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Review: Vera on Nyman’s Lustful Sonnets


“I want this cock of yours, no other treasure! It’s a cock that makes me happy, a cock fit for an Empress, a gem worth more than a goldmine”. This is not a line taken from some lewd film you’re watching sloped in your armchair while nobody’s around. You’re in the Barbican Theatre and are listening to Michael Nyman’s rendition of the infamous Sonetti Lussuriosi (Lustful Sonnets) by Italian Renaissance poet Pietro Aretino. This unusual performance comes in association with the Barbican exhibition “Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now” closing on January 27.

But let’s start from the start, because of course the programme of the concert was longer and richer. In Re Don Giovanni, the first piece performed by the Michael Nyman Band and the Maestro at the piano, is one of his first compositions (1977) and pivotal for his career: a reconstruction of the first 16 bars of the “catalogue Song” from Don Giovanni, in which the trademarks of Nyman’s style are immediately recognizable, it projected the composer and his then called Campiello Band onto the stage of the world. It is fascinating to see how the Band, who has played this score over and over for years, still retains an unequalled fresh and passionate approach to it.

The Drowning By Numbers Suite was written in 1989 as a soundtrack of the homonymous film and shows a more defined and mature idea of composition and orchestration: closely inspired by Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante as requested by director Peter Greenaway, it allows the main melodic them to grow, passing through variated harmonies, and finally blossom in one of Nyman’s most inspirational pieces, Knowing The Ropes. The spirit of Mozart keeps hovering as singer Marie Angel, accompanied by the Band, beautifully sings the heartbreaking song I Am An Unusual Thing: music based on Mozart’s works, lyrics written by Mozart himself in a riddle he distributed in Vienna during the 1787 Carnival.

Then all this musical sublimity comes suddenly to Earth: next work in the programme is 50,000 Pairs Of Feet Can’t Be Wrong, a suite that examines the physical and psychological journey of an athlete running the world’s largest half-marathon, the BUPA Great North Run. A series of wonderful animations by studio moShine, all centred on the theme of a human body during a run, gives extra colour to a fast-paced score that communicates passion, drive, rhythm and – physical effort, which is clearly visible in the band’s arms and fingers nimbly dancing through the semiquavers. Nyman had already provided the world of sports with the composition Exit No Exit: Beckham Crosses, Nyman Scores but the BUPA Great North Run project has allowed him to investigate more deeply the relationship between music, body and science.

So here we go to the long awaited finale: the eight Sonetti Lussuriosi. As anticipated, the lyrics are overtly pornographic and depict the acts of passion with total freedom. Aretino, dubbed “the Scourge of Princes” for his outspokenness, had composed the sonnets after obtaining the release from prison of Marcantonio Raimondi, the engraver of artist Giulio Romano’s sixteen erotic drawings I Modi (The Positions). Each drawing and each sonnet present a heterosexual couple with no name, no history, no other detail than their bodies engaged in a sexual intercourse. The most risqué aspect of the sonnets, for that time, is that the woman expresses her desire and pleasure just like the man does; the two are equals, they both crave for the same ecstasy.

Marie Angel voices the sonnets in a flawless Italian; her singing is full of modulations and nuances and moulds gently on Michael Nyman’s music: at times vivacious and playful, or sweet and languid, it captures the core of eroticism freeing it from any possible vulgarity. In fact, such a sublime and inspirational music can only treat the subject as if vulgarity had never applied to it, which is a refreshing, honest attitude. The band and the Maestro at the piano execute this new work with a passionate yet soft touch, much to the audience’s delight. At the end of the concert, the love for love that the musicians have just conveyed is palpable in the air. Michael Nyman is still one of the foremost and most versatile composers around, and with the help of his band and great Marie Angel he has given life to an unforgettable evening.