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Review: We Are Sixty

Disembodied voices heave with royal compliments.

We Are Sixty: Radio 2

A serious jubilee documentary repeatedly tip­ped into comedy until an eventual blissed-out collapse. Celia Imrie narrated, calling to mind with every syllable the image of her spraying scent on a heaving angora sweater in Acorn Antiques. “The Queen,” she began. “She’s a landmark!” vox-popped someone else. “Elizabeth,” crooned Imrie. “Gracious is the word that springs to mind!” insisted a breathless third. Imrie again: “Queen of this realm”, and so on, dropped in between the compliments of disembodied others (“She is the most remarkable . . . definitely a fan . . . seems to have survived”).

In the background “Zadok the Priest” swelled, preparing us for the most stunning event in the history of the British monarchy. Much was made of the old king’s death and the breaking of the news to the 25-year-old princess. “On the verandah at Tree Tops in Kenya, Elizabeth looked at the animals of Africa going about their strange ways in the moonlight,” went the narration, now over music possibly from The Lion King. Jungle drums continued until “national treasure June Whitfield” was for no apparent reason invited to crack open a bag of Maltesers and share her thoughts in a voice that sounded like someone keen to project that – when called on – she can be a model of discretion. “What a responsibility – goodness,” sighed June about the coronation. By her own admission crushed when the royal yacht Britannia was decommissioned, she confessed to having been both outraged and impressed that HRH had sanctioned the tragedy, but had since worked her horror into a rational shape. “The Queen didn’t say, ‘Stop it.’ No! No . . . our Queen [a pause while Whitfield inserts inverted commas around the phrase, as though worried about sounding so contemporary] ‘goes with the flow’.”

Other memorable interviewees in this too-short, hour-long triumph (30 May) – which left one feeling dizzy, like an orphan wowed by
a chuckling old plutocrat – included a steward who let slip that while the Prince of Wales had a double bed in his Britannia suite (with a blonde in gold lamé pyjamas revving up the sheets?) the Queen and Prince Philip made do with single bunks. After which Terry Wogan confessed to having soundly kicked a corgi during dinner at the palace. Able-bodied pinkoes unite!

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The royal makeover

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis