Searching out lost musicals of yesteryear is rather like reading The Da Vinci Code. The long slog through banal lines and plod plotting is never rewarded by the ultimate revelation.
This does not stop theatres from dusting off hits of the past, usually to pointless effect and occasionally to the point of self-implosion, as English National Opera discovered when it set Kismet in post-Saddam Baghdad. Anyone for car-bombs?
Most musical theatre is, of its nature nostalgic. To restage old musicals is to evoke nostalgia about nostalgia, an appropriate post-modern detachment, but one that is unlikely to illuminate much about the human condition in recessional mood.
It was with these reservations that I went to see Richard Jones’s seasonal hit of Annie Get Your Gun at the Young Vic, only to come out with a song on my lips and a renewed faith in the power of well-made escapism.
Irving Berlin wrote the music and the show stormed Broadway in 1946 with Ethel Merman as the original pistol-popping mama. Nothing about it rings true. What’s a nice Jewish boy from the shtetl writing about a circus with sharpshooters, and who the hell’s gonna care whether Annie can shoot sharper than that wuss of a Frank? The sexual stereotyping was barely acceptable in 1946, when women had just worked their way through a second World War, and the characters are thinner than a weight-watcher’s wafer.
Richard Jones, who decorated his Covent Garden Ring cycle with all manner of irrelevant clutter, opens in a 1950s diner and moves on to a 1930s transatlantic liner. Continuity was never his strong point. What gives the show its kick is a kind of high-wire refusal to look down at the way people react when they are caught in a ridiculous situation. We do not care much whether Annie gets Frank or goes into a nunnery, but when she sings Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better she transcends gender rivalry and confronts us with an everyday work situation. If it’s him or me, and we’re still going to be sharing an office afterwards, how do we deal with this problem?
Jane Horrocks is a rollicking Annie, Julian Ovenden a bit of a tailor’s dummy in the thankless role of Frank. Both are pitch-perfect and able to sing softly, when required, to a clattery four-piano accompaniment. The decor is a sickly green last favoured in Gerard Mortier’s Salzburg era, but the eye is engaged as much as the ear and, if the heart never flutters, the mind has more to conjure with than I expected. The show has been extended into January, by evident demand, and may well run and run in a larger house. It is trivial without being silly. I wish some of our politicians could manage that feat.
While everyone else is brushing up their best-of-09 lists, I’m shipping out the junk.
Although not a vintage year for awful classical recordings, it has been bad enough to yield ten of the worst. I exclude from the top ten all crossover execrescences and self-puff start-ups. These are just ten of the worst that came my way from recognised commercial labels:
1 England, my England
From EMI Classics, in a summer when the racist British National Party won two seats to the European Parliament, came a relase from King’s College Choir Cambridge, decked in the cross of St George and a wreath of jingoistic fervour. Bad taste? Bad timing? The intonation wasn’t up to much, either.
Bad Mahler – we were spoiled for choice:
2 Alan Gilbert’s stodgy ninth from Stockholm (Bis)
3 Valery Gergiev’s wobble-voiced 2nd (LSO Live)
4 and, dreary to a fault, Christoph Eschenbach’s stillborn Philadelphia Resurrection (Ondine)
5 Bad Boys
Bryn Terfel’s villainy hits the pits on DG.
6 Sharon Isbin: A Voyage in Song (Sony)
Just when you thought it was safe to revisit the English renaissance without tripping over Sting, up pops Ms Isbin with her numbing guitar transcriptions of Tudor lute works.
7 Edin Karamazov, The Lute is a Song (Decca)
Gone away? No, here’s Sting gasping again with his fave lutenist. Renee Fleming’s here too with the least affecting Dido’s Lament you’ll ever hear.
8 Simon Rattle, Brahms’ second symphony (EMI)
Did the earth move for you in the second? Me neither.
9 John Adams Doctor Atomic Symphony (Nonesuch)
He may have won Last Composer Standing, but this is a deadly, pointless spin-off from an epochal opera.
10 West Side Story meets Tristan und Isolde (Warner)
Kooky programming from Barenboim’s Chicago years
You can find fuller reviews of these releases on the Lebrecht Report and compare them to the all-time worst in my history of classical recording here.
Feel free to add your own (dis)recommendations and lists in the space below. Voting closes midnight December 18. Results to be announced the following week. Let’s see who makes the real Christmas Number One of 2009.
I was sorry to read this morning of the death of Otto, Count Lambsdorff, the former German economics minister. I met him briefly last summer at the Beethoven Festival in Bonn, where he turned out, in visible discomfort, to share memories of his heady days in office.
He had been summoned into government in the summer of 1977 after one of the executives at the bank he directed was kidnapped and murdered by the Baader-Meinhoff terrorist gang. He recounted the events of that summer dispassionately – the late-night phone calls from Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, the handshake at a funeral, the urgent measures to curb radical violence and restore economic stability.
Lambsdorff was forced to resign in 1984 after his Free Democrats party was found to have taken undeclared donations from the Flick industries, but he remained a central figure in German life, negotiating the final phase of compensation to victims of the Nazi era.
What struck me about the man, apart from his beautiful suit and silver-topped cane, was the simplicity of his story, which he told as if it could have happened to anyone. There was nothing imposing or arrogant about him, though he was plainly not a shy man nor one to be trifled with. He seemed to regard his role in German history as incidental, something that just happened to him and left him feeling smaller in the scale of events rather than larger.
I didn’t get the impression that he was a humble man, but his acceptance of human limitations was distinctive and dignified in present times, when politicians presume and pretend to control everything. He understood music. Perhaps that helped him realise that all we can hope for in life is small islands of order in an ocean of chaos.
One lunchtime last week as I masticated a lonely calory, BBC Radio 4 announced a discussion on the role of the critic. Ears pricked and finger on the button (they usually have game shows at this time), I attended with the appropriate acuity – only to find that the lineup consisted of a non-specialist critic, a book blogger and a tenured academic. I’d heard enough in ten minutes to switch off, walk upstairs and finish a book.
I’m past getting angry with the triviality of public media and would have forgotten the matter entirely had a facebook friend, a published author, not popped up later that day with a plug for the prog, triggering a discussion that drew in several well-scarred professionals. You may catch the programme here.
OK, let’s separate some issues:
1 The crisis in criticism is not a simple equation of pro vs am. Bloggers have not usurped the role of print critic; at best – and some are pretty good – they have forced the professionals to work harder at their craft, which is no bad thing.
2 The crisis in criticism is a function of identity confusion. Who are critics? What are their standards? What should we expect of them? These criteria are rarely analysed, either in media or academia, and the result is that the critics we appoint in newspapers is often the one with the best one-liner.
3 In a shrinking media industry, critics are under increased pressures to see more, do more, think less. The resultant superficiality accelerates the existing crisis.
4 The internet demands ever-faster responses. That, too, is bad for reasoned criticism.
5 Pay for critics had dwindled to a pittance. Two UK national pay as little as £40 ($60) for a concert review. The correlation between remuneration and simians holds true.
What is needed in these circumstances is more public converasation and a great deal more clarity about the role of the professional critic. I have just kicked off a week of this kind of debate in Australia, which you can read here.
There is an inbuilt media reluctance to engage in navel gazing, a refusal to self-reflect which we justify by saying readers won’t be interested. But unless we strengthen and reinvent the critical function, an important check and balance on creative progress will be killed off and the arts future will be homogenised.
Have your say now, or lose another strand of freedom.