Mercoledi Musicale

Last evening as we sat having our tea and biscuits after dinner and listening to the radio a piece came on that I immediately recognized but couldn’t for the life of me identify. It was an opera I should know well, it was in German but it just wasn’t registering. I hate when that happens. And quite frankly it worries me a bit. When the announcer identified it as the Quartet Wir ist so wunderbar from Beethoven’s Fidelio I felt even more frustrated – how could I not recognize one of the most sublime moments in all opera?

And a sublime moment it is. The situation is a complicated one: Rocco, the jailor, expresses the hope that his new assistant Fidelio (Lenore in disguise as a man) will become his son-in-law; Marzallina her new found love for her father’s assistant; Jaquino, her former boy friend, his jealousy of his riva; and Leonora (Fidelio) her anguish at the situation. Simple emotions: hope, love, jealousy, anguish; but clothed in one of the most glorious vocal fugues ever written.

Fidelio is an opera I’ve seen six times with some remarkable casts and productions but one of my regrets is not seeing the great Swedish soprano Elizabeth Soderstrom in this Glyndebourne performance. We just couldn’t get tickets for love nor pounds sterling and had to be satisfied with Frederica Von Stade in Monteverdi’s Ulisse. Not a bad seconds, in fact a great one, and I’m just happy that the Fidelio was filmed.

July 10th is Clerihew Day – what’s that you say? What’s a Clerikhew – left click on the link. It’s also Piña Colada Day – so break out the rum, pineapple juice and coconut milk.

Remembrance of Things Past

In which I ramble about a trip long past.

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Toronto International Airport – 1960s – I began working there in 1966 in the little operations control centre at the end of Finger 5 (red arrow). 

Back in June of 1969 I made my first of many trips to London. I was still very new with the airlines and our passes were not as generous as they were to become. You were given one pass a year to ever widening destinations and after three years I still had not graduated to an overseas pass.  This meant I had to buy a (greatly) reduced standby ticket on another airline out of New York.  The night I was to leave violent thunderstorms cancelled all the flights to JFK so I attempted to sleep in the Teletype room at Toronto International Airport (that was a long time ago) and caught the early morning flight to connect to a PanAm (a really long time ago!) daylight flight. Unfortunately a combination of fatigue, hunger, and fear (yes I’m terrified of flying) led to me passing out as we reached cruising altitude and I came to somewhere over Newfoundland with a very concerned stewardess (a really, really long time ago we called them that) applying a cold compress to my neck. It was the beginning of a very eventful 10 days.

Amongst those events was a stay at a hotel in Bayswater that was rumoured to have been built for Lily Langtry by Edward VII and included a “bijoux” theatre that was the hotel’s bar. It had been turned into a hotel a year or two before and my recollection is of a not overly commodious or commoded single room – my first experience of a bathroom down the hall. And on the way through the warren of hallways and stairs to my chamber I had to pass a room occupied by a permanent resident of the hotel. She was an ancient lady with a mittel-European accent who would open her door a crack as I passed by and mutter dire auguries and bulletins on her fading health. The hall porter said not to mind her she was slightly mad but harmless.

But it wasn’t all fainting and mad women there was also gossip, death, murder, suicide, deceit and chicanery but fortunately most of it on stage.  I was there for theatre and opera.  It was off to the Old Vic for The Way of the World with Geraldine McEwen,  Covent Garden for Georg Solit conducting Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, Glyndebourne for Werther, Pelleas et Melisande and Cosi Fan Tutte.  A tuxedo was de rigueur for Glyndebourne so a trip was made to Moss Bros in Covent Garden to be tricked out in style.  And for two of the performances the 1430 train to Glynde was caught at Victoria Station.

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In his usual wry style Osbert Lancaster captured Glyndebourne of the 1960s – our arrival on a motor bike would have suited his sense of the unusual to a tee.

For the third performance my arrival was a trifle less traditional. I had left the Mad Lady of Bayswater behind and gone to stay with the family of a colleague across the river in Richmond. The son of the family had never been to an opera and we were able to get a last minute ticket for Cosi. Gordon owned a motor bike and thought it would be a lark to drive it down to Lewes on a sunny Sunday afternoon.  Our arrival at the opera house was a source of puzzlement to the car park attendant who had no idea where to put us amongst the Bentleys and Jaguars that filled the lot.  Nor as I recall did he know what to charge us.  And the cloak room ladies were equally puzzled when presented with mackintoshes and helmets.  After Mozart, a stroll in the gardens, dinner at the Nether Wallop restaurant we biked back to Richmond with a stop in Brighton to see the pier illuminations and the fireworks.

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The programme cover for that visit in 1969 was again Lancaster capturing as only he could the fun of the fair!  The old theatre at Glyndebourne still had a slight village hall air to it.

Being the first trip to London it meant visits to Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s, the Tower of London, Harrod’s (back when it was special and had yet to become a theme park), Fortnum and Mason, the British Museum, the Salisbury Pub in St Martin’s Lane, and Pollack’s Toy Store.

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One of Pollock’s reproduction Toy Theatre – The Victoria with characters and scenery for Cinderella found its way into my suitcase.

What?  A toy store?  Well yes but not just any old toy store! Pollack’s was a toy store and museum known for it’s antique juvenile drama – one penny plain and twopence coloured” sets and for reproductions using copper plates dating back to the 1840s.  Given my fascination with toy theatres it can be safely assumed a good deal of what I put in my luggage on the return was from Pollock’s which I wrote about several years ago.  Several complete coloured sets, along with several plain sheets and playbooks,  and a modern (1960s) theatre sheet for the 1928 Drury Lane production of Showboat by an artist called James Hope Williams.  And that theatre sheet is what began me rambling about that first visit to a city that never ceases to amaze and delight.

Henry Bessemer, the English inventor, is quoted as saying “On March 4, 1830 I arrived in London, where a new world seemed opened to me.”  I could well have said the same thing of June 10, 1969.

On this day in 1665: The first joint Secretary of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg, publishes the first issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the world’s longest-running scientific journal.

The Magic in the Flute

Legend says that the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg himself literally kicked Mozart out of his
palace – in truth it was his Grace’s steward Count Arno who delivered the Episcopal drop kick.
In Emanuele Luzzati’s drawing the young Mozart seems to enjoy the event.  But it seems some
little success and an admonishing Emperor Josef are awaiting his arrival in Vienna.

An article on Mozart’s The Magic Flute by my friend David Nice over at I’ll Think of Something Later led me (as David’s writings so often do)  to do two things: download one of the great recordings of Mozart’s masterpiece and search for one of several books I have on the work of Emanuele Luzzati as inspired by the genius that was Wolfgang A.

Never out of the catalogue since the day it was issued, the recording was produced by Walter Legge in Germany between November 8, 1937 and March 8th of the following year in Berlin’s Beethovensaal. It featured the Berlin Philharmonic and the cream of Germany’s operatic talent – or at least those who had not been forced to leave by the Nazis; but most surprisingly it was conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham.  Beecham had created some controversy in 1936 when he taken the London Philharmonic on tour to Germany and had agreed to the “request” not to include Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony in their repertoire – though a convert to Christianity the Nazi government still regarded Mendelssohn as a “Jewish composer”.  To the discomfort of the authorities even Der Fuehrer was not exempt from one of Sir Thomas’s comments.  When Hitler showed up late for one of the Berlin concerts Beecham was heard, in one of those mutters of his that could fill a room, to observe “That stupid old bugger’s late!”

A computer reconstruction of the Beethovensaal, home of the Berlin Philharmonic
before the Second World War.  It was destroyed in the Allied bombing raids.
It was the major recording venue for HMV between the two Great Wars.

Though not an Nazi sympathizer – Beecham refused invitations to tour Germany after 1936 – he nevertheless honoured contracts he had with the Berlin State Opera in ’37-38.  For HMV Legge assembled an all-German cast (though Danish-born Helge Rosvaenge made his career in Germany and Austria) and it seems that he audaciously replaced a few “unacceptable” members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra strategically with players from the Berlin State Opera Orchestra.  The Queen of the Night’s aria O zitt’re nicht, mein lieber Sohn (Tremble not, my dear son) was still unrecorded when Beecham left Berlin at the beginning of March and was recorded later that month with Bruno Seidler-Winkler conducting the Berlin State Opera Orchestra.

HMV’s Mozart Opera Society issued four operas on 78s over the space of
several years. The First was the Glyndebourne Nozze di Figaro followed by
Cosi and Don Giovanni also from John Christie’s country opera house. The
Beecham Zauberflote was the only non-British recording in the set. Along
with the Cosi it was to remain in the catalogue since its first issue and is
considered one of the great recordings of the 20th century.

Despite its slightly clouded history the recording was greeted with superlatives when it was issued on 19 double-sided shellac 78s as one of HMV’s The Mozart Opera Society recordings.  As the LP era took over many other recordings were to appear but this pioneering effort was the one most frequently held up for comparison.   My own Flute of choice has always been the 1962 recording also produced by Legge under the baton of Otto Klemperer.  I recall hearing an LP transfer of the earlier Berlin recording and not being terribly impressed – it sounded as if it had been copied from the 78s clicks, pops and hisses intact.  But after several hearings of the 2001 remastering of Beecham’s historical recording on Naxos I am inclined to place it very close second in my list of favourites.   Though the two conductors could not be more different in their approach they both capture the inspired lunacy of Schikaneder that is made magical by Mozart’s music.   The surprise with Klemperer was always how jolly and warm, almost folk-like, the more comic moments sounded and with Beecham it is the sublime majesty of the more serious  – but then should I really be that surprised?  He was, after-all, a conductor of Wagner, Strauss and Delius.

Emanuele Luzzati’s set model for the 1963 Die Zauberflote at Glyndebourne.  Ten
triangular screens, each manipulated by a stagehand hidden inside moved about
the stage under the direction of a stage manager using early wireless technology.

Luzzati’s sketches suggest the positions he wanted for the screens and designs (each side had a
different colour and design theme) he wanted revealed for the various scenes as the opera unfolded.

That strange juxtaposition of the inane and the sublime has always been a problem both in the pit and on stage.  How do you reconcile the antics of Papageno with the proclamations of Sarastro; how do you handle that sudden switch of bad guys half-way through the first act.  How do you stage a work which, as Winthrop Sargeant observed, is often dramatically dull and where “in the last act – the Klu Klux Klan marches around and says “No!” while Tamino tries to become an Eagle Scout”? And Sargeant is right – it can all be very morally upright and lets admit it the stage is not really the place where moral uprightness shows to best advantage.  Often when stage directors have failed their designers have come through and found the magic in the Flute.   And an incredible array of designers have strove and in many cases found the balance between Mozart and Schikaneder;  amongst the more famous are Marc Chagall at the Met in 1967,  David Hockney at Glynedebourne (’78)  and the Met (’91),  Beni Montressor at the NYC Opera, William Kentridge at La Monnaie (’05) and La Scala (’11), Oskar Kokoschka, Maurice Sendak and again at Glyndebourne my beloved Emanuele Luzzati in 1963.

Every year, beginning in 1960, I ordered a copy of the Glyndebourne Programme Book and between those lavish publications and the marvelous recordings I had from the Festival (Le Comte Ory, Cenerentola, the 1936 Cosi)  I would armchair travel in tuxedoed splendor on the train from Victoria to the Sussex downs,  picnic by the HaHa, wander in the gardens and revel in Mozart or Rossini.  I first became aware of Luzzati’s work when I opened that 1963 Programme Book.   I was immediately captured by his strange drawings – and remember wondering how on earth they were ever realized.  But I was even more intrigued by his use of 10 three sided screens maneuvered about the stage by a stagehand inside who took instructions from the Stage Manager on wireless headphones – how modern was that?  In subsequent years I was fascinated by Luzzati’s designs for Don Giovanni, Macbeth and Die Entführung aus dem Serail.  All very different but all distinctively Luzzati.

I finally got to Glyndebourne in 1969, dined in the Nether Wallop and saw the new Luzzati-John Pritchard Cosi along with Pelléas and Werther.  But the following year was to be “the year” – as well as Janet Baker in La Calisto and Graziella Scuitti in Il Turco in Italia – I finally got to see that Magic Flute.  If in my memory book it takes second place to the Calisto (one of those truly great nights of opera that I can count on the fingers of one hand) it was still memorable for the performances of a young Illena Cortubas, Weishal Ochman and Hans Sotin – and the magic of Luzzati’s designs.  At one moment dark and glittering, the next all bosky green and in a twinkling gleaming gold they perfectly captured the shifts from whimsy to wisdom that so intrigues in this silly-sublime final work of the equally silly-sublime Mozart.

Luzzati only designed that one production of The Magic Flute for the stage but he was to use the opera as the inspiration for designs of all sorts throughout his life.  Posters, playing cards, a full length animation and a children’s book were all to give him opportunities to express the joy that the work so obviously gave him.  Though long out of print I was able to find that children’s book online and decided that I’d make a short video combining those two things that my friend David had led me to search out:  Sir Thomas’s recording from so long ago and Luzzati’s interpretation for children – so different and yet often similar to his vision for the stage. 

Many thanks David – as always you led me to something wonderful.

May 4 -1919: May Fourth Movement: Student demonstrations take place in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, protesting the Treaty of Versailles, which transferred Chinese territory to Japan.

Mercoledi Musicale

Last night we saw the first of the three operas at this year’s Rossini Festival – Le Comte Ory, which I will be reporting on later. It has always been my favorite Rossini work and was the first LP* I ever owned. Written for Paris in 1828, Rossini never one to lose good numbers, reused a great deal of Il Viaggio a Rheims that had been written three years preivous for the coronation of Charles X.

It was not until it was revived at Glyndebourne in 1954 that it entered the modern repetorie. Here’s the first act finale from a later Glyndebourne production.

Young Comte Ory, a wastrel, takes advantage of the absence of the local gentry at the crusades to try and seduce their ladies. Disguised first as a hermit then as a nun he attempts to enter the castle and the bed of the beautiful Countess of Formoutiers. As Act 1 ends he’s been unmasked as the Hermit and news arrives that the Countess’s brother is returning with his men from the Crusade.

*For the young ones an LP was a long playing record – a black vinyl disk that you put on a turntable and … forget it you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.

12 agosto – Santa Giovanna Francesca de Chantal

…But Mozart for Their Own Pleasure – I

The Angels sing Bach for God,
but Mozart for their own pleasure.

If anything could make me believe in the existence of a good and loving Creator it would be the music of Mozart.

Le Nozze di Figaro – the Letter Duet
Ileana Cotrubas and Kiri Te Kanawa – John Pritchard conducting
Glyndebourne 1973.