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

Monday, December 28, 2009

Der Fledermausmann! A new year's eve travesty

Der Fledermausmann

An impression of certain confusing events on a recent Saturday afternoon in an area with poor radio reception.

(…static establishes that we are listening to a broadcast; then a familiar voice intones:)

“…As the curtain rises, we find ourselves in 19th-century Vienna, in the elegantly appointed bedroom of an aristocrat, Count Rudolf Wehn, whom we find just waking up in bed with his young ward, Octavian. From their amorous chit-chat, we learn that they are secretly Vienna’s caped crusader against crime, der Fledermausmann, and Fritz, des Knaben Wunderhorn, or horny boy wonder. A sudden commotion in the corridor announces the arrival of the Count’s country cousin, Rosalinda von Eisenstein, brushing aside the protests of Count Rudolf’s devoted but incompetent butler and cabbie, Schatzendorff. Rosalinda is broke and has come to town seeking Rudolf’s help to get herself a rich husband, ideally innocent young Alfried, only son of the nouveau riche former burlesque queen Baroness Fanny Waldner. Octavian quickly disguises himself as a maid and hops back into bed with the Count, hoping Rosalinda will detect nothing untoward. But Rosalinda is instantly smitten with the pretty girl (or so she thinks), and attempts to make a date with her, at a heurige, an inn in the Vienna Woods equipped (as we will find in Act III) with a chambre separée ….”

(…more static and occasional bursts of late-Romantic music, including, during the Act II Ball chez Prince Metternich, an interpolation from the same composer's operetta Die Diskoprinzessin of the only waltz song in 4/4 time: “Lvov, City of Lvove,” sung by a masked Galician tenor over the sound of a game of skat in the next alcove, and then, during the preposterous shenanigans in the Viennese country inn at the end of Act III, Jenny, a streetwalker, sings that bitter indictment of the bourgeoisie, “Das Garmisch-Partenkirchen-Lied,” the number that is said to have caused the censors of the Duke of Wölfenbüttel to ban the premier performance. At last, to our great relief, at the end of the third intermission, the familiar voice returns, to dissolve the Gordian knots of the plot:)

“Act IV opens in the major metropolitan jail of Vienna, where we meet Schlivovitcz, the comic jailer, a non-acting role. Enter, in great excitement, Alfried’s governess, Adele, who, you may remember, has disguised herself as a man to penetrate (as it were) the Viennese underworld. Since Adele is played by a baritone in drag, Schlivovitcz assumes she is the thug she is dressed as, and Adele has some (humorous) difficulty fending off his lewd advances. At last, however, she obtains an audience with Prince Metternich (played, you doubtless recall, by a mezzo-soprano en travesti), and reveals to him that the gang terrorizing metropolitan Vienna is led by a contralto with her arm in a sling. This can be no one but Rosalinda, who was wounded by Octavian in the Act II melee. Rosalinda is dragged off to a term in the dungeons of the Spielberg. Prince Metternich (twirling his mustachios) resolves to take an “interest” in Adele’s future career as an actress and offers her a ceremonial glass of champagne from his high leather boot. If she quaffs the whole thing in one gulp (and of course she does), she has accepted the arrangement. Meanwhile Octavian and Alfried have realized that they are meant for each other, and Count Rudolf, brushing aside a tear, departs in his flederfiaker, or bat-cab with Schatzendorff, as the curtain falls.

“The applause you’re hearing greets Maestro Spiegeltraum as he makes his way through the pit and asks the orchestra to rise. The House lights are going down, and we are ready for the concluding act of Der Fledermausmann….”

As ready as we’ll ever be, anyway.

(c) 2009, John Yohalem

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Kandinsky at the Guggenheim

Don't ask me why I bothered, but after a tedious soggy Saturday visiting the Mum in bleak Westchester (she claims she's been evicted, or possibly kidnapped by space aliens, but was looking forward to our theater date ... what theater date?), I got off the train at 125th Street and caught a bus down Fifth Avenue, reaching the Guggenheim Museum about 5:15. On Saturday nights from 5:45 to 7:45, entrance is pay-what-you-wish to this overpriced museum, and the Kandinsky retrospective runs only through January 13th. The line in the pouring rain was around the block and as far as Madison Avenue, and when I finally got in the door at six, the line behind me was still out of sight. As usual when I go to the Guggenheim, I took an elevator to the top and worked my way backwards, but this show foolishly (in my opinion) starts with his earliest work at the bottom of the spiral and his last works at the very top.

Would seeing it in proper sequence have made a difference? To my ankles perhaps.

I just don't get Kandinsky. He doesn't send me. I don't know what he's saying. His pictures are far more pleasing when viewed from very far away (across the museum, say, from the opposite gallery spiral), and I find him much inferior in coherence to his friend Joan Miro and hopelessly unappealing beside his pal and neighbor Paul Klee, and less decorative than, say, Jackson Pollock. Very few of the later oils delighted, and the earlier ones were simply messy. Compare them to, say, Odilon Redon - one artist is a visionary, the other seems to be a kid mucking about with fingerpaint. And Kandinsky is not the visionary.

However, one of the side galleries was full of works on paper, and these had all the coherence, the focus, the charm that the works on canvas conspicuously lacked. I would happily spend an hour wandering in that suite of rooms (two or three), and would love to have a small booklet of reproductions of these items in pencil or water color or gouache, but only five or six of the oils that filled the spiraling Guggenheim did I want to take home.

Perhaps I should have taken the headset (free!) for some pointers, but I detest these things; I'd rather be alone with the art and my own thoughts. As at the Barnes, to which I shall return January 3rd with Chris and Felicia.

You can't like them all. But you have to see them all to know who speaks to you.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Gramercy Park and Flahooley

Last night, for the first time, I finally made it to the annual caroling in Gramercy Park. It’s the one day of the year when anyone may enter the park, otherwise locked and reserved to the neighbors. It's a New York place and I've always wanted to go there, but I could never quite manage to be there for the Christmas Eve caroling. This is the more absurd as the event is managed out of Calvary Church (on Madison Avenue nearby) and I used to know the guys who ran the music there pretty well (the late Calvin Hampton; Harry Huff, now of Harvard). But the weather was sometimes against it or I had tickets or I forgot about it. This year the weather was fine, snow mostly cleared from the streets, thirty degrees F, so biking was easy. I biked by at four and passed the folks setting up; they told me to return at six. But at five-thirty the Anvil fell - as I call it - and I could do nothing but nap. At six, I was awake, and a-bike, and up to 22nd Street.


The carols were sung into microphones, which I detest, accompanied by tinny electric pianos, and they were out of hot cider, and I just looked at the statue of Edwin Booth (as Hamlet, I think), and we both rolled our eyes, and I left. (Poor Edwin was stuck there.) The great tragedy is that the little kids loving the occasion (“It’s the perfect Christmas Eve!” I heard parents exult) will grow up with no idea that Christmas caroling ever did not include microphones and tinny electric pianos – the same way a hundred years ago (or whenever) people sighed that youngsters would never be able to imagine Christmas without electric lights on the tree. What a cheap business. Glad I won't have to do it ever again.

I can only stand Christmas music when it is sung by amateur voices without amplification or accompaniment at my window in the snow. As I live on the sixth floor, I'm pretty safe even from that. I avoid stores or diners at this time of year, and at Dan's party last week, I made him take the carols off the CD player (sung by Clay Aiken, who does have a pretty voice), and I was less than thrilled to hear the Bob Dylan Christmas album somewhere or other recently. (At first I thought it was someone imitating Dylan, and thought it pretty funny.)

... but the whole Gramercy occasion in turn made me think of my mother singing Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill’s “The Saga of Jenny”:

Jenny made her mind up when she was three
She herself was going to trim the Christmas tree.
Christmas Eve she lit the candles - threw the taper away –
Little Jenny was an orphan on Christmas Day.

Poor Jenny!
Bright as a penny.
Her equal would be hard to find.
She lost her dad and mother,
A sister and a brother,
But she would make up her mind!

- which I am thinking of now (in Mum's voice) as I may indeed be an orphan later today, and before New Year almost certainly, though she does keep rallying, I don't know why. This morning she was mildly demented, wishing me happy birthday (it's in August). She's an hour out of town. It would be nice to drop in for five minutes and pay her bills, but that's four hours out of the day. I am trying not to be frantic.

After the carols, detours for a lousy cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee and a haircut (barber named Jacob, "Where are you from?" "Where do you think?" "Uzbekistan?" I suggested. "How did you know?" "Tashkent?" "No, Samarkand." So I have a haircut from Samarkand! No sky-blue tiles: I got it buzzed very short, so I can maybe shave it all off. A suitable mourning gesture, eh?

From the haircut, I went to Theater for the New City on First Avenue at 10th Street, where Harlem Repertory Theater is performing (through January 3rd) the preposterous 1951 musical, Flahooley, renowned as Barbara Cook’s first show (and only teaming with Yma Sumac), and generally considered unrevivable. It's a Christmas fable ("Not believe in Saint Nicholas? Ridicholas" - welcome to Yip Harburg-land): A monstrous toymaker (B.G. Bigelow) is hoping to corner Christmas, but his rivals, A.E.I.O.U. and Sometimes Y and W Schwartz, have undersold him. Happily, someone rubs a lamp, brought by a Middle Eastern potentate in crisis ("The Soviets are moving mountains without Mohammed") and a genial Genii named Abou appears. (“Imagine! A genii with claustrophobia!”) And the local puppetmaker ("You Too Can Be a Puppet") hopes to win a promotion and the girl of his dreams (Barbara's role) by inventing Flahooley, a doll that screams "Dirty Red!" whenever anyone says something subversive. All very silly, some charming songs, some amazing performers.

With a great deal of help from multimedia (puppets, marionettes, projections, cartoons, films, puppets playing people, people playing marionettes) but no microphones at all, ten performers - nine of them splendid - put this show on with a straight face, at such a breakneck pace (90 minutes) that you had no time to notice the plot didn't make much sense. Lots of jokes about fascist Americanism creeping into our free society that haven't aged at all. Business is bad and fantasy is good, and that was all Yip Harburg needed. The tunes by Sammy Fain are Grade B for 1951, which means they'd be A++ on Broadway now. The lyrics keep tickling and re-tickling, and reprises are good because it's a second chance to get the rapid-fire puns and plays on words. Perhaps best of all, they didn't cut all of Yma Sumac's unsingable material - they just kept Yma Sumac! A girl in veils wiggles her hips and pretends to yodel, and Yma is on the soundtrack. Otherwise, accompaniment was a nifty little combo (no electronics!). A little social message, yes, but otherwise just a pack-up-your-troubles zany evening of the sort Broadway hasn't known in fifty years, Off-Broadway in thirty.

Among the performers I was particularly delighted by Alexandra Bernard, an amazing singer and actress, as a vicious secretary and, later, a vamp Flahooley; and by Primy Rivera's delicious camp turn as Abou the Genii (who gets to sing

"The Springtime Cometh,
hummingbird hummeth,
sugarplum plummeth,
it humpty-dummeth,
and to summeth up
the springtime cometh for the love of thee! ...
Lad and lass
in tall green grass
gaily skippeth,
nylon rippeth,
zipper zippeth..."),

- anyone who has seen Finian's Rainbow lately knows what to expect - and everyone in New York should run to see it -

also, John Wiethorn and Natalia Peguero, charming as the lovers, and Daniel Fergus Tamulonis as B.G. Bigelow, the practical joker as dictator - it was evidently Tamulonis who designed the many sorts of wacky puppet presences in the story, though these included some manipulation (in a trial sequence sending up the HUAC hearings) in the manner of Avenue Q. There was just a little dancing, impressive considering the cramped space. The only weak spot was Yip Harburg's grandson Ben, who played a puppet and sang so badly it was hard to say if he or the part was more wooden.

And all this was only $18!

After that I went to Ty’s (my local), which was mostly empty (it got fuller later), and met a couple of guys who were into opera and musicals, and we talked about those for a couple of hours. A perfect ending for the night, eh?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Broadside at the Barnes' Door - 2.,The Visit

A Visit to the Barnes Foundation

The Barnes is a stately mansion a little smaller than the Villa Borghese – or so it seems because the ceilings are a whole lot lower. It was built not to inhabit but for display, c. 1925, and has panels mimicking Cubist sculpture inserted in the façade here and there, where classical statuary would have been placed in such a building just a few years earlier – the joke, I’m sure, was Barnes’s idea, and the effect of crazy synthesis intentional.

Barnes’s personal taste – and he seems to have consulted no one else – was eclectic, belligerently modern when that was still an issue, but with a great love of the past and the primitive, especially when he felt the primitive had a link to impulses that also guided modernism. I have read no scholarly tomes or articles about him, so my reactions below will be my personal guesses as to what motivated his choices, his arrangements, and so on. There have been studies of this, and people with real art chops have discussed it, but let us be, as I was, a moderately well-read but untutored stranger entering a house full of wonderful objects.

Barnes purchased medieval Flemish and German paintings, illuminated manuscripts (removing and framing the pages), Titian, Tintoretto and Giorgione – at least, he thought it was a Giorgione at the time –Dürer (ditto), El Greco, Rubens, and so on, though he arrived at the auction a bit late for the masterpieces of known painters. These are interspersed with the moderns for which he is famous.

He did rather better with Degas, Manet, Renoir – acres and acres of awful Renoir – Cézanne, Van Gogh, Sisley, Gauguin, Rousseau, Seurat, Braque, Picasso, Matisse, and such up-and-comers as Bonnard, Modigliani, Miró, de Chirico, Paul Klee, Jules Pascin, Chaim Soutine (of whom he was an early discoverer and regular patron) and Jacques Lipchitz sculptures. The dozen or more small Lipchitz sculptures are almost worth the price of admission, if you ask me. Too, he kept an eye out for neglected Americans like Mary Cassatt, James Glackens, Maurice Prendergast and Charles Demuth. There are individual paintings by Marie Laurencin (a splendid sketch of a woman in a cloche hat), Puvis de Chavannes (Prometheus comforted by the daughters of Oceanus), Courbet, Corot, Odilon Redon and lots of works on paper.

He was also fond of bronze and ironwork of medieval provenance, hinges, kitchen implements, tools, locks, the more original and hand-made the better, and of African sculpture (big with the Cubists), Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek and other pottery and artifacts, some Chinese and Japanese painting, Navaho rugs, pre-Columbian pots.

Is that eclectic enough for you?

“Why don’t they put all the African things together, and all the Etruscan things together, so you know what you’re looking at?” a woman near me grumbled. But that is precisely what every other museum in the world would do – does – and precisely what Barnes was determined not to do. His very point is the juxtaposition and the scattering of assumptions and preconceptions.

Did I get the message Barnes intended me to get? Maybe not. No way to be sure. I got the point that a Milton Avery will startle me more if it shows up between a Renoir and a Puvis de Chavannes than it would in a gallery of moderns. I got the point about triangles (when I heard a docent explaining them to a group of visitors), and the paintings are mostly set up so that the two on the outer edge on the same level pair off in some way, and triangulate with the one on top, and the one in the center triangulates with the little ones on top at the edges. And I sort of liked not having the name of the artist glaring at me (you have to go up to the frame and squint) so that I took in the art without being obstructed by preconceived notions of the artist, or even of the era in which it was painted – so that different artists of different cultures and eras could seem to be interacting, having a conversation on the shape of a skull or the texture of water. I liked the unexpected – landscapes by Renoir or Modigliani, whom one associates with portraits, caricatures by Demuth when you’re prepared for something that will balance that Cézanne, Cézannes that seem to defy his usual preference for greens and pinks with a welcome turn toward brown and gold and blue, the Monet of his wife at her embroidery frame, the very early (1906) Picasso of two women exulting with two bulls, the shocking Soutines everywhere, the French medieval heads set down among Lipchitzes and looking exactly as modern as they did, and his fondness for the unsophisticated art of devout Mexican peasants, juxtaposed with medieval masters on the same themes.

This is not a museum to pass through in indiscriminate haste; it forces you to guess something new about the art, to take in the grouping and then look at individuals without knowing who they are and where they would fit in the traditional continuum.

And I very much liked the primitive metalwork hung over the paintings or beside the paintings, scattered all over the house, so that no one has any idea why he hung any of it where he hung it, but he was very precise that it was part of the grouping and was never to be moved.

This is a museum that thinks about art, about the impulse, about the commonality of sophisticated and unsophisticated, educated and uneducated, skill and eye. It is one of a kind. Why transform it into just another of the hundreds of ordinary museums that people walk through without noticing very much? Why fill it with crowds of not very interested people, as the Met and the Louvre are so tediously crowded? Why not let those who love art have something for themselves?

Two hours was enough to “look at” everything, if not enough to “see” it all. I would have liked to sit over coffee for half an hour, recuperating, and then return and go through it again, or focus on things I hadn’t had time to give total attention to, but the Barnes is purposely not set up for such things. Two hours is all my feet will stand of any museum any more, at any one stretch. (So I’m glad I did the Louvre young, and can take the Met in small doses whenever I have the energy.)


My friend Chris Berg (the noted composer) says my description so excited him he has reserved a place to visit the Barnes on its last unedited day, New Year's Eve. That was so charming a notion of a way to ring out the old year that I decided to join him.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Broadside at the Barnes' Door - 1, The Voyage Out

“I’ll go to Hell fer ya –
Or Philadelphia –
Any Old Place With You.”
– Lorenz Hart. (music: Richard Rodgers)

The Voyage Out

I’ve put off going to the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, for years, distracted by tales of how difficult it was to reach. These tales were exaggerations. On a chilly morning, last Thursday, I woke at dawn, raced to Allen Street, caught the Chinatown bus to Philly ($10), was there in two hours, got the 44 bus to Ardmore on Market Street (two blocks from my arrival point), and was at the gate of the Barnes Foundation in forty minutes. The trip can also be made (for those without cars) by New Jersey Transit to Trenton, then SEPTA (the Philadelphia subway, which goes as far as Trenton) to Merion, a little more than half an hour from the Barnes. You have no excuses.

Well, you have: There may be no more Barnes at the Barnes, a fact that upsets the neighbors (signs protesting the move line the street); the whole caboodle may be transferred into the city. I had no comment on this before I saw the place; now that I have, I think moving it or changing it would be a great shame. It is unique. It was designed to be unique by Albert C. Barnes, millionaire, art collector and didact, and it is. Out here in the (relative) boonies, he has us in his power: only certain numbers may enter, at certain times, and it isn’t made too convenient to stay: no café near the premises. The artifacts are arranged as he directed they be arranged, following no rules clear to anyone else, bewildering even the docents, and they make the effects that he wished them to make. When much of the collection was displayed in the Philadelphia Museum some years ago, it didn’t have half the impact it has in situ – there were crowds, there were too many hideous Renoirs all lumped together, there was Jerry Garcia in the next aisle (I was impressed) – it was just another museum show. I wouldn’t go again. I’d go to the Barnes again – if I could. (Four of the eighteen galleries are closing on the first of the year; the rest remain open and very worth seeing.)

I knew it would be a good day because I won my point. I took a cab to Allen Street and Canal (though I could have walked to West Fourth and taken the B or D to a nearby subway) and the driver’s name was Jose Chavez. My game is to look at the name (and the photo) of the cabbie and guess what country the driver is from. If I get it right on the first guess, I get a point. More than one guess: no points. Jose Chavez could be from any one of forty countries (including the U.S.), but I considered the current makeup of New York: most Latinos here are Puerto Rican, Mexican, Colombian or Dominican. I guessed Dominican Republic – yessss! (Not quite so impressed with myself as the time the guy was from Mali, and I got that on the first guess!)

My reservation at the Barnes was for 1p.m. They will not admit you without a reservation. The hard part is scheduling one’s arrival precisely when you don’t know how much time buses, trains, subways will take. And it was quite cold, below freezing and windy. Nothing was predictable.

There are rival Chinatown buses available. I had chosen Apex, but their office at 11 Allen Street was closed. Happily, I remembered 28 Allen, across the street and just up the block, was the address of Eastern Bus Lines. $10 one way, $20 round trip. The 9a.m. bus was comfortable and half empty. En route home, I had a choice between 5p.m. and 6p.m., and suspected there would be fewer commuters on the former. There weren’t half a dozen people on the vehicle, and they dropped me in TriBeCa, eight blocks from my door. But that is to anticipate….

The Reading Market under the old and glorious terminal of the Reading Railway (pay owner four times throw of dice; if unowned you may buy it from the Bank) reminded me of the Granville Island Market in Vancouver, and happily I couldn’t eat many goodies due to wheat allergy … but the corned beef (mustard but no bread for me) was ace, and there was (alas) a used book store run by a gentle black man who sold me a glossy picture book of Central Asian architecture and told me just where to find the bus to Merion. Good esoteric-religious-magical collection, too.

The bus to Merion cost two dollars, and they took bills, as most bus lines outside New York do. (Please note, MTA.) Forty minutes (SEPTA would have been twelve). Guy behind me on a cell phone, in a passion: “They stopped me, and for what? A busted tail light? Who can see if the tail light is on when you’re driving? And I had the registration right there in the car, but not my insurance card because I was in a hurry this morning, and it’s cold and I got damn-all done in town today … so they impounded the car … that will be towing fees … and I have to see a judge to get it back, so there will be court fees … I mean, I had my license … they just don’t like to see a black man driving a Lexus, that’s all it is … probably be two days before I can get it back … and they’ll charge me for storing the car! It’s because the city is broke. The town is flat broke. They are nickel-and-diming us….” He sounded ready to fire a gun to begin with, but twenty minutes of rant cooled him down. I had hoped to nap, but it’s as well he kept me awake, as the driver did not call out my stop, and missed it by four blocks. An attractive house across the way, encircled by wrought iron porch in the form of vines and bunches of grapes, named Rose Hill, I think.

Down the road, noticing the little “The Barnes belongs in Merion” signs, and a billboard on one fence, giving out flyers with names you can write or email to protest the removal of the collection. “Why build another Barnes? We’ve got the real one right here!” I took copies of the handouts, and will write. You can find out about all this at

See Post 2, The Visit, for my account of the Barnes itself.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Wild Child, Euripides' Ion and my array of Greeks

Wild Child, currently playing at New World Stages on West 50th Street, is the sort of theater that might have been designed with me in mind. Two actors with split-second variation of mood, manner, accent, affect, character, movement, stance, play the innumerable characters of an Off-Off-Broadway updated staging of Euripides' Ion (perhaps the most obscure of the master's extant tragedies, perhaps justly), plus the entire audience and assorted flashbackeroos, while the star and his wacky family turn out to have a family history not unlike the operatic one depicted in the play.

There are references to a children's book of Greek myths that inspired the boy to put on puppet plays of those theatrical sources and led inexorably to his present non-career - "I put on Greek tragedies with sock puppets - I even cut a hole in Medea's mouth so, after killing her children, she could eat them. But then Orestes got lost in the wash...." - similar early exposure to the myths led me to religious revelation as a born-again Pagan! - while other incidentals refer to a performance of Richard Schechner's outrageous (often nude) version of Euripides' Bacchae, Dionysus in '69, which as it happens was a revelation to me in my late adolescent pre-hippie days.

So I was very glad to be there, and enjoying myself, and following the plot, and feeling gratitude to Michael Feingold for directing me thither!

But the collected comments on the NYTimes review of the same item - five raves, two "whatwazzat? boring" imply that this is theater for only a certain sort of audience. If you need to have your comedy served to you in bite-sized clearly underlined bits, Wild Child is not for you - you have to be able to participate, to pay attention, to follow complicated plots between hilarious (sometimes off-color) humor, to catch and retain the clues that tie it all hilariously together. I guess it helped me to know Euripides, though I'd never seen any Ion before and I bet half the audience thought the actors had made the play up.

I am in some doubt as to whether or not to count this on my list of Greek plays as an actual attendance at a performance of Ion.

All this was a bit heady after a very odd phone conversation with my brother, who seems to wish to behave in a civilized fashion, and I am trying to respond a tempo, but if any chat with him extends longer than ten minutes he is hacking away, sticking shivs in my ribs, raking up old nastiness, as if he has nothing neutral to say on any occasion. Fifteen minutes of him per year is my limit. Still, a great relief considering what I have been anticipating. Mum is still going strong, or rather weak, which is why I suggested he come now and not wait till Christmas by which time she might be gone. Without my aunts and cousins and many friends offering long-distance hugs I'd be in a pretty dizzy place. But the family resonances with those in the play, I mean, well....

I had rather hoped Ion might complete my list of Greek tragedies, that I had now seen every extant one, in some form or other, but on checking my list, I find that I have never attended any version of Euripides's Suppliant Women, Heracleidae or Cyclops, his (or anyone's) one surviving satyr play (and no one knows who wrote Rhesus, sole survivor of Greek tragedy of the later, decadent generations), so I still have not completed my list.

Some may think me still further off, as I admit I've only seen Alkestis, Iphigenia in Tauris, Helen in Egypt, and Andromache in operatic redaction (recantations?)(and the last was Rossini's Ermione, based on Racine, not Euripides), and Antigone only in Anouilh's version and Hippolytos only via Racine's Phaedra - ditto Sophokles' Women of Trachis, where I've only seen Handel's oratorio, Hercules (though staged) - and only the hip-hop Seven Against Thebes (surprisingly good fun) and the gospel version of Oedipus at Colonus (even more so) and the country-rock version of Madness of Herakles, Hercules in High Suburbia (delicious).

As for Aristophanes - I haven't done well there at all, especially as few of them were made into operas (Al Carmines' Peace was a standout, and Schubert did a version of Lysistrata set during the Crusades), but one opera I am particularly eager to see is the recently recovered Die Vogel, Braunfels' lovely, late romantic but sane version of Aristophanes' The Birds, which was given in Los Angeles last April.

An absolutely fascinating piece in New York Review of Books in October by Daniel Mendelssohn (whose critical writing I love), in the context of Joanne Akalaitis' production in Central Park last summer (which I missed) explains Bacchae's weird construction better than I've ever seen it explained by anybody: as Euripides' riposte to Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae, an assault on Euripides' view of women. I don't think I've ever read this play, certainly haven't seen it. Is this a new conclusion of Mendelssohn's, or has it been generally mooted for ages? He certainly makes his case and (as usual) makes me sorry I missed the production under discussion.

I've never seen a satisfying production of Bacchae (Dionysus in '69 was satisfying as theater, but not as a production of Bacchae), and familiarity with the work of the two lead actors in this one (both of whom DM panned) kept me away. Alan Cumming got it mightily wrong in the last Bacchae I saw - he never played Dionysus; in fact, he never plays anything but Alan Cumming, for which I have a limited tolerance.

Sadly, the Mendelssohn review is not available on line at the NYR site. You have to borrow it from a friend or track it down at the library (October issue). I let my subscription to the NYR lapse because they PILE UP, and too many things in this apartment pile up. I turned down a pass from a charming and intellectually stimulating Frenchman last Tuesday because I didn't want to have to locate him under the other piles. This is unfortunate.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Podleś as Tancredi at Boston Opera

At the time of the premiere of Tancredi in 1813, Rossini, not quite twenty-one years old, had been composing works for the stage for three years and was still not world famous. The sands were running out. It is in this light, perhaps, that we may view the opera that made his reputation throughout Italy: young man in a hurry to show off everything he can do in the way of melody, declamatory recitative, duets both pathetic and passionate, and one of those soon-to-be-world-renowned Act I “Rossini” finales. That Tancredi was the giant step may surprise modern audiences, for the opera is not a comic one – at least not intentionally. Tancredi is serious – even tragic, if the alternate “Ferrara” ending rediscovered by Philip Gossett is used, as it was by Opera Boston.

Rossini is best remembered as a composer of comic operas like L’Italiana in Algeri (four months after Tancredi) and Il Barbiere di Siviglia (three years later). But it isn’t just the stories that tag him: his music has a tendency to bubble, to froth, even when the direst matters are under discussion or depiction. His thunderstorms never threaten the levees, you can dance to his martial choruses, and as for pathos – that relies to a tremendous extent on the gifts of the individual singer. Rossini’s orchestra won’t tug your heartstrings all by itself – they are present to accompany, perhaps to sympathize, with the singing actors of his day, who prided themselves on the subtlety of feeling they could express. Composers who used too many instruments, too heavy and participatory an orchestra, were generally reviled in Italy as “Germanic.” You know – heavy metal thumpers like Mozart – but also, later, Meyerbeer, Weber, and even Verdi. If the orchestra takes the lead role, who is the prima donna here? Who is accompanying whom?

Rossini lived to see the taste change, and his great serious operas – Tancredi, Semiramide, Otello, L’Assedio di Corinto, Mosé in Egitto – all but forgotten. Singers forgot how to sing them and audiences forgot how to appreciate them. They have returned to favor in the last generation or two, a phenomenon led by dynamic mezzo-sopranos who could do what needs doing with a Rossini trouser role or pathetic heroine: Giulietta Simionato, Teresa Berganza, Marilyn Horne, Lucia Valentini-Terrani. Tancredi was one of Horne’s great roles, and it was she who brought back the forgotten tragic ending. (Rossini’s audience insisted that the hero survive, and there’s no particular reason he shouldn’t.) Today Horne’s successors include Cecilia Bartoli, Vivica Genaux, Joyce DiDonato and Ewa Podleś. Tancredi is especially identified with the latter, and Boston Opera staged it for her at the sumptuous, exquisitely restored Majestic Theatre, where any spectacle is sure to seem more of a treat.

Podleś is not a singer to everyone’s taste. Her voice is idiosyncratic to a degree, with a huge range from plummy low notes to a sturdy upper register, exceptional coloratura technique and sometimes imperfect line. The ranges break and re-break, there are melting legatos with growly interruptions. Her dramatic commitment, however, is total, and her use of her skills – and her flaws – is canny and entirely at the service of dramatic presentation. A tragic monologue by Podleś is never just a collection of notes but felt emotion in beautiful song. Her tone is shaded with doubt or anguish, her cascades of ornament underline passionate resolve. A Podleś performance is what bel canto is about, and she has a passionate following, out in force in the Boston performances. They were well rewarded.

As a stage figure, Podleś is matronly but in trouser parts she carries her weight in a way that seems masculine, not laughable. The Bostonians were only close to laughter at one point, when for the umpteenth time Tancredi muttered that no one had ever suffered as he was suffering – laughable since he was suffering only due to his inability to believe his lover had not betrayed him – and that was the librettist’s fault.

It was a star performance in a star part, and at 57, Podleś shows no sign of flagging powers. Her death scene in particular, nearly unaccompanied and quite startling for the era, was intensely theatrical.

The plot of Tancredi is drawn from a Voltaire tragedy; boiled down to libretto form, it is one of those tiresome stories based on a silly misunderstanding. If the heroine would only say, “But I didn’t send that (unaddressed) love letter to a Saracen; I wrote it to Tancredi,” everything might be cleared up. She never does say this, for reasons perhaps clearer in the play. True, Tancredi is in exile, proscribed as a traitor by those who fear his popular appeal, and to have written to him at all makes Amenaide a disobedient daughter and citizen. It might even endanger Tancredi, who, unrecognized, is back in town to fight the national (Saracen) enemy, and who also accepts (but why?) that the intercepted letter must have been written to another man – hence our lack of sympathy with his unreasonable suspicions. Why does Amendaide never speak? Because it would end the opera too soon? That’s not a good reason. She never offers us another.

With a story of this sort, the watchword for the director should surely be a Hippocratic: First, do no harm. You can’t make it make sense; the singers will do that (or they won’t). But don’t insert subplots that have nothing to do with the action – you will only raise questions that no one will ever answer. This is just what director Kristine McIntyre has done. She has decided Amenaide is pregnant out of wedlock, and presents this to us by having her stripped to her slip at the end of Act I. At this point everyone on stage is singing something, but no one refers to the pregnancy. Why show it if you’re not going to talk about it?

Either Tancredi has been sneaking home pretty often or the pregnancy has lasted several years – or else Amendaide really is sleeping around. These are questions Rossini never raised and therefore does not address. Tancredi wears no mask – why does no one recognize him if he was in town two months ago? If he made love to Amenaide, why is he so quick to believe her faithless? Why is the government willing to put her to death, though any Christian regime would surely spare a pregnant woman, at least until delivery? And why does her father forgive her, as no Sicilian father would in this or any other era?

McIntyre’s reasoning appears to have been that her soprano, Amanda Forsythe, really is pregnant. The rational response would be to put her in a larger costume and ignore it. Shazaam! No inane unanswered questions.

It is also clear why McIntyre set the piece in 1935 – nothing to do with political resonance (as she claims), but because the costumes are cheaper to procure than those of twelfth-century Sicily would be. She make think fascism in Italy between the world wars was an important issue – it is – but it’s not an issue Rossini ever addressed, and it does not explain how a Muslim army could be besieging Syracuse in the 1930s.

This was not a staging to inspire pleasure. The sets, too: ugly brick walls.
Amanda Forsythe, a popular presence in Boston’s opera scene, sang Amenaide. She has a very sweet, rounded soprano and ornaments elegantly, but her voice is quite small. The high points of the performance were her duets with Podleś, who gallantly scaled her own voice down to match Forsythe’s, so that we reveled by the minute in their deliciously twining phrases: bel canto heaven. Yeghishe Manucharyan, as Argirio, her unsympathetic father, displayed impressive skill at Rossini passagework in a thin, unattractive tenor. His sound was stronger in Act II, but not enough to make me eager to hear this voice again. DongWon Kim was impressive in the thankless role of villainous Orbazzano, and Victoria Avetisyan revealed a pleasing mezzo as Isaura, who has a “sherbet” aria in Act I. Sherbet arias were inserts, often written by some student or hack, and there is no reason to include them unless the singer justifies it. The second such aria was too much for its second comprimario. Conductor Gil Rose accompanied the vocal flights with welcome restraint, and the Act I finale built very nicely, but he didn’t draw a very impressive “Rossini crescendo” from his players during the overture.

A friend points out that none of the oversexed castrato or trousered female roles in opera ever do actually father a child, in or out of wedlock – that job is left to a tenor, baritone or bass. (One exception: Cherubino fathers a child – but we don’t find out about it until Beaumarchais’ sequel, La Mére Coupable, which was sort of made into an opera in Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles.) Opera lovers are cool with a woman singing of love to another treble voice, but shouting “Daddy!” to an alto parent evidently pushes the barrier. No doubt modern opera composers will update this convention in short order.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Prelude to a Tragedy

He caught my eye.

He did not so much as move, but he caught my eye. It would have been bad form for him to move – they are trained to immobility during the sacred rites. He looked like a statue, a column holding up a temple, a noble palm tree – a bit stiff, but well-proportioned. My eye, involuntarily, a reflex, wandered up and up him, seeking the roof or the sky.

The face – not pretty – stern, rather. Piers of bone, eyes strictly forward, not looking at anything, anyone, certainly not at me. It would have been insolent for him to look at me. Something told me he would never be insolent – not with intent. So stiff, so rigid – like a kouros statue – what was the attraction? We like them stiff in Egypt, of course. But sensuality is not the usual response to a statue, unless a pornographic one.

At first, I was aware of no such sympathy. I was aware of him merely from the corner of an eye, through a haze of kohl. It would be a preposterous breach of etiquette for me to look at him – I, in whose veins the blood of Isis flows. A man is a man; I am Egypt – as my nurses, the priests, my father, have always told me. A breach of etiquette, for me from my ceremonial place to notice any man, a breach worthy of rebuke by even the most indulgent parent.

A mere man may give one aesthetic pleasure – like a statue, a column upholding a temple, or a tree lifting its fruit out of my yearning reach – but a priestess does not feel for him the way a mere woman might feel, the way I have been told it is beneath me even to understand. And he did move me, aesthetically – but other men are taller, or more graceful, or more beautiful, or even stronger, perhaps braver. Why did my eye linger on this one?

Ginger, my first look. And the second, the third? A whispering look, a tapping glance, like a sprinkle of salt on bread, so that one might not detect, or analyze, the quality that adds to one’s savor – until that taste is not there, and all else is bland to boredom.

So the second time, the third, the fourth – until I began to seek him with my eye whenever the honor guard of my father’s young captains appeared to take part in this ritual or that, to notice how this muscle flexes and that extends, observe the light flash in his eye or the shadow dimple his clean-shaven cheek, and assure myself that my regard extends no deeper than my eye’s calm appreciation, of his symmetry, of his dignity, of his skill. All the while I compare him to others, and find him superior in this way, inferior in that, until there comes a moment when I realize I have not looked at any other figure for quite some time – not even at my august parent on his throne – and that I have rearranged my life, without thinking about it, so that I attend more often than I did those ceremonies he is likely to attend, and then more often still until my presence perhaps seems incongruous, calling for explanation, an explanation I cannot give, to the grave and ancient formality of those whose business it is to guide us below to match, stately pomp for stately pomp, the celestial procession marching above. It is as if the Moon were rising out of her courses, eclipsed at an unlikely season, or as if the Sun shone by night.

Almost I do not care, how the thing may appear, though inside myself a truer self (or is it?) opens kohl-lined eyes, amazed at my folly, but reassures me I am not so rapt that I cannot cease my mad behavior at any time, only that I do not see the need to do it yet.

But what do I care for their glances, their raised eyebrows, the priests, the courtiers, my old nurse? I hardly see them, in my impatient tension that can only be relieved when he enters, or aggravated when I stand like a statue, a column, a tree, immobile as a carved goddess, through an entire rite not daring to move my eyes yet a tumult behind them – and he does not come at all.

How did I reach such a point, where nothing else matters any longer but the sight of His Insignificance whose name I am not even supposed to know, though of course I have found it out?

His coming can never be taken casually because, as often as I have seen him, puzzling and calculating and appreciating and enjoying every angle of every feature, the play of light and shade, the ceremonial dance of his unselfconsciously athletic movement, when he is not there, though I spend hours of my sleepless nights attempting to call it up to myself, and though a thousand coincidences of shape, of texture, of color in other circumstances call him up to me involuntarily, still his every appearance, his hallowed looks are always a surprise, such that at first I am not sure it is he, it might be someone else, and not even an attractive someone else, for he never stood in precisely that posture, or did he?

Then I realize it is indeed he, and at first I flatter myself that his unfamiliarity means I am over this strange addiction, and I watch this new aspect of him idly, in amusement, only to feel in my inmost heart the familiar quickening of pulse and interest, and know that I have not conquered this perverse and alien feeling. Quite the contrary. Quite the contrary.

I stare, and I do not care who sees it, knows it, so long as one person sees it, knows it, acknowledges what he sees, what seems more obvious to me than the ray of light permitted entrance to the cavernous gloom so that it may magically fall precisely on my father’s exalted self immobile on the throne, or the stifling smell of incense, or the glum and eternal rhythms of the chanting priests, and yet it seems invisible to him, and to everyone – my secret.

Of course his eyes do not flicker in recognition or secret message, for I am the Princess of Egypt and it would be insupportable insolence and indiscipline in him to do so. I admire this, his discipline; one could built empires upon it. One has. Yet, oh, how madly I could wish he were not so disciplined! Though empires fell!

Some others among the captains not so well bred (I surmise – I expect – no, I know there are) who look at me as if I were a woman, and he, he does not, or does he do so only when he knows I do not look at him, at some intricate portion of the ceremony charged to my care, and he is so clever that I have not caught him at it?

But I am cleverer still.

He is moved when I am present.

I see this, I cannot doubt it. Yet I do doubt, do crave the power to see his heart and know its thoughts and reasons, but there’s no help for the wishing it, as they say.

I see that he is moved that I am so often present. His eyes, once so stiff, start and turn, shadowed perhaps, when I arrive with my suite of the noblest and loveliest of the slaves captured in my father’s wars, who surround me in many-hued diaphany, when I enter the place of ceremony.

If it is a ritual where I am not expected and have no fixed part, he stares straight ahead, as he did at first, and I, peering from a hidden place, can feast upon his unconscious posing. But if it is a ritual where I am a principal, where I am to enter in my noblest garb and my hieratic jewels, surrounded by the fairest and most dignified of my ladies, then I find, and blush for seeking it, exulting in it, that he wears the signs of one who has been waiting, anticipating – as I in my time have done for him and his regiment of captains. His eyes seek me out, still cast slightly down or away, for it would be insolent, punishable, for him to stare at the Princess of Egypt. His eyes seek and though they never look at me directly, they find – for I see them aflame, and his bearing straightens, and his color reddens as though the blood in his veins flowed quicker than it lately did, swiftly as the Nile in flood.

I feel the link, from his heart to mine, this though my blood is that of the gods and his merely human. I care not a fig for that. I feel how we know, how we understand each other, and it is not in our heads, this understanding, but in our hearts, our blood. My knees turn to water, but I am the Princess of Egypt, bearer of the ichor of Isis, and I remain as erect, as proud, as if I were a statue, a column, or a warrior trained to march through deserts. Beneath features that never move – for there is no call, in ceremony, for expression upon the kohl-masked face of the Princess of Egypt, and I am well-trained and obedient; I do not move – beneath my painted face, the woman exults, that the proud palm bears its fruit for her, that it will be sweet to her taste and no one else’s!

I exult and yet fear when I learn from my spies, who have overheard the priests and my father’s councilors, that he – he – has been noticed for valor, and skill in command. Perhaps he will have high rank in the new war. Perhaps he will depart, knowing nothing of my heart, which belongs to him now, as truly as my soul belongs to Isis.

So I summon my ladies. I have many ladies, princesses brought in tribute to the greatness of Egypt, or captive ladies whose exotic beauty has earned them a place in the array that follows me, the heiress of Egypt: pale skins, dark skins, skins stung by the sun or the tang of the salt wave; hair of even more exotic hues and textures; eyes that are not always even black. They have been carefully chosen. They are like a ceremonial garment, as they follow me, shimmering, their presence so far from a homeland where such looks are common itself a tribute, an adornment, to the imperial splendor of Egypt. I put them on or off like a garment, an ornament. When I say to them, “Come, let us attend this ritual where the new general is to be named, and the gods of victory are to be invoked for him,” if they raise their eyebrows, it is perhaps because they have realized I have a motive other than patriotism or the ritual place of my duties as a priestess in attending such things. But I no longer care, I have never cared, it is beneath me to care, what they think with minds that have never been trained to the sublime.

When I enter the room, he will see my ornamental robe of attendant ladies, and he will marvel at the woman amidst this splendor, the woman who – he must have realized by now – loves him as a woman, as well as a princess, a priestess, the daughter of Isis, Egypt loves him.

The trumpeters relax; they will lift their full lips to the silver and brass when the signal arrives that my father has come. They relax, their hands at their sides.

He has not been seen.

Beyond the portal of the great room where my father will come to speak the word of command, to name the general, to present the campaign, to be hailed as a living god, I arrive and I see him, speaking in the vestibule to one of the priests. The priest goes but he lingers, longing to hear if his or another’s is Egypt’s glory. I know; I already know; I have learned the unknown; I have my spies. He ponders and meditates, he does not yet know – unless he has come to expect it – as surely he must have done – that I am here, too – that I have observed, am observing him. One of my ladies, a copper-dark captive, intrudes in my way, looking towards that portal, not seeing her mistress – an interference, a slight. I could have her whipped for that, but I am too full of the joy that is coming; I brush her aside like a fly with my fan, to let my eyes gaze and drink their fill of him. I am taut as a cord on the hooks of a loom.

I must speak to him. It breaks the protocol, but I must speak to him. It is time. Bare seconds before the trumpets sound. Motioning my ladies to remain where they are, I step unprecedentedly forward. The thing begins.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Oscar Wilde: The opera synopsis

Supposedly the Met has commissioned someone to compose an opera based on the life of Oscar Wilde, to star David Daniels who is running out of Handel works of Metropolitan caliber. Apparently someone else attempted an opera of Wilde's life for the Granite State Opera a few years ago, but it was never completed. Who knows where this will lead in an era where everyone seems to think he (or she) can write an opera but no one actually does it well. Can the librettos be at fault? (Probably not; they're mostly by Sandy McClatchy.) In any case, my friend Jeanne on the David Daniels Fans List asked if anyone knew enough about Wilde's life to sketch out a scenario.

A witch once said she thought I'd been Oscar Wilde in a previous life. I said, "Possibly ... but not in HIS." (Even my inner doubt has never impelled me to quite so self-destructive a working-out.) (I don't think.) But I have helped Jeanne out thus:

The Wilde Life !

Prologue: 1900:
Dying of tuberculosis in Paris (“Either the wallpaper goes or I do”), Oscar Wilde (countertenor) (all right, I see him as a baritone, maybe Mariusz Kwiecien, but the commission is for David Daniels) reflects upon a life mispent … drifting back to:

Act I, scene 1:
A Tuesday evening soiree chez Stephane Mallarmé in Paris, c. 1891, where Wilde (in knee-breeches, with a huge tiger lily in his hand) has been reading his new symbolist drama, Salome, hoping Sarah Bernhardt (mezzo soprano) will perform it (she has sung Salome’s last speech in a very un-Straussian style - part Gluck, part Massenet). Wilde is toasted by the crowd for his wit and defiance of prim British hypocrisy. Friends, however, urge him to tone down his decadence since rumors of his misbehavior with telegraph boys and so forth may get about. He pooh-poohs their fears and flirts with an aristocratic young poet, Lord Alfred Douglas (baritone), an undergraduate at Oxford … as the party falls away behind them, Wilde begins to sing elaborate lyrics to Alfred’s beauty. We understand that, in Wilde’s fever dream, his mind has shifted from the night they met to the height of their affair. "We were destined to meet here tonight, Oscar! It's an omen of a glorious new world, awakened to beauty!" "Oh my dear Bosey - there are no such things as omens. Destiny does not send us heralds. She is too wise or too cruel for that."

Act I, scene 2:
A gossiping triple chorus – aristocrats resenting Wilde for sneering at them, middle class types outraged at Wilde for making fun of their aspirations by exalting Art for Art’s Sake, street toughs threatening to do violence to a grown man who wears velvet and knee breeches and a green carnation. These sneers are heard by a lady walking through the crowd, arriving in her home and collapsing.

Act I, scene 3:
She is Constance Wilde (soprano), she’s heard all the stories about her husband, she hopes they’re not true – but she knows he ignores her these days. Her mother-in-law, the poetess Speranza (mezzo soprano), arrives, refuses to hear anything bad about her son, and urges Constance to dress more unconventionally, the sure way to win back a straying husband. Wilde finally comes downstairs – it’s mid-afternoon, he’s just getting up – and they beg him to spend the evening at home en famille. He pays them both extravagant compliments – then a telegram arrives. This, he says, summons him to a special performance he must attend. While tipping the telegraph boy, Ernest (tenor) – whom we saw earlier as one of the nastiest of the street toughs – he offers him a tip if he (the boy) will meet him at a brothel that evening. The boy is delighted to accept.

Act II, scene 1: 1895:
An ecstatic prelude leads into the crowd at the premiere of The Importance of Being Earnest, cheering Wilde to the echo. As he leaves the theater, congratulations on every hand, someone hands him a note. The Marquess of Queensberry (Alfred’s father) has written: “To Oscar Wilde, posing as somdomite.” [sic] Wilde’s world falls apart (as shown by the tonality of his aria, which is in violent contrast to that of the chorus of praise, still heard in the background, the words subtly changing to condemnation). Despite the apprehension of several friends, urged on by Alfred, he resolves to sue the marquess for libel.

Act II, scene 2:
Trial scene – or rather, several trial scenes, run together in his fevered brain: The prosecutor (bass) trips him up by quoting the love letter Wilde sang to Lord Alfred in Act I, and the telegraph boy Ernest begins damning testimony joined by three other young boys, Constance begs him to flee the country before he is prosecuted for criminal behavior, and at the climax the Judge (spoken part) intones a sentence of Two Years Hard Labour.

Act III, scene 1:
1897: Wilde, in his cell, a broken man, is haunted by the voices of his mother and his wife, both of whom have died of grief. He apostrophizes an imaginary Lord Alfred, who responds with contempt – in the same words the street crowd used of him in Act II. The real Lord Alfred comes in as a visitor and tries to be reassuring, but Wilde is listening to his hallucinations, and Alfred gives up. Wilde begins to sing several stanzas of The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Act III, scene 2:
1900: Back in Paris, tossing around bits of De Profundis, mourning that he has never found true love and that, since his wife is dead, he is forbidden by her relations to see his sons, Wilde sings of the cruel world that frowns on beauty and love … and at the end realizes that he destroyed himself out of a wish to identify with Christ and be martyred for love. He stands in cross-attitude, singing of his bleeding wounds and of his wit that will redeem humanity.

© 2009, John Yohalem

Friday, October 9, 2009

Barber of Seville at the Met

Bartlett Sher’s production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia has proved one of the more admired stagings of the Peter Gelb regime, but I’ve avoided it due to a surfeit of Barbieres and to fond memories of the previous “turntable” production, which satisfied every demand one might reasonably make of a Barbiere: The complicated story was told clearly, the stage pictures were handsome and the set changes elegant, the funny business was funny and to the point, the movement rapid. Even Rossini’s thunderstorm got laughs, as a projected starry sky was gradually effaced by clouds and real rain while the set spun around below. I wasn’t crazy about the barber’s updated costume and I could have done without the donkey – the donkey is the one item Mr. Sher retained.

The new production, which I saw on October 8, does not get in the way of the storytelling (a major point! especially in a comic opera), does not introduce new sub-plots the composer never delineated (a defect of the recent stagings of Tosca, Sonnambula and Fidelio, among others), the stage pictures are attractive and will endure repeated viewing (unlike Tosca), the funny business is sometimes funny – and gives scope, as a comedy staging should, for funny performers to make it more so; there are inexplicable touches (what is that giant anvil in the sky, aside from a sign of Mr. Sher out of ideas? Why does Bartolo’s china closet explode?), and the movement is constant if not always logical. Seville, indicated in the previous production by the city’s famous white walls and a splendid conservatory in the courtyard of Bartolo’s mansion, is now implied by many, many doors and an orangery. At one point, the Count, playing a drunken soldier, makes a swipe at an orange tree with his saber – and appeared to slice it through – the best laugh of the night. I’d give the production a solid B, maybe a B-plus.

The most distinctive part of the Sher staging – aside from the moveable doors that comprise most of the set, and which are often used to delightful farcical advantage – is the platform around the orchestra pit that allows singers to leave the action and come warble to us intimately, duck out of busy action entirely, complain about how badly they are being used by other characters – or hand out business cards to the audience, as Figaro does during the curtain calls. This parade in front of the apron also allows a solid but underpowered cast to make a more powerful effect than they would if they remained center stage. There was certainly an improvement in sound quality when they stepped forward.

Among the singers last Thursday night, the smoothest, most elegant, most satisfying performance came from Bulgarian newcomer Orlin Anastassov, who possesses the requisite size, depth and legato for Don Basilio and is an amusing comic actor to boot. It is no surprise to see in the program that he is singing Boito’s Mefistofele elsewhere this year – that’s an opera that the Met could certainly use back in its repertory, and he’s a likely candidate to put over a role that calls for an agile actor as well as a remarkable voice.

Rodion Pogossov, a showman of great charm and comic energy – you may well remember his Papageno – sang a most entertaining Figaro, with a seductive and self-seductive way of phrasing. John Del Carlo, a familiar and excellent buffo quantity, fudged the racing patter of “A un dottore del mio sorte,” as so many Doctor Bartolos do, but proved an effective foil for the antics of all the others throughout the evening. You can’t have a farce if the villain isn’t convincingly alarming – if he’s not, nobody else’s antics make sense. Del Carlo, tall as a Wagnerian giant, can be alarming while full of self-pity, which is just what we want.

Barry Banks is a comic actor the equal of any bel canto tenor going – his smarmy smiles as the feigned “Don Alfonso” were especial joys – and his coloratura technique is remarkable, but the quality of the voice itself was dry in “Ecco ridente” and rather hollow the rest of the night. Dramatic intensity (as Oreste in Rossini’s Ermione) and delirious self-parody (as Thisbe in Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream) are his fortes; romantic heroes are not.

That brings us to the ladies. Joyce Di Donato is a few years into an important career. She is an excellent comic actress – you listen to her, yes, but you also watch, just to see what she’ll come up with next. She works the manic fireworks of “Contro il cor” in the Lesson Scene into a simultaneous show of brilliant vocalism and stage hilarity like no other Rosina I’ve seen, and when she dashes out on that walkway to deliver the evening’s few big phrases, her strong line suggests that many of the grander bel canto roles (Adalgisa, Elisabetta Tudor, La Favorite) would suit her well, but in some of her rapid-fire phrases in “Una voce poco fa” and elsewhere, she seemed too anxious to race up and down the scale to bother with the note-perfect ideal flow of a Horne, a Berganza or a Swenson. She seems to love to play this role and to be on stage with these other singers, but a little more technical focus (and you just know she could do it) would make hers an extraordinary Rosina instead of another very good one. Claudia Waite, the Berta, sang her “sherbet aria” with the shrill, ungrateful tone one expects of, well, Berta the laundress.

Maurizio Benini in the all but invisible orchestra pit kept the wheels turning precisely without calling attention to himself – it was not a Mozartean reading of the score but a reliable base for the farcical doings on stage. The whole evening seemed calculated in that direction, and it was gracious of him to be so self-effacing, but sometimes Rossini works well as a partnership.


In the end the performance does not rescue the dreary new production – still, the reason to visit the Met’s new Tosca is Karita Mattila’s bravura if wrongheaded interpretation of the title role. Mattila plays the prima donna Floria Tosca as an over-the-top old-school diva, all self-dramatizing nervous energy. This is dangerous, as the events of the last day of Tosca’s life would excite a buried Samuel Beckett heroine from torpor into frenetic activity: Tosca endures jealous frenzies, first soothed and then confirmed, a command performance before the queen, the torture of her lover, then betraying him, a brutal seduction, a hot-blooded murder, her lover’s apparent salvation, his actual death, and a desperate leap to her own.

If none of this penetrates her self-involvement, perhaps the business with Scarpia isn’t really so bad – she just gets carried away. You know: divas! Certainly the final scene of Act II in the Luc Bondy production is a tasteless mistake – Mattila’s Tosca seems neither stunned nor shocked by having been driven to murder. She plots it beforehand, hides the dagger, arranges her dress so as to incite him, kicks him off the sofa afterward to present a better “stage picture,” and in describing the event to Cavaradossi later, she acts it all out – clearly enjoying every moment spent in the limelight of her imagination. If Tosca is too self-involved to be touched by murder, if she looks upon it as just another chance to seize center stage, why should we care about her? why credit her with any genuine feelings?

While Mattila is performing, though, such thoughts seldom intrude. She whirls about the ugly barn of a church like a Roman dervish, she seizes her lover’s paintbrush to alter the Magdalen’s eyes; she exposes her legs for Scarpia’s rape; and she insists that Cavaradossi rehearse his “fake” execution with her. She cannot be still for a moment – and the payback is her “Vissi d’arte,” when, drained by Scarpia’s brutality, she goes pale and empty, lets her voice float stunned into the theater. She does not remain crushed – nothing but death will stop this woman’s playacting – but the moment itself is riveting, and the rest of Mattila’s Tosca seems designed to draw our attention to it. Since this is not the heart of the opera – Puccini reportedly found the aria a bit dull – her focus highlights Mattila’s errors elsewhere. Tosca must grow from the flibbertigibbet of Act I to the desperate adventuress of Act III, and Mattila’s Tosca does not make such a change. Her reaction to getting blood on her hands? She puts on purple gloves.

Mattila’s voice is not Italianate – as everyone has been saying since she took up Manon Lescaut a few years back. Her Manon Lescaut indeed lacked the opulent young sound of that teenage sensualist – but Tosca is a mature woman, and Mattila sings her with full-throated sensuality, passion without wilt or waver. I’ve seen Toscas of a dozen nationalities, and her sound is more idiomatic, and more beautiful, than many others of the “Nordic” school – Behrens, Nilsson and Vishnevskaya come to mind. More important is that she feels, and lives, the notes of this extreme character.

Marcelo Álvarez (an Argentine) sings a very Italian Cavaradossi, suave and romantic in “Recondita armonia” and the love duets. He lacked vocal finesse only in “E lucevan le stelle,” which was not the honeyed reverie many tenors give us. Álvarez seemed so involved in acting the words – each one clear – that the anguish of his situation choked him up. The elegiac scene that followed, however, found him Mattila’s match for power and expressive beauty.

Carlo Guelfi sang a gruff, barking Scarpia, brutally effective in Act I, but the nuanced slime of Act II was missing – and was missed. Part of the problem may have been the intrusion of three prostitutes fooling with him at the opening of Act II, and this is typical of the director’s initiatives in adding nothing to the show but unanswerable questions. Scarpia is explaining the trap he plans to set for Tosca – and why: he enjoys sex when the lady resists – and these women don’t take the hint – not at all. Are they the sort of persons in whom Scarpia would confide? No – he’s not the type to confide in anyone, least of all a woman – he’s an egotist who opens himself in soliloquy. So why are the dames here? If we’re not supposed to think about it, or to wonder why they’re hanging around, why their presence and those questions being shoved in our faces? Does Mr. Bondy not understand the words Scarpia is singing? Similarly, if the enormous church is built of unpainted brick – this is Rome? – why is Cavaradossi painting his Magdalen in it?

Tosca is a finely-crafted machine, every effect calculated to a hair; set it in motion with the proper fuel (voices and orchestra) and it will run smooth as a Lamborghini. Each entrance gives us the character: Tosca’s sensuous piety (in a theme that will come back in “Vissi d’arte”), Cavaradossi’s romantic idealism, Angelotti’s desperation. The first appearance of Scarpia is the most terrifying entrance in all opera – because Puccini set it up to be, thrusting it into the midst of a rollicking (but thirty-second-long) children’s scene. We are never supposed to relax after that, whenever Scarpia is around – and that tension pays dividends as Tosca takes her time suspecting what we feel in our skin: this man is setting his trap for her. Why are those whores getting in the way of our focus on a monomaniac evil?

Then there’s dawn amid the bells of Rome, gentle precisely so that it can be interrupted by the grim preliminaries of an execution. To rehearse the firing squad during this serene music does not bring us to the proper frame of mind for a jolt – on the contrary, it gives us a preliminary jolt that undercuts Puccini’s. We should relax until the jailor summons Cavaradossi – but try resting with all that pointless activity on Mr. Bondy’s stage.

To this ugly and irritating concept, the familiar Met forces under Joseph Colaneri brought a symphonic grandeur: the pounding strings rising to climax in Tosca’s scream as Scarpia corners her, the surge of life around the organ processional that ends Act I, the subtle flicks of this instrument or that to comment on character or story or the very real world in which the opera was set – all reminded us of how fine a contraption of interacting parts Puccini devised, even as Mr. Bondy was tearing them apart and flinging them to the winds. I liked Mattila’s abruptly blank face during “Vissi d’arte,” and Joel Sorenson’s (Spoletta’s) look of frustrated, “You’re going to let her get away with that?” during Scarpia’s interrogation, and the way Álvarez was always gazing at, and admiring, his lover – but these touches were probably invisible to most of the house.

The problem with this school of direction is that its practitioners seem to regard the score like music in a film, as an afterthought, mere accompaniment to action. It is not. In opera, the music is the main event – or as much of it as the action is. Action need not be invented to fill up spaces where there is merely music – the spaces of mere music are there for dramatic reasons. To change things without justification is not very good theater.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Posh Nosh

"We make our own stock, but by all means buy prepared stock if you have
no self-esteem."

"I use only Tuscan Extra VIRGIN olive oil. This is an old tart."

"Cooking really upsets food."

"We bamboozle our samphire - there's no other way."

"Better get your bottarga from the source - right off the docks at
Calegari - no later than six in the morning when the fishermen are still wet."

"Thoroughly exasperate your currants ... then vilify as usual."

"Today we're focusing on the wine's color - it's gold - heavenly gold -
like God's weewee." (sips) "Better."


WHY have all you people been keeping this glorious gift of the BBC from me
for whom (obviously) it was designed? Or (gasp) are you too in ignorance of
its wonders? I found out about it from my next-door neighbors, and in
New York, you know, one never even talks to one's next-door neighbors.

The comedy is deceptively mild, deceptively quiet - words superbly, elegantly mis-used in highfalutin ways to mean "cook": "Degrade the eggplant into one-inch cubes"; "Brando your chicken with the butter," "assault an aubergine." Further, there's that old standby, the funniest thing in the world to any Brit, someone of the lower classes aspiring upwards and getting the tone just a bit wrong - remember Patricia Routledge as Hyacinth Bucket? On Posh Nosh, our hostess, "my father was a publican," seems blissfully unaware that the handsome, upper-class husband whom she has married and with whom she runs a restaurant is gay as Ikea on Superbowl Sunday. "Where would you be without me?" "Mykonos." In fact - the series' final episode reveals - she knows just what is going on; as long as he's happy and she's upper class, she doesn't care. "You know what mother said when she first met you? 'She'll make the trains run on time.' You know, like Mussolini." "Wasn't he a man?" "It's a compliment!"

Fortunately the eight ten-minute bite-size bits that constitute the show are to be found under "Posh Nosh" on youtube. God bless youtube - it's like sipping whiskey (notes of apple, charred sticks and plastic) through a noose.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

"Too Late Now"

Do you know this lovely song?

"Too late now to forget your smile/ The way we cling when we dance a while/ Too late now to forget and go on to someone new..."

It suits my mood these days: the wry, smiling, self-conscious lyric (Alan Jay Lerner), the gently dawdling, reflective melody (Burton Lane) that matches it superbly: the A theme is in two parts, going to a false high the first time, then to a surprisingly higher one to send the sentiment soaring. A really fine merging of words and music - I wonder which came first? (With both Lane and Lerner, the words usually came first.) No wonder jazz men love to play with this tune.

The sentiment, too, is superbly ambiguous: It is not clear whether it's "too late" because the affair is over and the singer blew it, or because it's too late to break it off now that s/he realizes s/he's fallen in love, that some other person has become necessary. Both melancholy catastrophes! Thus it can be sung sadly or with an uplift at the end.

Jane Powell introduced it in Royal Wedding, the very bad 1951 film with wonderful songs (including "I Left My Hat in Haiti" and "How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I've Been A Liar All My Life") and the famous sequence when Fred Astaire dances up the wall and across the ceiling, which was later mimicked by Ingmar Bergman in Hour of the Wolf, which I suggest would not make a good musical. (An opera by Franz Schreker, maybe.)

I have recordings of "Too Late Now" with Jane Monheit (too expiringly smokily languid) and Michael Feinstein (who just plain sings it badly, with gaping ugly hollows under his voice like puddles under icy slush that you slip into and get muddy ice in your shoes) and Dorothy Loudon (who sounds 85 years old). None of them inspire me, but the lovely song does.

Happily, my friend Irwin made me a CD of 13 other versions from his matchless collection of you-name-it, including superb renditions by Mel Tormé and Ann Hampton Calloway.

On youtube, I have found Audra Macdonald in a superb "straight" rendition (she has the voice for this melody) and Peggy Lee, who seems to sing it with a sexually content smile on her lips. (I mean, that is how the lyric comes through - we do not see her on this clip.) Judy Garland is a bit too husky with it. Paul Sheesley a little too jazzy - the jazzy mind set fights with the sentiment of the song. (Of course, wandering around youtube this way, I stumbled on something else wonderful, Frank Sinatra's somewhat too up-tempo version of Johnny Mercer's "I Thought About You," another song currently repeating in my head.) (No iPod here! I just sing them to myself while biking around town!)

A fine tunesmith Lane, mostly for the movies - he had one great Broadway hit - at the same time as Royal Wedding (Finian's Rainbow, soon to be revived, a show on which I passionately fixated at age six, memorizing all the songs in Ella Logan's Scottish accent though I had no idea what two-thirds of Yip Harburg's glorious lyrics meant). Then Lane was blacklisted for years. He got back to Broadway together with Lerner for On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (Richard Rodgers having given up in exasperation at Lerner's dilatory ways - Rodgers was used to Hammerstein, who would sit in the office with him all day and come up with a lyric a few hours after they had decided what sort of song ought to go in what part of a show). On A Clear Day is also full of great tunes (and great lyrics) - "What Did I Have That I Don't Have," "The S.S. Bernard Cohn," "Don't Tamper With My Sister," the talking-to-flowers song - but the book is a mess.

Due to an accident backstage (an actress fell off a ladder), I was deprived during the recent New York Fringe Festival of a revival of 1967's How Now Dow Jones, a show that flopped memorably and was excoriated by Ethan Mordden. But friends who did see the brief revival said it wasn't bad at all (heavily rewritten, songs by Carolyn Leigh and Elmer Bernstein), and I'm in the mood to learn a new musical - but it would have to be a musical with clever lyrics and dreamy or delicious melodies, and they stopped writing that kind thirty years back when Lane and Lerner and Styne and Comden & Green were still alive, and Kander & Ebb were in their heyday.

(This is my idea of a brief, casual blog post.)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Thalia Nights (An homage to Ingmar Bergman)

Must have left twenty running shoes over years
Stuck to the floor of the gum-mangled Thalia
Long summer nights there in Plato’s glum cavern
Observing, believing, the motile shadows,
God-knows-what going on, behind, in the booth…

Arletty, the goddess, Laughton, the painter,
Mifune, the warrior, Moreau, the temptress,
Signoret, the cynic, Masina, the clown, Mastroianni, the bored –
these were our gods in the Thalia pantheon,
our greater trumps, our cards of fortune;
shaping our summers, haunting our winters.

Sing out, o bards!
Bunuel! Renoir! Satyajit Ray!
Eisenstein! Kurosawa! Fellini! Truffaut!
The syllables sing in the mouth like wine.

But most mighty of all, filmgoers’ philosophe,
Bergman the troubled, cantankerous Swede,
Took a sing-song tongue, made it sound prophetic,
Gnomic, organic, epigrammatic, portentous;
Made us see with the eyes of men being Bergman
And idealize the actress he currently bedded,
Bergman heroic! The atheist pastor!
The Freudian mystic! The thinker on film!
Even his jokes were layered with mythos –
Isn’t Death playing chess the art-house totem?

His actors were family: we followed the serial,
Image by image, aspect by aspect –
Never doubting that one would serve family supper.
Harriet, swinging the hips of false promise,
Doe-eyed Liv, crazy waif, suffering wife,
Bibi as sane as she ever was sensual –
Given the choice: Liv or Bibi or Harriet
And one long solstice Swedish night,
Which would you take?
Defend your position in two hundred words
Dripped in the glass like water-of-life.
Max, noble everyman, serious, murderous,
Handsome as some austere cathedral;
Gunnar, the distinguished we feared we’d grow into;
Erland, bitter fellow we feared that we were –

So: mix and match and match and mix –
Playing chess with the puppets he whittled unceasing
(If there isn’t a maze, there can be no solution):

The face overhearing (or reading the diary);
The couple enisled, spitting intimate daggers;
The acting troupe, offstage, lounging and lusting;
The man of God who is losing his faith;
The man of no God losing his mind;
The unman made-up,
The maid unmade;
Sex as war and war as sex;
The sea-borne dream, waves troubled as nightmare;
Papageno Vogler and Alma, the Soul –
We’ve done it that way; let’s try it this way:
The point is amusement while stating the problem.

I sing of Ingmar – Scanian lodestar –
unsinking sun of the Nordic night –
unwarming depth of the Baltic tide –
whose coolness freshened our Thalia summers.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


I'm sitting at the play, writing my own play
Or I'm at a poetry slam, writing a sonnet
Or I'm at a Handel opera, humming Verdi
Or I'm at a film, tightening the edit
Or I'm at a musical, tossing the pointless song or the pointless singer.
It's when I'm alone with the paper
My mind contains nothing.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Passion of Ingmar

What to do in New York at 1a.m. on a Monday when it's too hot to sleep and you're too old to face Splash or anyplace else that might be open and entertaining:

Borrow an Ingmar Bergman movie from the library!

There seems to be a general change in attitude towards Bergman, once regarded as among the cinema's authentic living geniuses, ranked with Fellini and Bunuel and Ozu when few others were (no Americans, needless to say), a man whose profundity of vision, his conflicted attitude towards God, parents, mistresses-as-muses, solitude in Scandinavian winters, sex in Scandinavian summers, madness and art seemed close to the core of Western thinking on these subjects. We (in New York) flocked to the Thalia and the other art houses to take it all in, parse it, get our heads around it. His disgust at civilization, even civilization taken sparingly from the p.o.v. of a barren island in the Baltic, seemed to mirror our own disquiet at the inadequacy of the civilization of free, consumerist satiety. If God had no use for us (being in an existential crisis), we wanted Bergman to use us, or tell us at what star to gaze in God's stead.

From this emerged a dozen films as good as any anyone made in the postwar era: Wild Strawberries and Monika (Scandinavian sex!), Sawdust and Tinsel and The Magician and Fanny and Alexander (life is theater! or it would be better if it were!), Winter Light and Through a Glass Darkly and Hour of the Wolf (there is no God; I might as well go mad), The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring (life was lousy in the Middle Ages, but at least it was intense in those days, not crass!), Shame and Passion and Scenes from a Marriage (I'm breaking up with my girl, no wonder the world is coming to an end), Cries and Whispers and Autumn Sonata (even women can't handle family - we already know men can't) and even so perfect a "costume" sex comedy (Smiles of a Summer Night) that Woody Allen and Stephen Sondheim tried without avail to imitate, to build upon, to improve its magic. (Sondheim's version is at least pretty to hear.) Even Fellini and Bunuel would be hard put to equal such a variety of masterpieces. For two or three decades the ideal collegiate thinking-couple's double bill (or, one filmbuff dorm neighbor said, the ideal film to take a dumb girl that would keep her quiet while he had time to think) was Wild Strawberries and Seventh Seal - so much so that a celebrated short in subtitled nonsense-Swedish (Madeline Kahn's film debut: "Have a cigar?" "Phallica symbole?") was Die Duve, a parody of both of them at once. (Death and Inga play badminton; the Dove of salvation intervenes ... all over Death's black nightshirt.)

Okay, I didn't understand them. Or I thought I understood them. Or I had no idea what was going on. Watching The Virgin Spring and The Magician for the first time at maybe 18, I remember, I was puzzled that the story wasn't "signaling" good guys, bad guys, what the hell this tale was about in the way I was accustomed to having stories laid out for me in Hollywood movies. Why was the girl raped and murdered, when she had done nothing to deserve it? (One may ask the same in Rigoletto, eh?) Because that's how it happens in real life: grow up and try to understand that. Why did the lawyer let his young wife elope with his half-wit son? It didn't seem fair. It wasn't fair - but it was the more understanding conclusion. Why did the knight lose at chess? Why did the madwoman rape her brother? Why do people in these movies pretend to go out the door, but actually stay behind to overhear a phone conversation or even a seduction?

Besides Hour of the Wolf and The Magician (ur-documents of the LSD generation), Persona, Smiles, Virgin, Strawberries, Seal and the splendid autumnal masterpiece Fanny and Alexander (and how many other writer/directors have produced eight supreme masterpieces?), and The Magic Flute, the first of the great filmed operas that set a whole generation rethinking the unfashionability of that form, the Bergman work I would select as his most perfect work of art is the seldom-cited Shame.

The story seems typical of Bergman after he had got over his middle class Stockholm soap opera settings of the '50s and could create whatever world he wanted: Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman (two of the most famous faces of the period, precisely because of the range of roles they played in Bergman's films - Max usually standing in for IB, Liv often standing in for IB's current lover, who was Liv for about five years) are a married couple living on a farm on a small island somewhere. Where isn't clear, and isn't important - what is important is that it is the center of a war zone, that armies and guerrillas are battling through the movie, taking as much notice of the rights and feelings of the couple as armies usually do. (The marriage might almost be a metaphor for Sweden, neutral since 1814 but hardly immune to upheaval as two world wars and the cold war erupted around it. Bergman was among the few notable Swedes willing to remember how pro-Nazi many of his countrymen were.) The destruction of their world, of their relationship to it, mirrors the increasing bleakness and violence and dishonor of the couple's relationship to each other. When she commits adultery and he avenges it with a horrifying betrayal, we are shocked. When he commits a skulky murder, she (and we) are too stunned to react any more. The ruin of their civilization mirrors the ruin of their marriage - at the end they cling to each other because neither of them has anything else - including hardly any will to survive. Most magical and unsettling of all: just as the film began with Max recollecting a pointless, ominous dream, it ends with Liv recounting a different, equally ominous one. It is bitter and beautiful and complete.

In contrast, The Passion of Anna (as it was called in the U.S. - as Ullman points out in the commentaries, that is not its title in Swedish, which is merely The Passion), Bergman's next film and his first one in color, which uses the same cast (plus Bibi Andersson, last seen in Persona), is a mess. When I saw it, still under the spell of the genuinely strange Hour of the Wolf and the genuinely perfect Shame, I was confused. For one thing: who is killing all those animals? Somehow I got the impression it was Anna (Liv), probably because of the American title. Use Bergman's title, remove that clue, and I have no idea.

So I got it from the library and watched it again last night, for the first time in forty years, and now it makes sense - aided by the commentaries of three of the stars (Ullman, Andersson, Erland Josephson). The movie doesn't make sense, but now I know why it doesn't. Bergman, a control freak (what great director has not been?), always had his scripts down, and his shots calculated, and there wasn't much to do but shoot them (Nykvist did that, of course) and barely edit. But whatever was in the original script, it wasn't what got filmed. For one thing, the dinner party of the four leads, when Max von Sydow's Andreas really encounters the others for the first time (he's already met, and eavesdropped on, Ullman's Anna), is not scripted: they were told to improvise as if inhabiting the characters as they then understood them, and quite a lot of the personal got into it. Ullman is still upset that much of her improvisation was edited out - though she asked for it, because she felt Bergman's idea of Anna (who believes she is living the utter truth when in fact she has based it on a lie to cover an unpalatable truth) was unjust, a blow aimed at herself for breaking up with him - so she defended Anna, and herself - and Bergman got back at her (she feels) by cutting the speech.

The film is not neat, as Shame is neat: it is an incomplete metaphor, perhaps because Bergman knew life is not neat (but art is our attempt to correct that). I found the dawning relationship between these two damaged, lying people, Andreas and Anna played by Max and Liv, unconvincing - a desperate move on the part of both - because they find themselves with nowhere else to go and nothing to do. I was more stirred by the scene where Bibi's Eva, unhappily married, gets drunk and, dancing to some old bebop, casually seduces Max - not because she wants him, but because he happens to be there and somewhat sympathetic, and sex will take her mind off her insomnia and her unhappy marriage. Erland's Elis takes photographs of Max, but the tension in the air during this session leads nowhere - he remains utterly enigmatic - though he suspects his wife has slept with Max. There is none of the power of the scene in which the vampire makes up Max's face in Hour of the Wolf. Perhaps the moral is IB telling me to get over my obsessions with artistic artifice and face the reality that there aren't always neat endings and solutions and meanings. And the greatest sign of this is that the brutal murder of animals (a puppy Max rescues from a noose, eight slaughtered sheep, a horse set on fire) does not end when the likeliest suspect is brutally driven to suicide. Max and Liv seem to have alibis, Bibi is utterly unlikely, Erland was in Milan, or was he? No, the slaughters go on to the end, as if they were occurring spontaneously (like the war in Shame) to mimic the breakdown of our characters, which climaxes with a furious Max, chopping wood, turns the axe on Liv, then beats her up on camera.

Just to make it all the more confusing, there are postmodern moments that were not scripted and seem to be trendy afterthoughts (responses to Bunuel and Godard?): each of the four actors is asked, on camera, to discuss the character s/he is playing. We get a lot of background that way that the screenplay does not give us, but still ... it comes across as cheating, as trying to be au courant in 1969. It is beneath Bergman, I think.

So, not a satisfying Bergman film - not one of the great ones by a long chalk - but further meditation on his besetting themes. Recommended for that, and for the first experiments in color (the olives and oranges and browns that would remain his palette in Autumn Sonata, and only shift to scarlets in Whispers) and the shots of Liv Ullman at the height of her imperious, vulnerable beauty, and Bibi Andersson utterly adorable just a little past the peak of hers, and Max the very symbol and totem of Scandinavian manhood in the aging prime of his.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

An exchange at Les Huguenots

On the damp campus of Bard, where four performances of Les Huguenots are a highlight of this year's Summerscape Festival, illustrating the theme of influences on Richard Wagner (while he rolls in his grave), I ran into many, many friends.

Neil and James: Are you familiar with Meyerbeer's music?

Moi: Am I familiar with Meyerbeer's music?! Why, I had it with my mother's milk (between Cole Porter numbers). I even sang Meyerbeer at my bar mitzvah, instead of that tedious old Biblical exegesis.

Neil: What did you sing? "Si j'étais coquette"?

James: No - he sang "Prëtres de Baal."

Perhaps you'd have to know my rabbi to understand why this was so funny.

All right - full disclosure - I do not have a rabbi and I never had a bar mitzvah. But I am fond of Meyerbeer (up to a point). And I do have witty friends.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ensor at MoMA

Nika and I went to MoMA yesterday to see the James Ensor show, which is not overwhelming or without interest, but puzzles more than it pleasures.

Did he just go a bit dotty at the end? No - not at the end. At some fairly early point? No one seems ready to say. His public behavior as he became a national institution was respectable enough. As to what went on his head - no one knows. But he wasn't productive.

That's the first thing that struck me about the James Ensor show at MoMA: the paintings begin well enough with some promising but hardly unusual impressionists from the early 1880s (he was born in 1860). North Sea skies, gobs of paint close up, reveal their restless beauty when viewed at an angle or from across the room. Studies of his father reading a newspaper, his sister sewing, might be Renoir or Vuillard. As for the skies - yes, he knew Monet, had crossed the Channel for a peek at Turner in the Tate. The influence of Whistler is everywhere: gray on gray.

But also there is something antic, something that does not fit: self-portrait in a flowered hat (with peacock feather), say. Or a confrontation of two figures in carnival masks. Or one figure (often Ensor himself) surrounded by, assaulted by, skulls or masks or figures wearing them. The show explains: His mother kept a souvenir shop downstairs; carnival masks were a major item. He was surrounded by them all his life, filling his nightmares (of which clearly he had many) and his ambitious dreams. He also loved satirical cartoons, of which the 1880s-90s were a golden age. His politics at this point were anarchic left: down with everything. But he found he disliked his fellows (except for one or two good friends) quite as much as he disliked the folks in power.

A drawing of his aunt, asleep in her oh-so-proper Belgian lace and black, impeccable bonnet and corseted figure (such ladies were common enough on Ostend streets as late as the 1950s), but surrounded by hideous masks making faces, filling her dreams (or Ensor's own troubled, antisocial fantasies). A Temptation of St. Anthony with Ensor as the hallucinatory saint. Christ entering Brussels, met by a brass band but the onlookers paying no attention. Was Ensor a wounded mystic or did he identify with the scorned Christ or was he just unable to find a proper direction for his art? His boasted desire to paint light turns up very little in the way of exquisite exploration, at a time when Van Gogh was already dead and Monet was still fantasticating and to the current young crowd (Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Gris) Ensor must have seemed undistinguished and old hat.

But the big mystery is: why all this creativity in the 1880s, much less in the 1890s and not a damn thing after 1900. He lived till 1949. He was an eminent figure, ennobled and awarded by his country, trotted out as a living institution, perfectly sane - just utterly unproductive. Art had gone its way; it did not renew Ensor. He was over and out well before he turned forty. Does he have a place in the saga of Modern Art? Yes. Is it an important, productive, ineffaceable place? No. You can skip him and you'll hardly miss a thing.

He painted up there to keep his hands and his eyes busy, and maybe to stave off demons in masks. He wasn't painting for us at all.

Note: The mask is a curious artifact, and it interested Ensor far more than faces did. He did very good impressionist faces, but they did not fascinate him. People doing one thing, living one soul, while wearing the face of something else - that interested him. But he did not find an art where he could make something important out of this discovery.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Brooklyn and Queens on a hot weekend

I have seen BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music evolve over thirty years from salvageable hulk of ruin amid scenes of ruin (with unusual performances), to punk palace of the arts (with its own snazzy crowd of devotees and lots of Euro-art), to major grande dame of the city arts scene, jewel set in glittering renewed downtown Brooklyn. At the moment it is holding a Muslim Cultural Festival, with Asia House and other institutions around town – music, theater, dance, film, “storytelling” from a dozen countries – and I am getting to as much of it as I can.

There was a “souk” in BAM’s car park this past weekend, the usual arts and crafts (overpriced), the usual unhealthy junk food – and some exceptions. At the Turkish booth, a bunch of ladies in headscarves brought home-made stuffed vine leaves (best I’ve ever eaten) and home-made baklava (ditto, especially when it had been sitting in the hot sun a while), and some Lebanese guys had spinach pies shaped like hamantaschen. Someone was selling witty T-shirts for far too much money, such as, on a covered wagon, heading a whole train of such, “Why settle? … Israel!” which could be taken to support either (any) side of the question, eh?; “Surf Saudi Arabia! Sportsman’s Mecca,” “Petro sexual,” “Come out to … Iran!,” “Party Like Iraq Star,” “Gaza Strip Club XXX,” and “Afghanistan!” above images of a wind surfer on the ocean. There was very good Middle Eastern music but the CDs on offer were mostly recent, jazz-inspired, beatboxed shit - if it uses microphones or electric instruments, I'm not very interested.

Across the street, by the way, is Mark Morris’s building, an old hulk completely gutted and refitted and modernized for his dance troupe, with rehearsal halls to rent to others. Typical of the modesty of the man: The new cornerstone, prominently visible, was laid in 2000, so it reads: “A.D. MM.”

According to an article I happen to be proofreading, 46 percent of Queens is foreign-born (a record for U.S. counties), and the borough is huge, in addition, with well over a million people. All sorts of cool folk live there now.

All this as prelude to Sunday when, fed up with being cooped up by ill health in gorgeous weather, I took the bike (via E train) to Roosevelt Avenue for Queens Pride. I’d somehow never made it before, and by the time I arrived, the parade was over (if it had ever been) and a street fair on rainbow themes filled a dozen blocks where the Indian, Pakistani and Afghan colonies meet various Latino enclaves as the E train crosses the 7. (There are also a Thai temple and a Jain center not far down the street.)

Several stages had lip sync drag mamas or folk acts or rappers to which almost no one in the crowd paid attention, there was lots of unhealthy food, there was a guy giving out cards of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, lots of condom distribution, petitions to sign (I signed one to save the libraries of Queens from budget cuts), free hepatitis shots and STD screenings, someone selling straw cowboy hats (I bought one, and it saved me from sunstroke), a bin of used CDs (Ann Hampton Callaway scatting standards in tribute to Ella, a bargain for $2), and I got pair of binoculars for $10 which won’t hurt me when I lose them, as the $140 ones did, there were assorted well-built young men but it was very neighborhood, much of the crowd was straight and enjoying the festa part. I’ve always preferred that Gay Pride be a festa for all, not just Our Crowd.

After an hour or so, I’d had enough of it, so I began biking aimlessly southerly, pausing for beer at an Irish bar (barman from Galway, “city of the tribes” – “I have friends who spend the summer there,” I told him; “Have they got a summer there?” he was skeptical) with a waterfall and barbecue in back, drifting down Greenpoint Avenue through ethnic neighborhood upon ethnic neighborhood, all unknown to me, over the Newtown Creek into Brooklyn. The plaza around the east end of the Williamsburg Bridge, once full of elegant bank buildings, then a ruin for decades, is now reviving nicely – some of the banks are now churches; others are, once again, banks – and through the Valley of the Shadow of the Hasidim to Fort Greene and on and on, miles and miles, most of it amazingly less shabby than it was in the 80s. I attempted a bridge to Manhattan, but my thighs were having none of it.

At last I was at BAM again – easy to spot from a distance because it is beside the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower, a Romanesque domed minaret spire, the oldest skyscraper in Brooklyn and one of my favorites in the city. (The ground floor, currently in restauro during condo conversion, has a sublime Cosmatic pavement which I trust will be preserved.) The Turks were out of vine leaves, so I got spinach pie instead to wash down more baklava. Then I took the bike by subway back to the Village. Another week of exercise and I’ll be able to handle a bridge or two.

Old movie houses (often full of fine deco detailing) and old banks (usually of turn-of-the-century grandeur: many domes, imitating either the Pantheon or the U.S. Capitol/St. Paul’s; many colonnades of one or another classical order) and old churches tend to switch functions: churches become theaters, banks and movie theaters become churches; banks become carpet warehouses. I favor retaining the old buildings just to vary the streetscape, prevent it becoming lethally dull, so I am delighted when they are preserved, whatever the organization.