March 30, 2020 at 1:09 pm (Ballet, opera, Russophilia)

Why do we need the arts to survive? Just look at this video of the Bolshoi. From Russia – land of my ancestors! – with love:

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From Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in several not so easy leaps

July 23, 2017 at 8:05 pm (books, Film and television, opera)

It begins with an achingly beautiful duet: “Marietta’s Lied” from Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt:

Korngold based this opera on Bruge-La-Morte, a short novel written by a Belgian, Georges Rodenbach, in 1892:

It tells the story of Hugues Viane, a widower overcome with grief, who takes refuge in Bruges where he lives among the relics of his former wife – her clothes, her letters, a length of her hair – rarely leaving his house.

From the Wikipedia entry for the book.  The following is from that same source:

The novel influenced many later writers, including W.G. Sebald. The plot of the book may also have influenced the French crime novel D’entre les morts by Boileau-Narcejac, which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as Vertigo in 1958.

D’Entre les Morts (Among the Dead) came out in 1954. The authors  were Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud; the latter wrote under the pseudonym Thomas Narcejac.

Of course, that passage above has a decidedly speculative ring to it: “…may also have influenced“…. James Gardner makes the same suggestion, though, in a 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Incarnating the World Within.”

Vertigo is one of my favorite films.


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“We live in Paradise, don’t we?” – Falling in Love, by Donna Leon

May 5, 2015 at 12:55 pm (Book review, books, Italy, Music, Mystery fiction, opera)

51epssesh-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_  When I first heard the title of the new Commissario Guido Brunetti novel, I thought it an odd one for a mystery. Now I’ve read the book, and I still think it odd.

That is not to say I didn’t enjoy it – I did. For me, Donna Leon almost never disappoints, and she didn’t this time. The saga of Flavia Petrelli, an opera singer bedeviled by an obsessed fan, was enriched as usual by the incomparable Venetian setting. Added to that, the opera in question is none other than Puccini’s Tosca.

I found myself almost pathetically eager to be once more in the company of the cultured Commissario. At the Questura, he deals skillfully  with difficult, often dense superiors and prickly administrative assistants – yes, that would chiefly be the mercurial Signorina Elettra. At home, he is buoyed by the companionship provided by Paola, his spirited and fiercely intellectual wife, and  his children Chiara and Raffi. (And these four really are present in one another’s lives. Not only are their dinners often festive affairs, but they also frequently lunch together – at home, enjoying delicious feasts prepared by Paola.)

In his book Opera as Drama (1956, revised 1988), Joseph Kerman famously referred to Tosca as “a shabby little shocker.” In a recent essay collection, Leon herself calls it “a vulgar potboiler I wouldn’t today cross the street to hear.” My response to all of this vilification is…YES!! Tosca is everything an opera should be: turbulent, melodramatic, filled with over the top exploding passions and glorious music, and – well, quintessentially operatic.


Scarpia, dead on the floor, where he belongs, the lecherous swine!!

As usual, the city of Venice is itself a character in the drama. There are the inevitable laments over its deterioration and despoiling, particularly by the hoards of tourists who are bent on destroying what they supposedly love. And yet…As Brunetti and Paola are walking homeward on a moonlit night, they experience this:

There was no wind, so the moon was reflected as though on a plate of dark glass. No boats came for some minutes, and Brunetti remained silent, as if afraid that the sound of his voice would shatter the surface of the water and thus destroy the moon. The footsteps on the bridge stopped, and for a long time there was silence. A Number One appeared down at Vallaresso and crossed over to La Salute, breaking the spell and then the reflection. When Brunetti turned towards San Vidal, he saw motionless people on the steps below him, all transfixed by the now-shimmering moon and the silence and the facades on either side of the canal. He looked to his right and saw that the railing was lined with more motionless people, faces raised for the moon’s benediction.

Paola  is moved to exclaim: “We live in Paradise, don’t we?”


Here’s my favorite video of Venice. The music is “Winter” from The Four Seasons, by  the Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi. The violinist is Federico Agostini.

I’ve featured this segment in previous posts, but it’s always worth seeing and hearing again:

This is my favorite aria from Tosca – possibly my favorite aria in all of opera: ‘Recondita Armonia,‘ sung here by Marcelo Alvarez.

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Ambrose Bierce

April 4, 2015 at 9:27 pm (History, Music, opera, Short stories, True crime)


Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce

I knew of Ambrose Bierce from his famous – and famously irreverent –  Devil’s Dictionary, and his equally famous and frequently anthologized short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Owlcreek

First: some excerpts from the aforementioned dictionary:


Featured in the True Crime anthology were excerpts from Bierce’s varied journalistic output. All appear under the rubric “Crime News from California.” This first entry effectively conveys  Bierce’s satiric flair. For something written – and published – in 1869, it seems to me rather daring, not to mention in some respects ahead of its time:


In the course of looking into Beirce’s background, I discovered a story – a very brief tale – entitled “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.” This is the whole of it:

One morning in July, 1854, a planter named Williamson, living six miles from Selma, Alabama, was sitting with his wife and a child on the veranda of his dwelling. Immediately in front of the house was a lawn, perhaps fifty yards in extent between the house and public road, or, as it was called, the “pike.” Beyond this road lay a close-cropped pasture of some ten acres, level and without a tree, rock, or any natural or artificial object on its surface. At the time there was not even a domestic animal in the field. In another field, beyond the pasture, a dozen slaves were at work under an overseer.

Throwing away the stump of a cigar, the planter rose, saying: “I forgot to tell Andrew about those horses.” Andrew was the overseer.

Williamson strolled leisurely down the gravel walk, plucking a flower as he went, passed across the road and into the pasture, pausing a moment as he closed the gate leading into it, to greet a passing neighbor, Armour Wren, who lived on an adjoining plantation. Mr. Wren was in an open carriage with his son James, a lad of thirteen. When he had driven some two hundred yards from the point of meeting, Mr. Wren said to his son: “I forgot to tell Mr. Williamson about those horses.”

Mr. Wren had sold to Mr. Williamson some horses, which were to have been sent for that day, but for some reason not now remembered it would be inconvenient to deliver them until the morrow. The coachman was directed to drive back, and as the vehicle turned Williamson was seen by all three, walking leisurely across the pasture. At that moment one of the coach horses stumbled and came near falling. It had no more than fairly recovered itself when James Wren cried: “Why, father, what has become of Mr. Williamson?”

It is not the purpose of this narrative to answer that question.

Mr. Wren’s strange account of the matter, given under oath in the course of legal proceedings relating to the Williamson estate, here follows:

“My son’s exclamation caused me to look toward the spot where I had seen the deceased [sic] an instant before, but he was not there, nor was he anywhere visible. I cannot say that at the moment I was greatly startled, or realized the gravity of the occurrence, though I thought it singular. My son, however, was greatly astonished and kept repeating his question in different forms until we arrived at the gate. My black boy Sam was similarly affected, even in a greater degree, but I reckon more by my son’s manner than by anything he had himself observed. [This sentence in the testimony was stricken out.] As we got out of the carriage at the gate of the field, and while Sam was hanging [sic] the team to the fence, Mrs. Williamson, with her child in her arms and followed by several servants, came running down the walk in great excitement, crying: ‘He is gone, he is gone! O God! what an awful thing!’ and many other such exclamations, which I do not distinctly recollect. I got from them the impression that they related to something more–than the mere disappearance of her husband, even if that had occurred before her eyes. Her manner was wild, but not more so, I think, than was natural under the circumstances. I have no reason to think she had at that time lost her mind. I have never since seen nor heard of Mr. Williamson.”

This testimony, as might have been expected, was corroborated in almost every particular by the only other eye-witness (if that is a proper term)–the lad James. Mrs. Williamson had lost her reason and the servants were, of course, not competent to testify. The boy James Wren had declared at first that he SAW the disappearance, but there is nothing of this in his testimony given in court. None of the field hands working in the field to which Williamson was going had seen him at all, and the most rigorous search of the entire plantation and adjoining country failed to supply a clew. The most monstrous and grotesque fictions, originating with the blacks, were current in that part of the State for many years, and probably are to this day; but what has been here related is all that is certainly known of the matter. The courts decided that Williamson was dead, and his estate was distributed according to law.

As can be seen, the date Bierce assigns to  this strange event is 1854.  The story appeared originally in 1888 and was included in a collection called Can Such Things Be, published in 1893. Now it seems that in the mid twentieth century, a similar legend was recounted concerning a certain David Lang. The year of these alleged events is given as 1880:

David Lang was said to be a farmer who lived near Gallatin, Tennessee. On September 23, 1880 he supposedly vanished into thin air while walking through a field near his home. His wife, children, and two men who were passing by in a buggy all witnessed his disappearance.

Frank Edwards included the following description of Lang’s disappearance in his book Stranger Than Science (1959):

David Lang had not taken more than half a dozen steps when he disappeared in full view of all those present. Mrs. Lang screamed. The children, too startled to realize what had happened, stood mutely. Instinctively, they all ran toward the spot where Lang had last been seen a few seconds before. Judge Peck and his companion, the Judge’s brother-in-law, scrambled out of their buggy and raced across the field. The five of them arrived on the spot of Lang’s disappearance almost simultaneously. There was not a tree, not a bush, not a hole to mar the surface. And not a single clue to indicate what had happened to David Lang.

The grownups searched the field around and around, and found nothing. Mrs. Lang became hysterical and had to be led screaming into the house. Meanwhile, neighbors had been altered by the frantic ringing of a huge bell that stood in the side yard, and they spread the alarm. By nightfall scores of people were on the scene, many of them with lanterns. They searched every foot of the field in which Lang had last been seen a few hours before. They stamped their feet on the dry hard sod in hope of detecting some hole into which he might have fallen — but they found none.David Lang was gone. He had vanished in full view of his wife, his two children, and the two men in the buggy. One second he was there, walking across the sunlit field, the next instant he was gone.

Eventually the grass around where Lang had disappeared turned yellow in a fifteen-foot diameter circle, suggesting that some form of energy had mysteriously transported him away.

Seven months later his children were said to have heard their father’s voice faintly calling out for help as they played near the spot of his disappearance, but eventually the sound of his voice faded away. They never heard his voice again.

This tale is recounted on the site The Museum of Hoaxes.  Further information and speculation is therein contained.

At any rate, the question remains: Whose is the original disappearance? Williamson the planter of Alabama or David Lang the farmer from Tennessee? Is either story true?

In the late 1990s, a chamber opera was composed that was based on the story “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.” It has been performed several times since then, to considerable acclaim.

To add to the general strangeness of this subject, the composer’s name is David Lang.


In 1913, after an extended period of travel, Ambrose Bierce, then age 71, announced his intention to go to Mexico. At the time, that country was embroiled in revolutionary turmoil.  His stated  aim was to join the army of Pancho Villa in Ciudad Juarez as an observer. At the time of Bierce’s last known communication, he was in Chihuahua. After that, he was never heard from again.

In other words, he disappeared.


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In praise of Georges Bizet

August 10, 2014 at 8:33 pm (Music, opera)

Georges Bizet is best known, at least in this country, for the opera Carmen. Carmen is truly wonderful, filled as it is with high drama, passion, and glorious music.

I have two other favorite works by Bizet. One is L’Arlesienne, in particular the Farandole from Suite No.2. I love this spirited performance, by the Deutsch-Niederländische KammerPhilharmonie (German-Dutch Chamber Orchestra) conducted by Otis Klöber.

Bizet has incorporated a medieval French Christmas carol into this music. It is called ” La marche des rois mages” (March of the Kings). Here it is, sung by the Robert Shaw Chorale:

Finally, here is the famous “Au fond du temple saint” from the opera Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers). I don’t really know the opera, but this duet I have long known and loved. I’ve trawled YouTube listening to various performances and have not found one that comes close to this magnificent offering by baritone Alan Titus and the great tenor Jerry Hadley:

Georges Bizet 1838 - 1875

Georges Bizet
1838 – 1875



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Things to do when stuck inside due to (yet another) snow storm

March 3, 2014 at 8:09 pm (books, Cats, Family, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), opera, Weather)

First and foremost, one must acknowledge the supremacy of Mother Nature:

[Video production courtesy of Ron’s Tech Magic]

One can always address one’s piles of stuff with a view to sorting, weeding, and stacking in a neat and orderly manner:


Well, maybe later – much later….
One may escape to Ireland’s Wild River. Poetic and gorgeously photographed – I highly recommend this Nature special. (The river in question is the Shannon.)



One may obsess over one’s son, daughter-in-law (now more like a daughter, lucky me!), grandson and granddaughter. All have lately been vacationing in beautiful Jackson Hole, Wyoming:






Okay: luggage, check; skis, check; backpacks, check; stroller, check. Wait a minute - where's...?

Okay: luggage, check; skis, check; backpacks, check; stroller, check. Wait a minute – where’s…?

One may gaze in awe upon great works of art, such as Parmigianino’s Portrait of a  Man with a Book and the Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo Van der Goes:


Hugo_van_der_Goes_Portinari Altarpiece**************************

One can listen to beautiful music. Fortunately this storm held off long enough for us to  see the Met in HD performance of Alexander Borodin‘s  Prince Igor. What a joy to be able to see live, world class opera in a movie theater fifteen minutes from your front door! Recently I wrote about my fixation on the Polovtsian Dances. This is the opera where that music originates.

It’s a new production, and the choreography for the familiar, well-loved dances is highly unusual. I didn’t think I’d like it, but I did. Click here to view a short segment.

Here’s the trailer for the 2013-2014 season in HD:

A recent Bolshoi Opera production of Prince Igor can be viewed on YouTube:

What gorgeous melodies! This music brings tears to  my eyes.
Oh – and of course one may catch up on one’s reading. For me, this means the following:

bookcover1           978-0-375-71230-2

I’m working my way in leisurely fashion through Miklos Banffy’s  riveting magnum opus, The Transylvania Trilogy.  Here’s an excerpt:

The young people flowed out into the great drawing-room of the castle where the supper was laid. The gypsy musicians vanished to their by now third meal of the evening, and Janos Kadar, helped by a maid, started changing the candles in the Venetian chandeliers. As he did so, young Ferko and the footmen rushed to remove spots of candle-grease from the floor and polish the parquet.

In the drawing-room the long dinner-table had been re-erected to form a buffet and on it was displayed a capercaillie, haunches of venison, all from the Laczoks’ mountain estates in Czik; and home-cured hams, hare and guinea-fowl pâtés and other specialities of Var-Siklod, the recipes of which remained Countess Ida’s closely guarded secret (all that she would ever admit, and then only to a few intimate friends, was: ‘My dear, it’s quite impossible without sweet Tokay!’).

At one end of the table were grouped all the desserts – mountainous cakes with intricate sugar decorations, compotes of fruit, fresh fruit arranged elaborately on silver dishes, and tarts of all descriptions served with bowls of snowy whipped cream. As well as champagne there were other wines, both red and white. An innovation, following the recent fashion for imitating English ways, was a large copper samovar from which the Laczok girls served tea.

As the guests were finishing their supper and beginning to leave the table replete with delicious food and many glasses of wine, the gypsy musicians filed into the room and took up their places to play the traditional interval music. On these occasions Laji Pongracz would play, in turn, all the young girls’ special tunes. At the winter serenades he had made sure that he knew exactly who had chosen which melody as their own and now, each time he started a new tune, he would look directly at the girl whose song it was and smile at her with a discreet but still knowing air.


Banffy does a magnificent job of evoking an elegant world, now utterly lost. Originally published  between 1934 and 1940, these novels were only recently translated into English from the Hungarian by Patrick Thursfield and Mikos Banffy’s daughter, Katalin Banffy-Jelen. Miklos Banffy’s work here is strongly reminiscent of the Tolstoy of Anna Karenina. He is in fact sometimes referred to as the Transylvanian Tolstoy. High praise indeed, and from what I’ve read so far, deserved.

I’m also about two thirds of the way through An Officer and a Spy, Robert Harris’s novelized retelling of the notorious Dreyfus Affair.  I’m in awe of the gifts and versatility of this author. He’s made something of a specialty of historical thrillers, and in my view, he’s better at it than just about anyone else. Pompeii, Imperium, Conspirata – all three excellent. Harris has also penned contemporary thrillers that are equally compelling. I’ve read two: The Fear Index and The Ghost. The latter was filmed as The Ghost Writer. Harris wrote the screenplay; the director was Roman Polanski. The film more than did justice to its source.


Finally, I’d like to close by giving credit where it’s due, to that irreplaceable aid to concentration, the cat. IMG_0542-M  Yes, it’s Miss Audrey Jane Marple, whose fidelity to her role as Companion Animal is unsurpassed!

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What do Parsifal and The Turn of the Screw have in common?

March 11, 2013 at 1:46 am (books, Music, opera)

Yes I know – Parsifal again. This is the final post touching on the subject of that opera, I promise!

6231207905_01fbc4de71_z  First – let me explain the above title. I’m currently listening to The Turn of the Screw, written in 1898 by Henry James. I listen to it in the car, and since I only drive short distances, I’m getting it in discreet chunks. No matter – I’ve listened to this recording (narrated by Flo Gibson) before, and I’ve read the book at least three times. I’ve seen “The Innocents,”  the terrific (in the literal sense of the word) 1961  film version starring Deborah Kerr. I’ve seen a film version (not sure which one)  of the opera by Benjamin Britten. All of this has taken place over the course of many years, decades actually.

So, as you can see, I’ve been trying for a long time to get to the bottom of it, to uncover the truth about what really happened at Bly – or at least, to decide once and for all what I believe happened.  From time to time, I feel the need to revisit The Turn of the Screw.You could say that this ghost story has haunted me for the better part of my life (and I know I’ve got plenty of company, in that regard).

Every time I revisit this maddening tale, I become aware of some new element. This time, the insistence on propriety and conventional appearance seems almost grating. When, for instance, it is learned that little Flora has gone out on her own, Mrs. Grose immediately exclaims, “Without a hat?” Flora, upon seeing the governess and Mrs Grose, is moved in her own turn to ask where their “things” are. The early emphasis on the sweetness and innocence of the children recalls Victorian sentimentality on the subject. Of course, this serves to heighten the contrast between the governess’s initial impression and her growing suspicions that the innocence of Miles and Flora has been fatally compromised by the forces of evil personified by the ghostly emanations of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint.

Whenever I am once again immersed in The Turn of the Screw, I begin looking for interesting commentary. In an essay called “Edmund Wilson and The Turn of the Screw,” M. Slaughter paraphrases the critic Edmund Wilson as follows: “James’s personal and authorial blind spot was sex, and his inability to confront, perhaps even to understand, sexual feelings, was transformed into the ambiguity of the governess.” That’s a subject for an entire book in and of itself. I will say that the aspects of James’s sexuality discussed by Michael Gorra in his magnificent book Portrait of the Novel were, for me, enlightening but not really surprising. I don’t want to go further into the subject at this point, but I’d like to quote here what Gorra says about a review James wrote of  Nana, written in 1880 by Emile Zola. The novel contains a good deal of frank description of the protagonist’s body and sexual practices.

[James] writes of the book’s “foulness,” but says almost nothing about what it actually contains. He doesn’t tell his readers that Nana is about a teenaged actress who drains the purses of her lovers, sleeping her way from success to success in an ever-unsatisfied frenzy; who seems happy only in a lesbian affair, and who late in the novel is startled to find herself pregnant, having so used “her sexual parts . .  . for other purposes” that she has forgotten they can still make babies. James writes about none of that. Even as a critic he can’t help but observe the distinction between that which he knows and that which he can admit that he knows.

henryjamesportrait  Having come to Paris in 1875, Henry James  was spending a considerable amount of time in the company of the greatest French writers of the day, Zola, Flaubert, and de Maupassant among them. Here’s what Michael Gorra says about the latter: “Guy de Maupassant wrote hundreds of short stories, many of them so frank in their account of sexual life that few young persons in England would have been allowed to read them.” So yes, there must have been a fairly wide gap between what James knew, and what he was able to acknowledge knowing. And as for what he could write about, that gap was much wider. He shared that reserve regarding sex with virtually all American and British writers of the late Victorian era. Even so, his reticence strikes the contemporary reader as extreme. Ironically, this need to approach the subject by the most oblique of routes often adds to the power of his writing rather than diminishing it (at least, it seems so to me).


Recently, my search for online commentary yielded a particularly pleasing result: a blog post, dated July 2011,  entitled “‘The Turn of the Screw’ and ‘The Innocents.'” The author modestly calls himself The Argumentative Old Git (“…it’s best to be self-deprecating before someone else deprecates you!”). And on the sidebar, what do mine eyes behold under the rubric “Recent Posts” but this: “Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’: some confused thoughts of a layman.”     Recent indeed: this was posted this past Sunday March 3, one day after the Parsifal marathon attended by my friends and me.

Turns out that “The Argumentative Old Git” is actually Himadri, an operational research analyst who lives with his family near London. As for the ‘old’ part – he is in his early fifties. (Hah! If only….)  Given our similar interests, and the fact that he lives in Britain, I would be pleased to think of Himadri as a kindred spirit (oh my gosh, I just saw the post on Hamlet!), except that he is obviously a much deeper thinker (not to mention better writer) than I am. Ah well – I am very glad to have found this blog. I have a great deal of juicy content to catch up on, and I intend to be a regular reader from now on.


I have just received my CD of Jonas Kaufmann singing verismo arias. I am enjoying it greatly:

Jonas Kaufmann also has a recently released CD featuring the music of Richard Wagner:

Finally, I really got a kick out of the cover design for  this CD. I believe that Friedrich’s “Wanderer’ is often thought of as the emblem of the German Romanticism that flourished in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. The era, in other words, of Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven.


Wanderer above the Sea of Fog – Caspar David Friedrich, 1818



I finished listening to The Turn of the Screw earlier today. I had to pull over to the curb and just sit and listen. Surely that last sentence is one of the most shattering in all of fiction.

It took a few minutes before I could continue driving. I was very close to home, you see,  but I had to wait for my heart to stop pounding.

I can’t say for sure, but this may be the last time I revisit The Turn of the Screw. At this point in my life, I need something redemptive – something like Parsifal.  Wagner_parsifal_0184402

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Addendum to the previous post on Parsifal: ‘a mystery play for a cryptic religion’

March 6, 2013 at 1:22 pm (Music, opera)

[Click here to read the previous Parsifal post.]


Alex Ross in the March 4 2013 New Yorker Magazine:

François Girard’s new staging of Wagner’s “Parsifal,” at the Metropolitan Opera, is nearly as inexplicable as the work itself. The Knights of the Grail, dressed in white shirts and dark pants, seem to be cultists attending a convention in a postapocalyptic desert, with rivers of blood flowing across the stage and unfamiliar planets traversing the sky. It’s bewildering but beautiful, a mystery play for a cryptic religion.

Turns out that Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s exceptionally gifted and deeply knowledgeable music critic, is at work on a book about Richard Wagner’s influence on various other artistic genres.  In October of last year, Ross told the New Yorker Festival  audience that Wagner – Art in the Shadow of Music will not be out for several years yet. Describing his subject as  ”as a limitless forest in which one goes wandering at a certain peril,” he stated that one of his goals will be to “negotiate ‘between hardcore Wagnerians and the normal people.’”

Click here to read the entire article on The Wagner Blog.

Alex Ross’s own blog is called The Rest Is Noise. (The name presumably is a riff on Hamlet’s last words: “The rest is silence.”)

Alex Ross

Alex Ross


Meanwhile – a question, and a suggestion from this decidedly non hardcore Wagnerian:

Why does Parsifal – the opera, not specifically the character – have to be so resolutely anti- sex and anti- female? I mean, in the sense that Kundry the seductress has to ‘unsexed’ (there’s that MacBeth reference again) before Parsifal (the character) can express tenderness toward  her. She seems a Mary Magdalene figure, especially as she engages in the ritual bathing of the feet of the hero. And while we’re on the subject of Christian iconography, it struck me that the Christlike function in the opera is bifurcated, with Amfortas in the role of martyr and Parsifal in that of savior.

Comments from actual Wagnerians would be most welcome at this juncture.


During his interview at the second intermission, François Girard said that one of the goals of his production was to make Parsifal relevant for a contemporary audience. I must respectfully take issue with this rationale. To my way of thinking, great art by definition is eternally relevant. It amazes me, for instance, the number of times in the course of my days that I can pull a Shakespeare quote from my memory and find that it’s exactly apt for a  modern situation.  Imperious Caesar dead and turned to clay /Might stop a hole to keep the wind away….


Finally, here is Jonas Kaufmann:

The CD Verismo Aias is even now winging its way to me from Amazon (although today’s snowstorm may delay its arrival, alas.)  Goodness, were I several decades younger, I might just fall in love….


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‘I am in blood stepped in so far…; also, how not to eat popcorn while watching Parsifal

March 3, 2013 at 9:30 pm (Music, opera)

The first act of Wagner’s Parsifal is long.

Really, really long.

Or perhaps, just seems that way….

We saw Wagner’s magnum opus yesterday in a local movie  theater, my friends Maggie and Emma and myself. Maggie and Emma were completely new to this work, and loved it. (I have good taste in friends.)

On reflection, Act One needs to be as long as it is, in order to get the listener/viewer into the proper frame of mind. This would be: fascinated first, then immersed, then amazed, and finally, if you’re lucky, transported utterly.

Here’s how it begins:

The absence of corresponding visuals is deliberately chosen. In my (admittedly inexpert) opinion, opera productions are becoming increasingly strident, calling attention to themselves sometimes at the expense of the music. For me, nothing – NOTHING – should take precedence over the music.

So – Is this new production of Parsifal, the creation of François Girard, guilty of the above besetting sin of distracting stagecraft ? Alas, for this viewer, it was – at least, to an extent. Definitely to the extent of the second act, where the stage is literally awash in blood, which the performers are forced to wade through and which ultimately gets all over everything (a real housekeeping nightmare, although in an interview, one of the stage managers revealed that shaving cream got it out quite handily).

You can see where the flower maidens would have their work cut out for them:


Fortunately the sheer force of Jonas Kaufmann’s vocalizing (Parsifal) more than compensates for the gore poor Kundry (Katarina Dalayman) was sloshing around in.

Rene Pape took the part of Gurnemanz, an elder among the knights of the Holy Grail. In Act One, he recounts the story of how the Grail and the spear that pierced Christ’s body during his crucifixion came to be placed in the care of these knights, and how their king, Amfortas, came by his wound. The wound, incapable of healing, causes Amfortas immense anguish. And I must say  here that in this role, Swedish baritone Peter Mattei was stunning. Not only  was his singing gorgeous, but his enacting of Amfortas’s suffering was utterly convincing, and moving beyond words.  Music Peter Mattei

Here is Rene Pape as Gurnemanz:

You can tell, but I’ll say it anyway: He is superb. (Ron and I Loved him in Boris Godunov.)

The story of Parsifal  has some basis in the medieval epic Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, a German knight and poet who lived from around 1170 to 1220. That tale in turn has links to the Arthurian legends; these seem to have permeated  the sensibilities not only of the writers and artists of medieval Britain (and earlier) but also those of their Western European counterparts. The mention of Gawain in Act One fairly leaped out at me – especially since I’d just read a fairly detailed retelling of the story of Gawain and the Green Knight in James Lasdun’s book Give Me Everything You Have.  In fact, I found that various associations were coming at me fast and furious in that first act: Kundry bringing a ‘balsam from Arabia’ for the easing of Amfortas’s pain put me in mind immediately of Lady MacBeth’s sleepwalking scene: “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” In fact, this blood soaked presentation bore a more than passing resemblance to ‘the Scottish play.’ At one point, MacBeth exclaims: “”I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,  /Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” (There’s that word “wade” again….) Then, of course, there’s this, once more from the anguished MacBeth: “It will have blood; they say, blood will have blood.” (Maggie and Emma also reminded me about the Three Wise Men from the East, who attend upon the baby Jesus and give him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.)

The killing of the swan first put me in mind of Lohengrin. I’ve always loved the scene in which Elsa’s desperate entreaties are answered with the arrival of the knight Lohengrin, son of Parsifal, on his swan boat.

From Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria

From Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria

(And I recall my delight upon my first visit to Boston , when I saw the swan boats on the lagoon in the public garden. Are they still there? Yes!    Click here for their history, including their connection to Lohengrin.)

The act of shooting the swan, for which Parsifal is so roundly chastised, immediately made me think of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. There is much speculation as to the source of the strange and haunting tale told by the mariner. One is that it ties in with the legend of the  Wandering Jew; another connects it to the legend of the Flying Dutchman.

There are, of course, numerous other associations. Anyway, while I had trouble warming to the staging – why must it be so dark, I wonder? – I loved, deeply loved, both the music and the mystery.


Click here for an essay on “Wagner’s Grail Studies.” The study of Wagner’s operas is a vast discipline I’ve only covered a small corner of it here. In 2009, I had my own close encounter with Wagner and Parsifal at the Villa Rufolo, amid the amazing, unearthly beauty of Italy’s Amalfi Coast.

So…what about that popcorn? I simply can’t go into a movie theater and not have popcorn. It’s one of the few indulgences I’m permitted nowadays. I was munching happily away before the opera got under way, but once the slow moving majesty commenced… I tried a few kernels, and I sounded to myself like I was firing a cap gun!

I waited until the first intermission to finish my little treat.

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A novel about opera will itself become an opera

March 4, 2012 at 5:30 pm (books, Music, opera)

I was delighted to read in this morning’s papers of the coming convergence of two of my favorite art forms.

At Chicago’s Lyric Opera, preparations are now in hand to transform Ann Patchett’s marvelous novel Bel Canto into an opera.  The project was conceived by renowned soprano Renee Fleming, who since 2010 has served as the Lyric Opera’s creative consultant. Jimmy Lopez, a native of Peru, has been chosen as composer.

Jimmy Lopez

(This would seem an especially apt selection, as the novel’s action takes place in that country.) The libretto will be written by playwright Nilo Cruz.

Nilo Cruz

And this is very exciting news: the lead role of the singer Roxanne Coss is to be sung by Danielle de Niese, whose work in the Met’s Enchanted Island was so superb.

Danielle de Niese

Bel Canto is scheduled for performance during the Lyric Opera’s 2015-2016 season.

Andrew Davis, the Lyric Opera's music director, Renee Fleming, and Ann Patchett

Click here and here for articles about Bel Canto in Chicago. (I wrote about Renee Fleming and Ann Patchett in my review of the latter’s novel State of Wonder.)


Fortunate are those folks who live in the Windy City and can partake of its rich and varied cultural offerings. You know – folks like these:

My granddaughter Etta, daughter-in-law Erica, and son Ben

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