The Heretic Pharaoh

Philip Glass disliked much of the dissonant music that was championed by the Second Viennese School and their followers in the European avant grade. He was much more attracted to the emerging minimalist style of fellow American composers like Terry Reilly and Steve Reich and he was also heavily influenced by the repetitive and hypnotic ragas he heard while visiting his friend Ravi Shankar in India in the 1960’s. From these two influences emerged the quite tonal arpeggios which were to become the signature of Glass’ music.

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Philip Glass.

Glass was not only a composer of orchestral music and to date has composed 14 operas 3 of which he has called his ‘portrait series’. These are operas about great men who have affected the course of human history. Firstly Albert Einstein in Einstein on the Beach, Mahatma Gandhi in Satyagraha and finally the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten in Akhnaten (for some reason Glass dropped the first ‘e’). Each man in turn greatly influencing the history of humanity in the areas of Science, Politics and Religion respectively.

For a modern opera Akhnaten which had its premiere in 1984 is a very accessible work and is not as starkly minimalist as some of Glass’ music. It is certainly an opera for those who may like listening to the classic repertoire and would like to dip a toe into some more modern work without being scared off by excessive percussion, atonality or dissonance. The music in much of Akhenaten is seductive and at times incredibly beautiful and lyrical. Akhnaten is musically even more accessible to those who listen to more modern popular music because it has a strong rhythmic element which tends to be absent from most of the operatic canon. If you are of the opinion that opera is long beyond its sell-by date, and there are a few who hold this opinion, then best avoid this piece altogether and stick to Nessun Dorma.

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Image of Akhenaten and Nefertiti found at Amarna in 1881.

The opera opens with the funeral of Akhnaten’s father the Pharaoh Amenhotep III and the ascension to the throne of his son who then takes Nefertiti as his queen. He then stuns one and all by announcing that he is to abolish the old religion of the ancient gods of Egypt and institute a new one where there is only one God. Aten shall be the new and only deity and Akhnaten shall be his intermediary on earth. You begin to see now why Glass found the story of Akhnaten so interesting and worthy of his musical attentions. He was the first person in documented history to establish a monotheistic religion and there is a school of thought that all monotheistic religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam flow from Akhnaten’s founding idea.

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Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their children with the god Aten shinging down on them, and a statue of Akhenaten.

Banishing the old priesthood from their temples he installs belief in Aten as the only true religion. He then proceeds to move the royal capital from Thebes to the new city of Akhetaten (Horizon of the Aten) which he is building from scratch further north along the River Nile. This idea of the Pharaoh turning his back on the ancient gods deeply offended the priesthood and followers of the old religion who spread discontent about the new king who by now has moved with his followers to his new capital city. There he shuts himself and his family away in his new palace to worship Aten and presumably to ruminate on his new found position as intermediary between God and mere mortals.

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Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten for English National Opera.

Well I suppose it wouldn’t be an opera if it didn’t end in tears and eventually his people rise against Akhenaten killing him and all his family, destroy his city and return to Thebes to reinstate the old traditions and gods. The opera ends with modern day tourists walking through the ancient ruins of Akhetaten as the ghosts of Akhnaten and his family wander amidst the sand and stones.

There are a number of intriguing things about this opera. Firstly the work is scored for an orchestra with no violins. The story goes that the Stuttgart State Opera where the premiere was meant to be held was being renovated so the Stuttgart State Theatre was used instead. The orchestra pit was too small so Glass just dropped the violins and rescored the music. Another intriguing point is that the narration is spoken in the language of the audience while most of the opera itself is sung in Egyptian, Akkadian (an ancient language from Mesopotamia) and Hebrew. Finally and very oddly for a modern opera the lead role is written for a countertenor, the highest of male voices. Akhnaten’s queen Nefertiti is cast as a mezzo soprano and in their duets she actually sings lower than him.

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There are a number of recordings of this work circulating and the one I have is one with most of the original Stuttgart cast conducted by Dennis Russell Davies with the Stuttgart Opera Orchestra in 1987. This is one of those rather off-kilter operas that you trip across now and again that turns out to be an absolute gem. The more I listen to it the more its beautiful music grows on me. I highly recommend listening to Akhnaten and indeed looking into the whole story of this utterly fascinating Pharaoh.

English National Opera presented a new production of Akhnaten earlier this year and LAOpera open their production run on November 10th this year.

Philip Glass’ website

Ancient Egypt Online

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Sacred Music at an Historic Site

The English Civil War was already over by the time Parliamentarian troops arrived at the walls of Drogheda on the 3rd of September 1649. A bitter and protracted conflict which only ended with the fall of an axe on the divinely anointed neck of King Charles I in January of that year. Despite the ending of the war in England many loose ends were left untied and the most problematic of these was Ireland. This in some way possibly explains what happened when Oliver Cromwell’s 48 pounders finally breached the town walls on the 11th of September. The massacre that followed needs no retelling here but in one documented incident Royalist defenders barricaded themselves in a Church which Cromwell’s troops set alight burning it to the ground and all those inside.

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St. Peter’s CoI Church, Drogheda.

We sit this evening in St. Peters Church of Ireland on the very site where these tragic events unfolded 367 years ago, anticipating a wonderful evening of choral music as part of this seasons Drogheda International Classical Music Series. The performance was preceded by an interview with this evenings conductor James Wood. Wood has so far had a long and varied career as a musician, composer and conductor which for many years centred around the New London Chamber Choir which he set up in 1981 and conducted for 26 years before moving to Germany.

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Chamber Choir Ireland.

The theme running through this evenings programme was one of veneration and prayer to the Virgin Mary with pieces from the 15th Century right up to the present day. I am obviously a big fan of choral music and one reason I was so interested in attending this concert was to hear a chamber choir singing Renaissance hymns and motets accompanied by saxophone, an instrument that was only invented in 1840. I had heard the matching of saxophone with Michael Nyman’s reworking of various baroque motifs and liked the effect so was very keen to hear this evenings concert with Chamber Choir Ireland and the Chatham Saxophone Quartet.

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Chatham Saxophone Quartet.

The opening piece by the Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem (1410/25 – 1497) set the tone for the evening and I think it is fair to say the whole audience was immediately transported away from 21st century Drogheda to candle lit 15th Century churches and cloisters in the most glorious and enchanting way. A magnificently atmospheric piece, Intemerata Dei Mater (Unblemished Mother of God) is a hymn to Our Lady and like a number of pieces this evening it was sung in Latin which only added to the other wordiness and spirituality to this magical music that has travelled down through the centuries to us. This piece also gave us a first taste of how well saxophone works as an accompaniment to the choir. Although most people’s experience of saxophone is through jazz where the instrument can be quite strident and angular, this evening it was very subtle, didn’t overpower the vocals at all and lent a wonderful instrumental backdrop for the polyphony of voices to work into and around. Beautiful rolling bass harmony lines underpinned an uplifting and occasionally soaring soprano melody in this glorious piece.

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Arvo Pärt & Benjamin Britten – two giants of modern sacred choral music.

The next two composers on the programme were more contemporary. Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976) and Arvo Pärt (1935 – ). The Hymn to the Virgin by Benjamin Britten, composed when he was only 16, is a setting of a 13th Century poem for voice only. A favourite of English church choirs it is rather higher in register than the previous piece with fewer grounding deeper notes. The tenors and sopranos soared along wonderfully and indeed, next to the previous piece, this work written in 1930 pointed up the timeless beauty of this sacred music.

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The New Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City with a detail of the Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Virgincita is a prayer to the Virgin Mary written by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in 2012 after a visit to Mexico which was inspired by the story of the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Saint Juan Diego in 1531. The miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe which Pärt saw is supposedly painted on Saint Juan Diego’s cloak and is now on display in the New Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City (The most visited Catholic shrine in the world). Pärt who converted to the Russian Orthodox Church in the early 1970’s is renowned for his sacred and spiritual music which is heavily influenced by the choral traditions of Christianity. We stayed with Pärt for the next instrumental piece, the otherworldly and almost ‘trippy’ Fratres (Brothers) which highlighted the ensemble playing of the Chatham Saxophone Quartet to great effect.

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Johannes Ockeghem, Carlo Gesualdo & Jacob Obrecht.

Next we moved back again in time to a piece by Carlo Gesualdo (1566 – 1613), the rather colourful and somewhat disturbing Italian Renaissance composer who murdered his wife and her lover and lead a rather bizarre and often macabre and troubled life. From 2008 to 2011 James Wood undertook to complete the missing voice parts of Gesualdo’s Second Book of Sacred Music and the Ave Sanctissima Maria (Most Holy Mary) is from this work. This is again a magnificently uplifting piece of Renaissance polyphony sung in Latin with a number of soaring heavenly crescendos that succeeded in rousing one dozing attendee near me…

We then stayed with Renaissance music for the Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen) of Jacob Obrecht (1457 – 1505), a Flemish composer of sacred music who was famous for his Mass settings. Obrecht’s music has great colour and beauty which caught the ear of the Papacy resulting in his music being performed in the Sistine Chapel. We then had another instrumental piece, Padouana, a slow dance from the German composer Johann Schein’s (1586 – 1630) Banchetto Musicale (Musical Banquet) which again showed the quartets mastery of highly atmospheric almost yearning ensemble playing.

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Johann Schein.

Moving to the 19th century and a setting of the Ave Maria by Austrian composer Anton Bruckner (1824 – 1896). Best known for his romantic symphonies Bruckner was also a prolific composer of sacred music and like Britten’s hymn the higher register voices dominate to create an airy, elevated and almost unworldly feel to this piece which concludes with the classic Amen ending so prevalent in later sacred music. This beautiful setting composed in 1861 was Bruckner’s first major composition after finishing his musical studies in Vienna.

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Anton Bruckner & Giya Kancheli.

The final piece was quite a spectacular from contemporary Georgian composer Giya Kancheli (1935 – ). Written in 2005 Amao Omi (Senseless War) is a strangely haunting and melancholic work which was written for choir and saxophone. The composer claims he chose the disjointed words of the text for their sound rather than their meaning. It was certainly a very spiritual and seductive piece and was a suitably climactic conclusion to the programme.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable, inspiring and even uplifting evening charged with that very organic beauty that can only be achieved by the life-giving breath of humanity playing on vocal cords and vibrating reeds. In a busy world where so many people are stressed, worried and anxious, this music is not only an inspiring aesthetic experience but a spiritual therapy. Congratulations and thanks to Chamber Choir Ireland, the Chatham Saxophone Quartet, James Woods and all involved in presenting this wonderful musical and spiritual experience.

http://www.chamberchoirireland.com

http://www.chathamsaxquartet.ie

http://www.choroi.net  (James Wood)

http://www.droghedaclassicalmusic.com

http://www.musicnetwork.ie

Don Giovanni Unmasked

It’s a wonderful season for Irish fans of Mozart and his operatic masterpiece Don Giovanni in particular with productions both north and south of the border. Opera Theatre Company premiered their very well received production with a new translation by Roddy Doyle at the Gaiety Theatre as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival earlier this month to packed houses before moving on to Cork Opera House and Northern Ireland Opera will be presenting their production at the Grand Opera House Belfast from Friday 18th November. The Belfast production is tinged with a touch of sadness as it is the final work produced for the company by Oliver Mears who was so instrumental in the creation of Northern Ireland Opera in 2010 and its achievements and successes since.

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Two Irish productions of Don Giovanni this season.

Anyone who has been to one of Mears productions will appreciate his vision, creativity and directorial skills, skills which he is now taking to London as the newly appointed Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

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I’m always very interested in ways to attract younger people to the wonders and beauty of opera whether it be the outreach and schools programmes of opera companies or the comic strips of operas published by the now unfortunately defunct Sinfinimusic, so having attended Don Giovanni in Dublin and as usual having come away from the theatre inspired by the experience and humming the tunes I was keen to let my 13 year old son experience something of the opera. After attempting to help him with his algebra homework I started  doing a bit of digging online and stumbled across ‘Don Giovanni Unmasked’. This is a  film interpretation of the opera directed by Barbara Willis Sweete who directs many of the Metropolitan Opera Live productions and features the amazing Russian Baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as both Don Giovanni himself and his trusty servant Leporello. (Hvorostovsky is recovering from a brain tumor he suffered last year and best wishes to him for a speedy recovery. In bocca al lupo Dmitri!).

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Dmitri Hvorostovsky, ‘Double’ star of Don Giovanni Unmasked.

This ingenious retelling of the story is perfect for younger people. It is a shortened version of the opera coming in at less than an hour and though sung in the original Italian the subtitles are short and succinct and make the story perfectly clear. Hvorostovsky as Leporello and the cast of the opera are in a 1930’s cinema and watch themselves perform Don Giovanni on screen as Giovanni’s dalliances eventually result in his downfall and damnation. The way the story unfolds is ingenious and entertaining and the singing is quite spectacular. I certainly recommend this film as a primer for Don Giovanni for newer and more seasoned opera fans alike and it is worth watching for Hvorostovsky’s singing alone which is intense, dramatic and simply spectacular.

My son sat through it, understood it and by all accounts enjoyed it. I call that a result!

Don Giovanni Unmasked is available from Amazon here

Tickets for Northern Ireland Opera’s production of Don Giovanni can be booked here

The Magic Flute at The Little Theatre

The Magic Flute is literally one of the most magical pieces of musical theatre ever written which has fascinated and entertained audiences ever since its premiere in Vienna in 1791. A sparkling, resonant and inspiring work which was first performed only two months before Mozart’s tragic and untimely death at the age of 35. The opera was originally written in German and titled ‘Die Zauberflöte’ as it was intended for an audience of the common people of Vienna who spoke German and not the aristocrats and the Imperial Court who if not always speaking Italian in their day-to-day lives, certainly only attended operas written in Italian. Die Zauberflöte was also premiered in the decidedly un-imperial surroundings of the Theatre auf der Weiden which would have been way to common for the Viennese aristocracy.

The Magic Flute is rather unique in the operatic canon in that it is often cited as a good introductory work for those who feel they dislike or are intimidated by opera yet like a lot of Mozart’s operas it is a very complex work with many layers of meanings and messages. It is a work that is at the very pinnacle of the achievements of the western musical tradition and is continually in the top five operas performed globally each year.

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The Little Theatre, Skerries, Co. Dublin.

This production was by North Dublin Opera, a relatively new company, and was presented  at The Little Theatre in Skerries, a theatre whose name didn’t disappoint as it certainly was a little theatre. The kind of performance space which should be at the heart of the arts community in towns and villages the length and breath of the country. This production was aimed at kids and was a delightful performance by an enthusiastic and energetic company who really made the effort to engage with and entertain the children in the audience. The fun and lightheartedness of the performance was quite captivating for all the kids and indeed adults there.

There was a narrator in the person of Mozart himself who introduced the story and throughout the performance kept everyone up to date with what can be a rather convoluted plot. This was a wonderful idea and was very well executed engaging the young audience with the characters. All the cast members were in very colourful costumes and make up which was very impressive and the set was minimal which I always like as it leaves more room to focus on the performance, the singing and the story being told.

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Elaine McDaid, Tim Shaffery & Rachael Hanaphy-Pigott.

The evil characters of the Queen of the Night and Monostatos were very well portrayed. Monostatos was wonderfully slinky and slithery in his black and white costume and face paint while Linda Walsh as the Queen of the Night admirably tackled one of the most difficult singing roles ever written for a soprano. To hear such an enthusiastic rendition of ‘Der Holle Rache’ from a young singer performing for kids in a small hall was a moment of pride and hopefulness for any opera lover. Tim Shaffery performed a lovable and cowardly Papageno and sung his character wonderfully while Elaine McDaid delivered a great vocal performance as Pamina. Rachael Hanaphy-Pigott’s Tamino was solid and well sung if a touch restrained while Clodagh Brennan’s Papagena was joyful and enthusiastic with the ‘Pa pa pa’ duet with Tim Shaffery bubbly, and very well acted and sung.

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Those three spirits who assist Tamino & Papagino on their quest.

The ‘three ladies’ of Catrina Scullion, Bríd Ní Ghruagáin and Clare McEvoy were adequately threatening and intimidating to poor Papagino and sung their opening ‘Die, monster, by our power’ beautifully. Their harmony singing was very impressive indeed. The ‘three boys’ in the form of three girls this time were wonderfully energetic, elfish and mischievous. (gender fluidity was workaday in opera long before the social engineers got their hands on it!).

It is a credit to the quality of Mozart’s music and the talents of these singers that even though accompanied only by Catriona Grimes on piano, this didn’t in any way take away from the effectiveness of the production or the beauty of the music. In fact in a small hall the stripped back musical accompaniment allowed the vocal abilities of the singers to shine through. The show was almost two hours long and again it was a credit to the performers and producers that they kept the attention of all the children in the theatre right to the end. No easy task, (especially with Opera), as I know only too well. When my own son was ten I took him to see the Opera Theatre Company’s wonderful English language production of The Magic Flute back in 2011. It hasn’t yet ignited a passion for opera in him but at least it allayed any fears he may have had about his fathers love of opera being bizarre and unexplainable.

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The avian lovers! Tim Shaffery & Clodagh Brennan as Papageno & Papagena.

Another particularly nice touch to this performance was the cast chatting to the audience after the performance and answering any questions from the children about opera. The production was aimed at kids and fulfilled that brief admirably but even as an adult opera lover I have to say I really enjoyed the energy and enthusiasm from the stage and was intrigued and entertained by the performance. This sort of effort to engage with younger audiences and make opera more accessible and enjoyable is exactly the kind of exercise that should be applauded, encouraged and supported. This particular production would for example be ideal to tour schools to help introduce kids to opera. A number of UK opera companies are doing this sort of engagement work with young people and it’s a lead I feel Irish opera companies would do well to follow. Well done North Dublin Opera!

http://northdublinopera.wixsite.com/northdublinopera

https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Magic-Flute

A recommendation for a DVD of a wonderful English language production of The Magic Flute which kids will love is Here

Linda Walsh who sung The Queen of the Night is also a Composer and Music Teacher and is Here

La Passion de Simone

Well the Summer holidays are truly over and we’re all back at our desks and here at Operakey I’m delighted to be back doing what I love doing most… talking Opera! I will be looking at some of the operas I have been listening to over the summer which will include works by Harrison Birtwistle, Philip Glass, Albert Lortzing & Vincenzo Bellini. I will also be reviewing the upcoming and eagerly awaited production of Don Giovanni by Opera Theatre Company with a new translation by Roddy Doyle but first to a composer who I have been listening to quite a lot recently and one who we have looked at previously here on Operakey, the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (see L’Amour de loin). This time we will be looking at ‘La Passion de Simone’ which is technically an oratorio but lets not concern ourselves with that.

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Kaija Saariaho

Saariaho attended the Freiburg conservatory of music in Germany and studied under a regime of strict serialism (imagine – percussive, atonal, dissonance) where she says

‘you were not allowed to have pulse or tonally orientated harmonies or melodies’

and later she came under the influence of the Spectral composers. Spectralism, which developed in France in the 1970’s, involved experimenting with the use of computers in composition and though some of the works in this style can be rather angular and anaemic Saariaho marries these electronic elements which are often quite subtle with tonal orchestration to create a truly beautiful and ethereal style.

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Simone Weil, 1909 -1943.

The inspiration for ‘La Passion de Simone’ was the life and death of the French philosopher, political activist and Christian mystic Simone Weil who starved herself to death in an English sanatorium in 1943, aged 34, in empathy with the hardships and suffering of her fellow countrymen under Nazi occupation. Weil was an incredibly complex and fascinating individual and some knowledge of her life is certainly helpful in appreciating this work.

The libretto is by the French Lebanese author Amin Maalouf who Saariaho regularly collaborates with and takes the form of fifteen sections or ‘Stations’ as they are called to evoke the comparison with the Stations of the Cross (Saariaho very much sees Weil’s life as a spiritual journey) and the piece in many ways takes the form of a traditional Passion Play as each station deals with a specific event or period in Weil’s tragic life. At the core of the piece is Weil’s continual struggle against injustice and inhumanity and the desire not only to sympathise with but also to actually experience the pain and suffering of others, be they struggling for economic survival (her insistence on working in factories) or for political or national freedom (she briefly fought for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War and for the French Resistance in World War II).

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Soprano Pia Freund, accompanied by a silent dancer.

There is only one main character in this work, Weil’s imaginary sister who sings her thoughts and feelings about the various stages in Weil’s life while a narrator occasionally reads passages from her writings and a small chorus provides colour and resonance to the vocal style. Like other works by Saariaho La Passion de Simone has a very spiritual and ethereal feel, an almost floating unworldly quality that seduces the listener into its soundscape. The stage setting for the original production was by the rather controversial American director Peter Sellars and features the singer on a raised platform and very little else. As mentioned in previous posts I am a fan of minimalist stage design and the lack of visual clutter works particularly well with a piece like this which is so musically and vocally absorbing, the movements and expressions of the singer being the conduit for the emotional strength of the libretto.

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Soprano Julia Bullock at the Ojai Music Festival

The orchestration echoes and reinforces the themes of each of the stations whether it be the percussive and almost threatening style of the 5th and 6th station where Weil, despite her education and comfortable life chooses to work in factories in order to live the experiences of poor people or the almost angelic and otherworldly style of the 13th (‘Slowly you give up the ghost my little sister Simone’). and 14th (‘Every evil is aroused in the world’) station as Weil fades away and eventually dies of malnutrition.

La Passion de Simone is an impressively beautiful and haunting work and like much of Saariaho’s output it bucks the trend to more dissonant stylings in much contemporary vocal composition. Yes, traumatic or disturbing passages in the libretto are accompanied by surging and angular orchestration but this is to serve the text and the overall power of the work is in its beauty and its ability to take the listener into the world it creates and hold them there. I strongly advise readers to listen to more of Saariaho’s choral and orchestral works as she is certainly one of the most impressive contemporary composers and one gets the impression that despite the very modern feel of much of her work and the subtle use of electronica she is a composer who has a great love of the classical and impressionist traditions.

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The recording I have is on the Ondine label and features American Soprano Dawn Upshaw for whom the soprano piece was originally written. It is quite a demanding vocal piece and Upshaw’s performance is moving and absorbing (she missed the world premiere in Vienna while under treatment for breast cancer but performed the UK, French and US premieres).

http://saariaho.org

http://www.americanweilsociety.org/

Opera as High Art?

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One of the main criticisms of opera is that it is exclusive, expensive and irrelevant. To quote Georgia Rivers of Opera Australia it is seen as ‘boring intimidating entertainment for rich stuffy people’. An expression of high culture snootiness that without taxpayer support would instantly disappear from the public imagination and become the preserve of antique music enthusiasts swapping sound clips and historical trivia on obscure social media chat groups.

Is there anything to this charge? well quite a bit actually and confronting this issue head on is one of the greatest challenges facing the opera world today. It is certainly the elephant in the room during most opera discussions I have and to be honest a quick ‘ah… but the facts are…’ retort can be difficult to come by.

Was opera always perceived like this. Is opera, like the pricing of good Champagne, more about keeping certain people out than about making a wondrous experience available to as many as possible. Was opera always a way for the rich to express their cultural exclusivity. Did it always have what marketers today might call a ‘Luxury Brand Positioning’.

Apparently not…
The birth of opera is usually dated around 1600 and its incubator was the homes of the merchants of Renaissance Florence. The dark ages had been just a bit too dark for the newly elevated mercantile classes of central and northern Italy and what better way to banish the memories of those rather pungent northerners with their beer, bearskins and beards than through entertainment. Music, singing and dance!

In a cultural landscape dominated by the Church these merchants began to crave a cultural expression of their own. They wanted to define a new type of entertainment that reflected their values and standing in society yet one which would also be entertaining, creative and popular. This duality of requirements on the ‘call for tenders’ if you will was to be the key to the success of opera. The general public could go to hear beautiful songs sung by the best singers and performers of the day and the wealthy could sit in their boxes and appreciate the creative artistry and classical stories acted out on the stage. These two groups didn’t have to mix, there were stalls (very often standing only) for the less well off and a circle and boxes for the better off. Opera houses were run rather like the early train operators with their different class carriages. Third class didn’t rub shoulders with first class but everyone got what they paid for and to their destination.

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The old Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Stalls below with Boxes and Dress Circle above

For much of operas history this was the business model promoters used and it sat quite happily into the class structures of Europe as the way opera worked. All social classes attended and got from it whatever they wanted. Literally opera for everyone. But around the end of the nineteenth century, which many would consider the twilight of the classic period for opera, a move to appropriate opera for high culture and wrestle it away from ordinary people was well under way with various walls being erected to exclude much of operas traditional audience. Higher prices, dress codes, social etiquettes, singing in an operas original language. All these bars to common access and appreciation of opera started to coalesce into the image many people have of opera today.

Much of this emerging elitism about opera originated in America which didn’t have the historical class structures of Europe where as alluded to earlier, different social strata had always attended opera. The upper class in Europe had a full suite of other cultural activities that affirmed their status and position but the absence of these in America led to its wealthy being very enthusiastic about the establishment of cultural exclusivity and the appropriation of opera played a major part in this.

This shifting of the social focus and purpose of opera from entertainment and popular cultural experience to a form of semi impenetrable high art was one that opera has never really recovered from. For decades now the earnings of major opera houses have increased and in many countries funding is prioritised by governments that view opera as a national cultural asset, but attendance figures are flat or falling and audiences are ageing. We have reached a point where most people don’t really see the point of opera anymore and wonder why they are still paying for it out of their taxes.

It is heart breaking for those of us who love opera to watch the taxpayer funded defibrillator applied yet again to opera and the minister for arts shout ‘clear’ knowing that one day he’ll shout and the body may not move. It’s certainly a balancing act, knowing how not to alienate the more conservative older more affluent followers who have seen opera through some pretty thin times yet attract new younger audiences to a vibrant, meaningful and entertaining experience. Opera must always have a uniqueness, too much work has gone into its creation and performance for it to be merely humdrum popular entertainment, but every effort must be made to return it to its rightful and original owners, the general public. Everyone is entitled to own something special.

Puccini at Drogheda Arts Centre

(for background information and synopsis to these two operas see this previous article Il Tabarro & Suor Angelica on operakey.com)

Drogheda Arts Centre is quite a small theatre seating 170. It’s a wonderful modern performance space with great sound and acoustics and very comfortable seating (and a nice Café/Bar for a glass of wine at the interval). I have previously been to a production by Opera Theatre Company here and the venue is ideally suited to smaller touring productions. There was unfortunately an audience of only about 50 at this performance, a number of whom seem to have been involved with the company which left a very small attendance indeed. I always find small attendances at operatic events like this quite disappointing as anyone who knows about opera is aware of the effort that goes into preparing a public performance like this and to see so many empty seats has to be quite deflating for all concerned.

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The wonderful theatre at Drogheda Arts Centre

Dublin Opera Studio seems to be a relatively new development and the cast comprised of Irish and international singers, some still studying and some at the start of their singing careers. The operas were sung in their original language, namely Italian, which is obviously beneficial to a mixed nationality cast but it brings with it the problem of translation though the surtitles were quite good (the English translation was centre back stage and above the performers). Unfortunately even in the darkened theatre the translation was quite weakly lit and occasionally difficult to read which is problematic when an opera is dialogue heavy or plots are complex.

(An additional point I’d make about titling in general is that the type of stationary projected titles where the audience read them as if reading a passage from a book is not ideal, especially where the opera has a lot of dialogue. A much better system I have found is the rolling ‘ticker-tape’ titles like the rolling news items one sees running across the screen of TV news channels. The advantage is that the titles do the work and the viewer only has to watch one spot. I saw this set up in both Cork Opera House and the Everyman Theatre also in Cork and found it excellent. Additionally where performances are not sung in English there really should be a plot summary available for the audience but unfortunately there was none that I could see.)

As discussed in a previous post Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica are the first two instalments of Puccini’s Il Trittico (The Triptych), the third of which is the more widely performed Gianni Schicchi and although Puccini intended for all three to be performed together they are regularly performed separately.

The set for Il Tabarro could have been a bit more evocative of the setting of the opera, namely a canal key side and a barge on the River Seine and I don’t really think the feel of a dockside was created. The set for Suor Angelica was quite minimalist indeed and consisted almost exclusively of a large crucifix but this worked very well as it echoed the sparse and empty emotional space in which the nuns live, their monochrome religious habits also echoing the lack of colour in their routines. The music on the evening was provided by a very competent five piece ensemble of cello, flute, french horn and harp conducted from the piano by Philip Modinos.

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Ioannis Nakos as Michele and Marta de Andrés as Giorgetta in ‘Il Tabarro’

Il Tabarro was sung very well by all cast members with baritone Gheorghe Palcu being particularly strong as Talpa and Clare McEvoy as his rather eccentric wife Frugola. John Rownan was a convincing Luigi showing passion for his role as he falls for Giorgetta’s charms and indeed Marta de Andrés performed solidly as Giorgetta, the young woman caught in a loveless marriage with Michele. Ioannis Nakos was quite restrained as Michele and he struggled a bit to adequately express the rage and jealousy his character is consumed by when he finds out this wife is being unfaithful, a rage which drives him to commit murder after all!

The only drawback with Il Tabarro was that generally the acting tended to be a bit stiff and tight and some of the more emotionally charged scenes lacked passion and spirit. This is understandable for younger operatic performers. Singing is a technical skill which can be improved and even perfected with regular practice and can be worked on more or less anytime. Operatic acting, which is much more demanding that theatrical acting, is a more difficult craft to master and the ability to convincingly get into character is a skill that tends to come with experience.

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Suor Angelica is a very different kind of opera to Il Tabarro. It is more emotionally complex and reaches way deeper than the jealousy that fuels Il Tabarro. It delves into the realms of regret, despair, mental breakdown and eventual suicide, all acted out in the very solemn and restrained environment of a convent. Except for Sr. Angelica’s aunt played by Patricia v. Andersen all of the cast were in full traditional nuns habits and that visual cue in itself creates a strong cultural resonance and a specific set of emotional triggers in the audience’s mind. It certainly served to heighten the acuteness of the tragedy that was to follow.

The standout performance of Suor Angelica and indeed of the evening was Anna Gomá whos portrayal of Sr. Angelica was wonderful. She was full of the drama and tragedy of her character, is a natural actor and has a voice to match. It has to be said though that in many ways Suor Angelica is an opera that lends itself to a strong leading performance with the other characters often the observers of and commenters on the events that eventually lead to Sr. Angelica’s breakdown and death. Ms. Gomá was to say the least gripping in her performance.

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Anna Gomá as Sr. Angelica in ‘Suor Angelica’

The overall feel of the evening was one of young artists learning their craft and that in itself is wonderful to see and deserves every encouragement. There is so much operatic talent in Ireland at the moment and every opportunity to put it before the public to remind us should be grasped. I believe these productions are being taken to Greece for an opera festival later this year. My best wished to all involved, well done.

http://www.dublinoperastudio.com/

In Parenthesis

A lot of literature has sprung from the experiences of the Great War and one of the greatest examples is the epic poem ‘In Parenthesis’ by the Welsh artist and poet David Jones. Jones had served in the trenches throughout the war with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and was present at the assault on Mametz Wood at the opening of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

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David Jones. Author of In Parenthesis

His experiences in the trenches and particularly the assault on Mametz where the Welsh Division lost almost 4000 men was the inspiration for In Parenthesis which Jones started writing in 1928 and it was eventually completed and published in 1937. In 2015 Welsh National Opera commissioned English composer Iain Bell to compose an opera based on Jones’ poem to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. Bell, who’s quite new to the world of opera, is a very talented composer who specialises in choral works and In Parenthesis is his third opera. (The role of Kitty in his first opera ‘A Harlots Progress’ was created by Irish Mezzo Soprano Tara Erraught).

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Composer Iain Bell.

In parenthesis consists of two acts both about an hour-long with no overture so we are straight into the action where the lead character Private John Ball and his platoon are preparing for their march to Southampton to board the ship that will take them to France. Starting in the first act, as the men march to the coast, and continuing throughout the opera there are some wonderful choruses (A strong element of male choral singing would be expected in an opera about the Welsh). These choruses cement the idea of the common experiences of a group of soldiers but what separates Ball from the rest of his comrades is that he seems to have premonitions of the horrors to come, horrors that more slowly dawn on the rest of the men. Ball even sees the boarding of the ship in Southampton as ‘A slippery gangway to hell’ and these visions haunt him throughout the opera.

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Sergeant Snell (Mark le Brocq) with the WNO Platoon Chorus

Also from the opening scene we have a female chorus who’s vocalising is like sirens calling the soldiers to their deaths like the sirens of ancient greek mythology. Their singing is haunting and beautiful but has an underlying unsettling darkness to it and the allusion works very well as the audience knows the faith that awaits the soldiers.

The soldiers are quite pleasantly surprised when they arrive in France and sing of the beauty of the countryside ‘O Flower, who’s fragrance tender’ but the arrival of the battle hardened ‘Marne Sargent’ puts an end to their lightheartedness as he fills them in on what to expect when they go over the top. This harrowing advice is soon followed by an artillery bombardment that dispels any lingering doubts they had about the nightmare they were heading into.

In Parenthesis_ WNO,COMPOSER; Iain Bell, Private John Ball; Andrew Bidlack, Bard of Brittannia_HQ Officer; Peter Coleman_Wright, Bard of Germania_Alice the Barmaid_The Queen of the Woods; Alexandra Deshorties, Lieutenant Jenkins; George Humphreys, Lance Corporal Lewis; Marcus Farnsworth, Sergeant Snell; Mark Le Brocq, Dai Greatcoat; Donald Maxwell, The Marne Sergeant ;Graham Clark,

Andrew Bidlack as Private John Ball and Marcus Farnsworth as Lieutenant Jenkins. Picture: Bill Cooper

Act Two is set six months after they arrive in France and they are preparing for the opening of the Battle of the Somme. Great tension and fear is building up among the soldiers as they contemplate their fate yet they try to distract themselves with drinking, singing and reading. They console themselves by saying the real war is much further south only to find out that their new orders are to ‘March South!’ A grim reality dawns on one and all.

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Peter Coleman-Wright as Bard of Brittannia and Alexandra Deshorties as Bard of Germania stand over the trench.

While on night watch Ball can hear the sound of the rats gnawing on the bones of the dead bodies on no man’s land Scrut, scrut, scrut’ and at dawn the whistles blow and they are ordered over the top to attack the enemy positions in the woods. As they enter the wood some of the platoon are shot and even the trees themselves come alive and start to attack the soldiers killing them. Death doesn’t come from the enemy machine-guns and shells alone but from the very landscape itself. This is a wonderful interpretation of the fear and paranoia that has gripped the soldiers as the landscape itself wishes them dead.

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Alexandra Deshorties as The Queen of the Woods torments the soldiers.

The whole opera is quite tragic and highly dramatic and is certainly gripping viewing. Despite the rather depressing subject matter there are numerous lighter moments and the singing is wonderful. There is a strong religious undercurrent running through the whole opera which is understandable as Jones spent many years living in Christian arts communities and after converting to Catholicism he became fascinated by its mysteries and ceremonies. In an opera season which has had a number of big profile controversies about graphic and gorey scenes it is refreshing to see the carnage of the Somme dealt with in a more creative way with less appeal to simple shock value.

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The Welsh at Mametz Wood by Christopher Williams (1918).

https://www.wno.org.uk/event/parenthesis

http://www.iainbellmusic.com/

Il Tabarro & Suor Angelica

Giacomo Puccini was very impressed by the success of shorter format operas like Ruggero Leoncavello’s ‘Pagliacci’ and especially Pietro Mascagni’s ‘Cavaleria Rusticana’ and their ability to tell an emotionally charged story without the necessary complexity of plot and attention holding devices needed for a longer three or four act production. Rather in the way a short story can have all the elements of a full novel but presented in a stripped down and more immediate fashion, the one act opera could get to the emotional core of the story quickly and directly.

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Giacomo Puccini.

For a composer who had become world famous for his soaring romantic tragedies like ‘La Bohème’, ‘Tosca’ & ‘Madama Butterfly’ this would certainly be a change of ‘format’ at least but one which Puccini only half heartedly embraced in so much as his intrigue with this shorter format resulted in three distinct operas which he intended to be performed together resulting in a finished work that was considerably longer than any of his other operas, and the links between the three operas were tangential at best. ‘Il Trittico’ (The Triptych) comprises the operas ‘Il Tabarro’, ‘Suor Angelica’ and ‘Gianni Schicchi’. Puccini did eventually relent somewhat and agreed to let only two of the three be performed together if necessary and today they are regularly performed as the originally intended three, as two together or indeed as one on a program with a shorter work by a different composer. Sour Angelica for example is occasionally performed with the one act opera ‘La Voix Humane’ by Francis Poulenc because of their similar emotional scenarios and tragic endings. (A riveting production of La Voix Humane was toured by Opera Theatre Company last year with a gripping performance by Soprano Kim Sheehan).

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Italian baritone Lucio Gallo as Michele in the 2011 Royal Opera House production of ‘Il Tabarro’ directed by Richard Jones.

Briefly looking at the first two of the Triptych, Il Tabarro (The Cloak) is set on a barge in Paris in 1910 and is a tale of infidelity and revenge. Giorgetta, the young wife of the barge owner Michele, is in love with Luigi who works for her husband. They grew up together and dream of getting away from the endless struggle, misery and backbreaking work of life on the water. The lovers hatch a plan to run away together and Giorgetta tells Luigi she will signal him from the barge with a candle when he is to come for her. Michele has had his suspicions about his wife’s fidelity for quite a while and after confronting Giorgetta he goes up on deck and lights his cigar. The watching Luigi sees the light and believes it to be the signal from his lover so he goes on board only to be confronted and killed by Michele who now sees what the plan was. Michele covers the body with his cloak (the cloak he used to cover his wife and their now dead child with when they were sleeping on board). When Giorgetta comes on deck he reveals the dead body of Luigi and mocking her throws his heartbroken wife onto the corpse of her lover.

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Albanian Soprano Ermonela Jaho in the 2011 Royal Opera House production of ‘Suor Angelica’ directed by Richard Jones.

Could things get more dramatic and tragic? well with Puccini, yes! Sour Angelica (Sister Angelica) tells the story of a young woman who has been sent to a convent because she has had a child out of wedlock, a child she has only held and kissed once before he was taken away from her. Sister Angelica’s aunt, a rich noblewoman arrives at the convent to tell her that her younger sister is to be married and Angelica must sign over her inheritance to her since Angelica will have no need of it as she must spend the rest of her life in a convent. While signing the papers Angelica asks how her child is to which her aunt coldly answers that the child died two years ago. Angelica is seized by grief and remorse and seeing no reason to live drinks a poison so as to join her dead child only to realise that suicide is a sin and she will be parted from her child for eternity. As she dies she begs the Virgin Mary to forgive her sin. An apparition of a heavenly woman and a child appears in the convent door and the woman coaxes the child towards the dying Angelica who reaches out to him. Angelica realises she is forgiven and she will indeed be reunited with her son in death.

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Italian Soprano Renata Tebaldi who recorded all three of ‘Il Trittico’ in 1962.

I have recordings of both these operas from 1962 featuring the sublime Renata Tebaldi in both lead female roles. By this time her voice was beginning to fade slightly and she avoids some of the high C’s which she was straining to reach. Ideally the roles of Giorgetta and Angelica, which place different demands on the voice should be sung by different singers. Georgian is a more powerful, strident and dramatic role where as Angelica requires the lighter touch of a more lyrical soprano. That said, Renata Tebaldi’s voice even in the early afterglow of its brilliance is a pleasure to listen to.

The emotional space which both female characters occupy is also vastly different. Although Il Tabarro ends with tragedy and murder, throughout the opera Giorgetta is happy and joyous for despite the claustrophobia of living on a barge with a husband she no longer loves she knows she will soon be escaping to a better life with Luigi. The emotional space for Sister Angelica is much darker, brooding and intense and is a different and more challenging role for a singer. Hers is a gradual descent into a despair which is only alleviated by the final ‘redemption’ of suicide.

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Both these operas of tragedy, death, loss and redemption were premiered in 1918 as the world emerged from the cataclysm of the Great War. A war which Puccini did not personally participate in and had no great convictions about but one in which Italy lost hundreds of thousands of her young men in the icy ravines of the Dolomites and the killing fields of Caporetto.

The music in both operas owes a lot to Claude Debussy and the French Impressionist. Puccini by this stage in his career had well mastered the art of operatic story telling and creating beautiful and memorable melodies but in these short operas Puccini wanted to be more musically adventurous. Debussy’s influence can be seen in the use of block chords and the hypnotic and calming effect of the repetition of these chords up and down the scale. This is most notable in Suor Angelica where these repeated hypnotic figures create a contemplative almost religious effect.

Also these operas don’t have the roll call of showstopping arias Puccini helped built his career on but are more about being musically adventurous and highly dramatic using a lot of conversational vocal passages that fall between recitative and aria to push the action forward. That said there are a number of stunning arias like ‘Hai ben ragione’ sung by Luigi in Il Tabarro where he describes the misery of life working on the barges and ‘Senza Mamma’ from Sour Angelica as Angelica laments for her dead child.

Dublin Opera Studio will be performing their production of these two operas at The Clasac Theatre, Clontarf on Friday 22nd July and Drogheda Arts Centre on Saturday 23rd July before taking the production to Greece in September.

http://clasac.ie/

http://www.droichead.com/

Kathleen Ferrier

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The contralto is the lowest in register and the rarest of all female voices. It would generally have a similar vocal range to the male countertenor and unfortunately with the rise in popularity of the soprano in the late 19th Century there were less and less roles being written for contraltos. Contraltos tend to be type cast mostly as evil or villainous characters but they have also picked up a lot of business from the roles that were originally written for castrati in the 17th and 18th Century and additionally there are a number of prominent breeches roles (male characters performed by females) sung by contraltos.

In any generation there are only a handful of great operatic contraltos, currently many would consider the Polish singer Ewa Podleś to be the greatest living contralto with the younger Canadian Marie-Nicole Lemieux quickly becoming a star in her own right, but perhaps the greatest contralto ever has been the English singer Kathleen Ferrier.

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Ferrier was from Blackburn in Lancashire and was a proficient piano player as a child and only started taking occasional singing lessons at 19. Married in 1935, her husband made a bet with her that she wouldn’t enter the singing competition of the Carlisle Festival in 1937. She was already playing in the piano competition, which she won, so she took up her husbands bet and entered the singing competition as well, which she also won. During the war years she toured England a lot singing recitals and in 1942 moved to London to pursue a professional career as a singer. By the end of the war in 1945 her engagements book was full.

She performed a lot of recitals around the concert halls of Europe and America in the post war years but ironically, for possibly the greatest operatic contralto, she only performed in two stage roles. Firstly Lucretia in Benjamin Britten’s ‘The Rape of Lucretia’ (which incidentally Irish Youth Opera toured a wonderful production of in 2014). Britten had written the role for Ferrier after seeing her singing in Westminster Cathedral and she had her stage role debut as Lucretia at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1946. Her second role and one which she will be forever associated with was as Orfeo in Christoph Willibald Von Gluck’s ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’ which she also made her debut performance of at Glyndebourne in 1947.

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Kathleen Ferrier as Orfeo

She toured heavily for a number of years extending her repertoire to include Lieder and she had a particular fondness for the songs of Brahms and Mahler, who’s post war revival was in no small part assisted by her concerts and recitals. She made a number of concert tours of Holland in these years, a country where she received a great reception and one she had a great personal fondness for.

In January 1951 at age 39 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and went under prolonged radiation treatment. Despite the treatment and a mastectomy the cancer returned and her periods of hospitalisation and treatment continued. Even in this weakened state she returned to The Royal Opera House to again perform the role of Orfeo in 1953 under the baton of her good friend Sir John Barbirolli. (a production that also featured the great Irish soprano Veronica Dunne)

The opening night was a triumph and she was elated to be back singing but on the second performance tragedy struck. The radiation treatment had badly weakened her bones and during the performance her leg broke. The audience didn’t notice but immediately her fellow cast members knew something was wrong. Unable to move and in great pain Ferrier continued to the end of the performance, took her curtain calls and only after the final curtain came down was she taken to hospital.

While in hospital she kept a diary of her plans when she was discharged and noted her upcoming singing engagements. Kathleen Ferrier never left University College Hospital and died on 8th October 1953 aged 41.

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