Thursday, October 16, 2008
Night of the Two Olgas
No, not a new horror film (unless your name is Ted and you absolutely hate the Russian opera b&c dragged you to), but Opera Orchestra of New York’s season-opener, The Tsar’s Bride by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The female stars were Olga Makarina and Olga Borodina and, with some impressive help from handsome barihunk Alexei Markov, they burned up the Carnegie Hall stage last night.
The opera is based partly on history. Everybody’s favorite Tsar, Ivan the Terrible (whose soubriquet the program note rightly maintains should be translated “the Awesome" or "the Forbidding") was married two times more than his near contemporary Henry the Eighth. Several wives were selected at a mass gathering of eligible young women, sometimes numbering over one thousand. Ivan would select a wife from among the mob, who might or might not have a smooth go of it. There were divorces shortly after the wedding, an execution by drowning, and a forcible sequestering in a convent where this particular wife had to watch her unwisely chosen lover die impaled on a sharpened wooden pole outside her window.
Wife number three was named Marfa. Ivan was infatuated with her, and he gave the First Runner-Up to his seventeen year old son and heir. Marfa was murdered via a slow acting poison probably administered by well-placed relatives of the two previous wives. Desperately ill at the wedding, she died two weeks later. The opera weaves an interesting story around the historical characters by inventing a tale of jealousy, obsession and frustrated desire, all driven by Ivan’s decision to have Marfa as his Tsarina.
The Carnegie Hall stage was clearly dominated by the force-of-nature voice of Olga Borodina as Lyubasha, the complex, troubled and vengeful discarded mistress of one of three men who desire Marfa. Her rich, powerful mezzo soprano hit with almost visceral impact, made all the more devastating by the intense way she handled the vividly theatrical monologs Rimsky-Korsakov provided her.
The sweet, gentle Marfa who runs insane from effects of the poison and word that the man she really loves has been murdered, was beautifully sung by Olga Makarina. The role lies high and Makarina’s accomplishment was to take the voice up to the heights while maintaining a rounded, warm tone with no hint of shrillness or strain
The third major role, the sexually obsessed Grigori, introduced Alexei Markov to New York City. He opened the opera with a brooding monolog that showed off his powerful, virile baritone perfectly. Markov’s voice has an unstrained dramatic thrust of a kind that’s been missing on the opera stage recently in leading baritones. He could be at the start of a big career.
The opera itself, like most of Russian opera, is rarely encountered here in the US. It has a beautiful score with Rimsky’s usual colorful orchestration and superb vocal writing. With last night’s high-voltage cast, The Tsar’s Bride made a very strong impression.
Yesterday morning, early, I had my annual physical exam. My new doctor here in New Hampshire and I get along well. He’s got a good sense of humor, is completely gay-friendly, and he’s very communicative about his procedures and findings--which made this little incident during my proctology exam all the more delightful.
The scene will be familiar. I was standing bent over the examination table, my pants and briefs down around my ankles, while Dr. B. snapped on a latex glove and began fumbling in the supply cabinet. The fumbling became more insistent.
Will: Can’t find it?
Dr. B.: This is really embarrassing.
Will: Don’t worry, this isn’t the first time in my life I’ve been half undressed and the other guy couldn’t find the lube.
We both broke up laughing, and he went off to find a new tube of KY.
Pictures from the Trip
Arles is a very old and very beautiful town between Marseille and Avignon on the Rhône. It was a major Roman city whose arena is an exact contemporary of Rome’s Flavian Amphitheater (aka Colisseum), on a more modest scale--its capacity was "only" 30,000. There are a number of buildings that incorporate large surviving sections of Roman structures, as well as parts of a theater.
Arles also has strong associations with Vincent van Gogh. He came down to Provence to paint. The house where he lived hasn’t survived but buildings and locations he painted are recognizable all over town. The hospitals, both medical and psychiatric, where he was treated haven’t changed at all and are proud of his time with them. One is in the town and the other is situated in the village of St. Remy not far away.
Arles, seen from the top level of the Arena, the Rhône in the background.
The Baths of Constantine are substantially part of the daily life of Arles. One large section houses restaurants and shops. They date from the 4th century when there was a building boom in the city.
The Arena. Like the Colisseum in Rome, it was a venue for gladiatorial combat, wild animal hunts, spectacles of all kinds, executions and--unlike Rome--Mithraic Bull Rituals that are the origin of modern bullfights, which take place there now.
The square tower over the main entrance is early medieval, one of three that are remnants of the time when Visigoths, Avars and Vandals, among others, were migrating into the area, sacking towns and taking whatever they wanted. The arena was made into a fortress and the town moved into it. Two churches and just over two hundred houses were built into the Arena, with others built onto its outer walls, as if huddling against it for safety. They were all removed in the first half of the nineteenth century under the direction of France's Bureau of Monuments, and the first of a continuing series of efforts to preserve and restore the arena began.
The hospital in town where van Gogh was treated after he had cut off part of his own ear during a period of mental disorder. He painted this courthyard garden from approximately this perspective.
A complete Roman funerary monument in St. Remy. It's not a mausoleum, as nobody's buried within it, but a memorial. It was put up by the three sons of a local man who had been recognized for his services to the Roman Empire by being granted Roman citizenship and other honors.
The surviving section of a Roman triumphal arch and a close-up view of the carving inside the barrel vault of the arch.
When the in-town hospital had saved what they could of van Gogh's ear they sent him home, but he returned within two weeks in bad shape mentally. He was transferred here to a mental hospital that incorporated a Romanesque church and cloister into its facilities. Van Gogh's room was upstairs in the cloister on the level of the shutered windows.
There are currently about a hundred paitients still being treated here, all women, and they are encouraged to express themselves via art therapy. Their drawings and paintings are displayed
behind the arcade (you can see some to the left through the columns) and are offered for sale to visitors. A number of them were very well done. Quite a few of them incorporate text into their composition.
Olive trees on the grounds of the hospital. Van Gogh did a number of paintings of them and, at one point during his treatment, he was turning out one one painting a day.
I've been lucky with my doctors. One was gay, and the three others I've had in New England were all gay-friendly, enough that I could talk with them candidly about anything.
And YAY!!! for more trip photos! :)
Love your post about and photos of Arles. I did a lengthy research paper about Van Gogh's mental illness for a grad French course last spring. It's interesting to see your photos of St-Rémy and your observations of it.