Thursday, August 26, 2010


News from the Var

Can you imagine anything stranger than a string quartet transcription of Mozart’s Requiem, K. 626? Perhaps even stranger was that hearing it was a pleasing and moving experience. This weird occurrence took place in a cloister of the Abbaye Royale in Celle, a village on the outskirts of Brignoles, a few miles north of Toulon. The Debussy Quartet played it with conviction differentiating in intensity and decibels between the various strands, the tender moments coming off best. Admittedly the most wonderful moment of all did not quite come off: that amazing crescendo near the beginning of the Lachrymosa where the harmonies and modulations go on and on in ecstasy until you think if it continues you might die (but Mozart did!). I think maybe that knowing the work helped but that is necessarily only a guess. It was a rum experience but more enjoyable than expected. (French Decca have recorded it but if you want the original on a CD get the one on the BBC Legend label conducted by Britten – its shatteringly wonderful).

But wonderful also was my next musical experience in Provence. Pippa Paulik runs a little festival high up in the hills, not far from Grasse, nearer to Fayence. Concerts and operas are given in a little place called Seillans, concerts are given in a small church perched on the summit of a steep hill. The one I went to August 8 was in two parts, the first contained two French chamber septets, Saint-Saëns’ entertaining neo-classical one with trumpet and Ravel’s masterly Introduction and Allegro with Tanya Houghton a virtuosic harpist. The performers are mostly British and excellent. Super excellent however was the tenor Andrew Staples in the second part when he sang half-a-dozen arias as near perfectly as I have heard, short of Tito Schipa and Heddle Nash. Staples is thirty, personable with a beautiful lyric voice supported by consummate musicianship. Please note the name: I think he is a star. He pleasured us with Dalla sua Pace from the Don, the picture aria from the Flute, a Gluck number, Lalo’s magical Aubade and ended with the Prize Song (which he will sing even better in five years time.) Suzy Ruffles supported him in a most appealing way.

Staples also directed two performances of Cosi fan tutte! A small orchestra and chorus performed Bach Brandenburgs, Fauré Requiem, Tippett Spirotuals and an evening of jazz, etcetera; step ten feet away and you can enjoy good French food and drink. Why not go next year?


If Socrates had been in my seat at Glyndebourne on 18 August it is possible that he might, as was his wont, have wanted to ask a few questions about the performance, such as: Why use the Vienna version and not the usual one? Just for a change? It deprives us of Il mio tesoro, adds a lively duet for Zerlina and Leporello and shortens the coda-finale. Why design sets that are so monumental that they dwarf the singers? Mind you, they are very handsome (Paul Brown). Jonathan Kent’s production is also handsome but, as so often nowadays, it ignors the class distinctions and social mores of the times the drama is set in. For example, even supposing that she would listen to a servant’s catalogue of his master’s amorous conquests, Elvira would not forget her social station so much as to go down on her knees in a street – nor allow Leporello to goose her, now would she?

The Don’s amazing escape at the end of act one is made with the aid of flamesshooting up all over the set. But surely the place for flames is when the Don gets his come-uppance at the end and is dragged down to hell?

La ci darem. Why does Don take Zerlina’s hand before he asks the question? Mozartclearly points out the acutal moment when Zerlina gives way; why anticipate it, it spoils the seduction?

O.K. Socarates, thats enough questions. So lets look at the performaers. Glyndebourne’s musical director, Vladimir Jurowski, handed over the nine August performances to Jakub Hrusa, associate conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, who is going to direct the Glyndebourne Touring Opera this autumn; he conducted a stylish, taut performance of the Don, beginning with an Overture whose allegro showed him to be more of a hare than a tortoise, more of an Arturo T. Than an Otto K. Or a Reggie G..The star of this performance came from below the salt; Luca Pisaroni was a brilliant Leporello, so good that he put Gerald Finley’s well sung Don in the shade, rather low voltage, one couldn’t image this Don chalking up 1003 sedutions, seareely 501 ½. Kate Royal’s Elvira had some very luke-warm reviews but she was in good voice on August 18 although I think she was miscast. The Russian Donna Anna, Anna Samuil, warmed up for second act after a dsappointing opening Zerlina, Anna Virovlansky, also Russian, was excellent, it would be a pleasure to darem her mano any day of the week.

So after the questions, the answer is that this was an enjoyable Don, if not a great one. It was certainly an improvement on the last Sussex Don – remember that dreadful dead horse and its all too visible gizzards?


Born Melbourne 1913, Australian, but not always proud of it. Latterly added an e to her name( it helped her career somewhat). Brown was a frumpy Oz: Browne became an elegant, sophisticated lady. No Ozzie accent except when joking or swearing.

The word originally intended to describe copulating was never far from her lips. She was witty and is remembered as much for her foul-mouthing as for her supreme talent as an ACTRESS.

28 plays in Australia
41 in UK
7 in USA
31 films
15 TV
11 radio shows
7 full pages of bibliography

As likely as not her performances in comedies were more success than the plays she acted in. But when she played classics she scooped the plaudits, in Wilde, Maugham, Marlowe, Shaw or Shakespeare. “I have seen some good Macbeths but never a Lady Macbeth as memorable or magnificent as Coral Browne.”

Why did she collect awards and prizes but was never given an Honour? Was it because her reputation led the authorities to fear that she might say to the Monarch, “Thanks for the fucking medal?”

Play after play she showed her superiority on the stage; she was always inside the characters she portrayed, her acting was sparkling and in depth. Sometimes her entrance was applauded and she acknowledged that with a twitch of her left eyebrow. She was married twice: first to Philip Pearlman. Midway in her career, Coral joined the distinguished band of actors who suffered seriously from stage fright.

Asked about her later (rather unlikely) marriage with Vincent Price, the silken-voiced master of horror movies when they were both well over sixty, she explained to a friend that their opening night - was like squeezing a marshmallow into an old leather bag! They got on well, even though when they lived in the States she was Mrs Vincent Price rather than Miss Coral Browne. He was the big celebratory known nationally for his horror, locally for his personal appearances, TV shows, lectures on wine. Coral had her face lifted to the extent that when she smiled “it was a terrible effort to get the gum back over her teeth again. And there were endless dietary attempts to keep in shape” (Diana Rigg). Indeed there was a new diet every week. But the cracks were verbal as well as facial (to a dim would-be-writer) “you couldn’t write fuck on a dusty Venetian blind.”

She starred as herself in a TV film about Guy Burgess called An Englishman Abroad. It won awards for her and the author Alan Bennett. Dream Child was another success in TV ( script: Denis Potter). At 70, Coral was enjoying an Indian Summer. She thought Dream Child one of the three best things she had done, the others being Macbeth and Waltz of the Toreadors. “She was fun to work with” (Prunella Scales).

“I’ve got a hole under my arm from the last op and now another in my leg. And that’s in addition to the holes God gave me. I feel like a fucking sieve.” She referred often to joining the feathered choir.

Faith: She became a fervent Catholic. To a young author asking her for work after a service in Brompton Oratory “get anyway can’t you see I’m in a state of fucking grace.”

She married an actor (later agent) not of the first range, then latish in life Vincent Price. She was apparently a devoted wife, but if these two were the main courses, her starters, side orders and desserts were almost legion - and starstudded; Jack Buchanan, Douglas Fairbanks Jnr., Cecil Beaton, Michael Hordern, Paul Robeson for starters.

She had a lengthy affair with the impresario Firth Shephard; Coral used to say, “Firth is my Shephard; I shall not want; he leadeth me into green pastures; he maketh me to lie down in strange places.” she was his leading lady in many lucrative runs. But she also shephered him for she read plays for him often and persuaded him, to put on several plays that he had thumb-downed. (Like The Man who came to Dinner).

Sometimes she liked to discountenance dressing-room visitors by receiving them in the nude.

She was a good, caring, generous friend but that did not stop her spearing them with her caustic wit and naughty nicknames. Ralph Richardson became Sir Turnip, Laurence Olivier Lord Puddleduck and his wife Lady Blowright.

She said about her roles in films: “either a vamp, a sex-starved wife, a murder victim or somebody’s mother.”

Someone else (in the USA) said: “a talent which combined the impact of an Ethel Merman with the intensity of a Judith Anderson.” She worked at her life, her relationships, her friendships, and her marriages were as successful as her work in the theatre. Under her wicked sense of humour there lurked a great vulnerability.

She was blessed with great good looks rather than outstanding beauty and it is to be doubted that any actress in the long history of British theatre had the art of making more of the gifts she was given by God.

When Vincent Price was asked (memorial service) what were her favourite hymns he said there were too many to mention - and quite a few hers. He did not attend that service but a letter from him was read out:

“I find I miss every hour of Coral’s life – I miss her morning cloudiness, noon mellowness, evening brightness. I miss her in every corner of our house, every crevice of my life. In missing her, I feel I’m missing muh of life itself. Over her long illness, as I held her hand or stroked her brow, or just lay still beside her, it was not the affectionate contact we’d known as we wandered down the glamourous paths we’d been privileged to share in our few years together, we were marching toward the end of our time and we both knew it. But, in our looks, our smiles, the private, few, soft-spoken words, there was hope of other places, other ways, perhaps, to meet again.”

And some lines from a poem by Barry Humphries:

A Choral for Coral
Her beauty and her shining wit
Sparkle beyond the grave
The girl who didn’t give a shit
Preposterously brave....
Uniquely-minded Queen of Style
No counterfeit could coin you,
Long may you make the angels smile
Till we all fuck off to join you.

Buxton Festival

Richard Strauss once said that he couldn't write about Mozart; he could only worship him but in 1931 he made an edition of one of his god's forgotten operas no doubt thinking he was giving it the kiss of life. Was it the opposite? It took many years before Idomeneo began to be revived and performed (notably at Glyndebourne in 1951).

Strauss wasn't above trying to teach him a lesson or two, he added another pair of horns and substituted a concert aria with violin solo, made cuts, moved things around, composed a rather grumpy interlude, added a quote from his Egyptian Helen of Troy when she is mentioned in the third act and gave the work a new finale ensemble.
An interesting exercise, fascinating for Strauss disciples but on the whole I think most of the audience would have been glad if Strauss had not bothered.

As Idamante, Victoria Simmonds was fine but the singing in general was valiant rather than persuasive. Artistic Director Andrew Greenwood directed intelligently, local chorus good, ditto Northern Chamber Orchestra.

Buxton Festival is on a high, interesting programmes, including literary talks by Roy Hattersley, Deborah Devonshire (the Dowager Duchess) with politician David Blunkett (with black dog) and there were interesting operas (the aforementioned Idomeneo and Luisa Miller, to be mentioned later) and many interesting recitals including some of the opera singers, amungst which I caught a thrilling and satisfying piano hour of Debussy played by Pascal Rogé.

He played half a dozen of the more popular Preludes, better performances of which I don't hope to hear unless I get up-graded to the Pearly Portals, and with his wife played, the Petite Suite and shipped us into La Mer, Debussy's own arrangement. This bought tears to my eyes, it was so exciting and heart-warming – they played with zest and style.

Frank Matcham's Opera House is a little jewel, over a 100 years old , a tiny building designed by an architect who never managed to pass his exams but never the less built nearly a 100 theatres (including the London Coliseum).

Nobody seemed to enjoy Peter Cornelius 'The Barber of Baghdad’, pity because it was an interesting choice but it obviously misfired. But Luisa Miller pleased, written in 1849by Verdi, a Sturm und Drang situation with fatuous lines in the libretto that cannot be taken seriously, indeed, director Stephen Metcalf opted for an ironic tongue-in-cheek production, that is until the tragic end. Tenor and soprano are matched against two villains, one of whom is actually called Worm (Wurm). The basis of the plot is Schiller's play Kabale und Liebe which must surely be several cuts above Commerano’s slack libretto. But, in his late 30's, it suited Verdi down to the melodramatic ground, primitive emotions, no hanging about, good tunes and opportunities for singers, including the chorus, Susan Glanville relished and fitted the title role, bel canto with coloratura. John Bellemer reached effortlessly for his high notes and sang his formidable part with guts and style, Luisa's father has a good baritone part which David Kempston sang eloquently. Worm and his wicked boss, the count, added well to the villainy.

Buxton is said to be the highest town in England and it has high ideals for its Festival. It’s a gracious and elegant place.