Thurifer gets musical


To say that John Bridcut makes documentaries fails to scratch the surface of his achievements. He specializes in musicians: studies of Ralph Vaughan-Williams, Edward Elgar, Parry (with Prince Charles) with occasional excursions elsewhere, notably a film on HM The Queen at ninety. His latest (on BBC Four) was a superlative retrospective of the career of Dame Janet Baker. Now in her mid-eighties, she retired from opera in 1982 (there is marvellous footage of her last night in Orfeo at Glyndebourne) and from public performance in 1989. She reflects on her career with a robust lack of sentimentality. She reveals the traumatic, lasting impact of the death of her older teenage brother, and speaks movingly of the unique moment when her professionalism broke down while singing the Angel in the Dream of Gerontius in memory of her beloved John Barbirolli at the words, ‘farewell, but not for ever, brother dear… and I will come and wake thee on the morrow.’ Her recording, with Barbirolli conducting and Richard Lewis and Kim Borg the other soloists, was one of the first boxed sets that I bought and remains my favourite recording, among a crowded field. I was fortunate to see and hear her several times, not least in Les Troyens and at a delightful recital given in the Methodist Hall of a pit village in the North East. Although sometimes described as the successor of Kathleen Ferrier, one contributor pointed out that Kathleen Ferrier was in a distinctive English contralto tradition while Dame Janet is distinctly different as a mezzo-soprano. One of the characteristics of Bridcut’s films is to focus on contributors as they listen to the music, or in this case the voice of Dame Janet, and to watch their concentration, physical movements and reactions, engagement and comments. Here it is particularly poignant and moving when Dame Janet, her husband—disabled after a series of strokes—and his burly, tattooed, sympathetic Scottish carer, listen to her recording of Mahler’s ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (Rückert-Lieder). She wept. So did I. It was reminiscent of a performance of ‘Das Lied von der Erde which I heard and was similarly moved with its last words ‘ewig, ewig’ fading into the eternal. What a voice. What a consummate artist.


The auguries were not propitious: the cinema’s booking website failed to operate. After several futile attempts I telephoned, and booked two tickets for a live relay of Dialogues des Carmélites by Poulenc from the Metropolitan Opera, New York. It was one of those conversations which I ended not being entirely confident that a booking had been made. Several days later when I went to collect the tickets my forebodings were borne out. ‘They’ve been collected,’ I was told. I protested that they had not. ‘They’ve been collected.’ ‘No, they have not. I want them now.’ A senior colleague arrived and, after further protestations, two ‘reprints’ were produced. These turned out to be for Captain Marvel. Yet more protestations, and being told that this is what I ordered, eventually resulted in the correct tickets being begrudgingly handed over. On the night my friend forgot to bring his ticket, the cinema had been changed, seats had been reallocated and our seats were in separate rows. A harassed manager reassigned us but one of the seats was occupied and some readjustments were necessary. The delay meant that the preliminary interviews and scene setting were taking place but without any sound. Fortunately, the middle classes of the leafy suburbs of North London are not reticent when it comes to their culture and several had protested to another beleaguered manager. Sound was restored about five minutes into the opera. Just before the audience rose as one in its righteous wrath to storm the barricades. 

Was it worth it? Oh, yes, and in spades. In a transmission you may lose the visceral physicality of being in the auditorium, but you gain from being immersed in the action, face to face with the singers. And opera singers can act. Every detail, every look, every exchange is in sharp focus and not viewed dimly from the back of the amphitheatre. It is the story of one of the outrages of the Terror unleashed by the French Revolution. Nuns in the Carmelite convent in Compiègne were expelled from the convent, denied the wearing of their habits and executed: a grim story of martyrdom and of mob mentality, still resonant and replicated in contemporary horrors. The production, over forty years old, by John Dexter is spare and concentrated. The stage is a large white cross and the first image is of thirteen nuns prostrate with arms outstretched, Christ-like. The last image is of the nuns as they walk one by one across towards the back of the stage where Madame Guillotine awaits and their fate assured, and their martyrdom won, signalled by thudding chords cutting through the Salve Regina. Moving does not even begin to explain the opera’s, and this performance’s, effect; it was harrowing, dark, emotionally wringing, draining, completely engaging. Every character remains etched in the mind, the music still echoes in the inner ear. The score is at times intimate, at others ferocious and slashing, forlorn, hauntingly beautiful, always absorbing, shattering. It is an ensemble piece, and all the principals were outstanding: Isabel Leonard, Erin Morley, Karen Cargill (the Sister who craved martyrdom but was denied it), Karita Mattila (a tour de force), Adrianne Pieczonka. The orchestra, in superb form, was conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.