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 Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.

 

Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.

 

May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.

 

Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.

 

Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump