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Woody Allen’s breakthrough movie; it won four Oscars (best picture, best actress, best director, best screenplay) and established Allen as a leading auteur film-maker. Thought by many critics to be Woody Allen’s magnum opus, Annie Hall confirmed that he had “completed the journey from comic to humorist, from comedy writer to wit, and from inventive moviemaker to creative artist” (Saturday Review).

An Opera Singer

Rupert Christiansen reviews Rusalka at the Royal Opera House

I only hope that the furious booing with which it was greeted at the curtain call means that it will be returned to sender at the earliest opportunity.

Reactions to Rusalka

Yet another shit let’s shock production of a very dull opera …

I’d sure hate to see the genre disappear.

(Clint Eastwood, Cannes 1985)

Kevin Costner tried to bring the Western back but he failed. I don’t know if it’s him, his inability to hire a good editor for his movies or if we’ve all grown out of Westerns, but it seems the genre is pretty much dead now.

I recently watched Wyatt Earp, since I had seen it when it came out and it bored the crap out of me … I enjoy it more now. Anyway, I think that Open Range should be his best Western, but I have a soft spot for the icky Dances with Wolves … the ickiest moment is seeing Kevin Costner wagging his bare arse at the camera … he directed it too … just to make sure it wasn’t called Two Dogs Fucking

My point is, Kevin Costner just isn’t convincing in Westerns. That’s the problem. Give me Unforgiven for a straightforward western, or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford for a stylized one.

If a film has Kevin Costner in it, chances are its going to be bad. That’s a given.

Speaking of modern Westerns, I was positively surprised by Unforgiven. I was expecting something completely lame, but it was actually pretty good, and Clint Eastwood’s acting is still as intense as ever, which is amazing, considering he looks like he’s about to crumble into dust at any moment.

Plus, in contrast to Costner, any film with Gene Hackman and Richard Harris in it is going to be good.

American film director Sidney Lumet, who has died aged 86, directed three of my all-time favourite films: Serpico, The Hill, and The Offence.

For the bulk of his career, he averaged a film a year, earning four Oscar nominations along the way for best director, for 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network (which earned Peter Finch a posthumous Oscar) and The Verdict.

The Hill, like 12 Angry Men, has an all-male cast, and simmers throughout with repressed rage and resentment which eventually explodes, conveyed brilliantly by great British actors like Ian Hendry, Ian Bannen, Sean Connery and Harry Andrews.

The Offence, another of Lumet’s British films with Sean Connery and Ian Bannen, has a score by Harrison Birtwistle, Serpico picks up on that documentary feel that William Friedkin used in The French Connection, and The Hill, which has no music and is shot in monochrome, certainly makes my top ten films ever. It scared the shit out of me when I first saw it.

R.I.P. Sidney Lumet, film director, born 25 June 1924; died 9 April 2011

Sidney Lumet: a career in pictures
A Director of Classics, Focused on Conscience

Great play, ludicrous movie.

Where to start … it distorts Mozart’s character, he was not this continually asinine schoolboy, despite what one may infer from his letters. I don’t think there is evidence that his father became a source for fear, although he probably thought his father a prick stuck in Salzburg. It makes his composing look too casual and easy. The film makes the point that he works hard, but it undermines the concept.

There is no evidence that Salieri ever tied to seduce Constanze, a pure invention.

There is no evidence that Salieri had any even marginal involvement with him in his final weeks. His wife was not as portrayed, the idea they call one another “Wolfie” and “Stanzie” in inane voices generates a tone that also undermines the character of them both. She was bright, a gifted singer and hardworking. The children are pretty much kept out of the way.

I think that will do for now.

No, no, no …

Of course, the film gives a distorted view of the composer; Peter Shaffer was not trying to create a biographical play but only used events from Mozart’s life to create a model in which he could explore the nature of artistic genius as compared to artistic mediocrity.

Mozart’s life and experiences in Vienna were a convenient framework in which to set up this examination. This means that whenever Mozart’s life’s events fit the model, they were used or adapted; those events which did not fit the model were discarded or altered. Where events did not exist, and were needed to advance the thesis of the play, they were invented (e.g. Salieri commissioning the Requiem, and in the end helping him to compose it, the most ludicrous part of the movie). In the play, Salieri must destroy Mozart because Shaffer wanted to demonstrate that mediocrity is the mortal enemy of genius. The work is one of fiction and bears as much resemblance to Mozart’s life as any novel about a historic figure resembles that figure’s life. It is a great play, but Mozart’s life is the scenery and background; it was never about Mozart. The movie is a stupid movie, one of the worst screen adaptions of a stage play, but the music is really an exquisite frame for the ideas which are independent of Mozart as an historic personage.

BTW, I saw Amadeus at the National Theatre in 1979, aged 17, with Paul Scofield as Salieri, Simon Callow as Mozart, and Felicity Kendal as Constanze, directed by Peter Hall, music arranged by Harrison Birtwistle, so FUCK YOU!

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Mike Figgis is about to make his debut as an opera director at English National Opera. But his production of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia is hardly the fulfilment of a dream for the 62-year-old Oscar-nominated director.

“I only went to my first opera three or four years ago, when my girlfriend took me to the Met in New York.”

What does Figgis remember of that first opera he saw in New York? “It was Verdi, the one where she’s dying. Actually, that could be any opera, couldn’t it?”

Fucking hell. Mike Figgis has a girlfriend? Poor bitch.

Quite recently I heard Callas singing some Mozart and was shocked – I expected something dreadfully exaggerated but what I got was really lovely and very much ahead of its time – no fireworks, a very plain, modest way of singing, it really showed how thoughtful a singer she was and how much style she had.

Norma is a good example of what she did. She sang it more than she sang any other role. It is often referred to as a killer role; it is simply very hard on the voice. It is difficult to explain properly without you listening to her. Also, if you don’t know the music at all, then hearing her sing Norma you may well feel, well, so what!

With that piece she moved it from being usually done as almost an oratorio, severely classical in feel, to a red in tooth and claw drama. However, in doing this she really used the music rather than damaged it and her phrasing is extremely intelligent and above all musical. She had the skill of making you think it was all coming fresh out of her mouth, rather than learned by rote and coloured here and there.

She inhabited such roles rather than taking them on. Of course there were great singers before her and if you were to hear Claudia Muzio you would be surprised to hear so much of the Callas colouring … but pre-Callas. Her career was short and that was possibly in part because of the risks she took in pushing her voice, but then, if she had played safe, she would be forgotten now.

It has often been stated that Callas’s fame rested on her undoubted stage presence and dramatic gifts, and though this is no doubt partly true, it doesn’t explain her continuing popularity, or why her recordings should sell in such huge numbers. There have been plenty of other great singers/actors, whose recorded legacy is relatively slight. I can think of Teresa Stratas and Josephine Barstow, both of whom are tremendous on stage, but whose voices convey very little of that presence on record. This is where Callas is different. Her presence and personality fairly burst through the speakers. She creates drama for the mind’s theatre, as surely as if she were standing there before us. With Callas, I no longer listen to the singer, but to the story and character she is unfolding. An example of the differences would be to listen to her performance of, say, O patria mia, from Aïda, alongside Montserrat Caballé’s. Now this is an aria which never worked well for Callas. Caballé here is divine, the top C spun out in a pure pianissimo, which is literally breathtaking. I am astonished and captivated, but I am no longer listening to the opera, I am listening to Montserrat Caballé. In the Callas version, the note is somewhat earthbound and effortful to say the least, but it becomes as nothing, so wistfully has she longed for her homeland in the previous music. Indeed I can’t hear the words O cieli azzurri, without hearing Callas’s peculiarly yearning tone. Someone once said of Callas to John Steane, “Of course you had to see her”, to which he replied “Ah, but I can, and I do!”

In a Medea performance that didn’t go too well, there were murmurs and even catcalls. At one crucial plot line, where she is supposed to address Giasone, she turned to the audience and uttered Medea’s desperate plea “Ho datto tutto a te” (I gave you everything I have).

In a performance of Bellini’s Il Pirata, at the time where the Meneghinis were constantly clashing with La Scala’s superintendent Ghiringelli, Callas-Imogene ostentatiously pointed at the superintendent’s theatre box and sang “La! Vedete, il palco funesto” (“There – look: the dreadful scaffold”). In the opera, the word palco refers to the scaffold where her lover will be hanged. But this Italian word can also be used to designate a theatre box. Although Ghiringelli was not in his box that night, the anecdote was widely circulated across Italy. She made news as no other opera star has ever done before or since.

Another such incident that has passed into operatic folk lore now, is Callas’s first performance in Italy after the scandal of her walking out half way through a performance of Norma, before the President of Italy, due to illness. It was at a revival of Anna Bolena at La Scala. Such was the bad feeling that the Italian press had whipped up against her, that La Scala, fearing an incident, had positioned plain clothed police all over the theatre, and riot police surrounded the theatre outside. Visconti re-directed some of the scenes so as to give Callas a certain amount of protection on stage in case of flying missiles from the audience. Throughout the first act the audience had reacted to her with icy coldness, loudly applauding her colleagues. By the finale of the first act, Callas had had just about as much as she could stomach. This is the scene where Henry VIII finds her in compromising circumstances and tells the guards to take her to prison. Anna, utterly outraged, launches the exciting stretta to the finale with the words Giudice! Ad Anna! Giudice! (Judges! for Anna!). At this point, Callas pushed aside the guards, marched down to the footlights, and hurled the words into the audience, as much as to say “how dare you judge me”, singing the rest of the scene with a scorching brilliance, incredible even for her. The audience was completely won over and from then to the end of the opera, she had them in the palm of her hands. Word of her success apparently reached the crowds of people waiting outside the theatre, and when she appeared at the stage door after the performance, the police found themselves having to restrain not an angry mob, but hordes of fans trying to besiege her with floral tributes. Unfortunately when she returned home that night, exhausted from her triumph, it was to find the gates of the Meneghini villa daubed with dog shit and the walls covered in insulting graffiti. And we wonder why her career was so short!

As an adjunct, it should be noted that Callas actually sued the Rome Opera for not having an understudy available on the night of that walk out, and for not fulfilling their subsequent contractual obligations. The case dragged on for years, and eventually was settled totally in her favour. But it was too late. By then she was no longer singing, though the damage done to her personally and her career was immense and irrevocable.

I suppose the reason for the multifarious theories as to why her voice declined so rapidly, is testament to the fact that nobody really knows and nobody ever will. Both Renée Fleming and Deborah Voight (sopranos themselves) touch on similar theories, which is interesting. Personally, I have always felt that it was not the actual weight loss, but the diet that might have been the problem. Singers need an enormous amount of stamina to support their voices throughout an opera, and you only get stamina with proper nutrition, that is eating the right foods to give you energy, without piling on the pounds. In those days less was known about nutrition and it is quite possible that Callas’s diet deprived her of some of the necessary nutrients. That, and the punishing schedule she found herself following. A typical example is the summer of 1957. On 4 July, she embarked on two performances of La Sonnambula, in which she is in admirably secure voice, as can be heard on the recording preserved from the performances, and now available on EMI. Five days later she is in Milan to record Turandot, a role that was no longer in her repertoire and which she really ought not to have been singing. That she acquits herself as well as she does, is cause for surprise, though she does show elements of strain. However three days after the Turandot sessions are over, she is back to record Manon Lescaut, and it is here that the effects of the previous days can be heard. She sounds utterly exhausted. Indeed some of the climactic high notes are as bad as they were to become in the mid-1960s, and this is probably why its release was delayed until 1959.

(Source: Guardian)

How did a groundbreaking production of Tristan und Isolde make it to the stage? With help from kneepads, booze, painkillers and video artist Bill Viola, reveals company manager Henrietta Bredin in her tour diary:

Back in 2004, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, director Peter Sellars and artist Bill Viola created the all-enveloping, sensurround Tristan Project. Their hugely ambitious version of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde mixed Viola’s video art with Sellars’ choreography and direction against a semi-staging of the immense opera. The piece played in New York, Los Angeles and Paris, and Salonen began planning to bring it to London. Six years later, reimagined and retitled, Tristan und Isolde has been performed in Switzerland and Germany and is about to go to Birmingham, before finishing up in London’s Royal Festival Hall on Sunday. This new take brings the musicians out of the orchestra pit and on to the stage. Over their heads is a vast screen – 11m x 6.6m – on which Viola’s images, of fire and water, faces and reflections, moonlight and waves, are projected. The screen is in a horizontal position for the first two acts and then pivots on its own axis to a vertical position. The entire thing weighs 1,740kg, as much as a car, and has to be transported to and erected in each venue. At various points during the performance, singers and solo instrumentalists perform from different places within the concert hall, which produces an extraordinary three-dimensional effect, immersing the audience in Wagner’s music. I was brought in as company manager by the London-based Philharmonia, where Salonen is principal conductor, to put together a mini opera production team of technical director and stage managers, and then to look after the singers and keep things on track while the show went on the road. We started with rehearsals in London …

Amy Winehouse has never heard of Claude Vivier

Bored by Barber, Bernstein, Britten, Tippett and Tchaikovsky? Try Claude Vivier! Never heard of him? Neither had I, but when I saw the announcement of a DVD from De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam my curiosity was aroused and I ordered it. Those Dutch are producing the most astonishing array of new opera productions. And I always saw them as a dull and unimaginative tribe. Pierre Audi, the artistic director of De Nederlandse Opera, has become one of my favourite directors since I saw his Ring, now my favourite Ring video, shoving the Harry Kupfer/Daniel Barenboim off its pedestal, at least in the video category.

I can’t possible give you a blow-by-blow report of the opera Kopernikus I watched yesterday. It is not called an opera, but a “ritual opera of death”. I never heard any of the singers, nor the conductor, who, surprisingly, took his applause in a protestant minister’s outfit, his real occupational garb. The performance took place in a cavernous old building, former warehouse or factory or something with a stage-like rectangle covered by a deep layer of sand, matching the general lighting throughout! Same with the costumes; very thick sheets of heavy felt. It might be moulded foam, I couldn’t tell, which the singers use skilfully to wrap themselves in, or their fellow actors. The “furniture” sets are wooden crates.

All this is mostly the background, my eyes were busy following the action. No orchestra, but musicians, in costume and make-up, are on stage, acting while playing their instruments. One brilliant slide trombonist doing a duo with the bass actor-singer, even while flat on his back. The female violinist moved all over the sand, wearing a billowy grey outfit with a very long train, and of course no stand for her notes. It is almost an hour of music she has to memorise. A few woodwind players, percussionists and a solo piano complete the “orchestra”. The music is not as strange as I had expected from a student of Ligeti and Stockhausen; of course I won’t walk around humming it.

Watching the singers gave my eyes more to do. Singing with the open hand occasionally tapping the lips to vibrate the sound created something new, not unpleasant to hear. A soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass, plus the narrator completed the cast. I have to include the musicians in the cast, because they were just as skilful actors as the singers. The language is “invented” but a running translation in English helps tremendously to let me know what is going on.

I think I shall watch Götterdämmerung tomorrow, give myself a day of respite from Claude Vivier, and then maybe his Marco Polo during the weekend.

Anybody seriously interested in new music, new composers, new ways to be a spectator and listener of an exciting experience, do try this DVD. Also it would be great to see a gay composer getting more recognition for a change.

All I need to add is that even Stockhausen thought this guy was weird.

Black Dogs Defined

This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another: my life was as the vapour and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.

(John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies)

Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not.

(Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning)

This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me.

(Emily Dickinson, This is my letter to the world)

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, Second Fig)

R.A.D. Stainforth

I was born before The Beatles’ first LP and brought up in the reeking slums of Jericho. I am in love with a woman called Hazel and in love with her daughter, also called Hazel, both of whom I met at Alcoholics Anonymous.

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