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TV review: BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2021, Together, and A Pandemic Poem: Where did the world go?

25 June 2021

BBC

Gihoon Kim, winner of BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2021 (BBC4, Sunday 13 June; finale 19 June)

Gihoon Kim, winner of BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2021 (BBC4, Sunday 13 June; finale 19 June)

WHETHER you were interested or not, you must have noticed how, last week, the TV schedules were cleared, quite rightly, for the big competition. Contenders gathered from around the globe, their amazing talent focused on giving their very best; the allegiance of fans never wavered, our hearts and emotions totally engaged by the contenders’ astonishing performances as we urged them on.

Yes, it was the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2021 (BBC4, Sunday 13 June; finale 19 June). The required exigencies of social distancing — no audience allowed into the hall; the applause confined to the orchestra, somehow playing as a single body despite the great spaces that separated each player from the next — failed to dampen the excitement of live performance. Even if you have no love for opera, it is worth considering how truly this activity, like great sport, or scientific research, or artistic creation, breaks down all national boundaries.

Somehow, the Western operatic tradition draws singers from all over the world, from very different cultures: the overall winner from South Korea; the Song Prize won by a black South African; the Audience Prize won by an English singer who, Hollywood cliché, was a last-minute substitute. Opera is supposed to be the most elitist and exclusive of all arts; these young singers demonstrated the contrary — these were entirely accessible, compelling, and universal expressions of love, despair, and triumph.

Lockdown brought serious strain to the most loving relationships. What if, from the off, a couple really hated each other, with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf levels of loathing? In Together (BBC2, Thursday of last week), Sharon Horgan and James McAvoy gave a masterclass in sustained invective. He, a selfish entrepreneur; she, a refugee-charity manager — the wonder is what they ever saw in each other in the first place.

The drama plumbed depths of political fury, raw emotion — her mother dies from Covid caught in the home where they had placed her for her safety — and searing insight. Eventually, we saw transformation; he began to learn generosity, and she began to find something worth while in their relationship. But they were so relentlessly self-centred, so oblivious of their needy son hovering silently in the background, that my predominant emotion was irritated resentment at their having taken up 90 minutes of my time.

Similar ground was covered, in contrasting manner, by A Pandemic Poem: Where did the world go? (BBC2, Friday). The Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, intoned his deceptively simple verses on the contagion, interspersing real life stories: another mother dead, infected in the one place that should have kept her safe; a beloved family business forced to close; an asylum-seeker; black DJ twin brothers; choral-society members. This palimpsest of voices and dance offered more than compassionate heartbreak: it also celebrated humour, love, hope, and joy.

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