Les Arts Florissants bring Campra to BAM

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In 1697, the Comédie-Italienne almost managed to make fun of the court of Louis XIV but were forcibly disbanded for their trouble. In 1710, André Campra’s opera-ballet Les fêtes vénitiennes tried to bring the italianisme and the politics back to Paris.

Last weekend, Les Arts Florissants brought it to New York.

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Les Arts Florissant’s David et Jonathas at BAM

I went to see David et Jonathas by Les Arts Florissants at BAM and I wrote about it for Bachtrack:

New York is again lucky to host William
Christie and Les Arts Florissants at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Their visits are always special, and it’s not just because the unique
nature of their repertory – Baroque opera, usually French, which is
neglected by most of New York’s major companies – nor the virtuosic ease
with which they embody this otherwise-foreign idiom. Their productions
have a passionate unity of purpose and a loving, handcrafted quality
that somehow seems antithetical to many of our more slick and snarky
local efforts. Their present offering, a touching production of
Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s David et Jonathas, has little in common with
2011’s Atys, but fortunately these virtues are again in full force.

You can read the whole thing here. Highly recommended. It’s a great and extremely unusual work with a fantastic musical performance and a smart production. Performances that meet one of these three requirements are unusual enough, ones that fulfill all three far more so. Still could have used some program notes, however.

This production will also be released on DVD on April 30.

Photo copyright Julia Cervantes

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Enchanted Island: No man or woman is a…

 Contrary to anything you may have read, the Met’s The Enchanted Island pasticcio does not feature a cameo by a wisecracking René Pape as the Skipper.* But it’s got just about everything else. Everything, that is, except a reason for us to care. An all-star cast belts out top Baroque tunes in a beautifully designed production, but thanks to Jeremy Sams’s insipid, self-indulgent libretto, most of it ends up being much ado about nothing. Why can’t we have actual Baroque opera instead?

Various, The Enchanted Island. World premiere pasticcio, Met Opera, 12/31/2011. Assembled by Jeremy Sams, conducted by William Christie, directed by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, sets by Crouch, costumes by Kevin Pollard, lights by Brian MacDevitt. With David Daniels (Prospero), Joyce DiDonato (Sycorax), Danielle De Niese (Ariel), Lisette Oropesa (Miranda), Luca Pisaroni (Caliban), Placido Domingo (Neptune), Layla Claire (Helena), Elizabeth DeShong (Hermia), Paul Appleby (Demetrius), Elliot Madore (Lysander), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Ferdinand).

The Enchanted Island has hitched itself to the eighteenth century pasticcio tradition, a conglomeration of old music set to a new story. But it’s a 21st-century creation through and through, as I think its creators would readily acknowledge.** Jeremy Sams is responsible for the libretto. In a rewrite of The Tempest, Prospero is situated on the titular island (which makes whooshing noises identical to the one on Lost) and must confront the challenges of age, Ariel, and his lady-rival Sycorax (who is already dead in the Shakespeare). But rather than the intended Ferdinand, the honeymooning four lovers from A Midsummer Night’s Dream wash up instead. While Prospero’s responsibilities to the island and Ariel seem to be the central plot problem, most of the work’s time is spent with these four, who along with Miranda and Caliban go about doing what Shakespearean lovers do best: fall in love with the wrong people.

The music selection (here is a list) has some nice pieces and the sung texts are relatively smooth, but the shifts between the eight different composers selected can be rocky. Handel dominates, but the bits of French stuff harmonize poorly, and some of the Vivaldi sticks out as well. Many da capo arias’ B and A’ sections have been lost at sea, and some (presumably newly-composed) recit is pretty stylistically wonky (and I’m not sure where all the chamber-scored bits and accompagnato came from). More severe is the feeling that much of the music was chosen largely at random and shoehorned into the plot just as forcibly as the Midsummer lovers were. Some transpositions of duets and arias up and down octaves are quite peculiar (most strangely Vivaldi’s coloraturific “Dopo un’orrida procella” given to a baritone Lysander and “Arise ye subterranean winds” given to a soprano Ariel), and the expression doesn’t always line up either. Baroque music often was retexted back in the day, but that doesn’t mean that any sentiment goes.

Old story, old music–it’s less a story than a simulacrum of a story, the pale imitation of something we’ve all seen done before, and better. It unfolds bumpily and shapelessly, aided by the magical character’s spells in the service of a librettist who seems to think himself exceptionally clever. Yet there’s little genuine wit on display, and even less adult emotion, and sincerity, nor a clear emotional trajectory. These are all things you can find Baroque opera, but in the pastiche-ing they’ve been misplaced.

This was all the more dispiriting because the production is simply gorgeous, with lush costumes and projection scenery on a screen behind an elaborate second proscenium. (There are many more photos at the bottom of this post.) The visual style is original and whimsical and poetic and unfortunately rarely tries to upstage the action. Only a few Disney-ish moments of sparkle seem cheesy. The other effects are lovely, though I wish the rest of the audience hadn’t started applauding over the music when the ship sank.

But the island is disenchanted. We’re told that the superficiality proudly espoused by this work constitutes “fun.” We don’t have to wonder why Prospero is obsessed with making everyone move piles of wood because they’ve left that weird bit out! But, three-quarters of the way through Act 1 I found myself, probably aided by a certain degree of sleep deprivation, in the throes of an existential crisis that had been building up all season. If Enchanted Island was a failure, an attempt at a fun romp that ended up sort of tangled, then too bad, maybe the next one will work. But what if it was, on its terms, a success? What if this is our fun now? What if now all we desire of opera is this exquisitely crafted nothing, smug and regressed to childhood and utterly irrelevant to anything that makes us human? Why are we creating “art” that in many ways isn’t art at all? Maybe I should pack it in and start going to the movies more. Then I wouldn’t be asking all these damn rhetorical questions.

Two things happened that while not up to salvaging the evening at least made me stop contemplating das Ende. The first was the biggest coup de theatre of the production, the entrance of Placido Domingo as Neptune. He arrives on a seashell flanked by ranks of mermaids to the strains of “Zadok the priest,” robed and wearing a gigantic beard. It’s an image of sufficient outrageousness and novelty as to overpower the fact that his subsequent scene does not advance the plot and our tenor appeared to have not looked at his music ahead of time, kept getting behind Christie, and didn’t know the words (compounded by the juxtaposition of Handel, Rameau, and Vivaldi in close quarters, one of the evening’s least felicitous moments of pastichery). The staging had finally upstaged the far inferior text with sheer audacity.

The second moment was in the second act and can be described as Caliban’s coming of age, when Helena leaves him for her recovered Demetrius. With his mother Sycorax’s revival, Caliban’s status in the plot is kind of unclear. Also he’s a monster in KISS tribute makeup. But the sting of his rejection is the most comprehensible emotion we’ve seen yet and Luca Pisaroni played him with such sweetness and honesty that I found myself, for the first time, in a real story. Joyce DiDonato’s Sycorax, to this point a scenery-chewing caricature, turns human and three-dimensional. The following masque-style dream sequence, set to French music, has a plot that seems to be misplaced from the Great Courtesans of History ballet excised from November’s Faust and features some strangely aerobic choreography from Graciela Daniele, but the change of pace is welcome–more dance would have been great. Unfortunately Caliban is more or less dropped as a character after this.

Such is one’s fate in a work whose cast is the operatic equivalent of Love, Actually so prepare for a list discussing the singers. We’ve already covered Placido, and Pisaroni, who sings as well and expressively as he acts, and DiDonato, whose coloratura is great and stage presence significant but whose singing has this kind of constant tension that keeps her sound edgy and tightly wound, including in some places where that isn’t ideal. Danielle De Niese managed to make the very annoying Ariel not that irritating, though he (Ariel) bears the brunt of the plot mechanics. She (De Niese) engaged in some approximatura at inadvisably fast tempos in Act 1 but carried off the popular Vivaldi showpiece “Agitata da due venti” surprisingly well–though, it must be said, the aria is cut down to only its first section.

The most beautiful tones of the evening were from the lyric sopranos Lisette Oropesa as Miranda and Layla Claire as Helena, both of whom I hope I will be hearing lots more of in roles where they can develop characters. Mezzo Elizabeth DeShong was great in “Where shall I fly” from Hercules, I mean here she was Hermia. David Daniels was in the nominally central role of Prospero but did not make a strong impression and sounded thin and effortful, though his singing is musical. Stronger was the powerful countertenor of Anthony Roth Costanzo in the Fortinbras-like role of Ferdinand, who made the most of his one aria and duet. As Demetrius and Lysander, Paul Appleby and Elliot Madore were fine but made less of an impression than the women.

William Christie must, for better or worse, must bear much responsibility for this affair as well. As for his conducting, it was good. It was, as one would expect, very fast. This had a much less percussive and crisp effect with the Met’s modern orchestra than it would have with a historical practice one, and sometimes the singers were challenged. Still, he knows the style and got the orchestra sounding more Baroque than I would have expected. The instrumentation was small but not so small as to sound dinky.

But the entire thing left a bitter taste, a dumbed- and watered-down evening that is for the most part not actually that fun. I suspect this was a one-off experiment, and it’s not one I would be eager to repeat. Can we give a real Baroque opera a shot next time, please?

*It also lacks a cameo by Jean-Paul Fouchécourt crying “Ze plane! Ze plane!”
**See also Text and Smacked, I mean, Text and Act.

More photos:

 
 

 
 

Photo copyright Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

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Les Arts Florissants bring Atys to BAM

Happy fall, everyone! The opera season in New York started this weekend with Atys at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and I went and wrote about it at Bachtrack.

In 1676, Louis XIV’s court composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully, wrote Atys,
an unusually tragic opera that became a favorite of the king. In 1987,
William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants revived it in an acclaimed
series of performances in Paris and eventually at the Brooklyn Academy
of Music. Like Louis XIV centuries before, modern audiences were
enchanted by the work’s austere, pure declamation, grand choruses, and
graceful dances and its success was again influential.

Click here to read the whole thing. (By the way, I am blogging again. I’ll report from the Anna Bolena dress at the Met on Thursday, such as one can report on a dress rehearsal. I can’t go to opening night, unfortunately.)

This was a great performance, but I personally preferred LAF’s last big BAM project, The Fairy Queen. This is probably because it was so funny and different and as a semi-opera had a lot of novelty value for me. This is the kind of novelty that Atys had when it was first performed in NYC in 1987 1989. Lully opera has become more established but hardly commonplace since, so some of that freshness is still there today, but not to the same radical degree–I’ve certainly heard a lot more Lully than I have semi-opera. How much of Atys‘s original success was due to the novelty of French Baroque and how much due to the production’s undeniable excellence?

This is part of the reason why I’m a little disappointed that Les Arts Florissants have redone Atys instead of creating another production to expand our limited repertoire of French Baroque opera in New York (LAF has done a lot more in their home base in Europe but only a few of those productions have come to BAM). I know that this new iteration came into existence solely because of the generosity of a philanthropist, and we should be grateful for that! And 22 years is a long time, perhaps too long to begrudge a repeat. But I still am a fan of variety, and if you only know Atys you don’t know the full diversity of the French Baroque. I recommended some DVDs in the review, here are some clips. Most of these productions are a lot more daring and modern than Villégier’s Atys.

Most similar to Atys is Lully’s Armide, which is way better than Rossini’s and the LAF’s DVD is awesome. The Armide is Stephanie d’Oustrac who was Cybèle in Atys in France (and in the forthcoming DVD) but did not come to New York, unfortunately. Her replacement was talented but a little undersized for the role. D’Oustrac is epic.

I love this goofy, almost all dance production of Rameau’s Les Paladins.

Finally, this isn’t Les Arts Florissants, but I remind you of the DVD of Cavalli’s Ercole amante from De Nederlandse Opera that I wrote about a year ago, which is a fusion of French and Italian
styles.

Photo above © Pierre Grosbois

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Semele: Cecilia Bartoli we shall adore

Staging an oratorio like Semele is itself a questionable endeavor.  The music is wonderful, but dramatically it does more telling than showing and there are many static stretches.  Except for a few moments of wit and visual beauty, Robert Carsen’s elegantly restrained production is nothing more or less than unobtrusive.  However, tearing through all that dull dignity is Cecilia Bartoli, an irresistible one-woman hurricane of something or other.  Oh, and William Christie!

Handel-Congreve, Semele.  Theater an der Wien, September 17, 2010.   Les Arts Florissants conducted by William Christie with Cecilia Bartoli (Semele), Charles Workman (Jupiter/Apollo), Birgit Remmert (Juno), Malena Ernman (Ino), David Pittsinger (Cadmus/Somnus), Arnold Schoenberg Chor.  Production by Robert Carsen, choreography and staging by Elaine Tyler-Hall.

Yes, this evening was very much the Cecilia Bartoli Show.  Stage appearances by the rumored new Salzburg Whitsun intendant are rare, and she is extremely popular in Vienna.  Despite the fine playing of Les Arts Florissants and some excellent performances from the rest of the cast, the audience and production’s attention was pretty much in one place.

Carsen’s minimalist production (originally created in Zürich and staged here by Elaine Tayler-Hall) is fairly strong in the Personenregie and does a good job of telling the story and developing the characters in a straightforward way without ever coming up with anything particularly interesting.  The look is generically classy mid-century British.  The spare settings amount to virtual visual quotations if you’ve seen a lot of Carsen.*  I wish that Carsen’s impeccably coiffed and gowned ladies and tuxedoed or khaki-suited men would find clothes with a little more individual flair, but it looks pretty without getting in the way, which in this case is the salient point.

Getting in the way of Cecilia Bartoli, that is, who is anything but generic.  She brings a kind of personal energy and charm that is hard to describe but bulldozes over most of the dullness in her path.  Her voice is small and seemingly takes a while to warm up, however she was always perfectly audible and sings with a palpable joy that I think you have to be a true grump not to appreciate.  She bubbles through all sorts of ornamentation with glee, she floats through slower stuff, and can even suggest, in “Endless pleasure,” endless smugness, in voice alone. 

I know Bartoli has many detractors, but I found the usual complaints inapplicable.  Aspirated coloratura?  Slightly, but we’re not talking Deutekom here.  Unsupported tone and obtrusive breaths?  Nope.  Her “Myself I shall adore” was taken slowly, which made me suspect that we were going to get some really crazy shit in the da capo.  Indeed we did, and in the da capo she stumbled and did a full face-plant onto the stage.  Then there was an audible gasp–I’m not sure if it was her or costar Remmert–and she got right up and started singing again, having missed only about a bar of music.  Brava.

Also, “Myself I shall adore”? “Endless pleasure”? “You’ve undone me”?  Does any opera (er, oratorio) have more suggestive aria incipits?

Charles Workman sang beautifully as Jupiter with a smallish but well-projected and refined lyric tenor.  Neither Malena Ernman as Ino nor Birgit Remmert as Ino and Juno are contralto boomers and both seemed slightly miscast vocally, though Ernman had some impressive very low notes and Remmert indeed boomed in a few Wagnerian mezzo upper-register bits.  Yes, that Malena Ernman.  The tessiatura, though, seemed off for both of them.  But Ernman acted her somewhat thankless role with striking emotional poignancy and Remmert, dressed as Elizabeth II look-alike and given the most comic business in the cast (along with Kerstin Erkman as Iris), showed fine comic timing.

The production has some lovely visuals: Sommus (sung with authority by Met regular David Pittsinger, who also sang Cadmus) rising from an evenly spaced sea of sleepers, Juno surrounded by a majestic cape, the stiff but beautifully coordinated choral masses (who occasionally, to indicate amorous moments, break up their statuesque observation to start making out with each other, could have done without that).  It also has a few funny ones, best of all the staging of “Iris, hence, away,” with formidable Juno finally proffering a British Airways ticket.  The Arnold Schoenberg Choir sounded excellent but I couldn’t understand a damn word they were saying.  The principals’ English diction was excellent.

William Christie and Les Arts Florissants sounded fantastic, as usual, and the quiet moments of the score had intimacy and delicacy that would have been impossible in a larger theater, though a few experiments in really quiet singing barely made it up to me in the third ring.  A few tempos in interludes seemed almost gratuitously fast, but the orchestral virtuosity is as thrilling as all the vocal doodads found elsewhere, and since this isn’t a piece with a ton for the orchestra to do it was nice to hear a group this good get to show off what it can do, if briefly.

Not exactly your average opera, but a great night out.  This production is available on DVD in its Zürich iteration with some of the same cast.

All photos copyright Armin Bardel (from the Theater an der Wien’s excellent press site)

Video of this production, “Myself I shall adore”

*Dude has an aesthetic, at least.  Though Cavaradossi’s painting is nowhere to be seen, the opening church looks a lot like his Tosca, and the giant diagonally placed bed with billowing sheets… well, that’s a general kind of setting, but it’s exactly the same as his Poppea.  Something was also ringing bells from his Capriccio, but it’s been too long since I’ve seen that one to remember exactly what.

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Fantastic, fantastical Fairy Queen at BAM

Purcell, The Fairy Queen.  Glyndebourne Festival Opera as presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, 3/23/2010.  Les Arts Florissants, conducted by William Christie.  Directed by Jonathan Kent.

Bless thee, Bottom!  Thou art translated!  This week’s desecration of the Bard is a particularly delightful one, Purcell’s exceedingly obscure semi-opera The Fairy Queen. It’s a spectacular, epic, and magical production from the Glyndebourne Festival, but leave the Glyndebourne dress code at home and find a plaid shirt, it’s at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

It’s an unusual piece, and BAM astonishingly does not provide any program notes (the Les Arts Florissants discography is nice, but a few paragraphs of history would be better).  But luckily I did my homework so here are the basics.  Semi-operas were popular in London in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, before Handel and Porpora moved in and converted the British to full-blown opera.  They consist of a full spoken play performed by non-singing actors which is periodically interrupted by songs and extended masque-like interludes in which singers and dancers appear and do their thing, somehow prompted by the plot.  The music and dance don’t advance the story, they add atmosphere.  So these pieces are somewhat slow-moving and LONG.  This one is more or less uncut, and runs around four hours, around 50/50 semi- and opera.  If you saw Mark Morris’s production of Purcell’s King Arthur at the City Opera a few years ago, you just saw the music, the play was eliminated entirely.

The Fairy Queen, dating from 1692, despite all appearances, is not based on Spenser but a much more familiar source, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The play, though, was rewritten by an anonymous late seventeenth-century playwright: the Greek references are removed, it is somewhat condensed (so long, Hippolyta), and somewhat rearranged.  But most disconcertingly if you know that Shakespeare, many of the lines have been changed to regularize the meter, take out the obscure references, and sometimes un-Shakespearize it.  If you know the play, it’s weird to hear familiar lines mixed with new ones.  For example:

You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen.
Newts and blindworms, do not wrong.
Come not near our Fairy Queen.

becomes

Now joyn your Warbling Voices all,
Sing while we trip it on the Green;
But no ill Vapours rise or fall,
Nothing offend our Fairy Queen

As you may guess, a common criticism of semi-operas are that the plays aren’t any good, despite the delight of the music.  That was what Mark Morris said when he cut Dryden’s play entirely from King Arthur.  Also, that they don’t hold together.  But a semi-opera is a complete work in some form, not just blocks of music alternating with blocks of text.  Even though the two don’t interact in Rogers and Hammerstein fashion, they still comprise a whole of a sort–one that this production proves is theatrically viable.  Seeing a semi-opera with both play and music in place is rare, and would be worth seeing even if this one weren’t so good in itself.

**

Another reason semi-operas died out was they were so expensive to produce. The Fairy Queen apparently was always quite an endeavor to put on, as the Prologue notes:

“But that this Play may in its Pomp appear
Pray let our Stage from thronging Beaux be clear.
For what e’re cost we’re at, what e’re we do,
In Scenes, Dress, Dances…”

The set descriptions show where some of this money went:

The Scene changes to a great Wood; a long row of large Trees on each side: A River in the middle: Two rows of lesser Trees of a different kind just on the side of the River, which meet in the middle, and make so many Arches: Two great Dragons make a Bridge over the River; their Bodies form two Arches, through which two Swans are seen in the River at a great distance.

Sorry, that was just an excuse to quote more 1693 English.  Kent and Christie have swans, but no dragons.

**

Jonathan Kent and William Christie’s production isn’t relentlessly faithful to the original text (it Shakespeares it up somewhat, for one thing), but its liberties aren’t great.  Its remarkable achievement is how it balances well-acted text and well-sung and danced music and creates something that is both coherent and entertaining.  The lovers are initially period (17th-c), the Mechanicals out of Keeping Up Appearances, the fairies somewhat more current but with wings. 

In the forest, the lovers lose their big clothes and, as in Midsummer, enter the world of irrationality–which, broadly speaking, is the world of music.  The semi-opera doesn’t allow them to sing, but they do, masque-like, become part of the show.  The role of the Drunken Poet in the First Masque is given to Bottom, making the First Masque almost a plot event marking the Mechanicals’ entrance into the forest.  The Second Masque puts Titania to sleep, the Third Masque is on seduction, the Fourth on the new day and seasons (yeah, this one is the most tangential), the Fifth on marriage.

The masques are like a ballet in their plot, sometimes narrating a bit but mostly just on the way to the next delight.  And the staging is endlessly inventive, steadily building in outrageousness and silliness from the relatively tame early masques to crowds of giant amorous rabbits,  trailer trash couples (anti-masquers!), and more surprises that I should not ruin for you.  The final Masque of Marriage contains a lament (“O let me weep”) that reminds ups how screwed up marriage was back then.  FYI, Kent’s “Adam and Eve” was originally a Chinese couple (their Daphne was “Xansi”), who have apparently disappeared for a less offensive, more nekkid, more Cranach-y alternative.

So it’s a lot to take in, and occasionally overwhelming.  The actors are all, as far as the program indicated, British, and very good, giving an entertaining, bawdy rendition of this somewhat crooked Dream with appropriately youthful lovers and most of the usual highlights–short jokes, chasing, etc.  As any good Bottom, Desmond Barritt is a highlight, the Mechanicals in general a hilariously dim bunch, and their play a truly epic disaster.  The play is good enough to not wish we get straight to the music, and that’s saying something.

The music.  Les Arts Florissants are an institution, and this piece displays them to great advantage.  The orchestra is large and amazingly colorful, and Christie’s tempos are quick.  The soloists doubled various roles in various masques and were universally good (and stylistically accurate, of course), but my favorites were Emmanuelle de Negri as Night and the lamenter, and Andrew Foster-Williams in a variety of bass-baritone roles.  There is also a lot of dancing, which I haven’t yet mentioned because I found it the least interesting part of the show, the choreography (by Kim Brandstrup) struck my uneducated eye as dully athletic.  But you get lots of glorious dance music.

The set isn’t quite as extravagant as the above description, but it’s full of surprises.  We start in a period study lined with cabinets of curiosities, this room expands to become the forest, the fairies emerging from the cabinets and through the windows and floor.  The mini-dramas of the masques are staged like different strange things pulled out of the cabinets too, without adherence to any particular period or theme.  It’s elegant and moves smoothly between play and music, and is technically very impressive (nice flying). 

So does it tell a story?  Eh, not quite, but that isn’t the point.  It’s a spectacle, and is appropriate spectacular and diverting, and frequently delightful.  Tommasini seems to think that the glam and current touches that make Christie’s productions so exciting is somewhat disreputable, tarting up (he says ”juicing up“) something which is perhaps more properly buttoned-up and without bunny orgies.  Nonsense.  This is supposed to be exciting stuff, we know people found it exciting then, and to frump it up today when we could be having fun is doing the material a disservice, not to mention the audience.  So go enjoy without guilt!

Next: I don’t know!  Partenope if I can make it, especially after the encouragement of the commenters below, or possibly nothing until second-cast Tosca on April 17–noch einmal with Luc Bondy.  Yes, Armida will also be happening, but probably not until after that!

Jonathan Kent on the staging in the Guardian
William Christie on the music:

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