Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Franco Fagioli – Arias from Caffarelli

I spent last week in London, taking some very interesting and helpful singing lessons from Christopher Jacklin. On Friday 13th November 2015, whilst the horrific terrorist attacks were happening in Paris, I was at a concert in the Wigmore Hall.

The concert was given by the outstanding Franco Fagioli, an Argentinian counter tenor, who was supported by Il Pomo d'Oro, an excellent string and harpsichord ensemble led by Riccardo Minasi.

I have to admit that up to now I’ve not been a great fan of the vocal music from the High Baroque, finding the melismatic passages artificial and wearisome.  But I now realise that this is because they are often not performed well and suffer from the limitations of some contemporary singers concerning the understanding of the idiom.  In some cases the substitution of female mezzo sopranos for male alto roles changes the character of the interpretation, and stylistically the natural way that 18th century singers created and performed unwritten decoration is partially lost to us; but Franco Fagioli's performance generated no such reservations.

The quality of Fagioli’s voice is both beautiful and clear in the upper register, whilst also possessing a mezzo soprano quality in the lower notes. In this performance well chosen decoration, together with his extraordinary vocal agility, produced accurately executed melismatic passages, which never descended into purely vocal exercises but remained expressive and focussed on the phrasing. His wide range, perfect intonation and beautifully timed trills all supported his artistry and musicianship. 

Fagioli’s programme was inspired by the repertoire of the 18th century castrato, Gaetano Majorano known as Caffarelli. He was taught at the conservatoire in Naples by Nicola Porpora, who wrote the first item on the programme “Passaggier che su la sponda”.  Naples was at the time the centre of the Italian opera industry and Porpora also taught the more famous Farinelli.

From the end of “Passaggier che su la sponda” the Wigmore Hall audience, which surely must be the most educated group of music lovers in London, broke out into well deserved and spontaneous  calls of “Bravo!” which were frequently to be heard throughout the evening.

The two famous castrati appeared together in the opera “Siroe re di Persia” in 1733 from which the second item on the programme “Ebbi da te la vita” was taken.

Fagioli has made a study of the gestures used by baroque singers from paintings of the period and he uses them in performance.  At first I found this mildly distracting, but soon they became more natural in my mind, and helped me to feel that Fagioli very convincingly both performs and portrays the music of the period, seeming for me to inhabit the persona of a singer like Caffarelli whilst he is performing.

At the end of the concert he didn’t get a standing ovation after his two encores, but in my opinion he richly deserved it! I think that he takes the art of the counter tenor to a new level.

This bravura aria "Odo il suono di tromba guerriera" comes from Fagioli's outstanding debut album "Arias for Caffarelli" and was written by Gennaro Manna (1748) for the opera "Lucio Papiro dittatore".

And finally I have to include this most beautiful and moving aria from Handel’s Ariodante, it's a real gem!  At the end of “Scherza Infida” you can see just how much he invests emotionally in what he is singing.

E vivo ancora?
E senza il ferro,
oh! Dei!  che farò?
Che mi dite, o affanni miei?

Scherza infida in grembo al drudo
io tradito a morte in braccio
per tua colpa ora men vo

Mà a spezzar l'indegno laccio,
ombra mesta e spirito ignudo
per tua pena io tornerò.

Do I still live?
And without a sword,
O gods! What shall I do? 
What do you say, o my troubles?

Enjoy yourself, o faithless one, in the arms of your lover
Betrayed by you,
I will now give myself up to death's embrace

But, in order to break this shameful tie
a sad and bereaved spirit,
I will return to punish you.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Voga Longa - Venice 2015 - Trearchi Bridge

It was the morning of Sunday 24th May 2015 on our last day in Italy. We took a walk to the Grand Canal and all was quiet.  There were no boats chugging along with engines spluttering, no water buses and no water taxis. 

Every now and then a small group of spectators next to the Rialto bridge clapped as a boat went past rowed steadily by a small team.  It took us a while but eventually we realized that there was some sort of festival taking place. We decided to ask at the waterbus ticket office how we could get to the airport at lunchtime.  The rather sharp, but actually quite helpful lady, said that all of the transport in the city was stopped until 15:30 during the Voga Longa, a 30 km rowing race, and suggested that we could leave from Madonna Dell Orto on the North side of the island where there were still boats running.

So we set off, from near the Frari church, trundling our suitcases across Venice.  Needless to say we made a mistake and didn't cross at the Guglie bridge, so we found ourselves at Trearchi. It was a fortunate error because we stumbled onto the amazing scene below, where every rowing boat in Venice seemed to be trying to get under the bridge.  There were water police with boat hooks pushing and shoving. There was even a frogman in an orange suit in the water trying to help the boats through! If we'd taken the right bridge we would have missed it all! 

Venice is full of surprises!

Click to enlarge

The congestion at the Trearchi bridge has to be heard as well as seen!  
Turn up the sound to get the full chaotic effect!

Thursday, 7 May 2015

The Mise au Tombeau at Carennac

click to view the image at its original size

Carennac is a small medieval village about ten kilometres south of us in the Lot. It is notable for its Clunisian Priory dating from the 11th Century and its church dedicated to Saint-Pierre.

The remarkable group of sculptures in the photo above, which can be seen in a room off the cloisters of the Priory, is a “Mise au Tombeau”, an entombment of Christ, dating from the end of the 15th Century.  This beautiful work was done by sculptors from the workshop that undertook the decoration of the cloisters during the tenure of Jean Dubrueilh, the Dean from 1487 to 1507. 

Like other medieval sculpture, originally the figures were  painted but in 1896, on the initiative of the parish curé, they were scraped clean and, although the group has been carefully and delicately restored, it will never be possible to reproduce its original colours. These days, however, we are more accustomed to seeing sculptures in their natural stone, and in this state it has the power to involve us emotionally in a painful, yet pathetic, scene which is expressed with reserve.

The figures are life size.  Jesus is laid out on the shroud, his eyes closed, mouth half open, the wound in his side still bleeding and the crown of thorns encircling his head.
The shroud is supported by two of his faithful disciples, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. 

Joseph, on the right of the group, is richly clothed and holds his head high; he is finely featured and full of nobility.  It was he who went boldly to Pilate to claim the body of Christ. 

Nicodemus, on the left, is wearing the pointed bonnet of the Jews; he is also sumptuously clothed and carries, hanging from his belt is a rich sporran.  His shoulders are curved and his face expresses humility and sadness.

Behind Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdelene, with her long hair hanging in tresses, a vase of perfume in her hand, cries and wipes away her tears with a fine cloth and a delicate gesture.  She is the only figure in the group who expresses her pain so openly, in contrast to the contained grief of the two other Mary’s.  

Mary-Salome prays.

Mary, the wife of Cleophas, tenderly supports the Virgin who, ready to faint, abandons herself to the arms of John, the much-loved disciple of Jesus. John’s shoulders and his head are lowered under the weight of grief.

This fine work escaped destruction, following the 1789 revolution, thanks to the procureur of the commune who, in his report of 1791, excluded it from being sold with the other goods from the Priory because he considered that it was “a rare and precious monument”.  

Thank you, Monsieur le Procureur, for this act of sensitivity and sanity in violent and difficult times.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Melodious Warblers in our garden

Last summer we discovered that melodious warblers were singing in the garden.  

This year they arrived about two weeks ago from their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa.  At that time there were few leaves on the trees and shrubs and they could be clearly seen flitting from branch to branch, or singing while perched, like the one in the picture above.  They are more yellow than chiff-chaffs or willow warblers, and at this time of year ours have yellow eye stripes which are quite distinct through binoculars. Now they are not so easy to spot through the fresh leaves but their pleasant babbling can still be heard.

You can hear this song below.  It really gets going from about 12 seconds into the video.

This Melodious Warbler was filmed in Corrèze, France. Thanks to Phillippe Facquet for publishing the film on Youtube.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Chartres Cathedral and Malcolm Miller

On our trip back from the UK we stopped overnight at Chartres, in a hotel right next to the cathedral.

Click the image to enlarge

The last time I went to Chartres was in 1972 during a holiday to the Loire valley, which turned out to be a slow and painful break-up with my girlfriend.  In spite of the circumstances I have many special memories of most of the places we visited, but particularly of Chartres cathedral.

Inside the cathedral we cheekily attached ourselves to a tour group which had an English guide in his late thirties.  He wasn't very happy with this, and it’s only now that I realize that we should have paid, but I honestly didn't know that at the time.  

His tour was absolutely excellent.  This man was able to read the stories in the exceptional and magnificent 13th century stained glass windows as if they were written in English. He then took us outside and did the same thing with the sculptures around the doors. 

The Tympanum above the West Door
Click to enlarge

In the medieval period, when there was no printing and most people couldn't read, the windows and sculptures were used to explain the bible stories to visitors to the cathedral. It was in effect a beautiful public library.

I was extremely impressed by him all those years ago, and very grateful to have had the opportunity to begin to understand the significance of the art and symbolism of the medieval period.  

When he finished he said that he would be there until Judgement Day and invited us all to return before then!

On this visit I wanted to buy a book, in English, which interpreted the exceptional collection of stained glass in a similar way and found this one in the picture on the left. It was exactly what I wanted, since it dealt with both the glass and the sculptures, giving an explanation of many of the windows and their location on a plan. When I read the blurb, and the author Malcolm Miller’s biography, it was soon clear that it was the same person behind whom we tagged along, trying to look inconspicuous, all those years ago.

The Rose Window in the Southern Transept
Click the image to enlarge

There are 175 stained glass windows in the cathedral mostly dating from the 13th century. This example, which represents the life of the Virgin Mary, was restored in 1993.

The Blue Virgin Window
Click the image to enlarge

I was even more impressed with the cathedral this time since, during the last 45 years, I’ve learnt more about the medieval period and I appreciate it much more, but I missed Malcolm Miller’s expertise. 

Malcolm Miller has been granted two of the highest civic honours by the French government: a knighthood in the National Order of Merit, and another in the Order of Arts and Letters. I'm very pleased that the quality of his work, and his devotion to the study and interpretation of Chartres Cathedral, has been recognized.

Here is a much younger Malcolm Miller explaining the structural function of the architecture to a group of students.

Some more research later showed that he is still guiding tours at the age of 81 and he says that he continues to discover new things in the stained glass and sculptures. His tours run daily, normally at noon, from Easter until late October excepting Sundays.   He is also available for private tours if requested, his email address is 

Versions of his book are available in several languages : FrenchGerman, Japanese

Sunday, 11 January 2015

The Charlie Hebdo Assassinations

France is in mourning. The violent events of last week have been as shocking for France, which has scarcely experienced terrorism, as the attack on the twin towers was for the USA.  In fact someone said as much to me earlier today as around 200 people from the village assembled outside the Mairie for a brief expression of solidarity with the families of the bereaved, and with each other.  Adding to the sense of loss is that some of those killed were loved as public personalities as a result of their broadcasts on radio and television.  In Paris somewhere between one and two million people, many carrying “Je Suis Charlie” banners, paraded on the wide boulevards, behind world leaders from over forty countries.

I am profoundly sorry for the deaths and injuries caused by Jihadists in Paris and extend my sympathy to the families and friends of the victims.

The London bombings
So why do I find myself emotionally detached from such a very sincere expression of emotion and outrage by the vast majority?  It’s not because I’m in sympathy with Jihadism, quite the contrary!  I deplore all violent acts, but especially those with religious or racial motivations, and I condemn unreservedly anyone who kills in the name of religion.  

Perhaps as a British citizen, who lived in London during the IRA terrorism of the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s, I’ve become blasé about such events and their associated risks. In the mid-seventies, in Blackheath, I heard the shots when an army officer was killed in the next street. In the nineties, when the IRA bombed Canary Wharf, the detonation and the sound of falling glass were clearly audible from Islington where I lived.  During this period we all became very familiar with the horrific results of Catholic-Protestant religious intolerance but after a while you accept terrorism as a fact of life and carry on.

The right to be offensive
There are, however, other aspects to the Charlie Hebdo assassinations and the subsequent reaction.  

A French Socialist politician said, on the television news today, that freedom of speech includes the right to be offensive.  Charlie Hebdo was certainly very offensive!  I was highly offended when I saw some of their cartoons representing Muhammad and I’m not going to reproduce them here!  To me they aren’t even funny, but then I don’t understand French humour!  Our neighbours say that (unlike the UK tabloid press) Charlie Hebdo never attacked anyone’s private life but everything else, without political bias, was considered a legitimate target for ridicule, scorn or being downright offensive! 

Limits to freedom of expression
There are various laws in France which restrict the freedom of expression. 

There is a law concerning the defamation of the character of an individual, defamation as defined in article 29 of the law of 29 juillet 1881 concerning the Freedom of the Press.

Law No.72-546 of the 1st July 1972 modified the law on the Freedom of the Press. You cannot deny the holocaust, or provoke racial or religious hatred.  Crucially, provocation in French law means inciting people to commit violent acts, which represents a step further than the superficially similar UK law (see below).

Another law protects public officials. You can’t insult a public official in the course of their duties verbally or in writing.  When Rachida Dati made an embarrassing verbal slip in 2010, and a misguided individual teased her about it repeatedly by email, he was arrested, his flat searched and his computer impounded.  You can read more about this here. Rachida Dati’s verbal slip

You are also forbidden by law to publish details of the private lives of French public figures.

In the UK, as well as similar laws concerning libel and slander, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, passed in 2006, forbids publishing material with the intention of inciting racial or religious hatred.  A 2012 Scottish Act forbids offensive behaviour at football matches including inciting racial or religious hatred.

So freedom of speech is not an absolute right, it is regulated by law and if you transgress the law you have to accept the consequences.

With freedom comes responsibility.
And now a week later I've had further thoughts about the whole episode.

To equate freedom of expression with an absolute right to be highly offensive seems to me to be misguided.  To offend people just because the law doesn’t forbid it, and to sell newspapers by doing so, does not seem to me to be responsible behaviour.  Very few people would go up to someone in the street and be deliberately offensive.  If they did, as the Pope has said, they would probably expect a violent reaction: as an atheist since my mid-teens I am surprised to find myself agreeing with the Pope on this matter. So if you’re a cartoonist or journalist why do it?

In my view, if you make your living by deliberately seeking to be offensive to everyone including a substantial religious minority in your own country, the same thing applies. Of course the consequences should not include being killed by Jihadists, but the Charlie Hebdo staff had been threatened, they knew the risks and carried on in the name of freedom of expression. Some of the staff had already been under police protection yet they continued to publish similar material. Was this responsible behaviour?

In fact Charlie Hebdo is proud of being irresponsible. The issue published a week after the assassinations carries a banner saying “journal irresponsable” on the front page above yet another cartoon of Muhammad, this one less offensive than others.

An irresponsible newspaper
In the event, the staff of Charlie Hebdo were not the only victims of the assassins and it is both tragic and ironic that one of the dead police officers charged with protecting them was a Muslim. 
As a result of their proud irresponsibility, and the violent Jihadists reaction to it, seven citizens and police officials have died, not including the Charlie Hebdo employees.

Martyrs to what cause?
Today France and the western media consider that the assassinated Charlie Hebdo staff are martyrs to the cause of Freedom of Expression.  Wouldn’t it be more accurate for them to be remembered as martyrs to the “Right to be Offensive” to all, including religious minorities?

Political Opportunism
There have been several stages in the evolution of opinion since the assassinations of Wednesday; from initial shock and grief; to the need to express solidarity behind the cause of Freedom of Expression in France; broadening the latter to include other French/European values and freedoms; and finally to the more international and political business of resisting attacks on Western values from Jihadists and Islamic State.  Why else did Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas both attend the Paris march on Sunday? 

We have now been told by David Cameron that yet more powers are required by the State to monitor ALL of our private communications, including emails, and social media. I expect some other countries will follow his opportunistic lead. 

So the deaths of journalists and cartoonists, supposedly standing for Freedom of Expression, are now being used as a reason for the need to take away fundamental liberties.

Suis-Je Charlie?
No “Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie” if that means using the freedom of the press irresponsibly and, like a middle aged Muslim lady on a news bulletin on Sunday, I don’t unconditionally support the right to give offence to religious minorities.

Resist  Jihadism
But when it means standing together to resist jihadist terrorism, "Je Suis Charlie"

During November 2014 research commissioned by the BBC and undertaken by Kings College, London, found that over 5,000 people were victims of jihadist attacks around the world.  The majority were in Middle Eastern and African countries and are therefore easily ignored by Western media.

I give my wholehearted support to resisting Jihadism in every legal and responsible way wherever it appears!