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

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Turquoise reflections

A sad reflection as 2007 draws to a close: How much more of my life (as at this very moment) has been spent doing laundry than wandering the streets of Istanbul or Venice – or even Paris. A rational man would live in Istanbul or Paris – and get someone else to do the laundry. (Volunteers?)

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Birth of an Epic?

A week ago went to War and Peace at the Met, the grandest show in New York, spectacular work in a spectacular production with a spectacular cast – decidedly a tough work to grasp on first encounter (this was my fourth such encounter, and now I get it), a wonderful night at the opera – and the theater – and the ballet – and the orchestra.

Today I listened to the live broadcast – twice, due to the magic of modern webcasting. When I was in the house, everyone was discussing whether or not we'd ever read the novel (I had, but thirty years ago), and its influence. Today, listening to the score and its four hours of easily missed exquisite detail, I found myself thinking about the book's plot, the bickering among several noble families until everyone faces national crisis, and comes through that, and lives are lost and the crisis is faced and the nation re-born and marriages transpire, happy ending.

What comes to mind very strongly is The Birth of a Nation. It seems to me plain as the nose on my face (though in fact I have a very handsome one, not as grand as Jonathan Cake's the other night in Cymbeline, but handsome) that Griffith's model was, must have been, War and Peace, point by point, even to the slaves mimicking the resigned wisdom of the serfs. I had never heard this spoke of before, am curious to see if it is a commonplace of Griffith criticism or my own discovery. (My money's on the former assumption.)

I began to think of Tolstoy's masterful construction: the two or three aristocratic families (Bolkonskys, Rostovs, Kuragins-and-Bezukhovs), the pettiness of their romantic and other involvements when the great tidal wave of national disaster rolls over them, the way the characters show their mettle in meeting it, the way their personal destinies work themselves out in a more peaceable aftermath -- and the resemblance to another work in an entirely different medium occurred to me.

Like Tolstoy, Griffith examines a couple of aristocratic families, their loyal underlings, their intertwining romances, and then hits them in the head with a shattering cataclysm that kills quite a few of them and transforms the lives and social circumstances of the rest. His very neutrality on the Civil War (and his determination to see blacks who attempt to break out of their class as contrary to the "natural") seem to grow also from Tolstoy's belief in the Russian-ness that links the class system of pre-Revolutionary Russia to a proper devotion to the Russian earth. (His racism could almost be a dreadful parody of Tolstoy's religion.) Even to the happy endings tacked on in both works after the upheavals, the story told in the American work seems to be an attempt to create the effect -- in a transAtlantic milieu -- of national epic in the manner and on the level of Tolstoy's.

For the fledgling film industry, it was an important attempt, and he chose (I believe) a significant model. But Griffith's own blindness to the evils of racism and the reality of American culture (not that Tolstoy was seeing Russia 20/20) make us uncomfortable with this relationship.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Fourth Wall is a Two-Way Street

Friday night I attended Marlowe's Edward II, which is in previews at the Red Bull Theater Company, a little Off-Broadway outfit that won kudos (and my heart) with their hilarious, delicious, sexy, bloodthirsty run of The Revenger's Tragedy a season or two back. The plays are both Liz-Jac in era and composed in blank verse, but they are very unlike: Revenger's Tragedy is out-and-out fantasy fiction set in an Italian neverland with no motivations but lust and blood-lust ("How many people do we have to murder up here before you groundlings feel something, damn it?"), where Edward II is based, however vaguely, on actual history as found in Holinshed's Chronicles. This was a new invention, history fictionalized and versified for the stage, pretty much invented with this play and Shakespeare's contemporary Henry VI plays (whoever wrote those, and they appear, at least the first one or two, to be collaborations). (There are also Edward III, which I saw recently Off-Off-Broadway, and Edmund Ironsides – also works of c.1590 but of disputed authorship and no very great quality.)

No nation ever had done anything quite like history plays before, and no other nation with a theater scene (Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Russia, China, Japan) produced them for many centuries thereafter – even Shakespeare and Marlowe did not quite dare to hold the reigning dynasty up to the cold limelight of the stage, though Plantagenets were fair game enough. (Henry VIII was not produced until Hal's daughter, Bess, the last Tudor, was safely under a stone in the Abbey.) At Red Bull every word is clear, and every syllable is spoken as though it meant something (though I would cavil that they get the meaning wrong by a few centuries now and then), and this is a great pleasure in the staging of old plays, so I am a fan. But – perhaps because it's early in the run, perhaps because the play has been edited and rearranged to a degree with half the characters omitted and their speeches redistributed like legacies among the remainder, perhaps because it is so very different a piece – I did not totally delight in the zaniness of Edward as I had in that of Tragedy.

Among my objections to the staging (highly inventive on a minimal set) were a few that have occurred to me at other stagings of classical texts (plays and operas) in recent years: pointless updating and pointless porn. A knife is not a sword, and toy pistol is not a sword, and a submachine gun is not a sword, and if the characters keep saying they are going to stab someone or run them through or make them feel the point or edge of their steel, and then they pull out a gun and threaten them or kill them (and Red Bull is very clever in its use of hemapacks at such moments, I must say – there were gasps of horror behind me now and then from some person(s) who had not read a synopsis before buying tickets), it brings about a certain uneasiness, a certain distrust of the actors and the company in the audience that would like to fall under Marlowe's spell. (True, I can count on the fingers of one disfigured hand the number of convincing stage stabbings I've been witness to – but I've never seen a convincing stage shooting.)

My other objection – here and in many an opera and staging – is gratuitous gamy sex. Sure Queen Isabella and Mortimer were lovers – oh Lordy how they could love – but Marlowe makes it quite clear that this passion began slowly and was not consummated until shortly before they joined forces to depose her husband. (The play telescopes the events of twenty years into five acts, and it would be surprising if all the politics did make sense.) When the Queen calls him "gentle" Mortimer and "sweet" Mortimer early in the play (for one thing, in the written text these terms are often addressed to his uncle, a character deleted in this version), it is a casual mode of address in Marlowe's time, kind of like calling someone "dude" today without meaning anything at all about their style of dress – to imply, as this staging does, that she has the hots for Mort from the beginning in spite of every word she actually says (she's in love with her husband for the first three acts), makes a nonsense of the characters. Even more annoying, was having them spouting blank verse while humping all-but-bareass in mid-stage in a scene that is set in a council chamber – it leaves one flabbergasted when other characters (including Isabella's very young son) then enter the chamber without apparently noticing the semi-clothed (and dripping) state of the two persons they meet there. I don't see what this adds. We know they're screwing, we don't have to be shown it. The Archbishop of Canterbury would certainly object to being invited to watch.

I had a similar problem with the current staging of Macbeth at the Metropolitan Opera. We know the Macbeths have a good, strong, sensual marriage – they don't have to sing their every duet while horizontal to demonstrate this. For one thing, it makes vocalizing tough; for another, opera singers are not the people I want to watch doing this (or wouldn't be if I wanted to watch anyone at all – other than maybe myself and one or four other persons – doing this). For another, and a bigger, point: it adds nothing and detracts from the atmosphere. The love duet, like the pas de deux in ballet, is a conventional artistic metaphor for the sex act. We understand when they're talking, or singing, or dancing, that this is a figure-of-performance. To see them actually at it is not art – it's porn.

I realize that pornography is the most significant art form of our time, the only one that means anything to most people (I am not most people, and I don't watch porn – really, it bores me), but to inject porn into every other art form cheapens them, and in destroying the boundary between public discourse and private salaciousness, we rob porn of its joy. If we turn every artistic and dramatic situation that includes a metaphor for lovemaking into actual lovemaking, into porn, is that it will not only rob art of its point, it will rob porn of any point at all. A few years down the road, if we want sexual jollies, we'll put on a DVD of a Vivaldi or Wagner opera or a Shakespearean tragedy and turn off the sound. And then the porn industry will have nothing left to appeal to – the private world will have ceased to exist. If we give names to every nameless thrill, there goes the thrilling part of our world, polluted like every joyous beckoning mystery that used to hedge and inspire our lives.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Smyth's The Wreckers -- New, at 101

Dame Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers had its U.S. premiere in concert last Sunday at Avery Fisher Hall, thanks to the American Symphony Orchestra and the enduring passion for neglected late romantic scores of its director, Leon Botstein. The world premiere of the opera took place in Leipzig and Prague in 1906, and though not without its champions, it has largely faded from view.

Smyth had a lot of cards stacked against her -- she was a woman when no major opera had ever been composed by one (is this still true?), and English when no English-born composer had produced an unquestioned operatic masterpiece since Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. (Sullivan might have -- but his Ivanhoe and The Golden Legend suggest that light opera was not just his delight, it was also the locus of his genius.) Smyth, like Sullivan, had studied in Germany, and her second opera, Der Wald, composed to a German libretto, had (and still has) the honor of being the first and only opera composed by a woman ever to play the Met. Everyone was charmed by her ladylike demeanor (she came of good family), but the second half of the double bill -- Il Trovatore -- (there were no unions then, remember) -- swept every shred of Der Wald out of everybody's ears.

The Wreckers is set in her native England and she didn't write the libretto this time -- but the story was her idea; she did not work from a previous dramatic form, and that shows. The drama of her story is minimal, the characters clichéd, their emotions a bit too simple. They do not interest us; they do not promise more than we've already heard. The story concerns a congregation of starving fisherfolk in Cornwall who, led by their pastor, misconstrue some of the bloodier passages of the Bible to justify lighting, or putting out, coastal warning lights so that ships will be wrecked, their crews slaughtered and the town will prosper on the booty. “Probably not much tourism in that town,” someone muttered. Nowadays, of course, there probably is: tales of the Wreckers of old quaintly embossed on every tchotchke and T-shirt.

Botstein suggests that the story's attitude towards wrongheaded heterodox Christianity may make the piece more appealing nowadays, and one may also note that the heroine is denounced as a witch when convicted of thwarting the town's bloodthirsty plans -- I think what we have here is a c.1900 sentimental feminist's feelings for the witches of old. British music, women's creativity and suffrage were not the only causes ahead of -- but very much of -- her time that Smyth espoused.

To my own surprise -- I had never heard any of Smyth's music -- it was a very pleasurable afternoon. The music was at once quasi-Wagnerian and elegantly deployed (as suits a German-trained musician of the time), and tunefully old-fashioned (typical of Brits of the time). Botstein has come up with far less appealing works in his devoted endeavors -- as well as better ones, like last spring's Die Ferne Klang. The vocal lines were grateful, and the choral numbers especially effective.

The opera attempts to twine assorted love affairs into the ethical question of whether or not unknown sailors are fair game for starving coastal peasants. The Pastor and his congregation (especially bloodthirsty Avis, the fun part) thinks they are, but Thirza, the Pastor's young wife, hopes to save the sailors. Her partner in this secret deed is Mark, who falls in love with her -- which is dangerous, as Avis loves Mark and soon uncovers the details. The Pastor is unable to save them but forfeits his leadership, and the townsfolk bind Mark and Thirza in a cave as the tide comes in. This sounds more thrilling than it is: the drama is almost by-the-numbers: have we had a hymn? must be time for a folk song -- tenderly echoed by the other participant in adultery. The characters had attractive lines to sing, and obvious themes to represent, but they never came to anything like life.

Smyth lacked the knack of making fable real by deepening individual psyches – a gift Verdi, Wagner, Strauss and Britten possessed in spades, a reason their dramas ever fascinate. Even the hoariest tale, set to melody by any one of these four masters, reveals intriguing depths, individuality in short: Gilda is an ingenue, but not just an ingenue -- her spunk, the fervor behind her melody, makes us curious about her back story and her fate. Smyth’s tunes and the bare-bones libretto did not give one much notion of unspoken thoughts glimmering beneath the too-obvious surface of what people were saying, and the words themselves were far from eloquent. Smyth's inability to make cardboard human was far from unique -- most of her male contemporaries (even Richard Strauss in his first two operas) were, like her, using Wagnerian techniques and "mythic" material with similar lack of originality or theatricality. Smyth was, unfortunately, one of the boys killing time between the arrival of giants.

This was, in fact, the most interesting aspect of the event: pondering why Smyth's opera, with all its character clash, its big burning (okay, drowning) issues, its tunefulness, its steady rise to climax, remained dead on the page, without subtlety or frisson. These people have no secrets from us; we know them, and we know them in twenty seconds. There are no surprises here, and there are no questions: Did Thyrza and Mark actually, you know, do it? Who cares? (They've been debating for 220 years whether Don Giovanni had his way with Donna Anna just before curtain rise, and there's no clear answer yet. But in any good Giovanni, we still wonder.) The Wreckers is a drama without dramatics. Inventing people was not Smyth's gift.

The powerful roles are for the women – the sole sign that a lesbian (okay; bisexual woman) wrote this. The saintly Thirza, a contralto for a change, gives her life to save unknown sailors -- but she never seems to think about this, or to consider how her relationship with a man other than her husband looks to that husband and the rest of the town. Avis, the soprano, rouses the villagers against the man who has left her, against Thirza who has captivated him, and even Thirza’s husband. She seems concerned for the survival of the community's quaint customs, but it's really lust and jealousy that drive her -- and she rather wins us over by not taking any guff from her father or any other man. In a more recent opera, Avis's role would be just one long shriek, but Smyth, brighter than the post-World War II opera composers, gave her some charming music.

On Sunday, Ellie Dehn, whose name has been gathering comment on the circuit, had great fun as Avis and never seemed shrill or in any vocal trouble, while Thirza was handled gratefully by the rising mezzo Kate Aldrich. Richard Cox, after a slow start, sang an amiable sea ballad as Mark and a Tristan-esque (but not so brutal as that) dying duet with Thirza. Louis Otey was effective as the Pastor, Andrew Schroeder more than that as Avis's disappointed father (he kicks her out when he realizes what an unprincipled slut she is), Deborah Domanski charming in the trouser role of the boy Avis toys with the better to pursue Mark, and Ryan MacPherson better than promising as another fisherman. The orchestra and chorus made much of the roiling, post-Hollander sea pictures (a bit tame when one thinks of what Vaughn Williams and Britten were to do with British musical sea painting), and the orchestra had many intriguing touches to raise Smyth's nonexistent reputation.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Istanbulletin: Pre-boarding

Got my snap shot,
Got hammams (hot!)
All I need now is the shoes …
Room set,
All my needs
Got the schedule down for Byzantine ruin –
All I need now is the soles for the viewin’ –
If they’d
just arrive I’d
toss aside
all frets and blues –
And with each step I’d say
“I can wander all night where the young Turks play,”
From the Black Sea to the walls of Troy
All this sorry
Needs is shoes.

In fact, my new passport has not yet arrived, but the person on the phone there (not too long a hold time either -- take notice, Met Opera!) told me it's in the final stages and should arrive by Wednesday. Departure date is October 6.

Meanwhile, every couple of days I buy new shoes and take them to a museum to test them out. (After all, streets aside, museums is where I'll be doing most of my walking. Mosques, of course, I shall walk barefoot.) So far my buying and testing has produced several days after when I could not walk at all but nothing really comfy, really winning. Worst case scenario: I unearth the hiking boots demolished two years ago and the old sneaks I last wore in Italy and get a couple of days' use out of them before they fall to the dogs of Marmara.

Before that, I tackle Eneslow, which will if necessary manufacture proper shoes for me.

Today I spent an hour at the Museum of the American Indian, which I have not visited since that notorious Steve Reich concert in the rotunda, when I danced around the ovoid room (cf. Sept. 24 New Yorker, Letters). A small exhibition of Northwest (mostly B.C.) items -- insignificant to the holdings I've seen in Vancouver and Seattle, of course, but also compared to the grand hall at AMNH -- and the floors mostly carpeted so I could not tell if the shoes worked or not (I need marble for that), but at least I wasn't blared at by fifteen talking exhibits.

Results: inconclusive.

Maybe I shall get fluffy bunny carpet slippers for the museums of Turkey. But the streets there are still in questions.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Videogame Museum of Natural History

This may not be the best way to do it, but I've been buying shoes like crazy, hoping that ONE pair will fit, before I go to Istanbul on Lepanto Day; so far, no luck. The way I go about it is: buy the shoes (usually on someone's recommendation that such-and-such a brand are comfortable) and then take them to a museum to test them without going outdoors in them. Then they can be returned, a painful process I especially detest. But I can't keep shelling out $200 a week for shoes I never wear, now, can I? At some point I will fall behind in rent and food money -- not to mention closet space. (Was that Imelda's problem? Did any of them FIT?)

I've been to the Met a lot these days (because it's the cheapest and stays open longest and has the widest variety of things to see), and to MoMA, which is costly but always has things that interest me, but today I had two pairs to test and was on the West Side anyway. So I went to the American Museum of Natural History, supposedly the world's largest museum (though only half the originally planned galleries were ever built). I had not been there in some years, or only to see certain special exhibits or attend lectures on witchcraft in various cultures. The place has changed.

Now, I grew up in that building. More than that: when I was 18 I had a summer job in the library there and got to explore its light-years of lofty, spacious corridor lined with ancient undisplayable bones. It was quiet, august, dusty, but mighty impressive. A refuge from the too-busy city -- as the Met used to be (and some of its galleries still are).

AMNH has changed. Oh, has it changed. It is, for one thing, monstrous expensive ($22 for one special exhibition, $30 for all of them, $2 for the coat check -- you don't think I was going to lug three pairs of shoes around all day, do you?) and it has become a refuge from nothing. The special show I attended, on mythic creatures and their possible origins and derivations (and some artistic artifactoids) was naturally geared towards little kids, but how even they can take it is mysterious to me: loud, lecturing screens, short movies, talkative nooks litter the place. They are not kept discreetly down dark corridors, or discreetly to themselves; there is no place in the exhibit where one is not assaulted by at least two loud voices telling you things you'd rather deduce for yourself, or read on the displays. I fled to the dinosaur rooms, the evolutionary room, the gem room fer goshsakes -- ALL had the same loud spouting voices dinning into you. It was like being trapped in a videogame parlor, or a house with separate TV sets in different angles of the family room -- perhaps this is the effect they wish to reproduce? Perhaps this is how kids learn nowadays, or is the only way to get their attention?

It made me sick.

The gem room especially used to be a sweet, otherworldly haven of glowing jewels on black velvet, dazzling colors, dreamlike splendors. Used to be terrific to get stoned in, back in the day. Now? Would drive me to suicide or anyway the Alpine solitudes of the Central Park zoo.

Whose idea was this? Is this the effect they wanted to produce?

The only rooms that were at all safe were the great dim halls of dioramas and stuffed animals -- as mysterious and silent and spooky as they were when my grandpa took me there -- and the hall of Northwest Indians. (Appropriately; you could imagine yourself in a Cascade rain forest, one of my favorite places.)

I have fond memories of taking my friend Julie to AMNH a dozen years ago with her six-year-old, Ned, dinosaur-obsessed (we've all been there, eh?), to a huge show of the dinosaurs and the mammalian pre-dinosaurs, and explaining to him that the interactive computers were all descended from fossil invertebrates themselves, to his extreme annoyance. (Julie thought it was funny, though.)

AMNH is a building to be enjoyed, from now on, only from outside, on 77th Street. On your next visit to New York, it's a must-skip.

And tonight, my thighs are in pain from the goddam shoes.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

400: A highly heroic adventure movie

Today the ancient world and its ways are all but forgotten, but there was a time -- 1888, to be exact -- when Caroline Astor (Meryl Streep) reigned supreme. She was the arbiter of the 400 (so-called for the number of guests who could fit comfortably into parties in her Fifth Avenue ballroom) and, with her fainéant husband, Waldorf (Dan Aykroyd), ruled New York high society from the Metropolitan Opera to the Metropolitan Club. Sneering at upstart Vanderbilts and the louche taste of Rockefellers, kowtowing to visiting royalty at just the correct level of deference, advising presidents' wives on which fork to use for the hors d'oeuvres, she was peerless and unchallenged.

Until now.

Suddenly all New York is a-twitter at the arrival of the world-traveling Shah of Persia (Dustin Hoffman) with a full suite of 23 concubines, 84 eunuchs and countless servants and advisers and oud-players. Orientalism on the march! But where will they stay? (It's high season, and the Waldorf-Astoria on 34th is booked for a political convention to nominate Grover Cleveland (John Goodman).) (The Plaza, of course, hasn't been built yet.) Nonplussed, but not for long, Mrs. Astor is soon all steely resolve:

She and Waldorf will avoid confrontation by closing the house and fleeing to their country cottage, Hot Gates, 92 rooms in extravagant beaux arts style far, far up the Hudson with a view of the shimmering Catskills across the river. There (with a few dozen friends) they can be alone at last. Ladies' badminton in the long, lazy afternoons (to keep in shape for those low-shouldered gowns you know), while the gentlemen play golf in gaiters, and Madame Lehmann herself (Jane Eaglen) arrives from the Met to warble Casta Diva (auf Deutsch) after dinner. The Shah will never find them there. Or so she thinks.

But there is a serpent in her paradise: socialite Edith "Pussy" Jones (Chloe Sevigny) thinks a little crisis on the international scale would rightly shake up the stultified class into which she was born, and she betrays the whereabouts of -- and forges an invitation to -- Hot Gates for the amorous Shah of all the Persians. Escorted by a skeleton force of two battalions of New York's Finest, 19 dancing girls, and a percussive corps of janissaries (I know, I know -- janissaries are Turkish -- it's Hollywood, they never get the research right), Shah Dustin rushes up the river to hurl himself at the feet (and dinner table) of Streep.

Is Mrs. Astor up to the challenge? Does the Brooklyn Bridge go to Brooklyn?

Marshalling her diamanté troops ("Ladies -- tonight we dine in hell. Family hold back"), she confronts the bedazzled and beturbanned one with an 18-course hot dinner on a 90-degree evening with the western sun in the dining room windows, an experience that might easily kill anyone not used to whalebone corsets and boiled shirtwaists. The girl is good. Her cooks are game. (When not fainting from overwork.) The family guests are flawless. The Shah is demolished. Pussy Jones gives up her plan to challenge the supremacy of the 400 and marries some dimwit named Wharton who will take her to France so she can become an interior decorator. The Persians retreat.

"You can still make the 11:19 back to town at the station at Marathon, N.Y. if you trot," says Mrs. Astor sweetly. "It's 26.2 miles, but downhill all the way."

"Just wait till we get the bomb," mutters the Shah under his breath.

"I'll wait."

Friday, August 24, 2007

The (British) Plays of Yesteryear: Female Problems

I always look through the bin of discarded books when I visit the Hudson Park Library, and it never fails to be full of books no one would ever want. Memoirs of the 2nd Viscount Palmerston (not Pam -- he was the 3rd); a 1910 history of the Medici with chapters on each of the dynasty (80 pages on Catherine alone); Sixteen Famous British Plays (pre-World War II). No one would read such books, would they? Well, I got 'em. The Medici is very soothing when I am depressed; the Palmerston is full of fascinating glimpses of life in the 18th century; the plays -- I'll get to the plays. None of these is for keepsies, you understand.

The plays are quite a lineup. They underline a thing I have always wondered at: Why there ARE no great English playwrights after Congreve until one gets to Pinter and Stoppard and Mike Leigh (all Jews, interestingly enough). The editors regret the absence of Shaw, who turned them down flat, but then Shaw -- like Sheridan, Boucicault, Wilde, O'Casey and Beckett -- was an Irishman. NONE OF THE GREAT PLAYWRIGHTS OF THE MODERN ENGLISH THEATER HAS BEEN OF ENGLISH STOCK! The collection under discussion includes one Irishman (Wilde) and one Scotsman (Barrie) and one Welshman (Emlyn Williams); the rest appear to be English (never heard of Rudolf Besier; know nothing of his ancestry) and not one of their works here is revivable today. I must make an exception, I guess, for R.C. Sherriff's "Journey's End," since it WAS revived last season and, what's more, won a Tony. (It didn't make money, but the producer who took the award pointed out that it never had.) And Journey's End is pretty much the only play in the bunch that doesn't deal with an issue that has been completely transformed since World War II: the woman question.

Are none of these plays "timeless" then, you may wonder? Yes: one. "The Importance of Being Earnest" is undoubtedly that (unlike, say, Wilde's earlier melodramas, such as "Lady Windermere's Fan," which has aged beyond resuscitation). Earnest, bless its heart, will last as long as the language, and the theater.

The only other play here that might be revivable (though if you really want to know it, you have only to rent Bette Davis in the film version) is Williams's The Corn Is Green, about an English spinster who decides to rescue Wales. She gets what she wants, but she also gets her comeuppance. The plot creaks just a little, but it still seems wonderfully solid. The characters have at least two dimensions each. (Most of them.)

For the rest:

"The Second Mrs. Tanqueray," Arthur Wing Pinero (or: Don't marry a woman who's been around the block; she'll trip over the leash of an old acquaintance -- Did anyone still CARE about non-marital het sex in 1893?) (What a contrast to Shaw's deliciously shameless Mrs. Warren!)

"What Every Woman Knows," James M. Barrie (or: If you go into politics without a sense of humor, have a Scottish wife to cover for you -- Barrie was a charming writer, but his submissive if manipulative heroine is hard to swallow -- his humorless hero impossible. Audiences today would throw things at both.)

"Milestones," Bennett & Knoblock. Three eras in three acts, the characters growing old, unredeemed, fortunes made and lives wasted -- unplayable today because no one would "get" the three chosen eras -- but the formula has been re-used constantly, for "Vanities" and "Steel Magnolias" and many other farragos. ("Merrily We Roll Along" is the machine running backwards, and THAT dates from 1934.) Audiences never tire of the theme, but the eras must be those they know and remember -- or think they know and remember. Side note: the liberated and unliberated female is once again a main theme. But since none of them are likeable (the final, "liberated" one, gives up All to follow her man to Canada), who cares?

"The Green Goddess," William Archer -- A love triangle among stiff-lipped Brits complicated by a crash landing in Himalayan Rukh, ruled by a civilized sinister Raja and his devouring deity (q.v.). Evidently the great success of the collection in its first run; today, if we could resuscitate Charles Ludlam (as the Raja, George Arliss's part), it might be hilarious. Of course, the lady, being English, prefers death to a barbarian's throne (or bed).

"Mr. Pim Passes By," A.A. Milne -- A vehicle for Laura Hope Crews in her glamour girl days. I'm not making this up, you know. Her stodgy husband is aghast that her first husband (thought dead) has turned up alive. They've apparently been living for five years in -- no, don't say it! But Olivia (Crews) thinks love more important than propriety. How like a modern woman! (Amoral.)

"The Circle," Somerset Maugham -- Short stories and novels made his reputation; his plays made money. A stodgy M.P. has invited his bolted mother and the lord she's been living with for 30 years in Florence for a weekend home. But his father, the cuckold, turns up. So does a youth who wants to bolt with the M.P.'s adorable young wife. A bit mathematical -- the older adulterers assure the young wife (Estelle Winwood!) that love isn't worth the trouble. But since her husband is named Arnold and her lover is named Teddy, and Teddy offers to take her to Malaya where they will rule grateful natives (instead of dusty old Florence), we know how it must end. (I guess they haven't seen Liz Taylor in "Elephant Walk.")

Are you getting the idea that the West Enders loved to see adultery on the stage so they could imagine it wasn't occurring in their own homes? (That's why everyone loved La Traviata.)

"Loyalties," John Galsworthy -- Dash it all, you just don't accuse another guest at a house party of stealing 1000 quid from under your pillow -- especially if he's an officer of the King -- you'd think even a rich young Jewish bounder would know that. (Galsworthy attempts to draw the sting of this by having elegant Lady Adela remark, "It's not his being Jewish -- my great-grandmother was Jewish, and I'm terribly proud of her" -- which settles that point, eh? It's just -- not knowing the code, not playing the game, what?) Ends badly -- the officer really did steal the money -- to pay off an old mistress so his adoring young wife won't find out -- not that she cares. There's only one honorable way out -- a pistol and a locked door. And the Jew is blackballed by all his clubs. Universal tragedy.

On the bright side: At least it didn't even pretend to solve the Woman Question.

"Outward Bound," Sutton Vane -- is that a pseudonym? I'd never admit having written it. For anyone who has been on a week's cruise and thought it duller than death -- you'll know what inspired this Afterlife metaphor. (Couldn't the dead play charades or bingo?)

"Cavalcade," Noel Coward. Perhaps not the worst of Coward, or the most unrevivable -- but I'm putting my money here. Soap about the decline of English class distinction, ergo the Empire. The Jubilee. The Titanic. World War I. Jazz. Hell in a handbasket. Shaw would have had such FUN sending this sort of thing up.

"Journey's End" -- Stiff upper lip (with whisky on it) in the trenches. The cook knows his place, but War is still Hell. When will they ever learn?

"The Barretts of Wimpole Street," Rudolf Besier. The private lives of poets are still stage fodder (I just saw a winsome musical about Charles Bukowski), and this one was popular while the Brownings were still read. That day has past. Now it's Dickinson (cast: one) or Austen or Woolf or Plath. Too bad: Elizabeth B B's pathological father was a Freudian treat! (Charles Laughton in the movie, almost a match for Fredric March.) You might call this a Woman's Problem play, but her father didn't oppose her working -- just marrying.

"Dangerous Corner," J.B. Priestley -- Priestley still has some shreds of reputation -- but why? Did he ever, in any medium, create a credible human being? These are robots; the interlocking secrets they reveal at regular intervals (you'll never guess which secret is so horrible as to be only hinted, never quite mentioned: "He should never have married") are not engrossing; they are 12 shoes dropping, thump thump thump. Worst play of the whole collection. Cavalcade is at least fun as soap.

"The Green Bay Tree," Mordaunt Shairp (a pseudonym for Sutton Vane? Or vice-versa?). Laurence Olivier met his first wife, Jill Esmond, while playing the beautiful boy rescued from dreadful (not just low class and inebriated and Bible-ridden, but Tasteless too) antecedents by a prissy but rich and TERRIBLY CONTROLLING old fruit. What can be the nature of their bond? (It is never made clear. Did I miss something?) It all ends tragically -- no woman is quite so attractive as fresh flowers, all that property, a new motorcar, the villa in Italy and Leo G. Carroll as the devoted butler who knows how (and when) to whip up a sidecar.

"Victoria Regina," Laurence Housman. Quick: which TWO playwrights in this collection recently appeared as characters in a Stoppard play? Aw, you guessed. This one had Helen Hayes and (dear God) Vincent Price as the Power Couple of Olde England. I bet Helen Mirren could breathe some life into it by simply reading all the lines in a spirit entirely opposite to Housman's. That would be FUN.

Victoria is not a modern or liberated woman, in this version or any other.

"The Corn is Green," Emlyn Williams. As I said: besides Earnest, the other decent play in this collection. Ethel Barrymore played the schoolteacher on the New York stage, with Mildred Dunnock trailing after. Beats hell out of "The History Boys," if you ask me -- it's ABOUT something, but it doesn't PRETEND to be about something.

So: Ten plays about society's hypocrisy about Women and their changing role in the World.

Eleven plays about society's hypocrisies in general.

Five plays about the survival of the British Empire in spite of Everything (even hypocrisy).

Three plays about soldiers, but only one of them about War.

Several plays about squeamish sexuality aside from the issue of Women who have been around the block: adultery, homosexuality, interracial harem horror, incest and/or miscegenation and/or religious mania.

One play that actually touches on politics (but it's by a Scot).

One play gloriously about absolutely nothing (but then, it's by an Irishman -- the characters are English -- and anyway, he was sent up for two years' hard labor soon after the play opened).

Tastes, like mores, have changed.

... I wonder what was playing at the Fringe in 1893.

Dunkirk may be the best thing that ever happened to the British theater. At least since the Irish Protestant Ascendancy went under and stopped producing West End playwrights. (BBC-TV probably helped a lot too. And Joe Orton.) (And the Irish are still producing playwrights!)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Bukowsikal! or, searching for the elusive fab musical

My luck in choosing entries at the New York Fringe Festival (disclaimer: I volunteer to do odd jobs for the festival, which earns me vouchers towards plays) – an event I would be silly to miss, since all its venues are within a mile and a half of my flat – held good at my first choice this season. Ignoring the descriptions and the manic postcards, I yielded to the title: Bukowsikal!

A life of L.A. macho litterateur, womanizer and dipsomaniac Charles Bukowski – why did no one think of this before? Best of all, the score was more musical than rock and the singers performed it without microphones (I hate microphones) in a hundred-seat house, the former home of the late lamented Red Bull Theater, at Bleecker and Lafayette. True, I was in the front row, so could pretty well home in on the lyrics, but I was one with the entire audience in the end-of-evening standing ovation (and I never do that unless you’re Christine Ebersole or Barbara Cook): These were amazing performers doing hilarious skits, singing with big voices, getting complicated lyrics to our ears, and maintaining fixed, idiotically cheerful smiles as they sang about getting beat up in bar fights, waking in the gutter in puddles of repulsive ordure beside strange, desperate women, and standing up to the brutal, take-no-prisoners, man’s man’s world of aspirant literary celebrity.

Gary Stockdale wrote the music (hummable, in styles from country to pop to generic Broadway!); he and Spencer Green wrote the lyrics (scansion! good rhymes!). I did wonder how large the audience could be (and in L.A. yet, where this is a product of the See You Next Tuesday Company) for a show where in-jokes include other drunken writers like Faulkner, Williams and Lowry, plus the opening line of 1984 (on Saturday night, on no word of mouth, it sold out), and it helps to remember (did anyone but me even see?) the fictionalized movie of Bukowski’s life, Barfly, during the scene when Barbet Schroeder, a fey little Frenchman, auditions Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke for Bukowski’s role. (What about Faye Dunaway?) Mickey won (as I knew – remembered –he would) because he had showered much less recently than Sean. Barbet was captivated when he ripped his shirt off. And you’ve seen abortions on stage, but in how many did they use the umbilical to swing the infant around in time to the music? I wouldn’t care to predict which of the songs might become standards, but I was much entertained by “Love Is a Dog from Hell,” “The Derelict Trail,” “Chaser of My Heart” (a love duet) and, of course, “Through a Glass Barfly.” (Is this the origin of the verb barf?) Like the cast, I don’t think I stopped grinning for the full 100 minutes and, unlike the characters, I was cold sober.

Everyone was good – nary a clinker – but I do want to send mash notes to Michael Lanahan (Schroeder, Faulkner) for his manic aura and assorted mustaches; Fleur Phillips for her fine true agonized voice as the One True Love (tossed aside, of course); Lauren Rubin for her Sweet Lady Booze (Buk’s real true love); Ian Gould for playing William S. Burroughs (“I shot my wife”) so ingenuously; Marc Cardiff for his costume changes; and of course – what would a Bukowsikal be without a fat, greasy, bewildered, foul-mouthed, charmless low-life? – Brad Blaisdell in the title role. No flies on Brad, except when he brought his own.

My one contrary reflection – there had to be one you know – was: This is a spoof musical. It's a great spoof musical, but when did I last attend a good new musical that was not a spoof? Grey Gardens? But Act I of that was a spoof. Drowsy Chaperone, Curtains, The Producers, Hairspray, Urinetown, Bat-Boy ... I can't remember the last new musical I saw that took itself seriously, or was intended to be so taken. Seven, perhaps – a splendid rap musical based on Aeschylus at the New York Theater Workshop. Has the disjunct between song and real life become so great – or our wariness at all performance become so bloated as a result of constant TV barrage (and I never watch TV, mind you) – that we simply cannot accept that any of this performance has to do with real emotions, real issues, real events, real lives. Or else, like pro sports, it's all about the money, never the achievement, much less the talent.

I did not formulate this question during the show because I was having too much fun watching the show and didn't want to miss any of it. But it's a reflection nevertheless.

Good theater is still a matter of surprise. I was not expecting someone to break a bottle over Buk’s head. Coughing up his liver, okay. Watch out, if you too are in the front row. Three more performances: tonight at 10 and Friday and Saturday afternoons. The festival runs through August 26, and I still haven't made my picks yet. (Advice?)

Monday, July 30, 2007

Zemlinsky's Wilde double-bill at Bard

Up the river on a humid Sunday for a double-bill of short operas based on Oscar Wilde by Alexander von Zemlinsky, one of the more forgotten major figures of the late-and-post-Habsburg Vienna scene. The annual taste of obscure opera up the Hudson is a product of Leon Botstein's double-horse act as head of both Bard College and the American Symphony Orchestra, whom he also leads in resurrecting forgotten or unusual scores over the course of the year in New York. (He includes at least one per annum, permitting us to decide for ourselves whether Le Roi Arthus and Ariane et Barbe-Bleu are forgotten masterpieces -- no way -- or justly oubliettés. The results are often inconclusive because not everyone loves Botstein's conducting, or maybe it's just the way singers tend to sound in Fisher Hall. I very much enjoyed his account of Schreker's Die Ferne Klang last spring and Schumann's Genoveva last summer at Bard; the upcoming season has at least two full-length items of some interest: Dame Ethel Smythe's The Wreckers (has any one of Smythe's operas been performed in New York since 1902?) and Ferdinand Hiller's 1840 oratorio The Fall of the Temple.

Bard College ambles along the cliffs of Annandale-on-Hudson not far from an Astor estate and the mansions Montgomery Place and Wilderstein which (by coincidence) I'd visited last week. The landscape is Hudson River School picturesque; if you have to spend a summer in the Northeast inland, you could hardly improve on it. Transport is difficult without a car, though, and many New Yorkers do not even attempt to get there for the terrific series of summer programs presented. This is sad, and Bard Summerscape would (IMHO) be well advised to put a little spare change, if not into a bus from the city, at least into a shuttle to and from the Amtrak station at Rhinecliff. Last year, my first visit, I piled into a cab at the station (sharing it with others, $9 a head), hoping against hope that some cab or other might be outside the Fisher Center after the final curtain. There was, and he took five of us, but we missed a train, the next one was sold out, and we had to cool our heels and wet our whistles at the only restaurant in Rhinecliff, decent suburban Chinese, open late-ish thank heavens. On the present occasion, I ran into half a dozen old friends at the performance, and one of them, the composer and critic Raphael Mostel (whose comments on the performance may be read on the site of the Daily Forward) was able to offer me a lift back to town.

The Fisher Center for the performing arts is a Frank Gehry building, so you already know what it looks like. This one is silver and a good, not excessive, size. The acoustics and sight lines are excellent, the stage facilities first class. (I don't dislike the Gehry shapeless design, but two or three per planet ought to be enough. It only works, by the way, in metal -- the cement rock n roll museum in Seattle is as attractive as a wad of used multicolor chewing gum five stories high. It lost its flavor on the bedpost before it was completed.)

Zemlinsky is a curious figure, a contemporary of Schönberg (who married his sister) and Mahler (who married his girlfriend), a protege of Brahms, a good buddy of Franz Schreker and a rival of Richard Strauss. His music was very current and popular with the avant-garde around the time of the first world war, then gradually fell from chic. His ancestry included Catholic Czech, Sephardic and Muslim Slav strains; his father converted to Judaism (this can't have been common even in assimilationist fin-de-siecle Vienna) and Alexander converted to Catholicism (which was very common there). This did not spare him damnation in racist eyes, of course (just as it did not spare the dead, converted Mahler, the lifelong Catholic Schreker or the atheist Schönberg); he was able to reach the U.S. where (like Bartok, Schönberg and Milhaud) he scraped by; he died, forgotten, in Larchmont in 1942. The present era, one in which living composers have pretty much forgotten how to write appealing opera for large-scale orchestras and large-size houses, is one of searching the past for worthy but forgotten works -- a trend I heartily endorse, and to which we owe the restoration to the repertory of most of Strauss's operas, as well as Schreker's, Busoni's, Pfitzner's, Janacek's and Hindemith's. (I'm not sure I approve of the last.) These were all men who knew how to write for the voice and the voice vs. big orchestra, as no living composer that I know of can do, and Zemlinsky was of their number. His operas are becoming better known in Europe, but have made little headway here. I once nearly attended a Zemlinsky opera in the old Roman imperial capital of Trier (birthplace of Karl Marx); when I got to the opera house, I was informed that the soprano had taken ill, there was of course no one in the Rhineland who knew the role, and it would be replaced by Eine Kleine Horrorladen, Amerikanisch musikal. I'm sure there is pleasure to be derived from Little Shop of Horrors auf Deutsch, but I was Not In The Mood, and spent the evening strolling the streets of that charming old town instead.

So these, yesterday, were my first exposures (other than on the air) to Zemlinsky's stage works. I cannot deny pleasure in the experience, but I am unconvinced of the irresisitibility of either opera. The sound, though never recalling Strauss except in thickness of texture, is Straussian in that melody is real but discord phases nobody, is an important part of the harmonic structure. The vocal parts are heavy but grateful -- Zemlinsky did not share Strauss's unconquerable dislike of the tenor voice (or maybe RS just never cared to learn to write for it properly) or his slavish worship of the high-flying dramatic soprano -- so it ought to be easier to cast Zemlinsky than Strauss. Ein Florentinisch Tragoedie is largely a monologue for a jealous baritone (you know the type), with his mezzo wife and her tenor lover getting little to do -- it's a big, beautiful, juicy role for the sort of singer who can handle Jupiter in Strauss's Danae -- Orest and Jokanaan are steps in this direction. Der Zwerg (The Dwarf, based on Wilde's story, The Birthday of the Infanta) is a rather more intricate piece, not least because a dramatic libretto had to be made of what is not a drama on the page but a very internal fairy tale, and the libretto did not achieve this with entire success. The big roles are a tenor part requiring someone who can handle Strauss's Herod or Bacchus; the Infanta, in contrast, is far easier than Zerbinetta.

At the Bard run, mistakes were made, first of all, by Olivier Tambosi, the stage director who, like most of his ilk (is it in the job description?) is unwilling to believe that audiences have minds and are capable of comprehending subtlety. Florentine Tragedy concerns a cloth merchant who comes home to find his neglected and despised wife entertaining a young aristocrat. He suspects something is up, and his ego is affronted. His behavior to his wife (whose guilt is not obvious) is so rude that it drives her to urge the youth to kill her husband. (Kind of like the first act of Die Walkuere, which may well have been Zemlinsky's -- and Wilde's -- inspiration.) Eventually the merchant does challenge the youth -- and kills him. Whereupon the wife, seeing his possessive rage, falls in love with him again, and he, having found her worth killing for, falls in love with her. (That would have killed Wagner.) What this says about the neurotic nature of love (and of lust) would not have surprised Freud's Vienna much, but I would argue that the personality of the wife has not been given to us musically in sufficient depth to make the conclusion satisfying or horrifying. What appeal it might have had was demolished by director Tambosi, who had Simone, the husband, not find his wife merely chatting with the tenor -- he finds them post-coitally unclothed on the sofa. Setting the piece in the twentieth century also makes a mockery of the two men wandering around with swords at their sides, or of the wife sent off "to spin." James Johnson's large, beautiful, inexhaustible baritone and sturdy acting got us through the not uninteresting score, but nothing on the stage made the work seem anything but a fragment or a trifle. Part of the problem may be the slight story and Zemlinsky's overwrought treatment of it, but the sheer absurdity of the staging interfered with audience response on all levels.

The Birthday of the Infanta is Wilde's tale of a 12-year-old princess given an ugly dwarf, a "wild child" from the forest, as a playmate -- Wilde was no doubt influenced by Velásquez's famous portraits of the court dwarfs of Habsburg Spain. The dwarf, who is not very bright and has little experience of the world, does not realize that the others regard him as comically misshapen, and dances with them joyously, sharing their laughter -- until he sees his reflection in a mirror, realizes they are laughing at him, and dies of a broken heart. The heartless, lovely infanta dances off to search for a new toy.

Whatever is profound about this disturbing fable relies on the undeveloped nature of the psychology of these two immature characters to touch us. Zemlinsky recognized that he'd never be able to set the piece for adolescent voices, and his librettist, George Klaren, obligingly made the infanta 18 years old, the dwarf almost grown, ignorant of society and yet somehow possessed of a knowledge of romantic tradition -- not unlike the real life case (which Wilde and Klaren might have known of) of the Elephant Man. The infanta's selfishness is perfectly credible, but her cruelty is that of an unselfconscious 12-year-old -- it really does not smack of even the most spoiled 18-year-old, who would have enough self-knowledge -- and self-doubt -- to be less brittle, more emotionally involved in the mock-love-duet and its disastrous consequences than Zemlinsky's Donna Clara is made out to be. The psychological development of the drama struck me as too drawn out to make striking effects, and this too was the fault of a composer who did not know how to be incisive (at least at this stage in his career). For example: the opera closes with portentous chords that remind us of the slamming and re-slamming of doors already shut, when it would be far more striking to leave on the note of the infanta's tinkling Spanish measures that immediately preceded them.

The modern -- sort of Sezession Vienna -- nature of the staging added nothing to a tale that really could not take place in modern times. Court dwarfs have not existed since the seventeenth century, and human beings are not given as gifts, no matter how helpless they may be. Jeffrey Dowd ran out of breath and high notes now and then, but gave a reasonable account of his arduous title role. Sarah Jane McMahon, who is certainly pretty enough, was a charming Donna Clara, but the character seemed not quite brutal and insensitive enough for the emotional demands of the story -- perhaps Zemlinsky simply set her an impossible task. But it would be interesting to see her undertake a Sophie or a Zerbinetta. The orchestra played lushly and urgently under Botstein, happily never drowning the singers. I think we have heard an interesting, original voice, but we have not seen whether these works are really worthy to fly beyond the fringes of the repertory. The stage director may be at fault -- or Zemlinsky (like many another composer unearthed by the diligent Maestro Botstein) just isn't as interesting as the Botstein program notes think him.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Punch drunk after the Kirov Siegfried

Casual conversation overheard in one of the dimmer recesses of my own mind:

“I went to a performance of the Ring in Fingenbüttel, Ruritania.”

“What was that like?”

“Same old same old. Gods in powdered periwigs, silk waistcoats and knee-breeches, the ladies in panniers with bare breasts; Sieglinde as a waitress in Hunding’s restaurant, serving Siegmund at the one (candlelit) table (Hunding dressed as a maitre d'); valkyries as scantily-clad Ziegfeld girls descending a staircase in excessively elaborate headdresses. The bear danced a tango with Siegfried; then when he tried it with Mime, Mime screamed and the bear ran off stage. The twilight of the gods was sort of a video game with lots of space aliens shooting down deities.”

“How was the dragon?”

“Chinese New Year -- lots of people in lots of colored paper. Nothing special.”

“I’ve never seen a Ring with a really good dragon.”

“Siegfried lay underneath it and shoved his sword upwards, tearing the paper.”


“And for the Rhine, they somehow managed to project a film of a tank full of tropical fish, and the Rhinemaidens sort of interacted with it. No idea how that worked.”

“But could they sing?”

“Well … the Alberich was okay ….”

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Another Nail in Operetta's Moldy Coffin

The boundaries between opera and operetta, like the boundaries between operetta and musical comedy, have never been securely defined, and not very respectable entrants often slip over or under either of these borders. Monday, at New York’s Town Hall, Scott Siegel (who should know better), hosting an evening of (mostly too familiar) songs from Broadway hit operettas of the first five decades of the 20th century, said the difference was that operettas have spoken dialogue. (So that means Magic Flute, Seraglio, Fidelio, Freischutz, Merry Wives of Windsor, Hoffman and Carmen aren’t operas, huh? and The Golden Apple IS an opera? and what is Grendel anyway?) Obviously he’s wrong about this. But even he couldn’t find a rational division between operetta and musical – he said Song of Norway was the last hit operetta on Broadway, which omits Kismet, Candide and Camelot (okay, Candide was hardly a hit, though it has become a classic) – all of them, to my way of thinking, operettas, though Candide generally gets an opera green card, and Kismet deserves one. Possibly The King and I and Little Night Music shimmy the razor wire atop the fence as well.

Monday night the focus was on Herbert, Friml and Romberg (which is to say, they ignored two of the finest: Kern’s Show Boat and Gershwin’s Porgy). The frequent New York runs of shows by Strauss, Lehar, Kalman and Oscar Straus were also ignored, aside from one dash of Merry Widow. The songs included Song of the Vagabonds, Desert Song, Italian Street Song, In Old New York (they altered the lyric where the meaning of "queen" has changed), I’m Falling in Love with Someone, I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now, Donkey Serenade, and (no! but yes!) Indian Love Call. There were only about four songs that I (and I presume most lovers of American theater music) did not know. Which I thought a missed chance to start with.

The performers, as is usual at Siegel’s much admired (by, among others, and very much so, me) series of Broadway By The Year song-fests, are current stars and not-quite-stars of Broadway. And the clearest lesson of the evening was: No one on Broadway knows how to sing any more. Without microphones, most of the singers were inaudible (in Town Hall!). With microphones, they were excruciating. It’s been a while since I’ve heard so many agonizingly shrill sopranos, so many dull baritones, so many pitiful tenors, all with names and reputations, murdering really good songs. (Why didn’t they get that Daugherty kid? He’s got an old- fashioned Irish tenor, has no problem filling Town Hall, would have been ideal. Christine Ebersole, of course, is busy these days.)

This underlined for me my reaction to the terrific festival of B movie musicals at Film Forum a month or two back: Everyone used to be able to sing. They all had operatic training, and even if they used it for comic purposes (like Diana Canova and Pert Kelton and Jane Russell and Josephine Baker), well, still, they had it to fall back on. Irene Dunne is not famous as a singer, but she could hold down an operetta-styled score like Roberta with no apologies to anyone from Mary Martin to Dorothy Kirsten. People used to study technique before they sang, and then they could sing anything appropriate. Alfred Drake could sing operetta because he had opera chops; Ezio Pinza could tone himself down a notch or two; John Reardon could hold any theater from Broadway to the Met and no microphones. But today – I won’t mention names, but the Tony-nominee who growled Maxim’s into a mic was excruciating, the kid who howled Desert Song was crashing, the lady who sang Italian Street Song would have had tomatoes flung in her face in 1920, and the one who chose I Want To Be A Prima Donna (to salute the passing of Beverly Sills, perhaps, who brought it back from grave) should have been reminded that Sills learned how to sing before she began to mug.

Siegel mentioned that when The Student Prince was running on Broadway for an unprecedented 600 performances (the Shuberts couldn't understand it: the chorus was all boys, not scantily clad girls), there were nine touring companies spreading the score throughout the land. (That explains why the silent film with Norma Shearer was such a success: everyone in the audience already knew the tunes and could hum along.) But this was only possible because singers capable of playing the leads existed in profusion in the '20s and could put the thing over.

Operetta is full of great music, but it takes opera training to do it justice and make it new friends. There are so many young kids studying, and desperate for work, I can’t see why Broadway should even be approached on an evening like this. They haven’t got the right fach for today’s demi-rock performers. It just doesn’t sound good. Like the Rolling Stones in an elevator – it’s not the appropriate match of music and style. Granted opera singers mostly should not sing Broadway (except for one encore per recital) (there have been exceptions, but they’re mostly dead now, or semi-retired like Kiri, who did a lovely Cole Porter album, or Dawn Upshaw, who did a lovely Rodgers&Hart album), but they should sing operetta, as in Europe they do. And Broadway kids who grew up in rock bands really should not.

– curmudgeon critic Hans Lick

French film noir -- aka Le Kino Black

Phone rings Monday morning; Cedric: “John! I’ve just realized Le Doulos is only running a few more days at Film Forum.” “True; let’s go tonight.” Having estimated the job due tomorrow morning will be done by evening (which it is). The 7:40 show. Theater crowded but not packed; a/c not too high. We sit a bit closer to the screen than I like, so that my attention is perpetually jumping between the titles and the faces, and frankly I would rather sit back where I can take it all in at all times, especially when Belmondo is on screen. Can he ever really have been so young and pretty? Those absurdly sensuous lips, that excitingly imperfect profile, those suggestive eyes, abruptly cold or hot? He was always that cold, and that cruel, and that cool, yeah, but … pretty? (1962.)

The film is self-conscious noir; that is, not the pure, dumb noir of Hollywood in the forties, but noir after the French had decided it was an official style, an imitation, almost an affectation (Belmondo standing in for, say, Mitchum). But the story is as hard-boiled as anything in a studio B, and as filmmaking, as an artist (J-P Melville) playing games in your head and mind and heart, it is not merely Great Art (oh no!), it’s a cracking good entertainment, the best and tightest you’re likely to see.

For example: You’re going to like this sweet old guy, and then he’s going to be abruptly shot, and you aren’t going to find out for forty minutes why he deserves to be shot – in Hollywood, they’d make you hate him before they let someone shoot him so it would be satisfying, not disorienting. Or: you feel the tension rise between a handsome brute (JPB) alone with a friend’s girl, and your skin prickles anticipating steamy sex (at least a kiss with teeth), and then he slugs her and straps her to the radiator, and pours whisky on her head, and hits her again when she wakes up. Or – sheer storytelling art! (the book author’s idea, or Melville’s? or what attracted Melville to filming the book?): JPB again telling what you know and he knows are lies to seduce a not very bright woman who loves him into betraying her official man, succeeding at this lust-tinged fakery (so is he lying when he tells her he wants her back?) for reasons we are not yet told; then, meeting a guy (Serge Reggiani) much betrayed, telling him an even wilder cockamamie story about events of the last day or so, with flashbacks – and are these lies also? Or truths we had not seen? Utter fantasies told for reasons we have yet to learn? So that we are completely bewildered, not sure whom to trust, or like, or feel for, and some of the plot points fit neatly into questions we had set aside for the moment, and that secures our trust, but then other things go wrong, and that makes us nervous again – our comfort, our ease with this story, these characters, is never catered to (as it would be in Hollywood), but rather we are kept perpetually off-balance and uncertain where our sympathies should lie, so that we are also (like it or not) kept fascinated with the story that is being told, lest we miss anything important or some detail we can cling to. A Chinese box puzzle and so much more elegant and suave and true than the coloratura vehicles Hollywood concocted at the end of the decade for Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren in sentimental imitation but a heavier emphasis on dressmaking and lavish scenery. (Carlo Ponti produced Le Doulos, however, so you can see why he later hoped the formula, all cleaned up and spiffy, would work for his wife. Financially, it did.)

Over dinner, I said, “In Hollywood you’d be told why the guy was a skuzz before someone shot him. Like the brother-in-law in The Godfather.” To which Cedric responded, “And they never kill the woman in Hollywood.” Which is not quite true – Hitchcock often kills the woman, sometimes for no apparent reason at all (Janet Leigh in Psycho), or else after making her at once guilty and someone we feel for (Kim Novak in Vertigo) (in Strangers on a Train, the murder is shocking, meant to shock, but we have been made to feel she had it coming), and he is doing it calculatedly, because he knows it will shock.

And yet, and yet: When I rented They Knew What They Wanted (Carole Lombard playing a lower-class hard-boiled dame who’s been around the block, totally against her usual type, and playing it stunningly well), I was very disappointed in the changed ending imposed by the Hays Office: a girl who’s been around the block and is pregnant with one man’s child (no less) could not settle down and marry another man, however much he desired it! Frustrating, knowing how warm and cuddly the play’s ending (in both the text and in Most Happy Fella) makes one feel, how it satisfies. But actually, imposed by the Hays Office or not, the ending of the movie is actually truer to life; it is the Broadway (and musical) ending that is sentimental and phony; the discomfort about the trick on Tony, even when he decides to live with it, that she is worth it, that forgiveness is the sane and manly way (which it is) would indeed call for feelings that might not be easily accepted, that would make one uneasy; in the 1930s, a girl in Amy’s predicament would in fact go away to a “home” and give the child away too, and Tony would let her do that however much he wanted her. (And the discomfort of the family in the realistic 400 Blows or the unrealistic Volver show what happens when they don’t: the feelings always at the back of the mind, ready to lurch out.)

Dinner was at Cedric’s favorite village restaurant; excellent Italian food with genre scenes on the walls, entrees starting at $8.95 and a loud jazz combo – can this really be 2007?