Wednesday 25 October 2017

Wednesday 18 October 2017

Review...? My Trip to the Opera ENO 'The Barber of Seville'

I have a confession - I’ve never seen an opera. In itself, I don’t think this is strange, I hardly know anyone who has seen one but seeing as I am professing myself a huge eighteenth century fan and I have never experienced this most eighteenth century of entertainments - it's a gap I felt I needed to fill.

I decided to rectify this by grabbing myself a ticket for the English National Opera’s revival of an English translation of ‘The Barber of Seville’. Now, this is isn’t exactly an eighteenth century opera (it was written in 1816) but it was based on the third of a trilogy of eighteenth century plays about a man called Figaro, a barber and general getter-together of men and women.

What I found most surprising about the opera, was that there were hardly any songs. I was expecting to go home humming the tunes and really the only one I remembered was the Figaro aria. As a fairly frequent watcher of musicals, I was expecting songs linked with music rather than a run of music. It was odd, people were constantly singing, there was melody but no tune. 

I did really enjoy the music though. The harpsichord is one of my three favourite instruments but I don’t think I have ever heard one live until this opera. It has such a lovely feel to it, like honey running down a ridged surface and it was delicious to hear.

In terms of story, it was a pretty standard plot. Rosina is a beautiful woman kept in close confinement by stuffy old senex Dr Bartolo. She is in love with count Almaviva and Figaro, the barber of Seville helps him get the girl.

Dr Bartolo was brilliantly pompous, Almaviva was a little bland in himself but had great fun with his disguises, Rosina was sharp and feisty and Figaro…did very little, but boasted that he is doing so much more.
I very much enjoyed the jokes - there were some very funny bits of staging with people hiding in cupboards and such. There were even some jokes about opera itself, when fuddy old Dr Bartolo sang a song in the style of operas of his youth and so sung in an absurd falsetto. Obviously, he was ‘doing’ a castrati, and the effect was enjoyably daft.
As much as I enjoyed the story, characters and even music - I was as aggravated by the opera as I was charmed by it. I have a love/hate relationship with Monty Python. There are elements of their humour that make me laugh a great deal - especially their silly side, but I have an extreme hatred for the side of their humour that farts and tarts about. The best example is in ‘Life of Brian’ where Brian is trying to escape by buying a fake beard and Eric Idle keeps getting in the way with irritating asides about haggling. That’s how I felt watching this opera.
At one point, the story had got to its halfway part, all the cast were on stage and the full level of carnage was reached. Time to run the curtain down…but no. A man started singing ‘Like a blacksmith with an anvil, my head is pounding, pounding, pounding.’ This song was then taken up by another character, and another, and another - till they were all singing about their headache. For one, I didn’t believe they all had a headache. For a second, if they had a headache, stop singing and lie down. But for the third - why make their headache the thing to leave the audience with into the interval?
Presumably, the repetition exists because the audience had to understand what was happening. In a noisy, chatty theatre with poorer acoustics and no A/V equipment, it makes sense to repeat things a number of times. Although the director did do his best to make a joke of the repetition and general time-wasting - it didn’t diminish the fact that there was so much of it.

I went last Tuesday, a good day, as I got a pretty decent seat for ten pounds. As frustrating as I found it, I also had could see something loveable about the whole silly affair. I would certainly try again - any suggestions?

Wednesday 11 October 2017

Dick Turpin... the TV Series.

I'm starting a video series where I look at the 1979 'Dick Turpin' series. Here's a simple intro.

Wednesday 4 October 2017

Review: Rookwood by William Harrison Ainsworth

This year I have read a few modern examples of what was once called the Newgate novel, derring tales of adventure and mischief set in eighteenth century and often ending at the gallows. The Virtue of this Jest, Slammerkin and The Fatal Tree are all inheritors of the title but I thought I’d try something a little different; a self-proclaimed heir to the English gothic novel mixed with the Newgate variety. Which is why I get to present, for your delectation, this demented work of over-the-top genius called Rookwood.

I picked this book because William Harrison Ainsworth wrote it from just round the corner where I live, is buried a short walk from where I work and was inspired to write this novel by a house not far from where a grew up. 

Despite coming out in 1834, Rookwood was written ‘in the bygone style of Mrs. Radcliffe’ but transplanted to England with highwayman to serve instead of the Italian brigands. It was a massive success, and Ainsworth wrote another 39 novels inspired by various parts of history including a trilogy on the Pendle witches (whom a friend of mine claims descent), one on Jack Shepherd and novels set around landmarks like St Paul’s and the Tower of London. I plan to give the Jack Shepherd a go soon-ish.

 I feel a little sorry for Ainsworth, Dickens was seen for a while as his protege but has overshadowed him. He also had killer sideburns.

In many ways the plot is superfluous, though there is a lot of fun to be had in anticipating the ways it will twist and turn. In short, Piers Rookwood is dead and his title goes to his oldest son - but who is that; Ranulph, who seems the obvious heir, or Luke, who is told that Piers and his mother married in secret? 

Things wouldn’t get quite so complicated if the Rookwoods weren’t quite so cursed. I counted seven prophecies and curses about them by the time of the novel’s close. Whether it be the lime tree that drops branches when important Rookwoods die, or the curse that all Rookwood heirs murder their first wives, or the one about only when the stray rooks marry, the curses will be over… there are a lot of them.

Keeper of this gothic lore, supplier of creepy ballads and generally all-round macabre guy is Peter Bradley. He is the first character we meet - in a crypt naturally enough. At one point he gets annoyed with a background character and curses him, that character is struck by lightning in a later chapter.

If Peter Bradley is keeper of the gothic flame, Dick Turpin is keeper of the Newgate. Essentially he makes the book stand and deliver before taking over for a while. In the preface, Ainsworth says that he used to walk the haunts of Dick Turpin and tell stories about him as child, that he regarded Turpin as last of a breed but I still find Dick Turpin a particularly strange choice to carry this candle. The real Turpin was barely even a highwayman, more of a home invasion/ torture sort of person and the ride to York was achieved by ‘Swift-Nick’ Nevinson. The purpose of the ride doesn’t even make sense in Rookwood, the point is to be so far away, so quickly, that it would seem impossible to ride - but Turpin is followed the whole way.

Add to that, the Newgate parts have almost nothing to do with the gothic. The whole ride to York section is essentially Turpin going back up North to take part in Luke Rookwood’s attempt to get the estate…which he doesn’t really have much of a role in. During the best, strangest and most bonkers chapters in the book, Luke tries to marry his cousin (and fulfil a prophecy that the stray Rook should marry another to keep the money). This happens in an underground crypt in an abandoned abbey where a monk had starved to death. The marriage is officiated by a renegade catholic priest and the queen of the gypsies and all sorts of things go terribly wrong - Turpin is outside guarding the entrance hole, he really is quite unnecessary. 

Not that any of that matters, this book is so entertaining. It’s a genius idea to mix the Gothic and Newgate novels for the simple reason that they don’t have any reason belonging together. One is a phantom, arial text full of ghosts, curses and shifting reality whilst the other is a deeply earthy text, bound with material worries, slang and moments of down and dirty life. The only thing that really connects the two is moonlight.

If you want to read a book that involves a conman dressed as medieval knight; a sarcophagus with a built in booby trap, poisoned hair, a minor character struck by lightning for mood music, desiccated human arms liberally tossed about, wives murdered, revenges attempted and loads of perky songs sung along the way - then this is the book for you. I adored it.