Lately

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More January tulips. The season is nearly over, sadly.

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I had my birthday in February, and a good friend took me out for tea to celebrate, as well as giving me a a cushion she had made, all wrapped in bunting. So, so lovely!

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Cake and sparklers – I don’t usually have birthday parties these days, but this year I joined forces with a pair of my fellow knitwits for a celebration.

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What I in theory did during the half term.

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What I really did during the half term – the Natural History Museum in Oxford opened mid-February, and I was glad to be back there, after year and half (or so) of closure. I have missed the dodo.

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I have really missed the dodo.

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And the butterfly collections.

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See previous post for my glorious day out at the Port Meadow. After half term, the floods were mostly gone at least in the town centre; even the Madgalen College water meadow was dry, meaning these shining waters don’t have long left now.

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How do I love thee, Jericho? Let me count the ways. This area is due for a major redevelopment, and while it will no doubt make it nice and raise the profile of the area, a litte bit of me is sad to see this rather gothic backyard of Oxford to turn into a slick and modern community centre. The slightly run-down area around the St Barnabas church is one of my favourite places in Oxford, and one that really has a unique feel to it; I often go there to be inspired, and fear this feel will be lost when it’s all rebuilt.

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Still loving my L.L. Bean hunting boots.

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Last few weeks have been exceptionally busy professionally for me, so a night of swing dancing and champagne with friends was a welcome break.

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A friend is in Merton College, and on Saturday we headed to Sheldonian for Merton’s 750th anniversary shinding. Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius was a slightly baffling choice for the occasion, in all its Victorian glories, but the piece has some beautiful music – not least the finale with the Angel and the chorus, my eternal girl crush Sarah Connolly holding an audience of a couple thousand in her grip. Such a beautiful voice, such a beautiful woman, such power of interpretation.

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Spring or not, the sky is already still light when I live work now. Huge relief after a bleak, bleak winter.

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On inspiration and Virginia Woolf

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On Saturday, I found myself in a train to London again, after an impromptu decision to go and see Sarah Connolly and Fiona Shaw perform texts by Virginia Woolf at the Wigmore Hall. It turned out to be a very interesting evening in more ways than one. Virginia Woolf is one of my favourite authors. Fiona Shaw is probably my favourite actress. I love Sarah Connolly. But the most interesting, inspiring people I met and saw were actually those in the audience – strangers passing me by, but leaving their mark nonetheless.

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This isn’t really a review, but it would be shame not to say anything about the recital, especially about Fiona Shaw. Sarah Connolly is a strong, charismatic stage presence, but somehow, to me, her performance was left in the shadow – a vocally mesmerising, voluptuous shadow, reserved in its presence next to the exuberance with which Shaw carried herself, completely unself-conscious and without a trace of vanity, throwing her whole being into the text and letting it carry her. This performance alternated Dominick Argento’s songs to Virginia Woolf’s diary entries with excerpts from her novels, essays and diaries, scripted together by Dr Kate Kennedy of Girton College, The Other Place, and moving chronologically from the 1920s to 1941 – Woolf wrote her last diary entry the day before she, unable to overcome her depression, drowned in River Ouse. What the song cycle calls the last entry isn’t really – Woolf wrote about cooking haddock and sausage meat for dinner about three weeks before she died, but the actual last entry isn’t much less banal, describing the people she had met that day. It is a haunting insight into the soul of a genius, a famous quote, often cited as humorous and witty, when in reality it was everything but. Woolf was struggling to keep her hold of reality and of life, and accounting the ordinary is surely an expression of that. This performance gave those few lines she wrote bautiful poignancy – the two performers, moving on the stage seemingly ignorant of each others’ presence, finally came together, shared a spotlight, Connolly as the inner voice of Woolf, Shaw as Woolf herself – her pen moving long after the music had stopped, the audience holding its collective breath until those final words had been written down and the book closed one last time. It was all about Virginia Woolf and her voice, the performers on the stage fading behind her.

Still – the writer in me couldn’t help but to be inspired by their personalities. Shaw and Connolly share the same basic physicality. They are both tall and plainly, regally beautiful rather than conventionally pretty. One glamorous and polished on stage, the other carelessly bohemian. I see a story here – of two sisters perhaps. One beautiful and fashionable, the other fiercely intellectual, each eternally suspicious of the other, eternally bound together by loyalty and love and mutual resentment. Or of Bloomsbury lesbians, Woolf’s contemporary; a bored married woman and her mistress, an unconventional, snobbish intellectual, let down by her lover’s inability, lack of courage,  to choose one world in which to belong. It is a story that will never be written, but for a moment I could see it take shape.

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Dr Kate Kennedy had chosen music as her theme for the recitations to rhythm the songs – Woolf spent much of her time in concerts, sitting at the back of Wigmore Hall listening to chamber music, her mind wandering as the music played, lifted by the notes. She found peace and inspiration both in music and in the ritual of going to a concert, sitting in the darkness of the concert hall where she could let her mind whirl free. Woolf sometimes regretted that she was not an educated scholar of music, but she wouldn’t let her lack of proficiency to get on the way of simple enjoyment and desire to learn. She wrote about music, expressed her opinion, sometime boldly, and wasn’t afraid of doing so.

Seated next to me were a group of eminent Woolf scholars from Cambridge – the sort of academics one thinks of when imagining how Oxford or Cambridge must be like, like characters out of the pages of Gaudy Night. Clever. Terrifying. Straightforward. Completely inspirational in the way they seem to radiate intellectual strenght and discipline and sheer, wilfull ignorance of social trivialities. I have no delusions of my own academic capabilities, and I never had a particular yearning to become part of that world, not even when I spent my time shuffling between the more obscure branches of the Oxford University’s library services as an undergraduate. But some years down the line, I do occasionally miss it – most often when I’m cycling past some particularly fine library, and catch through the windows a glimpse of all the old books on the shelves, and of the students and scholars poring over them. It’s a secluded world, a privileged one, and yet one where so much of the real work of the world is done. I pass the Radcliffe Science Library and all the adjoining science departments daily, and often think that inside these walls someone is finding a cure for cancer or an endlessly renewable source of energy at that very moment. Somewhere someone is reading a document – long hidden under a filing cabinet that someone just moved, first time in hundred years – that will change our understanding of the history, and with it, of where we are now.

After the recital I pulled my ancient copy of Woolf’s A room of one’s own out of my bookshelf and started rereading it, first time after many years; partly to enjoy Woolf’s distinct, ornate writing style, and partly because the basic sentiment of the book has always made sense to me. To write, she wrote, a woman needs a room and money of her own. In short, she needs resources that will free her time and her mind to the kind of idleness that is necessary for creative process. I work 50 hours a week, tied to my desk, and so often find that the moment of inspiration passes because my mind isn’t quiet enough to mull over, to process the ideas I have. There is little time or energy for research, reading, toying with ideas so that they could grow into something tangible. I dream of such time I can sit down and read and write, fill out all the sketch books I have, learn something new – come the autumn, recharge my brain by attending online courses of Berkeley University, a longtime dream of mine. Photography has become my main creative outlet not least because of its spontaneity. While I do think and plan ahead projects and go out on purpose to shoot pictures, I can still make an image only of what I see on that very moment. The passing glimpse of sunlight or rain, of people coming together is the inspiration, there to be captured before it’s gone forever.

Some thoughts on ENO’s new Medea

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.

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