Cafeteria Rusticana

Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Malta 1: A surprising little nation

Perhaps the sleeper of the archaeologic touring cruise in March was Malta, where we paused between Crete and Sicily. No one expected much and the ship's exceptional library possessed no special volumes on the place. Everyone was bowled over, and we did not even have time for the beaches or the Neolithic temples, or more than one meal.

I should not have been overbowled. I knew about the Great Siege (1565), the ur-event of Maltese history. I knew about the Order of St. John of the Hospital that, driven from its earlier home in Rhodes by the Turks in 1523, was given a new one by Emperor Charles V in 1530.

And how did he get Malta, you ask? or, you should. Malta had been attached to the Norman kingdom of Sicily in 1091, when Count Roger I de Hauteville seized it from the Arabs who had been there some two hundred years and who left their language, the basis of modern Maltese, when they departed. Sicily was acquired in 1282 by the kings of Aragon, whose multinational state included Barcelona, Mallorca, Provence, the duchy of Athens and, eventually, Naples. The last king of Aragon, Ferdinand the Catholic, married Isabella of Castille, whose possessions included a spurious claim to the Americas. Charles was their grandson and, after Ferdinand's death in 1516, their heir. On his father's side, he was also heir to the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburg properties in Central Europe, and the Valois-Burgundy territories, today the BeNeLux.

Malta did not figure too significantly in all this. While the island has been very prosperous at times when the Mediterranean Sea has known peace - the height of the Roman Empire, for instance or, later, of the British Empire - when war is bruited and pirates are a-lurk, Malta's superb position at the meeting of the eastern and western Med has made it an object of lust as much as an entrepðt, and its coastline full of harbors and excellent beaches, selling points today, has been a welcome mat for corsairs for three thousand years. There are few ancient villages on the coast - the inhabitants always preferred to dwell out of range of pirate lookouts. The ancient capitals, Mdina on Malta, Rabat on Gozo, are built on defensible rocks at the center of their islands. The rich but homeless Knights (an aristocratic and celibate military order of Crusading origin who possessed - still possess - vast properties all over the Catholic world) did not especially want Malta, so far from the seats of power and so inviting to attack. They were hoping to get Syracuse in Sicily or Modon in the Peloponnese. Corfu maybe. It didn't help that Charles threw in Tripoli (now in Libya), and expected them to defend that too.

But Charles was a busy man - he was trying to suppress the Protestant uprisings in Germany, to fight wars against France and Turkey, and to conquer the Americas all at once, and his army had just sacked Rome for several weeks of hideous violence in 1527, which made it difficult for him to get along with the pope. Malta was the best he was willing to offer the Knights; he had no time to reconquer Rhodes for them. In return, they only had to pay him one ceremonial Falcon a year (Malta, with no woods to hunt in, was famous for bird-hunting). Everybody knows that because we've all heard Sidney Greenstreet explain it to Humphrey Bogart while plying him with drugged liquor during the second reel.

The Knights settled down in Malta but they soon realized it was barely defensible. The local nobility (Aragonese or Sicilian in origin) withdrew to Mdina in a huff. The Knights built a couple of forts near Birgu, as its name implies an international merchant town that happened to be set on one of the greatest harbors on earth. But the Birgu had been built before the invention of artillery. Now the great fear was that the Ottoman Turks or their Algerian corsair allies would seize the great high ridge across the harbor and put cannon up there. A small fort was built at the end of the ridge, another near Birgu. In the nick of time.

In 1565, Suleiman the Magnificent, who had opened his reign forty years before by taking Rhodes from the Knights, sent a huge flotilla (perhaps 15,000 soldiers, meeting up with thousands more from Algiers and Tunis) to Malta. The Siege lasted three months, all summer. The Knights and the Maltese held out, but the Turks were about to overwhelm them at last when the Viceroy of Sicily finally arrived (it had taken him that long to raise an army - he couldn't just leave Sicily undefended - Sicily is a very large island) to hit the Turks in the rear. The autumn weather was turning and the invaders gave up. Suleiman died. Jean de la Vallette, the grand master of the Knights, was the idol of Europe, and the city he immediately began to build on the high ridge across the harbor was named Valletta in his honor. (The Knights sent several galleys to the Spanish-Venetian-papal fleet that destroyed the Turkish navy at Lepanto six years later.)

Generals always plan for their last war, and for the next 233 years, the Knights built one citadel after another around the Grand Harbor (and its smaller neighbor to the west), forts and curtain walls and gun emplacements according to the latest in technology. No enemy navy ever came to assault them again, but that might be because one look at the place would discourage most of them. In 1798, when the Knights were nervous about the French Revolution and its upending of the traditional order, its enmity to the Catholic religion, its seizure of the Knights' huge properties in France (most of the Knights were French by birth), Napoleon Bonaparte paused at Malta "to take on water and supplies" for the fleet with which he intended to conquer Egypt. The Knights nervously allowed the French to come ashore, and the French seized the islands. The Knights set up shop in Rome thereafter; they are still there, the smallest sovereign nation in Europe, even smaller than the Vatican across town.

In 1800, the British (who had destroyed the French fleet at Aboukir), chose Malta for a base to control the Mediterranean route to Egypt and India. This led, inexorably, to the SECOND iconic event in Maltese history, the German aerial siege of 1941-42. Reckoning (correctly) that Valletta and the Grand Harbor could not possibly be taken by land or sea assault - there are few more fortified places on earth - the Nazis came by air, a possibility the Knights had never considered. The islands were thoroughly pummeled (11,000 houses destroyed) and everyone was on half-rations, but they never surrendered. George VI awarded the entire archipelago the George Cross.

By 1965, however, having lost India, Palestine and Egypt - even Cyprus was about to go - the British were ready to abandon, uh, ship. The Maltese, for their part, though all fluent in English by now, had come to resent the ages of foreign dominion. They wanted a nation of their own (within the Commonwealth of course, and at first retaining the Queen), to be run their way, and they wanted parity for their own language. In fact, like many peasant tongues, Maltese did not have an official written version until 1934. Its ninth-century Tunisian-Sicilian Arabic (I'm told Maltese and Tunisians still understand each other with little trouble) had been mingled and overlaid by centuries of Italian, Catalan, French and English - there had been lots of Italian immigration, as kings uprooted whole towns of troublemakers or refugees and shipped them to depopulated Malta. Maltese might be called a Romance vocabulary on an Arabic grammatical base, rather the way English is a Romance vocabulary on an Anglo-Saxon grammatical base. The Maltese themselves get all huffy about the Arabic part, as they are very Roman Catholic (divorce has only just become legal there), and prefer to say that their language is of Phoenician/Carthaginian roots. (Like Arabic and Hebrew, a Semitic tongue.) That the Carthaginians were there is beyond dispute; whether they left anything behind may be questioned. (The Romans left some elegant ruined villas.) St. Paul, shipwrecked on the island in the first century CE, said the inhabitants were barbarians, that is, that they understood him neither in Greek nor in Latin. Paul's Greek was excellent; his Latin we must take on faith. But what did the islanders speak? We may never know.

There were, as I knew, three great artistic reasons to visit Malta, all of them in the co-cathedral in Valletta. (It is called the co-cathedral because the island's original cathedral was in Mdina, where the bishop still dwells.) Two of these treasures are paintings of Saint Jerome and of the death of John the Baptist by Caravaggio, bad boy of the Late Renaissance, who fled here in 1608 after a murder in Rome and a dust-up in Sicily made the mainlands too hot for him. As payment for his work, he was (though not of noble birth) inducted into the Order as a Knight, but his savage temper and bad habits got the better of him here, too, and he was hurried out of town. He died a few months later on the shore, struggling back to Rome in hopes of a papal pardon.

The other great artistic treasure in the co-cathedral has been called "the most beautiful floor in the world." (To read about it in more detail: The floor consists of the intaglio marble tombstones of the Knights of St. John, each one inlaid with pictures, inscriptions, coats of arms in colored marbles. Marble is not natural to Malta; all these rare and gorgeous hues of stone had to be imported - but the Knights were very rich. The cathedral is full of carpets (so tourists don't wear away the stones) and chairs (for services), but much of the floor is always visible. A book containing pictures all of them has recently been published. It retails for 187 euros, and it's heavy. I restrained my lust.

Outside Valletta - in the hinterlands of the island and, indeed, often on Gozo - are Malta's other famed historic attractions, the megalithic temples and ritual cemeteries that often predate the megalithic structures of the rest of Europe (Britain, Spain, France, Sardinia, Greece) and even the pyramids. They have been excavated and most of the treasures (many of startling quality) found therein are in the National Archaeological Museum in Valletta. These temples are so unlike the megalithic structures found elsewhere that no definite relationship between prehistoric Malta and the rest of the world has been determined. Not until the Copper Age (when invaders, perhaps peaceful ones, arrived from Sicily) or the Bronze Age (when Phoenicians and, possibly, Greeks and Etruscans showed up) is there any certain influence in either direction.

Therefore historians are puzzled as to how the manpower, the skill, the wealth to build these extraordinary structures was amassed. True the islands had more trees and more arable in those days, and the sea may have been considerably lower (which would have made Malta, Gozo and Comino one rather large island, able to grow far more food), and some historians think it may have been a cult center and place of pilgrimage for much of the region. Others theorize a textile industry to create export income. (No textiles that old survive on Malta or anywhere on earth.) Maltese ceramics have not turned up in distant lands and the island has no mineral resources - obsidian and tin, like food ever since Norman times, had to be imported from Sicily.

All we can say is: The local engineers were mighty good, and some of their productions have inspired modern artists. The famous tiny statue of a reclining goddess looks mighty like a Picasso to me, and I saw the coiling, spurred vine motif from Tarxien, just outside Valletta, reproduced in vivid polychrome on an art-nouveau street kiosk in Palermo. Moreover, in a tiny museum devoted to the theater arts in Syracuse, there are a number of set models from 1920s and 1930s stagings of Greek tragedies in that (originally Greek) city whose primitive, even mythic power of masses and shadows strikingly resembled the massive temples of Malta. That can't be an accident, and I wish more designers of classical opera would take their inspiration here.

We were all of us astounded by, and delighted with, Malta. One woman enthused, "Now I understand why Churchill and Roosevelt met Stalin here!" She had it confused with Yalta - my Russian friends died when I repeated this story.

As soon as I got home, I searched online for a cheap mark-down copy of the book of the co-cathedral floor (no dice), and in the NYPL for a history of Malta, finding Brian Blouet's dated (1967) Short History of Malta (published my Praeger, my pal Manya's Dad), which I am now devouring. One interesting reflection is to compare the expensive Maltese obsession with defense works (and the frequent devastations and population clearings that mark the island's history) with the similar history of the Scottish isles, the contrasting history of Iceland (another environmental disaster story, somewhat fewer pirates), the islands of New York Harbor (not quite so obsessed with defense), and the islands of the San Juan and Georgia Straits in the Pacific Northwest, whose development proceeded largely unphased about defense. The Caribbean, too, but I've barely been there. Do Havana's defenses and Cartagena's resemble Malta's? I do not yet know.

More to come.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Sophocles and Sickness and Classics Reclassified

These Seven Sicknesses at the Flea Theater on White Street (TriBeCa, roughly) is Sean Graney's revision of the seven surviving Sophocles tragedies into one very long and involved play (four and a half hours, with dinner break and bad Thai food served to fill it) that begins with the epidemic of Oedipus the King and concludes with the attempt of Oedipus' daughter, Antigone, to spare the city both dishonor and contagion by burying her slain brother, Polynices. Besides the Oedipus trilogy, the seven plays include three plays involving the enormous Trojan War mythos and one play (Trachis) about Herakles, peripheral to these two sagas but linked through the figure of Philoctetes. (Is he even in the Sophocles text? That's the sort of detail with which Graney plays very fast and very loose.)

In Chicago, at the work's premiere, this was performed by an eight-actor troupe, which could be great fun (I remark, having delighted in the six-actor-and-a-versatile-box Cymbeline recently staged by Fiasco Theater), but at the Flea they have a very young 40-actor band so none of the roles need to double up (which is good, since many of the roles appear in more than one play: Oedipus, Antigone, Creon, Philoctetes, Odysseus), and they tend to be young, fit, attractive, talented, unclothed and covered in gore. The gore that was kept offstage in Ancient Greece is something modern audiences accept, indeed expect, so - bring it on. There is also one mad action scene, the massacre by Ajax of the sheep he, driven mad, believes to be his fellow Greeks, a scene that precedes the opening of Sophocles' Ajax and took up a bit too much time in Sicknesses.

I attended this, in part, because I like to see (technically) hot young actors strut their stuff in the classics, and in part because I hope to see all of the surviving Greek tragedies someday. There are only 32 or so. (I haven't seen any of the Roman tragedies - they are hardly ever given.) My score is rather high, if one includes - versions - musicalizations. My Sophocles record is excellent:

1) Oedipus the King - Saw a film of it (Irene Pappas?), and Stravinsky's opera.
2) Oedipus at Colonus - The Gospel at Colonus at BAM. (Sophocles done as a gospel church music service - thrilling!)
3) Antigone - Saw the Anouilh version (pointedly commenting on the Vichy regime) on television once. Otherwise, Graney's is my first.
4) Ajax - Some theater company on Wooster Street did this a couple of years back.
5) Women of Trachis - I've seen Handel's version, Hercules, staged by Les Arts Florissants at BAM and by Peter Sellars at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Graney's is the first time I've seen it as a spoken play, but Handel is quite close, actually.
6) Electra - Besides Strauss's opera (many, many times), which is drawn from Hofmannsthal's version of Sophocles, I saw Zoe Wanamaker and Claire Bloom do it on Broadway.
7) Philoctetes - Saw this in Greek at the theater at Epidavros. Also in English a couple of times, in Seamus Heaney's translation. (Was that the Pearl?)

1) Prometheus Bound - That repertory company on East 13th Street did this recently, with a black African actor who had performed it also in London.
2) Seven Against Thebes - The only version I've seen of this on stage was Seven, a hip-hop musical, at Theater Development Workshop on East 4th. Fabulous! Great energy, hilarious mythical jokes only I got, many hip-hop jokes I'm sure I missed.
3) Suppliants - Perhaps the oldest extant Greek tragedy. A Romanian troupe brought it to the Lincoln Center Festival in 1997 (my chemotherapy summer) and I sneaked in. They mimed the stories of the other two (lost) parts of the trilogy of the Danaids, the 50 sisters forced to marry their 50 cousins, whom they murdered on the wedding night. Fascinating. Hope one day to see Salieri's first hit, Les Danaides.
4) Persians - The other candidate for "oldest extant tragedy," the only survivor about a contemporary event (the Persian defeat by Athens at Salamis). Roberta Maxwell played Atossa at Pace. The production seemed to be, a bit heavily, about our Iraq misadventure. Not crazy about this, however much I agreed with the politics.
5) Agamemnon - Saw this on television when I was about ten. It's tough going for modern audiences - we know what's going to happen - but it takes a long time to happen. And I've seen Tanayev's opera, which is actually part one of a trilogy. Oh, and I think there was a Serban version at La Mama.
6) Libation Bearers - Saw this when Ariane Mnouchkine did the Atreidae in Brooklyn (and I skipped her Agamemnon). Glorious.
7) Eumenides - Ariane Mnouchkine. I thought I was in the presence of gods.

1) Alkestis - I'm not sure I've ever seen this one staged, except as Gluck's Alceste.
2) Medea - His most popular play. Saw Judith Anderson do it on TV, Cherubini's opera, Lorraine Hunt in Charpentier's opera (more closely based on Seneca's Roman tragedy than on Euripides) and a staging by the Greek Active Theater Company in Seattle, with a chorus of the Drag Queens of Corinth lip-sync'ing "Don't Leave Me This Way." Oh, and Diana Rigg on Broadway and Fiona Shaw at BAM - but the guy in Seattle was better.
3) Hippolytus - Don't think I've ever seen this staged. Modern audiences don't like the asexual hero, sympathize more with Phaedra. Saw an opera once called Syllabaire pour Phedre. Sorry I missed the version of Phaedra that played in Princeton in November.
4) Mad Hercules - Saw this at the Fringe Festival done as a country-rock musical called Hercules in High Suburbia. They had a big, black muscular actor in the lead, and he went with it, doing Muhammad Ali all night: "I tore the Hydra limb from limb/ And I wasn't even mad at him!" Splendid.
5) Ion - Two actors did this Off Broadway a year or two ago, playing all the twenty or so roles (actors putting on the play, whose own story resembles that of the play), splendid, but incomprehensible to those who did not already know the story. (So I loved it; people beside me couldn't figure it out.)
6) Phoenician Women - That company on Wooster Street did this a few years ago. The Oedipus story boiled down, an awful lot of material in one night!
7) Electra - I think I've only seen this done as a rather humorless film. (Irene Pappas?)
8) Orestes - That company on East Thirteenth did this one a year or two back. Strange play.
9) Iphigenia in Aulis - Gluck's opera, seen in Rome with Stoyanova and Gubanova. Terrific show. Also saw Ariane Mnouchkine's splendid version, attached to the Atreidae.
10) Iphigenia in Taurus - Gluck's opera, seen at NYCO and the Met, and an even sexier staging at the Manhattan School of Music.
11) Helen in Egypt - I've seen Strauss's opera, which is quite different from Euripides. But someone is staging the play in Manhattan, I seem to recall.
12) Suppliant Women - Haven't seen it. Always get it confused with Heracleidae.
13) Bacchae - Took part in a production at school in Greece. Saw it a couple of times since then, never successfully (in my view). Also: Dionysus in '69, a memorable teenage night - I'd never seen classic plays done that way! And now everyone does them that way - Seven Sicknesses is a direct descendant.
Have taken part in several pagan readings of the Arthur Evans version of the script, usually as Pentheus - because his were the issues I felt I needed to address, meditate, consider. But now I think it's time I took on Dionysus. Until David Ives's Venus in Fur, in which Pentheus is a masochistic playwright, Dionysus is now Venus (or an actress playing her) - as with Mnouchkine, I felt I was in the presence of a deity, or of a human possessed of deity. Best Bacchae EVER! The opera by Szymanowski (King Roger) is not especially dramatic.
14) Trojan Women - Best version I've seen was the Andrei Serban version at La Mama that combined the play with Hecuba and was not in any comprehensible language.
15) Andromache - Rossini's Ermione, one of his finest tragedies.
16) Heracleidae - Never seen it.
17) Hecuba - Saw Vanessa Redgrave do this, not too effectively, and the version combined with Trojan Women by Serban.
18) Rhesus - Not really Euripides and, anyway, never staged.
19) Cyclops - Saw this done as a rock opera this last fall. Terrific!

So someone has to do Heracleidae and Suppliant Women. That's all there is to it. Has to.

I have also seen a few Aristophanes comedies, no Menander though.
Aristophanes' comedy is even more obscure to modern ears than the tragedians' tragedies.
1) Lysistrata - The most popular. Besides a staging or two, I loved Schubert's operetta, The Ladies' War.
2) Peace - My first Al Carmines musical was his version of this play.
3) Birds - Have the video of Braunfels' lovely operatic version, Die Vögel.
4) Clouds - Was this the one? Some little company staged it with a woman in the leading (male) role.
5) Frogs - Very popular nowadays, but no one has found a successful equivalent to the Aeschylus-Euripides contest that is the body of the play. Most recently seen at that company on East Thirteenth Street on a hot tip from the usually reliable Michael Feingold. Not good.
Haven't seen the rest.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The fatal cell phone call during Mahler's Ninth

I'm imagining a movie scenario ... a young maestro playing with his wife and children. His son is being very annoying with a toy gun, and the father puts it in his pocket. He's all tux'd up for a concert, and he forgets to give the gun back when he leaves. In mid concert, a cell phone goes off. He glares behind him, and sees an elderly concert-goer fumbling with his phone. It ceases to ring. The maestro returns to the music. Half an hour later, at a moment of extreme musical serenity and involvement ... the phone goes off again. Obviously the same one. The idiot has left it on. The maestro turns white with fury, and it goes on and on. He grips his pockets and finds, to his surprise, the toy plastic gun still in one of them. He whips it out and aims at the old man, who is stubbornly refusing to pull out his phone, acknowledge that it's his mistake. But the sight of the gun is too much. He turns white as a sheet with fear. Someone else, seeing the gun, drops a violin ... or something else that makes a sharp, shocking noise. The old man in Row A believes it's a shot and slumps, dying, to the floor. His wife screams. Uproar in the hall. Newspapers stop the presses. TV moralists denounce. The maestro's smug best friend, who is really the maestro's wife's lover, makes suspiciously soothing statements that sound callous and revelatory when they are printed ... as they are. The maestro takes a leave of absence, but every time he hears a cell phone, his skin turns green and clammy. He's beginning to drink a great deal. His hands are haunted by a tremor. He hallucinates conversations, convinced his wife and her lover tricked him into pulling the toy gun out of his pocket in mid-concert. He has visions in his room. The sound of the sea sounds like a concert. He rises to conduct it, but the crashing surf ignores him. He sees the musicians in the surf, laughing at his instructions. He reaches out for a baton -- and seizes a poisonous snake by the tail. The venom has soon paralyzed him on the veranda floor. Before the snake can inflict an entirely lethal bite, his young son sees what is happening through a window of the veranda. He reaches for his toy gun -- but it isn't near to hand. He gets the real one instead. He fires at the snake but the bullet goes wide -- and right through the conductor's temple. The only hope is to call for an ambulance. The boy runs screaming out of the house but there's no one for miles in any direction. However, the conductor, jolted lucid, despite the masses of blood oozing out of him, manages to reach through a jacket and find his cell phone. He dials an emergency number. The operator puts him on hold. The music for "hold" is the symphony he was conducting that night in New York ... he suffers a massive convulsion and dies before our eyes ...

Sunday, December 11, 2011

D'Albert's Der Golem

D'ALBERT: Der Golem
With Greiner; Morouse, Reiter, Akzeybek, Kanaris. Chorus of the Theater Bonn, Beethoven Orchestra Bonn, Blunier. German text only. DG Multichannel Hybrid MDG 937 1637-6 (2). 119 minutes.

In just seven days, the rabbi can make you a man. But, as with any creation, there are no guarantees: designed to defend the ghetto, the golem might go mad — frustrated by love for his unresponsive creator — or for his creator's daughter. Worse — or better, from an opera duet point of view — the daughter might love him. But the sacrilegious nature of this subcreation can have only one ending: the monster, misunderstood and not quite human, must be destroyed.

In some form or other – novels, plays, operas, films – The Golem was one of the most popular tropes of the 1920s. After World War I, the baneful aspects of science, of the servant becoming the destroyer, were on everybody's mind. This led notably, in Prague (the golem's home town), to Karel Capek's play, R.U.R., from which we get the word "robot."

Eugen d'Albert's opera Der Golem had its premiere in 1926, shortly after another mad-scientist opera, Hindemith's Cardillac, by the same librettist, Ferdinand Lion. The medieval myth offered the late-romantic composer plentiful meat for magical effects, from an emperor's alchemical diorama to the cabbalistic rituals of creation spell and un-spell – these sound not unlike the Amme's magic in Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten of 1919. The Golem's creation is followed by a simple duet in which the rabbi's daughter, defying her father, teaches the mute to speak, and its passionate successor as they fall into forbidden love. Imagine the stringency and neurosis of Schreker or Busoni resolving into something sweet, not unlike Lehár. D'Albert takes full colorful advantage of these opportunities, deploying a huge orchestra elegance. His control is never in doubt; the drama is swift and spare. He pushes his musical language to the edge of the atonality being concocted at the time in Vienna, but is not quite willing to go over the side, to abandon German post-Tristan tradition.

The score is not in any way distinctive: it lacks any moment with d'Albert's stamp on it — his and no one else's. Perhaps one would hear more d'Albert in Der Golem if one knew more of his twenty operas than Tiefland, the only one that gets an occasional nod. (This 2010 production of Der Golem, the first in almost twenty years, comes from Bonn.) It was the lifelong despair of the composer that his fame as a piano virtuoso seemed to preclude any taste for his compositions.

The opera is cinematically brief – two hours of music in three acts – and its plot is spare: the rabbi ruminates on his forbidden acts, but performs them; his apprentice longs for Lea's love, but she falls for the pupil she has taught to speak. The golem, rejected as a son-in-law, goes mad and must be destroyed. The libretto is in prose not verse (there is no translation in the booklet), and so does not dally with poetic flights. There are inspirational moments and not surprisingly, considering that this recording was made from stage performances, cries and wails that may not be notated. To see it staged would be interesting; these sounds will appeal to any admirer of lush orchestral storytelling.

The Bonn cast, all unknown to me, present the story with refreshing excitement: after so many operas, d'Albert knew how to write for voice even over mighty orchestral effects. Mark Morouse, in the title role, barks his first monosyllables with such relish it is almost a pity to hear him become civilized. Ingeborg Greiner has a Germanic anguish in her sobbing soprano that suits Lea's strange loves. Alfred Reiter, as Rabbi Loew, meditates with clarity. Tansel Akzeybek sings the most desperate character, the rabbi's necessary assistant, Lea's frustrated lover. Stefan Blunier renders d'Albert's score stageworthy, with brasses gleaming and trim percussion. For a recording made from stage performances, there is no untoward vagueness in the presentation.

(reprinted from Opera News)

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Secrets of Lisbon

Raúl Ruiz’s masterpiece is The Past Recaptured, the finest “capture” of Marcel Proust’s fiction in its multi-layers and multi-consciousnesses and mysterious transpositions of time and emotion. How much of that film’s greatness is due to his appreciation of Proust and the filmic techniques called for to capture his philosophy of time and memory in this very different medium, and how much to Ruiz’s own penchant for telling tales within tales in exotic atmospheres at a glacial pace could not be clear from that single movie.

He has now brought out The Secrets of Lisbon, a four-and-a-half-hour film cut down (!) from a six-hour-long television mini-series. It looks and feels like such a series: High class Masterpiece Theater, the settings (in the royal palaces of Portugal, Lisbon's gorgeous Sao Carlo Opera House, and elsewhere) and more attention to costumes and furnishings (and carriages from several periods!) than to subtleties of acting. The endless details of Castelo Branco’s novel (which I do not know – has it been translated from the Portuguese? Why would anyone bother?), one of about a hundred he scribbled in his sixty-five anguished years, potboilers all, are somewhat straightened out (we may guess) into a narrative full of Manueline curlicues. It looks terrific, but it’s slow, slow, slow, and most of the scenes are indoors. It’s a thrill about the end of the fourth hour when two characters fight a duel, but the action lasts only a few seconds and ends inconclusively with one of the duelists explaining everything (of course, he doesn’t explain everything) to his unsuccessful challenger rather than killing him. It is typical of the film that this eerie flashback (most of the movie seems to be flashbacks) is followed, as the two men drive away in a carriage (it is now about 1840), a figure apparently unknown to us strolls into the abandoned duel-yard and fires an antique pistol – into his own head. By this point in the movie, we know better than to question this – Ruiz will tell us who the suicide is in his own good time. (He does.)

Did Almodovar get his inspiration from Castelo Branco? Just add gay sex and sex-change operations, neither of them in Castelo Branco’s universe, whether because he could not conceive of such things (it’s possible) or because Portuguese censorship would never have permitted their mention, and there: You have Almodovar.

But it was not Almodovar that I thought of during the long spaces between seductions, plots and periwigs of The Secrets of Lisbon. Well, let me tell you its convoluted plot (as much as I remember on one viewing) and see what you think of it. We first meet Pedro – who is called Joao – as a 15-year-old in a boys’ school, much teased because he has no last name and the other boys have as many as five. Whisperers think he is the son of old Padre Diniz, the head of the school, who takes a close interest in him. In fact, begetting Joao-Pedro is almost the only thing Padre Diniz, a man with a long, hidden past, has not done, but we learn his secrets only slowly. Joao-Pedro’s secrets are easy enough to penetrate: In a fever, he sees a beautiful visitor; she has brought him a child’s theater as a present. She is the mysterious Countess of Santa Barbara, and of course Joao-Pedro is her love-child. That’s simple enough. But why can she never visit him? Because her husband, the wicked (or is he?) Count has locked her up and beats her, abetted (or is he?) by his lover, the mysterious Eugenia, the only character who never does tell us her secrets. (I bet they’re in the novel, and I bet they’re juicy.) And why is Padre Diniz so interested in the lady’s case? And why is he pretending to be the brother of Sister Antonia, who runs the convent in which the Countess ultimately takes refuge? And who was Joao’s father, and what became of him before he gasped out the whole sordid story to Padre Diniz in a deathbed flashback? And what became of the burping ruffian who shot him? (This turns out to be significant years later, but what doesn’t?) And why has Padre Diniz a special interest in the fate of adulterous countesses pregnant by their lovers? (You may well ask. Well, you may not, but old Brother Sebastian knows and will certainly tell us.) And why does Padre Diniz pick the purse of the beautiful and amoral Duchesse de Cliton? And how does the mysterious Alberto de Magelhaes (that’s Magellan, in Portuguese) make his money? And why does he lavish it on Joao-Pedro, who nonetheless tries to kill him, urged on by the vengeful Duchess – a lousy conspirator, by the way, as she gets fits of the giggles every time one of her silly stratagems comes off? (What else comes off is also pertinent, and she does have splendid shoulders.) Suffice it to say that no deed, good or ill, goes unpunished, and the whole tale implies that God is a compulsive reader of gothic novels and, having plenty of time on his hands, is in no rush to reach the denouement.

It may be helpful to viewers to know dabs of Portuguese and French history between 1780 and 1840, or maybe I’m the only one who would notice or care. There are references to King José, his autocratic prime minister the Marquis of Pombal (destroyer of the Jesuit Order), his mad daughter, Queen Maria I who fled to Brazil, her son Joao VI, his sons Pedro IV (Dom Pedro I of Brazil) (supported in Europe by England and the liberals) and Miguel, the usurper (supported by Spain and the radical right). And the French (Bonapartist) invasion, conquest and expulsion by Wellington, which would not be important if Padre Diniz had not been a soldier in the French army at the time. Typical scene: Portuguese soldiers’ firing squad shot by an ambush to rescue a French officer … the officer goes off with Diniz, only to become the lover of … well, never mind. Back in the bushes, peasants pick the pockets of the dead. That’s the joke. The peasants and their smocks and clogs remain the same actors in the same costumes throughout the film, no matter the era – no doubt this is accurate – until the late twentieth century, rare was the Portuguese peasant who could afford a change of clothes in sixty years.

What all this reminded me of, while watching, was Scaramouche (1952, Stewart Grainger, Janet Leigh; there’s also a 1923 silent version I have not seen that stars hot, gay Ramon Novarro) and Anthony Adverse (1936, Fredric March, Olivia da Havilland, Claude Rains and wicked Gale Sondergaard who won her Oscar for it), both of them much more active movies. They are both even (I would say, but it’s been thirty years since I saw either one) better movies, certainly based on better stories – though it would surprise me not a whit if Rafael Sabbatini and Hervey Allen had actually stumbled on Castelo Branco’s The Secrets of Lisbon at some point and said, “I can plot better than that – I can run rings around my characters, bring history to life, and have it all make sense at the end.” This is the advantage of art over reality: The wacky coincidences and mysteries can all tie together in a well-plotted novel, epic poem, movie, play, grand opera. In life, they remain mysterious and coincidental.

But Secrets of Lisbon, with its initial focus on a young boy puzzled about his identity, recalls many other, finer works of art. One problem with Secrets is that Pedro-Joao is not very interesting and that, unlike Anthony Adverse (for example), he does not at the end go abroad to forge a new life in the New World and forget the sordid past, he goes to Portuguese Africa and dies there, dictating the opening words of his story. That’s not an uplifting ending, but did it inspire Proust to end his great work with the narrator back at the beginning, blessed with understanding, starting to write the great work we have just completed?

It is difficult not to see the type of plot-crossing, coiled-secrets novel Castelo Branco wrote as a feature of the new bourgeois era, related to such similarly contorted (but usually better) books as Fielding’s Tom Jones, Dickens’s Great Expectations (Padre Diniz reminded me, now and then, of the lawyer Jagger – but we never get anything personal about Jagger – a far more imposing character nonetheless – or perhaps as a result) and Bleak House (seeing guilt-wracked Lady Dedlock as an epitome of guilt-wracked but far less happily married Angela de Santa Barbara), Dumas’ The Corsican Brothers, even Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain. (Aside: All of these have become films, of course – Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones, starring Albert Finney, is a masterpiece; David Lean’s Great Expectations is pretty close to one; Masterpiece Theater did a tidy job on Bleak House some years ago, and Disney murdered Johnny Tremain. The Corsican Brothers, aside from a few humorless efforts, has become two sublime comedies, Start the Revolution without Me with Donald Sutherland and Gene Wilder as two sets of identical (?) twins scrambled at birth, and Cheech and Chong’s lewd and crude The Corsican Brothers.)

You could even toss in the more epic sagas of George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy and Hendrik Sienkowicz – heck, why not? There are probably Scandinavian, Spanish, Italian, German, Turkish, Japanese novels of this variety that I do not know or suspect. And there is our first home-grown example: Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables. Dumas and Dickens set the pattern; everybody followed. It was part of the elevation of the bourgeois family to iconic status during the industrial transformation. In a later avatar, on a less literary level, they became the long-kept-secret mysteries of Chandler, Hammett and Ross MacDonald – whose mastery of demotic prose has nonetheless made them classics and kept them best-sellers while Dumas and Castelo Branco waste away, forgotten and ignored.

I mention Johnny Tremain, a prize-winning young adult novel of the Boston Tea Party and associated events leading up to the outbreak of the American Revolution, in part because it was the first novel ever to win my heart. I was nine years old, which is to say, this was not long after the events the novel describes. It was the book I clutched constantly to my bosom for two years, that is, until I discovered Tolkien. (I do pity those who did not discover Tolkien at eleven. By sixteen, you’re probably already too sophisticated for it. Of course, Tolkien has a coiled: But what is their real identity? sort of plot too, if you think about it.)

But I loved Tremain because, never having read a family-plot novel before, I found its mysteries, its obsessions, its coincidences miraculous and astonishing. I have given the book to many a child among the (almost readerless) new generation, and I return to it myself once a decade, maybe, and the book holds up. For one thing, I see the bones now, shining through Esther Forbes’s wonderfully firm fleshy prose. Johnny, poor and arrogant, a prize apprentice, is obsessed with his blood relationship to the wealthy Lyte family. In the book, his pride is brought low and he earns his way back up, partly due to the loyalty of his friends (notably Cilla and Rab) but mostly due to finding himself, making his own way, earning his place in society and understanding (as he participates in pre-Revolutionary intrigues) how that society can be, should be, reformed. His own qualities lead him to the book’s climax, when he discovers the truth of his birth and is offered (by Cilla) the return of the silver cup that symbolizes it, and his entire past. He is strong enough to reject this symbol (at nine I couldn’t imagine why – a beautiful silver cup is a beautiful silver cup, eh?), to reject the Lytes as they have rejected him. When his beautiful cousin Lavina Lyte finally informs him of the true secret of his birth, he rejects that, too. “You can put in quite a claim for property when this is all over, if there’s any property left, which I very much doubt,” she tells him. But he doesn’t want their silver or their property – or their name. (He does concede that he will call this reigning beauty Aunt Lavinia in the future.) He wants to be an American, his own man, an adult without childish aspirations based on family – the American myth incarnate. All that is left is for Forbes to inspire him to fight, which she does by having the Redcoats kill Rab at Lexington in the First Shot of the coming war.

Rab is perfect. He is brilliant, brave, noble, true, sexy – he’s got to go; so that highly imperfect Johnny may flourish, inspired by his example. There’s nothing else a good novelist can do with Rab. This event shattered me (as it does Johnny) when I first read it. Now I see it is inevitable, the last dollop of plot before the end. (That the book came to an end also shattered me. I wrote bitterly to Esther Forbes on the subject, and her charming postcard back is pasted into my copy of the book.) So he does and Johnny is resolved to rebel, free of encumbering foofaraw, the stuff that makes Pedro-Joao just want to die, that makes Marcel just want to recapture the past. As for Scaramouche and Anthony Adverse – well, they run off to the New World to make a New Life, and best of luck to them – but Johnny’s already there, thanks, so there’s nothing for him to do but put his hand down on the operating table for the ghastly (no anesthetic, no antiseptics) operation that will symbolically make a man of him. I have only just noticed this might be a circumcision reference, but that can’t be conscious on Forbes’s part: Johnny’s crippled hand apparently holding him back – the scar is made of silver, symbol of false idols throughout the book – is the principal symbol around which she constructs her marvelous, eternally splendid tale.

But the story is older than Forbes, older than Castelo Branco, older even than Fielding. The youth who does not know who he is, or where he fits into a society he doesn’t understand, and who turns out to be of exceptional birth to match his outrageous luck and talent, is one of the oldest stories. It is Figaro’s story in Le Mariage, and his discovery that he is the son of the old woman who wants to marry him is Beaumarchais’ witty spoof on Oedipos Tyrannos. (Beaumarchais actually got his own surname and his title of nobility from marrying an older noblewoman who had inherited them.) It is Oedipus’s story, too: the foundling, crippled like Johnny Tremain, raised by royalty but discovering rumors of his adoption, confronting and conquering the enemies of his society – only to discover he has been too shrewd by half. It is the story of Joseph, sold into Egypt and rising to outsmart (and forgive) his wicked brothers. It is the story of Moses, the king’s sister’s son who turns out to be nothing of the sort. It is the story of young Zeus, the god of Mount Ida on Crete, concealed from his voracious father. It is the story of bewildered Herakles, of bewildered Hamlet, of bewildered Telemachus, of bewildered Aeneas: There’s a job to do, and I have to do it, even if it means putting aside love and pleasure and everything else. It is the ur-myth, or one of them.

We never know quite who we are. We search in the trunks in the family attic, those of us lucky enough to have family attics, those of us lucky enough – or are we? – to know our birth families. Such an attic can contain treasure but, like Aeneas’s father on his shoulders, it can be almost too much to carry from the ruins of the past into the new world where our own work must be paramount. Aeneas is always pius; we have the option of tossing it aside, and the American dream is that we can. This may not be true – as Faulkner says, in Absalom, Absalom, “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” It may be forgotten, and each generation takes most of its memories with it to the grave. But something survives to haunt us, and fictions that tell the stories of such searches, such discoveries, such mysteries, sordid or wonderful, therefore appeal to us. We can adore them and puzzle them like Sophocles and Freud, or we can spoof them like Fielding and Beaumarchais and Almodovar. But they never lose their appeal.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Lepage Die Walküre at the Met

Brünnhilde: Deborah Voigt; Sieglinde: Eva-Maria Westbroek; Fricka: Stephanie Blythe; Siegmund: Jonas Kaufmann; Wotan: Bryn Terfel; Hunding: Hans-Peter König. Production by Robert Lepage. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra conducted by James Levine. Performance of April 28.

There’s a lot to be said for lowered expectations. After last fall’s cramped, over-busy staging of Das Rheingold, I was prepared for a rough night at Die Walküre—and enjoyed the occasion very much, the staging, the direction, most of the singing, even the costumes. If I’d attended the opening, I might have been less pleased. A friend whom I met at this, the third, performance clued me in on all sorts of changes, not least in the improving command of his music on the part of Bryn Terfel. On the third night, there was only one major machinery mishap: Siegrune (Eva Gigliotti), broke the straps that held her to her bucking “horse,” and landed with a thump in the trough behind the forestage. She leaped (nothing broken!) into the wings, and when (after, no doubt, cursing and moaning mercifully inaudible to us) she bounded back onstage for a war-cry or two, there was applause. At the Met, audiences take the singer’s side against malicious, high-concept scenery. This may not be true at other performing venues.

Die Walküre has always been the most popular drama of Wagner’s Ring, performed far more frequently than the others. The doomed romance of Siegmund and Sieglinde is the most moving human relationship in the entire cycle, their undeserved doom winning our deepest sympathy, and Wotan’s tragedy is nowhere made more manifest than in his renunciation of Brünnhilde, the daughter who has been his second self. Parents, children, lovers, loners, schemers who fail—everyone who falls into any of those categories, or sympathizes with one of them, will feel the terrific pang in Wagner’s matchless musical setting of these situations.

The questions I always ask before the curtain rises on Die Walküre are, first, can these singers sing it properly? That is, beautifully, with enough breath and power for the theater in which they find themselves, and can they act, so that the lengthy debates of Acts II and III hold our attention? Then, what pitfalls will the director fall into? Will Siegmund start fondling Sieglinde the moment he sets eyes on her (which always makes me feel sympathetic to Hunding) or will their physical communication be only by eyes and exchanged drinks until their climactic embrace at the end of the act? They are two people who have never been able to touch anyone all their lives, and this first contact should mean something, should come only after we know their stories, anticipate their destinies. Then, how will Brünnhilde’s transformation from unfeeling goddess to sympathetic woman during the “Todesverkündigung” duet be manifested? And will the director and the singers be able to make sense of the end of Act II, where Wagner has given them far too cluttered a set of events to perform? And, last act, lacking real flying horses and real magic fire, how will they indicate flying horses and magic fire?

A great deal of the answer in the Met’s new production, by Robert Lepage, depends on special mechanical effects created by lights, projections and twenty-four “planks” that perform as athletically as anybody. You may remember them from Das Rheingold, as the roof of Alberich’s cavern and the staircase down to it from Valhalla, the bridge towards that castle and its monumental walls as well. This time around, the planks portray the rustic insides and (later) the slate roof of Hunding’s hut, a snowcapped mountain (getting all the icier with Wotan’s chilly mood), eight cavorting steeds in the Valkyrie Theme Park™, a tulgy wood or two, heaving in the wind, and a stage-wide winged bird-beast of prey. They are also the plasma-screen projection TV of Siegmund’s bardic imagination, and that’s going entirely too far—savages racing about like animated cave paintings are mere kitsch and as unnecessary as subtitles. Just listen to the leitmotifs and Wagner will tell you exactly what’s going on. Lepage also provides a gigantic plastic eyeball (programmed for light show!) to illustrate Wotan’s narration, and a spectacular ram’s head-armed High Victorian settee for Fricka, but rarely did I feel in Act II (as I had with the cave paintings) that he had gone too far, illustrating what simply did not call for illustration. Many of the meditative sections of Wagner’s great drama were indeed meditative: The music, the singing, needed no specific illustration because the music, the singing, were the drama, and what it was about. I wasn’t sure Lepage had got that important Wagnerian memo; perhaps he has.

Was Lepage or some less exalted figure responsible for the moving around of the humans in this staging? Someone has paid attention to the psychological underpinnings of the drama, which is an excellent thing. Though there are certain things I itch to tweak, in many ways it is an improvement on earlier stagings, even the sacrosanct Schenk production. Siegmund’s rush through the forest (those planks again!) was quite alarming, and can’t be easy to render safe. It will also exhaust the average tenor, but then, he has a time to catch his breath before singing again, and he spends it lying across the Hundings’ hearth. Sieglinde, who has been out gathering wood, finds him there and touches him, gingerly, to see if he’s still alive. At this, Siegmund seizes her hand—plainly the reflex of a hunted man and no flirtation. Later, Hans-Peter König—not merely a bass of golden age vocal stature, who only has to open his mouth to remind us how fallen, in other categories, is the modern Wagnerian estate, but also the funniest Hunding ever—ambles brutally home, tosses his bearskins on the sword-hilt conveniently sticking out of a tree, and, without looking at him, sticks his spear across the stranger’s chest as if to say, “What the hell is he doing here?” The focus on the scene that follows is, correctly, not on Siegmund so much as on the portrait of an unhappy marriage that Siegmund has interrupted.

I’ve always hated the salacious impulse of modern directors to have Siegmund and Sieglinde flop down and do it on the kitchen floor as the curtain falls on Act I. Surely she loathes her unhappy home, Hunding might wake at any moment, and Siegmund’s whole message has been: There’s a great big world full of springtime and love out there! Let’s go and enjoy it! Wagner says they rush out into the night, and I’m with him. So, happily, is Lepage, for as we watch, the planks that have been the inner wall of Hunding’s hut turn into the slate roof, and we’re out in the woods. Excellent.

In Act II, the planks became a sort of mountain platform with a cavern beneath, and on this floated Stephanie Blythe, our Fricka. Though sizable, Blythe has never had the slightest difficulty racing about the stage and up and down reasonable obstacles, but Lepage has not been willing to risk this. He gives her a motorized wheelchair with rams’ heads on the arms (in Norse mythology and in Wagner’s text, Fricka drives a chariot drawn by rams), and here she must sit and discourse with Wotan. Being Blythe, she has no problem acting in this contraption: seething goddess, neglected wife, yearning erstwhile lover, implacable lawyer (G.B. Shaw said Fricka represented the Law to Wotan’s Church). I found rather touching her extension of a hopeful hand to defeated Wotan, and his sarcastic kissing of it. The next “effect” was the popping up from the cavern under the rocks (the planks again) of a circular plastic “eye,” a screen on which Brünnhilde watches suggestive videos while Wotan tells her his tale. Cute but kitsch, and unnecessary.

For the Todesverkündigung, we were back in plank forest, but nothing much should happen during Siegmund and Brünnhilde’s stichomythia, at least until its conclusion, when he takes up the sword to slay Sieglinde and Brünnhilde, in stopping him, unknowingly becomes human herself. Here Deborah Voigt abruptly deflected his blade with her shield, and disarmed him with her spear. It was startling, as the moment should be.

I’ve rarely seen the scene that ends Act II staged with all its elements clear and visible, gods “hovering” protectively over mortals, a lot of weapons-play, witnesses to things incomprehensible if not invisible. And how many Brünnhildes can pick up all the pieces of broken Nothung and get Sieglinde offstage in the allotted time? Lepage managed most of it to a thrilling degree. Hunding and his men simply did not “see” Wotan or Brünnhilde; nor, so far as we could tell, did Sieglinde, motionless until the moment Brünnhilde (whom she has never seen before, remember) addressed her. Wotan strode forward with his spear to break the useless sword in Siegmund’s hand, then stood back to allow Hunding to strike the death blow. Siegmund died cradled in Wotan’s arms, reaching, touchingly, to the face of the invisible father he has barely known. Then—a little too hurriedly, methinks; he should have godlike dignity even in his wrath—Wotan chugged off stage in pursuit of his errant daughters. It seemed to me that there were far too many men around, Hunding’s confederates but, in fact, Lepage’s crew. There is nothing for them to do, no reason for them to move, and they neither moved nor sang. Two or three would fill the bill.

And so to the scene that is usually a snap: Wotan kisses Brünnhilde, her godhead falls away, she sinks sleeping into his arms, and he lays her out on the mountaintop before summoning the fire to surround her. Here, Lepage let his ambitions for a startling tableau run away with him, adding many an unnecessary complication in order to produce an image that, while impressive, even chilling, hardly seemed worth the bother. We should focus on Wotan and his feelings (lovingly described by the orchestra); instead we are distracted by the sight of the snow-covered mountain sinking into the earth, the spear-cradled Valkyrie (a body double) carried to the top of it and hung upside down as we, presumably, witness from above, in dolly shot. It’s quite a coup de théâtre, but aren’t we attending an opera? Shouldn’t the emotional focus of the story be Wotan’s feelings, and not: How the hell does she stay up there?

The singing ranged from good to spectacular—alas, the best of it came from the two least loved of the figures onstage, Fricka (Stephanie Blythe), rock solid but warm and womanly, and Hunding (Hans-Peter König), who opens his mouth only to caress the ear, reminding one of Kurt Moll, Matti Salminen and the other Wagnerian basses of more golden ages. The weakest link was Sieglinde, Eva-Maria Westbroek, a handsome woman and a fine actress with a large, womanly instrument, who sang “Du bist der Lenz” consistently flat and her final triumphant outburst in Act III all over the place, never consistently anything or anywhere. She’d been suffering from a cold a week before, at the opening; perhaps it lingered, unannounced. In any case this was not an enjoyable Sieglinde.

At my first Die Walküre (Nilsson, Jones, Vickers), forty years ago, a veteran of many Rings beside me turned to her friend and said, “Such a pleasure to see a Siegmund and Sieglinde who actually resemble each other.” I think Vickers wore a blond wig, actually. At this latest one, Westbroek and Jonas Kaufmann seemed to be wearing curly chestnut wigs—in any case, the resemblance of these tall, slim persons in dark garb (especially when they first warily looked each other over, profile echoing profile) was striking enough to seem uncanny, as Wagner desired—score for the Met’s wig and makeup department! Kaufmann, currently one of the world’s most admired tenors but one whose voice had seemed a little small for the Met even against a Traviata orchestra, gave us a darkly baritonal, cautious Siegmund, meeting nearly all the role’s challenges with full weight. The “Wãl-” in his Act I-concluding “Wälsungen Blut” was flat, as if his strength had given out by that time, but the invocations of “Wälse” earlier in the act were stirringly done. He seemed to have the measure of the Met’s acoustics and to know just how far he did not need to push to be heard in a suave “Winterstürme” and the ominous phrases of the Todesverkündigung. His ability to race through quite a dangerous little maze of log palisade/thick forest, to fight almost credibly with a broad sword and to die with an anguished gaze on the father-god who has betrayed him won him a deserved ovation.

I’d been dreading Deborah Voigt’s assumption of the role of Brünnhilde, and I still wish they’d find someone else for it, but she managed a decent, B-level Valkyrie, devotedly acted, and she looked terrific in a costume carefully modeled on the Victorian armor and silken flounces of Amalie Materna’s creation of the role at Bayreuth in 1876. She brought the proper emotions to her singing, the exultation to the war-cry (no trills of course), a sense of inexorable doom to the all-important Todesverkündigung. But Voigt’s voice these days suggests little in the way of color, of metal, of shine; half the time she scrapes it over gravel. It is the ruins of a voice and therefore, though she gives an enthusiastic performance, it does not sound heroic. This is less painful in the long, narrative stretches of a Wagnerian part than it was in lyric Puccini last December, when she was simply a gray, blank space on a colorful canvas; in Wagner she is able but uninspiring.

Bryn Terfel seemed inadequate to Wagnerian power in Das Rheingold last fall, but either his health has improved or he has devoted more attention and energy to the far longer and emotionally deeper Wotan of Die Walküre. There were moments (such as the beginning of his Act II narration) where his bad habit of acting, spitting, thrusting lines rather than singing them proved briefly tiresome, but by and large this was an honest, forceful, intriguing performance, one that holds proper weight in the opera, with real lyricism when he dwelt on the springlike love of the twins or his youthful ambitions, and in the long last exchange with the desperate Brünnhilde. His diction was excellent, he never fell back to crooning as he has been known to do when singing Mozart. His acting was full of intriguing touches, like the unloving kiss he forces himself to place on Fricka’s outstretched hand, nor did the wobbling planks beneath his feet give him the slightest insecurity. He played an imposing if unlucky king of the gods with conviction and authority.

James Levine was too weary to climb up to the stage at the end of the festivities; the singers applauded him from the stage apron. Other indications that he has changed were apparent. For one thing, he kept the surge of Wagnerian power at a low simmer: His singers never had to fight to be heard. This is new. Perhaps it was a concession to the less than godlike power of Kaufmann and Voigt, but Levine has never made such concessions before; he has usually been a conductor you had to fight for stage attention. Many a glorious note has risen clear and singing over the years to the front regions of the top balconies of the Met’s horseshoe, inaudible in the orchestra seats. If this was a new control, a new generosity, it was very pleasing in Row M. If there was less of an emotional swell to the final parting of Wotan and Brünnhilde than one likes to feel, let’s be generous and credit the awkward new staging. But I’m strongly tempted to go to another performance, somewhere high in the Family Circle, to check my perceptions of the Wagnerian temperature, usually at white heat in those polar regions.

If the new Rheingold made one wonder about the Met’s priorities and the advisability of the entire endeavor, the new Walküre makes me look forward with interest to the remainder of the cycle.

John Yohalem

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Ellen Stewart, La Mama of all New York

Ellen Stewart has died, La Mama herself -- old, venerable, full of years, ringing her bell and raising hell to her dying instant, but still: It's a different New York now. For a glorious time it was the New York she made. Now it's not; it's Donald Trump's New York, Rudolph Giuliani's New York, Bloomberg's New York, Julie Taymor's New York.

She came from Chicago (though she spoke with a mad self-devised faux-Caribbean accent) and started producing theater Off Off Off Broadway before there was an Off Broadway scene, in the early 1960s -- the police saw a lot of white men (actors, auditioning) going to see this black woman who lived below street level in an old storefront on the (then) utterly disreputable and unsafe Lower East Side. They drew the natural conclusion, and busted her for prostitution. She crowed about that!

She started a restaurant, Café LaMama, because she couldn't afford a theater license but could afford a cabaret license, and she gave every sort of entertainment on its tiny stage, while comestibles were ... more honored in the breach than in the observance. Your eyes would bug out at the list of her alumni! Tom Eyen, Tim Miller, David Sedaris, John Kelly, Ethyl Eichelberger, Jeff Weiss, Andrei Serban.... LaMama (accent on the last syllable, please) became a veritable Alcina, the witch of Ariosto's poem (and so many operas), Manhattan her enchanted island, where every star-struck kid was transformed into a flowering tree or voracious menagerie animal of art!

A year or two ago I went to a revival of Tom Eyen's "Why Hannah's Skirt Won't Stay Down," a tour-de-force which got Eyen noticed because the only character on stage besides Hannah was a beautiful youth, stark naked. This was not common at the time and got the whole production hauled off to court. The revival starred the original Hannah, back to celebrate its fortieth anniversary ... and a boy who couldn't have been in the original, not having been born yet back then. Ellen introduced it, bell a-ringing, and pointed out a demure, very respectable lady in the audience as "the one who put up the bail money for me when this play was closed. So you see," she added, "sometimes the things I tell you are actually true."

By the time she died last week, the city had sold her (for one dollar) a huge building with theaters in it on East Fourth Street, named it the Ellen Stewart, and she could sell tickets to tell her tales of the tours of Baalbek, the arrests for indecent exposure, and was still bringing in the latest companies from Tunisia and Belarus, holding international marionette festivals, seeking out talent, and attempting to complete her project to rewrite and stage every Greek tragedy. No one could do what she did today on the sort of shoestrings she worked on for her first thirty years of producing.

What will kill New York, however, is that there is no place for dirt-poor but creative young kids to live and interact for a couple of years while they figure out what they want to do artistically; there was in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s. You could get a roach-infested, toilet-in-the-hall, tub-in-the-kitchen, muggers behind every potted plant, cold-water flat for $18 a month on the Lower East Side in 1970. (I know. I went home with guys who lived in such places.) Now it's $1000 a month as far out as Bushwick in darkest Brooklyn -- forget Manhattan! I don't know how they do it. Fewer and fewer of them will.