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

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Reading Proust

(with apologies to Jonathan Larson but not many)

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred pages –
Five hundred twenty-five bonny mots introduced –
Five hundred twenty-five thousand well-perused pages –
How do you measure the reading of Proust?

Five hundred twenty-five thousand mild fits of asthma –
Five hundred twenty-five social axes to grind –
Five hundred twenty-five thousand strolls in the country –
How do you measure the time of the mind?

In snubs –
In snobs –
In snarls –
In snarky artists –
In ma-
you dip in your tea –
In conversations
And railway stations
And invitations
To someone’s for tea,
In beaches –
And leeches –
And nouveaux reaches –
And finding some new artist to be.

What about lo-ove? (Selfish old love)
What about lo-ove? (It’s never requited)
What about lo-ove? (Sleep to forget it)
What about lo-ove? Art comes from love.

Five hundred twenty-five uncompleted sonatas,
Five hundred twenty-five girls in Albertine’s bed,
Five hundred twenty-five thousand duchesses’ parties –
How do you know when your Proust has been read?

Five hundred twenty-five thousand lavender curtains –
Five hundred twenty-five thoughts you realize at last –
Five hundred twenty-five thousand cattleya orchids –
How do you know you’ve recaptured the past?

Last Ballo - Vargas as Gustav (finally)

Hearing that Sal Licitra, whom I don't much like, had pulled out of the opera tonight, and would be replaced by Ramon Vargas, whom I do like, and who has sung the role of Riccardo/Gustav III all over the world BUT NOT HERE, I biked up to the Met for Ballo in maschera, got a $20 ticket for $20 (Row X, side) at the door, and - bonus! - a guy with a parterre box seat to the May 14 First Emperor sold it to me for $50. My friend Jack, who was there, referred to the tenor in absentia as “La Creatura.” Cute, eh? And Jack isn’t even gay. (I can’t wait to spring it on La Cieca.)

Act I was pretty bad – no one was singing well but Steffi Blythe, who got a thunderous ovation. Real DARK low notes. Vargas sounded dry, but he was enjoying himself, romping around the stage, doing ooga-booga gestures to make fun of Ulrica’s predictions of his imminent demise, etc. Dmitri Hvorostovsky was a stick. Ofelia Sala, though a bit busty for it, was rather more boyish (at least tomboyish) than most Oscars in this production, who are frankly femmefemmefemme.

Act II was an improvement – Angela M. Brown was not good in the aria, but warmed up in the all-for-love duet, and Vargas was sounding more like himself. Dmitri H still unbending stiff. Good work from Schowalter & Tian as Amos & Andy (the only half-breed Indian-Africans with an ancestral castle in Massachusetts Bay).

I figured I’d stick around to see if Vargas could pull off his Act III aria, then dash. To my surprise, everyone was kind of on board. Dmitri was almost acting, sang a decent Eri tu (though huffing and puffing between phrases, as he always does when singing Verdi), and Brown’s Morro, ma prima was genuinely good Verdi singing. She’s just not reliable or consistent is my complaint. Maybe there’s a real Verdi soprano in there, but who can tell?

The aria was Vargas in clover, the best singing all night, real Verdi-ismo, beautifully phrased, ardent, soaring, filled the house. My only Bravo. (No; I did it again for his curtain call.) So I decided what the hell, I’d stay for the final duet. Sure enough, he and Brown were in tip-top form. That silly overblown production almost concealed it, but … there they were. I wanted to say, as if I were the Emperor, “All right, now you’re UP for it, let’s have Act I all over again.” But no – for one thing, Steffi had already gone home.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Salute to Larry Hart

Larry Hart is in no need of an assist from me. He's in clover, enviable in almost any songwriter who didn't compose tunes who has been dead 65 years.

Tunesmiths, after all, can make you hum even if you forget the lyrics; Larry Hart's lyrics can be hummed. Think of, say, "Mountain Greenery": "We could find no keener re-treat from life's machinery than our mountain greenery home" or, from "Blue Room": "You sew your trousseau and Robinson Crusoe is not more far from worldly cares than our little blue room way upstairs." Rodgers wrote the melodies first, and then Hart would put the rhymes on the important notes.

I'm always discovering Rodgers & Hart songs I had not encountered previously (or not memorably), and I'm always discovering something else glorious about his placement of a word or a line or a witticism where one did not expect it. I often acquire CDs of Rodgers & Hart specialists (all female, hmm), and can recommend or discourage you: Ella Fitzgerald (A, as always - and she sings the verses); Barbara Cook (B - a trifle jejune - she was still in her 30s - but often affecting); Flicka von Stade (C - it's not her voice that is operatic overblown, it's John McGlinn's orchestrations - still, she does a lovely mix of standards and oddities); Eileen Farrell (B - I know it's a classic, and you'll hate me for this, but I find her a little overbearing in places, such as "Can't You Do A Friend A Favor" - she does a lovely "You're Nearer" though); and Dawn Upshaw (A - she has splendid Broadway chops and, now that she is no longer an opera star, really should be doing operettas on Broadway ... except, oops, it's no longer the 1930s or even the 1950s, is it? - anyway, her "Thou Swell" with David Garrison and "Why Can't I?" with Audra would alone be worth the price). Lee Wiley did half a dozen R&H sides, mostly unusual stuff - all of it perfect - but especially "A Ship Without A Sail" and "You Took Advantage Of Me."

Elsewhither, having recently had access to most of the Ben Bagley collections and their incredible horde of treasures (far too many of them flustered with damned electric piano arrangements, but NOT ALL), I was knocked all of a heap by Dorothy Loudon's "If I Were You" (a typical Larry Hart joke song based on a feeling of being unloved - cf. Von Stade's overblown version), Blossom Dearie's "A Lady Must Live" and "I Can Do Wonders With You"), and there's a wonderful duet called "Try Again Tomorrow."

Currently my favorite R&H songs (this changes a lot) are: "Wait Till You See Her" (from By Jupiter), "You Have Cast Your Shadow On The Sea" (from the flawless score of The Boys from Syracuse), "I Wish I Were In Love Again" (from the almost flawless score of Babes in Arms), "Way Out West on West End Avenue" (ditto), "It Never Entered My Mind" (Higher & Higher - how can such a perfect song come from a flop?), "This Is My Night To Howl" (Connecticut Yankee, which also produced "Thou Swell," "My Heart Stood Still," and "Can't You Do A Friend A Favor"), "You're Nearer," "Like A Ship Without A Sail," "Why Can't I?", "Mountain Greenery" and "Too Good for the Average Man" (which is probably my motto for the whole Hart oeuvre). I've always wanted to sing "Give It Back To The Indians" at a pagan gathering, ideally when my friend Thundercloud, the Lakota shaman of Seattle, was present. Major un-PC.

And I don't just like Larry for things like:
"I like a prize fight that isn't a fake/ I like the rowing on Central Park Lake/ I go to opera and stay wide awake" or (same song, but it's my motto:)
"I'm all alone when I lower my lamp" - ooh, can't you feel those L's hissing?

or "You have what I lack myself/ Now I even have to scratch my back myself"
(which I have filked to: "Since you've gone I kick myself/ Now I even have to suck my dick myself")

or "Only my book in bed/ Knows how I look in bed/ I only mean to imply/ Everybody has someone - why can't I?
"If love means merriment/ I should experiment/ With an electrical guy/ Even old maids find a burglar - why can't I?"

or "The shortest day of the year has the longest night of the year, and the longest night is the shortest night with you"

or even "When he talks he is seeking/ Words to get off his chest/ Horizontally speaking/ He's at his very best"

- what I really love are the lines that hold back on the punchline till the last line or the last word.

"Wait Till You See Her" - a perfect love song (and Larry cleverly put the pronouns where they would not rhyme, so it can be sung about a "him" or a "her" with equal grace) - and an epigram: Wait Till You See Her/Him ... followed by all the amazing comparisons you could like, but ending: When you see her/him ... you won't believe your eyes."

or "He Was Too Good To Me," about a breakup, listing all the things he did for her, and ending, "It's only natural I'm blue? ... He was too good ... to be true."

That is to say: Hart (like all the greatest American lyricists, down to the last of the noble line, Mr. Sondheim and the late Mr. Ebb) could take a demotic cliché hanging on the line out to dry and turn it into a witticism, a musical witticism: spare, elegant, poetic but not highfalutin, the poesy of the man and woman in the street. The man and woman dancing in the street.

Sunday, April 20, 2008


Satyagraha is a mighty odd duck to encounter if you are seeking a traditional opera-going experience or anything like it. The piece is not a music-drama, an enactment of a story by singers using musical means to express their emotions. Instead of an impersonated text, the characters enact scenes from Gandhi’s early struggles to invent and apply his philosophy of pacific resistance to tyranny while singing/chanting gnomic phrases from the ancient Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita.

For another matter, vocal art is – how to put this? – not foregrounded in this musical stage piece, though the duet performed by Maria Zifchak and Ellie Dehn in Act III, evolving into an ensemble as Gandhi leads his followers in a triumphant march for striking coal miners, is as gorgeous a piece of sheer vocal sound as the Met has presented all season. Richard Croft, who from his years as an early music tenor (renowned for his limpid Handel) has learned how to fill a simple line with subtle emotion, playing Gandhi made the feeling of enlightened, undramatic mystery both accessible and moving – which I think is what the composer wished to achieve (and failed to achieve, to my mind, in his Akhnaton). These performances are not “operatic” except in the sense that they come from “characters” and sing without microphones, but they thrill the ear for all that.

Philip Glass’s “opera” is more of an oratorio, but not even that, for the text does not pretend to tell any kind of stage-story. The Gita texts are illustrated by symbolic dioramas of six scenes from the early life of Mahatma Gandhi, plus, as prologue, the most famous scene from the Gita itself, and mimed moments in the lives of three contemporaries who influenced or were influenced by Gandhi: Leo Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore and Martin Luther King. The scenes presented take place in British South Africa before World War I. There, Gandhi developed a philosophy and a following for peaceful resistance to oppression before he took this message home to India, whose liberation he was ultimately instrumental in effecting.

In this extraordinary production by Phelim McDermott to designs by Julian Crouch with lighting by Paule Constable, the use of multimedia from modern and ancient sources (puppets, shadows, processions, stilts, aerial stunts, projections, moving projections), has been carefully calculated. Movement and design exquisitely accompany the musical and dramatic presentation, which demonstrates in its cumulative power the effect of synchronized musical, dramatic and stage structure into one concentrated act of storytelling. This marks a painful contrast, for example, to the Met’s stagings of Lucia and Peter Grimes earlier this season, where the directors (unaccustomed to opera and unfamiliar with the works they were handling) seemed perversely determined to defy and contradict the dramatic intentions of the creators, to use their stage smarts to frustrate the telling of the tales. Perhaps because of the difficulty Satyagraha would have appealing to any traditional opera house audience if it were given perverse or slapdash treatment, or perhaps just because the composer is alive and present to protest, Satyagraha has been given a production with a care and a thoughtfulness – a concern for the work – that the Met seems unwilling to lavish upon more standard fare.

Newspapers, a frequent trope, represent the sort of metaphor the staging plays with. Gandhi’s revolution might well have fizzled without this avenue of appeal to the “great British sense of fair play” – a thing that did not usually prevent the government from doing whatever it wanted. For the first time in history, the whole world was watching and Gandhi’s moral force was in people’s faces, not an ignorable event in some distant corner of the planet.

Building on this point, newspapers serve screens on which to read subtitles or through which to see shadow puppet shows. Newspapers are balled up as weapons hurled at Gandhi by hostile crowds, and are laid out on stage by busy followers representing, perhaps, the repetitive motions of the labor force (in fields or in factories) who were Gandhi’s audience and his constituency – and the intended beneficiaries of his work.

Special congratulations are due to chorus master Donald Palumbo (the hero, in fact, of the entire season) and to Dante Anzolini, who had the unenviable job of leading the Met orchestra used to more variation than what they play in Glass’s slow-moving and repetitious score, and accomplished this with great success.

The score itself builds upon the usual Glass arpeggios, the repetitiousness that makes each intrusion a fascinating relief. In a Glass score, melody, like text, has been discarded as an expressive tool – and I, for one, deeply regret the fact that melody has ceased to speak to much of the contemporary audience, or anyway to contemporary composers of opera.

What Glass has replaced these things with does not serve the traditional purposes of opera, and so we must examine what purpose an “opera” now has. He relies on rhythm, and he makes tremendous – sometimes excessive – use of it, for instance to express the hieratically slow progress of the peace movement. Then, there is a tremendously effective moment near the end of Act I when the regular four-square rhythm we have grown used to abruptly lurches into a syncopated beat to suggest the turbulence created by Gandhi in his acquiescent society – a traditional trick, and I was grateful for the hint of something comprehensible in Glass’s method.

At the end of Act II, I was also much amused when Gandhi’s followers threw their identity cards into a pit and brought in a torch to set them on fire. Glass, evidently unable to find a way of setting such a moment in his personal stylebook, fell back on illustrating flames in a manner that would have been familiar to Tchaikowsky (in The Maid of Orleans) or Verdi (Otello), never mind Wagner. Glass renounces expressiveness, but when he finds he needs it, he has to go back to the classics to steal it. It is like the very young couple next door sneering at your old-fashioned notions of haute cuisine and then coming by to borrow a cup of sugar. Refined, unhealthy – and necessary to bake an operatic cake.

The crowd in the (packed) house on April 14 seemed, many of them, new to the labyrinthine Met: they were not sure where the rest rooms or cafĂ© bars were located; when they all rushed for coffee at the intermissions, I (having caffeinated before the performance) enjoyed a flute of champagne to mellow out. The lines seemed unusually short. The house was filled, as it is on all the best nights, with the buzz of conversation debating the performance – from the old and puzzled to the young and disputatious. This may be further evidence that Satyagraha does not appeal to, and on acquaintance does not produce, the sort of excitement favored by the usual opera lover. That there is a passionate market for it cannot be doubted. Is that market best served by luring it to the Met? Will they return for opera-as-usual or will they insist on this standard of production, to the point of downgrading star singing?

Satyagraha, by whatever fortunate combination of forces, under whatever conjunction of stars, is a magnificent night at the opera.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Hindu Deity of the High C's

Discussing the Hindu pantheon last night in the usual place for such things, a sleazy gay dive, explaining the Hindu take on monotheism (of course there's only one god - all 370,000,000 of them are one) to a (somewhat) religious Jewish friend, and Ganesha's birth from Parvati and Shiva, and Parvati's relationship with Kali-Durga, and he intruded, "Is Pavarati the Hindu god of singing and overeating?"

I'm sure you're as appalled as I was.

"I think I'll save that one for appropriate recycling," I muttered. He responded with whatever the Hebrew greeting is for the eve of Passover. (I wouldn't know; we gave all that stuff up a couple of generations back.)

Multiculturalism lives!

(P.S. You probably thought the Hindu deity of the High C's was Radamastor, Lord of the Waves, q.v. Meyerbeer's L'Africaine.)

Friday, April 18, 2008

Andre Aciman's memoirs

Andre Aciman's new novel got such good reviews that I decided to read his memoir, Out of Egypt, published to great fanfare, reviews, awards in 1994. A thoroughly enjoyable family story full of "characters" and bygone customs and competing narratives and a sense of oncoming not-exactly doom. I was in college with an Alexandrian Jew named Andre Bernard, his father an Egyptian Sephardi, his mother French (fled to Egypt when the Vichy regime took over in France), who had themselves fled Egypt when King Farouk was overthrown by the nationalist regime eventually headed by Nasser. (1953) Aciman's family stayed on a few more precarious years, as one by one their property was sequestered (British and French nationals in 1956, others later - Aciman's father claimed Turkish nationality, and held out till 1965). The Jews who had lived in Egypt since at least the fourth century B.C.E. were finally expelled from the land, as they were from all the Arab lands (where, as in Egypt, they had often lived for longer than the Arabs had) in the wake of the independence of Israel, too bitter a pill for any Arab regime to swallow. The Christian communities are not doing so well in these lands either - they are also more ancient than the Muslims in such nations as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Yemen, but it isn't helping them. The Christian Palestinians are in no higher favor with the Israeli authorities than the Muslim Palestinians - a difference is that the Christians are more likely to have relatives to take them in abroad.

It is all part of the sad rise of nationalism around the Mediterranean that has been a tragic part of the history of the 20th century. The Med used to be surrounded by transnational cities like Alexandria - Constantinople, Barcelona, Algiers, Beirut, Smyrna, Thessalonika, Trieste, Split, Durazzo, Venice. Now only Marseilles (and perhaps Napoli, with its African and Chinese immigrants) remains a great cosmopolitan metropolis. The others are monuments to one nation each. (Splendid article on this by Jerry Miller in the current Foreign Affairs, by the way.)

One thing surprised me in Out of Egypt was the author's careless reference to the Muslim holiday of Ramadan - Ramadan, he tells us, was a spring holiday, always a sign that the summers at the beach were about to begin. And I can easily believe this was true in the last year or even two of his life in Alexandria, years that would imprint himself on his careless memory in all the years that followed, but Ramadan is not a fixed holiday on the solar calendar - the Muslim calendar is lunar, and its holidays move steadily backwards year by year, falling ten days short of our calendar. This year Ramadan was in October; next year it will be in September. It seems surprising that someone who grew up in a Muslim country did not remember this. But then, as he subtly points out (he never states it), Alexandria was not a Muslim city, it was a polyglot city, a polynational city, a polyreligious city - until Nasser gradually cleansed it, of Brits and French (after their failed war for the Suez in 1956), of other Europeans later on, of Jews steadily, and ultimately even of Copts, the aboriginal inhabitants of Egypt (insofar as anyone is). Andre's family spoke Ladino among themselves, French as a common tongue, English or German or Italian in separate family groupings, Hebrew only when it had to be remembered for prayers, a sort of pidgin to the servants (Arabs all) - but Arabic never. At his great-grandmother's hundredth birthday party, she fondly says she's lived in Alexandria fifty years, half her life, and doesn't know more than fifty words of Arabic. Andre is ordered to study Arabic by his father (who fears government spies), but he flunks the class steadily, unable to take any of it seriously, even to learn the letters. He recites suras from the Koran, but cannot translate them or understand them. Conversational Arabic is out - his friends are all Jews or Christians anyway.

More controversial, I gather, is the question of how much of this story Aciman remembered and how much he invented, or varied. Some writers insist the star figure of the first chapter, his scoundrel greatuncle Vili, confidence man, auctioneer, secret agent, womanizer, demagogue, professor is not in fact a real relative but a notable Alexandrian distantly related (most of his scenes in the book take place before Andre is born, and are so presented) but not quite the man Aciman writes of. Some writers express outrage that the book won a non-fiction prize.

But ... it's a memoir. Memory is a tricky thing. Memoirists make things up, add details, subtract others, enhance the portrait (it's a portrait, not a photograph), omit a color or a defect, or underline one to get a heartier laugh. Vili is a great character. No writer could resist inventing him, enhancing him, building him up. I'm on the side of the writer in this one.

Too, as Aciman admits (and we know his academic credentials), his favorite novel is Proust's, and Proust's novel is pieced together from many an unforgettable character devised from enlarging upon the characteristics of real people Proust knew. He never said his novel was anything other than fiction, but the boundaries where Marcel leaves off and "Marcel" begins are seldom clear-cut. This is how writers work. We may read a novel and wish we knew what genuine experiences produced it ... but if it is a real work of imagination, then the experience was only the nugget of what appeared on the page ... and in any case, even in the factiest non-fiction, the writer's viewpoint is never objective ... it is not what another person would have seen or said ... it is not what god (whichever) would have noticed.

I was thinking of that, unoriginally enough, when I wrote a poem last weekend (which appears in a post on my other blog, urbanepagan) and sent it to several friends, and a few of them asked who the love affair remembered romantically in it had concerned. The answer surprised them: I made it all up. Or no, that's not true or fair, I took bits of this event and that affair and this imaginary moment and put them together with sentiments long saved to produce the poem. It is what writers do. They don't just list the facts. How dull that would be.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Puccini's Edgar - OONY

It was one of Queler’s good nights. You know the bad ones, the reputedly great unknown score that, like a defective Frankenstein’s monster, refuses to come to life under her listless thunderbolt, the overparted “name” star, the clueless newbies – but there have also been great Queler nights, where a forgotten masterpiece made everybody’s eyes shine (while we wonder why on earth this is obscure), familiar singers do things you never dreamed they could do, and the unknown names are names everyone will know someday, are, well, great opera nights. Edgar was a blend of familiar (Puccini melody) and unfamiliar (but those tunes were better in other scores), with a star giving a star performance, a couple of promising youngsters, and an oldster out of depth and style but camping it up to thrill us.

Edgar is like some disreputable relation you always enjoy running into for their exuberance and oddity, and are grateful not to meet at every family party. Puccini’s second opera and first full-length effort deserves its obscurity (which is legend); one hears it nowadays mostly from a lack of anything else to scrape from the exhausted barrel of the later Italian line. (Though another association, Teatro Gratticielo, has done an impressive job resuscitating verismo works of unexpected worthiness and charm.)

The problem for Puccini – as no one knew at the time but we easily detect in hindsight – is that he didn’t quite know how to tug our heartstrings with a male protagonist. The women here are a study in contrast (goody-goody soprano, wicked, sexy mezzo), but neither has enough room, musically or dramatically, to become a living, memorable figure. Why is Tigrana such a shallow sensualist? Because she’s a Gypsy foundling? But Carmen, to take another such, has a range, an inner life, a distinctive outlook in any single act of Bizet’s opera that makes Tigrana seem an irritable child. Why is Fidelia so loving, no matter the provocation? Is it because of her name? The story takes us no deeper than that. (Again: compare Bizet’s Micaela, a fully-rounded person with a comprehensible inner life.) Puccini could make a drama out of sympathetic or unsympathetic women – but he could not (at this early stage) make one from a pair of cardboard shadows.

Therefore the outpourings of self-disgusted melody from Puccini’s protagonist (though they produce a terrific night for the right tenor, and Marcello Giordani, our best Puccini tenor nowadays, was in clover) may arouse applause but they never create interest in the outcome of this bitter little story of a man caught between a saint and a whore. The only question: will Tigrana stab herself? Or will she stab the neurotic Edgar? Or the innocent Fidelia? is not very interesting. (Which would you choose, if your objective was to shock your audience? And that was always Puccini’s aspiration.)

Queler has conducted this score before, an occasion I barely remember: it is difficult to imagine Renata Scotto sinking her teeth into Fidelia to any great degree (there’s so little meat). Edgar is a lush score with verismo outpourings but also a grand concertato near the end of Act I left over from bel canto style (Puccini never wrote such a thing again) and several “ecclesiastical” numbers (vespers, a requiem) that were perfect for his family tradition.

Giordani sang with a bright, metallic sheen and an ease conspicuously lacking in his Met Ernani. It was a performance of little variety, agreeably loud (and OONY regulars like it loud), but with some interesting colors during the character’s scenes of teeth-gnash self-loathing, which include a sermon in disguise at his own funeral.

Latonia Moore, one of Queler’s stable of rising young sopranos, has a sumptuous, beautiful, crowd-pleasing voice, but it was not clear from separate, limpid, often wonderful phrases if she can put things together into a fully rounded presentation because sweet Fidelia offers such slight opportunity to do so. But the notes themselves were so wonderfully produced that one longed to hear her in more familiar repertory to see if she’s the real thing – too many ladies have fallen by the wayside in recent years as the Verdi/Puccini soprano we all long to die for.

Jennifer Larmore, alarmingly pudgy a couple of years ago, is now alarmingly rail-thin. Her acting was suitably over the top for Tigrana the heartless vamp (Theda Bara couldn’t have outplayed her), but the voice (never a Puccini-verismo voice) was not up to the role: the luscious dark colors that floored us when she first came on the scene are completely gone, and she sounded thin, overstretched, unsensuous. This role was written for a blockbuster mezzo – where was Dolora Zajick when we needed her? (Stephanie Blythe or Olga Borodina would have had fun with it, too. And all three have sung with Queler.) Larmore was all pose and gown, and she appeared to have stolen the gown from Karita Mattila’s recital wardrobe.

Stephen Gaertner, a frequent figure in concert operas and a recent Met debutante (Enrico, Melot), was impressive as Fidelia’s manic brother, Frank. “Parli il pugnale,” he and Giordani cried at one point – “Our swords will speak for us!” – when they are about to do dubious battle over Tigrana’s much contested (living) body. That tells us right there that the story is too archaic for the era Puccini lived in.
Fortunately, the swords did not do the singing.

Prokofiev's The Gambler at the Met

That Fed Dostoevsky – sure plays a mean pinball!

That version of a line from another opera I once saw at the Met encapsulates my response to the return of the elegant Temur Chkhedze production of Prokofiev’s The Gambler, based on Dostoevsky's novella of addiction and social dysfunction set in a fictitious German casino spa much like the ones where Dostoevsky frittered himself into bankruptcy. In the Met production, Roulettenberg is not so much a green baize casino as a four-story-high pinball game, with great glass-and-metal towers to knock the balls back in, flashing and spinning, bursting lights, exploding horses and fireworks, a twirling park for the characters to circle each other when not “in play,” and a crannied attic – which expands to the width of the stage as needed – for our eponymous gambler to spend his time driving himself nuts with unrequited passion, for both the lovely Polina and the equally whimsical game of roulette. It’s not money he’s after, really, this Alexei slouching aggressively around town in a trenchcoat (in Vladimir Galouzine’s mesmerizing, physical, merciless star performance), or even Polina, really – it’s the thrill – of beating the odds – every sort of odds – life’s odds – the class system’s odds – the odds of Fate. Since that particular house cannot be beaten, the story cannot end well. We hardly laugh when a bankrupt, lovelorn General fires a pistol into his own head – the gun isn’t loaded and he’s already dead.

Prokofiev’s opera is not melodious, even by the standards of his War and Peace, which swept me off my feet when the Met revived it in December. The Gambler has no big picture, no nations running riot on the stage, and no glorious off-kilter waltzes to set the sensual scene. It is focused on the personal: on selfish individuals with no interest but their own financial welfare. The opera is a lithe, onomatopoeic score, a vehicle for a few great singing actors, and the story is tightly wound. Alexei, a typical poor Russian intellectual, works as a tutor in the family of a General, who has come to Roulettenberg, supposedly to take the waters but actually to barter his lovely stepdaughter, Polina, to a rich marquis in order to borrow enough money to win the hand of the lovely courtesan, Madame Blanche, meanwhile hoping his rich mother-in-law in Moscow will finally die and leave him her fortune. Tragically, the old lady is in fine health, comes to town herself, and loses sixty thousand at the wheel. Polina begs Alexei to acquire the money to save her from selling herself on the marriage market, and in the spectacular set piece of Act IV, he goes to the tables, breaks the bank and cleans out the town! Triumphant, he gives the money to his adored Polina – and she hurls it back in his face. Curtain.

Prokofiev wisely simplified Dostoevsky’s ugly story. In the short novel, Blanche carries Alexei off to Paris to teach him how to spend (her own great talent); but he enjoys nothing now except a gambler’s high, and returns to the casino a hopeless addict.

The shadiness of these figures is the point – notice that none of them are blood relations. In the 1870s, censors (and readers) would not have been able to endure a story in which people sell their children or parents for money, but stepchildren, adoptive parents and in-laws were fair game. Even forty years after the novel appeared, when Strauss, in Elektra, showed a family of blood relations hating each other, there was a scandal. Then Freud let the cat out of the bag about families.

The Met’s brilliantly staged, magnificently played, sparsely attended revival is the swan song of Valery Gergiev’s immensely distinguished far too brief career as the Met’s co-music director, a period that has introduced us to many wonderful, too-little-known Russian works with the cream of Russian singers and a mixed bag of Russian directors to put them over. It will immensely impoverish the Metropolitan, and the New York opera scene (thickly inhabited with Russians these days, by the way) if these works, and others we have not yet heard, vanish from the repertory and we resume mediocre revivals of the thrice-familiar.

Promenading about George Tsypin’s glamorous set these days (thrillingly lit by James F. Ingalls), besides the extraordinary Mr. Galouzine, who plays a crazed Russian as if he were, well, a crazed Russian (he’ll do it again in Pikovaya Dama next year, and you know? in Pagliacci, he was the scariest Canio I’ve ever seen); Olga Guryakova’s plum-shaped, sensuous tones as Polina; Larissa Diadkova as a far livelier (and audibly far easier to take) Grandma than Elena Obrastzova was; and a great horde of Kirov and Met regulars in smaller roles doing small but exciting things. This is one of those operas where one is very thankful for the Met titles, as we would otherwise miss a lot even if we were fluent in Russian (and I’m not).

An evening of theater at the Met to wake you up.

An important point none of the commentators at the Met have discussed: it was illegal for women to play the wheel at places like Roulettenberg. (I'm not sure how long this remained in force. Until World War I?) This is the reason Polina must use Alexei to play her money for her - she isn't interested in him in the least. Also, it is Blanche's modus operandi - she goes to the casino, spots unattached and rich-looking men, and asks them to place a bet for her. But she asked Baron Wurmser, and he was not unattached - and the Baroness had the morals police throw Blanche out. She cannot go back to the casino to find another mark until she is respectably married, which accounts for her (slight) interest in the General - but even him she won't marry unless he's rich. And when Granny arrives, she has to have a male escort to bet her money for her. No one at the Met seems to have noticed any of this, but it is quite important to the structure of the story - if only because otherwise we might think Polina is attracted to Alexei.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Musicals of 1954

I'm not even sure when Scott and Barbara Siegel started the series of Broadway by the Year at Town Hall (four Mondays a year, each devoted to songs from a certain year's shows, starring hot and not so hot performers who are off that night) - I think it was about eight years ago - but it's become one of those unmissable New York things like Encores or losing millions of dollars in mass transit funds out of sheer legislative stupidity. This is on the pleasanter side of the ledger with walks across the Brooklyn Bridge and new ethnic restaurants. (Yohalem's Law: Whenever there's a political crisis anywhere on earth, three new restaurants open in New York.) (I'm saving New York recipes for when I'm forced to flee to Vancouver or the Punjab.)

Where was I? 1954. That's the year displayed last night. You never know when the concert is going to be a triumph or a fizzle - the series has boasted plenty of both. 1929 was a triumph - "How could it not be?" Barbara Siegel scoffed at me. "Two Cole Porter shows! Three Rodgers & Hart shows!" But 1930 was a fizzle, and the same sort of songs were going on. There has to be a balance - I prefer songs I've never (or rarely) heard before (or not in a very long time), and because there is hardly any time to rehearse, the singers tend to prefer songs they already know, which tend to be from well-known shows. If you hit 1945 and you'll get a flood of Carousel. (But that show had Marc Kudisch and Christine Noll doing the complete scene around "If I Loved You" unplugged - every syllable clear as a bell to the top row in that adorable hall). Also, dare I admit it? there are certain performers nowadays whose style drives me crazy. I look forward to Marc Kudisch (who wasn't in this show but will be in the next, 1965, on May 12) but I never look forward to Scott Coulter's high, whiny tenor. My date looked at the program, saw Scott Coulter was singing "I'm Flying" from Peter Pan, and sighed, "He'll turn it into an inspirational ballad with lo-ong drawnout phrases" - which is exactly what SC did. To be fair, it got one of the night's biggest ovations - just not from me. Scott Coulter was the evening's designated director, however, so he didn't have much opportunity to sing. (Good.) 1954 was the year, besides Peter Pan, of Pajama Game - all great songs, but thrice-familiar - for one thing I just saw the revival with Harry Connick and Kelli O'Hara. There were seven songs from PG on the list and five from PP - I was hoping for more from The Golden Apple (favorite show of all true musicals queens, along with She Loves Me) and Fanny (which I barely know) - they only rated two each. House of FLowers and The Boy Friend rated three each, and there were also songs from By the Beautiful Sea and The Girl in Pink Tights.

But the songs are just the groundwork; it's the performances that make or break a Broadway by the Year. The deal is: you cadge or swipe or entreat or acquire or - in extreme cases - buy a ticket, squeeze in, admiring the posters from Town Hall programs of old (Leontyne Price in Coronation of Poppaea in, of all years, 1954! Lotte Lenya and Kirsten Flagstad and Paul Robeson in recital! (Separately.) Political meetings to protest Franco or McCarthy or nukes or Vietnam or segregation - we are in Old Leftie Town home base). Then Scott Siegel appears with a page of factoids from the year in question, including who was born that year - in 1954, he happened to mention, not born but bar mitzvah in Hibbing, Minnesota was Bobby Zimmerman (sound of what sounded like B. Dylan singing Hebrew prayers in his trademark rasp) memorialize Edythe Kenner and tell us who had an accident at the last minute and didn't show up.

Highlights of what then ensued: Jen Cody (tiny, fabulous) and Mark Price (ideal foil) doing "Won't You Charleston With Me" and "Hernando's Hideaway," extremely young Kendrick Jones dancing "Slide Boy Slide" (early steps on a career sure to make him a household name Very Soon), Emily Skinner, mistress of comic ballads, singing "I'd Rather Wake Up By Myself" and (with Mark Price) "I'll Never Be Jealous Again" (she was also lovely in "Once Upon a Time and Long Ago" but the lyrics were inaudible in "You've Got to be a Little Crazy" (and it's a patter no one knows, so we NEED to hear the lyrics), Cheyenne Jackson's "Hey There" and (with Sierra Boggess) "There Once Was a Man" (If you haven't got a couple who can put this duet over as powerhouse as this - don't stage Pajama Game, Paul Schoeffler's "Captain Hook's Waltz" - if you count telecasts, Peter Pan was really the first musical I ever saw (and with Mary Martin and Cyril Richard no less), and every word of the lyrics came back to me - but now I understand them - "Who's the slimiest rat in the pack? Captain Hook! Captain Hook!" Debbie Gravitte was terrific in "I'm Not At All In Love" but far too slow and dreary with "Lazy Afternoon," Sierra Boggess did a fine "Windflowers" (but why no "Goona-Goona"?), Noah Racey and Melinda Sullivan took on the inevitable "Steam Heat." Three 70-year-old men sang "I Won't Grow Up."

Defects: Natalie Belcon, usually a great belter, has not learned that songs with elaborate lyrics require distinct enunciation or they're wasted; and Scott Coulter sang a song cut from Peter Pan, "When I Went Home," making it clear why it didn't fit in that light, enchanting show. This isn't much for levels of tedium - given my druthers, I'd have had them do more from the shows I don't know and "Two Ladies in the Shade of the Banana Tree" from House of Flowers. But 1954 has to rank with 1929 as one of the best shows in the series, and I'm ecstatic to make the acquaintance of Ms. Cody (maybe I'll run over to the Lortel to catch her in Junie and Ms. Boggess (no, I'm not going to Little Mermaid) and catch any gleams of Msdms. Skinner and Gravitte and Messers Jackson, Price, Schoeffler, Racey and - you'll hear about this one A LOT - Kendrick Jones.

A tough ticket getting ever tougher. Hang out around the edges and you might be able to score something. You'll be glad you did.