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.

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).