Monday, 16 October 2017

Louis Malle's Vanya: best play-to-screen ever?

A second viewing of Vanya on 42nd Street after a couple of decades - I finally got hold of the Criterion edition - persuaded me that it must be. And when I discussed the film with Matt Wolf, theatre doyen of The Arts Desk and the International New York Times, at the Hospital Club 100 Awards the other week - more on those, and TAD's part in them, anon - he said it was one of his desert island films. Mine too, maybe even in the top three.

Criterion's accompanying documentary sheds further light on why this was an unrepeatable beacon in the history of theatrical performance even before Malle appeared on the scene. The enigmatic and fascinating, sometimes maddening Andre Gregory hadn't directed a play for 14 years when he first gathered together a group of America's best actors, trained in the Stanislavsky tradition, to meet and work on the multiple possible meanings of Chekhov's towering masterpiece without an end in mind. In 1991 they started to perform it to audiences of 20 to 30 people a night - I think if I could choose one trip back in recent time, it would be to have joined those very distinguished who's-who-of-culture folk. The performances came to a halt with the death of Ruth Nelson, playing Nyanya Marina. Wallace Shawn persuaded Gregory to pick it up again after a year, and the replacement was a former colleague of Nelson in the Stanislavsky-based group theatre, the luminous Phoebe Brand (pictured here in what turns out to be the opening scene of the play, with Larry Pine as Astrov and Wallace Shawn as Vanya).

They played it again, at a table with the invitees sitting onstage too and moved, like a camera angle, from place to place, in the decayed Times Square Victory Theatre, a former movie palace, and then moved over to the splendid ruin that was New Amsterdam Theatre, stinking of rat piss and mildew, when Gregory invited Malle to change the perspectives and film the venture as a farewell.

Even on a second viewing, the point at which the carefully set-up arrival of the actors - already subtly allied with the roles they're going to play - and the tiny invited audience - including Madhur Jaffrey, playing a role too - glides into the opening of the play is startling. David Mamet's adaptation, from a literal translation, plays its part in that, treading an exquisite line between the essence of Chekhov's dialogue - which helps, because it's usually so direct - and colloquial, but never coarse, American vernacular. I ordered up the script, and it wasn't easy to find: odd, because this is the best version I know. The tree-planting Dr Astrov's first big speech always has extra potency today, but never more so than here:

Burn peat in your your barn of stones. You understand? Yes, sometimes we cut wood out of necessity, but why be wanton? Our forests fall before the axe. Billions of trees. All perishing. The homes of birds and beasts being laid waste. The level of the rivers falls, and they dry up. And sublime landscapes disappear, never to return, because man hasn't the sense enough to bend down and pick up fuel from the ground. (To Yelena Andreyevna:) Isn't this so? What must man be, to destroy what he never can create? God's given man reason and power of thought, so that he may improve his lot. What have we used these powers for but waste? We have destroyed the forest, our rivers run dry, our wildlife is all but extinct, our climate ruined, and every day, every day, wherever one looks, our life is more hideous. (To Ivan Petrovich:) I see, you think me amusing. these seem to you the thoughts of some poor eccentric. Perhaps, perhaps it's naive too on my part. Perhaps you think that, but I pass by the woods I've saved from the axe. I hear the forest sighing...I planted that forest. And I think: perhaps things may be in our power. You understand? Perhaps the climate itself is in our control. Why not? And if, in one thousand years, man is happy, I will have played a part in that happiness. A small part. I plant a birch tree. I watch it take root, it grows, it sways in the wind...And, of course, it's possible that I am just deluded.

Of course, despite this, the interior monologues and Sonya's great final speech which Rachmaninov set to music, nothing is terra firma in Chekhov. The characters shift, become sympathetic and unsympathetic, surprise us with the ferocity beneath an apparent apathy or the aimlessness between seeming vitality. And this film, this production, convince me that it really does take years, months, for actors to be those characters. The ensemble is perfect. Wallace Shawn, the maverick previously caught in Malle's My Dinner with Andre, is the most unpredictable of all: you have to pinch yourself to realise he's not being but acting (what's the difference in this set-up?) While Julianne Moore is indeed ravishingly beautiful, she can slip from radiance to just-reined-in hysterical misery in a moment. Your heart aches for Brooke Smith's Sonya/Sophia (pictured below with Moore, Shawn and George Gaynes as the pompous Professor). I don't think I'll ever hear her 'we shall rest' epilogue more magically spoken.

What's truth here? As in Tolstoy, whatever the character feels at any given moment - unless he or she is self-deceiving. Two telling sentences from Gregory, who grew up in America to Russian parents, provides another clue to the wonder here: 'Russians go from manic to depressive in a second. Often when Chekhov is played, the actors stay with one emotion for too long.' It reminds me of what Tim Carroll said about being authentic in every moment and not settling for an overall mood - a mistake all too easy to make in relation to the exit of Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Carroll's magical all-male production at Shakespeare's Globe, another production which must rank among a different top five - best in theatre - didn't make that mistake either.

That may be what makes Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding tick, too. Its adults are deeply f*****-up and intermittently vile to each other, and if their children aren't the same, they will be, given parents like these. And yet, they're all human and there's real love in there. Again, the ensemble is compelling; it's so good to see Nicole Kidman as a volatile narcissist (pictured above with Zane Pais as her son Claude), a real character rather than the period-costume waxwork she's too often asked to be, and Jennifer Jason Leigh (below right) mostly still rather than mannered and twitchy as Margot's sister, and the big laughs come from Jack Black as the Leigh character's unsuitable-but-really-quite-bright-until-he-goes-beyond-the-pale future husband.

In looking for pictures I did a double take when I came across one where  Nicole's character gets stuck up a tree and the caption above reads 'The Hunt for the Worst Movie of All Time'. But I enjoyed reading the reasoning behind that - a rant against the obsession with bourgeois angsts - and you might too, but don't let it put you off a rare glimpse of life as some of us know it. The Squid and the Whale, Margot's predecessor, is likewise superbly cast, and runs along similar lines about parental irresponsibility. Henry James might have approved of both, if slightly startled by the preoccupation with young-adolescent sexuality.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Kikkas and Rouvali: two Nordic masters

Last Thursday I only just had time to pop in to the Estonian Embassy in South Kensington for the launch of Kaupo Kikkas's Treescape exhibition - or rather half of it, since the whole couldn't be housed in the two rooms. Here he is in the centre surrounded by Estonian friends and friends of Estonia (I am, ostensibly nerdily but rather more tongue-in-cheek, displaying my Pärnu Festival bag):

And then I hopped on my bike and only just made it in time for Finn Santtu-Mattias Rouvali's first concert as co-Principal Guest Conductor (with the equally superlative Jakub Hrůša) of the Philharmonia. My photo of him in his conductor's room at the Gothenburg Concert Hall back in September (and a perspective on his Sibelius Kullervo here).

Certainly I'd put these two on the highest artistic level. Kaupo is one of the few who have you answering the perennial 'is photography art?' question with a passionate 'yes' (the contrast I would make might be with the excellent photographs taken by the Frenchman Jérémie Jung of the Kihnu women which ran at Europe House's 12-Star Gallery - superior documentation).

Indeed, the somewhat periphrastic description 'visual artist' fits Kaupo better than 'photographer'. He takes the best shots of classical musicians I know, but this was on a different level. I'd already seen the PDF of what should, must, be a proper book of his Estonian tree photos, but encountering them on the bright white walls of the Embassy in full symmetrical compositions - in two cases, the big image flanked by icon-like photos encased in wood - was something else altogether.

I should reproduce at least part of his accompanying mini-essay, which begins by declaring that he can find no words for what he feels about trees, saying it with a camera instead. He continues:

I am not a tree-hugger, an esoteric or particularly religious, but when I'm standing in the forest, I always get this indefinable feeling and the desire to describe it. I have been aided a lot by the writings of Hermann Hesse [see here, glorious] and Valdur Mikita, or perhaps not the texts themselves but the authors' desire to describe a feeling that cannot be described.

[Writing about his 'great love' of old houses and fishing sheds':] I have also used...wood in my work - in the first hundred years the tree matured, the next hundred years it spent as part of a wall and now that that building has decayed and nature has taken over again, I picked up the old wood and gave it a role in my own story.

In order to stress what is important and to remove as much of the natural environment from the picture as possible, I have chosen the classical black and white medium. The pictures have a lot of texture and patterned dynamics accompanied with several double exposures.

So far I can only gloze superficially - I need to go back and see the pictures without the social context in which I half-glimpsed them last week. But I do know that this chimes with my own tree-love, the reading of Mabey, Deakin, MacFarlane, Picton-Turbervill the Younger et al. Anyway, here below are two of my favourite women, multitaskers extraordinaires but first and foremost a bassoonist and a pianist, Tea Tuhkur and Sophia Rahman, at the table nearest to the camera listening to Kaupo's speech last week. The wonderful Kersti Kirs just behind them; many of the other folk I don't know.

Rouvali's Thursday territory, on the other hand, was almost too known, with the exception of Kabalevsky's Colas Breugnon Overture, an opening glass of champagne which has the right to be called the Soviet Candide or Till Eulenspiegel and which I know from recordings but had never heard in the concert hall before. Rachmaninov's Paganini Rhapsody had much more interest in the orchestra - the typical Rouvali skill of suspending a phrase in mid-air captured by the cor anglais at the end of the variation just before the first appearance of the Dies Irae - than in Denis Kozhukhin's clear but deadpan delivery: no fantasy or flight there.

What was most exciting wasn't so much the superb performance of the Musorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition but the way it brought the many teenage school or undergraduate groups in the hall to their feet the minute 'The Great Gate of Kiev' had finished resounding. Rouvali (pictured above by another KK, a Finnish compatriot of Rouvali, I guess, Kaapo Kamu) is one of those conductors, like Jurowski, where what you see is what you get. His hand gestures are both beautiful - especially the circular movements - and meaningful; the rest of him dances. No wonder 'Tuileries' and 'The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks' scintillated. And this seemed like a different Philharmonia string group from the impassive lot which went along with Salonen's faceless Sibelius the previous week: the unison power of 'Bydlo' and 'Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle' was astonishing. So yes, what was already confirmed in Gothenburg had extra impact here given a harder-to-impress London orchestra. Great things ahead.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Puccini's Café Momus at the Frontline Club

...where the food is possibly better. One of the delights of hosting my Opera in Depth course at the marvellous Frontline is that we can choose our menu from the downstairs restaurant, open to the public, and consume it in the comfort of the club room, with maître d' Tomas, for whom nothing is too much trouble, to tend to our every need. Pictured above: Simona Mihai's Musetta presents her knickers to Mariusz Kwiecień's Marcello at Covent Garden, image by Catherine Ashmore.

Anyway, it's finally time for the new 'academic year', starting later than usual this time - on Monday afternoon, the 9th, to be precise, the first term then running straight through to before Christmas. Richard Jones's Royal Opera production of Puccini's La bohème has been in full spate for some time now, but I chose to spend five weeks on it (again!) because he's vouchsafed to come and talk to us (also again, after fascinating chats on Die Meistersinger, Gloriana, Der Rosenkavalier and Boris Godunov). I hope he still will since in my Arts Desk review, I had to be honest and say that, in the first-cast realisation at least, this didn't strike me as one of his more unusual shows. I know he believes, as any director with any sense should, that Puccini and his librettist leave the minutes details for the scenario and you shouldn't mess with that. But there were some less than fully realised characterisations in the first run, and the Momus act was - again, very surprisingly - a bit of a mess. Troubles with lack of lighting rehearsals, I understand, didn't help.

My second choice in the Autumn term, Musorgsky's Khovanshchina, was made on the strength of realising for the first time what a total masterpiece Shostakovich's performing version is, thanks to Semyon Bychkov's magnificent Proms performance, with a superb cast - possibly my favourite Prom of the year, though it's been very hard to choose (Bychkov pictured above at that Prom by the peerless Chris Christodoulou - don't miss his annual gallery of conductors in action on The Arts Desk). Students can see the WNO production if they're prepared to travel.

Spring operas: the first of four January Ring instalments to tie in with Jurowski's Wagner cycle at the Royal Festival Hall. Das Rheingold will take us into February, and then - finally! - I get to cover Janáček's From the House of the Dead since it's being staged at the Royal Opera for the first time (WNO also has a production coming soon). Best news of all is that Mark Wigglesworth is to conduct in place of the capricious Teodor Currentzis, so we can (I hope) welcome Mark back quicker than we expected.

Summer will see plenty of moonshine in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Strauss's Salome, for which I have renewed appetite having been very impressed by the theatrical room devoted to it, and Dresden in 1905, in the Victoria & Albert Museum's stunning exhibition Opera: Passion, Power and Politics. There's the room below, picture courtesy of the V&A, but read my review on The Arts Desk today to find out why everything works.

It's been a long time away from lecturing, but to warm up I got to talk to members of the Art Fund at the Royal Over-Seas League last night. This was in connection with the V&A show, but by the time I had to give a clear theme, the details of the exhibition weren't clear. So I thought a general look at how opera swung from strict dramatic principles to display, and back and forth until the end of the 19th century, would allow me to sneak in something of Strauss's Capriccio before homing in on the difference between two Otellos: Rossini's in 1816, and Verdi's in 1887: from bel canto to pure music-theatre. The two scene settings, Willow Songs with Prayers and very different treatments of the fatal last encounter between Otello and Desdemona followed by Otello's suicide would permit some interesting comparisons - not always to Rossini's detriment, though Verdi's penultimate opera is, as we rediscovered with awe during our five weeks on it for Opera in Depth, the perfect masterpiece.

This Opera Rara set is a good resource - negatively for wicked entertainment, showing how not to depend on a tenor who may have the very high notes needed for the daft role of Rodrigo but no musicality whatsoever, positively for Bruce Ford and Elizabeth Futral, and for including an appendix which even gives us the later lieto fine or happy ending drawn from a duet and an ensemble in other Rossini operas.

Needless to say there wasn't nearly enough time to play all the examples I'd intended, but it was crucial to end with the very fine filming of Elijah Moshinsky's Royal Opera Otello with Domingo and Kiri. Not possible to go and see Kaufmann when we were focusing on Domingo on the opera course earlier this summer - and it's very hard for anyone to come anywhere near to Domingo, who simply owned the part.

As I think audiences on both occasions very much agreed. This is the only Otello you'll ever want on DVD, though the choice is wide indeed when it comes to CD (Toscanini, Levine, Karajan with Vickers and Freni, live Carlos Kleiber for starters).

If you're still interested in attending the Opera in Depth course either this term or later, do drop me a note by way of a comment here - I won't publish it, and if you leave me your e-mail, I'll respond.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Around a Swedish lake

Before the electrifying experience of Santtu-Matias Rouvali's first official concert as Principal Conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra - quasi-review here, interview just up on The Arts Desk - I spent just under 24 hours north of the city, in Dalsland at the lakeside home of my friend Lucy and her partner Mats. Plus two cats, one who usually flees but allowed me to get close, Fatty, pictured here at the back door.

They've more or less created a typical red house around the shell of an old building, and renovated the stuga or cottage next door as a perfect holiday home (rates soon to be available on request, if you want perfect peace and quiet, plus steps down for your morning swim and a terrace just above).

The lake, Örsjön, has mostly farmland on one side and wooded hills on the other, We drove round to one of two attractive mills, at Gunvarbyn -

and walked up a path behind it.

All walking routes are free-access in Sweden, though the inhabitants of any house you pass might stare more suspiciously than in the UK. This little settlement had recreated a folksy arrangement outside.

Our route took us through woods, with one red autumnal acer in marked contrast to the conifers

and abundant mushrooms. As usual my identification of the browny-greys is fruitless - it was reassuring a couple of years ago, on sending him some of my pictures of fungi in the Göljådalen valley of  Fulufjället national partk in mid-Sweden, to be told by a mycologist at Kew that one would need to provide more than just a photo for correct identification - but this looks more like a Brittlegill, or at least of the group Russula, than a Fly Agaric

while the only correspondent to this phallic specimen is a Shaggy Inkcap

and this is surely a Goblet Waxcap, which like the Brittlegill seems to have had a nibble taken out of it (and discarded beneath).

Lichen foregrounding trees

as well as on them

could be equally spectacular, and black skies over Backen on the opposite shore backgrounded the sunlit shoreline

though it augured inevitable rain, so having reached our destination

we retraced our steps rather than taking the long route back

and having passed this splendid complement of mossy roof and tree

reached the car as it started to pelt. My one great wish was to see an elk, and Lucy had said that one was most likely to appear in the rain. Sure enough, as she drove, a young elk ran alongside the car and darted into the greenery. So you'll have to take my word for it, corroborated by Lucy, that I saw one.

Next morning I took the dip already registered briefly in the Rouvali post - here's a more distant record, courtesy of Lucy -

and toured the grounds.

After an obligatory group shot in the porch,

Lucy drove us to Mellerud to catch the train back to Gothenburg via an old church with splendid iron grave-markers

and, typically, a detached tower

as well as the shores of western Europe's largest lake, Vänern.

Fungi grew in abundance on the greensward in front of the sands.

The spaciousness of what looked like an open sea, looking across to a wooded island, felt grand and Sibelian, with trees reflected in the water.

though the Sibelius piece with which I want to end, from one of the most individual sets in his huge output of solo piano music, is a hymn to a tree - 'The Spruce' ('Granen'), Op. 75 No. 5. Important to get that space in the wistful tenorial melodic line between upper and lower parts, and I like this performance by Kazumasa Matsumoto. There's a splendid new disc of Sibelius piano music from Leif Ove Andsnes which I'm about to review; the only pity is that it doesn't include all the 'tree pieces' of Op. 75.