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Reviewed: House of Cards on Netflix

Capitol Punishment.

House of Cards

The Daily Mail has suggested – oh, the horror! – that the decision of Netflix, the on-demand internet streaming service, to make all 13 episodes of its political drama House of Cards available at the same time is going to change the way people watch television forever. But it won’t really, will it? This is the sort of hugely expensive recruitment bait in which a media company can afford to indulge only occasionally – though it’s a risky strategy financially even as a means of bringing in new subscribers.

For one thing, the drama in question must be both lusted after from afar and superbly good close up; if Netflix were to remake, say, Last Tango in Halifax – Michael Douglas could be in the Derek Jacobi role, and Sally Field might step into Anne Reid’s shoes – I don’t suppose everyone would have their knickers in quite such a twist (I’m being facetious, but you get the picture). For another, there are always going to be skinflints like me around: I’m watching House of Cards on a month-long free trial and when it’s over I doubt very much that I’ll remain a Netflix subscriber, for all that the woman on the helpline from the US was so very helpful the other night.

As for the sickly-sounding concept of “binge television”, who honestly is going to watch more than three hours on the trot? My sense is that most people are like me: even if they had the time, a little delayed gratification is what gets them through the week.

But if I was going to binge on something, it might just be this. House of Cards is compulsively easy to watch, by which I mean it’s quite exciting without being remotely challenging. It’s slick but somewhat beige; if it were a coat, it would be an expensive camel number like the one worn by its Lady Macbeth figure, Claire Underwood (Robin Wright). For Americans, used to reverential shows such as The West Wing, it must feel quite racy: the politicians who inhabit this version of Capitol Hill are, without exception, venal, duplicitous hypocrites. But for us, House of Cards is nothing new (literally so, since the British version, adapted from Michael Dobbs’s novel by Andrew Davies, was first broadcast in 1990).

A weird flush of pride came over me when Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), the baddy majority whip, first said the words made famous here by Ian Richardson (as Francis Urquhart in the BBC series): “You might very well think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment.” A line so good, it has survived two decades and an Atlantic crossing.

You probably know the plot by now: congressman and kingmaker Francis Underwood, furious at being over-looked for promotion by the new president, is out to have his revenge, picking off his colleagues one by one. He has a number of willing little helpers. There is his chief of staff, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), who knows how to use even the tiniest speck of dirt. There is Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), eager cub reporter at the (sad and creaking) Washington Herald.

Best of all, there is Claire, his wife, a woman so controlling and ruthless, even her Mulberry handbag has started giving me the heebie-jeebies. (Has product placement helped to fund this series? It certainly feels that way). I could stare at Wright for hours. She is such a fantastic actor. Facing down an unacceptable tremor of guilt after she had fired most of the staff at the charity she runs, you saw it vanquished only in the flutter of her fingers.

The writing is good; really sharp and nasty. But it would all be for nothing if it weren’t for Spacey. He’s well-cast here: his venomous soliloquies and pert looks to camera (a vital feature of the British House of Cards, which the American producers have done well to keep) are delightfully camp. In the British House of Cards, rats symbolised conspiracy. Here, the imagery is all of flesh and bones. Underwood loves Claire “more than a shark loves blood”.

A southern boy, he likes a rack of BBQ ribs – or two – for breakfast. It sounds wildly over-the-top and probably is, now I think about it. But it’s fun to watch. When Spacey screws up his napkin and picks the hog fat from his teeth, it’s only for show. This is a hunger that won’t ever be satisfied – or at least, not for 13 hours or so.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

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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