English National Opera, London Coliseum, 22nd November 2018
Please probably inevitable that the Tourist, armed with the freedom (and fortunately the budget) to gad about town, his love of Benjamin Britten’s music and his wish to continue to honour those who die in pointless wars was going to end up attending a performance of War Requiem this year. The ENO version, which had the added draw of the Porgy and Bess cast, (augmenting the ENO’s marvellous choir), and the involvement of German photographer artist Wolfgang Tillmans looked the likeliest candidate.
I, or more correctly we, as TMBOAD, a scion of Coventry and admirer of the work, joined me, got way more than we bargained for. I had expected a semi-staged concert performance, with maybe a few arty slides in the background. Instead we got a full scale dramatic interpretation of BB’s oratorio, with the three soloists and choirs telling the story of Wilfred Owen’s war poems, alongside the setting of the Latin Requiem, fully costumed, with very effective lighting from Charles Balfour, augmenting the and with Mr Tillmans distinctive photographic techniques adding further colour.
Obviously the War Requiem was not written as an opera but BB being BB it is naturally dramatic and, up to a point, lends itself to an “operatic” interpretation. Having said that, the very nature and subject of the work, even in its most striking scoring, is steadily paced and having the ENO orchestra, solidly conducted by Martyn Brabbins, in the pit and a chorus constantly in motion, and indeed often prone, inevitably has some impact on what we heard. But this was, moreorless, compensated by what we saw, which was, at times, extremely powerful.
Back to the story. WR was first performed in May 1962 for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, built alongside the ruins of the C14 original destroyed in Luftwaffe bombing raids in November 1940 (see above). BB, a lifelong pacifist, scored the work for soprano, tenor and baritone soloists, chorus, boys’ choir, organ, and two orchestras (a full orchestra and a chamber orchestra). The full orchestrated choirs and soprano are used to accompany the sections of the Latin Requiem. to represent formal, transcendent grief, with the chamber forces and male soloists, representing two opposing soldiers, singing the interspersed English poetry. The children’s choir, accompanied by a chamber organ, present a more distant presence, innocence corrupted, an ever-present BB theme.
BB had originally intended that Peter Pears, an Englishman, sang the tenor role, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, a German, the baritone and Galina Vishnevskaya, a Russian, the soprano, but the Soviet authorities prevented the latter from travelling so Heather Harper stepped in. The classic recording with the LSO and Bach Choir conduced by BB, which everyone should own, has the original trio however. (Mind you there are plenty to choose from).
BB unfortunately couldn’t conduct the CBSO at the premiere but no matter. The performance was a triumph. The Tourist has enjoyed a fair few performances in his time, (and seen the curious Derek Jarman film interpretation which is notable for Sir Larry O’s last ever performance). The music always delivers and so it was here. Now in addition to the contrast provided by the juxtaposition of the poem settings and the six movements of the Requiem itself (Requiem aeternam, Dies irae, Offertorium, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Libera me, BB apparently uses the interval of a tritone between C and F sharp (an interval of three whole tones, known as the “devil in music”) as a recurring motif to create harmonic distance and then resolution, notably in the Agnus Dei, and thus evoke the notion of conflict and resolution. Elsewhere there are various brass fanfares, string arpeggios, marches and fugues in various three part time signatures, and various repetitions of lines, but the full vocal forces do not combine until the very end. So three is the magic number here.
Even if you don’t know your tritone from your backside your ears will still easily navigate their way through the score even on first hearing, such is the immediacy of B’s orchestration. And there are enough OMG musical moments to pull you up short. And that’s before you even get to the texts. Particular highlights for me are the extract from Anthem for Doomed Youth for tenor in the opening Requiem Aeternam, the soprano and chorus Lacrimosa in the Des irae, the Domine Jesu Christe from the boys’ choir, the Parable of the Old Man and the Young for tenor and baritone, The Sanctus and Benedictus, Strange Meeting with the lilting, poignant lullaby “Let us sleep now ….” and indeed pretty much everything else in the Libera me at the end.
So, if the music, words and message reliably overwhelm, and get you thinking deeply about the utter horror and pointlessness of war, what is added through a full scale staging. Well, having the chorus on stage, variously signifying troops, refugees, dead bodies, I am assuming, was intriguing. A remarkable choreographic achievement from Ann Yee allied with costume design by Nasir Mazhar. Mr Tillmans most successfully employed close up, sharply exposed photographic images drawn, I believe, from Coventry Cathedral itself in the three screen back drop to the stage, which dissolved into blocks of muted colour, and there were some fine tableaux (notably a snow/mushroom cloud effect) courtesy of ENO house director Daniel Kramer. Having said that, and despite the remarkable efforts of dramaturg Luc Joosten, carving out a sort of narrative when none is really there, there were a few moments when the various elements didn’t quite gel and the on-stage shuffling, and overt literalism, was more distraction than illumination.
But no matter. It is one of the finest, acclaimed and most powerful pieces of classical music written in the second half of the C20. The Tourist has seen a fair few performances of impassioned anti-war classical work in the last few weeks, George Crumb’s Black Angels, Shostakovich Eighth String Quartet, Turnage’s The Silver Tassie, but this ranks as the definitive statement. And, with soloists of the calibre of Roderick Williams, David Butt Philip, and, the tremendous Emma Bell as seer/earth mother/angel of death, there was never any real risk of disappointment.
Shostakovich – String Quartet No 8 in C minor, Op 110
Beethoven – String Quartet No 7 in F major, Op 59 No 1, “Razumovsky”
You still see some venerable rock (and pop) bands unwisely soldiering on in their 60’s and even 70’s, sometimes with only one original member still in the line-up. Outside of disposable pop the creative force/s, the composer/s if you will, in contemporary popular music are invariably also the performer/s. Not so generally in classical art music, though that isn’t to say that many canonical composers weren’t, or aren’t, also adept performers. Just that composition and performance are more often separated, and that performance is often as important to composition in terms of audience enjoyment or appreciation.
So when rock musicians die, so does the band, if it has managed to get that far without breaking up due to musical differences, substance abuse or fist-fights, in the established rock’n’roll manner. Leaving the audience with a ropey tribute band and recordings to keep the tunes alive.
In the classical world though, with its much longer back catalogue, legacy is the name of the game. And not just in composition. Performers live on. Not just in recordings but also in the name, and sound, of the band. Easy enough to envisage in the context of the orchestra with its link to place and with a constant turnover of personnel. The Royal Danish Orchestra in Copenhagen can trace its lineage back to a bunch of regal trumpeters from 1448 (!), the venerable and still very highly regarded Leipzig Gewandhausorchester to 1743.
The idea that string quartets outlive their members might be a little trickier to get your loaf around though. Yet this is how it works. Members may come and go but the best quartets stick together for life, such is the dedication of performers to their art, and, when one of the four can no longer perform, pearly gates or otherwise, a replacement is drafted in. But this cannot be any old violinist, viola player or cellist. For the sound of a top notch string quartet, is a very particular thing, and continuity, as well as chemistry, needs to be guaranteed.
Now as is normally the case with the development of classical music, form followed technology and demand in bringing the string quartet to the fore. Once modern instruments had been perfected in the C18, notably the viola, (which is tuned a perfect fifth below the violin and an octave above the cello), and with enough patrons who liked the string quartet groove to pay up, composers were all set. As with so much else in classical music it was Papa Haydn who set the ball rolling in the 1750s. His massive output for the ensemble (68 named, 77 or so in total) is still amongst the best ever written IMHO.
The string quartet, in the opinion of the Tourist, is about as “pure” as classical art music gets. Not easy to get right; any paucity of imagination is ruthlessly exposed. Four parts is enough to fashion an argument but not enough to take the foot off the intellectual or aesthetic gas. Plenty of opportunity to vary pitch but only the colour and texture of strings at the composer’s disposal. All of which might explain why not every big name has embraced the genre and why even those that have sometimes don’t always get beyond one effort or a brace.
After Haydn, Mozart obviously churned out a fair few, 23 I think, though they are not all up to snuff. Still as ever with Wolfgang when he nails it he nails it. Then Beethoven with his 16 (and the Grosse Fuge) which, as with the symphonies and piano concertos, have never been bettered. Schubert also walked the talk with his 15 and a few assorted bits and bobs. (Note to Tourist: more work to do on these).
As the fashion for showy-off, Romantic, bullsh*tty bombast gained traction in the C19 so the string quartet took a back seat, but returned with a bang in the C20. For the Tourist’s money the best of the bunch since 1900’ish are Janacek’s pair, Nielsen’s 6, Ravel and, (in a rare thumbs up from me), Debussy’s single shots, Stravinsky’s various musings, and, best of all, Britten’s haunting treble, Bartok’s virtuoso 6 and Shostakovich’s acutely personal 15. Oh and Glass’s 7 (and counting), Reich’s Different Trains, Crumb’s Black Angels, Nyman’s 5, Ligeti’s 2 and Xenakis’s 4. You might have some others to add. Tell me.
The Emerson String Quartet was formed in 1976, and still has two of its founder members in violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, alongside the viola of Lawrence Dutton, with cellist Paul Watkins the last in, having joined in 2013. I have recordings of their arrangement of The Art of Fugue and their renowned Bartok cycle. The Bartok is superbly recorded and is very, very precise and very, very intense. This is what they are famous for. Exact and technically brilliant interpretations. Which maybe lack a little emotion. That tends to be my preference but I can understand why others may take a different line (and there are occasions when I would agree).
Anyway this is what the Emersons are famed for. And this is exactly what they delivered at Milton Court. Britten’s Quartet No 3 was pretty much the last thing he composed appearing in the year he died, 1976. With its call-back to the music of his last opera, Death in Venice, in the final passacaglia, and the recitative quotes that precede it, it really is immensely moving. BB was very ill at this time, only able to work in short bursts following a heart bypass operation, and this seems to be reflected in the four condensed movements which precede the final “La Serenissima”. The opening “Duets”, in sonata form, is also haunting and, by virtue of its various permutations of the quartet personnel, as sparse as its title suggests, even when the duets are accompanied. The Ostinato second movement, like the Burlesque fourth movement, is very short, and taken at a fair lick even where it is played pizzicato. The parodic Burlesque could have come from the pen of Shostakovich in one of his more caustic moments, with its weird central spiccato passage. The central Solo is marked very calm with the first violin line, heading higher and higher, seemingly lifted from the mists, and mystery, of Curlew River. Or maybe Aldeburgh Beach, Or Snape. Anyway as with the rise and fall of the Passacaglia it sounds like BB was set to go home. Blub blub.
The Emersons certainly got the measure of BB’s still extraordinary imagination and technique. But it felt a little less haunting than the recording I have from the Endellion Quartet. This was even more true in the Shostakovich. The Eighth was written when DSCH was in a very dark place, contemplating suicide. He went on in his final quartet, 15, to offer up a genuine personal elegy but this comes pretty close. He was supposed to be written a score to accompany a documentary about the bombing of Dresden but, after just a few days, he came up with this, “an ideologically deficient quartet nobody needs”. It was 1960 but DSCH still wasn’t “free” now being forced to join the Party. It has his trademark initial motif in the opening of the Largo on the cello, which is developed, before the main theme from his First Symphony pops up, before this in turn gives way to a repeated rocking motif.
This rocking motif is then pumped up and speeded up to form the basis for the second movement scherzo. This is, even by Dmitry’s high standards, pretty scary stuff. The DSCH motif also crops up again, in contrasting tempi, As it does in the middle movement Allegretto, here transformed into a Waltz which then proceeds to quote his First Cello Concerto. A violin solo links to the first of the final two slow movements. This contains the tune to a Russian song about the victims of fascism, to whom DSCH eventually dedicated the quartet, but which might be aimed at totalitarianism more generally. The final Largo comes full circle with a return to the rocking motif.
The quartet is taken unbroken and with these powerful and dramatic ideas, and stirring emotion, it is easy to see why it is Shostakovich’s most famous and oft-performed quartet. It would be hard to imagine a more expertly crafted and sharp interpretation, these chaps leave nothing to chance, but, as I discovered a couple of weeks later, courtesy of the Brodsky Quartet, it is possible to wring a fair bit more gut-wrenching angst out of the piece. I have recordings by the Borodin Quartet, now in its eighth decade, constantly refreshed by the best of the Moscow Conservatoire, and the original dedicatees for most of DSCH’s quartets, and the English Fitzwilliam Quartet (founded in 1968) who also worked with the composer and were the first to record a complete cycle.
As it turned out it was the Beethoven first Razumovsky which actually showed the Emersons at their very best. Count Razumovsky was an important Russian aristo and diplomat in Naples and then Vienna but his name has gone down in posterity for the three quartets he commissioned from Beethoven in 1806. All are magnificent but the first might just be the best of the bunch. This is altogether jollier music than the two pieces that preceded it, with its intriguing dissonance and implied repeat in the first movement, the rapid passing of the baton from one player to another, underpinned by the one note cello motif in the Allegretto second, the tragic F minor Adagio and then the ebullient finale with its bouncy Russian theme, (as in the other two Razumovsky pieces). The drilled-to-perfection understanding of the Emersons, and the more upbeat tone of the Beethoven was, for me, at least more satisfying.
That is not to say that overall I took very great pleasure in listening to this famous quartet. They are up there with the very best of their peers, some of which I have already mentioned. When it comes to Beethoven I think the Takacs Quartet (founded 1975) might have the edge of those I have heard live, though the Belcea Quartet (1994), who might just be my favourite string band, run them close. As for recordings of the Beethoven quartets have a sniff around the Alban Berg, Quartetto Italiano (for the middle quartets) and unparalleled Vegh (for the mighty last four).
While I am at it, should anyone care, add the Hagen Quartet (1981) to the bucket list when it comes to Mozart, the Quatuor Mosaiques (1987, HIP specialists) for Papa Haydn and the Kronos Quartet (1973), on the rare occasions they leave the US, in contemporary repertoire.
There are a handful of plays that I regret not seeing when they first appeared. Not those I wish I had seen, That would be a very long list and cover those periods where I was not putting the required viewing effort in, being too consumed by work and/or drink. No I mean those where I toyed with the idea of going but didn’t get round to it one way or another. The Habit of Art is definitely one of those. I can see why some might get irritated by the voice of Alan Bennett. Not his actual voice of course. Surely everyone loves that unmistakable broad Yorkshire drone. No I mean his theatrical voice with its now ever-present risk of self-parody.
The Habit of Art, from 2009, along with The History Boys (2004), The Lady in the Van (1999) and The Madness Of George III (1991) must all surely rank somewhere near the top of the pile of great British plays written in the last three decades for all the pervasiveness of the last three. The Habit of Art “imagines” a meeting between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten in 1973 as a departure for an investigation not just into their specific art and lives but into art and theatre as a universal. Right up my street. And best of all for me at least, Benjamin Britten, for all his flaws, which are far from concealed here, is one of my favourite composers.
My only concern then, perhaps, was the cast. The NT run saw Alex Jennings, near full time Alan Bennett impersonator, take on the role of BB with the sorely missed Richard Griffiths as WHA having stepped in for the indisposed Michael Gambon, which I gather was more than fortuitous. You can take your pick as to your favourite Richard Griffiths role: in Potter, as Hector in The History Boys or as Henry Crabbe. I have two words for you though: Uncle Monty. As for Alex Jennings. Is there nothing this man cannot play? There are literally no duff roles or performances on his CV. The last thing I saw him in on the telly was Unforgotten Series 3. As chilling sociopath doctor Tim Finch. Sh*tting ‘eck as AB might say.
Anyway Matthew Kelly as WHA and David Yelland as BB, and indeed Philip Franks as director of this production, Nick Hytner (who else) having directed first time round, had big boots to fill then. And fill them they did. And then some. This is the first ever revival and I can report that it is really very. very good. And don’t just take my word for it. TMBOAD can vouch for it as well, my viewing partner on this evening, and he is one of the cleverest people I know. Ditto some elegant and cultured Richmond ladies of my acquaintance. The production, in addition to Richmond, has popped up in York, Brighton, Salisbury, Oxford, Guildford and Ipswich. It is in Liverpool as we speak and goes on to Cambridge, Coventry, Salford, Southend and Malvern. Residents, you would be mugs to miss it.
Richmond Theatre doesn’t always get the best of touring productions but here they struck gold. The Original Theatre Company, led by Alistair Whatley and Tom Hackney similarly didn’t quite hit the nail on the head with their last outing, Torben Bett’s Monogamy (Monogamy at the Park Theatre review ***) but on this outing I should look out for their next production at the Park. Richmond also hosts pre West End fare. I can’t think of anything more suited to the West End than this brainy, but not too brainy triumph.
Anyway what about the play. Well as I should have pointed out Messrs Yelland and Kelly don’t actually play BB and WHA. For the players are actually Fitz (Kelly), Henry (Yelland), Donald (John Wark) and Tim (Benjamin Chandler), who are rehearsing a play called Caliban’s Day. The play is set in WHA’s rooms in Christ Church Oxford on the set (keep up) of said play with Company Stage Manager Kay (Veronica Roberts) and her Assistant SM George (Alexandra Guelff) keeping the luvvies, and precious playwright Neil (Robert Mountford) ticking over.
Neil’s play draws it’s title from WHA’s contention that The Tempest was incomplete and requires an epilogue. In the play Donald, playing Humphrey Carpenter, the real-life biographer of WHA and BB amongst others, has come to interview the somewhat impatient WHA (played by Fitz), who it transpires, confuses him with the time-limited rent-boy Stuart, played by Tim, that he has procured. Donald also though steps out to narrate proceedings. Henry as BB arrives to join the set-up. He has been auditioning boys to play the part of Tadzio in BB’s Death in Venice, but wants to discuss his concerns over its plot with WHA, despite them not having met since their falling out 25 years earlier in America after WHA wrote the libretto for the somewhat derided Paul Bunyan. WHA though assumes that BB wants him to replace Myfanwy Piper as librettist for Death in Venice. After his father-in-law was Thomas Mann, the author of Death in Venice.
Neil’s play however, as I said, is in rehearsal so we have Kay kicking things off before Neil arrives and her and George standing in for various minor roles. notably two cleaners. The actors constantly bounce in and out of character, though never confusingly, and this is what allows us to see into them as individuals, as well as into the process of acting and performing. At the same time the play itself and the discussions between the actors. Neil, Kay and George, about what it is saying and why, offers multiple insights into BB and WHA, their art and the society in which they practiced their art. Alan Bennett doesn’t hold back from showing what it meant to be a gay artist through the middle of the C20 nor the paedophiliac controversy that surrounded BB.
Now normally with this much learning on show, play within a play meta-ness, theatrical self-referencing, in fact all round arty-farty pretentiousness, you would be a) rightly very wary and b) waiting for the whole thing to unravel . Not here though and not with Alan Bennett pulling the strings. It is very, very funny, (this time the smut isn’t laboured), but also very, very sincere. It dazzles with just how much intellectual and emotional ground it covers yet never fails to entertain. Even if some of the references pass you by, they did me, the perspicacity of the insight into the “cast” will not. And being a play about an “event” it moves from A to B.
I have seen Matthew Kelly, “tonight Matthew”, on stage in recent years in Richard Bean’s Toast, and for about 20 minutes before rain stopped play (ha, ha), at the Open Air in Pride and Prejudice. He makes for an excellent Fitz, fruity and cantankerous, but still vulnerable, qualities that segue into WHA but with the intellectual spotlight switched on to full intimidating beam. An actor playing an actor playing a man who relished playing the role of artist. David Yelland’s Henry, like BB, is more tentative, more restrained, who then takes on the needy, sickly and child-like BB and his “obsession” with innocence corrupted. Their debate about Britten’s obsessions in his art, as well as Auden’s creative regrets, are what drew me in the most but I am sure you will find your own point(s) of contact.
Robert Mountford shows us Neil’s exasperation with actors who wish to distort his precious script. Veronica Roberts expertly shows us how much, in this case, maternal nourishment is required to bring a play into being but also shows us how Kay rues her own missed opportunities. John Wark gets to reveal, at one point with surreal humour, just what happens when an actor tries too hard to look for meaning in character.
It is hard to imagine a more appropriate set that Adrian Linford’s rehearsal space, with rough cut scenery and busy props, fitting into a classic proscenium stage, which Frank Matcham’s Richmond Theatre jewel (there she is) perfectly frames in a nod to the play itself. Philip Franks’s direction makes everything perfectly clear, no mean challenge as you might surmise from the above.
By some margin my favourite Bennet play. Mind you next up Mark Gatiss and Adrian Scarborough in The Madness of George III. This is showing live at cinemas but I see there are more than a few tickets left at the Playhouse. So students of Nottingham University. amongst others, save your beer money and go see this instead.
LSO, LSO Chorus, Tiffin Choirs, Sir Simon Rattle, Philip Cobb (trumpet), Gabor Tarkovi (trumpet), Elizabeth Watts, (soprano) Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Allan Clayton (tenor)
Barbican Hall, 17th September 2018
Harrison Birtwhistle – Donum Simoni MMXVIII
Gustav Holst – Egdon Heath
Mark-Anthony Turnage – Dispelling the Fears
Benjamin Britten – Spring Symphony
Now here was an object lesson in not doing one’s homework. Benjamin Britten’s music was my first introduction to the classical world and remains one of my all time fave composers, (mind you the list is pretty short). However, I am not persuaded by all of his work, including, I remembered just that tiniest bit too late, the Spring Symphony. So always check that the piece you think you are going to hear is exactly that at the time of booking and always, especially if it is a work of substance as here, listen to it before attending. Both rules ignored on this occasion in the most spectacularly cavalier fashion.
Still it was the LSO. Under the baton of Sir Simon with the LSO Chorus and the combined Tiffin Choirs, Girls’, Boys’ and Children’s. (BD sadly, saddled with tone deaf parents, was never a contender for the first of these crews). And, in the Spring Symphony, three excellent soloists, two of who I knew, Alice Coote and Elizabeth Watts, and one only by reputation, Allan Clayton. All the voices were superb, there are some tricky vocal pyrotechnics required in certain of the poetic settings, and the logistical challenges of getting everyone on stage (or just in front) were adroitly handled. At points the Barbican Hall stage was stuffed to the gills. Sir Simon really does need that bigger stage.
The Spring Symphony was commissioned by Russian emigre conductor Serge Koussevitsky, who had earlier sponsored BB’s breakthrough Peter Grimes. As so often, writing it took a lot out of BB, three years from start to finish, on and off. He originally intended to set Latin texts against a symphonic backdrop but, as was BB’s wont, he persuaded himself that English poetry would be bettered suited. When BB sets canonic English poetry on a smaller scale the results can be astonishing, Les Illuminations, the Serenade, the Nocturne, Phaedra and, I reckon, the Cantata misericordium. And obviously the War Requiem shows he was a dab hand with large scale forces. But the Spring Symphony doesn’t quite hang together IMHO, choruses and orchestra sometimes at odds with each other.
It is (just about) discernibly a symphonic structure, a la Mahler, the first part made up of five sections (Spenser, Nashe, Peele, Clare and Milton, with various ideas laid out, the second a slow movement with three settings (Herrick, Vaughan and Auden), the third a scherzo again with three poems (Barnfield, Peele and Blake) set to music and the rousing finale, setting Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s Elizabethan paean to the month of May, London, to thee I do present. There is lots of invention, texture and tone throughout, BB avoids throwing the kitchen sink at everything, with many passages of light orchestration, and percussion, harp, certain woodwind and brass, especially trumpets, (a theme throughout the programme), all get a good look in. Since all the poems reference Spring, doh, there are plenty of Spring-ey tunes, but also some darker material; this was a message of hope in the aftermath of War but BB recognised not all was rosy in the European garden. It just isn’t an entirely satisfying whole for me.
Sir Simon has always been a dab hand with BB, even from his days with the CBSO, though this was at the more portentious end of his interpretative spectrum. Still everyone really does seem to be having fun at the LSO and the Chorus now that he as at the helm. So maybe I need to cheer up, raise my game and work a bit harder on this particular piece.
The concert opened with a new brass fanfare from Sir Harrison Birtwhistle, a gift to Sir Simon. It was, literally a blast, with a laugh at the end from the sole tuba. This was followed by an excellent reading of Holst’s Egdon Heath. I have always liked Old Gustav’s second most famous orchestral piece after you know what, (which the BBCSO is trotting out soon accompanied by Prof Brian Cox – interesting). That heady mix of Englishness, Ravellian orchestration and a hint of Eastern mysticism draws you in but it takes a conductor of Sir Simon’s insight to really persuade. It is a bit scary, even from the off, with the growling double basses, I for one wouldn’t want to go anywhere near Hardy’s heath based on this music. An elusive string melody is set alongside a sad processional in the brass and some meandering oboe. It never really lands anywhere despite the echoes of a dance, a simple stepwise, siciliano, and it can appear to go on a bit. Not here though.
Dispelling the Fears written by Mark-Antony Turnage in 1995 creates an atmosphere of urban, rather than rural, unease, led by the two trumpets of the LSO’s principal Philip Cobb and the Berlin Philhamonic’s Gabor Tarkovi. The two played pretty close together for much of the piece, creating some stunning harmonies, especially lower down the register, against the usual MAT cloth of Stravinsky, jazz, a whiff of blues, some earlyish Schoenberg. It is quite furtive, never really breaking out, with constant dissonance emerging from clashing semi-tones. There are a few passages of relative peace but mostly it prods and pokes. Like most of MAT’s work it really works though you are not always initially sure why.
So there we go. The LSO and Sir Simon once again showing off the Best of British. With the slight caveat that this may not actually be the best of the best British composer (with apologies to Purcell and Byrd).
The Rape of Lucretia is a story with a long historical and artistic pedigree. It lies at the heart of the creation legend of the founding of the Roman Republic in the late 500s BCE, was documented by Livy and Ovid, then St Augustine, appears in Dante, Chaucer and Lydgate, was the subject of a poem by Shakespeare, (and Lucretia was referenced in some of his plays), and was a staple of much Renaissance and later art, notably works by Titian, Veronese, Rembrandt, Dürer, Raphael, Botticelli, old Cranach and Artemisia Gentileschi. The worst of these, depicting the rape, are violently voyeuristic, the best examine Lucretia’s subsequent suicide whilst avoiding gory titillation. Check out Rembrandt’s two takes on the latter, (see one above), Veronese’s and, best of all, Artemisia Gentileschi’s.
The story has undergone a few variations through the ages but, in the events of the Britten opera here, essentially runs like this. Tarquinius, the son of the last king of Rome Tarquinius Superbus, is sent on a military errand where he meets up with Collatinus and Junius. They have a few beers, (or the Roman equivalent), and get to discussing the chastity of the women of Rome. Junius goads Tarquinius into testing the virtue of Collatinus’s faithful wife Lucretia. Tarquinius rides to Collatinus’s house that night and the servants are obliged to let him in. He rapes Lucretia and leaves. Collatinus returns. He comforts her but she cannot bear the shame and commits suicide. Junius tries to atone for his involvement by sparking a rebellion against the King.
As you can see there are multiple perspectives for the creatives who take on this ugly story, and specifically this opera, to alight on. Ronald Duncan’s libretto, which in turn is based on the French play Le Viol de Lucrece by Andre Obey, uses the device of a Male and Female Chorus to frame the action and, incongruously to me, to tack on a Christian message, notably in the Epilogue, to the “pagan” tale. He also uses some pretty high-falutin’ and fancy language for both chorus and in the dialogue. It is easy to grasp what is going on but the florid text does sometimes get in the way a bit.
Fortunately though the genius of Mr Benjamin Britten is at hand. The Rape of Lucretia, like Albert Herring and The Turn of the Screw which we recently saw in the superb production at the Open Air Theatre (The Turn of the Screw at the Open Air Theatre review *****), is a chamber opera scored for just thirteen instruments. As usual it took me 15 minutes or so to adjust to BB’s astounding mix of tonality, effect and experimentation but, once the ears were fully up and running, this music was as dazzling as I remembered. It has been a fair few years since the last performance I saw, (can’t actually remember where), and I can’t say it is a turntable regular Chez Tourist, but, no matter, I was mesmerised. The Orpheus Sinfonia under Music Director Peter Selwyn, (who provided piano recitative accompaniment), were well up to the task and it was thrilling to hear the score in such an intimate space. The Sinfonia was founded to give an opportunity for talented young musicians to pursue a career that, trust me, they are doing for love not money. On this showing there are some fine talents here.
How then to deal today with what is plainly a deeply unsettling story? Britten was drawn to it as yet another “corruption of innocence” parable, the theme of so many of his operas. Yet I am not convinced that, as with those other operas, he fully thought through the perils of the material he was dealing with. Director Julia Burbach though made the most of the “universal” message that Duncan and Britten devised. The modern dress Male and Female Chorus, (here tenor Nick Pritchard and soprano Natasha Jouhl), open the opera by explaining how Rome under the Etruscan King Tarquinius Superbus is fighting off the Greeks and how the city has fallen into depravity. A Christian message for sure but as, subsequently, the two singers voice the thoughts of the male and female protagonists and move the story on, “out of time” as in classical Greek tragedy, a device to “explain” the motives and psychology of the characters and to involve us, the audience, in the action.
Fealty to Duncan’s libretto maybe means the production cannot resonant quite as volubly as it might have wanted to current MeToo awareness. Even so the drunken toxic masculinity, the fear that grips Lucretia and her two servants on Tarquinius’s arrival, the rape itself and Lucretia, broken, arranging flowers the next morning, are immensely powerful scenes reflecting the music, the acting and the movement of the characters and chorus under Julia Burbach’s direction. Having the Male and Female Chorus move through, and even at some points shape, the action was a smart move which offered insight.
I am not sure that any of this made the content of the story more palatable though and I can certainly understand why some may think this is an opera better left unstaged. I would suggest you see a production and decide for yourself though. This is not the only misogynistic opera: far from it. But when Lucretia, as here, is literally staring directly at you after the violence she suffers, it is impossible to ignore. And, when she dismisses Collatinus’s plea that Tarquinius’s action can be “forgotten”, the reason for her suicide is shifted from shame to anger.
The performances were uniformly excellent, particularly the two Chorus and contralto Bethan Langford as Lucretia. Bass Andrew Tipple was a deliberately vapid Collatinus, James Corrigan was a suitably odious Junius and a menacing Benjamin Lewis skilfully conveyed Tarquinius’s sickening importuning ahead of the rape. Claire Swale and Katherine Taylor-Jones both sang beautifully as Lucia and Bianca, Lucretia’s maid and nurse respectively. I am guessing that the performers had to take it down a notch or two in the Arcola space but what was lost in singing power was more than made up in clarity and immediacy.
The opera was staged as part of the Arcola’s Grimeborn festival which is not into its 11th year with 55 performances across 17 productions. For those of us who cannot face, or afford, the trip to Glyndebourne, where this opera was premiered in 1946, Grimeborn offers a bloody marvellous alternative. The small space means poncey C19 boring opera is off the agenda or the creative teams have to aggressively rethink it. New interpretations and new work abound. Chamber opera is in its element. Everything comes alive and acting, not vocal histrionics or regie-directorial setting, takes centre stage. All for around 20 quid a pop or less if you arm yourself with an Arcola Passport which is simply the second best gift to culture on the planet, after the Arcola AD Mehmet Ergen who should be knighted this minute.
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, ENO, 29th June 2018
Benjamin Britten. The Turn of the Screw. Members of the ENO Orchestra conducted by up and coming talent Toby Purser. Timothy Sheader directing. A Soutra Gilmour set. At the Open Air Theatre. On a beautiful late June evening. In the company of the SO, (who loves her Henry James and surprised herself by enjoying Deborah Warner’s staging of Death in Venice in 2013 at the ENO), BUD and KCK. Of course I was going to love this.
One of the aims here was to extend young BUD’s operatic education beyond Mozart. As he remarked here, not a lot of tunes.. Not sure I agree but there is no doubt in my mind that Britten’s music became darker through time, cleverer, from an already very high base, more progressive and less conservative, whilst never embracing the fearsome avant-garde, and richer, even as textures got sparser. The tonality is tempered with lots of (lovely) dissonance.
I think TTOTS occupies a key place in the development of all of Britten’s art. It was composed in 1954, just after Gloriana, and three years after Billy Budd. In the same year Britten composed his Canticle No III, Still Falls the Rain for tenor piano and, Britten’s favourite, horn. This is recognisably BB, like a trip-hop version of the Serenade Op 31, but this, and the Winter Words song cycle from 1953, seem more melancholic than the warmer equivalents before the war. Britten himself said that his music was forever changed by the WWII, as was true for pretty much all Western art, notably by a visit to Belsen, but I don’t think this really becomes apparent until the mid 1950’s.
Anyway TTOTS is definitely an example of the “less is more” BB where surface effect is toned down a little, (though not jettisoned entirely, there are plenty of ravishing musical ideas here), in the service of greater structural and emotional depth. And structurally this is a score of genius as a tightly wound serial “screw” theme and set of 15 variations built on a different semitone, opens each scene, ratcheting up the tension. So, you see BUD, there is a “tune”, you just hear it in a different way.
Which I think is why it is such an effective piece of musical theatre, an opinion with which BUD heartily conferred. TTOTS is apparently BB’s most performed opera. And probably the most performed opera in English. And, after your man Puccini, probably the most performed opera from the C20. Certainly the most performed of those operas written since the war. In part this reflects its chamber structure. With just 13 instrumentalists and a cast of 7, this is no big budget affair. As was intended. However I also think it reflects near perfect synthesis of story, libretto and music. All three offer a sufficient challenge to an audience but in no way is this intimidating. It always takes a bit of time to get swept up into a Britten opera, but swept up you will be, even if it isn’t the massive, warming, rush of Mozart.
In retrospect it was pretty much a nailed on certainty that BB and Myfanwy Piper would alight on Henry James’s novella. BB, and his various librettists, always started with an artistic inspiration. Usually the story revolved around an “outsider” estranged from the society around him. There’s usually some sort of spiritual dimension. And, nailed on, there will be some sort of uneasy “corruption of the innocent” theme. TTOTS has all of the requisite elements in spades. Better than this though is the ambiguity embedded in the story. What really happened at Bly? What was, or is, the nature of the relationship between Miles and Flora, Miss Jessel and Peter Quint? Who, and what, can we see? Who, and what, do the characters really see? After all only the Governess apparently sees the ghosts in HJ’s original. Is this all in the Governess’s mind then? How are we being manipulated? Strange to think then that the story came to HJ via none other than the future Archbishop of Canterbury in 1895.
Myfanwy Piper’s text reads like a poetic, musical impression of Henry James’s book but it picks its highpoint carefully. On to this BB’s score is perfectly stitched. In the book, told through the first person narrative of the Governess, it is up to you to imagine what happens. In my estimation, and those way smarter than me, its psychological depth and disturbing themes, take it beyond your bog standard gothic ghost story. In the innumerable film and TV versions, the ghosts can be made to seem like the extensions of everyday reality that HJ intended (I think), thanks to the trickery of the camera, but you all get one view, one take on the story. In a version for stage as here, (or notably The Innocents or the 2013 Almeida take), Quint and the Governess are undeniably corporeal, (any design team which could escape that mortal fact would get my money, no question), especially if they are going to sing, and the children are going to sing to them, and scenes unfold where the Governess is not present. So the mystery and ambivalence has to come from the music. And I cannot imagine anyone better than Britten at facilitating this.
But BB and MP take things a lot further. Take Miles’s famous Malo song that is repeated by the Governess at the end. Haunting for sure with viola, horn and harp. Malo in Latin could either mean “bad”, “to prefer” or an apple, symbol of innocence. “I would rather be… in an apple tree … than a naughty boy … in adversity”. The Latin words recited in the lesson prior to this contain all sorts of sexual references. Miles wanting “his own kind” and reflecting on his “queer life”. Mrs Gross’s line about Quint being “free with everyone” allowed to linger in the Regent’s Park air. Blimey. This is how the opera adds a new dimension contrasting the order and convention that the Governess clings to with the liberty that Quint offers whilst not seeking to mask the implication of abuse.
So, as you can see, I am a fan of this opera. What about the production then. Sandra Gilmour has imagined the remote country house of Bly as a large, dilapidated conservatory fronted by overgrown grass and a jetty leading to the “lake” and into the audience. It was amazing. Timothy Sheader, after a decade at Regents Park, now knows exactly how to use the unique space to best effect. TTOFTS was pushed out to an 8pm start to ensure sunset and early twilight matched the change in dramatic mood in the story and provided a perfect backdrop for lighting designer Jon Clark to show off his skills. Quint and Jessel make entrances from within the audience. Even the parakeets flew over on cue, “the birds fly home to these great trees”, at our performance. The debacle of last years Tale of Two Cities is entirely forgiven. The pacing was sublime and the musicianship top notch, especially, the viola of Rebecca Chambers, the clarinet of Barnaby Robson, the horn of John Thurgood and the harp of Alison Martin. Putting the orchestra inside the conservatory, behind a panel of ancient glass, thus lending them a ghostly quality, was a genius touch.
On this evening ENO Harewood Artists Elgan Llyr Thomas played Peter Quint with William Morgan taking the Prologue. Mr Thomas’s tenor voice is clear and direct, through the melismas especially, and fitted the space. I was a little less sure about his wig and beard combo. Anita Watson was a suitably unhinged Governess, for me she was convinced this was really happening, and Elin Pritchard a very disturbing, steampunky Miss Jessel. Janis Kelly, who has in her time played Flora. Miss Jessel and the Governess, now played a protective Mrs Gross. Daniel Alexander Sidhorn’s precociousness made for an arresting Miles though I have to say Elen Wilmer’s Flora was, for me, the more impressive voice. As an actor though Master Sidhorn is the real deal. Simultaneously vulnerable and malign.
Indeed Elen matched the elder Elin in look and movement creating a “bond” between Flora and Miss Jessel as disturbing in its way as that between Miles and Quint, an unexpected bonus. Mind you when Miles dons his purple shirt to match Quint’s and when he takes over from Quint on the piano, (young Sidhorn is either a mighty fine pianist or an even better “piano mimer”), the audience was bolt upright in their collective seats. And, on top of all of this, Mr Sheader really messed with our heads with a provocatively erotic scene as the Governess, “lost in my labyrinth”, asleep, is joined silently by Quint and Miss Jessel, or more specifically her hair, with Flora’s symbolic dolly and with Miles’s symbolic jack-in-the-box. Oh and did I say Miss Jessel is pregnant here.
One final thing. It’s outside. Which means a little technology is required to keep the volume stable as it were for both ensemble and singers. Which meant every word, with a couple of exceptions when Anita Watson’s soprano heads off to the higher registers, was crystal clear. Didn’t stop me consulting the libretto on occasion but what it did mean is that, for maybe the first time ever, I could savour every word of the libretto, to set alongside this stunning score and this tremendous production. This is what theatre, and opera, should all be about.