30 September 2008


I guess watching dancers do their thing night after night has taken its toll on me: I’m attributing my latest back outage to artistic sympathy pains. In between wincing and whining, I’m self-medicating plus limping picturesquely around, looking for a place to do the stretches I’ve obviously neglected too much. In other words, the entries I was going to post are postponed until I can sit upright and think of something besides my lower back.

But I should be recovered enough by this Sunday afternoon (October 5) to make my first visit to the Castro Valley Center for the Arts, which replaced my high school’s cafeteria as my hometown’s center for the performing arts. We may not be getting Nixon, but his boss is at hand: we’re getting the world premiere of the Eisenhower Farewell Address for orchestra and orator by Jack Curtis Dubowsky. You can check him out on IMDB or on his own website.

Funny – in an sadly ironic, not a ha-ha, way – to think that back when I attended that high school, Eisenhower’s reputation was, shall we say, not high? And now his prescient warning about the military-industrial complex makes him look positively Lincolnesque compared to the spokeschimp for the plutocracy currently soiling the Oval Office.

Anyway, Dubowsky, whom I should point out I’ve never met, e-mailed me last summer and invited me to attend. He also sent a CD, which I have to admit I probably put off listening to longer than I should have because – well, years ago a co-worker of mine invited me to come see him in a play, and though the play itself wasn’t much, I remember my feeling of utter relief that he was a good actor. So, yeah, I also enjoyed the CD, which has kind of a contemporary jazzy sound, and I was thinking of how to describe it further when I saw that the composer had saved me the trouble: “Abstract, calm, spacious, free form, transcendental, contemporary, electronic acoustic mystical psychedelia from classical and film composer.” Some of those words (electronic and psychedelia, basically) would normally scare me off, but I enjoyed the disc and am looking forward to the performance.

The CV Center for the Arts is on 19501 Redwood Road, about a 20-minute walk from the Castro Valley BART station. You also get to hear the Jupiter Symphony. Check it out!

22 September 2008

Fiesco to fiasco

What a whiplash beginning to the fall season. First a beautifully sung and profound Simon Boccanegra in an unexciting staging followed by a completely amplified and meretricious Bonesetter’s Daughter in a razzle-dazzle production (though unlike the magician’s sleight-of-hand, it doesn’t quite distract you from what’s really going on, which is really too bad); and at the Symphony, a wonderful evening of Ligeti, Poulenc, and Prokofiev followed by a completely mishmashed Bernstein tribute. No wonder I’m already dizzy and perhaps a bit cranky.

I take about as little pleasure in trashing the Bonesetter’s Daughter as I did in experiencing it; as someone who is constantly complaining about limited repertory and unimaginative productions, it’s the sort of thing I am really rooting for. But I have never felt any need to check my brain at the opera house door, and I can’t condescend to the art form by pretending that the libretto is “good enough for opera,” because opera plots do not have to be incoherent and simplistic or silly. (I’m still wondering why Chang the Coffinmaker, after being so eager to marry LuLing, suddenly decides not only to rape her instead, but to chase her down to Hong Kong in order to do so. Is he just trying to get away from his three or four other wives? More romance-novel self-indulgence, I fear: of course he is obsessed with me! Who wouldn’t be? And I keep reading that Precious Auntie is “disfigured” – again, since she is never disfigured on stage at any point, you would only know this by reading what’s supposed to be happening, not by watching what is actually happening. People, please note: incoherence is different from ambiguity.)

So much money, and so much effort by so many more or less talented people. . . . What’s really irritating me now, besides having dug myself even further into horrendous debt so I could see the sparkly new opera, is that I can already hear the PR machine clanking up to claim that Bonesetter’s Daughter is “controversial” or “thought-provoking,” qualities conspicuously lacking these days over there at The House of Easy Weeping (well, I'd cry too if I'd spent the rumored figure of 1.5 million and didn't even get a coherent storyline), or that it has “gotten people talking about opera” – for the record, What the fuck? is not the kind of conversation you want to be inspiring.

Every performance has a certain appeal to the senses, but once that immediate sensation fades into memory the intellectual underpinnings of a work become more obvious, and when they fail, you can end up feeling more frustrated and angry than you were at first.

After noting just a few entries ago that I couldn’t imagine Dawn Upshaw performing in the same kind of hodgepodge concert as Gheorghiu, look at what Dawn goes and does in the Symphony's big Bernstein-o-rama! Ah, Dawn, keep the boys guessing! If I’d known she was going to be amplified in the second half, though, I definitely would have exchanged my ticket for something or maybe anything else. As previously noted, I am not of the cult of Lennie, except for Candide, which was completely omitted from what was sort of a survey of Bernstein’s theatrical works. My metaphorical mind was thinking that the concert was like having to sit through a birthday party for someone to whom I’m indifferent. Then I realized that was literally true: the concert was a tribute on the occasion of Bernstein’s 90th birthday. It’s being taken to Carnegie Hall as part of a festival of some sort. I hope it seems a little more coherent in that context. I hate to fall into that whole “it’s New York City!” thing, but I can’t imagine why the Symphony thought this was the right calling card for Carnegie. Message to New York: you missed some fine Ligeti!

The evening opened with a plush account of the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, and, not to get anyone in trouble, but the string section looked as tired of shouting “Mambo!” as I was of hearing it. They should have dumped this and had more songs. Tilson Thomas didn’t even bother to give a little intro to that piece, but he did for the two excerpts from A Quiet Place that followed. They were nicely sung by Quinn Kelsey and Dawn Upshaw, but I don’t think they work that well out of context, especially the first one, an aria about being angry. Is the anger justified? Or is there some situational irony that enriches the aria (like actually hearing Everything’s Coming Up Roses in context and realizing how desperately delusional the song is meant to be)?

After intermission Tilson Thomas informed us that it was a “gala” evening, which I guess explains why it didn’t make much musical sense. The program book implied that the intent was to show Bernstein’s range as a theatrical composer, but the actual effect was a weird hitting-the-tennis-ball-back-and-forth quality, with the overly familiar and comic slamming into the mournful obscurities. It reminded me of the passage in Oliver Twist when Dickens describes certain novelists who alternate between tragedy and comedy like the alternating streaks of meat and fat in bacon. Uh, but I really enjoy bacon, which shows you how metaphors can break down.

I’m sounding too harsh, I think. But it was a very strange concert. Stephanie Harwood came out and belted I Can Cook Too. The audience reacted with the enthusiasm of those who have never heard a Red-Hot Mama before, but immediately we had Peter Wyrick playing Meditation No 1 from Mass (the program made a case for Mass as well as Songfest as theatrical works). It’s an interesting piece – I kept thinking it would soar off into the sweetness of something like the Meditation from Thais, but it kept swerving in pricklier directions – but despite Wyrick’s skill I don’t think we were hearing it under optimum circumstances, what with the audience all revved up from the sashaying and whatnot.

(Here's my prior experience with Mass: I saw the PBS broadcast back in the 1970s when it was new. All I remember is that at what would be the consecration the Celebrant has some sort of hissy fit and I think smashes something. My mother looked up from her crocheting, said in a very drily sarcastic tone, "Was that the consecration? Oh my." And then she resumed her crocheting.)

Then an amplified Dawn Upshaw sang What a Movie from Trouble in Tahiti. Why is Dawn Upshaw being amplified? Beautiful performance, switching between rapture and cynicism, but she blasted my eardrums. I was sitting way too close. I usually like to sit close, partly I will admit so that I have less of a sense of being surrounded by people, but I should probably rethink my seating preference when it comes to the symphony.

Then Quinn Kelsey sang with tenderness and sensitivity the setting of Whitman’s To What You Said from Songfest (unamplified, fortunately). There were lots of individually fine performances, but the evening seemed random rather than cumulative. Then the Danzon from Fancy Free (enough with that one, too!). Then five guys from ACT’s student program (Nick Gabriel, Phil Mills, Kyle Schaefer, Christopher Tocco, and Weston Wilson) came out and did a high-energy Officer Krupke, and I’ve never seen a peppier, more charming and adorable street gang, which proves once again the superiority of art, or least musical theater, over life. I honestly don’t mean to sneer at those guys, who really were talented and fun, but it just sort of comes with performing that material. Can I make up for it by saying I’d love to see them in something else, preferably something without amplification?

The finale was a big sing-along to Ya Got Me from On the Town, in which Tilson Thomas had a solo (possibly unamplified – I can’t even remember at this point). People seemed to have fun, I should say. I was wishing I’d switched the ticket and gotten some rest, since the exhaustion of repeated late nights at the theater tends to accumulate in my system. I mean, I'm open to stuff: this could have been the evening that converted me to Lenny. But all I really wanted to hear at the end of the evening was Candide's final solo: Was it for this, nothing more than this? (Incidentally, some versions omit this number, which I think is a big mistake; it’s the psychological lynchpin of the ending.) Again, all those people working so hard. . . . I heard raves about the previous week’s Beethoven 9, which I missed. I was saving it up for you, Dawn. And then you went and got amplified like you didn't care about me at all. Boys, don't go givin' your hearts to no sopranos.

17 September 2008

as tough as a bone, with a will of her own (shadows of forgotten ancestors)

Last night I saw the second performance of The Bonesetter’s Daughter, the world premiere at the San Francisco Opera, with mostly pleasant music by Stewart Wallace and a naïve and clumsy libretto by Amy Tan, based on her novel. It’s a bit of an expensive disaster, and as it slowly sank, I half wondered if the evening would end with a transcription for suona of Nearer, My God, to Thee.

Not that I didn’t like the music; the somber chorus of refugees in Hong Kong that opens Act 2, and the dreamy undulations of the letter-writing scene that follows, are particularly beautiful. But Stewart’s strength seems to be in this sort of meditative music, and meditation isn’t really that effective theatrically; the big confrontations fall flat musically (as well as dramatically) and it all starts to seem too similar and too even (the big percussion moments seem to be at the same volume as every other moment; I have the impression of a very mezzoforte evening). And every singer is amplified, with ugly and distracting microphones attached near their mouths. The disembodied, somewhat flattened sound that results might have been effective if restricted to Precious Auntie, who is a ghost, but as it is, it just looks as if Wallace doesn’t know how to write for voice and orchestra.

Years ago I read an interview with James Levine in which he was asked about the Met’s failure to commission more new operas during his tenure. His somewhat defensive reply was that, while the Met may not have hosted many world premieres, he had expanded their repertory to include twentieth-century masterpieces by Shostakovich, Berg, Schoenberg, and Janacek, and regular exposure to these works was ultimately more effective in broadening musical taste than having a splashy one-off that then disappears. The Bonesetter’s Daughter was obviously extremely expensive to produce (trips to China! returns from China, laden with percussionists! acrobats! son et lumiere!), and I’ve wondered if the extremely dull and conventional programming at the opera this season was in the hopes of reliable cash cows to offset the Bonesetter money pit. And what is the future for this work? The things that make the performance somewhat interesting (the Chinese instruments, the elaborate production with aerialists and jugglers) are what make it too specialized and expensive for smaller houses.

Because this opera is not going to be effective without all the distractions provided by the staging. At the very basic level of storytelling, it simply doesn’t make sense, and some scenes drag on while others are confusingly truncated. I haven’t read the novel (or any of Tan’s novels) and I only read the synopsis after the show. I did that deliberately, so that I was bringing in as little outside plot knowledge as possible. And what I saw on stage was apparently not what I was supposed to be seeing.

After a brief prelude featuring lots of fun but irrelevant aerialists and a trio for Precious Auntie (the exquisite Qian Yi, a specialist in the kunju tradition of Chinese opera), her daughter LuLing as an old woman (the powerful Ning Liang), and LuLing’s daughter Ruth Young Kamen (Zheng Cao, who valiantly gives her considerable best, and also plays the young LuLing in the flashbacks), there’s a drawn-out scene in a Chinese restaurant, meant to establish that Ruth’s mother is difficult and her mind is going. But I can’t say I blame the poor woman, considering what she has to put up with: the Kamens, her daughter’s in-laws (Valery Portnov and Catherine Cook) rudely decline the food and with even greater rudeness criticize the mink coat Ruth gives her mother (at least we’re told it’s mink – the actual coat on stage is a particularly garish shade of pink, which is not the color of actual mink, and it appears to be made up of lots of woven material and satin rags rather than fur).

Ruth gets to sing about how buying the coat means she appreciates what her mother did for her (there’s another lengthy aria of mother love during the flashback to China, and like this one it’s about how much the mother has suffered, so the child should be grateful – do the kids still call this guilt-tripping?). Throughout the dinner, her two adolescent stepdaughters behave with astonishing rudeness, ridiculing the special foods, speaking disrespectfully to Ruth and her mother, using their cellphones at the table, and so forth. Their father seems to think there is nothing to do in the face of this behavior but look sympathetically and helplessly at his wife while she’s insulted. I realize it’s ridiculous to give advice to people, particularly when those people are imaginary, but I have to say it: Dude, grow a pair. I almost walked on stage to slap those girls myself. This jellyfish is played by James Maddalena, in a role that adds no luster to his distinguished career.

(He is one of the few performers, though, who can consistently be understood without reference to the surtitles, a difficulty which holds for the native speakers of English and not just those whose native language is Chinese. I assume the problem has to do with the vocal lines and Wallace’s problems with voice and orchestra. They should have just had the China sections sung in Chinese, and made things a little easier for those poor women, since you have to read most of the words anyway – though I should also say that occasionally the surtitles didn't match the words I could make out.)

Then the ghost of Precious Auntie changes Ruth into the younger version of her mother and takes her from the Chinese restaurant back to 1930s China. Maybe I should issue a spoiler alert here, but does it count as a spoiler if you watched the opera attentively and it still doesn’t quite make sense? Precious Auntie, daughter of the village’s late bonesetter, seems to be practically a slave to Wang Tai-Tai the Inkmaker (Catherine Cook again). She seems to be despised more than the other young women laboring there, I don’t know why. Her daughter LuLing Liu works with her. The villain of the piece, Chang the Coffinmaker (Hao Jiang Tian), who has raped Precious Auntie and killed her father, lusts after LuLing and decides to marry her.

I’m figuring there’s a good chance that she’s his daughter, so it’s not making a lot of sense to me that no one is raising a fuss besides Precious Auntie, and it’s not making sense why Precious Auntie, who seems to control her daughter in other ways, can’t forbid this marriage. There does turn out to be a reason: all these relationships are supposed to be shrouded in mystery at this point. As I discovered only by reading the synopsis later, Precious Auntie had always claimed that she found the infant LuLing in an icy gutter and saved her (which would certainly explain why a daughter is calling her mother Precious Auntie), and has never told her who her parents were.

Chang proves his perfidy by wearing white to the wedding even though he is not the bride (seriously, isn’t white the color of mourning in most Asian countries? Why is he wearing it to a wedding?). Precious Auntie bursts in and delivers a curse on Chang. She is high overhead (director Chen Shi-Zheng uses this technique several times, literally distancing one antagonist from those she should be confronting, which lowers the dramatic temperature). Videotaped flames fill the background, though it’s not made entirely clear on stage that she has set herself and the building on fire. Well, someone noticed how effective the end of Gotterdammerung is, but it’s only effective if you know what’s going on. There’s no actual fire here, and no particular reason to assume that these projections are suddenly real, unlike the sharks and stars and whatnot we’ve seen earlier.

After the intermission we see LuLing in Hong Kong, writing letters for other refugee women, a fairly extraneous scene that exists only for the thematic point that all these women speak for or as others, something not as uncommon, or even as psychologically warping, as the libretto seems to think. It’s unclear how someone previously seen as a slave girl in an ink factory acquired calligraphic skills beyond that of the other refugee women, some of whom were presumably not teenage slaves. LuLing is hoping to find a husband to take her to America, but when Chang shows up, even though she was eager to marry him earlier to escape the misery of her situation, she now doesn’t want to, and he either rapes or tries to rape her.

The ghost of Precious Auntie then appears with convenient rage and reveals the family relationships, which I thought everyone already knew. She forces Chang to confess also that he killed her father the bonesetter to gain the dragon bone that would make him immortal, which is something else I thought everyone already knew. Precious Auntie then uses the dragon bone to castrate Chang, though again, it’s a little vague if killing him is a separate act or a result of removing what he whimsically calls “little brother.” The synopsis, which incidentally was written by Tan, isn’t much help here, delicately declining to spell out exactly what happens, which I would have thought might be the actual purpose of a synopsis: “she throws him to the ground, tortures him with the dragon bone, and extracts his confession” – well, at least she’s admitting it’s torture. The validity of confessions under torture seems to be official US policy now, so I guess there’s nothing troubling there; and indeed according to the synopsis this is a moment “in which three generations broken by pain have become whole again, unified and inseparable in their understanding.”

Well, that’s nice for everyone. That really does seem to be the naïve psychology operating here: if Something Really Bad happens to someone, it can make them difficult, until they talk about it, at which point they are healed. (What LuLing and Ruth really need is not this group hug so much as a family with better manners). I suspect that maybe some bad things happened a bit further back in the family tree as well, since life tends to be made up of lots of bad things, but the possibility isn’t raised. And definitely no one seems to have considered asking Chang the Coffinmaker if maybe his own grandfather was also the victim of Something Really Bad.

Again, my objection here is not that the men (in effect, there are only two, Chang and Ruth’s husband; the occasional priest or waiter or father-in-law is too negligible to count, and the titular bonesetter himself simply doesn’t exist, except as a name) are either castrated or might as well have been. My objection is not that the men are either weak or villainous (in case you’re missing the point about Chang the Coffinmaker, let me repeat it: he makes coffins. You know, where they put people without life). My objection is not that the opera is all about the women. My objection is that there’s a double standard: if victimization by the powerful, or by historical forces, can explain and justify the women, why isn’t there any effort to examine the circumstances that shaped the men? Motiveless malignancy, like dream sequences, can be very effective, but only when used carefully. There seems to be no driving force behind the cartoonlike relentlessness of Chang’s villainy – he bribes! he kills! he steals! he rapes! He pees publicly! – except that he has a dick. My dick and I have certain problems with this view.

But then the farther you go from the character of Ruth, the less sympathy and understanding you get. I personally am far too sophisticated to assume that Ruth equals Amy Tan, or even equals a social or literary construct we call “Amy Tan,” but apparently neither the opera company nor Tan herself suffer the burden of any such sophistication. She coyly dances in interviews around the question of how much of this “is really her.” The opera company has assured us, almost as often as they’ve declared this opera “eagerly awaited,” that it is deeply personal, which I find deeply embarrassing. But then I’m mostly interested in art, not gossip.

Tan and Stewart have repeatedly declared that this is an American, and not a Chinese, opera, and despite the copious application of glittering chinoiserie and exotic bric-a-brac, they are absolutely correct: we’re dealing with a heroine who is so self-absorbed, so unaware of the larger world around her, that even in middle age she requires supernatural intervention before she figures out that maybe her mother grew up having a few problems of her own, and maybe even an existence separate from her daughter’s.

We’re dealing with a heroine for whom foreign cultures are simply magical lands like Oz. (About that dragon bone – I’m going to go out on a limb here, and suggest that maybe it’s not really the bone of a dragon, and even that eating it in powdered form would not actually make you immortal. This possibility is never really raised during the opera. And the murder of Chang is not staged so that you might think it was actually done by LuLing, aided by the thought of her mother – the murder is actually committed by the ghost. Apparently the laws of ordinary science do not apply to colorful far-off lands.)

We’re dealing with a heroine convinced that only personal relationships and emotional trauma matter (her mother’s erratic behavior is due to The Awful Things Men Did to Her, rather than to, say, an aberrant chemical in her brain).

We’re dealing with a heroine whose sense of history can only extend back to her grandmother, and who thinks simplistically that what happens to people is more important than how they react to what happens. Yep, it’s all sounding pretty much like a fairly privileged American in the therapeutic age.

One of the problems with deeply personal work is that there often isn’t enough emotional distance from the author’s stand-in for the appropriate insight, irony, balance, and judgment (this, incidentally, is why all the Lisa-centered episodes of the Simpsons are almost invariably weak – she’s just too similar to the writers). In the restaurant scene at the beginning, you have to wonder why Ruth, who presumably has known her in-laws for some time, would order shellfish, which they can’t eat (it’s a little unclear if this is due to personal preference, digestive problems, or Jewish dietary law), or why she would order “food that looks like what it was” (that is, has a head or tail), after her husband had warned her his daughters wouldn’t like it (not that that justifies their rude reactions). You have to wonder why she hasn’t explained the cultural significance of the foods they’re about to eat (they symbolize a happy family, and I know she didn’t explain this because I had to read the synopsis to find out).

I think we’re meant to see Ruth as well-meaning and caught between conflicting cultures. I couldn’t help feeling that she’s someone who manipulates her way into having others reject what she’s offering so that she can feel sorry for herself, because after all she means so well. But that’s obviously not the intention, because you can’t make someone like that the sympathetic heroine of an opera.

In the final scene, her dying mother begs Ruth to forgive her, which she tearfully does, but I really wasn’t clear what exactly there was to forgive. Having a difficult life? Trying her best to raise her? Giving her constant advice, most of which – don’t talk back; be polite; don’t run around in the street, it’s dangerous – seems to be good old-fashioned common sense? So I have to ask: Is this really a scene of radiant reconciliation and forgiveness? Or is it actually a vindictive fantasy about getting the upper hand over those who have some power over you? It’s not only the men who are humiliated for not being Ruth/Amy. I don’t get the glow I get from the forgiveness scene at the end of Nozze di Figaro. There’s an ugly will to power, an unwillingness to accept the reality of other people the farther away they get from oneself, under Ruth’s sense of befuddled victimhood. This opera is a labor of self-love gone wrong.

14 September 2008

I'll sit and watch the sea, Till you come back to me

My truncated-by-choice season at San Francisco Opera got off to a good start last Tuesday with Simon Boccanegra, but then I figured any chance to see this opera would be a good start, and this production is better than solid.

While reading the program beforehand, I noted that the Message from the Chairman of the Board and President of the SF Opera Association claimed that this season “exemplifies the vitality and spirit of innovation at the core of San Francisco Opera.” What the hell are they drinking over there, and will they share it with the rest of us? If a season almost half of which is made up of L’Elisir d’Amore, Tosca, Boheme, and Traviata exemplifies innovation, I can’t even imagine what we will get if reaction sets in. I’d just like to point out, once again, that you shouldn’t put old wine in new skins, and technological innovation is not the same thing as artistic innovation.

This production of Boccanegra had been seen here before; shorn of a few oddities (like having Verdi wander solo and inexplicably across the stage before the action started) it is a sturdy if not particularly daring or illuminating production. I thought this go-round was more consistent than the last one. Of course, last time, I saw the performance in which Boccanegra had to drop out at intermission due to vocal difficulties, and one of his enemies now became him, and someone else had to be bumped up to that now vacant role, which couldn’t have helped anyone having trouble following the famously convoluted plot.

As for the plot, several weeks ago I took Budden on Boccanegra down from the shelf where all three volumes are patiently waiting to be read, but haven’t had a chance to read it. I understand it clears up a lot of the background of what happens and why. I do feel, though, that an attentive viewer (that would be me, in case you were wondering) should be able to wander in blank and follow the proceedings. And as with the libretto of The Mother of Us All, it all makes sense if you pay close attention to the dialogue; you can find the line or two that will explain away whatever confusion is vexing you. But if there’s one that explains why Boccanegra and his rediscovered daughter persist in keeping their relationship a secret with dire consequences, then I missed it, so Budden on Boccanegra is not going back on the shelf until I can read it and see if I missed something.

As with baroque opera or film noir, the action – on stage if not on the page – is actually pretty easy to follow, and the murkiness may be the point. It’s not the plot mechanics themselves that are of paramount importance, but the mood and characterization, and that’s why a huge mystery or gap in motivation is a greater obstacle than the complicated familial and political relationships. But the complexity of the plot has become a received notion, which means audiences are filled with those who feel the need to make little jokes or observations about the plot during the performance, to show that they are conversant with the howling complexities. There wasn’t an excessive amount of that at my performance, but a little is still too much. Though I had been warned that the Tuesday audiences were dead, and I was relieved to find that to be somewhat true.

I liked Dimitri Hvorostovsky in the lead quite a lot, though I did feel that there were some moments, including part of the Council Chamber scene, where he lacked power and volume (there was also some clumsily slow crowd fights in this scene that should be sharpened). But as I noticed when he performed Don Giovanni here a few years back, he excels at saturnine brooding and melancholy. My disappointment at missing Barbara Frittoli’s debut was mitigated by my pleasure in hearing Ana Maria Martinez again after her memorable Micaela a few seasons back. She had some choppy lines in her opening aria (but then I hear so did Frittoli, and so do most other Amelias) but soon got over her nerves or breathe problems or whatever and sang with beauty of line and total commitment for the rest of the night. During the intermission the man next to me asked which of the Amelias we were hearing. He and his wife had been discussing this, although the two sopranos don’t really look alike. I told him it was Martinez and pointed out that her name on the cast page listed the dates she was singing. He thanked me and said he thought she was excellent. I agreed and pointed out that she also looked the part, which always helps. “Yes,” he said, “and she has great eyebrows.” Since I know someone else with an eyebrow thing, this amused me.

The whole cast was pretty consistent, I thought, with the disturbingly ratlike Paolo of Patrick Carfizzi contrasting nicely with his tall and handsome co-conspirator, Kenneth Kellogg; Vitalij Kowaljow was a somber Fiesco and brought emotional gravitas to what could be a one-dimensionally heavy role; Marcus Haddock was the ardent Garbriele Adorno, which is a bit of a thankless role, since the main love affair is clearly that of the father and his long-lost daughter. I thought the applause at the end was a bit subdued considering that this performance was apparently and unsurprisingly superior to Opening Night (check here for a link to Lisa Hirsch’s review; she also links to Joshua Kosman’s in the Chronicle and sfmike’s at Civic Center), but the eyebrow man next to me said, “Wow! Not bad for a Tuesday night!” So I guess the audience was appropriately appreciative after all, in its own fashion.

Every time I encounter this opera I have a deeper impression of its greatness. One of the things that struck me this time is how Shakespearean it is, which might be the ultimate compliment; not only in its complexity of characterization and its intermingling of the personal and the political, and its contempt for mobs, but in the way that Verdi, just like Shakespeare in some of his late plays, revisits themes that have appeared earlier in his work: the abducted daughter, the accusation of infidelity which is emotionally if not technically true, the betrayal by trusted subordinates. You feel an artist revisiting past terrain as he makes ready to move forward.

12 September 2008

second thoughts of a minor Medici

How quickly even long-held beliefs can change! I claimed, after abandoning my SF Opera subscription and ending my donations to them (having vowed not to donate to any company performing Boheme), that I would keep on subscribing and donating to Cal Performances, mostly because of their association with Mark Morris. And yet I’m thinking that next season I will switch to individual tickets there, too, and definitely direct my donations elsewhere.

I donate not only because I believe in giving art and artists the support our society generally doesn’t, but selfishly because donors tend to get first choice of tickets. That’s all I care about: I don’t care about receptions or program listings or special rooms in which to eat cookies – just the tickets. So it was worth it to me to donate to Cal Performances (which really does present excellent programs) to get the seats I wanted, though I was already irritated that in the last few years we were expected to pony up (or “apply for membership” as they absurdly put it) before we were allowed to see the list of what exactly we were going to be hearing once we were in those seats. It seems to me you used to be able to send in a donation when you sent in your subscription, which makes sense to me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about one of their upcoming offerings, a single concert featuring Yo-Yo Ma; as a performer who combines wide popularity with great musical integrity, he’s a hot ticket, but it’s one available only to those who donate at least $1,200. I do understand that art is expensive and you need to pamper the big donors. What offends me, and what I find completely inexplicable and inexcusable, is that this concert, instead of being mentioned only in letters addressed exclusively to the exclusive, was featured in the season brochure, and Yo-Yo Ma is prominently featured on the posters in the lobby, on every program cover, and on every mailing from Cal Performances. During the no doubt lengthy design and production process for this material, did it not occur to anyone over there that this was maybe not such a great idea?

Do they seriously think that all we need in order to toss them an extra $1,200 is the right, cello-based incentive? Have they not been paying attention to America's economic situation? Did it seriously not occur to them that the only message that was really being sent was that there is absolutely no point in giving to them unless you can give at least $1,200? The opera and the symphony have their opening nights for the society swells, but you can ignore them completely, or even attend – hoi polloi are not barred at the door. There’s a long history of robber barons buying social prestige, or at least semi-acceptance, with European-based art forms. But Cal Performances, I assume, comes out of a different and more admirably democratic impetus: making high-quality performances available to university students and faculty, both traditionally not really wealthy groups. So Cal Performance’s unfortunately characteristic clumsiness seems especially offensive, given the public university setting.

And the thing is, this exclusivity, and the emphasis on the big donors, has been getting worse over the many years I’ve been subscribing and donating to Cal Performances. Every year there are more and more performances where tickets are allegedly not available in the location I want, and would I accept being shoved off to the side, or farther back? I always return my subscription within days of receiving it, since I know there's a certain amount of first-come-first-served, and this year I donated at the sponsor level, which frankly was a financial hardship for me, but I figured at least I’d get all the seats I wanted. Nope.

And the thing is, I just don’t believe the tickets aren’t available. I’ve been to too many concerts at Zellerbach and Herbst where I’m sitting right next to people who walked up to the box office half an hour before. So what’s the benefit for me? Last season I bought a ticket for Audra McDonald as soon as the concert was added. I told them to put me in the front row. When I got there, it turned out that I was six rows back, but the first six rows were not blocked off in any way, and the ushers were telling people they could sit there, so of course people who had paid less moved up. I was talking to the woman who ended up in front of me, and she said, “Boy, if I paid $65 for front row and all these people like me who paid less were ahead of me, I’d be pissed!” And you know what? She was right – I was pissed!

So what’s the point in donating to Cal Performances? My widow’s mite is clearly insignificant to them, and I don’t get much benefit from my sacrifice. If I’m going to donate, why not give it to a group that does consistently excellent work and can use the money for something other than an extra shrimp tray for the really valued donors? I can give to Mark Morris directly, or to excellent local groups like Cutting Ball Theater, Thick Description Theater, or Oakland Opera. And for a donation of only $75 to the Opera Company of Philadelphia, I didn't have to wait until December to buy tickets to next June’s performances of Britten’s Rape of Lucretia with Nathan Gunn, William Burden, and Tamara Mumford, in what I understand is the pretty small Perelman Theater. And you know what? Opera Philly gave me the seats I wanted, too, and they were generally gracious and helpful about the whole thing.

09 September 2008

the real deal

I’ve noticed for quite some time now that “passion” is a buzzword these days the way “ambition” was back in the late 1980s: both are deeply ambiguous qualities that are nonetheless presented as simple and unambiguously positive. “Passion,” in fact, has become such a cliché that I merely note its presence, since it has no real meaning anymore; I know most people mean “the thing that makes me interesting” but what they are actually describing is usually “the thing that makes me especially loud-mouthed and ignorant.” Last year I was living in fear that during job interviews someone would ask me the latest inane and fashionable question, “What are you passionate about?” Would I then be true to myself – to my passion – and blurt out the truth: “Avoiding conversations like this?”

“Authenticity” is now a rising buzzwords (or an emerging one, to use another buzzword); I’m hearing and reading it more and more these days. Again, since it is an ambiguous word used without ambiguity, I’m not sure what it means – what true purity and actual Reality are meant. Thoughts of authenticity and even of passion were floating cloud-like through my mind over the past few days, as I began the giddy autumn round of theater-going.

Nothing (except possibly a free ticket in premium orchestra, and even then only with a stun-gun) could induce me to go to Opening Night for either the Symphony or the Opera. I like to think I’m an open and democratic guy, but in my heart of hearts I have the snobbish conviction that the people who go to these things, like Catholics who only go to mass on Easter or Christmas, only believe in social obligation rather than in music. But I can catch the gala spirit, which is one of the reasons I very much enjoyed Angela Gheorghiu’s recital at Berkeley on Saturday. For someone who has only previously appeared in this area once before, she certainly received the ovation of a much-loved star, and she certainly knew how to milk it, which was charming in its way.

It’s a really lovely voice, though at times not quite powerful enough to rise above the orchestra (I was in the front row, but my balcony friend had the same opinion). The Puccini arias – Ch’il bel sogno di Doretta from Rondine, Un bel di, O mio babbino caro as an encore – came off best, I thought; her Pace, pace mio Dio, one of my all-time favorite arias from one of my all-time favorite operas, lacked the umber shades I wanted, but then I have heard Leontyne Price sing the aria live (in recital, several times).

The odd, somewhat incoherent program varied the celebrated opera arias with orchestral interludes from the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, which sounded splendid and precisely flowing; what a pleasure to hear them sounding so good, and to hear the overtures to Figaro and Cenerentola and the intermezzos from Manon Lescaut and Cavalleria Rusticana without the chatter of those who are only waiting for the big arias (so good job by the Berkeley audience on this one!).

The orchestral interludes also allowed Gheorghiu time to change from her white gown to her black one and then to a red one – that’s three gowns for a total of eleven vocal pieces (counting the three encores); that’s 3.6 songs per gown, which seems like a high ratio, even for a diva, and despite my enjoyment I couldn’t help feeling we weren’t quite getting full value for our gala-priced tickets, with only slightly more than an hour of music (including the orchestral pieces). The ruched black gown was so tight that, in my humanitarian way, I was worried that she wouldn’t be able to breathe, and therefore sing, in it. She did succeed, and it turned out to be an interesting sight, like watching the buffer baritones sing shirtless: you got to see what muscular movements produced what sounds (and I didn’t realize those vibrated on the high notes – I love sitting in the first row!).

The “popular songs” – “popular” meaning “not operatic arias”; you’re not going to hear Curtis’s Non ti scorda r di me or Delibes’s Les Filles de Cadiz blaring from an iPod on public transit, unless you're next to a conservatory student, or hear them sampled by rappers keeping it real – were less interesting to me, though Gheorghiu sang them with as much conviction as the meatier arias. And I’m just not sure that a Romanian soprano is wise to risk I Could Have Danced All Night to an American audience. That’s one of the few songs I actually like from My Fair Lady (the other is On the Street Where You Live, thanks for asking). My dislike for that particular musical predates my becoming aware of what seems to be a critical consensus that it is “really” a Viennese operetta, proving once again that Viennese operetta is a genre to which I have an instinctive aversion. You’d think Romania being close to Vienna, at least physically, would help out, but I couldn’t help recalling Audra McDonald’s performance of that same song in that same hall last June; she had an easy mastery of the style and sold it (and even conducted a sing-along) in a way that Gheorghiu didn’t quite manage.

Somehow, despite the lovely evening, and my enjoyment, and the audience’s vociferous happiness, I can’t quite listen to Gheorghiu without a certain ironic distance. The grand diva mannerisms, like her somewhat studied on-stage flirtatiousness, seem slightly too calculated. That makes them oddly endearing in a way – she wants so much to have the audience adore her like an old-fashioned grand diva – but also makes her seem to be more in the service of La Gheorghiu than of la Musica, makes her seem not quite to have a deep musical intelligence – I couldn’t imagine Dawn Upshaw doing this type of mixed-bag program. Have I heard too many stories about Gheorghiu’s backstage antics? That arm upraised in triumph at the concluding high note – both arms for a really big finish! – with each repetition it seemed less like the spontaneous exultation of the triumphant athlete that a successful singer is, and more like a gesture calculated to convey the Diva manner. I’d entertain the thought that the old-fashioned Diva cannot be regarded without irony these days, but I don’t think that’s true: Callas reigned in the 1960s, and that’s not a decade that, as it is popularly conceived, seems congenial to her form of the Divaesque. I’ve heard great divas, and I’ve heard great singers, and they move you to a place beyond ironic distance.

Friday night I was at Thick Description Theater’s second show this season, Colman Domingo’s A Boy and His Soul. I didn’t find it as completely successful as their production earlier this year of Blade to the Heat (next up is The America Play by Suzan-Lori Parks, which I’m really eager to see), though it’s quite entertaining and sustained my interest for its (almost) 90 minute running time. Domingo overcame a slightly halting start, and his charm and energy and presence can carry you past the holes in the concept. But afterwards, waiting for the bus and then the BART train, my doubts loomed larger and I felt that the piece could have used some further work. (Though I should point out that a lot of the audience felt differently – the woman behind me, giggling constantly and chewing gum, was not the only one singing along – is this what it’s like to sit through Mamma Mia!? Anyway, she seemed perfectly happy with the whole thing.)

It’s an autobiographical one-man piece about growing up black and, it turns out, gay in Philadelphia in the late 70s. The running theme that ties it all together is soul music. That felt a bit contrived to me. For one thing, that wasn’t the music Colman himself favored as a boy. He keeps asserting that the soul music of the late 70s is his music, the music that created him, but if there’s a moment when he really takes it to heart, we’re not told. The closest he comes is going with his sister to an Earth, Wind, and Fire concert, and realizing how much it unites the black audience.

As he flips through the family’s old vinyl LPs in a crate on an old record player (the show’s madeleine dipped in tea, and one of the few props on the mostly bare stage, along with some family photographs on the back wall), which he discovered abandoned in the basement after his parents moved out of their now crack-destroyed neighborhood, he comes across the Carpenters album that belonged to him – it gets a laugh, being the square white music among all the soulful black acts, and it’s also an early indication that he’s, you know, “different,” but I wonder why an old Carpenters album should be any sillier to us than an old Earth, Wind, and Fire album. And why should his practicing Beethoven on the violin – Beethoven, of all the soul-searching and soul-creating heaven-stormers – be used as evidence of his effeminate, nerdy nature? It’s the standard pop culture link between classical music and the effete, decadent, and esoteric (just as discussed by Alex Ross in The Rest Is Noise). Why should Beethoven be any more alien to his soul than to any contemporary American’s?

I was reminded of a novel I read quite a few years ago, Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow, about a well-off middle-class black widow who has to discover her “real identity” by abandoning her comfortable life and discovering her “cultural identity” in the happy and musical poverty of the Caribbean islands. But nothing in that life is what she has actually lived, and she actively resists it in the beginning – so in what sense is that way of life her “authentic being,” in a way that the comfortable middle-class existence she really lived is not? Why should she allow the sentimentally summoned “ancestors” to control her self-identity? (Try to imagine a novel about an Irish widow who discovers that she no longer needs the nice house she and her husband worked for, because what she really truly needs are the sod huts of her suffering ancestors, with their requisite rich poetry (at least according to the stereotypes) and empty stomachs.)

It’s a way of defining one’s allegiance to and identity with a group with which one might have little in common, but to which outsiders insist you belong: you embrace and celebrate the limitations. Domingo mentions that his mother encouraged his classical studies and love of art, and used to put Leontyne Price on the record player on Sunday evenings, until his stepfather said he wanted to hear music that “sounded black” (an interesting sidelight into the various types of racism Ms Price had to face during her great career, though that’s not the point that’s being made here). I had the feeling that what we were seeing here was simply the exhaustion of Otherness – that, worn down by the constant consciousness of his race in a racist society and his sexual orientation in a homophobic society, Domingo decided, based on the importance of soul music to his family, that declaring it important to him was his way of belonging not only to them but to the larger black community. I guess it’s a standard need to define oneself by a group or groups, whether or not the groups really want you, but why shouldn’t he include the Carpenters and Beethoven in the music that defines him? Why limit himself to his family’s or his society’s limitations? Why not include his mother's definition of "music that sounds black" as well as his stepfather's?

Domingo convincingly and swiftly embodies the different members of his family, though some portraits are less successful than others. His sister – a proudly loud-mouthed chainsmoker who makes a point of blasting her music to annoy people – is given a moment at the end, after we also hear that she battled drug addiction for years, when she says she feels like the B side – the flip side of the hit, the side that never gets played – and that maybe that’s why she’s so loud. Well, sure; there’s a certain poignancy there, but also a fairly obvious motive, and as someone who has ridden many buses and trains with people who make a point of being inconsiderate to prove that they exist and are important, it’s the adolescent obviousness of the motive that makes such behavior so incredibly annoying. It would be sentimental of me to pretend otherwise. I can’t muster too much sympathy with that sort of self-indulgence.

But the portrayal of the mother and stepfather are particularly interesting and moving, and the emotional high point of the show – the moment when the use of soul music didn’t seem like just an arbitrary gimmick to tie loose scenes together – is when both parents are slowly dying, each conscious that both are slowly dying, when the mother encourages her husband to sing Gladys Knight’s You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me the way he used to. It’s a deeply personal moment, painful and beautiful. There are other moments, however, when the personal moments are, to be somewhat harsh, less interesting. That’s a hazard in telling your own story. I’m sure it was profoundly significant and moving to Domingo when he came out to his family and they accepted him, but from a theatrical point of view it’s a story we’ve seen too many times before, and it feels a bit dated – though of course he’s talking about a couple of decades ago, and that’s already another era.

And there is a certain celebration of datedness here. At the end, we find out about a younger brother, who hasn’t been mentioned before, and he explains that when the parents moved they left the LPs in the basement, hoping some other family might enjoy them, because they had bought all the old music on CD at Virgin Records years before. This is meant to be sort of a comic moment, and the solution to the mystery of how his parents could abandon their past, but as soon as Domingo mentioned the abandoned LPs at the very beginning of the show I had already thought, well, they probably replaced the old albums with CDs. Times change and so does technology.

There’s a certain amount of dwelling on telling ephemera of the time (certain types of colored aluminum drinkware, certain ways of doing one’s hair or entertaining oneself) that can seem like easy nostalgia, a shared identity of age that really only seems shared. Except for a brief dismissal by the stepfather, there’s no mention of rap music, which has been around for decades now (and is also used by many as a signifier of black identity, and as such, like rock and soul, is quite popular with the corporations trying to sell us stuff). Despite his repeated assertions that the music made him, this piece isn’t really about that specific music – it’s about what was playing on the radio when he was young, when people he loved were still around to enjoy it.

Then the evening before that (we’re back to Thursday now) I went down to Davies for the San Francisco Symphony. The orchestra had recovered splendidly from the exhaustion of Opening the Season the night before. I did see a few women whose hilariously grotesque costumes made me think the Season Opener might be a two-day affair. It was a great beginning for the real start, the musical start, of the Symphony's exciting season, even though Tilson Thomas insisted on picking up the microphone before opening with Ligeti’s Lontano. He proceeded to talk mostly about Stockhausen. OK, he wasn’t quite as disjointed as I’m making him sound – his point was that Ligeti was trying to create with an orchestra the sounds and textures that Stockhausen created electronically – but did this gorgeous swelling beast really need to be defanged with the little lecture, putting it all in perspective? Let the gorgeous sounds speak for themselves. Ligeti and Berlioz, much as I love the recordings of their music, really strike me as two composers whose works have a different quality, more vivid and detailed and ravishingly alive, when heard in person. I'm glad San Francisco Symphony is including more Ligeti in its programming; the Requiem is coming up later in the season.

The gaminesque Labeque sisters, Katia and Marielle, then played the Poulenc Concerto in D minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra. I haven’t heard les Labeques all that often, but I’ve always liked them, mostly because I remember reading a review in the Boston Globe (probably by Richard Dyer) that mentioned they were one of the few soloists he had ever seen return to the hall after their part of the program just to listen to the rest of the music. The Poulenc is a delightful mélange, and it reminded me of the story that John Adams wrote his Chamber Symphony while studying a Schoenberg score and hearing a Looney Tunes cartoon that his son was watching in another room – not because of those specific influences, but just because of that free-ranging grasp of different styles, from knotty to nutty. Throw in the Prokofiev 5 after the intermission, and that’s a nice evening. I was glad that in the Prokofiev Tilson Thomas avoided his tendency of late to smash things out. I thought it was really nicely balanced.

At home on Saturday, killing time before the theater – which is basically all I ever do – I dug into the CD pile and pulled out a recent release of Porgy and Bess – a recent release, but an old performance (brought to me like Alcestis from the grave), featuring Leontyne Price and William Warfield in the leads. It was the touring version which gave Price her first big break, though after that I don’t think she sang Bess much, no doubt to avoid being racially typecast. The opera underwent some adaptations and adjustments during and after its first run, and there were several versions floating around until the Houston Grand Opera revival in 1976 sort of set the text. This version differs slightly from the now familiar one not only occasionally in text but also in feel – the drums have more of the African sound so familiar to us nowadays from our world-music CDs, and there’s a jazzier feel all around, and not just because Cab Calloway plays Sportin’ Life. Porgy and Bess was the first opera I ever saw, so I have a special fondness for it, and though many consider it the Great American Opera I know that others dismiss it, partly based on its mixed-culture origins. Whatever its impurity, to me it creates its own cultural field, and is deeply moving, and a beautiful thing.

01 September 2008

what's Hecuba to him?

Remember back in the disastrous last years of the Vietnam War, when theater companies around the country dusted off The Trojan Women? Sadly, the Greeks are still relevant to our latest ill-advised imperial adventure: first there was Lysistrata across the country during the build-up to war, then after a few years we had many productions of The Persians, and now here comes The Trojan Women once again. It was Aurora Theater’s superb production a few years back of The Persians as adapted by Ellen McLaughlin that made me so look forward last spring to their Trojan Women, also adapted by Ellen McLaughlin.

Actually, this version was billed as “by Ellen McLaughlin, inspired by Euripides” and it is a much looser version of the original than was her version of the Aeschylus. It was also, surprisingly and hugely, a disappointment. The changes start immediately: the divine prologue is retained, but Athena is dropped and we had only Neptune, dressed with inexplicable jauntiness in spanking nautical garb, as if he had a sideline as captain of the Love Boat; he strolls through and makes a few appropriate remarks and disappears. The problem with dropping Athena is you miss her sudden, vindictive switch in feelings so that she now opposes the Greeks who violated her temple (or angered her in similar fashion): when you miss that, you miss a sense of the arbitrariness of the gods’ favor (that is, the arbitrariness of destiny), you miss the overriding irony that the Greek victory so lamented by the Trojan survivors will end tragically for the momentary winners, and you miss a complicating factor in the play’s examination of women, status, and power. I know Athena is everyone's favorite goddess, and it's difficult to accept her as destructive and petty, but that's part of the original's complexity.

The role of Talthybius, the Greek messenger, is also cut back significantly, so you miss the entire arc of his character, as he gradually moves from the indifference of a victorious professional soldier towards a compassionate understanding of the price the losing women have paid and will pay, in present suffering and future hardship. Needless to say, all the men on the losing side have been slaughtered, though there is some debate (at least in Euripides) over whether that’s truly a worse fate than continuing to live. What these women really face is loss of status – they once had servants who provided the services they will now have to provide to the victors, though this point too was blunted in this production, this time not so much by the adaptation as by the sets and costumes. Hecuba looked like a respectable middle-class matron who had just had her hair done, and the chorus of women was dressed in a strange assortment of contemporary costumes – skater, plaid-skirted schoolgirl, semi-punk – which, combined with the set’s startling resemblance to the Vaillancourt Fountain, made me think we were viewing The Women of Justin Herman Plaza. (The women of the chorus were mostly played by theater students, which would have been completely obvious even if they hadn’t made a point of saying it.)

Helen does show up, as she does in the original, though here there is no debate between Hecuba and Menelaus over whether she should be killed. Helen is basically an impossible role to cast, and though the woman who played her was indeed very attractive, she also looked a little too much like Bebe Neuwirth and Julia Louis-Dreyfus for me to avoid distracting memories of NBC sitcoms (great throaty voice, though). So Helen talks a lot to the women about her mythic role, but of course she doesn’t mention any actual myths that might confuse the audience; her point seems to be that The Prettiest Girl in the Room has a certain destined role, which is true. The other women don’t like this, and haul her offstage to rough her up. And that’s the point where I wondered what exactly McLaughlin and company thought this material was about: the essence of the Trojan women’s plight is that they, formerly powerful and respected, are now powerless and policed. Is it likely that they would have been allowed to damage the prized victory trophy of the Greeks? If they can do that and get away with it, what exactly are they all bitching about? I don't object to changes in the original material, but to the way those changes dilute and obscure the drama.

The play was over in about an hour, and in a rare example of BART mitzvah, the right train had pulled onto the platform about the time I did, so even with the 8:00 start time I was home by 9:40, making a cup of tea. I had really been looking forward to this performance. I had considered subscribing to the Aurora’s season, mostly because I wanted to see The Trojan Women. I had read or re-read three different translations of the play beforehand (Lattimore, Morwood, and Roche, in case you’re interested). And yet a couple of days after the performance, I had forgotten I had seen it until I looked at my calendar and saw it written there.

Anticipation is a strange thing. I buy so many books, DVDs, and CDs that I now feel I’ve somehow missed a key and satisfactory part of the experience if I read, watch, or listen to them right away; they need to ripen on the shelf first, like fruit. But you can also wait too long, and end up with a less satisfying experience as a result. Decades ago as a student at Berkeley I went to a sale at the library and bought, for $2.50, a copy of One of Our Conquerors, because who can resist an obscure novel by George Meredith? It sat there unread for many years, traveling to Boston and then eventually back to California, still unread, and eventually it became sort of A Thing.

I finally read it last year. It’s an interesting novel, though sometimes overly obscure in the Meredith way. It’s also stained with a weird anti-Semitism. (I’m not referring to standard Victorian references to “Jewish moneylenders” or “Moses the old-clothes peddler”, but to occasional discussions of “Anglo-Saxon culture” versus the rising Jewish members of the wealthy professional class all the characters belong to). And the story is based on an anguished dilemma that seems bizarrely exotic to a contemporary reader – Victor (“one of our conquerors”) Radnor has had a long and satisfying relationship, and a child, with a woman he lives with but to whom he is not legally married – his elderly first wife won’t give him a divorce. He is now very wealthy and socially prominent, a social powerhouse in fact, and his daughter is of an age to enter society, so she must find out The Truth –it sounds overly melodramatic described that way; there’s much subtlety of thought and elaboration of expression to convey the refined suffering of all involved.

If I had read the novel before it became A Thing, I probably wouldn’t have felt as let down by it. Anyone looking for a Meredith novel to read – can I see a show of hands, here? you in the back, maybe? – should probably stick with The Egoist, which is hilarious once you get past a certain preciosity in the beginning (get past it, or just get used to it perhaps). There’s also the Ordeal of Richard Feverel, which I read when I was seventeen, and all I really remember is a passage when Richard Feverel looks across the river and sees the girl he loves. I don’t know quite what that passage did to my seventeen-year-old hormones, but it struck me as one of the most strangely erotic passages I have ever read. I would prefer not to re-read that particular book; there’s a good chance I wouldn’t even notice the passage anymore.