La Traviata (encore)

Camellias by Alan Douglas Baker

Camellias, by Alan Douglas Baker

La Traviata (encore)

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs…

 From Ode to a Nightingale, by John Keats

La Traviata, Royal Opera, 16th January 2017, conductor Daniele Rustioni, music by Giuseppe Verdi, based on Alexander Dumas Fils’s play La Dame aux Camélias 

Reviewing an earlier revival of Richard Eyre’s 1994 production of La Traviata (QR, March 21, 2016), we commented on the striking set in Act One. It is semi-circular with concentric seating, as in an ancient amphitheatre. But perhaps temple is a better comparison, albeit a temple in which the only god that is worshipped is pleasure. When life is perceived to have no meaning, hedonism and escapism become attractive options, given that death awaits us all. And love is just a higher or sublimated form of pleasure, albeit one often admixed with pain.

Like Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, Violetta Valéry has to somehow survive in a patriarchal society in which hypocrisy about sexuality prevails. As she poignantly observes, “I have no friends in the world”. Indicatively, in this context, a daguerreotype of a Victorian waif is projected onto the screen before the curtain rises for Act One. A courtesan, a euphemism that in itself reflects what Roberta Montemorra calls “Victorian sensibilities and ideology” (see “The Domestication of La traviata”, in the official programme), Violetta is fated to die prematurely. Her demise bespeaks the bourgeois notion “that the illness [TB] is well-earned” (quotation from “A Tragedy of Affliction?”, Christopher Wintle, official programme). As a supposedly fallen woman, she is required to sacrifice her only hope for happiness on the altar of respectability. For as Giorgio Germont sanctimoniously informs her, “God gave me a daughter, who is pure as an angel”.

The struggle between idealism and materialism that we noted in regard to Manon Lescaut (vide QR, “Abducted by Love”, November 28, 2016) also informs La Traviata. For the Chevalier des Grieux, read Alfredo Germont. For Geront de Revoir, read Baron Douphol. Fallen woman notwithstanding, Violetta is surely the noblest character in La Traviata. As Wilfred Owen memorably maintained, those “who love the greater love, Lay down their life; they do not hate”.

The performances of all the leading players and the ensemble work on this occasion were technically very accomplished. But Maria Callas, soprano assoluta, set the bar exceedingly high. We were not moved, not even when Giorgio Germont, played by the Polish baritone Artur Ruciński, evoked Alfredo’s homeland and family, in the aria Di Provenza. At the opera, audiences invariably recognise what is affecting.

Marie Duplessis

Marie Duplessis, La Dame aux Camélias

LESLIE JONES is the editor of QR

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Et in Bohemia ego

St Thomas à Becket and St Thomas the Apostle Church, Heptonstall

St Thomas à Becket and St Thomas the Apostle Church, Heptonstall

Et in Bohemia ego

Bill Hartley, on the history of Hebden Bridge

Hebden Bridge is a small and picturesque town in the upper Calder Valley of West Yorkshire. Before the industrial revolution the locals made their living through sheep farming, quarrying the local gritstone and hand loom weaving. Industrialisation brought the mills, spreading out from towns like Halifax and Huddersfield in search of a reliable supply of fast flowing water.

There was a good deal of sub regional specialisation in wool textiles and Hebden Bridge was once known as ‘trouser town’ which indicates what they produced there. During the 1960s and 70s textile manufacture started to disappear. In the face of cheap foreign imports only the manufacturers of high end products could survive and ‘trouser town’ made none of these. As a consequence, there are very few Hebden Bridge firms left in the wool trade. The economic effects of this were all too predictable: high unemployment and a fall in property prices. Hebden Bridge became one of the many run down mill towns on both sides of the Pennines. Continue reading

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Why Trump Won

obama_meeting_with_trump_2

Why Trump Won

LESLIE JONES identifies some of the reasons


Ineffectual opposition

In the primaries, Trump crushed and humiliated his Republican rivals for the presidential nomination. Exit, in due course, all the remaining candidates; namely, “lying” Ted Cruz, “Bible high, Bible high, puts it down and then he lies”; “low energy” Jeb Bush; “lightweight” Marco Rubio; Rand Paul, whose facial features “The Donald” denied insulting, although he claimed that there was “plenty of material”; and hapless Ohio Governor John Kasich, who gave interviews while stuffing pancakes into his mouth. “I’m always telling my young son Barron, always with my kids, all of them, I’d say, children, small, little bites”, “Its disgusting”, Trump quipped. As one commentator remarked, the President Elect insulted his way into the White House. Continue reading

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Treats for New Year

veuve-clicquot-yellow-label-lifestyle-image

Treats for New Year

Em Marshall-Luck selects some seasonal products

With New Year almost upon us, I have a selection of the most superb wines, whiskies and food products to enjoy during the remainder of the festive season; delectable treats with which to celebrate 2017 or to ease the melancholia of the year’s last day.

Let’s start with my recommendations for the main celebration itself (whether a New Year’s Eve gathering or to welcome in a new start the next day): a bottle of top quality champagne is almost imperative, and you could not go wrong with either of my two choices:  Moet & Chandon Imperial NV, or the Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label NV. Both of these champagnes sing aloud of refinement, sophistication, elegance, and just a touch of decadence. In terms of looks and taste, there is not a huge amount to choose between the two: both bottles are recognisably classic and unashamedly proclaim their excellence; both wines are made from the finest Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay grapes from the Champagne region – with the Veuve Clicquot having a predominance of Pinot Noir – both have fine bubbles, a golden straw colour, and the crispest and freshest of effervescence. Continue reading

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Reflections of a Noble Savage

George Frederic Watts, The All Pervading

George Frederic Watts, The All Pervading

Reflections of a Noble Savage

Gerry Dorrian goes cold turkey

What is Wrong with US?: Essays in Cultural Pathology, Eric Coombes & Theodore Dalrymple (eds.), Imprint Academic, 2016, reviewed by Gerry Dorrian

A drugs-worker in 2009, I posted Theodore Dalrymple’s Spectator article Withdrawal from heroin is a trivial matter on the staffroom noticeboard. This former prison doctor wrote something that we all knew to be true but heretical: heroin withdrawals are no worse than a common cold. I don’t think that a Spectator article was so well-received in a social care setting.

Now Dalrymple has co-edited What is Wrong with Us? Essays in Cultural Pathology, which presents twelve authoritative voices exploring the limits of counter-hegemonic critique. His essay on brutalist architecture would have had the socially conservative Labour voters in my 1970’s tower block roaring in agreement, even if we might have expressed ourselves less elegantly. Continue reading

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When the Chips are Down

Marc Chagall, Jacob's Dream

Marc Chagall, Jacob’s Dream

When the Chips are Down

Stoddard Martin reviews a timely tome

NINE LOVE LETTERS, by Gerald Jacobs. Quartet Books, £20

We are living through a neo-expressionistic, intolerant era. Famous lines come to mind: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The resentful go ranting, provoking ill-judged rejoinders; the ante is upped, and clunky apparatchiks are called in to assess who has indulged in hate-speech. Amidst sound and fury, where are the quieter voices, the humane ones, belonging to those who begin and end by trying to understand?

Gerald Jacobs is not a loud-speaking writer. His sentences are never calculated for show. He spins out a narrative calmly and justly, in a reasonable voice. His tale is about Jewish experience, but not with special pleading or without exposing foibles of the tribe. Nine Love Letters is no exercize in us vs them; it is a novel about people in their un-public lives, the way they have navigated historical noxiousness, the difficulties they have in simply living.

The ordinariness of Jacobs’s characters is at the base of their virtues, yet neither they nor their lives are truly ordinary. How could they be when one of the two families, eventually united in marriage comes from Baghdad at the time of the Farhud and the other, now reduced to one, from Budapest at the time of exportations to Auschwitz? These epic disasters provide a precisely painted-in background, but they are not what Jacobs trains our eye on.

The Harouns have been Iraqi merchants for generations, a colourful clan loving their weddings feasts and happy in the open life of the Middle Eastern street, until events persuade the prescient among them to emigrate to north London. In this more enclosed and grey world, they are enterprising enough to make their way in the import-export business, dealing in carpets. Meanwhile, Anna Weisz, child of a prominent physician in mittel Europa, has survived the fate of the rest of her prosperous, cultured family to come to Surrey with the English officer, Roderick Vane, who liberated her from Bergen-Belsen and marries her shortly after. In the Home Counties she encounters veiled bigotry, but a determination to get on propels her to a successful interior design trade, and she confines her traumas of the past to private memory.

Advancing out of the 1930s and ‘40s, we arrive at the heart of Jacobs’ tale – two children of these refugees, Eli Haroun an aspirant poet in rebellion against family expectations, and Belinda Vane a clever public school girl on track to become a blue-stocking at Cambridge. Something mysterious is out of balance in each, and they find themselves for a spell in a psychiatric home called The Elms. Discovering symmetry in their dislocation and aspirations, they fall in love. The Harouns wish their son to make a good Iraqi Jewish or at least Jewish marriage and recoil from a prospect of him taking up with a gentile English girl. Meanwhile, because Anna Weisz Vane has spent years saying nothing about her own background, no one – not even Belinda – realizes that Belinda is matrilineally Jewish.

Wanting to protect her daughter from falling into a life recalling her own miseries, Anna at first mirrors the Harouns’ resistance to the lovers’ relationship. Gradually, however, she sees that they genuinely care for one another and so reveals her origins. On the basis of this, Eli gets his parents’ approval and goes to a rabbi to acquire permission to marry, only to be told that having been in Auschwitz is no proof of Jewishness – gypsies, Polish Catholics and others were there; documentation is needed. This leads to perhaps the best scene in the book: Anna strides with dignity into the pedantic man’s office, exposes the brand on her arm and brandishes a carefully preserved letter from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration confirming the deaths of her parents, their names and identities.

It is a climax to the novel but by no means its end. Nine Love Letters is a Bildungsroman in the Buddenbrooks tradition, and we are invited to see how younger generations develop. Eli and Belinda rent a flat in Chalk Farm and eat at the Pizza House in Goodge Street. They take jobs and have children, and the elder Harouns help them to buy a larger flat in Muswell Hill. They live through the Wilson years and into the 1970s; familial ties remain – traditional Iraqi Jewish dinners are described deliciously – but the lesser traumas of a safe north London life of the day-before-yesterday are not escaped. Eli returns to poetry, then depression; Belinda keeps communicating with her former therapist; the marriage develops predictable tensions, and then… That life goes on is the point in a collective Bildungsroman of this type, and of tradition. Family, community, tribe – little Hanno Buddenbrook may have ingested his father’s melancholia and descended into an early grave, but others continue.

That is what we are left with: to observe the continuum, recalling the great generations – the happy ones, the troubled ones, the ones whose troubles are oddly nameless. We would be without imagination if we did not measure one against another, saying (if even only in private) this one was strong, that one weak; they were toughened by turmoil, we went soft out of privilege. A fine intelligence watches the cycles without giving way to noisy calls to ‘make [whatever] great again’. Decadence and regeneration are part of the process but need not be dealt with via a kind of passionate intensity that causes the centre not to hold. If the best lack all conviction, they would do well to heed quieter, humane voices that speak only after listening and act only after having done the diligence of trying to understand.

STODDARD MARTIN is an author and critic. His latest book is Monstrous Century, Starhaven, 2016

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Border Stories

John Wayne

John Wayne

Border Stories

Bill Hartley is down Mexico way

The geography of violence can remain constant over very long periods. For example, the Texas-Mexico border country was and remains a violent place. There are towns in Texas with populations the size of Bridlington or Leighton Buzzard which have crime rates that might see a British chief constable out of a job. Texas has been described as the US state that lets people have guns then executes them for using them and it’s even worse on the Mexico side of the border.

Authors have effectively mined these lawless territories. To describe such literature merely as Westerns would be to assume an association with the sagebrush sagas of Zane Grey and the like. Critics sometimes describe them as ‘Neo Westerns’. They are the work of writers who appreciate that this setting continues to provide an excellent platform for storytelling and which century they choose doesn’t really matter. Continue reading

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ENDNOTES, December 2016

Handel

Handel

ENDNOTES, December 2016

In this edition: a ‘grand’ Messiah from Sir Andrew Davis in Toronto  *  Bach’s Christmas Oratorio at Westminster Abbey  *  A new concert hall in Antwerp.

All over the country, orchestra and choirs are preparing for performances of Handel’s Messiah, which – alongside Bach’s Christmas oratorio – is, perhaps, the quintessential oratorio for this season. Newly-arrived from Chandos Records is a handsomely presented two-CD set of the work (recorded in Toronto): the cover, a splendid detail from the Renaissance painting, Annunciazione by Pulzone, and a detailed booklet, containing some wonderful stills from the live performance from which this ‘Messiah’ is taken. The work is described thus:

‘Messiah (1741) – On a compilation of texts from the Bible and Prayer Book Psalter by Charles Jennens (1700-1773).  New concert Edition by Sir Andrew Davis – In Memory of My Mother and Father.’

Continue reading

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Ordeal by Fire

from DW Griffith's Intollerance

From DW Griffith’s film Intolerance

Ordeal by Fire 

Il Trovatore, music by Giuseppe Verdi, conducted by Richard Farnes, Director David Bösch, Royal Opera House, 4th December 2016, first revival of David Bösch’s 2015/2016 production, reviewed by Leslie Jones

In our review of the 2015/16 production of Il Trovatore (see QR, July 5, 2016), the absurdity and incomprehensibility of Salvadore Cammarano’s libretto was noted. The Illustrated London News (29 March 1856) described the subject of the latter as “not only revolting in itself, but confused and obscure in its treatment”. Only outstanding vocal performances, it would seem, can make up for the deficiencies of the plot.

Il Trovatore is evidently not one of Verdi’s greatest operas, although as George Bernard Shaw pointed out, it tackles some stirring and elemental themes. We have immolation, infanticide, jealousy, the unquenchable desire for revenge (of Azucena and of Luna) plus the abiding love of a ‘mother’ for her (adopted) son. There is also the self-sacrifice of Leonora to Count di Luna (à la Floria Tosca) in a vain attempt to save her sweetheart Manrico, although, as she pointedly declares, “You will have my body but only as a corpse”. Continue reading

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Government is the Cause of “Brexit-Trump Syndrome”

stuart_mill_g_f_watts

 Government is the Cause of “Brexit-Trump Syndrome”

Stephen Michael MacLean delivers some home truths

The Powers that be never fail to demonstrate why they have earned the enmity of the average citizen. Bound up in a cocoon of self-satisfaction and self-denial, their political coup de grâce cannot come soon enough. This self-important élite are flummoxed by the people’s revolt in Britain and America, known respectively as Brexit and the Trump movement. A recent column dispatched from the prestigious London School of Economics and Political Science amply displays their continuing bewilderment.

Coining the term ‘Brexit-Trump Syndrome’, British academics Michael Jacobs and Mariana Mazzucato claim that an inability to understand economic reality explains why average working-class citizens, who suffered lost jobs and wages and failed to bounce back from the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-09 (despite billions spent in stimulus schemes), voted either to exit the European Union or put Donald Trump in the White House. Both described as ‘disastrous’ socio-economic choices. The implications drawn are that people were duped into voting against their financial interests. Continue reading

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