Bird Droppings from Estonia: Our Hilary on chivalry
Archived Articles 17 Sep 2008 Hilary BirdEWR
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I have trouble with the ‘age of chivalry.’ Anyone who has seriously studied medieval Europe will have difficulty in avoiding the conclusion of Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679, founder of the modernist tradition of social contracts) that life was ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ There were exceptions, of course, but, in the main, medieval kings, the source of all temporal power, were weak or mad, Popes worse, knights bully boys, priests corrupt and peasants desperately poor, ignorant and repressed. And, for Eastern Europe, there were Tartars, Huns and the Teutonic Order thrown in for good measure. Chivalry was a hypocritical illusion. The real status of women was dire. The medieval merchant spent his days worrying about the devil squatting on his money chest as making a profit was considered sinful. Usury (charging for loans, the mainstay of modern capitalist banking) was left to outsiders, usually the Jews, who were then despised and persecuted. And to cap it all, the unholy mess of the pre-enlightenment world was opposed to any change because it was all the will of God and thus inviolable.

I feel rather the same way about the middle ages as I do about Russia. – I love the arts and culture but loathe the system. 19c Romanticism, however, idealised the time before the appearance of William Blake’s ‘dark, satanic mills’, and viewed the middle ages through severly tinted rose coloured specs. Not me. And I have another problem: I do not believe that grief, love sickness or sexual frustration (even when induced by an accidental swig of aphrodisiac) is fatal. I firmly believe that the afflicted should calm down, pull their socks up and have a nice cup of tea, laced, in severe cases, with a hefty shot of alcohol. So, it was with a luke warm start that I went to Tallinn to see Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde, a 19c romantic opera about a medieval love affair. Tris spent a lot of time emoting on a hospital trolley as he both starts the opera and finishes up wounded, then dead. In between there’s a lot of very long arias about 1) sex and 2) death with wonderful orchestration and bravura singing but not much humanity or warmth. Wagner’s work is seriously un-cuddly and short on jokes but he is so important in Western classical music that it’s impossible to ignore him.

T&I influenced, among others, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Szymanowski, Berg and Schoenberg. Many see it (say learned web sites) as the beginning of a move away from conventional harmony and tonality towards the atonality of the 20c. Verdi said he ‘stood in wonder and awe’ before T&I. GB Shaw wrote it was ‘an astonishingly intense and faithful translation into music of the emotions which accompany the union of a pair of lovers.’ And I thought the old boy was a-sexual. Richard Strauss opined the music ‘would kill a cat and would turn rocks into scrambled eggs from fear of [its] hideous discords’ but later, in 1892, declared: ‘I have conducted my first Tristan. It was the most wonderful day of my life… Here the yearning of the entire 19c is gathered in one focal point. '

Rīga, however, made a marvellous, thoroughly enjoyable, accessible job of Siegfried. No bored of the Ring, here! The eponymous hero is played as an irrepressible, uninhibited youth akin to the Bearslayer (Latvian national hero) or Kalevipoeg (Estonian national hero). Not too many brains but a lot of brawn and bravery! The fuel for the forging of his enchanted sword is the library of the dwarf Mime, his adopted father (he’s a rotter so no need to ponder our Siggy’s ingratitude or feel sorry for Mime). I wondered if the Latvian encounter with Brit stag parties may have been the model for this Siegfreid. All the ideas in this wonderful production were popping with ingenuity. Fafner , a dragon, is made of people who, closely entwined, undulate around the stage and fall apart when Siegfried kills him. And, in the last act, as Brünhilde is adjusting from being divine to mortal and rejecting an earthy Siggy (who is paying close attention to her heaving bosom) the pair tentatively bring on symbols of domesticity (a carpet, TV, table lamp, microwave, etc) only to be swept away in a fit of passion as the lovers fly into a clinch and sink to the floor as the curtain comes down. After I had written this I came across the work of the comedienne Anna Russell (1911 –2006) whose deadpan humour and mockery of pretension made me laugh out loud. In her potted version of the Ring she notes that it begins in the River Rhine: ‘In it!!’ Later she points out that Brünhilde is the first woman that Siegfried has met who is not his aunt, declaring, ‘I'm not making this up, you know!’ – this became the title of her autobiography. For a thoroughly British view of the Ring: http://video.google.com/videop...

My personal Rīga favourite this spring was Rusalka (1901). Its such quintessential Dvořák. Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém (Song to the Moon), an evocation of mysterious night in a silent, moonlit forest is well up in the Dropping’s top 10. Sung by the late lamented, Lucia Popp, of course. The opera is an uninterrupted flow of gorgeous melody and rich, atmospheric orchestration whilst the singing is without excessive coloratura .

At a time when ‘realistic’ opera (e.g. Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana,1892) was all the rage, Dvořák turned to folk tales, influenced by the musical nationalism of his compatriot Bedřich Smetana (1824-88) and (inevitably) Wagner, though Rusalka is seriously short on heroes and epic action. Both Smetana and Wagner had conducted at the National Theatre of Bohemia, Prague. Dvořák’s Rusalka contains references to folk music and Rusalka, a more likable version of Wagner’s dwarf-ist Rheintöchter (Rhine-maidens) hails from a primal, pristine natural world. She cannot flirt or tease. Her human lover, the prince, finds her odd and rejects her ‘coldness’ to pursue a shallow sexpot. Yet he is haunted by Rusalka, returns to her lake and, finally chooses death to life without her. Rusalka matures in the course of the opera changing from a moon-struck girl, to a doomed, dumb (the cost , like the Little Mermaid, of being able to live on land) innocent out of her depth in human society then, finally, to the woman who will not kill her lover (though he has rejected her) even when failure to do so means an eternity of loneliness.

In Czech tales (I read) Vodnik, the Water Spirit (Rusalka’s father), drags victims to drown and stores their souls in porcelain cups. His servants are fish and he likes a smoke. Fishermen, wishing to appease, must place a pinch of tobacco in the water and say, ‘Here's your tobacco, Lord Vodník, now give me a fish.’ Hmm, how do you enjoy a cig under water? In the opera Vodnik is more sympathetic – good-natured, despairing, tolerant and a non-smoker. His daughter must go her own way. His role is to warn, nurture, offer what comfort he can but never to control (shades of Wotan?). But the prince is no Wagnerian – he’s a bimbo. The dynamic here is quite different. Russalka recognizes him for what he is but will not betray him. She thanks the prince for letting her experience human love, gives him the kiss of death that he craves, commends his soul to God, and returns to the depths of the lake as a demon of death. The Water-Spirit comments ‘All sacrifices are futile.’

The Riga production is beautifully played out in cool, watery greens and blues. There are some good jokes – the water sprites are first seen wondering what to do with rubbish dumped in the river and one has to have a plastic bag removed from her head. There are some wonderful incisive moments. Rusalka tells her father of her love for the human prince clutching a glossy magazine. I was reminded of Bob Dylan’s Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, who has a ‘magazine husband’ - Rusalka’s prince turns out to be just as vacuous as I have always imagined this character to be. The production progresses inexorably into deeper and darker waters. Guests assemble in a chic contemporary room, complete with aquariums, a bar, finger food and glass topped tables with lines of cocaine. Snorting, smoking, trendy, bitchy modern city life was instantly recognizable. The final set is monolithically stark and ends this most sophisticated and delicate of operas with elegance and simplicity. Wonderful. It lingered deliciously in the memory as we drove back through a misty darkness to Tartu, and long after…

There’s been a gaggle of goodies here in Tartu, too. Our ballet company goes from strength to strength. Peter Pan is charming and witty. Why (as my ballet pal remarked) is there no English ballet Peter? Too much associated with pantomimes, I suppose. My Estonian friend was surprised when I expected Peter to be a principal girl rather than a real lad. Some of the reviews were quite snotty on the grounds that this was a ballet for children with grown up pas de deux for Wendy and Peter. So what? We all get to enjoy it! The choreographer and director is 29 year-old Oxsana Titovna, born and trained in Tallinn. She makes the cast dance, dance, dance! Nashua Dahhab was a lovely Wendy. Nashua was born in Egypt and graduated (in 2003) from the Rudolph Nureyev Ballet Academy in Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan, founded in 1986 in the building where Nureyev finished secondary school in 1955. Before Tartu Nashua danced with the interesting Leonid Yakobson Ballet Theatre. Yakobson (1904-75) was an experimental choreographer who was both loved and hated (he was once banned for six years) in the USSR. In 1970 he formed his own company, ‘Choreographic Miniatures,’ in St Petersburg (known abroad as the Jacobson Ballet) that, after his death, became the State Ballet of Leningrad. Colin Maggs (English National Ballet) was a bouncy Peter and Korean Mai Kegayama a charming Tinkerbell. The crocodile's children (eggs illuminated from within by hand held torches) who are rescued and hatched by their wrinkly croc-dad) were played by the ballet school pupils so everyone gets a part! The multi media stagecraft is marvellous - the children's flight to Never Never land is real enchantment. A truly wonderful evening at the theatre and, need I give better testament than to say that the theatre was full of children, all in their best suites or party frocks, and I didn't hear one whine. Afterwards, I went backstage with Marieanne (who works part time in the theatre) to see Nana the Cocker Spaniel who was in the process of taking off his make up. I chatted to Peter who was having a fag in the smoking room still dressed in his knee length green trousers held up by braces with just a hint of sparkle. Behind the scenes was almost as magic as the ballet itself - all bustle and buzzing with energy.

There were other spring Tartu treats. I caught up the Vanemuine Peer Gynt (music by Grieg), a lyrical ballet with UK Royal Ballet trained Hayley-Jean Blackburn perfect in the lead role and the most beautiful rendition of Solveig’s song (by Estonian Karmen Puis) I have ever heard. The Troubador (Verdi) - an everyday tale of gypsy revenge – was suitable dynamic. Then, a scintillating , racy concert of Glinka, Prokoviev and Tchaikovski by the St Petersburg State Academy Symphony Orchestra, led by Alexander Titov (trained by Prof. Ilya Musin whose pupils include, Gergiev, Temirkanov, and our own Anu Tali). A real treat was a gorgeous recital by the great Russian bass, Yevgeni Nestorenko, now 70 years old. The voice is not what is was but the selection (Russian, Czech, Italian and French) was impeccable and the man’s expressiveness and sense of style remain undimmed. Yevgeni was invited by an Estonian friend and the recital was free (!). Jaanikirik (St John’s Church) was standing room only and the crowd cheered as the great man told us that he loved Tartu. Bravo! Also in Jaanikirik , the White Stork Synagogue Choir from Wrocław, Poland, singing a selection of sinuous Semitic sacred music a capella or accompanied by the organ. Gorgeous. The choir was conducted by a very chirpy Rabbi who walked up and down the aisles smiling at the audeince. Even the stony Estonians melted and there was a positive crush to buy the CD afterwards – another first! Beside T&I I went to Tallinn to see Erkki-Sven Tüür’s supe Dear Friends, 36 Suur Kaar, 50404, Tartu. Sept (2) 2008

I have trouble with the ‘age of chivalry.’ Anyone who has seriously studied medieval Europe will have difficulty in avoiding the conclusion of Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679, founder of the modernist tradition of social contracts) that life was ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ There were exceptions, of course, but, in the main, medieval kings, the source of all temporal power, were weak or mad, Popes worse, knights bully boys, priests corrupt and peasants desperately poor, ignorant and repressed. And, for Eastern Europe, there were Tartars,Huns and the Tuetonic Order thrown in for good measure. Chivalry was a hypocritical illusion. The real status of women was dire. The medieval merchant spent his days worrying about the devil squatting on his money chest as making a profit was considered sinful. Usury (charging for loans, the mainstay of modern capitalist banking), was left to outsiders, usually the Jews, who were then despised and persecuted. And to cap it all, the unholy mess of the pre-enlightenment world was opposed to any change because it was all the will of God and thus inviolable.

I feel rather the same way about the middle ages as I do about Russia. – I love the arts and culture but loathe the system. 19c Romanticism, however, idealised the time before the appearance of William Blake’s ‘dark, satanic mills’, and viewed the middle ages through severly tinted rose coloured specs. Not me. And I have another problem: I do not believe that grief, love sickness or sexual frustration (even when induced by an accidental swig of aphrodisiac) is fatal. I firmly believe that the afflicted should calm down, pull their socks up and have a nice cup of tea, laced, in severe cases, with a hefty shot of alcohol. So, it was with a luke warm start that I went to Tallinn to see Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde, a 19c romantic opera about a medieval love affair. Tris spent a lot of time emoting on a hospital trolley as he both starts the opera and finishes up wounded, then dead. In between there’s a lot of very long arias about 1) sex and 2) death with wonderful orchestration and bravura singing but not much humanity or warmth. Wagner’s work is seriously un-cuddly and short on jokes but he is so important in Western classical music that it’s impossible to ignore him.

T&I influenced, among others, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Szymanowski, Berg and Schoenberg. Many see it (say learned web sites) as the beginning of a move away from conventional harmony and tonality towards the atonality of the 20c. Verdi said he ‘stood in wonder and awe’ before T&I. GB Shaw wrote it was ‘an astonishingly intense and faithful translation into music of the emotions which accompany the union of a pair of lovers.’ And I thought the old boy was a-sexual. Richard Strauss opined the music ‘would kill a cat and would turn rocks into scrambled eggs from fear of [its] hideous discords’ but later, in 1892, declared: ‘I have conducted my first Tristan. It was the most wonderful day of my life… Here the yearning of the entire 19c is gathered in one focal point. '

Rīga, however, made a marvellous, thoroughly enjoyable, accesible job of Siegfried. No bored of the Ring, here! The eponymous hero is played as an irrepressable, uninhibited youth akin to the Bearslayer (Latvian national hero) or Kalevipoeg (Estonian national hero). Not too many brains but a lot of brawn and bravery! The fuel for the forging of his enchanted sword is the library of the dwarf Mime, his adopted father (he’s a rotter so no need to ponder our Siggy’s ingratitude or feel sorry for Mime). I wondered if the Latvian encounter with Brit stag parties may have been the model for this Siegfreid. All the ideas in this wonderful production were popping with ingenuity. Fafner , a dragon, is made of people who, closley entwined, undulate around the stage and fall apart when Siegfried kills him. And, in the last act, as Brünhilde is adjusting from being divine to mortal and rejecting an earthy Siggy (who is paying close attention to her heaving bosom) the pair tentatively bring on symbols of domesticity (a carpet, TV, table lamp, microwave, etc) only to be swept away in a fit of passion as the lovers fly into a clinch and sink to the floor as the curtain comes down. After I had written this I came across the work of the comedienne Anna Russell (1911 –2006) whose deadpan humour and mockery of pretension made me laugh out loud. In her potted version of the Ring she notes that it begins in the River Rhine: ‘In it!!’ Later she points out that Brünhilde is the first woman that Siegfried has met who is not his aunt, declaring, ‘I'm not making this up, you know!’ – this became the title of her autobiography. For a thoroughly British view of the Ring: http://video.google.com/videop...

My personal Rīga favourite this spring was Rusalka (1901). Its such quintessential Dvořák. Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém (Song to the Moon), an evocation of mysterious night in a silent, moonlit forest is well up in the Dropping’s top 10. Sung by the late lamented, Lucia Popp, of course. The opera is an uninterrupted flow of gorgeous melody and rich, atmospheric orchestration whilst the singing is without excessive coloratura .

At a time when ‘realistic’ opera (e.g. Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana,1892) was all the rage, Dvořák turned to folk tales, influenced by the musical nationalism of his compatriot Bedřich Smetana (1824-88) and (inevitably) Wagner, though Rusalka is seriously short on heroes and epic action. Both Smetana and Wagner had conducted at the National Theatre of Bohemia, Prague. Dvořák’s Rusalka contains references to folk music and Rusalka, a more likable version of Wagner’s dwarf-ist Rheintöchter (Rhine-maidens) hails from a primal, pristine natural world. She cannot flirt or tease. Her human lover, the prince, finds her odd and rejects her ‘coldness’ to pursue a shallow sexpot. Yet he is haunted by Rusalka, returns to her lake and, finally chooses death to life without her. Rusalka matures in the course of the opera changing from a moon-struck girl, to a doomed, dumb (the cost , like the Little Mermaid, of being able to live on land) innocent out of her depth in human society then, finally, to the woman who will not kill her lover (though he has rejected her) even when failure to do so means an eternity of loneliness.

In Czech tales (I read) Vodnik, the Water Spirit (Rusalka’s father), drags victims to drown and stores their souls in porcelain cups. His servants are fish and he likes a smoke. Fishermen, wishing to appease, must place a pinch of tobacco in the water and say, ‘Here's your tobacco, Lord Vodník, now give me a fish.’ Hmm, how do you enjoy a cig under water? In the opera Vodnik is more sympathetic – good-natured, despairing, tolerant and a non-smoker. His daughter must go her own way. His role is to warn, neurture, offer what comfort he can but never to control (shades of Wotan?) . But the prince is no Wagnerian – he’s a bimbo. The dynamic here is quite different. Russalka recognizes him for what he is but will not betray him. She thanks the prince for letting her experience human love, gives him the kiss of death that he craves, commends his soul to God, and returns to the depths of the lake as a demon of death. The Water-Spirit comments ‘All sacrifices are futile.’

The Rīga production is beautifully played out in cool, watery greens and blues. There are some good jokes – the water sprites are first seen wondering what to do with rubbish dumped in the river and one has to have a plastic bag removed from her head. There are some wonderful incisive moments. Rusalka tells her father of her love for the human prince clutching a glossy magazine. I was reminded of Bob Dylan’s Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, who has a ‘magazine husband’ - Rusalka’s prince turns out to be just as vacuous as I have always imagined this character to be. The production progresses inexorably into deeper and darker waters. Guests assemble in a chic contemporary room, complete with aquariums, a bar, finger food and glass topped tables with lines of cocaine. Snorting, smoking, trendy, bitchy modern city life was instantly recognizable. The final set is monolithically stark and ends this most sophisticated and delicate of operas with elegance and simplicity. Wonderful. It lingered deliciously in the memory as we drove back through a misty darkness to Tartu, and long after…

There’s been a gaggle of goodies here in Tartu, too. Our ballet company goes from strength to strength. Peter Pan is charming and witty. Why (as my ballet pal remarked) is there no English ballet Peter? Too much associated with pantomimes, I suppose. My Estonian friend was surprised when I expected Peter to be a principal girl rather than a real lad. Some of the reviews were quite snotty on the grounds that this was a ballet for children with grown up pas de deux for Wendy and Peter. So what? We all get to enjoy it! The choreographer and director is 29 year-old Oxsana Titovna, born and trained in Tallinn. She makes the cast dance, dance, dance! Nashua Dahhab was a lovely Wendy. Nashua was born in Egypt and graduated (in 2003) from the Rudolph Nureyev Ballet Academy in Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan, founded in 1986 in the building where Nureyev finished secondary school in 1955. Before Tartu Nashua danced with the interesting Leonid Yakobson Ballet Theatre. Yakobson (1904-75) was an experimental choreographer who was both loved and hated (he was once banned for six years) in the USSR. In 1970 he formed his own company, ‘Choreographic Miniatures,’ in St Petersburg (known abroad as the Jacobson Ballet) that, after his death, became the State Ballet of Leningrad. Colin Maggs (English National Ballet) was a bouncy Peter and Korean Mai Kegayama a charming Tinkerbell. The crocodile's children (eggs illuminated from within by hand held torches) who are rescued and hatched by their wrinkly croc-dad) were played by the ballet school pupils so everyone gets a part! The multi media stagecraft is marvellous - the children's flight to Never Never land is real enchantment. A truly wonderful evening at the theatre and, need I give better testament than to say that the theatre was full of children, all in their best suites or party frocks, and I didn't hear one whine. Afterwards, I went backstage with Marieanne (who works part time in the theatre) to see Nana the Cocker Spaniel who was in the process of taking off his make up. I chatted to Peter who was having a fag in the smoking room still dressed in his knee length green trousers held up by braces with just a hint of sparkle. Behind the scenes was almost as magic as the ballet itself - all bustle and buzzing with energy.

There were other spring Tartu treats. I caught up the Vanemuine Peer Gynt (music by Greig), a lyrical ballet with UK Royal Ballet trained Hayley-Jean Blackburn perfect in the lead role and the most beautiful rendition of Solveig’s song (by Estonian Karmen Puis) I have ever heard. The Troubador (Verdi) - an everyday tale of gypsy revenge – was suitable dynamic. Then, a scintillating , racy concert of Glinka, Prokoviev and Tchaikovski by the St Petersburg State Academy Symphony Orchestra, led by Alexander Titov (trained by Prof. Ilya Musin whose pupils include, Gergiev, Temirkanov, and our own Anu Tali). A real treat was a gorgeous recital by the great Russian bass, Yevgeni Nestorenko, now 70 years old. The voice is not what is was but the selection (Russian, Czech, Italian and French) was impeccable and the man’s expressiveness and sense of style remain undimmed. Yevgeni was invited by an Estonian friend and the recital was free (!). Jannikirik (St John’s Church) was standing room only and the crowd cheered as the great man told us that he loved Tartu. Bravo! Also in Jaanikirik , the White Stork Synagogue Choir from Wrocław, Poland, singing a selection of sinuous Semitic sacred music a capella or accompanied by the organ. Gorgeous. The choir was conducted by a very chirpy Rabbi who walked up and down the aisles smiling at the audeince. Even the stony Estonians melted and there was a postitive crush to buy the CD afterwards – another first! Beside T&I I went to Tallinn to see Erkki-Sven Tüür’s supurb opera Wallenberg about the Swedish diplomat who saved 100 000 Jews from Hitler’s concentration camps but who probably died in Stalin’s. The work was commissioned by Dortmund Opera in 2001. The staging (by Russian Dmitri Bertman – 3 time winner of the Golden Mask, the most prestigious theatre prize in Russia - and Ene-Liis Semper) is startling to say the very least. A mixture of Stalin, Hitler, the children of Israel, matriochkas, Mickey Mouse and Ronnie Regan, being just a few of the characters in this powerful work. Finally, I drove along dreadful roads (they are under repair) to an ancient Estonian hill fort at Suure Jaani, near Viljandi to hear Villem Kapp’s (1913-64) cantata from his opera Lembitu about the 13c crusades. It came and went quickly in 1961 - too much, one suspects, for a Soviet palette about 1) freedom and 2) Estonians . I thoroughly enjoyed it despite a decidedly unsunny evening, a long trek to the hill fort along a seriously ankle-turning path, a venue with no seats perched on the top of a windy hill and an opera companion getting a fit of the giggles about her damp backside. Well, that’s all for the spring season! And now its time for the Autumn one …rb opera Wallenberg about the Swedish diplomat who saved 100 000 Jews from Hitler’s concentration camps but who probably died in Stalin’s. The work was commissioned by Dortmund Opera in 2001. The staging (by Russian Dmitri Bertman – 3 time winner of the Golden Mask, the most prestigious theatre prize in Russia - and Ene-Liis Semper) is startling to say the very least. A mixture of Stalin, Hitler, the children of Israel, matriochkas, Mickey Mouse and Ronnie Regan, being just a few of the characters in this powerful work. Finally, I drove along dreadful roads (they are under repair) to an ancient Estonian hill fort at Suure Jaani, near Viljandi to hear Villem Kapp’s (1913-64) cantata from his opera Lembitu about the 13c crusades. It came and went quickly in 1961 - too much, one suspects, for a Soviet palette about 1) freedom and 2) Estonians . I thoroughly enjoyed it despite a decidedly unsunny evening, a long trek to the hill fort along a seriously ankle-turning path, a venue with no seats perched on the top of a windy hill and an opera companion getting a fit of the giggles about her damp backside. Well, that’s all for the spring season! And now its time for the Autumn one …
 
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