The splendid Palazzo Corsi Salviatti in Via Tornabuoni conceals a series of curious historical facts that are still relatively unknown to the general public. These include the fact of having been built around a piazza, the apartments of the “Flash Pope” and the room where the very first opera in the world was held, making this one of the most original buildings ever to be erected in Florentine Renaissance style.
Today the structure, which sits at the intersection of Via degli Strozzi and Via de’ Tornabuoni in the heart of Florence, is part of the Palazzo Tornabuoni, a Four Seasons–managed private residence club. The space where Dafne was performed more than 400 years ago is now one of 37 residences — each dramatic in its own right — available for whole or fractional ownership at Tornabuoni.
The Brunelleschi suite sits on the third floor of the palazzo, above the library, and overlooks Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi’s Duomo.
Other residences include the Strozzi suite and the Galileo, with its own private rooftop terrace with a 360-degree view of Florence.
The private residence club has 10 club suites (available for share ownership) and 27 private ownership suites (at prices from about $2.5 million to $6.8 million – 2009 dollars).
Turning the palazzo into a residential property required extensive renovation that took five years,led by Florence-based architect and interior designer Michele Bonan. The renovation involved maintaining the architectural integrity of the structure, updating it with modern systems, and restoring its sculptures, frescoes, and other objets d’art. The Department of Fine Arts in Florence supervised the restoration of the palazzo’s artworks, which took 14 artisans three years to complete.
Upon entering, the huntress Diana welcomes you. Resplendent salons and suites follow, each a timeless repository of successive generations of frescoes and sculptures.
The palazzo dates to about 1450, when the architect Michelozzo constructed it as a private residence for the Tornabuoni family. Since then the building has changed hands several times. Alessandro Ottaviano de’ Medici, who would become Pope Leo XI, acquired the property in 1574. Then, in the 1590s, Corsi took ownership of the property, which remained in his family for more than three centuries. In 1901, the building became a bank, and it served in that capacity until the Florence-based Fingen Group purchased it in 2004.
The palazzo rises up over the foundations of three pre-existing medieval buildings that once belonged to the Consorteria of the Tornabuoni and Tornaquinci families; and in one of these Lucrezia Tornabuoni, Lorenzo il Magnifico’s mother, was born and spent her childhood.
The three houses faced onto an internal piazza connected by two lanes to the adjacent main streets. Commissioned by Giovanni Tornabuoni, famous architect Michelozzo Michelozzi took inspiration from this piazza to build the present day palazzo all around it, creating the splendid courtyard that can still be seen today.
When Alessandro de Medici, Archbishop of Florence, became the owner of this palazzo, he transferred the city archbishopric here temporarily seeing that the old headquarters in Piazza San Giovanni had been devastated by fire and required extensive restructuring and renovation. The Archbishop surrounded himself with renowned artists like Agostino Ciampelli and Lodovico Cardi, known as “Il Cigoli” for these building and redecorating operations. Ciampelli was famous for having frescoed various halls to the theme of the Old Testament, whereas Il Cigoli, in his role as architect, had previously restructured a loggia located at the corner of the building facing onto Via de Ferravecchi (old irons) and Via de Belli Sporti (beautiful architectural projections), now via Strozzi and Via Tornabuoni, known as “Canto a Tornaquinci”. Alessandro de Medici’s rapid ecclesiastic ascent soon took him far from Florence. On becoming cardinal he moved to Rome taking with him his faithful Ciampelli, and at the age of eighty, he was nominated Pope with the name of Leone XI. However this was an extremely short-lived pontificate that lasted a mere 27 days (1-27 April 1605), so short in fact that he was called the “Flash Pope” by the people of that era.
In the meantime the palazzo had passed into the hands of the Corsi, an ancient Florentine family which boasted a history of priors and gonfaloniers of the republic. Jacopo Corsi was certainly their most outstanding member. A refined benefactor and great music lover, he was in the habit of holding gatherings in the palazzo with a selection of the greatest poets and musicians of that time, like Claudio Monteverdi, Torquato Tasso, Ottavio Rinuccini, Jacopo Peri and Giovanbattista Marino, who called themselves the Academy of Music.
Jacopo Peri was born in Rome but relocated to Florence to study music. In the 1590s, he met Jacopo Corsi, the leading patron of music in Florence, and they decided to recreate a form of Greek tragedy, following in the footsteps of the Florentine Camerata, which had produced the first experiments in monody.
Based on an account by Jacopo Peri it is commonly thought that the first performance of Dafne took place in 1594. However Peri’s account is misleading. He might have meant that Jacopo Corsi and Ottavio Rinuccini requested him to compose Dafne in 1594 or that he composed Dafne in 1594 at the request of Corsi and Rinuccini. He definitely did not state that the first performance was held in 1594.
The only definite date of performance of Dafne is given by Marco da Gagliano. He says that Jacopo Corsi had Peri’s Dafne performed in the presence of Giovani Medici and some of the principal gentlemen of Florence during the carnival in 1597. He does not specifically state that the performance took place at Palazzo Corsi nor that it was the first performance but it is reasonable to interpret his remarks to that effect.
Ottavio Rinuccini, who composed the libretto to Dafne, did not a date of performance. He merely said that Dafne was performed before a few enthusiastic listeners and later in an improved form of the text at Palazzo Corsi before a large audience of Florentine noblemen, the Grand Duchess and the cardinals Del Monte and Montalto. That date could have been around 18 January 1599 when the household accounts of Palazzo Corsi show expenses incurred for a performance of Dafne. Sala delle Muse at Palazzo Corsi seems like the obvious choice of venue.
On 21 January 1599 Dafne was performed again, this time at Palazzo Pitti, before the same cardinals and a large audience of Florentine nobility.
From the household accounts of Palazzo Corsi, we know that Dafne was again performed at the palace in late August 1600 and it was perhaps for this performance that the libretto was printed.
Dafne was revived on 26 October 1604 at Palazzo Pitti, in Sala Bianca, in honour of the Duke of Parma. A libretto of this performance exists.
The libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini survives complete, but Peri’s score has been lost. The surviving music fragments are by Jacopo Corsi, who was the first to compose parts of Rinuccini’s text.
Peri’s later composition, Euridice, written in 1600 based on a libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini, is the earliest surviving opera and was initially performed as part of the wedding festivities of Maria de’ Medici and Henry IV of France, thereby catapulting opera into the mainstream of court entertainment. Some of the music used in the first performance of L’Euridice was composed by Peri’s rival at court, Giulio Caccini.
Vienna opted for 1598 as the year of first performance of Dafne and in 1998 it celebrated opera’s 400th anniversary with the event Universe of Opera held over three days and showcasing 53 internationally known singers offering solo arias and duets.
The Corsini collection, saved from the Nazis, has left Italy for the first time.
‘Madam, your collection is not worth my life,” said the terrified servant to Donna Elena Corsini in August 1944 when she asked him to drive a truck filled with the Florentine family’s artworks away from the advancing German army to her family’s country villa.
When the servant refused, a resolute Donna Elena clambered behind the steering wheel and drove the Corsini family’s precious works to safety. At the villa, she ordered the hasty installation of a false wall; behind it, the precious paintings were hidden and sealed in.
A large oil painting of Saint Andrea Corsini, the family’s beatified relative, was hung on the inside wall as a kind of talisman to protect the collection.
“They created a false wall before the German army passed through and occupied the farm for a couple of days,” says Stefano Carboni, director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia, where the saint’s image will go on display from February 24 as part of The Corsini Collection: A Window on Renaissance Florence.
“But a German lieutenant could smell that the plaster was still wet, which was odd,” says Carboni, “and in frustration he shot a couple of bullets into the false wall.” One of the bullets pierced the painted forehead of the saint, although, according to family lore, he saved the rest of the collection.
The Corsini collection survived the ravages of World War II and is making its first journey outside Italy to New Zealand and Australia for exclusive showings in Auckland and Perth.
That single bullet was a shock to the Auckland Art Gallery when it took temporary custody of 60 Corsini paintings and objects for display late last year.
Nobody had informed the gallery staff that the wartime damage to the canvas remained; when he gingerly removed the Saint Andrea Corsini portrait from its travel case and saw the bullet hole, one unpacker nearly had heart failure.
The Corsini collection has embarked on its Antipodean tour in a deal brokered between the family, the two Australasian galleries and a Rome-based art exhibition broker, Mondo Mostre.
It is a gift that gives both ways. A suite of privately owned paintings by Renaissance artists of the calibre of Botticelli, Mantegna and Caravaggio will be seen outside Italy for the first time.
In return, the family benefits from the curatorial expertise of its partner galleries, which have researched some undocumented work and footed the bill for conservation work on a few canvases.
There’s also an intimate side to this curious cultural exchange. According to Corsini countesses Livia Branca and Elisabetta Minutoli Tegrimi — who will attend the exhibition opening in Perth — Australians and New Zealanders are worthy recipients of the show.
The women’s earlier attendance at the Auckland opening was an emotional one. They recalled vividly how the allied forces that forced the Germans out of their part of Italy included Australian troops and the 28th Maori Battalion. “We have a duty to send the collection,” they observed, “we owe [you] a debt.”
So what does this niche collection offer in the way of insights into Italy’s Renaissance and baroque art? It’s a rich array of paintings that begins with portraits of the Florentine family itself over seven centuries — from medieval banker to family saint, pope, rural scion and 20th-century female art patron.
That last image, of Donna Elena herself, is a handsome picture painted by popular 20th-century portraitist Pietro Annigoni. The severe-looking matriarch is posed in a lustrous grey cape, sitting on a rock in hilly Tuscany, where the family has owned vast properties. It encapsulates the Corsini family’s history of rural conquest, textile-derived wealth and lofty noblesse oblige.
Hanging in pride of place in the exhibition is the bullet-damaged saint’s portrait, dated 1630, by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri; another prominent work, from 1710, is Hyacinthe Rigaud’s extravagant portrait of a brocade-clad Don Neri Corsini.
AGWA director Carboni, an Italian native and expert on the medieval art trade between Italy and the East, says the Corsinis were as prominent as the Medici family in the 15th and 16th centuries.
“If you go to the Trevi Fountain in Rome and you look at the crest at the top, that’s the Corsini family crest,” he says.
At certain times, the Corsinis eclipsed the more ruthless Medici powerbrokers, who sold their Florence palace to the Corsini family in 1457 and had virtually run out of heirs by 1837.
“The exhibition is a little gem that tells the story of collecting in one family,” says Carboni. “Because there are so many key periods represented, it’s like taking a course in Italian History 101.’’
The Corsini family owes much to those members who wrote themselves into the history books, Tim Parks writes in his 2016 article One of Florence’s Oldest Families and its 600-year-old Archive in The New York Times Style Magazine. Park says the family archive began in 1362, when merchant Matteo Corsini vowed to write down “everything of mine and other facts about me and my land and houses and other goods of mine”.
He adds: “Again and again, huge old books of accounts begin with an invocation to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then proceed to list endless incomings and outgoings, profits and losses. But mainly profits. By the 17th century, the Corsinis would be among the richest families in Florence.”
The family stayed close to the source of political power. Having initially made money in the textile trade and early banking operations in London, in 1730 it installed one of its own as pope Clement XII.
With his nephew Neri Corsini, who was elevated to the rank of cardinal, Clement oversaw the acquisition of Palazzo Corsini in Rome, and proceeded to fill it with precious art and books. Says Park: “Whether it was business or religion, the goal was always to enhance family prestige.”
Clement’s descendant Tommaso Corsini donated the Roman collection to the state in 1883. It now forms the main body of Italy’s National Gallery of Antique Art, which houses priceless masterpieces such as Rubens’s San Sebastian Healed by Angels, Andrea del Sarto’s Madonna and Child and Caravaggio’s St John the Baptist.
But the family history unfolds predominantly in Florence; as mayor, Tommaso Corsini laid the foundations for the University of Florence.
Auckland’s curator and Italian Renaissance expert Mary Kisler says the Corsinis gifted their Rome collection into public hands, but the one in Florence remains a private collection that is open for viewing and limited loans.
“Not every painting is a famous one, but every one has something fascinating about it.” She says the collection acts as a mirror of successive Italian eras, and the tastes, collecting habits, accomplishments and downfalls of a family dynasty.
Kisler undertook detailed research into the Corsini artworks for the catalogue, after discovering that few works had been reliably documented and even fewer appeared in the comprehensive Oxford Collection of Art.
One of the more celebrated early Renaissance works was produced by Sandro Botticelli and his workshop about 1500. Madonna and Child with Six Angels depicts Christ in his mother’s lap surrounded by angels; he trustingly looks up at her and she looks away, as if weeping.
Botticelli was an ardent follower of Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, a hectoring priest who urged Florentines to transform their debauched city into a pious “city of God”. Savonarola staged “bonfires of the vanities” in which precious books, artworks and other “decadent” objects were burned.
His own life also ended on a bonfire, depicted in The Execution of Savonarola and Two Companions at Piazza della Signoria.
Painted by an unknown Florentine artist in the 16th century, it is a portrait of a handsome city, with belltower, cathedral dome and wide public square. But in front of the stately palace is a long platform ending in a large bonfire; dangling above the licking flames are three hanged figures, including the hapless priest.
Among the strongest works are baroque paintings that sought to re-elevate Catholic sentiment after the revolt against the papal church in 1517 by Protestant leader Martin Luther, and the Sack of Rome in 1527.
Art’s role became that of a devotional aid, says Kisler, a medium through which to engage personally with the suffering of Christ.
“Barbieri’s painting of Saint Andrea shows a single tear rolling down his cheek at Christ’s suffering on the cross, which reflects Counter-Reformation beliefs that art should create empathy in the viewer.” One of baroque’s greatest exponents was Caravaggio who, in 1598, was commissioned to paint a close associate of the Corsini family.
Scholar Maffeo Barberini, who played a role in the canonisation of Andrea Corsini, is bathed in the dramatic light and shadow made famous by Caravaggio.
Another arresting image comes from artist Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio. His Portrait of an Unknown Man, circa 1540, could be a modern portrait of a man looking out with a direct and intense gaze.
“His unembellished hat and costume suggest a person who places the intellect over worldly possessions,” observes Kisler, “and the stubble on his chin and the shadow under his cheekbone imply a man of ascetic tastes.”
Prometheus and the Eagle shows a helpless young man being disembowelled by an eagle. The gruesome painting is attributed to Sir Anthony van Dyck, a Flemish Baroque artist who became the leading court painter in England, but Kisler says he is widely considered not to be the artist responsible.
She put the puzzle to her research students, who discovered another version of the same picture in Antwerp by Theodore Rombouts, an artist who studied under Caravaggio.
“He also worked with Van Dyck and Rubens and, if it’s a Rombouts original, it has a special place in the art hierarchy.”
Another chance discovery she made relates to Madonna and Child with Saint Joseph and Saint John the Baptist, from 1527. A work in the style of Mannerist painter Andrea del Sarto, it shows a madonna in a striped headdress and unusual double-strand gold chain. A double chain in another painting from the era led Kisler to identify the work as the product of two different studios.
The Corsini family bears a heavy responsibility for the upkeep of the paintings, sculptures, drawings (including a large hand-drawn portrait by Raphael) and the Florentine palace building that houses them.
As part of Italy’s cultural heritage, and despite being in private hands, the collection is subject to close scrutiny by Italy’s Ministry for Cultural Heritage, which intervenes to protect artworks against neglect and thwart the kind of looting and export that saw many of the nation’s prized artefacts lost during wars.
Yet the most recent threat came from nature, not looters. In 1966, floodwaters from the Arno River rose and threatened to ruin the Palazzo Corsini and its art collection. Fortunately the water subsided before it could reach the first-floor galleries where valuable works were housed.
Today the Corsini family has branches in London, Florence, Rome, Milan, Belgium, the US, The Philippines and Brazil, says Kisler, with the Italian Corsini branch still farming for olive oil and wine on its estates. It was ranked among Tuscany’s richest families in the 19th century, but the current heirs struggle to keep up with the job of conserving their material past.
The massive family archive, dating back to 1357, was moved 18 months ago from Florence to Villa le Corti, half an hour’s drive away, but it remains uncurated. “Bundle after bundle of raw papers are tied together with string and squeezed into shelves, from floor to ceiling,” observed Park when he visited. “To digitise here would cost a fortune and take an age.”
Kisler says when she met the two countesses and their Italian curator to work out how to frame the exhibition, “we decided to focus on the family, and I think people have loved that”.
The exhibition begins with an elaborately drawn family tree and includes a few personal items, from costumes to furniture and kitchen implements.
A formally arranged dining table is set out with a banquet identical to one held at Palazzo Corsini in March 1857. The menu included fish with shrimp hollandaise, fillet of beef in madeira sauce, chicken breast and woodcock in aspic, roast guinea fowl, lobster and garnished ham.
“It was exciting for the countesses to come out and see the collection displayed publicly outside the palace for the very first time,” says Kisler. “The Italians have felt it is a rich exchange.”
As the collection’s showing in Auckland drew to a close last month, an Englishman living in New Zealand came forward to tell Kisler he owned four letters dating back to the 1600s by Bartolemeo Corsini, written in London for his family in Florence.
“A good exhibition doesn’t end the day it goes up but the day it comes down,” she says. “You keep discovering new things.”
Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943) was born in the south-coast town of Mandal in Norway. For centuries, his ancestors had lived as farmers in a nearby valley, but his father became a master carpenter with his own furniture workshop. He was a devout follower of the Protestant Pietistic movement and the artist’s childhood was spent in a strictly religious atmosphere.
Vigeland’s artistic talents were first revealed in his drawing and woodcarving and at the age of fifteen his father took him to Oslo to apprentice him to a master. On the death of his father only two years later, Vigeland was compelled to return to Mandal and relinquish all hopes of becoming a sculptor. Helping his mother to support his family took most of his time, but every free moment was spent in reading and drawing. his favourite literature was Homer and the ancient Greek dramas, but he also read about and studied a great deal of anatomy and art, particularly the sculptures of the Danish neo-Classicist, Bertel Thorvaldsen.
In 1888 Vigeland was again back in the capital, this time taking with him a bundle of sketches for statues, groups and reliefs, their motifs mostly deriving from Greek mythology and the Bible. It proved impossible to earn a living as a woodcarver and after a period of severe hardship, he finally decided to contact the sculptor Brynjulf Bergslien. Impressed by Vigeland’s drawings, Bergslien took him into his studio and gave him his first practical training. Some months later, Vigeland was able to exhibit his first sculpture at the State Exhibition of Art in 1889. For a short period he attended the School of Design.
Vigeland’s talent was soon recognised and he received several grants that enabled him to travel. He never attended an art academy but worked and studied on his own. He spent 1891 in Copenhagen where he was allowed to work on his own sculptures in the studio of Vilhelm Bissen. In 1893 he was in Paris where he remained for six months. The work of August Rodin, seen by Vigeland on visits to the artist’s studio, made a perceptible impact: inspiration from the Gates of Hell can be seen in Vigeland’s relief “Hell”, the magnum opus of his early years.
Rodin’s intimate treatment of the relationship between man and woman was also influential in Vigeland’s lifelong development of his theme.
A long-standing wish to visit Italy became reality in 1895. On his way to Florence he spent a few months in Berlin, mixing there with an international Symbolist circle. Among these was the Polish author S. Prszybyszewski who wrote the first monograph on Gustav Vigeland, entitled “auf den Wegen der Seele” (“The Path of the Soul”), in which he considers Vigeland as opponent of Realism in art. In Italy, to which he returned again in 1896, he devoted himself to art studies of Antiquity and Renaissance. “Every day I realise that sculpture must be stricter”, he wrote home, revealing ideals of a more monumental sculpture, different from the modern Rodinesque style. Many years were to pass, however, before such ideals found an outlet in his own sculptures.
The grants came to an end and in order to make a living, Vigeland took on commissions for the restoration work of the medieval cathedral in Trondheim from 1897-1902. Among his works here are the sculptures for the choir and gargoyles for the towers. Inspired by fantasy sculptures from the Middle Ages, he took up the motif of Man in combat with dragons and lizards which, according to Christian tradition, are symbols of evil and hostile powers. This theme was to reappear in several later sculptures.
Vigeland modelled more than 100 portrait busts of prominent Norwegians, contemporary or from the recent past. The most striking feature is not always the likeness to the person portrayed, although Vigeland took particular care of its resemblance. He sought the immediately expressive and characteristic in his models. At the same time, the modelling gave him the opportunity to study man, for free; the costs for professional models were high.
He modelled the first busts in 1892, at the age of 23, and the last was made in 1941. He worked with busts in two distinct periods separated by a pause between 1908 and 1915. The busts reflect his change of style from a naturalistic rendering, via an impressionistic expression to an almost abstract, stylistic form.
The busts were in general modelled on Vigeland’s own initiative and he was seldom paid. The early family and friend portraits gave him the opportunity to experiment. From 1901 to 1905 he wanted to portray a number of well-known people. Several of his late busts are symbols of his gratitude to friends.
Vigeland also designed the statue of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson standing in front of Den Nationale Scene in Bergen.
His most remarkable creation as a sculptor, however, is the wealth of statuary in Vigeland Park.
The Municipality of Oslo was to show Vigeland exceptional generosity, not only in connection with the park. In 1921 an agreement was drawn up in which Vigeland was to be provided with a new and spacious studio. In return, Vigeland would bequeath to the city all works of art in his possession as well as all original models of future sculptures. Vigeland lived and worked in the palatial building from 1924 until his death in 1943. In 1947 the studio was opened to the public as a museum of his works – some 1,600 sculptures, 12,000 drawings and 420 woodcuts. The present Vigeland Museum also serves as the mausoleum of the artist; the urn containing his ashes is placed in the building’s tower. Vigeland was appointed Officer of the Order of St. Olav in 1901, and received the Grand Cross of the Order in 1929.
By far the most interesting sculpture 🙂
Unfortunately, Lekande björnar (presumably playful bears) was purchased by Marabouparken in 1939 and therefore is in Sweden. The group was originally made as part of a fountain.
Vigeland Park, which has partially become an integrated part of the older Frogner Park, covers an area of 80 acres. It functions both as a sculpture park and a public park, open all year round.
The park contains 214 sculptures with more than 758 figures, all modelled in full size by Gustav Vigeland without the assistance of pupils or other artists. He also designed the architectural setting and the layout of the grounds with their expansive loans and long, straight avenues bordered by maple trees.
The park in winter…
Even the statues are cold 🙂
The main entrance consists of five large gates and two smaller pedestrian gates in wrought iron. Railings curve outwards on each side and are terminated by two small gatehouses. The final designs for the wrought-iron gates were made in 1926 and exhibited in 1927 together with some details executed in iron.
From the entrance gates, paths skirt either side of a spacious lawn leading up to the Bridge which is 100 metres long and 15 metres wide. On the granite parapets stand 58 single figures or groups in bronze (1926-33). The sculptures on the Bridge potray people of widely different ages. Many characteristic representations of children are noticeable. Dominant motifs among the groups are the relationship between man and woman and between adults and children. The representation of mother and child has a long and popular tradition in art. A more unusual theme is the father and child relationship, which is the subject of several sculptures.
Beyond the Bridge, the path continues through a rose garden to the Fountain, the earliest sculpture unit in the park. In the centre of the basin six giants hold the large saucer-shaped vessel aloft and (in summer!) from it a curtain of water spills down around them.
The twenty tree groups on the surrounding parapet symbolise “the tree of life”. The tree groups represent a romantic expression of Man’s relationship to nature. They also form the setting for life’s evolving stages, evolving from childhood and adolescence through adulthood to old age and death.
The theme of the different ages of life and life as part of an eternal cycle are repeated in the frieze of sixty bronze reliefs on the parapet.
The ground around the Fountain is paved with mosaics in black and white granite and not visible in winter!
From the Fountain the path continues upwards to the highest point in the sculpture park. The Monolith plateau is reached by ascending three terraces.
As in the Fountain, the principal theme of the Monolith plateau is the circle of life. The monolith consists of 121 figures and was modelled by Vigeland in the years 1924-25. It has been named the Monolith because it was carved out of a single block of stone. Vigeland carved the Monolith on site and he finished it just before he died.
Little bears have been keeping warm in the cafe near the main entrance 🙂
Since Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen is one of our favourite plays, J.T. Rogers’s Oslo became an interesting option for a night out. It was our last night in London and the last night of a six week trip and the thought of skipping the play and getting a bit more sleep briefly came to mind. Luckily, it quickly left the mind!
Oslo tells the true story of how one young Norwegian couple – Terje Rød-Larsen, played by Toby Stephens, and Mona Juul, played by Lydia Leonard – planned and orchestrated top-secret, high-level meetings between the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which culminated in the signing of the historic 1993 Oslo Accords.
This gripping play by J.T. Rogers, directed by Bartlett Sher, was awarded ‘Best Play’ at the 2017 Tony Awards and was winner of every ‘Best Play’ award on Broadway in 2017 including those given by New York Drama Critics’ Circle, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Drama League, Obie and Lucille Lortel Awards.
J.T. Rogers has lots of experience at dramatising foreign affairs, all his major plays deal with the subject: The Overwhelming (2006) dramatises the Rwandan genocide and Blood and Gifts (2010) explores the wars in Afghanistan. He has also written plays set in Spain, Germany and now Norway.
Oslo is the story of a peace process; it is almost wall to wall men in suits. But the events it elucidates are riveting. As is the dramatisation of the events for the play by Rogers. Improbably, the secret talks that led to the 1993 Oslo accords, the first agreement ever struck between the Palestine Liberation Organisation (remember the PLO?) and the state of Israel, were organised not through official channels but by a Norwegian academic and his diplomat wife. The negotiators were served waffles in a remote Norwegian house 🙂 The US was not told of the encounters. Yet later that year Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin were shaking hands on the lawn of the White House. There were sobs of joyful surprise from witnesses as agreement was reached.
Sitting anonymously among the thousands of global dignitaries who had flocked to Washington to witness this historic event was Terje Rød-Larsen, the cultivated, softly spoken Norwegian diplomat who, with his wife Mona Juul, made it all possible by enabling the rival delegations to meet in secret to thrash out their differences.
The sobs provoked by watching this now are bitter: by the end of the decade the accord was in tatters.
Rogers’s play is not verbatim theatre but a reimagining. With fierce individual confrontations and high-powered comic eruptions. Rogers has fashioned an unexpected thriller out of the brave and inspired Palestinian and Israeli negotiators who came together to put aside decades of hostility and make peace.
Philip Arditti as Uri Savir is a chameleon Israeli negotiator who swivels from seductor to boa constrictor with a shimmy of his snake hips. He does provocative take-offs, not only of Henry Kissinger but also (jacket backwards over the head) Arafat.
Peter Polycarpou’s depiction of Ahmed Qurei, the Palestinian finance minister sent by Arafat to make peace, admirably captures the conflicting emotions of enduring the pain of exile while seeking to wreak terrible vengeance on the Israeli occupiers.
Both of them have daughters called Maya.
At one Broadway performance, the entire 1,000-seat theatre was booked for the United Nations. They didn’t react to Philip Arditti’s Uri Savir impersonation of Arafat as an effeminate narcissist and a man whose vanity knew no bounds. Rogers suspects, they all either knew him or were terrified of being seen laughing at him. Even 13 years after Arafat’s death!
Bartlett Sher’s incisive production makes debate look like action. Which is part of Rogers’s point: in a peace process, talking is a deed – and may replace an act of war. Against the odds, the evening is truly theatrical – because it is essentially a backstage story. It makes most “news” look like mere window dressing.
The task facing the rival delegates when they first meet was a daunting one. For the Israelis, if the fact became known that they were talking to the PLO, the government would most likely fall. For the Palestinians, it would mean an assassin’s bullet.
Many of the players portrayed are no longer around to reflect on Rogers’s version of events. Rogers interviewed Terje Rød-Larsen at length, but spoke to only a few of the other participants: “I stalked the characters, through memoirs and TV interviews. But the lines on stage are all mine; there’s no verbatim. My rule, though, was that no one expresses views that they didn’t hold.”
Someone he apparently didn’t speak to was Yossi Beilin, who was a member of the Israeli delegation to the talks, and is disturbed that the playwright never contacted him even though Beilin’s character has a substantial role in the production. “No one bothered to call me, other than to tell me that there is such a play, and that if I’m ever in New York they’d be happy to invite me,” Beilin said. “I assume that the play has no connection to reality, but they tell me that it’s actually successful. it’s not clear to me why the playwright didn’t speak to those [involved] who are still alive.”
Joel Singer, who was the Israeli delegation’s legal adviser to the Oslo talks has seen the play on Broadway. “There’s very little resemblance to what you see on stage and what actually happened in Oslo. Even though they claim that the play is based on extensive research, there’s almost no link between what you see on stage and what really happened.”
Singer, along with other Israelis who’ve seen the play, found the Palestinian representatives were presented in an authentic manner, but didn’t find the Israeli representatives believable. Interesting cultural bias. Singer said, “All the Israeli representatives looked like cartoon characters, like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. The Israeli characters are all distorted. It bothered me personally that they were using the names of people I know and attributing characteristics to them that they don’t have.”
None of the players were presented as their real-life versions. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if they had, a three-hour play about politics, even the politics of a peace process, would have been far too boring. The real Terje Rød-Larsen is a quiet and patient man, who never seemed to be entirely comfortable with the rough-house atmosphere of the Middle East region, where disputes were often more likely to be resolved through rocks and rubber bullets than rational persuasion.
Uri Savir, who was deputed by Peres to run the Israeli side of the negotiations, was an urbane multi-linguist of an academic disposition, softly spoken and thoughtful when discussing regional issues.
Ahmed Qurei is reported to be a man of great personal charm, tolerant and good-humoured, which no doubt contributed to his appeal as a negotiator. His easy-going style has won him friendships over the years with his Israeli counterparts.
Yitzhak Rabin, the great Israeli warrior-turned-politician who agreed to make peace with Arafat, a man most Israelis, as one Israeli character in the play remarks, saw as being akin to “Hitler in his bunker”, was murdered by a Jewish extremist in November 1995 in revenge for signing the deal.
The mysterious circumstances surrounding Arafat’s death in a Paris hospital in November 2004 remains a source of controversy among his PLO loyalists, many of whom believe he was poisoned by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service.
By the time Shimon Peres, the Nobel Prize-winning prime minister of Israel who helped resolve many of the more intangible issues, died more peacefully aged 93 in 2016, he had become one of the most accomplished statesmen of our age.
For all the quips and light-hearted banter, and occasionally over the top characters, Oslo is, at heart, a deeply emotional drama. When the Israelis finally strike a deal with the Palestinians during a telephone call to Arafat’s headquarters in Tunis, they think they can hear music playing in the background. In fact it is the battle-hardened veterans of the PLO sobbing at the prospect of being allowed to return to their homeland.
Ultimately, the play is an implicit tragedy about the failure of both sides to build a lasting peace on the basis of the painful concessions made during the Oslo negotiations. “Between our peoples lies a vast ocean,” says Ahmed Qurei, the finance minister for the PLO, in the play, just before the negotiations start. Twenty-five years on, that ocean seems as vast as ever.
Even if opera is not your thing, and you have little interest in the finer points of auditorium acoustics, Oslo Opera House is a unmissable building. Here is a public building – “a social democratic monument,” say its designers – that captures something of the spirit of Norway’s snow-smothered mountains and icebergs, with its white marble and clear glass exterior.
This vast complex, home to Norway’s national opera and ballet companies, has quickly become a new national symbol, much as Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House did for Australia decades ago. Envisioned by Snøhetta as a glass and marble “wave wall” where the city meets the ocean, the site was designed as a large white wedge that slopes down into the water. The slanted roof has been transformed into a large public plaza closely connected to the surrounding fjord. Available for around-the-clock use, the roof is a new type of city park in which distinctions between architectural and landscape design, music and dance are productively blurred.
In winter, the roof is covered with snow, and, while it is not exactly encouraged, young people will be tempted to snowboard down it. The roof, along with the aluminium-clad fly tower, is very much the dominant feature. In fact, from the water side, the roof is the building.
This vast undulating plane, or sequence of planes, comprising 36,000 individually cut slabs of Carrara marble, slopes down from the heights of the fly tower, covers the auditorium and ends up, very deliberately, under water.
The choice of Italian over Norwegian stone caused considerable controversy, but detailed testing concluded that the visual and technical quality of the Italian marble was superior to – as well as half the price of – local stone. Norwegian sensitivities were allayed somewhat by the placement of local granite at the water’s edge; the green stone mimics the colour of the water. The marble started to turn yellow because of the cold climate, but scientists have developed a way of drying the marble to retain its whiteness.
In freezing weather, the building really does look like a man-made iceberg. In fact, it is firmly anchored, and protected from errant ships by a new sea barrier, solidly built and designed to last at least 300 years.
When the opera house was commissioned in 2000, it fulfilled a century-old wish for Oslo to house the Norwegian National Opera. The National Opera & Ballet was established in 1957 and housed at the Folketeatret Theatre, but the institution had to share the space with others. The National Opera’s first director was the internationally renowned soprano Kirsten Flagstad, who paid for the employment of extra singers and musicians out of her own pocket. The square that houses the modern opera house is named after her, and she is honoured today with the statue that you see as you approach the entrance to the building.
The glass façade, 15 meters high in places, rises out of the marble canopied exterior, allowing natural light into the foyer by day and foyer light to illuminate the canopy by night. The main entrance – a crevasse-like slit in the white marble façade – leads into a happily meandering, informal lobby wrapped around the auditorium. Timber ramps, with superbly crafted detailing made by traditional Norwegian boat builders, lead up from cloakrooms clad in hexagonal screens by the artist Olafur Eliasson, and extraordinarily beautiful lavatories (really), to bars and lobbies, and finally to the hush of the auditorium.
The large and light lobby is open 24 hours a day and features cafés with beautiful views of the fjord, while large windows make it possible to sneak a peek at the workshops and costume department from outside the building.
Beyond the undulating oak wall lies the three main performance halls. The largest hall, the Main Hall, poses as the heart of the building. Being in the interior of the main hall can be compared to being inside of a large wooden instrument.
The Main Hall is a classic horseshoe theatre built for opera and ballet, inspired by the Semperoper in Dresden. It has a capacity for approximately 1400 visitors divided between stalls, perterre and three balconies. Unfortunately, some of the seats have limited visibility, a trade-off for a floor plan inspired by classical architecture. The orange-red fabric of the seats was specially designed as a counterpoint to the dark oak walls of the hall. Text display screens are built into the seat backs so that the audience can individually choose to read the libretto in a number of languages. The dark colour of the walls (the oak was treated with ammonia) is particularly suited to the theatre space and the oak gives a rich, warm and intimate feel to the space.
The acoustics of the main hall were supervised by the Arup agency. The sound has incredible depth, notably thanks to a particularly sonorous orchestra pit, typical of the Scandinavian conception of opera houses. The reverberation period is 1.7 seconds, a period halfway between opera houses and symphonic halls.
The interior design of the Main Hall was determined by technical and acoustic requirements: a short distance between the audience and the performers, good sight lines and excellent acoustics. The seats are designed to absorb as little sound as possible. The specially designed walls of the Main Hall assist the acoustics by spreading the sound evenly around the auditorium, while the curved fronts of the three balcony levels serve to diffuse the sound. Reverberation time is fine tuned using drapes along the rear walls and control rooms for sound and light are located to the back of the hall.
The orchestra pit is highly flexible and can be adjusted in height and area. The stage is shaped like a horseshoe to achieve the best acoustics possible while the 35 meter high stage tower allows for complex technical stage work. Sixteen elevators run up and down, tilting and rotating to move and construct landscapes within the stage. On each side of the stage are mobile towers which allow for adjustments in the proscenium width for ballet or opera without damaging the acoustics of the hall. Underneath the stage is a ventilation system that maintains the humidity of the hall and the frontal areas of the stage, providing extra humidification for the singers and instruments as needed.
The 23 x 11 meter stage curtain dominates the main auditorium and gives the illusion of being made from crumpled metal foil. It is actually a tapestry called Metafoil by American artist Pae White, which was woven in Belgium by projecting photographs of crumpled foil onto a computerised loom.
The requirement for a long reverberation time resulted in a room with a large volume. In this case the volume is increased by the use of a technical gallery which cantilevers out over the walls below, giving the hall a T shaped section. The main structure of the stone clad roof above is included in the volume of the hall rather than being hidden behind a false ceiling.
Above the audience, on the ceiling of the Main Hall is Norway’s largest chandelier. The moon-like light, crafted of hand cast glass bars, is illuminated by 800 LED lights shining through 5,800 hand-cast crystals. The chandelier, which is suspended inside an oval reflector, also acts as an acoustic reflector: inside it, the clusters of crystals increase in size towards the stage. This configuration allows more sound to pass through, contributing to reverberation throughout the auditorium.
Little Puffles and Honey attended a performance of Wozzeck in the Main Hall. Not the most cheerful of operas, but it provided an opportunity for photos 🙂
The complex also has two smaller venues and little Puffles and Honey went in search for the second hall hoping for a more fun experience!
The second hall has space to hold up to 55 musicians, and the flexible seating for 400 can be adapted from traditional rows to an in-the-round configuration. The other performance space, the Studio, can be used as a rehearsal room or as a performance space for an audience of 200 patrons.
The action in the second hall looks more promising! There is a Christmas tree and a cute horse on stage 🙂
Jingle Horse! was a Christmas show made up of a collage of well-known stories with a new twist, sometimes funny, sometimes less so. It was in English, evidently some humour cannot be translated. The best part of the show was Puffles and Honey sneaking on stage and meeting the star of the show, Jingle Horse himself! 🙂
Norway’s oil revenue has allowed it to invest in culture. The Oslo Opera, inaugurated in 2008, cost some €500 million and change. The payoff was immediate. This is the only opera house in the world to have won the prestigious Mies van der Rohe Award for contemporary architecture from the European Union (Harpa in Reykjavik is a Concert Hall and Conference Centre). The jury found Oslo Opera to be an example of the power of architecture to recuperate urban territory and transform it into public spaces of great quality.
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse; The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there; The children were nestled all snug in their beds, While visions of sugar plums danced in their heads….
And speaking of Sugar Plums …
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without shed-loads of sugar. And maybe that’s one of the reasons behind The Nutcracker‘s enduring festive popularity. The ballet’s candied cornucopia of sugar-frosted fancies makes it the sweetest work in the repertory.
Before attending a performance of The Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House, little Puffles and Honey topped up their sugar levels 🙂 They didn’t find any sugar plums at Selfridges, so they had to settle for macaroons… Sugar is a crucial ingredient in macaroons as well!
Apparently it’s not done to eat Rudolf or Mr Snowman (they were delicious 🙂 ), so they got some macaroons from Pierre Hermé, the King of Macaroon. There were some odd flavour combinations, but little Puffles and Honey went for the classics.
It all starts with E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story Nussknacker und Mausekönig (The Nutcracker and the Mouse King). Though the story itself is not exactly little bear-friendly (including a fearsome seven-headed mouse that attacks the heroine), Hoffmann pays tribute to the great sweet-making tradition of his Nuremberg setting, in a magnificent sugar fantasia. The protagonists travel along a path of nougat by a lemonade river that winds past the glistening Bonbonville, and cross Rosewater Lake to reach the capital Confiturembourg, itself topped by the Marzipan Castle. And we do love marzipan…
The ballet reins it in a little – but not much. The original scenario was developed by choreographer Marius Petipa and Mariinsky director Ivan Vsevolozhsky, who used a somewhat more palatable translation of Hoffmann’s story by Alexandre Dumas père (fewer heads on the rat, just as much sugar).
Presiding over the display are the regal Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince Coqueluche. Though sugar plum today doesn’t mean anything more than the character in the ballet (and it is the Christmas role), to the original audience it was a fittingly sophisticated treat: a cardamom or caraway seed cast in spun sugar, a virtuoso test of the confectioner’s craft. Her prince is rather less glamorous: ‘coqueluche’ means ‘whooping cough’, making him the equivalent of a dancing cough drop, albeit a very elegant one 🙂
Of the divertissements, there are three national-inspired dances that feature in most traditional productions – of which Peter Wright’s 1984 production for The Royal Ballet is an exemplar. First there’s the Spanish Dance, for chocolate; then the Arabian Dance, for coffee; and the Chinese Dance, for tea. These might seem humdrum treats now, but for the ballet’s creators more than a century ago, and Hoffmann before them, these were luxuries that carried an aromatic whiff of exoticism, masterfully expressed in Tchaikovsky’s music.
Drosselmeyer, a timeless magician and creator of mechanical toys and clocks, was once employed in a royal palace where he invented a trap that killed off half the mouse population. In revenge, the wicked Queen of the Mice cast a spell over Drosselmeyer’s nephew, Hans-Peter, which transformed him into an ugly Nutcracker Doll. The only way to break the spell was for the Nutcracker to slay the Mouse King, thereby committing an act of great bravery, and for a young girl to love and care for him in spite of his awful appearance.
When Drosselmeyer is invited to entertain the guests at a Christmas party that his friends, the Stahlbaums, are giving, he decides that this could well be the opportunity he has been looking for.
Their daughter, Clara, is a little younger than Hans-Peter imprisoned in the Nutcracker, and what better time than Christmas, when the mice are busy stealing the leftovers, for a confrontation between the Mouse King and the Nutcracker? Drosselmeyer decides to put the Nutcracker in the tender care of Clara and makes a special Christmas Angel to guide her through her task.
When all the guests have departed and the house is asleep, Clara, in search of the Nutcracker, creeps downstairs and discovers Drosselmeyer waiting for her. He draws her into his own special world of fantasy, where time is suspended, exerts all his power to transform the living room into a great battlefield and summons the Mouse King.
In the ensuing fight between the mice and the toy soldiers, the Nutcracker slays the Mouse King, but only through the intervention of Clara, who, out of compassion, saves the Nutcracker’s life.
Transformed into his real self, he dances with Clara and they find themselves in the Land of Snow. Drosselmeyer then sends them on a magic journey to the Sugar Garden in the Kingdom of Sweets where they meet the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince.
Freed at last from his imprisonment inside the Nutcracker, Hans-Peter recounts to the Sugar Plum Fairy his great adventure and how Clara saved his life. They then join in a magnificent entertainment put on by Drosselmeyer to honour them for their bravery.
Returning to reality Clara runs out into the street in search of Drosselmeyer and encounters a strangely familiar young man, while back in his workshop, Drosselmeyer prays that his efforts will be rewarded. His nephew returns; the spell has indeed been broken.
It was another outstanding performance by the Royal Ballet. Two hours have never passed so fast.
Peter Wright’s exquisite 1984 Nutcracker for The Royal Ballet recalls the lavishly traditional air of the original production, with some changes to the scenario to bring it closer to Hoffmann’s original story. With magnificent designs by Julia Trevelyan Oman, including a gorgeously decorated tree that magically grows, and beautifully coloured imaginings of the fantastical Sugar Garden, this festive production has become a much-loved staple of the Royal Ballet’s repertory.
Wright’s adaptation of the choreography for The Nutcracker is characterized by buoyant footwork and lyrical freedom in the arms and upper body. Perhaps the best-loved number from the ballet is the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy in Act II. Comprising sharp, filigree choreography and lasting for ten minutes, it is one of the longest and most technically challenging solos in the repertory, and a role that many ballerinas long to dance.
It seems hardly credible that The Nutcracker, a staple of the ballet repertory today, was the product of a troubled collaboration, roundly condemned by critics and infrequently performed at the time it was first mounted in 1892. Tchaikovsky, who had agreed to compose the ballet out of gratitude to the Director of Imperial Theatres, Ivan Alexandrovich Vsevolozhsky, and on the basis of the great success The Sleeping Beauty had enjoyed a year earlier, was unhappy with the scenario of The Nutcracker when he finally saw it. The esteemed choreographer Marius Petipa, who drafted instructions for the composer and a detailed plan of dances and mimed scenes of the new ballet, fell ill soon after rehearsals began, leaving much of the actual composition of the choreography to Lev Ivanov, the second ballet master. The meagre roster of early performances is striking to us now in light of what the work has become: in the third season of its existence (after an initial run of 14 performances), the ballet was not given at all; this was followed by a three-year period without performances, between 1897 and 1900; and The Nutcracker was not produced at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow before the October Revolution, the first performance there coming in 1919, almost 27 years after the premiere. Even its seasonal topicality was disregarded, for it was scheduled throughout the theatre year from September to May, with rarely more than one showing in December.
What was the problem with The Nutcracker, then? Judging from the critical response, it was not its innovation but the fact that conventional devices were carried too far. In an age when audiences accepted extraordinary liberties of logic and motivation in stories used for ballet, the scenario of The Nutcracker was found wanting. “The authors of the ballet librettos never weary the intellect of the lovers of choreography”, wrote one critic, “but in The Nutcracker the author of the libretto, balletmaster Mr Petipa, in the extreme took advantage of his right as regards simplicity and non-complexity of subject matter. In The Nutcracker there is no subject whatever.” This criticism, though encountered elsewhere in early reviews, is not wholly accurate. In fact, there was no connection between the Christmas party in the first act and the Land of Sweets in the second that would make both acts part of the same ballet. In the printed libretto of 1892 the fantastic events were unexplained and the story, as a result, was divided into largely unrelated halves.
If imperial period audiences tolerated some relaxation of dramatic propriety in their ballet stories, luxurious staging was essential. “In this respect”, the same critic continued, “the direction of the Petersburg theatres… long since set the tone and prescribed the rules for all Europe. Even Paris and London bow before Petersburg… Beauty, magnificence and taste, not stopping at any venture and expense, brilliantly rival one another.” But here too the producers of The Nutcracker exceeded the norm. Tchaikovsky was overwhelmed by the staging and wrote to his brother Anatole the day after the first performance that “the production of both [The Nutcracker and its companion piece, the opera Iolanta] was magnificent, the ballet even too magnificent. The eyes weary from this luxury.” Vladimir Telyakovsky, who was to become Director of Imperial Theatres in 1901, recalled that the production was unimaginable in its bad taste, some of the artists representing confections in the second act being “dressed like fancy brioches from Fillipov’s patisserie”, a famous Petersburg establishment.
Assessments of The Nutcracker, based on these and other complaints, were thus unflattering or worse. Ennui was among the gentler verdicts: “They say that at the first performance only the balletomanes were bored; on this occasion [the second performance]… The Nutcracker provided nothing other than boredom to the public, and many left the theatre before the end of the performance.” Elsewhere we read: “For dancers there is rather little in it, for art absolutely nothing, and for the artistic destiny of our ballet – one more step downward.” Wrote a third critic: “The production of such ballets as The Nutcracker can quickly and easily lead the ballet troupe to its downfall.” Through the scorn another defect comes to light, which audiences of the present day consider a virtue: the ballet was for children. “All this children’s ballet is made in the manner of a child”, wrote a critic known as Old Balletomane, “the program is pure child’s prattle! In vain do they suppose that one may substitute luxuriance of production for lack of imagination and thought in this programme.” Twenty years later Serge Diaghilev, defending his company’s repertory in The Times, shrugged off The Nutcracker as no more than a ballet performed by a hundred children.
The modern producer who would take inspiration from the first Nutcracker is left all the same with much that is worthy of revival. The lavish staging of magical effects, such as the miraculous growth of the Christmas tree, the spectacular tableau in the second act, Confiturembourg, The Kingdom of Sweets (such ‘kingdom’ scenes were especially beloved of Petipa), and the participation of children in the dances and the battle scene are all components of the first Nutcracker which drew on well-established traditions of the late imperial ballet.
The choreography of the Waltz of the Snowflakes is a special feature of the first production that his contemporaries ranked as one of Lev Ivanov’s great creations. But Ivanov’s steps and patterns for this dance have been lost passing from one staging to the next and have been re-created by Wright. He has also re-created the floor patterns from choreographic notations of The Nutcracker made in St Petersburg before World War I, now in the Harvard Theatre Collection. As a result, we see again Ivanov’s danced allegory of a snowstorm, “the hachures and patterns of snow crystals, the monograms and arabesques of the plastique of frost [gathered] into one well-proportioned, artistically finished vision” – as it was described by a balletomane who recalled the original.
Recent considerations of The Nutcracker, especially since the end of the Soviet era, have raised new possibilities about the meaning of the work. These tend to attribute Tchaikovsky’s reservations about composing music of Confiturembourg to some passing irritation, while allowing that the imagery and design of the work, with its patent disjunctions, were intended. One possibility, from the composer’s perspective, was his love of Dickens, whose vivid setting of A Christmas Tree veers much closer to that of The Nutcracker than anything in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Nussknacker und Mausekönig, the libretto’s ostensible source. In one passage Dickens’ narrator, like Clara, the only person in the house awake, describes the Christmas tree of his childhood, surrounded by toys, including “a demoniacal Counsellor in a black gown”, dolls, drummers and a regiment of soldiers in a box. For a moment, “the very tree itself changes, and becomes a beanstalk – the marvellous beanstalk up which Jack climbed to the Giant’s house!”, and presently, “all common things become uncommon and enchanted.”
These shadings may have aligned with images Tchaikovsky liked, but the principal disjunction of the libretto – between the everyday world and Confiturembourg – was taken from Hoffmann without Hoffmann’s return to reality at the end. Clara simply wakes up from her dream, resolving the fantasy of the story, a device adopted by many modern producers of the ballet. And yet the problem of incoherence, so stridently critiqued in early reviews, raises a reasonable question: would a theatre director as erudite as Vsevolozhsky, a ballet master as experience as Petipa and a composer as astute as Tchaikovsky, allow such a lapse in narrative, a beginning and a middle without an ending? The balletomanes’ complaint that The Nutcracker overreached conventions of ballet lax enough to permit such liberties seems dismissive and unsatisfactory, given the stature of the collaborators.
Could flaws so obvious be pointing to a new type of drama? Folklorists remind us that the motifs of the growing Christmas tree and the winter forest, missing in Hoffmann, echo ancient representations of the underworld, regular world and heavenly realm as joined by a tree, whereas winter symbolizes not just a demise before rebirth but also, joined with the forest, a path to another world, possibly the realm of the dead. We do not know if the collaborators on The Nutcracker wished to express such themes, but the possibility that they were motivated by something other than carelessness casts them in a more complimentary light than shed by early reception. The importance of Tchaikovsky to such a scheme would be central, in that his theatre works, beginning with The Oprichnik, passing through Eugene Onegin and ending with The Sleeping Beauty, The Queen of Spades and Iolanta, all display symbolic or novel approaches to drama that elicited criticism when they were new for being imperfectly conventional. They also share an element of experimentation manifest as early as Tchaikovsky’s student compositions, a quality that might be affirmed in The Nutcracker if we knew more about his part in the early stages of collaboration. In short, the composer may have been formulating new approaches to the lyric stage, appreciated more by the avant garde of the early 20th century than by his contemporaries. If so, his complaint about excessive luxury in the mise-en-scène may have been perfectly sincere, but unrelated to the ballet’s message.
‘The Nutcracker Then and Now’ written by Roland John Wiley, Professor of Musicology Emeritus at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbour.
The name of the Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre was made public on 11 December 2009. The name Harpa was the winning name out of 4,156 proposals entered by 1,200 citizens. The rules stated that the name should be in Icelandic but easily articulated in most languages. The name Harpa has more than one meaning. It is the Icelandic name for the musical instrument harp. It is also an old Icelandic word that refers to a time of year and the name of a month in the old Nordic calendar. The first day of that month is celebrated as the first day of summer and marks the beginning of a brighter time where nature comes to live and the colours of the environment sharpen.
Harpa’s history goes way back. Icelanders started dreaming about building a good music house as early as in 1881, but other projects had a higher priority, such as the national theatre and the founding of Iceland’s symphony orchestra. The music house didn’t become a serious proposition until much later.
Music enthusiasts agreed on the construction of the concert hall in 1983, but had to wait until the 1990s before the state of Iceland and the city of Reykjavik decided to take part in the project. An empty plot for the new building was found by the harbour in Reykjavik city centre. The concert hall was to be part of an extensive harbour development project in Reykjavik, the East Harbour Project, with the aim of expanding and revitalising Reykjavik’s eastern harbour with a new downtown plaza, a shopping street, a hotel, residential buildings, educational institutions and mixed industry.
Harpa’s conception took place in 2004, in Iceland’s age of financial hallucination, when consortia of banks, architects and others were invited to bid for the privilege of building the home, long wished-for in this music-loving country, of concerts and opera. The winning group was led by Landsbanki, which would be a leading player in Iceland’s Gatsby moment.
Entering or leaving Harpa on foot, the piazza over which the upper floors loom is all that separates it from Reykjanesbraut (Route 41), which travels north-east from Keflavík directly into Reykjavík. Along with Route 49, these two arteries wrap around and loosely define the city’s older centre – bisected by the bustling Laugavegur – and effectively cut off the coast and harbour, leaving it as a sliver of land that bends up into the township of Seltjarnarnes.
Reykjavík’s harbour has long ceased any industrial activity that would demand a close connection to the city centre. Accompanying Harpa and the docks along this strip of land are small museums, cafés and shops selling Icelandic knick-knacks, united by the walk past Jón Gunnar Árnason’s Sun Voyager. Here you can look back at Reykjavík or take advantage of unhindered views of the Engey and Viðey islands and perhaps even the Snæfellsjökull stratovolcano. It is by no means a neglected or unpleasant area, rather one of disconnection. By Icelandic standards Route 41 is relatively busy – four lanes of traffic traversed via nondescript pedestrian crossings – and this post-industrial edge land, while not short on attractions, feels at times little more than an extension of the roadside that risks drifting off into Faxa Bay.
An international competition in 2004 called for masterplans of the area, to reunite the waterfront and the city centre, with only four partnerships invited to tender due to the scale and complexity of the project.
The winner, selected in 2005, was the Danish-Icelandic collective Portus Group, picked from a star-studded crop including Schmidt Hammer Lassen, Norman Foster and Jean Nouvel. Portus Group comprised the Icelandic Batteriíð Architects, Danish concert hall veterans Henning Larsen and Artec acoustic consultants et al, backed by the private investor Landsbanki. Portus’s masterplan was bold: a concert hall, conference centre, wellness centre, academy of fine arts, bank, cinema, shopping street, residential/commercial units and what would have been Iceland’s first five-star hotel. This was Iceland’s boom-time: it was a hugely zealous proposal around a major artery, one that would not just connect with Reykjavík’s centre but create an entirely new piece of city.
It was the proposed concert hall in particular – which would become Harpa – that would satisfy a longstanding desire for a dedicated performance space in Reykjavík. The Icelandic phrase ad ganga med bok I maganum (everyone gives birth to a book) extends too, it would seem, to music, with an incredible output from Icelanders Björk, Ólafur Arnalds, Sigur Rós and Samaris to name but a few. Early in the 20th century the only concert hall was the minuscule Hljómskálinn, built to house the city’s brass band and itself the subject of controversy over its position in the lakeside park it would eventually give its name to, Hljómskálagarðurinn. This 7.5 meter wide structure had the advantage of being central, but could not house the growing Iceland Symphony Orchestra, who decades later occupied the University of Iceland’s Cinema, itself under pressure for conferences and other events. Similarly, the now world-famous Iceland Airwaves festival used a hangar at Reykjavík airport for its first one-off event in 1999 – trendy, but acoustically not ideal. A building with the facilities of Harpa was long overdue.
The construction of Harpa started in 2007, but stopped in October 2008 when Iceland’s financial crisis hit. Harpa was the only part of the masterplan under construction, and was around 40 per cent complete. Fulfilling the rest of the redevelopment’s aims was out of the question. Harpa’s unfinished state became visual shorthand for economic irresponsibility, and with still-raw hindsight many questioned the collective madness that prompted a city of fewer than 200,000 to plan for such a large venue in the first place. (Rule No 2 of being Icelandic: Think BIG)
The Icelandic financial crisis was a major economic and political event in Iceland that involved the default of all three of the country’s major privately owned commercial banks (including Landsbanki), representing 85% of the country’s financial system, in the same week in late 2008. Relative to the size of its economy, Iceland’s systemic banking collapse was the largest experienced by any country in economic history. The crisis led to a severe economic depression in 2008–2010 and significant political unrest.
Iceland’s response was controversial and represented a two-fingered salute to the polite society of academics and policy-makers who normally lay down the laws on economic disaster management. First, it let the banks go under: foreign financiers who had lent to Reykjavik institutions at their own risk didn’t get a single krona back. Second, officials imposed strict capital controls, making it harder for hot-money merchants to pull their cash out of the country.
While all the other countries started bailing out their greedy and irresponsible bankers, following the old free-market tradition that rules governments should never break faith with financiers, Iceland was the one country that defied the global consensus and did not. More than that, Iceland allowed those responsible for the crisis — its bankers — to be prosecuted as criminals.
There was shock to the system, but it was relatively short, and once the pain was dealt with, the country has bounced back stronger than ever. By refusing to allow its currency, the krona, to suffer ultra-low inflation to protect the assets of the rich — as in the rest of the West did — Iceland let the krona tumble. The resulting inflation and higher prices helped its export industries, unlike what happened in many European Union countries, which are contending with ongoing deflation. By 2011 Iceland had come through the crisis in better condition than anyone in 2008 dared hope.
When asked why Iceland was enjoying such a strong recovery while everyone else is still mired in debt, President Olafur Ragnar Grimmson said in 2013:
“Why are the banks considered to be the holy churches of the modern economy? Why are private banks not like airlines and telecommunication companies and allowed to go bankrupt if they have been run in an irresponsible way? The theory that you have to bail out banks is a theory that you allow bankers enjoy for their own profit, their success, and then let ordinary people bear their failure through taxes and austerity. People in enlightened democracies are not going to accept that in the long run.”
Grimmson’s “famous” reply to the controversial question, “What is the reason for Iceland’s recovery?” is most remarkable.
“We were wise enough not to follow the traditional prevailing orthodoxies of the Western financial world in the last 30 years. We introduced currency controls, we let the banks fail, we provided support for the poor, and we didn’t introduce austerity measures like you’re seeing in Europe.”
By paying off loans for consumers, forgiving homeowner debt (up to 110% of the property value), and throwing the offenders in prison (under the remarkable notion that choices and actions have consequences), Iceland was able to bounce back. There you have it. Instead of conceding to the crooks who made the mess, Iceland listened to its people. And the data speaks for itself.
In March 2015, the International Monetary Fund announced that Iceland had achieved economic recovery “without compromising its welfare model” of universal health care and education. And in March this year, Iceland ended capital controls (which had been winding down over the last few years), finally returning its economy to normal after the catastrophic banking collapse of 2008 and 2009. There is an interesting article on the subject in the Telegraph.
During the financial crisis, many, perhaps most, Icelanders took the obvious view, which was that with people losing homes and jobs, an expensive, oversized concert hall was not their priority. But the building structure was four storeys out of the ground and, faced with the alternative of abandoning it as an instant ruin and all-too-eloquent symbol of failure, the government pressed on. They took over the project and “with the help of very clever financing”, as one of those responsible for running the place put it, they “made it light for the taxpayers”.
With criticism mounting, the decision was made to pump government money into completing Harpa, and construction started again in March 2009. Harpa was the only construction project in Iceland for several years after the financial crisis.
Harpa opened in May 2011, with a concert conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy. The opening took place a few months before the IMF’s bailout support programme ended. Rather than owing its existence to Landsbanki oligarch Björgólfur Guðmundsson, Harpa now stands as an adopted architectural child of the city and state.
Harpa became the sole jewel in Reykjavík’s ambitious East Harbour Project crown, with the rest of the masterplan postponed. Some visitors criticise Harpa for lacking connection with the city, but such criticism forgets, or is ignorant of the fact, that it was not initially conceived as, and will not always be, such a disconnected structure. Already another part of the masterplan, the first five star hotel in Iceland, Marriott Edition, with 250 rooms, is under construction next to Harpa. It is likely to open in 2019-2020.
It was Iceland’s decision to doggedly continue construction that won over the 2013 Mies van der Rohe Award jury. Chair Wiel Arets described how Harpa ‘captured the myth of a nation that has consciously acted in favour of a hybrid cultural building during the middle of the ongoing Great Recession’.
While waiting for the rest of the East Harbour masterplan to come to life, Harpa is anything but a reluctant icon: the façade has its own accompanying range of jewellery. Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson produced not merely an artwork or ‘wallpaper’ to accompany the building but its entire external wrapping. The south façade, modelled on basalt columns, is formed from more than 1,000 quasi-bricks in a double skin (a 3D geometrical form), while the north, east and west façades mirror this geometry with a dragonfly-wing pattern in two dimensions (a cost cutting measure that quite possibly improved the design – 3D all around might have been a bit too much!). Externally it walks the tightrope between bling and artistry, and certainly does not reference anything close by.
The main idea behind the façade is to rethink the building as a static unit, and instead to allow it to respond dynamically to the changing colours of the surroundings. During the day, the geometrical figures create a crystalline structure which captures and reflects the light and initiates dialog between the building, the city and the countryside. In Iceland, light runs from endless translucent days in summer to the brief crawl of the sun above the horizon in winter, with many shades of black, blue and grey in between. Eliasson’s crystals filter, reflect and fragment light. They catch it, play with it, animate it and make it mobile. Sunshine lights up the foyers with a refulgence that is almost nuclear. In dim light the building gleams. The quasi-bricks of the south façade have glass at the back as well as the front, which gives depth. It means that light inhabits the façade rather than just bouncing off it.
In the evening, the façades are illuminated by LED lighting, which is built into each quasi-brick. The colour and light intensity can be adjusted, to bring the entire colour spectrum into play, forming patterns, letters or symbols.
The south façade in particular is rewarding once inside. The welded steel prisms are beautiful objects in their own right, each containing an integrated LED light whose colour and intensity can be individually programmed.
Being in Iceland, nature metaphors abound. Built in a black mixture of concrete and ash, the interior stands in soft contrast to the hard glass and mirrored edges of the main atrium. The main halls represent Fire (Eldborg), Air (Norðurljós), Earth (Silfurberg) and Water (Kaldalón), with Silfurberg and Norðurljós on the second floor linked by two soundproofed portals, allowing the two halls to be connected for larger events, and the smaller Kaldalón hall – named after an Icelandic bay – sitting below Norðurljós. Each hall derives its character from its namesake, Eldborg clad in deep red wood and Norðurljós housing mysterious programmable lights behind acoustic slats.
The largest auditorium, Eldborg, is named for a famous volcanic crater in Iceland (what else?!?).
Eldborg means Fire Mountain, and the auditorium, which can seat audiences of up to 1,800, is the vibrant red-hot powerhouse in Harpa’s inner core. The auditorium is built in concrete and surfaced with red-varnished birch veneer. Adjustable sound chambers around the auditorium add up to 30 percent more volume, giving a unique opportunity to adjust the reverberation time. With its characteristic shoe box form, Eldborg’s intense expression is a striking contrast to the more everyday atmosphere in the foyer.
Sound, not light, is the main business of a concert hall, and the world is littered with auditoria where acoustics have been sacrificed to spectacle. At Harpa the two are kept apart. If the façade is Eliasson’s, the halls are the domain of acoustic consultants Artec, who have guided some of the most successful modern auditoria in the world (Esplanade in Singapore; Jazz at Lincoln Centre in New York; Bartók Béla National Concert Hall in Budapest; Sala São Paulo in Brazil; the Culture and Congress Centre in Lucerne, Switzerland), and at Harpa have produced a clarity of acoustic that has reportedly moved some performers to tears of joy.
Between Eliasson’s light and Artec’s sound comes the architecture of Henning Larsen Architects, and a core of dark concrete the colour of Iceland’s lava fields, that acts as a foil for one and a container for the other. This stands inside the glass box, forming the inner walls, balconies and stairs of the foyer. It is an admirably self-effacing role that the architects have chosen, and a collaborative one: Eliasson’s art was not simply attached to their frame, but created by artist and architect working together. The result is not a perfect integration of looking and hearing but a happy coexistence.
The interior is intentionally spare, suggesting to visitors that they look out at the surrounding sea, mountains, and city — an especially pleasant activity from the multitiered bar descending along the south façade.
Formally, Harpa is roughly split into two: the southern side housing the majority of the public space and facing towards the city, and the northern ‘backstage’ side housing the green rooms and offices, facing out to sea. Harpa’s shape is determined by the positioning of the main Eldborg hall along the north-south axis, with the Norðurljós (Northern Lights) and Silfurberg (a calcite crystal) halls sitting alongside at a slight angle.
Throughout the design process, emphasis was placed on giving Harpa enough versatility to host large and intimate events simultaneously and without interference with one another. Harpa’s facilities, which offer some of the most technologically advanced equipment available, are capable of accommodating everything from large conventions, concerts, and exhibitions to smaller banquets and meetings.
While the ‘conference’, ‘rehearsal’ or ‘concert’ halls are flexible, it is clear that the best reason to visit Harpa is to hear music. Kaldalón is booked for 90 per cent of the year. Here, steep raked seating with a screen suits film screenings or lectures, but the space has also been used as a black box for performances or recording electronic music, built with the same ‘box in a box’ soundproofing as the other halls. The fiery Eldborg, with its dramatic built-in seating, is less formally flexible, but still has changeable acoustics, seating that can be lowered to create an orchestra pit, and extra seating behind the stage. Each room has this flexibility in a slightly different way, with rotating panels or acoustic curtains.
Iceland’s position between the UK and US is Harpa’s main selling point as a conference hub, and its ample space means conferences can spill out of the halls with exhibitions, trade shows or buffets. They have bookings to 2025! Perhaps it is due in part to a lack of other venues, but Harpa’s programme is packed with everything from the EVE Fanfest – a celebration of the hugely popular Icelandic spaceship MMORPG – to the Arctic Circle Assembly. Björk’s Biophilia educational project – a large-scale pilot that draws together scientists, artists, academics and children in an exploration of music – is based here. Occasionally at weekends, markets flood the atrium and the piazza with local foods.
Harpa is home to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, the Icelandic Opera and the Reykjavik Big Band.
Little Puffles and Honey attended a concert in the Norðurljós recitall hall, Kristján Jóhannsson’s annual Christmas concert in the Eldborg hall and the comedy show How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes in the Kaldalón hall.
While How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes is a bit hit and miss when it comes to the jokes, having to rely on generalisations and stereotypes, it is actually very accurate when it comes to describing Iceland’s national character, and it does live up to its name. All the obvious stuff is in the show. They eat sheep’s balls (although this is actually rarely done these days), and they drink a lot of Brennivín. While the latter is true, the show also points out that if you’re spotted having a glass of wine on a Tuesday, you will generally be assumed to have a drinking problem, while a bottle or two of vodka on weekends is fine. One of the defining traits of Icelanders is their boundless optimism, even in the face of facts or reason. While this does give the country a certain dynamism, it has also been known to lead to trouble. Why does winter, while being an annual occurrence, still manage to come as a surprise every year? No one ever seems to remember to switch to winter tyres or get their warm clothes out, as if magically somehow this year winter won’t come. Then again, thanks to climate change, they may finally won’t need to.