24 November 2006

We Gather Together

Thanksgiving is a lovely idea for a holiday, but it seems more and more crushed between Halloween, the increasingly prominent freak-out party night (buy candy! buy costumes! buy extra insurance!), and the Christmas juggernaut, when we celebrate the birth of our economic savior, consumer capitalism. Thanksgiving itself presents fewer marketing opportunities, unless you're Ocean Spray cranberries, Butterball turkeys, or the always-powerful candied yam interests. (Not that I'm condemning consumer capitalism out of hand: once I read that the American wedding industry is worth billions but has a stagnant market, there being by nature only so many people of the right age and inclination for their services, I realized that eventually same-sex marriage would be legal and encouraged -- the benevolent golden hand would thereby "grow the market" in the only way possible.) But the byways distant from the commercial engines that drive our culture can be where the fruitful stuff happens, so I'm going to give thanks for that obscurity among other things.

These are my cultural consumer thanks, so I won't be mentioning family and friends, nor obvious blessings like good health and a place to live. Nor will I rhapsodize over the lemons, figs, and tomatoes I've eaten from my own backyard, nor give thanks that I'm not a farmer dependent on Nature for food and money (due to wet, cold springs the last two years have given me about three apricots from my three trees). I won't be mentioning the encouraging election just past, or even simple gratitude that once again I didn't have to put up with the Yankees in the World Series.

Instead I give thanks for:

Mark Morris;

Elliott Carter, still composing beautifully in his 90s;

Getting to hear Nathan Gunn's indelible Billy Budd again, this spring in Pittsburgh (twice, and first-rowish; these are anticipatory thanks);

Getting to hear live performances by the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as often as I did, including some pretty obscure performances -- does anyone else besides Robert Aldridge remember the workshop of scenes from his Elmer Gantry?

Being able to read Shakespeare in his and my native language, which is good considering my laziness at learning foreign languages;

Getting to Bayreuth and hearing the Ring in the theater built for it;

Marston Records: the past recaptured and time regained (plus they give subscribers free stuff! www.marstonrecords.com);

The Internet, our electronic cornocupia and Aladdin's cave (and, to be honest, our on-line crack house);

Living in an age and area of such electronic and cultural abundance that I can get bored with masterpieces and forget to mention the hundreds of other riches I should be grateful for;

And, finally, for everyone who stops by here to read -- many thanks.

17 November 2006

All-Singing, All-Dancing, All-Talking (in the Audience) Motion Pictures!

I’ve just heard that the much-ballyhooed Met at the movies thing for the Bay Area will be happening in that hotbed of the musical-dramatic arts, Dublin (and not near the BART station either, I’m sure). I wish them well but I’m a little puzzled by the whole concept, which to me has the disadvantages of theater-going without the compensating advantages. And the Met must know that any audience member conversant with the Higher Technology is going to be there with a camcorder – why not eliminate the middleperson and just release DVDs? I’d gladly pay for a DVD of Gunn as Papageno or Netrebko in I Puritani, which I could then watch at my leisure as often as I wanted. Even figuring the audiences for this are going to be better behaved than regular movie audiences, that’s not saying much, and it’s not enough to make me trek out to Dublin and pay prices even higher than for regular movie tickets (I hear the prices are around $20, which is roughly what you'd pay for a DVD). I’m guessing San Francisco movie theaters are too booked up with moneymakers at this award-season time of year (and those movies are probably drawing from the same audience pool) but it does seem as if the Met is choosing out-of-the-way theaters (maybe opera houses have official territories the way baseball teams do, and Gockley got an injunction against any San Francisco performances?). No doubt there are opera fans in Dublin who don’t want to schlep into San Francisco, but wouldn’t you have a better chance of reaching enough people to make this profitable (other than the already converted) if you showed the operas on PBS? Of course, that would require public broadcasting to do what it was actually created to do in the first place, which is to provide an outlet for non-mainstream shows, instead of their current programming, which is mostly faded Baby Boomer pop groups and inspirational speakers assuring middle-class white people that their potential is unlimited.
I'm hoping for the best, but I’d love to know what the thinking, or the market research, is here. I can't help feeling they're setting themselves up for a failure that will be taken to mean there's just no market out there for this stuff. Meanwhile I’ll just hope for an eventual DVD release – and by the way I’m still waiting for the Met’s Ariadne with Voigt (and Gunn as Harlekin), which I understand was filmed several years ago.

16 November 2006

Another day, another pre-order

Amazon is reporting that Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson's recording of her husband's Neruda Songs (Boston Symphony performance) is being released on December 19. (That's my parents' wedding anniversary -- and I can remember that because it's the day 25 years ago when I saw the RSC's production of Nicholas Nickleby on Broadway.) I may even go to a brick-and-mortar store to pick this up right away, assuming I can find one that's still in business.

15 November 2006

Doubt truth to be a liar. . . .

When I started blogging, I vowed I would never apologize for any delays in posting, since there’s no end to that sort of thing. Every evening I’m out is another event to discuss and another delay in getting to my computer (and I’ve been out about half the nights since my return from Germany). And it’s not as if I’m talking about previews of Cats; most of what I go to either has a limited run or is a one-off, so by the time my vast audience hears my recommendations the performances have already drifted over to the dreamland memory book where no-longer live performances live. But when I told an actor friend I was going to see Cherry Jones in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt last Friday, he told me he wanted to hear my thoughts without waiting the two months it takes me to post in my blog. So like Beadle Bamford I’m glad as always to oblige my friends and neighbors: Arby, this is for you. (There are probably spoilers in here, but that’s what you get.)

I remember Cherry Jones from ART days, when I lived in Boston and she had such roles as Regina (the maid) in Ghosts and the Courtesan in Boys from Syracuse. Years later it occurred to me that if I still had vivid memories of Regina and the Courtesan when the rest of the show had mostly slipped away then the actress was probably pretty special, so I made my plans to see Doubt. What the play brought back to me, though, was not so much my days in Boston as my days in a Catholic school when the old style was giving way under the social pressures of the 1960s/70s and the institutional pressures of Vatican II. I had to endure my share of nutjob nuns (Sister Anna Maria, I’m talking to you, bitch) and groovy priests. For much of its running time, Doubt is more about conflicting philosophies of teaching (and power) than about what is usually given as its subject, which is a nun accusing a priest of molesting an altar boy. Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones) is an old-school strict nun who accuses the unconventional but charming Father Flynn (Chris McGarry) of molesting a 12-year-old boy (the school’s “only Negro student” and, it turns out, probably one of their gay ones) based on very thin evidence she prompts out of the naïve Sister James (Lisa Joyce, who reminded me exactly of the idealistic young nuns of the time). The student never appears but Sr. Aloysius has a talk with his mother (Adriane Lenox). Four excellent actors, a first-rate production, and in ninety nonstop minutes a world created and subverted – I’m not sure you can ask for more, but I still had a few reservations about the play itself, specifically about the role (not the performance) of Sister Aloysius.

I would have preferred it if the priest’s guilt had been a little more ambiguous, so that the viewer was left (as in The Turn of the Screw) to ponder whether we really had a child-molesting man or a vindictive, sexually troubled woman. And Shanley walks that tightrope right up to the end, when Sr. Aloysius traps Fr Flynn with a lie (claiming she’s contacted a nun at his former parish who said he had “inappropriate contact” with altar boys there too). He leaves, but this is only a partial victory for her since he is moved to another parish where presumably he can fool a new set of people. Although the priest is genuinely warm-hearted and caring, we’re set up (given the recent scandals over the Catholic Church’s disgraceful, though typical of the time, protection of child molesters) to see him as The Bad Guy (though there are hints, appropriate for the time of the play but shocking these days, that even if the priest has “inappropriate contact” with the boy it might not be a completely bad thing). And it sets up Sister Aloysius, who could legitimately be seen as a narrow, unimaginative woman threatened by nonconformity (she considers art and music a waste of time and she seems particularly troubled by the length of the priest’s fingernails – her last line to him is an order to cut his nails; the audience greeted this exit zinger with much applause the night I was there) as a gruff but loveable Protector of the Innocent. The comedy in the play, and there are a lot of funny lines, also serves to smooth out her rougher old-school edges. When Sister James says to her about her trap for the priest “I can’t believe you lied” the audience chuckled again, as if Aloysius had been quite the scamp, though in fact it is genuinely shocking for such a by-the-book nun to break the rules (and to put it in Catholic terms, to commit such a sin) and it raises the question of how far she would have gone to destroy this priest. Suppose he had called her bluff? But the clear implication is that he was guilty and she was right all along. And her very last lines express her intense inner doubts, a revelation which undercuts the possibility that she is an Inspector Javert intent on destroying those who rebel against her rules.

Shanley had a nice note in the program (“This play is dedicated to the many orders of Catholic nuns who devoted their lives to serving others in hospitals, schools, and retirement homes. Though they have been much maligned and ridiculed, who among us has been so generous?”) but even without joining the simple-minded mockery of nuns he could have made a strong drama stronger by keeping Sister Aloysius a more troubling figure. She is clearly a woman of forceful character and great power and it’s sentimental to assume that great power always comes with great wisdom and great kindness. And it’s all too easy to do, especially when talking about women (much is made of the patriarchal structure of the Church and again, we’re predisposed to admire a lone woman fighting for justice against clueless or evil men). It’s especially easy to do when one is no longer directly subject to their power and can look back with a nostalgic glow. Sister Aloysius clearly has power and knows how to use it to get what she wants; as so often happens, the real power does not lie with the official hierarchy. (Look at any Latin family and tell me who really knows what’s going on and who really has power.)

At one key moment in their final confrontation Father Flynn is screaming at Sister Aloysius that she is insubordinate and is violating the Church’s rules; she is crouched down in her chair under this onslaught; a lesser actress than Jones would probably have had her boldly standing up to him. But the real meaning of the scene is the opposite of what we see, since under stress both are behaving completely out of character, and the actors express this: Father Flynn has abandoned his unconventional ways, his ministry of compassion, and his usual warm and witty (even seductive) manner and is resorting to brute volume and the rules of the institution. Sister Aloysius, far from submitting, is merely protecting herself as from a vast storm and is more determined than ever to destroy the priest. This is probably the scene that will stay with me even as the rest of the play drifts off.

14 November 2006

. . . spent with Schopenhauer. . . .

(jumping the queue to discuss the San Francisco Tristan. . . . )

There’s quite a difference in going to Tristan after a full week of work and devoting a day to it in Bayreuth. For one thing, I spent all of the next day with a Tristan hangover (dizziness, disorientation, discontent). I wouldn’t put the performance on the same level as Bayreuth, though I very much liked Christine Brewer (which is good since I’m also hearing her as Isolde in LA this spring) and Jane Irwin as Brangane. Thomas Moser, unfortunately, I thought was only adequate, and by Act 3 he was swigging water so regularly from his bottle that I was hoping his supply would last longer than his voice. I’ve heard some suggest that the house is too big for his voice; maybe so. Kristinn Sigmundsson was an elderly but eloquent and moving King Mark.

And I had to put up with my left-hand neighbor, one of those short people who take up huge amounts of room, and who constantly snorted and sniffed and breathed louder than anyone I’ve ever heard. He also made comments about Ms. Brewer’s size. Swine. I was surprised when he returned for the second act and pleased when he didn’t for the third, though that, being a Tristan-heavy act, was the weakest of the three. Before the opera started, he read the summary and announced, “Well, they left a lot out [as compared to the recent movie, which he and his wife had just been praising]. I don’t see how this is going to take four hours.” This may be one of my favorite audience remarks ever, though the pickings are pretty slim there. And it takes five hours.

The real surprise for me was the effectiveness of the David Hockney sets. I had seen pictures of them when they were new, back in the 1980s, and despite their beauty as pictures they looked inappropriately bright to me. He said at the time that the colors were those of medieval illuminations of the story, which is true, but the music is not medieval in sound and considering the importance of darkness and night in the opera all those vivid yellows and reds just felt wrong to me. Maybe they’ve darkened over the years, but I thought they worked beautifully, though I understand the increasingly steep raking of the stage act by act was a problem for the singers.

For some reason most of my opera subscription this season has been for final performances, which is a switch from the previous fourteen or so years I’ve had this series. Sometimes this is an advantage (Ballo, I’m getting to you) and sometimes it’s not, since if I want to see something again I don’t have the chance. For instance, this Tristan, being less dependent on subtle acting, would have been a good candidate for a cheaper seat in the balcony so I could hear the always effective music again. But no such luck. I went to the Wagner Society’s excellent Tristan Symposium and was privately shamed to discover I was the only person there who hadn’t already been once, twice, even four times. I think even the guy who asked at the end of the afternoon, “What is the Tristan chord and where can I hear it?” had already been more than once. It’s tough to keep up.

10 November 2006

my nights were sour. . . .

Ah, Tristan, the opera that ruined my life. . . . (“Do you want to go out for coffee?” “Well . . . is this going to end in an ecstatic love-death that will annihilate space and time? Because otherwise, I kinda have some stuff I need to get done. . . . those dishes aren’t going to wash themselves. . . .”). If I were limited to two operas, I think I would take Tristan und Isolde and Le Nozze di Figaro: between them you pretty much have the universe, with the ecstasy and sorrow of the former’s inward-looking lovers balanced by the latter’s earthy joys amid a complex, shifting social structure. I wonder if Tristan isn’t one of those works like King Lear that is almost too mighty for people to act out on stage, leaving every performance both deeply moving and inadequate.

Bayreuth had a wonderful cast for Tristan; it was everything else that came up short. Beforehand I was hearing raves about Nina Stemme’s Isolde, and she did have amazing power but, I felt, started to run out of gas during the liebestod, which is when you least want that to happen. The one who really impressed me was Robert Dean Smith, who sang a Tristan of brave sweetness and anguish. Our Kurwenal, John Wegner, was much steadier than the man who did the broadcast performance (that’s the paradox of opera reviewing – even if the performers had been the same, you’d get a different performance from evening to evening, and sometimes from act to act).

The production was baffling. The pictures that I saw beforehand made me think it would have a contemporary setting, which could be an interesting way of examining the mythic and heroic within the everyday. But the actual staging starts out looking like a 1930s luxury liner, as if everyone is going to break into “Anything Goes” and start tapdancing; the Cole Porter connotations have a way of reducing gestures that should be majestic to the Margaret-Dumontish. But when V (who has a keener fashion awareness than I do) saw pictures of the costumes she asked why it was set in the 1960s. I responded that I would have guessed the 1970s, based on the fake wood paneling and mustard yellow décor of the finale. Updating a work to contemporary times is one thing, but I'm not sure updating something to forty years ago has much point.

The costume designer certainly didn’t do anyone in the cast any favors. I had seen Stemme in SF Opera’s Flying Dutchman, and knew she could look better, but it wasn’t until Robert Dean Smith stepped into Siegmund’s furs for Act II of Walkure that I realized he could look like a big guy rather than an inflated boy, and Kwangchul Youn’s sensitively sung and moving King Mark looked distractingly like Kim Jong Il.

Tristan is like other operas turned inside out; instead of reflective moments amid action it has moments of action amid hours of soliloquy. This can certainly lead to staging problems, but the Bayreuth production dealt with most of them by simply having people stand facing the wood paneling when they weren’t singing, as if they were in time-out. This is not staging but surrender. The wounding of Tristan, which he clearly did to himself, was effective, but everything else just didn’t happen, so that you didn't get a sense of the bustle and pointless violence of the outside world breaking in on the two lovers.

Speaking of bustle and pointlessness intruding on one’s inner universe. . . this was the night I had to accept that Bayreuth audiences are really not much better than any others, rumors to the contrary. Why did the man behind me need to reach into his rustly crinkly plastic bag during all the quiet moments? Another mystery of opera-going. . . .

09 November 2006

The Evil That Men Do Lives After Them

I’ve been out greeting as liberators the Democratic Party. Please, take more flowers and candy from a grateful nation!

Well, that’s assuming the Democratic Party has also regained its spine. I wish I felt more overjoyed by the election. Sure, I get that tingly feeling when I read of worldwide rejoicing that the American electorate has slowly roused itself enough to realize that maybe they shouldn’t be endorsing the American Taliban and our pro-torture President just because they’ve cut taxes for oil company CEOs. But I can’t help thinking . . . what took you so long? (That’s a rhetorical you – I doubt anyone reading this is going to disagree with me.) And I can’t help feeling that it wasn’t illegal and immoral war, endless corruption, disregard for common decency or blind arrogance and willful stupidity that did them in; it was some horndog Congressman sending naughty IMs to barely legal page boys.

I can’t even take much consolation in Rumsfeld’s hasty yet overdue departure. Here’s what I e-mailed the friend who first told me the news:

Too little too late. He's going off to some cushy job in a think-tank or some corporation and he's taking his pension with him and he's not going to have to worry about money or employment or health insurance for the rest of his life. The consequences of his idiocy and arrogance will be suffered by others while he goes golfing. His good reputation, insofar as he had one at all, will in a few years be sunk anyway in the general filth of this corrupt administration.

The Republicans should be grateful that Bush’s war is creating the next generation of terrorists. They have nothing else to offer to anyone who isn’t already wealthy. Just when the Communists were fading into irrelevance, we have a new stick with which to beat anyone who thinks there might be solutions that don’t involve massive expenditures to defense contractors.
Cavafy was right.