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Sunday, 29 May 2016

Traumspiel - Martinů's French surrealism-inspired Juliette premiered by Staatsoper in Berlin

The Berlin Staatsoper have just premiered a new production of Julietta on Saturday May 28th, 2016.
Schillertheater - Berlin

The performance was held at the Schillertheater, the Staatsoper's temporary home while its main house is being renovated.

Daniel Barenboim conducted, Claus Guth directed, Magdalena Kožená sang Juliette and Rolando Villazón was on stage throughout singing, acting and miming as Michel, the forelorn Parisian bookseller.

This dream play appears inspired by Martinů's exposure to French surrealism while he was in exile in Paris. Overt themes include the fickleness of memory and desire for forgetfulness.  References to violence, loss of memory and wish for forgetfulness are especially poignant in the light of the date and place of the first performance: 16th March 1938 at the National Theatre in Prague.

At the start, Michel is seen as a source of hope of memory regained for other characters in his dream. Later Michel appears to wish to seek refuge in the world of dreams both to capture his ideal woman - Juliette - and to escape from a violent crime he may have committed.

Juliette as temptress through her songs provides a further theme, alluding to Homer, Odysseus and the Sirens, and to the old German Lorelei water spirit myth. 

The dreamworld is also portrayed as a source of fear of a vaguely recalled transgression from within the dream itself or from the real world.

How good was it? The orchestra brilliant under Barenboim's baton. The leads were outstanding, especially Magdalena Kožená for her voice and Rolando Villazón for both voice and stamina. His prolonged indecision at the end of the third Act lost him a few audience members - would he return to real life or hide in his dreams? The brass and percussion struggled with the unremitting cascade from the smoke machine into the pit – making it difficult for them to see the conductor, though not obvious from the playing.

A fine touch, at the end of multiple lively curtain calls, the entire pit orchestra on stage with Daniel Barenboim.

For the music, plot and action - you should judge for yourself if you have the chance to go.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Berlin: encouraging the healthy lifestyle - from exercise to wildlife

In Berlin for the 5th Forum on Companion Diagnostics, organised by the rapidly expanding Brandenburg-Berlin DiagnostikNet of biotech companies and affiliates.

The event has been hosted in the CoLaborator startup building on the former Schering, now Bayer campus. Outside, a volleyball court and all weather table-tennis tables - and a giant chessboard for those wishing to divert the mind.

In the city centre, tremendous buzz around the Brandenburg Gate with an international field
Kestrel with prey in the Tempelhofer Garten in Berlin
of runners, part of the international city move to encourage exercise through amateur runs. The latest field numbers I could find were 25,500 in Berlin for a recent Spring half-Marathon.

In the South of Berlin, an inspiring example of local democracy, Berlin citizens having voted to preserve the former Tempelhof airfield as a vast wild urban common land - the former site of the Berlin Airlift (or air bridge as locally known - Die Luftbrücke: 1948-1949).

This huge space is well worth enjoying while still protected wild city green land.
When I visited, the runways were in use by cyclists of all speeds, stylish rollerbladers, families with pushchairs, and general strollers.

There are numerous copses and tall grasslands rich in birdlife. Within 100 yards of the entrance, a kestrel catching an unlucky field rodent (above the old parachute drop training wires), sparrows nesting in an abandoned cargo plane, pied wagtail, goldfinch, wood warbler, swifts and skylarks, common nightingale, chiffchaff ...

Many good examples of making it as easy as possible at work and in leisure time to
Common Redstart in Berlin's Tiergarten
maintain a healthy active lifestyle. This is not only of course a key part of general wellbeing, but well-established to prevent serious diseases. Cardiovascular disease is the most obvious example. 

Healthy lifestyle is also well-evidenced as good for preventing cancers, and for providing clinical benefit in patients with cancer,  the focus of a one day Updates on Cancer Meeting being organised by the Fellowship of Postgraduate Medicine in London on Thursday 29th September, 2016.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Donizetti in Berlin: playful operatic approach to placebo and quacks

Donizetti's 1832 opera 'L'Elisir d'Amore' is a multi-level satire on reverence for quacks and their
placebos, gullibility of rural communities [set in France, to spare hostility from Donizetti's native Italian audience] and the transformative effect of wealth on desire. In an engaging production [Der Liebestrank],

Berlin's Deutsche Oper makes the most of humour and farce in the opera, cheerful choruses belying the critical content of the libretto.

Berlin-based American soprano Heidi Stober is a fine Adina - the heroine of the story.

Italian tenor Enea Scala as Nemorino is almost undone in his wooing of Adina by the intoxicating effects of an Elixir bought from travelling quack Dolcamara. Nemorino expects the potion to make him irrestible to women - it is in fact wine, rather than the magical potion ascribed by Dolcamara [a showman's performance by Seth Carico] to a recipe from Tristan's Isolde - queen of the Irish. Dolcamara's non-singing assistant at times steals the show with his magician stage-effects.

The quack (from the medieval quacksalver - hawker of salves) came to prominence from the 17th century, with surprisingly not until 1881 the first organisation formed (in the Netherlands) aimed at protecting the public from quacks.    

Donizetti was inspired by the plot of Tristan and Isolde. This idea in fiction of the effective magic potion dates from ancient mythology e.g. Circe bewitching Odysseus' men and through to Oberon's 'love-in-idleness' in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream - a different kind of magic, with origins in the Roman Cupid and the viola.

To her credit, Adina rescues Nemorino from his rival, recruiting officer Becorino [Simon Pauly], and she is not deterred by erratic alcohol/placebo induced dalliances of her man [excellent Elbenita Kajtazi as Giannetta leading the inheritance-inspired female interest in newly wealthy Nemorino].

Adina eventually rescues and accepts Nemorino, not realising and therefore not influenced the fact that he has progressed from no prospects to wealthy heir during the action of the opera. The chorus is large and at best excellent, though esp. in the first act often struggling to keep up with the orchestra and to fine unposed ways to occupy the stage. 

The word placebo appears not to have been used in a health context until the late 18th Century, not long before the 1832 premiere of Donizetti's opera. However the concept of the triad of properties of a potion – medicine, poison and magic charm – dates to Ancient Greek meanings of the word φάρμακον ‎(phármakon), as used for example in Homer's Odyssey. Nemorino suffers both the perceived magical effects and actual toxic effects of his alcoholic treatment. 

As an aside, Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales, uses Placebo as name and code for the behaviour of a character in The Merchant's Tale: pleasing by flattery to obtain advantage, an interesting parallel to the behaviour of the Dolcamara in the opera. 

In medical use, although provision of a placebo may be  well-intentioned within 'do no harm' as a precept, double-blind trials in the modern era show that a placebo may have powerful unintended adverse effects.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Charity concert evening on 20th July 2016 for children’s cancer charity CLIC Sargent

Weavers church
St James' Church, Packington Estate

The distinguished University of Warwick Chamber Choir are to perform Spiritual and Shakespeare Song Cycles and A Child of our Time on Wednesday 20th July, 2016 at the Packington Estate in North Warwickshire in support of the children’s cancer charity CLIC Sargent.

This is the third in an annual series of charity musical evenings organised by the Worsted Weavers Guild of Coventry in support of this national charity, which supports children and their families in the Coventry and Warwickshire area.

The musical performance will be in the St James’ Church on the Packington Estate in
Warwickshire (~ 20 minutes north of Kenilworth). 

St James’ Church and Packington Hall are not normally open to the public. The event is being held on the Estate by kind permission of the Earl of Aylesbury.

The neo-classical St James’ Church was inspired by the Baths of Diocletian in Rome and has an organ designed by Handel for his librettist, who was a cousin of the Earl of Aylesbury of the time, owner of the church and the Packington Estate.

Order tickets for concert and reception

The performance will be followed by a reception in the Pompeiian Hall at Packington   with wine/soft drinks and canapés. TIckets for the concert and the reception are £35 per person.

Map of Packington Hall

The children’s cancer charity  CLIC Sargent is the UK’s leading cancer charity for children and young people, and their families. CLIC Sargent provides clinical, practical, financial and emotional support to help them cope with cancer and get the most out of life. CLIC Sargent aims to help the whole family deal with the impact of cancer and its treatment. CLIC Sargent is active nationally, and locally in the Warwickshire and Coventry area.

University of Warwick Chamber Choir performs in Warwickshire and further afield, with annual tour destinations including Spain, Germany, the Republic of Ireland, Belgium and Switzerland, as well as regular performances in London and concerts on our own. UWCC have appeared on BBC national television ...

Read more about the event