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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.


Sunday, March 3, 2019

Verona, at the Opera Arena

Whether opera lover, music lover or a simply a tourist in Verona, if you have the opportunity to attend an opera in the Arena of Verona, it is an experience that you should not miss.  There is definitely something magical in listening to Aida’s arias soaring up to the sky from the stage with a spectacularly lavish stage set.

Attending an Opera at the Arena di Verona Opera Festival is an extraordinary experience, watching performances with the rich sets, the ensemble, the orchestra, the lyrics, the dance company, and costumes that have enthralled millions of spectators from all over the world for more than a hundred years.

The Verona opera festival takes place every year from June to August. Almost every day, different opera performances are shown, so that we can enjoy different famous opera every night.  From “Aida” to “Carmen”, “Nabucco”, “Turandot” and “Madame Butterfly” we can see the most famous operas in the world.

The festival is traditionally held in the almost 2000 years old Roman amphitheatre known as Arena di Verona which is located in the heart of the city. After the Colosseum in Rome and the amphitheatre in Capua, the Roman arena in Verona is the third largest Roman amphitheatre. With its gigantic dimensions of 140 metres in length and 110 metres in width it dominates the Piazza Brà from the north.

It was built in 30 A.D. and was purposed for games, which were to entertain the Roman government, like gladiator fighting, bloody combats, chariot races, public executions, or bullfights. Back in Roman times 20,000 spectators jeered and roared with blood lust in this giant arena. There were sweat, fear, noise, blood and anguish.  Now there still are, not much has changed in this arena over the last 2,000 years. Where once gladiators fought to the death, now mighty tenors and sopranos enliven the stage with the appearance of every passion in operas. The tragic operas convey horror, pity, fear, and sorrow. Dying for love is permitted, even praiseworthy, but murder for revenge will get its karmic due.

The Arena Opera Festival we know today started when a grand “Aida” opera was staged to celebrate in 1913 the centenary of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi. A phenomenon was born: an annual event presenting four to six large-scale operas over three months. The Arena can accommodate up to 15,000 audience members at each performance, seated either in comfortable chairs in the middle of the Arena, or on the myriad ranks of stone seats that surround the basin.

As you enter the Arena through one of the many gates and climb the steps, you find yourself on the threshold of another world. Opera is a marriage of the arts, a musical drama, full of glorious song, costume, orchestral music and pageantry. It is the medium through which tales and myths are revisited, history retold and imagination stimulated.

So, whether down at the bottom in the stalls or high up on the stone tiers, you can watch the gigantic stage, admire the spectacle, and shout: ”Bravo!”


Sunday, February 24, 2019

Verona, at Juliet’s house

“There is no world without Verona walls, 
But purgatory, torture, hell itself. 
Hence-banished is banish'd from the world,
And world's exile is death."

Those were the words of Romeo about Verona,  in the play Rome and Juliet by Shakespeare. He preferred to die rather than to be exiled and leave Verona. Because within the walls of Verona lived Juliet, the love of his life, for him life without her is like death. That is the theme of the play, about love and death.

Nowadays, the city is still considered as the hometown of Romeo and Juliet, Verona is the stage of the famous tragic play. The most famous spot in the city is the Casa di Giulietta, or Juliet’s House, located on Via Capello. As the story goes, this was the home of the Capulet family, Juliet’s family . It is here Juliet would have lived, and today it is a museum dedicated to her. The interior contains the furniture of a typical fourteenth century aristocratic household, enhanced by a wide range of medieval ceramics.

From the courtyard, we can see the famous balcony in the world—Juliet’s balcony. It is a tiny balcony where Juliet stood while Romeo declared his love. It is also the balcony where Romeo and Juliet planned the events that led to their tragic deaths. In the courtyard, the walls now are covered by love notes, written in many languages by visitors from all around the world. They believe if they write here, it will cast a lucky spell and their love will be eternal.

But, Romeo and Juliet’s life themselves were overshadowed by terrible fate. From the opening prologue it says that they will die, Romeo and Juliet are trapped by fate. Had Romeo not met  Benvolio on the very day of the Capulets’ ball, Romeo would not have met Juliet. Had friar Lawrence's messenger to Romeo not detained, who would have explained the plan by which Juliet was to pretend death, Romeo would have got the message. And had Romeo arrived just a few moments before Juliet wakes-up, Romeo would not have taken his own life.  It is their misfortune that leads to the sorrowful and tragic ending of the play. But, it is Romeo and Juliet's fiery passion of their love which makes their love eternal.  

In the center of the internal court stands a bronze statue of the beautiful and faithful Juliet, by Nereo Costantini.  According to legend, touching Juliet’s right breast will bring good luck in love. However, the affectionate gesture has brought bad luck to the statue. The repeated touching by tourists, newly weds, school boys, couples, has created large holes on the statue’s right breast, wrist and arms, and the holes are widening. Many people desperately inserted love notes and padlock keys through the cracks in the arms and breasts of the statue, in hope for luck in their love affairs.  The original statue then was removed, restored and placed inside Juliet's House in 2014, in order to protect it from damages. Now a replica  has been installed back in the courtyard of Juliet's House.

So Verona, a city on the Adige river in Veneto, continues to be the City of Love, It enshrines a myth that gently comes alive again across the medieval squares, through the alleys and shadowy courtyards.  Here it’s easy to fantasize about stories, figures, characters and events of the play. Romeo and Juliet’s myth is the trail of a dream. Love is the overriding theme of the play. Based on that theme the Verona Tourist Office wrote: ‘Se Ami Qualcuno Portarlo a Verona’ which means ‘If you love someone then take them to Verona’.


Monday, January 7, 2019

An Interview with Pearl

There is a restaurant in Qingdao, a city in Norththern China, which claimed to be frequently visited by Pearl when she was in the city. It faces the wavy sea of Qingdao bay, with a sandy gravel beach. I made appointment with this elegant lady for a chat in this restaurant. She came wearing a light yellow dress with floral dots, her hair tied neatly to the back and up. Her smile was warm, it warmed the cold Qingdao that day. 

Not wasting time, I immediately asked her:
“Frankly speaking, at the beginningI was not too interested to read “The Good Earth”, after I read the summary of the book. Besides that present-day China is no more a foreign country of culture, and many of their traits are commonly known to the world community, and even those characteristics have become stereotypical images of Chinese. For instance the role of a wife that must be obedient to the husband, the view that a pretty woman must have small feet such that the feed were bound since childhood, and the desire to have sons to continue the name of the family and its fortune, the view that the more children one has the more happiness it will bring to the family, the tradition to honor and respect the parents, about arranged marriage, and so on.

Those habits are no longer surprising presently and no more aroused curiosity, afterall, it is difficult to imagine how an American author could write well about life in China. But the impressions vanished instantly reading the first few pages of the book, about the young man Wang Lung behaved when he woke up on his wedding day and got ready to dress up. 

Pearl, with a smile:
“This scene if filmed can be fun, depicting how people there rarely bathe to save water because water was very scarce there, but on this wedding day Wang Lung had to ‘give-up’ bathing his whole body liberally, because not since he was a child upon his mother’s knee had anyone looked upon his body. Today one would and he would have it clean.”

I said:
“A very genuine scene, and you were able to depict the lives of poor farmers in Northern China realisticly. As for Wang Lung’s father, drinking hot water with tea leaves is a luxury, usually he drank hot water only,  but he was forced by Wang Lung with a short laugh to drink it because it was his wedding day.”

Pearl, comically quoted her book:
“It will be cold,’ said Wang Lung.
‘True-true,’ said the old man in alarm, and he began to take great gulps of the hot tea. He passed into an animal satisfaction, like a child fixed upon its feeding. But he was not too forgetful to see Wang Lung dipping the water recklessly from the cauldron into a deep wooden tub for his bath. He lifted his head and stared at his son.
‘Now there is water enough to bring a crop to fruit,’ he said suddenly.”

I said:
“You also very well wrote how farmers depended on nature, land, weather, the onslaught of floods, attacks by birds, water and the oxes to plow the earth. Although this is well known, it's already a universal phenomenon, but you described it impressively.”

Pearl, quoting part VIII of her book:
“At last the water in the pond dried into a cake of clay and even the water in the well sunk so low that O-lan said to him: ‘If the children must drink and the old man must have his hot water the plants must go dry.’
Wang Lung answered with anger that broke into a sob: ‘Well, and they must all starve if the plants starve.’ It was true that all their lives depended on the earth.”

I said:
“Furthermore, after all the rice had run out in a long arid period, they were forced to kill and eat their plowing ox which was already emaciated. And after everything was eaten up, in the winter they were forced to move to prosperous city in the South to survive and to find food. It turns out it was not that easy to get a job and the income was small. After setting up plastic huts on the edge of the city walls, they lived from food rations provided by generous donators,  and then they worked as beggars. You described this begging experience as very heartbreaking.”

“O-lan, the mother, played a very good role in teaching her children to beg.  She learned from her childhood experience, and so she sought food before being sold as a slave.
‘A heart, good sir- a heart, good lady! Have a kind heart – a good deed for your life in heaven! The small cash - the copper coin you throw away – feed a starving child!’
But being children, they considered it to be playful and giggled during begging. O-lan was forced to ‘educate’ them by beating them to make them cry. So she taught their children to beg, they would be beaten again if they giggled.”

I said:
“Then after they returned to the village in the North, the life of Wang Lung’ life changed gradually becoming prosperous because it was supported by soil fertility, sufficient rain, although some times there were storms and attacks by birds and insects. He saved money from the sale of corps and gradually bought lands which made him expand his fields.”

“That’s usually what happened if somebody suddenly get rich, he was then able to hire labors to work in his field, he no longer need to work hard in the field, plowing, planting seeds and reaping harvest. He only reaped the proceeds from the sale of his harvest. Whis his wealth and spare time came boredom and loneliness, and with the emptyness came temptation and desire to enjoy beautiful women as his wife O-Lan was not beautiful. He was fascinated when he saw beautiful women in a night club, who were as beautiful as women in the paintings that he had always thought were imaginary.”

I said:
“In this book besides covering the life of China’s farmers well, you also covered universal theme such as the lives of poor farmers who became rich, then desiring things they had not imagined previously, and able to vent their lust with the power of money. Also universal is the indication that his sons failed to continue his efforts who cultivated the abundant fields, likewise the case of upper class and lower class opposition in an agrarian society.”

“When I wrote in China of Chinese things about Chinese, I used the Chinese tongue. . . . The consequence is that when . . . writing about Chinese people the story spins itself in my mind
entirely in the Chinese idioms, and I literally translate as I go.”

I said:
“Thus you were able to write realitically about Chinese farmers’ lives which are intimate with nature. Your writing style was simple and straight forward, not flowery. The main female character, Wang Lung’s wife O-lan, was not beautiful. You described her that she had a square, honest face, a short, broad nose with large black nostrills, and her mouth was wide, a gash in her face. Her eyes were small on of dull black in color, and were filled with some sadness that was not clearly expressed.”

“What Wang Lung regretted most was that her feet were big because it was not bound since childhood according to Chinese tradition. Small feet were considered an attractive feature of women, therefore since childhood the feet of girls were bound, it was very peainful especially for young girls. However, thanks to the big feet O-lan was able to walk a lot and work hard in the fields helping her husband, while women with little feet, no more than 3 inches, were not able to walk a lot and work hard.
Besides a hard worker obedient to her husband, O-lan was also the pilar of the family, she made many of the hardest decisions in the novel and she bore these hard decisions with admirable fortitude.”

I said:
“An incredible character, she was aware that she was not beautiful and her husband actually did not love her. But she was happy enough as she could give birth several sons for her husband. Chinese tradition highly respects mothers who are able to give birth to sons, as the sons would continue the family’s name dan are expected to serve and care of his parents at old age.”

“Such was the reality of Chinese farmers’ lives that time, and perhaps generally so, mariage and having family affairs became a pragmatic matter.”

I said:
“I also observed in this novel, the absence of passionate description of romance ala Romeo and Juliet, there were no memorable intimate words and poetry. What can be found were the boiling lust of Wang Lung when he met Lotus the cute comfort woman, who was by far pretier than O-lan. Wang Lung felt he found love affection with Lotus whom later became his concubine, he could not get this intimacy from O-lan.
But this absence of love and intimacy towards O-lan you wrote very impressively in O-lan dying moment suffering a deadly disease. A very impressive emptiness feeling.”

Pearl, describing the moment:
““Well I know I am ugly and cannot be loved…’  When she said this Wang Lung could not bear it and he took her hand and he soothed it, a big hard hand, stiff as though it were dead already. And he wondered and grived at himself most of all because what she said was true, and even he took her hand, desiring truly that she feel his tenderness towards her, he was ashamed because he could feel no tenderness, no melting of the heart such as Lotus could win from him with a pout of her lips. When he took this stiff dying hand he did not love it, and even his pity was spoiled with repulsion toward it.”


This is an imaginary interview in memory of Pearls S. Buck.