2005 Christmas Message from Graham and Jackie

2005 was another year of Sabbatical for Graham while Jackie is still happy in her role as Technical Development Director of the Institute of Internal Auditors – UK and Ireland.  She is now just about to issue some technical guidance for the first time and is hoping to do that regularly in the future.  She has a staff of two, although one of those is the IT manager, which brings with it responsibility for overseeing that support function.  The role has seen her despatched to such far-flung locations as America (Chicago for the International Conference - next year in Houston - and Orlando), Paris, Brussels, Edinburgh and Chingford for various business reasons.

We attended two Institute dinners.  The first was part of the events to entertain the leaders of the profession in Europe and was a fun event in Kensington.  The second, the annual dinner, was held at the Four Seasons at Canary Wharf and Graham enjoyed the fantastic facilities while Jackie attended board meetings…and suffered from a miserable cold.

Jackie continues to serve on the Roll Committee of Newnham College.  This committee provides a link between the alumnae and the college.  In the Spring, she was able to apply what she’d learnt at the IIA to facilitating a workshop exploring the raison d’être of the committee and to help shape its future agenda.

One of the two annual committee meetings takes place on the weekend of Commemoration, the Spring feast celebrating the admission of women students to Cambridge University degrees.  This year was the 25th since Jackie and her pals started at college – TWENTY-FIVE YEARS!!! – so they were all invited back to attend the dinner.  They stayed in college and drank port until late at night – no change there then.

Our opera-going this year has been reduced a bit.  It seems that we have seen so many of the current productions that we no longer feel inclined to go to every performance.  Consequently we saw “only” five different operas this year; Das Rheingold, Turandot, Un Ballo in Maschera, La Bohème and La Fanciulla del West.  We did want to see 1984 to support new works but Graham was ill.

Bryn Terfel was, as ever, excellent in Das Rheingold.  However, it did drag on a bit.  Only a really (bottom) hardened fan of Wagner wouldn’t have quibbled at an opera which lasted two and a half hours … without an interval !!!.

Turandot is always beyond reproach at the ROH.  Despite getting on for twenty years in age, this “red silk” version still looks fresh.  Andrea Gruber gave an extraordinary performance as the princess (and we will see her again when she reprises the role in July 2006).  The tenor (a guy called Vladimir Galouzine) performed well enough, but the greatest impression from him was that he had produced some of the loudest sounds we have ever heard at the opera !

This season featured an absolutely stunning new production of Un Ballo in Maschera starring the superb “Cardiff winning” soprano Karita Mattila, the always excellent Thomas Hampson and (our favourite young dramatic tenor) Marcelo Alvarez.  They are stated in decreasing order of excellence, for it has to be said that Alvarez seemed to have been beamed in from an older style of production as he stumbled about and waved his arms for effect.  In the final act the curtain opened to reveal that the back wall of the stage had been covered by a giant mirror (actually silvered plastic) which reflected the audience (us !) and gave the effect of watching the singer as if from a camera at the back of the stage looking out over the footlights – it was breathtaking.  But then the whole of this back wall tipped forwards by about 45 degrees, allowing us to see into a pit which was a salon full of people, many dancing.  We could see these people “from above” by virtue of the reflection.  It was both fascinating and slightly disorienting !

Graham always says that you can’t ever see a bad production of La Bohème.  The music is simply too good.  A tone deaf person could blow it through a kazoo and it would still move him.  However the House tried their best to give us a bad show.  The tenor (Rolando Villazon) was barely audible ... and, when he was, you wished he wasn’t!  Fortunately Angela Gheorghiu is incapable of giving a bad performance and she kept the show together.

The La Fanciulla del West production is another “oldie but goodie”.  Graham found it a bit difficult to get to grips with the fact that it all looks disconcertingly like an episode of “Deadwood” … but that is a tribute to both the ROH and Deadwood for getting it right.  Here Andrea Gruber simply didn’t work for us as Minnie, but Jose Cura was very good and he really nailed the final “big” aria on the scaffold (in case you aren’t familiar with the opera he is about to be hanged by the way, not paint a house).

To finish the operatic theme, we must mention that we attended A Curtain Call for Aid which was a benefit concert for the victims of last year’s terrible tsunami.  The show was a mixture of ballet and opera, so Jackie got to enjoy seeing Darcey Bussell and Sylvie Guillem whilst Graham enjoyed Thomas Hampson and Marcelo Alvarez.

We visited the Hampton Court festival twice this year, just managing to dodge the rain for our picnic each time !  The first concert was a simple choral one, but was a very enjoyable nevertheless.  How can you not enjoy an evening including Zadok the Priest, the famous Alleluia Chorus, The 1812 Overture, Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory !  The second concert was that of Jose Carreras with guest Kiwi “teenage sensation” soprano, Hayley Westenra.  Jose was professional (but we wouldn’t say at his best at this chilly outdoor gig) and Hayley was very good … for her age.  We thought her ‘and here is a track from my latest album’ didn’t fit well with the classical format.

For an artiste at the top of her form we couldn’t beat the international soprano Renee Fleming at the Barbican in November.  The programme was one of “lieder” singing (just her with a piano accompaniment) and, to be honest, neither of us find this the most entertaining form of singing.  But there is no getting away from the fact that she sang superbly and finished with a few crowd pleasers too!  Jackie liked the Purcell and thought the André Previn prose poem about two giraffes was intriguing.

Whilst in a musical mood, we also saw, with Graham’s parents, the ever popular stage show Mamma Mia.  In its new home at the refurbished Prince of Wales Theatre it is a bigger and better production.  However, when we saw it, the women and the dancers were great, but many of the leading men let it down (they simply weren’t good enough singers).

Jackie managed to get to the ballet twice, without dragging Graham along, because Hayley came to Sadler’s Wells with her.  They saw Matthew Bourne’s Highland Fling, a reworking of La Sylphide with men in kilts and winged fairies.  It was spectacular.  Then they saw Sylvie Guillem and the Ballet Boyz who did very modern material, which was clever and complicated and seemed more gymnastics than ballet.  The music used a lot of science fiction sound effects, some sampled from things Jackie recognised.  They ate at Sadler’s Wells where they provide pre-booked meal service.  It was very tasty indeed and always good not to have to rush from an outside restaurant at curtain-up.

After we went to press with last year’s letter we went to a pantomime at The Old Vic.  Aladdin starred Sir Ian McKellen (as widow Twanky of course) and Maureen Lipman.  It was surprisingly entertaining (if a little noisy !).

Two other trips to The Old Vic this year featured Kevin Spacey, the Artistic Director, and showcased him as a consummate actor.  The first, National Anthems co-starred, Mary Stuart Masterson and Steven Webber.  The second, The Philadelphia Story, was with Julia McKenzie and Jennifer Ehrle who were both brilliant.

The most memorable theatre visit this year was probably to see Patrick Stewart in A Life in the Theatre which is a two handed piece which Patrick played with Joshua Jackson (yes, of Dawson’s Creek “fame” apparently).  It was very well done but, as is often the case, the guy in the seat behind us laughed too much … and in the wrong places !

We went to Spain for a visit to Jackie’s mother in July/August.  We almost got caught up in the Gate Gourmet fiasco when we were due to leave.  There was a very real “risk” of not being able to fly back.  Graham was “terrified” that we might be stuck in Spain for another week or two.  To his chagrin we actually caught our scheduled flight … the very first one to leave Malaga airport after the resolution of the dispute.  What are the odds !

We visited Graham’s family in Milton Keynes and South Shields once or twice.  We went up for the great North Run and Daniel’s 8th birthday in September and, before that, we went up in June so that Jackie could join Linda and her friends and thousands of forty-something Tyneside women at the Once in a Lifetime gig with the Bay City Rollers, the Osmonds, David Cassidy and David Essex – no, really, we did.  David Essex was by far the best but we were on our feet swaying to the sound.. all night!

Sadly this year saw the deaths of two more of Graham’s extended family.  On 2nd March his uncle Jim died after a prolonged battle with cancer.  On 23rd October his uncle Ray died suddenly after a stroke.  Our thoughts and prayers go out to their loved ones.

After getting married last year in Romania (an event that slipped through the net of our news-trawling), this year on 16th August, Graham’s cousin Dale and his wife, Eva, were blessed with the birth of their first baby, James Alexander.

And yet another wedding this year: Jackie’s cousin Geoff was married to Kimberley on 16th July.  We were pleased to be able to join the rest of the family in celebrating it.

Being a part of the Institute of Internal Auditors, Jackie has rather gamely “volunteered” to sit their professional exams.  In order to prepare, she spent a week in Spain with her mother who reprised the role of chief cook and support to the exam-revision process.  Thank you, Mummy.  The first two exams went well.  The final one was in November and the results will be out next year.

To celebrate their conclusion we went to “The Grove” luxury hotel for a long weekend.  It was very nice indeed and very relaxing.  We can recommend the ‘tasting menu’ at their Colette’s restaurant.  Jackie is also raving about the Russian Caravan tea, served in the lounge.

It was a glorious weekend – cold, sunny and clear – a great way to prepare for Christmas!

GrahamWoodhouse@btopenworld.com    JackiePCain@btopenworld.com