Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Mercoledi Musicale

Back in 1972 the unlikely chart topper was a song based on the life and work of Van Gogh.  Don Mclean's Vincent, along with the eponymous song, was one of two hits from his album American Pie.

The album was dedicated to Buddy Holly and the title song has often been associated with that fatal plane crash that may well be thought of as "the day the music died".  Mclean himself has never been pinned down as to its meanings.  When asked once what it means he responded "It means I'll never have to work again."

Vincent was written as a tribute to the genius of both the painter and the man - someone who Mclean admired greatly.  The references to Van Gogh's works and life are many and have been catalogued in various places.

For some of us growing up in the early 70s those two songs had a resonance and a meaning that romanticized the loss of a defining artist and the belated recognition of a great one.   And I might ingenuously suggested that Starry Starry Night speaks more eloquently - and simply - of Van Gogh's work than many of the ponderous dissertations in catalogues and art magazines.

30 May - 1832: The Rideau Canal in eastern Ontario is opened.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Lunedi Lunacy

Last Thursday we went to the opening of Van Gogh: Up Close the exhibition that's intended to be this year's blockbuster at the National Gallery here in Ottawa. A retrospective it focuses on the flora that Van Gogh captured in his earlier years.  I'll be writing a bit about my own impressions of the first major show of Van Gogh's work in Canada in 25 years tomorrow but in the meant time here's a touch of lunacy.

On a trip to New York last week friend Cathy caught this take on one of the Dutch artist's more famous paintings:  The Starry Night.  Who knows maybe Van Gogh's inspiration was the result of a sugar rush brought on by one too many M&Ms????

And it reminded me of a wonderful exhibition in Chicago many years ago of the art of Chuck Jones, the brilliant American animator.  His company of mad-cap characters - Bugs, Elmer, Porky - sat for their portraits by the greats:  Whistler, Munch, Picasso, Chagall, Da Vinci, Lautrec and Van Gogh. And who better to be captured by the obsessive post-impressionist than that most obsessive of creatures Wile E. Coyote.

Obviously painted after the tragic events of December 1888 the look in Wile E.'s suggests that his obsession with his muse - much like Van Gogh's - had become even more "earie".

More about Chuck Jones and his work can be found at Chuck Redux - a fun blog with animations and art inspired by and influenced by the master animator.

28 May - 1934: Near Callander, Ontario, the Dionne quintuplets are born to Oliva and Elzire Dionne; they will be the first quintuplets to survive infancy.
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Friday, May 25, 2012

Friday's Flowers

I grew up surrounded by lilacs; my father and brother had poured a concrete patio beside the house; it was under the shade of a huge weeping willow and protected on two sides by stands of lilacs. Well over 8 feet high even when weighed down with great clusters of purple flowers, on warm summer nights they filled the night air with an incredible scent - slightly reminiscent of the perfume my Grandmother favoured.

They also seemed to attract a great number of mosquitoes who felt that my person was the best dining venue in Alderwood. When I would come in - on those nights I was allowed to stay out with the family enjoying the night air - I would be covered in mosquito bites which then called for an application of a bit of lather from a bar of Lifeboy soap. In those days Lifeboy was a carbolic soap with a mild anti-bacterial power and, as far as I was concerned great healing powers - it did seem to take the sting out of those pesky bites. The fragrance of lilac mingled with the smell of carbolic soap is the Proustian Madeline of my childhood.

Fast forward to our first house in Hunt Club. It was a garden home with a patch of yard bounded by three townhouse walls and a cedar fence. It was basically hard clay, scrub grass and a small - almost Lilliputian - stone patio. But in the corner stood a lovely Persian lilac it was festooned with fragrant white blossoms. It was almost 12 feet high and by the time we moved out seven years later it was two stories high. But it almost wouldn't have had that chance to grow if one person - who shall remain nameless - had followed through on the plan to cut it down! Fortunately clearer minds - mine said he modestly - prevailed and it became a integral part of my small garden.  Hostas, lily of the valley and Solomon seals shared its shade with a cedar deck.  The rest of the garden was dotted with fox gloves, bergamot, daisies, campanella and a lovely hardy President Kekkonen rose bush surrounded a small waterfall illuminated by a stone Japanese lantern. The background was a cedar fence covered with Virginia creeper which glowed bright red in the waning days of fall. When I think back on those days in Hunt Club I hear the sounds of the waterfall, the glow of the lantern and the scent of lilac. Of all the gardens I have had I think it was that one that I created from clay and scrub that gave me the most pleasure and contentment.

All this to introduce today's flower - the lilac. Perhaps its just me being sentimental but I think Grandeville captured the very essence of that most gentle - but hardy - of flowers perfectly.

Someone was asking why I show multiple versions of the same print?  These were engravings that were coloured by hand and so from copy to copy there is a variation - sometimes in colouring, sometimes in shading, often in clarity because of differences in technique.  I find that often details missed in one can be found an another.  And also give the age of the books these were taken from  and the care given to them by the owners - some may be faded or discoloured which gives them, I think at least, an added dimension.

25 May - 1895: Playwright, poet, and novelist Oscar Wilde is convicted of "committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons" and sentenced to serve two years in prison.
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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Mercoledi Musicale

Last week I spoke about how classical artists have often "crossed-over" into the popular field and tenors seem to lead the field or at least in the 20th century. Enrico Caruso, John McCormack, Richard Tauber were famous tenors who in the first half of the last century acknowledged that popular tunes could be as profitable - if not more so - as operatic arias.  In fact McCormack pretty much deserted the operatic stage for the recording and radio studios.  And Tauber was a great favourite in Great Britain during the war and had his own radio broadcast as well as appearances in operetta and film.

One of my favourite - amongst so many - Jerome Kern songs is from his last show Very Warm for May.  The show flopped after a run of 59 performances and that despite one of the most engaging scores that Oscar Hammerstein and Kern had created over their 15 year collaboration.  For some reason Hammerstein would not allow the show to be revived but this song took on a life of its own and was sung by jazz singers, crooners, pop singers, cabaret performers and here by the wonderful Richard Tauber.

Tauber was an Austrian who had great success in both opera and operetta in Vienna and was famous for his Mozart roles at the Vienna State Opera.  However because of his Jewish ancestry he was forced to leave when Austria was annexed in 1938.  He left everything behind and with his wife sought refuge in Great Britain.  Despite tempting offers from the U.S. he was to become a British citizen and remained there until he death in 1947.

One of his greatest successes, both in Austria and the UK, was Lehar's The Land of Smiles but it also proved his financial downfall.  A New York production of the operetta in 1946 was a flop and he lost most of his money to the backers.  However after his death his widow as able to pay off the considerable debts with the royalties from his many British recordings.  One of his most popular recordings was the hit song from Lehar's story of the unhappy love between a Chinese Prince and a Viennese Countess.  Tauber was to record it both in German as Dein ist mein ganzes Hertz and many times in English as You Are My Heart's Desire.  He also included it in almost every concert he gave and this version is from a broadcast he did just before that unsuccessful American tour.

As bittersweet as tale told in Land of Smiles was Tauber's last appearance before his beloved English public.  In April 1947 he had returned from the disastrous trip to New York complaining of a persistent cough and was shortly thereafter diagnosed with lung cancer.  In September the Vienna State Opera visited London for a short season and invited him to sing Don Ottavio in a performance of Don Giovanni.  Reportedly on the evening of September 27 he sang with all the polish of yore and with an undiminished sweetness of tone that belie his failing health.  A week later he was to enter hospital but surgery was unsuccessful and he died in January of 1948. 

23 May - 1829: The patent for the Accordion is granted to Cyrill Demian in Vienna.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Lunedi Lunacy ... on Tuesday

Editorial cartoonist Matt Bors created this cartoon as a protest against the insipid cartoons that filled the pages of newspapers - both paper and virtual - after the death of Steve Jobs. Gives pause for thought doesn't it?

I found this over at  Bado's Blog - a great look at cartooning - political and more.

Matt Bors just won the 2012 Herblock Prize for Political Cartooning and more of his work can be seen at

22 May - 334 BC – The Macedonian army of Alexander the Great defeats Darius III of Persia in the Battle of the Granicus.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Welcome to Canada

Queen Victoria (Charles Léandre,
Le Rire, June 12, 1897)
In the middle of the last century when I was a wee Willy - oh grow up the lot of you!!!! - today was known as Victoria Day and we celebrated the birthday of a Queen who had been dead for over 50 years. But as I wrote previously it was a time to assert our "Britishness" -  to fly our Union Jacks and show that we were loyal Monarchists through and through.  In 1953 - after the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth - it became the official day for observing the Queen's Birthday (though her birthday is actually April 21), up until then the Monarch's birthday had been a bit of a movable feast.   Now 50 years later it seems to be a day that has lost any Royal significance and has become better known as the "Let's Open the Cottage" weekend.

Back in 1951 as well as Victoria Day we had another occasion to show how true, blue and loyal we were and show it we did.  The young Princess Elizabeth and her husband came to Canada for a visit in October of that year.  For 33 days she toured Canada and included in that trip was a 48-km ride through the streets and boroughs of the Queen's City - Toronto.  As I recall we were given the day off school and little union jacks, red ensigns and buttons that proclaimed our welcome to the Princess and her Prince were distributed.

A few days ago while going through a drawer I came across two of those small buttons - long forgotten souvenirs of a childhood memory.   In all probability my mother had kept them and when I was cleaning out her apartment I found them and as now so then memories were revived and I put them away as a memento of an era that even in 1996 had been long past.  An era when like the young Princess we looked forward to the last half of the 20th century with optimisms and high expectations.

This image is much larger than the buttons we were given in 1951
- the actual button is about 1 1/2 inches across - the 25 year old Princess would have
had to have remarkable eyesight to see this Welcome on my lapel.
Ah well when you are 5 years old its the thought that counts.

Of course I don't remember the exact date or really the details but because it was October we must have dressed warmly for the trek up to the Queen Elizabeth Highway.  A 10 minute walk from our hose the QEW was the major highway (4 lanes! can you believe it?); it had been named after the Princess's  mother and dedicated on the Royal Visit in 1939.  I do remember that my mother and father took Teresa - our next door neighbour and my best friend - and I up to join the crowd that lined the road - our whole neighbourhood was there.  We were all waiting to greet the Princess - flags at the ready, buttons proudly displayed and hearts primed to show our future monarch how much we loved her and her Prince.  The motorcade moved passed us - we waved and cheered and behind the glass a small figure acknowledged us with a smile and a wave.   It was a fleeting moment but I knew then as I am as sure 51 years later that she waved and smiled right at me!

21 May - 1502: The island of Saint Helena is discovered by the Portuguese explorer João da Nova.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Friday's Flower

Being forced to learn Wordsworth's cloying little paean to that "jocund company" in grade school I should have reason enough to detest daffodils with a passion.  But you had to give old William his due,  he had it right - a bed of daffodils nodding and swaying in the breeze is a sight that does cause the heart to raise a few levels on the joyful scale.

What I hadn't realize until I did a bit of Googling that the daffodil is the same as  the narcissus is the same as the jonquil.  Nor did I know that it is highly toxic and though the most oft told derivation of its name comes from the Greek legend of a very lovely and vain young man it may also come from the Greek word narkao or "I grow numb", describing its narcotic properties.

The story that Delord tells and Grandville illustrates in Les fleurs animées recounts another tale of vanity but this time the vain one is a young Sicilian beauty spoken of as a warning to all young girls.

Sadly young Louis, a brave lad, a bold sailor and a kind comrade falls hopelessly in love with the vain beauty.  She leads him on and he soon sells all that he has to buy her the fine silks and gems that she demands - thinking only of how they will enhance her beauty not of the sacrifices her smitten lover has made to obtain them for her.  Eventually, having sold all he had, Louis becomes a brigand - robbing and "risking his soul's welfare in order to gratify the vain wishes of her heart."

The Governor sends a detachment of soldiers under the command of a handsome young corporal to deal with the robber and Louis is killed.  When the soldiers return Narcissa attempts to ensnare the young officer the way she had once ensnared poor Louis.  But the corporal is a man of the world and sees the emptiness beyond the beauty.

Rejected by her village Narcissa seeks refuge in a grotto by a holy stream high on the mountain of Monte-Negro.  But rather than weeping for her errors and repenting of her vanity she spends the day admiring her beauty in the waters of the stream.  One day a holy man climbed the mountain bent on exorcising the demons of vanity from the cold beauty.

A chilling warning - perhaps it is only in crowds that the lovely daffodil is "jocund company".

17 May -1152: Henry II of England marries Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Mercoledi Musicale

I am always amused when I read the horrified comments that greet "crossover" performances on the opera websites and blogs.   Now granted some of those performances do deserve a "What the hell was that suppose to be?" - a rather excruciating performance of I Could Have Danced All Night by a famous soprano springs to mind - but crossover is nothing new.  The great 19th century soprano Adelina Patti would often end not only her concerts but her operatic performances by performing Henry Bishop's Home Sweet Home even if it meant having a piano wheeled out on stage so she could play the accompaniment herself.   American soprano Eileen Farrell recorded four very successful albums of popular music in the 1950s and very few African-American singers omit a selection of spirituals either from their main programmes or as encores.

My darling Anna Caterina Antonacci appears to be carrying on the tradition and though she did not offer this as an encore at the concert in Rome, it appears it has become a fairly regular encore in her current programme. 

What I find as beautiful and touching  as Anna Caterina's quiet but intense delivery is the piano work of Donald Sulzen.   Nothing really elaborate, nothing show-offy in the accompaniment just a perfect match to the mood set by the soprano.  They really do have a remarkable partnership and again I am reminded of that most lauded of accompanist Gerald Moore.

16 May - 1943: Holocaust: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising ends.
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Monday, May 14, 2012

Lunedi Lunacy

Well this pretty much sums up the Canada I grew up it!!!!

I have to admit that I stole this from my friend Yellow Dog Granny but it was just too good not to steal!  That and the fact that it gives me the chance to tell all my Canadian readers - both of them - about a fun little project that several of us Canucks  (including D. over at She Who Seeks) have on the go.

Anyone who read YDG knows that West is the home of the infamous Skunk Egg but its also the home of the good residents of the West Rest Haven.  As well as her many other activities our YDG volunteers there running Jackie's Kitchen - a monthly taste treat that takes the gang on all sorts of culinary adventures. In June YDG decided to look no further than across the 49th parallel for a theme for the Kitchen and she's doing a Canadian themed day.  Now its difficult to pin down what actually is Canadian cuisine - poutine? tourtiere? fiddleheads? artic char?  We've had some problem with that one let me tell you.

If we can't identify a particularly Canadian food for the folks in West we decided at least we could share pictures of our home and native land with them.  So several of us have started a postcard campaign.  We're hoping for postcards from every Province and Territory.  So if you happen to someone that I haven't cornered written to about sending a card and would like to join us in saying "Hi  eh?" to our friends in West drop me a note at my e-mail and I'll send you the address.

Meanwhile I have to find my mother's old traditional recipe for poutine!!!!!

14 May - 1951: Trains run on the Talyllyn Railway in Wales for the first time since preservation, making it the first railway in the world to be operated by volunteers.

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Friday's Flower

I know that Friday was several days ago but it took time to gather a bouquet fine enough to present as a Mother's day offering to all my dear friends who deserve flowers that have been picked with care and thought.

I'm not sure if all the flowers dancing at Grandeville's Le Bal are May flowers but I think its a lovely illustration for Aubade*, Taxile Delorde's invocation to the first flowers of the spring as translated by Jeremiah Cleaveland.

This coterie of flowers has all the style and grace - and the tantalizingly exposed limbs -
of the coryphées from Le Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris who so enchanted
the wealthy gentlemen of the period.

We had several stalks of Campanule or Canterbury Bells in our first small garden
- they were always a favourite.  That dancer with the slightly manic look may have just
found out that her common English name is Lady's Ear Drop (Fuschia).

I love the French common name for Delphinium (Larkspur) - Pied d'alouette - which literally
translates as "the Lark's Foot".   The French has a very dance-like sound to it - perhaps it's
the term used in ballet for the dancing movement made by a stand of delphs.

Joining in the dance perhaps celebrating May and Mother's Day are the Muguet (Lily of the Valley),
the  Pyramidale (Bell Flower) and the Liseron (Morning Glory).  All those bell like flowers
dancing with such abandon must sound like a joyous carillon welcoming the warm weather and sun.

Overseeing the festivities is the regal Reine Marguerite- a little bit of serendipity
as my mother-in-law's favourite flower has always been the stately China Aster.
I only wish that she were able to once again enjoy their beauty.

So here's my Mother's Day bouquet and my wish that it may - like that first flower of the spring - indeed bring "good fortune for the rest of the year."

* This very old French word can mean a song or instrumental composition concerning, accompanying, or evoking daybreak or a poem or song about lovers separating at dawn.

13 May - 1995: 33-year-old British mother Alison Hargreaves became the first woman to conquer Everest without oxygen or the help of sherpas.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Bear That Went to War

Though it opened in May of 2005 somehow I had never made it to the new (well no longer new but as opposed to the former) Canadian War Museum.  I recall there was to-do about the original design but I do have to admit that Raymond Moriyama's building - rising as it does between the flat lands around LeBreton and the Ottawa River  - does make a rather spectacular statement.  I had not realized that the arrangement of the windows in the east facing fin spell out "Lest We Forget" and "N'oublions jamais"in Morris Code.

Originated in 1880 as a collection of artifacts from the wars fought on Canadian soil the CWM was eventually housed in the Cartier Square Drill Hall.  Officially established as a museum in 1942 it was moved to the Public Archives Building on Sussex Drive in 1967.  The growing collection finally found a new home in 2005 when Raymond Moriyama's building was dedicated on May 8, the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.

The interior entrance space appears to be intended to give the impression of spaciousness but I found it mostly empty and cold.  By contracts the permanent exhibition areas seem cramped and confusing.  Laurent referred to it as being a bit like visiting an Ikea store - and he had a point.  Things seem overcrowded and several of the interactive exhibitions no longer appear to work.   Often items that could have been interesting if given more prominence were jammed into a corner or visually inaccessible.  A prim example was Hitler's parade car - rather than being able to walk around it or even having it on a turntable it was awkwardly position and lacked the dramatic impact that it could have had as a symbol of an oppressive dictatorship and the reason our boys were fighting in far-off Europe.  A very strange piece of curating!!!!!  Even the reconstruction of a World War I trench - though creating a claustrophobic and gloomy atmosphere - with a bit more imagination could have gone further in giving us a small taste of what the soldiers in that most doomed of wars faced.

That is not to say that the visit was not worthwhile - just that it could have been much more.  And as so often happens it was one tiny small exhibit that caught my eye and had me looking for the story behind the artifacts on display.

Lawrence Browning Rogers was born in Montreal in 1878 and after many attempts at a career turned to farming in the Cantons l'est.  He was to die in the second battle at Passchendaele in October of 1917.

In the spring of 1915 Lawrence Rogers, a farmer from East Farnham, enlisted with many other able-bodied men in the Canadian Mounted Calvary to serve for "King and Country" in the hostilities that had broken out in Europe.  After training in Valcartier his unit was shipped overseas and arrived in England in July of that year.  Lieut. Rogers was to serve as a medic in the trenches until his death on October 30, 1917.  Excerpts from letters he wrote home to his wife May reveal the hardships of training, the sea voyage, life in the trenches and the horrors of the wounded and dying.

This tiny tattered and battered teddy bear accompanied Lieut. Rogers on his journey from boot camp to the front and was with him when he died.  He was returned to the family and now has a place of honour at the Canadian War Museum.

His story was much like so many others but what attracted me to it was the remnants of a tiny teddy bear that had gone through all those experiences with him.  As he was leaving for Europe his 10 year old daughter Aileen gave him the teddy to remind him of home, his family and her.  He carried it with him everywhere and it was found along with his wedding ring and letters amongst his personal effects when he died and as was the custom of the time they were sent back to his family.

The tattered teddy,  dirty and missing his back legs, could perhaps be thought to represent so many of the men and boys who returned from that "War to End All Wars" broken in body and often in spirit.  Men who likely had tiny reminders of home in their kit bags and letters such as the one from Rogers's seven year old son Howard that is on display along with the teddy bear.

The seven year old Howard recounts his holidays and other events in a world thousands of miles away from the mud and filthy of the trenches.  Perhaps his mother helped him write his letter but it still a rather fine piece of writing for a seven year old. 

I haven't been able to decipher the date on the letter but it sadly reached the front a few days after Roger's death at Passchendaele.  He didn't get to read young Howard's recounting of the day to day events in his little corner of the Empire that his father was defending.
Dear Daddy
We have been on holidays since the
3rd and I have played all the time
and have to go back to-morrow
morning. I went to the movies twice.
A little boy just came to the door
selling tickets for some movies at
5¢ but we would not take one.
I try my hardest at school to
come first.
I joined the Y.M.C.A.
and have been there twice at gym.
I haven't had a swim yet.
I will have to close as I am
burning up all the electric
More than anything else on display these three small things - a picture, a teddy and a letter - spoke to me of  the First World War and Canada's part in it.  And it brought to mind the moving and remarkable final sequence* of Richard Attenborough's Oh What A Lovely War

A more detailed account of Lieut. Rogers, his family and teddy can be found at A Bear at War.  It gives a very human face to the Great War and the men who fought in it and their families back home in Canada.

*This was not trick photography but a sequence filmed from a helicopter - each of the 100,000 crosses had to be inserted in hand-dug holes in the chalky soil of the South Downs.

12 May - 1364: Jagiellonian University, the oldest university in Poland, is founded in Kraków.

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Food For ..... Thought?????

It was once referred to by critic Haskel Frankel as “one of the funniest, most sensual scenes ever put on film without removing one stitch of clothing.”;  the famous - or infamous depending on your point of view - "eating scene" from Tom Jones is a classic of improvisation.  Featuring Albert Finney, a lobster, a joint of beef, several oysters and the ribald reactions of the Irish-Anglo actress Joyce Redman it still raises a laugh and the occasional eyebrow today.

In an interview in 2000 Finney recounted the filming: “Joyce and I had done theatre together.  And we just played it for fun. It was filmed early in the morning, and it took hours. They kept bringing more food — trying us out on different dishes. They’d say things like, ‘Bring more oysters. She’s very good on oysters.’ ” He added: “We weren’t sure the audience would get it at all. It seems they did.”

The diminutive actress died earlier today at her home in Kent - she was 93 and had last appeared on stage at the National Theatre in 1997 with Judi Dench in Amy's Way.  Her last film appearance was in 2001 as the elderly Queen Victoria in Victoria and Albert

She was primarily know for her stage work particularly at the National Theatre during its founding years under Laurence Olivier.   She was an actress of remarkable range - from Shakespeare (holding her own in the iconic Othello with Olivier and Maggie Smith  ) - to the Restoration and on to modern works - her Juno Boyle in Juno and the Paycock was acknowledge as one of the landmark performances in those early seasons at the National.

I saw her on stage during a heady week in Toronto when the National Theatre brought us a season of three plays and a company that included Olivier, Geraldine McEwan, Edward Hardwicke, Robert Lang, Anthony Nicholls, Madge Ryan, Graham Crowden and John Stride.  The three plays highlighted the versatility of Olivier's company at the time.  McEwan, Lang and Olivier in a savage Dance of Death - Strinburg's discetion of a marriage; the whole company in fine farcical form in Faydeau's A Flea in Her Ear (to this day one of the greatest examples of French farce I have ever seen); and finally in Congreve's Love for Love.

It was in the later that Miss Redman shone the brightest as a money-grubbing high born lady of limited means.  It was also the occasion for one of the finest "dry-ups" I have every seen on stage.  She and Olivier (as the screamingly foppish Mr Tattle) were exchanging barbs when things came to a stand-still.  There was an audible prompt from stage left - nothing - a slightly louder prompt - still nothing.  Finally in that husky voice - and not quite out of character - she flicked her fan and barked "I can't hear you!".  The line came, she tapped her chin with the fan and flicking it open rasped "Ah yes!" and unflustered continued the scene.  We all knew what had happened but somehow it didn't break of the mood - in fact if anything it played off it.  In that moment there was not doubt that we were watching consummate artists plying their craft.

 May 12 - 1551: National University of San Marcos, the oldest university in the Americas, is founded in Lima, Peru.

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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Mercoledi Musicale (A Day Late)

In all probability I will be waxing lyrical about Venice in the next few days - I've been working on several posts - but in the meantime I thought I'd share one of my favourite artists singing the lyrical praises of one of my favourite cities.

One of the things I miss - amongst so many things - about living in Italy is the opportunity to hear singers like Anna Caterina Antonacci (left).  I was fortunate enough to see her on three occasions during my four years in Europe.  The first was in a searing portrayal of Medea in Cherubini's opera which opened the season in Torino in November of 2008.  Though I had reservations, serious reservations, about the production about Antonacci herself I had none - I loved her.

The second was a semi-staged performance of Gluck's Alceste with Gregory Kunde in Athens the following October.  My dear Fotis had insisted I fly over for it and as well as it being an opportunity to see him and visit my beloved Greece it allowed me to experience another facet of Antonacci's art.  Her grasp of the French style was masterful and the gentle nobility and sacrifice of Alceste - which can often seem, if terribly admirable, also terribly dull dull - had all the doubt and anguish that bargaining with death for the life of a loved one would draw from a human.  It was a remarkable evening made more so by the perfect interplay between Antonacci and Kunde.

It was made even more remarkable because Fotis led me backstage to say hello and congratulation both Mr Kunde and - gasp! - Anna Caterina - her ardent admirers often refer to her as AnnaCat, but as much as I adore her I can't bring myself to call her that.  Now I have a history of being less than tactful when meeting famous opera singers - I still have nightmares about the Marilyn Horne episode in 1986 - and this meeting was no exception.  In my stumbling efforts to say something other than "I adore you!" I muttered  that I really hadn't liked Hugo D'Ana's production in Torino - not her mind you but the production, which it turned out she liked very much!!!!  But Signora Antonacci, ignoring my awkward attempts at retrieval,  flashed me her wonderful smile and said that she would make it up to me by adding me to the guest list for an upcoming private concert in Rome at the American Academy.

And so I found myself wandering the beautiful grounds of Villa Aurelia on the Juniculum Hill on a cool but pleasant December evening; having coffee and chatting about Rossini with Philip Gossett , one of the leading authorities on 19th century opera; and sitting with him and 40 other people in the gilt and white grand salon listening to Anna Caterina accompanied by Donald Sulzen in Echi della Belle Époque, a programme of songs by Fauré, Tosti, Cimara, Toscanini, Respighi and Zandonai.  It is an evolving programme that she and Sulzen have now presented in Europe and North America including a rare and much heralded appearance at New York's Lincoln Centre last month.  The programme had been well-thought out and beautifully performed with the Tosti English songs and Resphighi's Cinque canti all'antica as the highlights.

Anna Caterina Antonacci and Donald Sulzen after their concert at Wigmore Hall.
  Sulzen is a brilliant accompanist much in the Gerald Moore vein. At a reception
after the concert he talked a bit with me about how they had chosen the programme
- it was very much a collaborative effort.
The concert had opened with Fauré's Cinq mélodies de Venise so there was a taste of La Serenissima but it wasn't until a few months later that she added Reynaldo Hahn's Venezia cycle.  Of the two I realize that the Hahn is perhaps the more frivolous which is not a word I can ever imagine applying to Antonacci.  However she add a touched of perfumed erotica - and tongue in cheek tartness when needed - to Hahn's postcard-picturesque tales of moonlit nights on the lagoon.
I have only been able to find five of the six songs posted by yukio84 on YouTube; they are taken from a concert in Firenze this past March.  It may seem like quite a few videos but believe me they are worth it - I only wish that Primavera, the final song was available.

Sopra l'acqua indormenzata - Asleep on the water

A young lady is invited to accompany her lover on a gondola ride on the lagoon in the moonlight.  Her inamorata  is afraid that the moon will be jealous of her beauty - a beauty that is only enhanced by the gentle movement of the waves.  But he does warn her that "Tears will come soon enough, so now is the time for laughter and for love."

La barcheta - The Little Boat

Another lovesick swain takes his Ninetta out in the evening air in a gondola piloted by the silent, and obviously discreet, Toni. So discreet that the lover assures his beloved Ninetta that should the evening breezes cause her veil to lift and reveal her lovely breasts, that Toni is much too intent on plying his oar to pay any attention. Why he tells her, its almost like we are along here and anything could happen!

L'avertimento - The Warning

The lovely Nana has obviously broken the singer's heart.  Ah yes there are roses in her cheeks, her breasts are milky white and her voice gentle and sweet "but.. but.. but.. the lovely Nana has the heart of a tiger!"

La Biondina in gondoleta

As their gondola glides across the lagoon the lover rhapsodizes over the beauty of his "blonde" as she lays sleeping, her golden tresses floating in the water.  But he arouses her - from slumber and in other ways also it would appear as he declaims "God what wonderful things I said, what lovely things I did! Never again was I to be so happy in all my life."

Che pecà! - What a shame!

The gentleman assures the still-lovely (and one feels perhaps loved?) Nina that his days of seeing only her are long since gone. After all she is only a woman - and a fickle one at that so who really cares? But all the same "what a shame!"

That big sigh you heard was me - Anna Caterina and Venice!  Two of my treasured memories! 

10 May - 1849: Astor Place Riot: A riot breaks out at the Astor Opera House over a dispute between actors Edwin Forrest and William Charles Macready, killing at least 25 and injuring over 120.
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Monday, May 07, 2012

Lunedi Lunacy

Back in the 50s when my father would take me downtown to the Imperial Theatre  (one of the grand old movie palaces in Toronto - marble sinks, two story high mirrored stairways, plush seats) to see first run movie amongst the most anticipated where anything with Danny Kaye.   Kaye was a master of the tongue twister, the slightly-frantic and the most wonderfully funny facial contortions that a 10 year old could ever want to see.
A true "movie palace" - the Imperial Theatre was pretty much this grand when my father and I went to see films there in the 1950s.  No longer used - as it was in this photo from the 1920s - as a vaudeville house it still retained all the grandeur that made a trip to the movies a special event.
On re-viewing its also apparent that his films were erudite, witty and never played down to their audience.  It was a time when "culture" wasn't considered a filthy word and if you included a ballet or operatic aria in your movie you weren't playing to the "elite".   Often the dance or musical interlude took the mickey out but in a loving, knowing way.

Perhaps the most spectacular dance sequences in any Kaye movie where those created for Zizi Jeanmarie and Erik Bruhn by Roland Petit (now that's class!) for Hans Christian Andersen that delightful 1952 fantasy based more on the stories of the Danish writer than his actual life.  But dance also figured - tongue very much in cheek - two years later in Knock on Wood.  As a neurotic American ventriloquist whose dummy seems to have taken over the act Kaye gets involved with spies, counter-spies and dead bodies.  He spends most of the film changing disguises as he runs for his life ending up in a ballet sequence that out-exotics anything that the Ballet Russes ever came up with.  Choreographed to a fare-the-well by Michael Kidd (more class) and featuring Diana Adams - of the New York City Ballet (even more class) - as a rather nonplussed prima ballerina partnered by a danseur less than nobile it is a brilliant send-up of all the cliches beloved of classical dance. 

I'm posting this with a big hug to my darling Simonetta - who drew me more into the world of dance than I had ever been and in the process gave me a new love and appreciation of it as an art and as an entertainment.  Baci cara and 1000 grazie!

May 7 - 1920 – The Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, opens the first exhibition by the Group of Seven.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Half Way Between

The approach to St Helena as recorded by James Wathen on a three day visit to the island in the summer of 1812.  From his A Series of Views of the Island of St Helena published in September 1821.  It is said that the view, save for the sailing ships, has little changed today.
Yesterday was the anniversary of the death in 1821 of Napoleon Bonaparte; he died in exile, a prisoner of the British, on St Helena - a 47 sq mi volcanic island 1200 miles from Angola in Africa and 1800 miles from Brazil in South America.   Uninhabited when it was discovered by the Portuguese in the 1500s it was to become an important outpost for the East India Company and other English ships on the voyage to the Indies and Australia.  Like many other isolated locations it also served in its early years as a place of exile for felons and prisoners of war including the Little Corsican, Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo and more than 5,000 Boer prisoners.  Forts were built along the rouged coast line to act as lookouts for possible escape attempts - and during Napoleon's exile British Navy frigates circled the island night and day.

Its importance was to be greatly diminished with the opening of the Suez Canal in the 1800s and then ultimately by the jet plane.  Today the island can be reached by the only remaining Royal Mail ship which calls at the island from Capetown en route to Ascension Island.  There are plans for an airport and several smaller cruise ships do stop there but for the moment it is one of those almost unreachable places that - for me at least - begs to be reached.  And perhaps one of these days I will reach it.

After his death - and there has been much discussion over how natural it was - Napoleon was interred on the island.  In his book  A Series of Views of the Island of St Helena*, James Wathen gives this explanation to his illustration of the Tomb:

This is situated in a place called Haine's Valley, or the Devil's Punch-bowl, near Hut's Gate.  It is distant from Longwood about a mile and a half in a strait direction, but the common road forms a circle of about three miles. Before the Funeral, which took place on Wednesday, the 9th of May, 1821, one hundred men were employed to cut a direct descent to the grave. The tomb is in the vicinity of some willows, and a spring of water which were favorites with Buonaparte; who pointed out this spot for his burial place, soon after his arrival on the Island. A centinel is constantly on duty at the grave.
* A left click will take you to a facsimile of the book - including Wathen's beautiful illustrations with explanations.

 For the next 16 years his body was to remain in the unmarked grave - his warder Hudson Lowe, whose harshness in all probability hastened Napoleon's death, refused to allow any sign of royalty to be inscribed so the slab was left blank - on the island that was his home for the last six years of his life.  In 1840 at the request of Louis Philippe I the British returned Napoleon's remains to France.  They were carried on a journey from St Helena to Cherbourg on the Belle-Poule, a French frigate that was painted black for the voyage.  They were transferred to the steamship Normandie onward to Le Havre and up the Seine to Paris.  A state funeral was held on December 15 and the hearse carried Emperor Napoleon I from the Arc de Triomphe to a temporary resting place at St Jérôme's Chapel until Louis Visconti's porphyry sarcophagus was completed under the dome at Les Invalides.

At 1100 (GMT) yesterday morning there was a commemoration of Napoleon's death at the (now empty) Tomb in St Helena that was timed to coincide with a similar ceremony at Les Invalides.  The 20 minute memorial, arranged by the St Helena Tourism Office and the Honourary French Consul, included the laying of wreaths and the playing of the Last Post.  It was a brief tribute to the man whose unhappy stay there gave the island a lasting place in history.
I admit that I only knew of this little ceremony because of my good friend Gary.  He has developed an interest in this small outcropping in the middle of the Atlantic and follows news events from the island regularly.  But his interest is not a passive one - for the past ten years he has been sending books to the library in Jamestown.  Almost a decade ago he was downsizing and as he was culling his considerable book stash - in one of those moments of serendipity - came across a travel article about the island.  He had quite a few books about Canada  and he thought that rather than shunting them off to a second hand bookstore he would send them to St Helena - a way of sharing the story of the largest country of the Commonwealth with one of its smallest territories.

So for the past 10 years he has been gathering up books once or twice a year  (some of his own and many that he has bought for that purpose),  making a trip over to London and mailing them through a forwarding company that deals exclusively with St Helena, Ascension and the Falklands.  Recently he sent a history of Rideau Hall, Canada's Government House, to the library and in return received a thank you note from the (then) Governor's wife and a signed copy of the history of Plantation House, the Governor's Residence on the Island.  As an interesting sidebar it is thought that Jonathan, one of the tortoises living on the grounds of the residence, is the oldest living reptile on earth.

Gary's reminder had me delving into a bit of the history of St Helena and into some of the stories surrounding Napoleon's exile and death.  And it brought to mind a disarming little movie I saw many years ago.  The Emperor's New Clothes has as its premise the intriguing fantasy that it was not Napoleon but a double who died on St Helena.  Starring Ian Holm as Napoleon - he has played the role several times - it tells the story of his mistaken-ridden attempt to regain his throne but finding instead love, honesty and happiness in anonymity.  It is a movie I would love to see again but unfortunately it doesn't appear to be available on iTunes or Netflix.  Should you get a chance to see it I highly recommended it, not because it is a great movie but because it is a warm-hearted and gently funny film with a dynamite performance at its core.

06 May - 1844: The Glaciarium, the world's first mechanically frozen ice rink, opens.
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