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.

Ring 3 Lobby and Lecture Theatre
Open  Corridor Behind Ring 3
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.