Coliseum, LondonRichard Jones probes Handel's political drama with great intelligence, and musically it is tremendous, with countertenors Iestyn Davies and Christopher Ainslie, particularly, breathtaking• Interview: Tom Service talks to Christian Curnyn
Richard Jones's new production of Rodelinda for English National Opera relocates Handel's masterpiece to an imaginary post-war Italy observed through post-modern eyes. It's an unsettling piece of theatre that probes Handel's bitter political drama with great intelligence, if occasional waywardness.
Written in 1725, the opera examines failures of integrity in the face of power. The usurper, Grimoaldo, has ousted Bertarido, King of Milan, from his country and has designs on his wife, Rodelinda. We soon find ourselves questioning, however, his victims' moral probity. Bertarido puts out a false report of his own death, then returns, disguised, to spy on his "widow's" fidelity. In the work's most alarming scene, Rodelinda dares Grimoaldo to reveal his infamy to the world by killing her son Flavio in front of her. She knows him to be a coward who won't do it. But in gambling the life of her child, she has also briefly equalled him in monstrosity.
Jones's interpretation is bleak. He sets much of it in a series of underground rooms that look like some former fascist bunker, but which now comprise Grimoaldo's office, Rodelinda and Flavio's cell, and a torture chamber for Grimoaldo's nasty sidekick Garibaldo. The only escape from this hellhole is to the dreary bar, where Bertarido (Iestyn Davies) and his sister Eduige (Susan Bickley), drown their sorrows under the watchful eye of Bertarido's loyal servant Unulfo (Christopher Ainslie).
Jones, as so often, tellingly deploys cinematic allusions. Rebecca Evans's agonised Rodelinda looks like Anna Magnani in neorealist mode, while the cameras hidden in her dressing table mirror, which John Mark Ainsley's Grimoaldo uses to perve over her every action, are out of From Russia With Love. It's strong stuff, though Jones departs from Handel in his treatment of the omnipresent yet silent Flavio. In place of a vulnerable child used as a pawn in an adult world, we find an assertive twentysomething played by Matt Casey, complicit in his mother's resistance, and transformed, by the end, into a greater monster than those around him. The point about power breeding violence is forcefully made, but unbalances Handel's moral vision in the process.
Musically it's tremendous, though Ainsley sounded a bit underpowered on opening night. Evans also took a while to settle, but did extraordinary things with her ecstatic aria of relief on discovering that Bertarido is still alive. Bickley is formidable throughout and Christian Curnyn's conducting is well-nigh flawless, as always. Ultimately, however, the evening belongs to its two countertenors, Davies and Ainslie, the former infinitely noble and moving, the latter darker toned yet fabulously agile. They've rarely been bettered in their respective roles, and are both, quite simply, breathtaking.
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City Halls, GlasgowSteven Osborne didn't quite match the ease and spontaneity of his other Beethoven concerto recitals in his recent series
Steven Osborne is currently making his way through Beethoven's piano concertos with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and conductor Andrew Manze, and if one quality has dominated the cycle so far it has been his unerring, unassuming, often revelatory sense of clarity. There's been plenty else to admire, too – the thoughtful invention of his Fourth, the blithe spark of his Emperor. But above all he and Manze seem to share a touch that's lucid, fresh and brilliantly plain-speaking.
Here they came to the Third concerto, and trod lightly even through its darkest, most obsessive, most weirdly menacing corners. But there was also something a bit tense about the delivery this time. The piano lines in the first movement were more rigid than usual, and Manze seemed to be working hard to keep the orchestra spruce. Things loosened up with a mighty orchestral chord announcing the cadenza – Osborne took his cue and matched the sudden force and brio, and his slow movement was daring, tender, magically spaced and warmly coloured. The spiky finale sounded bright but anxious. The clarity was always there, but not the ease and spontaneity of the other concertos.
Copland's Quiet City opened the concert: beautiful playing from trumpeter Mark O'Keeffe (glowing sound, mellow warble of vibrato) and James Horan's winsome cor anglais, but the blunt-edged strings didn't evoke much nocturnal ambiance. After the interval, Schumann's Second Symphony fell between two stools. Manze is a violinist who specialises in period performance, and he seemed to want this bulky symphony orchestra to play like an uber-agile period-instrument ensemble. His tempos were uncompromisingly zippy (except in the Adagio, which dragged), and he pushed the strings beyond their comfort zone in the skittish second movement. At times the results were exhilarating; at times it felt like a battle.
Barbican, LondonCascades of glitter, soap and water drown out the Mozart in Betty Nansen Teatret's madcap Danish 'theatre concert'
You may enter the Barbican a reasonably sane person, but there's a high chance you will leave dizzy with astonishment and disbelief at this strenuous and kitschy attempt to meld classical music with theatre. It sashays across the Barbican stage posturing wildly in a big wig like the show-off bastard love child of Liberace and Dolly Parton. The giggles are all for the wrong reasons.
Hailing from Denmark, Betty Nansen Teatret's show is a twist on the compilation musical that removes the need for anyone to do any real work and write a book. Instead it offers up snatches from Don Giovanni, Requiem in D Minor, The Marriage of Figaro and more in popped-up versions as lavishly staged live MTV videos. It's an empty spectacle so cynical, conservative and ultimately desolate that it makes the average Cirque du Soleil show seem like a miracle of meaning and radical performance intent.
I've no objection to putting the pop – or indeed the bluegrass, European soft rock, country and western or Motown – into Mozart. We happily remake Shakespeare for our own times and reinvent Ibsen, so why not? Mozart is big enough to stand up to the mugging. Particularly when the talent and musicianship of the cast and band is never in question.
But the music plays second fiddle to a relentlessly hyperactive and empty staging that seems to believe that throwing more effects at the stage – more water pouring from the ceiling, more glitter falling in arcs to catch the light, more soap suds bubbling across the stage, more volume, and ever more outlandish costumes – must add up to more, too. Quite the contrary.
The surfeit of eye candy so accumulates that by the end of the two hours it felt like the visual and theatrical equivalent of consuming 10 quid's worth of brightly coloured penny chews in a single sitting. Mind-boggling, and mind-bogglingly crass too.
• Interview: the director behind Mozart Undone
• In pictures: Mozart Undone
The English and the French composer spent three months together in 1908 as master and pupil, and the resulting friendship enriched both their lives and their music
It's Ravel Day all next Friday on Radio 3, and by way of a preview, I've been to see one of the British Library's Ravelian artefacts for this week's Music Matters.
I was able to look at his letters - taken from the British Library's archives - written to the composer he was proud to call his pupil - even if the student was three years older than the teacher: Ralph Vaughan Williams. What's wonderful about the three months that Ravel and VW spent together in 1908 is how much they tell us about the cultural politics of the differences between French and English music at the time, and thinking about their relationship gives you a new way of hearing their work - especially Vaughan Williams's.
VW knew that he needed something else in his music apart from the Germanic stodge he had been taught by Stanford and Parry, and thanks to the critic Calvocoressi, he found in Ravel exactly what he was looking for. After a rocky start, at least: when they first met, Ravel asked him to compose a minuet in the style of Mozart, to which VW gave an Anglo-Saxon response. But he was then allowed to concentrate on more creative lessons in France. That meant clarity of texture, limpidity of harmonic language, and luminosity of orchestral and instrumental sound. For VW it was an epiphany that showed him he didn't have to become a British-Teutonic epigone, but something more original.
You can hear the influence of Ravel's teaching and his music in the clarity and economy of the Pastoral Symphony and the Fifth Symphony, and in general, in the new confidence in his own style that VW found in his music. So much so, that Ernest Newman heard VW not as a "British composer" but as a musician who had been dangerously influenced by those dastardly Frenchies. That's a wonderful piece of reception history, because it shows how inaccurate our preconceptions of composers really are. We think of VW as the quintessential embodiment of musical Britishness, but that's not how he was always heard at the time, and there's a far greater continental influence in his music than we're prone to hear.
Ravel's friendship with VW lasted, in the letters, until 1919 (only Ravel's side of the correspondence survives), and their closeness is revealed in missives like this postcard from June 1916. (There's also an earlier postcard in the collection that Ravel sent from Newcastle, asking to be put up by the Vaughan Williamses at their home in Chelsea: Ravel on the Tyne sounds unlikely, but it happened!) Ravel had wanted to be an air-bomber, but was rejected because he was too small; he was finally allowed to become an ambulance driver, and he saw and experienced the horrors of the front-line at first hand (the postcard tells Vaughan Williams that his vehicle had broken down, and that he is 'very tired' - a euphemism for the terror we now know he went through). VW was a stretcher-bearer, who also knew the unimaginable tragedies of the trenches. And both of them made their war-time experiences part of their music in ways that are all the more moving by being implicitly felt rather than explicitly exposed: Vaughan Williams in his Pastoral Symphony, and Ravel in his Tombeau de Couperin.
There were non-musical sides to their friendship, however: Ravel had a penchant for steak and kidney puddings on Waterloo station, and in Paris, Ravel took VW off to see some "jolly tarts", in his phrase. VW returned from the experience with his honour intact, seeing the women as extras from a Toulouse-Lautrec painting rather than as potential conquests. If the musical influence seems like one-way traffic from Ravel to VW, Ravel at least admired the Englishman's music enough to give the French premiere of On Wenlock Edge (a performance that VW later remembered as one of the worst he had ever heard), and did what he could to promote his music in the chauvinistic context of French musical life. VW's music would have been very different without Ravel's example, and without Vaughan Williams, Ravel would have lost one of those rare things in his life, a close friend.
David Sefton, the director of the South Australian arts festival, gives us his picks, from six-hour interactive Shakespeare to a career retrospective of avant garde legend John Zorn
Hole? As in holes. Chasms to caves, plugholes to sinkholes, mind your gap and fill this week's void with your nominations
Does a dark opening attract fear, surprise, disgust or excitement? And what is a hole? The void in the middle, what's around the outside of it, or both?
This year's latest phobia is the sinkhole, the sudden collapse of a ground's surface layer. They can be very deep and destructive, swallowing people, cars and houses. Perhaps like in the Kevin Bacon film – Tremors. Or a banker's salary. Only sinkholes are not caused by giant worms. And there has been a spate of them appearing the UK recently, brought about, some say, by the unseasonably wet weather. But it's best not to get paranoid or go on about this. That would be too embarrassing. So embarrassing you'd just want the ground to just open up and … oh hang on. This week, as I peer down the dark opening into the Readers Recommend cellar, taps glinting in a shaft of sunlight, barrels brimming and ready to serve, I find myself mixing a cocktail of the topical, abstract and primeval.
When early humans first looked into a hole, did it inspire fear? Was it a gaping black chasm, a cave of hell, horror and death? Or was it a wondrous watery world inviting them to dive, teeming with colourful fish, rich in life and possibility? Whatever the experience, holes present a potent topic recurring in song. Many songs are written and driven by the desire to fill a hole of some sort or another. So perhaps they can be put into roughly two groups: good holes and bad holes.
Good holes might be cosy nests and nooks, associated with animal warmth and safety hibernation and nurturing. A good hole can be a opening, an opportunity. And there is also a common satisfaction associated with putting holes into things and things into holes, as it were. Such as? Well, planting seeds, samplings and trees, holes in woodwork that fit pieces together, placing objects in boxes (or indeed filling up playlists) and – so on. And there are other good associations, such as being placed in the protective surround of a life belt – through the hole in the middle – or being the ace in the hole with the golfing hole in one, or the satisfying plop of a snooker ball into a pocket, of course.
Holes can also be associated with adventure – the gateway to another world, such as thorough CS Lewis's wardrobe, or a worm hole in space in science fiction. And you can dig yourself out of a hole, but then again you can also dig yourself deeper.
From arseholes to earholes, peepholes to plugholes, holes can go, and be seen, in all sorts of forms and functions. Earthworms make holes and in doing so, fertilise soil, but the holes they make are also associated with rotting, decay and death. Buttonholes are useful, but some people have a phobia about them too. And then there's omphalophobia – the fear of another kind of hole – the belly button. And holes in the head? Surely a bad thing, unless of course you suffer from bad headaches and are a fan of the ancient medical practice of trepanning.
Really bad holes? Aside from sinkholes, melancholy songs talk about a hole in one's heart or life, but that can inspire a great song. Holes can also be wounds, bullet holes, something to fall into, a dole hole, a predicament, a squalid dwelling, a hole in one's pocket, shoes, or other items of clothing. And black holes? Yes, these too are somewhat inconvenient.
But who better to round off holes than the bard himself, not Salford's John Cooper Clarke alas, but William Shakespeare? Out of the ale-and-cakehole of playful Falstaff in Henry IV Part 2 emerge two of life's fundamentals – sex and death: "Wilt thou make as many holes in an enemy's battle, as thou hast done in a woman's petticoat?" Indeed one might.
And so this brings me to this week's very welcome guest guru HoshinoSakura, who, filling in the gap, will deftly gather up your hole song nominations and present them as a new whole on Thursday 6 March, so please put them forward in comments by last orders 11pm GMT on Monday 3 March.
To increase the likelihood of your nomination being considered, please:
• Tell us why it's a worthy contender.• Quote lyrics if helpful, but for copyright reasons no more than a third of a song's words.• Provide a link to the song. We prefer Muzu or YouTube, but Spotify, SoundCloud or Grooveshark are fine.• Listen to others people's suggestions and add yours to a collaborative Spotify playlist.• If you have a good theme for Readers recommend, or if you'd like to volunteer to compile a playlist, please email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org• There's a wealth of data on RR, including the songs that are "zedded", at the Marconium. It also tells you the meaning of "zedded", "donds" and other strange words used by RR regulars.• Many RR regulars also congregate at the 'Spill blog.
In the 18th century, the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice acquired an international reputation for its music, the quality of the young female musicians it trained there, and for the composers associated with it, especially Vivaldi. One of the most exceptional of those foundling musicians was Chiara, who was left on the steps of the Pietà as a two-month-old baby in 1718, studied the violin there under one of Vivaldi's pupils, and by the age of 21 had become one of the finest players in Europe. A number of composers, including Vivaldi and one of his successors Antonio Martinelli, wrote concertos for her, many of which Chiara collected in a diary that survives in the Pietà archives. Europa Galante's disc is centred upon three of those concertos, one for violin by Vivaldi, and works for violin and for viola d'amore by Martinelli, framed by sequences of sinfonias for strings, by Porta, Porpora, Latilla, Perotti and Bernasconi, that Chiara herself would have played with the orchestra of the ospedale. Fabio Biondi himself plays the solo parts, in his usual robustly stylish way. It's all a bit hard-driven at times, but with the accompanying documentary on DVD it makes a useful package.
Watkins/BBC NOW/Van Steen (Bridge)
Bridge began its survey of Arlene Sierra's music two years ago with a disc of ensemble works. The second instalment is devoted to orchestral music, and the four pieces included span more than a decade of the US-born, British-based composer's development, from Aquilo, begun in 1999, to Moler, which was finished in 2012. Together they show a remarkably sure-footed progress; though the handling of the orchestra and the plotting of the musical scheme is more quirky and individual in the later pieces than it sometimes is in Aquilo, which is startlingly fresh and assured for a first orchestral work. In the piano concerto Art of War, Sierra's fascination with tactics and game theory emerges again, in a two-movement work in which the piano's hyperactivity eventually overcomes the weight of the orchestra. The starting point for Moler was apparently teeth-grinding, and for Game of Attrition the idea of applying the rules of Darwinian natural selection to the orchestra. But neither piece needs knowledge of that background to make its points, as the ideas are vivid in their own right.
Jonas Kaufmann has sung enough Lieder in Britain now for us not to be surprised at how a tenor with such a thrillingly operatic voice, who seems to take every challenge he encounters in the opera house so comfortably in his stride, can scale down his sound to the intimate dimensions of a recital hall so convincingly. There are plentiful examples of that artistry in his Winterreise, especially of his perfectly judged pianissimo singing and apparently infinite range of shading, while pianist Helmut Deutsch provides tactful support. But it's still all just a bit too theatrical, as if Kaufmann can't help turning every song into a psychodrama, and feels obliged to extract the maximum intensity from every bar. Each number is compelling, but neither the sense of a cycle, nor the physical and psychological narrative that Schubert depicts so vividly, is ever really felt. There's something matter-of-factly beautiful about it all, and crucially, profoundly unmoving, too. Der Leiermann, the final song, brings no sense of closure, just a last self-contained demonstration of Kaufmann's finesse.
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