There haven’t been many weeks like this. Over the space of just seven days, I have seen Renee Fleming’s farewell performance at the Royal Opera, watched Simon Russell Beale play Prospero in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Tempest, and finally listened to Martha Argerich play Prokofiev in the Sheldonian. I have been trying to write about those events all week, but sometimes the words just don’t come, or they don’t come the right way. I still wanted to make this post, preserve some thoughts to posterity, however clumsy. So, bear with me.
I’m not sure I’m capable enough to write any kind of review of a regular stage play, to be honest. The Tempest was the last play I read last year, and one that I was really keen to see on stage. A lot had been said of its use of computer animations and live motion capture to create the magical world of Prospero’s island, and it certainly was a feast for the eyes, full of colour and quite enchanting (although, not for the first time I wondered how little directors actually pay attention to sightlines). But, to his credit, the director Gregory Doran had created a play that probably would have worked just as well if these projections had been switched off – strong on human drama, well judged, well acted. Simon Russell Beale – short and sturdy like a small, strong ox – was a powerful presence as Prospero, a man so wrapped up in his quest for revenge that he’s almost incapable to express his more tender feelings, and yet brimming with deep affection, for his daughter, for Ferdinand, for Ariel (their parting in the end had me sobbing into my scarf), and perhaps in a strange way even for (the entirely human – and half fish) Caliban.
What can one say about Martha Argerich that doesn’t sound completely facetious? That she’s beautiful and possessed and does things with her fingers that defy anatomy and understanding? That she has a flawless virtuoso technique and a profound understanding of the music she plays? That she’s perhaps the greatest pianist there ever was? All of that is true, and none of it still conveys just how visceral the experience of hearing her play a rather plain piece – a piano transcript of Schumann’s song Widmung – with such expression that the members of the orchestra, silently seated around her, were in tears, the audience listening with perfectly focused intent. It was a gift that I certainly will never forget.