29 July 2006

Elective Affinities

One of the things I love most about Amazon.com, my little on-line crackhouse, is their recommendations. Not so much the ones I actually buy, but the ones that mystify me. There's a certain logic to some of them once I click on "this was recommended to me because", like the book on great natural disasters because I bought a book on the Red Sox (this was before '04), or even the recent instance of Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media, which was recommended because I bought The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prizefighting in America (apparently my orders scream "gender issues" to the Amazon computers). For a long time my favorite such recommendation was How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: that one was because I bought a DVD of The Marriage of Figaro, and not one of those wild-ass European productions we're all so afraid of over here, either, but a fairly sedate and traditional performance. But the dual recommendation that really made me ponder the position of the opera fan in today's society came after I bought a book on Puccini: the system coughed up both Playboy's Book of Redheads (why redheads?) and a book of male nude self-portraits (why self-portraits)? Sometimes the mystery is more appealing than any explanation of computer logic could ever be.

Inverted Triangles (Wilde nights with thee)

The only SF Symphony “Romantic Visions” concert that I managed to hear back in June was Zemlinsky’s Florentine Tragedy, prefaced by three short pieces also based on works by Oscar Wilde. My heart sank when I noticed the microphone on the podium; sure enough, we were not allowed to hear any music until the conductor (James Conlon) had talked at us. There’s a lecture beforehand, and copious informative essays in the program book, and plenty of sources for CDs in case we wanted to hear the works beforehand; what’s with the talks? If you haven’t prepped by then, either you don’t really care or you prefer to hear the work without annotation. I sometimes like to go in blank, because it’s very seldom you can do that in an opera house or symphony hall. The talks to a captive audience seem like force-feeding and strike me as unsuited to our cavernous halls (if you need to use a microphone, maybe you shouldn’t be talking). The tone is usually sort of cutesy and jocular in a way that is invariably inappropriate for the music that follows. (Michael Tilson Thomas did this before he played some Morton Feldman this year and the sudden switch from amusing anecdotes in Feldman’s Brooklyn tones to his refined, very quiet music was just too abrupt and not an effect Feldman would have wanted, I think.) If the purpose is to make audiences comfortable, then it’s backfiring on me, since I just get annoyed and restless. I don’t want audiences to be comfortable. I want them to shut up and listen. We’re already there. You’ve won. Just sing and play!
Conlon’s remarks chiefly were about the composers and Oscar Wilde and the “surprise ending” of A Florentine Tragedy (which he didn’t spell out, but if you keep specifying that there’s a surprise, does it remain a surprise when it arrives?). In fact, the ending is not really a surprise unless you never step outside those operas in which the baritone never gets the girl despite his deep voice and fabulous hair. You could probably see it coming if you’ve ever seen any film noir, or any of those Bette Davis movies in which she slaps the guy and he slaps her back and they glare at each other for a moment and then start kissing passionately and there’s a quick cut to the smoldering logs in the fireplace leaping into flame and Max Steiner climaxes all over the soundtrack. And of course there is a direct link between the artists who composed and performed this sort of music and the refugees from fascism who made film noir in Hollywood.
I enjoyed the three dances very much, though only the most familiar, the Dance of the Seven Veils from Strauss’s Salome, was long enough to really make an effect. The pieces from Schreker’s Birthday of the Infanta and Zemlinsky’s the Dwarf were short but pleasing. A Florentine Tragedy was very well done, though the tenor Kim Begley is not the right age or look for a staged performance.
What A Florentine Tragedy really made me think of, and this resemblance was not mentioned in program or talk, was a sort of perverse take on the first act of Die Walkure: you have a troubled husband and wife, and an attractive intruder, and murder in the air, only this time the marriage closes like a lake over the corpse of the outsider. (Sorry, maybe I should have put in a spoiler alert. I’m not as considerate as Conlon.) It seemed fitting with the period that Wagner would be very much on the composer’s and librettist’s minds. It reminded me of a Walkure I saw in which Hunding was a massive Finnish dude built like an inverted triangle (if his sword didn’t cut you his cheekbones would) and Siegmund was a somewhat tubby and earnest tenor; I thought at the time that if the outcome hadn’t been pre-ordained (by Wagner if not Wotan) Sieglinde might be better off where she was.

28 July 2006

th-th-th-that's all, folks!!!

The San Francisco Opera season came thudding to a close with a coarse, drab revival of one of my favorite operas, The Marriage of Figaro. I should point out that I saw the second cast (but if your marketing slogan is The Return of the Divas, shouldn’t there be fine print somewhere that says “except for Subscription Series G”?). I was sorry to miss Swenson as the Countess and particularly Relyea as Figaro, but usually I’m open to second casts; although I may not believe that a stranger is just a friend I haven’t met, I’m perfectly willing to believe that an alternate is a star just needing a break. In any event none of the singers particularly thrilled me, though all were good enough, even though the ensemble sounded off to me at several points.
And it wasn’t really the Opera’s fault that this was one of those evenings when I was surrounded by talkers (not whisperers – talkers). “Is that the Countess?” “Yes, that’s the Countess! There she is!” “And this is her first song?” “Yes! She’s singing it!” (dialogue not retouched for satirical purposes). Of course none of these observations, or any of the others I was treated to, could possibly wait until after the opera was over, possibly because it ended so late it would be difficult to remember that far back. Yes, after a brief lapse into reality which led the Opera to start Maid of Orleans (under three hours) at 7:30, they went back to presenting the almost-four-hour-long Marriage of Figaro at 8:00. I think that people who claim they can’t follow the garden shenanigans in Act IV are really just too tired by then to pay attention. (Does anyone else want to punch Cherubino in that scene, or at least send him for some “no means no” sensitivity training?) Even half an hour makes an enormous difference, but apparently the Opera feels that Mrs. Vanderbilt’s carriage can’t quite rumble up the walk before 8:00 and that anyone else who might be tired out from a week of work is probably an Irishman or some other sort of undesirable ethnic, who would be better off in a tavern or other low haunt, or at home beating his common-law wife and their thirteen grubby children.
You could certainly make an argument that Figaro is one of those operas that needs to be set in a very specific time and place (what with ordering the neighbor boy to join the military, let alone the whole “right of the first night” – another plot point that led to an extended discussion during the performance), though in that case it’s not clear to me why this production sets Act I not in a nice room conveniently located near the Count and Countess but instead in what is very obviously an open inner courtyard; it’s even less clear why all the characters have to behave in a way in which no human being has ever behaved outside of exhausted vaudeville sketches. Any moment of subterfuge (of which there are many) is accompanied by winks and grimaces and blinks that would tip off Helen Keller, but go completely unnoticed by the other party; all older women are rapacious man-eaters; stuttering is comedy gold; the mere sight of a chamber pot is not only comedy gold, but comedy gold covered with diamonds; any unwashed person (even better, an unwashed person who also has liquor on his breath – enter Antonio the gardener) causes everyone, even an aristocratic Spanish lady of a delicately melancholy disposition, to rear back in eye-rolling, hand-waving, gasping recoil. (This is the production, not the cast, and definitely not the opera; in fact I have to give credit to Twyla Robinson, who sang the Countess, for trying for some delicacy in portraying the attraction to Cherubino; when I saw this production a few years ago the woman singing the Countess gave a performance of unbelievable vulgarity, swooning and drooling over Cherubino in a way that rendered her protestations of innocence absurd and her forgiveness of the Count ridiculous and hypocritical. Yes, I know about La Mere Coupable, and I wish directors didn’t; that’s later in their lives, after she’s had to forgive more indiscretions and Cherubino has grown up some. In Marriage of Figaro he’s a boy who thinks he’s a man and she’s a woman who thinks he’s a cute boy – if she really took him seriously, she wouldn’t keep dressing him up like a girl; it’s a very delicately ironic relationship, which is why this heavy-handed production has to turn it into a Desperate Housewives moment that would presumably shock the “realism”-loving audience if they bothered to consider how old Cherubino actually is.)
Apparently many in the opera audience, not having been to any theatrical productions postdating the replacement of gaslights with electricity, eat this stuff up, but here’s what really bugs me about this production: if this had been announced as a vaudeville/Looney Tunes concept production there would have been predictable cries of outrage and further calls for the public execution of Pamela Rosenberg, but the only thing they would have had to change would be to brighten and simplify the sets, and maybe tone down some of the mugging. OK, Chuck Jones actually would have come up with better gags, but I stand by my point. Apparently there were sighs of relief at this “traditional” production; who was it who said tradition is just encrusted error?
About twenty years ago in Boston I saw Peter Sellar’s Marriage of Figaro, usually described as the “Trump Tower” production (the only one of his three da Ponte/Mozart operas that I saw on stage). The setting did create some incongruities (for instance, ordering the neighbor boy to join the military). And I disagreed with the decision to have the Count manhandle the Countess (to me his actions conveyed not aristocratic entitlement but bullying, and made him too unsympathetic), but it was a carefully thought-through decision, not one made for some spurious shock value, and although I disagreed with it I had to clarify in my mind why I disagreed and how I thought his behavior worked in the piece. In short, Sellars re-thought the relationships among the characters as if they were people with real emotions (I still think about his remark that Marzellina is obviously a lonely older woman looking for love and emotional connections, which is why she can switch so quickly from wanting to be Figaro’s wife and hating Susanna to being his mother and Susanna’s too), and that is why I remember the production so well after two decades.
(I had seen this production and this was my opinion before I heard of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s death, but I have to say, this is exactly the kind of – I was going to say dessicated shit, but instead I’ll say stale routine – that she would never, ever have appeared in.)

27 July 2006

One Fine Day. . . .

Patricia Racette sang Cio-Cio San in SF Opera’s latest revival of Madama Butterfly. Though I could happily never see Boheme again, I don’t mind a revival of Butterfly, and I wonder if anyone really does; its mythic story touches on something essential about the solitary nature of love, and anyone who has ever loved without return, which means everyone, is bound to find her monumental devotion powerfully moving. Boheme casts a golden nostalgic glow over an idealized first love, but Butterfly pulls no punches about the intensity of love and what that can mean for its subjects. Racette is always a powerful actress (she sang Liu here several years ago and I realized at one point that instead of watching Turandot and Calaf square off I was watching her to see how she reacted to them; her Roberta in An American Tragedy was so moving that to me it became a perverse measure of Nathan Gunn’s charm and skill that he could bound on stage in his singlet after her letter aria and still retain the audience’s sympathy) and she correctly realizes that Butterfly is not a weak girl but a woman who chooses for herself a samurai’s right to death rather than a life without honor. And at the beginning I really did believe she was, if not exactly fifteen, then a very young woman. At the end, with her hair down and herself grief-stricken, she looked like a ukiyo-e print. One touch that I missed from the last production was Malfitano (as Butterfly) slowly removing the flower from her hair and letting it drop crumpled to the ground when she realizes that Pinkerton has returned, but not for her; that just killed me.
I realized in this production how much Butterfly is on stage because frankly the show dragged when Racette wasn’t on. It’s a very attractive production, with only Cio-Cio San’s house having solid substance and the ship in the harbor and other manifestations of the outside world appearing as shadows. But I found Franco Farino wobbly in voice and physique (if you have man-boobs and a beer belly, for God’s sake keep your jacket on in the love duet; that’s why the Navy designs the uniforms that way) and the usually touching role of the consul was even more wobbly. And they need to change the surtitle in which he asks Butterfly if she has any sisters; I think it’s meant to be an avuncular interest in the girl’s family rather than a lecherous request if there are more where she came from, which is what the audience seemed to think from its tittering. The day after the performance I pulled out one of the first opera recordings I ever bought, the Leontyne Price Butterfly (shout out to my diva!) so that I could hear Richard Tucker sing Pinkerton as it ought to be sung. I think “Addio fiorito asil” is one of the highlights of the opera and contains his realization that he tossed away something precious and true and with it his youth. I don’t agree that he’s a brute or a clod. If he is, then Butterfly is a fool to hang on to him with such intensity. There’s an opera to be found in such a story, but it’s more like Lulu (which I love) than like this one. This is why the “US imperialism” interpretations don’t quite work for me; there are three Americans in the work: the consul, who is kindly and tries to help the abandoned bride; Kate Pinkerton, who offers to raise another woman’s mixed race child as her own (not a view typical of the racism that accompanies imperialism), and Pinkerton, who has to have some quality to justify Butterfly’s hopes (I see him as someone like Jude Law in The Talented Mr. Ripley; Sarah Caldwell’s “Pinkerton tossing the football” captured so well the sort of unthinking insouciance and self-regard of a goldenboy jock). I don’t see that those three really form a coherent indictment of US imperialism. I saw one production years ago that made much of the historic coincidence that Nagasaki was also the site of the second atomic bomb, which meant that Act 2 started with various butoh-style dancers crawling slowly towards us in complete silence; when the music started again, the whole story of Butterfly’s loss had been reduced to a tiny irrelevance in the face of a larger tragedy, which I think was not the effect the director intended. Butterfly is a mythic work just as much as Orfeo ed Euridice, and the truth of the myth is what the audience responds to.

Eternal Flames

Tchaikovsky’s Maid of Orleans led off SF Opera’s summer season. I was really looking forward to this rarity because I share the perennial fascination with Joan of Arc. Years ago when I spent a month in Paris I made a point of taking a day trip to Rouen so that I could see the tower in which she was imprisoned, the square in which she was burnt to death, and any other relics that remain. It poured most of the day so I had the tower and the cathedral pretty much to myself. Written before her canonization and Shaw’s indelible characterization prevented such liberties, this opera is one of several that features a love interest for Joan other than Jesus, in tribute to the perpetual need to grab the viewer’s interest with a love story, because apparently saving France wasn’t enough for Rick and Ilsa and it’s not enough for Joan. I was reminded of Trollope’s attempt to write a novel that didn’t center on a love story, one he gave up as impossible. Dolora Zajick was a forceful and committed Joan (though not one who would ever be mistaken for a teenage girl), Rod Gilfry was her boyfriend Lionel (I like him a lot as I like all actors who could make a good living off being blonde and handsome but who nonetheless take on interesting offbeat roles); divine inspiration was played as usual by harps, soaring violins, and a select soprano choir. There were also some delightful little girl dancers in the celestial vision who later emerged from the smoky pyre after Joan’s execution, a description which may undercut a theatrically powerful moment.
This was pretty much a perfect evening at the opera for me: excellent singers in a work that was new to me in a thoughtful, attractive staging; an audience so quiet and attentive they might as well not have been there; and for once a Friday start time earlier than 8:00 for a work of non-Wagnerian length. The chorus was off to the sides in modern dress as if they were viewers, which I thought was a nice way of pointing out the staged quality of a version of Joan’s life that was so different from both the facts and our current views. The costumes were medieval looking and the sets were attractively minimalist, removing the need for cumbersome scene changes. The danced battles were maybe not the most effective touch, but staged combats are always difficult in a cinematic era and you might as well stylize them. (Painting has had to deal with the invention of photography but I’m not sure the stage, or at least the operatic stage, has dealt with the invention of the movies.)
The playbill contained some interesting essays, as they generally did under Rosenberg, but Richard Taruskin’s ends with a silly suggestion that the romantic subplot illustrates a “horror of female sexuality as a disruptive and destructive force” etc. and somewhat smugly concludes that “there have been many calls for an approach to Tchaikovsky that would admit the fact of his homosexuality as a potential critical tool” etc. again; I hope that these approaches give us something a little more insightful than “the Gays, they hate/fear women”; this is old prejudice masquerading as new openness. Another essay in the program, by Thomas May, points out that Tchaikovsky was clearly emotionally involved in the story of Joan; you could just as easily claim that Joan represented Tchaikovsky’s views of his own sexuality rather than that of women. (That is, if you’re interested in reducing his works to assumptions about his unknowable psyche, which seems like putting the cart before the horse; the only reason his troubled love life is of interest is because his works are of more interest.) Isn’t the eternal flame of love always a disruptive, destructive/creative force? Isn’t that why so many plots find it necessary when we spend so much more of our lives doing laundry, running errands, and schlepping to work?

21 July 2006

There's rosemary; that's for remembrance. . . .

Clearly I haven’t felt much like blogging away, so this entry will be in the nature of an entr’acte. I refer you to The Standing Room, which has collected a garland of web tributes to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. I've been moved by the number of people who only saw her once yet were moved indelibly by her. The world is even poorer without her. I can’t say much more about her loss. (http://www.thestandingroom.com/blog/2006/07/lorraine_hunt_l.html#comments)

I’ve been working a lot in my garden, which is therapeutic. Not so much in a “restorative power of Nature” way; it only takes a few allergy attacks (which have been intense this year) to disillusion me there; maybe the views around Grasmere were more sublime or soothing, but I can’t really do the Wordsworth thing. Cutting stuff back is therapeutic, and there’s a lot of that to be done. For someone with problems dealing with death, I seem to have few qualms about causing it in other realms. But Nature returns the favor: the laurel and the rose have no more value for the universe than the tumor and the virus; to make the point explicit, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson can die at an age when she had so much more to give and in the same week Ken Lay, who ruined the lives of thousands, can die and escape whatever semblance of earthly justice was coming his way, and the universe goes on.

I have a beautiful (I’d say this is an anthropomorphizing statement, but Nature has to appeal to us as much as to the bees for propagation) passion flower vine, but it was growing in the wrong direction and starting to choke my lemon tree. (Yes, I get to choose which direction is the right one. When I bought my house I had some trees cut down, among them a redwood, having learned from my childhood home that a redwood is just not the right tree for a small backyard. When my co-workers found out, it was as if I’d announced I’d gone into church and spat in the holy water font. There’s something about redwoods. No one cared that I planted a fig tree in its place, and no one cared at all that a pine tree was cut down at the same time. One guy said that I was just “imposing my aesthetic” on the place; I didn’t bother to point out that that’s the definition of a garden. There’s a reason Candide ends by “cultivating his garden” as opposed to “reclaiming the wilderness” or “lying down moaning.”) If Bernini designed a flower, it would look like the passionflower: an amazing, energetic mass of twists and curls and tendrils, with flowers exploding into purple aureoles and the various pistils or stamens or whatnot jutting out in an aggressive way. I had to disillusion a friend of mine about the type of passion referred to: the purple is the crown of thorns, and there are other parts that represent the three nails and the five wounds. Of course the common denominator is the word “passion” the root of which is “suffering.” It’s an interesting interpretation to put on this flower, as if it needed some spiritual link to explain it. (There’s also a charming legend about the flower of the rosemary, which is said to be light blue because on the flight into Egypt Mary laid her cloak on it.) Perhaps these tales are just part of the human need to find a story of redemption from the loss that surrounds us.

I have a rosemary plant as well, but I haven’t yet faced cutting it back, since I feel I should be doing something useful with it instead of just tossing it into the compost bin. But I’ve had to pull up a lot of grass and weeds (which are, as the definition goes, just plants we think are in the wrong place) and as I do so I’ve inevitably torn up some of the nearby sage and rosemary leaves as well. I’ve enjoyed their scent on my hands. Requiescat in pace.

06 July 2006

As with rosy steps the morn. . . .

Yesterday I was getting set to review the SF Opera’s last three productions of the season when my little plans were derailed by the news of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s death. I saw an announcement on a music-related website and had to go to several others to make sure – to make sure of what I don’t know, since the recent performance cancellations and stories or rumors of serious illness should have prepared the way, but I just am having such a hard time with this loss. When I started attending concerts in the 1980s in Boston I soon read of a really extraordinary viola-player turned singer named Lorraine Hunt. So I developed as a listener as her career developed; she wasn’t that much older than I am, so there is a certain “golden grove unleaving” quality to my sorrow. But more than a reminder that no matter how bright and beautiful we might be, the inevitable waits is just the lost of a rare artist. I will never hear her live again and recordings can’t quite capture the intense glowing quality she brought to everything she sang. Over the years I heard many of her performances, with Emmanuel Music and other groups, both in Boston and then the Bay Area after I moved back home, and even a non-musician (like me) could tell immediately that there was a special quality to her. Even more than the beauty of her voice and the radiance of her person there was – I guess I should just call it an artistic integrity that sublimed to the spiritual. I went to all the performances I could and should be grateful for each of them but I can’t help regretting that I didn’t hear more. Why didn’t I go to Santa Fe for Ashoka’s Dream? Why didn’t I go to NYC for Les Troyens?
Oddly enough, the night before I heard of her death I happened to be listening to a recording I had just bought of Monteverdi’s Return of Ulysses; I bought it because she sang Minerva in the piece, and the role of the wise warrior goddess sums up much of what I felt about this stranger who gave me so much. The last time I heard her live was in Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony here in San Francisco.
Several years ago she gave a recital in Berkeley. When she came out the audience gave her a prolonged and heartfelt round of applause. The stranger next to me muttered, “She hasn’t done anything yet.” In his pompous rush to play the skeptical connoisseur, I think he missed a key moment in the strange magic, the developing, enveloping love, that can happen between performer and audience. I sometimes wonder why I go to hear performance after performance, so many of them forgettable if not regrettable, and then I come across a reminder of the generous gift that a great performance is and I know why I keep going night after night. I never met Ms. Hunt Lieberson off-stage, even to exclaim “You’re Lorraine Hunt Lieberson!” or gush about how much I love her work, but this morning in my tatty cubicle at work I put on her Handel arias and had to take my headphones off when I started to cry too much for a woman I never met. Her passing brings to mind lots of clichés about treasuring what you have and the uncertainty of life and daring to take an untrod path but these things are clichés because they are so true that all their edges have been worn off and they are as undistinguishable to the casual eye as pebbles worn down by the sea. But if Lorraine Hunt Lieberson were here to sing them to you, you would know that they are true.