By Joseph Fahim
It’s not every day that you watch a Royal Opera House production in the Arab world, let alone a gala production that has only been staged twice before, the second time at Buckingham Palace for the Royal Family.
To call the showing of the Royal Opera’s 2009 production “Beloved Friend” — performed at the Abu Dhabi Festival last week — a great event is not an overstatement. What was even more remarkable is the waythe play was presented. The large Emirates Palace Theater was turned upside down. The lucky few who made it to the show — including the who’s who in the Emirati government — were invited on stage. Seats were placed at the periphery; the performers occupied the center of the stage, carefully positioned to include the small orchestra, the three leading actors, the opera singers and later, the ballet dancers. The biggest theater event the UAE has ever hosted was also the most intimate, the most subtle and the most moving.
Written by Sir Ronald Harwood — the Oscar-winning scriptwriter whose credits include “The Pianist” and “Oliver Twist” with Roman Polanski, “Being Julia” with István Szabó and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” with Julian Schnabel — “Beloved Friend” chronicles the friendship/romance between great 19th century Russian composer Tchaikovsky and his muse/patroness Nadezhda von Meck.
The performance is entirely based on the letters exchanged between Tchaikovsky, played by Simon Russell-Beale (“Hamlet,” “The Deep Blue Sea”) and von Meck, played by Dame Harriet Walter (“Babel,” “Atonement”), for more than 13 years. Several adaptations of the story were made for stage and film, most famously Ken Russell’s extravagant, histrionic movie “The Music Lovers” in 1970.
The tender, unusual romance is anchored by Alex Jennings’ narration, which puts those letters in a tangible, linear context, and punctuated by Tchaikovsky’s compositions — “Souvenir d’un lieu cher,” “Six Romances,” “November from the Seasons,” “Symphony no. 4” — performed by some of the world’s most celebrated musicians: Christopher Vanderspar on cello, Konstantin Boyarsky on viola, Vasko Vassilev and Sophia Durrant on Violin and Peter Jablonski and painist Renato Balsadonna.
Opera interludes by baritone Vasily Ladyuk and soprano Hibla Gerzmava underlined the suppressed, unspoken emotions of the characters, especially so with the last aria of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin at the end of the story. A short dance number from “Swan Lake” reenacted by Roberta Marquez and Valeri Hristov cast a dreamy spell on the narrative.
On the eve of the performance last week, I spoke to Sir Harwood about the production, the Abu Dhabi culture scene and the state of British culture.
Daily News Egypt: This chapter in Tchaikovsky’s life was recounted in various versions before. What drew you to this story?
Sir Ronald Harwood: I was asked to do it by the Royal Opera House to raise money for their educational trust for children.
Is this your first opera production?
I wouldn’t call it an opera. It’s an entertainment. An opera implies that people sing in arias with an orchestra; it’s non-stop singing. This is not. This is speaking, with musical illustrations. I didn’t know the story. I knew he was homosexual…
I don’t think so. I think he married out of convenience, because during the time he lived in, it would’ve been impossible to be anything but heterosexual, or to look heterosexual. And he used to go out of Russia to indulge his fantacies. In Venice mostly, which was a great center for those kinds of activities. So, I knew very little about him. I loved his music. I think he wrote some of the most beautiful melodies; melodic and simply charming. That’s what drew me to it, and I was astonished to find the story.
Have you seen the Ken Russell version of the story?
I couldn’t bear it. It’s about him, not about Tchaikovsky. I don’t like films like that. I don’t like films where the director is saying, ‘look at what a great director I am.’ I find that appalling. I worked with some pretty good directors in my life, and the best directors just tell the story, and don’t try to inject themselves into it.
How do you find writing for theater different from film?
Well the main difference is that theater is about listening to the words, to the ideas. A film is about watching, is about looking at this huge, huge screen and letting the images bombard you. It’s quite different. So, as a playwright, which is how I started [my career], I prefer the theater of course, because I can express the ideas and the arguments I want to explore through words, which’s what I am primarily interested in. When it comes to the movies, you have to do it through images.
I assumed that it’s equally intriguing, writing through images.
It’s equally demanding, but directors are going to have the final word about the images. I mean I can write an image, saying ‘he walks across the lobby,’ and the director will say, you don’t need that. He just goes up the stairs. The director’s in charge of that. But what I can do in movies, which is what I do in movies, is tell the story, in the right order. That’s the trick.
Who was the best director you’ve ever worked with?
Oh, without doubt Roman Polanski. I’ve done two pictures with him, and he’s a remarkable director because he’s interested in one thing: telling the story. That’s all he’s interested in. If anybody said, ‘what a wonderful shot, Roman,’ ‘What a wonderful camera angle,’ he changes it immediately, because it’s not what [directing] is about. That’s showing off.
What do you think is the importance of having a performance like “Beloved Friend” in a place like Abu Dhabi that’s just starting?
Well, my impression is, if it encourages people, in any way, either to watch, listen, write, perform, then it’s doing a good job, because in the end, the arts have to do with inspiration. Of course arts have a lot to answer to, but never mind. The fact is doing something like this with such very good people in Abu Dhabi might be an encouragement to an artistic life in this city. That’s the best one can hope for.
The talk in the British culture scene the past couple of years was all about austerity measures and budget cuts brought about by the Cameron government. The dismantling of the UKFC has caused outrage both in England and abroad. Have you been personally affected by these changes?
Institutions get affected, but not individuals (not in the direct sense). I’m old now. I don’t quite get affected by those things. I go making my films, I go writing my plays.
What’s your take on these cuts?
I’m actually quite a maverick about this. I think it’s good.
Oh yes. I think people should work harder for their money, because you get into a state where you say, ‘well, I get state money and I’ll do what I like.’
I can get big sets; I can have the best actors. It doesn’t work like that. You have to work for it. Cut the sets down; don’t spend so much on the scenery. Don’t spend so much on the actors, and you’ll get as good of a theater as you’ll ever get. Opera is a different matter, but opera didn’t have many cuts.
Art is not luxury, it’s a necessity in society, and therefore, people will find a way for making it necessary.
Numerous critics saw in 2011 an affirmation of the rude health of the British film industry.
It’s as healthy as it’s ever been. Critics always say that the industry is witnessing some kind of a renaissance, but they say that every year. It’s been said every year since 1960. It’s always there. People want to make movies, they find the money, they make the movies. Some are good, some are not so good.
It’s the world we live in. What were the great movies from last year?
Plenty. “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” “Archipelago,” “Shame,” “Wuthering Heights”…
C’mon…we’ve made better movies than these. (He smiles).