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We don’t go to Teatro Grattacielo’s annual concert opera to hear the rare (often unknown) Verismo opera that’s been dug up for the occasion, though sometimes these scores are surprisingly entertaining—surprising because you wonder how a score like Montemezzi’s La Nave or Zandonai’s I Cavalieri di Ekebu ever got lost. On other occasions, you’re not surprised at all.  

What we go to Grattacielo for is fresh young voices singing their guts out. There are always one or two, often half a dozen, who make you wonder where they have been, where they got their excellent training, how Grattacielo found them and paid them to learn and rehearse this one-shot wonder (and there are covers who must learn it, too—and once, for Mascagni’s Il Piccolo Marat, a lead tenor summoned at the last moment when the star and his replacement bowed out). All the lonely young singers—where do they all belong? They should be heard. They should be heard by us, by opera-lovers who appreciate them.

Tuesday night’s extravaganza at NYU’s Skirball Center on Washington Square, Franco Alfano’s Sakùntala, was typical. A succes d’estime at its 1921 Bologna premiere, it remained so little known that when Ricordi’s warehouse was bombed during World War II, the orchestrations were destroyed and had to be recreated from scratch by the composer (who only had a piano score) for a 1952 revival, the version used by Grattacielo, though the originals did turn up in time for performances in 2006 that are available on youtube (say the program notes). There have been several revivals since then at Rome and Wexford; Olivero did not disdain the title role.

Sakùntala is based on a fifth-century Sanskrit drama by Kalidasa about the mystical birth of Bharata, eponymous progenitor of the Indian nation, Bharatavarsha. The opera is so extravagant in its fragrant Orientalism that the composer became the obvious choice to complete Turandot when Puccini died three years later, his last act an incomplete muddle. (India, China—East is East, right? And on the opera stages of the West, they often meet.) Turandot ruined Alfano—hardly anyone remembers him now for anything else. But he did compose other operas. Teatro Grattacielo had given us Alfano’s Risurezzione; on Tuesday night, they got around to Sakùntala.

This appears to have been the New York premiere of the opera and my guess is its dernière, too. The score, sumptuously orchestrated, is mostly atmosphere and very slight substance—it had none of the juice Alfano put into Turandot, where he had Puccini’s notes and previous scenes to build on. Vocal lines consist of arioso declamation over intricate orchestration. It is clear why conductors prefer Verismo to, say, Bel Canto or early Verdi—they have far more interesting and glory-making tasks to perform. Orchestra and scenery are the heart and soul of this repertory, where singers were the heart of Bel Canto. The scenery of Sakùntala was superbly hummable, even against the pipes and bricks of the back wall of Skirball Center, and Israel Gursky led a taut, swift-moving performance full of exquisite instrumental colors.

The title role of a priestess loved and betrayed by a king (but destined to be the mother of India) was taken by Michelle Johnson, who sang Aida in Glimmerglass last year. She has a shining soprano, beautifully warm and apparently tireless, ably conveying awakening love and passionate desperation. A beat crept into her first bursts of passion but that soon disappeared. She did not have much chance to display the floating tones of an Aida, but I’d be eager to hear her try them. Shirin Eskandani and Asako Tamura, assistant priestesses, also sang with authority and sensuous personality.

The caddish King went to that necessary Verismo central figure, the stentorian tenor, in this opera almost as thankless as Butterfly’s Pinkerton. Raúl Melo took a scene or two to warm to the task, but his anguish when magical veils of forgetfulness were lifted from his eyes was phrased with distinction. Lower voices were gratefully taken by Ashraf Sewailam (a Grattacielo stalwart who should be more widely heard), Peter Kendall Clark, Damian Savarino, Young Bok Kim and Kirk Dougherty. In a full staging, no doubt, the climate would have obliged many of these figures to appear bare-chested, but even without such distractions they filled the evening with macho thrills. (The ladies’ formal gowns were far better able to nod to Oriental motif.)


  • Belfagor says:

    I’m reposting this, as it got lost on a longer thread.

    Mr Yohalem, you phrase your reactions much more elegantly, but I totally concur. Very enjoyable performance, and half way through I regretted they weren’t doing another opera -- I would have enjoyed hearing Michelle Johnson in Giordano’s ‘Siberia’, or Alfano’s ‘Risurrezione’ (though I know Grattacielo have done this before) -- something that was more rewarding.

    I was there — sitting behind a SEA of queens, all comparing interior decorating pictures on phones during the intervals….figured there might be some parterriani there — not to mention many blonde ladies with dubious face lifts………

    Thoroughly enjoyed it, even if the piece is crap. I mean -- the orchestral writing is delicious, but it all goes in one ear and out the other, the story is very undramatic and not very much happens — many priests in bit parts telling us predestined this and foretold that. Ungrateful to sing, no memorable lines, huge rolling climaxes that get nowhere, and the huge final chorus (with extra trumpets and bells) can’t clinch anything, and ended on a tonal centre that sounded incomplete, as if it were a huge Richard Strauss dominant preparation that never released and climaxed. It was music that incessantly humped your leg, like a badly behaved pooch, and got absolutely nowhere. You certainly hear flashes of the end of Turandot here and there, though the ultra-scented idiom veers more between Debussy, Ravel, and Szymanowski.

    However I thought there were some classy voices on show — Michelle Johnson was a true verismo stylist, some nice chest (both vocal and otherwise) and sailed over the orchestra and was terrific in the higher reaches — not as ample a sound as some, but I quite liked its slightly wiry quality — it had muscle. There was a good mezzo, new to NY -- Shirin Eskandani, a lovely timbre -- as a maid in waiting. Raul Melo as the tenorissimo King managed all the stentorian stuff very ably, and phrased very musically (not many phrases in this opera alas, all declamation). Apart from the title role, none of the roles are very long, so you didn’t fear for anyone’s health (unlike ‘La nave’ last year) — and there were good voices in the plethora of bit parts, particularly Young Bok Kim as the missing father and seer. Terrific choral contributions (much virtuoso wordless ‘Daphnis and Chloe’ type effects) and a very disciplined orchestra, very flexibly conducted.

    Couldn’t listen to it again, but interesting while it lasted…..

  • Camille says:

    Mr. Belfagor, it would have so gratifying to have met you or to at least attended the same event, but in preparation, I listened to the Teatro dell’Opera’s production of this opera, ever adjusting the sounds emitted by its protagonista, Sig.ra Patanè. That was a mistake. After hearing it once, I decided that a second hearing might prove fatal.

    I am still so sorry about having missed the boat with La Nave, on the other hand.

    Wish to g-d they would put on Parisina or Isabeau. I do remember their Iris, now long ago, with affection. Siberia is another one I would like to hear. Or Amica, written for Geraldine Farrar and in francese. Or that weird Guglielmo Ratcliff.

    This Sakùntala needed Arturo Toscanini’s slashing blue pencil. Once upon a timeI found a copy of an original of “Del primo pianto” from Turandot, scavenging around in a Ricordi store and snapped it up to take a look. Just some awful stententious and repetitive writing, beating the words over the head.

    Anyway, better luck next year and I hope to meet you then as you are one of my pet parterrians. And thank you, as always, to Mr. John, for his review.

    • Camille says:

      Have BEEN so gratifying…ecc.

    • Belfagor says:

      Chere Camille, it is all mutual. Yes, Isabeau would be great -- it is a strange mix of the earthy and the symbolic, but the characters at least tussle with each other. Parisina, on the other hand, might just maim someone -- the soprano and tenor parts are total killers, and while it has some of the best music Mascagni ever wrote (much better than one might expect) it really does need a blue pencil. There is an old recording of that from Rome with Gavazzeni, and Atarah Hazzan (have no idea who that was) which cuts the whole thing by an hour or more to about 2 1/2 hours, but I’ve never been able to find it.

      • Camille says:

        There is another recording of Parisina, the only one I have heard, which is on…wait…I think Bongiovanni label and stems from Teatro Giglio in Lucca. I don’t have time to look it up but you may find it if you try.

        I, for one, would LOVE to hear the Leoncavallo I Medici, which I remember a long time back Regina delle fate had something to say about or had seen. Was to have been his most ambitious work.

        Oh, and that reminds me of my other fave, Nerone, by povero Boito. It now may be heard on YouTube but I have a recording drom around 1970 which I need to listen to, now I have my lp turntable in action. Very weird sounding work but perhaps appropriate to the ancient world, especially the Via Appia Antica, with which I have a great and fond familiarity.

        • Belfagor says:

          The Bongiovanni one appears to be the one I mentioned above, from Rome. The only other one I’ve found is uncut, an RAI Milan recording with Emma Renzi and Michael Molese -- which ,hey presto, is complete on youtube

          I went to a concert perf in Frankfurt of ‘I Medici’ with Renato Bruson conducted by the late Marcello Viotti must have been the early 90′s? -- it was rather fun, I remember…..

          As for the Boito ‘Nerone’, it is a fascinating work, but the libretto is so vivid, what a shame papa Giuseppe never did it justice…..!

          • Camille says:

            Oh, that must be the one to which Regina delle fate referred to, as it is a real rarity.

            Thank you very much for the links, much appreciated.

            I did think, after listening to Dottor Antonio the other day, that I could hack Sakùntala but the lack of cadence and the eternal ongoing orgasmic miasma was just too damn much, especially on the heels of die Frau.


    • Henry Holland says:

      Another good Mascagni opera is Il piccolo Marat, which the Met was considering for Domingo and Scotto (they ended up doing Zandonai’s Francesca di Rimini instead).

      Here’s a good article about the opera:


      I think the post-WWI period in Italian opera is interesting, I’ve become a big fan of Respighi’s operas, especially La campana sommersa. It’s too bad that the one professional recording of it, from Montpellier, is ruined by the awful singing of John Dazak.

      I was also knocked out by Marie Victoire when I saw a production at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Of course, La Fiamma is produced occasionally.

      • Camille says:

        There is also a recording ofIl piccolo Marat (thank you for the mention, HH), which features Susan Neves, an Abigaille from the Met, a decade ago. Of course, there is a wonderful excerpt from it, with….whom…?Virginia Zeani, I think….on an ancient Cetra recording, too.

        What is the Marie Victoire about and like, Henry? I know nothing of it whatsoever, but would give a lot to hear a good production of La Fiamma, besides the existing one on CD or DVD or YouTube with Nelly Miriciouiu, from Rome, which is all right. Alessandra Marc sang it back when, with Queler and OONY and I wonder if a pirate recording exists. Probably in someone’s cellar on the Upper West Side…..

        La campanna sommersa I wonder about a lot, as it was a famous Rethberg vehicle back in her heyday, but I just have not heard anything at all from it. I once picked up a score to look at it but did not have really any time to study it so it remains a big lacuna.

        YES to Respighi operas! Perhaps Grattacielo has done some when I was not here; I should go check.

        • Henry Holland says:

          Marie Victoire is set in the French Revolution, the usual “Girl meets boy, boy is about to be beheaded but is saved at the last minute and they lived happily ever after” kind of thing. It’s very strong musically and made for a great evening in the theater, it’s one of the best productions I’ve seen in years. There’s a recording from that production:


          On that same trip I went to the DOB for Franchetti’s Germania, which I thought was OK. I love his Cristoforo Columbo, the choral outburst at the end of act II when they see land is one of my favorite bits of opera. Germania was too episodic for me, despite some terrific music, but again, the DOB production was fantastic. I also saw a production at DOB of Die Liebe der Danae that had a great “Eurotrash” set:


          No, I never figured out why that piano was hanging there. I also was again baffled why Strauss felt the need to insert an operetta-like comic interlude in to his operas. Oh well…..

          I love La campana sommersa (or as they’d call it in Germany, as it’s based on a Gerhart Hauptmann play, Die versunkene Glocke), it’s a wonderful story and Respighi’s score is terrific. There’s a pirate from Italian radio that’s not a contender because the score is cut to ribbons, but as I mentioned above, the Montpellier concert performance on CD is marred by John Dazak, who either can’t sing above piano without a huge wobble or was just having a bad night. Singers, can’t live with them etc.

          Probably in someone’s cellar on the Upper West Side…

          [shakes fist] Damn people on the Upper West Side who don’t share their old reel-to-reels and cassettes with everyone!


          There’s a couple of new Schreker CD releases that I’m looking forward to buying: a fantastic Die Gezeichneten from 1960 with Thomas Stewart, Evelyn Lear and Helmut Krebs that I’ve had on cassettes for ages and a Der Ferne Klang from 1948 with Ilsa Zeyen (?) and Heinrich Bensing (?) that looks very interesting.

          What these new releases made clear to me is that the radio archives of the BBC, Radio France and the various regional German radio companies must have/had a huge archive of performances that were recorded, aired once or twice and either filed away or destroyed. I’m convinced that there must have been a Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau King Roger in German recorded at some point. :-)

          • Belfagor says:

            The Respighi operas have in general fared quite well -- there are 3, maybe 4 recordings of ‘La fiamma’ -- with Ilona Tokody and Gardelli, Nelly Miricioiu, a historic one from the mid 50′s with Mara Coleva (?) -- don’t be fooled by this one as Anna Moffo gets top billing and she plays a tiny part -- and I’ve even seen a pirate one from when Caballe did it at the Liceu…It’s got great potential that opera, but has odd proportions, and I feel the inspiration drops off badly in the last act….

            mon dieu -- it’s on youtube!! A film -- well, I know what I shall be doing this evening…..

            And Gardelli did a series, including the opera named after ME -- with Sass and Kovacs (Laszlo, not Ernie) and a Semirama with Marton -- that’s an early score which I found rather suffocating and directionless, with much undigested Richard Strauss and Rimsky-Korsakov……..

            • papopera says:

              Belfagor named after you ! ! ! ! ah!ah!ah! that’s funny.

            • Belfagor says:

              Well, I am not an opera, I am the archidiavolo about whom Machiavelli wrote a novella, hence I don’t come with a sell by date, nor can I be aged…….

              I did watch the Fiamma with Caballe -- alas it’s rather late Caballe (1989) and the voice is not quite behaving itself, the night of passion with the tenor stepson Donello is maybe not something you want to imagine, the orchestra is very stretched at times, and the supporting cast is adequate (Nonna Eudossia is fun, she’s fairly deranged)……I rather enjoy the Tokody recording, as she sounds very involved, and at its best, she does a passable imitation of little Renata -- who probably would have devoured the scenery and blazed as Silvana, alas, but I guess we have her Francesca and Refice’s Cecilia to remember when visiting this recherché rep………..

              Now I will vanish in a puff of smoke….

          • Camille says:

            Thank you both, Belfagor and Henry, for all this information. It will be bookmarked and saved.

            It shows both a remarkable determination and resolve to go to the trouble of seeking these works out and giving them a fair listen, when they are so largely dismissed by most opera lovers and administrations.

            Much obliged.

    • Camille says:

      I checked their archive; they’ve already done Guglielmo Ratcliff and so now I am requesting Lodoletta.

      Or something of Cilèa, please and thank you.

  • Krunoslav says:

    Atarah Hazzan sang five leading soprano performances with the Met:

    Il Trovatore {454}
    New York, Brooklyn, Prospect Park; 06/16/1978

    Don Carlo {100}
    Metropolitan Opera House; 02/13/1979
    Debut: Atarah Hazzan
    Change of Performance

    Wozzeck {30}
    Metropolitan Opera House; 03/14/1980

    Wozzeck {31}
    Metropolitan Opera House; 03/19/1980
    Debut: Dana Watkins

    Otello {249}
    Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.; 04/25/1980

    Website to die for:


    • Belfagor says:

      mmm, Callas, Tebaldi and Olivero all in one sentence. How intriguing!

    • marshiemarkII says:

      She must have been a client of Edgar Vincent. That was a Vincent trademark, “Callas and Sutherland but better than the synthesis of the two”, and THAT was about a certain Murrikuhn singer that the wise Sir Rudolph refused to allow even near the door of the Met. But nothing like good copy, for Time Magazine to “create reality” per l’incauto.

  • oedipe says:

    Speaking of Alfano, the Met will revive Cyrano in an upcoming season, for Alagna.

    • Belfagor says:

      well that at least has a dramatic source to give it some skeleton…..and the music is slightly more neoclassical and varied, I seem to remember…..

      • oedipe says:

        I think the libretto is excellent. But I don’t know what the Met production is worth. I did see -and liked- the very elaborate production shared by SFO and Châtelet.

        • Belfagor says:

          possibly the Zambello one, which was shared with Covent Garden? -- I missed it, I remember……

          • Gualtier M says:

            Zambello production at the Met, very good straightforward work. The Roxane will be Parterre darling (right up there with Debbie Voigt, Nadja Michael and DDN…) -- PATRICIA RACETTE!!!

            I actually think both will be quite good -- however, the opera….

            • oedipe says:

              I think the perception of the opera does depend a lot on who sings it. And Cyrano is Alagna’s pet role. I heard him sing it and it is indeed a signature role for him.

            • manou says:

              Well I saw Domingo in Cyrano here at Covent Garden with La Rad as Roxanne. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I went with one of my many daughters and we were both quite emotional at the end.

  • Camille says:

    I look forward to hearing him in the role and am glad to hear it is a specialty tap dance for him. That I did not know. It’s one he can continue to sing during his fifties, so I reckon we shall be hearing a lot more of it.

    The first time I listened to Cyrano I was so turned off by the Domingo sound so found it difficult to concentrate on, so hopefully maybe this time it will go better. Merci.

    • oedipe says:

      Yes Camille, he loves the role so much that he used his own money to do a production of it and to issue a DVD. He said he identifies with the character because Cyrano is ugly on the outside…

  • papopera says:

    Most of the piano/vocal scores of the rare operas mentionned here are available on the IMSLibrary website. If no acceptable recordings available, at least they can be studied and played at home on your own piano. Its a fascinating sport to perform your own private operas.

    • Belfagor says:

      I’ve wasted many a year doing that -- trying to sing them too (only when the world is out of earshot)

      • papopera says:

        Its exactly what I’ve been doing too, attempting to sing all the voices. My grandmother hated it.
        It all started when I was 18 after a local performance of LOUISE (with Brenda Lewis). So I bought the piano/vocal and performed it uncut to me.
        Then I learned that Charpentier had written a sequel titled JULIEN and ordered from France its very fat piano/vocal score -- available on IMSL. I’ve never stopped including yesterday when I was studying the score of The Pipe of Desire on the keyboard.

        • Belfagor says:

          ‘Julien’ is one I’ve never investigated….though I do know the cantata ‘La vie d’un poet’ that preceded Louise and has many of the ideas for ‘Julien’ apparently……

          When I was 14 I found a vocal score of Massenet’s ‘Le mage’ in a junk shop -- after almost 40 years there is finally a recording available -- I prefer my version!

          The other great stand out, at 16, was discovering a totally unheard of opera (for me, or almost anyone else then) -- ‘The Invisible City of Kitezh’ -- played that one through endlessly…….certainly helped my sight-reading….

          What is ‘Pipe of Desire’ like?

          • Camille says:

            You simply MUST look over the score to Julien, Mr. Belfagor!
            I had the distinct pleasure and good luck of happening onto it in the conservatory where my husband studied, and I just loved it to death. It is the death-knell of the Belle Époque and décadence. The paen to “Beauté” is just one of its kind and yes, La Vie d’un Poète (of which there is a recording from the thirties or thereabouts, I’ll try to find it—I found it at Academy Records long aho—) is extrapulated from Julien, which not even the formidable combo platter of Caruso+Farrar succeeded in selling at the Met. There is a review in the Met Archives—I’m pretty sure I read it there, for where else?

            Additionally, Julien had the misfortune of debuting a few months before the commencement of the First World War. After all that got started, well, no one really had the time or inclination to loll around musing and amusing one’s self with philosophising BEAUTÊ.

            Pauvre Charpentier. He lived until 1956. At least he oversaw that film with Gracie Moore and someone recently wrote here that he helped Dottie with her interpretation of Louise as well. It is a terrible shame that this opera has just gone into limbo. I had hoped Fleming would give it the shot in the arm it needed at the centennial performances in San Francisco, but apparently not.

            Do give Julien a Sunday in the park spin. Lot more fun than Sakùntala ever was!

            • Belfagor says:

              Thank you for that Camille, it is a piece I have long meant to search out, as you know I am most partial to the belle époque

              La vie d’un poete is available in a new recording, a 2 disc survey of Charpentier’s Prix de Rome works, including his interesting ‘Impressions d’Italie’ and a cantata ‘Didon’ conducted by Herve Niquet (who I associate with much older stuff) -- I downloaded it from Amazon….good, not great performances, but in repertoire this rare, you can’t be too choosy….

            • oedipe says:

              Hervé Niquet seems to be moving more into the 19th century French rep: he will be conducting Félicien David’s Herculanum, with Véronique Gens and Karine Deshayes, at the Royal Opera in Versailles on March 8, 2014.

            • Camille says:

              you are more than welcome, à votre service! I did not know of the “Didon” cantata, either!

              Somewhere or another I read that Charpentier *stole* the aria of “Depuis le jour”! I cannot remember where I read it, sometime ago. The story went thus: some music student came to visit him and left the draft of the aria we all know and love for GC to review. And then he died, leaving it behind. Subsequently, GC incorporated it into his opera. I have no idea if it is true, but it does make one wonder!

            • papopera says:

              JULIEN ou LA VIE DU POÈTE contains magnificent music but the libretto is incompréhensible.
              It was revived, together with LOUISE, at the Dortmund Opera about 15 years ago. I wrote to them enquiring if it had been recorded. Sure enough it had and they sent me the house CDs of it -- no charge. I was delighted.

            • Camille says:

              Merci, cher papyopéra! That is simply marvelous.

    • Henry Holland says:

      I love the IMSL site, they have some full scores there that would cost anywhere from $300 -- $500 to buy from the publishers. To finally be able to study the orchestration to Die Tote Stadt was a revelation….

      • papopera says:

        About ten years ago I ordered the full orchestral “miniature” score of Frau Ohne Schatten. Price: CAD$ 350,00 !

        • Belfagor says:

          hate to say I just downloaded that from IMSLP -- also orchestra scores of ‘Agyptische Helena’, ‘Intermezzo’ and ‘Die Liebe der Danae’ -- amazing….

    • Sempre liberal says:

      I love IMSLP scores. Particularly the piano solo versions of operas (usually under the ‘arrangements’ tag.) There are some great ones on the site. On nights I’ve stayed overtime at work, I’ve printed out a few of the scores as my reward…

      • Camille says:

        Maybe I should look into all the IMSLP score love. I have too much music already, and I just was browsing Juilliard bookstore last night contemplating my latest plunders; but I should stop.

        For œdipe: Juilliard Bookstore now carries ‘your’ opera (by Enesco)!
        Years ago it was not to be found around in stores.

        • la vociaccia says:

          Camille- imslp is amazing. Give it a whirl. The only thing i’ve come to grief on were, after losing my Henle urtext, trying to download parts of the Well tempered clavier. NO BUENO. Naughty naughty edits from the 19th century; small, difficult to read notation and bad (or no) fingering. Fageddabowdit.

          Opera scores, on the other hand…you won’t leave the house!

          • Camille says:

            uh-oh. now i am in mucho problemas. No es Bueno Edits from romantic era fools, fooling around with Mr. B.

            During the La Vestale I downloaded something from somewhere in Utah —an ancient yellowed marked score of same and have it living in husband’s computer. So I may just continue. Thanks for turning me on to a new drug!!!! Far out!

            The only problem is, for years and years, my favorite sport has been going into antiquarians and libraries and bookstores on a Royal Hunt of the Quest for Hard to Find Operas, and I have loved it. Loved it to well, as I am now surrounded and husband says basta, woman.

            So, mucho spasibo, vociaccia-chacha. Vd. es muy amable.

          • Rackon says:

            LV, have you ever checked out the Oregon Bach Festival website? I spent several happy hours this past summer listening/watching the videos of Herr Rilling conducting JSB while following along with the score (which came up in a separate window. Such fun!

            This is a GREAT thread BTW. I have got to go IMSLP after work. Sometimes the internet is just too wonderful.

  • Bianca Castafiore says:

    Grazie, darlings, for all this information above! I have not obviously explored all these rare operas but just now listening to the Sakuntala on YT — well, it certainly is a cinematic score if there ever was one.

    What’s next for us to explore? Padmavati???? (Well, it’s not Italian but…)

    • Belfagor says:

      Padmavati -- despite a good recording with Horne and Gedda is a bit of a yawn I’m afraid -- they did try to resuscitate it a year or two ago in Paris with a live elephant, but it didn’t help…….another one where much of it goes in one ear and out the other………

    • Camille says:

      Go for Maroûf instead. Ask œdipe all about it!!! It’s fun exottica.

      How’s Irma la douce? Tell her I’ll be over tomorrow to help her polish the sterling and prepare Madame’s canapés.