Time for Fish and Chips

It’s that time of year again. Fish ‘n Chips at Barga’s sagra del pesce e delle patate! It’s the one sagra (or food festa) that I’m never going to miss and it’s been going since the 1980’s.

The sagra runs from July 27th to August 17th and opens up at 7.30 pm. I reached it early on the second day.

sagra-del-pesce-e-patate-bargaIn case you didn’t know the reason why that great English culinary contribution to world cuisine is also served in Barga it’s that many of the Barghigiani emigrated to Scotland (especially Glasgow) in the last century to set up cafes and fish and chip shops catering to local tastes.

Many Barghigiani struck it rich, hence the lovely art nouveau villas one can find in Barga Nuova. Upon their return they also brought Fish and Chips.

The fish is genuine North Sea cod shipped in as fresh as can be and battered and fried on the premises next to the sports ground in New Barga by experts, many of whom have been doing the same thing in Glasgow. So you can be sure of eating the genuine article. Same with the chips which even a have a slight degree of sogginess in them!

If you are one of those rare people who don’t like to dive into fish ‘n chips then there are alternatives like grilled meat, spare ribs and sausages. In addition, from 29th July onwards, there will be a new ‘gluten-free sagra.’

All you need to do is to find a table, note its number and then go to the cash desk, tick the things you want to eat on a sheet, pay up, return to your table and wait to receive the goods. Simple. (Don’t forget the bar next door.)

There’s also a dance floor, often with live bands at the sagra.

So forget those fish suppers eaten in newspapers on park benches while the rain pours down on you in some dismal corner of Neasden. Enjoy instead, in convivial company, with free flowing beer and wine, fish and chips in the glorious Italian sunshine of a late summer afternoon while in front of you are crowned the Apuan mountains and behind you awaits the city of Barga itself with its lovely music, delicious ice-cream, beautiful women and elegant palazzi.

What more could one want?

Seven Last Words in Barga

The Seven Last Words uttered by Jesus Christ on the Cross have long been the subject for meditation, theological discussion and liturgical ceremony. It was precisely for this last occasion that Joseph Haydn was asked by Don José Sáenz de Santa María from Cadiz to write a work to be performed during the Good Friday service at his Church of the Cave in 1783.

Haydn admitted that the commission was not going to be an easy task. In his words:

Some fifteen years ago I was requested by a canon of Cádiz to compose instrumental music on the Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross. It was customary at the Cathedral of Cádiz to produce an oratorio every year during Lent, the effect of the performance being not a little enhanced by the following circumstances. The walls, windows, and pillars of the church were hung with black cloth, and only one large lamp hanging from the centre of the roof broke the solemn darkness. At midday, the doors were closed and the ceremony began. After a short service the bishop ascended the pulpit, pronounced the first of the seven words (or sentences) and delivered a discourse thereon. This ended, he left the pulpit and fell to his knees before the altar. The interval was filled by music. The bishop then in like manner pronounced the second word, then the third, and so on, the orchestra following on the conclusion of each discourse. My composition was subject to these conditions, and it was no easy task to compose seven adagios lasting ten minutes each, and to succeed one another without fatiguing the listeners; indeed, I found it quite impossible to confine myself to the appointed limits.

What Haydn produced has certainly never fatigued listeners since. Indeed, it became one of his most popular works and from the original instrumental version spawned an arrangement for string quartet in 1787 and even an oratorio version in 1795. Haydn also sanctioned a popular piano arrangement.

For the second evening of the Barga Festival I was privileged to hear the string quartet version played by members of Le Musiche, most appropriately in the church ‘del Santissimo Crocifisso’, a building with the most exquisitely carved woodwork by Santini which I described in my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/11/26/wholly-santinis/

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The performance was incisively dramatic – I never imagined that a succession of seven slow movements could be so intense and passionate. It was more so since we sat on the first bench directly facing the performers and were, thus, literally embraced by this music of powerful sadness.

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Adding to the drama was the recitation between the movements (in Italian with no. 4 in Aramaic) of the Seven Last Words by the son of Barga Opera festival director, Nicholas Hunt.

Here is an excerpt from the performance:

What are Christ’s seven last words anyway? Actually they are phrases rather than words and are taken from the four Gospels. Seven is, of course, the perfect number: God rested on the seventh day and the Bible is saturated with reference to the number seven – for example, the opening of the seven seals in the Book of Revelation…

Here are the utterances, together with their traditional significance:

  1. Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do. (Forgiveness).
  2. Luke 23:43: Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise. (Salvation).
  3. John 19:26–27: Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother. (Relationship with family)
  4. Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34 My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Abandonment)
  5. John 19:28: I thirst. (Distress)
  6. John 19:30: It is finished (or accomplished).  (Triumph)
  7. Luke 23:46: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. (Reunion)

 

I feel that these seven sayings could so often be applied to our lives for, after all we are said to be made in the image of God. How many times do we feel abandoned or distressed, for example? I’m quite sure that Haydn’s marvellous fusion of his intense devotion to God, (he usually began composing a new work with the words  “in nomine Domini” – “in the name of the Lord” – and finished it with “Laus Deo” – “praise be to God”) and his real devotion to raising the consciousness of his fellow men through music which gives both pleasure and reflection is the reason why these ‘Seven Last Words’ made such an impression on me and the rest of the audience. This included Maestro Frederico Sardelli whose talents, apart from divinely conducting many of Opera Barga’s productions, includes composition, flute-playing, author (his first novel based on Vivaldi’s lost manuscripts was published last year) graphic artists and last, but not least, cartoonist for that Italian equivalent of ‘Private Eye’ and ‘Monty Python’: ‘Il Vernacoliere.’

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If you’re interested in the other arrangements of Haydn’s very affecting work here they are:

There’s a wonderfully atmospheric recording by Jordi Savall of the original orchestral version  recorded in the very chapel for which it was composed at:

For the oratorio version see:

I find this version particularly effective as the actual sayings are sung a Capella before the choir and soloists come in accompanied by the orchestra.

For the piano version approved by Haydn see:

It’s also worthy of note that, like other religious texts such as the ‘Stabat Mater’ and the Mass itself, many other composers have set the Seven Last Words to music: from Lassus in the 16th century to Pergolesi in the 18th to César Franck in the 19th to James Macmillan in the 20th century.

I just wonder what our own seven last words will be…….

Felicitious Beginning to Barga’s Fabulous Festival 2016

Festival Opera Barga this year may be like being at a banquet without the main course but yesterday evening the hors’ d’oevre, the contorno and, especially the dessert, were absolutely delicious at the inauguration of this doyen of the city’s events which this year celebrates its half-century.

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Opera Barga was founded in 1967 by Peter Hunt and Gillian Armitage with Peter Gellhorn as the musical director. For many of us it has been the prime magnet for staying and appreciating the area and, indeed, in 2005, my first night out in Barga was to attend Vivaldi’s Motezuma (in a pasticcio version –  see my posts at   https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/08/12/fishy-evenings-at-barga/ and https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/05/barga-opera-nights/ for more on that intrigue worthy of the most devious of operatic plots.)

Nicholas Hunt, the founder’s son, with Giancarlo Morganti, and Massimo Fino’s musical direction, have carried on the fine work of bringing little-known baroque opera (especially Vivaldi) to the stage so it was truly a disappointment when this year financial constraints prevented an opera from being staged.

No matter: the festival got off to a really good start in the courtyard of the ex-convent of Santa Elisabetta.

This was the programme.

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Unlike the official announcement of a performance of two Mozart violin concerti, and unlike the actual programme itself, the items were in fact performed in this order.

First, the Mendelssohn string quintet no 1, composed when the composer was sixteen and at the height of his prodigal powers with his miraculous octet created just the previous year. Truly, Mendelssohn’s chamber music is among the best stuff he ever committed to manuscript paper.

Second, was the encore, the delicious first movement of Brahms’ sextet no 1.

The encore was eccentrically placed (‘nuova regolazione’ uttered Nick Hunt in jest), before the final piece, which was Mozart’s third violin concerto with three of the string group imitating the horn, flute and oboe parts with highly satisfactory results. Simone Bernardini showed himself to be fully sensitive to the varying moods of this attractive concerto which range from the jocose to the intensely cantabile to the French contredans embedded in its last rondo (although Bernardini’s playing of Mozart wasn’t completely able to subdue the complaints about the heat from one of the elderly inhabitants on the floor above the cloister – Sant’Elisabetta is both a conservatoire and a home ‘per gli anziani’).

‘Le Musiche’ is a group of young musicians, several meeting for the first time but who perform almost as if they had been together for some time. The empathy of communication between them was both sensed and seen and I felt that that start of the Barga (opera) festival could not have started more promisingly with such exquisite chamber music played by so talented group as ‘Le Musiche.’

After a well-needed rinfresco (it was humid and hot) in the garden of the Barga cathedral bell-ringers association we ascended into the cathedral where further musical delights awaited us.

If not a Vivaldi opera why not a Vivaldi religious work? What the red priest wrote for the church has all the vigour of his operatic works plus the added bonus of some really fine choruses.

The Magnificat was the original of three further versions Vivaldi wrote based on it.  The fine ensemble consisting of the Coro Ricercare and the Orchestra Academia degli Invaghiti (= infatuated, with music of course, although, no doubt, there may have been infatuations of a more personal nature between some of the performers…) did us proud while Barga’s photographer and reporter, who brings the world to this most exquisite place, took up a position on the elaborate pulpit.

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The centrepiece of this magnificent ‘Magnificat’ is undoubtedly the “et misericordia ejus” but all the movements have something special to offer, particuaròy the ‘Deposuit potentes’ where the cellos and the double bass were growling menacingly as if to express sentiments that are even more relevant today when the cultivated middle class is suffering ever more under crass potentates.

I remember playing violin in Vivaldi’s Gloria RV 589 in my school orchestra for a Christmas concert. Until that time Vivaldi meant little more than the Four Seasons and I loved the new insight this work (only rediscovered in 1939 by Casella) gave to the composer’s output.

The opening chorus accompaniment was played at a cracking pace. Too fast, I thought at first, but when the chorus came in I knew that Sardelli (yes he’d come back to Barga, the scene of many of his Vivaldi opera triumphs) had got it just right.  His vigorous conducting continued through the following movements: from the elegiac ‘Et in terra pax’ (how much we need that now!) to the sprightly ‘Laudamus te, all the way to the final ‘Cum Sancti Spirito’ conventionally cast as a giant fugue, largely readapted from his predecessor’s Giovanni Maria Ruggeri’s own ‘Gloria’.  Homage rather than plagiarism, I feel in this case.

What a great start to the Barga festival! We almost forgot about the non-opera since so much of the music was indeed operatically dramatic and so gloriously sung. Of soloists I particularly enjoyed contralto Anna Bessi’s singing, although all soloists (drawn from the choir) sang their parts wonderfully, defeating the often cavernous acoustics of Barga’s Romanesque cathedral.

There’s lots more great music to follow at the festival.

Here’s the programme:

How about meeting up tonight, for example, for Haydn’s poignant setting of the Seven Last Words of Christ composed for Cadiz’ Holy Cave Oratory with Barga Festival director Nicholas Hunt reciting those last words.

Whatever may be there will be no last words to describe Barga’s superb festival. I’m quite sure that Opera will return with a vengeance to it next year!

Superlative Spectacle at Gallicano’s Palio di San Jacopo

The Palio di San Jacopo, Gallicano’s patron saint, always occurs on 25th July every year. This extraordinary event, where allegorical floats are preceded by fantastically costumed participants enacting complex choreographies, has been going since 1972 and, apart from a few instances when it was cancelled, has been growing from strength to strength. This year the Palio was exceptionally fabulous and anyone who missed it truly missed a great deal.

Like other Italian palii there is a competition between various rioni to compete for the prize. Gallicano has three rioni today (there used to be four). They are Borgo Antico, Monticello and Bufali.

Each year a new theme is given to the three rioni. This year it was ‘The Power of the Sun’. The prize of the palio is a special coloured cloth called ‘il cencio’.

What is so incredible is the wonderful creativity and imagination a small town like Gallicano in the middle of a remote valley can muster for its Palio. Everyone has a chance to contribute with their skills, no matter what age. For a whole year before the actual palio (and especially during the long winters) ideas are thrashed out, designs produced, costumes made. There’s sewing, cutting, pasting with every conceivable material available. Floats are meticulously built up and mechanized in a special warehouse dedicated to the palio. It’s a sort of mountain version of Viareggio but with a greater emphasis on spectacle and with universal world themes rather than sometimes heavy political satire.

The sheer love and resourcefulness put into the Gallicano palio is quite extraordinary and demonstrates fully the ability of Italians to get together, lay aside differences and produce something which I truly feel is of an international standard and equals some of the best shows of the world’s capital cities.

After a procession of the floats through Gallicano’s narrow streets the event takes place in the natural arena below the church.

The first rione to present its spectacle was IL Borgo Antico with a subtitle ‘Multiverso’.

The second was Monticelli with the subtitle ‘the biggest show after the Big Bang.’

The third was Bufali with ‘the legend of Garfagnana’s birth’.

I thought Bufali would have won but instead it was the Borgo antico. Here are the jury’s decision based on these criteria:

CLASSIFICA TOTALE VOCE TEMA: (Theme presentation)
1° BUFALI 5 PUNTI
2° MONTICELLO 4 PUNTI
2° BORGO ANTICO 3 PUNTI

CLASSIFICA TOTALE VOCE SFILATA: (Procession)
1° BORGO ANTICO 6 PUNTI
2° MONTICELLO 3 PUNTI
3° BUFALI 3 PUNTI

CLASSIFICA TOTALE VOCE CARRO: (Float)
1° BORGO ANTICO 6 PUNTI
2° MONTICELLO 4 PUNTI
3° BUFALI 2 PUNTI

PUNTEGGIO FINALE: (Final points)
BORGO ANTICO 15 PUNTI
MONTICELLO 11 PUNTI
BUFALI 10 PUNTI

After the wonderful spectacles presented by Gallicano’s three rioni, (frankly, I thought they should all have first prize!) we were treated to a splendid fireworks display. I ascended to the old church of San Jacopo in front of which the fireworks were to be set off.  The launching pad was only a few metres away – I’d never been so close to seeing rockets actually taking off!

It was quite awesome but also very noisy and a little terrifying! I thought that if this was great fun for us for others in less peaceful parts of the world it was, sadly, a spectacle they had to witness every day under the name of bombardments and death.

The sun is life, however, and Gallicano and its inhabitants did themselves proud that evening with one of the very best of its Palii I’ve ever seen.  It was an absolute treat for all those three thousand+plus lucky enough to have been there and was fully written up in the region’s papers giving Gallicano well-deserved publicity for a comune which not so long ago was dying on its feet but is now a model example of enterprise and strong future vision.

Old Crafts at Colognora

It’s the high season in our part of the world for ‘feste’, ‘sagre’ and ‘palii’. There’s one of these happening somewhere practically every day here. If one’s diary is well-organised then there’s no excuse for not dressing up and going out in the afternoon or evening to have a really good time eating, enjoying and generally people-watching.

Just in case you were confused about the terminology a ’festa’ is a festival based on a particular theme. It’s normally a mediaeval festa, although renaissance-style feste do occur and also ones based on local traditional themes (‘festa paesana’). Food is ok here but the real splendours are the costumes and the activities displayed. A ‘sagra’, on the other hand, has food as its main theme. It could be a Sagra ai rigatoni (a type of pasta in the shape of tubes with lines on the outside – and don’t tell me that all pasta tastes the same no matter what shape they are!), del maiale (pig) and one of my favourites, the sagra delle crisciolette which runs on 29-30-31 July and 5-6-7 August 2016 at Cascio di Molazzana.

You can only eat crisciolette at Cascio incidentally – you certainly won’t find them in Tesco’s. They’re toasted pancakes using maize and wheat flour and eaten with a sort of local bacon or cow’s cheese. Delicious!

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There’s a very decent web site at http://www.sagretoscane.com/sagre/ which will direct you to your favourite food sagra. As yet I have not yet found sagre of pork pies and pasties although, as anyone whose stayed here for some time, there’s an excellent sagra di Pesce e patate, which authentically translates as ‘Fish n’ chips festival’, at Barga, which will be on from 27th July to 17th August this year. I definitely never miss that one: Britain’s culinary gift to the world tastes so much better with lovely sunshine, plenty of company on long tables, a dramatic Apuan alp backdrop and some nice local red wine!

Sagre are accompanied by ‘ballo liscio’ (dancing from waltz to rumba), singers and stalls. They are truly the place to eat well, convivially and cheaply.

The ’Palio’ is a competition between the rioni (districts) of a particular town. Of course, the Palio di Siena is world-famous but there are so many more in Italy that’s its quite unbelievable. A Palio is generally divided into a costumed presentation and a sports event. I went to the Palio di Gallicano last night and the standard was unbelievably high – it was truly mesmeric. More of that one in my next post, however!

Food isn’t a significant feature at a Palio although crowd participation certainly is! There are stalls but they are usually overpriced and it’s best to eat elsewhere before attending these supremely Italian events. Again, there’s an excellent web site on Palii in Tuscany at http://www.ilpalio.org/toscana.htm

The big feature of the sagra, festa and palio is the ability of local Italian communities to organise themselves in such an amicable, creative and vibrant way. It’s truly something their government could learn from!

Colognora is one of the most beautiful villages in our area. Situated in the comune di Pescaglia its ancient streets are filled with some noble palazzi and the atmosphere is very picturesque.

Colognora is famous for at least four main things. It’s the home of the fascinating Chestnut Museum which evokes times past when chestnut flour made the ‘bread of the poor’ and helped the population survive through the hardest of times (like World War two).

It’s also the home of one of Italy’s greatest (and most neglected) operatic composers, Alfredo Catalani, whose o-so tragic life I’ve described in my post at: https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/01/catalanis-calamitous-life/

It’s also famous for being the setting scene of Spike Lee’s film “Miracle at St Anna”. Fourthly Colognora has a very attractive local crafts festa where traditional skill like wood-carving, iron-forging, needlework, plaster statuette moulding, miniature stone house making (for Christmas cribs), basket making, broom manufacture are displayed.

Near the top of Colognora stands the very beautiful church of San Michele e San Caterina which contains some lovely altars and a fine organ. I especially liked the fresco of the Last Supper with a well-fed dog hiding under the table.

The church has some beautiful stained glass windows representing the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude) designed by Giovanni Lorenzetti and carried out by Lorenzo Marchetti. They were inaugurated in 2010 and are absolutely beautiful.

I think that if the world’s human inhabitants abided by the four cardinal virtues they could make it such a better place!

Here is a selection of the activities and street scenes I saw when visiting Colognora last Sunday 24th July:

Catalani’s modest house now has a plaque affixed to it. I’m not sure that the sculpture is entirely appropriate. It makes poor Alfredo look somewhat brutalist. He was, in fact one of the most sensitive of Italian composers and persons. There are plans to make the house into a museum when funds permit.

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I was, therefore, very pleased to visit the recently opened Sala Catalani at the chestnut museum. The well-arranged room contains original letters written by the composer in his small, faint script, photographs of him and his family, a Catalani family tree and plenty more.

But the best thing there is La Divina Maria Callas’ dress which she wore for a lead performance in Catalani’s opera. What a treasure!

There were also mementoes of Mario Del Monaco who loved singing the composers’ works and linked him with the Del Monaco exhibition we visited at the Teatro di Vetriano earlier this year. (For more information on Vetriano theatre and the great Mario see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/05/07/the-smallest-theatres-biggest-programme/ ).

What a valley for music Pescaglia is! Puccini’s family lived just a couple of villages away at Celle. Extraordinary. But then are also certain Welsh valleys special for music..

It was such a lovely afternoon at Colognora. Crowds were considerable but not overbearing and I could see everyone was having a good time, especially me!

Does your Body Need Repair?

‘Il Ritocco’ (‘touch-up’), a new ‘carrozzeria’ (car body-works) opened up in Via Letizia no. 83 (the road that runs on the opposite side of the Torrente Lima) at Ponte a Serraglio last Saturday.

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The two works-partners have taken over from another firm and spruced up the establishment, refitting the paint-shop and the mechanics section.

This should be good news for anyone who has suffered damage to their vehicle through the too-often erratic indicator-free, stop-in the-middle-of the road-to chat-to-an-oncoming-vehicle, tail-gating driving which is often the case on Italian roads.

The body-works were officially opened by BDL’s deputy mayor, Vito Valentino.

A sumptuous buffet was laid on – one of the best I have attended this year

And I met up with old friends.

The fact that Bagni di Lucca has another car body-works repair shop is both good and bad: good because it will give some new jobs to an area which desperately needs them, bad because car-prangs don’t at all appear to be diminishing!

Another good point, however, is that vintage cars can be restored and newer cars resprayed.

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So do have a look-in if your car is not quite in perfect working order or if you are not content with its colour…

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Adieu Mr Brown…

I’d only recently written a post on him (see https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/06/17/mr-brown-closes-shop/ ) but barely a month after Signor Marroni closed his ironmonger’s shop and announced his retirement (at age 89!) he had departed to higher pastures.

This was truly love for his work and in a small town like Bagni di Lucca the loss of someone so well-known and well-liked seems so much more upsetting.

Last Saturday I attended the end of the funeral service, conducted by Don Rosi, and signed the condolences book.

Funerals are truly the most sobering events in one’s life. How petty all our ambitions seem, how stupid we are in pursuing pet hates, how missing the moment of happiness because of worrying about the future, how insignificant we all are in the end.  Truly ‘the paths of glory lead but to the grave’.

Bagni di Lucca’s beautifully situated cemetery deserves a visit now and again to remind us of this fact.

Anyway, yesterday we said goodbye for ever to yet another shopkeeper and friend from Bagni di Lucca, Villa.

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.