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.

Monday, 20 March 2017

America After the Fall is a bona fide must-see

American Gothic, Grant Wood
A couple of weeks ago, booking for the following evening to see America After the Fall at the Royal Academy, I observed to The Other Half that it would be worth the entry fee just to see Grant Wood’s iconic American Gothic.

As we discovered 24 hours later,  that was an entirely fair statement. But the rest of this concise exhibition means that its £12 ticket is an even better – if unexpected – bargain. 

Entering the first of just three rooms and turning left, one of the first works you see is Aspiration, a big canvas by Aaron Douglas, painted in 1936.

In the foreground are the manacled hands of slaves, while rising above them are three African American figures holding symbols of education, looking and pointing toward a bright future that’s represented by a conjunction of industry and tower blocks that could be Oz meeting Metropolis.

Aspirations, Aaron Douglas
A really strong piece, its key to the exhibition, which it also links to the RA’s other running show on Russian revolutionary art until 1932.

Here is the same hope for a better future; the same harking back to a rosy past and a hagiographic representation of tradition (in both cases, of agriculture) and the future – also in both cases, of industry.

Seeing them both is not obligatory, but doing so certainly benefits the understanding and appreciation of each one. 

Here, in the industrial category, we have work by Charles Sheeler – pristine industrial landscapes that come close to a sort of super-realism, including Classic Landscape from 1931, while Suspended Power (1939) is reminiscent of the some of the Russian industrial photography on display downstairs.

O Louis Guglielmi’s Phoenix from 1935 includes a portrait of Lenin within a landscape that is arguably close to di Chirico in terms of it use of symbols.

Cotton Pickers, Thomas Hart Benton
And indeed, it’s worth remembering that many of the artists shown here were themselves immigrants or first-generation Americans. The influences of European art are clear.

As are the political influences. Peter Blumes The Eternal City (1934-37) is a savage, Daliesque take on Mussolini, while Philip Gustons Bombardment (1937) is from the same year and covers the same subject as PicassoGuernica.

In terms of the natural landscape, there’s Alexandre Hogue’s Erosion No2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare (1936), which rather overdoes the point and was disappointing after works by Hogue we’d previously seen at the Pompidou in Paris.

Daughters of the Revolution, Grant Wood
Thomas Hart Benton’s pastoral paintings are more interesting – not least because one on display, Cotton Pickers (1945) treads a fine line between the brutal realism of picking cotton and sentiment: personally, I think he just manages to get it right.

But nobody could be in any doubt that Joe Joness American Justice (1933), showing the aftermath of a KKK lynching, is intended as anything other than a total damning of such racist murders.

Young Corn, Grant Wood
Yet the revelation here is Grant Wood.

Yes, yes … we all know and recognise American Gothic (1930). And it is a brilliant work that merits time spent looking at it in detail, including up close enough to see the brush work (it needs a clean, mind).

But this one painting has so come to define Wood that few of us – certainly on this side of The Pond – will be aware of his other works. From the stylised, pastoral landscapes such as Young Corn (1931) to the history painting of The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931), from his simply brilliant Daughters of the Revolution (1932) to the equally fabulous Death on the Ridge Road (1935) – which seems to nod to comic book art – Woods paintings are a major reason to visit this exhibition.

Death on the Ridge Road, Grant Wood
Deceptively simple on many occasions, his use of perspective and angles illustrates the facile nature of such a view.

I haven’t even mentioned the two works by Edward Hopper – and they are no disappointment either.

Indeed, quite the contrary. Hopper was a superb artist. Gas, from 1940, is an absolute star of a painting, with a haunting sense of mystery about it.

But this exhibition – first seen in Paris – offers wonderful opportunities to explore the work of artists we shamefully know little of in Europe.

A friend who saw the exhibition in Paris thought it clunky curated. I do know what they mean, but seeing it in the wake of the Russia exhibition downstairs firms up that curation.

Gas, Edward Hopper
And even if you set aside that, this is worth seeing if only because there are so many good – and a few great – paintings here that it would be criminal to miss the opportunity to see art that rarely (if ever) has left the US before.

We went on a Friday evening and, amazingly, it was not crowded, so we had the time to stand in front of any individual work and enjoy at our leisure.

I’d recommend seeing this and the Russian Revolution exhibition, but if you can only do one, do this – the standard of the actual works on display is, overall, far higher.

* America After the Fall runs until 4 June at the Royal Academy, London.