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  1. Culture
29 July 2015

Land of ice and shadows

The magical outreaches of Yuletide radio.

By Antonia Quirke

After last year’s head-lolling, 12-hour War and Peace, audio jewels this season are more scattered and almost entirely confined to BBC Radio 3. But those keen to return to the frozen East can visit Nikolai Gogol’s Ukrainian village Dikanka in a programme called, and broadcast on, Christmas Eve (Radio 4 Extra, 11.15am), a fairy tale in which the devil steals the moon and demons hide in coal sacks – with characters and gestures drawn from the traditional repertory of the Ukrainian puppet theatre.

The marvellously ambitious Northern Lights season (music and writing on the subject of the Arctic dreamland) continues on Radio 3, though it may have peaked already with Private Passions (6 December, available on listen again throughout Christmas), featuring the travel writer Sarah Wheeler, who played for us a 100-year-old recording of Greenlanders inside igloos with drums made of stretched polar-bear skin, and recalled feeling the sudden hot breath of a seal on her bottom while balanced over a latrine hole cut in the remote icy region.

The Essay over Christmas week includes an episode called Religion in the North (Radio 3, 24 December, 10.45pm) with the Norwegian writer Lars Petter Sveen remembering growing up an atheist and silently longing for a token tree – which reminded me of my six-year-old Jewish American godson complaining about the lack of Christmas decorations back in New Jersey. “When we were in London we were Christians,” he still protests.

On Boxing Day (Radio 3, 6.30pm) there’s a broadcast of the beleaguered ENO’s magnificent new production of Verdi’s Force of Destiny that sounds like an epic roar against the rumoured, swingeing cuts to its next season.In what is known as the ultimate 19th-century problem piece (unwieldy, histrionic), relocated here to the Spanish Civil War, much of the incidental music is powerfully familiar – particularly the prayers, sung offstage as though a mournful procession were happening in a faraway street. The presenter, Donald Macleod, has his work cut out describing for radio the fantastically sinister production design, which so embraces the chasmal quality of the Coliseum and evokes, hair-standingly, the impression of people lurking at the back of the stage. Shadows and silhouettes, creeping, watching. More effective than any M R James, and precisely what Christmas demands. 

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