The Mere Wife: Maria Dahvana Headley

★★★★

Dana Wills is dead. That’s what everyone thinks, and she’s happy to keep it that way. She was beheaded live on TV, after all, a soldier taken hostage in a desert war she never really cared about. She came back to herself dazed, stranded in the middle of the sands, six months pregnant, with no memory of what went before. Now she’s home, with her son. And, with her soldier’s ruthlessness, Dana will do anything to protect her Gren. She heads to a mountain above the place where she grew up, her home now flattened beneath the shining enclave of Herot Hall. Here wealthy women jostle for status within their shining, perfect homes. Life is a round of cocktail parties, gossip and side-eye judging, and Willa Herot is beginning to chafe at the edges of her picture-perfect existence. Wife to Robert Herot, and mother to seven-year-old Dylan, she should be at the top of the tree. But, when Dylan starts chattering about an imaginary friend called Gren, Willa begins to panic. A masterful, forceful modern retelling of Beowulf, this is a tale of dangerous women, and the two boys caught between them.

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Vox: Christina Dalcher

★★★★

Jean McClellan’s life has become one of few words. It wasn’t always this way. She was once a brilliant neurolinguist, running a groundbreaking team of researchers. But now, every time she speaks, the metal counter on her wrist ticks down from the daily allowance of 100 to the grim nullity of 0. To speak after the counter reaches 0 is to risk a series of rapidly intensifying electric shocks. All women in the US have been issued with these counters, from infants to the elderly, round about the same time that they were removed wholesale from the workforce and sent back to their ‘proper’ place in the home. Now Jean lives in a daze of depression, watching her four children adjust to a world in which women are penalised, and longing for her lacklustre husband Patrick to make a stand against these wretched innovations. But, with the weak President following the lead of the charismatic, dangerous conservative Reverend Carl Corbin, and the unreformed masses baying for the blood of those who step out of line, what’s the chance of change? Sobering and scary, this is The Handmaid’s Tale for our time, which should be read both by women and men: an all-too-plausible next step to damnation.

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Venceslao: George Frideric Handel and Friends (1731)

Renaissance Polish Costume

★★★½

(26 April 2019, Opera Settecento, St George’s Hanover Square; London Handel Festival)

It’s rare for a Baroque opera to look beyond the ancient world for its subject and rarer still for a librettist to look at Central and Eastern Europe; but Opera Settecento are brilliant at unearthing unusual pieces for us. This opera is (apparently) inspired by the life of Wenceslas II of Bohemia and Poland, though when I say ‘inspired’, I mean of course that opera and history bear no relation to one another. We can’t even blame Metastasio for this, because the libretto was written by Apostolo Zeno (I like to think that Metastasio would at least have tried to get some historical accuracy). Zeno’s tale is an identikit Baroque story of love, lust and power and, if I’m going to be perfectly honest, it never quite hangs together. Part of that is due to the plot, on which more shortly; but it’s exacerbated by the fact this is a pasticcio. Handel probably didn’t write anything except the recitatives: the rest was cobbled together from other composers – arias from other versions of Venceslao or from completely different operas – as a quick fix to keep audiences happy while he worked on his next original piece. On the bright side, there’s an awful lot of Leonardo Vinci here, which makes me very happy.

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Athalia: George Frideric Handel (1733)

Aparicio: Athaliah and Joash

★★★★

(29 April 2019, London Handel Singers and Orchestra at St John’s Smith Square)

The final event of my Handel Festival this year was Athalia, a Handel oratorio written in 1733 and first performed during his brief summer sojourn in Oxford. It’s a strange beast, with ingredients that would make for a splendid opera seria in the hands of Metastasio. Just think: a murderous queen who has wiped out her own grandchildren in order to rule Jerusalem; an heir to the throne raised in secret; the clash between the old Jewish religion and the newly-revived worship of Baal! Surely that’s crying out for at least a couple of overly showy arias?! However, such foreign indulgences were trimmed from Handel’s oratorios, reflecting the changing tastes of British audiences, and the exuberance of Italian libretti is replaced by a self-consciously worthy text adapted by Samuel Humphreys from Racine. It’s peppered by the kind of awkward 18th-century rhymes you can see approaching with grim determination from a mile away. Fortunately, Handel livens things up with fine music and reliably rousing choruses; and I confess that, by the end, my instinctive suspicions of the oratorio genre had softened. Somewhat.

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The Rival Queens

Rival Queens

★★★★

(24 April 2019, St John’s Smith Square; part of the London Handel Festival)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that two women who work together can’t possibly be friends. In fact, they’re bound to be bitter rivals. Probably over a man. This is the story of two such women: Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, brilliant sopranos who starred in Handel’s operas during the years 1723-1728. They became notorious for the supposed feud between them, although recent research suggests that the fault lay with their passionate partisans, who thought nothing of hissing and catcalling when the ‘other’ was singing. Over the years, attention has been diverted from these two ladies as singers (rather than as rivals), and this London Handel Festival concert, with the Early Opera Company directed by Christian Curnyn, redressed the balance. With readings from the 18th-century press performed by the excellent Lindsey Duncan, and arias written for Cuzzoni and Bordoni sung by Mary Bevan and Mhairi Lawson, we were invited to get up close and personal with these queens regnant of the Handelian stage.

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The Grand Sophy: Georgette Heyer

★★★★½

I’m currently ploughing through Deadhouse Gates, which really puts the ‘grim’ into ‘grimdark’, and needed something light and fluffy on the side. Enter Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy, a gorgeously warm-hearted story, with one of the most appealing Heyer heroines I’ve met so far. Having lost her mother as an infant, Sophia Stanton-Lacy has been brought up by her erratic diplomat father, Sir Horace. While most girls would be planning coming-out balls, Sophy has been playing hostess to officers and noblemen in Spain, Brussels and Paris. Capable, shrewd, game and compassionate, she makes friends easily and delights in helping those she loves – though her plots are rarely suitable for the faint-hearted. When Sir Horace is posted to Brazil, Sophy comes to stay with her aunt Lady Ombersley’s family in London. Expecting a poor little orphan, they are little prepared for the storm of personality that sweeps in among them. And this is only the beginning, for Sophy rapidly sees that her family have got themselves into a terrible tangle, which only she can solve…

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City of the Lotus (Two Weeks in Macau)

Kun Iam Statue, Macau

My job usually takes me to familiar European climes, but occasionally I get a taste of the exotic: Japan, China or, most recently, Macau. A former Portuguese colony, Macau was returned to China in 1999, although traces of its Portuguese heritage remain strong. All street signs and civic buildings bear Chinese and Portuguese names, while delicious egg-custard tarts are ubiquitous in the city’s many bakeries. Arriving by air from Taipei, I was surprised to see rocky, verdant hillsides rising from the sea, looking more like the Amalfi Coast than the smog-wreathed towers of Shanghai (my only available comparison for Chinese landings). Those bucolic hillsides were a little misleading, because what awaited me was a vibrant and frequently jaw-dropping city, where everyday life shoulders up against neon lights, all-night casinos and extravagant amounts of gilding. As the only place in China where gambling is legal, Macau has become a playground for this vast country’s rich and hopeful, with flashy hotels to match. I thought I’d give you a brisk whirl around the main things I managed to see during my busy fortnight; and fear not: there’s plenty of bling ahead. It’s a long one. Buckle up!

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Gardens of the Moon: Steven Erikson

★★★★

The Malazan Book of the Fallen: Book 1 (Malazan Chronology 11)

I’ve spent far too long on aeroplanes over the last month, so was looking for something big and meaty to occupy me during eighteen-hour schleps back and forth from London to Macau. Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon promised to be just the ticket. His Malazan books are based on an intricate high-fantasy universe co-created with Ian C. Esslemont, who also writes a series set in the same world, and they’re notorious for being tricky to get into. Rumour has it that you either give up at a third of the way through Gardens of the Moon, or fall for it completely, so I suppose I belong to the second camp. The problem cited most often is that the book throws you in at the deep end with no back-story, little exposition and a dizzying cast of characters; but I’ve made it through the Lymond Chronicles, so such things hold no fear for me. I’m still not entirely sure that I understand what’s been going on, but I feel weirdly exhilarated, as if I’ve dipped a toe into a world and mythology that expands far beyond anything I can yet imagine.

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Berenice: George Frideric Handel (1737)

Handel: Berenice

★★★★★

(London Handel Festival; Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House, 30 March 2019)

The newly-restored Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House is currently playing host to a very special production. It isn’t often that you get to see Baroque operas performed on the same site where they were premiered, but that’s the case here with Handel’s 1737 opera Berenice, a feast of love, jealousy and political ambition set in Roman-era Egypt. Sumptuously costumed in 18th-century gowns, wigs and frock coats, an excellent cast plunges into this tale with enormous gusto, under the expert baton of Laurence Cummings, directing the London Handel Orchestra. Vivid, exuberant and presented in a perfectly-pitched English translation, this is easily the most fun I’ve had in a theatre since last year’s Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne. Baroque heaven.

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The Left Hand of God: Paul Hoffman

★★★½

The Left Hand of God Trilogy: Book 1

Thomas Cale is sixteen years old and has spent virtually all his life as an acolyte of the Redeemers at the forbidding Sanctuary of Slotover. Brutalised, radicalised and raised to place the True Faith before everything else, Cale is just one of hundreds, thousands, of boys being trained as soldiers to fight the Antagonists on the Eastern Front. In the labyrinthine corridors of Slotover, it pays to blend in, to conform, never to do the unexpected – but Cale is an exception. Groomed by the Lord Militant Redeemer Bosco, Cale has been raised not only to be a fearsome killer but also an excellent strategist. Yet these strategies can be placed at his own service just as much as that of the True Faith and, when this protege mounts a daring escape from Slotover, Bosco is determined to get him back. Inadvertently, Cale is on the edge of plunging the world into war.

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