Sunday 22 October 2023

Powerscourt Gardens - among the world's best

Wondered what the banner which greeted us down the long beech-lined drive to Powerscourt Gardens was worth: it proclaimed the National Geographic's assignation of No. 3 among the great gardens of the world, yielding only to Kew and Versailles. Even the approach yields lovely vistas of the valley, though the Wicklow mountains beyond were only occasionally visible, and the top of the Sugarloaf, usually such a landmark, not at all.

Now I'm not anything like as well versed in international matters horticultural as my friend Kerry Richardson, an experienced director of TV programmes on the subject including Around the World in 80 Gardens, but when we passed through the ticket office and emerged on to the top terrace, the vista immediately made me realise the reason for the accolade. It's a little like La Foce, where the formal layout is in striking contrast to the hills beyond, but on a truly Versaillian scale (this vista, with my friend, driver and Powerscourt enthusiast Catherine, one level down).

The glory of the gardens can be assigned to two Viscounts, Sir Richard Wingfield (1697-1751, who built the house and oversaw the first wonders of the garden design) and No. 7, Mervyn Edward (1836-1904), with the terrace designs instigated under No. 6, Richard (1815-1844) by architect Daniel Robinson,  and now to the son of the present owners, Alex Slazenger, whose training to become head gardener has paid off (according to a local. the family is much liked for its good treatment of everyone who works there). Much of the statuary was bought by the Seventh Viscount on a grand tour or commissioned from Prof Hugo Hagen of Berlin, Fame and Victory on the top terrace being based on the design of sculptor Rauch.

Diana and Apollo Belvedere were purchased in Rome by the Sixth Viscount

while some of the vases (probably not this one) were bought in St Petersburg

and the bronze groups of children/Putti, imitating the ones in Versailles, are the work of Marin.

The patterned pavement at the next stage down is a wonder, and worth repeating in more detail.

Below it there are two 17th century Italian bronze figures of Aeolus ('the spitting men' with dolphins), bought by the Seventh Viscount at Christie's in 1872, with sundial in between. The sundial has a Latin inscription which translates as 'I only make the sunny hours'.

All perspectives down towards the lake

are more impressive than looking up towards the house,

the backside of which, originally only two storeys high and much altered, is less impressive than the north front, adapted in the Palladian style.

A major refurbishment came to an end with a fire on 4 November 1974, leaving the house roofless and all its main rooms destroyed. It's now a centre for retail by the ubiquitous Avoca and others, though I guess you could hire the piano nobile for a big event. Anyway, everyone I met here was very friendly, as more often than not in Dublin and environs. 

So to the Pegasi framing the lake. They're splendid, if a bit blingy, and though I thought they might be recent additions, they're more of Prof Hagen's work from 1869.

In the centre is a reproduction of Bernini's famous Triton fountain in Piazza Barberini, Rome. Can't help feeling this one has a happier setting, and the shaggy moss suits him.

Time here for Respighi's magnificent musical tribute to the original, based around a single horn note (Triton blowing his conch).

I hadn't expected the Japanese garden to be more than a couple of temples in a glade. But this is a ravine wonder apart. The descent is rather spectacular (a nice woman in the house told me that for crinolined ladies, it was a relief to descend in to lower temperatures on a hot summer's day).

This was laid out by the Eighth Viscount in 1908, but it embraces a wonderful grotto from the time of the First Viscount, established in 1740 and made from fossilised sphagnum moss. Ireland's moist airs do the rest for the greening.

Other shades in the Japanese garden are complementary, though I imagine it's also lovely in blossom time.

Heading back up to the lake, our route now took us past giant sequoias and other splendours - the garden, like Mount Usher which I visited in the spring and really ought to have chronicled, has some of Ireland's prize trees, which must be pursued with a guidebook next time - 

past the Pet Cemetery to the different feel of the Dolphin Pond zone, with more big trees surrounding it including Ireland's tallest Eucalyptus.

The pond features on a 1740 map, but the fountain was bought in Paris by our very statue-acquisitive Seventh Viscount.

We now went through one of many splendid gates to the Walled Gardens; the herbaceous border was still in full spare - praise young Slazenger for the choices - and not only dahlia/bee rich but even producing an Oriental poppy.

I was especially keen to see the Gate from Bamberg Cathedral, bought by the Seventh Viscount from one Mr Pratt, a London curiosity dealer. Again, it looks a bit blingy, but regilding is done every decade or so. The golden rose vase on top is reminiscent of those in Vienna's Schatzkammer which were given by the Pope to the daughters of the nobility, giving Hofmannsthal his idea of a silver rose for Strauss.

The English Gate at the other end of the walled garden proper - again, surprisingly extensive - was brought, as the title makes clear, from England in 1873. 

In between, the rose beds were still doing well

 and the two discoboloi, one pictured here, bought by the Seventh Viscount in Naples - they were copied from the originals in Herculaneum by one Massalli - look ready for action against a background of hydrangeas.

Murmurations of starlings flew overhead, 

while we didn't exactly fly back to Dublin - nearly missed the start of Irish National Opera's stunningly well-sung Faust - but what an afternoon. Can't wait to return.

Tuesday 17 October 2023

Opening the shrine, then down into the Rhine

Ten glorious Wednesday afternoons on the Wagner opera that always leaves me feeling whole have flown by, dovelike. I'll confess that musically I can do without the final transfiguration; it doesn't really take us any further, and unless you have a production where Parsifal moves on, feels a bit 'here we go again' in the non-action, too. But tears always come to my eyes in the Good Friday Magic music, whether in the opera or in the concert. It took the visit of John Tomlinson to drive home how beautiful and unusual the words are. The gist is that humans may look to God, but nature looks to humans to treat it kindly. Wagner's ecological thoughts, which permeate the Ring, chime so strongly with us today.

The oboe solo gave me my first big emotion a day or so after the big operation in July - my wonderful students Janet and Ian Szymanski sent me a Jacquie Lawson card which begins right there: total surprise. It starts above at 41m45s in what remains my favourite recording of Parsifal since I undertook to listen to every one from start to finish for BBC Radio 3's Building a Library. Kurt Moll and James King sing, where necessary, with such tenderness. You may well want to listen to the whole act, and indeed the complete recording is up on YouTube - it's otherwise too expensive to buy second-hand as a CD set. 

Our more recent visitors could not have been more generous in their time or human warmth. Linda Esther Gray (two below me in the second from right row vertical-wise pictured above - click on the image to make it bigger) not only went back to the notes she'd taken when working with Reginald Goodall for the Welsh National Opera Parsifal - our loss that she felt it wasn't right to participate in the EMI recording - but also provided fresh tales which don't feature in her autobiography (which she intends to update, and I'm cheering her on, will help where I can). One of my American students asked her about the Dallas Walkure - preserved in not at all bad sound here on YouTube - 

and we got the extraordinary history of a visit to one of the generous wealthy Friends of the Dallas Opera, who greeted her with 'oh gee, it's so good to have you. Pavarotti was here last week and when he went away the poodle was dead.' 'I said to her, what are you talking about? And she said, "well, he didn't come at the beginning, he came about 2 o'clock in the morning, and sat down in a chair, and when he left, the poodle was dead." He thought it was a cushion. This is absolutely true, I've just remembered it...I told the Friends, now what you all need to remember is that my aria in Act One begins "Du bist der Lenz", and at the end of it you've all got to clap. They thought I was being serious - it had in fact got very serious - and the President of the opera house had to stand up and say, "now, Linda has a very strange sense of humour - don't clap" '. It's a treasurable two hours. And of course there was plenty of time for seriousness. Here are a few of us, including Linda, listening to Astrid Varnay and reacting.

John Tom (second from right, secon row down - again, click to enlarge) was equally generous with his time, and voice - he sang a great deal of Gurnemanz's part in Act Three for us. 

His anecdotes included one about being summoned by Barenboim to step in as Gurnemanz in Vienna the day after he'd sung Hans Sachs at the Royal Opera = 'and when Daniel asks, you don't refuse'. At Vienna Airport there was a police car on the runway, lights flashing. They drove to the Opera House with the siren goinga. They arrived at the stage door 20 minutes before curtain-up. He hadn't ever sung Gurnemanz in this Vienna production. It's a role he could still do at 77, but more physically demanding ones with six-week rehearsal periods, obviously not - 'my legs won't let me'.

Another phenomenon, and so generous with his visits: he'll be back to discuss the Rheingold Wotan now that we've started Opera in Depth Mondays in the depths of the river, and we'll see him in the Bayreuth Kupfer production (pictured above), the greatest experience of his life. After the talk, we watched him in Kupfer's Berlin Parsifal, which followed on almost immediately from the last year of that Bayreuth Ring; so meaningful in every line, and moving to tears (pictured below with Waltraud Meier and Poul Elming). 

Other guests are lining up this term: Christopher Purves, who's sung the Rheingold Alberich twice recently, in Zurich and at the Royal Opera (so much to ask him), and, when we move on to Iolanthe, conductor Chris Hopkins and a return visitor, John Savournin, who's promised to gather other singers from Cal McCrystal's funny and beautiful ENO production. 

Mahler Part Two has kicked off, and so far I've asked Catherine Larsen-Maguire, who pulled off a triumph in the Seventh Symphony with the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland (one of our Arts Desk folk in the north raved about it; rehearsal pictured above by Ryan Buchanan), and Edward Gardner, who has elected to talk about Das Lied von der Erde. Rich times ahead.