Opera


Pavarotti with David Mellor

Daily Mail picture

Having slated Classic FM for its 25th birthday concert from Liverpool in my previous post (in which I too late saw I had wrongly, in my exhausted grumpy state, typed Bartok rather than Bruch – sorry) I thought I should redress the balance having enjoyed a couple of hours of superb music, with the most musically knowledgeable of the station’s presenters and, for me, the greatest tenor, certainly of ‘our times’. I’m talking about David Mellor paying homage to Pavarroti on Sunday evening, on the 10th anniversary of the death of the ‘King of the high Cs’.

I have to admit that when I first heard of David Mellor’s programme on Classic FM several years ago I groaned and was ready to turn the radio off (I had the same reaction when I heard that damned gardener was joining the team). When Mellor was a Minister in Margaret Thatcher’s then John Major’s Governments I had mixed feelings about him. I admired his outspokeness on Israeli treatment of Palestinians though it got him into quite a bit of trouble; I was saddened by his outburst to a taxi driver but only because it made him sound a twit (Mellor that is) – I’ve had my run-ins with cabbies; as for extra-marital affairs, I regarded them as none of my business. Unfortunately the report that he liked sex dressed in the Chelsea FC strip turned out to be a fabrication. I reckoned the detractors were just jealous that such an unlikely guy had ‘pulled’ a slim, attractive 6ft tall Antonia de Sancha.

Anecdotes

One of the things I like about his Classic FM programmes is the anecdotes about the many great musicians he has met, often revealing aspects of the great men and women of music of which I would otherwise be unaware. One such was a highlight of Sunday’s programme: when Mellor was at his lowest point thanks to the mass media, shortly before he had to resign his Government post, coming off stage Pavarotti went out of his way to give him a hug and tell him not to be put down by it. This confirmed for me a feeling I’ve always had about the big man, communicated to me previously only by his singing.

There were many wonderful moments in Sunday’s broadcast, many of the recordings I had not heard before, but three stood out for me. One was Pavarotti singing to his home crowd at an open air concert in Modena. His enjoyment, sheer joy, was evident in every song. The second was him singing with Joan Sutherland, a partnership made in heaven. Third was him hitting the nine high Cs as Tonio in, La Fille du Regiment; I’ve heard it many times but it is ever a wonder.

As for Mellor, I don’t know how he gets away with it but he doesn’t add “On Classic FM”, as seems obligatory for all the other presenters, to the end of every announcement of a piece. It’s extremely irritating and generally untrue.

And he doesn’t try to sing! Lord preserve us from Alexander Armstrong – neither tuneful nor witty and now he’s tried to emulate David Bowie with Peter and the Wolf. It took me all of five seconds to reach the ‘off’ switch. But it’ll be on again before next Sunday’s Mellor spot.


An aside: after six weeks writing almost only my Facebook diary (I don’t regard that as writing) I’ve suddenly got the urge really to write again. At the moment it’s an urge to write blog posts (never, I promise you, several a day!) but I’ll maybe get to fiction again soon.

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Picture of CD cover 'Gok's Divas'Until recently I found Gok Wan irritating, possibly because I find the fashion scene irritating and he’s just a bit too ‘camp’ for me. It all changed when I heard him interviewed recently on Classic FM (UK of course). It was interesting to hear what I guess is the real person. It turned out that he loves opera, particularly the divas, and that he “likes, or needs, to be surrounded by strong women”. Perhaps not his exact words but whatever he said it could well have been me I thought. Moreover, I heard that he had curated an album of his choice of divas; so many would have been those I would have chosen, headed by the incomparable Maria Callas. The only amazing omission was Joan Sutherland – as Pavarroti said, “the voice of the century.”

When the interview finished I was on to Amazon and bought the album.

Back to the ’60s

Forgive any lapses of memory please – it is half a century ago and someone disposed of my record collection when I was in Romania. Several of his choices took me back to the 1950/60s; at that time I had several of the operas on LPs with divas he chose. Here are some:

Maria Callas did not have the greatest voice but she could stir the emotions like no other. “The Bible of opera” Leonard Bernstein called her. Like many thousands of others, I was stopped in my tracks when I first heard Casta Diva (Norma, Bellini). It still does it, as it did when it was played during the interview with Gok. Lucia di Lammermoor with Giuseppe di Stefano was among my LP sets in the ’60s.

Montserrat Caballe was just amazing when she sang pianissimo. Quite unlike any other. I had her 1967 recording of Lucrezia Borgia. Much more recent of course, she sang with Freddie Mercury.

Kiri Te Kanawa was quite a bit later. Always a delight to listen to, I can’t remember all the recordings of her I had but Die Fledermaus and Madame Butterfly were among them.

Elisabeth Schwarzcopf was an early favourite singing Wagner, having been taken by my grandmother to hear The Ring at an early age (not with Schwarzcopf unfortunately). The only opera I had been to before was Carmen at 7 years old, which began my love of opera though I had heard a lot before on radio and ‘gramophone’. I think Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg was an acquisition in the ’60s but a much earlier recording.

Victoria de los Angeles was rated no.3 in a BBC list of top twenty sopranos of all time (after Callas and Sutherland). I have two abiding memories of her: a recording of Carmen with Sir Thomas Beecham, from the ’50s I think, and a recording of Madame Butterfly with Jussi Bjoerling. Someone I shared a flat with had this latter recording on tape  (remember those? – 4 track stereo) but mine was on LPs.

Katherine Jenkins is much later of course and, as far as I know, has never taken a leading role in a staged opera. I’d have chosen her singing something Welsh.

Joan Sutherland is, for me, an inexplicable omission. I would have had at least a track of her singing the mad scene from Lucia de Lammermoor in place of one of the ‘musicals’, which I find out of place.

Interesting isn’t it that when we think of opera we think ‘Italian’ but there’s not an Italian among them – Greek, Spanish, New Zealand, Welsh and, with Sutherland, Australian? If we did a similar thing with the men I guess Italians might dominate, though I’d be torn between Jussi Bjoerling and Pavarotti to head my list.

Eclectic

That comment on musicals does not indicate a restricted taste in music, I doubt you’d find one much more eclectic. I just find the sudden change from grand opera to ‘musical’ too much. To make the point, last Friday evening, my first ‘night out’ for more than a couple of years (all down to the pills – I may become as camp as Gok!), I was with members of our writers’ club to hear a couple of indie bands and our own singer-songwriter in a superb smokey church venue (see pic – Left Bank Leeds). She can move me as much as Callas – almost. Click for her recently released CD, which is frequently in the player.

I’m repeatedly surprised by wonderful, sometimes life-changing, experiences rising up out of dreadful situations. I had one on 11 March, when I returned by air to Yorkshire from seeing my grandchildren in Dusseldorf.

Helen1

What has this lovely lady to do with disaster at Dusseldorf? – Read on

This is usually a very quick, easy (and low cost) journey thanks to Jet2.com as my grandchildren live only 20 minutes from Dusseldorf and I live even closer to Leeds/Bradford.

The security personnel at the German airport decided to have a 24 hour strike. We were warned to be there at least two hours before our flight was due to board. I took heed.

If anyone suggests to me again that the Germans are masters of organisation they will get a very rude retort. This usually efficient, pleasant, modern airport descended into complete chaos and the most obvious measures – like getting passengers to sit comfortably and call the flights in order – did not happen. I stood in a queue for 2.1/2 hours but even after that I would not have got on the plane had I not used some subterfuge. I was one of only seven passengers who made it on to the plane, despite delaying the take-off till a minute before the airport closed (yes, this major German airport closes at night!); over 50 were left behind.

“I’m going to Istanbul!”

The subterfuge? I noticed that passengers for Turkey were being escorted through (there are a lot of Turks who work in Germany – at the airport too?). So I said I was going to Istanbul and in I went!

Then wonderful things began to happen. At the boarding gate I began to chat to a fellow passenger – clearly not British but speaking English extremely well. However, on the plane I saw that she was anxious to study a music manuscript so I left her alone. But as we arrived at Leeds/Bradford we began to chat again and I mentioned that I was lucky as I lived close by, and hopefully the buses would be running. She said she was being picked up by a friend, asked me the name of the place where I lived, and promptly telephoned her friend and asked whether I could be dropped off there. I was taken to my door.

In the car, remembering the music manuscript, I asked her what instrument she played. “The human voice”, she said. “And what is your name, so I can look out for your singing?”, I asked. “Helen Lepalaan”, she replied.

Now Helen Lepalaan (pictured above) is a wonderful Estonian mezzo soprano, and it turned out she was coming to sing with Opera North, in a production of Mozart’s ‘La clemenza di Tito’, a work of which I was unaware though I’ve been going to the opera for about 65 years. There were only two performances left in the season – the nearest in Manchester but I could not make that, the final one in Nottingham. So I determined to go.

Tito

I was not prepared for ‘La clemenza di Tito’. A stupendous production which belied what seemed at first to be a sparsely simple set with equally understated costumes. Without exaggeration, I was on the edge of my seat from start to finish, as gripped as in any episode of Spooks (a UK television ‘spy’ series). David Cameron would do well to watch it attentively. I can tell you it was the most exciting experience of opera since I saw Aida in Verona, elephants and all, or my first opera ever – Carmen with the Carl Rosa company, in Bradford over 60 years ago.

I’ve come to expect excellent voices from Opera North. It wasn’t always so. When I first began to go to their performances in the late 1970s I was often disappointed; I was used to the likes of Renata Tebaldi, Joan Sutherland and of course Maria Callas on my vinyl discs at home. I usually found the men even less satisfying – but with discs of recordings from Tito Gobbi to Robert Merrill and Jussi Bjoerling, and of course Pavarotti, at home that wasn’t surprising.

No such reservations now. The singing was superb and it was an odd satisfaction that the tenor Paul Nilon (Tito) is a fellow tyke; he comes from Keighley, a few miles from where I live now and where I went to school.

Sesto - the man that Helen becomes so convincingly, even to me

Sesto – the man that Helen becomes so convincingly, even to me

But I came to Nottingham to hear Helen Lepalaan. I had listened to a short clip of her singing on YouTube so her beautiful voice was no surprise; what was a surprise was her acting. Cast in the role of a man, despite the ‘affinity’ I felt I had with her having met her off stage, she just became Sesto.

He (she) has two wonderful arias, one in each act. What a pity there’s no recording of the production. I’d be listening to it again and again, especially these two arias.

Of course one of the great roles for a mezzo soprano is Carmen, for which not surprisingly I have a special fondness. Helen has played the principal role and you can hear her singing from it on the following clip.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GsyYYeSv0EU

So my disaster in Dusseldorf introduced me to a fascinating opera and a beautiful woman with a divine voice. I could live with that kind of disaster on a regular basis.

 

I am not by nature a city dweller, I much prefer rural life. However, it has been a real pleasure to return briefly to the city where I lived, and taught English, for several years in Romania. The city is Iasi (pronounced ‘Yash’ – in Romanian the ‘s’ has a comma under it, rather like a cedilla, and so has the sound ‘sh’), which is a major city in north east Romania with the country’s oldest University.

Fountain in the Palas Mal park, Iasi, with the Culture Palace museum in the background

One of the pleasures of living in Iasi was that artistic culture was very much alive and to share in it cost very little, but the downside was that many of the facilities were very run down. Today, many of the buildings are being renovated, some almost complete. The building in the background in the picture above is ‘Palatul Culturii’ (The Palace of Culture), in fact a museum. The Romanians cleverly allowed a developer to build an enormous shopping mall, together with a delightful park (pictured below), only on condition they undertook the renovation of the museum building, an enormous and incredibly costly project. It is now almost completed.

Entrance to the Palas Mal park, Iasi

When I visited the park, complete with carousel, it was full of families with young children, courting couples, older couples, all looking happy and contented in a green and colourful environment despite the severe drought which has made much of Romania look like a desert. (When I left Romania in 2004, this area was also a desert of waste ground). Looking up through the pierced copper roof of a cupola on a lake in the park, seeing the ‘biscuits’ stamped out from the sky, prompted my ‘sky biscuits’ picture haiku, posted on 3 August.

Carousel in the Palas Mal park, Iasi

Nearby is the church of St. Nicholas, which was renovated some year ago. It is the church in which I was married and where I went on many Sundays to listen to the magnificent choir, at Easter, and at Christmas to hear the wonderful Romanian carols.

St Nicholas's church, Iasi (Sf Nicolae Domnesc)

The ‘Filarmonica’ (Concert hall) was almost a ruin when I went every week throughout the ‘season’, a season ticket costing less than £30 for more than 20 concerts! Every five years this included all the Beethoven string quartets performed over several weeks by a magnificent Iasi quartet, ‘Voces’, whose playing reminded me of the renowned ‘Amadeus’ quartet (I have vinyl LPs of the complete cycle played by them at home in UK). Now the concert hall has been renovated and looks magnificent.

The 'Filarmonica' concert hall, Iasi, and poster advertising performances of Shakespear's 'Midsummer Night's Dream'

In the foreground of the Filarmonica a poster advertises Shakespeare – A Midsummer Night’s Dream – outside the nearby ‘Teatru National’ (‘national’ theatre), a smaller version of the theatre in Vienna but just as magnificent now that it is almost completely renovated.

Something which impressed me about Romanian high school pupils – 12 to 18 years old – when I lived here was that I could stop one at random in the street and ask them to quote me a line of Shakespeare and at least 9 in 10, probably 99 in 100, would do it flawlessly, often not one of the most quoted ones. What would the proportion be in the UK? I doubt better than 1 in a 100, if that.

The 'national theatre', Iasi, with street banner advertising opera

Another banner across the whole street outside the theatre advertises opera (and I do not have to remind opera lovers that one of the world’s leading ‘divas’ now – Angela Gheorghiu – is Romanian).

Talking of pupils, below is a picture of one of the three high schools at which I taught English in Iasi – Colegiul National which was founded in 1826 and remains one of the top two high schools in the city.

The 'National College', Iasi

It was becoming twilight when I reached Piata Unirii (Unity Square), which celebrates the unification of the different regions to become Romania in 1859 (Transilvania became a part of Romania in 1918). Dominating the square is another magnificent building – the Hotel Traian.

Grand Hotel Traian, Iasi, at twilight

Nearly ‘home’, I passed by what was the only antique shop in Iasi when I lived here – in what was in the distant past the city’s main street – Str. Lapusneanu. A model galleon in full sail sits in our living room back in the UK; I bought it in this shop, which lights up the wares in its window in the evening.

The antique shop window in Str. Lapusneanu, Iasi, in the evening

Buildings in this street are now being renovated and a gigantic protective cover reminds the people of Iasi what they have and need to protect, as said to them by one of the country’s most renowned historians, Nicolae Iorga, a superb writer, who was assassinated by fascists in 1940.

Protective cover over a building in renovation, with quote from Nicolae Iorga, Romanian historian

“These are our historic monuments, so many, from the beginning until 1850, so full of value both materially and in an historic sense, with their surroundings devasted, with everything destroyed, with the patina of age covering each, so varied and original in which is seen what they were. Where you see it, recognise it, respect it and raise them up, if you have the strength, from the ruin and disappearance”. (My translation, not perfect but hopefully adequate). Nicolae Iorga, 1871-1940.

It’s taken a long time but the rebirth has begun.

All these ‘snapshots’ were taken on a Panasonic GF1 with 14-42mm Lumix G ‘X’ lens. I may be able to get some C41 black and white film (Ilford XP2) developed and scanned here towards the end of next week, but colour and ‘conventional’ black and white will have to wait until I’m back in the UK.