Saturday 25 June 2016

Spexit - to a new culture

As a rule, I try to keep what I add to social media - as well as what I take from it - positive and non-political. (The former often necessitates the latter!) It should be for the good things in life - which for me, as you know, are mostly cultural and especially musical. It's about making connections, not severing them: sharing love, not spilling hate.

This week, it's more difficult than usual to stay true to those aims. Full disclosure: I voted Remain in the referendum on whether or not the UK should stay in the EU. I will always believe that collaboration, partnership, openness and tolerance contribute more to the greater good than separation, division, mistrust and insularity. In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, it seems likely there will be dark political and economic times ahead, but this is not my field - I do not want to downplay the fear and disappointment many feel, or unwittingly patronise anyone by commenting on it. I feel we've been subjected to cartoonish, media-distorted personality-driven campaigning. But I'm also aware that rational people, from left and right, north and south, young and old - no matter who's currently yelling at who - got behind both sides of the EU question. Simplifying the divisions in our nation will do nothing to heal them. To my mind, it's now up to whoever leads us into this uncharted territory to guide us through it. I wish them, and us, luck.

Part of all this does fall within my 'remit', however. Not so much can we cope with the outcome - more can we neutralise the poison of the campaign? Racism has always existed, and always will - along with sexism, homophobia and any type of prejudice that involves a group of people turning their fear of another group into hate and rage. This has the unfortunate outcome that, however reasonable or thought-through a Leave voter's intentions might be... for one inglorious day, they are siding with the racists. On the same page. Tarred, ironically, with the same brush.

How easy has it been to look across the Atlantic recently and feel the US is gripped by madness: the rise of Trump, the failure to tackle gun crime, the venom of the Christian far-right? But surely most of us realise that the overwhelming majority of Americans want no part of this lethal arrogance. Will mainland Europe or the rest of the world now extend us the same courtesy? Will they realise that many of us wanted no part in this - by which I mean holding a referendum at all, let alone Leave or Remain? Or will they just see the buffoonery and sloganeering?

Well... THAT is not my society. Spexit. If I'm dragged kicking and screaming out of the EU, I will have to bear the consequences along with the rest of my fellow Brits. But I am still European. And - as a citizen of the internet - I, like you, am global. There are no borders here.

Against a political and economic background - where I can more than likely achieve nothing - there is a cultural aspect to this - the need I feel to express the kind of Britain I want to live in: inclusive, welcoming, multi-faceted. Take today's Pride celebrations as an example of what we can achieve when we take a collective decision to reject prejudice. Many of us, I'm sure, already lead very cosmopolitan lives - but perhaps some of us don't, or could do more.

How many people do you know from elsewhere in the EU, who you work with, or come into contact with, every day? There's never been a more crucial time to make them feel welcomed and valued.

I think with admiration about some musicians I support and who have become friends (real and 'virtual'), who have found receptive audiences for their work abroad, who have forged collaborations across Europe accordingly, and who have encouraged other overseas artists in turn, in projects both on the continent and back in the UK. Or there's a writer from France who has come to this country, immersed herself in its influences and produces unique work as a result. And then I think - what more could I have done to help these people? To show my appreciation for their open-mindedness, their inclusiveness? How could I have given those projects more support? Why do I write so much about UK - hell, London - events when I'm lucky enough to have people reading Specs from much further afield?

What have the countries in the EU (and elsewhere) done for your cultural life? Plenty. It doesn't matter - music, movies, art, architecture, food, design, sport, technology - whatever your thing is, consider the borders those ideas and activities have crossed. Spread the word. Start a blog. Start a club. Go to the library (if it's still open). Educate yourself. Learn a language (I'm going to try and pick up my German studies).

I realise this now feels very small. None of this will restore a currency's health, bring back a lost job, or ease a negotiation. But the issue of who we are, rather than what we are, has arisen - and will Remain. Our island may drift further from the mainland. But we, the people in it, have the power to reach outside our perimeter, and start bridge and tunnel repairs. Now.

Monday 20 June 2016

Shot in the dark: Massenet's 'Werther' at the ROH

This could be one of the 'fastest' blog entries I've ever posted. Only yesterday, I was at the opening 'night' (in fact a matinée) of Massenet's 'Werther' at the Royal Opera House. (The production, originally directed by Benoît Jacquot, dates back to 2004.) More normally, I happily let a performance of anything - not just opera - bubble around in my head for a while, percolating, until I feel ready to write about it. This time, though, I came home desperate to get started at the keyboard, brain fizzing, fingertips tingling. One evening later, here we are.

Partly, I think this is because I might have a fighting chance of encouraging you to go. Normally, these pieces are retrospective (depending on when I go myself and when I get time to write the posts), but as I type, you have five more chances to see it. Tickets on sale here, and take note that 27 June is the cinema relay night, should you not be able to go to the ROH in person. However, I will be including 'spoilers' below, so if you're not familiar with 'Werther' and would prefer to see it 'cold', please stop reading here with my blessing, and make the trip. Then come back and see if you agree with me!

The plot (based on a novel by Goethe) is broadly as follows. Werther is a young man who seems to be a poet (we're told quite late in the opera that he has translated verses) but otherwise little is said about his situation and he seems to have no ties. He's well enough liked in the town of Wetzlar, but regarded as melancholy. Charlotte is the mayor's daughter, and the eldest of a small army of siblings she now helps her father bring up. She promised her dying mother that she would marry the eligible Albert, who is away as the opera opens. Werther takes her to a ball, and promptly falls for her. Albert, however, returns that night. Charlotte had more or less put Albert out of her mind (he's been gone six months, after all), but on hearing that Albert is back, she explains the situation to Werther, who falls almost instantly into suicidal despair.

Three months into Charlotte and Albert's marriage, Werther is in fact still moping about the place, lamenting his situation. Against the background of golden wedding celebrations for the local minister, Werther again confronts Charlotte, who tells him he must leave Wetzlar - not for ever, but basically to sort himself out. Fatally, she suggests he come back at Christmas, but Werther declares he will leave for good. Albert, who has already guessed that Werther is in love with Charlotte, takes his self-imposed exile as confirmation.

Charlotte receives passionate letters from Werther which draw her love for him to the surface. At Christmas, Werther does indeed return but after a further anguished encounter, Charlotte manages to resist him once again. Werther leaves, but sends word to Albert asking to borrow his pistols for a long journey. On hearing this, Charlotte grasps its meaning and rushes to Werther's flat - where he lies bleeding after shooting himself. He hears Charlotte confess her love for him, then dies in her arms.

This was my first encounter with 'Werther', and it felt markedly different to any other opera I've seen. It has a modern psychological aspect to it, where action is sacrificed to soliloquy and conversation - the plot tends to move forward between the acts. But the story never feels static, as the music puts paid to any hint of dramatic inertia. It's a masterful, as well as beautiful, score: even on first hearing, it seemed possible to discern how Massenet was manipulating the moodswings of the piece, eliding the gloomy accompaniment for Werther into relatively upbeat surrounds, illustrating how his despair will come to infect everyone and everything around him. (Werther makes a speciality of killing celebrations stone dead: the ball, the golden wedding, even Christmas.) Realist touches also add punctuation: the jangle of horses, the church organ. Under Antonio Pappano, the ROH orchestra really seemed to get under the skin of the music - a rich, full sound that somehow conveyed a sense of the 'knife-edge', as the characters teeter on the brink.

I've suggested that it's an opera of the mind, taking to extremes the idea of bringing the 'internal' to the surface or exterior. We tend to hear the characters' inner thoughts articulated and dramatised, between actual events that we don't see. But there seems to be plenty more going on in terms of reversals, opposites and switches.

In the same way that the music blurs light and dark, there's an ironic clash of genres in the extent to which the opera pushes its comic aspects (it reminded me a little of 'Romeo and Juliet' in this respect). Apparent incidentals, like the mayor's drunken pals Johann and Schmidt - whose larking about lasts a lot longer into the story than is strictly comfortable - seem to symbolise not so much 'freedom' as abandon, release - something denied to Werther and Charlotte.

The brilliant opening of the opera - July, but to the sound of Christmas carols - turns out to foreshadow a major, chilling plot point. But at face value, at first encounter, it unsettles while it charms: something wrong is happening here. And at the close of the tale, Werther's death in fact leaves a supposedly happy marriage intact - a classic comedy ending - had Charlotte not finally tipped over into acknowledging her love for the other man.

Werther's dying is in itself notable. The lovelorn noble tenor part - the convention/cliché suggests he'd have a much better chance of surviving the opera than Charlotte. But then Werther is an odd character all told. Something of an anti-hero, he seems weak-willed, a bit pathetic - I've seen various comments (across social media and in various articles) vexed at how off-putting a romantic lead he is.

It seems to me that Werther is, in fact, the opera's villain (which is why he dies, and the married couple survive). I don't mean a baddie in the 'mu-ha-ha', 'panto-Scarpia' vein: I mean the more subtle kind of wrong-doing where the perpetrator is convinced they're actually right. He blackmails Charlotte emotionally with threats of suicide from the outset, but instead hangs around to haunt her in this world instead. He pleads love for her again three months into the marriage - what can he be expecting? - and seems to admit defeat by leaving the town. But no - he writes ardent love letters to Charlotte, making it impossible for her to forget him (rather than the other way round). Still re-buffed on his Christmas appearance, he only then goes through with the suicide - but even in his dying breath he ensures that a guilt-ridden Charlotte will visit his grave, casting a permanent shadow over the marriage.

Talking of shadows, the staging makes brilliant use of light/dark effects. The castbook notes point out that the settings reflect the opera's tone by getting more dark and dismal as the opera goes on, but I think this is a bit of a modest summary. On the bright July set of Act 1, Werther first appears as a shadow against the door - from that point on, the management of light and space increase a claustrophobic sense of the doom closing in on Werther. Darkness begins to fall in Act 2. By Act 3, he is trapped in the drawing room (or similar) of the house - when Charlotte escapes his clutches into another part of the building, he seems unable to give proper chase, flailing in the single location, and eventually leaving thanks to a shaft of light from the side of the stage. Finally, as he lays dying in Act 4, he almost seems to fill one side of his flat, which is compressed into a small box within the set. As the opera ends, all is black apart from a candle flame - a single focal point, possibly to express the small hope that survives of Charlotte moving on with her life.

(Fire and energy from the two leads. Photo by Bill Cooper - copyright to the ROH.)

The leads are, well, extraordinary. In or out of character, Vittorio Grigòro can be a born showman and Joyce DiDonato exuberance itself - so what brilliant casting to let them loose on this brooding, thorny, inward-facing piece. Two utterly committed, serious performances (not that I'd expect otherwise!): vocally, they pulled out all the stops when appropriate but could totally convince in quieter dynamic mode, to give us 'thinking aloud', interior monologue, uncertainty, anguish. I had the sense that they were directing their energy and fire into making Werther and Charlotte real, angsty, 3D. VG's Werther cannot keep still, pacing, reeling, struggling against his own nature. JDD's Charlotte is a gloriously physical performance, from twirling when playing with her younger siblings, through constant fidgeting as she waits in the house, to fighting Werther off ... even through to moving him around and hauling him up when he's at death's door. As opera demands, it was 'proper' acting, writ large: generous gestures, enormous impact.

Please go to one of the remaining performances if you can. The music will stir your soul, the singers break your heart ... and the ideas lodge themselves in your subconscious. A superb achievement.

Thursday 9 June 2016

All-time classic: Enescu's 'Oedipe'

Oedipus's wanderings are still not over. This has been the first run ever for Enescu's 'Oedipe' at the Royal Opera House, although this production dates back to 2011, shown at the Brussels opera house La Monnaie / De Munt.

Certainly, take a look at almost any article or review about 'Oedipe' and it's normally described along the lines of a forgotten / overlooked masterpiece. But how do masterpieces get forgotten or overlooked? As I mention later, some of this opera's demands are unlikely to have helped - there is some strange instrumentation to deal with, one female role is forbiddingly unusual and the part of Oedipus itself is a colossal undertaking for the male lead. Mainly, though, this production left me wishing desperately for some kind of speedy revival or commercial release.

First, a run-through the Oedipus story, for those not (yet) familiar with Greek myth. Laius and Jocasta - king and queen of Thebes - are childless. An oracle tells Laius that if he has a son, the child will kill him: so when Jocasta later gives birth to a boy, their joy is short-lived as Laius realises he cannot let the infant live. He arranges for a shepherd to expose the baby in the mountains.

The shepherd, however, doesn't know his Greek myth either. Unable to bring himself to follow Laius's command - instead he passes the child on (seemingly through some kind of ancient-world Shepherd Adoption Network) until eventually the boy is brought up in the royal house at Corinth, by king Polybus and queen Merope. They name him Oedipus - which means, more or less, 'club foot' - after the ankle injuries he sustained when exposed.

Oedipus seems to have a disaster-free adolescence - until, as a young man, he's taunted by a drunk for being illegitimate. His royal 'parents' simply deny the claim when confronted, so he asks the oracle which, as usual, dodges the question but tells him he'll kill his father and marry his mother. (On the plus side, though, his resting place will be sacred to the gods. One suspects this would've been 'scant' comfort.) Terrified into action, he leaves Corinth - thinking, of course, that he's a danger to Polybus and Merope.

On his travels, fate begins to stack the cards against him. He encounters a travelling party at a crossroads, and after a bit of road rage, the driver tries to run him over. Oedipus bests the group, though, and kills them - including the driver: Laius. Then he encounters the Sphinx, the mythical creature holding Thebes in a reign of terror, feeding on anyone who cannot solve her riddles. Wanting to save the city, Oedipus solves the riddle, killing the Sphinx - and the Thebans reward him with the throne, plus the widow Jocasta's hand in marriage.

Of course, Oedipus and Jocasta have no idea they're committing incest. For some years, they live in peace, raise a family and enjoy the affection of the people. Then, a plague befalls Thebes. Jocasta's brother Creon consults the oracle (uh-oh), and returns with the news that Laius's killer is in the city - once the murderer is found and exiled, the pollution will leave with him. In true tragic style, Oedipus begins the slow tortuous process of finding himself out. The seer Tiresias more or less tells Oedipus outright he's the guilty party, which only causes the king to rail at the prophet and accuse Creon of treachery. When the baby Oedipus's possible survival and the circumstances of Laius's death come to light, Oedipus has an inkling that he may be the killer - but still doesn't realise the true extent of the horror. In a deliciously cruel twist, a messenger arrives to announce Polybus's death. At least, Oedipus temporarily thinks, the prophecy was false. He decides not to return to Corinth just in case he can still cause harm to Merope - only for the messenger to 'reassure' him he was adopted.

The final pieces of the puzzle in place, Jocasta commits suicide in shame, and Oedipus blinds himself, before going into exile, with daughter Antigone as his guide. With his sins finally expiated, Oedipus reaches Colonus, where Theseus, the Athenian king, welcomes him and treats them kindly. Meanwhile, chaos reigns back in Thebes as Oedipus's two sons - who were supposed to share rule of the city - fall out, with Eteocles banishing his brother Polynices. Hearing about this, Oedipus curses them both. Creon arrives to try and talk Oedipus into returning to Thebes (so he can die on its soil), followed by Polynices, but Oedipus rebuffs them and goes to his grave in a kind of transfiguration, conferring the divine protection foretold by the oracle onto Athens.

(Slight digression: Although the opera ends at that point, the myth doesn't. Once the sons kill each other in battle, Antigone makes plans to defy Creon's order not to give Polynices a proper burial. Creon arranges to bury Antigone alive in a cave, despite the fact that she's betrothed to his son, Haemon. Tiresias urges Creon to give Polynices the appropriate rites and rescue Antigone, or he will lose his son. But Creon is too late. Antigone hangs herself in the cave, and Haemon kills himself over her body, which in turn causes Creon's grief-stricken wife Eurydice to commit suicide. After his merciless treatment of all the other characters in the story, Creon is left to live alone with the consequences of his actions.)

Possibly that was quite detailed for a 'summary', but it was only while typing it that I realised - if you leave any of it out (and I've still glossed over a few details), you fail to get across the almost exquisite detail of the traps the gods have laid for Oedipus. Every step he takes - not only in his attempts to beat the prophecy but also to do good to others - in fact draws him closer to the inevitable.

The key account of the Oedipus story is in Sophocles's 'Theban' plays. 'Oedipus the King' starts with the plague on Thebes, with the back-story spilling out as Oedipus hunts for the culprit. 'Oedipus at Colonus' cover the events outside Athens. 'Antigone' tells the final part of the story I placed in brackets.

Greek tragedies were normally written in trilogies (the only one surviving complete is Aeschylus's 'Oresteia'), and performed together with a fourth, more light-hearted 'satyr' play afterwards - presumably to give the audiences a chance to pull themselves together. But although there are three Theban plays, they were all written separately, out of storytelling order ('Antigone' is the oldest) and belonged themselves to different groups. Inconsistencies apart (for example, the main one Wikipedia points out is that Creon assumes rule of Thebes at the end of 'Oedipus the King' rather than Oedipus's sons), their overall narrative is coherent enough for them to be normally published and discussed together.

It was impossible to head out to see 'Oedipe' without recalling 'Thebans' - Julian Anderson's superb opera which premiered at English National Opera in 2014. The libretto was by playwright Frank McGuinness, who precision-tooled all three Theban plays into one blistering evening. My first visit to ENO, 'Thebans' introduced me to a couple of my favourite singers, and more importantly, ENO's world-class company. Knowing the importance of the spoken chorus in Greek tragedy, Anderson had written brilliantly for their singing descendants, here playing the citizens of Thebes. Regular visitors to the Specs blog will know my enthusiasm and admiration for ENO's chorus has fired on all cylinders ever since.

Anderson and McGuinness also kept the storytelling firmly modern by playing with the chronology - arranging the action as 'Oedipus the King' / 'Antigone' / 'Oedipus at Colonus'. This worked on a number of levels: the Antigone tale is so unbearably bleak that it almost prohibits the necessary catharsis, while ending with 'Colonus' meant the audience left at a relatively positive point in the story, undercut with the melancholy knowledge of what was to come. I also felt it was a neat nod to the fact that ancient audiences never saw these plays 'in order' either.

So, with a head full of the legend (Classics & English degree, you see) and a successful operatic adaptation fresh in my mind - how would I find this new version of the myth? I'm delighted to say that it still thrilled and surprised me, not just with the inventiveness of the staging but also - thanks to some astonishing casting - with the extraordinary, exemplary performances.

Enescu's opera (premiered in 1936) is epic in scope, following the composer's decision to cover Oedipus's entire life from birth to death. This was a dramatic masterstroke. It allows the opera to close with the 'Colonus' story, giving the character his final blessing/purification and the audience the necessary release. Equally, it puts onstage, in the early acts, some of the most crucial and exciting incidents in the 'Oedipus the King' back-story. (The Greek tragedians had to make use of the 'messenger speech' convention, where all the most visceral or surreal off-stage action is usually reported to the audience by a terrified minion.) We now get important early glimpses at Jocasta and Tiresias in particular - enabling the singers in those roles to build their characters more fully - and see the fateful encounters with Laius and the Sphinx dramatised.

The production (directed by Àlex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco) opens with a startling coup de theatre, as initially an ancient frieze appears to cover the curtain. As the opera begins, the figures in the frieze start to move - it is in fact populated by the Act 1 cast and chorus. Unsettling and atmospheric, it summarises in one illusion so many relevant themes - nothing is what it seems; we think we can see, but our eyes deceive us (Tiresias is blind, but is the 'seer' - and upon seeing the truth, Oedipus blinds himself); you might be a moving, thinking being, but is your fate also 'set in stone'?

A programme note tells us that the staging deliberately avoids setting Oedipus in one fixed time, so the opera moves him through the ages, as if he's a universal 'everyman'. I actually think this over-simplifies some of the subtleties of the production. On the surface, we have Act 1 in an ancient setting, people and place caked in clay. Act 2 begins with a modern-dress Oedipus leaving Corinth, and encountering Laius's car at a crossroads marked by the cones and flashing lamps familiar to us from present-day roadworks. Oedipus then meets the Sphinx, which in the myth has a woman's head, lion's body and eagle's wings. Here, she lies waiting in the cockpit of a grounded warplane. Act 3 retains a military feel but with men and women alike kitted out in the dark, dusty shades of martial law and contemporary warfare. Finally, at Colonus, we seem to be free of any specific date-line, except the Athenians appear in all-white 'modern' suits - which I'll come back to.

But in the event, time seems to ebb and flow throughout the production: it's not cut and dried. In the crossroads scene, the fight is unarmed, old-school. The Sphinx's plane seems too old for the militia guarding Thebes (suggesting her inhuman longevity, perhaps). The 'clay' onlookers remain, inscrutable, during the modern acts, and worlds collide when Creon's Theban gang, still in ragged, earthy garb, invade the 'enlightened' space of Colonus, where perhaps the white-suited Athenians represent purity or paradise.

The theme of light versus darkness (sight versus blindness, truth versus lies) informs the whole presentation. Overall, there is gloom, because the illumination is carefully managed. Laius's vehicle headlights dazzle from the back of the stage - as Oedipus is about to fall prey to the prophecy - ironically foreshadowing the blinding beam from the same area which Oedipus walks into at the end of his life. Torches on hi-visibility jackets turn the roadworks men into identical unidentifiable ciphers. Swooping searchlights around the Sphinx's plane add to the 'checkpoint' atmosphere. Oedipus is cleansed of his sin in a shower of light from above.

Enescu's score - thrilling and fascinating - also feels a little suspended, rooted in the post-Wagner 'music drama' idea that the music should track and support the characters and story (rather than break up easily into showcase arias), but with modernist nods towards the contemporary - like the musical saw keening at the death of the Sphinx. The Sphinx is also given vocal effects to emphasise her otherness - brilliantly sung by Marie-Nicole Lemieux, lasting in the mind long after her dying cackle. It must take a good deal of artistic bravery to display a voice so clearly attractive and versatile, then be willing to make it alien and horrific as required. Watching her slowly wake and rise in the cockpit (behind the propeller, slowly starting to turn) is real edge-of-the-seat stuff, and you're almost sorry when Oedipus solves the riddle. Lemieux, as she starts to convulse, stops the propeller with her hand before crumpling.

There's no denying that sheer star-wattage lights up the stage, too. Sir John Tomlinson inhabits Tiresias with that unstoppable, authoritative 'boom' and undimmed charisma. Sarah Connolly was in beautiful voice as Jocasta, bringing colour and variation to a character mostly heard in distress (giving up her baby, then imploring him later on - as her adult husband/son - to let things be). A consummate stage actor, beyond the sound, she allowed us to see how time glides by, making Jocasta the loving mother, then willing bride and finally distraught victim.

(Sarah Connolly as Jocasta, Johan Reuter as Oedipus. Photograph from ROH site, by Clive Barda.)

But overall, the evening belonged to bass-baritone Johan Reuter as Oedipus. I first heard him when he gave an unforgettable account of Barak in the recent ROH production of Strauss's 'Die Frau ohne Schatten' - he is able to sing with tremendous weight and power while appearing completely 'natural' and unforced. Every conversation and movement convinces, feels realistic. The role is also a tour-de-force in terms of stamina and consistency, as Oedipus is at the centre of everything from Act 2 onwards. JR seemed vocally and physically untroubled by this, his Oedipus at Colonus almost regenerated, renewed by the holy light.

I'm sure this will be remembered as one of the year's key performances - itself surrounded and enhanced by so much brilliance. I don't think any night was filmed, sadly, so am not expecting a DVD. However, it was broadcast on the radio - so, if you're in a region where you can use BBC iPlayer Radio, you can find the recording here for the next three weeks (after the date on this blog post). Please, if you can listen - do.