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

Monday, December 29, 2008

Nathan the Wise vs. Eleazar le Juif

December 28, Feast of the Holy Innocents, patrons of all fictitious victims on whose account we grow sentimental while ignoring those at risk but too familiar.

I felt in the need for jollification but not for spending much money. Looking through the Village Voice theater listings, I found that the Pearl Theater Company, a tiny rep co. on St. Mark’s Place (I’ve seen them do The Rivals and Maria Stuart and Philoctetes), were giving Gotthold Lessing’s Nathan the Wise (1779), and to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the company, were charging $25 a ticket. That seemed very reasonable (there were lots of families speaking foreign tongues in the tiny house), so I biked on over.

I do not know, but I know of the play – though I did not know it was the first play staged in Germany after Nazi surrender (and one of the first banned when they took over). I also knew Lessing, the son of an Evangelical minister, had been a bright light of the Berlin Enlightenment under Frederick the Great (idea for a musical: On the Fritz, the happy-go-lucky adventures of Prussia’s gayest prince …) and that his best friend was Moses Mendelssohn, whose candidacy for the Royal Academy Lessing advanced, only to be vetoed by the king, though he admitted MM “possessed every qualification for membership but a foreskin.” I also heard a lovely story from old Baroness de Popper, of how a friend of her father’s, learning she had never been to the theater (she being then nine or ten), took her to the Burgtheater to see Nathan, and they sat alone in the imperial box (the gentleman being a friend of HM’s), and she was utterly enthralled (it’s a pretty damn well-made play), and sat staring at the stage, not even seeing anyone come into the box, until the lights went on at the interval, and she looked around and there was Franz Josef. (“And was he wearing his crown and everything?” asked her granddaughter, when she told her the tale.) And he said, “They get younger and younger,” shaking his head, and then took her to the buffett, and got her everything she wanted.

I also knew Lessing had put into the play the medieval fable about the sultan (in this case Saladin) who challenged the richest Jew in town to say which of the three great religions was the true one (figuring to get at least a huge contribution if not a conversion out of him) and the Jew responded with the fable of the three identical rings, one genuine, two imitations, that a father gave to his three beloved sons, each of whom believed he possessed the true one, “but as to which was the true one, that would only be revealed by the example of the one who loved his brothers most.” Whereupon Saladin repents his blackmail and offers the Jew his hand and friendship. Nearly everyone turns out (after an explosion of ill temper) to be a nice guy in this play: Jews, Muslims, Christians, and furthermore all the young people turn out to have been born into a group other than the one they believe is theirs. Only the patriarch is bloody minded, and Nathan outfoxes him. The plot is very mathematical, and would not work if the actors did not make the figures threatening and pardoning each other human, and the company were all quite good, and a mix of races to boot (with no great logic to it as far as putative ancestry goes).

At the end, when (contrary to most such plots) the young people who have fallen in love discover they are brother and sister (oh well), and far from being a Jewess and a Prussian Templar are both children of Saladin’s dead brother (and a Christian girlfriend slain by her relations for having an affair with a Muslim), Nathan turns to us and says, “You may think this extraordinary, a fable, a miracle – in fact it is the common tale of our lives: for whenever we meet other humans, we encounter our kin.” (I daresay it says “men,” not “humans” in the German, and in older translations, here and throughout the text. Lessing, like Moses Mendelssohn and Mozart and Beumarchais and most of the Founding Fathers of America, was a Mason.)
The mystery about this, is that at the end – and also several times during the play when such sentiments are invoked by other characters – I found myself close to tears, and this happened again when trying to describe the plot to others that night or the next day. I mean, it’s not like I’ve changed my medication or anything. And I’m not usually so affected by the plots of plays or operas, even when well acted (or sung).

However, the back-story of Nathan and his “daughter” struck me another way: Nathan explains that his wife and their sons were burned alive while hiding in a factory from anti-Jewish Christian riots, that for three days he prayed to be saved from his hatred of the Christians, and on the third day, just as reason reasserted itself, a groom accosted him (as in Sophocles’ Oedipus, the groom turns up of course, 19 years later, as a hermit friar), having been sent from his Christian friend Wulf (who turns out to be the Muslim Assad) who was going to war (to be killed), and wished to entrust his Christian baby daughter to Nathan. Nathan soon loved the child, named her “Rachel,” and raised her in ignorance of her birth (but Nathan’s Christian housekeeper knows the truth). When the Patriarch learns of this, he wants Nathan burned at the stake for distracting a baptized soul from the true faith, and we’re actually worried until Saladin saves the day.

The reason this struck is that, in 1835, 56 years after Nathan was first printed (and long after it had become a classic), Halévy presented his opera, La Juive (to a libretto by, inevitably, Scribe – who surely knew Nathan well). And though set in 1415, not 1190, La Juive is oddly similar/dissimilar to Nathan: Eleazar, a goldsmith, lost his wife and sons during riots in Rome many years ago, but rescued a Christian infant he has raised as his own daughter, “Rachel.” As in Nathan, a Christian has fallen in love with Rachel – but it is the sneaky Prince Leopold, disguised as a Jew, not a hot-tempered Templar who turns out to be Saladin’s nephew (and Rachel’s brother). Again the church demands that the Jews burn (because an interracial love affair is anathema), though Rachel, broken-hearted, agrees to spare Leopold’s life. The emperor does not appear – no Saladin ex machina here. The one voice of reason and tolerance is not Eleazar’s – he hates all Christians – but Cardinal Brogny’s – and he is ignored, except by Eleazar, who taunts him: before he took holy orders, Brogny had a wife and a daughter, who vanished in the fire that killed Eleazar’s family. “I happen to know your daughter lived, and was raised by Jews,” he says. Brogny misses the point we get – he begs for the missing info; Eleazar enjoys refusing. But, alone, sentenced to die, he wonders if he can take his adored Rachel with him to death – thus the opera’s most famous aria, “Rachel, quand du Seigneur.” Usually omitted: An offstage chorus of bloodthirsty Christians, and Eleazar’s cabaletta, resolving to keep Rachel from those awful people. So to the climax: Eleazar asks Rachel if she would live, without him, as a Christian; her heart broken by Leopold, she says she would never abandon her faith, and leaps into the caldron of boiling oil. “With your last breath, tell me where my daughter is!” cries harmless Cardinal Brogny. “She is there!” Eleazar cries, pointing – and then leaping after her, as the Christian crowd exults.

This opera was a major hit until Nazi times – it was the fourth of the great grand operas. Eleazar became, rather than Nathan, the symbol of the Jew, his feelings tender only for his own, hating the rest of the world (howsoeverbeit justified). I feel a great distaste for him when I see the opera – impressed by his heroic perversity, but not admiring, or affected, by him and his predicament. The Cardinal and Rachel are the only likable characters in the opera, and their principles do not triumph. What did people think when they saw Tamberlik and Viardot sing it – or even Caruso and Ponselle? (Tucker begged Bing to revive it for him; Bing flatly refused.) Halévy was a completely secularized Jew, the head of the French Conservatory – he wrote ten other operas, none of them remotely as successful. His daughter married Bizet (who boasted on their wedding eve that neither of them believed in any religion), and later was the first hostess to admit Marcel Proust to her salon (he was at school with her son). When I wrote about La Juive for the Met program, and for Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots (another Scribe script), which premiered the next year (Meyerbeer was a Berlin Jew, who continued to practice all his life – he had promised an elderly relation in his youth – but whose daughters married into the Christian nobility), I suggested that these spectacles of religious persecution and massacre were as popular as they undoubtedly were (in Paris, and everywhere else, for a hundred years) in part because they flattered the audiences that such events were of the past, that they could not happen again, people having become so enlightened.

But why did hateful Eleazar and his Rachel supersede lovable Nathan and his Rachel in the popular mind? Is this more of the phenomenon of the rise of the New Anti-Semitism during the nineteenth century, when conspiracy theories began to proliferate, and every wicked tendency in society that could not be traced to the Freemasons or the Communists or the Anarchists or the Nihilists was freely ascribed to the Jews?

And why does it bring tears to my eyes to see actors (even damned good actors) playing the earlier, we’re-all-human-kindred message of the Enlightenment presented 130 years after it was written, and in the one city in the world where the war seems to be going the right way, 9/11 or not?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Ibsen's Ghosts - His answer to Hamlet?

From the library, got four DVDs of Dame Judi Dench in this, that and the other for the BBC, most notably The Cherry Orchard and Ghosts. Hadn't seen either play in donkey's years.

Ghosts is an all-star treatment: Kenneth Branagh as Oswald, Michael Gambon as Pastor Manders, Natasha Richardson as Regina. The play was a shocker when written because the very word "syphilis" was not uttered in polite society outside a doctor's consulting room, and it is not uttered in the play either -- nor does it come into focus until the very end. (If you watch it waiting for sex to come to the fore, you'll have a long wait.) The play's more pertinent issues are hypocrisy of society, church, state, men, women -- even incest gets a bit of an airing. One has to wonder, because the play is such a well-made machine, each irrelevant bit of dialogue turning out to hint at other themes that grow larger until they engulf the story, what sin Mrs. Alving has committed that she is so very terribly punished by the final curtain. The fact that she is beginning to open her mind, to consider things her society condemns, makes her sympathetic in the early scenes, and she remains more honest than the grown men of the play. But her lies for the husband she had grown to hate, and her lies to the son she worships, evidently lead step by step to the awful end. What has she done? (It is unlike Ibsen to condemn women, except unloving women, as in John Gabriel Borkman.)

But the reason I bring this up on this newsgroup is that it struck me during the scenes where Mrs. Alving is obliged to disillusion her adored Oswald about the personality of his father (and connive with Pastor Manders in concealing that father's vices) that the model for this story is that play all Scandinavians know, Hamlet: the Gertrude-Hamlet relationship (and the relationship of both to the ghostly dead king) that is the crux of the relationships in that play.

And I wondered if anyone has written about this, or noted it: the madness of the son, the necessary killing of the reputation of the dead father, the way his ghost lingers anyway (unseen, unheard) in his house, the mother who has never admitted that she loved, and attempted to run away with, another man, the more-than-brotherly love the son feels for the girl who turns out to be his sister, the cheerful fate she goes to that the older woman tries to save her from, the misbegotten councils of the girl's ridiculous old father, the boy sent abroad to keep him from knowing his father's fate, the fate that follows him anyway, in his corrupt heredity.

Well it renews my respect for Ibsen, though I still can't regard it as ranking among his great plays (Wild Duck for me).

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Witchy Sex Magic at the Movies

A kiss may be just a kiss, but I think it can be sexier than porn. Always thought so. So I had some sighing moments during Were the World Mine, which has been touring the indie film festivals, raking in award after award, especially as an audience favorite. (Obviously, it has been an audience favorite at festivals favoring the young and the queer, but it has also delighted audiences not so young and not so queer.)

What no one seems to have mentioned is that the English teacher is a Witch.

The movie is set in small town America, with its big trees and narrow prejudices. (Somewhat integrated though, which is a modern change for the better.) The focus of this particular town is a prestigious all-boys’ prep school, renowned (for fifty-six years!) for its annual school play and, more recently, a winning rugby team. Are these things compatible? The gym teacher doesn’t think so – his arch-rival, the English teacher with the witchy red hair and the all-too-mischievous sparkle in her eyes wants the boys to give up practice time to read Shakespeare, and perform it, some of them in drag, some of them playing fairies. And she has given the role of Puck to one of the poor scholarship boys from the wrong side of the tracks, who happens to be queer, as everybody knows (no one talked about that when I was in high school, another era). His mom knows, his best friends know, the other kids know (and write “Faggot” on his locker), no doubt the star rugby player he craves knows, though he and his girlfriend pay no attention. It is one of those crises that mean so much to teens and so little a few years later.

The English teacher, who balks at nothing, gets her way: the boys are going to wear tights and wigs and wings, and they are going to perform “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (without understanding a word of the poetry), and Timothy is going to memorize Puck (stealing a few of Oberon’s lines because the screenwriter has no principles). And one magical night, as he stares at the page, the words start fading in and out of sight, and suddenly he finds a strange purple flower in his hand, the very pansy Puck sought out (at Oberon’s command), “love-in-idleness.” And it squirts. And those squirted … misbehave. Usually with those of their own sex.

Merry hell is accordingly wreaked on the straight-laced little town before, at the English teacher’s magical command, an indoor rain obtrudes on the festivities (I told you she was a Witch!) and all may “be as thou wast wont to be.” But now, remembering their strolls on the wild side, they have a much calmer, more amiable view of those across the street. And one person (I saw this coming a reel away) does not switch back….

Those who know the play well, in its many versions and interpretations (my favorites are the Frederick Ashton ballet and the Benjamin Britten opera), will get a kick out of the use of lines of the dialogue (especially the four lovers’ confrontations) for the feelings of the confused rugby players and their friends, and those who like male-male or female-female gooey screen kisses will have their fill (it doesn’t get heavier, but it’s sweet) – calf’s eyes of every conceivable variety are also featured – will enjoy this thing, and there is a rock-flavored score that I had no trouble ignoring (with musical numbers of endearing silliness), and there are messages about tolerance and what’s-so-terrible-about-love-of-any-flavor. And there are very pretty, rather talented young actors. (But the haggard mother and the witchy teacher were my favorites, and they are not so young.)

And once again sex-magic triumphs over hate. On screen if nowhere else.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Ides of March

Obviously a book about Julius Caesar with the title The Ides of March may lack a certain edge of suspense that some readers yearn for. But a brilliant author finds ways to offset that.

Thornton Wilder's The Ides of March was written in 1948. I had never heard it referred to by anyone (though it got excellent reviews in its day), but stumbled on an old paperback copy in the library's discard box. (You never know what will turn up there.) It sat on my shelves then for ages, until I needed something very slim to fit in the pocket of a sports jacket I was wearing to the opera. To my surprise, I found it one of the finest works of fiction,especially historical fiction, that I have encountered in years (well, since Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red anyway). And the suspense comes from the exploration this "collection of documents" provides into a dozen fascinating characters, reading their letters, their private notations, historians' commentaries, poesy (from Catullus), secret agents' reports, etc. All the main characters are brilliantly drawn, all are impressively distinct, and each one is so surprising and so delightful that the tension comes from anticipating still more surprises and delights as document succeeds document -- and Wilder never disappoints.

Wilder (one of the most learned American writers of his time, by the way, and the winner of three Pulitzer Prizes) admits he is not trying to reconstruct history; this is a "fantasia on historical themes." Some of the characters in the novel are people who were dead before 45 BCE, when his story begins (Clodia-Lesbia, Catullus, Clodius Pulcher, Caesar's aunt Julia); one or two are inventions; but the others (most magnificently the thoughtful, superhuman Caesar himself, Cleopatra - yes, she was in Rome that year, a celebrated actress, Caesar's silly second wife Pompeia and charming third wife Calpurnia, his ex-lover Servilia, HER son Brutus, his wife Porcia, and the orator Cicero) were alive and kicking, and their words as set down here bring figures to life who might or might not have lived, who represent real human beings as they might have existed, lived their lives, thought about politics and poetry and religion, 2000 years ago. Or so it seems to me, who dislike "modern" types in "historical" novels.

All too short but entirely delicious this taste of a brilliant writer's consideration of certain historical problems, and his elegant solutions to telling such a story from so many viewpoints, allowing us to appreciate them all.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

By the Waters of Casablanca (the opera)

The gray, impalpable figure in the chapel of Milan’s Casa di Riposo did not look at me. His familiar face, beard, rigid posture offered me a cold, shadowy shoulder. Verdi was dead.

Gentle fingers touched my arm. Another shade. “Madame Strepponi!” I cried, not too surprised – she rests there, too, beside the maestro.
As usual, the great lady was not thinking of herself. “He is bored – my Verdi. Death provides so few distractions. He must compose.”
“What can I do?” I said, helplessly.
“Find him a libretto!” she commanded. “Some theatrical property that has not yet been presented on the lyric stage. Something truly musicabile, in a style that will inspire him – personalities, confrontations, great issues of the soul! Do they still write such operas?”
“These days, they usually keep that sort of thing for the movies. Which – now that you mention it – gives me an idea…”

Come il tempo passa, ossia Casablanca

Act I
The curtain rises on Rick’s nightclub-casino in French Morocco, 1941. The Americans aren’t in the war yet, but Rick is an American. [No doubt you expect a tenor, but I hear Bogart’s grating tones in the baritone register, and Simon Keenlyside does agonized, internal roles so very well.] His constant companion and best draw is jazz pianist Sam [tenor – Anthony Dean Griffey for colorblind casting – if we use Lawrence Brownlee, he’ll have to have a bel canto showpiece].

Chorus: Tutti vengono da Rick. (Everybody comes to Rick’s.)

Ugarte [stout character tenor – Kim Begley could have fun with it], a European with a dubious air, sneaks up to the crazy Russian bartender, Sasha [light baritone – Mariusz Kwiecien], hoping to see Rick. Sasha is vague as to Rick’s whereabouts, and Ugarte slinks off. Sasha flirts with Yvonne [mezzo – Denyce Graves or Michelle De Young - well neither of them slink, exactly, but neither does Borodina any more], a slinky chanteuse but, herself stuck on Rick, she flips him off.

Enter Louis Renault, Casablanca’s corrupt police chief, hitherto loyal to his Vichy paymasters. [alto – I see the shifty Louis as a trouser role – Alice Coote or Beth Clayton – but it could also be sung by David Daniels.] Louis is showing a German visitor, Major Strasser [tenor – Kurt Streit] around the local hotspots. Strasser asks about Rick, whose anti-fascist background in the Spanish Civil War (cue: castanets in orchestra) he knows; Louis remarks “If I were a woman, I would be very much in love with Monsieur Rick.”

Rick joins Strasser and Louis for dialogue sung over riffs from Sam’s piano.
“Perche vieni a Casablanca?” (Why did you come to Casablanca?)
“Pelle acque.” (For the waters.)
“Ma, Casablanca aque non ha! E deserto!” (But there are no waters here! It’s the desert!)
“Mi hanno mal’informato.” (I was misinformed.)

Rick excuses himself when he spots Ugarte in the shadows, and while Sam leads a rousing jazz number, learns that Ugarte has murdered two Germans and stolen their signed letters of transit, good for anyone who carries them to flee the country. He begs Rick to hold onto them while he packs. Rick reluctantly agrees.

While Rick is hiding the papers, Major Strasser begins to chat up Yvonne. To Sasha’s chagrin, she flirts back. Comic quartet (cynical comments from Louis).

Enter Victor Laszlo (bass – Rene Pape) and his lovely companion, Ilsa (soprano – Renee Fleming would kill for this role, but I’d prefer Anna Netrebko for her overt, accented sexuality, or perhaps Diana Damrau, who is Bergman cool). While Laszlo chats with like-minded exiles, Ilsa turns to the piano.

“Suonalo, Sam.” (Play it, Sam)
“Non di che cosa parla, madamigella Ilsa.”
“No? Suona ‘Come il tempo passa.’ Dee-di-de-di-de-di….” (Play ‘As Time Goes By.’)
Relucantly, Sam plays the tune (which Ilsa performs as a sortita, with coloratura cadenza) … only to be interrupted by a furious Rick.
“Ho vietato di mai suonare quella canzone, Sam!” (I told you never to play that song, Sam!)
“Salute, Rick,” says Ilsa, behind him. (Orchestra thunders minor key version – ominously,) She introduces him to Laszlo, whose reputation for fighting the Nazis in Czechoslovakia is well known to Rick.

Their brittle trio is interrupted by gunshots and screams: a man has been slain just outside the door. Louis hurries out … and returns with the news that Ugarte has been shot. Strasser triumphantly proclaims that Ugarte was a murderer who had stolen two letters of transit. His entourage (a barbershop quartet of Axis officers) usurps Sam’s piano for the Wacht am Rhein. In response, Laszlo leads the band, Sasha and even Yvonne in the Marseillaise. This becomes a Chorus of Refugees (By the waters of Casablanca) longing for the freedom of their various homelands.

Strasser, irate about the chorus and no happier to learn that Ugarte did not have the letters of transit on his person, commands Louis to close Rick’s down. Louis does so on the grounds that he’s discovered gambling on the premises (“Son stupefatto, stupefatto” – I’m shocked, shocked), commencing a stretta in which all the characters comment on the precarious situation. The curtain falls.

Act II, scene 1

Rick, in his room, drinks and broods on Ilsa’s betrayal (cello obbligato and aria: “Ella giammai m’amo a Parigi” – She never loved me, even back in Paris). Louis enters, warning that Major Strasser will be furious if Laszlo gets away. When he goes, Ilsa rushes in to explain that she secretly married Laszlo, the great freedom fighter, before she ever met Rick; Laszlo escaped from a concentration camp but refuses to flee to America without her. She offers herself to Rick if he’ll give her the letters of transit – for Laszlo.

Grand duet (over an ever more chromaticized ‘As Time Goes By’):
“Hai scordato, Rick …?” (Have you forgotten, Rick … ?)
“Parigi? Eri vestita di blu … i tedeschi erono vestiti di grigio …”
(You wore blue. The Germans wore gray.)

She falls into his arms as the curtain descends.

Act II, scene 2

At the airport, Laszlo sings a brindisi about being drunk on libertà. Ilsa shows up, saying Rick will bring the letters of transit, and they sing of the future they fly to – while Ilsa, aside, ponders her real feelings.

Rick comes in with the papers – but Louis has followed him. Rick pulls a gun on him, urging Laszlo to take Ilsa and catch the plane.

“Ma Rick –?” Ilsa whispers, as Laszlo turns toward the runway. Rick snarls: “I problemi di due personcine non ammontano a una colline di fagioli,” (The problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans), launching a trio in three-four time (with Laszlo) that becomes a quartet (when Louis chimes in). “Sempre avremo Parigi … Guardandi a te, bimba.” (We’ll always have Paris … Here’s looking at you, kid.)

Laszlo and Ilsa walk toward the plane; tension builds as the propellers rev (timpani rolls over a low brass march). A jeep drives up, Strasser at the wheel. “Laszlo dov’é?” he demands. Louis nods at Rick, who still has him covered. Strasser, angrily, seizes the phone and demands to be connected to the conning tower. Rick shoots him dead. (Descending arpeggio crash.)

The plane takes off, just as Strasser’s German quartet drives up. “What has happened?” they demand. (Crashing arpeggio.)

Louis responds in cold, official tones: “Il Maggior’é … assassinato … Raccogliete i sospetti usuali.” (Round up the usual suspects.)

As the Germans drive off in frustration, Rick gazes fondly at his new companion-in-arms: “Louis – questo sia l’inizio di un’ amicizia bellissima.” (I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.)

Crashing arpeggio segues into the Marseillaise.

© John Yohalem, 2008

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Veronica Plays Her Harmonica

I almost got killed by the suddenly opening door of a parked car on Hudson Street last night, and that was when I was cold sober. When I biked home from Marie's after three margaritas, there were no incidents.

Marie's Crisis is the piano bar just off Sheridan Square. I've been going since the late 70s, when Pat was behind the piano and we used to sing medleys from "On the Twentieth Century" and "Sweet Charity"; nowadays I'm just grateful if "Rent" and "Hedwig" are kept to a bare minimum. I don't really trust the taste of Jim Allen, who plays Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays to three or four a.m., and it annoys me that when someone requests "Man of La Mancha," instead of playing the show's good songs - "Dulcinea," "Aldonza," "You're All the Same" - he just plays "Impossible Dream." However, on this occasion, when I stepped down into the bar, they were singing "Hey There, You With the Stars in Your Eyes" and "Hernando's Hideaway," so I figured I'd stick around although the bar proved to be unmanned.

At last I went up to Maggie and said, "I'm going to quote a classic piece du theatre: Who do I have to fuck to get a drink around here?" She said, "Not me, honey; I'm not working tonight." (Nor, alas, was she singing - she does a dy-no-mite "Nightingales Sang in Berkeley Square" or, more frequently, "Roxie" (from "Chicago").) Maggie, however, knew who would be fetching drinks, and it was a woman named ... I forget ... but she mixed her very first margarita under my directions (which were perhaps stronger than the bartender would have made them) and she had frizzy red hair, and she sang a very funny song called "When Veronica Plays Harmonica on the Pier at Santa Monica," which I swear I've never heard before (but I've been wrong before):

"One fish was using Lifeboy - she knew how he felt -
She'd never smelt a smelt that smelt like that smelt smelt -
So Veronica packed up her harmonica and left the pier at Santa Monica."

She had no idea who'd written it, she got it off of microfilm and only knew Kay Kiser and his band (the Kollege of Musical Knowledge) had done it in the 1940s (or was it the 30s?), and it certainly made a contrast with Filippo Marchetti's "Romeo e Giulietta" (very pretty - Marchetti was a contemporary of Verdi's, but he sounded like Donizetti, which is why no one paid much attention to him) and Mascagni's "Il Piccolo Marat," (very exciting, 1961 - was this Del Monaco? who was the soprano? NO ONE in opera sounds like that any more! Alas!) which I had been listening to all afternoon on webcast from some crazy Swiss radio station that plays nothing but opera 24 hours a day. (This is the second most ridiculous programming for a radio station that I've ever heard of in my life. The MOST ridiculous radio programming I've ever encountered is no opera at all. Anyway, I try to hook two or three times a week.)

I told her I'd check the song out with my cousin Michael Lavine, who knows EVERYTHING Broadway and usually has a copy of the sheet music.

Then I had a long confab with a youngster named Rich who hangs out at Marie's Tuesdays and Wednesdays and occasionally sings there, which means they often give him free drinks. (No one offers me free drinks when I sing - knuckle sandwiches, yes. Or, "How'd you like to step outside and sing that - while the rest of us stay in here?") So they did not allow me to sing "Down in the Depths on the 90th Floor" or "Where Is the Life that Late I Led," but I hung out until they'd done "My Funny Valentine" and "You Can Count on Me" and "Someone to Watch Over Me" and a couple of Sondheims. By that time I was on my third margarita, and I figured I'd better wobble home before they sang a medley from "Sound of Music," which always drives me off.

I used to go to Marie's to cruise. There were very pretty boys last night but happily I am all over that. Now I just hope for some Gershwin or Harold Arlen.

Friday, August 22, 2008

New York Fringe Festival

I've been to seven or eight events at this year's New York Fringe Festival, and I have to say I'm disappointed: either this year's 200+ efforts are not up to the last two or three years', or I'm picking them wrong. Monologues about one's life are interesting as, say, bar conversations (with me allowed to insert comments and tell stories too), but they are not inherently theatrical, and people have to get over the idea that just because you have a degree in acting and experiences to share makes them so. A show called "I Hamas" was full of interesting reportage on being Palestinian in California and going to Ramallah to connect with one's roots and being sorry one has achieved this, but it wasn't theater.

Burlesque is back, with a vengeance (what needed to be avenged? the lost honor of Baby June?) but also a difference: in the old days, burlesque meant scantily clad young (or not so young, but buxom) women saying (or depicting) set-ups and sly or vulgar guys hitting out with obvious or ancient punch lines; today burlesque means scantily (or not even) clad young men saying set-ups, while the vulgar punch lines come from the women (or drag queens). I'm the last man to object to eye-rolling, barely clad, well-built young men (in "Box Office Poison," "One Seat in the Shade," "The Boy in the Basement," et al.) - or at least the last man to object to them so far - but except in the last-named play, the situations were so trite, the jokes so antique (was there a line in "Box Office Poison" that wasn't forty years old, utterly filthy, or both?) that I did not need to stifle my laughter - it wasn't there to be stifled.

"The Grecian Formula" had some excellent actors and a lot of in-jokes for those familiar with ancient Greek theater and history ("odes" in badly rhymed doggerel verse recited between segments of plot, e.g.), but did not sustain interest enough to lure me back from intermission. (The title is about the level of the humor - no, it's rather better than most of the humor.)

Yesternight I attended a genuinely good play, but then it was Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," with a woman in the title role. (No, that part didn't work, but everyone spoke Shakespeare well, which gives me pleasure.) The most fascinating thing about that (aside from the charming idea of having soothsayer's warnings, rumors, chorus lines, etc. muttered in loud whisper from all around the room in the dark - and the one laugh-line, when Cassius says, "It's my birthday") was a previously unsuspected nonprofit performance space in a ruinous gothic public school building on Suffolk Street near the Williamsburg Bridge. (Everyone around me in the audience lived in Boerum Hill or Prospect Heights, which figures. Only old farts like me can afford Manhattan.)

But after Brutus had finally got splooged in his fatigues, I allowed myself to be lured by a friend to "The Boy in the Basement." It was an 11:45pm show, the theater is in back of my house in the South Village, and several of the women involved were members of an improv troupe whose ongoing skits were the pinnacle and glory of last year's Fringe - notably the mordant wisecracking Lynne Rosenberg. The premise was: an excessively melodramatic young fellow (with a female pen name) is writing soft-core gothic porn (what Jane Austen would be writing, anyway texting, if she were, like, alive and horny and 22 and in college today) with a quill no less at one corner of the stage, driving himself to erotic satisfaction, while stage center four college roommates (a vixen, a virgin, a slut and a new age wack) have discovered a slim, hunky burglar in the basement. Of course they don't want to turn him in - since he's only stealing to help his sister get an operation - (what sort of operation is she running? was my question, never answered) - but each of the maidens has her way with him (or vice-versa as he turns every sort of table), as he lies chained at their mercy (showing very little inclination to escape, how unrealistic). The playwright (Katharine Heller, doubling as the vixen) proceeded to toy with our expectations as if arousing us fed some kind of urge on her (or the entire company's) part. Nick Fondulis toyed with our more prosaic expectations as the surrogate author. Tom Macy toyed with ... well he could if he wanted to, I'm sure. Lynne Rosenberg didn't have enough to do; I'd love to hear her talk about Palestinian Rights or tell bad old dirty jokes with her flawless timing. Meghan Powe and Anna Stumpf were also funny; Michael Solis was also cute. Souls were almost the only thing not bared. (Tom did try to suck on Meghan's virginal toe. He can have mine for the stomping. I'll even wash it first.)

There was a happy ending, which is to say, I was tempted to return, and voted it Best in the Fest. There is one further show at 10 on Saturday night.

Larry Hart in my dreams

Last night, in my dreams, I was in a cafe and in walked Lorenz Hart, most superb of New York song lyricists, the poet laureate of "Manhattan," "Blue Moon," "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," "This Can't Be Love," "Falling in Love with Love," "My Funny Valentine," "Where or When," "The Lady is a Tramp," "It Never Entered My Mind," "Ten Cents a Dance," "There's A Small Hotel" - well, where does one stop? (I've stopped after ten - I could easily name, no, sing fifty more.)

Not only was he present, he was in a terrific mood ("because anything is more fun than being dead, to be frank"), and full of perceptions about musical theater (his favorite show since his demise in 1944 was, surprisingly, Frank Loesser's "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" - he didn't mention Richard Rodgers at all). We had cocktails and shot the breeze and admired the waiter's rear end, and he sang me some of his lesser-known ditties (all previously unknown to me, and full of elegant - and somehow coyly homoerotic suggestive rhymes - I wish I'd written them down), and we talked about my grandmother whom (it turns out) he knew slightly - they both had crushes on the same singing cowboy radio star - whose name I also forget at the moment. And just as she (my grandmother) was about to join us for a nightcap - it turned into a morning cap.

Well, it's good to know he's having a better time in the afterlife than he did in this one. Don't you agree?

Anyway: Happy Bosworth Day (Richard III killed in battle, 1485).

Saturday, August 16, 2008

As Time Goes By (the opera)

What the world needs now, I hope you will agree, is a brand new Verdi opera, and the principal reason we don’t have one is that Verdi died in 1901. But the secondary reason (I feel) is that there has not been a libretto worthy of Verdi’s steel for even longer than that. And as I riffle through dramatic properties of the last few generations, certain screenplays leap out at me and say: THIS would be a great Verdi opera! Vertigo is one. Forbidden Planet is another. But the overwhelming cinch for first place, and I have taken the liberty of “opera-izing” it, is:

Come il tempo passa, ossia la Casablanca

Libretto in two acts

Act I
The curtain rises on Rick’s, the snazziest nightclub-casino in French Morocco. It is 1941. The Americans aren’t in the war yet, but Rick [baritone – Simon Keenlyside, who does tormented so well] is an American. His constant companion and best draw is pianist Sam [tenor – Anthony Dean Griffey for colorblind casting].
Chorus: Tutto il mondo viene a Rick. (Everybody comes to Rick's)
Ugarte [baritone – Richard Paul Fink], a European of doubtful reputation, sneaks up to the crazy Russian bartender, Sasha [baritone – Mariusz Kwiecien], hoping to see Rick. Sasha is vague as to Rick’s whereabouts, and Ugarte slinks off. Sasha flirts with Yvonne [mezzo - Denyce Graves], a chanteuse, but she sneers at him.
Enter Louis Renault, Casablanca’s corrupt police chief. [alto – I see this as a trouser role – Alice Coote or Beth Clayton – but it could also be sung by David Daniels.] Louis is showing the new German “military observer” around the local hotspots. The Germans have no authority in Morocco, but the French have to be cautious around the masters of Vichy. [Major Strasser, tenor – Kurt Streit.] He asks about Rick, whose anti-fascist history he knows; Louis remarks “If I were a woman, I would be very much in love with Rick.” But he’s ogling a refugee’s young wife even as he sings.
Rick joins Strasser and Louis for dialogue sung over riffs from Sam’s piano. “Perche vieni a Casablanca?” “Pelle acque.” “Ma, Casablanca acque non ha! E deserto!” “Ho misinformato.” He excuses himself when he spots Ugarte in the shadows, and while Sam leads a rousing jazz number, learns that Ugarte has murdered a German spy and stolen two letters of transit, good for anyone who carries them to flee the country. He begs Rick to hold onto them while he packs. Rick reluctantly agrees.
While Rick is out hiding the papers, Major Strasser begins to chat up Yvonne. To Sasha’s chagrin, she flirts with Strasser. Quartet (with Louis’s cynical comments).
Enter Laszlo (bass – Rene Pape) and his lovely companion, Ilsa (soprano – Renee Fleming would kill for this role, but Anna Netrebko would project sensuality). While he chats with like-minded exiles, Ilsa turns to Sam. “Giocale, Sam.” “Non capisco che voi parlante, madamigella.” “Gioca ‘Come il tempo passa.’ Dee-di-de-di-de-di….” Relucantly, Sam plays the tune … only to be interrupted by a furious Rick. “Lo dici giammai giocale quell’ canzone, Sam!” “Dessa la riquiesta.” “Chi?” He turns. “Salute, Rick,” Ilsa says. (Orchestra plays minor key version – ominously,) She introduces him to Laszlo.
Their brittle trio is interrupted by gunshots and screams: a man has been slain just outside the door of the casino. Louis hurries out … and returns with the news that Ugarte has been shot fleeing from cops because he has violated curfew. Strasser triumphantly proclaims that Ugarte was a refugee – and that he’d stolen two letters of transit. His entourage (a barbershop quartet of Axis officers) usurp Sam’s piano and sing the Horst Wessel Song. In response, Laszlo leads the band, Sasha and even Yvonne in the Marseillaise. They drown out the Germans and Yvonne falls into Sasha’s arms. (Comic duettino if there's time.)
Strasser, in recit, commands Louis to close Rick’s. He’s no happier to learn that Ugarte did not have the letters of transit on his body. Louis closes Rick’s on the grounds that gambling takes place on the premises, commencing (“Son stupefatto, stupefatto”) a stretta in which all the characters comment on the precarious situation. The curtain falls.

Act II, scene 1
Rick, in his room, drinks and broods on Ilsa’s betrayal (Aria: “Abbiamo avere Parigi”). Louis comes in, hoping to learn if he has the letters of transit, warning that Major Strasser will be furious if Laszlo gets away. Then Ilsa arrives. She explains she secretly married Laszlo before she met Rick, that he escaped from a concentration camp but refuses to flee without her. Extradition by the Nazis is only days, maybe hours, away. She offers herself to Rick if he’ll give her the letters of transit – they’ll trick Laszlo into getting on the plane to Lisbon alone.
Grand duet (over an ever more chromaticized As Time Goes By):
“Hai scordatemi, Rick …?”
“Scordarti? Tu? Parigi? Giammai. Tu (wore) blu … i tedeschi (wore) gray …”
“Son con Laszlo … il grande guerrier della liberta. Devi noi aita …”
“No. Mi partiti; in tempo, tu lo partirai.”
He resists, denounces her treachery, refuses to believe her – but does believe her. She falls into his arms as the curtain descends.

Act II, scene 2
At the airport, Laszlo (with a chorus of pilots) sings a brindisi about being drunk on libertá. When Ilsa shows up, she says Rick will bring the letters of transit, and the two of them sing of the future they fly to – while Ilsa, aside, wonders what’s taking Rick so long.
Rick comes in with the papers – but Louis has followed him. Rick pulls a gun on him, urging Laszlo to catch the plane as quickly as possible. “E mia moglie?” “Anch’ella.” “Ma Rick –?” she whispers, as Laszlo turns toward the runway. Rick snarls: “Le probleme di tre piccoli uomini n’accontono a una colline di fagioli,” launching a trio in waltz time (with Laszlo) that becomes a quartet (with Louis).
Laszlo and Ilsa begin a slow march towards the plane; tension builds as the propellers rev (depicted by drum rolls). A jeep drives up, Strasser at the wheel. “Laszlo dov'é?” he demands. Louis nods at Rick, who still has him covered. Strasser, furiously, seizes the phone and demands to be connected to the conning tower. Rick, after warning him to put it down, shoots him dead. (Crashing descending arpeggio from the strings.)
The plane takes off, just as Strasser’s German quartet drives up. “What has happened?” they demand. (Crashing arpeggio.)
Louis responds in cold, precise, official tones (over an ironic echo of Strasser’s leitmotif): “Il colonello e … assassinato … Ritrovate i sospetti usuali.”
As the Germans drive off in frustration, Rick gazes fondly at his new companion-in-arms: “Louis – penso ch’e la commincia d’una bellissima amicizia.”
Crashing arpeggio segues into “As Time Goes By,” concluding with a dash of Marseillaise.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

To the New York Review of Books

On the back of the fourth renewal notice since March, this time pleading with me to explain why I was not renewing my subscription:

Dear NYR of Books,

I love the NYReview - but it piles up. It piles up. I live in a small apt., like a Collyer brother of yore. Things fall apart. The closet cannot hold. Ask me what I like to do in bed: read, edit, watch opera DVDs, eat meals, exercise, plot, plotz.

I read slow. I hate to throw things out. I dropped The New Yorker and all the glossies because they fall off the bed onto the floor and are slippery there and that's dangerous for a bachelor. I didn't get the New Yorker on disk, though tempted, because ... who has the time? I read slow.

I love to take NYR on trips and read them on insomniac nights, intending to leave them behind one by one across Italy or Turkey or British Columbia - but I always seem to bring them home with me anyway. One last article I didn't get to. Y'know? And they pile up.

I love Tony Judt. And Tim Ash. And William Pfaff and Charles Rosen and Paul Krugman and Andre Aciman and Orhan Pamuk and Alison Lurie and Charles Simic and Daniel Mendelsohn. But ...

Spent Feb to May finally getting through back issues 2005-2008. I'm almost back to 2004. Pretty good, eh? If new ones kept arriving, I'd never have made it. Threw out 20-30. Saving the odd article, clipped, put inside books or into a special notebook. But they pile up.

It piles up. And it's on line (bless you - and the TLS - and the London Review - and The New Yorker - and The Nation - and Foreign Affairs). And if I want to read an article that you have not put up on line (the one on the myths inspired by Alexander the Great, e.g.), it is in your table of contents and the public library is five blocks up Seventh Avenue.

So there you have it. The most pretentious words I ever read were Gertrude Stein's (inexact quote, read it 30 years ago): "Gertrude Stein feared that one day she would have read all the books she wanted to read, but in time she realized that this would not happen."

Never mind writing them, too, which I am trying to do.


John Yohalem

P.S. Fonds to Tony Judt. And Bill Pfaff and Tim Ash and Charles Rosen

Friday, July 18, 2008

Die Soldaten

Bernd Alois Zimmermann was a sensitive, none too healthy 21-year-old music prodigy in 1939, when he was drafted into the German army. He was invalided out in 1942, but that was quite enough to give him a lifetime’s horror of the brutalities of war and what militarism does to society (especially German society). This was not a new idea, though the Nazi Era saw the worst, the apotheosis, of it, and there had been protests before — one of them, The Soldiers, an eighteenth-century play by J.M.R. Lenz, is a didactic fable that shows the notion of military glamour corrupting young people, relations between the sexes and between the classes, and politics.

Zimmerman turned the play into an opera according to serial principles but with many additional threads from other arts, intending, it seems, to outdo Wagner in its melding of different arts into “total theater,” with opera, a 110-piece orchestra with special percussion and jazz units, spoken theater, ballet, film, television, circus, electronic music, tape and sound techniques to tell a tight, unpleasant, unglamorous little story. Comparisons to Wozzeck are obvious — let’s just say Wozzeck is a whole lot shorter and more focused. (Wozzeck is also based on a play of earlier date.) Die Soldaten premiered in Cologne in 1965. Having said what he had to say, Zimmerman killed himself in 1970.

Stagings of Die Soldaten must always be special events — the work is not for small companies or repertory productions. The singers have to be first-rate musicians and first-rate actors, the orchestra huge and expert, the special effects cannot easily be fudged. For this year’s Lincoln Center Festival, the Ruhr Triennial brought their 2007 staging to the Park Avenue Armory, home base when it was built in the 1880s of the most fashionable regiment in town and thus an ideal space for the purpose, both in terms of its block-long size and the military trappings, which have recently been spectacularly refurbished and will keep you agog for the intermissions of any event you attend there. (The City Opera hopes to use it for the New York premiere of Messiaen’s St. François d’Assise in 2010.)

As an event — as a theatrical experience — there can hardly be two opinions of Die Soldaten’s success: It is overwhelming, fascinating theater, a live performance designed with cinematic technique. The impossibly huge room (stretching from near Park Avenue to Lexington) was given a T-shaped stage — the crossbar at the Lexington end, the narrow centerpiece down the center to the seats. The orchestra played on one side, the percussion ensemble on the other. The audience, a thousand of us, sat on rising seats at the Park Avenue end, but our seats were on rollers on six train tracks. For close-ups on the crossbar, we were silently brought east to it; then we were silently moved backwards as scene after scene unfolded on the central stage, where characters were sang while walking, sometimes through each other’s “rooms” on a stage set with sparse evocative furnishings. A Turkish bath for the soldiers, a countess’s salon, a snowy street, the steppes of Russia’s battlefields were thus evoked. There was no interruption between scenes; the continuity made the swiftness of the sordid story of a young girl’s descent from innocently accepting presents from an officer, to his kept woman, to everybody’s whore, to freezing beggar all the more devastating and, at least in this version, inevitable.

No doubt the horrors of war (between men and women, as well as between armies) can be affectingly presented in melodious ways — Prokofiev’s War and Peace comes to mind, and few operas end with more quietly devastating effect than Tchaikowsky’s Mazeppa, as the heroine, having gone mad, lullabies a dying man she believes to be her lost baby. But war in the mid-twentieth century has been savage beyond the stretch of melody, and seemed to Zimmermann to call for unhummable music. Yet he did not make the mistake of many of his atonal contemporaries — his singers do not simply screech at the top of their lungs to express intense feeling, but use the full range of their voices so that subtler shades of meaning can get across. Conversations in this opera do not turn into set pieces — lovers sing at cross purposes, a trio for three arguing women never blends but leaves each of them in her separate world. This is naturalistic and appropriate, but leaves one sometimes wondering if opera is really the medium for Zimmermann’s vision — certainly not traditional opera, but then Die Soldaten is hardly a traditional opera.

It would be amusing to consider what a composer a hundred or two hundred years earlier would have done when setting Lenz’s play: Charlotte’s folk song of broken hearts in the opening scene would have a recognizable melody so that it could return as her sister’s life descended step by step on the social scale, from girlfriend to mistress to whore to beggar. The loutish soldiers’ reflections on the honor of women (or lack of it) would be a merry chorus instead of a collection of brutal shards of tone. Desportes, the “noble” lout who seduces Marie and gives her to his gamekeeper for rape when she becomes too importunate, would have time for a drinking song before Marie’s old boyfriend poisoned him (as, brutally, melodramatically, he does). The trio of three arguing women who never listen to each other would be sublime in the hands of a Mozart.

We can be touched by such methods, but Zimmerman didn’t want to touch us — he wanted to batter us, to shove our faces in it, to eliminate the distance that art necessarily allows for, to make us feel war. He wanted big faces on movie screens to demonstrate the horrors he’d scene at the Front. David Pountney’s production, though the lighting effects (by Wolfgang Göbbel) are subtly brilliant (wavering spirals over the action of a drunken party; shadows that swallow characters when the story has no further use for them), shoves us into, and among, its lurid story by having us zoom across the theater into the girls’ bedroom and the soldier’s mess, then pulling us back for scenes of perspective or of long walks or a nightmare “ballet” sequence in which the ever less clothed, less conscious Marie is tossed from one pig-masked black-tied brute to another. This cinematic variety of perspective makes it easier to notice, for instance, that Marie’s clumsy, childish walk in Act I has become a kept woman’s flounce by Act III, and for a devastating final image to have her — rejected in the snow by her father, who does not recognize her — staggering down endless, featureless streets into a steppe laden with snow-covered dead bodies, recalling Germany’s Russian campaign of World War II.

But what would Zimmermann have done with his brittle, savage, shocking style of composition if, by chance, any of his characters had agreed with each other? If two people had shared love, for example (all the yearning is one-sided here)? It’s difficult to see how that would work in his system, and one admires his cleverness in designing a libretto where it never happens: this is all confrontation, cross-purposes, asides and social cruelties. Verdi and Mozart and Wagner could set confrontation beguilingly, but that is not Zimmermann’s intention. The tonal texture did not outrage (some people left at the intermission — a pity, as the second half was the more exciting) but it did not please, soothe, appeal — it is not meant to. This is art designed to explicate brutality. I enjoyed the intrusive off-kilter atonal jazz band in the banquet scene; another effect of some charm was a percussive rumble like distant freight trains that turned out to be an uncomposed thunderstorm breaking on the Armory roof.

The singers sang with microphones (necessary in the Armory, and suggested by the composer). Microphones can cover lack of volume but not disguise other sins. Let it be said that none of them sounded as if this fantastically difficult music put them out unduly, and I’d be very interested to hear what they can do unamplified and with more gracious sounds to produce. Their acting was superb across the board, and went as far as the manner of movement, the stance adopted in different social situations (a countess alone does not move like a countess in front of social inferiors; a bourgeois boy stands differently when he has enlisted as an officer’s orderly).

Claudia Barainsky was Marie, whose descent is the trajectory of the opera, and her changeable, corruptible moods — innocent flirtatiousness, hauteur when criticized, wracked with jealousy, despair, numbness — guided every phrase as well as every step. As the opera opens, she is bursting with life; as it ends she is empty — and every step, every sound, is part of that picture. Claudia Mahnke sang her sister in a way to contrast at each step — echoing but adjusting her sister’s flightiness with caution, as if to show us that safety could have been an option. Helen Field was splendid as the countess willing to save Marie — as long as Marie agrees not to seduce the countess’s son.

Among the men, the most striking picture and the most interesting sounds, ingratiating, contemptuous, amorous, disgusting, came from Peter Hoare as the officer who corrupts Marie and — in the opera’s stagiest, most satisfying but unrealistic moment — is murdered by her old fiancé. Kay Stiefermann was almost sympathetic as a less amoral but less intelligent officer.

Steven Sloane, aided by a dozen close-circuit televisions, kept musicians and singers and machinery in step through a grueling night to the final shattering tableau.

Is this sort of multiple-effect total-art-work the wave of some budget-unconscious future? Is it necessary to abandon melody and the art of unamplified singing to achieve it? Such questions arise but do not interrupt the presentation of one of the world’s great theatrical and moral messages.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The art of mis-casting: Dionysus and Lola

On Saturday I got to the Scottish National Theater's version of Euripides' Bacchae at the Rose Theater - the one where the draw is Alan Cumming as Dionysus. Wrong but not bad (as Bacchaes go, and I've seen or taken part in a lot of them). On Sunday I got into the Encores revival of Damn Yankees with Sean Hayes, Cheyenne Jackson, Randi Graff and Jane Krakowski. Everyone was good - but Jane.

So I'm pondering this at five in the morning (having just wakened from a rather delicious dream in which a favorite opera singer accompanied me on a quest to buy rare postage stamps, and suddenly he began licking them and I began licking them and we began licking each other, and the next thing I knew - well, I do wake up with a grin on my silly face after a dream like that, don't you?).

Bacchae is a difficult play; no one ever said it wasn't. It was found among Euripides's papers when he died (in exile), produced posthumously, and has aroused mistrustful accusations of blasphemy et al. ever since. I've seen it several times, played Pentheus twice and Tiresias once - I'm beginning to think I should consider undertaking the god's part next. I'm beginning to understand him.

Dionysus appears in several different "characters" - he is the stern, offended god newly returned from near-martyrdom at birth and a triumphal tour of the Far East to establish his cult among the unbelievers (including his difficult family) in Thebes. Then he is the antic, jolly leader of a band of maniacal devotees (sort of like Charles Manson), enslaved by wine and sex and excess generally. Then he appears in disguise as one of the eastern devotees, captured and questioned by King Pentheus, the determined, arrogant, order-obsessed, neurotic, insecure young ruler of Thebes - whom he proceeds to seduce. The king goes mad - yielding to his own repressed female side, his curiosity about the mysteries of the ecstatic god - and, dressed as a woman (even more of a disgrace for Greek men than for us), follows his tempter to the hills - where the madwomen tear him to pieces, led by his own blinded mother. The god has vanished, but he returns in the final scene. By this time our own attitudes have been altered - from thinking Pentheus a foolish brute to deny the ecstasy that is part of human life, and Dionysus right to resent his tyrannical unbelief, we have now come to think the punishments of this unhappy royal house much too harsh, to sympathize with mad, bereft Agave and wretched Cadmus. Dionysus, returning, makes no attempt to reacquire our sympathies - he washes his hands of the whole thing - he's only been the instrument of destiny, after all. (There is some doubt about the authorship of the last speeches.) We are in uneasy awe of the wayward but omnipotent god, almost fearing to protest what we certainly feel - are meant to feel - is injustice on his part, however tit for tat.

It's difficult - to say the least - for any director to link the first scenes of the play to its ending. There is no neat tying of the circle into a circle. The plot moves but the fable has no clear moral. We are uneasy with the Powers that Be, and religious ritual is not supposed to leave such an aftertaste.

Alan Cumming plays himself. (Can he play anything else? I've seen no evidence of it.) He does the first speeches of Dionysus as Scottish shtick, with little jokes and flirts and asides (almost), as if poking fun at this silly story. Considering the nature of the play's opening, this seems a bit over the top but not incorrect - Dionysus is supposed to be controlled uncontrollability. I accepted this, and also the wonderful Afro-Caribbean music-stylings of the chorus (all black women). I accepted the stiffness of Pentheus and the madness of Agave. But the seduction of Pentheus by Cumming's Dionysus was not ... comprehensible. They did not make it real. They did not explain the hypnosis, the trance, the spell the god casts. Cumming was not playing it - he was mouthing the lines in some other handy spirit. It was not part and parcel of what we knew. The continuity was not here. The final scene, too, seemed abrupt and out of place - I keep hoping a Dionysus will create by his movements or attitudes the link that is difficult to find on the page. Cumming did not show it.

Damn Yankees is another sort of drama about confronting the supernatural. This Pentheus is a baseball fan who wants to win the pennant from the Yankees, and the demon who tempts him is an entirely comical devil - nothing threatening about him, even when he asks where all this will end, and Sean Hayes, in a low, suggestive murmur says, "Oh I think we both know the answer to that." The drag he gets to wear - far better than any outfit of any maenad - is a young, buff body, in this case Cheyenne Jackson's. No one is complaining. But Pentheus never mentions a wife (he had one, though - per Greek mythology, he was the great-grandfather of Oedipus), and Joe Hardy left one behind - middle-aged, perhaps, but sturdy. To counter her influence, the devil conjures - Lola! The 172-year-old vamp from tempting Providence (also the hometown of Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls - what does this mean?).

Lola is not meant to be seductive any more than Mr. Applegate is demonic. She's a put-on. She says she drives men to suicide and women to divorce, but do you believe her? Gwen Verdon wasn't so much a brilliant dancer (though she was that) - she was a great comic. She put Lola over because she seemed to believe every word of her allure while every gesture kidded the idea. This was a popular way to handle sex in those days - Marilyn Monroe did it, too. Later Raquel Welch and Ann-Margret got some of their funniest mileage from the idea. But Verdon was also no beauty, which made the whole story that much madder.

Jane Krakowski has not thought the role out; she has merely imitated Verdon's routines (as was clear when I got home and played them on youtube), and her imitation is lifeless though expert. Yes, she can dance. Yes, she can move the moves. Yes, she has a far prettier singing voice than Verdon ever had - as if that meant anything. Looking nothing like Verdon (aside from an even flatter chest), she goes for Marilyn lookalike, which suits her coloring but does not suit the part. She does not link with the other characters. She's doing a solo turn in a book show. There is far more chemistry between Cheyenne Jackson and Randi Graff than he ever shares with this Lola - and he's not the one holding back.

It'a a lacuna in the midst of an otherwise charming revival. Even Sean Hayes makes more in his parody of Gwen Verdon's seductive dance than Krakowski does.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Forgiveness: Fatih Akin's Edge of Heaven

Cedric demanded that we go to Film Forum last night for the final showing of Fatih Akin's Edge of Heaven. I was of two minds, but it was my last chance to get together with Cedric before he goes to Istanbul next Sunday (I was there last October), and sell him my last 50 YTL note and my akbil (bus-tram-ferry token), and the movie, made by a German of Turkish parentage, is about the entwinement of the two nations in these times, which will work itself out still further this afternoon, I daresay, when they take each other on in the EuroCup - a game I hope to watch if I can find a pleasant restaurant showing it. (I watched Turkey beat Croatia last Friday, and Spain beat Italy, in the presence of los Reyes yet, on Sunday, both on penalty kicks - does anyone ever shoot a goal in this game?)

So we went to Edge of Heaven, and I have to say I found it touching, a gently rambling roundabout bit of storytelling about the conflict of generations, of lifestyles, of nationalities - and about reconciliation, and love that transcends these boundaries.

Romantic love, which is usually the metaphor in dramatic art for such reconciliation, would be the easy way out, but Akin does not take it. I give him points for that. The two sexual relationships among the six main characters are both unfortunate and lead to unnecessary and destructive violence. I gather that Akin's previous film, which concerned a "marriage of inconvenience," also did not take an easy, romantic way out, so that the love that did arise seemed more adult, had more important obstacles to conquer. I admire an artist who can make us understand love without using romance.

The film's tortuous, winding path takes us past many coincidences - a cute trick, but not an unrealistic one - and we do not learn, for instance, until the end that the first scene of the film (which is repeated) occurs chronologically after the rest. In the early part of the film, too, we see a character trying to teach a class on nationalism and revolution in a German college - ironically, he is a German-born Turk - and we see someone asleep in the classroom. When we see the image again, half the film later, we know a great deal more about both these characters (who never actually meet) and, among other ironies, we know the sleeper is an actual revolutionary. Akin, whatever his politics (and they clearly transcend nation and religion and other artificial boundaries in their sympathies), shows that the urge to political violence, however idealistic, can easily lead, as it does, to pointless violence: the gun that is one character's McGuffin accomplishes nothing useful and, indeed, slays her lover. But the Muslim fundamentalists who urge - no, COMMAND - a Turkish prostitute in Bremen to give up her immoral ways - are unsympathetic characters, though they do help the plot along. The segments of the movie are set apart by two scenes of a coffin being loaded on Turkish airlines - one a Turk being sent back to Turkey, the other a German being sent back to Germany. The murders are unintentional, but the culpability is general, as is the hideous remorse.

The climax for me comes when a Turk explains to a German the story of Bayram - the Muslim holiday that celebrates Ibrahim's attempt to follow God's will to sacrifice his son Ismail, and God's prevention of the sacrifice. This is the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, too, of course, and the German sees that, in wonderment. It forms a link between the two and a window between the cultures, and it also strengthens the resolve of both to love people they have been unable to forgive. The sacrifice of Isaac is not only a major theme for Jews (it recalls, perhaps, the moment when their forebears ceased to practice human, especially infant, sacrifice, which remained a custom among many of their Semitic relatives for centuries longer), it is also a major theme in Christian iconography (cf. the altar mosaics of San Vitale in Ravenna, where the sacrifice of Isaac is on one wall and the crucifixion on the opposite wall), where the sacrifice by Abraham of his son is held to prefigure the sacrifice of Jesus by his father. (But Isaac is not, of course, Abraham's "only-begotten son," as reports often have it - Ishmael is the first, and there are six younger sons, per Genesis.) This is recalled also, gorgeously, in Britten's Canticle No. 2, where Isaac is sung by a boy soprano - though I have heard it sung by David Daniels who, with Anthony Griffey at Carnegie Hall, turned it into a magical ten-minute S&M opera.

Somehow I find art that feels, that makes us feel, forgiveness between enemies (or uncomprehending adversaries) more touching than almost any other, as in the two supreme moments in Figaro: In Act III, when Marzellina and Susanna, who have been close to pulling each other's hair out, rush to each other's arms, and at the end of Act IV when the Countess pardons her husband. (Anything that undercuts that moment is an enemy I shall be loath to forgive and cannot comprehend.)

But back to the film: enhanced by six splendid performances (notably Hanna Schygulla, Fassbinder's muse, as a chilly German mother whose heart breaks and is renewed), the film is also radiant in its depiction of Bremen and Hamburg neighborhoods (hardly the best ones) and the sea and the steep, steep hills of the slums of Istanbul, and finally of Turkey's Black Sea coast. None of these shots are of places a Tourist Board would want you to notice, or think about when considering travel plans, but all of them are fresh, exciting, stimulating, wonderful hints of the countries beyond. And as in the movie Hamam, Istanbul becomes a symbol of renewal, of eternal rebirth, of acceptance, of the glorious mixture of different cultures.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Hamlet in the Park

The Hamlet in Central Park has not opened yet, so it is fairly easy to get in. Helps, no doubt, that the cast is less glittery than sometimes in the Park - and glittery does not always mean the best acting. My last Hamlet in the Park (30 years ago?) was Stacy Keach (unaccountably omitted from the program on past Danes in the program), who was good but sometimes perverse in his line readings (in a rather charming way), and who furthermore was rained out. (There was lightning and thunder last Saturday, too, but not a drop of rain.)

The best part of that ancient performance was Barnard Hughes, the finest of all possible Poloniuses (Polonii?). Ah, how he read that letter! He was so funny I was almost glad to have to leave before he got skewered. This time I waited eagerly to see how Sam Waterston would do the letter - well, Sam is no Barnard, and that's a fact. He brought in Ophelia (Lauren Ambrose) and obliged this shy girl to read the letter herself. I can't imagine her doing this, and neither could Shakespeare. The point of doing it is that no one ever has done it this way; that it makes no sense matters not to Oskar Eustis. Mr. Eustis - like so many directors of classical plays and opera and other well-known pieces nowadays - seems to feel that he has not done his job unless he's done something utterly perverse that no one else has thought of. There is no point to this. This tendency (there are other instances of it) mars a generally fine production with some generally fine moments and perhaps the best Hamlet I've ever seen undertake the part.

This is Michael Stuhlbarg, who is 39 (the oldest NYSF Hamlet ever), and in many other ways does not seem ... typical casting. He is shorter (and used to be much stouter) than most of the cast (and nearly all the population of Denmark). He is a tenor Hamlet - his voice pipes high above the others - and we are used to baritones in the part (at least in Ambrose Thomas's opera). But as I noticed 18 years ago (was it?) when he played the nothing part of the Clown in A Winter's Tale and completely stole his scenes from every other character, Stuhlbarg knows how to speak Shakespearean verse, getting the laughs but also the intent of every word and play on words. Never once did a line of verse pass by as words, words, words - it was all pointed, all defined for us - he brought us along on his outrageous outing. I was not utterly convinced by his melancholy at the beginning of the play, though I was by his antic anger bursting out in the throneroom scene. Later, when he went mad, he was very good - for one thing, genuinely funny - in love with his wordplay and the games he wove (for us) over the heads of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Polonius and Claudius. (Only Gertrude seemed to move him to make sense, though you can't say he was respectful about this.) Especially fine in these scenes was his costume - a demented combination of an old royal uniform and pants rolled to the knee above bare feet. This made sense of his carrying a sword in a kingdom obviously set in 2008.

The scenes where I thought he overdid it - overencouraged by Eustis, I fear - were the play scene, when he flirts lewdly with an uncomfortable Ophelia. He was more than casually rude to her - he ground her nose in it, waggling his crotch in her face. Unless he really was mad, or really hated her, this made no sense - he later claims to have loved her - there is no way he could inflict this public humiliation on the least malicious of his enemies (if she must be that) and really care for her. It seemed a gratuitous sexual pose.

Again, in the bedroom scene, when his threats to his mother (a gracious but not too distinctive Margaret Colin) led him to assault her, climbing up between her legs - Shakespeare has her fear murder, but rape seems far more likely, and it does not seem necessary - the point has been made, it need not be driven home. In any case it is interrupted by the entrance of the Ghost (Jay O. Sanders, also the excellent Player King and Gravedigger), not in armor (as before, and in other Hamlets) but in his pajamas, wearily, as Hamlet might be used to seeing him in this his parents' bed on other occasions when he may have been rough-housing with Mama.

That was a Eustis touch I liked. So was having Ophelia (gone punk, which was fine for Ambrose but not right for the play) re-enter, mad, with a cache of stones that she identifies as flowers, going about knocking people on the head with them. At first I liked the pent-up aggression of this Ophelia (who had been so waiflike before), but it doesn't fit with her flowery death that follows soon after. And if she cuts her hair short, how does it grow again by her funeral?

Another Hamlet touch I liked: like everyone, he can't tell Rosencrantz from Guildenstern (the usual laughs; they both wore bowlers), but he couldn't remember Francesco or Bernardo's name either, and had some trouble with Horatio's name. Message: He's not a politician! He's dwelling within too much. He's not doing all this to make FRIENDS.

Andre Braugher was a politician, but he is not an expansive Claudius (my first was Henry da Silva - in the Park, to the dreadful Hamlet of Alfred Ryder - you win some, you lose some); Braugher seems to keep his thoughts to himself, to create no persona to rule Denmark. He lacked a spark, a reason his subjects elected him over Hamlet in the first place.

It seems to me that Shakespeare has set up all the other likely fellows in the play so that we can compare them to Hamlet, see why the dopey world prefers to admire them, and understand why in fact none of them are fit to wipe his spittle. They are all decisive - and Hamlet is not. The message is: Decisive misses too much, is too hasty, rushes in where meditation would be better. Thus Horatio is a cipher (but not so bad he must be killed by Fortinbras upon usurping the throne - another Eustis touch - I object, because Horatio must live on to tell us Hamlet's story); Fortinbras is a warlike brute; Claudius a murderer; and Laertes a hothead and a hypocrite. Usually.

David Harbour seemed too burly, too physically much to be the gallivanting fencer who tries to keep his sister away from the prince. He wept too much (though Stuhlbarg made us hear the references to tears in the speeches that justified this). A role that always seems too much the playwright's convenience, seemed here too much the director's.

But Stuhlbarg speaks verse beautifully and (on one of those ghastly humid nights too!) was full of energy, dashing around the stage and bouncing through the part, delighting in every figure of speech, making them mean things, playing with those meanings, playing with the syllables, a feast of gorgeous language. He may or may not fear ghosts, the Devil, murderers, false friends, love - but he was absolutely unafraid of the longest and toughest role in English-speaking theater. Bravo.

Catch him!

Friday, June 6, 2008

Aristophanes is still dead

Old Comedy, recommended by New York’s most literate critic, Michael Feingold in the Voice(who seems to have loved it because it is full of esoteric references, all of which he got), is David Herskovits (and Target Margin Theater) and David Greenspan’s rework of Aristophanes’ Frogs.

I’ve seen many attempts to revive Aristophanes, and the only successful one was Al Carmines’s Peace 40 years ago, which kept the bare bones of the plot and made an Al Carmines musical of the rest. (Franz Schubert tried to do something like this with Lysistrata. But he lacked Al C's pissass pizzazz.)

Old Comedy was particularly bad. Like all attempts at Frogs, they had no idea what to do with the playwrights’ contest, so it was a mere bore, incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with the playwrights of the fifth century B.C.E. I got all the esoteric jokes, every one of the mythological and dramaturgical references, all the Tartarean in-jabs that no one else seemed to know – but none of them, none of them, were funny. And I agreed with all the political humor, attacks on Bush, Cheney, Iraq, et al. – but none of them were new. (Several were as old as Aristophanes.) The scene with Charon was good, because he was portrayed by Tina Shepard, a good actress, but the rest, though farcical and knockabout and learned as all heck, didn’t draw a giggle or a smirk from those of us who stayed. (The actors bade a cheery farewell to the first walkers-out – in later scenes, they did not do so – it must be depressing.) So I’m annoyed with Michael F and shall tell him so. Keep your erudition to your salon conversation.

And it wasn't just the script, you know - there was so much cutting we had no chance to learn, from interaction, who the characters were - you knew or you didn't know - and it didn't make any difference which. If the show had been slower, and given us more shtick to let us meet Dionysus and his slave and Herakles to boot, we might have had time to find their shenanigans funny.

The one moment when the show came alive was the Frogs' Chorus and invocation of Iacchos (footnoted), when there was an energy present, a liveness painfully absent from everything else on stage.

Aristophanes on the modern stage is a dead letter, sure ruin where the tragedies can at least be funny. Pointed sketch humor does not travel through eons. Edith Hamilton compared Aristophanes's anarchic wit to Gilbert's, but Gilbert had Sullivan; Aristophanes needs one. Can we send someone down to the Underworld to bring back Al Carmines, perhaps? (In any case, neither Aristophanes nor anyone else has any use for David Greenspan.)

Playwrights Who Make Us Squirm

Just saw the revival of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls at the Biltmore – the play that famously begins with a drunken dinner party (in 1982) for a “modern woman,” Marlene, whose six voluble guests, all of them legendary or anyway historical, include Pope Joan, patient Griselda, and an imperial concubine from 14th-century Japan. Only later, in the more naturalistic scenes (Marlene has just been promoted – over a man! – who has a heart attack in consequence – to a managerial position at a head-hunting firm), did I realize what Churchill was up to. Like me, she reads a great deal of history and spends a great deal of time chatting with folks long dead, especially when traveling in their former haunts. And as the play plays out, and you see what Marlene’s rise to the “top” has cost her, and why she has been willing to pay (and has tried to ignore the price), you understand why she chose those particular “top girls” for her celebratory dinner. (In real-time probably a solitary stinking-drunk-night.)

In fact Marlene has no friends she dares confide in, rely on, let go in front of – so she must bring them in from the past, dead (even imaginary) ladies who cannot betray her or rival her for the attention of any men present. (Men barely count at all in her world – they’re just work-mates or playmates.) By the conclusion, when melodramatic if predictable ancient secrets have been unearthed, you understand Marlene's life, the price she has had to pay for success that makes her unhappy, lonely, and drunk, and the ghastliness of the alternatives she would probably have faced had she made other choices.

This is a bit of a trial, I infer (from comments on the NYTimes review), for audiences expecting an ordinary drama – many of them left before the end last Tuesday. It’s also a tour de force for seven actresses (in 15 parts), which no doubt accounts for its popularity with producers and performers. I found the “employment interview” scenes uncomfortable to sit through – brought back the agonies of my own job-seeking when I did not want the jobs on offer, could not imagine what I did want.

Long live playwrights unafraid to make us squirm, eh?

And the acting was wonderful, most notably Elizabeth Marvel (Marlene), Mary Catherine Garrison (as an itchy kid and a chippie trying for a job), Mary Beth Hurt, Jennifer Ikeda as an employment "counselor" who accidentally talks too much of her own empty life, belying her delicious smile, Martha Plimpton as another itchy kid and as drunken Pope Joan, Ann Reeder as a cheerfully ruthless employment "counselor", and Marisa Tomei as Marlene's bitter sister - she was not good, however, with the improbably Scottish accent of a Victorian traveler, and in fact accents are a problem throughout, though aside from Tomei's Scot, they did not prevent me finding the machine fascinating.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Sound and the Fury at Elevator Repair Service

The idea of making a theater piece out of Faulkner's most difficult novel sounds outlandish, although in fact it was made (at least, the title was) into a very bad Hollywood movie with Joanne Woodward and Yul Brynner (throwing out the plot of the novel, though, as Hollywood usually did with Faulkner). Furthermore, I myself used to dream myself to sleep (like Benjy seeing "shapes") imagining a turgid modern vaguely atonal opera on the subject to be staged at the City Opera with a set of a mansion built around a staircase mounted on a turntable, so Dilsey (contralto) could haul herself up while Caroline (mezzo) stood at the top muttering, "Dilsey! Dilsey! Dilsey!" at interminable length - aren't you glad you all missed that? Caddy (soprano) sang a lovely serenade to Benjy (tenor, but with only two notes, a wordless wail).

When the Times gave a rave review to the Elevator Repair Service's staging of the first of the "days" of Faulkner's novel, I raced over to New York Theater Workshop to grab a ticket, and put off reading Michael Feingold's review, which is just as well as he panned it. And I went and the performances are amazing, and the book came back to me (which is more amazing), and the many friends of mine who happened to be there were impressed (though they found it a bit long), but the thing I cannot quite figure out is how comprehensible the story would be to anyone who has not read Faulkner.

I fell in love with Faulkner in that gray year when I had not quite graduated after four years at Columbia and was trying to decide if graduate school made sense. I spent a lot of time reading. My parents had sold the old homestead, and I felt torn up at the roots. I read Sartoris, and enjoyed its view of a Gothic, past-focused society that could hardly have been more different from the one in which I had grown up, and then I read The Sound and the Fury, and then lots of commentaries on it, and then - in the course of a year - every other work of prose Faulkner ever published, except A Fable, which is unreadable. (I often met other Faulkner fiends back then; almost every one of them confessed to stymie in the face of A Fable. A Fable, with its Christ symbolism set in World War I trenches, was the result of winning the Nobel Prize.)

For years I said Faulkner was my favorite American novelist. (All my Southern friends glared and said, "You only like him because he's exotic to you. It's all real to us." I loved McCullers and O'Connor and Walker Percy too.) Then one day it occurred to me that I'd never REread any of these books.

Faulkner wrote The Sound and the Fury right after two events that shaped his life: he married the racy divorcee he'd been pining for since they were kids together, and he read Ulysses. Both of these things, and his Southern heritage, somehow clicked. He'd already invented Yoknapatawpha County in Sartoris; now he let it take him places like a barnstorming biplane. This had a disastrous influence, in its turn, on a boy like me, already all too inclined to overwrite and elaborate and parenthesize. (Does anyone still read Faulkner? Except when assigned?)

Well, unread for thirty years or not, it all came back to me: a terribly dysfunctional family (plus Negro retainers) in the fading turn-of-the-century South.

For those who might be going (and I do recommend it - for that matter, I recommend the book, too), Jason Compson has married the neurasthenic passive-aggressive Caroline Bascomb. She invalids herself to life while he drinks himself to death. They have four children and a square mile of plantation property that will eventually be sold and become a golf course. It is 1898. (But it's also 1928 and 1911.) The couple have four children, plus a family of black servants. The three chapters of the book are told (stream of conscious) by the three Compson sons; the fourth chapter is omniscient. The focus of the book is the Compsons' only daughter, Caddy (Candace), who represents the South: she is beautiful, high-spirited, affectionate, kindly - and impure. Her sexuality is stronger than she is, and this emasculates the men around her, who think it is their job to protect her, as an aspect of Southern Honor, all they have left since they lost their money during the war and reconstruction.

Quentin, the eldest son, inherits all his father's failings - he's an ineffectual intellectual, and his inability to preserve his sister from dishonor drives him to suicide. (He's even ineffective at that - Faulkner brought him back to narrate Absalom, Absalom, his most operatic novel, the one with both incest and miscegenation.) His last day occupies Chapter Two. Chapter One is given to Benjy, the youngest child, who is autistic or something of that sort - unable to speak, or think, unaware of time and inclined to jump back and forth around it - he adores Caddy and the housekeeper, Dilsey, and is regarded as a family disgrace by his mother. His recollection of Caddy as a child climbing a tree and getting her drawers filthy was the image that started Faulkner writing. Dirty drawers stand for sex. Oh, you got that, did you? The play dramatizes - and includes a full reading of - Chapter One. The p.o.v. moves, and different actors play different characters with complete fluency and identification - and I always found them not merely convincing but easy to figure out, as they changed gender and race and age and accent with the same fluidity as their text.

Chapter Three belongs to Jason IV, the third child and second son, the one who is neither an Old Southern Gentleman nor an Idiot, but who attempts to belong to the new, ugly, racist but successful South - and who fails at that, even though he has no heart and loves no one but himself, which Faulkner thought the prerequisites of survival in the ugly new world. In this section we learn that he has blackmailed his sister, gelded his idiot brother, and defrauded his sister's illegitimate child - who has the last laugh, however.

In Chapter Four, Dilsey takes Benjy to her church - which is a black church, of course, but is used to her bringing him along. (No one in the white family believes in any sort of God.) It is Easter Sunday - Chapter One was Good Friday, Three was Holy Saturday, Two was the day of Quentin's suicide 17 years before. And we only now find out that the night before, young Quentin (Caddy's daughter) has broken into her uncle Jason's room, stolen his life savings, and run off with a traveling salesman. The family is ruined; the Southern traditions are dead or debased; the South has not risen again, but Christ has - as an idiot howling at a black church.

When last heard of (in a 1945 epilogue) Caddy had become the mistress of some Nazi bigwig. I used to assume she ended her life as an apparatchik in the DDR. The family estate, of course, has become a golf course - allowing Benjy to scream every time one of the golfers calls, "Caddy!" and he remembers everything.

So the Old South is dead except for writing up stories, which Faulkner had just gotten started doing - and then he inspired Garcia Marquez, Fuentes, Donoso, Cortazar, Vargas Llosa, Amado, Rushdie and Pamuk. So you can't say it didn't lead to anything constructive.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

David et Jonathas: What were they smoking?

American Opera Theater is the grandiloquent name of a Washington, D.C.-based semi-professional (but, rather, post-student) company that has just brought its production of Marc-Antoine Charpentier's 1688 work David et Jonathas to the magnificent (but, for something like this, far too large) opera house of BAM to make the sort of New York debut that makes the opera lover want to skip a few seasons and catch them in five or six years when they've got their priorities on straight.

Musically, however, it was a memorable occasion.

Tim Nelson, the 28-year-old master(in his own) mind who runs the company, seems to have left other details in incompetent hands while he went his own artistic way. Both halves of the show, in front and behind the footlights, made one doubt the wisdom of this decision.

Surtitles, for instance. I've often deplored surtitles, but for a work whose story is unfamiliar (and is confusing in any case, since the music was intended for performance between great chunks of spoken text that no longer exist and might have cleared a few things up about the story - next time you attend Follies, say, try to imagine what the story is from the songs by themselves) surtitles are probably the best way to go. The A.O.T. thought them too expensive. Okay, the next choice would be a clear synopsis, given out well before the curtain - but no, we arrived to learn (after an interminable wait for the ONE person giving out will-call tickets) that there were no programs or synopses available. (They turned up at intermission, but there was no guarantee of that.) Another notion would be to costume the players appropriately, so at least we knew who they were. It wasn't until David was mortally wounded in Act IV (or was it Act V) that I realized he was actually Jonathas, and that David was the other guy. Hey, backstage: one of these boys is a prince, the other a shepherd - SOME visual differentiation is possible.

And I've read the Book of Samuel, and I fail to see ANY homoerotic resonance in this story whatsoever. The highly heterosexed David's love for Jonathan (also married with children) is not Young Boys of Old Canaan down at the Adonis on "cut" night; when David says he found Jonathan's love "surpassing that of women," he doesn't mean the sex was hotter, he means male bonding was a more intense thrill for him than getting off with his harem and dozens of wives (including Jonathan's sister).

Also: I realize this is a fairly youthful work, but there was nothing in the score that suggested Charpentier would someday produce "Depuis le Jour" in Louise a mere 200 years later.

But I stayed. I stayed and, once Saul had rubbed blood on his (not uninteresting) chest -- better developed than his voice, and flatter too -- and the buxom girls playing Hebrew warriors (or were they Philistines?) had waved flags around in a tradition borrowed from the Met's worst impulses, TO EVERYONE'S SURRPISE the music was just lovely. Several of the singers (notably David - I mean Jonathan - well the one who was sung by boyish but female Rebecca Duren - and also a blonde in the chorus, I think Emily Noël) were quite delicious upon the ear, and if one closed one's eyes (as was often necessitated by glaring lights and fulsome smoke), two and a half hours of blissful Charpentier fell happily upon the senses and one could almost believe it was Les Arts Florissants on a (virtual) off night.

I mean it was good; it was an enjoyable concert. What the story was about (not much of the Book of Samuel) and what the text was about and most of all what the staging was about and what the company producers thought they were doing were never clear, amateurish at the most charitable estimation, but it was a most enjoyable concert, a lovely evening of music from the golden era of Louis le Grand.

I wish Tim Nelson's company well and respectfully suggest they begin by getting rid of Tim Nelson.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Dream: Nilsson explains her Norma

I am in a small Swiss café after a hard day sightseeing landscapes that (appropriately) resemble the oeuvre of Paul Klee, and as I scan the menu for anything affordable (snails, perhaps ... no, one snail ... welcome to Switzerland), I realize the woman at the next table, hiding behind dark glasses, is Birgit Nilsson. She catches me looking at her. I say, "I've read your book and I know you don't like stalkers, but I'm just the biggest fan of yours ..." Graciously, she invites me to join her.

In a café with Birgit Nilsson! The sky's the limit! Three snails! And dunkelweisen to wash them down.

Nilsson reminisces. She especially recalls her aborted desire to record Norma with Franco Corelli (though he'd already done it with Callas, of course). And suddenly, join with me now in those thrilling days of yesteryear, we are in her hillside villa in the mountains outside Zurich, and the record company, frantic, is threatening law suits, and Corelli is sobbing and hysterical all over the landscape, and Nilsson in the middle is very calmly explaining that she thought she could sing it, but on closer attention to the score realizes this is out of the question. And we circle - besuited lawyers, belawyed suits, Corelli, Nilsson, her husband, his wife, Karajan maybe (no; Serafin), Christa Ludwig (the proposed Adalgisa - of course, she'd sung it with Callas), Tito Gobbi (what was he doing there?), Jon Vickers (who was not singing Pollione if Corelli was, but my subconscious is not easily explained), and me, all of us circling an enormous tree whose flowers (black, gray, brown, maroon, cobalt blue) resemble ribbons tied into flower-shaped knots) and we are circling and chanting as if celebrating some pagan rite, which perhaps explains what I am doing here, and then we all go into the house for a very Swiss sort of breakfast with scones and muesli and rashers of trimmed bacon, and akvavit in the coffee, and the execs simply do not understand Nilsson's reasoning and Corelli does but he's more upset about the damage her decision will make on his own career and the sun rises over the pure white modernist lines of the rather unattractive chalet ...

In the old days, someone would have asked me to sing opposite Nilsson (or maybe even instead of Nilsson), but my subconscious seems to have figured out, over the years, that I am not going out on stage, don't even hint it.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Baltic Overtures! or, A Little Knight Music

I've been fond of Sondheim shows ever since A Little Night Music (how did I ignore Follies and Company for so long? Was I blind -- or just heterosexual? A little of both), and of Bergman films even longer, I got to wondering: why did Bergman's blithest film strike mordant Steve's gong? (And why did he use so few of its wonderful lines? Well, IB probably insisted the entire screenplay be off-limits.)

I mean, so many other of Bergman's flicks seem to much likelier Sondheimerie.

So herewith -- and I submit for your consideration and any parodies you care to add -- and with apologies because I haven't seen the movie in thirty-five years and have no doubt forgotten some of it --

BALTIC OVERTURES, or A Little Knight Music
An operetta by S----- S-------- based on The Seventh Seal by I------ B-------

Suggested casting:
Death: John Cullum
Knight: Raul Esparza
Squire: Mandy Patinkin
Aging Actor: Marc Kudisch
Joseph: David Hyde Pierce
Mary: Kristin Chenoweth
Barmaid: Bernadette Peters (or Emily Anderson)
Witch: Idina Menzel (or Faith Prince)
Knight's Lady: Marin Mazzie

Songs to include (go ahead -- make a suggestion):

1. No Place Like Sweden (Home from the Crusades) (It Takes Two)
2. Chess Moves (in the form of haiku) (or perhaps Come Play With Me)
3. The Glamorous Life (aging actor's song)
4. There Are Angels in the Sky (recording your sins, condemning you to Hell) -- this could be sung in antiphon with It's Hot Down There
5. Waiting Around for the Guy Upstairs (Death explains)
6. Inquisition Tonight
7. Witch raps as she is burned at the stake -- but that's another story never mind let's forget about it
8. A Weekend in the Plague Ward (big Act I finale)
9. The Sun Sinks Low - as Low as It's Going to Go - no, really
10. Can That Boy Svenska
11. Ablutions -- what happened to them?
12. It's Called a Cap-a-pie
13. Getting Buried Today (finale ultimo)

Sunday, May 4, 2008

An Opera for Beltane

I suppose I should have been spending this lovely Beltane Sunday out in the woods a-conjuring summer in, but WWUH (University of West Hartford) has a Sunday afternoon opera program with a sweet tooth for unusual works, and their choice today was the new Naxos 8669 recording (from a 1996 Seattle Symphony concert - what took 'em so long?) of a genuine May Day opera, Howard Hanson's 1934 Merry Mount, libretto taken from a Hawthorne short story (but Hawthorne unaccountably omitted the extensive witches' sabbath-devil's orgy sequence from his version).

I remember when Hanson, who ran the Eastman School in Rochester for forty years, grumbled at salutes to 80-year-old Aaron Copland as the "grand old man of American music," that Copland wasn't old enough for this distinction and Hanson was. In any case, both are dead now, and Hanson's music is far from well known, as he lacked the jazz inflections and winning populist emotions that kept Copland up top. On the other hand, Copland never composed an opera for the Met, and Hanson did. I first discovered this years ago when my grandmother gave me her collection of old librettos - her husband (who died in 1935) having had a sweet tooth for opera. The Met, in Gatti-Casazza's day, felt a certain commitment to American music, and every year or two there was another world premiere - although not one of the works so created (unless you count Puccini's California Gold Rush drama, La Fanciulla del West) endured more than a season or two, and none are remembered today: Peter Ibbetson, Mona, The King's Henchman, Shanewis, The Great God Brown. With all their faults, these stylish works were a damn sight better operas than such Met commissions as The Last Savage and The Great Gatsby and An American Tragedy and The Voyage. (But none of them is half as good as Fanciulla.) (This leaves Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatra in some middling limbo. Anyway, rep standards they have never become.)

Merry Mount is an expert score, melodious in a late-romantic but pre-Schoenberg style. Its resemblance to movie scores (the field into which the more populist American and European composers were moving with a vengeance at the time of its premiere) is neither accidental nor displeasing. The vocal lines are not extreme enough to put it out of the range of revival, though the enormous cast may be. (At least we don't have excessive unsingable high notes, often fallen back on by post-tonal composers to express extreme emotion because they have given up all other musical methods of expressing it - melody used to accomplish this, remember?)

The centerpiece of the opera, for pagan music-lovers, is the great witches' sabbath that ends Act II, a wonderfully sensuous (not merely discordant) scene in which a Puritan minister, tempted by the flesh (in particular the flesh of a lovely Cavalier aristocrat, Lady Marigold Sandys, whom he identifies with the goddess Ashtoreth), falls utterly and gives himself up to demonic allegiance. What with religious hypocrisy running rampant in the U.S. these days, such a scene might with profit (prophet?) be presented by regional opera companies fed up with the lack of controversy under which they are forced to labor. Anyway, it's great fun for a pagan, and I'd love to see it staged somewhere. True, American witches may have problems with the final scene, in which local Indians attack the Puritan village, burn it to the ground, and scalp a couple of folks before being driven off.

Heartily recommended. (Why doesn't Botstein put this on?)