Thursday, 13 December 2012

What price life? About two thirds that of a Mark Rothko painting

A while ago I posted on a blog not far away from here about the law being an ass. There was much, more more I could have said. There were many more examples I could have given. And there are new ones being added all the time.

Today, two more people have been jailed. (I'm sure there are others too, but these are the ones I've noticed). One received a two year sentence; the other, three-and-a-half years. Their crimes? On the one hand, defacing an oil painting. (And not a very good one, if you ask me.) On the other, causing death while texting at the wheel of a car.

Do they compare? Hardly. But that really doesn't seem to matter. What still seems to matter to our lovely, fair and equal English law is property. Not people. I wish Morrissey would get hot under the collar about this sort of thing instead of slagging of Kate Middleton.

And that's not all.

We pride ourselves in Britain on having a fair and open judicial process. We like to think we do it better than some other countries. And, while that may be true, there's much about our adversarial system that leads to unsafe convictions, wrong judgements and false verdicts. But why? Well, part of the reason is the people responsible for it - the barristers, solicitors, judges, magistrates and others.

But don't take my word for it. I'm no expert. But someone who is - someone whose father was one of the most famous libel lawyers in the business, who secured (among other things) huge damages from The Sun when it accused Elton John of being gay (er, he is) and may even have ensured that Jimmy Savile escaped censure in his lifetime - writes tellingly about his father's role in keeping scandals like Robert Maxwell's missing millions out of the papers and securing controversial acquittals like that of ex-Coronation Street actor Len Fairclough.

Then there's the Police. I'll get round to the police in another post. For now, it's sufficient to say that they do a dirty and difficult job and it's hardly surprising, sometimes, tempers fray. That doesn't excuse recklessly tasering blind people or shoving protesters so hard they don't get up again but it might help our understanding of it. I wouldn't like their job. Would you?

All in all, I think we could do with a little more humility - and a lot less theatricality - in our legal comings and goings, and a little less of the aggressive cross-examination ('answer the question, yes or no') of frightened witnesses. And some recognition that the system is broke, and needs fixing. The innocent are jailed and the guilty go free. And justice is not done for anybody.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Philip Ledger 1937-2012

I had no idea Philip Ledger, erstwhile Director of probably the most famous choir in the world, had been battling cancer so this morning's announcement of his death came as a shock. I'd never met him; never even been present at King's College, Cambridge, when he was there. (My first visit to the chapel to hear the famous choir was a year after he'd left Cambridge to become Director of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music; likewise he had long since departed UEA when I went there. But like almost all (English) choral singers, I felt an affinity that comes through singing so much of his music for so long - often, of course, at Christmas. His descants remain some of the best ever written and this arrangement of the traditional Sussex Carol has always been one of my favourites:

Friday, 18 May 2012

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, 1925 - 2012

Truly, the end of an era...

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

On this day...

On this day in 1786 the première of probably the greatest opera of all time - if not the greatest work of art in all mediums - Mozart's Marriage of Figaro took place. Directed by Mozart himself at the Burgtheater in Vienna, the opera was an instant success and a command performance for the Emperor Joseph II was given in his palace at Laxenburg a month later.

A long-standing opera-lover's favourite, the more I hear it and the more I think about it the more I'm drawn to the conclusion that it's probably the greatest work of art in any medium. It's almost impossible to compare paintings, plays, poetry and other literature with opera. But Figaro really does have it all.

I'm not going to go into great musicological detail; there are plenty out there better qualified than me to do that. But I am going to share one significant insight - an insight that had escaped me for several years. The Beaumarchais play that Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, used as inspiration had been banned. No, that's not the insight. The play - and opera - relentlessly send up the aristocracy and a decade before the French Revolution that was certainly enough to keep it from a European public hungry for change.

My problem was always the Count's inexplicable (to me) chasing of the soon-to-be-married (to Figaro, Count Almaviva's servant-in-chief) Susanna. None of the opera programmes I've read, none of the synopses I'd seen, no-one I'd spoken to about it had explained it in any other way than as Almaviva's attempt at infidelity. Simple. He fancies her and contrives to 'have' he before it's too late - before she's safely married to Figaro.

But it's not as simple as that. Not at all. And it's this layer of complexity that elevates the opera from the realms of entertainment to that of a revolutionary statement. For the Count - as Count (I think that's the spelling) - wants something generations of his forebears will have enjoyed in countless similar situations, something he regards as his right in spite of his own marriage vows and in despite of the vows Figaro and Susanna plan to take. He wants her virginity, his droit de seigneur, the jus primae noctis that befits his position as a member of the ruling classes.

And Figaro's having none of it. Nor is the Countess (no turning a blind eye for her) and nor - ultimately - is the Count. The Marriage of Figaro isn't (just) a love story - it's a complex challenge to the so-called rights of the aristocracy - but cleverly disguised so that (unlike the play) it was never likely to be banned.

Musically too, it's revolutionary. But you don't want to read about that now, do you? No. Have a listen instead. Here's Erwin Schrott as Figaro singing the aria Se vuol ballare about his plan to thwart the Count's evil plan...

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Don Giovanni... for beginners

We went to the Opera House last week, to see one of my favourite's - Don Giovanni. The performance was splendid and you can read my review of it here. But - like a great many operas - it has a somewhat convoluted plot. It's also sung in Italian, and even if you're a fluent native speaker I'd guess it'd be a little tricky at times to follow what was going on.

Talking to people about it afterwards, I was struggling to give a coherent, accurate synopsis. What happens? someone asked. What's the story? Well if only I'd found this video before, I could've done Da Ponte's plot some justice.

Now there's no excuse not to know what's happening!