. . . is fabulous. FABULOUS.**
When I was signing up for this season’s Live from the Met operas I ordered a ticket for this one automatically when I read the cast list and it included Joyce DiDonato, but I wasn’t very happy about it. It’s a pastiche, or a mash-up if you want to be groovy***, with the storyline bodged together from THE TEMPEST and MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM and music stolen freely from all over the Baroque (I believe): Handel, Rameau and Vivaldi (I think†) are the chief sources. And there are Baroque costumes. And Baroque sets. I’d seen some stills and . . . ewww. However, I had the ticket, and there was going to be Joyce DiDonato.
I loved it. And the production, which is way, way, WAY over the frelling top, is one of the best things about it—and therefore proves that not merely low-key or tactful things but positively reckless, attention-grabbing and silly things can be done successfully on the opera stage.†† Yesss.
The singing is delicious, and even if I am prone to DiDonato worship, Danielle de Niese nearly steals the show. The story: Prospero, countertenor David Daniels, is sulking on his island. This is one of the interesting choices ‘writer and deviser’ Jeremy Sams made: this Prospero is a jerk. I’ve never liked Prospero—all right, all right, I’ve never liked Shakespeare, but I’ve thought that the whole mage thing was over-emphasized: he’s a self-pitying bully with some (fading) magic powers. Which is exactly what comes through here. Daniels does it very well: I had no problem with his voice on that stage, and he has authority which Prospero must have. He sends Ariel, played and sung with enormous charm and humour by de Niese, to shipwreck Ferdinand and then do the Puck trick with the potion to make sure he and Prospero’s daughter Miranda fall in love with each other. But Caliban††† has stolen Prospero’s dragon’s blood so that his mother, Sycorax, can reclaim her powers, which Prospero, that fine upstanding gentleman, stole when he stole the island from her. Without dragon’s blood the spell goes wrong, and Ariel instead wrecks a ship containing two honeymoon couples: Helena and Demetrius, Hermia and Lysander. Add Miranda and Caliban and there’s lots and lots of inappropriate pairings-off. Ariel, in a panic, with Prospero having tantrums and threatening to lock her‡ back up in her holly tree, asks Neptune for help. Neptune finds Ferdinand and gives him a shove in the right direction, the lovers are sorted, Prospero frees Ariel, Sycorax regains youth as well as power‡‡ (and her island), and all ends with general rejoicing except for poor Caliban who liked having a girlfriend and doesn’t have one any more.
There isn’t enough of Sycorax. Her first aria is amazing. DiDonato goes from being a crippled hag to being a powerful woman in the prime of life over the course of the opera‡‡‡ but that first aria when she gimps out and yowls about what has happened to her—DiDonato makes some genuinely ugly noises, snarling below her range, and it’s riveting. ISLAND is such an ensemble piece nobody gets a lot of solo time . . . but I still wanted more of Sycorax. One of the dumb reviews that I’m refusing to link to says that ISLAND is all fluffy and throwaway—um, Sycorax is not fluffy. And Caliban really is the one who isn’t saved. He’s sung with dignity and pathos by Luca Pisaroni, who I had some caveats about as a rather too twitchy Leporello, but he’s excellent here. He’s not a particularly nice monster, but he still has his feelings and his dreams, and he’s the only principal at the end who hasn’t got what he wanted.§
. . . I can’t frelling believe that the Met is so cheap and/or careless not to produce a complete cast list, but I’m failing to find it, and the synopsis they give you at the door of the theatre does not include the four MIDSUMMER NIGHT lovers. How totally crap is that? Miranda and Ferdinand are present, however; poor Miranda, Lisette Oropesa, has one of the most thankless roles I’ve ever seen. She comes on at the beginning singing, oh, dad, I Yearn For Something I Know Not What, and then wanders around falling for a new bloke every time Ariel makes another mistake with the fairy dust, till at the end she falls for Ferdinand. It is done for laughs but I found it still a bit cringe-making. I thought Ferdinand, Anthony Roth Costanzo, was one of their few real mistakes. He’s another countertenor, but of the exquisite variety which does not do well on the opera stage, and furthermore he’s a willowy young man and they dress him in gold, white and peach. Ick.
I’m trying to think how to tell you about the ridiculously glorious staging. It’s—well, it’s Baroque. There’s too much of everything, and it’s all curlicued and then super-curlicued. But it’s also gorgeous and appealing, and the special effects, of the island and the high seas, are terrific—when the MIDSUMMER lovers’ boat is drowned it’s genuinely scary. But the best—the best—is Neptune’s court. Ariel comes on stage wearing a diving helmet so you know you’re supposed to be underwater, and there are mermaids floating overhead to reinforce this idea.§§ And the chorus breaks into ‘Zadok the Priest’ and everyone in the audience breaks up: Neptune is played by Placido Domingo.§§§ But his court . . . well, there are all these ladies in semi-transparent leotards with scallop shells over their boobs, making wafty hand gestures, and behind them most of the chorus is standing behind, with only their heads showing, this gigantic series of painted props of naked people getting it on both with each other and with a variety of Things with Tentacles. I loved it. And Domingo is a cranky Neptune: at one point he says, I’ll listen to you but I may be too old and tired and irritable to help you. Here’s a god I could get along with.
It was a splendid evening out. I would guess ISLAND is still a work in progress; it seems to me there’s stuff they haven’t quite figured out yet—the duet between Sycorax and Caliban at the beginning of the second act, for example, to my sensibility, isn’t quite there yet. But it seems to me very much the best of Baroque: the lovely music without all the sing, sing with twiddles, sing something slightly different, sing the slightly different with twiddles, then do it all over again several times, that tends to weary the uninitiated. I was dismayed to hear the two women behind me not liking it and saying, well, why? What is it for?, and that they wouldn’t see it again. I’d see it again like a shot. I want to see how it goes on evolving, and wholly in love with DiDonato (and now de Niese) as I am I’d also love to see what other singers might do with those roles.
Yaay. Five stars.
* * *
** Also, I knitted a fresh eight rows of my LEG WARMERS during intermission which I think I’m not going to have to rip out. Which would be a first. This is also my first attempt after having shifted to easier yarn—this is just basic, uh, pink, cheap, acrylic, 6mm. Hellhound-blanket yarn in fact. No variable threads, no confusing heathery colour notes. I can see what I’m doing and I’m not forever getting hung up in weird little fuzzy artistic filaments. I’VE BEEN KNITTING FOR A YEAR AND I HAVEN’T FINISHED ANYTHING YET.
† I could look all this stuff up, yes. But I wasted way too much time trying to find a sensible review to link to and failed, and even if I don’t have to get up for service ring tomorrow morning^ I would like to get to bed some time.
^ Waaaaaaah. I was thinking, on my way to the theatre tonight, that it is a small kindness I have an opera on the night before my first official Sunday morning non-ring. Sunday mornings after an opera, and especially after blogging about an opera, are—were—especially gruesome.
††Moron from FAUST, take note.
††† Somebody tell me why Microsoft Word has Prospero and Ariel in its dictionary but not Caliban.
‡ Her? Him? There are plenty of trouser roles in opera, so that de Niese is a girl is not definitive. But Prospero calls Ariel ‘son’ and ‘boy’ in the first few minutes so I thought, okay, boy. But at the end, when Prospero has done the miser-leans-against-wall-and-becomes-generous thing and gives Sycorax back her island, Caliban says he wants a queen, and Ariel looks nervous and steps backward into the shadows. What? Since Caliban had spent a happy scene or two as Helena’s lover, I don’t think we’re supposed to be second-guessing Caliban’s gender preferences.
‡‡ Where can I buy some dragon’s blood? Is it good for writing novels?
‡‡‡ And oh how I want her dress from the beginning of the second act. Not the bright upbeat one at the end, which is too cheerful, although it’s a very nice cape. I want the dark cranky one with the sparkles.
§ In this version Prospero and Sycorax got it on before Prospero cast her aside like an old shoe and stole her island, her son, and her sprite. Such a nice guy. I believe his apology at the end about as much as I believe the Count’s at the end of FIGARO. Get out fast, Ariel, before he changes his mind (again), and Sycorax, keep your flying piranhas handy, and don’t be afraid to use them. But because I have a low mind^ I’m thinking this may cast an interesting light on the father of Caliban and the mother of Miranda. I totally see Prospero’s character coming through in his son.
^ So what do fanged muffins get up to when no one is around?
§§ Although the mermaids come back in the last scene, which is supposed to be on dry land. Never mind.
§§§ Maybe this is an in joke. Never mind . . .
Comprehensive ickiness marches on. Booooooring. Last night I not only had insomnia but The Cough decided to demonstrate what it could really do. I had no idea it hadn’t been trying previously.*
So, between having done nothing today** and having no brain to make something up, I will depend on forum comments for structure an d(apparent) progression tonight. . . .
+ And I’m the only person on the planet who didn’t/doesn’t like THE SOPRANOS or David Tennant.
Nope, not the only one. Tennant is my least favorite of the new Doctors. Never watched The Sopranos, but from the clips I’ve seen and the reviews I’ve read, it’s not my sort of thing.
My problem with the Sopranos is that it’s about a nice normal (which is to say completely banjaxed and dripping with neuroses and relationship problems) American family . . . who happen to kill people. Because they’re Mafia. Whatever. The point is they kill people. This is just part of the set up. It’s supposed to provide depth or irony or something. Ewwwww. No. I’m not going there. Killing people is not a normal, acceptable response to business and personal failures. It is not a healthy, positive way to deal with rivalries and frustrations. You want to have a story about going around killing people, you need vampires, werewolves and evil magicians.
I sat through several episodes at irregular intervals because I had so many friends who loved it. I’m not all that interested in endless developmental rehashings of personal troubles**, which left the murders. Squicky.
No, ma’am, you’re not. David Tennant’s acting in ANYthing (including the modern-dress Hamlet production in which he played Hamlet–a miscasting if ever there was one) seemed to be limited to acting bugf*ck crazy with his eyes bulging out.
Well, yes. Exactly. He makes me look composed and serene. Take a Valium, David, and sit down.
But this pretty much explains everything, in my mind – for two years, anytime anything went into their mouth they were left feeling pretty awful. I’d stop wanting to eat after that, too.
Yes, well, it’s not that straightforward. They have spells when they’re all over their food like normal dogs, especially Darkness. Chaos, even enthusiastic, runs to the end of his enthusiasm pretty fast. There have been moments when I’ve thought I might even get a little weight on Darkness. (These moments go away again.) But you never know when or why such a spell is going to come on—or how long it’ll stick around. Their moods vary from day to day . . . and meal to meal. Sometimes the Don’t-Eat Fairy coshes them halfway through what was looking like a total gulping-down epiphany. At least one more item that has to be added to the list of Things Robin Must Brace Herself to Be Made Crazy By however is the notorious sighthound indifference to food. Salukis are infamous for this. Deerhounds are too. My guys are one-eighth deerhound—although one of the whippets of the previous generation belonged to the Food Is Optional philosophy too. She was a very sweet dog, but completely, ahem, barking, and I have a fair range of experience of canine peculiarities.
Diane in MN
. . . I’ll stop talking about it in case Teddy’s bad angel starts getting ideas. DOGS. Yes.
Chaos is squirting again. )(*&^%$£”!!!!!!! DOGS. NO. Next time it’s cheetahs or axolotls.
WHY DO I HAVE THE LURGY WHEN I AM A PARAGON OF VIRTUE?
Some health advocates do make it sound almost as though germs are only incidental to diseases and if you get sick it is ALL YOUR FAULT.
Yes, because you haven’t done it THEIR WAY. Here their book only costs £49.99, the cheap rate at the local gym will only rip £1200 out of your flesh every year and the class/machine/trainer you want won’t always be unavailable, the supplements you absolutely must have will only be another £100/month, and the special organic food and fashionable superfoods won’t do much more than quadruple your grocery bill. It’s your health, isn’t it? What are you waiting for?
. . . we took our dog . . . to an off-lead dog park this summer and she went to investigate a pond and somehow fell in. She is not a water dog. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a look of puzzlement on a dog’s face at finding herself knee-deep in water, and she got out fast. A young Labradorcame along shortly thereafter, and she stood and watched in disbelief as it chased around in the water. She clearly thought it was mad.
Yes. There are water dogs and there are not water dogs. Mavis, my dog minder, asked me a couple of times last summer when it was beltingly hot if the hellhounds really wouldn’t get in the river to cool off and I said they haven’t yet. Darkness has fallen in twice by stalking a duck too near the edge, but he has rocketed straight back out again without pause to invest in the experience. I’ve twice waded in on hot days*** and tried to persuade them to join me, but they stand on the shore with that alert, patient look that many dogs get when you’re doing something even more doolally than usual and they’re hoping that it’s not going to interfere with your taking them home again by the most scenic possible route to their nice comfy dog bed (we say nothing about food).
In my deranged and poverty-stricken youth, I used to housesit for an aging lab who had to be prevented from plunging into the Maine Atlantic in the winter because it was hard on his rheumatism.
The first of your recipes is known in my family as “Cow cake”, especially when iced with chocolate butter icing as my mother cuts it into portions whose size resembled that of the concentrate then fed to dairy cattle.
I love this. LOVE LOVE LOVE. Cow cake. That’s it forever. —It is one of those recipes that everyone has a version of. But I’ve never heard it called cow cake before. Hee hee hee hee hee hee. I personally much prefer the digestive-biscuit version to the rice-krispies version that I saw far more of when I was a kid. Although this may have had to wait till I discovered digestive biscuits, which we didn’t have in the States when I was young. Graham crackers or vanilla wafers just aren’t as good.
It appears your computer equipment is possessed by all nine circles of gremlins. Have you considered something other than Outlook – like Thunderbird?
Outlook is a right bitch to deal with if it decides it doesn’t like you, and if you DON’T need the appt bit then Tbird will sort your email side right out.
And I imagine you have all your appts on your iphone anyway
HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. You have not fathomed the depths of my daily shame. My appointments are in my small paper pocket Ringing World diary. †
I did ask Raphael why I’m on Outlook, and it’s as I was expecting: he says that given the sinister conflation of my somewhat unusual requirements plus what local broadband support is available plus what the archangels themselves can do, Outlook is still the least of evils.
. . . the only problem with 1571 is that you actually have to pick up the phone and listen to the dial tone to know that you’ve got a message . . .
The message on ours (recorded by me!) says “You’re welcome to leave a message, but as we are very bad at checking for messages, please ring our mobiles!”
HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. I try to prevent people from even knowing I have a mobile phone. ‘Oh that pink iPhone-shaped case that I wear around my neck at all times? Oh, no, it’s an emergency bar of chocolate.’
* * *
* Somebody tell me what frelling evolutionary advantage is conferred upon one who has insomnia and/or hosts a cough. Being able to get by on very little sleep would be great, but that’s nothing to do with the experience of insomnia: maybe you’re awake when the camp guard has nodded off and you see the sabre-tooth tiger creeping toward the headman’s baby and you raise the alarm.^ But next day when you move camp they’re going to have to carry you, you’re so tired . . . and they aren’t going to. Every early prehuman for him/herself. So the sabre-tooth tiger gets you instead, next night.^^
I can’t remember if there’s any actual science for this or not, or whether it’s just the obvious joke that every semi-literate menopausal woman since Darwin has made, but that your caloric requirements plummet the moment you’re no longer fertile makes some sense. That provides another pair of hands to tend the tribe’s children while the young women are either pregnant or foraging, and these hands increase the likelihood of more kids surviving and don’t cost the tribe anything.
Insomnia? Coughs? Successful parasites don’t kill their hosts. Coughing gets you left behind too, and you may be glad to see that tiger.
^ Or maybe you don’t. The kid’s a brat, and is going to grow up to be another big stupid bully like his dad.
^^ Or possibly not. It may still be full of headman’s brat.
** Except a few paragraphs of SHADOWS. Not enough paragraphs, but still . . . paragraphs.
*** Yes: there goes 90% of all nongenre story-telling media. I’m a lowbrow^, what can I tell you.
^ With a few exceptions. Most of which (Eliot, Trollope, Dickens) I would be happy to argue are genre really.
† Remember that a ‘river’ in England is any minor concavity that contains at least one teacup of water for at least forty-eight hours once a year. By these standards New Arcadia has quite a nice little river. It’s still only knee high in the middle.
TONIGHT’S FAUST FROM THE METROPOLITAN OPERA IN NEW YORK IS ONE OF THE WORST, STUPIDEST, MOST PERVERSE PRODUCTIONS I HAVE EVER SEEN AND I HOPE THE DIRECTOR’S NEXT PROJECT INVOLVES CARDBOARD, DENTAL FLOSS, AND MARKER PENS..
I HAAAAAAAAAATED IT. AND I AM HAVING PROBLEMS HERE TONIGHT NOT USING LANGUAGE.
Oh yes, and there will be spoilers. Ironic in this instance. . . .
There are two ‘worst’ aspects to tonight’s large expensive cowpat. The first is that Gounod’s FAUST is a big, soppy romantic wallow, which either does or does not go fatally over the ‘sentimental’ line, depending on the point of soppiness saturation in your own personality. I love it. It’s one of my desert island operas (with most of Verdi, about half of Mozart and one or two Rossini and Donizetti and . . .). But it needs to be treated gently. Try to take it too far out of its milieu at your peril. This is to a great or lesser degree true of anything stageable, I would imagine, but opera generally is to my eye/mind/ear already dancing on the edge of irrecoverable silliness, and it’s just not a good idea to distract an audience from the glory of the music to vexed and vexatious questions of plot and continuity. IT’S ABOUT THE MUSIC.* And that’s really all it’s about. Any director who doesn’t get this is a moron.
There are a lot of morons out there. I’m sufficiently hard-line about this that I further think that anyone responsible for a production that calls too much attention to itself is an up-himself prat.** I know the arguments about ‘freshness’. I think they’re mostly bunk. I think that the majority of the opera-going audience doesn’t have the chance to get tired of non-controversial productions because due to time, money, other things in their lives and how many operas are performed in a given year they don’t see them often enough to get tired. I think that most of the excuse for ‘exciting’ new productions is SELF INDULGENCE on the part of the theatre admin. Bored with straightforward productions that give the singers the best possible chance to bring the audience to its knees? Go sell washing machines. And don’t let the door bang you in the butt on your way out.
I don’t even know where to begin. And I have to go to bed so I can ring bells tomorrow morning. But here’s the second ‘worst’ about tonight’s show: it was an absolute dream cast. Jonas Kaufmann as Faust***, Rene Pape as Mephistopheles and Marina Poplavskaya as Marguerite. Gods. What they could do with this music. And they mostly even managed it, despite very long odds against, like running a marathon on one leg and blindfolded. Some of the close-up stuff did work a treat—the famous act-three seduction is pretty great, for example.† But the bullsh—I mean, the poor creative decisions of this production kept getting in the way.
So. Anyway. FAUST is a big, gorgeous, soppy, 19th century tragedy, with melodies to die for and buckets of emotional melodrama. Gounod laid it in 16th century Germany, with probably about as much historical accuracy as Puccini lavished on MADAMA BUTTERFLY, so I’m not terribly fussed about slavishly following the libretto about this. But the director has decided that his Faust is one of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project. What? Mind you, you only know this because Joyce Di Donato tells you, as tonight’s broadcast host. There’s no particular clue to the initial backdrop of an anonymous ruined building, a vaguely laboratory-looking stage, and some limping, blackened people who cross Faust’s path. (He doesn’t seem too perturbed by them.) These unidentifiable victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki do however have a strange similarity to the blackened, jerking devils of Walpurgis Night. Er, why? And if those are WWII uniforms in act two, I’m Pippi Longstocking. Although even if they are . . . wait a minute . . . this is after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs? Then who are these soldiers and where’s the war?
And what is the giant puppet-soldier about?
And why does a bloody death’s-head in a cape come on stage and glower at Mephistopheles at the end of some act or other, I forget?
And if that’s supposed to be a mushroom-shaped cloud at the beginning of act five (I think), how about if you locate a better piece of film for it?
I’m getting ahead of myself.†† I acknowledge that what to do on stage while the overture unrolls can be a problem, but how about . . . nothing? This is the orchestra’s moment. Let’s listen to them. But we have Kaufmann lurching around looking like a young man wearing a slightly greyed-over moustache, and a brief cameo appearance by some refugees. Until Kaufmann started singing it was BORING—and there’s nothing wrong with the music.
The basic set had metal stairs with lots of open mesh walkways running up either side of the stage—like the sort of thing you see in factories and military installations and nuclear power plants. It had nothing whatsoever to do with what was going on, although I suppose it provided one of those theatrical grails, Different Levels. It was a daft place for Marguerite to fall finally into Faust’s arms however—but the worst in that scene was the Thing that Ate Schenectady-sized red roses that bloom up the back screen on Mephistopheles’ command. WHAT? WHAT’S THAT ABOUT? WHAT’S THAT GOT TO DO WITH THE ATOM BOMB, IF WE’RE RIFFING ON THE ATOM BOMB HERE? Arrrrrrgh. And speaking of Mephistopheles—Pape was good. He had the authority and just the right sneer—as well as the voice. Faust is a tick, so you need someone with some charm as well as the voice, and Kaufmann (ahem) has these; and what I’m coming to like best about Poplavskaya—aside from the voice—is that she gives dignity to these awful die-away soprano-heroine roles her voice dooms her to.†††
I really thought they might manage to wreck the end, it’s so badly staged—gibbergibbergibber no I want to go to bed, it’s not worth ruining a working Sunday for—but when Poplavskaya, on her knees, looks up and starts in on her final ‘blessed angels, save me’ music, it came together for me anyway. IN SPITE of her then climbing some of that ugly laboratory ladder toward what we assume is heaven—in spite of the chorus standing around in lab coats singing ‘Christ is risen’—what? Speaking of yanking something out of its context, this is just ghastly—and then Mephistopheles sucks Faust down into hell. Er . . . that’s not how the opera ends. He’s saved too, through his pity for Marguerite, and remorse at his part in her ruin. So you’re staring blankly at the stage and . . . the phony old guy from the beginning, with the moustache, reappears up through the floor, and this time he does drink the poison that Faust was about to drink at the beginning, except Mephistopheles showed up and promised him fame, fortune and babes. He drinks the poison and dies. WHAT? HOW IS THIS SAVED? By any context this opera is capable of fitting into, suicide means you’re damned.
GIBBERGIBBERGIBBERGIBBER. But I really have to go to bed. . . .
* * *
* Just to be sure my colours are nailed to the mast here, I have no time for people who want to talk about opera as drama with singing. Very very frelling few operas are well-made plays under all the twiddly bits. You go to an opera, you park your intellect—not all your brain, but the logical part—at the door. I’ve talked here before about the emotional reality of opera—I can forgive almost any absurdity as long as the big numbers give me a scalp-tingling rush.
** Or herself, of course, but tonight’s prat was a bloke.
*** Be still my heart. What has happened lately, that there are suddenly hunky opera singers?^ When I was still young enough to have fantasies, who was there? Luciano Pavarotti?
^ And what’s a little drool among friends.
† Not that this would have anything to do with my attitude toward Kaufmann.
†† I PARTICULARLY hated the ending.
††† Although I have a little rant I do about Marguerite: she’s got the devil against her, for pity’s sake. She was never going to win. The particular challenge to Marguerite is to let her go mad convincingly. She has plenty of excuse—her lover has run off leaving her pregnant, her brother, her only family, curses her for a slut with his last breath. Nice guy. Then when she goes to the church to pray she sees and hears devils. Well, she is seeing and hearing devils. It’s in the libretto. So it’s not surprising she kills her baby—and a half decent production brings this out—infanticides generally not being wildly sympathetic.^ One of the WORST bits of tonight’s big ugly redolent mess is the baby-murder, which happens on stage, with the pacing and the emotional resonance of buying a newspaper at the corner shop.
^ Although Hetty Sorrel and Tess of the D’Urbervilles both come to mind.
They sang COLD HAILY WINDY NIGHT. Steeleye Span, that is. Tonight. At the concert Fiona got me by the hair, forced** me into her car as I moaned feebly: I have to work! I have to work!***, and made me come to with her.† I could be happy just looking at Maddy Prior’s clothing. ††
I had brought my leg warmers. That is, I brought a remarkably-crinkly-at-one-end skein of bitchy, tantrum-prone††† yarn, a pair of needles‡, and an increasingly battered-looking pattern, including the crib sheet Fiona wrote out for me MONTHS ago. We had allowed lots of time to get lost in which we then didn’t need‡‡ so I had a good half hour to get started again.‡‡‡ Aaaaugh. Counting. Aaaaaugh. And Fiona would keep trying to talk to me. What do you think this is, a social occasion? Just because she can knit an incredibly frelling complicated frelling sock pattern on forty-seven double-ended needles and look around at the crowd and chat to her neighbour, who is laboriously going, one, two, three, purl, one, two, three, knit, DOESN’T MEAN EVERYONE CAN.
And just by the way, some of what Peter Knight does on that fiddle isn’t possible.§
At the end Fiona said, so, are you glad you came? There must be more Steeleye sheet music out there, I said, having had trouble not joining Rick Kemp for COLD HAILY.§§ I even asked Maddy herself about sheet music on the way out and she looked puzzled and suggested I write to Park Records. §§§
And then we went back out to the car park, got in Fiona’s car and drove merrily away in the wrong direction because she had decided we didn’t need the satnav. . . .
* * *
* It was a near thing. Blogmom had sent along a last sale/auction order file which I had assumed was a few final sweepings-up, no big deal, and hadn’t even bothered to open it—Fiona could do it when she came. AND THEN IT TURNED OUT TO BE GINORMOUS. Gaaaaaah. WAAAAAAAAH. I knew I was not, in fact, going to get everything out before Christmas^ but I did think we were totally heading downhill for the final assault. No. Wrong. So the first thing Fiona had to do, having been obliged to reveal the awful truth, was prevent me from murdering myself messily in an assortment of creative and unpleasant ways.
^ Once again, grovelling apologies. There Is Too Much Going On. And I really do have to finish SHADOWS before I can no longer afford to keep the hellhounds in a manner to which they have become accustomed.
** I would make three of Fiona. Well, two and a half anyway. But she’s very persuasive. Especially when she shakes out a length of yarn in this sort of garrotte and clamps sharpened knitting needles between her teeth.
*** And I have an opera tomorrow. COGNITIVE DISSONANCE ALERT.^
^ I would like to say I’m going to a Metallica concert the night after that, but . . . no. And the truth is I don’t think I have the—er—mettle to go to a heavy metal concert any more. I don’t know what the audience at a Metallica concert is like these days, but back in my misspent youth+ I went to several fairly scary concerts where I was glad that my companion was a six and a half foot bloke, who, while soft-spoken and mild-mannered, looked like Mess With Me and Die.
+ Remember that I misspent most of my youth in my thirties, so we’re talking about the eighties.
† You realise it’s Friday. Sacred Home Tower Bell Practise. Only Steeleye Span could drag me away from my responsibilities.^
^ . . . But make me an offer. A stroll across the Kalahari? Sunbathing in Antarctica? A new diving bell attempt to reach the bottom of the Marianas Trench? Sure. After all, Niall left me to cope last Friday.
†† I am forcibly reminded, pretty much every time I go to a concert—or, for that matter, watch a clip on YouTube—that the one great thing about performing is the costumes. It’s pretty much the only thing I miss about being a travelling, live-appearance author: the opportunity to dress up. ^ And Maddy’s clothes are prime. I was thinking about this tonight—while I sang along to All Around My Hat^^—that this is the one flaw in my choir-joining plan^^^: choir members don’t get to dress up. I like a long black velvet skirt as well as the next woman but Maddy’s flounced blue satin is waaaay to be preferred. Unfortunately being a soloist involves . . . soloing. I don’t see a way around this. Unless that’s in a chapter in CHAOS I haven’t got to/figured out yet.
^ As demonstrated at Forbidden Planet a few months ago.
^^ Maddy came to the front of the stage, thrust her microphone in our direction+ and dared us to be louder than Margate.
+ Literally. Fiona and I were in the front row.~
~ Fiona orders the tickets. I just go where I’m told. Chiefly into the passenger seat of her car.
^^^ Supposing my incredibly tiresome throat stops being a frail heroine and lets me return to two-and-a-half-hour practises with the Muddlehamptons.
††† Yes I am thinking about simply buying a couple more skeins of hellhound-blanket yarn^ and using that. Wait . . . did I just say BUY MORE YARN?^^
^ The pink option, of course.
^^ I was reading Yarn Harlot the other night+ about stash, one of her favourite topics, and how the fact that you have more yarn than an infinity of monkeys could knit into bobble hats while waiting for that other batch of monkeys to produce King Lear++ doesn’t necessarily mean you have anything to knit with. Yes. Her ratiocinations on this subject will not be mine, but in my case all my nice yarn is Waiting for Me to Learn What I’m Doing. I can’t just carelessly pluck a couple of skeins out of some tote bag and start on leg warmers. Horrors.
+ In the bath, of course. Paperback editions of Yarn Harlot are ideal for the task.
++ Macbeth would do. And it’s shorter.
‡ Yes in the right size. Please.
‡‡ We will come to the topic of the drive home again in a minute.
‡‡‡ The lights went down mid-row, of course. Oh, now I’m in trouble, I said, and the woman on my other side . . . laughed. So during the interval I said to her, do you knit? I used to, she said. I keep thinking I should start again. Don’t let me put you off, I said. I’m a beginner, and this yarn is possessed by demons. We parted amicably at the end: next time bring your knitting, I said.
Postscript: I knitted five rows. And then I ripped them all out again. Sigh. However, it more nearly resembled ribbing than my previous efforts. It just wasn’t ribbing.
§ This is clearly stated in chapter mrrmngph of CHAOS.^
^ I’m reading/listening to it AGAIN, okay? This is challenging stuff for someone whose idea of higher maths is a touch of St Clements minor on handbells.
§§ He may be a great bassist. He is not a great singer. I admit that my crossover tendencies may not always stand me in good stead when judging folk singers, but I mostly feel that to be a lead singer of anything you either have to sound great, like Maddy^, or at least have a characterful voice, like Dick Gaughan—or Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen.
^ Although she’s still singing when a classical singer would have had to give up.
§§§ http://www.parkrecords.com/ In case you’re interested. I mean, yes, I could figure out the tunes, and most of the lyrics are on line somewhere, but what am I going to give Oisin? . . . Had I but world enough and time, I might write my own accompaniments, of course, but they would be a little non-standard.
She goes to bed with her EARRINGS on?? No wonder she sleeps badly. Never mind the business of being chained to her bed by the evil usurper who having (probably) despatched her husband is now trying to marry her to consolidate his claim to the throne.
Opera generally gets a lot of stick for the absurdity of its plots, and Handel may get more than most. I’m probably the wrong person to ask because I’m tired of defending my hero Verdi, who wasn’t always well-served by his librettists, okay? I know. I still love the operas.* And Rodelinda does have some credibility problems. How, exactly, did the usurper usurp, and why did the proper king leg it so quickly that the usurper doesn’t even know what he looks like—this is crucial to the plot—leaving his wife and son behind? But if you view the story within the three-act box of Handel’s music without worrying about how it got there or how it’s going to get back out again, it works pretty well. And even with some reservations about this production the second-act reunion duet between Rodelinda and her husband made me cry.**
Okay, here’s the rude, anti-Pollyanna bit: I didn’t think a lot of any of the three principals. I worshipped the ground Renee Fleming walked on when I first heard her—must be nearly twenty years ago. Less so lately. I’m not the only person who finds her style somewhat detached*** and while this works a treat for Strauss† it doesn’t always work elsewhere; and this may just be the terrifying luck of your-body-is-your-instrument singers but I haven’t much liked what she seems to be doing with her voice as she gets older and it inevitably changes. I thought her style worked better tonight than sometimes but I wasn’t always delighted with the noise she was making. She was Rodelinda (duh); Andreas Scholl played Bertarido, her rather feckless husband, and he was the biggest shock to me. I have been a big fan of his—and I’m extremely fussy about my countertenors—and I would have said he has a perfect voice for Baroque music: pure, clear and exact. You hear every one of those hemidemisemiquavers.††
Well, you heard them tonight too, but they were kind of soft and fuzzy around the edges, which is not what you want. The acoustic? Maybe. I don’t know, and my ear isn’t that good anyway. But he’s barely frelling audible. If anyone as asking me—which they clearly are not—he’s not an operatic singer. You have to be able to punch it out there from the operatic stage; he’d be fabulous in a small room with a harpsichord and a few viols. Sob. I wasn’t expecting this at all. And possibly because of the volume issue I felt his voice sounded over controlled—forgive me, but I kept thinking of Nadia saying ‘don’t be afraid of the notes’.
Stephanie Blythe is the second one from the original production—I didn’t know this, but apparently she and Fleming are an important part of why Baroque operas are being staged at places like the Met again after decades of neglect and no small amount of scorn.††† So full points there. But as a singer she has never done that much for me. She’s a mezzo or an alto or one of those dark rich things and she increasingly seems to me effective enough but strangely characterless. Maybe I just have Marilyn Horne and Janet Baker (and Eileen Farrell and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson) too firmly fixed in my mind’s ear, but Blythe sounds to me like a really great choir alto.‡
The sparkle tonight was contributed by the secondaries. I was particularly impressed with the evil usurper who is a dismayingly thankless role, and a classic Miser Leans Against Wall and Becomes Generous character to make the plot work out at the end. But he brought it off. Joseph Kaiser plays him as young and confused and torn between what he wants and what he knows is the right thing to do—and furthermore on the rebound from Blythe’s character Eduige, Bertarido’s sister, having refused to marry him (he thinks. They get together at the end, after he leans against the wall). The other standout is Unulfo, Bertarido’s one loyal retainer, who is also the only person who knows he’s still alive. He’s another countertenor, and while he isn’t particularly loud either, it’s a very bright, sweet voice—none of the odd muffling of Scholl’s—and he doesn’t sound strained or over-calculated.
I mostly liked the production too, although in a laudable attempt at distracting the 21st century sound-byte audience‡‡ from the long unspooling of A-B-A-with-twiddles there was perhaps at times too much stage business. LEAVE THE FRELLING FLOWERS ALONE FOR PITY’S SAKE.‡‡‡ But four and a half hours? Piffle. It rips along.
Oh, and my purling is coming along nicely.
* * *
* Except Falstaff. Which I can only listen to by carefully forgetting everything I know about the plot.
** Also: they kissed. I mean really. People don’t kiss in opera. When I was first going to operas forty-odd (eep) years ago people didn’t kiss in operas, but then they didn’t act either so the kisslessness was just part of the strange Noh-like system that you either learnt to buy into because you were infatuated with the music, or you didn’t, and stopped going to the opera. Then acting started happening and very exciting it was too. But there was still no kissing. I’ve assumed this is because all singers are (totally justifiedly) NEUROTIC about their voices—and opera is stylised, there’s no getting around it, and demands vast extents of disbelief suspension, so I can cope with the no kissing. But tonight—kissing! Genuine lips-to-lips germ-exchange KISSING! And as a soppy terminal romantic, I like kissing.^
^ There is kissing in SHADOWS. Just by the way.
*** I was looking her up on Wiki and they call Violetta (from La Traviata, my fave of faves) one of her ‘signature’ roles. Like hell it is. You cannot do a cool Violetta—as I found out when I made that schlep toLondon two or three years ago to see her do it live.
† I didn’t like Capriccio last year because I didn’t like Capriccio, which is a different issue, although Fleming’s presence didn’t help.
†† You do not hear all the hemidemisemiquavers with Fleming.
††† ‘They’re all too long and they all sound alike.’ You have to like Baroque music. And the (a) sing something—(b) sing a slight variation of the first thing—(c) sing the first thing again with twiddles pattern is the way they did it. First one character sings A-B-A-with-twiddles and then another character sings another A-B-A-with twiddles, and then . . . But when they do it as well as Handel did—in Rodelinda among others—that’s just fine. I know Handel operas far less well than I should so while I vaguely knew that Rodelinda is about a captive queen who stands up to her jailer and is a Strong Heroine blah blah blah blah . . . actually, she is. The scene when she confronts the usurper and says ‘I’ll marry you . . . if you kill my son before my eyes . . . and if you marry me, you will marry Death’ is pretty fabulous. I thought it was well staged here: the kid^ is clearly in on it with his mum, and they both know what they’re risking to force the bully to back down.
The one piece of the emotional jigsaw that did not work for me at all is Bertarido deciding that Rodelinda is a worthless trollop for appearing to yield to the usurper’s proposal. HE’S THREATENING TO KILL HER KID, YOU MORON. YOUR KID. (Which is where she gets the idea for the confrontation.)
^ The kid, a non-speaking role, is unusually well done. Non-speaking kids in opera are usually either puppets or pains. This one has quite a lot to do and does it convincingly.
‡ She also can’t act. She’s a big girl—even a very big girl—but there are lots of people out there who can sashay bulk delicately. I always feel extra guilty for my lack of convincedness when I hear her being interviewed, because she sounds intelligent and funny and no-nonsense and probably a great person to have as a neighbour. As well as the best alto your local choir ever had.
‡‡ Most of whom, as previously observed, are older than I am. I had Pooka out and was texting to a Baroque-music-loving friend during the intermissions.
‡‡‡ From what I felt was a very emotionally effective second act it came a bit unravelled in the third. Bertarido manages to stab Unulfo when Unulfo is trying to rescue him, and they’re all oh, never mind, gotta keep moving. What? Later when Bertarido is doing his A-B-A-with-twiddles thing at Grimoaldo, the usurper, about the fact that B had just saved G from being murdered by the one real villain of the piece, he says ‘now go ahead and murder me so you can keep the throne’, Rodelinda is just kind of standing there. Granted this trick worked pretty well in the second act when she and her son did it—even so.
Oh, and Dove Sei? Bertarido’s—Scholl’s—introductory aria in act one, so I was sitting there going noooooo. Lovely but underpowered.