June 28, 2005

Midnight rhapsody

Midnight dashes to retrieve stuff from Museokatu, Panic-ridden moments at the suitcase, Running to get last-minute shopping, Impromptu breakfast for four guests, adding things to the to-do list faster than crossing them out, junk food, getting caught in torrents of rain - welcome to my last 48 hours before leaving.
Of course, it's not all that bad: It's midnight now, and I already have the key which opens my suitcase. The rain gives me an excuse to skip my nightly run, and I only have a hundred or so pages to read of Sense and Sensibility, the book I'm determined to finish before 5.30. That's when I'm leaving the house. And the part about the breakfast was exaggerated - actually my friends brought it with them.
And at least I have Puccini to accompany these moments of excitement. My biggest fears at the moment are: locking myself out of the apartment (everyone with a spare key is out of town), finding myself outside my home without the key and losing the keys. This is a fear which will probably always follow me, but especially at times like this I find myself obsessively clutching the keys from time to time.

Very soon the suitcase will be closed, the harp covered under its ugly brown blanket, the garbage thrown out, and the aparment will be left to manage on its own for 24 days.

Last week was spent, among others, studying "La Fanciulla del West", the opera Puccini composed right after Madama Butterfly. Actually, one can't really say he composed it straight away - quite on the contrary, he was plagued "composer's block" and went through a great number of subjects for his next opera, dismissing them all as not suitable. Not to mention a great deal of trouble his marriage was causing him, with violent accusations by his wife of extramarital relationships almost ruining his reputation in his hometown. "Fanciulla" was first performed in 1910 at the Metropolitan Opera house in New York. So thrilled was Puccini at having finally gotten on with composing he praised it to be his best opera. However, after a while, reality settled in. The media wasn't too impressed by the three-act opera, and while one can certainly hear influences from "Butterfly", the opera doesn't match "La Bohème" when it comes to lyric melodies or profound emotion. These things apart, "Fanciulla" is a fascinating work in which the music heroically rescues the plot, which is at times downright ridiculous. Highlights include an embarassingly clichéd conversation between two Indians, consisting of infinitives and the word "Ugh". The opera is set during the famous gold rush of the 19th century in California and the main character, Minnie, is a very demanding role to sing, vocally and otherwise.
It takes two listenings at least to fully appreciate the sound of the orchestra, in which Puccini definitely hit all the right marks. Every situation and emotion is perfectly responded to by the orchestra, and, as a matter of fact, many times one feels that the orchestra is the leading force of the opera, not the singers. A good example is the arrival of a blizzard, particularly in the second act, during which one can almost feel the snowflakes blowing in your face listening to the recording. While it's not very easy to find sweeping passages of Puccinian melodies (once again one thinks of Butterfly's love duet), the action-packed sequences make up for that.

Quiz! Do YOU recognise the music playing in the background of my new answering machine? If you do, why don't you tell me about it!
Good night!

June 18, 2005

Probably Puccini's best-known aria after Nessun Dorma is "O mio babbino caro". It's one of the most famous opera arias and everyone knows it: A compact two minutes or so of soaring melody, legato strings and a bubbling harp accompaniment. Sadly, it's also an aria one hardly hears in opera houses as it is sung by Lauretta in one of Puccini's less-known works, "Gianni Schicchi". Many will be surprised to know that, to put it very roughly, Lauretta is actually a spoilt brat who, in the aria, tries to convince her father to let her marry her sweet-heart who is "bello, bello".

GS is a one-act opera which, together with "Suor Angelica" and "Il Tabarro" forms Puccini's second to last work, a trio of one-act operas known as "Il Trittico". Originally, the operas were meant to be performed on one night using the same singers, but this rarely happens anymore. This might also be because of practical reasons: the three operas are set in worlds totally apart: Puccini's contemporary Paris, a convent in the 17th century and Florence in the 1200s. The mood shifts from the violent tragedy of Il Tabarro through Suor Angelica (embarassing but true: this opera is almost completely unknown to me AS YET) to the grotesque but hilarious comedy of Gianni Schicchi.

The last opera is Puccini's only attempt at a comedy. Audiences in Puccini's time were probably expecting heart-wrenching tragedy, but what they got was something completely unexpected: a story about a bunch of hypocrite relatives who are shocked to find their wealthy dead uncle has left his millions to a bunch of monks. Gianni Schicchi comes to the rescue and promises to change things for them, but, in the end, he manages to pull the carpet from under their feet and take all the money. Naturally there's also a modest but important love story.

The music is some of the most difficult Puccini wrote for the orchestra. He was particularly tricky with the rhythm and used confusing accents on the upbeat which make it look like all the barlines have been drawn on the wrong places. It is fresh and energetic and corresponds perfectly with the comedy of the action. Another curiosity is the fact that the main part, Gianni Schicchi, is a BARITONE!!! The relatives rarely have solo parts but mainly act as a chamber choir.

The exhibition I visited with Daddy in Lisbon last year has now come to Helsinki. There are 120 pictures from around the world displayed, and one can easily spend an hour today watching them and reading the texts (I did, today.) It's also particularly nice to walk on the huge map of the world and explore all the different places there are on this planet. The pictures are fantastic, with featuring breathtaking scenery as well as thought-provoking shots of the human world. Visiting first with the family and then in the evening with Maiju, we noticed that very many pictures were taken in the Ivory Coast. However, there is even a picture from Finland! Expecting some of the wonderful scenery at Koli national park or the Turku archipelago, we were somewhat disappointed to see - - a lit greenhouse in the middle of a gloomy wintery landscape. In the words of a spectator behind us: "Is that the best they could find from Finland?"

June 17, 2005

"They say that overseas if it should fall into the hands of man a butterfly is stuck through with a pin and fixed to a board!"

Taken from half-way through the love duet, Madama Butterfly's quote is a harsh summary of the plot from one of the greatest musical works in the world. At these words, uttered by an innocent and ignorant 15-year old on the brink of leaving her childhood behind forever, the orchestra plays the haunting "curse theme".

At first, let me draw everyone's attention to some changes in this blog. You may have noticed that the links to the right -> have changed. I might be adding new ones every now and then, so keep an eye out. This is all thanks to Martin, who showed me how to manage the appearance of my blog better.

Temperatures peaked today and the blazing sunshine was downright stifling. In the morning, I was visited by my friends from Dominante (sadly, our Full House quintet has no website as yet) for a rehearsal and some Greek Salad. We ended the rehearsal outside, eating strawberries and cherries on the grass, after which some of us made a spontaneous trip to Linnanmäki for a ride on the roller-coaster (courtesy of Pauli, who gave us free tickets. Let's hope he has recovered from what seems to have been a rough night:)

In the evening, we had a performance with CM Swing which, in my opinion, was one of our best in a while. The next performance will be in a wedding on Saturday, and that will make the seventh day in two weeks of activity with the group.

While Placido Domingo peaks at his high B in the (in)famous aria "Nessun Dorma", I am checking the Academy's website because their list of new students will be published today, and last year the news was out already just after midnight. Nothing yet, though. Talking about Nessun Dorma, it's always funny how some people come to see Turandot just to experience that one aria, and end up screaming "bravo" no matter how horrible the performance was. Ingeniously, there's a part in the second act where the theme starts playing in the background and the audience always perks up at this part, thinking it's time for the fireworks, but of course they're wrong and have to wait for the next act.

I am now reading Robert Harris' historical thriller "Pompeii", which, judging from the back-cover, is supposed to be a heart-chilling narrative of the city's destruction during the Vesuvius' eruption. Sadly, it's not very exciting at all. It's always funny how books with critics' quotes like "blazingly exciting" all over the cover are always anything but. I'm already reading the second half of the book and the blasted thing hasn't even blown up yet. I'd better get back to reading it so I can soon start on something else.

June 13, 2005

Literature and Music

Book of the day:
Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird. Published in 1960, this is a book dealing with, among others, racism, childhood dreams and fantasies and justice in the Deep South of the 30s. Told from the perpective of innocent children, it often achieves effects comparable to Roberto Benigni's oscar-winning movie "Life is Beautiful". Winner of the pulitzer prize and a classic to be found on the bookshelf of at least every lawyer.
Song of the day:
Goethe's chilling poem "Erlkönig" has been set to music various times. Haunting tremolos, profound horror and spine-chilling harmonies...... of course I'm talking about the piece by - - - Tapani Länsiö! I first heard this piece a couple of hours before flying to England in March, in the concert of the excellent choir "EMO Ensemble" (www.emoensemble.fi). Already then it made an impression, but now I have it on cd and it still hasn't lost its effect. Scored for string quartet and mixed chorus, it has some resemblances to Schubert's famous composition, but the effect achieved my portraying death through the cold voices of the women and calming pizzicati from the strings is very memorable.

June 12, 2005

Waiters to die for

Yesterday evening, I met with friends from school at Esplanadi. Two of them were playing the violin and they earned some money with that.. many people didn't bother to drop a coin for them even after taking pictures or filming them. They played a "fabulous" mixture of showtunes such as "Smoke gets in your eyes" or "The Entertainer" (probably the most horrible piece ever composed in my opinion). However, people seemed to like more when they performed some classical music from their own repertoire, so they should have done more of that.
CMS sang at a wedding party today. We got fairly annoyed because of all the waiting involved - the bestman and bridesmaid kept coming out to tell us they were almost ready for us every fifteen minutes and then we had to wait for them to finish eating. At least it wasn't raining.
The performance was at the sea, near the Sibelius-monument. I had a hard time finding it at first, and a comical situation arose when I had Pasi explaining directions to me in one ear and the action of Tosca's second act blazing in the other.
And then the day was over!
I have recently been outraged by the customer service at some establishments in Helsinki. Take Manala, for instance. This is a restaurant/bar which serves possibly the best pizzas in all town. It's also a very popular place for after-concert parties etc, which is perfect for me, because it's very nearby. Last week, we were celebrating our CM Swing outdoor concert there. Problems arose the moment we decided to put some tables together because we were quite a big group. I'm sure in NO place in, say southern Europe, would you get such looks from waiters just for wanting to sit with your friends!!! One of the waiters was particularly cranky, and when my friend declined a glass of champagne served to everyone, she just slammed it infront of her and told her that she didn't had to drink it but as long as the waiter got rid of it. Imagine!
Another example. Yesterday I was having dinner with my friends at a sort of fast food place serving kebab and falafel. The girl at the counter was a major bi.... some people just refuse to acknowledge it when you try to be nice to them. They just throw it back at your face (you try to save them trouble and they just bark back at you that they'll do it their way). When the waiter brought us completely the wrong dishes and we did nothing but stare, he nearly screamed at us for not accepting what he was offering.
And I'll never forget it when we were taking relatives to Cafe Neuhaus and the woman nearly screamed at us for asking for a cup of coffee ("WE DON'T SERVE COFFEE!!! IT BRINGS TOO MANY TOURISTS!!!") It made quite an impression on our guests.
Good night!

June 11, 2005

Long entry to make up for my absence for so long :)

Finally, the vacations are here. I have already sunk to the routine of staying up late with a book and getting up just in time for... a late lunch. Usually with the family, although today Mikko and I had spaghetti at the university's cafeteria downtown. What always amazes me about these places is the way the food is served. I have never anywhere else seen the sauce served BEFORE the rice/noodles. What happens is, they serve you the sauce (minced meat, today) peppered with parmesan cheese, and then you're supposed to help yourself to the spaghetti. Talk about aesthetically pleasing food! And then you're supposed to try to mix the stuff up, which is difficult to manage because the plates are so small. Ah, the good old university lunches. At least the bread and herbal spread is delicious, and actually we were so hungry after our session at the stadium's open-air swimming pool we would have eaten anything.
While we were swimming with Anna and Mikko in the morning (a shock for me, getting up at 8.30 to make their schedule) we saw a whole filming crew: cameras, lights, etc, and a set-up scene with people sitting around tables. We wondered what they were filming, but not for long - Anna just told me on the phone she actually saw my head bobbing in the water on tv this afternoon on a teenagers' talk show.
The days have been spent at the computer, listening to Puccini and reading good books. The haunting memoir "Reading Lolita in Tehran" encouraged me to read some classics so I knew what was going on in the book, so I read Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" and James' "Daisy Miller". Harper Lee's classic "To Kill a Mockingbird" has been keeping me awake as well.
As for Puccini, gone are the days when Madama Butterfly's tragedy rose above all other operas - instead, my interest has now shifted towards La Bohème and re-exploring its hidden and not-so-hidden treasures. It is, of course, regarded by many as his absolute masterpiece. I suppose it depends. As far as the story is concerned, La Bohème is surely Puccini's most crowd-pleasing opera. And it's hard to beat Mimí's and Rodolfo's heart-breaking love story in terms of tragedy, scope and sheer accessibility (after all, it's a story about love between poor people - not exactly a very original subject but something which always gets those noses blowing) Of course Turandot usually leaves the audience speechless because of the sheer spectacle which it is (Dragons! The Ice princess!! Imperial China!! the Wizards!! oh, and there we are.... that aria they always play on the radio!!!) and Tosca is famous for its heart-chilling suspense (and you can have the cake during the intermission!) but there's something about La Bohème and the way Puccini conveys the drama through his fabulous music which keeps the crowds coming back (La Bohème is, in fact, the most performed opera in the world - source: "The Top 10 of everything 2003)).
But while the melodies are some of the best Puccini ever composed (think about the love duet or Musetta's waltz), for me, Butterfly's tragedy will always be more shocking. And what makes it all the more shocking is the way the composer uses the music to create a sometimes deeply disturbing psychological drama. As far as staging is concerned, Butterfly must be the easiest opera because all of it happens at Butterfly's house, which is the place where she gets married, experiences love for the first time and, which, eventually, becomes her prison as she naïvely expects the rat Pinkerton to come back from the seas. Puccini had never visited Japan and neither had most of his listeners, of course, but it is amazing how he could convey a place and time so strongly only with notes. Sure, he made some slips (Suzuki's melody when she says her prayers is actually an ancient Japanese song about cucumbers and eggplants (Source: Michelle Girardi's The international art of Puccini)) but there is a theme or motif for everything, the most haunting one being the death-theme which, obviously, is the last one to make its appearance. Some people think of music in colours, some associate it with places, but when I compare Bohème to Butterfly I always imagine La Bohème as being round and Madama Butterfly as being square. While the first opera's music is easier to understand and perhaps even more appealing, Butterfly seems somehow sharper and more "barren" in a way, because it represents exactly what it is: a story which makes the audience uneasy from the very first, revealing the tragedy behind it gradually. Even the dreamlike music at Butterfly's first entrance or at the moments where she dreams of her husband's return seems to be floating in the air without any real basis to it and suddenly vanishes into thin air, like an illusion. Mimi's death comes as a true shock, but when Cio-Cio San kills herself, the audience seems to have known it all the time - the very day of the marriage and the music itself have been leading to it (and that's not because everyone has read the synopsis).
In other developments:
The CM Swing concert in cafe Engel 2.6. was a success. Thanks again for family and friends for support and being there! See you 18.8 at Art Goes Kapakka.
In just over two weeks, I am leaving for Damascus.
What else?
Martin posted really nice pictures of his guitar on his blog the other day - I wish I knew how to post pictures as well. I have become determined to keep the harp in tune. This means DAILY tuning (actually the minimum it requires). The highest f-string couldn't stand the thought and decided to snap itself. I thought it would be interesting to keep it and ask some friends what they thought it was. Dea just saw the piece of gut string one inserts into the knot to make sure the string doesn't pull too tightly on itself and guessed it was, perhaps, one of my teeth. Way to go, Dea!
I seem to be suffering from some strange allergy. The very back of my tongue is sore and my throat feels dry all the time. A friend has been suffering from the same, so maybe it's something in the air.
We've got performances with CMS both days of the weekend, and on Sunday I'm going to Linnanmäki with Martin, his brother and sister, Dea, Sanna and Pauli. Let's hope the weather is as warm as it has been these days.
Good night!