Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas - Buon Natale from Rome!

If you are visiting Rome over the holiday period take a stroll along Via del Corso and admire the red, white and green Christmas lights. Representing the Italian flag on the 150th Anniversary of the Unification of Italy, the decorations stretch the entire length of the main shopping street from Piazza Venezia to Piazza del Popolo.

Buon Natale!

Friday, December 2, 2011

RomaEuropa Festival 2011: The Irrepressibles at the Auditorium Conciliazione

The Irrepressibles on stage in Rome

The 2011 edition of the RomaEuropa Festival closed on Wednesday evening at the Auditorium Conciliazione with an utterly captivating performance by The Irrepressibles, the genre-smashing British band lead by charismatic singer and composer Jamie McDermott. After wooing public and critics alike with their first studio album and accompanying show Mirror Mirror, the Irrepressibles brought a new stage piece entitled Nude to this year's Rome arts festival, including songs which will appear on their forthcoming album, as well as several from their earlier outing.

As an Irrepressibles first-timer, I really wasn't sure what to expect from this performance - there was certainly a buzz of eager anticipation in the Auditorium foyer before the show. After an hour of waiting, however, the concert still hadn't started because of some mysterious “technical difficulties” – Roman audiences are used to ten or fifteen-minute delays, but by now people had become audibly restless, if not fractious! All was quickly forgiven, however, when Jamie McDermott finally emerged from the shadows into a dim spotlight, wearing a studded leather jacket and an electric guitar, and began to sing.

With its projected images and lighting effects designed by Ami Jane Cadillac for Lavish productions, Nude is very much a multimedia performance piece, but the heart of the show is the music - traditional rock instruments such as drums, guitars, and keyboards are married with orchestral instruments like violins and cellos, resulting in a unique and enchanting blend of Baroque pop and electronic soundscapes. The glue that holds it all together is undeniably McDermott's bewitching vocals. At first listen, superficial comparisons to Antony and the Johnson come easily to mind thanks to McDermott and Antony Hegarty's gorgeous soaring falsettos with a touch of vibrato, but clearly the Irrepressibles have been influenced by many other artists and McDermott wears those influences on his sleeve to create a willfully eclectic mix, as if he has managed to assimilate just about every New Romantic band from the 1980s and then produce something refreshingly new.

Whilst clearly straddling the line between performance art and a traditional pop concert, there is nothing aloof about Jamie McDermott – during the show's finale, in fact, the entire band, who for most of the show play shrouded behind translucent screens, affording us only tantalising glimpses of them - stepped down from the stage and wandered through the audience, closing the evening in a wonderfully intimate way.

A fantastic evening – catch them if you can!

Watch a clip of the meet and greet session with Jamie McDermott signing copies of Mirror Mirror after the concert below or click here to watch on YouTube.

Friday, November 25, 2011

RomaEuropa Festival 2011: Peter Brook's 'A Magic Flute' at Teatro Argentina

The 2011 edition of the RomaEuropa Festival, which embraces not only the visual arts, but also dance, film, theatre, music and performance art, is entitled “Try the impossible”. Peter Brook, the British theatre director renowned for thinking outside the box, would certainly seem to fit the bill with his utterly captivating reinvention of Mozart's most magical opera Die Zauberflöte. In Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne's adaptation the title is no longer “The” Magic Flute of the original, but “A” Magic Flute instead – a less-is-more exploration of the opera, reduced to just seven essential singing roles and two actors, accompanied by composer Franck Krawczyk's arrangements on a single piano. Performed barefoot on a virtually bare stage - the scenery is evoked through bamboo poles which are moved as needed to create the idea of prison bars, tree branches, or temple walls – this is a brilliantly simple, yet highly effective production.

The musical numbers are sung in the original German, whilst the spoken dialogue is delivered in French - with subtitles in Italian – and the cast is an international mix of talented young singers and actors, who perform on rotation during the various evenings. On the Thursday evening performance I attended Australian tenor Adrian Strooper and Turkish-Dutch soprano Aylin Sezer were just perfect as the innocent lovers Tamino and Pamina, coloratura soprano Malia Bendi-Merad was a wonderfully restrained Queen of the Night, whilst bass Vincent Pavesi was an imposing Sarastro.

Without doubt, however, it was Thomas Dolié as Papageno, a fine baritone and great comic actor, and Dima Bawab as Papagena, who delighted the audience most, eliciting a round of spontaneous applause after their duet.

A final mention should also go to the charismatic actor Abdou Ouologuem – his sleight-of-hand “magic” opens and closes A Magic Flute and his elegant presence gently guides the players from one scene to the next.


Un Flauto Magico (A Magic Flute) continues at Teatro Argentina until 27 November, 2011.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Richard Gere presents 'Days of Heaven' at the International Rome Film Festival 2011

Richard Gere introduces 'Days of Heaven' in Rome
No stranger to the International Rome Film Festival having attended two earlier editions of the fledgling kermesse, Richard Gere was back at the Auditorium Parco della Musica on Thursday to attend a special screening of the newly restored print of Terrence Malick's 1978 masterpiece Days of Heaven. Crowds lining the red carpet at this year's festival have been noticeably thinner than in previous years, but the charismatic appeal of a huge Hollywood star had worked its magic and Richard Gere's arrival was accompanied by hundreds of fans clamouring for a glimpse of the actor as he strolled the length of the red carpet, shaking hands and signing only the occasional autograph. The welcome in Sala Sinopoli was no less enthusiastic, and he was greeted with cheers and rapturous applause when he appeared on stage to introduce the movie.

After the film, it was a contemplative Richard Gere who returned to the stage to discuss the film with Claudio Masenza. Explaining that he hadn't seen Days of Heaven himself for over thirty years, he confessed that he found it difficult to relate to the man he had just seen on screen and that his memories of making the movie, and that period of his life, felt rather dreamlike now. Thanks to Masenza's pertinent questions about the technical aspects behind the making of Days of Heaven, however, this turned into a brief, but fascinating conversation, full of revealing insights into what it was like for the young actor to work with the sometimes exasperating director Terence Malick in what was his first lead movie role. Commenting on Malick's obsessive reediting of Days of Heaven, Gere joked: If they hadn't taken it away from him, he'd still be editing it today!

On the following evening Richard Gere was back at the festival once more for the closing awards ceremony, where he was presented with the 2011 Marc'Aurelio lifetime achievement acting award, joining the ranks of previous winners Sean Connery, Sophia Loren, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and the 2010 winner Julianne Moore.

To get a taste of the atmosphere at the Days Heaven screening watch the video of Richard Gere on the red carpet and in Sala Sinopoli below (or click here to watch on YouTube).

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Zhang Ziyi presents 'Love for Life' at the International Rome Film Festival

Zhang Ziyi and Gu Changwei at Rome Film Festival
The undisputed queen of the sixth edition of the International Rome Film Festival yesterday evening was Chinese superstar Zhang Ziyi who shared the red carpet with director Gu Changwei and screenwriter Yang Weiwei at the presentation of the in-competition film Love for Life. I'm an enormous fan of Chinese cinema and the chance to see Zhang Ziyi in person was an absolute thrill – Ms Zhang even graciously signed my DVD copy of House of Flying Daggers, so I'm feeling rather starstruck today!

Love for Life, the first fiction film from mainland China to explore the taboo issue of AIDS in the country, starring Zhang Ziyi alongside Hong Kong pop star and actor Aaron Kwok, is a devastatingly beautiful film, with two heartbreaking performances by both leads. It was warmly appreciated by the audience in Sala Sinopoli yesterday evening, and was greeted with long and rapturous applause and a standing ovation as the credits rolled.

To get a taste of the event watch the video of Zhang Ziyi on the red carpet and in Sala Sinopoli below (or click here to watch on YouTube).

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Bill Nighy and David Hare present 'Page Eight' at the International Rome Film Festival

Bill Nighy on the red carpet at Rome Film Festival
This year's edition of the International Rome Film Festival has dedicated its Focus section to British cinema showing a series of new-release British productions such as David Hare's Page Eight, as well as classics selected by British actors, screenwriters and directors divided into 'Punks' or 'Patriots'. To celebrate this event the red carpet has been designed by floral artist to the Royal family Simon J. Lycett. Fresh from arranging the flowers for the wedding of Prince William and Kate earlier this year, he has decked the film festival red carpet with highly unusual Union flags made out of red apples and cabbages!

Page Eight was originally created as a television movie for the BBC, but this impeccably written and beautifully acted film has recently been shown on the big screen too at film festivals in Toronto and Warsaw. Page Eight stars several leading British names - Rachel Weisz, Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes - and one of my personal favourite actors, Bill Nighy, who joined the writer and director David Hare on the red carpet signing dozens of autographs and posing for photographs for fans. Later, as an unexpected surprise, they both appeared on stage in a packed Sala Sinopoli yesterday afternoon at the special screening of the film. After David Hare had explained a little about the production of the movie, Bill Nighy appeared to huge cheers and delighted the audience with a story of an Italian girl he had fallen in love with back in 1968 and making a plea as to whether she was in the audience! Unmissable!

To get a taste of the event watch the video of David Hare and Bill Nighy on the red carpet and in Sala Sinopoli below (or click here to watch on YouTube).

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Noomi Rapace presents 'Babycall' at Rome Film Festival

Pål Sletaune, Noomi Rapace and Kristoffer Joner in Rome
Swedish actress Noomi Rapace, best known internationally for the Swedish/Danish film adaptations of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy novels - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest – in which she so perfectly nailed the part of Lisbeth Salander, was at the Rome Film Festival yesterday evening to present the in-competition movie Babycall by Norwegian director Pål Sletaune.

To the delight of festival-goers who lined the route of the red carpet, the stunningly beautiful actress broke from her entourage and came over to sign numerous autographs for her waiting fans. She was joined in the Sala Sinopoli by the director, co-star Kristoffer Joner, producer Turid Øversveen and composer Fernando Velázquez.

With its powerfully understated, yet highly effective performances by Rapace and Joner, and Sletaune's slow-burning direction which allows the film to really get under your skin, Babycall is a hauntingly atmospheric psychological thriller, and it received well-deserved warm applause in Rome yesterday as the credits rolled.

To get a taste of the event watch the video of Noomi Rapace on the red carpet and in Sala Sinopoli below (or click here to watch on YouTube).

Monday, October 31, 2011

A Lesson in Cinema by Michael Mann at Rome Film Festival

Michael Mann at the Rome Film Festival
Queues started forming early outside Sala Petrassi at the Auditorium Parco della Musica on Saturday afternoon for what was clearly one of the most eagerly awaited events in the Extra section of this year's International Rome Film Festival – a Lesson in Cinema by American film director Michael Mann. In fact, the small theatre was quickly filled to capacity leaving many disappointed fans outside.

Hosts Antonio Monda and Mario Sesti are familiar faces to cinema fans in Rome as the regular presenters of the Auditorium's Journey Through American Cinema series of encounters with contemporary American actors and directors. Whilst these events have typically encouraged an anecdotal approach in which informal conversation and questions are interspersed with film clips, the evening with Michael Mann was, instead, far more focused on the technical aspects of film making – true to its title, this was a lesson in cinema.

Michael Mann pioneered new techniques in cinema by shooting the gripping 2004 thriller Collateral in HD digital video and it was particularly interesting to hear his comments on the technical possibilities of digital - the freedom from cost constraints, which allows the director to keep filming and exploit very long takes, and also technical advantages such as nighttime shooting under street lights, perfect for a movie such as Collateral, where the entire action of the film takes place over one night driving around L.A.

Collateral was a film that cast Tom Cruise against type for the first time and in response to a question from the audience, Mann explained that he particularly enjoyed pushing actors out of their usual safety zones and into unknown territory – "it gets their pulses racing!" – referring not only to Cruise, but also Daniel Day-Lewis in the physically demanding role of Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans, and Will Smith, a child of hip-hop, who needed to immerse himself in 1960s and the history of the Black Power movement, before tackling the part of iconic boxing legend Muhammad Ali in Mann's 2001 biopic Ali.

Asked about his distinctive use of colour in another highly interesting question from the audience, Mann's response was very simple: "Colour? Use it!" Elaborating further, he said he uses colour to enhance the action, and as an example referred to the stunning Al Pacino beach sequence from The Insider we had just seen, in which the deep cyan blues of the shoreline were contrasted with the complimentary hues of the tungsten lighting in Russell Crowe's hotel room.

In the 1980s Michael Mann was the producer of the enormously successful TV show Miami Vice and after bringing that series to cinema screens in the 2006 movie of the same name, his latest project sees him return to the small screen once again as both producer and director of the pilot of a forthcoming HBO series called Luck. Praising the HBO cable channel as being at the forefront of a "golden age of television", as a special treat for the audience at the Rome Film Festival the encounter closed with a sneak preview trailer of the series – from the few minutes we were shown it looks to be a visually stunning piece of work.

The director then managed to sign a handful of autographs and shake hands with some of the numerous admirers who had approached the stage after the talk, before being hurried away by the organisers.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Rupert Everett, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard on the Red Carpet at the International Rome Film Festival

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tanya Wexler
and Rupert Everett
Rupert Everett and Maggie Gyllenhaal, together with director Tanya Wexler, were at the International Rome Film Festival yesterday evening for the presentation of the in-competition movie Hysteria.

The actors were joined on the red carpet at the Auditorium Parco della Musica by Maggie Gyllenhaal's husband Peter Sarsgaard, where they signed numerous autographs and posed for photographs, graciously obliging the large number of fans who had turned out to see the stars in person.

To get a taste of the event watch the video of Rupert Everett, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard below (or click here to watch on YouTube).

Hollywood Screenwriter Stewart Stern at the International Rome Film Festival

For fans of film director Nichloas Ray who attended the showing of Francesco Zippel's documentary Hollywood Bruciata: Ritratto di Nicholas Ray on Day 2 of the Rome Film Festival yesterday evening were most likely expecting an evening of respectful homage to a Hollywood legend. Whilst Zippel's interesting, if rather pedestrian documentary reconfirmed the given portrait of him as a brilliant, difficult man, the audience were in for quite a surprise when special guest Stewart Stern, legendary screenwriter of Nicholas Ray's most famous movie Rebel Without a Cause, spilled some less savoury beans about the director's sometimes unscrupulous working methods. Refused an original story credit for the movie, the eighty-nine year old writer has clearly never forgiven Ray for this slight. When asked by hosts Antonio Monda and Mario Sesti about the director's popularity with European audiences, he admitted that he thought such high regard was unwarranted. According to Stern, Nicholas Ray may have aspired to being as great as European directors such as De Sica or Pasolini, but simply wasn't of the same calibre. He did have high praise, however, for Ray's ability to capture the spirit of the times, and in particular, his representation of a postwar generation, which found itself either fatherless or unable to communicate with its traumatized father-figures, adding that Ray had been passionately driven to make Rebel Without a Cause to expiate his own guilt about his inadequacies as a somewhat absent father to his own children.

Stewart Stern's warmest recollections were reserved for some wonderful anecdotes about his first meeting with the iconic actor James Dean, full of those tiny, yet intimate details that bring memories colourfully to life, such as the fact that Dean gave him a strange half smile because he was actually missing his front teeth at the time, or the way that he spun around in the revolving arm chair in which he was sitting, watching his own reflection in a glass window. Fans of Rebel Without a Cause will remember the moment when Jimmy Dean's character Jim Stark moos during the planetarium lecture. What is less known is that this idea came directly from the first time that the screenwriter and actor actually met, when to break the awkward silence Dean let out a moo, and then Stern replied with a bigger, better one of his own. When he retold the story last night, to the delight of the audience, we were also treated to his amazing impressions of a flock of sheep and, finally, three different pigs feeding in a trough together, that he had also shared with James Dean at that first meeting!

Soon after Dean took Stern to a special screening of East of Eden and not since seeing Brando on stage had he seen such inspiring work from an actor. His lasting admiration for James Dean's enormous talent was palpable.

A handful of admirers approached him after the talk and he graciously chatted to us, even signing autographs for the lucky few who were able to get one before the staff rather rudely interrupted us and whisked the star away. The evening was over far too soon – a fascinating raconteur, I could personally have listened to Stewart Stern talk for hours.

Friday, October 28, 2011

'The Lady' opens the International Rome Film Festival 2011

Michelle Yeoh at Rome Film festival
The sixth edition of the International Rome Film Festival opened yesterday evening and saw the dazzlingly beautiful Michelle Yeoh grace the red carpet at the Auditorium Parco della Musica for the first Out of Competition movie of the Official Selection, The Lady by Luc Besson. She was accompanied by co-star David Thewlis and the director, with both actors taking the time to meet fans, sign autographs and generously pose for photos before entering the Sala Santa Cecilia. I've been a huge Michelle Yeoh fan ever since her Hong Kong action movie days, so I was thrilled to have tickets for the film and for the chance to see the actress up close.

Both Michelle Yeoh as Burmese pro-democracy activist and Nobel Peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and David Thewlis as her Oxford academic husband Michael Aris, give wonderfully measured and often moving performances in The Lady, the true story of the personal sacrifices the couple were forced to make for the sake of the wider political cause. The film received warm and protracted applause from the audience in Rome last night and a standing ovation for its stars.

To get a taste of the event watch the video of Michelle Yeoh in Rome below (or click here to watch on YouTube).

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Georgia O’Keeffe at the Museo della Fondazione Roma

Summer Days ©Whitney Museum of American Art
Last year's Edward Hopper retrospective at the Museo della Fondazione Roma (formerly Museo del Corso) was one of the city's most enjoyable shows of 2010. This year the consistently excellent gallery on Via del Corso has brought another absolute icon of twentieth century American art to Rome – Georgia O’Keeffe. In what is the first major retrospective ever of this hugely important and influential artist to be held in Italy, the Fondazione Roma has worked in collaboration with the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to present over 60 works, not only from the Santa Fe collection, but also loaned from major galleries and private collections around the world, as well as personal objects and numerous photographs.

The Museo della Fondazione Roma has distinguished itself over recent years through its curatorial choices and in the creative, even theatrical way in which works are hung. A retrospective at Palazzo Cipolla is never an ordinary art show – it is a fully interactive wander through an artist's life which seeks to fully contextualize the artist's oeuvre and help us better understand how the work came to be made.

Blue Hill No. II 
© Georgia O'Keeffe Museum
The Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition is no exception – turn the corner just beyond the ticket office and you will find yourself in an elaborate reconstruction of Fifth Avenue in New York in the early 1900s, the city where the young O'Keeffe started out in the early years of her career, first as a student of Arthur Wesley Dow at Columbia University, and then as the collaborator and wife of the photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz was one of the first people to champion her strikingly original early abstract charcoal drawings and watercolours, exhibiting them at his 291 Gallery in New York, and it is these works - including the gorgeous Blue Hill No. II - which open the show. The hanging of a black and white photograph of the Moon from the Equivalents series by Stieglitz alongside O'Keeffe's 1916 watercolor Evening Star No. VI is particularly effective, as is a photographic nude of O'Keeffe by Stieglitz flanked either side by two Nude self portrait watercolours (Nude Series VII and Nude Series VIII) in this first section.

The influence of the architectural shapes and skyline of New York on both artists is also explored in the juxtaposition of several Stieglitz's New York Street photographs with O'Keeffe's stunning New York Street with Moon from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum of Madrid.

Jack in the Pulpit No.IV
 © National Gallery of Art,
Washington, DC
As hugely important as Stieglitz was to O'Keeffe, however, his erotic photographs of the painter would serve to negatively influence critics, who to the painter's horror, would subsequently apply Freudian sexual interpretations to her own abstract work and, as a response, see her turn towards more realistic, natural forms. Georgia O'Keeffe, of course, took those natural subjects such as fruit and flowers - alligator pears, petunias, lillies and jimson weeds – and quite simply revolutionised the genre, creating some of the most famous and influential flower paintings ever made, with her close up and enlarged blooms painted as if seen through a macro lens.

No O'Keeffe show would be complete without these flower paintings and there are plenty here to keep her fans happy – Jack in the Pulpit No.IV from 1930 is particularly fine – but perhaps one of the greatest strengths of this show is its emphasis on landscape and the enormous impact that the open spaces and sky, dazzling colours and unusual rock formations of New Mexico and the appropriately named Painted Desert had on the artist's life and work from 1929 onwards. I would have happily spent all afternoon staring at the 1940 landscape Untitled (Red and Yellow Cliffs) and the exquisite beauty of her signature animal bone paintings – for O'Keeffe a symbol of the beauty of the desert, not death as was once again wrongly assumed by critics at the time - such as the 1936 Summer Days from the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Untitled (Red and Yellow Cliffs)
 © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum
With the later rooms transformed into the style of the adobe house that would be her home in Ghost Ranch, as well as a reconstruction of her studio at her Abiquiu home, and two short but highly informative educational videos playing on a loop, the curators have almost pulled off the impossible and brought O'Keeffe's beloved desert to Rome. Short of flying to Sante Fe to visit the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in person, this exhibition really is the next best thing, bringing the visitor closer to the artist, with a show that is both intimate and awe inspiring at the same time.


Georgia O'Keeffe is curated by Barbara Buhler Lynes and continues at the Museo della Fondazione Roma, Palazzo Cipolla (Via del Corso, 320 ) until 20th January 2012.

Copyright on all images in this post as indicated (web-resolution, fair use rationale).

Monday, September 26, 2011

According to Jim: Jim Belushi Masterclass at Roma Fiction Fest

RomaFictionFest programme signed by Jim Belushi
The fifth edition of the Roma Fiction Fest, which over the last four years has brought some of the biggest names in TV drama to the city, finally opened yesterday in a dramatically diminished format at its new home at the Auditorium Parco della Musica. A massive reduction in budget means that very few international stars are slated to appear at this year's festival, with a definite shift of focus towards home grown product. Thankfully, however, the inaugural event yesterday saw the arrival of the exuberant Jim Belushi on the festival's fuchsia carpet. Winner of the 2011 RomaFictionFest Excellence Award, the star of movies as diverse as About Last Night..., Salvador and K-9, appeared on stage in Sala Sinopoli to give a Masterclass about his work in television, and in particular as the lead in the smash hit US sitcom According to Jim.

The afternoon kicked off with an unseasonal, but very, very funny episode from the series - The Christmas Party – which the actor chose because of the many visual gags. This was, of course, perfect for an Italian audience unused to reading subtitles for a show they usually watch dubbed. In fact, Jim Belushi called Massimo Rossi - the Italian dubber who voices Jim in the Italian edition - up onto the stage for an affectionate meeting; Rossi revealed that some episodes were so hilarious that the actors would be forced to record their lines separately because it was impossible not to burst out laughing mid-take!

A multi-talented actor, musician and comedian, Jim Belushi is an enormously charismatic presence on stage – rather than a pure “Masterclass”, the event transformed into “An evening with Jim Belushi”, shifting from gags and stand up comedy one moment, to intimate anecdotes about his brother, the late great John Belushi, and memories of his Albanian-born father, the next. Music is also an essential part of his life and at Dan Ackroyd's insistence, he put aside initial misgivings about stepping into his older brother's shoes and now also performs as Zee Blues in the present incarnation of The Blues Brothers. At one point he even plucked an harmonica from his pocket and gave us an improvised burst of the blues!

As was fitting in a television festival, however, Jim Belushi's love of the medium was clear. Not only is he a TV performer, he is also a fan himself, who described his recent excitement at getting to meet “Batista” and “Dexter” (from the TV series Dexter) at a party. The Tudors, The Borgias and Lost were also on his list of recent favourite shows.

After two hours of sheer entertainment, as a final salute he threw himself to the ground and did a backwards somersault to the delight of the audience who were already on their feet applauding. Seemingly in no hurry to leave the stage he stayed shaking hands and signing numerous autographs.

Watch some highlights from Jim Belushi's appearance at Roma Fiction Fest 2011 – including his blues performance - below (or click here to watch on You Tube).

Friday, September 9, 2011

La Grattachecca di Sora Maria

La Grattachecca di Sora Maria on Via Trionfale, one of the city's most famous “grattachecca ” kiosks, has been serving its delicious shaved ice desserts laced with syrup flavours and pieces of fruit since the 1930s. In fact, it is considered so much of an institution in Rome that, if bizarre reports in the media today are to be believed, aspiring medical students at the Sapienza University were quizzed about the typical ingredients on the menu there as part of a recent entrance examination!

La Grattachecca di Sora Maria
Funnily enough, I might well have been able to answer those questions myself, having waited patiently in line just the other evening to try this peculiarly Roman delicacy – slushed ice mixed with pieces of lemon, coconut, amarena cherries and forest fruits, doused in a variety of fruity syrups.

Needless to say, this kiosk is enormously popular with locals and tourists alike and there is always a queue that spills out into the road. The desserts are handmade on request with fresh ingredients, and it has to be said, served with a smile from the ladies behind the counter who clearly take real pride in maintaining this Roman tradition.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Che Guevara Photographer at the Museo di Roma in Trastevere

A broody portrait photograph of his bearded face – the Guerrillero Heroico by Alberto Korda – is quite possibly one of the most famous photographs ever taken, ensuring that Ernesto "Che" Guevara is still instantly recognisable as a symbol of revolution over 40 years since his execution in Bolivia in 1967. What is less well known about Che, perhaps, is that the man in that iconic photograph was a passionate and talented photographer himself, documenting his travels and the people he met with a ceaseless curiosity.

Ernesto Guevara - Self-portrait © Centro de Estudios Che Guevara
The Museo di Roma in Trastevere may be one of the smaller exhibition spaces in the city, but it is always well worth a visit, consistently presenting rewarding photography shows, and Che Guevara Photographer, consisting of 232 of his photographs, is another fine example. Opening with a series of black and white photographs taken in Guatemala, the exhibition then accompanies Che and his trusty Kodak to locations as far and wide as Mexico, Egypt, India, Ceylon, Spain, Japan and of course, Cuba. Ranging from the grainy street photography and photojournalism of his early years, to views of archaeological sites, and later images that record Cuba's industrial development, the photographer's constant concern with his own artistic investigation is clear from the careful framing of every shot and often surprising viewpoints. Whilst the prints are modern photographic copies created ​​from both Che's original negatives and positives, in both black and white and colour, many of them reproduce the fingerprints, scratches and water damage found on the original negatives with no attempt to clean them up, heightening their raw immediacy and preserving the authenticy of the images as Che created them.

Now safely archived at the Havana-based Che Guevara Studies Centre, this exhibition also makes one thankful that the photographs have survived at all, for what could be more personal or bring us closer to the man behind the myth than be able to see the world through his own eyes? Or, as in the case of his intimate self-portraits, see Che as he saw himself, or rather, wanted to be remembered for posterity. Recommended!

Che Guevara fotografo continues at the Museo di Roma in Trastevere until 11 September, 2011.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

L'Orto Botanico di Roma - Rome's Botanical Garden

Monumental Greenhouse - Orto Botanico di Rome
After living in Rome for the best part of the last ten years I recently visited what is perhaps one of its lesser known sites for the first time and fell instantly in love with the place and knew I had to include it here in the Discover Rome section – the Orto Botanico di Roma or Rome's Botanical Garden.

For those of you who have chosen to make Rome your home or for anybody on a trip to the Eternal City looking for somewhere to simply relax and escape the often chaotic traffic for a couple of hours, Rome's Orto Botantico is the perfect destination. Hugging the gentle slopes of the Gianicolo hill, its main entrance is tucked in behind Via della Lungara and a mere stone's throw away from the thronging heart of Trastevere, on Largo Cristina di Svezia, so named after Queen Christina of Sweden who lived in the neighbouring Palazzo Corsini from 1659-1689 and whose marble bathtub is still in use, albeit as a plant pot, in one of the glasshouses! In the late 13th century Pope Nicholas III established a medicinal herb garden on the site, whilst the present Botanical Garden - now run by the Sapienza University of Rome - was created in 1833 as part of the gardens of Palazzo Corsini.

In the bamboo grove - Orto Botanico di Roma
Spread over 12 hectares, clearly signposted pathways allow the visitor to gently meander through each of the garden's special collections – the bamboo grove and the avenue of palms are particularly spectacular and the Japanese garden a delightful surprise – and eventually reach the peaceful Mediterranean wood, where if it weren't for the splendid views over Rome from the hillside, one could almost forget there was a teeming city outside. And as befitting what were once the private gardens of Palazzo Corsini, there are several Baroque architectural elements: both the Fountain of the Tritons and the Monumental Staircase were built by architect Ferdinando Fuga in the first half of the 18th century. Whilst in a poor state of repair, the monumental staircase divided by a series of cascading fountains – the Scalinata delle Undici Fontane or Zampilli – is an exquisite spot to stop and admire the centuries old plane and oak trees which flank it.

The lovely Monumental Greenhouse is also well worth a visit. Built by Mathian di Lione in France in 1877, it now houses an exquisite climbing Petrea volubilis L. The other glasshouses were mostly closed on my afternoon visit, so be sure to go in the morning to be guaranteed entry into those additional spaces. I will certainly be a regular visitor to the garden from now on! Current opening hours for Rome's Botanical Garden at time of writing are:
  • April - October 9.30am - 6.00pm (Monday - Saturday) 
  • November - March 9.30am - 5.30pm (Monday - Saturday)
Visit the official website for up to date information.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club ® featuring Omara Portuondo | Auditorium Parco della Musica | 28 July, 2011

Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club and Omara Portuondo in Rome

After dazzling audiences at the Auditorium Parco della Music when she shared the Sala Santa Cecilia stage with jazz pianist Chucho Valdés in May this year, Cuban diva Omara Portuondo was back in Rome again yesterday evening, this time with the legendary Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club, as part of the summer season of outdoor concerts in the Cavea.

Sadly, many of the original Social Club members are no longer with us, but this latest incarnation of the Buena Vista project under the orchestral direction of trombonist Jesus Aguaje Ramos, continues to keep the flame of Cuban music burning brightly all over the world, introducing younger players such as Rolando Luna on the piano and charismatic singers Idania Valdés and Carlos Calunga, alongside stalwarts Guajiro Mirabal on trumpet and lute player Barbarito Torres, as well as the undisputed star of the show, “la mas sexy” Omara Portuondo. There can surely be very few eighty year old performers able to sing and dance with such enthusiasm and energy and be greeted by fans cheering “sexy sexy sexy”!

On a surprisingly chilly July evening, it was Omara who really warmed things up and got everybody up and out of their seats and dancing, and as always, Omara who was the last to leave the stage and her adoring public. Draped in the Cuban flag that she had waved throughout the final number she left us with a tribute to Italian music with brief snatches of two Domenico Modugno classics - Piove (Ciao, Ciao bambina) and Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (better known, of course, as Volare), prompting an impromptu singalong from the crowd!

Once again, a fantastic evening – catch them if you can.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Made in Italy at the Gagosian Gallery

Andy Warhol Vesuvius, 1985
2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the Unification of Italy and to mark the occasion the Gagosian Gallery in Rome is currently presenting an exquisitely curated show called Made in Italy. Whilst the Grand Tour may have been all the rage in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Gagosian demonstrates through this group exhibition of pieces by some of the most important international artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, that art continues to be influenced or inspired by Italy right up to the present day.

With almost forty works of art on display this gem of a show is well worth checking out and, as ever, the Gagosian easily holds its own against competition from the major contemporary galleries in town. There is, quite literally, something for everyone here - Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman riff on Leonardo da Vinci, Giorgio De Chirico and Caravaggio, whilst portrait busts of Italian women by Alberto Giacometti and Jeff Koons are displayed dramatically side by side. One of my favourite painters Cy Twombly, who had made Italy his home and sadly died in Rome earlier this month, is represented by a sculpture in the main room.

Be sure to visit the final fourth room where four works by Joseph Beuys are displayed, including one of his last, playful pieces - Capri Battery. Set apart in this small ante camera and installed in glass cases, they have all the air of somewhat ironic holy relics.

Made in Italy continues at the Gagosian Gallery at Via Francesco Crispi, 16 until 29 July, 2011. Highly recommended!

Image © 2011 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York (Web-resolution, fair use)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Cyndi Lauper "Memphis Blues Tour" | Auditorium Parco della Musica | 11 July, 2011

Cyndi Lauper on stage in Rome
 Of all the artists lined up to appear during this season's Luglio Suona Bene, the annual open air summer concert programme in the Cavea at the Auditorium Parco della Musica, last night's appointment with Cyndi Lauper was my personal must-see show of the year. Italian Cyndi Lauper fans have had a very long wait to see her play in Italy since her last visit to Rome in 1987 on the True Colors Tour, but the passage of time has done nothing to dint the sheer enthusiasm and energy that she brings to every performance and her voice has, if anything, improved over the years and is perfectly suited to the blend of rock 'n' roll and blues that are showcased on her latest Grammy nominated album and during her current European tour - Memphis Blues. Fittingly, she was joined on stage yesterday by a veritable who's who of blues giants including Archie "Hubbie" Turner on keyboards, Michael Toles on guitar, and the legendary American blues-harp player and 2010 Blues Hall of Fame inductee Charlie Musselwhite, as well as Scooter Warner on drums, Stephen Gaboury also on keyboards and long time collaborator William Wittman on bass.

There was no question that this was an audience who simply adored Cyndi Lauper, but on hot steamy nights when the thermometre is still lingering close to the 30° Celsius mark even after sun down, Rome audiences can be slow to get up out of their seats and start dancing – that all changed, however, when the singer quite literally threw herself into the crowd during Don't Cry No More, even climbing the side stairs to the upper level where she was swamped by amazed fans who clapped and danced around her. I've seen numerous concerts at the Cavea over the years and this is the first time I've seen anybody break protocol and defy the usually overly zealous Auditorium security guards in such a spontaneous way – I was only rows away when she sang Change of Heart in the midst of her fans and can report first hand that she barely missed a beat!

Cyndi Lauper is one of those artists who manages to connect with each and every person in a venue, swaggering up and down the entire length of the stage and constantly requesting that the house lights stay up. Referring several times to her Italian-American background she apologised for not be able to speak Italian during the between song banter, but did sing along to an impromptu version of Mambo Italiano!

Dressed in a leather-look black trouser suit, with chunky boots and her trademark birds-nest of bleached blonde hair she looked fantastic and gave so many powerhouse performances in one night that it would be hard to select a best bit – this really was, hand on heart, a faultless show. In the first set I really enjoyed her duet with Musselwhite playing harmonica on Down So Low, as well as the lovely All Through The Night and the crowd-pleasing footstomper Goonies 'R' Good Enough.

Generous to a fault, the encore saw her perform five extra songs – a wonderful cover of the Marvin Gaye classic What's Going On, followed by an exhilarating Lyfe, and then it was time for the massive selling hits from the 1980s, the songs that probably more than any others, are most associated with her - Girls Just Want To Have Fun, Time After Time and a final, gorgeous True Colors with Cyndi playing the Appalachian dulcimer left alone on stage with only Charlie Musselwhite once again on harmonica.


Watch Cyndi Lauper in concert in Rome below or click here to watch on YouTube.

The full set list as follows:
Just Your Fool
Shattered Dreams
She Bop
Early In The Mornin'
All Through The Night
Down So Low
Down Don't Bother Me
Don't Cry No More
Goonies 'R' Good Enough
Change Of Heart

What's Going On
Girls Just Want To Have Fun
Time After Time
True Colors

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A million celebrate EuroPride 2011 with Lady Gaga in Rome

EuroPride 2011 in Rome

Europe's biggest Gay Pride event – EuroPride – came to Rome yesterday. Italy is sadly one of the few EU Member States which refuses to recognise civil partnerships for same-sex couples and has no law against homophobia; the sight of a million of us marching, singing and dancing our way through the city centre, past the Colosseum, on our way to the ancient Roman arena of Circus Maximus, where the closing concert and rally was headlined by none other than vociferous gay rights campaigner Lady Gaga, must surely have given pause for thought amongst the ranks of Italy's homophobic politicians.

Dressed in vintage Gianna Versace, Lady Gaga gave a long and impassioned speech that demanded equal rights now and the defense of love before sitting at the piano and wowing the packed arena with spine tingling acoustic versions of her anthem to diversity Born This Way, followed by The Edge of Glory. Whilst television news reports usually give Gay Pride as little coverage as possible in Italy, this year the presence of a global superstar guaranteed live coverage on some channels and the focus of the entire world – thank you Lady Gaga!

"...for the fifteen-year-old, who struggles with their identity, who and what will they have to look up to? Where is their wedding day? Where does the dream of their potential end and can it have no limits? Rome, how can we transform the oppression of the past into the liberation of the future? Let us give birth to a new and international ideology, let us come together and synthesize our histories into today. Let us be revolutionaries of love and use our human powers, our very strong human powers, to save lives and encourage unity around the world."
Lady Gaga's closing words at EuroPride 2011

Watch the final minutes of Lady Gaga's speech at Roma EuroPride 2011 below or click here to watch on YouTube.

Watch Lady Gaga performing live at Roma EuroPride 2011 below or click here to watch on YouTube.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Lorenzo Lotto at the Scuderie del Quirinale – Final week!

Recanati Annunciation
Name any of the greatest Italian artists - Giotto, Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, Caravaggio – and the chances are that anybody with an interest in art will instantly be able to conjure up one or two signature works in their mind's eye and will have an idea of that artist’s defining style. I confess, however, that before visiting the major Lorenzo Lotto exhibition currently running at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome, I had only the vaguest idea about the work of this 16th century painter and master of the High Renaissance. In fact, I'm still not entirely sure even now, after having enjoyed the 57 masterpieces on display and visiting the beautifully hung exhibition on two separate occasions, as to whether it's even possible to precisely pigeon-hole this somewhat eclectic and itinerant painter. He certainly left a trail of fascinating and diverse work in the form of altarpieces and portraits, as he travelled from his native Venice, through Marche, Rome and Bergamo, before returning to Venice and then Marche again, where he ended his days as a Franciscan lay brother in Loreto. If you haven't had a chance to see this show yet, there is still time until next weekend and it is highly recommended – it's an immensely rewarding exhibition celebrating an artist whose work at times reminds one of Bellini, Titian or even earlier Flemish portraitists, yet always retains some elusive strangeness of its own that renders it unique.

Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine
Once again, the curators at the Scuderie del Quirinale have put the potentially difficult long gallery spaces to excellent use. The first floor of the exhibition is dedicated almost completely to Lotto's huge altarpieces and large works that are hung on diagonally placed panels that run herringbone style along the side walls allowing the visitor to glimpse the works along the full length of the gallery as they gaze towards the end wall and the fascinating Cingoli alterpiece The Madonna of the Rosary (with Mysteries of the Rosary) (1539). Look out also for the gorgeous Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine, with the Donor Niccolò Bonghi (1523).

Bishop Bernardo de' Rossi
The upper floor is predominantly dedicated to Lotto's extraordinary output as a portraitist and there are some stunning works on display here which are worth the price of the entry fee alone. It is perhaps in the portraits where he most readily reveals his personal influences - the attention to detail in the portrait of the ruddy-faced Bishop Bernardo de' Rossi (1505) is pure Antonello da Messina, whilst the sumptuous Portrait of Andrea Odoni (1527) is a direct stylistic challenge to the Venetian maestro Titian. The upper floor is also where you'll find the Recanati Annunciation (1534), one of Lorenzo Lotto's most famous paintings and the image used to promote the show – this mysterious annunciation scene, with its very corporeal angel Gabriel kneeling before Mary and casting a large shadow in the foreground, whilst a wonderfully observed tabby cat jumps away in terror in the background, has been gracing buses and billboards throughout the city for several months. When Lotto was summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II in 1509, he would leave the eternal city the following year feeling deeply misunderstood. It may have taken Rome 500 hundred years to fully embrace the work of Lorenzo Lotto, but at last the city has hosted an exhibition that gives the artist the recognition he deserved all along.

Lorenzo Lotto is curated by Giovanni Carlo Federico Villa and continues at the Scuderie del Quirinale until 12 June 2011.

All images used in this post are in the public domain worldwide.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

William Friedkin in Conversation - A Journey Through American Cinema

William Friedkin in conversation in Rome
The 1973 movie The Exorcist appears on just about every list of Top Ten Horror flicks and has often been described by critics as one of the scariest movies of all time. It was surprising, therefore, to hear its creator – film director William Friedkin, in conversation yesterday evening in Sala Sinopoli at the Auditorium Parco della Musica – explain to Antonio Monda and Mario Sesti, that he never intended it to be considered a horror film, and that instead, he thought of it an exploration of faith. In Rome as the third guest in the 2011 season of Viaggio nel cinema americano (A Journey Through American Cinema), after encounters with Debra Winger and Christopher Walken earlier this year, the evening with William Friedkin followed the usual format - clips from some of the director's finest movies were shown, interspersed with a minimum of pertinent questions care of Sesti and Monda.

Kicking off proceedings with The Exorcist, in fact, it was clear from the outset that this was going to be richly entertaining – an extremely generous interviewee, William Friedkin was full of fascinating anecdotes, and seemed genuinely delighted to be able to chat freely and at great length about his working methods. The Exorcist won an Oscar for Best Sound and the director revealed that as a film-maker he has been enormously influenced by the radio dramas he listened to in the pre-television days of his childhood and that sound and images in his films are often created entirely separately. In The Exorcist, for example, in the midst of the extraordinary and terrifying sounds of Regan's exorcism, there are sounds taped during a genuine exorcism which took place in the Vatican and had been given to the director by a Jesuit priest – scary stuff indeed!

The ground-breaking car chase from The French Connection in which Gene Hackman – whom Friedkin confessed to having bullied constantly during filming, shouting and swearing at him to bring out the rage he needed for the camera - is in hot pursuit of a runaway subway train, was paired with another breathtaking car chase in To Live and Die in L.A., with CSI's William Peterson at the wheel. Seeing these clips again on the big screen reminded one of the dazzling stunt work and directorial skills of the days prior to the arrival of CGI, although Friedkin modestly played down his own work and praised some of the visually stunning effects by recent directors, in particular citing Paul Greengrass's work on The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. Grumblings of dissent were heard from the adoring audience at the suggestion that the new special effects used to create chase scenes were now far better than anything he did back then; his declaration that he hated 3D movies, on the other hand, was greeted with a cheer and ripple of applause! Would Citizen Kane have been a better film if it had been shot in 3D? he asked ironically, I think not!

Saying that he loved chase scenes because they were one of the few instances in filmmaking that truly couldn't be reproduced in any other medium, he also told an amusing tale about how, in the absence of either subtitled or dubbed versions, cinemas in Thailand during the 1970s used to actually pause movies every ten minutes or so, in order that somebody could come out on stage and explain what had just happened on screen - I vowed to make films that required no dialogue to understand the action... You don't need dialogue to understand a chase scene!

Friedkin's wife, Sherry Lansing was also present in the audience, although when clips from two dramatically different movies with gay subject matter – The Boys in the Band and Cruising - were shown, it emerged that she isn't always a fan of her husband's work. She had apparently hated Cruising when it was first released in 1980. The film, a dark murder mystery thriller set in New York S&M leather bars, was met with controversy and angry protests from the gay community at the time, but in recent years has seen a positive critical reappraisal and is now seen as a somewhat nostalgic look at a pre-AIDS era gay subculture. When it received a lengthy standing ovation at a special showing at Cannes Film Festival last year, however, one person stayed buried in their seat – Ms. Lansing! She hated it! Friedkin said with enormous relish.

By a strange and somewhat sinister turn of events, Cruising is also linked to The Exorcist. In the earlier film a real-life radiologist and his assistant were used in the hospital scenes. Friedkin said that he had been surprised to note that the medical assistant had been wearing an earring and leather studded bracelet, audacious signals that the man was gay and unusual in those closeted times. He was shocked several years later to hear that this same man was in Rikers Island, accused of a brutal murder. Friedkin actually visited him in prison as part of his research for Cruising - the man confessed to Friedkin that he couldn't even be sure if he was guilty or not, because he had been so out of his head on drugs in that period. If visiting murderers in prison weren't enough, getting clearance to actually film in the real leather bars required a visit to “an old Mafia friend” of Friedkin, who owned the New York club scene at the time – his description of how they avoided police surveillance and bugging devices at the Mafia boss's home was pure cinema itself. So much so, in fact, that a film student in the audience asked if he could use the anecdote for a short film – Be my guest! was the reply, although the director declined to name any names... for fear of being killed! Friedkin was laughing as he said this, but how large a pinch of salt we should take with this tale from such a marvellous raconteur is anybody's guess!

At the end of a long question and answer session with the audience he was clearly in no hurry to rush off stage. In fact, when fans rushed the stage with DVDs and photos for him to sign, he grabbed a chair, made himself comfortable and stayed chatting to his admirers until he'd signed every last autograph. A wonderful evening!

Watch a short video of William Friedkin graciously signing numerous autographs at the end of the evening below or click here to watch on YouTube.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Franca Valeri in conversation with Sabina Guzzanti: "da Studio Uno a ieri: la mia televisione"

Sabina Guzzanti and Franca Valeri on stage in Rome
Italian comedienne and authentic national treasure Franca Valeri celebrated over sixty years in show business earlier this year with a month long stint at Teatro Valle in Rome, that embraced not only her theatrical work with a brand new play Non tutto è risolto, as well as a reprisal of one of her most popular monologues La Vedova Socrate, but also her greatest movie roles with a showing of Parigi o cara. No survey of Franca Valeri's career would be complete, however, without a look at her groundbreaking work in television comedy.

In a packed Sala Sinopoli at the Auditorium Parco della Musica last night, the ninety-year-old actress was joined on stage by Sabina Guzzanti, a comedienne who is part of a younger generation of female performers who undoubtedly have Franca Valeri to thank for having opened the door for them when television was still in its infancy. Incidentally, Sabina Guzzanti, with her outspoken criticism of Silvio Berlusconi, has been the victim of extremely heavy-handed censorship in Italy and has, to all intents and purposes, been banished from Italian television, and one had the sense that it was the younger of the two who hankered most strongly for the old days of television in yesterday's discussion. At the outset, however, Franca Valeri had made it clear that this wasn't to be a nostalgic evening...if anything, it would be an historic evening!

Opening with a clip from her last television appearance, an adaptation of Abraham B. Yehoshua's autobiographical play Possesso in which she plays his Jewish mother, she was then joined on stage by Urbano Barberini, who had played her son - as he has on numerous occasions – in that piece. In true, This Is Your Life style, he then introduced a video message from Yehoshua himself, in which he praised her performance and said that since his own mother had died, he now thought of her as his Italian mother! Later on in the evening, Dario Fo, would also appear in another video message singing his own high praise for the actress.

What surprised me most watching the clips yesterday evening was the realisation that some of them – in particular the hilarious show called Le divine that parodied historical female characters as diverse as Nazi collaborators, Mata Hari-style spies or drunken Hollywood divas – were transmitted as long ago as 1959, yet the humour felt incredibly contemporary and decades ahead of its time.

The greatest television comic actors, regardless of where in the world they are working, are undoubtedly those who manage to create a cast of characters that enter into the collective memory of the viewing public. Whilst Franca Valeri may not be well known outside her native Italy, creations such as “La Sora Cecioni” for the RAI have indeed entered into the annals of Italian television history – when she closed the evening with a live recital of the first ever La Sora Cecioni sketch ("Signora" Cecioni in Roman dialect) it brought the house down and this extraordinary performer left the stage to deafening cheers and a standing ovation.

Watch a vintage clip of Franca Valeri as Sora Cecioni below or click here to watch on YouTube.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Omara Portuondo and Chucho Valdés | Auditorium Parco della Musica | 8 May, 2011

Presented by Santa Cecilia It's Wonderful!

Chucho Valdés and Omara Portuondo with Lázaro Rivero (double bass), Andrés Coayo (percussion) and Julio Barreto (drums)

Cuban diva Omara Portuondo is no stranger to the Auditorium Parco della Musica, returning to the venue often, not only as a solo singer, but also together with the musicians with whom she shared the spotlight in Wim Wender's documentary Buena Vista Social Club, the film that introduced this extraordinary artist to a worldwide audience and international acclaim. Sunday evening was the fourth time I'd seen her perform in as many years and it was, yet again, a very special event – this time Omara Portuondo was accompanied on stage by legendary Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdés.

The couple last worked together when Valdés played on the delightful track Nuestro gran amor – an album highlight - on Omara's last CD Gracias. This appearance of the couple in Rome was part of a European tour to promote a brand new recording - a collaboration called simply Omara & Chucho, a modest title for an album by two legends of Cuban music, but befitting the affection, not to mention mutual admiration, that these two performers clearly have for one another, resulting in a musical complicity and on-stage chemistry that made Sunday evening such a wonderful concert.

Valdés opened the evening, a giant of man who seemed almost shy as he took the stage, giving a humble nod of acknowledgment to the already exuberant audience, before sitting at the keyboard and stunning us with a piano solo of dazzling dexterity played with an air of seemingly nonchalant ease and sense of fun – what an opening! Then, to the improvised piano chords of Beethoven, Omara took to the stage to perform Llanto de Luna; singing gently at first, she then slowly, but surely, mesmerised the audience with the warmth of her interpretation and range - at eighty-one her voice shows no sign of losing any of its power! An enormously charismatic personality, she quickly had most people up and out of their seats, clapping and dancing for the next number Y decídete mi amor - throughout the entire evening she effortlessly alternated between the tearful torch song singer of heartbreaking songs like Si te contara or the spine-tingling acappella version of 20 años, and the playful dancing Havanna club singer of numbers such as Que quieres que te diga, sweeping the audience along with her at every turn.

When Omara, Chucho and the extremely talented young musicians in the band returned to the stage to a standing ovation and thunderous cheers for an encore, Omara asked the audience to name the song they most wanted to hear, obliging us with the unanimously requested Dos Gardenias, remembering the late Buena Vista Social Club member Ibrahim Ferrer in her introduction to the song. Every time I've seen Omara Portuondo perform, she has never really looked like she wanted to leave her adoring public and Sunday evening was no different. The audience was on its feet and cheering for more, so out they all came yet again for one final energetic encore before the band left us to Omara's chanting goodbye “Ciao Ciao!...Ciao Ciao...!” Unmissable!

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Tan Dun - Water Passion | Auditorium Parco della Musica | 29 April, 2011

Coro dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, soprano Maria Chiara Chizzoni and bass Renato Vielmi

Tan Dun on stage at the Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome after a performance of Water Passion
When Tan Dun last worked with the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia at the Auditorium Parco della Musica in March last year, it was very much an audio-visual event with a performance of two of his most famous film scores – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Banquet – accompanied by projected highlights from both movies. On his return to Rome yesterday evening, the composer conducted the Choir of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in a work that was not only musically haunting, but also visually stunning and dramatically theatrical - Water Passion after St. Matthew.

Originally commissioned in 2000 by the International Bach-Akademie in Stuttgart to mark the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, Water Passion is an extraordinary retelling of the Passion of Jesus Christ inspired by the Gospel of Matthew, and filtered through the prism of the composer's own cultural influences. Western instruments such as the violin and the cello – played by Jiamin Wang and Amedeo Cicchese on this occasion - are used in ways that recall those from China and Mongolia, the soloists use vocal techniques derived from the Peking Opera and Tuvan throat-singing, whilst the choir, as well as chanting Buddhist-style, also plays stones and Tibetan bells. It may sound like a curiously eclectic mix, but the resulting musical experience is mesmerizing and very moving.

The sound of water, the central motif of the entire piece, appropriately begins and closes the Passion, and is the most audacious part of the composition with the three percussionists - Beibei Wang, Marco Bugarini and Edoardo Albino Giachino - quite literally 'playing' water as a percussion instrument, lifting and splashing handfuls in bowls, slapping it with plastic cups, even striking floating upturned dishes. Water Passion is scored for “Water-Instruments-Orchestra” and indeed, the stage in the Santa Cecilia hall yesterday was dominated by 17 large transparent bowls, filled with water, lit from below and arranged in the shape of a cross. These water bowls were the symbolic focal point of the piece right up until its breathtaking closing moments, when the lights dimmed and members of the chorus, the musicians and even Tan Dun himself, moved towards them, dipped their hands into the water and the hall was filled with gentle splashing sounds.

Rapturous applause broke the silence as the last lapping sounds of water faded and prolonged cheers of appreciation continued as each of the leads took their bows and choir master Ciro Visco joined Tan Dun on stage.

An absolute must-see performance – I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to see this work performed live!

Water Passion – Full programme

Part I
Last Supper
Water Cadenza
In The Garden Of Gethsemane

Part II
Stone Song
Give Us Barabbas!
Death and Earthquake
Water and Resurrection

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Christopher Walken in Conversation - A Journey Through American Cinema

Christopher Walken on stage in Rome
Hot on the heels of the encounter with Debra Winger at the end of March, yesterday evening saw another important milestone in the Viaggio nel cinema americano (A Journey Through American Cinema) discussions – an encounter with iconic American actor Christopher Walken. The excitement in the air was palpable at the Auditorium Parco della Musica before the event, with considerably more people than usual hanging around the foyer and, unusually for Roman audiences, ticket holders taking their seats early in what turned out to be a sold-out Sala Petrassi. When the lights finally dimmed, we were treated to a montage of best movie moments on the big screen, followed by the surprise entrance of the man himself - an imposing figure, dressed all in black - who rather than appearing from the wings, walked down the side aisle through the audience, before climbing onto the stage to enormous cheers and applause.

The success of these encounters, in which informal conversation and questions are interspersed with film clips, relies very much, of course, on the complicity of the star, and in Christopher Walken regular hosts Mario Sesti and Antonio Monda found a generous and humorous raconteur, willing to share numerous anecdotes. A constant throughout the entire evening was Walken's respect for other actors and directors with whom he has worked and indeed, the evening began with a tribute to recent losses to cinema, two previous Viaggio nel cinema americano guests – Sidney Lumet, whom Walken remembered as a great director and the man who had given him his first screen role in The Anderson Tapes, and Arthur Penn, another great director whom he admired as a fine teacher at The Actors Studio.

With a career as prolific as that of Christopher Walken before them, choosing a handful of representative movie clips must have been a daunting task for Sesti and Monda, but the selection made was spot on and gave us a taste of all facets of the man's career, allowing us to hear his insights on working with directors as diverse as Woody Allen, Stephen Spielberg, Michael Cimino, David Cronenberg, Abel Ferrara and Quentin Tarantino, to name but a few of the directors on the roll-call last night. Clips from Annie Hall, King of New York, Catch Me If You Can, The Dead Zone as well as the Italian movie Celluloid, were all shown, but his memorable gold watch monologue from Pulp Fiction, a clip from his Academy Award winning performance in The Deer Hunter and his dazzling dance routine in Spike Jonze's award winning music video for Fatboy Slim's Weapon Of Choice, inevitably garnered the biggest cheers of the evening. Walken, in fact, trained as a dancer in musical theatre prior to his cinema acting career – when asked if it was true that he would always insist that directors allow him to dance in every film he made, he smiled: I used to – but not any more […] people started to mention it in reviews...they would say “Christopher Walken danced for no reason!” Later, he declined the invitation to dance for us live on stage, joking: I'm not going to dance for you tonight...because my leg is broken!

My favourite anecdote of the evening occurred after the wonderful final scene of Tim Burton's Gothic horror film Sleepy Hollow. When approached by Burton to play the part of the Headless Horseman he warned the director that: I don't do dangerous stuff – I don't ride motorcycles, jump out of a planes... or ride a horse! Burton solved the horse riding problem by providing the actor with Elizabeth Taylor's robotic horse from the movie National Velvet. I rode Elizabeth Taylor’s horse! he recounted with obvious delight.

Answering half a dozen or so questions from the audience at the end of the encounter, the evening closed to final rapturous applause and he even stopped to sign a handful of autographs for a few lucky fans! A fantastic evening with a superstar!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Expressionism live: Silent movies set to music by writers at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni

Fans of German Expressionist Cinema can enjoy a rare treat in Rome this week with a series of very special screenings at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni of some of the silent movie genre's most famous films. In this retrospective each movie is given a contemporary musical score consisting of tracks chosen by Italian writers and then played live during the screening by some of the best local deejays – a fascinating experiment that has to be experienced to fully appreciate this fresh approach to these cinematic masterpieces.

On Saturday evening I was lucky enough to have caught the showing of Pandora's Box directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst and starring the enduringly charismatic Louise Brooks. The musical selection by Letizia Muratori, mixed by deejay DandywOlly, was an eclectic mix that worked incredibly well – sometimes comic, always surprising, there were songs by artists that ranged from Frank Sinatra to the inspired choice of The Tiger Lillies, interspersed with hypnotic sounds. Rufus Wainwright's The Dream from All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu was perhaps the most explicit reference to the protagonist and rightfully deserved a prominent place in the play-list.

The retrospective continues this week – click here for full programme details.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Debra Winger in Conversation - A Journey Through American Cinema

Debra Winger on stage in Rome
On Saturday evening in the Teatro Studio at the Auditorium Parco della Musica regular hosts Mario Sesti and Antonio Monda introduced their first, very special guest in the 2011 season of Viaggio nel cinema americano (A Journey Through American Cinema), the hugely popular American actress Debra Winger.

Following the usual winning formula for these events, in which informal conversation is interspersed with clips from the guest's most famous movies, this was a relaxed evening with a warm, very funny and radiantly beautiful Debra Winger, and for many of the Italian fans in the audience more used to seeing her in dubbed films, a chance to hear her characteristic husky voice for an hour live on stage. So distinctive, in fact, is her voice, that when Stephen Spielberg was making E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, the director invited her to record some vocal tracks that may have eventually made their way into the final mix for the alien's voice – when asked about this by Sesti she confirmed the story and we were even treated to a quick “Elliot” E.T. voice impersonation! When a clip from the 1993 Richard Attenborough film Shadowlands was shown, the Italian version was used so that the actress could hear for herself the voice that dubber Emanuela Rossi lends to her performances in Italy.

Debra Winger, of course, became famous in the 1980s in films such as An Officer and a Gentleman, Terms of Endearment, Black Widow and in 1990 The Sheltering Sky, and clips from all of these films were shown, as well as a clip from her most recent big screen appearance in Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married, playing the mother of a troubled daughter (Anne Hathaway), a clip which was paired interestingly with Terms of Endearment in which she had played the daughter opposite Shirley MacClaine in the mother role. Sesti and Monda were clearly avoiding the obvious with their choice from An Officer and a Gentleman and resisted the temptation to show the moment when Richard Gere comes to fetch her from the factory in full naval dress uniform to the strains of Up Where We Belong – an obvious choice, maybe, but undeniably an iconic scene that has been parodied dozens of times and is now part of 1980s cinema history; it would have no doubt been met with the same cheers it received when shown at an encounter with Richard Gere some years ago if they had added it to the reel on this occasion too.

When footage from her early television appearances as Wonder Girl alongside Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman in the now cult 1970s TV show was teasingly shown, she explained that at the time she would have accepted any role in order be be known for anything other than her rather dubious debut movie. In one of the funniest anecdotes and the real scoop of the evening she spilled the beans about how her ingenuity as a young actress just starting out in the business had led to her accepting a part in what turned out to be a soft porn movie Slumber Party '57 - she ended up locking herself in the bathroom on set when she realised that the film wasn't quite as innocent as she had first imagined from reading the (very short) script! I'm telling this story because I'm too old to care about this stuff anymore, she laughed!

Asked about the kinds of films or roles that she was most interested in playing she pointed out that almost all her films, in fact, have been love stories of one sort or another, and that she only ever wanted to make love stories, but felt optimistic that there were other important parts still awaiting her in the future – indeed, she had one in mind, but for a woman older than she is right now. Refreshingly outspoken against plastic surgery, she had little sympathy for fellow actresses of her own age who “cut themselves” to look younger and then complain that there are no roles for older women. Whilst respecting Rosanna Arquette 's need to make the documentary about women in cinema entitled Searching for Debra Winger, she admitted that she didn't necessarily empathise with the opinions of the other actresses interviewed or the difficulties they claimed to face, explaining also that the working title of the film had originally been State of the Art when she had agreed to participate and she had never actually seen the completed film in its entirety.

I was also personally excited to hear that she would love to work with one of my favourite directors P.T. Anderson saying: I think he's the real deal. What a wonderful pairing that would be!

Clearly delighted to have been able to visit Rome she made a personal plea at the end of the evening – she joked that she had been struck with Stendhal syndrome after visiting the Sistine Chapel, but had been so distracted after the visit that she had left her iPad in the taxi and asked the press to please spread the word and help her find it again. So I'm obliging this request in my own small way and hope that somebody will return it!

Watch a video of Debra Winger graciously posing for photographs with fans and signing numerous autographs at the end of the evening below or click here to watch on YouTube.

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