Saturday, 20 May 2017

Alien: Covenant – frustrating and fascinating

If ever a film was deserving of the description ‘mixed beast’ then Alien: Covenant is it.

Dissatisfying and satisfying in approximately similar amounts, it prompted me to consider ratings and what I’d give it, and I’d probably do three stars out of five.

On the cons side, it suffers from a number of things –- not least being the latest instalment in the Aliens franchise. Part one is an icon of the horror genre, with part two not far behind. Part three was dire, while the fourth instalment is as divisive as Marmite (I like it).

Then there was a long gap before Prometheus. Which was awful – a point not helped because it didn’t ‘feel’ as though it belonged to the same family as any of the films that had gone before.

In many ways, neither does this. It feels as though it belongs somewhere else – and that's not a bad thing.

It begins before Prometheus, with the perfect synthetic David being ‘awoken’ by his father/creator Peter Weyland, and then moves us fast forward a decade to the ship Covenant, which is on a long trip to set up a new colony, with 2,000-odd humans and a thousand embryos sleeping/stored until they arrive.

The crew too is asleep with only a synthetic, Walter, around to run routine operations with Mother, the ship’s computer, when a fluke of an accident sees the crew woken and the captain dead.

As they repair the ship, the crew comes across a human transmission – someone singing a John Denver song. When they discover that the signal is from a nearby planet that seems perfectly suited for human habitation, reluctant acting captain Oram overrides arguments that it’s all too good to be true, and sets them on course to investigate.

Down on the planet, Oram and a team find more than they bargained for  not least, David – ‘brother’ to Walter and last survivor of the Prometheus.

Frankly, the first chunk feels slow and is far from great – not helped by having a generally unmemorable crew. Compare that to the first film with it’s outstanding ensemble.

Katherine Waterson as Dany and Danny McBride as Tennessee are really the only two who make – are allowed to make – any impact.

Where the film starts coming into its own is when David and Walter meet – and it benefits hugely from two superb, intertwined performances by Michael Fassbender as both synthetics.

There are gory deaths aplenty as we are introduced to whole new flavours of aliens – someone has been playing god with genetics. And there are some very clever twists amid the horror – slipping on blood in an attempted escape is just one.

Some of the visuals are superb, but the script by John Logan and Dante Harper is flawed.

While there are enjoyable elements of philosophical questioning – the nature of gods/creators and the act of being creative; the question of artificial intelligence overtaking the human intelligence that creates it and more – having made a point of Oram having a religious faith, it then fails to explore this.

One is left only with the vague notion that perhaps Oram’s ignoring of reasoning in his desire to quickly find a paradise, is indicative of religious faith.

Perhaps much of this is director and producer Ridley Scott continuing to work through some of the same subjects that he has for years – see Blade Runner, for instance – with the added intensity of age.

The ending is genuinely creepy and the use of Entry of the Gods into Valhalla from Wagner’s Das Rheingold to bookend the film is actually very effective, not least because of the different ways it’s played: by solo piano initially and then in the full orchestral version – indicating a theme developed.

Flawed without doubt, it is a movie that nonetheless gets under the skin. But while the themes can be explored in other settings and contexts, please let’s make this a day for the Alien franchise.

Friday, 19 May 2017

A galaxy of fun with Groot and the gang

With Marvel now apparently able to pump out successful films at will, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 landed this spring to an expectant global audience that had made the first film such a massive – and unexpected – hit.
Set just a few months after the first instalment, this one sees our disparate bunch of heroes fighting off attacks by the genetically engineered Sovereign people, after Rocket steals from them for the sheer hell of it.
Hopelessly outnumbered, they bump into a godlike being who helps them escape – but what does he want in return?
In the meantime, the leader of the Sovereigns has hired Yondu to hunt them down, Gamora and Nebula are continuing their sibling rivalry and Baby Groot is slowly growing, but is confused about buttons on nuclear bombs.
It’s been suggested that this new film doesn’t feel as fresh as the first – well, there was never going to be quite the surprise factor – but it’s a rollicking good romp, with banter, action and laughs by the bucketload.
Chris Pratt as Star Lord, Zoe Saldana as Gamora, Dave Bautista as Drax, Bradley Cooper as Rocket, Vin Diesel as Groot, Michael Rooker as Yondu and Karen Gillan as Nebula all reprise their 2014 roles, while they’re joined here most noticeably by Kurt Russell as the celestial Ego and Sly Stallone as a Ravager leader.
And of course, Stan Lee gets to have his now expected cameo (except here, it serves to ensure that Stallone is not the poorest actor in the whole shebang).
It would be easy to assume that a film like this is easy money for Diesel, who only has one line to say as Groot – I am Groot” – but he has to say it so many different ways and say it so slowly that it wont be lost when its processed that he more than earns his corn.
The underlying theme of family works well and benefits from being handled lightly and never allowed to water down the rebellious nature of a bunch of characters who are accidental heroes with attitude rather than boring, sanctimonious super saints.
The whole looks great and the latest Awesome Mix Tape helps keep things going nicely.

So, it’s huge fun – do wait until the very, very end of the titles before leaving – and more than enough to make you glad that writer and director James Gunn has made it clear that there will be a third film.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Comics: making and maintaining mythologies

Cometh the hour, cometh the latest comics review, with examples of graphic pleasure that illustrate – since this is sometimes still needed – just how versatile the medium is.

First up, a two-part retelling of the iconic German Expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. with script and art from Diego Olmos, published by Amigo Comics.

Robert Wiene’s original film was intended as a devastating damnation of the imperial German establishment that had led the country into the catastrophe of war in 1914, but against a context of new global sabre rattling and populist nationalism, it has an uncomfortable prescience.

A faithful adaptation of the film, it’s told in black and white throughout, presumably with the aim of capturing the disorienting and highly experimental nature of the film.

Hopefully, it will introduce more viewers to the cinematic masterpiece that gave rise to it, but otherwise one wonders if rethinking the visual look might not have allowed it to have a greater impact.

Also with a sense of echoing our troubled times is Royal City from Jeff Lemire, who is both penning and drawing this new story about a dysfunctional family in a dysfunctional North America.

A panel from Royal City
Against a background of changing industrial times, one family finds itself forced to look at an uncomfortable past full of ghosts. 

An excellent double-sized issue launched the work, giving time to establish the central background and then leave the reader with plenty of questions. and a sense of unease.

Depending on where Lemire takes everything, this new series from Image has the potential to be very big indeed.

From the pen of Kim Newman comes Anno Dracula – 1895: Seven Days in Mayhem, an original Titan comic instalment in his ongoing series of novels.

At the back of the first issue of this steampunk vampiric romp, there’s a handy timeline of titles so that we can see this comes after the first Anno Dracula novel and before Anno Dracula 1899 and Other Stories, which was published three months ago, which itself comes before Anno Dracula: the Bloody Red Baron.

As an aside, this also shows that a new novel, Anno Dracula 1999: Daikaiju is slated for later this year.

Anyway, this is the expected fun, with words from Newman himself and artwork by Paul McCaffrey.

It’s easy on the eye and has all the fun – including the alternate history references that help to make the novels such a thoroughly entertaining and satisfying read.

The second issue arrived at the same time as the first and ensured that the start was no fluke.

American Gods is Neil Gaiman’s award-winning novel from 2001, which takes as its central idea a battle for supremacy between the old American gods and those brought to the United States by immigrants to those shores from their original homes, and the ‘new gods’ of technology and consumerism.

A fabulous read, it now has a new life as a comic from Dark Horse, with art by Scott Hampton accompanying Gaiman’s own text. Unlike Anno Dracula, this doesn’t constitute a new entry in a particular universe – although it does diverge from the novel in some ways – but it’s good and welcome anyway.

And of course, this is at the same time as a new TV version of the same novel has debuted on Amazon Prime in the UK.

Ricky Whittle makes an impressive start as the strong, silent Shadow Moon, with Ian McShane as Mr Wednesday – otherwise known as Odin – doing a spot of inevitable scene stealing as we got under way.

But such contrasts are part of why the pair spark so well from their first scene together. 

As has become the norm for the box set generation, it takes time to establish mood and context – and thank goodness for that. Broodingly atmospheric with some stunning visuals, this promises to be a stunningly good watch.

But back to paper.

Bill Willingham’s The Greatest Adventure sees the creator and writer of Fables bring together a group of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s heroes in a brand new adventure that involves saving the Earth.

With artwork by Cezar Razek, the first issue gave us a pacy and entertaining introduction to the premise.

Published by Dynamite comics, it’s going to be interesting to see how Willingham develops this and whether it will be a straightforward romp or have some of the heft of Fables.

Given the success of that previous work, will simply entertaining be enough for an entry on the Willingham CV?

We can but wait and see.

So, an entertaining selection. With the exception of Royal City, all take their inspiration from elsewhere – either from earlier works by the same writers or from even earlier works by other creatives.

What that means in terms of these projects ultimately remains to be seen, but while there might always be a fear that some of this is simply reinventing the wheel, they also give us an insight into how mythology works and grows in our modern, digital era.

Friday, 14 April 2017

A Butterfly that takes flight for the heights

Over the years, Puccini might have been scorned by some as penning scandalous operas, but his works hold four spots in the top 25 operas performed globally. Only Verdi has more entries.

Scoff at the plots if you want, but these works are much loved.

At number six is Madama Butterfly, currently enjoying a run at the Royal Opera House and the latest stop on my own operatic journey.

The plot is wafer thin: US naval officer marries teenage Japanese woman, gets her pregnant, leaves, returns three years later with American wife and demands they take the child, leaving her to kill herself.

Based on real events, part of its power is that however easily and quickly you can outline that story, there is far more to it than simple melodrama.

At the core of events is the callous nature of US imperialism (and imperialism and colonialism in general) and its inherent racism.

Even before we see Butterfly herself, Pinkerton has made it clear that theirs will be a marriage of convenience until he finds a ‘proper’ American wife, and that he regards Japanese customs around contracts and divorce as being amusingly easy to subvert to his whims.

Butterfly has converted to Christianity secretly before the wedding, taking her impending marriage incredibly seriously and determined to fully become American. Yet not only has Pinkerton no intention of taking her to the US, her own family, on discovering her conversion, disown her.

Here then are ideas to contemplate about the interaction of cultures.

Ermonela Jaho – described by The Economist as one of the world’s most acclaimed soporanos – is simply wonderful as the eponymous Butterfly, conveying the necessary vulnerability of the character, but without overdoing the sense of victimhood or making her naïve faith in Pinkerton seem unbelievable.

Her singing is simply gorgeous – and Un be di vedremo, when she explains how she believes that, one fine day, Pinkerton will return to her, is one of those moments when the goosebumps rush across the skin and the eyes prick.

Marcelo Puente as Pinkerton is a fine tenor and does well to bring some multi-dimensionality to this deeply unsympathetic character (there were one or two boos when he took his bow at the end).

And Elizabeth DeShong is also excellent as Butterfly’s loyal servant Suzuki.

Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production is excellent, as is Christian Fenouillat’s deceptively simple and beautiful set.

Antonio Papano and the house orchestra are bang on form in a production that is simply a joy.

You have a few chances left to see this revival (albeit without Jaho). My goodness – it’s a powerful experience that promises to stay with one for some time.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Courage and love amid the brutality of apartheid

In 1976 in South Africa, riot police shot and killed black children and young people who were protesting against being taught many of their lessons in Afrikaans, viewed as the language of apartheid.

The government tried to claim the death toll was 23 students. It is usually now given as 176, but some estimates put it at up to 700.

One of those influenced by the massacre was Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu, who joined the ANC’s militant wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) shortly after.

After training, he and two comrades were sent back to South Africa with pamphlets and arms. But when the mission went wrong, all three tried to flee police.

Mondy Motloung shot two innocent civilians before he and Solomon were caught.

After it dawned on the authorities that torturing Mondy to the point of severe brain damage meant it couldn’t make him stand trial, they decided that Solomon would be the one to pay, under a doctrine of common purpose, though he had not shot anyone.

Mandla Dube, a US-trained cinematographer who has lectured at Wits University, has spent nine years bringing Kalushi to the big screen.

At a QnA after a BFI screening on 6 April – the date of the arrival of Jan Van Riebeeck in the Cape in 1652 and thus the date symbolically chosen for Solomon’s execution in 1979 the director made it clear that they had not set out to make a film about apartheid: it is, instead, the story of one young man’s rite of passage; of what he does when he’s been backed into a corner.

But while one of those present whined that there was no politics in the film, this is utterly ridiculous: if apartheid (and politics) is not the theme of the film, then it is the context, and in that respect, the film is most certainly a political film.

How else could it be?

It depicts the state-sanctioned murder of children; brutality, torture and humiliation meted out by police; a corrupt judiciary and political regime that deliberately sets up to use the system to take symbolic revenge, irrespective of the facts of a case.

The same whinger also tried to complain that the film had not mentioned Angolan training camps where Cubans helped to train the volunteers. At this point, he was getting really funny looks, because, y’know, that white geezer in military uniform, with the beret, the Spanish accent and the great big cigar …

One can only assume that it was all too subtle for someone who was desperate that the protests outside the South African embassy in Trafalgar Square should somehow have been shoehorned into the story – presumably so that he himself could claim some of the glory for the defeat of apartheid.

Six hours of agitprop might have made him happier – but this will be seen by and will move and make think far more people.

If it does not directly ask questions of the viewer, it is good enough to leave you with questions. The most obvious here, is if you were in Solomon’s shoes, what would you do?

And with a regime that was quite happy to shoot children, how can one condemn an armed response – though the film is careful to stress that MK’s manifesto was absolutely clear about not targeting civilians and avoiding casualties. 

This is a very good film. It doesn’t gloss over problems, but its core is Kalushi’s personal journey to becoming a hero of the struggle against apartheid. And the character’s evolution is delicately drawn and beautifully acted by Thabo Ramesti – the first South African actor to actually play an icon of that struggle on screen.

He’s given excellent support from the rest of the cast, including Thabo Malema as the unstable Mondy, Welile Nzuza as Tommy London and Pearl Thusi as Solomon’s girlfriend, Brenda Riviera.

No matter the darkness of the subject matter – this is a powerful reminder of the nature of apartheid – ultimately, it is also an uplifting piece of cinema.

If you get the chance to see it on the big screen, then do. But it should be available on disc in the future, together with a documentary that Dube is working on.

@KalushiMovie – #GoSeeKalushi

Friday, 31 March 2017

A Catalan Carmen casts off any staleness

Back in 1999, Catalan stage director Calixto Bieito burst onto the global opera scene with a new production of Bizet’s smash hit, Carmen.

It caused controversy, but then again, when the opera was premiered in Paris in March 1875, it scandalised audiences, so why should anyone hope to see it made bland now?

Bizet died after the 33rd performance and, of course, could never know just what a hit it would become. But becoming a staple can dull too, while making it feel raw and alive and throbbing with the threat of violence takes a little more effort.

This production has been staged around the world in the years since, but has just landed at Teatro La Fenice in Venice for a revival season.

Which was most opportune. When The Other Half and I had begun to discuss the serious possibility of revisiting La Serenissima for a spring break, we had looked back at the hotel that we’d stayed in in 2010 – and realised that they organised opera trips.

It was instantly tempting – and not least as a quick look at Le Fenice’s website revealed that, when we were considering being there, Carmen would be playing.

But we didn’t yield straight away, continuing to look at other hotels and, indeed, contemplate booking on our own.

And this we eventually did. We’ve booked for concerts abroad before, in the Amsterdam and Berlin, and it helps that La Fenice has the option to view the site (and book) in English. It also, incidentally, does surtitles in both Italian and English.

For booking, a passport number was required, but that was the only ‘complexity’, other than finding a performance where we could still get two seats together.

But we managed – and for less than it would have cost us to do so as part of a hotel package.

So last Sunday, after a lovely lunch at Taverna La Fenice next door, we passed through the remarkably simple portals and into the legendary house where many of Verdi’s works first played.

After the arsonists’ fire that gutted it in 1996, it was painstakingly recreated, finally reopening in 2004. There were some complaints about the decision to so carefully replicate the previous building, but from my perspective, it looks simply ravishing. Blingly – but ravishing.

The view from our seats
And so to the opera, which wasn’t blingy, but has moments of being musically ravishing.

Bieito has updated in such a way as to suggest its set sometime from the 1950s to the here and now. The military uniforms, therefore, are simple, rather than fancy.

The sets are pared right back, which allows the piece to speak for itself, while removing most of the spoken dialogue – the reason it’s classed as an opéra comique – means that Bieito has also tightened it. And you lose nothing.

Here we have smugglers smuggling iconic 21st century brands in their cars – consumer goods to brighten the drab lives of the people, just as their hero worship of the glamorous matador Escamillo does.

The silhouette of a vast toro towers over the stage during the third act, bringing to mind themes of masculinity (and, arguably indeed, national identity – very Catalan) and then, as the prelude plays, a single man appears on stage, undresses and performs a stylised dance hinting at matadors and echoing that same theme.

The lighting is soft, so the nudity is not clear, but it certainly drew some sharp intakes of breath (fellow visitors from the UK or, perhaps, the similarly puritanical US?). Personally, I thought it added something to a point in the opera that would, otherwise, simply have been a musical interlude to allow set changes.

The big hits – the Habanera and the Toreador Song – are simply wonderful. The latter in particular was spine tingling, as the chorus strained against a rope strung across the front of the proscenium.

Of the cast, I thought that, while Roberto Aronica sung well as Don José, his acting was a little flat. Veronica Simeoni, on the other hand, is a superb Carmen – great voice and a performance that really had a believable sense of the wild free spirit of the character.

Michëla is a thankless role in some ways, but Ekaterina Bakanova gave her as much guts as possible and sung delightfully, while Vito Pirante was a very enjoyable and deceptively light Escamillo.

But watch out for Simeoni – a young singer who really impresses and seems able to take realism in opera acting to new heights.

The chorus was excellent throughout – as was the house orchestra under the baton of Myung-Whun Chung.

All in all, it would have been difficult to spend a Sunday afternoon in a more thoroughly enjoyable manner.

And the lesson is – don’t buy into organised trips without first seeing if you cannot book for yourself.

• Production photos not from this revival at La Fenice.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Venetian food sets the senses alight

Fegato – liver and onions, Venetian style
Were you to ask most people in the UK to name an Italian food, it’s a fairly safe bet that spaghetti bolognese might be mentioned, along with pizza, pasta in general, panettone and ice cream.

Setting aside the point that the Bolognese would eat their classic ragu with tagliatelle and not spaghetti, some might be able to get a little regional, knowing that, for instance, it was Napoli that gave birth to the pizza.

But what of Venice and the Veneto? Many would be stumped, although it’s most famous dish outside Italy is almost certainly tiramisu – and when made properly, it comes without any alcohol.

On this matter, The Other Half approves, even though the presence of mascarpone in the ingredient list means he hasn’t ever tried it. Then again, while I don’t mind a dash of sweet sherry in a trifle, he disapproves of that too. I wonder if this is a sign of a Yorkshireman considering booze in a pudding as an unnecessarily spendthrift act?

But let’s set that aside for the present – although Yorkshire will make an appearance later.

When we first visited La Serenissima seven years ago, brief homework beforehand had meant that we knew about tiramisu, together with a few other local delicacies. Early spring is wonderful for many reasons, but it is not the time to expect rise e bisi – the iconic Venetian pea risotto.

It is, however, just in time for the very end of the radicchio season. Grown on the mainland around Treviso, this bitter, red and white leaf, is a regional speciality.

Tiramisu at the Peggy Guggenheim
As with most anywhere else, the key to finding the best food is finding where local people eat. By and large, that means avoiding anywhere declaring itself a ‘restaurant’. As an acquaintance insisted before the trip: look for trattorias.

On our first night, this led us to Ai Cugnai, around the corner from where we were staying on Dorsoduro. There, surrounded by locals – at least some of whom we suspected worked at the nearby university – we began our culinary trip in an old establishment that has clearly been in one family for many years, and is currently headed by the son, with the father now taking it easier by helping wait on tables.

In a friendly and relaxed atmosphere, we both began with a vegetable soup. Nothing complex, but perfectly cooked vegetables in a tasty broth.

Next up for me, an absolute classic of local cuisine: fegato – liver and onions, with polenta on the side. Again, this was not complex food, but good ingredients cooked well.

The following day, as the sun blazed down on us, we lunched al fresco at the cafe inside the Peggy Guggenheim museum – delightful confit salmon for me, with seasonal veg and a cream that had been ‘soured’ with lemon (as opposed to being yer actual bought ‘sour cream’), plus an excellent tiramisu. With no alcohol.

All the culture vulturey can be quite tiring. That evening, we crossed the Ponte dell’Accademia and, thanks to the excellent memory of The Other Half, found once more a place that we had enjoyed back on the first visit in 2010 and where I’d first experienced fegato.

Lunchtime calamari
Trattoria da Fiore was busy, but the staff managed to find us a table – next to a couple from Harrogate. In late middle age, they were quiet, but we were so close it was impossible not to hear to comments about how wonderful are the gardens at Prince Charles’s Highgrove home.

When the wife – who was only inches away from me – ordered fritti misti (fried fish and sea food) she appeared confident of what she was getting.

Except for one small detail: she clearly believed it was a version of goujons, complete with dipping sauce. The absence of any such sauce left her, after a short while, close to despair.

“It’s very dry,” she murmured in a drawl that was atremble with innate sadness.

They called the waiter.

“Do you not have any tartare sauce or may-o-nnaise?” she asked, her mournful voice bursting with the suggestion that there was not a culinary establishment on Earth worthy of the name that would not, at the very least, have these in tear-open sachets.

The young man explained, in excellent English and entirely patiently, that this was the way the dish was an no, they didn’t have such condiments in the building. He left.

A moment or so later: “I’m sure he could have found something,” she intoned wearily.

I was biting my tongue, trying desperately not to burst out into hysterical laughter, and with a memory unfolding in my head of Catherine Tate’s ‘disgusted couple’ sketches.

Later, albeit without this as my intent, I restored some dignity to us Brits in a conversation with the maître d’. He had come to check whether our meal was fine. I responded with asking whether the radicchio in my pasta dish was from Treviso and wasn’t the season over yet? All this enthusiastically, I should add.

The Other Half says that his expression suggested that he was genuinely impressed.

Rather earlier, our young waiter had come around carrying a platter of the fresh fish and seafood the place had that night. There was no smell – in other words, this was as fresh as you can get. I picked two shellless crabs for my starter.

Superb guinea fowl at La Bitte
I’d never had them before – genuinely doubted whether they were really shell less (and then how do you eat them etc). But oh my, they were lovely. Sweet – but not the overpowering sweetness of much British crab meat. They came with a little polenta, some of that Treviso radicchio – a perfect counterbalance to the sweetness – and some lettuce.

And I enjoyed – very much so – a big, bold pasta dish of mushrooms, gorgonzola, walnuts and radicchio for my main.

The following day, after long wandering, we had a basic lunch. But though we expected little, it was perfectly decent. I enjoyed a large plate of calamari, with lemon. Done right, what else do you need?

That evening, we pulled big time in culinary terms.

Thanks to top food journalist Joanna Blythman, we knew to try to get into La Bitte, which was only about a 10-minute walk away from the hotel where we were staying.

It has no website booking facility, but our hotel rang up for us and did the business. We were in.

La Bitte is small and rustic and intimate. It is dedicated to the meaty food of the mainland Veneto rather than the fish of the lagoons.

And oh my god – it is a joy.

We both started with a smoked carpaccio of beef: plenty of it; delicate beyond belief and sitting atop a pillow of fresh, tasty salad leaves – all dressed in Balsamico. If it sounds simple, well then yes – it was. But how many places get such apparent ‘simplicity’ so right?

For me, I followed that with guinea fowl.

Good grief – half a bird, tender as anything yet falling off the bone, served with a velvet-smooth cream sauce. How the hell can that be done? It’s a culinary contradiction! For the meat to flake, it needs long-slow cooking, yet doing that will render it tough and dry.

I asked.

Apparently, the game is cooked long and slow. In cream, together with pancetta and sage.

So when the meat is lifted out and some of the cream sauce strained, it’s flaking and yet moist.

Served with quenelles of Jerusalem artichoke, this was utterly stunning. I’ve been to posh places in London that cannot come close to this. It was simply glorious.

Ravioli at  Taverna La Fenice
Maintaining an almost dangerously rich note, I ended with a vanilla panna cotta – impossibly light yet rich, and with a caramel sauce that had the authenticity of length, with just the suggestion of burnt toast at the end.

Stunning – simply stunning.

Over the rest of the visit, we returned to Ai Cugnai (where I sampled sarde soar – in effect, sardines done in a way similar to rollmops) and enjoyed a really fine pre-opera lunch at Taverna la Fenice, which managed to combine posh with local, seasonal quality.

There, we enjoyed there first asparagus of the year in simple crudités, with virgin oil and mustard – and I had an excellent dish of white meat ravioli with a gusty gravy (you can’t call it a ‘sauce’) and slivers of truffle.

One of our other discoveries this trip was the wine: forget the piss poor excuse for a pinot grigio or soave that you are likely to be served in UK hotels, the real deal is excellent.

Venice is a joy for many reasons. But this was the visit that helped us really appreciate just a few of the ways in which it can tantalise the tastebuds.

Just promise me that you won’t ask for any tartare sauce.