Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Mythology, cats and ceramics

 A view from Relais Regina Giovanna
Off the boat and into the Sorrento sunshine, we were far too early for hotel check-in but just in time for the start of lunch. Of the two waterside eateries, we picked Ristorante Bar Ruccio, since it seemed to have the most conventional and Italian-looking menu.

As it happened, it also had cats. Although not before we had food in front of us.

I rarely opt for soup – it’s usually too filling a starter for me – but the primavera caught my attention. I’m glad it did. A huge bowl of beautiful, seasonal vegetables in a light but flavoursome stock. Genuinely scrummy – bang full of flavour. I had grilled octopus next, refusing to let myself be put off by the previous evening’s poor Neapolitan experience.

A generous portion, it was shared with the two cats – a ginger tabby and, we believe, her daughter; still technically a kitten, but with a very grave face and advanced skills in the ‘give-me-food’ telepathy department.

Mummy tabby cat
It was a pleasant meal and the cats – who were clearly not considered a problem by the staff – added to the experience. Then it was into a taxi for the trip up the steep, hairpin road into central Sorrento and then south along the coast, hugging the hillside, to the hotel.

Relais Regina Giovanna is a series of buildings, gloriously refurbished and set in a 50-acre estate. The hotel itself has a dozen rooms, while a block 500 metres away has five apartments for self catering. Other buildings are dotted around, including one that hosts yoga classes.

The estate is a joy to wander in. It’s never going to be crowded and includes olive and lemon groves, plus the vegetable and herb gardens that supply the hotel restaurant. Relais Regina Giovanna makes its own olive oil and limoncello.

There’s a small, private beach at the top of a small inlet, with clear emerald waters washing gently in. Unfortunately, we were too early in the season for that to be open. Another time, then. And more of that another day.

I want the octopus
Signs let you know what birds you might see: during our stay, we spotted at least one buzzard, many white-throated swifts and flashes of bright yellow that we eventually identified as canaries, plus abundant Italian wall lizards.

In places, you can hear only the sea below, the wind in the trees, birds singing and your own thoughts. If you want an idea of paradise …

And at this point, let’s digress for a spot of history.

Queen Giovanna D’Angiò was a sovereign of Naples. It seems that, between 1371 and 1435, she often went to the area. And it now bears her name.

So this is a point: the whole area reeks of history: you simply cannot escape it.

And at this juncture, let’s take a step back a few decades.

In the first year at my (state) grammar school, everyone did Latin. I took to it like the proverbial duck to water, while modern languages never caught my imagination.

Around the estate
To be fair, that might have been influenced by my father who, while he had nothing negative to say about Latin, was disgruntled at my having to learn French and, when I had to swap Latin for German in my second year, was apoplectic. It was not, after all, Why We Won the War.

But stopping Latin after a year meant that I was not introduced to the mythology of southern Europe. When I finally came across any mythology it was years later, when a friend told me the story of the Nibelungen.

I was gripped. Memory can be a dodgy thing, but I don’t remember my parents telling stories like that (or even reading to me). German and Norse mythology leapt in to a vacuum. I’ve dipped into the Classical variety since, but it’s always seemed tame.

Yet between the presence of Vesuvius and the knowledge that this part of the Mediterranean has the far older sounding name of the Tyrrhenian Sea, something started to come to life.

On a long, narrow street in Sorrento, after passing shops laden with mass-produced souvenirs, we found Terrerosse.

Terrerosse bowl
It’s a small shop with space at the back to work. There, Allessandro and Enrica create unique ceramics that are bound up in the mythology of the region.

Sorrento … the name comes from ‘siren/mermaid’: winged creatures that became sea-bound.

If you’re in Sorrento, seek out Via Fuoro, 73 – because the work of Allessandro and Enrica has a magical, mythical quality you’ll rarely find elsewhere.

We’ll be going back in September. Italy has captivated us. In August, we will now spending time in the shadow of Etna, at Aci Trezza, before making our way back to Sorrento and Relais Regina Giovanna. I fully intend to make a trip to Terrerosse my primary ceramic aim of the the holiday.

And in the meantime, I find myself increasingly dreaming of an amazing mythological landscape that is coming alive for me as never before.

Saturday, 8 June 2019

A tremendous Tosca with Terfel in top form

Bryn Terfel as Scarpia
According to operbase.com, Tosca is the fifth most popular opera in the world. Of Puccini’s works, only La bohème ranks higher.

Finally getting to see Tosca, it’s not difficult to see why it rates so highly. The current Royal Opera revival of Jonathon Kent’s production is a traditional take, but certainly doesn’t suffer for that.

At its most simplistic, this is effectively a battle between love and lust. The story is played out against a background of the struggle between the Italian monarchy and the forces of republicanism, led by Napoleon, in 1800.

This is a tale of celebrated singer Floria Tosca and her love for painter Mario Cavaradossi. The latter is on the republican side and, when his old friend Angelotti, a former consul of the Roman Republic, escapes prison, he vows to help.

Unfortunately, Cavaradossi’s lover, Tosca, is a tad jealous – laughs in the first act – and this allows local chief of police Baron Scarpia to go fu-on Iago with her and unleash the green monster, with disastrous effects.

Unusually, this doesn’t just mean that the female lead herself dies – or that takes an entire act to die or, indeed, that Cavaradossi is a stereotypical operatic tenor wimp.

There are some really interesting themes here – not least in Puccini’s treatment of religion. Tosca is pious – to the extent of setting out candles by the body of Scarpia after she kills him. Shortly before taking up the knife, she sings the great aria, Vissi d’arte, which asks: “why, why, Lord, ah, why do you reward me thus?”

Now of course, if we’re to get all theological over this, then Tosca clearly doesn’t understand that the Judea-Christian god can do whatever he damn well pleases and it’s all and always okay. For instance, let us not forget that being ‘tested’ is good.

But there is a sense here that Puccini might be daring to suggest that all her prayers and good acts mean absolutely nothing. And given that she leaps to her death at the end – and therefore ensures that she cannot be buried in consecrated ground – we have all sorts of possible philosophical ideas that we could explore.

Kristine Opolais as Tosca
This is a wonderful production: magnificent sets and a cracking performance from the house orchestra under Puccini expert Alexander Joel (Billy’s half bro).

Before the performance, the audience was informed that both Kristine Opolais as Tosca and Vittorio Grigóla as Cavaradossi were a tad ‘under the weather’, but were hoping to give of their best. 

If Grigóla was ‘under the weather’, I’d worry about seeing him when he was on top form. He’s got one heck of a pair of lungs in him even when not at his best. Of course, he doesn’t always belt everything out at maximum volume, à la Ethel Merman, but it says something that such a comparison occurs at all.

And given that his performance at curtain call was like someone who was celebrating after just setting the 100m record for the universe, it’s tough to comprehend what the capital’s weather had done to him.

Opolais may have lacked some volume, but she more than made up for it in nuance and subtlety.

And here’s the thing: Bryn Terfel is basically global number one Scarpia at present – and it’s really not tough to see why. He’s superb in the role, lifting it far above simple panto villain. His scenes with Opolais crackle, which merely shows how her scenes with Mr I Like Me Who Do You Like lack any real frisson.

The Other Half and I had caught Terfel once before, as Hans Sachs in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, but it had been a lukewarm meeting.

This, however, made it absolutely clear why Terfel is a global opera star. A fantastic performance.

That said, it’s a fabulous production as a whole, with fabulous music and I’d watch it again tomorrow if I had the chance.


Monday, 3 June 2019

A day in Napoli, in the shadow of Vesuvius

Arriving in Naples from an overcast London was an intravenous shot of Italian espresso for the spirits. The sun was high, the sky cobalt and to the left, as we sped by car to the centre of the old city, loomed Vesuvius.

Vast docks with container skyscrapers led to narrow streets before we were dropped outside the boutique hotel that would be our home for a single night.

Bags were gratefully deposited – we’d overpacked, since every weather forecast available had suggested we’d need clothes for at least two climates.

Then it was out and a search for lunch. Just around the corner we found Tandem, recommended by the receptionist at the hotel.

Slow-cooked octopus
Setting aside the young woman trying to give passers-by leaflets to lure them to a table – this is 21st-century Italy’s version of sirens – the menu appeared authentic and there were clearly locals enjoying a leisurely Saturday repast.

Service was equally leisurely, but when you’re sitting in the sunshine with no concrete timetable, it’s difficult to be churlish. When a waiter came over, it was with a container of different pastas to help us understand the menu.

I opted for a tubular pasta with a Genovese ragu of octopus, onion and carrot. Slow-cooked for eight hours, it was excellent.

The people watching wasn’t bad either. Not for the last time, we saw men in hi-vis jackets, clearly in charge of off-street car parks that were somehow buried in buildings that didn’t look at all like that would be possible.

How high is this arch?
It didn’t seem to be a particularly onerous task, leaving them with time to stand around and chat, accompanied by plenty of gesticulations.

It’s worth realising as quickly as possible that Neapolitans in general speak loudly, quickly and with a lot of hand movements. Once you have that sussed, you don’t start every time you hear a conversation, thinking it’s a domestic.

The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering around the old city; down the narrow street that slices through the old quarter and is full of shops selling tat, such as limoncello in penis-shaped bottles. And no – it was not tempting even given the knowledge that the ancient Romans saw large, erect phalluses as a good luck charm.

Then we found ourselves deciding that the queue to see the sculpture of the Veiled Christ really was just too long, so we carried on admiring the age of the buildings and the architecture and also (in different ways) the sheer amount of street art and graffiti that, in places, seems to cover every millimetre of available wall.

Fidel – mirrored, on a university building
There are churches everywhere. There are more than a few shrines – and neo-religious references to Saint Hand of God Maradona also abound. And red chilis as decorations. Colours abound and washing hangs outside the windows of pastel-painted apartment blocks while the paint silently peels.

We’ve visited Venice twice – that was our Italy. But this is a very different of Italy. To be fair, Venice is a place apart. One assumes that Venetians are as happy to be regarded as a people apart as the rest of Italy is to be regarded as something different from La Serenissima.

But back to Napoli itself. Crossing roads felt like taking your life into your hands: horns tooted and with scooters not required to stop for a red light at a crossing, you have to learn quickly to follow the Neapolitans’ own example – just stride into the road when the light’s in your favour and trust that any vehicular traffic will stop.

We survived. Just.

Back at the hotel, we rested and freshened up before heading out for dinner. That was a slow descent toward the marina and the sea front, where we’d been advised that there was good seafood to be had. What there was, was our first real view of the bay as the day slipped gently toward its end.

Do you think we should have gone down here?
Shades of indigo all around. Vesuvius presiding over the bay. In the distance, across the water, the island of Ischia: a strip of pale mist appeared to sever it from the sea, as though it levitated, as mysterious as Bali Hai. It’s a view you cannot stop looking at: full of promise and, in that brooding volcano, power.

We eventually opted for one of the tourist traps along the promenade. There seemed to be no alternative and we were tired after a long day that had started at around 4am.

Service was dire. Orders were part forgotten and my squid, when it eventually turned up, was overcooked and tough. We ate one course and finished our bottle of wine, congratulated ourselves that we’d not ordered more, paid up and left.

Sunday morning: 8.29am on the dot and a lone church bell rings out for a few minutes before fading away.

The car park is closed
Below the window in our hotel room was a garden with apricot and lemons trees. Beyond were low buildings and, further off, Vesuvius. Swifts darted around.

We had breakfast and left, a taxi taking us down to the marina. There, it was swiftly on to a ferry for the journey across the Bay of Naples to Sorrento.

To the north, Vesuvius dominates as it would do for the rest of the trip. The bay was calm, the ferry remarkably comfortable. A vast, flat cloud fanned out over the top of Vesuvio.

When it exploded in 79AD, Pliny the Elder described the column of gasses and debris that were hurled into the stratosphere as looking like a stone pine.

As we near our destination, the coastline changes: it rears, craggy and precipitous – quite different from what we have seen so far; sculptural stone pines are visible in silhouette against the changing skyline.

And we realise that, as we should have earlier, that where mountains meet the sea, weather forecasters flounder.

What will the days ahead hold – and not least in the weather?

Sunday, 2 June 2019

Tanning exhibition is a complex, satisfying hit

The Mirror, 1950
It only has a week to run, but if you have the chance – and haven’t done so already – then get thee to the Tate Modern in London for the Dorothea Tanning exhibition.

It’s not one of the most massive Tate offerings, so is cheaper than many and nowhere near as exhausting. But don’t mistake that for something that doesn’t pack a punch in its eight rooms.

The Tanning I was familiar with was primarily from the pair of paintings exhibited here that the Tate Modern itself holds: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943) and Some Roses and their Phantoms (1952).

But while this starts at around the same era, it goes far later – and there’s plenty of ‘late’, since Tanning’s artistic career panned seven decades and her life, a century plus.

A Mrs Radcliffe Called Today, 1944
Given a background in Galesburg, Illinois, where she observed that nothing happened “except the wallpaper” and a liking for gothic literature, it’s hardly surprising that Tanning was drawn to the imaginative world of Surrealism.

The exhibition opens with 1944’s Endgame, a surreal riff on chess – a game that was popular among the movement’s artists and that Tanning herself described as “more than a game. It’s a way of thinking”.

It’s a work that’s typically meticulous for this stage in her career, but the white stiletto (the queen) crushing the black bishop, and the revealed strip of landscape at the bottom of the canvas, does more than suggest that there’s a lot more going on here than ‘just’ a game a chess.

And that’s one of the major points with the exhibition. There are a number of works here that you could spend ages looking at and still find yourself wondering what they ‘mean’, though Tanning herself seems to have had less concern for interpreting her works than some of those looking at them.

Pour Gustave l’adoré, 1974
A Mrs Radcliffe Called Today from 1944 (pictured left) is one such piece (Ann Radcliffe was an English Gothic author) with it’s sense of moving beyond the physically possible world into a realm without the boundaries of nature.

Open doors are a repeated motif: in the first of Les 7 périls spectraux, a series of lithographs from 1950, Tanning has a door opening in a book, while in Maternity, from 1946-7, a door stands opening in the middle of a desert.

Elsewhere, The Mirror, from 1950 (see top), shows – appears to show – a dead sunflower looking at itself in a sunflower looking glass. Dorian Grey leaps to mind (Tanning loved the book) and Snow White. It’s creepy and compelling.

Over the years, her work became more fluid and abstracted, yet no less mysterious. Pour Gustave l’adoré (1974), shows a mermaid’s tail in the foreground but as our eyes move up, the body is lost in deep shadow. But if that’s a mermaid’s tail, what’s going on just before we’re plunged into shadow: is that a limb to the right and, if so, how does it relate to the tail?

Crepuscula glacial (var., Flos cumuli) from 1997
The title is a play on the name of Paul-Gustave Doré, a 19th-century French engraver and illustrator who was best known for fantastical illustrations of fairy tales.

It’s not difficult to see why Tanning loved his work, but it’s also great to see illustration not regarded as some sort of inferior form of art.

The sense of the mythical, the folkloric and the fairytale is present elsewhere – in Murmers (1976), for instance, and To Climb a Ladder (1987), which has a subtle hint of nightmare about the naked bodies tangled together as they climb.

Tanning turned to poetry late in life, but there’s a poetic quality about some of latest painted works too – not least in the beautifully coloured Crepuscula glacial (var., Flos cumuli) from 1997.

Tweedy, 1973
Some of her soft sculptures are on show and two stick in mind, even for a someone who is not a fan of this approach.

In Tweedy, from 1973, the artist created an animal-like form in tweed, with a small, matching turd near by. It’s very funny.

On the other hand, Hôtel du Pavot, Chamber 202 is deeply unsettling. An installation, the ‘room’ combines soft fabric sculptures with old-style, dark wallpaper, wood and floor.

An open door, though we cannot see through it, offers the only hint of escape as torsos and parts of human forms emerge – in some cases, tearing themselves – through the walls and furniture and into this world.

The wall facing us has a rectangle of wallpaper that’s cleaner and brighter than elsewhere: what picture has been removed and why?

Hôtel du Pavot, Chamber 202, 1970-73
It has a sense of Stephen KingThe Shining – and it’s impossible not to recall Tanning’s own description of her place of upbringing as being where the only thing that happened was the wallpaper. Here, the wallpaper is alive and not in a good way.

Tanning, who was married to Max Ernst for 30 years until his death and very much part of the Surrealist circle of the day, is well served by this fascinating retrospective.

It shines a spotlight on her work, showing us its variety, her humour, her technical skill and – not least – her ability, throughout her career, to create work that, in its unsettling nature, sticks with us long after we’ve left the room.

You have until 9 June – find out more at www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-modern.