Offenbach at 200

Once upon a time, far too many years ago, there was a boy. He was eleven years old, and had just started high school. There, he met a music teacher – one of those teachers destined to inspire many of the pupils who came into contact with him. A whole new world of classical music suddenly opened up to the boy and he was eager to explore it.

He didn’t hear classical music at home, and so the boy went to the local library and started borrowing records from their collection. But he was a novice. He had no idea what he “should” be listening to, what music was part of the “canon” and what music was obscure. So, he borrowed “Attila” by Verdi, with no idea that most people had never heard of it and would have probably directed him to “Rigoletto” or “La Traviata” instead. He borrowed Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony because he got it mixed up with Beethoven’s. But his naivety regarding the music he was eager to explore meant he had no bias. No-one had told him what was good, or what was bad, what was serious, what was important, or what was trivial.

Someone else had inspired the boy as well. When he had been younger, around seven, he had met an elderly lady who lived close by and they had become friends. Each week, he would go there and they would play board games or card games, maybe watch a classic film on the TV, drink lots of tea, and eat lots of cake. Lots. And they would read books together. One of those books, about the same time the boy was expanding his musical horizons, was “Robinson Crusoe.”

One day, he was in the library, looking for a new musical work to fall in love with, and there on the shelf he spotted a boxed set of records, with a yellow cover and a title emblazoned across it: “Robinson Crusoe” by Jacques Offenbach. He had no idea that there had been an opera made out of the story – and had even less idea that most other people were unaware of it, too. He had no prior knowledge of Offenbach, either. He borrowed the records, went home with them tucked under his arm, and fell in love.

Just as with the music teacher and the elderly neighbour (who the boy continued to visit several times a week for fifteen years until she passed away, and he still misses her more than could be imagined), there was an instant connection. Sometimes these things cannot be explained. Not only was there the music on the records in that boxed set, but also the story in the booklet that came with it, about how neglected the work had been over the years, how it had been carefully reconstructed for the recording, and the detective work that had gone into making that happen. It was a very romantic story for a twelve-year-old to come across.

There might have been notices on many of his records that “home taping is killing music,” but he made a copy of “Robinson Crusoe” all the same, and he borrowed it from the library as many times as he could. In fact, he borrowed it so many times that, after several years, the library agreed to sell the set to him. After all, nobody else could take it out because he had it all the time. A few weeks later, a huge fire destroyed the library, and the boy’s beloved “Robinson Crusoe” would have been lost forever had he not now owned it.

The finale of Act II of Robinson Crusoe. Just sublime from the 2:00 mark

That was a long time ago, and the boy grew up and became me. I spent my teens trying to find more Offenbach, although there wasn’t much to find on the shelves of the record shops here in Norwich. I managed to find the Nicolai Gedda recording of “The Tales of Hoffmann,” and on my first or second visit to London (memory gets foggy now) I went into the giant HMV on Oxford Street (RIP) and found the Sadler’s Wells version of “Orpheus in the Underworld” from the 1960s. Then there was the Ofra Harnoy recording of the cello concerto (long before it was pieced back together into a work twice the length of that recording) bought on cassette tape, and a couple of albums of overtures found in a much-missed second-hand classical and jazz music shop called Ives Records – where I spent much of my misspent youth and spent even more of my pocket money.

As time went on, I started earnestly collecting all kinds of classical music – and other genres too, particularly jazz – and now I’m a middle-aged man with a collection of CDs that runs into the thousands. But if you don’t drink or smoke, what are you going to do with your money?! I have fallen in love with other composers or other works over the years, but no classical music has given me the joy that Offenbach has. Offenbach: the one who has spent much of the last two centuries being ridiculed or classed as too lightweight, has brightened up my often rather depressing life more than he could possibly imagine.

This week, on June 20th, my beloved Jacques will be celebrating his 200th birthday. And somewhat unsurprisingly, there have been a fair few releases on CD to celebrate the anniversary. He is loved after all. There have been new discs of relatively obscure arias, some famous and not so famous overtures, three discs of piano music, an album of cello music, and a rather scrumptious thirty disc set from Warner collecting together classic recordings of the best-known works with a few lesser-known ones thrown in for good measure. The English National Opera are performing “Orpheus in the Underworld” in the autumn and, best of all, I finally got to see my beloved “Robinson Crusoe” performed at the Royal College of Music in a wonderful production that was well worth that twenty-five year wait. Sadly, the BBC Proms have decided to ignore the anniversary, which seems somewhat bizarre – and unforgivable. Perhaps nobody told them.

Nicolai Gedda sings “Il était une fois à la cour d’Eisenach”

Offenbach has managed to put a smile on my face during some very dark times, and no doubt will continue to do so in the coming years. It is just a pity that people still seem less than willing to investigate his remarkable legacy – and because of what? A reputation? Sheer musical snobbery? I fear it’s the latter, I really do. There is nothing so utterly pointless as musical snobbery. I despise it more and more as the years pass. There is nothing wrong with enjoying music, letting it cheer you, letting it thrill you, or invigorate you, or letting it make you laugh.

So, in order to celebrate Offenbach’s birthday, why not get hold of the sparkling, vibrant new recording of the cello concerto by Edgar Moreau? It’s quite something. Or how about the delicious album of soprano arias from operas well-known and obscure by Jodie Devos? If you want to get even more obscure, try the Brilliant Classics album of songs by Offenbach entitled “Melodies” – it’s more interesting than the title!

Or perhaps you could treat yourself to that Sadler’s Wells version of Orpheus I bought in London many years ago, or grab yourself “The Tales of Hoffmann” – and then read the detective story about how that opera’s been reconstructed. Offenbach’s operas seems to have so many detective stories attached to them. Tales of researchers travelling the globe and sifting through archives to put all the pieces of his operas back together again. Is that actually why all three of the non-fiction books I have written are, in essence, works of detection? Perhaps that romanticised view of putting “Robinson Crusoe” back together that I read when I was twelve actually influenced my own research in adult life without me realising it.

And of course, maybe – just maybe – you could discover for yourself “Robinson Crusoe,” still available (on CD now) from the Opera Rara label.

The last few minutes of Offenbach’s Cello Concerto.

I would say at this point, let’s “raise a glass” to the wonderful Offenbach on his 200th birthday on Thursday, but I don’t drink. In all honesty, I doubt Offenbach would have approved of me raising a cup of tea to celebrate his bicentennial, but it will have to do. Perhaps he’ll see the discs of his work on my shelves, or hear them in my CD player and forgive me. I hope so.

So, happy birthday, Jacques. And thank you.

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Doris Day

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Doris Day, who passed away this weekend, had the rather unusual position of being one of the most beloved, and yet underrated, acting and singing stars of the Twentieth Century.

She is remembered first and foremost by many as the lead in the fluffy romantic comedies of the late 1950s and early 1960s that paired her with Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, and James Garner.  But those films were just the tip of the iceberg of her achievements.  Well-made and well-performed though they are, they give little indication of what a great actress Doris Day really could be when she was given material worthy of her talents.  Many will cite as one of her best the film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, The Man Who Knew Too Much, in which she introduced the hit song Que Sera Sera – but even that doesn’t contain a performance as good as Love Me or Leave Me, Young Man with a Horn, or Julie.  And she wasn’t afraid of courting controversy such as in 1951’s Storm Warning, a Warner Bros social conscience film primarily about the KKK, a movie with a final reel that is still shocking today, and one can only wonder how it got past the censors at the time.   And it’s worth reminding ourselves of just how popular she was on the screen – she won the Laurel award for top female star every single year between 1957 and 1964 inclusive.

But it is her musical achievements that seem forgotten partly thanks to her on-screen stardom.   Her string of albums for Columbia from the late 1940s through to the mid-1960s contained mostly first-class renditions of songs from the Great American Songbook.  She wasn’t always paired with arrangers of the quality used by the like of Sinatra, but her thoughtful interpretations of the material nearly always made one forget that.  Every word was crystal clear, and if any female songstress was going to compete with Frank Sinatra when it came to the intelligent reading of lyrics, then it was Doris Day.  Take a look at Mean to Me from Love Me Or Leave Me, as she sings the song with her abusive husband (James Cagney) in the night-club audience.  No histrionics, very little volume, just absolute perfection.

Her best known hits were pure pop, but her best recordings found her adding jazz inflections into her interpretations.  What Every Girl Should Know is an album with a horrible title and cringe-worthy liner notes, but try and find a better vocal rendition of Mood Indigo by Duke Ellington than the one tucked away on that little-known album.

A year or so after that was recorded, she finally got the chance to do a full-blooded jazz album, paired with pianist Andre Previn (who we have also lost this year).  It was called simply “Duet,” and it remains one of the best jazz vocal albums ever recorded, and how it didn’t get recognised at the Grammy’s that year is anybody’s guess.  Day and Previn proved to be a dream team, complimenting each other beautifully, and while the album concentrated mostly on ballads, the up-beat jazz numbers were a delight.  The version of Close Your Eyes that opens the album may well be the very best recording of Day’s career, and her treatment of Fools Rush In is simply stunning.

Sadly, though, Duet wasn’t the commercial success that might have been hoped for, and Day’s later albums, while good, never really hit the mark in the same way as the pre-Duet album had done.  There was an awful religious album, a Christmas album, a kids album – pretty much everything but the albums of great standards that she should have been singing.   In 1965, she recorded Sentimental Journey, an album of songs associated with her big band days of the 1940s, and that rather apt release which took everything back to where it started for Day, was her final album release for three decades.  In 1994, a set of songs recorded in 1967 was released, and in 2011 came My Heart, a hugely successful issue of some songs that she had (mostly) recorded for her TV series in the 1980s when Day was in her mid-60s.   Any notion that she might have retired in the 1960s because of a failing voice was blown out of the water with this album, with Day (aged 89) the oldest person to have a hit album in the UK charts with a record of new material.

Sadly missing from that album was her wonderful 1985 reunion with the band of Les Brown, with whom she had worked in the mid-1940s.   One watches the video and wonders whether there really is something in those eyes that says “I’ve missed this.”  Whether or not she had  missed it, we shall never know – but one thing is for certain: we had missed her.  Her retirement from music in the 1960s deprived the world of so many more wonderful albums that, no doubt, we would still be listening to today.

But the 1960s had been a changing time in the music industry, especially for artists like Doris Day.  By the end of the decade, Sinatra was announcing his retirement, Ella Fitzgerald was without a stable recording contract, Bobby Darin had become “Bob” and was recording protest songs, Julie London and Jo Stafford had both effectively retired, and many jazz musicians who had made their mark in the 1930s and 1940s were musically homeless until Norman Granz came to their rescue with the Pablo label in the 1970s.

Despite attempts to lure Doris Day out of retirement, she couldn’t be tempted.  Only a short-lived, low-budget TV show entitled Doris Day’s Best Friends got her back on screen, where she was visited by human friends, but mostly it was about sharing her canine ones.

And now, aged 97, she has passed away.  Tributes are pouring in, as they should.  No doubt her films will be shown on TV in the coming week from Calamity Jane through to A Touch of Mink and maybe even a thriller like Midnight Lace.  Move Over Darlin’ and other hits will be played on the easy listening radio stations.

But take time out, if you can, to dig that bit deeper and listen to some of what I think was probably the real Doris Day – the superlative singer of jazz ballads both on screen and on record.  And, while you go hunting, here’s Doris in 1975 from the second of her two TV specials singing perhaps one of the most fitting songs for this occasion.  This was her final network TV special and a fitting and dignified end to her entertainment career.

Review: The Birth of the Blues (1941)

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The Birth of the Blues should perhaps be called The Birth of Jazz, or perhaps even more appropriately, The Birth of Jazz According to Hollywood.  If you want to know just why this film from 1941 is problematic in 2019, just check out the last sixty seconds, where the audience is informed that Louis Armstrong learned jazz from an all-white, middle-class jazz band.  Armstrong appears (for two seconds, literally) in a montage of the great jazz musicians of the age, of which only he and Duke Ellington are African American.  The really great jazz musicians of the early 1940s were apparently Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Paul Whiteman, and George Gershwin.

The films charts the rise to fame of a group of jazz musicians headed by Bing Crosby.  It is a loose re-telling of the story of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, whose claim to fame were that they were the first group to record jazz, back in 1917.  This claim to fame is pretty much glossed over in the film, which seems a little odd considering it should perhaps be the climax of it.  Instead, the film concentrates on how the group popularised jazz in New Orleans polite society and how they worked to take their new music to the rest of America.

It’s hard to know whether to be completely offended by the whole endeavour, or to allow yourself to be charmed by the effortless performances by Bing Crosby and Mary Martin.  But for every good performance, the film presents us with a racial stereotype or a rewriting of history.  Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising, but this movie seems to be more problematic than most from the period, if only due to its endless endeavour to whitewash history.  There are the occasional moments when the film tells us that African Americans might just have had something to do with the beginnings of jazz – in the rather cute prologue (see below) and where Eddie “Rochester” Anderson teaches Mary Martin how to jazz up a Tin Pan Alley number – but they are few and far between.

Musically speaking, many of the songs are Tin Pan Alley numbers rather that jazz as such, but Bing Crosby and Mary Martin sing beautifully and work very well together on screen.  However, the best number in the film is a wonderfully staged and arranged St. Louis Blues, sung by Ruby Elzy and a chorus. Unfortunately the sequence from the film is not on YouTube, but a performance from a radio appearance from the time is, although it is not as good:

The current DVD of the film runs around eight minutes shorter than the given run time on the internet, and so it may be possible that it is slightly edited for whatever reason.  Picture and sound are very good.  The film was released in the UK on DVD as a double bill with Blue Skies.

BREAKING POINT/BREAKING DOWN

In 2013, I published a young adult novel about homophobic bullying in schools. Breaking Point told the story not just from the point of the victim, but also of the bullies and a teacher. On the initial free download period for the Kindle, it was downloaded more than 7,000 times and user reviews were largely positive.

A few years later, I started work on a sequel which, for various reasons, kept getting put to one side. I finally finished the first draft in the middle of last year, and Breaking Down has now been released in Kindle and paperback editions alongside a revised version of Breaking Point. The revised Breaking Point has a somewhat expanded text, but the narrative is largely the same, although it deviated slightly in the last couple of chapters.

In Breaking Point, James Marsh is sixteen years old and in his final year of high school. He has been suffering from bullying for months at the hands of Jason Mitchell and his friends but, as they return to school after the Easter break, Jason takes his tormenting to a whole new level. As James struggles to cope, a teacher at the school finds his hands tied when he attempts to help him, Jason spirals out of control, and a former friend of James tries to make amends.

In Breaking Down, the sequel, James is about to leave home to go to university, knowing that it might signal the end of his relationship with Paul. Jason has been trying to make amends for what he did at school, but his past is coming back to haunt him. And teacher Andrew Green is struggling with his mental health due to the stress of the events of two years earlier, with his boyfriend at a loss on how to help him. They all learn to realise that the effects of school bullying will be with them for life – whether victim, bully, or teacher.

The following are the links to the books:

Breaking Point
Breaking Down

Royal College of Music: Robinson Crusoe (Review)

NB. The Royal College of Music are presenting this Offenbach opera with alternating casts. This review refers to the performance of Friday March 15, 2019.

Sometimes we wait for so long for something to happen that, when it does, we approach it with trepidation. I fell in love with Offenbach’s Robinson Crusoe about thirty or so years ago when I was about fourteen. I borrowed the Opera Rara recording from my local library and fell in love with it. I would like to put into words why this happened, but sometimes it it simply is not possible. Things happen. The recording (the only recording, as it happens) was out of print at the time, and this was long before being able to track such things down with eBay, and so I eventually borrowed the set so many times from the library that they told me to keep it. The next week, the library burned down. Life can be strange.

Sadly, Robinson Crusoe is performed rarely, but that meant that travelling to see the Royal College of Music production in Offenbach’s 200th birthday year was a must, despite the problems that I have with travelling these days. The biggest question was whether my beloved Crusoe would be what I hoped for in a fully-staged live performance. I knew in advance that Don White’s superb English version was being used, which was a good sign. I needn’t have worried.

Crusoe sits in a rather unique place within Offenbach’s works. Most of Offenbach’s operettas are a series of short numbers of two or three minutes linked by often rather extended sequences of dialogue (which can be very tiresome on recordings). At the other end of the scale are the “grand” operas The Tales of Hoffmann and Die Rheinnixen.   Crusoe sits somewhere in between – the couplets, can-cans and waltzes of the operettas are all present and correct (along with farcical comedy at times), but there are other moments that are deadly serious, as well as lengthy arias and love duets. Straddling this slightly uncomfortable neither-one-thing-or-another position can no doubt be difficult, but the RCM handled it with ease – and the young voices are a huge benefit in this regard.

The opening act takes place in the sitting room of the Crusoe’s home, with Robinson planning to run away to sea. The current production had the rather novel idea of having the sitting room as a room-sized box in the centre of the stage. There were pros and cons with this – it conveys to the audience the way that Robinson feels confined at home, but the confined space does feel a little like an over-used gimmick (clever though it is) by the end of the first act. From a musical point, the audience is put at ease with a fine rendition of the overture (which never seems to crop up on Offenbach Overture CDs), before the conservative Crusoe family is revealed as Sir William reads from the Bible.

I assumed at the beginning of the evening as the vocals began that I would be writing that Timothy Edlin’s performance as Sir William would be one of the highlights of the evening, but it actually set the standard for the rest of the evening with fine performances from all, and everyone fitted the roles extremely well. This first musical section soon tells us that Crusoe is not a light and fluffy operetta – around twenty minutes of singing take place before there is any spoken dialogue. Holly-Marie Bingham was superb as the port-swigging Lady Crusoe, and Judith Lozano sings Edwige’s aria “I’m Not In Love” really quite beautifully (again, another part of the opera that should be well-known, a lovely piece of music). Katy Thomson is great fun as Suzanne the maid who happily tells us of the revenge she has taken in the past to men who have left her (with some surreal burlesque thrown in!), and Guy Elliott (or Benedict Cumberbatch, I’m not sure which) has great fun with his comic song that lightens the mood towards the end of the act.

Robinson Crusoe was cut heavily around the time it was first performed in 1867, but most of the lost music was restored during the 1970s for the Opera Rara recordings and most subsequent performances. Unless I was mistaken, there were a couple of cuts made to the restored score in the first act – the first being the second verse of the rather tedious “Togetherness” song (not a great loss, in all honesty), but the second was (unless I was mistaken) a small part of the love duet between Robinson and Edwige, which made the end of the first section end rather abruptly – and, in all honesty, if we’re going to sit there for well over three hours, cutting two minutes of music ain’t going to make much difference!

The second act is in two scenes, the first being totally taken up by Glen Cunningham’s Robinson and Lauren Joyanne Morris’s take on Man Friday. Cunningham really comes into his own here – alone on the stage for the first six minutes or so, delivering the opening aria of the act, and changing character from the rather naive young man of the opening act to an almost father-like figure towards Friday, which is all handled extremely well. Robinson’s costume for the island scenes is a little…unusual – rather like a pair of pyjamas that have grown fur, or if you are of a certain age, he does rather start to resemble Bungle from Rainbow with all that facial hair and the fur suit, and I hope for Mr Cunningham’s sake his beard doesn’t take on a life of its own again during the next performance: no performer likes a flapping moustache (been there, done that!).

Rather oddly, seemingly in a nod to political correctness or, as the programme note suggests, “cultural appropriation,” the word “Master” is removed entirely from the opera when Friday is talking to Robinson and is replaced by “Crusoe.” While this may have been done with the best intentions, the opera is set in the 1800s when Friday would have probably called Robinson “Master” – and if they were in a friend relationship instead, surely she would call him by his first name and not his surname (but presumably “Robinson” has too many syllables to fit the music!). Bearing this sensitivity to the word “master” in mind, it then seems doubly odd that Friday, a part generally played by a non-white singer is here played by a caucasian – and played very well, I might add – but given the recent furore over whitewashing (remember West Side Story at the Proms last year), I would think this was more of a sensitive issue than the word “master!” It would be interesting to find out the thinking behind these various decisions – and, of course, 99% of the audience would not be aware of the change to the wording in the libretto.

The first scene of the second act contains some really lovely music, most notably the lengthy duet between Robinson and Friday, but dramatically the scene doesn’t really go anywhere – something that is less noticeable on a recording. Conversely, much happens in the second scene of Act II, and it is probably the highlight of the whole opera (both on CD and on stage). Here we get a chorus of waltzing and can-canning (not at the same time) cannibals, amongst other things. Rhys James Batt is extremely good as Jim Cocks, the Bristolian who ran away to sea ten years earlier but is now the cannibals’ chef! A gifted comedian with great stage presence, he manages to perform both uproariously funny elements of his part with the more serious ones. Toby and Suzanne’s lengthy duet is great fun (and the dancing cannibals is a lovely and unexpected touch), and Juliet Lozano takes on and conquers with panache the stunning waltz song which is the only relatively well-known number from the entire opera (thanks to a recording by Joan Sutherland). Also of note here is the beautiful ensemble number that takes place just prior to the waltz, which starts with just one person singing (Friday) and then Offenbach adds layer upon layer upon layer, showing just how great a composer he could be when he really set his mind to it.

Sadly, he didn’t set his mind to it very much in Act three. On the Opera Rara recording, it is obvious that, musically, it has little of the ambition or, indeed, charm of the first two acts. One could almost picture Offenbach running behind schedule and producing a few numbers overnight to get the score finished (shades of Arthur Sullivan) – and who would put that past him? After what has come before, it is a very disappointing thirty-five minutes or so from the point of view of the score. The arias for Friday and Edwige are forgettable (although well-performed in the new production), and the “bliss” duet is a mix of bland music with a notably inane lyric: “Yes, this must be what bliss is, bliss is what this is.” Surely Don White could have done better than that?!

A number from the restored score gets the chop here – Suzanne’s (not very musically exciting) song about Man Friday causes all kinds of problems for a 2019 audience: “Coloured skin’s not a sin/God made you, Friday too/And in the end that’s all that counts.” Yikes – and that’s one of the more palatable sections of the lyrics of the number! It’s such a memorable number on the CD that I had forgotten it even existed until I just went to check something else (act three doesn’t get played much!). Clearly, the lyrics are outdated and it’s easy to see why this would be cringeworthy/offensive performed today – but it does reiterate that Friday was written as a non-caucasian character!

But there is good news regarding Offenbach’s rather woeful third act. Somehow, the RCM managed to make far more out of it than I ever thought would be possible. Through a mix of hamming it up and even audience participation (the audience had had two intervals by this point and may well have been slightly imbibed, which helped with the latter element), the cast had everyone on side within minutes – helped along by the still-all-too-relevant quartet where Man Friday watches on as the others tell him “there’s no place like England/As you’ll soon begin/to learn when you get there/if they let you in!” Indeed!

In short, for cast, crew, orchestra (just wait for their wonderful rendition of the Entracte to Act II – again, why isn’t it better known), and Offenbach himself, Robinson Crusoe is a triumph. From the glorious duets and arias through to the pantomime of the third act, it was certainly worth the wait of thirty years to finally see a production and I congratulate all involved. It’s all too easy with a piece such as this to not take the serious bits seriously, but that minefield is well-judged.

One really has to wonder why this piece, and Offenbach in general, is so ignored in the UK. Are we really such a bunch of dull serious opera goers that we can’t have a bloody good time while we’re there more than once in a blue moon? We pay enough to go! There really is so much good music within Crusoe (and many other Offenbach works) and it is a shame that there is only the one recording, and it would be nice to hear one in the original French. A DVD/blu-ray release of a performance would be welcome also (I’d certainly pay good money for a copy of this one) – surely we have more than enough Hoffmann’s to keep us happy for a few years? On the plus side, there has been signs that opera companies are becoming more willing to try out forgotten scores on audiences during the last few years. English Touring Opera are presenting Rossini’s Elisabeth I this year, and gave us Donizetti’s The Wild Man of the West Indies a couple of years back. Even the National G&S Company toured with The Sorcerer last year.

My love of Crusoe remains as strong as it always has been. I may be far more cynical now than when I first heard it, but there are so many wonderful moments in the score that it never fails to put a smile on my face – and Suzanne’s line “what’s the use of dreaming dreams when you know they will never, never come true” is so beautiful and comes at us out of nowhere that those bars alone can still bring me to tears.

Call Me By Your Name (Review)

I watched Call Me By Your Name tonight (a few months after most other people!). It looks very pretty, and certainly works as a very nice advertisement for Northern Italy, but I found it surprisingly disappointing and I didn’t manage to get emotionally involved in the story or empathising with the characters. This wasn’t helped by what seemed like a considerable amount of padding, and I wonder if it might have been better had it been twenty minutes shorter (it runs at two and a quarter hours).

The story about a seventeen year old (ish) teenager who begins a relationship with a research assistant who has come to live with his family for the summer to work with his father in Northern Italy is very slight and seems to go to all the various plot points that you might expect. I should also add that I know a number of research assistants and none of them are facing the prospect of eight weeks of sunning themselves in Italy! Perhaps they should complain.

Arnie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet do very well in their roles, with the latter no doubt destined for great things – and the fact that he makes you start to like a character who transcribes Schoenberg for fun gives an indication of his screen presence. But it is only in the last section of the film that he becomes that likeable, as it is that point he becomes vulnerable. Apparently, there will be a sequel, and may be even a long-running series about these characters, but I’m not going to get too excited.

The film gained some considerable attention, mostly because the two romantic leads were both male. It’s a big step forward for Hollywood in that they produced a whopping two major films with male gay lead characters this year (how did they cope?!), but a film that is a milestone for Hollywood is not anything special for anyone who watches independent or foreign-language films on a regular basis. In truth, France, Germany, Spain and Scandinavia in particular have been making films with gay lead characters literally for decades, better than this, and without trumpeting their “daring” every time such a film is released. It’s just par for the course. I re-watched Les Roseau Sauvages (Andre Techine, 1994) earlier this week and it has considerably more depth and emotional involvement than Call Me By Your Name.

Love Simon, the other Hollywood film of male-male love release this year is another thing altogether and truly is a first in its use of the high school movie format that we have all seen over the last few decades for a gay romance – and it is a more entertaining, and thoroughly likeable, film by far. Hopefully, Love Simon will lead to such things being “normal” in major films. It is, apparently, the 14th highest grossing teen romance since 1980, which demonstrates that teenage audiences have no problem with the subject matter – not that anyone is likely to be shocked by that other than film executives, it seems. But out of Call Me By Your Name and Love Simon, it will be the latter that I will return to. It’s funny, charming and thoroughly engaging whether you’re the intended teen audience or not, and I found little of that in the more self-important watched tonight.

On a final note, the two films contain scenes that are very reminiscent of each other towards the end of their running times. The scene where Simon’s mother talks to him about his sexuality after he has come out has been rightfully applauded, but we get a similar scene between Elio and his father in Call Me By Your Name which is just as well done, if not better. In fact, it is probably the most touching moment within the whole film, and one of the few where I really thought I was getting to know what was going on inside the mind of the characters – but at that point, the film has ten minutes left to run and it all seems just a little too late. Fran Tirado, deputy editor of Out Magazine said of the film, “[it] seemed to be a very long, very beautifully art-directed gay porn, but with not as much sex, or plot.” It’s a quote that seems to sum the film up well.

“With Heart and With Voice” – National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company Review

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For the last two evenings, I have been at the Norwich Theatre Royal watching the National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company’s productions of Trial by Jury, The Sorcerer, and Ruddigore.

It has been rather a long while since I took the time to see some G&S at the theatre, partly because the same old operas get performed time and time again, and sometimes I think I can recite the Modern Major General’s song as reliably as those in the cast.  (Please don’t ask me to; I’m exaggerating).

I was very much “into” G&S when I was a teenager – ah yes, I was that popular kid at school.  In fact, school was to blame as my first school production was of the The Mikado.  It got me investigating the other operas, too, borrowing copies of them from the local library.  And then in 1989, the BBC broadcast the complete G&S on Radio 2 and I dutifully taped them each week and listened to some of them repeatedly.  (As a side note:  Does anyone have copies of these performances?  I would so much like to get hold of them again as they are, bizarrely a key part of my teenage years).  Perhaps understandably as a fifteen year old teenager, the two “supernatural” works grabbed my attention most of all at that time.  However, they were never performed by touring companies coming to Norwich, so the nearest I got were those often-dry TV productions from the early 1980s.   As I grew older, my tastes changed, and G&S got put on the back burner in favour of Elvis, Sinatra, Johnny Cash, and jazz.  And then, this year, I saw that The Sorcerer and Ruddigore are finally being performed in the Theatre Royal, which is literally outside my front door.  Finally seeing them live was an offer I was not going to refuse.  I re-familiarised myself with the music, and then expected to be disappointed.

The Sorcerer was preceded by Trial by Jury as a curtain-raiser last night – although The Sorcerer is quite long enough by itself for an evening’s entertainment, but Trial is always good fun, so who’s complaining?  What is interesting after seeing Ruddigore tonight is that it highlights the problems with The Sorcerer – and I’m not talking about the performance, but the source material – and those problems aren’t apparent when watched separately.

There is probably a good reason why The Sorcerer is not done very much, as there really isn’t a great deal of plot and the characters aren’t particularly likeable on the whole.  And yet the music is often some of the most beautiful in the G&S operas (something I remember from that BBC production from 1989), and luckily most of the best songs are in the first act which, to say the least, has a meandering libretto.   Constance’s “When He Is Here” is a lovely ballad, as is Dr. Daly’s “Time Was When Love and I Were Well Acquainted.”  But the opera doesn’t really come alive until J. W. Wells appears about fifty minutes into the proceedings.

This isn’t really noticed in the current production, which is transported to (I’m estimating) the 1930s.  That in itself is enough to grab our interest while Gilbert finally gets around to providing us with a plot.  The opening chorus, presented to us as a choir rehearsal, is performed with so much zest and energy that it’s hard not to be sucked in.  In fact, it’s true to say that I have rarely seen the chorus in an opera provide as much joy to the audience as the soloists.  They throw themselves so much into their individual characters, over-acting their socks off (intentionally, I might add), that it’s hard not to fall in love with them and wait intently for them to return to the stage, which, I’m pleased to say, they often do in The Sorcerer.  It’s this sense that the performers are having a ball that made the last two evenings so enjoyable.   The soloists also share the same enthusiasm, although, oddly, they have less to work with in their parts than the chorus.  Richard Gauntlett provides us with a spiv of a John Wellington Wells (which works very well), and Ellen Angharad Williams shines as Aline.

Ruddigore is, rather bizarrely, a reversal of The Sorcerer:  the plot comes thick and fast from the very beginning, the main characters are much more interesting, but the male chorus in particular have much less to do – which is a shame as they were great fun on the previous evening.  Seeing the two operas side by side, there’s little doubt that Ruddigore is a much better work on the whole.  Again, I’m talking about the source material here and not the production.  The first half of the production is a lengthy eighty minutes, but it seems to zip along at quite a pace, helped, perhaps by the episodic nature of it and the split into three seamless scenes.  Another big bonus here is that it gets off to a strong start through Gaynor Keeble’s impressive “Sir Rupert Murgatroyd” (what a wonderful voice she has).  And then there comes the huge shock – Bradley Travis who is playing Robin/Ruthven is under fifty!  Actually, under forty.  Possibly under thirty.  Of course that IS the intention, but anyone who has seen G&S in the past will know that the leading male and female roles are often NOT played by age-appropriate cast members.  Robin is meant to be in his twenties, I believe, but on the Malcolm Sergeant recording from the 1960s is played by a 78 year old.  You see where I’m coming from here?  This makes a massive difference to the performance – not least by the amount of physicality that can then be brought to the role – although Travis spends much of the second act writhing around on the floor (as you do).

This youth element is what enlivens these productions more than anything.  When I was singing G&S at an amateur level, I’m sure no-one else was under sixty.  Ian Smith, Chairman of the company, boasts in the programme: “I don’t know of any other Opera Company in Britain that takes as many graduates from the leading Music Colleges as we do.  Young enthusiasts with splendid voices embarking on their professional career in the very safe hands of Gilbert and Sullivan.”  And he is right to boast about this.  Not only is this giving young performers a chance that they otherwise wouldn’t have had, but it also pays dividends for the company in giving the productions more energy and vitality than they otherwise would have had – and if you want proof of that check out the chorus work in Trial/Sorcerer (there are some members of the chorus who grab your attention despite not having a single line of their own) and the young cast of Ruddigore.

Both of these operas must be very difficult for a company on such a tight budget as this one – they almost beg for special effects and clever sets. They don’t get either here (and at one point, The Sorcerer pokes fun at itself over that), but don’t let that put you off.  Also don’t let it put you off that you might not know these particular works.  Ruddigore, in particular, provides the tried and tested G&S formula – indeed, compare the finale to Act I of The Mikado to the finale of Act I of Ruddigore and, dramatically, it’s pretty identical – just replace Katisha with Despard and you’re almost there.   I really do wish that audiences would be more daring with the choices they make – these performances were far from full houses, and it’s such a shame with so much to enjoy.   I hope that this doesn’t mean that the company resorts to bringing us The Mikado and Pirates instead next year, as it’s really nice to see these other works performed.

What you get with these two productions (and I’m guessing the others on the current tour) is a damned good evening of entertainment – and that, really, is exactly what G&S should be about.   I’m not going to pretend that these are the most polished productions you will ever see (although it might be the ONLY production of The Sorcerer you ever see), or that the sets are the most exciting in the world, but that is more than made up for by what else is being offered – fun.  That is what the evening is all about, and these fresh, sometimes intriguing productions, certainly provide that in abundance.

I’d like to make another comment about the programme note from Ian Smith, in which he states the company receives just £21,000 combined in grants and donations compared to the millions of other opera companies centred in London (he mentions the ENO).  We have to start realising the worth of the arts in this country.  Funding has been cut for the arts subjects at university level, there has been discouragement of taking arts subjects at schools, and funding has been cut for companies such as this one.  The government can try to drum it into our heads that we need scientists more than musicians, but there’s not much point in finding cures for deadly diseases if we don’t have music and the arts to enjoy during those extra years we gain by these cures.  And that goes for whatever areas of the arts provide your enjoyment.  Companies such as this HAVE to survive, as do our orchestras, our independent film makers, and so on.  If our country really is going to continue with this hair-brained political suicide, we’re going to need something to take our mind off it – and I very much doubt that most of those spouting the nationalistic twaddle on Twitter have ever seen a single opera written by two of our country’s national institutions in their lives.  And that’s an irony that Gilbert himself might well have appreciated.

I’d like to conclude by saying health has thrown quite a bit of crap my way over the last couple of months – but for six hours this weekend I forgot about it completely and did a great deal of smiling, and what more can you ask of a theatre trip?