Noilly Prattle: March 2012

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Farewell to Prague - The Last Show...

stage set and chorus
...and what a show it was—Rossini's The Barber of Seville. Very tight and nuanced overture by conductor Tomas Brauner. Figaro came on strong with the critical first aria Largo al factotum delivered slightly cynically in a warm deep baritone by Svatopluk Sem who played Figaro with the brio and panache needed for the scheming con-man of Seville—with just the right touch of devil-may-care cool. Mr. Sem in the title role was by far the star of the evening. I was lucky enough to find a YouTube clip of Mr. Sem singing the Largo in concert in Ceske Budejovice here in the Czech Republic. The tenor, Martin Srejma, as Count Almaviva, started out disappointingly weak but warmed up sufficiently to share a skillful duet with Mr. Sem. His singing was good, but not great, for the rest of the show.

l. to r. - Sem, Vernerova, Srejma, Brauner, Horak
A wonderful surprise came with the role of Don Basilio as expertly interpreted and sung by Milos Horak in his strong and deep baritone. His aria La Calunnia was the second aria highlight of the opera. The role of Doctor Bartolo was played for laughs and sung with the great and versatile voice of Pavel Klecka. A true comedian with a voice that ranged from a quite high falsetto to his natural baritone he stole the show for comic effects.

With considerable regret I have to pan the performance of soprano Ludmila Vernerova in the important role of Rosina. I had seen her previously in a disappointing interpretation of Micaela in Carmen. Unfortunately she was just a bad in Barber. To my ear, her voice didn't sound like that of a trained opera singer, but more like that of a musical comedy star. In fact, I've heard better voices in musical comedy singers. Apparently the rest of the audience must have shared my opinion since applause for her was lukewarm at best. The irony, perhaps, of this performance was the wasted talent of mezzo soprano Sylva Cmugrova in the role of the maid Berta. She would have been much better in the role of Rosina, which is often played by a mezzo such as Vesselina Kasarova in a DVD of The Barber of Seville that I have at home.

Overall, though, the show was great fun for our last show of the season. We leave Prague a little wistfully with a wonderful opera season under our belts to return home on Saturday. Alas! I am going to miss this place.

l. to r. - Cmugrova, Klecka, Sem, Brauner, Vernerova, Srejma

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Charles, Karel, Karl . . . everywhere

Karluv Most 
Karlstejn Castle
The 14th Century Kingdom of Bohemia (as the Czech Republic was then known) under Charles IV (Karel IV in Czech, Karl IV in German) is remembered as a Golden Age in the present day Czech Republic. Charles is revered as the “father of the country” and his namesakes are everywhere, especially in Prague, and most especially in the Karluv Most (Charles Bridge) across the Vltava (Moldau) River. The largest of his namesakes, Karlštejn Castle, however, is located some 30 km. outside the city, about an hour's train ride, and thus an easy day trip.

village of Karlstejn
you talkin' to me?
We took one and visited Karlštejn (Karl's stone) recently leaving Prague around noon. You have to walk about 2 km. from the station, mostly uphill, through the castle town also called Karlštejn. The road, of course, is lined on both sides with cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops offering all kinds of merchandise from Nazi helmets to colorful wigs. 

c'mon make my day...
Ignoring these (in the sense of buying, not looking) we trekked up the hill towards the castle entrance. The last kilometer or so is a considerable uphill slope that prompted a rest and hydration break so we stopped at a little cafe just outside the castle gate for some iced tea. Upon leaving I spotted a stuffed animal in the road and wondered what the hell it was doing there. It begged for a photo, so I took out my (t)rusty camera and started framing a shot when I heard a low growl and looked up and saw this terrier eyeing me. The shop lady said the stuffed frog was its toy. So I apologized to the dog and snapped his/her picture standing protectively over the frog and giving me a not very friendly look.

Bohemian crown
Photos will speak for the castle and surroundings, but I'll just add that our tour guide, a very engaging and entertaining young guy, spoke wistfully of the era of Karl IV while showing us the replica of his really quite beautiful crown (photos not permitted, of course, but...). He said that Czech people could only be proud when they looked at Karl's crown which goes on display once in a blue moon. He wished they could see it more often and, presumably, be filled with patriotic fervor. When I thought about it I realized that these people have lived subjected to outside powers, most recently under the Nazis and the Soviet Union for a generation or two or three and the notion of independence isn't yet absorbed into their national spirit. But, if this young fellow is any example, they are going to make it.

marketing everywhere - nothing is sacred

entrance to main castle buildings

well tower

view from well tower

village viewed from the ramparts

late afternoon sun

self evident
We were pretty whacked out by the time we got back to Prague, so much so that we forgot to change trains in the metro and had to back track when we realized our mistake. By then it was sunset and we crossed to the going-in-the-other-direction platform with the setting sun streaming into the station. Day was done and we were more rather than less ready to hang it up for the day, too.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Walking the last mile

Aria Martern Aller Arten - Jana was as good as Malin

Charles Bridge - Lesser Town gateway
We are into the final countdown of our stay in Prague and the feeling is becoming a little bluesy. Tonight was our last show at the Theater of the Estates and walking home felt like a man on death row's proverbial “last mile”. The walk to this particular theater has been unique in that we have to walk (no convenient trams) through the most beautiful areas of Prague to get from our apartment in Lesser Town to the theater in Old Town across the river--especially at night in winter when the streets are nearly empty and quiet. You can hear the sound of your own boot heels clicking and clacking on the cobblestone streets and sidewalks or, if you're really lucky, fresh falling snow crunching under those heels.

principal cast
best singers - baritone and soprano
Tonight we attended a rather mixed (but the soprano Jana Srejma Kacirkova was superb and baritone Zdenek Plech was excellent) performance of Mozart's Escape from the Seraglio and we were not raving about the show as we walked back across the Charles Bridge to Lesser Town. Our mood was somber and the streets were crowded with the Friday night testosterone rush of the college break crowd. I remarked to road buddy that I was feeling a little sad and lonely and she just nodded her head in agreement. Funny how you can feel lonely in a crowd when you're nearer the ending than the beginning of the journey. But it's easier when two people share the same loneliness.

conductor David Svec - the orchestra was very good
We have two more shows and a couple get togethers with friends and then it's T-Day on March 31. Those shows won't be so nostalgic since we reach the State Opera house by tram and subway—efficient and convenient but somehow not as, I don't know, romantic?

Road buddy says I'm a hopeless romantic.

Well, I've been called worse things!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Early Spring...or how I discovered beer


We are approaching the Spring Equinox and the final days of our stay in Prague. The workaday world is snapping at our heels and I am feeling the pull of the *“rubber band”.

Although I will not be going back to the world of 9 to 5, I am beginning to sense the need to be actively, well, semi-actively, involved in the non-rocking chair world. I'm thinking the potty training world might be interesting on a part time basis. But that's another story. A little reluctantly, then, we will be leaving Prague at the end of the month, but in the meantime we are revisiting favorite old haunts as they begin to don their mantle of early spring and venturing farther out into the new Prague, the burgeoning suburbs of glass and steel and planes and angles and lots of kids. Although not a beer drinker as a rule, I, like just about everybody else in Prague, am getting to enjoy a brew after a long walk on a warm spring day. A few pictures should give an idea.

* “Rubber band” is my term for the transition time between time zones and faraway places on the planet. It happens both ways, coming and going, every time I get on a plane; but the sensation of not quite being in my skin yet is especially strong when I return to my home base after an extended stay away from it. It's feels like the body is there but the “soul” is still somewhere 33,000 feet up over the Pacific Ocean or the steppes of Russia or wherever on the other end of a rubber band that has yet to catch up or snap back into its proper place. Maybe this is really evidence of a soul! On the other hand it might just be a case of the morning after blues. But before I get all morbid and mystical, here are a few visual impressions of early spring, beer and the "burbs" here in Prague. The rubber band still has a little more stretch; the blues will just have to wait a bit.  

New Prague


Saturday, March 17, 2012

In the Temple of Music

Temple of Music - Rudolfinum
Temple of Music - Rudolfinum

In a 1948 movie about ballet titled The Red Shoes the director of the ballet company, Boris Lermontov, is bored at a post performance party and declines to see a dance by the promising young niece (Vicky Page) of the wealthy hostess. The hostess hovers and whines and cajoles a little, but Lermontov asks her how she would describe ballet. She answers that she supposes you could call it the "poetry of motion". To which he retorts that yes, you could call it that, but that to him it is a religion that one doesn't like to see practiced “in such a place as this.”

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Jakub Hrúša
We attended a concert by the Czech Philharmonic under the baton of a very promising young conductor named Jakub Hrúša. Not to put too fine a point on it, he was impressive to look at and a dynamite dynamic conductor—cut a lean rakish figure in white tie and tails and had the orchestra in the palm of his hands...or on the end of his baton.

They played three pieces culminating in Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, one of my favorite symphonies. It was simply perfection. Hearing this symphony and Mozart's Requiem back to back it occurs to me that they are both swan songs. Mozart's Classical period optimism makes his Requiem sound like a paean to life, whereas Tchaikovsky's late Romantic period symphony seems more like the requiem of a troubled man at war with himself. Deep into the music, looking around the auditorium of the Rudolfinum, it seemed as if I were in an ancient temple to the god of Music and I was surrounded by worshippers of that deity.

This must be the kind of place Lermontov was talking about, where one would like to see one's religion practiced. I have to say I never saw more rapt attention on the faces of worshippers in any “church” I ever attended.

Think maybe I should change my religion....or maybe I already have!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Jets passing in the night

John Denver - Leavin' on a jet plane

Hey, what happened to London?

gotta be quick to wave at 1000+ mph
leavin' on a jet plane
Talk about ironies. We are flying back to Japan from Prague on April 1 and our son is flying to London from Tokyo on April 2—the jet age version of ships passing in the night. We are a scattered family you might say. The boy seems to be turning into a chip off the old block--mine. You never know where in the world he might turn up. Sometimes we bump into each other; other times, like this one, we miss and our jets pass in the night—at jet speeds that's passing by at 1000 mph more or gotta be pretty quick to wave. He is going to London it seems with a few colleagues from his company headquarters in Tokyo to establish a branch office in London. The company is expanding onto the global stage. He had been verbalizing his interest in going abroad since his bilingual ability in English and Japanese would be an asset in liaising between Japanese staff and local recruits. He is excited about it and we are happy for him. Oh, to be 26 again!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Good Value for the money...

.... or (good bang for the buck)

Tonight I heard voices of the gods...or so it seemed.

There was a memorial concert at the music school just around the corner for the victims of the monster earthquake and tsunami that hit northeastern Japan a year ago. The choice of music, Mozart's Requiem, inspired us to attend the concert. That and the fact that it is just a 2-minute walk from our apartment. This Requiem is one of my favorites of Mozart's many compositions, but I didn't really understand why until I heard it played in this particular venue and with this particular group of fine musicians.

The concert hall struck me immediately for its visual impact. It was rather small and intimate and the interior design looked as if it had been done by a professional interior decorator in muted earth tones offset with blue and accents of wood and metal in the the organ pipes. It was a very pleasant space. But it didn't prepare me for the quality of the musicians and the acoustics in the auditorium. Words are inadequate except to note that it felt like being immersed in a bath of sound.

It was Mozart's Requiem without any doubt, but it occurred to me that this composition isn't really a dirge for the dead, it is a clarion call to the living. It is Mozart's final legacy to us, his final tonic bang. He seems to be saying: “Look , (or more accurately, listen) this is what it's like among the immortals.” In the Milos Forman film Amadeus (above link) the aged semi-demented Salieri admits that, in his music Mozart had heard “the voice of God”, but that he himself can not, and can only bear witness to the existence of (and assist in the link below) the godlike creative spirits who perhaps give definition to our idea of Creation.

the process of creating Mozart's Requiem in the movie "Amadeus"

Hearing this outstanding performance sounded and felt like being in a small moment of that ongoing Creation.

We had been informed before the performance that there would be no applause since it was a memorial concert. Instead, there followed a moment of thunderous silence which, to my mind, sounded louder than any standing ovation could have.

Not bad value for about 500 Czech Kronas—for two.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

“Bravo” free evening

The Queen's aria O Zittre Nicht as it should be done

I am humbled. I've been singing the praises of non-mainstream opera “shows” compared to those of “top tier” houses, but the bubble has popped. I am no longer batting 1000; i.e., consistently better than average to wonderful performances in the “minor leagues” of the opera world. But, I was also reminded that with familiarity can come a kind of contempt, of taking things for granted, of being overly critical. Here's what happened.

We met a new friend (that my road buddy had met a couple days ago) at the Estates Theater here in Prague. We had a box that still had an empty seat and the lady bought it and met us at the theater. It was my first time meeting her. She was new to the opera world and we all talked about The Magic Flute that we were about to see. Soon enough, the performance began.

The orchestra seemed off somehow, not quite Mozart it seemed to me. One expects a livelier, more enthusiastic upbeat overture, but this one seemed a little, I don't know, tired. So, my critical filters started to go up and without going into detail the singers didn't seem to have that spirit that I associate with Mozart's operas. I rarely find Mozart tedious, but this production seemed to drag here and there. The singers made an effort, but just weren't up to it, I thought. The arias lacked brio and the comedy aspect of The Magic Flute seemed to be relatively lacking. For example, the Queen of the Night's first aria lacked the power and guile that it needs to be effective. Der Hölle Rache was better, but still missed the driving anger and hatred that drives the Queen. The other principles also lacked the divine spark, sadly. The best performances were by the Queens three ladies. Their voices blended well and their acting timing was right on the beat.

At the intermission road buddy and I started dissecting the first act, oblivious to our new friend. She said that she had had a hard time following the story and asked us what we thought. We sheepishly blushed and murmured something like don't-mind-us-we're-too-jaded. So, I went for a pee and let the ladies discuss the story in Japanese.

After the bravo-free [on my part] performance, (and I had been hooting enthusiastically at all the previous performances we have attended), our new friend had had a revelation. It was her first opera and she had enjoyed it. Suddenly, she exclaimed: “Why, it's a show!” and continued to say how it wasn't just stuffy music, but included acting and dancing and comedy as well—a “show”. Humbled, we could only respond with equal enthusiasm, that yes, absolutely, she was quite right. It was theater.

But, not every performance is a great one. Sad to say. But, hell, this is the real world. And, overall, dollar for dollar or krona for krona or euro for euro, I still think the “minor leagues” have it all over the brand name houses of international repute (sometimes ill, in my opinion). Like it or not, when you've seen and heard enough of them, your critical faculty becomes sharpened and you can't help comparing a performance with others you've heard. As a modest example (modest, right!), I linked above to the Queen's first aria, O Zittre Nicht, by Diana Damrau. Exquisite!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Walk in the Country

Meditation from Thais

Sometimes I need to be alone.

We (good road buddy and I) were at an expat party at the flat of some friends we met early on here in Prague. There is quite a large expat community here so it dovetailed very nicely with an old expat like myself. One of the party people, a young woman, asked me (the doyen of the party) if I ever meditated. That got me to thinking about meditation.

Road buddy had made an arrangement to meet a blog buddy for hot chocolate and chat at a local cafe, to which I was cordially not invited and didn't want to attend anyway since the ladies are both Japanese and they would want to chat in Japanese, and my Japanese isn't good enough to carry on a lengthy conversation and, besides ... I had other plans.

I took a tram to the end of the line where there are woods and a small lake or big pond (I'll call it a pond), however you want to look at it. When at home in Japan, we have a car, so my euphemism for being alone is “I'm going for a drive in the country”. Here, no car, so it's “a walk in the country”. Call it a kind of meditation where I get in touch with myself without distractions and plans and schedules and obligations—yada, yada, yada.... Just me and the world around me.

After walking for 15 or 20 minutes, I spotted an old bench with a partly broken slat as I approached the eastern end of the pond and decided to set a spell. There was still ice on the pond, but the edge was clear and there were several Mallard ducks swimming around. A couple of them were walking on the ice. I was sort of mesmerized by the elements I was a part of:  the declining sun, the hazy sky, the ground and hills and the partially frozen lake and the ducks making silhouetted ripples in the unfrozen water. Literally and physically surrounded by fire, air, earth and water and a few swimming creatures that had been made by the interaction of these indispensable elements. Fire Air Earth and Water are not some kind of mystical concept, they are, in plain simple observable fact, the natural world we live in, like me sitting alone on a bench and ducks swimming in a pond on a sunny hazy afternoon.

Suddenly, two of the ducks were walking on the melting ice and came too close to the weak edge and plunged in. It was fascinating to watch, how they instinctively and unerringly fought their way through the thin ice until they finally reached the flowing water and started swimming freely.

I guess it must have been a kind of waking dream because I realized I was smiling at the antics of the ducks while losing contact with the sweet dream. “Well," I thought to myself, "that's enough enlightenment for one day.” I got up off my butt, and started walking back toward the tram stop.

A thousand apologies for any incoherencies and inconsistencies in this meditation. There are none in the above link to the “Meditation” from the opera Thaïs

Friday, March 2, 2012

It takes time to fill up

Hluboka nad Vltavou

At the front desk Ms. Lady Receptionist is talking with Mr. Whoever, so I bellied up to the bar, so to speak. Did you see that? Ms. LR broke off her chat with Mr. W and gave me a not quite “Well, what now?” look. I said: “Sorry to bother you again, but the toilet doohickey in my room fell apart—again.” She responded, not altogether contritely, that it would take some minutes to send the maintenance man—the same one who “fixed” it the first time. I assumed. (And I've got an unflushed load on my mind--to put the frosting squarely on the cake.) I'm beginning to lose my cool and remind her a bit tight-lipped this is the second time today this problem has occurred.

Suddenly, Mr. Whoever, who seems to be somebody with authority, comes to life as if he had suddenly been plugged in and says in a few words and gestures to follow him. OK, so we go back to the “castle” room and he in his turn fiddles with the doohicky (which is obviously broken since the whole thing comes off in your hand) and says: “It just takes a little time to fill up.” With a straight face, mind you! “What! Time to fill up you say?” “Yes.” “Oh really!” says I and yanked the lid off the toilet tank. “Look! This tank is as empty as it was when I went to the front desk. This tank is obviously broken, can't you change our room?” putting the lid emphatically back on the tank with, perhaps, a slight bang! He nodded solemnly and said: "Yes, please gather your things and we'll exchange the key card.”

the king's room
Problem solved; and the thing that had us in stitches and oohing and aahing is that they gave us an upgraded room—a “king's” room, which was more than three times as large as our budget “castle” room. In fact, the green and dark red pseudo-marble bathroom, was nearly as big as our previous “castle” room. We just stayed in and lounged around in the “king's” room for the rest of the evening—and slept, of course, on a king size bed.

A fairy tale ending in a fairy tale castle.

In the morning we toured the castle and wandered around pointing the ever present camera here and there. Below is a selected sample of the pictures I like best. 

Patience! Patience! I've come to the end of this absurd but true story. 

Zamek Castle, Hluboka

landscape garden
Zamek Castle from the side
door knob

spiral stairs

church in downtown Hluboka