Saturday 28 September 2019

Summer bathing places 2: three Scottish rivers

Given the extraordinary circumstances which delivered two separate bouts of hot sunny weather in Scotland, I managed to hit cold natural waters inland on three occasions: the Tweed where it's joined by Biggar Water,

the Tay at Newburgh

and the the Lemahamish Pool where the waters of the Forth between Gartmore and Aberfoyle become temporarily more tranquil.

The first two river plunges happened on visits to friends in Broughton (between Peebles and Biggar)

and Abernethy (near Perth)

after a short bout of Edinburgh Festival going. On the day before the plunge I walked part of the Buchan Way with old university friend Christopher, partner Ruth accompanied by dog Lily, and C's son (my godson) Alexander. Leaving behind a very lively hillrunning event, we headed up between the heather-clad hills - Wales is losing its heather, Scotland could be threatened by global warming too anon -

and down another valley before branching off the main route towards the reservoir at the Stobo Estate

where we stopped for a picnic lunch

before heading down to the water gardens. The next morning Alexander drove us over to Biggar to see his first home with girlfriend Kirsty, and we saw yellow-dyed prize sheep in a field, ready for the big show the following week,

before heading out to near Ruth's for the bathing place. She has a wonderful view over the broad valley of the Tweed between Peebles and Biggar

and it doesn't become any the less beautiful the closer you get to the water.

Ruth was first in, keenly watched by Lily and a quickly-made pal in the form of a passing pet.

Negotiating a muddy start, we were quickly in, accustomed ourselves to the cold and sat in the sun for a bit on the pebble bank opposite before swimming back. I was the last out, and Lily decided to come and join me for a second splashabout before beating me to the shore, as you can see from the photo up top.

Next to the idyllic home of Caroline and Alan near Abernethy, itself not far from a river - the Earn - along which the Fife Coast Path should continue to Perth, but an old farmer who now has dementia wouldn't allow it on his land. So we drove to St Andrew's alongside the Tay, which the Earn quickly joins, and stopped at Newburgh for a walk through the reedbeds - the largest in Europe, it's said, a fine reserve for many birds -

to a small beach used for launching boats. The current looked strong not far out, but I ventured it, found it all pleasant, and came back after a good few minutes.

We spent rather too long wandering round St Andrew's in the heat, looking for a good place to take Caroline to lunch to thank her for her hospitality. As we were about to cave in to an unpromising hotel restaurant, a chance venture down the dip towards the beach revealed The Seafood Ristorante, its big glass windows overlooking the bay. As we were late by lunch standards, a table wasn't a problem - and it was worth it: top marks for both starter and main course.

Lingering meant a brisk walk back to the car, where time was just up on the metre.

We were also eating well Chez Caroline each night, when it was warm enough to sit in the pavilion at the end of the pond. Alas, I never did see the hares which frequent the area behind it - one of the babies was killed by a buzzard after we left - but early morning and sunset walks around the garden rooms were such a joy.

The Lemahamish Pool of the Forth I only discovered on the last of my full days holding 13 sessions on Die Walküre over the weekend for the Wagner Society of Scotland. More on those anon, but in my two hours free each afternoon I never got as far as Abernethy. But I did manage to hit the cycle path, which turned out to be on the wrong side of the river to access bathing (here, the views both ways from the bridge). 

So I went to the HQ of the campsite on the other side, and they told me it was fine to walk through the site and then take a path past a small waterfall

to the very pleasant green and beach beyond. Wasn't sure that was it when I saw it,

but a couple out walking their dog assured me it was, that the water level was very low but still deep enough to swim - as their dog was doing. So in the break between the rains of that last day I took the coldest dip of the year to date. 

I wasn't submerged for long, but I did it. And then, after the few rays of sun, it started to rain again. The route from grand Gartmore House where we Wagnerites were all lodged was an especially lovely one - down the drive to the (privately owned) pool near the bottom of the hill, glorious in both the hot sunny weather of the first two days

and the onset of autumn that Sunday,

and along Butler's Path, one of the loveliest woodland walks I know. 

Last year was especially rich in fungi, because it had rained a lot and continued to do so while I was there, but at least this year the tree with mushrooms rather than bracket fungi springing from it looked good in the dappled shade. With a bit of help, I've been able to identify the species as porcelain fungus, Oudemansiella mucida.

The only loss that rainy Sunday was the chain of cobwebs which had looked so lovely in the sun on the Saturday.

I never did get as far as the hills, but at least I could see them. Next September I must take some extra days around Siegfried to explore the area.

More hermetically sealed than Gartmore House was the oasis of Tsinandali in the wine-growing Kakheti region of Georgia, where as the rivers in the valley were all dry my dip happened to be in an exquisite rooftop pool of the Radisson Blu Hotel, connected to the two concert halls - indoor and open - where the festival events I was attending took place. On those, and a wonderful monastery not far from the grounds, more anon here and on The Arts Desk.

Wednesday 18 September 2019

Myths and monsters: Opera in Depth 2019-20

The new season is upon us - at the Royal Opera, it's kicked off  with two revivals of very flawed productions which may yield good singing, but I'll give 'em a miss - and on 7 October I and my loyal students, along with a few new members, reconvene in splendid Pushkin House, Bloomsbury Square, for more journeys through the rich and rare.

In October, we depart from the most usual format of two operas split each 10-week tern with five Monday afternoons on each. This time we start with three classes on Handel's early cornucopia of brilliant ideas Agrippina, to coincide with a new production at the Royal Opera House starring Joyce DiDonato (if it's half as good as the ENO staging with Sarah Connolly, Christine Rice and Lucy Crowe, among others - Crowe returns here - I'll be happy). Moving forwards in time for the following five classes, the focus is on Gluck's incomparably concise balance of classical restraint and romantic emotion in Orfeo ed Euridice - undoubtedly the greatest of English National Opera's chosen operas on the theme of the Greek poet in music. We'll also be taking sideways glances at Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld and Harrison Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus. For the last two Mondays, we get to grips with the music of Berlin-era Weill to coincide with English Touring Opera's rare staging of his acidic fable Der Silbersee (Silverlake).

January sees us resume our four-year journey through Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, in tandem with Vladimir Jurowski's annual performances with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. We go into the woods and up a mountain with Siegfried, the most fairy-tale-like of the tetralogy.

Summer begins in blood-soaked ancient Mycenae with Strauss's Elektra - the ultimate development of the Wagnerian line, also pointing the way forwards to a more concise form of searing music-theatre. The season needs one hundred-per-cent Italian opera, and it was time to return to the miracle of exquisite orchestration and dramatic timing that is Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Both operas are in the Royal Opera's repertoire - Elektra in a new production starring the phenomenal Nina Stemme, Butterfly a revival witnessing the return of Ermonela Jaho.

If you're interested in joining us, leave a message with your email; I won't publish it but I will respond. 

So, off next to Gartmore House in the Trossachs to resume my Ring course for the Wagner Society of Scotland over four Septembers with Die Walküre. I wrote a bit about last year's fun if exhausting experience here. This time sunshine is forecast for a day or two - last year, after the above sunset on arrival, it rained on and off for the whole weekend - so I'll be making the most of my few afternoon hours off between some of the 13 (!) lectures in three and a bit days.

Monday 2 September 2019

31 today

Meaning the he-I, only partly revealed in the above photograph in the grounds of the modern-art-rich Gunton Arms, North Norfolk, where we had a superb lunch to celebrate a birthday early last month in the middle of the equally flavoursome Southrepps Music Festival. We may have between us two feet in the grave, but I don't really buy in to Webster's cynicism. Anyway, the stunt is a good substitute for the fact that The Other won't allow full-frontals or facials other than this one (wedding photo 2015) on the blog.

Since 1988 we've been civilly partnered and married, to celebrate our rights, but our relationship began in Edinburgh while we were there performing Puccini's Gianni Schicchi on the Fringe with City Opera and the Rehearsal Orchestra. Edinburgh was, is and I hope always will be my city of love - unrequited over four years as a student (what pain that was), redeemed another four years later.

'Our' opera is either Schicchi or Nixon in China, the UK premiere of which we went to see around that time, other backgrounds being a visit to see university friend Eleanor Zeal's play that year, The Tainted Honey of the Homicidal Bees, based on the Greek myth of Erysichthon (Eric in her version), which won her another fringe first, after which we had J's sadly now erstwhile friend the Houri dancing up the stairs of the Annandale Street flat where I was lodging bawling 'I'm in love with a wonderful guy', and the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens, where a pledge was made. The above programme was signed by the great man some years later, when I got to interview him in a pre-performance event before he conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a Barbican concert of his music.

Friends who were recently together back in 1988, my hosts in Annandale Street, are separated now but on good terms, and their lovely children are still partly ours (at least in my mind, anyway; we put in many intensive days of work entertaining them on visits to Scotland): Alexander first, chronologically, among godchildren, Kitty nominally J's goddaughter now.  Mother Julie has this heartstopping view of Arthur's Seat, complete with figures on top, from her kitchen window,

while Christopher still lives on the other side of this amazing valley in Broughton, between Peebles and Biggar in the borders, where we went for the first time in some years after our Edinburgh sojourn this year.

'Our' boy, Alexander, is now a hard-working twentysomething who's just bought his first modest property in Biggar with girfriend Kirsty. I hope he won't mind being the only face up for close inspection here, unconsciously but hilariously reflecting darling dog Lily's head-up with the ball at our picnic by Stobo Reservoir on our glorious four-hour walk from Broughton along the Buchan Way.

And here is said dog acting as substitute for the one I want, along with a garden, to complete our more or less contented life, outwardly ruffled at the moment by what happens to J's work should the European Commission Representation in London finally close on 31 October (but I'm still hopeful that it won't, probably a little more so after the first public response to democracy under threat this past week). We're both heading out of the confluence of the Tweed and Biggar Water on a gloriously warm weekend.

And here, continuing the tradition of anonymity for J, are my more feline companion and I heart-shadowing at Kew on Sunday

with blissful Mediterranean pine and sky directly above.

UPDATE: our evening should really have been dinner for two, but how could I miss Gardiner's Berlioz at the Proms?

I blush to say I applied relentless pressure on J, who hates the Albert Hall audiences but loves good singing and all-round excellence in opera, and he got both, having amusingly pointed out that our anniversary night subject was, in real life but not in Berlioz's romantic portrait, a brawling bugger who constantly faced arrest for both the stabbing and the sodomy. Anyway, a more joyous occasion couldn't be imagined.

It was a giant bottle of champagne to Haitink's farewell concert last night, a wine of very rich vintage.

You can read about both concerts (five stars, natch) on The Arts Desk: Benvenuto Cellini here and the Vienna Phil special here. With thanks to the doyen of action photographers, Chris Christodoulou, for the photos. 

Sunday 1 September 2019

Rosy in Ravenna and Comacchio

Those lovely people at the Ravenna Festival always make sure there are fringe benefits to a visit, as if eight monuments with World Heritage status (which I described and pictured at maybe excessive length in a 2018 entry) and the starry events of the Festival itself weren't enough. This year they'd arranged a cookery lesson with the magnificent Rosella Mengozzi

and another trip to the lagoon at Comacchio - I requested a return after 2018 - including the boat trip we'd missed last time. Thousands of flamingos were to hand: not as pink as they might be, so presumably prawns aren't big on the diet here, but still beautiful creatures.

Rosella runs her immaculate kitchen, so full of good things, and her eating space in the Darsena pop-up site down at the docks, a popular place to hang out of an evening.

We were there early in the morning, and after several shots of espresso, Rosella provided more virtual caffeine with her wonderful vivacity and responsiveness. The wife of an Italian music critic resident in Ravenna, she came to cookery teaching late in life, having been told by a chef in Rome that she has a talent, and she uses it for good causes; in the winter, there's a sharing with the immigrant communities of Ravenna, who tend to be in this area. They teach her and others their cuisine, and she returns the compliment with la bella cucina d'Italia. On my last full day, having seen J off on the train, I gravitated back to Darsena and found a group of teenage Italians of Tunisian origin packing up after their last lunch chez Rosella.

She'd been feeding them (they paid, but not a lot) and they'd been camping in the sands of the site prior to taking off in their bus around Europe. 'They' are Radioimmaginaria, 'la radio degli adolescenti', which seems to broadcast first and foremost about the climate emergency, and I kept in touch with the girl I spoke to the most, the charming Ludovica, about their visit to London. It turned out in the end that we didn't coincide; they were next off to Stockholm to catch Greta Thunberg before her big transatlantic sail. Inspiring youth! This generation is our biggest hope, but we need to do much more before they can take over the reins.

My notes for Rosella's lesson - above, she's fine-chopping carrot, celery and un poco di prezzomolo - are scribbled in the back of my Ravenna monuments guide, and don't make a lot of sense. Nor shall I bore you with most of the basics here. Suffice it to say that we learned about making the perfect ragù di pesce alongside some very sound advice on risotto, which needs a separate brodo. We also got to taste pasta made with berries (though to be honest I couldn't detect the latter in the eating).

J was gratified that in her commands to use fresh and best ingredients, Rosella recommended top extra virgin olive oil in the cooking - we're often told that basic standard is enough. Always keep a high heat for the first ten minutes of frying. Don't remove the skin from onions if small - choose well (in this case tropea) - and garlic. And did you know that the thread on mussels is used for the garments of popes?

Once ready, we took the food downstairs to eat with Rosella's cooking partner Rosetta (pictured on the left above; on the right below is Anna, mentioned further on).

An elderly gentleman dropped by and told us about his work teaching local children to play old street games - charming, vital - and Francesco from the ice-cream bar Sbrino round the back let us taste the last of the gelato made specially with gorgonzola for a local festival the previous day. It sounds peculiar, but I loved it.

That was a perfect morning. So was this year's excursion to Comacchio, the mini-Venice I wanted J to see along with the lagoon. Last year we'd been trapped in traffic on the main road up to Venice and missed our boat trip. This time we took one from the Bettolino di Foce, an old fishing station converted into an unpretentious restaurant absolutely in the middle of nowhere, where festival doyenne Anna Bonazza had taken me and colleague Ruud to eat last year. It's approached via a sheaf-lined canal

and some of the traditional huts with projecting fishing nets.

Of course we returned from the trip to have lunch at the Bettolino; this time I took courage - as a hater of the jellied variety - to order a local eel for two with polenta on the side

and it was sensational: very fleshy, jellyish in a good sense. In 2018 I intended, but - I see, or rather don't see - failed, to write about Comacchio as the historic centre of the eel industry.

It was a hard life, the locals catching what they could in the storms of November-December (Anna comes from one such family, and memories are fresh with her grandmother). Our excursion took us up a canal at the edge of the lagoon to one of the outposts where the eel fishers lived and worked for weeks on end.

It looked like a fun hangout in the height of summer, but imagine the cold and wet; tuberculosis was rife. In the main kitchen (used to cook smaller fish, mostly), provisions were hung on racks to stop the rats and mice getting at them.

Over the lagoon was an old guardhouse with watch tower, called Donna Bona because ladies would visit with fresh water and offers of personal favours (economic necessity).

In the foreground below is one of the few plants that can thrive here, Salicornia perennans. The fronds absorb the toxic salt so that it doesn't get to the roots.

Our guide was a nature warden in the Parco Regionale del Delta del Po, based at the Bettolino, and he was of course a mine of useful information (though in Italian only, since there were only two of us Brits on board.

Incredible statistic: 70 per cent of the bird population of Europe is to be found here, This part of Italy is a bridge for migrating birds, a halfway house between Algeria and Iran.

Many of the birds are ringed, including a flamingo born 42 years ago in Comacchio they named Olga. She was traced in Sardinia, Tunisia and Algeria. She didn't appear here for eight years but last year she came back. This isn't her, but I love the shot of flamingo takeoff.

The warden was excited to see a rare zafferano (Larus fuscus) among the bird on these posts, a seagull usually confined to Scandinavia.

For me, it was enough to see a pygmy cormorant.

Then of course there were the usual little egrets, the sight of which can still thrill the likes of me

and these creatures back at base - so very odd that I thought they were models until they moved, or unfortunates coated in oil; but a white breast revealed in another picture corresponds to an image of a Black Swedish Duck (which would, I think, be quite rare).

And so to lunch, a wander out to see more flamingos closer to shore

and 20 minutes in a nearly deserted Comacchio on a very hot afternoon (but not sticky and humid as it was last year).

Preparations were under way for the Feast of  Saints Peter and Paul (Cassiano is the town's patron saint).

Some of the vessels around the celebrated Trepponti (triple bridge) had a carnivalesque look.

I'd like to have been in Comacchio that evening. But we had another ritual to attend back in the heart of Ravenna, a dramatic adaptation, around which I'd based the visit, of Dante's Purgatorio - last year's Danteana covered on the blog here - as adapted by the wonderful Ermanna Montanari and Marco Martinelli of the city's pioneering Teatro delle Albe.

Here we are at Dante's tomb where the ritual began for Inferno two years ago, too, some holding rushed (giunchi) aloft to accord with Cato's commands to Virgil to cleanse Dante with just such a plant at the foot of Monte Purgatorio. You can read all about it here on The Arts Desk. The delightful footnote is that as we all happened to be in the same pizzeria after the show, I had to go up and tell them how impressed I'd been. And they then wanted to get in touch, so I have a host of fascinating books to read, some in English - the company is well known in America but has never toured to the UK - and the complete Divina Commedia to anticipate in Ravenna in 2021.