Thursday, November 30, 2017

A book penned by a Saint

Yes, I'm still digging in that pile of books. Where DID our grandmother get them from?

I thought that the Metastasio volume must surely be the oldest, but then I came upon this. The tooled leather binding just shrieks seventeenth-century. Doesn't it? Shame the clasp is missing.

Well, I was almost right. It is dated 1701. But this one isn't a play. It is, for heaven's sake, a German-language Catechism. Now, I have to admit that I don't rightly know what a Catechism is. From my reading of elderly novels, I gathered it was something religious that little girls were set to learning by heart, after they'd learned the alphabet and the times-table. Oh, little Catholic girls. So what in heaven's name is this doing in our family?

I see the name of the sixteenth-century Dutch Jesuit preacher Peter Canisius credited as the author of the text. Perhaps this is why he was later created a Saint. Anyway, he is obviously an impeccable source for the faithful. I read: 'His lasting contribution is his three catechisms which he published in Latin and German, which became widespread and popular in Catholic regions'. 'It went through 400 editions in 150 years'. And I see it was reprinted 2015! So scarcely a rarity.

Also impeccable, is the publisher and printer's credit. Georg Labaun was one of the era's most respected printers, and I must say his typeface is beautifully clear and crisp and legible even three hundred years and more on. I chased Labaun on the internet and find him responsible largely  for music publication, but Canisius was clearly everybody's duty (and a big seller), and this pocket-sized edition is a nice thing.

But what on earth do I do with it? Put it back on the shelf and continue on to the next, I suppose.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Mysterious Money inside an 18th century Metastasio

I usually blog these little stories after I've had my fun digging into their ancient secrets. But this time I'm doing it at the beginning, because I feel there will be someone out there who knows a lot more about 18th century Italy than I do. So here goes.

Item. A stained but sound vellum-bound copy of Tomo I of the Opera del Signor Ab Pietro Metastasio, put out by the Press Antonio Zatta, Venice in 1781. This volume contains his ARTASERSE, produced at the Teatro Delle Dame in Rome at the Carnevale of 1730 and ADRIANO IN SIRIO, and a large part of the volume is taken up by an enormous list of the gentlemen subscribers who had enabled the printing.

Nicely illustrated, and the ARTASERSE, of course, is a major piece of theatre. But what attracted my attention were a pair of 'bookmarks', slipped inside the volume. Here they are.

Well, I had to look. Just in case it was all obvious. It appears that they are 'money', used in 'Palmanova in a state of siege' in 1848. Yes, indeed! There's one on eBay selling for -- good heavens 250 pounds!
Well, I know less than nothing about Palmanova, except that it was part of Austria at one stage and then part of Italy, and .. ah, here is a website called Splendid site, everything explained perfectly.
The 1848 siege lasted only from April to the end of June before the Italians had to give into Radetzky's armies. Not time to issue a huge amount of 'rebel' currency.
'The second siege of Palmanova has left us with several numismatic rarities' he relates. Oooooh! And he goes on to describe the notes above in precise detail. Three colours - red, white, and green, signed by four dignitaries of the short-lived 'siege city' ...

I wonder why these notes have been slipped into my grandmother's copy of Metastasio. Is the book a family item, or is it just something she bought. I suppose I'll never know.
But now at least I know about Palmanova.

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Best Musical of the Year! 1776.

When our long-widowed nana definitively left Austria, after sticking it out through the whole war, I always imagined that she came out to New Zealand by ship. Why? Because for the whole of my life, there was, lodged in our basement, a big, green, metal-bound ship’s trunk ‘made in Vienna’ which had arrived at the same time as she. 

Now, has been kind enough to tell me that she actually arrived by airplane. So I guess that great, hefty case followed on after. Anyway, I have kept it for the seventy years since, and it now sits on my verandah as a stand for a lovely big fern plant pot. With no fern in it any more. The peahens have co-opted it as the favoured place to lay their eggs.

Once a fern... now an egg-basket
The Witwe Rudolfine Gänzl brought with her, on the trip to the other end of the world, a curious bundle of possessions. There were, naturally, the large bundles and books of photos and the diaries and ephemera of past years, but also a varied collection of knick-knacks (‘A present from Augsburg’ etc), a good collection of postage-stamps, an odd variety of books, one or two ordinary pictures … Why? Of course, what she didn’t bring was a groschen or a penny. I was told later that she wasn’t allowed to. So she took what little Austrian money she had and spent it on things she imagined she might cash in when she arrived in New Zealand. Books, stamps …

 What of this little hoard has survived has descended to me. I keep the remaining knick-knacks on my bedroom shelves. They remind me of my background and my childhood. A fair painting by great-Aunt Maggie, a 1930s oil of Halstatt, another of the Matterhorn, a print of Salzburg, and a few ‘investment’ folios of woodcuts share my walls with the Derain, van Dongen, Picasso, Procktor, Sutherland inter alia. Some of them are all right. I’m fond of the Matterhorn which mother used to relate was among my first words ‘Ma-er-horn’.

 The stamps I sold to a London dealer in the 1970s. Maybe even at a tiny profit. And the books. Well, of course, they are all in German. There were a handful of interesting items: a nice edition of Dante, one of Boticcelli, the expected number of alpine and mountaineering books (my family’s vice), some which I know now were published by members of the extended family, but also some veriest oddities. Which, until today, I hadn’t really investigated.

Today, I was sorting shelves. Picking out what stuff I would keep (why?) when the rest of my theatrical stuff walks out of this house and my life in a couple of months. One of Nana’s books had got in among the French libretti – the special libretti which I kept when the large bulk of my collection went to Harvard. Beloved favourites like Les Fêtards, Joséphine vendue par ses soeurs, Les Douze femmes de Japhet, Geneviève de Brabant and other greats of the C19th musical theatre. So here was this German one, stained a little with the cover-wax from the C18th bible it had travelled with, and which had been fatally damaged by sea water. Die seidene Schuhe a two-act musical comedy, published in … 1776!

Why, for heaven’s sake? What was this show from the pre-history of the musical theatre? So I looked. And I got a big surprise. I didn’t find a tiny mention in a corner of Google or Hathi, I found dozens! And a dozen libraries holding copies, around the world, in German or the original French. Yes, of course, French.

 So, Les Souliers mordorés, ou la cordonnière allemande, which runs to 94 pages of text with lyrics, was said to be written by one Alexandre de Ferrières. Baron or Marquis or Monsieur. My copy calls him Serrières and says his name was actually Baligand ‘würklichen Hauptmann unter einem Churypfälzischen Leibgarderregiment’. Others say Balligand. The most authoritative says he was ‘Français d'origine, mais officier dans les troupes de l'empereur’.

As for the music, it is not credited in my copy, but it was the music that was given the publicity in France. The composer was one ‘Alessando Maria Antonio Frizeri’. Or Fridzeri. Or Friziéri. Or Frexit or Friner or Frixer. Said to be fashionable Italian but probably French. But that wasn’t what got him his press. He had been – and the fact was printed on bills and libretti – blind since the age of one. Or from birth. Or from three years old. My goodness, that should get him a Hollywooden film starring Daniel Day Lewis!

At 35 years of age, this was apparently his second produced show, and it saw the light of day at Paris’s Comédie Italienne (the precursor of the Opéra-Comique) on 11 January 1776. It was billed as a comédie bouffon mêlée d’ariettes (ie a ‘musical comedy’). The press of the time told us that it was taken from an old tale, but the original was too rude and to had to be de-sexed for the stage. Any way it was judged ‘une des plus jolies comédies’, ‘très plaisant’ and went on to be played for the Emperor at Versailles on 16 February. The piece was a jolly success, the score was published by its composer … and, as we see, it went on to be played at Frankfurt, Cassel et al in a German version. I also spot it being done in Belgium, Martinique and … Philadelphia (24 December 1796)!


So nana’s naughty musical wasn’t exactly unknown in its time. Well, I shall have to go looking for a French script – and I’m sure it will have been pilfered by the English too – and the music is out there somewhere …

Ah, well. I suppose anyone searching for the script and score of Irma la douce or Valmouth in the year 2217 will have much the same trouble...

Saturday, November 25, 2017

CHICAGO ..... New Zealand


I don’t go to the theatre much these days. Now that I’ve fled the European scene, to curl up comfortably in the New Zealand countryside and by the Australian seaside, there isn’t much opportunity. I have my yearly treat of beautiful music at the Stradbroke Island Chamber Music Festival, and just occasionally pop into Christchurch to see a student production at the National Academy of Singing and Drama, or the local Court Theatre’s annual production of a festive season musical.

I’ve been a bit inconsistent with my attendances over recent years, and for very good reason. That reason? The shows that the school and the theatre have chosen to do. Last year, the Court did the raucous Legally Blonde which I slaughtered, writhing in agony, when I was subjected to it in Vienna. I stayed home. The year before I braved Mary Poppins which turned out to be an unconvincingly rewritten and musically infiltrated version of the famous film without any of its charms. Then there was a mashed-up Mikado. As a G&S guru I have no wish to see the great men’s great works given self-conscious music-hally remakes. Again, I stayed home. Then, one year, the students did Hair. Hair! Per-leeeease!  Another, Beauty and the Beast. I actually went to that one. Unfortunately.
There have been plenty of good ones, though. Over the years, I remember fondly a fine City of Angels, a super Music Man, a dazzling Tell Me on a Sunday, a sweet and beautifully directed Once on this Island, a very interesting Spring Awakening, tidy versions of Rodgers and Hammerstein, an amazingly competent student Cats, and a zingy Grease! When they get it right, in Christchurch, they get it right.

This year, I knew straight away, upon the announcement of the show, that I would be going. The show was to be Chicago.

Chicago has a special place in my musical-going career. It was the first show that I ever saw ‘on Broadway’. I was primo basso of a little company providing musical (and other) entertainment on that floating monstrosity, the Queen Elizabeth II, cruising weekly between New York and the Caribbean. On turn-around day in New York, we had the day off, so, the first weekend, my friends Barry and Rosie and I headed for the theatres. Barry, our lead dancer, picked the show. It was sold out, but we were allowed to stand at the back. Chicago, brand new and sparkling, and oh my god the performers! Jerry Orbach in his prime, surrounded by pink fans... Chita Rivera with the legs flying in all improbable directions … and Gwen Verdon, the one and only Gwen Verdon as Roxie Hart. You don’t even attempt to describe Gwen Verdon. She was one of a kind. And for a young man’s introduction to that fabled world called Broadway …
But it wasn’t just the stars. The show was superbly conceived, written, executed, the story deliciously ‘framed’ in the setting of a vaudeville hall and presented as a series of acts …

Now, normally when I have seen a show, particularly one as stunning as this was, I don’t go again. I stay with my memories. But very soon after this time, I swapped performing for casting and agenting, and in the course of my duties I was forced to see Chicago performed again. In England. And, height of horror, in an inept film version. No Verdon, no Rivera, no Orbach … which meant that, perforce, something had to change. Without the two most dazzling actress-dancers on Broadway, the dance content had perforce to be dumbed down. The only trouble was, in the productions I saw, it wasn’t replaced by anything else. And those productions have faded utterly from my memory.

So, Christchurch 2017. It is to be Chicago. Directed and choreographed by local stager Stephen Robertson. Directed by a choreographer. Hmm. A combination which always makes me uneasy. Joe Layton. Gillie Lynn. But if there is one show where such a combination can prove bang on, it is Chicago, so my hackles stayed unrisen. He’s planning to do it as in a vaudeville hall…. Excellent, that’s precisely how it was written. Cast? This show is not easy to cast. But I’m sure they are not going to attempt a Verdon-Rivera dance spectacle. No one should. Gradually the cast trickled through to me …
Well! I’ve had problems with Court Theatre casting in the past, but someone seemed to be getting it awfully right this time ..

To come back to the sheep, they certainly had.

 So last night, I, my walking stick and good friend Jen at the steering wheel began the safari to Addington. Christchurch is a mite easier to navigate, seven years after the earthquake, but for some reason the Court had chosen to have its opening night on the very same night that the annual Christmas in the Park (on 25 November!) celebrations were being held. The 25km took us nigh on an hour.

The show? The production? Yes, I’m getting there at last. Well, I’ll say right away that it was a total success. By far the best reproduction of Chicago I have seen in the forty plus years since that glorious afternoon in New York. Oh, of course, I have a few little picks and niggles, it is inevitable, but when so much is so bloomingly right, so bloomingly effective …

In the past, I have had quibbles with Mr Robertson’s staging (too ‘by the book’?) and choreography (‘one more Ralph Reader straight line, one more Black and White Minstrels routine and …’). Tonight? He hit the tone, the style, he showed just enough originality while still being faithful to the original. This is far and away the best piece of work from his hands that I have seen in fifteen years. A stylish and wholly effective triumph.

Of course, as a very wise major director said to me half a century ago (while hiring me as his casting director), ‘Directing is easy. It’s 90% getting the casting right’. He wasn’t wrong. And tonight just proved that.

 Chicago has some fine roles, but it of course it all centres on that infernal trio: Roxie Hart, Velma Kelly and Billy Flynn. And the greatest of these is Roxie.
Roxie was played by the young actress (ex-of NASDA) Nomi Cohen. She didn’t attempt, and the director didn’t ask her to, the higher flights of Verdonical choreography. I mean, why would you? Either you’re Gwen V or you ain’t, and this lassie ain’t. She’s Nomi C, and I’m going to say right away that her performance in this half-realistic, half-caricature role was a bloody miracle of talent and taste. Her routine as Billy’s ‘puppet’ has completely obliterated from my mind the long-resident picture of Gwen V in the same scene. She can sing up a storm, she can dance very acceptably, and act …   Court Theatre, I think you have found a treasure. This young lady will establish herself … has established herself … as one of the most interesting actresses in l’il old New Zealand. Ihope I’m not dead when she’s playing Lady Macbeth one night and Dolly Levi the next. Oh! It’s the greatest joy of a talent-spotter’s life to be in at the birth of a new ‘star’.

Of course, to keep the balance in the show, you need an equally strong Velma Kelly. Darlene Mohekey burst glamorously on to the stage with a grand opening performance of the famous ‘All That Jazz’ and headed on, full-bore, from there with a lively and energetic performance. Being Darlene M and not Chita R, she, like her colleague, limited the dance element in the role, and the result was perfectly satisfactory except, foreseeably, in Chita’s dance showpiece ‘I can’t do it alone’ which might have been better cut. It got just a bit too loudly vulgar, even for American vaudeville!

Roy Snow was Billy. A wholly perfect Billy. Jerry who? I have seen this actor before, in The End the Rainbow, and was struck then by his beautifully sympathetic and toned acting. Billy Flynn, of course, is anything but sympathetic! And varied tones are not in his vocabulary. But Mr Snow is nothing if not versatile, and he struck precisely the right key as the two-dimensional lawyer with dollar-bills in his eyes, singing and dancing with sleazy ease without ever going over the top.

But this production does not survive on its lead players alone. It is cast in superb depth.

When Rutene Spooner as the dumbcluck cuckold of the affair appeared, the audience forgot they were watching a comic strip, and empathized with him and his hurt wholly. And rightly so. It was a gloriously gentle and comic performance of the ‘Mr Cellophane’ of the story, and the calls and applause at his exit witnessed his rapport with the house. Me, I would just say he was the best Amos Hart I have ever seen. And that includes Broadway.

And then it happened again. The role of Mary Sunshine is a difficult one. The actor/actress playing the part has to, as well as delivering the difficult aria of the piece, tread very, very delicately the line between burlesque and comedy. Isla Alexander must have very tiny feet. They never budged a millimeter off that line. Gloriously made up, wigged and dressed like a cross between Bea Lillie and Maggie Smith, with just enough of the coy mannerism the part demands, this performance was way, way the best of the role I have seen. Yes, Broadway included.

Warning notice. Over the years, in my career as a critic and commentator I have bumped into provincial journalists and travelled small-town families who utter such fooleries as ‘Yes I saw Les Misérables in London, but it was much better when I saw it at the Hokitika Amateurs’. Tear hair (if I had any) quietly. The two paragraphs above are NOT in that category. I think my credentials exempt me from suspicion. When I see a spade I call it a spade. When I see gold, I just give much thanks.

The cheekiest bit of off-beat casting came in the role of jailor Mama Morton. Originally played by a bass-baritone ‘bull dyke’, here it was taken by the petite Eilish Moran, who I had enjoyed so much as Judy in The End of the Rainbow. It took me a moment to get my head round a pixie-ish mama rather than a predatory one … but talent will out, and Ms Moran’s duet with Velma, ‘Class’, was one of the musical highlights of the evening.

The six boys and six girls who played ensemble and small parts were excellently chosen (a special word here for Hillary Moulder as an affectingly ‘real’ Hunyak), Richard Marrett and his band of six provided the joyously characteristic accompaniment … there was almost nothing to fault. Although of course I shall find something.

If I were King (am I? Oh), I would revise some of the sound balance. At times, from where I sat, the band overwhelmed the singers. Similarly, some of the singers – Velma, notably – seemed over-amplified. Leading to crudity. And we don’t want that.

So what else can I say? A musical I thought I could never enjoy fully again after the Gwen-Jerry-Chita experience has been given back to me. Thank you, Court Theatre. And, now, please don’t go back to doing trash again next year. But, in the meanwhile , I can say simply that this is the best production of a musical I have ever seen in New Zealand.