Monday, December 31, 2012

For The New Year

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose
Tate Britain, London

Oil On Canvas
69 5/8 Inches By 61 1/2 Inches


“Have you seen my Flora pass this way?”

“Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose.”

The lyrics of a sentimental 19th-Century parlor song provided Sargent with the title of one of his greatest masterworks.

Sargent worked on the canvas for fourteen months, always working at twilight in order to capture the precise light he needed. The painting is a technical marvel, portraying as it does both the natural light of dusk and the artificial light provided by lanterns. Only Pierre-Auguste Renoir, in both versions of his “Bal du moulin de la Galette”, was able to achieve anything comparable in blending natural and artificial light.

“Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” is almost always on display at Tate Britain, a museum notorious for keeping important paintings off-view. The painting is generally hung near or alongside the equally-riveting “Harmony In Grey And Green: Miss Cecily Alexander” by James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

It is ironic that the two greatest artists working in late-19th-Century Britain were Americans.

Both “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” and “Miss Cecily Alexander” were intensely criticized by the British art establishment when the paintings were new, largely because the paintings did not comport with the mawkish and colorless style favored by British painters of the period.

In the late 19th Century, British painting was as insufferably provincial as it is today—which is why one never sees Edwin Landseer, John Everett Millais or Luke Fildes paintings on museum walls outside the British Isles.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Boxing Day 1923

To this day, it is common to conduct hunts on Boxing Day.

Saint Stephen’s Day Pie

Today is Boxing Day, and Saint Stephen’s Day.

We made Saint Stephen’s Day Pie, not dissimilar to Cottage Pie or Shepherd’s Pie, except that leftover turkey and ham are used.

It turned out.


“Harlequinade”, George Balanchine’s only commedia dell’arte ballet, which the master created in 1965.

“Harlequinade” has always divided Balanchine devotees. Some view the work as an affectionate remembrance of the Mariinsky—and belated tribute to Marius Petipa—from Balanchine’s student days; others see “Harlequinade” as a failed reworking of a ballet that probably was not very good when first unveiled in 1900 by Petipa.

The ballet is not often staged, and performances offered subsequent to Balanchine’s death have been criticized across the board for failing to capture the spirit of the work. Perhaps only Balanchine himself knew how to realize the ballet’s magic.

I have never seen “Harlequinade”.

My parents saw “Harlequinade” once, many years ago, in a revival supervised by Balanchine himself. They do not recall the ballet with any special fondness.

What my parents remember most about that “Harlequinade” performance was a complicated Act II ensemble dance that included thirty or so child dancers, all appearing to be five years old—or younger. The child dancers had to perform very basic steps from the ballet vocabulary while circling the stage, and the second dancer in line completely stole the show, overdoing her steps to such an extreme, having the time of her life, that the New York City Ballet audience started applauding her every move.

At the conclusion of the number, the New York State Theater audience erupted as only a New York audience can, and would not allow the performance to continue until the tiny dancer was granted a solo bow.

My parents heard that the child dancer in question was replaced after that performance. Hers had been very un-Balanchine-like behavior.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Fatally Unfamiliar With The Concept Of Wit

The Guthrie Theater is currently presenting Carlo Goldoni’s 1743 commedia dell’arte masterpiece, “The Servant Of Two Masters”, in a production originally mounted at Yale Repertory Theatre and afterward presented at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company prior to the production’s arrival in Minneapolis.

“A Servant Of Two Masters” is the lone commedia dell’arte play that has survived into modern times; all other commedia dell’arte vehicles have fallen by the wayside (although the commedia dell’arte genre hangs on by a thread in the opera house and on the ballet stage).

I have not read the Goldoni, but persons familiar with the original text say there is virtually no Goldoni in the “Servant Of Two Masters” being served up to Guthrie audiences. The text in use on the Guthrie stage apparently is no more than ten per cent Goldoni, if that; the rest is pop-art filler, with much onstage adlibbing.

Whoever devised this production—the Guthrie program book states that the text in use was “adapted by Constance Congdon, further adapted by Steven Epp and Christopher Bayes, from a translation by Christina Sibul”—must have been of the belief that Goldoni cannot reach modern audiences unless presented as Saturday Night Live comedy skit. The result: the production was fatally unfamiliar with the concept of wit, on which all genuine comedy must be based.

The comedy in this production of “The Servant Of Two Masters” was broad comedy, and low comedy, and totally reliant upon references from 1970s television and the current pop-music scene. If one was not up-to-snuff on ancient episodes of “Sanford And Son” as well as the current goings-on of Beyoncé, one was lost as soon as the house lights darkened.

The adlibbing, in which the cast members had been encouraged, was gruesome—in comparison, standard courtroom repartee is a model of sparkling inventiveness and deserves to be chiseled in stone—and the “acting”, if one might call it that, was at a standard no one would tolerate at dinner theater in the Wisconsin Dells.

At the performance we attended, Saturday night before last, half the audience laughed uproariously while half the audience appeared to be attending a wake. There were numerous walkouts at intermission—and we should have been among the walkouts, as the second half was worse than the first half (and the play’s resolution was half an hour too long).

What was such unsophisticated fare doing onstage at The Guthrie? And who was responsible for importing this disaster? “The Servant Of Two Masters” was the most depressing thing I have seen, on any stage, for a very long time.

The production was so jarringly inept that it convinced me that The Guthrie needs to install new leadership as soon as possible—and that it is long past time for Joe Dowling to be shown the door, and the entire artistic leadership team booted. Dowling’s long reign at The Guthrie has been a financial success—but at the expense of dumbing-down virtually everything The Guthrie presents. Dowling’s artistic legacy, if he has one, is a coarsening of the repertory and a coarsening of the manner of presentation.

The Guthrie should, without delay, contact Nicholas Hytner at London’s National Theatre and ask Hytner to recommend someone from The National’s staff to lead The Guthrie. Hytner succeeded in getting an artistically-floundering National Theatre back on track within two years of his 2003 arrival; Hytner knows what needs to be done in such situations, and Hytner surely knows someone capable of engineering a turnaround at The Guthrie.

If The Guthrie does not do something along these lines, and soon, the institution is in danger of becoming irrelevant if not an embarrassment: nothing more than a commercial showcase for lowest-common-denominator fare.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Merry Christmas

A Christmas Card from the late 19th Century.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Berlin 1915

Ten months into the war, life goes on, street repairs and all, on Unter den Linden, Berlin’s most fashionable boulevard.

By 1916, the outlook in all three cities had darkened significantly, and the “normalcy” that is a feature of the 1915 photographs had all but disappeared.

London 1915

Once again, no suggestion of the disaster occurring across the English Channel is in evidence in The City, London’s financial district.

Paris 1915

From the photograph, one would never know that Paris was a city in wartime, under constant threat of invasion, with the front less than 100 miles from the city-center block on which rests the Paris Opera.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Stainless-Steel “Werther”

Lyric Opera Of Chicago’s “Werther”, with its stainless-steel unit set.

Werther himself remained in a cubbyhole at the front foot of the stage, imagining the opera’s events, while the opera was acted out above and behind him, using mimes as necessary.

As Werther fantasized about Charlotte, the heroine’s name was projected, in giant red letters, on the blank façade at the foot of stage left.

The mid-stage overhang projection represented “summer”. Each change of season was marked by a similar projection.

The piles of junk on stage right represented the belongings of Charlotte’s long-deceased mother.

Apparently no one had ever had an opportunity, despite the passing of many years, to cart away Charlotte’s mother’s junk.

Das Darf Nicht Wieder Vorkommen

The “Simon Boccanegra” performance we heard at Lyric Opera Of Chicago over Veterans Day Weekend had occurred on a Friday night. That night had been the final performance of the “Simon Boccanegra” run.

On Sunday of the same weekend, we attended a matinee performance of Lyric Opera Of Chicago’s presentation of Jules Massenet’s “Werther”. That afternoon’s had been the first in a run of “Werther” performances that ended earlier this month.

The conductor for “Werther” was, once again, Andrew Davis. Davis had single-handedly prevented “Simon Boccanegra” from coming to life, but he was nowhere near as lethal in “Werther”.

The score of “Werther” practically plays itself (“Werther” is the only Massenet opera of which this may be said). I have never heard a conductor fail in the work.

French nationality and French sensitivities are not requirements for succeeding on the “Werther” podium. As evidenced by numerous fine studio recordings, musicians of several nationalities have conducted worthy readings of the opera. English conductors have triumphed in “Werther” (Colin Davis), as have Italian conductors (Riccardo Chailly), Russian conductors (Vladimir Jurowski), American conductors (Kent Nagano), Czech conductors (Libor Pesek)—and countless French conductors, good and bad.

Only German conductors seem never to go near the piece. Although the opera’s first performance was in Vienna, the perception in German-speaking lands is that Massenet’s opera is more sugary confection than serious adaptation of Goethe—which, no doubt, is why German conductors have long ignored the work.

In Chicago, Davis was not actually good . . . but he was not destructive and he was not counterproductive. He did not kill the opera.

An ideal “Werther” conductor will offer clarity and elegance, and will personify the uniquely-French quality of objectivity: an objectivity that, peculiarly, suggests both utter indifference and underlying passion. An ideal “Werther” conductor will beguile the ear, bringing out Massenet’s bewitching orchestration and subtle-but-luscious harmonic scheme. An ideal “Werther” conductor will rise to the required dramatic outbursts of Acts III and IV without making those moments seem pasted-on, and not part of the whole.

Davis was not an ideal “Werther” conductor. He had the orchestra play the notes, and left it at that. It was the kind of performance one might hear in Düsseldorf under a house conductor: serviceable orchestra, serviceable leadership, distinction nowhere in evidence.

The Werther was Matthew Polenzani, who gave a finished and carefully-considered interpretation of the role. Polenzani’s acting was convincing. The role was congenial for his voice. He had thought long and hard about the role—or been very dutifully directed.

I was not moved once. Polenzani’s instrument is not sufficiently unique to carry a star role, and he has little stage presence. A very hard-working artist, Polenzani is a singer designed for secondary parts. He goes through all the motions with great dedication and commitment, but he lacks the unique timbre, sheer glamour of sound and individual artistry necessary for major roles in major houses.

The Charlotte was Sophie Koch, whom I disliked. Koch has sung Charlotte at the Paris Opera and at Covent Garden, establishing that others view Koch as a viable Charlotte. I found Koch’s voice thin and acidic—and of garden-variety quality. I thought her characterization was studied and artificial. It is possible we caught Koch on a bad day (many singers are not at their best for matinee performances). It is also possible that Koch is yet one more in a long line of undistinguished post-war French singers briefly taken up by the world’s major houses—and soon abandoned.

The Sophie and Albert were apprentice-level artists.

Given that the Chicago “Werther” was a new production (Chicago’s “Werther” was a co-production with San Francisco Opera, where the production had premiered in 2010), the casting was unimpressive if not unsatisfactory.

The physical production was not good.

The Werther remained in a small space at the bottom of a multi-level set while the action played out above and behind him. The audience was to believe that the story occurred in Werther’s imagination: others impersonated him, miming most scenes in which Werther was required to participate in the action, while Werther remained in his cubbyhole at the bottom of the designer’s frame, holding front and center stage.

The focus shifted in Acts III and IV: the climactic encounter between Werther and Charlotte was presented as Charlotte’s dream.

All of this rendered the opera nonsense. Did not the practice of staging an opera as someone’s dream or hallucination, always an unimaginative and tiresome device, go out of fashion by the late 1970s?

Stainless steel was the prevailing visual motif of an extremely unattractive and cheap-looking production. Numerous projections and videos were used, none of which contributed to the “look” of the production.

I doubt anyone in the auditorium took the production seriously, and I suspect the production will not be revived with any frequency.

In February, Minnesota Opera had offered a new production of “Werther”. James Valenti’s Werther had been superior to Polenzani’s simply because Valenti possessed the better instrument, Roxana Constantinescu’s miscast Charlotte might have sung Koch’s off the stage, and Christoph Campestrini’s light-but-elegant conducting had been far more stylish and idiomatic than Davis’s time-beating. Even the Minnesota Opera physical production, a silly Industrial Age “Werther”, had been more handsome and less ridiculous than what Lyric Opera Of Chicago presented.

My parents say they have experienced one excellent “Werther”, and only one—and from an unexpected source.

My parents caught the 1986 New York City Opera production when it was new. That production had featured lauded designs by Thierry Bosquet and stage direction by Lofti Mansouri. Mansouri’s direction, very conservative, had fully respected the period, and been accounted a success by most observers.

Jerry Hadley had sung Werther, and the greatly-undervalued Sergiu Comissiona had conducted the score.

My parents say that 1986 production had been an exceedingly beautiful “Werther”, and the finest thing they ever encountered at New York City Opera.

Of Chicago’s “Werther”, my father offered, long before the applause had died down: “Let there be no more of this.”

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Bellelli Family

Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
The Bellelli Family
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Oil On Canvas
79 Inches By 100 Inches

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Baillie Family

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788)
The Baillie Family
Tate Britain, London

Oil On Canvas
100 5/16 Inches By 90 15/16 Inches

Thursday, December 13, 2012

1911: The Hohenzollern Family

Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1911, pictured with only a few members of his enormous family.

The photograph captures two of the Kaiser’s children, one daughter-in-law and three grandchildren. The photograph was taken during the Kaiser’s annual summer sailing sojourn, and may be dated from the apparent ages of the grandchildren.

From left to right: Princess Viktoria Luise (1892-1980), seventh and youngest child—and only daughter—of Kaiser Wilhelm II; Duchess Cecilie Of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (1886-1954), wife of German Crown Prince William (not pictured) and known as The Crown Princess; Prince Hubertus Of Prussia (1909-1950), third son of The Crown Prince and The Crown Princess; Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941); Prince Wilhelm Of Prussia (1906-1940), first son of The Crown Prince and The Crown Princess; Prince Adalbert (1884-1948), third son of Kaiser Wilhelm II; and Prince Louis Ferdinand Of Prussia (1907-1994), second son of The Crown Prince and The Crown Princess.

Prince Wilhelm Of Prussia took part in Germany’s 1940 invasion of France, and died as a result of injuries received in battle. His death aroused great public sympathy—and caused Hitler, who feared a threat to his power, to issue an order barring all members of former German royal houses from serving in the military.

Prince Wilhelm Of Prussia was once second in line to the Hohenzollern throne; both his grandfather and father outlived him.

As may be seen in the photograph, Prince Adalbert was an exceedingly handsome young man. In fact, all six of the Kaiser’s sons were exceedingly handsome as young men, as countless photographs attest. They certainly did not get their looks from their father: even as a young man, Kaiser Wilhelm II could never be considered genuinely handsome. Their mother, too, never presented an especially striking appearance, if photographs depict her accurately.

Yet all six sons were absolute head-turners—and exceedingly well-raised, and exceedingly well-behaved, if contemporary accounts are true. Kaiser Wilhelm II must have been a very good father—despite the fact that his own father had been a conspicuous horror.

Prince Adalbert’s wedding ceremony—he married Princess Adelheid Of Saxe-Meiningen (1891-1971)—was, oddly, held on August 3, 1914, the very day Germany declared war on France.

Perhaps even odder: the wedding ceremony of Prince Adalbert’s only son, Prince Wilhelm Victor (1919-1989), was held on July 20, 1944, the day of the attempted assassination of Hitler.

1916: The Romanov Family

The Romanov Family (without Alexandra) in 1916, two years into the war.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

"They Shall Not Pass"

French marines at Verdun, 1916.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Dining Room Of The “Hindenburg”

The dining room of the Zeppelin Company’s passenger airship, the “Hindenburg”.

The Moshinsky Production

The well-traveled Elijah Moshinsky production of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra”, a production seen all over the world since its premiere at Covent Garden in 1991.

It strikes me as odd that such an undistinguished production should prove to be so long-lasting, and in such demand by regional companies everywhere.

I suspect that companies, for cost reasons, prefer to rent the Moshinsky production rather than create their own “Boccanegra”. Little more than a few columns, the Moshinsky production is spare and simple, and probably fits into two shipping containers.

Renting the Moshinsky production represents a budgetary concession—most companies do not present “Boccanegra” often enough to warrant having their own productions—more than a judgment about the production’s artistic merit.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Seeking Mommsen

Verdi’s 1881 revision of “Simon Boccanegra” contains the composer’s most sophisticated part-writing for strings. In no other Verdi work—including the Requiem—are the parts for violas, cellos and basses so intricate and so subtle, and play such a vital role in the opera’s realization.

Lower strings carry much of the musical argument in “Boccanegra”. They are intended to recreate in sound the special light of Genoa, darker and more diffuse than in most of Italy, and they are meant to evoke the ever-deepening gloom that pervades the opera after its brilliant—and deceptive—Act I conclusion.

Despite being required to produce a dark coloration, the strings in “Boccanegra” must be extremely transparent and translucent—because, in addition to their other burdens, the strings are called upon to represent the sea. Everything from stormy gales to sunset-laden calm is in the score, and the strings must create an amazing number of muted colors and varied textures for a performance of “Boccanegra” to be satisfying.

From an orchestration standpoint, “Boccanegra” is Verdi’s subtlest and most learned score—and the most difficult to realize. Only a great orchestra, with a great string section, under a great conductor, can bring “Boccanegra” alive. I would love to hear the score played by the Cleveland Orchestra under Franz Welser-Möst—“Boccanegra” is, I believe, the one Verdi opera that would play to Welser-Möst’s strengths—and I would love to hear it played by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly.

Over Veterans Day Weekend, we attended a performance of “Boccanegra” at Lyric Opera Of Chicago, with Andrew Davis in the pit.

Davis is not a Verdi conductor, and the orchestra of Lyric Opera Of Chicago is no more than a serviceable ensemble, so we did not hear “Boccanegra” under ideal conditions (and we had not expected to).

The casting, however, was a different matter. Chicago had assembled a cast worthy of the Wiener Staatsoper—in fact, I believe all principal singers in Chicago’s “Boccanegra” have appeared at one time or another in the very same roles in Vienna—and we were pleased to hear an international-level cast in an opera we do not expect to witness in Minneapolis any time soon.

Thomas Hampson was the Boccanegra. Hampson does not have the right tinctura for Verdi, and his voice has lost most of its bloom, yet he gave a serious and admirable performance of the Doge—if one could get beyond Hampson’s fundamental phoniness.

I have never been a Hampson admirer. Hampson suffers from a pronounced narcissistic streak that I find off-putting; his narcissistic streak is always in evidence, more so even on the stage than on the concert platform. Hampson’s relentless onstage posing has always rubbed me the wrong way, and I prefer to hear him as little as possible. Hampson’s card-trick assortment of Boccanegra poses in Chicago was from the same book of playacting as his Onegin poses, which I have experienced twice at the Metropolitan Opera, in 2002 and 2009, as well as his Renato poses in “Ballo”, which I endured at Covent Garden in 2005. I suspect Hampson must study D.W. Griffith movies in his spare time.

The other principal singers were much more satisfying.

Ferruccio Furlanetto, probably the reigning Fiesco of our day, gave the most accomplished performance of the evening. Furlanetto’s voice is right for the part, he understands Verdi’s music at a deep level, he knows how to present the text and he knows how to present a character in the theater with dignity and conviction. Furlanetto is a most valuable and admirable artist.

Frank Lopardo sang Adorno. Lopardo does not possess a glamorous tenor voice, and many persons are not taken by his voice or his artistry. I thought Lopardo was perfectly acceptable if not necessarily winning. One must be mindful that the role of Adorno will not, as a general rule, attract high-fee, star tenors—unless a major house such as La Scala mounts a major new production and intends to televise the production throughout Europe. Absent such conditions, Lopardo was about as good as anyone has a right to expect in the role.

Adorno’s arias are the only portions of the 1857 version of the score that Verdi did not revise; the composer left Adorno’s arias unchanged, not even bothering to reharmonize and reorchestrate them so as to make them consistent with the rest of the 1881 revision. As a result, Adorno’s arias stand out from the rest of the score—and not in a positive sense.

The Amelia was Krassimira Stoyanova, whom I very much liked. Stoyanova has amazing color in her voice, not necessarily an advantage in “Boccanegra”, where Amelia is called upon above all to ride the ensembles and otherwise more or less to remain out of the way. I very much respond to dark, smoky, luxuriant Eastern European voices such as Stoyanova’s, and I responded heartily to Stoyanova’s Amelia—but I can understand why many others prefer a purer, more lyrical voice in the role of Amelia.

An array of voice types has been successful as Amelia. Victoria de los Angeles, Mirella Freni, Kiri Te Kanawa and Angela Gheorghiu, among many others, have triumphed in the part. The role allows a wide variety of weight and coloration.

The physical production of “Boccanegra” used in Chicago had been borrowed from The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. It was the Elijah Moshinsky production, devised in 1991 for Georg Solti. The production has been frequently revived in London in the last two decades, reappearing in 1995, 1997, 2002, 2004 and 2010—and scheduled to make yet another appearance next summer. (The production has also been loaned to other companies; earlier this year, it appeared in Los Angeles.) Moshinsky was on hand personally to guide the Chicago presentation.

There was nothing bizarre or offensive about the physical production, yet I cannot say it was particularly imaginative or telling. I have never seen anything directed by Moshinsky that made me think he was an important director—and the Chicago “Boccanegra” did not cause me to change my mind. In the middle 1970s, Moshinsky was viewed as a director with great promise; within twenty years, he was viewed as a director largely washed out. I would characterize Moshinsky’s “Boccanegra” production as from his Early Washed-Out Period (as opposed to his Late Washed-Out Period, which is far worse). However, I acknowledge that many persons over the years have admired this particular production, especially when it was new—although just as many persons wrote it off on day one.

Michael Yeargan’s stage design was not handsome, but it was not cluttered or cumbersome. It allotted plentiful open space for large numbers of performers to move on and off the stage—there is a large chorus in “Boccanegra” that comes and goes with more than a little frequency—and it allowed the big public moments of the opera to “tell”.

The costumes were rich and colorful from afar; as soon as one examined them through field glasses, one could see that materials and construction were cheap.

The most overtly dramatic moment of the opera is the great Council Scene that ends Act I. The final two acts depict psychology more than action—the listener is treated to a succession of intimate portraits of Boccanegra, Fiesco and Amelia, all offered amid mounting gloom and despair.

The opera ends with the death of Boccanegra. Before dying, he has resolved his decades-long battle with Fiesco, and arranged for what he believes will be a happy life for Amelia.

The ending is profoundly sad. It is, I believe, the saddest—as well as the greatest—ending of any Verdi opera. The work ends very softly, with the strings portraying the gentle lapping of water against the shores of Genoa as the sun recedes and all sounds die away. This moment represents Boccanegra’s death, and it is both solemn and tender—and deeply moving.

None of this came across in the Chicago production. Conductor and orchestra were unable to bring the opera to a fitting conclusion—any more than conductor and orchestra were able to realize and sustain the psychological narrative and tension of the final two acts, both of which passed without incident or interest.

The Chicago “Boccanegra”, excellent cast aside, was the kind of “Boccanegra” one encounters in third-tier European houses such as Frankfurt or Tolouse: one is always glad that the house made the effort, but one is generally disappointed that the performance did not rise to a higher level, most often because conductor and orchestra were inadequate to the task at hand.

If Furlanetto and Stoyanova had not been in the Chicago cast, I might have had trouble sitting through the thing.

Joshua was bored out of his mind. At the conclusion of Act I, he announced he was going to circulate among the crowd at intermission, and inquire whether anyone was carrying a copy of Mommsen—any volume—so that he might borrow it for the rest of the evening. (My father was thoughtful enough to point out that Chicago’s was an opera audience that not only did not read Mommsen, but had never even HEARD of Mommsen.)

Josh’s sister was mildly intrigued by “Boccanegra”, generally finding something to listen to or to look at. She did not truly enjoy the opera, but she was pleased that she had attended the presentation.

My parents expressed disappointment in the performance and production.

My parents say the finest opera performance they have ever witnessed was a performance of “Simon Boccanegra” they attended before I was born. In 1976, they caught a performance of the legendary Giorgio Strehler production, with equally-legendary designs by Ezio Frigerio, that had been mounted for La Scala in 1971—and brought to the U.S. five years later in La Scala’s only visit to America. Claudio Abbado had been the conductor that night, and Piero Cappuccilli had been the Boccanegra. My parents say they never experienced anything similar before or since; it was the signal opera event of their lives. They are still talking about that “Boccanegra” thirty-six years later.

I doubt, thirty-six years from now, anyone will remember this year’s Chicago “Boccanegra”.

However, thirty-six years after the fact, people everywhere still listen to the Abbado studio recording of “Boccanegra”, made only a few months after La Scala embarked on its historic visit to North America.

About a month before the Chicago “Boccanegra” performance, we listened to the Abbado recording again, mostly so that Josh could familiarize himself with the work.

That may have been a mistake.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

A Call To Arms

British war posters from The Great War were quite poor.

As graphic art, they were deplorable. As political documents, they were crude if not outrageous in the sentiments they expressed. Nothing comparable was produced in France, Germany or Russia for the duration of the war.

Well into World War I, Britain had a serious problem encouraging able-bodied men to join the armed forces. Once again, Britain was alone in this regard. The same problem was not experienced in France, Germany or Russia.

Only the imposition of a draft was to ease Britain’s manpower problems—and Britain waited until the war was well underway before implementing a draft. The government delayed a draft as long as feasible because it believed the populace might reject such a mechanism—and the government feared outright insurrection.

The role of zeppelins in World War I was not unduly prominent. There were several zeppelin bombing raids on London, but the raids carried more psychological impact than prospect of significant damage.

The money Germany spent on its zeppelin force far outweighed the monetary damage caused by German raids on London. The ratio has been adjudged to be at least two-to-one, and perhaps as high as four-to-one—the very opposite of what such a ratio should have been.

The zeppelin campaign was a complete waste of German resources, as the Germans themselves came to realize long before the war had run its course.

Friday, December 07, 2012


The immediate aftermath of The Battle Of Antietam, with dead Union and Confederate soldiers lying together on one of many Antietam battlefields.

September 17, 1862, was the bloodiest day in U.S. military history, with 23,000 dead, wounded or missing. The Union suffered a 25% casualty rate at Antietam; the Confederacy suffered a 31% casualty rate at Antietam. Six generals, three on each side, lost their lives, the largest number of generals ever lost by the U.S. in a single battle.

Tactically, The Battle Of Antietam was a draw.

However, at the time, The Battle Of Antietam was viewed by the Union as a defeat. General McClelland—with overwhelming advantages in weaponry and manpower—was seen as too timid and too cautious to deliver a crippling blow to General Lee’s forces. Such view was certainly held by Abraham Lincoln: in early November, Lincoln relieved McClelland of his command of The Army Of The Potomac, a move that ended McClelland’s military career.

Over time, that contemporary view of the battle has changed. Many now view The Battle Of Antietam as a strategic victory for Union forces: it resulted in Lee making a hasty retreat back to Virginia (all the while astonished that Union forces were not bearing down upon his flank), while McClelland stood firm, ready to deal with Confederate forces the next time Lee attempted an invasion of the North.

In that sense, The Battle Of Antietam was a 19th-Century equivalent of The Battle Of Jutland.

During World War I’s only significant naval engagement, neither British nor German forces won an outright victory—but The Royal Navy scared The High Seas Fleet back into port for the remainder of the war, rendering The Battle Of Jutland a strategic British victory.

In 1916, however, the British government and the British people did not see the outcome that way. At the time, Jutland was viewed as a tactical defeat for The Royal Navy—anything less than delivering a knockout blow to the Kaiser’s fleet was interpreted as lack of success. It was not until long after the war that historians adopted the judgment that Britain had won The Battle Of Jutland: after all, it was The Royal Navy that had stood firm, and wanted to continue the fight, while it was The High Seas Fleet that had decided it could not win, and made an unceremonious retreat.

I visited Antietam a few years ago.

When I was in law school, my middle brother would generally come visit me once a semester. On one of his visits, we drove up to Antietam from Washington, and spent a day exploring Antietam National Battlefield.

It was sacred ground we visited that day—so sacred, it was hard for us to utter words.

The building in the photograph is a church.

The church still stands today—and looks exactly as it did in 1862.

The Original Marks And Company

The original Marks And Company, at 84 Charing Cross Road, in a photograph taken in the very late 1960s, shortly before the antiquarian bookseller was to close its doors forever.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

“The Sir Roger De Coverley Papers”

Last Friday evening, we attended a performance of "84 Charing Cross Road", James Roose-Evans’s stage adaptation of Helene Hanff’s slim 1970 bibliophile memoir, at Theatre In The Round.

Theatre In The Round is the oldest theater company in the Twin Cities. Theatre In The Round will celebrate its 60th birthday next month; it predates The Guthrie by ten years.

We enjoy attending performances at Theatre In The Round. The theater is intimate—and Theatre In The Round will frequently offer works ignored by other local companies. Theatre In The Round is prone to present French plays (otherwise never staged in town), British plays ignored by The Guthrie (only Theatre In The Round welcomes the plays of Simon Gray), and forgotten 1950s plays (in which the company seems to have forged a specialty). If one is to catch a William Douglas-Home or Jean Anouilh play in the Twin Cities, it will always be at Theatre In The Round.

The version of “84 Charing Cross Road” presented at Theatre In The Round was Roose-Evans’s revised version of the play, prepared in 2007. Roose-Evans’s original 1981 version, a staggering hit in the West End but a major flop on Broadway, had been a two-character vehicle. The author’s 2007 revision is a much-expanded version of the 1981 original—the play has been enlarged to eight characters—and bears more than a little resemblance to Hugh Whitemore’s 1987 screenplay for the Anne Bancroft-Anthony Hopkins film.

We enjoyed the performance. The production was a good one, and the cast was quite fine.

“84 Charing Cross Road” is very small-scale fare, without theme, without profile, without staying power. It is, however, a pleasant and intimate look into a warm, 20-year, trans-Atlantic friendship, a friendship based upon England’s long and distinguished literary history. I have experienced worse pastimes.

“84 Charing Cross Road” is the only play I know that includes a reference to “The Sir Roger De Coverley Papers”—and that distinction, alone, sets the play apart from anything else written for the stage in the last hundred years.


When we go to the theater, it is most often on a Friday night. Since Joshua and I and my middle brother all work downtown, it is easy for us to meet up somewhere after work on Fridays, have dinner, and go see a play.

My parents, as a general rule, go hear the Minnesota Orchestra on Friday nights. The Minnesota Orchestra, unlike the Minnesota Legislature, is no longer in session, so my parents joined us on Friday for “84 Charing Cross Road”. It was a nice evening out for them; they enjoyed the performance.

This coming weekend is Christmas Tree Weekend. Early Saturday morning, we shall go to the nursery and pick out two Christmas trees, one for my parents and one for my older brother’s family.

Saturday afternoon will be devoted to decorating my brother’s family’s tree. Sunday afternoon will be devoted to decorating my parents’ tree. For my niece and nephew, it will be two consecutive days of fun, pre-holiday excitement and celebration.

A celebration of a different sort will be held on Sunday night.

My niece will be four years old on Sunday. We shall convene her birthday celebration once the tree is trimmed.

One of her birthday presents is a hard-to-locate copy of “The Sir Roger De Coverley Papers”—but please don’t tell her, as we would like the gift to be a surprise.


Josh’s sister will arrive a week from Saturday. She will stay with Josh and me throughout the holidays—except all three of us will go to Oklahoma for a week at Christmas.

We are not confident we can offer much to amuse her. We plan to take her to The Guthrie Theatre to see a performance of Carlo Goldoni’s “The Servant Of Two Masters” and we plan to take her to the Minneapolis Institute Of Arts to see the Terracotta Warriors Exhibition from China (which Josh and I have already visited).

Otherwise there is not much on in town.

To provide Josh’s sister with some entertainment, we may have to resort to reading aloud from “The Sir Roger De Coverley Papers”.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Monks Along The River Arno

Alfred Eisenstaedt’s “Monks Along The River Arno”, a photograph taken in Florence in 1935.

On Aspiration

If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it in port forever.

Thomas Aquinas

Monday, December 03, 2012

A Masterful Exploration Of Line, Plane And Color

Paul Cézanne (1839–1906)
Un Coin de Bois, Pointoise
Private Collection

Oil On Canvas
26 Inches by 22 7/8 Inches


This breathtaking canvas rewards hours and hours of study. It is my mother’s favorite Cézanne painting—and mine as well.

The painting, among other things, is a masterful exploration of line and plane—as well as color.

The painting is mysterious, moody, menacing—and totally gripping and completely hypnotic.

The painting is also beautiful beyond description—and beautiful from any distance.

Cézanne began work on the canvas in 1875, in the Paris suburb of Pointoise. He completed the painting the following year.

The painting’s first public appearance was at the Third Impressionist Exhibition, held in 1877 at 6 Rue Le Peletier near the old Opéra-Comique. (The Opéra-Comique was to burn to the ground ten years later during a performance of Ambroise Thomas’s “Mignon”. Cézanne was in the theater the night of the fire, but survived the disaster—unlike 84 persons, who perished that night.)

Cézanne’s painting did not find a buyer at the Third Impressionist Exhibition. After the exhibition had closed, the painting was consigned to Durand-Ruel, who maintained the canvas in the Durand-Ruel inventory for many years until a buyer could be found. (Such was not at all unusual for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artworks. Many such works remained in the Durand-Ruel inventory for decades—Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s legendary “Luncheon Of The Boating Party”, painted in 1881, remained in the Durand-Ruel inventory until 1923, when it was finally sold to Duncan Phillips.)

Cézanne’s painting has always been privately owned; it has never been the property of a public collection or public institution. Since the painting first left the Durand-Ruel inventory more than 110 years ago, there have been only three sale transactions and four owners.

Oddly, each time the painting has changed hands, it has been sold under a different name. The painting has been known—and sold—as: A Corner Of The Woods, Pointoise; Orchard, Cote Saint-Denis, at Pointoise; and Oxen Hill.

The painting was loaned in 2005 to the Museum Of Modern Art in New York for the exhibition, “Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne And Pissarro”, one of the most important exhibitions in recent MOMA history. At the MOMA exhibition, the Cézanne painting was hung next to a Camille Pissarro canvas of the very same scene painted at the very same time. Pissarro’s treatment of the scene was entirely conventional, especially when seen alongside the Cézanne, a work of genius.

When the 2005 MOMA exhibition traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum Of Art and Musée d'Orsay, this particular Cézanne did not travel with the exhibition. The painting had been loaned solely for the MOMA showing; another Cézanne painting had to be substituted for the Los Angeles and Paris venues.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

An Original

He still holds everyone’s respect more than thirty years after bursting upon the national scene. I can think of no other athlete of which this is true.

He was always true to himself, he was always true to his family, he was always true to the sport, and he was always true to the fans.

The man was sui generis.

His like will not come again.

For his sake, I am pleased that his retirement has been so fulfilling and so productive. He knew what he wanted to do after he left the game—and he went out and fulfilled a second dream.

Such good fortune could not have happened to a nicer guy.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

The Great Richter

The great Sviatoslav Richter, sitting with Leonard Bernstein backstage at Carnegie Hall in 1960.

In a career lasting more than fifty years, Richter made only three tours of the United States.

Despite the fact that Richter made it to the American Midwest on each of his U.S. tours, Richter never appeared in Minneapolis.

Richter’s first U.S. tour, in 1960, was his most extensive. Richter gave numerous concerts and recitals all over the country that year—and created a furor.

Richter returned to the U.S. in 1965 for a much more limited series of concerts and recitals.

Richter’s final U.S. appearances were in 1970.

One of Richter’s 1970 New York recitals was picketed by protesters, who were asserting grievances not against Richter but against the Russian government. Richter was insulted by the picketing—he had never been a supporter of Russia’s government in the least (in fact, his father had been shot by the regime)—and he vowed never to return to the U.S.

Richter kept his word. For the final 27 years of his life, Richter never again was to step upon U.S. soil.

One odd fact about Richter’s career: from 1960 onward, Richter gave far more concerts in the West than in Russia, where his appearances were few and far between. Richter especially liked playing in France and Italy, and the Russian government fully accommodated Richter, allowing him to give as many concerts and recitals in Western Europe as he wished.

Such practice was in stark contrast to other Russian artists, including even the loyal Emil Gilels, whose foreign appearances were very constricted. Most Russian musicians were allowed out of the country only infrequently—if at all.

It is interesting to speculate why the Kremlin granted Richter such freedoms. The Kremlin knew that Richter hated the Russian government—and yet Richter, alone of all Russian musicians, was more or less allowed to come and go as he pleased.

Some persons contend that Yekaterina Furtseva, onetime Soviet Minister Of Culture (and, for a period, member of the Politburo), was responsible for the special privileges granted to Richter. I have never bought that argument, as Furtseva was a foolish and vicious woman, eager to keep artists under her thumb—and, in any case, an authority higher than Furtseva would have been required to give Richter the carte blanche he enjoyed.

My belief is that Nikita Khrushchev, for whatever reason, viewed Richter as a law unto himself, and ordered that Richter be permitted to play when and where he chose—and, after Khrushchev fell from power, that Alexei Kosygin, who possessed some liberal tendencies, served as Richter’s Kremlin protector.

No other scenario makes sense.

“Clotted Cream On The Cusp Of Curdling” Or “Sight-reading Reger”

My father remarked a few days ago that Rudolf Firkušný, were he alive today and in his prime, would be the world’s finest pianist.

Half a century ago, when Firkušný was at the peak of his powers, Firkušný had trouble obtaining prestigious engagements—and no one on the planet believed Firkušný to be among the handful of finest living keyboard artists.

Firkušný’s artistry was never in doubt. The problem was that, during Firkušný’s active years, he was superseded by artists possessing greater gifts and greater magnetic force. All such artists had something special to offer, something unique that Firkušný lacked, whether it be temperament, personality, imagination, more penetrating musicianship or virtuosity. Figures such as Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, Wilhelm Kempff, Wilhelm Backhaus, Claudio Arrau, Rudolf Serkin, Arthur Rubenstein, Vladimir Horowitz and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli were all considered occupants of a class of pianism above Firkušný’s.

Firkušný simply got lost amid all the great keyboard talents of his time. An estimable pianist, Firkušný could not compete in a market overrun with legendary figures.

Over the last fifty years, the giants of pianism have died—and they have not been replaced. A figure such as Firkušný, never in the top flight of pianists during his lifetime, would today tower over virtually every living pianist.

My father’s point was not to advocate raising Firkušný to the pantheon—my father adored Firkušný, but my father was well aware that several of Firkušný’s peers were far greater artists—but to note how unimpressive is today’s supply of pianists.

We do not live in an age of pianism. As always, there happens to be a very large number of touring virtuosos traveling the globe—but most are not worth hearing on a frequent basis. They are, with few exceptions, uninteresting, lacking individuality and distinguishing characteristics.

My father’s dictum was inspired by a piano recital—more accurately, half of a piano recital—we attended a week ago Tuesday night.

Onstage at The Ordway Center was Stephen Hough in a Schubert Club recital, playing for an audience that was very small. Never have I attended a Schubert Club recital with such a large number of unoccupied seats—which signified that many Schubert Club subscribers had stayed home.

Those who missed the recital missed nothing.

The first half of the recital consisted of two Chopin Nocturnes and Brahms’s Piano Sonata No. 3. The second half of the recital—which we, along with approximately sixty other concertgoers who left at the same time we did, decided to skip—consisted of a composition by the recitalist followed by Schumann’s Carnaval.

Hough has good fingers—but he has nothing else in his arsenal.

Hough is the most commonplace of pianists. He has no singular touch, he draws no unique sound from his instrument, he does not explore the instrument’s sonority. His music-making lacks individuality, character, personality, temperament—and grace and charm (if an artist has no other qualities, grace and charm can make up for a lot). Hough demonstrated no emotional range or conviction in the Chopin, he exhibited no grasp of the intellectual demands of the Brahms.

The Brahms was a true disaster. “Clotted cream on the cusp of curdling” was my mother’s description of Hough’s Brahms, and my mother was correct. Textures were thick and crude, rhythms were unsubtle and machinelike, drama and lyricism were absent, tension was intermittent, the pianist exhibited no emotional depth. Hough demonstrated, over and over, that he did not understand Brahms’s counter-rhythms and Brahms’s counterpoint.

The entire performance, I remained clueless why Hough had programmed Brahms’s greatest contribution to the piano-sonata form. In Hough’s hands, the Brahms sounded formless, poorly-constructed, with page after page of weak and uninteresting musical argument—just the opposite of the work’s most pronounced qualities. Said my father of Hough’s Brahms, “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear he was sight-reading Reger.”

Given the first half of the recital, we were unable to countenance sitting through the second half. We had no interest in hearing Hough as composer, and the Chopin and Brahms had demonstrated amply that Hough lacked the poetry and sensitivity necessary to make the Schumann worthwhile.

When we departed at intermission, we noticed that two renowned piano instructors in the Twin Cities were leaving at the very same time, heading out of the building as fast as they could walk, as if escaping a fire. We heard one of them say to the other, “typical British pianist”, which I doubt was intended as a compliment.

I suspect The Schubert Club put Hough on this season’s subscription because his fees are low. The Schubert Club will present only one high-fee artist this season—Anne-Sophie Mutter, whose fee is astronomical—and the rest of the artists on this year’s schedule are very much drawn from the low-budget lists circulated by the various agencies.

Although Hough is not worth hearing, there ARE up-and-coming pianists who carry more than a little promise. Daniil Trifonov, for one, is arousing great excitement throughout Europe. Trifonov is scheduled to make his Twin Cities debut early next year. We have tickets, and we are excited at the prospect of hearing Trifonov.

Another pianist attracting great acclaim in Europe is Simon Trpčeski.

This very weekend, Trpčeski had been scheduled to make his Minneapolis debut. His local appearance was cancelled because of ongoing labor troubles at the Minnesota Orchestra.

Trpčeski was supposed to have played the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2. I cannot stand the music of Rachmaninoff and I generally avoid it—but I would have made an exception this weekend in order to hear Trpčeski.

This weekend’s Minnesota Orchestra program was one of only six during the entire 2012-2013 season that Joshua and I had contemplated attending. Andrew Litton was to have been on the podium. In addition to the Rachmaninoff, the program was to have included Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 7 and Stravinsky’s 1919 “Firebird” Suite.

I regret not hearing Trpčeski.