The Snow Maiden – Rimsky-Korsakov – Opera North

It’s a long time since I’ve been to the opera; it isn’t something my partner particularly enjoys and since he uncomplainingly comes to most theatre productions with me I think he’s allowed put his foot down somewhere.

I’ve seen some good reviews of Opera North’s The Snow Maiden in both the national and local press so when a friend said she was thinking of going I asked if I could join her.  It’s a slightly nervy thing going to the theatre with someone for the first time.  You don’t know what their rituals and expectations are; you don’t know whether they will want to discuss the staging of the production or whether they will think it pretentious; will they be offended if I want to read my programme cover to cover? etc.etc.  In the event I needn’t have worried; there were enough opinions and discussions amongst the 5 of us to keep everyone amused and space between to read programmes.

According to the programme notes this is the first full, professional production of this opera for 60 years.  So, the story is, in brief, Spring has a fling with Winter and a daughter is born to them – the titular Snow Maiden – the Sun-God is offended by this so Winter and Spring keep her hidden in 16 years of perpetual winter.  Snow Maiden goes to live with the local villagers, is adopted by a couple and works alongside the local women. A local girl, Kupava, is about to marry a rich merchant, Mizgir, but as soon as Mizgir sees Snow Maiden he falls in love and spurns Kupava.  Kupava demands justice from the Tsar.  The Tsar sees the Snow Maiden and understands Mizgir’s problem so resolves the Snow Maiden needs to learn to love.  At mid-summer eve the Tsar proclaims they will celebrate love. Spring teaches Snow Maiden how to love, she declares her love to Mizgir and as her frozen heart melts with love so she too melts.

The production was an interesting one.  I enjoyed the music – I like Rimsky-Korsakov – and it is a typical Russian fairy story.  The singing was, as far as my experience allows me to judge, excellent and the singers looked right for their parts.

The set was interesting and I can’t decide whether it worked for me or not.

Part of it involved projecting snow flakes or flowers onto not just the backdrop but a mesh screen at the front of the stage.  I liked the way that it created the feeling of perpetual winter, then approaching spring and finally warm summer.  But I do think that at times I got absorbed in the pictures being drawn, let the music and singing wash over me and forgot to follow the plot.

The more tangible parts of the set and the costumes I found more confusing.  The story is clearly set in pre-revolutionary Russia.  One of the characters is clearly call the Tsar yet the stage set was obviously a post-revolution sewing factory. And it was a noisy job moving the sewing machines off-stage for the next scene.  The action happening in front of the curtain was disrupted by the noise at a couple of points.  Some of the stage movements of the cast were post-revolutionary – particularly the dancing at the beginning when they are calling for the death of winter – and they are dressed in appropriately communist red – but their style of dress is traditional Russian peasant: except Snow Maiden, who is dressed as though she has just come off the till at Morrisons!, and her parents who are in very traditional Old Believer Russian outfits.

It was also annoying that although the Opera is called The Snow Maiden she was referred to and called Snow Princess all the way through.  Make your mind up Opera North.

I appreciate that this has been a bit of a ranty post but I’d like to emphasised that I did enjoy my foray to the opera; certainly enough to make me look forward to a trip to La Boheme with my Aunt and Cousin.

I would recommend going to see this production but Friday was the last night until Opera North go on tour.

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The Pike; Gabriele d’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of Lucy Hughes-Hallett

I first came across Gabriele d’Annunzio as a young teenager when an Italian friend took me to visit his sumptuous villa near Lake Garda.  At the time I was amazed that someone would have their wife living in a cottage in the garden and their mistress living in luxury in a villa designed with sybaritic indulgence in mind.

I came away from the villa with a naïve view of a WW1 hero condemned to internal exile and discarded by Mussolini.  How wrong can you be!

I have read other bits and pieces about d’Annunzio, mostly in biographies of other notable Italians of 20th century, so I wasn’t expecting to find a glamorous, romantic hero in this book but nor was I expecting to find quite the selfish weasel I did discover.

This isn’t a biography in the conventional sense; it doesn’t start with his birth and work in chronological order through his life.  It is a book of snippets and anecdotes that allows the read to build up a picture of the different facets of the man.  It covers his careers as poet, author of books and plays, war hero, would be dictator and lover.

And the picture I built up was one of an interesting polymath tarnished by bloodthirstiness and sex-addiction.  Which makes me question whether he was simply a man of his times – he lived in a period of international unrest and the rise of communism and fascism – or whether the need for destruction was innate part of his character.

The book is good at putting d’Annunzio’s life into the context of the world around him but not in ascribing nurture/nature influences to the person he became.

I am pleased I read this book and have a better understanding of the person behind the various myths but it’s always quite sad when another teenage romanticised myth is toppled isn’t it?

 

Have a look at d’Annunzio’s villa on Lake Garda

Former People; the last days of the Russian aristocracy – Douglas Smith

Have you ever wondered what happened to the Russian aristocrats who didn’t manage to escape the Russian revolution in 1971?  Being interested in 20th century revolutions I have often wondered what happens to the previous elite who don’t manage to flee whatever upheaval they are in the middle of.  This book endeavours to give you an idea by following the stories of members of the Sheremetev and Golitsyn families.

It follows their stories from the start of the 1917 revolutions up to the death of the last member who would remember living as privileged members of society and then living  through the revolution.

As you would expect a lot of the family members ended up disappearing into the gulags or being shot, although not necessarily in the early days of the revolution.  It surprised me how many of them managed to live on the fringes of the new society for quite a long time before coming to the notice of the Soviet regime.

One of the main challenges of this book is the Russian tradition of naming children after other family members.  This makes it really confusing trying to work out which Vladimir or Sergei the author is referring to when he is explaining a part of their life.  It also doesn’t help that the different stories are interwoven.  I usually like my history books to have a narrative thread, keeping the different strands of events on a timeline but in this case it might have been more straightforward to organise the book into a biographical chapter on each person.

It was interesting to have a different perspective on the Russian revolution and, whilst I can completely understand why the revolution happened, it is good to be reminded that not all the aristocracy were isolated and unaware of the appalling conditions the rest of the populace suffered.

This isn’t a book you can, or want, to read in large chunks; you have to be able to concentrate on what you are reading.  I struggled to read it at times but I felt strangely bereft having finished it.

I wouldn’t recommend it to a casual reader but I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about what happened.

Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen

I approached this book with some interest.  My partner had just finished reading it and was very impressed.  For me this isn’t always a good recommendation as we tend to have quite different tastes in music and books.  However, I enjoy a lot of Springsteen’s music and will agree that he puts on a cracking gig.

It made complete sense when Springsteen says, towards the end of the book, that he started writing it in bits and bobs whilst he was out on tour.  It definitely reads like a series of short stories with a linked theme at the beginning of the book and becomes more of a story towards the end.

It was interesting finding out more about the man behind the music and I was fascinated to learn that he has never had a “proper job”.  I think from the image and the stories behind the songs I’d always assumed he’d had a string of dead-end jobs until he made it in music, like a lot of musicians and actors.

The most powerful thing to shine out of the book is Springsteen’s love for his wife, Patti Scialfa.  I vaguely remember their relationship being seen as quite scandalous when he left his first wife for her but their enduring love suggests it was the right thing to have done.

I enjoyed the parts of the book that explain the creative process Springsteen goes through to put an album together.  I guess each artist/band has their own way but the way it is described in the book made sense to me; the need to find that elusive something that brings everything together and creates a central energy.

One of the frustrations of the book is that I felt it skimmed over the personalities of the people in Springsteen’s life.  I can understand an author feeling the need to protect his friends and relatives but it does leave everything feeling a little superficial.  I think that is why I generally prefer biographies to autobiographies; a writer of biographies doesn’t need to be quite so protective!

I also felt that despite the publicity the book has received for Springsteen’s honesty about suffering from depression he also skirted over what it really felt like – except when describing his last experience of it.  I feel that it might help people who also suffer to have a clearer picture and understand that someone as famous and talented as Bruce Springsteen has experienced the black dog in the way an “ordinary person” might.

My other gripe about the book is that I think, as an autobiography, it lacks perspective.  As an adult Springsteen portrays himself as a controlling, hard to live and work with, not very nice person.  And yet the evidence would suggest he is actually a good friend; most of his seem to be very long-standing and quarrels, even longstanding ones, are made up.  Confusing!

Overall, I’m pleased I read the book –  it’s always good to understand more about the music you’ve lived with for a very long time – but I’ll be even more interested to read a biography, when one comes out.