Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Salenko & McRae: putting the ginger back into ballet?

Iana Salenko & Steven McRae. Photo: Andre Uspenski

I had a fabulous time interviewing the glorious dancers Iana Salenko and Steven McRae for The Independent. Taster:
Even over post-rehearsal tea Salenko and McRae’s outlooks streamline into one: positive, sensible and with wit always at the ready. He speaks with strong traces of an Australian accent; hers is pure Ukrainian; but they still finish each other’s paragraphs. 
“The most important thing is the connection with a partner, how we understand each other,” says Salenko. “And then it’s the body and proportions. We are similar size: perfect.” McRae remarks that a photo of them in Don Quixote, showed everything: “We were in exactly the same line and even our facial expressions were the same,” he says. “It’s not something we talk about; it just happens naturally. It’s obvious that it works.”
 Article is out today, here.

Having seen them in Romeo and Juliet at the ROH a few weeks ago, I have to say that what will no doubt be called "all the fuss" is not about nothing. Quite simply, they look, sound and dance like soulmates.

Watch out for them in Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux in the mixed-bill cinema relay from the ROH on 12 November.

And here's a taster from Swan Lake rehearsals, filmed by Andre Uspenski.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Why I applaud the Southbank's open-doors policy, despite having been knocked over by skateboarders nearby

My latest comment piece for our Amati Magazine explains all.
Did you know that London’s Southbank Centre was the third most popular visitor attraction in the UK last year? Neither did I, until quite recently. The Association of Leading Visitor Attractions announced it back in the spring; it made the pages of The Stage; and that was about it. It’s behind only the National Gallery and the British Museum and hosted an incredible 6.3m visitors in its first year as an ALVA member. Six point three million, in one year.
But it does beg a question: hang on, isn’t this an arts centre?...
Read the whole thing here. 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

All about focus: hearing Guglielmo Ratcliff at Wexford

Annunziata Vestri as Margherita, with canine companions. Photo: Clive Barda

There was no doubt at Wexford this week that Mascagni's rarely heard opera Guglielmo Ratcliff was the highlight of the 2015 festival. The opera-lovers who packed into the town's sleek wooden theatre emerged looking positively drunk on the intensity and frequent gorgeousness of its music, to say nothing of the performances of the leading roles, in which three Italian singers - Angelo Villari, Mariangela Sicilia and Annunziata Vestri - led a cast who sang their hearts out to astounding effect.

It's a fascinating case, this opera. Pietro Mascagni conceived it as a raw, green youngster, after being rejected by a girl from his home town who didn't like the new and glitzy life he was leading in Milan. Obsessed with it and its hero - a classic serial-killer who hears voices ordering him to commit murder - he worked at it on and off for many years, taking Puccini's advice not to make it his first opera, but instead to build his name with other works, and only then present it to ensure maximum impact. It was in 1895 that he stood upon the podium at La Scala to conduct it at last. Yet his one enduring success - Cavalleria Rusticana - has overshadowed it throughout the intervening century-plus.

Angelo Villari and Mariangela Sicilia. Photo: Clive Barda
Mostly that's because of the leading role. It is notoriously difficult to sing; there's no let-up to its emotional intensity (after Ratcliff first appears, in the second scene) and the quantity of high notes could send any tenor scurrying pronto for the steam-room.

Dramatic awkwardnesses intervene too. Guglielmo Ratcliff has been engaged to the woman he loves, Maria, daughter of the Count Macgregor (it's all set in romantic Scotland), but she has rejected him for scaring her with an extract of an old ballad, 'Edward, Edward', adapted by the play and libretto drawn from it for the purpose. She has twice tried to marry other men, but each time they have been found murdered at Black Rock before the ceremony. Now her new fiancé, Count Douglas, risks the same fate. Guglielmo Ratcliff, since he can't have Maria himself, is killing anybody else who tries to claim her. Ultimately he returns, the pair declare their enduring love and then he kills her and himself, interpreting the voice of Mad Margherita singing the Ballad as an order from his ghostly directors that he must do so. It turns out that his father, Edvardo, had loved her mother, Bella-Elisa, yet they had been forbidden to marry, and after she married Macgregor instead they found they still loved each other; and Macgregor had murdered Edvardo on discovering him lurking beneath Elisa's window.

Fascinating origins, there. The old ballad, 'Edward, Edward', is a dialogue between a mother and son; she asks him why his sword is covered in blood and he lies to her incrementally until ultimately confessing that he has killed his father - on what turns out to be her instigation. If that story lurks behind the many existing layers of lurking in this opera, we never quite find out. Meanwhile Ratcliff himself is apparently based on a real French assassin, Lacenaire - and if you know the film Les enfants du Paradis (which happens to be my favourite thing ever), you know Lacenaire already. He's there too, murdering some of the many men who love the free-spirited woman, Garance, whom he cannot have for himself.

Heinrich Heine's play, on which the opera is based, offers psychological complication aplenty in both the main characters and the supporting roles. The opera sometimes loses focus as a result, the second scene inordinately dominated by an innkeeper trying to teach his son the Lord's Prayer. Images of mirrors - the star-crossed lovers of the present repeating the history of their respective parents - are everywhere, and of course the castle has its resident Mad Margherita, who sings the ballad and tends the young Maria, whose mother was killed by her father when she was three months old.

What we never learn is whether Maria's real father was in fact Edvardo, which would make Maria and Guglielmo half-siblings. As they comment in the final act that even their voices are alike, you do start wondering whether there's a denouement on the way, but this - surely the ultimate dramatic climax, and a convincing motivation for the final murder and suicide - never happens. We have to infer it for ourselves - off-stage, as it were, and possibly out of the theatre - and put Guglielmo's actions down to mental illness. Presumably if it was the case, Macgregor would never have let Guglielmo go near Maria in the first place, but still...

What happened? Was Mascagni reluctant to go down that avenue for personal reasons, because of his identification with Guglielmo's romantic situation? Were there censors to worry about? Was the similarity to Wagner's twins in Die Walküre, and to Byron's Manfred, too close for comfort? Would it risk - in an opera already completely OTT in terms of melodrama - becoming a last straw in audience endurance? One way or another, it ain't there.

Angelo Villari as Guglielmo, with Evardo and Elisa. Photo: Clive Barda
Wexford's staging, in a different way, skirts the issue too. It's a Gothic marvel visually: everyone wears white in Giuseppe Palella's costumes, and the device of the mirror that finally dominates the stage in the last act, in Tiziano Santi's set designs, is not only clever in its working of the reflections - or occasional lack of them - but in the crossing over of Maria and Guglielmo's souls to join those of Edvardo and Elisa in the final moments.

Symbolism dominates. Mad Margherita from the start is accompanied by two wolf-like hounds, very clearly people on all fours with dog heads; they turn out to be the spirits of Maria's two dead suitors. Edvardo and Elisa are represented by ghostly beings in white deer-heads, both with antlers (including the female). The director, Fabio Ceresa, explains in his introductory note that what Italian and Scottish culture have in common is the importance of legend, of storytelling, of myths and ghosts and symbolism.

Fine. But I have a bit of a problem here and again it's focus. You have, in Guglielmo Ratcliff, an opera with a hero who actually has a mind, and a very diseased one: he's a heartbreaking, probably schizophrenic serial killer worthy of Nordic Noir, and opportunities to get one's teeth into such characters in operas assuredly do not grow on trees (with the notable exception of Herman in The Queen of Spades). In this staging, though, the characters remains largely cardboard while the focus goes to the supporting imagery: the mirror, the ghosts, and goodness knows why the innkeeper has to torture his son with a hangman's rope while he tries to recite his prayer. Mascagni's focus is skewed to begin with; Ceresa's could possibly even out the admirable awareness of background with a more thoroughly convincing foreground. Notably the first act, the score of which is slow to get off the ground (though the opening music is exquisite), felt aimless.

And the singing? Meet Angelo Villari, folks.

Tenors who can sing this role obviously don't grow on trees either. Villari is in many ways a classic Italian tenor (he's actually Sicilian): enormous heft of voice, quite a few notches more powerful than anyone else's on stage, and with astonishing top notes, which come into their own in this score. Nevertheless there were quite a few insecurities at lower levels, intonation issues and a sense from time to time that the sound could be better supported; and while the tone was enormous, it did not always have the beauty and warmth that others might have to offer. It's possible that in a larger house increased distance would enable tonal substance to come through the decibels, though we'll have to wait and see. But hey. He brought the house down.

Mariangela Sicilia as Maria was another matter, proving a spot-on, radiant-toned, exciting star soprano in the making with real charisma in her voice.


And as Mad Margaret, Annunziata Vestri - complete with white contact lenses - was a class act in the extreme, a mezzo of magnificent drama and unshakeable power. Conductor Francesco Cilluffo and the excellent Wexford orchestra drew out the beauty and pathos of Mascagni's impassioned creation at every turn.

It's hard to gauge whether we're likely to see this opera again any time soon, but now that there's a very fine cast that knows it, it would be a pity if no other house scooped it, and them, up; the music may not be the equal of Puccini, but so much of it is so beautiful that I for one am itching to give it another go.

BBC Radio 3 will be broadcasting Guglielmo Ratcliff live from Wexford on Saturday 31 October, 8pm. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

An open letter to...Frederick Delius

Dear Fritz, or Fred if you prefer,

Greetings from the 21st century. One of the best things about living in the Future is that I have a chance to write to you via a medium you never dreamed of. I love your music. Not everyone does, but you knew that and I suspect you didn't much care. The more I have learned about you, your life, your being, your impassioned determination to drain every last drop of sensual experience in your cup of life-force, the more strongly your music speaks to me...

I could go on, but we need to get to the point and it is this: Koanga. They are doing it proud at the Wexford Festival at the moment. Michael Gieleta has created a production that besides being poetic and imaginative, maintains dignity at the most difficult moments - yes, Fred, a Voodoo rite could be very difficult moment in a stage work in 2015 - and there are moments that are heart-rending, beautiful, sensitive and enthralling. Moments when you sink into that great featherbed of Delian music and find you're lost in the passing clouds of dove-grey and sunset gold and the tropical night and...the thing is, they're doing it, they're doing it without a single cut (bravo, sympathetic conductor Stephen Barlow) and there are some terrific singers to hear. Palmyra - Nozuko Teto from South Africa - is especially marvellous. Norman Garrett from the US is Koanga - tall, strong, charismatic, with a beautiful warmth to his voice - and Uncle Joe, Aubrey Allicock, is simply outstanding. The chorus sing their hearts out, too.

I keep thinking how happy you would be to see black singers from America and Africa starring on our stages, and to such a top-class level. You loved Chloe, an African-American girl in Florida; she had your child. A son - but a Palmyra to some degree, half and half. How happy you would have been, too, to know that the president of the USA shares that background today.

But you've got one big problem, Fred. It's that libretto. I'm on tricky ground here, because I'm in the middle of writing a libretto myself - more about that another time - and I am fully aware that if the work as a whole is good the composer gets the credit and if it isn't the writer gets the blame. In Koanga's case, first of all, the story has a lot going for it. It seems remarkable to us, here in 2015, that back in the 1890s you homed in on the subject of slavery, and the associated abuse and suffering and injustice, for an opera. We hear that the very first performance, presumably in cut-down form, was at the Princesse de Polignac's place in Paris - probably in that beautiful wood-panelled music room at the back of her magnificent house - and that one Gabriel Fauré was among the musicians who played in it. We wonder who played the banjos. And we imagine what an impact its topic and its insights must have made there, where they used to call you Le Grand Anglais.

The framing device - Uncle Joe telling the tragic love story to the young girls - has been made to work very well here in Wexford; the chorus takes on the story and experiences it, and there is something oddly agonising about the way that at the end they take down their homespun sun and pack it away it a wooden box.

Palmyra's ultimate rejection of Christianity in favour of the culture of her ancestors and Koanga himself must have been terrifically powerful in your time, and retains the potential to shock here in Ireland. The central conflict - the way Koanga is torn between keeping his African identity and his love for Palmyra (who is maid to Donna Clotilda and happens to be her half-sister....) - has potential for a magnificent drama.

But listen, Fred, darling - and I want this to be constructive in every way - your drama is absolutely all over the place. Really. You have great ingredients, ones that would stand a chance of working today better than ever before, but you, and your librettist Charles F Keary flunk it whenever you can. I see that the libretto was even updated in 1972, to which revelation I can only say, well, we need to have another go at it now. It's not only little awkwardnesses like the skirting of the issue in the sacrifice, or the oak tree above Koanga's ancestors' graves - oaks? In Dahomey? (That's Benin to the 21st century).

More than that. Not very much happens, and when it does, it happens so fast that you'd miss it even if it wasn't happening mostly off stage. That's ok - great excuse for yummy musical wallowing - but what is not OK is that you don't give us any development to speak of in the relationship between Koanga and Palmyra, yet expect us to believe in their all-powerful love. You need less of the chorus obsessing about bird-calls and more of the actual personalities. Palmyra's dignity when Koanga is killed is touching in itself, but you'd think she'd see what would happen when she exorts him to murder Perez the overseer who is harrassing her; and though she says she can't live without him, we don't feel her grief deeply enough in the score.

And much is confusing. Where does Palmyra go when she's abducted from the wedding, and why? Where does Koanga go when he runs away - how far, and for how long? Doesn't Palmyra have more to say and feel upon learning that she is the madam's half-sister?  (As for "Where is Palmyra?" - I regret that the current answer is "In Syria, being destroyed"...)

This could go on. I don't know if much more could be done to refashion the libretto now to suit the existing music. But if I could time-travel, as well as writing to you on the inter-era-net, I'd go to you and say: Fred, please, give me that script and I will sort it out for you. We'll home in on the real drama, the psychology, the timeless issues, we'll get rid of the embarrassed and erroneous bits and bobs and we'll fix the structure and the flow. And if we get it right together, that opera won't be confined to rare repertoire status. It will be cheered to the skies all over the world.

As things are, we have to make the most of a work that is, sad to say, deeply flawed. Yet there's so much in it that is so beautiful and so well worth hearing. It's one of the truisms in today's opera world that we hear basically the same hard core of masterpieces over and over and over again. When something pitches up that is not quite as good as Don Giovanni, very few people dare to take a risk on it. Come to think of it, Don Giovanni has problems too. I fear that a variety of people are going to be really, really mean about Koanga now. But if we discount human creations for not being 100 per cent perfect, we're cutting off our noses to spite our faces. We're reducing our appreciation of creativity and its worth and meaning. We're limiting our experience and our range and our internal space for the sake of - of what? That dreaded word, "snobbery" does come to mind and I wish it didn't. And if you remember, into Persian carpets a mistake is traditionally woven (as I understand it) because no human creation may be perfect in any case.

What Wexford does, Fred, is to bring us works like this, showing how much good stuff there is out there, lying neglected yet ready to be enjoyed and discovered. Sometimes they even end up entering "the repertoire". Sometimes they don't, yet they can live on in our minds as treasured memory, even if we never see them again. They broaden our minds and our understanding of our world, such as it is.

I hope Koanga will return and travel. If it doesn't, I'm glad to have been here to see it. And today in Wexford it is Mascagni's Guglielmo Ratcliff, about which the buzz around town is quite hot.

Thank you, Fred, for being you. For not selling out. For taking up life and drinking its ecstasy. And for giving us that ecstasy in the form of music. You have your devotees here and now. Know that, whatever happens, you are loved.

Jessica x

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

In Wexford

I'm at Wexford for the opening 3 days of the festival. I may be gone some time!