Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Lear, in tears

She moved me very much, as only Kathryn Hunter before her had on the stage (and I've seen a few King Lears. Jacobi's is probably No. 1, but his I experienced in a livescreening). Unlike Hunter, though, Ursula Mohan is not playing a man. Her Queen Lear makes sense from the start, where we see her joshing at the piano with her Fool (a male nurse as played by Joseph Taylor: and why not, said Ursula afterwards - isn't it the case with so many old people that their carers are the last to stand by them?) Phil Willmott's production is fluent, the ideas of its contemporary setting all followed through and its engagement with a tiny audience total (50, I think, the maximum in the tiny Union Theatre we love so much).

The verse speaking always makes sense, however variable the cast, and certain themes are driven home with unrelenting pungency, like early-onset dementia, drug-taking and homelessness. If that feels right-on, it never seems so as you watch. We arrive in the dark space and stand for the first 20 minutes to witness the capricious division of the kingdom (selfie before it all goes wrong, Mohan pictured in one of Scott Rylander's superb production pictures with Claire Jeater's Goneril, Daisy Ward's Cordelia and Felicity Duncan's Regan) then seats are unobtrusively set up. The last third takes place with half the audience sitting around a white-covered table on which the scenes on the way to or at Dover are acted out with unremitting vividness.

Mohan's Lear launches her downfall in chilling confrontations with her three daughters, the horror of what she says offset by the bewilderment and confusion we register so closely in her face. Is an invocation of sterility on a thankless daughter the more horrifying when it comes from a mother? I felt so. And Harriet Walter's wise words on the human predicament affecting everybody chimed with the universality of this Lear. It felt absolutely right to me, at any rate; not a false note, no meaningless histrionics from Mohan.

Our central 'act' took place mostly in darkness, with torchlight adding to the atmosphere of the scenes on the heath (Mohan below with Taylor's Fool). If only the soundtrack of thunder, wind and rain had been turned down for the arrival in the hut: the words here weren't so easy to make out above it.

Action after the second interval was raised to an almost unbearable and unremitting level of tension. The absolute highlight for me, the point at which the tears really flowed, was the emergence of Mohan's flower-crowned Lear from cardboard packing to confront the blind Gloucester on the white table.

The official Gloucester, Richard Derrington, pictured above, was sick, so Simon Purse, the Doctor in the original cast (well adapted for the Fool) took over. He did it with the script until the blinding, after which he was truly moving without a prompt.

Among the very mixed blessings of the cast, Rikki Lawton's Edmund was the spunky prankster-villain to the life, winking and nodding at the audience to keep his soliloquies vivid, showing some good in the character at the end (Edgar is not exactly likeable in this production). Super-statuesque Claire Jeater was the stylish Goneril, pictured with Lawton and Duncan below.

Catch the run, if you can get a ticket, before it ends on Saturday, We went because our dear friend Kurt Ryz, who knows Ursula well, praised it to me - and I know he wouldn't say anything insincere. Usually wary about 'backstage' visits, but I and our Berlin friend Debbie York were so moved that we had to see her. And how lovely she was, with plenty of insights which chimed with what we'd seen. The upshot of which is Debbie, always looking for new ways of presenting recital programmes, thought she might like to collaborate with Ursula on one in future. The actress willing, of course.

I wasn't sure if Ursula would remember me from our one meeting some years ago, but she'd just seen me on the telly. Which means the Glyndebourne documentary aired on BBC Four on Saturday. All of it was interesting and a lot of the details in it new to me, though inevitably it was compromised by being half about the history of Glyndebourne and half about Richard Jones's new production of Der Rosenkavalier, which was where I came in, and eventually I got used more than I'd expected. Any excuse for using more images by Bill Cooper from that extraordinary show, so let's have one from each act with the lovely Kate Royal as the Marschallin, Tara Erraught as Octavian, Lars Woldt as Ochs and Teodora Gheorghiu as Sophie

Anyway, the dovetailing was skilful and I especially loved the enthusiastic contributions of Gheorghiu and the utterly delightful Tara, a woman who clearly has enough inner strength to have weathered the recent storm in a teacup - s'ist halt vorbei - and who likes as I do to walk across the Downs from Lewes to the house.

Nice contributions from easy-going Gus Christie and David Pickard, but Jones is the king of the idiosyncratic both in what he said about the opera and about Glyndebourne, undercutting everyone else's no doubt sincere comments about the beauty of working in deepest Sussex by saying how he sometimes wanted to get away from 'Planet Opera' and smell the fumes of his native south London as he got off the train at Clapham Junction. He also described the olfactory effects he wanted from each act, stopping short of saying what pong the inn scene should conjure.

You can see the documentary on the iPlayer until this Sunday evening (UK only, friends abroad tell me). I do recommend watching the whole thing.

STOP PRESS: Don't miss the chance, via what else but The Arts Desk,  to  win two tickets to Glyndebourne's Don Giovanni.  Sounds like an ace revival of a good show that's a hell (no pun intended) of a lot better than Kent's turgidly staged (but superbly sung and conducted) Manon Lescaut.

Later: wonders will never cease. Having alerted friends to Glyndebourne having the complete production up on its website until last Sunday midnight, I now find out it can be seen on the BBCiPlayer for another three months. Watch it here.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Nuns and chisellers

The French word 'ciseleur' is preferable, and, embracing as it does 'engraver', gives a better sense of the guild to which that master goldsmith and fantasist Benvenuto Cellini belonged. But the point here is to contrast the feminine strength of Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites with the testosterone-driven wonders of Berlioz's liveliest opera - indeed, possibly the liveliest opera in the repertoire - which I had the good fortune to see on consecutive nights last week (Royal Opera images by Stephen Cummiskey; ENO photos by Richard Hubert Smith).

We've spent seven weeks apiece on these operas in my City Lit classes, and I've never been more absorbed (equally, certainly, but not more). I wish I could say the same about one of the two productions. By the way, for Cellini I used the only DVD so far, from Salzburg - great idea with the robots, spirited performances from Maija Kovaleska and Laurent Naouri especially, don't mind the feeling of Broadway show, but there's a general sense of trying too hard - and all the recordings. The first Sir Col with Gedda is peerless, though interesting to hear alternatives on the recent John Nelson edition.

Let's get the reservations out of the way first. Terry Gilliam's return to Berlioz is a bit of a mess in its first half. I don't think he's worked on the crucial Personenregie: we hardly give a damn about Benvenuto's amatory escapade, and poor Corinne Winters, though she sings reliably throughout, can't make much of Teresa in a bad blonde wig (though I don't think the aria is anything like as animated in detail as Nicole Cabell's marvellous Cardiff prizewinning performance).

There's always too much business going on, too many scene changes happening while the set pieces are winding up. The should-be-funny guys, father Balducci (Pavlo Hunka) and comic suitor Fierramosca (Nicholas Pallesen), just aren't; the Roman carnival should be disciplined but is just a lot of chaotic milling around, albeit colourful.

Part (Act) Two is so much better, and soon lifted me from my interval despondency. Edward Gardner's conducting, which had been much too heavy and exaggerated for any needlepoint comedy - the featherlight trio wasn't helped by having the singers too far away, and too high up - came into its own for weightier matters, and even Charles Hart's arch translation brought some unexpected pleasures. It beats me how those commenters on Alexandra Coghlan's Arts Desk review could advise us to leave at the interval ('the party's over'). What do they want, just more froth? Because while the only number in Berlioz's score which is marginally less involving than the rest, the second duet for Cellini and Teresa, is cut, there are a string of beauties: the duet for Teresa and Ascanio against the monk's chanting, the great ensemble with the Pope - how I loved both Gilliam's high camp for his entry

and Willard White in fine voice frou-frouing around, even getting a bit nasty when his statue looks as if it might elude him

- and then the best set-pieces of the evening: the lovely rondo for Ascanio sung perfectly by Paula Murrihy, the only singer not to put a foot wrong throughout and a real Octavian in waiting (wish there was more of her in the picture selection than just a supporting role in this image)

and the wistful 'wish I were a country man' solo for Cellini.

Michael Spyres sounds surprisingly hefty for the Rossini tenor his biography suggests, and can't quite maneouvre around the insane heights, but he carried this off well, and Gilliam let him do it in peace. The forging of the Perseus was, I reckon, done as well as it could be on stage, even if I heard Michael Palin in the audience as we left wryly refusing to tell someone what hadn't gone quite according to plan. Anyway, the point is that I left exhilarated, when I might have left precipitately deeply disappointed.

No major reservations about the arrival of the now-classic Robert Carsen Dialogues des Carmelites at Covent Garden (even bigger audience star-check: within seconds on exiting, I saw Jonas Kaufmann, Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner). Carsen's painterly instincts for a nearly bare stage informed by evocative lighting brought us one stunning, apt tableau after another, none more haunting than the body language and grouping of the nuns in prison awaiting their sentence. There doesn't seem to be a better photo of that than this one.

I think for me this was the most choking moment of all in an emotional evening, so quietly and authoritatively did the strange-toned but always compelling Emma Bell deliver Madame Lidoine's words of wisdom. Here she is earlier in the action.

Nobody was found wanting. Sally Matthews' is an odd technique, sometimes cloudy, but she sent the sound up top with emotional truthfulness, fell to her knees very eloquently and conveyed the sense of Bernanosian limitless fear superbly. How we jumped when she dropped and broke the statue of the Infant Jesus, even if we knew it was coming.

Deborah Polaski's First Prioress may not have gone through her death agonies with as much harrowing realism as the peerless Anja Silja on the DVD of the same production from La Scala, but she sang the role with far more refinement and dynamic variation.

Anna Prohaska almost over-coloured Soeur Constance but she's a precious new talent on the scene, and Sophie Koch redeemed her baffling Octavian here some years back with a compelling and ultimately touching Mere Marie.

Equal star to Bell for me was Yann Beuron, such a powerful lyric tenor and an extremely sympathetic actor, as Blanche's desperate brother

and he was well offset in the first scene by Thomas Allen's baffled father. The final scene, of course, had both of us trying to restrain ourselves from sobbing out loud

and the lady next to us, come to see it for a second time because her two sons were in the people's ensemble (which she said had raised a few hackles with Equity, but they certainly added another dimension)

This was a redemption, too, for Simon Rattle: one of the best things I've heard him do recently, though come to think of it his Pelleas in the same house was very fine too, and it helps to have conducted that vital inspiration for Poulenc first. The chop-change style, modelled sometimes, I feel, on Prokofiev's mosaic operatic technique, suits him well; the extremes of dynamics were striking throughout and having the harp in a box made those great upbeat swooshes clutch at the heart. Slightly disconcerted by the brass vibrato which sometimes made it sound like a Broadway show (ditto the overamplified guillotine). But otherwise, nothing but praise for the dedication of the players.

It's been an amazing operatic couple of weeks - all this, Feuersnot in Dresden, the shattering and surprising Owen Wingrave at Aldeburgh on my birthday - an action-packed occasion I hope to chronicle here - a meeting with the galvanizing Kristine Opolais and her first night as Manon Lescaut yesterday with Jonas Kaufmann and Antonio Pappano, all three just about transcending the vague sterilities of Jonathan Kent's production. Here's a photo I couldn't fit into the review from Bill Cooper.

Both Benvenuto Cellini and Manon Lescaut have the benefit of livescreenings around the world (Cellini, I note, got the HD treatment last night; Manon is due soon). Dialogues des Carmélites did not, but at least an earlier incarnation of the Carsen production, as I've mentioned above with reference to Silja, provides a different document. Much more troubling is the removal of Adams' challenging, ambiguous The Death of Klinghoffer from the Metropolitan Opera's HD schedule. This blog post, linked originally by my somewhat erstwhile blog friend Jon Dryden Taylor, expresses everything I feel very succinctly (albeit from a different perspective, that of a 'left-wing, liberal Jew')*.

We still have half a class left to go on Carmelites: I can't leave these nuns, or their various authors alone. And that means I'm skimping on my beloved Ariadne. But this has been an awfully big adventure through a score which, as with Cellini, I didn't know in detail. Grim times ahead, sadly, for the City Lit: a bombshell fell this week. But I need to get my facts together before I report and protest. I leave you with an astonishing film, courtesy of our Australian wanderer, of Joan Sutherland in a role I had no idea she'd taken on beyond the Royal Opera premiere, where Poulenc apparently adapted on hearing her. The diction up top is mush, as usual, but what authority, what passion in the voice.

Wonders will never cease - there's also the 1958 recording of the same scene at Covent Garden, conducted by Kubelik. Of interest if only to compare the change in vocal weight over decades.

*19/6 Further light in the darkness in some of John Adams's responses quoted here.

Friday, 13 June 2014

From Marschallin to Moses

'That's the first time actually I've ever been moved by the words of The Ring alone...I normally find that the text alone makes you yearn for the music, but that seemed quite wonderful to me.' Thus Michael Tanner, lecturing on Götterdämmerung, about Dame Harriet Walter declaiming Brünnhilde's Immolation Scene in its various incarnations and her husband Guy Paul reading Wagner's stage directions. There they are above in the green room of Birmingham's superb CBSO Centre preparing for the afternoon session, with lovely Daisy Boulton on the right, one of the two young actors with great careers ahead of them (Daisy is shortly to appear in the stage version of Shakespeare in Love). Can it be only three weeks ago? So much has happened since - I've sizzled pleasantly in Setúbal, Berlin and of course Dresden leading up to the great man's 150th birthday.

Looking around for a portrait to do Strauss justice, I was hoping to find the one of him stepping off his first flight in 1947, looking at the camera in naive wonderment. But another from the festival he conducted in the Royal Albert Hall that same year will do. Because we are still struck by the disparity between the frequent look of seeming lassitudinous indifference, and the fires within. But it was Stefan Zweig, his collaborator on Die schweigsame Frau, who wrote in his autobiography The World of Yesterday about the 'particular magic power behind this bourgeois mask' in 'those bright blue, highly radiant eyes...wide-awake...not daemonic but in some way clairvoyant, the eyes of a man cognizant of the full significance of his task'.

I'm very proud and happy with how our 'Discovery Day' grandly titled The German Operatic Tradition worked out. I was given what seemed to me like a not too paltry budget and the brief to cover four operas being performed in Birmingham over six weeks: Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, in concert that afternoon conducted by Andris Nelson and reviewed here; his Ariadne auf Naxos, which the Royal Opera under Pappano brings in concert on 6 July; the last instalment of Opera North's Ring, Götterdämmerung, on 21 June; and Schoenberg's Moses und Aron on Monday in the Welsh National Opera production which opened on the very day we were 'performing'.

I've written this elsewhere, but quite apart from the attentive, responsive and sizeable audience, what I'm left with is a sense of how the actors learned from the lectures - Harriet especially was full of praise in the morning, having had a harrassing start with a hotel bill she wasn't expected to pay and being sent to the wrong venue in the pouring rain - and how we lecturers were indeed moved and sometimes stunned by the actors.

Adding to the riches of the day were superb performances by two recent graduates of the Birmingham Conservatoire accompanied, very spaciously and sensitively, by Shah Johan bin Shahridzuan (a Malaysian prince, I believe, and a princely pianist). Baritone Samuel Oram began with Harlekin's little song to Ariadne and continued with 'Allerseelen', managing the expected breadth of line masterfully, while soprano Carrie-Ann Williams obliged me by learning 'Du Venus Sohn', originally presented to Monsieur Jourdain in Hofmannsthal's adaptation of Le bourgeois gentilhomme (she also did the Echo effect for the Serenade), in a couple of days, then delivering like a Strauss soprano to the manner born in 'Die Nacht' and a delicious rarity, 'Breit über mein Haupt'. Here are the friendly three just before their performance.

I kicked off the day with a tour around Der Rosenkavalier, beginning with the start of the Prelude to Strauss's first opera, Guntram, to point up the Wagnerian element in Strauss's makeup before going on to the Mozart vein (the breakfast minuet-into-waltz and the composer conducting the third movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 39). Then it was time for the Hofmannsthal vein, which is where I introduced Guy to read passages from the watershed Letter of Lord Chandos (1901-2) which the poet uses to characterise his own sense of having 'lost completely the ability to think or to speak of anything coherently', of everything having 'disintegrated into parts, those parts again into parts' after the seeming wholeness of his precocious early inspiration.

Thence to the Marschallin's monologue and the first part of her scene with Octavian at the end of Act One. Again, it was effective and moving as pure theatre in the hands of Harriet and the very original Joel MacCormack, pictured right here (for I was clear I wanted a young man rather than a girl in trousers to read Octavian, as he is portrayed in the 1926 silent film).

William Mival elegantly encapsulated the complexities of Ariadne's journey from her place within Le bourgeois gentilhomme or rather Der Bürger als Edelmann, from which he played the Overture as conducted - again brilliantly, and in such good sound - by Strauss. The oboe sicilienne also served as neat prelude to Carrie-Ann's performance of 'Du Venus Sohn'. I was amazed to hear William, a composer of no little standing, rate Strauss as the most comprehensive musical voice of the 20th century. Indeed - he had such a far-reaching influence, probably not significantly less than his opposite number Stravinsky.

We also had Guy read Jourdain's last lines as they bring down the curtain on the original Ariadne, with Strauss's first ending. The other playreading here was of the dialogue scene between the Composer and Zerbinetta (Daisy, dangerous rather than merely flirty) as it appears in the original backstage scene of the play. There's no extended love duet here, only a quick jump to the Music Master's call to arms and his easy persuasion of the Prima Donna. Harriet's 'do you think I can?' got a big laugh.

I was pleased with how my second set of translations sounded - I tried to effect them with the actors' delivery in mind, so it was exciting to hear how they were interpreted. Below: the great Jeritza as Ariadne. Curious that the creator of the role in Dresden was Eva van der Osten, the first (and perfectly plumptious, careful with the wording) Octavian. Other portraits: Marschallin by Alfred Roller, the original designer, Brünnhilde of course by Arthur Rackham, Moses by Ribera.

I've dealt with the post-prandial musical intermezzo, but not the coda: Harriet, Joel and Daisy reading their parts in the Rosenkavalier Trio separately, because those beautiful words so often get smothered in the sheer heady beauty of the vocal writing. Sophie's lines are specially worth quoting:

I feel as if I were in church,
It feels sacred and frightening.
And yet I feel unholy too.
I don't know how I feel.
I want to kneel down before the lady
And do something to her,
Because I feel she gives me to him
And at the same time takes something of him away from me.
I just don't know how I feel.
I want to understand everything
And not to understand anything.
I want to ask and not to ask,
I feel hot and cold.
(looking into Octavian's eyes)
Yet I feel only you and know only one thing:
That I love you!

So on to our distinguished afternoon speakers. Michael's precis of the entire Ring saga up to and including Götterdämmerung was absolutely masterly and wryly funny: I've not heard him speak before, and was captivated by a master storyteller. It was also a dream come true to hear Harriet read two of Wagner's very different drafts for the original ending of the drama before the one we know and love. Stephen Johnson and I were both struck afresh by lines in the most essential of all Wagner's letters on The Ring, the one of 23 August 1856 in which he writes to Röckel how 'I had (unfortunately) never really sorted out in my mind what I meant by this "love" which, in the course of the myth, we saw appearing as something utterly and completely devastating'. Which explains the change from 1853's 'Let there be only - love' to the annihilation of the final version.

Michael stunned us all in his choice of recorded Immolation Scene, or at least the part of it he played: Flagstad as I've never heard her before or since, with Furtwängler in Milan, 1950. The recording came up with incomparable vividness on the transfer he played. I don't know if this is as fine, but here it is on YouTube. The entire opera is also available there in the same performance, all four hours and 15 minutes of it.

Stephen had the hardest task with the least easy to love of our four operas, Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, but energetically explained both his own reservations and what he admired about the achievement. He started by announcing that we were to have a complete performance of Act 3 - which is to say, the page or so of text Schoenberg never set to music. Cue Harriet in more austere mode as Moses - after all, this is the woman who's played Brutus and wants to play Macbeth - with Guy as Aron and interjections from the young 'uns.

SJ demonstrated the nature of 12-note rows both consonant, up to a point (Berg's Violin Concerto), and dissonant, as they mostly are in the opera. Also reminded me what a superb piece the Second String Quartet is, and how convincing Moses sounds with the firm rhythmic underpinning of Boulez's interpretation.

Then it was time for a few questions and gratifying votes of thanks from Stephen and the very supportive Roger Neill who was in the audience (and has written a more succinct account of the experience on his blog). My thanks too to the indefatigable Hannah Baines of the THSH organisation which organised the event, a delight to deal with throughout.

So off we rushed to the concert Rosenkavalier. This is Stephen, looking a bit 'oh God, do we have to' as J snaps, and me slightly paunchy with the vivacious Mrs Johnson, Kate Jones, beaming between us after a meal during the long interval.

I'll say no more about the ultimately dizzying performance, duly written up on The Arts Desk, other than to add that our rather distant seats up top gave an interesting perspective both visual and aural (the orchestral woodwind sounded unbelievably vivid). Here's the view of one of many 'curtain calls'

And a closer-up with Sophie Bevan, Alice Coote a little in the shade, Andris Nelsons, Soile Isokoski, Franz Hawlata, Bonaventura Bottone and Pamela Helen Stephen.

So nearly 12 hours after we'd gathered in the CBSO Centre, we reeled out happy and drove back to Stephen and Kate's place in Sutton St Nicholas near Hereford. The final shot should go to the most vocal, sensitive and personable cat in the world, their Agatha. I'm much more of a dog person but I'd give Agatha house room any time. Mind you, even though she's more of a mouser than a birdcatcher, I'm glad she's not here at the moment because we have a deliquescent blackbird family nesting somewhere in the ivy on the back yard fence. An hour ago I caught the infant staring at me impudently from the weeping mulberry a few yards away as she brazenly consumed the fruit.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Bernanos and Robinson: states of grace

The strange world of Georges Bernanos has enveloped me since I began City Lit Opera in Focus classes on Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites, a work I'm now more convinced than ever is one of the great 20th century masterpieces. It's already prompted the most probing conversations with the students on essential matters of life, terminal illness and faith; I look forward to seeing Robert Carsen's already celebrated production at the Royal Opera next week. The source is rather extraordinary, too, a swansong screenplay written by Bernanos in the last year of his life when he knew the end was near ('is it not high time to die when one is 59?' asks young, naive and yet startlingly assured Sister Constance).

It is, like his best-loved novel The Diary of a Country Priest, about fearing one 'should not know how to die when the time came', and about the fear of fear embodied in terrified Blanche, which takes us back further to the semi-factual novella on which the screenplay is based, Gertrud von Le Fort's The Last on the Scaffold. I found it in a funny religious imprint by The Neumann Press, Long Prairie, Minnesota translated as The Song at the Scaffold (another rather lurid church publication illustrated below).

The 'song' of course is the Salve Regina which the nuns intone as they face the guillotine, the voices cutting off one by one at the swish and thud of the blade in perhaps the most shattering conclusion to any opera. And they did so in truth, along with the Veni, Creator Spiritus, in July 1794, as recorded by Mother Marie of the Incarnation, who happened to be in Paris on business when her sisters at Compiègne were arrested, and who lived on (until 1836) to tell the tale. Blanche, the protagonist, is a fictional creation, the embodiment of that fear which fascinated and to a certain extent afflicted Bernanos all his life.

His approach to it is also foreshadowed in von Le Fort's book, written in 1931 at a time when the author must have sensed another forthcoming cataclysm in her own country (she was persecuted by the Nazis and driven to Oberstdorf on the Austrian border). Into Sister Marie's mouth she puts the rhetorical question: 'Must fear and horror always be evil? Is it not possible that they may be deeper than courage, corresponding much more closely to the reality of things - the terrors of the world and especially our own weakness?' In religious terms, it's paralleled with Christ's agony - hence Blanche's appellation 'of the Agony of Christ', a title we learn the first Prioress also took - and clearly outlined in her assertion that 'there has never been more than one morning, Easter Day and every night is that of the Blessed Agony'.

You think I'm going all Catholic?* Well, all I can say is that Bernanos's grasp of the dark side of human nature is what makes his books so compelling and real. His characters pass through depression, the valley of the shadow of death, spiritual crisis, call it what you will. The nameless country priest is so badly shaken that his dark night of the soul cannot be written about. He lacks confidence, and doesn't realise the good he does simply by talking to the tormented. He knows that 'man is always at enmity with himself- a secret, sly kind of hostility', a hostility which explodes in the slippery nightmare world of Monsieur Ouine, a troubling read as I'm currently experiencing it.

There, in the work he regarded highest of all among his novels, Bernanos throws at us in a slimy, stream-of-consciousness ooze suggestions of awful depravities. The worst in The Diary of a Country Priest is, its protagonist writes,

the sin against hope - the deadliest sin, and perhaps also the most cherished, the most indulged. It takes a long time to become aware of it, and the sadness which precedes and heralds its advent is so delicious! The richest of all the devil's elixirs,his ambrosia.

One of the priest's worst moments is 'a mad rush of thoughts, words, images. In my soul, nothing. God is silent. Silence.' The link with Bergman, and above all with Winter Light, is striking (the wonderful Gunnar Björnstrand pictured below).

No wonder that Robert Bresson, another great filmmaker, was inspired by Bernanos to make Mouchette as well as the Diary (time I saw this again).

These great artists penetrate the darkest corners of the human psyche. By the way, the French film that eventually resulted from Dialogues used very little of Bernanos's script. Still, to judge from the cover of the book illustrated up top, it stars Jeanne Moreau, always worth seeing. Unfortunately the movie doesn't seem to be available on DVD at the moment.

In the cold light of Bernanos's biography - and I picked up an excellent one second-hand by Robert Speaight, whose Shakespeare study is one of my bibles - he shouldn't have anything to offer me. He started his career as a deeply conservative Catholic, anti-semitic and far too allied with the Action Française. Already, in 1926, he was tortured by his own 'grim lucidity': 'I am between the Angel of light and the Angel of darkness, looking at them each in turn with the same enraged hunger for the absolute'. His polemic could be egotistical, his satire overloaded, and that remained true even when, having stuck out the war in exile, he returned to France and railed against its post-1945 compromises. But in an important way he also became free, almost an anarchist at times.

Despair and disgust were never far away; they are partly what make his writing so powerful. His own death was almost as painful as that of the first Prioress in the Dialogues - a scene which would surely have given the Catholic church a few qualms. When Poulenc took up the thread, he gave it an extra dimension, a real spirituality similarly disrupted by doubt and pain. The human condition is at its most intense in both screenplay and opera.

A more poised, sparely-worded compassion for the soul's dark night and the possibility of grace irradiate the extraordinary novels of Marilynne Robinson.

Gilead is the book everyone urges you to read, but I'd insist that it has to be accompanied by the situation seen from a different perspective in Home. I only hope that when the time comes to turn these books into a film, it will be a long two-parter - the first seen from the Rev John Ames's viewpoint as he tries to explain it to his son, the second from Glory Boughton's. It would be invidious to declare which is the greater book; if, simply as a matter of personal taste, I prefer Home, it's because the very nature of Gilead is the narrative of a good but emotionally circumscribed man's attempt to put his deeper feelings into words and grapple with the unfamiliar devil of jealousy, while Home goes to the piercingly human heart of the damaged soul who is the real, and infinitely fascinating, subject of both books, the prodigal Jack Boughton.

Home embodies its piercing truths in dialogue and situation; Gilead gives us a few more excerptable reflections. There are several that bring us full circle to the preoccupations of Bernanos. One is this:

The history of the chuch is very complex, very mingled. I want you to know how aware I am of that fact. These days there are so many people who think loyalty to religion is benighted, if it is not worse than benighted. I am aware of that, and I know the charges that can be brought against churches are powerful. And I know, too, that my own experience of the church has been, in many senses, sheltered and parochial. In every sense, unless it really is a universal and transcendent life, unless the bread is the bread and the cup is the cup everywhere, in all circumstances, and it is a time with the Lord in Gethsemane that comes for everyone, as I deeply believe.

The second is when Jack asks Ames if he believes some people are predestined to perdition. What does he reply to people who ask him about it?

'I tell them there are certain attributes our faith assigns to God: omniscience, omnipotence, justice, and grace. We human beings have such a slight acquaintance with power and knowledge, so little conception of justice, and so slight a capacity for grace, that the workings of these great attributes together is a mystery we cannot hope to penetrate.'

Jack remains unsatisfied with the answers. But moments of grace towards the ends of both novels brought tears to my eyes. As in Bernanos, there are no simple, glib solutions to the agony of life, but some hope remains in the bottom of Pandora's jar.

*On reading which, the diplo-mate wryly pointed me in this horrifying direction.