31 December 2007

ever at my back I hear. . .

Here's a poem for the New Year, from current Poet Laureate Charles Simic. The Library of Congress site notes, with delightful academic understatement, that "Charles Simic was born in Yugoslavia on May 9, 1938. His childhood was complicated by the events of World War II." Yes, I'll just bet it was. This poem is from his collection The Book of Gods and Devils:

The Pieces of the Clock Lie Scattered

So, hurry up!
The evening's coming.
The grown-ups are on the way.
There'll be hell to pay.

You forgot about time
While you sought its secret
In the slippery wheels,
Some of which had teeth.

You meant to enthrall
The girl across the hall.
She drew so near,
Her breast brushed your ear.

She ought to have gone home,
But you kept telling her
You'll have it together again
And ticking in no time.

Instead, you're under the table
Together, searching the floor.
Your hands are trembling,
And there's a key in the door.

So here's to fresh starts and new beginnings, no matter how arbitrary or even deluded, and to making the most of your time, whatever that might be. Happy New Year to one and all.

28 December 2007

giving the people what they want (L'etat, c'est moi)

It sure was swell of the Senate to intervene so Tom Brady and I could spend this Saturday night together. (Here’s the score so far: giving the people what they want, Iraq division: 0; giving the people what they want, NFL-watching division: 1!) I thought it was my economy-based move to minimal cable (no ESPN or any of its spawn, no Fox Sports) that was going to keep me from watching the Patriots go for a perfect season, but it turns out that it’s really the NFL’s attempt to put their games on a pay network that was going to keep most of the country, not just me, from watching. More and more games are slipping off the freely available networks and onto ones you have to pay for; in a few years my fanship might be limited to scanning the sports page while waiting for the train.

Practically everyone outside of New England claims to hate the Patriots now. The first time Brady led the team to the Super Bowl, it was an underdog story of the type allegedly beloved by Americans (of course, we only love underdogs once they stop actually being underdogs and become winners): picked down low in the draft and promoted due to injury, football’s Ruby Keeler had the proverbial storybook season, and remained likeable and level-headed through it all, even to the extent of insisting that the team be introduced at the Super Bowl as a team, without stars. But then he kept on winning, and dating supermodels, and appearing in model-like magazine spreads himself, and though he kept on seeming quite likeable, level-headed, and team-oriented, being handsome, rich, young, and successful is just too much for the public to take. Throw in the supermodels and it's all over.

The storybook aspect may be why people don’t seem to realize how chancy these things are; the Giants might actually win the game. But as far as I’m concerned, the Patriots, having already won fifteen out of the sixteen regular-season games they play these days, have already outdone the fourteen-game perfect season of the fabled 1972 Dolphins, so you can stick an asterisk on that old record (the Dolphins also used more than one quarterback, and played back in the pre-parity days, which proves my point that there is always an asterisk). But I suppose I can’t really blame the people who hate the Patriots because they’re sick of hearing about them, since I want the Patriots to win because I’m sick of hearing about the 1972 Dolphins, who smugly toast each other every chance they get.

Before Senator Kerry intervened, I briefly considered going to a sports bar to watch the game, but then I’d have to watch the game, you know, in a sports bar. Surrounded by rowdy drunks. Who hate the Patriots. I don’t think I really care enough. I mean, I enjoy watching football (though let me just say: the games last too long, there are way too many commercials, the action is very start-and-stop in a maddening way, and the game and the players exude an underlying, anonymous exhaustion, which, though it makes football the metaphorical sport of choice for contemporary America, is ultimately depressing), but I’m not a facepainter, and really don’t want to be surrounded by them.

Speaking of facepainters, I recently dipped a timid toe into the turbulent waters of Opera-L. I seem to have arrived in the middle of a Netrebko firestorm, but then there always seems to be a firestorm brewing there. Many of the postings take the form of indignant and sarcastic suggestions that other people should lighten up on the indignation and sarcasm. I’m not sure how long I’ll hang on. For every interesting note there are multiple examples of the higher bitchery taking up space in my inbox, and I only want to spend so much time hitting delete. I’ve never understood arguing for the sake of arguing. If it's not a dispassionate search for truth and beauty, I just don't have the patience. At a recent Wagner society meeting one woman announced repeatedly that she was “going to start something”; she then declared that the eighteenth century – all of it – was worthless and boring, at least compared to the nineteenth. To me, if you don’t like Gluck or Mozart or whoever, that’s your loss. Why would I argue? or care? You can’t have a discussion with facepainters.

Maybe my lack of enthusiasm for sports bars (or bars in general) is behind my bafflement at San Francisco Opera’s broadcasting plans. I can understand why the Met is in movie theaters, since their broadcasts are live. But if you’re broadcasting pre-recorded performances, why arrange them so that you have the disadvantages of live theater without the compensatory thrills? I will happily sit in a theater for six hours for a live performance, but much as I love, say, Tristan, there’s no way I’m going to cram myself into a movie theater that long, especially when I’ll spend the whole time wondering why there wasn’t a DVD release I could enjoy, repeatedly, at leisure. Financially the DVD is a better consumer choice anyway (at least for me, and am I not a representative man?), even without the possibility of repeated viewings: the Onegin and Puritani that the Met released recently are going for about $30 each on Amazon. If you add up the movie ticket price (I think it's currently about $22 for the Met broadcasts) and the cost of BART tickets, you’re already near that total, and that’s without any popcorn. Here’s my suggestion for the Met and San Francisco Opera: release DVDs, both on a subscription basis and for general sale, similar to the way Ward Marston sells his records or John Eliot Gardiner his Bach cantata series. Please, don’t thank me. Not having to go to the Cineplex and listen to Tristan with someone chewing in my ear is thanks enough.

ADDENDUM on the football game: I knew it wasn't going to be a snoozefest, and that the Giants were going to play their starters, so why didn't all the TV commentators know? I wish I'd said something beforehand, but I thought it was obvious. I wouldn't exactly say I have the heart of a champion, but even I know you're not going to go into the playoffs having rolled over and given the historic crown to your rivals, especially when they started their big season by thumping you soundly in your own stadium. Sure, from a rational perspective it was a meaningless game since both teams are already in the playoffs, but if you operate rationally you probably aren't caring that much about football anyway. From a psychological perspective it was huge for the Giants as well as the Patriots, so I fully expected to see Eli Manning out there for at least the majority of the game. Sometimes it amazes me how much more I know than other people.

24 December 2007

Tyger Tyger burning bright, Won't you guide my sleigh tonight?

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but not so much at my house. Christmas ornaments, being shiny, fragile, all about aesthetics, often expensive, and essentially useless, are the kind of thing I’m simpatico with, but this year I didn’t even put the tree up, so I will not be hanging that shining star upon the highest bough any time soon. I thought the weekend after Thanksgiving was too soon, since we still had a week of November to go, and then I came down with The Head Cold That Would Not Die on top of everything else, and it seemed that my little energy and less time should be directed elsewhere, and the moment slipped by. I don’t even get a real tree, which requires coordinating efforts with someone who can drive; I just lug the box up from the basement and put the tree together. Only God can make a tree my ass. (It turns out I’m allergic to pine anyway. I once washed the kitchen floor with Pinesol and couldn’t breathe in there for a week afterwards. Who knew it actually contained pine?)

So an artificial tree is definitely the way for me to go, and artificial seems suited to the season anyway, though this summer I did discover the joy of chopping down real trees. I suddenly noticed that the industrious squirrels had planted a walnut tree by the side wall and, under cover of the lemon tree, it had gotten so tall it blocked the light from my apricot trees. I could either spend $25 on an axe now or put off dealing with it and spend hundreds of dollars later for professional tree removal. Down I went to Home Depot and got my axe, and I discovered my inner pioneer. If I didn’t love trees so much I’d be on a bare lot right now. Some of my friends had a very odd reaction to the axe. I would mention buying it as one of several things I had been up to lately, but that’s the only thing they would mention in their replies, with strangely hostile comedy. I don’t know why exactly. Either it conjured up an image of can-do masculinity not usually associated with me (and you know how people love to keep others in their niches), or they just did not like the idea of me with sharp weapons to hand.

Until three days before Christmas, when I received another from a depressed friend, I had received exactly one card, though I have to say it was from the people I’ve had the deepest, most prolonged relationship with this year – my plumbers. Santa is flying through the air, his sleigh laden with sinks, hot water heaters, and other plumbing paraphernalia – the artist was too tasteful to include a toilet, but euphemistically in its place is a line for snaking out the sewer pipes, a sight I became all too familiar with this year. My traditional Christmas wheat seeds didn’t sprout, except for one or two sickly pale sprouts, which clearly were not going to stand up to the gummy mold taking over the bowl. So there was no greenery to decorate the nativity scene, which stayed boxed anyway. Even Macy's Holiday Lane, with which I have a childish fascination, ended up disappointing me; by the time I got there ready to buy, all the Eric Cartman ornaments were gone, and so was most everything else. The mess around here is depressingly lacking in seasonal glitter.

But I have been listening to lots and lots of Christmas music, for which I have a weakness, and not just Handel or Heinrich Schutz, either. I have piles of it (though at least one pile seems to have disappeared into the general mess – that’s the sort of thing I should be working on, and that’s why I didn’t put up the tree – and it bugs me because I know L’Enfance du Christ is in that pile, and I’m on a Berlioz kick). Many of them are of the “opera singers do Christmas” variety (and who would miss out on Callas’s beloved Christmas album? Has any singer ever surpassed La Divina’s piercing rendition of Rudolph’s anguish?), though I range into other fields. I’m always on the lookout to add a few new Christmas albums each year. I saw one on Amazon that was credited to Twentieth Century Masters. I was eagerly expecting Milton Babbitt’s “I Don’t Care If You Listen to My Variations on Frosty the Snowman” or, at a minimum, Philip Glass’s Little Drummer Boy, but the CD turned out to have performances by Alvin and the Chipmunks and suchlike. I resisted the temptation. But when I finish Cairn’s Berlioz biography, my next music book will be The Rest Is Noise, and believe you me, I’ll keep my eyes peeled for an appearance by the Chipmunks.

It’s lucky for me I like Christmas music, because it’s ubiquitous – even Noah’s Bagels was playing O Tannenbaum this afternoon. Before work this morning I was walking around the Embarcadero Center, and I heard version after version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, an odd choice for a mall since it is the most deeply melancholy of all Christmas songs, even in the dance remix version they were playing. I can only assume people are so used to the song they don’t listen to the lyrics anymore, or hear the melody once they’ve recognized the song. This year of all hopeless years in America it seems desperate to dream that next year all our troubles will be far away, and we should be so lucky as to muddle through somehow. I don’t know how shoppers hearing this song don’t end up in an embryonic curl on the floor, sobbing for their desolated lives. I’m guessing that’s not what the malls have in mind.

That’s why in malltown we usually get the bright tunes, always carefully secular (that is definitely not a complaint – it seems too grossly ironic to hear about the impoverished little child in the manger while you’re stepping over the homeless slumped in the odd corners so that you can reach the sales before they all disappear – the sales, that is; the homeless aren’t going away anytime soon). The problem, at least for those who pay attention to the music, is that most of the popular secular songs were written in the 1950s, so they’re filled with that decade’s creeping paranoia and barely repressed twisted sexual politics. You’d better watch out! You’d better not cry! (We’re all happy here in the Homeland!) Guess who’s coming to town – the big man in red who believes in the redistribution of wealth! He has you under total surveillance! In case you miss the point, he’s got that big Karl Marx beard, and if you’re bad you get a lump of coal – an obvious symbol of the rise of the Industrial Revolution and the crushing of the proletariat. But that’s better than the creepy sexual innuendo, sung by a child who doesn’t quite realize what she’s seeing, in I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, an unnerving song that is just a short step away from I Saw Mommy Blowing Santa in the Parking Lot for a Hit of Meth. Then there’s Santa Baby. It turned up on a “Cool Christmas” compilation I bought a few years ago. I listened to it again recently, paying special attention to the lyrics. It appears to be about a prostitute or upper-middle-class housewife of some sort who, in exchange for a variety of luxury goods, is offering Santa anal intercourse. Ho ho ho indeed.

Then there are all the songs about snow. I find these slightly disorienting in an area where the cold end of the year means that the golden hills of summer are glazed green by winter rains. In the short December days I don’t see my house while it’s light except for the weekends, so it wasn’t until I went out to sweep up the leaves last Sunday that I realized I still had roses blooming – lo, how a rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung! Although some of the cities around here are obviously arbitrarily named (Walnut Creek: neither a walnut nor a creek!), Castro Valley, where I grew up, is in fact a valley – kind of like Florence, only without the Renaissance – that once belonged to a ranching family named Castro. And only once, for one afternoon in my childhood, was it cold enough for something like snowflakes to fall. My mother put us all in the car and drove us up to the hilly part of town where it was coldest so we could watch the flakes fall. They melted away as soon as they touched the ground, and I feel like Colonel Aureliano Buendia remembering that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Years ago, when I heard the premiere of Harbison’s cantata for Christmas, The Flight into Egypt, he gave an interview in which he mentioned that his intention was to present the darker side of Christmas, especially in these times when the gap between rich and poor is wider than ever. He makes a good point, but I wonder if he was mostly thinking of the secular songs that have taken over, by commercial necessity. Many of the old carols reflect a subtle disjunction between what is and what should, or could, be. They are filled with questions: What child is this? Yonder peasant, who is he? Who were the first to cry Noel? Mary, did you know? And what was in those ships all three on Christmas Day in the morning? Do you hear what I hear? And who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appeareth? They shift uneasily from place to place, imploring, commanding, seeking a different destiny: O come, O come Emmanuel; come, thou fount of every blessing; go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere; over the river and through the woods; field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star; hasten now, good folk of the village; I wonder as I wander. And they reflect the muted glories and hidden wonders in the mundane. All is calm, all is bright; how still we see thee lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. So many of them emphasize how tiny and helpless the small child in the manger is. I think to take in the power of that image you don’t need to be a Christian of any sort, and in fact it might even help if you have no belief that the child is God or some variant thereof, but just a new generation of the dispossessed, born to the dispossessed.

No matter how filled with materialism, or even joyous celebration, your Christmas might be, at the day’s core is always the image of the vulnerable child, in the dead of winter. That might be why Christmas music elicits tears so easily. Perhaps the longing for a lost past is too overwhelming, or the longing for a redemption that has never arrived, unless the isolated moments of stillness are all the redemption we have. I’ve pretty much checked out of Christmas this year; the machine was just too much for me, though I’m trying to go pleasantly and decently through the days. I am a poor boy too.

22 December 2007

confusion now hath made his masterpiece

Back to David Poutney’s Macbeth, and I’ll start off by saying something nice. I really liked the sickly radioactive-green slime in place of blood. It’s startling, it’s unearthly, it’s viscerally disgusting in a way that stage blood usually isn’t. (And there’s Shakespearean precedent for using the blood’s color as a metaphor: “his [Duncan’s] silver skin laced with his golden blood”.) The green is unfortunately less effective when shining on the typewriter after Banquo’s murder (see my previous entry). Green slime works as blood, but the color itself has too many positive and soothing connotations to be effective as a general symbol of death and horror.

Red was reserved for the witches. You’d think this would be effective, but it’s not. The witches in the Washington National Opera production (directed by Paolo Micciche) I saw last spring were also color-coordinated; they were all in white, and, like these red witches, some of them carried hula hoops. The white gave them an unearthly apparitional look, and they reminded me of Goya’s Caprichos. The red chorus, I’m sorry to say, kept reminding me of the ladies of the Red Hat Society, who are frightening in a very different way. I did like the one who kept turning the crank on her manual eggbeater, thereby adding an eerie touch to the orchestration, one that Verdi had sadly neglected. It reminded me of hearing Henze’s Fifth Symphony many years ago; as I was reading down the list of instruments, I came upon "bullwhip". I think it got cracking in the third movement. One witch in particular, wearing a going-to-church-extravagant red chapeau and strolling around with a red walking stick, made me think, The Red Brigade of Women present . . . Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience! You see how the mind wanders when the staging is ineffective. The sisters were indeed weird, but they were weird in the same way as the rest of the staging. It’s important that they be strange in a different way. Otherwise they seem like more of the same rather than an eruption from either another world or the subconscious.

I will mildly disagree with those who were horrified that the Opera bought this production, meaning we’re going to have to see it again. I thought the sets were OK. It’s what happens on and around them that is a mess, and that can be changed. There’s the big box with one or two glass sides that gets moved around and represents various things, from Macbeth’s castle to his isolation, and it’s set under a curved dome with a big cracked hole in it. It’s banal to put it into words – see, the natural order has been damaged! – but visually it’s quite effective, though perhaps not enough so to last for the entire opera.

Just about every scene cries out for change. Let me use the sleepwalking scene as an example. Jeremy Galyon, valiantly playing the doctor, is led in blindfolded by Elza van den Heever’s admirably committed Lady-in-Waiting. I assume the blindfold is because Lady Macbeth is sequestered and he’s not supposed to know where she is. But she’s not supposed to be that gaga. They have her already acting crazy by the banquet scene, so her attempts to force Macbeth to behave normally when he sees Banquo’s ghost no longer make any sense. The Macbeths present a façade of normal kingship that hides an increasingly sinister world of fear and surveillance, an effect that is completely lost when you turn Lady Macbeth into the madwoman in the attic. So she does her handwashing thing and the doctor takes notes. The only reason the doctor should be taking notes in this scene is so that he can be shown stopping his note-taking when he realizes what exactly is making Lady Macbeth feel so guilty. In this production, it’s probably needless to say, he writes the whole time, which makes even less sense than you might think because the Lady-in-waiting angrily snatches the paper from him when he finishes and either tears it or hides it away in her pocket (I forget which and it probably doesn't really matter). Maybe it’s meant to be a prescription, because she then produces a huge hypodermic needle, and the two of them run off stage, presumably to give Lady Macbeth the injection that causes her death. It’s hard to tell because they aren’t shown actually doing anything with the needle. But the death of Lady Macbeth is rumored to be at her own hand – again, under the façade of a normal, natural occurrence, bloodthirsty ambition causes its own destruction, a point that is lost completely if she dies through a lethal injection given by her servants.

I know lots of people found Hampson’s Macbeth riveting. I thought he initially was disengaged and not nuanced enough, which surprised me in an artist noted for his commitment and intelligence. He has a beautiful voice, and it’s one that carries especially well in the War Memorial Opera House. He has great stage presence: if he were a scholarly book, he would not only be regularly referred to as a tome, but inevitably as a magisterial tome. So I might just have heard him on an off night, possibly for both of us. At one point I thought, there’s no erotic charge between him and Lady Macbeth; you don’t get the feeling that their ambition and their guilty complicity excite them in any way. Right after that we got to see a flash of him humping her during Banquo’s murder, but that’s the sort of thing that is better conveyed in nuanced gestures during the performance rather than in an over-obvious tableau.

Georgina Lukacs as Lady Macbeth seemed like a wildly variable performer. I gather she was much better the night I heard her than in earlier performances. I sometimes wonder how much what I expect from voices has been affected by beginning to listen seriously in the early white-sound days of the first generation of HIP singers (long before they were called that). So after this performance I listened to recordings of Verrett and Rysanek in the role. Nope, it’s not me. Lukacs has a wildly undulating wobble, which she managed to control better in some of the later scenes. Just as I wish opera directors didn’t know about La Mere Coupable, knowledge of which has coarsened and distorted many a staging of Nozze di Figaro, I also wish they didn’t know about Verdi’s letter stating that Lady Macbeth needs an ugly voice. Whatever his motive in writing that, it’s clear what he meant: he wanted a striking and unusual type of character, from a singer who could give an actual performance, one that went beyond making the pretty canary-bird sounds. But too much that is inartistic is covered over by the whole “ugly voice” excuse.

Even the orchestra disappointed me. When I went to the WNO production last spring it was mainly because that happened to be what they were doing when I was in town (I was more focused on Titus at the Shakespeare Theater and on hearing Racette in Jenufa later that week), and I walked in wondering if I should have gone to the Nationals game instead. (If you’ve been to RFK Stadium, or seen the Nationals play lately, this is a pretty big indication that I was not that excited about Macbeth.) I walked out so glad that I had gone, and thinking that I had really underestimated the fascinations and effectiveness of the score. I took that to be because I hadn’t heard the piece in a while, but now I’m giving lots of credit to the magic stick of conductor Renato Palumbo. Massimo Zanetti conducted the San Francisco performance. We started off with a slack, enervated prologue, and I hoped for improvement that never came. There was no tension or forward drive, and the weird parts sounded pretty much like all the rest. Zanetti did have great conductor hair, though, a poufy backward sweep of silvery gray that bobbed up and down as his arms waved energetically about. I should point out that from my seat I normally can barely see the conductor.

So I walked out of this performance with renewed retrospective admiration for the one I heard last spring. Eventually the BART train showed up, and as usual I had to move at least once because someone was blasting her iPod at an ever-increasing volume. It amazes me when I think how much reading I used to get done on the trains, before the invasion of the inadequately silenced electronic devices. Since it was a short train, there was little choice where to go. I ended up in a seat near two spherical sisters. As teenage drunks go they were fairly innocuous, and I would salute them for not driving in that condition except I suspect it was just because they didn’t have a car. I was only about a stop and a half away from home by this time so I didn’t bother moving again (where would I go anyway on a short train?) when the younger one started vomiting, choking out apologies while splattering the window near her and the floor under her seat. “It’s OK, bitch,” her sister kept murmuring. “Bitch, it’s OK. We’ve all been there.” That might have been the truest performance I heard all night.

21 December 2007

Is this a typewriter which I see before me, its carriage return towards my hand?

I have more to say about David Pountney’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth, but I felt that the much ballyhooed typewriter, as the true star of the show, deserved its own contemplative entry. First let me point out the extremely obvious: if you stage Macbeth (either Shakespeare or Verdi) and the audience, critics, and blogosphere are all abuzz over a prop – literally the first thing I heard when the curtain fell was, “Now, what about that typewriter?”, and that may well have been cued by its prominent mention in every single review – then you have done something way wrong, and should probably head right back to the design board, or possibly just into a different profession. The very thought of a typewriter in Macbeth might lead you to expect all kinds of epater-les-bourgeoisie craziness, and generally I’m OK with wacky whatthefuckery (though I’d like to suggest that Macbeth is maybe not really the best vehicle for such a display), but in fact there’s very little of that going on – as distinct from inept or inappropriate staging, of which there is plenty – which might be why the typewriter, mysterious in its isolation, has become the defining symbol of the production.

First I really should thank San Francisco Opera for giving me this opportunity to show that I actually have some critical standards and am not prepared to drop my pants and bend over for just any modern staging. Even if I were tempted to step off my (Dada-surrealist) swan boat, armored in the avant-garde, to defend the virtue of non-traditional staging, this one would send me slinking back downstream, though perhaps not until after I gave a few swift kicks with my shiny metal armor booties. I will proudly state that the Stuttgart production of Alcina was one of my all-time favorite evenings in the theater, an opinion I appear to share with Pamela Rosenberg and no one else. I have already defended Graham Vick’s Tannhauser. But this Macbeth only deepened my appreciation for what Vick did – the appearance of the children in Tannhauser moved me, but here their use as the entire army annoyed me; I found the use of one set for Tannhauser expanded my sense of the work, and here I found it limiting.

The typewriter, a regular manual machine of a now antique sort, makes its first appearance lugged by Fleance as he follows his father Banquo, who is hanging up Wanted posters, which feature two pictures that don’t look anything like the singers playing the King’s sons. Banquo is the only one besides Macbeth and Lady Macbeth who knows what the weird sisters said. After the murder of King Duncan, he doesn’t expose Macbeth, or confront him, or conspire with him. Instead he very deliberately distances himself from Macbeth. He acts a neutral part, which is why his murder, due to Macbeth’s paranoid fear of what he might possibly say, and his bitter jealousy that the murder of King Duncan will only end up benefiting Banquo’s offspring, is a significant marker in Macbeth’s descent into tyrannical paranoia and bloodthirstiness. If Banquo isn’t neutral, Macbeth is, from the standpoint of practicality, justified in having him eliminated. Having Banquo hang up Wanted posters compromises his neutrality by making him an accessory to the cover-up, and that makes it absolutely the last thing he should be shown doing.

Not only is he actively implicating the King’s sons when he knows better, the typewriter seems to be the instrument of this implication, so you'd think Macbeth wouldn't mind. But possibly, since Fleance is carrying it, it’s meant to show that Banquo might publicize (or already has publicized) his knowledge of Macbeth’s probable guilt in the murder of King Duncan in order to benefit his son (yet if that is the case, why doesn't Banquo also mull over the same philosophical dilemma as Macbeth: if fate has decreed something will happen, does he need to do anything to make it happen?). The chorus kills Banquo; Fleance runs off, but not before setting the typewriter down front and center on the stage where a green spotlight illuminates it. Highlighting a means of spreading news might seem like an ideal occasion for the sort of camera/big video screen technology that usually appears as faithfully as fedoras in this type of staging, but instead we get the typewriter, apparently because, despite the modern/archaic look of the production, it’s actually 1949, and typewriters are how we get the news out (Hildy! It’s Walter! Stop the presses – I have breaking stuff on the big Duncan murder case!).

The typewriter appears again at the end. I have to admit I kind of lost track of when it disappeared from the stage; possibly it’s removed at the intermission. Presumably its reappearance signals that free communication has now been restored with Macbeth’s downfall, but it’s hard to tell because of the goose-stepping soldiers entering from the back of the stage. I realize that goose-stepping is a traditional military march, but to Americans it means only one thing: the Nazis are here! So I’m flummoxed by its appearance when a just order has been restored. But that might only be an example of this originally Swiss production not quite translating, sometimes literally: early on there is a banner written in German, and later there are projections of Italian words, which I assume are from the libretto. It seems odd not to translate these effects into English for an American audience, especially given the work’s inspiration in an English classic, but all things considered in this production, those are peccadilloes.

17 December 2007

the varied carols I hear

Occasionally I come across strange subcultures – not inherently strange, but previously unknown to me, and largely unacknowledged by the mainstream. Years ago I had a co-worker who gradually revealed to me her real life – the United States, it seems, is divided into a series of medieval kingdoms, each with its court and attendant social structure, and she was the devoted cook for one of the Northeast kingdoms. She spent huge amounts of time, effort, and research on her work (one of the things she used to do was examine banquet scenes from art of the period to discover how thick their pie crusts were). She candied her own ginger in traditional medieval fashion, and she used to stuff it into dragon-shaped spice cakes. She brought me some ginger once; it was very tasty.

Sometimes these subcultures go mainstream almost by accident (as when Best in Show suddenly made dog shows events that could be televised). This is obviously a desirable result for artistic subcultures, which are constantly struggling for money and attention. I’ve been to small theaters where I’ve realized I was the only one in the audience who wasn’t related to or sleeping with a cast member. It’s a shame so many smaller groups struggle in obscurity, because some of them do work that is consistently higher quality and of greater interest than a lot of what the big established institutions produce. When I lived in Boston I discovered groups like Emmanuel Music or the Cantata Singers through the Boston Globe’s extensive arts coverage; out here, I’ve become dependent on people who are involved in various groups to alert me to things worth attending, which is why I took the suggestion of The Standing Room’s multi-talented M. C- and went to the Volti Concert last November.

I dodged the crowds of drunken students and soon-to-be drunk alumni on their way to the football game and headed for St. Mark’s Episcopal on Bancroft. All those years in Berkeley and I had never been inside. The Spanish mission-style (Carmel, if you want the specific mission) exterior led me to expect more extravagant splendors inside. It’s very handsome in a stripped-down way, just not what I had expected. As usual I arrived absurdly early, despite walking around the block four or five times, so early I thought I was late – the chorus was singing when I stepped into the vestibule, and I thought I had the time wrong. It turned out to be a final rehearsal. A couple of helpful people came out; one sold me a ticket and a CD and I resumed waiting. A woman commented on how early I was – since it was around 7:20 by then, I didn’t think I was that early for an 8:00 concert, but what do I know of the ways of small choral groups? It's been quite a while since I've been exposed to that subculture. The chorus left and the church slowly filled up with choristas.

Music audiences tend to have different conglomerate personalities, even if some of the audience members are the same – the vocal crowd is different from the piano crowd, and they’re different from the string quartet crowd; the early music people rarely see a mainstream opera audience, and the valiant band of modernists is a different set altogether. But small choral groups have some of the intimacy and intensity of chamber music, and their aficionados are similar. Many of them had the sense to bring their own cushions. I’ve been to enough concerts in churches so that I should have known better than to trust to wooden pews, even in an Episcopalian church, but there I was, unpadded. Murmured conversations flew around about who was running which group now and what auditions were being held when. Some velvet-clad couples were just a turkey-leg away from full Renaissance Faire drag; I half expected them to try to sell me handmade scented candles.

The concert itself was wonderful, and I’m glad I bought a CD. Volti does lots of new music; in fact, there were four world premieres at that concert, which puts it about four world premieres ahead of the San Francisco Symphony’s entire season (it would be accurate to note that the Symphony has several North American premieres scheduled, one of which is of a new Magnus Lindberg piece, and also accurate to insist on the larger truth of the Symphony’s lack of commitment to new music). At most concerts you get used to listening in a comparative way; since you’ve heard the pieces so many times before, you can’t help but measure the performance against some ideal, recorded or imagined. With new music you’re out in deep water, and you have to listen in a different way, for different things – it’s kind of like being a novice concert-goer all over again, and that’s a useful place to be. Listening is a skill that needs to be practiced.

All of the pieces were in English except for Morten Lauridsen’s Madrigali, which was in Italian. For that number they projected the translations onto a screen, which I’m all in favor of – I have long wished recitals used these projections. In fact, they might have done it for the pieces in English as well, since choral singing is by its nature more diffuse than solo. I particularly liked Stacy Garrop’s Sonnets of Beauty and Music (part of a series of thematically grouped poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay; I would love to hear the whole series when it’s completed), but that’s not at all to dismiss the other pieces (by Howard Hersh, Richard Festinger, Wayne Peterson, and Alan Fletcher as well as Lauridsen). Many of the composers were there and spoke before their pieces, which I pretty much could have done without. One of the composers turned out to be sitting behind me, and apparently he agreed with me, but he did say to his companion that it gave people a different way into the work, so fair enough, though I find such prefaces tend to the obvious, and are mostly of a “human interest” nature, and we all know that human interest is what you give people who aren’t really interested in the art form. I think there’s too much emphasis on the creative process instead of on the created object.

I thoroughly enjoyed the evening, and contentment doesn’t really lend itself to comment, other than saying I’m looking forward to Volti’s next concerts (March 1, 2, and 3 – go to http://www.voltisf.org/ for venues, CDs, and other information). Afterwards I had the great pleasure of meeting in person both Sid of the Standing Room (and Volti’s bass section) and Lisa of Iron Tongue of Midnight. I would urge you to check them out immediately (blogroll to the right), but if you’re reading this you probably have been reading them already (with one or two possible exceptions – Hi Mom!). So before Clash of the Choirs makes choral singing the next big thing, jump into that subculture and subvert the dominant corporate world of rock/rap/pop by hearing the real live thing from singers who can actually sing. You have now been officially urged to check them out.

10 December 2007


If I lived anywhere near New York City, I know where I would be tomorrow night: in the audience for What Next? on the composer’s 99th birthday, hoping to applaud the great man himself. I’ve had kind of an Elliott Carter thing for quite some time now, which has pretty much just taken the form of buying any recordings I could find or, on occasions that are much too rare, hearing his music live. It’s very possible that I started listening to him because I heard he was “difficult”, which I took as a challenge, and “intellectual”, which I took as something I would like. I find his music passionate and gorgeous, and it’s given me a lot of pleasure over the years. And I can only feel deep gratitude and admiration for an artist who soldiers on in relative obscurity, growing, developing, working, in pursuit of the elusive and irreplaceable ideal. A few years ago the Pacifica Quartet played all of his string quartets in one evening, and it was one of my all-time favorite concerts. I just sat there in the dark, hearing only my own breathing and the unbelievably beautiful music pouring out of just four instruments. For this relief, much thanks.

09 December 2007

he kneels before thy wounded shade

Love is always disappointing, isn’t it?

Have I mentioned how very much I love The Rake’s Progress?

Maybe I was expecting too much from San Francisco Opera’s new production, given the promise of a new staging from Robert Lepage, with an interesting-sounding switch from the usual Hogarthian London to a semi-contemporary, semi-1950s (excuse me, midcentury) setting in the Texas oil fields and Hollywood, and with an exceptional cast that included William Burden as Tom, Laura Aiken as Anne, James Morris as Nick Shadow, and Denyce Graves as Baba the Turk. And it did affect my evening though not my view of the performance that the man behind me was virtuosic in his rudeness: talking, stamping his feet (yes, Denyce Graves looks good in a swimsuit), clicking and dropping his water (though I swear I smelled liquor a couple of times) bottle, coughing, rustling and rattling, and finally rising to a pasticcio Rossinian crescendo in the second half by adding the loud smacking of his chewing gum, a noise that to me is worse than the proverbial fingernails on a blackboard. By the time I realized how bad the one-man band was going to be I was trapped. And I was getting a weird, hostile vibe from this guy that made me think it would do no good to turn around and tell him to shut up. But as a connoisseur of irritation, I can tell the difference between a wonderful evening spoiled by one element and an evening where all the elements are not quite going right. It’s like the time I finally went to Florence: I would have preferred it if it hadn’t rained most of the time, or if the sun had been out for more than (no exaggeration) one or two hours in the entire nine days (though in those occasional hours I realized for the first time that brown can be a deeply romantic color – perhaps that’s why Alice B. Toklas said it was her favorite?), but still I loved being there, room with a view and all.

Lepage’s production is very clever; in fact, it’s probably too clever, filled with distracting stunts at just the wrong time. Sometimes people will point out to me, in case I hadn’t noticed, that I approach opera from a theatrical point of view (which always reminds me of my paternal grandmother pointing out to my cousin that she never had anything bad to say about anybody; for years and years my cousin, a genuinely lovely and loving person, mistook this for a compliment). Yes, I do approach it that way, mostly because it is theater, theater of a very basic sort. But Lepage should have remembered the advice of that experienced director, Hamlet, to avoid actions which will “set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary question of the play be then to be considered.” The most egregious example is during Anne’s big scene (“No word from Tom”). The moon is above, Anne is standing near the front of the stage, and the Trulove home is a full-size miniature placed far back on the stage Kabuki-style, so that you get a remarkable sense of perspective and, with fairly simple means, a stunning stage picture. That’s fine. But all the windows in the house are lit, and in them, moving from room to room – and this is truly an ingenious effect, and I have no idea how they did it except through some sort of unbelievably complicated projection – you see the tiny black shadow figure of Father Trulove moving from room to room, presumably in search of his daughter. I’d say this is Anne’s key scene, and generally important to the drama, but while she is singing the very Shakespearean sentiment that if love be love it will not alter, the audience (including me, and I know better) is distractedly thinking, “Wow! How are they doing that? Look, the little figure is moving! Awesome!” When it stops at the door and calls out (in the offstage voice of Kevin Langan), “Anne! Anne!” about half the audience just lost it and started applauding the effect, drowning out the key lines in which Anne decides she will leave her father and search for the faithless Tom.

Some of the effects are perfectly done: I loved Nick Shadow emerging, dark and oily, from underneath the derrick that was pumping away in the first scene, in a suggestive image of the role oil and oil money play in our world. And when Mother Goose (the reliable Catherine Cook) claims her elder right in Tom, they sink into the huge mattress so that the sheets gradually cover them and they disappear under the stage, swallowed by the bed. But more often you get things like the movie-star trailer slowly inflating behind Tom, so that the audience is applauding a big balloon instead of William Burden. Or you get the trailer flying up into the wings, revealing a very Douglas Sirk-looking back projection, with Anne in front driving a sporty red car to find Tom, a long scarf trailing behind her (so long it had to be moved by wires; in fact it was, as the man behind me pointed out three times in quick succession, one long-ass scarf). The car and the scarf and the whole attitude seemed much more suited to glamorous Baba than to a country girl like Anne, but there were a number of odd lapses like that.

For example, there’s the strangely sloppy staging of Baba’s reappearance, after Tom has silenced her ranting not by covering her but by shoving her into their pool (it’s Hollywood, of course they have a pool). So during the auction scene, as the crowd mills around the pool bidding on various objects hoisted up from the depths, up comes a seemingly dead Baba the Turk in a bathing suit. Yet no one reacts to what is very obviously the body of a drowned woman – and not just any drowned woman, but a celebrity known to them all – and in fact, the auctioneer (the lively Steven Cole) entices them by speculating on what the mysterious object might be. Dude – it’s Baba the Turk. She’s right there in front of you! Within the context of the opera it is believable and witty that she would pick up mid-note as soon as she is unveiled, but here there seems no reason why she suddenly revives. At least they managed to keep her beard attached during this scene; during her big unveiling, she seemed to have barely a few wisps on her chin, and I thought my eyes were going, but I guess what went was the beard.

(By the way, it seems really obvious to me from the way the music builds, and from the careful omission before she appears of any phrases dealing with unfortunate facial hair, that we’re not supposed to know quite what the marvelous deal is with Baba the Turk until that big unveiling. Yes, Shadow shows Tom a broadsheet from St Giles’s fair, but that doesn’t mean the audience gets to see it too. It should be quite a striking and funny coup de theatre when she unveils, yet every production I’ve seen makes sure we know in advance that she’s a bearded lady. A lot of opera productions make the mistake of just assuming that everyone already knows the story anyway, so they don’t have to tell it thoughtfully or keep its surprises until their appropriate time. And thus repetition palls him, indeed.)

As for the general concept of the show, this is not the first production I’ve seen that takes the action out of some version of eighteenth-century England. Back in the late 1980s (possibly early 1990s) I saw a brilliant production at MIT of all places that set it in Reagan’s America, with Wall Street as the stand-in for the false pleasures of London. (It’s funny to think that would be an historical staging now, but it was contemporary at the time.) The overlay between success on Reagan’s Wall Street and in eighteenth-century-style London is actually pretty exact. In this oil field/Hollywood version there are just a lot more nagging discrepancies. For one thing, Father Trulove is meant to be a steady and substantial man of modest prosperity; making him a Texas oilman immediately makes him both far wealthier and far more of a risk-taker than he should be to function as a contrast to Tom – in fact, it changes him into a successful version of Tom instead of a contrast to him. As for the Hollywood angle, sure, it’s fine if hackneyed, and the whole “false culture of Hollywood” thing seems a little cheap to me, both too obvious and not quite true enough. (The same thing with the television that also shows up in the second half: television is just a means of distribution, like a printing press. I don’t find anything inherently insidious in television.) But the thing about our celebrity culture is that it’s all-pervasive (I can’t even pick up e-mail without passing through headlines about the uninteresting antics of various drunken starlets) in a way that doesn’t really correspond to what happens to Tom in the more insular world of London. So presenting Tom as a celebrity in our current style makes it a little difficult to believe that Anne would have no idea where Tom was or that he was about to marry a circus performer (and the daughter of a Texas oil man is not exactly going to be an unsophisticated country lass, unused to high society).

Here’s another odd bit of staging: every copy of the libretto I have (three or four of the recordings I have come with the text) says that after Father Trulove rebukes Tom in the first scene (“So he be honest, she may take a poor husband if she choose, but I am resolved she shall never marry a lazy one”) he exits into the house and then Tom says “The old fool!” Yet this production (and also the Merola production of a few years ago) has Tom speak the line while Trulove is still on stage; Trulove then hesitates and goes into the house. Trulove is kind, but also dignified, and it seems out of character for him (especially when you’re looking at him as a wealthy Texas oil man) to put up with such a direct insult without any rebuke (though of course he has to, since Auden, Kallman, and Stravinsky didn’t provide one). Tom may be weak-willed, but also good-hearted, and it seems out of character for him (in both aspects) to insult Anne’s father in such a blatant way within his hearing. I sound like the opera audiences I make fun of, but let’s pay attention to character and the libretto, shall we?

As for the singers, I’ve heard memorable performances in the past from all of the leads, and on paper I thought this production had the strongest cast this season, with the possible exception of the upcoming Ariodante. My major complaint about the conducting of Runnicles is that I feel he has a tendency to cover the singers, and I thought a lot of that was going on that night. The men came off better. Burden is sympathetic, thoughtful, and expressive as Tom. Morris has the right slightly overpowering and menacing quality as Shadow (and it adds an extra frisson to hear a famous Wotan singing that “he alone is free / Who chooses what to will, and wills / his choice as destiny”). Laura Aiken, so celestially memorable as the Angel in St Francois that I’ve loved her ever since, was a beautiful Anne but perhaps a bit underpowered. Graves has plenty of Baba’s glam theatricality and grandeur, but I thought she missed some of her heart. Baba is really the only character who changes through the action – Anne’s role of course is to be steadfast; Tom’s circumstances change, but his personality doesn’t; and the Devil (or the spirit of eternal negation, to emphasize the Faustian) stays in his element the whole time (though I once sat next to a man who didn’t realize until two and a half acts had passed that “Nick Shadow” was a devil). So it’s a shame to shortchange Baba’s wise and kind advice to Anne.

I went in wanting to love it. I was disappointed. That’s why they play the games, I guess.

01 December 2007


To all those people coming here looking for the translation of the Baudelaire line I used as an entry title, here is the translation of “Hypocrite lecteur, - mon semblable, - mon frère!”:

Hypocritical reader – my likeness/my double – my brother!

It’s the last line of Au Lecteur (To the Reader), the introductory poem to Les Fleur du Mal (The Flowers of Evil). You can go finish that paper now – it’s due tomorrow morning, isn’t it? And here I thought knowledge of Baudelaire was taken in at the breast with mother’s absinthe.

To the person from Pittsburgh who keeps coming here searching for pierogie lights: Gift shop, the Andy Warhol Museum. Enjoy!

To all the narwhal folk (or to the one person with a really oddball obsession): Sorry your trip here has been futile, but check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narwhal, though I fear even that won’t help those who searched for “origami narwhal” and “narwhal drinking game” (if you find out what that is, by the way, I'm curious to hear). And it definitely won’t be a help to the person searching for “narwhal porn.” In fact, unless this is a desperate move on the part of an otherwise scientifically respectable narwhal breeding program, I’m thinking there’s pretty much no one who can help someone searching for narwhal porn. I mean, you know . . . um . . . ouch? (And to Ms S of DC: you realize this is all your fault, right?)

The search that really fascinated me recently, from I think Columbia Medical Center in New York, was “Barry Zito Nathan Gunn” – no other terms, even the inevitable but tasteful “shirtless” or the engagingly candid “naked pics”. It turns out I’m apparently the only inhabitant of the entire webosphere that has written about both of them. Does someone else just share my combo pack favorite current baseball player and favorite baritone? See, no matter how obscure the niche, there’s someone else out there looking for it. So maybe narwhal porn guy should take heart and voyage on, the Captain Ahab of man/tusked sea mammal relations.