Sunday 31 December 2023

I'm still here Bonnie Langford is the most recent show singer to tell us, and so well (yes, really), in Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends, which I'm glad my old friend Simon encouraged me to go and see before Xmas. Actually the odds were very low on my not being still here, since the diagnosis of bowel cancer in November 2022 yielded a verdict of Stage 1/cuspal 2 and no metastatizing.

Nevertheless it's been quite a year, full of inspiring people like the heroic folk of Charing Cross Hospital - I can never get tired of seeing this pic -  

and I choose the top image, at one of my happiest places in the world, S. Apollinare in Classe outside Ravenna, since between my six weeks of radio and chemotherapy back in February, which coshed the tumour but not all cancer cells, and the big op to remove my lower bowel in July, I cycled to this glorious place just before temperatures went berserk in Italy. And here I was 10 days ago with my best beloved, cycling not an option for the foreseeable future but slow walking with stick always possible. finding it similarly deserted a few days before Xmas, though about to host a big wedding with a sumptuous reception set out on the upstairs level of the nearly-new Classis Museum, converted sugar-beet factory, nearby.

I'm having too full and rich a time to blog much right now, but let's have a token shot from each of our cities. A first night in Bologna revitalised my love of the place (any city which has a naked god in its main square, courtesy of Giambolgna, can't be bad),

while adored Ravenna yielded the best three nights of Italian opera, courtesy of honorary Ravenato Riccardo Muti, and allowed a day trip to Rimini, which was more fun than I'd imagined, 

with one of the greatest Renaissance interiors ever in the Tempio Malatestiano (must spend more time on that), and plenty of homages to native Fellini. Then it was on to Ferrara for Xmas itself: we ate well and saw much, met some charming people, but a certain grimness takes it cue from the fortress-become- palace (no wonder the Estes sought out cosier retreats in the suburbs), and the two main exhibitions were of 20th century Italian artists admired by the Fascists (no prizes for guessing who's in power here). Plenty of green on the 12 mile circuit of the walls, though.

Vicenza awed us with its theatricality - it helped that we turned out to be staying in Palladio's Palazzo Valmarana Braga, a huge bargain, right in the heart of things - and the Basilica in its square simply gobsmacking.

I'm happy we did a seven-mile country walk to take in villas and a giant Veronese - climbing steps on a wooded hillside was a major achievement. And now we're in the bosom of Siena again, in Sophie's stunningly designed top-floor guest house with views one dreams of - she can see this from her bedroom and bathroom.

And so, buon'anno, buon comincio, auguri, whatever takes your fancy. I have the task of leading Italians in "Auld Lang Syne", which has very different words in its best known Italian form, but Milva carries it off:

Italian retreats gave me time to labour love-wise over the best of 2023 on The Arts Desk. Opera is here; classical music concerts here.  May 2024 be as good, musically speaking; and may the world give us a bit less need to seek optimism in arts alone.