Monday, July 29, 2013


We travel by train a lot and the romance still holds a little although that horrific disaster in Spain has rekindled the thoughts you often have flying through France at 300km/hr that there is not much room for error and a lot of trust involved. But then our greatest danger is probably some wing-nut on the freeway down here.

Getting from Milan to Munich seemed a straightforward ask, but it was a bit of a fiddle and all thanks to Deutsche Bahn not the least for incredibly (welcome-to-europe or something) cheap fares.

From Milan

 on this sparkly number

we changed at Verona (and up the Brenner Pass through Innsbruck) for Munich. Not quite so glam but inside was nicely old fashioned and we shared a comfortable compartment with a German couple heading home after what sounded like a rather grand 60th birthday bash in Verona.

The clouds sat low, and light rain was falling, smudging the dirty windows. It was only when I uploaded some snaps of the autobahn and found one that was reasonably interesting

that I saw the face at the window.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


If something doesn't happen soon with my Ring in Milan jottings, then all will be lost in time. Things and thoughts are already blurring out somewhat. There's no intention to chat about all the singers, all the production details or all the musical ins and outs, but to get something going mainly for my memory. It is to here I go when I need to try and remember who, what, when and where.

The long and short of it is that it was a tremendously eventful and exciting week, and that's as good as it gets. There's many good things to say about the Ring, the Barenboim/Cassiers co-production between Staatsoper Unter den Linden and Milan, and some things not so good. But that's neither here nor there in the scheme of things. It is, truly, all about the experience. And that was fantastic.

It starts with the city, and you should by now have gleaned we had a great time. And then there's La Scala, itself an experience that really exceeds expectations. It was only the second visit, but exciting no less. It is as legendary as it gets: the corridors, curving mysteriously around the halls, the stairs up and up, mirrors, wonderfully placed mirrors, toilets and bathrooms tucked into unlikely corners, red velvet curtains, the golden glow of the theatre, the lighting, the foyers, and of course then there's the Milanese. We were lucky to be seated next to a gracious couple of locals, who over the four nights befriended us, took us to dinner, drinks, introduced us to family with big hugs and handshakes, gave advice on the city, and blessed us with the personal which no money or influence can buy.

Here's inside La Scala (named after the church on whose site it is built - Santa Maria alla Scala) taken from the Royal Box during a tour on the morning of Götterdämmerung - the stage is huge (the performance space the front half in lighter colour). The door to our stalls seats you can see lower front right.

The size of the pit can really only appreciated from above. (Our seats are in the top right corner of the photo, the second row of four just behind the side door.)

They were setting up for Götterdämmerung.

And did I mention the Milanese? (They aren't meant to be photographed, so I hope I don't get anyone into trouble.)

First thing for the record is the casting, and if I refer to singers by character not name then it is in the need to write something rather than nothing. All the details are here:

Sometime during the week I remember saying to K: 'I'm starting to wonder if I'm a bit Ring-a-Dinged out'. 'I know', he said, 'I know'.

And yet, as is often the case, the whole experience becomes the event, until at the end, there's an irreplaceable satisfaction like little other, and the increasing realisation that despite all the fidgety little bits and irritations, the sense of completion, almost achievement, goes way beyond the peripheral Ring circus, and comes from the work itself. No surprise that, is it. Said K as we headed into the early morning after Götterdämmerung: 'It is a right of passage, isn't it.'

Guy Cassiers, the Belgium director, has used the Jef Lambeaux (Belgium 1852-1908) marble bas-relief "Human Passions"


as his template to build up his concept of the Ring, and I wonder if that is where he, and it, stalled. Because static and sculptured is what the finished product seems to me to be, a dissected and pulled apart jigsaw reassembled over 16 hours and, after enormous efforts at theatricality and display, you end up really having not gone anywhere. At least I didn't. Interestingly, one quoted criticism of the relief gets close to the problem:

"Sure it's large, as Lambeaux intended, but hardly a masterpiece. The relief consists of separate groups rather than forming a whole. Unfortunately Lambeaux never explianed his intentions. Even the title isn't his."

I hasten to add I've only just found this quote while looking for a picture of the work to show here. (If I'd found it earlier, I could have saved myself a lot of time.)

Also, in the first 50 seconds of his interview here you can get his intent - maximise everything, overwhelm, be big and grand, meet audience expectation. There is no reference (in the video at least) to the music, and more sadly, nor was there at the level one would hope for in the theatre. This production is at best text driven, and even then often poorly so. Things improved as the tetralogy evolved, but for all that, it still didn't manage to tell the story, and goodness there's a story to be told. The end result could best be called a series of visual images which range from the sublime to the ridiculous, but always stunning to look at. If you were to take a snap photograph at any moment, the result would never be less than impressive. But the sheer irrelevance of much of it, at least to this first time viewer, struggling to digest the barrage of visual stimuli, as well as the never ending capacity to distract from the core of the drama, was pretty frustrating. This was direction as concept down, not music up, an idea squashed onto the music and the text, not the music, especially the music, driving the ideas.

When the final curtain came down, I thought that what ought to happen now is that Cassiers would do well to go back and start all over again. You get the feeling it's not till you get to Götterdämmerung that it is possible to come to grips with this massive thing called the Ring, and that doing it forward one by one, as this has been done (costs and pragmatism at work), means that Rheingold is out there while the others are still evolving, or being conceived. Perhaps they should work it through backwards (as written of course) with Götterdämmerung first, reversing the order, and then do the tetralogy in a run.

And I think it helps give credence to the idea of mounting them as one at the outset - wham bam - as will happen this year in Melbourne, and the hugely successful and thoroughly more artistically satisfying Adelaide Ring II (the Australian production, not the Chatelet), and of course, Bayreuth.

Rheingold, for example, was marred by interminable ballet dancers, thrashing and writhing, supposedly aiding and abetting the emotions, when the effect was more the opposite, whereas any directorial attention to getting the singers to do this or that, as opposed to lean on a spear and stand awkwardly in a corner, would have been welcomed. It was dark and moody, with lots of rear projections which would continue (unlike the ballet, thankfully, except for a risible spear dance around Siegfried) with increasing success as the week went on.

Loge was the focal point, and that's a good thing, manipulator, judge, punisher, and except for some weird 'going into himself' choreography presented well, especially as Alberich was more eloquent than vile thief and got lost in the ballet. Wotan sounded dry and uninterested. Fricka was a broken wife before she came on stage, and Donner and Froh were as immature as any a dysfunctional family could produce. The lovely Anna Larson was a thoughtful rather than commanding Erda, elevated perilously on another unnecessary piece of stage machinery, and although she looked fabulous in a two story dress, the latter came from the same couturier as Fricka which just didn't ring true, for me, who worships at the shrine of Earth Mother.

Musically things were slow, but beautiful, even when beauty wasn't really the call. The Scala sound is gorgeous, and certainly the acoustic where we sat was excellent (unlike comparable seats in Munich last year when the whole sound was skewed and only half the orchestra heard), and the Italians played wonderfully, the strings especially (the horns were making a few bloopers). Barenboim took it softly, that is not dynamically softly but emotionally softly, and slowly, and it all became a melange of niceness. Even the descent into Nibelheim was nice - to a tinkling bell quality rather than a heavy nasty metal terror sound.

And while it was beautiful to dwell on this and that, to linger and savour the musical moments, this lack of forward momentum only exaggerated the stage craft and its fragmentation, and reminded me of a review I heard of Caballe in a recital I heard in San Francisco, years ago, that she was one of those marvellous singers who only move onto the next note when she's finished with the last one.

The thing is, this is a nasty piece of work telling a nasty story, a catastrophic apocolyptic story once the pin is pulled. I suppose I favour the likes of the Berliners who in Aix a few years ago made such masculine aggressive testosterone noises that by the end (of Götterduammerung) all one could say was - it's time to give the keys of this planet to the women. (And don't think Thatcher - I said woman).

Well yes, I know it's not all like that. Walküre has its share of warm romanticism well worthy of the luxury of Italian strings and woods at their best. With the singers now resorting mainly to stand and sing, things started to hot up. Some silly stage business persisted, like Hunding's house which looked eerie spooky with long hollywood shadows but everyone was on the wrong side of the walls, unless inside was out and outside was in, but who needs to think about that when these siblings are falling in love, admittedly with their backs to each other when the music speaks of the most tender recognition and joining. (Memo - Cheréau gets it right like few others.) But O'Neill and Meier would get it happening and the roar from the crowd, the Scala crowd, at the end of Act 1 was something not to be repeated all week.

Pape I'd been looking forward to hearing, and while I can't put my finger on it, still, there was little presence, and little impact. It was a strange withdrawn performance, vocally and histrionically.

Theorin can do what she likes for me. She broke my heart as Isolde last year in Bayreuth. She's big, and confident, got the money notes (occassional shreiks, but Waklyries are allowed occassional shrieks) and I want her to have the keys to the planet. The production got sillier, (although always, as I said, looked stunning) like a must-do-this-differently competition, and so the Ring of Fire came down (when did fire last descend) looking alarmingly like infrared bathroom lights, and starting dripping stuff - wax?

Lance Ryan was having an off night as Siegfried (I hope it was an off night), and the set got more complicated, all to do with awkward levels, and the rear projection kept projecting. I should mention that a major stage device was the use of video, all the time. Again, always interesting to look at, but harder to place in context. Cassiers ensured that something of the Human Passions sculpture was always present, and would coalesce at the finish line. Meanwhile, Ms Theorin sang it out, bless her.

[It can be done. We have just had a stunning concert Flying Dutchman here in Sydney with video screening (yes, you can imagine it - sea, sails, red, faces, ghosts) done so sensitively to the music (which the video director was listening to several times a day for months) that the effect was quite magical. More Later.]

By Götterdämmerung, nothing on stage would surprise. The Siegfried was now Andreas Schager and he was in fantastic form. He has become a bit of a legend as the tenor who rushed to the (Berlin) house to stand in for Lance Ryan when Lance, mmm, got sidetracked and, mmm, didn't turn up. Also a bit of a legend is Derek Gimpel, the associate director, who took to the bike leathers and acted the part while Andreas sang. I'd liked to have seen that. You'll forgive Lance Ryan just about anything when you read his side of the story (scroll down for English). And Theorin was quite magnificent, again.

There's the final assembled Lambeaux at the final curtain (Rhinedaughters, Siegfried, Brunnhilde, Hagen, Gertrune, Gunter)

There is a wonderful moment during the early applause when the box lights slowly come on before the house lights and the effect is that the audience in the boxes are seen in silhouette and look like shadow puppets, standing and clapping and waving. I didn't capture it, but you can imagine from this what they would look like if entirely back lit:

Mr Barenboim, he who was a major factor in the decision to come to this Ring (half way around the world), would after rapturous applause beg indulgence and bring it all to an end.

Monday, July 15, 2013


For all the times we walked past the Bibliotheca Pinacoteca Accadamia Ambrosiana (Library-Gallery-Academy; for now The Ambrosiana) I didn't ever see anyone walk in. People walked past, an occasional couple would sit outside, on the newly cleaned up piazza, smoking, or chatting, an arm around a shoulder. And this despite a banner advertising a large exhibition of da Vinci drawings that might, somewhere else, have generated queues around the block. Not to mention the gallery collection; not to mention the library; not to mention the buildings. It has been sitting there for four centuries, atop the foundations of the Roman Forum.

It is named after Ambrose (Aurelius Ambrosius, St Ambrose), the 4C bishop of Milan, defender of the Trinity, none too kind to Jews and Milan's patron saint whose body lies in the crypt of Sant'Ambrogio to this day. Established as a library in the early 17C, with an escalating collection of Church manuscripts and books, assembled for the first time by stacks vertically up the walls, it would be extended to include an expanding collection of paintings, the Pinacoteca.

The Academy is a recently established project with the aim of an east-west-north-south dialogue between peoples and cultures with study classes, publications, gatherings and exchanges.

Entry is into the Gallery section of the buildings (above) and up a grand staircase there are two levels each of several rooms with sparingly displayed works and a couple a real treasures. It is a joy for the gallery weary, and we were. The link above is for exploring and some rooms can be displayed and scrolled around.

In a room of its own is Cararvaggio's Basket of Fruit.

                                                                                         (sourced from widipedia)

Nothing quite prepares you for it and the immediate impact is that it is small (by Caravaggio standards) and the colours have faded; for a colourist like Caravaggio this is very muted. The basket sits strangely on a table reduced to the barest of horizontals, and the basket is full, spilling over, the fullness itself only just balanced while the painting skews off sideways with a grape vine to nowhere. It looks quite pleasing as you stand at the room entrance and see it there, directly ahead. And whatever the metaphor, it compels you to closer inspection, as close as you can get, and then that's not close enough, as you become increasingly aware of the decay, the sweating grapes, the wilting leaves, the worm holes, the truth behind impermanence.

The da Vinci Portrait of a Musician was on loan to Tokyo; another case for going back.

                                                                                            (sourced from wikipedia)

And just when you think 'one more madonna and child and I'll ...', there appears the most compelling of them all: Botticelli's stunning and completely unexpected Madonna of the Pavilion. It needs to be seen in as much detail as possible (clicking on the source below - the Met shop - will bring the painting up, and another click will enlarge it). I had to be dragged away.

                                                                                     (source: metmuseum store)

The colouring is exquisite, and the claret red drapes of her opened virginity, drawn apart by the angels, is what arrests you, arcadia beyond, and slowly moving closer come the faces, the love of the mother, the hesitant child, the urging angel, beyond description really. Her matching red garment beneath the blue cloak is still heavy with childbirth and with one hand she expresses her love and nurture in a translucent milky arc from her cupped full breast, the other outstretched in reassurance to the open mouthed infant. The guiding angel is transfixed not by the child but the Madonna and the angel on the right looks unfinished. It is too too beautiful and very hard to leave.

Frederico Borromeo is the man behind the Bibliotheca, into which the Gallery leads you, and what Manzoni (up he pops again) has to say about him can be read here, on Septizodium.

It's a remarkably unchanged place of history, walls lined with precious texts and manuscripts, dark and moody, and the centre was given over to room length glass cabinets displaying an astounding number of da Vinci's drawings, page after page after page of sketches, ideas, concepts, all in the finest of sepia lines. There were two other people in the library when we were there.

Through heavy red curtains, you find the exit, and it's back to the present. The exit is actually the entrance to the Bibliotheca, and I confess I don't know who the statue is. Although it is my photo (as is everything unless otherwise accredited or linked) I was thinking of other things. I presume it is Ambrose or Borromeo.


I don't normally 'do' hotels (it can get a bit tacky) but this walk really starts here. We are on the corner of the (one way) Via Moneta and Via dell'Ambrosiana, and our room (this risks the tacky bit) is on the first floor with the balcony over the loggia, and with all the delights which come with it.

The Ambrosiana (Bibliotheca Pinacoteca Accadamia Ambrosiana - more later), as you would imagine, is therefore our immediate neighbour. Its main entrance is now from a small but stately piazza, the road closed off, and so we are nestled in this quiet spot passed by only by a few pedestrians and the occasional car and taxi, although it is all really one block from tourist central - the Piazza del Duomo.

To get to La Scala, from the Ambrosiana one can walk in a straight line across Via Spadari and the cafe where we would often lunch, as did anyone who could get a table between 1 and 2 when the locals, office workers, bankers, tram drivers too by the look, would crowd in and disappear as quickly as they arrived. That wonderful old foodies' heaven  Peck was a few shops along.

                                                                                           (photo from tripadvisor)

Crossing Via Spandari you head right into old medieval Milan, the Piazza dei Marcanti, which we walked through countless times, morning, noon, night and very late night, early morning in fact. I never felt afraid, although the doorman at the hotel did hint at the need for caution in the back streets in the wee small hours.

The overhead bridge is connecting the Palazzo dei Notai (notaries) on the left to the 13C Palazzo della Ragione, where trials were held. The top floor with the oval windows are an 18C Marie Theresa addition:

Opposite is the 17C academy Palazzo delle Scuole Palatine (which itself replaced an earlier one destroyed by fire), with a marvellously grand high ornate loggia and statues of Augustine and Ausonius. (had to look him up):

Next to the Palazzo delle Scuole Palatine is the oldest building in the square, the 13C Loggia degli Osli (a rich family). It is easy to rush past it, unnoticed, but stay - it has the most delicious proportions, with a double loggia, the top now glassed in, and triple windows above each decorated with a statue. What we might well call a lovely Juliet balcony is the 'parlera' from where the population would be addressed:

In front, stand two columns on what was a pit and the site of a large stone reputedly the 'pietra dei falliti' - the stone of the bankrupts - where punishment took the form of the exposure of the fallen one's bare buttocks for all the see. That's mooning isn't it?

Anyway, keep going now, straight ahead. We are now on Via Santa Margherita and in a few minutes there's La Scala, baking in the summer sun. At Scala, Via Santa Margherita becomes Via Manzoni, named after Alessandro Manzoni, the written voice of the the Risogimento.

But the night is when Scala assumes its mantle of legend and mystery.

We would walk back late, very late, back through the Merchants Square, and linger a little, the night air still warm, the shadows and corners of history impossible to ignore, listening for the babble of the traders, the clank of arms and weapons, the bustle of clothes and voices of the past before heading off again.

Sunday, July 7, 2013


I'd only been to Milan once before. I liked it then, and this time I liked it even more. We flew down on AirBerlin the morning after the Britten War Requiem, from another one of Berlin's fabulous museums - the Tegel Airport Museum, a real live interactive museum where you can go and walk around, have you luggage checked, and actually get on a plane that takes off. Which is disappointing really, for you get the feeling after being there for an hour that it'll be an airship you'll be walking to once you clear the gate *.

On the evening we arrived, Derek suggested we meet at the canal district for pizza and we clackety-clacked down on the tram. The canals, of which only a few remain, go back all but a thousand years, once connecting the rivers and lakes of Lombardy, and were far more useful for transport than perilous roads. They shipped the great marble blocks for the Duomo down by canal.

Now lively and touristy, the Navigli has been awakened by restaurants and bars ...

... and we wandered along, over a bridge, veering away into the back streets, the sun now low, till we reached Deb's favorite - a large outdoor mozzarella pizza restaurant, with the soccer playing on a huge screen at one end.

That first night air was deceptive. Milan was hot and getting hotter, stone and concrete and treeless stone roads absorbing the beating sun, radiating it back into the creeping afternoon shade.

Bitumen footpaths, in Via Montenapoleone and other posh Vias, like Via Manzoni, were softening, dented by high heels and with little black ripples of summers past. But inside, things were uber cool.

It was the death of Alessandro Manzoni, writer, poet and unification patriot, that so aggrieved Verdi that in memoriam he wrote his Requiem which premiered (May 22 1874) one year after Manzoni's death in the Church of St Marco. Three days later the second performance was at La Scala.

                                                                  (Allessandro Manzoni portrait from Wikipedia)

Via Manzoni runs north from Piazza della Scala. Once known as the 'Road of the Gardens', which the rich and noble would favour for its closeness to the newly prestigious theatre and there live with magnificent internal gardens, it's a narrow road of closely opposed Neoclassical facades.

In search of the gardens, head for Museo Poldi Pezzoli, where, after never enough time with the collection, you may glimpse through a closed scrim a shady green sanctuary still in private hands.

Or in the Brera district, behind Scala, whose little streets are becoming pedestrianised and flush with cafes and restaurants, there's a hint of green in the Piazzeta di Brera ...

... and a glimpse of Napoleon in the Palazzo Brera where students at the Pinacoteca huddle in the shade.

Pressed against the wall of Santa Maria della Grazie, people wait for their time slot for entry to see The Last Supper.

Old, really old, trams creep past, windows down and you wonder if time has stood still.

35 degrees was 35 felt like 45. If I'd been in Tokyo I'd have run up the umbrella, but this was fashion capital of the world, with fashion week about to begin, where the immaculately groomed men in suits and white shirts were lean, tanned, Italian man tanned (it's a colour all of its own) and completely at ease, and smoking. Gelataria couldn't scoop it up fast enough, coconut pieces were kept moist under chilled water on stands in the Piazza del Duomo,

 and the Galleria was a refuge for tourists to gawk at each other.

We had no sooner taken a table inside, with just a hint of air movement, planning water and coffee and rested feet, when J spotted us. We'd been drinking late at her hotel the night before, so lunch was on us. The porcini were fresh and divine. The risotto from god's kitchen. The bill from hell.

If we were getting weary, the Europeans were taking it in their stride. The spring had been cool and damp, and fashion week was fashion week and the sun was a blessing, as models and camera crews soaked it up in Piazza dell Scala (yes, there's trees there).

And several underground train stops away was 'Casa Verdi', the house that Verdi built (and where he is buried, with Guiseppina Strepponi; he died in the Grand Hotel di Milan in Via Manzoni) for retired singers and musicians who "had not been favoured by fortune, or who when they were young did not have the virtue of saving their money. Poor and dear companions of my life."

It is beautifully and lovingly portrayed in Il Bacio di Tosca.

But, but , but the real reason we were in Milan, was La Scala

whose spooky night doors would open four times for us.

* The new Brandenburg airport, years behind schedule and massively over budget, is slated to open this year. Rush to Tegel while you can. Along with Milanese trams, these wonderful working relics of times long gone won't last.