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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

Swingin' Samson, problems in the violins
and a review of 'La Clemenza di Tito' at English National Opera,
with classical music agony aunt ALICE McVEIGH

Dear Alice,

Thanks for your wise words on the weirdness of choral singers the other week. The musical your correspondent couldn't place is Swingin' Samson by Michael Hurd, the composer of such 70s kids' classics as Hip-Hip-Horatio (about Nelson), Jonah-man Jazz (about Jonah and the whale) and Pilgrim (on Bunyan's allegory). I was in a performance of the latter at a tender age and recall with particular pleasure the 'Vanity Fair' number ('It's mystic/And sadistic/All the people/Are masochistic/When you're in it/You reach the limit/Of vice/Believe me, it's nice!'). With the benefit of hindsight this doesn't seem altogether suitable for primary school kids, though I've found it in many ways an admirable preparation for an amateur choral career.

Will

Dear Will,

Good to hear from you, great letter, and I'm sure my previous correspondent Allison will be as grateful as I am. (As for suitable for primary school kids, who would dare to say???)

Yours,
Alice

Ask Alice

Review of La Clemenza di Tito,
English National Opera, 9 February 2005:

This is one of those operas where the hero gets to belt out a non-revenge aria, very rare! The story revolves around the Emperor Tito, who bucks the form book by forgiving people who try to assassinate him, overthrow his government and coerce him into marrying someone other than his first choice. The opera as a whole is rather less immediately engaging in terms of plot, thrust and characterisation than Mozart's other works, yet Boer coaxed the ENO orchestra into excellent pacing and elegant enough phrasing, while his alert harpsichord playing blurred a multitude of sins in terms of unmeticulous entries and vagueish intonation. (Why ENO fails to hire a real period-instrument orchestra for such works would be a mystery without the realities of money and contracts. Which is not in the least to denigrate the ENO orchestra playing non-period works, of course, and God knows they have a right to be less than bullish, given where the company is just at present).

A scene from the English National Opera production of 'La Clemenza di Tito'. Photo © 2005 Laurie Lewis
A scene from the English National Opera production of 'La Clemenza di Tito'. Photo © 2005 Laurie Lewis

The unintentional jokes came, as ever, at the expense of the director, David McVicar. He it must have been who, banishing the chorus to the pit, instead employed various well-built young actors to haunt the set, posing like body-builders with long snooker-cue-like objects, generally poised in positions suggestive of underdressed farm-hands stalking rodents while the singers went about their business, and he it probably was who, at the opera's last bars, made these turn on Tito threateningly, spears upraised, for no very obvious reason discernible in either libretto or plot. (They also seemed to have been instructed to spend quite a lot of their time shielding their faces at the sight of the singers: an offensive and stupid proceeding, as they were to a man -- and a woman -- young and good-looking.)

Sarah Connelly as Sesta in the English National Opera production of 'La Clemenza di Tito'. Photo © 2005 Laurie Lewis
Sarah Connelly as Sesta in the English National Opera production of 'La Clemenza di Tito'. Photo © 2005 Laurie Lewis

Plaudits, on the other hand, to Paule Constable, the lighting designer: the shadows, both threatening and caressing, working brilliantly against the patchwork of Mozartian melody and the elegant, vaguely Spanish, vaguely surreal network of Yannis Thavoris' very clever set. But the true stars were all the singers. From the powerful and powerfully wide-ranging Emma Bell (Vitellia) and Sarah Connelly's superbly moving Sesta, through Sally Matthews' underused yet still glowing Servilia and Stephanie Marshall's poised Annio, the women stole the show. Not that the men were weak, only faintly overshadowed. The scene between Tito and Sesta was the emotional highpoint: here Sarah Connelly's acting was the equal of her voice, and she swept Paul Nilon's tenor into his most gloriously sonorous singing.

Emma Bell as Vitellia with Sesta at her feet. Photo © 2005 Laurie Lewis
Emma Bell as Vitellia with Sesta at her feet. Photo © 2005 Laurie Lewis

Altogether a mixed evening: some great singing and much good singing, wonderful lighting but silly direction, excellent conducting alongside some rather variable playing. I was thrilled to have finally heard it live, but will not rush out to buy a CD.

Alice

Ask Alice

Dear Alice, it's me again, with yet another orchestral saga. I'm in a chamber orchestra playing first violin and there's this aged second violin who is just so mean to me. She's about 78 and she's in love with our youthful conductor (so it didn't help matters that I snogged him after one of the concerts!) Anyway, she shoves me and shouts at me and made me cry and the conductor won't listen to me because she makes him cake every week so how do I politely stand up for myself without yelling at her?

love Rashmi

Dear Rashmi,

It sounds as if the leader of the second violins is indeed rather difficult and probably jealous of your ability, but what you want to do is to impress everyone with how above all such antics you are. As you appear to be already out-playing her, the need to 'stand up to her' doesn't (to me) seem to arise. Don't make the conductor cake every week, as she does, but treat him as a serious conductor who deserves respect and you'll get respect back (whether the principal second violin does likewise with her cakes doesn't matter!)

People who are 78 sometimes need to make sure they're noticed, because society makes them feel so useless. If you're specially nice to her she might become a real supporter of yours (or have you tried this already???) If she's too jealous for this to be possible, then be as polite as you can, but keep your distance and don't give her the chance to be rude to you. Sooner or later she'll be gone and you'll still be there, and the more diplomatic you can be in the meantime, the more power to you when this happens.

Cordially,
Alice

Ask Alice

Dear Alice,

There is a boy in my class that I like but he likes this one other girl and I am getting jealous. How can I convince this boy that I am better?

A A

Dear A A,

You can't. All you can do is to hope that your sterling qualities will shine through the miasma of attraction and puppy love with which your rival is currently blessed (which probably won't happen). Alternatively you could attach yourself to someone who does appreciate you, in the hopes that the boy you really like might think, hey, someone fancies her; maybe she's cooler/sweeter/more charming than I thought.

Beyond which, let me share with you these pearls of wisdom:

  1. Don't badmouth the other girl in his hearing (this makes you look petty)
  2. Don't look gloomy and sad about this when he's around (that makes you look dull)
  3. Don't seem bothered about him at all (this makes you look stimulating)
  4. Don't worry if he falls head over heels for your rival (it'll never last ...)

Yours realistically,
Alice

Copyright © 18 February 2005 Alice McVeigh, Kent, UK

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