Music review: Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble

Why did the Barbican give Handel's Alcina one night only?

Handel's Alcina - an operatic fantasy of sorceresses, cross-dressing warriors and men turned into animals - needs no "Here be dragons" warning to proclaim its thrills and perils. Virtuosic vocal writing, an elaborate set of ballet interludes and a rather touching proto-feminist take on female power all make for a glorious theatrical experience, yet often fail to translate to the concert platform. Marc Minkowski however - baroque's original musical magus - drew Saturday's Barbican audience entirely under his thrall, conjuring delight and wonder that were anything but illusory.

Listening to an ensemble like Minkowski's Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble, it quickly becomes clear that the mark of a great period orchestra is not the start of a note - the explicit moment of attack or caress - nor even its shaping and phrasing, but how it is finished. A default tailing-off into silence is fine until you hear the decisive choices of a group such as this. Nothing is left to chance here, not even silence, and the impact is immediate. This is tidy playing, but with none of the petty, fussy bureaucracy that that implies: music aggressively, scorchingly pristine.

Keeping his huge band (a violin section of 18 set the curve) immaculately balanced, Minkowski ensured that the colours of Handel's writing were never sacrificed for power. A duet of avuncular bassoons, two cooing recorders and some delicate moments from the oboe all emerged in their turn, though all were eclipsed by leader Thibault Noally's obbligato solo for Morgana's lovely "Ama, sospira".

With Anja Harteros unwell, the title role was taken at short notice by Inga Kalna, a veteran of the part and a soprano diva of the best and most old-school breed. Her maturity (both of age and voice) lent a certain poignancy to proceedings; she was never going to be the mercurial seductress of some productions, but as a woman whose magical powers can command her anything but true love, she was touchingly convincing. A controlled Act I gave way to the explosive release of "Ombre Pallide" and eventually to the collapse husk of "Ah Mio Cor" - a miracle of filigree, fairy-spun head-voice.

Matching Kalna for vocal control was Veronica Cangemi's Morgana. Darker of tone than is usual for this flighty, exuberant soprano role, she concealed the slightly uncomfortable range with unusual ornamentation and a rather inward, mezza-voce delivery. While this worked astonishingly well for the long lines of "Credete al mio dolor" it failed to generate the virtuosic display of everyone's-favourite-showstopper "Tornami a vagheggiar", leaving her without much of a character arc.

In a cast of slightly underwhelming men, it was boy soprano Shintaro Nakajima's Oberto who dominated. More often sung by a woman, it's a role that makes no concession to youthful technique, and simply cannot be sacrificed to mere novelty. Nakajima, a member of the Vienna Boys' Choir, handled his four arias like the man that he is still so many years from becoming. Pitch and control were beyond criticism, and his efficient coloratura for "Barbara!" would be the envy of many sopranos.

Whether you loved or hated her (and there were noisy champions for both camps) the evening was all about mezzo Vesselina Kasarova. In the trouser role of Ruggiero she stalked the stage with the ferocity of the tiger she so memorably evoked for "Sta nell'Ircarna". All facial contortions and independently animated limbs, she is almost unwatchable, yet has a power in her mid-range coloratura that defies the explanation of conventional technique. While the syncopated jazzing of "Sta nell'Ircana" sizzled under such conditions, moments of simple, uninterrupted melody proved her undoing. Both "Verdi prati" and "Mi Lusinga il dolce affetto" were casualties, with line and reliable pitch entirely absent, and the less said about the swooping and vamping of her recitative the better.

When you think back just a few months to the Hindenburg disaster that was the Royal Opera's Tamerlano (or even the comfortably adequate Radamisto at English National Opera) the comparison to Minkowski's Alcina is enough to make you weep. That this sensational show (adapted from a fully-staged European production) should not only be exiled to the concert platform, but restricted to a single night's performance, is absurd. Thank goodness then for the Barbican's Orlando Furioso opera series, which continues into 2011 with offerings from the likes of Ensemble Matheus and Il Complesso Barocco. I for one have already booked my tickets.

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Donald Trump wants to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency - can he?

"Epa, Epa, Eeeepaaaaa" – Grampa Simpson.

 

There have been countless jokes about US President Donald Trump’s aversion to academic work, with many comparing him to an infant. The Daily Show created a browser extension aptly named “Make Trump Tweets Eight Again” that converts the font of Potus’ tweets to crayon scrawlings. Indeed, it is absurd that – even without the childish font – one particular bill that was introduced within the first month of Trump taking office looked just as puerile. Proposed by Matt Gaetz, a Republican who had been in Congress for barely a month, “H.R. 861” was only one sentence long:

“The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018”.

If this seems like a stunt, that is because Gaetz is unlikely to actually achieve his stated aim. Drafting such a short bill without any co-sponsors – and leaving it to a novice Congressman to present – is hardly the best strategy to ensure a bill will pass. 

Still, Republicans' distrust for environmental protections is well-known - long-running cartoon show The Simpsons even did a send up of the Epa where the agency had its own private army. So what else makes H.R. 861 implausible?

Well, the 10-word-long statement neglects to address the fact that many federal environmental laws assume the existence of or defer to the Epa. In the event that the Epa was abolished, all of these laws – from the 1946 Atomic Energy Act to the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – would need to be amended. Preferably, a way of doing this would be included in the bill itself.

Additionally, for the bill to be accepted in the Senate there would have to be eight Democratic senators who agreed with its premise. This is an awkward demand when not even all Republicans back Trump. The man Trum appointed to the helm of the Epa, Scott Pruitt, is particularly divisive because of his long opposition to the agency. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said that she was hostile to the appointment of a man who was “so manifestly opposed to the mission of the agency” that he had sued the Epa 14 times. Polls from 2016 and 2017 suggests that most Americans would be also be opposed to the agency’s termination.

But if Trump is incapable of entirely eliminating the Epa, he has other ways of rendering it futile. In January, Potus banned the Epa and National Park Services from “providing updates on social media or to reporters”, and this Friday, Trump plans to “switch off” the government’s largest citizen-linked data site – the Epa’s Open Data Web Service. This is vital not just for storing and displaying information on climate change, but also as an accessible way of civilians viewing details of local environmental changes – such as chemical spills. Given the administration’s recent announcement of his intention to repeal existing safeguards, such as those to stabilise the climate and protect the environment, defunding this public data tool is possibly an attempt to decrease awareness of Trump’s forthcoming actions.

There was also a recent update to the webpage of the Epa's Office of Science and Technology, which saw all references to “science-based” work removed, in favour of an emphasis on “national economically and technologically achievable standards”. 

Trump’s reshuffle of the Epa's priorities puts the onus on economic activity at the expense of public health and environmental safety. Pruitt, who is also eager to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, spoke in an interview of his desire to “exit” the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. He was led to this conclusion because of his belief that the agreement means “contracting our economy to serve and really satisfy Europe, and China, and India”.

 

Rather than outright closure of the Epa, its influence and funding are being leached away. H.R. 861 might be a subtle version of one of Potus’ Twitter taunts – empty and outrageous – but it is by no means the only way to drastically alter the Epa’s landscape. With Pruitt as Epa Administrator, the organisation may become a caricature of itself – as in The Simpsons Movie. Let us hope that the #resistance movements started by “Rogue” Epa and National Parks social media accounts are able to stave off the vultures until there is “Hope” once more.

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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