Last night Paul Turner and I gave the first performance of Over My Shoulder at the church in whose graveyard are buried Elisabeth Schumann and Jessie Matthews, the subjects of our entertainment. We were delighted to be joined by Elisabeth Schumann’s grandchildren, who grew up in England after their parents settled here after the Second World War. I am especially grateful to Joy, who was very helpful when I was researching and writing Over My Shoulder.
(Above L to R: Jean and Rupert Puritz, Christian Puritz, Paul Turner, CMcC, Joy Puritz).
You can read more about Over My Shoulder on the McCaldin Arts website here. The next performance will be on Thursday 15 February 2018 at 7.30pm at St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge.
Over My Shoulder - Jessie and Elisabeth
Saturday, September 16, 2017
7:30pm - All Ages
St Martin's, Ruislip (map)
Ruislip HA4 8DG
An evening of story and song, charting the extraordinary lives of two huge stars of the twentieth century, Jessie Matthews and Elizabeth Schumann. These two singers, both achieved international fame and fortune but had to cope with great private sadness and difficulty. In a strange twist of fate, they now lie in the same churchyard in Ruislip.
With Paul Turner (piano)
This concert kindly supported by Edmission UK.
Having only become a singer relatively late in life, I didn’t work with organisations such as British Youth Opera, but I am always pleased to support colleagues who can still qualify as young(!). To this end I was at a recent performance of BYO’s Don Giovanni, applauding a friend’s immaculate (electronic) mandolin in the Serenade and his classy continuo playing. I only recognised one of the cast but it struck me that there is a lot of musical talent out there and I hope our industry can provide for them all.
The Peacock Theatre is a good location in many ways for such a night – spacious, centrally-located with a decent bar and big enough pit for an opera orchestra. It’s less good because it can feel like a bit of a bunker. I’ve never been on-stage there so I don’t know how much wing-space there is, but the time it took to change the scenes in this show suggests that there may not be very much. We’re so used to seeing shows move uninterrupted from one scene to another that it felt slightly old-fashioned to have the curtain repeatedly come in and stop the action dead. At the other end of the spectrum is Richard Jones’ new Bohème for the Royal Opera, where the front-cloth is out for the whole show and the scenery for each Act is hauled into place in full view of the audience by an army of stage-crew, all the while snow gently falling on them.
It’s also interesting to observe how an interesting idea can sometimes become a bit of a handicap; quite literally if your character gets shot in the leg a good half hour before the end of the show and still has a lot of stage business to execute.
I’m a fan of Sondheim. He writes in Finishing The Hat that his favourite of his own lyrics are those that are simplest and most direct; but, like many of his fans, I just can’t resist his virtuosic linguistic twists and turns, when he’s at his most showy. Even A Little Priest, the mountain of a duet at the end of Act I of Sweeney Todd, turns out to be less of a learning challenge than I feared because Sondheim is having so much fun testing the song’s idea to destruction that his enjoyment is infectious.
Follies is a show I didn’t know until last week and it presses all my Sondheim buttons as well as satisfying my love of sequins. The composer is writing on one of his favourite themes, unfulfillment, and how we may deal with our disappointment. If we have made a poor choice we can try to change it but we may have to live with it and it needn’t be all bad – we will survive. I enjoyed the typically complex Sondheim structure involving characters doubled with their younger selves, but the revelation for me in Follies was in discovering the intended context of songs that I have known for years as stand-alone numbers (In Buddy’s Eyes, Losing My Mind, I’m Still Here). If a song is great it will bear separation from its environment but it’s always exciting to discover a whole other world of meaning when it’s heard within the show.
Of course the same goes for opera – Nessun Dorma is less about football and more about hoping to avoid execution when heard in the context of Turandot – and it’s a great reminder of why we should always take the time to go back to the source and not just be seduced by the best tunes in isolation.
Dispensing with one of the best-loved and longest-lived productions in the history of the Royal Opera is a high-risk decision. Leaving it to your successor to deal with the fall-out could seem like extreme management cunning, but of course it’s basically a question of unfortunate timing. Given how far ahead plans have to be laid, the decision to replace John Copley’s La Bohème with a new one by Richard Jones was probably made way before Kasper Holten decided to move on from running Covent Garden.
Happily for us, the new Bohème seems to be getting a good reception, with reviewers and opera-lovers finding many things to like. From within the show it’s difficult to get a sense of it as a whole: I have been able to watch bits of it on the show’s TV relay, but there’s no standing in the wings, as the show is totally open to the back wall and sides. Within the bleak and snowy void of the empty stage appear boxes of contained space in which the action takes place – the garret, shopping galleries and Café Momus (top). The busyness and colour of the consumerist world in Act 2 highlights the protagonists’ exclusion from it in the rest of the story and the garret space looks even bleaker the second time around.
Having been on stew-eating duties for the last five revivals of the previous production, I have been promoted to rubber-necking at the window in this one, which means that I have been captured for posterity by the Guardian photographer (left). It’s not often that an opera is deemed worthy of the centre spread in a national broadsheet, and that’s definitely worth drinking a toast to.
Hofesh Shechter is a choreographer whose work I have been meaning to see for years, but just not quite managing it. Last night I finally made it to a performance of Grand Finale, and I wish that I had seen his other shows in London, because I loved what I saw and want to have something to compare last night’s show with.
Shechter’s choreography was highly distinctive, full of seething groups of figures punctuated by virtuosic changes of tempo and direction, and wonderful physicalised cross-rhythms. I realise that I have seen and even performed echoes of his style in various opera productions; not least my favourite-ever dance-break in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which covers a scene-change with 45 seconds of explosive flailing by a select group of choristers. Conscious homage or not, this moment is pure Shechter.
In Grand Finale, one of the things that struck me most forcibly was the image of a group of people whose mouths remain open as they move, as if unable to make a sound. I couldn’t not hear a scream or intake of breath seeing this, and when the dancers were finally able to vocalise I found it a huge relief.
It also made my jaw ache in sympathy. Not only were the dancers’ artistry and athleticism remarkable, but so was their stamina.
Like his Boris Godunov, Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina is based on a narrative from Russian history. It’s another story involving scheming boyars, monks, the Tsar and a love triangle sub-plot that borders on the ridiculous. At least the composer had Puskin’s text to work with for Boris, but he decided to write his own libretto for Khovanshchina, which does the opera no favours dramatically. As the Guardian review of this year’s performance at the BBC Proms (in which I was involved as a BBC Singer) puts it: “coherent narrative is not its strong point”.
But it’s possible to forgive the longeurs because the music is, at many moments, extraordinary and transporting. The a cappella men’s music feels truly ancient, as if it grew out of the earth and has been sung forever; and the final chorus as the Old Believers commit suicide builds inexorably towards a huge percussion crash that seems to suggest the final collapse of the pyre in a cloud of sparks and heat. It’s the sort of ending that is ideal for the Albert Hall and the Proms, even if a production with real fire in a real theatre would also be pretty thrilling.
McCaldin is superb with wonderful control and accuracy… (her) upper mezzo range is terrific… superbly accomplished singing