Wednesday, 25 February 2015

After the ’flu, a wonderful Dutchman

Egils Silins as the eponymous Dutchman
It would be easy to imagine that our opera going was jinxed. Having missed two performances at the English National Opera in the last few years, for varied reasons, February brought with it a first planned visit to the Royal Opera House to see a first full Wagner opera.

I love the theatre in general, but I was almost giddy with excitement at the prospect of this. But cometh the hour, cometh the ’flu.

On the basis that you cannot go out socially in an evening if you’ve been off sick earlier in the day, I battled into the office that morning, desperately clinging to the belief that it was ‘just a cold’, stuffed to the gills with medication and with precious tickets sitting next to more pills in my bag.

It was all to no avail: by early afternoon, I was running a fever and had to give in. As The Other Half pointed out, I was in no condition to have enjoyed anything much anyway.

The RoH did its bit, trying to sell on my tickets for that evening’s performance.

Then, with amazing good luck, we managed to get hold of more tickets for a week and a half later.

Regular readers will be aware of my Wagner affliction, and I had been wanting to see a full opera for some time.

Der fliegende Holländer seemed the perfect way to start: short by the composer’s standards at a mere two and a half hours, and as his first masterpiece, not as ‘heavy’ as some that followed. Perfect, in other words, for a Wagner ingénue.

And so, last Tuesday, we finally headed out to Covent Garden, emerging from the London Underground past ‘living statues’ and buskers, to pick up our tickets with plenty of time for a meal before the performance.

We decided to try La Ballerina, a small Italian restaurant just over the road from the opera house.

An oppressive factory
It looked packed, but we got a table easily enough and settled down to order. On the upside, my carbonara was perfect pre-theatre comfort food and the tiramisu that followed was perfectly pleasant.

On the down side – the waiter knocked a glass of red wine over, soaking the table cloth and leaving me with damp attire. Fortunately, it had dried by the time we left.

The Royal Opera House itself is vast and labyrinthine, but we made it to our seats high up in the amphitheatre. High they may have been, but we had a perfect view of the stage and orchestra.

This led to The Other Half looking down and commenting: “Is that really six basses?” Well, yes – it is a band for a Wagner opera.

Unfortunately, the dreaded lurg had not finished with its jinxing of my operatic experience, as it was announced that Bryn Terfel, who was playing the eponymous Dutchman, was ill, and bass baritone Egils Silins had been flown in from Hamburg to sing the role.

My not having heard of him indicates nothing: he was excellent.

As for the opera as a whole, it was wonderful. Seeing something like this live makes you appreciate the sense of spectacle and scale.

It also makes me appreciate the awesome vocal technique: not only were the singers making perfectly sure that you could hear their voices throughout the auditorium – even when singing quietly (the hardest thing) – but you could clearly hear the words too.

Adrianne Pieczonka as Senta
The story is straightforward: cursed to roam the seas for eternity, the Dutchman’s one chance of redemption comes on one day every seven years when he can walk the land again.

If, in that time, he can find a woman who will be true to him unto death, he will be released from the curse.

That day strikes and he finds himself ashore in Norway. Meeting a sea captain, Daland, the Dutchman uses his vast hoard of treasure to buy the hand of Daland’s daughter.

But Senta has been dreaming of the Dutchman herself and is more than ready to accept his hand as she wants to be the one to save him.

However, when the Dutchman realises that Senta has turned her back on her former love, Erik, he realises that he would be dooming her and he leaves without her.

This is the second revival of Tim Albery’s 2009 production and it’s easy to see why they’ve brought it back.

There are two principle ways to approach Der fliegende Holländer: first, by looking back to Wagner’s Romantic musical roots, as are evident, or by looking forward to what he would go on to create – which is also evident.

The Dutchman's crew
The darkness here is particularly appropriate for the themes that Wagner was exploring, and the lighting and staging really add to this.

In Senta, we see a woman who dreams of breaking free from her oppressive existence working in a factory: she alone refuses to join in with the spinning song that the women’s chorus sings as they work.

And her dreams of saving the Dutchman – ignoring the dangers, turning her back on those who love her – reveal a naïve or deluded desire to believe in a fairytale future. Perhaps not unlike teenagers running away to Syria right now.

The cast is universally excellent, including the three – that’s right: three – choruses of over 60 singers. Wagnerian to the core!

Of the principals, I’ve already mentioned Silins , while David Rose as Daland, Michael König as Erik (a pretty thankless role) and Ed Lyon as the Steersman are all in wonderful voice.

And Adrianne Pieczonka was wonderful as Senta, with a clear, brilliant soprano voice.

Andris Nelsons’s conducting of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House (with those six basses) was faultless.

So, that was it – my first Wagner: great drama, wonderful spectacle and sublime music that lived on in my head.

Suffice it to say that it’s extremely doubtful that it will be my last Wagner opera or my last visit to the Royal Opera House.

* Production photos: Clive Barda and Mike Hoban

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Keep looking on the bright side

Look on the bright side of life – offends some Christians
More than once commentator pointed out, last month, the hypocrisy behind the attendance in Paris of so many senior politicians in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and that week’s other murders.

Then again there were the UK media outlets that spoke high and mighty words about ‘free speech’, but thought twice about actually reprinting a Charlie Hebdo cartoon or two – and instead, chose to illustrate reports with pictures (in some cases not even pixilated) of policeman Ahmed Merabet seconds before he was murdered, thus doing the terrorists’ work for them – while some on the British left chose to castigate the victims for ‘racism’.

I didn’t envisage coming back to the question of offence again so quickly, but within the last few days, there has been a further assault on free speech in the UK, with a call to ‘ban racists from social media’.

This came from the all-party Parliamentary inquiry into anti-semitism, days after the Community Security Trust had reported that UK anti-smitic incidents “more than doubled to 1,168 in 2014”.

That itself came against a background of various news reports claiming that anti-semitism was up, with increased numbers of Jewish people thinking of leaving for Israel or the US.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has, in the wake of the murders of four Jewish people in a kosher supermarket in Paris, been urging Jewish people to emigrate to Israel.

Mira Bar-Hillel, an Israeli-born freelance writer on property and housing, and Zionism and Israel for the Evening Standard and Independent, took to social media to question some of what this report said.

She pointed out that it listed one serious assault, while most of the other incidents listed were comments – largely but not exclusively – made on social media, relating to or as a result of the attacks by the state of Israel against Gaza last summer.

Some of those were downright nasty; many were very emotional responses to Gaza that didn’t worry too much about taste (whatever that is) or logic; some made comparisons that others may find distasteful or historically inaccurate (ie drawing similarities between Zionism and Nazism), but from what it’s possible to see from the examples provided, while there may be hate and there may be ignorance and there may be a lack of intellectual rigour, there are no examples of incitement to assault or attack.

And what is the wider context of this?

Anti-Muslim incidents in the UK are also apparently on the rise – and these saw a particular spike after the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013.

But it’s not just religion.

“Home Office statistics reveal police recorded 1,841 reports of disability hate crime in 2012-13, with 810 incidents going to court.
“This led to 349 convictions, but only seven of these resulted in an increased sentence with the victim’s disability being considered an aggravating factor.”

Other forces around the UK also reported rising figures.

It seems to be generally felt that much of the rise is down to increased reporting of issues and greater confidence in the police to deal with them, so the rises in reported attacks may not be as negative as first appears.

But there’s a vast difference between a violent assault – whatever the motive – and being upset by something seen on social media or as graffiti.

We’re back, once again, into the territory of ‘offence’.

For most people, it’s no fun being labeled a bigot. I got it in the neck on social media a couple of times last summer, being accused of being an anti-Semite for daring to challenge Zionists.

But then I count myself in good company, with people such as Bar-Hillel and satirist Jon Stewart, both of whom have spoken out on such issues and both of whom have been accused of anti-Semitism, self-hate and goodness knows what else in an effort to silence them.

Bar-Hillel wrote recently: “The beauty of the antisemitic label (and libel) is that it is impossible to disprove.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem that I see with calling for bans on (in this instance) “racists” using social media.

We have laws to deal with incitement – on any grounds. If people use social – or any other media – to incite on the basis of any hatred, then they can be dealt with by laws that already exist.

But how are we going to define, in law, what constitutes hate speech if it is not incitement?

Who gets to decide?

As Bar-Hillel put it, “it is impossible to disprove”. Or at least it is certainly very difficult on any objective level, if one person genuinely believes that, say, criticism of the state of Israel is a synonym for anti-semitism.

After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, we had some people doing a ‘oh, it was bad, but ...’ routine.

In other words, they found it entirely reasonable for someone to say: ‘oh look, nobody can insult my god (according to my definition/interpretation of theology) because that’s racism (because Muslims are usually brown people’.

That’s the thin end of the wedge (as well as being patronising).

I’ve no desire to see or hear hateful thoughts – but should they be illegal or should it be illegal to voice them in what is supposed to be a free and open space, ie social media?

Don’t criticise anything theological or someone will be offended.

Don’t comment on something political – or someone will be offended.

Don’t satirise something – or someone, somewhere, will take offence.

As noted earlier, hate crimes – including serious, physical assaults – are up against disabled and LGBT people.

The increase in attacks on the former group has been laid – in part at least – at the doorstep of some in the UK mainstream news media, which has spent a nice chunk of the last five years demonising those on disability benefits as ‘scroungers’.

For the latter group, there has been negative coverage too, plus hatred/dislike of various other groups, from the far right to assorted intolerant religious sorts.

Ralph Steadman cartoon
The thing about free speech – the thing that most seems to confuse a lot of well-meaning voices these days – is that the philosophical aspect of the question isn’t about what you agree with, but what you disagree with.

It’s never difficult to think that what you agree with should be allowed.

That’s why it’s important that we have incitement as a crime that can be prosecuted.

But if we say that someone should have legal action taken against them that is the equivalent of a convicted child abuser being denied internet use, on the basis that they accused Zionism of being like Nazism or suggested that Mohammed was a child abuser or ... well, fill in as many entries as you wish ... and thus upset some tender souls: this is naïve and dangerous.

Offence is a subjective matter. If you claim to have been offended by something – to have been abused by something – then who is to say that you’re wrong?

In 2009, the then Fianna Fáil government introduced a new blasphemy law in Ireland.

This legislation defines blasphemy as “publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defences permitted,” and with fines of up to €25,000 for conviction.

Former justice minister Dermot Ahern has subsequently defended the law, saying that it was needed because the 1936 Irish constitution only covers Christians.
Well, just scrap that bit of the constitution, then. Why does any religious person need this special, legal protection?

Blasphemy is a brilliant cover-all for any offence: law based on total subjectivity and a lack of reason.
In January 2012, Indonesian civil servant Alexander Aan posted on an atheist Facebook group that God did not exist.

Further, he asked: “If God exists, why do bad things happen? ... There should only be good things if God is merciful.”

He went on to declare that heaven, hell, angels and devils are “myths” and also posted an article describing Mohammed as “attracted to his daughter-in-law”.

But that counts as blasphemy in Indonesia – and also incitement – and he was reported to the police, attacked by a mob in the street and then charged. In June 2010, Aan was sentenced to two and a half years in prison, with a fine of 100 million rupiah (£6,945.15).

Predictably, that wasn’t enough for some: the Islamic Society Forum, a coalition of Islamic groups, wanted him executed.

Thankfully, Aan was released in January 2014, but the case reveals the sheer bonkersness and subjectivity of the entire issue.

But clearly it’s light years away from what happens in, say, the UK. Or is it?It is really not that long since the likes of Mary Whitehouse and her ilk demanded prosecution of people for offending them. It’s not long since The Life of Brian was the subject of outrage (if not actual riots).

It’s not that long since BBC staff were sent death threats because the corporation screened Jerry Springer: The Opera, which portrayed the family of Jesus as dysfunctional.

The only objective way of dealing with this is to say that nobody has a right not to be offended; that providing there is no incitement to violence, let people say what they want.

I’ve been on the receiving end of all sorts of verbal abuse over the years, including on the internet and for a variety of reasons – but all of which essentially stems from someone being ‘offended’ by something about me and wanting to shut me up with something other than an actual argument.

It can be damned unpleasant, to say the least. No sane person wants to be accused of being an anti-semite or a racist, for instance.

But how naïve is it to expect that all of life should be ‘nice’.

Great if it was – but how would we be able to tell? – but reality is not all chamomile tea and cuddles.

Education has to be central to changing attitudes.

But driving things underground, fueling a sense of victimisation and martyrdom ... what good does that do?

If people want to burn flags or books, ignore them. They’re little different to online trolls demanding attention. So don’t give them the reward.

And unless you really want a situation in which what you say can be reported because it ‘offended’ someone else, then be very – very – careful what you demand be censored in situations where you decide that is the acceptable approach because you disagree with the comments.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

A culinary masterclass from a master chef

Sweetbread, almond, pear
Back in December, a whole fortnight before Christmas, we ended up at the Gilbert Scott for my birthday meal, after a salutary lesson in just how far in advance you need to book for certain restaurants.

Not, I hasten to add, that The Gilbert Scott is in any way a culinary let down.

But within a few days, I’d suggested to The Other Half that we try to book well advance for his birthday, which fell this weekend just gone.

It paid off – thanks to very helpful staff – and we found ourselves with a reservation for lunch at Marcus, Marcus Wareing’s eponymous eatery at the Berkley Hotel in Knightsbridge.

Having quaffed a late-but-light breakfast of scrambled eggs on toast – as much to get the systems going as anything – we dressed and headed out into Saturday’s gloom.

To begin with, the bus was slow. Then, after getting to King’s Cross, the tannoy blared out the news that a signal failure had stalled all Piccadilly line trains – just as we’d found our way to the platform.

I’ll just say at this point: King’s Cross was always bad, but it now simply seems bigger and more crowded than ever, even if shiner and newer. It’s a nightmare to navigate around.

We thought about hopping onto the nearby Victoria line and changing – only to see that there are no stations where you can change to the Piccadilly.

We’d given ourselves more than enough time – more than recommended by Transport for London – but with less than half an hour left before we were due to take our seats, we hopped a cab and I rang the restaurant to let them know we would be a little late – which didn’t worry them in the least.

Eventually, we made it across London just 15 minutes beyond our appointed time, but nonetheless feeling slightly harried.

Anjou pigeon, celeriac, bean, blackberry
Moving through the tea room and into the restaurant provided almost instant tension relief.

At a comfortable spacious table, we started to unwind with the menus, a welcome glass of fizz and small, doughy balls with a Parmesan salty kick inside that really lengthened the taste experience.

Marcus is one of those establishments that uses very simple menu descriptions, but frankly, I don’t know why some people find it disconcerting: for me, it’s a nice way to highlight the key flavours and ingredients.

So, while The Other Half started with “sea bass, sweet potato, saffron, sorrel”, I opted for “veal sweetbread, almond, pear”.

Sweetbread is one of those hugely misunderstood cuts: yes, it can be testicles, but it can also be several other things – not least, thymus.

These were blissfully sweet and tender, with a texture that was not unreminiscent of foie gras, and with a gloriously caramelized top providing a wonderful contrast.

The pear came in at least two ways: two segments that, our waiter explained, had been given the sous vide treatment, which firmed them up at the same time as keeping them juicy. The cut edges had a filigree of black on it – a little like charcoal, I thought.

And indeed, that would work perfectly, given the wine I had.

We’d decided to rely on the sommelier for recommendations, and for this course, mine was a French white – Chardonnay Vieilles vignes’, Seguela, Côtes Catalanes, 2013 – with a distinctly burnt toast taste that worked really well as a compliment to the sweetness of the meat and the pear.

There was also a pear crisp that was wafer thin and simply melted in the mouth, plus slivered almonds and a purée to add further textures.

It was divine.

For a main, The Other Half picked “venison, chestnut, cranberry, black pudding”, while I took on “Anjou pigeon, celeriac, bean, blackberry”.

Again, two very happy diners.

The pigeon was wonderful: superbly cooked, with a single leg roasted to the point of being sticky with it’s own juices, and served in a tiny bowl of bread sauce and with a water bowl alongside. There’s something almost divinely nefarious about sitting in a two-Michelin-starred restaurant and eating with your fingers.

Rhubarb, custard, thyme, ginger
The blackberries, I suspect, had also been in the sous vide for the same reason as the pear – intensified flavor and firmness – while the celeriac came in both tiny, sautéed dice and little roundels. The beans added yet more texture.

Wine this time was an earthy red – a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Clos des Brusquieres’ from the Rhône, 2010.

And then, of course, dessert.

Both of us, having seen Wareing himself present Masterchef: The Professionals late last year, were aware of his love for the dishes his grandmother cooked in his native Lancashire.

So on seeing a listing for “rhubarb, custard, thyme, ginger,” neither of us bothered with a second thought, given that the Yorkshire Triangle’s forced rhubarb season is just underway.

Not, of course, that this was any old rhubarb and custard.

The custard came as feather-light set discs, flavoured with vanilla and thyme.

With that, there was a sticky rhubarb smear, a quenelle of rhubarb ice cream, pieces of rhubarb (probably from the sous vide, because it was ‘cooked’ yet firm) with dots of foam and thyme, ribbons of stewed rhubarb and strings of ginger.

With the restaurant out of banyuls, I tried a digestif from Spain: a Moscatel Dorado, Bodegas César Florido, Jerez, which was full of prune sweetness and sunshine.

There were Tahiti vanilla and milk chocolate truffles and banana ganache with yuzu gel squares to complete the meal.

We that, we headed home, both sated and soothed.

People sometimes question whether fine dining is worth the lay out.

Truffles and ganache
I know I’ve said it before, but yes, it really does.

This was flawless cooking; not a single false note. Superb ingredients, with flavours that were robust yet combined with great subtlety, and all presented quite beautifully.

Having the wine selected for you by an expert really adds to the experience: when matched like this, it becomes even more an integral part of the meal than if you simply selected a single bottle to cover all courses.

Service was exemplary – friendly yet formal at the same time: the perfect way to illustrate this was that the junior sommelier happily agreed to give me a list of the wines we’d had, and did so in a beautifully hand-written list before we left.

And in the interests of completeness, the setting combines comfort and elegance.

This was a wonderful meal – and a perfect way to spend an afternoon.