Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Mercoledi Musicale

In yesterday's post I mentioned that I have never been a big fan of Bellini and its true that other than I Capulleti e i Montecchi I don't find most of his operas to my taste.  And indeed I find Norma, his biggest hit and best known work,  a bit of a bore - those long lyric lines do very little for me.  However many years ago I was in the audience for one of the great performances of the late 20th century of - you guessed it - Norma.  It was an evening that became legendary in opera circles and remains 37 years later etched in my memory as one of the most incredible evenings I've spent at the opera.

It was July 20, 1974: Montserrat Caballé, Jon Vickers and Josephine Veasey were scheduled to sing the first of several performances of Norma at the summer festival in the old Roman Theatre in Orange.    My friend Bob and I drove up from Avignon - all the hotels in and around Orange had been booked for months and that was the closest place we could find lodgings.  There was excitement in the air - and a Mistral.  That cold, strong, relentless wind that can blow for one or two days and at times a week often reaching speeds of 90km an hour.

We gathered for the 2100 curtain sitting on the stone benches of the ancient theatre, protected from the cold by rented cushions and wrapped in sweaters that we had sensibly brought with us.  The promoters obviously were hoping the wind would drop and delayed the performance for almost 45 minutes - but Mother Nature was having none of that.  So the orchestra clothes pegged their scores to the music stands, the lights went down on a packed house, Giuseppe Patané mounted the podium and what followed was the stuff of legends.  The Mistral was as much a protagonist that evening as the druid Priestess and her unfaithful Roman; indeed perhaps it was the need to fight that constant wind that spurred the singers on to give such magnificent performances. Vickers, never a bel canto specialist, sang with the strength and intensity he brought to all his roles, Veasey was worthy subject of his adoration but at the centre of it all was Caballé giving her considerable all.

Caballé claimed that this was the greatest performance she ever gave and as she listens to the applause you can just catch as slight smile cross her lips.  At that point she, and we, knew that this was going to be something special.

29 giguino - Santi Pietro e Paolo

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Swan of Catania

I've never been a great fan of Bellini. No I don't mean the rather tasty white peach puree and champagne cocktail made famous by Harry's Bar in Venice; I'm speaking of the Sicilian born composer Vincenzo Bellini who along with Rossini and Donizetti make up the big three of 18th century Italian Opera. As a sidebar I note that thought there is a Rossini cocktail (strawberry puree and champagne) I haven't found one named after poor Donizetti - an oversight that really should be corrected.  His death at an early age meant that Bellini's output was small - 10 operas (or eleven if you include one reworking), a scattering of songs, a few neglected symphonies and church pieces.  Of the ten operas only four are performed with any sort of regularity and then only when signers are around who can do them justice - or think they can.

Handsome, elegant, quite the dandy and supremely talented he was the darling of the musical world, the ladies and society in general.  His rather sudden death at the age of 34 made him the perfect "romantic" artist.  That air of "romanticism" and the long lyric lines of his music earned Bellini the title "the Swan of Catania" and there are reminders of and memorials to him throughout his home town.

The Teatro Massimo Bellini was inaugurated on the evening of 31 May 1890 , with Bellini's opera Norma.  The initial design of the theater was by the architect Andrea Scala , with subsequent changes by Carlo Sada who took over from his mentor.  The facade is inspired by the Sansovino Library in Venice.
Right off the mark I have to say that Catania was my least favourite city on our recent trip to Sicilia.  It is a port city and had a certain shabby, seedy melancholy to it that wasn't aided by dull rainy skies during the two days we were there.  It was not the most auspicious weather in which to catch a view of the Teatro Massimo Bellini - which was saluted on its opening in 1890 by Mario Rapidsari with "Questo teatro edificato a spese del Comune e dedicato al nome immortale di Vincenzo Bellini fu solennemente aperto la sera del X Novembre MDCCCLXXXII ad ammaestramento e sollazzo del popolo ea perenne decoro della città. (This theatre was built at the expense of the City and dedicated to the immortal name of Vincenzo Bellini was solemnly opened on the evening of November X MDCCCLXXXII for the instruction and amusement of the people and the dignity of the eternal city." 

Rapidsari would hardly be impressed by the less than "dignified" state that the theatre is in today.  Though still majestic and imposing and used for operas and concerts, like much of the rest of the city, it has seen better days.  The elaborate iron work is rusted, the facade scared by the weather, the salt sea air and graffiti.  Given the scarcity of money these days, unless a generous donor is found, any sort of restoration is a long time, if ever, off.  

A great interpreter of Bellini and often credited with returning him to popularity Maria Callas is remembered - hardly appropriately - in Catania with an alleyway posing as a Via.  What I'm not showing in this shot are the garbage cans and foraging felines under the street alleyway sign. A paltry tribute to a great artist.

Hemmed in as it is by kiosks, bus shelters and political partisans it is difficult to appreciate the full impact of Monteverde's tribute to "the Swan of Catania".
Eight years before the opera house bearing his name was inaugurated a monument was commissioned by the city and unveiled in September of 1882.  Designed by sculptor Giulio Monteverde its location was the cause of infighting amongst members of the Commune.  One group wanted it placed (logically it would seem) in front of the Teatro which was then under construction.  Another group wanted it to replace the iconic Elephant Fountain in the Piazza Duomo.  The third - and ultimately successful group - wanted it raised in Piazza Stesicoro at the junction of Via Etnea and Corso Sicilia.

Monteverde was a leader in the "naturalist" movement and became one of the most sought after sculptors of his time.  Working entirely in white marble he created an allegory to Catania's beloved son.  Seven steps - the musical notes - lead to a column topped by the seated composer.  On the four sides of the column are figures from what were consider, at the time, his four most famous works: Norma, Il pirata, La sonnambula and I puritani.  Though it has been protected from graffiti artists by a wrought iron fence is has become hemmed in by bus and news kiosks and the day we were there a group of Neo-Fascists demanding the expulsion of all "stanieri" from Italy - perhaps not without irony as one of Bellini's first success was a work called La staniera - The Stranger. 


Il Pirata

La sonnambula

I puritani
Surrounded by figures representing four of his most popular works and caught in eternal youth, Bellini sits, perhaps a bit bemused, amidst the hustle and bustle of  Piazza Stesicoro on Via Etnea, Catania's main thoroughfare. 

The Duomo and its Piazza are fascinating examples of Sicilian Baroque in monochrome and despite the attempts to replace him with Bellini, u Liotru the Elephant and beloved symbol of Catania is still holding centre stage as he has since he was assembled in 1736.  That is not to say that the city's musical son has been forgotten - his final resting place is prominent amongst the splendors of the Duomo.

The remains of Bellini are guarded by a life-sized angel and an eternal (electric) flame.
Bellini died suddenly on September 23, 1835 in Puteaux near Paris, the result of a reoccurring intestinal infection.  Like so many other famous residents of the city he was buried in Cimetière du Père-Lachaise and suitably commemorated with a memorial.  However in 1876 his body was exhumed and transported back to his birthplace and a fitting - if slightly sentimental -19th century memorial built to hold his remains.

The tomb was created by Giovanni Battista Tassara, a sculptor, patriot and one of the Garibaldino soldiers in the Expedition of the Thousand in 1860.  I'm not sure if this bronze bas-relief is meant to be a scene from Bellini's most famous opera Norma or is connected to the inscription on the tomb from La Sonnambula.
The tomb bears the first words of one of the more famous arias from La sonnambula:  Ah! non credea mirarti / Sì presto estinto, o fior - Ah I did not think that I would see you wilt so soon, o flower.  An appropriate epitaph for a composer who died at the age of 34 and at the height of his popularity.
The tomb was the work of Giovanni Battista Tassara, a patriot-artist whose family were fisherfolk in Genova.  An ardent Garibaldino and socialist he had fought in some of the more crucial battles for a unified Italy.  Initially he studied under Giovanni Battista Cevasco, when he moved to Firenze he shunned the idea of a teacher to work in a "collective" with other artists in Tuscany.  Though he had done some prior projects the 1876 commission from Catania was to be his first major and best known work.  The tomb was unveiled to general approval in 1878 and Tassara hoped it would lead to other commissions.  Sadly his remaining years were filled with debt and disappointment though he remained an avid socialist and mentor to young artists.  He attempted to enlist at the outbreak of World War I but was considered too old and served as an orderly in the military hospital in his home town.  In 1916 he died while tending to the war wounded.
Two rather pretty angels assist the equally pretty Bellini on his assent into the celestial spheres - a touch of the overly sentimental style of the period.  But an exit befitting the perfect "romantic" artist.
At the age of 18 Bellini left his home town to begin formal studies in Napoli and by 1822 had begun his travels around Europe as the darling of the musical world.  He was to spend much of his time in Milano, Firenze and Paris and there is nothing to suggest that he had any great affection for his birthplace or even returned to it in the remaining 16 years of his life.  None the less Catania is still proud of its musical son and he is still commemorated and celebrated as their "Swan".

28 giugnio - Sant'Ireneo di Lione

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Monday, June 27, 2011

Lunedi Lunacy

Lest that vile rumour that has been going around that I have a shoe fetish gain any credence I thought I would post a few photos of something else I found a bit "lunatic" in a shop window in Ravenna this past weekend.  Apparently these bags are very high fashion - and I might add high priced - that little tomato number - only €105.00 ($149.00).  And who wouldn't want to be seen strolling through the market with that clutched firmly in hand?

And a reminder that a left click will give you a closer look at these haute couture creations in another window.

Myself I rather like the snails but I'm not really that sure what would be worn to compliment them? Something garlicy and buttery???

And yes there are shoes in the pictures - not my fault! The store just happened to sell shoes as well!

27 giugno - San Cirillo di Alessandria

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Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Carciofi That Blooms in the Spring! tra la!

We have come to the end of carciofi (artichoke) season here - it runs roughly from February to April - and markets are no longer displaying the trays of green spiked globes or tubs of trimmed Cynara thistles so dear to the hearts of Roman cooks and kitchens. Though its still possible to order them in restaurants - particularly in the Ghetto - like most things they taste better in season.  But I sometimes wonder if that isn't a matter of anticipation?  What we can't have tastes better when we finally can!

One of Peck's flavourful but expensive
Though I don't have quite the same passion for them as other people in my household I enjoy the odd Carciofi alla giudia.  And I am particularly enamoured of the carciofini in oil sold at Peck in Milano, tiny artichokes smaller than your thumb nail but intense with flavour.  However given the price for even a small jar they are a rare treat indeed.

So the season's over why the post?

It all has to do with a late morning coffee stop  in Ravenna yesterday!  It was time for that jolt of caffeine that makes tromping over cobblestones and wandering through museums just that much easier, so we stopped en route to the Arian Baptistery for a cappuccino and a machiato at the Cafe Byron - is there a place in Italy that madcap didn't go???  At a table in one corner sat an elderly lady who acknowledge our arrival, as is common here, with a nod and a buon giorno.  Though it seemed a bit early for pranzo a glass of red wine sat in front of her and she was delicately and methodically mopping up the sauce from the remains of a plate of pasta with a piece of bread.

As my cappucc was being steamed I noticed a bunch of flowers on the counter behind the bar - a pom-pom of bright purple spikes surrounded by ...  could it be?  Artichoke bracts?  "Yes," said the charming lady behind the bar, "they are artichokes, and aren't they lovely?"  I was astounded - I'd never seen an artichoke flower or for that matter ever really thought that an artichoke did flower.  But of course it does - its a type of thistle and thistles flower.  "And smell them," she said, "they have a lovely perfume."  And indeed they did with just a touch of exotic spiciness.  She added that they were a present from the Signora, nodding towards the elderly diner.

When I expressed my admiration to the Signora she beamed and said that she had picked them herself earlier in the morning from her garden.  Her smile got even broader when I asked permission to take a photograph for the internet.  "Flowers from her garden?  On the internet?"  She would be honoured but she was also amused that I had never seen an artichoke blossom before.  Fortunately I was able to make a little joke and said "Ah Signora I'm always in a hurry to eat them."

Wouldn't you know it!  I can finally make a joke in Italian just when it comes time to leave.

26 giugno - San Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer

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Monday, June 20, 2011

Lunedi Lunacy

Now surely - I know don't call me Shirley - neither one of my faithful readers thought for a moment that I would go to Milano and not take photos of shoes????   I mean come-on now!  It was my last chance to take a look at the gloriously outrageous over-the-top fashion statements that are scarpe in Italy and more particularly Milano.  I just know I'm not going to see anything like these on the Sparks Street Mall or at Bayshore let alone adorning the tender tootsies of les belles dames d'Outaouais.

Just a reminder that a left click on the image will give you - should you really want one - a closer look at the art of the calzolaio.

As I strolled past the high-end shops on Via Monte Napoleone and Via Santo Spirito I came across footwear that once again had me wracking my brain to image where or when they would be worn.  Or perhaps more accurately why?  And let's add the remaining interrogatives?  Who would wear them and how exactly do they manage on those bloody cobblestones?

It would appear that despite a few lighter items, obviously for the beach provided you don't actually go to the beach, ladies of fashion will be sporting lots of thick leather straps and buckles this season.  And a few will even be aping my grandmother by wearing high button (okay laced) shoes as street wear.  But it also looks like they'll be changing into the comfort of ballet slippers for those more informal moments at home.

If the colourful booties at Missoni weren't enough I knew I could count on Rene Caovilla across the way to feature a few little items to stimulate the imagination and empty the pocketbook.  And notice the ballet slippers - they really are becoming all the rage.

And the rain and an approaching train departure meant I had only scratched the surface of the quadrilatero della moda.  I never made it over to Via della Spiga or the side streets for a gander at some of the more outrageous windows.  I'm going to miss the crazy world of Italian shoes - it always made for entertaining viewing.

20 giugno - Sant'Ettore

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Friday, June 17, 2011

Milano - A Rain Day - Part 3 - Winter in Spring

Just prior to the Paladino exhibitions the Palazzo Reale had mounted a retrospective of the work of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the Renaissance painter known for his strange portraits made up of vegetables, plants, fruit, sea creatures and tree roots.  Much of his "normal" work has been overshadowed by these fantastical human heads but the Milano exhibition offered a more complete view of the Milanese artist who worked for the Hapsburg as a court painter in Vienna and Prague.

L'inverno (Winter) is one of the four oils on canvas that Arcimboldo created in 1573 devoted to the Seasons. Sadly the series was split up: Winter, Summer and Autumn are found in the Louvre while Spring hangs in the Madrid's Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando.

Unfortunately I wasn't able to get up to Milano during the three months it was on but still got a bit of the flavour of Arcimboldo, howbeit at second hand. During the exhibition - and currently - passersby in front of the Piazza Reale were welcomed into the Palazzo Reale not by the madcap Milanese but by an modern artist.  Winter, created in 2010 by American artist Philip Haas,was inspired by L'Inverno, one of a quartet of oils the artist painted in 1573.

Taking as his inspiration not only Acrimboldo's work but also the elaborate decorations for court balls and fetes at the Hapsburg Courts where he served,  Haas created a 4.6 metre (15 feet) high piece in fibre glass. The monumental scale of the sculpture highlights the visual puzzle created by the natural elements - dark, branches, twigs, moss, vines, ivy even straw barriers used in the winter to protect the fruit trees all combine to create an image of a European winter.

I've been thinking about winter a great deal lately and I must admit that neither Arcrimboldo's, rather menacing, version of Old Man Winter nor Haas's, slightly more benign, rethinking have me looking forward to it.

As the blue skies would indicate these pictures where taken the day before my walk in the rain - however as I was strolling umbrella held high through the Piazza del Duomo it was hard to miss it so I did get a second look.

17 giugno - San Ranieri Scacceri

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To Good .....

.... not to share.

I don't normally make political comments other than the odd clucking of my tongue about things in Canada.  And I don't tend to make comments about politics in other countries but this cartoon by CAM for the Ottawa Citizen just had to be shared.

Pretty much says it all doesn't it????

Many thanks to Gary for sending this on.

17 giugnio - Santi Nicandro, Marciano e Daria

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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Milano - A Rain Day - Part 2

After listening to the jazz band in the old Mercante building I popped into the tavola caldo at Al Mercante for a tuna salad, a glass of wine and a dolci. I must admit I was a little taken aback when a glass - and only a glass - of Pinot Grigio added €12.00 to the bill!!!!! €12.00 for a glass of white wine - either a touch of the old get-the-tourist or they were just preparing me for Ottawa prices. Then over to the Piazza Duomo, umbrella unfurled to take a second look at an installation that was being tended to the previous day when I passed by.

Even without the sun glistening off its white surface the Mountain of Salt couldn't help  but dominate the space between the Palazzo Reale and the Duomo.
The Museo at the Palazzo Reale is mounting a special series of exhibitions to celebrate thirty years in the creative life of artist Mimmo Paladino.  One of his more fascinating and controversial pieces has been recreated in the space between the Palazzo Reale and the Duomo.  Paladino first created Montagna di Sale (Salt Mountain) some twenty years ago in Gibellina, a small hill town in Sicily and then again in Piazza del Plebiscito in Napoli 15 years ago.

Some of the 150 quintals of salt used in Mimmo Paladino's Montagna di Sale had been washed away in a weekend of rain and a few of the horses had toppled. Several bags of the extra 100 quintals of Sicilian salt were being used to make repairs to the installation on the Monday as I walked by.

Though it may not exactly be a "mountain" it is definitely salt - 150 quintals of the finest Sicilian salt. That's 1500 kilos or 1 1/2 tons of salt transported from the mines in Agrigento and Petralia in the far South to Milan in the north - plus another 100 quintals held in reserve to keep the sculpture in good condition.   The whole - the transporting from one end of the country to the other, that 150 figure - are all meant to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Unification of Italy that we are celebrating this year.

Many of the horses look to be struggling, plowing through the salt or emerging from it.  Their appearance is strongly reminiscent of sculptures seen in many of the collections of artifacts of earlier Italian civilizations.
First unveiled in mid-April the installation stand 10 meters high (about 33 feet) with a 35 meter (115 feet) diameter.  However those measurements are fluid as it is salt and subject to the whims of nature.  After several days of rain there were repairs being made to it in the sunshine on Monday and Tuesday's rain suggested more repairs would be needed in the weeks until its disappears for good in mid-July.

Thirty sculptured horses in black modelled, it would appear, on ancient and primitive equine sculptures stand out against the white salt.  Some are balanced on the mound, others are emerging from or disappearing into its depths.  In some cases - though the horses are almost uniform in their appearance and featureless - they appear to be struggling against their ascent or fighting to extricate themselves from some saline prison.

 When seen against the Gothic spires and arches of the Duomo those horses take on an almost mythical appearance. 
Having made its way from South to North over a period of twenty years Paladino's has expressed the hope that it will travel the length of the country as a show of the cultural unity of Italy.  I'm trying to think of some place in Roma where it would look as stunning as it does in its Milan setting.

I only wish I had the opportunity to see it in full sunshine - I'm sure the impact, both virtually and photographically, would be stunning.

16 giugno - Santi Quirico e Giulitta

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