What does ‘portrait’ mean?

#RivetingReview on Antoine Laurain

 

It was such a pleasure to write an article on Antoine Laurain’s The Portrait (Gallic Books, 2017) for the September issue of the European Literature Network‘s #RivetingReviews. You can find my review here.

The length and writing style of this novella might, at first, suggest a quick read, but take your time and you’ll be rewarded.  Laurain has reflected on the many profound meanings of the words ‘portrait’ and ‘collecting’, and distilled those thoughts into a literary creation of exquisite grace. Witty, whimsical, poignant, thought-provoking… Highly recommended.

 

Astonishingly modern 18th-century opera

piccinni-Aurelia
Barbara Massaro as Aurelia in Le Donne Vendicate

Recently I reviewed three operas for Seen And Heard International.  Two of them – one by Piccinni, the other by Vivaldi – date to the eighteenth century but are astonishingly modern in their questioning of gender stereotypes.  This is all the more striking, at a time when the gender pay gap at the BBC and a divisive memo by a Google employee about gender and diversity initiatives are making the headlines.

The two operas formed part of the engaged and engaging programming of the Festival della Valle d’Itria, one of Italy’s oldest opera festivals.  Located in Puglia and now in its forty-third edition, this year it adopted the theme ‘Love and Mars’ – not the more usual ‘Venus and Mars’ because one of the programme’s fils rouges was the querying of gender roles.  That querying was not an anachronistic re-interpreting of the relevant operas by their directors, but faithful to their texts and music.

The first of the two operas is Le Donne Vendicate (The Women’s Revenge) by Niccoló Piccinni (1728-1800), with a libretto derived from the Enlightenment playwright, Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793).  See review here.

S&HI Le Donne Vendicate 2The second is Orlando Furioso by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), with a libretto by Grazio Braccioli (1682-1752) based on the eponymous work by the Renaissance poet Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533).  See review here.

S&HI Orlando FuriosoBoth works are steeped in the experimentation and questioning of the Enlightenment (and, in Ariosto’s case, in that current of Renaissance humanism which sided with women in the Querelle des Femmes but lost out during the Counter Reformation), but periods of significant cultural ferment have, historically, alternated with others of retrenchment, resulting in historical discontinuities.

Both operas were born of a spirit of respect for the worth of all human beings, which by definition is irrespective of gender, social class, race or religion.  The Goldoni behind Le Donne Vendicate is representative of – whilst also being influential on – that aspect of his era.  In his oeuvre, morality rests not in time-honoured hierarchies, mores and tenets, but in a psychologically profounder sense of what is just, good and wise.  Meanwhile, the hero of Braccioli’s Orlando is Astolfo, whose blend of mildness and courage enable the overcoming of all manner of obstacles.  Maybe we should be rediscovering early operas more frequently, for the shock of the old to inform the new.

The third opera reviewed at the Festival della Valle d’Itria for Seen And Heard International is Margherita d’Anjou by Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) with libretto by Felice Romani (1788-1865).  See review here.

S&HI Margherita d'Anjou

Image credits:

Photo of Barbara Massaro as Aurelia in Le Donne Vendicate, courtesy of Festival della Valle d’Itria.

Photos of the town of Martina Franca (home of the Festival della Valle d’Itria) by the author. All rights reserved.

Images of reviews of Le Donne Vendicate, Orlando Furioso and Margherita d’Anjou from Seen And Heard International website.

 

 

 

A riveting ‘Kokoschka’s Doll’

The Art of Love: Alma Mahler’s Life and Music: Zemlinsky, Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler, Anton von Webern, D. Matthews.  Arranged by David Matthews (‘Erntelied’ co-arranged with Colin Matthews), with linking texts by Barry Millington. Rozanna Madylus (mezzo-soprano). Counterpoise ensemble: Fenella Humphreys (violin), Deborah Calland (trumpet), Kyle Horch (saxophone/clarinet), Iain Farrington (piano).

Kokoschka’s Doll: John Casken (composer), Sir John Tomlinson (bass), Counterpoise ensemble (as above), text by John Casken and Barry Millington.  Cheltenham Music Festival, 9 July 2017.

256px-portrait_of_alma_mahler_by_oskar_kokoschka2c_19122c_oil_on_canvas_-_national_museum_of_modern_art2c_tokyo_-_dsc06553

Portrait of Alma Mahler by Oskar Kokoschka, 1912

At its best, a work of art – be it music, literature or a visual art – in two or more parts yields an entity greater than its components.  Think Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Joyce’s Dubliners.  That is the case of this programme (see here for further references) in two parts.  We are taken through the first from Alma Mahler’s point of view, and through the second from Oskar Kokoschka’s.  The two were lovers from 1912 to 1915, but stayed in touch for nearly four decades thereafter.  The programme was performed in London and at the Cheltenham, Deal and Buxton Festivals.  It amply deserves to be reprised and shown more widely.

The project invites reflection on several themes: gender roles in the past and today; forms of objectification; the extent to which the psychology of historical figures can be known…  The ‘Composers in Conversation’ discussion which preceded the performance touched on some of these, but could easily encompass others, such is the wealth of material that has flowed into the finished work.

The connecting thread of The Art of Love is Alma Mahler’s turbulent sentimental history, from her relationship with the composer and conductor Alexander Zemlinsky, to her marriages to Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius and Franz Werfel, and a string of love affairs.  However, its scope is broader and more ambitious: it takes in a whole era of European history, as well as digging deeper into Alma’s personal one to hint at some of the roots of her highly contradictory character.  She could be infamously cruel and unlovable but was loved by several men; she made constant anti-Semitic remarks, but Zemlinsky, Mahler and Werfel were Jewish; her compositions for voice and piano were sophisticated and innovative, but after the death of Gustav Mahler, who had made the cessation of her composing activity a precondition of their marriage, she did not resume it…

The works in The Art of Love give a sense of the fluidity and ferment of the cultural, and specifically musical, world around Alma Mahler.  Among them are three of her songs – two arranged for the Counterpoise ensemble by David Matthews and one by David and Colin Matthews.  Other pieces hold close associations with Alma.  For example, the song ‘Selige Stunde’ was composed by Zemlinsky when he was in love with her; it contains what he called her ‘beloved chord’.  Of Gustav Mahler’s pieces, here arranged by David Matthews, both the ‘Adagietto’ from Symphony No. 5 and ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ were written for Alma.  Counterpoise premiere here an unpublished Trio movement by Anton von Webern – whose portrait Kokoschka painted – with a continuation by David Matthews in a style redolent of Berg’s Romantic lyricism (Berg was part of Vienna’s tight-knit cultural and intellectual circles, too; Wozzek is dedicated to Alma, and his Violin Concerto to the memory of her daughter Manon Gropius, who died at the age of eighteen).  Wagner features with two excerpts: from ‘Isolde’s Liebestod’, Liszt’s piano transcription from Tristan und Isolde; and ‘Träume’ (arr. D. Matthews), one of the Wesendonck Lieder.  Wagner was Alma Mahler’s favourite composer.  The ‘Liebestod’ played a role at the inception of her relationships with both Zemlinsky and Kokoschka, while Tristan und Isolde was a great conducting success in New York for Gustav Mahler. Vienna opera house c. 1900

The Opera, Vienna, c. 1900

The four members of Counterpoise are top instrumentalists who have set themselves the purpose of crossing musical and artistic genres.  They explore the possibilities of merging music, narrative and the visual arts.  This new project vindicates that vision.  The combination of violin, piano, trumpet and saxophone or clarinet is uncommon; it’s exciting to hear such a superlatively rendered balance of their sounds, as well as the beauty of the solo sections, such as the violin’s in the ‘Adagietto’ or the trumpet’s in ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’.  Mezzo-soprano Rozanna Madylus rises with assurance to the challenge of the songs’ diverse styles, and gives us a believable Alma in the connecting spoken text by scholar and critic Barry Millington: it’s a sharp portrayal of a woman feisty and insecure, ambitious and unsatisfied, hurting and hurtful.

Kokoschka’s Doll is a melodrama for small ensemble and voice, composed for Counterpoise by John Casken, with text by him and Barry Millington.  Counterpoise and Casken have collaborated previously on Deadly Pleasures, a work for narrator and ensemble.  Sir John Tomlinson sings the part of Kokoschka and speaks the text, drawn largely from the painter’s correspondence and memoirs.  The celebrated bass’ stage presence or vocal technique requires no introduction.  Here, with a minimal set for backdrop, he passionately and movingly inhabits the character of the painter, who in old age recollects his relationship with Alma, from the moment they fell in love to that in which he destroyed the life-size fetish of her – the eponymous ‘doll’ of the title – he had commissioned.  He alternately praises his ‘Angel’ and ‘Goddess’, cries out his loneliness, rants in despair…  The shifting landscapes and mental states are reflected in the powerful instrumental and vocal score and spoken text.

The work is rich in associations set off by Casken’s deployment of subtle musical and literary allusions.  Echoes of music heard in The Art of Love – Wagner’s ‘Liebestod’, Alma and Gustav Mahler’s work… – are introduced, evoking memories of past moments, places and people.  Kokoschka’s recollection of the moment he nearly perished in the trenches of World War One is accompanied by music on the trumpet: is it a call to battle? Or an echo of Mahler’s ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’? Or a reference to the Apocalypse striking the world?  Perhaps all of these?  Repeated mention of Kokoschka’s play, Orpheus and Eurydice, connects the painter’s narrative of his relationship with Alma to the doll: he orders it in order to ‘bring back’ his lover from ‘the Underworld’, where she is a prisoner of Hades/the dead Gustav (years later, the play will be set to music by Ernst Krenek, who has married Alma and Gustav’s daughter Anna).  Kokoschka’s frenzied calls for ‘More champagne!’, at the party which puts an end to the doll and to his dream of Alma’s return, are reminiscent of the unstoppable life-energy of ‘Fin ch’ han dal vino’.  Whether deliberately so or not, it’s a final reminder of Vienna’s centrality to cultural, and especially musical, history.

This is one of those rare productions I would watch again soon, in order to fully savour its richness.  I look forward to further performances in 2018.

 

Image credits:

Portrait of Alma Mahler by Oskar Kokoschka, 1912, oil on canvas – National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo – DSC06553.JPG.  Reproduced under Creative Commons license.

Das Wiener Opernhaus an der Ringstraße between 1890 and 1900.  Photochrom print (color photo lithograph) from Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Photochrom Prints Collection. Photographs in this collection were published before 1923 and are therefore in the public domain

 

 

Poetry and Song – Paul Muldoon and Johannes Brahms

 

What connects the names of a present-day poet and of a nineteenth-century composer?  The answer is: their insights into the setting of words to music.  The connection transpired by chance: a statement by Paul Muldoon at the recent launch of his book of song lyrics, Sadie and the Sadists (Eyewear Publishing), at Rough Trade East; and a quote I read while carrying out research into a Brahms song cycle, Die Schöne Magelone, prior to reviewing a memorable performance of it by Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber at Wigmore Hall.  Only eleven days separated the book launch and the music recital.  The remarks made by Muldoon and Brahms were nearly one hundred and forty years apart and yet arrestingly similar.

It started with a question for Muldoon from the audience: how does the process of writing poems differ for him from that of drafting song lyrics?  His answer was that a stand-alone poem has to be perfected to say exclusively in words all it aims to communicate, while the writing of lyrics requires leaving ‘space’ for expression through music.  Muldoon is one of the most celebrated poets in the English language (his accolades include the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the T.S. Eliot Prize, professorships at Oxford and Princeton…), and an admirably approachable and engaging person.  He isn’t afraid of experimentation, and has written lyrics for music composed and performed by various artists (loosely affiliated under the banner of ‘Rogue Oliphant’) across diverse genres, from folk to punk rock.  He says that, as a poet, words come to him before the music, of which he mostly suggests the broad genre and type of beat.

A few days after Muldoon’s talk, whilst researching Die Schöne Magelone I discovered that Brahms’ criterion for selecting poems to turn into songs was that they should leave room for music to enhance them; if they did not, he sometimes altered the original texts.  Although he (like Schubert, Schumann and others) did turn poems by the likes of Goethe, Heine and Rückert into Lieder, he found that many of Goethe’s, for example, could be ‘so perfect in themselves that no music can improve them’.  He sought out poems that, above all, evoked a mood and emotions; he read them aloud repeatedly, until the form, rhythm and meter of a song emerged.  Lieder were ‘art songs’ (‘Kunstlieder’): interpreting them properly requires flawless vocal technique, and the accompaniment is equally complex.  However, at a purely melodic level they often have a ‘singability’ which betrays their roots in ‘Volkslieder’ – popular music – and which for a time made them a common focus of amateur performance and entertainment in bourgeois homes.  As the late Eric Sams pointed out, Brahms was ‘so steeped in that [‘volkstümliches Kunstlied’] tradition, that his songs became not only popular music but ‘folksong’ in his own lifetime, like ‘Wiegenlied’.’  It’s a reminder that fluidity and exchange between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture at their best can be mutually fruitful, but also that poetry and music have accompanied each other for thousands of years before Brahms.

 

How appropriate and wonderful, therefore, not only that a great poet should be presenting his book of song lyrics – and at Rough Trade – but also that his remarks should echo those of a great composer: it’s not that lyrics are lesser creations than poems, but that, when they are also poetry, they differ in exactly the way Muldoon and Brahms highlighted, for the fusion of music and word to yield a powerful experience.

Of course, not everyone starts with the words.  Paul Simon famously begins with the music, for which he writes verses which could be, and often are, regarded as poetry – though he is adamant they are lyrics and not poems because of the key role played by the music’s rhythm: ‘They’re meant to be sung’.  As an English Lit graduate, his talent and skill for both music and words may merge in the creative process he humbly describes as ‘a mystery’, resulting in their widespread perception as ‘poetry’, whether the texts are labelled ‘lyrics’ or ‘poems’: what’s striking is that the boundary is sufficiently blurred to give rise to the issue of defining it.  After all, only last year Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’.  His June 2017 acceptance speech ends with Homer’s verse: ‘Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.’  And what to say of Leonard Cohen?  He was a poet and a novelist before becoming a singer.  His book, Stranger Music (Jonathan Cape), consists both of poems and lyrics, inviting reflection on their similarities and differences.

Months ago, at a Royal College of Music vocal masterclass, the baritone Sir Thomas Allen advised young singers to nurture a lifelong habit of reciting poetry aloud, to guard against prioritising beauty of sound over the interpretation of the words.  It’s such a fine balance.  Whether the song is by Brahms or Cohen, text and music have been sensitively chosen, shaped and polished into an integrated entity which transcends its constituent parts, to reach us with a power both ancient and new.

Image credits:

Photo of Paul Muldoon by the author. All rights reserved.

Johannes Brahms around 1866. Author unknown.  Reproduced under Public Domain license.

Sadie and the Sadists book cover: design and typeset by Edwin Smet; photograph by Alija (Getty Images).  Reproduced by kind permission of Eyewear Publishing.

Die Schöne Magelone, Volksbücher Nr. 5, von Gotthard Oswald Marbach (Leipzig, 1838-1849). Illustration by Ludwig Richter.

Image of author’s review of Die Schöne Magelone from Seen And Heard International website.

Alcaeus and Sappho, Brygos painter, Side A of an Attic red-figure kalathos, ca. 470 BC. From Akragas (Sicily). Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich.  Reproduced under Public Domain license.

What can writers learn from a composer?

There’s a lot to be said for taking on assignments out of your comfort zone.  The task of reviewing Janáček’s Jenůfa was one such for me, as I’m more familiar with the Italian and German repertoires than with the Czech one.  I had seen other Janáček operas, but not this one.  So off I trotted to the Royal College of Music Library.  What I discovered there about Jenůfa and Janáček’s subsequent operas was so riveting that I ended up spending days reading through the books available – far from enough, for sure, to make a Janáček expert, but plenty to spur me to share those exciting discoveries with fellow-writers.

Leos Janacek ca. 1890

Leos Janáček, ca. 1890

I had come across Milan Kundera’s admiration of this composer years ago in his The Art of the Novel and Encounter essays, but understood it better only after my RCM Library research – as there are helpful parallels between Janáček’s compositional process and aspects of literary fiction.  So what might Janáček (b. 1854 – d. 1928) teach us as writers?  Here are a few thoughts.  If you have more, please feel welcome to add them in the comments section below or here.

  1. Let go of ‘automatisms’

Experiment freely, especially in the early stages of your project: seek the form which will do justice to your vision of that particular novel or short story.  Trusting our intuition about key writing decisions (e.g. structure, point of view, voice) may not come easily, but over-reliance on the “dos and don’ts” of technique can work against a story’s emotional power.  For example, deciding which word is or isn’t earning its place in a sentence will depend on a narrator/character’s personality, back story, state of mind…  Janáček had mastered traditional composition but realized some of its rules would have detracted from the emotional truth of the drama.  Similarly, he had studied local folk music for decades, but the Moravian dances in the opera are his own invention, the fruit of his ‘absorption’ of the raw material.

  1. A well-chosen motif enriches the reading experience

From the opening bars of Jenůfa, the xylophone provides the recurring motif of the mill’s waterwheel: does it signify time ticking by? Or the inexorability of events? Or the flowing of each character’s actions into one tragedy?  Maybe any or all of these.  It’s a reminder that motifs ideally have two qualities: yes, they offer some insights into the story; but their plurality of meaning reflects the ambiguities of existence lived in the present without the benefit of hindsight.  By inviting questions more than providing answers, they engage readers, creating private space for their own perspectives and interpretations.

  1. The individuality of each character’s speech is all-important

We’ve all heard about paying heed to the individuality of each character’s speech, both direct and indirect, but Janáček went to extraordinary lengths to achieve that effect in Jenůfa and subsequent operas.  He was one of the first composers to use a libretto in prose (his own, derived from a play by Gabriela Preissová) and not in verse.  In the text and music, he strived to capture reality: by creating the impression (by mimicking, not replicating – see the section on “speech melody” in the review of Grange Park Opera’s recent Jenůfa) of the impact of characters’ emotional states on their utterances, moment by moment; by prioritising dramatic truth over melodic beauty.  He was unafraid of the resulting contrasts and contradictions within and between characters.  The outcome is an intensely believable evolution of his protagonists and their relationships.  The process and its effects illustrate every writer’s balancing act between the attractions of euphony and the ‘truth’ of characters who at times might demand ‘ugliness’ of expression.

Seen And Heard International

  1. Local can mean universal

Jenůfa demonstrates the enduring validity of the mantra that the more locally rooted a story is, the more universal it feels.  That’s because of the specificity of the ‘framework’ within which the characters move: it enables authors to dramatize situations arising out of the tension between the community (e.g. conditions and belief system) and individuals’ inner worlds.

  1. Let themes emerge by themselves

Jenůfa is ‘about’ many things.  Different productions may highlight one of them but don’t cancel out the others.  By and large, any opera, play, novel, short story… which engages with one universal theme is inevitably engaging with other themes too, due to their interconnectedness and complexity.  Trust them to emerge of their own accord.  The reasons for this are set out nowhere better than in Orhan Pamuk’s The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist and David Lodge’s The Practice of Writing: they both explain why ‘you discover what it is you have to say in the process of saying it’ – and why, in any event, it will be ‘read by different readers in a bewildering variety of ways’ (Lodge, ‘The Novel as Communication’, in The Practice of Writing).

  1. The order in which characters appear isn’t a given

Time and again, authors say the suggestion from a writing colleague, agent or editor to alter the order of scenes or chapters made a vital difference to the final manuscript.  That opportunity is most obviously open when the story is not recounted in strict chronological sequence.  It’s not as easy to remember that the order in which characters make their entrance is flexible even in stories told in that sequence – and how greatly it matters.  Jenůfa exemplifies it: in the original play, the mayor and his family appear early on; Janáček’s decision not to show them until the opera’s final act – even though he has mentioned them earlier on – heightens the contrast between the central couple’s hard-earned depth of understanding and the shallowness of the community’s moral conventions, personified by the mayor’s wife and daughter.  In other words, the tension between the external ‘framework’ and the internal worlds not only is sustained, but rises to a high pitch until shortly before the curtain’s close.

If this post has piqued your curiosity about Janáček and Jenůfa, DVDs of several productions are available online.  In the UK, Jenůfa is currently being performed at Grange Park Opera (until 8 July 2017).

Image credits:

Leos Janáček ca. 1890, author unknown. Reproduced under Public Domain License.

Image of review of Janáček’s Jenůfa from Seen and Heard International website.

The Renaissance – understanding its legacy

Madonnas and Miracles – The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy, at the Fitzwilliam Museum until 4 June, is one of the best exhibitions I’ve seen in years.  I recently wrote a review of it because it deserved shouting about.  It’s a model of what exhibitions should be and do: scholarly and yet approachable, painstakingly curated in structure and detail, it subtly and yet boldly debunks facile dichotomies.  It’s a highly successful example of how the outcomes of interdisciplinary research (in this case, a four-year European Research Council-funded Synergy project) can be brought to the attention of the general public.  The catalogue, too, combines rigorous learning and an accessible tone.  You can access my article on the Talking Humanities website of the School of Advanced Study, the UK’s national centre for the support and promotion of research in the humanities.

Review of Madonnas and Miracles

I’ve been fascinated by the Renaissance for years, but in the last two my studies have focused particularly on women and Southern Italy during this period.  My second novel will in fact be set in Puglia during the late 1500s.  When I first mentioned my project to an acquaintance, the response was, “But surely, the South didn’t have a Renaissance.”  Delving into historical research, including primary sources, swiftly disproves that and other common misconceptions.  I’m hopeful that my novel will be a tiny step in that direction.  It matters not least because the Renaissance’s legacy extends to the present day in realms and manners on which we don’t usually pause to reflect.

As an example, take the apocryphal story of The birth of the Virgin, a common subject in churches as well as on birth trays and bowls given to new mothers during the Renaissance.  In the Madonnas and Miracles exhibition, it is on view in a painting (c. 1440) by the Master of the Osservanza, as well as (though it may be a ‘birth of the Baptist’) in an arresting one by Leandro Bassano.  The latter’s Woman at her devotions (c. 1590-1600) shows a widow at her kneeling-stool with a string of rosary beads and a book of hours, in contemplation of a depiction of St. Anne (or St. Elizabeth) attended by other women while her new-born is about to be bathed.  The subject had deep meaning for a woman.  During pregnancy and labour, she would have prayed to the Virgin – and to St. Margaret, patron saint of childbirth.  As in the painting, she too would have been sustained by female relatives, friends and neighbours until the midwife’s arrival and again after the baby’s birth.  She would also have recognised the bath in which the baby was to be washed: for a new-born girl, its water would be tipped over ashes from the hearth, and for a boy, thrown outside the house, in a gesture symbolic of their required gender roles.  Similarly, a painting such as Pinturicchio’s Virgin and Child with St. John the Baptist (c. 1490-1495), also in the exhibition, reflected and reinforced mothers’ responsibility for their children’s religious education.  The roots of societal expectations about men and women’s lives went back centuries – some remain entrenched to this day.

 

Image credits:

Image of Madonnas and Miracles review from the Talking Humanities website.

 

Rameau’s Les Fêtes d’ Hébé at the Royal College of Music

Rameau’s opera-ballet, Les Fêtes d’ Hébé, has just been performed at the Royal College of Music’s Britten Theatre, on 5 and 6 April.  This is the UK premiere of the work, nearly three-hundred years after its opening at the Palais-Royal in Paris in 1739.  The production was the result of a three-year collaboration between the Académie de l’ Opéra de Paris, les Chantres du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles and the Royal College of Music.  Let’s hope the cooperation among these artistic centres of excellence will continue post-Brexit.

Despite Rameau’s importance in the history of music, few of his operas have been performed in the UK.  A complete and a partial recording of Les Fêtes d’ Hébé by, respectively, Les Arts Florissants (1997) and the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra (1977) received high praise, but the work was never staged here.  Why?  Two characteristics of French opera of this period will have been major factors: its particular mixture of singing and ballet; and its relative lack of drama and character development, when compared to the work of a contemporary such as Handel.

The music – with its arias, choral pieces and orchestration of extraordinary beauty and richness – deserves to be brought to the attention of the British public.  The work is of deep interest also in that it provides intriguing context for that of subsequent composers, including Mozart.  Hopefully we won’t have to wait long for the future staging of more of Rameau’s operas.

Thomas Lebrun – director, set designer and choreographer – has opted for a decidedly modern production.  The sets are stylised – they work in their own right, and could do without the distracting video-projected backgrounds.  The three sections of the opera-ballet are separated by colour, underlining Rameau’s tenuous linking of them by means of a light framing device; at the same time, Lebrun uses ballet to bring out every connecting thread to great effect.  The dancers are a marvel of energy and lightness – the only critique is to the costume designer, who could have been more flattering to them.  Among the singers, Laure Poissonnier as Cupid, Adriana Gonzales as Sappho and Iphise, and Mikhail Timoshenko as Hymas and Tyrtaeus, stood out for their sumptuous voices, with remarkable command over their vocal ranges and with convincing acting.  The choral singers revealed by their performance why Rameau was so widely admired by contemporaries for his mastery of harmony.  The orchestra could not have been under a better baton: Jonathan Williams is one of the top Rameau experts in the country – and it showed.  The only regret is that Les Fêtes d’ Hébé has been performed in London for only two nights – unsurprisingly, it was sold out.  Let’s hope that those unable to obtain tickets won’t have to wait too many years for a revival of this production.

Links to this and others’ reviews of Les Fêtes d’ Hébé can be found on The Opera Critic.com.

Review of Les Fetes d' Hebe on Opera Critic

Image credits:

Royal College of Music, London, photo by David Iliff. Reproduced under CC License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

Paris Opera full frontal architecture, photo by Peter Rivera.  Reproduced under CC License: BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Portrait of Jean-Philippe Rameau, attributed to Jacques Aved. Photographer unknown. Reproduced under Public Domain License.

Title page of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Traité de l’harmonie. Reproduced under Public Domain License.

Image of TheOperaCritic.com‘s coverage of Les Fêtes d’ Hébé is from its website.

 

Past reviews

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I review contemporary fiction for The European Literature Network and others.  Here are some reviews of books I really enjoyed.

17.10.2016  #RivetingReviews: Valeria Vescina reviews BELLA MIA by Donatella di Pietrantonio (translator: Franca Scurti Simpson)

Earthquake  noun

1: a shaking or trembling of the earth that is volcanic or tectonic in origin

2:  fig. upheaval

(Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Most of us won’t have experienced the convulsions of the ground, which also in 2016 have devastated entire communities, from Ecuador’s Manta to Italy’s Amatrice, but the news coverage will have driven the horror home. And who hasn’t grasped since childhood the extent of the turmoil implied by the figurative sense of the word? That is one of the reasons why this novel of loss and of the subsequent existential journey, set in the aftermath of the L’Aquila earthquake, establishes an immediate connection with the reader.

The title Bella Mia refers not to a woman but to L’Aquila, in a folk song full of nostalgia for this legendary city of the ninety-nine churches and ninety-nine fountains. In the novel, there is no returning to it: it will not be the same after the 2009 earthquake, even if the original stones and bricks are used in the re-building. Similarly, the reconstruction of the survivors’ identities and relationships will require more than reassembling pieces of their former lives. What the novel’s protagonists cannot foresee is the transformative power of love and creativity.

The three main characters are linked by a fourth, Olivia, who perished in the earthquake. The first-person narrator, Caterina, is her twin. She is sharing temporary accommodation with her elderly mother and with Olivia’s teenage son Marco in one of the “new towns” of prefabs. Caterina had been the weaker of the two sisters, never wanting to have children, believing herself not able to look after another, when standing on my own two feet is hard enough. She is now ashamed to be there, alive by mistake. […] The earthquake lottery […] saved me, and I am sometimes wistful for the end I was denied. I’m not a mother; he [Marco] isn’t the fruit of my narrow womb. […] He scares me, as does the enormity of my task.

The task of all the characters is to find a new balance, now that the earth has stopped shaking. Balance is the quality permeating the novel, almost as if, through the elements of writing, the author were whispering cues to help her fictional creatures attain their own balance. The author denounces the superficiality with which the inhabitants were reassured after the first tremors, the shoddiness of the “new towns” and the authorities’ insensitivity, but does it through Caterina’s passing remarks and actions. Upon moving into the prefab apartment, she and her mother find a bottle of spumante wine waiting for them from the government. Caterina opens it carefully to stop it popping and drains the contents into the sink. Her action needs no explanation. The narrator’s voice may give a first impression of spontaneity, with her terse sentences and the force of her initial fear and anger, but this is counterbalanced with lyrical insights disguised as throwaway comments. There are no concessions to sentimentalism. Details of the tragedy and its prolonged aftermath are realistic and yet eschew the gore and the grime: the novel’s primary focus is on the internal worlds of the survivors, who are yearning for light. The outstanding translation by Franca Scurti Simpson renders faithfully all aspects of the writer’s style, most crucially, its concision, which demands that every word convey its precise meaning and echoes.

Caterina’s process of reconstruction involves acquiring that part of herself which she had left to her twin. Olivia was simply the best part of me. I willingly showed her my weaknesses so that she could take care of every one of her younger twin’s fragilities, she who was so full of grace and fortune. But as she learns to take care of their elderly mother, of Olivia’s son and of a young neighbour who has lost her little girl, she understands that it was too simple for her and others to rely on Olivia. She seemed to be able to do everything without effort, without pain. She didn’t know how to complain, and this not knowing is how she lost herself in the end: when the earthquake struck, she made Caterina and Marco leave the home while she searched for his jeans to spare him embarrassment. Nobody, other than our mother, had ever really paid attention to her. […] As happens to those who appear to be too strong, she wasn’t protected, she seemed not to need it, independent and invulnerable creature that she was. Caterina comes to realise that Olivia wasn’t always happy: she gave Marcoan imaginary father by making every effort to protect the child from noticing her husband’s neglect of them both.

The leitmotif of balance is therefore carried also by the two instruments of Caterina’s transformation: the outward focus which gradually alters her innermost self, and the specific form of her artistic expression. Caterina is in fact a ceramicist. From the earth which reduced to rubble all that I had made, issues the clay with which she gives shape to her new creations: baubles decorated with birds, which will lead her to a man who understands her intent and to whom she’ll open up; and her sculptures of the screaming twins where she depicts Olivia’s mouth open in an unending scream, while her own expression surprises her: she continues to shout but she’s overwhelmed by beauty.

On hearing the call of a scops owl, a repetitive kew in e-flat, for the first time since the night of the earthquake, she is not distressed but elated. There is a sort of hope in the note. She has leapt beyond her old self, in which optimism was an unusual state of mind. Of the owl’s dual favourable-mournful symbolism in Italian folklore, she has chosen the less common one: the auspicious connotation dating back to the cult of Minerva.

It would be incorrect to infer too much neatness from the symmetries in the book’s structure. The subtle play of balance and counterbalance constantly engages the reader, while offering a reassuring framework to explore the chaos of complex issues with no easy answers. Between those things left unsaid by one character to another, those musings with no clear-cut conclusions, the action suspended in mid-air as the novel closes, the author leaves space for readers to fill in the gaps – in the book and beyond.

It comes as no surprise that Donatella Di Pietrantonio has been hailed as one of the most notable debuts of the past decade on the Italian literary scene. Bella Mia won the Brancati Prize and was shortlisted for the Strega Prize, two of Italy’s top literary prizes. English-language readers can now discover why.

Reviewed by Valeria Vescina

Bella Mia

by Donatella Di Pietrantonio

Translated from the Italian by Franca Scurti Simpson

Published by Calisi Press (2016)

15.6.2016  #RivetingReviews: Valeria Vescina reviews A WHOLE LIFE by Robert Seethaler (translator: Charlotte Collins)

Shortly before his death in 1985, Italo Calvino drafted Six Memos for the Next Millennium, his series of Norton Lectures for Harvard University (previous speakers included T. S. Eliot, Stravinsky, Borges…). The challenge – which occupied him for a year, reportedly “becoming an obsession” – was to select six literary values worthy of being carried over into the next millennium. The resulting masterpiece opens up with a chapter on the virtue of ‘lightness’: “the lightness of thoughtfulness, [which] can make frivolity appear chunky and opaque.”A Whole Life attests to the enduring value of just this kind of ‘lightness’ – a lightness of touch which counterbalances the depth of Robert Seethaler’s themes, distilling them into thoughts and images that linger in the reader’s mind.

The protagonist, Andreas Egger, is a labourer whose long life unfolds in the mountains of Austria. With the exception of his years as a soldier and then as a prisoner during and after the Second World War, he has not left. He is an uncomplicated man, rather than a ‘simple’ one. He adapts to the changes in the world around him with a mixture of “silent amazement” and openness to experience: with the arrival of electricity in the valley, and of a firm set to build cable cars, he begins working for the latter; with the advent of tourism, he becomes a mountain guide and likes “these people […] whose breathless chatter revealed to him the secrets of other fates and opinions.” Above all, he develops ways of coping with harshness and tragedy. Orphaned as a child and raised by a relative whose beatings lead to Egger’s permanent limp, he confronts his abuser. Later, after his pregnant young wife is killed in an avalanche, he finds ways of enduring grief and of drawing comfort from small things. Every experience alters him slightly, each filtered through his consciousness at that point in time, so that he evolves like a tree trunk, each year creating a fresh ring around the core. I am reminded of Joseph Roth’s ‘Job’ and ‘Barbara’, where glimpses of ‘moments’ across a character’s whole life quietly elevate it to an epic dimension.

Seethaler does not romanticise the Alps. They are sublime in that they elicit Egger’s and other characters’ wonder and terror, but his response to both emotions is practical, and his personal history a testimony to neither the mountains nor the past being rosier environments than our own present day. What the mountains do offer – with their beauty and menace, magnificence and isolation – is a perfect framework for exploring the novel’s themes: the cycle of life and death; the seeming insignificance of human life in the vastness of the universe; the struggle against grief’s power to annihilate; the role of love; sources of everyday joys, strength and meaning.

A Whole Life has been an unexpected success in the German-speaking world, and now beyond it. Could it be that its quality of ‘lightness’, in Calvino’s sense, enables it to gently connect at a profound level with a wide readership? Novels of this kind defy easy classification: they eschew overtly literary ‘markers’ while still handling weighty universal themes with a delicate touch. The paradox is that the unassuming bridging of these apparent contradictions constitutes a huge technical feat on the part of the author – not light work at all. The novel was deservedly shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016.

There is a seeming simplicity to Seethaler’s language, which Charlotte Collins’ outstanding translation captures. The brevity of the sentences, the terseness of the dialogue, the absence of lengthy philosophical musings, the local colour and specificity of a scene, convey a first impression of utter naturalness, as if the characters couldn’t possibly move or speak in any other way in the setting. But the rhythm of the prose and the weight of every word in this short book testify to the thoughtfulness behind it. The characters may phrase existential questions with curtness, and the terms of reference of their mental images and utterances may be those of people steeped in mountain life, but those very same questions have occupied humanity for millennia, everywhere.

Were the novel’s protagonists modern-day scholars of Ancient Greek and Roman Classics at the University of Vienna, they too might reflect that ‘No one can take away from any man so much as a single moment’ – and then they might smile, realising that Epicurus reached that conclusion in the third century BC. They might say, “Dead is dead and that’s that. There’s nothing after that” – and then recall Lucretius’ verses about why “Death to us is nothing”. Like Egger, they might pity a man “who had spent all his life thrashing his own happiness away from him” by dwelling on his losses to a destructive extent, but they would likely make a passing reference to the Stoics. In every era, we inevitably explore the themes running through A Whole Life, formulating the discourse in a manner appropriate for our age.

At the end of his life, Egger feels he has “every reason to be content”, even though many of his dreams have never been realised, and despite his heart-rending losses. He possesses the ability to capture the joy of the earth warmed by the sun under his ‘night-damp feet’, the wood which “had stored the warmth of the last days of summer and smelled of dry moss and resin”, and the coolness of a flat rock on which he lies down. In his work, he has been able to find pleasure and ways of dissolving “despairing thoughts”. Above all, he has been warmed and sustained by the experience of love: by the brief period with his wife Marie, and, following her death, by memories of the moments they shared.

Marie is warmth and sunshine. In her first encounter with Egger, she is standing by “the warmth of the stove”, serving at the inn where he’s seeking to recover after seeing a man run to his death in a blizzard. In the weeks which follow, Egger and Marie take walks together in the sun. To propose to her, he arranges for fires to be lit on the mountain to form the words “For you, Marie”. By contrast, death comes as “the Cold Lady”, whom a goatherd in the book’s opening scene vainly attempts to elude. Yet, as the novel closes, the Cold Lady reappears in the likeness of a ghostly Marie: the scar across the nape of her neck, bright-red and “shaped like a crescent moon” in her lifetime, is now a shimmering sickle. This final conflation of life, love and death is consistent with the character of Egger, a man who has long learnt to connect the fragments of existence. In other writers’ hands, these motifs and symmetries might easily have become clunky, but Seethaler weaves them in unobtrusively, in keeping with the rare quality of ‘lightness’ that suffuses this quietly powerful book.

By Valeria Vescina

A Whole Life

By Robert Seethaler

Translated by Charlotte Collins

Published by Picador (2015)

 

10.9.2016 Amazon review on Paolo Gallo’s La Bussola Del Successo

Finalmente, un libro nel quale la parola “successo” ha un significato piu’ ampio e profondo del solito. L’ autore ci invita a considerare come le nostre scelte in campo lavorativo debbano e possano essere coerenti con i nostri valori e la nostra personalita’, oltre che con le nostre capacita’ e competenze. Il testo e’ supportato da solide cognizioni accademiche di Management e di Organisational Behaviour, e da efficacissimi esempi tratti dalla lunga esperienza di Paolo Gallo nella gestione delle Risorse Umane. Il tono e’ quello di un amico esperto e saggio, generoso nell’ accompagnare gli altri nel loro cammino, e del quale ci si puo’ fidare. Certamente, il libro offre spunti utilissimi a chi intende scegliere, cercare o cambiare lavoro. Ma la portata degli argomenti lo rende una lettura piacevole e stimolante per chiunque: tanti dei temi sono attinenti non solo al campo lavorativo ma ad altri aspetti della vita. Spero che “La Bussola del Successo” venga tradotto in molte altre lingue, per poter raggiungere un vasto pubblico internazionale.

20.12.2012 Amazon review on Nikita Lalwani’s The Village

Nikita Lalwani’s `The Village’ opens with Ray Bhullar, the main character, being watched by three security men. It is the first instance of a recurring motif: who is watching whom, and what does each see? Ray has come to Ashwer, an Indian open prison, to direct a documentary that promises ‘a non-judgmental’ approach. She and her fellow crew members, Serena and Nathan, are the ones doing the observing and the framing through the camera’s viewfinder. But it gradually becomes apparent that they’re in turn being observed – and judged. The shifts in perspective unsettle the protagonist, and with her the reader, by revealing the frameworks through which each subject views its object and vice-versa. Ray wants to capture the complexity of reality on camera, in the belief that Ashwer’s life-affirming example can ‘spread light, not darkness’. But for her colleagues, and for her boss in London, the reality of Ashwer must be manipulated as it lacks the drama that television audiences are presumed to crave. Soon enough, Ray is looking through the viewfinder and secretly altering the exposure set by Serena because it would ‘blast all the layers of light and shadow out of the scene’. And yet, inevitably, Ray too becomes entrapped by conflicting pressures until she finds herself in a moral quagmire. Her final response defines who she is.

A key theme of the book is authenticity. The descriptions of the Indian settings and characters are vivid and memorable, devoid of nostalgia or stereotype, and all dialogue rings true. Ray’s perceptions, narrated from a close third person point of view, are unflinchingly realistic, making her emotional journey believable and gripping. She is torn between worlds – the India of her roots versus the Britain in which she has always lived; and the media’s potential for good versus the brutal consequences of its transactional modus operandi. Ray has to traverse a moral maze to be able to discover what she values and therefore what her authentic self is made of. In the process, media ethics are put in the dock, as trust – on which Ashwer’s success is based, and which the television crew was to honour – is thoroughly betrayed.

The open prison is no mere convenient framework for the action, but another key theme. At the most obvious level, the book presents an eloquent case for reappraising the conventional monolithic approach to punishing crime, by pointing to the ways in which traditional prison systems fail to prevent re-offending. Lalwani deploys the concept of the open prison village also as a metaphor for the culture which any individual lives in and is shaped by: she shows that to relate authentically to oneself and others, one may first need to perceive the invisible bonds and boundaries that characterise any given society or milieu – including work environments, in this particular case the media. Only when Ray has moved from looking to seeing through this more demanding viewfinder can she remain true to timeless human values – no longer naively but from a wiser vantage point.

This is an intelligent and moving novel which deserves and rewards close reading. Its imagery and characters live on in the memory.

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