Among the numerous benefits of having an all-star daughter—a topic touched upon in this space a couple of months ago—is that the APs from time to time have the use of a Manhattan apartment. So it was that for the first part of the week-end just past we were able to throw ourselves with abandon into a cultural orgy of the sort possible only in a few of the world’s great cities. It took me most of a lifetime to overcome my hillbilly prejudice against New York; but I now practically froth at the mouth with the zeal of the convert.
The subject matter is not that of Spenser’s Faerie Queene but of (parts of) Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, which supplies also the dialogue. You remember—the queen of the fairies, Titania, gets some magic love pollen in her eye and falls head over heels for the country bumpkin Bottom, who has himself acquired a donkey’s head through similarly mischievous magic.
The conductor was the brilliant William Christie with his famous early music group “Les Arts Florissants,” which usually hangs out in Paris. I have a recording of one of his earlier versions (Harmonia Mundi 901308.09); but the difference between the live performance and the two CDs is approximately that between taking a shower in the buff and taking a shower in a raincoat. Seldom have I realized so clearly how much the architectural and decorative magnificence of a theater and the imaginative dramaturgy of a director actually control the musical experience of opera.
The original audiences of baroque opera didn’t have a whole hell of a lot of other claims on their time, and this rambunctious production ran just under four hours. (So much for the “two hours’ traffic on our stage”.) About a third of the audience never reappeared after the intermission, which began roughly at the two-hour mark. Most of the early leavers probably simply succumbed to artistic fatigue—it certainly couldn’t have been boredom--but a few of the younger and more suggestible ones may have been inspired to hurry home by a remarkable scene, of which old Purcell must be found innocent, featuring a dozen or more gigantic copulating conies. I won’t even try to explain…I guess you just had to be there.
We managed to catch what must have been the night’s last train out of Brooklyn, and as we ourselves were for the moment living the life of Restoration or Queen Anne aristocrats we were able to recoup in leisurely fashion on Friday morning. Indeed I even did a little of what I laughingly call “work” in the Bobst Library of NYU while Joan tracked down some hiking gear to be used on her next stage of the Compostella pilgrimage later in the spring. We then headed north to the Metropolitan Museum where, by two sets of unique circumstances, there are two concurrent, once-in-a-lifetime exhibitions in the medieval galleries.
The Musée des Beaux Arts in Dijon, housed in the old palace of the Dukes of Burgundy, is one of the great provincial museums of France. It has been closed down for a period to allow for a major renovation. This unique circumstance has allowed its most precious treasure to go on an American tour. That treasure is the collection of exquisitely carved alabster “mourners”, each, with the exception of a child-chorister, about sixteen inches tall, created to decorate the tombs Philip the Bold (1342-1404) and his son John the Fearless (1371-1419). Tragically little of aristocratic funerary art of medieval France survived the ideological fury of the Revolution; but these extraordinary pieces escaped. They originally decorated the bases of the actual ducal tombs; in the Met they are displayed in amazing ensemble as a long and lugubrious liturgical procession of mourners. They will be in New York until late May, then later in Saint Louis, Dallas, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Richmond. For many, it will be the chance of a lifetime.
Some books are so precious that they have rightly been removed from the inspection of any but a small number of professional scholars and curators. Such are many of the most famous medieval books of hours, especially those executed by the brothers Limbourg. Even if you happen to be in that elect number of professionals, you are no more capable than any ordinary reader of examining more than one folio opening at a time. Only with the aid of photographs have students been able to study the often copious illustrations of medieval books in a comparative manner. A remarkable circumstance—like the temporary closing of the Dijon Museum never to happen again in the lifetime of any living person—has led the Met curators to unbind their greatest manuscript treasure, the “Belles Heures” of the Duc de Berry. This fabulous book usually resides at the Cloisters, the medieval “colony” of the Met way up at the top of Manhattan. But for the moment its meticulously disbound and uninjured sheets, which will of course, like the Burgundian mourners, soon be put back together in an improved and renovated housing, are available for viewing as individual sheets. This is the only known book entirely executed by the Limbourgs; and even they will never have had the opportunity to view it as you can—provided you hurry.
Not to be outdone, the Morgan Library, owner of the fabulous “Hours of Catherine of Cleves” has metaphorically taken a leaf out of the Met’s book—meaning that they literally took a hundred or so out of their own. The paintings of the disbound Cleves Hours, spaciously distributed throughout one of the Morgan’s most elegant galleries, are there for all the world to view. A recently produced facsimile of the whole book—extraordinarily accurate in its reproduction both of the parchments and the binding—lies open for general handling. Facsimiles of this quality now cost more than Mr. Morgan once paid for many of his sumptuous originals; this one is invaluable in giving you a sense of the engineered whole of the magnificent original parts displayed throughout the gallery. We did that on Saturday morning before having a tasty bite of Thai food on Thompson Street. Then, deeply grateful to two Catherines, we headed back home. Any more excitement so intense might have thrown my pacemaker out--if I had one, that is. But you can eat only a pound or so of fudge at one sitting. Had I known that retirement would be this great, I might have forgone the preparatory decades spent working.
A joyous Passover and blessed Easter to Catherine of Cleves and all our readers