Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Angel Warrior

The image of St Michael triumphant over Satan is familiar one throughout Roma - many churches have paintings or sculptures of the battle between the forces of heaven and hell. And of course many of the antique stores have prints and wooden statues of the winged warrior Saint with his foot on the neck of a cringing devil.

As my friend Bev and I were walking through the Ghetto this afternoon we came across this rather interesting duo dedicated to the subject in a shop window.

This engraving is the traditional interpretation of the holy battle.

This mixed media sculpture is a very modern take on the same subject.

It took a moment but I got the message!

28 gennaio - San Tommaso d'Aquino
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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mercoledi Musicale

Wishing the happiest of birthdays to Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart who was born 254 years ago today. I was searching for something appropriate to play - you know something that showed the depth and enduring humanity of the man and his music and came up with his variations on this little tune:

Hey Wolfie enjoyed a joke as much, if not more, than the next guy (and no he wasn't quite the vulgarian we see in Amadeus, its a movie!)and his music is shot through with humour and a great love of life. And in this performance Fazil Sayby performs it that way.

Happy Birthday Wolfie, you don't sound a day older!

27 gennaio - Sant'Angela Merici

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Monday, January 25, 2010

Tutti Il Mondo E Burla*

*All the world's a joke ..." so ends one of the greatest of operas: Verdi's Falstaff. Written at the end of his life it is a work of great joy, laughter and a touch of melancholy. As the aging Falstaff is let in on the joke that has been played on him, he, his cronies and the rest of the residents of Windsor, remind us that in the end we are all the butt of a joke and the best thing to do is laugh at it all.

On Saturday night at the opening of Teatro dell'Opera's season it was the opera going public who seemed to be the butt of a not very funny joke. The first sign of trouble was the multiple cast lists: in eight performances there are 4 Falstaffs, 3 Alices, 3 Fords, 3 Nannettas, 2 Fentons and 2 Mistress Quicklys plus two conductors sharing the podium. And none of the cast remains the same for more than 2 of the performances. Now above all Falstaff is an ensemble opera - except for two rather lovely, and slightly intrusive arias and a great monologue it is mostly a work of ensembles and small ariettas. It depends on close interaction between the singers, a great deal of subtlety from a conductor and the sure touch of a director. All three were missing on Saturday night.
Act 1, Scene 2 - The garden of the Ford household as pictured by Franco Zeffirelli still a lovely if now slightly coarser stage picture.

This was billed as a "new" production by Franco Zeffirelli, the once respected director-designer who has lately become the butt of not a few jokes himself because of some frankly outrageous behavior. This production was "new" back in 1964 when I saw and was enchanted by it at the Old Metropolitan Opera. I remember it as a wonder of beautiful design and witty staging that seemed to wed perfectly with the miraculous score. The designs have changed little - though what were once stands of hollyhocks in the Ford's garden have turned into some sort of day glow flowers that had been overfed MiracleGro - and are still lovely to look at. However what is not acceptable are the 10 and 15 minutes intervals between scenes that it takes to change them. Falstaff may be the work of an old man but it demands quicksilver in the performing. And the Zeffirelli staging has coarsened along with the designs. I recall Luigi Alva as Fenton nestled in the crux of the Great Oak singing his aria bathed in moonlight - here the fine young American tenor Taylor Stayton just wandered aimlessly in a cloud of stage fog. And for the most part the singers were going through the motions listlessly and mechanically. I will borrow a word from Laurent who, though he had not seen that 1964 production, had the feeling that the whole thing had been "reheated".
Act 2, Scene 2 - Again a lovely design but the 10-15 minutes waits between scene spoiled the momentum of a work that should move like quicksilver.

One of the glories of that 1964 production was the conducting of Leonard Bernstein and another the remarkable ensemble cast. Though Asher Fisch has shown himself to be a fine conductor in several venues he has come to Falstaff a little too early in his career. This is a score that demands a fine balance between stage and pit that was missing on Saturday night. Often the singers were swamped by the orchestra and Arrigo Boito's brilliant text, so integral in this opera, was inaudible. There were also problems with coordination between stage and pit during the finale of Act 1 and the wayward horns had some problem with their key passages in Ford's jealousy monologue.
Renato Bruson has sung the role of Falstaff for almost 30 years including a memorable performance under Guilini.
Photo: Rome Opera - Falsini

It gives me little or no pleasure to write this next paragraph as I have the greatest respect for this singer and what he has achieved. Back in 1982 Renato Bruson sang a wonderful Sir John under Carlo Maria Guilini and he has sung it many times since. It is a role that he once inhabited and could rightfully claim as his own but at 74 he no longer has the power to make the big moments memorable and was often inaudible. L'Onore! Lardri!, Va vecchio John and Quand'ero paggio went for very little and he honestly had some difficulty with the stage movements. Only in the scene outside the tavern as the drenched Falstaff bemoans his sorry state did his Fat Knight take flight. Perhaps it is now time for Bruson to allow us to hold on to our memories of his past performances and gracefully retire from the stage.

Carlos Alvarez was a fine in not particularly individual Ford shining briefly in the Jealousy monologue and Stayton was a mellifluous Fenton both in his aria and in the duets and ensembles, he is a young singer to watch. Mario Bolognesi, Patrizio Saudelli and Carlo di Cristoforo gave generalized portrayals of Caius, Bardolfo and Pistola.
Top: Act 2, Scene 1 - Sir John and the disguised Master Ford meet in the Garter Inn.
Bottom: Act 3, Scene 2 - The arrival of Nannetta as the Fairy Queen in Windsor Forest.
Photos: Rome Opera - Falsini.

Of the quartet of women the two lower voices were the most satisfactory. Francesca Franci did what could be done with Mistress Page and Elisabetta Fiorillo sang with good humour if not all the required deep velvet of Quicklys of the past. Myrtò Papatanasiu appears to be a Rome favorite these days and she has sung both a fine Nedda and I understand a very well-received Violetta here in the past year however she was out of her depth as Alice. Her voice was almost lost in the nero Cacciator narrative and it did not soar over the Gaie comari di Windsor ensemble. I felt she would have been happier cast as Nannetta. Lauro Giordano's Nannetta sang a lovely Sul fil d'un suffio esesio but prior to that her voice had been thin sounding and at one point noticeably off pitch.

The wonder of the evening was Verdi and his collaboration with Boito: Falstaff is a masterpiece. It is an opera made up of small miracles and the big miracle was that even with a tired production and less than inspired conducting and singing the genius of this remarkable work still shone through.

26 gennaio - Santi Timoteo e Tito
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The "Beautiful People" are Scary

Saturday evening was opening night of the opera season here in Roma and the "beautiful people" of Roman society were out in full force. The great, the use to be great, the not so great and the I'm a nobody but I'm decorative and with someone great.
The decorations of the sala were tasteful and understated - perhaps as befits these times of economic restraint. They were perhaps one of the few tasteful understated things about the evening. That and the de Grisogono chocolates.

The opera house lobby was tastefully decorated in trees created from masses of Spathiphyllum that wonderful red flower I can never remember the name of, students from the ballet school lined the staircase bowing to each of us as we ascended, further massive bouquets adorned the front of the boxes, the Caribinari were in full dress guarding President and Mrs Napolitano, he's an opera lover, who sat in the Royal box with Signore Allemano, our mayor and de facto director of the opera. At the first interval presseco and delicious de Grisogono chocolates where set out on brocade covered tables and the "beautiful people" air kissed, hugged, shrugged, glad-handed and shoved their way to the freebies in the various lobbies.
Carabineri guarded the front entrance as the "beautiful people" shoved their way into the theatre. Those flowering trees were a lovely touch to the very 30s lobby of the Teatro as where the lovely little girls from the ballet school greeting us as we ascended to auditorium.

Shoving seems to be a trait of the "beautiful people" here - they shoved to get into the theatre, shoved to get to the coat check and shoved their way into the sala - stopping every so often to air kiss, hug, shrug, glad-hand and then resume the shoving. And they shoved their way in front of the cameras that were constantly flashing during the intervals in both the lobbies and the theatre proper. We have tickets this year on the parterre and there was much attention being paid to palco 14 directly behind us. Given my own age I am not an ageist but I swear that the combined tally for the inhabitants was in the hundreds. Swathed in mauve from head to toe holding court at the front of the box sat Valentina Cortese, doyenne of the Italian cinema, with director Franco Zeffirelli and ballet director Carla Fracci and several other worthies a bit more discretely behind. The only reason the age average was lower than I expected was the presence of a not unpretty young man who attended to their various whims and wants.

What was unpretty was the number of people - men and women alike - sporting botoxed lips and brows, too even to have been from St Moritz tans and hair of no shade actually on the colour wheel. The requisite number of bungled face lifts - most of which ended at the chin giving that appearance of a teenage face, if teenagers really do have faces as smooth as bowling balls, attached to a museum body. Though many of the dresses where haute couture in most cases they were designed to be worn by the daughters and in some cases the grand-daughters of the wearers. Some of the exposed flesh should not have been! That is not to say that there were not some beautifully gowned, coiffed and bejeweled ladies nor some handsome elegant perfectly turned out gentlemen - just that given the venue, the city and the country they seemed to be in the minority.

And as an audience they were rude and inattentive. Bejeweled cell phones rang, expensive wrist watches chimed and chatter ensued. It took forever to get people seated and quiet for each act to begin so that with the lengthy scene changes the evening stretched to Wagnerian lengths if not depths.

The opera? Oh yes there was an opera! And one of my favorites, Verdi's last great masterpiece: Falstaff. That I will be commenting on very shortly. At this point I am heading off to the local church to light a candle asking that - imploring that - begging that - the rest of the season's openings not be the same. I've already had my fill of the "beautiful people" for this season!

25 gennaio - Conversione di San Paolo

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Things Cinematic - Stolen Scenarios

I went to the cinema last week for the first time in ages to see Avatar. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about and since my friend Marco is a sci-fi buff he said he'd come along - well okay I nagged him until he agreed to come along. It was in 3D ... and Italian. At the end of the film we chatted briefly about it and agreed that visually it was stunning and marveled at the technical brilliance behind both the beauty and horror of the images.

Then Marco - who is always, rightly, chastising me for not speaking Italian - asked the big question: So who much of it did you understand? I had to admit that I caught about one-third of the dialogue but then asked him if it really mattered? He agreed that we weren't talking Shakespeare here (okay since it was in Italian we said Pirandello) but that it it was fantasy so it really didn't matter.

When I got home I did a search to see if I could come up with a plot outline that would fill in any of the holes in my comprehension and here's probably the best I could find:

I know this going around the internet faster than a Toruk in flight but it really does pretty much sum it all up.

Having said that I'll probably try and see it again next week with Laurent - this time in English to see if I really did miss anything? And besides it is gorgeous to look at!

Note: Marco tells me his brother said exactly the same thing: Disney's Pocahontas and my friend Dora refers to it as Dances with Wolves in Space. But we all agree - its wonderful to watch!

24 gennaio - San Francesco di Sales

Saturday, January 23, 2010

You Can Tango, But Don't Tangle With the Lady

I mentioned a few posts ago that Ute Lemper was appearing here last week and appear she did. I had put off buying tickets as both of us where feeling a bit under the weather - that bloddy rain in Spain!!!!. Wednesday evening, after a rather eventful day, I decided I was up to it - Laurent had just spent his first day back at work and was beat - so I headed off to the Auditorium to get a last minute ticket. After all how popular would someone like her be here in Roma?

Well from the back row of the seats at the back of the stage as I looked over an almost full house (the Salla Santa Cecilia seats 2,700) I got the answer to my question. Very popular grazie! So popular, in fact, that an episode with a heckler led to a spontaneous display of support and affection.

Her latest programme, Last Tango in Berlin, is an eclectic mix of her repetory with the emphasis on the music of the tango and more particularly Astor Piazzolla. The programme began with Piazzolla's Balada paro mi muerte which sequed into a Piaf standard L'Accordéoniste. The two numbers showed Lemper at her best and, for me at least, her worst. The first number has all the trademarks of her style and range, the second showed the extremes that she can go to in trying to make a number "dramatic". L'Accordeoniste does not need that sort of overstatement - the built in staccato of the lyrics and music do that for the singer.

Her last number three numbers were requests - Lili Marleen, a medley of Yiddish songs and to end another Piaf favorite Milord and again my feeling was that here she showed her best and worst. Lili Marleen was iconic, the Yiddish songs having a particular drive and with some interesting vocalise but the Moustaki penned Milord being overwrought to the point of being unintelligible. But between the two we got a selection of Piazzolla - Balada para un Loca translated into a hymn to the crazy people of her adopted New York, Brecht/Weill - Moritat von Mecky Messer another iconic performance stripped of its Americanized jazz frills, some incredible scat including a Louis Armstrong inspired trumpet rift - I honestly thought it was a real trumpet for a minute and a gripping Ne me quitte pas. As a tribute to her host country she sang, for the first time, Nino Rota's hauting theme from Amarcord. She also hinted that the music of Rota deserves a closer inspection - as indeed it does.

Though at times her interpretations may be questionable what is never in question is her charisma as a stage animal. Her patter in English and French weaves in and out of the music and sometimes becomes music in itself. This is a performer who knows how to play an audience and deal with a heckler if need be.

Given that the audience was predominately Italian perhaps a cut in some of the chatter would have been in order. In fact one of the audience took exception to the lengthy introduction of the bandoneón and yelled out: Less talk more songs! Within seconds I'm sure he was regretting his spontaneous outburst. The audience was entirely with Lemper and made it more than obvious. Her response - a suggestion that she could sing longer than he could control his bladder - was greeted with hoots, whistles and prolonged applause. She good-naturedly returned to her heckler several times throughout the evening including asking him to suggest an encore. She gave him the requested Lili Marleen.

Lemper has a fine backup trio playing with her for this stint. Vana Gierig on piano had several opportunities to show his stuff particularly during the Cabaret number. And bassist Steve Millhouse gave strong backup but the gem of the evening was Tito Castro a bandoneón player in the great Argentine tradition.

Here's a sample of Lemper doing, what for me at least, was one of the best numbers of the evening:

23 gennaio - Sant'Emerenziana

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Friday, January 22, 2010

Things Cinematic

I've just finished booking the tickets for our annual - I guess three years in a row makes it annual - trip up to Salzburg for the Whitsun Festival. It is an outing I always look forward to because of the town, the surroundings, the wonderful people at the Hotel Bristol, the food and of course the music.

Under Riccardo Muti the theme of Napoli, City of Dreams continues for the fourth year with works that sprang from the rich musical heritage that is that wonderful city. An added twist this year is the late night showing of a classic Italian movie from 1927 - Napoli e una canzone (Naples is a Song) with one of the divas of Italian cinema Leda Gys.

1927???? but that would mean its a silent movie? Well yes it is but for this performance it will be accompanied by a group of live musicians providing the scoring. I happen to love silent movies and I don't just mean the comedies (never really understood the fascination with Chaplin always preferred Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton myself) I mean the dramatic stuff with the Gish Girls fluttering (Orphans of the Storm), Alla Nazimova vamping, John Barrymore tearing a passion (nothing has ever beat his transformation scene without make-up in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) or the great epics like D. W. Griffith's Intolerance and Able Gance's Napoléon. I have a wonderful DVD of the first version of Peter Pan ever made which despite its California bathing beauty mermaids captures the very essence and darkness of Barrie's tale.

In trying to find out more about Leda Gys and Napoli e una canzone I located one still shot from the film and a fun poster of the great lady herself.
Leda Gys (right) as the music loving Napolitana with Grethel Stein as her American friend Mary obviously lifted out of her depression by the music of Napoli.

Stylized but still seductive the lady Leda herself!

While searching I came across some wonderful European posters for various Hollywood exports from the silent and sound eras. Most of the posters appear to have been made, if not exclusively for the Italian market then certainly for Europe. They are so radically different from what we think of as movie posters in North America. And even though the bulk of them are "B" movies I would have gone to see most of them based on the posters alone.
Though this possibly from the 1950s it was created for Cecil B. DeMille's silent version of The Kings of Kings. I recall seeing it on television years ago and it is DeMille's normal mix of sex and piety - two things that sell! And I think this is one powerful piece of poster art.
Top: The Magic Carpet - 1951 USA - Directed by Lew Landers with Lucille Ball, John Agar, Patricia Medina.
Bottom: The Good Humor Man - 1950 USA - Directed by Lloyd Bacon with Jack Carson, Lola Albright, Jean Wallace.
Top: The Shadow on the Window - 1957 USA - Directed by William Asher with Philip Carey, John Drew Barrymore, Betty Garrett, Corey Allen, Gerard Sarracini, Jerry Mathers.
Bottom: Drums of Tahiti - 1954 USA. Directed by William Castle with Dennis O'Keefe, Patricia Medina, Francis L. Sullivan.

Top: Assignment Paris - 1952 USA. Directed by Robert Parrish with George Sanders, Dana Andrews, Marta Toren.
Bottom: Joe Macbeth - 1955 Great Britan. Directed by Ken Hughes with Ruth Roman, Paul Douglas.

This next one completely threw me - I had the damnedest time figuring out what movie it could possibly be advertising.

Any guesses? The first person who can figure it out will receive a movie poster fridge magnet - either Roman Holiday or A Fistfull of Dollars - your choice. Let me know what you think in the comment field.

Note: It appears this was posted earlier without a comments section - dumb blogspot... dumber blogger. I've reposted and it seems to be working now. Even though my friend Cathy e-mailed me the right answer to my little quiz I will still take suggestions with the next correct answer getting one of those fabulous fridge magnets!
23 gennaio - Sant'Emerenziana
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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Mercoledi Musicale

Another remarkable talent from my youth has left the scene - Kate McGarrigle along with sister Anna where part of the folk scene and more. Song writer, singer - solo, duet and backup - and instrumentalist - banjo, piano, guitar and if I recall auto-harp - she, with her sister, was a force.

Here they are in one of Stephen Foster's ballads Hard Times Come Around No More. They are joined by Kate's son Rufus Wainwright, Emmylou Harris, Mary Black, Karen Matheson and Rod Paterson.

And the sisters take a gentle poke at personal ads with Petit Announce Amoureuse

The writer is only 5'2", smokes - but only good tobacco -, scares dogs and cats and frankly puts the fear of god into little children but ... is tired of being alone.

Their good friend Emmylou Harris sang Love Is, a quintessential McGarrigle composition when they were honoured at the 2004 Governor General's Awards in Ottawa. And her lovely and loving tribute at the conclusion is a wonderful summation of Kate and Anna.

20 gennaio - San Sabastiano

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Nora by Goya

I can only imagine that to see most of the great works that are in the Prado you would need - oh I don't know ... a lifetime? The richness of the collection is known throughout the world. Now I love museums but I am the first to admit that after 2 maybe 2 and half hours I am ready to call it a day - when the tableware at the last supper starts looking familiar its time to move on. So the brief time spent there on New Year's Eve day allowed me to see only a smattering of what was on display from their permanent collection.

I was floored when we first walked into the first gallery - there was a portrait of Mary Tudor by Antonis Mor that I had seen in history books when I was a child. Several rooms along was Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights, then many of the great Flemish paintings I have read about and seen reproduced. It was one wonder after another - and not all of them famous or well-known.

I wanted to see at least some of the Goyas and though I missed the two Majas - clothed and unclothed - I did see the two great murals of the 1808 uprisings and the Black Paintings. In this latter group of 14 works there is one of the most disturbing paintings I've ever seen - Saturn Devouring his Son - but it also it includes Il perro - the Dog, perhaps one of the most engaging paintings I've ever encountered.

There have been many lofty interpretations of what Goya may have been aiming at in portraying this little creature caught in that vast canvas. Giving the deep theological and psychological I feel a little low-brow thinking I've seen that look before - as far as I'm concerned that's the "nobody love's me or feeds me" look.

Now it just may be my imagination but I am sure that the sitter - not setter - for this - may well have been one of our Nora's ancestors. She loves to pose for artistic shots and ventures.

19 gennaio - Santi Mario, Marta, Audifce e Abaco

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Lunedi Lunacy

The story behind this sketch is almost as funny as the sketch itself. Apparently it is a cult favorite in German and Scandinavia. I only recall reading about it being performed by Hermoine Gingold and Billy DeWolfe in a Broadway show back in the 1950s.

Though they had respectable careers neither Freddie Frinton nor May Warden were well know in Britain but they are cult figures in Northern Europe. It's odd that something so quintessentially English should cut through the boundaries and hit those Nordic funny bones!

Many thanks to my friend Yannis for rebringing this to my attention.

18 gennaio - Santa Margherita d'Ungheria

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Posters as Politics

I have frequently mentioned the posters that appear on the streets here in Roma and throughout Italy. Though some of them do advertise films or products most are the work of political parties or interest groups. Often they are turned out in response to a particular event or anniversary and though elections are still several years away, no political party worth its salt would pass up the opportunity to keep their image before the public.

This Sunday's New York Times has an interesting article on the Political Poster here in Europe, its effectiveness and more specifically its use by the political right to get its message across. It definitely worth a read and though it concerns mainly Switzerland it also applies very much to what appears on the street here.

Three examples of posters that have appeared on the streets - two with a very right wing message, the third with a message of tolerance. All very powerful.

Alexander Segert, the creator of a controversial Swiss poster and main focus of the article, makes an interesting point that should be taken to heart by many groups including a few that I support whole-heartedly.
Clients must “do their homework,” Mr. Segert said, by way of explaining how a design evolves. “It sounds easy, but most political parties don’t know their own message.” That’s the problem for centrist and many left-leaning parties.

Though the article is a bit condescending in its attitude to the North American response to political posters I have to admit that here in Europe the Poster is taken seriously as a weapon in the arsenal of politics.

17 gennaio - Sant'Antonio abate

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Mercoledi Musicale - Late

I am really getting late with these Mercoledi posts - I might have to reconsider the name but not sure how snappy a title I can work out of Giovedi?????

As I've mentioned more than once, lately a smell, a word or a snatch of music seems to trigger memories from the past. I suppose it an age factor though I would prefer to think of it as the Proust factor - the old smell of madeleines dipped in tea:
She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called petites madeleines, which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place…at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory…

In Search of Lost Time, Volume 1: Swann's Way

I heard a snatch of this piece on the radio the other day - very briefly I was on my way out and it brought back a memory from a trip to France in the mid-1970s.

It was a very warm July evening in Aix-en-Provence and it was the last concert during our stay. I honestly can't remember the venue other than it was one of the many romantic courtyards in one of the many hotel de ville throughout that beautiful town. Josef Krips was conducting and Jean-Pierre Rampal was the flautist. As they launched into the Adantino movement from Mozart's Concerto for flute and harp there was a blackout. As we sat in the dark, under the clear, starry Provencal sky Rampal and the harpist (whose name I completely forget)continued on for several minutes. Those few minutes were magic - the darkness, the stars, the perfume from the courtyard vines, the summer heat radiating off the stone walls and Mozart!

What is that old saying: The Angels play Bach for God but Mozart for their own enjoyment. Lucky angels!

14 gennaio - San Felice di Nola

Helping Haiti

This is little I can write about the tragic events in Haiti that is not better handled by other sources.

However just in case you were looking to make a donation to help with the monumental task facing so many aid organizations here are a few that will make good use of any amount given:

Doctors Without Borders

Partners in Health

The Canadian Red Cross


Yele Haiti

That and our thoughts, prayers and concerns are the only thing most of us can offer at this point.

14 gennaio - San Felice di Nola

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Little Dab'll More Than Do You

My friend Jacque Sue in West Texas - better known as the irrepressible YellowDog Granny - tells me its Way Back Week on Facebook. At her urging - that woman can talk me into almost anything - I went way, way, way, way (to the square root of infinity) back and found a photo from my last year in high school.

I don't believe I ever had that much hair or used that much Brylcreem.

Ah Youth! Youth! Said he with a mighty sigh!

13 gennaio - San Mungo

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Amongst the Ruined

Thursday - January 7th, 2010.

I'm not sure if it is the season winding down or the gloomy, rainy weather - we had five days of rain in Madrid and Rome has been little better since our return - but my mood today (Thursday) was one of an almost desperate melancholy. Though it was a sunnier and milder day than it has been I found myself very aware of the ruins in this city as I made my way over to Trastevere. Not the Auralian Walls or Porta d'Ottavia - those have become almost commonplace - nor the decaying Renaissance palazzi hiding behind the chipped veneer of the Baroque. I was noticing the ruined people who were around me and seem to have become more numerous on the streets in the past few weeks.

There now seems to be more homeless people sleeping in doorways and sadly more lost souls wandering the streets and often issuing cries to an unhearing heaven. Perhaps it is the mood I'm in that makes me more aware of their presence. Or perhaps it is the time of year - fewer tourists, Romani still away on holiday - that makes them more noticeable. Some are harmless, others more disturbing.

As I stood waiting for the bus at Nomentana and Regina Margherita I hear a soft litany being chanted behind me: Ciao, buon anno. Caio, buon anno. Caio, buon anno. She is often at that corner, tidily and fortunately in this weather warmly dressed, waving to drivers in the car lane, smiling, nodding and quietly saying hello to each driver and now wishing them a good new year. She does not appear disturbed though her eyes are a bit distance, she's always smiling, never asking for anything, the smile getting broader when someone acknowledges her greeting. I have only noticed her the past month or two; perhaps she has always been there and I have just never seen. Her madness - if it is madness - is benign and in many ways touching.

As I pass in front of the Teatro Argentina there is another woman busily fixing a large fake white poinsettia to her skimpy scarf, it matches the red one that adorns her brassy blond hair. Her make up has been applied with a heavy hand but not much heavier than many of the women I've seen preening themselves in the foyer at the Opera House. Her clothes need a brushing but she doesn't appear dirty just disheveled. I will see her later when I retrace my steps.

As I approach the Ponte Fabricio to cross over onto Isola Tiberina I noticed that the old clarinet player, who normally sits tarpaulined against the weather, is not there. His place taken by a youngish woman playing a cello. The sound is sweet though it is hard to say if that is her talent or her audio system. She breaks into Ave Maria as a group of Grey nuns parade past her not then they probably don't have much in the way of spare change to drop in her plate. She is not one of the homeless just one of the unemployed in a country of high unemployment.

Half way along the bridge a bearded man - perhaps in his late 30s - sits with four dogs - an old German shepherd, a mutt and two sleek red dogs, mother and pup. All the dogs look well fed and cared for, the man less so. Today the gypsy woman - hands shaking, bundled up, head and face covered so it is impossible to determine if she is young or old - is not at the other end of the bridge but the piled up rucksack, umbrella and shopping bags that has been there for several weeks, still is. But now they have a handwritten sign attached to them. I will only see the sign on my way back.

After my appointment as I wait for the light to cross Ponte Cestio back over to the Isola, two caribinari are half pushing, half carrying a filthy looking man off the bridge and out into the street - one officer holding up his white gloved hand imperiously to stop the traffic. The man, his pants open and off his waist, is dark, bearded and wild-eyed. In younger days he was probably handsome - now drink? drugs? madness? have distorted his features, made his age indiscernible. He is ranting unintelligibly and at one point makes an almost baying sound - perhaps the officer has been a bit too rough? From the looks of it they have caught him urinating in public and since the Isola is a major tourist spot they are hustling him away. When they reach my side of the road they shove him down the steps into a small piazza and turn away leaving him there, one officer examining his gloves for soiling.

The man with the beard is now walking across the bridge, his station deserted or perhaps hustled along by the police, the mother and pup in front of him on leashes, the other two following single file. The old German shepherd, obviously arthritic, is lagging behind and the little procession stops at the end of the bridge waiting for him to catch up.

As I pass the rucksack pile I see the sign - in English: Thank you for the Christmas cake but please give back the puppy you stole from me. You fed my body, he fed my soul. What has happened here - has some well-intentioned person thinking they were doing the dog a favour made an unwelcome and unasked for, by both owner and dog, exchange? I stop for a moment on the bridge to look at the rising waters and listen to the cellist; she is playing Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring and it is not the sound system that is bringing out the sweetness of Bach's melody. I drop a euro in the her container as do several other people who are passing by - her music is brightening up what has become a bleak afternoon in many ways.

As I retrace my path through Largo Argentino the lady with the poinsettias is standing in front of the Teatro now calling out greetings to passers by. Ciao amore, auguri! Hello my love, best wishes. Unlike her sister well wisher on Nomentana, her greeting is full throated and has a slightly raucous almost bawdy tone to it. But her wishes are voiced happily into the world without malice.

Not so the song, if that is what it can be called, of the woman in the black track suit and blue scarf standing in front of Feltrineli. Her head thrown back she is fadoing her woes to the world in the gutturals of some dialect that I can't make out. There may be a melody to her song but even that is obscure. No one seems moved to put anything in the grubby Barbie cosmetic bag she has in front of her ready to receive contributions. I pass her and then for some reason - guilt? - turn back and drop a few small coins into the bag. Who knows perhaps the sounds she hears are a sweet as those of the cello player.

It is easy to look at all these ruined lives and judge - to make assumptions, as we often do, as to what brought them to their current place in life. Today I feel no such need or urge. Perhaps it is the weather, perhaps the time of year but as much as I can glory in the architectural ruins that surround me daily, today all I can do is inwardly weep for the human ruins that are also there.

§ § § §

Postscript: Yesterday (Tuesday) as I retraced my path over to Trastevere I crossed the Ponte Fabricio as usual. At the approach to the island was that familiar bundle of rucksack and shopping bags and sitting amongst it the owner - long, much-matted, grey-white hair and beard, mismatched clothing, one glove. He was cutting up a piece of sausage onto a tupperware top and there on the sack beside him was a puppy urging him on. A beautiful little puppy, deep red glossy coat, voicing his impatience in no uncertain terms. The man seemed happy, the puppy seemed very happy. The world seemed a little better than it had been only a few days before.

13 gennaio - Sant'Ilario di Poitiers

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Madrid Nights - Palacio in the Rain

Though the Christmas the lights give Madrid an added glow, it is a city known for the illumination of its streets and buildings. I've heard but can't confirm that it was one of the first, if not the first, European city to light its public buildings at night.

The area around Palacio Real was particularly beautiful even in the rain which fell off and on during a late evening stroll through the area. The lighting here is not the festive creations of Via Gran or Puerta del Sol but has a more romantic - dare I say almost Goyaesque quality - particularly with scuttling clouds and a damp mist.

The Plaza de Oriente is a wide promenade that joins the Teatro Real to the Palazzo Reale grounds. Pride of place in the Plaza is given to Carlos III, who was responsible for much of the remodelling that turned the palace into its present state.
Unusual for the capital of a Catholic country Madrid had no cathedral until construction was begun in 1879 on the Almundena. The cathedral was not completed until 1993 and though the exterior is in harmony with the palace across from it the interior is eclectic and extremely modern. Frankly I found it more imposing at night than during the day.
The largest palace in Europe, the Palacio Real is an impressive structure but it is not difficult to see why the King and his family have chosen to live in a smaller Palace. It may just be the romantic in me but I find that top photo has that brooding quality that I associate with Spanish history.

12 gennaio - Sant'Etelredo di Rievaulx

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Presepe Maker

Its no secret that I have a fondness for Napoli and things Napolitani - even though the first visit there was a bit unsettling, the second time I came away from the city enchanted and wanting to go back. And another well documented fact is my love of presepe and there is nowhere in the world quite like Napoli for these incredible minature scenes. Divina, the restaurant we went to New Year's Eve in Madrid had the most wonderful presepe at one end of the dining room that was immediately identifiable as the work of Napolitani craftsmen.

As is this remarkable little tableau that was in the window of a small cafe on a side street off Piazza Fiume near our house. It is obviously meant to be only one element in a larger presepio. (Remember that a left click will open a larger version of the photos in a separate window)

Presepe were meant to position the Nativity in the world around the viewer and mirror events taking place in their quarter. And what would have been taking place in any home in Napoli as Christmas Day approached? Why a family presepio would be being created, of course.
The father - a Pulcinella, that most Napolitano of tricksters - puts the final touches on the family presepio. Mother sits with her knitting at her feet, waiting patiently - Pulcinella is known to be lazy so she perhaps expects this to take a while. Their son waits expectantly, a box with the figures for the three kings waiting to be put in their place. Pulcinella's lute has been left to one side, all thoughts of serenades gone until the last figure is in place.

Their dwelling is filled with the paraphernalia of any home of the time - cured meats hanging, dried herbs, knives, traps and even an old family candelabara that no doubt will be placed on the table come Christmas Eve.

One of the pleasures I find in searching out presepe is that they are filled with small details, often missed, that tell a story of a people, a time and a place. Yes the Nativity is taking place but as it does people go about their daily lives and if you look closely enough for a moment you can be part of it.

11 gennaio - Sant'Igino Papa