Tuesday, August 04, 2015

West Edge Opera

•Alban Berg: Lulu.
Jonathan Khuner, music director;
Elkhanah Pulitzer, stage director
seen July 25 and Aug. 2, 2015.
•Laura Kaminsky: As One.
Bryan Nies, music director;
Mark Streshinsky, stage director;
film by Kimberly Reed
seen July 31, 2015.
•Claudio Monteverdi:
Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria
Gilbert Martinez, music director
Mark Streshinky, stage director
seen Aug. 1, 2015.
Eastside Road, August 3, 2015—
IF OPERA AS WE (I) know it has a future in our country, the oligarchic United States of America, then I think West Edge Opera, headquartered in the culturally forward San Francisco Bay Area of California, is showing the way. The repertory is exploratory; the means are practical and well scaled; the artistic direction is secure and expert. Productions are mounted in various venues, chosen for cost effectiveness, marketing value, and I believe appropriateness to the work in question.

West Edge is an outgrowth, I believe, of Berkeley Opera, founded in that enlightened city some years ago by the Berkeley conductor Jonathan Khuner, a musical genius (in my opinion), heir to a great musical tradition, seasoned opera worker (coach, prompter, conductor), a graceful intellect and a true enthusiast of musical modernism. I've known him, though not well, for many years. I played bass drum in Ravel's La Valse under his direction, many years ago in a community orchestra. I narrated, as a sort of compère, a production of Beethoven's Fidelio under his baton more recently (but again a number of years back). And I recall running into him after a San Francisco Symphony performance of Gurrelieder : when I enthused at the accuracy and spirit of the performance of the long and complex piece he agreed, but noted that a flute note had been transposed an octave in a chord in a loud tutti passage. Khuner is attentive, observant, quick-witted, and utterly modest; his musicians enjoy working with him.

Earlier this year we saw a West Edge concert production of Rossini's Zelmira (reported on this blog in February), and I've already reported here on this month's Lulu, which impressed us so much we bought tickets for a repeat performance yesterday. The result was that we saw the entire summer season, three operas, in three consecutive days, each time driving an hour each way for the experience. And I retain my enthusiasm for the company, and look forward to next year.

That's not to say I thought the run an unqualified success. Laura Kaminsky's As One is not really an opera, I think, but a dramatic song-cycle, cast on two singers and accompanied visually by a film projected onto panels behind them, musically by a string quartet playing busily throughout. The lyrics, by Mark Campbell, in English, are basically a series of more or less dramatic monologues in which the protagonist of the piece evolves from a twelve-year-old boy to a mature woman. The subject matter is gender identity, and in my opinion the most valuable aspect of the subject and its treatment here, after of course the matter of tolerance for individual means of coping with identity and society, is the awareness that in most of us there are moments, awarenesses, and attitudes that are both masculine and feminine as our society has conventionally typified such things.

The two singers who together portrayed the protagonist, Hannah Before and Hannah After, were winning, persuasive, musically secure: mezzosoprano Brenda Patterson and baritone Dan Kempson looked similar enough (stature apart) to portray a single character, and their voices blended seamlessly in the occasional duet and more frequent overlapping solo lines. Their physical acting, too, handled Mark Streshinsky's low-keyed staging persuasively.

There are however two problems with As One : the libretto is pedestrian, more a description of an individual's character than a portrayal; and the music too often lacks — well, edge and character. Not always: I was intrigued by the Janáček-meets-minimalism quality of the opening scene; and the long aria toward the close, rhapsodic in its confrontation at last with Nature (the Norwegian fjords) rather than Society, seemed finally to get off the ground, to soar in vocal skies I normally associate with Richard Strauss and Mahler. In the intervening hour, though, the music was mostly vocal cantilena accompanied by literally descriptive and rhythmically busy string-quartet writing, tonal, consonant, and to my ear aimless.

Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria, known to its Oakland audience simply as Ulysses, is a very different kettle of fish. Premiered in Venice in 1641, it is with the same composer's L'Incoronazione di Poppea one of the oldest operas in the working repertory but not, of course, frequently produced. West Edge proved the error of this, as it was entertaining, often moving, often very funny, and always both interesting and refreshing.

Where As One had been produced in a sort of warehouse nightclub setting (though with conventional row seating and without table service, which would have improved things), Ulisse was mounted on a platform thrust stage, its runways embracing the improvised pit, in an immense former steel-mill in industrial Oakland. This is a long way from the splendors of Renaissance theater, of course; but it did point up the stock theatrics which underlie more evolved theater. Strashinsky's staging made me think from time to time of Shakespeare's mechanicals' production of Piramus and Thisbe; of commedia dell'arte; even of traditional Italian puppet theater.

Opera is classically defined, by Italians at least, as dramma per musica, drama through music. Every member of this cast moved and expressed himself physically with real acting skill, whether dramatic or comic: but the success of the event was above all musical. Monteverdi's vocal lines are superficially not that far from Kaminsky's: cantilena, consonant, generally conservative in dynamic and pitch range. They are very different though in terms of definition, structure, variation of tempo and dynamic; and melodically they have character and contour, steering one's attention rather than lulling it. And the accompaniment, while similarly string-oriented, modest in number, and steady in its support, is refreshing and supple.

Music director Gilbert Martinez, who directs the Berkeley organization MusicSources, Center for Historically Informed Performance, led the pit band from one of its two harpsichords, turning also to a small reed-organ to accompany the angry sea-god Neptune in his two appearances. Otherwise the instrumentation comprised two violins, two violas, a viola da gamba, and most prominent of all harp and theorbo: plucked instruments whose range and resonance supported the singers with great resonance and rich color. (The theorbo, especially the bass theorbo, must be one of the most eloquent inventions of all time.)

Monteverdi's libretto, by Giacamo Badoardo, is generally faithful to Homer's Odyssey, but reduces Penelope's many suitors to three comic characters, their protracted and relentless slaughter to a momentary burlesque. Ulysses's emotional return to his homeland shore, however, and Penelope's poignant constancy and suffering, are quite moving both in Monteverdi's (and Badoardo's) treatment and in this production's performance. Baritone Nikolas Nackley's Ulysses was secure, melodic, often tender; mezzo Sara Couden's contralto-directed voice gave Penelope a grave, innig quality that was very affecting.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the opera is its depiction of the gods, whose interference in human affairs portrays in theatrical terms the inner weaknesses, proclivities, desires, and ambivalences our own time explains through psychology and, increasingly, politics. In this performing edition the action is framed by discussions in which Jupiter, as god in chief, acting at the urging of Minerva, protectress of the Greeks and especially Ulysses, persuades Neptune, who'd favored the Trojans and punished Ulysses for the last twenty years, to let the poor man go home.

Of the three, Minerva is by far the most important, appearing at pivotal moments throughout the drama. The role was brilliantly sung and effectively acted by soprano Kindra Scharich; tenor Gary Rushchman was a pleasant Jupiter; Aaron Sørensen an effective Neptune. Those two were also two of the three suitors, Pisandro and Anationoo, and Sørensen's bass voice was as strong as a buffo as it was dramatic in the villainous role.

Michael Desnoyers was sympathetic as the shepherd Eumete; Johanna Bronk supportive as Telemaco; Jonathan Smucker effective as Anfinomo; Charlotte Goupille Lebret affecting as Melanto. The Leandra Watson's costumes were simple for the most part, decorative in the case of the gods.

Of the three productions, though, it was that of Lulu that was especially impressive. Complex, big in every way, daring in every way, Berg's opera and West Edge's production seemed logical, effortless, inevitable. Both audiences I saw were moved, gripped by the opera and its performance. West Edge is a company to watch, not only for fascinating entertainmemnt for its local audiences, but for what it suggests for the future and for other communities. The great heritage of music theater can be adapted to present needs and resources: it requires nothing more than nerve and talent.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015


•Alban Berg: Lulu.
West Edge Opera,
Jonathan Khuner, music director;
Elkhanah Pulitzer, stage director
seen in Oakland, California,
July 25, 2015.
repeat performances:
Aug. 2, 2 pm; Aug. 8, 8 pm
information online:
Lulu First Scene Hi Res.jpg
Philip Skinner as Dr. Schön, Emma McNairy as Lulu; Act I of Alban Berg's Lulu.
Photo: Lucille Lawrence
Eastside Road, July 28, 2015—
We saw Alban Berg’s opera Lulu the other night, produced by the East Bay’s West Edge Opera in the abandoned Southern Pacific railroad station in Oakland (California). I can only say the event was phenomenal: we were so impressed we immediately bought tickets for a return hearing, this coming Sunday (August 2).

Berg wrote the opera, his second, between roughly 1930 and 1935, leaving it unfinished at his death. For years it was known only by its first two acts though the third act was virtually complete in short score and much of its orchestration had been completed for the suite Berg had extracted from the opera for concert purposes. Berg’s widow refused access to the manuscript, however, and it was only on her death, in 1976, that advances could be made toward realizing a complete performing version of the opera.

The opera is scored for twelve singers and large orchestra: woodwinds in threes plus saxophone; four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, and tuba; an active six-performer percussion section including vibraphone; important harp and piano parts; and a full string ensemble; a 16-piece off-stage jazz band including banjo (most of these can come from the pit orchestra).

Many of the vocal roles are quite demanding; the music is written in Berg’s version of Schoenberg’s “twelve-tone” system and is often dissonant, wide-ranging, and precise; the subject-matter of the opera is dark, violent at times, and discomforting; and Berg’s stage directions are carefully calculated and expressed in detail.

The result, certainly here in California, has been a very limited number of performances and productions, and those I’ve seen (San Francisco Opera, 1965 with Evelyn Lear; 1971 with Anja Silja) were truncated, rather routine in their staging, and frustrating.

A pity, because Lulu is one of the great operas of its or any century. On the first level, it’s arresting, fascinating, with a “story” that speaks to both its and our time and a score that resourcefully exploits the most fascinating and athletic possibilities of its voices and instruments.

This first level will leave many of us confused and either fatigued or exhilarated, possibly both. It’s a pity many do not go on to explore the work further, as Lulu is as fascinating intellectually — both as a historical document and as a work of art — as it is telling emotionally.

Perhaps it will become better known now, as in 2009 the Eberhard Kloke, one of two or three composers who have tackled the problem of orchestrating the third act, completed a reduction of Berg’s orchestration. West Edge used an orchestra of only twenty musicians: single winds (two clarinets), one percussionist, harp, piano, and nine strings.

I can think of few opera performances I’ve seen as impressively rewarding as this Lulu. Every member of the cast brought real intelligence to his role, projecting character and drama both physically and vocally, and looking the role perfectly persuasively. In addition, the voices themselves were marvelous: accurate, the vocal lines nicely phrased, the leaps landing persuasively on pitch, the dynamic contrasts well managed, ensemble singing (and fast-intercut interpolations, which Berg’s often conversational style requires) thoughtfully and effectively handled.

The opera centers of course on its title role, and I can’t imagine a better Lulu than Emma McNairy, who sings and acts with utter conviction and fabulous technique. But the rest of the cast is equally successful: Philip Skinner suave and controlling as Schön; Alexander Boyer as the warm, sympathetic, vulnerable Alwa; Buffy Baggott as a tender, at times uncomprehending Geschwitz; Bojan Kneževič as the sinister, shadowy Schigolch; Zachary Altman strutting and cynical as the Animal Trainer, strutting and stupid as the Athlete; and lesser roles were equal, taken by Erin Neff, Joseph Raymond Meyers, Michael Jankosky, Michael Crozier and Audrey Douglass.

The entire effort was Jonathan Khuner’s baby, and he conducted it not only well but apparently effortlessly — having, I’m sure, rehearsed and coached it with precision, economy, and persuasion. His orchestra supported the production with impressive élan.

And nearly as welcome, in some ways perhaps even more: Elkhanah Pulitzer’s stage direction, on Chad Owens’s economical and resourceful set (and with Christine Crook’s admirable costumes), respected Berg’s indications almost to the letter. Opera is supposed to be a total art form, appealing to eye, ear, heart, and brain with an integral, focussed event. Too often stage directors (and the producers who engage them) are willing to subvert the composer and librettist — in the case of Lulu, Berg is both — by superimposing a third artistic vision on an already complex work.

That did not happen at West Edge, and the result was a Lulu its composer would recognize and, I think, approve enthusiastically. The lagniappe to all this perfection and authenticity was the setting, a huge, brooding, used-up railroad station that seemed to be — visually, architecturally, even acoustically — a metaphor for the ruined first half of the twentieth century; the worn-out, no longer appreciated or maintained shell of what was once an elaborate, beautiful, and even practical accommodation of men and women of all classes of society.

There’s much more to say. I haven’t mentioned the admirable film, for example, cunningly structured by Jeremy Knight to accompany Berg’s ingenious centerpiece interlude, a forerunner of Robert Wilson’s “knee play” device articulating the drama’s exposition and calamitous resolution. I haven’t mentioned the intelligently translated supertitles, alas too frequently fading out against the buff concrete walls on which they’re projected (can the text-stye be changed to “outline”?)

I haven’t made an attempt at presenting the opera itself, which Wikipedia will do for me; and, beyond, George Perle’s fine book on the opera; and, for those who can use it, Erwin Stein’s masterly piano reduction of the first two acts, available for the downloading online.

Most unhappily of all I haven’t sufficiently sung the praises of conductor, crew, and cast; I don’t think I can rise to the task. This was a superb evening of theater, a magnificent interpretation of a masterpiece, a provocative and absorbing performance with what will be, I know, a long-lasting finish.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Hotels in Italy

Eastside Road, June 7, 2015—

IN A MONTH in Italy, May 6 through June 3, we stayed in thirteen different apartments, hotels, and agriturismi, relying on four sources for suggestions: Airbnb; Booking.com; Agriturismo.it; and previous knowledge. During that time the euro hovered at about $1.20. The most expensive lodging we found was €77, for an apartment with kitchen; a couple of other places were in the neighborhood of $75 to 80 a night; many others were significantly less. I list all below:



Naples and vicinity: 


•Parco Eva (Corso Vittorio Emanuele, 167/6, Naples). We were here seven nights, 6-12 May 2015. It is a comfortable apartment with a good-sized sitting room, an almost equally large bedroom, with a small, efficient kitchen separating them. We found the place through Airbnb ("Spacious Apartment in 1900s Palazzo"), and the hosts were charming, helpful, and attentive. The apartment is on the second floor of its building, which is reached from the top (fifth) floor of another building in front; both have elevators, though a few steps must be climbed to get to the first. The building entrance is perhaps a fifty-meter walk up a fairly steep driveway leading from a guarded gate on the busy Corso Vittorio Emanuele, but the apartments are very quiet.
While the buildings are a good way from the center of the old city — a half hour's leisurely walk, I'd say — one of the three Naples foniculare is a five-minute walk from the gate; it leads down to the Chiaia area, with its shops and restaurants, and up to the rather staid but very rewarding Vomero quarter, from whence another funicular will drop you quickly into the heart of the old city.

A half hour's drive south of Naples will bring you to •La Vecchia Quercia (Via Montevetrano 4, Località Cantina di Campigliano, 84099 San Cipriano Picentino (Salerno); http://www.lavecchiaquercia.it/). We spent one night there, May 13, having remembered it from a stay five years ago; and we found it all we'd recalled and then some: a fine, spacious bedroom with its own little terrace, on a farmstead out in the country, with an excellent dinner and a copious breakfast provided by a gracious, intelligent, cosmopolitan hostess.


Here we stayed in two agriturismi and one apartment. Nothing could have been more different than the two agriturismi, lodgings on working farms, found through the Italian website Agriturismo.it, which offers a useful iPhone app. •BioAgriturismo Tenuta Montenuovo (Contrada Montenuovo, 85030 Calvera (PZ); +39 0973 198 5022) offered a comfortable but rather bare-bones room, WiFi only in the restaurant dining-room and on its terrace, but an absolutely marvelous dinner and a fine breakfast. (14 May 2015) •Masseria Cardillo (SS 407 via Bassentana km 97.5, 75012 Bernalda (MT); +39 0835 748992; http://www.masseriacardillo.it), on the other hand, gave us a stunning room — huge, with a vaulted brick ceiling, elegant furnishings, and a private terrace with table and chairs. And a public sitting room big as a soccer-field and much more elegant, with fireplaces and groupings of sofas; as well as huge lawns, a pergola, a swimming pool and tennis court. Dinner was good though not as exciting as Tenuta Montenuovo’s; and the Roman ruins at Metaponto were conveniently close. (15 May 2015)

In the touristy town of Matera we stayed in •Apartment Casa Tonia (Vicolo Fornaci 7, Matera, 75100; +39 331 1541555), an apartment carved out of a storefront, with a kitchen, sitting room, and bath downstairs, bedroom-loft upstairs — rather an awkward arrangement for an extended stay, I’d think, but reasonably comfortable for a short one. We had trouble finding the place, as our GPS insisted on taking us to Vico Fornaci Vecchi, and we never could determine whether the apartment was on a Vico or a Vicolo. Whatever it is, it’s a pedestrian street, but a covered parking garage is nearby. (16 May 2015; Booking.com)


Just when we were wondering where we’d spend the night we noticed a roadside sign advertising •Agriturismo La Crianza (SP per Torchieroto, km. 3, 73018 Squinzano; +39 328 2487622; http://www.agriturismolacrianza.it), not far from Lecce. Our room was so comfortable and the farm so quiiet that we spent two nights here, using the place as a base from which to explore Lecce and even Gallipoli. The breakfast was nothing to write home about; we dined out; I didn’t notice any swimming pool in the extensive olive grove; but the people were very nice and our room pleasant and comfortable. (17-18 May 2015)

Lazio and Rome:

On the drive from Puglia to Rome, encouraged by a Slow Food restaurant recommendation, we drove by way of Campobasso, where Booking.com provided us with the •Cascina Garden Hotel (Contrada Tappino 61, Campobasso, 86100, Italy; +39 087 498024). The hotel’s high in a hilltop suburb, with parking in its courtyard, a reasonably good breakfast, WiFi in the room, and a comfortable bed. (19 May 2015)

Outside of Rome, not wanting to deal with parking issues, we stayed at another Booking.com suggestion: •Villa Del Patrizio (via di Castelfusano 21, Ostia Antica 00124; +39 06565.57386). The place looked pretty sketchy to me at first, a little like Santa Monica in the 1950s, raffish and unkempt from the outside, with parking on the shoulder of the street; but the one-flight-up room was very nice, with its own little outside terrace, a comfortable bed, clean bath, and good WiFi, and there was a pleasant, cheap little trattoria next door. (20 May 2015)

In Rome itself we had a room from Airbnb ("Bright Room With Balcony Up vatican") in the quiet, primarily residential quarter of Monteverde (Viale di Villa Pamphili, 132 Int. 4, Rome), a big bedroom with balcony, two bathrooms shared with the other three bedrooms (one of which is occupied by the host), with a fine cafe across the street for breakfast but also a well-equipped kitchen for providing our own (and even a simple supper of pasta and salad when we wished). Our host, a young actor, was charming, intelligent, and very helpful, and I’d spend another week here any time. Parking on street; a city bus stop in front of the building. (21-27 May) 


The provincial capital Grosseto provided a convenient overnight on the several-hour drive from Rome to Monferrato, and there we spent the night at the •Grand Hotel Bastiani (Piazza Gioberti 64, 58100 Grosseto;  +39 056 420047). This was a real bargain found on Booking.com. The deskclerk told us we’d booked perhaps the most beautiful room in the hotel, a very well maintained and updated old hotel a two-minute walk from the main square and the cathedral in this quiet, walled old city. The room was utterly quiet and very comfortable, handsomely furnished, and had windows on two sides, overlooking the quiet streets. Parking is outside the city wall, a block away except on market day, when you have to park farther off. Fine breakfast, but WiFi didn’t reach to our room. (27 May)


Arriving in Monferrato, near Asti, the day before our extended booking, we crashed in the •B&B La Riviera, via Orlassolo 18, Arignano, Castelnuovo Don Bosco 10020; +39 3332263640) near the small city of Chieri. Our room was again quiet and comfortable, the breakfast decent, the WiFi acceptable, and parking no trouble at all on what seems to be a horse-training estate run by a handsome and intelligent young man who couldn’t have been nicer. (28 May, Booking.com)


Our mainstay in Monferrato, though, is the •B&B I Mandorli (Via Troglia 1/3, Cardona di Alfiano Natta; +39.335.6197718; www.imandorli.it). We first stayed here fifteen years ago and have returned several times since. (You can read more about it on my website.) The proprietors, Gabriella and Franco Rampi, are a delightful, thoughtful, humane couple dedicated to an ethical country life. The rooms are quiet, comfortable, beautiful; and the setting is one of the most enchanting landscapes I know. Breakfasts are copious and delicious, and the countryside abounds in good, authentic, traditional restaurants. This will always be one of our favorite places in the world for a relaxing sojourn. (29 May-2 June)

The evening before flying from Torino’s airport we stayed in the •Hotel Cascina Di Corte (Via Castellamonte 2, Venaria Reale 10078; +39 01145932783), found through Booking.com and chosen for its location, ten minutes or so from the airport and fifteen minutes or so from a remarkable restaurant. The hotel turned out to be right around the corner from Venaria’s amazing Reggio, perhaps Piedmont’s equivalent to Versailles, with beautiful, huge gardens. Our room was, again, quiet and comfortable, with a fine bath, quick WiFi, enthusiastic and helpful desk service, and a fine breakfast. (3 June)

Notes on restaurant dining can be found here

Tuesday, June 02, 2015


Via Toglia, Cardona, June 3, 2015—

A WEEK NOW since I've posted here, and I knew it would be thus: we've been in this hamlet in a tranquil corner of Monferrato, rather a backwater of Piemonte, for a family gathering; twenty-six of us at one point, and there's been neither time nor inclination to ruminate on things.

This morning, though, everything's packed away. We have this one more day in Italy; then fly home. Such transitional moments always leave me… not sad, exactly; I know the best moments will return, and that if they don't I most likely won't know it. Nor are emotions mixed. Such transitional moments put me in a suspended state of mind, observing and experiencing detachedly. I don't enjoy the present, for the most part; I bask in it, as I sit in the sun. To enjoy is to take: to take enjoyment used to be a common phrase, when English-speakers were perhaps both more honest and more discerning than they often are today. To bask is to participate, to merge.

Well, these dozen posts from Italy will have to do for now. I suppose I'll take up the thread again in a few days; I hate to leave you in a Roman tomb, when so many more contemporary conversations are to be shared. Sixteen thousand words isn't bad, if I may congratulate myself; and if you want to know where the last two weeks have taken us, you can find out at Eating Every Day… or by watching Dominique's video…

Monday, May 25, 2015

11: More Ruins

Viale di Villa Pamphili, May 25, 2015
I  WROTE THE OTHER day about the Roman ruins out at Ostia Antica — what must have been quite a big seaport town a couple of thousand years ago. As I noted, I have a fondness for ruins, which resonate with my innate melancholy.

Ten days ago — it seems longer — we visited Metaponto, now a sleepy beach community on the instep of the Italian boot, but in its day a similarly important Greek seaport. In those days, before the rise of the Roman republic, Magna Graecia — “greater Greece” — extended well beyond the present-day Greek peninsula and islands; it included much of coastal Sicily and Italy. Five years ago we visited the imposing ruins at Paestum, an hour or so south of Naples, again on the coast — I wrote about that visit here. Metaponto was perhaps a similar outpost, possibly not as extensive.

I don’t know anything about ancient history, and it’s too late for me to take it up now with any degree of seriousness. This doesn’t keep me from meditating, and speculating. These Greek settlements sprang up on the coasts, of course, because the first Greek visitors came by boat, hugging shorelines when possible for any number of reasons.

The earliest colonizing must have been closest to present-day Greece, on the heel of the Italian peninsula. A couple of days after visiting Metaponto we touched another site, Egnazia, again a seaport. The Greeks apparently never settled very far inland on the Italian peninsula, though they must have profited from mining that went on in the mountains. (The Apennines extend along the length of Italy as far south as Basilicata, which reaches the instep.)

Were those early Greek settlers of the Italian peninsula anything like the English colonists in New England, I wonder, and were the local Italic people anything like the Mohicans and the Iriquois? I doubt it. The Greeks certainly had an evolved culture, society, and technology; but I think their “values” must have been closer to those intrinsic to Italy than the Pilgrims’ were to the native Americans. I don’t know how uneasily the Greek within the coastal cities they built, but I doubt that they were raided from the interior. I don’t know how they treated the locals who kept to the interior, but they seem not to have the organization or the desire to enslave them. But I could be dead wrong about all this.

We first visited the ruins at Metaponto about sunset, after the gates to the archaeological park had been locked, and we were disappointed, though we enjoyed the light, the romantic twilight of both the day and the Greek civilization. Next morning the park was open and we walked freely among the exposed ruins. It’s a curious place, still a project of active archaeology though at a very slow pace dictated, I suppose, by governmental money.

Apart from the site itself there isn’t a lot to see. A part of the theater has been reconstructed, and a viewing platform allows a modest aerial view from what may have been the height of the highest seats. Part of the façade of one temple has been reconstructed in a curious way, omitting the height of its columns, bringing the lintel (which must have been sixteen or twenty feet above ground level) down to eye level.

We walked around the site in the morning light, looking at the ground-plans of the temples, at the alignments of what must have been streets, and enjoying the brekkek kekkek of the frogs. We’d been to the small but very interesting museum on site the previous day, where among the sculpture, the ceramics, and the suppositions of the wall-labels I was particularly moved by a pair of dividers, two bronze pointed legs hinged together. Dividers

Pythagorus is said to have spent his last years in retirement here; perhaps this instrument was used by a follower. A curious aspect of the ruins is that at least one temple was clearly laid out slightly out of alignment with other, later ones. I didn’t think to check my own compass; my impression is that the temples are generally east-west in position. The surviving grids here, as elsewhere — certainly in Paestum — suggest architects and town-planners greatly concerned with proportion and ratio: they intuited, I’m sure, that an orderly town plan contributes to an orderly civil mentality, something our own developers don’t seem overly concerned about.

But where were the fifteen columns still remaining from the Temple of Hera, so prominently displayed in the museum in a series of enlarged engravings and photographs demonstrating the history of archaeological tourism? Nowhere in sight. We walked in some disappointment and confusion back to our car, to find another had just parked next to it. Its driver turned out to be a German-born Canadian, touring such ruins with his wife — they’d just driven all the way from Messina.

We had a nice long conversation, and he explained that the Temple of Hera was a mile or two away, invisible from this site but not from the highway leading to Taranto. We thanked him and drove out to see it. It too stands completely unprotected on its hilltop — fenced off from adjacent farmland, it’s true, but vulnerable, I’d think, to the vagaries of mischievous visitors. An explanatory panel somewhere suggested the site was important in its day as marking the border of the Greek-dominated coastal area, on a road which even then traced the route of the present highway. From this hilltop you look inland toward the mountains, across fields which three thousand years ago yielded crops of wheat and barley.

It’s a melancholy site now, and must have been rather enigmatic even in its day. It reminded me of another such site, Segesta, in Sicily, where a temple and amphitheater look out over coastal farmland much like this. What were the means, I wonder, by which these architects and builders knew of one another, carried the codified plans of these temples, ordered up the stone and scaffolding they needed. How was their society ordered, and how did hoi polloi feel about that ordering.

WE LINGERED QUIETLY a half hour or so, enjoying these musings, the warm air, the scent of eucalyptus and sea air; and then we drove north to Matera, subject of another dispatch. A day or two later we were on the east-facing coast at Egnazia, an unpleasant modern form of the no more pleasant Greek name Gnathia (the word apparently means “Jaw”, and drives from the two points or moles extending into the Adriatic to contain the ancient port). Had we more time I’d have lingered here too, a day or two or three, to investigate; but at present the site seems to be once again abandoned, overgrown, a large expanse of walled-in grassland bordered by endless grove of enormous, ancient olive trees.

A relatively small area is open for a stroller’s inspection, but it is not Greek: it’s the Roman necropolis, the area of tombs developed apart, I suppose, from the residential and commercial areas of the city that once was here. The tombs were all raided years ago, of course; their stone ceilings have, most of them, round openings broken through, just big enough for a small man to drop through, with a lamp no doubt, and hand up whatever vases and other objects he can readily lay his hands on.

Egnazia tomb A few of the tombs can actually be entered now, thanks to steel staircases thoughtfully provided. They are empty, of course; but there are still traces of paint on the stone walls, and niches where vases containing ashes had been placed. You can just stand erect in these tombs, and your head is six feet at least below grade; but light comes in through openings here and there, revealing the sandy beige of the local stone, and the green of moss and lichen where there is moisture.

A relatively small area is open for a stroller’s inspection, but it is not Greek: it’s the Roman necropolis, the area of tombs developed apart, I suppose, from the residential and commercial areas of the city that once was here. The tombs were all raided years ago, of course; their stone ceilings have, most of them, round openings broken through, just big enough for a small man to drop through, with a lamp no doubt, and hand up whatever vases and other objects he can readily lay his hands on.

A few of the tombs can actually be entered now, thanks to steel staircases thoughtfully provided. They are empty, of course; but there are still traces of paint on the stone walls, and niches where vases containing ashes had been placed. You can just stand erect in these tombs, and your head is six feet at least below grade; but light comes in through openings here and there, revealing the sandy beige of the local stone, and the green of moss and lichen where there is moisture.

You can only — I mean, I can only deal with so much melancholy. I like the musings these visits encourage; I like the idea that certain human values, certain ways of living daily life, cotinue unbroken from the seaports of three thousand years ago to the corporate fattorie of our own time. But it’s time, now, to move from Pythagoras to the present.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

10. Agriturismo 3°

Viale Villa Pamphili, Rome, May 24, 2015—
TO CONTINUE WITH notes on agriturismi, farm holidays in Italy. Our third, also chosen from agriturismo.it, was again very difficult to find, and this time the problem was, I think, Google, whose map led us to a very unpromising building out in the countryside outside the hill town (but they seem all to be hill towns here in Basilicata) of Bernalda. There we had dutifully driven, and found nothing; we drove on through Bernalda, thinking it might lie outside of town a little further up into the hills; but again found nothing.

Finally Google Maps brought us to this ugly building, quite close to its dusty country road, with a locked cancello through which we say a dooryard littered with broken-down motorbikes, an old car or two, perhaps an abandoned refrigerator, an abandoned washing machine, bits of agricultural junk. No one in sight; not even a dooryard dog.

We had driven in to Bernalda on an errand: Lindsey wanted an Italian SIM chip for her telephone. Oddly, my telephone rang as we drove into Bernalda: a woman spoke quickly to me in Italian, saying we’d driven too far and had to turn back to get to tonight’s agriturismo. How did she know we’d driven too far? How did she know where we were? A total mystery, a vaguely creepy one.

But it gave me the opportunity of telephoning back. A man answered and described exactly what we must do: return to the main road toward Metaponto, on the coast; follow it to its first fork, turn left there, look for a little blue car…

So we did that: we found the main road toward Metaponto and took it for what seemed too long a time. Finally we pulled into one of those little roadside pull-outs where drivers stop for a moment to answer the telephone, or a call of Nature, or, in some places, negotiate a service with a professional woman. I noticed a little blue car in this pull-out, and was a little surprised to see it pull away slowly as we began to park. Could this be our little blue car?

A man’s arm appeared through the driver’s window, beckoning us to follow, and we did, of course, soon turning across the main road to turn into an unpaved road that led, before long, to a graveled driveway up a hill between forest and olive grove; and then there we were, parking in front of an imposing, handsome, huge, manorial building.

A smiling man jumped out of his little blue car and gestured to the front door, welcoming us as if we were his best friends, and we stepped into … a mansion. The vaulted brick ceiling arched very high overhead. Big fireplace. Many many leather sofas, arranged for the most part in threes. At the other end, probably sixty feet away, a wall of glass doors leading out to a terrace, then a pergola, then a lawn.

Bedroom We were shown to our bedroom, an enormous room under its own vaulted brick ceiling, furnished in beautifully polished dark wood, with a big matrimonia double bed, a writing-table and chair, another table at which to have a glass of wine if the weather is inclement — but it isn’t, so we take it out on our own private terrace, comfortably seated in wicker chairs.

Bathroom, of course; armadio, refrigerator. Beautiful linen sheets. Good wi-fi. This is a kind of luxury we are not used to at all, and seems more like a country spa than an agriturismo. Later we are taken up to the swimming pool and tennis courts: if I were forty years younger…

And it is, in fact, an agriturismo; the tenuta produces wine and olive oil; the salon was in former days a tobacco-drying barn, that’s why the iron rings in the ceiling. Vincenzo, the smiling man who’d so helpfully guided us in is a farm worker in the off season, an assistant to the ospiti, the guests, during the tourist season. He is a perfect gentleman, always ready with a smile, patient, sympathetic, helpful, clearly a man who loves his situation.

Much of this information comes a little at a time, some from Vincenzo himself, some from the rather brisker but still friendly woman who seems to be boss. A few old black-and-white photographs show workers proudly grouped in front of agricultural machinery from, I’d guess, the 1950s; Vincenzo’s grandfather and father among them, apparently. Agriturismi, like trattorias, seem to maintain long family histories. I think of the old saw about the down-at-the-heels British squire who takes turns at master and man with his butler; perhaps something like that obtains now in Italy. Fattorie — the word means “farms,” but usually, I think, in the sense of largish farms producing not only fruit, vegetables, wheat, olives, grapes, but also jams and conserves, bread, oil, and wine; the value-added products derived from the raw agricultural products from fields, groves, and vineyards — fattorie perhaps have moved from privately owned farms to corporate ownership, to a fair extent subsidized I’m sure, and subsisting on tourism now as much as agriculture, as tourism has become second only to agriculture in the global economy.

Men like Vincenzo are, then, perhaps a modern equivalent of a bondsman, in a good sense, bonded not by slavery or indenture but by the practical value of having a good job, a fairly secure one, that allows you to enjoy a beautiful and tranquil setting, one you’d never be able to afford as a guest. I suppose the hours are long, but the work does not seem to be grueling.

There seem to be only four other guests, two women apparently traveling with one man and another who (I overhear this at dinner) is a local agent of some kind, taking them through this part of Italy, showing them sites, hotels, agriturismi, which they will then sell to their own customers, for they are apparently tourist agents of some kind.

I take you next to _____, I overhear him say in fluent English, in what seems a conspiratorial voice, you know the film ____, it is where it was filmed, there is a hotel accommodates sixteen guests, yo will have it all, no one else has the opportunity, but we must act quickly or we will lose the chance, I show it to you tomorrow, yes?

There’s something vaguely unpleasant about the guy and about his profession; I silently congratulate myself that we move around from hotel to agriturismo more or less blindly, at the mercy of Google and Waze and the iPhone, wasting a lot of time no doubt, missing out on important sites, museums, works of art; but always fascinated by what we find, and at least in my case preferring our own undoubtedly erratic and even mistaken idea of what we’re seeing to the overly detailed and commercial interpretation of a professional.

TwilightBut I will have things to say later about professors and tourguides, The dinner itself was, alas, while authentic to local cuisine, not as compelling as was the previous night’s (which had been, admittedly, a little too rich). You can read about if on the other blog, of course. But the evening, before dinner, had been marvelous; a romantic 19th-century landscape painting of an evening at the site of the Greek ruins at Metaponto, and then our own blue hour from the lawn beyond the pergola…

•Masseria Cardillo, SS 407 km 97.5, Bernalda; +39 0835 748992

9: Agriturismo, 2°

Olive trees
May 14-24, 2015—
A CLOSED IRON GATE; no doorbell to push. Three or four meters to the side, though, I notice a piece of paper posted to the mailbox, with a telephone number. By the time I call, though, we’ve been noticed; I see a man a hundred feet or so down the road at what must be the gate-opening sensor; the gate swings open, we drive down the smoothly graded gravel road, swing to the left along the oval turnaround, park as indicated in front of a long low row of guest rooms attached to a handsome stucco building with a fine rosebush covering part of the wall.

Couldn’t differ more from yesterday’s agriturismo. Where La Vecchia Quercia was serene and stately, Tenuta Montenuovo is clearly a work in progress, and a working farm. We’ve driven in through the olive grove, some of the trees severely cut back and thinned out recently. The house is halfway down hill from the gate in what seems to be a gentle hollow protected by forest from prevailing winds and the noise of the road (not that there’s any traffic); it faces away from its driveway, ninety degrees left, and down the slope in front of it I see a couple of horses standing peacefully near their quarters, one tethered, the other at liberty.

We’re shown into a big darkened dining room — interiors in this country seem always to be dimly lit, perhaps to save electricity, perhaps to keep cool in a climate given to heat. I suppose you could seat forty or fifty diners at these tables. There’s a short bar down the left side; the man who showed us in immediately offered us a coffee, making it in one of those new-fangled capsule espresso machines. He borrowed our passports for a few minutes — Italian hotels still have to register their guests with the government — and then gave us the key to room 4.

A nice enough room: double bed; armoire; writing-table; bathroom with shower. Enough sockets to power the laptop and telephone chargers. (I always carry a three-outlet adapter.) No view, though; strictly utilitarian. What do all the guests do, during what must be a busy enough season to reward all these accommodations? Well, I see a swimming pool, obviously not used at the moment; there’s a big flat area intended presumably for campers and tents. We learn later there are many walking trails in the area. Apparently Basilicata is developing a tourist economy; its hills and mountains a welcome respite from the heat of Campania and Puglia.

The room is quite basic but comfortable, and there’s a picnic table out in front of the dining room that finds the promised WiFi. (Wireless connectivity is increasingly important to us, and almost never present in rooms, only in lobbies, dining rooms, and the like.)

Getting here, now that had been a problem. We chose the place from an Internet site, agriturismo.it, which has a very handy iPhone app. Both show very clearly that the Tenuta is in the country, just outside the località of Carbone, but they also give Calvera as the site; so there we drove, up a steep road through a couple of switchbacks to the town, which had that rather closed aspect so many back-country villages project — not unfriendly, but a little bit guarded. We parked on the town square and walked to the only bar-café that was open. Three men in their forties, in work clothes, sat on the terrace between the doorway and the street; they’d been talking among themselves, but broke off as we approached. Salve, I said, the usual Italian for “hello”, and they nodded back, then resumed their loud conversation.

Inside a tired-looking (or possibly merely harassed) woman was cleaning something up behind the bar. We ordered coffees,, then returned to the terrace, where I pulled a plastic chair off a pile of them, nested together, and set it at the one table that had a chair. Before long another fellow came along, limping up to the terrace with a dog on a leash, and yanked his own chair free from the pile. The other men acknowledged him but showed no interest in him. A man drove a very noisy tractor up the street. Five o’clock hung heavily in the air. We drank our coffee and consulted our iPhones.

The tractor came back down the street, now pulling a trailer filled with what looked like compost. It sounded like the engine was about to throw a connecting rod. The clanking was really ominous. I looked at the man with the dog, who looked back at me, barely moving a facial muscle to show he knew what I was thinking. He looked toward the tractor, back at me, almost invisibly shook his head right, then left, and touched an earlobe.

We finished our coffee and paid; I replaced the chair I’d taken; we checked our information more closely, and drove down out of Calvera toward the river. Soon enough we saw a pannello advertising the Tenuta, and we followed its pointer, past a locked gate and up the road toward Carbone. On one side of the road, vineyards just leafing out, each vine with its wooden stake crowned with a rusty upside-down tin can, to protect it from the rain I suppose or to discourage perching birds. On the other side, olive groves, many of the trees very severely cut back. Before long we realized that locked gate must have been our evening’s hotel, and we turned back.

Giovanni told me the next day — I’m so nosy; I ask so many questions — that the place was ten years old; that that was his father-in-law working in the garden. Oh ho: so he married into the place. Well, why not. I asked how it was going. Well enough, he said. You don’t get rich, but it’s a good life. I was in Florence a few years, he added, I made more money there, but who wants to live like that?

His wife Carmela cooked our dinner and brought it to our table. A small but substantial woman with a full round face and dimples and a ready smile, she was dressed in whites and always, every time we saw her, wore a professional white cook’s cap, not a toque but a close-fitting brimless cap like those that gas-station attendants used to wear, when they weren’t slipped under their belts.

And what a cook she turned out to be! I write about most of our dinners on my other blog, and this year I started maintaining a list of restaurants we’ve been to. I decided not to attempt to assign “grades” to restaurants, partly in the spirit of equality, partly to evade the responsibility, mostly because one’s taste in restaurants is inescapably subjective — but some of them are so memorable, for one reason or another, that I single them out. That’s likely to happen with this one.

Dig Next morning, after a solid night’s sleep, Giovanni was on a back-hoe, leveling a good-sized garden site already protected from the elements by an enormous canopy. This would supply tomatoes, zucchini, and eggplants, he explained. I looked around the place a little more, and discovered a good-sized swimming pool I’d overlooked the previous evening, not that I have a suit with me. I think in season this must be well attended, this place. People come for cycling and walking, Giovanni said; many come from Puglia, where they don’t have hills and forests of their own. As we would discover, in the next few days… Bioagriturismo Tenuta Montenuovo, 85030 Calvera (PZ), Italy; +39 338.6368133

Saturday, May 23, 2015

8: Don’t worry. No problem.

Viale di Villa Pamphili, May 21, 2015
YES, A LITTLE BIT behind in the dispatches. And even in the private journal, if you want to know. Been busy. Yesterday, for example, we arrived in the city of Rome, in Monteverde, a nice residential quarter vaguely southwest (as I believe, but I’ll check that out sometime later) of Trastevere, about ten in the morning, in plenty of time, as I thought, to return the rental car to the Hertz office at the main train station.

The very nice fellow at our apartment counseled me against that attempt. E tutto bloccato in centro città, he said; the center of the city is completely blocked. So I thought I’d return it to another office. The fellow who rented me the car a week ago, in Naples, said I could return it to any Rome office. So let’s do it.

But which office, and where would it be? There must be one in Trastevere, I thought, but looking up the addresses of the various offices on the internet turned up no answers. Many possibilities for clicking into an endless help loop, but no addresses. Phone numbers, but all of them answered by machines, most of them babbling away in melodious lilting Italian impossible for a non-native-speaker to comprehend.

Finally I followed Google Maps to the nearest office, on the Via Pellegrino Matteucci, over in the Ostiense district, near the Ostiense train station, where the improbable Piramide is. I’ll flesh this out later, I suppose, when I’m home, and have little else to do. The Piramide is very interesting; I’d like to tell you about it. But just now we’re driving up the Via Pellegrino Matteucci looking for — ah, there it is — the familiar Hertz yellow, no doubt copyright — no place to park — but there’s a truck double-parked, its four-way flashers going; I’ll just stop behind it, leave the engine running, set my own four-way flasher —

And I dodge through traffic across the street to the Hertz office, to find it locked up, obviously closed. But careful inspection reveals a piece of paper in the window: they’e merely moved a few doors down the street. I run down there: it too is closed, locked tight, no one in evidence, even though it’s a good half hour short of noon, and they’re supposed to be open until 12:30.

But here again is another piece of paper, advising me that I can return the car to a parking garage up the street. I run back to the car, punch the address of the garage into Waze (thank Hermes I’ve noted the address; thank Hermes Waze is always ready for another chore), and off we go, up the street a long way, sharp right, up another street, sharp right over a very unlikely modern viaduct across I don’t know what, sharp right down the Ostiense, ah, there it is, a shabby entrance to a nondescript parking garage, no one in sight, no signs, certainly no familiar Hertz yellow.

Nessuno? I call, Italian for Anybody here? And finally a man answers, walking slowly over toward us. I explain everything to him in my very much broken Italian: the car is due at noon, at the cenrtal office at the train station; the central city is completely blocked; the man in Naples told me I could return it to any Rome Hertz office, here it is, what more must I do.

He looked at me impassively. Do you have a contract? I hand that question to my secretary-consort, who hands me a paper, which I hand him, though I see, my heart sinking, that it is not a contract, merely a printout of an e-mail from the second-party online car-rental I use. This is not a contract, the man points out, in beautiful, clear Italian, though he is certainly not a native Italian, he obviously has a good component of Japanese ancestry. Rome is a cosmopolitan city.

No, I said, but it is what I give you. I look at my secretary. That’s all we have, she says. That’s all we have, I tell him.

He has begun walking around the car in that familiar pace, looking for dents and scratches. It’s perfect, I say, just as we rented it. Yes, he says, No problem. Don’t worry. Was the wheel cover like that? I don’t know, I say; I’m sure it was.

Fine, he says, that’s all, thank you. What, I ask: do’t I have to sign something, or perhaps you should sign something for me? Don’t worry, he says; everything is fine. No problem.

So we walk out of the garage, me carrying a pair of shoes we’d forgotten to unload from the car back at our apartment, and think about what to do next, while at the front of my mind the gears are turning: there was no sign that that was Hertz; I have nothing signed; the paper with the address of the parking garage — was that taped to the inside of the Hertz office window, or the outside? How simple it would be to tape notices like that to windows of closed offices, wait for people to bring cars to you, and then drive to, say, oh, I don’t know, Istanbul, or Moscow, or Brussels, or any other European city, maybe sell the car along the way…

The hell with it. As I’ve already told my other blog, we stopped in at Perilli for lunch, which made everything a whole lot better, and then took a bus to a piazza near our apartment, and walked the rest of the way, and sacked out for the afternoon.

The first half of this month in Italy has run its course; the second half will be quite different. We will no longer be alone, just the two of us; we will be with friends and relatives. Tomorrow we attend the graduation of a granddaughter from the American University in Rome; her parents are here as well. In a few more days we’ll rent another car, if Hertz hasn’t thrown us in jail, and drive up to Piemonte for a festive weekend with many friends and relatives. My Italian will get evern worse for lack of need for it; I’ll be hearing English everywhere.

The Roman episode will be odd, too. We’re almost not in Rome; Monteverde is quite a different quarter from Trastevere, where we’ve stayed before, not to say the historic center on the other side of the river. I feel restless. My son-in-law messages me: he’s getting a haircut: would I like to go along? Well, yes, I need one. I walk up to meet him; then we walk down to Trastevere to a shop he’s been told about — but, predictably, it’s closed.

But I have my own favorite shop, where I’ve twice had very good haircuts, at 44, Piazza del Teatro di Pompeo, near the site of Julius Caesar’s assassination — these few yards of street mean so much to me, from just a few visits but over so many years.

We settle into the shop. The barber looks familiar, He tells me he’s been there thirty years. I first came here for a haircut, I tell him, in 1988; I remember a boy who swept the floor meticulously…

The owner’s son, he said; yes, not completely… well…

That’s the one, I say. And is he…

Oh he’s fine, the barber tells me. The owner is retired; I own the shop now. I was second barber then. And the boy? He’s, well, retired, too, living in a home…

Pavel and I emerge a half hour later, both looking like George Clooney. Well, I look like Clooney’s father, and Pavel looks like a friend of Clooney’s, I tell him. We walk back across the Ponte Sisto, across Trastevere the short way, up the Janiculum to Fran’s apartment. I buy a couple of bottles of wine and a bottle of grappa, and we have dinner in her apartment, three generations of us, us oldtimers who in our twenties would never have dreamed we’d ever be in Rome, our daughter and her husband who grew up in a prosperous, secure world; our granddaughter and her boy friend who are questing their way in a world none of us could have imagined.