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.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

A Meistersinger with plenty to feast on

Ending of Act II
One of the things that makes good art great is its endurance and its openness to reinterpretation down the years: that whatever the apparent subject, it is never just about that.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is such a beast. Weighing in at four and a half hours of music –divided here by two intervals of 35 minutes apiece, allowing audience members the time to unpack the Tupperware and enjoy a leisurely picnic – it might be Wagner’s one mature comedy, but that should not be read as suggesting it lacks intellectual meat.

Indeed, one of the pleasures in watching is in noting the themes – and also how the production works with (or against) them.

The downside with such works is that they can also be open to people attempting to foist interpretations on them.

In the case of Meistersinger, there has been a determined effort by some to suggest that Beckmesser is an anti-Semitic character (who has to be defeated by an Aryan).

Nobody has ever been able to concretely prove that any character in one of Wagner’s operas is Jewish. Wagner’s anti-Semitism is a well-known fact, but that doesn’t mean that his dramas are filled with anti-Jewish tropes. 

Here, the name of Sixtus Beckmesser is thoroughly German and what he quite clearly is is Wagner’s Malvolio, right down to the thin-soled shoes he has badgered Hans Sachs to finish being his yellow stockings, cross gartered.

Why does he have to suffer defeat and humiliation? Because he’s a jealous snob; a petty guard of the petty rules that govern the Meistersingers’ guild – the sorts of rules and attitudes toward art that Wagner himself railed and reacted against.

Further, he has the temerity to imagine that he would be a suitable match for the much younger Eva, who has been promised to the winning Meistersinger at the city’s midsummer festival. The widower Sachs has the decency, self-awareness and basic humanity to know he’s too old for her, even though the idea is not unattractive.

But Wagner is not quite so simplistic: while Sachs comes to see the limits of the rules, he doesn’t represent artistic anarchy, but wants to find an equilibrium between tradition and moving forward.

The idea of wahn – one of those German words that contains a whole philosophical concept; in this case, meaning far more than simple ‘madness’ as it is literally translated – permeates Sachs’s (and Wagners) fears, yet it can be a positive force in creativity. The conflict between strict rules/convention and artistic evolution reflects similar tensions in the wider world between the status quo and change. We all face this and most of us probably take comfort in what of the former suits us and believe only in limited change. Thus understanding Sachs’s fears and dilemma is not difficult.

However, when he pays homage to tradition in the final act, it is often considered a difficult piece of nationalistic fervour. 

But historical context means a lot. When it was penned in the 1860s, Germany was on the cusp of becoming a reality, offering its peoples an increased security in the face of competing and established nationalisms from east and west in particular. It is easy now to forget that nationalism was not considered inherently negative in the 19th century: specifically, we don’t consider Italy’s move toward nationhood at the same time as anywhere near so problematic. German nationalism of the same period, though, has come to be viewed through the prism of what happened decades later and is thus treated as unique.

And it’s hardly as if we in the UK don’t like more than a spot of wildly bombastic pomp and circumstance – and not just at the Last Night of the Proms.

Hans Sachs and Sixtus Beckermesser
It’s also worth remembering that while Wagner himself might have been a nationalist in ways we think of today, he was also anti-militaristic and anti-imperialistic: today’s definition of nationalism usually includes militarism and, at a time when the UK government is planning ‘empire 2’, some on these islands at least hanker for imperialism.

On a cultural level, German-language opera existed, but German composers such as Handel and Gluck had preferred Italian, just as the court of Frederick the Great spoke French – a point referenced in Sach’s hymn to German art. That’s the context for artists striving for a German voice in art.

Royal Opera House director of opera Kasper Holten leaves the job with this new production. And it has left some to grumble – not least about how he’s changed the ending. But then, isn’t breaking the rules what this is all about?

Here, after Walther is accepted into the meistersingers’ guild and, in turn, accepts that, rather than fall into his arms, Eva storms off – presumably angered by his apparent rejection of rebelling against the rules and/or his acquiescence with the nationalism most usually perceived.

It does no damage to the whole, however you look at it.

Mia Stensgaard’s set has come in for criticism too – particularly in the second act, where something more pastoral might be welcome. This is certainly a point.

We start with something like a vaguely Deco series of boxes; angles everywhere, with staircases that go nowhere and a door like the aperture of a camera. It could remind one of Escher’s nightmarishly impossible architecture and indeed, at the climax of the second act, it becomes a nightmare. In a clever move, it only really resolves to full symmetrical neatness in the final act.

In between, during probably the slowest revolve in theatrical history, we see the back of the main set, rigged out as though it were backstage. But as Sachs plots to turn the madness to sanity, it also sees him ‘outside’ the world of which he has been such a part; a clique; an elite with its endless rules that help to preserve that elite.

Resolving the issues is what allows him to return inside, but only as he also helps to at least partially break the strangulating hold on artistic freedom. This is like Wagner’s personal manifesto – as is Sachs’s belief in democratising art by calling for the meistersinger to be chosen by popular vote and even his own determination to match words and music completely, which Sachs mentions in the libretto.

Dress is modern and includes nods to modern elites such as masons – the production poster adds business/City types as another elite.

It’s been noted that Walther is dressed scruffily, with a rock ‘n’ roll t-shirt – unfitting for a noble. But actually, it fits perfectly: the artisans in the guild are the ones for whom such things as appearance are central to their cultivation of their own sense of being an elite. An aristocrat has no need of such symbols because he’s already a member of a ‘real’ elite – though there is irony to his being the one trying to break into a very different sort of establishment.

Sachs, Eva and Walther
If Meistersinger, lacking the sturm und drang impact of Wagner’s great Romantic works, never quite hits the emotionally devastating notes of, say, the last minutes of Tristan und Isolde, it is perhaps his most consistently beautiful and melodic score.

The orchestra was in fine form under Antonio Pappano, if a tad too loud during some of the conversational moments.

Bryn Terfel might not be quite the baritone he was a few years ago, but his is an easy charisma and he brings a straightforward honesty to Sachs that is perfect for the role.

Johannes Martin Kränzle as Beckmesser deals with the comic elements delightfully, while Gwyn Hughes Jones as Walther and Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Eva, and Allan Clayton and Hanna Hipp and Sachs’s apprentice David and Eva’s maid Magdalene, all give fine performances.

The ending, with two choruses cramming the stage, is a theatrical barnstormer. The music resolves as it does at the end of the overture – and a glorious resolution it is too.

Meistersinger is a comedy in the same way that the likes of Twelfth Night is: there are laughs and chuckles, but there is much more to take away when the final chord has sounded.