Spellbound

Rosalind Plowright as Madame Arvidson

Spellbound

Un Ballo in Maschera, music composed by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Antonio Somma, Investec Opera Holland Park, City of London Sinfonia conducted by Matthew Kofi Waldren, new production of the original, uncensored version directed by Rodula Gaitanou, based on the drama Gustave III de Suède by Eugène Scribe, Friday 21st June 2019, reviewed by Leslie Jones

In a letter to his librettist Antonio Somma, Verdi alluded to the difficult gestation of Un Ballo in Maschera, notably the seemingly intractable problems with the censors, both in Naples and Rome. “I bathe in a sea of ennuis”, he complained. In a contemporaneous missive to the publisher Ricordi, he again struck a note of self-pity, stating that “we poor gypsies and charlatans are obliged to sell our labours, our thoughts, our delirium for gold…” (quoted in Verdi, by Carlo Gatti, vol 1).

However, the premiere in Rome, in February 1859, was a triumph and it coincided with a wave of patriotic fervour (the Franco-Austrian War, plotted by Napoleon III and Cavour at Plombières, was about to commence). Yet as Gatti observes, Un Ballo was no mere “succès de circonstance”, as this splendid new production at Holland Park demonstrates. The score is replete with fine arias, duets and ensemble work à la Donizetti and the plot has echoes of Shakespearian tragedy, notably of Macbeth. Continue reading

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Leaving Sneddonland

Leaving Sneddonland

On Michael Jackson, Margo Jefferson, Granta, £9.99, reviewed by Stoddard Martin

It is unfortunate, if perhaps inevitable, that great creators, not least of music, should morph into personalities to be analysed to death, or beyond. Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner qualify among musicians of a prior age; Michael Jackson stands out among legions in our own. Some bring the destiny upon themselves, knowing that their public craves seasoning for the feast. But music remains the main course and, without substance in it, indigestion arrives.

‘Billy Jean’ seemed an epoch-making pop song in its day; the video of ‘Thriller’ was more than eye-catching. What else remains in memory? Image and scandal perhaps most; pathos; a certain revulsion mixed with compassion, if not sympathy. So innocent, so young, so not for a brute world – these conditions spoke out of the poor mannish fellow’s face and persuaded us of their truth, whatever defiant counter-selves he may have adopted to mask them. Continue reading

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Trump Barters for Borders – and Wins

Trump Barters for Borders – and Wins

by Ilana Mercer

If President Trump doesn’t waver, his border deal with Mexico will be a victory. The Mexicans have agreed to quit serving as conduits to hundreds of thousands of central Americans headed for the U.S.A. Despite protests from Democrats, stateside—Mexico has agreed to significantly increase enforcement on its borders. At first, Mexico was as defiant as the Democrats—and some Republicans. Democrats certainly can be counted on to argue for the other side—any side other than the so-called sovereign people that they swore to represent.

In fairness to the Democrats, Republicans are only notionally committed to the tough policing of the border. And certainly not if policing the porous border entails threatening trade tariffs against our neighborly narco-state. Some Republican senators even considered a vote to block the tariffs. Nevertheless, to the hooting and hollering of the cretins in Congress and the media, Trump went ahead and threatened Mexico with tariffs.

More than that. The president didn’t just tweet out “strong words” and taunts. Since Mexico, the party duopoly, and his own courts have forced his hand, the president proceeded to “retrieve from his arsenal a time bomb of ruinous proportions.” Or so the Economist hyperventilated. Continue reading

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Eternal Recurrence

Sir Francis Galton, by Octavius Oakley

Eternal Recurrence

Superior: The Return of Race Science, Angela Saini, 4thEstate, 2019, 342pp, reviewed by Ed Dutton

Angela Saini can skilfully encapsulate her subject in a striking yet poignant image, so that the reader feels what this Guardian journalist wants them to feel: that ‘race’ is simply a means by which white people subjugate other ‘races’, that anyone who thinks that ‘race’ is a biological reality should feel guilty, and that ‘race’ has hurt people like Angela, an ethnic Punjabi, born in Newham and raised around Welling in southeast London.

In one of the most memorable examples of this writing skill in her new book Superior, she takes us on a journey. She has travelled widely to research this book, from interviewing an Aborigine in Australia whose parents were forcibly removed from their families, to conversing with a geneticist in India who suggests that caste correlates with cognitive ability – to a long-forgotten area of Paris. In 1907, it played host to the Paris Exposition, a giant outdoor anthropology museum in which people of different races were placed in simplified mock-ups of their own homeland so that Westerners could observe them, like exotic animals in a zoo. Angela brings the scene to life, stimulating our senses so that we ‘feel’ that we are in Paris with her and then she adds:

‘To one side is a weathered sculpture of a naked woman, reclining and covered in beads, her head gone, if it was ever there at all. A solitary jogger runs past’ (p.46).

In this short paragraph, Angela connects us to the human zoo, and what it represented; decay and death, pornography, the exploitation of females, and to Ancient Greece and its worship of the human form, but also to the scientific fervour of the Ancient world. Continue reading

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The Boyars, Back in Town

Photo: © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL

The Boyars, Back in Town

Boris Godunov, opera in seven scenes, original version (1869), music by Modest Musorgsky, libretto by Musorgsky adapted from the historical tragedy by Alexander Pushkin, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Marc Albrecht, directed by Richard Jones, Royal Opera House, Wednesday 19th June 2019, reviewed by Leslie Jones

This first revival of Richard Jones’ 2016 production of Boris Godunov is a splendid visual spectacle, in terms of lighting, costumes and sets. The split level stage, designed by Miriam Buether, is used to telling effect. In the opening scene, Boris (Bryn Terfel), looking troubled, is sitting alone on the lower level. All seems sens dessus dessous. In the brilliantly lit, semi-circular, upper tier, a mini-drama is being enacted. Tsar Fyodor’s eight year old son Dmitry is playing with a spinning top. His throat is then cut by three murderers, allegedly at Boris’s behest. This scene, presumably a projection of Boris’s guilt, is repeatedly revisited, as his thoughts return obsessively to the deed, like a finger to a scab. As he observes, “Cruel conscience, how terrible is your punishment”.

Marina Frolova-Walker, Professor of Music History at the University of Cambridge, notes in a recent lecture at Gresham College how Musorgsky invented a national style of music, a profound expression of Russian melancholy and pessimism, as in the orchestral prelude. Russian orthodox motifs, notably church bells, were incorporated into this musical palate. Continue reading

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In the Court of King Coal

John Buddle, credit artuk.org

In the Court of King Coal

Bill Hartley considers a brace of pioneers

Posterity hasn’t left John Buddle (1773-1843) a household name like his contemporary George Stephenson yet when he died it was said that his funeral procession stretched for a mile. He was held in such high regard because of the work he did on improving safety in coal mines, something of considerable significance in the early Industrial Revolution. On first testing the Davy lamp which he helped to promote Buddle described it as ‘subduing the monster’,  the deadly methane gas known to miners as firedamp. Buddle was a Mine Viewer; in his day there was no such profession as mining engineer, indeed he learned the trade from his father.

During the year 1813, Buddle was a busy man with his services being called upon from Northumberland to Lancashire. His correspondence reveals what a primitive business it was and how Buddle’s technical knowledge could often be stretched to its limits. Throughout his reports, Buddle adds riders such as, ‘providing the engine used is of sufficient power’ or ‘a gentleman must be sought with the ability to successfully manage the undertaking’. He could only do so much and in those early years of the Industrial Revolution, working at the forefront of technology, there was much that could go wrong. Continue reading

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Casting Back

Recuerdo de Acevedo Huila: Fabula, credit acedeunos.blogspot.com

Casting Back

The Estancia, Martín Cullen, Adelphi, 20, hb, 399 pp, reviewed by Stoddard Martin

As a rule, this reader finds tales of childhood dull. True growing-up happens with first love, sexual encounters, jobs, facing the adult world on one’s own, escape from the bubble of family and parental control. If you’re not Proust, the matter of childhood is memorable only in rare cases. Martín Cullen’s account of his Argentine origins is one. His novel, essentially devoid of event, is a treasure trove of sensation.

The milieu is of privilege: an ancien régime under threat from the Perónist new order. There is circularity to this phenomenon: privileged youth exists to write about privileged youth; threatened privileged class exists to observe threatened privileged class. Lampedusa comes to mind. Nostalgia underpins beauty passing, which becomes its justification. One might be prepared to overturn an old order, but who would give up such a great elegist? Continue reading

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Death by Des Grieux

Credit nicolasbonnal.com

Death by Des Grieux

Review of Manon Lescaut, dramma lirico in four acts, music composed by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Ruggero Leoncavallo, Marco Praga, Giuseppe Giacosa, Domenico Oliva and Luigi Illica, directed by Karolina Sofulak, conductor Peter Robinson, new production at Investec Opera Holland Park, 11th June 2019, reviewed by Leslie Jones

Director Karolina Sofulak’s new production of Manon Lescaut, designed by George Johnson-Leighis set in the 1960’s. The beehive hairstyle or B52 and the twist are all the rage – “our name is youth – our goddess is hope”, the students proclaim. Hedonism is rife for the scourge of AIDS has yet to announce itself. But, as in all of Puccini’s work, despair lurks below the surface. Manon (an excellent performance by Elizabeth Llewellyn, who has a rich and powerful voice) was happy once but she tells us that sadness now controls her destiny.

In ancient Greek tragedy, the hero or heroine is the author of their own downfall due to personal failings but also to adverse, overwhelming circumstances. Manon is torn between her love for penniless student Des Grieux and her predilection for the fine things which wealthy Tax Farmer-General Geronte di Ravoir is happy to provide – at a price. Manon’s brother Lescaut (Paul Carey-Jones), a shrewd judge of character, knows his sister only too well, indeed they are somewhat alike and he panders to her vanity and love of luxury. “A little lady who is bored is a frightening thing!”, he sagely observes, so he keeps her distracted. Indicatively, Manon ultimately fails to escape from Geronte’s clutches because she is desperate to retrieve her jewellery. Continue reading

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You Are Who You Ate

A San Tribesman

You Are Who You Ate

by Ilana Mercer

 South Africa – the case for inter-racial reparations

Donald R. Morris’s epic tome, The Washing of the Spears: The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation, is the indispensable guide to Zulu history. Morris notes correctly that the Bantu, like the Boers, were not indigenous to South Africa. They “dribbled south” from some “reservoir in the limitless north,” and, like the European settlers, used their military might to displace Hottentots, Bushmen (his archaic terminology), and one another through internecine warfare. Indeed, there was bitter blood on Bantu lands well before the white settlers arrived in South Africa.

Westerners have committed the little San people of Southern Africa, the “Bushmen,” to folkloric memory for their unequalled tracking skills and for the delicate drawings with which they dotted the “rock outcroppings.” The San were hunters, but they were also among the hunted. Mercilessly so. Alongside the Boers, Hottentots and blacks “hunted down Bushmen for sport well into the 19th Century.”

In “the book to end all books on the tragic confrontation between the assegai and the Gatling gun,” Morris recalls that Cape Town’s founder and Dutch East India Company official J. A. Van Riebeeck landed at the Cape in 1652, 500 miles to the south and 1,000 miles to the west of the nearest Bantu. Joined by other Protestants from Europe, Dutch farmers, as we know, homesteaded the Cape Colony. Continue reading

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Kushner Packs Unicorns and Rainbows

Jared Kushner (left centre), credit Defense.gov

Kushner Packs Unicorns and Rainbows

by Ilana Mercer

Jared Kushner couldn’t stare down a foe even if his wife, Ivanka Trump, held his soft, lily-white hand. Yet a May 22, McClatchy article claimed Mr. Kushner was fixing to “stare down uncompromising foes in fights over immigration and Middle East peace.”

Let us begin with our debutant’s Middle East peace plan, the thing his father-in-law calls “the deal of the century.” The notion of Jared solving the Israeli-Palestinian vexation is laughable, perhaps the dumbest thing ever. You just know this is a vain Ivanka move to brand the region and add it to her CV. Ivanka, to those who don’t know, is intent on riding to the presidency on her father’s coattails.

The Arabs slated to partake in the Kushner summit, Bahraini, Saudi and Emirati participants, are likely laughing the hardest. For one, the Arabs know that Ivanka is calling the shots—and that the president’s fashion-focused daughter is behind the branding of the sexually androgynous, intellectually inchoate production that is Jared Kushner. If you think that’s something Arabs respect, you don’t know Shiite from Shinola. Continue reading

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