Joe Mabel > Travel writing > Letters from Romania 2001-2002 > An Ab Fab Don Giovanni

An Ab Fab Don Giovanni

8 Apr 2002

Some of you will undoubtedly be at least amused to know that Ab Fab belatedly premiered on Romanian TV this weekend.

I think one sentence is enough about television.

Thought I'd give you all an update on my (and each other's) thoughts about possible hosting for a website for the Jewish Museum here.

Leading ideas appear to be:

Also mentioned has been:

Other ideas are welcome.

I saw a rather interesting art exhibit recently at a gallery near my office. Dan Constantinescu is a local artist just past the age of 50, who has exhibited extensively here in Romania and to a lesser extent abroad, including Venice and Paris. The show consists of paintings on relatively small, thin boards of different sizes (generally about the size of a piece of typing paper) each with a thin, more-or-less monochrome painted border, and each of them mounted on a larger, uniformly-sized, square, thicker board, which is stained, rather than painted, in any of a variety of earth tones. Some of these are hung singly, but most are hung either in horizontal pairs or arranged into larger arrays of two by two, three by three, or even (where space permits) two by six.

The paintings themselves are largely, but not entirely, of religious imagery and ecclesiastical architecture, but they are not, in the conventional sense, religious paintings. There are some distinctly non-Christian images (such as an Egyptian ankh), and quite a bit of generally illegible writing. (The ankh may well have been selected precisely because of its partial resemblance to a cross.) The pieces, executed in oils, are all representational, but none are simply so. Many look like paper that has been repeatedly drawn on and erased, with each successive use leaving traces. Some look like someone scrawled over a finished piece in chalk, then erased that to return to something like the previous state. Yet others look like you are seeing through an imperfect glass window. As far as I can tell, all of these effects are actually achieved in oil paint. The overall impression is of things not quite seen, their general forms clear but the details not readily to be determined.

There is a small amount of Dan Constantinescu's work external link on line, but I haven't found anything on line quite like the pieces in this particular exhibition. His is a hard name to search for because he shares it with a prominent politician here, also with a major classical musician. [If you do a search, I suggest adding the word "art."]

We continue to get unseasonably bad weather, cool and rainy, even snow flurries on Friday and Sunday, though it didn't stick. They tell me this "never happens". Well, it's happening. I hear that around Brasov, although it was mild the weekend I visited a month ago, they later resumed the ski season. It is actually colder now in April than it was in late February.

This weather has not been the best for wandering around the city, so I've been working a bit on the look (and, to a lesser extent, the content) of my website. Feedback welcome.

Rereading my online writing from 6 years ago reminds me of a topic I've neglected: public displays of affection. In Bucharest they are not at Barcelona level -- at least not on streetcorners -- but they are not cold fish, either. The inevitable central European handkissing, of course, the occasional snogging couple on the bus, the convenient presence of dark corners in basement bars. And then there is Cişmigiu (Cismigiu) Park, right outside my door.

One of my guidebooks rather discretely refers to Cismigiu as the favored place for "assignations" in Bucharest. "Assignations" is definitely a euphemism. In anything like decent weather, Cismigiu is the number one makeout spot probably between Budapest and the beaches of the Black Sea. The park benches obligingly have only a single, relatively high slat at the back so that the girls can easily sit astride their boyfriends. In good weather when I come home late at night I feel a bit like I'm interrupting as I walk to my building (although usually they don't even notice). As anywhere, mostly young people, but not exclusively so.

I would imagine quite a few children have been conceived in that park. Oddly, in a city with a lot of prostitution, no one ever solicits in the park. I guess they figure it would be like trying to sell snacks at a banquet.

I went on Saturday to an art show at the World Trade Center / Sofitel (in the northern suburbs). A week earlier I had met an artist named Alexandru Marginean who was going to be exhibiting there; also, one of his large paintings hangs permanently in a restaurant in the Sofitel. He had invited me to drop by and offered to introduce me around. He turns out to be from a bit of an artistic dynasty: both of his parents were also exhibitors in the show.

The building could be a contemporary hotel/shopping complex/exhibition space anywhere in the world. The exhibit room had a very high (maybe 20 meters) smoked glass ceiling. The art on display was generally good, comparable to the best of the galleries in the center of town (which is to say, superior to most of what is in the galleries in the center of town), some of it a bit derivative, but that is the case with 70-artist show like this anywhere.

Art by Diana Braescu One of the more distinctive bodies of work was by Diana Braescu external link, some of whose work, I think, would be very much to the taste of a lot of people in North London or the West End; if anyone has gallery contacts in London, I'd appreciate a chance to put her in touch with someone there. The pieces in question use bright, transparent color-washed squares over her well-done, rather detailed sketches. (If anyone has any leads for her, you can contact me and I will pass them on.)

The show could not be called well-attended -- only perhaps a dozen visitors per hour -- but many of the people who came were there to buy. Several artists I talked to did sell pieces. Two of the visitors were Romanian princess Margareta and her husband. (I asked a few of my colleagues about the poor attendance at such an event. There seems to be a feeling here that you wouldn't be welcome at an art show if you weren't a wealthy patron or an artist. I don't get any sense they are right about this, but it is interesting to know that is how they feel about it.)

I spent several hours in a series of conversations with various artists to whom Alexandru introduced me, mostly in English but partly in my slowly improving Romanian. I can't say the conversations went entirely smoothly: a few of my interlocutors came off to me as pretentious art snobs, I must say.

One woman artist who had no pieces in the show was insistent that "none of this is art" (the only real art today apparently being conceptual art), although she backed off a bit on the statement as I pointed out to her the three or four artists in the show whose work I thought was the best; it turns out that she and I actually were in pretty good agreement as to what work there was the best, it's just that she counted all but a tiny pinnacle as dreck. However, our conversation eventually went well off the rails after she asked me if I was a "pure American." I'm still not sure what she meant by that, mainly because when I tried to get her to clarify she wouldn't explain. It's an accidentally interesting question, actually. What is a "pure American"? A Cheyenne? A Yankee? Can a black person be a "pure American" (nearly all African Americans have over 200 years of ancestry in the US)? And where does this leave a fourth-generation a New York Jew like me? (Other angles come to mind: "No, my mind has been polluted by European ideas," or "Actually, my left arm is Canadian." I'm not good at handling these things gracefully.)

Then there was the woman (an art teacher, inevitably) who insisted that no one could become a "real artist" except through academic training and that no one could ever be good at anything artistic unless they practiced it full time. I guess I could have just smiled and nodded, but this went so against my knowledge and experience that I had to enter the fray. I mean, this would mean that neither Van Gogh nor Jackson Pollock was a real artist and that Charles Ives and T.S. Eliot were mere dabblers in their respective fields. I couldn't help finding this opinion rather silly. I think it derives from having several generations in which the State was to sole patron and where virtually the only artists were salaried official artists.

Still, I had a good time.

Saturday night turned out rather silly as well: some of my co-workers had decided to go out to a disco called "Impaler", in the basement of an old inn next to the Curtea Veche (the Curtea Veche consists of the ruins of a castle that dates, in part, clear back to Vlad Tepes). Impaler is a pretty good place, but definitely the sort of disco where you tend to bring your own crowd and stay with them. We arrived too late to get a table, and for some reason it was decided that this was a reason to leave (I don't get it, but apparently it is "not done" to be at this particular club without a table.) and head for a place called "Salsa 2" which is rather near my apartment. Twenty minutes later, having used various modes of transport (I walked) we were all standing outside Salsa 2, where of course we couldn't get a table, and the music wasn't really appealing to most of us, and the typical partygoer seemed to be a French-Guyanese thug.

Reluctantly, I was swept into a car to head up to some disco up by the Polytechnic (which is a little like leaving downtown Seattle for the U. District, or Tribeca for Morningside Heights, or Shoreditch for Camden) where, with midnight approaching, we stood quite a while outside some student-y place playing boring Euro-pop. Most of the group eventually went in. I was glad I was not the only one who opted out, because it meant I had a lift back into town.

Sunday evening I opted for the Opera and I'm very glad I did: an excellent production of Don Giovanni. By coincidence, my neighbors down the hall, an Irishman named Jerry and his English wife Lynne, also attended. They were somewhere up in the loges. I had the seat immediately behind the conductor, so close to the stage that I can tell you by smell that they used real champagne for the gran rifreschi late in the first act.

This production of Don Giovanni has apparently been in the opera's repertoire since 1995, but they freshened it up this season with a very talented young cast. Except for Don Giovanni, Donna Anna, and perhaps the Comendatore (who can tell under all that makeup, but he was listed as a "debut"), the singers were mostly in their mid-20s, all with fine voices (although perhaps outclassed by Liliana Dumitrache's very well-sung Donna Anna) and nearly all with acting skills that would put them in good stead in straight theater. This was the sort of ensemble work that makes for the type of opera performance I most like. The only one I can't say much positive about was Pompeiu Harasteanu as the Comendatore, and I suspect that was not his fault: except for his few lines early in Act One, they did some sort of radio mike thing so his voice could be made to seem to come from everywhere at once, which really didn't give us much chance to properly hear his voice.

Don Giovanni contains about equal measures of comic and the serious material (and Leporello qualifies as comic even in the serious scenes). In this production the comic certainly won out: comic scenes were performed with campy gusto, while serious scenes were a bit static, perhaps because the aforementioned Dumitrache and Harasteanu as well as Marius Manea -- another very fine voice -- as Don Ottavio were not equal to the others in the acting strength or perhaps because of directorial decisions (it's hard to say what is the performers and what the director). As for the comic scenes, you'll have to imagine Sever Barnea as Vincent Price playing Don Giovanni, Felicia Filip as perhaps a cross between Angela Lansbury and a young Barbara Stanwyck playing Donna Elvira (neither the Don nor Donna Elvira are, I suppose, inherently primarily comic characters, but that was definitely the prevailing tendency of this production), Valentin Vasiliu as Zero Mostel as Leporello, Octavian Vlaicu as Brendan Fraser or Barry Bostwick as Masetto, and Oana Andra incarnating equal parts Julia Roberts and Jamie Lee Curtis as Zerlina.

There were several young men seated near me with roses for Ms. Andra or Ms. Filip. I think only gay men would bring roses for Ms. Dumitrache, which in this homophobic city probably means no one but a descendant of the ci devant nobility would dare, so she got her roses from an 8-year-old girl.

Old timers have told me that the golden age of Romanian opera was the Seventies, with lavish budgets and, of course, a near-total inability for even the best singers and musicians to leave for elsewhere. This may well be the case, but even if this particular age of Romanian opera is mere silver, I'm glad to have the chance to see and hear it.

[Helene K. adds: "People have a tendency to equate the Golden Age of Opera with the last period in which lavish sets and larger-than-life divas/egos with big voices, little mobility, and slavish devotees prevailed. After ensemble opera came into vogue and the focus turned to the wonderful singing actors instead of the velvets and scenery, many older fans felt let down with this loss of 'mystique' and consider the result 'mediocre.' Their loss." I couldn't agree more. And when you combine that with the tendency always to imagine that the Golden Age was in our youth, you get...well, among other things you get cranky old opera buffs and the cult of the diva. I hope they enjoyed the production of Aida.]

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Originally written: April 8, 2002
Last modified: November 9, 2003

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