Desdemona: Moor Violence in Venice

Last month Jonas Kaufmann singing Verdi’s Otello was one of the hottest tickets in town and it may be only because I’m a blasé Londoner that I thought, ho humph, that was quite a good evening.

The soloists and chorus sang wonderfully of course. Resonant, mostly expressive, bang in the middle of the note except for Iago for whose anger a slightly strangled air works well. I can’t afford seats close enough to judge their facial expressions or more nuanced gestures. But most of the singers looked and behaved appropriately most of the time.

ROHThe orchestra played as robustly as ever. Every time I’ve seen Pappano conduct the singers must fight him to be heard, from the (relatively) cheap seats anyway. (I mistyped signers, which could have stood). But the musicians did pipe down respectfully for the likes of Kaufmann and they always quieten after the interval. As a choral singer I know if you keep bellowing too long you run out of muscle so perhaps that’s what happens to players under Pappano too.

Covent Garden went through a phase in the noughties of sets like multi storey car parks and this one while not in that league of awfulness was dull and so heavy on the symbolism it clunked. Literally, during one long scene change. Black and grey modernism didn’t preclude standard blousy costumes and for Emilia a bodice resembling a rib knit jumper. But she  (Kai Rüütel) had a beautiful voice, like her mistress, and acted rather more convincingly.

It’s a pleasure to sit in the red velvet splendour of Covent Garden and have a drink in the bar where even the current building works can’t dim the elegance.

ROH bar 2017

Given such a great package, provided the singing, playing, and the opera itself are good surely other aspects don’t matter? The worst of designs can’t ruin the sound of great opera well sung, even when Toscas death is visible only from her ankles to her knees (English National Opera 2004), when the apprehensive chorus have to juggle real balls throughout their long star number (Akhnaten, ENO 2016) or clamber up and down school assembly hall wall bars (Fidelio, ROH 2011) or when poor Desdemona (Maria Agresta) had to sing draped backwards across furniture with her head hanging down on the floor for a good ten minutes (don’t try this at home). Often it’s best just to shut your eyes and listen: there’s only so much mixed identity, fairy transformation, revenge and blood feud any reasonable suspension of disbelief can take. But the story matters more when it’s a great Shakespearean tragedy.

Aye, there’s the rub. I’ve seen Othello live on stage only once, when I took my teenage son to see Lenny Henry’s debut Shakespeare role in 2009. Lenny H was quite good, until he broke into a self conscious giggle in the scene where Othello froths at the mouth. I’ve seen old film versions, including Laurence Olivier: sorry, ô great icon of British theatre, this has dated too much for me. But Paul Robeson in groundbreaking performances from the 1930s and 40s is still very moving (a black man? Playing a black man? Good gracious me…) The most memorable Otello of many I’ve seen was a 2007 dress rehearsal at ROH when Renée Fleming’s mother was ill (audience sighs) so Amanda Roocroft stepped in at short notice (audience cheers). In the beautiful willow song scene before her death Roocroft was poignant, terrified, achingly tragic.

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This 2017 production was – yes, expensive professionals at their most competent. But there was something missing. Kaufmann’s singing though beautiful was slightly in traditional declamatory style. I think I do have a problem with white singers even as wonderful as Kaufmann singing Otello, since the black/white opposition is such an integral part of the plot and it barely featured here. Paramount for the opera role is the ability to sing it, and Kaufmann’s rare voice certainly fits that bill. Of course he didn’t black up: that’s no more acceptable in opera than it is now in theatre. But it’s 2017. We’re due a black singer cast as Otello in London. They do exist. Perhaps the role could be, for one of them, a path to Kaufmann level stardom?

There was no “slightly” about Maria Agresta’s “style” in this production. It WAS traditional and declamatory. This Desdemona planted her feet and gave it her all. Solidly undeterred, is how I would describe her anticipation of Otello’s murderous rage. If anyone can sing a comfortable death with their head hanging down as described above, she can, and never loses her tuning or composure. She wasn’t very interesting to watch so I listened and thought about the words, which highlighted an obvious point that to my feminist shame has never occurred to me about Desdemona and Othello before.

4290802Yes, it’s a play/opera about Othello/Otello the social/racial outsider being cruelly manipulated into mental illness. Yes, it’s about a victorious general outmanoeuvred in the domestic sphere, a successful military and political star shamed and diminished by his jealousy into committing murder. Since 1604 the audience has been worked upon to feel pity for him in his downfall, but the principle tragedy is not his.

The tragedy is Desdemona’s. Verdi realised it: he gives her one of the most intense scenes in the repertoire. The night she is killed, Desdemona waits vulnerable in her room for her husband to arrive, alternately prays and tries to comfort herself with a sad song she remembers from childhood, pleads with herself and her maid for reassurance, lays out her wedding nightgown to remind Otello of happier times, wonders again what she has done wrong, prays again to God and to Otello to spare her, in despair tries to sleep. When her husband does appear she tries hopelessly to reason with him and explain his mistake…

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Desdemona is trapped like domestic violence victims everywhere. Women attacked and murdered by men they love, or think they love, or once loved, or just knew and fell foul of. Sometimes they’ll have spent years yearning for, adoring, placating, comforting, adapting to, soothing, providing for their killers. They may or may not have irritated, hated, inflamed, bullied them along the way, they may well have character flaws of their own, they may or may not have fought back. But they are the victims, not their killers.

Right to the end, Desdemona blames herself and craves Othello’s approval, as abused partners are led to do. Here is Verdi’s version (or Boito’s, his librettist), in English translation:

DESDEMONA
A guiltless death I die…

EMILIA
Great God! Who did this deed?

DESDEMONA
Nobody… I myself…
Commend me to my lord…
A guiltless death I die…
Farewell…

And here is Shakespeare’s:

DESDEMONA A guiltless death I die.  

EMILIA O, who hath done this deed?

DESDEMONA  Nobody; I myself. Farewell. Commend me to my kind lord:                                                         O, farewell!

I found lots of editions on the Goodreads comparative page. They either show Othello, or Othello and Desdemona, “that” handkerchief or an abstract design. None highlight Desdemona. Contemporary theatre posters are more equal – I haven’t shown finished production ones for copyright reasons but I can feature the National Youth Theatre and Unicorn Theatre posters who I hope will welcome the advertising.

I’ve rambled around even now, I’m so used to thinking of this as Othello’s story. But my main point is: never mind tinkering with the sets, the performances, even the casting. I have a more fundamental reinterpretation. I think it’s time to rename this play: Desdemona: Moor violence in Venice.

 

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

Barcelona, Sombra y Sol

Shade and sun, noise and…not much silence here in London where we still have intermittent NOISE unless I scream at the builders through the walls. For me the sounds were more harmonious last week in Barcelona, so here’s a post about what I’ve heard and seen there, over the years.

Barcelona Jn sol y sombra azules
Sun, shade and building, from Park Guell

I first visited Barcelona in November 1979 with a student friend. Our filthy train rumbled down from Paris for ten hours. We dozed upright and stepped over recumbent bodies in the aisle to get to the unspeakable loo. The track gauge changed at the border so we had to take another even worse train, arriving sleepless with grit filled eyes. We found a room in a narrow alley off the Ramblas, not because it was billed as “quaint” (it wasn’t, then), but because it was cheap. It looked onto a high blank wall about six metres away and the streets were quiet. I wanted to practise my Spanish, which G didn’t speak, but we soon found it was better if he did the talking. The only other females around were nuns and prostitutes, and no-one seemed ready to engage in the friendly dialogues suggested by my phrasebook.Barcelona SF 2 I don’t remember hearing Catalan or English either: people simply didn’t speak in our presence. Probably, under Franco, they’d lost the habit of talking in front of strangers. Their mother tongue, after all, was banned. It rained. The Sagrada Familia was forbidding and silent – no-one was working or visiting under the four completed towers and much of the roof was open to the gloomy sky. There was little money available for the project. Franco had only been dead four years and Catalonia had suffered as much if not more than the rest of Spain. Barcelona was poor, dirty, dreary and dark. We escaped to Sitges, even then a cheerful, bouncy little town with a sunny beach that defied the season.

My next trip was sometime around 2004.  What a difference! Spain had (apparently) shrugged off Franco. The 1992 Olympics had regenerated Barcelona, cleaned up its beaches, replanted its parks. The shops were full and colourful, the people stylish. You could still wander around the “temple” without a guide, but parts were taped off with stonemasons chipping away behind them. The human statues in the Ramblas only jogged into movement when the adjacent ball dribbling exhibition hit them accidentally (or was it?) I watched Almodovar’s La Mala Educación which had just come out, in a showing starting at 10pm and then we went to eat and then the sparkling metro was still running to get me home. Watch out for your purse by the bullring, warned Señora Herrero, my hostess, but I felt quite safe.

Barceloan palau interior
The Palau de la Musica

I returned with my son and his father in 2005. I wanted to see the Palau de la Música, built to celebrate both Catalan and international musical traditions and an Art Nouveau sensation. I wanted to visit the Picasso Museum, where you can see his dashing, respectful variations on Velasquez’s Las Meninas. I wanted to congratulate myself again on how much written Catalan I could understand – by now all signs were bilingual and if you can read French, Spanish or Latin you can decipher Catalan. Robert and his dad went to worship at Camp Nou, and back we all went to the Sagrada Familia. Not much had changed in a year. Health and safety awareness had produced a few more hoardings so work was audible but harder to watch. (Why am I moaning about the builders next door? At least it’s not an unfinished cathedral started 90 years ago.)

We went again last week. I’ve written before about singing, and this trip was Run by Singers, giving us the opportunity to sing in the temple! And goodness how it’s come on (the temple, not my singing). The midpoint of construction was reached in 2010 and it’s hoped to finish in 2026, the anniversary of Gaudi’s death (although the pious architect famously said “my client [God] isn’t in a hurry”). There are now eight towers completed of the projected eighteen. The roof is finished, and the stained glass creates glorious changing patterns in the nave, while the internal pillars rise in the shapes of palm trees to a forest canopy of intricate stone. I was relieved the choir stalls are not yet finished, as they’re going to be about 15 vertiginous metres up on three sides, with a screen so that all 1400 potential singers can see the conductor. Meanwhile we sang in a roped off space in the nave and some tourists were good enough to stop and listen. In the evening, we gave a charity concert at an enchanting little theatre in the nearby town of Vilassar. I wonder how many UK towns can boast such a charming performance space?

There was a little time for sightseeing. The Park Guëll was scorching, and to me had changed only in that it was much more crowded. The mosaics that aren’t mosaics (they’re “trincados” and you can try making one yourself next time you smash a plate) were still delightful. I suffered real vertigo on the roof of La Pedrera, but enjoyed the apartment inside and gazpacho at their cafe. The bullring has become a shopping centre since Barcelona banned bullfighting – bravo! But the cherry on the cake was to return to the Palau. This time, the guided tour was much less overtly political, less focussed on Catalan pride and the need to protect and nurture their culture. The glowing Palau spoke for itself, as now do the people, and the tour included 20 minutes of beautifully played Chopin, Liszt, and Mozart. Next time, we must surely sing there!

I’d downloaded books set in the region, referring as ever to the TripFiction website for my choices. But we were too busy. I haven’t touched them. All I can recommend is those I’d read already. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, about his experiences during the Spanish Civil war, can’t be bettered as an explanation of why 43 years later the Barcelona I saw was still so downtrodden and sinister. The novels of Carlos Ruiz Zafón are mostly set there. I read them in Spanish, in order to practice, which means I’m vague about the content. There were lots of alleyways, dark passages, dusty booksellers and libraries, abandoned railways and gardens with wrought iron gates, mysterious young women, wrinkled grandparents with jewels and sadness, shadows and secrets but the plots eluded me.

Barcelona Montjuic steps
Montjuic

Depending on NOISE, posts over the summer will be intermittent. Maybe I’ll reblog something of someone else’s instead, now I’ve discovered how. Or maybe I’ll leave you all in blissful silence, to browse through some photographs – this time, it was harder than ever to know what to leave out.

Barcelona SF palm trees

Barcelona SF stained glass

Barceklona SF stained glass 2

 

Bracelona JN La P gazpachoHasta luego!

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

15 stages you go through with structural edits

This is a witty, true post about how it feels to receive comments from a structural editor. Number 16 must surely be “deal with copy edits and hangover at same time…” but Louise Jensen of Fabricating Fiction makes 15 good points here, do read and learn. Cheers!

fabricating fiction

  1. My structural edits have arrived. I don’t think I’m strong enough to cope. Pour a glass of wine.
  2. Open the email, skim through the notes. Feel lightheaded and slightly sick. Close email. Drink more wine.
  3. Take a deep breath and read editor’s notes properly. The changes are enormous. Hyperventilate. I can’t do this.
  4. Pull myself together. Remind myself I am LUCKY to be in this position. Open the document. WHY IS THERE SO MUCH RED? There are track changes EVERYWHERE.
  5. Outrage – this will RUIN my book. RUIN it.
  6. Google self-publishing.
  7. Cry.
  8. Go shopping – can’t possibly edit until I have more highlighters/post-its/notebooks/chocolate.
  9. Make a list. Lists are good. Lists make everything manageable.
  10. Pull the book apart and piece it back together.
  11. Read manuscript – realise editor was actually right all along and the changes ARE an improvement.
  12. Relief.
  13. Email manuscript back to editor. Collapse on the sofa. Hurrah. It…

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Writing about NOISE!

How do you write your blogs? Are your subjects meticulously planned out weeks in advance? Book reviewers structure posts by publication date or genre, gardeners by season, travellers by route. Mine are more random, with the proviso to involve words, reading, writing, language. When I taught, we defined four language skills in order of acquisition: listening which comes long before speaking (think of a baby absorbing and imitating sounds), much later reading and a little after that or concurrently, writing. For an adult, those skills may be conflated or even reversed – most adults feel more comfortable reading than trying to speak, although the phonetic way they do it plays havoc with their pronunciation. And many adults, as we shall see, can’t listen.

house 16Anyway, recently, I can’t do any of those. I can’t listen to words or music, because of noise from masonry drills and other power tools. A masonry drill works at between 110-147 decibels, depending whose health and safety advice you read (this is from New Zealand, but we have the same anatomy). A builder using such drills should wear ear protection to reduce (not completely prevent) sudden and irreversible hearing loss. A neighbour of a house which is having its chimney breasts removed has no such protection. She can shut the windows but since the house next door now has no back wall, she’s shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted (noise can confuse a writer: there isn’t now and never was a stable).

I can’t speak because there’s no one else here. My daughter who works from home as a translator has gone to head office in despair. If I phone anyone up they go “What? Pardon? Wh…? You’ll have to speak up! Who?”

33870669I can’t  read because although I’m in the middle of the delightful Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes Hallett, it’s hard to concentrate on the construction of a landscape garden in the 17th century when the china is rattling in the cabinet and it feels like tanks are about to roll onto the sofa. Of course, works then must have been just as disruptive to the locals: a right of way was threatened, bogs were turned into lakes, statues rolled in from Italy on rumbling carts with outwalkers to check the axles didn’t collapse. There were no masonry drills but gunpowder may have been used.

I can’t write. Well, yes, I can. I can write objections to planning applications, requests (ignored) for notice of dates of especially loud work or the erection of scaffolding next to my bedroom window, and this moan of a blog post.

I had builders when I moved here. The project expanded, because the house was in a worse state, underneath the pebble dash, than the survey had shown.

house 17
In fact the pebble dash had been holding it together.

But we were not extending beyond or above the existing building line. My builders were jocular, working from about 9.30 to 4pm with lunch breaks. One reason they took over a year was because while I was at work they did other jobs for my new neighbours up and down the road. At weekends they gave us all a break. I lived in the house as the work dragged on, available morning and evening to be complained to, but I didn’t have one complaint. Could be I’m complacent, of course. Could be the households around were all full of wax models of me, and their occupants were busy sticking in pins.

I’m afraid I’m intolerant too. I’ve complained about the new toilet and washing machine and dryer that will rumble against a party wall with my living room. I’ve objected to losing light from my ground floor, views from my kitchen and garden, sunlight for my plants. I’ve objected to the building line of the whole terrace being disrupted by an extension pushing into what was coherent green space (we border a conservation area). A new loft will also disrupt the terrace roof line and three new RSJs will bore into my party wall. I have no formal right to object to this or even to refuse access to my land so the building work can be done. (Many other houses already have standard dormer designs. When those lofts were converted there were appropriate planning regulations keeping them to scale and protecting the environment and neighbours. Such guidelines have now been relaxed so permission is automatic.)

house 15

The new owner doesn’t listen to objections. He repeats, bewildered: “But, it’s property development.” Property development is, for him, a virtue in itself and any wound to the environment, to local relationships, to neighbours’ health and homes is simply collateral damage. (Oh, there’s that war metaphor again.) “It’s my dream, for my family,” he says.

His planning application for the ground floor extension was rejected, on the grounds of my objections. Hooray! Now it’s been resubmitted. It will stick out 80cm less, otherwise it’s identical. The time consuming stressful rigmarole of objecting begins again. Sooner or later, one of us will lose. I don’t say one of us will win. Relations are sour. My new novel is, broadly speaking, about neighbours getting on well. I can’t do any revisions in these circumstances and anyway, I’m inclined to think: sod that. Maybe I’ll turn it into a war novel, immersing myself in ambient bangs, booms and thuds while I have the chance.

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Ah me, silence is golden. I wrote about it once. Meanwhile I’ll try watching Wimbledon. As an English (wo)man whose castle (house) is under siege, my assaulted brain can only think in clichés: every cloud has a silver lining. The power tools are very loud, but at least they drown out John Inverdale.

©Jessica Norrie 2017