It’s sugarplum month, but we don’t need to let that stop us. There will be Christmas-tinged items on this list, but that’s hardly avoidable, even if I wanted to. I will proceed along my usual arbitrary and personal lines (no Nutcrackers, but the Hard Nut would be listed if it was being staged this year in these parts, which it isn’t being). There will be Messiahs! I know it’s one of the ultimate holiday chestnuts, but this is the season for chestnuts, and even though I should be tired of it I’m not. In fact I’m listening to it right now. Because I probably won’t make any of the live performances, due to conflicts beyond my control.
Thursday, December 2, the Pacific Film Archive, Paramount Theatre, and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival unite to present Carl Theodor Dreyer’s astounding 1928 film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, accompanied by a live performance of Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light, an oratorio inspired by the film. Information here. Go and marvel!
John Adams and El Nino return to the San Francisco Symphony December 2-4. Later in the month there’s a little more Adams and a lot more Messiah.
Philharmonia Baroque presents Messiah on December 3, 4, 5, and 7, in various locales as is their wont. And American Bach Soloists presents Messiah on December 16, 17, and 18. If the calendar or location don’t decide for you, you can compare casts and other relevant information: here for Philharmonia Baroque, here for American Bach Soloists, and here for the San Francisco Symphony.
Magnificat mixes it up by presenting Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit, which uses old French carols as its basis, along with other seasonal music. December 17-19 in various locales; details here.
Berkeley Rep revives Mary Zimmerman’s fun production of The Arabian Nights, December 11-30.
Cutting Ball Theater extends its production of The Tempest to December 19 (my thoughts here, but in case you don't want to click through, it's a recommendation). And if you want more of the Elizabethans, Cutting Ball’s Hidden Classics Reading Series (which is free), has Ben Jonson’s Epicoene, or The Silent Woman, on December 5. (Opera fans may know the play as the source for Richard Strauss’s Die Schweigsame Frau, though the opera is possibly done even less often than the play. I have actually seen the play staged, but never the opera.) By the way, can anyone explain to me why there is no good (that means affordable and scholarly yet meant for the public) complete edition of Jonson’s plays and masques? He must be fuming over how his rival Shakespeare has outstripped him.
I would be at Epicoene on the 5th if I didn’t already have a ticket for Elza van den Heever’s solo recital, presented by San Francisco Performances, part of their always worthwhile Young Masters series.
And Cal Performances has a full slate, including Christian Tetzlaff playing Bach’s complete sonatas and partitas for solo violin on December 4, and Nicholas Hodges on the 12th, with the Hammerklavier and Stockhausen’s Klavierstuck X.
After a season of garish Aidas and bedraggled Butterflies, San Francisco Opera finally justified its existence by presenting Karita Mattila in her role debut as Emilia Marty, in Janacek’s great opera The Makropulos Case. “Emilia Marty” is only the latest pseudonym of Elina Makropulos, born in 1575 and still alive well over 300 years later, thanks to an experimental formula concocted by her alchemist father at the behest of Emperor Rudolf II, who ordered him to use his daughter as a guinea pig. She escapes and her father is imprisoned as a quack (as she notes, the Emperor couldn’t know that she would live over 300 years). She spends the next few centuries in various guises, always with the initials E.M., gathering lovers and acclaim as a singer.
The opera opens in the Prague law office of Dr Kolenaty, who is representing one side in a century-old lawsuit over an inheritance; the celebrated opera singer Marty shows up, rather surprisingly, and further surprises everyone with a supernatural-seeming knowledge of the location and contents of papers sealed and hidden decades ago. It develops that the original owner of the disputed property was one of EM’s lovers, and she has returned seeking the alchemical formula, which her long-ago lover took and never returned to her: her 300 years of youth are coming to an end, and she needs the formula to renew them.
Mattila is superlative, bringing a somewhat icy glamour and an incandescent voice to a role she seems born to play. (I’ve seen the DVD with Anja Silja and two other live productions of this opera, but it’s now difficult for me to imagine anyone else in the part.) Years of watching death take friends and lovers has left EM both cold-hearted and anguished. It’s in little asides (“they all die. . . “) that Mattila deftly and momentarily plumbs the grief of the character, before reverting to a Lulu-like aura which attracts a fresh generation of willing and would-be victims. There are moments even in the beginning when she suddenly moves in the jittery and uncertain way of an old and fragile person, preparing us for the revelation of her final monologue, in which she astonishes the skeptical lawyer and the other participants in the lawsuit with the story of her life.
The costuming also sets EM apart, from her first appearance in an elegant silken white outfit (this production is apparently set in the 1950s, but aside from this Marilyn Monroeish outfit the time change doesn’t really register; everyone else’s outfits look like the 1920s as originally specified, an impression reinforced by the Pierrot costume EM has on in Act 2's back-stage scenes; Pierrot was an artistic fashion in the 1920s, not the 1950s). The sets are elegantly done in blacks, whites, and grays (often cross-hatched in the manner of an old engraving), with touches of red (some roses, EM’s lips. . . .). It all has the air of the chic and the fantastic.
Each scene is dominated by an enormous clock, keeping real time. I have a bad habit (I think it is a bad one) of being obsessed with time passing during a performance; sometimes I think about just covering the time counter on my DVD player. Here the clocks are a constant urgent reminder of mortality, and the value of the fleeting; that’s live performance for you, vanishing even as you watch. This effect was even more powerful for me because there were only six performances scheduled and due to various conflicts I wasn’t able to get to a second one, even though this is the kind of powerful, rewarding evening you go to the opera hoping for (needless to say one is usually disappointed in that hope, however entertained in other ways; this production really is special).
I do have some complaints. One is that I wish the momentum of the piece had not been broken with a lengthy intermission between Acts 2 and 3 (though that did give the awful couple in front of me the chance to leave). Performed without an intermission, the opera would be about the length of Salome, which we all know Mattila sings; would it really be too taxing to perform this opera straight through? (I’m genuinely asking. When I’m doing something physical like exercise I tend to start slow and build strength as I go, so an intermission would throw me off; perhaps singers feel differently.)
I was thinking about Mattila’s Salome (which I saw on a Met livecast, the only one I’ve been to) because she brings a similar movement to both characters, towards a deeper understanding and acceptance of life that includes and ends in death (at least, Salome does this in Mattila’s interpretation). I thought her Salome was fascinating and individual because her final monologue became a movement towards spiritual insight, and not just towards the final grotesque expression of lurid sexuality. EM moves in the same spiritual and psychological direction, towards an understanding and acceptance of the power and beauty of life as enforced and illuminated by death. At the end, Janacek does that thing he does at the end of many of his operas, where the music, though still very much in character with what we’ve been hearing all night, lightens and spreads out and upward in a way that exalts the meaning of the final action, as well as the listeners.
Mentioning the ending leads to my second complaint, and this one is major. There's one other prominent female character in the opera: Kristina, the youthful daughter of the clerk Vitek. Kristina, just embarking on adult life, longs to be a great singer like Emilia Marty, whom she idolizes (at least until her boyfriend kills himself for unrequited love of Marty). The end as written has EM offering the formula to Kristina, partly as compensation for the death of her boyfriend; she then, having witnessed both EM’s final suffering and EM’s exhausted indifference to suffering, chooses to burn the formula. It’s an incredibly powerful moment: a youthful version of EM essentially looks at what that life has been and chooses a different path. In this production, inexplicably, one of the men (a descendant of EM’s, in his 30s) snatches the paper from Kristina’s hands and burns it. I have no idea why the change was made, or what we’re supposed to make of it. Given our time and place, this action is simply going to be read, and condemned, as a man imposing his judgment on a younger woman, without consulting her. I thought this was the one major misstep in the production, and I hope this inexplicable change is switched back to the superior original.
The orchestra, under the direction of Jiri Belohlavek, was superb. The entire cast was strong the night I went (in addition to Mattila, the performers are: Thomas Glenn as Vitek, Miro Dvorsky as Albert Gregor, Susannah Biller as Kristina, Dale Travis as Dr Kolenaty, Gerd Grochowski as Baron Jaroslav Prus, Maya Lahyani as a chambermaid and then as a cleaning woman, Austin Kness as a stagehand, Brian Jagde as Janek, and Matthew O’Neill as Count Hauk-Sendorf, a doddering old lover of EM’s who remembers her as the gypsy dancer Eugenia Montez who ruined and delighted his life. The performances are dedicated to the late Sir Charles Mackerras, who did so much to introduce Janacek to the world outside of the Czech Republic. San Francisco Opera had started a program of broadcasting some of their productions; if they’re still doing that, The Makropulos Case should be at the top of the list (once they correct the misguided change at the end, of course).
Last weekend I had a double dose of the Zenshinza Theatre Company, who came to Berkeley on their American debut tour. Zenshinza describes itself as “Japan’s oldest and largest repertory theater company”; they were founded in 1931 by two famous kabuki actors, Kawarasaki Chojuro and Nakamura Kan’emon, after a 1928 kabuki tour of the Soviet Union. Ironically, this first kabuki tour outside of Japan, while hugely influential on western theater, left the Japanese actors wishing for a more realistic performance style.
Saturday evening featured two works in classic kabuki style. The first, a comic curtain-raiser called Chatsubo (The Tea Chest), tells of a drunken servant carrying a chest of fine tea home to his master, a tea connoisseur. He falls asleep in the middle of the road with his arm through one strap of the chest; a clever and desperate thief comes by, sizes up the possibilities, and puts his arm through the other strap, claiming the chest is his. A magistrate comes by and quizzes the two, who mirror each others words and movements. It’s a fun little piece, expertly performed by Fujikawa Yanosuke as the servant, Nakajima Hiroyuki as the thief, and Masuki Hiroshi as the magistrate, though it’s not really the kind of thing that makes me laugh out loud. Instead I enjoyed it the way I enjoy silent movie comedies – not so much because they’re funny as because I admire their elegance and wit of movement and invention. This story of a disputed prize seemed like something Mack Sennett might have produced. The piece was first performed in Tokyo in 1921, and though it’s an adaptation (by Okamura Shiko) of a presumably older kyogen piece, I did idly wonder if there was some cross-influence to the short comedies Hollywood was producing then. They feed the same theatrical appetite, in their different styles.
After the intermission came the evening’s main event, Narukami (The Thunder God). It is the tale of a powerful priest, Narukami (Arashi Keishi), who is angered by the Emperor’s refusal to dedicate a temple to him. He traps the rain dragons by his magic and the land suffers drought until, at the Emperor’s secret behest, Princess Taema (Kawarasaki Kunitaro), pretending to be a young widow intent on becoming a nun, seduces Narukami into drinking excessive amounts of sake, which priests are forbidden to drink at all. When he passes out, she cuts the magic rope trapping the rain dragons. Both dragons and Princess flee, and when Narukami awakes and realizes he’s been tricked, he in his fury changes with spectacular visual effects into a thunder god and vows to pursue the Princess, seeking revenge.
The bold and colorful sets and costumes of both plays were a pleasure to watch. It’s also a pleasure to watch a theatrical style that has been, as far as I know, basically unchanged for centuries (although of course the bedrock of English-speaking theater is much older – Shakespeare died about a century and a half before even the oldest kabuki plays were written – the English performance style has changed constantly).
I was in the second row for this night, which was fine with me despite the neck-craning necessary to read the surtitles, but I saw some other front-row habitués move farther back at the intermission. That might actually have been a good idea for this second play, which uses the whole stage, often to significant purpose (for example, the way the Princess, who enters from stage right, and the priest over on stage left slowly move towards each other and the center of the stage as they move closer emotionally during the seduction scene). Since this is kabuki of course the Princess is played by a man; initially his stylized falsetto caused a few giggles but anyone who wasn’t expecting that sound or thought it was meant to be comic caught on quickly. Quite a spectacular show.
We had a spectacular of a different sort the next afternoon. Though I knew that Honen and Shinran was a new play (written by Tajima Sakae to commemorate the 800th anniversary of Honen Shonin and the 750th anniversary of Shinran Shonin, two monks who developed what became the largest Buddhist sect in Japan today), I thought it would be a new play in the kabuki style.
But the incidental music sounded like bits from a 1950s Biblical epic (pre-recorded for this play, though we had live music in the traditional style for the Saturday night performances). And there were actresses playing the female parts. So, no kabuki style! Instead it was a fairly old-fashioned religious pageant. Although I wasn’t familiar with the titular monks beforehand, the general arc of the story is familiar from any number of western saints and sages – from Jesus himself to Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther to the Ba’al Shem Tov: a holy man seeks enlightenment, and finally finds it not in the rules of established religion but in simple things of the spirit. He preaches and gives hope to the poor and dispossessed, offering them a direct route to the spiritual, bypassing the established priests and their complex and lucrative rules; eventually he is persecuted by the priests who are threatened by his message of spiritual equality and by the governors who are threatened by the spiritual message’s implicit message of political equality.
Though I probably would not have bought a ticket if I’d known exactly what the play was (or, more precisely, that it wasn't in traditional Japanese style), I don’t regret seeing it, though at three hours it struck me as too long. (Saturday night’s two plays were altogether about two-and-a-half hours, including intermission.) Perhaps I was just particularly impatient, having been stressed and fairly sick the whole week. On the other hand, the spiritual message of resilience and strength in the face of humiliation and rejection did resonate strongly under those circumstances, as did the realization that we’ve cycled through this particular story many times, not that we’ve ever learned much from it.
Certainly the audience was with them all the way. At one point a curtain jammed and there was a delay while they tried to get it to rise (the whole thing was quite fluidly and cinematically staged). This is normally the type of thing that reduces audiences to excited whispers and chuckles that last long after the problem has been fixed, but instead there was a respectful and reasonable silence. During a blizzard that opened the second part, the theatrical snow (little squares of white tissue paper) fell so abundantly that those of us in the front were well dusted with it. I noticed the woman next to me carefully pick the snow-scraps off her outfit and place the little pile in her purse as a souvenir. Afterwards she said to me, “Well, we got snowed on! That was something special.”
Last season at the Symphony one of the programs I was most looking forward to was the premiere of Rufus Wainwright’s Five Shakespeare Sonnets, since I like Wainwright and love Shakespeare. The rest of the program (the ballet music from Faust, Vivier’s Zipangu, and Poulenc’s suite from Les Biches) was also well-chosen: French or French-inflected, sly and stylish. Of course Wainwright postponed his appearance, and Duncan Shiek appeared in his stead, with a song suite from Whisper House.
Wainwright reappeared on this season’s schedule, but once bitten twice shy, so I didn’t hurry to get a ticket ahead of time. By the time it was clear he would indeed show up with the Shakespeare piece, I had come to one of my periodic realizations that I spend way, way too much on performances, so I decided I should try for a rush ticket, only none were available. I did drop several shamelessly broad hints to my better-connected friends, but they had other guests in mind. This is where I would have posted about Wainwright’s piece if I’d gone to hear it this time around, so I figured I might as well post about last spring’s concert, since I never got around to writing about it at the time.
This was my first time hearing anything by Duncan Shiek. I had skipped Spring Awakening because (what a lesson to people like me who regularly praise theater pieces hoping other people will go see them) the raves really put me off. All that talk of how Broadway would never be the same since the voice of a new generation had arrived blah blah blah – isn’t that exactly what they said about Hair? and West Side Story? and, I don’t know, Babes in Arms? Also: amplified voices with a rock-inflected score: ah, the two things that have ruined American musical theater, together once again.
So Shiek came out after the ballet music from Faust to play his amplified, rock-inflected songs from Whisper House, a musical about an orphan boy during the Second World War who is sent to live in a New England lighthouse which is haunted by the ghosts of those who have died in the surrounding waters. The songs are probably very effective in context, but hearing six of them played straight through rendered them completely ineffective: the material (both words and music) was too thin and the songs all ran together. I could hear the Symphony’s strings under the amplified guitar and vocals, but they didn’t add a whole lot besides ambient buzz, so I really don’t know why they were there.
Shiek seems like a nice guy and was extremely earnest about the whole thing, which is possibly why I was cringing in embarrassment the entire half hour. He was there “to bring in the young people” as he put it in an interview somewhere (I forget exactly where; it was last spring, I can’t remember everything!). The young people failed to oblige. I’ve never seen Davies Hall so empty. When I was, technically, a young person, I was more interested in Messiaen and Mahler than in rock – that’s why I started going to the symphony. I really can’t emphasize that enough: the key to an orchestra’s survival in any meaningful form is that it presents an alternative to the music we get everywhere else.
My point here is not that the sacred temple of Art was profaned by the unholy sounds of Duncan Shiek and his rocking and rolling – it’s that you have this magnificent thing, the symphony orchestra, and it was being reduced to back-up buzz for a novelty act. You don’t survive as an institution by offering a watered-down, more costly version of what is easily available elsewhere. Orchestras claim that pieces like Whisper House bring in people who don’t usually go to the symphony, but so would pole-dancing. Are those people going to come back and listen to Bruckner?
I’m certainly not saying that symphonies should be closed off from the music of their time or content with their current audience; I think there is a real hunger out there for substantial art, though most of those hungering don’t look to the big musical institutions for nourishment. Ironically, this program had a perfect example of where orchestras should be going: in the direction of music like Claude Vivier’s Zipangu, which used the traditional resources of the orchestra to create striking new sounds. Vivier had a strange and almost too picturesque life story (his childhood as an orphan is fairly mysterious and after suffering premonitions of death he was killed in his mid-30s by a young man he had picked up – though, not to be callous, but given his promiscuity at the height of the AIDS epidemic, it’s likely he would have died young anyway; in either case, it was a tragic loss for contemporary music). There's a terrific DVD of his work, Reves d'un Marco Polo, that contains a fascinating documentary as well as a wonderful performance of several of his pieces, including Zipangu; I recommend the disc highly.
In addition to excellent work with the Vivier, conductor Edwin Outwater made the Poulenc crisp, elegant, and witty, and shaped a really lovely performance of the ballet music from Faust – I was so grateful not to have to sit through the dances at the Opera House a few months later, because Gounod’s opera is really long enough as it is without an extra twenty minutes of dancers hopping around in a prettified and therefore inadequate Walpurgishnacht, but the music is delightful on its own. In fact, aside from the intense embarrassment of Shiek’s piece, the whole evening was quite enjoyable. Less Shiek, more Vivier!
I had heard Measha Brueggergosman only once before, at a strangely disappointing recital in Berkeley, but she has been so highly and regularly praised that I was eager to hear her again last Wednesday, presented this time by San Francisco Performances. I was a little concerned because I had been up late at Cyrano the night before, and worried that the announced theme, Night and Dreams, might prove all too effective, and the artists would be treated to the sight of me snoring and drooling away in the front row. As with at least some of my anxieties, I needn’t have worried; I was alert throughout and missed nothing of the enchanting recital. I was so charmed I even stayed after to buy a CD and have her and Justus Zeyen, her accompanist, sign it. The CD is also called Night and Dreams, and though there isn’t that much overlap between the recital and the record, I haven’t listened to it yet, because I want to keep for a while longer my memory of her voice without distorting the memory with the recordings.
Her voice is indeed gorgeous; none of the breath control problems I noted in Berkeley were evident. At times it reminded me of Kathleen Battle’s voice, only in bronze instead of silver, if that makes sense. Her burnished tones were perfect for the theme. I enjoyed Zeyen’s solo turns in Schumann’s Nachtstuck in F Major, Opus 23, No 2, and Chopin’s Nocturne in D-flat Major, Opus 27, No 2. Nice to see them mix up the standard recital format in this way. I also liked the creative intercutting in the final set between three lied by Richard Strauss (Wiegenlied, Die Nacht, and Standchen) and four of Berg’s Seven Early Songs (Nacht, Traumgekront, Liebesode, and Schilflied). Her Wiegenlied stayed with me for days.
Brueggergosman is both glam and a down-to-earth total charmer; she looks like Eartha Kitt, only without the kittenish affectations. She wore two gowns (a deep red velvety number streaked with darker tones for the first half and then a silver gown, perhaps in homage to the moon) and she changed into a third for the CD signing. I complimented her on the performance and mentioned that she had changed again, and she said, “Well, I know how [the Bay Area is] about fashion.” I was wearing plain black wool pants and a long-sleeved black T-shirt, which proves my theory that the secret of elegance is long sleeves.
Oddly enough, at intermission a woman came up to me and asked if I was perhaps a singer (clearly she’d never heard me sing; as a friend thoughtfully pointed out recently, my voice still cracks) or a dancer (clearly she’d never seen me move). She was with a group from Oakland Lyric Opera and they had sent her over to find out if I was anybody. I assured her I was not. I thought it was odd only because I was asked the same question at the last Brueggergosman concert, and that is how I met Mr G/S Y (boa viagem, meu amigo!). Apparently I look extra-theatrical when I hear Ms Brueggergosman.
When it came time to buy opera tickets this season I had mixed feelings about Cyrano de Bergerac. In decades of opera-going I had only seen the legendary – is it too early to call him that? probably not – Placido Domingo live once before, in Massenet’s Herodiade, so I ended up buying a ticket because having that as my sole live experience of one of the great singers of my time was just shameful. My feelings kept jumping over the candlestick before I bought the ticket and continued to do so after I saw the show.
I’m glad I saw Domingo . . . but why did San Francisco get this opera, out of all the more interesting roles he’s currently singing (Siegmund, Simon Boccanegra, Handel’s Tamerlano, Gluck’s Oreste, Pablo Neruda in Il Postino)? But it does give him a chance to dominate the action in a way Massenet’s John the Baptist doesn’t. Alfano’s opera has such a bad reputation that the actual experience of sitting through it is much more enjoyable than one might have feared. But I also realized I pretty much dislike the source material. And here I thought I was just tired of it. But after and overcoming all is the thrill of seeing Domingo, an accomplished and still questing musician, with a voice still recognizably the voice of his youthful performances, decades ago.
The program book, which in previous years had more articles about the actual opera and fewer pages of luxury real-estate ads and suck-up donor profiles, features one of Picasso’s “Musketeer” paintings on the cover. Enjoy it! It’s the last evidence you’ll get all evening that something happened called the twentieth century.
Alfano’s music, though not bold or particularly romantic or even memorable, certainly gets the job done. I was going to describe it as attenuated verismo but frankly I heard the performance last week (and I'm posting this a week after I wrote it, because of my Internet problems) and the music hasn’t lingered enough in my memory for me to be sure that’s what I heard, and not what I walked in thinking I might hear. I couldn’t help feeling that the elaborate and colorful production (back-stage views! giant cakes and strutting tarts! swordsmen swinging through the air!) was meant to distract from a certain lack of substance.
It’s a fun show, but the story is perhaps by now so familiar to us that instead of waiting to see what happens next we’re left dwelling on plot holes (especially in the libretto's pared-down version of the play) and psychological improbabilities. It’s all like something Douglas Fairbanks Sr would have starred in, as a rumbustious swashbuckler who, aw shucks, just can’t talk to the beauteous damsels. In fact though I’ve seen other silent-film versions of the story, I’m a bit surprised Fairbanks didn’t star in one. It must have been a reluctance to deface the famous face with Cyrano’s celebrated nose.
Oh, the nose. His jutting protuberance. His over-bold excrescence, his unmentionable extension! I’m sure the Stith Thompson Motif-Index of Folk-Literature has a lengthy entry on nose (and foot) size as a euphemism for penis size. This isn’t some post-Freud weirdness. It’s deep human weirdness! Isn’t Tristram Shandy full of such jokes? Doesn’t castration anxiety haunt Gogol’s story of The Nose that disappeared? Of course Cyrano meets Christian when Christian breaks the regiment’s rule of silence on the subject. Some bodily parts are unmentionable in polite society. There is just all kinds of weirdness going on here if you stop to think too much. It’s best to keep moving.
I have to fault the make-up department on the schnozz – this is not a grotesque appendage that might scare off the finer ladies, but a much more tasteful bulge; for its role in the drama it’s a little too Nicole-Kidman-as-Virginia-Woolf, or possibly Alec-Guinness-as-Fagin – that is, it’s possible to see it, in certain lights and from certain angles, as striking and distinguished, rather than monstrous. The program showed the nose being applied for the Met production, and it looked much larger than the one we got here, and though I refuse to stoop to “size matters” jokes, or to acknowledge such conventional crudity, it’s an important difference.
You do have a problem with the Beauty and the Beast angle if the Beast is not particularly bestial. Cyrano's lovely cousin Roxane feels she must love a poet – you know, someone like TS Eliot – and apparently decides that the dreamy Christian, just joining Cyrano’s regiment, is the one. But Christian (who, far from being inarticulate, is quick enough with words in his initial meeting with Cyrano) can’t talk to girls either. Though perhaps the two fellas should have gone off together to explore their girl issues, Cyrano instead becomes Christian’s voice, though given the samples we get of Cyrano’s verse – all generic gush and jogtrot – I can’t help feeling that the muses’ bar is set rather low here, and Roxane would have gone roundheels for anyone who managed to come up with “There once was a man from Nantucket.”
We get the famous balcony scene, in which Cyrano under cover of darkness pours out his long-silent love for his cousin. She is swept away, though not so much that she doesn’t notice his voice sounds a bit different, an observation she doesn’t pursue to its logical conclusion. She apparently has never noticed that this is how her cousin talks, and you’d think by now she’d be so used to his nose that she’d barely notice it, especially in the subdued form it assumes in this production. You’d think she’d also have wondered why, in the opening scene, he so angrily runs the famous actor Montfleury off the stage (never mind that others have paid to see him) because he dared to look at her with eyes of love, a charge that, given Martin Rojas-Dietrich’s relentlessly queeny swanning in the role, seems improbable; but then this is the kind of world in which actors portraying famous actors always flounce, just as aristocrats always mince and wenches are always bawdy. Also, not to be unkind, but a theme in this drama is the importance of appearances, so I have to point out that Montfleury resembles man’s life as Hobbes described it – nasty, brutish, and short – and he has no problem thinking he should get the ladies. So what is Cyrano’s problem? A certain amount of obliviousness on everyone’s part is necessary for the story, but it’s difficult not to wonder if this is willful blindness.
Christian, far from being a musclehead, is sensitive enough to understand that it is Cyrano and not himself that Roxane truly loves, and to suffer under the knowledge. In his anguish he rushes to the front lines and essentially commits suicide. I can’t help thinking that Roxane would have been better off with handsome, loving, awkward Christian, because Cyrano, frankly, is one of those tedious people who are always “on,” always in the spotlight, always drawing attention to himself, always showing up everyone else. Sometimes you just want someone to pass you the bread at dinner without subjecting you to an impromptu villanelle first. Cyrano is basically Auntie Mame, and just as tiresome and overbearing as she is, only with a bigger nose (it only makes it worse that the perceived inadequacy prompting his frantic cleverness is as plain as, ah, let me just say it, the nose on his face).
It’s a tribute to Domingo’s distinguished artistry that he makes the final scene in the convent so moving. Roxane has retreated there after Christian’s death; Cyrano visits her every Saturday, and although just before dying Christian wanted to tell Roxane the truth, Cyrano does not do so, for reasons that I’m sure are meant to be high-minded and noble and romantic but which strike me as strange and perverse and somewhat cruel (and more interesting than the high-minded reasons). I couldn’t help thinking of Vanity Fair, when Becky Sharp eventually has the kindness to release Amelia from her misplaced reverence in her late husband, killed at Waterloo, by giving her proof that he was hoping to run off with Becky after the battle. But that is a cynical work, and a romantic work like Cyrano has no truck with the liberation possible once your romantic ideals are shattered.
I still remember my shock the first time I saw or read Cyrano at a young age when his dying words were not what I was expecting (and based on the rhymes used in the surtitles last week, this is a feature of the original), which was: “I still have my . . . nose”; instead, we get “I still have my . . . panache” (translated as “spirit” in the surtitles). We can let the followers of Foucault and Freud (if Freud still has any) dwell on the overriding significance of that which is deliberately not named. For myself, I will say I was expecting irony and self-loathing, which are things I can relate to, and got more of Cyrano’s endless self-glorification/compensation. The switch has put me off the story ever since, though God knows I’ve seen enough versions of it since then. But I kept regretting versions unwritten, by playwrights who would have better brought out the role-playing and underlying sexual weirdness– Strindberg? Pirandello? Wilde? But maybe the story doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to unless you ignore all the underlying questions.
Back to the production. The autumn leaves are falling, literally and symbolically, in the convent. Cyrano, ill and dying from a head wound given him by an enemy aristocrat’s hired thug, finally reveals to Roxane that he was the one who spoke the words and wrote the letters she has cherished for years. He then dies and leaves her alone, perhaps to wonder what faults in her or him kept him from trusting her with the truth. We don’t find out, because it’s all about Cyrano, and he’s gone now.
The production was all very well done; it’s a different question whether it was worth doing. Ainhoa Arteta was a glorious, gorgeous Roxane, with a voice as bright and golden as her hair. Thiago Arancam was a strong-voiced Christian, and though he is strikingly handsome it is in a sensitive intelligent way that actually skews the drama a bit – he looks a bit too fine-spirited for the lunky role Christian is supposed to play. I hope to hear both in something more substantial. I can of course also say the same about the emperor of the evening, Domingo. His voice wavered a bit at the beginning but grew in steadiness and power throughout. His suffering in the final scene, the pain in his darkening voice as death frees him from the twisted knot of his anguish, brings the indelible power of Art to the libretto’s facile romantic tricks.
So after being without a phone for several weeks, I called AT&T and they sent someone out to take a look. And now I have neither phone or Internet. I am on an ice floe, heading out towards cold and choppy seas. Though presumably I will return at some point, and will post the backlog (haiku, Cyrano, Measha Brueggergosman, Zenshinza Theatre, Makropulos Case, and maybe more) then. Check back soon. I hope.
This afternoon I went to Ensemble Zellig’s west coast debut over at Hertz Hall in Berkeley. They are a French chamber ensemble specializing in new music (the oldest piece they played this afternoon was from 1993 and most were brand-spanking new). The group was founded in 1999 by two performers (Silvia Lenzi and Etienne Lamaison) and two composers (Thierry Pecou and Gualtiero Dazzi), and describes itself as “flexibly sized” and “fully at ease traveling through time and musical styles” – hence the eponymous use of Woody Allen’s Zelig, though the extra “l” is unexplained.
Etienne Lamaison was there, playing clarinet and bass clarinet, and so was Silvia Lenzi on cello. They were joined by Anne-Cecile Cuniot on flute and alto flute and Jonas Vitaud on piano. All were stylishly attired in black and red (of a deep brick shade). Cuniot’s dress had a chic rising-sun motif, which only added to the Japanese impression of the first number, Philippe Hersant’s Five Miniatures (1995), a solo piece for alto flute (but then solo flute music in its plangent and reedy way always reminds me of the artier Japanese films). When she left the stage the other three came out for the second piece, Don Freund’s Crunch Time (2010), which formed a nice contrast with its percussive, well, crunching, though touched with moments both jazzy and wistful.
Then we had Philippe Leroux’s PPP (1993) for flute and piano, which was more entertainingly muscular than flute/piano duos often are. That was followed by a different duo, one for clarinet and cello, Change and End (2010) by Gerald Shapiro (who was in attendance, as was Edmund Campion). There was a touching timeless quality about the piece – if you came to it with no context, it might be hard to say whether it was contemporary with us or with the French impressionists. It seemed both bucolic and elegiac (the composer’s program note mentioned that he wrote the piece while his 93-year-old mother was dying, and the piece is dedicated to her). I could see it being used for dance, the way baroque music always has underlying dance rhythms.
Next up was another collection of miniatures by Philippe Hersant, his Six Bagatelles (2007, 2010) in a new transcription for clarinet, cello, and piano. I particularly liked the second bagatelle (which I may or may not be remembering correctly as dreamy) and the fifth, which reminded me of Prokofiev’s sarcastic style. The final piece, and the first which brought all four performers on stage together, was Edmund Campion’s Auditory Fiction (2010), for flute, clarinet, piano, cello, and computer. The performers all wore earpieces connected to the computer so they could follow “in-ear click-tracks which coordinate four independent, flexible, shifting sequences of time. Each instrument in Auditory Fiction can act independently in time or join together with the quartet in perfect sync.” I’m quoting Campion’s program note, partly because I’m not quite clear what this means: does the click-track simply function as an invisible mechanical conductor? Or does it shift things around so that something different happens in each performance? The music had a very bright, clear sound, and at the beginning it reminded me of a round, where they start off together and then go off in their own directions. I was in my preferred spot in the first row, but for this piece I might have preferred being a bit further back.
These were all fairly brief, even intimate pieces (I don’t think any of them was over fifteen minutes) and the selection was both coherent and varied. I would happily have heard any or all of them over again. The performers were fabulously committed and keen. The set-up was perfect: about 90 minutes, no intermission, brief and efficient set-ups between each piece, and no talking at us, just music. Sweet, thank you!
Campion, who is a professor at Cal, had given a talk beforehand, but I didn’t go since I didn’t know about it (though I might not have gone anyway; I find such talks either vague and full of stuff I already know or could guess, or so technical that they’re distracting and don’t help my experience as a listener). I hadn’t received the subscriber e-mail about the concert because I decided to go at the last minute. “The last minute” for me is two days beforehand. There was a fair-sized audience (including Lisa), but there were plenty of seats available, and though I was delighted to be able to sit with no one around me, I recognize that the performers and presenters would probably prefer a full house.
I ended up being glad I had bought a ticket in advance, because when I woke up this morning it was raining heavily and out of the blue (the vanished blue) I had a splitting headache. Both cleared up enough so that I ventured forth, but if I hadn’t already paid for a seat I might have just bagged it and stayed home and missed out on a terrific ensemble and an exceptionally entertaining and well-run concert. I hope Ensemble Zellig will be regular visitors.
Last night I went to the first performance of Cutting Ball Theater’s new production of The Tempest, directed by Rob Melrose. It is a three-actor chamber version, but it is in a sense a very traditional production, in that Shakespeare’s plays have always been altered and adjusted to fit the mood and means of the time. I think this basic malleability of theater is the reason (in addition of course to great poetry and deep characterization) that Shakespeare became enshrined as the English writer par excellence, rather than say Spenser, whom Shakespeare's contemporaries would probably have nominated for the post; great though it is, The Faerie Queene is always going to be an elaborate, many-stranded allegorical Renaissance epic, written in semi-archaic though gorgeous language in a strict stanza.
I shouldn’t give the impression that Cutting Ball’s production is an outrageous variation; by and large, if you wanted, it’s possible to see it as a fairly straightforward telling of the story, with the virtuoso twist of using only three actors. The central idea here is a triangle between Father, Daughter, and the Young Lover who takes her away from him, and in the opening and closing scenes Prospero is presented as a therapist and Miranda his patient, subject to both hypnotherapy and classic lie-on-the-couch talk therapy. The whole idea works surprisingly well, with surprisingly little alteration necessary to the play, particularly in the long back-story scene between Prospero and Miranda at the beginning, after the opening tempest, when he tells her who she is and how they came to the island; and it creates fascinating resonances among the characters and situations.
The idea of the father struggling to give up his control sheds an interesting light on some scenes; for example, when he denounces Caliban’s attempted rape of Miranda, we can see that she is instead a willing participant, and the scene becomes about a father’s fear of (which includes his repressed fantasies about) his daughter’s growing sexual awareness, and how those feelings will lead her away from him. The advantage to using three actors is that as they become other characters, you see their basic situation in a new light: for instance, Ferdinand and Miranda are both losing their fathers, and when the father is played by the same actor, that brings the point home; when the father becomes Stephano, the drunken leader of Trinculo/Miranda and Caliban/Ferdinand, you get another lurid funhouse twist on the triangle.
David Sinaiko plays Prospero, Alonso, and Stephano; Caitlyn Louchard plays Miranda, Ariel, Gonzalo, Trinculo, and Sebastian; and Donell Hill plays Caliban, Ferdinand, and Antonio. Though occasionally, as I always do when I see Shakespeare performed, I wanted something a little more or a little different (perhaps a little more majesty from Prospero, a little more unworldliness from Ariel) I’m going to give all three a big compliment, which is that they speak the lines as if these were things the characters would actually say in this way, and as if they knew what they meant – many’s the Shakespeare performance I’ve heard where the actors have memorized the lines, and they come out sounding only like lines they’ve memorized. The performers distinguish clearly among the characters, using different voices as well as adjustments to their costumes (though perhaps they should rethink the short green tunic dress for Ariel, since it comes off as a bit Peter-Pan-like at times, and I think the use of an Italian accent for Alonso is a mistake; it sounds too much like a vaudeville funny voice and it raises the question why no one else from the same town has an accent).
Donell Hill is black, which lends an interesting resonance to his Ferdinand/Caliban function as The Other (as well as to moments like the one when he as Sebastian denounces Alonso for giving his daughter to an African and thereby losing her in that distant land). When Prospero says "this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine" he points to his own heart rather than to Caliban, to whom the line officially refers; it's an interesting twist and a nice example of the fluid identities among the characters, and it completes the father's process of giving his daughter away. I'm glad they avoided the recent fad of presenting Caliban as a representative of native victims of European imperialism. I’m not saying there’s no element of that, but as a through-line interpretation it just doesn’t work for me: for one thing, Caliban is clearly servile by nature, as evidenced by his ready submission to Stephano as his new master when he’s fed up with Prospero. He also (in the standard interpretation) tried to rape Miranda when she was a little girl, which I think we can all agree makes him basically unsympathetic, and he is lazy and can’t be trusted with liquor – for me the notion of Caliban as aborigine just gets too close to minstrel-show racist stereotypes to be considered true to Shakespeare or the character or the themes of the play. It seems obvious to me that Caliban is basically an earth spirit (in contrast to Ariel), so like the earth he is often dull, heavy, and dirty, though also capable of moments of astonishing beauty (the most famous example being his speech in Act 3, scene 2, "Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises . . ." and ending "when I waked, I cried to dream again"). Shakespeare did that thing that makes him Shakespeare: he overwrote the part so that the richness of the character bursts through any thematic framework; and as with Shylock, the character has grown richer and more unanswerable with our current experience of history.
As usual with Cutting Ball, the set, the videos, and the ambient sounds are stylish and appealing. The raised stage looks like the bottom of a swimming pool, and there is a desk (holding the chess set and a model of a ship) and a couch such as you might find in a therapist’s office. The backdrop is a large engraving in the style of Dore of the sun setting over the ocean; surrounding that is a thick border of shiny silver foil. (Michael Locher is the set designer, Bessie Delucchi did the costumes, Heather Basarab the lighting, and Cliff Caruthers the sound.)
Personally, I’d much rather see an inventive take like this than a more straightforward production; nothing against such productions, but at this point in my theater-going (and my life with Shakespeare) I’m just not going to see a production of one of his plays where I think they’ve nailed everything. So I might as well spare myself the time and money and wait for shows that cast a different light on what I think I already know.
The movement of the play as an inner psychological struggle to allow one’s child (and her spirit, her Ariel) her freedom makes the effect of this production surprisingly elegiac; though The Tempest is often presented as Shakespeare’s farewell, this is the first time I really felt it that way.
The production runs through November 28 at the Cutting Ball's home stage, the Exit Stage Left.
This is a chockfull month, and that’s not even counting roasting the turkey on the fourth Thursday. . . . Good luck getting to even half of this list. I don’t know when I’m going to get the laundry done or the pies baked.
American Bach Soloists begin a collaboration with choreographer Todd Eckert November 5-7 at Dance Mission Theater, where he will premiere Sinfonia (to ABS recordings), the first part of a three-part piece that will culminate in live performances next July. The November performances also include works by Nol Simonse. The program details are here.
Cutting Ball opens its season with a three-person chamber arrangement of The Tempest.
Volti opens its season November 5-7 with another enticing collection of new pieces, in a different location each of the three nights. Unfortunately for me, none of the locations (click here) is convenient for an East Bay nondriver. Geez, what’s up, guys? Was it because I refused to sing along?
ACT offers Marcus or The Secret of Sweet, the third part of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Brother/Sister Plays. The first two parts were at the Marin Theater Company and the Magic Theater (in keeping with this month’s theme of inaccessibility to East Bay nondrivers, I’d like to note that the former is completely inaccessible and the second requires a major effort). I have been told that the plays can also be seen separately, though the experience is enriched if you see them all.
ACT is also collaborating with Nicole Paiement’s group, Blueprint, to present the Tom Stoppard/Andre Previn work for orchestra and actors, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, at the Conservatory of Music on November 20, with performances at 7:00 and 9:00. Call 415-503-6275 for tickets.
San Francisco Performances presents Measha Brueggergosman and Justus Zeyen on November 10, as well as the return of Japanese butoh dance troupe Sankai Juku on November 11-14.
Cal Performances presents the Zenshinza Theatre Company in two different programs: on November 13, Narukami, an eighteenth-century kabuki play, and on November 14, Honen and Shinran, an contemporary play in kabuki style. And I will probably not be able to resist a ticket to Ensemble Zellig’s afternoon of new music on November 7.
Shotgun Players has extended its run of Mark Jackson’s adaptation of Schiller’s Mary Stuart through November 14.
Philharmonia Baroque offers Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, along with contemporary works by Corelli, Pergolesi, Durante, and Zavateri on November 5, 6, 7, 9, and 10, in several different locations (click here for details).
The Paul Dresher Ensemble presents “new music and invented instruments” by Ryan Brown, Paul Dresher, and Bruce Pennycock on November 12 and 13 at the ODC Theater.
San Francisco Opera presents the great Placido Domingo in Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac, as well as this season’s most eagerly anticipated opera (at least by me), The Makropulos Case with Karita Mattila.
Berkeley/West Edge Opera presents Handel’s great Xerxes, conducted by baroque specialist Alan Curtis and starring Paula Rasmussen, on November 13, 19, and 21.
The San Francisco Symphony presents a solid line-up of soloists (Nicholas Phan, Keith Phares, and Joelle Harvey) in Carmina Burana, along with works by Schnittke and Haydn, on November 3, 4, 5, and 8. The week after that, Rufus Wainwright is scheduled to appear for the premiere of Five Shakespeare Sonnets which was postponed from last season, along with Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major (per SFMike's comment below, this has been switched to Milhaud's Creation du Monde) and Weill’s Symphony No. 2. On November 17, 19, 20, and 21, you can hear Elza van den Heever singing Strauss’s Four Last Songs, along with Schubert’s always delightful Music from Rosamunde and a perhaps less delightful traversal once again of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben.
Chora Nova presents an all-Haydn concert on November 20 at First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley (right by the Unit 3 dorms, my old home).
The New Century Chamber Orchestra features the Goldberg Variations (arranged by Sitkovetsky) and three pieces by composer and violinist Mark O’Conner, November 18-21 in four different locations (click here for info).
And a late addition . . . Feldman's Rothko Chapel will be performed at the Berkeley Art Museum this Friday, November 5, at 7:30, along with works by Ashley, Mitchell, and Harrison.