Midsummer Night

I remember we once attended a performance of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in Oxleas woods, South London.

It was one of those performances where you followed the actors and discovered a new location for each subsequent scene.  The thickets and clearings of the ancient woodland were haunted by the kingdom of the faeries, Oberon, Titania and Puck. Then of course there was the marriage between the Theseus Duke of Athens and Hippolyta Queen of the Amazons. There was the squabbling and reconciliation of the two pairs of lovers and the play within the play, the comically tragic story of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ with the added characters of Wall, Moonlight and Lion.

I did not imagine I could recapture the magic of that performance in Lucca but I came very close to it. The touring English Theatre Company, based in Pisa, has done sterling work in spreading appreciation of Shakespeare and theatre in English among schools, not just in Italy but throughout the world.

In the city’s San Girolamo Theatre the company produced a very acceptable version of the bard’s charmed comedy written as part of a marriage celebration – the wedding of Elizabeth De Vere to William Stanley, Sixth Earl of Derby, on June 26, 1594, at Greenwich palace (where the Queen’s house is now), with Queen Elizabeth I in the audience.

Clearly, the play was condensed but without detracting from the flow of the four-layered plot. Above were subtitles in Italian and the ex-church was decently filled.

What was most amazing though was the fact that all twenty-one parts in the play were performed largely by four actors (Wall was a fifth…).

My midsummer night’s dream continued last night when listening to Mendelssohn’s incidental music to the play. To think that the supernatural overture was written when the composer was just seventeen (the other bits were added shortly before his early death aged 38). The melodies weaved their way amid the midsummer fireflies flickering with insect love on such a warm and brief night.

What other music could possibly fit this Apennine enchantment?

 

 

 

 

Looking for …….?

Bagni di Lucca’s amateur dramatic society put on their summer show last Saturday and achieved considerable success. The play ‘AAA Cercasi’ (‘looking for’) was an amusing ‘commedia brillante’ set in the context of interviews for selecting a suitable cast for a musical. Each of the characters had to deliver a performance which demonstrated their capacity to indulge in quick repartee dialogue, recite monologues, deal with chaplinesque mime and to be able to sing and dance.

The performer on the night were:

  • Erica Stringari
  • Daniela Orsi
  • Maria Pia Pasquini
  • Maria Rita Barbagli
  • Nina D’Amice
  • Elisa Franceschini

The increasing professionality of the company (of which I was a member in their Christmas show – see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/12/22/luci-di-natale-christmas-lights-at-bagni-di-luccas-teatro-accademico/ –  but which for personal reasons I had to decline to participate in this year ) was also evident in the fact that at the last movement one of the cast member had to be absent for family reasons.

No problem. I’ve never seen the house so packed for the company; Bagni di Lucca’s own actors received a loud ovation at the end of their captivating performance which showed no sign of hesitation or awkwardness.

Well done. I think they’re now too good for me to ever re-join them!

Thanks are clearly due to the combined efforts of actors and singers Guendalina Tambellini, Michela Innocenti and Claudio Sassetti who trained the cast and put the show together.

We look forwards to the company’s next stage appearance during the Christmas season. perhaps you’d care to join them? Contact Daniela at

https://www.facebook.com/daniela.orsi.507

PS In case you were wondering what the AAA before the ‘cercasi’ means it has no meaning. It’s just a sure tactic many people use so they can have their newspaper announcement at the top of the alphabetical list!

 

 

Three Sisters – Italian Style

There is no doubt that the essence of a country is formed by the character of the people who inhabit it: how they live, what they eat, what they enjoy and, for me, what writers best express the beating heart of the country.

What books have most revealed that elusive Italian character? It’s very difficult to draw a list of the ten must-read Italian novels. Not only is it a question of personal taste but, more importantly, each region of Italy is virtually a separate country with its own history and customs. Grazia Deledda, for example, expresses superlatively the Sardinian ethos. Giovanni Verga is essential reading for anyone visiting Sicily as is the Count of Lampedusa. Alessandro Manzoni draws his novel ‘The Betrothed’ from the country around Lake Como. Although today Italian writers rely less on regional variations they are still attracted to a particular part of the country (usually where they were born) in very much the same way as Thomas Hardy is associated with Dorset.

What would my list of the ten must-read Italian novels include? For the time being I have enjoyed most insight and pleasure from the following books:

  1. Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) by Giuseppe Tomasi Conte di Lampedusa: an enthralling historical novel about an aristocratic Sicilian family at the time of Italian unification.
  2. Christ stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi. An evocative account of life in Basilicata – a region at the time hardly touched by modern civilization, hence the title.
  3. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. The historical murder mystery par excellence set in a Benedictine monastery in the year 1327
  4. Any Inspector Montalbano book by Andrea Camilleri, the greatest living Italian crime novelist whose setting for his inspector is ….inevitably…Sicily.
  5. La Luna e il Falò (The Moon and the Bonfire) by Cesare Pavese. This is a largely autobiographical novel showing Pavese’s openness towards English and American literature and written in a highly atmospheric and readable style.
  6. Sorelle Materassi (Materassi sisters) by Aldo Palazzeschi. See below for a synopsis of this subtle novel set in inter-war Florence.
  7. The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. The father of all Italian novelists, his stories have been used as a basis by the likes of Chaucer and Shakespeare.
  8. Lessico Famigliare (Family Sayings) by Natalia Ginzburg. Another autobiographically set novel written in the author’s direct, almost bare, style
  9. Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante. A highly sensitive bildungsroman set on the island of Procida in the bay of Naples,
  10. If this is a Man by Primo Levi. A harrowing account of an Italian Jewish person’s survival in Auschwitz, an experience he understandably never got over and which eventually led to his suicide in 1987. (‘I actually died in 1943’).

Some of these books have been turned into films or plays. A good example is The Leopard dating from 1963 and starring Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale.  There are films of the Decameron (directed by Pasolini) and The Name of the Rose (starring Sean Connery). There is nothing, however, like reading the original text and, if your Italian is up to it, reading it in the original language to appreciate the full nuances. Again, regarding the complexities of the Italian language, it’s best to start with Pavese’s clear style or Ginzburg’s almost minimalist prose before graduating to the likes of Manzoni.

It was quite a delight to be among the audience last Friday evening of the theatre version of Palazzeschi’s Sorelle Materassi (1934). The plot relates the (mis)adventures of three elderly sisters: Teresa, Carolina e Giselda. Only Giselda married but, thrown out by her husband, has returned, embittered, to the family nest. Teresa and Carolina are expert embroiderers undertaking work for the Florentine aristocracy and the clergy. Doubtlessly they are exploited and are paid more by flattery than by solid earnings. Furthermore, they are obliged, against their moral stance, to embroider knickers and underwear for prostitutes serving high-class customers. In the middle of this secluded domestic life enters Remo, the dashing young son of a fourth, deceased sister. With his airs and graces he captures the affection of his aunts only to extract money from them to finance fast cars, marry an American girl who smokes, wears short skirts and displays all those modernist habits which the ladies dislike. Remo, however, recruits the old dears as his bridesmaids! Remo remains so persuasive that he sucks the sisters’ finances dry until, at the end, they have to mortgage the family home and are left with almost nothing.

This might sound a grim scenario but it is related with the fantastic flair which distinguishes Palazzeschi who espoused futurist trends in his early literature and also flourished as a poet and journalist. The setting is the Florentine district of Coverciano, better known by most as the location of Florence’s great Football museum and Nervi’s pioneering ‘Artemio Franchi’ football stadium opened in 1931 where that prized team, Fiorentina – la Viola, ninth in serie A (Italian first division) classification – train and play their home matches. It’s also the headquarters of the Italian Football Federation. (Equivalent of the F. A. in the UK) and the location for David Bowie’s Glass spider concert there in 1987.

The play’s the thing, however. The credits were as follows:

  • Lucia Poli, Milena Vukovic and Marilù Prati as the three sisters.
  • Adapted from Palazzeschi’s novel by Ugo Chiti,
  • Directed by Geppy Gleijeses

Poli is also a playwright and stage director. She was born in Florence in 1940. Milena Vukovic was born in Rome in 1935 and, beside the stage, has also appeared in many films and on TV. She is best known to the Italian public, however, as Pina, wife of the underdog character Ugo Fantozzi (a sort of Italian Charles Pooter). Marilù Prati hails from Naples and has had an equally distinguished theatrical and cinematographic career.

Having trodden the boards myself in the same theatre as a result of a drama course (see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/12/22/luci-di-natale-christmas-lights-at-bagni-di-luccas-teatro-accademico/) I was able to appreciate even more fully the perfection and professionalism of this great team of actresses (I don’t call them actors but actresses as they are ‘attrici’ in Italian and not ‘attori’ – a stupid reduction of all professions into a neutral sex such as occurs in politically correct UK).

The Teatro Accademico was full but we managed to get tickets in one of the boxes. Normally we just turn up but this was clearly a warning that the theatre season at Bagni di Lucca (which will continue on 10th February with Pirandello’s Il Berretto a Sonagli starring Sebastiano Lo Monaco – unmissable!) is becoming increasingly popular; so booking is clearly required. (See http://www.prolocobagnidilucca.it/stagione%20teatrale%202016%202017.pdf for season’s full details).

The evening was both sad and delightful – there was plenty of space both for hilarity and past recollections. Resignation was ultimately the keyword among the chastened sisters. The audience responded attentively to the acting which received quite a few little applauses before the final triumphant envoy. This was truly another special evening in Bagni di Lucca’s cosy theatre which also had the facility of protecting us from the icy temperatures (minus 8!) stalking around outside.

Here are some photos I took of that evening’s production:

Finally, would you disagree with my choice of reading? What ten Italian novels have you most enjoyed? I’d love to hear your dream list……

Of Young Mermaids and Aged Crones

Yesterday was a national holiday in Italy. January 6th is Epiphany, the time when the Wise Men arrive at the baby Jesus’ crib. To see how this event is celebrated in Florence read my post at:

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/01/17/more-lords-and-ladies-at-florences-cavalcata-dei-re-magi/

And at:

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/01/11/a-cold-coming-we-had-of-it/

It’s also the time of” La Befana” when a very old, ugly white-witch comes on the eve of January 6th to fill up the stockings of good children with sweets and those of bad children with coal (at least that’ll be useful for heating up our houses on these extremely cold evenings.) La Befana is, of course, a corruption of the word “epiphany” but how did this beneficent old crone come onto the scene in Italian households in the first place? If you want to know just read my post at:

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/01/06/lepifania-tutte-le-feste-porta-via/

With temperatures approaching minus 10 degrees in our part of the world we were glad that our entertainment at Bagni di Lucca’s theatre started in late afternoon rather than at 9 pm, the time many shows begin in Italy. The local Red Cross association had put on a musical ‘La Sirenetta’, the little mermaid, based on Andersen’s adorable fairy story.

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It’s several years now that the Croce Rossa has put on a show. The association is almost wholly staffed by volunteers and it was a truly altruistic gesture to spend time in producing a spectacle which was fun to watch and also was able to collect contributions towards the various difficulties which the country is facing – for example, the earthquake victims in central Italy.

All members of the cast performed their parts with vivaciousness and the theatre (which I’ve never seen so full before – we had some difficulty in finding a space even to stand!) responded with enthusiastic audience acclamation.

Here are some views of that evening.

The Befana, complete with her broom and wicker back-pack,  made an appearance towards the end too!

Roberto ‘Coco’ Lucchesi was a brilliant actor and compere:

Well done Croce Rossa – we look forwards to next year’s ‘Befana presentation’ with anticipation!

PS Don’t forget local residents: tonight there’s ‘Le Sorelle Materassi’ drawn from Palazzeschi’s famous novel at Bagni’s busy theatre!

Tradition and Betrayal

On the stage was a large ‘Orchestra Filarmonica’.  In Italy this may mean anything from a village band to a full-scale symphony orchestra. In this case, the twenty-odd musicians consisted of woodwind expanded by a bass clarinet, a brass section including a very large tuba in addition to trumpets, trombone and saxophones, and a percussion section which comprised a ‘gran cassa’ (Italian for bass drum) .

I knew the sound that would inform (or sometimes assault!) our ears for just over two hours would be both tremendously loud and delicately soft.

And it was!

From the opening quasi-funereal solemn tread, so reminiscent of village religious processions in these parts, to the final, almost laissez-faire, resolving conclusion, Valiensi’s composition explored every possible timbre extractable from his highly professional and sensitive ensemble.

To me this apotheosis of local tradition, aleatoric jazz-like improvisations, profound chaconne sections, Mahlerian transformations, Nymanesque minimalist episodes and sudden tragi-comic mood transitions seemed like a gigantic rondo with the ritornello appearing in different thorough-composed forms and alternating with grippingly unknown ventures into solos prompted by the conductor Valiensi himself.

Because the musicians themselves weren’t too sure what to expect in the solo passages the tension was all the more exciting. At one stage, for example, Valiensi gave out an extra score page to all orchestral players. One player (one of the flutes) remarked that his was handed to him upside down. Was he to play it this way or did the conductor make a mistake in handing it out?

As for timbres and sound volumes: they ranged from the softest of breathing, sometimes just pressing the instrument keys or slipping out the trombone slide and reinserting it, to fortissimi which must have been at least five f’s loud.

Within this massive soup of a piece was mixed every conceivable shred of ‘musica bandistica’ to be heard in our part of Italy: from religious hymns to jaunty popular melodies to traditional tunes to Ivesian sound phasing to Fellinian-like turns of musical phrase.

Fronting this vast kaleidoscopic journey through musical atmospheres were three TV screens covered with black boxes descending from above on ropes. When the telescreens were uncovered, partly or wholly, they revealed creative screen interference or snippets of 8 mm home movies from the fifties and sixties showing people and their pastimes in an Italy which for most of us remains a strange nostalgia, indeed a different world.

 

Or is it? Valiensi’s piece posed the big question: where will ‘musica bandistica’ go from here in Italy? So many ‘bande filarmoniche’ have disappeared from our own valley because of emigration from the villages and changing tastes and religious affiliations. Benabbio, for example, was once famous for its musicians whose instruments are now rusting away in a chest in Bagni di Lucca. Yet other ‘bande’ flourish despite all odds. Corsagna’s ‘Filarmonica’ is a prime example of this, lending shades of solemnity or fanciful joy at our Val di Lima’s village feste.

A fellow listener wrote to me after the performance  the thoughts that came into her mind. Here are some of them:

Dirge, cacophony, 50’s footage, parade, march, symphony, random sounds, drums, dissonance, purring, spanish, monster movie, elephants, torn paper, cool jazz guitar, swing, Wes Montgomery, traditional and experimental, crescendo….

With such a superlative performance, the likes of which we will never hear again (since every performance is a unique event unrepeatable because of its own self-gestating improvisations) it’s important to list here the main actors in this musical drama:

Composer Nicolao Valiensi
Installations by Keane and Fabrizio Da Prato

‘I Quaderni di Valdottavo’
Navacchio’s “Leopoldo Mugnone” Philharmonic band
Soloists of  “la piccola banda metafisica”
Tutt’i Soli theatre company

Centre de production artistique Teatro Colombo Valdottavo
Production Teatro Colombo Valdottavo and Leopoldo Space

The concert is included  in the series  ‘Traditions & Betrayal’ and is part of a project aimed at safeguarding the heritage of traditional music
Associazione Polifonia / Barga Jazz
Artistic direction by Alexssandro Rizzardi
The event has the support of the Ministry of Heritage, Culture and Tourism

Clarinets: Fabrizio Desideri, Federica Ceccherini, Lara Panicucci, Giovanni Vai
Bass clarinet: Rossano Emili
Flutes: Antonio Barsanti, Serena Panicucci, Andreina Crudeli
Trumpets: Nazzareno Brischetto, Federico Trufelli
Trombone: Silvio Bernardi
Bombardine: Angelo Marcello
Saxophones: Wardy Hamburg, Piero Bronzi, Maurizio Rossi
Tubas: Marco Fagioli, Matteo Muccini
Percussion: Giuseppe Sardina, Piero Orsi, Giuseppe D’Amato
Guitar: Claudio Riggio

Light design Marco Alba

Artwork Daniela Cacace

Here is a statement by the composer, Nicolao Valiensi, of his work’s intent:

‘In the imagination’s geometry, where the artist draws and sculpts his visions the notebook remains the starting point. From school to score notebooks the imaginative focus draws within the space-void that will be. The creative process still seems to need the hand’s ancient gesture: pencil, eraser, the notebook’s re-editing. It’s the notebook’s function to draw from artistic and educational sources: a collection of inventive and educational views in the name of a societal model where relationships between people play a decisive role. The exchange and flow of artistic material becomes the engine of this new architecture pivoting around the question of time, absolute values in societal evolution, in terms of a new order. A “Straw Revolution” a reversal of the concept of time is seen as an opportunity to get together, to forge the present. The Valdottavo Notebooks want to present themselves as a platform to provide a space for expression in the language of silence, little things, and minimal gestures in a world where the dictatorship of noises rules our daily routines.’

The concert was part of a programme of events called ‘Traditions & Betrayals’. The full programme is at  www.bargajazz.it

If you care about contemporary music don’t miss this series of concerts. They are truly immense feats of creativity and performance.

‘Luci di Natale’ (Christmas Lights) at Bagni di Lucca’s Teatro Accademico

Dickens loved Italy. His favourite city was Genoa, wonderfully described in his ‘Pictures from Italy’. In 1995 I was privileged to obtain a teacher’s exchange with the Liceo Luther King in the Sturla area of this fascinating city, one of the four original great Italian maritime republics which included Venice, Pisa and Amalfi, and visited the house where Dickens stayed.

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Italy features in several of Dickens’ writings, most particularly in that masterpiece, ‘Little Dorrit’, where, apart from wonderful landscape descriptions, there is also a scathing satire on the provincial attitude of many English people when they travel abroad, Alas, it seems little has changed among too many of them even today.

We love both Italy and Dickens and for many years participated in the festival which takes place in another of Dickens’ favourite cities, Rochester which features prominently in those engrossing novels ‘Great Expectations’ and that tantalizingly unfinished ‘Mystery of Edwin Drood.’

Here are some pictures of us over the years participating in that equally fascinating place.

It was, thus, wonderful to be able to be part of a staged production of Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ adapted as ‘Luci di Natale’ in Bagni di Lucca’s Teatro Accademico. Thanks to the combined efforts of actors and singers Guendalina Tambellini, Michela Innocenti and Claudio Sassetti of ‘Ciak’ theatre training association, we were able to mount a convincing production of a play which was very received by an audience which included such worthies as our own mayor, deputy mayor, ex councillors, bookshop owners and themselves actors and writers Rebecca and Luca and many others.

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This was the first time I’d ever trodden the boards in a public theatre. I’d never acted before, not even in a school play (mainly because I’d been riddled by a stammering speech impediment which I’ve gradually managed to conceal) so this was truly a first. Better late than never as they say! The play was mostly written in a late nineteenth century Italian and certainly my biggest problem was to master the lines. Fortunately, Sandra arrived at the last moment and managed to help me out. But, of course, there’s a lot more to stagecraft than just learning one’s lines. I learned a new Italian word ‘le Scalette’ which means working out your entrances, exits and stage movements. I also learnt an essential part of Italian pre-performance ritual. The actors and producers get together in a circle holding hands under the stage and wave their hands up and down three times shouting ‘merda, merda, merda’ (no translation needed). They then give a smart slap on each other’s bottom. I thought this was rather quaint.

My main part was Scrooge but, as it was a play within a play, I also took other characters and then there were some poems interspersed with a lovely English one too.

After the performance we joined the audience for prosecco and panettone in the foyer. The congratulations we received were truly genuine and we felt we’d really given our spectators some pre-Christmas magic. That’s the main point of theatre: to transport people to another, parallel world reflecting so many points about the real world we live in.

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We, too, had entered into that magic world and become the characters we represented. Words, actions and sentiments all united in that magic world – I suppose that is the real secret of successful theatre which we certainly felt we’d transmitted successfully to a grateful section of Bagni di Lucca’s public.

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Here are some photographs of last night’s production taken by proloco chairperson Valerio Ceccarelli since obviously I wasn’t able to photograph ourselves while on stage! There’s also going to be a video available if you’ve missed us in action.

(PS We all contributed in making the frightening papier-maché mask for Marley’s ghost.)

Thanks are due to our wonderful teaching and supporting group and to several other people, including my friend Annalisa for making that wonderful Scrooge stovepipe hat!)

All in all, it was a lot of hard word but in the end entertaining and fun for all concerned. It certainly gave me a completely new perspective on theatre and actors – something which I’ll never forget when I next go to watch a play as part of the audience!

PS A friend from Uni days recently sent me a newspaper cutting and reminded me that I had also done some acting when a student. Our direct was Bruce Birchall, now sadly departed from this earth but who had been involved in New York’s living theatre group.

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Mature Sex

The husband leaves her for someone a lot younger. She gets desperate and bitter. Two friends move into her flat to support her and they all decide to ban men from their lives. A gay lodger moves in and then there’s a hetero male and all chaos starts to be let loose. This is the basic plot of Jean-Marie’s comic farce ‘Les Amazones’, translated into the Italian stage as ‘Tre donne in cerca di guai’ or ‘three women looking for trouble.’

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The plot suggests there’s going to be plenty afoot: sex without pornography, smutty talk without vulgarity, suggestive banter, levity without superficiality. It’s a play typical of the ‘sexy cinema – Italian style’ of the seventies and eighties which produced such immortal movies as the Emmanuelle series.

The play starred Corinne Clery, Barbara Bouchet and Iva Zanicchi.

Lively French-born Corinne starred in the Bond Movie ‘Moonraker’ and the controversial erotic film ‘The Story of O’. Here she is in action in a witty unstrip-tease:

German-born Barbara Bouchet started her career modelling and then made over eighty films. Here she is in action in a great precursor of belly/pole dancing:

Iva Zanicchi is one of Italy’s legendary singers on a par with Mina but she is also author, politician and actor.  She was certainly the biggest attraction (in all senses of the word) of Bagni’s champagne-theatre night out.

Here is La Zanicchi singing her greatest hit – ‘Un Fiume Amaro’ (A Bitter Stream) and specially composed for her by the great Mikis Theodorakis:

The fact that all three actors are over or approaching seventy gives the lie to old-fashioned chronological age expectations. Their performances were sexy, full of energy and beautifully risqué humour. The trio are truly a role model for mature women who’d like to continue having fun even though they may be old enough to be grandmothers. The slang term is, naturally, ‘cougar’ and, not unexpectedly, the audience in Bagni’s packed Teatro Accademico consisted largely of mature women and rather few males;

Fortunately I was able to survive thanks to the company of my wife.

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The evening was a triumph of stage-craft and fine acting. One had to be quite good in understanding Italian for the lines were often delivered punchily fast and one had to be fluent in Italian sex slang. Just to give one example: ‘uccello’ not only means ‘bird’ in Italian but also ‘penis’. So ‘birdwatching’ among Italian women has a completely different connotation from ‘bird-watching’ among UK males. So, men, beware….

The play was slickly directed by Nizasio Anzelmo and produced by A. C. Spettacoli Teatrali. Needless to say, it is scoring a huge success in its tour throughout Italy.

The prosecco and sangria freely served during the interval added to the atmosphere of erogenous amusement which spread to all the faces and beyond among the evening’s audience.

Which reminds me we’ll be treading the boards as members of CIAK, the theatre training group taught by Guendalina Tambellini, Michela Innocenti and Claudio Sassetti this Wednesday at Bagni’s Teatro in ‘Luci di Natale’ (Christmas lights). I don’t think there’ll be any wild sex talk in the production but the mistletoe will make an appearance….

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If you’re around in Bagni do come along. It’s free to see us become stars before your very eyes (I sincerely trust!).