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The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

We don’t choose them, those moments when art strikes us deeply. They are gifts.

This year, Charlottetown’s City Cinema decided to include opera in their program. The films they chose are from London’s Royal Opera at Covent Garden, and the February selection was Puccini’s last opera, Turandot. It’s an opera I’d never seen or heard except for the tenor aria, “Nessun dorma”, which turns up everywhere. The Royal Opera production was created by the Romanian-American director Andrei Serban, and designed by Sally Jacobs, a British designer of international reputation.

The libretto of Turandot is derived from an eighteenth century play by Carlo Gozzi, and in Serban’s production the three ministers, Ping, Pang and Pong, have about them a hint of that commedia-dell’arte source. With the use of grotesque masks and makeup, and the most brilliantly colourful and inventive sets and costumes, the dramatized ancient tale suggested not the Victorian high drama of much opera but the wild inventiveness of early twentieth century European theatre, and with Puccini’s music showing the same flashes of modernity, the performance was a delight.

A few Sundays later we set off in a snowstorm to hear the PEI Symphony’s February concert. Well, half the concert. At intermission we stared out the windows and decided only a madman would want to be driving through a blizzard in the dark, and we fled. But in the first half of the concert we heard an appealing new piece by Kevin Morse, and Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto played by a former Islander, Julia MacLaine. I have happy memories of her performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto with the symphony a few years back.

The Shostakovich Concerto, which I was hearing for the first time, has the Russian’s gripping mixture of melancholy passion and modernist wit, and Julia MacLaine performed it with great intelligence and commitment. Afterward I kept recalling the long solo cadenza which joins the second and fourth movements, the unwinding of its soulful tune, and the lovely moment when the orchestra’s lead cello becomes a quiet second voice playing a moody countermelody.

Those performances, one on film, one live, resonated in my mind. And in the way of writers I was waiting, though only half aware of waiting, for a third to join them and make this column.

It turned out to be just a matter of reading the small print.

I subscribe to a quarterly magazine called Canadian Art, and I always study the illustrations with pleasure. Even the advertisements are full of appealing reproductions of recent art works. At the front of the magazine are short listings of what exhibitions are on in all parts of Canada and sometimes beyond. Column-size illustrations give a hint of the work on show. It was one of these illustrations that caught my eye, an image of Kingston Penitentiary. When I read the small print I was startled to learn that the watercolour painting was by Nan Yeomans.

I met Nan Yeomans forty or so years ago in Kingston, Ontario, and I have a print by her on the wall. She was a tiny, shy, silent woman, a generation older than I am, who made a specialty of printmaking. A posthumous exhibition of her work is currently on show at Queen’s University, and the picture of Kingston’s antique and infamous prison—a watercolour with the linear architecture of an etching—is part of it.

Her image is a haunting one, a folk art quality about it, hints perhaps of the English artist L.S. Lowry. A tall chimney rises above the stone walls, and a huge pile of coal lies in front of them. Something like smoke drifts across the air, as black as anthracite, like a spill of coal dust on the page. The image is strict but magical.

Puccini’s splendour, Shostakovich’s moody passion, Nan Yeoman’s quiet acuity: three gifts that recent days chose to give me. Call them fortuitous singularities. Sorcery.

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