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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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear