Archive for August, 2010

Ancient Macedonia reviewed

August 31, 2010


A water-snake approaches us in Debar (picture by Sue)

Well on the whole I thought that Explore’s Ancient Macedonia tour was pretty good!  I think that the highlights for me were the Macedonian royal tombs at Vergina, The Caucasian Chalk Circle in Macedonian and the bizarre experience of taking pictures of Mount Athos from the boat just because everyone else was.

I certainly enjoyed the experience of visiting Macedonia (the republic).  I was surprised to find how much of a tour entitled ‘Ancient Macedonia’ was taken up with monasteries and icons, and I didn’t really see the point of the time we spent in Bulgaria. I think it would make more sense to start from Thessaloniki and with a visit to the Archaeological and Byzantine Museums, which would give as good a picture of the relationship between the Classical and Byzantine eras and sites (or sights) as one is going to get without a lecture on the subject. Then the monasteries and icons would make more sense.

I did get a bit bored with explanations from people who didn’t know that much about what they were talking about.  One guide was adamant that Greek drama developed from religious ritual, which is the simple and obvious theory but not much held these days.  Another insisted that Dionysus was the ‘god of balance’, without introducing Apollo for him to balance out.

Maybe for an old pedant like me either the Andante Travels offering or the Balkan Heritage Field School might have been more the thing…

HALT for tourists (and others)

August 30, 2010

Elaine our leader

When in Ancient Macedonia our leader Elaine emphasised the need not only to drink lots of water, but also to eat regularly, in order to avoid problems with the heat that made me think of HALT for tourists, especially since people seemed to be getting cross about trivialities.

HALT of course is an acronym for what people who have had substance misuse issues need to avoid:  Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired.

Thessaloniki: this cat watching our table was Hungry

You can see that tourists can easily become HAT (not so much L in an organised group).  And it applies to other groups experiencing…stress…as well:  students are notoriously prone to HLT, while people who’ve had a relationship break-up suffer from ALT and quite possibly H as well if their eating was done with the former partner.

Philippi: these friendly dogs were Hungry and Tired, but not Lonely

Of course, these other people don’t have a ready-made void waiting for them like the ex-substance-misusers, but HALT is a good thing to avoid and it should be quite possible to do so.

Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail (Situation Opera) 1-3 September

August 30, 2010

Situation Opera have sent me an email about their production on Wednesday-Friday of the coming week.  The most complete details I can find are as follows (from Graham Neal’s website):

Situation Opera

Nick Newland conductor

Mozart Die Entführung aus dem Serai

Wednesday 1 September 2010 at 1930
Thursday 2 September 2010 at 1930
Friday 3 September 2010 at 1930

London Irish Centre, 50-52 Camden Square, London. NW1 9XB.

Iris Korfker Konstanze
Karen Richmond Blonde
Graham Neal Belmonte
Henry Deacon Pedrillo
Gareth Rubin Selim
John Milne Osmin

The Situation Opera email says that tickets are £12 (£10 concessions) available by email from .  There’s also a minisite here.  Iris Korfker was certainly jolly good when I saw her before, and this production looks fun (and cheap), and worthy of support.

Ancient Macedonia

August 30, 2010

So this was the ‘Ancient Macedonia’ tour from Explore–taking in (parts of ) Bulgaria, (Former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia, and Greece (Province of Macedonia).

Saturday 14 August

Since it’s an early start tomorrow, I spend the night at the Arora International Hotel.  My Oyster card pays GBP 1-20 for the ‘complimentary’ journey there, and I notice a general disordered lack of signage at the bus station that could be very confusing.  Some foreigners appear unable to comprehend how awful it all is.  The hotel reception staff whine that they ‘need’ to swipe my card for extras, then try to sell me on a taxi to the actual terminal.   My cold and I feel deeply unimpressed.

Sunday 15 August

View from our hotel in Sofia

I wake up at 0500 and get my things together and manage to get the U3 (free this time!) to the bus station and the Heathrow Express (free)  to Terminal 4.  The screen says that I should go to Area E to check in, and there is no sign of Bulgarian Airways there.  I think that this is the excuse I need to turn round and go home, but then I see that check-in is really Area B.  I check in and have an insubstantial breakfast in the ‘Dining Street Restaurant’.

The flight to Sofia is uneventful.  When we get there, our guide is one Elaine (not a local) and she says that Chris and I are sharing.  This surprises me, since I thought I booked a single room.  Anyway.  Chris and I coexist quietly in our room, then go for a walk around Sofia and change some money at a bank.  Then Elaine assembles us and leads us through a very warm evening to the Mehana Izbata.  We eat what we are given.  Sue says I am being uncommunicative.  I say I have a cold and may be about to develop a headache as well.  We go back to the hotel, where it is rather warm.  The combination of the heat and Chris coughing at inopportune moments keeps me awake most of the night.

Monday 16 August

We get on the bus and go into the centre of town.  A local guide called Dani tells us about it.  A friend of mine once said that Bulgaria was Russia writ small–in fact it’s a dreary provincial shithole in Southern Russia writ small.  When we are freed, I wander off nervously and have lunch (seafood risotto, beer) in a place called Bunuel that is not too bad given the pretentious name.

We move off to the accompaniment of a long lecture from Elaine about various things and have some uninspiring formalities in crossing from Bulgaria into Macedonia.  We arrive at the St Johan Osogovski monastery and Elaine says how we should enjoy this spiritual place.

St Johan Osogovski Monastery

At dinner, Avril breathes alcohol on me and says I look like someone called Piers from JAGS.  Back in our cell, Chris has the large bed and I have the small bed.  Chris keeps me awake with snores and choking noises.  I silently extract the earplugs I carefully packed and discover the fucking case is fucking empty.  I decide to speak to Elaine and see what she can do.

Tuesday 17 August

The day begins and I am very much out of sorts.  I go top speak to Elaine–she says I am definitely down as a sharer, she can phone ahead and see if there is an extra room at the next hotel.  We have an almost entirely inedible monastic breakfast before setting off for the Kratovo place, which I don’t see the point of at all.  The important guy shoves us round places and a TV crew (mauve microphone with number 5 on it) pitches up to capture proceedings.

I doze a bit on the journey to Skopje.  When we arrive, there are no extra rooms–Elaine says she will ring ahead to the following place.  After an enforced siesta, we go into town to get a tour from an opinionated Macedonian-American.  The claim that both Macedonia and the US comprised gold foil covering shit was perhaps a little exaggerated, but we  certainly thrilled to the awfulness of the Mother Theresa memorial.

Fortress in Skopje

We spread through a shopping centre looking for an exchange bureau that appears to be open.  We end up resorting to various ATMs, after which I tag along with Jean and Marion–we go to a Spanish-themed place called La Bodeguita del Medio and it turns out OK.  Then on the steps of the Holiday Inn Royston gives Elaine a bollocking about the money-changers being closed.  At the hotel, I sign up for both a chamber concert and The Caucasian Chalk Circle in Ohrid.

Wednesday 18 August

I sleep soundly, aided (in various ways) by the aircon.  We have breakfast and I translate a notice on the door as meaning we won’t get coffee unless we pay for it.  We proceed to the Matka Gorge and get on a boat, and then on to a cave thingy where we frighten some bats after our local guide and boatman fires up the generator.

A cold (underwater) spring at Matka Gorge

Soon we are back in central Skopje.  I find myself behind Chris in a bank queue, and we go over to the Old House Restaurant, as recommended by Elaine.  A nervous Macedonian bloke comes across to talk to us, and tells us about the national question, Macedonian politics, aesthetics, New Zealand (he is sound on New Zealand).  We finally bid him goodbye and I consume liquid refreshments in the New Town, after which I feel refreshed.

In the evening, we set out for the fish restaurant near our hotel and it turns out to be closed.  So we go to the Alexandria restaurant next door.  Since there is no English menu, the waiter and I try to work things out on the basis of my limited understanding of the Macedonian menu and his less limited English.  Avril demands burger and chips.  We all wait a long time.  Avril demands burger and chips again and after she has eaten Mark takes her back to the hotel.  We have a certain amount of fun in sorting the bill out at the end.

Thursday 19 August

I sleep pretty well really.  Nikola and his bus have disappeared and we have a new driver.  We drive to a place called Mavrovo and I sit in a cafe with Janice and Jennifer–I have an espresso and they have chocolate-covered baklava.

Then we drive to a monastery of St John the Baptist, and a pig rooting in the garden is quite interesting.

Pig in monastery garden

Then we drive to a place called Debar–we are detained for some time by the local fuzz so they can mulct the new Nikola for having a cracked windscreen.  We sit in a nice cafe in Debar.  Elaine says that there is no room at the next inn, while I say that I am quite happy with Chris and I can look into the booking process when I get home.

We proceed to Ohrid, and wander round town.  Elaine procures tickets from the festival box office (it seems to be 8 Euro whatever the event) and some of us dine in a place by the lake.  I have Шкампи, which turn out to be prawns, and jolly nice they are too.  Others have a long and fascinating conversation, while I spring into action at the end, plying Jill’s notepad and torch in the gathering doom.

Lake Ohrid in the evening

We go to the St Sofia church for the evening’s concert and wait outside for the evening’s concert.  I advise people to sit in the middle for the best sound.  The Kodalyi Quartet do Haydn 54/1, and they do it very well and make much more of it than the obligatory concert-opening-Haydn that quartets feel obliged to undertake, followed by Schuberrt Op. 125, where I’m not too convinced by the music.  Avril is distracting me by jangling her jangly bracelets, so I move to the front for the Schumann Piano Quintet in the second half.  We are much too close to the players and I really can’t get the different lines to fit together and make music, though I do enjoy the reprise of the scherzo that forms the encore–the quartet play with real Hungarian fire and the Macedonian pianist is not too bad either.

Chris has a good cough at two minutes after midnight.

Friday 20 August

We go round the town under the guidance of an archaeology graduate called Льупчо.

Important church in Ohrid

Then we set out in two boats to cruise around lake Ohrid.  I lose myself in the play of the light on the waves.  Avril asks me about returning to Macedonia and I agree it is a good idea.  The boat trip comes to an end and I visit the archaeological museum, which is rendered a bit enigmatic by the absence of labelling (and of exhibits in some cases).

'The idea of a museum'

The strap of my watch breaks, and I head off to the market near our Hotel Cingo and I get a replacement fitted for 50 dinars.  Emboldened by this I try the same with my shoelaces that have been provoking adverse comment for the past week and after I’ve been directed from shop to stall to stall it’s once again 50 dinars.

Chris and I go to a pizza (etc) place and I have spaghetti carbonara, which is unbearably bland in the absence of pepper.  We proceed to the theatre for some tedious speeches (with translation into English) since it’s the last night of the 50th Ohrid Summer, and Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle (in Macedonian, without translation)–the Brecht apparently won all the prizes in all the categories of the Macedonian drama awards.

Macedonian Brecht

It features a revolving set comprising metal ladder things that seesaw and also forms a platform; different actresses (and one actor) playing the heroine in different scenes; singing along to extracts from Offenbach, Ravel and other music; worthy proletarian activities going on at the same time as the drama; a chalk circle made of cinders; and so on.  I rather enjoy it and think it’s more what Brecht intended than the naturalistic treatment at the National a few years ago.  Then Chris and I blunder into the buffet for important people but of course we’re not scared and merely retreat to the hotel to brief our comrades on the proceedings.

Saturday 21 August

Most people go off early to walk in the Macedonian countryside.  I come down to find hungry Croatians swarming over breakfast.  I try again later and breakfast on some remnants, using the only surviving knife and fork.

View of Lake Ohrid

During the day I make a list of bookshops from the local Yellow Pages in reception and walk around town looking at them.  I discover:

1)  a lack of street names;

2)  a lack of building numbers;

3)  a lack of pavements;

4)  the shops I do find are closed on a Saturday afternoon;

5)  most of then are in fact shops selling children’s things that also carry books;

6)  in no case does the stock I can see make me regret not being able to buy it.

I also visit the bus station, where women flap bits of card offering Apartaman/Соби at me, and taxi drivers propose a ride to Skopje.

In the evening, a party of us proceed to the Dalia restaurant on the lakeside and have a pretty reasonable meal, except that musicians performing next to us inhibit conversation.

Sunday 22 August

We manage to salvage some breakfast from the hungry Croatians, and then set off for Sveti Naum, which turns out to be an overcrowded tourist spot with a religious theme and damned few toilet facilities (I end up using the bus drivers’ bush toilet).  We also go on a rowing-boat trip to observe some more springs.

More springs

Our coach climbs cumberously round hairpin bends to a picnic spot called Korito, where my lunch of bread, sardines, yoghurt and beer makes an impression.  We have another squeaky ascent to the Hotel Molika, and Nikola our driver loudly advises the drivers coming the other way on how to improve their level of performance.

Tour group enjoying a picnic

I attempt one of the trails in the forest, then come back and rest on the bed with my eyes closed.  At dinner, Francis advises me to visit Belgium, since nobody does.  Later on, he ventures an incautious remark about Athens being the furthest place where we could still feel at home.  That certainly provokes a response…

Monday 23 August

We drive to Heraclea.  The sole guardian of the place tells us some facts in the museum, and also overlooking a mosaic allegedly representing Christian cosmogony.

Mosaic at Heraclea

Then we drive to Pella, where there is a very new museum full of people standing around to make sure we don’t do anything wrong.  After that, we visit the site itself, which is certainly large.  In the evening we feel very tired and have dinner in a restaurant in a square in Thessaloniki.

Tuesday 24 August

We have a tour of Thessaloniki to start with–I once had a student from there, who said the place was a shithole but the inhabitants were less likely than other Greeks to sit around with their mouths open waiting for a roast pigeon to fly in.  Chris sees a restaurant he likes the look of in the Upper Town, and I manage to translate about half of the dishes advertised.  We get on the bus and drive to Vergina, where the tombs of the Macedonian kings have been turned into a very impressive museum.  I wander round in the dark inspecting gold wreaths, and think how childish the pagan attempt to keep death at bay with grave-goods and libations.  Man up, Philip of Macedon!–You’ve killed enough people in your time, haven’t you?

Vergina museum exhibit

Back in Thessaloniki, Chris and I go round the Archaeological Museum and the Byzantine Museum, which is certainly very well-designed (as well as being completely empty of other visitors by now).  Then we climb for ever up to the Old Town, where I have French fries and some octopus thing, together with taste-free beer.  I lead the way back to the hotel on the basis of ‘go downhill and bear left’, and eventually we are rewarded with the sight of the welcoming ‘Sex Shop’ sign.

Wednesday 25 August

We arise early and get on the bus clutching our breakfast boxes.  After a useful sleep on the coach, we arrive at Ouranopoli and occupy what are meant to be advantageous seats (under cover) on the boat.  I take pictures of monasteries on Mount Athos.

St Pantaleimon--looks like a Russian monastery to me!

Then back in town I have an infeasible amount of gyros for lunch.  Naida reports that the shopgirls have come here from Latvia, Georgia and so on since the conditions are so bad at home.  I buy a rebetika CD for 6 Euro, and it’s pretty good.

Back in Thessaloniki, they have fixed our aircon (which looks as though it burned out in the time of Alexander the Great).  We go back to Chris’s fave place for some dinner.

Which is the tzatziki and which is the cheese salad?

Thursday 26 August

Roman theatre on Thasos

We are up early and on the bus, then we get a ferry to cross over to the island of Thasos.  Together with Sue and Mark, I climb up to the Roman theatre and the Byzantine fortifications, then I scramble further into the window-hole of the fortifications to photograph the view across the bay; my camera instructs ‘Replace the batteries’, but I manage to take a picture anyway.

View across the bay

I have lunch in a place with the unpromising name of Zorba, and to my surprise I get a very good kleftiko.  The bloke comes out when I have drunk two-thirds of my beer and pours the remainder into a new cold glass.  I don’t try to explain about specific heat capacities.  Then since I’m getting bored with this holiday thing I go into an Internet cafe and spend a rewarding couple of hours there.

So next it’s Kevala and the Hotel Nefeli.  We have a group meal at a fish restaurant called Panos Zefaira where a lot of the dishes on the menu are not available and the waitstaff get rather confused.  I end up with taramasalata followed by calamari, and wonder whether I will in fact retain my stomach contents all night.  As we return to the hotel, the streets are full of Greeks watching an AEK-Dundee match on strategically-positioned screens.

Friday 27 August

We get up early and buy some provisions for lunch before setting off for Philippi.  A guide leads us round and gives explanations of varying reliability while a couple of dogs follow us.  I don’t think they ever get any food from us–they just like company, the way that dogs do.  At the end, Elaine gives me 20 Euro to give to the guide and I fall over.  Then I hide in a patch of shade (also pissing under a nearby rock) and listen to my rebetika CD for an hour or so before rejoining the others.

Byzantine remains at Philippi

We have lunch at nearby Lydia and a Greek who once served 10 years in UK higher education system introduces his charming wife and son to us.

After arriving at our really rather nice hotel in Bansko, Chris and I go out for a walk round the streets.  I buy a CD of Bulgarian folk music and am also very interested in the rehearsal for the evening’s (free, over-amplified) performance of Tosca in the main square.  We fall in with some of the others and manage to secure some bottles of sparkling white wine at an outdoor bar type of place.  The idea of it having been refrigerated in frozen turkeys strikes us all as hilarious.  People say they have enjoyed their tour, and Janice describes her experiences in teaching a special child, which we think is rather like being a tour group leader.

Another group meal

We proceed to a restaurant for another group meal.  Nikola the driver instructs me to dance and I do, several times.  We do a decent хоровод on a couple of occasions.  Avril impresses people with her gupsy dancing–well, she impresses me anyway.

The opera is still going on when we leave–Scarpia is bending Tosca to his wicked will.  It may be a third-rate performance of a piece of hokum by that blunderer Puccini (actually, the tenor is quite good), but it still has enough of the opera magic to be better than anything else that isn’t opera.  I weep silently to myself during E lucevan le stelle and the Bulgarian sitting next to me looks at me with incredulous distaste.

A dim and blurry Tosca!

When we get back to the hotel it appears that others left after the stabbing, so t I recount what they missed.  After I explain why you can’t stab someone the way Tosca did, and how to do it properly, Nikola says he was afraid to go to the disco without me.

Saturday 28 August

After another early start it’s off to Rila monastery and I hide behind a tree and fill in my feedback form, which Elaine says we have to do now.

Rila monastery

Ex-King Simeon of Bulgaria at Rila Monastery (picture by Sue)

We proceed to Sofia and I go round some bookshops in the heat of the day while Chris sleeps, before spending a couple of hours in a nice quiet Internet cafe called Garibaldi.  Then Chris and I meet and finally manage to find a restaurant called Manastirska Magenitsa.  We are hidden away in a room upstairs and eat traditional amounts of large Bulgarian food.  I point out that we’re in better case than the Bulgarian we passed in the street rooting through a rubbish bin for his dinner.  The mysterious object in the male toilets leaves me baffled, though it would have provoked hours of delighted speculation among my colleagues in the days when I worked in HIV/AIDS.

Mysterious object in male toilets

We retire early…

Sunday 29 August

…and get up at 0330.  The rest is bus, airport, plane, Heathrow, Tube, bus, home and a feeling of dislocation!

Eugene Onegin (Bolshoi Opera) Royal Opera House 11 August

August 12, 2010


Sitting round a table

Before this performance began, my companion had got a little confused about whether we were going to see a ballet or an opera.  I reassured her that even though it was an opera we would see some dances.

But we saw a table instead.

To begin with, the Larin household sat round the table with presumed peasants bringing presumed harvest offerings also sitting round it while Tatyana sat at the edge and looked the other way.  Then Lensky and Onegin arrived and at one stage Mrs Larina claimed that Onegin and Tatyana (who were in fact in front of her) were down by the lake.  Tatyana told the Nurse her secrets from the other side of the table, wrote her letter at the table, shoved the table out of the way to implore divine mercy.  Then in the morning Onegin lectured her from the other side of the table.

A lecture from Onegin

We had a ball were nobody danced because the table took up most of the room (and for a few other reasons as well), but drunken extras swayed about.  Monsieur Triquet’s number was delivered by Lensky, with suggestive accompanying gestures and a toy dog.  Lensky’s farewell aria was attended to only by an old lady, while Olga busied herself about the table.  Onegin arrived for the duel accompanied by his servant Guillot, who cackled incessantly.  The duel consisted of Onegin and Lensky attempting to press a hunting-rifle on each other until Onegin managed to accidentally shoot Lensky in the stomach.

At the interval, we discussed the following ideas:

1)  if you’re a Russian opera company, you must get a bit bored with Eugene Onegin, hence the need to take the piss;

2)  some of it was certainly a return to Pushkin–Tchaikovsky  romanticised and sugared-over the original novel in verse, which had a lot of irony and sarcasm regarding its characters;

3)  as in many productions of Wagner, it was necessary for the director to contradict everything said by the music and the text to show that he was cleverer than us all;

4)  some of it looked like turning the thing into a typical Dostoevskian skandal;

5)  it was just incompetent direction–you needed lots of people on the stage all the time doing something irrelevant to keep the audience entertained;

6) unplumbed salt estranging table;

7) it was trying to convey the character’ total isolation from each other.  I wondered if it was the view from inside Onegin’s head, but that would make no sense since the Larin place would have seemed dreadfully poky to him, not terrifyingly large.  The view from inside Tatyana’s head perhaps?–That sounds more promising…

8)  didn’t I once see a Queen of Spades that had a card-table and card-players in all the scenes?

The beginning of the third act was greeted by a groan as audience members realised the table was still there.

Hopes crushed by a table...

Apart from Onegin wearing a sparkly jacket and indulging himself in a pratfall, the third act passed off quite normally and Gremin’s aria shone like a ray of sunlight amidst the stormy weather.

As Gremin, Anatoly Kocherga was masterful (though displaying a noticeable gear-change in the voice).  Makvala Kasrashvili as Mrs Larina didn’t sound very Russian to me, while Tatyana Monogarova was conducting a one-woman consonant-elimination campaign and did rather descend into the generalised shriekiness of Tchaikovsky’s less popular operatic heroines.  Aleksei Dolgov’s Lensky lacked the true tenor ring, but I liked the Onegin of Mariusz Kwiecen and  I thought he came off best of the singers.  At times I wondered whether the orchestra (conducted by Dmitri Jurowski) were guying the music as well, but maybe they were just playing loudly.

Director and Set Designer Dmitri Cherniakov has got me beat.

don’t understand

I’m not clever enough

Hecuba New Diorama Theatre 10 August

August 10, 2010


At the beginning of this production, Paula James as Helena sang

Sophisticated, complicated, Troy is at its prime

among a crowd of celebrating Trojans.  Then they clapped in slow motion and fell together in appalled slow motion as Troy was captured.  I detected an active theatrical intelligence at work.

Then it all rather went into Greek drama autopilot for me.  The Trojan women were dressed in nice clean white robes showing no sign of rough handling and the mean were in nice clean black suits.  They made nice pictures nicely-lighted on stage but I was somehow uninvolved.  As Polyxena, Jasmyn Burke seemed to be taking her sacrifice rather too calmly from the beginning, not coming to see it finally as the way to maintain her noble freedom.

As for Natalie Lesser as Hecuba–how do you do Greek tragedy on a scale that is so different from the one intended?   I think you can shout and scream and try to physically dominate the audience (who are after all not so far away) or speak very softly so they can hardly hear and are all the time afraid of losing you.  This production was very much stuck in the middle.  It also ended with what probably seemed like comic nonchalance to an audience who may not have appreciated the prophetic force of the final denunciation of Hecuba from Polymestor (Simon Wegrzyn).  Surely his struggle with the Trojan women and blinding should have been drawn out to hellish length, to provide some balance in the arc of the play at least?  Here it tailed off quite tamely after just over an hour.

What about the chorus?  Here, they basically made nice pictures on stage, which I didn’t find very inspiring.

There was a man (presumably director Ricky Dukes) sitting in the middle of the back row with a diffuse source of light and a loose-leaf folder making (as it seemed) copious notes.  I wonder what they said?

New Diorama Theatre--certainly new to me!

Fuente Ovejuna Southwark Playhouse 09 August

August 9, 2010


Some kind of an idea....

This was the first of the previews of ‘Fuente Ovejuna’ by Tangram Theatre at the Southwark Playhouse.  Actors mingled with the audience, making friends with them and encouraging them to join in before the beginning and involving them in community singalongs and pieces of comic business during the action itself.

To me it just didn’t work.  The timing was off, partly because there was too much space to fill which meant that things didn’t happen quickly enough and partly because a lack of positive direction meant that you would have one exchange or piece of action and then things would slip into neutral before the next one began.  The only consistent performance I saw was that of Richard Cunningham as the exaggeratedly villainous villain Fernán Gómez de Guzmán; a lot of the rest of the time it was the panicky kicking of arms and legs when you fear the water won’t bear you up–if you don’t believe in the play, then don’t put it on.

All of those involved seemed like very nice and enthusiastic people to me, and I hope that things work out for them.  There’s an English synopsis of the play here, and a Spanish text here.

Sonya’s Story Riverside Studios 08 August

August 8, 2010


'Failed again!' as Uncle Vanya might put it

To start with, we had a talk from who might well have been Bill Bankes-Jones, Artistic Director of the Tête à Tête Opera Festival, and someone else who was definitely Sally Burgess, Director of Sonya’s Story.  BBJ explained that Tête à Tête was meant to fill the void where the National Opera Studio, BAC Opera and Bridewell used to be and to allow artists and audiences to try something new.  Sonya’s Story was a work-in progress amounting to half of an opera planned by Neal Thornton, who was also Mr Sally Burgess.

The set was as you can kind of see above, dominated not by a nasty piece of over-exposure but by a large portrait of Professor Serebryakov (grey) and his new wife Yelena (pink).  What happened in the piece was that Sonya (Caryl Hughes–Welsh accent) ran through her part in the action of Uncle Vanya and Cozmin Sime (Romanian accent) did the same for Uncle Vanya and Dr Astrov.  There wasn’t much interaction between them–though a non-singing Yelena (Ilana Corban) did come on to swing in a swing, eat an apple, and dance with a rather reluctant Sonya.  So it was rather opera by messenger speech.

The music (played by piano, violin, flute, double bass and percussion under the direction of Lionel Friend) was somewhere in a space defined by Schumann, Mendelssohn, Gershwin and the more tony musicals, but strangely enough the whole experience was very affecting and I don’t know why.  Probably because the high points of Uncle Vanya are now hardwired into my being.

Anyway, this was certainly a good way to spend £ 6,  and it will apparently be joined by a Yelena’s Story to make up a complete reinterpretation of Uncle Vanya.

“Russian Seasons” again

August 8, 2010

Since I was puzzled by the words to Desyatnikov’s Russian Seasons I decided to invest in the CD.  That has texts in English and German (not Russian), but they don’t exactly correspond to what I heard (nor to each other).  You can view the texts that accompany the CD here.  The booklet says that the words and music derive from a collection entitled Традиционная музыка русского Поозерья, and you should be able to see a list of contents here.  This is based on expeditions made to the Tver, Smolensk and Pskov regions in the period 1971-1992 (which is not so long ago) and the words are in heavily dialеctal Russian, which explains why I was puzzled.

Anyway here is what I made of the pieces with words:

2. Качульная/Lullaby

I wasn’t very interested in this, and will remark only that the author of the English translation has taken конопля as ‘cannabis’ rather than ‘hemp’, which is rather alarming and makes me wonder if this translation is the work of a native English-speaker (nobody is credited with the English translation).

If anyone writes in sounding interested I might have a go.

5.  Духовская

Ой, кумушки
Кумитеся и любитеся
Любите и мене.

Вы пойдите в зялёный сад, цвяточки рвать
Сорвите вы мне.
Вы будите вяночки вить
Ой, свейте вы мне.

Вы пойдите к ряке Дунай, к ряке Дунай
Возмите и мене.
Вы будите вёнки пускать, вёнки пускать
Пустите вы мне.
Ваши вёнки по ветру плыли, по ветру плыли
А мой на дно пошёл.

Ваши дружки с войны пришли, с войны пришли,
А мой не пришёл.
Он нё идёт, письма нё шлёт
Забыл про мене.

Song for Whitsuntide

Oh my friends
Be friends to each other, love each other
Love me as well.

You will go to the green garden, to pick flowers,–
Pick some for me.
You will make wreaths, make wreaths,
Oh, make one for me.

You will go to the Danube River, to the Danube River,
Take me as well.
You will launch your wreaths, launch your wreaths
Launch one for me.
Your wreaths sailed with the wind, with the wind
But mine went down.

Your boy-friends have come from the war, from the war
But mine hasn’t come
He’s not coming, he sends no letters,
He’s forgotten about me…


The words here work even better in English than Russian, since ‘friends’, ‘be friends’, and–strangely enough–‘love’ are all stronger, simpler and…better…than the originals, and ‘green garden’ doesn’t go so well in Russian either.  In the manner of the Authorised Version, things in italics are those I’ve added so that the translation makes sense.  There’s a whole website devoted to this song here, and it has a lot of dreadful versions by female folk-singers who seem unable to carry a tune.

7.  Постовая

Табе, тело, одно дело
Табе, тело, одно дело
Уйти в глубины, [че]р[в]ям кормить
Уйти в глубины, [че]р[в]ям кормить.

А мне, душе, пострадая удти, пострадая идти
Коло рая и шла, но в рай не вошла
Коло раю и шла, но в рай не дошла
В нашем раю будет весело
Пташки дают
Цвяты цвятут
О на те[х] цвята[х]
Сидят ангелы.

Song for Ember Days

For you, body, there is only one thing
For you, body, there is only one thing-
To go into the depths and feed the worms
To go into the depths and feed the worms.

But for me, the soul, I’ll go suffering, suffering
Repenting all the while,
I went near Heaven, but I didn’t enter Heaven
I went near Heaven, but I didn’t reach Heaven,
In our Heaven it will be merry,
Birds give their voices
Flowers flower
And on those flowers
Angels are sitting.


As well as the italics, I’ve added some things in [square brackets] to what I heard to make it look more like recognisable (to me!) Russian.

9.  Свадебная

Кукуй, кукуша серая
Кукуй, кукуша серая
Так и давно куковала
Так и давно куковала.
Не плачи, младчица Машенька
Так и давно плакали мы.

Nuptial song

Cry ‘Cuckoo’, you grey cuckoo
Cry ‘Cuckoo’, you grey cuckoo
Тhus long ago as well you cried Cuckoo
Thus long ago as well you cried Cuckoo.
Don’t weep, Mashenka, you young girl
Thus long ago as well we wept.


The translation (both English and German) is a bit of a mystery.  If you made it Так не давно кукуя…Так не давно плакали мы, then it would be “Thus not long ago you cried ‘Cuckoo’…Thus not long ago we wept”, which is probably better consolation for the girl, even though it’s not what I heard Julia Korpacheva as singing and it’s still not the same as the translation.

12.  Последняя

Наши руки–грабли,
Наши руки–грабли,
Наши глазы–ямы
Что глазы завидют,
Что глазы завидют,
То руки заграбют.
Как на его, ох на свете,
Пустяки нам надо
Аллилуйя, аллилуйя,
Слава тебе, Бога!

А на том же, о на свете
Ничьё уж нам не надо
Только надо, один сажень земли
Гвозди и досточки.
Аллилуйя, аллилуйя,
Слава тебе, Бога!

Closing Song

Our hands are but rakes,
Our hands are but rakes,
Our eyes are but pits.
What our eyes catch sight of,
What our eyes catch sight of,
That our hands reach for.
How much in it, oh in the world,
We need vanities.
Hallelujah, hallelujah,
Glory to thee, O God!

But in that one, oh in that world,
We need nothing more.
We need only six foot of earth,
Some nails and some boards.
Hallelujah, hallelujah,
Glory to thee, O God!


There’s a wonderful rendition of the original ‘spiritual song’ here.  The ‘four boards’ in the translation seem to have come from the original rather than what’s on the CD.

Le corsaire (Bolshoi Ballet/Covent Garden) 5 August

August 6, 2010


A lot of white floweriness in the second act

I had an idea that this had something to do with the poem by Lord Byron

Long mourned his band whom none could mourn beside;
And fair the monument they gave his Bride
For him they raise not the recording stone—
His death yet dubious, deeds too widely known;
He left a Corsair’s name to other times,
Linked with one virtue, and a thousand crimes.

Well, some of the characters had the same names according to the programme–this was really a cartoon with lots of gratuitous dancing, girls, spectacle, shipwreck, costumes, turquoise Turks, pirates who should have spent more time pirating and less time dancing, comedy fights,  a garden in appearing in a palace….My companion complained about the third-rate music and the harps heralding anything ‘touching’, but I thought it was the thought of stuff you could buy by the yard in any decent haberdasher’s, or get a programmable loom or a tame crow to turn out.

At the end of the second act, my companion announced she was going to go home and iron the cat.  In fact, the third act was the most interesting and would have captivated me as a ten-year-old boy if by some miracle I had survived the preceding two hours:  the dancers did a surprisingly lucid job of putting over the plotty bit about Said Pasha saying he would execute Conrad unless Medora she married him, after which Medora danced away with his weapons and Gulnare appeared to make clear it was in fact her that he had married under a veil, silly old Pasha.

And the scene of the shipwreck was highly effective, with the stormy waves projected on a scrim in front of the ship and with the help of some special-effect thunder the storm by Adophe Adam or Pugni or whoever coming off a great deal better than my experience of Mozart (Idomeneo) or Thomas Ades (The Tempest).

A ship behind a scrim

At the end of the ballet Medora and Conrad came out to the front of the stage to show that they had survived, and after it had ended I saw the orchestral players shaking each others’ hands all round, glad that they had survived as well I guess.

Of the dancers, Anastasia Yatsenko as Gulnare made the greatest impression on me, but I did sometimes get confused between her and the Medora of Maria Alexandrova.