Wozzeck hell was that ?

A very good friend, in fact my son’s godfather, came to stay at the weekend, and was regaling us with stories of his cultural life in London, where he works as a systems consultant for a very well-known financial firm.

He is a music-lover – at school, we became friends over a shared love of jazz, in particular, albums by Chick Corea and guitarist Al Di Meola – although he also enjoys classical music. He went to hear Gheorgiu and Alagna in La boheme at Covent Garden earlier this year, which he thoroughly enjoyed, and mentioned a previous experience.

“A mate of mine rang me,” he launched into the story, “saying that he’d got a box at Covent Garden, and asked if I wanted to come. Well, I thought, why not… I didn’t know what opera was being performed, and I just turned up at the appointed hour.”

“And what did you see ?” I asked him.

“Wozzeck.”

I fell about laughing at the expression on his face as he delivered, dead-pan, the title of Berg’s brutal, atonal opera.

“How was it?”

“Well,” he replied, “it wasn’t exactly up-lifting. In fact, I found it rather impenetrable.”

“It’s the sort of piece,” said my wife, “that you ought to be warned about beforehand” (and she’s a professional singer, so she knows about this sort of thing). “You can do a bit of research before you go into the story and the characters, so you can learn to recognise their tunes.”

“TUNES ?!” exploded my friend in disbelief. “Tunes?”

“Well,” I murmured, “perhaps it’s not exactly full of hummable ditties fleshing out a rib-tickler of a story.”

My friend shuddered. What a work to have thrust upon you blindfold…

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Out of tune is out of tune…whoever is singing.

”That’s DREADFUL!” my wife yelled at the television this weekend, as I was watching bits of this year’s Glastonbury Festival. ”It’s SO out of tune!”

album coverTo be fair, she was right: and she’s a professional singer, so she should know. I was disappointed as well; we were watching Elbow’s slot, which was shockingly out of tune. I’ve written elsewhere about my enthusiasm for Elbow, with their intelligent lyrics and songs that reward multiple hearings, and their album, Build A Rocket, Boys!, released earlier this year, has kept on growing in my affections. But this live session was pretty frightful: so I turned it off.

So I was outraged when, later on, we changed channels to – Popstar to Operastar, which my wife watches religiously. For anyone who hasn’t suffered this travesty passing as popular entertainment, stars are plucked from the world of pop, and each week have to sing an aria from classical opera or other well-known piece; previously, these have ranged from Nessun Dorma to Volare and the ‘Love Theme’ from The Godfather. Some of them are popstars long confined to Pop Jail, who are looking for a platform to revive a career long since passed into the doldrums. I have little time to listen to music as it is, and I certainly don’t want to hear people singing pieces badly when I am able to.

In their defence, it is something of a challenge for pop singers to master major arias in a week, particularly if the songs are in a foreign language, but it’s a pretty terrible panoply of pop singers willing to sacrifice their dignity on a Sunday night. One risks hearing music being sung badly whenever you turn on the radio – and Radio 3 can be just as guilty as ClassicFM of broadcasting performances by singers which are astonishingly mediocre – or going to hear live performances; it’s part of the joys (and perils) of being a music consumer. But turning on a programme where you’re guaranteed to hear performances ranging from the cringingly mediocre to the breathtakingly awful – senseless, surely. (And don’t start muttering about ‘The Journey’ and ‘How Far They Come,’ it won’t wash).

Here’s a small example: try to stick with it for as long as you can…

So I can’t fathom why my wife watches it, or indeed why anyone would. Especially when she wants out-of-tune live stage sessions by Elbow turned off. It doesn’t matter what you’re singing, or to whom: out of tune is out of tune. Elbow were somewhat disappointing: but Popstar to Operastar is simply hideous.

Keeping abreast of the situation: Turnage’s ‘Anna Nicole’

Not being able to make it to London to see the performance, I finally caught up with Anna Nicole by Mark-Anthony Turnage when it was shown on BBC4 last week.

Brash, confrontational, full of vigour: the typical Turnage traits were evident in a musical score bristling with life. Known for his bold contemporary sound, Turnage demonstrated a more melodic side too with a couple of lyrical arias, most noticeably ‘You need a little luck, girls’ in Act One.

Somehow, the second act seems to lack the dynamic trajectory of the first: Anna Nicole’s decline and fall didn’t seem so precipitous as her first Act ascent to stardom. But the lurking dancing cameras (played by ballet dancers wearing film-camera head-masks) that stalked her throughout the second act were an effective short-hand for the glare of the media spotlight that drove her to her death. Even in labour, the lawyer Stern (brilliantly played by baritone Gerald Finlay) is exploiting her for the benefit of the cameras filming her giving birth.

Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek was a tour de force in her realisation of the role, dominating the stage whether learning the tricks of the trade as a pole-dancer, partying to excess, or sitting in front of the television demanding food.

By turns garish, provocative, sexy and sleazy, the opera paints a very two-dimensional story of Anna Nicole’s rise and fall; the tide of inevitablility drawing her onwards and upwards through the first half is captivating, but the second half somehow never quite deflates the balloon with sufficient drama. The death of her son, her continuing back-pain after breast-enhancing surgery, her addiction to medication to treat the pain, her reckless partying lifestyle; although the wheels come off her ride towards the American Dream, they do so perhaps rather more gently than they should; we need to witness a more desperate self-destructive decline – this felt more of a gentle downhill run, until the wheel-less cart rests gently at the bottom. There needs to be more of a sense of desperate spiralling out of control, in order for us truly to feel some empathy with her eventual fate.

The opera is being shown on BBC4 again tonight, and is broadcast on Radio 3 this Saturday at 9.30pm, and will be available on iPlayer for a week. Listen and judge for yourself…

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