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Hop off, you frogs, and other nationalism

Peacock Theatre
05/30/2000 -  

Peacock Theatre
30 May 2000
Mischa Spoliansky, Send for Mr Plim
Harry Nicoll (Mr Plim), Gordon Wilson (Owner of the shop), Ashley Holland (Personel Manager), Anna Clare Monk (Secretary), Nicholas Cavallier (First man), Frances McCafferty (Caroline Walburga von Recklitz), Hilton Marlton (Second Man), Lillian Watson (Elida de Coty)

Kurt Weill, Die Sieben Todsünde
Marie McLaughlin (Anna 1), Christopher Saunders (tenor 1), Harry Nicoll (tenor 2), Ashley Holland (baritone), Nicholas Cavallier (bass)

Robert Ziegler (conductor), Paul Curran (director)

BBC Concert Orchestra

Freemasons Hall
31 May, 1 June 2000
George Frideric Handel, Israel in Egypt
Carys Lane (soprano), Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Alexandra Gibson (alto), Simon Berridge (tenor), Neil McKenzie (tenor), Simon Birchall (bass), Robert Evans (bass)

Harry Christophers (conductor), Aidan Lang (director)

The Sixteen, The Symphony of Harmony and Invention

The performance of an English oratorio by Handel in the Freemasons' Hall has become a reliable highlight of the Covent Garden Festival. One day The Sixteen will do the right thing and perform Solomon there, or at least Theodora, with its great chorus on the widow's son of Nain. In the meantime, this highly skilled and energetic performance of Israel in Egypt will do nicely.

Israel in Egypt is not the easiest of Handel's oratorios to present dramatically. It consists of two contrasted parts: a series of vocal tableaux that depict the story of the exodus, with special reference to the plagues (frogs hopping and flies buzzing vividly); and an extended celebration of the destruction of Pharoah's army, with detailed musical and verbal contrasts but not much variety of substance. The first part is attractively pictorial, the second part is essentially an exercise in xenophobic triumphalism, with the Israelites as the Protestant English and the Egyptians as the French, or Catholics in general.

There is nothing in the music to redeem the oratorio from its nationalism -- the Egyptians do not even make an appearance to demand our understanding in beautiful music. But Aidan Lang's production pushed at the irony of the exultant Israelites being the same Jewish people who were targetted for complete destruction by the Nazis, and the cities of the Germans and their Japanese allies in turn being subject to brutal destruction. A montage, always returning to the image of a single eye, was projected on a screen over the choir. Images matched the text: the exodus itself was accompanied by film of refugees fleeing into ships, "The Lord is a man-o'-war" (stirringly sung) by footage of a modern sea battle, a plausible equivalent of the thoughts that would have gone through the minds of most of Handel's audience. The total destruction of the Egyptians was represented by images of Hiroshima or Nagasaki after the atomic bombs. The war footage was interspersed with images of people, in the first part defaced photos, in the second part faces zooming in to form a mosaic of people, of all kinds.

It was probably possible to watch the singers without taking in the full force of the images. But the montage managed to avoid clunking clichés and was at times very moving.

Any blanket condemnation of the Germans (or anyone else) was completely dispelled by the performance at the Peacock Theatre the night before. Weill's Die Sieben Todesünde is in German, and (although written in Paris) offers a blend of parody Lutheran sanctimoniousness and indulgence that could only come from Berlin in the Weimar republic. Weill's music is among his most lushly orchestrated, setting melodic beauty against tricky vocal lines and tricksy words. Marie McLaughlin was gently wistful and conflicted as the practical Anna 1, while the uncredited Anna 2 and her dance partner found all the sensuality of the music.

The other part of the double bill, Mischa Spoliansky's Send for Mr Plim, is far less familiar but even more redemptive. A compact little satire about a department store boss who fires the eponymous employee everytime a customer complains but then realises that you can't treat people that way, its failure in Germany in 1932 and its current popularity there are both historially interesting. But it's also a gem of a score, forty-five minutes of brilliant operetta and opera parodies and ingeniously orchestrated songs. An adaptation at the Battersea Arts Centre last year, for a small band, showed its charm and satirical bite; Robert Ziegler and the BBC Concert Orchestra, with a crack cast of singers, this year showed its musical delights.

The semi-staging was economical, the singers and orchestra had fun. Lillian Watson was on particularly good form as the ultra-trivial Elida de Coty, presumably well squirted with L'heure bleu, and Harry Nicoll's singing was spot on for Mr Plim's comic-sentimental ballads. The translation (by Kenneth Richardson), alas, wasn't quite sure what it was doing, with some equivalences (polyester knickers and English currency) and some retained references that probably didn't mean much to the audience (Caroline Walburga von Recklitz is from Spandau, presumably for its social cachet -- Julian Forsyth ingeniously made her from Leipzig in the BAC version, invoking age-old Saxon hateur towards Prussian Berliners). The second man's aria began "O Isis and Osiris, O Dickens and Jones", which was nicely absurd though he is really more of a Verdian tenor.

An added bonus at this performance was a retake (for technical reasons) of Frances McCafferty's tirade about blue-patterned chamber pots. The BBC will broadcast a recording at a later date.

H.E. Elsom



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