Lwow 6

 

The audience seemed remarkable unengaged, talking continuously and reserved when applause was required from them. Actually, no. They were just mean. Only once the curtain had fallen on the Finale and the end had arrived did the audience get into its stride. A standing ovation, unanimous save for my, by now, Chinese friend, the young couple who had already left to catch their bus home and me.

 

The lesser singers were rewarded with a tulip. The grander with three tulips. The principals with small bunches of chrysanthemums. The tenor got two, one from the nice administrative lady who had spared me the box. The soprano got two plus single tulips from a number of well wishers who found their way onto stage to give them personally. So much better than the slaughter of flowers that every performance at the Polish National Opera seems to require.

 

The performance was competent; the simple story telling never compromised. How much I prefer this approach to those of people like Mariusz Trelinski who go to enormous lengths to show how clever they are but always, always at the expense of the storytelling, therefore, the composer. They simply bewilder and mislead the audience.

 

Lwow is a splendid city, its people smile and still retain a sensitivity and consideration for other people that has almost disappeared in Poland if, indeed, it ever existed. The restaurants are not great but there is a wide range of home grown wines that deserve attention.

If you hanker after the lost world of late Communism, then Lwow is for you. If your soul simply needs recharging with beauty on every street corner, or almost every street corner, then don’t delay. Book a trip to Lwow! You won’t regret it.

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Lwow: a night at the opera 5

The big question was whose child was she. The Chinese boy said her mother played in the first violins. Should we contact her? What could she have done at this point?  Confiscate the aerial! This might only lead to tears and tantrums. I suppose we could have all stood up and demanded the child’`s removal but that would have been excessive. It would almost certainly be misconstrued by members of the audience in less disadvantaged seats and back fire on us.

  Obviously, the mother regularly dumps her child on unwitting front stall ticket holders with the full compliance of the management. Perhaps some sort of warning at the point of sale would be in order. Perhaps this would be too much to expect considering the attitude of the management to selling seats which normal people cannot be expected to sit in. The fact was the child should not have been there in the first place.

 

She returned still armed with plane and aerial. The plane was less of a threat than the aerial.

 

I caught her attention and gestured her to telescope it shut. She was slow on the uptake. 5 year olds can be wilful and this one was playing to form. The young Ukrainian rallied to my support translating my English command to “Shut it!” Being very like Polish, I quickly caught on, though my pronunciation and attitude caused some hilarity amongst my neighbours, the Chinese boy especially.

 The child remained unmoved at first but after a concerted effort by all of us she acquiesced. The offending article shrank and took on the role of dog bone. Fine by me if the child wanted to ruin her teeth.

Something needs to be said about the general behaviour of the audience. But that can wait for next time.

Lwow: a night at the opera 4

 

There was some quite decent singing in the second act and what I really liked was the simplicity of the production. No director trying to be clever, just bring them on, do the stuff and go. The tenor was almost very good but his habit of mispronouncing Italian got on my nerves. One particular and often repeated mistake was kvando instead of quando. This is such an ugly sound for which I blame the Germans and their Latin pronunciation. Why the Ukrainians have applied it to Italian beats me.

 

In their pronunciation of Latin the Poles like to germanise everything. Thus, qui becomes Kvee which is ugly, and wrong in Italian and English Latin, though try telling them. Latin, not Italian which should be pronounced properly, was a lingua franca and regional differences of pronunciation were and are to be expected and respected.

 

When I first started the choir in Warsaw almost ten years ago, a member complained to an “expert” about my wrong pronunciation of Latin when we were rehearsing Vivaldi’s Gloria. Wrong meaning that I insisted on Italianate pronunciation. All hell broke loose. I received an irate letter from this expert stating I was both ignorant and ill mannered. There is only one way of pronouncing Latin, the Polish way, or the German way, which seem to be the same. It became a divisive issue. To prove his point, so he thought, he demanded that I listen to an eminent East German choir singing Italian music. This, apparently, confirmed that only the Polish/German style of pronunciation was universal and acceptable. He refused even to contemplate that Italian Latin might play by different rules. He refused to accept that a German choir might be wrong. This was my first heated encounter with Polish logic.

 

To see the absurdity of this argument consider how English is used today by mother tongue speakers across the world: the United Kingdom, Canada and the USA, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, to say nothing of the other parts of the world where English shares first place with a native language. There are vast differences in pronunciation and all of them correct, albeit some less pleasant to the ear than others.

 

Today we have the added advantage of wireless, television and media which diffuse language as never before. In the 17th century there was no means of standardising Latin pronunciation nor any other pronunciation. It took the Italians until 1841 and the publication of “I Promessi Sposi” even to begin to work out what their language was, let alone how to pronounce it. Thus with Latin, though not, Lwowian singers might like to note, with 19th century operatic Italian. The rules are quite clear.

The act ended and immediately I got into conversation with the young couple. I asked how the man had leant to speak English so well.

“In the seminary. I am a Protestant,” he added quickly, almost as if I might get the wrong impression of him otherwise.

My heart rose. “So am I!” and we shook hands. “I am an Anglican.”

 

“I am a Baptist!”

 

A Baptist? Gosh, are they Protestants? Of course they are.  I remembered one day at church in Warsaw, Victor Ashe, a regular worshipper and the American ambassador, confided to me that he was really a Baptist. The same thought went through my head then. A Baptist?

Where I come from Baptists are regarded as poor cousins, though cousins they are, nonetheless.

 

“So, you are a priest?”

 

“No, I didn’t finish but I stayed long enough to learn English. Now I am a carpenter. I make furniture.”

 

“You make it or you stick it together?”

 

“We make it. We can make anything.”

 

“How wonderful. I should love to do that or at least to know how to be able to. Jesus was a carpenter,” I added, to establish my credentials.

 

I told him how I used to have carpentry lessons at prep-school when I was 10.  Mr. King, who had lost his forefinger to a wayward chisel, would come every Tuesday and teach us all the basic rules. Then we would put them into use making egg stands, book cases, wooden brief cases, all the sorts of things that you can now buy at IKEA. I cant remember my mother ever leaping for joy when I brought my offerings home, which was probably why I never put my heart into my carpentry. I wonder if other mothers were different. I suspect not. Mind you, I don’t think my mother ever bought anything at IKEA. She was not one for the basics.

 

Having established this happy common ground with my neighbours, perhaps the Poles could learn a lesson, the small girl reappeared. She looked as if she was going to stay for the act. Now was the time for action.

Lwow: a night at the opera 3

Shortly after the first chorus began I became aware of a presence in front of me, between me and the orchestra pit. When I sat down I had registered its existence but because it was so unexpected I had simply ignored it. However, this was not the sort of presence that was prepared to be ignored for long. A transistor radio aerial came into my line of vision, swinging madly in time with the music. After some moments this was replaced by a fighter aircraft heavily armed with three fierce looking missiles on each wing. Given where we were, the old eastern block, I suppose it was a Mig. Then the aerial came back into view, though in a new incarnation: as an alternative to the conductor’s baton it had now become a sort of tooth pick. The small girl, who had been equipped with this and the plane to entertain herself when the music failed to hold her attention, was chewing the thin end with some vigorousness.

  

I should have minded it less if she had contracted the aerial. As it was, the Chinese boy, the young woman sitting on my right and I myself were all in some danger of being struck in the face. This left me with the inescapable question, “What sort of women are the Ukrainians intending to produce in their quasi post-Communism epoch?”

 

The First Act came to an end. Not withstanding the atrocious Italian pronunciation of most of the cast and the indifferent orchestral playing, I was not unenjoying the performance. The act seemed shorter than I’d remembered it which, I suppose, meant I must have been more engaged than usual.

  

The child disappeared but her existence gave me an opener with the boy. He was 21, from a city near Peking and a music student, a conductor. He had spent four years in Odessa and was completing two years in Lwow.

 

“My parents are not rich but they can afford to send me here. And I am making some money from teaching Chinese” something that seemed to amuse him enormously.

 

“Do you know how to teach Chinese?” I ventured to ask.

 

“No. Not at all, but I am trying”.

 

We both burst into laughter. Delightful. We talked about the performance and the opera itself which he is studying. He asked me what I thought about the soprano.

 

“Well, she’s not Joan Sutherland.” Then something occurred to me. “Could I have a look at your score? I thought `Caro Nome` was in the first act.”

 

“It is!”

 

“But I don’t remember it.” Had I been sleeping?

He giggled. “They cut it. That’s what they do here”.

 

Suddenly, and in very good English, the young man on my right asked,” Is this your first time here?”

 

“No”. I came clean. “I’ve been to the ballet which I don’t recommend.” I was wondering whether I would recommend an opera company that left out the best, albeit the most difficult, parts of an opera. “Why?”

 

“What happens now? We`ve never been to the opera before.”

Hence the provisions?

 

I told him about interval bells and how normally the time would be spent queuing for a drink at the bar, though not here because there isn’t a bar. He was very chatty. How unlike Poland where I don’t think I have ever spoken to a stranger at the opera. Now, within minutes, I was having conversations on two flanks.

 

“We are loving this. Unfortunately, we have to leave at 8 to get home. We don’t live in Lwow. We wont see the end.”

 

“She dies,” said I as the curtain went up on Act 2 and immediately regretted it.

 

“How sad,” he murmured. “What of?”

 

“TB or something.”

 

“TB!”

 

Or was that just Mimi? Bother, I didn’t want to be wrong. And with that irritating thought but with the happy absence of the small girl, Act 2 began.

 

 

 

Lwow: a night at the opera 2

The first obstacle to overcome in this bar less theatre is the problem of where to leave your coat. Not unwisely, this depends on where you are sitting. Each section of the seating is allotted its own particular counter. This I had forgotten. After a short queue, lightened by the amusement of watching a young man in black preen himself with admirable unselfconsciousness in front of a mirror, (this gave me quite the wrong idea until he was joined by a ravishing blond) and a demand from the attendant to see my ticket, as if I had sneaked in without paying, I was instructed to leave my coat elsewhere, but where wasn’t clear since neither she nor I spoke a common language.

 

A well-breasted programme seller eventually led me to a box which she opened with a set of keys. There was no handle on the outside of the door merely a hole for the key. Inside, imprisoned and not pleased to see me, was a young couple. “But what about my coat?” She pointed to some hooks on the wall. Simple when you know how.

 

The young couple also knew their business. They had arrived early and bagged two of the three seats at the front of this plush red-velveted five-chaired stalls box. Only a child or an adult with the shortest of legs, or none at all, could have been comfortable on the remaining front chair. No leg room. Neither did the occupied chairs look any better. Clearly the Lwowians of the late 19th century were a short bunch. Perhaps they did not get enough protein from their Austrian masters. Modern Lwowians look perfectly normal. Three cheers for democracy, if that’s what they call it here.

 

The other two chairs were raised on a small dais behind. They had additional disadvantages as I was quick to discover. I tried to sit down but it was impossible even sitting sideways. For safety reasons the chairs were screwed to the ground. Also, being higher, the over hang from the dress circle gave only a partial view of the stage. This was not what I had paid for.

 

I went back into the corridor and asked the attendant whether I could go into the adjoining box which appeared to be empty. I couldn’t. She pushed me back into my allocated box demanding to see the tickets of the young couple. Perhaps they were sitting in the wrong seats.

She was missing the point. This box was not designed for a 21st century well nourished westerner who had no intention of spending the next three hours proving the point.  I gave up. A book and a lonely dinner beckoned.

 

However, in the corridor I saw a woman who looked more authoritative. She had a badge on her fulsome breast (something of a hallmark amongst the administrative staff) but was dressed in grey rather than black. She spoke a little English. She took me to a coat attendant, instructed her to take my coat even though my ticket did not tally, though I noted some reluctance, and then invited me to sit where ever I wanted to. Anywhere.

 

After moving three or four times from places claimed by latecomers, I found myself sitting in the extreme left hand side of the front stalls. As the applause began for the conductor, a Chinese boy with a musical score grabbed the one empty seat to my left. Then another young couple took the two seats to my right, on their laps an array of plastic shopping bags, crowned with two French loaves. Shades of Glyndebourne or would they be munching their way through the whole of Traviata? As the music began the goodies were shoved under the girl’s seat. A picnic for the interval. A much better idea.


 

Lwow: a night at the opera.

Walking to my lodgings in the clear but falling light after the rehearsal late on Saturday afternoon, I came to the Opera. The Opera dominates the main avenue of Lwow, a city of imposing and handsome public and private Italianate buildings dating variously from the last five hundred years. I dont like the Opera building. It is late 19th century and strongly influenced by Paris rather than Italy, overblown with civic pomposity both inside and out. It seems misplaced in a city of such elegance and lightness.

Like Fleet Street in London, the Opera was built above an enclosed river. Unfortunately for the architect who killed himself and investors who lost money, the engineers had their shortcomings. The building began to subside as soon as it was completed. This necessitated immediate under pinning and constant monitoring. Like a tart caught  leaving an hotel by the early breakfaster, perhaps a sense of shame and a desire to hide its mis-placed face drove the building downwards. Its descent to oblivion should be encouraged. A sunken opera house would be a real tourist attraction.

 

A largish crowd had gathered outside. Waiting for a performance, obviously. You might think so. But no. Because of its position crowds often gather here at all times of the day. Their dress code gives nothing away. The people who eventually take their places in the stalls are no differently dressed than those who remain outside in the crisp air.   

 

I went up to the posters to see what was on but, since no consideration is given to non-Cyrillic readers in Lwow, I was none the wiser. I remembered the ticket office or Kasa is just tucked inside the main door. There were not many people about. A woman was being served with just a man behind her. I decided to wait.

 

The singers and musicians I had been coaching since Wednesday had unanimously and wisely decided they needed to go home early. With 4 days of hard work behind us and with the recital concert approaching, I was glad they had. Anyway, I needed to be alone. Lovely people but teaching is exhausting. However, I wasn’t much looking forward to a long evening with nothing to do. Not that I had any great expectations of the opera but it might be better than a book and a lonely dinner. The last time I was in Lwow I had seen the ballet. The orchestral playing was poor, the dancing self-conscious, inelegant and poorer than the playing. My expectations were low.

The cashier spoke English.

“Traviata. We have tickets at all prices.”

I’ve never liked Traviata. I decided to spare myself.

 

The first time I had contact with Traviata was during a production of The Taming of the Shrew at the Ghione Theatre in Rome. I had written all the incidental music except for one piece. The director, the late Edmo Fenoglio, wanted the Brindisi from Traviata for a scene in the last act. Edmo gave me the recording he wanted to use. I copied it and gave it back to him. Somehow, during the editing I cut the first beat. We used cassette tapes which were tricky since I had no proper splicing equipment.  For reasons I cannot exactly remember, though probably nerves caused by the impending opening, Edmo had a tantrum. No, he would not let me have his recording again. We had a terrible row and we didn’t speak again until after the first night which, with three days to go, was not an ideal situation. Yes, he shouted orders at me from the stalls and I shouted back again from the sound and lighting box three floors up, but we avoided conversation.

To resolve the impasse, I went out and bought another recording, admittedly not the same as his or as good, but cheaper. I was doubly irked that the management would not pay for it despite all the hard work I had put into the production, effort which far exceeded my responsibilities as composer. Edmo was livid that he was not getting the music he heard in his head. Tough, then give me the bloody cd.

 

Edmo was a clever, sensitive and lonely man and, before our row, we got on well, as we did again later. Most evenings after rehearsals I would eat with him at his expense in some of the better restaurants in Rome and discuss the day’s work. He had a very sensible approach to my bohemian condition. “So long as someone can pay when the bill comes that’s all that matters”.

Many of the suggestions I made he implemented, especially concerning the very uneven cast. He simply seemed to close his eyes to some of their quirks and shortcomings which, though perfectly understandable on one level, I thought professionally unwise. So did he when faced with the facts.

 

One problem was our Shrew, the proprieties of the theatre and an actress of some distinction. It would be fair to say that she was a little long in the tooth for a first love and would never have been cast in the part in normal conditions. One of the physical characteristics she had developed for the role was an exaggerated flapping of the elbows to indicate how angry she was, a sort of anger meter.  Quite why she had picked on this one doesn’t really matter; actors often develop habits during rehearsals which a word from the director can eliminate in a moment.  Far from helping her, it aged her and reminded me of January in the Canterbury Tales. Worse. It was hammy and made her look like a chicken attempting lift-off.  

Reluctantly, Edmo agreed to mention it. Though old friends from the academy, our shrew was also Edmo`s paymaster and had to be treated with caution.  

The morning after one of our dinners, he had a quiet word with her. The elbows retired, to general relief.

 

Since that first encounter with Traviata I have seen it a few times but always found it tedious.

I decided to give the no-doubt dodgy Lwow production a miss. But on leaving the theatre I had a change of heart. I went for an upper priced ticket which still only meant about $12.