Too many ideas spoil the plot

This about opera, but I have a feeling I’ve been sent a lesson about writing too.

Last night I went to a performance of one of Verdi’s lesser known operas, La Forza del Destino – correction, since I saw it in English – The Force of Destiny. Powerful stuff, you might think, with a title like that. Well certainly complex, with a lifetime of doomed love and revenge for all three of its main characters.

The music for this opera is sublime; a parade of moving tunes and orchestral subtlety, with some humour and drunken revelry to lighten the inevitable fated march of all concerned. It is, however, VERY difficult to stage. It takes place in both Italy and Spain over a number of years, includes battles, pub scenes, a church and a hermitage.Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 11.18.26

This director opted for The Spanish Civil War (Verdi set his battles in Italy) and EVERYTHING else he could lay hands on. War is not funny, so all of the humour was stripped out (funny arias and characters turned particularly nasty). War is cruel, sadistic and misogynistic – true – so all these factors were hammered home. However, you can actually have too much of a bad thing. When the audience starts to wonder how far the priest is into S & M, or what they are using for blood (in every single scene), or why a warhorse is hovering over a building and was there really a public tearing up of books in that war, and surely that bare girl running was from Vietnam, you have lost the plot and replaced it with too many ideas. You have also splintered your viewer/listener’s attention.Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 11.15.02Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 11.14.03 Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 11.14.38Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 11.17.18

Verdi wrote a classical tragedy, in which the fates deal cruelly with three particular people in a volatile world. The drama of their story deserves as much respect as the music and much more than the setting.

I have another problem with this production. I go to opera for the music and the drama. Understandably, musical ability trumps all else when casting. However, if the director chooses singers who have no physical resemblance to, or are of a different age from, the people they are playing, he/she should (at the very least) minimise the discrepancies by adapting costumes and staging where necessary so that the drama is not lost, or the singers made a mock of, OR the opera become the joke stereotype of its genre (as this was in the first act – image below).Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 11.16.48In the centre (back to us) you have the beautiful, pure, young woman, whose father (left) refuses to let her marry the young soldier (right) because he is not noble. After killing her father in error, the soldier flees and later (disguised) will become a hero in the army and blood-friend of the girl’s brother (see image 2 above). This brother (also disguised) is searching for the soldier and his own sister to kill them. The girl (not much disguised) enters a hermitage. Everybody dies.

Finally, you can say stuff in Italian that sounds absurd in English. Italian words end in vowels (of which there are few) so many of the lines naturally echo each other. This is emphatically not the same as a rhyming couplet in English, which, unless handled by a skilled poet, often has a nursery rhyme humour to it.

Hope you enjoyed the pictures – all screenshots from the English National Opera website – if not the rant.

Three operas and an interview

I’m still out breath. We saw Flight by Jonathan Dove at Opera Holland Park, including a delightful interview with Dove beforehand. This opera is a rare thing, a modern, English, comic opera. We saw it once, more than ten years ago, and it was so funny we bought the libretto. It is set in an airport, with a cast of very real types that you might meet in such a place. Each of these has a story, and, in spite of many laughs and farcical lift/elevator passages, their stories are very touching with an element of tragedy thrown in – the music’s good too! (Screenshot from Opera Holland Park website).Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 22.26.09 For opera two we were guests at Glyndebourne for Donizetti’s Poliuto – so obscure an opera that it is unlisted in our edition of Kobbé. This is about early Christian martyrs (set in Sarajevo in the 1990s (??)), but actually it is a classical tragedy with love, honour and duty fighting it out. The music is stunning and it is clear that Verdi rifled through it at some stage. This is my kind of opera, moving, full of dramatic emotional music, beautifully sung and acted. I loved every minute of this performance and I have never (over many years) heard such wild enthusiasm from a Glyndebourne audience. (Screenshot from Glyndebourne website).Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 23.07.53 Opera three, also at Glydebourne, was all about the event. We were guests of my youngest brother and wife to celebrate, with my oldest brother and wife (middle brother and wife not able to join us), what would have been our father’s 100th birthday. Oh yes, the opera! This was Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Mozart (shame on me) is a bit repetitive and, um, tinkly (?) for me, but this was a very lively and funny performance, beautifully sung, and I loved the sets. (Screenshots from the Glyndebourne website). EDIT I meant to mention that the highlight of the story was that the ‘bad’ guy, the Turkish Pasha, turned into the magnanimous hero at the end. Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 23.14.31 Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 22.07.44 Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 22.06.52And finally the bonus interview. When we were standing around our picnic table BBC Radio 4 appeared and asked to interview the person who had created the table and the picnic. We happily pushed forward my sister-in-law, Susie, who answered their unexpected questions clearly and coherently. Our menu included lobster tart, lamb cutlets on couscous and peach and raspberry trifle (not to mention olives, salmon sandwiches, cold meats and cheese). We couldn’t wait.  DSCN7802 DSCN7810DSCN7819 A wonderful time was had by all and we raised glasses to our father and mother.

Rossini, I take it all back

WARNING: If you are not an opera fan, I’m going to let rip, so jump to the pictures at the end.

See also Nina Mishkin’s post BEL CANTO AT THE MET.

On Tuesday we saw the encore of the Live from the MET performance of Rossini’s Donna del Lago in the cinema. Now Rossini in a problem for me. Fabulous music and delicious arias, but it is all about the vocal gymnastics and not the passions of the humans, except in an absurd and comic way. I tend to end Rossini performances feeling aurally battered and emotionally underfed.

The METs production of Donna del Lago has made me eat my words. It satisfies in every respect. With a faultless cast, who invest every phrase, every note, with the emotion it deserves and no (well, no intentional) comic interludes. This success is in major part due to the director, Paul Curran. He was working with peach of a cast, but he ensured that they acted out their emotions to the full and my god this makes a difference. The voices and all their fireworks serve the drama instead of the other way round. (Flores admits that the same cast did not achieve this emotional cohesion in the La Scala production – see youtube excerpts).

This was in maddening contrast to the production we saw in the cinema a week ago of the English National Opera production of La Traviata – Verdi is my favourite opera composer and Traviata nearly top of my list. I am up for experimental productions and this one, in an attempt to appeal to a new, young audience, had made deep cuts, reduced it to a two-act opera and set it in modern dress. I could live with that. The soloists had fine voices and plenty of acting ability and I will happily go and see them again. Two things irritated the hell out of me. One was the endless pinching/plagiarism of other directors ideas (or as my companions more charitably suggested paying tribute to others’ ideas). The other was the endless dramatic misses. these are the moments when the characters intend to express love, pain, hate, envy, anger TO EACH OTHER. Time after time, it is the conductor on the receiving end of these passions. This does not work for me and a decent director could surely avoid this (though again, my companions had a wonderful evening).

Back to Donna. Joyce di Donato (listen to the 1.35 min audio clip here) and Juan Diego Flores in the two major roles, are unsurpassed and unsurpassable in their field. I can listen and watch both with endless pleasure. For me the novelty was in the mezzo Daneila Barcellona playing Malcolm, the love interest. She had, in addition to a wonderful voice, a commanding presence and confidence, which is so often missing in trouser roles. The villain Rodrigo, sung by baritone/tenor John Osborn was another new voice to me, different in timbre and colour from Flores, but with fabulous high, as well as low, notes. All of this held together so flawlessly by the conducting go Michele Mariotti.

I’ll stop there. Ah… a picture or two:

IMG_0962 - Version 2DSCN7114 And what we saw of the eclipse…DSCN7125

I Due Foscari – one opera; two experiences

One of our favourite operas – the rarely-performed I Due Foscari (Verdi)* – is on at the Royal Opera House. We went to see it last Thursday and followed this up on Monday by watching the live relay performance in the cinema.

First off, the reviews weren’t great, but experience has taught us to keep an open mind, as performances often warm up. On the stage, as far as the singers were concerned, all was well. With Pappano in the pit and Placido Domingo, Francesco Meli and Maria Agresta giving us glorious music with high tragedy and great passion, we were very happy listeners.

BUT this is a maddening production. It is set in a what looks like a Venetian bomb site. Background figures move constantly, but very, very slowly and distractingly, throughout the performance, with some gruesome slow-motion torture thrown in. If you succeed in ignoring the figures, then the scenery – that is the narrow platforms for keeping your feet dry in watery Venice – also move frequently and erratically. (It brought to mind slow-motion table football). If you manage to stop worrying about whether the singers will fall off the platforms, you are dizzied by the Doge’s dining room and bedroom, which appear on a flying, sloped platform, on which the 89-year-old Doge (72-year-old Domingo) has to look stable AND sing his heart out. Then there’s the costumes; these are a sort of riff on Russian Eighteenth century costumes – with a few spare metres of brocade thrown in, the wealthy have electric colours, the poor are clad in grey, brown and dirty white. The Doge’s son, Jacopo, a prisoner, was the only soloist who didn’t have to drag a weighty costume around as he sang, so instead they hung him above the stage in a cage, or tortured him as he sang. In spite of all the drama, the pace felt slow, due, I suggest, to the staging not the conducting.

So three days later, in some curiosity, we went to the

cinema

to see the same opera. In this case cinema wins, because the cameramen/women could focus on the singers and not on the distractions on stage, they can even correct for the sloping platform (see clip). Of course the sound is not as exciting as being in the same space as the musicians, but it was pretty damn good. In addition the singers responded to the extra stimulation of being on camera, and this performance was a couple of notches above the earlier one.

We just love the music, but I fear the staging of this production is such that we are unlikely to hear it again for a good few years.

*Plot: The Doge of Venice, now 89, is being forced by The Ten (his rivals and who actually rule) to condemn his last remaining son to exile for treason and murder. His daughter-in-law fights desperately to persuade him to use his power to release his son. The Doge is torn between his role as a ruler, who must uphold justice, and as a father whose, possibly innocent, son will be exiled until death.

Reading pile-up and Reality exhibition

My reading has reached crisis proportions. Middlemarch, which I started months ago, has been cruelly and endlessly sidelined, though each time I pick it up, I am right back in there, the characters are old friends and I am in happy awe of Eliot’s every, exact word. Grabbing a volume slim enough for handbags and waiting rooms, I also started Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, the story source of an opera. For iPad reading on trains, I have Carol Balawyder’s Mourning has Broken, a very moving and fascinating set of essays. Also downloaded months ago, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, which I foolishly started… just to see what it was like. Sandwiched between these, but finished, have been a list of nine books both light and heavyweight and ahead are another five books to read ‘immediately’.

So, I made a resolution, NO NEW BOOKS until all the above are finished, and I MUST  carve out some real writing time.

I have just started a ten-afternoon writing course at the wonderful Sainsbury CentreScreen Shot 2014-10-10 at 12.35.40    Screen Shot 2014-10-10 at 12.39.35             at the University of East Anglia (UEA). I signed up for this at a low moment when re-reading the final, supposedly fully edited, manuscript of Border Line, and having concluded that I still had everything to learn about writing.

The course tutor is Patricia Mullin, so I downloaded Patricia’s novel, Gene Genie, and have been reading that on the train.

The writing course is attached to the current exhibition of modern and contemporary British painting, Reality. This is a stunning exhibition (no photography allowed), but we have a free run of the exhibition for the ten days of the course. Many paintings have intrigued me, but one by John Keane (website screen grab), has set a story going in my head.

Screen Shot 2014-10-10 at 12.19.51

His other work is fascinating too and on his website he says:

I am interested in the process of painting, and I am interested in why 
human beings want to kill one another for political ends. These two 
apparently diverse preoccupations I attempt to reconcile by smearing 
pigment around on canvas in an effort to achieve a result whose success 
can be measured by how well it disguises the sheer absurdity 
of the attempt.

And what is the writing course homework? Trawling for great opening lines and writing our own story first lines. I spent a happy and feverish week reading old favourites: Kipling stories (The Maltese Cat, Without Benefit of Clergy, Little Tobrah, The Head of the District etc), and Salinger (For Esmé With Love and Squalor etc), Saint Exupéry (The Little Prince) etc, etc, etc I also opened all my most-loved books, only to find that the majority had nothing dramatic about the opening lines. They were often quite conversational. Though one of my favourites is Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine which opens:

When I was a young boy, if I was sick or in trouble, or had been beaten at school, I used to remember that on the day I was born my father had wanted to kill me.

Is it just me, or are others caught in the same reading maelstrom? How does one extract oneself, brain intact, from such a reading pile-up? (sorry about mixed metaphors.)

I shall go and sweep some leaves and pretend that my list of tricky phone calls to promote Border Line can just as well be tackled next week… I read this and then made myself ring a local newspaper.

Book rave – And Then Like My Dreams {a memoir}

Last night I dreamed about a real person I had never met, Charles ‘Chic’ Stringer. I was, I think, on holiday with my husband and he took this lovely man’s hand very carefully, because we knew that Chic was now fragile… that’s all I can recall.

Chic is the subject of And Then Like My Dreams by Margaret Rose Stringer – a book like no other I have read. Entertaining, unique, breathtakingly honest, funny and heartbreaking, AND all true. In this story the blood, the glory, the coffee and the cream of love are so real it makes fiction and newspaper accounts look like feeble ghosts.

DSCN6248 - Version 2

The structure of the book is also unique. While it is told, like any other memoir, in the first person, Margaret Rose (M-R) and her beloved husband, Chic, inhabit the film world, so she slips regularly and seamlessly into screenplay mode. This gives the narrative a rare light and shade quality and is often used to hilarious effect. Footnotes are scattered throughout. Occasionally they supply further information, more often they are chatty asides, a personal reinterpretation of the truth and often very funny.

I have not even mentioned that half way through Opera (my personal rave) turns up. M-R and Chic live and love mostly in their home, Australia, but they also take four magnificent trips into Europe (where M-R clearly learns to speak French and Italian fluently, but fails to mention this strength). Food, photography, engineering, cats, language, France, Spain, Italy and Germany also feature.

There is only one ending to the book, as we know from the very start. Chic is going to die. We don’t want this book to end, but it continues to be gripping, and yes, even sometimes funny, to the bitter end. M-R wrote this book so that others would know about Charles ‘Chic’ Stringer, Stills Photographer, and never ever forget him. Her own larger-than-life personality flows over every page as does her love, wonder and grief. But she has succeeded; we will envy what she had and we will never forget Chic.

Little story – happy author

I started this blog, Green Writing Room, early last year. One of the first people I followed was a young music student from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Charlotte Hoather. As she started putting up clips of her singing, I could hear she had a generous voice with enormous promise. In the following eighteen months I have heard it develop in strength and clarity. Charlotte is warm, dedicated, disciplined, thoughtful, with a wonderful supportive family and she looks lovely too. She takes on every challenge that comes her way. Her blog has rocketed in popularity and I have every hope that she will one day be on the opera stages of the world. She is already giving many people pleasure in concerts and competitions around the country.

Recently she came third in the Voice of the Future category of the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod. For the last of her three songs she sang one of her favourites, Rusalka’s Song to the Moon (Dvorak), and I feel great delight as I hear the development of her voice in this version compared to her earlier recordings.

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Do listen to the final song on this video recording from the competition.

http://llangollen.tv/en/clip/c1-2/

Charlotte reminded me a little of the young man, Luca, that I had dreamed up for my novel Unseen Unsung. I thought her parents might enjoy reading the book. So, late last year, I made contact and sent them a copy. I did not expect Charlotte to read it, because she has a schedule that makes most of the rest of us look like sloths. However a few days ago, she wrote on my post about Unseen Unsung :

My last post didn’t come through don’t know why? Just wanted to say I love, love, loved this story, kept me guessing and intrigued all the way through. Really related to the story, loved the references to opera, good luck with the e-book promotion. Best wishes Charlotte 🙂

As Unseen Unsung had been originally been published in 2008 I was not expecting it to make waves as an eBook but this, along with other wonderful responses from you kind and generous readers out there have made this writer delirious with happiness.