Thursday 29 December 2022

Zoom courses: from Vaughan Williams to Nielsen

What an enriching term it's been on the orchestral front (opera, too, but that's another story). The ten autumn classes on the British symphony from 1907 to 1960 had anniversary genius Vaughan Williams at the core. I came to love those of the nine symphonies I'd either had a problem with - the Third and the Fifth, so much more going beneath the surface and not at all the placidity I'd imagined - or didn't know well (above all Eight and Nine). 

The biggest revelation was how much VW can extract from a couple of chords or an enharmonic shift, often with a distinctive turn of phrase above them. You've got a colossal case right at the start of A Sea Symphony. And then I realised that the stomach-flipping sequence towards the end of Pastoral Symphony's exposition - in that case, B flat minor to G major and back - fuels more explicit conflicts in the embattled symphonies to come. Deryck Cooke made a brilliant analysis of the Sixth focused on the essential elements of musical vocabulary it exploits so originally. Even the English-idyll intervals which can sometimes get a bit repetitive (think Lark Ascending) can be transformed according to the harmonies under them - the melancholy-hallucinatory Ninth is a striking example. 

The big enigma remains about the multitudes contained within VW's outwardly lovable and wholesome personality. Whence all that violence and discontent in 4, 6 and 9 especially? He rarely discussed his music in autobiographical terms, though John Bridcut's documentary puts its finger on some of the "passions". I think second wife Ursula gets too big a role, but the frustrations he must have felt looking after the invalid first, Adeline, immobilised by arthritis. I wonder if some of the floating wastes have to do with her frozenness. Telling that after her funeral he came back and threw a chair across the room in rage. Just came across this photo I hadn't seen before of them together back in 1917 (and of course VW's service in WW1 must have been another source of anguish).

This was also a good opportunity to listen more intently to the cycles I had to hand - Boult's and Handley's. And then at a lateish stage, when I found YouTube helpful for showing the score above another performance, I discovered Bernard Haitink's recordings with the London Philharmonic: surpassing the others for the intensity and extremity of the pianissimos, the tonal beauty throughout. Haitink doesn't often do electrifying, but his Sea Symphony is just that. What a remarkable range of sympathies he had. 

A student who didn't join last term told me I needed more than 10 Thursday afternoons to accommodate other figures on the scene. But by stopping at 1960, I ruled out the later Tippett symphonie (which baffle me) and more on Malcolm Arnold. Still, while I know his Second and Fourth Symphonies well, the First came as a revelation. The first movement has great gestures, but the finale is a tour de force from start to finish. This is an electrifying performance from Rumon Gamba and the BBC Philharmonic not available on CD.

There's an even more sophisticated brilliance about Walton 2, which reveals more every time you hear it. I still don't think I've grasped the slow movement yet, but the others show this fastidious composer adding to his palette and making forms which take the art of the symphony in yet another direction. 

Let's see if enough folk are attracted to the next term, focusing on Nielsen's magnificent six, but with more than sideways glances at Berwald, Stenhammar and Langaard. Here's the flier: click to enlarge for details and let me know if you're interested. 

Tuesday 13 December 2022

A Brno Advent dozen

On 1 December, having just returned from an exhilarating weekend seeing two productions by the opera/theatre director I consider one of the most visionary in the world, Jiří Heřman, and steeped in the spirit of a very Czech advent weekend in Brno's centre, I thought I'd mark each December day up to Christmas with an image on LinkedIn from that glorious city. Now that I've reached a dozen, I'll be reverting to London and Dublin, but I thought I might preserve the dozen here. I started above with the big wooden crib outside the New Town Hall. I'll use the original captions for the rest.

2: the people of Czechia's second biggest city love their animals. Dogs everywhere, but in the Zelný trh (which translates inelegantly as 'Vegetable Market', literally 'green', now given over to Xmas stalls) I also saw a gentleman with two cats - a Persian on his back, another in a basket. He eventually set them down to have a stroll around - the crowds parted and looked on in amusement.

This, by the way, was at the start of a very lovely Sunday spent with friend and Opera in Depth Zoom class student Barbara, who came up on the train from Bratislava. I've added one here above she took of my trying to talk to the unbiddable Persian. Another friend, Juliet, will be amused, because this cat was the spit of one looked after in Jerusalem when she and her partner Rory were there, name of Zorah, always addressed with 'so naughty!'

3:  back to the wooden-figure crib in front of the New Town Hall. Walk behind and you'll be rewarded with these splendid goats (?) and storks.

4: more hustle and bustle in
Zelný trh, and this time from cats to dogs, which the citizens walk around the centre in large numbers. Note the eyeing up of the wee black creature by the canine on the right.

5: third shot of the wooden Nativity - elephant's eye view, looking across to church of St. Michael.

6: barrel organ player in Zelný trh. I remember being struck by the quaint sounds around the streets on my previous visit - a very characterful fellow used to turn the wheel outside the Jesuit Church.

7: returning to Zelný trh after a walk with Barbara to the Augustinian abbey where Janáček received his schooling - covered in a previous post here -  and Mendel made his discoveries (and excellent duck and cabbage pancakes at Skanseen).

8: the rainbow light shimmer in front of the National (Janáček) Theatre, stunningly renovated, has been temporarily replaced by snowflakes. Walking back after Heřman's sunning production of 'From the House of the Dead/Glagolitic Mass', which I urge you to watch for free on OperaVision.

I can take another diversion from the advent 12 just to show you one stand of the exhibition in the foyer relating to both works, taking in some of the audience looks at the same time.

9:  the beautifully-proportioned Mahen Theatre = 140 years old, recently refurbished and still playing host to smaller-scale National Theatre productions - is where all Janáček's late operas were first performed. Nicky Spence's performance with Julius Drake of The Diary of One Who Disappeared was a highlight of this year's Janáček Festival.

10: expert choral sounds emerged from a small 1931 shopping precinct as I walked towards the National Theatre for a performance of Nabucco. These young people were rehearsing with their choir master - superb. Music is everywhere in Brno.

11: street cleaners taking a break in Náměstí Svobody, Freedom Place, known affectionately as Svoboďák. The Christmas tree here springs from a tradition established by the writer Rudolf Těsnohlídek, of Cunning Little Vixen fame, and a rather extraordinary story of a baby girl he found in the woods which led to the founding of a strikingy designed children's home. Full details here: 

I found another edition of Těsnohlídek's novelized Vixen, complete with Stanislav Lolek's charming illustrations in the original newspaper serialisation, in Brno's No. 1 bookshop, Janáček ordered up his music here.

12:  this very short tram which travels the centre is so beautifully lit up for Xmas - I'm afraid I didn't snap it twinkling in the dark, but you get the gist. Images 13-25 will first return us to London, then move on to more shining lights in Dubin. 

Previous posts on Janáček in Brno here, the city's churches here and its amazing functional 1920s and 30s architecture here. My last article on the big city festival is here on theartsdesk. Post on the latest operatic experiences due there soon.

Wednesday 23 November 2022

On the beach at night alone*

Context is all-important, and I'd like to be honest on here: last Thursday morning I had a second biopsy under general anaesthetic at Charing Cross Hospital. There's a tumour in my bowel and my vivacious surgeon Maria needs to ascertain the type of cancer before proceeding with further treatment (probably a limited form of chemo- and/or radiotherapy to avoid a big operation). Fortunately it's not spread, so I'm at a fairly early stage, and all should be well.

As with the previous procedure, I had an afternoon nap and then went out to see a life-affirming performance: two Thursdays before this it was Gilbert and Sullivan's The Yeomen of the Guard at beleaguered English National Opera (sign the petition, please) - not the finest of productions, but with some excellent performances, and anyway I have such a soft spot for the work, even if it's not as funny as the vintage topsy-turveydom. Last Thursday it was what turned out to be a very deep and moving Vaughan Williams evening at the Royal Festival Hall, culminating in his first great masterpiece, A Sea Symphony

I've waxed lyrical about the profundity of the experience in my Arts Desk review, but I wanted to say a few more words here in praise of Walt Whitman, whom I scoffed at too much in my youth. The sentiments seem all the more remarkable given the times, but even the long, long lines seem to me to work now. And I appreciate all the more how Vaughan Williams set them, or parts of them, in his first great spiritual achievement. "On the beach at night alone" forms A Sea Symphony's second movement, its dual achievements the beauty and mysticism of the themes and the way the baritone is stilled towards the end so that the orchestra carries the essence alone. 

My image up top is of midnight on a solitary walk around Bergman's beloved island of Fårö - by then, the stars were not up, but it still suits my mood. Whitman's poem, 'Similitude', is worth quoting in its entirety.

On the beach at night alone,
As the old mother sways her to and fro singing her savage and husky song,
As I watch the bright stars shining, I think a thought of the clef of the universes and of the future. 

A vast similitude interlocks all,
All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets, comets, asteroids,
All distances of place however wide,
All distances of time - all inanimate forms,
All Souls - all living bodies though they be ever so different, or in different worlds,
All gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes - the fishes, the brutes,
All nations, colours, barbarisms, civilizations, languages;,
All identities that have existed or may exist on this globe, or any globe,
All lives and deaths - all of the past, present, future;
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spanned, and shall forever span them and compactly hold them.

Time and again in A Sea Symphony, VW supports the 'all is one' philosophy with themes and colourings of surpassing beauty, reminding us how he was at best a 'Christian agnostic'. In the first movement, there's 'one flag above all the rest, a spiritual woven signal for all nations, emblem of man elate above death...A pennant universal'. And in the finale, it's the soul's sealike journey, 'fearless for unknown shores on waves of ecstasy to sail'. 

You can see why it chimed with my present thoughts on mortality and the universal. For the same reason, I'm inclined ever more to look at the beauty of the infinite - no shame in getting all purple-prosy about this - and after a splendid lunch yesterday with my new best friend Melinda at Daquise, I went back to the Natural History Museum. The late afternoon winter light made the building itself look more glorious than ever (which it is),

I'd seen a pic of the model Tyrannosaurus rex wrapped up in an 'ironic' Christmas jumper, but he was doing without on Thursday afternoon. Still, this was a good excuse to be struck afresh by how much has been dug up of dinosaur remains hundreds of millions of years old. The full frames, whether assembled from real bones or casts, are so impressive

but just look at the armour plating of this Scolosaurus, uncovered from the surrounding sandstone.

What I came for again, though, was the Mineral Gallery at the east end of the ever-amazing building, on the first floor. As it's in effect a dead end, not on the way to anywhere, unless you seek it out you may miss it, as I had done for years. Then I read Richard Fortey's Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, and he opened my eyes as surely as Simon Winder's Germania did to the fabulously beautiful Vogelsaal of Bamberg's NHM

As Fortey points out, this room is rare in still housing the bulk of the collections originally intended to be housed there, and the display

has been preserved in something like its original state. The Victorian Society is delighted. It is an airy space, well lit from the generous windows, and with glass-topped cabinets running in ranks transversely across the gallery, each of which includes a fine selection of specimens. The arrangement of minerals in the cases is by natural 'families' of minerals - so the sulphides will be found together, as will the native elements like gold and copper, or the oxides, and so on.

It is a teaching collection in a way that no longer exists elsewhere in the building. An eager visitor might spend weeks in here learning, and would emerge at the other end as something of a mineralogist.

I've decided to try and do so with a combination of regular visits, and the museum's own handbook, which arrived today.

That should help me to be a bit more systematic. But I see nothing invalid in the aesthetic approach I took yesterday - simply looking more at the most beautiful things, like the opals.

And the NHM's gorgeous rooms help if you just want confirmation that nothing in art is more wonderful than nature itself. Take, too, this brain coral, which I saw en route from dinosaurs to minerals.

*Whitman's line does without the comma between 'night' and 'alone' which features in the way the poem is punctuated in the score of A Sea Symphony.

Saturday 19 November 2022

Ireland: a lively history and a rich novel

Picked up a copy of Frank Delaney's Ireland in Hodges Figgis when I was last in Dublin, seeking to know more of my new found land in prose that was rather more eloquent than I'd found in the history books on the shelves in Fitzwilliam Street. It seemed unlikely that Delaney would make the novel wrapped around the numerous 'storytellings' work as well, but a brief flick through suggested the semi-mythic embroideries of the facts would be reward enough.

I was wrong: the journey of two souls, the Storyteller's and young Ronan O'Mara's, is no less compelling than the takes on everything from the stone-age miracle of unpromisingly-named Newgrange, via vivid lives of saints and warriors, to the Easter Rising of 1916. Delaney rings the changes on the chief narrator's word-magic by having Ronan himself try his hand in the schoolroom, and then by introducing the donnish playfulness of his tutor at Trinity College, T. Bartlett Ryle, whose didactic quality is actually useful - or at least I found it so - in reinforcing the injustice of centuries of English rule, where (thus Ryle) 

the state, that is to say the ruling body, that is to say the monarchy - and later the elected Mother of Parliaments - felt and exercised the right to interfere in people's lives in a minute, everyday way. To put it differently, it paved the way for oppression on a personal scale, because it struck at the personality of a people. And that is the hallmark of true prejudice, of true despotism.

The don returns at a later stage to reinforce what the Storyteller has had to say about Daniel O'Connell with his personal take on Charles Parnell, reinforcing the important notion that the first took as his cause the abolition of the Penal Reform laws, the second Land Reform, both acknowledging 

this pattern of failure on both sides. The English hadn't succeeded in their different eradication attempts, which ranged from assimilation to would-be genocide, because somehow the Irish clung on to who they were. And the Irish failed to throw them out because the country was simply too small to get anywhere by force of arms.

This is all very useful for a novice in Irish history like myself. But the imagination is what counts in terms of both the novel and the retelling, in many cases the mythologising, of the Irish past.
Clearly both Delaney and our Storyteller have some very fanciful chronicles of the saints to help them make the legends of Patrick and the Devil, Brendan and the New World, flavoursome. But the language is pure poetic prose, especially in the marine flavouring of Brendan's home in the west and his long odyssey. 

And the wanderer's observation of exquisite detail in nature chimes with where I am now. On, then, to the third volume of Jaan Kross's Between Three Plagues trilogy, A Book of Falsehoods. It's been a long wait for Merike Lepasaar Beecher's translation - Volume Two appeared in 2017, when I first wrote about my excited discovery of the Estonian genius - but last week the treasured tome arrived in the post from my dear friend Katharina Bielenberg of MacLehose Press. More anon.

Wednesday 28 September 2022

Kosky's Meistersinger: falling at a late hurdle

Wednesday afternoon sees the 10th and final class in my Zoom course on Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and the end should crown the work, as well as our grand finale: our special guest is Ben Heppner, who for me sings the most beautiful Prize Song of any I've heard (on the Sawallisch EMI recording: glorious sound, though my overall favourite on CD is Kubelik's. The below film is clearly from a gala, but it will certainly do). 

We've also spent a wonderful hour with Mark Wigglesworth, who conducted one of the Royal Opera revivals of Graham Vick's splendid production, and while Jane Eaglen (whom I saw as Eva at ENO, one of her first major roles for the company) had to pull out of a chat because of a crucial meeting about fundraising - she'll visit some other time - John Tomlinson will give of his time when he comes back from holiday, a very welcome postscript.

I previously covered Meistersinger when the course ran at the Frontline Club and Richard Jones's WNO production - still the best I've ever seen - was pending; he also came to talk to us. But every time it just gets richer. I don't look at previous course notes; it's important to start from scratch. This time we've been more preoccupied with the question of Wagner and antisemitism because, although I don't think it figures in this work (the comic villain Beckmesser is seen as a target, but that's been ignored by most UK directors, Jones included), Barrie Kosky, as the first Jewish director of the opera at Bayreuth, felt he had to tackle it. And I felt we had to follow some of the scenes in the DVD of his production (it's also on YouTube, by the way, but only with German subtitles). 

Felt the Wahnfried tableau restricted the scope of the Prelude, and it sets massive problems to solve: Sachs, Walther AND David among multiple Wagners; Cosima as Eva; Pogner as Liszt; Beckmesser as Hermann Levi. To his credit, Kosky makes the scenes between Beckmesser and Sachs laugh-out-loud funny. The ever- brilliant Johannes Martin Kränzle is at his most outrageous in this production. He's not at any point a Jewish stereotype, but Kosky makes the laughter freeze when the crowd turns him in to one. Personally, I'm happier with a view which treats Beckmesser as a Malvolio within a Shakespearean comedy. But I do understand why, in Bayreuth of all places, the peripheral questions need addressing. 

The point where I lose faith is when Eva enters Sachs's study - here the room in which the Nuremberg Trials were held - in Act Three. We lost the sentiment in favour of swift humour in the comparable Act 2 scene, but although I adore Anne Schwanewilms, the silly mock-girlish skipping she's asked to do defuse all the emotion in the situation. And if Michael Volle's Sachs and Klaus Florian Vogt's Walther are both aspects of Wagner, where's the crucial love triangle? I turned back to Lehnhoff's stripped-back production for Zurich Opera, and having doubted the scene's power, the tears flowed again. It was with good reason that Strauss and Hofmannsthal saw in this a blueprint for the Marschallin-Octavian-Sophie triangle in Der Rosenkavalier.

Excellent cast. Real-life couple Peter Seiffert and Petra-Maria Schnitzer keep it real, too. Some find José Van Dam's Sachs too dour, but I like the introspection, the pain is real, and he's very much an attractive older man.

Every class has brought big emotions. As Mark pointed out, every transition is a thing of wonder, and strictly speaking you could say it's ALL transition. I'm especially happy with the two hours we spent on the Act Three Prelude and the Wahnmonolog, with the help of Brian Magee's eloquent words on the Schopenhauer connection in Wagner and Philosophy to help us out. There's also another of the few really good books on Wagner which I re-read with pleasure, because all the elementary points in it are put so well - this brief but pithy journey through the opera by Catholic priest, professor and author of numerous books on literature and music M. Owen Lee. 

The art, ultimately is what matters, and among the many miracles of this great masterpiece is how it bears out all its claims with musical chapter and verse - everything is perfectly executed. Can it really be, as Mark wrote he was inclined to believe, in our initial email exchange, 'western civilization's greatest achievement'? While engaged on it, I'm inclined to believe so, Bach Passions and Mozart operas notwithstanding.

Verdi's Aida, of course, is a different case - the kind of plot all too familiar from early 19th century Italian opera, but ah, the music, the orchestration, the great string of duets! The writing is as masterly as that of its late successors Otello and Falstaff. I've had trouble persuading some students we should spend five Mondays on it, still more that G&S's The Yeomen of the Guard deserves two (I'm splitting the second half of term between that and Britten's The Rape of Lucretia

We start tomorrow (Monday 3 October), probably hitting 'Celeste Aida' before we get to 'Morgenlich leuchtend' on Wednesday. Full details here - click to enlarge.

Thursday's non-operatic course this term is devoted to the symphonies of Elgar, Vaughan Williams (the bulk of the classes) and Walton. I thought after the Russians, Czechs, Hungarians and Finns it was time for British - I hesitate to say Engish - music to have a look in. I wanted some words of commendation different to Sue Bullock's for the opera course - and Mark wrote what I'm sure he thinks, so proud of that. Again, click to enlarge.

Onwards! I hope a few more will be tempted to join up; good numbers for the opera course, fewer for the symphonies, but that's always been the case.

Monday 22 August 2022

Joyce's Dublin, Dante's Ravenna

8.30am, 16 June (Bloomsday), looking across to the Forty Foot at the Martello Tower, Sandycove, Dublin (both described in the first chapter of Ulysses), Howth headland beyond; 7.30pm, 7 July, in the Zona Dantesca, Ravenna, looking towards the tomb, not long before the evening performance of Paradiso (by which time thunder and lightning had already begun).

Two cities with the feel of friendly towns, where the citizens still identify with the heroes who graced their special places - Joyce in his early years, Dante a welcome refugee towards the end of his life. I want to yoke them together because they've been my happy places in recent months - and since then Pärnu and Edinburgh, two other great loves, but neither has quite so strong an identification with a single figure.

I've also written extensively for The Arts Desk about the big lead-up to a Bloomsday marking the 100th anniversary of Ulysses in Dublin, including the unforgettable experience of Barry McGovern's marathon week-long reading - official photo here by Ste Murray for the Abbey Theatre - 

and the long-postponed culmination of the Ravenna Festival/Teatro dell'Albe Dante project with Paradiso (which should have happened, of course, for the Dante celebrations in 2020, but anyway, here, at last was the final ascent). 

While Ulysses week officially began with the first of magisterial readings exactly a week before the day - duly celebrated here - the Bloomsday experience happened to follow directly on the heels of my 60th birthday, and because I'm too lazy to prepare a totally new set of photos, I'm going to include some from the selection I sent to the friends who took the trouble to celebrate with me in Dublin. Apart from those already in the city, the first to arrive was Sophie, from Amsterdam, and I knew she'd love the Swenys experience; having endured the grimmest of shows, purportedly about Hans Christian Andersen, at the Gate (lovely theatre, bad first acquaintance), we wandered back through Trinity College grounds and noted that the drinking had already begun after the evening reading of Finnegans Wake. P J is always welcoming, and of course was not only able to tell Sophie where the King and Queen of Sweden had sat, but also sang her a song in Gaelic - you can see how much she liked it.

Too many folk most of you won't know in the selection I sent out of following events - including birthday lunch in the splendid outdoors of MOLI, the Museum of Literature on the south side of St Stephen's Green included - but here's one of our local, Fitzwilliam Square, and another of Sophie getting the tables ready there for drinks.

and one of the birthday supper at the fabulous Kerala Kitchen just over the canal. Normally I shrink from having 'Happy Birthday' sung to me, but as I got that in various versions and languages - Spanish, Swedish, Latvian and Gaelic - I loved it this time. This captures the very jolly essence of that part of the meal (fortunately folk on the next table had all left so we had the upstairs room to ourselves). Our unofficial guest of honour was a rather well-known Irish composer whose company I always treasure.

The revels didn't continue beyond midnight because some of us had to rise at 7 to get to Sandycove for the start of Bloomsday rituals - the reading of 'Telemachus' always begins at 8am either on top of the Martello Tower or in front of it. It was a fair June morning to help along Artis, Kristaps, Sophie and myself.

The first group of the day was already on the top of the Martello Tower, where we'd been among only a handful of visitors back in April.

The reading had just begun when we reached the base.

Plans to swim from the Forty Foot were derailed by a large group of American students queueing up for the plunge, so we swam around the corner, looking towards Dun Laoghaire. I promise you I'd already been in when I took this photo of my young Latvian friends.

Walking back to the station, breakfasts were in full swing at various venues, starting with Fitzgerald's.

Oddly the blinds were down over the Ulysses roundels, one for each chapter, but at least I'd snapped them back in April. The first five will do for now.

Tickled to see schoolkids Edwardianised-up for the day. 16 June was Joyce's choice for the events of Ulysses because that was the date when he walked out with Nora Barnacle and she gave him a handjob (they were frank about their sex life). So it should really be called 'National Handjob Day'.

Took the DART train back to Pearse Street and joined some of the Swenys brigade in Kennedy's Bar. Devilled kidney as in Episode 3 an obligatory part of 'Bloom's breakfast'.

After that, I had to forego the rest of the daytime revels to get my Zoom Sibelius class ready. By the evening good intentions to head out to Blackrock for a Joyce play had folded, and we had a quiet evening back at Fitzwilliam Street. But before the birthday visitors departed, there was time for another excursion the next day; I wanted Kristaps and Artis to join me in a cliff walk along Hoath, which I still pinch myself to believe is only half an hour by DART train from the city centre. 

It wasn't by any meas as sunny a day as when J and I first did the circuit back in April, but the guillemots were still clustered on some of the rocks. These shots are actually from that earlier time, on the Bray cliff walk at the other end of Dublin bay, but the essence remains the same.

Mentioning Bray, cheerful kiss-me-quick resort with a fabulous headland to make it beautiful, allows me to slip in an April shot of one of the many houses where Joyce lived as a child, in a rather pretty west-facing terrace at the other end of the bay.

K & A got chatting to a Joyce enthusiast who'd been working her way through Ulysses AND Finnegans Wake in an online reading group. Her equally friendly daughter was studying medicine at Edinburgh University, so we had lots to talk about. And they kindly took this shot.

On Saturday our friend Katharina was still in town to attend the Dalkey Book Fair, so we took an excursion to Kilruddery, the other side of Bray, where I got an appropriately bookish shot of our MacLehose Press heroine. 

The 17th century bulk of the house seems to have been somewhat awkwardly restored in 1820s Tudor Revival style, with some less than felicitous later makeovers, but it's hard not to like the Victorian Orangery, clearly much in demand for weddings (which meant we could peek around inside).

The sweep of the gardens is the thing, though, and the locally-sourced produce in the pavilion cafe was first rate.

Finally, a family coda with the D'Arcys. Young Oscar for some reason insisted on the ice bucket challenge (hasn't that gone away yet?) and the parents gave in. Just pleased with this shot because it catches the exact moment, and sister Thea's leaping around for joy is fun too.

Can't thank David and Gwendolen enough for this. I'm easy to buy presents for when you know what I like...

My next visit to Ireland seemed to initiate a heatwave, and glorious sunny days in beautiful Kilkenny, festival experience of which I've partially written about here on The Arts Desk, but more should be forthcoming.

Ravenna didn't seem to be groaning under the heat during the blissful three days I spent at the Festival; long-sufferers told me there was air at last. What did jeopardise the Paradiso experience - see the feature on The Arts Desk for more background -  was a storm scheduled for the evening I was due to see it. The night before, my delightful festival friend Anna and I encountered the Dante and Virgil/Beatrice of the proceedings, the wondrous Marco Martinelli and Ermanna Montanari with trombonist Raffaelle Marsicano leading the procession past the ruins of Theodoric's palace next to Sant'Apollinare Nuovo.

We were then on our way to see one of two other events which turned out to be equally wondrous in their own ways, The Garden with another legend, Claron McFadden, visualised and directed by Luigi De Angelis of Ravenna's other major theatre company, Fanny & Alexander; they support Teatro delle Albe's work, and vice versa. F&A's base is in a superbly converted building which looks like a church but was actually constructed in 1887 as a sulphur warehouse, the Artificiere Almagià.

The restoration was included in the city’s impressive redevelopment of the industrial area around the harbour and along the Canale Candiano.

Just behind the Almagià is the Darsena Pop Up, where in 2019 J and I had an inspiring cookery lesson from Rosella Mengozzi (later I met the environmentally-concerned young Italians of Tunisian origin she was feeding for the week before they set out on further European travels). It was good to stroll around it at sunset with Anna.

This time the lesson was in Rosella's home, I actually intend to make tagliatelle agli spinaci with pesto sauce, because when she heard of this, one of my students said she had a spare pasta-making machine she's going to give me, 

Probably I won't hazard the piadine Rosella made with various fillings

but I was very happy to consume them along with Anna and her boss Fabio, who turned up very conveniently at lunchtime.

Serendipitously, as I was strolling back - having turned down the offer of a lift (!) - I heard the strains of Mozart's 'Ave verum corpus' issuing from the Church of San Romualdo. Turned out it was a rehearsal for Muti's 'Paths of Friendship' concerts which I wouldn't be around to hear (as in a previous year, it was a collaboration with Ukrainians - in this case the chorus of the Ukrainian National Opera - but couldn't be held in Kyiv, so they were going to Lourdes. Anyway this seemed like a fine space, and specially converted for concerts - I long to hear one there. 

A little further along the street where San Romualdo is to be found stands the Libreria Classense, I'd been to a concert in one of the cloisters there, but 'Virtual Dance for Real People' in the Hall of Mosaics was one of the most extraordinary things I've ever seen. Read about it on TAD, but look at the beautiful people here - my virtual experience in the second stage of the performance took so long to get working that when I came out of it, I found only members of the company left behind. So of course I asked to snap them, and here they are - the two dancers, Philippe Kratz and Grace Lyell,

plus the charming Stefania Catellani and others - apart from Stefani on the left and the dancers, I can only identify the inspired choreographer Fernando Melo to the other side of Philippe and Grace. The Roman mosaic unearthed near Sant'Apollinare in Classe and moved to the library in the early 20th century has a peacock at the centre.

Time to revisit favourite locations in Ravenna was limited, but just over from Dante's tomb through a zone of loudly stridulating crickets

is Dante's San Francesco, with the always peaceful square in front of it I crossed numerous times on the way from my lodgings (one of the inspiring mentors on the Warburg Institute Dante course, Alessandro Scafi, chose the quotations carved into the stone in front of the church).

Homage had to be made to what I reckon has to be the most beautiful small building in the world, the so-called Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

with its vaults more pertinent than ever given Paradiso's views upwards towards an infinite heaven and stars (though these may be flowers; it hardly matters. I've been here before in photogallery terms, of course, but every time it inspires me even more).

The heavens were not auspicious as we gathered at Dante's tomb on the scheduled evening for the Martinelli/Montanari-led experience. Thunder rumbled, the sky was black in the opposite direction, and our guides told us that they'd read the first Canto, progress through the streets and take a (literal) rain check at the cloister of what is now the City Art Museum (MAR), behind which, in the public gardens, the greater part of the dramatization was due to take place. 

As we walked along Via di Roma, listening to the singing from balconies along the way, the rain began to fall. 

There was still light to the south, while forked lightning brought the thunder with increasing regularity. Sorry I couldn't catch that, but at least Santa Maria in Porto wasn't shrouded in darkness behind sheets of rain, as it soon would be.

Waiting time in the cloisters wasn't wasted, as Edoardo Tresoldi's Sacral was still installed around the central well, a happy hangover from the Dante anniversary celebrations.

After half an hour, all hope was abandoned and I went off for a pizza with some members of the company and folk who were to become new friends - dare I say it more inspiring than most of the usual colleagues I get to hang out with at festivals. Fortunately we were all still around the next day to experience the last performance of Paradiso on a perfect day. Before it - and I'm so pleased I sacrificed my last chance to have another look at Sant'Apollinare Nuovo - we gathered with Paola Ricci, new to the Teatro delle Albe administration and managing the Research Centre on Vocality and Sound in the Palazzo Malagola over the road from the theatre. Here are my NBFs, Belgian sitar player Joachum Lacrosse, his partner Virginie Krotoszyner who had come to see TdA's street theatre work, their adorable baby Maya, a happy soul, and Professor Ron Jenkins - more on him anon - upstairs in the main studio room, following Paola.

The semi-dilipidated Palazzo has been enriched with extraordinary wall drawings by Stefano Ricci.

Paola then took us across the road to Teatro delle Albe's home, originally founded as a church and monastery by the sister of that very same Francesca whose lament Dante imagines so heartrendingly in Inferno. The church was redesigned in the 18th century and became the Teatro Rasi in 1919, named after the late 19th century Ravenna playwright and historian. 

Most of the frescoes have been rehoused in the National Museum but there are still traces on some of the arches. And how splendid is the east end which you can see behind the stage. Here Maya makes her first appearance on stage,

while the others look on from the auditorium, splendidly revamped in 2020.

The foyer spaces are equally handsome

and a few traces remain of the site-specific Inferno - how I wish I'd seen it, and that the promised 2020 triptych could have happened - which took place mostly around and under the theatre.

 xx and I were lucky enough to squeeze in a performance of a not exactly successful but intetesting chamber opera in glorious San Vitale before Paradiso began again. And this time it could not have been a more beautiful evening as we processed.

Various local choirs sang at the entrance to the MAR cloisters each night. We heard a superb amateur choir on the abortive evening, and this time a Nigerian Baptist group from a church just outside the city centre sang and danced us onwards while some of their children played nearby. The moon was up, too, as you can just see in the third photo below.

The drama in front of the beautiful Loggetta Lombardesca, an architectural glory of Ravenna I'd not seen before, required cameras to be stilled - there are some good professional shots on the Arts Desk piece - but here are some of the citizen performers waiting beneath the trees as we entered.

And from my recumbent place watching the stars come out as Ermanna read the final Canto so beautifully (the last word, as in the previous Cantiche, is 'stelle') I sat up to hear Marco deliver a fine last-night speech thanking all the Ravenati involved.

We also got to enjoy the company feast. I loved talking to Alessandro Renda, who played one of the 'living statues', Justinian, and who has instigated many educational projects of his own. Here he is on the right in conversation with Ron. To the left is a Milwaukee director who was there with his wife in some sort of collaborative role with Teatro delle Albe - I wish I'd had more time to talk to them

Our Professor is an admirable soul. He was arrested on an anti-apartheid march in South Africa during the bad old days. Imprisoned with 50 black protesters, he saw how they sang and danced during their captivity. When he was told he alone could be released, he chose to stay and ended up defending his friends in court (they were all acquitted). This was an epiphany. He now teaches Dante and other literature to prisoners in the States, and says they're much his best students; the transformations for them and their families is incredible. He's writing a book on Dante and prisons, and had seen many quotations from the Divina Commedia on the walls in Palermo's infamous Ucciardone. As a playwright and director, he used to come to Europe more often than he does now; he laments the passing of Peter Brook, and said that the Teatro delle Albe was one of the few companies whose work he'd always seek out (like me, he had been amazed by the 2019 Purgatorio). 

And here are my other NBFs at the gathering - Paola, Joachum and Virginie (Maya was happily asleep).

We've been in touch - I'm hoping we'll meet again - Paola I'll almost certainly see back in Ravenna, mash'allah, next year, whatever the company decides to do. Marco suggested the next project will be an enlargement of the superb disquisition he gave towards the end of Paradiso, on Bernini and Borromini. The language was so clear that I understood nearly all of it - and Ron suggested I read one of the books I'd been allowed to take away from our tour of the theatre. 

Thus it was I came to read Marco's Nel Nome di Dante, published so far in Italian only. I've done it, and without a dictionary, though there were a few key words I meant to check. But what a wonderful book it is, as good an introduction to Dante and what he means for us today as any I know. I finished it in my next annual happy place, Parnu - didn't actually read it on the beach, too much sun after swim and no shade, but as it was in my bag thought it tied in well with the painted ladybirds.

There will be other ramifications from this amazing visit, I'm sure of it. The next morning, I took Paola's recommendation to have coffee at Serafima, opposite the Teatro Dante, and as I sat there Muslim Africans in their finest boubous appeared on their way to mosque for Tabaski - a ceremony I will remember from my time in Djenne. Not a bad way to say farewell to this welcoming, open city.