Monaco today, Paris tomorrow

Posted in Journal, La France, Nice, Travel at 21:36

Monaco - Monte Carlo casino at night
This afternoon I attended a performance of “Eugene Onegin”, an opera by Tchaikovsky, in Monaco. While “going to the opera in Monaco” may well seem tinged with a bit of snootiness, in reality, performances in the principality are often more reasonably priced than elsewhere.

Tomorrow I take a TGV from Nice to Marseille, up through Lyon and on to Paris. I’ll be in the city a few days on business, leaving the kitties in the capable hands of a pet sitter. If you’re interested, keep an eye on my photostream; I’ll be updating it with shots from my mobile phone while in Paris. Pictures taken with my DSLR will have to wait until my return to be uploaded.

I’m really looking forward to the long train ride — my company was sweet and got me first-class tickets. It’s 1,000km (about 620 miles) from Nice to Paris, which takes just over 5 hours by TGV. The TGV still runs “slow” (about 120kmh, or 75mph) from Nice to Marseille, but gets up to speed on the Marseille-Paris stretch, which takes only 3 hours. Marseille to Paris is 660km, or 410 miles. That makes for an average speed of 220kmh/137mph — keep in mind the TGV comes to a full stop in Lyon.

Once I stepped off the train in Nice this evening, the familiar woman’s voice announcing arrivals and departures came on with one that first caught my ear because of its very short train number: 19. I stopped dead in my tracks when I heard the train’s destination: Moscow. “Le train numéro 19 à destination de Moscou va partir.” It’s a new line that was put in place just two months ago: French Riviera train for Russia. With fares starting at about 300 euros, I’m sorely tempted to try it out some day. It’s anything but a fast trip though, at 53 hours!
Nice - Moscow

La soirée kabuki

Posted in Journal, La France at 12:41

As I approached the Casino de Monte Carlo, which also contains the Monte Carlo opera house, passing the Maseratis, Jaguars, Lamborghinis, Rolls Royces, Bugattis and Bentleys, I stopped in my tracks, wowed by a beauty I hadn’t expected to see much of: kimono. Not just one or two, but dozens upon dozens of Japanese women wearing gorgeous silk kimono with shibori, yuzen, embroidery, tsuzure weave and other designs, all wearing their obi (wide sashes/belts) tied in the traditional taiko style. I was delighted to be able to see what kind of kimono were worn to a kabuki performance: the formality ranged from irotomesode, the most formal I saw there, to iromuji, houmongi and tsukesage, which are usually worn to such performances, to tsukesage komon. (The least formal of kimono is the komon; women’s kimono types are described here.) There was even one woman wearing a cream tsukesage made of translucent ro, with a matching light blue ro obi woven with metallic threads. It was also interesting to see how the women wore their kimono: indeed, as I’d always read and seen in kimono books and magazines, older women wore their obi and obijime (cord tied around the obi) lower than younger women, some with it only an inch above the bottom edge. One older woman had a beautiful light grey iromuji with a black-ground obi, woven with metallic blue, green, silver and gold lozenges; a middle-aged woman had a forest green irotomesode with metallic embroidered flower rondels along the bottom hem and a silver obi; a younger woman had a bold yellow houmongi with yuzen flowers and an orange and gold obi. As for men, I only saw one man in the audience wearing hakama, entirely done in a beautiful deep grey. At the end of the performance, Ichikawa Ebizo XI was wearing a formal hakama outfit with five mon.

Then there was the opera house itself. It seats only 520; at least a fifth of the audience was Japanese. I had a seat in the second row on the middle left: this was my view, and the only photo I took since I wanted to enjoy the performance. At one point I remembered I should look at the opera house ceiling, since I’d heard it was richly decorated. As I looked up, I had to catch my breath — I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in my life, and yet I’ve visited Versailles, Florence, Venice, the Loire Valley castles, the Forbidden City… I think the difference was that for the first time, I was actually participating in an event that a particularly gorgeous edifice was meant for, rather than being a simple tourist. The ceiling and walls were gilded, sculpted, painted, with an enormous gold and crystal chandelier hanging in the center; there were tall windows onto the Mediterranean with immense burgundy velvet curtains that closed when the performances started.

Kagami Jishi was danced first. Seated so close to the stage, and on the side where Ichikawa Ebizo did most of his acting, I was able to see his delicate and subtle facial expressions, hand movements, and changes in body position. Videos you can find online come nowhere near conveying all the delicacies in a kabuki performance. I was also able to hear the quiet vocal cues given by both Ebizo and the musicians: the almost-whispered calls and pianissimo shamisen plucks that gave the time, tunings, stage cues and more. I could even hear the cords on the ko-tsuzumi being tightened and loosened by the first drummer. The musicians were exceptional, with precise timing and tuning. I was very happy to experience such a wonderful live Japanese music performance, because it greatly contributed to my appreciation of it. Listening to a recording, no matter how good, is simply not the same as witnessing the expert interplay between a flutist, shamisen and ko-tsuzumi on opposite sides of a stage, not facing each other, with no conductor and no cue other than a sub-vocal “oh”, and yet making their entrances in precise unison. Having been a musician myself, I know how much trust, skill and knowledge go into a simple entrance, especially when there are so few musicians — if just one is even slightly off, it’s obvious. They were always “on”, and it was breathtaking.

Narukami was done next, with Ichikawa Danjuro XII as Narukami, and Nakamura Tokizo V as Princess Taema, just as in the examples on that Narukami page. To my surprise, Narukami was a humorous play, and done with real artistry by the two men and their supporting cast. It made all the difference that they were older men playing the parts of younger people — their depth, composure and maturity threw the characters’ inexperience and immaturity into stark relief, making it even funnier. Ichikawa Danjuro honestly seemed to be having the time of his life; his performance was inspired. If he always performs like that, he’s an incredible artist indeed. For a play that was first premiered in 1684, Narita-ya has kept all its vivacity; it does not “feel” 325 years old at all.

Online you can read that kabuki pursues “on-stage expression that goes beyond mere realism.” In an era of digital special effects and never knowing what’s real and what’s not, I was amazed at how kabuki truly does evoke sensations and feelings in its audience. In Narukami, after Princess Taema has cut the cord imprisoning the dragon gods of rain, a thunderstorm begins. And you know it’s a thunderstorm, because the enormous, roaring o-daiko is the thunder, and the deafening, scintillating shamisen are the rain. It took me several minutes of childlike wonder before I finally figured out that the rain was, in fact, the musicians plucking their shamisen backstage, and not a digital effect. In short, an unforgettable experience. I hope to be able to attend kabuki again someday; it also reminded me of the better ballets and operas I’ve seen in my life, and how wonderful those can be too.

モナコでの歌舞伎 – Kabuki in Monaco

Posted in Journal, La France at 12:19

Yesterday evening, while walking to the bus stop to go home for the weekend, I noticed that the advertisement had changed, and had a Kabuki actor. To my great delight, on approaching close enough to read it, it was indeed for Kabuki, in Monaco! I could hardly believe my eyes. As long-time readers may remember, I’ve always loved Japanese culture and the Japanese language, and five years ago, nearly went to teach English in Japan, having been accepted by an elementary school on the outskirts of Kyoto. Kabuki is a popular form of Japanese theatre that was founded some 400 years ago. Invitation to Kabuki is an excellent site with information about its particularities.

Once at home, I went straight to the “Kabuki in Monaco” website to reserve tickets, and was overjoyed that I could get a spot for next Saturday evening’s performance. The first two kabuki actors are the most prestigious in Japan: Ichikawa Danjuro XII and his son Ebizo XI, of the Narita-ya kabuki guild. From their site: “Narita-ya is the yago, or guild name, of the Ichikawa family, the best known acting family in Edo kabuki. Narita-ya is also the earliest known yago in all kabuki.” As for the third, Nakamura Tokizo V is a well-known onnagata actor, meaning he plays female roles. The play they’ll be performing, “Narukami“, likely means that Nakamura will play Princess Taema, one of his best roles, and one of the Ichikawas will play the priest Narukami — indeed, the “Narukami” link has video of Nakamura Tokizo V and Ichikawa Danjuro XII playing those very roles.

As for the dance “Kagami Jishi” (The Mirror Lion, 鏡狮子 in Japanese), I was able to find it on YouTube, in several parts. It’s played by a different actor (Bando Tamasaburo V), and has nice commentary in English:
Kagami Jishi, part I
Kagami Jishi, part II
Kagami Jishi, part III
Kagami Jishi, part IV
Kagami Jishi, part V
Kagami Jishi, part VI
Kagami Jishi, part VII