Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The cult of the tenor

What is it about tenors? Perhaps it's because there aren't that many good ones around; scarcity adding value. Or is it that the sound of a good tenor can be one of the most thrilling? I admit to finding a good countertenor more thrilling, and a bass-baritone more exciting, but the world, it seems, does not agree with me. Almost all operatic heroes (or antiheroes) are tenors – Don Giovanni, Figaro and Baroque operas aside, perhaps – just as all operatic heroines are sopranos. It may be that there are too many opera companies with too many productions needing too many tenors for the world to supply. So the good ones tend to get too stretched, and begin performing roles for which they are not suited.

In Britain, for example, the most natural "voice" for a man is baritone, but I suspect that this is true for most nationalities. And perhaps this is why tenors are so feted: they have unnatural voices*. It's not a modern phenomenon, with its idolising of Pavarotti (a very fine singer but an indifferent musician), Carreras (once a good singer) and Domingo (a very good singer with intelligence and musicianship). Not to mention the pretenders, like Andrea Bocelli, and (gulp!) Russell Watson. Caruso was adored, though to modern ears his recordings, which were made when technology was primitive and he was not at the peak of his career, are somewhat ropey, and his acting mannered. Bryn Terfel, who has now reached the status of "national treasure" is about the only bass-baritone who has anywhere near the same following.

Opera, at least in this country, has never had a huge following, especially compared to the fanatical devotion it inspired in Italy. In the early nineteenth century Milan, for example, private meetings at home were banned, and so the Milanese met instead at La Scala, visiting a single production probably more than once a week. It wasn't just the elite who attended, either, and the audiences were knowledgeable, having no hesitation in complaining if the opera was not up to their standards. The booing off of Roberto Alagna, in the current production of Aida, is a modern manifestation of this. However, it does appear that the booing was not spontaneous and had been orchestrated. Still, by most accounts, Alagna did not sing the role well, and has been replaced in the current run. I haven't heard Alagna sing, but like many opera stars nowadays, he is probably over-singing, and damaging his voice as result. 'Lunchtime O'Boulez', for example (Private Eye's music commentator) remarks in the current issue:

"It was reported throughout the world as (literally) a hissy fit. But the truth is that many at La Scala were expecting him not to turn up in the first place. For years now Alagna has been pushing his voice into roles that don't suit it, with consequent damage."

Coincidentally, Alagna's wife, the soprano Angela Gheorghiu, also pulled out of her engagement to sing in Don Carlos at Covent Garden. She is another example of a singer who is singing too much, though her pulling out of Don Carlos suggests that she has recognised this. So what makes singers travel the world for a single evening's recital, flying to Vienna one day and to New York the next? It can't be good for their voices or their stamina. In the days before air travel, opera stars did travel widely, but they took days to get to the next opera house, and they would sing there for several weeks. Alagna should have taken a leaf from Domingo's book – the veteran Spanish tenor still sings, but has retreated to minor roles or short engagements, and spends much of his time in directing opera, where his knowledge and experience must be inspiring. But is it the modern world's increasing lust after celebrity that makes people follow the famous singer, irrespective of his or her true talent?

*In fact, one could argue that all opera singers have unnatural voices – no normal person could fill an opera house with their voice, unaided, unamplified, and over an orchestra.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The art of fug

After my post about fashion, S. pointed me towards the "Go Fug Yourself" website (see link opposite), which I've been consuming with avidity lately. It's one of the funniest blogs around. While the premise seems rather destructive, in that the site is dedicated to showing up the fashion or appearance disasters of the wealthy or well-known (but not in the best sense, famous), much of it is written in terms of affectionate despair (Lindsay Lohan), as "letters" to the star's public (Jennifer Lopez or Britney Spears), or in plain, straightforward, "What were they thinking?" astonishment. The ladies who write the blog have their own particular fashion no-no's (leggings, wearing trousers with a dress, not showing your nice shoes), but they cast their net well. It's by no means unmitigated fugliness, however, as there are often posts about the nice things that some previously fugged star has since been wearing.

Some of the people featured may require some googling, but not knowing who, say, Bai Ling is doesn't really detract from the entertainment. Some of the fashion disasters featured are jaw-droppingly awful, and what I find amusing is that the same outfit may well have been used in a so-called fashion magazine to illustrate the person's known taste and fashion sense (Jennifer Lopez in a silver metallic minidress and beanie hat combination springs to mind).

Thursday, December 14, 2006

This is a lesson not to use the heart in car buying

Well, my car obviously knows* that I am planning to sell it, and is playing up while it can. It had its MoT test last week, failed on a couple of things, which were put right, and re-tested to the Ministry's satisfaction. I drove it back from the garage without any problems and hadn't used it again until yesterday evening. Our group at work had our Christmas meal last night at East in Peterborough, so I decided to drive.

The car started up fine (thanks to Bob for the tip about depressing the clutch when starting up, which is prolonging the battery life nicely), but while I was reversing out of the drive, I noticed the engine was running somewhat raggedly. Ah, I thought, it's low on fuel - I had better fill up on my way into town. So I did, but the engine still seemed to be playing up, and the car was jerking a little when travelling at any steady speed. So I left the car in a nearby car park, walked to the barge, and spent the next four hours or so very enjoyably: the food in East, which is mostly Thai, was very good, and we had crackers, so everyone was wearing paper crowns and groaning at the lack of humour in the mottoes.

I returned to the car not long after eleven, and the damned thing would not start. The battery was live and well, and the starter motor was sounding healthy: unfortunately, the engine just wasn't catching. I sighed in resignation and called the RAC. Every penny I spend on my subscription is worth it. They sent out a local contractor, who arrived only twenty minutes after I'd called for assistance, and then spent the next hour and a half trying to find out what the problem was. To cut a long story short, the car was towed home and me with it at half-past one, the problem still not fixed.

Anyway, the car is now at its spiritual home, the local MG garage, and hopefully they will find out what is wrong. I suppose it's too much to hope that it won't cost an arm and a leg to fix. I've already been there and done that with my old car.

So here's the moral of the story: Buy a reliable car. Don't let your heart rule your head when shopping for motor vehicles. I really should have spent the extra and bought a Honda instead.

* I know cars are not sentient, but sometimes it's as if they are, the wasters.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

No, no and thrice no!

I shall say this only once, so listen carefully. Look, Diana is dead! Dead, I tell you! For God's sake let's just move on, please. Prince William is quoted as having said: "This big concert full of energy, full of the sort of fun and happiness which I know she would have wanted." Of course William is going to use this sort of justification for a charity concert, but honestly: who knows what his mother would have wanted? She's dead.

Sorry if I come over as overly unfeeling, but really I object this reverence of Diana's memory. Plus ageing rockers are using it as an excuse to crawl out of semi-retirement to assault our aural senses. I know Elton John was a friend of their mother's, but the princes should know better.

I'm not going to even comment on the conclusion of the report into her death, except to say sarcastically, well, that was unexpected. But I feel sure the conspiracy theories are going to continue to run, at least as long as Richard Desmond owns the Daily Express, anyway.

Incidentally, the picture included in the BBC's article seems to indicate that William will go the way of the Windsors with regard to hair loss*

* Okay, I know that male pattern baldness is inherited through the maternal line. Still, Earl Spencer was certainly balding.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Film review - Hollywoodland

The film posters hark back to the golden age of Hollywood, with glamorous-looking actors in monochrome, and convey the sense of some illicit love affair. There have been a couple of such historical pictures out lately, such as The Black Dahlia. Hollywoodland takes as its starting point the death by suicide of actor George Reeves, first inhabitant of the Superman suit on TV, and an investigation into that death by a private investigator. But it also manages to examine the whole studio system through focussing on Reeves and his relationship with the wife of a studio boss.

When we first encounter the detective Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), we see him living in a slightly down-at-heel apartment block. A customer (Larry Cedar), obsessed with the idea that his wife is having an affair, keeps paying Simo to spy on her, though the detective insists that the man is mistaken. Later, Simo's family - his estranged wife Laurie (Molly Parker) and son Evan - is introduced. The news of Reeves's suicide is first mentioned, and its shocking effect on Simo's son and other children to whom Superman was real. Simo is hired by Reeves's mother, who insists that there is something not right about her son's suicide: she is convinced that he was murdered. She's something of an unpleasant character, her prime motivation being her conviction that her son deserves a statue. Ever the publicist, Simo begins his quest in a blaze of flashbulb light, but finds himself becoming interested in the case for its own sake.

Scenes flash back to Reeves' (Ben Affleck) early career, and his first encounter with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane). He's a struggling actor, she's the wife of a studio head, Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). They become lovers, and he her kept man. Simo's investigation is also entwined with his weird client's obsession, and scenes are woven with Reeves' life both during his Superman career (a funny but shocking scene where the actor entertains a crowd of children with Superman foiling some bad guys and is asked by a small boy carrying a loaded gun if he can shoot Superman stands out), and afterwards during his attempts to shake off the Superman tag and do real work.

The film doesn't attempt to solve the mystery, and really seems to be about Simo's realisation that he is not a good detective, and that his willingness to take money for jobs where there is nothing to investigate can hurt other people badly.

The actors are very good, particularly Affleck and Lane. The film also confirms my opinion that Ben Affleck is an excellent supporting actor, but is no good as a lead. I very much enjoyed Bob Hoskins' turn, very subtly and deftly played, and Robin Tunney as Reeve's new girlfriend. Anyone who finds Adrien Brody annoying should enjoy the several scenes in which his character gets severely beaten-up.

It's an interesting film, with solid period detail, excellent performances, and an interesting story. It makes a good companion piece to LA Confidential, in that Simo runs up against the same studio schemers and fixers as Exley and White do in the earlier film, but in Hollywoodland, the studios and actors are given a more prominent role. If there's a real weakness it's that the film really refuses to condemn the shady practices employed, and invites the viewers to draw their own conclusions.


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

It's just not cricket

To be honest, I didn't have high hopes before this Ashes series, and now they seem to have totally crumbled. Into ashes, as it were. I was pleasantly surprised to hear about Collingwood's double century in the first innings, particularly as he first got into the side by being a so-called "bits and pieces all-rounder". I also like that he's a Durham player, like Harmison, and Durham are not known as the best county side ever. Still, I might have known that it was too good to be true.

Reading comments on the BBC's Test Match Special blog reveals a variety but also a consensus of opinion.

Giles should be dropped and replaced with Panesar. I'm a fan of Giles, but even I have to admit that since his return to the side he hasn't performed at all well. Panesar's fielding isn't great, but he's much more of an attacking bowler than Giles.

The captaincy should be passed to Strauss until Vaughan returns to the side. I heartily agree with this. Flintoff possesses the ability to inspire his colleagues with the will to win, but tactically, he seems to be very limited. Tony Greig commented recently, in response to criticism about Flintoff's triple role, that most cricket captains are batsmen and have little experience of the ball. What he fails to understand, however, is that, without any tactical thought, it doesn't matter whether you can bowl, bat and keep wicket: you'll still be a rubbish captain. Steve Waugh, for example, was not a bowler, yet no-one ever suggested that he was not a great captain. I like Richie Benaud's comment that "captaincy is 90% luck and 10% skill - but don't try it without that 10%."

Fletcher needs to seriously consider his options for the next Test. He needs to be tough, and make players carry the can for their failures, rather than saying lamely that no-one was to blame.

It's easy to say, from our vantage point, that the England team are a bunch of wusses who capitulated to Aussie pressure. The pressure was there, certainly. Self-belief was probably not exactly high after the first Test. The point remains however, that England should have won the match. Their bowlers need to start taking twenty wickets in the match (Hoggard excepted - he at least performed well), and the batsmen need to stop throwing their wickets away.

Still, having read all this over, I can't help thinking to myself: oh, it's only a game. So what? And yet... I hope that the team can pick themselves up and win the next match. But I expect they won't. If England are to avoid a whitewash, I can only see the Aussies losing - not England winning.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


It's been pointed out to me that, like certain politicians, I should have made a full and frank confession of a potential conflict of interest with respect to my recent review of the Tallis concert. Still, I think I wrote a fair review despite the fact that I happen to be engaged to the alto soloist!

So I apologise, and if anything like this happens again, I shall confess it humbly, penitently and with a contrite heart. Hopefully before I get taken to task by L, anyway!

Concert review - Anton Bruckner Choir - Monteverdi: Vespers

The concert took place on Saturday evening at 7.30 pm (not 7pm as previously noted) in the church of St Clement Danes, London. The church is situated in the middle of the Strand, but the traffic noise wasn't too obtrusive. It's a Wren church, built in 1682, damaged during the Second World War, and later restored. It serves as the Central Church of the RAF, and there are many memorials, particularly in the crypt, to the RAF dead. The church has been beautifully restored - lots of dark wood and intricate carving, bright gilding, and accented with a bright turquoise blue colour. I guess that the stained glass windows would look beautiful during the day, though they weren't visible during the concert. There was a good acoustic, too: bright without being reverberent.

The concert consisted only of the Vespers by Monteverdi, one of the largest and grandest Renaissance works. It was published in Venice, although Monteverdi was working in Mantua at the time. It has been conjectured that he wrote it as a kind of audition piece for the basilica of St Mark's, and he was certainly made choirmaster there three years later. The Wikipedia link above gives much more information about the structure of the work which I'm
not going to repeat here.

The performers were:
Conductor: Christopher Dawe
Soloists: Lynton Atkinson (tenor), Andrew Tortise (tenor); Ruth Beckmann (soprano), Karen Gilbert (soprano); Frank Taylor (tenor); Richard Hubbard (baritone), Marcus Marr (baritone); Charisse Amand (mezzo-soprano), Claire Bennie (contralto).
Monteverdi Ensemble (on authentic instruments)
Anton Bruckner Choir

The Vespers began with Deus in adiutorium meum (O God make speed to save us), which is a simple unison choral part accompanying solo tenor. The choral parts I found a little dull, but then that was Monteverdi's fault, not the choir's. The next movement, Dixit Dominus, was much more exciting, chorally, with mixed choral parts, tenor and bass soloists, followed by a beautifully sung Nigra sum, by the two tenors.

Laudate pueri was another choral psalm, well sung by the choir and sympathetically accompanied by the ensemble. It was followed by the motet Pulchra es, sung by the two soprano soloists: this was beautiful, and the two voices were well matched and complementary. The seventh movement, Duo seraphim, was begun by the two tenor soloists, and then joined by the third, singing from the pulpit: three very different voices, the amateur matching the professionals. Audi coelum, the ninth movement placed the two tenors at different ends of the church, with Atkinson singing the responses from the back, which was a good effect, particularly as the hidden voice gave the impression of otherworldliness.

Sonata sopra Sancti Maria again suffered, like the first movement, from being sung in unison voice parts. However, the lines were well sung, and there was some interest in seeing the variation Monteverdi created in setting the same words, and in the instrumental parts. The next movement, Ave maris stella, was sung partly by the choir, and partly by women soloists from it, each taking a verse. All the soloists were good, so it seems invidious to pick out any one of them, but I particularly liked Claire Bennie's voice - a lovely rich contralto sound.

Lastly there was sung the Magnificat, the highlight and finale of the work. The two tenors almost seemed to be doing "Anything you can do, I can do better", from either end of the church, augmented later by the choir.

The only problem during the performance was the long hiatus enforced partway through the Magnificat, because the ring of bells attempting to play "Oranges and Lemons" with mighty thuds and whirrs of clockwork and hammers was rather distracting. Once they had finished, the singing resumed, not the worse for the interval. One of the sackbut players could have been better, but didn't spoil the overall performance.

It's the first time I'd listened to the Vespers, and have to conclude that it's a most magnificent piece, almost operatic in its variation and setting. The concert was excellent, and was much enjoyed by a large audience.