Last Sunday afternoon I saw Merola Opera's second performance of Mascagni's rarely performed L'Amico Fritz, and you might think by now that the title actually is The Rarely Performed L'Amico Fritz, for just as the sea in Homer is always wine-dark, so is L'Amico Fritz always the rarely performed. And the rarity is why I trekked out to the Cowell Theater in Fort Mason, the rent on which must be spectacularly low, since there's no other reason to perform there: it's located conveniently next to nothing but the sea (which on this balmy breezy Sunday was not wine-dark at all, but pea-greenish), and once you're in the right building, you have to walk down about a mile of corridor to the theater, which is a wide, shallow auditorium with poor sightlines and no orchestra pit, so the players are spread out along the front of the stage with the conductor standing right in front of them, blocking the view of anyone behind him, a configuration which did no one any favors; in addition to some bloops in the brass, conductor Warren Jones kept the volume consistently too loud, so that even in that small auditorium the singers had to battle against the orchestra.
I would have gone on Friday night, but I figured that it was just too difficult for a non-driver to get back to the East Bay from Fort Mason late at night. Sunday afternoon was also pretty crowded, since an "indoor gardening expo" in another building had lines stretching out through the full parking lot. Parking difficulties may explain why the performance started twenty minutes late. In case you're wondering at the popularity of indoor gardening, judging from the look and smell of many in the line they were there for tips on growing marijuana in the convenience of their own homes. Local, sustainable, and organic is our motto around here!
"Charming" is this opera's other Homeric epithet. I kept hearing that word murmured in the lobby and restroom during intermission as persistently as I heard the quarking of the seagulls outside during the performance. It is indeed a charming work, the story of Fritz, a bachelor do-gooder (the appealing Nathaniel Peake) who, with a little prodding from the crusty yet benevolent Rabbi David (a forthright Alexsey Bogdanov, and it's a little unclear if the protagonists are all Jewish, or if the ketubah-wielding Rabbi's only influence is as a friend) sings a duet about ripe cherries and consequently falls in mutual love with Suzel, the beautiful daughter of one of his tenants (Sara Gartland, whose bright clear soprano I enjoyed, though I should mention that some of my friends in attendance found her voice excessively bright).
But "peculiar" might be L'Amico Fritz's third epithet. For one thing, this easily gliding pastoral romance is cloaked in verismo-style music which hints at conflicts and passions not really conveyed by the words or actions of the libretto. I assume that the work's eclipse was partly due to the anti-Semitism and fascism of early- to mid-twentieth century Europe, movements which would look askance at a work featuring a generous-hearted Rabbi as Fairy Godfather and named for a do-gooder whose signal deed was rescuing Beppe, a war-wounded Gypsy boy (an appealingly melancholy Maya Lahyani; in this production, the boy had lost an arm, and all of his gypsy music was played on the gramophone, a bit of innovation on the part of director Nic Muni that, like most of the direction, neither added to nor detracted from the point).
But then the message of the work itself isn't exactly free from what you might call certain tendencies that groove into a Fascist aesthetic: the rabbi (whose own family presumably exists but is never mentioned) is insistent that marrying for the purpose of having children is the only proper means of conducting life, and to that end he harangues Fritz and his friends to avoid the corruptions of city sophistication and to embrace the purity and virtue of country life, and I imagine the opera audiences at the premiere were as unlikely a target for either message as were the audiences at Fort Mason this weekend.
Historical circumstances aside, if they can be, the real peculiarity of the work is that there is absolutely no conflict or obstacle for the lovers other than Fritz’s lightweight vow to remain a bachelor: Suzel has no rivals, nothing is made of the differences in background or education or class between the two lovers, and there doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason he can’t just change his mind when he falls in love. Imagine Turandot without In questa reggia, or Much Ado About Nothing without Benedick's obsessive advance and retreat on the idea of love and commitment, and you have L'Amico Fritz. If ever the course of true love was going to run smooth, this is it. So by the end of this relatively short opera (roughly 90 minutes, excluding the intermission), even though I thought Peake and Gartland were at their most intensely committed in the opening of the third act, it was difficult to feel that there was any character-driven motivation for these scenes, or anything to sustain the story except the need to provide a third-act showpiece for the tenor and then the soprano. The music increases in drama just as the drama itself decreases. So, yes, charming! And well worth a troublesome trip on a beautiful day, but also peculiar enough to explain the rarity.
At the end of April I had one of those over-planned weeks, with night after night of concerts, and I ended up with a cold that was getting worse as the week passed – initially I thought I might be having just another bad allergy attack, since it was that time of year, but eventually signs so subtle I can’t quite tell you what they are convinced me that it was a cold.
So I sympathized with Magdalena Kozena, who gamely came out to sing to us despite her obvious sickness – her eyes looked exhausted. She has a really interesting face in a way that goes beyond just being a beautiful woman, though she is; I kept thinking that if she had been around in the 1920s Dreyer or Murnau would have featured her in a film. Her husband, Sir Simon Rattle, was in attendance and being quite gracious and genial, from what I could see, which I'm afraid is about as gossipy as I'm going to get. Despite my disappointment that I was not hearing her in her best voice (and she seemed disappointed that she couldn’t give the audience her best), I enjoyed this recital more than some others I’ve attended where the singer was in better voice.
For the first half she sang a Purcell selection and then Schumann’s Frauenliebe und –leben, but for the second half she sang only the Duparc songs, since she felt that her cold wouldn’t let her do justice to Berg’s Seven Early Songs. So that makes twice this season I’ve missed them, since I couldn’t get to the performance at the Symphony a few weeks later. So it was an early evening, and I hope Kozena had a speedy recovery.
A couple of days later I was back at Herbst for Stephanie Blythe and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center for a program called “American Voices.” Usually I read the program notes ahead of time but this time I hadn’t, so as I listened to the first piece, a Trio in D minor by John Antes, I vacillated between being impressed at the fluid and enjoyable music and puzzled that what I had assumed was a contemporary composer could mimic the sound-period of Haydn and Mozart so effectively. It takes real skill to write like that, but it’s an odd act of ventriloquism for a 21st-century American. It turns out that Antes sounds like a contemporary of Haydn and Mozart because he was, which strengthened me in my usual resolve to read the program notes while waiting for the concert to start, instead of doing whatever it was I was doing that night, which was probably staring vacuously around hoping I didn't have a sneezing fit during the performance.
Next came the big event of the program, the Bay Area premiere of Vignettes: Covered Wagon Woman, featuring Blythe in excerpts from the journal Margaret Ann Alsip Frink kept in 1850 as she crossed the plains, set to music by Alan Louis Smith. Blythe sang beautifully in clear tones (she had asked that the words not be available until the intermission, which struck some as arrogant; I thought it was a good way to make the audience pay attention to her and not their programs). The music was enjoyable, though I knew immediately which section was going to be about the Indians and which about the buffalo and so forth, and indeed I knew there would be Indians and buffalo, and suitably the most inspired music was for her dream on a mountaintop.
Frink was a plucky, can-do woman, and though there are a few scornful remarks quoted about bringing a woman across the plains you know she’s tough enough to handle it and them; and . . . and I am just not worthy of these pioneer women, so strong, so sensible, so filled with gumption and quiet strength and steady resolve; and there I was, falling to pieces because of a bad cold, surely the sort of ailment that Frink would not even notice as she simultaneously quilted, put up preserves, and built a sodhouse against the coming winter.
I was reminded of how beautifully Willa Cather handles this sort of thing – just when I’m about to crack under the pressure of simple strength and homespun values and human decency and drop the book in favor of anything in which people take too much opium, she darkens the portrait with a farmer who shoots himself in the heart one late winter day or a drifter who throws himself into the combine or some other reminder of the exacting toll of the pioneer life. I wish Smith had darkened his portrait of Frink.
After the intermission we had Gershwin’s gentle and lovely Lullaby for String Quartet, followed by Amy Beach’s Quintet in F-sharp minor for Piano and Strings, Opus 67, which Lisa hated and referred to as Tchaikovsky lite. I’m not going to mount a spirited (or much of any other kind of) defense of the work, but I will say I found it pleasant enough, and if you’re going to wish that these fine performers had instead given us one of the acknowledged masterpieces, then you end up with the repertory of ten pieces that is choking so much concert-going, since acknowledged masterpieces just aren't that easy to write. So if they want to play Beach, sure, I’ll give her a listen, even if I'm not necessarily going back for seconds.
The night after that I was at Philharmonia Baroque’s performance of Handel’s Athalia, and let me thank them for starting at the sensible hour of 7:30 since I was exhausted from crossing the prairies the night before, plus of course the debilitating effects of all that cold medicine. I enjoyed the performance, particularly after the couple next to me left at intermission – I don’t know what they thought a performance of Athalia was going to entail, but they were clearly bored and increasingly noisy about it – and if the evening didn’t really catch fire for me, I think I need to lay some of the blame with Mr Handel.
He is one of my musical godfathers and I love the oratorios, but I have to admit that the characterization of the title character is a little underheated, and I don’t think this is one of those cases in which we can’t hear 18th-century rage because we expect 20th-century noise and confusion – he re-used a lot of the music in Parnasso in Festa, a celebratory serenata written for Princess Anne’s marriage to Prince William of Orange, which indicates a surprising degree of flexibility in music written for the story of a wicked queen who tries to kill the child heir to the throne – incidentally, during intermission I overheard several members of the audience who seemed puzzled about the story, which is basically pretty simple; surely it is not possible that our audiences are not immersed in the Sacred Scriptures?
The cast was solid. Dominique Labelle sang the lead and Marnie Breckenridge, always a pleasure to hear, was in the equally prominent role of Josabeth. Celine Ricci as the youthful Joas sang well but should not have been allowed to thumb her nose at the thwarted Athaliah, such hijinks being unsuitable for a child raised in the Temple.
And then the night after that I was at Berkeley hearing Dianne Reeves. I had never heard her before, live or on CD, and wasn’t sure quite what to expect. She looks so elegant in all of her photos that I was expecting someone a little more ethereal. She’s very down-to-earth, has a beautiful voice in the Sarah Vaughn style, and expertly told some funny stories (though sometimes, as in the one about getting in trouble for trying to add her particular flare to her high-school performance of Bach’s Magnificat, I had to overlook the subtext, which is that classical music is restrained and someone else’s style and only jazz allows you to express yourself). The etiquette is always a little different at jazz concerts; years ago I heard Sarah Vaughn herself in concert and one woman in the audience formed her own Amen Corner, leaving white boy here in the awkward position of wondering if it’s inappropriate/racist to want people to shut up and listen. So this time I had the Three Sisters behind me going “mmmmmm-hmm”, but they weren’t too bad and I was drugged up on cold medicine anyway yet still enjoyed hearing a singer new to me. And then the week was over and so to bed.
The Schuylkill River runs through Philadelphia. "Schuylkill" was one of those words my eyes had always skimmed over in the past, but now the secret of its pronunciation was finally revealed to me: SKOO-kull.
Boathouse Row, which I am told is to Philadelphia as those Steiner Street Victorians are to San Francisco -- the identifying shot you'll always get on the opening montage for the local news -- is on the river, up a bit from the Museum of Art and the Fairmount Waterworks. I saw a few rowers sculling across the river, and I tried to get some Eakins-style shots, but they were too far and too fast.
My guidebook says the Fairmount Waterworks were built in 1815, but other sources give other dates, though all make it early enough to qualify as the first municipal waterworks in the United States.
It is an elegantly neo-classical assemblage of buildings, and once again I was impressed that at some point in American public life it was considered worthwhile to lavish money and the best current design talent on a public and utilitarian building. (Frederick Graff is listed as the designer, but I don't know if he designed the actual workings or the buildings as well.)
The Museum of Art, though completed much later than the Waterworks (1928), is also neo-classical in style and the two harmonize nicely.
Two of the buildings are surmounted by allegorical sculptures by William Rush, who started out carving figureheads for ships. The originals can now be found up the hill in the art museum. The woman turns a waterwheel which sends carved wooden water from a pipe into a reservoir. The chained old man represents the river controlled by dams and locks.
The Waterworks are surrounded by carefully tended and ornate gardens.
Thanks to my pal Arby for wanting to visit the Waterworks, since otherwise I would have missed them completely.
We went into the works themselves while his wife waited in the park with their adorable almost-two-year-old daughter, who was starting to get restless in a pre-lunch, pre-nap way.
One of the pet peeves we share is that science museums are always aimed at young children, so there were lots of bright posters telling us that pollution was bad, and not enough information on how the system actually worked, though to be fair I should say I might have missed something since we didn't want to keep the others waiting too long.
Some of the works are, I think, the originals, though I wasn't sure if they could still function.
The oddly shaped drainpipes below actually map the course of the Schuylkill River, and the sinks represent the larger cities it flows through. I don't know what idea is behind this peculiar piece of plumbing. It might just be something practical treated impractically, which is a possible definition of art.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art has quite a collection of Dutch tiles. The sea creatures caught my eye, as they always do. I have a sea-monster thing, as I mention everytime I write about Idomeneo. Some of the pictured creatures are quite plausible:
Others not so much so, though the hunter below seems improbable not so much for his half-man, half-fish nature as for the oddly lumpy musculature of his back.
Winged creatures are also fascinating, probably since they live in the other element that until recently we couldn't visit. What mythological or saintly scene is complete without a gaggle of putti?
This particular scene is The Rape of Europa, painted by Noel-Nicolas Coypel in 1727. It came to Philadelphia in 1815 when Napoleon's brother Joseph Bonarparte brought it with him into exile.
I used to disapprove of all those museum-goers I would see taking pictures of paintings. I wondered why they didn't just buy a postcard. Then I became a snapper myself. For one thing, I realized that most museums don't have pictures of the things I like: for every Baroque altarpiece the shops have twenty standard-issue Impressionist scenes. I like the Impressionists but, as with La Boheme, they are just overexposed, because presumably everyone loves them to pieces and will fork over cash for them.
The other thing is that reproductions never quite capture what is appealing about a painting: the size, or the texture of the paint, or the subtle or vibrant colors. Often when I do find a print of something I like I don't buy it because it just doesn't do the original justice.
You can see Coypel's complete canvas here, but the colors are all wrong. They're much too dark. What really captivates you in this canvas is the incredibly delicate sunrise colors: the pale blues and yellows, the rose and apricot tones. It's usually the darker, jewel-like tones that capture me, but I kept revisiting this picture.
I think Coypel must have seen Titian's Rape of Europa (now in the Gardner in Boston) in one form or another, though the later painter's version is less dramatic and distressed.
Perhaps no artist could withstand the appeal of the swirling arabesque framing the abducted woman.
Philadelphia has another canvas crammed with decorative sea life, this one by Poussin, and oddly enough it also has an aristocratic connection. It used to belong to Catherine the Great and stayed in the Russian collections until the Soviet government needed to raise money in 1930 (which is also where the National Gallery in DC got some of its greatest paintings). The frame still shows evidence of its Russian provenance.
You can see the complete picture here; again there is the irresistible arabesque around the woman, which I see is not in any of my pictures, which is what I get for just taking shots of details.
The painting is generally referred to as The Birth of Venus, but the Museum's own catalogue emphasizes that this is just a possibility. The woman at the center might be Galatea:
Or the real focus might be the sea-god Neptune on the left:
It's a literally fantastic view of winged and finned and scaled creatures all combined in one eruption of color and form.
For a city with freezing winters, Philadelphia has quite a few fountains. Most of them are concentrated around the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. One of the largest and most striking is directly in front of the museum, at the base of the stairs in the Eakins Oval. The only picture I took of the whole thing didn't come out very well, so I'll just tell you that in the middle is an equestrian statue of George Washington, raised on a plinth, and surrounding it are figures obviously based on Bernini's Fountain of the Rivers, only with American types and animals.
On either side and at some distance from this extravaganza are simpler fountains like the one below.
As you go up the steps to the Museum, you see sections obviously designed for running water.
Directly across from the Museum entrance, in the plaza up the stairs, is another fountain, though it was dry when I was there.
Inside the museum you find still more fountains. The one below is in a large rotunda with French post-impressionist paintings. The photo isn't that great (the pool is fairly large and I may have zoomed in too much), but you can see the top of a van Gogh Sunflower canvas reflected in the water. This fountain is directly in front of Cezanne's Large Bathers, which is in an alcove that was hidden by screens for most of my visit. One guard told me they were painting the walls, but I'm not sure she was right since the paintings were still on the wall and uncovered, since I could see them when they occasionally opened the screens for a moment to pass in or out. If you were painting the wall around a Cezanne, wouldn't you move the painting, or at least drape a few dropcloths over it? The alcove was re-opened on the last day of my visit, so I avoided the disappointment of missing one of the Museum's greatest pictures.
The galleries of eighteenth-century French art rate another fountain, this one featuring Venus herself. That's the same fountain in the two following pictures, only taken from different angles at different times with different settings.
The fountain below is part of the reflecting pool in front of the Rodin Museum.
The one below, in Logan Circle, is called the Swann Fountain, and represents Philadelphia's three major rivers. It was designed by Alexander Stirling Calder, son of Alexander Milne Calder (who created the William Penn statue on top of City Hall) and father of Alexander Calder (who created the mobiles). A large Calder mobile called Ghost hangs in the lobby of the Museum of Art, and so thanks to a handy arrangement of windows you can see work by three generations of Calders all lined up. That's one of those things guidebooks will always mention, so I felt obliged to pass it on.
The currently dry fountain below is in Rittenhouse Square, though presumably the colors streaking the nymph are a later addition from the fun-loving residents of the Square.
The fountain below is part of the Fairmount Waterworks, right down the hill from the Museum. I have more pictures of the Waterworks which I will post later.