Apollo and Hyacinthus: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1767)

Mozart: Apollo et Hyacinthus

(Classical Opera at St John’s Smith Square, 12 June 2017)

When I was eleven, I was obsessed with ponies and still spent an unconscionable amount of time playing with dolls. When Mozart was eleven, he wrote his first opera. Such is life. In this concert, Classical Opera presented three pieces written by the precocious composer between 1766 and 1767, which predictably sounded as rich and sophisticated as many a work by any other mature composer. Staged simply and effectively, with some impressive performances from the crack team of singers, these pieces were the ‘Lambach’ Symphony in G major (K45a), the sombre Grabmusik (K42) and the little opera Apollo et Hyacinthus. As there were three different pieces, I’ve treated this as a recital, which is why I haven’t given it the usual star rating.

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Daughter of the Wolf: Victoria Whitworth

★★★½

This is the most recent novel by Victoria or V.M. Whitworth, also author of the Wulgar novels. I wasn’t entirely blown away by The Bone Thief, but I found much more to enjoy in this story set in what’s becoming a rather familiar world: Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. It is 859 AD, two centuries after the days of Edwin and Oswald, and while King Osberht maintains an uneasy peace from York, his noblemen quietly test their strength and the sea-wolves harry the eastern coast. In Donmouth, where a hall and minster both fall under the authority of the lord’s family, Radmer and his feckless younger brother Ingeld divide worldly and heavenly power between them. And Radmer’s daughter Elfrun, struggling to make the transition from girl-child to woman, is about to find herself elevated to a terrifying level of responsibility.

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The Alteration: Kingsley Amis

★★★★

I really didn’t get on with Lucky Jim, the only Amis novel I’d read so far, but just couldn’t resist this piece of counterfactual fiction. What if Henry VII’s eldest son Arthur hadn’t died and Henry VIII had never inherited, never married Katharine of Aragon and never needed to divorce her? What if England had remained Catholic? What if Martin Luther, rather than hammering theses on doors at Wittenberg, had been listened to, respected, and allowed to exercise his desire for reform as Pope? And what if gifted boy singers were still invited to consider a discreet ‘alteration’ that would help them preserve their voices for the glory of God? Set in a 1976 that might have been, The Alteration is a tantalising, clever vision of what the world might have become.

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Royal Flush: Margaret Irwin

★★★½

Back in the winter, I discovered the historical fiction shelf at the Book Barn near my parents’ home in Somerset, and came away with a huge pile of novels from the 1960s and 1970s. One was this book by Margaret Irwin, who specialised in stories about the Tudor and Stuart periods, and who here focuses on the life of Charles II’s little sister Minette. Although Minette features in a number of novels, this was the first time I’d read about her and I enjoyed the novel’s old-fashioned romantic charm. Dense and detailed, it offers a sweep of the most colourful vistas of the 17th century: the lively Restoration court of Charles II and, more importantly, the glittering court of the young Louis XIV.

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Bat Out Of Hell: The Musical

Bat Out Of Hell: The Musical

★★★

(London Coliseum, 16 June 2017)

Step aside Monteverdi; step aside Mozart; the London Coliseum has temporarily swapped classical music for rock opera and it sounds great. The massive auditorium, in which Baroque music sometimes seems lost, now reverberates with electric guitars and drums and, for the first time that I’ve seen, was packed to the rafters. Jim Steinman’s new musical is a loving tribute to Meat Loaf’s exuberant, much-loved, irresistibly singable album, which was (incredibly) released forty years ago this year. With all the favourite songs present and correct, and a very strong cast, there are moments of sheer exhilaration. The music has lost none of its power. Fans will love it, though one comes for the music, not for the musical, which shuffles a sequence of set pieces into a lacklustre narrative that frequently feels contrived. This messy but exuberant show is one for existing adherents of the Cult of the Bat: it’s unlikely to make many new converts.

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Rose Daughter: Robin McKinley

★★★

Following T. Kingfisher’s instructions in the author’s note of Bryony and Roses, I sought out Robin McKinley’s Rose Daughter, which had inspired Kingfisher to write her novella. It was odd reading it so soon afterwards and I should, in retrospect, have left it much longer before going back to the same theme. While Kingfisher’s story didn’t spoil any of McKinley’s plot for me, it actually overshadowed it, being a more sophisticated and subversive take on Beauty and the Beast. McKinley certainly makes the story her own, but I didn’t find her heroine anywhere near as appealing as Kingfisher’s Bryony.

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Zefiro Torna: Les Talens Lyriques

Botticelli: The Birth of Venus

(St John’s Smith Square, 7 June 2017)

As part of their celebrations for the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth, the French ensemble Les Talens Lyriques were on stage in London for one night only, for a selection of madrigals and operatic scenes written by the great composer. I’d never seen them perform live, although I have many of their recordings, and was eager to see them at last under the baton of Christophe Rousset. The recital was made even more irresistible by the singers: two tenors whom I like very much: the Swiss Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, whom I’ve seen in several other roles, and the Swedish haute contre Anders J. Dahlin, who sings Dario in my much-loved recording of Vivaldi’s Incoronazione di Dario. My expectations were high and yet, remarkably, they were exceeded by this elegant concert which blended heartfelt grace with dramatic verve.

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Tales Retold at Tor.com

Tor.com

In the background of the other books I’m reading, I continue to burrow my way through Tor’s archive of short fiction. In fact, I’ve stacked up so many of their short stories to write about that I’ve divided them into thematic groups. Here, to kick things off, are five stories dealing with tales you think you know, retold with flair and a twist. From fairy tale to Greek myth to Gothic horror, these novelettes reintroduce us to familiar heroes and villains as you’ve never quite seen them before.

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Half the World: Joe Abercrombie

★★★★

The Shattered Sea: Book II

Yarvi may have found his way home to Gettland, but his trials are far from over. With his uncle Uthil installed on the throne, and in Queen Laithlin’s bed, Yarvi has finally been able to join the Ministry as he always dreamed. And yet dreams have a horrible habit of turning out to be rather different from how one imagines. The Ministry may claim to be interested in peace, but the powerful Grandmother Wexen pulls strings across the nations of the Shattered Sea and beyond, while Yarvi must engage all his wits to prevent Gettland being sucked into a war against the High King.

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The Court of Broken Knives: Anna Smith Spark

★★★★

Empires of Dust: Book I

Well, by Jove, I wanted to find out what grimdark was and I think The Court of Broken Knives is more or less a one-novel definition of the term. Searingly brutal, full of political intrigue, without a single purely good character, but plenty of fascinating ones, this debut fantasy gripped me with the tenacity of a cutthroat in a dark alley. It isn’t without its issues, as you’d expect in a first novel, but it has a fearless, blood-drenched flair.

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