Schubert in Life & Songs – Wigmore Hall
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Graham Johnson is probably the world’s leading expert on the composer Franz Schubert and he has made a multi-part biographical series of video lectures under the auspices of Wigmore Hall. Having engaged with Schubert’s music for over five decades as an internationally celebrated performer, scholar and author, Johnson offers unique insights into Schubert’s story, building a vivid picture of this incomparable composer.
These lectures are very detailed, examining Schubert’s life and music, sometimes at great length, indicating the development of the scores and their place in his life. There are some examples, from audio recordings, and some photographs and drawings, but the principal illustrations come from Johnson’s exemplary playing of snatches of the works and his accompaniment of singers. Mostly, he talks.
While what he has to say is fascinating to us Schubert freaks, Johnson is not a professional broadcaster and his delivery can be alternately halting and overly enthusiastic.
There are four parts, all available free on Wigmore Hall’s website.
The first explores Franz Schubert’s early life in Vienna. In the second, which covers the years 1816-1820, Graham Johnson looks at Schubert's friendship with the poet Johann Baptist Mayrhofer and his early influence on Schubert’s music.The third explores the years 1821-1824, one of the happier periods of Schubert’s life, which culminates in the composition of Die schöne Müllerin in 1823, the first of Schubert’s epoch-making song cycles.
In the final instalment, 1825-1828, we learn about the last four years of the composer’s life, a period of astonishing creativity, before Schubert’s tragic death aged only 31.Even if you’re a die-hard Schubert fanatic, I advise you not to watch these lectures all in one sitting. Each is quite long and all are very dense. Spaced out, one at a time, with frequent pauses, they are very rewarding.
Leopoldstadt – National Theatre
Leopoldstadt opened at London's Wyndham’s Theatre in January 2020 just before the lockdown and received ecstatic reviews and an Olivier award. When the theatres reopened, the playwright, Tom Stoppard, and director, Patrick Marber, decided to cut it from its original three-plus hours to a more manageable length for various logistical and artistic reasons. It remains one of the most important plays of the decade.
It concerns a prosperous Jewish family in Vienna with both Jewish and Christian members (Leopldstadt was the traditional Jewish area in Vienna) and tells their story from the beginning of the 20th century until the Second World War and, in a fascinating coda, beyond.
It is full of characters and incident, sometimes funny, always absorbing, eventually tragic, and gives a vivid picture of a certain society at a particular time in history.
It is Tom Stoppard’s most autobiographical play. Both he and Patrick Marber are Jewish, although Stoppard was not aware of his heritage until he was an adult. His confusion over his history is built into the play and gives it additional depth.
The Sleeping Beauty - Royal Ballet
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We’ve had rather a lot of contemporary dance on the Blog in recent weeks, some of it quite challenging, so I thought we might return to a true classical ballet this week, The Royal Ballet’s classic version of The Sleeping Beauty.
Marianela Nuñez delights as Princess Aurora, with Vadim Muntagirov as her Prince Florimund, in this timeless performance from 2019. Marius Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty holds a special place in The Royal Ballet’s repertory, with its vibrant sets and glittering costumes.
It features all the favourite moments from the Rose Adage to the Vision Pas de Deux, the exuberant wedding celebration and the fairy-tale guests, all danced to Tchaikovsky’s richly layered and beloved ballet score.
This Sleeping Beauty captures all the magic and virtuosity that ballet has to offer but it’s worth mentioning that this may be our last chance to see those fairy-tale characters because rumbles around the ballet world have been suggesting that they represent both identity theft and mockery of other cultures. Don’t ask.
The Kaiser of Atlantis - Atlanta Opera
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This opera was produced in Atlanta, Georgia during the early days of the pandemic in 2020 when the entire artistic world was locked down and each artist was marooned in his or her own separate world, unable to collaborate face to face.
The Kaiser of Atlantis has a fascinating back story, both in its origins and its production, a story admirably told at the start of this full-length performance by the director of the Atlanta Opera, Tomer Zvulun.
Usually, I suggest you skip the introductory material which precedes the performance part of the videos I recommend and scroll down until you reach the performance itself. In this case, I heartily recommend that you hear him out. The story he is telling is well worth hearing.
This rarely performed one-act opera by Viktor Ullmann, with a libretto by Peter Kien, was written while the pair were interned in the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt (Terezín). Before his death at Auschwitz, Ullmann gave the score to a colleague, and the opera remained unperformed until 1975.
The opera tells the story of the Emperor of Atlantis who declares a universal war and calls for his old ally Death to lead the campaign. However, this universal war angers Death, and in retaliation, he refuses to let anyone die, a decision that has unexpected consequences.
A haunting allegory about redemption despite the worst of humanity, this new production of The Kaiser of Atlantis features The Atlanta Opera Company Players in a chilling satire, as much circus as play and as much play as opera, built for our time.
Not a cheerful evening at the opera but one you will remember for a long time.
Staying Alive –- Saturday Night Fever
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I promised I’d find some of your favourite dance numbers on film. Here’s a one that came near the top of many of your lists, John Travolta’s unforgettable solo from the beginning of Saturday Night Fever. Music by the BeeGees.
Ruth Leon is a writer and critic specialising in music and theatre.