Хованщина (Khovanshchina) by Mussorgsky

a.k.a. The Khovansky Affair

Performance seen at Wales Millennium Centre (WMC) on 30/09/2017.

Performed by the Welsh National Opera (WNO) company.

An opera, subtitled a ‘national music drama’, in five acts by Modest Mussorgsky. The work was written between 1872 and 1880 in St.Petersburg, Russia. The composer wrote the libretto based on historical sources however the opera was unfinished and unperformed when the composer died in 1881.

Khovanshchina deals with an episode in Russian history concerning the rebellion of Prince Ivan Khovansky, the Old Believers, and the Muscovite Streltsy (Russian guardsmen from the 16th to the early 18th centuries, armed with firearms) against the regent Sofia Alekseyevna and the two young Czars Peter the Great (Peter I) and Ivan V, who were attempting to institute Westernising reforms in Russia. Khovansky had helped to foment the Moscow Uprising of 1682, which resulted in Sofia becoming regent on behalf of her younger brother Ivan and half-brother Peter, who were crowned joint Czars. In the fall of 1682 Prince Ivan Khovansky turned against Sofia. Supported by the Old Believers and the Streltsy, Khovansky, who supposedly wanted to install himself as the new regent, demanded the reversal of Patriarch Nikon’s reforms. Sofia and her court were forced to flee Moscow. Eventually, Sofia managed to suppress the so-called Khovanshchina (Khovansky affair) with the help of the diplomat Fyodor Shaklovity, who succeeded Khovansky as leader of the Muscovite Streltsy. Finally with the rebellion crushed, the Old Believers committed mass suicide (in the opera, at least).

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov completed, revised, and scored Khovanshchina in 1881–1882. Because of his extensive cuts and recomposition, Dmitri Shostakovich revised the opera in 1959 based on Mussorgsky’s vocal score, and it is the Shostakovich version that is usually performed.

Although the background of the opera comprises the Moscow Uprising of 1682 and the Khovansky affair a few months later, its main themes are the struggle between progressive and reactionary political factions during the minority of Czar Peter the Great and the passing of old Muscovy before Peter’s westernising reforms. It received its first performance in the Rimsky-Korsakov edition in 1886.

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Shostakovich Orchestration:

Strings: violins I, violins II, violas, cellos, double basses

Woodwinds: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon)

Brass: 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba

Percussion: timpani, bass drum, snare drum, triangle, tambourine, cymbals, tam-tam, bells, glockenspiel

Other: piano, harp, celesta

On/Offstage: unspecified numbers of horns, trumpets, trombones

Principal arias and numbers

Scene 1 — Red Square

Introduction: “Dawn on the Moscow River”, Вступление: «Рассвет на Москве-реке» (Orchestra)
Chorus: “Make a wide path for the White Swan”, «Белому лебедю путь просторен» (Streltsï, People)
Chorus: “Glory to the White Swan”, «Слава лебедю» (People)

Scene 2 — Golitsïn’s Study

Aria: Marfa’s Divination “Mysterious powers”, Гадания Марфы «Силы потайные» (Marfa, Golitsïn)

Scene 3 — Streltsï Quarter

Song: “A maiden wandered”, «Исходила младёшенька» (Marfa)
Aria: “The Streltsy nest sleeps”, «Спит стрелецкое гнездо» (Shaklovitïy)

Scene 4 — Khovansky’s Palace

Ballet: “Dance of the Persian Slaves”, «Пляски персидок» (Orchestra)
Chorus: “A young swan swims”, «Плывет, плывет лебедушка» (Maidens, Shaklovitïy, Ivan Khovansky)

Scene 5 — Red Square

Introduction “The Departure of Golitsïn”, Вступление «Поезд Голицына» (Orchestra, Chorus)
Chorus: “Show them no mercy”, «Не дай пощады» (Streltsï Wives, Streltsï, Andrey Khovansky, Marfa)
March: “March of the Preobrazhensky Regiment”, «Марш преображенцев» (Orchestra)

Scene 6 — Hermitage

Aria: “Here, in this holy place”, «Здесь, на этом месте» (Dosifey)
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Historical basis of the plot

The death of the young Czar Fyodor III has left Russia with a crisis of succession. Supported by Prince Ivan Khovansky, Fyodor’s sickly brother Ivan, who is 16, and his half-brother Peter, who is only 10, have been installed as joint rulers, with their older sister Sofia acting as regent. Sofia has allied herself with Prince Vasily Golitsin, a powerful courtier and liberal politician, who is also her alleged lover. Peter, if you haven’t guessed, is the future Peter I a.k.a. Peter the Great who established the westernised city of St Petersburg as the new capital of Russia, instead of Moscow, and led a cultural revolution that replaced some of the traditionalist and medieval social and political systems with ones that were modern, scientific, westernised, and based on The Enlightenment. Peter’s reforms made a lasting impact on Russia and many institutions of Russian government trace their origins to his reign. So what is being explored in this opera are the last days of ‘old’ Russia and what might arguably be called the prelude to it’s golden era.

Due to regulations applicable at the time of the composition of the opera in Imperial Russia, it was forbidden to portray members of the Romanov dynasty on stage, so Mussorgsky had recourse to a series of symbols and indirect mention of main characters in the plot. Sofia, Ivan and Peter never actually appear on stage.

The principal theme of Khovanshchina is stated outright in the choral number “Akh, ty Rodnaya, Matushka Rus'” in Act I (“Woe to thee native, Mother Russia”), which laments that Russia is bleeding and dying not because of a foreign enemy, but because of fragmentation within.

Something like a three-way civil war is in progress, which basically compresses twelve years of Russian history into one telling. The Czarist court is modernizing, and two powerful forces are resisting these changes: the Streltsy and the Old Believers.

The Streltsy are decommissioned elite soldiers/guards (“Streltsy” literally means “shooters”, just like “musketeers”), past their prime and on indefinite furlough. They are fanatically loyal to Prince Ivan Khovansky.

The Old Believers are Russian Orthodox Christians who have left the state-sponsored church because they disagree with the Patriarch Nikon’s reforms; they also challenge the line of succession to the throne and have refused to recognize the Russian Patriarch. Their leader is Dosifey.

Fortunately for Czar Peter, these two factions despise each other, as the Streltsy are rowdy degenerates and the Old Believers are pious ascetics.

Each of the three principal basses in the opera believes himself to represent the “true” Russia against her internal enemies: Prince Ivan Khovansky claims legitimacy by noble birth and military prowess, Dosifey by religion, and Shaklovity by supporting Czar Peter.

Costume

As seems a trend with WNO productions, such as The Magic Flute, they colour code the different factions.

Red: Khovanshsky and his private army the Streltsy. Khovansky himself, to stand out, wears a great coat with a large red fur collar to distinguish him from others and denote his status.

White: Old Believers members

Grey: Citizens of Moscow, Emma, the Persian dancer (i.e. the victim’s of the other factions actions)

Gold: Liberal aristocracy i.e. Golitsin

Green military uniform with brown great coat: Shaklovity and the Czar’s soldiers

Black: denotes a servant role it seems thus are worn by people with influence existing somewhere between the common person and moral factions if not with divided loyalties.

What I find awkward about this colour coding choice in the production is that even a passing knowledge of Russian history tells you these colours carry significant relevance.

The red of the revolutionary force seems at first glance an obvious choice: Khovansky opposes the monarchy and the Bolshevik’s too did in the twentieth century. So far so good. Shaklovity in military colours again makes him distinct from others as someone morally ambiguous. Golitsin in gold as a liberal aristocrat is fitting.

Grey is used for the chorus in the first few acts, Emma (a maiden from the German quarter) and the Persian slaves of Prince Ivan Khovanky who are victims of the events around them and suffer for it. A neutral body neither white nor black morally they’re swept along in events with no ability to choose their destiny nor protect themselves from the consequence of the actions of the others. Of course the chorus changes throughout the performance to which ever scene requires them to represent Streltsy, Schismatics (Old Believers), Persian slaves or otherwise.

Black is used for functionaries and those who fall somewhere between the morality of the factions. Varsonofyev, Golitsin’s retainer, wears this colour but with gold piping to show his servitude, Marfa who torn between her love for Andrei Khovansky and as a schismatic (acting at times as a diviner to Golitsin) and the scrivener who seems swept up in events around him.

The issue then is the white used for Dosifey and the Old Believers. White is the colour of those who support the monarchy or at least are of nobility, for example the term white emigrefor those who left or were exiled during the revolution and the white army, and yet in this production it is used for the old believers who oppose the actions of their monarchs.

But what other choice is there? Well the robes of Russian Orthodox priests are black so they could have easily just used that colour (despite the Old Believers breaking away from the state endorsed church) and had the ‘servant’ roles be another colour. Certainly if anything Shaklovity, as a loyal follower of the monarchy, should have. out of everyone, be dressed in white if the production is determined to have the setting updated to the early twentieth century quasi-civil war setting. Perhaps it seems I am nitpicking. Certainly Marfa being one of the schismatics (old believers) isn’t clear until much later in the performance as the colour coding leads uninformed audience members astray.

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Cast:

Prince Ivan Khovansky: Robert Hayward

Prince Andrey Khovansky: Adrian Dwyer

Prince Vasily Golitsyn: Mark Le Brocq

Shaklovity: Simon Bailey

Dosifei: Miklos Sebestyen

Marfa: Sara Fulgoni

Susanna: Monika Sawa

Scribe: Adrian Thompson

Emma: Claire Wild

Varsonofev: Alastair Moore

Kuz’ka: Simon Crosby Buttle

Streshnev: Gareth Dafydd Morris

1st Strelets: Julian Boyce

2nd Strelets: Laurence Cole

Servant: Dimo Georgiev

Persian Slave: Elena Thomas

Production staff:

Conductor: Tomas Hanus

Director: David Pountney

Designer: Johan Engels

Costume Designer: Marie-Jeanne Lecca

Lighting Designer: Fabrice Kebour

Choreographer: Beate Vollack

Assistant Conductor: James Southall

Assistant Director: Benjamin Davis

Production manager: Robert Pagett

Musical Preparation: Segey Rybin

Staff Directors: Deborah Cohen, Polly Graham

Lighting Realised on Tour: Ian Jones

Language Coach: John Asquith

Stage Manager: Katie Heath-Jones

Deputy Stage Manager: Suzie Erith

Stage Design

Overall the permanent stage decoration is of a decimated city reflective of Stalingrad or the general western depiction of Soviet Russia where everything somehow looks like a post industrial wasteland from 1935 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Apparently the country lay in ruin for over half a century. I found that a disappointing stereotype to adhere to.

Ironically, during the 1990s, a number of areas did end up in a very run down state when the economy took a massive downturn until the millennium when it was revitalised again. Indeed a few areas are still in that state but they are the exception not the rule usually being sites that exist somewhere in the countryside left derelict. The only time a city such as the setting of the opera Moscow would be in this state was during war time. ‘But they’ve taken artistic license’ people will say to justify it. Yes and in the musical Billy Elliot they trivialise a very emotionally turbulent period of within living memory history for working class people in Britain for the amusement of the middle classes which trivialises the brutal conflicts between striking picket lines and police with irreverent song and dance number. Sometimes art offends intentionally to begin a dialogue and other times it does it through ignorance. The setting is not the Soviet union, as most audience members will assume, nor is it ‘mystic Russia’ as the launch event described it. It’s a caricature underplaying the brutal historical reality like pirates, cowboys and soldiers in children’s productions.

The designers obviously wanted an iconic image of early revolutionary Bolshevik led Soviet Russia and watched a lot of western produced films set in Russia during the Soviet era but mostly filmed elsewhere (Gorky Park, Child 44, Gulag, Silk Stockings, Ninotchka, etc) which all share the same grim grey and brown colour pallet to depict it as a post industrial hell – which in areas around factories and closed cities would be true as it is anywhere, but the impression in all these films is the entire country was like that – which means even over a quarter of a century after it’s end we still live with the propagandist image of the Soviet Union which is perpetuated by visual designers who type in Soviet Russia to a search engine, see Stalin era depictions in Western propaganda films and say ‘good enough’ and copy it. Unlike North Korea Russia doesn’t have an eternal leader and if they did it would definitely not be Stalin and, it should come as no surprise, the country did actually develop after Stalin’s death and not stagnant in the aesthetic of the Stalin era (although of course the Soviet Union had plenty of periods of stagnation in later decades but that’s a story for another time).

I just find it very awkward they depicted the setting like this when they seem to have chosen a quasi-civil war setting which inevitably reminds the audience of the real life conflict which occurred between the revolutionary Red Army against the monarchist White Army yet assigns the colours inappropriately. During the civil war the white army supported the Czar while in this production white represents those who oppose the Czar. The production covers a time period of about 12 years and apparently Moscow lay in ruins throughout that time. ‘Artistic license’ no doubt applies.

Below is a rough layout of the stage design.

khovanshchina WNO stage

  • In the layout graphic you see the grey steps upon which performers sit or lay.
  • The green pieces are the scribe desks which each have a small desk lamp to illuminate them.
  • The green diamond is the pillar with a light on top of it which the scribe is forced to climb, by Streltsy soldiers, to read what is written on it. A pile of books/papers spill out of it when the illiterate Streltsy are informed of what is written there.
  • The purple barrier is on an overpass above one of the access points to the stage.
  • The yellow chair and painting are used when Khovansky confronts the Golitsin about Sofia.
  • The red hexagon is the bath where Khovansky is killed.
  • The red circle represents the ball on which the Persian dancer performs nude (actually she has body paint/skin toned clothing I think but I was sat in the gods so it was hard to tell when she discarded her silk dress).
  • The white ramp is lowered in later scenes when Dosifey comes to speak to the other Old Believers and when Khovansky, now an old man, tells the Streltsy to go home and await their fate instead of fight when the Czar’s forced descend upon Moscow to eliminate them.
  • On the left side is a wall with empty windows in a waffle like shape. At the start of the play light is shone through the gaps to show the dawning of the opera’s events and at the end, to bookend the opera, as the building in which the Old Believer’s commit mass suicide. At this point a smoke machine is lowered from above and the followers bring heavy stage lamps onto the steps which illuminate in the final moment depicting them tableau like in death.

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Things of particular note, both good and bad, during the Welsh National Opera (WNO) performance I saw.

The tower of leaflets in the first act which is opened and spills paper out across the floor is very effective in portraying the proliferation of knowledge the scribe causes by reading out the proclamation in Act I, scene iv.

The scribe, in act I, scene IV, and Emma in Act I, scene VI, are both bound with red chords to represent the social binding they both undergo through force by others. Sadly I don’t recall this being used again later so these come out as somewhat of an anomaly and I have to question why the idea wasn’t followed up with for later scenes.

When Golitsin is sent into exile he is carried lying on top of the painting used as the background of act ii. In his hand is a book he is reading while the actor, for dear life, hangs onto the side of the painting as he is angled towards the audience while pretending like he is relaxing. If you imagine some of the more naïve medieval depictions of saints which ignored realism you can image what this looked like. It was at one turn effective and yet oddly hilarious and I don’t think in this opera that was intentional.

In the mass suicide scene one person wouldn’t stop moving towards the back of the group. The smoke machine let out a little puff and that was it. It was on stage, hanging from the fly tower, for about 20 minutes only to do that. Or it may have meant to represent the thurible/censur used by Orthodox Christians but if so it still stands it produced only a slight puff of smoke and the staging of the scene makes you think they all just laid down rather than committed suicide via immolation.

I’m pretty sure the Russian pronunciation by some of the performers was off. The only one most would note is when someone, Shaklovity I believe, pronounces emphatically at the end of one line ‘Спасибо as ‘spa-see-boh’ when the naturalised way so say it is ‘spa-see-bah’. I don’t know if it was the performer or the director who went with that. Either way it really took me out of it a few times. At the launch event it was noted ‘for time’ that The House of the Dead would be performed in English while Eugene Onegin and Khovanshchina would be performed in Russia. Part of me wishes they had done this in English as I suspect they performers are not all experienced in performing in Russian if they’ve mostly been called to do works in French, German or Italian as there are inevitably differences in the languages. It’s a little sad but not completely unexpected. The actual performances themselves were of a high standard desptie all my criticisms.

In the WNO production, during the Dance of the Persian Slaves they have a single dancer in a silk dress perform over Khovansky while he lays in his bathtub. She performs a number of gymnastic postures and such then removes her dress. She has body paint across her chest and, I assume, flesh tone knickers on (I was sat in the upper circle so for intent and purposes she seemed naked but there’s no indication she would be otherwise WMC put warnings about it anywhere on the production’s literature) then climbs on top of a ball and rolls around the stage accompanied by bare chested men stabilising it. She takes Khovansky’s coat and drapes it over herself… then, after performing her piece, sits there on the ball for about ten minutes in shadow watching Khovansky be assassinated in his bath and all the other Persian slaves walk past and spit on his corpse. The dance was composed by Rimsky-Korsakov by agreement with Mussorgsky and I would be lying if I said it is noticeable that it stands out compared to many of the other pieces instrumentally. Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov have very distinctly difference composition styles needless to say.

The assassination is well done as there is a shower head on the bath and thus when his throat is slit the tap is turned on and a shower of red blood rains down upon him before it’s turned off by the last passing slave and a sheet is drawn over the bath tub until Andrey is made to confront his father’s corpse.

There is a backlit walkway with folds down from right stage when Dosifey and later Khovansky address their followers. It really helps to emphasise the status they are held in by their followers when they appear from stage right on it. Dosifey strides out and is in as much, if more, strength as he was at the start of the play. His determination and disposition have only grown with time. This is contrasted when Khovanshy initially seems to emulate this when the Strelsty call for him. However instead of the barrel chested, physically imposing, leader of earlier acts we see a frail old man hobble out and beg his followers to lay down their arms and prepare for the Czar’s judgement to be passed on them.

It can’t go without mention that you have quite archaic depictions of women. Marfa is lovesick for Andrey and every action she takes is to be reunited with him despite his rejection of her, Emma despite being named is only someone for Andrey to lust after with no further contribution after her first scene, the Persian Slave(s) are there to be Ivan’s playthings, Sofia is never seen on stage but is represented by Shaklovity… the only woman of any note is Susanna (one of the older members of the Old Believers) who ultimately only serves to shrewishly condemn Marfa for her love of the younger Khovansky instead of dedicating herself to the cause absolute.

Khovanshchina WNO

Review conclusion

Clumsy. I think that’s the word I would want to use regretfully, if not lazy for cetain aspects, regarding this production. It’s a revival of the 2007 production and it seems like they haven’t built on what they learned back then. ‘A decade has passed, no one will remember what we did last time. We hardly do ourselves!’

At the launch event it was joked they dusted off one of the older works and apparently that’s all they did thinking. The photo used for the promotional material, even at a glance, is clearly the old costumes as you see a man dressed in traditional black robes and not this productions choice to have the Old Believers wear white. This isn’t a revival by a retread with a new coat of paint sadly. In Hollywood films we see remakes of older films that don’t add anything to the original, don’t find a successful new interpretation nor make their own version but just seem to retread the exact same steps as their predecessor and often makes the same, if not more, mistakes. Apparently that can happen in opera too from what I saw here. If anything it’s gotten sloppy trying to experiment on some aspects that they didn’t fully consider.

The performers do their best, proving their status in the world of opera and I find little fault with them beyond some pronunciation which can be expected if they’re not often called on to perform in Russian often (let alone the suggestion of there being little time to prepare which was suggested at the season lauch event) but I think it was a lot of the staging and other choices which really took away from, rather than supported, the production.

The Persian dancer certainly was out of tone with the rest of the production. You have to ask if it was mandated by someone with influence making what is meant to be evidence that Khovansky has abandoned any noble ambition and given into decadent hedonism watching ballet instead was turned into a burlesque show for the audience. It takes you out of it completely it’s such a contrast to every thing else even compared to other productions of the opera by other companies. A brave choice but one that should have been reflected earlier with the actions of Ivan’s son Andrey towards Emma to show that despite all Khovansky’s noble words we see the apple didn’t fall far from the tree in the end.

It seems like I am nitpicking at artistic choices or minor points but it all accumulates. WNO always put a lot of effort into their set designs and staging. You would be hard pressed to say they do anything less than excel in it otherwise but for this production the choices just don’t work. There are some great ideas but the way they get implemented seems half hearted or misinformed at times. Khovanshchina is one of the rarer operas to be performed so they really had a chance to establish themselves further as one of the great opera companies but instead seem to have ‘given it a go’ with a mindset that failure is highly likely. This season they were also simultaneously doing Eugene Onegin and The House of the Dead alongside this piece and I am not sure how those will have come across as they are in many ways much safer options compared to Khovanshchina which perhaps asks a lot of an audience in comparison.

On the whole you might think three and a half hours would be dreadfully long but I found it moved along quite quickly. The only times I noticed the time were are the start, which seemed to take an eternity to establish events, and at the end where it just seemed like, after the pardoning of the Streltsy, everyone left remaining now needed to each perform a piece individually before the finale. People joke about the ending of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy taking forever but really this opera was not well served by reinstating the parts edited out previously.

It is often asked if you need to read up about an opera before seeing it and it’s up to you. WNO on their own webpage introducing people to opera even say this. You might get more enjoyment knowing the story before hand so you can enjoy the performance or you might enjoy seeing the twists in the narratives played out before you without warning. Khovanshchina is definitely one opera you must read up about before or else you will get lost. The colour coding is a good effort to counter this but you will still get lost if you don’t follow it carefully or have prior knowledge of the proceedings.

Khovanshchina: The operatic example of what ‘too many chefs spoils the broth’ looks like.

Originally an opera (subtitled a ‘national music drama’) in five acts by Modest Mussorgsky.

After Mussorgsky died leaving it unfinished Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov completed, revised, and scored Khovanshchina in 1881–1882.

Because of his extensive cuts and “recomposition”, Dmitri Shostakovich revised the opera in 1959 based on Mussorgsky’s vocal score, and it is the Shostakovich version that is usually performed.

Of course then each staging might choose to make alterations themselves. In 1913 Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel made their own arrangement at Sergei Diaghilev’s request. When Feodor Chaliapin refused to sing the part of Dosifei in any other orchestration than Rimsky-Korsakov’s, Diaghilev’s company employed a mixture of orchestrations which did not prove successful. The Stravinsky-Ravel orchestration was forgotten, except for Stravinsky’s finale, which is still sometimes used.

Even with only a passing knowledge of Russian classical music you can see that some of the biggest names of the twentieth century tackled the piece and with each alteration came tension on what was the best option. Rimsky-Korsakov streamlined the opera and made it accessible. Shostakovich, true to his own style, included the more experimental sections which perhaps to me make the piece feel excessive in length or, as can be expected of things added back in after a ‘finalised’ version has been created, the pacing is negatively affected so some parts move along at a pace and others seem to come to a screaming stop and drag. Rimsky-Korsakov, if you look up the alteration history, made a lot of shortened sections. It’s a topic far too long for a review as it deserves it’s own focused consideration.

I assume it’s the Shostakovich version performed as it’s not immediately obvious in the brochure which version they went with but no doubt made some adjustments to suit themselves.

It’s a good opera to go see once but I can’t say after this experience I will want to see it again and certainly having seen a few Welsh National Opera productions (Madame Butterfly, Carmen, Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, etc) this is by far one of, if not their, weakest productions by far. The staging which is one of the company’s strong points falls flat here and at a few points borders being comical or sensationalist for the sake of it.

This review is only about this one production and not the company as a whole. WNO are serious contenders in the world of opera but in this case they underserved Mussorgsky’s opera and, in hindsight, hid it between Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Leos Janacek’s From The House Of The Dead. They sold this seasons operas’ brochures all together in a single volume at the cost of £6 on the assumption if you are seeing one then you’ll obviously be seeing the others too all as part of the R17 event. I’m sure those are both far superior but sadly my experience with Khovanshchina has made me lose faith in them this season. For all I know it was one bad night but it just so happened to be the one bad night I went to see their production of the opera.

During the season Khovanshchina and Eugene Onegin are performed in Russian but The House of the Dead, for timing, is performed in English. Part of me wishes they did Khovanshchina in English too if only to have a bit more control over some of the finer details. The opera has some good arias, the chorus work at every point is astounding but there are certainly some parts which I think will test even moderately patient audiences. It’s definitely not a piece to introduce someone to the world of opera with.

The brochure is nice though and very informative about the different operas so that at least is a nice note I can end on. Buy that as an introduction to the different operas, discussion of their background and have some high quality matt prints of Russian paintings.

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The Just by Jorge Luis Borges

A man who cultivates a garden, the way Voltaire wanted.

One who is grateful there is music in the world.

Who delights in knowing where words come from.

Two workmen who, in a cafe in the South, play chess silently.

The potter who deliberates over form and colour.

The typesetter who lays out this page well but still is not pleased

A woman and a man reading the last tercets of a certain canto.

One who strokes a sleeping animal.

Who justifies, or wishes to, a wrong done to him.

Who is grateful for Stevenson,

Who prefers others to be right.

These are people who, ignored, are saving the world.

 

by Jorge Luis Borges, 1899-1986, Argentina

translated by Kurt Heinzelman

Eurovision 2017

Grand Final: Saturday, 13 May, 2017

Location: International Exhibition Centre, Kyiv, Ukraine

Host broadcaster: NTU

Presented by Oleksandr Skichko, Volodymyr Ostapchuk & Timur Miroshnychenko

EBU Supervisor: Jon Ola Sand

The theme this year was ‘Celebrate Diversity’.

How best to represent that? Three conventionally attractive white, male model looking, presenters groomed to within an inch of their lives. The real theme seemed to be to cause as much epilepsy across Europe as possible considering how many rapidly flashing lights were used constantly throughout the night this year. I myself ended up with a headache. Also they seemed really petty about people saying ‘Kee-ehV’, like the food, instead of the correct pronunciation ‘Keh-eff’ to the point they used the alternate transliteration to enforce it. I doubt it made any difference in the end.

Also, since it was such a big story, it has to be mentioned that the Russian entry, Julia Samoylova performing Flame is Burning, was refused entry into the country. The Eurovision organisers, in fairness, tried to ensure Russia could compete by suggesting another entrant be submitted at short notice. Russia refused on principle. So the offer that Julia could perform via satellite was made but this too was refused. It’s either their entrant can perform on the same stage as everyone else or nothing at all. In the end it was nothing at all.

‘Eurovision isn’t about politics’ I often hear said. It’s hard to make that claim when there is still block voting for neighbouring countries by their judging panels and things like this occur.

Hearing the song again after the final event it’s better than some that did get to compete but wouldn’t have won. At least it would have stood out. I just find it hilarious that in a competition with the theme of celebrating diversity the judges are all industry manufactured male models and a wheelchair bound competitor is refused access. It can be argued Russia was trying to embarrass Ukraine since her application was a last minute thing but still. Dark comedy gold…

The presenters came across as very obnoxious on the whole. In fairness Timur, the bearded one, was likeable but I guess his English wasn’t deemed good enough though he doesn’t sound artificial and insincere like the other two. He got relegated to doing the waiting room bits. Maybe the Eurovision staff don’t like facial hair who knows? They liked Conchita Wurst.

Oleksandr and Volodymyr reminded me of the sort of presenters, at least here in the UK, who were male models first and then selected for training in media presenting as they ‘look the part’ thus don’t naturally develop a unique style which causes an artifice and arrogance, intentional or not, to be present in their mannerisms so they never seem sincere.

At one point when Katrina, of Britain’s winning entry in 1997, was giving the the British points one of the them commented that the year she won was the year the other judge had been born. That’s a great display of manners, let alone presenting skills, to remind people of their age and that they won, quite literally, ‘a lifetime ago’ as far as you’re concerned… It also didn’t help they flirted outrageously with other point announcers as if they were in a bar and felt like hooking up with anyone who appealed to them.

One of them did the prisyadka (knee bending) a.k.a. ‘the Cossack squat dance’ part of the Kazatsky (Ukrainian hopak stage dance) because they need to send the message ‘hey guys we’re just some fun loving dudes who happen to be presenting an international song contest but we know how to chill out like everybody else’… but the whole thing is so forced and intended for him to show off it comes off as self promotion when he does it with ease while others,who’ve never learned the correct technique can’t… plus he has plenty of space to kick forward while they’re packed in behind him. Yeah… I just found them needlessly irritating throughout the whole thing. Usually it’s joked that the presenters of the Eurovision each year are cheesy and artifical but these guys had it down to a fine art.

There also seemed an odd monochromatic colour scheme amongst the contestants this year. They were all wearing all white, all black or a combination of both. Some contestants, rebels that they are, wore grey! It was surprising to see any contestants wearing muted, let alone bright, colours. If you watch this event in black and white you wouldn’t be missing much.

So let’s carry on to the, hopefully, humorous comments about each entry this year.

1 Israel : IMRI : I Feel Alive

An off key boy band. What a way to start the events! However the pyrotechnics were good. Not much to add otherwise… an incredibly weak song to start the evening with. A real ‘we want to be part of the competition but definitely not win’ effort. Awkward. Even off key singers should get to perform #CelebrateDiveristy…

#CelebrateDiversity by singing off key!

2 Poland : Kasia Moś : Flashlight

As seems Poland’s ‘go to’ option every few year you get maximum cleavage exposure to gain the ‘dad vote’ e.g. 2015’s Donatan & Cleo performing My Słowianie. The dress seemed to be Leelo’s bandages outfit from The Fifth Element but with a semi-opaque skirt attached. The song itself reminded me of someone trying to emulate a James Bond film’s theme song. I am guessing there’ll be high points awarded from Britain due to the number of Polish nationals who have moved here for work in the past decade. (I was right – We gave this entry 10 points).

On a side note last year their entry, Monika Kuszyńska – In The Name Of Love, was in a wheelchair and that was a gambit Russia was going to play had their entrant been allowed into the country this year you might speculate.

#CelebrateDiversity … by being a statuesque blonde in skimpy clothing.

3 Belarus : Naviband : Story of My Life

A cute couple to garner lovesick fools’ votes. It reminded me of La Seine from the animated film Un monstre à Paris (A Monster In Paris) because of how it was staged. It was very enjoyable and uplifting. Very ‘Eurovision’ but in a good way. I wouldn’t mind hearing more from them so this is a good platform to introduce themselves to an international market who might not know them already. They should have been the first song to perform this evening just to enthuse the audience watching.

#CelebrateDiversity through Heteronormative relationships.

4 Austria : Nathan Trent : Running On Air

A sappy love song. The sort of thing people will buy once it’s been played to death on the radio at least once an hour, every hour of every waking day over a month, to the point they’ve been all but brainwashed into buying it. Then years later will wonder what the hell they were thinking at the time. At easy listening song. Inoffensive. A feel good pop song you will forget seconds after the video ends. I have and I’ve heard it a few times now while editing this post.

#CelebrateDiversity by being incredibly generic and forgettable.

5 Armenia : Artsvik : Fly With Me

Lady Gaga, during one of her more sombre moments, copies Madonna’s style in the late 1990s while doing an imitation of a Shakira song. The dancers are very impressive in a ‘this is a parody of interpretive dance’ way… they wouldn’t look out of place in a 1980s music video to be honest. Nonetheless they will definitely be getting a lot of work offers after this. A good song paying respect to Armenian music in an updated style. Very good but the dancers are very distracting.

#CelebrateDiversity by creating a performance mixing your cultural heritage and modern techniques – and then undermine it by having two white dancers in alabaster make up to make them even paler… but they’re a blonde and a brunette which is diverse.. if you go by the dictionary definition.

6 The Netherlands : OG3NE : Lights and Shadows

A set of twins and their sister. The sister is, as Graham Norton put it, ‘the tall blonde one’. Their song reminds me of a country music song from America. The words flashing up… when it said ‘Not Give Up’ I just found it to be poorly implimented English. Their outfits are a 1980s sequins hell. Yes this is definitely a 1980s country music performance. Also I can’t look at their group name without it making me think it’s the name of a gynaecology organisation…

Do you see how they represent this year’s theme? That’s right – they are not all thin and they dress like very, very old women going on a night out in town. #CelebrateDiveristy!

7 Moldova : Sunstroke Project : Hey Mamma

They think they’re cooler than they are. People usually refer to something like this when joking about how dads embarrass their teenage children by trying to be cool but, in reality, being incredibly out of touch with current fashions. The fake saxophone playing is in that awkward position of ‘too real to be done as a joke’ but ‘not enough that it’s funny’. Also the fact that their dance moves equate to ‘shaking your leg after wetting yourself whilst drunk’ doesn’t help. The backing female singers costume change as soon as they walk towards the front of stage was pointless though singing into their bouquets (hiding their microphones) was novel. It all came across as an awkward ‘dad fantasising he’s still cool at a wedding reception’ moment. It’s enjoyable enough on it’s own but got drowned out during the competition.

#CelebrateDiversity by dad dancing and celebrating Heteronormative marriage (again).

8 Hungary : Joci Pápai : Origo

They are Romani so at least this entry does celebrate diversity unlike many of the other more standard Eurovision entries. He uses a mini milk churn as an instrument. The violinist wiggles her hips. The traditional swirling Romani, barefoot, dancer distracts you from thinking how potato shaped his head is and if he has a jawline beneath the beard. And is there some rapping too? Well, I liked it but we all know people traditionally dislike the Romani so…

Across the board this is the sort of entry Eurovision should have where it’s celebrating a country’s culture by mixing traditional and modern techniques to create unique music. Instead we usually get bland ballads, pop songs, techno dance or soft rock. So this is my moral victor of the evening. They’re my moral victors of the night. It’s one of the few that actually does #CelebrateDiversity by mixing traditional and modern musical techniques.

9 Italy : Francesco Gabbani : Occidentali’s Karma

Is he intentionally trying to come across as a stereotype of a sleazy guy? The moustache is one thing but then that raspy voice too is pure caricature… Then suddenly the gorilla appears. I’m sure there’s a good reason and it’s not just there as a hook to make people remember the song when the tele-voting section comes around. Apparently it’s a highly respected choreographer playing the gorilla role too. The backing singers look like they escaped from a ‘united colours of Benetton’ advert. #CelebrateDiversity (via mindfulness and consumerism). Meditation = celebrating another’s culture = celebrating diversity so that’s good but… it’s awkward when presented by ‘that creepy waiter you hope doesn’t serve your table again tonight’. The songs good but how they staged the performance is… odd.

#CelebrateDiversity by acting like a creepy waiter trying to have a one night stand with a tourist known to be into mindfulness and mediations… and dancing gorillas (furries).

10 Denmark : Anja : Where I Am

It’s actually an Australian performing. She moved there a suspiciously short time before the event. If you ever wanted the most generic Eurovision entry ever this is it. It’s intensely generic. It defies you to find anything unique about it. As if someone from the Disney channel was commissioned to create the most wide appeal, inoffensive, entry possible. It’s the sort of song you hear over the closing credits of one of their films. It’s good but highly forgettable.

#CelebrateDiversity by having a blonde white Australian sing for you representing a Scandinavian country…

11 Portugal : Salvador Sobral : Amar Pelos Dois

Graham Norton said it was a ‘marmite’ song which you’ll either love or hate. I found it to be the best song of the night. (It ended up winning in the end by quite some votes). It reminded me of a tear-jerking song from a Studio Ghibli film. How could this not be universally adored? The only downside is he hunches his shoulders, gesticulates a bit too much and apparently has really bad health due to his heart. His sister, who composed the song, had to perform it a few times during the preliminaries apparently… so he might be dead by next year. Be an inspirational figure overcoming your poor health to win the European Song Contest only to be dead by next year because of the strain it put on you. Dark comedy gold. I hope he will be okay though.

He actually made my night when he said it was a victory for real music over disposable music… saying that at the Eurovision song contest of all places. Balls… Of… Steel. You can’t help but admire him. And for the reprise at the end he did it as a duet with his sister so no questions a well deserved win. The sort of thing that would make the Grinch’s heart grow three times larger (ironically).

#CelebrateDiversity by having someone with chronic health issues, involving their heart, perform at a highly stressful, internationally live broadcasted, event…

12 Azerbaijan : Dihaj : Skeletons

A very 1980s formal wear inspired look. They brought their own chalk board wall covered in inoffensive graffiti including such words as BADBOY, SENSATION, READY, THORN, FANTASY, NOW I AM INTO DAYDREAMS, MY HEART, GRAVITY… It’s as if they’ve never gone into a real public toilet or the rough part of town in their life.

At the start she’s like a cat about to spit up a hairball. Wait – where are her hands? Is she… is she…. no she can’t be pretending to do that could she? There’s a guy on top of a ladder wearing a horse mask because… reasons. It’s all about sexual repression I guess. Then the walls come down and she takes her coat off. Yeah! She’s not going to be bound by societies norms! She’s going to stand up for her rights! If she wants to touch herself in a public toilet, while a guy wearing a horse mask stood on top of a ladder watches, she’s not going to let them stop her! #CelebrateDiversity!

It comes across like a performance art piece done by an amateur dramatics group. Skeletons – yeah, because… we all have one so we’re all the same under the skin… right? I actually quite liked it overall. It had it’s own distinct identity and should have done better. Also woof woof. Definitely blonde hair with black lipstick seems the theme this year for many female performers.

#CelebrateDiversity being kinky isn’t wrong… even when it involves a guy, in a horse mask, on top of a ladder watching you.

13 Croatia : Jacques Houdek : My Friend

He should have done this, as Graham Norton said afterwards though I was thinking the same thing, in a ‘half man/half woman’ costume split vertically. The long tails formal leather jacket is odd but not as much as him wearing bright white trainers with it. A classic ‘only in Eurovision’ entry. It’s novel… I enjoyed it… I just don’t feel it’s something I could enjoy outside of it being a one off novelty. He has those ‘over the thumb’ sleeves I see Bulgaria’s entry wearing later. So that’s this years fashion for the men then besides ‘the close shaved on the side of the hear with a big bouffant of hair on top hairstyle’ which is fashionable now anyway independent of the competition. Also as he’s very fat they’re really showing they #CelebrateDiversity.

#CelebrateDiversity by going so far as doing both parts of the song thus ensuring only a white man gets paid for singing… and being so barrel shaped to the point you wonder if he might die before the guy with the chronic health issues.

14 Australia : Isaiah : Don’t Come Easy

Looks like a pretentious prick. Just does. Get a haircut. He looks possibly ‘gender fluid’ (without being – similar to comedians who act like they’re gay but aren’t) thus can claim to #CelebrateDiversity. He also walks like he just lost control of his bowels. A very bland song and a punchable smug face (and sadly not the only one tonight either). Also put some socks on!

#CelebrateDiversity by looking like a woman in the autumn of life dressing casual smart for work or a special occasion.

15 Greece : Demy : This is Love

Half naked male ballet dancers in a shallow pool of water. Poland went for the dad vote, Greece is going for the mum vote so it’s very much #CelebrateEquality more than #CelebrateDiversity. Another ‘the dancers are far to distracting’ performance. They’re very good though they do at times pose like they’re dancing ducks. The songs enjoyable but I think it should have been staged differently as the dancers take away too much attention. Are they implying at the end the dancers are gay lovers? Well that definitely does #CelebrateDiversity.

#CelebrateDiversity by dancing like a duck.

16 Spain : Manel Navarro : Do It For Your Lover

Hawaiian shirts. A karaoke style song very reminiscent of 1950s surfer rock. The ‘do it for your lover’ chorus – Are you telling people to be more open about their affection or telling them to let their lover ‘experiment’ when they really don’t want to? It has that vibe due to the repetition. Just do it. Just do it. Just do it for your lover. If you really loved them you’d let them put _____ in your _____ while they _____ and _____ your _____! JUST DO IT! DO IT FOR YOUR LOVER! IF YOU REALLY LOVED THEM YOU WOULD DO IT! They need to hook up with the Azerbaijan guys – they’d teach them a thing or two about doing it for your lover…

#CelebrateDiversity by coming across like the sort of people teenagers are warned to avoid when given sex-ed in school.

17 Norway : JOWST : Grab The Moment

A wannabe Daft Punk look. Oddly the guy shows his face in the pre-performance VT so the mask during the performance is a little redundant. It’s easy listening reggae which suddenly kicks into talking about how he’ll ‘kill that voice in my head’. It’s different but the sort of thing Eurovision judges react poorly to – especially as it includes the word ‘kill’ in it. It’s got a good hook but the voice sampled modulation doesn’t really add much.

#CelebrateDiversity by coming across as if your mocking the mentally ill afflicted by ‘voices in their head’ they wish they could get rid of and hiring a guy who performs in an LED mask like many other DJs right now e.g. Deadmau5.

Half Time Break:

Look it’s Vitali Klitschko – the one Ukrainian sportsman everyone definitely knows even if they don’t follow sports. The VT skit is a self appraising piece of time filling to allow the behind the scenes team can catch up if somethings started going wrong.

The trio of male models learn from last year’s presenter who is also a male model in looks and now gets to live out his power fantasies via the VT. It’s a hard life being beautiful. All the jokes, and I mean all of them, fall flat. Any more mutual self appraising during this skit and it would be the preamble to the sort of scene on a DVD sold only in ‘private shops’ and be unsuitable for broadcast at this time of day.

#CelebrateDiversity through power fantasies.

On a side note I find there is this odd English diction I only ever hear used by Eurovision presenters… I mean I hear people speaking English as their second language, at all levels of ability, a lot and it’s only here they have this distinctly odd enunciation. Is it just me? Because the ‘accent’ is always the same no matter what country the contest is held in the presenters have that exact style of diction.

#CelebrateDiversity by having all presenters use the exact same diction no matter what country they’re from.

Anyway this little skit was appalling. They should have had them just strip and do body building poses while each stood on an individual small rotating platform for women (and some men) to ogle at for a minute or two while the rest of us went to get a drink. The sad thing is I think they would have happily done it. Timur would have just to not be left backstage while the others get all the glory.

Being this beautiful isn’t a crime and means anything you say, intending to be funny, should be deemed comedy gold and passed on through the generations because people ‘want’ you. Women (and gay men and anyone in between) want you, men (and f2m transexuals) want to be you.

#CelebrateDiversity

18 United Kingdom : Lucie Jones : Never Give Up On You

She is Welsh so I am biased. It’s better than many other performances if a little safe.

#CelebrateDiversity by playing it safe as you don’t want your country coming near the bottom of the ranking like previous years. (we were top of the bottom half – That’s an achievement!)

So instead of commenting on her I’ll mention I noticed a few of the female performers have had writing on their inner right arm so when they spread their arms I feel like they could have something really inappropriate written there in script and no one would notice until it was too late though it’s probably just lyrics from a song or poem they found to be inspirational. It seems some performers had to cover their tattoos while others can show them off.

#CelebrateDiversity by covering your tattoos because you’re not a salty sea dog laying drunk on the dockside.

19 Cyprus : Hovig : Gravity

A modern pop song performed by, presumably, middle aged men. A good effort but not enough to stand out. Embarrassing dance moves too at certain points – the sort of thing I saw in nightclubs years ago performed by drunk ‘lads’ out on the pull. Another dad dancing act.

#CelebrateDiversity by acting far younger than you are (or you look far older than you are) and doing ‘cool’ drunk dad dance moves

20 Romania : Ilinca ft. Alex Florea : Yodel It!

Ilinca woof woof. A dress that’s impossibly short and …she yodels. Instant marriage material no question! A woman with that specialised a talent is the sort who isn’t going to get embarrassed easily by anything so you can have fun and do what you like with someone casting a critical eye. Then there’s yodelling and rapping all in one act! The songs fun and what with the cannons and all might just be crazy enough to do well or even win (They didn’t but it was one of the highlights of the evening).

#CelebrateDiversity through yodelling and rapping in the same song. Then think about what you’re doing with your life and what led to this.

21 Germany : Levina : Perfect Life

She has a middle aged woman’s hair cut like the BBC sports correspondent Clare Balding. The front of the dress is incredibly conservative then you see its held on by arm straps leaving the back bare and she has bare feet. Grey, grey, grey – did she base her style on Angela Merkel? The song… I’m sat here listening to it and already forgetting it. Bland. It’s perfectly bland.

#CelebrateDiversity by dressing as if you’re 40 years older than you actually are.

22 Ukraine : O.Torvald : Time

A soft rock song. They’re wearing padded, pillow case shaped, tabards as if they’ve just come off their shift in the care home or prison canteen. It reminds me of the sort of bland inoffensive rock song you have over the credits of a live action Japanese film based on a manga. Then again I think Finland’s Lordi was more than the contest could take really regarding rock acts despite winning in 2006.

There needs to be a heavy metal version of Eurovision. Ghost BC representing Sweden, Lordi for Finland, a lad of Scandinavian death metal bands… it would be glorious.

I think that the host countries should just put in novelty acts or be allowed to only do the ‘while the tele-votes are being cast’ segments since they never put in potentially winning acts for fear they’ll have to host again next year and blew their budget doing it this year.

#CelebrateDiversity by dressing how you want to dress… even if it involves wearing padded grey tabards no one would look good in.

23 Belgium : Blanche : City Lights

A good song performed by a 17 year old in a ball gown suffering from stage fright. The intro reminds me of a song from a while ago. She has a very Adele like tone to her voice. It’s far too subdued and the gesticulating feels forced in order to have her move a little. She has potential for the future but it feels like people will vote for her because they liked the song when it was played on the radio or out of pity for how clearly she is out of her depth here performing live to an international, if not global, audience.

#CelebrateDiversity by watching a talented teenage performer with possible stage fright taking her first steps into performing for a stadium level audience.

24 Sweden : Robin Bengtsson : I Can’t Go On

The guy has a dead eyed look to him and acts up for the camera at the start walking onto the stage rather than start on the stage like everyone else. He reminds me of Robin Thicke… he just has that aura about him. Like he touched up someone back stage just before the performance with that same blank expression while admiring himself in a mirror judging his own mid-coitus performance. The song has a 1980s beat… there are lots of retro music aspects to this year’s contestants. It just comes across as insincere. Also he has trousers which are an inch or two too short which is fashionable. The use of treadmills for the dancing is a good idea though OK GO did it 8 years ago in their music video for Here It Goes Again.

#CelebrateDiversity by having a ‘male model level’ handsome group of backing dancers and having a ‘there’s something wrong about this guy but I can’t put my finger on it’ aura.

25 Bulgaria : Kristian Kostov : Beautiful Mess

Another 17 year old. He has a punchable face as he seems arrogant. It doesn’t help he has low clung trousers, the ‘thumb through the sleeve’ under shirt and the jacket design looks like he put it on back to front as if he can’t dress himself. Looks like he loves himself. Good song and performance – and he knows it. Good potential for the future as long as his ego doesn’t get too big.

#CelebrateDiversity by accepting that they’ve given a platform to an annoyingly smug yet talented teenager with a fashion style that will be outdated by next year so you know he’ll just look all the more ridiculous by then if the trappings of fame don’t get him first.

26 France : Alma : Requiem

Woof! France never fails. Another impossibly short dress. It probably would have done better if it wasn’t the final song when everyone’s got listening fatigue. A very enjoyable song with impressive graphics to compliment it. It’s the sort of song that would do better outside the contest probably.

#CelebrateDiversity by wearing a dress that defies logic it’s so short.

Thus we got to the ‘while you go and vote’ part where they put on some performers from the host nation.

First we have Ruslana performing It’s Magical.

A chain mail dress. That has to hurt when it gets caught on her skin. It’s one of those rare occassions where the backing dancers are wearing far more than the star. I mean they look like they escaped from the set of a film adaption based on a ‘young adult’ urban fantasy novel but still…

It’s a good song though. I wonder if competition entrants have a budget limit for their staging as you would imagine they would all be to this scale if they could in order to win votes via sheer spectacle.

#CelebrateDiversity by looking like an amateur dramatic society musical adaption of a young adult novel.

Then we got ONUKA and NAONI Orchestra doing a ‘megamix’ of songs.

Electro folk music… oh dear they’ve discovered my musical niche. It’s awesome. I can’t view it objectively… I mean the ‘low budget Star Wars storm-trooper’ costumes look terrible but that’s besides the point. If you were not focusing you would swear the dancers from the Armenian entry had escaped and decided to do their own thing.

#CelebrateDiversity through Ukranian folk music instruments and electronica. Awesome.

The Votes – Judge Panels and Popular vote

Then we got all the votes. The French announcer at about 11:30 is only wearing half a jacket. To be honest they all look a little odd in different ways whether it be way too poised, too delayed in reacting, under dressed, over dressed or any number of things. The hosts insulted the UK announcer at about 32:35 saying ‘1997, the year you were born’ and though the other guy tries to recover from it playing it off saying ‘I didn’t visit that Eurovision song contest’ the insult was already delivered. Flirt with the attractive younger announcers and insult the older ones. Nice.

Then they introduced the Georgian winner of the Junior Eurovision song contest who was very preconscious, in fact annoyingly so, implying she has a ‘tiger mom’ or is from a very privileged background. The sort of child you see in American productions (especially Disney Channel’s live shows) and years later have suffered from the pitfalls of the industry (drugs, alcohol, etc). She spoke clearer English that the presenters which was hilarious however.

Followed by last years winner Jamala:

Personally her song last year was overtly political and should have been changed… but you know… There is no official video of her performance it seems as someone walked casually up onto the small stage and bared their bottom to the camera. I was looking away when it happened and thought it was just someone in the crowd… but apparently it was front and centre! It’s good she remained professional however she does look like a mum of three whose been at the wine all day and suddenly fanced a song and dance when a song comes on the radio.

Then the tele-vote tallies were shown:

Suffice to say there were a few massive upsets because of it. We, here in the UK, were one place off being in the top half. I don’t care but it seemed like a do or die situation in the coverage at the time.

Also during the event Verka Serduchka (from Eurovision 2007) appeared a few times including a ‘Verka workout’ between the judge votes and the tele-votes announcements.

We have had Lily Savage and Dame Edna Everage so I’m not bothered by drag queen acts and the humour in these skits was good physical comedy. #CelebrateDiversity with drag acts.

But in the end of course Salvador and Luísa Sobral from Portugal won.

1:50 – 2:12 “We live in a world of disposable music, fast food music without any content…. this could be a victory for music… with people who make music that actual means something…”

Balls.

Of.

Steel.

To say that at the Eurovision of all places. The man is already a legend. Then he goes and duets with his sister later. I thought it was really nice he wanted his sister to perform it with him since she had written it and performed it when he hadn’t been available due to his poor health.

The presenters ushered him off embarrassed and then at 3:10 – 3:22 they boasted of how they love Ukraine, their motherland, then tell us how tolerant, modern and open a country they are.

Attach ‘… unlike Russia’ to each of those statements.

That was the intended subtext and you know it was despite them not mentioning Russia at all during the evening.

It was enjoyable. Not many standout performances nor many ‘zany’ novelty ones either in a similar vein to Verka as there was some crack down a few years ago on not allowing them or something which is a shame. It’s become a more po-faced annual affair because they’ve suddenly decided to take themselves far too seriously.

#CelebrateDiversity and make it an enjoyable event like it used to be rather than have a crackdown on what can or can’t be allowed, denying politics plays it’s role and just go with the flow allowing it to be the good humoured event it used to be without trying to sanitise everything to the point it’s bland. To be honest here in the UK we didn’t used to see any of it until the grand final so it was all the more special but in this day and age they show it and it makes it slightly less unique each year. Nonetheless it’s a good platform to introduce people to world music which they might not be made aware of otherwise so ultimately it’s a good thing.

A Tree Toad Loved A She-Toad by Anon

A tree toad loved a she-toad

That lived up in a tree.

She was a three-toed tree toad

But a two-toed toad was he.

The two-toed toad tried to win

The she-toad’s friendly nod,

For the two-toed toad loved the ground

On which the three-toed toad trod.

But no matter how the two-toed tree toad tried,

He could not please her whim.

In her tree toad bower

With her three-toed power,

The she toad vetoed him.

 

– by Anon.

Fishy Poems by Max Flatchen

I wonder at the jellyfish

That like to drift and drowse

And seem to wear without a care

A kind of see-through blouse.

A fish had remarked to a chip,

‘unless we give them the slip,

When the fat starts to fry

I’m afraid it’s goodbye

And it won’t be a very nice trip.’

A hungry shark some bathers eyed,

His wife said in the spray,

‘How would you like your food, my dear,

Eat here or takeaway?’

by Max Fatchen

When You Stand On The Tip Of Your Nose by N M Bodecker

When you stand on the tip of your nose,

keeping perfectly still,

while the birds build their nests twixt your toes,

as they certainly will,

speak kind and encouraging words,

don’t wiggle however it goes,

as you might inconvenience the birds

or scamble their eggs with your toes.

 

by N. M. Bodecker

Москва слезам не верит / Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears (1980)

Москва слезам не верит a.k.a Moscow Doesn’t Believe In Tears
Russian Cinema Council Collection

Quoting the DVD case blurb [sic]: “An Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film. This is a melodrama about life stories of three girls. Three friends Antonina, Liudmila and Yekaterina, come to Moscow in search of their dreams. Sharing a hostel room, the work and have fun together. Antonina soon marries a good man and settles down to raise a family. For Liudmila, Moscow is a sort of lottery, in which you have to pick a lucky ticket. She attempts to conquer this big city, but ends up a loser. The life of the third girl, Yekatrerina, is a contemporary Cinderella story. She had her share of disappointments, but did not despair. In twenty years she built up a career and became director of a big enterprise. A single parent of a daughter, she finally meets the right man and, after long and bitter years of loneliness, finds true happiness…”

So, in case you missed the awkward grammar, I am watching the official international release of the film from Russia and has subtitled done by a native Russian but English as second language speaker. There are one or two times during my copy where the subtitles are awkward. For example there’s one moment where a character remarks ‘We are like personages in a drama’ where the word ‘character’ would be more correct.I will use the translation provided by the DVD so some names like Lyudmila will be appear as Liudmila instead. Also although I refer to Katerina as Yekatrina this is apparently only present on the DVD case. All the signs suggest there seems to have been no proof reading or quality control during the DVD’s production sadly and I am sure it was rectified for later editions.

The film is set in two time periods: 1958, in the middle of the Khrushchev thaw,and 1979, in the middle of the era of stagnation. My DVD copy had two separate disks separating these time periods into two parts. I don’t know why but assume it is because it is a 1999 edition and dual layered discs were not yet commonly used at that point. It is a good breaking point but I don’t think the film had an intermission between these two parts originally.

The three main women represent the 3 stereotypes of women in Soviet Russia.

Antonina is the traditional girl – she marries early on into a secure home life to a husband who is deemed ‘nice by boring’ and has 3 sons.

Liudmila the ‘tart with a heart’ – she dates multiple men gambling on there being better prospects as long as you are willing to take a risk. Liudmila initially seems to have ‘won’ by marrying a sportsman but it is short lived as he is soon retired and borrowing money from her 7 years after their divorce – presumably with no children produced and her working in a dry cleaners looking for the next ‘win’.

Yekaterina is what society would like to believe in – A self sufficient, hard working and educated person who is a productive, successful, citizen overcoming her circumstances. A single mother who overcame difficulties through focusing on her studies in youth, worked hard for a very senior position in her company and was rewarded by the universe with a man who fulfils her. Arguably she is the most recognisable to western audiences as she represents the viewer’s wish fulfilment, common in films worldwide, though it should be noted the film, as part of this wish fulfilment, glosses over the day to day hardships she faced in those intervening 20 years during the time skip which were necessary for her to arrive at the position she is in during the second part.

Perhaps it is interesting to compare them with the men they end up with.

Antonina marries Nikolai early on and settles into a successful, if dull, marriage producing three sons. As Tolstoy said ‘All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’. They play little influence in events save to be a safe haven for Lyudmila, who has no one else reliable in her life, and Katerina who has been so career focused she has forsaken all else it seems initially.

Liudmila, ever the hegemonist flirt, marries Sergei Gurin who is a rising sports star believing, at the end of the first part, herself to have hit the jackpot she so often speaks of. However in the second half we find her living alone and he comes begging her to loan him more money – even going as far as becoming physical with her out of desperation. When he is at bars he is recognised and never has to buy his own drink but is left unfulfilled with the hope of becoming a coach now his own career is over. Liudmila continues to flirt with any prospective men – even becoming jealous of a general’s wife who she believes has ‘won the lottery’. She otherwise seems to live vicariously through Antonina, who has succeeded in building a family, and Katerina who has a successful career. This leaves her in the role of acting as a sort of eccentric ‘larger than life’ aunt to the children or at worst a warning to Alexandra of what she will become if she doesn’t begin to learn from her mother’s example of taking responsibility and working hard but continues to rely on others and luck.

Katerina has a relationship with Rodion, a TV camera man (often to be found reiterating his view that TV will replace cinema, theatre, books and newspapers) who after a brief tryst abandons her to raise their daughter by herself. He even has his mother go visit Katerina to tell her to stop harassing him to take responsibility (although it was Liudmila calling to help her friend who had resigned herself to fate). Years later he is sent to interview a senior executive and doesn’t recognise Katerina initially. He then meets with her wanting to see Alexandra but Katerina refuses telling him she has done well enough without him in her life. Towards the end he arrives, unannounced, to Katerina’s apartment and, in anger, she tells Alexandra he is her father. I actually found this story thread didn’t get resolved by the end so, with how Alexandra interacts with Gosha, it is no doubt implied she rejects Rodion. At the start of the second half she is also involved with a married man who is cowardly and so she abandons him soon after we rejoin her. The most important of her partners though is Gosha who she meets by chance on a train going home after visiting Antonina’s dacha. He is a staunchly traditional man but, unaware of Katerina’s successful career, begins a relationship with her often expounding how it is a man’s place to be head of the household. Needless to say he finds out he will not be the highest earner in the house and immediately takes flight, more so over having been lied to than a bruised ego (although it is easy to argue either way considering cultural differences). There is certainly a middle aged Cinderella aspect to her storyline during the second half of the film and how she serendipitously encounters him on the train home after the arranged meetings club fails to find her a match suiting her expectations.

In fact Alexandra could be said to serve as a sort of epilogue to the accumulated experiences of the central female characters. Initially when introduced she seems all but a copy of Liudmila by being self indulgent spending her time listening to music and being no where near as active as the older women were at her age. Instead she seems to be relying on others for her pleasures as did Liudmila by dating various young men and using the dorm’s telephone as her number. However we see her develop once Gosha is introduced. She recognises the earnest morality of Gosha who, unlike her mother, engages with her involving her in cooking and other household tasks. When she admits she doesn’t know how to cook, which is very likely with her career orientated mother, he offers to teach her. Thus she is willing to better herself – not relying on improving her prospects by marriage or fortunate but through doing things herself. When he, without a second thought, goes to aid her boyfriend who has been ganged up on by her former paramour she wants her mother to know but he insists there is no need as this is just what a man should do. She begins acknowledging the value in others – he proves he is who he has presented himself as even though some doubt might have been thrown by how many superlative plaudits his friends bestow on him at his birthday (which he invites the unaware Katerina and Alexandra to thinking it no big thing). He is good for her mother and she recognises this in him even if it means she will now be expected to contribute to the home. When Rodion is revealed as her father, having forced his way into her life and upset her mother, we don’t see her reaction in any significance but considering the final scene it may be implied that she sees Gosha as more of a father figure in that he, without want of compensation, does what he can to fulfil the role acting altruistically towards anyone who needs his help. She has learned the value of hard work but, as evidence by her having a boyfriend, society has moved on but some things remain the same through the generations. So the future seems bright – she is still learning but has a strong community of support around her.

Conclusion
It was very good but definitely is a film of its period. The subtitles, done by a Russian had one or two awkward translations – e.g. someone saying ‘we are like personages in a drama’ where we would say ‘characters in a drama’. The way it was filmed was very 70s and films made in Britain had a very similar look from that period. US President Ronald Reagan watched the film several times prior to his meetings with the President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, in order to gain a better understanding of the “Russian soul”. I doubt he did as its such a hard concept to depict but certainly he would have seen its heart and that the world over people have similar hopes and dreams despite differences in language and culture.

I guess I have become used to older films being ‘remastered’ as my copy seemed a bit low quality despite being an official DVD from the Russian Cinema Council… But then it was a 1999 edition so maybe someone has improved the quality, in later released editions, since then as HD quality wasn’t a concern at the time.

What really stands out with the edition I have is the extras. Many of the main actors, the director, the scriptwriter and the composer are interviewed. There is a documentary about Moscow and photo galleries. The film comes with the original Russian dub but also a French and an English one. The subtitles come in Russian, English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Hebrew, Swedish, Chinese, Arabic and Japanese. Ironically though the back of the DVD states [sic] ‘Not for sale on the territory of the former USSR’ so it obviously is meant for the international not domestic market!

Aleksey Batalov (Алексей Владимирович Баталов) pretty much stole the show in the second half as Gosha. To put it in context his role is a Soviet version of the ‘manic pixie [boyfriend]’ trope as he seems all too perfect in his portrayal although he does have traditional views about being the man of the house. Such views were falling out of favour in their depiction in the west during the time of the film’s release but it has always been an element of wish fulfilment in romantic films that the female protagonist finds a man who can provide for her both emotionally and financially – so traditional values have never really gone out of fashion. The other characters I can easily imagine being in western films with little if any alteration so look out for that Hollywood remake (if one hasn’t already been made)!

This is one of the keystones of Russian cinema and an essential viewing experience for anyone interested in Russia, Soviet cinema or indeed world cinema. (Albeit I will add that this was filmed during more lenient times so those looking for a Stalinist era depiction, as is the common shorthand imagery used in western cinematic depictions *cough*Child44*cough* need to look elsewhere). The story is easy to follow and compelling. There are one or two moments of very brief nudity but it is very naive and a few moments of physical violence but nothing that wouldn’t be shown before the watershed (i.e. it is safe for all to watch). I highly recommend it.

Cast

Vera Alentova – Katerina Tikhomirova
Irina Muravyova – Lyudmila
Aleksey Batalov – Gosha
Raisa Ryazanova – Antonina
Aleksandr Fatyushin – Sergei Gurin
Boris Smorchkov – Nikolai
Viktor Uralsky – Nikolai’s Father
Valentina Ushakova – Nikolai’s Mother
Yuri Vasilyev – Rodion Rachkov
Yevgeniya Khanayeva – Rachkov’s Mother
Liya Akhedzhakova – Olga Pavlovna, Club’s Director
Zoya Fyodorova – Hostel’s Security
Natalya Vavilova – Alexandra
Oleg Tabakov – Vladimir, Katerina’s lover
Vladimir Basov – Anton Kruglov
Cameo appearances:
Andrei Voznesensky
Innokenty Smoktunovsky
Georgi Yumatov
Leonid Kharitonov
Tatyana Konyukhova
Pavel Rudakov and Veniamin Nechaev
Just as in Hollywood you might have someone like Bill Murray play a bit part in one scene as a cameo so you have the same here. I cannot say with authority in which scenes they appear but its safe to say many do so in the sequence where Katerina visits the ‘friendship agency’ in the second half where there is some humour about much older men wanting to be placed in the groups with women far too young for them.

Songs from the film

Bésame mucho


By Sergey Nikitin and Tatyana Nikitina:
Александра (Alexandra)

Диалог у новогодней елки (A dialogue by the New Year’s tree)

By Klavdiya Shulzhenko:
Давай закурим (Davai zakurim / “Lets take a smoke”)


Usually when I review films I go into some depth but I am trying to self edit a bit more nowadays. Hopefully this post is compelling enough though I feel I have left so much out.

I found Star Media on YouTube and it has many interesting Russia films and series on there so I may be watching quite a few of them. Any recommendations of good older films, which they will be more likely to have, are more than welcome 🙂