Madame Butterfly in Prague

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.

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The auditorium

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I am led to believe its genuine bohemian crystal.

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The Opera Theatre

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The adjacent National Museum , this older section is presently closed for renovations.

Spontaneous concerts !

I recall that arriving in a village and finding, serendipitously there is a concert that night, has provided some extraordinary memorable evenings, and tonight was no exception. Often it happens as I stumble into a cathedral or am drawn to the sound of music and enter the church to find a rehearsal.

It happened on the Camino where at the church in Fromista a young classical guitarist was performing. He worked his way through many of the easily recognized classical guitar pieces to an embarrassingly small but appreciative audience. He was excellent.

In Tiradentes, Brazil, Osley and I were invited by our hotel owner to an organ recital. Held in the cathedral the organ was one of the oldest still in playing condition, manufactured by a famous organ builder – whose name escapes me!

This concert at Litomerice was held in the All Saints church and the programme would quite easily have made the ABC top 10 Baroque compositions. Why do I say this so confidently? It started with the Bach Toccato and Fugue, a Corelli Concerto Grosso, throw in a couple of arias from the Messiah – “Comfort me..” which leads onto of course, “Every Valley shall be exalted and then that sublime aria from Rinaldo – “Lascia ch io piranha” It finished with the duet by Vivaldi “Laudamus”. But wait there was more! 4 encores!

Unheard of …The soprano pelted out Ave Maria, floral bouquets distributed, then both singers did a repeat of the Vivaldi, then the orchestra did an encore, then both singers did Ave Maria as a duet!

Talk about “sending them away happy”!

Incidentally the rather sexy young bass player was a bit of a “bobber”- a tendency to bob the head in various directions in time with the music. A trait my Recorder teacher ferociously and vociferously opposes. I have the physical and mental scars to prove it. What was fascinating about the “Bass Bobber ” was his whole body did it! I initially wondered whether he may some neurological movement disorder but in the end found him quite charming!

Finally, to date it has been perfect autumnal weather.

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The saga of a famous singer and her sweets

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.

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Desert Island OPERA

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.

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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’!

Guiseppe Verdi

Rigoletto

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.

La Traviata

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.

Bellini

La Sonnambula

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