Contrary to a slew of press reviews that called it ‘trashy’ and ‘pointless’, I found Rupert Goold’s production of Turandot at English National Opera apt and often exhilarating.
Goold, 37, is the latest in a parade of youngish theatre and film directors who have been hired to bring an alternative perspective and a different, younger audience into London’s second opera company.
The best thing he does in Turandot is shift its frame from introspect to retrospect. Before the curtain rises, we see an English journalist of the old school scribbling away in his notebook. Throughout the opera, he is the silent observer, adding a wry, laconic, utterly believable dimension to a ridiculous plot.
Turandot was Puccini’s last shot. Bewildered by world war, the rise of fascism and a cancer in his throat, the composer cast around desperately for a plot and finally settled on one that was as far from his trademark realism as he could get.
The story of a Chinese princess who beheads suitors who cannot answer three riddles would not hold the attention nowadays of a kindergarten class. By recasting it as an exercise in western misapprehensions of China, Goold goves the opera credence and involvement. I attended with two guests from Shanghai. They were enthralled.
Staged in a gigantic Chinese restaurant, the crowd scenes are eclectically post-modern, with three Elvis lookalikes, two amateur golfers, a Chassidic Jew, a reform rabbi, a New York cop and other exotica raising the occasional laugh. But the drama is real and the characters strong, the role of slave-girl Liu (Amanda Echalaz) overwhelming the stonefaced presence of Turandot (Kirsten Blanck) and the pompous aspirations of her suitor Calaf (Gwyn Hughes Jones). Turning the torturers Ping, Pang and Pong into drug-crazed celebrity chefs with cleavers and devil’s caps is a Goold masterstroke.
The singing is one rung below international quality and Nessun Dorma never works when sung in English, but the spectacle as a whole is vivid and enthralling, even as the story wimps out in Alfano’s pathetic ending.
Turandot is not, and never will be, a work that tears your heart to shreds. All that Goold has done is to approach it from a different angle, one that can resonate with the sceptical tone of our times while never releasing its grip on the incredulous eye. Miriam Buether’s designs have that kind of arresting immediacy.
Any failure of perception belongs to some of the old-school critics on shrinking newspapers who cannot grasp that opera, like other economic entities, simply must move on. ENO’s strategy seems to be working. The Coliseum audience is becoming more age-diverse, less opera-centric. Maybe the critical approach needs retuning.
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle was never one for the squeamish, but English National Opera’s production tips Bela Bartok’s masterpiece into an abyss of atrocity. Originally staged during the First World War, it retells the fable of a Transylvanian count who keeps his wives in a dungeon as a Freudian parable of female sexual curiosity and impotent male vengeance.
With only two singers on stage, the orchestra gets many of the best lines and an hour can pass very quickly in a live concert performance, as Valery Gergiev demonstrated earlier this year with the London Symphony Orchestra (released and downloadable on LSO Live). Any opera production risks overstating the obvious, but ENO’s commitment to contemporary ideas promised a venture into a post-Freudian landscape, at once tantalising and repellent.
Daniel Kramer, the young American director who added ten degrees of chill to Harrison Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy at the Young Vic, places Bluebeard in a world of sexual abduction and child abuse – the world of Fred and Rose West who buried victims in the foundations of their Gloucester home, of the Belgian paedophile rings and, most explicitly, in the warped world of Josef Fritzl, the Austrian building materials salesman who raped his daughter and kept her family imprisoned in the basement of his Amstetten home.
Kramer’s references to these monstrosities are visually unmistakable and by no means unenlightening. Much of what Freud perceived as infant sexual fantasies concealed dreadful realities of child rape. Bartok’s deep score lends itself to exposing the unmentionable and the seven doors that Judith opens before she is prepared to have sex with the Duke are an escalating scale of musical horror, unsparingly revealed.
But in order for the audience to be involved, there has to be a credible obssessive relationship between Judith and the Duke. Kramer obviates that connection by depicting the Duke (Clive Bayly) as an unreconstructed aristocrat with erectile dysfunction issues and Judith (Michaela Martens) as a nympho vamp who reads too many tabloids. Both sing with lustrous vehemence, but they are working against the stereotypes of a director who has not quite got the psychological measure of the piece.
What ought to be a moment of heart-stopping horror – a bridal night evisceration – deteriorates into rank bad taste as Bluebeard/Fritzl’s little rape children gather around the scene. The misjudgement is evident in the sound of spectators shifting in their seats all around the theatre, and in their glazed expressions in the interval lobby.
That scene will have to be reconsidered in any future revival, along with Bluebeard’s stuttering strut and Judith’s somnabulist nightgown. Few of the director’s devices added much to the plot. It was the orchestra, under music director Edward Gardner, that claimed the biggest kudos.
H C Robbins Landon – who did for Haydn what Alexander Wheelock Thayer, a fellow-American, once did for Beethoven – has died at his home in France, aged 83.
A jovial fellow who liked to frolic naked in his pool with research assistants and guests (or so he told the press), Robbie got on the Haydn trail in Austria as an occupying US soldier and spent the rest of his life digging out manuscripts from disused monasteries and seeing them through to performance at the Musikverireinsaal and Carnegie Hall. He once hoaxed the BBC with a Haydn fake, but that’s another story…
All Haydn works carry H numbers, after an obssessive Dutch collector, Antony van Hoboken. I propose we change those to H C numbers.
First report here. Pictures here.
Grounded in Detroit on a Spirit aircraft with a cockpit problem, I got chatting to my very close row-mates, an academic humanist lawyer and an Orthodox rabbi. Both had the same topic uppermost in mind. They had just seen the Coen Brothers’ movie A Serious Man and were deeply troubled both by its content and by its critical reception.
The film is about a man’s midlife crisis in a mainstream Jewish community in the Midwest, set in 1967 when society was on the cusp of change and institutions were stuck in the past. The hero suffers marital breakdown, workplace stress, debt issues and other commonplaces of the modern era. The rabbis he consults lack the certainties of the East European shtetl from which his ancestors stem and where the film enigmatically begins. He is, in a word, lost.
The film, reviewed as ‘black comedy’, was received by my companions as documentary realism, a situation that felt painfully familiar. ‘Is it good for the Jews?’ fretted the rabbi. ‘Is it good for the rabbis?’ worried the atheist.
I did not read any reviews until after I saw the film, and those I saw split split straight down the middle. Some acclaimed the film as a masterpiece of wit and social observation, others missed the jokes and were bored out of their critical minds. A Serious Man succeeds in dividing serious opinion. They either got it, or they didn’t.
One of the most perceptive reviewers, Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian, found a moral and theological dimension in the finale. Chris Tookey in the Daily Mail called the film ultra-sadistic and cynical. A O Scott in the New York Times regarded it as a retelling of the Bibilical Job story. Jonathan Foreman in the Jewish Chronicle repeated the Job parallel while decrying the film for its ‘mercilessly … unattractive’ depiction of Jews.
Where did these responses come from? Let me share a little trade secret. Film critics lead a dark and sheltered existence. Many need to cover 12 or 15 movies a week, most of them teenaged dross. Keeping track is no easy matter.
That’s where the pass notes come in. Entering a review studio, the critic is handed a sheaf of notes, along with a drink and snacks. The notes, detailed and hyperbolic, add deep background to what the critic is about to see on screen. Much of the notes go into the reviews. Every review I have read about A Serious Man refers to the ‘Polish’ stetl scene that opens the film. Nothing in the film confirm that location. It’s all in the notes.
The best critics, who are also the ones that review the fewest films, form their opinions after digesting the notes. The rest crib like mad and often get trapped in a corridor of doubt between what they read in the notes and what they saw on screen. That’s where perceptions falter, criticism fails and judgement splits to extremes.
A Serious Man is not black comedy. That was just a convenient handle, probably taken from the notes, and pinned to an original and disturbing film for want of a better cliché. The critics who regurgitated that handle were working under pressure. But they were also conspiring in the spiralling destruction of newspaper arts criticism. When a critic repeats information derived from a film studio’s marketing department, the line between free thought and mass propaganda is erased. If film criticism is to survive, it will require tougher criteria.
Like all forms of art commentary, it is now in a critical condition.
As debate continues in several languages over who will still be heard 50 years from now, several readers have asked how accurate our forecasting can be.
Well, let’s go back to 1959 and ask which living composers, in the view of listeners at that time, would be likely to endure.
Shostakovich, for sure – he was the flagship musician of the Soviet Union, and everyone thought the USSR was forever.
Stravinsky had just produced Threni.
Britten was receiving more opera stagings than any of his contemporaries.
Bernstein and Copland were universally renowned, if only for West Side Story and Appalachian Spring.
Samuel Barber had just opened the new Met with Vanessa; Rodgers and Hammerstein were reaching apotheosis with the Sound of Music.
None of these selections would have appeared contentious or doubtful. Hindemith, still alive, would have seemed a dead cert. Kodaly, likewise.
The last one might have been a modernist – Berio, Boulez or Stockhausen – but who could have forseen the importance of Cage and Feldman, the emergence of Ligeti and Sondheim, the birth of the Beatles?
If anyone had put it to the test, Khachaturian and Menotti might have made it into the top ten.
Please don’t attempt to cast a retro vote, but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.
Simon Mawer’s reflective novel The Glass Room, shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and one of my reads of the year, digresses midway into a sub-story about a shortlived composer.
Vitezlava Kapralova, born in 1915 in Janacek’s town, Brno, was a star pupil of the conductor Vaclav Talich and, in Paris, of the composer Bohuslav Martinu, whose lover she became (Martinu, though married, had two or three long-term liaisons, but that’s another story).
In 1937, Kapralova conducted the Czech Philharmonic and, a year later, the BBC Symphony Orchestra in her own Military Sinfonietta. She married Jiri Mucha, the Jugendstil painter’s son in April 1940 and, forced to flee Paris after the German invasion, died of tuberculosis in Montpellier two months later, aged 25.
Her music, edgy and mildly adventurous, fell into disuse. You can hear samples (and see a picture of her) here. The only CD recording appeared last year on Koch.
There is, however, a rare chance to hear her Partita for piano and string orchestra live in Marylebone, London, tomorrow night (Helios Chamber Orchestra), and her string quartet in Gateshead next week (Skampa Quartet). The first is a UK premiere and free Czech beer is promised to those attending. Details here.
Kapralova’s is a singular voice, precocious and secure. If you admired Mawer’s novel as much as I did you will want to investigate its unofficial soundtrack.
Late extra: Victor Eskenasy has just sent me a picture of the spot where Martinu met Kapralova. I shall try to upload it here.
Of 3,200 people who read or engaged with the debate here, on twitter and on facebook, as well as an uncounted readership on radio and newspaper sites, just over 100 eligible ballots were received. Some ticked one composer for posterity, others voted for the full ten options.
The results of the poll are not in any way scientific or universal. There is a bias towards US and UK composers – understandable since the debate is conducted in English – as well as a slight tendency towards certain composers who have current or recent performances.
Nevertheless, there are conclusions to be drawn and I shall attempt to lay them out for discussion below. First, though, the results of the popular vote.
Last Composer Standing
1 John Adams
2 Arvo Pärt
3 Steve Reich
4 Philip Glass
5 Pierre Boulez
5= George Crumb
5= Henri Dutilleux
8 Osvaldo Golijov
9 Thomas Ades
10 Henry Mikolai Gorecki
Since the next three are bunched pretty close behind, I shall add them to the bench as first-change substitutes:
11 Einojuhani Rautavaara
11= Stephen Sondheim
13 Harrison Birtwistle
This poll started with a claim of mine that Gavin Bryars would last the test of time. A three-way discussion ensued with experienced colleagues – Tim Page in California and Andrew Patner in Chicago – yielding a short list of five whom we thought we certs for the future. So what have we discovered?
– Minimalism is here to stay. It will still be heard in 2059.
– Few who voted for Glass also chose Reich, and vice-versa. There is a minimalist schism.
– John Adams has as many strong detractors as he has passionate fans. He provokes contention, always a good sign in a composer.
– Meredith Monk and Kaija Saariaho were the highest ranked women composers.
– While Dutilleux has benefitted from prolonged exposure in Boston, similar promotion in LA and London has not worked for Magnus Lindberg. Will New York do the trick?
– Is the music of Boulez appreciated more widely as a result of his popularity as a conductor?
This debate is all about the qualities we perceive in living composers and whether they will pass the test of time. Some correspondents regard the criterion of durability as irrelevant to art, and they may well have a point. But how we in 2009 judge the value of living composers is not an insignificant factor and I shall make a mental note to take another straw poll a year from now to see if our opinions have changed.
In the meantime, discuss, dispute, gnash teeth and celebrate in the comment space below. Thank you all for taking part, and thank you also to many bloggers and tweeters who helped to spread the word.
Congratulations to John Adams, the Last Composer Standing.
In light of technical and security difficulties – think Afghan election – polls for the most durable composer will remain open until 1800 EST (2300 GMT) Monday Nov 16. The response has been far heavier than expected and the spin-off discussions will run and run.
Early returns show Pärt leading by a tiny margin from Reich and Adams, with Glass and Golijov strongly in pursuit.
There is a heavy weighting towards US composers of a minimalist/anti-modernist tendency.
It’s not too late to change the result. I’ve been surprised by the absence of, for instance, Tan Dun, Magnus Lindberg (the New York Phil’s resident), Kalevi Aho, Michael Nyman, Michel van der Aa, Wolgang Rihm (just one vote so far) and Penderecki (though two other Poles are, as it were, polling well).
Vote now for the composers most likely to be heard in 2059. Vote here, or tweet @NLebrecht
We’re getting a late surge, here and on Twitter, for Meredith Monk surviving the test of time. Now there’s an interesting possibility.
John Luther Adams, anyone? Could there be two Adamses in the final list?
Tim Page likes Dusapin.
I somehow forgot Henze: surely something from his vast output will be played. 7th symphony?
Silvestrov (whom I like immensely), Beat Furrer (whom I don’t).
Get those votes in now. The numbers are seriously mounting.
A fleeting thought while listening to Gavin Bryars has led to a sweeping discussion as to which 10 living composers will still be played in 50 years’ time. We’ve whittled it down to five certs: Birtwistle, Boulez, Rautavaara, Reich and Sondheim.
But the other five places are still open and being hotly contested on twitter and Facebook.
The probables include Adams, Bryars,Glass, Kurtag, Lachenmann, Pärt, Riley, Sallinen,
Sciarrino and John Williams, with a late rush of votes for James MacMillan and Gorecki.
The possibles are Ades, Carter, Crumb, Dalbavie, Dusapin, Dutilleux, Gubaidulina, Kilar, David Lang, Muhly, Saariaho and Turnage. What, no Magnus Lindberg, Meredith Monk or Kalevi Aho?
Voting ends Sunday night. Post your views and votes below, or tweet them to @NLebrecht.
If ever you need to know what’s wrong with the Metropolitan Opera and its press puppet, the New York Times, look no further than the opening paragraph of last weekend’s puff piece for tonight’s production of Janacek’s From the House of the Dead. Here goes:
Just as a diva regards her Metropolitan Opera debut as proof that she has arrived, a Met premiere confers on a work a lasting seal of approval. On Thursday, that honor will fall to Leos Janacek’s From the House of the Dead…
Read that and weep. Which part of that sentence and a half might not have been written by a publicity agent? And which other city newspaper would so pump up its opera house to state that until a work has been staged there it simply doesn’t exist? Why, the late Mr Janacek must be jumping out of his grave with joy at the news that his last work is finally getting the seal of approval after 80 years of neglect.
Never mind that House of the Dead has been staged by every major European house and festival over the past four decades, or that Janacek is a box-office cert in most opera cities, a trailblazer for social realism on the opera stage. He became a fixture in London in the 1950s through the advocacy of Rafael Kubelik and Charles Mackerras, in Paris and Berlin soon after and in Milan during the Abbado years. Operagoers in Europe regard Janacek as staple rep.
New York, though, takes no risks. It was 1991 before the Met got around to staging Katya Kabanova, the composer’s most powerful work after Jenufa, and its public still regards the Czech as as esoteric innovation. Looking at the Met website, there are swathes of vacant seats for the new production.
Despite lagging behind the rest of the world on this and many other creative fronts, the Met and the Times manage to pretend that they are the umbilicus mundi of opera, the seal of approval without which the art form would wither and die. It’s a tragic case of self-delusion and one that inflicts sustained damage on the advancement of opera in the United States.
The Met is, beyond contention, one of the world’s important opera houses. But while its present chief Peter Gelb deserves credit for dragging it halfway into the 20th century (forget the 21st), its inflated self-image has, with the Times’s help, stultified the art and New York’s expectations. The Met is a monolith, a near-monopoly with a tame newspaper in tow. The only seal ever bestowed by the Met is that of certified safety.
Surgery opens next Monday, Nov 9, at 1400 on WNYC Soundcheck, but the website will open for patient registration before the end of this week. Do check the site for details.
A description of the practice can be found here. All musical ailments sensitively treated. If you have any life crises that might be helped by a piece of music, do send us a mail. And please ask friends to take their aches and pains to The Record Doctor.
On Sunday night Nov 8 the Record Doctor, wearing another hat, will be speaking at HIR Riverdale on the elimination of Jewish ritual from modern American literature.
HIR is located at 3700 Henry Hudson Pkwy, Riverdale, NY,10471.
And at 8pm Thursday Nov 5, he’ll be speaking in Detroit: http://www.jccdet.org/bookfair/november5.shtml
Busy week ahead.