New York Wanderings

Another weekend in New York. My most favorite thing to do in the city is to explore the different neighborhoods, to take in the different architecture, sights, and smells. My next favorite thing to do in the city is to hit all the awesome restaurants – we hit jackpots this weekend: Ping’s Seafood for lunch in Chinatown, Sushi Azuba for an impromptu dinner near Wall Street, and Donostia in Alphabet City for delicious Basque tapas, sherry and cider.

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My breath caught when I walked into my company’s NY office Friday and saw this gorgeous view – particularly at sunrise

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Municipal building – loves the classical lines

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Old tenement building in Chinatown

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Rocking out our new wooden frames bought in Chelsea Market

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Architectural photography is fun in NYC

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We chanced upon the Hispanic Day Parade while visiting Emmanuel Temple for Open House New York

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Beautiful and moving stainglass reflections in Emmanuel Temple

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What a change in scenery from the rarefied air of upper east side to edgy and grungy Alphabet City

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Capped off another good NYC trip with a most satisfying meal at Donostia

Solid Don Giovanni Opener at the Lyric

Strong start to Lyric’s season with a new set and staging of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Superb cast, headed by the dashing Mariusz Kwicien and his hapless sidekick Leporello (Kyle Ketelsen).

Magnificent Mozart: With a brilliant cast and edgy staging, Lyric Opera scores a triumph in “Don Giovanni”
By Lawrence A. Johnson
Sun Sep 28, 2014 at 1:11 pm

One major initiative of Anthony Freud, general director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, has been to recruit more theater directors to bring a different slant on familiar works. The largely undistinguished results last season only proved that a lack of opera experience isn’t necessarily the best qualification for directing an opera.

But Saturday night ushered in a new season and a new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, with vastly different results. Director Robert Falls’ fresh, boldly conceived staging infused new life into Mozart’s dramma giocoso. Add a world-beater lineup of singers without a weak link and Lyric Opera’s new Don Giovanni gives us one of the company’s finest achievements of recent years. One could hardly think of a better way for the company to usher in its 60th anniversary season.

Mozart’s musical tale of the sexually prodigious libertine whose relentless pursuit of women brings ruin to everyone he touches, and, eventually, himself, is a notoriously difficult work to cast and stage. The lightning shifts between comedy and drama often produce a a drama that isn’t very funny or a comedy that isn’t very dramatic.

It’s a testament to the cast and the Tony-winning Falls that both elements were so well served. Indeed, this production is a model of how to reinvigorate a cornerstone work, with an edgy yet thoughtful updating rendered with a respect for the work that leaves Mozart’s glorious music front and center where it belongs.

Falls has directed two shows previously for Lyric Opera: Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah in 1993, the company debut of Renee Fleming (who was in the house last night); and Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul in 1996. For this Mozart production, he has fast-forwarded the action to the 1920s in Spain. Walt Spangler’s scenic design is consistently imaginative, centered on a traditional balconied facade of a Spanish house as unit set with striking splashes of flowers and color. Neon cafe signs and lanterns descend to reflect the fast-moving action, trellised ramps paint the pastoral revels, and there is a large Madonna for a church scene in Act 2, and a huge, genuinely spooky Commendatore statue hovering ominously over the graveyard. I won’t spoil the final coup d’theatre, but Falls’ inspiration for the Don’s descent to hell was as surprising and ingenious as it was dramatically effective.

In this updating, the Don is a wealthy, cocaine-sniffing 1920s playboy, and Leporello his long-suffering valet. Yet, within the early 20th-century milieu, Falls and his team treat the characters and their emotions seriously, and allow each of the eight principals to find a dimension of believable humanity beneath the usual stagey cliches. And, of course it didn’t hurt to have a cast of good-looking artists who can act as well as sing.

Even with his dashing charisma there’s an edge of real danger to Mariusz Kwicien’s Giovanni and Falls encouraged that element to come out with full force. This Don may be a charmer with the ladies but, he’s also, as the English say, a right bastard—nasty, selfish and manipulative. He may shoot the Commendatore by accident, but he’s clearly a violent sexual predator into some decidedly rough stuff—as with the bound, bloodied girl as discarded plaything cowering in the corner during the banquet scene. Falls’ showing such unpleasant details wasn’t for mere titillation–rather it invested the opera with a moral force that Don Giovanni rarely possesses in our post-modern 21st-century. This Don isn’t just a flamboyant lover but an evil criminal who richly deserves his fate.

There is no singer in the world that so totally inhabits the role of Don Giovanni as Mariusz Kwiecien. The Polish baritone wielded his robust, burnished baritone with such elegant style and tonal beauty, it was easy to understand why all the women of Europe are dropping at his feet. Kwiecien’s limpid “Deh, vieni alla finestra” serenade and gently insidious “La ci darem” were high among the evening’s many vocal highlights. Dramatically, Kwiecien never struck a single false or awkward note, his commanding portrayal painting a Don who, even reduced to dissolute drug and alcohol dependence, remained a defiant reprobate to the very end.

It’s a tribute to Kyle Ketelsen that he held his own with Kwiecien’s Don, more than is usually the case. The bass-baritone delivered a nimble and witty Catalog Aria and firmly brought out the servant’s seething resentment as well as the men’s camaraderie with a natural conversational quality to their rapid-fire exchanges. The two singers are also about the same height and build, which for once made the identity-switching charade entirely plausible.

Marina Rebeka received mixed notices in her La Traviata Lyric debut last season but seemed mostly at home in the role of Donna Anna, the woman Giovanni assaults and whose father he kills. The Latvian soprano sounded cautious in the coloratura moments yet Rebeka brought a dignity of bearing and purity of tone to the role, with an especially affecting “Non mi dir.”

Ana Maria Martinez’s entrance in tight burgundy pants and motoring goggles—great costuming throughout from Ana Kuzmanic—set the tone for her spunky Donna Elvira. The borderline personality elements of the character—continuously veering from intense love for Giovanni to intense hatred—can seem broadly comic, yet Martinez delved beneath the surface to provide a compassionate and oddly moving and credible example of extreme love. Vocally, Martinez was faultless, singing with fearless fervor, accuracy and sensitivity throughout.

Andriana Chuchman was ideal casting as Zerlina, the peasant girl Giovanni steals away on her wedding day. The soprano brought a charming yet vixenish quality to the good-girl flirt and sang her two arias with notably youthful spirit. As her betrothed Masetto, Michael Sumuel showed a strong bass-baritone and firm sense of class antagonism that etched a character beyond the usual country bumpkin.

Antonio Poli had about as little luck as anyone in trying to bringing depth to Don Ottavio, the vacuous good-guy fiancee of Anna, yet the tenor sang his two arias with lovely tone and sensitivity. Andrea Silvestrelli’s Commendatore was towering in height and sonorous of voice, and the Italian bass’s dramatic entrance in the final scene contributed to the successful theatrical payoff.

Sir Andrew Davis’s tempos in Mozart seem to be getting slower every season and there were times, in Act I especially, when you wanted Lyric’s music director to move things along. After intermission, things went better, Davis allowing enough expressive space for the arias while investing ensembles with greater vitality.

The Lyric Opera Chorus contributed its customary corporate excellence under Michael Black. Colin Ure’s English title translations were often too slangy (“scumbag”) and colloquial as well as too free with Lorenzo da Ponte’s text.

Never mind. Along with that unforgettable 2008 Lulu—which is overdue for a revival—this Don Giovanni is a high water mark in the past decade of the Lyric Opera. Run, do not walk, to the Civic Opera House and catch this show.

Happiness is…

A dear friend asked me this out of the blue just the other day: What are the three happiest moments of your life so far?

I haven’t seen him in person in a couple years, and since we live on opposite sides of the world now with opposite time zones, chatting is difficult. So catching him online while he’s in this neck of the world for work was, I have to say, one of those happy little moments.

But put on the spot, I couldn’t answer right away. I’ve been pondering over this since though. And I still can’t quite – or feel strangely reluctant to – call out any one particular moment that I’d call my happiest. Funnily enough, he himself didn’t outright answer my guesses on his moments either: when he proposed; when he married the girl of his dreams; and when they first had a baby. Haha, all these milestones where people usually mark down as poignant moments in their lives.

But as I thought about it – poignancy doesn’t necessarily equate happiness yes? As for myself, if pressed, I don’t think going to City Hall was one of those definitive happy moments. Haha sure we had a blast that day, and we were more tickled I think to send out the surprise news announcement to our friends and family in any case.

One of the more recent times I can remember consciously thinking that hey, I’m so happy right now! was just a few weeks ago, when we were hiking in the wilderness with our two friends in Norway. We had left the one road behind miles ago, and were walking through some rugged and unspoiled land that stretched for hundreds of miles beyond. The treks weren’t particularly well cut out, but there were thoughtfully placed cairns here and there to guide us as we placed cautious steps across streams and rocky boulders, through patches of persistent snowfields and across the dozens of terrified lemmings scurrying frantically out of our way. I felt so free, so weightless, so in the moment. So happy.

And another time on that same Norway trip: when we were holed up in the cabin by the lighthouse, playing cards by candlelight, and waiting for the moon to set before we trooped out into the chilly night to gaze at the Milky Way. In that moment, we didn’t have a care in the world – just good old friendly competition and much laughter.

So big HAPPY posts in life? I can’t spit them out. But if life is made up of frequent but small contented instances, well, there’s no cause for complaint is it? :)

Stormy sunset cruise

My company organized another Women’s Night Out – a perk that roughly 10% of the firm enjoyed. :) This time around, we cruised along Lake Michigan. The weather didn’t bode well at first, with the forecast at 100% chance of rain. But happily, the heavens opened up while we were still stuck at work, and left us with dramatic billowing clouds to gawk at instead.

Wish I’d brought my camera along – but at least I had my iPhone handy. The clouds were so beautiful! Fun evening out.

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Adventures in Norway

Our friends invited us to spend some time with them in Norway, so last week, Jeff and I boarded a couple of planes for our Scandinavian adventure.

Saturday, Day 1: Arrival into an overcast Stavanger, Norway

From 2014 September Norway

After we’d arrived and tucked into a hearty meal of pork chops and potatoes Thomas’ mum made for us, Thomas brought us on a quick drive through Stavanger. We stopped by this fjord to admire the sunset.

Sunday, Day 2: Visit to Pulpit Rock
A google of hiking near Stavanger inevitably brings up Pulpit Rock. The views were undeniably gorgeous, but the crowds were a little too much to handle. Thomas, who is used peace and quiet on the trails in a sprawling country with a population of only 5 million, was disappointed. It was a beautiful sunny day though, with brilliant blue skies and puffy white clouds.

From 2014 September Norway
From 2014 September Norway
From 2014 September Norway
From 2014 September Norway

Monday, Day 3: Drive to Haukeliseter
Rainy day – good day to be on the road and not outdoors. The 4-5 hour drive through the misty mountains to Haukeliseter was most scenic.

From 2014 September Norway

We criss-crossed our way through windy and narrow one-lane-but-dual-direction roads, where we often had to pull over/slow down for oncoming traffic and sheep

From 2014 September Norway

The scenery reminded us strongly of New Zealand, and also somewhat of Scotland since it was overcast and wet.

From 2014 September Norway

The cabin we stayed in before starting our hike to Hellevassbu.

From 2014 September Norway

Tuesday, Day 4: Hiking Hellevassbu
We had two options – either hike 18km in to a basic cabin where we’d spend the night, and hike back the next day, or do a 12km round circuit hike. Save Thomas, the rest of us weren’t in particularly fit hiking shape, especially with our heavy packs of layers and food, so we opted for the second easier option. Still, it was a long day. We started out at a little past nine and made it back to the car just before 6. Unlike Pulpit Rock though, this was Norwegian wilderness at its best. We saw only 6 other people the entire day, but dozens and dozens of lemmings (it’s a lemming year), flocks of sheep, and some grouse.

From 2014 September Norway
From 2014 September Norway
From 2014 September Norway

Fall has barely begun but there is still snow melt from the prior winter

From 2014 September Norway
From 2014 September Norway

The sun peaked briefly through the voluminous clouds right before we decided to stop by one of the many lakes we saw for lunch.

From 2014 September Norway
From 2014 September Norway

Scaled a little peak from which we could see the huge extent of the wilderness

From 2014 September Norway
From 2014 September Norway

We were tired at the end of the hike, but a little sad it was over. I loved the vastness of the rugged landscape, and its peace and quiet.

We took another route back to Stavanger, this time along the fjords that afforded the most beautiful pastel sunset.

From 2014 September Norway

Wednesday, Day 6: A Spot of Climbing
Since we only got home in the wee hours, we slept in Wednesday. What a glorious rest! Awoke to a breakfast of hunter’s bread, butter, homemade jam, cheese and ham – our daily morning fix in Norway. It was a hearty and delicious meal no doubt, but I’m not used to eating that much bread, particularly since we also had it for lunch and supper! Thomas though, happily subsists on entire loaves of bread everyday, beginning with 10 slices for breakfast and ending the evening with 6, every day, almost without fail.

In the afternoon, Thomas brought us to a crag close by to his mother’s place. The approach was short, though not necessarily sweet smelling, since we had to cross a pasture full of sheep. Fun climbing though, on Norwegian granite! The routes, a dozen of them at least, were all next to the other, so after we’d led a few of the easier ones, we just traversed over to the next anchor to set up top rope. Got in 7 great climbs this way. :)

From 2014 September Norway

Spot my reindeer skin seat!

From 2014 September Norway
From 2014 September Norway

Thursday and Friday, Day 7 and 8: Lighthouse!
There are a bunch of lighthouses in small islands dotted along the coast of Norway, that visitors can visit or spend the night in. Thomas found us just one such lighthouse, just 2.4 km from a beach 15 minutes drive away. We’d arranged with a fisherman to ferry us over to the island at 5pm, but due to strong northerly winds, the fisherman only managed to pick us up at 6pm. Still, there was plenty of light left before sunset at 830pm, and we happily wandered around our private little island, soaking in the late afternoon sunshine.

From 2014 September Norway

Exploring the lighthouse

From 2014 September Norway
From 2014 September Norway

Happy we lugged the tripod all over – this turned out to be one of my favorite photos of the trip

From 2014 September Norway
From 2014 September Norway

The cabin we stayed in on the lighthouse island. It has a generator, but since it wasn’t a particularly cold night, we didn’t power it on and just relied on candle light. More fun that way anyway!

From 2014 September Norway
From 2014 September Norway

This, and cards, was how we passed half the night by, while waiting for the half moon to set so we could better admire the stars

From 2014 September Norway

We saw the milky way!

From 2014 September Norway

By the time we turned in, it was already 330am. The sun rose in 3 hours. I was determined to make the most of it though, and blearily dragged myself out of bed then. Needed to pee anyway.

Sunrise over mainland

From 2014 September Norway
From 2014 September Norway
From 2014 September Norway

Saturday, Day 9: A Chill Day
Poor Jeff essentially had to work the entire day, through 4am Sunday, just before our flight back to Chicago. In the meantime, it poured. The entire day. So the rest of us took it easy and just lounged around in our pjs, playing cards. It’s been the most bread I’ve eaten and the most cards I’ve played this trip than in a year or more! Even though he had to put in hours hunched over a laptop, Jeff agreed too that we had a most enjoyable vacation. Good companionship, fun climbing, beautiful hiking, and we even got to stay at the lighthouse.

Late summer storm

We had a wonderful view of the late summer storm that rolled into town this afternoon. Bolts of lightning lit up the sky as the thunder rumbled menacingly and thick, billowy clouds enveloped the city.

I grabbed my iphone and hastened to the window in hopes of catching a flash of lightning and was rewarded with this picture.

From 2014 Summertime in Chicago

In the late afternoon, the rains let up for a bit. Forecast is for another wet week ahead though. Gah.

From 2014 Summertime in Chicago