The Latvian National Opera does it again! (2)
Arvamus 21 Jan 2010 Hilary BirdEWR
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Bird Droppings looks back at last year
Well, it was good year. Here’s a round up of 2009 treats:

May: The Latvian National Opera does it again! Our Tartu opera group went to Riga for Don Giovanni and a thoroughly good time was had by all. The spring journey was lovely– everything so green and the country so uncluttered. The bus goes miles through woods before passing through tiny settlements and there is little on the road. Until Riga that is. The build up starts with a large sign announcing ‘Rīga’ and during the next 20 – 30 minutes after we cross the wide Daugava (Dvina) river - the great waterway into the heartland of Russia fought over by so many conquerors - a great city unfolds.

We start with scattered single dwellings, then past the Stalin-low- rise-blocks and later Soviet tower blocks, over cobblestones and into the city centre with it’s rich mixture of architectural styles – art nouveau (jungenstil), 19th century Russian revival, functionalist, Latvian republican, modern, post modern, etc. Much of it is shabby but the grandeur and cosmopolitan nature of Riga is indisputable. And, despite hard times up here in the Baltic States, the city is smartening up. You know when you have reached the centre when the bus reaches the boulevard that ends in the impressive 350m (1148´) tall Brīvības bulvāris, the Freedom Monument , built in 1935. The locals affectionately call the personification of liberty that holds aloft three golden stars (the three cultural regions of Latvia) ‘Milda.’ The Soviets did not dare dynamite Milda but, instead, built a Lenin (facing towards Moscow) behind her. Only Milda survives. The 19c opera house, built as much else by very rich German merchants, stands nearby near a fountain in the erstwhile moat of the castle.

We arrived in good time and went to our usual eatery – a pizza place where the decor is truly the pits (Hawaii, Latvia style, with fake palm trees and the bill arriving in a coconut) but the food is good and cheap, helpings are large and cocktails are scrummy. After pigging out (on calzone in my case) our party went its separate ways. Some went to a favoured perfume shop – an unreconstructed relic of the Soviet era where good perfume is sold at exceptionally low prices, and some to get booze (cheaper in Latvia) . I went for a stroll in the (very beautiful at this time of year) gardens around Milda. I am always touched by the simple stones that the Latvians have placed amongst the greenery to mark the spots where five brave people died in 1991 defending Latvian rebellion against Soviet rule.

After a stretch of the elderly legs and a breath of fresh air I went to an extremely smart, ultra modern glass and steel shopping mall, the sort of place I detest for its wasteful lighting, shiny in-your-face consumerism and overkill of clothes shops – to buy some music CDs but no luck. I did however meet almost 100% of our party window-shopping. No luck with culture in bra and panty land but I did get some wonderful hand-made local smelly soap made from natural ingredients and bought some chocs called ‘Opera’ made by a firm called Laima named after the Latvian deity of happiness. I did find a rather good music shop but not in the shopping mall - it was full of Naxos recording so was quite a find! Naxos, for those not in the know, is the brainchild of Klaus Heymann, a German entrepreneur and music lover based in Hong Kong that offers top quality music at budget prices. I was hard pressed to restrain myself from buying up half the shop!

The CD I went in to buy, a collection of Mozart arias sung by Elīna Garanča, the Latvian mezzo, was on sale but not, alas on Naxos. Garanča is signed up with Deutsche Gramophon. I was surprised to find that a disc that I could buy in London for around £9 was £17.50 (13.99 lats!!) in Riga. This is a perfect example of how inflated prices are now in the Baltic States where the currencies are pegged to the Euro. I have since ordered the CD I wanted from e-bay and paid £11.49 for the item, including postage.

Half an hour before curtain up our party returned to our small bus (parked 10 metres – 33´ - from the entrance steps) where many wriggled out of their civvies and into their opera gear. Very useful! I wear neutral clothes but some people really like to dress up. They like to be smart for the evening but do not want to wear their posh clothes to the Hawaiian pizza-hut or booze emporium. An opera house is still seen very much as a Temple of Art here – rather suitably Wagnerian as Wagner worked in Riga in the 1830s. It was Dickie who introduced much of the theatrical protocol that we now take for granted – lights out when the performance begins, silence during the performance and generally a respect for a play or musical drama. Before Dickie put art on a pedestal the theatre could be an unruly place, more a rendezvous for drinking, flirting and gossip. It says a lot for the talents of a Shakespeare or a Handel that they could capture the attention of the notoriously unruly London mob. Londoners were perfectly capable of shouting and brawling during a performance and reacting to boredom by chucking the 18th century equivalent of empty Cringles boxes, rotten tomatoes, or even worse, at the stage.

Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni - The rake punished, or Don Giovanni , is a dramma giocoso ('jocular drama') in the Neapolitan style. Volfgangs Amadejs Mocarts (Mozart in Latvian) catalogued his work as a ‘comic opera’ or opera buffa. But it’s more than this - a marvellous cocktail of comedy and melodrama laced with supernatural elements. And all sung to the tune of some of the most sublime music ever written. Tchaikovski held Don Giovanni in the greatest awe: when he saw the original manuscript in Paris in 1855 he declared he was "in the presence of divinity." And I agree.

The range of emotions in Don Giovanni encompasses the comic Madamina, il catalogo è questo (also known as The catalogue aria - Here is the catalogue, my little lady), seductive pretty little tunes Là ci darem la mano ("There we will entwine our hands), to real opera seria (Dalla sua pace "On her peace") to the marvellously ominous monumental chords, presaging Beethoven, of Don Giovanni, a cenar teco m'invitasti, Don Giovanni, you invited me to dine, heard when the ghost of a murdered, vengeful father arrives to collect his due – the soul of Don G. Aaah. Mozart …

The Riga production hits exactly the right note. The action takes place on a luxury liner where the international jet set mingles with an equally cosmopolitan crew. The fictional biographies are:
Don Giovanni, rich and spoilt. Instead of going to the elite college picked by his parents he took off in search of adventure. His parents will not fork out when he runs out of money so he becomes involved in the cocaine racket: he lives the high life on immoral earnings, seducing as many women as he can (640 in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey and 1003 in Spain, according to the Catalogue Aria). His powers of seduction, however, are on the wane … he is losing his touch and looking seedier by the minute …

Leporello is Don G’s bodyguard. He comes from a poor family and has had to take care of himself. He is a companion as well as a guard but is beginning to tire of the Don’s chaotic lifestyle …
Donna Elvira is an M. Sc in Psychology and financially independent, being a widow of an old, rich man. She loves Don G but her love is the neurotic kind; she wants what she cannot have and stalks the Don …

Donna Anna is old wealth. She lives a sheltered life with her father, a strict, old school military man. She is engaged to the boring but dependable and similarly old wealth, Don Ottavio. But Don G, who has killed her father in the act of trying to protect his daughter, has aroused her dormant sexuality …
Zerlina and Masetto are from Eastern Europe. They are servants but they have their pride. Zerlina may flirt but she won’t sleep her way up the social ladder– she refuses Don G twice. Masetto, madly jealous but outwitted and beaten up the Don is comforted after his loss of face by the basically faithful and strong, earthy Zerlina.

I have seen a more evenly sung Don Giovannis but the conceptions and the production values were, as always, not a whit less than world class. Riga’s Don G irons out all the psychological oddities of Mozart’s masterpiece – this gem of a production makes complete sense. Finally, because the action takes place on a cruise ship in the southern hemisphere, many of the cast appear in bathing costumes – thank god Jesse Norman or Montserrat Cabelle were not singing – and this semi nudity produced what is certainly the sexiest Don I have ever seen. I can’t help but think that Mozart, whose letters show him to have been a saucy sod, would have thoroughly approved ...

Autumn in Tartu
Autumn in Tammelinn, Tartu, is very beautiful. The streets and paths are lined with spruces, oaks, chestnuts, maples and limes and the dirt paths (pavement, what pavement?) are covered with a cornucopia of colourful leaves, at least until the neighbours start bagging them. The delicious smell of burning wood is pervasive and a stroll to the shop past the little houses , many of them wooden, in a mixture of northern styles – Swedish, German, Russian - with their neat gardens is always enjoyable. The cemetery (the surnuaed, the ‘garden of death’) that’s set in a small wood is a high spot because it’s beautifully kept (Estonian graveyards always are), quiet and peaceful. I always have a twinge as I cross the railway line – it links Tallinn, St Petersburg and Riga. If only ... Some spots are less than lovely - the yards of the small Soviet-built industrial estate are still in an appalling state with huge puddles and rutted concrete - but they tell a tale and have their place, I suppose.

This year’s November Requiem for the start of Hingedeaeg, the Time of Souls was by Haydn. Not the famous Joe (1732-1809) but his younger bro, Mike. And what a wonderful piece it is! Its full title is Missa pro defuncto Archiepiscopo Sigismondo because it was written for the Archbishop of Salzburg, Count Sigismund von Schrattenbach in 1771.The Archbishop died at the beginning of the month and it was complete by 31 December! Historians believe that Michael’s sorrow at the death of his baby daughter, Aloisia Josefa, was the real motive behind the composition.

Mathias Haydn, father of the two brothers, was a wheelwright and village mayor. Ma Haydn was a cook. Mathias was an enthusiastic folk musician, who taught himself to play the harp. He made sure that his children learned to sing and the boys became successful choristers in Vienna, then professional musicians. They both stayed in one place for a long time – Joseph in the court of the Esterházy family in Hungary and Michael in Salzburg. His contemporary, Mozart had a high opinion of his work (he and his father were at the first performance of the Requiem) and the influence of Mike’s work on Mozart’s Requiem is obvious. Lovely. Catch it when you can

I am very pleased to see that Elīna Garanča, the Latvian mezzo-soprano, is now being recognised as an international superstar. I have not seen Garanča in Riga, alas. I missed her Carmen there. I caught up with her stellar rise some time last year, having read about her in Riga and watched her on You Tube before seeing her in the flesh in London.

A real mezzo
Sometimes life just is not fair. Elīna Garanča has it all – the voice, the looks, the personality and, most important of all, the brains! The voice is one in a million - pure chocolate velvet from deep down in the chest, what I call a real mezzo. There’s not been such a voice since Janet Baker retired in the 1980s. Garanča’s articulation is faultless and she makes the most difficult passage look effortless, a great bonus. Not only that but she’s a Babs fan! “I grew up in the theatre,” she says, “because it was just across the road from the drama school, and when I was young I wanted to be in musicals. I was fascinated by the singing, dancing, dialogue, costumes, lights and melody. Barbra Streisand was my hero - and still is, I really do love her.’ Last word to Jonathon Miller, who knows a thing or two about the theatre: “Whatever you tell them, really talented performers generate something of their own. Everything Elīna does is tactful and in the spirit of the production – yet it's always totally original. In a word, she's wonderful!”

And speaking of the old girl, a thank you is due to those who recorded Barbra Streisand’s BBC interview with Jonathon Ross for me. Babs wasn’t giving much away and Wossy was on his best behaviour but the songs were fabulous! I have always like Babs singing Jacques Brel (the French awarded her the Légion d’honneur in 2007) and Ne me quitte pas (If you go away) didn’t disappoint. Neither did the Frank Sinatra classic In the wee, small hours. If you missed it see it at: Both songs are from the very mellow jazz album Love is the answer produced by Canada’s ice-cool Diana Krall (a ka Mrs Elvis Costello). Classic.

The direct relays from the Metropolitan Opera, New York have also been treats. Extravagant Grand Opera ten minutes walk away. Turandot was soooo spectacular! Not a bum note and all power and passion …not to mention the splendour of Zeferelli’s production ... And what a knock out cast! Maria Guleghina and Marcello Giordani were absolutely magnificent as was Marina Poplavskaya (Liu) with a supporting cast never less than fab … And the conductor? Andris Nelsons from Riga … Actually the Russkis almost stole the show for me - the duet between the haughty Turandot and the dying Liu made me weep. Good job we were in the dark ... Puccini is a huge fave of mine – he never mucks about and manages to convey the big emotions - heroism, pathos, self-sacrifice, l’amore - with such brevity.

Karita Mattila shone in both Salome (Strauss) and Tosca (Puccini) but Elīna Garanča stole the season in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, ossia La bontà in trionfo , Cinderella or Goodness Triumphant. The notoriously difficult G at the end of Angelina’s famous finale aria Nacqui all'affano … Born to a lonely life was phenomenal! So clear and powerful. And Garanča looked perfect in this all-American, Disney-inspired , straight down the line production. She was interviewed during the interval and was her usual modest self , waving to her mum and saying ‘Hello’ to Latvia. Asked for the secret of her success Garanča said that it was practice, practice, practice ! Love it. So much for the “Anyone can sing opera” point of view. Some Latvians who were in the cinema visibly swelled with pride. I missed Garanča’s Met Carmen but consoled myself with the fact that I had seen her live in London.

Winter is very cold this year (average temperature -10) and this means telly is the most attractive form of entertainment. Not that there’s much worth watching. ETV sometimes has some interesting local (90 year old shaman lives with dogs and cats in a primeval forest, etc) or Euro programmes (Euro News is the best of the bunch for me), but generally, there’s too much violent, empty-headed American action on the three Estonian channels for my taste. Do the Estonians really think they are living in downtown San Francisco? I really can’t figure this one out. Anyway. I like documentaries and I watched my pick of the year on the National Geographic channel. I was absolutely riveted by the evolutionary evidence revealed (in October) by the 4.4 million–year–old, 125 piece skeleton of a likely human ancestor known as Ardipithecus ramidus , abbreviated Ar. Ramidus but known to many who helped put her back together again as Ardi. What a gal!

Ardi is 1.2 million years older than the famous Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis), her probable descendant, and by far the oldest humanoid fossil ever found. The completeness of Ardi's remains has imparted an unprecedented amount of data. Most important, Ardi gives clues to what the last common ancestor shared by humans and chimps (our closest living primate relatives) might have looked like before their lineages diverged about 7 million years ago. The surprising thing is that Ardi bears little resemblance to chimps. Scientists had envisioned early humanoids to have looked like a knuckle-walking, tree-swinging ape. But Ardi is not chimp-like, and this means that the missing link probably wasn't either, a fact that has a whopping impact on received ideas of human evolution- humans are not, it seems, merely a slight modification of chimps.

Ardi's anatomy appears to tell us that chimps may have evolved more than humans — in the sense of having changed more over the past 7 million years or so. Some of her characteristics were uniquely human. Four foot tall Ardi, for instance, walked upright on the ground as well as being able to climb. Her hands were better than chimps at catching and carrying things on the ground while on two legs. Scientists think that she may have chosen her mate according to his ability to fetch and carry food rather than his prowess in fights- so much for the Rambo theory. Finally, Ardi wasn't a knuckle walker and didn't spend much time hanging or swinging. Rather, she moved along tree branches using a primitive method of palm walking typical of extinct apes.

The Ardi project is the result of 15 years research by 47 scientists from 10 countries. Watching bang-bang, kill-kill TV makes me feel as if the human race really hasn’t evolved much but, then along comes Ardi and the cooperation and intelligence needed to bring her back to life is a 100% feel-food factor. See Ardi at:

And , finally some local, less spectacular but equally gratifying moments. The first was the re-opening of Maarja kirik (St Mary’s), Tartu, where the service for the first All-Estonia Song Festival was held in 1869. The spire was knocked off in 1944 and the building was brutalised when it was used as a gymnasium during the Soviet era. Its still un-lovely but it became a church once more in 2009 for the opening of the XXVth Song Festival when the programme was 100% Estonian choral music including a mighty setting of 1 Corinthian 6, Eks teie tea, Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? by the amazing Rudolf Tobias whose later work absolutely rebuffs the contention that Estonians are automatically miniaturists. His Oratorio Jonah’s Mission is monumental requiring three full-scale choirs, a chamber choir and a symphony orchestra! Wall of sound, indeed! At the Tallinn culmination of the laulupidu it was a great feeling to be part of ‘The wave’ where 150,000 people from the stage, through the expensive seats to those with cheapie tickets on the grass really did undulate and ‘breath as one.’ Fabulous. And, ballet wise, courtesy of a friend who bought me an Yule ticket, a debut in December of two fine dancers – Artjom Maksakov and Olga Malinovskaya - in Swan lake at the Estonia theatre in Tallinn. I love a debut. I have fond memories of seeing Lesley Collier, the last protégée of Frederick Ashton debut as a soloist as Lise in his La Fille mal gardée at Covent Garden and in over forty years of ballet going Lesley remains one of my favourite dancers. That’s all for now folks! It only remains for me to wish you all a happy and prosperous 2010! Watch this space!
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