Posts Tagged ‘opera’

Permian Diary: 8-23 September

October 31, 2012

The announcement started off


The Russian and Eurasian Studies Centre together with [Oxford] University’s Department for Continuing Education is arranging for a group of eight people to visit Perm as guests of the Perm State University. They will live in families with at least one English speaker and will have many opportunities to observe real Russian life. The visit is part of an exchange scheme in which the payment made by you supports the visit of a Perm teacher to Oxford.

and after a preparatory early-morning briefing meeting in Oxford some weeks beforehand, this is what happened:

Saturday 8 September

Boring photograph of train window

Get up at five am.  Taxi to Heathrow.  Accustomed queue at passport control in Moscow, it seems they now print the migration card out automatically.  Igor, a student from Perm, meets us and asks do we want to get a taxi or the Metro from Paveletsky station to Yaroslavsky.  Unbelievable indecision.  Francis falls over muscling his luggage onto the AeroExpress train.  We descend to a left luggage place then while away the hours at a Sbarro restaurant before waiting in the waiting room.  When we get on the train Igor and I have the bottom bunks in one compartment, the top bunks are empty.  I sleep soundly for a long time.

Sunday 9 September

Irina’s lovely house

I sit on my couchette and stare at the wall opposite (sometimes Igor as well).  When we get off the train at Perm’ people appear to take us away; a youngish man called Aleksei comes for me.  We go and meet a young woman called Irina.  Then we get in a car and set off for what seems to be Irina’s house.  Irina’s mother Aleksandra is worried I won’t know how to use the hot water, but it’s just like my system at home.  I establish myself in a very large and very very nice room…

Monday 10 September

I sleep, and then have rather a lot of breakfast.   Aleksandra gives me the address and Irina’s mobile number, then sets out.  Aleksei appears and takes me on a marshrutka, then a bus to the University.  Irina rings Aleksei to tell him to tell me to ring her when I want to go home.

The University has a checkpoint that the local council doesn’t allow them to use.

Some important people address us under the impression that we come from Oxford or Oxfordshire.  A couple of students of English come to take us round the University Museum and the Botanical Garden.  But it’s raining, so we can only go in the greenhouse.  But we stand in the rain a long time while they try to work out which greenhouse.

A primitive plant typical of the Permian Era

The first thing to see is an exhibition of plants typical of the Permian Era (named after Perm’) and that rather appeals to my sense of humour.  After the greenhouse tour I have to ring Irina which I have no idea how to do from my English mobile, so I borrow one of the guides’ and Irina tells me to try again at 8:30.  Martin, Heather and I go with a guide to a shop nearby to buy local SIM cards; we have to show our passports and have them photocopied.  We walk along ulitsa Lenina and find a pancake place that has WiFi and a nice toilet.

Some time later, I get on a bus and just when I’m wondering where I am Irina gets on as well.  We get off some time later and go to a grocery store then get in a crowded car with some of her friends.  When we get in, we talk about a visit to her school and I ring Heather who is keen in principle but it depends on her Ekaterinburg visit.

Tuesday 11 September

Irina takes me into town by bus and tram.  Our group has a tour round some sights.  I go to the student canteen with Martin and Heather, then decide I can’t face it and wander off into town.  Then I get on a 68 bus and manage to get off at the right stop by asking the person next to me.

I kill time until 1830, when I am due to ring Irina.  I can’t get through.  What to do?  I ask a taxi-driver, who says he’s never heard of the address.  I get on the 16 bus, going the opposite way from what I remember going into town.  I get a phonecall from Irina, who says I should get off at ul. Kolyaevo.  The bus goes through some familiar-looking regions and then comes to the end of the route.  I retrace my path somewhat through mud and then ask a motherly-looking woman who says she has never heard of the place I am living then rings a friend, after which she says I need to cross the road again, get the 16 bus, ask the conductor.  I do that and end up at the terminus again.

I try again and get on a 16 bus to Zaprud.  Then when it gets to a stop called ul. Startseva I decide it is looking too urban and get off.  I try ringing Irina many, many times.  It is getting dark and with the other people at the bus-stop looking threatening it is all getting like Twilight Portrait.  But with a great effort of concentration I manage to work out how to call Irina using my English card.  She says I should get the 16 bus and get off at ul. Kolybalova.  I manage to notice that the 16 bus has automated announcements of the stops.

Atmospheric bus-stop shot (by Martin)

I arrive at the bus-stop and wait.  Irina arrives with her uncle in a car.  We arrive ouside her house.  She asks, Am I angry with her and I say No.  Then the front gate turns out to be locked and she doesn’t have the key.  I say one of us can climb over the fence but she finds another way in.

We have our tea.  She says I should have something definite to say at the visit to her school.  Then we have a tense discussion about how I can find my way home.  Eventually she says she will show me the stop for the number 16 tomorrow.

Wednesday 12 September

We start off down the road so she can show me the bus-stop.  Then Irina has a mysterious conversation on her phone and Sasha appears in her car to take us to 1905 Square so I can get the tram and Irina can go to her school.

I go to the tourist office and get some more maps; then the group manages to assemble in the rain and we traipse round places where Yuri Zhivago and his Lara might have lived and loved if they had been real people.  But they weren’t.

The others go to have some lunch and I decide I need to use the daylight to work out the route home.  The 68 and the 16 take me to the ul. Kolybalova stop and I manage to find my way onto the street.  But I have no idea which of the many lanes leading off to the left I want.  Eventually I manage to get some kind-of-useful directions from a guy with metal teeth delivering beer and then I catch sight of a house with 10 2-ая Кольцевая on a sign.  And then I manage to find my way onto the right track and get into the house.

Enigmatic expanse of road

After a bath and several cups of coffee I set off to go to a meeting of the Perm Rotary Club we have been invited to.  The quasi-Masonic ritual seems a bit grotesque, but the people and what they are doing seem worthwhile.  I help Igor out with some of the interpreting and also respond to some questions addressed to the English side.  Then Aleksandr the ex-navy-officer who entertained us with Vysotsky-style songs gives me a lift home and the other passengers are eager with questions about England.

When I get in, Irina says the father of her friend Olya is interested in applied mathematics and economics; I show him some slides and he is interested in system dynamics, forecasting and data mining.  We agree to meet next Wednesday.  Then Sasha comes round, the girls get into girly mode, and I go to bed.

Thursday 13 September

I am supposed to be leaving early with Sasha to join the day’s trip into the countryside.

The girls drift round without urgency.  Irina asks Do you want any porridge?  I say No.  She makes me some and puts it beside me and looks at me until I eat it.  When we finally set off, Sasha demonstrates Formula 1 overtaking with one hand while turning the radio up with the other and pushing back her hair as well somehow…If we don’t make it in time I will say I never managed to speak to Heather about going to Irina’s school and it won’t be my fault.  But they have waited beyond the agreed time and Heather rather crossly tells me to hurry up.

We arrive somewhere and climb up a slippery steep path to take a picture and then we slip and slide back down again.

The view we clambered for

It begins to rain.  We have lunch in the rain.  After the other 4 have had a go, David and I get in a canoe and set off with an optimistic strike rate.  Our Russians are on the phone to their mates–or just flirting–while Heather and Martin’s is doing the paddling.

Canoeing on the Silva River

We visit the Kungur Ice Caves where I get bored and cold and bang my head many, many times and worry about time getting on and how I am going to get home.

Quite photogenic, these ice caves

It rains.  We spend too much time in a souvenir shop.  Some of us rather hope we might be setting off back now, but instead we have a picnic under an awning in the rain.

Under an awning in the rain

We finally get back to the University and Hatty’s hostess Tanya takes me in her car to find a taxi not near the railway station.  The taxi driver and I manage to find the road.  Then we drive up and down it looking for Irina’s house.  Then I get out and walk up and down looking for Irina’s house.  He charges me more than twice the fair price Irina named.

Irina and I have a very guarded conversation.  Olga says that I am bored and disappointed with Russia.  I say I am certainly not bored or disappointed with the three friends around the kitchen table but I would be better off with a definite aim.  I go to bed.

Friday 14 September

Sasha takes us all into town in her car by way of a visit to the local branch of Эхо Москвы, where she hands in a projector and screen.  Olga asks me my favourite type of music and guesses it must be opera; I admit I am frightened by how well she understands me.   I go to the International Department and find neither Svetlana nor Mariya.  Then I come across Svetlana and a guy who wants to show me round the Maths Department, even though there is no-one there.  Among general confusion, I say I am due to meet Professor Andrianov on Wednesday.

Then Irina and I meet Heather and they hit it off immediately.  After a change of bus we arrive at Irina’s school, where we stand at the front of a class and say a few words about ourselves.  Then we say something about differences between England and Russia and Svetlana the teacher tells us when we get it wrong.  Heather shows her slides about school matters in England and brings out the stuff they need to remember with great proficiency.  We get a fairly random selection of questions; a pretty girl wants to know about getting an English husband and a clever lad asks about highly-paid jobs in London.

Pedagogues, English and Russian

After putting Heather on a bus, Irina and I go to a pancake place and a rather low-grade ‘Indian bazaar’, then she helps me buy a replacement woolly hat.  In the evening I tiredly draft an email to Svetlana saying we really ought to do something with the presentations I have prepared.

Saturday 15 September

Irina says that Sasha will take us all into town in her car.  We hang around in the church shop–they have a nice copy of Лебединая песня and also just for once a Church Slavonic Bible, though it is heavy, bulky and expensive.

It comes round to four o’clock and I hope I am never going to meet Bad Irina.  Then Good Irina comes out of the shop to say that BI is stuck in traffic.  I buy the Bible and then BI finally appears.  It is all very unpleasant.  I agree to give a talk to her first-year students who won’t understand anything as a kind of of performing animal I guess.  She gives further instructions about what to say, when to appear and so on.

I go to meet Aleksei Aleksandrovich and we go to the theatre.  We have a speech from quite a nice-looking woman about how great (and mystical) the forthcoming season will be, and how the owner of a shop called Polaris has donated wallpaper.  The owner of a shop called Polaris stands up and takes a bow.

Termen–really rather dreadful

The show begins and is really rather dreadful.  The actors have been made to speak with comedy foreign accents and the text is painfully undramatic.  A piece supposed to be about modern music requires the most hackneyed Baroque pieces to affect the audience’s emotions.  The audience for its part not only texts but also talks on its mobiles throughout.

At the interval AA is clearly embarrassed at how poor it all is so I suggest we leave.  When I get home, I give Olga a Thomas Tallis CD and she looks nonplussed, but thanks me anyway.  The girls go to the bathhouse in the garden and I go to bed.

Sunday 16 September

Many interesting encounters outside here

I go into town in Olga’s taxi and we pass Irina on her bike.  I sit outside the church shop and Irina arrives on her bike.  I guard the bike while she shops in the church shop.  We sit.  A young man arrives.  They talk together indistinctly.  I make my excuses and leave.

In the evening I give Sasha and Irina some presents.

Monday 17 September

I go to the University by bus and tram, using some scraps of Wi-Fi connection on the way.  I go to see Svetlana, who rings one Larissa and asks her to find me some students.  Then I ask about using the Wi-Fi; she rings one San Sanych and wheedles.  Mariya gives me train tickets and tells me how to go where I’m going.

I am admitted to Larissa Sergeevna’s presence.  She establishes that there is some group whose teacher has gone sick and tells me to come back at 1330.  Following earlier instructions, at 1300 I repair to the International Department where one Olga takes me to the computer centre.  The guy there completely blanks us and says he knows nothing about nothing.  Then he says we can go round the back and see the administrator.  He complains that the International Department have been assigned many log-ins and he has no idea what has happened to them.  But he relents and I am connected to the outside world.

When I return to give my talk we spend some time connecting my computer to the projector and the IT bloke complains lengthily.  One of the students–a group of about 15 young women–is actively interested, and some of the others venture a reaction from time to time.  What they like is wordy slides that they can compare with what I am saying–it seems like the words accountant, hinder and rota are new to them–and recommendations for specific books.  I recommend If This Is A Man (because everyone ought to read it)  The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time (because seeing things through the eyes of someone who doesn’t know what’s going on will help them to understand English life, even if they read it in Russian, and in that case they can pass it on to their geeky brothers or boyfriends) and The Night Watch (so that they get some value from all the Shakespeare they’ve done).

I decline Larissa’s kind offer to talk to a group of students of French at three o’clock, and wander round town.  Konstantin keeps on ringing me at inopportune moments with further and contradictory demands, so I never manage to eat and have difficulties shopping as well.

People did get a bit confused around this stage

Then I rush to the Theatre Theatre which is miles away and arrive a bit late, but so are they so that’s all right.  I find myself liking the Scarlet Sails musical and I might have cried with a better final duet.  I also manage to more-or-less explain the story to the others.

I spend a long time waiting to get my things back at the cloakroom, and then at the second bus-stop of my journey home.

Tuesday 18 September

We get on the bus and go to the Gulag Museum at Perm-36.  I remember when this was the last camp for political prisoners at the end of the Soviet period, and the guide says that the KGB failed to destroy it completely–because part of it was used as a real psychiatric hospital maybe–so they were able to restore it.

Display of prisoners’ implements


‘Experienced prisoners said it was one of the most beautiful of the Gulags…’

I approve of the modest and low-key nature of the place, a welcome change from Volgograd for example.

We  return to the Uni and gather in the canteen.  We talk about lapses in organisation and how the return journey will go.  As we start off on our various ways home, Martin remarks that there is nothing to say for their flat except it’s easy to find.  I suggest they come round to Irina’s lovely house on Friday evening.  When I get home I borrow Irina’s dongle and find some worried emails from base telling me not to give anything away while pursuing professional contacts.

I give Irina some presents from Heather and she likes that.  I tell her Martin and Heather might be coming round on Friday and she is very pleased.  So it ends up with Irina speaking to Heather on my phone and an arrangement for Martin and Heather to come round for traditional afternoon tea on  Friday.

Wednesday 19 September

We wait outside the Art Gallery for a student to come and take us to the Regional Museum.  We wait some more.  Heather suggests going into the Art Gallery to ask if they can ring the Regional Museum and find out if our student is there.  So she tries that and I accompany.  Then the student appears and we set off.  She’s running late, that’s all there is to it.

So we go to the Regional Museum, which is low-key but interesting enough.  Then I return to sit outside the Art Gallery.  I send Konstantin a text to say I am free.  I sit for half an hour and get cold.  Maybe I can go home?

I get a call from Professor Andrianov, who then appears very quickly and we apologise to each other.  He commissions various treatments for my sore throat by mobile phone.  He says it is a pity I am stuck in the outskirts and they can arrange for me to stay in a hotel instead.  I say that I am fine with Irina and we have visits with neighbours planned for the rest of our time.

When we arrive, Prognoz turns out to occupy one or more former arms factories.  He takes me to a very large boardroom and plies me with liquids.  He says that they support the Orthodox Church and the Jewish community and have had a visit from the Israeli Ambassador.

Then he leads me to a frighteningly futuristic boardroom–this time it’s The Target that is referenced–where the young guns display whizzy products.  I ask questions about how they actually support decisions, what they do about data quality, and what exactly their offering is.  This is all in Russian.  Then the top guys interrogate me about where an automated system such as theirs might be used.  I suggest–using the example of road maintenance–that it might be local councils or the Highways Agency.

Then there is a break while students file in.  I am to give a talk completely different from what I was told.  I am to talk about my work in general terms, first of all in English (for the international students) and then summarising in Russian.  Saying the same thing would be too easy!  So I do that.  I tell them to understand the real problem and the real data.  At the end, someone asks about the Olympics.

International students imitate wakefulness while the Russian ones discuss yesterday’s TV

After that I am put in a car and taken to the University.  I tell my pals that it was about the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life…

We get in a minibus and go to a Palace of Culture in some farflung remoteness. The Panfilov Ballet starts with music that is far too loud, and at the beginning it’s about the level you might expect at such a venue.  At the interval some of our lot are distinctly unhappy and refuse to re-enter the auditorium.  The second half is a lot better; I start off by thinking that some of the numbers with the fat people are at the level of a normal show at Sadlers Wells, while at the end with Люби друг друга it is like a very good show there.

When I get in Irina serves me some dinner and asks me about my day, especially the meeting with Olga’s father.

Thursday 20 September

When I wake up I have a nasty sore throat and no voice.  I text Bad Irina to say I will not be able to give a talk for her.   Aleksandra (who has reappeared) makes me an infusion of Ural herbs that I am supposed to gargle.

I finally set off for the day’s excursions and as you do in these circumstances miss the bus and tram.  I am making reasonable progress when an accident means the tram is sent round all kind of remote parts and finally ends up at the University.

So after coming home and admitting my delinquency to Aleksandra I set off again and arrive quite early at the opera house.  There is no atmosphere.  The performance is appalling.  I sleep through most of the first half and then escape.

Job advert at the tram stop–I suspect this involves ‘topless’ if not ‘intim’

I have a long wait for the tram, then get a 38 to fairly near home.  Aleksandra kindly produces some dinner for me and Irina is nowhere to be seen.

Friday 21 September

I go into town starting with the 38 bus and we assemble and set off for Khokhlovka.  We have a very clued-up guide called Stanislav and start off with a typical izba from the Perm region.  I am interested to see many things I have only been able to imagine from literary sources.

Communal bowl and ostentatious salt cellar

Next there is a church with some rare features.

Church of the Transfiguration

Stanislav says it’s called a ship church because everything is in one line.  He also says he is an atheist and asks us to greet Richard Dawkins for him.  The whole place seems to reflect an entirely sensible way of making a living in the local circumstances, as opposed to Perm-36 which is a pathological way of doing this.

We have some involved discussion about what various things are called:  the balcony on the watchtower where you pull up the boards and pour boiling oil on assailants for instance.

Watchtower (picture by Martin)

For the moment, we have no idea about what to call boxes to hide things from bears, though later on the word cache seems to be the right one.

Cache for pelts (picture by Martin)

And here’s a nice picture of a windmill:

Windmill, to state the obvious

Anyway.  We get back to the University and Tanya rings to get us a taxi.  Nothing happens.  We watch students come and go.  Tanya tells us about the how greedy and dishonest Russian taxi drivers are.  The first firm are still trying to find a car.  She cancels them and tries another.  Olga comes by and says she will be along in an hour.  Tanya says she has won an award to do some work on idioms in Vanity Fair.  The taxi finally arrives and we set off hazardously.

At Irina’s: Aleksandra, Vladimir, Martin (hidden), Irina, Sasha, me, Heather

Irina and her father are sitting outside in the sunshine.  He introduces himself as Vladimir.  Slightly chaotic conversation starts off.  From time to time Vladimir takes Martin or me outside for some serious man talk and so that he can have a smoke.  He shows me some medals and gives me a Spetsnaz combat jacket.  In fact, he presents Martin and me with some military insignia as well.

We finally set off for the bus stop.  Irina leads us through some back ways and Martin takes pictures of houses.  On the way back, Irina says she is now very keen to visit England.  I say she is welcome to stay with me, but she needs to make sure her parents are happy with the idea and it will be a good idea to bring a friend.

Saturday 22 September

Sasha appears and hangs around a bit before Olga wakes up and gets herself together.  We drive to the station and I find our lot assembled on the platform.  When the train arrives, I am in a compartment with a toddler and his carers.  They aren’t keen on him being disturbed.  So I spend the day sitting in other group members’ compartments or going to the restaurant car with them.  The restaurant car steadily runs out of everything.  In the corridor, David tells me some interesting things about the history of the Russian language, which he has studied in Sweden.  In  Swedish.

I sleep pretty well, apart from when the toddler goes on the rampage very early in the morning.
Sunday 23 September

Vera has been ill in the night.  The taxi discussion continues and we decide Vera and Francis will go in one and Helen and Hatty in another–I will arrange.

At the station I submit to a tout wearing what might be an official badge.  Then I have to run after Vera and Francis to say it is 500R each.  The rest of us go on the Metro, which involves trailing along corridors and up and down steps.

Happy people at airport

After the normal Sunday transport problems in London, I arrive home late, wet and disoriented.


If anyone is interested in having a go themselves, this is an annual event and you can see the full announcement for 2013  here.

Two weeks for ~ £ 1,000 is very good VFM though I think you need some specific interest in Russia to find it all worthwhile.


At the end, I made the following suggestions to Karen Hewitt, the organiser:

Here are a few specific points which you may find it useful to consider.  They are meant to be things that participants and organisers on the English side could do, rather than imposing more burdens on the Russians.  These are essentially my points, but I’ve circulated them round the group and taken out or toned down those that people disagreed with.

1.  Aim and scope

I found it was difficult to explain what we were up to, possibly because I wasn’t so sure myself.  The explanation that ‘This is really meant to subsidise English teachers from Perm going to Oxford, but we also hope to be of some use while we’re here’ didn’t seem to help.  People also seemed to be expecting a fully-fledged academic exchange with people from Oxford University.  (As an aside, apart from this confusion, I don’t think the Permians we met had much interest in Oxford, while they certainly did in England generally and in London.)

Recommendation:  Write down what seems to be an adequate description of the purpose of the trip and the nature of its participants and see whether people agree with it.

2.  Talks

There was some confusion here.  People were keen to give talks to students and were expecting some timetable to be produced for Friday/Monday with slots to fit their own talks into.  In fact, nothing of the sort happened and it dawned rather slowly at least on me that what you had to do was tell Svetlana what students you wanted and she would arrange it.  So one of my painstakingly-prepared presentations went unused. 

Recommendation:  I think all you need to do is to include a statement in the guidance that if you want to speak to students you should tell Svetlana what students you want and when.

3.  Organisation 

Similarly to the above, I think there was a great desire among the group members to do something useful for the Permians–students and otherwise–and likewise they wanted to speak to us, but somehow it never quite happened. There were a number of simple things we could have done, like for instance appearing at the same same table in the canteen each day or putting up a notice to say we would be happy to talk to students and would be in such and such a room at such and such a time for a chat, but by the time this had occurred to us time was running out.

Recommendation:    Include a statement in the guidance to the effect that if you want to make yourself useful there are various things you can do [as above], otherwise you can just go on the excursions.

4.  Train

We wondered about the necessity of getting the train both ways, rather than flying back say, and whether a policy of booking bottom bunks was the best.  But there was no consensus for change.

Recommendation:  No change

5.  Comments on English teachers possibly going to Oxford:  None

6.  Conclusion

This is becoming something that happens because it happens and so it’s beginning to drift.

Recommendation:  The arrangements for the programme should be reviewed in the light of a clearly-articulated purpose.


Since no-one was specifying any objectives apart from raising money, I decided that they were:

1. Subsidise Permian teacher/s coming to Oxford

2. Give participants different experiences of Russia and do this as cheaply as possible

 3. Give Perm State University students and other Permians exposure to native English speakers by

–participants giving talks requested by those tasked with service teaching of English in other faculties

–participants volunteering talks on their own areas of interest


4. Give participants the opportunity to

–find out how their own area/s of interest/professional expertise are conducted in Perm/Russia

–exchange experiences with their counterparts

The Secret Garden, Blackheath Halls 4 July

July 4, 2012


Picture from Trinity Laban site

This is an opera by Stephen McNeff, first (and last?) performed in 1985 in Banff.  As any fool can tell, it’s based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which has also been made into a musical.

My advice to people thinking of going to this would be:  Make sure you read a synopsis first.  I was rather hoping that in the normal opera fashion there would be one in the programme, and there wasn’t.  Many of my other expectations were unfortunately fulfilled:  mildly effective sub-Britten music and difficulty in making out what words the singers were singing prominent among them.  Not for the first time, the Trinity Laban opera seemed to me to be playing a mean trick on student singers by giving them far too much space to try to fill with sound.  Some of the hall was wisely cut off, but there was still too much left and not infrequently we had the performers at one end of the hall, the orchestra at the other and the audience in the middle–this created a curious effect for the audience which can’t really have been what was intended.

Oh yes,–the story as presented here was inherently undramatic and the presence of a singer with a Canadian accent (Scott Shpeley as Dickon) was a bit of a puzzler.  Among the singers, I thought that Frances Israel as Martha came off best, having an agreeable part to sing and doing it well.

I might have agreed with what some of the negative characters were singing about Order and Control if I’d been able to make it out.

La Traviata, Goldsmiths College 9 June

June 10, 2012


I set off to see this production by OperaGold, Goldmiths College’s student opera company, purely out of curiosity.  Absolutely the last thing I expected  to encounter was an absolutely stellar Violetta (Chien Chun Lin) who had not only mastered her very demanding vocal part but also proved to be a consummate actress (and a strikingly attractive young woman as well).  Her combination of absolute commitment to the role with singing on the note rather than somewhere nearby put me in mind of Ermonela Jaho or Irina Prokina…

And there were other things to admire about the performance:  some very precise direction (by Nan Christie) made a lot more sense of the crowd scenes than is normally the case–I was especially impressed by the leader of the gipsy dancers who danced with the correct controlled abandon as well as singing and striking her tambourine.  This may sound like faint praise but it’s not meant to–you see far too many Traviatas where the crowd scenes are merely an embarrassment or at best an excuse to display whatever bling can be found in the store cupboard.

The orchestra played very soundly under Tim Hooper and the ultra-traditional production concept confined to a rather thin strip of stage worked very well, simply because it was so well-thought-through and precisely executed.

There were some less outstanding contributions that I will pass over in silence, but generally I was very very impressed…

Even Cheaper Salome 11 June

June 7, 2012

Covent Garden write as follows:

We have a very special last minute offer for you for David McVicar’s ground-breaking production of Salome.

The last few remaining seats in the Orchestra Stalls are now only £50. (Usually priced at £120, £111 and £106).

Religion, sexuality and perversion are a potent combination in this passionate drama, set to complex, fascinating and richly-textured music by Richard Strauss. The Metro praised McVicar’s production as ‘the real thing’ and described the music as ‘gorgeous’.

Salome truly is live theatre with The Royal Opera at its most intense and gripping, with McVicar’s handling of the tormented heroine both realistic and profoundly sympathetic.

Watch the Salome trailer

Read a selection of tweets from the opening night of Salome

Please note that this production contains violence and scenes of a sexual nature, which reflect the adult content of the opera.


  • To book, follow this link and select 11 June performance, type ‘baptist’ into the ‘Do you have a code?’ box and click ‘update‘.
  • You can also call the Box Office, +44 (0)20 7304 4000 and quote ‘Baptist offer’ when booking.

Norma, Opera North/Theatre Royal Newcastle 10 March

March 11, 2012


This time the comment was there are no springs in these seats.

The production featured a chorus of grubby proletarians (surely they should have been peasants) in a large wooden shed (surely they should have been outside) oppressed by top-hatted capitalists in the form of Pollione and Flavio.  There was a lot of random stage business to distract from the action, and equally distracting was the presence of characters who shouldn’t really be there dramatically.

Often the programme will give a clue to the production concept in these cases, but this time it only offered some enigmatic b/w photos without captions or picture credits (which might have given some clue).  Whatever it was, the concept did involve Norma and Adalgisa doing a lot of grovelling around on the floor, presumably so as not to make things too easy for them in singing.  That levitating log played an important parrt, and also reminded me unpleasantly of the giant ‘Nartish’ turdgods from the Mariinsky Ring a couple of years back.

As Norma, Annemarie Kramer sometimes gave the impression she felt she had already done enough in previous performances and now she wanted to go home.  Pollione (Luis Chapa) started off loud, coarse and uncertain in intonation but improved as the evening went on–it helped that he was figuring more in ensembles as well.  I thought Oroveso was well sung by James Creswell, although he was on stage many times when he should not have been.  Keri Alkema was very good as Adalgisa.

I had two main problems with this evening.  Annemarie Kramer didn’t really come to terms with the vast range of emotion demanded by the role–from psychotic rage to beatific self-sacrifice–probably she was just tired.  Also the storyline of heroic impossible love and sacrifice really made no sense in this dingy depressing overcrowded setting.

Giulio Cesare, Opera North/Theatre Royal Newcastle 09 March

March 10, 2012


To start with the important things:  this time round, the view on the seats was that they were too narrow and too uncomfortable, the rake was wrong or the pitch or both.  A fortune had been spent to no effect.  I can’t say I can really offer an opinion–in my Newcastle days, I remember meeting a girl at a party who worked in the box office here, and someone with a job and a regular income was definitely on a different socio-economic planet.

After that introduction, we got a very good performance of Giulio Cesare, where the revolving Egyptian pyramid constrained by Roman concrete did duty for all kinds of things and the production was fresh and inventive.  Pamela Helen Stephenson was suitably mannish as Giulio Cesare in a battle-weary greatcoat while the countertenor James Laing was camply evil and perverted as Tolomeo.  Sarah Tynan was very lovely–also clearly a very good actress–as Cleopatra and sang very accurately.  She didn’t really suggest a woman who could dispose of her husband-brother and several other rival claimants to the throne without any bother at all, but that’s not in the piece either so not her fault. But perhaps the partt needs someone to wallow more lushly.

I thought the best singing (and performances) came from Kathryn Rudge as Sesto and Ann Taylor as Cornelia, both of whom were extremely affecting.  The orchestral playing (conductor Robert Howarth) was jolly good too.

Well done everybody!  Well done Opera North!

Madama Butterfly Opera North/Theatre Royal Newcastle 08 March

March 8, 2012


Picture from

Oh dear oh dear oh dear.  This must be about the worst playing I’ve ever heard from an orchestra at the opera .  It was far too loud and too crude and any exposed woodwind passages were a source of deep anxiety.  In the first half at least, the orchestra was also often out of synchronisation with the singers.  Caught up in the general spirit of things , Anne-Sophie Duprels (Cio-Cio-San) spent her whited-up first half mugging at an audience apparently located somewhere around Scotswood.  She also seemed to be finding this part far too spinto for  her, and was having difficulties with uncontrolled vibrato in a second half when a nice page-boy cut had restored her to the essence of Frenchness.  All this is a pity, since in my opinion she’s usually marvellous.

I think that the production would have been condemned as outright racist if it had applied to any people other than the Japanese.  But we nuked them and they employ half of Sunderland as well, so that’s all right.  (Anyway this is largely the fault of Puccini and his librettists I suppose.)  I also found a lot of the direction in naively doubling music with movement simply simple-minded.

As to the good points of the evening, I quite enjoyed the portrayal of Pinkerton as a fat oaf with no redeeming qualities at all, and rather well sung by Rafael Rojas.  Ann Taylor’s Suzuki was certainly the best performance on view, though Wyn Davies also did himself a big favour by not being the conductor this time round.

As we were left the theatre, the person behind me was complaining about the seats being far too hard.  While true, this was about the least of our problems…

Rusalka, ROH Covent Garden 01 March

March 3, 2012


Once again, everyone has seen and and commented on this production and once again Intermezzo has proved to be inerrant.

To my surprise, I was completely captivated by Dvorak’s music here, especially when it got into the hopeless melancholy yearning vein–hopeless melancholy yearning followed by suicidal despair: you don’t have to be a water-nymph to realise these are the eternal verities.  There were some passages of undemanding ineffectuality that were more what I expected from this composer, but who cares?

In the amphitheatre with the kind of view shown above we didn’t care about the shock-horror production either.  It seemed to me the typical kind of modern opera production, especially of Wagner, where what you see on stage contradicts what’s coming up from the pit and in the end the music wins.  My companion pointed out that we couldn’t see the allegedly-offensive details from our distance and it would be very difficult to take take seriously a literal representation of a fairyland-and-castle setting.  The production didn’t get in the way of putting the story across, which must be the main thing.

Talking of Wagner, we enjoyed what must be about the best orchestral playing (under conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin) that I’ve ever heard in an opera house.  And we had a tenor in Bryan Hymel who had completely mastered his part.

What do these complainers want?  Are they listening to the music at all?

The Death of Klinghoffer, ENO 28 February

February 29, 2012


Picture from classical-iconoclast

Everyone must have seen this and given their opinion by now.  Intermezzo (who is of course inerrant) gave hers without having seen it:  Audience slowly lulled into torpor would be my guess.  And she was quite right.  Well, I spent a lot of the first half asleep, but in the interval I decided to stay out of curiosity and I was alert enough at the end to make my way gratefully towards the exit.

There were of course some extremely lovely choruses and the hijacker Mamoud had a very nice solo number as well.  But the libretto had some of the worst lines ever set to music  (Evil grows exponentially/Laying a weight upon the tongue, anyone?)  That may have been an attempt to avoid unwanted Biblical associations in describing the Holy Land but sounded a lot like ineptitude.  More seriously perhaps, it didn’t give anything like enough opportunity for dramatic conflict between the characters, so there was no opera.  Rats!  I’d already seen the good bits in a concert at the Barbican years ago.

The music was better than the words by a long way, but it was often stuck indeterminately between minimalist and post-minimalist Adams.  The text (words and music) really didn’t tell the story, so we saw a whole intensive care unit of back-projections and intertitles, along with a very good cast and conductor, brought into play to try to keep the patient from dying, .

So a return from the grave for opera seria perhaps, with the characters reflecting upon the emotions they might be feeling to the accompaniment of soporific music…

Le Nozze di Figaro Royal Opera House 11 February

February 12, 2012


Photo of an earlier outing of this production (from

The evening started rather badly–not only was Bow Street full of fencing to keep proles penned in during the coming BAFTAs, but the place was comprehensively closed up two hours prior to kick-off, contrary to an email the ROH sent out promising business as usual.  Anyway I witnessed a lady with mobility problems and her companions spending a long time trying to get into the glass box on Bow Street or to summon aid or indeed to get in contact with anyone.

Once the management had decided to stop pissing on the paying customers–if only for a time–and let us in, things took a decided turn for the better.  Under Antonio Pappano’s direction the music zipped along very pleasingly, and some very precise on-stage action was greeted with copious and unforced laughter from the Upper Amphitheatre.

I certainly felt a lot more engaged than the previous time I’d seen this production–between us the only thing my companion and I could remember of that outing was the dog.  But I still worried about the design that had a lot of empty space both vertically and horizontally dwarfing the characters.  I thought that this piece was about the characters and their interactions, not the memory of all the dead generations weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living.  But since the setting here has been updated to a time after the French Revolution, maybe that is the idea.  In which case the Duke ands his hankering after the ius primae noctis is both loathsome and ineffective.

As so often, one didn’t really feel any danger of the Duke (Lucas Meachem) raping everybody in sight–neither he nor the Figaro of Ildebrando d’Arcangelo made that much of an impression on the audience or each other, and it was left to the females to provide the starrier singing, though again it was a team effort rather than a case of starriness.

I was pleased to see that the audience was really quite young (about the same kind of age range you’d see at the theatre) and there were not a few genuinely young people in it.  I opined that while 19th-century opera required you to accept either a demi-monde of women who were not not prostitutes or a romanticised travesty of various historical period or the atrocity exhibition from Wagner, operas from an earlier or later period might be easier of approach at least in this respect.

At the end the ushers barked at us to remove ourselves more quickly so that they could prepare for the serious business.

Pissing on the paying public again!