One of the great things about working in education is holidays; though I don’t get as many as the teachers, couple weeks off between the terms is great. By its very nature, the school year is varied in its busyness, and from now till the end of the academic year, things will be hurtling forward at dizzying speed – there will be exams, events, another arts festival, all on top of all the regular things. Like most people returning from the holiday, I feel the sort of slight guilt that comes from not doing all those things I intended to do – read piles of books, redecorate the house, bake cake every day… I did manage however to visit one place I have never been to before – the National Portrait Gallery. I love museums in general, and occasionally seeing the “original copy” of a familiar picture, like Vanessa here, can be incredibly riveting.I also finished my socks and did some other crafty things too.
I love candles. My favourite smell in the world is a mixture of stearin and coffee – it’s the smell of my childhood spent eating cake after Sunday church service. I picked up a rhubarb and raspberry -scented candle in the M&S, and found a warning printed on the label: harmful to aquatic life. The candle also had a list of ingredients long as one’s arm, and that caused a mild consumer panic. A quick search online later, I happily ordered some Beefayre organic candles, which are dolphin and bee friendly, burn nicely and smell good. The packaging doesn’t hurt.
The spring creeping forward, despite bitter, cold winds.
At the end the hols, I went to the Isle of Wight for the first time ever, with some friends. We sailed across the Solent from Portsmouth and stayed in the Yarmouth marina; having grown up by the sea, I miss it every in the terribly landlocked Oxford. The sea is both constant and ever changing to me, a bridge – I cannot imagine how living deep inland, hundreds or thousands of miles away from sea is like, but think it must feel terribly isolated.
I went to the English National Opera on Friday evening to see David McVicar’s brand new production of Charpentier’s Medea, with Sarah Connolly making a star turn in the title role. I really, really wanted to like it. I have loved some other works produced by McVicar. Connolly is one of my favourite singers. This production takes the drama out of both ancient Greek and Louis XIV’s court and into the 1940s, a fascinating, complex period in history. There was so much to recommend it, and yet I found myself not entirely sold on it. Early reviews seem divided, with Guardian rewarding it five stars, while Mark Berry of Boulezian has little positive to say. This comes at the heel of ENO’s new Traviata, which similarly divided opinions. The sense I get from many of the critical reviews is that many people feel they have already seen most of the ideas brought to stage, sometimes so many times that what once shocked now only looks tired and tedious, and here too it felt like the director had re-dressed a bunch of old ideas.
Médée premiered in December 1693, and inexplicably closed already in March 1694; it was a critical success at its time, and apparently impressed the Sun King himself – possibly because Charpentier chose to open it with a prologue celebrating his majesty. McVicar has chosen to drop this prologue, but it is not the only problematic part of the opera; both the first and the second acts end with extended dance sequences and the drama here more or less halts to stop – McVicar fills the stage with dancers in cabaret costumes and p0rny sailor uniforms, with paparazzi and nightclub singers, and at the end of Act II, with a giant, pink, glittering model Hurricane standing in for the Cupid’s chariot (poor Creuse has to take her seat in the cockpit by climbing up the wing in her high heels – I was as terrified for her as she was by the look of it). It’s all very clever, I’m sure, and very entertaining, but the first word to come to my mind when the curtain went down was “gimmicky”. “Overdone” was the second. These are purely matters of taste, but for mine this staging was too fiddly, full of moving and sometimes noisy parts – I was rather bothered by small things like the typist in the first act, just loud enough to distract the recitative. I also hate it when directors pummels me on the head with concept – while the rest of scenes are filled with people and props, Medea occupies an almost empty space in her scenes. When in act three she summons the demons, they take form of two men made up to look like they have been skinned, wearing silk negligees similar to Medea’s (I get it, they represent Medea’s darkest emotions stripped bare – now roll on the floor for maximum effect).
The set and costumes were beautiful and the stage beautifully lit, and what McVicar did with the main characters was mostly intelligent and intuitive. I enjoyed the portrayal of Jason as a middle-aged officer lusting after the hot, manipulative young woman, while Medea as his wife was, before the madness took over, the very picture of a strong, no-nonsense woman who has made sacrifices for her husband and is just starting to have regrets; Connolly took the character beautifully through these stages from cool respectability to triumphant, cold rage, making the character and her motivations understandable if not sympathetic. Connolly’s voice took some time to warm (Medea is off the stage for most of the first two acts), but when it did, her singing was sublime and sublimely powerful – so extraordinary is she, that it almost feels unfair to the rest of the cast.
Things finally fell in place for me in Act IV; the showdown between Creon and Medea was wonderfully eerie as she summoned the spirits in the shape of Creuse to taunt and seduce the king, who is losing not only his grip of power but of reality, and later confronted both her husband and his lover. The music is at odds with the drama during Creuse’s death scene – the accompaniment to her burning to death (how did they do that?) is rather gentle, and a far away from the powerful notes given to Medea as she reveals to Jason she has killed their sons in a final act of revenge. I found the choir very good, and my ear certainly isn’t sophisticated enough to pick up on the issues mentioned by Berry – the orchestra sounded fine enough to me. It’s worth a try, but not everybody’s cup of tea.