27 February 2006

Le Grand Macabre

Revisiting another production from the recent past: the American premiere of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre. This work was definitely one of the high points of Ms. Rosenberg's tenure as head of the San Francisco Opera. If that season hadn't also featured Nathan Gunn as Billy Budd then it would have been the clear winner that season.

I went to the panel discussion beforehand, which featured most of the singers and the directors. They were very eager to present this work as an adventure and an evening of entertaining theater. They kept stressing that although the music was difficult, it didn't sound that way (I guess what they meant is, this is not Moses und Aron). (Which I love, by the way.) The audience seemed fairly receptive, but then these are people who cared enough to go to a panel discussion. The question session was not as painful as those things sometimes are. My favorite question (and one of my all-time favorites): "Is there any actual music in this work, or is it all sound effects?" I was pondering the philosophical implications of the noise we define as sound effects and the noise we define as music, but the John Cage moment passed as the panel hastily explained that they were referring to a large and creative (one instrument is an inflated paper bag) percussion section, not to pre-recorded funny noises.

Here's the review:

Well, I loved Le Grand Macabre. I had already bought a ticket for a second performance (part of my one-man effort to prove there is a market for the offbeat) and I'm glad. I've heard the two official recordings, and a lot of Ligeti's other music, but this was the first piece I've heard live, and that always makes a difference to me. I was surprised at how gorgeous the music was. (In fact, at times I felt the music was almost too gorgeous.)
On the whole the audience seemed favorable, though clearly quite a few were either baffled or disgusted. When the first scene ended there was one very loud boo; of course, I heard someone boo the same way at the end of Rossini's Otello several years before, because he didn't like the big golden lion that was looming over every scene (he was next to me and explained, not that I asked). The opera company did a very good job of trying to educate/warn people about what they were going to see, so I really don't know why the guy was there -- why not spare yourself the time, money, and trouble if there's not even a chance you'll like it? Or at least wait to the end before deciding. Anyway -- some singers were better at enunciating the English text than others (Sir Willard White was particularly good, but then he's a native speaker, unlike some of the others).
The work has that whole eastern European politically-tinged sense of the absurd and the comically tragic. Many of the classic opera fixtures appeared in witty ways -- there's a bacchanalia a la Samson, a drinking song, two lovers with a mezzo as the man; it was noted often in the program that the aria for the Chief of the Secret Police (a woman) was reminiscent of the Queen of the Night's arias. The structure of the work actually reminded me of La Boheme, of all unlikely things -- there are four short scenes that are linked but not continuous, sort of giving a series of scenes from the life apocalyptic (as opposed to say the four short scenes of Rigoletto, which tell one tight story).
I said some of these things to an elderly usher I ran into on BART on the way home -- he appeared flabbergasted at my opinions, but his opinion was "to each his own" which is fine. This work is closer in style to a type of modernist theater and music that the core opera audience is probably not very familiar with. A lot of people go to the opera for overstuffed sofas, you know?
I think familiarity is the key here. The Magic Flute or Parsifal or Love for Three Oranges are just as strange, if
not stranger (OK, Parsifal is a lot stranger), than Le Grand Macabre; as the years roll by the general audience
will begin to hear the beauty, I think, the way they did for Nozze di Figaro or Rigoletto or Tristan or other works initially considered grotesque or too complex. The anime-style sets worked well -- they were in the spirit but didn't overwhelm the action. I wonder how a Brueghel-style setting (as specified by the composer) would work -- it might have the effect of making the work look quaint or distant.
They made a few changes to the lines of the Black and White Politicians to make them more politically pointed -- I didn't really think this was necessary, but it wasn't inappropriate. Definitely a memorable evening -- well worth seeing and very stage-worthy. I'm curious to see if any other American opera companies pick it up. At the end some of us jumped to our feet to applaud and others to run for the exits; this is how art advances. . . .


I'll confess, one of my problems with Dr Atomic was its use of Muriel Rukeyser's verse. I'm not ruling out the possibility that there are hidden gems there, but she is responsible for two of the most idiotic lines of poetry I've ever heard, and that's all of hers that I ever hear quoted:

"What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
The world would split open."

Um, well, in the first place, the world would do no such thing. I think it would pretty much keep right on rolling.

In the second place, why does she specify a woman? If she thinks men tell, or are encouraged to tell, the truth about their lives, she's just an idiot. If she's only interested in women's lives, well, that's fine, but in that case, why should my penis and I want to hear about her life?

And in the third place, what is the truth of someone's life? Perhaps it's something that can only be pieced together from others or from ethereal emanations. Is it even something that we can know?

26 February 2006

Albee damned

Recently Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? finally made it to the top of the Netflix queue. Sometimes when I dislike a film I will watch it again, especially if it's been highly praised, to double-check my reaction. I stand by my initial impression, which is that it is over-rated and fairly tedious, but now I know why: George. He's so f*cking boring I can't believe it. Martha I enjoy (on stage). But George . . . maybe I just find whiny manipulative men less appealing than loud-mouthed vulgarian women (again, on stage). George's dialogue is like a drunk's view of himself: My verbal fluency and dazzle will capture my victims in the web of my psychodrama! In any reality off the stage, the listener would either have shrugged George off or punched him out. (Albee's plays seem to inspire me with thoughts of punching people. . . .) That whole "get the guest" section: "My God, I can't believe that this vicious drunk is repeating the secrets I just blabbed to him ten minutes ago! He must be a -- a -- vicious drunk!" Of course, that's not what the guest says: he's just crushed by the terrible truths George has dared to reveal!!! About ten minutes into that evening I would have been getting my jacket and lying about how lovely it all was. And speaking of any reality off the stage, I can't believe no one tipped the young couple off to George and Martha's special evenings. Clearly they would be notorious on any small college campus, and you'd think someone would have said something at the preceding party. The play (or movie, I should say, since I've never seen it on stage) doesn't go far enough into the Theater of the Absurd to make the plot conveniences convincing. Taylor is terrific in her part, Burton does what he can but I'm not sure it can be played so that I would find it convincing. George Segal doesn't quite carry off his drunk scenes. His casting is interesting because these days I don't think someone who looks like him would be cast as a football player, even on the college level. America -- where the actors and athletes get buffer and the audiences get fatter!

Got My Goat

I saw the Goat last spring at the American Conservatory Theater and I have to say I was disappointed in both the performance and the play. I think it's a great idea that ended up being a fairly standard marriage-falling-apart-in-middle-age drama. It could have been more satiric/satyric and tragic. When you're a happily married and successful man who suddenly starts having not just sex but a love affair with a goat, for six months, then you've pretty much moved to a different place. And I was hoping the Goatfucker would respond to people from that place. Instead he just moped and anguished in a fairly passive way. And he was the performer I liked most. But I wanted him to defend Sylvia (the goat), and his love for her, to his wife, his son, and his friend, but opportunity after opportunity passed by and he didn't respond to them. His being chosen to design and build The City of Tomorrow in the wheatfields of Kansas (who's sponsoring this, by the way?) is such an absurdly out-of-date notion that I can only assume this was meant to be part of a commentary on mankind's relationship to nature, but it wasn't really followed up. While talking about looking for a farmhouse he could so easily have had a few lines about the need to get away from humanity, sort of put the whole goat thing in a different context. He doesn't make the obvious point that we are animals also. Sex is an animal act. But his feelings for Sylvia raise it above a merely animal act -- feelings that apparently his friend doesn't have for the women he has affairs with. The whole "youngest architect to win the Pritzker" thing annoyed me. Yes, he needs to have a good life so you can see that he's destroying something worth keeping, but this absurd inflation is I guess the contemporary equivalent of the old theory that tragedy only happens to nobility. There's a fleeting reference in the beginning to the Eumenides, but any classical echoes are not really followed up in the play, and that was a rich area that could have been referenced. There's a whole murky line between animal, human, and supernatural that could have been explored (as it was in Beloved, which I had recently re-read). (For all the sometimes strained and tedious wordplay, no one makes the obvious references to pussies, or cocks, or bushes, or other such nature references.) We just get the wife, son, and friend going on about how awful it is and how awful they feel and the GF'er looks guilty and tries to explain that he's in love. It's the same play that could have been written if his love object had been a girl rather than a goat. I kept wondering if his friend is meant to be as fatuous and vulgar as he was in this performance. I found it hard to believe he was a 50-year-old man. You'd think by then he'd have a more nuanced view of adultery, but instead when the GF'er starts to confess he reacts like an adolescent, wanting the details, especially about the girl's body. Then he shows up again at the end and the GF'er tells him to leave but he doesn't. Um, punch him? Threaten him? Make him leave? Better yet, ask why someone with at least one failed marriage and several adulteries (with the resultant pain to numbers of women) is condemning him, who is only hurting one woman. Ask why it was OK if he was cheating on his wife with another woman, but not with another animal. The son was just awful, but I think it's an unplayable role. Not for one minute did I believe (based on the lines) that this was a 17-year-old boy. The parents veer between telling him to go play with mud pies and to go cruise the public toilets, both ridiculously insulting things to say to your own teenage son that are just passed off as nothing. The whole thing at the end where he kisses the father felt really arbitrary to me -- I don't know if a better actor or better directing could have pulled it off, but to me it felt artificial and tacked on to make a point about pervasive and ambiguous sexuality. (And until I re-read this I completely forgot about it, which is odd for something that's supposed to be sort of a -- I shouldn't say climax. . . .)I couldn't believe the son kept demanding his father tell him the truth and threatening him if he hurt the mother -- maybe I'm too Latin, but you just don't talk to your father that way. And I couldn't believe the father took it. The whole relationship felt false. I know Albee made the son gay to avoid the whole "this is really a metaphor for homosexuality" interpretation that often gets foisted on his plays, so it was important that the son and to a lesser degree the parents be OK with his sexuality, but you'd think the father would have made the point to him that while he may have crossed a border by loving a goat, in the eyes of most people his son also crossed a line by loving men -- he's just pushing the border farther. There's no dialogue, no argument, no ideas. Instead the son would prance in every ten minutes, do that fingers to the mouth gesture that has apparently replaced the flapping limp wrist as the international "I am a gayboy" symbol, and say something that no 17-year-old would ever say. The actor also looked about 30. The wife. . . . that character is described in ACT's ads as "brilliant," but I have no idea why. I don't even know what she does. (Why not make her a classicist and bring up that theme that way?) For most of the play, all we see of her is her anger. But who cares? We don't know her. She spends most of the play breaking things. There's the opening where the two trade the sort of strained banter that is the stage shorthand for "good middle-aged marriage." That whole thing (his inability to remember) goes on way too long, and then gets dropped. The wife's reaction was also fairly one note, and goes on way, way too long. Her breaking stuff -- after a while, it just becomes shtick. It's too obviously symbolic and "theatrical" in the way things sometimes are in life, but the GF'er never calls her on it. It's as if she's been waiting 20 years for the chance to play the betrayed wife and smash crockery (by the way, the set was generally good except for the painting she ends up destroying, which apparently this couple picked up from the local Marriott -- people like that would never have a painting like that on their walls. And why not make it a painting of a farm? or one of those Dutch pictures of livestock that are so beautiful?). At her curtain call some audience members jumped to their feet and I know why but I thought she was awful. You were conscious the whole time that she was aware she was playing her big scenes. And that could have worked if the playwright had been aware of it and made it part of the exchange. But as soon as she starts smashing things I pretty much saw how this whole thing was going to end, though I thought she'd have the wit or gumption to make goat stew and serve it to her husband. (And I'm wondering -- so did he buy the farm? So he owned the goat? If so, how did he feel about owning the creature he loved? Or was he just sneaking up to this farmer's for a quickie? How did the wife know which goat is was? No farmer/caretaker objected to her shooting his animal? She drove into the city covered with blood and no one stopped her? I wouldn't have had these questions if I'd been more engaged in the play.) The only one I ended up feeling sorry for was the goat, and to a certain extent the Goatfucker. What a letdown. I was expecting so much more. I walked out thinking, so he's fucking a goat -- big deal! It's better than dating a smoker.

13 February 2006

Dr Atomic

I hate to be negative on the first real post, but I have to start somewhere with the backed-up reviews and Doctor Atomic was the big autumn event here. As you can see below, I was really disappointed. By the way, this was my third world-premiere opera in one year, which may be, sadly enough, some sort of record for someone with no connections to the biz. This is cobbled together from e-mails to various friends; eventually I will just refer them to the blog, if I decide to let them know it exists. . . . I'll post some further/second thoughts later.

I saw Dr. Atomic October 14, mid-way through the run. I had heard raves from some who had been there. I was pulling for it because it was [departed SF Opera Director Pamela] Rosenberg's baby and I love her and hate to see her go. But I honestly have to say I was really disappointed. I liked the music, and was really impressed with Gerald Finley (Oppenheimer). But the libretto just doesn't work.
I have no problem with non-linear or fragmentary narratives -- two of my favorite operas are 4 Saints in 3 Acts and Satyagraha, and when you get down to it another favorite of mine, Il Trovatore, is filled with obsessive fragmentary narratives -- but the work doesn't seem to know if it wants to be an accurate portrayal of the days leading up to the test explosion or a meditation on those events, and so it just sort of flops unsatisfyingly between the two. Too many scenes go on too long (everything with Kitty Oppenheimer, for instance, and I don't think even the magnificent Lorraine Hunt Lieberson [who was originally cast but had to withdraw for medical reasons] could have convinced me she needed to go on so long). There is no character development, so you're left puzzling out some of the relations between the characters and the political situation. Usually I skip the plot summaries in the program, but I read this one after the performance and it's full of information that is either not conveyed or contradicted by what's onstage. I wonder if they were all just too close to the material and assumed much more pre-existing knowledge on the part of the audience than they should have.
Just as you start to get a feeling for what it must have been like to be a young physicist in the desert grappling with the unknown consequences of the test, the scene is interrupted by Muriel Rukeyser's ghastly verse clomping across the stage for 20 minutes. And every time the collage of quotation starts to provoke a meditative and insightful look at the bomb, you get a scene of the most banal conversations (about calorie counting, for example) and you're left trying to figure out who these people are and how they fit in together. Some I couldn't identify until I checked the program afterwards. Even when I could figure out that one guy was Edward Teller, I didn't understand quite why he was quoting a letter that I thought was the opposite of what Teller believed. It turns out we're supposed to realize that he's thinking the letter writers are on the subversive side, and in fact he thinks Oppenheimer is too. But we have no context at all for knowing any of this. (I actually knew the story of Teller and Oppenheimer but only remembered afterwards; I think it's a good indication of the problem that my memory wasn't jostled by what I was seeing.)
The whole second scene with Oppenheimer and his wife is typical. It starts with her lengthy recitation of one of Rukeyser's verses. He responds by quoting Baudelaire (but you only know this by reading the program -- it's presented as if these are their actual words). It's hard to know what to make of this. The scenario and the critics seem to think it means they have a troubled relationship and can't communicate directly. I don't know -- I think quoting Baudelaire to your wife is pretty hot. And the quotation method is the same method used in the libretto -- so how can we take it as an indication of falsity? Also, if I were in charge of building the first atomic bomb, I'd be pretty distracted. Conversely, if I were a woman in the mid-1940s who was stuck in the desert while my husband worked on a mysterious and important government project, I might drink a little too much. (I assume that's what they meant by the scene where she's holding a bottle of scotch or vodka while reciting YET ANOTHER of Rukeyser's tedious verses.) So is this bomb-specific? Or were they always like this? And what difference does it make?
There's a general [General Groves] who is made to look ridiculous -- he berates the meteorologist at length because he doesn't like the weather report, even demanding that he change the weather. In Alex Ross's excellent article in the New Yorker, he refers to this as a Lear-like scene. But it's not. Lear directly and hopelessly confronts the elements, and that's the pathos and the tragedy that come out of the situation. The general is merely berating an underling with absurd demands; it's simply ridiculous. And then he's the one who goes on tediously about his calorie counting. (Also, they cast a black man in the role -- I'd be happy to see the singer in something else, but if you're trying to represent America in the mid-1940s you simply cannot cast a black man as the general in charge of the atomic bomb -- the political and moral implications of segregation are just too overwhelming in America for this casting to make sense, especially in a work claiming to deal with political and moral implications.) And of course the Oppenheimers have a (largely invented, apparently) American Indian childcare provider, who supplies us with chants of the Native people. Initially I liked having this voice, but they kept repeating it and it just got cheesier and cheesier -- finally I was reminded of Kokopelli souvenirs for sale in airport gift shops. I'm also the Vietnam-Watergate generation, but could we maybe consider the possibility that a general in the US Army might have slightly more cogent thoughts on war than a 20-year-old nanny, even if she is apparently genetically predestined to transmit The Wisdom of the Ancient Ways?
The first act ends with the big hit number, the already widely praised setting of one of John Donne's holy sonnets, "Batter my heart." I can already see that this is going to be detached and performed in concert as frequently as baritones can get it scheduled, and it's wonderful. If only the whole libretto had been selected from such resonant texts. (The test site was named Trinity by Oppenheimer after this sonnet; again, this is something you only find out from reading the program; there's no indication in the work itself what the specific significance of the poem is, though its implications are obvious.) (Another oddity in the libretto: though they quote the Bhagavad Gita, they omit Oppenheimer's famous reference to "I am become Death, the Destroyer of Men." I wonder if it was getting too much like Glass's Satyagraha for them (the entire libretto for which is made up of quotations from the Bhagavad Gita). So frustrating.
I couldn't help contrasting this libretto with Toni Morrison's for Margaret Garner. She took something that (I assume) is much more of a settled issue than the atom bomb and made us see slavery as people at the time would have seen it, with some of the ambiguities and contradictions and assumptions. She avoided the easy and melodramatic judgments. I think the stitched-together libretto might have worked if they had made the whole thing more of a meditation on the bomb and not attempted a recreation of the events as well -- which is something that a book can do better anyway. I figured the meteorologist scene was based to some extent in reality but I also assumed that even if the General did say all that he's shown saying he also possibly later realized in some way that he was being ridiculous or had just lost his temper. But again, there's no context. Looking at the program afterwards I could tell just from the brief description in there that Groves was a more interesting and complex man than the one on stage. I haven't seen any mention or criticism of casting a black singer in the role -- sort of funny, since it's very easy to say why it's wrong in this instance but it's not a problem to have (for example) Willard White as St. Francis [in Messiaen’s Saint Francois d’Assise, which the opera did a few years ago].I liked the staging and Sellars avoided his frequent over-reliance on placing video monitors all around, but I just didn't admire it enough to want to give up another evening and a lot of money, so I’m glad I didn’t rush out and get a second ticket. The work may actually benefit from being heard rather than seen since without surtitles inevitably some of the fairly dense libretto is going to get lost, which can only help.

12 February 2006


I attend ungodly amounts of theater (including musical performances, mostly classical, and mostly in the San Francisco Bay area but also elsewhere) and spend the rest of my time with books, DVDs, and CDs, so this is for me to post my reviews. Let the blogging commence!