mercredi 27 juillet 2011

Melodrama by torchlight

A woman I’ve never met should have been sitting in that seat: front row of the steps, with a friend on either side and a fabulous view of the Verona Arena’s magnificent stage, waiting for the final gong to sound the start of the night’s production of Verdi’s Aida. Her misfortune in being unable to make it was my immense good luck: thank you, Ana – it was amazing! 

Being no kind of opera buff, I had no idea of the plot before mugging up on it from the programme. It reads like a B-series soap opera: what a twisted bunch those Egyptians were! Not to mention the tricky Ethiopians! (A conversation with Giuseppe Verdi about Italian foreign and immigration policy would no doubt have been interesting…) Give or take a goddess or two and some unconventional headgear, you had the feeling the cast of Eastenders wouldn’t have felt too out of place in the whole set-up; the script writers might even want to consider burying the good guy alive as a possible plot line if inspiration flags, although the local pub may have to pass for the temple of Vulcan.

I didn’t know the score at all, either: the victory march in Act II was the only melody I was at all familiar with. (It’s great – a real ear worm, dislodged only by Ada humming ‘Torreador’ on the way home.) But the drama was certainly in the music rather than in the stage play for me, to be honest. The lead soprano and mezzo were built like battleships and swathed in the kinds of costume kids in my family used to put together out of the dressing-up box, while the burly male leads mostly resembled foil-wrapped poultry ready for the oven (with the exception of the high priest, who was a skinnymalink with a beautiful rich bass). These unfortunate physiques and the necessity of telegraphing emotions across a vast auditorium to an audience composed in large part of non-Italian-speaking tourists made the acting seem fairly unconvincing from where I was sitting. And that was before the cast came out of character after every aria to take a bow! But the choruses, the high priest and some of Aida’s singing sent shivers down my spine, and the orchestra were wonderful.

And what a great show! Personally I could have watched the conductor and the bows of the string section all night – harder to say which was leaping faster or with more verve. And when they moved the entire brass section of the orchestra up onto the stage for Act II (in full costume, naturally), everything else became rather secondary. Till they brought the horses onstage, that is… The stage set drew applause every time the lights went up – complete with burning brands ringing the action that must have had Verona fire department on red alert all evening, palm trees felled in the intermission to make way for vast pillars and deities, and twin sphinxes like bookends regarding the whole event inscrutably from either side of the magnificent stage. Yet even the sphinxes must have smiled at some of the high-energy choreography, not to mention the extremely cute slave children (don’t think about that one too hard).

And then the audience were practically worth coming to see in themselves. They absolutely loved it! The cheap seats at the top were cram-full two hours before the performance started – mostly, one suspects, with people like me who understood one word in a hundred of the original score. Somebody or other started clapping before the end of most arias, and a hard-core aficionado across from us screamed ‘bravissima!’ each time Aida or Amneris paused to draw breath. Opera purists might have been horrified, but it was rather endearing – and the cast understandably seemed taken by it.

I first went to Verona in 1988 with Carrie, and we yearned to go to see Aida at the pink Arena, where it was showing at the time, but eventually decided we couldn’t afford it from our limited Interrail funds. 23 years later, thanks to the unknown Ana and to Clara, I finally made it in on a free ticket. Talk about holding out for a bargain! And so very worth the wait.

lundi 18 juillet 2011

Not twisted, just warped. And maybe a little eccentric.

So what’s so good about tapestry? Having just completed a three-day introduction to the basics with Maralyn Hepworth in Shropshire (, I have a better idea than I did this time last week.

Clearly it’s the wonder of creating fabric, building up a unique weave and playing with the colours and textures of the yarn. I especially enjoyed the soumak and the appropriately named eccentric weave, although here I’ve not managed to keep an even tension, so the fabric bunches up in places.

If I ever get good enough, it will also be about telling stories in the threads of a 3-D picture –like the Bayeux tapestry does, only it turns out that’s embroidery and not a tapestry in any conventional sense at all...

But a huge part of the pleasure for me, after recent years looking at such big-picture issues as international action in a humanitarian crisis, was undoubtedly the simple fact of focusing on an object 15cm x 12cm with zero consequences. Relieved of the obligation to produce and the aspiration to perfection, I’ve spent three wonderful days making shapes, tying knots and learning about colour blends, picks and sheds, vertical butting (nothing lewd!), and the creative uses of chip sticks as bobbins and dinner forks as beaters. The one advance in tapestry technology that really seems to be lacking is the woven equivalent of Ctrl-Z, the key combination on PCs that undoes whatever you just did wrong, which would have saved me hours of unpicking my picks. (But then the same could be said of many activities.)

The result is riddled with holes and mistakes, there’s a shocking quantity of ‘snow’ (where you can see the warp threads through the weft), and the surface is impossibly uneven. But it is My First Tapestry, and I’m unreasonably pleased with it!

dimanche 17 juillet 2011

In praise of Pen the mare

On the way to the Royal Oak in Cardington, Pen’s happy to be out, but more interested in checking out every gate we pass than in keeping up a good pace. Her ears twitch in response to Will’s commands, delivered in the good-natured tone of long acquaintance: ‘Steady now; you’re going to slip on that road.’ ‘Car coming, Pen: get to the side.’ ‘Come on, now: third gear.’

Enthroned on the surprisingly comfortable trap, we move through a landscape of patchwork fields, their colours drained by the gathering dusk, and sheep scattered like points of light piercing the flanks of ancient hills. Walking on the down slopes, trotting on the level and cantering uphill, Pen steams us towards Cardington’s picture-postcard prettiness, friendly pub and collection of cockle-warming single malts.

On the way home, there’s no stopping her. Radar ears set towards Kenley, she knows exactly where she’s going: the powerful hindquarters are positioned by her internal satnav well before I tweak the reins for a right turn. (To make the treat complete, Will has let me drive on the last leg; Pen takes it in her eager stride.) As we round the bend for the home straight to the farm, she waits a fraction for our verbal encouragement before eating up the final hill at a merry gallop. It’s a gradient I have been struggling up with the bike, with only my own bodyweight in tow.

Pen the pony: a sweet beast and the best possible lift to the pub.

mercredi 13 juillet 2011

SSJ annual musical barbecue: the fire still burns

We’ve all become more grown-up and responsible. The alcohol consumption seems to have dropped dramatically, and the clean-up next day is radically faster because hardly anyone’s leaving half-full beer cans all over the lawn any more. But there were still 70 pairs of feet tapping all afternoon (the most energetic of them in diminutive pink wellies), the barbecue never went out, and the last guitar chords were heard around the bonfire after 3am. AND we got sunshine! A vintage year…