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Janet Baker - Full Circle: Her Last Year In Opera
Extracts from Alceste and Orfeo ed Euridice by Christoph Willibald von GLUCK (1714-1787); Mary Stuart by Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848); Dream of Gerontius by Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
rec. September 1981-July 1982, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, English National Opera, London Coliseum, Glyndebourne, Haddo House, Carnegie Hall, New York
Video Director: Bob Bentley NTSC 4:3; Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
WARNER MUSIC DIVISION 50-51011-4855-2-7 [72:00]
 

Despite Andrew Porter’s words of worship in The New Yorker, ‘I have long revered Dame Janet Baker as a goddess made of finer stuff than the mere mortal clay’, she considers herself ‘an extremely lucky human being’. This unintended riposte comes from her 1982 book Full Circle from which this video is derived and takes its name. In that year Baker was approaching fifty - she is 73 this month, August 2006 - when she stunned the musical world with the announcement that she intended to retire from the opera stage.
 
This video is of her farewell performances from the autumn of 1981 through to the following summer at three of her favourite English venues, Covent Garden, ENO and Glyndebourne, behaving not in any way like Melba with endless farewell appearances but making genuine appreciative gestures in saying goodbye to her many supporters and admirers. In fact it would appear that the engagements came first and the decision to call it a day dawned upon her as a result.
 
For 25 years she had been before the public since taking second prize - after winners Joyce Barker and Elizabeth Simon, who had nothing more than respectable careers thereafter - in the highly prestigious Kathleen Ferrier Award in 1956. In terms of opera, in which incidentally she never sang away from Britain, Handel featured strongly in her repertoire, Eduige in Rodelinda, Irene in Tamerlano, and the title roles in Ariodante and Orlando. Then there were the five Aldeburgh years (1971-1976) with the English Opera Group in Britten’s Albert Herring and Owen Wingrave. Mozart roles included Dorabella in Cosi fan tutte and Idamante in Idomeneo, while Berlioz, Strauss and Walton were represented by Dido, Octavian and Cressida respectively.
 
The book is no autobiography but a diary of those ten months, from the first night of Alceste to the last night of Orfeo at Glyndebourne. In similar fashion, this video-diary follows her with clips from rehearsals and performances of all three operas. It also concentrates upon the piecing together of the various elements from a coaching/language session, through a production rehearsal and first costume fitting to the first night at Covent Garden. There follows a beautiful performance of ‘She moves thro’ the fair’ accompanied by Martin Isepp as part of a Carnegie Hall recital concluding an American tour in January 1981. Tensions arise from the tedium of camera rehearsals for the BBC recording of Mary Stuart at ENO, whether distracting cue lights on the cameras should be on or off in rehearsals when it is known that they will not be on in the performances. Mountains are easily made of molehills at such moments, though it is perfectly reasonable for the great Dame to object to a flashing red light at a dramatically significant moment.
 
Then it’s on to Aberdeen and June Gordon’s amateur musical extravaganzas at her home Haddo House, a vast Gothic pile in which she put on choral and operatic festivals, in this case Gerontius in which Baker excelled as the Angel. Part of the Farewell is sung, poignantly, she notes in the book but not in the film, at the same time on the afternoon of Sunday 16 May 1982 as her close friend and agent Emmie Tillett suddenly died after tending her garden in Suffolk. They had had a pact to retire together, but Emmie beat her to it.
 
Baker began her operatic career as a member of the Glyndebourne chorus in 1956, and it’s here where she ends it in Orfeo, in the ‘village hall’ as it was affectionately known, not the pukka opera house it is today. Whether the introduction to Che faro should have been visually accompanied by shots of orchestra members playing croquet or picnic hampers partially covered by blankets ready for the interval audience is a moot directorial point, but predictably and mercifully it cuts away to Baker’s interpretation of this evergreen classic.
 
What do we get to know about Baker? She is a Yorkshire lass of grit and determination, resolute in pursuing her career at the expense of having a family - her devoted husband Keith was also her indispensable business manager. She recognises her gift as God-given from which she gets simple joy, but she also knows that her gut feeling to take early retirement was the right one. Mary Stuart got it right with her last words ‘my end is my beginning’, but Baker’s last words on the film before the credits roll are ‘thanks to all my colleagues’, and she is right. Many such as Peter Hall, John Copley, Raymond Leppard, Charles Mackerras, Bernard Haitink, Martin Isepp, Janine Reiss, Jean Mallandaine, Rosalind Plowright, Elizabeth Speiser, Elizabeth Gale, John Tomlinson, Brian Dickie, John Tooley, all of whom feature or are identifiable at some point in the film. Countless other choristers, orchestral players, coaches, and singing colleagues played their part. When you meet Janet Baker you sense a certain shyness and reticence, which some among the profession have interpreted as standoffishness, even referring to her as Dame Granite, but they were wrong. This film goes a long way towards correcting the impression. She has about her an abundance of warmth, affection and sensitivity, not only as a human being but particularly as a consummate artist.
 
Early in the book and probably overwhelmed by her sadness at the death of her close friend, the politician and music-lover Edward Boyle, she makes the extraordinary statement, ‘five minutes after I walk off the platform for the last time, I shall be forgotten’. Nothing could be further from the truth.
 
Christopher Fifield
 

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