Timandra Harkness is a writer whose work has spanned broadsheet journalism and Radio 4 comedy. She performs improvised and stand-up comedy and also hosts public events on serious topics like the future of engineering and scientific experiments on animals. For more detail see her homepage.
It would be very easy indeed to leave the theatre thinking about the plight of soldiers and their families, or the particular evils of specific wars, or the inadequacies of psychiatry. And to provoke such real-life thoughts is one thing the arts can do. But Berg’s Wozzeck asks us to refrain from treating this human tragedy as a case study.
Martinu’s vocal lines have a lightness of touch that makes room for comedy as well as romance and jeopardy. The vocal echo is a recurring motif, adding to the sense of unreality and disorientation. Beauty runs through, among the witty instrumentation and dramatic crescendo
The layers of Craig Lucas’ libretto for Two Boys build a nuanced look at a generation that’s grown up spending its social life onscreen as much as face to face, and at how they’re regarded, often with bafflement and fear, by what Mulhy’s called ‘the analogue generation’. Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg also hinges on a middle-aged character trying to make sense of a changing world.
Though the film, with 21st century eyes, is critical of confusing chimpanzee nature with human nature because of its adverse effects on Nim’s happiness, it does not entirely reject the basis of the failed experiment. As well as criticising human willingness to treat animals as experimental subjects, Project Nim draws implicit parallels between Nim’s behaviour and that of the humans studying him.
How should we view Oberon’s casual intimacy with Puck, sharing cigarettes with him (the ‘magic herb’ which turns lovers’ heads) and involving him in his own very adult relationship with Tytania? Is it just favouritism which carelessly harnesses the powerful emotions of adolescence, or an abusive betrayal of childish trust?
But it’s a night at the opera, not a dialectical analysis of Romantic-into-modern Germany. And as a dramatisation of a distinctly undramatic musical work, it works. Letting the words float on the surface of a powerful drama, instead of having to carry the narrative, takes the pressure off the libretto’s weak points, and lets its more poetic passages fly free.
By the time Fine has finished her furious denunciation of the worst examples of discrimination, unconscious and deliberate, still in action, it does seem ludicrous to look for causes of inequality in girls’ larger corpus callosum, or in boys’ testosterone-bathed parietal lobes.
The ritual of the Grail, unveiling the divine to spiritually restore the knights, has the emotional impact it needs. This is what sustains Amfortas’ father Titurel so far beyond his natural lifespan that he’s a living corpse. As a musical statement of belief in the redemptibility of humankind, it cuts through the despair of Act 1 like a laser.
Don Giovanni is amoral, willing to sacrifice his own loyal manservant to escape punishment. Yet, faced with damnation for his wickedness, he refuses to repent. ‘My fate is in my own hands, I’ve made my choice… repentance is for cowards’. Suddenly there is a whiff of Faust about him.
Mitchell eschews spectacular, supernatural visuals, apart from some lightning in the darkening sky over the sea. The orchestra has a free rein to bring the storms, both emotional and meteorological, to life. But in some ways this makes it harder to accept that the supernatural element is a metaphor, or a dramatic device, to open up the emotional realities. Is Idomeneo deluded, suffering PTSD from the long war?
Or are we supposed to learn that local customs are right in a local context, when the laws of the gods have been transgressed? Or that it’s always the little people who suffer, and somebody should feel bad about that? The ending is deliberately unsettling, but I was left unsure what, exactly, I was being asked to be unsettled about.
The sparseness of the libretto, too, gives the music a sense of purpose and clarity. There’s no singing for the sake of singing, here. Like a well-written play, every line tells, works for that character at that moment. Old Frau Mack has folkish strings to accompany her, but virtuoso melodic lines for her mystical flights of vision and, later, emotion.
If nature in Katya Kabanova is sweet freedom, always out of reach, in The Cunning Little Vixen it is everywhere in all its amoral power. The eponymous little Vixen, caught by the sleepy Forester and taken home as a plaything for his children, never yields to domestication. Even when tied up for biting a tormenting child, her spirit is swinging on a trapeze beneath the moon.
Alexei starts with unrequited love and a social situation that leaves him few options. Babulenka starts with gambling for (whisper it) sheer fun and then loses her fortune almost wilfully to spite her callous relatives. Are these stories not more interesting and more believable than broad-brush comparisons with zoo animals?
Theses have been written about how subversive she is as a character, how her refusal to adopt a conventional role as either seductress or respectable wife is a kind of revolt against social expectations. But if you had a friend who behaved as Lisa does, you would start with a serious talking-to and work your way towards having her sectioned.
Between Mozartian recitative – complete with harpsichord – and lyrical duets and trios, passages that wouldn’t be out of place in a film noir score (or an atonal chamber concert) place the opera firmly in the 20th century. The folktale storyline is echoed by folksong-like tunes and lyrics, and at times the singers address the audience directly, somewhere between Brecht and music hall.
The performances are astonishingly physical, the singers making real contact with each other and performing both comedy and sensuality with confidence. Susanna Andersson, who sings both Venus and Gepopo, chief of the secret police, is outstanding in combining acrobatic movement, masterful comic timing and two coloratura soprano roles.
Getting on for a century old, this piece feels very modern. Partly because the music is neither dusty nor ostentatiously avant-garde, so it hasn’t dated. Partly, too, because it is a classically naturalistic work, in which the details of character and setting show a specific world which is not timeless, but of its time.
This is less the story of a relationship than an exploration of why two people choose it instead of a real relationship. When Rudel’s actual poems are sung in the medieval French, the music takes a turn that evokes the music of that period, full of harsh, primitive harmonies, archaic scales and a note of loss and sadness. These songs are what bind Jaufré and his Countess together.
Flocks of paper birds on long sticks rise and wheel over the garden, and the menacing entrance of Butterfly’s uncle, the Bonze, is accompanied by twirling black ribbons wielded by the black-veiled puppeteer chorus. At times, their ninja-like presence is distracting. Using Bunraku-style puppets can feel pointless. What does it add that a real child could not do?
The music continues to be glorious. The staging is evocative, the visuals epic. But there is no suspense. We know the end of this story, after all. We know it will detonate, there will not be a chain reaction that ignites the atmosphere, Oppenheimer will live to doubt his decisions.
Language, a recurring theme as the generations of the family move from country to country, is both a symbol of identity and an expression of the pragmatism of children, who learn to get along wherever they are.
If there are parallels to be drawn with modern China, they are not morally simple. It’s interesting that the Young Vic has gone for a version of the play in which Shui Ta’s success rests on his heroin empire, in case tobacco doesn’t place him clearly enough beyond today’s moral pale. The child who was rummaging through bins for food is now employed – but the tobacco factory has given him a cough. Which is worse? Which is better?
Someplace around page 822, the rhythm of the close-printed pages having taken over like the rocking of a train along the new-laid tracks going ever westward, as if the weighty tome itself was quite literally pulling her into the future hour by hour, week by week, the reviewer felt the thick texture of the writing start to smother her, like layers of felt, impregnated with exotic perfume by the yabanci kelimeler and ausländischer Ausdrucker slipped self-consciously between the voluptuous swathes of storyline, and wondered whether all this logodaedaly was anything more than an elaborate joke.
Very good indeed. Until page 264. My frank advice to you is – read this book until the top of page 264, then stop. Go away and imagine for yourself what the answer is to Alban’s riddle, the dark secret the family hides. You won’t be wrong: it’s been flagged up pretty well.
The style is pure read-me-standing-up-on-the-tube, don’t-want-to-put-me-down fun. The content is altogether more metaphysical. Phillips asks herself, what if all religions are not equally valid, and wonders what would happen if the one that was literally true turned out to be ancient Greek.
Like most of Anne Tyler’s books, this one is well-observed, the characters are inconsistent in the way that real people are, which makes them believable, and the details that tell the story are small, convincing ones.