Monday, August 31, 2015

Orphée et Eurydice: grief and catharsis at the ROH

(This was originally for the Independent's Observations section the other day.)

The new season at the Royal Opera House opens with a collaborative effort unusual enough to seem a tad startling. Orphée et Eurydice, by Christoph Willibald Gluck, is an 18th-century classic of the first order, mingling singing, dance and orchestral interludes in the service of a timeless Greek myth. To realise it, the theatre is opening its doors to the Israeli-born, London-based choreographer and composer Hofesh Shechter and his company of 22 dancers; and also to the conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his orchestra and chorus, the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir. The celebrated Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez sings the title role, the British soprano Lucy Crowe is his Eurydice, and the production is co-directed by John Fulljames and Shechter.

It is Shechter’s first venture into opera – and he is on board because he simply fell in love with the Gluck. “I was offered work in opera before and refused,” he says. “I have to feel I’m connecting with the music when I make dance for it and when I heard this I felt there was something about the simplicity of it that seemed to lend itself to dance. Often operatic music can feel very busy, or doesn’t leave enough space for the imagination. Something about Orphée, though, is pure, spacious and open. I really love it and I was very curious about how my style of movement would fit with it and how it would bring other qualities and feelings into my material.”

This collaboration is a new departure for John Fulljames, too: “I have no choreographic training, and this is Hofesh’s first experience in opera, so I think there’s a good complementarity there,” he remarks. “One of the most important things about Hofesh is that he’s not only a choreographer; he’s a musician. He’s unique amongst choreographers at his level in that he not only makes his own choreography, but usually he also writes his own music – so it’s been fascinating for him to work with existing music and to respond to it in detail.”

When Orphée’s beloved Eurydice dies, the demigod travels beyond the grave to try to bring her back, aided by the power of his music. The story, suggests Fulljames, is at heart all about coming to terms with the loss of a loved one.

“I love this opera’s directness,” he says. “It’s extraordinarily undecorated. So much opera risks being sentimental or melodramatic – but this is the opposite. Gluck strips back everything in order to get to an emotional truth: he’s interested in exploring grief and the relationship of love to loss. You really understand love when you understand loss. I think the piece is an extraordinary study of the grieving process, going through stages of anger and betrayal and eventually reaching a point of acceptance about loss. Its consequence is coming to a much greater understanding of love.”

With all this to relish, the joy of hearing Flórez sing the aria immortalised by the great English contralto Kathleen Ferrier in translation as “I have lost my Eurydice” can only be a bonus. 

Saturday, August 29, 2015

1984: a love story

The other day I was talking to Northern Ballet's lead dancer Toby Batley about his new role as Winston in Jonathan Watkins's new ballet adaptation of 1984 and what shocked me was that he said people had kept asking him in anxiety if it wasn't going to be all dark and depressing.

1984? Of course it's bloody dark, I thought, and why ever not? What's wrong with dancing the dark? How has ballet reached a point at which if it's not all tutus and glitter and fairy-tales, people are anxious?

Anyway, dancer, choreographer and composer all told me that actually it's not too dark for ballet. It's a love story. A dark love story. So is Romeo and Juliet.

I've written a feature for The Independent on the new piece and it's in today's edition.

1984 opens in Leeds next week. See it!

If you go to a ballet that tells a story, chances are that you will see a fairy tale, a pastoral idyll, or one of an apparently endless stream of different Alice in Wonderlands. Dance does offer meatier dramas – Romeo and Juliet, Manon or Mayerling, for instance – but there is undoubtedly room for more, and especially for work that tackles gritty contemporary classics. 

At Northern Ballet a quiet revolution has been taking place in the past decade or so as the company – now 45 years old – has created a fount of new narrative works, most choreographed by its artistic director, David Nixon. Among these are Wuthering Heights, Cleopatra and The Great Gatsby. But next comes a very different production: a new adaptation by the choreographer Jonathan Watkins of George Orwell’s novel 1984

Tobias Batley as Winston. Photo: Guy Farrow
It portrays, famously, a dystopian society dominated by Big Brother’s surveillance, subjugating the individual mind and experiential truths to Party lines perforce. The hero, Winston, enters into a rapturous love affair with his co-worker Julia, only to find himself trapped for betraying the system; under torture his will is broken. Though the book’s concepts are household names – thought crime, Big Brother, Room 101 – it might seem a tough story to express in movement alone; and more disturbing is the idea that some might consider it too dark for dance. Has the medium been primarily associated with escapism for too long?

Tobias Batley, who dances Winston, partnering Martha Leebolt as Julia, insists that 1984 is not all gloom. “Many people have voiced their worry that it’ll be a dark and depressing ballet,” he reflects, “but it depends what you take away from it. We’re focusing strongly on the central love story. When I read the book for the first time, years ago, that was the most important part for me. 

“There’s something incredible about this secret love between Winston and Julia,” he adds, “but it has so much power behind it because it’s uplifted by the contrast with all the darkness outside. Of course it ends tragically – but Romeo and Juliet is also terrible at the end. The saddest thing is that Winston and Julia are at the absolute height of this love, feeling it’s perfect and they’re safe, and then the floor just drops out from under them. It’s heart-wrenching when you realise that they have been watched all along. It’s a very touching role to play.”

Watkins himself first told Batley about 1984 when they were both teenagers at the Royal Ballet School: for this young Barnsley-born choreographer, the novel has been a long-standing obsession. “I wasn’t a great reader when I was young,” Watkins says, “but I was somehow drawn to this book and I remember reading it on the train on my way back from Yorkshire to White Lodge [the Royal Ballet’s junior school in Richmond Park] of my own accord. It inspired my earlier work in a wider sense. This idea of realising it in a narrative ballet has been bubbling away and I knew I was going to be doing it sometime.” 

Tobias Batley and Martha Leebolt as Winston and Julia. Photo: Guy Farrow
Then came the perfect opportunity: an approach from Northern Ballet, which encountered Watkins’s dance version of Kes (based on Barry Hines’ novel A Kestrel for a Knave) when it was staged last year at the Sheffield Crucible. “I thought 1984 would be a really good fit for them because of their dancer-actor capabilities,” says Watkins. “They’re an amazing group of artists and they’re very committed to it.” For the company’s 45th birthday gala earlier this year, he also created “a much more light-hearted piece, based on some Stanley Holloway monologues – a really quirky celebration of the north.”

“I feel that narrative dance can appeal in a much more reflective, modern way, with resonance for the times in which we’re living,” Watkins says. “That’s why I wanted to use 1984. And in the book there is that mass control of groups of people by the Party, that military uniformity of a group – what better way to show that than in dance? For me there’s lots of scope in that balletic platform.” The single most difficult thing, he remarks, was deciding which elements of the book to leave out.

“It’s nowhere near ‘too dark’,” he comments. “I don’t understand why we can’t approach a ballet like a newly written play. Why can’t it be relevant to our times now? It’s great to have escapism, but it’s also great to see something that we can reflect on. As for the times we’re living in, everyone knows there’s surveillance up to the hilt, so it feels like the concepts it touches on already can relate to your life now. That makes sense to me as an artist and a creative, regardless of whether it’s dark. Life is dark.”

Watkins began his career with the Royal Ballet in London, but left two years ago for freelance pastures new. His work draws on a cocktail of influences, mingling his first-rate ballet training with the impact of film and theatre. On his website you can watch several short dance films that he made a few years ago for Channel 4, bringing the language of ballet right into the here and now. One, entitled Sofa, portrays a dance epiphany for a beer-bellied bloke during a solitary night in; another visualises the interior world of a young man listening to music while waiting for a bus. His Kes (“Everyone in Barnsley knows the Ken Loach film,” he remarks) made a powerful impact, not least for the sheer audacity of the idea. 

Through his passion for spoken drama Watkins got to know the composer Alex Baranowski, who was working on a range of productions at the National Theatre, as well as writing music for films such as Hamlet, starring Maxine Peak, and the BAFTA-nominated McCullin. The pair have collaborated on several projects, including Sofa amd Kes; for 1984 Baranowski has created a new 100-minute score. 

He and Watkins worked intensively together on the scenario, he says, batting musical and dance ideas back and forth by email and in coffee shops for a good year. “Musically we were very conscious of not being big and down and dark, especially with the cells before Room 101,” says Baranowski. “There’s a relatively long scene with the prisoners who’ve been accused of thought crimes and so on, whom Winston meets. We chose to be quite minimalist, using textures of sounds and noises – rather than, for instance, relentless minor chords and big drums. We rewrote each scene about three times, trying to figure out the best way to tell the story. Sometimes Jonathan would send me a video of the movements he was working on and it’s amazing to find that when I’ve put in a little beat or a drum or a clarinet flourish, he’ll work that into the movements. It’s wonderful to work with a live orchestra and I’m using it for all it’s worth, with all its different noises and textures.” 

And so a new generation of choreographers and composers like Watkins and Baranowski may now reinvent narrative dance for the 21st century, unafraid to engage with the grittiest and darkest of dramas. Bring it on.

1984 opens at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on 5 September, then tours. For full details and booking, visit

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Free Kavakos!

Yuri Temirkanov (left) and Leonidas Kavakos (right) can be heard live from Annecy right here, tomorrow

Free Kavakos? Why are they holding him?

OK, just kidding. But you can indeed watch and listen to the fabulous Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos for free on JDCMB tomorrow. We are live-streaming a concert from the Annecy Classic Festival, in a webcast shared exclusively with us by Kavakos is playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto and Yuri Temirkanov conducts the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra. The second half consists of something rather special that may surprise regular readers of JDCMB.

The performance starts at 21:00 French time, so in the UK it will begin at 8pm and in New York 3pm. Further west, I'm sure you can work it out for yourself.

Fingers crossed that I've got all the technology correctly set up...

Monday, August 17, 2015

Magic mountains 2: Into the woods, with the Strausses

A double-bass player walks to work in the Taiswald

I started to go to Pontresina with my parents at the age of 12, more years ago than it's seemly to admit. This mountain resort in the Engadin, south-east Switzerland, with its open, sunny aspect and jaw-shattering scenery became their favourite summer haunt; over the decade that followed I must have been there with them for at least six or seven summers. But I hadn't gone back since 1988 and both my parents are long dead.

This being a slightly difficult, landmark, stock-taking sort of year, I had an attack of nostalgia and wanted to visit once more, just to make sure it was still there, still real, and still as good as my romanticised imagination and memory has been making out.

It wasn't. It was far better. And there was no getting away from the music.

Every day, I remembered, there used to be a free concert in the woods, from 11am to 12 noon. The spot is called the Taiswald: a pine glade near the start of the mountain pathways, where the audience can assemble on benches to listen to an hour-long chamber programme of old-style favourites, lollipops, operetta medleys, arrangements, concerto extracts and more. I dreaded walking that way and finding the place had fallen into disuse. Switzerland seems quiet at the moment - the exchange rate could well be decimating  tourism - and after all, people don't go to concerts any more, if the doomsayers are to be believed.

Well, they do here. The Taiswald is flourishing. More than a hundred people came to the Camerata Pontresina's concert on Friday, a programme full of juicy tidbits like Offenbach's Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld (which I haven't heard since, probably, my last visit to the Taiswald), Johann Strauss's Music of the Spheres Waltz and Fischer's delicious South of the Alps Suite. Some things have changed with the years: for instance, there's now a printed booklet displaying the programmes for the whole summer. Similar outdoor series take place in nearby towns and villages, among them St Moritz and Sil Maria. The concerts are organised by an impresario in St Moritz who, I'm told, has a personal library of the arrangements.

The musicians arrive to play here from all over Switzerland - we met a cellist from the Zurich Opera, a fine young clarinettist who's studying in Lucerne, and of course the double bassist above. They must contend with the vagaries of the elements - Friday was blowy, with commensurate effect on the music on the stands, which they dealt with by using clothes-pegs (though if the weather is too awful the concert takes place in the church or cinema instead). And the trains go by, whistling, and the dogs trot past, barking, and occasionally newcomers arrive, open mouthed with surprise at finding such an eccentric pastime taking place in the forest - and sometimes they sit down to enjoy the music. As for the piano: it lives in the pavilion year-round, winter included. It still sounds relatively OK.

Camerata Pontresina preparing to play in the Taiswald

The Taiswald, it turns out, is an old and proud tradition. It has been going since 1909; in 2009 centenary celebrations were duly held. Among those who came across it and sat down to listen many decades ago was Richard Strauss - who was apparently scandalised by hearing an arrangement of a Mozart symphony for quartet and said it should be forbidden!

Strauss. I didn't realise how important Strauss was to me. I just never thought about it. I took him for granted. But the fact remains that the first piece that switched me on to orchestral music in earnest was his Don Juan. I was given a ticket for a Royal Phil matinee at the RFH when I was 12 and it opened with the tone poem, which I'd never heard before. When it flew out at us, the energy lifted me and held me up and I remember falling head over heels in love with the whole thing on the spot. I wanted to be part of it. Don Juan swept me off my feet. Eventually, having not managed to become part of an orchestra myself, I married a violinist who was - and in whose background Strauss features prominently. Tom's great-grandfather was a Berlin businessman with a summer house in Bavaria, not far from Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and he knew the composer well; indeed, was a Skat-playing companion on summer evenings by the lakes.

Last Friday, we went to listen to a talk in the Hotel Saratz by the Swiss singer, musicologist and moderator Claudio Danuser about Strauss's connection with Pontresina. When Strauss's villa in Garmisch was requisitioned by the Americans at the end of the war, Strauss and his famously cantankerous wife Pauline took off for Switzerland. They moved hotels frequently because Pauline, true to form, kept falling out with the staff. But the family-run Saratz in Pontresina was a special favourite. Claudio had interviewed the proprietor about Strauss's stays there and was full of fascinating stories - among them, the Taiswald occasion mentioned above. Another time, the couple walked into the dining room and found musicians accompanying dinner. "Richardl," said Pauline, "play some Johann."

In the hotel garden is a wooden pavilion with a view across to the mountains of the Val Roseg, along which a favourite walk can be taken. It was in this structure in 1948 that Strauss completed the last of the Four Last Songs to be composed - 'Beim schlafengehen', ultimately the third in the set. I've always felt there is nothing in all 20th-century music that can quite compare with the beauty of this song and its violin solo.

The pavilion in the Hotel Saratz garden, where Strauss finished 'Beim schlafengehen'

So the elderly Richard Strauss was looking out at the Val Roseg as he worked on it. You can't really see the view in this photo, as it was very cloudy, but on a good day, when you are walking along it, the valley looks like this:

The Val Roseg, Pontresina

A mere 30 years later, there we were, me and my mum and dad, in the hotel next door. And in its garden, gazing at the same view as Strauss, without knowing it. I remember staying in a garden-floor room that must have been just a few metres away from that pavilion. Aged 14 I felt there was something in the air itself that was galvanising to creativity and I'd sit in the garden scribbling my attempts at novels by day and, by night, having the extraordinary dreams that one has at high altitude after dayfuls of fresh air and mountain walks. With no clue about Strauss - or anyone else, for Hermann Hesse apparently came here too, and Thomas Mann, and so on.......

It sounds matter-of-fact and so-what-anyhow to tell the story; but when something and somewhere and someone and that music have been as much part of you as your own nose for such a long time and you then learn something new about how it all connects, it feels quite another matter.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
-- TS ELIOT, 'Little Gidding'

Here's the Strauss - sung by Nina Stemme.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Return to the magic mountains 1: Manon Lescaut in Munich

You may think you're on holiday. It depends, though, what you mean by "holiday". I've been away for two and a half weeks, but this time has been brimming over with music, serendipity and a good few marvels of both. Every day has brought something new, a character from past or present, a startling contact or renewal, a joy or amazement, a revelation or insight or several, and I may need to take them one at a time...

I headed first for Munich and the Bavarian State Opera, steamy in the midst of a massive heat wave; here the final night of the annual Opera Festival brought Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais together again for Puccini's Manon Lescaut, relayed to the city on big screens and webcast to the world. This was the production by Hans Neuenfels that at the start of the season saw Anna Netrebko drop her participation, citing "artistic differences".

The square outside the Bavarian State Opera prepares for the relay

It's a bit of a mixed bag. The relationship of Manon and Des Grieux and its development is by far the most convincing element, and so it should be; the final act, the two of them in extremis, is a searing tragedy, full of struggle - Manon's passion fighting against the invasion of death, thumping the ground to bring back her despairing lover to her side. Opolais blossomed vocally and dramatically in the role to an even greater extent, perhaps, than she did at Covent Garden last year; Kaufmann simply soared along at the summit. Fine singing throughout in the supporting roles and chorus - but I am not sure I will ever get my head around the necessity for this chorus to wiggle about in fat-suits and pink wigs. Alain Altinoglu's conducting too brought patchy results: the opening tempo felt extremely fast, and some of the accompaniment was too loud, but often - not least in the intermezzo - it held a gorgeous eloquence.

Here Neuenfels, Altinoglu, Opolais and Kaufmann explore and explain the concept and the challenges of the opera.

A few days later, discussing the issue of the fat-suits and other potentially dubious details with friends who loved the production, I tried to see it their way: it shows Manon and Des Grieux defying convention, a pair of individualists in a world in which everyone else looks and behaves the same (except, presumably, for the Dancing Master, who turns up bearing some resemblance to an orang-utan, perhaps a refugee from Munich's old Rigoletto production set on the Planet of the Apes). As the introductory film declares, Manon and Des Grieux are seeing the world around them as nothing more than a preposterous installation compared to their love. Yet Jonathan Kent's production at Covent Garden last year spoke far more to me of the darker truths of this story in an incarnation for today's world, where it remains the most "relevant" opera of them all.

So what's the essential problem with Manon Lescaut? It could just be that the original book is a short, terse, taut, action-packed, 18th-century thriller. It shows us Des Grieux torn apart by his passion for a girl who wants to have her cake and eat it and whose charm makes her attractive, but who is more anti-heroine than sympathetic lead. Romanticising her never quite works, and that is not the fault of Puccini, nor of any director: it's simply that Abbé Prévost's novel is too finely wrought to allow such a metamorphosis. Maybe that is why this opera, which blossoms with phenomenal music from start to finish, still does not have quite the same currency on the stage as Madame Butterfly or La Bohème. If any director has found a way to make the drama work 200 per cent, I haven't yet seen it.

More on the joys (?) of Regietheater shortly - from Bayreuth.

But even with all these reservations, it was a tremendous performance and an unforgettable evening. Oh, and if you'd managed to get backstage at the Staatsoper that night and you had this photo, you'd put it on your blog too.