Well-matured ham

It’s great to see the increasingly fervent Twitter commendations for Andrea Chénier at Covent Garden as the run reached its climax with the last night on 6 February.

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A love of old books

Title page to Virgil's Works, 1696

Title page to Virgil’s Works, 1696

Whether for their content, or simply as beautifully crafted objects, “old books” are undoubtedly a pleasure. In my modest collection the oldest is a copy of the works of Virgil dating to 1696. As someone who can’t read Latin, it’s never likely to be well-thumbed, a fact which is fortunate as the front cover increasingly loses its grip on the spine. Nonetheless, looking through it has thrown up some fascinating annotations which seem worth sharing.

First, the title page: set in red and black, so far as I can make out (and begging your pardon for the Latin translation and interpretation!) it says,

Virgil’s Works. Interpretation and notes illustrative by Charles de la Rue, Society of Jesus [Jesuit], by the command of the most Christian King, as for the use of the most serene Dauphin according to the latest edition of Paris. London, printed by A Swalle & T Childe at the sign of a unicorn, at the cemetery/churchyard of St Paul’s.

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Fervent, but not very revolutionary

Versailles: Galerie des Glaces [photo: Mark Tyson]

Versailles: Galerie des Glaces

I wasn’t expecting to see Covent Garden’s new Andrea Chénier until next weekend, but was cajoled into a last-minute returned Upper Slips ticket for last night. For various reasons – not least, that it was a long, long week – I’m glad I’ll have a second chance at it.

I don’t really know Andrea Chénier, other than as a couple of over-impassioned excerpts such as La mamma morta and the closing duet. Judging by some Twitter commentators, it’s a piece of rare delicacy that calls for the most carefully cultivated voices and a production of subtle delicacy, making the most of the myriad options for reinterpretation. To me, it looked – and sounded – like a loud, brash load of old ham: one of those operas that makes a good noise, but isn’t going to change your world.  (more…)

Bland Ballo

A monument at Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey [photo: Mark Tyson]

Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey [photo: Mark Tyson]

Upheaval seems to be baked into Verdi’s 1859 opera Un ballo in maschera: it was begun as a tale about a Swedish king, shifted briefly (in conception) to Germany, then finally premiered as featuring colonial Boston. Now Katharina Thoma has shifted it to pre-First World War Austria-Hungary for Covent Garden’s new production. The assassination of Riccardo at the end is seemingly intended to evoke the spirit of events on the town hall steps in Sarajevo in June 1914.

Not that it matters, since this rather hammy melodrama streamrollers forth, paying no heed to the new window-dressing. Outer acts appear to look backward to the clunkier operations of Il Trovatore or Nabucco, whilst the central act in the ‘spooky’ graveyard has more of the developed, conversational writing on which Verdi’s reputation is more justly based. Picking up on the spooky graveyard theme, not to mention the supernatural invocations of fortune-teller Ulrica, Thoma has opted for an omnipresent pseudo-Gothic décor (minus the pointed arches, incidentally). When funerary monuments are not required, the cloisters and weighty doorframes are rearranged to form libraries, bedrooms, etc., but in essence most of the action, loosely directed, takes place in a wide open space in the middle of the stage. The graveyard scene did have some quite effective business with statuary coming to life to caress the distressed Amelia. Otherwise not particularly engaging, but I suppose not too offensive either. Given Covent Garden’s recent run of flirting with more interventionist directorial ideas, it’s at least a more benign form of failure for a new production. (more…)

When in Rome…

Last weekend was spent amidst the overwhelmingly abundant delights of Rome. Quite why I’m now, on my return, a bit worn out may be explained by the amount that we packed in to four days: Pantheon, Colosseum, Forum, Palatine, Castel Sant’Angelo, St Peter’s, Vatican Museum, Galleria Borghese, San Clemente, numerous smaller churches and a good deal of wandering around the streets of this fascinating city. Unsurprisingly, I’m still digesting it.

Teatro dell'Opera di Roma... nothing to see here, move along...

Teatro dell’Opera di Roma… nothing to see here, move along…

Sadly, there was nothing on at the Teatro dell’Opera to coincide with our visit, but we did get along to two musical events: one planned, the other impromptu. We had prebooked a concert by the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in their newer home at the Parco della Musica at the north side of central Rome. And then, in our hotel, we picked up a leaflet for a ‘dinner-and-show’ package featuring La Traviata. Being at an otherwise loose end, we thought ‘why not?’ and booked it; it turned out to be surprisingly good. (more…)

Music in the Christmas countdown…

Christmas Day afternoon at South Norwood Lake

Christmas Day afternoon at South Norwood Lake

In the middle of November the days off at Christmas seem to take ages to arrive; in the middle weeks of December there seems to be no time at all as they career towards us. And then they appear to be over in a flash – or, perhaps, a haze – of social activity. By which I mean to own up to not having written up a couple of good musical events in those hectic pre-festive weeks.

One, in particular, was better than good: it was absolutely in a category where only superlatives will do. The last night of Tristan und Isolde at Covent Garden was the sort of performance that stays with you for a very long time, in fact I strongly suspect it is unlikely to be surpassed for its singing in my future opera-going. We had seen the first night, which was something wonderful, but by the end of the run the performance had cohered into something which was nothing short of transcendent.   (more…)

Nairn’s fabulously evocative London

Nairn's London - PenguinLittle knowing its timeliness, my partner picked up a copy of a new book in a charity shop the other day: Nairn’s London. A reprint of the 1966 ‘guide’ to London’s architectural interest, launched just at the beginning of November, it has immediately got me hooked.

I’ve had to discipline myself to stop dipping in to interesting areas, and read it through from the start. Otherwise, much like London of the period, there’s so much waiting to leap out from unexpected corners that it would be easy to miss many a delight.

I say ‘of the period’ because what makes this work so captivating is the way in which Nairn conjures London in transition, perhaps even at the start of a post-war journey that has led us to the rather po-faced, in-thrall-to-money, oh-so-shiny city that we have today. (more…)