Brian Micklethwait's Blog
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Category archive: Opera
Michael J and I were thinking of going to Lords today, to watch the cricket. As it turned out, he had other business (good luck with that mate - he knows what I mean), and we scrapped the idea.
Just as well we did. Had we gone, at the sort of time we probably would have gone, then according to the radio commentators I was listening to this morning we would have been stuck in a huge queue outside the ground, while everything interesting that was going to happen all day happened, in the morning. Lords beat the drum, sold tickets for the last day for a mere tenner, but then didn’t open enough gates when lots of people showed up. Very bad.
They said the blockage was something to do with “security”. The terrorists have won!
By the time many of those unfortunates who did accept this offer got into the ground, it was effectively all over. Bangladesh had five wickets left, but lost them too quickly to make a proper fight of it. The only excitement concerned whether one of the England bowlers would five wickets in the innings (which he did), and then ten wickets in the match (which he didn’t).. This is a new chap called Finn, who is very tall, who is, they say, quite fast, and who keeps falling over after bowling, which is not what you want, is it?
Surrey, my county team, are meanwhile showing signs of life. (I realise that now, absolutely nobody is reading this. Did you know that all rabbits born on a Thursday have poisonous bites? It’s true. If nobody dares to disagree in the comments, I will draw the inevitable conclusion, although it is true about the rabbits, if not widely known. I looked for this at Snopes. There is nothing there about this not being true, so it must be.) They won both of their limited overs games the weekend before last, the first with an improbably good late batting performance when all looked lost, and the second by taking two early wickets and never letting up, winning crushingly with vast numbers of overs and wickets to spare. (I wonder if those links will last.) Both are great ways to win, from the morale point of view. Then, in the next unlimited overs game, they looked on a hiding to nothing, until a big last wicket stand by Surrey’s two South African fast bowlers got them to first innings near equality, when a huge first innings deficit followed by defeat on the last day looked inevitable. Instead, following that big stand Surrey managed to bowl the other fellows out cheaply and then win, with the South Africans also getting lots more wickets. First unlimited overs win for Surrey since the last time they had an unlimited overs w, a long, long time ago.
Although, one of those South African fast bowlers, Nel, was fined and banned for two games for misbehaving, in the very game he did so well in. Nel is a schizophrenic sort of a person (persons?), with an alter ego called “Gunter”, and it was presumably Gunter who did the misbehaving. It usually is, according to what I’ve read. So why was Nel expected to carry the can? As commenter Yorvik says:
All well and good banning Andre for two matches but wouldn’t it be better to ban this Gunter chap for life? He seems to be the one causing the problems.
Indeed. I mean, in Gotterdammerung, we don’t blame Siegfried for what he did when magically disguised as someone else, even though his behaviour was far worse. Did Nel/Gunter refuse to recognise the love of his life and cause her, with his various miscalculations, culminating in his death, to give up on everything and jump into a bonfire? On a horse? I think not. (Incidentally, I rather think that Siegfried’s alter ego may also have been called Gunther, in the sense that he was disguised as another character in the thing called Gunther. (I have many recordings and DVD’s of the Ring Cycle, but have never really got stuck into them all for a solid fortnight, ignoring everything else. I just like the way it all sounds.) So anyway, how about that? Does Nel like Wagner, I wonder? Please add Wagner comments to prove that you have read this far.)
So anyway, Surrey are now playing Glamorgan. The first day was lost to bad weather, and during the second Glamorgan made nearly 400. But Surrey are now batting, and at tea have reached two hundred plus for three. Two of their newly acquired players, an unproven but presumably promising young chap fresh out of college and a very expensive new wicket-keeper that they have recently bought from a Poor County somewhere to the west, who is both a very good wicketkeeper and a dashingly free hitting batsman, flailed away to put on nearly a hundred for the first wicket. The wicket-keeper in particular really put his pedal, as they say in other places to the ones I generally frequent, to the metal. He got a dashing eighty something, at about a run a ball. He generally gets out for a dashing 25 at a run a ball, so this could yet get interesting. On the other hand, Surrey have also bought in a prestigious new batsman, Younis Khan, who recently retired in a huff from being a Pakistan test cricketer. He got out for a duck. On the other other hand, Ramprakash is now on 70.
England have now duly won their game against Bangladesh. It was all over by tea. And oh dear, the Surrey game just got interesting but not in a good way, with Surrey losing two sudden wickets, Ramps and new dashing young captain Rory Rory Hamilton-Hamilton-Hyphen-Brown-Hyphen-Stroke-Undeserved-Good-Looks for a golden duck. What’s a golden duck? It’s a duck made of gold. What did you think it was? Plus, did you know that they have recently discovered that there are certain very small physics type particles that have the ability to travel faster than the speed of light? Yes. But the bad news is: they don’t go much faster. About ten percent faster, which is nothing. Apart from setting the scientists at each other’s throats, because for them this is a big drama, it will hardly make any difference. Science fiction, for example, where the entire Galaxy is shrunk by warp speed travel back to the size of medieval Europe with everybody just a day or two away and all fighting each other like in Star Wars, will continue to be science fiction rather than any sort of guide to the actual real future. Mobile phones may get ten percent faster when you are talking to Australia or the Moon or something. Other than that, nothing very significant, unless you are a theoretical scientist. It’s amazing what a persevering reader can learn from the blogs, don’t you think?
I read The Lebrecht Weekly so you don’t have to, but I do recommend his latest piece, a lovely portrait of Jonathan Miller, he from Beyond The Fringe, but more to Lebrecht’s point, the operatic director.
Miller is one of very few opera directors who can lay claim to lasting innovation. With a 1982 Rigoletto set among the 1950s mafiosi of New York’s Little Italy, he invented the time-shift opera - underscoring the drama by placing the work in a different period. ‘There were other directors who did opera in modern costumes,’ he concedes. ‘I think I was the first to update the context.’
This is no small achievement. Rigoletto is still in repertoire at ENO a generation later. His Armani-suited Cosi fan tutte is on its fourth revival at Covent Garden. He has four shows on the go at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, including a Pelleas et Melisande placed in Marcel Proust’s Paris and a Rosenkavalier taken out of baroque pantaloons and relocated to Richard Strauss’s living room.
‘By and large,’ Miller explains, ‘if a composer has conspicuously backdated a work, I get worried about historical kitsch. Put Rosenkavalier in 1911, when it was written, and you suddenly hear the shot in Sarajevo. The Marschallin goes around the house trying to stop the clocks. It’s not because she’s old – she’s 35 – it’s because she knows the old world is finished. Octavian will die on the first day at the front.’
Every production he creates is rooted in a philosophical rationale and a specific visual impetus. The time-traveller of modern opera, Miller as Doctor Who is an omnivorous intellectual with an eye for telling detail. His ENO Boheme has been shifted forward from the 1850s of Murger’s novel and the 1890s of Puccini’s opera to Paris in the year of hunger, 1932. ‘I’ve always been obsessed by the photographic world of Brassai, Cartier-Bresson and Kertezsz, men looking for work stacking their bicycles against a wall, lesbian girls looking through café windows. I cannot bear to see artists in smocks and berets in Boheme. These characters are not artists. They are rich young men living a couple of years in a squat before they go back to work in Daddy’s firm.’
Boheme is his first return to the Coliseum for 12 years and it is only with kindly tuts and shushes on my part that he is deflected from having a go at the company’s present management and slamming the door in his own face once again. Miller lacks some neurological barrier that stops the bile rushing unchecked from brain to mouth. His litany of those who did him wrong, or damage art, is limitless, acute and often unrepeatably hilarious. He dismisses ‘Jurassic Park singers’ of the Pavarotti and Domingo style, ‘over-applauded and overpaid, can’t act their way out of a paper bag’. The last boss of the Met, who booted him out after he tried to stop Cecilia Bartoli singing two extra arias, enters the Miller lexicon as ‘that Tony Soprano’. Lately, he lashed out at the casting of a West End Hamlet ‘with the man from Doctor Who’. He seems incapable of suppressing rage yet, in rehearsal, you could not find a gentler, more avuncular manner of connecting singers with their inner selves.
He found a way of stopping the formidable Anghela Gheorgiu from over-emoting in the last act of La Traviata. ‘I said to her: “Take it from me, I’m a doctor. Dying is a fulltime business. You haven’t time to do a lap of honour. Chances are you’re incontinent, anyway. Do stay in bed.” She resisted me. Then she suddenly started crying and talked about sitting beside her sister as she was dying …’
That’s well over half of the piece, but highlighting and copying is so easy. I kept on not wanting to stop.
They’ve just been talking about Shakespeare operas on BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters, and someone just identified Humphrey Searle’s Hamlet as the worst Shakespeare opera ever, “plonker” being the exact word. I saw that! When I was hoovering up Hamlet productions prior to directing Hamlet myself at Essex University, the only play I have ever directed. It was indeed astonishingly bad.
In the far-off doomed days of my Culture Blog, I even blogged about it, in connection with another silly Shakespeare opera of more recent vintage by Thomas Adès. Here is the restored version of that posting, stripped of its two comments which are now lost for ever. Read that to find out what was so particularly plonking about this particular Shakespeare opera.
The best, they all agreed, was Verdi’s Otello.
Alex Singleton and I have just fixed to do our Gilbert and Sullivan chat on Thursday 28th. So, fingers crossed for that. Meanwhile, the decision to have fixed topics and a generally more disciplined approach to our ongoing classical music chat project continues to work wonderfully, at any rate for me, even before a recording button has been so much as pressed. There’s nothing like the chance to show off and the prospect of making a fool of myself to get me doing my homework.
I continue to read Hesketh Pearson Gilbert and Sullivan with extreme pleasure (see also this earlier posting here), and there follows another snippet from that delightful book. Something I did not know until now was that the premier of The Pirates of Penzance was given in New York, in December 1879. Gilbert and Sullivan both went there to do their own ‘official’ production of their first big hit, HMS Pinafore, in order to cash in on American enthusiasm for that piece, but American reluctance to bother with copyright law. And having gone there to do Pinafore, they stayed to do their next collaboration, not at all coincidentally given a title which included the word Pirates.
During recent years, American orchestras have been pricing themselves out of the classical music recording business, and even American classical repertoire has been recorded by cheaper European orchestras, rather then by the ensembles for whom it was originally written. Well, it seems that this American tendency towards orchestral bolshiness is not new. Here is Pearson’s account (pp. 90-91 of my 1954 Penguin paperback edition) of the difficulties that Sullivan had with the orchestra of the Fifth Avenue Theatre, where The Pirates had its first performance.
Just before the opening night he had trouble with the band, the members of which voted that The Pirates came under the heading of Grand Opera, which entitled them to higher rates of pay. The position was not improved by the manager of the theatre, who told them that they should be content with the high honour of being conducted by England’s greatest composer, for it occurred to them that they should be paid more for the high honour as well as for the Grand Opera, and they raised both points when threatening to down instruments. Sullivan adroitly turned the tables on them. He disclaimed the greatness that had been thrust upon him and said that he felt the honour of conducting such a brilliant orchestra. He even hinted that his work was not worthy of them and that if they felt so too, he should wire at once to England for a less sensitive orchestra. They agreed to abase themselves on the same terms as before.
That’s pure Sullivan. On the surface all obligingness and ingratiation, but underneath it a determination to get the job done, albeit with much nerve-wracking and exhaustion- and illness-inducing procrastination and deadline stretching, and to profit from it as much as possible.
Pearson’s account continues:
On the night of 30th December, after the final dress-rehearsal, Sullivan returned to his hotel and began work on the overture, finishing at five o’clock on the morning of the 31st, and rehearsing it six hours later. He was not well enough to eat that day, so went to bed in the afternoon and tried to sleep. Still feeling wretchedly ill and worn out with fatigue, for he could not sleep, he rose, dressed slowly, and wandered off to a club, where he had twelve oysters, and a glass of champagne. More dead than alive, he went on to the theatre, took his place in the orchestra, lifted his baton, and The Pirates of Penzance swept New York off its feet.
A composer-conductor’s lot is not a happy one, or not the way Sullivan did it. But when the first performance of a new Gilbert and Sullivan opera began, Sullivan’s agony tended to end, with Doctor Music chasing away his miseries, at least while the show lasted.
But for Gilbert, who took care of everything on the stage, the worst part of his ordeal would then begin. He would pace about outside, doing all manner of weird and irrelevant things, returning only at the end of the show to learn how it had gone, and to join with Sullivan in accepting the applause, which was generally tumultuous.
We began by talking about Gramophone, the classical recordings magazine which started a long time ago, hence the name. Then we briefly talked about the idea of including little snippets of music in these mp3s of ours, much as Rob Cowan and Leif Ove Andsnes do in their conversation on the latest Gramophone cover CD. (I mistakenly said that this was in the BBC Music Magazine cover CD, when in fact it is the latest Gramophone CD. Apologies all round.) Alex and I like the idea of including bits of music, but I fear the (not that great unless you’re me) technical complexity of doing that, and we both fear the cost of such snippets. Could we perhaps find bits of music that we could use for free? All suggestions welcome.
That muddle about saying BBC Music Magazine instead of Gramophone was only the first of several cock-ups I perpetrated. I simply could not remember a couple of names of operas which I should have know (a symptom of advancing years I fear), namely (now I can think of them) Lakmé and The Abduction from the Seraglio.
The worst mistake I made by far was getting my Richard Strauss chronology in a twist. I accused him of getting nastier and more bitter in his composing as he got older, when in truth it was the opposite. I had the two somewhat scary Strauss operas, Elektra and Salome, in mind. As this chronology shows, they are early works. Der Rosenkavalier came just after those two, and Arabella was much later.
I hope the above blemishes do not spoil things for those of you who decide to give this mp3 a go.
I also mentioned a couple of more recent operas, namely Nixon in China by John Adams and Akhnaten by Philip Glass. There seems to be no DVD of Akhnaten, and the only DVD I can find of Nixon in China is this, which seems to be a somewhat sub-par exercise in pointing a camera at a stage production.
Next month: Saint-Saens! Don’t ask me why, but I will ask Alex. He asks the questions, and chooses the subject matter. Happily, I very much like Saint Saens, especially Piano Concerto No. 4, the first Piano Trio and the sublime Carnival of the Animals. We both like the Organ Symphony.