30 June 2010

Haiku 2010/181

waiting for the bus
while the streets are still empty
and the breezes fresh

28 June 2010

27 June 2010

baci per tutti!

San Francisco Opera’s production of Puccini's La Fanciulla del West this month was my first time seeing it on stage after decades of opera-going. It’s a very weird work, even if you accept all the California gold miners singing in Italian and sounding like – well, like characters in an opera by Puccini. It’s just a natural cycle in art for the sweet perfection of Raphael to give way to the expressive distortions of Pontormo and El Greco, and I’m happy that for once in the schedule the sweet perfection of Boheme has given way to this rarity, or oddity. I admire Puccini for always trying something new, and if the result is as mixed as the combo Italian/English title then that’s just what can happen if you strike out into new territory.

It’s especially strange to see Fanciulla in the Bay Area, where every reference to Sacramento or Wells Fargo Bank and other local landmarks elicits chuckles. (There are also murmurs every time we hear the theme now associated with Music of the Night from Phantom of the Opera. It makes for a murmuring crowd.) It’s very odd to be in the Golden State, thinking we’re the goal of America’s westward expansion and the cutting edge of America’s future, and to see the two lovers stride away from us to start a new life. But aren't they already where you're supposed to go for a fresh start? Haven’t they read Joan Didion? Of course, she’s been back in New York for years, and California is currently leading America’s decline into fiscal collapse and deteriorating social services.

The triumphant lovers are the Mexican bandit Ramerrez and Minnie, saloon gal extraordinaire. Ramerrez is incognito under the unfortunate pseudonym Dick Johnson. Maybe Seymour Butz was already taken. When Minnnie asks him his name the surtitles tactfully elide over it, in no doubt justified fear of letting loose the inner-thirteen-year-old boy in all the dowagers at the opera. Actually, to my right there was not a dowager but girl of about twelve or so. I thought at first she was shifting in her seat because she had been dragged to the opera and was restless, but she was just excited. Her grandmother told me that they were going to the LA Ring cycle the next week. I was very envious. Her (the little girl’s) favorite opera is Turandot, which she saw at the Met.

I’m a little embarrassed at myself, snickering over “Dick Johnson,” but there’s so much strange sexual stuff going on right below the surface of this opera, right down to Minnie winning the men over at the end by finally tossing away her, yes, pistol, that’s it’s a little difficult not to react to signifiers that don’t really signify anything. I was a little surprised the opera was post-Freud, but perhaps it’s all just a case of a cigar sometimes being only a cigar.

Ramerrez was portrayed by Salvatore Licitra. I’d heard him in recital but this was my first time seeing him on stage. Licitra was fine though his voice didn’t strike me as exceptional. He had an unfortunate moment or two; at one awkward passage the dowager in front of me (well, one of the dowagers in front of me) sort of clawed at the air and I thought she was sharing my distress but her movements were, it seems, actually indicative of ecstasy. Unfortunately his leading-man voice comes with character-actor looks. A dashing appearance could go a long way to selling you on a fairly thin and conventional gallant outlaw.

So he’s kind of a Joaquin Murietta type. And his gal Minnie is a weird mash-up of Diamond Lil and St Maria Goretti. One minute she’s zinging one-liners like a seasoned Catskills pro (“I can’t marry you – your wife wouldn’t like it!”) and the next she’s piously insisting that her American Indian maid, Wowkle, must marry the father of her young child, or blushingly confiding in Dick Johnson that she’s never ever been kissed. I don’t think “kiss” is a euphemism here. That is one well-behaved mining camp. Minnie seems like a natural precursor to Turandot, the ice princess waiting to melt. There's a very Italian preoccupation with the Madonna/whore complex transposed into the unlikely setting of Gold Rush California. Contemporary Italian patriots attacked Puccini (according to the program) for yet another non-Italian setting, which shows you what they know and how much setting matters. Double good for Giacomo for ignoring those who would tell him what to write and for ignoring nationalists.

I’m Latin Catholic enough for Minnie’s character to make a certain kind of sense to me, but twenty-first-century American enough so that I can see the possibility that Minnie crosses the border into frigid-tease territory. I imagine it’s mostly the personality of the soprano that keeps her appealing, which makes this an excellent role for the always likeable Deborah Voigt. (This is her first time as Minnie, which I believe she will also be singing at the Met later.) I think the down-to-earth, good-humored Voigt is impossible to dislike. Her voice does sound different from earlier days; it has kind of a metallic tang to it, which is not unpleasant. The role is strange in that it doesn’t really have a big aria along the lines of Vissi d’Arte or Un bel di or In questa reggia, though it has what you might call big moments, which Voigt handled beautifully. This time the big aria goes to the tenor, as they’re about to hang him in Act 3.

There’s also a lynch mob earlier, in Act 1. I thought it was a little unfortunate that Sid, the cardshark who’s almost lynched, was played by one of the few black singers on stage (Kenneth Overton). When the libretto has the Indians saying “Ugh” three times in their very brief appearance, it’s probably best to avoid any additional unpleasant racial moments. Wowkle was Maya Lahyani, who with a few lines cemented the positive impression she made last summer as Beppe in the Merola presentation of L’Amico Fritz.

The man who prevents the lynching is Sheriff Jack Rance (Roberto Frontali), who is the villain of the piece, though he seems like a more intriguing and even appealing character than Ramerrez, with a keen eye for keeping order among the naturally disorderly and an even-handed and interesting sense of what justice entails. He's not particularly villainous in the way that Scarpia is, but despite the inventiveness of Puccini’s rich and beautiful score certain operatic conventions must be preserved, and so soprano Minnie loves Dick because he is a tenor, and the baritone must be the heavy. I’d put him with Zurga in the Pearl Fishers and Alberich in the Ring as a character whose anger and bitterness make him more complex and even sympathetic.

The first act is a series of vignettes that emphasize the difficulty, isolation, and loneliness of the locale and its inhabitants (it’s similar to the method of Janacek’s From the House of the Dead). There are some striking soft moments for the chorus (all male; except for the very brief appearance of Wowkle, Minnnie is the only woman on stage). But generally all was quite loud: conductor Nicola Luisotti consistently had the orchestra at a level that made the singers force their voices a bit to be heard. This must have been a deliberate choice, but I’m not sure what the artistic gain was.

The second act opens with a view of Minnie’s lonely cabin perched high up in the mountain pass, with a steady fall of theatrical snow outside it, an effect that was lovely but (I would have thought) not all that unusual for experienced theater-goers, but around a third of the audience was so astonished by it that they burst into applause. You can see why I feared their theatrical sophistication might not bear up under the use of “Dick Johnson” as a pseudonym.

Though Minnie rescues the wounded Ramerrez from Sherriff Rance by playing (and cheating, which I guess is OK because it's for love) at cards, the bandit has somehow been separated from her before Act 3 and is about to be lynched. She rides in on a real horse (and Voigt looked great on this handsome animal, but the horse was too obviously being led for it to be quite the coup it should have been) and pleads with the men to release Ramerrez. Though they’ve all been in love with her (someone could have made a fortune in that camp by bringing in a few women of less rigid morals) they agree (once she tosses aside her little pistol) that she should have the man she has somewhat mysteriously claimed as her one true love. The chorus sings movingly as Minnie and Dick walk off hand in hand.

The performance of the first act was a little rough, the second was better, and by the time the short third act rolled around (after a second interminable intermission) Fanciulla was victorious. I could (and did) sit there and think of all the ways the ending was forced, improbable, or ridiculous, and none of it mattered. I surrendered completely to the beauty of the moment. That’s why people sometimes call opera absurd, but it’s not: the music has the power to go below, around, or above the logical (or whatever the theatrical illusion of the age is) into a deeper, more powerful and primal logic, and to touch us in the murky hidden realms where our deepest fears, hopes, and passions lie curled and waiting in the dark. As the last note sounded the 12-year-old girl next to me jumped up and exclaimed, “That’s a great opera!” And you know what? She was right. I mean, sure. Why not?

Haiku 2010/178

the street is empty
night-absorbed, night-enchanted
just a block away

26 June 2010

25 June 2010

24 June 2010

what becomes a legend most

The electric opening night of San Francisco Opera’s production of Die Walkure seems to be turning before our eyes into one of those legendary evenings at the opera where all the moving parts click together and you’re so grateful to be there, which is lovely except I was at the third performance, and despite much that went right (in particular the excellence of the orchestra) it was vocally a rough night for most of the singers, and the production, which is the second installment of Francesca Zambello’s “American” Ring, is a very mixed bag. So I couldn’t help wondering if some of the ecstasy being expressed around me last Saturday wasn’t in part wishful thinking. We want our legendary evening too! And we don’t go to the opera house for sad reality to interfere.

So when the irritating old man in front of me, who expressed his Wagnerian credentials by conducting along with Donald Runnicles during all the loud parts and then whispering excitedly to his pinched-face wife, exclaimed after Act 1 that he had never, ever heard it performed better, I had to wonder if he'd ever heard it at all. Did he really not hear Christopher Ventris start to run out of gas right at Wintersturme and then flub badly what should have been the bright, ringing end of the act? Ventris recovered for Act 2, and I generally am not one of those opera fans who lives only to deduct points if the singers don’t spike the landing, but he was having noticeable problems.

And Mark Delavan, though he gave an interestingly tetchy performance as Wotan, was hanging on by his vocal fingernails by the time he was bidding lieb wohl to Brunnhilde. I seriously wondered if he was going to make it. We had been warned by David Gockley before the curtain that our Brunnhilde, Nina Stemme, was suffering from a viral infection but would sing anyway, begging our indulgence; as is usually the case under these circumstances, not that much indulgence was called for and ironically she sounded in quite good shape, though perhaps holding back a bit at points. Eva-Marie Westbroek as Sieglinde was in gleaming vocal shape throughout and truly lived up to the wonderful opening-night reports.

Raymond Aceto as Hunding and Janina Baechle as Fricka were both vocally fine, but bore the brunt of directorial miscalculations. Fricka was done up like one of Helen Hokinson’s club ladies, only not endearing. It’s easy to play Fricka as a bossy dowager, but this misses something crucial in her character, which is that she knows and loves Wotan so well that she can always laser in on the flaw he's trying to dream away in his grand schemes. She is the one who forces him to confront the reality of his power: it’s limited by the very agreements that create it. If your power derives from a hierarchy, you can’t undercut the hierarchy without losing your power. She is not bad, or even limited – she sees further into the realities of power than Wotan does. But that insight makes her deeply conventional – to maintain her own power, she is a defender of the status quo.

Same with Hunding, which is why he calls on Fricka for vengeance when his wife runs off with her brother/lover. Hunding and Fricka represent a conventional order that needs to be broken. But if you portray them as "bad" it implies that without them things would be just fine. How can we question our own Hunding/Fricka tendencies if we can separate them out as simple villains in a melodrama? Melodrama is about a clear moral order being restored. And Wagner is about moral order being confused, questioned, reversed, replaced.

When Hunding retires for the night, he snaps his fingers to order Siegmund over and chains him to the tree. It seems very un-Siegmund like to submit, even unarmed, to such humiliation. But it’s also un-Hunding-like. He’s not a bully or a coward, at least by the conventions of his world. He declares that the laws of hospitality are sacred, and he truly means that, and so does Fricka. He will observe them faithfully and then hunt Siegmund down as soon as he is no longer a guest. This is the orderly, rigid world that the Walsungs defy.

And we should maybe be a little disturbed at the incestuous Walsungs, and provoked to thought about conventions we take for granted. Siegmund and Sieglinde aren’t simply good victims in a melodrama. They’re troublemakers. I think Zambello made the whole set-up too simple (not that she's alone in this).

The whole idea of an “American” Ring, though it certainly sounds enticing, seems to me so far a bit of a fizzle. (My reaction to the earlier staging of Das Rheingold is here.) Given the nature of American society, an "American" Ring is pretty much going to fall into the classic Shavian/Chereauvian economic interpretation of the Ring. (Maybe the most American thing about the Ring, and the reason Shaw couldn’t quite contain Gotterdammerung in The Perfect Wagnerite, is the way what starts out as economic and political analysis turns into a tale of spiritual freedom and redemption, just as many American reform movements start out based on politics and economics and end up being about personal fulfillment and self-actualization.) So what distinguishes the “American” Ring from the average “capitalist” Ring is mostly kitschy touches like the busy décor of Hunding’s hunting lodge, with its deer heads and jacquard elk pictures and all the rifles (and speaking of all those rifles, they make Nothung look a little silly: why is the sword such a big deal when either Hunding, Siegmund, or even Sieglinde could pull a gun off the wall? It reminded me of the scene in Indiana Jones where the large grinning man does a lot of fancy threatening work with his whip and Jones just pulls out his pistol and shoots him. The age of heroes can't co-exist with firearms, as any reader of the Orlando Furioso knows.)

Some things work spectacularly well: the Valkyries parachuting into the beginning of Act 3 provide exactly the theatrical excitement and visual panache Wagner wanted for the wild warrior women. I liked having Fricka appear during the fight to make sure order was preserved. To my surprise, since I generally don’t like the distraction of live animals on stage and also generally find dogs really unnecessary creatures anyway, I loved the two hounds streaking across stage preceeding Hunding as he chases the runaways in the middle of Act 2.

Other moments left me moved but puzzled. The slow procession of military men, in a variety of American uniforms and carrying large head shots of dead heroes, is quite moving, especially when you learn, as you won’t from the program, that the photos are of real American servicemen killed in our current wars. It’s also quite distracting, since it takes place during the Annunciation of Death, when the focus should really be on the exchange between Siegmund and Brunnhilde. His renunciation of Valhalla since Sieglinde will not accompany him is not only his most stirring and truly heroic moment, it’s a key moment in Brunnhilde’s development from a somewhat cartoony hoyden to the mature and loving woman who says farewell to Wotan and accepts her fate. The focus really needs to be on their exchange. Also, with all due respect to the servicemen pictured and the individual decisions that led them to their collective fate, it’s difficult given the circumstances to see them as straightforward heroes and not as victims in various ways of America’s disastrous and immoral wars of aggression, only I’m not quite sure the staging really intends to raise such questions about their heroism and what it means. I wish Zambello had staged the scenes with Hunding and Fricka so as to evoke this kind of ironic and unsettled questioning.

A very good evening, but apparently and understandably not quite up to the first performance. Well, that’s live theater. I’m glad some excitement has returned to San Francisco’s upcoming complete Ring, though; between Achim Freyer in Los Angeles and Robert LePage at the Met, it looked as if San Francisco was again falling behind more adventurous companies.

Haiku 2010/175

starting anything
is opening the door to
morning's heavy mists

23 June 2010

Haiku 2010/174

branches wave, waves wave,
grass bends low and hills erode;
ah, it's all just wind

22 June 2010

21 June 2010

20 June 2010

19 June 2010

18 June 2010

17 June 2010

16 June 2010

Haiku 2010/167

(for Bloomsday)

stream-of-consciousness:
sure, it's fun to splash around,
but what if you drown?

they went forth to battle but they always fell

– We were always loyal to lost causes, the professor said. Success for us is the death of the intellect and of the imagination. We were never loyal to the successful. We serve them. I teach the blatant Latin language. I speak the tongue of a race the acme of whose mentality is the maxim: time is money. Material domination. Dominus! Lord! Where is the spirituality? Lord Jesus! Lord Salisbury. A sofa in a westend club. But the Greek!

KYRIE ELEISON!

A smile of light brightened his darkrimmed eyes, lengthened his long lips.

– The Greek! He said again. Kyrios! Shining word! The vowels the Semite and the Saxon know not. Kyrie! The radiance of the intellect. I ought to profess Greek, the language of the mind. Kyrie eleison! The closetmaker and the cloacamaker will never be lords of our spirit. We are liege subjects of the catholic chivalry of Europe that foundered at Trafalgar and of the empire of the spirit, not an imperium, that went under with the Athenian fleets at Aegospotami. Yes, yes. They went under. Pyrrhus, misled by an oracle, made a last attempt to retrieve the fortunes of Greece. Loyal to a lost cause.

He strode away from them towards the window.

– They went forth to battle, Mr O’Madden Burke said greyly, but they always fell.

Happy Bloomsday to all my mountain flowers.

15 June 2010

14 June 2010

John Gabriel Borkman

I went to the Aurora Theater’s recent production of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman (in a new version by David Eldridge), because how many chances am I going to get to see that – though having said that, I suspect that this play will be making the regional rounds, since it can be sold as an up-to-the-minute expose of financial misdeeds. Borkman is a bank manager who arrogantly and illegally speculates with client funds, and you can draw the comparison to whichever recent Wall Street gangster you like (Bernie Madoff is referenced in the program).

The problem with describing the play this way, though, is that it really isn’t about the financial chicanery. When we see Borkman (the reliably excellent James Carpenter), he has been out of prison for a while, and though his reputation has suffered, his family didn't lose enough money to cause them difficulty, nor is there much exploration of the masses who did lose money, or much guilt expressed about them. Instead money just represents part of the shame and the will to power among the family (some other type of scandal might have had the same effect, only not as fully and, let me say, economically).

The center of tension is the tight triangle among Borkman, his bitter wife Gunhild Borkman (Karen Grassle), and her unmarried sister Ella Rentheim (Karen Lewis), who lost Borkman to Gunhild years before. John Gabriel had not speculated with Ella’s money, so she is still quite wealthy and owns the house the Borkmans live in. The Borkmans have a grown son, Erhart (Aaron Wilton), on whom all three project their plans: Borkman wants Erhart’s youth and vigor to join him in working again towards Borkman’s great plans of economic development and power; Gunhild wants him to restore the family’s name and reputation to respectability (in effect, to achieve what his father set out to do, only honestly); Ella, the dying Ella, wants him to be the son she never had.

Borkman is one of those Ibsenite master spirits (like Halvard Solness the Master Builder, or like Hedda Gabler, or Nora in A Doll’s House) who struggle to force reality to conform to their idealistic sense of their own superiority. The financial crimes are just a way of getting at the real subject, which is the struggle among Borkman and the two women for dominance (even if it comes in the guise of love), and their struggle to achieve their goals as their time runs out. This is another of Ibsen’s plays which look as if (and are described as if) they are realistic works about pressing social issues when they are actually weird expressionist psychodramas on poetic, epic themes. (Same with August Wilson, which is why he strikes me as the American Ibsen.)

Erhart beautifully evades every choking, conflicting demand of the older generation with the simple answer, “I want to live.” Usually what people mean by this is they want to have lots of sex in a warm climate. And that’s exactly what Erhart means, as he’s heading off to Italy in what is pretty clearly a ménage-a-trois with a shady divorcee, Fanny Wilton (Pamela Gaye Walker) and the young Frida Foldal (Lizzie Calogero, who also plays the maid Malene), a musician who is the daughter of a somewhat silly, naïve and idealistic, poet, Vilhelm Foldal (Jack Powell), who has stuck by Borkman in his troubles. Erhart's ability to pick up and flee is what convinced me that the financial shenanigans are not really what the play is about – whatever its effects on unseen others, the money loss isn't crimping the freedom of any of the Borkmans. The restrictions on their freedom are mostly internal – mostly, because with all their grand schemes, they simply run out of time – they run into the fact of Death, which cuts short their hopes and ambitions.

I give full credit to Aaron Wilton for being able to carry off a potentially dangerous line like “I want to live” with simplicity, conviction, and truth. (There is no camp echo of Susan Hayward here.) His escape, which might have seemed cowardly or evasive, instead seems right and even sensible. One of my many, many problems with August: Osage County was the way it denied this truth: sometimes running away is the only way.

And the last time I saw James Carpenter, he was Frankenstein’s Monster in The Creature, Trevor Allen’s adaptation of Frankenstein. Carpenter was astonishing, hunching his body in ways both ape-like and noble, threatening and supplicating. Here he was a completely different type of monster – a visionary, upright and strict, who considers himself unbound by the rules that bind the multitude. This was a cast where the men were definitely stronger performers than the women, which I guess makes up for all those evenings (this often happens at the opera) when the women outshone the men. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with the women; I just felt they (particularly the two sisters, Gunhild and Ella) could have gone deeper, been more nuanced and intense. Possibly on other nights they were. But moments like the climax of the first half, when Gunhild for the first time enters Borkman’s part of the house, bursting in on him and Ella, just fell kind of flat.

Haiku 2010/165

awakened by screams
that were only in my dreams
I sleepwalk all day

13 June 2010

12 June 2010

11 June 2010

10 June 2010

09 June 2010

Haiku 2010/160

(a la Watteau)

Pierrot by the pool,
and the sadness of a lute
beneath twilit fronds

08 June 2010

Re Krapp

Cutting Ball Theater is closing out its season with a revival of last year’s production of Krapp’s Last Tape, again starring Paul Gerrior as Krapp, with David Sinaiko on tape as the Voice of Krapp (a once up-to-the-moment technology that now looks, in further illustration of the play’s themes, so antiquated). Once again Rob Melrose directs (incidentally, Cutting Ball hasn’t formally announced next season’s schedule yet, but Rob gave me a quick preview, and they have some great stuff coming up; go to their website and join their mailing list).

I was at the first performance of the run, last Friday; the show plays until July 3. Go see it if you’re at all inclined to. One reason I went again is because this is my least favorite Beckett play, and I’ve never really connected to it, but I was piqued enough to give it another try. I still don’t quite connect with it, but I saw some aspects I hadn’t really seen before, and it’s difficult to imagine I could see a better production.

I re-read what I posted about it last year, and was amused to discover that reading myself a year later replicated in milder form the action of the play, in which we watch Krapp listen to himself thirty years before, his search for the remembered troubled by forgotten moments, jettisoned sentiments, and even words he’d forgotten the meaning of. (One thing I noticed more this time is the contrast in tone between the grander, more eloquent speech of the younger Krapp and that of the older Krapp, who combines a simplified and perhaps purified emotional life with the querulousness of an old man.) An aging man, trapped in his own head, dwelling on his passing life with confusion and longing . . . look, I already live that (I even repeat out loud random words with pleasing sounds, the way Krapp does). I go to the theater to escape from my head, not to hear more echoes.

And yet it’s also a bit too far away from my mundane existence – I can’t help feeling that in this play, Beckett verges on the sentimental. The fragments of life presented – a philosophical epiphany on a stormy waterfront, an old woman singing, an erotic reverie – are all too "poetic", and their texture too unvaried. Even the references to defecation (I assume that’s what all the banana-eating business is about, as well as what I’ve always felt is the way too obvious pun in Krapp’s name) take on a certain poignancy, and the antique charm of a ruin; and the reference to time wasted in public houses has a certain nostalgie de la boue glamour about it. It’s all too much the sort of thing you’d like to remember if you were an old man looking back on your life. Even his regrets are picturesque. Where’s the time lost and wasted in boring office work, the unpleasant commutes, dead-end relationships, and irritating romances? Where’s doing the laundry and the dishes and falling asleep when you’re trying to read because you’re just too tired and the daily little disappointments of life? Where's the stuff you'd rather not remember, but you can't help it because life is made up of so much of it?

There’s a truth about life to the play, but to me its effects feel a bit too calculated to be quite true to life. This is a short work (under an hour), but I think to avoid sentimentality this type of thing either needs to be even shorter or much more varied and contradictory in tone. I already know that the days may pass slowly but the years fly quickly.

So I think that’s why I don’t really connect with the play. It’s close enough to where I live so that I can’t help seeing that too much has been left out. (Maybe it's just too close to home? As I re-read this before hitting post, I'm less certain of my confident assertions about the play.) Would I go see it again? Sure. It’s Beckett, and when you love an artist you trust that even his possible failures are really your failures of perception, and someday you will be enriched by finally understanding their meaning. There’s a lovely moment when Krapp is listening to his tape and he slowly leans forward, head lowered, and embraces the machine that has preserved his younger voice in all its confidence and self-delusion. I hadn't really noticed that last time.

Haiku 2010/159

that wind always blows
and we head down into it,
sometimes with relief

07 June 2010

04 June 2010

Haiku 2010/155

rose petals pile up
(yellow, pink, red, bruised, mottled)
in the compost bin

03 June 2010

the fire next time

The other week at the Symphony I finally got to hear Robin Holloway’s Clarissa Sequence as intended by the composer, without the last-minute rewrites necessitated by the soprano soloist’s sudden illness in the first scheduled performances in 1998, and though it’s a beautiful piece and made me even more eager to hear the entire opera, it’s also sort of a strange piece.

It opens with a scena for Clarissa (sung by Erin Wall in a large and beautifully clear voice), who is at the hinge of her life, the despairing moment when the greed and anger of her family force her to flee their house with the dissolute yet strangely appealing Lovelace. For someone familiar with the novel (that would be me, in case you were wondering), every word here is freighted with significance. But as with certain wacky productions of Shakespeare (like Peter Greenaway’s eccentric film of the Tempest, retitled Prospero's Books; or Peter Sellars’s 45-minute Macbeth lit only by flashlights), though I enjoy them I have absolutely no idea how they’re coming across to anyone unfamiliar with the originals – do they seem like gibberish or like something that hangs together? So it’s possible the words sound to some like a standard and not all that interesting eighteenth-century lament (sort of like the words of the concert’s opening piece, Mozart’s Bella mia fiamma, words elevated above the hackneyed by Mozart’s music and the beautiful conviction of Wall’s voice).

The rest of the piece is instrumental, with several slightly twisted and menacing sections evocative of waltzes or hunting songs, which I assume are meant to evoke the playful and threatening undercurrents of the ultimately tragic Lovelace. Then there’s the fire section, which is where things get weird.

The only thing I was hoping Tilson Thomas would discuss during his meandering and uninteresting remarks before the piece is why it took him over a decade to reprogram it after the mishaps of the premiere; he did not satisfy my curiosity, but he did mention that the fire in the novel was the Great Fire of London, which is incorrect (in fact if my memory serves the composer’s synopsis in the program book is also incorrect in stating that the fire was deliberately set by Lovelace and his accomplices; I believe that they may have discussed the possibility but the fire itself was started accidentally, though ironically Clarissa believes it was deliberately set to force her from her rooms, which resolves her to make her escape from Lovelace). Anyway, the weird thing about the fire music, undiscussed by conductor or composer, is that it’s mostly lengthy quotations from and variations on the Magic Fire Music from Die Walkure.

I don’t object on any sort of principal to quotations or adaptations of this sort (I enjoyed Holloway’s Gilded Goldbergs), but here it’s just a major distraction (it’s also lengthy enough to seem a bit like a failure of imagination; surely there are other ways of portraying fire?). Though you could see interesting parallels between Brunnhilde and Clarissa (both women motivated by intelligence, idealism, and fine feeling; both trapped by fire due to the botched plans of males who both admire and resent them), puzzling out those parallels during the piece – which is what you’re going to do when you hear that very familiar music in this unfamiliar context – really pulls you out of the drama and the emotion of the moment. You just sit there thinking about the Ring and wondering what underlies the pastiche and how far to pursue the compare-and-contrast of the two stories.

I feel sort of protective of Clarissa. Here’s my little shout-out to Professor Margaret Anne Doody, whose classes in eighteenth-century literature my sophomore year at Berkeley included a sensitive and provocative introduction to Richardson. Given the realities of time and reading lists for sophomores, we read the much shorter Pamela, though Doody's asides about Clarissa led me to haunt Moe's Books until I found a copy of the unabridged four-volume Everyman edition, which I first read over winter break that year. (Her lectures also inspired me to spend years searching for a copy of Sir Charles Grandison, and her discussion of Fanny Burney's novels when we read Evelina inspired me to hunt down her other novels, which, despite what you'll usually read, are far more like Dickens than Austen. I should point out that "hunting down books" was something difficult to do in those sad days before a benevolent Providence blessed us with the Internet.) Though I was a steady reader I never really “identified” with the characters in what I read, and for years I thought there was something wrong with me that I didn’t. I was greatly relieved when I eventually discovered that Nabokov sneered at the thought of only reading because you “identified” with a character. Anyway, there really are only two characters I’ve deeply identified with: Clarissa Harlowe and Rigoletto. Well, and of course Milton’s God.

Holloway came out to take a bow after the piece, looking pleased and slightly awkward. Given its attractive music and the thrilling story, it’s disappointing that no company in the United States seems willing to stage a production. (I’m certainly not counting on its showing up across the street from Davies Hall at the War Memorial.) I’d love to see how the nuanced psychology of this long novel translates to the very different medium of the stage.

After the overly long (25 minute!) intermission, we heard a wonderful performance of Schumann’s Symphony 3, the Rhenish. The trombones in the fourth movement, paying tribute to the Cologne Cathedral, were particularly fine. These days the Symphony seems to be in particularly good shape with Schumann and his neurotic-Beethoven sound. A few weeks before, the Schumann 4 was an unexpected highlight of Christoph Eschenbach’s visit. I say “unexpected” not because I wasn’t looking forward to it, but because I thought the evening was going to be all about the other piece on the program, Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony, a lush orchestral setting of various love poems by Rabindranath Tagore.

In the event, though I was glad to hear the Zemlinsky live, the piece did not quite carry all before it. Matthias Goerne had withdrawn from the performances a few days before, which let a bit of air out of the proceedings for those of us excited to hear him again. James Johnson was the stalwart substitute, and though he clearly knows the piece by heart (he sang without a score, unlike Christine Schaefer, the other soloist), his was the sort of stentorian voice that I don’t really respond to – he had the power needed, and it should be said that Zemlinsky doesn’t make things easy for his soloists, often having them sing against a loud and thickly textured orchestra – but for me his voice was lacking in nuance, color, expressivity. Schaefer has a lovely voice (and wittily wore a paisley-print dress in, I assume, homage to the Indian poet), but I found it a shade small for the big sounds of this lush late-Romantic music. Since the soloists sing for the duration of the piece, the whole thing didn’t quite come off for me, despite the pleasures of hearing such an exotic score, and despite the commitment of both the singers and the symphony.

Haiku 2010/154

streaked with pale gray blue
skies suffused with soft light and
the air smelled like rain

02 June 2010

Haiku 2010/153

letters so longed-for
once turned up again today --
I tossed them; so long!