Madama Butterfly in Lucca

Recently, I’ve been staying with my family near Lucca, in Tuscany. Lucca is a gorgeous medieval city and its two greatest achievements are having maintained an intact city wall for 500 years and being the birthplace of Puccini. With this in mind, the Comune di Lucca in collaboration with the University of Western Ontario organised performances of operas on the city walls and while I was in Lucca I was able to go to one of these – Madama Butterfly (there was no performance of Tosca, which I thought was surely a missed opportunity if you have a wall to perform operas on).

The set was laid out on a small platform on one of the bastions found at each corner of the walls, next to the row of trees at the edge of the outer wall itself. It consisted of three white screens at the back of the platform and various large white egg-like things on the floor (these were used as essentially every prop that was needed, from the flowers they decorate the house with to Butterfly’s child). There wasn’t very much seating, so most people sat on the grass or on the stone ruins surrounding the seating. Dusk had begun by the time it started and by the end it was completely dark.

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Cecily Bednarek as Butterfly

This performance was an edited version of the opera and as I didn’t know Madama Butterfly very well to start off with, I couldn’t always tell exactly what was going on or which bits had been cut out. The idea was to show the events of the opera as either a series of flashbacks or events imagined or dreamt by Butterfly. I was mostly able to follow what was happening – the plot essentially went as you would expect, but occasionally cutting back to Butterfly and Suzuki waiting for Pinkerton to come back. They cut out some of the duet between Butterfly and Pinkerton and, as there were only four singers, any parts for anyone other than Butterfly, Pinkerton, Suzuki or Sharpless. The only part of this editing that I found really confusing was right at the end, when Butterfly didn’t kill herself and just carried on singing. I wasn’t able to follow what she was saying and so had no idea what was going on. It ended with her tearing open one of the screens at the back and walking off that way. While the extra bit was perfectly nice to listen to, I still have no idea where it came from or what it meant.

The singers all performed well – Cecily Bednarek as Butterfly sounded a little unsure of herself to begin with but once she had got past “Un bel di”, which she sang beautifully, her voice became more confident, as did her acting. Leanne Kaufman (Suzuki), Kyle Melton (Pinkerton) and Mattia Campetti (Sharpless) all sang confidently as well, but it was Butterfly’s show, as in this edited version she had by far the most singing and was on stage all the way through. The Humming Chorus was the only part of the singing that I really didn’t like: it doesn’t work with only four people singing it. To be honest, it would probably have been better if they’d just got the audience to sing along.

It was a really interesting and enjoyable version of an opera that I haven’t really listened to much and because of the setting and its history, it was a unique experience.

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Tosca at WNO

Last night, my mum and I went to Cardiff to see Puccini’s Tosca performed by WNO. Tosca  has been one of my favourite operas for a long time but I’ve never actually seen it live. We had seats in the front row of the stalls and directly in the middle which in my opinion was the best place to be sitting in the entire hall.

The main thing that struck me about this performance was the set and costume design and the lighting. It was all done in a ‘realistic’ style, which can sometimes be boring, but I think with Tosca, it’s the best way to do it. The set for Act 1 was very reminiscent of Italian-style churches, but still managed to appear closed and oppressive, like the atmosphere of the opera. For Act 2, the set was the same shape, a kind of cross-section of the room, so that the effect of a kind of terrifying beauty was the same. Act 3, though, had a more open set, apart from the angel that looms over the stage, sword pointing downwards as though to spear the people below. For the dawn scene, the lighting, which was excellent throughout the performance, really came into its own. The sky behind the battlements faded from blue to gold beautifully and gave a wonderfully dramatic backdrop to the equally dramatic plot.

The final moments of Act 3

Mary Elizabeth WIlliams sang the title role well and managed to make her character likeable in Acts 1 and 3. Her Vissi d’arte was moving but a bit too harsh and jagged in places. The acting was OK but rather clichéd, especially in Act 2, where there was lots of agonised pacing and leaning her head on the wall. Gwyn Hughes Jones, who seems to be WNO’s default tenor (I’ve seen him so far as Don Jose, Don Ottavio, Rodolfo, Manrico and now Cavaradossi), was, as ever, a good but not outstanding singer. However, his acting was not particularly impressive either and there was no chemistry between him and WIlliams. Claudio Otelli, as Scarpia, was an excellent actor and made a gorgeously chilling Scarpia, particularly during the Te Deum at the end of Act 1.

I really enjoyed this performance but mostly for the production, lighting and directing. I hope to see the production again but perhaps with a different cast (a different tenor for once, maybe!)

Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House

Quite a while ago now, I went with my dad to see my first ever performance at the Royal Opera House in London. Up until now, I had only been to performances by WNO and other travelling companies in Bristol, so this was very exciting. My parents and I arrived a bit early, so I got to look around in the shop and I bought this CD (although I was also very tempted to buy a giant poster of Simon Keenlyside to put up in my room).

Then my mum took this picture of me and my dad outside the Royal Opera House and went off to go and see ENO’s production of Wozzeck.

So we went inside and found our seats. We were sitting a little bit around to the left and towards the front of the Amphitheatre level.

The arrow shows roughly where I was sitting

The arrow shows roughly where I was sitting

There are two main things I need to talk about here: the performance and the opera itself.

This was my first experience of this opera and I really loved it because it really is one of Verdi’s best (in my opinion as someone who hasn’t heard several of his operas yet). The music is great and very moving. The thing that really struck me about this opera was how well the plot works and how closely the music fits with it. I think that this is one of the few operas where the plot really makes sense (not including the bit at the very end which makes literally no sense at all). It has lots of levels to it – you get to see the situations from the points of view of every main character and both the political and emotional drama that’s going on. This comes through especially clearly in the famous aria “Ella giammai m’amo”. I love this song because, apart from the fact that it’s beautiful music, you see Filippo as not just the bad guy but as an old man with too many decisions to make. Throughout the opera, I always felt sympathy towards each of the characters at different points and that made the performance as a whole much more emotional and involving. The other moment that really interested me was when Posa was asking Philip to help the Dutch people and Philip refused but you could tell that he really admired Posa for trying to change the world and being brave enough to challenge what those with power did. It’s much more interesting if the bad guy isn’t just a one-sided character.

Mariusz Kwiecien as Posa and Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Philip

The performance was beyond amazing. The best performers, I think, were Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Philip, Mariusz Kwiecien as Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa and Béatrice Uria-Monzon as Princess Eboli. I don’t think I will ever see a better performance of King Philip than Furlanetto’s, especially his ‘Ella giammai m’amo’ His weariness and frustration comes acr oss beautifully in the music. Kwiecien and Uria-Morzon both acted well and made their characters very developed using the music as well. Roberto Aronica (who sang Carlos) and Lianna Haroutounian (who sang Elisabetta) both did well but neither did anything particularly outstanding until Haroutounian’s Tu che le vanita, which she sang very beautifully and elegantly.

The sets were fine but didn’t really add anything to the performance and in some scenes just looked strange (what is the red Lego wall thing in Act 2 for?). But the singing and acting was magnificent and I don’t think I’ve ever wanted an opera to end less. Hoping to go back to the ROH as soon as possible!

This are the tweets I posted on the night:

Royal Opera Live – Eugene Onegin

Warning: The following blog post contains a) spoilers, b) descriptions of scenes of unnecessary emotional distress and c) things which have basically no connection whatsoever to the intended topic.

I have so far in my life been to see four operas in the cinema – Un Ballo in Maschera, Aïda, Maria Stuarda and, most recently, Eugene Onegin (I would have seen Rigoletto as well, but the only cinema in town that shows the Met broadcasts had other plans). Of those four, Onegin was definitely the most emotionally draining. So much so, in fact, that when the interval arrived and I realised that I was silently crying, I realised that I would have to risk the disapproving looks of the lady sitting across the aisle from me and go and buy comfort food (Fruit Pastilles) to eat during the second half.

I have never been to see or even properly listened to Onegin before, but judging from the fact that pretty much everyone who has ever seen it seemed to enjoy it, I was expecting something very good indeed. The music of this opera is simply, unbearably beautiful. Right from the start, when Tatyana and Olga are singing their random little song (a classic operatic feature) and Mme Larina and Filipyevna are reminiscing, I was totally drawn into the characters and the music. I felt it a lot closer than with so many other operas I have seen. By the time the interval had come, Lensky and Onegin had argued, the duel was about to happen, Tatyana had been refused and I was crying. The second half was pretty much the same. They fought, Lensky died, Onegin tried to forget, so did Tatyana, they met again, everything went wrong and I was still crying.

Krassimira Stoyanova as Tatyana with Vigdis Hentze Olsen as her former self during the Letter Scene

In terms of this as a performance, it was excellent. Simon Keenlyside (Onegin) and Krassimira Stoyanova (Tatyana) both sang and acted their roles perfectly. The production idea was interesting. The whole opera was seen as a flashback, with both an “old” Tatyana and Onegin, who sang and their younger selves, who were dancers. The other main idea was that the memories would slowly collect up on stage as various items from the different scenes were left lying around. The flashbacks idea was good and for the most part it worked. There were some moments when I couldn’t quite keep up because some scenes did have the younger Onegin and Tatyana in and some didn’t. However, it mostly worked very well, especially in the letter scene. The memories idea was much simpler and it really worked, apart from one –  Lensky came onstage for the duel dragging a huge tree branch behind him, which was then left there for the rest of the opera. Whether the tree was symbolic in some way, I don’t know, but it did look a bit silly when he came on stage, pulling it behind him. I also felt a bit sorry for Pavol Breslik (playing Lensky), as after the duel. he had to lie there and play dead for the rest of the entire opera! I have another production question though: is it normal for, when Tatyana and Onegin are having their final duet/argument thing, is it normal for Prince Gremin to come onstage and stare at them? Whether it is or not, I didn’t really like it because it made it feel as though Tatyana was only saying no to Onegin because Gremin was there, not because of her own strength of mind.

Overall, magnificent, a very interesting production which I really enjoyed, even though parts of it didn’t always quite make sense.

Met HD Broadcast – Maria Stuarda

Ages ago, I went to my third ever Met HD broadcast, of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. This was the first time this opera has ever been performed at the Met. I can’t help but feel that this is a fairly big omission from their repertoire. Donizetti is underrated, in my opinion.

Anyway, back to the performance itself. Joyce DiDonato (in the title role) was spectacular, but I feel that equal credit should go to Elza van den Heever as Queen Elizabeth, Matthew Polenzani as Leicester and the composer himself for making me enjoy it so much. Nobody in the cast was significantly better than the others, but they were all wonderful and together they made the performance outstanding.

Joyce DiDonato as Maria Stuarda

The production was very good – it created the right atmosphere without interfering too much with the singing and acting. In terms of directing, all was well apart from the whole Queen-Elizabeth-walking-around-like-an-old-woman thing which didn’t work for me; it felt very over-emphasised. But maybe I just want to say that just for the sake of saying something negative.

Joyce DiDonato – Drama Queens Concert

This is the great saga of my visit to London last night. A warning: most of this will be fangirling and waffling, of the strange variety.

So, I left school early (awesome thing number 1), at 4:30, on Wednesday afternoon and went to the station to get a train to London (awesome things number 2 and 3), accompanied by my dad. On arrival in London, we went from the station to the Barbican using the Underground (which I find both exciting and slightly terrifying). When we got to the Barbican, the concert was just about to begin. So we took our seats and waited for it to start. At half past seven, when it was meant to begin, there was still no sign of anything happening. Finally, at twenty five minutes to eight. Il Complesso Barocco (awesome thing number 4) came onstage, followed immediately afterwards by Joyce DiDonato (awesome thing number 5). Cue huge applause from the audience.

The concert began with Intorno all’idol mio, from an opera called Orontea, by Antonio Cesti. It was very well performed but the aria itself is not particularly outstanding. It was followed by the ensemble performing the Sinfonia from Tolomeo ed Alessandro by Scarlatti. This was, again, very well played and nice enough to listen to, but not really any more than that. Then Joyce got up from the chair she had been sitting on during the Scarlatti piece in order to sing her next number: Disprezzata regina, from L’incoranazione di Poppea by Monteverdi. This, I felt, was where the concert really got going and transformed into something spectacular. This aria was magnificently queenly and dramatic. The next one, Sposa, son disprezzata, from Merope by Geminiano Giacomelli, was even more so. Then she took a break and Il Complesso Barocco took centre stage once more, for a concerto for violin and strings by Vivaldi. This was the moment when it became totally clear that they were not just there to accompany Joyce. They were every bit as much a part of the music as she was, right from the beginning. But in this piece, they really showed what they could do by themselves. Dmitry Sinkovsky, the lead violinist, was especially impressive (awesome thing number 6). As someone who has been attempting to learn how to make a violin produce a sound that does not make people run away screaming for the last 3 and a half years, I can vouch for the fact that he was seriously good. He played ridiculously fast and confidently and the rest of the ensemble easily kept up to his level. Joyce came back on stage for the final piece in the first half: Da torbida procella from Berenice by Giuseppe Orlandini. This was one of those cheerful, fast, I’m-in-love Baroque arias and she moved around the stage a bit as she sang it. It rounded off the first half of the concert very nicely.

During the interval, I went and bought some (not very nice) coffee because I had had to get up at 7 that morning and it was a loooong day. Then we went back to our seats and waited for the second half to begin. The concert was held in the Barbican (awesome thing number 7) and the concert hall is one of the nicest I’ve ever been in (I went there once before for an orchestral concert – the London Symphony Orhestra performing Bruckner 6). It’s a very nice, big, airy space with a modern wooden design.

When Joyce came back on stage for the second half, her dress had transformed (awesome thing number 8). It was still the same material and design – a kind of deep red with a pattern on that I couldn’t see much detail of (the dress that she wore in the photos on the cover of the Drama Queens album). In the previous half of the concert, it had been quite simple, just falling straight to the floor, with a kind of bustle at the back. However, for the second half, the skirt had expanded outwards. It’s quite hard to describe, but it made her a lot more visible and took up a lot more of the stage. She did a little twirl (awesome thing number 9) as she reached the centre of the stage, just to show us what it looked like. Then she got down to some more singing. First of all, she sang Morte col fiero aspetto from Antonio e Cleopatra by Johann Adolf Hasse and then Piangero la sorte mia from Giulio Cesare by Handel. Both of these were as before: appropriately dramatic, queenly, exquisitely sung etc. etc. Then there was another piece for the ensemble – Passacaglia from Radamisto by Handel. Once again, it was nice to listen to but not really memorable. Joyce then came back on stage for her penultimate aria – Madre diletta, abbracciami from Ifigenia in Aulide by Giovanni Porta (awesome thing number 10). This aria is an abandoned jewel. It thoroughly deserves to be picked up and shown to the world and that is exactly what Joyce has done. She sang it beautifully, managing to precisely sing each note and yet still make it flow. I can only hope that this aria will be sung more now that it has been dug up for this album. Il Complesso Barocco then performed their final solo piece – the ballet music from Armide by Gluck. See comment on the Passacaglia. Then Joyce stood up again to sing her final aria – Brilla nell’alma from Alessandro by Handel. Another spectacularly bright aria. When she had finished, the applause was huge. After the routine presenting flowers/walking on and off stage (including walking up and down some steps with that enormous skirt, which I think she managed quite well), she spoke to us (awesome thing number 11).

Firstly, she talked about the research that she had done with Alan Curtis, the founder of Il Complesso Barocco, searching through archives of Baroque music and picking out the best bits for her to sing. Then she sang her first encore, Lasciami piangere from Fredegunda by Reinhard Keiser. Then she talked about her dress, designed for her by Vivienne Westwood (awesome thing number 12). She said how much fun it was picking out the fabric for the dress and then she pointed out Vivienne Westwood herself (awesome thing number 13), sitting in one of the front rows!

Then came the second encore, Col versar, barbaro, il sangue, another aria from Ornaldini’s Berenice.

Then there was a lot more applause (most of the audience were on their feet applauding by then) and a lot more walking on and off stage and then she sang Brilla nell’alma again. Then she walked offstage for the final time and it was all over.

After the concert had finished, I went straight downstairs and joined the already long queue for signing. Although I do not yet have my own copy of Drama Queens, I had brought by recording of Don Giovanni with her as Donna Elvira and the programme for her to sign. Unfortunately, we were told that she had something to do after this, so she would not be posing for photos. Anyway, I waited in the queue for about 5 minutes and then she appeared and began to sign stuff (awesome thing number 14). The queue went quite quickly and soon I was second in the queue and shaking slightly from nerves/excitement. Then it was my turn to see her (awesome thing number 15).

The conversation went like this:

ME: (in weird excited squeaky voice, placing programme and CD on table) Hi Joyce! Thank you so much for the concert, it was amazing!

HER: (signing programme) Oh, thank you.

ME: Also, thank you for the Maria Stuarda. From the Met. I saw it in HD at the cinema. It was beautiful.

HER: I’m glad you enjoyed it. (Pointing at inside of CD case) Where would you like me to sign it? Here?

ME: Yes please. (grinning uncontrollably)

HER: (signing it) There, I’ll do it small so the others [the other performers in the recording] can sign it as well. Make sure you meet him (pointing at the picture of Ildebrando D’Arcangelo). He’s lovely. (does girly look)

ME: (does awkward laugh) Oh, I will. Thank you again!

HER: Lovely to meet you!

ME: (runs off to unobtrusive corner) OMG I JUST MET JOYCE DIDONATO AND WE TALKED AND SHE KNOWS I EXIST AND OMG I AM DYING I AM DYING THIS IS THE PINNACLE OF EXISTENCE I MET JOYCE DIDONATO (does happy dance by spinning round and round in circles and gaining numerous odd looks from people still waiting in the queue)

Me and Joyce DiDonato!

Me and Joyce chatting while she signed stuff.

After that, we walked back to the Underground and got a train to the main station, with me still jumping about and laughing and doing my circles dance of happiness. Then I got a cheese and ham croissant (awesome thing number 16) and we got on the train home and arrived back very late. So I am still very tired but ridiculously happy and chirpy (although, Joyce, when you next to a single concert in London, please could you try not to do it on a school night, or at least on a night where I don’t have THREE maths tests the next day. Thanks). All in all, a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful evening that I am still recovering from the awesomeness of.

NB You may notice that there are only 16 awesomeness moments in this. I think, going by the performance given by Il Complesso Barocco and Joyce, I can justify changing that to awesomeness .

Signed Stuff

These are now probably my most precious possessions.

Met HD Broadcast – Aïda

Way, way back in December, I went with Little Brother No.1 to see the Met HD Broadcast of Aïda. This was his first time ever seeing an opera, live or in the cinema. So far as I can tell, he enjoyed it (although he wriggled around a lot and was quite noisy during the performance). Personally, I loved the performance from both Olga Borodina as Amneris and Lyudmila Monastyrska in the title role but Roberto Alagna (as Radames) was, quite honestly, disappointing. His voice sounded very thin and a weedy and girly. His high note at the end of Celeste Aïda sounded completely as though it was sung by a countertenor, rather than a tenor. I’m not exactly fond of the character (he is, like Manrico, one of the great Verdi idiotic tenor roles. I mean, surely it would be obvious to anyone that attempting to conquer Ethiopia might not be the best way to please your Ethiopian girlfriend. But then again, this is opera. Maybe I’m just setting my expectations to high) but he still shouldn’t sound like a woman.

Lyudmila Monastyrska, on the other hand, was a revelation. I don’t really know what it is about her voice that makes it good, but it just is good. Very, very much so. Olga Borodina is an established singer and her Amneris was very well sung and well acted (with some deliciously bitchy moments). The production was very good, without being particularly outstanding. Overall, very good everything, let down somewhat by Alagna.

Met HD Broadcast – Un Ballo in Maschera

On Sunday, I went to see my first ever Met HD broadcast- an repeat of Un ballo in maschera. The cinema was, disappointingly, very empty and I was the youngest person there by about 40 years, which I thought was quite sad. This might have been partly because the cinema doesn’t advertise their Met broadcasts very much and I had some difficulty finding out if the Met performances were being shown in my town at all!

The singing was all very good, although the singer who stood out a tiny bit for me was Sondra Radvanovsky. She managed to get the emotions across that little bit more simply and strongly than the others. However, everyone performed wonderfully and, I should add, my judging may not be completely fair, as I have never listened to this opera before and so am not sure this particular performance compared with others.

The staging, however, I did have some more clear thoughts on. In this production, it had been returned from the setting fo Boston to that of Sweden, where it fits in much better. There were some parts of this production I liked, and some that I didn’t. The idea of the painting of the Fall of Icarus worked well enough and it was clear what it symbolized: the king who believed he could not be assassinated. I didn’t, however, see this theme being used in any other way except from the painting and also in the pageboy Oscar, played by Kathleen Kim, who wore white wings in some parts of the opera. I couldn’t understand what relevance this had or how it was meant to tie in to anything else. In terms of acting, Dmitri Hvorostovsky was particularly excellent as the troubled Renato.

My main irritation though, was the camera direction. There were several moments when it focused on the principals standing around and doing nothing, when the chorus appeared to be doing something worth seeing. They didn’t seem to realise that we might want to see anything other than close ups of the lead singers’ faces, whether they were singing or not.

Overall, a good performance by all, although the production didn’t quite seem to know its purpose. The intervals were interesting, especially watching  Joyce Didonato rehearsing for what promises to be a wonderful performance of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda.

Franco Corelli – Il Principe di Tenori

You may recall that a bit ago, I posted about my latest visit to the record shop. And one of the CDs I bought was (for only £5.99!) The Perfect (Italian) Tenor, a collection of Italian arias sung by Franco Corelli.

This is the track list:

Giuseppe VERDI(1813 – 1901)
Aida
1.Se quel guerrier io fossi … Celeste Aida
Ernani
2.Merce diletti amici … Come rugiada al cespite
I Lombardi
3.La mia letizia infondere
La forza del destino
4.La vita inferno … O tu che seno in angeli
Il trovatore
5.Deserto sulla terra
6.Ah, si ben mio … Di quella pira
Umberto GIORDANO(1867 – 1948)
Andrea Chenier
7.Improvviso: Un di all’azzuro spazio
8.Come un bel di di maggio
Fedora
9.Amor ti vieta
10.Mia madre, la mia vecchia madre … Vedi io piango
Pietro MASCAGNI(1863 – 1945)
Cavalleria rusticana
11.Mamma quell vino e generoso
Lodoletta
12.Se Franz dicesse il vero
Francesco CILEA(1866 – 1950)
Adriana Lecouvreur
13.La dolcissima effige
Giacomo PUCCINI(1858 – 1924)
La fanciulla del West
14.Una parola sola! … Or son sei mesi
Madama Butterfly
15.Addio fiorito asil
Tosca
16.E lucevan le stelle
Turandot
17.Non piangere Liù
18.Nessun dorma

Well, what can I say? It’s not perfect, but it’s as close to perfection as anyone could hope for it to be. It’s (obviously) an old recording, but Corelli’s voice manages to shine through almost all the sound quality problems. I say almost all, because the Nessun dorma at the end has the classic this-was-recorded-underwater sound to it, which distorts his high notes a bit.

My picks for the best tracks of this album are as follows:

Celeste Aida – This rendition has the simultaneous bravado and tenderness that perfectly captures the emotions of this song. Comparing this to Roberto Alagna’s version certainly clears up the mystery of why the loggionisti booed Alagna when he tried to sing it at La Scala.

Deserto sulla terra – Perfect if you need to convert somebody to Corellism, but only have a couple of minutes to do it in.

Di quella pira – This is the only recording of this aria that I’ve heard that can equal Pavarotti’s. Again, I love how his tone changes from romantic to heroic in a matter of seconds. The sound’s fine on this one, apart from some strange whizzing noises in the background.

Come un bel di di maggio – In my opinion, this is the best track in the album. Heartbreakingly soft and painfully strong by turns, this is my favourite of all recordings of this aria.

Mamma, quel vino e generoso – A gorgeous piece of verismo opera, which suits Corelli’s voice perfectly. The stifled sobs work better in this aria than in some of the others.

Or son sei mesi – I’m not really a fan of La Fanciulla del West but his singing brings the rather flat emotions completely to life again and breathes his magic into the music.

E lucevan le stelle – One of my favourite arias, one of my favourite tenors, perfection. Need I say more?

Non piangere Liu – Again, you can hear Calaf’s emotional struggle reflected in his voice. (In case you’re wondering, there is no input from Liu or Timur in this rendition)

So all in all, I would seriously recommend this recording to anyone who likes this kind of repertoire and/or wants to discover one of the greatest tenors who ever lived. You won’t be disappointed.