Brought to Life

Art as Theatre and Theatre as Art.

300px-Sick_young_Bacchus_by_CaravaggioCoincidence is a strange beast.  Just the other day I was looking at some photos of patriotic tableaux vivants from the 1920s and musing, yes dear reader I have been known to muse, as to whither people still engage in this innocent form of entertainment.  At one time it was as popular on the Broadway stage as it was in town halls and in home parlours but seems to have disappeared. Then doesn’t my friend Cathy send me a link to this video of a performance September past in Sutri an ancient town about 50 kms north of Rome.


I often observed after visiting a church, museum or gallery in Italy that you would walk out into the street and see the same faces that Caravaggio, da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo et al captured in their works.  This is living proof of that observation.

Paintings staged:
1. The entombment of Christ
2. Mary Magdalen in ecstasy
3. Crucifixion of Saint Peter
4. Beheading of John the Baptist
5. Judith beheading Holofernes
6. Flagellation of Christ
7. The martyrdom of Saint Matthew
8. The Annunciation
9. Rest on the flight into Egypt
10. Narcissus
11. The raising of Lazarus
12. Saint Francis of Assisi in ecstasy
13. Bacchus

Directed by Ludovica Rambelli
Video: Simone Calcagni

On this day in 1689: General Piccolomini of Austria burns down Skopje to prevent the spread of cholera. He died of cholera himself soon after.

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).

Much Ado About Something

A planned trip to Stratford in August and the donation of a few items – designs, programmes and postcards – to the archives of the Shakespeare Festival triggered memories of my first visit there.  It has been 35 years since my last visit in 1978 but I believe the magic will still be there.

Robert Farifield’s building for the Stratford Festival echoed its beginnings in the tent.  But he gave the Festival a performance space undisturbed by the whistles of freight trains or the cries of the umpire from the local baseball diamond that often fought for the audience’s attention in the early days.

Back in 1958 my friend Bruce and I boarded a train at Toronto’s Parkdale Station headed for Stratford and its Shakespeare Festival   I was 12 at the time and Bruce was 14 – strange when I think that our parents had no second thoughts about us going on a trip like that alone. It was the first of what were to become regular visits over the next 20 years to the Festival town that Tom Patterson, Tyrone Guthrie and Alec Guinness put on the theatrical map five years earlier. The Festival had forsaken its original “big top” for a permanent home the year before; at the time a revolutionary design,  Robert Fairfield’s circular structure built into the hillside surrounded the revolutionary stage that Tanya Moiseiwitsch had designed to invoke, but not slavishly copy, the theatre of Shakespeare’s time.

Tanya Moiseiwitsch designed this revolutionary thrust stage based on discussions she and Tyrone Guthrie
had about the ideal platform for performing Shakespeare.  Director Michael Langham felt the stage
was too “feminine” for the tragedies and histories and asked Moiseiwitsch and Brian Jackson to give it
a “sex change” in 1962. I recall being shocked by what I saw on entering the theatre for The Taming
of the Shrew
that year.   I got use to it but still have a fondness for this first stage.

As well as well-known performers – Guinness, James Mason, Frederick Volk, Siobann McKenna, Jason Robarts Jr and Irene Worth – the Festival was developing its home-grown stars chief amongst them William Hutt, Douglas Campbell, Frances Hyland, Amelia Hall, John Horton, Douglas Rain, Kate Reid and a young and vibrant Christopher Plummer.  Plummer had first appeared on the thrust stage in 1956 as a charismatic Henry V in a ground breaking production by Michael Langham that bridged and celebrated Canada’s two solitudes and featured Gratien Gelinas with members of Quebec based Theatre de Nouvelle Monde as the French King and his court. Plummer was to follow that with Hamlet, Andrew Aguecheek, Leonates, Mercutio, Philip the Bastard, Cyrano, Antony and in 1958 Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing.

A young, and very handsome, Christopher Plummer as Benedict, 1958.

It was that production that we boarded the train to see on a sunny July afternoon. In those days the Toronto Telegram sponsored a “special” Tuesday train to Stratford. For the price you got the 2 hours train ride, a bus upon arrival to take you to a local church – Parkdale United, as I recall – where the ladies of the parish had prepared a hot dinner. I don’t remember what exactly they served as a main course but I do remember desert was homemade cherry pie with fresh whipped cream. The Festival theatre was a short walk away and the buses waited to take you back to the station at the end of the play. The late night train from Chicago passed through at a convenient time and arrival at Parkdale meant getting home well after midnight. Fortunately there was no school the next day and Bruce’s mother was willing to pick us up. Several year’s later the late train no longer operated and the Telegram was no-longer published.  You could go up by train but the only way of getting back after the play was the bus – and I do recall a number of nights standing all the way from Stratford back to Toronto.

The wedding scene from that 1958 production of Much Ado About Nothing.  This Festival
postcard photo was taken from approximately where I was sitting that evening. I have
a collection of these postcards that will be going into the Stratford archives this summer.

Michael Langham at a rehearsal – 1988.

Sara Krulwich – The New York Times

The Much Ado was the second of the Shakespeare comedies that Langham directed at the Festival and as time passed he proved to be a master of the genre.  That is not in anyway to discredit his handling of the tragedies, histories or the problem plays.  His Romeo and Juliet with the oddly cast but somehow very right Julie Harris and Bruno Gerussi as the star-crossed lovers, Kate Reid, Tony Van Bridge and Plummer started as a light-hearted youthful affair filled with high-spirits and romance that spiraled into deep, aching and bewildering tragedy.  And both his Trolius and Cressida and Timon of Athens (with a score by Duke Ellington) proved less problematic then many imagined them to be.  His 1966 Bretchtian Henry V though not much loved at the time caught the pessimistic spirit of the period as accurately as his production ten years earlier had mirrored the optimism of its time.  The 1964 King Lear that he directed with John Colicos was a searing indictment of man’s inhumanity to man – he often said that his time as a prisoner of war in Germany gave him new insight into the bleakness of that darkest of tragedies.

But he didn’t restrict his productions on the stage that he knew better than anyone else to Shakespeare.  Langham also directed a bawdy but stylish The Country Wife, a funny but ultimately unsettling almost frightening The Government Inspector and first with Plummer than Colicos a Cyrano de Bergerac that was the ultimate romance-adventure story.  It has always been said that his crowning achievement was the 1961 Love’s Labour Lost (a play he was to direct three more times at Stratford including his final production in 2008) – sadly I choose to see Henry VIII that year; at the time a historical pageant with elaborate Tudor costumes seemed more appealing then the heady word-play of a young Shakespeare dazzled by his love of the language.  Ah the callowness – and foolishness – of youth.

One critic referred to Eileen Herlie and Christopher Plummer’s Beatrice and Benedict as being like
Brandy and Benedictine.   They seem to have brought out the best in each other.

But back to the events of that evening in 1958:  the fun of a train ride (I love trains), a delicious home-cooked meal and the thrill of that trumpet fanfare echoing from the terrace of the Festival theatre on a summer’s night.  But that was nothing compared to the pageant that followed:  Vincent Massey, our Governor General at the time, was there with his party.  As the trumpets sounded a new fanfare he made his entrance resplendent in his red and gold uniform, his daughter-in-law Lilias on his arm and surrounded by the vice-regal party in dress-uniform with their summer-frocked ladies.  We all stood as God Save the Queen began and at the end of the anthem cheered – we did that sort of thing in Canada in those days.  But even that was to pale in my 12 year old’s mind with what followed.

Desmond Heeley’s citizenry of Messina had a look to them that was
more English country house than Sicilian palazzo. But it gave the
production an elegance and style that mirrored Langham’s direction
and the company that he was building.

Suddenly that gleaming wooden structure was filled with ladies and uniformed gentlemen more elegant even than those in the audience.  Langham and Desmond Heeley had chosen to set the play in the 1870 and though they may have been looking to the Risorgimento, it was more English country house than Sicilian palazzo.  But given the players it worked:  Tony Van Bridge was a pompous, deadly serious, and more comic for all that,  Dogberry with Alan Nunn, his perfect foil, as an Uriah Heepish Verges; Conrad Bain and Mervyn Blake where slightly stuffy but loving father and uncle; William Hutt, an elegant and handsome Don Pedro – his lone estate at play’s end was all the more puzzling for that; Bruno Gerrusi as a dark, threatening Don John; Diana Maddox and John Horton all organza and braid looking the perfect young lovers.  But at the centre of it all were Eileen Herlie and Plummer as Beatrice and Benedick.  A star may have danced at her birth but a whole constellation celebrated the sparring match, strange-woeing and eventual wedding between these two.  As one critic remarked they were a heady mixture of “benedictine and brandy” – each complimenting and bringing out the best in the other.

It was all very magical and I recall Bruce – who was a stage-struck as I – talking about it all the way home – I’m sure much to the annoyance of those around us who were trying to doze on the trip back. I had been going to the theatre since I was five years old but I believe I can honestly say that it was that performance of Much Ado About Nothing that sealed my love-affair with the magic of the stage.  And each year for the next 20 I would make the trip to Stratford, sometimes once but often five or six times, and I waited for that familiar fanfare and the lights to come up on that marvelous platform when once again that magic would be reborn.

May 7 -1920: The Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, opens the first exhibition by the Group of Seven.

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Toy Theatres – Part III

“Sharing with People Brings Happiness”

In a reserved Danish way the famous Tivoli Gardens has moved with the times: modern midway rides, trendy boutiques, Danish and International pop and rock performers on the outdoor stage and at the Music Hall.  However in many ways it is still the “pleasure garden” imagined by Georg Caresten back in 1843 – flower beds, peacocks, fountains, pathways, kiosks, places of refreshment, nighttime illuminations and the famous Peacock Theatre.  I have written about my fascination with this little gem of a theatre and our recent visit there this past June.  But I thought I’d share a few more photos and a short video that highlights what is on display within the framework of its fantastical Chinoiserie proscenium.

At one time in the not distant past a live orchestra played for two daily performances; the first piece was always a pantomime and the second often a ballet.  Today, no doubt due to modern economics and possibly dwindling interest in the old-fashioned entertainment offered, the music is recorded and a single performance, either a pantomime or ballet, is schedule two or three days a week.  It would be sad if the tradition of Harlequin, Columbine and Pjerrot, which can be traced back as far as Plautus, were to be overtaken by the more raucous entertainments but for the time being, at least, there are still opportunities to catch the tale of two young people who overcome the objections and machinations of the foolish and the old to be united by the magic of love.

As they did with ballet the Danes took styles of pantomime from several sources and melded them into a hybrid that is uniquely Danish.  Drawing on the English traditions of conjuring, mechanical tricks and fairy intervention they then stirred in the slaps, pratfalls and acrobatics of the Italian commedia dell’arte.  Perhaps the character that evolved the most from this mixed-marriage is Pjerrot. In Danish pantomime he is never the white-faced melancholic beloved by Watteau and admirers of Les enfants du paradis; neither is he quite the dupe of Italian commedia nor exactly the sly trickster that was Joseph Grimaldi’s clown.  Rather he’s simple but clever – an overgrown child, curious and insatiable.  And though he may not be directly responsible for the union of the two lovers – it takes fairy magic for that to happen – he takes great delight in easing the path of true love if perhaps a greater delight in enraging his master Cassander.  And he is the only character with a voice which he saves until the end when he leads the audience in the traditional “Tivoli Hurrahs!”

The other characters too are a strange mix drawing from the commedia dell’arte, opera buffa and English fairy plays. In the original British pantomime the fairy scenes introduced and ended the Harlequinade but in Denmark Harlequin meets his fairy-savior only after Cassander has denied his consent to the romance between his daughter Colombine and the poor, but incredibly handsome and agile, hero.  This Harlequin is a long way away from his grotesque Italian cousin Arlecchino but Cassander is the duped old man of Goldoni and Gozzi; and the hapless suitor is every foolish, vain fop of theatrical tradition. 

Many of the pantomimes being performed go back to the mid-1800s though a few date from the mid-1900s.  Few of the pantomimes from the early years were written down but passed from performer to performer; in 1919 because of waning interest and war time restrictions ballet master Paul Hudd cut the performances down to 30 minutes, a practice that has continued to this day.  Since 2001 an attempt has been made to adapt and record the older works and include them in the rotating repertoire throughout the summer season.  The night we were there one of the older pantomimes was being presented: Pjerrots fataliteter (Pierrot’s Misfortunes) was first performed in 1864.  It was adapted by Niels Henrik Volkersen, the famous Pjerrot of the day, from an older work in the repertoire of the Casorti family troupe.

When ballets are performed they are often modern works – Queen Margrethe II designed the sets and costumes for a new version of The Tinder Box in 2007.  Often visiting dance troupes use the Chinese theatre as their venue – though apparently the slope of the stage, which is double that of most raked stages, can be a challenge for dancers unaccustomed to the surface.  Even the members of the Royal Danish Ballet have some difficulty adjusting on the evenings during the season when excerpts from the classical ballets of August Bourneville are presented.  As I mentioned Tivoli seems to evolve with the times and for All Hallow’s Eve they presented Kassander Loves Dollars, a hip-hop horror-ballet pantomime featuring all the traditional characters but with a twist.

Pjerrot leads the audience in the “Tivoli Hurrahs”:  he’s been up to his old tricks, Cassander has been thwarted, Colombine and Harlequin are united, all ends happily and its time for the Peacock curtain to close.

After the October performances the Chinese Theatre closed for the season but along with the rest of Tivoli Gardens puts on its finest for Christmastide and the annual Yule Fair.  The Peacock’s colourful tail takes on the palette of winter and remains – perhaps frozen – in place until once again Pjerrot and company return to “share with the people and bring happiness”.

Much of the historical information I gathered for this posting came from three sources:

The Pantomime Theater: life behind the peacock curtain in tivoli
Annett Ahrends and Henrik Lyding – translated by Pamela Starbird
Published by Forlaget Vandkunsten
Erik Ostergaard: Pantomime Theater – Theatrical History; Pantomime Plays at Tivoli

03 November -1793: French playwright, journalist and feminist Olympe de Gouges is guillotined.

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Things to Come

I have mentioned before – though probably both you and I had forgotten – that we seem to book up musical events well in advance. At the moment I’m holding tickets for La Traviata a year from today – how is that for optimism?

But looking at the calender a few things are being red circled as events to look forward to in the next few months.

Antonio Pappano and a bunch of the kids (Anja Harteros, Sonia Ganassi, Rolando Villazón, René Pape and our own beloved orchestra and chorus of Santa Cecilia) are getting together at the Parco del Musica to put on a show: the Verdi Requiem. Yes Parsi I said Rolando Villazón and René Pape.

Yuri Temirkanov, Opera Chic’s Uncle Solly, will be giving us Russian goodies – Prince Igor and the Pathétique with the Academia Santa Cecilia orchestra and chorus.

Once again out to the Parco where Martha Argerich will be tinkling the ivories in the Beethoven #1.

Riccardo Muti returns to the Teatro dell’Opera for Gluck’s rarely heard Iphigénie en Aulide. Love me some Gluck, love me some Muti so that one’s got a big red circle.

Not musical but definitely magical – I saw the Piccolo Teatro di Milano do their signature piece Arlecchino, servitore di due padroni) back in 1959 when they toured North America.

In those days Arlecchino was the great Marcello Moretti but since his death in 1961 the role has been played by Ferruccio Soleri. Now in his 70s he restages Giorgio Strahler’s production and still performs the incredible “lazzi” devised for him 47 years ago. This may well be my last chance to see him in action so I’m heading up to Milano for a day or two.

And then perhaps not all that musical but definitely nostalgical – Marianne Faithful in Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins. Apparently she’s been doing this cantata in a few places in the past few years with great success. Marianne Faithful? Who would have thought?

Well we have a Zeffirelli Pagliacci (without Cavalliera Rusticana – budget cuts?)with Myrto Paptanasiu, Fabio Armiliato and Juan Pons. Yes Parsi I said Mytro and yes Shelia I said Fabio, though I have a feeling we may end up seeing the second cast on our subscription. May have to see this one twice.

The end of the month brings a return trip to Salzburg for the Whitsun Festival – again Muti and this time with an even rarer opera seria: Demofoonte by Jommelli. Plus some really great concerts including Marco Beasley and Accordione. And of course Salzburg itself – a city I never get tired off.

Another trip up to Milano this time for two 20th century operas back to back at La Scala – that’s if the unions are good and if the Scala booking system works. I can’t exactly see the tourists flocking to the two works in question so tickets may be readily available. Pizzetti’s Assassinio nella cattedrale is based on T. S. Elliot’s verse play and stars Ferruccio Furlanetto, like Solari in his twilight years, as Thomas à Beckett. Then Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Robert Carsen’s famous production from Aix-en-Provence starring David Daniels. Friend Parsi was transported by this production when he saw it in Athens this past summer. Daniels! Carsen! Britten! Big red circle on that one.

And at month’s end we get the Verdi Requiem again but this time with Daniel Barenboim, Barbara Frittoli, Ganassi, Marcello Giordani and Pape with the forces of La Scala. And at that point we’re just mid-way through the year.

More goodies to come include the Rossini Festival in Pesaro (with Juan Diego Florez), Laurent’s favorite opera Pelléas et Mélisande and that Traviata I mentioned with Daniela Dessi and Armiliato – yes Shelia I said Daniela and Fabio! Plus anything else that, in an effort to bankrupt me, my dear Opera Chic – its her fault I’m going broke -springs on me that I decided I really must see.

What is it that Lady Bracknell says? A life crowded with incident.

29 dicembre – San Tommaso Becket