The thunder began just when they brought in the severed head. No kidding...
And now it’s home-time: last morning in Verbier, last post therefrom. Below: only in Verbier...
Sunday morning was relatively quiet: as if the whole village was catching its breath in preparation for the Grand Finale. The sun blazed down, the mountains were calling, and my boss from the Independent was in town; what further excuse need there be for a coffee meeting in the cafe beside the cable car station up the mountain?
So the boss, his wife and I convened at the top to catch up on the latest gossip and goings-on with one of the world’s finest mountain views arrayed ahead of us. Then we had a choice: we could go further up, or head back down to Verbier. If the latter, the option existed of doing so on shanks’s pony. Walking down the mountain is one of those things that people often do here, but somehow I’ve never got round to it before. It was a beautiful day and the route looked broad and gentle. Off we went.
About half way down we got lost. Somehow we ended up on a peculiar path bordered by cordons declaring it an ‘Advanced Racing Track’. Nothing racing in sight, so we kept going despite some steep sections involving picking one’s way from tree root to rock to bilberry bush, and eventually I slid down the last mega-gradient semi-seated (just how I always wanted my editor to think of me, naturally...). Rejoining the broad, gentle path we found ourselves facing a group of angry young men on mountain bikes. That’s a bike track, they fumed. That last section is for leaping off. And if a mountain bike takes the air and your back is in its way, you are a goner. We promised faithfully that we wouldn’t be trying any such path again in a hurry. We’re only arts journalists. Gulp.
The soupe a l’oignon gratinée was a welcome comforter at Le Caveau and as Boss and Mrs Boss headed off for a siesta, some interesting people settled in at the next table. I had a chat with them: here we are. Nicholas Angelich (beside me) and two of my favourite boyband, the Ebene Quartet. What nice young men they are. And, more to the point, what wonderful musicians. Please pay a visit to their website and have a listen. (The lunch in front of me belonged to their kind fourth companion who offered to take the photo.)
Evening drew on, bringing some clouds and some rainspots, just as everyone headed into the tent for Salome. It was to be Gergiev and Deborah Voigt against the Elements, with Siegfried Jerusalem as left back, Dame Gwyneth as right back and Evgeny Nikitin in goal as Jokanaan. Tom was suitably cynical when I phoned home. A youth orchestra playing Salome on less than three days’ rehearsal? A couple of old crocks wheeled out for star status value? You have got to be joking.
But this Salome was no joke. The magic carpet took wing at once: the great thing about an opera in concert is that you don’t have to be distracted from the marvels of the score by a silly staging. You don’t have to worry about whether Salome is going to strip off, or how well the severed head matches its original. Instead, what you hear is what you get: pure Strauss, a fabric of Klimtian golds and bronzes, sprinkled with eastern perfumes, glowing in the dark, claustrophobic and seductive past resistance all at once. Deborah Voigt became Salome the spoilt child, ripped apart by the shock of desire, destroyed by rejection, hell-bent on getting her own way at all costs; the relationship between her and Siegfried Jerusalem’s Herod formed the heart of the story. Yes, he can still cut the mustard, though misses some high notes; his characterisation was powerful indeed. Mrs Jones contributed an occasional high note recognisable as the Brünnhilde we used to know and love, though lower in the register certain things didn’t quite work. For Voigt it was goal after goal, while Gergiev steered the flying carpet towards the stratospheres. Nobody could have guessed that the Verbier Festival Orchestra was comprised mainly of young students; he made them sound like the next best thing to the Vienna Philharmonic. He’s a sorcerer, that man...
And, as I mentioned, the thunderstorm arrived together with the silver-plattered head of Jokanaan. The rain pelted onto the tent roof; Voigt cast half a glance upwards and then, only then, did her voice give the very tiniest of cracks. It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that the first concert of the festival was rained off; they’d had to do a replay, with Yuja Wang repeating the first two movements of the Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto.
For obvious reasons, the final scene of Salome is not the ideal piece of music in which to face the same situation, and soon it was obvious that Voigt and Gergiev were having none of it. They set out to beat the storm. And they won, Voigt’s voice searing its arc through the thunder, Gergiev drawing more and more sound from the youngsters beneath his famous fluttering. The final score was Voigt & Gergiev 10, Elements 9. No penalty shootout required: there was simply no question that the music was stronger than the mountain climate.
And it was all over: the last concert, the last day. Ending with a pizza with some excellent colleagues and an early night accompanied, unfortunately, by a very happy mosquito. If you see me on TV on Friday with red lumps on my face, that’s the explanation. (Just so you know.)
And so farewell from Harold’s Internet Cafe, Place centrale, Verbier. It’s time to pack and leave.
Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.
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