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3 December 2015updated 03 Aug 2021 2:36pm

No tale too tall: the time Donald Macleod’s straight face slipped

Over the years, Macleod has perfected the tones of the world’s least extravagant teacher for Composer of the Week. One opera, however, left him lost for words.

By Antonia Quirke

During a week of hour-long programmes exploring the early life and work of Handel (BBC Radio 3, weeknights, 6.30pm), the presenter Donald Macleod was repeatedly required to employ his greatest skill – describing the plots of operas without a hint of judgement. Macleod is unique in being able to say such things as the following as though it were all perfectly normal: “The monstrous Cyclops Polyphemus, spurned by the horrified sea nymph Galatea, kills the shepherd Acis, after which Galatea uses her divine power to turn him into a phantom.”

Over the years, Macleod has perfected the tones of the world’s least extravagant teacher. His précis – however dramatic – sound like reason made manifest: hot milk and Elgar. And so the week passed in this familiar unflappable unfashion, hearing tell of all sorts of oratorios and barmy pastoral entertainments and even, for air, being taken on a little tour of Handel’s house on Brook Street in Mayfair to look at the “magnificent effect” of his crimson canopy bed. There was no mention, mind you, of the people he may have had in it. Little is known about (the likely gay) Handel’s private life.

“None of his friends wrote much about him,” a curator of the Handel House Museum once succinctly said. “Apart from the fact he ate and drank far too much and had a bad temper, we really don’t know much about his feelings.”

Just as we know very little about Mac­leod’s and that’s the way we like it. Only during the description of Tolomeo – the 1728 opera seria about a pre-Christian king of Egypt – did our host briefly drop the ball.

“The set-up is . . . rather vague,” he suddenly admitted. Donald?

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“It’s all far too complicated to spell out the whole plot.” At least try!

“After a shipwreck on the island of Cyprus almost everyone is disguised as shepherds and . . . all sorts of couples are vowing undying love and terrible revenge.”

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His tone was standard, but the vocab quite sensationally awry. Normal service, I think, was resumed by the time he got to introducing Lotario (Holy Roman empress, storming the walls of Pavia, poison in dungeons) – although increasingly I wonder if I imagined the whole thing. 

This article appears in the 02 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria and the impossible war