Thursday, 29 August 2013

Project Verdi : Nabucco

Shaken by the failure of Un Giorno di Regno, Verdi almost gave  up on opera altogether. Still, he had a contract from La Scala for three more works that needed to be fulfilled. One story relates that he fell upon Temostocle Solera's libretto for Nabucco (or Nabucadonosor,as it was originally titled) with delight and set to work immediately in a frenzy of inspiration. Another relates that he practically had to be dragged kicking and screaming to his piano. Whatever the truth, the work premiered at La Scala in 1842 and was an immediate, colossal success. Wagner would spend much of the next twenty years mired in debt and political and personal scandal; but Verdi's reputation was now all but assured.

There's a number of interesting things about Nabucco, not least that it's one of surprisingly few operas based on a story from the Bible (what might we give to be able to hear Wagner's aborted Jesus von Nazareth?). It's easy enough now in a more secular age, but in Verdi's time depicting biblical characters on stage wasn't really considered "proper".

It's most famous, of course, for Va, pensiero (or "the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves") which has almost become a second Italian national anthem. But first and foremost it will always remind me of the chorus of Scottish Opera who sang it during the curtain call at a performance of La Boheme, in protest against threatened job cuts by a penny-pinching Scottish Executive. It had been a good Boheme,  but it was this moment that properly reduced us to tears.

The Plot (in brief) :  During the Babylonian Captivity, Nabucco/Nebuchadnezzar declares himself a god and is struck down by a thunderbolt; whilst Abigaille (who may, or may not be his daughter) plots to usurp his throne. Nabucco converts to Judaism just in time, and tells the Israelites they can all go home. Abigaille poisons herself and dies, but not before begging for forgiveness.

The Recording : that most cerebral of conductors, Giuseppe Sinopoli, and the Deutsche Oper of Berlin; with Piero Cappuccilli, ,Placido Domingo, Ghena Dimitrova, and Lucia Popp in the minor role of Anna.

I can't quite bring myself to love Nabucco. It's conventionally written, but there's plenty of good bits and the music carries the drama well enough. I think it's the role of Abigaille : with its extremely high tessitura it's a killer of a role to sing which, unfortunately, means it can be a bit of a killer to listen to as well. After a while I started to find it grating instead of thrilling. Perhaps I just needed a different recording, but there's no time for that now. On to 1843 and I Lombardi.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Alison Lapper

I don't like Marc Quinn's retrospective at the Cini Foundation. The best work there is over ten years old; and the more recent stuff seems tired, derivative and ugly. I say this to demonstrate that I'm not some sort of Quinn fanboy who'll defend every last piece of his to the death.

More interesting to my mind is his giant inflatable sculpture outside, just next to the church of San Giorgio Maggiore. Entitled "Breath", it hasn't gone without comment.

It originated as a life-size marble sculpture on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square nearly a decade ago, entitled "Alison Lapper Pregnant". Lapper is an English artist who was born with phocomelia (not due to thalidomide, as is sometimes reported). She has no arms, and her legs are truncated at the knee. She was institutionalised throughout most of her childhood. As an adult, she faced a battle to prevent her son from being taken into care, social services believing that a mother faced with  everyday challenges such as hers could not possibly take care of a child as well. She would kick your arse if you dared to feel sorry for her or use words such as "inspirational" within earshot.

None of this, of course, means that "Breath" is any good. But whether it is, or is not, any good as a work of art is beside the point. Because most of the criticism of the piece isn't about its merits as a sculpture but, rather, as to whether it should be where it is.

It's purple. Well yes it is, undeniably so. It's hardly bright day-glo purple though. Would it make any difference if it was made of pink Verona marble?

It's too big. Yes, it's big, but it's still dwarfed by the adjacent church. Besides, its scale is important : would you like it to be just a little bit smaller and tucked away somewhere less visible? Tough, says Quinn : if you find the image disturbing, that's your problem.

It's out of place : If you look back towards the centro storico from San Giorgio Maggiore, to the left of the Ducal Palace, your eyes will fall upon the Sansovino library. Or rather, they won't, as one side of it is entirely obscured by a billboard for Gucci sunglasses. So what's out of place?

At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if you like Quinn or not. It doesn't matter if you like "Breath" or not. What we have here is an image of a pregnant woman next to a church. If you find it ugly, or upsetting, or out of place...ask yourself why...

Friday, 23 August 2013

The Gym of Despondency

If you can't be good, you should at least be memorably bad.

We've seen some fantastic work at the Biennale : Bedwyr Williams, Bill Culbert, the Andorrans, a video work by Daniel Pesta on Giudecca that was so good you wanted to collar passers-by and drag them in to see it immediately.

And then, there's the stuff that's not so good. Not bad, just a bit unmemorable. Luxembourg? I have a vague memory of electric guitars hanging from the ceiling but little more. Angola? Not bad as such  but given it was competing for space with works by, amongst others, Piero della Francesca, I've got no particularly strong memories of it. Montenegro? Have we even been to Montenegro? Things are starting to blur, and we've not even touched the Giardini yet.

Which is why, if you can't make fantastic work, you should go all out to make something properly bad. In this respect the Biennale has much in common with the Edinburgh Festival : I must have seen hundreds of well-meant but unexciting "well made plays" over the years. I can't remember the title of a single one of them. But Murder in the Heart, the Latin opera about the life of the Yorkshire Ripper? Over ten years later I can record almost every single minute of the twenty that we managed to stick it out.

What this Biennale has lacked so far is the pleasure of seeing something memorably awful. So step forward, please, Lithuania and Cyprus.

It starts well enough, by virtue of the fact it's held in one of the strangest buildings in Venice. Hidden away behind the naval museum near the Arsenale is the Palasport, a piece of 1970s brutalist architecture. It looks so out of place that the mind almost refuses to acknowledge it. You've walked halfway along its length before suddenly thinking "hang on, what did I just see there?".

The interior is even stranger. Venice has a graffiti problem, but at least this is usually confined to the outside of buildings. Here, it's the inside that's been vandalised, which gives the interior spaces a slightly threatening feel, akin to the underpass scenes in A Clockwork Orange.

We were actually expecting two separate pavilions, but it seems that Lithuania and Cyprus (not, geographically at least, the most obvious partners) have a co-venture this year. And the art itself...?

Well, as we wind our way up the stairs and through the intimidating corridors, we encounter some photographs of 1970s Soviet athletes which have a certain kitsch appeal if nothing else. We come across some precisely arranged stacks of paper which turn out to be a deconstructed exhibition catalogue. And then we emerge at the top of the basketball court.

Various pieces are arranged in the stands, and others down on the court itself. An IKEA style cabinet blocks the spectators' entrance; its unique point being, apparently, its lack of 90 degree angles. Fragments of wall are dotted around the court. In the midst of these is something resembling a large room divider or bookcase, helpfully described as "a multipurpose room installation". Bits of tree are piled up at one end of the court, although we're unable to determine if the plastic wrapping behind it is part of the piece or if they just haven't finished unwrapping it all yet. The scoreboards at each end flash up the numbers 0 - 15 in binary; which may be of possible interest to those who have encountered neither the binary system nor, indeed, the electric light.

I try to keep an open mind. OK, the art might not be up to much, but the space is quite interesting. Then again, you're on to a loser if the best you can say about an exhibition is "the art wasn't great, but at least the space felt slightly threatening". I read and reread the guide but my eyes just keep sliding off it. And then it hits me : this is Rubbish. No, not just Rubbish. We have left the Zone of Rubbish and have entered the Arena of the Pitiful.

We stand in silence and survey the bits of wall, and the bits of tree, and the room divider. The scoreboards continue to count from zero to fifteen, in silent admonishment.

"This is bollocks isn't it?", says Caroline.

I nod, happily. It most certainly is.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Ciao Silvio?

I was in Rome in 1994, when Silvio Berlusconi won his first election. I didn't know much about him, but what I knew I didn't like. Still, when his government fell later that year I assumed I'd never hear of him again.

Lesson 1 : Italian politics is not like ours.

Lesson 2 : Never, ever write off Silvio Berlusconi.

The journalist Curzio Maltese compares him to a serial killer in a Dario Argento movie; the figure that rears up from the dead, ready to strike, its plastic face immobile and impassive, just when the audience thinks it's safe to relax.

So you might have thought -  having lost his final appeal in the Court of Cassation, receiving a one year sentence of house arrest and a ban from public office - that the great pantomime villain of European politics was gone for good. Not a bit of it.

Firstly, he's not quite run out of appeals yet : he can appeal to the President for a pardon. His ego won't allow him to do this directly (it would, for one thing, actually mean admitting he was guilty), but his people immediately started putting pressure on Giorgio Napolitano to do so. Why on earth would he agree to do this? For the simple reason that Berlusconi has the ability to bring down the fragile coalition government of Enrico Letta. Napolitano desperately wants to avoid this - he knows that what Italy needs above all is a measure of stability, and a reform of its wretched electoral laws. None of this will be possible, for the foreseeable future, if Letta's coalition crumbles.

Nevertheless, it seems that Berlusconi may not call for a pardon. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, he has two upcoming trials and a further appeal in the "Ruby" case, and if he loses this one he faces a very stiff jail sentence indeed. In other words, it's not in his interests to use his "Get Out of Jail Free" card now when it might prove more useful in the future.

The other reason is : why blackmail the President when you can just blackmail the Government directly? As a result of his conviction he should, by law,  be automatically disqualified from public office for life. This does, however, require a vote by a majority of the Senate. The threat is : vote against me and I'll bring the
government down. And then, the next time my party returns to power we'll change the law to quash my conviction. And we'll give the legal system and the magistrates a good seeing-to as well.

Depressing? Yes. It's been a bad summer for Berlusconi, but it's not turning out to be a great one for Letta or Napolitano. He's down, but certainly not out, and - for the moment - he is going precisely nowhere.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Project Verdi : Un giorno di regno

The second opera of the project, and it's this unloved comedy from 1840. It dates from perhaps the blackest period in Verdi's life :  in the space of two years he had lost both his wife and his two children. He found himself with a commission from La Scala to write a comedy to an existing libretto but his heart really wasn't in it.  In the end he ended up choosing the one he disliked the least.

Un giorno di regno (roughly translated as King for a day) was an absolute disaster. Cancelled after just one performance, it almost stopped Verdi's career in its tracks. It would be over fifty years before he attempted another comic opera. It's rarely performed, even today, and carries a reputation as an early, clumsy misfire.

The plot : A French cavalry officer needs to impersonate the King of Poland and...oh look, you can probably work it out from the title. Mistaken identities with hilarious consequences, and it all comes right in the end.

The recording : There aren't all that many, but I ended up using Lamberto Gardelli's version with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and an extraordinary cast that includes Jessye Norman, Fiorenza Cossotto and Jose Carreras.

The piece itself is less obviously Verdian than Oberto, and it's Rossini's influence that dominates here. In short, I expected to hate it. And at the first listen, I did. Still, I thought be it deserved a second chance, and I liked it rather more. By the third attempt I was forced to concede that it might be a right load of old nonsense, but it's also tremendous fun.

Verdi, on the other hand, seems to have been keen to forget it. Still, his next work would be Nabucco, and then everything starts to change...

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Incidente a Rialto

Venice rarely makes the national news over here. If it does, it's usually either on the cultural pages or  the subject of gloomy articles about the future of the city asking “What Is To Be Done?”. Yet, last Saturday morning, I logged on to La Repubblica to find a front page article about an accident on the Grand Canal, near the Ponte Rialto. A tourist, it seemed, had been killed in a collision between a vaporetto and a gondola.

A family of five German tourists had been boarding a gondola. Any information beyond that is still contradictory – the vaporetto was out of control; it took evasive action to avoid collision with another boat; it was reversing; it hit the gondola side on; the gondola should not have been moored where it was. What we do know is that the vaporetto struck the gondola, pitching the passengers into the water. A university professor from Munich, a father of three, was crushed between the boat and the jetty.

The reaction was astonishing. The gondoliers staged a day of mourning, each ferro wrapped with a strip of black; and a brief ceremony of remembrance was held at the Rialto the very next day. It's a generation since someone was last killed in an accident involving a gondola, yet there is, perhaps, a feeling that this was an accident waiting to happen, with vaporetti, gondolas, taxis, and commercial boats all competing for space on one of the busiest stretches of the canal. Investigations are ongoing, but it wasn't long before recriminations started. La Nuova reported isolated incidents of gondoliers shouting Assassini at vaporetto crews.

As to what can be done : suggestions include limiting the number of vaporetti on the canal (impractical),  prohibiting gondolas from operating during certain times of day (unthinkable), or severely restricting the number of moorings in the busiest parts of the canal. Not for the first time, Venice finds itself caught between the demands of a city that depends on mass tourism, and a city that needs to provide essential public services to its residents.

By Monday, the gondola service was back to normal. The occasional ferro was still banded in black, but, on the whole, tourists were being ferried around with songs and music as normal. Business, after all, is business.

Monday, 19 August 2013


We miss the Edinburgh Festivals. We miss the excitement of waking up when the programme is announced, of clearing our calendars at work to give us time to look at what's coming up, of haggling over what we have to book now and what can wait until the reviews start coming in. We miss those all day sessions at the Traverse, before anything has been reviewed and everything is still unknown and potentially brilliant; and of performances in strange little spaces that we didn't even know existed.

There's nothing similar in Venice. Yes, there's a theatre scene, but this is a city of less than 60,000 people and it can't hope to compare to Edinburgh in that respect.

And then we discovered that Venice has a Theatre Biennale. I say "we" - Caroline already knew about it. I just hadn't been paying attention. It's not much more than a week in length, but contains all sorts of exciting work

We'd just come back from holiday, so, being on a limited budget and having no real idea as to what things would be like, we restricted ourselves to three performances.

Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi was a huge influence on the Theatre of the Absurd, on 20th century drama in general, and on writers such as Ionesco, Beckett, Genet and Pinter. Embarrassing, then, to admit that I've never actually seen it. The performance was from the stable of Declan Donnellan and Cheek by Jowl, so we were expecting great things. We were also expecting it to be in English. A bit of a surprise, therefore, to find it was in French with Italian surtitles.

Nevertheless, it was a fantastic piece of theatre, in a blissfully cool, air-conditioned Fenice. The most striking moment was perhaps halfway through, in a scene where Ubu summons and castigates a group of magistrates, before having them taken out and executed. And it suddenly struck me : Ubu is Berlusconi. This is an extraordinary coincidence – Donnellan cannot possibly have known this in advance – but Il Cavaliere had lost his final appeal for one of his ongoing cases only a few days previously; and had spent much of the intervening period raging against plots against him by the judiciary.

The parallels are almost perfect : a stupid, corrupt man finds himself in a position of absolute power because wielding power is the one thing he happens to be good at. And the staging - a bourgeois Parisian dinner party - could serve as a metaphor for Berlusconi's  “elegant dinners” at the Villa Arcore.

Next up was Io, Banquo at the Teatro Piccolo Arsenale. Again, we'd got this a bit wrong. We'd assumed it was a performance by Tim Crouch, a frequent visitor to the Edinburgh Fringe. Instead, it was actually a piece by Crouch, interpreted by an Italian actor.

There's something of a feeling of deja vu upon entering, as the space is very reminiscent of Glasgow's Tramway :-

Crouch's play is basically Macbeth through the eyes of Banquo. A dapper man in a white suit walks up to the front of the stage, surveys the audience, and points at a man in the row in front of us.

"Imagine we are friends. Imagine we are great friends. Imagine...".

He pulls up a floorboard, reaches into the space below, and withdraws his hand, now soaked in blood.

The story is a familiar one, but it's a wonderfully charismatic performance; perhaps a little bit weakened by the audience participation element - not everyone wants to get involved, and sometimes foreigners are picked out who don't understand what's going on. Thankfully, he never picked on us.

Banquo has left the building

I was back in the UK for the weekend, and so missed Ibsen's An Enemy of the People at the Teatro Goldoni, which we expected to be in Flemish, but turned to be in German. Caroline reported that this was a first-class modern production with Bowie on the soundtrack and, yes, some slightly confusing audience participation. She returned home at around 1.00 am, a proper Festival-type hour.

So that was our first year of the Theatre Bieannale, reminding us how much we've missed good theatre. A season ticket is around the 200 euro mark - I suspect we might very well be tempted in two years time.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Visions of China

The Chinese had never exhibited at the Venice Biennale until twenty years ago, but this year they are absolutely everywhere. They have more pavilions than handbag shops. The vast space of the Arsenale Nord is hosting a compendious survey of contemporary art from China, "Voice of the Unseen".

There are almost two hundred different artists represented. Some of it is brilliant, but an awful lot is mediocre; and, above all, there is simply too much of it. After more than a couple of hours the mind is just not up to concentrating any more, and the eyes are sliding off the exhibits.

This is  a shame, as there is plenty of good stuff to check out here. The trouble is that what you perceive as the good stuff is very much dependent on how sore your feet are.

Still, we were quite taken by this :-

- the seat at the end was apparently reserved for a statue of Mao, but the piece was mysteriously damaged before it could be shipped. In the meantime, Caroline stepped in to help out the Cultural Revolution.

Another piece demonstrates the problem with the volume of work on display :-

- a haunting portrayal of exhausted miners in the aftermath of a disaster, it feels crammed in and overwhelmed by the surrounding pieces.

The best, perhaps, is one that you can't actually see at all :-

- the crate contains six versions of a painting depicting the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, with each one changed to take account of the prevailing mood of the time, adding or subtracting key figures depending on their official status in Party history at that moment. It was not allowed to be displayed in China, and so the artwork has now become the packing case with an explanatory note. The message is powerful in its simplicity : things have changed, but not all that much.

The Andorra pavilion is also to be found in Arsenale Nord. Dwarfed by the size of the Chinese exhibition, it comprises just three works by three artists. Yet it's one of the best things we've seen so far : intelligent, beautiful and well thought out, it's a perfect example of less being more.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Project Verdi

It's a year of anniversaries. Two hundred years of Verdi and Wagner. One hundred years of Britten. One hundred years since The Rite of Spring. Peter Cushing, the gentleman of horror, would have been 100 on May 26th. Doctor Who is 50.

There was, I thought, a little side-Project in one of these. There's something about the nature of anniversaries which appeals to me in a very blokey way. A sense of completeness, of ticking things off.. Which to choose though?

Strangely, Wagner was the obvious one to decide against. Now, I bow to no-one in my admiration for The Master of Bayreuth. I have more recordings than is sensible. I spent my fortieth birthday watching Gergiev conducting The Ring. I have been fortunate enough to go to Bayreuth. I have been known to refer to him as The Master, which is possibly going a bit far. But for precisely these reasons, a Wagner Project seems unnecessary. Yes, it would be fun to listen to every work in chronological order, but I've done that in the past and will do so again. Quixotically, a Wagner-light year might be a good break.

I actually started trying to watch every episode of Doctor Who, but by the end of February I'd not even reached the end of William Hartnell's first year. The remaining 30-odd seasons wouldn't leave much time for other things. Like sleeping. Or eating. Not without a certain amount of regret, I abandoned the idea.

Every Cushing movie and surviving TV appearance, then? The trouble is that, even in these days of nearly everything being on YouTube, I didn't want to get halfway through and find that there were recordings I just couldn't get hold of. And, let's be honest, I probably don't need to see Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires again.

That left Britten and Verdi. Well, of the two, I suspect I might find a year working through Britten to be the more interesting. But, crucially, there are huge swathes of Verdi that are completely unknown to me. Now some of what I've heard is fantastic (Don Carlo, Simon Boccanegra) and some leaves me a bit cold (never managed to understand all the fuss about Falstaff). But it's a big old gap in my musical education that needs to be filled, and, besides, we're in Italy.

So Project Verdi it is then. Every opera, in order, by the end of the year; and hopefully the Requiem and the Quattro Sacri Pezzi as well. Why am I blogging this? For the simple reason that I'll give up if I don't write about it.

So here we go. Verdi's first opera, Oberto, Conte di Bonifaccio

The recording I used is Sir Neville Marriner's with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields; with Samuel Ramey, Maria Guleghina, Violetta Urmana, and Stuart Neill.

Leonora, daughter of Count Oberto, has been seduced by Riccardo; soon to marry Cuniza, the sister of Oberto's great enemy Ezzelino. Oberto swears terrible vengeance, but Riccardo kills him in a duel. Cuniza is broken-hearted. Riccardo realises he has done a great wrong and goes into exile, leaving all he possesses to Leonora, who renounces it all in order to become a hermit. There's no happy ending to speak of.

Verdi was in his mid-20s when he started work on Oberto, and it took him nearly four years to complete. It was first performed at La Scala on 17th November 1839 and met with a modest amount of success.

Oberto rarely gets a run-out these days, which seems a bit of a shame as it's actually rather good. What's surprising, perhaps, is how instantly Verdian it all sounds. It took Wagner three operas to find his voice, but Verdi seems to have known what he wanted right from the great opening four chords of the overture. There are plenty of good tunes and shouty choruses; although it's not short of a bit of note-spinning, or what I like to call "going to the shops" arias. It's a bit insubstantial perhaps, but not short of rousing moments. Very enjoyable, and worth checking out. A good start to the Project.

Saturday, 3 August 2013


In 2011, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was arrested and held for 81 days. His period of detention was spent in a tiny cell with constant light, under permanent supervision from two guards. His family were never informed of his whereabouts. He is still prohibited from leaving the country.

Yet he's a major presence at the Biennale this year. His installation Straight is at the Zitelle complex on Giudecca, and he's one of the artists representing Germany at their official pavilion in the Giardini (or rather the French pavilion - our crazy German chums have swapped spaces with the French and are only exhibiting non-German artists this year. But this is another story for another time). And a new work, SACRED, has been developed especially for the church of Sant'Antonin.

Upon entering, the viewer is confronted with six seemingly solid rust-coloured blocks; featureless apart from the shape of a door, and some small (almost invisible at first sight) windows. The temptation, of course, would be to try the door; but it's immediately obvious that the shape is only incised into the surface. But the first glance through one of the windows is something of a shock : we look into a brightly lit cell, in which
the central figure (immediately recognisable as a small mannequin of the artist himself) goes about his daily business - eating, sleeping, using the bathroom - all the time under the gaze of two impassive guards. We move from block to block, wondering what the miniature Ai Weiwei will be up to in this one. It becomes an odd, disconcerting feeling. It feels intrusive and voyeuristic, Big Brother style, which is presumably the whole point.

It's worth visiting in its own right, but the chance to look around Sant'Antonin is something of a bonus. The church was designed by Baldassare Longhena, although the facade was never completed; and, as a result, is somewhat anonymous-looking from outside. It was closed in 1982, but has been undergoing restoration in recent years; and it's usually impossible to visit without pre-booking a tour.

Given that, I try to make the most of the opportunity and take a couple of photographs.

One of the invigilators sees us taking an interest in the church and comes over to talk. Work, he says, is ongoing but he has no idea if it will ever reach the stage where it can be opened up to the public again. He talks us through some of the art : to the left of the altar is a Last Judgement (a rather less grim version than many); and, to the right, The Sacrifice of Noah by Pietro il Vecchio. Directly behind the altar is The Martyrdom of Sant'Antonin by a Venetian artist so obscure that this is his only known work (and whose name, unfortunately, now escapes me).

The organ looks to be in splendid condition and, indeed, ,it turns out to have been recently restored - the only problem being that the restoration was only cosmetic, and it can't actually be played. Unfortunately, if understandably,  it wasn't considered a priority to have a fully functioning organ in a permanently empty church.

The recently restored chapel of San Saba is decorated with works by Jacopo Negreti, better known as Palma il Giovane. Palma is ubiquitous in Venice. There is scarcely a church without a work by him. As a young man, he found a place in the workshop of the elderly Titian, and famously completed his master's Pieta after his death. Following the death of Tintoretto, he found himself the pre-eminent artist in Venice. And yet, I have to to say, I have never seen a work by him that has particularly moved me, or amazed me, or made me feel anything other than a general shrugging of the shoulders. The predominant impression I have of him is a preponderance of brown. Lots and lots of brown on dark, shadowy canvases. Now it may be that I'm doing him a disservice, and that perhaps the majority of his works are merely in need of restoration. The works in the chapel are typical, if perhaps ever-so-slightly less brown than usual. If you like his work, it's worth your while making a visit. If not, well, they won't change your mind.

And so we take our leave of Sant'Antonin. It's worth pointing out that you're not allowed to photograph the church itself, only the contemporary works. I snapped the picture of the altar, before being informed; and then took the one of the organ as discreetly as I could. And then, of course, the young chap who showed us around was so nice, friendly, and informative that I immediately felt guilty. Call it karma, if you like.

Nervetti : The Return

A Tuesday night, and we've treated ourselves to dinner at Ai Mercanti, which might be our new favourite restaurant in Venice. An interesting, quirky place that seems to specialise in putting a modern spin on the traditional cuisine of the Veneto.

Now, you might remember our first encounter with nervetti, perhaps a year ago, after which we decided that gelatinous cubes of pressed calf's foot were not something that needed to be tried again. And yet there it is on the menu, drawing my eyes inexorably towards it. A salad of nervetti, with prawns, avocado and wasabi.

Stupid idea. We've come out for a nice meal, why would I want to spoil the experience by ordering something that I am almost certainly not going to like?

On the other hand, how bad can something with prawns, avocado and wasabi be? Chances are you won't even be able to taste the nervetti under that lot. And this is probably as good as it's ever going to be. So maybe I should give it a go?

I shake my head. It's gelatinous, pressed calf's foot. There are all sorts of lovely things on the menu, why would I even consider having a salad of gelatinous, pressed calf's foot. Silly, silly idea. I'm decided. I'm not having it.

The waiter comes to take our order.

 "I'd like the nervetti, please", I say.

And then I put my head in my hands.

Well, it arrives. The plate is covered in a thin layer of something that kind of resembles a sheet of bubble wrap after all the bubbles have been burst, as if different bits of jelly have somehow been melted together. I prod it aside with my fork and, underneath, is a beautifully composed salad of leaves, prawns, radishes, avocado and wasabi.

I cut myself a piece of semi-translucent jelly.

It's...not horrible. It's sort of ok. It's not actively unpleasant. It is actually extremely bearable.

The salad, by contrast, is an absolutely lovely thing; and the odd dab of wasabi here and there serves to make the nervetti even more tolerable.

I clear my plate. I'm not quite sure what to think about it. The salad was delicious, but wouldn't it have been better on its own? Yes, it served to make the signature element of the dish not horrible; but, really, if you're going out for a meal then "not horrible" should kind of be your minimum expectation.

I feel modestly happy that I gave it a go. But it really doesn't need to be done again.

Almost certainly.