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Dr. Irving Spitz: April 2011 Archives

April 2011 Archives

India’s National Parks -- Home to the Elusive Tiger

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To protect its wildlife heritage, India has established 96 national parks that attract visitors from all over the world. This represents one of the largest bases of biodiversity with a range and variety that is unparalleled. These national parks contain more than 500 species of mammals and over 2,000 species of birds, several of which are unique to the Indian subcontinent. Of interest is that much of the flora and fauna of India has entered into the pantheon of the Hindu gods. 

Today, national parks encompass over 1 percent of India's total surface area. Prior to independence in 1947, India did not protect its wildlife. By 1970, there were only five national parks, and many species became endangered. Tigers, the symbolic mascot in India were killed so frequently that by 1970, only 1300 remained. In 1972, the Indian government passed the Wildlife Protection Act, which preserves natural parks and sanctuaries and provides for the protection of wildlife, particularly endangered species. A year later, the late Indian Prime Minister, Indira Ghandi, launched “Project Tiger,” in which the killing of tigers was banned and 10 reserves were established aimed at protecting tigers and their ecosystems. This conservation legislation has heralded the recovery of the tiger. Today a total of 27 reserves take part in this project. A recent encouraging report from the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests estimated that the number of tigers in the wild is now 1706 compared with 1411 in 2006. 

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Recently, we visited Kanha and Pench National Parks, both of which are situated in Madhaya Pradesh, one of the largest states in central India. This area was famed as a hunter's paradise and was immortalized by Rudyard Kipling whose epic Jungle Book was set in this vicinity. Both of these parks rank as two of India's finest wildlife sanctuaries. Kanha, which was declared a national park in 1955, is one of India's largest and covers an area of almost 20,000 square kilometres although only 300 square kilometres are open to tourism. The Banjaar River forms Kanha’s southwest border and provides a steady water source for the abundant wildlife. 

Pench National Park is located about 200 kilometres from Kanha. It is considerably smaller (1400 square kilometres) and tourism is restricted to 150 square kilometres. It was declared a national park in 1983 and takes its name from the meandering Pench River that intersects the park. Both parks are Project Tiger reserves and support a rich variety of wildlife. Guides from the Indian Forest Service accompany visitors on mapped-out circuits. There are two viewing sessions, one in the early morning and a second in the late afternoon. The parks are closed during the hottest part of the day. There are strict entry criteria and only 150 vehicles are admitted to Kanha Park each day. Similar restrictions apply to Pench. 

The vegetation in the thick jungle of these parks is very rich. The commonest tree is the sal. The name is derived from the Sanskrit language. The sal is worshiped by both Buddhists and Hindus. Legend has it that the Buddha was born and died under this tree. The sal may reach a height of over 24 meters, has a straight trunk that usually branches at about two thirds of its height. These trees are spaced at short intervals making the forest very dense. Unlike other trees, the sal never loses its leaves completely even during the dry seasons. Another notable tree is the ghost tree, which has a distinctive gnarled shape with a white to greenish gray trunk giving it its ghostly appearance. The hard wood from the tree is used to make window frames, toys and musical instruments, while the white gum resin produced by the trees is harvested for use as adhesives and in cosmetics. Lush sal and bamboo forests are interspersed with vast grassy meadows that support more than 22 species of mammals. This includes a large population of monkeys, various deer and antelope, gaur, as well as predators such as tigers, leopards, jackals, foxes and wild dogs and cats. There are also some 300 species of birds.

Game viewing in India is not as prolific as in Africa. This is related to several factors. In the first place, animal density in India is significantly lower than in Africa. The sal forests and dense jungle growth provide excellent camouflage and this does not allow for easy viewing of the animals. Tourists are compelled to drive on well-marked tracks in contrast to many parks in Africa where jeeps drive off the beaten track to follow the game. Finally, in India, cell-phones and other communication devices are strictly prohibited in the National parks. This makes it impossible to notify other vehicles of an interesting sighting. 
The Langur monkey is probably the commonest animal seen. They are sacred in India and are worshipped as the Hindu monkey-god Hanuman. They have a silver grey colouring with a black face and possess long tails and limbs. These active inquisitive monkeys occur in virtually all habitats and are always on the move. Leaves, fruit buds and flowers are their main food and they spend much time in trees, but frequently come down to the ground to socialise and play. Troops of 20 to 30 are led by dominant males. They have a close association with spotted deer providing them with fallen leaves. 


Deer are the commonest herbivores. Males are distinguished by solid branched bony antlers that are shed annually. Antlers are made up of a honeycombed bone-like tissue. These antlers are among the most rapid-growing tissues in the animal world. Within one to two months of their shedding, new ones spring up. While in the growth phase, the antlers are covered in "velvet," a layer of skin with a network of capillaries that supplies the budding antlers with the nutrients needed to build the bone mass. After two-to-four months, when the velvet is no longer needed, a ring forms at the bottom of the antler shaft and cuts off the blood supply. The velvet then withers and begins to fall off, a process that is facilitated when the deer rubs his antlers against trees. The cycle is repeated annually. 

Antlers are one of the most exaggerated examples of male secondary sexual traits in the animal kingdom. They function as weapons in combats between males and as a sign of dominance for sexual displays. In contrast to the deer species, antelopes do not shed their antlers annually.

The spotted deer (known as the chital) is the most ubiquitous of this family. Possessing three-lined antlers, they occur in herds of 10 to 30 and males battle one another for breeding access to females. They favor meadows and forest clearings. The largest deer in India is the Sambar, which has a dark brown coat. The male members of this species have antlers that can grow to a length of 90cm. These animals have a life expectancy ranging between 16 to 20 years and are the favorite prey species of the tiger. 

Another interesting deer species is the Swamp Deer or Hard Ground Barasingha. An adult male swamp deer has huge antlers, which branch to over twelve points. The name Barasingha in Hindi means the 12-antlered deer. Their staple diet consists mainly of grass and leaves. Kanha National Park has been instrumental in rescuing the Swamp Deer from extinction and their conservation effort represents one of the major success stories in Indian wildlife. 

The gaur is the largest bovine in the world and is commonly seen in these parks. Also known as the Indian bison, it has a massive head and deep chest. It resembles a water buffalo from the front and a domestic cow from the back; the lower part of the legs is pure white or tan. These are the heaviest and most powerful of all wild cattle and only elephants, rhinos and hippos consistently grow larger. The weight of a male gaur may equal or even surpass that of a giraffe. 


One of the most spectacular of all birds is the peacock, which is also sacred in Hindu mythology as the vehicle of the son of Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati. They are seen in groups of three to five hens and an adult cock. These magnificent birds are shy and spend the heat of the day in the shade, emerging to drink at dusk. Peacocks utilize their impressive plumes to attract females in a fanning courtship ritual known as the “peacock mating dance.”

The Asian elephant has played a major role in Indian history, tradition and culture. It is revered by Hindus as Ganesha, son of Shiva and Parvati. There are few temples without sculptures or murals of Ganesha and many even have a tame elephant. For over 3,000 years they served humans as working animals. With the advent of machinery and the tractor, the need for elephants has been greatly reduced. Today, within the parks, they play a major role in tiger viewing. Trackers establish the whereabouts of tigers and once the site is located, radio contact is made and small jeeps arrive with their passengers. Guests have the opportunity to board an elephant and approach the tiger while seated on the elephant’s back.

Of all the animals in the wild, the most majestic as well as the most elusive is the Bengal tiger. India is home to roughly half the world's population of wild tigers. The ancient Romans imported tigers from India for gladiatorial contests. Tigers have been hunted for centuries but it is only since the advent of the rifle that their number dropped drastically. Tiger hunting was the favorite pastime of army officers in the British Raj. However, Indian maharajas also took their toll and there are reports of some who hunted and killed over 1,000 tigers in their lifetime. Two new factors have contributed to the fact that the tiger population had been reduced to the brink of extinction. The first involves the felling of forests to clear land for agriculture and timber. By 1980 only 14 percent of India’s forests were still standing. The second are the poachers whose nefarious activity has contributed much to the demise of the tiger. 

The tiger is the largest member of the cat family and unlike the lion, it is a solitary hunter. Males and females occupy distinct but overlapping, well-defined territories. Cubs are raised exclusively by the mother and they remain with her until they are 18 months of age, after which they are forced to leave as she prepares to raise a new litter. Tigers are well camouflaged and extremely difficult to detect. Shere Khan, the tiger featured so prominently in Kipling’s Jungle Book, proved to be rather difficult to find in reality. This is really not so unexpected. There are only some 70 tigers in Kanha and 30 in Pench. Considering the vast size of these parks and the fact that most of the terrain is closed off to vehicles, it is a wonder that any are seen at all. 

Due to the vigilance of our tracker and guide, Veerjeet, we did manage to get two sightings. Trackers can get a lead of a tiger’s whereabouts from their footprints on the roadside. When the tiger is on the prowl, the quiet of the jungle is abruptly interrupted by piercing alarm calls. Spotted deer give a sharp ack–ack, the Langur monkeys emit a coughing sound and gaurs snort and sneeze. These intense sounds disturb the tranquillity of the jungle and are the most important signal for the rangers. Jeeps rapidly converge on the scene of the alarm call and at a potential sighting, there is a veritable jungle traffic jam. 


During our visit to the parks, we stayed in jungle safari lodges owned by the travel company &Beyond. Accommodation represents the last word in luxury. Together with Taj Safaris, they operate a total of four lodges in Pench and Kanha National Parks as well as in Bandhavgarh and Panna National Parks. In these parks, &Beyond have specially trained naturalists who accompany guests on jungle drives, pointing out and explaining details about the fascinating animals and plants. They are conducted in specially designed open safari vehicles.

Baghvan Pench Jungle lodge comprises 12 charming fully equipped cottages. Stairs lead up to a beautiful rooftop platform where an open wooden deck overlooks the sights and sounds of the Indian jungle. Baghvan has been listed in 101 Best Hotels in the World by the Tatler Magazine and among the top five hotels in India in Conde Traveller’s Hot List. 

At the Kanha National Park we were accommodated in the most recently completed luxury camp called Bajaar Tola. The name derives from the Banjaar River and “Tola” means cluster of houses in the local language. Banjaar Tola provides stunning river views from the privacy of a private veranda facing the Banjaar River. It comprises two camps, each consisting of nine elegant tented suites, which feature bamboo floors, canvas roof and walls and glass doors opening onto the veranda overlooking the river. Each camp boasts its own spacious open air dining area. 

All told, this trip represented an unforgettable and unique opportunity to experience Indian wildlife first hand. 

Fig 1. The magnificent Bengal tiger
Fig 2. Mother and baby Langur monkeys at play
Fig 3. The gaur, which is the largest bovine species in the world.
Fig 4. The dense sal forests, characteristic of Pench and Kanha National Parks
Fig 5. Private viewing deck in one of the tented suites of &Beyond’s Bajaar Tola Lodge

This article was originally published in the Jerusalem Post on 24 April, 2011.

Additional pictures from this as well as other trips are available at www.pbase.com/irvspitz. Further articles and reviews can be seen at www.irvingspitz.com 

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Landmark Exhibition Features the Paintings of Bronzino

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An extraordinary exhibit devoted to the paintings of Agnolo di Cosimo, better known as Bronzino was recently on show in Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi. Florence was the most appropriate venue, since Bronzino (1503-1572) was born near the city and spent most of his life there. Moreover Florence houses some of his greatest masterpieces. Interestingly enough, this was the first retrospective on Bronzino’s paintings that has ever been mounted. Last year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hosted a major exhibition devoted to Bronzino’s drawings that created enormous interest. That show as well as this current exhibition has thrown new light on this great artist. 


Who was Bronzino? The renowned painter, architect, writer and historian, Giorgio Vasari, who was a contemporary of Bronzino, concluded in his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects that Bronzino was one of the most important painters of the Italian Renaissance, especially famous for his incredibly life-like portraits. He painted in the Mannerist style, an art movement in vogue between the High Renaissance and the Baroque. This style represented art as idealized rather than with natural beauty and was often associated with exaggeration of human proportions. 

This comprehensive exhibition presented over 60 of Bronzino’s documented works, several attributed to him and his workshop, as well as some paintings by his mentor Pontormo. The retrospective concluded with a number of works by Bronzino’s favorite pupil, Alessandro Allori. 

In addition to the 29 paintings from the Uffizi Gallery, there were loans from over 43 important international museums as well as private collections. According to James Bradburne, director of the Palazzo Strozzi “every significant Bronzino that could actually be taken off its wall was moved here.” There was however one notable exception: London’s National Gallery declined to loan Bronzino’s Allegory of Venus and Cupid. 

The exhibit was curated by Carlo Falciani, a recognized Bronzino scholar and Antonio Natali, director of the Uffizi and they also edited the accompanying comprehensive catalog. The exhibition was laid out chronologically as well as thematically. The wall texts were in large type and succinctly explained all relevant details pertaining to each painting. In addition, there was also a well presented clear and concise audio guide. Children were most welcome to the exhibit and there were special wall texts and a guide for them. 

It is not easy to differentiate paintings early in Bronzino’s career from those of Pontormo. This was particularly evident in the four large tondi of the Evangelists Luke, Matthew, John and Mark that opened the exhibition. The former two are attributed to Bronzino, the third to Pontormo but the final one remains inconclusive. These paintings were removed from the Capone Chapel in Florence’s, Church of Santa Felicita for restoration prior to the exhibition. It was a real privilege to view these exceptional works at close range without the need to strain one’s neck looking at them high up in the cupola of the chapel. 

Bronzino spent three of his formative years at the Della Rovere court in Pesaro. One of his finest earliest portraits is that of Guidobaldo ll della Rovere, Duke of Urbino. This life-like portrait must surely have impressed Cosimo I de' Medici, Duke of Florence who was eventually appointed Grand Duke of Tuscany. Indeed, shortly after Bronzino’s return to Florence, he became Cosimo’s favorite court painter. 


It was in the unique artistic and intellectual milieu of Cosimo’s Florence that Bronzino painted some of his greatest works. A room dedicated to the Medici family displayed the stunning portraits of Cosimo, his wife Eleonora di Toledo and their children. Particularly arresting was the portrait of Eleonora with their second son Giovanni. The spectacular and minute attention to the detail of the fabric of her dress is mind-boggling. Indeed her apparel takes up more space on the canvas than either of the two sitters. Another dazzling, eye-catching portrait was that of Bia, the illegitimate daughter of Cosimo I. 

Besides the de Medici family, there were portraits of other figures in Cosimo’s court, including those of the Lutheran sympathizer, Bartolomeo Panciatichi, and his wife Lucrezia. Other bewitching and beguiling portraits from Bronzino’s youth to his full maturity were displayed and include the Portrait of a Young Man with a Book from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, portrait of a Lady with a Small Dog from the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. The Portrait of a Man from the National Gallery in Ottawa was displayed for the first time alongside the Portrait of a Woman from the Galleria Sabauda in Turin. Recent scholarship has determined that they are thought to be husband and wife. All of these portraits are among Bronzino's best known works and reveal an extraordinary grasp of naturalism combined with accuracy of execution. These portraits were a major influence on subsequent generations of artists.

Included in the exhibit were sumptuous tapestries illustrating the biblical story of Joseph. Together with Raphael’s tapestries from the Sistine Chapel, these two cycles are arguably the most famous 16th-century examples of this oeuvre. Bronzino designed sixteen of the twenty tapestries. They were woven in Florence by the Flemish weavers Jan Rost and Nicolas Karcher. The cycle originally adorned the Salone dei Duecento in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. These tapestries have recently undergone a major restoration process and have not been on view for many years. The restoration has succeeded in revealing the original brilliant coloring. Five of these stunning works were on display at the exhibition. The story of Joseph, who was initially honored outside his own country and then reconciled with those who betrayed him, had particular resonance for Cosimo who saw in this narrative an allegory of his dramatic elevation to power.

Of Bronzino’s output of religious paintings, the two versions of the Holy Family with St. John and St. Anne deserve special mention. One came from Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum and the other from the Louvre. They are almost identical although in the Viennese version, one can make out the title of the book held by the virgin. The word “Isaiah” is seen in faint Hebrew characters. Also on display were the two side panels of St. John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence and St Cosmas, one of the patron saints of the Medici family. These originally graced Eleonora di Toledo’s chapel in Palazzo Vecchio but were removed at the request of Eleonora and the St Cosmas was lost. It has only been identified recently. 
In addition to his mastery of portraits, Bronzino also excelled in erotic mythological paintings. Perhaps the most famous are the allegories with Venus and Cupid. One from Rome and a second from Budapest feature in the exhibition. In these allegories, Bronzino's skill with the nude is eminently visible. In the Rome version, Venus has wrested the bow and arrow from Cupid. Her pose and facial expression allude to the act of love making. The pure white skin of Venus and Cupid should be contrasted with the darker skin and leering visage of the satyr who appears as a licentious voyeur. 


On occasion, Bronzino incorporated mythological elements in his portraits. An excellent example is that of the famous Genoese admiral Andrea Doria, who is portrayed as the sea god, Neptune together with a trident. Bronzino succeeded in depicting an almost nude portrait of a famous publicly recognized personality as a mythological figure.

Also on view was the recently restored Portrait of the dwarf Morgante, who was part of the court of Cosimo. He is seen nude on both sides of the same canvas. The front view shows Morgante about to go bird hunting with an owl perched on his right hand. The reverse depicts a back view of Morgante on his return from a successful hunt, clutching the prey in his right hand. The owl now rests on his left shoulder. This work was Bronzino’s answer to the question posed by one of his contemporaries as to whether painting was superior to sculpture as an art form. Bronzino’s double-sided canvas introduces a fourth dimension, that of time, which goes beyond the three dimensions of a sculpture. 

As the title of the exhibition suggested, Bronzino was also a poet and some examples of his work were on display. In style, his sonnets range from those reminiscent of Petrarch to the burlesque. 

Great scholarship went into the planning of this exhibition that featured three newly attributed works by the artist. These included the St Cosmas discussed above as well as a previously unknown picture of Christ Carrying the Cross and the Crucified Christ that Bronzino painted for Bartolomeo Panciatichi. 

There are other paintings and frescoes of Bronzino scattered about Florence and its environs that certainly merit a visit. These include the Cappella di Eleonora at the Palazzo Vecchio. The chapel, entirely decorated by Bronzino is one of his most important and original works. On the vault are the saints, Francis, Jerome, John and Michael. The main altar piece features Bronzino’s Lamentation and an Annunciation. On the Cappella walls, are a series of brilliant frescoes depicting the Life of Moses. These include the Crossing of the Red Sea, the Brazen Snake, the Gathering of Manna and Moses Drawing Water from the Rock. Overlooking these events, Bronzino portrays a very pregnant Eleonora, the wife of Cosimo. Like the Joseph tapestries, the story of Moses leading the Jewish people out of bondage into freedom was a subject dear to Cosimo’s heart since he saw himself as a new Moses, the founder of a free independent nation and also as a lawgiver. His pregnant wife is an allegory of the beginning of a new fertile prosperous age for Florence. Further images of Cosimo and Eleonora by Bronzino can be seen in the vault of their son Francesco l’s studiolo, also in Palazzo Vecchio. Finally currently on show in the Palazzo were four additional recently restored tapestries from the Joseph series. 

Many other famous works of Bronzino can be seen in churches of Florence. Santa Maria Novella has a painting of Christ Raising the Daughter of Jairus, painted by Bronzino in collaboration with Alessandro Allori. San Lorenzo boasts a huge fresco of the Martyrdom of St Lawrence whilst in Santa Croce there is the Descent of Christ to Limbo, which is one of his most important and largest religious works. 

Figure 1:  Venus, Cupid and Satyr, Galleria Colonna, Rome.
Figure 2:  Portrait of Eleonora of Toledo with her son, Giovanni, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
Figure 3;  Portrait of Andrea Doria as Neptune, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

This article was originally published in the Jerusalem Post.

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Shostakovich’s Opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, onstage and in DVD

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Shostakovich’s overpowering and tragic opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, has just completed a run at the Israel Opera. This human tragedy revolves around the protagonist, Katerina Izmailova, who is trapped in a loveless marriage with Zinovi Izmailov, her weak and impotent husband. Both of them are abused by her overbearing and wealthy father-in-law, Boris Izmailov. While her husband is away attending to family business, Katerina falls in love with Sergei, a recently hired worker. He is a well-known wily womanizer, whose main interest in Katerina is to use her as a lever to improve himself materially. Katerina murders her father-in-law and husband to marry Sergei. Katerina and Sergei are arrested and while on a prison march to Siberia, she realizes that the man for whom she sacrificed so much has forsaken her for another woman. She murders Sergei’s latest paramour by pushing her into the icy river and then takes her own life by jumping into the same river. 
Lady Macbeth_spitz blog.jpg

This was a co-production with the Mariinsky Opera from St. Petersburg and was originally directed by the late Irina Molotov, who was a close friend of Shostakovich. Julia Pevzner directed the current production following Molostova's original conception. The sets were designed by Georgy Tsypin. The staging was simple but imaginative. It comprised a wooden façade with elements that were moved around in the various scenes. The gang-rape perpetrated by Boris’s workers on an unfortunate servant was played out behind a barrel. 
The cast comprised leading local and international singers. Israeli soprano, Larissa Tetuev captured to a great extent the pathos of the role and was effective in her searing monologues. At the beginning of the opera, she succeeded in portraying her anguish and boring existence. Sergei, the Russian tenor Roman Muravitsky, began a little hesitantly but settled down well and gave a vocally strong presentation. The malicious father-in-law Boris, was sung by Israeli bass Vladimir Braun, and Katerina’s husband by Russian tenor Marat Gali. Both gave most convincing performances. The roles of the priest and chief police officer were competently sung by Russian bass Vladimir Matorin and Israeli baritone Noah Briger respectively; their contribution added some light relief to compensate for the somber events unfolding on stage. 
In my opinion the real heroes of this production were the choir and orchestra. Chorus master Yishai Steckler has really done a sterling job raising the choir standard to international levels. The resident orchestra, The Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion, was conducted by the Canadian Keri-Lynn Wilson. They were in top form. Some weeks ago Wilson gave impassioned and impressive performances of the requiems of Brahms and Faure and last season, she conducted Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame with great success. She demonstrated an uncanny and impressive grasp of the subtle nuances and complexities of Shostakovich’s score and the orchestra responded enthusiastically. Particularly effective were the brass and woodwind sections that have a prominent role in this opera. 
At the end of the opera, a part of the brass section of the orchestra played from the upper reaches of the auditorium. The stage was darkened, broken only by a beam of light projected on Katerina. This was a masterful touch and fitting climax to a glorious evening at the opera. This production represents one of the all time highs for this Israeli company and could proudly grace the stage of any major international opera house. 
It is interesting to contrast The Israel Opera’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk with a recently released DVD from the Netherland Opera, in a production staged by Martin Kusej. The latter succeeds more convincingly in bringing out the malevolence of Katerina’s father-in-law (sung by Vladimir Vaneev) and the baseness of his character. The true motives of Sergei (sung by Christopher Ventris), are also more fully explored. In this DVD, Eva-Maria Westbroek gives a masterful vocal and dramatic portrayal of Katerina. Despite her murderous spree, in this Dutch version, Katerina elicits some sympathy since it becomes manifestly evident that she was a victim of abuse by both the father-in-law and her lover. This fascinating DVD includes bonus material and interesting interviews with the director and cast members. Conductor Mariss Jansons succeeds in bringing out the brilliance of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Particularly impressive were the interludes between the different scenes, which Jansons explains are so vital to the score. 

This 2-DVD set has deservedly received a Grand Prix du Disque Lyrique, as well as several other awards. It is released on the Opus Arte label (catalog number OA 0965 D) and is distributed by Naxos, the World’s Leading Classical Music Label. It is a worthy addition to any collection. 
Wedding scene depicting the betrothal of Katerina and Sergei from Shostakovich’s Opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.
Taken at the Israeli Opera by Yossi Zwecker

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