Saturday, 5 January 2013

From The Barbican to Waseda

St. Giles Cripplegate

Last July, I went to an early evening concert given by Ben Johnson, tenor and James Baillieu, piano at St. Giles Cripplegate.  It was called Postcards from Paris and comprised songs by Poulenc, Faure, Duparc, Hahn and Lennox Berkeley.  Berkeley was not French but, if I need mention, studied with Nadia Boulanger and spent some time in Paris.  
It was a delightful concert which introduced me to lots of unfamiliar music which I will continue to explore.  Before the concert I looked around the church and found several things of great interest one of which led me to Waseda University in Japan.

St. Giles Cripplegate (as it was built outside the city walls actually St.Giles without Cripplegate), now surrounded by the Barbican redevelopment, is a medieval church which dates from the 12th century.   It was completely rebuilt in 1390.  There was a fire in 1545:
The xii day of September at iiii of cloke in the mornynge was sent Gylles church at Creppyl gatte burnyd, alle hole save the walles, stepull, belles and alle, and how it came God knoweth.
Following the fire there was another rebuilding, though some of the 14th century fabric survives in the walls and base of the tower.

St. Giles Cripplegate

The red brick section of the tower with pinnacles was added in the 17th century.  The cupola above it was added as part of postwar restoration, though one of similar design appears in a picture of the church from 1830.

The church is situated to the north of the area devastated by the Great Fire of London in 1666 and was unaffected by it; maps of the area overwhelmed by the fire, indicate that the city wall close to St. Giles acted as a firebreak.

There was further restoration both before and after damage caused by the Cripplegate fire of 1897.  But worse was to come.  Only the shell of the building survived enemy bombing raids in 1940 in which almost all the furnishings were destroyed as well.  The church has published a picturegallery * showing the building before and after this catastrophe.

John Milton (1608 - 1674), who lived nearby for most of his life was buried in the church. 
Sometime later, in 1793, a bust by John Bacon the elder was installed.  Paradise Lost is remembered in the carving under the pedestal. 

Bacon has been called the first great sculptor of the industrial revolution.  He established a factory-like studio with a large output.  In 1771 The Daily Advertiser stated that (Bacon’s) merit as an artist was too well known to need any encomiums.
Milton does not look at his best in my photograph of the bust.  This may be because the picture was taken with an unsophisticated camera using a basic flash, or because Bacon was no republican.  When invasion from revolutionary France threatened, he provided his apprentices with weapons and subjected them to military drill.  He berated a clergyman for mentioning equality.

In 1903 this memorial was joined by a statue of the poet. (The bust to the left in this photo is of John Speed (1552 – 1629), “Citizen and Merchant Taylor” who is also buried in the church.)  I read that the statue of Milton was added as part of a campaign to drum up interest in St.Giles during a fund raising drive.

Paradise Lost

When I visited, Milton had been provided with a copy of the Penguin edition of Paradise Lost; and other photos on Flickr show that in the preceding months he had held a bunch of yellow flowers and at Christmas, a Santa Claus doll. In  2009 he held a toy rabbit linking him with another literary person, Beatrix Potter.
 The frivolity is a new development.  When the statue was first proposed the church Vestry noted that no statue had yet been erected of “one of the greatest poets of this or any other country ...” and looking to “... a suitable public memorial to mark local appreciation of his fame.
The statue was made by Horace Montford.  Details of his life are hard to find.  He was the father of Paul Raphael Montford (1868 - 1938), also a sculptor, who travelled to Australia and made many well known statues in Melbourne.    Maurice Grant wrote that Horace was “equally known as (Paul), he was of equal merit and equal industry showing more than 50 works in the galleries from 1860 to early in the XXth century”.  These works included some subjects taken from Milton.  At the time of his Milton commission he was best known for a statue of Charles Darwin at Shrewsbury.
The statue originally stood on a pedestal designed by E. A. Rickards with reliefs illustrating some of Milton’s works. The bombing raid which devastated the church knocked the statue off this pedestal and it has never been restored.  Milton’s right hand was damaged and has since been replaced in fibre glass.

The Plinth remains outside the church in a much deteriorated condition.

All attempts to restore the statue to the plinth or a replacement have failed, apparently due to an arcane dispute about the ownership of the statue and plinth.

As damage to the church and statue occurred in the first Nazi raid on the City of London, Milton’s fall was reported around the world. 
In Australia, Ralph E Robson of Mosman wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald:

Sir-The bombing of this statue in London makes one wonder whether Hitler was contemplating revenge on the author of “Paradise Lost", realising that London (his coveted Paradise) can never be captured and is therefore lost to him. Hitler will do well to ponder over the words of the blind poet who said:-
When God wants a hard thing done in the world.
He tells it to His Englishmen
A prophetic utterance now in course of fulfilment.
I am. etc..

It’s not uncommon for bursts of enthusiasm for the famous dead to result in the erection of statues and memorials; sometimes long after the death of their subject.  In this case, however, Milton’s own opinion was not consulted.  He wrote of Shakespeare:

What needs my Shakespeare for his honored bones
To labor of an age in piled stones,
Or that his hallowed relics should be hid
Under a star-ypointing pyramid?
Dear son of memory, great heir of fame,
What need'st thou such weak witness of thy name?
Thou in our wonder and astonishment
Hast built thyself a livelong monument.
For, whilst, to the shame of slow-endeavouring art,
Thy easy numbersflow, and that each heart
Hath from the leaves of thy unvalued book
Those Delphic lines with deep impression took,
Then thou our fancy of itself bereaving,
Dost make us marble with too much conceiving,
And so sepúlchred in such pomp dost lie
That kings for such a tomb would wish to die.

A fascinating Elizabethan, EdwardAlleyn (1566–1626) is  commemorated in a modern stained glass window in St. Giles.   The window was made by JohnLawson (1932 – 2009) of Goddard and Gibbs. 

Edward Allyen
Alleyn was an actor who at 17 was performing with a touring company the Earl of Worcester's Men.  By his mid twenties, he was performing with Lord Strange’s men at the Rose theatre.  He then became leader of the Admiral's Men and is best known for his performances in Marlowe’s plays.  In, The World of Christopher Marlowe, David Riggs writes that “ performing the role of Tamburlaine, Edward Alleyn became the first matinee idol in English Drama.”

He became part owner of The Rose theatre, and later built  The Curtain, situated in the parish of St. Giles. By about 1597 had ceased to act on the stage altogether.   Together with his father in law Philip Houslow he pursued these and other investments.
In particular, Alleyn and Henslowe attempted, at first without success, to gain the official post of master of the bears, bulls, and mastiff dogs.  This carried with it a lucrative monopoly in animal baiting.  In 1604 they purchased the patent and between them held the position for many years.  They became proprietors of The Beargarden, a long standing arena on Bankside near the Rose and Globe theatres.   It is said that Alleyn himself took part in the baiting of bears.

The past is indeed another country.  These cruel and disgusting spectacles were popular with the same crowd who first saw Shakespeare’s plays.

From this and other investments, Alleyn accumulated significant wealth.  He purchased Dulwich Manor which included large areas of land in and around Dulwich.  His philanthropy included the foundation of  College of God's Gift at Dulwich,  gifts to the poor in the parish of St. Giles and  bequests to enable the building of  ten almshouses in the parishes of St Saviour's Southwark (now Southwark Cathedral ) and St Botolph without Bishopsgate.

The design of the window incorporates a portrait of Alleyn taken from one by an unknown artist held by the Dulwich Picture Gallery.  Above is the family coat of arms in which I think I can recognise a chevron between three cinquefoils gules.  In his hands we see a representation of the alms houses.  The Fortune theatre is depicted to his right and to his left, the church of St Luke Old Street.  

On its face, this is peculiar as St Luke’s Old Street did not exist in Alleyn’s day.  It was built in 1733 to relieve St. Giles but later fell into disrepair and was deconsecrated.  It has now been redeveloped as a music centre by the London Symphony Orchestra.  The distinctive tower of St. Luke’s was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. The LSO attributes the whole building to him.   Some of the furnishings of St. Luke’s, including the organ case, were used to replace those destroyed in the bombing of St. Giles.  It seems that almshouses founded by Alleyn and destroyed in the war were administered by the St. Luke’s parish council, and this provides the reason for the appearance of that church in the window.

I wonder, however, how closely the people who commissioned and designed the window looked at the history of St. Luke’s and of The Fortune.   The Fortune was built in 1600 over the objection of the Parish of St. Giles which prevented work on the building proceeding until the Parish was defeated by a warrant issued by the Privy Council at the behest of Alleyn and the patron of his troupe the Earl of Nottingham, the Lord Admiral.  The building and licensing of theatres was a contentious activity at the time not the least because theatres of any kind were opposed by the puritan element.

The machinations of Edward Alleyn would be a fascinating study: his acts of charity in the Parish were not entirely disinterested.  When seeking the warrant of the Privy Council for the construction of The Fortune,”by offering ‘to give a very liberal portion of money weekly’ towards the relief of ‘the poor in the parish of St. Giles,’ he persuaded many of the inhabitants to sign a document addressed to the Privy Council, in which they not only gave their full consent to the erection of the playhouse, but actually urged ‘that the same might proceed.’"

The link between his philanthropy and The Fortune is preserved in the window.

The original Fortune theatre was destroyed by fire in December 1621 and replaced by a new building.     Although no image of the original theatre has been found, detailed building plans survive which have permitted the construction of modern replicas and models.

I was happy to find that one of these is in the grounds of Waseda University Tokyo.   The Tsubuchi Theatre Museum is named for Dr. Shoyo Tsubouchi (1859 –1935)   and was opened in 1928 to mark both his seventieth birthday and the completion of his translation of the complete works of Shakespeare into Japanese.

I always seem to get lost in Waseda.  This time I searched “from ... to “directions from Waseda station and, not having a printer, attempted to memorise the map.  I headed away from the station in what proved to be the wrong direction.  I blame google maps which mischievously inverted the map when plotting the route.  After going too far and finding nothing, I sought help from an elderly couple waiting for customers in one of those shops selling mysterious ironmongery.  The husband kindly came with me back into the street and waving in the direction I had come, told me that I must retrace my steps.  I did, but still having a faint memory of the inverted map it took me some time to reach the theatre museum.
A portrait bust of Dr. Tsubouchi stands outside the museum.  I wish I was more refined, but I still experience surprise when I come across someone who challenges  national stereotypes.  

As well as translating the whole of Shakespeare, Dr Tsubouchi was a Chickamatstu scholar, directed productions of contemporary European drama  including Ibsen, and founded the Literature Department at what is now Waseda University.

Tsubouchi Shouyou (1859 - 1935)

The building itself is a cutaway version of the original with a covered stage but no rear section or galleries.


Inside there are rooms devoted to Shakespeare and the various genres of Japanese theatre as well as film.   I found the most fascinating room to be the Shoyo Memorial Room, where Dr. Tsubouchi worked during his lifetime and which contains memorabilia of his life and work.  He was born in the year of the sheep and there are depictions of sheep on the ceiling.  There is also a collection of model sheep on display: “It is said that he grew very fond of sheep as symbols of ‘bookworms’ who like to read books, linking to sheep the paper eaters”.  Near the sheep is a collection of small busts of Shakespeare and similar items from the souvenir shops 
of Stratford-upon-Avon. 


* to reach the picture gallery from this link click on "heritage" on the top bar, then "archive material" then "we have a page..."  It does not seem possible to link to the pictures directly.

Most of the information about The Fortune (and the quote) comes from: Shakespearean Playhouses A History of English Theatres from the Beginnings to the Restoration by Joseph Quincy Adams an excellent and thorough account of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatres which is available at the Gutenberg project and as a free Kindle book.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

St. Stephen Walbrook

St Stephen, Walbrook

I took this photo while walking around in May.   I was attracted by the contrast between the new buildings and the church.  I didn't know the name of the church; and when I was back in Sydney posting photos to Flickr it took me some time navigating around on Google Earth to identify the building.  I found it was St. Stephen Walbrook one of the many churches designed by Christopher Wren (1632 – 1723)  after the Great Fire of London in 1666.

So I returned for a closer look in November.  I found that the building and its history provided some fascinating insights into the way we appreciate historical structures and monuments.  What is the significance of an old or ancient monument; what is a "Wren church"; and how important is it that old buildings are kept as they were when built ?

 There is said to have been a church on the site since at least 1090 when Walbrook was a stream flowing into the Thames.  The one destroyed by the Great Fire was built in 1428 by which time the stream had gone and Walbrook was a street.  Construction of the Wren church began in 1672 and was completed, except for the spire, by 1679.  It is one of the hundred or so churches in the City of London, many of which were destroyed by the Great Fire and rebuilt to designs by Christopher Wren or his office.

The spire was added 1713-15.  It may have been designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor.  The whimsically elaborate design has a lot in common with his work.

There is a general history in a leaflet available for download on the church's website.

From the outside the church could hardly be called impressive:

St. Stephen Walbrook

Like St. Mary Woolnoth, a short distance away, it shares its site with a Starbucks shop.  This is not as strange as it seems, like many other City churches, the building has never been free standing and in the past  has been more obscured by surrounding houses, shops and offices than it is at present.

Once inside things are very different:

St. Stephen Walbrook

we find a space well lit by from large plain glass windows, with attractive bench pews around a central altar, sculpted by Henry Moore.  The altar and the circles of pews are very modern.  The original interior had a different pattern.

In the seventeenth century Church of England,  instruction was more important than ritual and churches were designed for the preaching of sermons.  Wren designed St. Stephen as an auditory.  The pulpit was the focus, and the body of the church was designed to enable the whole congregation to see and hear the preacher.

The original wine glass pulpit and altar have survived war and restoration and are still there:

St. Stephen Walbrook

but the pulpit no longer dominates the church.   

This engraving from early in the nineteenth century shows the box pews for which the church was designed. At  time the engraving was made the large east window was occupied by an altarpiece The Burial of St. Stephen by Benjamin West R.A. (1738 – 1820)   While Wren did not design the box pews,  it can be seen that the columns have very high bases designed to accommodate them.

Various repairs were made in the first half of the nineteenth century and in 1850 The Burial of St.Stephen was moved to the north wall, and the windows filled with Victorian stained glass.  In 1886-7 substantial remodelling took place.  The box pews were taken out and replaced with movable seats, and the original paving stones were replaced with a mosaic floor.  The octagonal pedestals of the columns, as seen in the engraving above, were replaced with the square ones seen today.  It is unclear whether or not this change restored them to their original form.

The church was not hit by high explosive bombs during the Nazi air raids of the Second World War; but the structure was damaged by a land mine and incendiary bombs damaged the part of the dome which fell in flames into the body of the church.  Seats and choir stalls installed in 1887 were lost to the fire, but not the wine glass pulpit.  The Victorian stained glass windows were destroyed.

The church was repaired after the war and re-opened in 1953.  In 1963, new stained glass windows by Keith New were installed.

A photograph of the interior in Wren by Margaret Whinney (1971) shows the altar on the east wall and the pulpit, with rows of open backed pews and chairs in front of them.  The window above the altar and the two smaller windows on each side are filled with the new stained glass.

Meanwhile, excavations for large buildings in the surrounding area had altered the level of the water table, and the flow in the now underground Walbrook was reduced.  The ground under the church, dried out and  the building became unstable.  Further substantial works were required.

Very substantial structural alterations were done to provide support for the dome. The floor was rebuilt in steel and concrete and the mosaic floor replaced with stone paving.  The altar by Henry Moore was installed during these works, but not without controversy.  Alterations of this kind require the approval of church courts: and installation of the new altar was refused by the London Consistory Court on the grounds that the altar was not a table as required by church doctrine; and that in any event it was unsuitable and incompatible with Wren's design.  This first issue, which goes back to the replacement of altars with communion tables as part of the protestant reforms of Edward VII, doesn't directly affect the issues of authenticity and aesthetics which interest me, but it did result in an appeal being heard by the Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved as the case involved  questions of doctrine, ritual or ceremonial.  This court constituted by Two High Court  judges and three bishops, allowed an appeal and the altar, which had been installed in the course of renovations, remained.

The doctrinal question turned on whether something without legs could be a table, which at least in argument led to a discussion of  "the quality of tableness".  I would be happy to leave this to the ecclesiastics were it not for the facts that the "table" is a cylindrical piece of marble 3'5" in height and 8' in diameter weighing 10 tons, which looks to me more like a sacrificial altar than anything I have ever seen in a church.


When I was in the church, I found it had the same uplifting feeling of  openness and light which I have experienced in other English churches of the period with clear glass, for example, Hawksmoor's St. George's Bloomsbury.  I was not aware at the time of the controversy about the interior as we see it now.

London Consistory Court held that the issue turned on the departure from Wren's intention.  I learned that architects talk of "reading a building".  So in this case, entering from the west door with the box pews in place, one was faced with a church of the expected longitudinal, nave and aisle pattern.   But as you moved forward and saw the dome above another "reading" of the building became possible.  The interior was deliberately ambiguous.  By placing a circular altar and surrounds under the dome, the present arrangement breaks the tension between the two aspects of the design.  I imagine this would  be seen as wrong by those who believe that preserved buildings should be, as far as possible, in their original state.  It is not possible now to experience the spacial ambiguity in the same way.

In allowing the appeal, the Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved rejected the notion that there was an objective test to be applied.  Departure from Wren's perceived intention could not be "wrong"; it was all a matter of personal taste.  There were a number of experts in art and design who liked the new proposal, and the appeal court held that this weighed strongly in its favour.

The new arrangements were said to have great artistic merit and to be in harmony with the building notwithstanding the loss of some of the force of the original design.   I think the experts and the members of the court were very much influenced by the reputation and standing of Henry Moore at the time.  Of course, all art is constantly being re assessed; and I gained the impression in watching Alastair Sooke's TV program Romancing the Stone, that Moore's reputation has entered an eclipse.  The reclining figures, recognisably his work, which can be seen in many galleries and public places around the world were described as "British Council art".    I took this to mean  stylish but anodyne objects which could be safely exported as bits of official culture.

I will need to have another look at the church with all this in mind.  However, I think it may well be that the altar and its surrounds will be viewed in the same light as the stained glass, installed when it was in fashion and now removed.  But I suspect that if box pews were installed in its place they would rarely be occupied.

When the most recent alterations to the church were completed this inscription was placed at the entrance:


A true reading? Maybe, with a new ambiguity.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

eighth blackbird in Sydney


When I travelled to Bexhill-on-Sea in May to see eighth blackbird perform I didn't know they were going to alight much closer to home.  On 22 September they gave a concert in The Studio at the Sydney Opera House.  
I have been thinking about how much of the enjoyment of music is confined to the performance itself.  When I hear new music, or music that is new to me, I am unable to take as much of it as I would like away.  If I hear something I like, I want to hear it again but this is not always possible; and there is so much to hear       ( and such little time ) that music that which makes a bad impression, or none, on a first hearing is lost forever.  And when I hear something I like it is sometimes difficult to find a CD or other recording and again the memory fades.  I found an echo of this thought in Wallace Stevens' fifth blackbird:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Since I encountered them at the seaside, eighth blackbird has made the second change in its membership since it was founded in 1916: Yvonne Lam has replaced Matt Albert on violin and viola.
Their Sydney program included two of the pieces I heard them play earlier and four which were new to me. 

Swedish composer Fabian Svensson,  who was born in 1980, wrote his  Two Sides for piccolo, bass clarinet, vibraphone, piano, violin, cello in 2007 for the Italian ensemble Sentieri selvaggi.  It was to be played at a concert with the theme “the right to dissent”.  He says:

 Deeming it impossible to write a piece about as abstract a concept as that of the right to something, I decided instead to portray the actual concept of dissent. This was done by dividing the ensemble into two halves, one playing only in the high register, and the other only in the low register. These two groups are pitted against each other in an antagonistic and confrontational manner.

As performed by eighth blackbird, this involved the two groups of players entering from opposite sides of the room and facing each other as they played.  At the end the players left one by one as they finished their parts leaving only two for the final confrontation.  This was a lively and enjoyable piece.  An excerpt from it,played by Sentieri selvaggi, is available on the composer's website.

Next came Mayke Nas: DiGiT #2  (written in 2002 ) for piano four hands, or so the program said.  Much of it was for four forearms with the addition of rhythmic clapping.  You might describe it as the obverse of John Cage's 4' 33".  The avant guard is still around.

Mayke Nas was born in the Netherlands in 1972.   Her works include: I Delayed People's Flights By Walking Slowly In Narrow Hallways ( 2005 ) and Anyone can do it (2006)  for six completely unprepaired players, not necessarily gifted with any musical talent".  The avant guard is still around.
It's easy to be dismissive about self consciously modern performance works,  and I won't miss not having a CD of  DiGiT #2 ; but it was worth hearing and seeing it played with amazing musical and balletic skill by Lisa Kaplan and Matthew Duvall.

Dan Visconti, who was born in 1982, composed  Fractured Jams (2006) for clarinet, violin, cello and piano.   The quartet is in four movements.  Some parts of it are written to simulate a performance by players not necessarily gifted with any musical talent, though in this case talent is certainly required.  At one point the pianist drinks from a pitcher and blows across its top to make sounds.  Again, while fun to watch and hear, I think this kind of music is for the moment and not repeated listening.   The last movement is a burst of ragtime a sample of which can be heard here.   This extract is not representative of the whole piece;  it's quite traditionally musical when compared with some of the spare and aggressive sounds in the earlier movements.

Phillip Glass wrote In Similar Motion in 1969, and it's one of the pieces I heard eighth blackbird play in May.   Then I was impressed by the repetitions and other minimalist gestures in this music from the beginning of his career.  This time I heard a lot more warmth and colour in the music.  I wondered if the change in the venue was part of the reason.  I think both the hall and the performance space were smaller in Sydney and there was a much larger audience in that space.
Timothy Andres, the youngest composer represented in the program,  was born in  1985 in California.   We heard his Crashing Through Fences (2009) written for piccolo, glockenspiel and  two kickdrums.  (The kickdrums are attached to the piccolo and glockenspiel players.)  The composer says:

I was interested in creating a contrast between these innately unfeasible timbres and a long melody, unspooling over a sweet harmonic sequence .It’s an almost uncomfortably intimate sort of piece—the two instruments interact hesitantly at first, then with increasing boldness. And at opportune moments, they savagely kick each other.

I'm not sure what he means by "innately unfeasible", as the two instruments make a unique and very beautiful sound.  The explosive interruptions by the kickdrums are arresting,  but  the thought crossed my mind that it would have been nice to hear the piece without the savage kicks.  Fortunately a recording of  Crashing       ( played by Ian Rosenbaum, glockenspiel & kickdrum; Mindy Heinsohn, piccolo & kickdrum ) can be heard on the composers website.

 Stephen Hartke’s Meanwhile: incidental music to imaginary puppet plays, (2007) concluded the program.  I was fascinated by this music when I first heard it at Bexhill in May and excited to be able to hear it again.  As far as I know, it's not available on CD, though many of Stephen Hartke's music is, and I hope to explore it.  I previously mentioned that the members of eighth blackbird play this piece from memory and that it has been choreographed, so that they move about the space and form groups temporary ensembles as they play.  As with the piece by Philip Glass, the performance didn't match my recollection of the earlier one.  Everything seemed closer together in The Studio; and the sound more cohesive.  Or was it my memory?

eighth blackbird at The Studio Sydney Opera House 22 September 2011.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

La finta giardiniera


Con Opera at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music provides a chance to hear some infrequently performed operas and some excellent singing from the students there.  Last year I saw Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor by Otto Nicolai, whose overture at least is well known, and the Les malheurs d'Orphée of  Darius Milhaud, an appealing work in three very short acts, which is so obscure that the only recordings of it are very difficult to obtain.
This year Con Opera is performing La Finta Giardiniera  an early Mozart opera.   It was written in 1774, when Mozart was 18 years of age, for performance in Munich.  Alfred Einstein wrote that it " was simply a local event in Munich without consequences ".    But Mozart was anxious to write operas;  and it is delightful to catch his enthusiasm in a letter written to his mother:

GOD be praised! My opera was given yesterday, the 13th, and proved so successful that I cannot possibly describe all the tumult. In the first place, the whole theatre was so crammed that many people were obliged to go away. After each aria there was invariably a tremendous uproar and clapping of hands, and cries of Viva Maestro! Her Serene Highness the Electress and the Dowager (who were opposite me) also called out Bravo! When the opera was over, during the interval when all is usually quiet till the ballet begins, the applause and shouts of Bravo! were renewed; sometimes there was a lull, but only to recommence afresh ...

The plot is not very convincing.  Most critics blame the lack of interest in,and performances of, the opera on the feeble libretto.   It is also lengthy: an unedited performance would take almost three and a half hours.  Professor Imre Palló,  the Musical Director of this production had prepared a performance version of the opera which takes about two hours.  He says that he "particularly worked on the recitatives, compressing them as much as possible without losing the story line".  I think he was right to do this.  While it would be interesting to hear all of Mozart's score, there isn't enough dramatic interest in the libretto to sustain a long evening in the theatre.   And I imagine it would be difficult for the singers and musicians to prepare and perform the piece in full.  In fact, we know from Mozart's letters that the first performance was postponed twice to allow the singers time to learn their parts.
The music is well worth hearing for its own sake and for the uncanny pre echoes of Mozart's better known and more popular operas.   He didn't conjure up Figaro and Don Giovanni from nothing - and while this might make them less super human achievements in themselves,  it's no less incredible that some of their musical ideas were formed when Mozart was so young.  The orchestration is wonderfully varied with some arias including parts for individual woodwinds which weave in and out of the accompaniment in a most effective way.  The members of the Conservatorium Chamber Orchestra played these with great effect.  The small size and excellent acoustics of the Music Workshop enhanced the clarity of their playing.
La Finta Giardiniera is described as an opera buffa, part of an established comic tradition.  However, it seemed to me on listening to some of the arias that they derived from the more formal tradition of the opera seria.  (This impression was confirmed by an article on the Mozart Project website.)  The varied styles of the music gave the performance a somewhat muddled and episodic feeing.  Though I can't be certain,  the cuts in the performing version we heard may have contributed to this as originally one aria may not have led on to the next so abruptly. 
It's also a reminder that while Handel's operas have enjoyed a recent period of great popularity and operas by other eighteenth century composers are regularly heard, there is a huge number of works leading up to Mozart which are known only to musicologists.  So La Finta Giardineira may give an idea of how the early opera buffa sounded, and can be heard as a precursor  to Mozart's mature Italian operas in more ways than one.
The jagged musical trajectory of this piece, jumping from broad comedy to angst ridden monologues, must make it a nightmare for a director.   John Milson's production, using a single set, is fluent and gives ample scope to the singers.  Con Opera performs the work with alternate casts.  The singers I heard on 17 September were excellent. 

Friday, 5 August 2011

Midsummer Night's Dream at ENO

Pharaoh told them his dream; but there was none that could interpret them unto Pharaoh. Gen 41:7
The new production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by English National Opera was powerful and fascinating.   The production was directed by Christopher Alden, three of whose productions I have seen in the last eighteen months.   Opera Australia has presented his Tosca, originally for Opera North, and Partenope, originally for ENO.  I thought Tosca was appalling and rantedabout it here.  His Partenope, which was within a now established tradition of presenting Handel’s classical stories in a modern setting, was effective in the theatre and allowed full scope to the singers.
I would like to look at why I was moved by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Tosca made me angry and annoyed.  Some critics were angry and annoyed with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and it is interesting to look at their reactions as well as the production itself.
Opera Australia has presented two versions of the work, the second of which directed by Baz Luhrmann was first seen in 1993.   When I wrote about a revival of thatproduction, which is set in Imperial India, I was interested in the extent to which both discrepancies between the text and the production, and the need for the audience to unravel a puzzle were important.   I want to look at how these questions affect the ENO production.
The ENO production is set in a school, probably in around 1960 when the opera was composed.  The single set is an intimidating school building. It is an exact replica of an unidentified school appearing  in a black and white photograph in the program.  
There is some mimed action at the beginning.  A tall man in a suit walks across the stage and sits against wall on the right near the front.  He takes off his tie.  A younger man in school uniform appears and sits beside him.  In synchronised movement, they both put on school ties.
The first puzzle.  Who is this man?  Perhaps Britten himself?  Perhaps Oberon?  A supernumery or a character?  And he looks strangely familiar.
I would have been saved some of the confusion if I had read the synopsis in the program:
On the eve of his wedding, a man returns to his old school.  Long forgotten memories of his schooldays come back to him in the form of a dream …
The man is Theseus in the Dream, and, I had I paid attention, I would have noted that he was sung by Paul Whelan, who I have heard and admired before and must have half recognised. 
Once the music began there was a little more confusion: on the first night, Iestyn Davies, who was to sing Oberon was ill, and acted the part which was sung from the side of the stage by   William Towers.  It took me a little time to work out where the disembodied voice belonged.  When I saw the show a second time a couple of days later, Oberon had found his voice. 
My beloved companion pointed out later that the synchronous tie tying showed that the younger man, who we find to be Puck, is the older man’s remembered self as a boy.  Or probably: the older man is mostly a bemused watcher of his younger self, but he is directly attacked by school bullies at one point.
To complete the transformation:  Oberon is a schoolmaster and Titania a music teacher, the fairies are school boys, the pairs of young lovers are older pupils and the mechanicals an assortment of school staff.
In the context, I did immediately wonder if the tall and silent figure crossing the stage was intended to represent Britten himself.  Some critics so identified him:
He is, of course, Britten, later Theseus (Paul Whelan), and in a stroke of genius on Alden’s part the boy whose lost innocence he carries with him through life – his younger self - is none other than the much-abused and put-upon Puck (Jamie Manton), plaything and fag of the manipulative Oberon whose affections are now diverted to a still younger and fresher “changeling boy”.   The Independent.
A man on the eve of his wedding and who bears more than a resemblance to the composer himself is seen visiting his old school and falling into a reverie – in the final act he is revealed to be Theseus, and what follows is a conflation of his half-submerged memories and fantasies, woven around his alma mater.  Guardian
Others thought Britten appeared as Oberon:
The cruelty is in the identification between Oberon the stealthy paedophile and Britten the boy-lover. It’s done cleverly and tactfully, with no representation of physical abuse apart from a caning session: Puck’s trauma is that, having been picked out as Oberon’s favourite, he is then passed over.
And that, we know, is what happened with Britten and his boys.  Telegraph
Since the revelations about Britten's serial infatuation with a succession of 13-year-old boys — each one groomed, adored like a young god, and then brutally discarded — some opera directors seem to have decided that all the composer's stage works must be treated as autobiographical testaments of shame. Alden characteristically carries this approach to a sordid extreme. The Times
Or a bit of both:
For this is not The Dream but A Midsummer's Nightmare, based on Britten's experiences at school and his lifelong attraction to young boys.   Musical Criticism
( not all of the critics quoted were angry and annoyed)
As I don’t think any of this is correct, it’s not a worthwhile criticism of Christopher Alden or his production.
The Puck/Theseus figure is someone who is resentful and bitter about his school experiences.  It is true that, quite apart from his befriending of boys, Britten had a peculiar obsession with his schooldays.  For many years until his death in 1976 he used Letts Schoolboy Diaries; and I learn from recent unpublished research that as late as 1970 he was using blank pages in his old school exercise books for keeping notes.  This suggests a wistful nostalgia rather than resentment.  He was apparently successful at both schoolwork and games and was not, and did not see himself as a victim, though his recently published diaries show that he thought other boys in his study were “vulgar”.   The thing that distinguished him as a schoolboy is that he wrote huge quantities of music.
 Thanks to John Bridcut’s book Britten’s Children we now know more than we are entitled to know about Britten’s friendships with boys.  The ENO program includes an essay by Mr. Bridcut containing a passage which is a summary of his book’s conclusions:
“Tongues wagged and whispered, yet all these boys looked back - often with amusement but -always with delight – at the memory of a unique and unsullied friendship.”
Although we can dispense with the idea that the production is intended as biography of the composer, it’s clear enough that it is inspired by his life and character.  I don’t understand how this can be seen as offensive.  After all, Britten wrote Peter Grimes, The Turn of the Screw and Death in Venice which are  driven by Britten’s own need to explore and imagine the very themes which some now find it wrong to associate with him.  Where is the error in finding these themes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well?
 I previously quoted W.H. Auden who said that Shakespeare…
"..mythalogically anthropomorphises nature, making nature like man.." so that "..mythological characters are used to describe certain universal experiences which we cannot control."
Oberon tells Titania:
Out of this wood do not desire to go:
Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no.
Just as people might be trapped in their own personality; or a schoolboy trapped in an institution which is full of emotional strings and contradictions which he doesn’t fully understand.  So in this production schoolmaster Oberon writes Out of this wood do not desire to go on his blackboard, but also amo amas amat.
If we assume that Oberon anthropomorphises forces which are out of our control, what could be a better metaphor for this than the school in which we were trapped;  and not  permitted to  even desire to escape.   
You don’t have to look far for discrepancies between the text and the production, for example why a school mistress would favour a pupil because
His mother was a votaress of my order:
And, in the spiced Indian air, by night,
Full often hath she gossip'd by my side
is hard to imagine; but I have an answer: the Dream.
Dreams can be multi faceted and strange.  Dreams can lie within dreams. Surrealism was based on dream.  Why shouldn’t a dream drawing on school memories wooze in and out of a half remembered play, studied or acted in school.  “I woke up and it was all a dream”, is an old and hackneyed storyline which is rarely acceptable.  David Alden’s own staging of Tosca Act III as a hallucination is an example.  However, Shakespeare’s play is about a dream:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
with at least one dream, Bottom’s dream, within it.
The Times says:
Alden has no convincing way of accommodating the six Mechanicals in his concept.
I can see overly clever schoolboys studying or performing the play imagining their sportsmaster (slow of study) and the grounds staff as the mechanicals; or even a snide and knowing schoolmaster planting these ideas in their heads.  Here the mechanicals and their play were presented as pretty broad farce, which I thought somewhat overdone.  A good deal of the comedy in this part of the Dream comes from Britten’s witty pastiche of bel canto opera in drama of Piramus and Thisby and the  subtlety of this was  lost.
The lovers were depicted as older adolescents and this notion fitted very well with their characters and music.  I enjoyed the singing of Kate Valentine (Helena) and Catherine Young (Hippolyta), Benedict Nelson (Demetrius) and Allan Clayton (Lysander).
The more I see Shakespeare’s plays performed the more fascinated I become with the protean quality of some of his writing and characterisation.  Every new production can throw new light on text which I thought was familiar, or present a well-known character in an entirely new form.  ( It’s hard to know where to draw the line between Shakespeare’s  conscious intentions and the ingenuity of some interpretations  of his plays.)
Even bearing this mind, the way in which Puck was portrayed here was quite amazing.  The text was turned on its head and somehow emerged undamaged.  Since this was Puck’s dream he was much more than the incidental character he usually seems to be.  And the much of the force of the production turned on the way in which his words were delivered.
Pucks response to Oberon's command -
I'll put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes.
takes on a bitter irony when spoken by a sullen schoolboy sitting on the ground and plainly intending to go nowhere  in forty minutes or ever.
Similarly Puck’s words which end the play, usually a bright and cheery good-bye:
If we shadows have offended…
are spoken by a confused and angry youth as if to say:  “ As usual I have offended everyone - as if I care …” There was no actual discrepancy with the text, it was all in the manner of its delivery.  It was a very clever idea which was carried into effect perfectly in Jamie Manton’s performance.
For me it was powerful and moving, but looking at some of the critical reaction, I wonder if a production which has too many puzzles and questions to be answered can sometimes defeat its own purpose: at least for those who get the wrong answers to the questions.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Two Boys

I hadn’t heard of Nico Muhly until early last year when I read that he had been commissioned by the Met in New York to write an opera based on a bizarre attempted knife murder in England in 2003.   I found a detailed account of the crime in a 2004 Vanity Fair article by Judy Bachrach .   The weird scenario would make a fascinating contemporary opera.  I was also glad of the introduction to the Nico Muhly’s music, which I began to explore.

The opera, Two Boys, with a libretto by Craig Lucas, has now been composed and performed at the English National Opera which has co- produced it with the Met.   It opened at the London Coliseum on 24 June, in what might well be a trial run for performances in New York said to be scheduled for 2013.  In any event, Peter Gelb the General Manager of the Met was there, seated one row behind the composer, literally breathing down his neck.

As I keep saying, it’s very hard to grasp new music at a first, and often only hearing.   The effect is multiplied in the opera theatre where text, singing, movement, staging and so on, while essential to the experience, distract attention from the music itelf.   This is certainly the case here as the production by Bartlett Sher is fast moving and visually stimulating.  I have never seen such an inventive and proficient use of projections and the overall effect is breathtaking.

As related in Vanity Fair and elsewhere, the case on which the libretto is based was the first in which anybody  in England had been charged with inciting his own murder.  A teenage boy was almost fatally stabbed in a laneway by another boy.  The victim had, by assuming various persona in internet chatrooms, convinced an older boy that his murder was required in the interests of national security.  This narrative with all it’s bizarre details could be the apotheosis of the cliché truth is stranger than fiction; but it happened. 

Opera is famous for incredible plots and amazing coincidences but Two Boys is anchored in fact. It is a work which might be the more easily dismissed as fanciful if it were not.   As it seeks to bring the ability of opera to open up and explore experience to a contemporary theme, it should not be seen as a surreal fantasy.

The story is presented as it appears to Anne Strawson, a (fictional) detective sung by Susan Bickley, who investigates the stabbing.  At first the crime is inexplicable; but as the investigation develops and she learns more of the  ways of the internet and its chat, things become clearer until, as in the original,  the common use of an eccentric spelling of the word “maybe” by various chat room inhabitants establishes that they were all invented by the victim as part of his scheme.

The opera follows the facts of the actual case fairly closely; in both the older boy, called Brian in the opera, and sung by tenor Nicky Spence, is 16.   The victim, called Jake here, is, I think, younger than the actual victim.  He appears first in one of his chat room identities sung by baritone Jonathan McGovern, but as the story develops in his younger and real state sung by treble Joseph Beesly. 

The internet itself is a character, partly sung by the chorus murmuring and voicing, and partly in the orchestra with minimalist phrases which I thought were more reminiscent of John Adams than Philip Glass.  Mr. Muhly is the first composer to capture the virtual cloud in the same way that Debussy and Britten have captured the sea.   The internet will never be the same again.  As I am writing, I can hear a ceaseless whir of activity somewhere beyond the modem.

 Meanwhile, chatroom ID’s and text appear as projected images with all the speed and urgency of the net itself.  Often fully sung words are represented in surtitles by chat language: asl, brb and cu and so, on which made me cringe and resolve, at the time anyway, never to type them again.  There was never any meh.

The original events might be explained, at least partly, by the younger boy’s infatuation with the older.  The original is followed closely here, down to the instruction given by the victim that his assailant was to say "I love you, bro," as he knifed him. Liebestod in a back alley.

 Infatuations like this and the associated sexual games have been the stuff of memoirs and “coming of age” novels for a long time now, and I doubt if there is much new to be said about them.  I suppose some relationships go completely off the rails and end violence but this is surely rare.  What is peculiar here are the internet and the invention of chat room characters by the instigator/victim; not to speak of the credulity of the older boy.

While Two Boys follows the original story faithfully in these respects, it adds something which changes the story from a true crime story with music into a work with emotional force.  I have mentioned that in his true person the victim is sung by an alto.  The fictional victim,Jake, is a boy soprano in a church choir.  We see him in this role in a scene set in a church in which Brian, the older boy, is a member of the congregation.  Some Anglican liturgy is sung and Jake sings a solo piece, all the time staring at Brian.  Brian sings “Why is he looking at me”.   ( I have no text so quotes might not be right.)     The music stands apart from what has been heard so far.   It is, I think, the keystone of the work, in the same way the Sunday Morning scene in Peter Grimes, marks the point from which it is impossible to turn back the sky.

Later, the choirboy victim says how he wanted to be remembered  after his murder– for beautiful singing.   The music in the church scene is not unique, Nico Muhly has written a lot of church and other choral music.  And, he was himself an accomplished soloist in an Anglican church choir.  At some point, I realised that it wasn’t  true crime with ingenious internet music but a moving personal statement.

The high point of my career as a boy soprano was singing Christopher Robin songs to a Methodist Church social evening; quite a different level of achievement from that of a chorister who learns to read music, takes part in innumerable performances of great music and, if a soloist, performs at a level he will never reach again, even if he continues to sing as an adult. There is a combination of childhood innocence with a very high level of accomplishment.   Then his voice breaks and it is finished. 

I don’t think Two Boys is saying that, in any literal sense, discarded altos are at risk of ingenious suicide plots, but this thread gives the piece an emotional appeal which would be absent if only the detective story were told.  It can even be seen as a more general allegory of lost innocence.   Apart from the fascinating internet music, it seems to me to be the basis of the musical and emotional structure of the work.  And as I said, I haven’t properly heard all the music yet.  I know for one thing that there are gongs somewhere which are a tribute to Britten and his use of them in Death in Venice.  I missed them completely.

Back to the Coliseum on Wednesday to hear the gongs !