Archive for the ‘Opera’ Category

WNOWNO MOF2I’m sorry, I see that logo and just think: wino.

Last time I saw the Welsh National Opera I was dipping a toe into Wagnerian waters with their Flying Dutchman, which was set on … a spaceship in outer space.  Not great.  That was a few years ago, but you can’t go wrong with Mozart, can you?  No, not really.  It was fine, glad I went – for all the spareness of the set, it was a nice spectacle, fine ensemble playing and voices, some fine melody lines and a real orchestra.  Still comes as a surprise to me how rhythmic Mozart can be; had a good beat.

The WNO Marriage of Figaro started off all Brechtian with the main performers just sauntering on with the lights still up, ‘doing’ their stretches and other prep stuff, which has a certain charm the first time it’s done.  Then there was the shock of them singing in English – a first for me.  I didn’t like it; still had the sub-titles over the top of the stage, because it remains difficult to actually hear the words being sung, but where you could some of the rhyming was treacherous.  And I was thrown by the wedding coming in the third act of a four act opera, and, to tell the truth, didn’t have much of a clue as to what exactly was going on in the forest in the fourth, given they were all in black cloaks and distinguishable only by the colour of their masks as the intrigue unfolded.  Should have done some homework.  No, really: I had a good time.

Mrs Hemingway


There are four Mrs. Hemingways in Naomi Wood‘s beautifully constructed novel Mrs. Hemingway (Picador, 2014), though no actual marriage ceremonies feature in the action.  The cover’s a superb piece of book design – subject, period, delicate visual balance: great job.  And what is inside is up to it – a lovely, compelling piece of work.

Mr. Hemingway is writer Ernest Hemingway.  If it were a movie you’d say starring four women and featuring a man.  You don’t get inside his head, but, of course, it’s more than a bit part.  On one level you could say it’s a case study of the old chestnut: how come strong intelligent women fall for selfish bastards?  But there are plenty of good times, and this is no hatchet job.  Nevertheless, from the time when he and Hadley got together in the ’20s to the distressing end with Mary nearly half a century later, he never spent a single day as an unattached single man.

It’s Mrs.Hemingway number 3 – fellow war correspondent and writer Martha Gellhorn, the one who was able to get over him – who, at the house in Cuba, in 1944, is allowed a judgment:

He sat down by her; his T-shirt smelled of the cocktail.  “What can I do for you, Marty?”  His words were gentle now.  Poor Ernest.  He had never loved another more than he himself was loved.

But it was still her who describes him, in August in Paris later that year, during a caddish episode that does not show him at his best:

A man stands with his hands deep in the garbage cans.  Somehow, among the empty wine bottles, broken wooden crates, slimed scraps of food, Ernest still has the air of a man in touch with the gods.

Mrs. Hemingway is arranged in four sections, arranged chronologically by wife as each of them picks up the narrative baton, though it jumps around, criss-crossing in time and place within and between those sections, taking in Chicago, Paris, Arkansas, Antibes, Florida, Havana, London and, finally, Ketchum, Idaho, and ranging over the years from 1920, when Hadley first met Ernest in Chicago (which is not the opening chapter), to 1961 and Ernest’s suicide.  It’s quite a story, skillfully and stylishly handled.  “My wives,” he tells Mary, the last wife, who stayed with him longest, to the distressing end, “They have a way of finding each other without me being involved a jot.”  It is precisely the discovery of this aspect of it all that, the author says (in a bonus afterword in the Richard & Judy Book Club edition I read), prompted her to write the novel: “I was swiftly realising that though the wives and mistresses of Ernest Hemingway were enemies, they were also, quite often, friends.

The end – Mary witnessing his physical and mental deterioration – is painful to read:

Sometimes she walks out to the woods: the leaves of the cedar and birch are just on the turn.  fall has come so quickly, and the forest is all mustards, rust and blood.  Having loved its beauty so intensely, it amazes her that Ernest is blind to it now.

Ernest and Hadley in Pamplona 1925

OK, it’s Spain 1925, not Paris, but you get the drift. That’s Hadley in the middle.

This is a tremendous, ultimately sad, novel.  It’s clear an enormous amount of research went into it and, again in that afterword, Naomi Wood admits “… sometimes, in the midst of love letters and torn-up photographs, I felt like the fifth mistress.”  Mary Chapin Carpenter has a song called Mrs. Hemingway; it’s Hadley looking back on her time with Ernest in Paris in the mid-1920s, the time celebrated in A moveable feast, Hemingway’s memoir of those times which was assembled by Mary from his manuscripts and notes, and published after his death.  It’s a lovely piece of work that is on YouTube with an atmospheric slideshow of photographs, mostly from that era, including some of the couple.  Here’s the link; have a hankie ready: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j68s-C1ikO0

Scribal April 2016Vaultage mid-April 2016Another Scribal goodie.  We got a full complement of Roses and Pirates, previously mentioned in despatches minus a cello player, and mighty fine they were too.  The cellist (“Amy Farrah Fowler” said my companion) kicked off with some charming pizzicato and added a lot to the mix, even when, “relegated to percussion” (and I quote a fellow band member).  Three women with some decent songs and stirring harmonies, delivered with humour and zest.

Lee Nelson – the Lutonia poet, not the alleged London comedian – gave us a great set.  We had the Human League’s Don’t you want me completely re-written in sonnet form, which worked delightfully; the recognition of the sentiments re-imagined in a different lingua franca, without any resort to easy laughs (the concept is wry enough), was illuminating.  Lee has published a slim volume giving each track on the Dare album the treatment, so he asked for requests; inevitably someone asked for the instrumental.  Lee, you should get that slim volume a mention on the Dare Wikipedia page.  He’s now working on Abba, and he gave us one of those too.   Highlight of a varied set, though, was the epic 97, a funny and ultimately moving memoir of his father, written in part as a response to a request for something to go in a prime numbers-themed anthology, leavened by beautifully crafted tangents concerning the writing of the piece and other things on the way.  Outstanding.

Mid-month Vaultage saw a fine 30-minute spot to host Pat Nicholson in DADGAD mode.  I knew there was something different about him … he was performing … without a … hat.

Rhyme & ReasonMK HumsRhyme & Reason

The regular Milton Keynes Humanists April meeting was given over entirely to a look at poetry on humanist themes, and an absorbing evening it turned out to be, with featured poets Danni Antagonist (who sold some books!) and Sam Upton in fine form, and members of the group doing their own stuff, reciting old favourites or texts chosen specifically for the occasion.  Of the latter, Abul Al Al Ma’arri, a blind Arab eleventh century poet was something of an eye-opener.  There’s an article by Kenan Malik (The poetry of an old atheist) which is well worth a look, from which this short poem is taken;

Traditions come from the past, of high import if they be True;
Ay, but weak is the chain of those who warrant their truth.
Consult thy reason and let perdition take others all:
Of all the conference Reason best will counsel and guide.

Yup, dateline: 11th century, Aleppo and Baghdad.




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Andrew Cowan - CrustaceansDownbeat yet quietly passionate eloquence from a man of low self-esteem who is hurting bad makes for an unexpectedly riveting ride in Andrew Cowan‘s novel, Crustaceans (Hodder, 2000).  Three days before Christmas, on the occasion of his son’s sixth birthday Paul is driving through a snow-covered East Anglia to a seaside town where they and his partner had a caravan and happy times.  He’s talking to his son, Euan, though it soon becomes apparent he is not in the car.  He’s telling Euan all about meeting his mother, first as a student then following her to London, and how he came into the world, about his own unhappy childhood, about the remote father he was desperate to be a better father than, about a tragic mother he hardly knew.

Crustaceans is a heartbreaker.  Part of it is a graphic illustration of Philip Larkin‘s This be the verse (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad …” – that one), part of it is about how two people deal with grief and bereavement.  (That’s not much of a giveaway, by the way, from early on).  One is aware of the randomness and contingency that is a part of living a life, throughout.  It’s a slow build to the awful event at the heart of the driver’s pain.  The end might be optimistic, but you can’t rely on it.

Andrew Cowan is a tremendous writer, an English author who I think deserves much greater recognition.  This is a poignant, vivid, and compassionate novel, which, although presented as a first person narrative, is skillfully delivered with detachment.  There is no wastage of words in its 229 (paperback) pages.  There are many haunting passages of both introspective recall and crystal clear physical description.  The picture painted, for example, of the ultimately derelict workshop of Paul’s chain-smoking father – once a successful large form sculptor – the rusted remnants of unfinished pieces, works on both levels.  This is a book of lamenting that sings.  There are no jokes.  Euan collected shells.

Comings and goings

Busy week, week before last.  Farewell to JL, good man of amusing and amused look, of intelligent cheeky grin, mischievous without malice.  Happened at a big North London necropolis – New Southgate – where the funeral trains used to run to from Kings Cross in Victorian times.  God-free, we went in to the Invisible String Band (The half remarkable question) and came out to Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss (I’ll fly away), with contemplative birdsong and Adlestrop in between.  Remembered, as in life, whenever the Ipswich Town result comes up …

Lau-Nov-2015-A6-Tour-Flyer-1-728x1024And so, Monday evening, to The Stables for Lau, a Scottish three-piece folk and sonic exploration band featuring guitar, keyboards (and loops) and incredibly hard-working fiddle.  Booked on the rave recommendations of a couple of friends -“great live” – without having heard anything beyond a couple of doleful YouTube songs, was impressed but not entirely knocked out.

The guitarist had a beautiful Scottish singing voice that I would have liked to have heard more of, and less of the, ahem, descents into ‘sonic exploration’, or what we in older times would call ‘freak outs’.  Which, it has to be said, they did come out of beautifully, while some complex arrangements were delivered with aplomb and the songs were things of beauty.  Martin with left hand working the accordion balanced on his knees and doing all sorts of things with the right, eyes closed as if in sleep, was a sight to behold.  Didn’t realise until going to their website that the percussive workout that he opened with was accomplished with forks and spoons mounted on a board.

After some earlier mutterings about lemon cake they introduced Lal Waterson’s Midnight feast, at which Martin made more mention of lemon drizzle cake.  Can’t remember who said it – might have been himself – but acknowledgment was made of his literal mindedness.  Without missing a beat: “I believe all poetry is basically lying“.  The music was lyrical.  Unlike Mr Hobbs, was glad I went.

Scribal Nov 2015Vaultage early Nov 2015Two bards and a fine band for the November Scribal and a full set of familiar open mic-ers.  Palmerston their usual immaculate playing and harmonies on great original songs.  American influences but a music hall comic’s performance from Peter Ball with I like to drink, staggering up and down the room, sitting on tables, radio mic in hand, not missing a beat, even when helped to his feet by Stony’s slightest of frame ex-Bard.  Another performance of great charm from Morris side concertina-ist who knows how to pick ’em: obscure Lennon/McCartney (as recorded by Billy J.Kramer) and Booby Vee – I’d forgotten all about I’ll keep you satisfied, and The night has a thousand eyes respectively.  At Vaultage later in the week we whistled along to Chris Wesson’s finely crafted pop songs (only one we whistled to, actually, but … poetic license, you get the gist?) and enjoyed some fine Evs and S&G harmonies on some Pocket Full of Peanuts originals.

Die entfuhrungWednesday and it’s pain and longing – off we go to the opera.  But you can’t go wrong with Glyndebourne on Tour and Wolfgang Amadeus.  Mozart‘s Die entfuhrung aus dem Serail aka The abduction from the seraglio[Seraglio, by the way, one of those words you hardly ever find outside of cryptic crosswords].

Great orchestra, a rhythmic score, a good-looking inventive set – what you’d expect.  I’ve no great claim to judge the singing – could have done without the coloratura from the female lead, which remains my problem with opera – but it sounded fine to me, the acting and theatrical ‘business’ up to Glyndebourne’s high standard.  The singer playing the character of Blonde – hooped stockings, cartwheeling in glee at one stage – stole the show in the way that the crude mechanicals make the leads look dull in Shakespeare’s comedies; she was great.  The outcome prescient for these time: the transcendence of old hostilities, a retreat from people ownership, the power of love witnessed to bring on change.

One last thought about opera.  This was one of those where the dialogue is not sung, not delivered in recitative.  I can grant that the arias and all should be sung in the language they’re written for, but if it’s just spoken dialogue, surely a decent translation, rather than the précis translation you see on the text screen, would at the least take nothing away?

Night watchAnother book

I dunno.  Sarah WatersThe night watch (Virago, 2006), 500 pages long in the paperback edition, was short-listed for the Booker and the Orange Prizes, but if it hadn’t been a Book Group book, and the prospect of an interesting discussion, I doubt I’d have got into three figures.  But then I would have missed the best bit, which, with a bit of background thrown in, that would have made a fine novella.  I speak of Julia and Helen’s haunting, lyrical walk one night, at the start of their relationship, through the streets of Holborn and among the damaged old churches of the East End.

Because it’s mostly set in a bombed London in the Second World War, comparisons with Kate Atkinson‘s powerful Life after life were inevitable for me.  While Ursula in that is with a rescue and demolition team, Kate in this is with an ambulance unit that takes over from them at the scene.  Life after life very effectively plays around with time – a snakes and one-step-at-a-time ladders affair that gives the breadth of a variety to the outcomes in the episodes set in the rubble and the ruins – and The night watch‘s chronology is unorthodox too.  Kicking off bleakly in 1947 (the first 169 pages), it goes back to 1944 (the main action – 279 pages), and finishes by briefly revealing how all these stories started (46 pages).   One of the characters says:

‘I go to the cinema […]  Sometimes I sit through the film twice over. Sometimes I go in half-way through, and watch the second half first. I almost prefer them that way – people’s pasts, you know, being so much more interesting than their futures.

Not sure it applies to the novel, though.  With a chronological structure like that, if I’d been really engaged, I’d have expected to want to go back to page one and keenly explore it again in a new light.  Didn’t happen; maybe, I’ll grant, it’s just me.

In The night watch we’re out on the margins, back then in another secret world.  Featuring two women, lesbians, linked over time by a relationship with a woman novelist, a probably homosexual young man in prison.  Also to the fore is his glamour girl sister, obsessed with, getting pregnant by, a married soldier.  With a side cast of a Christian Science medical practitioner, a protective retired prison warder (his relationship with the young man is left ambiguous – to me, anyway), a middle class jack the lad conscientious objector.  All damaged people linked one way or another, with maybe glimmers of personal hope for some at the end (ie. the end of the first section).  “We never seem to love the people we ought to,” one of the women says, from the remains of a bombed house.  The women are finely drawn, but I’m far from convinced by the episode that got the precious young man into prison, though, as I say, another world back then.

I had a problem with some of the prose too.  There’s a lot of blushing, some of the romance strikes me as a bit close to Mills & Boon at times, and the word ‘queer’ seems to innocently, old school, be employed a fair number of times; not sure if that’s meant, and why, or not.  What I said about Andrew Cowan at the top of this piece, not wasting words.  What is one to make of:

  • He was opening the tin of ham as he spoke; turning its key over and over with his great, blunt fingers, producing a line of exposed meat like a thin pink wound. Viv saw Duncan watching; she saw him blink and look away.  [Is that meant to indicate some sort of sensuality?] [27.11.2015: Have to admit after the Book Group discussion there is some relevance to this, harking back to events in 1941, but even then I’m not convinced by the image].
  • cameras flashing “like bombs” [Really?]
  • His nails were cut bluntly, but shone as if polished. [So what?]
  • He went to the armchair and sat down, unfastening the top two buttons of his jacket … [Surely the wrong way round?]
  • A strand or two of tobacco came loose upon Duncan’s tongue … [it’s a problem with roll-ups, true]
  • [and what exactly is meant by …] the empty yet bullying expression of people who have settled down for a night at the cinema …

I’ve got others, all jolly unfair no doubt.  Then there’s:

Julia pulled on a broken stalk. ‘ “Nature triumphant over war”,’ she said, in a wireless voice; for it was the sort of thing that people were always writing about to the radio – the new variety of wildflower they had spotted on the bomb-sites, the new species of bird, all of that – it had got terrible boring.

Now, I would have been interested in that.  Enough.






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LFG GOT 14La Finta Giardiniera

Going to the opera it helps to know the story.  When, like one of those Shakespeare comedies, it’s a tale involving hidden identities, you can still get lost, though.  Glyndebourne on Tour‘s production of the young Mozart‘s La Finta Giardiniera did it’s best to help with some very distinct costumery for all the characters and I did pretty much keep up with what was going down.  Always helped, of course by the surtitles, the lyrics projected above the stage as they are sung (as opposed to subtitles on the bottom of the telly).  These are another reason it’s better to be in the circle than in the stalls (less strain on the neck looking up and down), as well as you get to see a lot more of the theatrical ‘business’ going on all over the stage that is always such a bonus in a Glyndebourne production, and if you’re near enough to the front of the circle you get see the orchestra too.  La Finta Giardiniera is a tale of loves thwarted (misunderstandings, the small matter of a stabbing, mixed messages, that sort of thing) and then unthwarted.  It was still something of a surprise, though, when the words “All men are bastards” appeared on the surtitles.

In between the losing and the regaining and realignment, we have love as source and cause of madness, the visual metaphor in this production being the cast physically tearing down parts of the civilised urban edifice that was the set, which was simultaneously falling down around them and being lifted away to reveal the wild forest behind.  When a scenery malfunction meant this didn’t quite happen as planned (it got stuck) it took nothing away – became almost a bonus, in fact, an I-was in-the-audience-when tale to tell – it only added to the warmth of the reception the company got at the end.  Without any of those Bravos! and people getting up out of their seats (as they do) the applause did not flag for as long a time as any performance I can recall.  It was most satisfying theatrically and musically, as well as being great fun.  There were no standout voices in the small cast – all seven sang beautifully (not that I can bring any technical knowledge to the table) – and the orchestra were superb.

Young MozartIncredibly Mozart wrote the music for this, his first opera, in his late-teens and even a classical music pleb like me was fascinated, could hear it was bursting with ideas that would see later fuller fruition.  And while we’re on fruition, there’s a reason that title La Finta Giardiniera doesn’t get translated.  Even Babelfish doesn’t try.  All I’ve found trawling away have been The pretend garden-girl, The false garden-girl and The phony gardener – none of which exactly have a ring to them.  Not that she exactly gets her hands dirty.  Just saying.

Scan JungMeanwhile, back in the tub …

I’ve been slowly working my way through my 1978 Picador paperback of Man and his symbols (1964), a book, it says on the cover, ‘conceived and edited by’ Carl Jung.  I say slowly, because I’ve been reading it in the bath.  A word about reading in the bath: you really shouldn’t.  Especially with new books, which swell up like some weird chemical reaction, and never, never, ever with library books.  However, Man and his symbols is one of a number of books I’ve bought over previous decades that have survived house-moving and other assorted charity shop culls that I have never actually got round to reading and as such, are – never mind slightly foxed – desiccated to the point where a little bit of moisture in the air is not going to harm them.  Falling asleep and dropping them into cooling water is another matter – a real danger here, as it happens – but my conscience is clear.

Anyway, I’ve always been interested in Jung’s ideas, especially his notion of archetypes and the mythic narratives of the collective unconscious, and it would be nice to think these could be seen as having evolutionary relevance in human (and indeed, personal) development.  I’d say the man himself, in the general introduction to his work here, broadly hints at this as being worth pursuing, but I’m not sure the big name disciples who contribute more detailed chapters – M-L von Franz, Jolande Jacobi, couple of others I’ve not encountered before – are that interested, and a lot of von Franz’s concluding chapter, Science and the unconscious – written 60 years ago, when the scientific study of consciousness was in its infancy – is the stuff of fantasy and dead-ends.  And as for the chapter on now well dated modern art, well … extemporize, why don’t you?

So you can say I was disappointed at the vagueness  – phrases like ‘tends to suggest’, verbs like seems employed overtime to move arguments on, and so on – and plain gobbledygook I found here, particularly on the formation of the psyche (whatever that is).  Given the stated proviso that there is no general formula and that each individual has to be treated, um, individually, it just struck me that all this dream analysis is effectively making it up as you go along, a close relation to the psychic’s cold reading techniques, though I’ll willingly concede that it can be useful for some of the individuals involved (like the poor sod singled out for the chapter featuring an analysis – after 35 sessions over 9 months).  And I thought I might actually get out of the bath for the satisfaction of throwing the book back into it on reading this passage, courtesy of M-L – who is good on fairy tales, you can’t take that away – on the subject of The process of individuation (p168):

For example, Jung once told a group of students about a young woman who was so haunted by anxiety that she committed suicide at the age of 26.  As a small child, she had dreamed that “Jack Frost” had entered her room while she was lying in bed and pinched her on the stomach.  She woke and discovered that she had pinched herself with her own hand.  The dream did not frighten her; she merely remembered that she had had such a dream.  But the fact that she did not react emotionally to her strange encounter with the demon of the cold – of congealed life – did not augur well for the future and was itself abnormal.  It was with a cold unfeeling hand that she later put an end to her life.  From this single dream it is possible to deduce the tragic fate of the dreamer, which was anticipated by her psyche in childhood.

Really?  And I’ve always liked the idea of synchronicity, Jung’s “acausal connecting (togetherness) principle“, or “meaningful coincidence.”  I can imagine Douglas Adams coming up with it for its humourous potential, but to use as a significant example Wallace and Darwin  discovering evolution at roughly the same time is pretty desperate, as opposed to Marshall McLuhan’s (remember him?) “it steam engines when it’s steam engine time,” never mind simple, um, coincidence.  I prefer my mate Neil’s rather poetic explanation that it’s the universe giving you a nudge.  Like Charlie Resnick listening to an Eric Dolphy album in the recently read John Harvey’s Darkness, darkness and, in the wake of David Bowie’s new ‘song’, someone saying Bowie once told him as a mod he’d tried to like Eric Dolphy but couldn’t quite manage it, which lead me to dig out that vinyl album bought for a 50p in a Record Exchange many decades ago and give it a spin; and it was good.

Switch on 2014What it says on the poster

Upstairs in the library, as part of the lead-up to the annual lantern parade and the switching on of the town’s Christmas lights, to the strains of ’50s and ’60s pop classics coming from the dodgems outside, all the fun of the wordfair.  And a full-on visit from the Stony Stratford Mummers.  Just as well there were no-shows from five wordsmiths (for the record, for future historians: NB, TK, CT, PB, P) because somehow everyone and everything else was made to fit in.  The oddness of daytime poetry out of school … and given Father Christmas was in the children’s library downstairs, no (well hardly any) swearing, even from The Antipoet, no strangers to Lillabullero.  Some fine contributions from the Cambridge contingent (including the previously mentioned in despatches quiet power of Fay Roberts (not so quiet in harness with The Antipoet)) and ex-Laureate of the Fens, Leanne Moden, who I’d like to hear more of; her mesmeric and action-packed remembrance of shared youthful emo-days and long term friendship celebrated at a gig years later was stunning (I asked, and wish I could remember the name of the band), while her anti-deforestation defence of natural vegetation was a delight.  And so after the ever-willing and magnificent Antipoet out into the lights …

Danni Antagonist sparkles.

Danni Antagonist sparkles.

Leanne Moden in action.  Hard left is the current bald-head Bard of Stony Stratford, and next to him the hirsute bookie's favourite for the position next year.

Leanne Moden in action. Hard left is the current bald-head Bard of Stony Stratford, and next to him the bookie’s hirsute favourite for the position next year.

(Photos above cropped from Fay Roberts’ originals.  You can see Fay in action and a lot more by visiting her website at www.fayroberts.co.uk); you won’t regret it.)

Cryptic crossword clues of a cultural bent

Been over a year since I last did anything like this.  Cryptic clues, this time of a cultural bent, from the Guardian that have tickled my fancy.  What qualifies is wit, zen, bad punning and doh! moments – a certain kind of cleverness.  Take heart: Morse would not be impressed.  First is the nom de guerre of the crossword setter, then the clue and (non-cruciverbalists if you’ve got this far) the number of letters in the answer.  Answers and explanations appear below my photo of a packed Stony Stratford Market Square just after the 280 lanterns had trooped in and the Christmas Lights got switched on and the PA had no chance of carrying The Bard’s recitation of his poem for the occasion (and before the giant snowman went on a rampage).

  • from Arachne: Tom Sharpe employed them (9)
  • from Paul: Director hit the water with last of Bacardi (7)
  • from Philistine: Haven of Love by Status Quo (5)
  • from Shed: Female Ibsen character embracing male one of Dostoyevsky’s (7)
  • from Pasquale: Derek, an artist, establishing wine stores (7)
  • from Paul: As a baby, Victor introduces himself? (8)
  • from Picaroon: Appropriate introduction from Ezra (7)
  • from Philistine: Artist picked up according to girl (7)
  • from Puck: Strictly does it for Rambo – LOL! (8,7)
  • from Picaroon: Folk gathering mostly jeered Mary Poppins? (10)
  • from Brendan: Conduct oneself in original duets from Beethoven, Handel, and Verdi (6)

Stony Lights 2014

Crossword answers:

  • from the pen of Arachne: Tom Sharpe employed them (9): Metaphors (anagram of author Tom Sharpe, whose Wilt books are still some of the funniest I’ve read)
  • from Paul: Director hit the water with last of Bacardi (7): Fellini
  • a beauty from Philistine: Haven of Love by Status Quo (5): Oasis (O-as-is)
  • from Shed: Female Ibsen character embracing male one of Dostoyevsky’s (7): Gambler (Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler)
  • from Pasquale: Derek, an artist, establishing wine stores (7): Bodegas (you know, older males: Bo Derek – the 10) [a very crossword word]
  • Ezra Pound in 1913: quel dude; shame about the politics.

    The poet Ezra Pound in 1913: quel dude! – shame about the politics.

    from Paul: As a baby, Victor introduces himself? (8): Immature (ancient film actor)

  • similarly from Picaroon: Appropriate introduction from Ezra (7): Impound
  • I do like this from Philistine: Artist picked up according to girl (7) Cezanne (says Anne)
  • from Puck: Strictly does it for Rambo – LOL! (8,7): Ballroom dancing (an anagram: the letters of ballroom … dancing about).
  • from Picaroon: Folk gathering mostly jeered Mary Poppins? (10): Hootenanny (hooted)
  • lastly, a very literal one from Brendan: Conduct oneself in original duets from Beethoven, Handel, and Verdi (6): Behave

And I leave you with the light and the dark side of the mighty Antipoet (always depending on where the window is, of course):

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Patrick Ness - More than thisGood though it is – and it is a very good book indeed – I’m afraid the title of Patrick Ness‘s latest young adult novel still can’t cancel out an annoying reminder of the death knell of a decent Desert Island Discs that is Frank Sinatra’s treatment of My way; not that I necessarily blame the singer for that, just the bastards who pick it.

You can only really give More than this (Walker Books, 2013) a ‘young adult’ label because its three major protagonists span the teenage years between them.  And there are certainly plenty of life lessons to be had.  No, this is dystopian science fiction of the highest literary order, the sort of stuff that graced the best pages of those Dangerous visions anthologies of old, or more recently Lost on tv.  I’ll mention Philip K. Dick and Aldous Huxley for starters, hazard cognitive psychology as one of its drivers.  This is a big book in every way, not just in its page length; the hardback also has a tactile cover (and you see that title on yellow through a hole in it).

“Whatever is true, whatever this place is or isn’t, whether it’s all in his head or whether this really is the way the world turned out … “

It starts with a boy called Seth drowning – dying – in graphic detail, bones breaking against the rocks the sea throws him against.  But he wakes up naked, weak from thirst and lack of food in some sort of derelict waste land.  Or hell.  Or what?  He discovers that he’s in England where he grew up, although he was drowning in the US.  He discovers he’s not alone, finds the older cynical Regine and young innocent Tomasz and they form an uneasy alliance.  Ness is such a good writer you are with them all the way.  As they venture out they also painfully re-discover details of their old lives and how they got to be where they are.  And work out they’ve somehow emerged into a world that went badly wrong.  I don’t think I’ll give much more away here save to say it started with people escaping reality online and this trend is developed exponentially in classic SF fashion.

What I like about Patrick Ness is the way he plays with the idea of story, turns it upon itself.  So, before he’s met the others, Seth is reading a book his parents stopped him reading:

A book, he thinks at one point […] It’s a world all on its own, too. […]  A world made of words, Seth thinks, where you live for a while.
“And then it’s over,” he says. He’s only got about fifty pages left, he can finally find out what happens in the end.
And then he’ll leave that world forever.

Except More than this isn’t that kind of book.  It stays with you powerfully a while after, tantalizing beyond its last page.  Again, later:

“Crap sci-fi.” Seth mutters to himself. “Life is never actually that interesting.” […]
It’s the kind of story where everything’s explained by one big secret, like everyone going online and what’s real and what’s not being reversed. The kind of story you watched for two hours, were satisfied with the twist, and then got on with your life.
The kind of story his own mind would provide to make sense of this place.

It’s that last sentence that is the rub, that nags away in the unreal circumstances they find themselves in (and also admits the novelist’s dilemma in supposedly dealing with ‘real life’):

“The rain that puts out the fire and also traps us here so we can talk,” he continues. “A chest injury that heals fast enough for me to get away. It all just sort of works, doesn’t it.”

And so it goes on.  “He is back to believing we are made up“; because “That’s what would happen if this were a story“; or “If this is my brain telling me a story-“.  Until Regine explodes, with “I swear to God, if you say one more philosophical thing to me-”  But stories, she say elsewhere:

“People see stories everywhere,” Regine says. “That’s what my father used to say. We take random events and we put them together in a pattern so we can comfort ourselves with a story no matter how much it obviously isn’t true.” She glances back at Seth. “We have to lie to ourselves to live. Otherwise, we’d go crazy.”

And sometimes we use those stories, she tells Seth, as excuses, to expunge our own guilt at not making a grab for happiness, for not even trying.  Because More than this is a lot more than just ideas.  It’s how Seth, Regine and Tomasz cope with it all in their own ways and together.  It’s a reader’s delight to watch as the understanding and warmth grows between them:

     “People break,” he says again. “But we got a second chance, “the three of us.”
Regine laughs once. “You think this is a second chance? How shitty was your life?” […]
She gives a wry smile. “I used to be a really nice person.”
Seth smiles back. “I don’t believe that for a second.”

With echoes back to A monster calls, Patrick Ness’s previous book, near the ‘end’ of More than this Regine tells Seth:

      “Real life is only ever just real life. Messy. What it means depends on how you look at it. The only thing you’ve got to do is find a way to live there.”
“Now make hay, dickhead. While the sun still shines.”

Scribal Gathering: the Allographic edition

Fay Roberts by Karen Kodish detail


November Scribal and ideally I’d have one photo of the immaculately red top hatted guest host Fay Roberts here.  C’est la vie – Dyna bywyd, even.  At least it’s the right venue in the pic.  Another fine evening but it was well over a week ago now and – though I can’t possibly ignore it – I can’t remember too much or many of the specifics.  As compère Fay was playful, shouty and mellifluous and as a poet impressive yet again with that quiet power of hers, when not rhythming and rhyming.  And bongo-ing for the Last Quarter, who did the lovely Ugly beauty beautifully. Fay says on FB: “11 poets, 4 musical acts, great audience, beautiful venue” and who am I to argue.

Scribal Alographic

Engelbert Humperdinck does Roald Dahl

Hansel and GretelYup, that’s the wicked witch, and he was a tenor.  Something I’ve not seen before: empty seats for Glyndebourne on Tour at the theatre on Tuesday.  More fool those who couldn’t be bothered because this was a superb modern production of Engelbert Humperdinck‘s Hansel and Gretel; those who did certainly made up for the numbers with their applause and acclaim at the end.  The sets and were stars on their own, never mind the full orchestra, the costumes and the singing.  It’s not great on tunes you come away humming but that never gets in the way.

We came knowing little about it save for cramming with the Brothers Grimm tale in the morning, which wasn’t that clever given someone didn’t die and wasn’t the heartless baddy we were expecting.  Knew we were probably in for a treat when the front curtain was a brown-taped brown paper parcel with a big bar code bottom right.  When that went up H&G’s parents’ cottage was made of tatty thick corrugated cardboard.  Nicely done.  The leafless branchless forest H&G got lost in was like one of those Paul Nash paintings of wasted post-battle landscapes from the First world War, post-apocalyptic German expressionist maybe.  When they dreamed of food the 14 ballet angels sat in a ring eating MacDonald’s, and played fascinated with the plastic bags littering the floor.  The Sandman was in a spangled white uniform that might have come out of Woody Allen’s Sleeper or something similar.

The gingerbread house of old was here constructed from …  tall supermarket aisles full of gaudily packaged sweet foodstuffs – stuffing being appropriate here.  it also made for a flexible platform to be scampered all over.  And into the centre of which the witch fell and spectacularly exploded.  This is where the Roald Dahl stuff came in, with the liberated chorus of kids who’d been fattened up for their slaughter.  (A friend had earlier seen Wallace and Grommit references which I missed).  Great fun, yet at the same time, a brilliantly conceived commentary on contemporary consumerism.  Hugely enjoyable.  You can always trust Glyndebourne on Tour.






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Antonin DvorakFor a part-time fancier like me Czech composer Antonin Dvorak‘s Rusalka is one of those problem operas where the best bit – soprano water sprite Rusalka’s Song to the moon aria, asking the moon to tell the human prince of her love – occurs half way through the first act.  It’s such a sublime piece of music – both song and orchestral setting – that unless there’s something special about the production everything else that follows can be an anti-climax.  But when I say the next best bit of the Glyndebourne on Tour (GoT) show was when it finished I’m not being entirely facetious, because there was some decent stuff in between and the ending is indeed a lovely piece of work, beautifully handled here.

GTO: Rusalka, 2012

Vodnik – water goblin, ruler of the lake and the lovely Rusalka’s dad. His priapism is thankfully not a permanent feature. Must we throw this filth at our opera-going etc etc? But that’s folk tale, folks.

Nevertheless, this is the first GoT productions I’ve not come out saying, still surprising myself, Yes, I really enjoyed that.  For why?  Maybe I’m moving into the next phase of my opera-going evolution.  Up to now knowing the plot in advance has been an essential part of the experience, of escaping incomprehension and debilitating WTF? moments.  I mean, I know it was going to end badly (most operas do) and maybe not knowing precisely how might have meant I could have been more caught up in the drama.  Except the Prince, for whose love the water sprite Rusalka gives up the idyllic life she knows and is changed into a human being, had all the charisma of a slightly portly middle-aged stand up comedian without the jokes.  What is it about not tucking your shirt in even when wearing a suit? (A query that obviously applies to life in general rather than just the love rat here).  So the costumes were all over the place and I just didn’t get a lot of the choreography.   Like the wood nymphs – I couldn’t quite decide whether or not their costumes were meant to reference Grease, and as for that dance where they all bounced up and down like string puppets holding their breasts – WTF?

Water spritesI had to wonder why that sublime Song to the moon was delivered by the singer lying on her back while we didn’t actually get to see a moon, just an unspectacular light shining down (or does that answer the question?).  Normally the imaginative sets and settings of GoT knock me out but the real thing outside in the cold after was far superior.  I did like the water sprites’ tails though, an impressive sight; the choreography of underwater movement worked too.  And Jezibaba, the witch as stocky shaman-next-door in peasant garb was a nice touch.  So we’ll call the set and costumes a score draw.  The stage ‘business’ that is almost a signature pleasure of a GoT production only really got going with the below stairs wedding preparations and was a cartoon distraction at other times, particularly at the actual wedding, while someone was surely having a laugh with Rusalka’s wedding dress – or I missed the symbolism altogether.

In essence Rusalka is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The little mermaid made darker with an injection of Czech folklore.  It’s visits the highs and the barbaric and venal lows of human existence.  After all she has sacrificed and gone through Rusalka is still thankful for having experienced human love her loving of and being loved by the prince with no name, commending his soul even as, back in the lake, she gives him the kiss of death.  I winced at some of her high notes – not I hasten to say because she was a bad singer or missing her notes and certainly not in that song – but because such (to me) caterwauling is one of the things I still find hard to take in opera.  The orchestra was great; the music a mix of the lyrical folky New-World-Symphony Dvorak and, less attractively, at moments of great doom or drama, proto-modernist East European bombast.  It’s all relative though.  I’d still rather see GoT’s Rusalka again (and it does linger) than the vast majority of West End musicals that take up a lot of Milton Keynes Theatre’s stage time.

If you rock and rollers out there don’t know Song to the moon (aka O silver moon) there are plenty of renditions in YouTube or Spotify.  Just put ‘rusalka moon’ in the search box.  It’s one of my certs for when Kirsty finally asks me to do Desert Island Discs (putting me in with Nicole Kidman, Vince Cable and – slightly jumping the gun – soprano Renee Fleming herself among others).  The version I’ve liked best in a brief perusal of the runners and riders lately is Renée Fleming, appropriately performing live at the 20th Anniversary Concert of the Czech Velvet Revolution in Prague in 2009.  Go be moved.

First I ever heard of the song was a report some years ago from a friend telling of the aftermath of a post-match volunteer staff drinking the dregs beer festival de-briefing.  Someone managed to put Song to the moon on the hi-fi and one hardened yeoman of the ale not known for his shows of emotion just burst into tears.  It’s a divine piece of music.

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I must be acclimatising to this opera lark because I thought the actual singing – the tenor (Enea Scala, fight fans) especially – was particularly good at the theatre on Wednesday, and looking at reviews of earlier performances only … um … confirmed this.   For someone who has spent well over half his life defending the legitimacy of Bob Dylan’s vocal chords, acknowledgment of the beauty and value of the trained voice – as opposed to, basically, taking the piss – was never going to come easy, but I feel I have made some sort of breakthrough.  Not that I’m making any claims for some kind of superiority, mind, and there was still an element of the caterwaul from the soprano, though I hasten to add ’twas not her fault that that was what was required of her by the composer, in this instance, one Gaetano (what a great name!) Donizetti.  Nor will any further advances in my appreciation of the opera take anything away from the rich humour offered by Mark Twain‘s Wagnerian opera going experiences in Germany in A tramp abroad (try here or, a different piece, here, but leave it till later, eh?).

Anyway, it was a Glyndebourne on Tour production of Don Pasquale and it was great.  Apparently the director, Mariame Clement, had mucked about with the plot a bit, which had caused umbrage with some critics, but I’m not complaining.  What had seemed a bit trite and neat about the happy ending when I’d mugged up on the plot beforehand – absolutely essential, even with surtitles suspended on a screen above the stage – took a darker turn, opera buffa given a crueller twist which was not so comic for a certain someone.

The thing about the Glyndebourne company is that it’s great theatre even without the singing.  Ingenious sets – here a revolving interconnecting and interestingly decorated three roomed affair in Acts 1 & 2,  reduced to a room and a spectacularly lit outdoor sunset for the conclusion – and tremendous stage business and invention as the action progresses.  A couple of small examples – a picture doubles as a convenient cupboard to get rid of redundant prop, the picture is flipped by one of the characters as the mood changes in the room.  Visually the all white costumed chorus suddenly emerging, all eighteenth century fin de siecle curls, was a stunning theatrical coup (though I’m not sure it’s in the score) .  As I say, the singing was tremendous and there was a glorious rapid fire duet with bass Don P (Jonathan Veira) and baritone Malatesta (Andrei Bondarenko) that left the audience awed and rapturous.  The orchestra was great too, making tenor Ernesto’s love song to the simple accompaniment of two strummed guitars near the end even finer.  A brilliant evening.

Entertainment of a different ilk the previous night at November’s Scribal Gathering.  Featured poet was the Bard of Stony Stratford, Ian Freemantle, who delivered his very own energetically relaxed brand of infectious rhymes and rhythmed reflections on life and the people’s history, standout being a mini-epic incorporating impressive Lancashire clog dancing accompaniment from his Stony Stepper partner.  Lyrical fun in many ways.  Also on display, another arrow to The Antipoets‘ artistic bow, the nine piece The Odd Eccentric with some quirky original songs (what else?) – the usual plus two girl chorus, trumpet and sax; shame you couldn’t hear the words.  The beauty of the supportively conducted open mic sessions is there are often surprises in store.  Alan Blakemore‘s passionate and dramatic take on Remembrance Day was eloquent.  The acoustic Freddie Mercury/Queen tribute melody, complete with bridging poetry section was … brave.

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Two visits to the theatre in less than a week, there to view the tales of two philanderers, in which one ultimately – spoiler alert – burns tunefully in the fires of hell and the other is humiliated (albeit rather fetchingly) bearing the horns of Herne the Hunter in a Shakespearean wood.

Which all seems a long time ago now, given our internet connection has been down for almost 5 days, so briefly …

The ever splendid Glyndebourne of Tour production of Mozart‘s opera Don Giovanni was a real tour de force.  I’m no great fan of period adaptions, but here ‘modern’ dress – well, ‘La Dolce Vita’ era – played against much older architecture worked better than fine.  Emotive, well acted and beautifully sung by all, this was one of the best operas I’ve seen.  You certainly got the appeal of the bastard but you couldn’t argue with his sticky and scary end.  Orchestra was great too, always engaging.  And the set was a star in its own right – a wonder to behold – a cube of architectural decoration that proved to be a veritable Tardis as it expanded and was made to mutate impressively with the action throughout.  I’m no opera buff but I know what I like and this was exciting, compelling stuff.  If you want a taste of how good opera can be – to the extent you can forget you’re at an opera, if that’s a worrying thought (me? at the opera?) – take a punt on Glyndebourne on Tour if you get a chance.

So that was impressive, but I loved the Globe Theatre‘s touring production of Shakespeare’s ‘The merry wives of Windsor’.  Nothing so sinister for the fun-loving Falstaff, joyously undone by ridicule in the end.  Great company, with Christopher Benjamin tremendous as the man himself (he wears those horns so well) and Serena Evans and Sarah Woodward a delightful comic double act as the Mistresses Ford and Page, the merry wives he fails to seduce.  Nice surprise to realise the pale romantic male lead in the sub-plot was none other than Gerard McCarthy, whose departure from Hollyoaks (he was the magnificent Irish cross-dresser Kris) gave us a long overdue excuse to break that soap habit; good to see he has found such gainful employment worthy of his talents.  There was a band aloft on stage throughout who started out as you’d expect with a Shakespeare production, but still using those cod period instruments I distinctly heard shadings of cool period Miles Davis and a more strenous touch of Mingus among others in their accompaniments to the action as things developed.  And they contributed to the rousing finale and repeated curtain calls.  I can’t recall another show at MK’s theatre that met with such genuine delight and spontaneous lengthy applause in the audience.  A great evening.

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