David Lister: The Week in Arts

Two Tenors? Doesn't have the same ring to it

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It is strange and almost uplifting to see a starkly different side of a world-famous artist. There have been two examples this week. The first concerns Harold Pinter. The playwright's early comedy sketches are being staged in the West End of London by the comedian Bill Bailey. I grew up listening to one of these sketches on a recording my parents possessed of a Kenneth Williams revue. Pinter wrote a sketch for Williams called "The Last to Go". It was about a newspaper seller telling a friend how he disposed of his last copies of the London Evening Standard, Evening News and Star. The last two newspaper titles will mean little to young readers. They will have to take them on trust.

Recounting which paper is the last to go, the newspaper vendor says it is sometimes the Standard, often the Star, "but tonight all I had left was the Evening News". His friend asks: "Then that went, did it?" "Yes," he replies, adding solemnly after a pause: "Like a shot."

Now you either find that line hilariously funny, as I do, or you find it puzzlingly unfunny. There's no way either side can convince the other on that score. But what is interesting is that Pinter's early sketches have rarely been performed since he wrote them more than 45 years ago. Though comedy permeates his plays, we never think of him, or describe him, as a comedian; the image of humorist certainly does not sit easily with his current earnestness and penchant for political polemic.

An even greater change of style came from another huge figure on the world stage, the tenor Placido Domingo. No, make that the baritone Placido Domingo. For he announced on Thursday that henceforth he would be singing baritone roles. As it happens, Domingo started off in his professional career as a baritone, but quickly changed to tenor and the more romantic roles that come with it.

Such a change back at the age of 66 is fascinating. Presumably, the changes in his voice at that age have caused him to make the decision, but what will his many fans make of it? Tenor to baritone is not just a change of voice; it is a change of personality and image. A change of life. The tenor is the operatic sex object for the audience. Nearly all the most famous arias belong to the tenor. We had The Three Tenors (of whom Domingo, of course, was one). We never had The Three Baritones. Mimi's lover in La Bohème is a tenor, likewise Carmen's, likewise Tosca's. Now, instead of singing Tosca's lover, Domingo must sing the evil, lecherous chief of police. Instead of playing Otello, he can sing Iago. Even when a tenor role is an uncaring, heartless fiend, such as the Duke in Rigoletto, he is also irresistible to women.

The baritone roles will be wonderful challenges for Domingo. But he will no longer be the great romantic lead. Female admirers may no longer swoon. Should Pavarotti and Carreras ever decide to do one last, lucrative tour of The Three Tenors, a substitute will have to be found for the guy who's now gone over to the other side.

Domingo has a new lease of life; Pinter's early work shows a part of his talent that even some of his admirers did not know existed. We should be grateful to see evidence of such versatility in two cultural titans. But audiences in the arts can be more conservative than they like to admit, and don't always adapt easily to a radical change of image. It will be intriguing to witness a deep-voiced Domingo playing the repulsive, cold-hearted lecher. It will be amusing to be reminded of Pinter the gag-man. But it might be disconcerting too.

Let the fireworks begin

Valery Gergiev began his tenure as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra with a typically dramatic evening at the Barbican on Tuesday. The charismatic Russian conductor darted from one side of the podium to another, fixed his eyes upon a group of players, held a pose, then darted to the other side, reminding me of a Premiership manager in the technical area.

The musical programme that Gergiev chose was intoxicating, with a sumptuous reading of Stravinsky's The Firebird, and most particularly the not often performed Scythian Suite by Prokofiev. This enjoyable cacophony, with its strange dissonance and love of percussion, is one of the noisiest pieces in the repertoire, and I learned that LSO managers, after scrutinising EC noise and health regulations, offered ear protectors to the musicians, some of whom wore them to lessen the impact of the noise. We all predicted that Gergiev would arrive with a bang, but perhaps not quite so literally.

* You Couldn't Make It Up No 93: The adverts for the Monty Python musical Spamalot are mildly amusing. They show a picture of Simon Russell Beale, the great classical actor, who is currently delighting audiences with his portrayal of King Arthur taking on the fearsome knights who say "Nee". The newspaper adverts for the show proclaim "Simon Russell Beale in Hamlet", which is then crossed out and changed to Hamalot, which is then crossed out and changed to Spamalot.

Mildly amusing, but London Underground does not find them funny. The musical's producers were going to put posters featuring the advert on numerous underground stations in the capital. But London Underground apparatchiks have banned the adverts from the Tube, as they fear that the crossings out might "encourage graffiti". The show's producers are bemused. The Monty Python writers are probably envious that London Underground has now cornered the market in daft surrealism.

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