Friday, October 31, 2014

All Saints' Eve

Today begins the Christian season of Allhallowstide - the three holy days dedicated to remembering the dead: those who have been "hallowed" or sainted, all Christian souls and, in some churches, souls in Hell.   A series of ancient feasts that can be dated to pre-Christian times they combine folk traditions with the liturgical.  In both pagan and Christian mythology there was a night when the barrier between the real world and the spirit world became blurred.  It was believe that on that night the restless souls of the dead wandered the earth - particularly those who had not achieved bliss or at the least purgatory.  To appease the benevolent ghosts candles were lit and graves decked in flowers; to ward off the malevolent spirits grotesque images were placed in windows and on door steps, and loud noises made  to keep them at bay.

A pen and wash drawing of a scabbard was Hans Holbein the younger's first depiction of  the Dance of Death and is believed to date from 1521.  A left click on either of the two sections will take you to large images of this copy of his work by Swiss engraver Christian von Mechel.  Most of Mechel's engravings were based on Holbein's works as seen by Peter Paul Rubens but in this case he owned the original drawing.

In many traditions people donned disguises to fool Death so that should he be stalking the neighbourhood he was unable to identify them and passed them by.   The finality of all manner and stations joining in the final dance to the grave was an ever present image in most communities. 

The last letter of Hans Holbein the younger's
Dance of Death Alphabet - after the message
of Death the Leveler comes the equally
leveling redemption of the Resurrection.
From the 1300s onward the Dance of Death was a popular subject to both edify the general public and, if possible, scare them on to the path of righteousness.  In line with church doctrine it also made the peasant feel equal to the noble - perhaps it would take the King's silk robe longer to rot in the grave than the beggar's rags but eventual all man would "come to dust".  In a time when death came early, war was constant and violent, and plagues - including the Black Death - emptied entire villages it was a subject of frescoes, paintings, tapestries and engravings.  Often the works were by itinerant church painters but just as often the subject was taken on by known artists such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Bernt Notke and, perhaps most famously,  Hans Holbein the younger.   The first time he took on the subject around 1521 in a pen and wash drawing  of a scabbard for a dagger.  He was to revisit the subject twice in the next three years with his Great Dance of Death (1522) and his Dance of Death Alphabet (1524).  The original woodblocks were created by Hans Lützelburger and became the source material for books in both Catholic and Protestant countries.  They were also to serve as reference for artists for the next four hundred years.  Countless copies and variations were created using woodblocks, copperplate engraving, ink and oil into our own century.

Wer war der Tor, wer des Weise[r],
Wer der Bettler oder Kaiser?
Ob arm, ob reich, im Tode gleich.

Who was the fool, who the wise 
who the beggar or the Emperor?
Whether rich or poor, all are equal in death
Text from a Totentanz
circa 1460

Back in 2012 I created a video using a 20th century setting of an old English (16th century or earlier) dirge meant to be sung at wakes to accompany the dead on their dance with Death to the gates of Purgatory.   The strange juxtaposition of Buffy Stainte Marie singing Benjamin Britten's setting of the Lyke-Wake Dirge fascinated me when I first bought the album back in 1967 and 47 years later still has the power to give me chills.

'Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world.
Hamlet: Act 3
William Shakespeare

October 31 -1863: The Maori Wars resume as British forces in New Zealand led by General Duncan Cameron begin their Invasion of the Waikato.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Lunedi Lunacy

Wumo, the cartoonists formerly known as Wulffmorgenthaler,  have been taking the mickey out of life in general, and the Internet in particular, for the past 13 years.  My friend Vicki sent along a few that hit both my funny bone and, in one or two cases, a bit close to home.

I'm reminded of my first visit to a bar in Roma when I blithely ordered a "latte" - and was presented with a large glass of hot milk.

Our solution - a shower cap over the detectors while we're cooking - it's bad air circulation!  OK?

These guys have obviously driven in Ottawa - a city in which I have almost been killed three times as a pedestrian with the "right of way".

Not just white bread - anything with wheat in it!

And the next two are offered without comment:

More of the wit and wisdom of Wumo can be found by a left click on their signature block:

October 26 -1936: Mrs Wallis Simpson files for divorce which would allow her to marry Edward VIII. thus forcing his abdication.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Importance of Understanding Earnest

Not the right title, you say! Well tell that to Ted Dykstra, because frankly I'm wondering if he understands Oscar Wilde's sublime comedy of manners. Based on an interview he gave the Ottawa Citizen I had the impression he did. Watching Friday night's opening performance of the NAC English Theatre season I have my doubts.

Now there is more than one way of approaching Wilde's play of improbable probabilities and I have seen several but they have all had one thing in common: they were earnest.  According to several dictionaries I've consulted the adjective means "resulting from or showing sincere and intense conviction."  Wilde himself refers to it as "a trivial play for serious people" and that is what makes it both funny and enduring.   It seems that Dykstra took "trivial" to mean farcical.  What he presented us with was a French bedroom farce without the slamming boudoir doors.   Pratfalls were taken, things jumped over, things thrown, bellows bellowed, audiences winked at and double takes taken - the only things missing were those door slams and the crack of Harlequin's slapstick.

Don't get me wrong I love  farce - bedroom or just good old fashioned knockabout - but if that's what you want to direct then why not choose one of the many great pieces by Feydeau, Labiche or Ben Travers:  revivals of Italian Straw Hat or Rookery Nook are long overdue.  But to take one of the wittiest plays in the English language and turn it into a knockabout comedy - sorry old man, it's just not done in the best of (play)houses.

Director Ted Dykstra (centre on floor) and his cast for the NAC English Theatre's presentation of
Oscar Wilde's The Important of Being Earnest.
NAC Photo: Andree Lanthier

Based on the concept they were given it may be unfair to say much of the individual performances except that the ladies fared better than the men.  Unfortunately Alex McCooeye (Algernon) and Christopher Morris (Jack) bore the brunt of much of the clowning with Morris spending most of the second act delivering his dialogue at a relentless and frantic shout.  Perhaps because she sat or stood in almost monolithic splendor Karen Robinson's Lady Bracknell was the most convincing performance of the evening.   Her very stillness made her reactions more telling and drew bigger laughs than all the mugging in the world could ever achieve.

Designer Patrick Clark's sets and costumes caught the tone of playful seriousness - both Lady Bracknell and Algernon were slightly over-the-top but still within the bounds of early Edwardian good taste.  And as always with the NAC the production values were of the highest standard.  I noticed that we did not receive a warning about the fact that "real cigarettes" would be smoked at this performance - let's hope the PC police don't get on them for that one.

I saw Mr Dykstra, who I admire greatly as a performer and writer, in the audience and can only hope that he took note of the reaction around him:  yes we laughed at some of the business but the most sincere and loudest laughs came from Wilde's dialogue.  I only wish the trust he had shown when speaking of the play had carried over to the stage.

A separate note:  The evening had begun with greetings from Elder Annie Smith-St George who reminded us that we sat on unceded Algonquin land but more important asked that we quietly stand and remember our brothers who had become one with the Spirit world in the past three days.  She spoke for a moment or two of the Creator who gave us the gift of laughter and joy that we would share in this place.  It was a lovely and touching few minutes.

October 25 - 1854: The Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War (Charge of the Light Brigade).

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Wish for My Country

In light of what has happened, the aftermath and what is to come, I can only hope that Bruce MacKinnon's editorial cartoon today, which follows on the heartbreaking drawing he presented yesterday, is a prophecy for our future.

October 24 - 1901: Annie Edson Taylor becomes the first person to go over Niagara Falls, in a barrel.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Gaie comari di Windsor - Part the second

I started this entry on October 10th and am finally getting around to finishing it - family, Thanksgiving and life got in the way.  The dates are all wrong of course but .....

Paris 1894: Verdi rehearsing Falstaff as
captured by Maurice Feuillet.

It seems only appropriate that on the 101st anniversary (October 10, 1813) of Guiseppe Verdi's birth and after several postings about the opera itself that I finally get around to writing something about last Friday (October 3rd) evening's performance of Falstaff  by the Canadian Opera Company.  Last presented in 2004 at the Hummingbird (O'Keefe, Sony, whatever) Centre in the elegant but very traditional Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production this new production was in the purpose built Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in a new production by Robert Carsen.  The production is a joint undertaking that has already been seen at La Scala, Covent Garden and the MET with further performances to come at the Dutch National Opera.   It also marked the greatly anticipated return of Gerald Finley to the COC after an absence of 20 years and his debut in the title role. 

This was my first visit to the "new" opera house since it opened in September 2006 with the first Canadian performance of the complete Ring Cycle. When it opened the Centre, with its five-tiered, horseshoe-shaped auditorium, was praised for its superior sight lines and acoustics and on first viewing I can only second that praise.  From my seat at centre in Ring 3 I had an uninterrupted view of the stage.  The sound was warm and immediate and there was never a problem of balance between the pit and the stage.

My only caveat has to do with a personal preference:  I despise surtitles!  Yes I know they are a Canadian invention - yeh Canada! - but I find them distracting and from my seat (for the entire season I might add) I am at direct eye level with the proscenium surtitle panel.  However that is my only gripe with the facility - the buffet does an excellent chocuterie plate, prices are reasonable for a glass of bubbly, the public areas spacious and the washrooms plentiful.  Now on to the performance itself.

Main Lobby and Staircase
Image Map
Several of my opera mad loving friends have expressed puzzlement at my love for Falstaff - one friend went as far as to say that neither Verdi nor Wagner should have been allowed (gasp!) to write comedies.  And I can understand their feelings - it's not an easy work and I grappled with it for a long time.  However I think I've made it fairly obvious that this is a piece I love and this performance only made me aware of how much joy and laughter there is in it.

The Ford's kitchen updated to Windsor 1950s by designer Paul Steinberg: Mistress Ford had all the mod-cons but still did her laundry by the Thames! 
Much has made of director Robert Carsen's decision to update the action to the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the second of that name. After the Second World War many of the British nobility (Sir John Falstaff) were impoverished and the affluent middle-class (the Fords) were on the rise.  It is not a new idea - Graham Vick's staging at Glyndebourne in 2009 was set in almost the same time period - and in many ways it made sense and much of it worked.

Blinded by bling Falstaff (Gerald Finley) is easily
duped by Signor Fontana (Russell Braun).  Two great
Canadian baritones match wits and voices!
Photo: Michael Cooper
Very little of the comedy was the traditional operatic schtick - I still don't understand why opera audiences find a baritone imitating a female voice in falsetto hysterically funny? - and being Carsen all of it sprang from the music.  To my mind where he misjudged was setting the second scene of Act One in the posh restaurant of the Windsor Arms and in having that wonderful meeting of Mistress Quickly (Marie-Nicole Lemieux) and Falstaff (Gerald Finley) take place in the men's smoking room of the hotel.

And unfortunately Russel Braun was given some ridiculously over the top business leading up to, and during, Ford's great jealousy monologue.  Surely this is not a time for comedy?  The man is almost insane with jealousy and there is nothing to suggest that either Verdi or Boito intended this as satire or a source of amusement.  Braun overcame the staging to deliver a gripping, almost frightening, portrayal of a man giving voice to the overwhelming, though unreasonable, emotion of betrayal. 

Mistress Quickly (Marie-Nicole Lemieux) tempts Sir
John with the promise of an assignation with Mistress
Ford "dalle due alle tre".  Photo: Veronika Roux-Vlachova
Lemieux has appeared in this production previously at the Met and La Scala and has honed her Quickly dramatically and vocally.  She has the deep rich tones and just the right timing to make the mere word "Reverenza" hysterically funny.  And she gave the proper chill to the beginning of the nero Cacciator narrative - it's unfortunate that business with grooms sweeping up the hay left by the horse (?) Falstaff had shared his musing on an unjust world with undermined what can be an atmospheric introduction to the scene that follows.  The balance of the women were fine without delivering a great deal of individuality.  If Simone Osborne's Nanetta sounded a trifle unsteady during her Act 3 aria it was understandable given that she was being trundled around on a wheeled table.

Again the supporting men did not seem to have a great deal of individuality - perhaps the fault is Verdi's?  I was hard pressed to distinguish Bardolpho (Colin Ainsworth) from Pistola (Robert Glaedow) though Michael Colvin's Dr. Caius was a finely drawn comic creation.  Frédéric Antoun was a lyrical Fenton if again not quite hitting the mark in his lovely aria in the final scene.

The COC chorus destroyed the Ford kitchen and tormented Falstaff in fine fashion.  The orchestra responded to Johannes Debus youthful approach with brio.  This was his first go at a very complex work and he caught the brio and sparkle if not any of the autumnal overtones.  Only once - and briefly - in those tricky ensembles in the second scene did he seem to lose control of his forces.

It takes Gerald Finley over two hours get into the various prosthesis that turn him into
Verdi's Fat Knight. The process was captured in video and photos by the Toronto Star.
Anne-Marie Jackson / Toronto Star
And Gerald Finley?  "What of him?", you ask.  After all the opera is called Falstaff and it was his role debut.  I willingly join the choruses of praise that are being sung in reviews in the media and in blogdom.  Often the role is seen as an opportunity for an aging baritone/bass to bark his way through it in buffo style, which betrays everything that Verdi put into it. That Finley would be able to actually sing the part was never in question.  And sing it he did - richly and gloriously.   That glorious singing was matched by a comic timing that was perfect.  And much of the comic delight was in the small details - as an example, the slightly hurt look he gave Mistress Ford before launching into Quand'ero paggioIt was possible to believe that this Falstaff had been quite the gallant before gluttony and a fondness for the bottle took over.  And this was a Falstaff who could say with total conviction:  You laugh at me, but it is I who makes you clever.  My wit creates the wit of others.   It's a portrayal which, given Finley's vocal and dramatic abilities, will grow richer over time.  I am more than happy to be able to say:  I was there when ......

Falstaff (Gerald Finley) and friends raise their glasses and assure us that "he who laughs last, laughs best!"
There was a light drizzle/mist as I walked out onto University Ave after having been reassured that "All the World is a joke and all men (including me I can assure you) are clowns."  On the brief trot up to the hotel I felt, as I have done after every performance I've ever seen of Falstaff, that there was much that was right with the world.

The following is the promotional video from the COC website for the production.  I was more than pleased, as I'm sure they are, to see that all seven performances were sold out.

October 23 - 1867: 72 Senators are summoned by Royal Proclamation to serve as the first members of the Canadian Senate.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Mercoledi Musicale

One of the pleasures of social media is becoming acquainted with people around the world and through them finding things - music, books, op-eds, facts, figures and even those annoying quizzes - that give you pleasure or pause for thought.  I have one FB friend in New York who constantly expands my musical knowledge with links to programmes, videos and audio of music.  He and I may have differing views on a few things political and musical but his suggestions have led me to discover or rediscover some wonderful music.

Last week he introduced me to the music of Déodat de Séverac, a French composer of the Belle Époque, whose music was entirely unknown to me.  A look at the video he had posted led me to this version of his lullaby "Ma Poupée Chérie" by the Corsican soprano Martha Angelici.  She is accompanied on this recording by Maurice Faure. 

This link will take you to the translation of de Séverac's lyrics.   There are several versions out there including one by the great Canadian contralto Maureen Forrester.  

October 22 - 1844: The Great Anticipation: Millerites, followers of William Miller, anticipate the end of the world in conjunction with the Second Advent of Christ. The following day became known as the Great Disappointment.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Lunedi Lunacy

I will admit that at one time I had this this little gem in my collection of cookbooks.  I honestly don't recall if I ever use any of the recipes in it but I know it did disappear on to the table at some charity book sale more than a decade ago.  As I recall I purchased it more as a remind of the way things use to be than the way I intended things to be.  Now when I say "the way things use to be" I don't mean in my mother's kitchen.  Her's was a fairly rigid English meat, boiled potatoes, over-boiled veg menu.  Exotic was using mustard when making a grilled cheesed sandwich.  Canned soup was made for eating as soup not as some sort of sauce, peanut butter was for toast and jello was cubed and served as desert. And miniature marshmallows?  they were not to be seen in Isabella's kitchen.

However that does not mean I escaped the delightful dishes which "will astound your guests" and that could be made from Kraft miniature marshmallows, velveeta cheese, peanut butter or jello.  There was never a church supper or pot luck that did not include some culinary treasure that Bruce Marsh had introduced us to on the commercial break of the Kraft Music Hall or between periods of Saturday Night Hockey. 

The other day I was reminded of those church suppers and pot-lucks when a FB friend posted a truly frightening recipe from the 1950s involving frozen waffles, ham, mushroom soup and probably, I really couldn't bring myself to finish reading it, miniature marshmallows.  And it also brought to mind a William Bolcom song that my friend Ron use to quote when we'd plan pot-lucks in later years.  Unfortunately I couldn't find a really good video of that Boclom-artist par excellence Joan Morris however this version by the lovely lady at Velveteen Lounge Kitsch-en gives us both the aural and visual delights of Lime Jell-O Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise.

And just to tease and tantalize your palate I thought I'd include these two pictures to show you young folk what you missed by not living in those heady days of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

Yes Virginia they really did make jello salads with marshmallows and mayonnaise; and as for that second picture I'm not sure what it is suppose to be but the ad guaranteed that it would impress my husband's boss and get him his promotion.

October 20 - 1943: The cargo vessel Sinfra is attacked by Allied aircraft at Souda Bay, Crete, and sunk. 2,098 Italian prisoners of war drown with it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Mercoledi Musicale

Back in 1966 Michael Flanders and Donald Swann brought their two-man show At the Drop of Another Hat to the O'Keefe Centre.  It was the second of two revues - the first called, rather appropriately, At the Drop of a Hat - that they performed in for over four years before ending their partnership in 1967.  They had teamed up in 1956 and over the next eleven years were to perform their witty songs and monologues over 2000 times in the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, Switzerland (?), the US and Canada.

In those days the O'Keefe Centre was almost my second home - I've honestly lost track of the number of musicals, operas, ballets and plays I saw from its opening in1960 until I left Toronto in 1976 but certainly I recall these two gentlemen and in particular their take on Mozart.

In the comments on Youtube someone wrote that hearing Flanders and Swann's "Ill Wind" was their introduction to Mozart.  I can't say that but they did introduce me to the Horn Concerti and one of the great recordings of the second half of the 20th century.  In November 1953  Dennis Brain, Herbert von Karajan and the Philharmonia Orchestra recorded the four concerti in what are still considered definitive performances to this day.  Here's the no. 4 that Flanders and Swann so freely - and amusingly - borrowed from.

October 15 -1815: Napoleon I of France begins his exile on Saint Helena in the Atlantic Ocean.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Lunedi Lunacy

Been there!  Done that!  Have the souvenir coffee mug but the decal came off in the dishwasher.

Thanks to Yannis for this one.

October 13 -1843: In New York City, Henry Jones and 11 others found B'nai B'rith (the oldest Jewish service organization in the world).

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving 2014

And to celebrate the harvest festival what could be more lovely than the New Apostolic Church of Capetown Choir and Orchestra singing an old gospel favourite.  I had forgotten that the first lines of that hymn remind us that we should be "sowing seeds of kindness" and through that act we will be "rejoicing bringing in the sheaves".  Not a bad thing to remember as we gives thanks for the good lives most of us enjoy.

October 12 - 1823: Charles Macintosh of Scotland sells the first raincoat.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Mercoledi Musicale

Maurel was a bit of a dandy and considered a
matinee idol by his adoring public.  Here he
as captured by Spy (Leslie Ward) for the
October 20, 1898 edition of Vanity Fair.
As I said in my previous post Verdi's Falstaff is on of my favourite operas and I hope to write about last Friday's performance by the COC with Gerald Finley.  But for today's Mercoledi Musicale I thought I'd reach back to 14 years after the work's premiere in 1893; in 1907 the great French baritone Victor Maurel who had created the role recorded a short excerpt from the opera.  (The record label in the video indicates 1904 but apparently this is an error in the reissue.)

And I do mean short.  "Quand'ero paggio" lasts all of 35 seconds and is one of those moments in a score full of melodies that come and go with the speed of quicksilver.  In fact to fill the side of the 78rpm disc Columbia had Maurel sing it not once, not twice but three times - twice in Italian and once in French for good measure.  It is rather delightfully encored at the insistence of at least three stout fellows in the studio with encouraging cries of "Bravo" and a clarion call for a "bis".  I'm not sure but one of those voices sounds suspiciously like the good artist himself.

I always loved the way this tiny vignette just pops up in response to Alice Ford's less than flattering remark about Falstaff "vulnerabil popla" - amble flesh.   He quickly assures her that things were different when he was a mere slip of a lad:

Quand'ero paggio del Duca di Norfolk
ero sottile, sottile, sottile,
ero un miraggio vago, leggiero, gentile.
Quello era il tepo del mio verde aprile,
quello era il tempo del mio lieto maggio.
Tant'era smilzo, flessibile e snello
che sarei guizzato attraverso un annello.
When I was page to the Duke of Norfolk
I was so so slender, a mirage,
light and fair, and very genteel.
That was my verdant April season,
the joyous Maytime of my life.
Then I was so lean, so lithe, so slender,
you could have slipped me through a ring.

Maurel was to sing the role of Falstaff in many major opera houses including the work's premieres in France and the United States.  At the Metropolitan alone he sang it 22 times.  In each city his portrayal was greeted with unstinting praise.   And how this debonair French man turned himself into Verdi and Boito's "mountain of fat" was a favourite news topic of the day.   In April 1894 an article showing the transformation appeared in one of the many illustrated magazine to coincide with the Paris premiere.  Obviously it was a good press piece and possibly Maurel carried it around with him as it showed up in periodicals in England and America.

Maurel was one of the preeminent singing actors of his day and Verdi was quoted as asking in admiration,  "Was there ever such a complete artist?"  After hearing him Wagner  cried, "Friends, come, salute a great artist".  But his vanity - and vain he was of both his appearance and his standing in the music world -    almost ruined his chances of creating the two roles that would guarantee him a place in the operatic Pantheon:  Iago and Falstaff.   After it became known in the mid-1880s that Verdi was working on an opera based on Shakespeare's Othello Maurel began to brag that Verdi was writing Iago for him.  Now the working title of the new opera, in deference to Rossini's Otello, was Iago, and Verdi had mentioned that he was writing the villainous character with Maurel in mind but did not want it voiced all over Europe.  It's said he almost sought another singer for the role but relented because he knew what the baritone could bring to the role.

In 1903 Maurel recorded Iago's aria "Era la notte" - by this time his voice, never known for its lyrical beauty, had diminished but his artistry was still at its peak.

In the case of Falstaff correspondence reveal that Maurel became increasingly demanding of La Scala and to a certain extent Verdi.  He believe that he had a right to sing the role and asked for larger than normal fee.  There was some unpleasantness but again the threat of being deprived of the role he so desperately wanted made him back away from his demands. 

Maurel was to retire in 1909,  two years after he made that little recording of "Quand'ero paggio" for Columbia.  He did not give up the stage completely and turned to designing - a production he did for the Met of Gounod's Mireille evoked the colours and landscape of his native Provence.  After several years in Paris he settled in New York City where he taught young singers until his death in 1923 at the age of 75.

October 8 - 1645:  Jeanne Mance opened the Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal, the first lay hospital in North America.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Gaie comari di Windsor

Falstaff goes courting the ladies of Windsor.
The great French baritone Victor Maurel
who created Verdi's Iago and Falstaff.
When I first heard it I remember being puzzled by Falstaff.  This wasn't the Verdi  I worshiped and adored: the Verdi of the soaring aria, the tearful father-daughter duets or the grand ensembles.  This was a Verdi of parlando, ariosi that came and went quickly, quartets that turned into duets that became octets, all with nary a pause for breath or applause.  And to my youthful ears (I was 11 or 12 at the time) it was all pretty unmelodic and didn't really sound the way opera should.  It seemed that Verdi was reverting to the style of Monteverdi or Cavalli - composers whose works I was also struggling with at the time.

Now to be fair two things - well okay three if you consider my youthful ignorance - should be taken in to consideration.  First:  Falstaff was a work that went largely unperformed in the venue I had access to at the time - the Met broadcasts and tours, and the Canadian Opera Company.  Second: The only recording I had at hand was the famous and much lauded Toscanini version.  To many this may sound like apostasy but I have grown to dislike Toscanini's Falstaff.  Yes I know he has a direct link with the work but I find his performance driven, brittle and utterly lacking in humour - much like the man himself.  I was to discover that there was more joy, wit and humanity in the piece than in almost any other opera I had ever heard.

Falstaff was a signature role for Geraint Evans - seen here in
1964 at the Met.  Falstaff bemoans the unfairness of life after
his dunking in the Thames.
Part of that realization came in 1964 when I journeyed to New York to see the first performance the Met had given in over twenty years.  It was at the old house, the production was by a young Franco Zefferelli and the cast though less than stellar had been molded into a cracker-jack ensemble by Leonard Bernstein, making his debut at the house.  Apparently I was mistaken - the old man from Busseto knew exactly what he was doing.

Performances became more frequent - even the COC did it for the first time back in 1982 with Louis Quilico; more recordings appeared led by many of the great conductors: Von Karajan, Solti, Bernstein, Guilini, Davis, Abbado and Muti.  Though none were perfect - if such a thing could exist - all were to reveal - to my ears - the autumnal as well as comedic subtleties and colour of the miraculous collaboration between Shakespeare, Boito  and Verdi.

Louis Quilico as Falstaff with the COC in 1982.
After the COC in '82 I though I was to hear many records and see several productions on TV or DVD I wasn't to see another live performance until Rome in 2010 - a production that I wrote about at the time.  Even for all its drawbacks I came out of the theatre that December evening and walked back home in the crisp early morning air - the Zefferelli scene changes added almost an hour to the performing time - feeling that all was right with the world.

After attending the COC's most recent production last Friday night I came out of the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto feeling much the same way.  What I had seen was in no way perfect but it left me feeling that despite all the troubles in the world, despite what the media was reporting, despite any personal peeves I might have at the moment, there was still much that was right with the world. 

Gerald Finley made his first appearance as Verdi's Fat Knight last Friday
evening at the opening of the COC season.  It was a more than auspicious
role debut and it is a performance that will only grow richer as time goes by.  
Hopefully by the end of the week I will have gathered my thoughts on Friday night's performance and written a bit more about it.

October 7 - 1919: KLM, the flag carrier of the Netherlands, is founded. It is the oldest airline still operating under its original name.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Lunedi Lunacy

Back in the days when the pound was worth less than the dollar and my trips to London were frequent I saw all manner of theatre, opera and concerts.  Hotels were inexpensive, tickets were cheap and the stars were out in full force.   Olivier in The Merchant of Venice one night, Maggie Smith in Hedda Gabler directed by Ingmar Bergman the next; Jon Vickers in Otello on Thursday, Lynn Seymour and Mikhail Baryshnikov in Romeo and Juliet on Friday.  And the concert scene was just as varied and I even recall one concert that was declared open by Queen Victoria; or at least Annette Crosbie, who had just appeared in a BBC series of that name, in the guise of that revered majesty.   It was followed by the normal tomfoolery of any Hoffnung concert.  In the tradition that had been set by Gerald Hoffnung himself the mickey was taken out of classical music by some of the well-known musicians of the day.  I only wish I had kept the programme.  I was to see another Hoffnung concert several years later when the Kingston Symphony teamed up with the Master's widow to produce a riotous afternoon of classical buffoonery. 

I've always enjoyed both Hoffnung's cartoon books and the recordings make of the three Interplanetary Festivals in the 1950s-60s.  I wasn't aware of the series of cartoons that had been created by John Halas and his wife, Joy Batchelor based on Gerald Hoffnung's work.

And a left click on the Hoffnung right-hand drive organist will take you the official Hoffnung site:

October 6 - 1945: Billy Sianis and his pet billy goat are ejected from Wrigley Field during Game 4 of the 1945 World Series.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Mercoledi Musicale

Better late than never here's yesterday's Mercoledi Musicale.

My daily visit to a popular, if often irritating, opera website/blog led me to a faintly bizarre excerpt from Derek Jarman's film version of The Tempest. In one of the campiest sequences ever committed to celluloid the nuptials of Miranda and Ferdinand are celebrated by Watteau shepherds and shepherdesses who out-Rococo Rococo, a crew of sailors from a dockside gay bar and at the centre of it the magnificent Elisabeth Welch all tricked out like an Erté golden goddess singing - perhaps as a warning to poor Miranda the way Ferdinand is eying a few of the sailors - Harold Arlen's Stormy Weather.

This led me to several other entries on YouTube that reveal the talents of Elisabeth Welch including this one of her singing her signature tune:  Stormy Weather.  The clip, put together by a poster who goes by the name of StashPuppets, starts with an early film version from 1934-35 segues into the Jarman (1979) and ends with a cabaret performance that Elizabeth Welch gave sometime around 1989-90.  

In the 1920s and 30s were was a migration of black entertainers from the USA to Europe; in the vanguard was Ada "Bricktop" Smith who ran one of the most famous nightclubs in Paris and introduced many performers to Cafe Society.  Others like Alberta Hunter had found their way to Europe after World War I when American Jazz became all the rage. Many others crossed the Atlantic under the banner of Lew Leslie who exported shows with titles like Blackbirds, Shuffle Along or Chocolate Dandies to Europe along with performers such as Josephine Baker and Florence Mills.  Some returned back to the USA but many others stayed and based their careers in a more race-friendly Europe.

Elisabeth Welch arrived in Paris in the late 20s and then moved to London which was to be her home until her death at the age of 99 in 2003.  She first returned to the US in 1931 as a replacement in The New Yorkers, a Jimmy Durante vehicle with music by Cole Porter.   Banned from radio play because of it's risque lyrics Love for Sale was original sang Kathryn Crawford, a white performer, as a prostitute plying her trade on Madison Avenue.  In this clip from a concert Miss Welch recounts how she came to take over the song during the run of the show and make it her own.

Nymph Errant is an strange show - part musical, part revue - it traces the adventures of a proper young lady on a round-the-world attempt to lose her virginity.  Though it premiered in London in 1933 it did not reach North America until the 1980s.  I recall a version at the Shaw Festival that was amusingly staged and rather fun.  Cole Porter often said that it was his favourite show though only two standards came out of it:  Experiment and Solomon, the song he wrote for Elisabeth Welch.

I only wish I could find the complete version of the cabaret performance this was taken from - what little I've seen confirms that she was a charming and witty raconteur and a consummate performer.

*I notice that her name is spelt either Elisabeth or Elizabeth - I believe the first spelling is the correct one.

October 1: 1939 - After a one-month Siege of Warsaw, hostile Nazi forces enter the city.