The shipyard painter, political activist and razor-sharp cartoonist Bob Starrett has just written a new book The Way I See It on his eventful life and times. Below we reprint one of his stories and review an essential read
ENO's production of La Boheme is a triumph,
OPERA for many is a no-go area. The idea of shrill, busty sopranos and corpulent tenors warbling away in foreign languages is some people's idea of a nightmare night out.
But this new production of the Marriage of Figaro is an excellent example of how enjoyable and relevant opera can be.
Beaumarchais, who wrote the original drama of the Marriage of Figaro, was a revolutionary in pre-revolutionary France and backed the US revolution. His play reflected the fermenting class conflict that culminated in the French revolution of 1789.
The play was banned by European monarchies, but the librettist Da Ponte convinced Emperor Joseph that he and Mozart had so diluted the subject matter as to make it palatable. But it still retained its revolutionary essence and became an instant success in 18th century Vienna.
Glaswegian-born director David McVicar puts the class conflict back where it belongs - centre stage.
He makes no bones about the fact that this is an opera where the "lower classes" take their revenge on nobility.
He sets the scene 40 years after Mozart's death, in revolutionary 1830s France.
He eschews gimmicks and modernity for its own sake and allows the opera's eloquence to speak for itself. Mozart's music expresses a deep humanity - a wonderful antidote to today's cynicism.
The storyline is simple, but we do have mistaken identities, recovered foundlings and cross-dressing - a mixture of Oscar Wilde and a Shakespeare comedy.
The count magnanimously announces that he's given up his right to first night with marriageable virgins among his underlings, but still lasciviously covets a night with his wife's maid Susanna.
However, Figaro, Susanna's intended, has other plans and thwarts his plans with guile and intelligence.
The lower classes are depicted as cleverer than their masters and expose the latter's duplicitous and venal behaviour.
From the first bars of the overture, with its crescendo of agitated strings, you sense that something momentous is about to unfold. The curtain rises on a roomy chateau, where servants are busy cleaning. Butlers line up to show that their hands are clean while others scurry around carrying boxes or washing. We're left in no doubt that the servant class is the essential element in the opera.
Susanna, sung by the Swedish soprano Miah Persson, undoubtedly steals the evening with her thespian talent and effortlessly shimmering voice.
Figaro, played by the young Uruguayan tenor Erwin Schrott, is an outstanding counterpart with his rich, honeyed but powerful vocal presence.
He does, though, slip too easily out of his allotted role as valet, often upstaging the count, who is sung by Gerald Finley with wonderfully expressive, teeth-gritting anger and frustration at his servants' ability to outwit him. This production is well paced and the singers gel in true ensemble style.
The stage design is conservative and, although it reflects adequately the upstairs-downstairs theme, adds little to understanding the story.
The schmaltzy happy ending - all love and forgiveness - rather undermines the revolutionary message. I would have thought a good dose of irony would have been more in keeping with the avowed aims.
Plays until July 6. Box office:(020) 7304-4000