Eight bouquets and one brickbat

Keith Ovenden's cultural highlights of 2008

2008 was the year that the Age of Trash started to falter. That’s the optimist in me. In March we were treated to an evening of modernist music from France as a part of the International Festival of the Arts. Unnecessarily titled French Finesse - Festival goers are presumably thought to require PR (alliterative, at that) with their art - the programme included two little played works by Messiaen, Roussel’s 3rd Symphony - a marvel of turmoil resolved - and a satisfying performance by Jean-Yves Thibaudet of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G which lives on in the mature memory much as a madeleine is said to in that of the child. Thibaudet’s talent is now mature and authoritative, but one married to the still youthful exuberance and technical virtuosity that so surprised and delighted French audiences when he was a teenager in the late 1970s.

There were no duds from the Symphony Orchestra, and two evenings of outstanding musical entertainment shone for me above all others: one in August when Yefim Bronfman played Brahms’s 2nd Piano Concerto, which the orchestra then complemented with a fine performance of Dvorak’s 9th Symphony From the New World. Brahms admired and promoted the work of the younger Dvorak. He also disliked travel outside his native Germany and adopted Vienna. But I like to think that he would have been both pleased (not easy) and deeply moved (rather easier) by the performance of these two great works in this, for him, unimaginable place.

There are no rights to this kind of thing. To hear music of this quality is a privilege. We have it in this small country in the shape of a distinguished orchestra competent to attract great soloist performers and good conductors. But privileges require patronage if they are to persist. True especially of opera, where it’s harder. But we all know that. Costs are high in management and preparation, rehearsal and staging, and performance itself. So we were incredibly well served this year by NBR New Zealand Opera’s spring production of Janacek’s Jenufa that gave us the intense drama of the piece undiluted, and memorable performances from Anne Sophie Duprels and Margaret Medlyn.

But there was little else to applaud, while (brickbat coming: fast forward if you want only the good news) the NZ Festival of the Arts’s sponsorship of The Trial of the Cannibal Dog with music by Matthew Suttor and libretto by John Downie may put them off the support of New Zealand opera for a very long time. Critics leaned over backwards to be generous about this piece - typically saying that it needed more work - and in kinder moments I can understand why. But this is in mitigation of the critics. Nothing could save the opera. Penny Fitt’s set design was a disaster, forcing the singers to “perform” at the audience from the lip of the stage rather than interact with each other; the score had as little music in it as Suttor could contrive, and that little was a Mozartian pastiche at the interval which was a mildly entertaining bit of musical satire. The libretto was the worst that I have ever had the misfortune to hear, the narrative non-existent, and such drama as might have been squeezed from the polemical idea of the plot, weak. Orchestra and cast - in particular Janet Roddick - did their more than level best, but it was a losing struggle from the first bar.

A lot of money was invested in this, to no obvious purpose. Will anyone learn the lesson? Grand New Zealand opera on grand New Zealand historical themes is a non starter. We have no evil Austrian empire to oppose, and no Fenice to do it in. What the New Zealand musical arts environment is crying out for is chamber opera. Small casts, chamber music, simple sets, narratives of domestic drama. What the theatre learned long ago - remember Roger Hall’s Middle Age Spread, Pinter’s No Man’s Land, Eliot’s The Cocktail Party - is that great themes, matters of life and death, truth and beauty, do not grow from polemic, and more often find expression in the small settings of secret or backwater life than in the grand opera staging of historical drama. They can also be funny, without detriment to pathos, integrity or truth. What was good enough for Chekov could surely be good enough for us. It is perhaps also worth remembering that great art grows out of a tradition for which foundations have to be laid. This begins with humility, a focus on the possible - an understanding of limitations. Then you also need talent . . .

Thinking of which, a personal New Year plea. I saw and heard (don’t ask how) the Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais as Violetta in La Traviata last April. I am old enough to remember Kiri Te Kanawa’s impact on Bernard Levin on her debut at Covent Garden, and I can report a similar, possibly identical response in myself to Ms Opolais. Can NBR New Zealand Opera please bring her to New Zealand so that everyone can share the pleasure?

The literary front is never depressing because books travel well, and readers go with them. As Virginia Woolf pointed out nearly a century ago, no passports are required in the world of literature, and we can travel where we wish. So, in that spirit, the three books of the year, from among many, that made my life better in 2008.

Blind Sunflowers by Alberto Mendez, published by Arcadia Books, and translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor. This is a very great work of art, history, intellect and human decency conjured out of four short interlinked stories set in immediate post-Civil War Spain. As far as I know, this is Mendez’ only published work, and he died in 2004, the year of its Spanish publication.

Ted Hughes' Letters, selected and edited by Christopher Reid, and published by Faber in late 2007 is a grand entry into the universes that this extraordinarily talented man created at his desk.

A world away, but equally enthralled by fishing as much as the power of words, Brian Turner’s Into the Wider World: A Back Country Miscellany - published by Random House in their Godwit imprint - is a splendid book in every sense except its binding. The marvellous photographs by, among others, Grahame Sydney and Gilbert van Reenen, the generous layout, fine type faces, skilled use of coloured papers all deserved a better binding than one that will fall apart with intensive use, since intensive use is exactly what this book is bound to get. Turner’s native intelligence and grounded common sense shine in this excellent format, not just because of what he has to say, but because he has taught himself to write a prose that can both cut and caress. He knows how to argue with himself, and he knows which arguments are worth having. Reading him, if you care to take the trouble, you can detect in the life he so tellingly describes, where it is that death resides in yourself.

The last three bouquets are for dance. The New Zealand Festival of the Arts’ organisers got everything right with the dance programme. The Shen Wei Dance Arts company from New York, the Opera National de Lyon production of Kurt Weill’s Sung Ballet The Seven Deadly Sins, and the Finnish Tero Saarinen company’s collaboration with the Boston Camerata in Borrowed Light were each and every one a revelation.