Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Hier, quand j'étais jeune...

On Monday I went back to an old haunt of mine.

Years ago, in my first real job, I worked at the Quaker International Centre in Bloomsbury, just north of the British Museum. I was, heaven help me, the deputy chef. It was a great job in many respects – I learned to cater for large numbers unfazed, and as it was a live-in post I also got to make the most of being based in central London, with museums and galleries, theatres, concert halls and cinemas all within half an hour’s journey. A live-in job has its bad side, of course; one can never really get away from work, and if one has a falling-out with a colleague, there’s no escape from it at the end of the day, there they are sitting opposite one at supper… And yes, in case you’re wondering, Quakers do have fallings-out, too, though they try to be very civilised about it. They’re only human!

Ten minutes walk from QIC, on Drummond Street, was the divine Diwana Bhel Poori House. For a hungry twenty-year-old who has spent all day cooking preposterous amounts of food for other people, a Diwana thali with friends was a perfect evening out. A great platter containing dal, sabzis, pappadums, puris, relishes, pulao rice, pickles, idlis or fritters, even a dollop of something creamy and cardamom-y for desert… For years it was my insider tip for visitors to London – go to Diwana, have a thali, you won’t regret it – and it left me with a serious addiction to bhel poori with sev. I’ve now found a similar place in Hammersmith and can get my fix without having to trail up to Euston, hurrah. Diwana is still there on Drummond Street, though.

Anyway, on Monday I met my stepmum Jane there for an early supper before she took the train to Milton Keynes for the fun of an OU Tutors’ first aid training session. It was the hottest day of the year so far and neither of us had the appetite for a thali, so we settled on dahi vada and dosas, and an indulgent mango lassi each. The dosas were tasty and very filling, the dahi vada – a sort of vegetarian dumpling served with tamarind chutney and fresh yoghurt – were delicious. We talked our heads off, catching up, putting the world to rights and gossiping about my brothers behind their backs (only kidding, guys!). Then I walked her up to Euston for her train.

And then, I was at a loose end, on a hot midsummer evening, back in the heart of my old stomping ground. I didn’t want to go straight back down into the Tube (which had been swelteringly hot and very smelly), so I wandered south and west through the back streets, thinking I’d pick up a westbound number 94 bus.

My route took me down the side of Gordon Square, where once I used to relax under the trees, and right past the old QIC building where I had lived and worked, and the University church where I once gave a reading, and through the streets and past the shops I used to know so well; and it had all changed.

Well; not quite all. The Square looked much the same; same tall London planes, same slightly unkempt grass and circle of rose beds in the middle. The church looked much the same, except in need of a good clean. But QIC seems to have been shut up completely, and most of the windows are boarded. And apart from the Marlborough Arms on the corner of Huntley Street, hardly a shop or café or restaurant was the same. The flower stalls had all gone, Apollo Food&Wine on the Tottenham Court Road had gone, the wonderful Italian ice-cream place opposite Heals had gone, Byzantium on Goodge Street had gone, and the Swiss deli on Charlotte Street, and the Greek taverna, and the Polish bakery...

I walked on feeling very strange, very yesterday-when-I-was-young. It is all so long ago, and that keen, clumsy girl I was is so long gone. It was salutary, and at first I felt very melancholy. But gradually as I walked on I began to feel better.

I would not turn the clock back for love or money, after all. It would be good, of course, to have again the physical vitality of my younger self. I am stouter and slower, and have less stamina, than the Imogen of those days. It would be good to have all the time ahead of me that she had, and for that matter the opportunities (had she but possessed the self-confidence to take advantage of them). But I was an awkward, desperate, cripplingly shy creature, tortured by my inability to make everyone happy, terrified both of solitude and of being overwhelmed by others’ lives and wishes. I lived in a fantasy world most of the time when I was not cooking, and my crushes, instead of being safely distant dancers and musicians, were guys I knew well and saw every day, whose proximity was a torment and whose rejection left me bent double with self-disgust. In short, I was a mess; and terribly, terribly young.

I don’t want to be that immature, unhappy, embittered young woman. I am fearfully glad I woke up, and grew up, and made the choices and decisions I made, and got to where I am today. My world is not perfect, not by a long pole; but it’s pretty good, nonetheless, and it is my own. My life now reflects who I am with a deep truth, and no amount of youthful energy restored could replace that self-knowledge and self-possession. And for this I am very grateful. So I didn’t look around me with any regret, after the first few shocks, but with surprise and a sense of amazement, and a growing feeling of peace, and I walked quietly along to Oxford Circus, and got the bus home.

Friday, 24 June 2011

More than half in love...

…with Christian Tetzlaff. Who I heard last night at the Royal Festival Hall, playing Bartok’s second violin concerto with the Philharmonia. Seriously, incandescently good stuff. Mr Tetzlaff looks uncannily like a miniaturised version of my cousin Richard (Richard is a very handsome cousin, but he’s also a very tall guy, and Mr Tetzlaff, erm, isn’t). Richard, however, is no musician, and Mr Tetzlaff is a dazzlingly good one.

I’m very lucky to live in a place where I get to hear lots of marvellous violinists; in the last eighteen months or so I’ve heard Christian Tetzlaff, Joshua Bell, Sergey Khatchatryan, Gil Shaham, Benjamin Schmid and Frank Peter Zimmermann, and that is quite a feast, I can tell you, even if they aren’t all quite as easy on the eye as Mr Tetzlaff. Mr Shaham is I suspect part hobbit (& part fiddle-playing demi-god), while Mr Zimmermann looks like a policeman in a borrowed suit, but every one of these men is an absolute joy to hear in action. Bearing in mind that I can also get to hear the world’s great pianists, the world’s great singers, the world’s great orchestras conducted by the world’s great conductors; London may have its down side but the up-side is a pretty big up.

That brings me neatly to the Proms. I’ve been trying to choose which ones to book this year. I’ve worked out a shortlist of six, but I really ought to cut that down a bit. All six have at least one really, really good reason not to drop them; favourite pieces, favourite musicians, things I’d just love to hear live (I mean, come on, the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony, in the RAH, on that socking great organ of theirs? This I cannot miss)… I’ll have to skip “Elijah”, despite the superb line-up of soloists, as it’s on my mum’s birthday, and mum’s birthday is sacrosanct (and is always a day at the beach followed by a good curry or paella supper). But Tetzlaff playing Brahms? Shaham playing Bruch? Stuart Skelton singing Mahler? Britten’s Spring Symphony? Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Janacek, Sibelius? How am I to choose? I don’t think I can…

If I can get the cheapest seats (at the top at the side, or choir seats are okay), then it won’t kill the wallet. And there’s always the radio, after all, my great digital radio that has transformed radio-listening for me; and lots of the Proms are televised these days – I should check what’s being shown on BBC4 before I get down-in-the-mouth about the expense.

Here is my latest I-have-a-purple-crush poem:

To Christian Tetzlaff, playing Bartók

Vibrant disharmony, a pierced sunset
And the wide skies burning like a battlefield.
Slicing between discord and dancing, between
Lyrical terror and song, nothing’s so bright
As this plane of flame, which is sound, which is you
Wheeling undizzied as a gull in the gulf
Of air, with music pouring from your hands.

Bee caught in amber, golden-voiced, longing to dance,
Half of your blood is fire; you plunge
Humming, exploding into furrowed waves
And rise to arrow the dazzled heart. Your wings
Which are hands, are strings, phoenix of sound
Incandescent with energy in your burning field.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Midsummer morris

How can there be any bitterness or any regret
Here, on Midsummer's Night? In the clear dark,
The pewter sky above, on the silver river
The black specks of geese sail gladly by.
The morris bells are ringing on the quiet green
Where the dancers leap and grin in the dusk
To summon summer's celebrating glance and
Spirit of life. Go, dance! Hearts, rise!
Crops grow, and hopes, and harvest thrive!
Here at midsummer on the bright Thames-side
I cannot admit of bitterness or regret
While the dusk-dark geese go sailing,
Alive through the silver of the midsummer night.

Monday, 20 June 2011

The last of Cardiff Singer (& possibly the last of the summer, too)

Cardiff Singer is over for another two years, and I am bereft. For a whole week I have had the chance to listen to a bunch of talented young opera singers every night. Some of them were good, some were very good and some were really great. Some were absolutely wonderful. I now have bad withdrawal symptoms.

What a feast of glorious music it has been, and what a pleasure all those hard-working young people were, with their fine voices and their hopes for the future writ large on eager faces. I feel very dull and rather old when I listen to a twenty-four year old with more musical talent in their little finger, and more self-discipline and determination to succeed, than I have in all five foot nine and fourteen stone of me; but I also feel privileged to get to see them in action, so early in their careers, these kids. They are so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and full of delight in everything they do.

The Moldovan soprano, Valentina Nafornitsa, won the Grand Final. My favourite, the Ukrainian baritone Andrei Bondarenko, won the Lieder Prize. I would have given him both prizes, but then I do love my baritones. Mr Bondarenko’s song recital was a sheer wonder from start to finish; effortlessly beautiful singing full of subtle, unforced sincerity and dramatic nuance, and with that incredible feeling of intimacy that a great recitalist can bring even to a big concert hall. At last Favourite Baritone has a worthy successor.

I’m going to see if by some miracle I can get a ticket to Glyndebourne next year – he is singing Marcello in “La Boheme” and I go slightly fluttery inside at the thought. As my late father used to say about certain sopranos, “Gulp, I think I’m in love”.

Despite the vital but restrictive necessity of being in for all the Cardiff broadcasts, I managed to get a good deal done this weekend, too. On Saturday I visited a lovely exhibition of modern Australian prints at the BM, and had a mooch afterwards in the minor Greece and Rome rooms – the ones with real things from real people’s lives and homes in – then spent a happy hour in an art materials shop (& didn’t buy anything stupid – just a few sensible things like a new sketchbook) and then in a sale at HMV on Oxford Street (& only bought one thing, a Dvd of “La Fille mal Gardée”), and had lunch out, and listened to a very good Hungarian band busking outside the church of St Martin’s in the Fields, and bought some concert and ENO tickets for the autumn.

On Sunday I sewed; I finally finished the poppy-print top, then cut out, pinned and tacked two more jobs, a plain straight summer frock in panels of two shades of blue, and a blouse I need to let out. Opening the under-arm seams and piecing in extra fabric on either side is a miserable, fiddly job, but I just relax, listen to the radio, and tell myself I am channelling my grandmothers’ spirits. To throw away a favourite blouse, in silk patchwork in shades of chestnut brown and burgundy, that always looked good, simply because I’ve put on so much weight, offends me. Realistically, I’m unlikely to lose the weight, and the sewing practice is good for me, so I’m going to let it out and get some more use out of it rather than beating myself up about getting stout. With the really twiddly parts, the cutting out and fitting and pinning and basting, all done, it’s just a question of mindlessly plying my needle now, and I can do that peacefully over the next few weeks while I watch tele or listen to music.

It’s just started to pour with rain; now that I can go home, it does this. Guess who didn’t bring an umbrella today? Really, after all these years living in my dear wet native land, you’d think I’d be more Great-British-summer-savvy!

Friday, 17 June 2011

Another day, another lunch break

I've just tried to go to Kew's new ice cream parlour, attached to the visitor café beside Climbers & Creepers, the children's play area. Sadly I found it was closed for cleaning. I had to content myself with looking in through the windows at a tempting display; twenty different flavours, dozens of choices of sprinkles, sauces, popcorn, doughnuts etc... It felt a bit like being six again - "No you can't have an ice cream, you had one yesterday" - oh well, it's a rainy day, not really ice cream weather. I was just curious.

At least I could still get a sandwich in the main part of the café, where I bumped into Quarantinewoman by the cake section. We had a short chat about cake, how good cake is, and the general necessity of cake, while she tried to squint at my name badge surreptitiously. I restrained the urge to say "You've forgotten who I am, haven't you, Quarantinewoman?" as it seemed a bit mean since she was trying to place me without embarrassing herself. I bought cake (gluten-free chocolate squidgey cake, yum!) and left her still in contemplation of the choices. It's a cake range worth contemplating, goodness knows.

I walked back to the office. In the rain, summer scents like pine and escallonia come out, and the lavenders are veiled with silver droplets. Partway back, near the Orangery, there's a bed that has been planted up with herbaceous plants, all now in bloom in a wonderful array of clashing colours - yellow, orange, purple, more yellow; pot marigolds and day lilies and salvias, all blazing away in the muted, rainy light. There was a wren singing in the tree above the bed, and a toddler in wellington boots was passing by carrying an umbrella larger than himself, jumping in puddles blissfully. Heaven in a garden.

What else? Ah, yes; heaven in music.

Last night's broadcast of heat three of Cardiff Singer produced not one but two of those spine-tingling moments when you feel the touch of angels. The order of play went - one good, one adequate but nervous, then one very good - an Aussie mezzo who bounded through a gorgeously tricky chunk of Handel coloratura, making it sound easy-peasy.

I was just thinking "That's tonight's heat winner, then" when the next singer came on and trumped her. Valentina Naforitsa from Moldova; sheer bliss to listen to, a classic lyric-dramatic soprano with beautiful tone, seamless legato, wonderful awareness of vocal colour, and true acting ability. Oh, and good-looking, too. The famous "complete package" that the jury members always say they're looking for. Okay, thought I, so that's tonight's winner, then.

And then Andrei Bondarenko from the Ukraine came on and trumped her, with a superb baritone voice that was like velvet, subtle and flavoursome as manzanilla, from bottom to delicious top. Beautiful tone - check. Seamless legato - check (and in spades, too). Perfect control, perfect colour, perfectly-balanced dramatic sense - check. Oh, and did I forget to mention? - good-looking, too. A singer who could step straight into Favourite Baritone's roles and do every one of them justice - yes, even Pelléas - he had a beautiful upper register and I can't believe he'd have any trouble with it... indeed, the mere thought makes me long to hear him sing it, and I wouldn't have expected ever to want another Pelléas after FB.

To get two such fabulous singers, one after the other, leaves the hairs on the back of one's neck standing up. This, of course, is why the finalists are the top scoring singers overall, rather than automatically the heat winners; because it would be cruelty itself if one of these two had been dropped, simply from the bad luck of being in the strongest round so far. As it was, I felt it was rough on the Aussie lass, who was delightful, because she paled in comparison with them. I think I've just seen two of the next generation of Great Singers - the people who in forty years will be judging competitions like this, and getting goosebumps themselves as they hear the next generation coming out and dazzling them.

Andrei Bondarenko won, but if the Moldovan doesn't also get into the final I'll fry my hat and eat it with tartare sauce.

You can read all about Cardiff Singer of the World, from commentators a lot more expert than me, and also listen to the performances, on the BBC website:
It's worth it.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

How goes the heavenly music so far?

Pretty well, is the answer.

Cardiff Singer, heat two, produced one terrific English soprano, a lovely Chinese baritone, and three more sopranos, one of whom was good, one okay (though in a truly awful dress) and one of whom had problems. Poor lass, her frock was her best point; she launched herself onto "Bel raggio lusinghier" and was swiftly overwhelmed by it. Apparently she was feeling unwell but had decided to have a go notwithstanding; so full marks for courage, anyway. But it is uncomfortable to watch someone so obviously struggling.

The terrific English lass won.

In heat three, being shown tonight, we are due to hear one Ukrainian, one Welsh, one Australian, one Moldovan and one German. I could go to the BBC website and find out who won, even maybe listen to them all on my computer; but I want to save myself for the the fun of the broadcast, while I relax with some supper and a glass of beer.

Then back to the semi-fairy-tale short story I have started writing (as a displacement activity, basically, because I'm finding doing the "Ramundi's sisters" revision number three so grindingly tough). And then an early night, I think.

It has rained a large chunk of the day here, but has now dried up and cleared in time for me to go home. According to the Met Office, it also rained in Crete and southern Greece today. I know how much the tourists will be grumbling, but I can't begrudge a mediterranean country some rain!

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Heavenly music

...and thank goodness for it, too.

This week is Cardiff Singer of the World week. Cardiff Singer is a biannual competition for budding opera and lieder singers, held at St David's Hall in Cardiff and televised by the BBC. Good old BBC! - I'm so lucky to live somewhere where public service broadcasting will toss me a bonne bouche like this every once in a while.

The first heat was last night, and was won by a sumptuous-sounding Russian mezzo. There are three more heats to go, then the Lieder final is on Saturday evening and the Grand Final, for the overall title Cardiff Singer of the World, is shown live on Sunday evening on BBC2. For anyone who loves great singing, Cardiff Singer week is a week in heaven.

I filled the only non-Cardiff evening of the week, on Monday, with another of these Covent Garden cinema broadcasts; Verdi's "Macbeth" (or Macbetto, as he becomes after enforced Italianisation). A luxury cast, Pappano in the pit, and for £16 a chance to see everyone really close up. In the title role Favourite Baritone was giving it his all. He was a much subtler, more troubled and confused Macbeth than Thomas Hampson, who I saw in this same production a few years ago. Where Hampson played Macbeth as a bear of very little brain, not bright enough to realise he isn’t very bright, FB gave us a guy who isn’t very bright and is aware of it, and confused about it, but lacking the resources to handle it; he gave off a bitter, volatile quality that was truly nasty, and sang heroically as well. The Lady M., Lyudmila Monastirska (I may have mis-spelled that), was vocally the real mustard, but her acting was of the Pavarotti-school – roll eyes, flare nostrils and tip head back… yay, dat's acting, dat is...

Steven Ebel’s Malcolm was good, I loved Raymond Aceto's Banquo, and there was a lovely cameo from one of the Covent Garden Young Artists, Lukas Jakobski, as the doctor - I wouldn’t expect to say “delicate and silky” of a bass but those are the words that spring to mind. I'm still not sure I like the production, though; it has some great visuals and also some deeply silly ones.

We also got the felicity of a subtitle c*ck-up; at the beginning of Act 2, the curtain rose on a stage full of whirling, writhing witches stirring their toxic brews, who then began, with expressions of the most poisonous evil, to sing "Welcome back to the Royal Opera House..." With a keyed-up audience, of course, it got a huge laugh. I know they were really singing "Double, double, toil and trouble..." etc (in Italian), but "Welcome back..." was such a glorious disjuncture with the scene.

Work is a bit hassley at the moment, the third revision of "Ramundi's sisters" is causing me trouble as it has thrown me into facing the need for a big re-write >sigh< and I have ballet withdrawal symptoms. Otherwise muddling along.

At least the linden trees are in flower; that heavenly scent comes raining down on me as I cycle in and back from work. "Ich atmet einem lindenduft" indeed... Apologies if that is also spelled wrong, my German has never progressed beyond the "Guten tag" and ordering-things-off-a-menu level...

Thursday, 9 June 2011

How not to grow old...

You all know what a balletomane I am, with my raving enthusiasms and cries of delight - "She was wonderful, they were terrific, he's brilliant!" and so on. It must get rather monotonous...

Anyway, last night I was at Covent Garden for my last ballet outing until ENB’s summer season in July (sob). But I had two of the other kind of balletomane in the seats behind me – the “Fings ain’t wot they used to be” kind; real griping grannies.

I quote:
“No-one knows how to dance Ashton properly these days, that girl’s port de bras is awful, they should send that Ukrainian boy back where he came from, it’s a disgrace that chap was allowed on stage without having a chest wax… "

And so forth.

They weren’t just criticising the performances, either; they were being downright mean, making sniping personal remarks about dancers’ abilities, technique, looks, morals, age, you name it... They bitched about two of my favourite female dancers; then, they thought everyone was over-rated, Nehemiah Kish needed a nose job, Leanne Benjamin should have been let go years ago – “she’s well past her sell-by date” – Madam would never have allowed a shocking performance of “Scenes de ballet” like that to go ahead, Madam would never have promoted “that dismal smirking Cuthbertson girl” to principal, or hired “that ugly Japanese boy, and that American with the awful feet”… (“Madam”, in case you don’t know, was Ninette De Valois, who founded the RB).

When the “Rite of Spring” ended, as soon as the applause finished one of them started up again - “Well! Wasn’t that a mess? I suppose with all the foreigners in the company these days…” – and I just leapt up and fled. I don’t think I’ve ever exited the auditorium so fast!

It made me wonder if the Royal Opera House has a department handling complaints, like Kew, and if so, how on earth do they answer such horrible personal comments about individual performers?

For the record: “Scenes de ballet” is not my favourite piece, but was very well-danced; “Voluntaries” was gorgeous, heartfelt and lyrical (& Leanne Benjamin is SO not past her sell by date! - & Ryoichi Hirano is SO not ugly! - and Nehemiah Kish SO doesn’t need a nose job – or a chest wax for that matter!); and the “Rite” was absolutely stunning (Steven McRae’s dance of death was chilling – he is brilliant, this ginger Aussie dynamo, and I love him to bits).

But these carping crones cast a nasty shadow over the whole evening for me. Why they had bothered to come in the first place I don’t know, but heaven preserve me from growing like that. I'm more likely, on current evidence, to be a dirty old woman than a griping one, but it was still a salutary reminder of how not to grow old.

There, just had to get that off my chest.

That picture, incidentally, is Leanne Benjamin, photographed somewhere in the Australian Outback a couple of years back, in a jeté so zingy she's practically in flight... Past her sell-by date, my eye!

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Thoughts on a man who has since produced the goods...

I have been trying to tidy up some computer files full of out of date notes, and I found this - my thoughts after the last time I got to see two different casts in the same ballet programme at Covent Garden, back in the autumn. Since it contains a bit of musing on Nehemiah Kish, the chap I saw coming out of his shell to such excellent effect last weekend, I thought I'd pop it down in here, for my own reference as much as anything. Yes, more ballet-ramblings; sorry. But it's amusing and pleasing to see I was more-or-less on the button with him.

"I also went to a second performance of the Royal Ballet Mixed Bill; sheer self indulgence on my part. I had booked it because I read in an interview with Kim Brandstrup that he was fascinated by how his new ballet was shaping up differently depending on which of the two casts were dancing – he actually said something like “it’s almost like doing two different ballets”. Then a couple of days after I had treated myself to a second ticket for a performance with the other cast, poor Alina Cojocaru injured herself and had to drop out, and Ed Watson and Leanne Benjamin stepped up to do every night. So I got a double dose of them – at which I am not complaining (complaining? – at wonderful Leanne Benjamin and gorgeous Ed Watson?!), though I would have loved to see Cojocaru and Kobborg too. The rest of the casting for the whole bill had to shift around, too; I didn’t see quite who I had expected, either time.

Still, it is sheer luxury to see two performances of the same programme, and to be able to compare casts. I went to the Saturday matinee on the 16th, and the evening show on the 30th; the second performance in the run, and the last.

To be frank, first time around I thought “La Valse” looked a bit messy. The dancing was passionate but rather untidy and the final image was spoiled by the central sextet having trouble getting going – they were still trotting briskly in a circle as the curtain fell, when they should have been whirling madly round with the girls’ feet well off the ground. This Saturday, by contrast, everything was perfect, really elegant and polished, and the dramatic undertones came across strongly.

There is something weird about “La Valse”; Ravel’s music has a tension one doesn’t expect in a waltz, and Ashton's choreography hints at this same sense of danger. The men leap in unison as if bursting with sublimated stress, and there is an increasing feeling of foreboding as the dancing grows ever wilder without quite breaking its conventions; it is as though these people are trapped in some doomed kingdom, dancing forever in their fairytale evening dress. The best image I can come up with is of the citizens of the Land of Lost-Hope, in Susanna Clarke’s marvellous “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell”… These dancers are beautiful, yes, but also haunted and haunting.

“Invitus, invitam” knocked my socks off, and Watson and Benjamin were both dazzling, both nights. It’s one of the most nuanced pieces of contemporary ballet I’ve seen, and passing straight from “La Valse” to this was a good judgement call. It’s as if the general disquiet of “La Valse” has moved into a personal level; the device of the second couple apparently running through the blocking of the piece in rehearsal clothes, their own relationship lightly sketched in around the choreography of the central couple, suggests the timelessness of this story of heartbreak and separation. The lovers in the story must part, however much they long for another outcome, and even those to whom this is just a story to enact will have their own stories also, and their own partings.

I must say, though, following this with “Winter Dreams”, with its equally sad story, does leave one feeling pretty emotionally drained by the second interval. It started to seem as if the whole evening were one long descent into a realm of loss and sorrow.

For the first “Winter Dreams” performance I saw, the leads were Tamara Rojo and Nehemiah Kish; a mismatch, basically. I don’t want to be rude about the new guy – he dances well, but he looked oddly controlled, even cautious, for someone supposedly in the throes of an overwhelming passion. He was elegant (he has lovely arms) but his acting is on the quiet side and he looked downright subdued beside Ms Rojo, who as always was acting her socks off. But I do think it was a mismatch as much as anything. The best comparison I can think of is of what would have happened if you had ever been able to put Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi on the same stage; Callas would have acted Tebaldi into the orchestra pit, given her famously-intense histrionic oomph. And yet, in the long run, Tebaldi was the better singer, and the one who had the confidence to let the drama that is inherent in the music come through, rather than imposing her own drama upon it.

So I hope it will be with Mr Kish, as he gets the feel of the House. For all I know he’s been used to a smaller auditorium with better sight lines (CG is a bit of a barn, after all), and have developed an acting style to match – he may just need to open up and relax a bit more. He’s tall, which can only be useful in a Company with some (ahem) less-than-tall fellas, he’s got a pleasant quirky face (& a splendidly long nose), and he did a lovely job in the second cast of “La Valse”, partnering Lauren Cuthbertson beautifully, so I’m prepared to give him a chance and see how he shapes up as he settles in.

The other parts were well cast and well danced, especially Jonathan Cope as the unhappy Kulygin, and Itziar Mendizabel as Olga. I saw Cope again on the 30th, and he was even more nuanced and subtle second time around. His solos were almost painful to watch, so perfectly did they express pain. It’s a joy to see him in action again – dare one hope for more of him on stage again?

The Masha and Vershinin on the 30th were Marianela Nuñez and Carlos Acosta. Wow, is Ms Nuñez shaping up into a deeply wonderful dancer! I first saw her in action ages ago as one of Swanilda’s friends in “Coppelia” - a charming girl with a huge beaming smile; then as Lise in “La Fille Mal Gardée” – another charming smiling girl; then as the Lilac Fairy – a beautiful embodiment of warmth and goodness (and pretty charming and smiley, too). Then in “Serenade” she appeared as the girl who arrives late; somehow without ever actually acting (after all, it is a non-narrative ballet) she conveyed a sense of the loneliness of someone who always “arrives too late”, who is perpetually on the outside with no real idea of why. Her delicate and graceful dancing was deeply moving, infused with a beautiful, subtle melancholy. I think she is learning the immensely difficult art of acting within the movement – as certain great opera singers (to extend the earlier Callas v Tebaldi metaphor a little) act within the music – trusting the material to give her the drama, instead of thrusting her own upon it. The results are proving magical; her Masha was utterly heartrending – I found her far more affecting than Rojo, heresy though that may be to say. Acosta, working beside her, was also full of feeling. I keep reading critics saying he ain’t what he used to be – after all, he must be all of thirty-eight – but he still seems pretty splendid to me.

Thank goodness, though, that the bill finished up with some delightfully crisp, sparkly Balanchine; no painful emotions here, just fun and games, the ballet equivalent of downing a glass of fine champagne. After all that heartfelt feeling one really needed it, and I came out humming the Tchaikovsky music happily."

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Hectic, but with ballet and more ballet...

Well, it’s been a hectic couple of weeks since I got back from my holiday. Work is at a busy time of the year and our department as a whole is still very short-staffed, although my team is slightly less stretched now that someone has come back from a long period of sick leave. The new computers are still causing hiccoughs assorted; every time I think I’ve got the hang of things I am brought up against another baffling change to the simple “how you do this” issues, with the result that I still feel like a cat chasing my tail a lot of the time. Fire-fighting the illogicality of Windows 7 is a big draw on one’s time and energy.

I haven’t been completely without fun, though. I’ve had a lovely trip to the Wetland Centre, some ballet outings and concerts to go to, plus a trip to the cinema (“Thor”, totally daft but entertaining; nice to see Tom Hiddleston, one of my ideal Gabriel Yeatses, getting a good high profile job, too) and a highly enjoyable birthday party – the sort where intelligent people talk about intelligent things and laugh a lot over a few pints. I’ve been trying to keep on top of the garden, not an easy task in this drought. And I’ve started the tricky and rather emotionally-draining business of giving “Ramundi’s sisters” a third revision. >sigh< It needs to be done, but it’s a job that gets slightly more sticky with each turn around the block.

My ballet outings were all very enjoyable. The latest Triple Bill at the Royal Ballet was a lovely package, except for being too short – none of the three pieces was particularly long, and the first came in at under twenty minutes. Even with longer than average intervals to pad it out, I was home soon after ten pm; but it was a good enough evening that I didn’t feel short-changed. “Ballo della Regina” was the “please sir, I want some more” opener, with Lauren Cuthbertson in lovely, shiny, smiley form as the lead ballerina, skipping through some fiendish footwork as if it were a playground game. She had a scrumptious quartet backing her up, and Sergei Polunin, all huge leaps and cheekbones, was classy as the sole fella.

Next up came a new piece by Wayne McGregor, which has got the critics all at sixes and sevens; like retsina, it seems, you either love it or loathe it. I was high enough up in the house not to be overly distracted by the video backdrop of exploding trucks, and could concentrate on the dancing. I’m never entirely sure I’m convinced by McGregor’s intellectual ideas, but he certainly choreographs incredible stuff from the dancing point of view; elastic off-centre bends, weird shapes, strenuous lifts and general frenzied athleticism all round. Ferociously tricky, it was danced by the small cast with a bravura that was slightly scary.

For a finale we got a revival, much longed-for by me, of Christopher Wheeldon’s “DGV”, a gorgeous non-narrative piece whose lack of a story does not preclude a heartfelt warmth in its series of fluid duets and final, powerfully uplifting ensemble. It’s a thrilling ballet that I could happily watch over and over; and with a cast like this it simply sings. Duet number one brought us a sensuous Laura Morera and Steven McRae’s customary febrile dynamism, duet number two, Zenaida Yanowsky’s long limbed elegance and the steady, modest strength of Eric Underwood. For duet number three I was lucky enough to see Gary Avis and Melissa Hamilton again; this is a luxury partnership of astonishing chemistry, and their ease with one another in this tender, soaring, probably hideously-difficult material is simply dazzling. To finish off, replacing Sarah Lamb and Federico Bonelli, came a decidedly high-calibre piece of back-up casting in the form of Itziar Mendizabal and Nehemiah Kish, two new recruits both of whom I am warming to rapidly. They hadn’t originally been slated to dance this at all, seem to have been put in fairly late in the day, and both looked as though they were loving every minute.

Then came the saga of the “Manon”s. MacMillan’s “Manon” is one of my all-time favourite ballets, and I went to see it back at the beginning of the run in April for a performance featuring the sexy Steven McRae, passionately intense and technically dazzling, and his regular stage partner, the beautiful and elfin Roberta Marquez. Gorgeous!

When I discovered that a performance featuring Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg was being put out on the Big Screen in Trafalgar Square last week, though, I decided I had to go to that – after all, Cojocaru and Kobborg are pretty damned special together, and it was free, and Big Screen screenings are tremendous fun in a slightly surreal way (double decker buses circling, sirens wailing by, aircraft heading into Heathrow as the night sky darkens to deepest phthalo blue…). So I went along, with a fleece and a picnic, and failed to link up with a friend who cried off at the last minute, and was thrilled all over again.

It was a totally different interpretation of the leading roles, with Kobborg playing Des Grieux as an intelligent, mature man of almost heroic decency, and Alina’s Manon the most thoughtful, even moral, I’ve ever seen. I know it sounds odd to call a girl who elects to become a rich man’s kept woman “moral”, but really, you could see her struggling between the choices facing her, knowing that both are, in one way or another, wrong – forswear the man you love and become a whore, or let-down and disobey your beloved brother (and know you are losing your one chance at financial security as well)…

And then my mum called me on Friday to say the friend she was going with to the Saturday matinee (scheduled to be danced by Laura Morera and Federico Bonelli) had called to say she couldn’t come after all, and would I like to join her? Well, Morera and Bonelli were a stunning Tatyana and Onegin last autumn, so I was delighted to say yes. Only to find, on arriving at the Opera House, that Mr Bonelli was injured and was being replaced by Mr Kish – who’s only danced the part once before, and that not with Ms Morera.

Mum was vocal in her disappointment (she feels about Mr Bonelli rather as I do about Messrs Watson and McRae, tall dark Italians being catnip to her in the same way ginger toms are to me); “Who’s this Nehemiah Kish, then? Never heard of him. Where’s he from? How long's he been kicking around?” etc etc – rather embarrassing as one cringes and hopes her well-pitched and rather carrying voice will not reach the ears of a parent, wife, girl~ or boyfriend, or anyone else who’s there to support Mr K... I tried to reassure her but as I hadn’t seen him in action very much, all I could say was fairly bland things about him being tall and a good partner.

So into the theatre we went, and the lights went down, and we were treated to what was for me, completely out of the blue, the best of the three “Manon”s I’ve seen this year, by a good margin.

It’s always hard to explain it, when it happens, but it was one of those performances when everything just comes together. By the time they got to that final terrifying pas de deux, hurtling into despair and death in the Louisiana swamps, I was crying helplessly into my binoculars, totally harrowed.

With two leads who hadn’t been set to dance together, and who therefore can’t have had much rehearsal together, one could have forgiven the odd hesitation or over-careful lift, but in fact they seemed pretty much unfazed by it; there was hardly any sign that they hadn’t been dancing together for years. To my eyes they were well-matched physically, technically and emotionally; their acting styles were complementary (both are subtle and inward actors rather than grand-standing and full-on) and they brought the whole thing alight for me.

The rest of the cast was batting down the order, too, and there were lovely little touches all over the place. José Martín was an excellent Lescaut, perhaps less virtuosic than Ricardo Cervera had been but more complex as a character; Valentino Zucchetti was a terrific Beggar Chief, Gary Avis a really nasty Monsieur GM, Bennett Gartside a really nasty Gaoler – I could burble on for ages listing every bit part who got a credit, as there wasn’t a duff performance to be seen. And from our leads there were lovely clean lines and confident sweeping lifts, kisses that looked as if they were really meant, and all the time that sense of real feeling, of something not thought-thru’ and rehearsed but fresh and immediate.

Laura Morera’s Manon came across as a girl who at the beginning is only just discovering the power her allure gives her, making a journey from innocence to a painful adulthood – a Juliet-like character, trying to make the right decisions, to solve the pull between irreconcilable longings. Mr Kish’s Des Grieux was a classic nice guy, simple and straightforward, kind-hearted, devoted, even perhaps not terribly bright; exactly the sort of decent, honest boy-next-door type she ought to have been able, in a better world, to marry and be happy with.

She knows how to use her stillness to say more than one would think possible; he knows how to use his very beautiful hands and wrists to finish a long, aching line; they both have the technical skill to let the choreography do the talking, rather than trying to over-characterise. The final pas de deux was about as no-holds-barred as I’ve seen it, Manon’s death a shattering moment, Des Grieux not screaming silently as most do but slumping back on his heels, staring at her body in shock; exhausted, bereft, and knowing he’s next.

I’ve been haunted by it ever since.

Friday, 3 June 2011

One more memory more picture from Crete before I get back to reality (which has been rather hectic over the last two and a half weeks).

This isn't the best picture I've taken of Mt Psiloritis, from the sea or otherwise, but it's the only one I've got in an electronic form. It's too hazy, and I'm not quite sure the coastline in the foreground is in focus. But it's still so evocative...