Friday, 28 May 2010


Last night I was at an opera with an artist for a hero.

Mario Cavaradossi, the artist in question, is a gifted painter and political radical in early nineteenth century Rome, and is having a passionate love affair with the beautiful opera singer Floria Tosca; nice work if you can get it. Their love is of course destroyed, and their lives wrecked and then ended, by the machinations of the evil chief of police Scarpia. This is one of those operas that end with a lot of corpses, though just for a change not all of them are actually on the stage - Scarpia's body is offstage for the last Act, Angelotti dies offstage during Act 2, and Tosca herself jumps off the roof in the final bars, so she dies out of sight. Cavaradossi, on the other hand, is very dead and very onstage, having been shot by firing squad at the end of Act 3. I love "Tosca", over-ripe melodrama though it is; it has some of Puccini's loveliest music, and a good production (like the current ENO one) is a thoroughly good night out. Just don't expect any subtext.

ENO's Cavaradossi, Julian Gavin, although rather ornamental, isn't that great vocally, and was none too subtle an actor (I was perhaps particularly disappointed due to having heard the breathtaking Jonas Kaufmann singing this part on the radio a few weeks ago). Amanda Echalaz's Tosca was terrific; she looks the part, she sounds wonderful, and she can act. And in the fantastic Anthony Michaels-Moore (perhaps I should call him Potential Second Favourite Baritone) ENO have a Scarpia who is deeply, utterly, creepily vile, and vocally wonderful.

It's a fairly traditional production; no conceptual stuff here, just a good, straight staging with period costumes and some nice directorial touches (Tosca running from the church in Act 1 only to find herself surrounded by adoring fans, and recoiling; Scarpia licking his lips over the glass of wine he savours as he fantasises about raping her), and a staggeringly beautiful set for the last act - a giant stone oeil-de-boeuf opening in the walls of the Castel sant'Angelo, with a radiant night-into-dawn sky beyond. I had a damn good evening; but I am left with the slightly pervy feeling of finding the villian a lot more compelling than the hero!

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Yet more Paxi (with a twist)

The twist being that this is one of my rather messy watercolour paintings - the view down the footpath from the hilltop chapel of the prophet Elijah, where I had lunch on one of my "walk" days.

The holiday was roughly divided into three "walk" days and three "swim" days, with a little watercolouring, a cold beer or two, and a lot of sunshine, cicadas and olive tree warblers on the side.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

More Paxi...

And this is the view from the hill-top chapel of Agios Yorgos (St George) that I walked to on my last day on the island...


This is the harbour at Lakka, on the north coast of Paxi, where I spent a week walking, swimming and sitting in the sun...

Friday, 7 May 2010

Annual leave

From tonight I start two weeks’ leave. Two weeks’ leave! Even if I still don’t know if I’m getting to go away anywhere, it’s still nice to have my time to myself for a fortnight… I can visit some exhibitions, have a drawing day or two, take some peaceful walks, see my family, bake a cake, have a beer with friends, and relax.

Given that the only rational response to the general election results and the associated press coverage is "We live in interesting times", I need to relax; otherwise I might start to scream and throw things.


Thursday, 6 May 2010

Some kind of wonderful...

I was at the ballet last night. It was a triple bill, with two pieces I’d seen before, one of which (Christopher Wheeldon’s “Electric Counterpoint”) I love and the other of which (Mats Ek’s “Carmen”) worked a lot better for me on the second viewing. The third piece was new, and terrific; Liam Scarlett’s “Asphodel meadows”. One of those occasions when you come out of the auditorium thinking “Wow!” because your expectations have been so greatly exceeded. “Asphodel meadows” is full of images of love and loss, yearning and rejection, grief and death but also of life being held to and entered into with joy (being danced to Poulenc’s gorgeous, jazzy, haunting Double Piano Concerto is a plus, too). On this evidence, Mr Scarlett will go far.

His work is deceptively simple; lyrical, nuanced, emotionally truthful and visually delicate. Traditional in layout and content, it is profoundly not deracinated, but draws on tradition and moves forward in its company without either sneering at it or cringing to it (oh dear, please excuse that ugly metaphor).

I suppose it's partly the result of five years at Art School, but I am deeply suspicious of iconoclasm. So often it seems to me that the iconoclast has nothing else to say beyond their challenge to convention; they are relying on the deification of the rebel in contemporary culture to make their name and swing their fame. But challenge without content is ultimately meaningless, and is dependent on an acceptance of the (crass and false) notion that the past must, by its very nature, be no good.

Mr Scarlett takes the harder but infinitely better path, not denying the worth of his antecedents but developing his work from the roots of what has come before, unafraid to be himself and to use his own ideas and language, as these grow out of that rootstock. With young choreographers like him and Wheeldon around, contemporary ballet can look to a future both secure and deeply exciting.

As regards the other two pieces, I’m still a bit distracted by the recorded voices in “Electric Counterpoint” (Ed Watson doesn’t like his hands? Silly him. He has very nice hands) but the dancing is simply thrilling. “Carmen” remains a bonkers, but surprisingly effective, distillation/revision of the Carmen story. Interestingly, it is a good contrast to Liam Scarlett’s work, illustrating almost exactly the point I was trying to make about tradition and iconoclasm. The least interesting parts of “Carmen” are the most deliberately challenging elements; all the shouting (boring idea), the image of Carmen pulling a red silk ribbon out of Escamillo’s crotch, the comically overt sexuality (all those men rolling around the floor playing with their giant cigars – oh please [not, I hasten to add, that I’d object to Gary Avis rolling on my floor playing with his giant cigar] – it’s just so childishly obvious as a theatrical metaphor). But on the topic of José’s violence and his neuroses, Carmen’s passionate wilfulness, Micaela’s mixture of possessiveness and idealistic romanticism, it hits the spot. And the cast were top notch. Tamara Rojo just is Carmen, Thomas Whitehead’s José is appropriately scary, and it’s good to see the lovely Bennet Gartside getting to show off his bravura chops as Escamillo – and to wear gold lurex, which probably also doesn’t come his way every day.

In the foyer on the way out I saw Edward Watson talking to Christopher Wheeldon. I’m afraid I did a double-take and grinned at them both like an idiot. Mr Wheeldon noticed (he got that “oh sh*t do I know this woman?” expression for a second), so I hurried off before I embarrassed myself any further.

It reminded me of the thing I’m always touched by about great performing artists. They do their thing, and knock my socks off, and then they shower and put on street clothes, go and get a bite to eat and go home on the tube, and feed the cat, or take the dog to the post box for a late-night pee; and so to bed, just like anyone. Yet up they get in the morning and go to work, and prepare to knock my socks off again. What can it be like, to have that sort of talent, and for that astonishing ability to be just part of one’s normal life, the way working at Kew is part of my normal life these days?

This morning I had to queue for ten minutes to vote. I’ve never queued before, and nor had any of the other people in the line – we were all talking about how unexpected it was (in between cooing over a very sweet dog who was accompanying his mistress and heaving huge theatrical sighs while he waited). Everyone said things like “This time it might matter” and “I want to make a point” and “I think this could be an important election”. I find this pleasing. I realise thirty ordinary Chiswick citizens is hardly a representative section of society, but they all seemed to be quite fired up about people-power. If nothing else, this sort of feeling may mean a slightly better turn-out than in recent years.

The results, of course, are in the hands of god. As is the question of whether I get a Greek holiday this year, what with volcanoes and general strikes and all… We live in interesting times.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010


Magical slides from the Newgrange people...

So astronomically it's Beltane today, not last Saturday. Does that mean that in the Southern Hemisphere it's technically Samhain today? Confusing.

Outside the office window, apart from the fresh foliage it looks more like Samhain than Beltane, actually; lowering grey sky and a strong wind tossing the branches. I think it may be going to rain again...