Riveting literature from the Baltics

The Baltics Riveter

In April, the European Literature Network published The Baltics Riveter, a compendium of writing about contemporary fiction from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Publication coincided with this year’s country focus on the Baltics at London Book Fair, where the magazine was widely distributed and enthusiastically received. It contains historical notes, reviews and extracts of some very exciting literature.

The Baltics Riveter is now available also in digital form here. This is the fourth of the European Literature Network’s Riveters. The first was devoted to literature from Poland, on the occasion of the 2017 London Book Fair’s Polish focus. The second, on literature from Russia, coincided with ELNet’s Russian events at the British Library. In The Nordic Riveter of October 2017, five countries were represented: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland.

Review of Burning Cities


I normally review English-language editions of novels originally written in Italian, German and French, the languages and cultures I grew up with. But the editor of The Riveter asked whether I might review Estonian author Kai Aareleid’s Burning Cities, translated by Adam Cullen (Peter Owen Publishers, 2018). I’m very grateful for the suggestion: the novel weaves a powerful domestic tale within the larger tapestry of seven decades of Estonian history; most of the story unfolds in the years during which the country was part of the Soviet Union. You can find my article on pp. 58 and 59 of the magazine, or here. I hope it will encourage you to discover Kai Aareleid’s work and more of the riveting literature from the region.

Image credits:

Images courtesy of The European Literature Network.


Many disciplines, one opera

I recently wrote two articles which complement each other – imagine it as a diptych of sorts – on a contemporary opera, Kepler’s Trial:

  • the first is a review, for Seen And Heard International, of the work by composer Tim Watts (Cambridge and Royal College of Music)
  • the second focuses on the unusual inter-disciplinary effort behind the opera. The article, for Talking Humanities*, consists of an interview with Prof. Ulinka Rublack (Cambridge).

*curated by the School of Advanced Study, the UK’s national centre for the support and promotion of the humanities

Why write two articles about it? Because the Kepler’s Trial project is and does so much of what I think contemporary opera is capable of being and doing. It delves into the past to engage with the present.

For the review of Kepler’s Trial on Seen And Heard International, click here.

For the article in Talking Humanities on the unusual process behind the opera, click here.

Image credits:

Statue by Jakob Wilhelm Fehrle dedicated to Katharina Kepler in Eltingen (Leonberg, Germany). Reproduced under GNU Free Documentation licence.

Portrait of Johannes Kepler. Reproduced under Public Domain licence.

Image from Seen and Heard International website.

Image from Talking Humanities website.

The inventiveness of the Baroque

My latest article for Seen And Heard International covers L’Arpeggiata and Giuseppina Bridelli. Their intelligent, exciting programme at Wigmore Hall revealed just how musically innovative the early Baroque was. Astoundingly beautiful and expressive music, gloriously performed. You can access the full review by clicking here.

S&HI review on L'Arpeggiata and G. Bridelli

Opera and the present

Kepler's Trial - resized

Cerys Purser (Katharina) in Kepler’s Trial © Aura Satz

My latest review for Seen And Heard International is of Kepler’s Trial by Tim Watts. You can access it freely by clicking here.

Kepler’s Trial is a remarkable example of opera firmly engaging with the present – a characteristic of this art form since its earliest days. It does so in two interrelated ways: by condensing and conveying the results of uncompromising scholarship; and by revisiting the past. It tells the story of Katharina Kepler (1546-1622), accused of witchcraft in 1615, and of her son Johannes (1571-1630), the famous astronomer, who defended her during her six-year trial. By shedding light on true historical events, it confronts us with present-day attitudes towards big themes, as if a magical telescope which can probe the past had hit upon a mirror and found its own image hazily but surely reflected back.

The panel discussion which preceded the sold-out performance at the V&A highlighted some of the themes. Prof. Ulinka Rublack, whose The Astronomer and the Witch offers the basis for the opera, spoke about old women’s vulnerability to injurious representations. Prof. Simon Schaffer provided insights into Kepler’s complexity as a man rooted in his time and yet also transcending it (no surprise the space observatory launched by Nasa to discover Earth-like planets is named after Kepler). Dame Marina Warner placed the astronomer’s youthful The Dream in the context of wonder tales and representations of ‘wise women’. The composer Tim Watts and the video artist Aura Satz shared some of the considerations which went into the music, libretto and film elements (see review).

Behind Kepler’s Trial is a multi-disciplinary effort involving scholars from the University of Cambridge and other institutions, across several faculties. A successful synthesis of that effort into a compelling outcome is worth shouting about and being brought to a wider public.

Image credits:

Photo by Aura Satz ©. Reproduced by kind permission of the artist.


The latest ‘Riveter’ is here!


In October this year, the European Literature Network published The Nordic Riveter, a compendium of writing about contemporary Nordic fiction in English translation. It’s available in bookshops, embassies, universities, libraries and arts organisations – and now also for download from http://www.eurolitnetwork.com/the-nordic-riveter-to-download/ . Whether you are a ‘Nordic Noir’ addict, a newbie to literature from the region, or are curious to discover its different strands and what they offer, you’ll find much to inspire and inform your reading.

This is the third of the European Literature Network’s Riveters. The first was devoted to literature from Poland, on the occasion of the 2017 London Book Fair’s Polish focus. The second, on literature from Russia, coincided with ELNet’s Russian events at the British Library. This time, five countries are represented: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland.

I normally review English-language editions of novels originally written in Italian, German and French, the languages and cultures I grew up with. But the editor of The Nordic Riveter asked whether I might take a look at Finnish author Johanna Sinisalo’s The Core of the Sun, which had come highly recommended. I’m very grateful for his suggestion: the book is highly engaging and thought-provoking. You can find my review here: http://www.eurolitnetwork.com/rivetingreviews-valeria-vescina-reviews-the-core-of-the-sun-by-johanna-sinisalo/. I hope it will intrigue you and encourage you to discover this and more of the literature discussed in The Nordic Riveter.



Image credits:

All images from the European Literature Network website.


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

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.


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