Friday, May 28, 2010

Maria-Theresia Denkmal

The Maria-Theresia Monument in Vienna, which we visited on August 5 of last year.

Maria-Theresia (1717-1780) was the only female Habsburg monarch. In Austria, her reign and her person are recalled with great fondness to this very day.

The monument was erected in 1887, more than a century after Maria-Theresia’s death. Emperor Franz Josef was the moving force behind the monument.


Joshua and I will be off to Cleveland this afternoon for a long Memorial Day Weekend.

We shall hear the Cleveland Orchestra under Franz Welser-Most in Bruckner's Symphony No. 8, visit the Cleveland Museum Of Art, and explore two retired vessels: a Great Lakes freighter and a U.S. submarine that enjoyed heavy service in World War II.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Boston Is Not A Theater Town

Last weekend, Joshua and I attended a performance of Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” at Lyric Stage Company Of Boston.

The production was atrocious, not even arising to the level of community theater. Josh and I should have been appalled, but we were so busy giggling at the utter ineptitude of everything about the production and performance that we could not summon outrage.

Every player was miscast—each was too old, by decades, except for the Madame Arcati, who was too young—and the play was misdirected and poorly staged, two very different things. With reference to the former, the tone was wrong, the style was wrong, the artificiality of the play was not respected, the text was delivered with no panache or punch. With reference to the latter, the stage design was wrong, the costuming was wrong, the blocking was wrong, the ghostly apparitions failed to convince as they must. The whole enterprise was unbelievably bumbling.

I don’t think such a production would fly in Fargo. How can a large, seemingly sophisticated city such as Boston tolerate, even accept, such amateurish stage productions?

I wish I knew the answer to that question.

Boston is clearly not a theater town. Talented directors, designers and actors reside all over the country—and they certainly are giving Boston a wide berth. The level of theater production in Boston is several notches below the level routinely offered in Minneapolis or Washington, two cities in which I have devoted considerable attention to the work of resident theater companies.

My boss, who has lived in Boston for thirty years, tells me that the Boston theater problem is rooted in lack of money and lack of tradition.

First, Boston is a very poor city compared to Minneapolis or Washington.

Second, Minneapolis and Washington have long enjoyed well-funded flagship theater institutions—The Guthrie in the case of the former, Arena Stage in the case of the latter—that have served as the basis and set the tone for a flourishing theatrical scene now decades-old in each city. Boston has never enjoyed such an advantage—although the American Repertory Theater at one time was believed to be on its way to importance (but no more).

A production as bad as Lyric Stage Company Of Boston’s “Blithe Spirit” would set the city’s theatrical community abuzz in Minneapolis or Washington. Patrons would be complaining, Board members would be screaming for heads to roll, the local press would be having a field day.

In Boston, on the other hand, such productions are par for the course, and pass unnoticed.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Central Vienna

The very center of Vienna, which we visited in August of last year.

Another look at the center of Vienna, three days after the Anschluss.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Boston Ballet And Balanchine

Last weekend, Joshua and I went downtown to attend Boston Ballet’s all-Balanchine program.

Boston Ballet is in the midst of a rigorous series of performances.

In April, the company presented the full-length “Coppelia” over eleven days. After an eighteen-day break, the company offered its Balanchine program over eleven days. A Jiri Kylian program, also to be presented over eleven days, will immediately follow the Balanchine program (the Kylian program will begin tomorrow). Such an intense series of performances within the course of six weeks is assured to tax the strength of any company comprised of forty-some dancers.

The strenuous workload was on display Saturday night. The company made a game effort, but its display of Balanchine dancing lacked the virtuosity, precision and assurance often—but not always—to be seen at New York City Ballet.

The program was a splendid one.

“The Four Temperaments” began the evening, and received the strongest performance.

Saturday night was Josh’s third encounter with “The Four Temperaments”—we had previously caught performances by NYCB and San Francisco Ballet—and Josh decided, after his third viewing, that he liked the ballet after all. (Josh had hated “The Four Temperaments” the first time he saw it, and had more or less still disliked it after a second viewing.) For me, “The Four Temperaments” is the quintessential Balanchine ballet, the ballet that most captures and defines the “look” that was to become New York City Ballet and its exalted style of modern classicism.

“Apollo” was the second work on the program.

I have never seen “Apollo” come off—the ballet probably requires a type of “star” no longer produced—but it is possible to see the greatness of the ballet even in a weak performance. The Boston performance was tepid, with “student academy” written all over it. It was the least impressive “Apollo” performance I have ever witnessed. In his first encounter with “Apollo”, Josh was mostly indifferent, and a little bored.

“Theme And Variations” ended the evening.

The most overtly-virtuosic of the evening’s offerings, “Theme And Variations” always provides a smashing end to a program, even in a sub-par performance—which is exactly what Boston Ballet offered. The fun of the ballet came through, as did a glimpse of the dazzle, but the performance was sloppy and haphazard, and exposed deficiencies in the dancers’ techniques. Nevertheless, Josh loved seeing “Theme And Variations” for the first time. The work never fails to ignite.

I would hate to have to run a regional ballet company. New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre always absorb the finest dancers emerging from the academies. Other companies must sort through the leftovers.

Unlike musicians, dancers enjoy very short working lives. There is a very small pool of active virtuoso dancers at a given time, and that pool is soaked up by the giant New York companies.

Regional companies presenting Balanchine choreography, which ruthlessly exposes any and all technical shortcomings, engage in an inherently risky enterprise. Josh and I were pleased to see the local ensemble offer three seminal Balanchine works on one program—but we were also disappointed that the performances were not as fine (and not as sharp) as they might have been.

Josh and I have adopted a practice of catching Boston Ballet performances near the end of a run of performances (yet, whenever possible, catching the opening-night casts). We have done so on the assumption, perhaps mistaken, that performances become more confident during the course of a run.

For next season, we may have to reassess our assumption and review our practice. We are starting to wonder whether Boston Ballet dancers become tired during a run of performances, causing opening-night standards to deteriorate.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Et In Arcadia Ego

The Arkadian Mountains, through which we traveled on March 15.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Perhaps He Was In The Wrong Line Of Work?

We mounted Strauss's last opera, Capriccio, which gives the audience two hours of pedantic Viennese chatter before cutting loose at the end with fifteen minutes of gorgeous soprano singing.

Joseph Volpe

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


March 14, a day that began for us in Athens and continued with stops in Corinth, Mycenae and Epidaurus, ended in Nauplia. It was the busiest of our days in Greece.

Nauplia is a seaport town, known for fishing and shipping. With several splendid beaches, Nauplia is also a resort town, known for tourism, the town’s leading industry in recent years.

The town occupies a peninsula situated on the Argolic Gulf. Nauplia was occupied, for centuries, by Venetians and Ottomans. The Venetians and Ottomans fought over the port city for almost 400 years, passing the town back and forth between them until the collapse of The Venetian Empire. (France also controlled Nauplia from 1212 until 1388, using the port city as a way station during The French Crusades).

Centuries of Venetian and Ottoman rule are reflected in the town’s architecture, a mixture of Byzantine and Italian influences.

Nauplia, from 1829 until 1834, served as the first capital of independent Greece.

Towering over the town is an ancient fortress that protected the port city and guarded its waterways until modern times. The fortress, reputed to be one of the most fascinating on the European continent, now serves purely as a tourist attraction.

We did not attempt to visit the fortress.

We spent ninety minutes walking around the center of Nauplia, exploring the narrow streets, until we returned to our hotel to have dinner.

Nauplia struck us, most of all, as an Italian outpost set amongst Greek towns and villages.

Nauplia has charm to spare. Its charm probably accounts for the fact that the town is a popular vacation spot for Germans and Scandinavians (although we did not encounter any Northern Europeans during our stay) as well as a favored weekend destination for wealthy Athenians.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

The Concert Season

The Boston concert season is pretty much over for the year.

Joshua and I attended eight concerts this season, not a large number, and all were orchestral concerts. For some reason, we made it out to no recitals or chamber music events this year.

We heard the Boston Symphony on four occasions. We heard four other ensembles on one occasion each: The Handel And Haydn Society, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Leipzig Gewandhaus.

Over the course of the year, there were other concerts we considered attending, but we were unable to fit them into our schedules. We are in Boston to attend to business, not to attend concerts, and we have dutifully kept our priorities in order.

I most regret missing the Boston Symphony performances of Rossini’s Stabat Mater, a program we had planned to catch until we scheduled a trip to Greece for that period.

I also mildly regret skipping concerts by the New York Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic while we were in New York in January. We had elected to devote that particular long holiday weekend to theater performances and New York City Ballet—but, in hindsight, we might have been better off in the concert hall than on Broadway and in The New York State Theater.

Last weekend was the best weekend of the season for Boston music-lovers. There was an exceptional array of performances in the city, but we missed everything because Josh was in the middle of his exam period.

The Boston Symphony played Beethoven and Bartok under Haitink. The Handel And Haydn Society offered its best program of the season, an all-Bach program of exceptional interest. Boston Lyric Opera was in the midst of a run of performances of Mozart’s “Idomeneo”. Opera Boston was wrapping up its season with Offenbach’s “The Grand Duchess Of Gerolstein”. Baritone Thomas Quasthoff was in town for one of only two American recitals this season.

It was Quasthoff I most wish I had heard last weekend. He sang a wonderful program of Schubert, Martin and Brahms, including Martin’s Six Monologues From “Everyman” and Brahms’s Four Serious Songs, two of my very favorite song cycles.

I heard that the recital was stupendous.

Josh’s exams are now over, thankfully, so our “quiet period” has ended.

Next weekend, I think we will try to catch Boston Ballet’s season-ending all-Balanchine program.

Over Memorial Day Weekend, we shall travel to Cleveland to hear the Cleveland Orchestra play Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 under Welser-Most.

We may go twice—we could not find anything else interesting to do on the evenings we shall be in Cleveland.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Theater An Der Wien

On August 4 of last year, we attended a performance of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at Theater An Der Wien in Vienna. I wrote about that performance after we returned from our trip.

Theater An Der Wien, which opened in 1801, was one of the finest theaters of its age. It was the most lavish theater in Europe specifically constructed not as a preserve of the nobility but for the presentation of popular fare for a general audience. The theater was the personal project of impresario Emanuel Schikaneder, best known as librettist of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and originator of the role of Papageno.

Little of the original exterior of Theater An Der Wien remains. The theater has been altered and refurbished numerous times over the last two hundred years, most recently in 1999.

The current main fa├žade is entirely modern, although the restoration pays tribute to the spirit of Imperial Vienna.

Around the corner, on Millockergasse, a side street, may be observed a portion of the original exterior, the carriage entrance. This is the only part of the original exterior that has survived the many reconstructions and restorations.

The interior of Theater An Der Wien is a marvel, the very embodiment of the ideal of an opera house of the first half of the 19th Century. The theater is richly but not excessively adorned, and provides comfortable seating and excellent sightlines for 1000 patrons (the original capacity was 2000, much of which was in the form of standing room).

The original colors of the auditorium were blue and silver, the colors of red and gold having been reserved at the time for Imperial theaters. Other than the change of color scheme and the installation of modern seating, the auditorium remains much as it was in 1801.

Ludwig Von Beethoven was resident composer at Theater An Der Wien from 1803 until 1805. Indeed, Beethoven actually resided in the theater for much of that period.

The original version of “Fidelio” premiered at the theater, as did several Beethoven symphonies and concertos.

A long and distinguished list of classic Viennese operettas first saw the light of day at Theater An Der Wien, including Johann Strauss’s “Die Fledermaus” and Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow”.

Theater An Der Wien was closed as a theater venue shortly before the Anschluss. After Austria joined the Reich, the theater was requisitioned for use by Kraft Durch Freude (“Strength Through Joy”), the Nazi Party-sponsored labor movement that provided entertainment and holidays for the working classes.

The theater emerged from the war unscathed, and from 1945 until 1955 served as home of The Vienna State Opera while the Staatsoper building underwent post-war reconstruction.

Today, Theater An Der Wien once again serves as a full-time opera house, having recently expanded its season so as to offer twelve productions each year, one per month, within a strict stagione system. The productions receive worldwide critical coverage.

Friday, May 07, 2010

The Theater At Epidaurus II

The magnificent Theater At Epidaurus, the most beautiful and most perfect of Greek theaters, was planned and constructed in the last quarter of the Fourth Century B.C.

Splendidly and harmonically placed within its landscape, The Theater At Epidaurus is the world’s leading Classical amphitheater exemplar as well as the best-preserved Classical structure in Greece.

Designed by sculptor and architect Polyclitus The Younger (an attribution that has not gone unchallenged in modern times), the circular theater—hollowed out of the side of a hill—had 34 rows of seats when new. During The Roman Era, another 21 rows of seats were added, resulting in a theater that could accommodate almost 14,000 spectators. The uppermost rows on opposite sides of the seating circle are 350 feet across.

The theater is famed for more than its extravagant beauty and timeless proportions—the acoustics are miraculous. A whisper emitted from center stage may be heard throughout the entire seating area.

The special acoustical properties are the result of the limestone used for the seating. The limestone serves as filter for low frequencies while highlighting and reflecting high frequencies. Further, ridges and grooves on the limestone surfaces act as natural sound traps. The result is that audience murmur is minimized while speech from the stage is magnified and clarified. It is unknown whether the Greeks understood the scientific bases for the remarkable acoustical properties of their outdoor theaters.

The Theater At Epidaurus was in continuous use for almost 800 years. It was during the reign of Roman Emperor Theodosius, in the Fifth Century A.D., that use of The Theater At Epidaurus was discontinued.

Over succeeding centuries, the theater became covered with silt. The remains of the great structure were completely hidden from view until modern-day excavations were begun in 1881. It was not until 1963 that excavations were complete, and the theater could once again be used for performance.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Theater At Epidaurus

A bird's-eye view of the amazing Theater at Epidaurus, which we visited on March 14 and about which I plan to write soon.

Toynbee On Civilizations

Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.

Arnold J. Toynbee (1889-1975)