Friday, December 28, 2012

Lesley Garrett to play the spy who sang to Hitler

We interrupt the seasonal festivities to bring you news of a film in production based upon the extraordinary story of Margery Booth. An opera singer from Wigan, Booth became a spy during World War II and apparently sang to Hitler while state secrets were hidden in her knickers. Imperial Film Productions is developing the project with screenwriter Ralph Harvey, director Xavier Koller and, in the leading role, the one and only Lesley Garrett. The cast is also to include Udo Kier as Hitler.

More information about Margery Booth: The Spy in the Eagle's Nest can be found at Interested co-producers are urged to get in touch via the website to share the bringing of this fascinating story to the screen.

Ralph Harvey writes:
Margery Booth – The Opera Singer who spied on Hitler
It was her beautiful mezzo-soprano singing that melted the heart of one of the most evil men in history.  From humble beginnings in Wigan, Margery Booth, by sheer determination and armed with the magical gift of a magnificent singing voice, rose to be one of the top opera stars of Europe.
Courted by Ernst Ströhm, a wealthy business man and heir to a brewery fortune, Margery succumbed and eventually married him.  Although the union was initially successful, it ultimately proved to be a disaster and after the war in Europe ended Margery eventually divorced him.
Through her husband’s contacts in high society in Germany she rose to the top, and her highly acclaimed performances drew the attention of none other than the Führer himself, Adolf Hitler, who on one occasion personally delivered 200 red roses wrapped in a swastika flag and, totally enamoured of her, continued to ogle her throughout her performances from his private box.
Margery had, however, been recruited by MI6 whilst MI9 had also recruited John Brown, a former but now disillusioned member of Mosley’s infamous Fascist Blackshirts, and through the SOE arranged for him to be captured on the Normandy beaches so that he could work as a spy in a PoW camp.
As a guest in Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair, Margery rubbed shoulders with the top ranking Nazi hierarchy and, now totally trusted by Hitler, she was allowed to visit PoW camps where she not only sang but was able to contact John Brown and collect secrets for passing on.
Margery was suspected at one stage by the SS who moved in to search her, but John thrust some secret plans down her dress when they weren’t looking.  They escaped their search unscathed, but henceforth she was forever known as Margery the “Knicker Spy”.
In the closing days of the war she was arrested again but escaped during an Allied bombing raid just as she was about to be tortured, eventually reaching the American lines.  Then nearly shot, but fortunately it was her accent which miraculously saved her as an American soldier recognised it, having had been in Lancashire before the war.
Margery Booth’s story is one of the most amazing – and until now untold – stories of the war, and I have been privileged to research and write it for Imperial Film Productions and now on IMDb as Margery Booth: The Spy in the Eagle’s Nest.
This then is her story. 
Ralph Harvey – screenwriter.

Friday, December 21, 2012


Welcome back to the Cyberposhplace for the JDCMB Ginger Stripe Awards 2012!

The doors are wide open, the candles are lit - but protected from all contact with clothing, black lace and otherwise - and there are sparkles absolutely everywhere. Gretel, the Good Fairy of the South West, has been busy with the virtualfairydust and as you walk through the gold and silver portals you may find your brow annointed with glitter.

It's the Winter Solstice and traditionally this is the day we gather for our VirtualAwardsCeremony to celebrate the highs of the musical year. For the sake of decorum, we are drinking cyberprosecco rather than cyberchampers this time, and the virtualcelebritychef is aided and abetted in the kitchen by Gretel, who's brought her famous themed canapes. But nothing (within reason) is off-limits in the cyberposhplace, which is everything you want your best cyberposhplace to be. We enjoyed our little trip to Denmark last year, ahem, but it is good to be back.

As we congregate under the chandelier to toast our musicians, the air fills with warmth, golden light and the scent of orange blosson - and some silk chiffon unfurls to welcome our celebrity guest, Fritz Delius. Yes, Fritz, because he's about 23: handsome, vigorous, sexy, rebellious and filled with lust for life. He is as yet unblighted by the disease that turned him into Song of Summer, and he hasn't got round to changing his name to Frederick. Dear Fritz, neither have you yet written your opera A Village Romeo and Juliet. But I've heard it even if you haven't, and it is one of the most beautiful creations in all of music. It moved me to tears. I can't bear the thought that something so wonderful goes unappreciated in this crazy, negation-of-the-negation world. Thank you, Wexford Opera Festival. Please, someone, can we have the complete Koanga next? Fritz, come on in. Someone get that man a drink!

Now, let’s have a round of applause for every musician who has touched the hearts of his or her audience during the past 12 months.

All right, all right...quiet, please. Would the following winners please approach the podium where Solti, ensconced upon his silken cushion, will let you stroke the ginger stripes and will give you your very own prize purr.

Icon of the year:
It's been a difficult year, full of farewells: many great people have passed from this world to the next, and thence into the realms of legend. But one man will be missed perhaps most of all: the extraordinary composer Elliott Carter, who made it to 103. Most of us had decided he was probably immortal. Now he is. We miss his fearless complexity, his twinkling humour and his great humanity. "The greatest American composer who ever lived," says John Tavener. Thank you for your lifetime of music-making.

Pianist of the year:
Given the quality of the piano performances I've heard in the past 12 months, this should be more difficult than it is. But it's not. Andras Schiff's sublime Beethoven blew everyone else clean out of the water. Dearest Maestro, please accept a dusting of sparkle, heartfelt thanks and plenty of purrs.

Violinist of the year:
Actually it's the violin and piano duo of the year: Bradley Creswick and Margaret Fingerhut. Performing the Hungarian Dances concert-of-the-novel with them at the Buxton Festival was simply glorious. Bradley, leader of the Northern Sinfonia, plays the living daylights out of that Gypsy repertoire.

Singer of the year: Please step forward, Sarah Connolly. Her performances as Oktavian for ENO and as Fricka in Covent Garden's Die Walkure blazed brilliant with ruby-red tone, transformative characterisation and zap-strong psychological insight. Amid already fine casts, her artistry was the central oak and in the Wagner her portrayal of Fricka's anguish made sense of the story of the entire Ring Cycle. Brava and thank you!

Opera company of the year
: Wexford was wonderful, and Salzburg was impressive. Covent Garden has had its moments. But my happiest evenings at the opera this year have been at ENO. A seat-of-the-pants Flying Dutchman, conducted by Ed Gardner. A Rosenkavalier that left us all gibbering wrecks of wonderment, starring Amanda Roocroft, Sarah Connolly, Sophie Bevan and Sir John Tomlinson, conducted by, oh, Ed Gardner. The Death of Klinghoffer, which it was great to see at long last. The Magic Flute, my favourite opera of all. And Vaughan Williams's The Pilgrim's Progress, which was almost as beautiful as that Delius. The list could continue.

Artist of the year: Angela Hewitt, who gets at least three annointings with glitter. First, for her performance of the first part of The Art of Fugue at the RFH, because I don't know how anyone does that at all, let alone making it so beautiful, so fascinating, so riveting. Second, for her inspired and daring recording of the Schumann Piano Concerto, with conductor Hannu Lintu (left). Third, for kindly recommending a naturopath, thanks to whom I am feeling well again after a hellish year. The cyberbanquet tonight is consequently gluten-free.

Youthful artist of the year: Joint winners, both young pianists whose gifts restore my faith in life and music. Benjamin Grosvenor, 20, and Daniil Trifonov, 21: boys whose deep-seated musicianship lights up every piece they touch. It is wonderful to see the art of great pianism alive and well and living in the 21st century. Come and get your glitter and your purrs, lads. We look forward to loving your playing for years and years and years.

Conductor of the year:
Sir Roger Norrington, it is you. Oh yes, it is. Listening to your overwhelmingly gorgeous, funny, adorable, detailed, genius Haydn with the OAE a few months ago, I realise that I remember every one of your concerts that I've ever attended. I've loved or loathed them, I admit - one or the other, every time, with nothing much in between - but either way I've never forgotten any of them. Thank you. Sorry if I've sometimes been a pig about your vibrato thing. Please accept some glitter - after all, it's already shining in your music-making.

Interviewee of the year: Pierre Boulez. What a privilege to meet and interview such an extraordinary man. Boulez not only has an intelligence that slices to the core of any issue with the surety of a neurosurgeon's hand, but he also has the wisdom to see the bigger picture, the heart to smile about it and the ceaseless creativity to keep devising ways to change things. If something is wrong, he says, you can't just sit there and do nothing.

Musical sports personality of the year:
A new category for the year of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Step forward, please, Anthony Hewitt, the Bradley Wiggins of the piano. Tony spent three weeks in the spring cycling from Land's End to John O'Groats as "The Olympianist". Every day he covered 70-90km and gave at least one recital at his destination, raising money for musical and sporting charities for children. Even beyond that project, he's still the only pianist I can think of who prepares for a recital by going on a 100km cycle ride. Here is some well-deserved glitter...

 It's a good year for Hewitts here at the Ginger Stripe Awards, but please note: to the best of our knowledge the two A. Hewitt pianists, Anthony and Angela, are neither related nor married. I'm not sure they've even met. Maybe we need to get a good piano genealogist on to them.

Ballet of the year: A new category, because ballet is at last part and parcel of my professional life. The best new ballet I've seen this year I actually didn't write about at the time, but it is Faster, choreographed by David Bintley for his Birmingham Royal Ballet. It's Olympic-themed, exploring the topic in ways you never dreamed ballet could: a duet for an athlete and a figure representing her injury and her relationship with it, for example; a remarkable pas de trois based on slow motion pole-vaulting; and a finale all about running that plays with time, space, speed and perspective with the bedazzlement of a kaleidoscope. A magnificent company piece showing off extraordinary corps de ballet work and apparently endless stamina, it's set to a terrific post-minimalist score by Matthew Hindson. And if you think synchronised swimming can't be put into a ballet, think again. Fabulous.

Stuffed Turkey: That Meyerbeer at the ROH. Fascinating to write about; excruciating thereafter.

Lifetime Achievement Award: This goes en masse to our composers. I've been fortunate to encounter some wonderful ones this year. Pierre Boulez, of course, but also the much-loved John Adams; and Judith Weir and Errollyn Wallen, whose respective operas, performed last winter at Covent Garden, absolutely did not deserve the panning they got from much of the press. Then Roxanna Panufnik's colourful and atmospheric violin concerto Four World Seasons for Tasmin Little and the London Mozart Players received a wonderful premiere in March and Roxanna's new CD Love Abide is out at any moment. And Michel van der Aa has won the Grawemeyer Award.

Anybody who writes good new music in the classical vein in these ridiculous times deserves much more than a Lifetime Achievement Award - because it has to be new music that makes the entire art form alive and vibrant and necessary. Keep on keeping on, then. It's the only way.

Take a bow, everybody...Thank you. Thank you for your moving, uplifting, inspiring, life-enhancing music-making. You’re wonderful. We love you.

And a few personal highlights...

Proudest moment:
The performances of my play A Walk through the End of Time at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, starring Harriet Walter and Henry Goodman, formed a day that I will remember with joy, love and a certain incredulity for the rest of my life. Thank you, International Wimbledon Music Festival!

Weirdest moment:
"Getting" modernism. I've undergone a revolution in musical taste this year - perhaps the result of other upheavals in life that can't leave you unchanged. Listening to Barenboim conducting Boulez at the Proms and thinking "this is totally bloody incredible". Attending two works by Bernd Alois Zimmermann, including Die Soldaten at Salzburg, which left me speechless. Discovering that I am really looking forward to hearing some Birtwistle in the new year when Covent Garden revives The Minotaur. We embrace and applaud their courage, their energy, their lack of compromise.

Quote of the year:
At a wedding the other week I was amazed to meet the man who utters my favourite line in all cinema. But I was embarrassed because initially, though I knew I knew him, it took me a moment to place him. "Don't worry about it," said his wife. "It was a long time ago, and he was wearing a dress."

(He is, of course, Terry Jones, and the line is: "He's not the Messiah! He's a very naughty boy!")

Biggest sigh of relief:
Return of the OH from six months abroad, following the most hideous episode I've ever encountered during a quarter century in the already ugly music business. Shame on all the people who perpetrated it, stirred it, exploited it and got away with it. No cyberprosecco for them!

Special Guest Award: Dedicated to Gretel, the Good Fairy of the South West, and her magic circle of courageous spirits, bohemian freethinkers and passionate, great-hearted music-lovers - for rallying round, keeping me sane and bringing the fairydust.

Feline of the year:
Solti has no competition. He's been as much of a brick this year as any cat can be. Some special fish for you, Soltikitty, once you've finished your presentations today.

Wonderful Webmaster of the Year: The award always goes to Horst Kolo, who designs and maintains with a patience that few others could muster, now or ever.

Thank you, everyone. And now, to entertain us, taking us back in time, here is....CYBERABBA! Think about it: we should be so lucky as to have music, love and laughter in our lives, the company of friends, the good fortune to share our passions with joy. Let's live a little. Let's celebrate. Let's dance.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The trouble with sparkles

T'other day I was out shopping when the girl behind the counter, returning my credit card, handed me a gift of a Christmas cracker covered in sparkles. I think our neighbours must have got one too, because they put through our door a cracker joke that runs: "Which players can't you trust in an orchestra? The fiddlers."

The trouble with the sparkles is that they're fairy dust and they fall off. Next thing you know, they're on the kitchen floor, in the cat food, under the piano, on the train and, by now, probably all over the Royal Festival Hall.

And they've got into JDCMB. We all sometimes need to get our sparkle back, so here are five favourite bits of musical glitter and winter snow to light the long evenings, aided and abetted by some great dancing. And they're not all Russian. Don't forget that this Friday it's the Winter Solstice and time for the JDCMB Ginger Stripe Awards!

Prokofiev: The Winter Fairy, from Cinderella - Frederick Ashton's choreography, with Zenaida Yanowsky

Schubert: Der Winterabend, sung by Werner Gura with pianist Christoph Berner. The gentler sparkle of moonlight on snowy stillness...

Tchaikovsky: The Silver Fairy variation from Act III of The Sleeping Beauty (look! No Nutcracker!). Danced by the Royal Ballet's Laura Morera.

Brahms: Es tönt ein voller Harfenklang. (Yes, there are sparkles in Brahms. Just listen to this...) Abbado conducts members of the Berlin Phil and the Swedish Radio Choir.

Rachmaninov: Suite No.2 for two pianos, second movement - Waltz. Alexander Goldenweiser and Grigory Ginzburg don't play it as fast as Argerich and Freire, but there's time to wallow in the glitter.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Gabriela Montero improvises in memory of the 20 children

Sometimes there are simply no words to express our feelings. That's where music comes in. In memory of the 20 small children and six adults gunned down in a school in Newtown, Connecticut, the other day, Gabriela Montero has gone to her piano and improvised this.

In case anyone missed Obama's speech, here is the full text.

Never fall in love with a musician...

A favourite line from Humoresque: "A French philosopher once listed 300 different ways to commit suicide. He left one out: " 'Fall in love with an artist.' "

Another fantastic moment is the scene in which Joan Crawford's divorce has come through and she rushes to her beloved's rehearsal to tell him at once. He's busy on stage. She sends the usher to him with a note. He reads it, then puts it in his pocket and says to the conductor "Can we go from Letter K?"

In the scene above, Joan Crawford is about to end up at the bottom of the ocean.

The violinist on the soundtrack is Isaac Stern and the music is Franz Waxman's Tristan Fantasy, written specially for this score.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Gone Chopin, Bach in a minuet, but without Clawed Depussy

I was once doing a talk and someone asked me whether there was any music I used to love that I had "gone off". The answer was twofold. First, mostly it's the opposite. There's plenty of music that I'd never "got", but that I'd either learned to love or suddenly found that I may have loved all along. Bartok, for instance, or Ligeti - and, this year, Boulez and Bernd Alois Zimmermann. Secondly: no, I've never gone off Korngold, if that's what you meant.

But now I've made a startling discovery. I am going off someone. I have no idea why. It's not because it's his anniversary year and he's had overkill - because he hasn't. I've always adored him. I've played heaps of his piano music and always found it astonishing. Now, though, I'm back at my piano after a long break, looking for something to learn that demands the attention of intensively applied blood, sweat and tears. And I got out my book of Debussy to play through some pieces I learned as a student - Estampes, Suite bergamasque, Images II - and I just couldn't get into it. Not at all.

I'm horrified. These were my party-pieces. I love Claude to bits, or I'm supposed to. And now - ? Pagodes and its Chinoiserie left me cold and flat and wondering why I bothered. The Spanish thing, which when I was 20 seemed the sexiest work evah, feels contrived. Suite bergamasque - well, a tad pointless, and in places, especially the first movement, not even terribly good: as if he's boxed himself into a corner, or just wants to irritate us with a spot of fancy fingering. Sensual, yes, in a superficial kind of way. But the emotional depth has, it seems, gone AWOL. 

La Mer is another matter, especially with Rattle conducting. L'apres-midi d'un faun remains magical - I hope. Jeux is sophisticated and impressive, the Nocturnes for orchestra likewise. And I respect Pelleas with doffed Symbolist hat. But the piano book is going back in the cupboard. Been there, done that, passed the exams.

Because, when you hold Debussy's piano music up beside Chopin's, there's no comparison.

I've been bashing, very badly, through the Polonaise-Fantasie (that Trifonov video was quite a spur). It leaves me more astonished every time. What is he doing? You want to take it to pieces to see how it works. What are these key relationships, these bizarre harmonies - A sharp? C flat? - and the little motivic connections that rise from nowhere to weave the substance together? What is this strange history he spreads before us? Was that harp-ripple the shape and size of Chopin's own hand? What is this brief song of the angel of death in the middle, appearing as if from nowhere?

It's a page-turner plot, a great fantastical dream-journey, full of revelations, reappraisals of its own material, thoughts, questions and breaththrough answers that carry you further in terms of emotional development than you'd ever imagined you could go in a mere 12-15 minutes (depending who's playing...) [UPDATE: Cortot takes less - just under 10 mins - but some of it is a car wreck]. It's uncomfortable every moment of the way, such is its self-awareness and its intimations of its own mortal danger. It's strong in its acknowledgement of human fragility and the simultaneous ability to light up the sky. The composer, the pianist and the instrument become one to an almost terrifying degree.

I won't be able to play it properly in a month of Sundays. But I would gladly die trying.

Clawed Depussy remains Solticat's favourite composer, of course, along with Gabriel Furry and Darius Milhauw.

Here is the ultimate Polonaise-Fantasie, from Grigory Sokolov.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Friday Historical: film of Alfred Cortot playing Chopin

What can one add to that?

Other than this: hearing Daniil Trifonov playing Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto last night at the RFH left me with no doubt whatsoever that the art of great pianism is still alive and well in the 21st century.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A piano, alone in NY...

This very moving short film is in the Op-Doc section of the New York Times website. Please watch all of it (5 mins).

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Save creativity in our schools - before it's too late

Tasmin Little has been speaking at the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Music Education and sends these vital words about just how loudly we need to shout for this message to be heard, and what we stand to lose if it is not.

"Hi everyone. For those who have been following the EBacc saga, the meeting yesterday went well - however, it is becoming clear that we really need to galvanize as many people as possible as there is a long way to go with this situation.
What you can do: PLEASE get everyone you know to sign the Bacc for the Future campaign. It takes about 3 seconds to do and we are at 36,000 signatures but need

Next and just as importantly, please ask every parent you know to write to their MP stressing the importance of including the creative subjects in the Ebacc, and asking their MP to take this up and ask a question in the House.

Schools are ALREADY cutting funding to music etc, because they don't feel there is any point if it's not going to give the children any marks in an exam.

And this is before the ink is even dry with the proposal!!!

The biggest problem is that most people don't understand the huge implications of these measures for, not just our own enjoyment of the Arts, but the tourism industry, job losses and our whole cultural identity."
Here is the link to the Bacc for the Future petition. If you haven't already signed it, we urge you to do so right away. The consultation itself is now OVER, so now all we can do is sign this petition and write to our MPs as Tasmin suggests.

Farewells to too many people

In the past week we have heard of the deaths of SIX musical legends. The beloved composer Jonathan Harvey (73). The marvellous jazzer Dave Brubeck (91). Charles Rosen (85), pianist and author, whose books are required reading. Then the great sopranos Lisa della Casa (93) and Galina Vishnevskaya (86). Now Ravi Shankar (92). Here is a tribute to each of them.

Jonathan Harvey's Tranquil Abiding:

 Dave Brubeck and his quartet in 'Take the A Train' (1966):

Charles Rosen talks about Schoenberg and emotion:

Lisa della Casa sings Strauss's 'Frühling'

Galina Vishnevskaya sings Rachmaninov's 'O ne grusti'

Ravi Shankar - with Yehudi Menuhin. 'Tenderness'.

Monday, December 10, 2012

It's Human Rights Day

Of course, we shouldn't need one: every day should be Human Rights Day. Here, to mark the occasion, is a special video about how music can transform lives. Please welcome Rosemary Nalden, founder of Buskaid in Soweto, in a TED talk given in March.

Solti remembered

I had a long and fascinating interview with Lady Valerie Solti about her husband earlier this year and five sections of it are available to see on Sinfini Music, the new webzine recently launched under the auspices of (though editorially independent from) Universal Classics. Here's my article and the first of the films. Here is another chunk in which Lady Valerie talks about Solti's early life. And one in which she discusses Solti's last project, the work that he never lived to conduct, the score of which still stands on his desk today...

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Bourne's Beauty blazes bright

Now here is a cracker for Christmas. Some 20 years after choreographer Matthew Bourne (right) first leapt into the Tchaikovsky waters and swam, with The Nutcracker, he has completed the classic trilogy with his long-awaited Sleeping Beauty, now on at Sadler's Wells.

I'll admit it's not impossible that seeing it 24 hours after Robert le Diable made me enjoy it all the more; Tchaikovsky doesn't half sound great after Meyerbeer. But - like Bourne's legendary Swan Lake and his inspired, wartime-London Cinderella - this Sleeping Beauty, performed by Bourne's New Adventures, pulls you into its own world from the start.

The secret is, of course, the music. That's where Bourne's magic often lies: in his passion for, and understanding of, the emotional resonances of a score that sometimes aren't articulated in the original choreography. Rather touchingly, he has dedicated the show to the memory of Tchaikovsky. And though it's been cut - including interval, it's just two and a quarter hours long - Bourne has an unerring way of homing in on the bits that everyone adores and making the most of the drama in them, elements that the original choreographer, Marius Petipa, sometimes prefers to mask. The tension in the storytelling is plentiful, and there are plenty of laughs, too. Designs are by Bourne's chief collaborator Lez Brotherson: sumptuous, detailed and glowing with rich colour to match that of the music, with fantastical shards of lilac and green for the fairies, exquisite Edwardian gowns for the birthday party, scarlet and ebony catwalk-style for the weird final act...

 We start in 1890. The king and queen are childless - and it's Carabosse who remedies the situation. Aurora therefore is a changeling, perhaps stolen from the woods or fields - though I read it at first as Carabosse being the surrogate mother to end all surrogate motherhood. This not-so-royal Aurora has a wild nature and the curtain rises on mayhem in the nursery as the baby, brilliantly puppeteered, crawls everywhere, teasing her minders and climbing the curtains. The fairies - three of whom are male, Count Lilac (Christopher Marney) included - sneak in by night beneath a vast moon and deliver their solos, watched by the fascinated puppet-baby: they endow her with such qualities as ardour, resilience and, with finger-pointing Golden Vine Petipa references, temperament in the form of the fairy Tantrum (the terrific Liam Mower, once an original-cast Billy Elliot on the West End stage). But the king has not shown his gratitude to Carabosse and she arrives for her revenge - her prophecy acted out by its future protagonists, with a blank mask over Aurora's face. The vision produces the visceral terror any parents would feel upon being told their lovely daughter will die in agony. For once you realise the power of Carabosse's curse. This isn't just a nasty fairy story; it is the worst thing that could happen to them.

Count Lilac saves the day. He's a vampire. Lilacula? The Lilac Fairy is usually the symbol of all that's good; vampires, on the whole, are not. This takes a little getting used to. But we can cope with that.

Fast-forward to the golden Edwardian summer of 1911, and Aurora is fighting to get her stockings off. Most Auroras are wedded to their pointe shoes; we watch their Rose Adage balances for any hint of wobbling ankle. But this Aurora - danced by the flexible and radiant Hannah Vassallo - is inspired by Isadora Duncan and she leaps free, wondrous, expressive and barefoot. Besides, she's hiding her childhood sweetheart, Leo the gardener, under her bed. The party is in the garden; the waltz's props are not garlands, but tennis rackets. Aurora misbehaves. Then into the gathering walks Vladimir Jurowski...

No, no, not really - it's Caradoc, son of the deceased Carabosse, played by the same dancer, the sultry Ben Bunce, ready to take revenge on his mother's behalf. Dark, sensual, sexy and evil, he brings with him a black rose. Aurora is both attracted and fearful. The rose seems to intoxicate her when she sniffs it. The Rose Adage becomes the dramatic climax. It starts as a sweet evocation of young love for her and Leo - Dominic North, whose appealing, gauche manner is underpinned during the course of the show by some serious technical virtuosity - but turns to tragedy when the black rose's thorn does the inevitable. (Editor's note to Petipa: in a land where spindles are banned on pain of death, how come your Aurora is allowed to handle roses?) Poor Leo, who's been tending the palace rosebeds, is blamed. Once again Count Lilac must save the day. But how is Leo to stay alive 100 years to be there for Aurora when she wakes up? A few lilac teeth in the neck sort that out.

A hundred years later, it's 2011. Leo, emerging from a tent by the locked gates of the palace, now has wings; he's one of the immortals/undead. Lilac gives him the key to the portals and they enter the Land of Sleepwalkers, where the Vision Scene is alive and well in the starlit woods.

Tchaikovsky's phenomenal sleep music - one of his most magical passages - finds Caradoc inside the palace, trying in vain to awaken Aurora. She doesn't respond to his kisses. There's a fast-asleep pas de deux, a la Romeo and Juliet tomb scene. The awakening itself becomes a showdown between Leo and Caradoc - and it certainly doesn't end the way you expect. Instead, the plot thickens...

Cue 2011, and something more akin to Eyes Wide Shut than Puss in Boots. Caradoc now has his own logo, and possibly his own fashion label. His red and black nightclub and its leather couches are preparing not so much for a wedding as for a satanic ritual, or worse. Aurora, zombified, arrives in wedding dress, a sacrificial victim (above).

Into this scene slinks the hapless Leo, ready to rescue his beloved. Caradoc, horribly transformed into a bare-chested Dracula with wings, towers over her, ready to bite or rape or kill - and Leo stabs him through the heart with his own logo. Not a wooden stake, but we can deal with that too, and it says plenty about logos. Does this show innocence and everlasting true love winning the day over the evils of fly-by-night fashion, sleb cultcha and materialism? Hope so.

The great pas de deux music signals Leo's reunion with the sobered-through-experience Isadora Aurora: freed from stylised classicism, it allows them unfettered expression, and I don't think I'm the only one who shed a quiet tear at the liberation of the lovers, Aurora's feet and Tchaikovsky himself. Ultimately the couple produce their own bewinged puppet-baby. "They all lived happily ever after" acquires certain new resonances in the context of the undead.

It's brilliant, beautiful, utterly bananas, overwhelming in its tenderness, dazzling in its imaginative freedom - and it works because it all springs from love and respect for the original. Admittedly, sometimes one wants more focus to the sculptural aspects of Bourne's choreography; if/when I missed Petipa, it was the great corps-de-ballet set pieces plus the fairies' ensemble of the prologue. Still, the concepts mostly work well: the waltz is perfect Edwardiana, the red and black Polonaise scarily coordinated for contemporary decadence. The highlights are the pas de deux, which give the lovers freedom to relish the music's blazing emotion: Aurora takes flying, barelegged leaps into Leo's arms; their bodies eat up the space in almost more than three dimensions as they spiral about the stage.

Perhaps it depends what you want from a Sleeping Beauty and how attached you are to Petipa's original. If the answers to those are respectively "a long evening including every piece Tchaikovsky provided" and "very", this mightn't be for you. (It wasn't really for The Arts Desk's Ismene Brown.) But for others, beside fresh air such as this, Petipa - astonishing though he will always remain - could feel just a little fettered and fussy. I loved it to pieces.

The music was recorded specially for the show and is rendered warm and passionate, with lovely violin solos from Gina McCormack. I'd prefer it to be live, but I guess you can't have everything.

Apart from that, the announcement this week of the Duchess of Cambridge's pregnancy couldn't have been better timed.

The Sleeping Beauty continues at Sadler's Wells until 26 January, then tours.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Everything you wanted to know about French 19th-century grand opera but were afraid to ask

Robert le Diable opened last night and I think we can expect a few divisions on the topic.

The singing is phenomenal - and the demands of the leading roles every bit as difficult as Bryan Hymel said. He deserves a raft of gold medals. So does soprano Patrizia Ciofi - stepping in at the last minute to replace Jennifer Rowley - as well as Marina Poplavskaya, John Relyea and a newcomer,  Jean-Francois Borras, making an impressive house debut as Raimbaut: a high French tenor of another kind, with effortless projection, bel canto-ish legato and a bright, appealing stage presence.

The production, by Laurent Pelly, is very, very Pelly: plenty of irony, humour (intentional and maybe not) and wacky designs - sets by Chantal Thomas, costumes by Pelly himself: a stylised storybook complete with Spamalot knights, kooky princess, bright painted horses, sketched mountain scenery and a man-in-a-bear-suit. And those vengeful dead nuns. Doing what such beings do when they're allowed out of their tombs. A few spectacular coups-de-theatre help matters along.

It's a sterling effort by all concerned. But the big question is this: is the opera worth it? Just think of all the hard work and expertise that went into it. Think of how much it must have cost. And wonder what planet Covent Garden was on. It's Springtime for Meyerbeer...some of us hadn't laughed so much since we saw The Producers.

Try to be serious. This opera is important. Really, seriously important. It was performed around 750 times across the middle of the 19th century and to see it is to begin to understand all those matters about that time that you read about, and sort of know about, but don't usually have the chance to experience viscerally.

You see where many subsequent, much better works originated. Giselle, for instance - as Alice clings to the cross, or as the not-very-willi-like dancers gear up for action. And also Carmen - no kidding. Alice is a foreshadow of Micaela: molested by soldiers on her first appearance, trying to find Robert to bring him news that his mother has died; later, searching alone and fearful for her lover in the mountains, while we know he has been led astray by the demon Bertram. Bizet's audience, familiar with Robert le Diable, was being set up to identify Carmen herself with the devil.

"A masterpiece," said Chopin, who was 21 at the time of the premiere. Really? Remember, it was 1831 and nobody had ever heard anything like this before. It was four years since Beethoven died, three years since Schubert. The great romantics - Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner, Verdi as well as Chopin - were aged between 17 and 22. An off-stage orchestra and chorus suggesting hell! A real workout for the brass section! Imaginative instrumentation, as brightly coloured as Pelly's costumes, including mega-solos for flute, for lead cello and so on. Absolutely dizzying vocal display. Foot-tapping rhythms (someone in the row behind me did so every time an oom-chah passage started up, which said much). Oh yes, and more people believed in Destiny, the hell thing, the devil thing and the ghost thing than do so today, so the suspension of disbelief may not have been so difficult and it might all have been scary instead of hilarious.

As for the libretto, I know you have to suspend disbelief and so forth, but - well, it makes most other clunky opera stories look like flippin' Dickens. How do you sympathise with a hero who lets everyone down and can't see that his beloved companion is evil incarnate even though everyone else can? Was he the ill-fated romantic hero, like Byron's Manfred, eternally cursed and cast out? If so, how come he gets to live happily ever after? And there's a wonderful moment when he faces Isabelle to try to make up, and she wants him to take part in the tournament, but he's lost his weapons. "Here's one I made earlier," she says (sort of), producing a sword for him from nowhere. Pelly's vision of hell, meanwhile, involved fiery screen projections in which a little demon figure tipped cartoon stickmen into a tumbly abyssy pit with a pitchfork. This can do terrible things to a girl's mascara.

Over the years I've read reams about what Faure and co were fighting against - being expected to become composers of super-popular grand opera to make their fortune, when it was the last thing they wanted to write. It's only now that I realise exactly what they had to contend with. Imagine being Faure, with all his sensitivity and intuition and passion for Schumann and early church music and intimate songs and chamber music - but the French loved this? Oh, my ears and whiskers.

This opera sums up much that was characteristic of its day, and perhaps a good deal that was wrong with the mindset. Because of this, I'm pleased they've done it: it fills in our musical education in a very particular way and provides some real perspective on, er, the good stuff.

What works of the 20th-century and the early 21st, I wonder, will be exhumed from deserved burial in 122 years' time and allowed their auto-erotic hour of dancing to show bemused people what was characteristic of, and wrong with, our life and attitudes?

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Trifonov: Try Phone Off.

One for the appropriate names department at the QEH last night. Daniil Trifonov, the 21-year-old Russian whizz-kid who has scooped top prize at both the Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein competitions and third in the Chopin, came to London for his South Bank recital debut, which duly blew our socks off. But music is as much about silence as about sound. In that great silence at the ultimate climax of the Liszt B minor Sonata, there it was, wouldn't you know it...the mobile going off.

And not off. It went on and on. The admirable TryPhoneOff wasn't remotely fazed, carrying on with aplomb as if nothing had happened. But for the rest of us, who had been following the narrative thread on the edge of our seats - for this Liszt was a fantastical Bulgakovesque page-turner - the timing could scarcely have been worse. It does scupper the experience to a large degree and there is no excuse except carelessness and, I'm afraid, plain old human stupidity. It's time for concert halls to introduce signal blockers at best, or bouncers in place of ushers at worst. Possibly both. Otherwise it can only be a matter of time before an audience group gets together to form a vigilante clique, perhaps with whips.

OK, so much for the phone. What of the Fon? Friends, please welcome a very major talent. He may be just 21, but Trifonov somehow makes me think of a taller, thinner, younger, embryonic kind of Sokolov-to-be. He's an old-school Russian, with that sense of colour and drama - as if the Liszt B minor Sonata and the Chopin Preludes are great narratives like The Master and Margarita or Anna Karenina itself: mighty struggles between good and evil, with, in the case of the Chopin, an apocalyptic conclusion balanced earlier by perfect songs-without-words and a deep sensitivity to the evanescence of absolute beauty. There's that Chaliapin-like phrasing, the breath strongest at the start of the phrase; there's an identification with the Russian sense of vastness, and a pride in it. He takes risks - as much with the softness he can evoke as with the juggernauts of octaves he can unleash when required. The Scriabin Sonata No.2 came out in three-dimensional textures, lit by a stained-glass window of synaesthetic luminous legato. There's an energy that crackles around him from the minute he steps on stage - as if he functions at a higher vibration level than most people.

The programme was cleverly chosen to show off his strength in fantastical, mercurial imagination; and in the encores he romped home to Russian territory with a Medtner Fairy Tale, a mind-busting transcription of the Infernal Dance from the Firebird by Stravinsky - something I've never heard on the piano before and don't anticipate hearing again anytime soon, given its challenges - and a little calm-down-dears extra piece to close that [UPDATE] has turned out to be a little something of his own.

Let's hope that Trifonov can sustain, guard and further develop his glorious pianism and sterling musicianship without the undoubted stardom he faces wreaking materialistic havoc. I'm an optimist in this case, and I think he can make it.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012


New year, new resolution: KICKSTART YOUR WRITING is back! I've designed this special workshop as a total-immersion day for anyone who has ever said "I've always wanted to write, BUT...": here's your chance to get rid of your "but". So to speak.

In a small group with a supportive and non-critical atmosphere, we explore ways to help you get started. You don't need to bring anything except paper and a pen and you can share your work during the session or not, as you like. Places are strictly limited, so book soon! For more info and booking, please email

The first workshop of 2013 will be on SUNDAY 13 JANUARY in SW London, 10.30am to 4.30pm-ish.

Please share this post if you like the look of it.

Monday, December 03, 2012

A Diable of a tenor: meet Bryan Hymel

You have to hear Bryan Hymel, the American French-style "heroic tenor" who's about to sing the title role of Robert le Diable at the Royal Opera House. He has already become the darling of Covent Garden, stepping in to replace an indisposed Jonas Kaufmann for Les Troyens earlier this year and earning out-and-out raves. I've had a good chat with him about Robert - especially about the particular quality of voice that is required for it, and that he has, and that is a rare marvel today: in a way, the white tiger of the tenor jungle. Just listen to this, from Rossini's Guillaume Tell.

JD: So, Bryan, how’s it going? 
BH: Really well! Each act has its own feeling and mood - it’s good to get into each one. I’ve done the opera before, but only in concert. With this production it’s exciting to see the possibilities, and the stylised way that Laurent [Pelly] envisions the piece is great. It’s a lot of fun.

JD: What are the special challenges that you face in this role? 

BH: First, it’s really high. The range and the majority of the notes lie in a very high part of the voice. This range and the length of the opera are the biggest challenges: my approach is to take it in little chunks, digest them and make sure I’m singing as efficiently as possible. Fortunately I had the chance to do it in concert, just concentrating on the singing and the music, so I was ahead of the game, knowing what to expect of that. What’s going to make it exciting for the audience is also what’s exciting and challenging for us, because all the four main characters’ roles are written that way. They use the whole range, well over two octaves - and the soprano has almost two and a half octaves. You don’t hear that very often, even in things like Lucia. It's extremely virtuosic singing, but the interaction between the characters, especially Robert and Isabelle, is also very dramatic. He thinks she’s left him for another knight and he’s the scorned lover; and in Act 4 he has to fight away the crazy nuns in the ballet. I think the spectacle and the drama will be very exciting in the house. 

JD: Do you think the melodramatic quality and the virtuosity is what made it such an incredible success in its time? 
BH: I do, and I think you have to have the singers and actors that can pull it off. And there are some wonderful moments – that’s an integral factor for any piece to stand the test of time. Maybe it’s 30 seconds or one aria that the audience is waiting for - and there's at least one such bit in every act. There are some really beautiful stand-alone pieces. I hope it will be a reawakening of this repertoire. But it’s hard, especially when times are tough and there’s not a lot of money; a lot of forces are involved in this opera, a big orchestra, the chorus and the ballet. 

JD: How would you account for its neglect?
BH: I think it’s really hard to cast! It’s difficult to get four singers together at the same time who can sing these parts. They contacted me about this over three years ago - it was planned that far in advance. At the time everyone was the same [as the concert performance] except Diana Damrau who’s just had a baby – she’s the only one not here from the original team. It’s not standard repertoire and none of us knew the roles before that. The last time it was done on stage was in Paris in the late 1990s. You need the time to learn the role and get it into your body because it’s not just about singing the notes. You have to be able to do it in an artistic way while still giving the illusion it’s easy. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to sing, by a good bit! 

[UPDATE, 3 December 12 noon: the ROH has just announced that the role of Isabelle will not now be sung by Jennifer Rowley, but instead by Patricia Ciofi and Sofia Fomina.]

JD: Wagner was hugely influenced by Meyerbeer...
BH: I’ve never sung any Wagner – it's a different voice type – but I can certainly see how Meyerbeer’s writing would have influenced Wagner's, especially in the ballet. The music uses very progressive tonalities for the time and it’s great writing. It’s what probably gave Wagner the idea to make the orchestra an equal part of the opera, as opposed to just accompanying the singers - I think Meyerbeer’s already started to do that here. The ballet is almost the most famous thing in the opera, not just because it’s great, but also because it’s shocking to the audience – and not just because it’s nuns behaving badly. I don't think the audience was used to hearing music that was so much part of telling the story. It’s doing much more than setting the mood. There are lots of little solos between instruments that I haven’t heard in operas written before that time. I can see how Meyerbeer influenced Wagner in that way.

JD: Some people suggest that Meyerbeer is too "kitsch" to be convincing today...
BH: If you want to be that way about it, you can – because there are some silly moments. But if you're a Wagner person I think it’s hard to look down your nose too much at anyone else, because the way the drama moves - slow and laboured - that’s part of the style you see in Wagner. And in general, you have to suspend disbelief in opera to enjoy it. I mean, look at L'Elisir! If you buy into Wagner being six hour long, then when you walk into the theatre you approach it from a different place - and I think if an audience doesn’t do that, then they’re not going to enjoy it. 

Laurent Pelly has shrewedly set the audience up for this. Act 1 is set in a tavern, everyone’s drinking and I think that’s an easy way to open the piece. In Act 2 we have the jousting and the tournament: the horses are red, yellow, green and blue, and the chorus singers supporting each horse are painted the same colour, even their arms and faces. I think he has a way of easing the audience into the opera and saying 'This is not what you might expect, but let us lead you there'... so by the end, people will really appreciate it. We’ve made some cuts that I think help to move things along. The French, for grand opera, wanted a long evening in the theatre – they went along for that! It might be a little far for modern audiences to go there right away, but I think we’re going to give it a good shot.

JD: Yout high tenor role is something particularly characteristic of French opera? 
BH: Yes. I would say that Berlioz, Meyerbeer, Auber, etc, were writing for a specific kind of tenor voice – it’s a very different style from the Italian and it involves another approach to the high notes. Italians often throw in a high note out of the blue and I think it was written in that way so that if a tenor had that note he could put it in, and if he didn’t - and probably most of them didn’t! - you could just go on without it and unless people knew the music well, it wouldn’t strike them as funny. Here, though, there’s no way not to do the high notes and that’s what makes it really tricky. Being a tenor who sings this repertoire, I know that if I’m not feeling 95 per cent, the note’s just not going to come out! Rossini wrote Guillaume Tell in a similar fashion. The term at the time was 'heroic tenor', because though it was high it’s still very visceral. 

Meyerbeer and these guys were writing for a specific kind of singer; those tenors were just starting to sing the high notes in their full chest voice right before this was written. Some of them still would go into the voix mixte. That wouldn’t work today: the theatres are too big and the orchestras are too loud for those sounds to be heard. 

When they first sent [the score] to me I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. Three years down the line you think hopefully your vocal progress will have continued to grow, but even though I could sing it at the time, I wasn’t comfortable enough about saying 'OK let’s do the title role in this opera at Covent Garden'. It’s been three years that this has been looming over my head! Now that I’m here, thank goodness I feel in the best shape I can be in. Coming from Les Troyens I feel I have the confidence and a kind of support and relationship with the audience here in London. I think we’re going to present something they’ll look forward to. I feel strongly about the piece, I’m excited aboutit and through the rehearsals I've felt I’m in a good place. 

JD: Well, if you guys can't pull this off, then nobody can.
BH: I think that’s probably true! 

[Production photos: Bill Cooper/ROH]