.  The tenor solo aria, early on, sounded like he’d just got married.

But then again, it’s not for atheistical me to be telling nineteenth century Italians how they should feel about the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  If they want to treat this as a cause for something close to celebration, which I suppose is what Christianity as a whole does, in among all the lamentation, I’m not going to tell them otherwise.  Besides which, I enjoyed it, once I had got over the surprise of how it sounded. Playful is a good sound.

If you like the sound of playfully ecclesiastical Rossini, I also recommend his Petite Messe Solomnelle.  That’s long been a favourite of mine.

There’s something about young-and-still-studying classical music voices that is often lacking with more famous, better paid and older classical singers.  Basically, their voices are still pristine, not yet having suffered from the habit of belting everything out to the far corners of opera houses.  Provided the students you are hearing are in command of what they are singing and don’t sing out of tune (these were and didn’t), they can create a sort of musical magic that you often miss on bigger and grander occasions.  There is also something appropriate about how none of them are stars, or not yet.  That way God, the Virgin Mary and her Son get to be the stars of the evening.

That said, towards the end, GodDaughter 2 had her big solo moment, doing a very difficult number with some scarily low notes.  As I already reported she did very well, in other opinions besides mine, Other than that, the highlight for me was the performance of Michael Ronan, who brought gravitas to the occasion of a sort that I was expecting rather more of.  I say “performance” because he accomplished this effect as much with his restrained and perfectly pitched body language as with his fine singing.

It was a shame that more people were not persuaded to attend this event.  I’m guessing we were mostly friends and family.  We had the performers outnumbered, but not by much.

I earlier linked to the Scherzo facebook page.  This was then still plugging last Wednesday’s performance, but as of now it features a photo of all the singers and their conductor Matthew O’Keeffe, taken after the performance.  I’m tempted to show you the photo of the photographer taking this photo that I photoed, but have resisted.  I also resisted taking photos of the performance during the performance, but she showed no such restraint, sometimes being almost in the singers’ faces.  Afterwards, I heard grumbles, but presumably she had permission.  If her efforts help Scherzo to get the bigger audiences they deserve in the future, then I forgive her.

Wednesday April 12 2017

I have GodDaughter 2 to thank for this picture:

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That was the sight that greeted me just before I went inside St Stephen’s Church, Gloucester Road, where GD2 and some music student friends, conducted by Matthew O’Keeffe (Scherzo), were performing Rossini’s Stabat Mater.  That’s a link to a piece about the event written in the future tense, so I don’t know how long it will last, but it’s the best I can do.

I can’t be objective about GodDaughter 2’s singing, but she sounded very good to me.

Thursday March 16 2017

It went on for a really long time, though.  The show kicked off at 4.30pm, and only ended at 10pm.  There were two intervals, each of just over half and hour.  I was careful to drink very sparingly beforehand.

During the overture, before the curtain went up, I also fretted that there might not be titles in English of what was about to be sung, which would mean me spending the best part of an entire working day of time trapped in a seat and bored out of my skull, with nothing to do except listen to not-my-favourite Wagner, with constant interruptions from singers, of a sort that I typically don’t much like the sound of.  And I further fretted that if there were such titles then we might not be able to read them, what with us being stuck right next to the roof about a quarter of a mile away from the action.  But all was well.  There were titles, and they were clearly readable.

A distressing effect of us sitting up at the back and the top, was that, what with the house being pretty much full and spring having got properly started during the last day or two, it became very hot for us.  I heard one middle aged lady complaining vehemently about the heat to some hapless programme girl during the second interval, and from then on it just got hotter and hotter.

Another drawback of sitting at the top and at the back, for me and my faltering eyesight, was that I couldn’t see properly who was who on the stage.  It was just too far away.  The titles told me the meaning of what was being sung, but omitted the rather crucial detail of which character was actually singing it.  In part one this was a real problem, because the stage was mostly full of similarly dressed and similar sounding bassy-baritony blokes of a certain age, the Mastersingers of the title.  It helped that, as the night wore on, there tended to be fewer people on the stage, and I thus found it easier to deduce who was singing than it had been in part one

But oh boy, Wagner certainly takes his time with this one.  It’s supposed to be a comedy, and occasionally it was.  But one of Wagner’s favourite jokes is that he signals that something is about to happen, but then whichever dithering bass-baritone is supposed to be getting on with it then takes another five minutes actually to do it, or to sing it, or whatever he is supposed to do.  This device peaked in the final act, when Mastersinger Sixtus Beckmesser takes an age to start his butchered version of the prize song, which he has stolen from the tenor.

Leading the caste was the noted (Sir) Bryn Terfel, as Hans Sachs - philosopher, poet, Mastersinger and cobbler.  I was disappointed by him.  Terfel’s voice in no way stood out during part one, with all its other bass-baritones, and one of the other bass-baritones, Mastersinger Pogner I think it was, sounded much better to me.  This was, I believe, this guy.

The tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones, regularly complimented throughout the show on his beauty, was a fat middle-aged bloke who made a point of dressing down, rather than overdressing in the properly pompous Mastersinger style, at any rate in this production.  He looked, from my distant vantage point, more like a nightclub bouncer than a romantic lead.  But, and this is the only thing that really matters in opera, he sang brilliantly.  His voice was amazingly secure.  “Secure” sounds like damning with faint praise, but what I mean is that his voice combined the best qualities of a voice and a really well played musical instrument.  In this respect if in few others, yesterday was exactly like my earlier ROH experience, when tenor Joseph Calleja was also by far the best thing to be heard.  Hughes Jones’s performance of the prize song, right at the end, after Beckmesser’s mangling of it, was, as it should be, the musical highlight of the evening.

As with that earlier Verdi show, everyone else in this Meistersinger cast (apart from Pogner) made the usual operatic singing noises in the usual operatic ways, these usual operatic ways being the basic reason I mostly prefer classical music without singing, and as a rule avoid opera houses.  It isn’t just the crippling cost of the tickets.

There are two ways to sing opera badly.  You can sing with quite nice tone, but with far too much and far too slow and wobbly vibrato, to the point where neither pitch nor meaning are clear, even if you know the language.  Or, you can have less vibrato but a tone that sounds more like an industrial sawing process than a nice voice.  Last night, the singing wasn’t ever bad enough to be seriously off-putting to me, but there was more than a whiff of both styles on offer.  As often happens, the women were the worst wobblers.  And Bryn Terfel was the worst offender, to my ear, in the industrial sawing department, although perhaps the effect was made worse by me having been hoping for something better from him.  He did seem to get better as the evening wore on, although that could just be because both the music and the drama got better.  It got better very slowly, but it got better.

Die Meistersinger is a kind of pilgrimage, from old geezer fustiness to youthful brilliance as exemplified by the prize song, from light opera to heavy opera, from dreary pre-Wagnerian operatic frivolity, which Wagner could do only moderately well, to full-on Wagner, at which Wagner was, as you would expect, the supreme master. 

This production, especially in part one, was a bit off.  It was supposed to start in a church, but instead we were in a posh gentleman’s club, containing Mastersingers who looked more like affluent Victorian eccentrics than the real late-Middle-Ages deal.  Also, the ending was a bit un-Wagnerian, in that the lead soprano, Eva, wasn’t happy about the way the tenor was persuaded to join the Mastersingers, the way she surely was in Wagner’s mind when he wrote it.  But it was never freakishly stupid, like a Samuel Beckett play, and on the whole it didn’t just sound reasonably good, it looked very fine too.  Although Wagner takes an age to tell his story, there is at least a story to the thing that you care about.  Well, I did.  By the end.

Time to bust open the DVD of this opera that I have long possessed, having bought it for a tenner about a decade ago.  The early staging already looks much more convincing.

But, crucially, the tenor doesn’t sound, to me, nearly as good as the one I heard yesterday.  He really was something.

Tuesday March 14 2017

Tomorrow, my plan has been made for me.  I am to go to the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, there to witness Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.  Judging by the reviews of it that I’ve just been reading, this is yet another of those productions that sounds glorious, especially when nobody is singing, but looks silly.

Here is paragraph one of what The Times has to say, before its paywall gets in the way:

The best thing about this show - indeed the best thing I’ve experienced in a theatre all season - is Antonio Pappano’s superlative conducting and his orchestra’s stunning playing of Wagner’s epic score. The Royal Opera should rename the opera “Die Meisterinstrumentalisten”, except it might not fit on posters. This is a musical interpretation of exemplary fluidity and pace, stirring in the right places (abetted by a rampant chorus), but also precise, subtle and virtuosic. After five hours and some, I wanted to hear it all again. Possibly, however, with my eyes closed.

Here is what the Evening Standard says.  And here is the Guardian.  The Guardian being the Guardian, he admires it, or tries to.  But you can tell he didn’t really like it.

The consensus seems to be that the best way to be seeing this production is on the radio.

Why are so many operatic productions like this?  My guess is that the opera audience is fixed.  The same old people - to be fair, not all of them actually old - go again and again, to see every new production, provided they expect it to be sufficiently sensational to satisfy their rather jaded tastes.  The last thing they want is a straight production, telling like it originally was when first performed.  They crave novelty, frisson, “interpretation”, and the latest singers who are on the up and up, which is why the chosen few get paid such fortunes.

Why don’t opera houses put on more trad productions, that would make much better sense, especially to newcomers?  Probably because that wouldn’t actually attract newcomers.  There are no newcomers in this market waiting to be attracted, or not in remotely sufficient numbers.  Oddballs like me, who only go about once a decade, just do not signify, economically speaking.  People either join that time- and money-rich audience of addicts who just can’t get enough of this weird art, probably by being the rich offspring of existing audience members, and perhaps also by studying opera singing, at which point they go and go and keep on going.  Or, they don’t.  And mostly, they (we) don’t.  Trad productions would merely piss off the actual audience by being too dull for them, without attracting that fantasy audience of newcomers, of ordinary people.  Sorry Opera.  Nobody ordinary is interested.

I’m only going because of some internet ticket muddle, involving a friend.  No way would I pay the full wack.  I haven’t even dared to ask what that is.

It’s weird when you think about it.  Ours is the age of manic musical authenticity.  God help any conductor who dares to change a single note of the sacred score, to make it sound more relevant to a modern audience, blah blah.  Yet with the staging, you can do any damn thing you like, provided only that you do something out of the ordinary.  This Die Meistersinger is set in some kind of gentleman’s club.  Well, it could have been worse, far worse.  It could have been set on Mars, or in Beckmesser’s drugged imagination, or in a bordello or a space station or a 3D printing factory or a football stadium or in the car park of an opera house, or in some evil combination of several of those things.

I hope I’m wrong about tomorrow’s show.  It sounds like it will at least sound really good.  And I might not hate the solo singing, or not all of it.  (I love good choral singing.) And there may even be bits of it that I like the look of.  Wish me luck.