Saturday 25 July 2015

Palermo ancora

The Sicilian capital made me love it like no other city I've encountered in the past decade or so when I first went there in April 2013 (among towns, Pärnu on what one might call the Estonian riviera worked a gentler charm to the same end last week, but that's another story). So when we decided, post-wedding, to have a little holiday, to spend time walking and swimming around the Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro further west, a night and the better part of a day at the start had to be devoted to Palermo.

We took a beloved route, with crucial variations, on the first morning, walking along Via Butera from our apartment in the palazzo at No. 28 - a different one this time, looking out on the street -

past the three churches with their splendid baroque facades, the fish shops and restaurants and the more closely-packed dwellings at the south-east end of the street

to the essential bar, the lively Rosanero where the cashiers also sell football tickets (the colours of the team in question are rose and black)

and ice cream comes in massive dollops ('pistacchio' in front of 'bacio' on the left).

Then across the Via Lincoln and back to the old Botanical Gardens, their main 'temple' guarded by two sphinxes.

I waxed lyrical about the flora here back in 2013, so I'll try not to be too repetitive or long-winded. Of course the vegetation was more profuse in June, with the datura blossoms so fatal to poor sweet Lakmé in Delibes's opera (Brugmansia versicolor, originating in the Amazon) in full flower.

Diverse lilies were flowering both in the small pond by the cast-iron greenhouse, largest and most beautiful of the ones here

and in the Botanics' central pride and joy, easily the most fascinating structure here, the so-called Aquarium of 1794-8, where we had found turtles basking around the rim on the first bright day of spring. They were more elusive this time, but still to be found among the lilies

along with a restless baby moorhen.

The massive Ficus magnolides, introduced to Sicily in the early 1800s from its home on Lord Howe Island off the coast of Australia and quickly spreading, is still casting its slightly ghastly influence, though beyond it the reddish-orange flowers from Brachytora acerifolius, also an Antipodean guest and just about visible here, provide warmer terrain as they cover the ground.

There's a nice collection of mimosas in this southern corner, with Albirizza julibrissum in fluffy-flowered abundance

and the outdoor cactus garden looked especially impressive (here with Opuntia pailana in the foreground).

Along with many-berried coffee plants, Bougainvillea glabra graced the iron-cast greenhouse

with the avenue of spiked Chorisias from Brazil beyond

and jacaranda blossom contrasting with fallen clementines just outside the cactus greenhouses.

Then we crossed back into the Kalsa quarter of the old town, the part I know and love the best, and had to pass the beloved Magione

on the way to the major museum we hadn't quite had time to see on the last visit, the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia in the beautifully-sculpted Palazzo Abatellis. The main objective for me was to see the four Antonello da Messina portraits (last time I only got to see the remarkable Portrait of a Man in Cefalù's Mandralisca Museum, then under threat of closure, but going back to the website, it looks as if it's still open). It's easy to overlook the subtleties of three saints - I blush to say I only really noticed them on the postcards, because reflective glass didn't make it easy to see them - but the Mary of the Annunciation is a gem of instant appeal, partly because of the face and mantle,

partly because of the positioning of the hands.

I admit I did what I usually avoid, photographed because of the detail, but of course without flash. Other unpostcarded treasures needed recording, not least where there's individuality in the works of the Gagini clan. Antonello Gagini's virgin and child might have come straight out of a very beautiful workshop

were it not for the trouble he's taken to show her hair behind.

The room with the celebrated 15th century fresco of Death's Triumph was closed, but we could peep in and catch such details as the bony head of the Grim Reaper's horse and the minstrel below it.

The upper rooms seem to have been handsomely restored, not least the great gallery with two superb painted crucifixes in the centre.

After the Antonellos, it was a case of bigger canvases and lesser pleasures, with a few exceptions like an exquisite Jan Gossaert Nativity painted for the Lanzas of Gattopardo fame - the crest of the not-quite-leopard is on the back -

and upstairs a Bronzino on loan and some lovely Sicilian wooden figures of shepherds redeem the decadent dregs. But it was high time for a late lunch, so we headed to the nearby Antica Focacceria San Francesco which had been closed for renovations when we were last here. And now it was summer, so we could sit in my favourite Palermitan square looking out on the facade of San Francesco d'Assisi with its beautiful rose window

while opposite is the old establishment, serving a tasty selection of traditional street food for starters including the notorious Panino alla Milza, veal spleen and lung in a bun, and superb fresh pasta dishes.

Definitely the best meal we had on the holiday, though all the food was good and several others ran the Focacceria close. We strolled back to Via Butera chancing upon the oddities that make Palermo always a pleasure: a vegetable cart with a pre-recorded cry to come buy repeated over and over, a car passing with an accordionist playing away in the passenger seat and a string of shoes hung up to dry.

The meal required a siesta, which J took but I - rather foolhardily - didn't, determined to experience the Via Maqueda from the Teatro Massimo down to the Quattro Canti as a newly pedestrianised zone (albeit a temporary one).

 I approached it via the justly celebrated ensemble of buildings including the Martorana and Arabic-domed San Cataldo churches, quiet two years ago, very busy now

and took an excursion into the more complex streets of the Capo district, not so familiar with the market over for the day, lost my sense of direction and had to run back to Via Butera where our taxi to Scopello awaited. And so it was that within a couple of hours we were strolling around the former tuna factory beneath the village, finding the huge thyrsi of the agaves outlined against a dramatic evening sky

and looking back across the bay towards what we'd left behind.

Next Sicilian instalment, with fewer photos - I promise - must be devoted to Scopello and the wonders of the Zingaro.

Wednesday 22 July 2015

Just a girl

but with a voice, a charisma and a performing maturity beyond her years which set Amy Winehouse among the all-time greats. The comparison with Mahalia Jackson, Sarah Vaughan and Carleen Anderson, not to mention players like Thelonius Monk whose instrumental quality she could take up so uncannily, isn't hyperbolic: watch the BBC Arena documentary Amy Winehouse: The Day She Came to Dingle and see how sequences from the work of those magnificent artists don't diminish the performances of our own diva to an audience of 85 in a tiny church with only two guitarists (Robin Bannerjee and Dale Davis on bass) for perfect company. I watched it on the BBC Four iPlayer facility, only to find that it's on a hybrid set - CD, DVD - where the sound-only first disc also has plenty of treasures.

Having seen the Dingle doc, and witnessed what has to be the true and deeply curious, questing individual in fascinating interview with Philip King, founder of Dingle's Other Voices Festival, I wasn't sure I wanted to see the new documentary Amy, It was bound to emphasise the tragedy of Winehouse's life at the expense of what remains for us now: in other words, to reverse the words of Dan Cairns on the BBC set, a wake rather than a celebration.

Yet it's vital, if queasy and deeply distressing viewing. I knew how the industry eats its stars, but maybe not in such harrowing detail. The director, Asif Kapadia, simply lets people like Amy's foolish dad and weak boyfriend - not evil people, but so far short of understanding or the wit to do the right thing - condemn themselves out of their own mouths. And there's no doubt that if Mitch Winehouse had followed the wisdom of her lovely, utterly decent first manager Nick Shymansky and made sure she got into rehab before the feeding frenzy truly began, and if she had properly got shot of Blake Fielder-Civil, as well as the fatuously evil Svengali who took over from Shymansky  and pushed her beyond what she could manage, the undeniable tragedy might not have happened.

Shymansky and two schoolfriends show that goodness and loyalty can be simple in the face of awful cynicism and exploitation. Chat show hosts like Graham Norton and Jay Leno must be hanging their heads in shame at the cannily placed clips of them mocking her demise while the truth unfolds; but then they were not alone in watching the meltdown from a comfy distance. What's unforgivable in both cases here is that they'd had Amy on their shows and presumably got to know the real person she always was just a bit in happier times.

You may find the comparison absurd, but in the later stages I was reminded of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina: the sense that this need not have happened, that the heroine in both cases could so easily have resolved the worst, gone one way rather than another even at a late stage, is so intense. There was a last flourishing where Amy went clean and met and duetted with her idol Tony Bennett, the Good Father whose valedictory words - I'll leave them to the film - break the heart. Not that everyone seemed as shook up as we were coming out of the Notting Hill Gate Cinema: one girl was blithely jive-ing. We stared in amazement.

It helps to know what an authentic, confused but never malign or insincere human being Winehouse was, but of course it's all there in the songs: at one level pure confessional albeit raised to pure artistry in numbers like 'Rehab', 'You Know I'm No Good' and 'Back to Black', at another the spirit of something else speaking through a voice wise way beyond its years ('like a 65 year old jazz singer', as one commenter put it). Bearing in mind her jazz roots, exemplified in the film by a clip of young Amy singing with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, she would surely have gone back to more of that once the songwriting vein had subsided a bit.

What's amazing about her own numbers is that stuff which on paper looks like the stream of consciousness of a tortured adolescent is shaped into meaningfulness by the phrasing. And one can well believe that she never gave the same performance twice. The way, moreover, she switches on at the beginning of a number and then at the end signs off with a north London little-girl 'thank you very much' and a curtsey, is memorable. Anyway, watch the six Dingle numbers on the DVD and marvel. Here's one of them, my own personal favourite, showing what a great artist can do with a handful of notes.

Thursday 9 July 2015

German endings

'There is no German artist who does not become more heavy-handed over whatever he does than he ought to be,' wrote Hugo von Hofmannsthal to Richard Strauss in 1923, sounding their own joint knell on the dog's dinner that Die Aegyptische Helena turned out to be (superb first act, wretchedly convoluted second). I thought of that when I came to the end of Fassbinder's otherwise magnificent TV series Berlin Alexanderplatz. The original Heimat follows it in serving up a kind of dream-nightmare for the final episode ('The Feast of the Living and the Dead") in which the Teutonic penchant for the metaphysical is hampered by an equal tendency to the stilted and unspontaneous. I was worried, having found the first three books such easy and lyrical reading, that Thomas Mann's Joseph and his Brothers would end up the same way. I feel it does ramble a bit in Book Four, but steers back on course so that the end truly crowns the work.

Since I last mentioned my pleasant surprise over Mann's masterpiece on the blog, I've worked my way through the valley of the shadow of death as Joseph's brothers leave him in the pit - their psychology masterfully examined -  the incredible evocations of ancient Egyptian upper class living which grace the really rather creepy story of Potiphar's wife and her very long-term infatuation with the beautiful Joseph, the lightly-handled description of a far from bad second imprisonment and the great recognition scenes when Joseph's brothers, and finally his father, come to Egypt.

To add to the superb set-pieces I noted then, there's the extraordinary chapter where Eni/Mut (Mrs Potiphar) wants her stylish lady friends to feel her pain. So she whets some little knives so sharp that, when the friends look up from peeling their fruit at the carefully-timed appearance of the stunning young man, they 'cut their fingers terribly - without being in the least aware of their gory misfortune right off, since one hardly even feels a cut from a blade sharpened to such keenness, particularly if one is as thoroughly distracted as Eni's friends were at that moment'.

It's part of a cumulative horror in which Mann affects to give understanding to a woman truly in love. Yet Mut remains creepy in her lovesickness so, like other women in the novel, she comes off badly all the same. Still, it's not bad for a 300-page extension of what in the Bible - as depicted here by Rembrandt - comes down to her decree to Joseph to 'lie with me' and his running off with her garment.

Mann's authorial voice remains quizzical and ironic, occasionally nauseatingly coy, not least in the address to the reader including the advice 'take my advice and do stick around!' when the tale seems as good as done (in the chapter 'Pharaoh Writes to Joseph'). But it also reveals more as it goes on, and it seems to me that Mann's attitude to the whole idea of Jacob and his family as 'the chosen' is finally unveiled here:

One might say that it was presumptuous and all too egotistical of Jacob to regard such a vast calamity as this ongoing drought, which afflicted so many nations and resulted in great economic upheavals, as nothing more than a measure taken to guide and advance the history of his own house - it evidently being his opinion that when it came to himself and his family the rest of the world simply had to make the best of it. But presumption and egotism are only pejorative terms applied to beneficial conduct worthy of highest commendation - a far lovelier term for it is piety. Is there a virtue that does not leave itself open in terms of censure or in which certain contradictions, such as humility and arrogance, are not inherent? Piety is the privatisation of the world as the story of one's own self and one's salvation, and without the, yes, sometimes offensive conviction that one is the object of God's special, and indeed exclusive care, without the rearrangement that places oneself and one's salvation at the centre of all things, there is no piety - that is, in fact, what defines this very powerful virtue. Its opposite is neglect of the self, its banishment to the indifferent periphery, from where no benefit to the world can come either. The man who does not think highly of himself will soon perish.

In order not to find Mann's Jacob and Joseph odious, despite the leavening of charm and sly humour in the latter's case, one has to bear that in mind. And the ending does indeed have a serenity brighter than anything that has gone before. I left the book with regrets - maybe, like Solti, I should go back to the beginning and start all over again next year. Which is not something I felt about Proust.

As for Edgar Reitz's Heimat, I can well imagine revisiting certain episodes, but not the whole. This TV saga of family life over decades in a German village, Shabbath in the Hunsrück - not at all far from where we were at Easter - has dazzling cinematography, and a sometimes enigmatic change between black and white (who could forget, for instance, the scene where one of the brothers hurls down roses from a plane over the village?)

There are plenty of sympathetic characters, above all Marita Breuer's eventual matriarch Maria Simon (pictured above) - though this beautiful actress doesn't age convincingly, visually at any rate. The thread concerning Berlin prostitute and entrepreneur Lucie (Karin Rasenack) and the simple-souled Eduard Simon (Rüdiger Weigang)  is engrossing.

 I was always waiting for them to reappear. But sadly they don't, at least not much, once World War Two is over. Instead the whole thing turns a bit queasy with the adventures of an attractive teenager, baby brother Hermann (Jorg Richter), and his relationship with a 27 year old woman. I got the sense that Reitz was longing for the young man to take his clothes off as often as possible - it's almost exploitative.

And I didn't have sufficient interest in the boy's talents as a composer to want to follow his further adventures in the next series. So few directors on stage or screen get it right in characterising creative artists.

Anyway, that particular saga is over and I've been indulging J as he worked his way through all series of The Good Wife on his few free evenings. I can see it's well acted, with astonishing guest appearances from a list of distinguished names, and sometimes complex, but slightly formulaic in the tradition of most American series. Now it's back to Orange is the New Black and series three, and I'm finding it difficult to understand what anyone is saying. Maybe it's just a question of re-adjustment.