The Diary of One Who Disappeared is the title of a song cycle written by the Czech composer Leoš Janáček. One of the purposes of this site is to act as a diary where I can keep a record of some of the things that I have spent my time doing, as well as memories that I want to preserve. The tabs above also contain some essays that I have written on subjects that interest me.
Although I am English I have disappeared from my native land and for the past two decades I have split my life between the south-west of France and the north-east of Italy. This has given me the opportunity to pursue a range of activities and interests, including completing a PhD in social history, teaching art history and English in Italy, going to art exhibitions throughout Europe, attending concerts and operas by favourite composers such as Janáček, Mahler, Shostakovich and others, and travelling and exploring as much as possible.
Cultural events all over the world have been cancelled as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, yet, remarkably, one of the biggest and most important festivals in the cultural calendar went ahead, even if in a slimmed-down version. The Salzburg Summer Festival, celebrating its 100th anniversary, took place over thirty days from 1 – 30 August.
Two operas were performed, Richard Strauss’s ‘Elektra’ and a new production of Mozart’s ‘Così fan tutte’, the latter organised at incredibly short notice. There were also a total of fifty-three concerts and recitals, with guest orchestras including the Vienna Philharmonic under Andris Nelsons, Gustavo Dudamel and Christian Thielemann, and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra with its founder Daniel Barenboim. There were piano recitals by Andras Schiff and Daniel Barenboim, the German-Russian pianist Igor Levit performed a cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas and pianist Martha Argerich and violinist Renaud Capuçon played a programme of Beethoven, Prokofiev and Franck.
What was most wonderful of all was that it wasn’t even necessary to leave home to see it, as all this was streamed live on Arte TV and Medici TV.
Richard Strauss’s ‘Elektra’, based on the tragedy by Sophocles, was here staged by Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski with set designs by Małgorzata Szczęśniak. It tells of the revenge sought by Elektra (superbly sung by the Lithuanian soprano Aušrinė Stundytė) after her father King Agamemnon, on his return from the Trojan War, is murdered by his wife Klytemnestra (Tanja Ariane Baumgartner) and her lover Aegisth (Michael Laurenz).
Aušrinė Stundytė as Elektra
Unusually (uniquely?), the performance began with a prologue delivered by Klytemnestra in which she explained the origin of the curse of the House of Atreus (The curse began with Atreus’s grandfather, Tantalus, king of Lydia, who angered the gods and was banished to the underworld for eternity) and justified the murder, thereby providing a more balanced view of events than is normal. It was only then that the Wiener Philharmoniker, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, began their immaculate, though not overly-exciting, performance.
Overall, it was an imaginative and enjoyable performance, not least because, against all the odds, it happened.
Cosi fan tutte
A new production of an opera usually takes years to plan, design, cast and rehearse, yet incredibly this was staged in just a few weeks. True it had fairly minimalist designs, inevitable with such limited preparation time, but this did not detract at all from a thoroughly energetic and enjoyable performance.
The one-hundredth anniversary of the Salzburg Festival would have been unimaginable without a Mozart opera, and so after the festival’s original plans were cancelled, festival organisers and German director Christof Loy, who had been scheduled to direct Mussorgsky’s ‘Boris Godunov’, together with Russian tenor Bogdan Volkov and conductor Joana Mallwitz came up with a new project – a production of ‘Cosi fan tutte’.
A cast was quickly put together and, as other productions all over the world had been cancelled, star names were available, including one of my own personal favourites, French mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa, who sang Dorabella. The cast was completed by Elsa Dreisig (Fiordiligi), Andrè Schuen (Guglielmo), Bogdan Volkov (Ferrando), Lea Desandre (Despina) and Johannes Martin Kränzle (Don Alfonso). They did not come together for rehearsals until July, with the opera debuting on 2 August. It was sung exquisitely by all.
Joana Mallwitz led a very lively and enjoyable performance by the Vienna Philharmonic, with Nicholas Rimmer providing piano in the recitatives. In my opinion, it was a triumph and hopefully a production to be repeated.
Marianne Crebassa, Lea Desandre, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Andrè Schuen, Bogdan Volkov, Elsa Dreisig
Mahler Symphony 6 (Vienna Philharmonic – Andris Nelsons)
In a way a performance of Gustav Mahler’s epic sixth symphony, with an orchestra of 108, was even more remarkable than being able to stage an opera. It is impossible to socially-distance such a large number of people on a stage and so regular testing of the orchestra members was necessary in order for them to perform together.
This was an extremely spirited performance and Nelsons seemed to be really enjoying himself in getting the best out of the Vienna Philharmonic as they interpreted the massive score. The thunderous ovation at the conclusion was thoroughly deserved.
Andris Nelsons and the Vienna Philharmonic in the Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg
Beethoven Symphony 9 (Vienna Philharmonic – Riccardo Muti)
In the year of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth we had been promised numerous symphony cycles in celebration. The pandemic has seen nearly all of them cancelled, so it was particularly enjoyable to at least have the ninth at Salzburg.
Vienna Philharmonic, with Asmik Grigorian (soprano), Marianne Crebassa (mezzo-soprano), Riccardo Muti (conductor), Saimir Pirgu (tenor), Gerald Finley (bass).
In Muti’s hands, this was a deliberate, at times slowish performance, but it also had its explosive moments. The finale was particularly splendid. The soloists, Asmik Grigorian (soprano), Marianne Crebassa (mezzo-soprano), Gerald Finley (bass) Saimir Pirgu (tenor) were all impressive, as was the Vienna State Opera Chorus, who looked extremely happy to be singing ‘Ode to Joy’, even though it was from behind a row of perspex screens.
Martha Argerich and Renaud Capuçon
Pianist Martha Argerich and violinist Renaud Capuçon opened their recital at the Haus für Mozart with more Beethoven, this time a very lively and enjoyable interpretation of the ‘Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major’.
Renaud Capuçon and Martha Argerich
They continued with Prokofiev’s ‘Second Violin Sonata’. Originally written for flute and piano, Prokofiev transformed the work into a violin sonata at the prompting of his close friend, the violinist David Oistrakh.
The opening sonata movement, the violin part evocative of the flute, is followed by a scherzo, a slow movement, and a finale. It is a piece that they have played often and clearly enjoy.
The third item on the programme was César Franck’s ‘Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major’, possibly Franck’s best-known composition, and arguably one of the finest sonatas for violin and piano in the repertoire. Capuçon’s playing was particularly impressive. The audience also thought so and rapturous applause brought the pair back to the stage for two encores, the finale of Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ and Kreisler’s ‘Liebesleid’.
Although, like many others, I have suffered greatly from the cancellation of events due to the Covid-19 virus, cultural establishments around the world have been incredibly generous in trying to fill the gap by streaming productions both live and from their archives. With the virus currently showing little sign of disappearing it is possible that these streams will be our only way of watching opera, concerts and exhibitions for some time. Clearly in the longer term to sustain such programmes a charge would need to be made to viewers but given the absence of alternatives I am sure that most would be happy to pay. However, since March amazing content has been available free of charge from many establishments around the world and I have been lucky enough to experience many of them.
Metropolitan Opera in New York has been showing nightly streams of high-quality opera from their ‘Live in HD’ series. My personal favourite was a superb staging of Francis Poulenc’s ‘Dialogues des Carmélites’, with Isabel Leonard as Blanche de la Force and the incomparable Karita Mattila as Madame de Crissy.
Francis Poulenc ‘Dialogues des Carmélites’ from Metropolitan Opera, New York
London’s Royal Opera House similarly provided their ‘Stay at Home’ programme, which included Mozart’s ‘Cosi fan tutte’ and ‘The Magic Flute’, Britten’s ‘Gloriana’ and a particularly enjoyable ‘Il trittico’ by Puccini.
Both the Glyndebourne and Garsington companies were also very much in evidence with some wonderful productions. Garsington Opera’s offerings included Mozart’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’ and Britten’s ‘Turn of the Screw’, whilst from Glyndebourne I particularly enjoyed Rossini’s ‘Barber of Seville’ and Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’. And they have still more to come in the next few weeks, including Purcell’s ‘Fairy Queen’, Brett Dean’s ‘Hamlet’ and Stravinsky’s ‘The Rake’s Progress’, with amazing designs by David Hockney.
David Hockney’s designs for Stravinsky’s ‘The Rake’s Progress’ from Glyndebourne
Operavison, as always, streamed productions from all over Europe, including Wagner’s ‘The Flying Dutchman’ from Finnish National Opera and an excellent ‘Tristan and Isolde’ from La Monnaie/De Munt in Brussels, Britten’s ‘Death in Venice’ from ENO and his ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ from Montpellier, Prokofiev’s ‘War and Peace’ from Moscow and Shostakovich’s ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’ from Dutch National Opera. In August they will also stream two Puccini favourites: ‘Turandot’ from Zagreb and ‘La Bohème’ from Monte-Carlo.
Concerts were frequently streamed already, although during this period when festivals were cancelled, festivals organisers provided some compensation by streaming from their archives. Of particular note was a Mahler Festival from Colorado presented by artistic director Kenneth Woods. Extremely enjoyable was an exploration of each of Beethoven’s symphonies by John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, as was a series of concerts under the ‘Always Playing’ banner by the London Symphony Orchestra. I was also particularly impressed by performances by the excellent mezzosoprano Magdalena Kožená of Mahler’s ‘Rückert-Lieder’ and Luciano Berio’s ‘Folk Songs’ – she really does have a stunning voice.
Magdalena Kožená and husband Sir Simon Rattle
Theatres have also been generous in showing recent productions online. There has been lots of Shakespeare, especially from London’s Globe Theatre, including ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’, ‘Hamlet’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Macbeth’. Also from London, the National Theatre streamed a range of plays including ‘Amadeus’, ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘Small Island’, ‘Frankenstein’, ‘A Streetcar named Desire’ and ‘Coriolanus’.
Tom Hiddleston in the title role in Shakespeare’s ‘Coriolanus’
Exhibitions may be a little bit more difficult to stream but nevertheless there have been some excellent attempts. Having missed the van Eyck exhibition in Ghent because of the virus I was very happy to see the extremely knowledgeable Till-Holger Borchert guiding us around the show.
Till-Holger Borchert as guide to the van Eyck exhibition in Ghent
The BBC also broadcast exhibitions that I would have otherwise been unable to see, including the wonderful ‘Young Rembrandt’ from Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, introduced by Simon Schama.
So the Covid lockdown hasn’t been all doom and gloom, although watching on screen is nothing like actually being there. No-one knows how long this situation will last, hopefully it will soon be over and 2021 will bring all kinds of fascinating things to visit and see, but if not, as these institutions have demonstrated, all is not necessarily lost.
He was my teenage hero and formed the greatest of all British blues bands – Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. He was an amazing guitarist and songwriter, responsible for songs such as ‘Black Magic Woman’, ‘Man of the World’, ‘Oh Well’, ‘The Green Manalishi’ and the instrumental ‘Albatross’. Peter Green died today, aged 73. Thank you for some fantastic music and wonderful memories. R.I.P.
The spread of this awful coronavirus has resulted in the loss of numerous projects planned for 2020, many of them booked over a year in advance. I haven’t been able to see the Labeque sisters play Philip Glass in Bordeaux, Berlioz’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in Strasbourg, Benjamin Britten’s opera ‘Peter Grimes’ in Frankfurt, Bruckner and Shostakovich concerts at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, nor to visit exhibitions at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the once-in-a-lifetime van Eyck show in Ghent. I have also had to cancel my planned trip to the Aix-en-Provence festival in July to see Alban Berg’s ‘Wozzeck’.
However, the virus has sadly cost many people much more than just the loss of travel opportunities and this is its real tragedy. Hopefully, at some point in the not too distant future, we will see an end to it and a return to a life as near normal as possible.
At the Musée Ingres Bourdelle in Montauban in the Tarn-et-Garonne department of south-west France, recently reopened after a three year renovation, for two excellent exhibitions.
‘Constellation Ingres Bourdelle’ displays paintings by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, born in Montauban in 1780, and sculptures by Emile-Antoine Bourdelle, a pupil of Ingres, who was born in the town in 1861. The exhibition also includes works by students of Ingres, as well as twentieth-century artists, such as Pablo Picasso, who were influenced by him. Bourdelle’s works are compared to those of Rodin and the presence of paintings by Edgar Degas, Maurice Denis and others provides a context for artistic creation during this period. The second exhibition, ‘Dans l’atelier d’Ingres’, displays the museum’s incredible collection of Ingres drawings – 4,507 works, the largest collection in the world.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres ‘The Dream of Ossian’ (1813)
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres ‘Christ Delivering the Keys of Heaven to St. Peter’ (1820)
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres ‘Portrait of Ferdinand-Philppe d’Orléans’ (1842)
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres ‘Portrait of Madame Gonse’ (1852)
Émile-Antoine Bourdelle ‘Head of Apollo’ (1900 – 09)
Émile-Antoine Bourdelle ‘Grand Warrior of Montauban’ (1898 – 1900, cast 1956), flanked by Edouard Vuillard ‘Lucien Rosengart at his Desk’ (1930) and Edgar Degas ‘Portrait of the Artist with Evariste de Valernes’ (c.1865)
Auguste Rodin ‘Eve’ (1907)
Pablo Picasso ‘La Petite Corrida’ (1922)
Pablo Picasso ‘Paul, as Harlequin’ (1924)
The museum also has a permanent collection of paintings from the Renaissance to the modern era, formerly the collection of the bishops of Montauban, including the recently identified ‘Portrait of a Monk’ by Jan van Eyck:
At La Halle aux Grains, Toulouse, for a superb performance of Mahler’s Symphony no. 2, the ‘Resurrection’, by the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse under Tugan Sokhiev. The choir, ‘Orfeón Donostiarra’, were excellent, as were the soloists, mezzo-soprano Christa Mayer and soprano Jeanine de Bique.
In Agen, in the Lot-et-Garonne region of south-west France, for the exhibition ‘Goya: avant-garde genius. The master and his school’.
The exhibition followed the career of Goya from his time as a designer of tapestries and as a portrait artist whilst at the courts of Kings Charles III and IV in Madrid in the 1770s and 1780s, through his ‘Caprichos’, published in 1799, his ‘Disasters of War’ etchings from 1810 – 20, and the ‘Majas’ paintings, as well as a variety of works concerned with witches, fantastical creatures and religious and political corruption.
Francisco Goya ‘Self-Portrait’ (1783)
Francisco Goya ‘Mariana de Waldstein, Marquesa de Santa Cruz’ (c.1798)
Francisco Goya ‘Cannibals’ (c.1800)
Francisco Goya ‘And they are like wild beasts’ (1812 – 15)
Francisco Goya ‘The Balloon’ (c.1816 – 24)
Francisco Goya ‘Capricho with flying animals’ (c.1818 -19)
At Opera Limoges to see an entertaining production of Maurice Ravel’s opera ‘L’Enfant et les Sortilèges’. First performed in 1924, the second of Ravel’s fantasy operas (after ‘L’Heure Espagnol’ 1907), the opera tells the story of a child ordered to stay in his room as a punishment. Magic takes over as toys, household objects and animals come to life. Back-projected images onto a black curtain provided the special effects that brought the story to life.
At La Halle aux Grains, Toulouse, for a concert with a definite Spanish flavour. Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse under Spanish conductor Josep Pons played a first half of Ravel’s ‘Rapsodie Espagnole’ and ‘Piano Concerto in G major’. The soloist was renowned Spanish pianist Javier Perianes, who returned to the stage for a stunning encore with a solo arrangement of the ‘Ritual Fire Dance’ from Manuel de Falla’s ‘El Amor Brujo.’ The second half began with Ravel’s ‘Alborada del Gracioso’before continuing with an excellent performance of de Falla’s ‘Le Tricorne, Suites 1 & 2’.
Josep Pons and Javier Perianes
Ravel: ‘Rapsodie Espagnole’; Ravel: ‘Concerto for Piano in G major’; de Falla: ‘Ritual Fire Dance’ from ‘El Amor Brujo.’; Ravel: ‘Alborada del Gracioso’; de Falla: ‘Le Tricorne, Suites 1 and 2’.