Music: In the bleak midwinter: Stephen Johnson spent Christmas chilling out in front of the television
Thursday 30 December 1993
For Christmas Day evening there was New York Metropolitan Opera's all-star, made-for- television version of Puccini's La Fanciulla del West, leading name Placido Domingo, and before that, the truly horrendous Christmas with Luciano Pavarotti. Filmed, as far as I could tell, through a heavy brown filter, this mish-mash of souped-up carols and weepy yuletide classics did not bring out the best in the great man. He looked uncomfortable, frequently glancing down at his music as though in need of moral support, and the performances seemed to bear this out - not a great deal of warmth, and the odd hint of strain.
The direction was startlingly unimaginative - Notre Dame, Montreal, doesn't look like a terrifically exciting building, but the camera could at least have tried to make something of it. Still worse was the recording: microphone positioning apparently based on the 'distance lends enchantment' principle. It didn't. Even the most easily pleased Pavarotti fans must have felt a tad disappointed.
Technical standards in the great BBC Radio offering - the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (broadcast this year on Radios 3, 4 and 5) - were better in every respect. The recording approach was again respectfully distant, but the choir itself and the King's College Chapel atmosphere were well-caught. This year the programme was wide-ranging: Sarum chant and Palestrina to Diana Burrell and Judith Weir, with enough of the familiar favourites in between. And the King's College Choir itself remains a Rolls-Royce among modern choral groups. But I wonder how many people actually sat and listened to it, as opposed to using it as background to turkey-eating, present-opening and the ritual drive to the relatives?
Those few who did may have felt, as I did, that even in an overheated living room it is a distinctly chilly experience. The froideur of the lesson-readers is, of course, traditional and entirely expected. But the singing was rarely more than coldly beautiful. Whether it was medieval high church or Polish folk, the austere eloquence of a Bach chorale or the intimate tenderness of Herbert Howells' A Spotless Rose the style was the same: clean, shapely and expressively uptight. Our Anglican choral tradition is a treasure that needs to be defended against the rising horrors of evangelical happy-clappydom, but it could lose a degree or two of frost.
Refreshment came elsewhere - two BBC 2 offerings in fact. The unlikely teaming of the Spitting Image team, Theatre de Complicite and Claudio Abbado produced a very likeable version of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf (26 December), the story told by the voice of Sting and his rubber alter ego. It was perhaps a little over-stuffed with ideas, but the scenery and the puppets were wonderful - especially the be- robed ballerina-superstar Cat and the stunningly malevolent Wolf. The other items - scenarios based around Prokofiev's Overture on Hebrew Themes and Classical Symphony - felt a little like filling after this, though again there were vivid ideas, and enough matching of sounds to instruments to keep educationally inclined parents happy.
The 10-minute opera Cinderella or the Vindication of Sloth (also 26 December), by the late Stephen Oliver, was delightfully filmed and wittily composed, and there was a neat sting in the tail: it is Cinderella's sloth which saves her from conflagration at the ball, and which, as she points out, prevents her from falling for other, worse temptations - a possible vindication of the modern Christmas?
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