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From Purity’s Drawers: Alcina, Handel, Endings and Beginnings

Well in the week after a birthday, as daily life resumes after a long hiatus, the mind turns to the passing of time and the changes it brings. I placed a gamble on the future recently and will resume my opera travels in January. It was with not a little hesitation I did, sadly I no longer trust myself to be able to overcome any obstacle to get to the opera. But having done it, the sight of the tickets in my desk fills me with delight and anticipation. Losing out on a much anticipated opera jaunt to Zurich in July all but broke my heart. Sharing the live experience of the music I love with the people I love is one of greatest joys of my life. I started this blog to help me through a crisis brought on by my MS, I ended another blog  because of a previous (though less traumatic) crisis. It feels good to know that things have changed and that I can write my way out of a rough period rather than have the rough period finish my writing. So for today’s delve into retired blogging alter ego Purity’s drawers, it seems fitting to remember her farewell some three years ago now (time flies).

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Vienna, taken the night after we saw Alcina.

Vienna, taken the night after we saw Alcina.

This was to be Purity’s last post. Instead it is ‘mine’. This blog has always straddled a not so fine line between a conversation with myself, which I write, and a chat with the white shirt world, which Purity writes. I have intended for sometime to end it; life has entered a new phase, new challenges. The space and time to write like this (something I so enjoy, especially knowing that sometimes what I write is not just read but enjoyed by others) has been in ever shorter supply. Life demands me elsewhere for now.

Attending the Wiener Staatsoper Alcina seemed like a perfect moment to retire Purity to her ŵest wing library, feet being warmed by poor Mildred while she and Suzette polish off the last of the malt. But sometimes life throws up an experience too rich and deep and wonderful to be flippant. Love of women dressed as men in white shirts and singing beautiful music is of course a fine and honourable and apparently not solitary affectation. But all that is just a cover for what this blog is really all about. This blog is about how music, especially Handel, soothes and comforts, excites and delights one life; mine. And on Saturday night, in Vienna, I was reminded of that so powerfully I think I never will be able to express what it meant to me.

If this were not my last post, I would chatter in Purity style of the white shirt delights of the evening… of how incredible the erotic chemistry between Alcina and Ruggiero was, and the perfection of the two roll shirt sleeve, of the giggling exchange between Harteros and Kasarova at the end, and of the weirdness of seeing VK afterwards (yes folks I was dragged to the back stage door) looking like a supermodel in killer heels and little black number… But I am sure the wonderful An, with whom my Tender Smile and I shared a lovely post opera drink, will do a fantastic job of all the white shirt detail and more over at her place. And she is far better able to do that having seen it not once but thrice! But this is my last post, and that was too wonderful a night at the opera to not be completely honest with myself…

I found peace again this weekend. My lost inner voice, my fears over my health and future, have troubled me so much these last months. Despite all that I have in my life that is joy – my family and friends, a job I enjoy, a wonderful home – I have been ill at ease. I had made progress sure – finding new ways to connect with old pleasures despite the lack of an inner voice, looking more fully into the abyss and learning that it is not so scary in there really. But I have been troubled, and that was made manifest in a sudden inability to listen to Handel. Handel! My god. The backdrop to so much. Lost. Until Saturday night.

As I sat there in the audience waiting for it to begin, I was a little apprehensive. I had barely been able to listen to Handel for weeks, months even. Alcina is a long opera! Would I get bored? Would this kill Handel for me for ever? Well if nothing else Purity would enjoy the scenery I supposed. And “I” was sitting next to the woman who has filled heart with more love than it could ever have imagined possible. OK the opera may be a challenge but the night, the weekend, was special for all sorts of other reasons.

How silly! How silly to doubt Minkowski and Kasarova and Harteros. How silly to doubt Handel! Four hours later I emerged stunned, and alive, and fully at peace, feeling like only moments had passed. It started, fittingly, with Kasarova and mi lusinga. This was not music as sound, this was music as oxygen. My heart and lungs stopped, I was kept alive by this incredible performance. My throat filled with a sob I daren’t release. As the aria ended, well I wouldn’t have cared really, but oh god it was so wonderful to know I was not alone, for afterwards the audience clapped and clapped and clapped. No bravas. This was not the moment for that. Just long, long, long waves of clapping. All of us unable to quite let go of the moment, knowing that it would never happen again. This was it. We had shared it and now we had to let it go since like everything good in life, music is fleeting. But luckily for us there was so much more to come. Every performance was wonderful. Harteros – unbelievable. Cangemi knocked me off my seat with her beautiful piano singing especially, Hammerstrom, so rich and warm, and of course Kasarova. Dominating the stage, so unbelievably fully Ruggerio, acting better than I have ever seen her (thank you Mr Noble for letting us all see for a whole opera what we have seen here and there elsewhere).

As the night flew by, my soul comforted and cosseted, I found myself unable to stop the tears. This, I thought to myself, is why whatever forces animate the world invented music. As I sat in the top balcony that night, I felt exactly as I had done that morning in the arms of my love. And I suddenly realised that was what this was. It was love. Pure, simple, love. That she was there with me, that we shared this, only added to the perfection of the weekend. Not the opera, the weekend. That was what Alcina meant to me. A shared act of love in the middle of a perfect weekend. As we wandered throughout the city streets, sat for hour after hour in coffee houses, drank wine by candelight in a wonderful little Viennese cellar, all fears disappeared and the abyss seemed filled with light and the soothing sounds of love. I stood that night in the Staatsoper and cheered. For the wonderful performers and back stage folks who brought us such a perfect night. For Handel, who fills my life with such pleasure. For all of in us the audience for sharing so many moments of unrepeatable, unexplainable wonder.

But mostly my love I cheered, and wept and smiled, for you.

The End.

From Purity’s Drawers: Kasarova in Munich

An absolutely lovely post on Parterre Box about the fantastic Baroque Mezzo Ann Hallenberg (touring extensively all over Europe next season so plenty of chance to catch her live) reminded me of how I feel about my own Mezzo Diva – Vesselina Kasarova. In times gone by a good “friend” of mine blogged about her opera adventures under the nom de plume Purity Mccall. The blog is no more but the contents are still knocking around so it seemed a nice idea to start an occasional series of “Posts from Purity’s Drawers” (apologies non-British readers but the double entendre is an affectation Purity is much afflicted by) with this account of her experiences at a Kasarova concert given in Munich in December 2009.

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Handel Lives: Kasarova in Munich

So finally a small gap in the busy Munich schedule, and sufficient time to have descended from cloud twenty-nine to cloud nine, and the promised review of Vesselina Kasarova’s Handel concert in Munich with the Freiburger Barockorchester in the Herkulessaal. The usual caveats exist – what I know about music could be written on the back of a very tiny tiny envelope and still leave enough room for a shopping list and a note reminding yourself to get the car oil changed next week. I’m not a music critic. But I am an experience junkie, and I’ve been around this planet enough times and had enough of them to know the difference between a good and a bad one. All comments are therefore written in the spirit of someone out there hunting moments of joy and appreciating deeply folks who go out there and try to provide them for us. But before we get down to the music, let’s deal with some important issues for the White Shirt Army out there:

  • ‘White Shirt’ count (female) – high, very high, even allowing for your correspondent’s natural inclination to believe that everyone is a ‘White Shirt’ (female) until proven otherwise (well hey, you gotta start somewhere). Particularly impressed by the large number of couples – VK is obviously becoming the dyke equivalent of a chick flick date night. No obvious necking going on though. Shame.
  • ‘White Shirt’ count (male) – high, very high, surprisingly so. At previous VK events I’ve noticed a fair few but this night was extremely high. Of course my observations were aided by the fact that I was on the arm of not just My Own Personal White Shirt Lady but My Future Husband – who given his role as my future husband seemed entirely too busy attracting young gay men for my liking!
  • ‘Famous Twins’ count – 2, as per usual. Yes I finally got to see the famous older lady twins who apparently are always to be seen at VK Munich events.
  • Uniform details – sadly it was a rather chilly night in Munich so the white shirts were rejected in favour of black polo neck jumper (me) and silvery fluffy jumper (MOPWSL). Future husband – as is his wont – was a vision in pastel pinky orangey suit-ey things. I did however sport the black DMs in honour of our Lady Cecilia (though with some very cute Max Mara trousers just for fun!).
  • Seating – MOPWSL and I sat on the fourth row just to the left of middle while future husband sat in the second row smack in the middle (more on that later!).

OK, enough with the White Shirt Army intelligence report. Now the important information…. how did she look? Well, as hinted at previously, I don’t think it would be too over the top to say she looked stunning. Slinky black dress with a very obliging slash right up the side. Hair slightly shorter than it has been for a while. She was simply glowing. Whatever she’s taking can I have some please! Seriously she looked unbelievably beautiful both during the concert and in her ‘civvies’ later at the signing (no – of course I didn’t – I was dragged there by my German companions who once again insisted on testing my British reserve by making me wait in the queue with them. Yes fellow Brit readers, shudder at the thought indeed!). I was rather taken aback by how amazing she looked when she first entered the stage, but what followed I think explained it… it’s hard not to look amazing when you are floating in a sea of musical joy.

So, the music. The real reason (well… mostly) we were there. First let me say I have never seen the Freiburger Barockorchester before. I will be again though, as often as I possibly can. I am now an orchestra junkie. Led by violinist of great charm Gottfried von der Goltz, they truly rocked the house. These guys love each other. These guys love the music they play. These guys love their audience: how else to explain the energy they put into their performance? that was ‘above and beyond’. They sparkled and played and had fun with each other, and with Vesselina, and she with them. If we were in the 60s I’d say this was more a love-in than a concert. And as they rocked and she scorched the air with her coloratura I suddenly knew why she was looking so incredible. She was in her element and we all knew it. The joyfulness and love was infectious. She strode out on stage with an air of ‘I think this might be a special night’ (no Mr critic… she did not look nervous). Of course, she was right.

From her first aria – Dopo notte atra e fenestra – she had the (almost sold out) audience in the palm of her hand. I was reminded at various points very strongly of being in a folk pub in Scotland after hours with the place crammed full of inebriated locals carousing while the musicians shoved in the corner belt out a reel, and then stilled completely when the slow airs are played. OK not so much reminded as dreaming. But sadly once again I felt myself bemoaning the fact that I was stuck in a row like a schoolchild at a church service, reduced to surreptitiously tapping a foot and unable to move and cry (or even howl – more on that later too!) as the mood took me. Though an older lady in the row in front seemed to see no reason not to sit there bobbing her head furiously in time to the music. But if that first aria had us all going the Scherza infida was a revelation. There were new ornaments all over the place and the voice sounded so utterly sure and secure and powerful. And sexy black dress or not, as the Abendzeitung critic didn’t quite put it she had enough testosterone in her voice to fill a football stadium on World Cup finals day. When she sang it was as if Ariodante himself was in the room.

At this point I think even the non-rabid Kasarova fans in the room were getting the message that this was a special night. The incredibly cute gay boys (she said making wild assumptions, again!) who seem to be the VK Cheerleading Squad didn’t have to work too hard to get the whole audience cheering and bravo-ing wildly. And from there on in it was joy unalloyed. And this experience junkie was fully sated. Con l’ali di costanza was like watching a world class sprinter break the 100m dash record. It was fascinating to see how she used her body and her interactions with the orchestra – especially the very sweet conductor – to build energy for her voice. I guess Handel singing makes for a pretty good workout. I have to say though that much as I love a good hair singeing now and again from a rocking Handel aria, it’s the slower arias that really take me to Baroque heaven. Caro amor, sol per momenti is my absolute favourite from her Sento Brillar CD and tonight she and the Freiburger Barockorchester took my heart, sliced it into hundreds of tiny pieces and scattered them in the air to fly around the world planting trees of joy wherever they landed. But if I thought that was good, her encore of Verdi prati revealed to me that it is possible to survive for quite some time when your heart and lungs have stopped working. I had been struggling all concert to keep the tears to a minimum, but I got seriously worried about half way through that I was going to completely humiliate myself by letting out an enormous primal howl of … what?… joy mixed with pain mixed with love mixed with some other thing that has no word but is something about the moment your heart and soul finally connect with the universe. And in the middle of all of this the orchestra kept astonishing us with yet more incredible Baroque jewels. It would be unfair to single any out for musicality, they were wonderful, but I would say I have never seen a group of people clearly have so much fun performing. And clearly enjoy VKs singing so much too. They looked every bit as overwhelmed as we did.

But of course like all good things the night had to come to an end. And there was nothing left to do – British reserve be dammed – but join the entire rest of the audience and stand and cheer and applaud till long after she finally left the stage. Needless to say at this point, so utterly drained of the ability to think clearly, my companions pounced and in my confusion lured me to join them in the autograph queue after. My Future Husband tried to distract me by seducing me into some indiscrete photographs which I trust will not surface on the interwebs in years to come and besmirch my reputation as a fine upstanding White Shirt Army foot soldier. Luckily I came to my senses and managed to escape just before they reached her at the table, whereupon My Future Husband wooed Frau Kasarova with his charm and she noted that she had indeed seen him in his second row middle seat. Well of course she did Future Husband with your shameless flirting… I saw! Meanwhile MOPWSL was so overcome by the concert (she says) and/or how cute VK looked (I say) that she entirely forgot her single task of the evening – to get a snap. So I am afraid dear reader that you will have to go now, as we did into the chilly Munich night, with nothing but a half remembered idea of how she looked to keep you warm.

But I’ll tell you this, courtesy of Vesselina Kasarova and the Freiburger Barockorchester Handel lived that night in Munich; and reminded the entire audience of reason why he, above all, (for some of us at least) is the surest way to experience heaven. And make silly comments about her voice or the orchestra if you want music critics (yes I mean you Süddeutsche Zeitung), for the audience they were perfection. And you can’t take that away from us!

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And if that doesn’t make it clear what the fuss is about, this might help.

White Shirt Monday: Simply the Best

Reviving an old habit of Purity’s as inspired by the wonderful Anik Lachev’s blog Eyebags back in the ‘olden days’. Kicking off with the original and still the best white shirt – Vesselina Kasarova. Just look at that sleeve rolling work – perfection.

If you want to see the opera this comes from (Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice) you can buy the DVD, and in case you need any more encouragement there are some extracts to whet your appetite on YT.

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