Friday, July 30, 2010

Ballet at the Bargello

There had been thunder storms all day, so I suppose it was no surprise when half an hour into the ballet Giselle it started to pour down rain. Everyone rushed to get the sets under the loggia. I was dozing and wanted to go home. My roommate who seems to know about ballet said they were ghastly. The music was loud and canned. Oh well.

Tomorrow I am on my way home.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Greatest Sculpture

In one of my trips to Florence I lived across the street from the Academia.  One morning the door was open, resulting in this shot.

When you grow up knowing about something--like Michelangelo's David--it disappears on you. When you see it, you think "David" and not "beautiful" or "glorious." So you must teach yourself to see it again.

I tried to see it differently by buying the refrigerator magnet and putting clothes on him. In our class it was proposed that traditionally David was 10-14 when he slew Goliath. The instructor thought he looked about 25. With clothes on he is a teenager about 16 years old. You'd worry that a 16 year old was so serious.

I have a book at home--the Oxford book of Classical Art--that shows every ancient statue. The two bronze Greek men at Reggio di Calabria are very beautiful and real looking, but their attitudes are casual, like men marching through a town and flirting with the girls.

I like very much the Farnese Hercules as reconstructed, but he is a man of at least 35, perhaps 40, who is well bulked up.

I can think of nothing that so completely captures the perfection of youth as the David. For realism we see that he sculpts the veins on the backs of his hands. Who else does that?

David was originally intended to be up on the roof of the Duomo and has a slightly big head and hands to compensate for the intended angle of view. Perhaps this contributes to the look of youthfulness in clothing.

There can be no question that David captures great physical masculine beauty. It matches or exceeds other male statues.

But what separates it from all others is the action. This is the moment. David is skilled in the sling from working as a shepherd and holds his weapon casually. The rock is in his right hand by his side.

It compares favorably to the moment when the baseball pitcher has settled on the correct pitch. The count is 3&2 in the ninth inning. He has decided on the pitch and has just extended his left foot for the beginning of the windup.

This is the moment of perfect intention, and it is this that makes David the greatest piece of sculpture ever made.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Orchestra in the Bargello

The weather in Florence has been roasting until this weekend. For the orchestra concert in the Bargello on Tuesday we were afraid it might rain. It did but stopped in time for the concert, and the weather was quite beautiful.

The performance was a combination of the Orchestra da Camera Fiorentina and I Cameristi del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. This combination of musicians produced a big beautiful sound in the relatively small space of the Bargello. The conductor was Giuseppe Lanzetta, the same man I reviewed two years ago. I still like him a lot.

The first piece was the Violin Concerto by P.I. Tchaikovsky with Latvian Ilya Grubert as the outstanding and very virtuosic violinist. He played Ysaye's Ballade as an encore, and it was very wowie.

Then they played Beethoven Symphony number 5. The audience was small--there isn't room for anything but a small audience--but highly enthusiastic, and the orchestra encored the fourth movement. The acoustics were also excellent. It was a highly enjoyable evening.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Aida in Rome

We went out to see Aida at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. I remember from the past that there were pipes in the ruins that looked like part of the stage, so I was pleased to see that the stage machinery stands before the ruins but does not touch them.

The ruins of the baths make a fine backdrop for the set which looked a lot like ruins from Egypt: movable columns and figures and monuments.

The trumpets from the march stood in banks on the sides.

One cannot help comparing it to the Arena di Verona, since it is also an outdoor venue. In Verona the set pieces can be removed entirely through a gap at the back of the stage. In Rome they seemed to be only moved around.

The cast of Aida is large and often appears with the chorus on stage. In these scenes nothing was done to distinguish the soloists from the chorus. First rule of opera costume design: soloists must never blend in with the chorus. People would start to sing and you simply could not find them on the stage.

This picture is our view.

Daniel Oren was the excellent conductor. Aida was ably sung by Micaela Carosi. Giovanna Casolla who sang Amneris has a huge penetrating voice. She interested me most. Radames was sung by Walter Fraccaro. All three were best in the final death scene.


There was lots of very nice ballet but no march to speak of.

The seats were comfortable--perhaps too comfortable--and the weather was pleasant. I heard a bit of thunder, but no rain appeared.

Stuff about Castrati

Here are a few facts:

In 1562 the first castrato sang in the Sistine Choir in Rome. This is, as I suspected, long before the invention of opera at the end of the century.

The early operas of Peri and Caccini for Florence were sung by natural male and female voices.

In Monteverdi's L'Orfeo for Mantua the male voices were natural males while the female roles were sung by castrati.

This is all so confusing.

In the Roman opera period c. 1620-40 there were no women performers.  The female roles and maybe even some of the males were sung by castrati.

Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, written for the commercial opera in Venice, had a woman sing Poppea and a castrato as Nero.  Amore was also sung by a castrato.

By Handel's time most of the male roles in Italian opera, especially the heroes, were sung by castrati and the female roles were sung by women.  They seem to have settled on a gender identification of castrati as male.

But just so you aren't suddenly becoming unconfused, not always.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Sir Charles Mackerras has died

He was a very great man.  For instance, he was single-handedly responsible for the presence of Janacek in the standard operatic repertoire.  RIP.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Caravaggio e Caravaggeschi a Firenze

I hadn't realized that Artemisia Gentileschi was considered a follower of Caravaggio. The exhibition at the Uffizi is the first time I have seen more than one picture at a time. There is Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes, followed by sneaking the head out in a basket. She is the most interesting in these. The about 6 pictures all seem like self portraits.

Caravaggio painted a Judith. She seems to be saying "Oh ick!". Artemisia's Judith is all business.

Caravaggio painted from life, many think using the camera obscura, resulting in pictures that look like photographs.

Each person was painted one at a time, sometimes resulting in odd effects fitting them together. He used a single light source, and sometimes he filled in around the figures with objects or landscapes, sometimes just with black.

The followers seem to like just the single light source and the fading to black. Being a Caravaggeschi means realistic looking figures in black backgrounds. They look at Caravaggio and see a technique they can imitate. They miss the genius.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Florence is a small but very cultured city where almost anything can happen.

Monday night--everything starts at 9:15 in the evening so one is not required to rush one's dinner--at St. Mark's English Church in the Altrarno we were treated to an all Beethoven piano recital by Brian Marble from North Carolina.  First he did sonata in C, op2 No.3, an early piece that sounds a lot like Mozart on steroids, especially when Brian plays it.

This was followed by a fantastic, very muscular playing of the Hammerklavier Sonata.  At the time it was composed it must surely have boggled the mind.  What could be left to compose after this?

We are told that Brian broke four strings on his piano at home learning this.  His wife says she went home to Argentina for a month while he was practicing.  One might well love the Hammerklavier but still not want to hear it for days on end.


The program that came with the concert contained a lot of useful information.  The Hammerklavier Sonata is in four movements with the slow movement third and a fugue in the fourth movement.  It was written in 1818 at the start of Beethoven's third style period when the composer was already completely deaf.  It takes 50 minutes to play.   It is huge in every sense.  One should rise with the Hammerklavier.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Can you top this?

Rona and I were being competitive in the bus to San Geminiano. I said I knew something she didn't know: that all the productions this year at Arena di Verona were by Zeffirelli. She didn't know.

But then she topped me. "Did you know all female opera singers take estrogen to keep their mucous membranes moist?". All seems like a bit of an exaggeration, but she's right. I didn't know that.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Madama Butterfly in Verona

There is no experience quite like opera in the Arena di Verona. The space is huge. 20,000 people can view an opera at the same time.

There are three categories of seats: on the floor of the arena where the gladiators would have fought there are very expensive seats with a bar area; reserved seats on bleachers put up over the ancient stone seats; and open seating on the bare stones above.

We had excellent seats in the first tier of bleachers on the side. This time the stone steps into the arena were not too steep.

As the opera begins the people in the side seats light candles. This is a tradition from before the time the arena was electrified.

The space that is the stage for the opera is gigantic, and it is this vastness that changes the character of the opera. The vastness seems ideal for Turandot or Aida, but I'm not sure it enhances ones perception of Madama Butterfly, our opera experience last night.

The Arena di Verona is in its 88th season, and the season is dedicated to Franco Zeffirelli. The program has an interview with him, and all five productions--Aida, Turandot, Carmen, Madama Butterfly and Il Trovatore--are his productions. I wouldn't have known this if I hadn't bought the program.

In the opening scene Pinkerton and Sharpless meet in what looks like a city street with people coming and going across the vast arena stage.

I always avoid Butterlfy like the plague. What is one to make of a man who brags to one and all that he travels the world ruining the lives of as many women as he can. Cio Cio San does not see this. She is proud to be a Yankee wife and always hopes for the best.  It's just unbearable.

Svetla Vassileva as Butterfly began disastrously with a giant wobble and a lot of out of tune over singing. Perhaps she couldn't hear, always a terrible problem for a singer. I had a moment of panic. I'm absolutely not prepared for sitting through a really bad Butterfly. She played Butterfly as a true butterfly who flutters from place to place.

Or perhaps it is a tactic. If one begins with a ghastly out of tune wobble, everything that follows will seem like an improvement. She moved toward the front of the stage where she could hear and pulled herself together.

Rossana Rinaldi was a fine Suzuki and Carlo Ventre was fine as Pinkerton. The big moments were effective.

[See Kinderkuchen History 1890-1910]

Wednesday, July 07, 2010


I haven't much to say except I wish I'd gone to Dortmund to see Cecilia Bartoli in Norma. The preparations for my trip to Florence were a bit overwhelming. All the critics, mostly German, seem to be favorable.

I always think Cecilia is amazing. She does not hesitate to take heroic leaps into the void, and I am pleased to see that this one was a success.