By Glenn Loney, August 15, 2005

Glenn Loney
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.

Please click on " * " to skip to each subject in this index:
Major Motives Onstage: *
Power, Love, Revenge, War, Wealth, Poverty, Environmental Pollution!
Massive Oil-Refinery Rises Out of Lake Constance!
Verdian Passions Soar Aloft on Bregenz Festival’s Lake-Stage:
Lake-Stage Special-Effects and Technical Details:
Bregenz Celebrates Its Second Masked-Ball:
Carl Nielsen’s Maskerade—A Covent Garden Co-Production
Blasted into The Seventh Heaven:
Operatic Terrorist-Attack on the White House!
Ambitious Summer Season of New Bregenz Intendant David Poutney:

The 2005 Bregenz Festival:

Major Motives Onstage:
Power, Love, Revenge, War, Wealth, Poverty, Environmental Pollution!

What does Environmental Pollution have to do with Verdi and his tragic Il Trovatore? There are a number of fatalities in the fable, it’s true, but none of them from Agent Orange

This past summer—and next summer as well—thousands of spectators at the Bregenz Festival will be looking at a huge petrol-plant in Lake Constance, painted in almost fluorescent ugly dark red, suggesting the malignant poisons industries have been spewing out around the world.

That’s in Trovatore?

Unfortunately—despite the glories of their scores—some 19th century Romantic operas now seem not only remote, but even irrelevant, for modern audiences. At the Bregenz Festival, the directorial thrust has been to create a more modern connection, even if only in visual metaphors.


Massive Oil-Refinery Rises Out of Lake Constance!i

Photo by Karl Foster

There are no major oil-fields on the southern shores of Lake Constance. As the alpine heights of Western Austria’s Vorarlberg loom behind the province’s capital-city of Bregenz, this charming resort locale seems light-years away from the endangered petroleum reserves of Iraq.

Nor would it make economic sense to have oil-barges from the North Sea make the long journey up the River Rhine into Lake Constance to be off-loaded at Bregenz for conversion into gasoline.

That being the case, why then is there an immense, poisonously red oil-refinery rising out of the placid waters of the lake? It looks disturbingly like the real thing, but in fact it burns petrol, rather than refining it. This impressive construction is in fact the sole setting for the Bregenz Festival’s new lake-stage production of Guiseppi Verdi’s Il Trovatore.

Because 96 percent of the Festival’s summer audiences come from Austria, Switzerland, and Germany, this stunning new staging is being advertised as Der Troubadour. And Lake Constance is known to German-speakers as the Bodensee, in case you can’t find the city or the lake on a map of Europe. Actually, the lake is so large, it’s hard to miss.

Those opera-buffs who are familiar with Trovatore—which is set in Medieval Spain—may well wonder what the troubadour Manrico, his gypsy mother Azucena, and the villainous Count di Luna are doing in a modern oil-refinery.

They have been transplanted there by the imaginative stage-director Robert Carsen and his even more ingenious stage-designer, Paul Steinberg. They wanted to make this opera both resonant and relevant.

One of the problems about Trovatore for modern audiences—despite its powerful score—is its narrative remoteness: babies switched in the cradle—one of them tossed into the flames; two brothers—not knowing of their true relationship—contending for the love of the same woman, Leonora; an aged gypsy seer, hungry for vengeance, etc., etc.

But the passions involved in this grim tale of the abuses of power and love know no particular time or place. So Steinberg has designed the imposing refinery to resemble a medieval Spanish castle-fortress as well. This makes it possible for the unfolding of the tragedy to exist in both the past and the present, stressing not only the contemporary relevance of basic human passions out of control, but also the virtual universality of this theme.

Verdian Passions Soar Aloft on Bregenz Festival’s Lake-Stage:

A major initial problem when fully-staged, open-air productions of operas and musicals were in their infancy was that of audience-reception of the mix of vocal and orchestral sound. Whether in Bregenz on the Bodensee, or at Jones Beach on Long Island, spotting microphones across the front of the stage often meant acoustic-gaps in important arias or songs if performers were moving. Worse, strong winds could blow away even the trumpetings of the orchestras.

All these problems have been definitively resolved at Bregenz, which is now a technical model for what needs to be done to make open-air music-theatre productions not only viable, but tremendously successful as well. There are some 144 state-of-the-art loudspeakers deftly concealed in the oil-refinery construction.

Manrico can be easily heard even when he is high atop a catwalk by the flame-belching smokestacks of the refinery. As can his evil brother, the Count, when he is in his motor-boat on the lake in front of the actual stage. This means nothing of the artistry of the actor/singers is lost, nor are Verdi’s arias, duets, and choruses muffled or mangled. The mix of the concealed orchestra with the vocal dynamics is seamless.

But it does seem a bit odd to hear Mancrico so clearly when he is not only far away from the audience, but also high up in the often windy areas above Lake Constance. At the premiere performance, Alfredo Portillo’s Manrico did seem forced at first, but he soon adjusted.

Zeljko Lucic, as the Count, was both vocally and visually firmly in control. This was not an Exxon CEO you would want to tangle with. He is clearly in league with the Mafia in running this refinery. Brando’s Godfather came to mind.

Nor was Larissa Diadkova lacking in energy and ferocity as the vengeful Azucena, whose mother was burned at the stake by the Count. For Leonora, however, because of the very monumentality of the immense set, in her more intimate scenes, Sondra Radvanovsky lost some of the visual impact her vocal passions should have had on the audience.

If some in the audience did not know the plot, they might well have been baffled by the Convent-scene: What were all those nuns doing with lighted candles in the middle of an oil-refinery? It should—at the very least—be a No Smoking Zone!

The very vastness of the set necessarily dilutes some of the power of confrontations when opponents are widely separated. This is the price to be paid when Spectacle Rules. Nonetheless, the artful lighting of Patrick Woodroffe does create intimate areas where and when needed. Miruna Boruzescu’s costumes also help identify principals and the various affiliations of chorus and extras.

Important supporting roles were ably performed by Clive Bayley [Ferrando], Deanne Meek [Inez], and André Post [Ruiz]. In addition to the requisite dancers, the Moscow Chamber Choir and the Bregenz Festival Choir evoked both the Spanish Past and the Environmentally Polluted Present. Conductor Fabio Luisi put the Vienna Symphony through their Verdian paces with verve.

Obviously, with so many performances scheduled for the lake-stage, Troubadour had to be double and triple-cast. The second cast featured George Petean as Luna, Katia Pellegrino as Leonora, Patriza Patelmo as Azucena, Dario Volonté as Manrico, and Markus Marquardt as Ferrando. Meek and Post retained their roles in this cast.


Lake-Stage Special-Effects and Technical Details:

For those who have never been to the Bregenz Festival—nor read reports of previous summers—it might well be wondered why the lake-stage set has to be so big. There’s a very good visual reason—and not just the needs of the show being mounted.

The festival began way back in 1946, with not much of a production-budget—and even less funding for advertising. Bregenz: where’s that?

Unlike Austrian Salzburg—whose festival was already world-famous—Bregenz was in effect a small, relatively unknown city between German Lindau and Swiss St. Margaret. In half-an-hour, you could drive from the German border to the Swiss, right through the center of Vorarlberg’s capital.

There was no compelling reason to stop for a look-around.

This tourist-neglect came to an end when the festival producers conceived the idea of operettas and operas mounted on a special stage rising right out of the Bodensee. Driving to Zurich in 1956—ten years after the festival’s launch—your reporter was astonished to see a great white-lattice confection floating on the lake.

Their idea worked—and not only with an American in a blue-beetle VW. Over the years, audiences have swelled, often because drive-through tourists saw a monumental lake-stage set and decided to stop over and see the show!

Thus, any musical or opera on the lake has to have an immense set, visible from afar. But it has to be an eye-catching construction, virtually a stage-sculpture in its own right. Not a forest of two-dimensional scenic flats.

Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess took place underneath an immense earthquake-shattered California Freeway. Bernstein’s West Side Story played out around the thrusting steel & glass towers of New York City.

Reviewing the recent Bregenz season, the critic of the International Herald-Tribune remembered Verdi’s Masked Ball on the lake-stage as being dominated by a Dinosaur Skeleton. Actually, it was a giant Human Skeleton, towering some 200 feet over the stage. He must have been thinking of that dinosaur in the middle of the stage in Munich’s Giulio Cesare production?

A long-time feature of Bregenz lake-stage productions has been the use of a boat to sail in between the audience and the stage on that portion of Lake Constance that separates spectators from spectacle. And the performances customarily have concluded with fireworks displays.

The Count’s motor-boat sustains the aquatic convention, of course, and is dramatically effective in this staging. For good measure, there is even a functional onstage limousine. Automobiles onstage had been pioneered in the recent Masked Ball lake-stage production.

But ordinary fireworks wouldn’t have made any sense at all: the deeply depressing fatal ending of this opera has no place for celebratory feu d’artifice.

Instead, the five towering smokestacks of the refinery provide an on-going visual orchestration of belching fire that powerfully underscores major dramatic moments. Ordinary fireworks would pale in comparison.

For this past season’s performances, some thousand liters of flammable liquid were required for these magnificent effects. Compressed-air heightens the explosions. The sudden and violent bursts of flame are rather like the visual equivalent of great organ-pipes bellowing with searing sound.

These are live flames, not projections. They look terrifying, but the safety precautions developed by Technical Director Gerd Alfons and his staff are impressive. The cast is never in danger.

Nonetheless, this is an immense stage-set to traverse. It is anchored by four tower-like "silos" that are intended to suggest a medieval fortress as well. In addition to the smokestacks, there are six adjoining silos in the center of the structure, plus a maze of tubes winding about. Bridges and catwalks link all of these elements, most of which are "played."

In fact, some of the playing-areas are high aloft on decks, stairs, and bridges. This means some of the principals and a number of the extras have to be fast ladder-climbers and deft gangway sprinters. Manrico gets the most taxing physical workout, but the Count also has to put some muscle into his performance.

Tech Director Alfons has made available the detailed technical specifications of the Troubadour production: The Security Measures fill a 19-page manual, while the overall production design, construction, and functioning fills 36 pages, replete with color-illustrations and figures.

For starters, 2 tons of red paint were required to coat this immense setting, plus 500 kilos of fluorescent paint. The 7,000 square-meter surfaces of the structure and stage needed ten tons of spackel!

The fortress/refinery set is 56 meters wide and 40 meters deep. It weighs some 711 tons! The four fortress towers at the corners stand 15 meters high, with metal construction elements. The group of six silos center-stage are 12 meters high, 15 meters wide, and 10 meters deep. In addition to providing playing-areas, they conceal loudspeakers and lighting-instruments. In fact, there are almost 600 of these lights in use.

The complicated system of large pipes is made effectively playable with steel stairs, platforms, and bridges. Of the five refinery chimneys upstage, the highest is 27 meters, and all are equipped to belch live flames on cue.

To reinforce the idea of thoughtless pollution of the environment—as well as a calculated cruelty in dealing with human-beings in the quest for power and wealth—the downstage area is the Gypsies’ "Beach."

Azucena, Manrico, and the band of Gypsies are not only a Social Minority, but they also represent the "Outsiders," both Then and Now. The set-design and decoration—as well as the costuming—powerfully reinforce this vision of powerless, oppressed people, exploited and abused by those in power.

The Gypsies’ Beach is covered with garbage and abandoned oil-barrels—which are also swimming in the lake—and huge pipes which gush pollutants and serve as performance exits & entrances. Actually, Alfons and his team have been very careful to avoid any real pollution on stage or in the lake. Only the appearance of it.

The reason this set—and every lake-stage setting—is so solidly built is that it must survive the bitter Bregenz winter to be ready for action next summer. Every lake-stage mounting plays for two seasons. The next one is now in planning-stages, but your reporter promised to stay mum.


Bregenz Celebrates Its Second Masked-Ball:

Carl Nielsen’s Maskerade—A Covent Garden Co-Production

In addition to Carl Nielsen’s Maskerade, a charming Danish evocation of the musico-dramatic potentials of a Masked Ball, there are at least two other operatic works featuring a masquerade: Verdi’s Un Ballo en Maschera and Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. Not to overlook Richard Heuberger’s operetta Opernball!

To assert, as some have, that Maskerade is virtually Denmark’s "National Opera" is to suggest that there really isn’t anything else as effective in the Danish Musical Archives. That the work is seldom performed by major opera-companies also implies that neither its formulaic book nor its musical set-pieces have enough appeal to commended it for the repertory.

That may be about to change, thanks to Bregenz Intendant David Pountney’s virtuoso staging, in co-production with the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. While the actor/singers’ performances are variously amusing, intense, parodic, or energy-charged, they are all admirable musically.

Günter Missenhardt is certainly the quintessential old grouch as the stingey, dictatorial husband and father, Jeronimus. Julia Juon, as his wife Magdelone, shows the sad effects of a loveless marriage on a romantic woman.

Nor is Jeronimus’ son, Leander, looking forward to an arranged marriage. But he is under threat of disinheritance. Daniel Kirch—along with his servant Henrik, ably played by Markus Brück—makes the most of the comic hi-jinx created by this situation.

Fortunately, in true operetta-style, Leander falls in love with Barbara Haveman’s Leonora—who is his intended bride in any case. Her father Leonard—Ernest Suttheimer—is something of a romantic idol for Magdelone as well.

What makes this new production so impressive, attractive, and entertaining is the brilliant imagination with which it has been designed and staged, not only in terms of amazing settings, astonishing costumes, and ingenious lighting, but also in terms of the Personnen-Regie and the frantic choreographies of the actual masquerade-ball.

In London, in early September, the Royal Opera already had large colorful cards in the box-office racks to focus the attention of potential ticket-buyers on this Bregenz Import. This handsome production—a Radio City Music Hall version of comic-opera—might well find an American opera company eager to import it. They would have to replace the talents of conductor Ulf Schirmer, the Moscow Chamber Choir, and the Vienna Symphony, of course.

In itself, Maskerade is a fairly light work, certainly not as compelling as Nielsen’s admired orchestral music. Pountney and his designers have, however, developed it into a wonderfully avant-garde entertainment.

Major credit for this musical-spectacle must go to the designers: Johan Engels [sets], Marie-Jeanne Lecca [costumes], and Wolfgang Göbbel [lighting], as well as to Pountney and his choreographer, Renato Zanella.

Pountney’s Maskerade production might well be retitled: The Doors!

Identical doors are the visual signature of this staging. The basic initial set is a slanted picture-frame-box, inclining from stage-right to stage-left. It has a mirrored interior—which provides marvelous effects—backed by a row of five doors, also on the slant.

As in that remarkable Japanese film, Howl’s Moving Castle, opening each of the doors reveals a completely different world behind each. One discloses a raging snowstorm. Another shows mother Magdelone’s Christmas room. Now and then, what is behind a specific door can change quite dramatically.

The picture-frame itself is so precisely lit that there is no light-spill anywhere. Under white light, the slanted box has a diagonal divide with white below and black above. Under blue light, this all looks as if it were made of blue-hued materials, not merely blue-lit. Under red, all is red…

Befitting a production that has one foot in the past and another in the future, the basic vestigial set-architecture is Neo-Classic, the furniture Biedermeier. But the costumes defy period or logic: At the Masquerade, both Elvis and Marilyn put in appearances!

There are some visual running-gags: Above the stage, a winged cherub pushes an empty clock-face—Look Ma! No HANDS!—across the proscenium-opening. There is a venerable Night-Watchman right out of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. These both suggest that Time Is Passing. Or something like that…

Certainly when night falls, it’s time for the fun-seekers to sneak off to the masquerade, not off to bed as Jeronimus has decreed.

In the second act’s Night Scene, a huge neo-classic doorframe dominates upstage. It ultimately revolves, disclosing more wonders. It is flanked by crazily angled windows, rather like the Expressionistic settings for that historic German film, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.

In front of this door are a number of free-standing, movable door-boxes, slanted left and right. Opened, one reveals a masquerade-shop; another discloses Leonora; her maid appears in dominatrix riding-habit in another. At one point, there’s even a blue front-scrim with ghostly doors painted on it!

In the third act, the full interior set is at last disclosed—dimly glimpsed before through the earlier doors. Its backwall also has five doors which disclose a variety of visual treats. Perched above the wall are silent golden masquerade figures, plus a giant golden mask. There’s also a five-door section that descends from the flies at one point.

The high points of Nielsen/Pountney’s Maskerade are two splendidly odd ballets. One begins with parodies of the classic, but all transmutes: characters seem to range from Marie Antoinette through Gainsborough ladies, to circus-artistes, schoolboys & girls, and Jazz Age flappers. Then there are those sexy girls and boys in trendy bathing-suits, seated at seaside tables, with costumes and furniture-décor that echo the bold Pop patterns revealed inside the doors. There’s even a Murphy-Bed for masquerade fun & games!

A later dance-development finds Jeronimus disguised as a horned ram with a caveman’s club. His servant has been transformed into a sheep. But when all masks are discarded and transformations swept away, All’s Well That Ends Well…

In what’s effectually an operetta, how could it be otherwise? Nonetheless, this is a visual and musical treat! Catch it at Covent Garden, for it will not return to Bregenz. Only Troubadour will return next summer.


Blasted into The Seventh Heaven:

Operatic Terrorist-Attack on the White House!

No, not even the San Francisco Opera will take a chance on this new Austrian opera. John Adams is OK: Nixon in China was good-natured musical foolery. But what American opera ensemble is going to take a chance on a satiric opera which features the President in love with his Doberman? And his ageing, but sexually eager, wife Nancy upstairs in the Presidential Bedroom?

This is Der siebte Himmel in Vierteln. It was a commissioned co-production of the Festival and NetZZeit. Composer & saxophonist Max Nagl has crafted a lively score that owes as much to Kurt Weill as it does to Johann Strauss. It is jazzy and stuffy by turns.

His collaborator, Franzobel, has zeroed-in on the collective animosity and mistrust many Europeans—and not only Austrians—feel about the White House and its Occupants.

In Franzobel’s libretto—that’s his full professional name, by the way, and he’s won the prestigious Bachmann Prize—despite having a wife named Nancy, the President’s full name is George, not Ronnie. But at least the Doberman is a female!

Just in case any European spectator might miss the point of this outrageous musical satire, there is a small-scale White House at stage-right. This serves as a Doberman dog-house. The actual set is a two-level, four-compartment fourth-wall-removed mock-up. Nancy’s bedroom and George’s office are above. Below are the White House kitchen and the resident Muslim Terrorist’s small cell-like sleeping-quarters.

George is so obsessed with his dog he has no time for Important Matters of State. His gung-ho ex-President father, who lives on the White House roof in a pup-tent, drops in to lecture him of the dangers of being seen as weak, unable to use power. This odd father-figure is smitten with an Animal Pro-Life Activist who proposes to assassinate the President—but who finally cannot take life.

The Muslim Terrorist, Kalafati, is a White House factotum, concealing his true intentions. He even romances the desperate Nancy. He poisons the President’s dog and stuffs it with explosives.

His cell-phone fails to set it off, but the shambling White House cook accidentally ignites it with devastating effect. The set collapses, but the entire cast finds themselves in the Seventh Heaven at last. Nancy’s wrinkles have disappeared!

The creators of this unusually explosive mini-epic see it as an operetta about the President and his Enemies, the Terrorists. About the War of the West against the Evil of the East and for a better life now.

But also about the Battle in the East against the Evil in the West and for a better life in the Afterlife.

Nagl’s score could recommend itself for American Import, but Franzobel’s libretto is more problematic. And not just because it mocks recognizable targets. And also presents the idea, if not the act, of Bestiality onstage…

The words spoken—whether prose incantations or short verses—have the effect of doggerel gone mad. Or gone to the dogs, as it seems. There are cascades of rhyming German words—like Cockney rhyming-slang—some so distorted by a Vienna dialect, that even those speakers of High German might be baffled.

This is amazingly ingenious, but almost untranslatable into any English equivalent. In performance, the words rushed by so fast, I could hardly catch the effect in its totality. I did recognize what I thought was a Wiener Dialekt, but Bregenz Tech Director Gerd Alfons tells me it’s the dialect of his home-town. Not far from Vienna, however.

He sent me the printed libretto, fortunately, and it reads much more satirically—with the opportunity to study the words on the page—than it seemed in performance.

The uninhibited cast—good voices and able farceurs all—included Priti Coles as Nancy, Dariusz Niemerowicz as George, a rubber-jointed Martin Busen as Kalafati, Mark Hamman as the President’s dad, and Bea Robein as the Animal Rights Terrorist.

Michael Scheidl staged, with sets & costumes by Nora Scheidl and lights by Norbert Joachim. Alexander Drcar conducted jauntily.

Ambitious Summer Season of New Bregenz Intendant David Poutney:

This was the second season of David Pountney’s Bregenz Intendancy. Although he made his name as an opera stage-director in London, primarily at the English National Opera [ENO], he is now no stranger to major international stages.

And certainly not to Bregenz, where he has dazzled thousands with his innovative productions of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer and Beethoven’s Fidelio.

Traditionally, the Festival opens with a special morning program, complete with Austrian Military Honor Guards, Vorarlberg kiddies in distinctive tribal costumes, and the President of Austria, who used to make a major address. Not to overlook the singing of National and Provincial Anthems. With the late President, Dr. Thomas Klestil, the speech was often an important statement about culture and society.

This summer, Pountney surprised both the VIPs and the locals who flocked to the event. Not only were speeches kept to a minimum, but everyone got a live & lively preview of the various productions prepared for the weeks ahead. In addition to a femme-military chorus-line from Johann Strauss’s The Merry War [Der lustige Kreig], there were other cameos as well.

An excellent video-documentary of past Festival productions and the backstage-work leading up to the current season proved both instructive and entertaining.

Austria’s genial and obviously admired President Heinz Fischer greeted the audience, but left the pontificating to Franz Morack, the culture chief from Vienna. He praised the Bregenz Festival as one of the most successful in Central Europe. Virtually a Model.

Previously, several seasons ago, he seemed to be tolling the Death-Knell for federal subsidy for the arts, especially Performing Arts. Now, however, he was presenting the Bregenz Festival—which fortunately still has various governmental subsidies—as an important economic influence in the area. Rather than as an annoying supplicant for Cultural Largesse from Vienna.

Meanwhile, the Festival has attracted various corporate and industrial sponsors, notably IBM, UBS, and Casinos Austria. And the Trickle-Down Effect of its expenditures in mounting and performing the productions is locally considerable. Not to overlook that same Effect from free-spending tourists. In fact, the Festival has become very good publicity for Tourism in all of Vorarlberg.

Intendant David Pountney has long shown a preference for works of Music-Theatre which deal with important Social & Political Issues. As well as established period classics which can be staged & designed to underscore social issues that remain relevant, even troubling. Thus, it was no surprise last season that Kurt Weill was singled out for directorial attention.

This past season, in addition to the epic passions of Troubadour, he programmed Nielsen’s Maskerade as "…one of the greatest philosophical comedies of our Culture." Perhaps Strauss’s The Merry War also could be viewed from that lofty perspective, but the production of Molnar’s Liliom seemed to speak to more immediate human concerns.

The offerings under the KAZ rubric [Kunst aus der Zeit], such as Seventh Heaven, proved much more experimental and challenging in concept. Among these were Imitation of Life, inspired by Bret Easton Ellis & David Lynch; "…ce qui arrive…," with idea and music by Olga Neuwirth; Trilogy’s exploration of Indian music, and a special offering from Hamburg’s Thalia Theatre—a frequent guest at the Bregenz Festival.

Not to overlook concerts by the Danish National Orchestra [Neilsen, of course], the Vienna Symphony, and even the Vorarlberg Symphony Orchestra!

For the record: The Festival’s budget this season was 25 Million Euro. Of that sum, 5.5 Million Euro was provided by government subsidies: 40% federal, 35% provincial, and 25% municipal. The lake-stage seating accommodates some 7,000 spectators. The festival-theatre seats 1,650, with places for 2,000 in the Workshop Stage, depending on production-conformations. Together with other smaller festival performance-venues, Bregenz offers a total of 12,700 seats.

The Bregenz Festival is also greatly enhanced by special exhibitions in local museums and art-galleries. The now renowned glass-plated Kunsthaus mounted a major exhibition of the paintings of Roy Lichtenstein. Last year, Jenny Holzer’s electronic slogans were on view. Jeff Koons was also recently shown during festival-season. Considering the location of the city and the gallery, its showcasing of major American and international artists is commendable. [Someone slashed a Lichtenstein, an extreme form of Art Criticism.]

Copyright Glenn Loney, 2006. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact:

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