Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Devil to Play

I wrote the following review last month but unfortunately my good friends at Opera Britannia were not able to publish it. Though it is a bit late I thought I would post it anyway for anyone who cared to give it a read.

The 2010 season at Teatro dell'Opera di Roma got off to a dull start in January with a Falstaff under Asher Fisch that was musically lacklustre and theatrically dated. We had been promised a “new” production and what we got was an “old” retread of the same ideas Franco Zeffirelli had back in 1964 when he staged the Verdi-Arrigo Boito masterpiece at the Old Met. For Boito's Mefistofele, the second of the season's offerings, we were promised a new “old” production. “Old” in that the designs were inspired by sets created in the 1930s by Camillo Parravicini, a principal designer in Italy and more specifically Rome in the mid-20th century. The “new” was director Filippo Crivelli and scenographer Andrea Migilio's concept that used computer technology and video projections of the Parravicini's water colours in an effort to bring pictorial life to Boito's words and music.

Unfortunately too often the gap between concept and realization is a wide one. Though Miglio and video designer Michele della Cioppa gave us more than a few remarkable stage pictures the fixed set of risers – like an Industrial age Odeon – did not allow for much more than background effects. Some of those effects were stunning but there is only so much that can be done with projections when dealing with a stage full of singers, chorus and dancers. At certain points the production team seemed to have run out of ideas and resorted to old fashioned follow sports and set pieces.

The curtain rose in total silence on a loan figure in 19th century costume, reclining in the centre of the risers he was regarding a musical score. As much had been made in the programme notes of the failure of Mefistofele at its first performance at La Scala in 1868 (what we see today is the composer-librettist's 1875 revision) and the projections were Milan of the period it was implied that the figure was Boito himself. Though this was not totally clear even when at the end the same figure appeared on high and scattered sheets of music paper over the body of Faust.

As the music began he was joined by the chorus in drab period dress who settled around him to hymn the Almighty. At that point Miglio and della Cioppa showed what they were capable of. Elements of the Parravicinni decor were projected onto a scrim at the front of the stage. We saw close ups, long shots and pans of his conception of Heaven; it was a stunning visual counter point to the trumpet calls and the varied choruses of mystic voices and cherubs. It must be recorded with a touch of amusement that just as the Devil himself entered a Microsoft pop-up appeared warning of a rise in temperature and a possible overheating of equipment. But other than that one small glitch it was a stunning example of what can be done to wed music and technology. Unfortunately nothing else for the remainder of the evening was to equal it in invention or execution. Strangely the opportunities offered by the Witches' Sabbath were either missed or half-baked: the globe proffered to Mefistofele was nothing more than a large disco ball that swung across the stage. Perhaps the production team had indeed run out of ideas, perhaps time – the season was planned very last minute – or, more likely, money – opera house budgets here have been cut by 30% - but the entire concept had an air of the half-baked. Perhaps we will have to wait for the next revival to achieve its creators' full intentions.

That revival may be a while in coming; it should be noted that this was the first performance of Mefistofele at the Teatro, as opposed to the Caracalla summer seasons, since 1959. Despite its considerable worth it is one of those works that sits on the fringe of the repertoire waiting for a star bass who wants to impress his public with his range, whistle and charisma. In the past the presence of a Chaliapin, Pinza, Christoff, Rossi-Lemeni, Treigle or Ghiaurov have been sufficient reason for its revival. More recently Samuel Ramey made it his calling-card in various houses, most often in the witty, tongue-in-cheek production Robert Carsen originally stage for Geneva and that is available on DVD.

As is customary Teatro dell'Opera fielded two sets of principals for this revival. The opening night Mefistofele was given to Bulgarian bass Orlin Anastassov (right). A young singer, he certainly had all the voice necessary for the big moments and there are times when the part seems to be one big moment after another. However what was missing was the charisma, the sort of stage presence that I recall Ramey bringing to the role in Chicago in 1992. Mefistofele must dominate the evening and here for all his vocal abilities Anastassov failed. Clad in a red vest and shirt, reminiscent of Michael Levine's design for Carsen, he spent a great deal of the time flicking his long hair like a Milan model and for some reason kept looking and often seemingly wanting to wander into the wings. He also was awkward when asked to handle cloaks and robes. He bungled the moment when the Friar reveals himself as the Devil and more importantly when he envelopes Faust in his red cloak to take him on his devilish journeys. Unfortunately that rendered the projections that followed incomprehensible. To make it work Mefistofele, the opera and the character, needs a protagonist who's abilities go beyond the musical.

A good deal was written about Stuart Neill on opera blogs and in the media after the La Scala opening night to-do in 2008. Much of it was unflattering comments more about his size than his voice and much was unjustified. Yes, Neill is a very large man and it may be necessary to suspend disbelief when imagining him as a young cavalier but vocally his Faust was the most consistent and thrilling performance of the evening. He has a big Italianate voice that he uses to fine effect if at times with a certain lack of refinement. He is not afraid to let loose in some thrilling fortissimo when needed but is also capable of delicacy in his phrasing. As thrilling as the big sounds were , and they were thrilling, the small phrases – an almost whispered “Pace, pace” as he first approaches Marguerite in prison and the musings of the elderly Faust - also left an impression. And he successfully scaled his sound down to blend with Amarilli Nizza in “Lontano, lontano, lontano” which had a sweetness and melancholy that saved it from descending into bathos.

Nizza had begun the evening in the Garden scene with her voice sounding covered, a very unflattering costume and wig and coquettish stage direction giving her the air of a superannuated school girl. By the prison scene, hair shorn and in a brown shift, she had found herself vocally and dramatically and confirmed the impression she made in 2008 in the Caracalla Butterfly. “L'altra notte” had the required pathos and power but also was of a piece with her singing during the entire scene. Doubling the role of Helen of Troy she delivered a dramatic vision of the burning Troy and she and Neill blended well again in a beautiful “Ah! Amore! Misterio celeste”. Though once more I question the less than flattering costume and wig that designer Anna Biagiotti felt was befitting the most beautiful woman in the world.

Also questionable was choreographer Gillian Whittingham's needless attempt to turn “Notte cupa, truce” into a Merce Cunningham dance piece. The rest of her choreography was pretty standard village may-poling with the perquisite semi-naked couple and it would be a challenge to see the operatic concept of hellish behaviour go beyond the Fellinesque caressing of thighs and lascivious licking of lips.

What was never in question was work of the splendid Rome Opera chorus. Under Andrea Giorgi they have proved to be a saving grace in several productions this past three years. Along with the Voici Bianche di Roma children's chorus – can anything be more delightful than that swarm of cherubs Boito created to worry his Demon – they gave full voice to the miraculous invocation of Heaven which opens and closes the opera. But they also excelled as the demonic voices in the Brocken Scherzo even at the breakneck speed taken by conductor Renato Palumbo.

Despite a worrisome tentativeness to the opening trumpet calls – what is is about Italian orchestra brass sections, even the horns of the famed Orchestra Santa Cecilia have problems – he led a performance that was bold and when required bombastic but he never allowed the orchestral sound to swamp the singers. At times he may have taken the score a little too seriously – the rather enchanting merry-go-round accompaniment to the Garden quartet needed more sparkle – but he had the full measure of the Prologue and Epilogue.

As a sidebar the often distracting Italian surtitles have been jettisoned for this production and quite frankly were not missed.

29 aprile - Santa Caterina da Siena

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Lunedi Mercoledi Musicale Lunacy

Thought I would combine two events that I often posted weekly together. And this is going out as a tribute to my colleague Faye over at Opera Britannia.

If needed Faye could sing both the soprano and alto parts in the duet from Lakmé,and probably do the tenor line if asked. That and I know how much she adores British Airways.

And years in the airlines have taught me that that's exactly what they are thinking.

Mille grazie to Cathy - again!

28 aprile - San Pietro Chanel

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

And Here's Father Ross

A collect at the ordination of a priest
Almighty God, who hath given you this will to do all these things: Grant also unto you strength and power to perform the same; that he may accomplish his work that he hath begun in you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

And here is Father Ross and Albert - Ross is wearing a chasuble (the red vestment that he is sporting) that Albert made for him - though he rather irreverently revered to it as a Horse blanket. If it is a horse blanket it was made for a thoroughbred.

27 aprile - Santa Zita vergine

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Monday, April 26, 2010

When I Miss "Home"

Life as a foreign service spouse is pretty exotic - the places we've been, the things we've done. It really is beyond anything I would have every imagined growing up as a kid in a small community outside Toronto. It is an incredible and exciting experience.

But it has its downside. You are away from friends and family for long periods of time and though you keep in touch your lives run parallel courses. Sometimes it takes its toll on relationships but I've been fortunate that most of my friendships have remained firm through moves and shifts in locale and "home".

Being "away" has often meant missing great, and not so great, moments in friends lives - weddings, engagements, births, deaths, anniversaries, birthdays. Oh yes, you send flowers or greetings or make a phone call but ultimately you are missing in the joy - and the sorrow - of important moments in their lives.

Such a moment is happening in Ottawa tonight: in a few hours a dear friend who I have known for 30 years is taking another step in a life that has been varied, rich - at times bizarre - and rewarding.

When I first met Ross he had moved to Ottawa to become minister at the First United Methodist church. I will not go into the story of the many changes that I saw in his life over the following years - that would be an intrusion and deserves a story in itself - but eventually he left the church. The incredible gifts that he had as a preacher/teacher were put to use in the later capacity as he began to establish himself in the training and facilitating world. He had the gift to reach out to and in to people. His activities ranged from dealing with Armed Forces personnel to AIDS advocates and activists.

I remember when he announced, at one of our lunch dates, that he had met someone who he thought could become very special in his life. Given that Ottawa is a small town I should not have been surprised to discover that though I didn't know Albert personally, I knew of him and had worked with some of his family. And indeed Albert was that someone special. Sadly we missed their wedding last year but I can honestly say I could not have wished for anyone for my friend who was a better match. Again their story is a personal one and not the reason for this posting.
My dear friend Ross, soon to be "Father" Ross, and his spouse Albert, soon I guess to be the Vicar's wife?????

The reason for this rambling reminiscence of a lovely and loving friendship is that tonight Ross enters another phase of his life. Tonight the Bishop of Ottawa and priests from the diocese will lay hands on him and ordain him as a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada. Albert will be there and they will be surround by a host of loving friends and relations. I only wish that I could be amongst that congregation to first say goodbye to Ross and then embrace with all my heart "Father" Ross.

My dear friend, congratulations on the newest path in your life. I know you will travel it as you have traveled every road - with humour, love, devotion and with Albert as your support it will a happy, if challenging, time.

Love you with all my heart.

26 aprile - Santa Hope

Friday, April 23, 2010

Monday's Child

Picking up on a thread from my darling YDG, the irrepressible JacqueSue, who got it from from the far from repressed Sling:
Monday's child is fair of face,
Tuesday's child is full of grace,
Wednesday's child is full of woe,
Thursday's child has far to go,
Friday's child is loving and giving,
Saturday's child works hard for his living,
And the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.

Well according to this calculator I was born on a Monday! Let's not dwell on that but rather on George Petty's artistic interpretation of the first day of the old rhyme.

Much fairer than any picture of me.

23 aprile - Sant'Adalberto

Monday, April 19, 2010

Lunedi Lunacy

When inspiration hits, it hits!

Many thanks to Elaine for this one.

19 aprile - Sant'Ermogene

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Back to the Books

Its been some time since I've written anything for the blog - for a few other areas yes but blog entries have been sadly lacking. And god knows that its not that I'm not at the computer! I am! Both at work and at home - often with the two hounds from hell fighting over my lap. However I've decided that I have got to get back to regular blogging but also spend a bit less time at the keyboard.

So last weekend when I joined Laurent in Palermo I didn't take my IBook with me - I won't even go into the IMac saga at the moment. I thought I'd leave the recounting of our trip to him; which he did here and here. He had left a few days before me and got to see more of the city than I, but we both enjoyed it. He had the good fortune to be given a lovely birthday present by our friend Lionel - at a loss as to what to give someone who has almost everything he gifted him with a private guide for a tour of the stunning Serpotta Oratories. It was an original and very thoughtful gift.

As for me I may not have had an IBook but I had a Book! Yes you read right, a Book! So the time spent sitting around both Fumicino and Palermo (due to a confusion in reservations I had an extra 3 hour wait there) airports and the hour long flight to and from were spent reading. Mind you there are worse things that sitting on the terrace by the seaside at Palermo Airport enjoying a good book, a coffee and canoli. Hey you can't go to Sicily and not have canoli.

My choice of reading material was a book I bought last summer when I was on a bit of a Jan Morris kick. I had been to Trieste and my blog buddy David had suggested that as a follow up I read Morris's Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. And speaking of David I really do owe him a post about the great evening we spent in London with him and Jeremy. A night of music, fun, food and friendship for which I thank them both and assure him that blog silence on the occasion is the result of my own recent inertia and nothing else.

I had bought, read and loved the Trieste book and followed it up with Conundrum and The World: Life and Travel. Now I felt it was about time that I started into the British Empire trilogy which is one of Morris's major works. The first book, Heaven's Command, traces the Empire from the coronation to the death of Queen Victoria. The breadth of the subject is enormous but Morris has a way of bringing history not only to life but making it intimate and personal.

I grew up at a time when a good deal of any map was pink - indicating the remains of the Empire that even as a new Queen was being crowned was dissolving. I was taught about the glories of the British conquest of India, China, South Africa and Canada - a conquest that brought with it good solid British traditions, prosperity and Christianity. Of course I wasn't taught about the cost of those conquests. Nor was there the least suggestion that being a part of that Empire was less than a privilege and honour.

Writing at a later time and freed of the constraints of that Empire Morris talks with often brutal honesty of the high cost - human particularly - of Empire. And of course there is so much we were never taught in school as it would have conflicted with the official line of the time. Yes as shocking as it sounds most of us now know that we were fed historical propaganda at school.

The chapter on the Afghan war of 1839-42 makes for fascinating reading. At the end of the war 16,000 British soldiers, families and supporters retreated from Kabul. Of that number only one man returned to tell the story of a conflict that involved flawed intelligence, lack of understanding of the people, culture and terrain, hostile locals, tribal rivalries and alliances, religious intolerance (on both sides), a resented installed government, inept British commanders and double dealing Afghan allies. Sound familiar - so much for learning from history!

As I read her chapter on the Great Irish Potato famine of the 1840s I quite honestly found myself tearing up. Her descriptions of the people and the times are heart breaking and at times almost unbelievable. And unlike so many writers she does not come down heavy on one side or the other but looks with equanimity at the natural, the cultural, the religious, the English and the Irish causes of events that changed the face of the country forever. And the same stands true of her handling of the story of Louis Riel and the uprisings in Canada. Again a page of my country's story that when I was being taught history was a whitewash of English Canada of the period and a definite condemnation of the Métis culture of Manitoba.

And so it goes in chapter after chapter - India, Hong Kong, the West Indies, Ceylon - a historical view wealthy in fact, fiction and anecdote. Morris is one of those authors whose personal life is as rich as her writing and who I am content to be returning to. If the remaining two books of the trilogy are as engaging and exciting as the first one - and given that its Morris I'm sure they are - then I'm in for a few weeks of great reading.

18 aprile - San Calogero

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Wagner Does the Cirque du Soleil

Once again last month I headed up to Milan for a performance at La Scala - I can't help thinking, as I seem to do the trip on a regular basis these days, that I wish my Father could see me now. Back when I was a Wee Willym I sat with him and a copy of Opera News and showed him exactly where I would go when I grew up; of course in those days I was going to sit right in the middle of the Royal Box - and who knows maybe one day I will. But meanwhile 51 years later I have to make do with a very good poltroni on the platea. And this time I was going to review a performance of Tannhauser for Opera Britannia.

I think the title of this post may say it all but if you'd like to find out more about what was, if theatrically over the top, musically a splendid evening just click on the poster and it will take you to the review.

And I still wish Daddy could see me now.

13 aprile - San Martino I Papa

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Hounds on the Appia

Saturday was a lovely day so with our friend Jack and his super duper camera that does everything but popcorn and do dirty tricks we headed out to the Via Appia Antica. Nicky and Nora are not fond of car rides - possibly because they normally end in a session at the vets or boot camp. Walking the two of them can be a bit of a challenge - Nora waddles at an alarming pace as she tracks every smell she finds and Nicky trots like a thoroughbred just waiting to leave his mark. This time they had a real Roman road to race along. And on this walk they saw their first horses - Nora was all for taking them on, Nicky put up a brave show - from a distance.

A rest break near an a bit of Roman history didn't seem to impress either of them. Just another rock to sniff - though some of those smells were awfully old.

06 aprile - Santa Prudence

Monday, April 05, 2010


Today is Pasquetta or little Easter - what we call Easter Monday in Canada. I'm not sure why we get the day after Easter off but it appears it is part of the celebration in many countries with Christian traditions.

I remember in Poland it was Śmigus-Dyngus (Wet Monday)a day on which a boy drenched the girl he fancies with water and (don't ask!) whips her across the legs with a willow branch. The later tradition - part of a mating ritual - had pretty much disappeared and the water soaking was the main focus when we were there. And as I recall prospective matrimony was not central to the act, just soaking someone for the fun of it.

Here in Roma almost everything closed so this is a day to picnic or to go for a stroll with friends and family and enjoy the first signs of spring. And walk off the calories piled on by all the elaborate chocolate goodies that were consumed over the weekend.
On previous Easters I've posted photos of some of the gloriously over the top Easter Eggs for sale in Pastry shops here and bought to give to loved ones. However I don't think I had ever seen eggs quite as fanciful as these in a shop window in Milano.
Always one to prefer fashion to food Laurent got this chocolate tie from the Easter Bunny this year. Fashion tip: Don't wear it with a white shirt!

05 aprile - Pasquetta

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Sunday, April 04, 2010

Easter Memories

Every Easter I look back with growing nostalgia for the years I spent worshiping at St Thomas, Huron Street in Toronto. It was a place of incredible music, ritual, faith and friendship - particularly friendship. It was a congregation of people who cared. Yes the ritual was splendid - banners, smells and bells - but it was also a congregation that reached out into its neighborhood and worked to provide services for the students, working parents and elderly. Worship didn't end at the communion rail of a Sunday.

During my time there the music was directed by Walter McNutt - an organist of incredible skill at improvisation and a remarkable service player. His wonderful choir - boys, women and men - sang a mixture of the traditional and the more adventuresome but you knew that certain hymns would be sung at certain times of the year.

Without fail the Easter vigil would always end with Francis Pott's translation of the old Latin hymn Fi­ni­ta jam sunt prael­ia. And it would always be the setting called Victory - an adaptation by William H. Monk of Palestrina's Mag­nif­i­cat Ter­tii To­ni.
The strife is o’er, the battle done;
The victory of life is won;
The song of triumph has begun: Alleluia!

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

As I was making this video memories of processing out of the sanctuary with the clergy and choir came to mind. Hearing individual voices in the congregation that I recognized as I walked past them exchanging smiles and nods: my darling Elizabeth with her bass voice gruffing away, Gail, her glasses slipping down as she bowed every so slightly in greeting, Winnie, a small Dresden china figure who had lived all her 80 years in the parish and still wore a hat with a veil and gloves to church; Don with his great booming CBC announcer voice; so many more dear loving and much loved friends.

I was asked recently if I missed the church and in many ways I do. Yes, for the ritual, for the music, for the comfort that faith brought but mostly for the friendship which brought both comfort and love.

For them all: Christ is Risen! Alleluia!

And in my heart and mind I can still hear them respond: He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

04 aprile - Il resurrezione di nostro Signore

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Saturday, April 03, 2010

A Good Friday Meditation

Again one of the small treasures, of so many, in the V&A collection was this altarpiece from Lombardy. Attributed to the the del Maino brothers it would have been created in their workshop in Pavia. It was made for Sant'Agostino, Piacenza where it remained until 1841. The predella addresses the Nativity while the upper piece traces the events of the crucifixion. Back in my days as an avid record collector I had the wise counsel of my friend Alan when it came to buying things. Alan worked at Sam the Record Man's and had a coterie of people that he would advise on what they should buy. If Alan said "buy it" I bought it and was very seldom disappointed. Back in 1974 he suggested that I purchase a Archiv recording of a little known Passion by Francesco Corteccia, a Florentine composer at the time of Cosimo di Medici. As with most Passions written for the period the story is told by the Evangelist (in this case John)and the words of the crowd and meditations between events were sung by a choir. The spoken sections are in Florentine dialect and the choral in Latin. I find the sound of Arnoldo Foà's voice has a beauty that is as musical as that of the choir.

Unfortunately I had problems with focus on some of these photos so though it is not of the highest quality I still wanted to share it with you as a meditation on the art of the wood sculptor, the composer, the actor and the musicians.

03 aprile - Sabato Santo

Friday, April 02, 2010

... And Carried Him Away, and Delivered Him to Pilate

One of the many pleasures of our recent holiday in London was the chance to take a look at a few of the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Our friend David had suggested that they were not to be missed - and as always with David he was on the letter.

We saw perhaps a third of the wonders that are in the vast collection. Of course many of the objects were of a religious nature and many addressed the events being commemorated in the Western Christian faith this week.

I was particularly struck by these three small panels (roughly 46x74x12 cms)that were created in 1579-80 by Giambologna, an artist known for his marble and bronze sculptures. The panels, in red wax on a wooden background, are models for a series of six bronze reliefs on the Passion that were done for the Grimaldi Chapel in San Francesco di Castelletto, Genoa. When the church was demolished in 1815 the bronzes created from the models were moved to the University of Genoa and can be seen there today.

And when they had bound him, they led him away, and delivered him to Pontius Pilate, the governor.
Gospel of Matthew

Then came Jesus forth, wearing a crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate said unto them, Behold the Man!
The Gospel of St. John

... he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person ....
Gospel of St Matthew

The medium used to create the models was beeswax with animal fat added, making the mixture easier to model and adhere. Over time some of the fat has separated and come to the surface which gives the models a slightly shiny appearance.

It appears that only these three models survived as no mention of the other three can be found in any catalogs.

02 aprile - Venerdi Santo