L’Incasta Diva

callasbyhirschfeld

– a review of Amouage Opus IX

Whether by accident or (infernal) design, I grew up in an opera-mad household. Family Christmas traditions included (among other things) at least one viewing of Milos Foreman’s Amadeus (because Wolfgang was the household god) and if my mother the histrionically addicted opera buff could get tickets for it, an Xmas ticket to another Christmas tradition at the Royal Theatre of Copenhagen – a performance of Carl Nielsen’s Maskarade. One year, the ticket gods conspired to send Maman, her mother and both her daughters to see ‘Maskarade’, and my sister laughed as the orchestra struck up the overture and my giddy anticipation was painted all over my face.

Since I’m also the only one of my family to play a musical instrument (classical flute, violin and viola) and I did not run away screaming for my first live opera performance (Monteverdi’s Poppaea, not exactly entry level stuff), she hauled me to many, many others throughout the years, on the stage of the Royal Theatre (too many to count) as well as opera cinema – Carmen, Zeffirelli’s La Traviata, Bergman’s indelible The Magic Flute, and (my all-time favorite opera and opera film) Joseph Losey’s Don Giovanni. Her one hesitation was hauling me to a one-time only performance of Wagner’s Parzifalbecause Wagner!”, and six hours of bum-numbed, utter flabbergasted stupefaction later, I still wasn’t sure I’d ever forgive her.

All of this is by way of saying that a) I’m no stranger to opera, live OR recorded and b) opera is the plural of ‘opus’ not to mention c) when you initiate your first-born into the opera lovers’ club, be prepared for the consequences.

Among them was our shared propensity for arguing about opera divas. Maman, you see, was a diehard Maria Callas fangal, and I… was not so much. So she would bludgeon me with ‘Casta Diva’ (from Bellini’s Norma), and I’d bash her right back with Kiri Te Kanawa’s Arabella. Or when I really wanted to get her goat: Renée Fleming.

This elicited one of two responses. Either I’d get frozen in the headlights of a Scorpio Glare (trust me, it’s a Thing) before a lecture on how altos (that would be me) never did see the point of sopranos out of spite since all the best female opera parts are always, always written for sopranos (true), or else, she’d haul out her trump card:

La Traviata.

You don’t argue with Maria Callas’ interpretation of Violetta. You. Just. Don’t.

Apparently, neither did Christopher Chong of Amouage when he cited La Divina Callas’ Violetta as his inspiration for the latest in the Opus line of Amouage perfumes , Opus IX.

My experiences with the perfumes of the Opus line have been a bit like singing a blonde bimbo version of Wagner’s Parzifal: I know I’m looking for something but I’m never sure what it is, and I’m always asking all the wrong questions and looking in all the wrong places. Opus V was an instant love, and so was VI. VII has to be my most confounding moment in my five years as a perfume writer, and VIII was… I’m still not sure. The Jasmine That Ate Manhattan?

Here and now, we have one of the most famous voices and characters on Earth, bottled. So how does it smell? Does it conjure up images of divinity, sublime musicality and all the fabulous ferocity and staggering beauty Maria Callas called her own?

Well, I’ll begin with the big one: Opus IX belongs to what I call The Brunette School of Perfume, meaning it will likely do wonders for the hordes of jasmine-fanatic brunettes out there.

Ms. Hare – a brunette, a Leo and rabid Amouage fangal – borrowed it for nefarious purposes and was quite pleased with wafting a fantastically fragrant, flawless honey-sweet jasmine sambac F over C# along with the not at all sotto voce animal growls of those nefarious purposes.

Try as I may, I can’t argue with skin chemistry, and you, dear reader, know as well as I do that genetics, diet, temperature and mood all have their parts to play in how to make a perfume sing on the stage of your skin no matter what the press release copy/libretto wants you to believe. My theory of what I’ve come to call the Brunette School of Perfume is this: certain types of grandiloquent Oriental perfumes smell infinitely better on brunettes.

Yours truly – a pale, buxom, vertically challenged dishwater blonde Taurus – tends to pull perfumes in a greener, more bitter direction, which goes a long way towards explaining my lifelong love of green floral chypres and fougères.

Opus IX is no chypre (In my demented imagination, if chypres sang they’d be altos out of spite!), but a great, grand, 24-karat whopper of an Oriental Diva with a scintillating Capital D.

Camellia is listed as a note and a reference to Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias which in turn inspired the plot of La Traviata, but so far as I’m aware almost all camellias are scentless. Not something you could ever say about jasmine sambac, which in this instance is dusted with pepper, a slightly powdery puff of an imaginary fragrant camellia and curled around a woody, fiery and sweetly leather-flecked heart.

Don’t be fooled. This jasmine can s-i-n-g, hitting that fabled F over C smack bang on those bright, pulsing quarter-note dots of beeswax and ambergris.

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Ecce La Diva

Ecce La Diva.

If you’re looking for the kind of drop dead glamourie that sweeps up its audience in a swoon, this is emphatically it. I’ve never smelled anything like it, and after this I don’t know why I’d even bother. The opening reminds me of those famous lines from Shelley’s Ozymandias, but with a twist:

Sniff on this art, ye mighty, and despair.

And then comes a slinky, silky feline on not-at-all stealthy paws and begins to purr, growl and roar right along with the jasmine in a duet to the death where neither will back down an inch. Ever.

The notes listing has ambergris (quite apparent) and civet, and I’ll come right out and say it: if you dislike civet, this will not change your mind. Civet happens to be one of my two most favorite animalic notes, but I’ve never, ever met a civet base note quite so lascivious? Lecherous? Licentious? as this one. This jungle cat is on the prowl looking for a decidedly different kind of carnal dinner for a fantasy blue movie rated a whole lot more than triple X.

Which is where Opus IX remains on this bathetic blonde for well over 24 hours. It’s the jasmine that gobbled up Manhattan before devouring Milano, Venice, Paris and London, until the civet jungle cat challenged her to a duelduet where they’ll both go down in fragrant flames – or crimes – of passion that might explicate the faint whiff of melancholy I detected in the far drydown.

Violetta expires – ah! The tragedy! – in the third act of La Traviata, right when all possibilities are opened up, when Alfredo returns, ‘Gran Dio … morir si giovane’, ‘Great God, to die so young…’, and just as the tragic Violetta, La Diva Callas, too, left this world far too soon, leaving behind, as all great artists do, a legacy of superlative musicality, a voice unlike any before or since and drop-dead, deathly intimidating glamour on top.

Some long, long time later came a perfume fully worthy of everything Maria Callas was and all she did – called Opus IX.

But somewhere between Maria Callas, my operatic memories and Opus IX, I have an urge to call it something else. A spin on another of her immortal arias, and with all due apologies for mangling the beautiful Italian language.

I’d call it ‘L’Incasta Diva’. ‘The Unchaste Goddess’.

Gaze upon her work, ye mighty, and despair.

Amouage Opus IX is available from First in Fragrance, Luckyscent and directly from the Amouage website.

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Notes: Camellia, jasmine, black pepper, gaiac wood, leather, beeswax, vetiver, ambergris and civet.

Disclaimer: A sample of Opus IX was sent by Amouage for review. With thanks to the Very August Personage. And the ghost of a diva.

Illustrations: Caricature of Maria Callas by Al Hirschfeld, 1958. Photo of Maria Callas in the Royal Opera House 1958 production of La Traviata. Photo of the Library Collection Opus IX, Amouage. Used by permission.

Chiaroscuro in Amethyst and Onyx

opusviiiris

– a review of Amouage Opus VII

Among all my many moods and frequent fancies, one moves me more than nearly any other and sets my imagination alight, the delicious, delirious champagne bubbles of …anticipation. That timeless moment when anything and everything is possibility, when hopes and dreams and wishes slither inside to fuel the fires of your imagination, assert themselves and remind you that anything can and will likely happen, that you might know and experience what you never did before, go places you never knew you could.

Even now, even today, even as it seems in this endless dreary winter that sent Spring straight to an icy fevered limbo, anticipation takes hold and bubbles away in my mind, even as I have a slight hint that my anticipation might be just warranted enough, justified enough to make these fragrant hopes and ephemeral dreams a little more real, a little less dream to catch as it flies.

This day, this instant, my anticipation has a name, a prosaic name from an anything but prosaic house, the house of Amouage, and the name is nothing more and nowhere less than… Opus VII.

Once upon a time, the Library Collection line of Amouage seemed to be a counterpoint to their main line, scented sonatas as opposed to symphonies, Schubert lieder rather than full-blown Wagner operas, or novellas as opposed to doorstopper novels.

So I even believed at the time, until an inkling that arrived as the same time as Opus VI became a definite suspicion, if not a proven fact with the arrival of Opus VII.

You see, I suspect that the Library Collection is where Creative Director Christopher Chong gets to play with ideas and concepts that somehow fall outside the scope of the main line, where he might want to do things and say things on a different scale and to a different end.

Here is Opus VII at last after months of speculation, here is another concept and another idea. I have no press release to cling to nor any reviews to eye at a distance, no list of notes, nothing to go on. I am simply flying blind by my nose, walking that tightrope walk between my words, my emotions and my impressions without a safety net, and all I can hope for is not to fall flat on either my words or my face.

It is like nothing I expected, nothing I thought it would be. Nevertheless, it is an Amouage, and therefore, nothing if not surprising.

What would it be, so many of us wondered, would it be an iris, asked some people, would it be a leather, would it be anything at all like its predecessor?

I could answer all of those questions, but that’s no way to review an Amouage.

Opus VII is an iris, an iris apparent to my questionable nose from start to finish, an iris that refracts and shimmers and sparkles not with intimations of a light and airy, chilly spring, not at all like any famous irises you might think you know. Instead of light, it gives you a decadent, delectable and nearly Gothic twilit dark, instead of repeating all those famous orris commonplaces, it delivers something else, something unexpected – it gives you an iris with a haunting, slightly foreboding edge. Not ominous so much as arresting, compelling your attention in an instant.

Orris butter has so many facets on its own, far more than the flower its rhizomes sustain. With Opus VII, you will find in the opening alone not a few of them, interlaced with each other in compelling ways I can’t recall ever having encountered before. An earthy, spicy jolt to my senses of black pepper, an opening sunburst song of bergamot and maybe a touch of grapefruit that winks on your skin and is gone before that most regal, midnight purple iris steps forward to command your attention, as it surely will. Not a cold, chilly iris, not even so haughty as many irises are, but still a touch…imperious, as all irises should be.

This iris – borne up by a supporting cast that might include davana, a note that always, always haunts me and stops me cold, glows with a whisper of dark chocolate which could be patchouli, a basso profondo, poised pulse of labdanum and frankincense (that glorious frankincense Amouage uses like no other brand I know), and another arresting note that also always compels me like few others, a note I think might be a supple, silky smooth myrrh.

If that were all Opus VII were, I’d be beyond thrilled.

It’s not.

Understand, all these disparate elements take hours to show themselves in the spotlight. They wend and weave and dance their separate measures throughout, sometimes appearing clear as day, clear as a key light shone upon them, before they imperceptibly recede and retreat, only to reemerge from the shadows when you least expect them.

Now you smell them. Then, you don’t.

Suddenly with a shock of awareness, they appear again.

And then.

Then comes another thread, another ribbon of dark, refracted light that spirals from top to bottom, from start to finish and back again, and this is called leather in still another midnight shade and hue. As soft and as pliant as a flawlessly fitted glove, as luxurious and dense as suede, it seems neither one nor the other, but the hide of some otherworldly animal, caught and tanned if never tamed by some sleight-of-hand, arcane secret we mortals may not know, but only have the privilege to breathe in.

Call it hyperbole, call me out on my exaggerations and verbal excess, yet I tell you…this is what Opus VII is and these words are the story it tells me.

Since my sample arrived, I’ve spent not a little time with its wonders. I’ve sprayed my skin, I’ve sniffed the bottle, I’ve immersed myself by spraying not just myself, but my pillows and my Tibetan prayer flag, too. I’ve been more than a little obsessed with it in a way I’m not normally accustomed to. Through not a few days and the nights that followed those days. I’ve tried to capture the djinn as they flew and listen to the story they told, wondering where that story began and how it ended.

When my own realization hit, it hit through music, as happens often in this musically obsessed household. I sat and listened last night to Igor Stravinsky’s ‘Rites of Spring’, and as I did, the djinn within Opus VII began to dance with far more abandon than even the great Nijinsky could manage, dance as they told a story of emerging from the depths of an endless, icy winter, of springing forth from the shadows and next, running back to the twilight gloaming that conceals them.

They laughed at my pretensions and my anticipation, only to wrap me snug and warm against the sudden, shocking chill of early spring with that otherwordly, chiaroscuro silk velvet pelt of amethyst and onyx, of iris and pepper, frankincense and labdanum and a deft touch of patchouli, of leather and myrrh.

An emergence, a story, a dance, anticipation, a plush, velvet olfactory pelt of an otherworldly animal the world will soon know as…Opus VII.

opusvii

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Amouage Opus VII was created by perfumers Alberto Morillas and Pierre Negrin in collaboration with Amouage Creative Director Christopher Chong. It will be available from Amouage boutiques and Amouage retailers from mid-April.

Image 1: A black iris bud, via Wikimedia Commons, adapted by me.

Image 2: Opus VII presentation, courtesy of Amouage. Used by permission.

Disclosure: A sample of Opus VII was provided for review by Amouage. The Alembicated Genie is never endorsed by any perfume house or company, all reviews are original, I’m never compensated for reviews and all stated opinions are my own.

*********Addendum*********

Since writing this review yesterday, I’ve been informed by a reliable source that Opus VII does not, in fact, contain iris at all. So I’ll proclaim the Humpty Dumpty rule of (terrible) perfume analysis and say…Your Mileage (and sillage) May Vary. But such were and are my definite impressions, and as it is, my review remains.

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A Filigreed Drop of Bright

– a review of Amouage The Library Collection – Opus VI

Say that fabled word – amber – and a whole slew of associations come to mind. Those plush, sensuous, ornate magic carpet rides into some equally legend golden sunset of complex, heady perfumes, all the many Occidental dreams contained within the word ‘oriental’, every single one of them adding up to the name of a color, a category, a gemstone and a reverie. Amber in perfume conjures up words like animalic, leathery, sweet, smooth, heady, take-no-prisoners opulent. It can be a Beethoven scented symphony, or an elegant Chopin sonata. We know those notes so well, so well…but love those familiar fragrant phrases no less.

Once upon a time not so long ago, it was one of the two base accords in perfume that made me run for the hills screaming. Amber was far too obvious for my pseudo-intellectual green-chypre tastes, too animalic and possibly too hot to handle, too. There were secrets in those scents I simply wasn’t tall enough or pretty enough or just woman enough to handle, so I stayed well away and well within my comfort zone. I wasn’t an amber woman. Never. Ever.

Yet revolutions happen and perspectives change. My own seismic shift occurred when a small sample of a ground-breaking amber found its way into my hands, onto my skin and under my nose, and in one sniff, that stubborn continent of personal inclination whirled and eddied and changed forever. I started at the very apotheosis of amber, and if I were going to cross that line into amber love, then by golly, it had better be worth it!

Famous last words.

Here I am with still another amber, yet another subterranean seismic shift.

This amber is an Amouage.

Amouage, with all its storied heritage and maximalist approach to perfume, is a house that often slays me in ways both great and small.

No one, but no one, wraps such astonishing frankincense around such story-telling genies, and every Amouage I’ve ever met has always told a story. Even this one, even now, even as I wrestle with these words, Opus VI wants me to shift into narrative mode and tell another fragrant tale of filigree and fable, of moment and futurity, a story of a most unusual, unnerving amber.

Do you think you know something of ambers, do you have certain expectations of what an Amouage amber might be? Are you painting an olfactory image in your mind as you read, of all that word contains and adding the prerequisite five hundred percent?

If you’re anything like me, you are. As you are, that djinn in the bottle jumps up and down with unconcealed glee, anticipating the delicious moment it will subvert every expectation you have.

Opus VI is not your usual amber. If ambers are usually silk-smooth concoctions that wrap around your skin in a velvet touch, then you are in for a surprise.

It begins with a suggestion of the same green and bitter facet fans of Serge Lutens’ Ambre Sultan might recognize, with a detectable bay leaf burst and a spicy jolt to the nose, and veiled behind it intimations of that well-beloved amber glow on the far distant horizon. But half the thrill of any journey lies not in arriving but enjoying the ride.

As I do, as I wonder where I’ll be taken along the way, a thick, glorious ribbon of incense weaves around me like a cat on stealthy feet and blooms. There is no other way to describe it and no way to precisely describe its effects except to say that if I owned a fainting couch, I’d need it in 3…2…1…

But the journey isn’t over and my own perilous downfall is just beginning. As I’m taken through the shifting scenery that exudes from my skin, the djinn decides to undo me even further.

Nothing like the ambers you know and love, nothing like that well-beloved sweet caress of benzoin or tolu, but a different, woodier, spikier creature that takes all amber clichés and slants them in a different direction and puts them on a darker, moodier path. My nose tells me patchouli and sandalwood, something that reminds me of rich, bittersweet chocolate and something I can’t quite pinpoint but who cares when my axis has shifted and my continents have realigned?

There is nothing I can do and nowhere left to go except to laugh at my own pretentious attempts to nail this perfume to the floor of my words if it slays me. That djinn hides a story it wants me to find, but this is no tale of Sheherazade, no travel back in time, this is very much here and totally now, a thoroughly modern reinvention of what is often such a hackneyed phrase, but Opus VI is no cliché.

It has taken what should be obvious and made it new. It has surprised me and delighted me with that half-hidden veil of amber, glimpsed behind a wooden screen, and filigreed a future full of possibilities upon a huge surprise it took me no time at all to fall so very hard for in all those fatal, fragrant ways.

I have tried and very much liked the opera of volumes I through V. But the number VI did me in, changed my perspectives and possibly even me as well.

Love will do that. Especially when it takes you by surprise, as surely Opus VI did when it filigreed all my future possibilities and wrapped them…in an amber.

Disclosure: A sample was provided for review by Amouage.

Opus VI of the Library Collection was created by Amouage Creative Director Christopher Chong in collaboration with Dora Arnaud and Pierre Negrin.

For the review I wish I could have written, may I recommend the incomparable Persolaise.

Amouage Opus VI will soon be available from the Amouage website, Les Senteurs, Luckyscent & First In Fragrance.