Tom Sutcliffe considers front gardens and gender roles
I recently returned to visit friends in Poundbury. The Prince of Wales’s experiment in suburban provincial living continues to grow and thrive, and is certainly not a ‘carbuncle’ added to the atmospheric old hillside Wessex town of Dorchester in Dorset. All Poundbury’s recognizably traditionalist domestic architecture is supposed to be copied from existing older buildings in Dorset or nearby. The Poundbury example of nineteenth century housing is now very widely followed by British developers and builders around the country.
However, this classy suburb of Dorchester is not an easy place (I gather) for shops to thrive—apart, that is, from Waitrose in Queen Mother Square opposite the Duchess of Cornwall Inn. Also a hotel, the pub has tables and chairs outside a big warehouse-style building with grand windows and high ceilings. Also facing Waitrose, and a bit further away from the new statue of the Queen Mum around which the gentle traffic revolves, are premises with neo-classical columns looking distinctly palatial that are occupied by the Dorset Wine Company. At the very back of the square is the even larger and grander Royal Pavilion.
There is not much to admire anywhere in Poundbury, though, in the form of front gardens that reflect effort or horticultural attention for visual impact, nor are any of the gardens behind three-storey double-fronted homes challengingly large. Thinking ahead by planners and architects has meant public spaces and throughways (of which there are enticingly many) are laid out so as not to need weeding. For all the easy public access and space serving dog-walkers in the more densely planned developments around the various houses and apartment blocks or small groups of terraces, one seeks in vain for naked clay waiting to show what nature undisturbed can do. Every inch has been paved, or otherwise covered for safety, from anything which might grow on its own initiative. And no mews of course, anywhere, nor remoter back gardens where earth closets in olden days would have lurked out of sight, but convenient for clearance.
Refreshingly ancient tall trees inside Woodlands Crescent lead to a garden centre just off Queen Mother Square and next to the farmhouse which is the sole genuinely Victorian building to be seen in the whole suburb, pre-dating the Prince’s project. Beside the farmhouse is a rectangular tall building reminiscent of an early Welsh chapel or Baptist church called the Quiet Place and further described as a ‘multifaith place of worship.’ It has a tall ceiling but no gallery, and it’s very small—probably able to seat no more than 40 at a squeeze—and has no decorations or indications of anything relating to any faith apart from a Quaker-like belief in keeping quiet.
Glyndebourne’s ravishing new production of Massenet’s Cendrillon is only the second Massenet opera ever attempted there, since Michael Redgrave’s Werther staging in the 1960s (which I missed). George Christie did not like French opera, I guess, apart from the inescapable Carmen and Ravel miniatures. But the affectionate, perfect description by the late Rodney Milnes in the Grove Opera dictionary of this work, which is enchanting musically and in every other way, explains what is so special about it. OK it’s Cinderella… but with 1890s music of magical genius that sublimely explores the depths of sadness in an unfulfilled romance. I wept twice, once in each half of the work, because of the exquisite melodic beauty. And the conducting by young British maestro Duncan Ward brought it all immaculately together, with restraint and much less of the self-consciousness that Glyndebourne’s music director Robin Ticciati applies. The singing by the three principals, who were all new to me—Alix le Saux as Lucette in the title role, Caroline Wettergreen as the stylishly dressed, slightly Edwardian Fairy (godmother), and Eléonore Pancrazi as Prince Charming—could really not have been bettered.
But the success, mystery and considerable complexity of John Bausor’s fabulously imaginative designs and the wit and theatrical virtuosity of choreographer Sarah Fahie’s danced stage business (making up about 50% of the meaningful pleasure of the production) were somewhat reduced for me by the handling of the gender issue. The Prince is a ‘trouser role’ for a mezzo (though in the ballet episodes at the Berlin Komische two years ago the director Michieletto employed a male dancer for the balletic realization of the relationship). Now, trouser roles (most famously in the case of Mozart’s Cherubino and Richard Strauss’s Oktavian) have been an operatic convention since the eighteenth century, but in these days of gender equalization and transgender distortion it seems to me crucial that we know whether a woman playing a male role is playing it true, or is making it evoke a sort of ‘gay’ sentiment, which I felt to be the case here in actress Fiona Shaw’s production (and after all we do live in a world where the Guardian newspaper, for which I worked for 23 years, has banned the 1660s word ‘actress’ from use).
What is the difference between a woman acting male and a woman acting female? Is there a difference? I would say yes. And it is crucial. When I, as a teenager at school, played female roles like Titania and Hermione in the school Shakespeare I was not beneath the clothes and make-up being a chap; I was trying to serve the audience’s imagination in the way that The Bard had envisaged. But somehow this Prince Charming at Glyndebourne did not feel like or seem to be a woman playing a man—she was just being herself, no doubt encouraged by Ms Shaw in that respect. Nevertheless, it was a wonderful and stimulating exploration of emotion.