March Music, Movies, Mysteries

         A few miscellaneous March events. First the musical. A stupendous performance of Britten’s War Requiem at Symphony Hall by the The Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus. Everything about this was terrific; the conducting by Antonio Pappano, the soloists Ian Bostridge, Simon Keenlyside and Emma Bell, the choral singing and, above all of course, the music itself.              Bostridge possesses not only an extraordinary voice but a tremendous presence, Keenlyside almost matched him. While the two male soloists occupied traditional concert positions at the front of the platform, Emma Bell, clothed in red, was in the middle of the chorus above the orchestra, which was extremely effectively visually. But although the presence of great musical forces is necessary for the piece to be produced properly what matters in the last analysis is Britten’s music itself; in turns spine-chilling, stirring, moving, always completely involving. It is attention-demanding, edge of the seat stuff. The extraordinary thing is how under-appreciated and underperformed it seems to be, in the UK at least. I suppose one reason for the latter are the massive forces demanded – very full orchestra, chamber orchestra, chorus, boys choir and three top-notch soloists; the costs must be very substantial. But this does not explain the under-appreciation – is that connected to the supposed English diffidence about their own, the supposed ‘difficulty’ of the music (although it doesn’t seem difficult to me and I am about as far from being knowledgeable about 20th Century classical music as one can be!) or is it the politics, the pacifism? Probably a combination of all three. Whatever the reason I am glad I have had the chance to see and hear this terrific performance.

  Next WNO’s (Welsh National Opera) production of The Marriage of Figaro. This production was set in a stylised 1920’s which worked very well visually – lots of mirrors and angles and light, with a lovely use of shifting panels in the 4th (Garden) Act but tended to blunt the opera’s political edge as the whole question of droit de seigneur and the feudal order became an obvious anachronism. Indeed, the production as a whole tended towards the opera’s comic potential. But then this in itself is of course revolutionary. Mozart produces this glorious wonderful melodic music, a plot which at many times threatens to spill over into utter farce, and yet manages to be completely subversive on levels which few other artists ever achieve. I mean to take the Oedipus complex and play it for laughs! It reminds me of the war cantos of Don Juan in the contradiction between form and content. Arias are sung which are one and the same time beautiful and moving love songs and at the same time parodies, sometimes sung by the characters as false and misleading – as is the case with Susannah in the 4th Act. One can never really be sure where one is with Mozart’s music , except (and some critics and writers deny this) it is always for me gloriously secular. Nothing is sacred whether it be the Oedipus complex or transvestism, the class system or gender roles; the fact that he was not politically revolutionary utterly misses the point (as it does with Byron) – once you start mingling and mixing genres with glorious artistry everything is subverted because there is no firm ground, no fixed points. The greatest opera of them all? Probably. This production? Well the singing was good with the stand-out being Rebecca Evans as The Countess, although David Soar as Figaro gave a performance of great energy and elan. But a classic? Probably not.

     Having  joined lovefilm we can now start to catch up with a few movies; the range seems genuinely wide and impressive and the service decent so far. The first two selections we made were The Kite Runner and The Lives of Others. The Kite Runner was very average. It was perhaps unfortunate to watch it so soon after Slumdog Millionaire given certain similarities in as far as the story of two young boys are concerned, but even without that comparison the film’s limitations are fairly evident. Its literary origins seemed to show through very clearly and there was nothing of any cinematic consequence; even the kite running itself, which one would have thought would have lent itself to cinematography, remained bland – and utterly confusing to boot, as no real explanation of what was happening was offered. This was very much (and again the Slumdog comparison pointed this up) an exile’s story and viewpoint and in many ways the best parts of the film were those set in America and dealing with the Afghan expatriate community, which seemed more genuinely felt and observed. Of course the ending, the happy ending, achieved its sentimental goal but really the weaknesses of the rest of the film were far too overwhelming for this to be anything but a moment. The politics and intellect of the film were simply abysmal. No explanation was given of the Russian invasion, no Afghan communists appeared at all, and as for the Taliban they were just very bad men in beards. Oh not just very bad men – hypocrites to boot. It was a kind of literary neo-con wet-dream. It is not necessary to give an inch of ground to Islamic fundamentalism to try to understand and explain the historical and social forces which have produced this movement. At another extreme altogether was The Lives of Others. Here complex analysis came together with a staggeringly beautiful and lucid cinematography in the European tradition to produce a film which was delightful to the eye and challenging to the mind. And its bitter-sweet ending was genuinely moving. The question being insistently posed here was how one would react to living in a dictatorship; how and whether it was possible to ‘good’ in such circumstances. By having a range of characters adapting or not-adapting to the system from a range of different ideological (or non-ideological) starting points the film probed at these questions. But it was never shrill, never simplistic, never moralistic. In the interviews which formed part of the DVD extras, the actor Ulrich Muhe, who took the central role of Wiesler, talked about his own experiences of being under surveillance in the GDR and explained how he had waited for years to get a decent script dealing with these issues ; he commented that it was necessary for historical distance to be achieved in order to even to begin any sort of analysis. I am not claiming that The Lives of Others was wholly satisfactory; it left questions unasked and unanswered (how does one get one’s art performed, read, viewed in the ‘free’ world would be one?!) and the role of Christa-Maria Sieland (played by Martina Gedeck) was in some ways rather under developed – it was never really clear just how good an actress she was or we were intended to read her as being. But the film’s strengths both visual and intellectual are over-whelming.

   The Eridngton Crime Fiction Reading group ( ) who’s monthly meetings I attend with great enjoyment has set as its theme for March World War 2 mysteries. As this area has long been an interest of mine I selected all the books available rather than the one or two I usually take (as my mystery reading programme is usually full enough with RTE reviewing and attempting to read some of the many writers I have listed as To Be Read!). So I have read Elizabeth Ironside’s A Good Death, John Gardner’s  Troubled Midnight, Robert Harris’ Enigma and Barbara Nadel’s Last Rights. World War 2 mysteries have been very much in vogue over the last few years and in 2008 I read Laura Wilson’s Stratton’s War, Aly Monroe’s Maze of Cadiz and James Benn’s First Wave for RTE (together with at least  two books set in Nazi Germany in the 1930’s). My reviews of Wilson can be found at and Monroe at As both Wilson and Monroe were among my top books of 2008 it was probably a little unlikely that any of the latest crop would live up to them, and this indeed proved to be thc case; Harris was the best of the bunch and Enigma is a very good book, but there is something just a little too stereotypical about the characters, it is all a little too expected (I do not mean in terms of the plotting which is excellent) to be accorded top rank. Ironside was an interesting if flawed book, but the Nadel and Gardner were each in their own ways bad – although every one of them contributed to my thinking about what makes for a good World War 2 mystery and my knowledge (and I hope perception) of this particular sub-genre. My interest was of course sparked by those monumental classics Christie’s N or M and Allingham’s Traitor’s Purse. This is not the place to develop any of my thoughts on the subject although to do so remains a long-term ambition.

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