Tag: Belgium

Ah, Landerida!

On the train through Luxembourg. (Photo: mine; link; please do not reproduce without permission)

Traveling is a very special thing made all the more special when done in the service of a passion.

As I alluded to in my last post, I journeyed through parts of Germany, Belgium, and France this past January and February, on what I came to refer to as my Mid-winter European Opera Jaunt. It wasn’t a conscious plan, but, as more and more opportunities for attending interesting things came up (all within the highly doable, intimate geography of Western Europe), the more it seemed wrong to pass them by.

There were many memorable moments, and also a few missteps. The Gospel According To The Other Mary premiered in Los Angeles in 2011, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2014. A kind of oratorio-opera hybrid integrating various original texts from Louise Erdrich, Dorothy Day, June Jordan, Hildegard von Bingen, Rosario Castellanos, Primo Levi, Ruben Dario, and the bible, the work focuses on the mythology of the Magdalene and her feminist influences and underpinnings. The series of performances (three in total) was made special by the coming together of librettist Peter Sellars (the first director to take a residency with the orchestra for the 2015/2016 season) and composer John Adams (the orchestra’s first composer to take a residency with the BP). Sir Simon Rattle led a sparky Berlin Phil, with emphasis on the piece’s rhythmic qualities; the Maestro also worked to highlight the piece’s elegant lyricism, which was most clearly expressed through the countertenor passages, drawing stark distinctions between it and the score’s frequently jagged texture. I couldn’t help but feel, in listening and watching, that Sellars (whose directing work I greatly admire) desperately needed a dramaturge; the epic-aspiring Mary frequently felt unfocused and overlong, stuffed with too much exposition, too many ideas, too much sustained intensity that, as Adams’ rich (sometimes too-rich) score wore on, became exhausting to listen to. The last third, in particular, felt to me like a test of endurance, rather than the spiritual awakening I think Mary was meant to be.

Berlin Philharmonic bows. (Photo: mine; link; please do not reproduce without permission)

As a performance space, the Philharmonie is itself far more intimate than what I was expecting. The excellent Digital Concert Hall (which broadcasts the BP’s concerts live online and has an incredibly comprehensive archive of past live performances and interviews for subscribers) makes it look rather immense, but I confess to feeling delighted at my spatial expectations being totally dashed once I entered and sat down. The hall, designed by Hans Scharoun and opened in 1963 (after a series of setbacks), provides a lovely sense of relationship not only with the orchestra and performers, but with one another as concert-goers. Works that have been performed here for over five decades take on a special (dare I say intimate) meaning, thanks to the Philharmonie’s cozy architectural design.

Post Petrushka/L’Enfant. (Photo: mine; please
do not reproduce without permission)

Not strictly an opera but an entertaining, theatrical work nonetheless, Stravinsky’s Petrushka, together with Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortileges (a “Fantaisie lyrique”) were presented in a bright, vivacious production by Komische Oper. British company 1927 Productions brought the vivid visual poetry they’re known for to each work, creating a vibrant dance of animation and live action that exploded with color and movement, while highlighting the tragic, comic, and thoughtful points of the wildly different works.

Ravel’s L’Enfant, about a naughty schoolboy (its English translation is The Child and the Spells), was, by turns, comic, abstract, thoughtful, profound, and utterly delightful, with the entire cast giving bravura performances. 1927 are set to present the North American premiere of their celebrated version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at Opera Philadelphia this September. I’ve never been to Philadelphia, but this is an awfully tempting reason to go. The trippy production, while delighting the eyes, offered a wise sonic reminder of the jaunty rhythmic underpinnings of each work; conductor Markus Poschner led a sprightly reading of both scores, one that beautifully complimented the gorgeous visuals, note for note, while maintaining a deft audio poetry. In all frankness, I’d dearly love to see this production in North America, sooner than later; it feels like a truly wonderful introduction for opera newbies, and a gorgeous reminder of the wonder of the art form and its myriad of theatrical possibilities for longtime fans.

Equally whimsical was Opera National de Lorraine’s colorful production of Il Matrimonio Segreto (The Secret Wedding) by Dominico Cimarosa. Originally done at Opernhaus Zurich in 2014, the opera buffa (which premiered precisely 225 years to the night I attended, on February 7, 1792, in Vienna) is a soapy farce that bears comparison with Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), though is based on the English play The Clandestine Marriage. Director Cordula Dauper underlined the trope-like nature of the characters, presenting a cartoonish vision that was neither historic nor contemporary, but cleverly played up some of the work’s relational underpinnings while adding hints of commedia della’arte and soap-opera farce within a dollhouse framework. Particularly notable were the scenes between the secretly-married Carolina (soprano Lilian Farhani) and the determined Count Robinson (bass Riccardo Novaro), who, though ostensibly caught in a battle of Pepe-le-Pew-style interest/disinterest, was presented as a kind of sexual (and I’d argue, emotional) awakening for each character; this added dimension made their scenes, with one another and with Carolina’s respective paramour Paulino (tenor Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani) and father Geronimo (baritone Donato di Stefano) all the more rich and intriguing. Conductor Sascha Goetzel led the Orchestre symphonique et lyrique de Nancy orchestra in a zesty reading of Cimarosa’s deceptively complex score, underlining the poetry amidst the jollity, and thoughtfully (if purposefully) leaning into its small, lovely corners.

Matrimonio bows. (Photo: mine; link; please do not reproduce without permission)

Last but certainly not least, Opera Royal de Wallonie’s beautiful presentation of Berlioz’ La damnation de Faust was deeply memorable on both musical and theatrical levels. Director Ruggero Raimondi framed the work around the human costs of the First World War, contrasting, in the profoundly affecting Hungarian March scene, country people (singing of “Landerida” and the simple joys of life), military elites, and arguably, a dour authoritarianism hanging over the whole scene. Using a sparkly scrim spread across the stage for video projections, images of devastation (snaking lines of trucks and ragged marching troops; a disembodied hand, with fingers reaching up like broken roots; the face of a dead soldier peering, ghost-like, through layers of mud) offered an uncomfortable contrast to the triumphal sonic nature of the march (to say nothing of its overall historical associations), deflating the piece’s machismo but deftly avoiding any blatant didacticism. Rather than being heavy-handed, the contextual framework added an intriguing (and quite timely) depth to an abstract work, which is known largely through its in-concert presentations. Le damnation de Faust engaged both head and heart, exploring the effects of war, the role of spirituality, and the transformative nature of real love. It also featured some truly gorgeous singing from its talented leads: baritone Laurent Kubla (Brander), mezzo soprano Nino Surguladze (Marguerite), bass baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (Mephistopheles), and tenor Paul Groves (Faust; interview is coming soon). If you love French opera, the Faust myth, or are just plain curious, Culturebox has a link of the full performance it broadcast live online on January 31st. Even without English subtitles, it’s worth watching, and re-watching; this is some of the most beautiful music ever written, to my ears. Sighs of bliss guaranteed.

Faust bows (Photo: mine; please do not reproduce without permission)

Next on the opera-going schedule: New York City, specifically four operas at The Met this weekend. I’ll also be presenting plenty of question/answer exchanges as well as audio interviews with various artists in the coming weeks.

Stay tuned, friends!

Freaky-Good Frites

Yesterday’s cooler weather inspired in me a desire to make stew. However, my inspiration changed as the grey skies cleared in the afternoon. After a spate of domestic-y work & long-overdue gardening, I felt like something less…stewy. Also, starting a stew at 7pm is never a good idea. So I decided on steak frites. The steak part -fine, easy-peasy; I had a nice clean BBQ to grill them on, which made things even easier.

The frites? Not so easy. I’d never made them, if you can believe it. Perhaps it’s because I was never a spud person (though living in Ireland, I became one more out of necessity) and indeed, still am not entirely one -but the crisp, hot, carby goodness felt just right to end an afternoon of laundry, cupboard-cleaning and weed-pulling.
The response to my frites-making exploit on Facebook was so positive, I thought I’d share the recipe. I used one posted online as well as my own good common sense. Try it if you have a chance -easy, and yes, very good. This serves two people (or one very-hungry woman, natch).

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 20-25 minutes

You will need:
4-5 medium-sized organic potatoes (Yukon Gold is best)
4-6 cups of ice water
roughly 2.5 to 3 cups canola oil
1 cup olive oil
sea salt
+ a whack of paper towels for blotting

Method:
Scrub potatoes and julienne. You want the shape to be long and skinny (do cut chunkier, a la pub style, if you like ’em that way, but mind they take longer to cook).
As you chop, place the julienned pieces in a big bowl of waiting ice water; mind the edges of the bowl are filled near the top, with plenty of ice (and keep adding cubes as you add the cut potatoes). I used a metal bowl to keep the temperature nice and cool.
Once you’re done chopping and your taters are in the bowl, leave them to soak for 15 minutes. (Make something else, or pour a glass of wine to enjoy whilst admiring your garden handywork…)

At about the 10-minute mark, heat the canola oil in a large, broad pan on the stove; place on medium heat.

After 15 minutes, drain the potatoes from the ice water in a colander. Discard any ice cubes, leaving potatoes in the colander. Give a gentle shake. Spread paper towels out on a flat surface, then spread the potatoes on them. Cover with another paper towel and gently blot.
Turn the heat of the oil up to medium high.
Place half the potatoes in the hot oil. They should sizzle on contact (test with one if you’re not sure). Mind that the oil covers them entirely.

When they’re semi-done (yellow but not golden), remove with a broad slotted spoon or tongs (carefully) & place on fresh, dry paper towels. Gently blot.

Check to see if there’s enough oil for the second batch of potatoes, and add as necessary. Again, you want the oil to cover the potatoes entirely. Repeat as before, removing the potatoes when they start to yellow and placing them on fresh, dry paper towels. Blot carefully.

Add the olive oil to the pan, and turn the heat down to medium. Wait about a minute (so it heats up), then place the first batch of potatoes in; shake the pan. Follow by placing the second batch in with the first, and shake again. The oil should be bubbling merrily, with the potatoes bouncing around inside.

Cook about ten to fifteen minutes, shaking the pan every few minutes or so.

When the potatoes turn that happy golden colour, your frites are ready. Using tongs or a broad slotted spoon, carefully remove them to a dry colander. Sprinkle liberally with sea salt and gently toss with your fingers.

Now… serve with your favorite accompaniment and enjoy.

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