A night at the Opera
A night at the Opera
It’s 7:30 am and I wander through a flock of pigeons then three flocks of Japanese tourists, there being more tourists than pigeons in Florence at any one time, irrespective of the season. I sit my music on a wrought iron lamp post on a cement balustrade along the River Arno and start to practice. Within a millisecond of my first note, there is a huge screech, much flapping and panic amongst the flocks, dust rises and there is a general sense of escaping from an approaching Tsunami – although the pigeons, are totally unruffled, remaining earth bound, pecking and courting each other skillfully avoiding the stampeding tourists.
We meander aimlessly at dusk and pass hundreds of what seems to be the stock commercial attraction of Florence: leather outlets alternating with “artisan” gelato cafés. In a crowded piazza, adolescent boys ply their wares. One of which is a small parachute like affair with an LED light that the boys catapult into the air with an amazing degree of skill. They seem to attain the outer atmosphere. Rule number 1: avoid eye contact with them. Terry, foolish man, breaks that rule and we return to the apartment later that night with 12 of these contraptions. In the light of day Terry is still uncertain as to how this happened and more disconcertingly, how many Euros with which he parted company for the purchase.
Our apartment is within an old mansion and is quite convenient as it fronts the river and the main tourist route to the Duomo runs along one side. From about 8am a continuous stream of tourists hurry along in bunches of about 20 or more. In fact their relentless passing reminds me of aircraft banked up at a busy international airport all on final approach to the runway with a separation distance of 100 metres.
After a less than exciting evening meal – an ordinary seafood salad with limp iceberg lettuce and anaemic tomatoes, we went to a concert of famous operatic arias in an intimate performing space of what was a large church. The young soprano was big of voice and bosom. The baritone matched her in all aspects other than bust. The were accompanied by a slim, elegant female pianist in her early 50s. She was dressed in a cool black cotton dress and the highest high heels in all of Christendom. To my utter disbelieve she sat at the piano and I was mesmerized not so much by her hands, but by her black sequined high heels , the points of which appeared lethal. Consequently her pedal foot and shoe had the distinct appearance of a miniature cello with its tail spike firmly pinned into the wooden floor at a very acute angle. So shod, she pedaled with all the aplomb of a seasoned performer.
Below are a few predictable and familiar pictures of Florence.
Wagner and Verdi were born in the same year, that as far as I am concerned is the only fact common to both. Let’s get this off my chest at the outset, I prefer Verdi. It’s a bit like saying I prefer men! There is a vague sense of guilt and that I need to explain and justify this statement.
This opera in true Wagnerian fashion, is in 3 Acts over 5 hours. It is on my opinion, a cross between “The Elixir of Love” and “Romeo and Juliet”, interwoven with a prolonged session of Freudian self psycho-analysis . The latter aspect is manifestly inadequate as one is left with a profound sense that both protagonists still require veterinary doses of antidepressants. Inevitably the mental health system lets them down as they both in the end, commit suicide or die heart broken.
Whilst it is de rigueur to poke fun at an operatic heroine in severe respiratory distress as the consequence of poison induced paralysis or disseminated tuberculosis, coughing and wheezing through her final aria, in this epic, Tristan is mortally wounded at the end of Act 2, yet survives the second intermission and almost all of Act 3. No mean feat if one calculates each Act is an hour and a half to which I have added the 25 minute second intermission.
This opera, at least as I saw in Acts 1 and 2 in Vienna (I left before Act 3, call me a philistine) is in all senses “heavy going”.
Why “heavy” ?
Let’s start with the term “leitmotif” ˌa “short, constantly recurring musical phrase” associated with a particular person, place, or idea. One could be forgiven for translating it as a “light melody”! Wrong. The technique is notably associated with the operas of Richard Wagner, although he was not its originator and did not employ the word in connection with his work. The problem with a leitmotif is that Wagner is the archetype of a “tune tease”.
Secondly both Tristan und Isolde were also “heavy”. In the strict medical sense, they were to be blunt, “obese”. Let me clarify immediately that their singing was sublime. Both had costumes which were very loose black “sack dresses”. From the upper dress circle, I suspect the audience would have been hard pressed to tell them apart! My fashion guru tells me that both “black” and “sack” will make the wearer appear smaller. On the night, perhaps.
So before I enlarge upon the niggling irritations of the evening, let me set the record straight. The orchestra was outstanding, the singing sublime. In short, an ideal ensemble for a concert performance. Hence I spent most of the evening with my eyes closed or admiring the auditorium.
I am not in anyway biased and as an Australian openly admit that when I was privileged to see and hear Dame Joan Sutherland more so in the twilight of her career, I could close my eyes and instantly see Gilda, Violetta or Lucia, effortlessly negotiating stairs like a 21 year old, infatuated and love stricken. I do accept that this was not quite the picture with Violetta – as the Madame of a Parisian brothel, she had obviously seen a thing or two.
Anyway, for most of the night my mind was distracted by these contradictions.
The first hour involves Tristan und Isolde circling each other like a couple of suspicious dogs, growling and bristling! Think Rotweilers! They both drink what turns out to be love potion 99! Suddenly they pounce on each other and embrace. Unfortunately given the size and costumes of both, previously described, from my box seat, this gave the awesome appearance of a tent – the circus big top – with two heads. To carry on with the analogy, they remain locked in this apparent canine copulation for the next 15 minutes. I shall write and recommend that the conductor be provided with a bucket of water.
The whole set and costumes were in one word “dark”. I thought to myself how could the director get the message across that in the latter half of Act 1 Tristan und Isolde are head over heels in love? It was all rather incongruous. They were all at sea, literally and figuratively, on their way to, of all places Ireland! Isolde is a princess, she must have some sort of wardrobe? A quick dash below deck to slip into something more seductive! Even a bright simple sash!
Perhaps throw down a table cloth and have a lovers’ picnic on deck? I quickly crossed this option off the list of options, as I foresaw the distinct possibility that once down on deck, they could not get up again with any sort of grace or agility. Being at sea would of course add a lot of tossing and turning.
As to acting the part, it requires much skill to project youthful true love when the lovers are in years not Romeo and Juliet. Similarly with anguish. This emotion, especially in female singers is often shown by walking stage left with hands clenched into fists and pressed into the forehead. Unfortunately, as a neurologist, the only image this evokes is that the poor woman is experiencing the mother of all migraine attacks.
Finally in Act 2, and by now I have had a snack and a glass of champagne, things improve. That is until King Mark appears. He looks like that infamous long gone Australian actor Frank Thring in an episode of Game of Thrones. This is reinforced by the situation that Tristan, the nephew of King Mark is getting it off with Isolde, who King Mark is supposed to marry. In true Game of Thrones fashion, Mark is well on the way to decapitating Tristan. Thankfully, Isolde is not forced at sword point to disrobe and stand naked whilst her left nipple is sliced off.
By now it’s the end of Act 2, and I need more alcohol.
The outside of the VSO
The front of VSO house night!
Part of the main vestibule and staircase
A panorama of the interior
A night at the opera – the Prague State Opera – perfect seat : 4th row from the front smack in the middle. Puccini has not been in my top of the pops of composers, but after tonight, he has moved up the charts, a lot. I find Puccini to be a “tune tease”. Tonight I appreciated the complexity and tunefulness of this opera and the fact that Pinkerton is Puccini’s “Don Giovanni”. A sailor has a girl in every port, although I do believe some sailors enjoy tying up with a buoy.
As always I ask myself would I do the ironing to the music? Perhaps more so than a week ago.
The Opera theatre is the ultimate in Baroque design! The theatre itself originally opened in 1888 as the New German Theatre and from 1949 to 1989 it was known as the Smetana Theatre. More recently it is known as the Prague State Opera.
As I had wandered the streets of Prague from 10 am till curtain up at 7 pm, I brought a crisp new shirt for $15. Surprisingly the theatre was only 2/3 full.
I am led to believe its genuine bohemian crystal.
The Opera Theatre
The adjacent National Museum , this older section is presently closed for renovations.
You could have knocked me over with a feather!
Most of my friends know of my love of classical music and opera. I had booked by internet, a tour of the Dresden State Opera during my stay- the opera summer season having just finished, otherwise I would have attended. But imagine my surprise when serendipity led to my choice of Dresden accommodation – The Villa Therese-Malten. This can only be described as a palatial villa built a century ago for one of Germany’s most famous mezzo soprano, Madame Therese Malten. It has a musty, dark and dank atmosphere with original flooring and ceilings, sweeping staircases, acres of wooden panelling, heavy wooden doors etc – you get the picture!
Beautiful lithographs of Madame Malten in costume adorn the walls. Her forte was Wagner and specifically Brunnehilde. On many levels, Germany’s Madame Malten has remarkable similarities to Australia’s own Dame Nellie Melba. Both lived at about the same time, were of remarkably similar robust build, range of voice and fame in the interpretation of Wagner! Both had palatial residences with acres of grounds , Melba in Melbourne and Madame Malten in Dresden. But what the vast majority of people don’t realise is BOTH had famous food named after them.
Australians are great innovators and indeed more than 100 years ago, stunned the world with the tinned pineapple ring. Queensland was “canning sunshine”. Given that Australians, by nature, will can anything or everybody, it was a logical step from pineapples to peaches. Nellie Melba developed a penchant for the peach and travelled the world stage with cartons of these syrupy plump yellow-fleshed cling peaches which she devoured at breakfast with a goodly dollop of fresh cream before her cereal and toast.
Legend has it that a nervous waiter at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, spilt Kellogs cornflakes on the peaches. Despite her Prima Donna reputation, she consumed this culinary catastrophe and fell in love with the taste, the colour and texture and thus was clumsily created that iconic desert – Peach Melba.
As to the Dresden story it has some charming similarities. Madem Malten was addicted to sweets. According to her leading man and tenor, she “always had something in her mouth”. Her particular penchant was honeycomb. Louis Vuitton had designed a unique leather clutch purse in the shape of a honey bee for Mdme Malten to carry her secret stash of little balls of honeycomb. On an operatic day off she visited the world famous chocolate factory at Linz Austria. On opening her purse several honeycomb balls fell out and into a vat of melted chocolate. The embarrassed factory manager scooped them out and before he could drop them in the rubbish bin, Mdme Malten had opened her famous pharynx and consumed them quicker than one could say “high C” and as they say “the rest is history”. The Linz chocolate company went on to market little chocolate covered balls of honeycomb, which they called “Theresamalts” in recognition of how, again, an accident led to the creation of a unique sweet.
Of course in Australia, we wrestled with the name and after some back to front fiddling, came up with “Malt Theresa” initially , then finally to settle of course on the iconic beloved “Maltesers”. …. So there you have it!
Next time you go to the opera and you are silently sucking a Malteser, give thanks to Dresden’s Madame Therese Malten.
My Desert Island Opera List
Let me state at the beginning, that I will try to avoid using the word “sublime” more than I should. It is impossible to describe in words one’s reaction and emotions to music – invariably classical . There is an intense, incredible shiver of ecstasy that envelopes the body and soul with these operatic miracles. They are not in any specific order and often I find I am in a ‘mood’ to listen to one aria and the next day to another. The one immutable fact is that these soaring songs must be played at volume levels that mimic the exact effect of the orchestra and singers, actually performing in my living room. I am an atheist but listening to these operatic pieces surely brings me as close to god as I ever will be.
I have a reasonable sound system for my CD collection. Actually I am of that generation that started out with vinyl and then in the 1980s, proceeded to simply duplicate my LP records in a CD collection.
My preference is for these Italian operatic composers: Verdi, Bellini and Donizetti. Most of us know or recognise the familiar tunes from these great operas. My favourites slowly grew on me once the familiar were ‘too familiar’. In all of them, it is the skilful, gifted way that the composer blends and weaves the human voice with the other instruments of the orchestra. In my chosen list, it is invariably a solo instrument that dances and adds counterpoint to the voice, there is no other word to describe this than ‘sublime’!
Cortogiano, vi razza dannar” – Act 2
This aria is the ultimate example of pathos. Rigoletto pleads with the members of the Duke’s court to return his daughter. She is, as Rigoletto sings, but a few metres away in the Duke’s bed, as is the Duke! This aria reaches its climax as he begs the courtiers to understand and there is a sublime ( first time I use the word) interplay between the baritone voice, cello and clarinet, soaring majestically together – “Miei signori…persona, pietate…” ( My lords, I beg you, have pity)
Ah, ch’io taccia! a me a lui perdonate…Act 2
A hymn sung by father and daughter as Gilda lies dying and finding peace by realising that in death she will join her mother in heaven.
The arias of Germont, the father of Alfredo in Act 2 are my favourites.
Pura siccome un angelo
it may not be politically correct in the 21st century, but it is a rather conniving request that Violetta give up her defacto relationship with Germont’s son, Alfredo for the honesty and integrity of the family. Yes the woman is to blame for leading the man astray.
Di Provenza il mar, il suol
Having discovered that Violetta has returned to Paris and rejected Alfredo, his father, Germont, consoles his son and says basically she is only a woman forget her, your roots are more important ( no not THOSE roots!)
Pargi, o cara, noi lasceremo
Realising what a bastard he has been, Alfredo rushes back to Violetta and begs forgiveness, and says he will make everything legal and then he will take Violetta to Paris for a real honeymoon. Sadly Violetta has pulmonary tuberculosis and belts out one last aria as she coughs and splutters to death and at the same time, presumably transmitting the TB bacillus to Alfredo and Germont.
I admit that if tortured (listening to an Andrew Lloyd Weber CD ) to make a decision about my all time favourite opera, then La Sonnambula is it! I am in illustrious company as I recall that I read somewhere that it is Richard Bonynge’s favourite too!
Whilst “Prendi: l’anel ti dono” is the top of the pops for this opera, my favourite arias are
Cielo. al mio sposo io giuro
Amina is sleepwalking as she sings of her love for Elvino and is dreaming of being at the altar and swearing her marriage vows. Till death us do part. Happily this is ONE opera where the ending is happy and Amina does not die in tragic circumstances.
Oh! se una volta sola rivederlo io potessi. Act 2
This is yet another operatic ‘mad scene’ but with a variation as Amina is sleepwalking, again! Elvino is to marry another girlfriend and Amina is beside herself.
I have not covered Donizetti yet….!
Some of my rare gems are to follow in the next blog