Mercoledi Musicale

It seems that every day or two I hear of the death of someone I grew up listening to or seeing in the musical or theatrical world. Earlier this week Mirella Freni the great lyric soprano died in her hometown of Modena.

I first saw her name in a Glydndebourne programme book back in 1960 where she appeared as Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. I was to see her in that role nine years later at Salzburg conducted by Herbert Von Karajan. It was Von Karajan who convinced her to move from soubrette roles to the more lyric when he conducted her as Mimi La Boheme at La Scala in 1963. I received her 1964 recording of my favourite Puccini work from my brother and sister-in-law that Christmas. A version that I treasure to this day. Then a film of the Scala production – a major achievement of a young and inspired Franco Zeffirelli – appeared for one night only at the old Imperial Theatre and I was downtown for that one in a flash. Here, from that film, is Freni at her most lyrical telling us of the simple story of Lucia who is called Mimi. And for me she was to be forever Mimi.

Two years after the Don Giovanni I was to see her, again at Salzburg, in Verdi’s Otello. Karajan was taking her into heavier territory – but very much on her own terms – and gone was the flirtatious peasant girl. She was a proud daughter of La Serenissima facing up to the power house that was the Otello of Jon Vickers. For all the beauty of their love duet and drama of their riveting Act III confrontation it was her prayer to the Virgin as Desdemona prepares for bed, and subconsciously her death, that stays in the mind.

Requiem in pace cara Mirella; oggi canti con gli angeli!

The word for February 12 is:
Obligurate /unavailable/: [obscure verb]
Probably means to spend time in feasting
Etymology: irregular from Latin obligūrīre, from ob- ligūrīre to be dainty, lick, lick up.
1623 – The English Dictionarie, or an Interpreter of hard English Words, Henry Cockeram: Obligurate, to spend in belly-cheere.

Butterflies Are Free

I have remarked more than once that many of my posts of late mark the passing of people I grew up listening to, reading about, or seeing. Last evening another legend of dance fluttered into the wings: Alicia Alonso. She overcame incredible odds both personally and politically to become one of the greats of the latter part of the 20th century. Her story is a remarkable one and has been well-rehearsed in the many obituaries that are now appearing world-wide.

Alicia Alonso as Giselle with her long-time dance partner Igor Youskevitch. They were the iconic vision of Romantic ballet in my young mind.

I remember pictures of her as Giselle in the ballet books I took out of our local library when I was not yet in my teens. She was the iconic image of the classical ballerina, often shown with Igor Youskevitch, her most frequent partner. Unfortunately I never saw her on stage only on film which though it captured her technique perhaps missed some of that stage magic, that aura that captivated everyone who saw her. My dear Simonetta was fortunate to see her perform, if only briefly, and wrote a lovely reminiscence that she is allowing me to share.

SIMON, THE BUTTERFLY AND ALICIA ALONSO

The ballet community is expressing its sadness on the passing of 98-year-old Alicia Alonso because no ballet lover was filled with anything but awe and deference towards this legend of a ballerina and it is in the human nature to wish to preserve for ourselves all that we (mistakenly) feel “belongs” to us – whether our worldly belongings, the fleeting moment, or those human beings that we love and admire. Yet it would be wise to realise that love and respect mean letting go and allowing those who have lived long and successful lives to break out of their chrysalises which in waning years aren’t always the best of abodes. When my beloved mother passed away 17 years ago, I imagined her as a butterfly that had emerged from the body of an aging lady to fly away into newfound youth and beauty. I wept for my bereaved self, but I was happy for my butterfly of a mother. The idea of the liberated spirit being akin to a butterfly has led to a succession of thoughts today which strangely link together Alonso and my darling son Simon D’Aquino and which I share with you.

Simonetta at a dance event with the 92 year old Alicia Alonso (centre) in 2012.

The great Cuban ballerina last appeared on stage in Rome with the Cuban National Ballet at the Teatro Nazionale, I believe in 1995. I was still a ballet critic in those days and had been invited to the premiere but that night I could not find a babysitter for my little Simon who wasn’t yet even 3 years old, even younger than in the photo below. I realised that this would probably be my last chance to see Alonso perform (well, she was almost eighty – I saw her again in 2012, but not on stage). I was loath to miss the show so I made the snap decision to take my little toddler with me and hope for the best: he might just nod off, I thought, or if he was going to snivel and whimper, I’d just get up and leave – but I’d give it a try.

My dear Simonetta with her son Simon who at this stage was already a confirmed balettomane.

When I got to the theatre it was fully booked but my Simon was so small he could sit on my lap and, being in baby-friendly Italy, they let me in with him. It was a mixed bill, the apotheosis of which was a ballet in which Alonso, wearing an unlikely costume as a butterfly, appeared briefly – propped up by a couple of porteurs – to do a bit of fluttering and enthrall the audience in spite of her advanced age. My little Simon didn’t go to sleep at all: he sat wide-eyed and transfixed as he watched Alicia and her dancers. I mused that one day an elderly Simon would be able to tell the young that he had seen the great Alicia Alonso dance – and it would sound as mythical as when Alberto Testa (who has also recently passed away) used to say that he had seen the legendary Anna Pavlova dance!

Simon d’Aquino as Peter Ryabovsky in a staging of Chekov’s short-story The Butterfly at the Barons Court Theatre in London.

That evening was the beginning of Simon’s love affair with ballet and the theatre in general. From then on he would come with me to see ballets, operas, and plays of all descriptions and, when he finished his schooling, he chose to study drama and embark on an acting career. Yesterday Alonso, who two-year-old Simon had seen as a butterfly, flew away. Tonight Simon debuts at the Barons Court Theatre, London in a play based on a short story by Anton Chekhov. Simon has the star role, that of the bohemian painter Peter Ryabovsky. Oh, I forgot to mention: the play is called…THE BUTTERFLY.

Tonight I have two wishes. One that the great Alicia Alonso rest in peace. The second is for Simon – in bacca al lupo!

October 18th is National No Beard Day – something that doesn’t apply to either Simon or I. It’s also National Chocolate Cupcake day which may!

Dancer to the Dance

Alberto Testa (December 23, 1922 – October 4, 2019)

We received the sad news today that our beloved Professore, Alberto Testa, has died. One of the icons of international dance, he became a treasured friend during our time in Italy.

Il Professore during his days as a premier danseur – unfortunately I couldn’t find a great number of early pictures of him.

We were introduced to him by our dear Simonetta our first Easter in Rome back in 2008. During our four years there we shared Christmases, Easters, and other family celebrations with her, Renato, Simon and their extended family – always including the Professore.

At a celebration honouring his life and career in Spoleto on July 10, 2011.

At our first meeting, in the traditional manner of showing respect we referred to him as “dottore”; he wagged an admonishing finger and said “Non dottore, solo un professore. In questi giorni ognuno è un dottore!” – (Not dottore, only professore. These days everyone is a dottore!)

Laurent, Simonetta, the Professore, and I just having shared memories of his remarkable life and career as a dancer, choreographer, critic, writer and friend.

At one of our last Easter celebrations he and Simonetta demonstrated the waltz scene from Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard. He had choreographed all of Visconti and Zeffirelli’s movies but had particularly fond memories of taking Burt Lancaster – a gentleman and born dancer according to the Professore – through his steps in the ballroom scene . He had harsher words for Claudia Cardinale – a stick!

I wasn’t surprised when I saw a short video from 2012 on the Teatro Regio Torino website tribute of our Professore at 90 demonstrating a dance step with all the grace and elegance that were the hallmarks of his life.

I’m sure that he is already in the celestial rehearsal room putting the heavenly host through their dance steps at the barre and admonishing any of them who might be “sticks”.

Rest in peace, dear Professore.

October 4th is Drink Vodka Day as well as Body Language Day – well you should see my body language after I’ve been drinking vodka.

Mercoledi Musicale

It seems that far too often that my Wednesday music postings are tributes to musicians that I grew up with who have died. Once again I say goodbye to a singer who I judged amongst the greats: Jessye Norman

I only had the privilege of seeing her live once but knew her through recordings and broadcasts. In June of 1979 Laurent and I took our first of many trips together. We were celebrating him receiving his Bachelor’s degree from University of Ottawa and where better to celebrate it than London? One of the many highlights of that trip was a performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony at Royal Albert Hall: Lorin Maazel conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus with Margret Marshall and Jessye Norman. We were sitting high up in the hall and I remember Norman in a grey caftan making her way to her place at the front of the platform like a battleship in full sail through the sea of musicians. And then:

Unfortunately this was the only version I could find on YouTube that was complete. I find the visuals off-putting and no orchestra or conductor is listed. But the glory of that voice makes it bearable.

One lasting image I will always have of Jessye Norman is the 200th anniversary celebration of the French Revolution in July 1989. Draped in a French tricolour she began to sing La Marseillaise circling the monument at La Concorde and then was borne down the Champs Elysee her arms raised as she rallied each and every citizen to take up arms. I defy anyone to resist that call to this day.

A left click will take you to a video of those glorious moments. It takes a moment or two to load but is worth the short wait.
AFP PHOTO / JOEL ROBINE

May she rest in peace.

October 2nd is National Kale Day – as well as Name Your Car Day. I don’t much like the former except in colcannon and I’ve never done the later with any of my cars. Have you?

Mercoledi Musicale

Canadian bass Joseph Rouleau died late last week at the age of 90 after a remarkable career as singer, teacher, mentor and promoter of young musicians. Born in the small town of Matane on the Gaspé Peninsula he studied in Montréal, Milan and New York before making in debut in 1955 in New Orleans. Much of his career was spent at the Royal Opera House in London where he debuted in 1957. He went on to sing 850 performances over almost three decades at the ROH. He was to sing at the Met for several seasons and appeared with the Canadian Opera Company and Opéra de Montréal on various occasions but his career was primarily centred in Europe.

His recording career had an auspicious start – he sang Rochfort on a recording of the final scene from Anna Bolena with Maria Callas. Later he became associated both on stage and in the recording studio with Joan Sutherland, who was a close colleague during those early years at Covent Garden.

Amongst his favourite roles was Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. He sang the blind monk Pimen with the great Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff as Boris but graduated to the role of the tortured Tzar shortly after. While performing the role at the opera house in Kiev he donned the costumes worn by the role’s most famous interpreter, Feodor Chaliapin. In a recent interview he said: Before each performance, I crossed myself, prayed for my father’s support, and said, “Mom, my God, I’ve come a long way from Matane.”

In 1983 Radio Canada recorded the death scene from Boris in the Rimsky-Korsakov realization. At close quarters it may seem a touch OTT but vocally it is a remarkable interpretation. I programmed the clip to begin as Boris feels approaching death and calls for his son Feydor. I am not sure if that feature is working or not so please feel free to fast forward to the 14:46 mark.

May he rest in peace and may light perpetual shine upon him.

July 17th has a plethora of celebrations: World Emoji Day, National Hot Dog Day, National Peach Ice Cream Day, National Tattoo Day, Wrong Way Corrigan Day (!) and Yellow Pig Day (!!). Take your pick.