Sunday, 4 June 2017

Letting go at Pentecost

This morning, a double portion of the Pentecost mystery, with a celebration at St John's Canton, then another at St German's. The road across the city centre was still closed, with pedestrian check-points all around as UEFA cup security arrangements are still in place for 24 hours after the match is over, to allow visitors to celebrate and then leave for home in safety. Heaven knows what this has cost to arrange, and what it has cost to retailers in reduced income, with many regular shoppers and visitors reluctant to travel in from the valley and further afield for weekend retail therapy. Restaurants pubs, clubs and hotels will have profited no doubt, but I suspect many rate-paying citizens feel frustrated and alienated by such disruption to their habitual work and leisure.

Fortunately traffic on my route to Adamsdown around the back of Cardiff Central station and through Newtown was flowing freely, so I arrived at St German's in good time. The congregation here and in St John's was smaller than usual. Travel anxiety about traffic restrictions, and the last weekend of half term may well have encouraged some people to go away for the weekend. Strange to think this would be my last weekend as locum pastor at St German's, having been there for half of the Sundays over the past two years, in which a third of the rest were on duty in different Spanish chaplaincies. It's been wonderful to have the constancy of this connection with one 'home' parish and its marvellous people. When I return home in the autumn, unless there's a surprise appointment, I'll be helping out in Canton, filling the gao left by Fr Phelim's appointment to St German's and St Saviour's Parishes,

After the service, the congregation gave an impromptu send-off party in the church hall, a pre lunch apertif, and the gift of of a unique custom photo album of action photos taken during Parish services and events over the past two years. I found this very touching indeed, as it gives me something to show guests who ask me what being a locum pastor is all about. These are memories to treasure.

On my return journey from church I  forgot to re-trace my route in reverse, and out of habit made for the city centre route, only to discover Cowbridge Road East road bridge was still closed. I had to do a U-turn in front of the Castle to avoid diversion down Westgate street to Callaghan Square, as traffic including several buses was backed up into Castle Street. Instead I had to drive up North Road to Gabalfa and return along Western Avenue to Llandaff, and get to Pontcanna a very long way around, but at least traffic was free flowing. Clare had by this time gone for an early siesta, and left a meal on the table for me. 

There was just enough time for me to eat, before setting out to seek a route to the Millennium Centre, aware that many roads into Cardiff Bay were still closed due to the continuing UEFA cup fiesta in Roald Dahl Plass. We got there by going west along Penarth Road, and then taking the A4232 bypass road across the Bay, to access the multi-storey car park on the east side of the Millennium Centre. This proved trouble free, apart from having to drive up seven level to find a parking place, but we got there in good time for our first experience of 'Der Rosenkavalier' by Richard Strauss. This matinee performance was the first of this new WNO production, a rich musical and emotional experience.

The music of Richard Strauss is similar in character to that of Mahler who lived in the same era. Both were influenced by the music of Wagner, a generation earlier. His writing requires a huge orchestra and variety of instruments. We certainly felt this with our bargain front row seats. The disadvantage is that when the main singers are on the same side of the stage towards the front of house, their sound is somewhat masked by the orchestra when it's playing at full blast, although this is less of a problem if singers are elsewhere on stage, strangely enough. The singing and the acting was just wonderful, and the entire opera was presented through the eyes of its central character the Marschallin in her old age. In each scene a frail elderly woman appeared and would move about, sit among the actors or observe them silently, occasionally making a gesture, never speaking or singing, just seeing. Very powerful.

During the overture, a translucent veil hanging from the proscenium arch covered the stage, and was used as a screen for image projection. It showed the date of the first production in Leipzig in 1911 and the 1946, some 35 years later. It also showed lines from the German poet Rilke reflecting upon the passage of time, like sand running through the fingers. It was a puzzle at first, but it then became clear that the silent woman was the heroine looking back at her former self from the perspective of old age. I don't know if this was in the composer's stage notes or not, but it's a brilliant idea, and so simply done. Lighting effects were used to convey the impression of grains of sand falling from the sky at various times, and at each scene change, increasing piles of sand seemed to appear around the periphery of the stage set. This felt a little contrived, but point taken.

Three women occupied the leading roles, Rebecca Evans, singing the Marschallin, and Lucia Cervoni singing the young Count Octavian's part. I think it would have been too high for a tenor, perhaps too exacting for a counter-tenor too. Louise Alder played Sophie, a marriageable teenager. The story tells of the changing relationship between the three, impacted by an odious predatory middle aged Baron, sung brilliantly by Brindley Sherratt. Above an beyond this it's a work that reflects on the changes of the era as they are about to happen. Rather than time seeming to stand still, as historic events unfold and Europe moves to the breakup of empires into world war, it seems to slip away like sand through the fingers, in Rilke's poetic imagery. The music is harmonically rich and varied, and occasionally it breaks into dissonances that aren't resolved, giving the impression of things falling apart, as does the evolution of the stage set from scene to scene. By the last act it seems to be actually collapsing. What a powerful theatrical experience!

There was romance and enchantment, degeneration disillusionment, reflecting the changing of the old imperial social order, but for me it was this idea of time slipping away out of control which really moved me to tears, capturing an experience I feel more keenly now in old age than I did during my mid-life crisis. It takes a work of art of this majestic quality to draw out such deep emotion, and shed light across a lifetime. A worthy conclusion to a memorable Pentecost Sunday.

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