Thursday, November 29, 2012

Quote of the Day

"They tell you that a tree is only a combination of chemical elements. I prefer to believe that God created it, and that it is inhabited by a nymph."

Pierre-August Renoir

I know a tree is more than that too. You can read about what I saw of the Impressionists (and a night at the opera) on my other blog, Ars Borealis.

Quote of the Day

"According to the established rites,
wine and water are brought
with less ceremony than before.
There are no fresh glasses
and the waiter does not pour
a specimen measure.
But the first courses
arrive soon after -
ravioli annointed with butter,
carpaccio with a chrism of oil -
and the condiments are distributed:
parmesan shaved
from a nubbly, fulvous block,
a sesquipedalian peppermill waved
by the nimble attendant of the kitchen hatch in final blessing.
He watches, and his companion
watches him watch,
the flexing of supple back
and sturdy haunches
as the waitress raises
and twists the head
of the wooden phallus,
scattering seed.

They scarcely need
the waiter's intoned
Buon appetito."

From the book-length poem, The Song of Lunch by Christopher Reid. This has been filmed, and I am gnashing my teeth in desire to see this.

If you've ever loved, have ever lost, or left, met again, shared lunch, or anything that sounds remotely similar, I suggest you read this pointed, funny, sad look at two lovers meeting again years after their relationship ended. Of course, it's hard not to read without imagining Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson in the roles, but that's no problem at all. And check out Emma Thompson - the woman gets more beautiful with every passing year.

My Elixir of Great Music

I don't know why previous listenings and viewings over my early years didn't impact me, but now the 19th-century Italian opera genius Donizetti has me in his thrall. From Maria Stuarda (Canadian Opera Company a couple of seasons back), to Lucia di Lammermoor (COC, then again a Met production, and the COC is doing one again this spring - can't wait), Don Pasquale and now L'elisir d'amore... I get drunk on this music for days, drive my workmates nuts whistling it (yes, I'm a whistler... strong lips... rrrrrrrRRRRRRrrrrrrrr).

It says a lot for the energy and talent of University of Toronto Opera School students that a Saturday evening performance of Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore managed to be delightful, funny and sweet, just weeks after I saw the Met's HD live performance, which was as perfect as I could imagine.

The Opera School consistently produces work that bodes well for the future of the art form, and all on the remarkable sets of Fred Perruzza, who - surely on a tiny budget - never fails to enchant.

The Met production boasted three of the cast from another Donizetti a couple of season's back, Don Pasquale. Anna Netrebko (dashing and sexy in a riding habit), Mariusz Kwiecien (as Belcore he was a handsome bully, and a potentially abusive boyfriend for Adina) and Matthew Polenzani (breathtaking in his big aria) were all in top form, but it was Ambrogio Maestri (oh God, what a name) as Dulcamara (last picture) who stole the show; a perfect basso buffo with everything you could ask for in a great singing comic actor.

This just couldn't be bettered.

Impressions from Montreal: Opera

Le Vaisseau Fantôme (The Haunted Vessel) is better known to me as Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, one of my favourite operas, and last week Montreal Opera was presenting it in one of my favourite productions (from the Canadian Opera Company). I was already planning a weekend there, so figured the timing would be excellent, and it was.

Cursed to sail the seas unendingly, only able to come ashore once every seven years for one day in which he must find a woman to love him unto death in order to release him from his curse, the Dutchman's lot is a rough one. This tale of the ultimate outsider who can only be redeemed by the necessarily blind and unquestioning love of a woman is rife with neurotic possibility. The music is sublime, of course, and the ending always poignant.

This Christopher Alden production luckily works in massive barn-like theatres like the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, as well as purpose-built opera houses. The slanted box-on-its-side, lined with rough wooden floors and chair pegs, has a Shaker feel to it and pushes the action and the sound out into the auditorium. The only set pieces within the set are a large wheel and a spiral wrought-iron staircase that comes up through the floor and disappears into the ceiling. The one set plays all parts and it works perfectly to portray an insular society, into which a mysterious sailor is likely not to be welcomed. The lighting by Anne Militello is creepy and glorious. One minute the stage is flooded with blood red, another with an acid yellow.

The Dutchman and his Senta are intensely sympathetic. Daland, Senta's greedy father, and the rest of her village, are suspicious and tribal in their attitudes to outsiders. When the villagers celebrate the return of their men, the rowdy Steuermann chorus is eerily disciplined in its barely contained rage. The villagers' costumes denote a 1930s Fascistic feel, with the Dutchman and his ghostly crew in what looks to be concentration-camp garb. The women are dressed in bilious green stoles, and all the characters bear raccoon-like eye makeup.

I wasn't blown away by the singing so the least said, the better. But I was here to witness again a thoughtful and potent production. And that's what I got.

Montreal Impressions: Art

ONCE UPON A TIME... IMPRESSIONISM (although on the website they spell it with two "n"s)
October 13, 2012 to January 20, 2013

In a long line of fabulously wealthy Americans amassing art, Sterling Clark and his French actress wife, Francine, amassed a remarkable collection, and - while their Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachussetts undergoes expansion work - 74 of the paintings are touring Asia, Europe and, in its only Canadian stop, Montreal, at the Museum of Fine Art.

I'm not a particular fan of Impressionism, nor of the big shows, but my last experience here was so excellent, I thought I'd give it a go.

From the website:

"Seventy-four paintings by Bonnard, Corot, Degas, Gauguin, Manet, Millet, Monet, Morisot, Pissarro, Sisley and Toulouse-Lautrec, including a selection of twenty-one outstanding canvases by Renoir, and the Degas sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (on view exclusively in Montreal) will be shown at the MMFA. The inclusion of academic works by Bouguereau, Gérôme and Stevens, among others, will enable visitors to see how the new ‘modernism’ challenged official painting.”
I was a bit taken aback when I got into the ticket line when a friendly volunteer informed me that there were no timed tickets, so there seemed to be no control as to how many people toured the venue at any one time. I don't know if it's a Montreal thing, but everything seemed to flow well. I still spentt most of the time ducking, bobbing, weaving, and apologizing as I listened to the excellent audio guide. But the exhibit was excellent.

The canvasses were stunning. There is that faint surprise when you see a picture you've viewed many times or on tea towels or postcards suddenly loom large and in living colour before you. It was Rousseau's Farm in the Landes (1844 - 67) that brought tears to my eyes. Of course, it's riddled with trees, which are pretty much my favourite thing in the whole world. The life in the painting and the obvious devotion he poured into it over 20 years is palpable.

Anything with trees in it captivated me, like Monet's Geese in the Brook (1874).

I learned that Renoir's A Box at the Theater (At the Concert) (1880) originally had a male figure standing to the right behind the young ladies. Apparently you can still see his form somewhat in the red curtain backdrop. I can't.

But I love the contrasts in black and white, in sauciness and demureness, and how the younger girl's nose seems to be coming in dangerous collision with the other lady's elbow.

The rebellious Impressionists are now achingly mainstream. But an exhibition like this, excellently laid out, lit, paced... dispells the chocolate box overkill and instilled in me a renewed awe for some of our greatest artists.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Sweet November

I'm not looking forward to winter. I wasn't looking forward to November. But... strangely, as it draws to a close, I'm enjoying this dark, in-between time of year. I'm grateful for evergreens, giving colour to otherwise naked parks and walkways. The sky has been more blue of late, even as the days get shorter.

Tonight I was headed to hear a concert by a young singer, but I got caught up between two appointments and a late, after-hours pick up for work. So I missed the concert and walked home from the streetcar, my eyes burning with too much computer work and too much tiredness. The snowflakes started falling and I noted the twinkly lights in many store fronts. I realized that Christmas is four weeks yesterday, but I have been working so hard I had hardly noticed the sudden onslaught of holiday decorations and songs in the shops.

I saw the flakes fall on my black pea jacket as I walked the quiet streets. It was getting late and I wasn't - for once - in the mood to cook for myself from scratch. I picked up a shawarma at my favourite local, where the smiles are as warm as their yummy hot sauce.

At home I got into my dressing gown, put on my warm slippers and collapsed in my big red chair. I was melancholy and happy all at once. After I'd eaten my shawarma I sat in my little anteroom, the twinkly lights were on, and I played my ukulele. What a sight I must have made.

I've never cared much for November before, and I've missed most of it this year, but still, it's pretty sweet.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Blustery Walk to Cherry Beach

I had to walk down to the beach today to clear out my brain cobwebs. There were very few people out. I think Grey Cup fever has Toronto in its grip, so apart from the occasional helicopter and a few other walkers, it was remote. A bit too remote perhaps. In the winter months, I usually keep more inland, especially to avoid the bitter breezes off the lake. Oh... I don't like to wish time away, but I do long for spring. I think this winter will be a long one.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Bzzz on the Cupcakes

This is why I was too busy to blog this week... cupcakes! I made them (mostly regular size, but some minis) for a party for a busy, beekeeping lady. This happened over three evenings after work. Chocolate cupcakes with chocolate frosting were topped with marzipan bees (with slivered almonds for wings and cocoa-coloured piping gel for stripes), and fondant flowers and leaves. They all went.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Eleven Moving Pictures

A couple of years ago, I took a picture of dawn from the train leaving Montreal. This time it was sunset. Gazing out of moving windows is one of my favourite things to do. When the crescent moon appeared high up, I watched it almost all the way back to Toronto.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Quote of the Day

"Seldom, very seldom does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken."

Jane Austen, Emma

Here's a little disclosure... I'm blogging remotely from a train en route to Montreal for a weekend of much-needed pleasure and relaxation. And I've just started reading The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler.

Like Liver?

How about liver... with bacon? Mmmm... bacon. (Insert Homer Simpson drooling noise here).

I like liver in many forms, but - inspired by how I've had it in restaurants recently - I tried this technique and it's one of the best things I've ever tasted. The onions and bacon softened and cooked together, then were pushed aside in the pan to let the liver just cook through. So tasty and warming.

And I'm still in a soup mood, making the broccoli, ginger and lemongrass soup copied from The Sandwich Box. Yum. One of the benefits of cold weather is the warming food it inspires.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Good, Really Good

I'm a big fan of the films about James Bond, the mysterious, misogynistic MI6 operative created by Sir Ian Fleming and so captivatingly portrayed on film by several hunky actors over the last 50 years. And of course, deciding who is the best portrayer of Bond is a favoured topic for debate and disagreement in many circles. I'm saying it here: Daniel Craig is my favourite Bond. In fact, he's also the favourite Bond of my friend, John. It all happened quite quickly. We were at the movies before Casino Royale came out, we saw the trailer, and John turned to me quite seriously and said, "Ok, I've just seen the trailer of his first Bond film... and he's the best Bond ever."

So, after enjoying the Bond design exhibit at TIFF, and getting caught up by watching Casino Royale the same evening (I didn't bother with Quantum of Solace, preferring to pretend it never happened), I was pretty jazzed to see the latest Bond offering on opening night... Skyfall.

[Side story: The Tuesday before the Friday opening night in Toronto, I was online purchasing tickets, finding that as fast as I found screenings that weren't sold out... they sold out. We finally got tickets at my favourite cinema, the Beaches, and it happens to be the location that I've attended the two previous Bond openings. On the night, I lined up an hour early, as I waited for my friend, and a good thing too, as there were many people already in front of me. The theatre was sold out, packed solid with fans of all ages. And the audience deserves a mention in this review: they were excellent! The film had something to do with that, I guess, but they were silent and concentrated. Thanks, audience!]

From the thrilling opening sequence, through the credits, and into the story, this was an excellent action film, with many breathtaking moments. Director Sam Mendes would be expected to do something special with the Bond franchise and he did, bringing to the fore the relationships between the major players, in ways that enhanced their vulnerabilities. Sometimes, it was too much (see Spoiler section below). Now, Casino Royale still remains my firm favourite, but Skyfall comes close behind. There were irresistible throwbacks to the past (the Adele-sung opening credits with silhouettes under water; the Aston Martin!) and looks to the future (the adorable Ben Whishaw - who was also John Keats in Bright Star - as the new Q, and another surprise new/old character, but I won't ruin it for you).

Daniel Craig is six years older than he was in Casino Royale and the film plays up the notion of aging and retirement for both him and M (Judi Dench, still so fabulous). Craig's eyes are more icily blue than ever, his face more chiseled, but his body looks great. He was the harder Bond, who can still be slightly playful, but I love how the new Bond franchise has him more guarded than ever. Javier Bardem as the creepy, tragic villain only needed more screen time, as we couldn't get enough of him. Bérénice Marlohe as Sévérine, the ubiquitous Bond girl, was a surprise. At first glimpse, with her Vesper Lynd-worthy heavy eye makeup, I assumed she was just a pretty but silly character. But she carried off her controlled, sexy skittishness and fear really well. I'd love to see her in something else. The rest of the cast is made up of really excellent British actors, like Ralph Fiennes, Rory Kinnear, and Helen McCrory. The soundtrack is all you might hope for, rife with those tight horn sections that are always sexy and powerful.

The return to Bond's childhood home seemed to come a little out of nowhere, and, maybe I am jaded, but I like my Bond mysterious. I don't want to know his parents' names, but I do like that Albert Finney was the loyal retainer, and I also want to know where that road is in the Scottish highlands, unless it was digitally created?

There was some wry humour and plenty of action. There were also tears... but you'll have to see why for yourself.

I recommend!

Quote of the Day

"It takes a certain type of woman to wear a backless dress with a Beretta 70 strapped to her thigh."
Daniel Craig as Bond, James Bond, in Skyfall (2012).

Want to read what I thought of it? Visit my new blog to find out!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Nobody Does it Better

The TIFF Lightbox only opened a couple of years ago. It's the newish home of the Toronto International Film Festival, and year-round it's got great programming of films you're not likely to see in many other places. The building is excellently designed, the theatres are a pleasure to sit in, and some of them (for the Cinematheque showings) don't allow popcorn and drinks. This is in accordance with the old Cinematheque tradition, when showings took place in Jackman Hall in the Art Gallery of Ontario, where the only thing you could take in was bottled water. The lights always went down very low and the pre-show music was perfectly chosen for the film being shown. Rarely before had I lost myself so entirely in a movie experience.

Now, in time for the 50th anniversary of James Bond on film, the Lightbox is hosting Designing 007: 50 Years of Bond Style which unveiled earlier this year at London's Barbican Centre.

Now readers of my other blog will know that I get frustrated at exhibits, and tend to avoid the big, busy ones at all costs. There is one exhibit which still stands out to me as the finest of my experience, so in general I'm a bit of a fusspot when it comes to these sorts of events.

The good news is that Designing 007 is not very big, and they have sensible controls as to how many people can go through it at once. My only quibble was the very start of the exhibit where several large historical panels of information on Ian Fleming's life and contacts were crammed together quite tightly in a space that didn't let many people read without feeling rushed. But other than that, things were very good.

As the TIFF website tells us, the exhibit is... "the largest and most comprehensive exhibition ever devoted to Bond, featuring costumes, props, models, gadgets, concept artwork, storyboards and other fascinating artifacts from the series. Signature Bond items featured in the exhibition include the steel teeth worn by Richard “Jaws” Kiel in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977); the Anthony Sinclair overcoat worn by Sean Connery in Dr. No (1962); the poker table from Casino Royale (2006); and multiple gadgets from Q Branch."

Most of the items were original, with a few identified as replicas, especially the clothing. Special features included a wall of screens, all showing Bond opening credits (including the saucy ones by Maurice Binder) and a display cabinet with Halle Berry's bikini, Daniel Craig's blue trunks from Casino Royale (gulp), and replica's of Ursula Andress's bikini and Sean Connery's trunks from Dr. No. Gosh.

The highlight for me was the discovery of the sketches by Sir Ken Adam, the production designer for many Bond films. In simple mainly monochrome drawings, he conveyed the mad magnificence of Blofeld's lair or the Moonraker launch pad. They are stunning. The TIFF shop carries a book of his work, but I didn't indulge. I'm so hopelessly behind in reading, I'm almost giving up.

That evening, I had my friend Dave over, and we watched Casino Royale in preparation for the big opening night of the latest Bond film, Skyfall. I like to think I was only mildly annoying each time I said, "Oh, we saw that prop today!" I think plying him with the newly acquired Cardhu helped.

Designing 007 continues til January 20, 2013. I recommend!

Below you see a Ken Adams sketch for the volcano interior in You Only Live Twice; Sean Connery and the iconic Aston Martin during filming of Goldfinger; a TIFF website image.

Son of Blog, Part Deux

I've started a new blog! This one will continue, but I thought I needed a distinct place to ramble on about my experiences attending cultural and entertainment events in Toronto and further afield. Those posts tend to be a bit more long-winded and they certainly attract the least attention. It might make more sense for them to live elsewhere.

Check out the new one... over here!

Chili Against the Chilly

The nights are darker. The colour and light of a falling October are gone. The lights and busyness of Christmas are to come. The leaves are gone, and all is grey. And there is much rain. The cold is damp. I have to keep busy, and I do. I just took a request for 80 cupcakes. Note I say "request," not order. I don't have the regular time to make a business of this, and so it's a favour in honour of a very lovely woman.
We must keep warm and safe this month. There must be friendship and good food, and sometimes effort goes into making that happen. It's all to easy to fall towards retreat and hibernation.

Last week a friend came over and we ate lots of cheese... and then my vegetarian chili with guacamole, sour cream, grated strong cheddar and good nacho chips.

The conversation was so good and much needed. It warmed the cockles.

Stick close together. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Tempest Times Two

(Damn, I love alliteration).

It's been years since I've attended a Cirque du Soleil performance. I figured it was time to make a return to the big yellow and blue tent.

The little company that could has made big. Started in the early 1980s in Quebec as a medley of jugglers, stilt walkers, and other street performers, the circus-that-didn't-feature-animals has become a massive international success story. I love the fact that at one point, the two biggest acts in Las Vegas were from Quebec: Cirque du Soleil and Celine Dion.

The latest touring show to hit Toronto is Amaluna, a name that vaguely and playfully is meant to represent "loving the moon." And, as you might suspect, Amaluna is woman-oriented. Apparently the usual ratio in Cirque shows of male performers to female is 3:1. In Amaluna, it's reversed. The concept for the production, directed by Diane Paulus is taken from Shakespeare's The Tempest. Except, instead of a Prospero, you have a Prospera. There is more of a thread of a plot than in other Cirque shows I've seen and it works well. Cirque du Soleil never strays far from its roots (the opening act consists of two young women madly moving around on unicycles), and yet it takes those skills to incredible heights, sometimes literally. The acrobatics are breathtaking, but always with a little twist, an extra subtext. The duo of a man and a woman suspended in mid air, fighting and tumbling above our heads, becomes a battle of sorts and, ultimately, very erotic.The clowning isn't the creep show it is in traditional circuses, but a more genuinely goofy and charming reflection on the sillyiness of human nature.

The thing I've never enjoyed about Cirque is the music, and yet I must admit it isn't Cirque without it. Redolent of soundtracks to films set in historic, exotic pasts, the music usually features a single woman's voice wailing in vague Eastern-tinged melodies through a powerful sound system. It always puts my teeth on edge, but I can't suggest another option. It just makes sense for Cirque.

I'm glad I went. I'll be back.

Then, this past Saturday, I went to the Metropolitan Opera's HD transmission of Thomas Adès' The Tempest. This opera premiered in 2004 at Covent Garden, and the Met presented it this season in a Robert Lepage production... Lepage who has also worked with Cirque du Soleil. I love these little connections. I have to admit, I'm not a fan of The Tempest... yet. I don't know why but I've yet to see a production of the play that really engaged me. This opera performance came the closest. The hotness that is Simon Keenlyside was Prospero (Adès wrote the role for him), and the rest of the cast was without fault. It did occur to me towards the end, that if, for some reason, Miranda and Ferdinand couldn't leave the island, they would be able to people their little kingdom with the most gorgeous gene pool. They were played by Isabel Leonard and Alek Shrader. Lepage is consistently remarkable and revelatory. Through his vision, Prospero set the tale, through his powers, in a recreation of La Scala... the opera house in Milan, because, after all, Prospero is/was the Duke of Milan. The magical elements were all there, the young lovers were completely believeable, but ultimately it was Keenlyside's embittered Prospero, the angry, rejected man of power, whose magic is the focus for all that pointless rage, that really made the show. Adès's music is dense and layered and I need more listenings of it. There were moments that were so beautiful, like the Act II love duet. And Adès, who was also conducting the piece, was intriguing in the intermission interview; modest and thoughtful.

Prospero (Simon Keenlyside) and Ariel (Audrey Luna) in the Met production, a recreation of Milan's La Scala opera house. Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera

A Breakfast

It was good. Bacon, scrambled eggs, little tomatoes that never made it into last night's salad softened with some oregano, all piled on top of sesame Ryvita.

Monday, November 12, 2012

For the Ladies, and the Men who Care

Check out this very clever idea. Le Parcel. "Every month without fail."

I love it!

Quote of the Day

"May you never go to hell, 
But always be on your way."

My hip flask (and maybe someone else, I don't know)

Was it coincidence that the week I purchased my first whiskey flask, I learned that Cardhu was back on sale in Canada? It is. And here's my flask, bearing the witty quote from above. I was standing on the platform waiting for a train last Wednesday evening when I saw a poster from the LCBO's new whisky campaign. Except... what the hell is with that colour? Cardhu doens't look like that! See below for what it does look like. Hey! LCBO! I'm willing to photograph your stuff for you, if you pay me in the good, single-malt stuff. Heh heh.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


I took these pictures in New York, last June, just by Central Park.