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Thursday, July 11, 2019

Ave Maria Day at Lourdes

Lourdes is a small market town lying in the foothills of the Pyrenees in France. It lies at an elevation of 420 m and in a central position through which runs the fast-flowing river Gave de Pau. Every year, Lourdes is visited by millions of pilgrims, they come to see the site of a famous vision experienced by a young girl called Bernadette Soubirous.

Pilgrims may visit to be cleansed of their sins and to be cured of their illnesses. It is believed that spring water from the grotto can heal people if they are sick. Millions of visitors come to Lourdes each year in the hope of being cured. The one of the reasons for pilgrims to go to Lourdes, is to bathe in the spring water, to be fully immersed into the bath and drink the water for cleansing and healing. The bath is a symbol of baptism and also strengthening the faith of the pilgrims.

The history began on 11th  February 1858, as Bernadette Soubrirous, a 14-year-old local girl, went out with her sister Toinette, and a friend Jeanne, to fetch firewood near the local grotto.  Suddenly, a lady appeared to her in a brilliant white dress tied with a blue ribbon; her body was covered with a long white veil that fell to her feet. This lady later identified herself as "the Immaculate Conception" which is an attribute of Santa Maria.

Santa Maria then appeared 18 times to Bernadette, and on 25th February She asked the girl to dig up a spring of water where none had been found before. Santa Maria told her “Go and drink at the Spring and wash yourself there”.  Even though this area was muddy, the next day, the ground flowed with clear water. Almost immediately cures were reported from drinking the water, and since then many people were cured by applying or drinking the water. The Spring water of Lourdes became popular because of the miracles associated with it.

What is particularly striking to the casual visitor is the number of sick and disabled people present in Lourdes. All those traumatised by life may find a certain degree of comfort in Lourdes. Officially, 80,000 sick and disabled people from many countries come to Lourdes each year. Despite their wounds or disabilities, they feel they are in a haven of peace and joy.


Sunday, June 30, 2019

An Interview with Giuseppe

I was lucky to be granted an interview by Giuseppe, as he was known as an intensely private man, who regards journalists, biographers, as well as his neighbors in Busseto, as intrusive people, against whose prying attentions he needed to protect himself.  So I guessed that I got the interview because he considered me as a not so well-known journalist, not a nosy and gossipy type, therefore I could not do any harms. But still I thought that in any case I must be careful not to ask too deep questions about his personal affairs.

So following the appointment, I met him after the opera performance of Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball) at the Bolshoi theatre in Moscow.  We sat in a café near the Karl Marx square during a chilly night in April.

I opened the conversation:
“ I am bewildered that you would come to Moscow to watch one of your opera, what makes you come here you of the blue?”

“The Bolshoi theatre in Moscow has a long history of hosting many historic opera premier. Sadly a massive fire broke out in 1853 and ruined the building completely, the theatre had to be closed for a three-year-long overhaul, and opened its doors after renovation right in time for the coronation of Tsar Alexander II.  Then it was hit by a bomb in 1941, and got renovated several times because of various damages and the final reconstruction lasted for six years and in 2011 the refurbished theatre opened its doors once again. So I am glad to be here to witness the new Bolshoi hosting Un Ballo in Maschera.”

I said:
“I found that Alessandra Premoli  and Davide Livermore  directed the opera performance very well,  with impressive digitally enhanced stage set by Gio Forma and video design by D-wok.   
There were the flying and preying crows in the digital background of the stage dominated in black and white, haunting the people with the ominous fortune foretold by the witch Ulrica.

The performance tonight exposed me to a new experience. It makes opera more attractive, may bring younger audiences, gives wider alternatives to creative artists and technicians, and will probably take costs down.”

“I can only ask for more. It can be really beautiful, but equally it can detract. It comes down to what the production is really. It would certainly be appropriate for some but overall I definitely prefer traditional opera. However some modern productions may benefit from this. Surely no one could say it should always, or never, be used.”

I said:
“ You are known of your greatness,  to find a way of speaking to limitless crowds, and your method to adsorb yourself completely into your characters. You never composed music for music’s sake, every music note has a precise dramatic implication. The most astounding scenes in your work are those in which all the voices come together in a visceral mass, like the voices at the end of “Un Ballo”, overcome by the spiritual greatness of a dying man.”

“The scene is about the dying Riccardo as he admits to Renato : ‘You must listen to me, she is pure: in the arms of death, while God hears my words, I swear it (Ella è pura: in braccio a morte Te lo giuro, Iddio m’ascolta)’. The dying Riccardo confirms that, although he was in love with Amelia, Renato’s wife, she never broke her marriage vows. Then he shows Renato the order for the couple’s repatriation to England, a gesture to show that he forgives Renato and the conspirators. The crowd bewails the loss of their generous-hearted governor as Renato is consumed by remorse.”

I said:
 “One of your most successful opera is La Traviata, which means “the fallen woman” or “the one who goes astray” and in context it connotes the loss of sexual innocence.  It represents the thinking of a time when sexual activity outside of marriage was considered immoral and unmarried couples living together were the subject of scandal. 

That time in Paris in the world of the rich and powerful,  social conventions bound everyone to a righteous lifestyle on the surface, but beneath that existed another world where the nobility could enjoy the excess of their wealth including the company of women, the courtesan who were expected to entertain him, and also go to the theater and opera with him.”

“ The story of this opera is “a subject for our time.” I was determined to use the opera to arouse sympathy for society’s outcasts, the sort of people we might go out of our way to avoid on the streets. Like Alexandre Dumas “The Lady of the Camellias” upon which novel and play the opera is based, I wanted to protest the exploitation of women, and I gave the opera a contemporary setting.”

I said:
“Indeed in La Traviata you not only put a cry story on stage, you set it all to contemporary music : the waltzes and polkas were that time the sounds that accompanied the libidinous pleasures of booze and sensuality. The most famous of those is the Brindisi drinking song in the first act, Alfredo’s waltzing “Libiamo” – “let’s get drunk”, basically. It is a famous duet with chorus, one of the best-known opera melodies and a popular performance choice for many great tenors.

Giuseppe, imitating Alfredo in Brindisi, the drinking song :

“Libiamo, libiamo ne’lieti calici                    Let us drink from the goblets of joy
che la belleza infiora.                                      adorned with beauty,
E la fuggevol ora s’inebrii                              and the fleeting hour shall be adorned
                a voluttà.                                                             with pleasure.”

I said:
“It required a strong character to live the life that you live; to preserve at your golden years that freshness of interest, that intensity of purpose. To produce an opera means to negotiate with an impresario, secure and edit a libretto, find or approve the singers, compose the music, supervise rehearsals, conduct some of the performances, deal with publishers, and more.  What drives you to be so passionate to produce operas?”

“The explanation may be partly found in my humble origin, my simple upbringing. My father kept a little inn and grocery shop in the village of Roncole. He was not rich, but prosperous enough to be able to give his son a thorough musical education. My father arranged music lessons before I was four. When only eleven, I succeeded my teacher in the post, at a salary of thirty-six francs a year! I had a hundred francs when I left six years later, but I was then walking every Sunday and festival day from Busseto, three miles distant, for my general education.”

I said:
“At Busseto there lived a musical amateur, named Barezzi. He took you, opened his home to you in his warehouse, and allowed you the treat of practicing on a piano.  Barezzi had a daughter who also played piano. The usual results of this situation you fell in love with each other, and were married in 1835.”

“I was so poor at this time that he had to pawn my wife’s trinkets for the rent.  Margherita gave birth to two children, Virginia and Icilio. Both died in infancy while I was working on my first opera Oberto at the age of 26. Premiered at Milan’s La Scala in November 1839, Oberto enjoyed a fair success and the theatre's impresario Bartolomeo Merelli was impressed enough to offer me a contract that would guarantee two more works. “

I said:
“You live a life with more moments of tragedy than most of us could take. As a young man you lost both of your children in infancy, and your wife Margherita died soon after in 1840 because of encephalitis.  That happened when you had just accepted an engagement to write a comic opera, Un giorno di regno  (King fo a Day) and you went on with it while your heart was breaking. It was a failure and we can hardly wonder that the opera was a failure.

With your personal life shattered and your professional life disrupted by grief, you have been drawn sitting moody and silent for a whole year and more, writing nothing, seeing nobody, as if declaring that life was not worth living.”

“I was alone! Irredeemably alone! …My family had been wiped out!... And to keep the commitment I’d made, at that very painful moment in my life, I had to write Un giorno di regno  which was not liked….. Tormented by my family woes, which the failure of my work only exacerbated, I was convinced that art would never bring me solace, and I decided to stop writing music!....”

I said:
“Then in a dreary winter’s day in 1841 after a chance meeting with Bartolomeo Merelli, La Scala's impresario, he gave you a copy of Temistocle Solera's libretto for Nabucco. “

“I took it home, and threw it on the table with an almost violent gesture. ... In falling, it had opened of itself; without my realising it, my eyes clung to the open page and to one special line: 'Va pensiero, sull' ali dorate' meaning ‘Go, thought, on golden wings’.

I ran through the verses that followed and was much moved, all the more because they were almost a paraphrase from the Bible, the reading of which always had delighted me.  I read it enthusiastically one passage after another. Then, resolute in my determination to write no more, I forced myself to close the manuscript and went to bed. But it was no use- I couldn’t get Nabucco out of my head. Unable to sleep, I got up and read the libretto, not once, but two or three times, so that by the morning, I know Solera’s libretto almost by heart. Nevertheless, I still refused to compose the music, taking the manuscript back to the impresario next day. But Merelli would accept no refusal and he immediately stuffed the papers back into my pocket and, not only threw me out of his office, but slammed the door in my face and locked himself in.

Then gradually I worked on the music, this verse today, tomorrow that, here a note, there a whole phrase, and little by little the opera was written, so that by the autumn of 1841 it was complete. “

I said: 
"Then needless to say  what happened next , Nabucco premier at La Scala on the evening of 9 March 1842 was a huge success, and this work became your first immortal creation. For you it was a turn from despair to “Viva Verdi, Viva Verdi……”

Like the wording in 'Va pensiero, sull' ali dorate', which was inspired by Psalm 137:

‘or let the Lord inspire a concert
That may give to endure our suffering’

This is an imaginary interview in memory of Giuseppe Verdi

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Verona, at Aida

In the Act II, the Egyptian army lead by Radames, march triumphantly into the grand gate of the city of Thebes on its return following their victory over the Ethiopians.  Musicians playing long trumpets lead the Egyptian troops into the city. Dancers follow, waving palms and banners, and the crowd of Egyptian women sing in chorus:

“Dance, sons of Egypt, circling round,
And sing your mystic praises,
As round the sun in mazes
Dance the bright stars of night.”

More troops enter, bringing with them slaves bearing gifts for the gods, and Radames appears in a golden chariot. At the height of the celebration, he meets the Pharaoh, who steps down from his throne to embrace him.

Aida is one of Verdi's best known and best loved operas. It encompasses all of Verdi's main signatures    human drama; conflict; subtle and effective use of music; and of course a dramatic ending. It is based on a love story that took place in the Egyptian Pharaonic era, found in Papyrus and re-written by French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette.

 Aida, an Arabic female name meaning "visitor" or "returning",  shows how love can be forbidden when she gets stuck between her love for the Egyptian leader Radames and between her love for her father and country, Ethiopia. Through a portrait of brutal war between love and duty, Verdi explores the different aspects of a work in which individuals’ destinies are being shaped. Studying Egypt’s history, music and geography, Verdi composed varied Egyptian melodies harmonically. The composer had developed an extraordinarily clever ear for orchestral effects and theatrical atmosphere.

The opera revolves around its main character, Aida, an Ethiopian princess who is captured and made into a slave in Egypt during the war between the countries. But Aida and the Egyptian military commander Radames find that they have come together and fallen in love.

Radames, is also adored by Amneris, the daughter of the Egyptian king. However, the feeling is not a mutual one, and Amneris even suspects that this is the case. Suspecting Aida, she tricks the Ethiopian princess into declaring her true feelings after falsely claiming that Radames has died in combat.

After Radames returns successful from battle as a hero, the king says that he can have anything he wishes. However, his request for the release of Aida and her father the Ethiopian king  Amonasro , now hostages,  is denied. Instead, the Egyptian king proclaims that Radames will be wed to his daughter  Amneris and will be a successor to the throne.

Aida and Radames plan to run away together so they can be happily married without the pressures of their countries, but are caught together. Separated, Radames believes that Aida has fled to her country, while he is imprisoned as a traitor of the country.

Having reported Radames for his plans to flee with Aida, Amneris now feels remorse at causing his imprisonment.  But this remorse is mixed with her resentment towards Aida and the fact that Radames was willing to give up everything for her. She asks Radames to appear before her and tells him that, if he renounces Aida, she will save him from the judgement of the priests and death sentence. Radames says that his conscience is clear and that he would never renounce his love of Aida. This sends Amneris into a fury and she tells him that no one but she can save him. Still, Radames refuses to submit to her demand and is willing to go to his death.

The final scene gives this opera its overwhelming originality. Radames is in the tomb where he has been buried alive. He thinks about the fact that he will never see Aida again when she suddenly appears. Knowing that he would be sentenced to death in there, she has snuck into the tomb and been waiting for him so they can die together. He is horrified at first but the two of them bid farewell to the world together.

As the two bid farewell to the world, the music is heavenly as well as euphoric, suggesting that the two will meet again in heaven. The music becomes a trio in the final moments when Amneris joins in with her prayers. Her music has a peaceful tone as she prays for Radames, she wishes him “pace” (peace), and repeats the word as the opera ends in a murmur, “pace”…..


Monday, March 11, 2019

Verona, at Il trovatore

Il trovatore (The Troubadour) is an opera in four acts by the famous Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi. Themes of obsession, revenge, war, love and family are conveyed through characters who present dramatic images. It was based on the play El trovador (1836) by Antonio García Gutiérrez, a youth of seventeen. This youth took the play to a theatre, where it was at once put in rehearsal.  Fortunately, the play El trovador obtained a phenomenal success.

The opera was also a triumph from the first night, a success due to Verdi's work over the three years. The premiere took place at the Teatro Apollo in Rome on 19 January 1853. The eagerness of the Roman public to hear it was extraordinary. On the eve of the premiere, the Tiber river had risen in flood and invaded the whole district near the theatre. But in spite of everything - the cold, the mud, and discomfort -  from nine o’clock in the morning the doors of the Apollo were beseiged by a great crowd, who, with their feet in water up to the ankles, squeezed, pushed, and disputed in order to get places for the evening.  It evoked frenzied excitement.  Its success spread fast, not only in Italy but through the whole of Europe. Theatre after theatre produced it, answering the clamour of eager subscribers and patrons. At Naples three houses were giving it at the same time. Seldom was an opera more fortunate.

Now Il trovatore is one of the famous operas frequently performed at the Arena di Verona, which each summer hosts the Verona Opera Festival. Its great acoustics and architecture make the Arena di Verona the ideal stage for large scale operas such as this. There is definitely something magical in listening to the arias soaring up to the sky from the stage with a spectacularly lavish stage set.
The plot of Il Trovatore begins in the acts of a gypsy mother burned for suspected witchcraft, and avenged by her daughter, Azucena, when she throws the child of her executioner into the fire. Possessed by a dark force in that moment, the child she threw into the flame was her own. Azucena sees the event repeating in every waking moment, in the flicker of the fire, and in the shape of shadows. But only she knows the truth. She raises the child as her own child, calling him Manrico. Constantly haunted by her mother’s dying words ‘mi vendica’ (avenge me), Azucena sets in motion a series of events which lead to Manrico’s death.

 The child’s father seeks vengeance for the act and forces his surviving son, the Count di Luna, to devote his life to avenging his brother’s death. The unknowing brothers Manrico and di Luna become rivals for the love of Leonora, the Princess. But Leonora has fallen in love with a mysterious troubadour, which is Manrico, who sings of his love at her window, and so rejects the advances of Count di Luna.

Manrico and di Luna are destined to oppose each other, first as leaders of opposing factions in the war, and now in the pursuit of Leonora’s heart.  Not until the final blow is struck and Manrico dies at di Luna’s order does Azucena reveal that his rival was his brother, and to cry out that her mother has finally been avenged.