Essays: Of Bach and Berg |
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Of Bach and Berg

ON Easter Monday Jesus of Nazareth (ATV), Jesus Christ Superstar (BBC1) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (BBC2) were all running at once. It was a moving tribute to a true champion. Who ever said they don’t come back?

‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ had the edge on the others. Made ‘in creative association with Carl Sandburg,’ it was well supplied with leaden poetic prose. On top of that it had a sensational cast. (‘Woman of No Name — Shelley Winters’). Max von Sydow played the leading role. At last the Swedes had been given a Jesus they could identify with.

What ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ didn’t have was music. A wicked voice might suggest that ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ didn’t have it either. Bach was the man who knew how. The St Matthew Passion (BBC2) was a welcome reminder of the fact that the necessary qualification for reworking the Gospel stories is genius. Mere sincerity is no substitute.

Emanating from Lincoln Cathedral and conducted with typical crispness by Raymond Leppard, the St Matthew Passion helped to convince you, against the growing mound of contrary evidence, that the Christian message is still worth hearing. It would have sounded better sung in German, but it still sounded good enough. As well as with every other musical resource, Bach was prodigal with melody. He didn’t have to be, but he was.

Berg wasn’t. The first complete production of Lulu (BBC2) was one of the big events in the Beeb’s Opera Month. Music students were presumably justified in being excited about it. But I wonder how many music lovers genuinely liked, or even tolerated, what they heard. Certainly Berg can be admired for his determination. The way he went on and on making every bar sound as tuneless as the one before must have taken a lot of discipline.

Teresa Stratas sang the leading role. She had previously appeared on television as the most terrific-looking Salomé one could hope to see. But on that occasion her appearance was abetted by the way she sounded singing Strauss’s long melodic lines. This time we had to be content with her appearance. The whole production, mounted at the Paris Opera and sent to us by ORTF, was uncompromising. Boulez conducted in an uncompromising fashion. The usherettes were uncompromising. You could imagine the man in the cloakroom hanging up coats in an uncompromising way.

Do the Thing Properly (BBC2) was another Opera Month programme, but this time the subject was Glyndebourne. Nobody compromises at Glyndebourne either, but since the aim is to give well-loved works a perfect production, rather than to proselytise for creations that the public has so far obdurately resisted, the general air is of a festival rather than a crusade. George Christie spoke sense. Everybody concerned spoke sense, in half a dozen different languages. The scale is right. There is nothing large about the place except its artistic standards.

By those standards, Cosi fan tutte (BBC2) was a bit pale. Peter Hall was the man in charge. Glyndebourne prides itself on uncluttered design, but this time reticence had become aridity — or so, at any rate, the television camera suggested. The music helped restore the balance, mainly because Mozart was the man who wrote it. In Mozart’s music there are patterns, just as in Berg’s, but, unlike Berg’s, Mozart’s patterns give you something more than merely intellectual satisfaction when you spot them.

Opera Month was well worth doing, but inadvertently it has helped blow the gaff about the chaos that reigns in the grand international opera houses, principally because of an inexplicable fashion for smart-arse producers with lots of big ideas and no sense of proportion. Covent Garden has reached the point where an eyesore like its new ‘Magic Flute’ is welcomed with a sigh of relief simply because nobody in the cast is obliged to wear tinfoil trousers.

By now it is well known that German opera producers have a Channel Tunnel that comes up in Covent Garden. But most of the big European cities are suffering from the same problem. Where opera is most alive is in the provincial houses and the small companies. The BBC and certain of the ITV companies are very properly hot on opera, which they correctly divine to be essentially a popular art. They do worst when they mount productions of their own. They do better when they bring us big international productions full of stars. They do best when they capture a well-focused production which has been put together in the theatre by a tightly knit company of people who know exactly what they are doing.

The trick is to spot such productions in advance. At the moment anyone who lives in London can pay less than the price of a cheap meal, walk into the Coliseum and enjoy a staging of Massenet’s ‘Manon’ which is the last word in verve and accomplishment. Only a churl could see and hear such magnificence without wanting to share it with the world.

Having failed to achieve peace in Rhodesia, David Frost’s Global Village (Yorkshire) concerned itself with a more tractable subject, namely, the current American penological innovation by which young offenders are told what prison is like by the prisoners themselves. Small and spotty adolescents sat very still while seven-foot prisoners serving stretches of anything up to a couple of centuries read them the news at close range. ‘You move your fuckin’ head one more time I’m gonna bite your fuckin’ nose off and spit it in your damn face.’ Not surprisingly, the deterrent deters. But the real revelation is the theatrical talent displayed by the lifers, who have discovered themselves too late.

Portrait of a ‘Terrorist’ (BBC2) was a programme about Robert Mugabe that showed why peace in Rhodesia will be hard to achieve. Mugabe and the men around him are bright and tough and they don’t like us. On The Book Programme (BBC2) Robert Robinson barely concealed his impatience with Yevtushenko. ‘Somehow the thought occurs, if Yevtushenko hadn’t been a poet he’d have gone into advertising.’ After 20 years in the public eye Yevty still has as much boyish appeal as he had when he started — i.e., none at all.

For some reason election fever rots the minds of television executives. Afraid of angering politicians, they cancel programmes left and right, thereby leaving more room for the politicians. This could prove fatal for the Tories. Given room to express itself, the intellectual Poverty of Thatcher and friends becomes more obvious than ever. At this rate Jim will win in a walk.

The Observer, 22nd April 1979