Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Ravel Double Bill at the Zurich Opera
Performance 26 January 2018

Putting these two operas on the same bill is the right choice for both of these operas. The humorous L'heure espagnole can hold its own against a fair number of other one act operas, but the nightmarish L'enfant et les sortilèges is not so easy to programme with another opera, there being very few to complement or contrast without committing a sin against this jewel. So placing it against Ravel’s lighter work is logical. This double bill, directed by Jan Eßinger, was performed five times in May 2017 at the Theater Winterthur. Then, as now, the conductor was Pavel Baleff and the orchestra, that of the Musikkollegium Winterthur. There have been changes to the production according to Eßinger in a promotional video with the change of house.

I make no apology for more detailed coverage of the latter. It has more roles, the performers covering more than one part. It is also more complicated and more interesting. Do not for imagine for one minute that I think L'heure espagnole to be simply frothy. It is also a morality tale, more akin to Mozart's Figaro than Strauss' Fledermaus.

For L'heure espagnole, the stage started as a greyscale wall with l'heure espagnole written across it in what I consider to be a typically continental script. The lighting flickered across the stage, giving us the impression we were about to see a very old movie. This effect diminished but continued subtly throughout the opera. 

Torquemada (Spencer Lang) entered and performed a theatrically exaggerated dumb show that looked like it might be from a silent movie. He opened up the wall, which was actually two flaps, revealing them, when open, to be two walls of a room, the third already in place behind them. Te walls were enormous blackboards on which there were painted clocks as well as two pairs of doors. Torquemada drew clock hands and time divisions on the clocks' blank faces, pulled out two clocks from the wall (to facilitate the comedy later). This all took place as Ravel's pre-Ligeti tick-tocking metronomes and spooky, drowsy music, a more ominous dawn than that for Daphnis and Chloé, lugubriously emerged from the pit. This is quite an amazing musical opening to any opera. It beats being at the bottom of the Rhine any day! 

On the doors stage left Torquemada chalked "entrée", and on the doors on the red panel that opened on the living quarters he wrote "prive" which irked me. It wasn't until his return towards the end of the opera he finally added the missing acute accent. I was relieved to finally see "privé"!

The plot unfolded, the cuckolding Concepción, neatly characterised by Paula Murrihy, deciding on either an empty clock in her room then one of two clocks, each containing one of her two hopeless suitors. First up was Frédéric Antoine’s Gonzalve was a picture perfect camp narcissist as a poet too in love with himself and words to perform and get the mechanism of his pendulum started. His successor, the pompous businessman Don Inigo Gomez (Michael Hauenstein) in the role which I find seldom comes alive enough for me in comparison to the others, who is too large to get out of his clock case without help, but who managed to get in alright. Parents and animal owners know this sort! All the while the hunky Ramiro (Andrei Bondarenko) performed alternated astounding feats of physical prowess with a limited art of conversation before the penny drops and the bells starting ringing silently in both his head and Concepción's. 

The epilogue is an awkward moment, as I think it is in other music dramas as varied as like Così fan tutte, The Rake's Progress, Britten's Parables, and so on. Nevertheless, visually it brought the work to a close, a rotating glitter ball effect lighting up the auditorium. As the opera ended, the characters closed the two side walls of the room, and the two panels bore a different legend which my eyesight could not make out. A slowly shrinking spotlight, as in the end of silent movies one may have seen, disappearing into blackout, brought the opera to a happy close with the final cadence.

We were then unceremoniously ejected from the auditorium and it was locked off, presumably to ensure secrecy of the construction of next set, since dismantling the first set would apparently provide few challenges.

The call to return eventually came and we entered Collette's cautionary tale of the child's nightmare. Unlike L’heure espagnole, which was a merry romp sticking to the plot, I have a few quibbles with the production for L’enfant et les sortilèges. Firstly, the mother (Paula Murrihy having a much easier time) is a nun and yet she is still addressed as “Maman”, and secondly, the child does not tend to the wounded squirrel (or if he did, I missed it) towards the end making a mockery of the words and the act of redemption "Il a plansé la plaie, étanché le sang." Without these two errors I would have no hesitation in calling this an excellent production.

The curtain rises on a schoolroom. We were given a preparatory dumb play in a schoolroom presided over by a nun, who is to be revealed as "Maman”. This set up the scene as the child in detention for bad behaviour. He was taunted by his classmates before being chased out by the nun. After behaving like a ghastly spoiled brat, overturning the furniture, tearing down a poster, the nightmare soon began. It started off benignly enough with The Chair and The Shepherdess, delightfully played by Ildo Song and Hamada Krisstoffersen, in the guise of the school janitor (on one roller skate) and a cleaner. 

The Clock, a maniacal Yuriy Tsiple, violently introduced a more menacing character. His head popped out of the clock above the schoolroom door stage left. Then he was dashing about inside the classroom, before exiting, slamming the door behind him.

The Chinese Cup (Irène Friedli) and The Teapot (Spencer Long), exchanged their enjoyable but peculiar nonsense banter with panache. Though I did not feel it was directed enough towards The Child, especially with the threat that “I boxe you, I marmalade’ you…”. 

The Fire was presented as a sultry temptress. Sen Guy emerged from the stove in the classroom dressed in a sparkling red sequinned dress and white fur stole. She sang seductively and the menace underneath was made clear without excessive mannerisms to produce a dangerous femme fatale, hot enough to warm, or hot enough to burn. If only Ravel had seen Fenella Fielding with her classic "Do you mind if I smoke?" moment, might have recast the voice as a rich contralto instead of a sparkling light soprano had he seen this costume.

As The Fire disappeared back into the stove the chorus of shepherds and shepherdesses appeared as a catholic church procession, complete with a (smoke free) censer and reliquary. This scene did not quite work as well as the preceding ones and it felt a little awkward, but the idea of the pastoral being represented by the church fitted in nicely with the logic of dreams.

During this scene Sen Guy, had a quick costume change to become The Princess (La Princesse). She rose from out of the floor of the classroom to tower three times or so her natural height only to descend again. This static tableau required Sen Guy to use her voice to bring out the character, which she did quite well, though I would love to see her in this role again with more experience under her belt to bring out more subtleties. The Princess needs a little more pain.

The Little Old Man representing Arithmetic turned up with the rest of the class for a mind blowing lesson which I'm sure some of experienced at one time or another in a subject we couldn't get the hang of! It is a favourite scene of mine as the music and words come together. François Piolino created more menace from this character than I thought possible. 

The ensuing duet of the two cats, Gemma Ní Bhriain and Yuriy Tsiple, brought a darker note with their miaowing and cavorting as they ushered in the scene in the garden, but in this production we are still firmly rooted in the classroom. The wall dividing the teacher’s room came away to reveal and ever increasing schoolroom with a trompe l'oeil effect which brought an other dimension in more than one sense to the nightmare. Figures in the distance were gigantically out of proportion to their surroundings adding to the unease and dreamlike unreality of it all.

The music for this scene can move me to tears and this evening's performance did just that. Whatever musical magic Ravel conjured up worked again. The Tree was played by Ildo Song. This time, instead of the more kindly roller skating janitor his voice was ominous, his huge hands waving like branches. The words "Celle que tu fis aujourd'hui à mon flanc, avec le couteau dérobé... Hélas! Elle saigne encore de sève..." hurt as though one could feel the knife cutting in. Bugger. I'm fighting back the tears at the memory. 

At this point the pace picks up as various creatures start to crowd in. It is not possible to pick out any one of the singers as they blended together at this point to bring a perfect ensemble performance. The only giveaway as to who they were was the costumes they wore in earlier roles as they wore huge heads which otherwise disguised their appearance.

I felt that at this point production sightly lost its way. The threat of the trees and animals ganging up didn't quite come to scratch, but perhaps I was still wiping my eyes at this point and was distracted a little too long. The child did not, as I pointed out earlier, do any healing, or I missed that moment totally.

However as the word Maman becomes more dominant in the libretto and the music climaxes towards an apotheosis that Ravel cleverly fails to provide in the music, a screen at the back of the classroom rose to reveal Maman in silhouette, and the child's closing falling fourth of “Maman” and a sudden blackout provided the required effect. It left the audience stunned into silence for quite a while. It was a wonderful way to provide a visual apotheosis that is not in the music. 

As for the audience, I was very disappointed by the poor turnout at the opera house for this double bill, We were sitting in the Parkett Galerie level, just above the Stalls. Our row, as were those behind us, was almost empty. It is a shame, especially when I consider how much fuller the opera house was in 2016 for a most peculiar, not to say disgraceful train crash of a production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail which I saw on 26 November 2016. Zurich did seem unusually quiet on this trip, so perhaps many other events were equally poorly attended.

In the most positive sense, this is an opera that it is hard to applaud at the end, and in this production I felt my emotions were slowly and sensuously sucked out of me. A collective sigh would have been praise enough for this interpretation, despite its flaws. It's an ending where you want to hold a hand and feel a reassuring squeeze to tell you that, no matter how naughty you are, there is always somebody there for you.

OK. Maybe I am reading too much into L'enfant et les sortilèges, missing my best hand squeezing and ever forgiving best friend on what would have been his 62nd birthday. But if I am reading too much, then it's not by much.


The final accolade goes to the conductor, Pavel Baleff and the orchestra of the Musikkollegium Winterthur, who brought out all the magical sounds in both operas extremely well. 

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Trump speak: And you thought W. speak was hard work

I am not a fan of the soon to be President of the United States of America. I thought I had heard it all from politicians in the art of obfuscation, but Trump speak is a new and wearying experience for me. The thought there could be eight years of this kind of talk is frightening, more frightening than the clever sound bite merchants who peddle their odious wares since it gets more difficult to understand what exactly the man is on about.

Trump speak (from his news conference 11 January 2017 as President elect):

1. The overuse of the word "very" or even "very, very" and one "very, very, very":

"We’re going to have a very, very elegant day. The 20th is going to be something that will be very, very special; very beautiful. And I think we’re going to have massive crowds because we have a movement."

"Ike Perlmutter has been very, very involved, one of the great men of business. And we’re gonna straighten out the V.A. for our veterans. I’ve been promising that for a long time and it’s something I feel very, very strongly."

"And I will give Reince Priebus credit, because when Reince saw what was happening in the world and with this country, he went out and went to various firms and ordered a very, very strong hacking defence."

"I was in Russia years ago, with the Miss Universe contest, which did very well — Moscow, the Moscow area did very, very well."

"As a real estate developer, I have very, very little debt. I have assets that are — and now people have found out how big the company is, I have very little debt — I have very low debt. But I have no loans with Russia at all."

"Now, I have to say one other thing. Over the weekend, I was offered $2 billion to do a deal in Dubai with a very, very, very amazing man, a great, great developer from the Middle East, Hussein Damack, a friend of mine, great guy. And I was offered $2 billion to do a deal in Dubai — a number of deals and I turned it down."

2. Repeated comment (e.g. not gonna happen):

"One of the commitments I made is that we’re gonna straighten out the whole situation for our veterans. Our veterans have been treated horribly. They’re waiting in line for 15, 16, 17 days, cases where they go in and they have a minor early-stage form of cancer and they can’t see a doctor. By the time they get to the doctor, they’re terminal. Not gonna happen, it’s not gonna happen."

3. Bring up your opponent's past weaknesses thereby absolving your own (i.e. by implication we don't have any at all and make assertions as though they are fact):

"And I have to say this also, the Democratic National Committee was totally open to be hacked. They did a very poor job. They could’ve had hacking defense, which we had."

4. Remind people how wonderful you are:

"I was in Russia years ago, with the Miss Universe contest, which did very well — Moscow, the Moscow area did very, very well."

"And actually, people have learned a lot about my company and now they realize, my company is much bigger, much more powerful than they ever thought. We’re in many, many countries, and I’m very proud of it."

5a. Keep going until you hope everybody loses the thread because you already have from about the third word (I've omitted the Russia peroration to this):

"Now, I have to say one other thing. Over the weekend, I was offered $2 billion to do a deal in Dubai with a very, very, very amazing man, a great, great developer from the Middle East, Hussein Damack, a friend of mine, great guy. And I was offered $2 billion to do a deal in Dubai — a number of deals and I turned it down.

I didn’t have to turn it down, because as you know, I have a no-conflict situation because I’m president, which is — I didn’t know about that until about three months ago, but it’s a nice thing to have. But I don’t want to take advantage of something. I have something that others don’t have, Vice President Pence also has it. I don’t think he’ll need it, I have a feeling he’s not going to need it.

But I have a no conflict of interest provision as president. It was many, many years old, this is for presidents. Because they don’t want presidents getting — I understand they don’t want presidents getting tangled up in minutia; they want a president to run the country. So I could actually run my business, I could actually run my business and run government at the same time.

I don’t like the way that looks, but I would be able to do that if I wanted to. I would be the only one to be able to do that. You can’t do that in any other capacity. But as president, I could run the Trump organization, great, great company, and I could run the company — the country. I’d do a very good job, but I don’t want to do that."

5b. Veer off course as soon as possible:

"First of all, you learn very little to a tax return. What you should go down to federal elections and take a look at the numbers. And actually, people have learned a lot about my company and now they realize, my company is much bigger, much more powerful than they ever thought. We’re in many, many countries, and I’m very proud of it."

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At this point I gave up the ghost as it was all much of the same. I expect many of you will not even get this far. If you have, you deserve to be very,very proud of yourself, because you have read my extremely wonderful blog entry which was very, very good, and while we're on the topic of ghosts, wasn't that a great film? That Ibsen guy knew how to right a good story and is was great to see Patrick Swayze, a lovely, lovely man, take on a role by such a very, very great writer.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

A Memory Sparked To Life By Food

I have just travelled back in time, probably over 50 years to an equally grey and dark day.
Lunch cost me no more than 94p from Waitrose. Cooking it only required boiling water in the kettle, which I added to a warmed frying pan and after I added my lunch to the water, I kept the water on a low heat, but I don't think that was really necessary. Removed lunch, let it drain a little, placed on a warmed plate. A good old squeeze of lemon juice over lunch.
Eating it was a wee bit fiddly, but if you pull it away from the tail you get few, if any bones.
If you haven't guessed by now, it was a kipper. 
A glass of an over chilled and unexceptional Gewürztraminer is easing me into happy reveries of days gone by. I'm posting it here as I can't share this moment with either of two special people in my life. One is dead, the other is thousands of miles away. 
I raise my glass and fondly toast you both.